A Question of Priorities

The first in a series of posts about our half-term trip in our camper van to France, Belgium and the Netherlands

Debbie and Laura at TIm's house

Sometimes only Mummy will do. Me and Laura, when she was less than a year old.

On the first Saturday morning of the half term holiday, Dover-Dunkirk ferry departures are running seriously behind schedule, following a night of Force 10 gales in the English Channel.

Slowly our camper van edges through immigration control, where we learn that the ferry we’re due to catch has been marooned outside the harbour for 10 hours as the sea was too rough for it to dock. In those circumstances, I’m happy to wait the predicted eight hours before we can expect to board.

In the meantime, we have needs which must be attended to. As soon as our camper van reaches its allocated parking space to await departure, my ten-year-old daughter Laura and I nip across to the port’s Food Village to use the loo.

Disappointingly, the enticingly-named Food Village turns out to be exactly like the inside of any British motorway service station. The upside is that we can easily find the Ladies’. Our mission accomplished, I’m just waiting for Laura to finish washing her hands when a wide-eyed lady, aged about 30, dashes in crying “Where can I put my baby down?”

The little girl in her arms is about nine months old. Wearing a plum-coloured hand-knitted jumper and a pink hat shaped like a flower, she looks like an Anne Geddes photo. Someone’s Grandma loves them.

The lady’s eyes become even wider when she realises there’s no playpen or baby seat in which to secure her little flower while Mummy uses the facilities.

“Here, would you like me to take her for you?” I offer, thinking wistfully that it’s been a long time since I’ve held a baby that small.

Without a moment’s hesitation the lady thrusts her baby into my arms and dashes into a cubicle. After a moment, she starts talking loudly to me through the door, and I realise that she’s seeking reassurance that I’m still there. I answer immediately to make it clear that I haven’t fled with her baby and leapt on a ferry to parts unknown.

Baby Laura reading a grown-up book, aged less than 1

Laura, seeking wisdom from books at a very early age.

Her baby, meanwhile, is unperturbed, responding to the unfamiliar setting as if it’s a giant activity centre. She turns her little head towards the source of each new sound, open mouthed with wonder – roaring hand-driers, fizzing taps, sliding door bolts and slamming doors. She is too preoccupied to notice that I’m not her mum.

After a minute or two, the lady emerges from her cubicle at a more relaxed pace than that of her arrival. Then on catching sight of me with the baby, she goes rigid with horror.

“Oh my god, I’ve just realised what I did there!” she gasps. “I just gave my baby to a total stranger! I was that desperate!”

I smile indulgently.

“Don’t worry, we’ve all done things like that,” I tell her, nodding towards Laura to indicate that I’ve been there, done that, and that my baby lived to tell the tale.

Laura on the Dover-Dunkirk ferry

Laura on the Dover-Dunkirk ferry at last, pulling out a few stowaways from her bag

But I know very well how her heart must be pounding, as mine did one day when Laura was tiny, and I left her outside a shop in her buggy in the care of her father. When I came out, they were gone, and I fell into a wild panic. Logically I knew that nothing terrible could have happened – they hadn’t really been kidnapped by aliens and there was a rational explanation for the empty space where I’d expected to find them. Even so, I started running tearfully from shop to shop, stopping only when I found Laura safe and sound a few doors down. She was cooing happily in her buggy in a men’s clothes shop, overseen by the shop assistant, while her Daddy was calmly trying on a pair of trousers in the changing room. I was horrified. It was at that moment that I realised the full force of maternal instinct and the power it had to overwhelm reason.

In Dover’s Food Village, the flowery baby, perhaps suddenly realising the enormity of the situation, starts to cry. I’m relieved to return her to the familiarity of her mother’s arms and to lead my own child back to the haven of our camper van.

Coming next: how our lack of forward planning means we end up in Belgium instead of France. 

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7 thoughts on “A Question of Priorities

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  4. This made me laugh: “she looks like an Anne Geddes photo. Someone’s Grandma loves them.”

    Even though I’m not much of a baby-holder, this post was so poignant I couldn’t help but love it! And may I also say, wow, has Laura’s hair ever grown long and all your photos of her (and you) are just beautiful.

    • Thank you, Laura – and I’m sure you will now understand why I used to worry that she would never have any hair! Not much there till she was about 18 months old – but she’s made up for it since then! (And when she was born, I was convinced she had no eyes, as her little face was so screwed up – but, in my slightly drugged up state, that didn’t bother me, I was so elated to have produced her at all. I just thought “Oh well, we’ll work our way around it!” Ever the optimist!

  5. Looking back, I know I took crazy risks as a new mum (I often left the baby in its pushchair at one end of the supermarket while I ran to get something, until hubbie pointed out how easily she could get stolen – it hadn’t occured to me in my sleep-deprived state and just added to the mummy guilt). It was even worse once I had two under two. Sometimes you have no choice but to trust in the kindness of strangers.

    • You’re right there, Amanda! Fortunately the vast majority of strangers ARE kind – it’s just impossible to be sure which are which :( My mum once left my sister in her pram outside the bakers and went home, forgetting that she had a baby (she was very young) – and I know a very responsible headmistress who left her child behind at a party and didn’t realise till she was on the motorway. All survived intact, which makes me feel better when I realise I’ve taken foolish risks!

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