Five fingers

Sometimes when I go to my daughters’ room to feed my baby in the evening, my elder girl is not yet asleep, or rouses enough to engage in whispered conversation. As I sit on the rocking chair, nursing my tiny fierce baby back to sleep, a little hand snakes out from the bed next to me. As rhythmic sucks grow slower and eyes grow heavier, my big-hearted big girl gently strokes my hand and I do the same to her. My heart melts a little as I sit there, pinned down by so much unbearable need and unqualified love. Sometimes I cannot help but whisper what is on my mind – “I love you more than anything”. This evening the whispered reply came: “I do too mummy. I love you too much. I love you so much I think my heart might break.” Her unconditional innocent love is so beautiful and powerful it actually hurts a little.

I was going to write, tonight, about stereotypes. It was going to be witty, thoughtful, even a bit political. I was planning what I would say as I stood in the shower. But I find myself writing about love instead.

I have not had an easy week. Sleep has been hard to come by, sudden inexplicable sadness has been a frequent visitor and I have found myself snapping more than is usual or necessary. So there was a degree of annoyance when I stepped out of the shower, still dripping, to be greeted by my wet-cheeked, whimpering daughter, eyes bright with tiny tears.

As I sat down to feed her, I looked down at her hand, five fat fingers placed firmly on my breast. And again, my heart melted. Those fingers poke, prod, fiddle, scratch, all day long and most of the night. Here they were, still, just in that moment. Holding me close not out of desperate need this time, nor pulling and pinching, but anchoring her where she belonged. After a few moments, her hand moved up and down. Not frantically as it so often is, not violently, but a warm, gentle, and oh so soft stroke. She too was telling me how much she loved me.

I need moments like this when the days are long  and the nights seemingly endless, when my girls take it in turns to challenge me in new and imaginative ways. The funny thing about love is it doesn’t ever run out. Great big undiscovered wellsprings of it lurk underneath, just waiting for the right trigger. In this case, five fingers, twice over. One set slender, covered in marks of unknown origin, nails bitten to the quick. One set fat and short and soft and squidgy. Both with more power than their owners’ may ever know.

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Best laid plans

My daughter’s sleep is still very variable but for a few weeks now she has been much easier to settle, meaning despite repeated wake ups I can often have some semblance of an evening. I can make plans – I can even make meals. This may or may not be connected to reflux, reflux medications with which we have had varying degrees of in no way certifiable success or our spangly new dairy free lifestyle. It may of course have nothing to do with anything other than being a baby.

In any case, as so often happens, I had been lulled into a false sense of security. I felt easy and comfortable in the fact that I would have a little time sans children in the evening. Last night I had plans to make the most of that time. I was going to watch at least one, possibly two episodes of The West Wing. I was going to make a delicious meal and eat it at my leisure. Maybe even (dairy free) pudding. I was going to finish clearing my desk which in a few short weeks will be in use at least once a week as my home office. I might even finish reading the Radio Times. So far, so rock and roll.

We had had a few fractious days of anger, discomfort and crying, which I had thought might be teething (isn’t everything) culminating in a mild rash. She went to sleep in her normal fashion, firmly attached to my breast, and settled in her cot. I went off and prepared a potato, chorizo, tomato, pepper and butter bean bake and put The West Wing on. About halfway through, she woke. So far, so normal. As I was feeding her back to sleep, a number of things happened. The phone rang, my doctor returning a call relating to the extremely not riveting dairy/reflux issue. The kitchen timer went off. Here is possibly where I made my first mistake. I put her down, sleepy but not asleep, and took the call from my husband, and despatched him to her when she started grumbling.

The call did not take long. I returned, assuming she would want to feed back to sleep. This proved not to be the case. When I put her in the cot, she started playing so I left her there hopefully. Moments later she was unhappy with the situation but my husband suggested I eat my dinner while he soothed her.

This process seemed to wake her up rather more and I didn’t much enjoy eating while she cried  in the next room. I took over. I fed her to sleep. I rocked her to sleep. I quietly and gently held her. I patted her bottom and stroked  her back. Somewhere along the line with each of these methods, the switch flicked back and she was awake.

Shortly after 9 I gave in and decided to bring her to bed with me. Except she didn’t want to feed to sleep. Or to cuddle. Or to sit up. She became angry and upset. There was a lot of quite serious crying. Several times she looked as if she would finally settle in some extremely odd and uncomfortable position. But again she would wake and cry. Eventually I got out of bed and vigorously rocked her – something I had done some hours previously. Her breath slowed. Her eyes closed. Finally, she was asleep.

I took my chances and returned her to her own bed rather than mine – where she stayed for four hours before rejoining me in a more peaceable manner. I probably had a normal amount of sleep but felt more than usually shattered.

It is hard and depressing and sad that more than nine months in even plans such as these small ones are still not worth making. Babies – mine in particular – are unpredictable and like to keep you on your toes. It is times like this I have to remind myself it will not be forever.

Body talk

When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I went through all my clothes and threw out anything which was a little tight fitting. I wouldn’t be able to wear it while pregnant and probably never again. I was completely resolved to coming out a different shape and it didn’t bother me at all. I was going to be a MUM. I would look like a mum. Brilliant.

I don’t remember staring despairingly at rolls of fat, wobbles where there used to be muscle tone, stretchmarks and bottoms of gargantuan proportions. I wore maternity clothes for a while and I was fine with it. My body shape was not an issue. I was a mum now, I didn’t need to look svelte and desirable. I needed to look generous of boob and wide of hip to balance babes on.

I ate so much food during maternity leave. I snacked on mascarpone mixed with honey and ginger biscuits. I didn’t restrict my food intake at all. When I was hungry, I ate. But somehow, gradually, I wasn’t quite so hungry. I still ate when I was hungry but I was full more quickly so I stopped. And by the time I was back at work, I was the same size as pre pregnancy. After maybe another six months of juggling nursery and work while running after an active toddler, I was the lightest I had been since before university. My cheekbones and collarbone made themselves known. My BMI was in the ‘normal’ range.

So for this reason, I wasn’t worried about weight gain when I fell pregnant again three years later. I would lose it all through breastfeeding, same as last time. I was quite blase about the whole thing. I was lighter when I fell pregnant second time round too.

I wasn’t expecting to feel so completely different. Late on in my pregnancy I partially ruptured my Achilles tendon. I couldn’t cycle to work any more, or go dancing. I was a lot less mobile and I piled on the pounds. When my beautiful daughter arrived, once the honeymoon period was over where I could see nothing but my baby, I was horrified with what I saw in the mirror. Blubber. Rolls of fat. The c-section overhang which had remained from my previous pregnancy was compounded by a second section. The first time I made love post partum I started crying because I could hear the rolls of my stomach slapping together. I felt like I still looked pregnant for months and lived in maternity clothes. Breastfeeding did not appear to be slimming me down despite my daughter’s earnest and vigorous 24-hour approach to feeding. I hated the way I looked – and I am someone who generally likes themselves, in spite of my flaws.

I think had I not had such an easy return to form last time I would not have expected it this time. Also, I suspect as a first time mother I was so caught up in the whirlwind of parenthood I simply didn’t notice or care about something effectively so trivial.

I genuinely didn’t believe I would look like a version of myself I liked again. But now, just in the last few weeks, the feeling of revulsion has faded. I tried on a pair of jeans in my pre-pregnancy size. They fit. A couple of snug items I had been wearing were hanging more loosely. My reflection looked more like me. I can still see bulges which I would prefer not to in photographs and my c-section overhang is a thing of permanence. As for the stretchmarks, those badges of honour aren’t going anywhere. My stomach lacks tone and definition. But I don’t hate what I see. I like it. I know once I am back on my bike I will start toning up and if my baby ever sleeps enough to give me time to resume swimming and badminton, that will play a part too.

My daughter was nine months old yesterday and the maxim ‘nine months on, nine months off’, has been ringing in my head. But at the same time, I have been a bit more careful with food. I have been tracking my eating habits through social media and that has probably made me pause before tucking into the pork pie. I have also been off dairy for four weeks to see if my baby has an intolerance, although I am hopeful I should be able to phase that back in soon. A story for another day. I still eat when I am hungry but I think my body has relearned that feeling of fullness. I stop when I am full. And I might reach for an apple rather than a chunk of cheese.

I have no idea how much I weigh but that was never the point. I know how I feel, and how I look. And I am getting there. I can smile at my reflection instead of avoiding it. It only took nine months.

Twenty Batmans 13 Elsas and some kind of witchy lizard thing

We have a tradition in this country – albeit a relatively new one – to dress up as book characters for World Book Day. Which was yesterday. This did not exist when I was at school which is a shame because I would have loved it. Thousands of wonderful book characters to choose from. I also love dressing up and making silly costumes. At least I did back in my university days and twenties when I had all the time in the world to mess around with face paints. Once you become a parent, the strictures of enforced dressing up are rather different. I am not crafty. I do not have a sewing machine. My creative skills lie in painting pictures with words, not in making physical things.

For reasons I don’t quite understand my daughter’s school invited children to dress up today. Obviously my four year old’s immediate response was that she wanted to be Elsa. This would have been an easy option. She has an Elsa (knock-off) dress. My only effort would have been putting her hair in a plait.

But Elsa is NOT a book character. She has appeared in a few books, true, but she was created for screen. If she had wanted to go as the Snow Queen (a much more terrifying tale) then that would be different. And books are my thing. If I can’t get my daughter in a bona fide World Book Day costume what hope do I have for the vaguer dressing up occasions? So I had to come up with a viable alternative.

“How about a book you really love? Like, I know, Superworm?”

I immediately realised I did not want to dress my daughter aS a long pink snakey wormy thing. Wizard Lizard, however, the villain of the piece, that was acceptable to all of us. So I cut out some stars and moons and stuck them to a black witch’s hat and constructed a magic flower out of blue felt and green cardboard. I drew on some greyish clothes with green and brown in an attempt to make her look lizardy. And this morning I painted her face a rather alarming shade of green (the only green we had) and yellow and drew ‘scales’ on her arms. Oh, and tied a green scarf around her waist for a tail.

The magic flower looks great. But everyone, every single person, asked if she was a witch. The classroom was full of Disney princesses and Batmen. I saw very few ‘home made’ costumes like out paltry effort. Rather amusingly the teachers decided to go as a bunch of Wallies. Where’s Wally, that is.

No-one wants to go and buy a specific costume for one day of the year – which almost certainly won’t still fit next year. And I imagine the children probably, like my daughter, had firm views on their favourite character. Even if they’re not really a character. A lot of parents complain about the requirements of these kind of events – and it is extra work especially when there is a theme. The busiest parents, and those who perhaps don’t have time or money to spend on making a costume from scratch, will obviously take the easiest option. At this age, all the effort has to come from the parent. So classrooms are more likely to be filled with clones from popular films and televisions than from literary classics.

So many wonderful children’s characters…  but how often do you see Matilda or the BFG, The Railway Children, the Gruffalo, The Secret Garden, Winnie the Pooh, represented at these events? The idea of dressing up is to get children talking about their favourite stories and characters, to get them enthused and excited about books and reading. Not about their favourite television programme. I hope when my daughter comes home tonight, she is alive with excitement, her mind filled with magical people and places which exist only between the covers of a book.

If she’s not, I will feel it has been a lost opportunity. But it won’t be too late. I will crack open the covers of one of my favourites and we can escape to a different world together.

Pleasure and pain

You may have been sucked in by the title thinking I was going to offer my musings on THAT film/book currently turning everyone into an ill-informed expert on alternative sex lives. But I prefer not to publicise things which glamorise abusive relationships and present non-consensual sexual domination as anything other than assault. Political statement over, I will instead be reflecting on the pleasure and pain of motherhood.

While the emotional highs and lows of parenting are obviously immense and bring absolute pleasure and agonising pain in their own right, I am thinking rather more literally. Being a mother has caused me more pain than almost anything in my entire life. More frequent, more unexpected and more actually hurty. I’m not even thinking about labour – which I avoided twice, my daughters deciding to present themselves to the world bottom first necessitating two Caesarean sections. Obviously being cut open and stitched up again is more than averagely painful but I had the blessing of vast quantities of opiates being administered directly through an epidural to dull those sensations. And a lively rollercoaster of hormones to carry me through the aftermath.

There is no anaesthesia for every day parenting. Desperately hoping for a natural birth second time round, I attended a mindful birthing course. I didn’t get to use any of the techniques I had learned to deal with labour pains, but they were extremely handy to get me through the toe-curling agony of cracked nipples. Anyone who tells you breastfeeding doesn’t hurt if you’re doing it right is telling you less than half the story. Blocked ducts and mastitis – boob flu – are also full of fun and games. While this tiny person is contentedly sucking (if you’re lucky – they might of course be screaming) and filling your heart with joy at the sheer tinyness and helplessness your breasts are shouting ow Ow OW. Then there are the times when your beloved little one clamps down on that nipple at the end of a feed and pulls. It turns out nipples stretch quite a long way, but I wouldn’t recommend trying it.

Babies have inexplicably vicious little talons – always sharp however often you wrestle them down for a pruning session. Each child has different preferences for how to make these known. My daughter likes to knead my breast tissue like a kitten as she feeds. Often leaving visible scratches. She also likes to grab hold of a chunk of neck flesh as she goes in for a cuddle. I only have a small amount of wattle but it’s enough for a tiny handful.

Beautiful, curious eyes are followed by searching, grasping hands. Earrings – don’t go there. Necklaces get pulled – hard. My daughter regularly emerges triumphantly with clumps of my hair. Even when I tie it tightly back, she reaches around and pulls it out of a ponytail. Somehow this hurts even more. As I marvel at her resourcefulness, inquisitive nature and ever-developing character, it still hurts. A lot. My body is covered with inexplicable tiny bruises from kicking legs and waving arms. I wake aching all over after sleeping in an illogically uncomfortable position as my baby starfishes next to me, taking up three quarters of a double bed. A thousand and one nappy changes have turned my knees into dry, grainy places mottled with bruising.

I get headbutted quite a lot. Sometimes my daughter, trying to find a comfortable position to use me as a place to sleep, thuds her head on my chest so hard it leaves a mark. I am always amazed this doesn’t seem to bother her – she remains half asleep. Once my elder daughter bounced on my lap and broke off the cap on my tooth. That was an expensive injury.

Combine this with the ageing effect of breastfeeding on my bones (something to do with calcium I believe) and I am a brittle, bruised, achey, doddery shadow of the woman I should be. My children literally beat me up. It is difficult sometimes not to shout out in pain or to get angry when the four year old runs full pelt into your stomach, winding you, for an unexpected hug. With all these things, there is an ounce of pleasure with the pain – a sweetener which just makes it bearable. But it is unsurprising that mums everywhere turn to wine o’clock to gently anaesthetise the aches and pains of the day. Mine’s a gin and tonic.