Saturday, 9 August 2008

Letter from Afghanistan

It began one very drunken night in late September 2005: one very drunken night. A matter of weeks later and the man with whom I’d spent that drunken night had joined the army and was enjoying the rigours of Basic Training. A few weeks after that and I felt duty bound to ask whether he was alone before I told him over the phone that I was pregnant with his child.

He was not the first person to know about my pregnancy, but about the seventh. I would have been happy to tell him sooner but he’d been on exercise and, frankly, had just about had enough of me acting like a weirdo anyway so I didn’t think he’d call back straight away.

There was never, ever any doubt in my mind that I wanted to keep the baby.

Of course, this is wrapped up with how the rest of my life was going at the time which was, in truth, bad. On the work front I was screwing up my job due to choosing it badly, on the money front I was skint and on the relationship front I’d broken up with the rebound fling (shortly before the drunken night in September) only to realise that all I’d done was postpone the sadness and emptiness of the loss of my previous relationship. I’m entirely prepared to admit that if these had all been better, then having a baby in adverse circumstances might not have looked so appealing.

But this is it. I defend absolutely the right to access safe abortion but I’d only ever take that choice in the most extreme of circumstances.

So Mr One Night In September (Mr ONIS) said that I had his full support whatever my choice was. I had already made that choice, he flatly refused to tell me what he would have done, on the grounds that if he wanted me to terminate the pregnancy I’d be upset and if he said that he really wanted us to have the baby I wouldn’t believe him. I still don’t know his initial thoughts on finding out I was pregnant.

Pregnancy is an odd time which can wreak havoc with feelings and bodies and during which, because of the British Army, I barely saw Mr ONIS and would honestly have had trouble picking him out of a line up.

The baby, our little girl, arrived two weeks early. I wouldn’t want to bore anyone with the details of her birth. It’s enough to say that I managed to time it perfectly as MR ONIS was on weekend leave. He met my mum for the first time in the labour room, and behaved impeccably throughout.

Since then, since he’s been in my life as much as our daughter’s, I find that new parts of my personality are coming through, and his accepting and steady nature has rubbed off a little on me. I stopped taking myself so seriously, chilled out a little and got a lot happier in the process.

Having not asked for her or planned her, there is no doubting the quality of fathering that our daughter receives, despite the army taking him away regularly and sometimes completely out of contact on exercise. I adore him as a human being but most of all as a father, I’m in awe of the way he’s taken it in his stride and consistently shows how much he loves her.

The most impressive thing is the impact that observing Mr ONIS with our daughter has had on my dad. I have never been the ‘Daddy’s girl’, when my sister in law told me that “you’re always your dad’s little girl” I remember thinking “No I’m not”. And I wasn’t. We weren’t close and had nothing apart from genes in common. I was a burden and a nuisance: the third child he didn’t really want but was stuck with anyway. Seeing Mr ONIS refer to our daughter by various clichéd pet names (‘angel’, ‘princess’, ‘beautiful’ etc), my dad began to use them about me. It was as though, once there was someone to model the behaviour of ‘having a little girl’, Dad treated this as instructional and followed suit. Suddenly, as an adult, I have become my dad's little girl.

Further, Mr ONIS values what I do. I am at home with our little girl now until she starts school. I’m fairly typical of modern mothers who experience guilt at their own choices as a defining feature of motherhood. (Few men have the same contradictory expectations foisted on them by the media and Society At Large so, no, I’m not including them in that statement.) I often feel that I should be doing everything better, shinier and with paid employment. Often, my degree feels like a waste.

It’s difficult to remain indifferent to the conflicting media messages about being a mother and, whatever your choice, it helps to have a supportive someone telling you how well you’re doing. I have that someone and he’s called Mr ONIS (not his real name).

But Mr ONIS has been away, playing an important-but-not-frontline role in the War on Terror [sic] in Afghanistan, since the beginning of April.

I made up my mind, from the outset, that as he hadn’t asked to have the massive emotional tie of a child, and that the rest of his army career hinged on how this tour went, I would do what I could from this end. To this end, I have sent him a weekly parcel of a copy of Nuts [sic and sick], puzzles from the Guardian, books, silly toys, toiletries, sweets and, fortnightly, a copy of Bizarre magazine. I’ve written emails or eblueys almost daily. He’s been away so long now that it’s just become a habit. Every week I say to the newsagent “It’s not for me!” as I pick up his copy of Nuts.

Inevitably, this hasn’t been matched by communication from his end. Realistically, it was never going to be. Where I can comfortably write (or talk) for hours, he keeps his own counsel a lot more. The letters I’ve had in return have been few and jokey. It’s not worth upsetting myself over, though. I have no idea what things are really like out there, no idea what he’s seen. I had never considered, in my boring civilian life, that anyone might be listening to or reading my communications but there is no escaping that possibility during a satellite phone call to a soldier on ops.

At first I was worried about who I’d be without him, but as the days, weeks and months have been slowly crossed off the calendar I realise that for the first time in years, I am happy. I’m not happy that he isn’t here, but I’ve found my feet, made social links, I’ve been writing again for the first time in (?) ages. The garden which Mr ONIS began excavating and remodelling is finished, I’ve been on holiday, redecorated, acquired large houseplants and dyed my hair pink.

The question now is not who am I without him but who I’ll be when he gets back. I realise this is horribly navel gazing but he’ll have changed (inevitably), I’ve changed. Will he still like me? Will we get on?

I don’t have the answers, and although, actually, the time has gone fast, I am now as nervous about his return as I was about him leaving.

No comments: