Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Family & Loneliness

This month saw the unvelining of a new study investigating triggers for loneliness in the UK. Motherhood was identified among the top causes of loneliness.

It's something I've been thinking about a lot these past few months, and 7 months into my 12 months of maternity leave/isolation unit, I feel like I've figured something out about myself, motherhood, and loneliness.

It's a cliche that all expectant first-time mothers envision motherhood in a manner that significantly deviates from the reality. On my part, I imagined maternity leave would allow me pockets of free time during the day to pursue my own projects. This didn't happen, because babies nap sporadically here and there, sometimes for just twenty minutes, or sometimes after crying for ages and leaving you completely exhausted. Maternity 'leave' is just another full-time job, in no way more flexible nor less demanding than your previous full-time job - in fact you constantly have to work night shifts and double shifts, skip lunch, come in hungover, sneak out for a quick personal phonecall while the boss is distracted, etc.

As well as underestimating how demanding of my time maternity leave would be (not motherhood, I knew motherhood would be hard, I just thought you got more breaks than you do), I was determined to make 'mum-friends' and get involved in local activities so as to avoid cabin fever and loneliness.

I did do this to an extent and it has been great, but there were also some issues:

  1. I'm an introvert by nature, so I found it quite exhausting to constantly expose myself to new people and to have to do 'an activity' each day if I didn't want to spend it in my livingroom talking to a human that has zero interest in anything I have to say. Sometimes all I wanted was to chill with an old friend I could make little to no effort with, confident in the knowledge they shared my sense of humour and could tell me about their life without giving me a compressed back story.
  2. You end up talking about the babies constantly, which at first was, in fairness, all I wanted to talk about. But now I find it really boring. Sorry, Francis - I love you but if I have to talk about whether or not you enjoy broccoli with one more person I might lose it.
  3. You still get no time off. You get to be with other sleep-deprived mums with tiny humans to look after, you can have solidarity and share advice and be supportive to one another, but you both have at least one baby to look after each so you won't be able to get a break from motherhood in these contexts. As the study reveals, rest is a key way to fight loneliness since low energy and stress are conducive to it.
I've been very lucky in that my father lives in London and is retired and very happy to be hands-on with the baby, so I've been able to get a lot of help from him, as well as my in-laws who are also local and very forthcoming with the babysitting. This has made a huge difference, and it has made me realise that a huge cause of loneliness in new mothers must arise from the fact that we no longer live in small, mutually-supportive communities centred around the family units that make them up. Most of us, especially in big cities like London, moved far away from our families for work reasons, and when we start our own family we find ourselves miles away from the very people that can help us with all things family-related, around whom we can be most relaxed and demanding.

When I became a mother I didn't suddenly become a self-sufficient parent, I didn't become a different person, I didn't stop being a daughter or a sister. There's a reason transition periods can so often lead to loneliness - transitions are gradual adjustments, and individuals require a lot of support to undergo them, as well as a rock solid foundation in order to still know the things about them that haven't changed. Nothing provides us with this base more than family. Being around family as a mother means I can also be looked after, I can learn new things from those I trust the most, I can make mistakes without feeling judged or embarrassed, I can do things slowly and gradually and with plenty of breaks. This is what made all the difference for me. Going to baby group or downloading the Mush app were an amazing source of friendship and support, but they weren't critical in the way my dad was when I needed someone to do bedtime so I could nap for two hours because I was falling asleep while holding the baby.

For us, it's really made us reassess everything - do we want to live in London where everything is a long train ride away, where there's endless variety and choice but no single community and social connections are often fragile and temporary? What kind of network do we want around us as our family grows and expands, and what kind of context do we want for our children to grow up with? It's a conundrum that faces parents across the country - rural vs urban, near folks vs near work, exposure to a wider variety of experiences vs a more close-knit but less varied community. There's no right answer, but for me one thing is clear: family is more important to me than ever.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Mother of all Lists - Mothering without my own

I guest featured on Clemmie Telford AKA peckham_mamma's brilliant blog Mother of all Lists.

You can read it here

The mother I want to be

I suddenly feel myself again. I can walk down the street on my own and not feel like I should be with the baby. I can go a whole minute not thinking about the baby. My clothes are mine again. I don't just mean I fit into non-maternity clothes again - I found that when I'd just had the baby I dressed slightly different, a bit more 'grown up'. It felt somehow wrong to wear Dr Martens and have weird coloured nails now that I was a mum.

I felt I should look like a mum in order to be a mum. I guess when I had a baby I felt pressure to prove to myself I was a mum. It wasn't enough to grow, deliver and raise the baby. It's not a question of being a 'good mum', but just being a mother seems to consist of more than the insane physical demands it makes of us. I felt as though my identity as an individual has to shift to make room for this new role, because you are a mother first and foremost.

Unlike being a wife or a daughter or sister or friend, 'mother' seemed to be a role that came at the expense of my selfhood. At the risk of sounding overly philosophical (read: pretentious), I guess part of me believed that being a mother is less about who you are to you and more about who you are to your child. I don't know why, because I don't define myself as daughter, sister, wife or friend in terms of how my parents, brothers, husband or friends perceive me. It's always been a question of what kind of person I want to be in those roles. But with motherhood it wasn't about what kind of mother I wanted to be. Come to realise it, it wasn't even about what kind of mother my son might want me to be that much. It's scary to admit it but it was about what society thinks a mother is. What other mothers think a mother is. I wanted so much to assimilate because I was scared of not looking or acting in a way that most people would recognise as maternal.

Then my baby turned six months and I started to feel myself again. In fact I felt an urge to be myself again.

Four mornings a week my dad watches the baby and I go to get a coffee by myself. It's not about easing my return to work, I've always found day jobs very disorientating and have never identified to them. But I do want to retain a space where I can discover and be myself.

And it's not because I want to be 'my own person', to recuperate the absolute independence I had before I had the baby - I know that's gone forever and I'm glad for it. Independence isn't what I want and never has been.

The reason I have these mornings is so I can be the mother I want to be. The mother I've always wanted to be. The mother my mother was in the moments where I didn't feel anything but love towards her. The mother who wears clothes that reflect her own tastes, who has her own definition of nurturing that doesn't look like a stock photo with only white people, who eats the food that makes her feel most alive, who reads and watches things that inspire her, who knows how and when to relax and how and when to work hard. Most importantly I want to be the kind of mother who inspires her children to be authentic in everything they do.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Six Changes Post Childbirth

My aunt told me it would take 18 months for my body to heal back to its usual state. At six weeks post partum I thought, 'nah, mine's already healed.' My stitches had dissolved and I'd gone for my first jog. Four months further down the line, I know I was nowhere near done healing - physically nor emotionally - and still got a long way to go. Here's how childbirth has changed me:

- I'm lighter than I was when pregnant but I feel fatter. Whereas before I could just cut out snacking and jog every evening to shed a few pounds, now it takes a lot of scheduling to go just 3 times a week and except my dinner after the baby falls asleep, ALL my meals are snacks.
- I'm more disciplined. If I don't do something when I have the chance, I won't get another opportunity for days. As a result, I've become way more efficient - this is the first time I've written more than 2 blog posts on a blog I've started!
- I'm more selfish. It may be surprising but before I had to care for another human 24/7 I felt quite guilty about spending a little too much on shoes or getting a haircut more than once every five years. Now I know that 'you can't pour from an empty cup' isn't just a new age mantra to sell yoga retreats, it's true.
- I'm more patient. I'm sure my husband will disagree but these days before nagging him about something I ask myself 'is this really non negotiable', and 90% of the time I keep quiet. (That's right Nick, you're only getting 10% of actual complaints!) If we do start arguing, I say I don't want to argue and we move on. This literally never happened before, but now I really do think 'life's too short' - kudos to those of you who didn't need to be responsible for another human to figure that one out!
- I have more energy. Yes - I'm way more exhausted, but I'm also doing 500% more. I never ever feel sluggish now, only happy or exhausted. This might be my favourite change.
- I'm happier. This is what I wanted, it's my vocation fulfilled, and there's no better feeling than doing what you know you want in spite of all your fears and doubts and hesitations. If I can successfully teach Francis one thing in this lifetime I hope it's to have the kind of faith that leads you to do what you know you are meant to do.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Dear Sally

I just watched Sally Phillips' documentary on Down's Syndrome screening, which I thought was excellent and if you haven't watched it I highly recommend. After I finished, I felt a strong need to get in touch with her to thank her. I have no idea how one does this - I guess I'd have to contact her agent or something? Anyway, I think really it would be more for my benefit than for her's, so in the end I decided to just write her a letter that I would publish here instead of try to send to her. It follows below.


Dear Sally,
Thank you for making me feel less like a crazy coercive anti-feminist by giving the pro-life position a more human and likeable face. I don't know if you identify as 'pro-life' yourself - I for one don't like the snide tone the term carries with it (are pro choice people anti life?) - but in essence what your programme portrayed one of the instances in which someone may be opposed to the right to choose, without coming across as preachy, judgmental or dictatorial, but still communicating the emotional charge that such a subject carries. Thank you.
My mother was open about the fact that she could not have brought a child with Down's Syndrome into the world, given the current state of society. She felt that the world was not a sufficiently accepting and loving place for someone with the condition not to suffer immensely. That's where she and I differ - I don't see anything wrong with suffering.
My mother died when I was eleven, and it was my experience of grief that brought me round to thinking that avoiding suffering needn't be the central aim of my life. In the years that followed her death, my world, along with my beliefs, my politics, my goals, changed immeasurably.
She had raised me to be critical and inquisitive. To trust my instincts and experience before dogma and tradition. To ask questions, to challenge the status quo. To wait until I understood and respected someone before meeting their demands. To hope for and work towards change. I remained this way at heart, but something else in me changed.
I became closed off. I felt angry. I felt like I had been deceived. She had passed on this idealistic agnosticism to me, this nondescript left-wing notion of 'one day things will be better', of working together for a fairer future, but she'd left out one crucial bit of information. The fact that, in the end, everyone dies. In the end, when death comes, it's not a compromise. It's not one you can wait out. It's as final as anything brutal. It comes, it takes, and it leaves you with less than you need. I don't think I'd understand this if it wasn't for her premature death, and this knowledge completely changed my understanding of what life is.
I started being critical of my own criticality. 'What if I'm wrong', I thought for what felt like the first time in my life. In the space of a few years I went from being a pro-choice, pro-euthanasia, broadly agnostic, basically atheist, human rights activist to a pro-life, anti-everything-under-the-sun, fully fledged Roman Catholic, let's-talk-less-about-human-rights-and-more-about-human-duties bigot.
I won't bore you with the details of my journey, that's not why I'm writing this letter. I'm writing to thank you, because for the first time since that tectonic shift in me occurred, watching your documentary made me feel like I don't need to conceal that side of me, like I don't need to be ashamed of my socially unpalatable beliefs.
Your documentary reminded me of what my mother raised me to be. Sure, she was fiercely anti-clerical and would have aborted a Down's Syndrome baby. But she would have been horrified to know the selective abortion debate had all but been shut down. She taught me to never be afraid to say what I think, to challenge dead dogma and trends. If she were still alive now I think your documentary would have made her really think, and she would have been the first to hear me out on my own position, disagreeing with me into the early hours. So thank you, for reminding me of who I am, of who she was, by being so brave as to be crystal clear about who you and Olly are in front a not always accepting, not always loving, world.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Whatever, I do what I want

Before Francis was born, I envisioned myself like..

Image result for yummy mummy style 

But instead it's been more like... 

Image result for whatever i do what i want 

The more time passes, the more I reach Cartman levels of giveashit. I don't mean by this that I don't care about my baby, I just care less about whatever the consensus tends to be, especially if it contradicts my instincts.

I've learnt two main things about having a baby:

1. Humans are herd creatures.
2. Babies want to be with their mothers.

One trend I've spotted - which I was fully unaware of before having a baby - is the trend to 'train' your baby to be less dependent on you. There is a rush of mothers who are being taught to help their baby to sleep through the night before they're even one year old, despite the fact that it has been agreed time and time again by child psychologists and medical professionals that solely breastfed babies are not equipped to sleep through the night - they're not physically nor developmentally ready to do so. Yet there's vast amounts of literature and an entire industry of courses dedicated to 'sleep-training', with the aim of getting your baby to sleep as many as 12 hours a night.

Part of the advice involves not allowing your baby to 'develop associations'. They shouldn't feed to sleep, nor suckle to sleep, nor fall asleep in your arms - lest they develop a 'bad' association and then become reliant on these things in order to fall asleep. The aim is for them to be able to fall asleep 'on their own', and to 'self soothe' if they wake up in the night.

This seems like a lot of pressure on new mothers. Not only do you have to keep a tiny human alive and content, you also have to try and get him or her not to rely on you too much.

On the one hand, the thought of a baby that falls asleep alone and self soothes is extremely appealing. I have often wanted my baby to be less dependant on me, in fact when you've been up for hours and you would like nothing more than for your head to hit the pillow and sleep, there is nothing you crave more than a baby that doesn't need you.

Since Francis was never exclusively breastfed, he doesn't behave like most newborns would if they are just breastfeeding, and he does often sleep long stretches in the night, allowing me to sleep until 6am. This has granted me so much more energy and sanity than I would have otherwise. I am, in many ways, glad about this. However, I would rather not feel any pressure to have energy, or sanity, or to 'feel myself' this year.

The increased trend to return to work in the first year of the baby's life means that there's a general social expectation that you will not be quite as drastically at a baby's beck and call for the first year as was generally understood to be the case when our grandmothers became mums.

The main problem with this more flexible perception of mothering as a less all-consuming role is that society has changed faster than nature: whilst it's understandable that we mothers might want to be mobile, sleeping a good five hours at night, eating a normal diet, having our body back, wearing non-stretch clothes etc. in the first year of the baby's life, it is not an easy feat, physically speaking.

I've learnt by experience that any attempt at being less solely dedicated to my baby causes quite a severe strain on my body and hormones. For example, the whole idea that you can 'express milk' to feed your baby when you're not there is hugely unrealistic - often it takes a few sittings of expressing (which takes about 20 minutes) to obtain a feed's worth, and you can increase the risk of engorgement (painful) if you're expressing on top of feeding. In my case, I have a huge amount of independence because I am not breastfeeding - but this wasn't by choice, and it caused quite a hormonal strain on me, since my body was producing the oxytocin for milk production which meant that when I weaned off there was a crash. This always happens when mothers wean babies off the breast, but if it happens later, at that point your baby is demanding less of you so you are more equipped to deal with a hormonal inbalance than you are in the first few months of your baby's life. Similarly, having menstrual cycle discomfort and hormonal changes while you have a newborn is also more difficult to manage.

Formula feeding, sleep training, hired childcare are all ways of affording mothers more independence, and it is each parent's choice to utilise these as they see fit. However, it will always be a compromise physically speaking. In purely physical terms, your body is geared towards no independence from your baby for those first twelve months. I wish I had been better educated on how to navigate this and balance the demands of modern life with those of a woman's timeless nature.

Staying with your baby the vast majority of the time seems to be physically and physiologically speaking, the most manageable thing - it means you can rest whenever the baby is resting and you don't have to feel like you have to be anything other than a mother. Of course this is very consuming, which also led to me realising that you are naturally expecting to be surrounded my family when you have a baby - so you can feel supported, less consumed by the baby but without having to look and feel socially palatable. Again, society has changed faster than nature in this respect, because while we still have a herd mentality, we now live very far away from our families, often in small flats in big cities surrounded by acquaintances we'd rather see with a full face of makeup on.

I don't know how best to approach this conflict: on the one hand I think I'd go insane if I didn't have any time for myself, on the other hand I wonder if I'm being unkind to myself and my baby by expecting too much too soon. All I know is the longer I'm a mum the more confident I grow in my instinct, and the more I embrace the all-encompassing, overwhelming, consuming, daunting, incredible role of being a mother.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Having A Baby Is Not Fun

Francis just turned 4 months. I have had zero time for blogging. He no longer just feeds and sleeps - if he's awake he wants to chat, to be out of the house, to look, touch, shout, explore. A friend texted me the other day asking if she should have a child, asking if it's really fun. I immediately replied 'no, it's not fun' and then realised how negative and gloomy that sounded. A lot of mums do find it very fun, but so far I haven't. I do 100% love it, but here's my idea of fun:
- Sunbathing with cocktails brought to my sun lounger followed by a leisurely dinner and some dancing
- Shopping in a foreign city
- Watching a comedy at the cinema
- Drinks with friends
- Getting my hair cut
I could go on, none of it involves looking after an infant.

Here's the opposite of my idea of fun:
- A day of museums followed by dinner alone and early bed time
- Office chit chat with someone who doesn't share my sense of humour
- Shopping in London
- Getting my legs waxed
- Work drinks when your work friends can't go

As you can see, fun is subjective - no doubt you won't agree with me on all points in either list. So you may well find having a baby to be fun. But for me, it's mostly boring.

It's boring holding a baby up - they're heavy and mostly do nothing except cry if you put them down. It's boring having to constantly sway or bounce because they haven't got the physical strength to move on their own but they still demand to move constantly. It's boring waiting for 45 minutes for them to settle down and fall asleep because they keep kicking their legs out of the cot so you need to keep an eye on them. It's boring placing them on their tummy every day trying to build their upper body strength. It's boring singing the same song to them because it's the one they find soothing. It's boring standing by the mirror for ten minutes so they can focus on their reflection for ages. It's boring spending so much time neither alone nor with people - mother and baby time is this weird limbo where you don't have to be 'on' socially but you can't be 'off' either.

As well as boring it's stressful. Even now as I type I'm fervently aware of the fact that he may wake up any minute and I'll need to interrupt. And that's without the additional stress of just wondering if you're 'doing it right'.

Having a baby is not fun. It's way better. Im doing something which is in no way entertaining and yet I wouldn't want to do anything else in the world. I am not at all looking forward to going back to work. I love being bored and exhausted and stressed and exhausted. Because when my baby learnt a few days ago to reach and touch my face (it takes them months to learn this 'skill'!) I almost couldn't breathe for how amazed I was at how amazed he looked to discover that he is real and I am real and we're both someone and he's not fully figured out who but he's gonna keep on working on it.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Old school Mediterranean vs. modern British parenting

I’m not sure if it’s the generational gap or the cultural gap, but I've noticed there is a vast difference between the parenting styles I see around me and the advice my family have been giving me the past few months...


Babies go to bed at 7. If your baby doesn’t go to bed at 7pm and sleep until 7am, he is what is called a ‘difficult sleeper’.

Babies don’t sleep and neither do you now.


‘Breast is best’ which means many mothers are aiming for an ‘exclusively breastfed’ (‘EBF’) baby. If you are in public you need to either ‘find a quiet spot’ to feed, or use a breastfeeding cover, or be somewhere ‘breastfeeding and pram friendly’, or politely leave your baby to starve.

Everyone mix feeds.


The baby will have a bath each evening, to ‘get him ready for bed.’ Some mothers read Gina Ford books without throwing them out of the window.

It is generally accepted that one should feed and wash one’s child on a reasonably regular basis.


There’s countless (pricey) ‘classes’ for mum and baby where your child is stimulated with shapes, colours and sounds appropriate to his age in such a way to encourage optimal development in your little one (‘LO’).

Until the baby is crawling you just need to focus on keeping it and yourself alive.


You’re not supposed to shout to your child. Mothers often soften the blow whilst reprimanding their toddler by using terms of endearment such as ‘sweetheart’ or explanations such as  ‘I know you’re upset, but…’


Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Smug AF

One of my absolute favourite mum blogs is Notsosmugnow.com by the very funny and talented Cat Sims. If you haven’t already read it, I recommend you start with her ‘About’ post – a very honest account of the shellshock that childbirth brings to any new mother’s life. As the title suggests, Cat is part of the group of women who have said no thanks to competitive, smug parenting in favour of an honest, supportive sisterhood where women can be open about the obstacles they face without feeling guilt or shame.

This is exactly what I think we need more of. But I recently had a thought: what if we looked at it differently? What if instead of resenting mums who act ‘smug’ about the positives we forgave them a little bit?

Whenever a mum says her baby sleeps through the night (why do people feel the need to have this conversation? Noone needs to feel even more alone in the plight of no-sleep-ever) people usually respond with ‘you’re so lucky!’, which can sound very insincere. When someone says their baby is doing something (good) that mine isn’t, my first thought as a mum is ‘what am I doing wrong?’.  I doubt I’m the only one to have this reaction, which is why mums everywhere are saying to each other: don’t be smug, don’t talk about the things you don’t have problems with, don’t show off, don’t pretend it’s not difficult.

But what if we forgave women for not wanting to focus on all the overwhelming difficulties, and taking a moment to say ‘actually, that part I’ve found fine.’ What if we said wow, that’s awesome, you must be doing something right! Even if it is all luck of the draw, what if we let ourselves be a little bit hypocritical and take credit for the good and blame circumstances for the bad? What if instead of focusing on ‘what am I doing wrong?’ we found the thing we’re smug about? It has become okay, even fashionable, to talk about how crazy and overwhelmingly difficult parenting is, but it’s automatically showing off if you want to share something you’re happy about, because someone else might get upset that it’s not happening for them.

I, for one, am incredibly proud of my labour, even though I know that 90% of having a natural, drug-free birth is down to circumstance rather than your own will or ability. Most women who opt for an epidural or a c-section went into the delivery room determined to do it without, but then the baby’s health became at risk for reasons they had no control over. Of course it’s not my merit that I had a natural delivery, but does this mean I can’t share my birth story openly, because others were traumatised by their labour? Mother’s day is always a sad day for me, but does it make others smug if they post a picture of lunch with their mum celebrating how wonderful she is?

Conversely, I wanted to exclusively breastfeed but after a complete nightmare of a time trying to establish it for six weeks, I opted for mixed feeding instead. I was completely heartbroken, I felt I’d let down my baby, and six weeks on, it’s still a sore subject for me. Does that mean I can’t celebrate with women who have managed it, who get up several times a night to continue, who braved the first few times doing it in public – would it be smug of them to share those stories with me?

I guess what I’m trying to say is let’s be a little more forgiving towards each other and our selves: just because someone else finds something we struggle with easy, it doesn’t mean we’re doing it wrong, nor that they’re smug. Find your something to be ‘smug’ about, and celebrate it.

Monday, 15 August 2016

DOs and DON'Ts for visiting a new mum

  • DO wait to be invited. Even saying ‘I want to come and meet the baby!’ can be too much at this point. Give them time. Even if they’re posting pictures online and appear to be out and about already, you don’t know the amount of blood, sweat and tears that has gone into producing each instagram shot or the hours of preparation that a thirty minute walk requires.
  • If you do get invited round, DON’T let her make the tea. Or him, if dad’s around. These guys are exhausted – even the happy, no complaints, make-up wearing parents. They’re all exhausted. Offer to make the tea.
  • DO offer to clean the toilet. Or if this is too gross and you’re financially able, gift them a few hours with a local cleaner. Nobody wants to ask someone to do chores, but all new parents’ bathrooms haven’t seen bleach in a while.
  • DON’T assume she’ll be comfortable breastfeeding in front of you. I’m the kind of person who is happy to get changed in front of someone they’ve met twice, but when it came to breastfeeding it took me on average five minutes to get the baby to latch on properly, and I just couldn’t do it if I had anyone watching – even my husband, because it interfered with my focus. Reassure her that you’re fine with her breastfeeding but that if she wants to step away or wants you to leave the room she should just say. Sometimes breastfeeding can take ages (an hour at each feed) so it might not be possible for her to feed in private and then get back to you, which is why I advise you
  • DON’T stay longer than half an hour. I know, thirty minutes is nothing – especially in London where the journey probably took twice that long. However thirty minutes is a very long time in newborn world. In those thirty minutes the new mum could have brushed her teeth/hair, napped, text her family, checked her facebook, or just lay down quietly, awake, enjoying the silence and lack of demands.
  •   DO wash your hands before you hold the baby.
  • DON’T expect the baby to be awake.
  • DO try to go with other friends at the same time. Not twenty people in one go, but it is easier for new parents to see more than one person at once, rather than having back to back non stop visits for weeks.
  • DON’T question what the parent does. ‘Is he not supposed to wear socks?’ ‘Is that position comfortable for him?’ ‘Does he always feed that often?’  Give it a rest, mate.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Top 10 #secondchildgoals

No, I’m not pregnant again. But if I were, I’d do some things differently:

1.     Get help from a female friend with kids for the first fortnight. Having a baby taught me the importance of wisdom passed on from generation to generation. Husbands are all well and good but a mother really does know best.

2.     I would not leave the house for the first two weeks postpartum. When I heard of people doing this I thought, no way, that won’t be me – and in fact I was out and about pretty quickly, and by week 2 I was already at mum and baby zumba. I would never do this again. Not because I wasn’t keen to get out and about – I was – nor because I needed to rest from the birth – I was thankfully blessed with a straight-forward labour and a quick recovery – but because in the beginning breastfeeding is an all-consuming, continuous activity. I only learnt this retrospectively. Basically for the first two weeks you are constantly feeding, and the baby sleeps completely sporadically. None of this ‘every 3 hours’ stuff, that’s more like a mean average.

3.     No visitors for forty days. Forty days of rest used to be the normal expectation in mai countri (South American/Continental Europe culture). This makes total sense and I can't believe it's not more widely recommended. Next time I will let grandparents visit once, and I would not want anyone else to visit at all for the first month or so. With my son we had visitors the first week and it was incredibly demanding – I’d have a social mask whilst they were there and then I’d be completely exhausted from the exchange when they left, but I’d have to look after the baby instead of being able to rest. Never again.

4.     Have a breastfeeding station. I thought this was a complete gimmick, since women breastfeed on the go, on trains etc, so why couldn't they just sit on the sofa and do it? But this was due to my own ignorance regarding the fact that breastfeeding doesn’t just happen, it has to be established. Now I’ve experienced the exhausting reality of that process, I would 100% have a breastfeeding station next time round – comfy seat, pillows and endless snacks you can eat with one hand, at a reachable distance (holler if you've been a breastfeeding mum and your husband brings you a snack and places it on the coffee table a metre in front of you, just far enough for you not to be able to reach it without unlatching the baby and having to start the ordeal all over again). Also not forgetting the laptop permanently positioned in front of you, with programmes to watch at the ready so all you need to do is press play. Plus a sixpack of large water bottles. Refilling a sports bottle every half hour whilst establishing breastfeeding quickly drove me insane and in the end I would end up preferring to be thirsty than having to get up endlessly.

5.     Get a pedicure at the start of mat leave. I also thought this was a dumb piece of advice you find on a pinterest page, but during those first few postpartum weeks where you really don’t have any energy to take care of your appearance, it helps to be able to look down and feel a tiny bit pretty.

6.     Make more of a fuss when contractions start. I let my husband sleep through two thirds of my labour. It was daunting and lonely. Next time I’ll be more forthright.

7.     Make more of a fuss generally. Becoming a mother has taught me that if I use up my energy on something I don’t have energy left for my son, and likewise if I don’t recharge my batteries, I don’t have energy left for my son. In the first few weeks postpartum I was still doing household chores, or letting people visit, or agreeing to get takeaway when I wouldn't enjoy it since I'd have to eat it cold because the baby was always awake and fussy in the evenings. Next time I’ll ask for things to be done for me so I can focus on recovering from the labour and teaching a new human how to be alive.

8.     Keep track of output. For those of you who aren’t familiar, this is a euphemistic term for your baby’s poos and wees. I had no idea I was meant to keep an eye on their frequency, and when midwives asked me about them I entered a state of panic. Next time I will ask my husband to keep a tally so I won't have to rely on baby brain memory.

9.     Buy nice maternity clothes. I didn’t want to spend loads of money on clothes I’d only wear for nine months, so I just got some simple (ie boring) stuff that looked nothing like my regular clothes. It meant I didn’t feel myself throughout pregnancy, and I wished away the time. In retrospect, I’d say it’s definitely worth investing in some more expensive pieces that make you feel attractive and that resonate with your usual style – it'll make the pregnancy feel less like a time out from your 'real life' and you can always eBay it on after to make back some of the money.

10.  Do the perineal massages and pelvic floor exercises. A lesson learnt.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Not That Kind Of Mum

Twenty-six is an odd age to fall pregnant with your first baby. It's not young enough that people immediately assume it's a 'mistake', but not old enough for you to be super intentional about it.

Don't get me wrong, my husband and I were perfectly aware that we might have a baby, but no one was 'trying' for anything. It was simply a case of being open to fate. As it turned out, we were surprised with a honeymoon baby, due four days before my twenty-seventh birthday.

Two months after our wedding, we moved out of Nick's parents' house into a two-bed flat in Peckham we could just about afford.  The rent plus bills was (is) the entirety of one of our incomes. As we passed the three-month mark, we broke the news to everyone, we got my husband's old cot from his parents' attic, found nursery furniture that didn't look completely mismatched on eBay, and tried not to worry about the rest of the stuff we’d have to buy in the next six months.

It was daunting. My friends suggested a baby shower, but after just having got the John Lewis delivery of our many and very very beautiful gifts from our wedding list, as well as having had a wedding abroad, we felt we couldn’t, and didn’t want to, ask our friends (young and at the start of their careers/salary ladder) to buy us even more things.

The generosity that followed was overwhelming. Friends would message me saying such and such family friend had a bunch of old babygros and did I want them to go and collect them and drop them by? Others booked Amazon bulk orders of nappies and baby wipes delivered to our doorstep, along with a videogame for Nick and insanely lovely beauty products for me, just days after the baby’s birth and with a short message congratulating us and saying they would visit when we were ready.

It was amazing, and it made me feel all the more guilty that despite being surrounded by such a great bunch of considerate, supportive people who would travel across London to come and visit us for just a few hours, I still had moments, sometimes days, sometimes weeks, of feeling utterly alone.

Three months in, it has got better, but I have to fight it on a daily basis. Here’s what I’ve learnt:

  • Everyone feels alone. Not just me because I didn’t join NCT because it cost hundreds of pounds and because I can’t afford to buy Sleepyhead pillows and Norbert the sheep or whatever that magical bastard that makes your baby fall asleep in two seconds is called. You just expulsed a vulnerable,  highly demanding human out of your body and guess what, it’s not done using your body for its own aims yet and won’t be any time soon. You don’t have a job to go to every day because your job is right here, in this silent, never quite tidy enough home. The only people who don’t feel alone in this situation are those who suffer from schizophrenia.
  • You’re not alone. SPOILER ALERT: religious point. God is always with you, always by your side, listening to everything, and if you need more help, more strength, more sleep, pray, pray, and pray again. He always answers. If you’re not religious, sorry, you’re alone and will die alone kbye.
  • Jk lol, you’re never alone! Ok so not all of us find comfort in prayer, but if you don’t feel connected to God, this is still the time to feel connected with all of womanhood and realise if you see anyone carrying a little person down the street, trying to fit a huge pram through Peckham’s narrow hipster corridors that claim to be cafes, then that woman is with you. You share an unspeakable bond with her. Even if she looks like a rich judgmental snob who clearly paid far too much for her non-second-hand buggy which you secretly want and you would never hang out with her and listen to her cretinous dribble in a million years, even so, you’re in this together, and when push comes to shove if your baby or her baby became unwell and you had to call an ambulance, both of you would go to the hospital with the other in a heartbeat, maybe you’d forget to ask her name in the havoc of it all, but you wouldn’t leave her side until someone  closer came to replace you, maybe not even then, because you’d want to stay and make sure that small soul was okay.
  • You need to be selfish. As a matter of urgency. Before I had a baby I liked getting my nails done occasionally as a treat, as well as enjoying buying a new dress or the feel of freshly cut hair (not the look, why does everyone always leave the hairdressers looking like a Texan housewife? It’s all about that post-first-wash-at-home look though).  Now I’m a mum I consider it a matter of survival to set aside at least 3 hours for myself every single week, without the baby, and I do not feel remotely guilty about the fact that no, I do not miss him during this time. Ok, sometimes I do go on my instagram to look at pictures of him. But I will not let this undermine my point: you need to make time for yourself, and don’t wait until you ‘feel ready’. It’s very likely you won't ever feel ready, and you will explode. Don’t wait. Go for a twenty minute walk if nothing else, but do it now. Well, get someone without a criminal record to watch the baby first, then go.
  • Find like-minded mums. I’m still battling with this one. I’ve made friends with a bunch of really great, down-to-earth, supportive mums, but I’m still the youngest by a long shot, which should be irrelevant except for the fact that when it comes to parenting, age doesn’t just mean the amount of years you’ve spent on the planet or the difference in what pop songs you consider classic dancefloor fillers. It means a different life situation, a different income, a different cultural background (usually), and a different attitude to becoming a parent. In my case I became a parent because I felt marriage and children to be my spiritual vocation, and only this past week have I met another mum who would say the same about herself. That’s pretty good going in just three months, but while our babies grow very quickly, on a slow day/week maternity leave can feel very long. My advice here is to persevere until you’ve built a new tribe around you. We’ll get there!
  • Keep in touch with old friends. Especially childless friends, or friends whose kids are past the newborn/toddler stage. Fellow parent friends are a great source of support and friendship, but sometimes it’s nice to hear about office politics and drunken mishaps. Childless friends, take note! Your impulse is to just talk about the baby and focus your attention on your friend’s massive life change, but your ‘unimportant’ bits of news might be just the ticket for your exhausted, adult-conversation-deprived friend.
  • Prayer works. Sorry to bang on about it and potentially alienate any muggles reading, but in the end prayer really is the main thing that helps me. It’s all well and good making time for myself and relying on solid friends but if I’m not reconnecting with the big guy I find myself zombie-ing around very quickly. If you’re even remotely religious and you recognise some of this in yourself, make the effort to pray. Even if you don’t make it to an actual place of worship, even if your only ‘quiet’ time is on the toilet, even if God sounds like Frasier Crane saying ‘I’m listening’ in your head, even if your prayers don’t make sense, your mind gets sidetracked, your priorities are out of wack, even if it’s just a simple thank you, do it.
  • Keep your GSOH. The silver lining about being perpetually tired is that endorphins kick in and everything seems funnier. It's easy to get very earnest about parenting, because it's massive and important and all-ecompassing and scary. But let's face it, poo is never not funny.

My (Positive) Birth Story

Like many women, I’ve always wanted a natural, painkiller-free birth, so when my baby was ten days overdue and I was due to be induced, I was worried. In my heart I still believed the baby would come naturally, but I was beginning to have some doubts, for the first time in over nine months of low risk pregnancy, that the birth would go smoothly and be free of complications.

I walked all over Nunhead and the surrounding areas, doing lots of uphill and downhill brisk walking. This was exhausting at 41+ weeks pregnant but I was determined. In the end I think what did it was sex. I had stopped having sex in the final weeks, but after a midwife recommended it after an unsuccessful sweep, we braved it and found at my second sweep I was significantly further along. We tried it again and soon after I found myself with a stomachache and unable to sleep.

This was a usual third trimester nuisance so I didn’t recognise it as labour. I went to the loo as per usual and walked around lots in the livingroom because lying down felt too uncomfortable – I had had other nights like this. However, unlike other nights where my body eventually was too exhausted not to give in to (interrupted, uncomfortable) sleep, the stomach upset worsened and soon enough I was sat on the loo with the worst diohrrhea of my life.  I knew this was a sign of labour starting but as I’d had my bloody show several days before I didn’t get my hopes up. I was in intense discomfort at this point, but I thought it might be a combination of Braxton Hicks and tummy upset making usual pre-labour signs more uncomfortable, rather than it being the real thing. However I decided to time the ‘Braxton Hicks’ to check, and they were fortyfive seconds long and three every ten minutes – the indication to go into hospital.

My sleepy husband didn’t seem to think it was labour (this is the same husband who didn’t think my late period was due to pregnancy) and the labour ward was equally skeptical on the phone. My mind was split: on the one hand I knew the baby would come soon, on the other I didn’t want to bother my husband nor the midwives ahead of time.

I went to the living-room and continued to pace. At some point I started having to make noise during the contractions to deal with the pain. I still thought it might be stomach upset and Braxton Hicks, since they did not become more frequent nor longer, only gradually more intense. I called the labour ward again in between contractions and they asked whether the pain was unbearable, I said I didn’t know.

‘You’ll know when it’s the real thing, it’s your first baby, it’ll be ages yet.’

I got in the shower to help relieve the pain, and tried to run a bath when it felt like not enough water (our shower flow is very weak) but I was in too much pain to run the bath. I woke my husband up and asked him to run a bath for me. At this point I felt more sure that I might be in labour, because I stopped caring about bothering him and being melodramatic and just started asking for what I needed.

I also completely lost my sense of humour – you know how when you’re unwell and someone can still make you laugh, and you feel a bit better? This isn’t the case at all in labour. Just a heads up to any guys reading this who plan to relieve tension with humour when their partner goes into labour.

Nick asked me if the noises I was making helped with the pain, ‘yes,’ I answered, holding onto the bed in distress, ‘I won’t ask you to shut up then!’ he replied. I remember thinking he had no idea what was happening, had no idea how critical the situation was and how much pain I was in. ‘Okay, no more jokes from this point onwards please,’ I said, with no irony. He looked hurt but didn’t argue. I asked him not to go to work that day, he said ok and asked if we should call the hospital, and I told him I had already but they said I’d know when it was unbearable but I couldn’t tell. At that point I felt the next contraction coming on and I said ‘I can’t, I can’t’ as it approached, and he said ‘well that sounds pretty unbearable to me,’ and went to call them again. I couldn’t make sense of the words through the pain, but when the contraction passed he was off the phone and told me the midwife had said to go in. I was so relieved. I put a skirt on top of my nighty and slowly tried to make my way to the car as he shuffled around me packing hospital bag and car seat into the back.

The ten-minute journey to King’s felt fast but unbearable. Sitting with a seatbelt on through the pain was really difficult, and when we got there I kept having to squat down during contractions, making the short walk from the parking lot to the labour ward about ten times longer.

I tried to find something to lean on in the foyer, and went to the reception desk to lean on it. I could hear Nick saying ‘no, come on’ in the background, and as I ignored it I thought once again ‘he has no idea.’ I sensed that he thought I was being prematurely dramatic, like really I could still walk and grin and bear it, and it would get a lot lot worse, and I had to save my energy for the ‘real’ pain. When my contraction at the reception desk finished, a stranger asked me if I was okay and I said ‘yeah’ and shook my head and walked away from him or her (genuinely can’t remember), thinking, we’re in a labour ward, I’m clearly in labour, you dipstick. In retrospect I realise the labour ward was in fact on the third floor, and we were just in the wing’s general reception. Still, I was THIS pregnant so you’d think they would put two and two together:

When we got to the actual labour ward’s reception, the receptionist asked me how many weeks pregnant I was and asked me to take a seat, ‘the midwife will be with you soon.’ I took one look at the waiting room full of sheepish looking men and thought ‘no way.’

‘I’m going to wait in the toilet,’ I said to Nick, and locked myself in the waiting room toilet cubicle. I thought ‘what if a pregnant woman needs to use this toilet,’ and then another contraction came along and I didn’t care any more. After what seemed like the longest ten minutes of my life (thanks American TV, for making me think when you’re in labour the hospital staff rush to you with a wheelchair and speed you through to a delivery room) we were taken into triage and my blood pressure was taken by a healthcare assistant. I kept asking after the midwife, and they kept saying she was on her way. It’s only just hit me that she must have come straight from another birth, with no break, and that these women are a very unique brand of heroic.

At this point they offered me gas and air and I inhaled as long and as deep as I could. It didn’t relieve the pain, but it gave me a momentary high. If I timed it with the contraction it meant at the height of the pain I had a fuzzy feeling in my brain – it’s hard to focus fully on both at once, so it acts as a sort of distraction. The act of inhaling also gave me ‘something to do’ during the pain, which again acted as a good focus away from the sensations of pain.

A note on the pain. It is not so much intense pain as it is intense pressure. It feels like something huge is pushing from within – which I suppose, is exactly what is happening. I always imagined it like intense period pain, but this is not really what characterises labour pangs. It’s more like a part of you being squashed under something very heavy. I know I said this would be a positive story – and it will be. I didn’t do any hypnobirthing classes, even though what I effectively experienced was the kind of birth those classes aim for, but I know that the idea of pain and language of pain is best avoided within that philosophy. For me, I would say that it was never a question of not talking about or thinking about the pain, but rather of knowing the pain was there for a reason. Also, if it weren’t for the pain, you wouldn’t feel like superwoman afterwards – so embrace it.

Finally, a red-haired half Scottish, half Norwegian goddess in her fifties appeared and introduced herself (I never remembered her name, very sad about this) and said she would be my midwife. She told me she was going to check how far along I was, and I saw some blood and thought oh, I’m bleeding? I didn’t have time to worry.

‘You’re about five centimeters dilated, sweetheart, you’ve done very well’ she said, and I said ‘oh, thank God.’ I’ve never felt more relieved – I’d read so many stories of first labours taking ages and women going in only to be sent back home, but I knew half way there was enough that I’d stay in hospital. I looked at Nick and he had the face of someone who had absolutely no idea what that meant, but he was glad I was thanking God for whatever information we’d just received.

I’d like to clarify that Nick did come to all the antenatal classes etc. and paid attention and was generally super supportive, I just think most of the information doesn’t make much sense to guys, unless they very actively try to understand it and study it and become one of those guys with the camcorder at the birth who then tell the story to people in even more detail than you do (not for me, thanks!)

The midwife asked me what kind of birth I had planned and I said a water birth. She said she’d see which room was free, and I expected her to be another twenty minutes but to my utter delight she came back straight away and we got to this lovely very dark room with no natural light. It was huge, had a huge double bed covered in wipe-clean plastic, a huge bath that she started filling straight away, and lots of walking space. I paced around in a lot of pain squirming and squirming, soon enough I was finding it unbearable to be out of the water so I asked if I could go in, and she said yes.

The water was the perfect lukewarm temperature, and I was now naked and had no awareness of what time it was (I thought it was the middle of the night, even though we’d left the house at 7 am and it was daylight outside) and I was squirming and wriggling and shouting.

The midwife was massaging my back and I thanked God that she was applying strong pressure – Nick previously kept stroking me rapidly and with no pressure and it was only making the pain worse. I turned and realised it was Nick massaging me and not her --she must have shown him how to do it and it had been him all this time! I was oddly proud of him mastering this relatively simple task. It sounds patronising, but I do think it must be very difficult for the men to watch the person they love the most in the world undergo such an ordeal, feel completely unable to help, and on top of that worry that the other most important person in their life will make it out in one piece. As a woman I think you have access to that physical knowledge: you might be in pain, you might be out of your mind, but you trust your baby, you trust your body, and you can tell whether the sensations you experience are dangerous or not. As a spectator, you don’t have access to that knowledge, you just have to stay calm.

For these reasons, we were not sure whether he’d be there for the birth as he’s squeamish and I figured he might feel useless and needlessly worried. But in that moment I found it ridiculous that we’d even considered the possibility of him not being there. I asked him later if he had felt scared, and he said yes. I had no idea – every time I looked at him he looked, albeit dumbfounded and overwhelmed, very calm, and it helped me feel I was doing great.

I got increasingly hysterical as the pushing phase approached. The midwife put Nick on ‘water duty’, making sure I kept sipping water in between contractions and didn’t get dehydrated, and I thought how ironic this was since I’m always telling him to drink less squash and more water. Before I could say this out loud, another contraction came. I shouted in pain:


The midwife and Nick stared at each other, both looking at the other for an explanation. The contraction subsided and I elaborated:

‘In Friends, Chandler says to Erica that nobody will ever know whether being kicked in the balls or going into labour is worst, well he was wrong. This is it. This is worse. I know.’ I saw Nick chuckle while the midwife was too busy doing other things.

‘They said it would feel like a big poo. This doesn’t feel like a big poo!!’

At this point she looked me in the eye, and held my arm strongly. ‘Sweetheart, it’s going to hurt like hell.’ For the third time during my labour, I felt relieved. I appreciated her honesty, and something clicked in me and I felt ready.

I asked if I could start pushing – I didn’t want to start before I was fully dilated, and she told me to do what felt natural. I was surprised at her response, because I’d read so many birth stories where women were told to wait instead of pushing because they weren’t fully dilated yet. I felt a very strong urge to push, and she asked me if I felt it at the top of the contraction.

‘Yeah, why not!’ I said, having no idea what her question meant and feeling pretty delirious by this point. As the next contraction began seconds later, I said ‘YES, DEFINITELY AT THE TOP OF THE CONTRACTIOOOOON’ and started to push without asking if it was ok.

She told me to make sure throughout the pushing I stayed under the water, because the baby would have to be born into the water in order for it to start breathing correctly. After this, any time I squirmed or moved (which was often) Nick kindly reminded me to stay in the water (which I was doing at all times).
Again I remember thinking he had no idea – I was completely out of it, and I was naked and jerking around like a maniac and shouting nonsense, but there was no way I would do anything I’d been told would compromise the health of the baby. In that moment all you care about is your baby, which is why you seem to be so out of your mind and unable to make sense – not because you actually can’t make sense, but because you’re reserving all your faculties and strengths to ensuring that the baby is well. It requires absolutely all of your being. As he said to me again ‘remember, stay under water’ I said ‘Nick, if you never say that to me again that will be just great.’ This time I saw the midwife chuckle.

I think it took something like six pushes. Each time she said ‘big push now’ I pushed with all my might, remembering my friend Anna, who had just qualified as a doctor, who when I asked her if she might become a OB-GYN she said ‘no, some women are really shit pushers – I don’t wanna deal with that.’ All I was thinking was ‘don’t be a shit pusher’ because I didn’t want this woman to have a more difficult job than she already did. I don’t know why that’s what I was thinking about, but to think about her long shifts gave me a reason to put up with the pain. I also really really wanted it to be over as soon as possible, so I was really giving it more than I even had to give.

Pretty quickly she said ‘okay, we’re at the point of no return now, I want you to give me a big push.’ I tried even harder to push as long and as hard as possible, it got really hard, and then a bit easier. She said ‘that’s great, brilliant!! Okay one last push now,’ I pushed again and this time it was easy, it felt relaxed, and I felt empty. For the first time in months, I felt empty. I knew then that the baby was born, but I don’t think Nick did. For three slow, slow, seconds, I basked in this secret knowledge and lovely feeling of emptiness, and felt an intense peace.

‘Right… we have a baby.’ She held the baby, his waist still under the water, in front of me. Nick said ‘a baby!’ and as he said this I grabbed the baby and held him in front of me saying ‘it’s a baby!’ Nick and I looked at each other and then she said ‘well, have you found out the sex yet?’ I purposefully hadn’t lifted him higher, because I wanted to enjoy that moment of just meeting ‘the baby’, as I’d imagined him in my womb, neither a boy nor a girl, just a new little soul.

I pretended this wasn’t my weird intentional delay and said with surprise ‘oh-- no we haven’t, haha!’ and lifted him up. I saw his willy and was so exhausted I thought ‘which one’s that, penis or vagina?’ –genuinely. ‘It’s a boy!!’ I said, and Nick said ‘it’s a boy!’.

It might sound weird, but at that moment I felt so happy for Nick. I knew he would have loved a little girl, but he’s so stereotypically male and so close to his dad that I knew he would love his own little playmate for all his boring male interests. You know when people have near-death experiences and say their life flashed before their eyes? In that moment Nick and our son’s future life flashed before my eyes, the both of them climbing the alps in their bikes, watching boring sports, going to the pub together to exchange information and facts, watching boring neo-realist films together, complaining about corrupt politicians and other crap I don’t care about together, giving him girl advice, buying me mother’s day gifts together, planning my amazing surprise fortieth together, talking about how I’m the most incredible and inspiring woman in their life, building a statue of me for our huge garden… I said straight away ‘I don’t want to find out the sex for the next one either,’ because there was nothing like that moment.

Francis Alejandro Sutton, born 10 May 2016 at 9.20am, weighing 4.7kg (10.4 lbs)