We sat in the nurses office, me with a baby on my knee and a hysterical toddler clinging to my side. The nurse eyed me and nodded. We’d exhausted all other possibilities. Taking my daughter firmly in her grasp, the nurse crouched down to eye level and tried to reason with her one more time, but Kate was having none of it. The needle appeared and she actually made a run for the door. I put the baby down and the nurse and I grappled her to the floor. Both of us, almost bodily smothering her as the needle went in and she screamed like someone was removing her insides with a spoon. It was more like a rugby scrum than a visit to the clinic. I was amazed at the strength with which that little body could fight.
She was 3 and a half. The injection was a pre-travel immunisation so that we could visit her Aunt in Brazil that summer and introduce her to her newest niece, whom she had not yet met. There was no reasoning with a child that age. We’d tried every pre-school trick in the book: Mummy had had her injection first, look how brave she was, it didn’t hurt a bit. Did Kate want a go? Could Kate be brave like Mummy? Kate shook her head forcibly and cried some more. We injected her 18 month sister, and attempted some sibling rivalry to spur her into action. There, look: Sarah can do it and she’s just a tiny baby. I am sure big brave Kate can have her injection too….
Point blank refusal that quickly turned to more tears and screaming.
We even injected her favourite teddy, Boris, who was just as brave as all of the other family members and set an excellent example in suffering in silence and maintaining an immovable poker face throughout his ordeal. Separated from us by her fear, nothing touched her. All of our coaxing and cajoling was to no avail, and we were running out of time. There was nothing for it but to wrestle her to the floor and get it over with. So we did.
I have no qualms about what we did – it was necessary to protect her from a whole host of nasty illnesses, and is one of the many times I have had to be the bearer of temporary pain in order to prevent long term suffering for my kids. It’s life as a parent, as many of us know.
No doubt Kate would barely have remembered it, had no one ever reminded her again. And that, I guess, is the point of today’s post. Eight years have elapsed since that horrendous Injection Incident, but we have retold the story a thousand times. To friends, to family, sometimes in Kate’s presence and sometimes not (but often, in her presence). Everyone knows of Kate’s fear of needles (despite the fact that she was 3 1/2 the last time she had a jab) as well as her almost-legendary overreactions to very small medical procedures, such as the screaming that often accompanied the removing of a plaster, or how it once took 4 adults to pin her down and remove a splinter whilst she howled like a banshee impaled on a spike.
Everyone knows, including Kate.
I’m telling you this story because yesterday, we returned to the nurse at the travel clinic in order to find out what immunisations we might need for another trip; this time to Ethiopia in October (which is another story, that I will tell you about another time). Kate has been dreading this appointment for weeks, despite my attempts to calm her with an (eventually misguided) assurance that this was just a consultation, no needles today. After chatting through all our plans, making lists and consulting guidelines, the nurse cheerily clicked her mouse on more time, shut her screen and turned to face us with a smile.
‘Right, shall we get on with it then? I have the Typhoid and Hep A injections in stock, I could do them right now.’
I looked at my 11 year old as the colour drained from her face and she shifted uneasily from foot to foot. She wasn’t ready for this. She looked petrified and like she might burst into tears any second.
I went first. Then her younger sister. She sat on my lap and gritted her teeth, knowing it was important not to show any fear or give her big sister any more reason to freak out. It was a beautiful show of sisterly love.
Then it was Kate’s turn. I smiled and winked at her.
‘You’ve got this Kate, you’ll be fine.’
She stood bravely and gave the nurse her arm, but I knew with a Mother’s instinct that she was a hairs breadth away from a full size Freak Out. I locked eyes with her and held her gaze. A flicker of pain passed across her face when the needle went in, but she didn’t run this time. Then the realisation that it was all over already sank in, and she grinned at me, pride spreading across her face that she hadn’t lost the plot and needed to be wrestled. As she’s nearly as tall as me now, I doubt we’d have been too successful had it come to that anyway.
‘That wasn’t that bad, Mum,’ she said
No, it wasn’t. And I suddenly realised that it probably wouldn’t have been half as bad for her in the run up, if we hadn’t told that story so many times over the years that it stopped being a story to her and became, instead, her reality. A label, imposed on her because of our need to raise a laugh; to bask in the warm glow of approval that comes from the contribution of a witty anecdote to an after-dinner conversation. That rises above the need of the object of said witty anecdote to be protected, afforded anonymity, or the opportunity for the funny-but-probably-personally-painful-in-some-way incident to drift away forever into the mists of time.
Kate’s Injection Incident was never afforded that luxury. Never allowed to fade away into her memory, but was instead wheeled out time and time again, becoming one of those legendary Family Stories that all of us have. Most are mildly embarrassing at worst, cringe-worthy tales that pop their heads up when new boyfriends are invited home to dinner for the first time, or that make their way into wedding speeches and raise a few inside laughs as you stare hard into your wine glass and ask God Above why he couldn’t have please given you a different family.
But some, like this one, shape you somehow. Instead of becoming who you are intended to be, your growth is shaped, stunted by The Story. Like a little bonsai, or a topiary tree. Sculpted not by experience, or real memory, but by some-one else’s retelling of it. As the realisation burned in me, I wondered how many of us pass through life like this, shaped by the stories told around us and of us and to us. Not in anger, or malice, but just with no thought as to their impact. I’ve heard it said a million times in parenting manuals, blog posts and articles in magazines; be careful what you say in front of children. They have ears like bats and memories like elephants. They are giant sponges, hoovering up every word you say, good or bad, and storing it away, good or bad. But it’s hard. Hard to resist sharing that funny story, or just plain hard to find a time when they’re not there; when the story isn’t funny, and you’re not sharing it for the laughs but because you need to, need advice or just to lessen a burden by making it not all yours. But I will try harder, now that I have seen it play out with my own eyes, in my own child.
‘Do you think you’re still scared of needles Kate?’ I asked her later on that same evening as she sat at the breakfast bar in our kitchen.
‘No’ she shrugged, looking up at me.
‘I’m not sure you ever were, really’ I said.
‘No’ she replied again ‘I don’t think I was’.