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.

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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.

A support network

We often talk about support networks when someone has a problem. If the person, for example, has a drinking problem, that would include perhaps medical professionals and charity support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. If your partner is the one suffering, there are groups such as Al Anon. Mental health is also covered by a raft of charities which offer everything from sewing classes to cognitive behavioural therapy, along with the host of doctors, psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses in some way on board. But a key part of any such network is the normal people in your life. Family. Friends. Colleagues. Employers, if you’re lucky.

It is that home network which is perhaps most important when it is a loved one who is in the crushing grip of a mental illness. While I have seen my GP twice and she has offered suggestions and support to a varying degree, I cannot make an appointment to simply moan and groan. And if I did not have a history of depression myself  I am not sure if that would be an option for me. Doctors are there for your health. They are not there just to be a sounding board or indeed to pick up some of the slack when you are struggling.

I am lucky. My family lives less than an hour away. I like them. They like me.  I have many friends who live close by.  I have a sympathetic employer. For the most part they cannot do all that much. They cannot breastfeed my baby to sleep or do the school run once in a while. They cannot pop in and do all my washing and make my dinner. And yet they can support me. For example, when I go to stay at my parents, my daughter sleeps terribly. I don’t get to finish any meals while everyone else is eating. I still rise when the girls do. But I don’t have to worry about cooking or clearing up. My father will happily entertain my elder girl. They will both talk and listen to my husband. There is a sense, an atmosphere, of loving support. They have my back. I am not alone.

Last week a friend invited me to stay for a couple of nights. Someone who, due to the weird virtual lives we lead, I know pretty well but had only physically met once. It was a daunting drive alone in an unfamiliar city with two potential troublemakers in the back. But once I arrived in what some would describe as a stranger’s house, that same atmosphere of safety was there. Despite her baby trying her hardest to eat mine. Despite my four year old being so in love with her new six-year-old friend that her behaviour went a few degrees south of what I would usually expect. Despite being surprised in the shower twice by my daughter’s curious new friend. And even though her best efforts to allow me a little extra sleep were met with the unexpected and sudden arrival of separation anxiety, it was so much easier than being at home. Because I felt supported. I wanted to have a couple of glasses of prosecco and a chinwag even though I was no less tired than any other day. I’ll probably never be able to return the favour but I won’t quickly forget either.

Then there’s the friend who turned up a day early for a meeting with others expressly to help in any way she could.  I couldn’t quite offload the children, who had never met her, on her so I could retire to my bed but I knew the offer was a genuine one.

The little things do count. So do the big ones. A network of support may not be what you think it is and may come from unexpected sources. And it can be hard to draw on it – to cash in on offers. To ask in the first place. But it can be the difference between coping and not coping. I am coping.

Half a bath

I love baths. After a long, trying day, preceded by a night of awkward co-sleeping perhaps with an unexpected incident in which one is inadvertently trapped under a sleeping baby for two hours, the feeling of being able to slide into a stingingly hot, super deep bath is matchless. I like mine with lots of bubbles and I like to use it as an opportunity to immerse myself in either a book or, more likely, a glossy yet worthy magazine. I can happily soak for an hour, indulgently topping up with scorchingly hot water every so often. Ideally I like a little music on in the background, currently Icelandic folk pop group Of Monsters and Men is riding high on my playlist but according to mood, belted out female power ballads, anthemic rock or ageless Britpop can also fit the bill nicely.

Of course, this scenario never happens any more. I have limited choices when it comes to bathing at the moment. I can attempt a daytime bath – unheard of decadence – during nap time on a school day. This is rendered tricky by my daughter’s propensity to nap no longer than 45 minutes at any given time and often, having shown all signs of being out for the count, to wake and call for me angrily 5, 10 or 20 minutes later. Once I attempted a bath with her in the room, awake, surrounded by toys. Unfortunately my running commentary not only spoiled the mood but also failed to keep the sproglet entertained for the necessary duration. Frantically washing out conditioner to the soundtrack of a screaming baby gets old very quickly. If I ever bathe when my elder daughter is home and awake, she will inevitably join me. To tell me what she is doing. To find some random item. To blow her nose. More often than not, to do a poo.

So that leaves after bedtime. Which is all very well if you have a baby who follows a regular pattern. Even if they wake repeatedly, if you can predict when it will happen, you can plan your ablutions around it. Of course my child’s waking is utterly unpredictable. Although there appears to be some, vague, improvement since starting reflux medication, she wakes at different times every single night. I also have to fit in cooking a meal and eating it. I can go by the pattern of last night – but there is no guarantee tonight will be even similar.

Take tonight, for example. I anticipated – correctly – a waking two hours after going to bed. I dealt with it and ran a bath immediately after. I had been in the bath maybe five minutes when I heard the baby siren go off. A cough had woken her. I continued reading about Jane Fonda’ s mildly diverting life story while I heard my husband go to her. I heard him holding her, crying, outside the bathroom door. Meaning he was watching the television while trying to soothe her. To say I have not found this to be successful is an understatement. The noise ebbed and flowed as he paced up and down. Perhaps five minutes later, the bathroom door opened. She was ‘inconsolable, for some reason’. I emptied my bath, made a cursory attempt to dry myself and wrapped a towel around me. Moments later I was feeding my not hungry but by now quite angry baby semi naked in the dark of her room. The peace of the bath a distant memory save from the unrinsed suds on my neck.

I try not to be jealous or resentful but I envy my husband’s ability to have a bath whenever and however he wishes. No calculations necessary. No likelihood of being disturbed. And if the baby wakes while he is submerged and I find her hard to settle, he will not be called on to abandon his blissful reverie, I will just continue to try to soothe her.  I know I am not alone in this. Many perfectly capable and involved fathers with no mental health issues will interrupt their partner’s hard-earned quiet time when they feel they are incapable of fulfilling a baby’s immediate needs. But wouldn’t it be nice if they could just continue to try, keep the squalling child out of earshot and just – manage. It is only, after all, the length of a bath. It would be lovely if everyone could get into a bath knowing they could choose how long to luxuriate in it.

For better, for worse

There are many statistics about when relationships break down. Winter tends to see a spike when people are run down and miserable. The first year after a child is born can also put immense strain on couples. A quick Google search suggests a shockingly high proportion of marriages end in divorce now. Lots of people marry too young and for the wrong reasons. But when I got married, I meant it. I only intended to be married once, with the promises I made with God as my witness (plus a large number of friends and family) being permanent ones.

Of course for a relationship to continue both people need to want it to. You can work at it all you want, compromise, change – or try to – but it takes two to tango. Both need to be invested and committed in every sense.

Today an argument broke out between my husband and me. The details are not important. I did a stupid thing during this disagreement. I asked if he even wanted to be with me, if he even loved me. And for the first time he turned round and said no. For the past few weeks he had been wondering. Because he couldn’t do this any more. I heard a lot of criticism of myself. About nagging. About tallying up who does what. About failing to recognise the contributions he had made and only pointing out what he had failed to do. About how my attitude to him had changed and others had noticed too. Oh, and that maybe I have post natal depression because I don’t seem happy.

The problem, as always, is I don’t know if this is how he feels or his illness talking. Just because he is unwell doesn’t make his opinion any less valid.

The truth is necessarily subjective. Conversely I have been trying so hard not to do any of those things in the period he mentioned. I feel I have been shouldering so much of the household and childcare burden. Trying to ensure that I am doing everything possible to ease things so he could focus on getting well. But I have been tired. Snappy, sometimes. And I feel resentful that so much ends up being left to me. That he doesn’t see the constant housewifery necessary to just keep things ticking over. My assessment of the division of labour is that the lion’s share falls to me – but of course that is only the way I see it.

If I’m brutally honest, I probably am a little emotionally unavailable. During his psychotic period, things were said which badly bruised my feelings towards him. I know it was his illness talking – but I cannot pretend it didn’t happen. I don’t really want to snuggle up and pretend everything in the garden is lovely when I feel exhausted, worried for the future, and alone. My attitude probably has subtly changed. I am protecting myself from being hurt again.

After the argument, we went for a walk. It was not mentioned further. The day proceeded uneventful. I did not get the two hours’ break I had asked for to catch up on sleep which triggered the dispute. I don’t think we will get through this without some kind of professional help. I just hope we do get through it.