Being a selfish mum

After weeks (months) of agonising, this weekend I took the decision to stop breastfeeding Sophia during the night. I will continue to feed her at bedtime and first thing in the morning for the time being, but I have come to the point where I need my nights back. Or at least the option of having them back. When I am crying with tiredness by 10pm I need to be able to say to my husband that he is on baby duty tonight, rather than him watching helplessly as I reach the end of my tether, unable to do anything because he is totally lacking in the boob department.

As a nervous first-time mum I stopped feeding Anna during the night at about 7 months, when a dietician told me she would become obese if I didn’t. Total nonsense, as I now know, and when I had Sophia I was determined that she would self-wean according to her own body clock, not a text book. Which is a great theory, but seventeen months later I have had enough. I’m not worried that she’s going to become obese, but I am worried that by continually substituting sugar for sleep to get me through the day, I am.

Last night could have been a lot worse. Sophia woke three times, as usual, but instead of a cuddle and a feed she got a stroke on the head, a murmured “I love you, but it’s sleep time now”, and her Baby Einstein lullaby CD switched back on, and each time she settled herself to sleep again within twenty minutes. My mum bought us this lullaby CD when Anna was a tiny sleep refusenik, so it has been the soundtrack to our nights for seven years now. Anna still likes it played at bedtime to help her settle, and we started Sophia on it at birth. We have two hard copies, and it is on the iPad, iPod, and both our iPhones. I’ve no idea if it aids sleep at all, I’m certainly not sure that my children are poster girls for it, but it has become an essential comfort blanket for all of us, perhaps husband and I even more than the children.

Would it be better for Sophia if I continued to feed her at night until she is ready to stop? Very possibly. Advocates of attachment parenting would argue that she will feel more secure if her needs are unquestioningly met, and that human babies evolved to sleep close to their mum, feeding as and when they needed, rather than fitting into the artificial constraints of a modern routine. On the other hand, I also think that Sophia (and Anna) will probably benefit from a mother who isn’t chronically sleep-deprived, and who gets a break occasionally.

And then there is also the selfish little voice whispering to me that,  perhaps, I don’t have to make every single decision based on what would be best for Anna and/or Sophia. That, just occasionally, it might be ok to think about what’s best for me.

I read somewhere that when you have a baby you lose your body and your mind, and that definitely resonates for me, but I’m now feeling ready to start the step-by-step process to regaining them.

 

 

Literal sunshine and metaphorical showers

Social media mean that inspirational statements, or cliches, or truisms – I think the terminology depends on how cynical you’re feeling that day – are everywhere. Some of them are more than a little twee. Others I really do think we can learn from. And, of all of them, the one I really feel I need to apply is the one about life not being about waiting for the storm to pass, but learning to dance in the rain.dancing in the rain

This weekend, the warmest and sunniest May weekend on record, has involved a lot of dancing in the rain for me.

It started inauspiciously on Friday afternoon. I had just settled Sophia for her nap and was about to work my way through a huge list of jobs which would leave the house organised and gleaming and me free to enjoy the weekend. Then my mobile rang, and I heard the dreaded words “Is that Anna’s mum? I’m calling from the office at school…”

Anna had an infected toe, apparently. I wasn’t massively sympathetic at first, assuming that it would be a blister from her new sandal.Only after she got home and I peeled back the plaster to take a look did I realised that it probably was infected, and I needed to a) be a bit nicer and b) take her to the doctors. By the time of our appointment, two hours later, she couldn’t put her foot on the floor without extreme pain. I ended up wheeling her round to the doctors in Sophia’s buggy, whilst carrying Sophia in the sling. I really appreciated the warm weather that walk.

We were prescribed antibiotics, so I manoeuvred us all to the chemist, and then home. We dosed Anna up, and then made the most of the sunny evening and my husband being home early to have shop-bought pizzas and salad for tea in the garden. And I managed not to fret about the list of undone jobs or Anna’s sore toe, or the fact that I hadn’t made the pizzas myself from scratch, and just enjoy that experience. It helped that I couldn’t see the chaos inside the house.

Poor Anna’s foot got worse and worse, and she had a really horrible night. Of all the plans we’d made for Saturday – husband had work to get done, we wanted to make the most of the weather, I still had all the housework to do – two of the family spending the morning in A&E wasn’t even on the short-list, but that’s what Anna and my husband ended up doing anyway. I tidied up a bit, and worried a bit more, and then realised that there was no point Sophia and I being stuck at home for the sake of it. I had missed breakfast in all the kerfuffle, so I decided that Sophia and I would walk round to our local cafe together. She enjoyed the walk. I enjoyed the freedom of being out without a pram. And we both enjoyed the babycino, apple and rhubarb juice and chocolate muffin. Yes, I know, she shouldn’t have had any chocolate muffin, but it was only a little bit. I was still worried about Anna, and felt sorry for them being stuck in hospital, but I also enjoyed a little window of self-indulgence with Sophia.

That evening my friend was due to babysit while husband and I went out for dinner. I agonised over whether Anna would be alright, but she was so exhausted after her broken night the night before that she was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. We were only going out locally, so decided to risk it, and I left my friend with a cup of tea and lots of admonitions to phone us if she was at all worried.

Husband and I enjoyed a glass of prosecco in the evening sunshine, and had just placed our food orders when my phone rang. Anna was still fast asleep, but it was Sophia who had woken up, inconsolable and seemingly in pain. I raced home to administer Calpol, breast-milk and reassurance, before sprinting back to the restaurant once she’d settled to sleep once more. We managed to finish our dinner and get home before she woke up again a couple of hours later. An unconventional model for a romantic night out and, given that I wore heels for the first time in months, I could have done with a bit less running, but I’m still glad we had that blissful hour sitting together in the sunshine.

By yesterday it was clear that Sophia had an ear infection. Anna’s sore toe had already put paid to tentative plans for a trip to the seaside in any case, and so we settled for a quiet day at home. Husband finally got his work done. Sophia was feeling so poorly she had an epic three hour nap, and Anna and I got to watch an episode of ‘Just Add Magic’ – her new favourite TV programme, and bake a cake together. Then with everyone Calpolled to the max, we put the littlest one in the pram, and the bigger one in the buggy, and wheeled them round to the garden of Vestry House Museum – our favourite local spot, and where we held our wedding reception – for a picnic. It was blissfully peaceful, and Anna lay and soaked up some sunshine, Sophia toddled happily on the grass and tried to eat daisies, even though she’d refused all other food all day, and I ate lots of grilled aubergines stuffed with goats cheese from our fab local Italian deli.

My tendency is to think that I will relax and enjoy myself as soon as. As soon as the house is tidy. As soon as I’ve lost a stone. As soon as Sophia is sleeping through the night. As soon as the weather gets better. As soon as whichever child is poorly at that moment gets better. This weekend I spent Friday afternoon carting a sick child and a grumpy baby to the doctors. Friday evening and night looking after a sick child who was in so much pain it made my heart ache for her, and debating with my husband if/when we should take her to hospital. Saturday looking after baby and tidying house while worrying about sick child. Saturday evening, which I’d been looking forward to for weeks, was interrupted by sick child #2, giving me someone else to worry about. Sunday was at home with two poorly girls whilst everyone else in the whole world (or on my Facebook feed anyway) was at the seaside.

But I actually managed to enjoy the windows of time between crises, and appreciate them all the more for their brevity, rather than writing the whole weekend off and planning to have fun next weekend, as soon as. Learning, in fact, to dance in the rain.

Out of Hibernation

Perhaps it is just the lighter mornings that make the difference. Forcing myself out of bed for the day when it is still dark just feels SO wrong. I’m a morning person, more or less, but the dark cold mornings of January and February really get me down. The weather is (shh, whisper it) slightly better this last couple of days as well, and there is definitely a certain softness in the air. I know, I know, it will probably be snowing before the week is out.

Whatever the reason, I feel like I am coming back to life. Participating in life rather than standing on the sidelines of other people’s.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I find my horizons shrink when I have a baby. To a large extent they have to, because keeping a tiny and totally dependent human being alive is fairly demanding, and doesn’t really allow much headspace for anything else, especially when you have an older child to take care of as well. But at nearly fifteen months, the umbilical cord is no longer tying me so closely to Sophia. She is toddling, feeding herself and starting to communicate –  I think ‘talk’ would be putting it too strongly, but she is getting very good at conveying her opinions! She doesn’t need breastfeeding during the day any more (let’s not talk about nighttime), which is another thing which frees me up considerably.

Suddenly I discovered that I wanted to get some kind of life back which didn’t totally revolve around the children. After my husband sensibly talking me down from the massive wave of guilt which overcame me at that realisation (“How can I want anything other than my precious babies? Am I really selfish? What about women who can’t have children and would give anything to have their lives limited in this way?), I decided to make a few changes.

laptopThe most significant is that my MIL has agreed to babysit Sophia sometimes so that I can start my third novel. The first of these sessions was last Thursday, and it was absolute heaven. I met my MIL at her local station, handed Sophia over for a play at Granny’s house, and ensconced myself in a cafe with my laptop. I already had a plot all worked out, and so actually managed to get a chapter and a half written in the time available. It felt amazing to be writing again, and as an interesting but positive side effect, I noticed that I had so much more patience and energy with the children that afternoon after having a bit of time for me.

I am also trying to make plans to see people. I know, radical.  Friendships have been on a back burner over the past year as all my time and energy has been focussed on my nuclear family, but I am missing my friends, and I am determined start seeing them again. We kicked this new resolution off on Friday by visiting a really good friend who I met through NCT classes when we were brand new first-time mums. We (and our babies) were inseparable for that first couple of years, but then life started to move on. She had a second baby, and then went on to set up her own business. I started writing. The children started different schools and evenings and weekends started to get eaten up with their social lives with their new classmates. Suddenly, from seeing each other several times a week, we were text message buddies. It made me sad on Friday to see how uneasy the children were with each other at first. Luckily it wasn’t long before they bonded over a ‘pizza picnic’, and were soon charging round the house having one of the noisiest games of hide-and-seek I’ve ever witnessed, and my friend and I munched chips and dips and gossiped, if not to our hearts’ content, then certainly a lot more than we’d been able to for a long time.Sophia bus

I’m also going to get out and about with Sophia a bit more during the week. This week we went to the London Transport Museum where she totally ignored the attractive and colourful toddler area in favour of toddling as fast as she could from one vintage bus to another and back again. She loved it, and I had really enjoyed my walk from Liverpool Street Station to Covent Garden – and we both enjoyed having lunch with husband afterwards.

So, that’s how I am dragging myself out of hibernation and back into the world. Working on a new book, trying to see friends more, and getting out and exploring the world again. What about you? Are you starting to feel those spring-time vibes, and does it inspire you to make some changes?

Twentieth Day of Advent: Me-time

Virginia Woolf famously declared that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. I am not financially dependent on my writing (which is just as well!), and although I don’t quite run to a room of my own, I don’t really feel lack of physical space causes me any problems. Perhaps because my writing doesn’t quite reach Ms Woolf’s literary standards, or perhaps because I am incurably nosy, but my favourite place to write is in a familiar, moderately busy cafe. When it is going well I get so immersed I don’t notice what’s going on around me, and when the Muse hasn’t visited then I can eat cake, eavesdrop and people-watch.

The thing which is lacking in my life at the moment is mental space, head space, me-time, call it what you will. Of course, this is the other side of the coin of that which makes me very happy indeed – my lovely daughters. I am also very happy that I get to be a stay-at-home mum and so see as much of them as possible. But if there is a downside, it is a lack of time to myself, for writing or reading or bathing or even going to the toilet. A joke has been doing the round on Facebook recently:

beautiful-pink-unicorn-10063789Santa Claus: So, Mum, what would you like for Christmas?

Mum: I’d like a beautiful unicorn please.

Santa Claus: Oh, come on, be realistic.

Mum: [sighs] Oh, ok. What I’d really like is five minutes to do a wee by myself and drink a cup of coffee while it is still hot.

Santa Claus: So, what colour unicorn were you thinking of?

There is probably a slightly manic edge to my laughter there.

I am in awe of households with children where both parents work outside the home. Their lives must be challenging in ways I can’t even imagine. But there just might be some benefits too. My husband habitually gets off the tube a couple of stops early and walks the last bit to work through a park. He’ll casually mention that he popped into Pret at lunchtime for a coffee and a sandwich. If he’s lucky enough to get a seat on the tube and manages to avoid being hit by the flying pig then he might read the paper on his way home. He misses out on stuff too, but I do envy those microscopic moments of time when he is only his own responsibility.

But there is an upside, other than all the quality time with my amazing children. No, I am not saying that in a sarcastic tone. The upside is that you become very good at making the most of the time you got, and it makes you disproportionately happy. Yesterday, husband, as he often does, volunteered to take Sophia with him when he took Anna to her swimming lesson. That meant I got over two hours to myself. During that time I made a macaroni cheese for tea, cleared the kitchen and washed up, vacuumed the dining room, living room, stairs, landing, our room and Sophia’s room, contemplated vacuuming Anna’s room and decided there was just too much stuff on the floor and so settled for making the bed and doing a quick tidy round, hung out a load of wet washing and put the dry stuff away, cleared a bookcase which Sophia had been perilously close to pulling over, found new homes for all the books and took the bookcase upstairs out of the way, wrote my blog post, and still had time to sit with my book and a sneaky slice of rocky road for at least ten minutes. Excuse me if this is over-sharing, but I even did an unaccompanied wee.

A lot of what I did were fairly mundane domestic chores, but just doing them by myself, while bopping along to some cheesy Christmas tunes instead of either simultaneously entertaining Sophia or stopping her throwing herself downstairs, or creeping round terrified I might wake her up, made me feel incredibly lighthearted. Having some space and a bit of me-time also meant that I felt much more enthusiastic and energetic about mothering when the children got back.

Today has been slightly different. Husband needed to do a bit of work this morning, so while writing this post I have also been making a frittata, super-glueing a dragonfly and watching the baby monitor wondering why Sophia is most definitely not asleep. I still feel pretty happy, though.

Fifth Day of Advent: Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding can be such an emotive subject on blogs and social media that I feel I need to caveat this post before I begin. This blog series is about things which make me personally happy. There are lots of things which are healthy or good for you or good for other people, which don’t make me happy in the least, and so will get no mention here (exercise, green juicing and taking my kids swimming spring to mind). Lots of women choose not to breastfeed or want to but aren’t able to, or do so but don’t enjoy it much. That is no-one’s business but their own, and this blog is certainly not trying to criticise or guilt-trip, I just want to talk about something which has been a significant and unexpected pleasure for me.

As a teenager and young woman I gave no thought to how I would feed any future babies I may have. Probably my underlying assumption was bottle feeding. I had been bottle fed, as had both my parents, and that certainly seemed to be the cultural norm where I grew up. When I was about twenty-three I had a job working in public health. My role was mainly in smoking cessation, but I was part of a small team of people responsible for promoting healthy eating, breast and cervical screening, breastfeeding etc, and breastfeeding became something I really considered for the first time. I learnt that there were significant health benefits to both mother and baby, and noted to myself that, when I had a child, I really must try it.

Fast forward five years or so and I am pregnant with my first baby and sitting in an appointment with my community midwife. She asks me how I intend to feed the baby. I am still somewhat ambivalent about breastfeeding, but announce that I intend to give it a go. She snorted slightly, and said “Well, it’s very hard work, you know. You probably won’t be able to.” At that moment my ambivalence hardened into a steely determination to feed my baby for at least three months if it killed me. There were moments when I thought it would kill me. Anna struggled to latch on at first, and so I had to express and syringe feed. I felt enormous, bovine and humiliated hooked up to the hospital’s industrial pump. Back at home when, aged about 6 days, she fed nonstop for nine hours I sat with bleeding nipples and tears pouring down my cheeks wondering what I’d let myself in for. We were lucky, however, to have the support of an angelically wonderful breastfeeding counsellor who got things sorted out for us pretty quickly. I always remember what she said to me: “The amazing thing about breastfeeding is that there is this little person you love more than anything in the world, and there is one thing they need more than anything else in the world, and you are the one person in the world who can give it to them.”

Picasso, Maternité

Picasso, Maternité

There were times when I found nursing frustrating. It meant I was always the one who had to get up in the night, there was no such thing as time off, and it was a long time before I could even leave the house by myself. Expressing never really worked for me, so pumping and bottle feeding wasn’t an option. However, for me, the advantages of breastmilk far, far outweighed the disadvantages. There was no faffing with bottles and sterilisers. Half asleep in the middle of the night I didn’t have to do anything more arduous than lift my pyjama top. It was always available, I couldn’t forget to take it out with me, and it provided instant comfort as well as nutrition. There was the satisfaction of knowing that it had plenty of health benefits for my daughter, but for me, it was the warm, loving intimacy of feeding that really made me happy.

I have heard some women say that their partners felt excluded by breastfeeding, or that they didn’t breastfeed because they were worried that he would. I was very fortunate because my husband was 100% supportive of my decision to breastfeed, and never seemed to feel in the least excluded by it. He would bring me snacks and drinks while I fed, take the baby to wind her and settle her afterwards, and, in the early days, would lie on the bed with us, curled protectively around me as I curled protectively round my feeding baby.

Happily breastfeeding came more easily to Sophia, so my nipples had things far easier second time around. She was a more restless feeder than Anna, though, and I was far more likely to find myself exposed to the world in the middle of a cafe/train/school playground. I am still feeding her now, although when she turns one shortly I am planning to drop daytime feeds and wean her onto cow’s milk in a beaker instead, just carrying on the early morning and bedtime feeds. I still love breastfeeding, but I am ready to have a little more freedom, and to be able to wear dresses which aren’t wrap dresses again!

I certainly never expected that breastfeeding would make me as happy as it has, but it has been one of the most enjoyable parts of nurturing and mothering my babies, and one which I feel enormously lucky and privileged to have experienced.