It was late in the evening of 29th December, 1996. I was lying on the sofa with my husband, watching the Judge Dredd movie on the TV and eating Quality Street left over from Christmas, when my waters broke. It wasn't a gush but it was considerably more than a trickle. My husband was slow to respond but he did eventually answer my plea for TOWELS!!!
I had a home birth planned so the most important thing was to stay calm. I got myself cleaned up and as the contractions were not particularly bothersome at this early stage, I decided to go to bed to try and get some sleep in preparation for the exhausting feat of labour I would soon be experiencing.
I slept as much as excitement and nervousness would allow, but I was at least resting.
By morning, the contractions were stronger. My husband was completely useless at emotional support but he was very good at the practical stuff - looking after our three children and contacting the hospital. This was my second home birth and I have to confess that the details of each are muddled in my memory. I suffered badly with depression at that time and there are huge chunks of my life that are lost to the fog of mental illness. I do remember watching The Animals of Farthing wood on DVD in my bed with the kids and when the pains came, reassuring them that it was OK, they were good pains - but I'm not sure which of the home births that is a detail from.
By evening, there was still no sign of the new arrival. The children were put to bed and eventually the midwife was called. As I still wasn't fully dilated, the midwife made herself a bed out of our spare duvet in the corner of our bedroom and tried to get some rest herself. A tin of Christmas biscuits was on standby for when instant energy was needed.
When it got to 24 hours since my waters broke, the midwife spoke of the need to get me to hospital. Thankfully, she was quite relaxed and as things began to progress more quickly, she gave me a little more time to have the home birth I wanted. Things began to progress MUCH more quickly. The second midwife was called to attend the birth and only just got there in time. In the early hours of 31st December 1996, my daughter was born.
Right from the start I thought she was different from the three daughters I already had. Each of them had weighed in at around 7+ pounds. This baby was over 9lbs. The birth had felt different (much more painful) and she looked different - not just bigger but lacking the fragility of a newborn. The first sized clothes were instantly discarded in favour of the next size up. I remember asking my husband if she was alright. I don't remember him answering. I think he was busy taking the tea/coffee requests from the midwives.
The midwives left. Alone with my new baby, I fed her and fell asleep with her cradled in my arms. In the morning, I introduced Baby Charis to her sisters. The youngest took one look at her, said "I don't like Baby Carrots" and stomped off!
It wasn't long before she was a fully integrated member of the family with each of her sisters eager to share in the looking after. She was unfazed by the clumsy attempts of a three year old to comfort her by sticking a finger in her mouth.
Charis was placid and self contained. She didn't require very much attention.
As she grew older, it became clear that she was a little different. Her speech was not developing in the expected way and there were fears that she was perhaps not hearing properly. Thorough testing found nothing wrong with her hearing. It seemed that Charis was making the choice to live in her own little bubble of silence. It broke my heart to hear other children her age chattering away and imploring parents to "Look at me!!" as they played. Charis said nothing.
She had a habit of sucking the index and middle finger of one hand. She would not remove the fingers when drinking milk from her lidded beaker. She devised a technique whereby the milk would run down the channel between her fingers and into her mouth. She loved her milk. It was probably the first word that she uttered with any reliability - only she didn't call it 'milk', she called it 'moo'. We all began to call it moo!
When Charis started nursery school, I pre-warned the staff about her lack of language. After a few days, they assured me that there was no problem - she communicated perfectly. They probably thought I was some kind of neurotic mother. I will never know what really happened but Charis just talked as though there had never been a problem.
I stopped worrying about her language development but did find it peculiar that she would line all her toys up in size order and organise her drawers and shelves with military precision.
At primary school, it was remarked upon how she would listen intently and she thrived academically. However, it did become obvious that she lacked some social skills that seemed to come naturally to her peers and made literal interpretations that sometimes left her terribly confused. Poetry and flowery prose were a complete mystery to her.
One of her teachers suggested to me that she might fall under the autistic umbrella. I had long since suspected as much and it was reassuring to have my suspicions validated by an educational professional. I worked with Charis to help her make sense of her confusion and by observing and imitating social behaviour, she managed to fit in.
Charis grew very tall but without a hint of awkwardness. She possessed natural grace and poise. She excelled academically at secondary school and enjoyed the security of a close circle of friends. She found a passion for music and drama and never failed to move me with her performances.
There were occasional obstacles to her success - poetry and prose continued to be a mystery that she needed help to unravel. I always felt honoured if I could provide that help somehow.
Charis achieved an outstanding set of results in her GCSEs and today, she took the next step in her journey when I dropped her off at the boarding school she won a scholarship to attend.
We have spent time over summer preparing for this moment. There were shopping trips that stretched my credit card to the limit. There were two days of sewing name labels onto every item of clothing. There was packing. There were goodbyes. Throughout it all, she was worried that she wasn't feeling anything - not nervousness, not excitement, not fear that she would miss us - nothing. On the drive to school, she suddenly felt it all - all at once. She had a five minute panic then calm was restored as she emerged ready for all the new challenges.
I could not have been more proud of the confident, excited young woman who settled herself in to her room (with her usual meticulous organisation) and introduced herself to fellow students.
As I left her to start the new chapter of her life, I wished her luck. I don't think she is going to need it.