Second childhood

They say you learn as much from your children as they learn from you. What my current pregnancy seems to be teaching me is the remarkable similarities between a pregnant woman and a very small child. Probably an under-two; my five year old definitely has more stamina and self-control than me at the moment. Is this nature’s way of teaching me empathy, and ensuring I’m the best mother possible when the baby arrives? Mother Nature isn’t normally that subtle – the way she ensured I responded within split seconds to any chance whim of my newborn daughter’s was to equip her from birth with a cry that simultaneously pierced my eardrums, sinuses, hypothalamus and heart.

Whatever the reason, these are the behaviours which I (and my long-suffering husband) have noted in me, which correspond uncannily to those you might expect to see in a averagely badly behaved toddler.

1) The tantrums. What can I say? This is embarrassing. I do have what might be generously termed a short fuse at the best of times. It turns out that early pregnancy isn’t the best of times. I have had to be forcibly restrained from smashing my mobile phone to bits on the kitchen floor (well, to be fair, the voicemail symbol wouldn’t go away, even though I’d already listened to the message!), and my husband swears that I threw a screwdriver at him. I definitely didn’t. I just happened to throw a screwdriver, and he just happened to be there. Had I thrown it at him he would have been in no danger whatsoever as my aim is catastrophically bad.

2) The tears. Tantrums occur when I am overcome with sudden ungovernable rage. The tears are when a minor setback  or disappointment cause me to feel that nothing positive or happy can or will ever happen to me again and I sob as though my heart is breaking, as indeed I feel it might. That might be because Anna went into school without kissing me goodbye, or because I see a ‘lost cat’ poster, or realise I have a missed call from a friend I wanted to talk to.

3) The hunger. I can go from feeling full, even nauseous, to so hungry that I’m seriously considering eating my own fingers in about thirty seconds flat. If I don’t respond to this hunger within a minute or two then feeling nauseous becomes feeling violently sick. Although also still hungry. The main problem is that I never know what I can face eating – many foods, even ones I would normally enjoy, are utterly repulsive in this mood. My safest bets are Rice Krispies, fresh cherries, boiled rice , chocolate milkshake and breadsticks. All of which are fine when I’m at home (although the ten minutes it takes to cook rice is normally too long), but not so easy when I’m out and about. Breadsticks are theoretically transportable, but actually what I end up with is an assortment of crumb-filled handbags. Anyway, this really does teach me a lesson. The number of times I’ve been out with toddler-aged daughter, who is clearly engaged in a low-blood sugar strop and whining for snacks, and offered her food, only for it to be rejected. “But I’m not hungry for raisins…”. I’d always assumed that was just a cunning ploy to try and get something chocolate coated out of me, because, after all, if you’re hungry you’ll eat what’s going. Now I’m not so sure.

4) The sleep habits. I’ve never been good at not getting my eight hours a night, but for the past few weeks I’ve needed more like eleven hours. Plus a daytime nap (or two). The hot weather and late nights have meant Anna has been struggling to get to sleep, so most of the time I think I’m actually asleep before her. And if, like last night, I prioritise staying awake long enough to have a conversation with my husband when he gets in from work (kind of feel we ought to talk at least once a week), then I have no choice but to head back to bed for a catch up pretty much as soon as I’ve dropped Anna at school.

5) The clumsiness. I’m not exactly graceful anyway, but my clumsiness has now reached new heights. Or perhaps new depths. I know clumsiness is meant to be a common side effect of late pregnancy as the extra weight and change in shape alters your sense of balance, but at three months gone? What’s happening to me? I’m covered in bruises from lurching and staggering into tables/chairs/doors, and keep on doing stupid things like missing the pan when I’m putting boiling water onto pasta, or the glass as I pour some milk, or dropping a tray of muffins as I lift them out of the oven. It is just like putting a 2 year old in charge of running a home. Suspect I should only be using plastic crockery and blunt knives really.

So there we go. I am thirty-three going on eighteen months. Really hope that I snap back to normal after the birth, or my husband is really going to have his hands full come December.



To Have and to Hold Book Launch!

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Generally I hope this isn’t true because, firstly, I am a writer so words are very much my business, and secondly, as regular readers of this blog will have spotted, I’m not great with pictures. I haven’t quite adjusted to the 21st century – my phone does take photos, but I’ve not yet worked them out how to get them off my phone, and I haven’t remembered to take my camera to a social occasion since about 2008. Plus I’d need to reload the software that lets me transfer photos from camera to computer onto my new laptop, and that just seems frankly unmanageable. So, as I say, in general I really hope words are worth more than images.

Today, though, I am having a volte face. Yesterday was the publication of my second novel, To Have and to Hold, and last night I held a launch party for it, at the local cafe where much of it was written. I could try to write a lengthy blog post about how lovely it was, how kind and supportive my friends and neighbours were, what a great atmosphere it was. However, so far today I have had to take the cat to the vets, make fairy cakes for the school summer fete tomorrow, sort out books and bric a brac to donate for the fete, go shopping as we’d run entirely our of milk (Anna’s breakfast was a banana and a chocolate muffin), and I still have to sort out children’s books Anna does and doesn’t like for the Family Literacy class at school this afternoon, write the blog, eat my lunch and get to school for said Literacy class all in the next hour! So I’m hoping that these lovely photos (taken by people other than me!) will convey something of last night’s atmosphere.

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Come and join in!

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Lovely flowers from my lovely editor, Francesca

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Child’s blackboard purloined for self-advertisement

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The awkward bit where I have to speak instead of write.

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More gorgeous flowers – these from my agent.

Ready to be bought!

Ready to be bought!

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It’s not accidental that the fizz matches the book cover!

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Beautiful congratulations flowers from my parents

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It’s happening here!



Round about the time my daughter turned three we started to get a bit broody. We weren’t ready to start ‘trying’ for baby number two, apart from anything else we were running out of room anyway in our tiny house, and trying to find somewhere bigger to move to was the priority. However,these things don’t always go quite according to plan, and a sunshiny holiday in Italy with a few glasses of Pinot Grigio later, and we were looking at a positive pregnancy test.

To say we were thrilled was an understatement. The decision whether or not to have a second child had been one we’d debated pretty much ever since Anna was born – on one hand I’d always imagined a having two children and Anna growing up with all the joy of a sibling to share toys, experiences and arguments with, on the other hand I’d barely slept for two and a half years, and I have a form of arthritis which causes joint pain and fatigue, so I wasn’t at all sure I could cope with the demands of two small children. Our happy accident felt like fate deciding for us, and we were delighted.

Sadly, just a week or so later I went to the toilet and found some spots of blood. Over the next few hours the bleeding and the pain intensified, and I was in no doubt that I was losing the baby. Although this hadn’t been planned, although we were at such an early stage in the pregnancy, it still felt as though my heart was being ripped out. With a bitter irony, my first miscarriage came just two days before we moved into the three bedroomed house which would have plenty of room for two children.

I didn’t see a doctor at first, there didn’t seem much point. I just wanted to get it over with and get pregnant again as soon as possible – at least we now knew that was what we definitely wanted. A week later, though, I woke up with a high temperature, convulsive shakes and renewed bleeding. It was a Bank Holiday Saturday (of course), and NHS Direct recommended I went straight to A&E. To say they were unsympathetic would be an understatement. I was given a pregnancy test, when it came back negative the nurse told me “Well, you’re not pregnant now – if you ever were – you’ve obviously got a virus. Go home and take paracetamol.” I felt like a delusional hysteric. Had I imagined the four positive pregnancy tests after all? Being dismissed like that felt like losing my baby all over again. A few days later when I was able to get an appointment with my (very sympathetic) GP she referred me for a scan to check that the miscarriage was complete, and luckily it was. Over the next few weeks the sadness lessened and, although there were pangs, such as a friend announcing her pregnancy with a very similar due date to what mine would have been, we were ok. The whole time I was so grateful and felt so lucky that I already had one gorgeous child.

A few months later, while on holiday again, I realised that my period was late and my breasts were sore. An embarrassing trip to a French pharmacy which uncovered some distinct gaps in my A-level French (it’s ‘teste de grossesse’, by the way), and once again we were looking at those two blue lines. This time our excitement was definitely tempered with caution. We now knew a positive pregnancy test did not guarantee us a baby to cuddle nine months later, but we were still fairly upbeat. After all, lots of people have one miscarriage, I was young(ish!), I’d had one healthy pregnancy, the statistics were on our side.

Unfortunately, a week or two later, I felt a now hideously familiar cramping in my lower abdomen. This time, however, there was no bleeding, and for a few hours I clung on to the hope that it was just one of those pregnancy aches and pains. As the pain intensified that comforting fiction became harder to sustain. My husband was away with for work and uncontactable, so I sent out a mayday to my parents. By the time they arrived, having driven through the night, I was in agony. Worryingly, I felt, the pain had settled onto one side of my abdomen only, and there was still no bleeding. I started to be concerned it could be an ectopic pregnancy, and when I wasn’t able to get a GP appointment I decided (with some trepidation, given my previous experience) to go to A&E. My misgivings on the quality of care I would receive proved justified. Once again I was given a pregnancy test, it came back negative, the triage nurse told me I wasn’t pregnant and I should go home and see my GP in a few days if I felt no better.

If I’d been on my own then I think I would have done what she said. However, my mum was with me, and she is made of sterner stuff, especially if she feels one of her children is at risk! She pointed out that the pregnancy test I’d just done might be negative, but the one I’d done at home 24 hours earlier had been positive, so something funny was going on, and also suggested quite firmly that, given I was in too much pain to eat or sleep, and turned faint if I stood up for longer than a couple of minutes, that there probably was something wrong with me, and could we see a doctor please. After a fair amount of assertiveness (on my mum’s part), and tears and groaning (on mine) we finally saw the A&E consultant. She took one look at me, had me wheeled into a private room, cannulated and given an injection of strong painkiller and told me to go nil by mouth as she thought it could be an ectopic pregnancy and I might need surgery. From that point onwards the hospital were fantastic. A scan confirmed that it was an ectopic pregnancy, but because it was early and my hormone levels were low (measured accurately by a blood test) the gynaecologist was optimistic that it would self resolve. No chance whatsoever that the baby would survive, but given I’d been facing emergency surgery and the loss of my fallopian tube, this almost sounded like good news. And actually, bizarrely, although I was intensely sad about the baby that wasn’t to be, I did feel very lucky that I’d got through so relatively unscathed. It is still not unheard of for women to die of ectopic pregnancies, many more need surgery which can compromise their fertility, I’d got away with a couple of days of pain and a few follow up blood tests to check that my hormones had indeed returned to normal.

Four months later I was pregnant again. This time I tried so hard not to let myself get excited, and I felt I’d succeeded. Yet when I went to the bathroom and saw blood, the wave of despair I felt showed me that, actually, I had been hopeful after all. We were staying at my parents’ at the time, and I got an appointment for an ultrasound scan for the next day. It was a hard twenty-four hours to get through – on one hand I was bleeding, which clearly didn’t look good, on the other hand I was feeling increasingly nauseous as my early pregnancy symptoms ramped up. The alternating hope and despair was exhausting. When we were told there was a baby and a heartbeat we were ecstatic. The midwife doing the scan told me that, at this point, seeing a heartbeat gave us a 97% chance of a successful pregnancy. Frankly, those odds felt pretty good and, giddy with relief, we started talking about baby names.

A few days later I had a routine scan booked at my local hospital. I almost cancelled – after all, I now knew everything was ok, and I didn’t want to waste NHS resources. However, the lure of seeing that miraculous little heartbeat again proved too great, and off I went. The doctor doing the scan confirmed the heartbeat, and I lay in a happy daze, not noticing at first that her face had grown grave and she was spending a long time taking different measurements on the screen. Eventually I asked if everything was alright, and then listened, barely able to take it in as she explained that there might be a problem. The baby was a bit too small. The yolk sac was a bit too big. These facts taken in conjunction with each other pointed to a congenital abnormality which may lead to miscarriage. However, she could be wrong, there was a chance everything would be fine, and she would see me again in ten days to assess. The fact, though, that she then proceeded to give me instructions on retaining ‘the remains’ in a sterile container, should I miscarry at home, in order that they could be sent for testing, sort of gave me the hunch she wasn’t feeling terribly optimistic.

The next ten days were the worst of my life. Every twinge and cramp caused me to panic, and I tortured myself with endless Google searches. One moment I could be wildly optimistic having read of a woman whose measurements had been the same as mine and yet went on to have a healthy baby, seconds later I would be in floods of tears imagining myself going through the next seven months of pregnancy, feeling the baby grow, only to have a stillbirth or a child who wouldn’t survive longer than a few days due to a terrible chromosomal failure. When it finally came, the scan confirmed that the baby had died. I was booked in for what was charmingly called  an ‘ERPC’ – Evacuation of Retained Products of Conception. It was an absolutely vile day, made worse by the fact that the staff initially refused to let my husband stay with me while I waited for the surgery. It didn’t seem to matter that I was beside myself with shock and grief, or that he was losing his baby too and we wanted to at least draw what comfort we could from being together, Rules Was Rules. Except they weren’t. Finally a senior nurse came and told us he could stay, and they actually allowed him to be with me right up to the moment I was taken into theatre, which was hugely helpful to both of us.

The next few months were very difficult. We had been referred to a recurrent miscarriage clinic for tests, and until that appointment came through it seemed sensible to put trying to conceive on hold. In any case, we both felt too battered by three pregnancies in eleven months to even think about trying again. My longing for a second baby hadn’t diminished, but I seriously doubted both my mental and physical capability to cope with another pregnancy. I was also worried that in focussing so much on what I hadn’t got – a second child – I risked missing out on enjoying what I had got – a loving husband, a happy marriage, a perfect little girl, a fledgling career as a writer, and wonderfully caring and supportive family and friends. I still struggled with my sense of loss though – experiencing panic attacks, heart palpitations and overwhelming anxiety when separated from my husband and/or daughter, and when my GP suggested counselling it seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, that got no further than a brusque phone call from the private firm my local NHS outsources some mental health services to, which informed me that I was ineligible for grief or bereavement counselling as ‘miscarriage doesn’t really count’, and if I wanted to see someone I would have to go privately. I didn’t, not because we couldn’t afford it (although it isn’t cheap and would be a huge struggle for many families), but because having, against the grain, screwed up my courage to admit that I wasn’t coping, being told that what I’d gone through ‘didn’t count’ left me feeling like a whinging, underserving hypochondriac.

It was my husband, my daughter, my parents, my brother and sister-in-law and my wonderful friends who got me through in the end. And in a funny sort of way, that became a blessing in disguise – going through a difficult time enabled me to realise how much I am loved, and that was enormously comforting.

There’s no happy ending – yet – although there may be a happy beginning. After extensive tests at the fantastic Recurrent Miscarriage Clinic at St Mary’s Paddington we learnt that, although I do have some gynaecological ‘issues’, there was no reason why I shouldn’t have a healthy pregnancy in future. At the time of writing I am 13 weeks pregnant, and the numerous scans I’ve had so far are looking good. I’m won’t be counting this little chicken as hatched until I’m holding him/her in my arms, but I do feel very blessed to have got this far, and with a much stronger sense that if this baby is meant to be in our lives then s/he will be, and I just have to let what will be, be. When we told Anna that Mummy had a baby growing in her tummy she was incredibly excited, but we also warned her that sometimes babies inside their mummies don’t grow properly, or die. “Don’t worry, Mummy,” she said as she hugged me “It’ll be really nice to have a baby, but you’ve still got me and Daddy anyway.”

This blog post was written to support the Mumsnet Miscarriage Care Campaign. It wasn’t especially easy to write, but I hope that by sharing our experiences women and their partners can realise that they are not alone, and politicians and healthcare providers can be motivated to improve the care that miscarriage sufferers experience. Follow through to the link above if you would like to get involved.

In praise of idleness?

I read an interesting article by Tom Hodgkinson this morning, shared by a friend on Facebook. You can read it yourself, but the main gist is that modern parents over-stimulate their children with a constant stream of entertainment and electronic activities, and that in order to let kids really enjoy themselves we should just leave them alone. He calls this ‘idle parenting’, and argues that it is a win-win situation for everyone, giving parents that elusive ‘time to themselves’ and fostering independence, creativity and self-reliance in children.

In many ways it is an attractive proposition. I definitely think that many parents of my generation over-theorise parenting, rather than relying on gut instinct. It starts antenatally – to home birth or not? Are epidurals safe? Should you enrol in hypno-birthing classes, or NCT ones, or hire a doula? The early days with a newborn are even more fraught. To breast-feed or not to breast-feed? To co-sleep or not to co-sleep? Is attachment parenting the way to go, or is it Gina Ford all the way? There are a plethora of books, websites, magazines and television programmes bombarding parents with information and advice, much of it directly conflicting, all of it implying that your parenting is somehow inadequate if you’re not following a carefully thought out plan.

We were quite lucky because by chance we were the first of all our various groups of friends of our generation – school, university, work -to become parents, and so we were going into it totally blind. The amount we knew about bringing up a baby could literally have been written on a postcard. No-one we spoke to before Anna was born had any fixed views on the rights and wrongs of different parenting styles, so we just hazily fudged something together between us. I’d picked up from somewhere that NCT classes were considered A Good Thing, so off we went to them. My birth plan indicated I’d like to consider a water-birth in the midwife led unit, but I had no immutable ideas, so when it became clear I needed an emergency c-section, my only concern was getting the baby out quickly and safely. Some months later at a mother and baby group someone asked me if I was disappointed not to have given birth ‘properly’. I didn’t know what to say, because it had never for a single second occurred to me that I hadn’t done it ‘properly’ – I grew her in my body for nine months, and she came out safe and well, what’s not proper about that? Having no expectations proved very liberating.

I’d worked in public health and so was well versed in the physiological benefits of breastfeeding, and was determined to give it a go, at least initially. Actually it turned out that I absolutely loved breastfeeding, and continued for 18 months – brilliant if you’re lazy, as there’s no faffing around with measuring formula or sterilising bottles, and you don’t have to plan things in advance. Having said all that, if I’d found breastfeeding physically or emotionally difficult for more than the first few days then I would have stopped. I didn’t have any sense that I would have failed if I didn’t carry on, and I find it really upsetting when mums who are coping with all the hormones and sleep deprivation of early parenthood also end up beating themselves up about the way they feed their baby.

And before I start sounding too smug about instinctive parenting and not seeking external validation, I will say that there were many ‘crises’ in Anna’s first few months (hiccups, wind, funny coloured nappies etc) which saw me barking instructions at my husband – “Right, you look it up in Miriam Stoppard, and I’ll look on the NHS website” – as, frankly, our instincts at that point seemed woefully inadequate. The first time Anna got a cold, at about six months, I phoned my mum in abject panic. “What do I DO?”. She was slightly bemused. “Well…nothing much. It’s a cold. You could give her some Calpol if her temperature goes up.”

However, it was only really as Anna got a bit older, and I started taking her to groups at the Children’s Centre, or to the park, and got chatting to other parents that I realised how many ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’ seemed to surround parenting, and how inexorable people become on their own theories. Sleeping and sleep routines, food and feeding, television, sugar, extra-curricular activities, gender stereotyping and many more besides are all hotly contested  parenting issues. Very recently I have come across a mother who will not allow her 3 year old daughter to wear or own anything pink whatsoever, because she is worried about re-enforcing gender stereotypes, and another woman who turned down the offer of a free baby bath for her newborn “because it’s blue, and I’ve got a little girl, so it’s not really suitable”. I probably have more sympathy with the pink avoider than the pink enforcer, but both positions seem to be making life unnecessarily difficult, and being of dubious ultimate benefit to the child.

In some ways I fulfil the article’s ideal of an idle parent. I’m not keen on bright plastic children themed soft play centres, and have always resisted spending vast amounts of money on extra-curricular activities which are meant to educate and stimulate. I like having a cuppa and a gossip with another mum while our children entertain each other on a play date, rather than laying on complicated activities. I get very irritated when Anna complains that she’s bored, especially when it’s less than two minutes after I finished reading her a story/playing a game with her. On the other hand, I absolutely hate and loathe so-called minimum intervention activities like ‘making aeroplanes out of cereal packets’ – just the thought brings me out in a cold sweat, and I’d far rather get on the bus and take Anna to one of London’s many free, child-friendly and, yes, I admit it, educational museums if we have a free afternoon. I’m also, however much I might wish I was, far from being immune to sudden flashes of panic that my failure to enrol Anna in ballet school or music lessons or drama classes is going to blight her entire future. So far I’ve been able to talk myself down from them, but as she gets older I think it gets harder.

Tom Hodgkinson also has a fairly niche definition of idleness, which includes scorning the modern lifesaving miracle that is Cbeebies, in favour of reading poetry to your children. Now, I’m all for poetry, and Anna has had her fair share read to her, but at the end of a long hard day, it is far from being the idle option compared to a nice bit of Charlie and Lola.

I suppose, really, that’s my main gripe with this article. Not that I broadly disagree with the principles discussed, I think children probably are over-stimulated and parents over-worried, and it would be easier if we could step back a little. But  in creating a ‘manifesto for idle parents’, Tom Hodgkinson has, in reality, created another stick to beat the over-anxious parents he is discussing. I jokingly remarked on Facebook that the problem was I would feel the need to set ‘idleness’ targets, but actually it’s not really a joke. As soon as you lay down a set of rules pertaining to a parenting theory you are instantly creating a right and wrong. Rather than condemning parents for ‘wasting’ money on days out, or implying criticism of parents who have no choice but to work fulltime with ‘work as little as possible while your children are small’, why not just stick with my manifesto of ‘trust your instincts’. I always say to my friends who’ve had new babies and are worried about how to care for them, that all they need is love, cuddles and food. And actually,  when I consider it, I think that ‘rule’ might actually apply to toddlers and much older children as well. Heap on the love and cuddles, feed them, and then whatever else you do or don’t do might not matter so much after all.