Friday, 2 December 2011
way of staying vertical whilst falling forwards. The things I remember: The thud of the soles
of my feet reverberating in my chest, the ridges of the rubber bar gripped in my hands, the
sweat under the wool of my too warm coat, the running of my nose I didn’t have time to
stop and wipe. My beautiful girl asleep in her pram. Her big, round, red cheeks, the left one
tilted up at me. Her dark lashes resting on the tops of them. Her little nose. There snuggled
in her sheepskin. Green woolen blanket. Yellow babygrow. Lilac flower motif. Amber
necklace. Toe nails need cutting. Hands done, little finger on right hand a bit jagged. Dry
patch of skin above left eyebrow. Beautiful hair. My girl.
I was going so fast. It felt. I don’t know how fast you can go rushing downhill pushing a
buggy. I guess that’s the problem, you’re not really pushing it. You’re holding on. It’s this
strange feeling of falling forwards and pulling backwards at the same time. Very confusing.
I became hyperaware of my movements, my coordination. I became aware of how easy it
would be for me to make a mistake right now. My clammy hands gripped the handle bar
even harder. It’s a white knuckle ride, I thought, telling the joke to my girl in my head. I talk
to her all the time, whether she can hear or not.
I started to panic about the buggy slipping out of my hands, about how steep the hill was,
about whether I would be able to catch up with it. I checked the road for traffic, evaluated
the likelihood of the pram being hit by a car should it slip away. I saw it go in my mind,
zooming away from me. I gripped harder. I walked/ran/thudded faster.
I didn’t see it go. I think I did, but I can’t have. It must be what I thought I’d see. Though I
can hear the turn of the wheels, the whip of the wind, see the shaking of her cheeks as it
went over bumps. But I can’t have. I can’t have seen any of it.
I looked up - But no, I didn’t. That’s something I thought would have happened. The first
thing I saw was the road, from sideways. I opened my eyes and I saw the road from the
side. I felt my cheek on the ground, the emptiness in my hands. Then my eyes pulled my
head forward. I could see her. I could see her pram. It was on its side.
I do not know how long I did not see her for. How long I was not there. I hit my head. The
ground. Hit my head, tripped my foot. My hands. My hands let her go. I don’t know. I know
that I had to be where I was going at 10:45, and I’ve worked out that it takes 6 minutes to
walk from where we were to where we were going. I was running 5 minutes late. I don’t
know how long it was until I knew the time again, I’m told it was about 2:15. The man in the
cafe said he saw me at 11:05. The woman in the car 10:50. I don’t know if what they say is
true. Every second has been a hundred years.
I crouched down to the pram. I looked under her blanket, under the sheepskin. A few
seconds, hundreds of years. I moved very fast and I stood very still. Road, pavement,
other side, that way, behind. Listen. Listen for her. Nothing. Again. Blanket, sheepskin,
road, pavement, other side, that way, other way, all around. Listen. She must be calling.
She must be making a noise. Few seconds, hundreds more years. There. She was not
there. Here. She is not here.
She is not here. She is somewhere. She is somewhere. She is. She is. She is my little girl
and she is somewhere. And she is happy. Do I want her to be? Happy, yes. Somewhere
else, no. To be? Yes. To be somewhere else if she is happy. To be if she is not happy? To
be if one day she might be happy? Until one day when we find her.
I search. I search, I search, I search, I search. Everything. Everywhere. I see her. Long
hair. Dark lashes. Little nose. Long limbs. Maybe not red cheeks. Her eyes haven’t
stopped changing colour yet. I don’t know. I don’t know. My little girl. I look down. I see her,
asleep in her pram. Little nose, lashes resting on big red cheeks. I keep going. I hold on. I
don’t let her go.
Monday, 5 September 2011
I had a wonderful few days with my partner trying to bring on labour. My waters broke on the Sunday and by the Wednesday still nothing had happened. We went for windy spring walks along the seafront in Hove where a ship load of wood had just been washed up on the beach. We had curry, pineapple, sex, jumping up and down and acupuncture. Nothing happened.
The flat was spotless. The sitting room was one large bed. A pool had been borrowed but not set up. I went into hospital for a checkup and the doctor reacted very strongly indeed to the fact that we had left it so long since the waters broke. He wanted me to stay in and be induced immediately. I was told I was risking the baby’s health by waiting a moment longer.
Greg drove anxiously home to get my stuff. I waited in an empty room for him to come back not knowing what would happen next. I didn't want to see the doctor again until Greg was safely there by my side. We had been wrapped up wonderfully in our little bubble for the last week.
Later, I remember the epidural wearing off because they had to take the line out for some reason and they forgot to put it back in – suddenly I was in the full blown pain of labour. The female doctor took a look and told me the baby's head was turned. I had an hour more, she said, to try and turn the head before they would try forceps or……
In the end I was taken in for an 'emergency caesarian'. I lay on my back, ‘please be gentle with me.’ I remember looking up at the female doctor at one point and she had my blood up to her elbows and spatterings of it on her protective goggles. My baby girl was pulled out of me and she was fine. I was over the moon – once you have your baby and she was healthy and everyone was fine – it doesn't really matter any more.
Crossing the seafront road we pass Henry Allingham – 1st World War survivor and the world’s oldest man – leaving in his funeral hearse. In 2 hours time she will arrive.
At the lowest most impossible point, when I absurdly, mulishly say ‘I can’t do it, I can’t’, the quiet watchful midwife with the beautiful cow-brown eyes speaks, ‘I see lots of dark hair. Feel’. I reach down into the pool and feel - between my legs the clotted tendrils of her hair float free. It feels the way seaweed feels, brushing my legs when I swim. Now, everything is certain.
I plunge and plunge and I’m the only one there until she is here and I grip her greasy duck-down body, her head above the water between my breasts, and look into an open howling mouth at some hardy gums.
Curiously, the first thought I have is: ‘That is where her teeth will be’. And I think what I meant was – in that shocked moment – ‘She will eat. She will speak. She will laugh. She will sing. She exists.’
It was approximately 11am when my midwife arrived. She came straight into the bathroom to try to gently coerce me out of the bath water. There was no way I could move, I was not able to get up. I wanted to stay in the water, it felt like mercy. I knew the baby was coming soon, I needed to stay in the water, I needed to push.
“You need to relax, dear. Your baby is not coming for some time yet. If you get out of the bath, I will be able to examine you to see how things are progressing.”
I could not believe it. Her words cut straight through my confusion. Suddenly I became very scared. If this was the early latent phase, then I knew I would certainly not be able to cope with the later stages of labour. It was already so intense, so overwhelming I would not be able to continue like this for hours.
Eventually I was able to stand and, leaning heavily on G’s strength, I walked over to the bedroom and lay down. I was crying and deflated as I opened my legs for Steph to examine me. I needed to calm myself down, to find a way to get through the early phase of labour. I drew on my inner strength and the guidance from hypno birthing. Perhaps I had been overconfident to believe that I was capable of getting through childbirth at home, with no interventions other than breathing and love. I began to have doubts, to wonder if I was strong enough to cope.
G and I had decided to try for a home birth. We spent the weeks leading up to the birth attending antenatal workshops, preparing ourselves physically and mentally to cope with the arrival of our baby. We both wanted to share the experience with our parents, in the comfort and safety of our flat. We bought a birth pool, prepared the bedroom for resting. We were excited, but relaxed. I was jittery with third trimester nerves whilst G remained outwardly calm and level headed. After all, first babies are always at least 10 days later than their due date. We knew we had lots of time to prepare to buy all the necessary bits and pieces.
So without concern we went to bed on the 8th. March in the comfort and knowledge that we had time. We would go out to buy nappies and a blanket later that week. We would test out the pool some time tomorrow, and possibly even go out for drinks with some friends that evening.
For these reasons, when I woke on the morning of the 9th. March with cramps, I was sure that I had constipation. It was quite a surprise when we both finally realized that the cramps were minutes apart and I was in labour. At 7am., the process had begun. By 9.30a.m. I was unable to move. I rocked on the bed, hugging my knees with my head in G’s lap. We were confused, it was all happening so quickly.
We finally decided to ring the maternity ward to give them the co-ordinates. Needless to say, they calmly suggested I take two paracetamol and go for a walk or soak in a hot bath. And that is how I came to be stuck in a cold, shallow bathtub for an hour and forty five minutes.
G called for a midwife to come and help, because he was unable to keep count of the contractions. It was too erratic so we asked for someone to come along to make an assessment. As my birthing partner, G was tasked with the important job of keeping count. As my soulmate, he was my strength, the keeper of the space. Ready to solve, ready to count contractions, ready to light the candles, burn the essential oils, fill the pool, monitor the temperature. He was ready to hold me up, lay me down, ready to speak for me, to sing for me or leave for me if I called for it. However, it just so happened that at that point, he was not quite ready for what happened next. Through gritted teeth, I demanded that he ‘get someone who knows what the fuck is going on!’. And that is how Steph came to my rescue.
To my infinite relief, after the internal examination, I recall Steph’s voice uttering words to G I shall never forget: ‘Here are my car keys, please fetch my bag, and be quick, the baby is coming now!’ I was ten centimetres dilated, and the baby, Ella, was ready to be born.
There was no time for the pool, not time for candles, oils or music. I manoeuvred to the floor, leaded against G and helped the baby birth on dry land. By 12.47 she was born, by 1.47 the placenta was out. Unfortunately the cord was very short so it had to be cut, freeing Ella from the comfort of the placenta shortly after her birth. I was then able to reach her up to my chest. I watched in awe of the majestic power of mother nature as her swollen lips suckled on my breast for the first time.
Five hours after her descent began through the birth canal, Ella lay with her bare skin touching mine. Breathing against my chest, totally content.
I’ve been meaning to write my birth story since my little girl was born, but those first 8 weeks were so full on and then you’re in a situation where you’re enjoying the subtle shift to a place with a little more space, psychologically and before you know it the intention to write comes when she’s needing you. Why do I never remember when she’s napping. Too many other activities competing for that gap. So here I am in a coffee shop, little one asleep for who knows how long and I’m writing it. Where does a birth story start? What the medics call active labour. It can’t have been a female who thought that idea up. On my due date I had menstrual like cramps as I walked around town. Oh, I hear her now, a little murmur from the pram announcing that ‘I’m here, I’m awake’. So now here she is, sat on my left knee as I write, coffee going cold. This is how it is. I think this’ll come in instalments.
I remember it as a wonderful magical experience – it sits outside any other experience I’ve ever had, a unique bizarre experience. A place where time stops for 48 hours. Just for us, the world stopped for Mark and I, so we could bear our son. So I must have already forgotten the pain, it’s already blurred at the edges, my body has forgotten the sensation. I remember being scared of every single contraction though and 14 hours in, thinking it would never end. I just wanted to stop and sleep, there was no way I was ever going to push this baby out. I remember between contractions being total bliss, lying in the birth pool, the room being flooded in light, with huge windows. Gazing at the midwife and the student, being held from behind by Mark. I was rushing on pure endorphins, loved up like I had been dancing in nightclubs 10 years before. His arrival was just utter exhaustion, bewilderment, shock, disorientation. Here was this huge battered and bruised baby lying across my breast, peering out of swollen eyes at me. I got them to give me a copy of the notes of the birth. It’s quite amazing for looking back at, see what happened. I think it’s more moving than what I’ve written. This is what was written ‘Delivery of live male infant. Delivered onto mother’s abdomen. Dried, stimulated, cried at birth. Clean towel, cord clamped, cut by Mark. Baby skin to skin with mother, placed across breast.
Thursday, 18 August 2011
Woo made hungry noises with his lips. He kneaded his
Mothers breast to encourage the milk flow.
It was past his bedtime, but he couldn’t settle.
It took a while for him to drop off.
A floorboard creaked beneath his mothers weight as she crept away, rough skin on the soles of her feet made scuffing sounds on the new carpet.
Woo heard her leaving his room, but he was too tired to fight sleep tonight. So sleep won.
It wasn’t long though, before he had his first visitor of the night.
‘ta ta ta’ was the noise on his window.
Woo woke up straight away because this was an unfamiliar sound.
He slid off his bed and toddled over to the window.
It was difficult, but he managed to climb onto a chair beneath the window.
He laid his tiny hands flat on the window sill and came face to face with two
little black eyes and a short beak, ta ta ta it went on the glass.
“Hello” said Woo, in a language grown-ups didn’t quite understand.
“Hello” said a little brown bird with red all down its front.
“What are you?” asked Woo.
“I’m a bird. What are you?” Asked the bird.
“I’m a baby,” said Woo. Then he asked the bird,
“What can you do?”
“ I can fly,” said the bird
Woo widened his enormous brown eyes, and blinked.
“What can you do?” asked the bird.
“I can walk,” said Woo proudly, and he padded up and down on the spot to demonstrate.
“What where you doing before?” asked the bird’
“I was having milk, from my mummy”
“Yes, she keeps it under her jumper”
“Yes, it keeps the milk warm”
“Warm. Yes I know about warm.” Said the bird.
“Why are you here?” asked Woo.
“I can’t sleep.” Said the bird.
“Are you afraid of something?” asked Woo
“Never!” Snapped the birds tiny beak
“Do you see my chest?” said the bird sticking it out. “There is a fire inside. A red hot fire that burns and burns and never goes out”
Indeed it did glow a fierce bright red as he spoke.
How do you feel your style of parenting compares with your own upbringing?
I don’t really know which my parenting style is. My daughter is only 3 months old; hence the only parenting I have done has been related to dealing with her wellbeing and not really with her conduct. It is funny, but I still find hard to see myself as a parent, as I consider myself more as a carer. In this role, I try to be as loving, assertive and give her as much freedom in order to get to know her. Saying that, I always thought that I will be quite an authoritarian parent, who will try to care for Liliana based on a defined routine and a set of rules. I was brought up that way – although this is when we were older than my daughter currently is – and consider certain aspects of it effective. As kids, we were indulged in many ways; however, we had to obey rules, routines and values which are established in my culture for different kinds of situations.
I guess that now that I am a mother, I realise that imposing limits might be more difficult than it sounds. For instance, I’ll have to know more about the personality of my daughter, what she likes and dislikes before being able to work out limits and boundaries. I still consider these important, but understand that they should not be set in stone as they are only there for her happiness and positive upbringing. In a way she becomes my own little project. I hope that I will be able to take the best of my upbringing and apply it with other things I learn along the way. I am finally starting to see that parenting is a learning process for both.
Do you seek advice on aspects of child-rearing?
I am always open minded and eager to learn on any aspects of child-rearing. I have the great advantage of knowing different cultures and being able to compare each other when it comes to dealing with my daughter. Of course this doesn’t mean that in practice I can address effectively day to day issues, such as sleeping, crying, etc. It just means that I am open to consider a variety of tools, techniques and perspectives. I can only hope that taking into account my daughter’s personality and my own instinct as a mother, all this knowledge will serve to find my way to give her a happy upbringing.
Describe any methods that you have tried relating to sleep, feeding, etc.
Liliana seems to like her simple but effective routine for sleeping at night. She usually gets a bath around 6 and feeds/settles until she falls asleep around 7.30 pm. Sometimes, she might have some problems for sleeping, but she will usually do so after following this routine. She usually wakes up when she likes (usually no later than 8 in the morning) and it will depend on when she has woken up during the night. After that we have a routine of changing her, which now she is happy to follow. I also feed her on demand throughout the day and night, so I let her dictate when she wants to do this and for how long.
Napping during the day is usually a problem; and I currently keep trying different methods. For instance, taking her for a walk usually works, but it is quite demanding on my side and I would not like her to get used to do this in order to sleep. Other methods I have tried are rocking her, settling her by lying with her in bed, giving a massage, tapping on her tummy or offering her a dummy. I tried once letting her cry but I felt so bad I promised I’ll never do it again. Hopefully, as I try different things and she becomes older, we’ll find the best methods for her day routine.
Your birth story
The birth of my daughter Liliana happened very much as planned. We had a homebirth which started around 1:30 am on the Saturday 14th of August. My partner Laurens got ready the room that I had planned to give birth with all our preparations. He also helped me breathing through the contractions up the moment our midwife arrived at 7 in the morning. There is not much more to tell really, Liliana was born at 8:43 in the morning and we were really delighted to meet her.
How have you changed since becoming a mother?
I don’t think I have changed but became a bit richer. I have new reasons to wake up in the morning and look forward to the future. I have learnt to be more patient, more positive and more caring. Apart from that, I keep having the same hopes, goals and motivations than before I became a mother.
What are your hopes and fears?
In the short term, my hope is that our lives will stabilise again; where me and my partner can regain a bit our sleep and a sensible routine for the day. In the longer term, I hope I will be a good, fair and fun mother to my daughter. My fear is that I am unable to do this; hence, becoming frustrated by my inabilities as a mother.
Describe a pivotal moment when you realised you were a mother?
I think the pivotal moment has to be when she was born and I realised I was bringing to life a human being.
Saturday, 13 August 2011
Having kids is bad for your health. That is the crux of Emma Kennedy’s recent piece in the Family section of The Guardian about the joys of child-free holidays. On learning that I have two young children, it would be fair to assume that the annoyance this article engendered was because my feathers were ruffled; that I couldn’t take criticism of my little darlings; that a woman without children was selfish or not quite complete or any other of the various accusations filling the Comments section of the Guardian online after publication of this piece.
It’s true I would probably have paid the article scant attention if I didn’t have children, in the same way I skip over pieces about cars, plants or knitting. Some commenters objected to the humour – the suggestion that kids are tied to a tree or ‘lost’ in a department store to enable the parents to run wild. That wasn’t a problem, it’s supposed to be a funny piece. And like the curate’s egg, it is in parts. Closer to the knuckle the idea that parents farm their offspring out to potential adopters to take on holiday. I’ve not been through the adoption process, but I imagine someone who had would find that remark in poor taste. Those sections aside, I greatly enjoyed her tales of her woeful family camping trips and see why she was keen to leave them behind.
My main objection to the piece was its glib, casual assumptions. The fact that anyone (and by anyone, the four friends she asked) who said they enjoyed spending time with their children was lying, deluded or had ‘staff’ to do the dirty work. I’ve had brilliant and less than brilliant holidays with and without children. If the Guardian had wanted someone to write about child-free holidays, why didn’t they ask someone who had kids to take a trip without the little tykes and then report back? I fully admit children can be noisy, demanding, messy, whinging and selfish. Even my own, who I love dearly. Do you know what? So are some adults. Me included, probably.
It didn’t stop at the holiday issue however. Apparently, parents have ‘no life’. They never see their former friends again. If they do, they make crass remarks about childless people being barren. They can’t stay out past 9.30 in case they turn into stretch-mark riddled pumpkins, spouting milk from their saggy breasts and horrific tales of childbirth from their unpainted mouths. Yeah right. Perhaps she needs to get some new friends. Apart from the first year or so of their child’s life, most parents I know are delighted to get dressed up and go out, talk animatedly to people about a range of topics and stay out late drinking far too much.
Children do take up vast quantities of your time and money, limit your opportunities (in the short-term at least), cause you anxiety and do not come with a guarantee to look after you in your old age. They also cause you to feel great depths of joy and love. I don’t believe that parenthood completes a person, and in our overcrowded world it’s good not everyone takes this path, but I do believe it behoves us as a society to take an interest in and responsibility for all our members. Who will look after us in hospital, deliver our groceries or mend our leaky taps except the hideous small folk grown up? The ‘us and them’ mentality does nobody any favours.
Lastly, you may be puzzled as to the title of this piece. Emma Kennedy spends a whole paragraph congratulating herself on her youthful appearance due to her childless state. Yes, this is bitchy, (but hey, my entire existence has been rubbished), but judging by the photo of her accompanying the article, if you claim you look ten years younger than you are, you’d best make damn sure the facts match the claim.
Monday, 18 July 2011
Being able to breast feed my son was something I really wanted to do. I had no idea how hard it would be. I’d watched a really moving DVD about the first feed after the birth and I just expected to have a similar experience.
But the truth is, for the first 3 weeks my son and I didn’t get the hang of breastfeeding at all. I first hand expressed, then moved onto a manual pump then to an electronic pump to provide milk to feed through a mouth syringe, then cup, then bottle.
It is completely possible to express from day one, just tiring that you have to add this into the routine of trying to breastfeed and get sleep to create the milk. You need support with this. If you’re in this situation and decide to persevere; buy, borrow or even hire from the hospital the best pump you can find, they are not all noisy and inefficient.
During the time I had a couple of scares where I thought my milk would dry up. This is probably because I was so tired from the newborn stage and worried and was not remembering to eat enough and drink enough water. The best thing I found was to drink gallons of water, limit caffeine, no alcohol and eat enough. Sleep where possible. If you do this and have faith and keep using the pump the milk stays.
My son was early so he did not have the sucking reflex. After about 3 weeks we had a major breakthrough, he was able to feed via breast shields. It was magical when he managed to feed. I had had lots of great help from mid wives, support groups and home visits. You need to find someone you feel comfortable with. To some extent we had to find our own position to feed as the classic one didn’t work for us so my son fed upright rather than cradled. My excellent health professional told me my son and I would become experts at feeding together, hard to believe at the time, but it is true.
We had trouble even with the nipple guards, he could not always latch on with them so I was nervous about feeding in public. It also got really painful due to him latching incorrectly and I just wanted to be able to feed without them. I thought it would never happen. But at ten weeks close to giving up hope he managed to feed naturally and soon he was doing this consistently. It was amazing. I felt a real bond being able to feed my son and he seemed so content.
I wanted to share this experience because a lot of people seem to have trouble feeding and it can feel impossible. But for me it was so satisfying to come through this. It is not a failure if it doesn’t work out, it’s a personal decision how long to feed and with motherhood I think sometimes it is better for your own sanity to choose your battles.
If you, like me, are thinking my child is never going to get the hang of it, then they really will, they just might need to be that bit older and more developed. I have read also that 99% of women are able to breastfeed, but in our culture we don’t always get that impression and we don’t always have a community of women to learn from. It is painful often when you first start feeding but it really doesn’t stay that way. Quietly nursing my child in the middle of the night just us, is so special.
Thursday, 14 July 2011
I look at my second son sleeping peacefully and experience a great sense of calm. I don’t feel lonely, panicky, isolated – all the sensations that were so strong after my first child was born. I don’t feel I’m pretending to be a mother. I just am a mother.
My desire for a second child was incredibly strong, probably exacerbated by being an only child and the overwhelming sense when I was growing up that something was missing. In fact the emotions that engulfed me when I became a mother were like re-opened wounds from my childhood. I was fearful that I would feel distanced from my second baby, mired in anxiety and uncertain at every turn. I remember the sensation of being marooned in a big tunnel straight after Robin’s birth, cocooned from reality by the effects of the epidural. I looked dispassionately at my partner and cousin as they exclaimed in emotional delight over the newcomer. I wanted to get cleaned up, to eat, to sleep. The midwife said, ‘’let’s get Mum up to the ward’ and I thought, ‘my Mum’s not here, is she?’ I couldn’t get my head round the fact that I was ‘Mum’. In the fog of the first few weeks, I kept thinking how hard everything was – I was conscious of being at odds with myself, although I’d give the impression that everything was fine. How on earth would I ever be able to manage two when I couldn’t manage one? And yet, I desperately didn’t want Robin to be an ‘only’.
The birth was so quick second time that I had no time for drugs. This meant I had a triumphant rush of ‘super-beingness’ straight after that had been described to me by the only two mothers I knew who’d had drug-free births. I felt alive, vital, strong. After the event, I was too excited to sleep. I just kept looking at Luke with a rush of pure love. Now the rest of our lives could begin. The wounds of the first time seemed to have healed themselves.
It took a long time to convince my partner to have a second – he has a difficult relationship with his sister and felt trepidation at the notion that siblings could support each other. I’d focused on my feelings for my newborn so much, I hadn’t really considered how the relationship I’d have with Robin would change. We’d all talked about how to prepare Robin to cope with his new brother, but hadn’t considered how we adults would react to the different dynamic. It’s not a subject I’ve discussed with my partner or close family, although I sense their attitude towards Robin is unchanged. To my partner, Luke is less absorbing while he is in the baby stage. His primary focus is still Robin who can express his needs in words rather than wails. This was brought home to me recently when I went out one evening and stayed out a bit longer than I’d expected. I had a panicky phone call from him saying Luke was crying and he didn’t know what to do. I’ve rarely had this experience with Luke, unless he is unwell. I’m always able to calm him, usually through breast-feeding, which is clearly an unfair advantage, but it brought home to me how much I’d learnt through Robin. You just do this! Or that! It’s obvious. And yet it wasn’t to him, even though we’d been through it once before.
With my first child I was eager for the markers of development that proved he was ‘normal’ – first smile, sitting, crawling, feeding himself and so on. Feeling like a dinghy on a stormy sea, I looked for the anchors of these progressions to prove that I was doing it right, that I didn’t appear to be a fraudulent mother. Was it obvious that I was finding it so difficult? That I watched other mothers who seemed so natural and close with their babies while I was so unsure? Perhaps I was longing to get onto the part that was easier, that made sense, where my baby and I could connect. Eventually the connections did come, as I expect they do for most new mothers and I couldn’t imagine my life without him, although it was a gradual stealing up on me, rather than a blinding flash. The memory of this uncertainty was brought home to me recently, when I observed a first-time mother at a group. Her actions and responses towards her baby looked very studied and deliberate, as if she was mimicking what she’d seen other mothers do rather than responding spontaneously to her baby. I wondered if that was how I’d come across to others with Robin.
With Luke, I was reluctant to see the signs that took him away him babyhood. Stronger than that – a sentimental part of me wishes he could stay a baby forever. The day I accepted he was too big for his Moses basket and would be better off in a cot, I was maudlin all afternoon. I had him packed off to college already in my mind. Perhaps he sensed this himself and woke more often in the night for the subsequent weeks, meaning I’d usually end up tucking him in next to me in order to gain precious sleep before Robin woke. To hell with the expert books that I’d been so hidebound by the first time that implied if you let the baby sleep with you, he’d never sleep alone, that is if he’d survived being squashed by you in the first place. He’d snuggle down next to me, with a look of pure contentment on his face. It seemed so natural, so right.
Breastfeeding the second time was so much easier and I had a real sense of achievement that I managed to get to six months on my milk alone. Luke truly was what I made him. It was quite often hard to keep doing it, especially in the evenings when Robin was tired after nursery and clamouring for my attention. Quite often I’d be suffused by irritation at Robin’s three year old whines robbing me of the special alone time with the baby. This would intensify if Robin stuck his head between mine and Luke’s, blocking my view of him. I’d snap at Robin, then immediately feel guilty. How could I get cross at my young child, who had had all of my attention until now and quite reasonably couldn’t understand why this new impostor had muscled in. And yet, was I being too hard on myself? If anybody else had stuck their head in, I would have been quite justified in my snapping. Even your nearest and dearest have to accept the boundaries of personal space. But for the first months you have to hold your baby close because they can’t manage on their own. Their personal space is the same as yours because in some way they are still part of you. After that begins the gradual, and sometimes painful, sequence of letting go at various significant points of nursery or school.
The guilt still chimes in the head. I forgive Robin when he butts in, only to feel irritated all over again the next time he does it. I worry that I am a bad mother, favouring one child over the other and wonder if I am unable to share my love equally because as an only child, I didn’t experience the division of attention between me and a sibling. The assumption is often made that only children are spoilt, getting whatever they want, but the battle to get attention can often be greater, because you have to enter a different arena. An ‘only’ has to move in the realm of the adults, talk their language, adopt their customs, rather than the more understandable world of another child.
I fast forward myself fifteen or so years and hear the accusing voices of my children saying ; ‘You always loved X better’. Is this how it starts? The little chippings away at your good humour? Your lack of patience because you are so, so tired after the baby’s restless night of teething, then rudely awakened in the early morning by your older child who’s had several hours of uninterrupted sleep. And yet again, how lucky you are to have two beautiful, healthy, wonderful children – how dare you complain, even for a second, because at any moment it might all be taken from you? So my mind goes on, like a mouse on its wheel, turning these thoughts over.
Robin asked me recently who was my favourite between him and Luke. Favourites are a current obsession with him, so this was an off the cuff question, no more significant than weighing up that he preferred blue to red. Like the correct response to ‘Does my bum look big in this?’, the instant answer was that I loved them both equally. I then thought a bit more and said that it might seem that Luke was my favourite because he needed more looking after at the moment. Even though that is definitely the truth, I wonder if it’s the whole truth. A mother I spoke to recently said she was very keen to bring up her child differently to her own upbringing, wanting a closer bond than she had had with her own parents. She would have no idea whether this was successful until several years had passed and her child could choose how much time he wanted to spend with her.
The relationship I have with my sons is in a equal state of flux. I do feel a closer bond at the moment with Luke, more synchronicity. How much this is due to being more relaxed, more settled in my role as a mother, it is impossible to say. When I look in his eyes, I experience a real connection to the person. He is not the complicated machine that has to be fed, changed and entertained correctly otherwise he will break down. That was how it had sometimes felt with Robin. A mantra kept running through my head back then…. ‘Is he too hot, too cold, hungry, thirsty, tired, bored….help!!’ I couldn’t see the person behind all the tasks that had to be done, and yet, I was learning ‘on the job’ and did the best I could at the time. It is so easy for a mother to feel guilty, that she is doing everything wrong. I, like countless others, reached for manuals to reassure me rather than trusting my instincts. With Luke I feel more confident, I can read his ‘signals’, although I was always baffled as to what this meant the first time round. It sometimes feels awkward if someone else is present and I have to articulate what I think Luke needs at a particular point. It’s like learning to drive a car, or play the piano or type – if you look to see what your hands are doing or attempt to explain it to a bystander, you have trouble continuing.
I try to hide from the inevitable that this darling baby will, all too soon, be a truculent toddler, answering back, refusing to eat his greens, causing scenes in the supermarket – all the things that had made you tut before you became a parent yourself and knew the relentlessness of daily life. As I write, Luke is less than a year and is adorable. By the time he is a ‘terrible two’ (and terrible three in my experience!), Robin will be five :- if the evidence of my friend’s children is anything to go by, he will be calmer because he is able to express himself more clearly. Does nature programme a mother to be wrapped up in her defenceless new baby, to the exclusion of her other child(ren), for its own safety? Maybe the mixture of feelings I have now are as normal and natural as the overwhelming ‘all at sea’ ness after the first birth. Undoubtedly some babies are easier than others regardless of their place in the pecking order of the family. Perhaps I have been lucky that Luke is so amenable.
When I was pregnant with Luke, I spent the afternoon with a family who had a two year old and a baby. I’d known them when the first child came along and observed their delight over her but not seen them recently and was surprised to see that they were very sharp with the older child over what seemed to be small matters. The baby had all of the attention and the child seemed to be sidelined. I thought I wouldn’t treat Robin like that, however irritating he was. I certainly wouldn’t humiliate him by drawing attention to his shortcomings in public. Like so many humbling experiences of becoming a mother I find myself behaving exactly like that, ticking Robin off with the same sharp tone of voice, regardless of who is around. I have to remind myself he is still very young and I am tired – the two together sometimes produce fireworks. I do love Robin passionately; the thought of any harm coming to him is unbearable. We always kiss and make up if either of us has been cross with the other and small children are superb at not bearing grudges, which has taught me to let go too.
Robin is very protective and proud of his little brother and Luke, in turn, lights up when he sees Robin. Occasionally Robin can be over-boisterous, usually when he is tired, but he delights in making Luke laugh. He accepts that he is not allowed to pick Luke up unless I’m there and his concern when the baby is crying is almost as great as mine. Unconsciously he adopts my language when calming him, ‘it’s alright, baby…..’ or he will scuttle to fetch a favourite toy or a dummy. Sometimes he will grab one of the baby toys, insisting that it is his, which is, I imagine, a call for attention. At the moment, Robin is unquestionably top dog in terms of skills and strength. I am slightly anxious about how he will respond when Luke is able to go for the toys himself and challenges the older’s authority. Hopefully the bond between them will be strong enough to overcome the spats.
Some of the sweetest moments are when I see Robin nestling up to Luke, whispering something to him or showing him a picture in a book. It is tinged with sadness, for there is a realisation that they will have a special bond as brothers that will exclude me in years to come. I’m thankful that they will have each other to confide in and fervently hope that their relationship develops with the passing years and doesn’t go sour. I am bursting with pride over my two boys; I will do my best to treat them both fairly and equally and have faith that life will do so too.
Thursday, 30 June 2011
When I gave birth to my first child, now 6, I was staggered as to how extraordinarily isolated I felt. Like many other women living in a big city, without a family network around them, I struggled to find my way. I did find activities and playgroups to go to, but the focus was always on the babies and all the conversation related to that.
Most new mothers have periods of being swamped by their feelings and counselling is an option, but you have to be referred by your doctor or health visitor. When you are exhausted and tearful and all the mothers around you seem to be coping better, the prospect of sitting in a busy surgery is not appealing. The very phrase ‘post-natal depression’ is depressing! It is more correct to term it post-natal illness and it’s estimated to affect between 70,000 and 100,000 women and their babies in the UK every year. It is rightly called 'the silent epidemic'(1)
It can be very difficult to admit that you are finding so difficult what many thousands, including your own mother, have done before you. Add to this the stigma that still exists around mental health issues and it’s no wonder the feeling of panic sets in. Every single mother I have spoken to in the last few years has felt they couldn’t find an adequate outlet for their feelings. Of course bringing up children is hard, but there is something about a mother’s state of mind in the months following the first birth that sets it apart from the challenges faced later on in parenthood.
People might say that we have been having babies for centuries. Unfortunately we are living in an increasingly fast-paced society, where you can leave hospital as quickly as a few hours after giving birth and are expected to get on with it. Excepting perhaps small villages, gone are the days when the whole street would rally round to help the new family, while the mother rested and adjusted. Families these days are small, not extended, often you have moved away from where you grew up; women delay having children while they pursue careers and travel, so to be suddenly thrust into the role of housebound new Mum without a support network can be terrifying.
Occasionally there is a high-profile case, such as that of Danielle Wails, where the general public can gasp at the horror of a woman who has killed her own child. There is far less coverage for a mother who has taken her own life. Few will know that more than ten per cent of maternal deaths - that's deaths within one year of giving birth - are caused by suicide (2). Relatively few women take their own lives, but between ten and twenty per cent of all new mothers are likely to suffer depression, and for between a third and a half of these, it will be severe.
“Mothers may be given a “running-in’” period of a couple of weeks. After that, they are usually expected to be calm and capable. Would it not be much more realistic to expect new mothers to be unprepared, anxious, confused and very emotional for at least the first six months? If we could
accept that this beginning is the norm for most new mothers, we would be in a better position to be supportive and respectful.” (3)
Inspired by the Mothers Talking sessions I attended at The Active Birth Centre in London, I decided to set up Mothers Uncovered when I moved to Brighton. There was some initial hesitation from the health professionals I encountered - there might have been the feeling that it was group therapy for middle-class people and not appropriate for the families they represent. However, in the course of setting the groups up, I spoke with women from all different backgrounds who were interested. All is needed is a room and someone to lead the session, quite probably a mother who had been through the same stage herself. It would enable women to feel that they were not mad or bad mothers, just going through an enormous life change.
What I would like to see is equal weight being given to the post-natal period as to the pre-natal. It needs to be realised that the mental health of a mother following a birth is as important as her physical health beforehand. There is a cost implication, but a mother who feels supported will surely relate better to her baby, which would benefit society in the long-term. Finding a supportive group helped me with the sense of panic-stricken alienation I often felt, knowing that others had felt the same as me. Rather than being a strange freak, I was just a normal mother trying to cope with the enormity of the responsibility. That in turn put the feelings in proportion. Some mothers are not so lucky and it is for their sakes I hope the situation will change.
(1) Association for Post-Natal Illness
(2) Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG)
(3) What Mothers Do’ Naomi Stadlen