Goodbye and Hello Twig

WIN_20140316_115246Today I’d like to share a poem I wrote for the Body Beautiful Project.

This poem did not fit on a postcard, sadly. In fact, it was so intricate that WordPress wouldn’t display the formatting correctly, so instead I invite you to click below to read it.

Goodbye and Hello Twig

This is probably my shortest post ever.

Prose for Thought
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Top Ten Unexpected Benefits of Having a Baby

1. Prime parking location
With a baby car seat in the back, you can suddenly park in all the ‘family’ parking spots – extra roomy for those of us who left their spatial skills back on the labour ward. Result! I have been so grateful for these every time I drove into town with a toddler who wouldn’t nap in his cot. He’d fall asleep in the car, I’d manoevre the fully reclining pushchair out of the vehicle, courtesy of the extra hatched space around my parking spot, transfer him into it still asleep, and wheel him straight into Starbucks. Ah, those were the days. Sadly this doesn’t work with two sleeping children and one puschair. But that is not the fault of the family parking spaces, they’re great!

2.Pyjama days
When you’re a new mum, nobody blames you for spending all day in your pyjamas. Nobody blames you for not washing up, letting the house get covered in a thin layer of dust and grime, eating take out every night and having unwashed hair. In fact, having a baby gives you a carte blanche to let yourself and your house go completely. I remember having a little meltdown when my son was about four months old. My husband asked me what the matter was, and I said: “I’m worried the new-baby-sympathy is going to run out soon!” I still wasn’t doing any cooking at that point and my son was scared of the sound of the hoover, because he had never encountered it before in his brief life. It turned out I needn’t have worried. New Baby Sympathy is available on tap for as long as your friends can see that you need it. I suddenly realised one day that I had settled into being a mum, and that I no longer needed the sympathy – and that is when it stopped.

3. New friends
Once I had worked out how to unfold the pram – please don’t ask me how long that took – I started investigating local baby and toddler groups. I felt a bit nervous, like everyone would look at me and see right through my clever disguise: she’s not really a Mum, she’s only pretending. I still felt quite self-conscious about having a baby, but I discovered that the great thing about going new places with your baby is that it is a fresh start. These people have never known you in any other capacity than as a mother, and that can help you find your new, enhanced identity. I have made some lovely friends this way and my son has made his very first friends at these groups too.

mini trolley2

Supermarket adventure in the Netherlands with a tiny trolley!

4. New skills
A lot of parenting is very physical, especially in the early days: logging miles up and down the stairs trying to settle a crying baby, breastfeeding, bathing, doing piles of extra laundry, trying to get a heavy pram in and out of a car etc. I am more used to thinking my way out of life’s problems, so this was a bit of a shock to the system. I think it was good for me, though. I am learning to listen to my instincts more. And I have built up some arm muscles, which is a definite bonus.

5. Rediscover the world
Through the eyes of my new arrival I found a new joy in old things. Everything is new to your baby. Everything is a wonderous miracle that needs to be explored and discovered. My daughter has really got into grabbing over the past few weeks, and she wants to explore everything. What does this feel like? What does this taste like? She wants to try out my laptop, wires, anti-bacterial spray, my fork, my cup of tea, a tissue I have just blown my nose on, the nearest plant and so on. I remember when my son had just started to move around, I would scan the house for fascinating things that might keep him in one place for long enough that I could rush into the kitchen to put the kettle on. I was looking at ordinary things with new eyes: wooden spoons as drum sticks, tiny tupperware for putting things in or stacking or sorting, bits of material to wave around like a flag. Everything is amazing when you’re tiny. Going to the supermarket is the best adventure. The library is a maze of exciting books that can be pulled off shelves until you are standing in a sea of them. A flight of stairs is an epic mountain that takes courage and determination to scale. Life need never be boring again.

6. Community
Before I had my son, I didn’t know anyone in the neighbourhood. I’d get up, drive to work, come home in the dark, spend the evening indoors with my husband, go to bed, get up, repeat ad infinitum. Our social life took place with friends we already had, who generally did not live in our local area. Having a baby changed all that. For a start, I was around in the daytime and reluctant to travel very far afield. I also discovered that people on the street are much more likely to at least smile, but possibly even stop and talk to you if you have a small person with you. It’s a bit like walking your dog, I imagine: you have a handy, ready-made topic of conversation about you. This is how I got talking to my neighbours and two years on, my toddler greets all the local dogs by name. I already mentioned baby & toddler groups – they were the means through which I started making local friends. Now we have playdates that we can walk to and our whole area suddenly feels like a more friendly place that we as a family are a part of. We suddenly discovered we were part of a community.

7. Off-peak
Being around in the daytime is great! You have a much wider choice of appointment times at the doctor’s/dentist’s, you can actually park when you go into town, you can go to the shops when it’s quiet and you can travel at off-peak prices. As I was working in education when I had my first baby, we suddenly found that we were no longer tied to school holidays while I was on maternity leave. For a family on a budget, this can suddenly bring a sunny holiday within affordable range. Even if you were never tied to the school calendar before, you will be once your kids are 3 or 4 years old, so make the most of off-peak travel while you still can!

8. Supersonic hearing
I have always wanted a t-shirt that says: “I make milk. What’s your superpower?” Not my witty joke, I hasten to add, I saw this on Facebook a while ago. But yes, mothering comes with superpowers. You may or may not choose to use the milk one, but you can’t avoid the Supersonic Hearing. It is tuned to pick up a baby’s cry at incredible distances, through thick walls, in a crowded cafe and in your sleep. And you will know very swiftly whether it is yours, too. One caveat though: if you live in a fox-rich environment, you may find yourself waking up in the night, convinced your baby has woken up, only to find it is a fox on heat. Slight design flaw in the superpower – or in the foxes.

9. Understanding your parents
I didn’t really want to write this one, as I don’t want my Mum to feel too smug. But yes, when you have a baby you suddenly find a new appreciation for your parents, and an understanding for all the things that used to annoy you about them. Having thrown several teenage-like strops at the ripe old age of 27 or so, explaining to my mother that I was a grown woman with a job and a house and I didn’t need her to point out that my skirt was too short/it was time to phone my grandfather/send thank-you cards/file my tax return, I now see what was going on. As a parent you are always several steps behind on your child’s development. They change and grow so fast that it is impossible to keep up and adjust in time. I remember realising when my son was about 8 months old that I was still bathing him like a newborn, with cotton wool for his eyes, in a tiny baby bath. He could actually sit up and splash about in the big bath by then, but I still thought of him as a little baby. Today, as my daughter screamed in protest at me picking bogies out of her nose, I had a very clear memory of pushing my own mother away as she picked my nose for me. I can tell you, I was definitely over three years old and well able to keep my own nose clean. There is no time to get into habits with children – as soon as you do they change and you have to adjust.

Sorry about the nose-picking story, that was a bit grim.

10. More love.
I’m guessing this does not sound like an unexpected benefit of having a baby. Part of the reason we want babies is because we long to love and be loved. But isn’t there a tiny part of us that is a bit worried that our relationship with our partner will diminish, eclipsed by the love we feel for the baby? I am sure many expectant fathers are more than a little concerned about this. Mother and baby live in such a symbiosis, both before and after birth – will there be less love available for them? Mother Teresa said: “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.” When you have a baby, you don’t suddenly have to share the available love out between three people instead of two, there is suddenly a whole lot of extra love to go round.

But that wasn’t even exactly what I meant. Your relationships change when your baby arrives, and the love you feel for your family is different. I remember my husband saying in wonder, during the mad week after our son was born and I was recovering in hospital: “I’ve suddenly realised that ‘Mum’ is no longer the person who looks after me, but the person I look after.” We had added a whole new level to our relationship: besides husband and wife we were Mummy and Daddy now. And our parents were equally bowled over by their new role as grandparents. Both our mothers have remarked that they were completely taken by surprise by the strength of the love they felt for their grandchildren. All this new love has knit us all together as a family more closely, it has given us something unique to share.

So there you go. If I left you despondent with my list of Top Ten Things to do before your First Baby Arrives, I hope I have cheered you a little with some happy things to come, should you be expecting your first baby.

I am linking this post up with Vic Welton’s PostCommentLove. Feel free to nip over and check out some other blogs.

Top Ten Things to do before your First Baby Arrives

Dutch pavement. Not pushchair friendly.

Dutch pavement. Not pushchair friendly.

1. Go up and down stairs and escalators
Once you are pushing a pram around you suddenly have to find the extremely well-hidden lifts everywhere you go and you will become an accomplished dropped-curb-scanner. It seriously feels like a treat to me to be able to run down a flight of stairs in a department store to quickly buy a pair of knitting needles and then run back up. Done in five minutes. Same trip with a pram takes twenty minutes with all the travel around the shop to the lifts and ramps – I’m not even going to try it with a baby and a toddler. I’ll just use chop sticks.

2. Eat a meal in peace
Babies are jealous creatures. If they see you enjoying a well earned hot meal or cup of tea, they suddenly discover that they are extremely hungry themselves and they won’t stop screaming until you abandon your food in favour of feeding them.

3. Have baths
A little tricky while pregnant as you have to be careful not to make it too hot, but run yourself a pleasantly warm bath, add lots of bubbles, take a book and a glass of wine with you and spend a lovely uninterrupted half an hour soaking. With a newborn baby you’re lucky if you find the time to brush your teeth.

4. Enjoy intelligent conversation
Plan plenty of evenings with friends – especially friends without children – and encourage the conversation away from your impending arrival/life change and towards politics, big ideas, books you’ve read, films you’ve seen, preparations for the apocalypse, life ambitions, what you were scared of when you were younger etc. You get the idea. Post-baby your brain will have turned into cotton wool, mainly due to lack of sleep, and as the baby turns into a Toddler you will struggle to finish a sentence. Most of my conversations with friends go a bit like this: “So I saw this thing on the inter NO PUT THAT DOWN what was I saying? I was in the supermarket yester I SAID PUT THAT DOWN THAT IS DANGEROUS So I was watching this film and GIVE IT BACK. NO, GIVE IT BACK. WE ARE DOING NICE SHARING. Right, time to go home. Lovely chatting to you, must do it again some WHERE ARE YOUR SHOES? NO THOSE ARE NOT YOURS THEY HAVE HEELS!”

5. Go and buy clothes and take your time trying them on
Not easy trying on clothes with little people around. Also, I personally need to already be feeling good about my appearance to like the clothes I try on, which is again something that is unlikely to happen when you can’t remember the last time you washed your hair and the outfit you are wearing probably has sick on it somewhere.

6. Go to the cinema
Once your baby falls into a routine and sleeps in the evenings you can nip out to the pub briefly or perhaps even go out for a meal, but we found going to the cinema is much harder to arrange. Films take so long and it is hard to make sure you get there in time after putting the baby to bed, and then to get back in time before the last feed.

7. Go into [fill in big exciting city that requires public transport to get to]
Similar to the cinema story – if it takes a while to get there and back, going on these kinds of outings is quite a way down the line when you have a new baby. Do it while you still can. As for going for day trips with the baby, just thinking about going on trains and buses with a pram makes me cry and shake.

8. Be spontaneous
Whatever it is you are doing at the moment, stop doing it right now and go do something else. Go out for dinner with your partner on the spur of the moment. Book a last minute weekend away to somewhere that is not here.

9. Sleep
Mmmmmm lie ins…

10. Spend as much quality time with your partner as possible
Of course, you will be spending plenty of time together in the middle of the night, but you will probably be arguing about who is more tired and why the baby is awake again and whose fault that might be. Your family is about to change. You were two – you will be three. Enjoy two for these last few months – and then resolve to enjoy three. It is exhausting but wonderful.

Also, watch out for my follow-up post next week entitled Top Ten Unexpected Benefits of Having a Baby to cheer yourself up again.

Breastfeeding at 6 months

It has been a while since my last breastfeeding update. The Baby is 6 months old tomorrow, and our rocky start is thankfully a distant memory. I find it almost unimaginable that I was in tears every evening as she was feeding non-stop, in despair at the pain and wanting to give up but also not wanting to give up. I am so glad I persevered.

To continue my mission of Telling the Truth about Breastfeeding – so that new and expectant mothers can feel truly prepared – I thought I’d give you a little snapshot of what it is like six months down the line: the good bits, the tricky bits and the bad bits.

The Tricky Bits
Yes, I am starting with the tricky bits so I can end with the good bits. And I am flagging it up for you so you don’t feel too manipulated.

At this age, babies are getting curious about the world around them, and are more able to act on that curiosity. Feeding my six month old baby currently involves a lot of short bursts, where she feeds for a bit, comes off to have a look around, check out an interesting sound, or just grin at me. She is so wriggly and if her feet are touching anything she starts kicking against it while feeding. I was starting to think that maybe she just wasn’t very hungry, or that she was getting very efficient at feeding and was done after just five minutes, but when her weight gain started to slow I came to realise that I needed to keep encouraging her to continue her feed so she could get to the fatty hind milk, which is the ‘food’. It takes a bit of patience to keep putting her back on the breast and make sure she is actually getting a proper feed, but it has worked and her weight gain is back to normal.

It is also quite common for babies of this age to start waking up in the night again after having slept through. Then you are faced with the question: is he/she hungry? Some parents just know, but personally I always find it hard to gauge. If they were sleeping through and didn’t need milk in the middle of the night then, why would they need it now? Maybe it’s a growth spurt? But after a month of night feeding you start to think that either this is a very long growth spurt or they’re not waking up because they’re hungry. Who knows? I have been feeding the Baby at night again for at least two months now and I am convinced she doesn’t really need to as she is not feeding well in the morning now. But when there is screaming in the middle of the night, it is so much easier to feed them than to apply your brain to other re-settling techniques.

The Bad Bits
A week or two ago, I noticed a very sore, lumpy section on one of my breasts. A blocked duct. This can happen at any stage of breastfeeding, but it happened to me recently so I thought I’d mention it here. It appears that this can happen when your baby is distractible while feeding and you’re not so on the ball about making sure she empties the breast. Milk can get backed up and spill into the breast tissue. If you don’t resolve the blockage early, your body can start fighting the milk as if it is a foreign substance, causing an infection called mastitis. Read more here.

I used a warm flannel on the lumpy bit and resolved to feed the baby any time she woke up in the night to make sure I didn’t leave it too long between feeds. She obligingly woke up every 90 minutes or so in the night. In the daytime I made sure I fed her at least every three hours, but more often if she seemed amenable. Thankfully it resolved itself within a day or two and didn’t become mastitis. Phlew.

The Good Bits
Although going anywhere with a baby and a toddler requires preparation, one thing I never need to worry about is bringing equipment to feed the baby. I love the fact that breastfeeding is portable. This time around I am also more confident about feeding in public. I remember going to a first birthday party when the Toddler was about seven months old and hiding away behind a stack of chairs in a church hall to feed him. With the Baby I don’t worry so much about flashing people. First of all because people aren’t usually watching anyway, and secondly because your nipple is only visible for a second or two before the baby latches on and covers you up with her body. If I know I’m going somewhere unfamiliar where I don’t know the people – say, a crowded train or a wedding – I will make sure I am wearing a tanktop I can pull down under whatever other top I am wearing. I can then lift the top layer up, pull the tanktop down and I won’t have to bare my stomach to all and sundry. If you didn’t grow up in the Netherlands and/or have more deep-seated issues about flashing strangers, I have seen other mothers use muslins or shawls to drape over their shoulder and the baby for complete protection. I tried it myself and could never work it out – the shawl always slipped off my shoulder – but maybe you are more dextrous than I am. You can also buy purposely designed covers, just Google ‘nursing cover’ or ‘breastfeeding scarf’.

The best bit, though, is the wonderful feeling of bliss that comes with holding your baby tight to feed her, one little hand on your chest, the other tickling your side, her eyes closed, the perfect eyelashes resting lightly on her cheek. Last night, when she had had enough, she looked up at me with a big beaming smile, reached up and pulled my glasses off my nose. Then she giggled at her own funny joke. Love it.

Birthday

It is my birthday today. “Gefeliciteerd!”, we say in the Netherlands, which dictionaries will translate as “congratulations”. We say this, not just to the birthday boy/girl, but to everyone we find in the room at a birthday party: father, mother, siblings, aunts, uncles, friends. “Congratulations on your [best friend]’s birthday!” This always makes my husband laugh. “What exactly is it they have done that I am congratulating them for?” he wanted to know the first time he experienced this curious custom. “Your mother gave birth to you, but what do the other people have to do with it?” It was then I learned that saying ‘congratulations’ in English is usually reserved for achievements. The more accurate translation for ‘gefeliciteerd’ is ‘felicitations’, or ‘good wishes’.

I used to make a massive deal of my birthday every year, never having lost that childlike excitement for getting a year older. I think I was still hoping that this year might be the year that I was old enough to be taken seriously. Although I have now realised that this day will never – and probably should never – come, I still quite enjoy getting older, even now that I am looking at 30 in the rearview mirror. But the excitement about my special day has faded a bit since ha2 taart 2ving children. My first birthday after my son was born I woke up and realised the thrill had dulled. Don’t get me wrong – I have had lovely birthdays since the arrival of my son and I have thoroughly enjoyed them. What is missing is the feeling of being Very Very Important for a day. Instead, I get that thrill for his birthday now. I enjoy having a day to celebrate my son and making him feel special and important. But I myself also feel important  – because it is his birth-day, the day I went through hell to bring him into the world. This now seems like a much more appropriate day to feel a little important than my own birth-day, on which, to be fair, I didn’t achieve anything more impressive than drawing the first of many breaths.

I wonder if my mother still thinks of that moment every year on this day, even now. It probably seems more and more surreal as the years go by and the reality of me-now bears less and less resemblance to that very small, screaming, squirming thing I was on day one.

Giving birth to my son was not cool. I won’t bore you with the gory details, but – oh alright then – it was an instrumental delivery, I lost a lot of blood and needed a transfusion. While I was pregnant I had read books that were meant to be empowering, to help you realise that as a woman you are built to give birth to your baby and that you can do it yourself, no need for medical intervention. The books were meant to be uplifting and encouraging, but after my son was born the memory of their advice made me feel like a failure. I felt like it was my fault that it had come to a forceps delivery: perhaps I had not relaxed enough or I had unresolved issues or whatever. I felt very down for ages and couldn’t think back to the birth without crying. Although I wanted more children, I wasn’t sure that I could go through labour again.

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I dreaded having to give birth to her, but resolved to grit my teeth and bear it. I didn’t read the books about natural birth again, although I hadn’t changed my mind about it: I still wanted as little medical intervention as possible, but this time I decided to be more relaxed and open-minded about changes of plan. Good thing, because as it turned out she was coming out feet first. Nobody had picked up on this until I was at the hospital and 3 centimetres dilated. By the time the doctors arrived to decide on a course of action, I was ready to push. I was rushed into theatre but gave birth to her normally – she was small and in much too much of a hurry to wait for scalpels. My husband only barely managed to scrub up in time.

Although my daughter’s birth was possibly even more eventful than my son’s, I felt on top of the world afterwards. I had delivered her normally, even though she was breech, and I got to hold her and feed her in the first hour after she was born. Any lingering guilt or feelings of failure from my first labour were gone: I was superwoman.

So no need to congratulate me today. I have done nothing remarkable other than stay alive. Congratulate my mother, and applaud my accomplishments in the autumn when we will be celebrating three years since my son came into the world amid quite a bit of agony, and one year since my daughter landed safely on her feet.

Stepping into the Unknown

A few of my friends are about to become parents for the first time. I now feel that irresistible urge, that my friends-with-kids obviously felt when I was pregnant with my first, to inundate them with valuable advice to help them through those nightmare first few months. I found, however, that although a lot of advice proved useful at some point, in general nothing helped to soften the blow of suddenly having to take care of a tiny baby. Basically, all I can say is that you will probably feel like you’ve been hit by a truck and like life as you knew it has ended – and that it will take a month or two or three before you come to think that perhaps what you got in return was worth it.

So instead of advice, I thought I’d share a poem I wrote when I was twenty weeks pregnant with the Toddler. Here it is, especially for my pregnant first-timer friends.

The moment before

In my dreams it happens sometimes
The rite of passage
The moment that changes
everything that went before

A confused kiss with a stranger;
Embarrassing nakedness;
Our child, in our arms, but talking already
and bossy at that.

No dream can prepare us
No stories, no good advice
Twenty more weeks till you arrive
and change our lives
in ways we can’t imagine.

The cliff seems too steep,
the gulf too wide to ever cross.
I can barely see the other side –
just shadows of our future selves,
waving merrily,
their shouts of encouragement
lost on the wind.

(c) Judith Kingston, 2010