Saturday, 22 December 2012

The fuck-it list

When I was single and a bit lonely, especially the year three of my best friends got married (how was I to know I'd already met my husband and would get together with him later that year?), I used to make myself feel better by writing a list of my achievements thus far. Not a bucket list, because it was already done, more of a fuck-it list, as in I might be feeling a bit miserable but fuck-it, at least I was doing other stuff.

It had things on such as 'I have surfed in the Pacific ocean' (if one can count trying and failing to stand up on a surfboard as surfing) and I have been handgliding from the top of a mountain and learnt to cook Thai food in Thailand and been front page news in New Zealand and performed stand up comedy in New York etc etc.

I was reminded of this when filling out my daughter's baby book this week having not filled it in for several months. It's been on my pre-baby arriving maternity leave things to do list for weeks and given I'm now overdue I took to heart the advice my friend's mum gave her about medical information and applied it to all life experiences* - that once you have more than one child you remember that one of them has had or done something but you can't quite remember which thing belongs with which child so write it down.

Writing captions for photos it also read a bit like a fuck-it list:

At four months I marched for the alternative against Tory cuts 

At five months I visited the Tolpuddle Martyrs museum 
(Sense a theme?) 

At six months I got a ferry to France and went camping 

At 18 months I went to the London Olympics

and so on...

I do hope some of it has an influence. Future Olympian I can manage without, but a Tory, please no...


*Most of the time when I say 'a friend' and then recount an anecdote or piece of advice, it's from the writer of this awesome blog, When you ARE that woman.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The outfit to begin all outfits

As a second born child myself, I am keen to make sure baby number two doesn't always get the bum deal. It's why I eschew those buggies where the baby is tucked away underneath the main seat, with no view and the smell of toddler fart hanging over it. The baby is not here yet and already I feel awful telling my daughter she is my favourite person in the whole world, even though she is, and presumably will be until this one gets here at which point I'll have two favourites.

It's already posing issues though. We have huge amounts of baby clothes. In truth, we don't need anything for the new baby, with vests and babygros and cardigans bursting out of every drawer, cupboard, suitcase and box under the bed. But, but, but.... my baby should at least get to feel what it is like to wear something new out of the packet, I told myself as I bought just one cute pack of newborn vests. A bit unfair really - it'll only get its hopes up before being forced into a lifetime of hand-me-downs.

I wasn't going to buy the new baby a coming home from hospital outfit, even though this is something I expended huge amounts of energy on before the arrival of baby number one. I wanted something bright, unisex and, dare I say it, funky. I got what a wanted, a posh funky Toby Tiger number costing an arm and a leg yet despite this, having no feet. A friend with a baby already pointed this out to me as a potential problem, what with us having a winter baby, so wintry in fact that as we looked out of the hospital window on night one of her life the snow began to fall, as it also threatens to do this time. Still, the lack of feet wasn't the problem, more that it was aged 0-6 months and, as I now know, there's a big difference in the size of a six month old to that of a newborn. In fact it fit our daughter when she was about four months, and I put her in it for a photoshoot at Snappy Snaps that I'd won in a draw, the kind where you get your shoot for free and they then try to sell you prints for hundreds of pounds. I bought the two cheapest prints, just 7"x5", but I don't like them and they are not on display. The cheesy nature of the shots and the removal of my husband's glasses so he doesn't look like himself is bad enough, but the main thing is that babygro, bought for a newborn and therefore, to me, looking all wrong.

But others have been a little disapproving when I have said I wasn't intending to get this baby something chosen with equal care. So I went to John Lewis and bought a very cute penguin number. It's ultra cute, and I do like it, and yes perhaps I did also buy our toddler matching pyjamas. But will they wear them? Who knows. Because much as I try to remember what my daughter did wear when we bought her home from hospital, so desperate to escape after our several nights inside, I just can't summon up a picture of it at all.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Only kidnap a child who shares your surname

The other week border officials at Eurostar's UK Passport Control in Brussels asked me to prove my daughter was in fact my daughter. They said they were challenging me because we do not share a surname. Here's an article for The Guardian that I have written about this, published today.

Travel troubles: the problems of not sharing your child's surname

And here are articles about the Mexican case to which I refer:

The blond 'Mexican beggar child' story holds a mirror to US perceptions of race

Little blonde beggar girl whose treatment has sparked race row in Mexico

And a previous post by me on a similar subject:

I did not steal my baby

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Closing the doors on the advent calendar idea

Last year my friend, who blogs as When you ARE that woman, wrote a lovely post about a book and DVD advent calendar she had made for her sons, where they had a Christmassy thing to read or watch each December evening in the run up to the big day.

I loved the idea of this and from January-March I pounced on any Christmassy reads in charity shops hoping to make my own. I got so many I thought perhaps I would make them for friends' kids too. It wasn't hard - as That woman had pointed out to me, many books you don't automatically think of as a Christmas book is actually set at Christmas - Cops and Robbers takes place on Christmas Eve, That's not my penguin might as well be and the wintry scene of The Gruffalo's Child is ripe for a North Pole interpretation.

But all this was before I knew a second one was on the way, due the week before Christmas and within days of the first one's birthday. A birthday, a birth (hopefully), Chanukah (a present a day for eight days!) and Christmas itself suddenly seems an awful lot to contend with without having to summon up enthusiasm for an extra twenty-four presents, and not just opening them but reading or watching them too.

So whilst I am looking forward to watching The Snowman and introducing my daughter to the comfort of an annual tearfest, and Father Christmas Needs a Wee tickles me despite poor rhyme and an unlovable Santa, and Brigg's Father Christmas is fit for both reading and watching, and Cops and Robbers will do me any day of the year, and I'm rather taken by Penny Ives' Mrs Christmas, and the tactile That's not my..., be it snowman, penguin or santa, still pleases us all, an organised once a day advent thing is proving a bit beyond me this year.

Of course birthdays and Christmas are immovable and Chanukah moves though is beyond my control, so this will be the case forever more,. But I still love the idea. One day I shall be brave enough to try it.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

How to make a fuss

At an antenatal appointment this week I was ushered into a room before my main appointment so my urine and blood pressure could be tested. The room, a side room off the waiting room, would be private if only they'd shut the door. And, of course, if they hadn't tried to do my tests in the same room at the same time as they were testing someone else. I made a fuss of course, I am good at that. "It's not our normal practice" they told me. "Then why are you doing it now?" I asked. So they waited, not, I think, because they thought I was being reasonable, but because I was making a fuss. Or as I think of it, making a fuss. The reason? As I explained to them, it's no good for patient confidentiality, mine or the other patient's, if they discover something wrong with one of our tests.

But I have a particular interest in/chip on my shoulder about this issue that stems back to the early weeks of my daughter's life. In the area in which we live, due to high density housing, a large number of immigrants and poverty, all newborns are offered a BCG injection to protect against turberculosis. I was in two minds whether to have this for my daughter, largely because of the associated swelling and scarring and not wanting my beautiful newborn's perfect skin to be sullied in this way, but a belief in herd immunity won out and we duly went to our appointment.

If you are not the kind of person who believes that environment affects behaviour you have probably never been to this particular health centre in Tottenham, North London, where the TB jabs in our area are offered, I used to be a patient at the GP practice there but found it so demoralising I left very quickly. Once I rang over fifty times before getting through to a receptionist. Upon telling the GP I finally saw about this he agreed,saying he'd had the same problem one day when trying to call in sick. Unlike my current GP where you get what you want by being nice to the receptionists, there I found you only got acknowledged by being as arsey as possible.

Anyway the appointment started badly when everyone there for this injection was asked to fill out a form about their baby including whether they are HIV positive. I understand of course that medical professionals need to know the answer to this, but the forms were being collated on the counter where any other patient walking by could see them. This would not only impinge on my daughter's confidentiality if the answer were yes, but on my own too. On principle I objected.

We were then escorted into a room with another parent and baby. "Are you intending to do both of these children in this room one after the other?" I asked. They said yes. What did I do? That's right, I made a fuss. It wasn't going to happen, I explained, for two reasons. First, I did not want my child, or the other child, to get upset by the post injection screams of the child who went first. But also because it was possible that I, or the other mother, might have medical questions or issues to ask that should be kept confidential. Not just HIV which was clearly on the agenda as a question, but anything else too. "You'll have to wait here in the corridor then," they told me. Which I did. But I was fuming. What they were trying to do as a time saving measure ignored some of the basic tenets of healthcare that we expect our modern health service to offer.

It reminded me, in those early days, that I was not only my own health advocate, but my daughter's, and that just because she was a baby did not mean she didn't also have the right to respect, dignity and privacy as a patient. What's more, that there are times when she will only get that by making a fuss, something I am proving very adept at teaching her.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The extra hours

I received a phone call the other day at about 10.30pm, just after I'd put my phone on silent for the night, though I happened to see I had a message when shortly after I reached for my phone to set my alarm.

The call was a member of the production team of a respected morning news program on the radio. They wondered whether I might be interested in being a rent-a-gob, I mean insightful commentator, for an item they were planning the next morning about, oddly, The Great British Bake-Off. I say oddly because though I like cake, and indeed like the programme, I have not written about it and am not a cookery expert.

Now once upon a time I would have leapt at the chance. I'd never been on this programme before. It's the one all the journalists and all the politicos listen to and would have reminded them I exist and am available for work. Plus I love the challenge of speaking about things I am not an expert on, having to become an instant expert en route to the studio by speed reading cuttings. Except in these days of limited sleep there is very little that would persuade me to voluntarily get up before 6am, though it happens more often than I would like that I am woken up at that time by calls of "mummy, mummy" and little feet padding into our room. (Whoever it was that told me children don't realise they can get out of bed by themselves for months after moving to a 'big girl bed' was either wrong or I have a child genius on my hands).

And even if I had wanted to do it, I would have had to wake my husband, also a convert to the early night in an attempt to counter the demands of pre-dawn parenting, to find out what time he had to be at work and to negotiate changes to the next day's childcare.

There have, in fact, been a flurry of media requests for me recently, which is odd as I have gone from being a bit of a media whore once upon a time, the kind of person who thought nothing of getting up at 5am to get a cab in the snow to the Sky Studios in the back of beyond in Osterley to review the day's papers, to turning down most requests.

One came a couple of months ago from one of my favourite radio programmes asking me to speak about an issue that features in my feminism book, and that I still feel strongly about. But again it fell on one of the days I spend with my daughter. Never mind that these days are precious and I largely enjoy our time together, and have chosen to work part-time in order to have this, but the logistics were impossible. I would do it, I said, if I could bring my daughter and if they had a child-friendly member of staff prepared to sit somewhere safe with her and entertain her. They could probably arrange this, they said, they would have a researcher do it if they were free. If, of course, was no good. What would I do if the if didn't work out - jiggle her on my knee trying to stop her demanding an episode of Charlie and Lola or grab the microphone in the studio whilst discussing the appropriateness of rape jokes? Sure I know I can multi-task, but can the listeners tune out a toddler while taking on board her mummy's salient points? So I turned it down.

I know now why the people I was paired with on those early morning sojourns to Osterley were usually men and certainly never women of the age where they might have young children - other than the fact that two women youngish women sharing a slot is unusual in itself what with most commentators and pundits chosen to go on air being men. Because logistically mothers cannot just drop everything at the short notice broadcasting demands and head to the studio. And when they do, it's a much bigger deal to have gone to all that trouble if the item is pushed off the agenda and the slot shelved just a few hours later. Which is a shame because it only takes people seeing you on television or hearing you on the radio once or twice to think you must do it all the time and that you are very much in demand and that therefore they too should offer you work.

That's the thing about mothers' careers. It's not about whether we are any good at doing our job or put in our core hours or have lost confidence. It's about the extra things - the networking evenings that would mean getting home to bed hours later than our usual bedtime, opportunities lost due to childcare arrangements and an unwillingness to drop everything for a tenuous arrangement that would be great if it worked out but a pain in the arse if it didn't. These extra things are the ones that raise our profiles and give the impression of industriousness, and it is without these that our careers suffer.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Brother V Brother

This afternoon I'm going to see David Miliband talk to students at Goldsmiths College where I am a part-time lecturer in journalism. We've spent much of the morning researching his policy positions on things and discussing what to listen out for when it comes to identifying a top line for the news stories I have asked them to write on it.

Perhaps because baby number two has been kicking me throughout the morning and because I'm wondering how our own family dynamic will change when this one arrives, two years on from the leadership election (and from the arrival of our first child) what I really care about is not who would make the best Prime Minister but the whole brother versus brother thing.

Sibling relationships are complicated, necessarily so as you can't walk away from a complicated relationship the way you can from a simple one, and family ties are important. But regardless of the complexity, of feelings of rivalry, of love and hatred and grudges and emotional tangles, I just still don't understand how one brother can publicly stand against another in a fight where there is only one winner. Even the word itself, brother, should be one of togetherness, not conflict - we call people we are not related to our brother or sister to show we see them as part of our community, that we walk in solidarity with them.

Those on the right might take a different views of siblings. It is the unionists and oppressed minorities most likely to use this fraternal or sororal term greeting after all. Tories might put family before society when it comes to their rhetoric, but only when that family knows its place. It is still the party of inherited privilege and inherited wealth and this of course also means primogeniture. Cameron may have invoked his stokebroker dad in his recent conference speech, though his line "My dad was a stockbroker from Berkshire" is disingenuous in its suggestion that he was the Berkshire equivalent of a self-made Essex man, what with wealth and aristocracy in his line for generations, but he doesn't once mention his three siblings.

By contrast, those on the left should reject thoughts about whether it is the younger or older sibling who should get opportunities. As a younger sibing myself I've even rejected the kind of double buggy that places the older child on top of the younger child to the detriment of the younger child's view, feeling it is unfair for the baby to automatically get the raw deal. So it's not that the younger Miliband, Ed, beat the older Miliband, David, that bothers me, but that they couldn't reach a deal together, behind closed doors. In fact they should have been fighting to stand down, each wanting the best for each other.

My mum says that when my brother and I were young children she used to feed the ducklings in the local park when we went to feed the ducks. When we were teengers she'd go for the half white and half grey adolescent swans, in their own awkward phase. Once we were adults she switched her feeder attentions to the grown ducks with their flashes of green and purple. Now she has grandchildren she's gone back to the baby ones again. I understand that - we identify, be it ducks, or public figures, with the creature at our own stage of life. So I, like most parents I suspect, still think of the Milibands and think, first of all, about their poor mother, and to be even more biblical than the obvious Cain and Abel comparisons, think about the Judgement of Solomon* and his suggestion to cut a disputed baby in half in order to flush out the real mother. (Perhaps the Labour Party should have suggested a leadership job share, with the candidate who said 'oh go on, let him have it then' being awarded the job).

See, I think about it a lot, every time I see either of the brothers in the news in fact. So of course there are multiple angles my students may take this afternoon, and many directions their questions may take,  but still, yes still, what I really want them to ask David, when it comes to the Q&A part of proceedings, is about his relationship with his brother.


*(I Kings 3: 16-28) Solomon must decide which of two women claiming to be the mother of a baby is the true one. He suggests cutting the baby in half so they can each have part of him. The 'fake' mother agrees. The true mother says in that case the other woman can have him so the baby lives, and it is therefore decided she must be the real mother as she wishes above all no harm to come to the baby.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

A new fangled old fashioned phone

My daugter loves old fashioned red telephone boxes - it's my fault perhaps, as on holiday we found one and she went into it with her dad, who gave me the number, and I rang it from my mobile so we could have a conversation on the phone.

Who can blame her though - wonderful as mobiles are, there's nothing like a great piece of street furniture to brighten up your day, be it a phone box or a magnificent bright red pillar box (or the wonderful Olympic gold one we saw in Enfield recently in honour of Charlotte Dujardin).

She's been conditioned into such geekery since she was very young of course. At about six months old we took her to a family fun day at the British Postal Museum and Archive Store in Debden, Essex. (Play 'Where's Ellie' in the pic below).

Now I'm not one of these people who subscribe to the 'isn't it all terrible our children can use computers before they can talk' school of thought. I'm proud my daughter can swipe open my iphone, even if I worry about the number of times she'll accidentally call the emergency services on it, as she'll be living in a world where knowing how to use technology will be key. Nevertheless I like that she also has a feeling for design greats from before she was born.

As such, this amazing iPhone cover is top of my Christmas want list, £19.99 from

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Some blogs and articles I like (an occasional series)

We went to a wedding last year where a young girl, about four years old, turned to a woman my age who had no children and said "If you're not a girl and you're not a mum then what are you?" Had she said that to me in the trying to conceive years I'd have had to run outside for a not so quick cry. I was so busy thinking about this at the time, and cuddling my baby daughter, that alas I forgot to listen to her answer. I was reminded of the question however when I read this brilliantly hilarious article in The New Yorker by Jenny Allen.

 I'm a mom by Jenny Allen

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Mothers for abortion rights

When I became a mum I used to enjoy joking about the new found legitimacy this status gave me in being morally outraged. "As a mother," I'd say, "I really hate paedophiles," as if I thought abusing children was perfectly acceptable before I had one.

There is one area however where I think being a parent makes it even more important to stand up and be counted, and that is when it comes to abortion rights, particularly at the moment as Jeremy Hunt (Secretary of State for Health) has told The Times that he'd like to see the legal abortion limit halved from 24 weeks to 12 weeks.

This is because it is very easy to get confused when it comes to abortion and to think that it is about women not liking, or wanting, children.  Actually abortion is very little to do with children and everything to do with grown women looking at their lives and working out whether to ruin it or not by going ahead with an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy or a pregnancy in which the foetus faces huge medical problems. In fact it is only now I have a child and realise how all consuming being a parent is that I realise how catastrophic having parenthood forced upon you would be.

This doesn't mean I believe in sugar coating what abortion is by using euphemisms about collections of cells or worrying about the exact number of weeks at which a foetus becomes, with huge medical help, viable.  We do ourselves a disservice when we do this, as if we cannot face up to what abortion is. Yes, abortion is killing a potential baby. But not allowing abortion is ruining an actual, not a potential, life. And faced with two horrible possibilities I would always choose the actual life. That's why Hunt is being dishonest with himself if he really thinks abortion is okay, but only until 12 weeks. Either it is okay, and we value the actual life more than the potential life, or it isn't okay and the number of weeks is immaterial.

When I was less than a week old, in 1978, I went to a party. It was to mark the first anniversary of the opening of the day care abortion service, where my mum worked as a counsellor - though she was on maternity leave at the time. Some people may find this odd - taking a baby to celebrate abortion. But it wasn't to celebrate abortion, it was to celebrate the fact that women could end pregnancies, if they chose to do so, safely and legally. That is, it celebrated the opportunity to save lives, not end lives.

That's why abortion is one of the areas where mothers in particular need to stand up and be counted when it comes to supporting access to abortion. Because the anti abortionists, and those who want to limit access to abortion, need to know that women who are in favour of access to abortion are not baby hating monsters. In fact they may well already be mothers, very good ones probably. No, they just like women, actual women, with actual lives, and want to help those lives go as well as possible.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

The language instinct

A month or so ago the language switch in my daughter's brain seemed to turn on. Practically overnight her vocabulary grew vastly, and she started to have enough command of language to tell us stories. "Daddy, big hole, water," she told me after a day on the beach. It's brilliant, even when she uses it to send back her bedtime milk for not being warm enough. Chomsky, Pinker, eat your heart out.

But I have one nagging fear about her language instinct. It's been at the back of my mind since she started nursery shortly after turning one. Nursery routine goes something like this: Wash hands. Breakfast. Nappy change. Wash hands. Play. Wash hands. Lunch. Sleep. Nappy change. Wash hands. Play. Wash hands. Tea. Nappy change. Wash hands. Play. Wash hands. Snack. Home time. And ever since she started I've been dreading the day when she is able to turn to the nursery nurse helping them in the bathroom, and as soap is applied and they are encouraged to rub their hands together, says "We don't do this at home."*  

*We do, after a very messy poo or a session with paints, but not, you know, all the time.

Friday, 21 September 2012

On being fat and pregnant

It was perhaps a mistake, shortly before the birth of my daughter, to write an article on being fat and pregnant for Easy Living Magazine. Not because I didn't strongly believe the article should be written - it was about the one size fits all approach to fat women when it comes to a failure to conceive and the determination to blame this on weight when weight is only an issue here if it prevents ovulation - but because it meant speaking to experts who were mostly all doom and gloom about pregnant women.

"Fat women who are pregnant," one obstetrician told me, "are much more likely to die in childbirth." "Gulp," I said, "because I'm rather large and 38 weeks pregnant." "I'm sure you'll be fine," she said, unconvincingly.

The thing is, something I don't think non fat people understand, no amount of telling us something is dangerous is going to sate our desire for a baby. I don't know what odds they would have to have given me against my survival to stop me trying for a family but given that in my trying to conceive madness I genuinely felt that I didn't see the point of life without children, I suspect they would have had to be pretty low, and I imagine my husband would have stopped it before me.

Still, I couldn't bring myself to watch 'One Born Every Minute: Fatties' last night as I enter my third trimester with number two, though I recorded it to keep for a moment when I feel particularly vulnerable, when I shall hunker down to watch it with a big bowl of ice cream and a mansize pack of tissues. They didn't call it that, you might cry, and no, they didn't, but they might as well have, as the euphemism of 'One Born Every Minute: Plus Size Mums' is really no better.

I wrote an email to the hospital's head midwife after the birth of my daughter. Stopping short of a formal complaint it offered some friendly advice. Don't make fat women feel shit by sending them to the special fat clinic midwife, it said, if when you get busy you say oh sod it, see a normal midwife today. Either stigmatise us and follow it through with consistency that we actually need someone specially trained to look at us pitifully and ask how much we exercise, or stop bloody stigmatising us.

This time round I'm more confident. "I'll make an appointment for you to see the midwife who specialises in nutrition," my midwife said at my booking in appointment. "No thanks", I replied, "I'm not fat because I'm ignorant, I'm fat because I'm greedy." 'Refused' she duly wrote next to the appointment in my notes.

Nor are fat women allowed to use the birth centre, where women push out babies while sitting on space hoppers with whale music in the background. I don't mind this - I'm an interventionist when it comes to most things, be it world peace or birth - but I know plenty of people who do. On the other hand, I found the idea that I needed a pre birth meeting with the anaesthetist in case I wanted an epidural (I did) a bit insulting. I swear my friend's right that they are just checking you have a spine. Turns out that the same anaestheist looked after me while I had a (non fat related) post birth op for a retained placenta. "Hi", he said, "we've not met before." I wasn't too out of it, or, ahem, spineless, to put him straight.

I'm no evidence denier. I'm sure there are more dangers to fat women in pregnancy and birth than to non fat women. But my guess is the most common danger is to our mental health, when we're treated differently, told to worry and made to feel, ironically, incredibly small.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Still tired...

There is a photo of me on Christmas day two years ago, just four days after we were allowed home from hospital with our new daughter, and in it I look absolutely and completely shattered. I feel so sorry for the me of that day whenever I see the photo that I usually burst into tears, not least because I know that as the days and weeks went on after that photo, and though that photo looks like I was at the bottom of the tiredness well, I got even more tired.

It's no surprise I was tired of course. I'd had nine months of interrupted sleep during pregnancy thanks to a baby using my bladder as a trampoline, followed by six nights in hospital without more than 45 minutes sleep in a row, then a few days at home with our slightly poorly baby where any sleep we did have was interrupted by, you know, checking she was breathing and all those crazy new parent things you do. And that's before we start on the normal newborn waking every few hours thing.

Nearly two years later, and though I have had quite a few (though not enough) extended periods of sleep since then, I am sure I still feel the effects of that sleepless beginning. It's only recently, in arguments or negotiations or when making an excuse or working out whether I can bothered to do something, that I realise I can't really point to that time two years ago and say 'don't you know I'm exhausted, I have just given birth and now have a newborn.' My newborn is nearly two. At some point I am going to have to get over it, and move on.

Lots of people don't move on from things though. I know plenty of adults who blame their behaviour as a grown up on something that happened in childhood, or what they do in their current relationship on how they were treated in a previous relationship. Experiences can explain why we are who we are, but they can't always be used as an excuse. After all, should a ninety year old be able to treat someone badly and have everyone excuse this because 'they had a difficult childhood'. At some point we have to say, 'get over it.'

So I have decided - between now and the arrival of baby number two in a few months time, when once again I demand allowances be made for pregnancy, birth and newborn exhaustion, any unreasonable behaviour on my part is not because I am tired (though believe me, I am) or dealing with a young child (though I am doing this too), but just because I am being unreasonable. Ha - there are no excuses, so anyone at the receiving end may have to take me seriously. Turns out it's empowering this being unreasonable with no excuse thing. So now it's your turn to get over it.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Baby eating shark

It's been exactly a year since this post so I thought it was time for another cute baby being eaten by a shark picture. Available here.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Ambitious woman would like to meet...

I've been stewing on all the motivational articles I've read around the Olympics and Paralympics recently, and coupled with watching The Thick of It last night I remembered something that has been bothering me for almost ten years.

I used to work in political communications. The office was largely staffed by young women in their twenties - first or second jobbers. And a senior (male) colleague asked one day if any of us would like mentors. Yes, I said, and named the head of communications at Downing Street*. But that was too ambitious, I was told, and he wouldn't even approach him about it. The trouble with bolshy ambitious young women, he said, was we wanted too much, too soon, and that we should do things gradually without always looking ahead to the future. 

Try telling that to Jessica Ennis, or Victoria Pendleton, or Nicola Adams.

It pissed me off at the time, and it pisses me off even more now I am mum to a girl. The idea that anyone might try to thwart her ambition one day, whatever that ambition might be, is incredibly upsetting. In fact my main job, other than, you know, to love and clothe and feed and shelter her and try to encourage her to be a kind human being and nurture her inquisitiveness and give her fun memories and all of that, is to give her the confidence and self-belief and ambition, not only to want as a mentor the best person she can think of in whatever field she wants to enter, but to tell the person who says she can't where to go. 

I see from Facebook that the other woman he was referring to at the time also has a little girl. Luckily, I also know that he doesn't. So within a generation it may all work out okay.


*By the way David Hill, I think you would have been a great mentor for me. Not only did I grow up in Walthamstow, where you live, but I too could be described,as you were in a BBC Profile, as "...lively, quarrelsome, occasionally aggressive - and extremely good company." Have your people call my people...

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Sweating the small stuff - being your child's health advocate

When it comes to the big things - saving lives, developing groundbreaking procedures, being free at point of use etc - the NHS is pretty brilliant. And as a user you take for granted that it will be, so used to it as we are. But as a parent whose child uses its services quite a lot compared to many, it's the small things that rile.

Take for example the coffee shop at Great Ormond Street Hospital that wouldn't give me a cup of hot water to warm a bottle in case I burnt myself despite having just sold me a cup of hot coffee. (I know, I could have warmed the bottle in the coffee. But it was my coffee, I wanted to drink it.)

Or the anaesthetist at this world famous children's hospital who suggested my daughter was grumpy one time as she was prepared for an operation. "She's not grumpy," I said grumpily, "she's exactly how you would be if you hadn't been allowed food or drink for hours." She may have been grumpy but I would have expected a doctor used to dealing with children, and parents, regularly to know that coming across as even slightly critical at a time when you are worried and vulnerable is a bad idea.

Like the nurse on a ward who called my daughter a chunky monkey when she was six months old. "She's not chunky, she's just right," I said. The nurse back-pedalled quickly saying she was just so used to dealing with premature or very sick babies that it was nice to have one who was normal size. I forgave her. She wasn't to know we'd had weight loss issues in my daughter's early life and that her putting on weight was both difficult and emotive.

I had to ring the same hospital this week to go through some details for a test we were having. Last time, I told the relevant department, we'd had a very difficult time, the mere application of cream causing huge distress and the insertion of a cannula so difficult that my daughter fought off four doctors and nurses and we had to abort the whole attempt. It was awful, but oh I was so proud of her.

I wanted to speak to someone about an action plan for this time and ensuring we have someone particularly good at finding veins in wriggly toddlers. Her answer? "We do this all day every day, we're all good at it." This wasn't the case last time so why would I believe it this time? But more to the point, this person can't have had her own children. Because if she had she'd have known that that answer doesn't cut it, because they might do it all day every day but not to my child they don't.

I remember comparing notes some time ago with a friend whose child has also had a lot of medical appointments. We are, she told me, their only advocate. We mustn't feel cowed or belittled or that questions are ever stupid. We mustn't be afraid to demand a different doctor or dispute a course of action or tell someone to stop a procedure. Because we are the only person in the world who will do this, regardless of the fuss it causes. And the parents, faced with the alien environment of the hospital in which the medical professionals work every day, can see past the conveyor belt of doing this all day every day and remember while it may be routine to the staff it is not routine to our child, who will be scared and discombobulated and maybe in pain.

There was an amazing documentary on television earlier this year about Great Ormond Street Hospital and the very difficult surgery, often experimental, carried out there. One of the doctors got it. He used to be a bit dismissive of parents worried about a general anaesthetic or a procedure that the hospital is used to doing, he said. But then his own son had a routine operation for an ingrowing toenail, and he had to take him for his general anaesthetic and hold him as he was put to sleep. And that is when he got it. That when it's your child it doesn't matter how routine something is, how the staff may do it all day every day, how well your child is in comparison to others. All that  matters is that they have the best possible care and are treated with dignity and respect and as if they are the only child in the world having this done. Like I said at the beginning, the small stuff. Except it's massive.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Tabby McTat

A friend bought us this book which took a while to grow on me but is becoming a firm favourite. But what I think is so brilliant about it is it features a lesbian couple and makes absolutely no mention of the fact they are lesbians, they just happen to be two women who live together and who the protagonist goes to live with. More of this please.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Plans for my second birth

There was funny moment during the birth of our daughter. At one point, still inside me, she was showing some signs of distress. (That wasn't the funny bit). The medical staff asked permission to carry out a test, which involves going inside you to take a sample of blood from the baby's head. (If the results had been bad, which they weren't, I would then have had an emergency c-section). I gave consent of course, and the staff looked relieved. "Doesn't everyone consent?" I asked, and they said no, that women like me (I think they meant middle class women) are sometimes reluctant and ask the staff to wait half an hour to see how things progress before carrying out the test. "NCT women" I cried out. For that is what we had been told in our NCT antenatal classes - that where an intervention was suggested we should ask for it to be put on hold for a while to make sure it is absolutely necessary.

Yet of all the women I know who have taken NCT classes, in my group and in others, only a small minority had the natural complication-free births that you are led to expect in these classes, with problems ranging from breech babies to waters breaking without contractions to forceps to excessive bleeding to emergency c-sections to severe tearing. And for many of us, this was a shock, because the kind of birth that the NCT tries to promote, the type where women have as little pain relief as possible and as few medical interventions as they can and sit mewing on a bouncy ball throughout dilation, exists for very few women. Yet the emphasis on this kind of birth sets up the majority of women who don't experience this, to feel like failures.

We're expecting number two towards the end of the year, and I've been thinking about my last birth and my next one. In some ways, my approach will be no different. I took all medical interventions last time - from an epidural to all the monitoring offered, and I would do the same again. But this time there will be one main difference - I will feel no guilt for doing so. 


With my journalist hat on I am running a course on how to get ideas for It's 6.00pm-9.00pm at Friends House in Euston. London. It's £95 which means if you sell just one article off the back of it then it will more than pay for itself. Book here...

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

None of his business

When an animal poos on mole's head he sets about trying to find out who did it, analysing poo from other animals on the way before finding the culprit, and pooing on his head in revenge. It's funny, rude and has a rather dubious moral - in other word, it's perfect!

The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew it Was None of His Business by Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Rainbow rice

I made rainbow rice. What's not to like about running your hands through coloured rice and pouring it from container to container again and again and again. My 18 month old loves it, even though it smells a bit of vinegar. And I feel rather smug about making something she loves playing with - like a proper parent - even if the cost of the rice and the food colouring and the container means it is one of her more expensive toys. Oh, and it goes everywhere. But that's what hoovers are for right?

To make it you get rice and liquid food colouring and shake it together in a sealed bag or box with a splosh of white vinegar to set the colour. Some websites say you can just let it dry but it still stank of vinegar so I baked it in the oven for about half an hour and that muted the smell. It took ages - I did this four times for four colours. Still, it looks pretty.

Related post: Where dreams come true

Sunday, 1 July 2012

What to pack in your hospital bag

I wrote some advice to a friend whose baby is due soon, about what to take in her hospital bag, and she said I should put it on the blog for others to see too. So here it is, tidied up a bit. It's gleaned from antenatal class advice, friends, websites and personal experience. 
  • Food. Lots of it, for both you and your partner. It needs to be food that doesn't need to go in the fridge and isn't smelly. Crisps, biscuits, non smelly sandwiches, that kind of thing. Before I gave birth to my daughter a friend gave me great advice - if cereal bars aren't your thing in normal life then they won't be your thing in labour or after either. Take food that you like.
  • Drinks - but not fruity ones because you are likely to throw up in labour and throwing up acidic drinks is not pleasant, as you may remember from your malibu and pineapple days.
  • Toothpaste and toothbrush for both you and your partner - in case the food you eat, or post nap breath, is smellier than you think it will be.
  • Camera and battery charger and phone and phone charger, obviously.
  • Socks - because even though hospitals are very warm your feet always get cold.
  • A pillow - because hospitals never have enough, or comfortable, pillows
  • Flip flops - because they are funny about you walking around barefoot, plus you may want to shower in them
  • Bendy straws - that way your partner can give you a drink whatever position you may be in at the time, be it on all fours giving birth or lying down breastfeeding.
  • Flannels - at least one to put on your forehead as a cold compress during birth and one to put on your bits as a warm compress for the first post birth wees.
  • Money - you need it for food, for card to get tv access and for lots of other things I can't remember now but know we needed.
  • A proper big fluffy bath towel so you can have a shower. And shower gel and shampoo etc. 
  • Any beauty products you might want before being photographed or receiving visitors. No need of course, but if you usually dye your top lip every few days or pluck your eyebrows daily or whatever, you might want to do the same if you're in hospital for a few days.
  • Bottles and ready made formula - received wisdom is if you have it to hand then you won't persevere with breastfeeding. Patronising bollocks. If you decide that is best for you and your baby then that is best for your baby. Hospitals provide it while you're in hospital but you might not want to ask each time you need it. You'll find various advice on sterilising but next time I suspect I'll go the warm soapy water and a bottle brush route. 
  • Wet wipes. You'll be told to change your baby's nappy using cotton wool and water. But a friend from my antenatal classes who was having her second child told me, quite rightly I suspect, that no one uses cotton wool for their second baby so why put yourself through it for your first. 
  • Sudocrem and/or vaseline for nappy changes - early poos are sticky and horrid and this will help you protect and clean the bum.
  • Many more maternity pads than you think you'll need. There's lots of blood and wee and other fluids, and that's just from you. 
  • Comfy big knickers you can treat as disposable (because of the blood and fluids etc) - better than paper knickers in my opinion. 
  • Magazine type reading - if you have an epidural it might get a bit boring (in a good way). You might want something to do.
  • Lots of clothes for you and the baby - more then you think as it gets weed on and pooed on and sicked on and bled on.
  • Pen and paper - your brain really is a bit mushy for those first days (make that weeks, no make that months) and you might want to write down any questions you have for midwives or doctors in case you forget them later, or medication details etc.
  • Spare carrier bags for rubbish and dirty clothes etc.
Plus three more bits of advice:
  • Make sure you know how to work the car seat in advance. You do not want to be having an argument in the hospital car park as you prepare to take the hospital home for the first time.
  • Have a thermos flask ready at home, and any likely visitors primed to have one too. My hospital served lukewarm tea and wouldn't give me any hot water for hot squash despite me having a sore throat. My husband and my mum however kept a steady rotation of hot water coming in thermos flasks.
  • Pack your bag as if you are staying for one or two nights, but have another bag packed at home with clothes for you and the baby in case you are in for longer. That way your partner doesn't have to guess what you want bringing in, they can just pick up your ready packed bag and bring it to you.

Hope this helps - feel free to add other suggestions in the comments below. 


With my journalist hat on I am running a course on how to get ideas for It's 6.00pm-9.00pm at Friends House in Euston. London. It's £95 which means if you sell just one article off the back of it then it will more than pay for itself. Book here...

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The schools question

Our daughter is just one and a half, so you might think it's a little bit early to worry about this, but all anyone ever seems to want to talk about is schools. I've lost count of the number of people who have asked us if we'll move house (possibly, but not to be near a good school) or if we'll find faith (no way, and even if we did we both believe schools should not be faith based).

Then there are the people you meet at the park, or signing sessions, or through the other parent and child networks, who assume you'll feel the same way. "London is so vibrant," they say, by which they mean multi-cultural, "and when we didn't have kids we really loved going to the theatre and eating food from different cultures, but now we have children our priorities have changed and we want to be somewhere quieter," by which they mean whiter and more middle-class. 

Fine, I don't want small minded racists living near me anyway (or for that matter, non racist people who think a small market town is the height of excitement), though it is particularly galling if you've earmarked them as a potential friend because they too allow their child an occasional biscuit and have heard of Ed Miliband. 

But what isn't fine is that some people seem to think you are practically abusing your children by choosing to stay in London. In Haringey no less, home of riots and child abuse and 160 languages. 

I'd been warned that as your children grow older, the things that drive you and your friends apart are not the differences over demand feeding and routine, sleep training and co-sleeping, each to their own on those, but ideological differences over education, and insinuations that you don't want the best for your child - that you will sacrifice their future on the alter of your own pompous misguided left wing values. 

As if we don't all want the best for our children. I want the best for my child. I want the best for all the children who will be in her local school with her, when it is her time to go to school. And I believe the best way to get the best for them all is to have a comprehensive education for all our children, not just for those who have to go to the shit schools (because that, my friends, is not comprehensive). 

One person I know pointed me to a bit of research she had come across that suggested middle-class parents don't mind their kids going to 'bog-standard comprehensives' because they feel it teaches them a lesson about how to get on with all kinds of people, even those from ethnic minorities, even those who are poor. I'm offended by this. I do not want my daughter to benefit because they are poor for fuck's sake, I want them not to be poor, and above all not to be poorly educated. 

What we'll have to teach her at home I guess, because there won't be any of them at the school she is likely to go to, is how to deal with the holier-than-thou smugness of the kind of people who think we'll be doing the wrong thing by her, by not choosing where to live by catchment area. 

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Where dreams come true

I love crafts. I'm not particularly good at them - neatness is not one of my main attributes, but what I lack in precision I make up for in enthusiasm.

And I love looking through catalogues at things to buy. So imagine the excitement when a new Baker Ross catalogue comes through the door. They sell all kinds of kids' craft materials, from make your own snow globes to pens that draw on glass and funky stickers.

What's more, now my 18 month old is getting to the age where she's interested too. Playdough, made to my mum's thirty year old recipe (see below) was a hit, and next up is rainbow rice where you colour rice with food colouring, put it in a crate and bury toys and cups in it for playing.

So I can't wait she's in for a treat when our next delivery arrives. I've gone for London stickers and pirate stickers and mini chests of drawers you can paint yourself and design your own fridge magnets and, joy of joy, bottles and sand that allow you to make your own sand pictures, the kind of thing I've dreamed of since seeing them in European seaside resorts as a kid. I'm We're going to have a lot of fun.

Playdough recipe

1 cup of plain flour

1 cup of water

1/2 cup of salt

1 tablespoon oil 2 teaspoons of cream of tartar

A few drops of liquid food colouring

Put everything in a pan and cook on a moderate heat for a few minutes, stirring the whole time, until it thickens. When it's cool knead for a few minutes then wrap in clingfilm and store in the fridge.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The racism of strangers

On the bus two old women were admiring my daughter. Of course they were - she's lovely. She smiled, they cooed, she giggled, I was proud - everyone was happy. The one of them turned to the other: "She's a lovely little girl," she said. "You don't get many blond haired blue eyed children about these days do you."

I am jewish. To those tuned in to such things, I look jewish. My skin is, hmmm - olive? swarthy? a little darker anyway. My hair is brown. My eyes are hazel, whatever that means.

A little later one of the women turned to me. "Where does she get her colouring?" she said.

Here's what I said:
"From my husband. He's fair."

Here's what I wish I had said:
"I don't know, we bought her from gypsies who stole her from a white family."

Monday, 11 June 2012

Some things I like

1) Ninjabread Men! It's what happens when good gingerbread men go bad. Get them here: Ninjabread Men

2) Cookie monster mug - with space for your cookies. Get them here.

* The first two finds courtesy of the Soup Dragon Facebook page

3) This rainbow cake made with copious amounts of food colouring - I have no doubt the organo-fascists of north London will run a mile which is exactly why I intend to serve it for afternoon tea next time anyone comes over.

4) This article on breastfeeding and bottle feeding by Hanna Rosin from The Atlantic magazine in April 2009 sent to me by a friend following my previous post on bottle feeding.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The great unsaids - bottle feeeding

I'm still harping on about breastfeeding and bottlefeeding I'm afraid, not least because it's been in the news again recently with the Time Magazine cover of a mother feeding her three year old.

Before I had a baby I was a little judgemental about those who did not breastfeed. I wondered why they didn't just try harder or persevere, why they put their own needs - for sleep, for comfort, for convenience, for sanity - before their babies.

Then I had a baby and breastfeeding did not work immediately. It never worked to a point of exclusivity and we've (mostly) happily mix-fed from week 1. But I was at the hospital where I had my daughter the other day and saw one of their breastfeeding posters and I remembered something a midwife had told me when my daughter and I were there in the days after her birth. The midwife was en route to a party to celebrate a new breastfeeding policy they had just implemented in which they would not just actively encourage breastfeeding, but discourage bottle feeding to the point of not helping a mother bottle feed.

Even then, befuddled by birth and parenthood, I knew this was a bad idea. Not the supporting breastfeeding, but the other side of it. Amongst the mothers I know most want to breastfeed if possible - who wouldn't after seeing all the breast is best messages - and at least half have struggled. But to only emphasise the positives of breastfeeding instead of helping parents do whatever it is they decide to do, has bad repercussions.

First, it makes mothers feel like failures by suggesting we do not want the best for our babies. And second, it stops the dissemination of information telling us how to safely feed our babies formula.

In the nearly eighteen months since I became a parent I am still yet to find comprehensive science-based information on making a bottle. Instead we had to find our own way.

For example, a health visitor told me to boil water for my daughter's bottle then let it cool for half an hour. Using half an hour cooled water would, she explained, sterilise the milk powder the water was poured onto. Now I'm no scientist but I know this is utter bollocks. Perhaps making up the milk and boiling it would sterilise it (and I suspect it wouldn't - any chemists out there know?), pouring lukewarm water onto it will not. Plus doing this in the daytime is just about okay if you do not leave the house, but are you really going to do it in the middle of the night when you have two hours of sleep at a time? I suspect there is more danger to the parent in handling boiling water while half asleep than there is to the child in having a made up bottle kept in the fridge for a few hours - but the problem is we just don't know because no one tells us.

Another example is sterilising. We steriled my daughter's bottles, of course we did. First in a saucepan. Then in a steriliser. Then the dishwasher. Then the microwave. Then with sterilising tablets. (Not one after the other of course - I mean these are all techniques we have used). Now we give them a jolly good wash using washing up liquid and water. But you know, you decant the milk powder into the bottle using a measuring spoon that lives in the box of powder. A spoon you touch with your (usually, but not always, clean) hands. Are you meant to sterilise the spoon then?

Here are four simple measures I want for new parents who choose (or don't choose) to bottle feed:

1) Clear scientific guidance on how to make a bottle, both in an ideal world, and then also in the real world where you leave the house, are exhausted, need a bottle immediately to placate a screaming child and the fuse blows on the steriliser.

2) Reassurance that above all a well fed baby is a happy baby. Happier than one screaming for milk that isn't there, happier than one digesting blood from cracked nipples, and happier than one with  a mother so tired she can barely hold the baby to her breast without falling asleep.

3) An end to the misinformation about milk production. It will not dry up if you miss one feed. Probably not if you miss several feeds. Not if you feed from the same breast twice in a row. Not if your baby sleeps for five hours in a row. Not if you have a glass of wine. Not if you have two glasses of wine.

4) Perhaps the most important - messages that those who bottle feed love their babies just as much as those who breastfeed.

Only when this is done will we be able to have a sensible conversation about feeding our babies.

Related post: The Truth About Breastfeeding

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

A mother knows

My friend Olivia for a time wrote a blog called A Mother Knows. I loved her rationale for choosing that name:

"My beautiful son, who is six months old (corrected) as I start this blog, became critically ill in the womb with a terrifying condition called hydrops fetalis and underwent fetal surgery. He was born two months premature and spent his first five months in hospital, finally coming home in June 2011. Although he is now doing really well, he still has some health issues. Why ‘A Mother Knows’? Because the one thing I have learned so far is that a mother knows her child best. Better than the health visitor, better than the midwives, better than the breastfeeding counsellors, better than the people selling useless baby products designed to make you feel bad, better than her own mother, better than any other mother."
I've been reminded of it these past few weeks, with an ill baby myself, and a host of medical professionals who I have no doubt have my child's best interests at heart but just don't know as well as me what my baby needs. What's more, different branches of people working in health have little regard for each other. Pharmacists don't like helplines. Helplines don't like nurses. The Specialists slag off the GPs. The GPs bristle at the thought of a referral and everyone is scathing of those working in the Out Of Hours service. And all the while I must tell every single one what it is we want and what it is we need.

I am reminded of the AA Milne poem, The King's Breakfast:

The King asked
The Queen, and
The Queen asked
The Dairymaid:
"Could we have some butter for
The Royal slice of bread?"
The Queen asked the Dairymaid,
The Dairymaid
Said, "Certainly,
I'll go and tell the cow
Now Before she goes to bed.
Only it's more dog's dinner than king's breakfast. And all the while it is me, the mother, who must go and tell the cow what test we need and what medicine we require. Because Olivia was right, a mother knows best of all.

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Tottenham Snail

I live quite near this mural, on the side of a house on the Seven Sisters Road in Tottenham, north London. I don't know how long it has been there but it must be nearing thirty years. When I was younger, it was always a sign that we were on the home straight, just a few miles from home, and though perhaps being near it now shows just how little the distance is that I have flown from my nest, I find it reassuring every time I see it. I love that, give or take the odd graffiti tag, usually painted over quickly, this snail has lasted for so long. I love the incongruity of it, on a road that just leads people to places, and is never a destination in its own right. But most of all I love that it is a snail. The kind of creature that we say yuk to, that along with slugs and puppy dog tails makes up small boys, the scourge of gardeners, and yes, covered in slime. Yet there it is, proud, bright and still there, heralding to my daughter when we drive past it that we are nearly home.

Any other time...

I've been talking to friends about recent births and those first few weeks - how awful it all is, and the utter exhaustion. And the recovery time, not just from birth and hormone surges, but often from major surgery. And I've bene thinking about the surgery in particular - I had it myself very shortly after giving birth to remove the placenta which refused to budge. And you know what, in absolutely any other situation in your life in which you have surgery, be it a wisdom tooth taken out or an ingrowing toenail removed, a bone resetting or a lump removed, you would be told to rest as much as possible, to sleep and to rest and not to worry, that anaesthetics make you woozy for several days, and please rest some more. So why is it, after the major abdominal surgery some women have, after the drug fuelled ops that follow hours of labour, we're just left to look after a baby and never get more than three hours sleep. How can we recover, how can we look after another, when we need looking after ourselves. There must be something we can do to help women in this situation?

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Your absolute and utter best

I've just read Beth Gutcheon's Still Missing, having heard a few months ago Rachel Johnson discuss it on Radio 4's A Good Read presented by Harriett Gilbert which I came across by chance when I turned the radio on while driving.

It's a terrifying book focusing on a mother's torment when a child goes missing without a trace (in fact it was turned into the film Without a trace). The mother, Susan Selky, enters a kind of living death in which she must live in order to have the faith that her son is alive, but while he is missing she has effectively died inside. I read it very quickly, desperate to find out whether he is alive, to find out whether the mother might enter the world of the living again. It's ever so gripping, and of course made me think once again of the McCanns and the Needhams and the parents of other missing children.

But it's not just reading the book that made me think. Harriett taught me journalism at City University when I was a postgraduate and I've not seen her for a couple of years. I love it when I happen upon her on the radio, partly because she is a great presenter and was a great teacher, and partly because she has a lovely radio voice - learned, sexy, thoughtful, firm. It's a pleasure listening to her. And when I do hear her voice I often remember her saying to me a few years ago, kindly I think, about one or other article or book I had written, that she wondered when it was I was actually going to try my best at something. See, producing a book was not enough. I should, I think she was saying, produce the best possible book I can produce, write the best possible articles, think the hardest possible thoughts.

And you know what, though I doubt it's the answer Harriett was necessarily looking for, I've finally found something I really do try my utter best at. Yeah it's the kind of answer that might make you want to gag, but it's true anyway. I do try my best at being a parent, because I desperately want my daughter to be happy and kind and the type of person people want to know and for her to make the world a little better and to be inspiring and interesting and interested. It's not a special attribute - I believe (nearly) all parents share this. It's why Still Missing is so powerful, why we can read it and really feel for Susan Selky, and understand that she is both dead inside but must also stay alive. For there are loads of things that we should try our best at, and I intend to do so the next article, the next blogpost, the next book, really I do. But there is only one thing that really really matters, and it turns out I try my best at that without even having to think about it.

I got my copy of Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon second hand on Amazon but have since found out it is currently published by the lovely Persephone books whose website says: "Persephone prints mainly neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women. The titles are chosen to appeal to busy women who rarely have time to spend in ever-larger bookshops and who would like to have access to a list of books designed to be neither too literary nor too commercial."

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Lovely crumbly yumminess

It's amazing how it's not just experiences, but senses, that define your childhood. The smells and sounds and tastes. I walked into the loo at the University where I work the other day and was hit by a powerful smell of bleach that took me straight back to the ladies loo in the Polytechnic my dad used to teach at, where we occasionally joined him for the day to play in his office while he saw students or did work. There must have been a higher education bulk buy in the early eighties for a particular kind of loo cleaner. Then there's the powder puff. I can't have seen one for twenty years but when I opened one in a shop the other day, unsure of what was in the box, the sweet smell of powder and the satiny feel of the puff made me feel all safe and young and, atishooo.

One of the senses that has stayed with me is the taste of a particular kind of cake they used to sell in the bakery on Orford Road in Walthamstow, which was on our walk home from primary school. It's still a bakery, though one selling sandwiches and coffee, rather than iced fingers, bath buns and split tins. For years I have thought about these cakes. I had tried describing them to people - crumbly, sweet, brushed with icing sugar, like a Viennese biscuit in cake form with solidified jam running through it - but no one could help.

Then I was flicking through a recipe book in Oxfam books the other day and found a picture that looked strikingly familiar. Turns out Viennese was a red herring because they're not Austrian at all. Rather they are called Swiss Tarts. And I made some, and they tasted just right.

(There are loads of recipes for these online - just search for Swiss Tart. They are butter heavy and sugar laden and consequently delicious.)

Buggy microwaves and tramps' cocks

Sometimes if I have an idea for something I want to write about, I jot down a note and come back to it days, weeks or months later. I was looking at my list today, seeing if anything that seemed desperately interesting at the time of writing the note, retained interest now. One caught my eye. It simply says ‘Buggy microwave.’

I have absolutely no idea what this means. I’ve wracked my brains and all I can think of is the possibility that at some point I thought buggies (strollers, to foreign readers) should come equipped with a microwave. Or maybe I was musing sterilising our buggy in the microwave as it does smell, as one friend so eloquently put it, of a tramp’s cock, having had formula milk (fresh and regurgitated) splashed over it on several occasions.

Today I start my six months as Writer-in-Residence at the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green (London, N22). In fact I am there now, shoes off, sitting on the sofa, laptop on lap. I’m going spend Tuesday mornings here writing, chatting, eating biscuits and scaring the real customers. Come and say hello. And buy books. By the end of the residency, in six months time, I hope to have remembered what I meant by 'Buggy microwave'. And to have cleaned our buggy.

Related post: The nicest bookshop

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The greatest show on earth - and we'll be there

I have a glut of posts that begin 'When we were trying to conceive...' for which I apologise. Here is another.

When we were trying to conceive I often thought about the London Olympics, now just weeks away. I would work out how old my baby would be in July 2012, if we conceived in any given month, and whether they would be old enough to understand the magnitude of the event, to recognise athletes, to play with a toy medal, to wonder at the nature of a competition that includes swirling ribbons around in rhythmic gymnastics and so on.

Turns out we were a bit late for that. Our daughter will be 19 months when it starts. We got her a pay your age ticket for the hockey so she'll be there, but whether she'll be engaged (whether we'll be engaged - it is hockey after all) who knows.

But I am thrilled that she will experience the London Olympics, that we will get photographs of her at the Olympic Park and have some souvenirs in her toy box. Because I am not one of the naysayers who is cynical about the event. You only have to look at the Olympic Park and its magnificent buildings, and walk around the adjacent shopping centre, to think wow, this used to be Stratford, the kind of place you had to suffix with the words 'East London' less anyone think you meant 'upon Avon', and now it's Stratford, the kind of place you can just say by itself and it can hold its head up high and say yes, look at me with my velodrome and aquatic centre and stadium, my destination shopping centre and comfortable cinema and casino for those that way inclined. Look at all the jobs I have created in building and retail. Look at the feats I will host, the speed, the agility, the strength. Look at the tears and beads of sweat. Oh, I'm getting carried away... but you would too if you had grown up a stone's throw away, if you associated Stratford with the 69 bus, if your school theatre trips were to the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

I love that Stratford no longer hides away in East London, letting its 'cooler' neighbours of Mile End and Stepney take the limelight. Now Stratford proudly says 'I am here'. And my daughter, though she may not remember it, will be able to look back on London 2012 and say 'I was there'. I'm so pleased we managed to make her in time.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

The whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom

The Guardian's Comment is Free website recently republished a quote by Dennis Potter from a 1994 interview in which he talks about dying, as part of their 'In praise of' series.

It's a beautiful quote:

"At this season, the blossom is out in full now … and instead of saying 'Oh that's nice blossom' … last week looking at it through the window when I'm writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it."

I read this last week, fresh from admiring the blossom on our street and in the park. This time last year I snuggled my four month old baby in her sling and showed her the blossom, the patterns it made in the sunlight and the beauty of a single flower. This time round she toddles under the tree picking up fallen blooms, pointing to the trees and uttering her most frequent word, 'flower', sometimes in wonder, sometimes with excitment, sometimes as a statement of fact.

And Potter's thoughts, seeing blossom for the last time, are, I imagine, very similar to my daughter's thoughts seeing it for the first and second time. I do not know for sure what she is thinking when she points at blossom and says 'flower', but I suspect it is something along the lines of "that is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom what there ever could be, and I can see it." Unless of course, it's pink.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

We all want that

My friend Alison Miles wrote this lovely blog post about the genetic reasons for her children's hearing loss. And has made me think all over again about something that has been bothering me since having my daughter, which is the smug way people say, when pregnant, "As long as it's healthy I don't mind what sex it is."

Why does it bother me? Because we all want healthy children, that's why. I am sure people say it as a superstitious tic, worried that if they express a preference for something as trivial as gender then the gods will punish them in other ways, but to me it comes across as particularly irritating, suggesting that perhaps they think they are the only ones who want a healthy child, that when you ask something that illicits that response you are suggesting other concerns trump health.

Our daughter has some health issues, hopefully now resolved, the detail of which is nobody's business but ours, and the family and friends with whom we choose to talk about it, and when someone trots out the "as long as it's healthy" line I want to say to them "yes yes, that's taken without question, we all want that, do you think we didn't, do you think wanting it makes it happen, do you think you will love a child with health issues any less?"

But one can't say this to an expectant parent of course. Because they mean it nicely. They are trying to prove their suitability as parents, to others and to themselves. And though this phrase is my particular bugbear, I am not beyond superstition myself. Never in my life, before being pregnant and then being a parent, had I saluted a magpie. Now I can't bloody stop.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Egg tattoos

I don't like tattoos. It's a blanket dislike (though I'm sure yours is lovely or discreet or I'd change my mind if I saw it.)

Now I've done a few things I know my parents wouldn't approve of, though usually taking to heart their advice that while I shouldn't need their approval I also shouldn't do anything I am afraid for them to know about. It's sound advice I shall be passing on to my daughter, and that I pass on to my students when I overhear them worrying about their parents finding out they are a smoker or wanting them to enter a particular profession - do not do anything you are afraid to admit, but not feel you need approval.

And perhaps because I know how much my parents hate tattoos, and how upset they would be if I were to have one, for me it falls into the afraid to admit category.

What's more, now I have a baby, a baby with perfect skin and beautiful hair and magical eyes, the idea or her doing anything to change this, be it make up, piercings, a tattoo, even a haircut, is hugely upsetting, though something I will of course have to get over.

All of which is a very convoluted way of saying that I have never ever considered getting a tattoo. Not even a dolphin jumping over my ankle. Not even a suitably ethnic symbol on my shoulder. Not even a celtic design on the small of my back. But nevertheless I absolutely adore this use of the temporary tattoo for Easter.

(Read about them on The Fabulous Mom's Guide

Monday, 2 April 2012

I took her to a supermarket

The baby and I popped to Tesco this morning for a picnic lunch and other essentials (hairbands, Easter eggs, crumpets) and, parking the car, I saw the above notice, saying "It's so much easier when you shop from home."

Now never mind that shopping online with Tesco is not easy, not if you factor in my last order having so many substitutions I sent back more than I kept and the two orders before that being cancelled on the day by the store leaving me with no food or nappies and, on one of those, no money, having taken the cash from my account despite not delivering the goods. Never mind that. Because even if the service had been at an acceptable level, it's sad if people are encouraged not to take their kids to the supermarket.

In my constant patter of chatter as we meander round the aisles, my daughter seated in the trolley, she is introduced to several basic concepts that she needs to know in life. She learns that she can't have everything she wants, that sometimes persistent nagging will get her some of what she wants, that things have a cost and budgets must be kept to, the difference between luxuries and essentials, that lists can be ignored but should always be made, and much more.

Once, when I was a a teenager, my mum played a game. Everything I asked for in the supermarket she said yes to and we came home laden with shampoos and hair mousses. It was a bit overwhelming, getting everything I asked for, but a wonderful memory. I may do the same to my daughter one day, a one off special treat. But how would it be a special treat if she hasn't first had years of having to keep more or less to a list, browse shelves for bargains, evaluate quality and not have every single thing that catches her eye as we go up and down the aisles?

Friday, 30 March 2012

A tale of two city parks

We've been spending a fair bit of time in London's Bloomsbury recently and, when our need for a swing, a loo, a climbing frame, a sandpit, a bench shaped like a train, a cafe or some goats and chickens overcomes us, we head to Coram's Fields, a park that you are only allowed to enter if you are with a child. If those facilites don't sound enough for you, consider this - once, about a year ago, I even spotted Damian Lewis there.

Before I had a child I was desperately jealous of the friends who got to hang out there, not because there aren't other parks in London I could go to, but because when friends got together there for a day out it was just so excluding. Now I can go, I'm a bit ambivalent about the place. Because although in theory it has everything you want in a park, including a well stocked children's centre with a drop in play session for the under fives complete with craft materials, judgey staff, polite notices and children with ridiculous names, it seems wrong to have a park solely for people with children. It gives across a Daily Mail-esque message that all adults without children who wish to go to a park are paedophiles, and, conversely, that everyone with a child is not a paedophile, both statements being untrue of course.

The other day we went to the park next door to Coram's Fields, Brunswick Square Gardens. It has more flowers than Coram's Fields, and flowers, along with pigeons, are my daughter's favourite things at the moment, having usurped ducks and dogs. The sun was shining, the daffodils were trumpeting spring and the plane tree in the middle, which according to the Camden Council website is "the finest example of a London plane tree to be found anywhere in Camden" and listed as a 'Great Tree of London' by the charity Trees for Cities, was resplendent. One thing was missing however, for though it looked lke a park and smelled like a park, it wasn't the slice of society that parks usually are - for there were no children, and it was rather sad.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Why are you crying mummy?

During the first evening of my baby’s life she nearly died. A passing midwife noticed that she wasn’t just coughing, as I had thought, but was turning blue. The midwife grabbed her and, yelling ‘crash’ and pressing a button on the wall, ran from the ward taking my baby with her. I was left tied to the bed by my catheter for seconds? minutes? hours? Long enough to know that the worst had happened. Long enough to think about having to send a message to everyone cancelling the birth announcement I had sent out a little earlier.

When I realised my catheter would unhook and my legs, numbed by a spinal, would carry my weight, I found my baby in a side room. “Is that my baby?” I asked the midwife. I had not known her long enough to recognise her yet, something that haunts me still. That was my first question. “Is she alive?” was my second. She was. They had a question for me too. “Why are you crying mummy?” asked the midwife, the hero midwife who saved my baby, the monster midwife who could not understand why I might be upset.

I still do not know how to answer that question. Is it because I thought my baby was dead or is it because she was alive?

Over a year later mostly I manage to put this to the back of my mind. I have a healthy baby who has become a wonderful mischievous loving toddler. The world is her oyster, which easily becomes lobster, which is tantalisingly close to the Yiddish word lobus which means little monster, in an affectionate cheeky way, and which although conventionally only used for boys is used in our household for our beautiful girl. The world is her lobster, and this lobus is our world.

A healthy happy baby is all anyone wants. That we have one is magical. Every day I appreciate it and most days I choose not to remember the moments when I thought it had been taken away just as it began. Yet sometimes, in the shower, driving alone with the radio on, walking through the park, I remember that night, and anyone who sees me and my tears may well also ask that question, “why are you crying mummy?” And still I cannot really answer.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Just say no (no)

There is a school of parenting thought where the parents don't use the word 'no' to their children. I found out about it when I overheard another parent at my daughter's nursery ask the staff whether they used the word. The staff were a little taken aback. I could see that they wanted to give the mother then answer she wanted, but that they were also thinking of the many many times a day they say it. "We only use it when it's necessary," one of them finally offered. 

In my experience, it's often necessary. When my daughter goes to touch an electricity socket for example, or tries to eat a crayon. When she attempts to empty the kitchen bin or thinks 5am is morning. 

I looked up the not saying no idea, or the 'No No' as I have started to think of it. Try to find an alternative to 'no', one book urged, suggesting that a toddler be distracted by a toy or an alternative activity instead. That way, it said, you can try to prevent your toddler entering the stage where they always say no. 

Now call me old fashioned but I want my toddler to both hear and use the word no. I do not want to give her extra time to be electrocuted while I think of something as exciting as a plug to play with. I do not have the wherewithal to simultaneously find something fun for her to do with one hand while preventing her from running across the road with the other. And when she is faced with situations where she is offered a choice, you know - sweets from a paedophile, drugs from a big kid at nursery, a drink with spirulina in it, I hope she also says no, as firmly and confidently as possible.