Bye bye baby stage

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My baby girl is about to turn three. Not such a baby anymore. She is my little miracle, my rainbow baby. Conceived after a series of miscarriages, carried when the specialist team had told me there was only a 40% chance of me carrying a healthy baby to term. Birthed via emergency c-section when the epidural failed and left me able to feel everything. Raised as I have battled Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and post-natal anxiety and as we made repeated trips to A&E and assorted tests when she suffered siezures which were absolutely terrifying as they happened, but have thankfully turned out to be harmless.

My eldest daughter transformed my life by making me a mother and teaching me the true meaning of unconditional love; my youngest has taught me about the tenacity of hope, completed our family and filled the hole in my heart. She has made me both infinitely stronger and infinitely more vulnerable than I could have dreamt possible.

Her third birthday is also going to mark the end of our extended breastfeeding journey. I never intended to feed her for this long, but it has been absolutely the right thing for both of us. She is feistily independent, and I love that nursing her is one of the few times she will completely relax into snuggles and into admitting a physical need for me. A couple of weeks ago she had a throat infection and became horribly dehydrated because it hurt her to swallow– breastmilk might just have saved her from hospitalisation. However, the time has come. I have talked to her about how bigger girls have their bedtime milk in a cup (like her sister), and she seems enthusiastic about that. Twice in the last week she has declined her bedtime feed; maybe I have already breastfed for the last time without knowing it. She is ready, and so I must be too. Part of me is. The part which would like some pretty underwear and a bit more freedom. But another part of me is very sad at the ending of such a wonderful phase in my life.

She moved into a bed last month, so I have already tucked a baby of mine up in a cot for the last time. She is well on the way with potty training; soon changing a dirty nappy will be a thing of the past (I might not be quite so nostalgic about this one). Her speech and vocabulary improves daily. I used to be Mee-mee, now I am Mummy, before I have time to blink I will be Mum. She loves going to pre-school three mornings a week so much that, from January, we will be increasing this to 15 hours a week. This will give me more time for myself which I badly need, mainly to get my writing career, which has been somewhat in abeyance for the last three years, back into gear. But it also means she will spend a significant proportion of her week away from me, and I know I will miss her.

That is the problem with her getting bigger. I know that all these last times are last times forever, because I won’t be having any more babies. While on one hand knowing that I am extremely lucky to have two healthy daughters growing up, I never expected parenting to be such a bittersweet series of tiny losses. Tomorrow I will lose my two-year old daughter. I know that the three-year old will be just as loveable, I know that there are many more adventures we can share as she gets older, I know that it is my job as her parent to encourage her development and independence – and I am so proud of every new little achievement.

Tomorrow I will put on my big-girl pants and I will blow up balloons and give presents and bake a birthday cake with a huge smile on my face as I celebrate the wonderful, funny, strong-willed, kind, determined and loving little girl that my baby has become.

But right now I just want to stop the clock and hold my precious baby close while she is still just a baby.

 

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Gratitude

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Husband and I were talking over dinner last night, and somehow the subject of who we were most grateful to came up. We challenged each other to name the five people in our lives to whom we felt we owed the most gratitude, excluding people we were related to. It was a thought-provoking discussion. After a little consideration, my list, in chronological order. looked like this:

  1. Mrs Wadsworth – she was my English teacher in years 9, 10 and 11, and she really inspired me with the love of the subject I went on to study at university. I had always loved to read, but she helped me to go further, to think about and analyse what I had read, and to get more out of reading by doing so. She gave me confidence in my ability. She also gave my friend and me a catchphrase we regularly use to this day – “Don’t worry, just work”. This was in the run-up to our GCSEs when it was easy to get paralysed by panic, and to spend longer working out your revision timetable than actually revising. Mrs Wadsworth’s breezy “don’t worry, just work” was excellent ‘get on and bloody do it’ advice, which I still remind myself of frequently when I have a difficult or unpleasant task I am anxious about. Stop fretting and get it done!
  2. Mrs Wilson – was my Head of 6th Form. It was she who persuaded me to go to Merton College, Oxford, for a student open day when I was in Year 12. I was highly sceptical, convinced that Oxford would be snobbish, elitest and not for people like me. However, Mrs Wilson stuck to her guns, and in doing so did me one of the biggest favours of my life. It only took ten minutes wandering round Merton’s exquisitely beautiful quads and garden for the chip on my shoulder to vanish, replaced by a steely determination that this is where I would study. I succeeded, and had three incredibly happy years, made some amazing friends, and met the love of my life.
  3. Jo Naylor was the Infant Feeding Advisor at the hospital where Anna was born eight years ago. For one reason or another we didn’t get off to the best start with breastfeeding, and I found many of the midwives looking after me to be unhelpful at best. But Jo was amazing. Warm and caring and sensitive, but also sharing my total bloodyminded determination that this baby was going to be breastfed. She gave me confidence in my body and in my baby when I needed it most. She taught me to express and finger feed so that I could be sure of Anna getting some food, even before she was able to latch on properly. She visited me several times a day when I was in hospital, and then came to see us at home afterwards. We got there, and I am so grateful to her because breastfeeding my babies has given me some of the most precious memories of my life, as well as hopefully getting them off to the healthiest start possible.
  4. Professor Lesley Regan – runs the Miscarriage Clinic at St Mary’s Paddington. We were referred here for investigations after my third miscarriage. I saw many lovely junior doctors and nurses, and had a plethora of scans and blood tests, culminating in an operation to see what was going on in my slightly defective womb. They discovered that half my womb was actually missing, a condition known as a unicornucate uterus. The doctor who performed the operation and gave me the results was incredulous that I had already had a full term pregnancy, and was extremely pessimistic about my chances of doing so again, and I was heartbroken. We then had an appointment with Professor Regan herself. She looked at my notes, and commented that she would never have believed my anatomy to be compatible with carrying a healthy baby to term. However, she said, you’ve done it once, so I don’t see any reason whatsoever why you can’t do it again. Those words imbued us with the confidence we needed to try again, and risk putting ourselves through the heartbreak of miscarriage again. She also advised us, contrary to our inclination to wait for a few years to let ourselves heal mentally, that I was nearly 33, that I wasn’t particularly young in child-bearing terms, especially as I had had complications, and that we should get on with it. I was pregnant with the baby who turned out to be Sophia two months later. I didn’t see Professor Regan again, but her clinic was then fantastic at supporting us through those tense and panicky early weeks of pregnancy.
  5. Francesca Best – Francesca was the commissioning editor at Hodder and Stoughton who made the decision to publish my first novel, Two For Joy. This achievement is one of the things I am proudest of, and I will always be grateful to Francesca for spotting my potential and giving me the chance. She was also a brilliant editor to chat with and work with and helped me bring my work up to a standard I wouldn’t have believed possible, and which, indeed, wouldn’t have been without her input.

So there’s my top five! Of course it’s an artificial list in many ways, because the rules of our game excluding family meant that I had to miss out many of the people (my parents, grandparents and husband spring to mind) to whom I actually owe the biggest debts of gratitude for their constant and ongoing support and inspiration. I am also lucky enough to have many friends to whom I am grateful for many things, but the five people above are ones who gave me what I needed at crucial pivot points in my life, and indeed have influenced for the better the whole course of my life.

What about you? Who are the people who have made the the biggest difference to your life, and to whom you are most grateful?

This too shall pass: Advice for new mums

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Image from Science News

I was talking to someone yesterday who was talking about a friend of hers who has just had her first baby and is feeling extremely overwhelmed and sleep-deprived.  I sympathised so much, because I found the adjustment to motherhood a real shock, going from being a bright, independent woman in charge of my own destiny and good at what I did, to being an exhausted wreck, totally controlled by the mini-dictator I’d gestated and with no clue what I was doing. Having now been there, twice, it made me think about what advice I wish someone had given me, and what the best things are you can do to help new parents:

Advice for new mums:

1. This too shall pass. Every phase, however draining, dispiriting or demoralising it is at the time, will pass. You will sleep again. You won’t spend all eternity breastfeeding on the sofa in posset-stained pyjamas. Just grit your teeth and repeat it as a mantra.

2. Keeping a brand new and totally dependent human being alive is a full-time, 24/7 job. Do not beat yourself up about all the other things you aren’t doing. So…

3. …Don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for help. If you possibly can, get a cleaner, just for the first few months. Now is the time for takeaways, ready meals, and beans on toast for tea. When friends come round, don’t be proud, ask them to unload the dishwasher or pop some clothes in the tumble dryer.

4. Chocolate is your friend.

5. If your baby is getting fed and a few cuddles and is in a relatively clean nappy then you’re doing your job just fine, even if it doesn’t feel that way.

6. Try and get out of the house at least once a day. Even if it’s just to the corner shop. A bit of fresh air will give you a new perspective, and might help with baby sleep as well. But make it an expedition for you – a new baby doesn’t need anything except cuddles and the odd lullaby, so unless you particularly fancy baby massage or baby music classes or baby yoga, then I’d save those activities for when the baby is older and just go and have lunch or coffee with a friend.

7. Now is not the time to worry about ‘getting your body back’. You have just grown an entirely new human being and, if you’re breastfeeding, are exclusively responsible for keeping it alive. You probably aren’t getting much sleep. This is one of the most demanding things you will ever do. Wear comfy leggings and forgiving tunics and eat cake.

8. That moment at 3am when they haven’t stopped cluster feeding for six hours, or when they’re crying and crying and crying and you’ve no idea why, or when they’ve just done an explosive poo all over your last clean outfit, and you scream in rage and frustration that you’ve made a mistake, you wish you’d never had a baby – normal. Totally normal. Doesn’t mean you’re not a good mum. Doesn’t mean you don’t love your baby. Doesn’t mean you really have made a mistake. It just means you’re exhausted  and overwhelmed and adjusting to the biggest change of your entire life.

9. After the first few days, if breastfeeding is still really hurting, you need to get some help. It shouldn’t be painful, and there is loads of support available. Your local children’s centre, NCT, La Leche League, National Breastfeeding Alliance – ask for help. But, if you hate breastfeeding, and it’s making you miserable, and you’re reluctant to pick your baby up in case they want feeding, and you feel sick with dread at the thought of doing it for the next six hours let alone the next six months then stop. You might have had a baby, but it’s still your body, and you don’t have to do something that you hate. Your baby will be perfectly fine with formula, and a stressed and unhappy mum won’t make for a happy baby.

10. You know all those people who tell you to “make the most of it” and “treasure each moment”? Ignore them. NO-ONE who’s actually going through it treasures bleeding nipples or surviving on a few hours broken sleep a night, or being constantly covered in bodily fluids. BUT in months and years to come, time will place a soft-focus Instagram filter over your memories, and you suddenly will treasure them. I get a warm glow as I think of sitting in a chair in the corner of my bedroom, breastfeeding my firstborn, gazing out of the window and watching dawn break and revelling in the feeling that me and my precious girl were the only people  awake in the world at that moment. That’s over seven years ago. Did I feel like that at the time? Hell no. At the time I was barely awake, and the two functioning brain cells I had were engaged in frantic calculations as to how much sleep I might manage in the rest of the night. “So, if she feeds 20 mins this side, and then 20 mins the other side, and then it takes me 1o minutes to wind her, then I rock her to sleep, I should be able to settle her by 4.30am,  and then she might sleep for two hours so I could…” etc. But that’s not the memory I treasure now. You don’t have to worry you’re not enjoying it as much as you should be because hindsight will paint the whole thing with a wonderful rosy glow.

How to help new parents:

1. Don’t question or criticise their decisions relating to the feeding/sleeping/comforting/play  routines of their child. So, you think breast-feeding is better, or that bottle feeding would give the new mum a break? Maybe you’re concerned that co-sleeping is dangerous or a separate room places the baby at risk? Did you read that dummies impede speech development or that cloth nappies are better for preventing nappy rash? That’s great, and if you have your own children you can put these theories into action, but when it’s someone else’s baby, keep your opinions to yourself and reassure them that they’re doing a great job. If you are specifically asked for advice then you can share your views, but still proceed with caution!

2. Don’t ask if they want help, just lean in and do something practical. The first time my friend Jenny came to see me and my firstborn she took one look at me and told me to go to bed. I came up with all the reasons I couldn’t – mainly centred round the fact that the baby would need feeding. She ignored me, and shooed me off. I slept for a blissfully restorative three hours while she employed goodness knows what witchcraft to keep my daughter happily distracted.

3. Home-made food is often a more welcome gift than cuddly toys or cute booties (although they’re lovely too!). Take a meal which can go in the freezer, or a cake which keeps well in a tin and will provide 3am sustenance for the next week.

4. Let them talk about the bad stuff if they want to Don’t assume that just because they have the most delectable baby in the world ever that there isn’t stuff they’re struggling with. Let them talk about their traumatic birth, or moan about their exhaustion or confusion or problems breastfeeding, or the fact that they’re really missing work, and don’t say things like “oh yes, but this little one makes it all worth it, doesn’t it?”, because although it does, they’re probably feeling guilty enough already about not feeling totally happy the whole time, and they just need to vent.

5. Tell them they’re doing a good job! One of the things I found hardest was going from a life where I got constant feedback from managers or colleagues to one where it felt like no-one noticed anything I did. Someone noticing something nice I’d done with or for my baby and commenting on it could elevate my mood for days!

 

But if you feel that you’re not coping, that you can’t cope, that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, or you’re worried your friend is feeling that way, then get help. Post-Natal Depression is common, treatable and nobody’s fault. Any health professional worth the paper their qualification is written on will know that and will be able to get you the support you need.

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.

 

 

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.