Episode 9: She Speaks the Language of Birds

Apart from mild surprise when reading my mother’s entries in the baby book she kept for me, which lists the number of words I could say at 12 months and various intervals beyond that, I never really noticed too much that Allia didn’t speak words that could be recognised. Because she talked non-stop. She communicated incessantly with much enthusiasm and wasn’t shy.

She spoke a language tongue that we referred to as bird-talk, it was long streams of dialogue that went up and down in intonation which I was just on the verge of understanding if I listened hard enough, I was sure. Like listening to Italian or Arabic, languages that incorporate much body language and expression which communicate mood, tension and excitement without the need to understand their words.  It was very much like listening to the French language on the television or the radio in my early days of living here – somewhat familiar sounds with that feeling that surely if I did listen hard enough, it was just a matter of time before something in my brain clicked and “poof” I would understand everything.

It wasn’t until her brother arrived on the scene a year later and started using recognisable words in his rambled dialogue very early on that the contrast became noticeable – I think he understood the bird-talk because they would chatter away to each other and to us without hesitation. I wondered then if something was perhaps amiss, I say perhaps, because I am against making comparisons between children, they develop at their own pace and depending on what they are working on developing, other aspects can lag behind.

When people started suggesting we video her speaking like this, I realised it really was a little out of the ordinary, it was almost as if she had her own language, something like a twin language – but no twin. Unlike today when making a piece of film footage is child’s play, I wasn’t comfortable filming her as a kind of spectacle, I was more concerned with just interacting with her and giving her the freedom to express herself, waiting for her language to become something like one of the three languages she was hearing at home.

Next Up: in A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Episode 10: The Move Down Under and a Shocking Diagnosis

Previous Episodes

Episode 8: Ten Months of Bliss and Facing a Return to Work

Once over that initial hurdle, Allia blossomed and apart from that long scar, there was nothing to indicate there had ever been a problem. She was a happy, contented baby who loved to smile and engage with those around her, especially the band of eight and nine-year-old girls who lived in our apartment building and were frequent visitors.

For the first ten months I was able to stay at home with her, working a little, practicing aromatherapy, however I knew it was going to be necessary to find another full-time job, living in London demands it, all the more so when there is an extra mouth to feed.

Until this precious little girl came into my life, I never really questioned working long hours or weekends and I had thrived on the opportunity to travel with work. Now, I couldn’t think of anything worse – to leave this child behind, absolutely not, she had extinguished my desire to seek out the unknown, I found myself dreaming of safer pastures, the more familiar.

For the first time in eight years of living in London, the city that I thought had become my second home, I thought the unthinkable – maybe it was time to return to New Zealand?

P.S. This is what Allia came up with when I said this episode was about us having 10 months of fun times hanging out together, going to the park etc, I just love this picture, although my husband says that first one isn’t true! But her imagination is brilliant. Enjoy.

Next Up: in A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Episode 9: She Speaks the Language of Birds

Previous Episodes

Episode 7: The Verdict, the Recovery and Home in time for Christmas

Waking up the day after the birth and the operation was difficult but waking up without our baby there next to us was gut-wrenching. We returned to the hospital as quick as we could and it would become my resting place for the next three weeks. I was kitted out with a mobile, electric breast pump, not too different from the contraption we see in a cowshed, only this cow had to be milked every three hours. I saw how little they survive on in those first few days, poor starving babies, but I also saw the rich colour of that life-giving, nutritional start a newborn needs, colostrum. Seeing that invoked a determination to ensure I ate in the most healthy way possible.

Allia spent three days in intensive care and apart from being asked to leave when they removed the respiratory equipment, the days passed with little drama. We learned that she had an Ileal Atresia, basically an obstruction in the small bowel, which required 35cm of it to be removed, leaving 130cm. Reading the notes of the operation and procedures in the Intensive Care Unit, I completely understand why some things are best not witnessed or even read about at the time one is going through them. I recently came across the discharge summary and actually have no recollection of ever having read it before, it’s not pleasant reading and I feel thankful to have a healthy daughter who shows no sign whatsoever of this challenging start to her life except the scar across her middle.

As if making up for that initial separation, we were then gifted with something few mothers experience I am sure, three uninterrupted weeks of constant companionship, the two of us sharing a room that became our world,  three weeks in which I learned that this small being was connected to me in a way I had never imagined possible.

Apart from when the nurses struggled to find a vein when doing blood tests, Allia never cried. She slept, she awoke, she rested in my arms as we waited for that all important organ, the bowel to commence its function. That would be one of the first signs of recovery. She was given milk through a line, so it had to happen soon and if everything functioned well, I would be able to start feeding her.

I would slip downstairs to the cafeteria for my breakfast when I saw she was sleeping and she was always quiet on my return, I would then read the notes to check if anything had occurred while I was away and it was via this I learned that this blissful sleeping baby was aware of my absence. The nurse had noted that Allia had cried and next to this note, that the mother had left the room to have breakfast. That the two events were connected was something of a shock initially, but so reassuring, to come to understand and experience something of the magic of the bond between mother and child. It is something I remain in awe of.  The next time I left for breakfast, I made sure to tell her where I was going.

Once she recovered and was feeding and putting on weight, we were ready to go home. We were discharged on December 18th and re-entered a city transformed by the approach of Christmas. A festive celebration it was indeed and the perfect time to be coming home and preparing for the season of joy and hibernation.


Next Up: in A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Episode 8: Ten Months of Bliss and Facing a Return to Work

Previous Episodes

Episode 6: Late Night Surgery, the Most Difficult Wait a New Mother will Endure

Exiting the lift, we entered the Anaethetist’s medical room and I watched as they prepared what they needed, looking confident and as if they had done this many times before, which of course they had, it was only Allia and I for whom all this was alarming and new. As they attached three new lines to Allia I noticed that each one had a small square sticky label with a different animal on it. Everything in there was so miniature, the sight of those tiny little animal figures like a kind of bait, luring one into a false sense of security momentarily. But then I saw the tiny mask and the realisation of what that mask signified gave me serious heart palpitations. My little girl had made it into this world, through all these months of waiting and had survived birth and was breathing effortlessly and now this gas mask was going to knock her out.

“Okay, I think I shoud go now” I said stumbling out of the door and into the lift and back up to the relative serenity of the nurturing Woodland Ward. I had stayed as long as I could, but I wouldn’t witness her lose consciousness, that I just couldn’t bear. We then waited in what seemed like and probably was the longest day of my life. Allia had been born on that very same day at 5.16am and we would wait there until after 11pm for the doctor to report back to us.

He returned alone. It was then I understood that Allia would not be coming back to this serene ward.

“She’s okay” the doctor said. He spoke softly and quietly. “She has been taken up to the intensive care ward and you will be able to see her tomorrow. We will try and organise a room for you here then” he said looking at me, “but for now she is being taken care of and the best thing would be for you to go home and get some rest.”

It was both a relief to know she was okay and an anti-climax because we couldn’t see her. I tried not to allow the nagging fear or was it paranoia that he was hiding something or protecting us from something engulf me. A mother in a state of distress has such fine-tuned nerves she picks up on everything. The wild animal instinct in me was sensitive to every word and gesture, trying to read behind every intention in this strange unfamiliar territory.

Everything comes as a surprise when we are so focused only on what is happening right now. With the benefit of hindsight, I see that all these small shocks and surprises are the things that create anxiety in the lead up to knowledge about out what is going to happen next. But the maternal instinct is a wonderful shock absorber and close to the survival instinct I am sure.

Which is just as well, because no one can warn you that will only hold your baby for a short while after birth, that she will be taken away and put in a different ward from you, that she will go to another hospital without you, that they will ask for your consent to perform surgery over the telephone and then tell you it’s better for you to stay where you are and rest, that you will escape the hospital to follow your child, not even knowing the address of where she is, that you will wait four hours for an operation to be performed and you won’t see your baby afterwards and that you will find yourself walking out into the dark streets of London just before midnight on the same day that you first gave birth, looking for a taxi that won’t appear in the freezing cold of a late November winter, that the taxi you eventually find will throw you around its back seat violently as it turns corners, accelerating into each street, that you will be too tired and stunned to even protest as the physical pain of what you have endured finally overpowers the drug-like effect of whatever bodily hormones have up until now been providing you with some measure of pain relief.

As we left the hospital to search for that taxi, the nurse insisted that I sit in a wheelchair.

“It’s been a long day and your body also needs to recover” she said.

Next Up: in A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Episode 7: The Verdict, The Recovery and Home Just in Time for Christmas

Previous Episodes


Episode 1: The Benefits of Insomnia

Episode 2: We are not Living in France!

Episode 3: The Benefits of Contra-Indicated Essential Oils

Episode 4: Where’s My Baby and Why Isn’t She With Me?

Episode 5: GOSH: Where Peter Pan’s legacy resides, a kind of Neverland

Episode 5: GOSH Where Peter Pan’s legacy resides, a kind of Neverland

At Great Ormond St Hospital we were shown to the Woodland Ward, the family and children friendly ward names, a first step in reducing my overburdened anxiety levels. Allia was in a beautiful communal room decorated for children, with soft lighting, colour, patterned bed sheets with giraffes and monkeys. The quiet whispers of the nurses a stark contrast to the beige walls, formica cabinets and metal machines with cables and hoses draped everywhere of the hospital we had just left.

Arriving at GOSH Great Ormond St Hospital

It was like we had left the factory and entered Neverland. In a way we had. GOSH has the benefit of many private donors and receives royalties from the estate of J.M. Barrie, who claimed Peter Pan had been a patient in Great Ormond Street Hospital and that:

It was he who put me up to the little thing I did for the hospital.

Allia was asleep in an open incubator so we could actually touch her. She was so peaceful sleeping there. There was no naso-gastric tube in her nose, only lines in her hands and feet, things that in this environment were as ordinary and common as sheets and blankets. She was okay and she was going to be okay. She looked more comfortable now than she had before and I was just happy to be there with her.

It was a shock for my husband. Having missed the birth itself, he was now confronted with something even more difficult, seeing his daughter for the first time in a hospital wired up to machines and about to undergo surgery. If he thought he had arrived in time to avoid the drama, he was mistaken, he had arrived in the middle of it and now he and I would have to endure four hours of awaiting the outcome of a major event that neither of us had any role in.

My Aunt left and Susan’s husband stayed with us. Susan (whose name I have changed for this story) and I used to joke about our funny connections and serendipitous events, one of them being that she shared the name of my mother and I shared the name of her daughter. We laughed the day we met when we discovered this connection, never for a minute anticipating the future role she would play in our lives, at the birth of our daughter.

We had about half an hour before Allia was taken downstairs to the operating theatre. The doctor spoke with us and drew a diagram of the digestive system, from the mouth, down the oesophagus, to the stomach and the small intestine to the ileum, the point just before the small intestine connects to the large intestine.

“It is here just before the ileum that there is a blockage” he explained. “We don’t know exactly what it is, whether there is an end to the intestine so that the two pieces must be re-joined or whether there are striations or a blockage, in which case, we may need to cut a section out. Do you want to come down to the Anaesthetists’ ward?” he asked.

“Yes” I replied.

“No” said my husband simultaneously.

The lift opened, Allia was wheeled inside, I followed with the doctor and we all descended.

Next Up: Late Night Surgery, the most difficult wait a new mother will ever endure

Read Previous Episodes this mother/daughter collaboration: A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence


Episode 1: The Benefits of Insomnia

Episode 2: We are not Living in France!

Episode 3: The Benefits of Contra-Indicated Essential Oils

Episode 4: Where’s My Baby and Why Isn’t She With Me?

Episode 3: The Benefits of Contra-Indicated Essential Oils

The baby was due a few days before Christmas, so losing my job gave me plenty of time to prepare for its arrival, at least that’s what I thought. A month before the due date I nonchalantly told my husband not to worry, he should just go ahead and visit his son in France for a few days while everything was quiet and in control at home.

A couple of days before his return, my friend Susan was due to come and help me clean windows and get things ready for the imminent arrival of our new family member. That morning I woke knowing something had changed; it looked different too as I observed traces of blood. I called the midwife and she advised me to come to the hospital immediately for a check-up and suggested I bring my not yet prepared hospital bag.

I went to the hospital that same day and apart from one brief night, I was not to return home for the next three weeks. Tests indicated the waters were leaking and I was informed an inducement would be performed as soon as a bed became available. There were eleven delivery suites at the Royal Free Hospital, all occupied; and so the long wait began.

That wait proved fruitful, long enough to skip over a few chapters of the book I was reading on Preparing for Childbirth and start reading about inducement. I didn’t like what I read at all, injected with drugs which make contractions more severe than they would otherwise be, did not sound in any way appealing. I looked for the chapter on breathing; I hadn’t read that chapter yet either. I had not finished the preparation classes, three weeks was plenty of time to get into the huffing and puffing part I’d thought.

My friend Susan arrived and read to me from the chapter about inducement, I listened to her calm, soothing voice with increasing horror and fear at the alarming words tumbling forth in that gentle voice and my thoughts drifted to my aromatherapy training and all those essential oils that are contra-indicated in pregnancy because they are emmenagogue, able to trigger contractions. Clary Sage, Jasmine, Rosemary. I had put some Lavender and Rosemary in my bag, one to stimulate, the other to relax. I decided that a natural intervention was required, I had to at least try, I had nothing to lose and a few hours left to do something.

Kimberley arrives to administer a calming, hopefully effective, abdominal massage

Susan went home to rest, promising to come back later in the evening. She had started the day out intending to be my window cleaning helper and she would end it as my birthing partner, something neither of us had envisaged and something I will forever be grateful to her for.

My dear friend Kimberley came to visit. Kimberley had been pregnant at the same time as me. We used to work in the same office, laugh together, drink big mugs of tea together and talk about our future. We were supposed to have our babies at the same time. Her beautiful, so loved already baby didn’t make it and now here she was coming to comfort and be with me.

I asked her if she would massage some of the Rosemary and Lavender mixed with almond carrier oil on my stomach. I told her my plan and she laughed that gorgeous, contagious laugh she has and said she hoped it would work. I felt some flutters, but not much else, it felt good to laugh and the aroma of the oils made me forget the blood-curdling screams that had been coming from the bedside next to me earlier.

About 10pm Susan returned and the nurse arrived to announce the availability of a delivery suite. We moved to the room and as they set up the monitors the fluttering started up again and the indicators on the monitor started to jump around. I looked at Susan and at the nurse. The nurse gave me nitrogen gas to inhale and I started to laugh uncontrollably, the room seemed to have become a little crazy, like we had entered a different zone. We had. The baby was ready to move.

The doctor returned and asked what was going on. He had expected to come in and administer drugs for an inducement. He took one look at the monitor and said “No drugs needed here. You are on your way” and left the room.

Next Up in our mother/daughter collaborative story: A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Episode 4 : Where’s My Baby and Why Isn’t She With Me!

Previous Episodes: Introduction

Episode 1: The Benefits of Insomnia

Episode 2: We are not Living in France!

Episode 2: We are not living in France!

The leaves are starting to fall outside La Loubiere, the 16th century château where we are spending this last weekend of the autumn school holidays and with the kitchen door open early while everyone sleeps, I listen to the mesmerising sound of the wind in the trees and think about the change of the seasons. It does not seem so long ago that spring was here, when the bulbs that had lain dormant for the winter were poking their green stems through the surface.

Now we wait for the period of stillness and hibernation, something we know very well, because in a sense we too have been in a kind of perennial hibernation, waiting for our daughter’s voice to emerge in the classroom and speak for the first time in school.

Now our spring has come and just like the association of supportive parents Ouvrir La Voix, she has finally opened her voice after more than five years of silence. She now speaks to almost all her classmates and we have one hurdle left, level 10 in the book that has become my bible – to speak to a teacher or adult in school.

It is hard to believe it has been five years. It is hard to believe that for the first three years we didn’t know what we were dealing with, that it even had a name. Perhaps if we had lived in America or Great Britain, we may have discovered those words earlier – or maybe this condition would not have even manifested.

Here in the south of France, selective mutism is unknown and with our daughter in a French school where interventions to assist children are commonplace and often successful, we were happy to follow the advice and recommendations of the school psychologist (every school has one), an orthophoniste (speech therapist), a psychiatrist and our doctor, all of whom were willing to help and in the case of our doctor, advised and reassured us that it was just a matter of time.

Three years on, having made zero progress, it was all to change late one evening after a telephone call with my Uncle, when he mentioned that he had been speaking with a friend in Los Angeles whose daughter had the same thing as ours.

“What thing?” I said.

“You know” he said, “the not speaking in school thing.”

“It has a name?” I almost shout. “Call her back now and ask her what it is.”

He did and through his friend then passed on those two words selective mutism, or mutism selectif in French, two words that not one of those health professionals had known of or discovered to suggest to us.  We weren’t looking for a label, we were searching for a solution and we’d been looking in the wrong place.  Our programme of intervention was about to take a different path, one used successfully by parents in the know, only we would not have the same support, as to take this route was effectively to reject the existing system.

But to tell this story properly, it is necessary to go back even further, to understand events that lead up to this moment and because despite trying to change the title of this episode and make it shorter, my creative daughter who has already finished the artwork, is telling me to write this second part now and include her picture. So here’s the bit about not living in France!

We are not living in France!


When I was six months pregnant we came to France for a 2 week holiday from London. We were toying with the idea of moving here, at least I was, for my husband it would be a return.

My body was changing and the world around was about to change significantly. One afternoon I returned to the hotel in Marseille to rest and as I passed the reception, I noticed all the employees looking at the television, watching what looked like the demolition of a couple of council buildings. I thought it strange that all the staff were watching TV in the middle of the afternoon, so when I got to the room I too turned on the television. I couldn’t understand the words spoken in rapid French, but I could read the subtext. It wasn’t a couple of council buildings at all; it was the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York.

During that holiday, we looked at a couple of apartments and houses, I sat through long-winded appointments with real estate agents, tried to understand menus and the rapid-fire French coming from that TV, all on a roller coaster of emotions and hormones, understanding little beyond Bonjour and Au Revoir, two basic expressions I thought I could pronounce, but listening carefully, I realised I’d been giving their syllables way too much emphasis, goodbye sounded more like ‘of waa’ than the expression I’d learnt to say.

I became disillusioned with the idea of living in France, I had long ago discarded that child-like submission of accepting things the way they are, being secondary to decision-making. Making decisions and understanding what leads to them is not something one gives up and neither was I interested in putting it on hold while coming to terms with a new language. I freaked out. No way was I coming to live here, a new language, a new city, a new baby, all things where I would be required to start again from the beginning. Absolutely no way I told myself.

Returning to London, the queues were horrendous, airport security was tight and there was no other subject being discussed other than the events that had occurred in New York. And they were beginning to have a trickle-down effect. I was concerned because I worked in the travel industry which was sure to be impacted and sure enough, within two weeks of our return, I was advised that my job was no longer required at a time when I knew I had no chance of finding another, not with a very obvious baby protruding from my mid-section.

Next up: Episode 3: The Benefits of Contra-Indicated Essential Oils!

Click below to read Previous Episodes of A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence


Episode 1 The Benefits of Insomnia

A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Struggling with my latest read, I think about all those people starting out on the NanoWriMo trail and all those old stories gathering dust on the shelf, my finished and unfinished novels, the new one I would love to start and the words of my friend Bernadette, who suggested to me yesterday that I write a story directly into this blog.

It’s an idea with merit and one that will help me overcome another little dilemma, that of a 10-year-old girl who wants her own blog, whose little fingers have occasionally and so she says ‘accidentally’ found their way in here.

So this will be our collaboration, I will write the episodes and she will create the illustrations, which seems appropriate as this story is going to be about her, about an aspect of our journey together that is worth sharing, because I know our experience is already helping others going through something similar.

So, next up Episode One : The Benefits of Insomnia written by me and illustrated by my daughter.

Here is the cover she designed today, there is a colour version, but she wants me to put it up in black and white.

And just to clarify, that’s her on the left and me on the right. (She has used her artistic ability liberty to remove her curls and make herself as tall as me).