We didn’t find out the sex of our children before they were born. I have a feeling that we said we wanted a surprise. But honestly? Honestly, there were two reasons. It felt like it would make it too terrifyingly real, and like it would be risking too much to know, tempting fate to find out.
As it turned out, the first time I forgot to look. The Biscuit must have been at least ten minutes old when a midwife asked me whether the perfect bundle at my breast was a girl or a boy. I think she’d given up waiting for me to find out. (A baby! I’d had a baby! Particularly confusing because just an hour or so earlier I’d been told that I wasn’t in labour and been handed a couple of paracetamol. But that’s a whole other story).
We were wiser second time round. Or at least I knew that when you have contractions at nearly 42 weeks, a baby is likely to ensue. I looked down seconds after the Moose was born and quickly saw that boys are quite obviously boys. A girl and then a boy, so far we were in familiar territory: the shape of the families that both B and I grew up in. We had the whole big sister, little brother thing pretty well covered.
When I was pregnant with our third child I thought idly about whether this squirming person inside me would be a girl or a boy, but not with any great urgency. Both the Biscuit and the Moose requested a little sister. B told me at the last minute that he thought it would be a boy. But after the Pip-Pop was born (and annoyingly announced by the midwife who delivered him as ‘he’ before I’d even set eyes on him), I would sit nursing him in bed at night thinking about the new shape of our family. A daughter and two sons; the Biscuit and her two little brothers.
I thought back through all my childhood friends, all the families we had known when I was growing up and tried to come up with models. And then I remembered Dogger and Bella and Dave and Joe. I’d found my perfect example.
Dogger is the sweet story of Dave and his soft brown toy Dogger. Our copy arrived as a gift for the Biscuit when she was around 18 months, and it’s one of those special books that’s been in almost constant circulation ever since. I don’t remember reading it as a child, but the inscription from my friend A. says that it was her favourite book as a little girl. First published in 1977, the irrestistable illustrations are wonderfully dated to an adult eye – all flares, headscarfs and patterned shirts – and the families picking up at Bella’s school gate are noticeably un-multicultural, but the book is still a total joy.
Dave lives with his mum and dad, his big sister, Bella, who takes seven teddies to bed with her every night, and his baby brother, Joe, who likes hard toys because he is teething. Dave is “very fond of Dogger”, but one day after Dave has been with mum and Joe to pick Bella up from school, Dogger goes missing.
At tea-time Dave was rather quiet.
In the bath he was even quieter.
At bed-time he said:
“I want Dogger.”
But Dogger was nowhere to be found.
The next few pages – mum looking under the bed and searching the kitchen cupboards, Bella turning out her toy box, and Dad searching the garden with a torch – make me smile every time. With three children, each with their own special toy, there have been many, many evenings like that round here. The next day at the school fair Dave spots Dogger on the toy stand, and when another little girl buys him Bella has to act fast to save the day.
At the heart of Dogger, understated, but touchingly palpable, is the specialness of the sibling relationship. Dave walks home from school giving Joe licks off his ice-cream because Joe is too dribbly to have a whole ice-cream to himself. Bella doesn’t hesitate when she has the opportunity to rescue Dogger for Dave. There really couldn’t be a better blueprint for the give-and-take of life with siblings. Shirley Hughes has the magical gift of capturing the life of a small child on the page, and I don’t think any childhood is complete without some of her many wonderful books on the shelves. Her famous Alfie and Annie Rose books, and the Olly & Me series are other firm favourites in our house.
Those first few weeks of the Pip-Pop’s life, when I sat cradling him through freezing nights thinking of Dogger, I knew that the time would come when my children would be the exact ages of Dave, Bella and Joe. Reading Dogger to the Moose and his baby brother last week, I realised that time had come. One day, Dogger will be a very special reminder of my family, just as it is today. It brings tears to the back of my eyes to read it even now.