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...


Sleep

Britain:
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’.

Mediterranean:
Babies don’t sleep and neither do you now.

Feeding

Britain:
‘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.

Mediterranean:
Everyone mix feeds.

Routine:

Britain:
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.

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

Development:

Britain:
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’).

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

Discipline:

British:
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…’

Mediterranean:
WHAT DO YOU MEAN ‘WHY’? BECAUSE I MADE YOU, I COULD THROW YOU IN THE BIN AND MAKE ANOTHER ONE OF YOU TOMORROW. – Popular Italian saying.

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:

‘CHANDLER WAS WRONG!!!!!!!’

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)

Friday, 12 August 2016

Not Quite Post-Natal Depression


I am sat in my living room at 9.13 am on a Tuesday, wearing my nightie, slippers and glasses. I still haven’t washed my face but I’ve had coffee. My son is sleeping in the room next door. I am on maternity leave - he turns three months tomorrow. I’m reading through the messages from fellow new mums on WhatsApp. The range of mum-related conversation topics is broad but relentlessly dull: from the state of our bodies to how to get our babies to sleep through the night – or indeed to sleep at all.

‘You’re not depressed, you are just climbing the huge mountain of motherhood.’ I read this yesterday on a post by midwife-turned-author Clemmie Hooper, and I wished she were my friend. When I hear the term post-natal depression being used too frivolously I shiver. This idea seems dangerous: that if you want to escape or disappear, if you feel inadequate, if you’re despairing, if you’re not sure that you love your baby, then you’re suffering from a condition that is not a normal, understandable, response to mothering.

I’m no psychologist, but my mother was and if she were alive today I’m pretty sure she’d say, of course you’re responding this way, it’s perfectly reasonable to feel overwhelmed. The problem is that as understandable as this extreme response to an extreme life change is, it is, nevertheless, unmanageable. Feeling so out of your depth twenty-four hours a day, whilst also being sleep deprived, is not manageable on your own. You need support. But support does not, in the vast majority of cases, mean therapy or medication or a label you can wear and hold onto, to know you’re suffering from a mostly temporary condition rather than experiencing an irreversible life change. Support means human company, from a woman who knows you, who can spend more than an hour with you, without getting paid to do it, who isn’t afraid she’ll kill a newborn by holding it the wrong way; ideally from your mother.

When my baby was born, I was not taught how to breastfeed. They told me he was very big so they were worried about his blood sugar levels, so he had to be formula fed. I was never warned that this would compromise breastfeeding. I don't blame the hospital staff, but it never occured to me to go to any pre-natal breastfeeding courses because I assumed breastfeeding would be a purely natural instinct.

I went home the following day with no support. When the midwives came to my house they’d ask me to self-diagnose any issues, ‘is your mental health ok?’, 'no, really,' they'd ask again, looking at me for a few intense silent seconds, as though the awkwardness of the situation might prompt me to open up about my feelings. They’d leave after 45 minutes and I’d be left to ‘mix-feed’ the baby again, all the while him increasingly preferring the bottle to the breast – or so it seemed anyway. I couldn’t ask my mum to sit with me and talk me through it, and with only brothers and no sisters, I felt surrounded by men who cared about me but were wholly unable to help, and I’d just given birth to another (little) man who would continue to make demands of me. I felt exhausted and heartbroken.

On the fifth day after labour I ran to the loos because I couldn’t hold it in, and started weeing before I’d quite made it to the seat. I sat on the toilet with soiled underwear around my ankles and started to cry. I was still holding the baby since I was alone, and he was so fast asleep I couldn’t wake him up, and I thought he was dying. It was night, the bathroom was dark, and his head just flopped forwards with his eyes shut, and I couldn’t detect his tiny wheezy breath. I felt a pang of pain in my chest as I experienced the worst fear I’ve ever felt in my life, and then he made a little noise. I held him and cried more and more. I was completely exhausted and felt completely alone. I shouted at my husband when he got home, called him lazy and manipulative and said I was doing everything. I said everything again and again as though the more times I said it the more rested I might feel for it. It didn’t work. I knew then that my hormones had crashed, and that it would soon get better. I prayed.

When I prayed, I instantly realised something. Beyond the world of hormones and clinical depression was a less euphemistic name for what was happening: the devil. It's become unfashionable (among the circles of liberal, enlightened Catholics that young fashion-conscious millenials such as myself frequent) to think of Satan as a 'being', or in fact to even talk about the devil at all. There's something very Southern State/Bible Belt/God Hates Fags about expressing a belief in an evil demon who spends his days trying to mess up good people's lives. However, as a convert, there's nothing more palatable to me about eating the flesh of some dude who claims to be God and gets executed only to raise from the dead days later, than there is about some red guy with horns and a trident. None of it sounded particularly plausible to me, so when I converted I took on the whole deal.

And to me, the Devil (or however you want to think of it) is very real. When the Devil sees joy, he attacks it. I felt so whole, so overjoyed, so united with my husband, when I’d given birth to my son, that Satan rolled up his sleeves and within a matter of days, if not hours, started inflicting fear in my heart. Many non-Christians (or cool modern Christians) sometimes think of it as 'that negative voice in your head.' My son could die at any second, the voice said, I could never go back to my old life, I would always fail, there’s no such thing as a perfect mother so why bother trying to be one, no one is happy really, he’s doomed to suffer like the rest of humanity, maybe he’ll get a disease, here’s a list of diseases breastfeeding prevents, you’re not trying hard enough to breastfeed, how much do you love him really if there’s a limit to how much you’re willing to sacrifice, don’t let him sleep too long he needs to feed, feed him on demand he needs to grow, feed him every three hours, you need to rest, if you don’t rest your milk production will go down, make sure you’re getting some sleep, that’s when milk is produced, don’t get stressed, stress reduces milk production, he isn’t getting enough milk, you’ll need to top him up with formula, there’s no need to top him up with formula, that will compromise your milk supply, how much do you love him if you’re not willing to work harder? How much do you love him really? How much do you love him?

Only your enemy will say these things, even if they sometimes come from the mouth of a human with your best interests at heart. God will never question a mother’s love for her child, a mother’s intuition, a mother’s desire for and knowledge of what is best, because he made that love in the first place. He is that love. I was at Mass the Sunday after giving birth because I needed to be. It was the only place where I found refuge. Week after week it has got easier, I have got stronger, and I have never felt more sure of God's love than when my son and I cuddle, laugh and dance together.