Friday, 12 September 2014

No sleep til Brooklyn

I've been motionless for a full fifteen minutes, propped up on my pillows, my baby asleep face down on my chest.  It's 3am and this particular night feed has spanned two and a half episodes of Mad Men.  I'm feeling the tiredness in my marrow.

I gently lift one of her arms and let go.  It falls like a dead weight and I know that she's out cold at last. I lean across and turn off the iPad before edging her down into the nook of my arm.

I reach over and remove the hot water bottle from her bedding.  Slowly and oh so very carefully I start to roll to my left so that the arm cradling her rests on the bed next to me.

The first part of the manoeuvre is complete and I hold the position for a minute to make sure she hasn't stirred.  My back is aching while my weak post partum stomach muscles protest at this unnatural stance.

Now the crucial bit, make or break.  With excruciating care I inch my left arm from under her body and cover her with the warm blanket.  I sit up relieved I can finally go to sleep.

But two wide little eyes, as big as saucers, are staring at me from the blankets.  "No sleep til Brooklyn, mum" they're saying.  "No sleep for you."

Saturday, 6 September 2014

What doesn't kill you...

There’s no getting away from it, the first three months of my son’s life were utterly miserable for all concerned.  What I’d expected and hoped to be a magical and special time turned out to be heart wrenching and soul destroying.  Why?  Because my son had lactose intolerance.  Except we didn't know it; we just knew that he was in a lot of pain.

He cried all the time.  All the time!  Not just an hour or so here or there, or even for three hours a day at least three days a week for  three weeks - the randomly plucked definition of colic.  ALL THE TIME!  It was just awful.  He was clearly in so much pain and discomfort, squirming and shrieking as he tried to pass wind, pulling his little legs up to his chest.  I carried him in the sling, pacing up and down the corridor of our small flat for hours on end.  I made up at least six different songs to sing as I paced, the process of which kept me sane during those long, lonely afternoons, although I’ll concede that I must have looked anything but.

I’d go out and meet other mums, at coffee shops, post natal pilates classes, baby sensory groups, you know, the standard newborn meets.  And more often than not their kids would be chilling out as we did our stretching or coffee slurping.  Not Brendan.  And I felt envy and resentment.  And failure.

The only thing that seemed to soothe him was to breastfeed, so when he wasn't crying he was hanging off my boob.  And of course I was dutifully drinking and eating lots of dairy, completely unaware that I was exacerbating the issue.

And he just didn’t sleep.  He woke up every 45 minutes at night and I resorted to sleeping with him in a sling, propped up on a mound of strategically placed pillows, all too aware of the cot death warnings: DO NOT SLEEP WITH YOUR CHILD IN YOUR BED! And so I didn't really ever sleep.  I just dozed fitfully.  My husband and I were broken, communicating in angry monosyllables, competing about which of us was the most tired, or had it the hardest.  We even threw bread at each other one morning… our lowest point, now known in family lore as “bread-gate”.

I lost count of how many times I sought help from healthcare professionals.  To a man (and woman) the doctors would start their consultations with the question “are you a first time mum?” and when I answered with a yes, they would stop listening, dismissing me as an over anxious mother.  “It’s just a bit of colic” they would say, ignoring my protestations.  One doctor even asked me to lie Brendan down on the bed.  He immediately started crying.  “Now pick him up” she said.  I did and the crying stopped.  “He just wants a cuddle, that’s all” and she shooed me out of her office.  Diagnostics at its best?!  All the more depressing as I’d specifically asked to see a practice partner.

The health visitor was no better.  She stopped listening after I’d told her we’d been topping up with formula, looking at me like I’d kicked a puppy.  Had she not been so intent on judging she might have made a link between the cow’s milk that the formula is derived from and his gastric discomfort.  But no, I was dismissed again, like a delinquent teenager who didn’t know what was best for her who only had herself to blame.
Day to day life felt like a hideous car crash.  We were on the edge of reason.  I went to the doctors to ask about post natal depression and even then I wasn't really listened to.  “Go and get a night in the spare room.  If you wake up feeling a bit better tomorrow, you’re probably just tired.”  And I WAS tired, too tired to protest that of course I was fucking tired, that the tiredness was killing me, that I felt like an utter failure because I couldn't get my baby to stop crying and everyone was telling me that there was nothing wrong with him. 

Eventually we were summoned to my son’s eight week check-up (which was four weeks late).  By luck a newly qualified GP was being trained up by a senior partner.  After they’d done all they needed to, they asked me if I’d had any issues or questions.  “Well he cries all the time.  He’s in pain and no one can tell me why.  It hasn't stopped, it hasn't got any better.  If anything it is getting worse.” 

I expected to be dismissed again but perhaps she heard the desperation in my voice.  Or the defeat.  Or maybe she was just a really good doctor.  She asked me if I had eczema.  Yes I did.  Hay fever? Yes, that too.  Asthma?  Yep.  She prescribed a hypoallergenic formula and told me to give it a couple of days and see if anything improved.  

And it did. Completely.  Unbelievably.  Enormously.   

A doctor that really listened, three questions that I’d never been asked before, and a box of magical  powder that changed all our lives.  Why that took three months, I don’t know. (Although each one of those boxes of powder costs the GP between £30 and £50 and if I was cynical I might think that had something to do with it.)

So my fundamental message is this: if you are a first time parent, or a second time or third time parent, and you think there is something wrong with your baby, trust your instincts.  Don’t stop asking.  Don’t be fobbed off.  Don’t be dismissed or undermined.  Stick to your guns.  You are almost certainly right!

And remember... what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger!

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Breastfeeding... laid bare.


I stop and check for the whereabouts of my son.  He’s in the next room.


I’m breastfeeding and my daughter is latching on.  Her legs are kicking as if she’s taking a run up and she’s clamping down like someone getting started on some corn on the cob.   In short, it fucking hurts and it doesn’t feel either wholesome or lovely. 

My daughter is a week old and we’ve spent that time figuring out between us how she going to get the good shit from mama’s boobs.  And not for the first time I’m left staggered at how woefully inadequate the equipment for this task is.  Another black mark against the theory of intelligent design!

No one tells you how hard it is to get breastfeeding going, how it doesn’t happen overnight, how utterly painful it is and how neither you nor your baby really have a clue what you’re doing.  This time I’m ready to surrender to the process, to go into lock down in the bedroom, box-set ready with the iPlayer and Sky Go downloaded onto the iPad.  I'm surrounded by nipple cream and breast compresses as I watch films I haven’t seen in the years since my son was born like Twelve Years a Slave and Philomena (although given my hormone levels these might not have been the best choices).

Most of this has been happening in the small hours, when she cluster feeds between midnight and five in the morning.   I watched the entire first season of Enlightened in one twelve hour period trying not to give way to feeling trapped and resentful.

We’re getting there.  The worst of the soreness is healing and this time round I know it won’t last forever.  I repeat my mantra “this too shall pass” over and again.  And then I’m reminded that once it passes it will pass for good as we won’t be having any more children.  And I try even harder to let go of the pain and resentment I feel, pinned in my room, the jaws of doom clamped round my mammaries. She pulls away for a breather and I brace myself as her little legs kick again and she takes another bite of the sweetcorn.  As hard as it is, this is a privilege I won’t have again.


Friday, 22 August 2014

Tales from the post natal ward part 1: Dinner Lady Wars

The dinner lady from Cedar Ward bursts through the double doors and strides up the corridor.  She comes to a stop in front of our dinner cart, chin out, hands on hips.

"Have you taken our serving spoons?"

Sue, Maple Ward's dinner lady, ignores her and turns to me.

"What you havin' love?"


Sue looks at me and makes a show of rolling her eyes before slowly turning to her rival.

"Yes, I've got your serving spoons.  Someone took mine so I took yours."  She holds her gaze and shrugs.

"You just took ours?"


"What am I supposed to use, my hands?"

"Not my problem dear.  I don't really care."  She smiles.  It's a touch sinister.

And she really, really doesn't care.  At all.  There is not one single solitary centremeter of her face that cares in the least what Cedar Ward will use to dish up.

"Er, right then, I'll... um... yeah"

Cedar Ward's dinner lady shrinks under her gaze and retreats back down the corridor.

"Miserable old witch," chuckled Sue.  "Now what you havin' love?"

"Macaroni please, Sue."

Sue is not to be messed with.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

How clean is my house?

I appear to be nesting. 

It is a curious instinct, especially for someone like me who subscribes to the idea of a “clean enough house” and to the philosophy of “the least amount of effort for the most impact”.  For example we very rarely iron anything.  Instead we do what we call the “hot and fold”: we put the clothes in the dryer and fold them the second they come out.  That way only my husband’s shirts and work trousers need an iron, and he takes care of that himself. 

Sure, sometimes this means I dry the same load more than once, in much the same way as I (ahem) occasionally re-run the washing machine with a bit of extra softener.  But the bottom line is the laundry gets washed, folded and (nearly always) put away… eventually.

Don’t get me wrong, I DO clean.  I just don’t clean obsessively.  Or with any enthusiasm at all.  In fact I find it useful to invite at least one person round for a coffee each week to give me a hook around which I loosely hang my efforts.  Even then, there’ll be something astray… a basket of washing, the dishes stacked waiting for me to empty the dishwasher, piles of crap on the bottom step waiting to be taken up to various bedrooms.  But living is a fun AND messy thing and too much cleaning and tidying can get in the way.

And yet here I am in an immaculate kitchen.  The dirty washing basket is completely empty (the last load currently undergoing the “hot” part of the “hot and fold”).  The spare room is ready for my mum a full five days in advance of her arrival.  The tupperware drawer has been sorted out.   The shoes are organised on the shoe rack under the stairs.  My son’s craft box has been overhauled (he has a craft box?  Who knew?).  I've even gaffer-taped one of his jigsaw boxes as it was splitting a little.   And from where I’m sitting I can see that one of the doors on the dresser is open… it is really bugging me.

I should probably take a picture.  We don’t plan on having any more children so I imagine that this is the cleanest this house will ever, ever be.  In a matter of days the nesting urge will leave me for good and the catastrophically messy business of looking after a toddler and a newborn will begin.  So to those of my friends who enjoy a really really clean house, now’s the time to visit, because after next week, well frankly anything goes round here!

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Cutting through the lavender oil

The yoga teacher padded gently round the darkened room, careful not to disturb the small group of pregnant women lying peacefully on their left hand sides (for pregnancy has its own “side” you know, and it is most definitely the left one).  I lay among them, my head resting on a pillow while a cushion between my knees helped to ease the ache in my hips.   Soothing music completed the scene and you would be forgiven for assuming I was indulging in a moment of deep relaxation.  But you would be wrong as I was in fact trying very hard to not to jump up and declare “WHAT A CROCK OF HORSESHIT, LOVE!”

For she had just uttered what in my view are unforgivable words (*insert meditative-soft-spoken-namby-pamby-bullshit-whisper here*):

“Your bodeee is perfectleee designed to give biiiirth to your babeee”.

Well, you know what love, it isn’t.  I know, I know... it’s comforting to think that evolution got it bang on, but one look at the size of a baby compared to the size of the average vagina and you should really have all the heads up that you need.  Babies are MUCH bigger than fannies (I mean the English fanny, not the American one obviously).  Ergo: design flaw.

That’s not to say that your birth won’t be straightforward, as long as we define “straightforward” as “at least very hard, probably a bit scary, possibly traumatic in parts, and definitely not at all what you expected”.

And therein lies the crux of the issue: our expectations.  Like so many before me I sought out an antenatal class before the birth of my son because I wanted to prepare myself.  I opted for the NCT, blindly following a middle class trend, and while I made some amazing lifelong friends, I felt incredibly let down by it once I’d given birth.

Sure, there were some priceless moments, like watching my husband put a nappy on a doll while five other blokes heaved sighs of relief to have dodged that bullet.  But mainly, looking back, the classes didn't prepare me for all the births that could happen, but only for the birth that I wanted

I carried phrases such as “we don’t like to describe labour as painful, but more like hard work” around with me like a comfort blanket.  Hard work is fine, right?  I can put my shoulder to it with the best of them.

“Take some lavender oil to help you relax, some arnica tablets to help you heal, and don’t forget to make ice cubes out of honey water to suck on at home”.  Paints quite the picture of wholesome loveliness.  Yeah, I'll totally buy into that!

I wish that someone had sat me down and told me the truth.  Told me gently, perhaps, but at least told me.  That it might really, really fucking hurt, that I might lose my shit and scream and panic, that my baby might struggle and that I might not emerge out the other side with my foo-foo or mind completely intact.  And, crucially, that this was all completely normal and okay because only some of us have the birth we hope for.  Many, many of us don’t.

As it was I was totally unequipped for what happened and spent many tearful months afterwards coming to terms with my feelings.   I’m pregnant again and a midwife I saw early on (and who recognised the trauma I still carried) told me that she worked with a great many women who had hugely unrealistic expectations.  Part of her job had been to help them deal with post traumatic shock and feelings of failure following difficult deliveries and she felt very angry and frustrated at the misconceptions fuelled by many classes like the one I attended.  She retired the very next day and so I never got to benefit again from her experience during this pregnancy.
But if I could have bottled her knowledge and experience I would have given one to every woman I was lying alongside that evening.  Because in just twenty minutes, with facts and statistics as well as kindness and empathy, she gently undid so much of the damage that had been done and I left the room feeling a weight off my shoulders. 

And the yoga class?  One whiff of that horseshit and I was out of there.  For good.