Starter for ten

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Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

My eldest girl was ten last weekend. Her birth was, hands down, the best day of my life. (I was equally thrilled at her little sister’s birth 6 years later, but the day itself was somewhat compromised by the whole epidural-stopping-working-mid-caesarean section thing). I was 28 when she made me a mother, and it felt like that was what I had been waiting my whole life for. And I was right. Having my children has made me complete. I can’t imagine my life without them, and I feel in my bones that having them, loving them, raising them is the greatest thing I will ever or could ever do.

It’s not that I think women should be mothers if they don’t want to, or that they should want to, or that being a mother is the most important thing anyone can do, it’s just that’s the way it is for me. I remember being about 15, and having one of those intense conversations about the future you have at that age, with one of my closest male friends. He said that he didn’t really want children, couldn’t see the point and felt that life as a child could be so tough he didn’t want to deliberately inflict that on someone else. But then he looked at me, and said “I’d have kids if I ended up marrying you, though. It would be cruel not to – you were just born to be a mum”. Reader, I didn’t marry him. But I remember that statement as one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me, even though I don’t think he even particularly meant it as a compliment.

Despite this sense of maternal vocation, I don’t want to fall into the trap of living my life solely for and through my children. It’s not healthy for them, and it certainly wouldn’t be good for me. Last week was International Women’s Day, and the theme was balance. That is something I am striving for in my life, although I’m not sure I always manage to achieve it. I am a mother. I love my girls so much it hurts, I would do anything for them, and they will always be my first priority. However, I am also a writer, a wife, a friend, a daughter, a sister, a citizen, a woman. A woman who wants to go for walks without stopping to pick up every stick, walk on every wall and listen to a constant stream of chatter. A woman who loves a long lunch or shared bottle of wine with a friend, or a theatre trip with her husband. A woman who would like to earn some proper money of her own. A woman who wants a place in the world unprefaced by the words ‘A’s mummy’.

The jump from one to two children skewed the balance for me. I haven’t published a book since my youngest was born, and I feel that the very differing demands of a 10 year old and a 4 year old often threaten to squeeze me out entirely. Finding the balance is elusive, and the moment I feel I might have achieved it, one of them suddenly has a high fever or a medical appointment or a workshop at school, and my carefully contrived house of cards collapses around me.

Ten years out of the formal workplace feels like a bit of a wake-up call to try and assess where things are going for me for the next ten years. In another ten years time I will have a 20 year old and a 14 year old, and be heading for 50 myself. I’m no longer naive enough to imagine that parenting will be magically easy by that point. Although some aspects of mothering a child who now (generally) sleeps through the night and can wipe her own bum and fasten her own shoes are undoubtedly much easier, there are new issues all the time. My big girl is intelligent, creative, loving, thoughtful, sensitive, and all together delightful, but helping her cope with the challenges presented by being neuro-divergant  (she has dyslexia and dyspraxia) in a neuro-typical world is far from easy, and I regularly have to put myself outside my non-confrontational and people-pleasing comfort zone to play the role of Mama Bear and fight for what she needs.

I am lucky that, at the moment, I don’t have a financial imperative to work. I know that makes me immensely privileged, but the downside to it is that anything I take on has to be sufficiently worthwhile to ‘justify’ time away from family life. The balance I am seeking is between being able to always prioritise my children and their needs, and enjoying them at the ages they are, whilst also clawing back some kind of independent life. It’s a work in, very slow, progress. Ten years in I can see that being a mother is everything, but it isn’t necessarily enough.

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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.

 

My February Books

Bit late posting my February books, but my excuse is that there was a very important 8th birthday this weekend, so I’ve been extremely busy baking cakes, wrapping presents and escorting a small bunch of delightfully over-excited children to Build-a-Bear workshop! It all went really well,  Anna has had a lovely time, and I can now start to focus on other things again, which means getting some blogging done.

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Happy Families by Janey Fraser

Nothing new year means no new books (with an exception for e-books), so as well as regular visits to the library and re-discovering old favourites, I’m keeping my eye out in charity shops. I picked this up during a browse one morning, but I think it will probably be getting re-donated as I didn’t particularly love it. It was a light read with some interesting characters and situations, but I felt there was a bit too much going on to be able to sink into any of the storylines properly, and some of them didn’t feel totally convincing.

Hurrah For Gin  by Katie Kirby

I follow Katie’s hilarious cartoons depicting the ups and downs of modern parenthood on Facebook and Instagram, and actually bought this book as a Christmas present for a friend I felt would appreciate it, but hadn’t actually read it myself, so was thrilled to spot it on the shelf at my local library. As bad luck would have it, Sophia came down with what turned out to be an ear infection that very night, and so I read this during the many, many hours I spent between 10pm and 6am trying desperately to soothe her to sleep instead of sleeping myself. It couldn’t really have been a more appropriate read, and as well as making me laugh, it also helped me feel I wasn’t alone in this midnight madness called motherhood.

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie

Regular readers of my book blogs will know that I am a huge Agatha Christie fan. This book is my secret shame. Amongst Christie aficionados this is generally considered to be one of her worst novels – but I absolutely love it! It is an adventure story, rather than pure detective fiction, and I just love it for the sense of period and atmosphere. When I read it I feel I am living in the roaring 1920s, about to discover a clue to an exciting mystery and immediately head off to South Africa on a luxury passenger ship. Which isn’t an embarrassing thing to admit to on a public blog. At all.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

This was a birthday present from my mum as she knew that for ages I have been dying to read Sophie Hannah’s modern Poirot novels. I love Jill Paton Walsh’s continuation of Dorothy L Sayers’ Peter Wimsey novels, and I was very excited to think that this might be an opportunity to read some new ‘Agatha Christie’ novels, but it didn’t quite work out like that. I thought this was a great detective novel – gripping and compelling – but to me it wasn’t a Poirot novel. The character of Poirot as depicted by Sophie Hannah just didn’t resonate with me at all, and so the only way I could enjoy the novel was by reading it as a stand-alone book, and not thinking of it as a Poirot novel at all.

False Colours, The Grand Sophy, A Civil Contract and Friday’s Child by Georgette Heyer

February was a bit of a mixed month for me. The first part of it was lovely – I had a great birthday with lovely presents, a fantastic day out around London with my little family and a great dinner out with husband and friends. Then it was half term and I chilled out with the girls in Liverpool, which was lovely. Then somehow I lost my mojo a bit. After struggling a lot last year with mental health, I have been feeling much better in the past couple of months, but then had a bit of a relapse for some reason, and it has necessitated self-medicating with vast quantities of Georgette Heyer. These brilliantly witty period romances have to be the ultimate comfort reads, and they seem to be doing the trick to get me back on track, so I might try and expand my reading horizons again soon. In the meantime, if you haven’t read Georgette Heyer, just do yourself a favour and get your hands on one as soon as possible!

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.

Ups and Downs

The last week or so has been a mixed one. This time last week, Friday afternoon, I got a call from school asking me to pick Anna up because she wasn’t well. The poor baby was in such a state, with a headache so bad she couldn’t move without crying, a stratospherically high temperature, and so drowsy she was drifting in and out of sleep mid sentence. Being a mother and a worrier and a consumer of one too many public health campaigns I immediately thought ‘Meningitis!’ and rushed her off to the doctors. He agreed it could, possibly be viral meningitis, but was pretty confident it wasn’t the ultra-nasty bacterial one, and thought that most likely it was just one of those generic viruses kids come down with, and the only prescription was Calpol, fluids and rest.

We had a very bad night with poor Anna, and then, inevitably, her sister developed a high temperature the next day. That night they averaged a wake-up every two hours between them, and husband and I were like crazed jack-in-the-boxes jumping up and down to look after them. The following night Sophia got croup, which is so horrible for baby and parent. We finally got her sorted and to sleep at 2am, and of course Anna woke up in tears at 5.45am. Add the cumulative lack of sleep to days spent pretty much entirely in the house with two (understandably) grumpy and whingey children, and to be frank you get a grumpy and whingey mummy as well.

However, focussing on the positive, there have also been some lovely bits this week. Sophia is never normally still for more than a second, but being under the weather meant that she was willing to snuggle on my knee for two whole episodes of Charlie and Lola. My parents came down for a brief visit so I was able to have a proper catch up with them, and my dad drove us to our local Mothercare  and Early Learning Centre superstore, which also has a Costa, and after three days entirely in the house this trip felt pretty much as exciting as my first inter-rail round Europe!

By yesterday Anna was back at school and Sophia was well enough to leave with my MIL for a few hours, and so I had a fantastic writing session. #Book3 is about three quarters complete now, in draft form at least, and I’m really pleased with how it’s going. puddlesPlus, having that time away from the children to do something just for me recharges my batteries immeasurably, and yesterday afternoon I felt like Super Mum; booking appointments for both children at opticians and dentists, putting Sophia’s wellies on and taking her out to splash in the puddles, getting both of them to eat salmon, cauliflower and leeks for their tea (a cheesy sauce and some mashed potato can hide multitude of superfoods!), and then helping out a mum friend by picking her daughter up from after school club and looking after her for a while because she and her husband were unavoidably delayed.

I am slightly prone to getting despondent when things start going badly, and this week has been  good reminder that I should try and see the cup as half full more often, and realise that some things going pear-shaped doesn’t necessarily mean that everything else will do likewise.

muffinsHopefully this weekend will be more enjoyable than last – I’ve just kicked it off by making a batch of a friend’s favourite muffins for his birthday, and doubling the quantities so we get some too! The house smells warmly chocolatey and there is cake to be eaten, so we’re off to a good start!