Beside the seaside

Predictably, despite my panics, the summer holidays are absolutely flying by. Only just over two weeks to go, and then we’ll be back in the school-run routine again. I’m taking advantage of a very rare window of peace and quiet when Anna is round at her friend’s building a den to hold the meetings of their secret society (“I think ‘society’ sounds much more grown up and important than ‘club’, doesn’t it, Mummy?), and Sophia is having her nap. Aannnnd breathe…

The lovely thing about this summer is the amount of time we have been lucky enough to spend at the seaside, first of all in Anglesey and then in West Cornwall. I love the sea. Somehow gazing out to sea, breathing the tangy saline air, feeling the sand between my toes manages to calm and energise and inspire me all at the same time.

path to beach

It’s also been brilliant watching how much fun the children can have with a good old bucket and spade – damming streams, digging holes, building sandcastles.

One of my worries about these school holidays was that the disparity in ages between Anna (8) and Sophia (2) would make it really difficult to entertain both of them at the same time, but a beach really is a happy place for all of us.

Of course, it has also helped having lots of family around. We were in Anglesey with my parents and, for half the time, with my brother and SIL, and my MIL was with us in Cornwall. They were around to give me a chance for a solitary walk along the beach of an evening, to teach Anna to play French cricket, to pass a rainy afternoon in reading stories or teaching origami, to take care of Sophia for a few hours and enable us to have a lovely long cliff path walk with Anna. Thank heaven for grandparents and aunts and uncles!

looking at the view

Just looking through my photos as I prepare this post has given me a renewed sense of calm and tranquility. The challenge now is to maintain that in the hustle and bustle of daily life a long way away from the sea. The little cafe just off the beach at Lligwy, where we stayed on Anglesey, had this poster up:

live well sign

Yes, it’s a little bit hippyish, and yes, these things are all easier to achieve on holiday by a beautiful beach than they are on a grey November morning when you have to do three loads of laundry, clean the loo and pay the credit card bill. But despite this, it actually feels like pretty good advice. I suspect that when my life starts to feel overwhelming and out of balance it is because I haven’t been spending enough time doing some of these.

It can’t always be sunset over Penzance Harbour or Lligwy Beach, but I really want to retain some of the magical peace of these beautiful places now I’m back home in East London.

The ups and downs of summer

Well, we’re one week into the summer holidays I was ever-so-slightly dreading. Is it proving as difficult as I expected? Well, that’s a hard one to answer.

In some ways, no, definitely not. It is lovely to be more relaxed in the mornings. A couple of days ago I looked up from stacking the dishwasher after breakfast to find both girls contentedly snuggled up on the sofa, still in pyjamas, reading five year old Peppa Pig annuals. On a school morning I would immediately have had to switch into sergeant-major mode, and start organising them into a state where they could leave the house, but in the holidays I can just leave them to it.

reading peppa

We’ve already had some nice summer treats as well. On the day school broke up, the mums of a couple of Anna’s schoolfriends and I took the children to a local ice-cream parlour for some ludicrously over-sized sundaes, followed by a trip to our local playground (somewhere I feel I have spent more than enough time in the least week!). We met up with more friends there, and I truly love the ‘school’s out for the summer’ atmosphere that prevails in our local park at the end of term, with both parents and children giddy with relief and slightly high on sugar.

We’ve had one of Anna’s friends round for tea, and spent a lovely day with two of my NCT friends and their kids. We don’t live particularly near, and the demands of school and work mean that we don’t get to see each other very often, but it was really special to catch up, and to see these 8.5 year olds, who have known each other since they were a few weeks old, figure out a way of getting along now, and of involving their young siblings as well.

I also made a window of time when husband was at home to take Anna out to Pizza Express for a mummy and daughter lunch, which was very lovely and civilised. We have been to the library to register for the summer reading challenge – which my little bookworm then completed in 24 hours flat.

The reason she managed to read 6 books in 24 hours brings me onto one of the less good bits of the last week. Sophia developed some kind of virus which meant she wasn’t well enough to go anywhere except an emergency 7pm visit to the local out-of-hours doctor when her temperature spiked to nearly 40 degrees, and she refused to eat, drink or take calpol and became all limp and floppy. That was fun. Luckily husband was off work – we’d planned a family day trip, but he wasn’t very well either, and Sophia certainly wasn’t well enough, so the silver lining was that we all hung out at home together in a way which is quite rare and was very nice and relaxing. Anna read a lot of books, and we did some cooking and baking together. A fair amount of telly was watched, and there were lots of sleepy sofa cuddles, and some fun play in the garden once Sophia was feeling a bit brighter.

co-operation

The thing I find hardest is the lack of a moment to myself, and I really need those moments to keep sane and calm. Both children are chatterboxes, and don’t always (ever) respect the other’s right to finish what they were saying before launching in with their own anecdote. Sometimes they get on very well, and Anna is incredibly patient and loving with her little sister, but inevitably the moment comes when Anna’s patience is pushed too far, or one of them gets a bump, and then everyone is crying for mummy. I dispense cuddles, kisses and reprimands as necessary, and calm is restored…until next time. On a repeat cycle for 12 hours straight it gets a little bit wearing.

We’re off on holiday with my parents tomorrow, which is eagerly anticipated by both children. Sophia has been telling everyone who will listen that she is going to the seaside with Nanna and Grandad to build sandcastles. Unfortunately husband can no longer join us as planned, as he has hd unavoidable work commitments come up, and so I am having to pack extremely light as I have to manage both children, the buggy and all the luggage on a train by myself. There’s also the little matter of entertaining the ferociously energetic 2 year old all the way to North Wales. I’m armed with sticker books galore, and am about to go and pack an enormous array of snacks, which will range from the downright virtuous (cucumber sticks, cherry tomatoes, raisins) to the moderately acceptable (dry cheerios, crackers, plain biscuits) and then by Chester I fully expect to be doling out chocolate buttons with gay abandon.

Packing has had its own challenges, as Sophia is determined to help. Unfortunately her definition of ‘help’ (trying on everyone’s sunglasses, putting on swim nappies over her clothes and scattering round the house the objects I had just carefully assembled) doesn’t totally correspond with mine. Anna is now round at her friend’s house for the afternoon, and Sophia is having her nap, so I should be making the most of my free time to finish the packing, get the snacks ready, make a batch of soup to give everyone a healthy tea tonight and use up all the odds and ends of vegetables languishing in the fridge, and tidy the house, which currently looks like a bomb has hit it. However, I am ignoring all those things in favour of a sanity-saving hour writing my blog, and scoffing a chocolate muffin.

choc muffins

 

How to be good?

IMG_6234

What does living your best life mean for you, and how do you go about it?

One of the blessings, or possibly curses, of approaching middle-age is that I am suddenly much more able to see both sides of an argument and to realise that things are rarely black and white. Nowhere does this trouble me more than in working out how I try and balance the competing demands to live my best life.

What does that mean for me? Well, I want to be family-focussed, trying to be the best mother, daughter, sister and wife that I can possibly be. I want to be a good friend, someone that my friends can have fun with, but also turn to for support when they need it. I want to take care of myself, both so that I can live as long and healthily as possible, but also because I am slowly working out that if I feel better about myself then I am better able to take care of other people. I want to be a successful writer – defining success as giving pleasure to other people through my writing, making a modest amount of money from it, and where appropriate using it to highlight causes I care about. I want to live frugally and with as light an environmental footprint as I can reasonably achieve. I want to live ethically, mindful of the effect that my choices and actions have on the lives of others, and trying to make that effect positive wherever I can.

So far, so good. As a set of vague aims it works. But they’re so contradictory. Food, for example. Do I buy the healthy avocados I love, or do I resist because of the air miles and over-farming issues? Ethics and health dictate that I should buy organic dairy – better for the farmers, better for the cows, and no nasty antibiotics and growth hormones, but when you get through as much milk, cheese and yoghurt as my kids do, then it really isn’t a frugal option. I can see a diet plan which promises fill me up with super-foods and micro-nutrients galore, increasing my energy levels and vitality, but many of the ingredients won’t be fair-trade and the air miles will be horrendous.

I can be sitting with my children while they have their tea, when I get a whatsapp message from a friend having a bad day and needing some support. Do I ignore my children while I reply, setting them the bad example of being a slave to social media, and the not-so-subliminal message that they are less important than this metal box, or do I ignore the message for a couple of hours until after their bedtime? By which time I should either be pursuing a healthy life by doing some exercise or cooking a nutritious meal, or having a relaxing bath, or being a caring wife by chatting to my husband about his stressful day.

Three mornings a week my children are at school/pre-school, and I have a 2.5 hour window to myself. Do I use it to do some exercise? Or to work on my writing? Or to clean and declutter our home to make it a nicer and calmer environment for all of us? Or to batch cook some healthy food so that I have more time to spend with my family in the evenings, but we all still get well fed? Or to walk to the budget supermarket 30 minutes away to stock up on a wide range of healthy food at frugal prices? Or to visit the local, independent butcher, greengrocer, fishmonger, baker and cheese shop (all a 20-30 minute walk apart) to buy organic, fair-trade produce with generally lower food miles, but at budget-busting prices? Perhaps I should use the time to phone a friend I never get to catch up with, and have a proper, uninterrupted chat with her. Or have a coffee with a local friend. Or write to my local MP about one of the many political issues which trouble me at the moment.

I can get so over-whelmed by the decision making process that it is all to easy to end up slumped on the sofa, staring vacantly at my phone, my mind churning, and realise that 30 minutes have gone by without any productive activity at all.

Is this just me? How do other people find a balance between all the competing demands of ‘being good’? Am I over-thinking it? Am I missing an obvious solution, or do I have to decide on just a couple of priorities which are most important to me and focus on those? I am so interested to hear your views!

Fear of summer holidays – FOSH

saltwatersI first heard the term FOMO (fear of missing out) a couple of years ago. Referring as it does to social butterflies who have so many exciting invitations that they get stressed over which ones to accept or turn down, it doesn’t really speak to my current life stage.

No, four letter acronym I am suffering from is FOSH (fear of summer holidays). And if no-one else has coined it yet, then they bloody ought to have done, because it’s a real thing, people.

It’s fair to say that I usually approach the long summer holidays with mixed feelings. Part relief and excitement at the freedom from school runs, homework and forgotten PE kits, and actually spending time with my daughter without having to scream instructions at her every thirty seconds (Eat your breakfast! Clean your teeth! Wash your face! Don’t forget your book bag!), and part trepidation at what I’m actually going to do with her for six weeks. My husband points out that my response to this has generally been to manically overschedule, with a plethora of breaks away, day trips, playdates and planned activities at home, meaning that come the end of August I look back wistfully and wish I’d left more time for us to just hang out.

This year, however, FOSH has reached new levels, because not only is my 8 year old on holiday from school, but my 2.5 year old is on holiday from preschool! At the moment she goes to preschool on a Monday, Tuesday and Friday morning, and my MIL looks after her on a Thursday morning. This gives me a chance to do some writing, some household chores and a much needed break from the 24/7 demands of a toddler. I value these breaks like you wouldn’t believe, and generally feel I am a more patient, more creative, and more relaxed mother because of them.

Yesterday was Wednesday, our full day together. The day kicked off with a little light regurgitated-mouse-innard removal from the dining room floor before breakfast. To be fair, that was the cat’s fault rather than the toddler’s, but it set the tone for the day. Half an hour later I was picking up pieces of squidged orange and banana from under the high chair, with toddler still in high chair (schoolgirl error, when will I learn?), when she decided to grab a large chunk of my hair and pull. Hard. I couldn’t physically stop her, as my hands were covered in half-chewed fruit. I tried the voice of sweet reason, to absolutely no avail. I tried my best stern and forceful tone. Nuh-uh. In the end I had to just pull away, leaving a chunk of my hair clasped in her chubby little fist.

We went to a drop-in session at a local nursery, which was fun (lots of interesting toys, outdoor space and other children), and then back home to recommence the combination of coaxing, cajoling, bribery, threats and straightforward physical force to get her to do things like eat lunch, stop the kamikaze furniture surfing, wash her hands after using the potty, let me wipe her bottom after using the potty, have suncream applied, go down for a nap etc etc.

By the time she fell asleep at about 1pm, I was also exhausted. I had a quick break to eat my lunch and look at other people’s beautiful and organised lives on Instagram, and then cracked on with prepping some food and clearing the kitchen. When she woke up we played with her Peppa Pig toys and dolls house, and all was going well until she (more or less accidentally) whacked me in the eye with the sharp corner of a wooden doll’s house sink. In any other work place this would be a trip to  the First Aider, an entry in the accident book, and possibly an early finish. In SAHM world you just thank goodness the weather justifies sunglasses on the school run to hide the tear stains and the swelling!

After school we’re back to the cacophony of voices chattering away to me simultaneously, neither giving any acknowledgement that the other is speaking, or cutting me any slack if I don’t respond instantly and in full.

This is interspersed with the coax/cajole/bribe/threat/force routine in order to get tea eaten, bath taken, teeth cleaned, etc. And a bit more floor wiping, when, in excitement at having done a poo in her potty, the toddler jumps round the room, oblivious to fact that I haven’t yet cleaned her up, and every leap send another little splatter of excrement across the room.

Finally, it is 7.30pm, and the moment I heard husband’s key in the door I was off out of it, desperate to escape the four walls of the house and the ceaseless demands, and have a little walk by myself. By the time I got home, husband had miraculously got the small one to sleep and the big one showered and to bed. All that was left to do was pour a, frankly well-deserved, glass of wine, and cook our dinner, safe in the knowledge that today is a MIL day, and I would get three blissful hours of sanity saving time alone with my laptop.

But in the summer holidays, every day will be a Wednesday. Except that I will have both children and their competing demands with me all day, all the Under 5 activities are close, and when the toddler naps I will feel duty-bound to give the big girl some undivided attention, rather than flaking out and catching up on jobs. Excuse me while I scream rather loudly, please.

We didn’t plan an almost six year age gap between our children, but by and large, it has worked out pretty well. However, I fear that these holidays are going to test us. There aren’t that many things that an 8 year old and a 2 year old both want to do. And those that there are (playground, swimming, baking) require me to give all my attention to the 2 year old, in order to ensure that she doesn’t destroy herself/anyone else/the house, leaving the 8 year old feeling a bit grumpy and neglected, and me feeling more than a bit guilty. When you throw in the demands of potty training, and the fact that toddler only really naps well in her cot, and if she doesn’t get her nap, certainly if she doesn’t get it for a couple of days on the run, then she becomes unmanageably grumpy and difficult, then we’re more than a bit limited in what we can do.

It’s not all bad. We’re spending a week on holiday with my parents, and another week away with my MIL, plus almost a week of other family visits. That will be a change of scene (don’t think about the 6 hour train journey. Repeat after me, DO NOT think about the six hour train journey), and some extra pairs of hands to share the load. At the moment husband is working 12-14 hour days, but he is hoping that things may calm down a bit in the next few weeks, so he might be around a little more too.

As long as I firmly suppress any thoughts of Pinterest worth craft activities, wholesome outdoor fun as they play contentedly together, any nutritional intake over and above mini Magnums, or actually anything beyond basic survival, then I’m sure it will all be fine.

 

 

 

Mumsnet Postnatal Care Campaign

It’s hard to write this without sounding whinging, or ungrateful, or NHS bashing. And I’m none of those. Well, I’m definitely not ungrateful, and I absolutely think the NHS is one of the most amazing things about our country, although, to be fair, I probably do whinge a bit sometimes!

However, despite my massive gratitude for having had a healthy baby, and my recognition of the NHS as an incredible institution with millions of selfless, hardworking, dedicated staff, I want to write this piece to support the Mumsnet #betterpostnatalcare campaign, because it really, really, really matters.

I suffered, still suffer from to an extent, PTSD after a difficult pregnancy and horrible birth. None of that was anyone’s fault, really, just bad luck. However, I do believe that my sense of trauma and anxiety were massively exacerbated by my experience of post-natal care, or rather the lack of it.

I was due to have a planned c-section for medical reasons, but went into labour before the booked date. I had to wait overnight, in labour, for a theatre to become available. Halfway through the c-section, the epidural failed and I could feel everything. I refused a general anaesthetic because I wanted so much to be able to hold and feed my daughter, and so I was given massive injections of morphine to enable me to cope with the pain while the operation was completed.

Unfortunately the morphine affected my breathing and oxygen levels. I spent the next twelve hours needing continual oxygen, and observations every fifteen minutes.

Despite this, my husband was banished from the ward for two hours when our daughter was about 5 hours old, because it was no longer visiting time.

At 8pm that evening he had to leave us both for the night. I hadn’t slept for 36 hours. I had been in labour for 12 of those. I had had major surgery which had gone fairly traumatically wrong. I was still off my tits on morphine, catheterised and had only just had the drip and oxygen mask removed. Yet I was left for 14 hours to be solely responsible for my newborn baby. When she cried, and I pressed the bell for a nurse to come and help me lift her out of the crib so I could feed her, I was told off. I was told that it is important to mobilise after surgery, and she was my baby and therefore my responsibility.

I was too demoralised and intimidated and exhausted to argue. Instead I co-slept with my daughter in the hospital bed. I say ‘slept’ – she fed and dozed, as newborns do. I lay there, digging my fingernails into my arms to try and keep awake because I was terrified of falling asleep and suffocating her or letting her fall from the high bed. I know that co-sleeping can be perfectly safe, but I also know that co-sleeping whilst exhausted and drugged is not recommended by anyone. However, I was physically incapable of lifting her in and out of her crib, and I couldn’t leave her to cry all night without being cuddled or fed, and no-one would help me, so I had no choice. When I drifted off to sleep periodically I would startle awake 20 minutes later from an excruciatingly vivid nightmare that I had suffocated her. My pulse would be racing and I would be bathed in terrified sweat as I checked she was ok, and then redoubled my efforts to stay awake. These nightmares continued for months afterwards; I still have them occasionally 2.5 years on.

The next morning, my husband still wasn’t allowed back on the ward until 10am. A midwife came in to remove my catheter, and told me to go and have a shower, alone, and remove the dressing from my c-section wound.

It was now 48 hours since I had slept properly. I asked the midwife if someone could keep an eye on my baby while I showered. She looked at me like I was mad, and said “she’s not going anywhere, you know” and left it at that. I asked if I could wait until my husband arrived, and was told the dressing had to be removed within 24 hours of the operation or it would become infected.

I went to the shower. I felt faint. I tried, and failed, to remove the dressing which was stuck to my stitches with dried blood. I felt even fainter. I sat on the floor of the shower, blood pouring out of me, and cried my eyes out. I have never felt so lost, so lonely, so abandoned. For weeks afterwards I was terrified of having showers and touching or seeing my scar, even in the safety of my own home.

When the obstetrician did her ward round I confessed that I hadn’t been able to remove my dressing. She did it for me, and was horrified that I had been told to do it myself. She was also adamant that, 12 hours after a c-section, it was absolutely acceptable to ask for help lifting the baby in and out of the crib.

I begged to go home that day, but wasn’t considered well enough. I didn’t tell my husband or parents when they visited what the night had been like. I just couldn’t talk about it. In fact my daughter was 18 months old before I could speak about it at all. Watching my husband leave that second evening was so bleak. I wanted to be happy; I had my much longed for, long awaited, perfect and adorable baby, but I was so scared and traumatised that I just couldn’t enjoy her.

It is unbelievable to me that, in the 21st century, we see fathers being able to spend the time immediately after birth with their partners and new babies as an optional luxury rather than a necessity. Post-natal care seems to be caught in a cleft stick, with hospitals too short-staffed and under-resourced for nurses and midwives to be able to help and support mothers postnatally, but fathers and other family members not allowed to be there the whole time, especially overnight, leaving mothers and babies totally vulnerable and unsupported.

We know that breastfeeding rates are poor in the UK. We know that rates of postnatal mental illness are high. It seems self-evident that poor post-natal care in hospitals is a huge factor in both of these, and I very much hope that the Mumsnet campaign leads to some dramatic improvements. Because there are many excellent reasons why my husband and I now consider our family to be complete, but the fact that I am too scared ever to contemplate another stay on a postnatal ward really shouldn’t be one of them.

 

This post is entirely my experience of giving birth at the end of 2014, but it was written to support the Mumsnet Campaign to improve postnatal care for all mothers and babies. Click on the link if you would like to get involved.