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.


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. 


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.

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.