Luca has held a muslin close ever since he was six months old – when Mum suggested he might like something against his face to settle. I started with six muslins and ended up with 12. As a baby, there was always one or two draped over him and I during feeding. Always one in the car with him and always one for sleep. The muslin morphed from my breastfeeding essential into Luca's comforter. We have hundreds of photos with him sucking his thumb and a white muslin dangling from his hand, the tip of one corner just touching his top lip.
I set aside concerns from others about his thumb and muslin. The suggestions were of course well-meaning, but as I see now with so many concerns to do with children, they're often based in fear. A fear, in this case, that they won't toughen up and learn to be resilient without the things they choose to comfort them, a fear of other people's perceptions, a fear that they'll forever be 'a baby'.
I try and consistently adopt the same approach with everything throughout the boys' childhood: why the hurry? From schooling right down to a comforting muslin. As I see it, there's no hurry.
A muslin went hand in hand with thumb-sucking, and though we tried to limit its use, whenever Luca was tired, upset, overwhelmed or emotional in any way he would search one out. There are only so many hiding places in one house. I was learning about his sensitive nature at the same time, and I was also learning about the way I deal with my own emotions. When you're navigating parenthood in this way, it's hard to know what's right or wrong (and really that's the point, there is no right or wrong in this case). Society labels so much as wrong beyond a certain age in a child, but I wasn't going to let culture rule on this one. I decided that until I felt sure one way or the other, I wasn't going to do anything drastic and risk hurting him.
Whether it's a young-brother-idolising-an-older-brother thing or whether I have two children who are sensitive in that way, Kian also sought solace in his thumb and a muslin.
Those 12 muslins have dwindled to seven. They have soothed and calmed my children for years. Once white and crisp, they are now grey, frayed and stained. At our last dentist visit (like every visit), I was warned about the consequences of thumb-sucking (and I know deep down that so long as there are muslins around there will always be the sucking of thumbs). And while even Graeme and I can see that Luca's mouth and where his top teeth now sit have changed, no one was talking to me about the emotional impact. No one took the time to see a different perspective. So I left well alone, again until I knew what to do.
Over the past six months, though, those grey muslins have caused more issues than they have relieved. The more we tried to limit them to sleep time, the more meltdowns we had. Until I realised one day that they no longer soothe or calm, not with Luca anyway. They were suppressing.
When he felt frustrated, angry to the point of tears, tired to the point of tears, a muslin quickly grabbed would just silence all the emotion. That's when I knew. It's like the dummy in a baby's mouth that just wants to let it out (no judgement here by the way; I had my own on/off relationship with dummies in the early days).
I know with absolute certainty that my children need to learn how to express themselves – expression is everything. I'm still working out what all this looks like – I'm still working it out for myself. I don't know how; I just know that keeping it in doesn't work. They won't know who they are until they let all the crap out first.
So about a month ago, I started talking about it being time for the muslin fairy to come and exchange all their muslins for something very special of their choice. Over days and weeks, we talked. Luca asked why and I said because it was better for him to feel what he's feeling without his muslins taking it all away.
Luca wrote the letter: "Please fairy can I have a ship that actually floats in real water, and some pieces of metal." Kian asked for a puzzle and a rock.
The day arrived. Luca was emotional. I was emotional. At one stage I didn't know if I had the heart to go through with it. I took a picture of him having his last sleep with a muslin, and I kept thinking of how much these pieces of cloth have been a part of our lives for the past five and a half years. But I recognised my emotions for what they were: resistance. My resistance to change.
We put them in a basket on the front doorstep. We spent the evening driving around the streets looking at Christmas lights, to give the fairy time to do the exchange.
When we got back, we all cheered at the magic. A wooden sailboat that actually floats in real water, a few bits of metal, a special magnetic puzzle and a rock all sat where the muslins were an hour before. They went to bed and all I felt was sadness at tucking them in without the scruffy bits of cloth that they always clung to as I sang them a song.
Amazingly, Luca hasn't once asked for his muslin. The emotional outbursts are still the same, but now he has the chance to let it out properly. And perhaps this might even help him regulate his emotions in the long term. Kian turns three this weekend; he's still a baby. It feels like he made a sacrifice for his older brother.. There was no reason for him to give up his muslins, but there was no other way. All I can do is trust I've done the right thing by them both.
I'm happy with how they're dealing with it. I'm happy they felt the exchange was a fair one. The only person who's emotional is the one writing this post. Perhaps in the end I was more attached than they were. And isn't there a lesson in that.