Friday, 30 December 2011

Protection from bad things

On Thursday (Dec 29) the baby and I were at King's Cross station in London about to head home. I could see some kind of protest near the station entrance and a few police officers but it was nothing too out of the ordinary for London. 

As we got near to the station entrance something happened.* The protestors rushed the police or the police rushed the protestors, who knows, but batons were raised and we saw a bloodied face and a swarm of police and protestors. This was all about 5 metres away from us and the situation went from nothing to something in a matter of seconds. I grasped the buggy tightly and ran onto the main station concourse. 

From there we got on the tube home and we were both fine. In fact the baby hadn't even noticed. This was a relief because one day of course I'll have to explain to her that sometimes horrible things happen, but for now I am content to have her think there is nothing bad in the world that her mummy cannot protect her from.

*The only news story I can find about it is here, on the Huffington Post website

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Are you a 'born' parent?

One of the interesting things about having a child is how other people view you in relation to your role as a parent and how this corresponds, or not, to how you view yourself.

I have, for as long as I can remember, wanted children, and I have also thought of myself as a maternal person, the kind who makes faces at babies on buses, gives good hugs, always has a hanky down my bra if needed to catch tears and is happy spending a few hours doing crafts or building models or pretending to drink imaginary tea. In fact this image of myself is so ingrained that it didn't occur to me that other people might not view me in the same way, until a woman I knew some years ago and met again recently, said that she hadn't thought of me as that sort of person.

Turns out that some people were taken in by me pretending to be focused on my career above all else. And whilst it shouldn't matter how anyone else sees me. I've mulled over this comment rather a lot. It irks me that I should have been misunderstood in this way, as if it reflects now on how I am as a mother, even though it was probably a throwaway comment and even though there is no reason that this person should have ever known about my yearning for children, or my fear I would not get them. And of course because even if this were true it should not reflect on how I am now I am a mother.

At the other end of the spectrum. I was thrilled when a newer friend, one who I have known for a few years but have become closer to recently as our children are similar ages, referred to me recently on her blog as "a born mother" (at least I think that was about me). She cannot know how pleased that made me. Which is ridiculous really because whether we have always wanted children or whether our children were unplanned, whether they came quickly or took a long time, whether we are naturally maternal or have to work at it, we are no better or worse as people and as parents. After all, we all love our children. all try to do our best by them and all face challenges along the way.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Why books should get dog-eared

My daughter got the lovely Kipper's Birthday by Mick Inkpen as a present. Not only is it a lovely book, but it comes with a lovely introduction by the author in which he says:

"What any author wants is for his books to become dog-eared and familiar. I've been lucky enough that my very young readers are particularly adept at giving their books doggy ears in no time at all."

Which is a lovely thing to write as I had been holding back the paper books in favour of board ones so that they don't get too ripped and creased. Now I realise how silly that is.

Monday, 26 December 2011

A couple of hours is all it takes


My husband took our daughter  out for a few hours on Christmas eve so I could get a few essential things done in advance of the big day. You know, find the potato peeler, wring the turkey's neck and quality control the chocolates, that kind of thing. It was a busy couple of hours but relaxing too. Because it didn't have what one book (possibly the Kate Figes one I wrote about here) terms the interruptibility factor, the knowledge that at any moment the baby may need you and need you now. 

(Not that other adults might not be on hand of course. But even when my husband is there, or my parents, or a friend, I know I may be needed to feed, to wipe a tear, to reassure. It's my failing, not theirs, because they are capable without me, but I am not capable of leaving them to do it.)

I enjoy cooking but having a baby has taken the edge off it in a way. Anything that requires specific timing is always at risk of being ruined by the baby waking. Meals that I am throwing together inspired by, but not bound by, a recipe need to be planned out so if I am needed by the baby I can give instructions to my husband on what I was planning to do - not easy when you didn't know what you were going to do yourself. 

Yet I find I just need a few uninterruptible hours or so every couple of months to stay on a relatively even keel. 

A few months ago the three of us were in a hotel and my husband and daughter went out for a few hours. I was meant to go back to sleep but the hotel's bath was big and the towels were fluffy, so I ran a deep hot bath and stayed in it for 90 minutes, during which I managed to finish the only book not about babies that I've managed to read this year (and I've only read two about babies - these have not been my finest months intellectually.)

After the bath, in what I consider to be the pinnacle of luxury, I had a shower. It was one of those big rain cloud showers in a bathroom tiled in black a little like how I imagine an upmarket brothel to be, and the light hit it just the right way to make the water look like shimmery threads of silk. My brain was so addled by lack of sleep and dehydration from such a hot bath that I felt compelled to take a picture of it (above). Those couple of hours, not even ruined by only having cradle cap shampoo to hand, saw me through the next couple of months, just as I hope my Christmas eve preparations will. Funny how that's all it takes, just a few uninterruptible hours. 

Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Christmas card list

When my daughter was born, just over a week before Christmas last year, much to the amusement of family and friends it was vitally important to me to write Christmas cards and include her on them. I had our cards in my hospital bag and my parents were dispatched, the day she was born, to get me multiple copies of a picture of the baby to include in the cards and many stamps to bring back the next day. Each evening when my husband left our bedside he did so with envelopes to post.

It's not just that I wanted to share our good news, though that too, but I wanted to write our daughter's name again and again and in doing so confirm her existence. We, the three of us, wish you a merry Christmas.

This year we've become that vomit inducing family who puts a picture of our child on the front of our cards. It's a sticker of her on a swing and not a printed picture and certainly not a posed family shot but still, I make myself want to throw up. Somebody shoot me.

It's second nature to me now to write my daughter's name in cards. It's no longer new. My hormones no longer rule my actions, or not all the time anyway. But that we can do so, and sign her name, and send best wishes from us all, still feels incredibly important. It's why I think those friends we've not seen or spoken to since the last card remain on the Christmas card list and us on theirs. Not because they need to receive our card, but because we need to send them. Because the act of writing, the act of signing a name and sending it out there into the world, it proves you exist, that you're part of something, that you're still here.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The difference a year makes

Years are odd things. They're not completely random lumps of time, what with being based on lunar cycles and planets going round suns and the tides and all that, but why 365 days should feel so different to 364 or 366 is an odd one.

Yet as my daughter is on the cusp of turning one I feel rather emotional about the whole thing. It's no coincidence I'm sure that today, as we geared up to say goodbye to her time being nought but not nothing, I had a terrible day, full of tearful encounters, silly clumsiness and general wobbles.

I'm thrilled too of course, as well as emotional, that she's made it this far, that we've made it this far, and that she's grown so much, in every sense. I celebrate her life every day, constantly in a state of gratitude (and fear) for her existence, but to share this joy with others on her birthday is extra special.

When it came to writing her birthday card all of this, it turned out, could be expressed in one short phrase that has always seemed rather quaint before. But in three words it sums up all that I want for my daughter - many happy returns.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Tips to improve postnatal care - The Nursing Times

I was thrilled to have this article about my tips for postnatal care published on the Nursing Times website - available here

Related posts:
Ways to improve postnatal care #1: Don't call me mum
Ways to improve postnatal care #2: Change the sheets
Ways to improve postnatal care #3: Help us buy the basics
Ways to improve postnatal care #4: Allow partners 24 hour access
Ways to improve postnatal care #5: A debrief for all new mums
Ways to improve postnatal care #6: Be consistent
Why I love the NHS

Take a fox, a chicken and some corn...

You know that puzzle where you have to get a fox, a chicken and some corn across the water without any being eaten in a boat that will only take you and one other at a time? That is precisely what getting out of the house with a baby is like. You need to get the baby in the buggy or car with the nappy bag and anything else you need without leaving anything outside unattended and with only two hands to carry things.

I used to like what I think ware called logic puzzles, where you are given a grid and some key facts and have to rule out and rule in combinations to find out who did what with whom. Having a baby is like that too. You have some facts and some possible answers and have to go from there. For example, the baby liked weetabix and apple yesterday but today only likes porridge and clementine. What will she like tomorrow? The answer of course is banana. Why? Because nothing about babies is logical, stupid.

I always thought such puzzles were just a way to keep teenagers quiet on flights. I never realised they were really a way of socialising us so we'd be ready for parenthood. If I had I would have tried to complete them, rather than throw them away in a fit of pique whenever I got something wrong.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Being project manager

I saw Naomi Stadlen, author of What Mothers Do: Especially When it Looks Like Nothing speak recently at the wonderful Big Green Bookshop. She led a discussion, based on her new book How Mothers Love: and how Relationships are Born, on whether mothering is different to fathering, or whether they can both fit in to the catch-all title of parenting. And I've been thinking about this since then and why it is that mothering is different.

I don't think it is because of the tingly nipples when the baby cries or the supersonic hearing that means I am the one who wakes up at the slightest snuffle in the middle of the night or the acual carrying the baby inside you, though all of that is incredibly important of course. I think the thing about being a mother, as opposed to being a father, is, in the words of The Apprentice, you are 'project manager'.

Perhaps this is nothing to do with gender and everything to do with it being the woman who tends to be at home most, in the first year at least, but it does mean that even if tasks can be shared the task of knowing what is going on isn't. Because it's not about who changes how many nappies or who empties the bin or who gets up in the night, it's about someone needing to have a whole picture view. I know how much my daughter has eaten, because if she has several not hungry days in a row then perhaps she is ill. I know if she has taken her medicine and whether we need to get the prescription refilled. I know when she last did a poo, and whether there is anything to worry about there. It's not just bodily functions. I also know whether she is growing out of her clothes and needs new ones, whether she has enough blankets and whether her feet need measuring.

This isn't a complaint - I want to be the one who knows these things - but it goes some way to explaining why it is that the job can never be properly shared, and perhaps why it shouldn't be. After all, knowing all of this takes up a lot of brain power. For two of us to do this may be a waste of those precious cells. But there has to be someone with the whole picture, and that person is usually the mother.

Related post: These books saved my life


Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Mummy State #1: Reflective strips on every child's coat

The Mummy State. Where everything is banned or compulsory. 

Ideally I'd impose this on adults too, but the first rule of policy suggestions is not to alienate everybody all at once so let's stick to kids. I want a reflective strip on the coat of every child so they can be seen by motorists whatever the weather and whatever the time of day or night. I suppose you could just insist a strip is sewn on at home, but let's put the onus on retailers and designers and say there should be one on every child's coat sold in the UK. It's not that far fetched an idea - we expect cyclists to have lights on their bikes and cars to use their headlights in the dark. 

Just because it's compulsory doesn't mean it can't be funky of course. Make it a row of flowers or a lightening bolt, or perhaps a constellation of stars or a lion, but whatever you do, make it glow. 

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Where does all the time go?

I was thinking this week as I left work that what I think I have lost, in being a parent, is that sense of time. I walked past a student sitting in a comfy chair reading a book and drinking a coffee and I thought about how I never really appreciated the idea of having time when I had it, when there are no competing demands and time is something to be filled.

I wish I'd appreciated the glut of time when I had it. Now each unit of time must be accounted for - just enough time to have a bath before I need to feed the baby. Just enough time to zip the hoover around the crumbs she's made. Just enough time to swig a drink before making lunch before facilitating a nap before heading to playgroup before fitting in emails before putting the washing on before thinking about dinner before ringing my mum before grabbing a cheeky cuddle with my husband.

My favourite line ever from a play is from Waiting for Godot.

Vladimir: That passed the time.
Estragon: It would have passed in any case.
Vladimir: Yes, but not so rapidly.


It's been nearly a year since our daughter was born and each moment, even the most difficult ones, have been magical, enough to almost turn athiest me into an agnostic. But where the time has gone, I cannot say. It has passed far more rapidly than it used to.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

I hate coming home

I like going to work. I don't mean the actual working, though actually I enjoy that too, but the actual going, the journey. At the moment one day a week I drop my daughter off at her childcare and drive about an hour to work. Sometimes I just enjoy the silence for a bit. Then I listen to the Today Programme. I hate the Today Programme with its in-jokes and smarter-than-you quips and up-its-own-arseness but oh the joy in listening to it uninterrupted.

I get to work in time to have a hot drink. Yes, a HOT hot drink, and a think and a read of the papers and time to plan my day and then I spend the day, you know, working, being intellectually challenged and busy and full of thought. It's all great.

But I hate coming home.

On the way to work I have a purpose - to get to work, and the luxury of time to myself. At work I am working, including through my lunch break to ensure I can leave immediately my teaching finishes so I can pick up my daughter. On the way home though the only purpose is to get home. Having not thought about anything but work all day, on the drive home I can only think about seeing my baby. It's a panicky feeling that every car I let go ahead of me and every mile under the speed limit and every red light makes worse.

It's glorious seeing my daughter at the end of the day, but truly, coming home, the journey, is awful.

Some blogs and articles I like (an occasional series)


I love this hilarious blog - Parenting. Illustrated with crappy pictures. Illustrated here with my own crappy picture.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Ways to improve postnatal care #6: Be consistent

When we were in hospital in those very early days, and feeding wasn't working out as planned, I had a flurry of people come to my bedside and try to help me. There were midwives and nursery nurses and breastfeeding counsellors and peer supporters, and they all had different advice. From changing breast to trying a different hold to setting a time limit to letting the baby go for as long as she wished, from squeezing the nipple first to massaging the breast to hand expressing to machine expressing to topping up with formula to not topping up with formula, everyone had a different view. And then the shift would change and I'd see a new lot of midwives and nursery nurses and breastfeeding counsellors and peer supporters all of whom had different views again.

I suspect any single one of them would have worked had their advice been consistent, or had I been able to choose one and have the confidence to follow their advice even when their colleagues were telling me something expressly contradictory. Would it really be so difficult to be consistent, or at least have a plan to enable women to try one thing properly before moving on to the next?

Related posts:
Ways to improve postnatal care #1: Don't call me mum
Ways to improve postnatal care #2: Change the sheets
Ways to improve postnatal care #3: Help us buy the basics
Ways to improve postnatal care #4: Allow partners 24 hour access
Ways to improve postnatal care #5: A debrief for all new mums
Why I love the NHS

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

"I am very cross" - the language of parenting

My first lesson in swearing came when I started secondary school and a kindhearted classmate took me aside for a chat about swearing. "We don't say bloody hell here" she said, "we say fucking hell." Fucking hell and variants thereof served me pretty well for several years after that.

My second lesson in swearing came a few years ago when a friend far cooler than I will ever be remarked that she found "get fucked" to be a far more effective phrase than "fuck off". I tried it many times and she is absolutely right on this one.

And now I am a parent I have found something else out about swearing. It's not the fucking hells or the fuck offs or the get fuckeds that make the biggest impact, it's the language of parenting. "I am," I told the doctor who messed something up, "very cross." He visibly shrivelled. "I'm disappointed" I told the hotel manager when someone barged into our room at 3am and he immediately refunded our whole stay. I am looking forward to telling the next person I have to tell off that "it is more in sorrow than in anger." After that I intend to call someone a wally and someone a clot. Watch them quake.

It's my blog so I'll self-promote if I want to

These two books would make great Christmas presents.

For people who want to change the world but don't quite know how to go about it, for those with time on their hands to write a letter, sign a petition, join a committee or go on a protest, for young people and older people and everyone in between, for friends and siblings and colleagues and anyone you need to buy a secret santa gift for...



And for women, and men, who say 'I'm not a feminist but...' and then go on to say things such as 'but I believe in equality' or 'women should have careers too' or 'of course I think we should share the housework', and for people who don't say that kind of thing but need re-educating. For your friend, your girlfriend, your sister, your mum, your aunty, your colleague, your nan. And for your brother, your boyfriend, your dad, your uncle, your grandad. Or for yourself of course - you deserve a gift too.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Five little words

There's a lovely baby book by the wonderful illustrator Emily Gravett, Orange Pear Apple Bear, that just uses five words and some beautiful witty pictures. I couldn't resist buying it when I was pregnant and it has really started to come into its own as my daughter reaches a year old. What's more, it just uses five words. What are they? Orange, pear, apple and bear of course. As for the fifth - I won't ruin the surprise, you'll have to read it yourself.



Related posts:
From dogs to cats

Dog, doggy or puppy and the link with puddles

Man's work
She's perfect, we kept her

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Things that make me feel like a mum #1: Having a present cupboard 

It's not literally a cupboard, but only because our house is small and there's not a lot of storage space, but I do have a shelf of presents appropriate for different ages all ready for a forgotten birthday, an unexpected Christmas gift needing reciprocity or a last minute invite. I also have sellotape, wrapping paper and various gift bags and a stash of all purpose cards. Get me - I'm totally grown up!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Ways to improve postnatal care #5: A debrief for all new mums

What would really have helped me in the days post birth would have been a medical professional come and talk me through what happened. I could have asked why labour went the way it did, what the implications of the medical procedures I had were and got an explanation of the medicines me and my baby were being given.

Instead I got information piecemeal - some when I was out of it on drugs, some when I was out of it on elation and some when I was out of it on tiredness. All of which means I was still piecing together what happened months later.

You might ask does it matter given both me and the baby are okay. But it matters to me. And it matters to many women.

At the moment you can request an appointment with a midwife post birth to go through your notes, providing they haven't lost them of course. But this needs you to know you can do this and to be proactive.

Instead it should be offered to all women the day after birth, or before leaving hospital, so any gaps can be filled and any questions answered. That way we'd begin our parenting experience feeling empowered by information, rather than vulnerable through a lack of knowledge.


Related posts:
Ways to improve postnatal care #1: Don't call me mum
Ways to improve postnatal care #2: Change the sheets
Ways to improve postnatal care #3: Help us buy the basics
Ways to improve postnatal care #4: Allow partners 24 hour access
Why I love the NHS

Monday, 14 November 2011

Sharing too much

Writing, be it a blog, journalism or books, inevitably draws on your own life and experiences. For this blog in particular, without the constraints of editors, I write about what I am interested in and this is sparked by what is happening in my own life. Which means I have an ongoing dilemma about what to share. This is not because I mind sharing personal things - anything that appears on here or published by me elsewhere I have thought through and decided I am fine for readers to know - but because many things that happen to me are not just mine to share.

Stories about my family life aren't just about me. They are about my husband, my daughter, my parents, my friends, my colleagues and others. So every time I write a post I have to ask myself the question 'is this mine to share?' Sometimes I probably get this wrong. But I am trying hard to ensure that while this blog is about me, and about parenting, and about my thoughts on parenting (with some books and products thrown in), it is not about my child in particular.

This means I have to censor some posts before I write them. Because it is not for strangers to know personal details about my daughter, be it her health, her name or what she had for breakfast. Occasionally I persuade myself that she won't mind, but then I delete the post before it is published. And whenever I almost slip up, I remind myself of the journalist who many years ago wrote an article in a national paper about a rare health problem his children have. Some years later I saw this journalist and his children out and about, and found myself scrutinising them for any signs of this health problem, which was of course absolutely none of my business.

Where do you draw the line though? If you write about problems bonding, or depression, or breastfeeding issues, might your child one day read your back catalogue of work (yeah right, as if they will take an interest in what you do!) and feel it reflects on their ability as a lovable child, as a source of happiness, as a competent feeder?

I remember the journalist Jon Ronson, whose funny column in The Guardian frequently featured his son, explained his decision to stop writing it as something he had always promised to do when his son asked him to stop, which he did. And Julie Myerson has made a career out of exploiting her children, which ended in tears when they found out they were the subject of her column and when she wrote a book about one son's drug addiction.

The publishing industry is to blame for some of this. My daughter sparks many ideas for articles I would like to write without giving her story, but parenting magazines do not want an article about an issue without a personal touch and preferably a picture of the two of us hugging. And journalists are to blame too of course - I don't want strangers to know about my child but it is my job to persuade other people to tall readers about their stories and the stories of their loved ones.

What it comes down to I suppose is that we all have our own line we will not cross. I do not think I will mind if one day my daughter says to me "I've read the cache of your blog mum and apparently parenthood is like, totally brilliant but totally terrible too." Perhaps it will spark a discussion about my love for her and how this trumps absolutely everything, even bitten nipples. But I don't want her to ever turn to me and say she saw a stranger looking at her oddly in the street, as if, you know, they were wondering about her health.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Some blogs and articles I like (an occasional series)

Tsk - I meant to post this last week but forgot. I was a guest editor on Tots100 which involved picking out my top ten blog posts of the week.

Here they are:

First, I love this post from Expat Mum on the trend for lunchbox notes in America – it’s enough to make you see your lunch for a second time. Bleurgh!

Much as I know it’s ridiculously overpriced I spend ages lusting over all the beautifully designed Scandinavian kids’ stuff, and Little Scandinavian highlights the best. Those hanging advent calendars? Want.

I am always inspired by Red Ted Art’s blog and the way it makes everything look doable. I’m looking forward to my daughter being old enough to join in. Until then it’s just me and my glitter glue.

I’m also inspired by the activities on Learning Parade especially this week’s story wheel. I wouldn’t want to be a tiger mother – but they look fun as well as educational.

This post from Happy Homemaker UK on trick or treating in England has to get a mention if only because I intend to use her line about British homes having spooky fog machines next time I meet a gullible American.

I’ve never met Victoria Wallop but I feel like I know her and her family through her brilliant blog It's a small world after all that I’ve been reading for about a year an a half – I can’t believe it’s a year since they set off on their trip.

This post at Sprinkles and Sprogs perfectly captures the joy of being a mum. So much so that I deliberately put a Happyland figure in my bag this week to ‘accidentally’ find at work when I missed my baby.

I know it’s a cliche that having a baby makes you appreciate your own parents more, but A Mother Knows says it beautifully in her post thanking her parents for all their help on her journey so far.

When you ARE that woman
has a nice post about her son’s haircut and all that it means to him, to her and to others.

A friend of a friend writes a blog about her son who has a rare chromosomal disorder. It’s always very moving and often funny and is brilliantly written. It’s not a British parenting blog but this post is about England and made me cry. Alexander Will Walk.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Should you cry in front of your children?

After a difficult phonecall this week I was in left in tears and left with a quandary - should I let my daughter see I was crying. She's only a baby but she can definitely tell when I'm upset, getting upset herself at the sight of me crying. 

Parents are supposed to be strong and capable of anything. We are the sorter-outers not the quivering wrecks. And though I'm good in a crisis I'm a crier the rest of the time. 

The first time I cried in front of my daughter was during one of our nights in hospital when in the middle of the night, both of us beaten by attempts to get my breasts to work, I sat on the bed with her in my arms and we both bawled, possibly for hours. But that was us against the world together. This time it was her normally happy encouraging mummy having a moment. And while children need to learn that not everything goes well all the time, some problems in the adult world should be kept adult.

So all I could do was brush the tears away, force my voice to normal and get on with our day. And because nothing else actually matters to me as much as the wellbeing of my family, this made me feel better anyway. 

Wow - it's a powerful protection having a family. I felt it when I met my husband, and remember thinking that if things went badly at work or in friendships or anywhere else, it was okay now because someone loved me and I loved them and that's what mattered. And now the baby is here that feeling has multiplied. 

This protection makes everything else less powerful and I think sometimes people sense that and can feel threatened by it. They can only hurt you a little bit, unless they hurt your family also. It's why films are right when good people will do bad things if the baddies have their child or their partner. I had always thought this was just a cheap plot device, but I see now that it is true. For you are there to protect your family, but they protect you too. Which means there should have been no need to question whether my daughter should see me cry, because there really was no need to cry in the first place.  

(Now I just have to put this into practise. I am a crier. From sad things on the telly to stubbing my toe to thinking about mortality to seeing a pretty picture to having a frustrating conversation with someone being stupid. I must learn to take my own advice.)

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Choosing life

The big thing when I was at sixth form was Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting. Like so many books, series and films which I go on to enjoy, my mum read it, liked it and told me I should read it, much to the shock of my friends who think a parent with the same cultural taste as them must be ultra cool. 

Perhaps the most famous part of Trainspotting was Renton's 'Choose Life' speech, which was reprinted on posters adorning many students' walls once I got to university. 

"Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin can openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you have spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life."

I think we had it on our walls ironically then. The irony is of course that it's exactly what I've chosen. 

FML* as my students might say. Except I like it. 

(*Fuck my life)

Things to do on maternity leave when you're braindead

- I'm writing a novel
- Yes, me neither


I had thought that while I was on maternity leave I was going to write a novel.

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

Or in parent parlance, Ha ha bonk. (That, as Ahlberg fans will know, was the sound of me laughing so hard my head fell off.) Write a novel? I didn't even have time to read one. 

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

I did not steal my baby

I am what I think people call olive skinned. My hair is brown, my eyes a greeny hazely mish mash and my skin looks a bit tanned. If I go into a Turkish shop it is assumed I am Turkish  If I go into a Greek shop it is assumed I am Greek. Italians speak Italian to me. Spaniards speak Spanish to me. When I get in a taxi the driver nearly always ask me where I'm from and the answer London doesn't suffice. When I can't be bothered to play ball and they say "No, I mean where are your parents from" I say London again. If they go back another generation I say London a third time. Then they stop which is a shame because if they went back another generation they'd begin to get the answers they are looking for. 

My daughter on the other hand is currently blonde. I don't mean currently as in she has taken to dyeing it regularly - she is ten months old so hopefully that's several years and much teenage angst away - but it started dark, turned blonde and who knows what it'll be next. 

Regular readers will know I have a slight obsession with risk, abduction and the cases of Ben Needham and Madeleine McCann. And I have been thinking about the language used around these cases and in particular the idea that gypsies might have stolen a blonde child. And I wonder whether people look at me and my blonde baby when we are out and about and wonder if we are really mother and daughter especially when people comment on her colouring. "My husband is fair" I tell them, "and so were both my grandmothers" as if I must justify the genetic heritage of my baby. And whilst losing a child to abduction must really be the worst thing possible, I do feel terribly sorry for the gypsies and other dark skinned people who may also have blonde children and who face suspicion because of it. 

Related posts:
Choosing between risks
The risks you dare not take
Searching for lost children

Monday, 31 October 2011

Blogging versus journalism

I'm guest blogging today over at Tots100 on the advantages of blogging over writing columns for newspapers. Read it here.

Related posts:
It's not just parents who should be interested in parenting
Why blog?

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Choosing between risks

I'm still thinking about risk. I needed to go to the post office today and pick up a parcel. The baby was asleep in the back of the car having just dropped off after a slightly troublesome night. I needed the parcel but was loathe to wake her.

The road outside the post office has three lanes of traffic and is just after a bend that cars often take too fast. The parking bays are on the right hand side of the car and the baby sits in the back on the left hand side. So I had two choices if I was to pick up my parcel: leave her locked in the car, which was visible from the post office or take her with me but get her out of the car with traffic zooming past me on a busy road.

I took her with me of course. But I did wonder for quite a while what to do. Truth is I suspect taking her out of the car was more dangerous than leaving her in it alone, with an accident more likely than an abductor. Perhaps it is because I am a journalist though that my brain works in headlines. Mother Leaves Baby in Car would be worse than a headline about a road accident.

I was of course influenced by the fact that she was asleep. Any parent knows that sleep is sacrosanct. I have an image of a cartoon in my head in which a mother holds a sleeping baby while the house is on fire. "Come on," says the firefighter, "we need to get you out of here". "Later" says the mother, "She's just fallen asleep."

But where do you draw the line when it comes to risk? If you are buying petrol and you need to go to the kiosk to pay, can you leave your child in the back of the car? At ten years old? At five years old? At ten months old? I have always done this at the petrol station yet wouldn't outside the supermarket. What about if you need the loo when you are out shopping? Can you ask a stranger to watch them much as you would your bag or coat? I would not dare just in case the worst happens. Yet what is more likely - she is abducted by that stranger or she gets ill from licking the toilet floor as she sits in the cubicle while I pee?

Raising a child is about gradually allowing them the independence to weigh up and take risks. I'm fine with that (until she wishes to do as I did and backpack around the world alone anyway). But goodness me the risks we take with them are many and the chances we take are abitrary.

Related posts:
The risks you dare not take
Searching for lost children

My baby, my daemon

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

When to tell off other people's kids

This week my baby, who is ten months, and I were having fun at a soft play centre when a little girl aged about three walked up to her and hit her face. What did I do? I thumped her of course. 

Not really! Though I wanted to. My daughter seemed unbothered but I firmly told the girl that hitting wasn't allowed and is very naughty. I asked where her mummy or daddy was and she said her mummy was outside in the cafe area, which meant she had neither witnessed the hit or my telling off and that I didn't have to face having a conversation about her child's actions, or mine. 

But when to tell off other people's kids is a minefield. I have an agreement with some friends that whichever of us witnesses something naughty or dangerous happening should feel able to tell the child off. Not a take them away and dress them down kind of telling off, but a "don't do that" or a "stop being naughty" or a "shhhh" or a swift removal from whatever they are messing about with. 

I have in the past however made the mistake of assuming all adults could (should, even) do this for any child, but I've definitely been on the receiving end of irate looks from parents when I have occasionally done this. Now I try to discuss it with the parents of any children we see regularly before the issue comes up. Still, it's a minefield. 

Which is why I can't wait to see the BBC's eight parter The Slap, based on Christos Tsiolkas' book of the same name, about the repercussions amongst family and friends when one of them hits another one's child (BBC4, 27th October) I hope I wouldn't hit another person's child. I hope I won't hit my own. But I know sometimes there is the temptation to do so, though I can't see how an adult friendship could survive such a thing. 

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Being a parent does change you

One of the compliments non parents often say about new parents is that "having a baby hasn't changed them". They mean it nicely - they mean you can still talk about things other than babies, that you manage to go to the occasional party, that you are still the kind of person they want to be friends with - but they are wrong. Becoming a parent does change you, absolutely and entirely.

It's not just that your responsibilities and priorities change, though they do. It's that something changes your very being to the core.

The experience of having a baby changes you physiologically and emotionally. You carry the weight of responsibility for another person, and a responsibility towards society to do a good job bringing up that person. But more than that, it changes your identity. However good or bad a job you do of it, the answer to whether or not you are a parent irreversibly changes and with it the way other people look at you and judge you and analyse who your are.

Your personality may stay the same, you may (if you are lucky) look the same. You may do the same job and read the same books and laugh at the same jokes, but fundamentally and profoundly who you are has changed. You are a different person. You are a parent and with that comes all the judgements and responsibilities we associate with that word as well as a sense of complete untouchability, for though you are vulnerable now in a way you have not been before you are also untouchable, for as long as your child is okay you know you will be okay.

So when people say "you haven't changed" it's not really a compliment, but it also cannot possibly be true. You have changed, utterly and completely, and so you should.

Related post: My baby, my daemon

Thursday, 20 October 2011

It's not just parents who should be interested in parenting

I'm back in the freelance market again after my maternity leave and, yawn yawn cliche cliche, I pitched an article to the family section of a newspaper. I liked the pitch - all about the rise of parent bloggers, but got a swift rejection from the editor. They try, the editor told me, to avoid articles about parenting, because the section is about family, not about parenting, and that they want articles that people can relate to whether or not they have young children.

Fair enough - they can publish whatever they want to publish - but I am quite surprised that they think parenting is only of interest to people actually doing it at that moment. Sure, the colour of your child's poo or their weaning habits may only be of interest to you and your partner, and perhaps an involved grandparent, but the wider issues of parenting go much further than this.

After all, who gets the blame if there are riots? Parents. Who is responsible for ensuring teenagers eat, drink and fornicate sensibly? Parents. Who needs to encourage children to ensure they get the skills necessary to contribute to society, economically and socially? Parents of course. Parenting isn't a niche issue - it impacts on us all, and I don't believe that only people going through it at the moment have views on it. I enjoyed reading about parenting when I was a child, when I was a childless 20-something and now. I imagine I will in the future.

"What we are looking for are stories from the other end of the spectrum, when families are grown up and the really interesting things in life have happened to them," the editor wrote back to me. And I am interested in these things too, but that's because I am interested in all types of human relationships. I am not old, but I am interested in stories about that part of life too. I am not adopted, but I find stories about adoption fascinating. I have discovered no deep dark secrets that I am willing to share, there are no famous people in my family, I think I know about all my siblings, no one has hidden any treasure and, luckily, there have been no great disasters. But I want to read about all of these things when other people write about them.

It's not to say my article should have been commissioned. Freelancers know that for every commission you get you also get twenty rejections. Indeed that is the job of an editor. And the joy of blogging, I am finding, is that you can write what you want without having to persuade anyone else to see merit in it in order to have it published. But I do resent the suggestion that being a parent and having young children is only interesting to those going through it at the time. I do believe it takes a village to raise a child, and I expect everyone in that village to be interested in how it is done, just as I am interested in their lives, whatever stage they are at.

Harumph.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

How to tell you are a grown-up

One of my favourite things about being grown up, in fact the thing that makes me feel like a grown-up, is the knowledge that if I want to I can eat my dessert first, before the main course. Now this is something I don't do very often, in fact I am struggling to remember whether I ever have actually done that, but I do like knowing that I can, if I want to.

I was thinking about that this evening as I ate Charbonnel et Walker drinking chocolate with a spoon direct from the tin (try it - it is very good) to satisfy my post dinner urge for something sweet. It's another thing you can only really do as a grown up. And I realised that the ability to do this kind of thing at will disappears somewhat once you have children.


I already have to eat my treats when the baby is napping or in the buggy and I am hidden from view, otherwise she wants to share it. It's not that sharing it would be a problem, but I am not about to give my ten month old any salty or sugary snacks, even though various relatives have tried to feed her chocolate buttons, KFC and wine. No, we'll save that for when she is old enough to actually want them, and even then we'll try to get away with the trick my mum managed of persuading me that chocolate was only allowed on Tuesdays and Fridays. So successful was she at this that if I went to a friend's house on, say, a Wednesday, I would turn down any chocolate because I wasn't allowed it on that day.

Anyway, I realised that the dessert first thing has come full circle. Because it's not my parents that I need to hide such wanton disregard for order from, but my daughter, and that being grown-up isn't about being able to have dessert first, it's about being able not to.

Related post: The secret life of parents

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

How to say "I'm pregnant" to someone struggling to conceive

People who know us, and who know that conception took us a while, or who were privvy to my anguish at the time, seem to feel the need to apologise to us if they, or whoever we are talking about, conceived quickly, or by accident. 

There is no need for them to apologise of course. Expecting a baby is a wonderful thing, and even at my lowest or most tearful I never begrudged other people this happiness. After all, as I would always say to friends, it is not as if there is a limited number of babies allowed and them having one minimises our chances of having one. 

Not that it wasn't difficult of course. At times I would summon all my courage and sense of what is right to raise a glass to someone's news or give them a celebratory hug, and then go home and howl. But I have never wanted anyone else to go through the months and months of disappointment and upset that we did. 

So how should you tell someone who has experienced difficulty conceiving that you are pregnant? Everyone is different of course but my advice is this. Do it matter of factly without beating around the bush. Don't apologise for it but don't gloat either. Above all don't say "I guess we must just be super-fertile" as this is not what someone worried about their fertility wants to hear. But don't hide your happiness either - people trying to conceive are trying because they want babies and think having children is a great thing and as such want you to be happy about your own fortune in this matter. And if you can, tell them by phone or email or alone and then give them a little space so they can wrestle their own sadness away in private and compose their face and their feelings so that they can then be appropriate to you. And when they say congratulations, please believe them. They may be sad about their situation but their joy for you is genuine. 

Related post: What I really want

Friday, 14 October 2011

Ways to improve postnatal care #4: Allow partners 24 hours access

This applies to labour as well as postnatal care. One of the recurring themes that comes up again and again when women share their birth stories is that their partners were sent home, either when they were in labour and on the ward, having to soldier on alone and in pain, or shortly after delivery. 

Of course our partners need rest, and of course we need rest too, but it would be more helpful for our partners to be able to come and go so that we can manage our time ourselves. That way if the baby will only stop crying between 3am and 5am while being held, or indeed if you will only stop crying by being held, they can be on hand to do this. 

After all, in hospitals it's the nights that go on forever, when overstretched staff take ages to answer the call button, when you need help to get to the loo at 2am and when someone fetching a snack would be most useful. 

Related posts:
Ways to improve postnatal care #1: Don't call me mum
Ways to improve postnatal care #2: Change the sheets
Ways to improve postnatal care #3: Help us buy the basics

Why I love the NHS

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The risks you dare not take

I've been thinking about the cases of Ben Needham and Madeleine McCann again. Both happened when the person looking after them took a risk. Ben Needham played outside while his grandparents were inside. Madeleine McCann was asleep in the holiday apartment while her parents had dinner a short distance away. 

And I've been thinking how easy it is to judge them for this but also how easy it would be to do the same. There are some evenings when the baby is asleep and I am home alone when I think I could really do with picking something up from the corner shop, or posting a letter, or feeding next door's cat. And I think to myself that the baby is asleep and will probably be asleep when I get back, and that even if she wasn't she's safely in her cot and can't get out. 

I never do of course. Fear of fire and abductors and foxes and dingos and fits and choking and me being run over or locked out all prevent it. But I think it would be easy to do, and once you had done it successfully it would be easy to do again, going a bit further, staying out a bit longer. And what I think about the Needhams and about the  McCanns is just what poor poor people, paying such a horrendous price for taking such a small risk - one that I reckon we've all considered, and one that because of them we'll now never take. 

Related:

Searching for lost children
My baby, my daemon

Monday, 10 October 2011

From dogs to cats - Nick Butterworth's Tiger

Moving on from dogs (sorry, puppies) to cats, I feel I should mention this lovely book, Tiger, by Nick Butterworth, about a kitten who pretends to be a Tiger. The illustrations are witty and the story is lovely and I recommend it to all. 



Related post: Dog, doggy or puppy and the link with puddles

Dog, doggy or puppy and the link with puddles

I've divided the world into three types of people based on how they read Dear Zoo which is, as regular readers will know, our favourite book

The last animal the zoo sends the protagonist is a puppy. I know it's a puppy because the tail is wagging. I am type a - a puppy person, exuberant and excitable. Some people, type b, read the book and reveal the final animal to be a doggy. This shows some level of fun and is therefore acceptable. Type c however gets to the last page and lifts the flap to reveal not a exuberant puppy or a fun doggy, but a plain old single syllable dog. Harumph. 

This reminds me of a great book I had as a child by Roger Hargreaves (of Mr Men fame), Are you a roundy or a squary? (out of print unfortunately).


Roundies jump in puddles, squaries walk around them. I'm a roundy of course, as are most puppy people. We jump in puddles regardless of the footwear we have on. Doggy people jump in puddles but only if they are wearing wellies. Those who say dog though when reading Dear Zoo, they most definitely walk round them. Working out whether someone is a roundy or a squary, a puppy, doggy or dog person, is a key skill in life, so it's great to be able to equip our daughter to do this from such a young age. 

Related post: From dogs to cats - Nick Butterworth's Tiger

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Why I love the NHS

I've been writing a series of posts (to be continued) on ways to improve postnatal care in order to make those difficult scary first days with your baby a bit easier, or at least not harder, but it has struck me that I should also write a positive post about the NHS and the care we received. Because most of it was excellent. 

The antenatal appointments checked that the baby and I were safe. Blood tests were taken using clean equipment and results came back quickly. I had choices over pain relief. Pregnancy bleeding led to a trip to casualty and to the early pregnancy unit where both times we were seen quickly, scanned and reassured. My blood pressure was frequently checked. The baby's heartbeat was often listened to. Had I needed to get to hospital in an emergency I knew I would have been able to call an ambulance. We had scans to pick up and monitor any problems. I had my own room to give birth in and was constantly monitored by midwives determined to safely deliver me a healthy baby which they did, and to leave me as unbattered as possible, which they did. Doctors operated on me post birth in a clean operating theatre using strong drugs and great skill. Midwives and doctors looked after my baby when she was sick in the first few days, and looked after me too. The wards were clean. I was given food. The medicines were plentiful. The most up to date technology was used to diagnose my baby and to treat her. And in the days and weeks and months since the birth every time we have needed to see a GP, we have been able to, all
medicines needed have been free and all hospital appointments have been with experts. Wow. 

I have complaints and suggestions for improvement but it's important, I think, not to lose sight that all of this was free at the point of use, available to anyone who needs it and delivered in a clean and safe environment by well trained staff. 

So this is a post to balance out the ones about improving postnatal care and to say how grateful I am to the NHS and all who work for it. How lucky we are to have it. 

Related posts:
Ways to improve postnatal care #1: Don't call me mum
Ways to improve postnatal care #2: Change the sheets
Ways to improve postnatal care #3: Help us buy the basics

Ways to improve postnatal care #4: Allow partners 24 hour access

Friday, 7 October 2011

The ideal temperature for a baby's room - learning to trust my instincts


The weather is cold and we've put the heating on for an hour and put the baby to bed in warm pyjamas and a sleeping bag. The temperature egg says it's too hot (anything over 20 degrees and it goes orange for too hot) but my own senses say otherwise. 

And it's made me realise how far we've come since those snowy days when we brought our baby home and we slavishly followed the temperature egg. In part this was due to my confidence being sapped in hospital by midwives taking it in turns to tell me to remove a blanket because my baby was too hot and to add a blanket because she was too cold, and in part because the frequent cot death warnings you see everywhere when you are a new parent warning you not to let your baby overheat. These messages are so alarming that you end up following them to such an extent you drive yourself quite mad - you're not meant to let your baby wear a hat indoors for example, so I'd remove it every time we went into a shop, waking her up in the process, and wake her again putting it on as we left each shop. 

In fact I think in those early days when the baby didn't want to be put down in her basket, it was probably nothing to do with her wanting to be held and largely to do with being too cold, and our determination to make temperature egg yellow thus indicating the ideal room temperature of 16-20 degrees. (There's a big difference, it turns out, between 16 degrees and 20 degrees. 16 degrees feels very cold, 20 degrees is just about comfortable.)

Once we tweaked the window opening and the central heating for ages trying to get a yellow egg only for a community midwife to come round and tell us the house was too cold. That's because we've just got up and not warmed downstairs up yet, we said, and upstairs the egg is yellow, we promise. But she told us sternly it was too cold, before reminding us not to let the baby wear a hat inside. 

When it is too cold (below 16 degrees) the egg turns blue. When it is too hot (over 24 degrees) the egg turns red. And it is true that on the rare occasions the egg has been either of these the house has felt too cold or too hot. But this winter I am going to have a new rule. When it feels hot I shall add a blanket and when it feels cold I shall take one off, and the egg will be no more than a pretty nightlight. See how far we've come. 

Gro-Egg Room Thermometer

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Searching for lost children

I watched a heartbreaking programme about Ben Needham this evening. He was a twenty-one month old British boy who went missing on the Greek island Kos in 1991. 

There are some news stories that make a big impact on you and shape how you view the world. They are, I think, the ones you hear about when you are starting to be conscious of the news. Mine split into two categories: non-natural disasters and crimes against individuals  They include the Hillsborough disaster, the Marchioness disaster, the Zebrugge disaster, the Lockerbie disaster, Suzy Lamplugh, Rachel Nickell, Josie Russell and Ben Needham. 

As such, I have thought of his case often. His mother still searches for him twenty years after he disappeared. I understand that she can't stop looking, but what would happen, I wonder, if she found him, separated by culture and language and twenty years of being apart. I wonder this in relation to Madeleine McCann too. What if she is living a happy life with a family and has no memory of her past - would it  be worse for her wellbeing to reveal all and reunite her with her parents or to let her continue that life with no knowledge of how she came to be living it? 

What can you hope for a child who has literally been lost? For them to have a happy life I guess - that is all I can come up with. It's hard though. What do you do if getting them back ruins their life by turning it inside out? I cannot imagine any parent saying okay, we have found them, now let us leave them alone to continue the life they now have. Such a choice is biblical in the extent of its horror. But whatever might happen if you found them, I understand that the parents can never stop looking. 

www.helpfindben.co.uk

Related posts:
The risks you dare not take
My baby, my daemon

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Some blogs and articles I like (an occasional series)

This post from Sprinkles and Sprogs about pushing your luck.

This post from A Mother Knows about pre natal testing.

This post from When you ARE that woman on Gigglebiz and comic timing.

Ways to improve postnatal care #3: Help us buy the basics

Really I think as many maternity pads and nappies as needed should be provided by the NHS, free at point of use, during your stay in hospital. After all we don't take in our own bandages and antiseptic when we have an operation. Let's begin from what the current situation is however and accept that they aren't. 

But even if they aren't free, they should be available. No one knows how long they will have to stay in hospital post birth so no one knows the quantities they will need. And no one wants to have to send their partner, parent or friend on a hunt to find supplies when they should be with you. 

Have a shop in each maternity unit, or even a trolly going round the beds, and sell maternity pads, nappies, wipes, cotton wool, nipple cream and even shampoo and toothbrushes. And do so at high street prices, not vastly inflated prices. 

If you can have burger bars in hospitals then how about a branch of Boots or Superdrug - it really would make life easier. 

Ways to improve postnatal care #1: Don't call me mum
Ways to improve postnatal care #2: Change the sheets
Ways to improve postnatal care #4: Allow partners 24 hour access
Why I love the NHS

Monday, 3 October 2011

The truth about breastfeeding

A lot of articles and blogs I have read about breastfeeding difficulties are either defensive or apologetic. I am going to attempt to be neither.

Both my baby and I struggled with breastfeeding. Hand problems (Carpel tunnel syndrome followed by tenosynovitis) meant I struggled to hold my baby to the breast. Post birth surgery meant my body was tired and full of drugs. My baby was a little poorly and also a little sleepy. Sucking was difficult. Even without all of this we may have found breastfeeding hard. Many mums and babies do. 

But when the paediatrician said yes, breast is best but really the key thing is to feed your baby, we had no choice. We gave her formula. This gave her the strength to learn to breastfeed. But my supply was low. The way to raise it, said the health visitors and midwives, is to feed the baby at least every three hours and express in between. As each feed could take an hour this left very little time for anything else. I gave up on it quickly. 

A health visitor told me to massage my breasts while feeding to encourage milk flow. I was already tired and emotional with low milk supply. After that I was tired and emotional with low milk supply and bruised breasts. 

The baby lost weight. Lots of weight. Then we started formula feeds as a matter of course, starting with breast and 'topping up' with formula. The baby started to put on weight. Since then in fact we have mix fed. At nearly ten months we still do. It works for us. 

Breast is best. I get that. It has huge benefits for the baby and it's convenient. When it works that is. But the adverts that say this, the ones with peachy looking breasts and rosebud nipples attached to a perfect baby looking blissed out, they do us a huge disservice, because they make it look so easy that if we struggle we think we've failed. Far better a campaign that says breast is best but boy is it hard and please persevere anyway. Have a picture of a mum with bags under her dull sleepless eyes and bulgy veins on her breasts and raised nodules on her nipples and a slogan that says 'It might be shitty but it might get better if you carry on.' Such ads might stop women feeling like failures. 

We're led to believe that breastfeeding is so natural that it's like one of those crafts we've lost in the modern age, like thatching a roof, painting frescoes and making our own soap from horses hooves. We feel that before formula existed women must surely have found it easy because they had no choice. 

Actually here's what I think happened to those women and babies for whom it wasn't easy.  Women whose babies had died acted as wet nurses for some babies. Other babies were fed cow's milk, water and other liquids and some of these got ill and others didn't. Some women had the village wise woman or an older relative sit with her day in day out helping her, tweaking the nipples into shape and helping her hold the baby, until they could do it alone. And some babies, well some got weaker and weaker and died. We're lucky to live in a time where there is an alternative. 

The more people who, head held high, say breastfeeding is difficult and you are not a failure if you struggle and you are not a failure if you stop, the better. Breastfeeding rates in the UK are low and I know the authorities are keen to increase them. But lying to us about breastfeeding and pretending it is easy and pretending it works for everyone is, I am sure of it, the wrong way to encourage people to do it. 

Sunday, 2 October 2011

You can do it: babies, students and the need for cliches

I teach journalism at Goldsmiths College (surely a line that should be in a Pulp song) and term starts this coming week. The teaching is mainly classroom based and practical and I enjoy it a lot, especially seeing students' work improve over the course. 

But what I am most proud of is the few occasions over the six years I have done the job where I feel I have really made a difference to someone's life, not by teaching interviewing skills or sending an assignment back until the apostrophes are in the right place, but by being encouraging about a job interview or a competition entry or an internship so that they decide to go for it. Where this results in success the course of their lives can be changed, and where it doesn't it often gives them the enthusiasm and fire in the belly needed to apply for other things which then changes the course of their lives. 

So many students I meet seem to have never been told they have as much chance as anyone else, that they have to be in it to win it, that they'll miss 100 percent of the shots they don't take, and all the other cliches which mean the same thing. While they have already done well getting into a competitive university and onto a competitive course, me saying this about jobs and work related opportunities is sometimes the first time they have heard it. 

I remember having dinner in my mid twenties with a man who was older than me and enjoying success with his journalism and books. How was it I was so confident, he asked me. Much of that confidence is a facade of course - isn't that the case for everyone? - but I realised that the confidence I do have is from my parents and grandparents (and now my husband), and to some extent teachers, consistently encouraging me, saying well done and showing an interest in things I was applying to do. 

A baby and a student are different in many ways of course. But playing with my baby just before term starts has caused me to reflect a little on the similarities. Because every day with the baby is about encouraging her to achieve what it is she can already do - this jigsaw, that peepo, this rollover, that waving - and pushing her to achieve more - hand clapping, crawling, chewing etc. Some of these, crawling for example, other babies can do already. But encouragement is not about saying 'they can do it so why can't you', it's about saying 'work hard and one day you'll be able to do that too.' And though the goals are different, the method, despite the 18 years or so age gap, is exactly the same. 

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The magical impenetrable world of brothers

I've just had news of friends' new baby boy, their second. I know I wrote recently about how much I wanted a girl but it is true also that my heart swells when I hear news of a new set of brothers. There is something romantic and wonderful about brothers. They can destroy each other (think Cain and Abel, think David and Ed) but they can be the making of each other too. If I were into quoting Bette Midler I'd say that they were the wind beneath each other's wings. Sod it, I'll say it. When brotherhood works it's as if they are the wind beneath each other's wings. It's why, although I am proud to be a Labour Party supporter, I cannot feel easy about having Ed Milband as leader of the party. Whatever your relationship with your brother is like, however much you think you can do better than them, you do not stand against them for a job. When Ed Miliband uses standing against his brother as an example of having shown courage I think no actually, it's a moral failing that you did so.

When I hear of a second son being born, I think of this line from an incredibly moving article by Simon Stephenson that I read in The Guardian in July, about the death of his brother Dominic in the Asian tsunami:

"To have any brother in this world is to be part of an exclusive club to which no riches, no secret handshake, no guest list can ever gain you admittance."

And it makes me hope that I have two boys in the future. 


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I've not read it yet but here is Simon Stephenson's book, Let Not the Waves of the Sea



And here is another very moving book about losing, and searching for, a brother. It's called The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky and is by Ken Dornstein whose brother died in the Lockerbie air disaster. 



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Related post: Am I a SMOG?

Inflatable bath spout cover


I take it all back. Here I slagged off the inflatable bath spout cover. Now my baby bounces around the bath I think it might be an essential piece of kit. I'm getting one.

Available from the Great Little Trading Company for £6.50.

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As pointed out by Ali in the comments, it's cheaper on Amazon:

Emmay Care Bath Soft Spout Cover

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Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Ways to improve postnatal care #2: Change the sheets

I had hoped my experience was just a one-off and that by staying in hospital for several days after my baby was born I somehow got lost in the conveyor belt of people going home six hours after their baby was born, but having spoken to many new mothers since becoming one myself, I realise that I am not an unusual case. But while my baby and I were in hospital after her birth, I had to ask for my bedsheets to be changed. I plucked up courage to ask twice which meant they were changed twice, in a five night stay.

Yet the days post birth are particualrly yukky. You bleed. Lots. You may be a bit leaky when it comes to urine. Your breasts produce liquid, not necessarily to order but nearly always when you have found a dry patch to lay on. The baby poos and wees, also not to order, and as you don't yet know how to do a nappy properly, this also leaks. Current policy seems to be not to wash the baby post birth, but to let the fluids that cover it when it is born come off naturally over the next few days, so this too gets everywhere. Then there's sick. And of course spillages of food and drink that come from trying to grab a mouthful whenever you can while juggling your slippery newborn.

So you're sitting there in poo and wee and blood and sick and food and you think that's okay, whatever else it is nurses and healthcare assistants do, changing the sheets is key and they will be along to do it soon. And you wait. And wait. And wait.

The dirty sheets are not only a health risk but a downer on morale too. Change the sheets, every day, maybe twice a day, and don't wait for women to ask.

Ways to improve postnatal care #3: Help us buy the basics

Ways to improve postnatal care #1: Don't call me mum

Monday, 26 September 2011

My mum is not my best friend

My mum and I have a firm belief that wonderful as the mother-daughter bond is, we are not best friends, and that mothers and daughters should not describe themselves as best friends.

In part this is because our relationship is much more than that of friends, so to describe it as a friendship diminishes our relationship. But I think it's more than that. I think it's because with friends you have a responsibility not to judge them where as with your children you have a responsibility to judge them.

After all, if a friend is badly behaved then providing you are not the victim your job is to provide hankies and chocolate and fun and analysis and chat and distraction and advice, but only when asked, and if whatever they have done is so bad that you can't do this then you can walk away. However with your children you can never walk away and you have a responsibility not just not to ignore bad behaviour, but to take active steps to make it better, to show disapproval and to set boundaries, all under the blanket of unconditional love.

For although one always hopes a friendship is long term, but often they are not. Some are ephemeral, lasting the duration of a conference or a course or even an evening out. Some last for years but you grow apart, either metaphorically or geographically. Others peak and wane in intensity depending on where you are in life. But the parent-child relationship should not do this. If I am to fulfil my role in our relationship, I will be a constant, not always approving but always there.

What's more, if a friend disappears from your life, you may be sad but you do not define yourself to others, or to yourself, as someone who was once a friend of that person. But once you are a mother (or for that case a sister), you are always a mother, regardless of what events may happen. Even if you left you would remain a mother - it is fact as much as feeling.

So whilst my relationship with my mum has many elements of best friendship about it, I'm proud to say she is not my best friend, she is my mum. And nor do I seek to become my daughter's best friend. Rather I seek to be the best mum I can be. My friendship I will save for those who do not need mothering by me.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

No pain = lots of gain, or why I chose an epidural

I didn't really feel any contractions. My waters broke without any and, due to the infection risk, 24 hours later our baby was induced. As I was confined to the bed anyway, which is considered one of the main disadvantages of an epidural, my indecision over whether or not to have one disappeared and I decided to take the drugs. Don't worry - we had our fair share of pain and issues that night and subsequent nights, not least because my placenta refused to budge, but contractions were not one of them. 

I don't buy into the idea of pain as a positive force. I wouldn't have my wisdom tooth extracted without pain relief or my heart bypassed or any other operation without anaesthetic, so why would I for childbirth? But the pain of childbirth, unlike the pain of toothache, is so deeply embedded in our culture (Damn you, Eve) as something that women should go through, somehow I feel as if I cheated a little. 

Isn't that ridiculous? I took a positive decision to make the most of modern medicine, to save my energy for when the baby arrived, to dull the pain that many women describe as making them feel they might die, and I don't think well done me, what a great decision, but I think I cheated. How deep misogyny runs huh, even amongst women, even against ourselves. 

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Ways to improve postnatal care #1: Don't call me mum

This is a plea to midwives, nurses, doctors and health visitors who see women in the hours, days and weeks following the birth of their baby. Don't call me mum. There is one person in the world currently allowed to call me mum, and she can't speak properly yet. 

I know it's easier to just call everyone by the same name, but you manage to use names in every other ward so let's do it in maternity too. You may have put your hands up our most private bits, you may have seen us grunt and cry and bleed and push and poo as our babies came out, but pretend for a moment we're not just on the birth conveyor belt and that we're individuals with names and feelings. That way we might just feel your plans for our health and the health of our babies are individualised too. 

Ways to improve postnatal care #3: Help us buy the basics

Ways to improve postnatal care #2: Change the sheets

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Am I a SMOG?

Apparently there's a word for people like me. It's SMOG - Smug Mother Of Girl(s) - which is a bit unfair because we took what we were given. In fact so elated were we when our baby came out we completely forgot to ask what sex it was until the midwife asked us if we wanted to know.

But actually I did desperately want a girl. Not because there is anything wrong with boys, and I am sure I would have loved a son and will love any future sons, but because I so wanted a girl with whom I might have the relationship I have with my own mother, who may want me when she has a baby the way I wanted and continue to want my mum, who will continue the long line of strong, stroppy-when-necessary women, with whom I can share the experience not just of being but of being a woman.

Actually real SMOGs, according to the paper, aren't just pleased to have girls, but actually don't like boys or what is thought of as 'boyish' behaviour. This definitely isn't me - some of my best friends are boys, I even married one - plus I don't believe that there is such a thing as boyish behaviour and girlish (let's not use the word girly, please) behaviour, just being children.

But I am hugely thrilled our baby turned out to be a girl. When my daughter was a couple of weeks old my mum gave me a framed print. It showed her mum's mum, her mum, her, me and my daughter, one after the other. It has become one of my most treasured possessions. The life of my great grandmother (who I never knew) will be vastly different to the life of my daughter, yet by virtue of being a woman they will share many key experiences too, and I feel honoured to have the chance to share this with them both. I am sure my daughter will have many moments where she thinks I don't understand her, and no doubt she will be right at least some of the time, but I will understand some things too, more than she will ever know, unless she has a girl of her own one day.

Related post: The magical impenetrable world of brothers

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Man's Work

I first saw this book a few weeks ago in the library and I was so taken with it I bought a copy for home on Amazon. In fact I bought several copies as I felt it was so good many of my friends deserved a copy too.



Man's Work (All in a Day) by Annie Kubler is a picture book with no words in which we see, over the course of a day, a dad and his child do what many people think of as 'women's work' - putting away toys, hoovering, ironing, cooking etc. I thought it was the ideal book for any child who mainly sees women do this work, be it their mum or a cleaner, to help them understand that actually this kind of task is not intrinsically something women do.

But as there are no words it relies on the person 'reading' the book to make up the story, so actually it becomes whatever you want it to be. Is the dad doing all this because the mum is away and it's a novelty to keep house? Or are they doing it as a surprise for mum? Perhaps it is a stay at home dad and this is the kind of thing he does every day? Or maybe he is the 'manny' rather than a dad and his job involves light cleaning duties? See, when you think about it it is as complex as Milton's Paradise Lost trying to justify the ways of God to men. Whatever your story though, I am sure that normalising men doing housework is an excellent thing.

Incidentally, another lovely picture book with no words is The Baby's Catalogue by Allan and Janet Ahlberg:

Monday, 19 September 2011

For whom the tears flow

We had a difficult beginning, our baby and us. No more so than many people and quite a lot less so than lots of people but it was difficult nevertheless. Feeding issues and possible illnesses and moments of intense worry plus all the tiredness and emotions everyone who has just had a baby feels.

When I tell friends the detail, and the detail is what everyone wants to hear, I often find myself in tears. I'm a crier so it's not that unusual, but also it's incredibly easy to imagine myself back in those moments and to feel everything I felt then again.

And sometimes people say to me that yes, it sounds horrid, what a difficult beginning you had, but look at your gorgeous girl and how well she is now and how beautiful and lively and amazing she is, and how she thrives, so don't cry.

But what they don't realise is that much as life as a mum is bound up with a willingness to give up anything necessary for the wellbeing of your child, it is not an entirely selfless life. For at these times the tears aren't for her - she is indeed beautiful and lively and amazing and oh how she thrives - the tears are for myself.

Related post: Best of times, worst of times

Saturday, 17 September 2011

What does a baby peacock look like?

Further to last post, what about one of these? I found it when googling the entirely genuine question 'What does a baby peacock look like?'

Available here.

Shark in the Dark

Would it be wrong to buy one of these? (It would be wrong, mainly because it's £89!). Available here.

Friday, 16 September 2011

(Not) remembering my first day at school

I've been reading lots of blogs and tweets and Facebook updates about people's children starting school and the pride and the worry and the changes to routine and it struck me, I don't remember my first day at school. 

I remember things that happened at nursery - song circles and the willow tree in the garden and my mum helping hide chocolate eggs for an Easter Egg Hunt and the accident that led to me being hospitalised for dehydration after refusing to drink with my battered mouth, and the nursery nurse I thought was a witch (because she had a wart on her face not because she was mean) and I remember a few details of my early school days such as where the classroom was and the blue maths workbook with an owl on the front and the teacher's name but as much as I try I just can't summon up the first day. 

Which means it must have either been a complete non event or so traumatic I have buried it. I suspect the former. Which should be somewhat comforting to parents of this month's newbies shouldn't it?