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To sleep, perchance to wean

Heavens, it’s been a while. Sorry for the very long absence. Was feeling a little bit bleurgh and argh, on account of hormones and tiredness, and have generally been absorbed in the business of a life which can swerve from sheer frustration to utter elation in the space of an hour.

Now, I have something to say about sleep. And I will preface it by saying that we have recently  undergone a little bit of night weaning in this house, after I decided that Little Miss Stuffyerface no longer needed a night feed on top of the huge troughs of solids and regular milk feeds she piggles her way through daily.

It was a roaring success actually (she says, damning herself to 100 nights of sleep deprived torture with one foolish sentence), and did indeed take two nights as promised by many people whom I did not believe. She now has a cold and things have gone a bit haywire, but, illness notwithstanding, most nights she has slept through (though unfortunately is now quite sure that 5.30am is the perfect time to start one’s day). This is good. I am pleased.

But. BUT. I am pleased Leila has slept through (will not say “is sleeping through”, I do not play that fast and loose with fate) because it makes my life easier, I am less tired, and I do not have to sit in the dark with chilly feet feeding a large baby who does not need the calories at 3.30am.

I am not pleased she has slept through because it makes her a better baby, a good baby, an angel baby, a perfect baby, or any other kind of superior baby because of her sleeping habits.  It also does not make us better parents.

There’s a pernicious, spoken and unspoken, attitude that a baby who sleeps through the night is the pinnacle of parenting and a mark of an excellent baby.  And the earlier this happens the better the baby/parent is. How many times have I heard a smug parent inform me that “he’s such a good boy” because their son sleeps through, or that their daughter is “a little angel” because she does. And what they may as well add is that they, the parents, are also fabulous for either a) spawning a child who naturally sleeps through or b) parenting their child so very perfectly that they sleep through.

When your baby isn’t sleeping through, this sort of makes you feel like crap. If those babies are so great thanks to their snoozing habits, then what does that make your baby? A bad baby? A devil? I mean I’m taking it to extremes here, and I’m sure people don’t mean to imply that, but sleep deprivation can make a person a little sensitive, and, well, the implication is there, if not intentionally.

I got so hung up about this- not so much about the lack of sleep itself as about this obsession with mastering your baby’s sleep and thus producing a “perfect” sleeping “angel”, and the impression that, at 5 or 6 or 7 months old, Leila ought to be sleeping 12 hours a night and that I was some kind of a mug or a failure for not bringing about this glorious possibility- that I started to feel seriously down. I even went to see my GP, and though she started the conversation with talk of postnatal depression, she ended it by saying “you’re not depressed, you’ve been listening to people and books too much. You’re doing a good job. Sod them”.

If convenience is your measure of a good baby, then yes, babies that sleep through are extremely good. But if that’s not your prime measure of how much your baby rocks, I call nonsense. Imagine labelling an adult “good” for their ability to lie still with their eyes close for hours at a time.  Babies wake up in the night, they’re famous for it. And then some stop waking up, some carry on, and some need a little nudge in order to sleep for longer.  And yet for many parents it seems to be the prime focus from the minute their babies are born: for them to sleep and for mum and dad to boast about it loudly. I’ve even heard about some parents who sprinkle cold water on their newborn’s face to wake it up in order to follow the routine dictated by, ahem,  a certain book.

Some people replace the words “good” or “perfect” with the word “contented” when describing their baby-who-sleeps-through. Ie “he’s such a contented little soul, he has always slept through”. This is a code word for “good” or “perfect” that makes them sound less like braggarts. This also makes other parents feel like crap, because it implies that their baby who doesn’t sleep so well is not contented.  I call nonsense on this too. Leila is contented. She’s so contented, in fact, that sometimes I wonder what she’s been smoking, and whether she’s left any for me. That’s not a boast, it’s just who she is, and by gum are we grateful for this. But she’s contented with or without the fabled full night of uninterrupted slumber.

I’ve looked at sleep from both sides now (having it, and not having it), and while I know- believe me I know- how sleep or lack of it can effect your mood and life in general, let’s stop pretending that how a baby sleeps is a measure of how good, or not, they are. They don’t know how to be good or bad, in fact they have no concept of these things, or indeed of anything. They don’t know what their hand is, let alone what “good” is or how to be “good” by not waking up at night. And this, the fact that they are so delightfully in the dark about pretty much everything, is one of the many things that makes them lovely.

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The Strawberry Saga

As you may have gathered, Leila has a strawberry birthmark on her forehead. It wasn’t there when she was born, appeared as a tiny red dot when she was three weeks old, and then grew quite rapidly. Cue much wailing, gnashing of teeth, ill-advised googling and general melodrama from me, along the lines of: “my baby is not perfect! But wait! How horrible am I to think she’s not perfect because of this?! Am bad mother! Oh but other people won’t think she’s perfect!!! What if she gets teased?! What if it takes over her face and her body and MY SANITY WAAAAAAAH!!”

These days, I am at peace with the strawberry. I even quite like it. It’s Leila’s trademark, and maybe I’ll be a little wistful when it disappears. Maybe. I can honestly say that I don’t wish, as I did before, that she didn’t have it. Granted, it seems to have stopped growing at a reasonably bijou size, the doctor says it is showing signs of regression already, and it hasn’t crept towards her eyes or obscured any of her features etc etc. It is, in effect, an oversized bindi. And, well, she’s still outrageously cute, with or without the strawb. So perhaps I give myself too much credit in believing I’ve come over all zen about it- turns out there wasn’t that much to be upset about after all. If it started growing again perhaps I’d fling myself to the ground in a fit of the screaming dibdabs.

But Leila’s strawberry, though fairly small,  is very noticeable. It also sticks out- a tiny little horn, like a unicorn. We have run the full gamut of comments from “oh! Can’t they zap it?” (because cosmetic surgery for babies is cool) to “but she’s a giiiiirl!” (er…), to “makes them sleep better when you drop them on their heads doesn’t it?” (Ha. Ha.) . Sometimes I clock people- especially very new mums, who are probably imagining if their baby grew one- looking ever so slightly aghast. So perhaps I should give myself a modicum of credit for overcoming my wibbles.

And alongside the tactless nincompoops, there are also people who make lovely comments like “ooh, you’ve got a little cherry on top!” or rush over to tell me that their child had one and it was gone before they were three years old. The fact that it has elicited kindness as well as annoyingness, and the fact that it has taught me not to be so shallow- both of these things are perks of the strawberry.

The point of this post is to reassure any feverishly googling new parents of a babe-with-a- strawberry-birthmark that it is all going to be fine. Really really fine. Not only do they disappear eventually, but they are really not that big of a deal (complications withstanding) whilst they stick around.

In fact there’s only one thing that bothers me about Leila’s birthmark now. Like most people, I try to avoid regrets, but I do regret the time I spent sobbing and worry-warting over this inconsequential and actually rather attractive little splodge (the  birthmark, not the baby). It was a waste of time. Time that should have been spent doing more things like this:

Golden

Golden eras usually take on their Midas hue once they are firmly in the past- whether it’s the boingy slenderness of one’s teenage figure (which at the time you thought was porky), the black and white films or early modern paintings which gather acclaim long after their stars and creators are dead, or school days which are the “best of your life” (though I’ve never been down with this one, personally) . Generally the cliche is true: we don’t know what we’ve got til it’s gone. As the passing of time clears away the everyday detritus of life, our memories become distilled and we recognise a golden age as being just that, all the more poignant because we never realised at the time what lay in our hands. That’s why they invented nostalgia.

I’ve written more here recently about the hard bits of having a baby than I have about the gorgeous bits. But, though I melt down at some point almost daily (usually around naptime, and nb: she’s had two freakishly long naps this week, and what did I do with the beautiful free time? Checked she was breathing, and stood in the middle of my bedroom listening for stirrings from the nursery, frightened of breaking the spell, mostly), the storm clouds are dark yet usually pass quickly.

These moments aside, I’m experiencing something I never have before, something which makes me want to skip among the chimney pots: I’m acutely aware that this is a golden time in my life, and I’m not taking it for granted in the way that it’s so easy to do with golden eras. Sometimes when I look at Leila, my vision is almost sepia-tinted; it’s as though I’m already looking back at this time, I’m nostalgic for it though I’m smack bang in the middle of it. I look at her and I know: this is it. This is what I was looking for.

I’m finding it hard to express what I’m trying to say. I suppose the thing is, she’s making me live in the moment, whether that moment is hilarious or heart-melting or frustrating or covered in sweet potato mush, expelled unceremoniously courtesy of a hearty mid-dinner raspberry (G thinks she’s a sensible girl, to realise so early that sweet potato is all kinds of wrong).

I’ve never, truly,  lived in the moment before. My mind has always analysed the past or riddled away anxiously at the future. I’ve always found myself wondering- is it enough? Am I enough?

These days, it’s enough. Smelling her fuzzypeg head is enough. A wacky open-mouthed smile is enough. Bawling as I wonder out loud why I don’t know what on earth I’m doing, even that is enough to keep me in the moment. I know what I’ve got. And it’s golden.

Pray silence

Leila is not a big napper. She prefers a 40 minute cat nap to the mythical 2 hour snoozathon I keep hearing she “should” be having (oh, that “should”. How easy a new mother’s life would be without that “should” ringing in her ears). Really, do some babies do this? And if so, what on earth do you do with all the sweet, sweet time? Dip it in chocolate and swallow it whole, I can only imagine.

My mission last week- and it was successful, thanks to the Baby Whisperer- was to get her to nap in her cot. First time took 40 minutes. Today it took 10 seconds.  TEN SECONDS. Booyah! But I haven’t the heart to try to extend her naps at the moment.  Before I realised she “should” be sleeping for longer it never bothered me anyway. And I am grateful for my 40 minute chunks of  relaxing me time opportunities to wash myself and/or the house.  But the babe, she is very easily woken whether snuggled up in her cot or out on the razzle in her pram. And for this reason I today found myself cursing:

The postman (for making the letterbox snap)

Local takeaways (for same reason)

Vehicles with diesel engines

Vehicles with two-stroke enginees

Vehicles starting, accelerating or otherwise making any noise

Manchester Airport

Children playing in the park (how VERY dare they?)

Children talking in a shop

Neighbours shouting at their children

Neighbours closing their front doors

Just, neighbours. Do they have to live so close?

Myself for coughing

Myself for walking up the stairs

(Mind you, the only one of these hazards which actually woke her up was the children playing in the park- specifically a teenage boy with an extremely unbroken voice, squealing “NO GOAL! NO GOAL!”)

In short, the solution is for the world and everything in it to cease making noise whenever my baby is napping. It’s only for 40 minutes at a time, after all. Not too much to ask, surely?

The lost ones

Some friends of ours are celebrating the birth of their daughter this week- they’re dizzy with happiness, with an extra cherry on top because their baby came after years of trying and a cycle of IVF.

Some other friends of ours are left with the grey blankness of a lost pregnancy. She was 11 weeks, just nearing the point where you can start to exhale slowly (start, but never stop, not once the baby is born, and not ever). G sent our consolations, and told them- we lost our first.

At the time it didn’t feel like that, “our first”- though it does more so, now we have Leila. Though we had just started trying, I didn’t know I was pregnant- for reasons too long-winded, medical and personal to explain. I’m certain it would have been more traumatic if we had built hope and excitement upon the new pregnancy. But still, when it happened two years ago last week, it was unpleasant, gruelling and left me feeling as though the colour had drained out of me along with the life that had been taking form. I wasn’t mourning as such, this wasn’t what I would call grief. But it made my life flat. It clouded over the bright sky of our future.

It happens to so many women (and to their men, too). Perhaps it’s for this reason that miscarriage isn’t really talked about, or the pain of it acknowledged. Something to elicit nothing more than a sympathetic grimace from many people- but thankfully not from the kindly work colleague who I went to when the GP gave me the news over the phone as I sat in an empty office. She bundled me into the disabled loo and let me hang round her neck, until I mumbled snottily “it smells bad in here” and we went somewhere a little more welcoming.

It happens to so many women. But that’s always seemed an odd criteria for evaluating how much someone is “allowed” to hurt over something. Cancer happens to so many people; almost everyone (if they are lucky) outlives their grandparents and parents. These things are experienced by countless people. But it doesn’t mean they don’t feel the hurt involved deeply. People are irritated by pain if they feel it’s not justified. They should get over it.

It happens to so many women. But it’s messy, and unsavoury, and sitting in the awful Early Pregnancy Unit waiting room as Jeremy Kyle blares out and other women sit not talking, in various states from sobbing to anxious to ashen, is about as far from the glowing, knowing happiness of a successfully progressing pregnancy as it gets. It’s embarassing. People don’t want to be near to it. They should get over it.

It happens to so many women. But so does birth, and when you’ve lost a pregnancy, the world is suddenly spilling with babies and mothers. You look at them through invisible glass, pressing your face to it. Why can’t I get to the other side? It feels impossible to get over it.

In my experience, I only fully “got over” my miscarriage when I had a baby. Perhaps, for all but the most philosphical and optimistic, it’s the only way. Something so simple, so universal. And yet, as we know, and our friends who have just lost know, and our friends who have just had their baby know, it can feel so impossible, until it suddenly happens, and the sun breaks through.

By The Book

Here’s how it goes. Basically you have a baby, and eventually you take it home from the hospital, and you can’t quite believe they just let you walk out of there with this tiny shrimpy infinitely precious thing, so little that she disappears into her leopard print snowsuit. As you clutch the door handle of the car all the way home, fearful of the maniacs on the road, which every driver suddenly appears to be, you also find yourself checking the mirrors for the Baby Police. They’re bound to be pursuing you, pink/blue light flashing, bellowing through a megaphone “THESE KIDS ARE NOT AUTHORISED TO HAVE A BABY! REPEAT: NOT AUTHORISED!”

You have no idea what to do with the baby. To confuse matters further, she also has no idea how to be a human being. So the three of you muddle through the first few weeks, in a haze of milk, tears (hers because she’s hungry or tired, yours because you’re tired and she’s amazing), wacky nights that are a cross between a fiesta, an SAS training camp and a Tim Burton film, and the snap of a thousand photographs.

There are grannies. Thank goodness there are grannies, because as I mentioned above, you have no idea what to do. The grannies offer advice, warily, politely saying that they don’t want to interfere as you scream back at them “Interfere! For the love of God, please interfere!” Without grannies I’d fear we’d all be putting our newborns to sleep in the bathroom sink wrapped in brown paper, and serving them roast dinners.

Eventually, things settle down. The baby, miraculously, starts to sleep for longer than 90 minutes at a time- though do not rest on your laurels (she mutters darkly) because these things are not necessarily permanent. The dinstinction between awake (smiley, delicious, staring at things) and asleep (peaceful, adorable) becomes more marked. There are naps, and you can have a shower and maybe eat breakfast. You’re coping fine with your partner back at work, and feel fantastic. Then the baby kicks over the house of cards and runs away cackling. This happens every few weeks just as you are feeling super smug about your supreme parenting skills.  But it’s still fantastic.

The crazy anything-goes world of newborn-dom is behind you so you feel you ought to establish grown up things like routines and schedules and good habits. At this point you have a choice. Will you continue to go with the flow? Or will you revert to anally-retentive, list-making, geeky form and apply yourself to the task as eagerly as you did as the slightly odd schoolgirl you once were?

Guess which I have done. I’ve been jotting down Leila’s movements (physical, bowel and otherwise) since birth. The first few days went something like: “Fed all night. Black poo, hurrah! Slept all day. Very cute”. These days I still diligently note down when she feeds and sleeps, with joyful/despairing side notes . I’m note sure exactly why I do this but it’s comforting. When things are tough it helps me to look back at a sidenote reading “best night ever! [smiley face]”.  And it helps me to see what is working, when she’s having a growth spurt, and how things have changed and settled down. And, yes I confess, it helps me to feel in control. Did I ever realise I was such a control freak? I did not.

I still don’t know what I’d do without the grannies and their advice (and Leila is blessed with 2 grannies, 2 step grannies, and 3 great grannies, so there is no shortage!). But it’s also in my nature to turn to books. I took the famous/infamous Gina Ford book out of the library, and may I just say that book is like kryptonite to the slightly-unsure-of-herself new mummy. Though I only flicked through, and kept my eyebrow cocked in cynical fashion throughout, its messages of terror seeped into my brain and weakened my self-belief before I had the chance to cast it into the returns bin like a searing hot coal. You must be awake by 7am. Mother may have a slice of toast at 8am. The baby must nap, FOR NO LONGER THAN 45 MINUTES, at 9am. If you do not do as I say, turn to page 75 to see how wrong things can go. I paraphrase, but I found it quite genuinely chilling.

I am now, since the onset of the recent sleep disturbances, slightly obsessed with The Baby Whisperer and her book, grandly titled “The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems”. Whether she can help with my mummy tummy and meagre bank balance, I haven’t yet discovered. But she offers almost magical, and crucially, kind and non-terrifying, tips for encouraging your baby to nap in their cot and get into a decent routine, but without dictats regarding the eating of toast and illustrations of how your world will crumble if you do not follow her advice. She also addresses the reader as “luv” and “ducky”- which I’m sure is designed to pull in the American readership, high on the fumes of the Mary Poppins English-nanny fantasy, but which I also find strangely reassuring.

They say about parenthood, “nobody gives you a manual”. But in fact, there are about a million manuals out there. The question is, are they worth the paper they’re written on, or just a crutch for slightly neurotic bookworms like me? What do you think? Do you use them? Would you? Should I?

Also, look at my baby:

All shook up

I’ve noticed that I’ve lost my blogging dignity. Almost every post seems to contain some reference to nipples or nethers or some other unseemly part of my being. This is most unlike me. That’s what giving birth does to you, I’m afraid. I can distinctly remember thinking during the last bit of the birth “everyone in this room can see my whole bum”, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. And worse, I didn’t really care (on account of the sizeable head making its way- oh, there I go again).

Perhaps it’s because I feel I’ve lost ownership of my body. Not in a dramatic THE-BABY-IS-A-TRIFFID sort of way. I don’t begrudge Leila the manner of her entrance, or her regular nosebags.  Mi cuerpo es su cuerpo, baby. I say it because my body doesn’t look or feel like it used to. I think the word I would use is ravaged. There, I’ve said it.

There are websites where women post pictures of their post-partum bodies. I think the idea is to make mothers feel better about themselves. I will not be posting a picture here or on any of those sites, because first of all, ew. Why make it easier for the pervs? Secondly, I can’t help but think that the women that do whip out their mummy tummies for such websites might generally fall into two camps: either they’re earthy yoghurt-knitting I-am-mother-hear-me-roar types; otherwise, they are totally skinny and want to show off.

I’m not quite the former, and I’m certainly not the latter. Though I’m technically thinner than I was before Leila- the skinny jeans get ever looser thanks to breastfeeding- weight is not the issue. The thing is, I feel jumbled up. My waist is in a different place. my bum is flatter (?!), my posture has changed. And of course, there is the Mummy Tummy. Therein lies the worst of it.

G says kindly that all of us in our little family have our “Leila-marks”. He banged his head (in excitement, probably) when he was cleaning the car to bring Leila home from hospital, and still bears the scar; Leila has her strawberry (which, can I just say, I no longer give a monkeys about); and I have been attacked by the stretchmarkasaurus, which clawed its way across my lower abdomen despite diligent Bio-Oiling. Ruddy Bio Oil, bah, what a waste of money. I try to look at them lovingly as Leila-marks. But it’s difficult.

And I suppose I knew that, having been stretched to 40 inches plus, my abs would not immediately regain their former firmness, or my stomach its normal shape. But I didn’t quite figure that my tummy would end up looking like, well, exactly  like it has recently contained a 7lb baby plus trimmings.

I can’t quite see how I am going to snap it all back into shape, and I am at a total loss as to how celebs do it.

Quite conveniently, this is all sort of a moot point at the moment. My iron levels are still pretty low, or so it feels, so beyond my daily hikes with the pram (so hey! My legs are fairly toned- small blessings, and all), strenuous exercise is out of the question. And the breastfeeding diet is not just enjoyable but also necessary- so no cutting back on calories for me. In fact, have decided that the only thing to do is to become a wet nurse and lactate for the rest of my life, to enable me to keep mainlining cake in this fashion. Ergo, the huge challenge of getting back in shape lies somewhere in the not-too-distant future and not, thankfully, in the here and now.

All of this doesn’t so much upset me as perplex me. I certainly don’t feel that, as a mother, I’ve lost my identity. In fact I feel more myself than ever before.  I just don’t look it.