Tuesday, 2 September 2014

You see, I see

You see a frazzled looking woman on the train with a young baby.  The baby is fussing and niggling and occasionally howling - she doesn't seem to know how to settle him, and nothing she's trying is working.
It's not helping that she's juggling him with a hot drink (how dangerous!) and is stuffing her face with food whenever she gets a hand free.
And she looks appalling, dressed all dark, hair doesn't seem to have seen a brush for a while.
As for the constant checking of her phone, honestly, don't these people know that babies need their attention?

I see a mother making frantic efforts to keep it together.
The long train journey is unavoidable, for sad reasons. 
She was up four times the night before with her baby, and another two times with her three year old, and started her day half an hour earlier than she needed, so that she could give the boy his breakfast before leaving him.
The hot drink is her only caffeine of the day, a prop to get her through; the food is another. No time for her own breakfast before she went out, uncertainty about when she'll get to have lunch, a breastfed baby to sustain.
The baby won't settle but she's not giving up. She's patiently working through the range of things that might help him, again and again. He's sad and uncomfortable quite often, but she knows eventually she'll hit the sweet spot of jiggle, hold, feed, stroke, and he'll drift off to sleep, all 14lb of him in the carrier on her chest, snuggled in close, an extra weight she'll hold all day. She's not ignorant about baby-settling, but it's not an easy environment to calm him in, not while she's trying to spare the other passengers the noise, and make sure they're not sprayed with her milk.
She's messing around with her phone so that she can do a running interpretation of her left-at-home-boy's needs for his dad, so sad to have left him without her. It's the longest time she's ever left him, 12 hours, and she's already missing him desperately. At the same time, she'd hoped so hard that the baby would sleep on the train, this was going to be a chance to sit in silence and read, away from the questions for once.
So when she looks wild-eyed, it's sleeplessness, low blood sugar, grief, anxiety, worry about the baby, worry about the noise, longing for her boy, regret for the slipping-away chance of an hour's peace...send her some hope, some reassurance, some respect that while all this is happening she's moving, adjusting, tending, nurturing, patiently helping the baby to rest, mothering through all of it even when there are only fragments of her left.

(Note to lady who told me my baby was beautiful and I was handling it all wonderfully, I could have both kissed you and cried. Thank you)
(Note 2. The way home was even worse)

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Nurturing New Families

Another review of a book very kindly sent to me by Pinter & Martin. If I suddenly became money- and time-rich I'd buy their whole catalogue as a job-lot and shut myself away to read it start to finish, and you can see from my recent post how much I loved Dynamic Positions in Birth so I had high hopes for this one.

The book, by ex-midwife Naomi Kemeny, is about the work of postnatal doulas. It's aimed mainly, as far as I can tell, at those setting out to work as a doula, or perhaps considering doing doula training.  I wanted to read it because I hoped it would give me more insights into my work as a breastfeeding counsellor, and also because in one of my fantasy worlds I do work as a doula - probably not in any real world, as it brings in a lot less towards the bills than being an accountant does - but when I'm sitting around sighing about not having more babies, then I get into all sorts of wild imaginings about how I could stay involved in the world of wonderful pregnant mothers and thrilling births and enchanting newborns..ahhhh...babies babies babies.

I want to say I loved it, but I didn't. I liked it, and I could see why its exact target audience would enjoy it, but it just wasn't quite clear to me exactly what it was for. There's all sorts in there - practical tips about newborn care, ideas for things that new mothers might like to eat, information about breast and formula feeding, brief pieces on "baby blues" and postnatal depression...but somehow at points it reads like a bit of a brain dump, a sort of "remember to put a hat on a baby when it's outside, oh and cat nets are good over cots but they won't stop insects, and remember always to spend time checking what the new mother wants". Perhaps what I mean is that for me, it doesn't flow quite as well as I'd hoped - there are themed chapters but they do seem to go off topic.

Two other more fundamental things for me (since that first is really just a stylistic comment, and might serve to make it a more interesting and varied read, with a more human tone, than if it was very strictly segregated into topics) are the breastfeeding information and the implied attitude on attachment.
On attachment, there were just a few places where the author talked about taking the baby so the mother could rest, including a sample timetable of a day where the mother feeds her baby, then when he sleeps she leaves the baby with the doula for around three hours and goes for a sleep. In this, and other places, I wanted it to talk about supporting the mother in her mothering, not about removing the baby so the mother could have "me time" (tbf, she doesn't phrase it like this). Why can't the baby nap with the mother while the doula does the washing up? I see it as so crucial that a mother-baby dyad, particularly when nursing, remains together as much as humanly possible, so I prickled at any of the bits where it was suggested that the doula might do baby-tasks. I know I'm at the crunchy hippy end of things, and the book's meant to have a wider reach than that, but perhaps it could have had more balance by making it very clear that many mothers like to have a very intense relationship with their newborns and will enjoy being encouraged to keep them close as much as possible, which is also hugely beneficial to the breastfeeding relationship (in the example above, a 3 hour gap is pretty unlikely with an 8 day old baby!)
And so onto breastfeeding. There's nothing inaccurate as such in there, but the pictures aren't great, and I felt there was a slight impression of "here's everything you need to know about breastfeeding in a couple of pages". I'd have liked to see more emphasis on helping the mother to find appropriate breastfeeding support, and an acknowledgement that there are plenty of very rich resources out there.
Actually this comes back to my issue overall with the book. Breastfeeding, baby care, baby development, post-natal depression...they're all big, big subjects and to do them justice you need books dedicated to them. In my imagination people working as doulas will have a whole set of favoured reference books that address these topics, so I'm not sure quite what one overview will add - there's not enough detail on anything to replace a specialist book.
And this sort of explains my slight disappointment. I was hoping for more on the emotions of new motherhood, the real nuts and bolts of how to understand and provide the kind of emotional and practical support a mother might need, and although there are pieces about this (which were my favourite parts) there was, for me, too much clutter about things like which baby equipment you need and how to prepare a bottle.
Just one more thing - the odd piece that recommends reassuring the mother, for instance when her baby is very jerky. Reassurance is nice, and desirable, but I worry that there's a suggestion of being The Important Reassuring Expert. Unless the doula is medically trained (as midwives and health visitors are) I'm not sure she's well enough placed to reassure parents that the level of jerkiness they're seeing is normal rather than something alarming. Perhaps there should just have been a little bit more emphasis on encouraging mothers to seek qualified advice if they're concerned, rather than reassurance in areas where the person providing it isn't likely to be an expert. 
It would be useful for someone right at the beginning of looking into becoming a doula, perhaps someone whose own baby experience was some time ago so they would like a refresher on the basics before reading and learning more deeply. I'd love to see a follow up that looks more at the emotional side of things, with (slightly better attributed) quotes from mothers and practising doulas (there's an appendix of longer stories which were fascinating and gave a vivid picture) - the advanced course, if you like.

Monday, 18 August 2014

On having a crying baby

Natural birth, peacefully at home in water, quick and easy, immediately encircled in his mother's arms, skin to skin and first feed, brief wrench away for weighing but then back to human contact, always human contact.

Breastfed whenever he so much as shuffles or stirs, always available for him, patiently, two minutes on, ten minutes off, but freely on again when he needs it.

Worn in the sling for all his daytime sleep, put in it for warmth and comfort and reassurance, rocked and swayed and patted and oh so continually cherished.

Sleeping in the curl of his mother's arm, only has to squeak at night for instant comfort, his first sight at every waking is his mother's face, welcoming him back.

My god, he cries. He cries and he cries and he cries. Most evenings, a peaceful sleep in the sling while dinner's made then wakes as we sit down, groans a bit through dinner (me eating one handed, balancing, readjusting, cooing, shushing, feeding) then howls and screams and cries cries cries for hours.

Nothing helps, or at least nothing helps more than once. One evening, a hundred frantic repetitions of "Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz" reduced him to shuddering sobs and eventually exhausted sleep on my shoulder; another time, it was deep knee bends that let him break state and relax back into me. The wrap just doesn't cut it when he gets like this, he fights and pushes and claws as if he's being bagged up for a kidnapping, so it's arms, and rocking, and walking, and patting, and stroking, and bouncing, and just letting the noise go on and on, imploring him to relax, begging for a minute's break from it, desperately offering to feed only to have him arch away and sob harder.

Let's be clear, it's not just in the evenings, sometimes it's all day. He's happy when he's feeding, then he smiles for five minutes, then out of nowhere the crying again. Cry cry cry cry cry cry.

And in the mean time, his brother looks on bewildered, tries to talk to me but can't make himself heard, waits for a break in it at his bedtime so he can have a few minutes of precious mummy story time. At the start he used to fuss and nag me to do things with me in the daytime, now he seems resigned - the crying starts, and he goes off on his own. This afternoon we settled to make a book together, and the baby started crying, and was obviously not going to stop quickly, and he said we could do it later, but then when I was out of sight he scribbled all over the book, what was the point, I couldn't get the time to do it with him.

I thought that second time I'd have the confidence in knowing what I was doing, and when it's going well I do, but in the hammering noise of that crying, in the feel of that body braced and writhing and pushing and the taste of those tears I'm hopeless, I'm useless, my baby is hurting, somehow, I can't begin to tell what or how, but it's just the same as if someone was stabbing me.

When people ask how he's doing I first say he's lovely, because he is, and the smile moments are wonderful, but then I say "and he cries a lot" and you can see them glazing over, thinking oh this stupid woman is on her second child and still doesn't know that babies cry. Lady, this isn't just the kind of crying babies do. This is the kind that breaks grown women, that shatters their peace and self-belief and relationships, that makes them desperately count the days to the magic 12 weeks, as if it was even slightly possible that it could change.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Dynamic positions in birth

Sounds like it could be a highly personal post packed with too much information, but in fact this is a semi-formal book review...Dynamic positions in birth by Margaret Jowitt, published by Pinter & Martin.
I should say, I had a review copy from P&M but there was no obligation on me to review it positively - it just happens that I love love love it.
I've not written up A's birth story for this blog yet, and I might not (these things are so personal, but at the same time I love reading them online, so perhaps I *should* contribute) and I've also not yet written about this feeling that somehow I'm not done with birth. I feel pretty sure we'll be sticking at two children - they are such a blessing, and I feel so rich, but we're constrained by space, and money, and age, and I only have two arms, and almost I feel I would be tempting fate to risk another when my current two are such a delight. Anyway. I'm not done with birth, somehow - A's birth was so very thrilling and empowering and just perfect and I want to shout about it, and shout for the opportunity for other women to have the chance of experiencing it like this too, not as a thing of fear and pain and sadness, but as something that leaves them as giants, swelling with joy about what their bodies can do.

The book isn't so much about positions, really - it's a sort of hymn to the female body and its perfect design for labour when not impeded by unnecessary interventions. Perhaps the most thought-provoking part for me was the distinction between positioning and propulsive contractions. The idea is that latent labour, the early stage which is often seen as just being pointless "niggles", is in fact the process where a mother's body is getting her baby into a perfect position for birthing. Pain, Jowitt writes, works as a signal to the body to change something, and in those hours, days or even weeks of "non-progressing" contractions (ie those that are doing little or nothing to dilate the cervix) an empowered mother can keep shifting her position in response to these, allowing the uterus to contract in response to where the baby is, nudging him into the best position. This runs counter to the most commonly accepted current view that contractions start at the fundus (the top) and work as an ejector-type mechanism.
The part where Jowitt uses charts to show the pressure changes to support her suggestion that the pressure doesn't all come from the top are quite dense, but she also uses some fascinating analogies (the uterus compared to a balloon, and then to a trampoline). It then gets really interesting where she talks about the consequence of the top-down view for interventions - if you believe that the way to get a baby out is to apply as much ejective force from the top as possible, then it makes sense to give artificial oxytocin to make contractions very strong, which means women often want or need very strong pain relief (usually an epidural), so their birthing position doesn't really matter, because if the baby's pushed hard enough he *will* come out.
The alternative view set out here is that women can work with all of their contractions, from the beginning, by staying broadly upright (lots of cool stuff in here about the dynamic pelvis) and responding to what their body seems to be needing in terms of position. When all contractions are viewed as useful, it changes the whole mindset of both the mother and those attending her, and allows the birth to proceed at its own pace, so the baby doesn't start making his way out until he's already well positioned.
I also loved the piece about how a baby works to be born too - there's a fascinating table listing out newborn reflexes and how each one might be helpful in adopting a good birth position (eg the rooting reflex, turning the face to one side when a cheek is stroked, may help the baby to turn his face when it reaches various bony protrusions on the way out, rather than being shoved up against them and therefore requiring more pushing and more pain to get him out).
Reading this over the last week or so has given me the chance to reflect on my own birth experiences, and particularly to think about how lucky I was to give birth in water this time around. It's the ultimate freedom for changing position because it gives so much support; also because I was at home I moved around completely freely beforehand too. I've looked back and seen how much time I spent in some of the positions Jowitt recommends, without having read the book at that point - I was overtaken by instincts and these made me upright, then forward-leaning, and gave me a pretty quick labour with a four minute second stage. It also - retrospectively - makes sense of my two or three weeks of discomfort (and, let's be honest, frustration) coming up to the birth - I felt so sure that "something" was happening, then felt silly that in fact "nothing" had happened - it seems to me now that my body was working hard to put the baby exactly where he needed to be.

If I was going to criticise, it would be that some of the references are a bit woolly - I can't take a Wikipeda citation seriously, and some of the other sources are websites maintained by just one person, or personal communication. It's not a serious problem, because she's putting the whole thing forward as a theory, coherent and fairly complete, but still a theory. I wish I knew what it would take for healthcare professionals to look into this properly and consider enacting more of the principles in the final chapter, where she describes environments conducive to a good birth (mainly, ones without beds in) but I don't know, I don't know how long it takes to change practice.

For individuals, though, there's no reason not to read this, be informed by it, and put it into practice. Not as a lecture for those whose births didn't go to plan, or as admonishment for anyone planning to use pain relief, but just to make sure that decisions are based on the fullest possible understanding.
If you were looking for a suite of birth books to prepare yourself, I think you'd also need Ina May's Guide to Childbirth, Grantly Dick-Read's Childbirth without Fear, maybe something from the natal hypnotherapy stable, and then perhaps Balaskas or Kitzinger; if you're looking for more theory, particularly on how things follow through to breastfeeding, I'm just finishing up Smith's The impact of birthing practices on breastfeeding which is fascinating, technical, and scary. Oh, and you'd need some Odent, any Odent, maybe the man himself just installed in the corner of your living room.

But, this one should definitely be in there - it may look dry, but it's not, and I'm big on knowledge reducing fear.
Now, how to persuade the husband we could do it all again....

(Note - please forgive me - I'm struggling to write as clearly as I want to at the moment, combination of babybrain and doing everything two sentences at a time in between talking to bonzo...but I just wanted to get this written while I was still fresh from having read it. I'd love to be writing more on here about what I'm reading - I seem to have lots of reading time at the moment, in the cluster-feeding evenings, but time at the keyboard is sparser, so I'm doing what I can with what I have, which I suppose is really all we ever do)

Thursday, 19 June 2014


Well, Gonzo is here, and is as delicious as every newborn should be. His birth was just perfect, exactly as planned, healthy and safe for him, affirming and empowering for me, and almost entirely ignored by his big brother. I'd love to write more about it, because I think the internet needs more joyfully positive birth stories, but tonight I need to express myself on something else.

Two weeks ago, I thought I understood what patience was, and I prided myself on how much I'd developed since becoming a mother. It's not exactly been a strength for me, but I was managing it - I was not shouting at the 3 year old (much), not even getting shirty with the husband (much), and congratulating myself at sometimes managing to show the serenity I so admire in others.

But now? Gosh, now. I know I am jam-packed with hormones - it's only been 11 days - and that things will settle. But the walls I'm hitting here are granite - the bounds of my patience seem to have contracted to inches apart. I don't know quite what it is - obviously Gonz isn't exactly doing anything yet, and Bonz is doing nothing different from two weeks ago - but I seem to have the shortest leash imaginable. I think the worst is the dim awareness that often the subject of my impatience isn't the true cause - so H annoys me, and I express it in anger with bonz, or bonz annoys me, and I project it on to gonz. I find myself exasperated when he's fussy on the boob (of course he's fussy. I have a supply made for quads, and it all comes out at once, the poor wretch is half drowning) or, last night, when he wouldn't conveniently go quiet just at the time I was trying to help bonz to sleep. And then I'm minding about my poor big boy's needs, am frustrated when he howls for me and only me at bedtime, or tells me the baby wants to be put down so I'm free to play, or needs a wee suddenly whenever I sit down to nurse....but this is a child whose whole world has been disrupted, who's doing so wonderfully, who kisses his brother so gently and tells me he loves me many times in a day, and philosophically goes and plays on his own while the midwives are around (and indeed, did this for the several hours he was awake while I was busy having a baby in the conservatory). He's being a treasure, a love, and gonz is being a squishy fuzzy newborn delight.

My only hope is that most of this is internal. I feel wretched about not feeling saintly, but I think I'm behaving better than I feel. It's just exhausting to manage, to keep on top of the urge to shout and slam and scream for a moment alone, a moment not holding or touching anyone, a single occasion when someone will tell me unambiguously what they want, say thank you when they get it, then go about their business.

Of course there's also patience with myself. I've got a lot more brewing on this, but having this whole new baby experience second time around has shown me how much I expect of myself, and how embarrassingly important it is to me to "do well". I wanted to have a heroic birth after working as close as I could to it, and I now want to sail on through the early baby days making it look effortless, parenting my older boy intensely and playfully and brilliantly while selflessly giving my all to the baby, surviving on minimal sleep, achieving all sorts of personal projects during my maternity leave, and so on. Sounds like anyone's wish list but it turns out to matter a frightening amount to me - I really am grading myself and so, of course, finding myself wanting. (Note - must also have body that returns to pre-pregnant shape within a month, two at most). It could be that a lot of my feelings of snappiness with my boys are to do with snappiness with myself, being constantly aware that I'm not doing as well as I want to, that my house is a tip and our meals are more "freezer surprise" than loving organic freshly prepared creations.
I know, I know. This kind of post is designed to be read and laughed at a month later once the hormones are settled, but I want it here anyway, I want to show how it feels less than two weeks in, and to get my ugly confessions in writing, as if this diluted them.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Mothers in the night

Welcome to the ‘Look At All The Women’ Carnival: Week 2 – ‘The Mothers’ This post was written especially for inclusion in the three-week-long ‘Look At All The Women’ carnival, hosted by Mother’s Milk Books, to celebrate the launch of Cathy Bryant’s new book ‘Look At All The Women’. This week our participants share their thoughts on the theme ‘The Mothers’ (the second chapter in Cathy’s poetry collection). Please read to the end of the post for a full list of carnival participants. ***

Although I've been a mother for more than three years now, I still have a weird dissociation from it - say "mother" or "mum" to me, and I think of my own mum, or of the LLL Leaders and members I work with - they're all "real" mothers, and I'm still just a big fraud.
But there's a time I feel connected, a time when my identity fits with the name, and that's at night.

When bonzo was small, and waking all the time, and up more in the night than he was asleep, and when we weren't even managing lovely dozy cuddly feeds, but instead the sitting-up, wrestling, whimpering (from both of us), occasionally cursing (just me), desperate feeds, I reached a really low point. I suppose he was probably about 9 or 10 months - a famous killer time - and it was getting me down pretty badly. I'd started to let myself feel very hard done by, and would always always look at the clock and add a number to the mental tally - this is how many times you woke me, this is how long I was awake for, this is how little sleep I had, this is what a martyr I am and how miserable I am entitled to be.

Two things helped. First, a call to the LLL helpline, and I so wish that I now knew who it was I talked to that morning. I asked her for a pep talk, she gave me one; she gently urged me to hide the clock, to look at ways of sharing sleep, to haul myself back to meetings, and  things that have followed since have been life-changing.

But there was also (moving into some slight relevance to the subject) a visualisation that I developed, to run through in these horrible times where I felt so very sad and alone.
I would sit in the bed, with the baby, and imagine a golden web, a web connecting me to all the other nursing mothers.
In this picture, the first round of the web had my new mother friends, all those who were struggling with the same things right now - it was quite realistic to think that at least one of them would be awake too, at exactly that minute, nursing a child, drunk with tiredness.
Next, there were all the nursing mothers around the country and the world, those I didn't know, those for whom it wasn't even night, but still busy at the same activity, and connected to me through this bond.
After that, the women whose babies were all grown up - my own mother and grandmothers, the women I'd worked with, mothers of my friends - our links stretched back and forth in time, but still glittered and shone. Going back further in time, I'd think of all the women who had ever nursed their babies, going back to the beginning, doing what was natural and true.

Now the web was huge and complex, so many golden lines between us all, connecting us whether or not we were aware of it. Finally I'd add those who weren't mothers, and wished they were  - with lost babies, or never-arrived babies, and empty arms at night.

Part of me finds it a little embarrassing to describe this - I know that at one level it sounds, for want of a better word, naff, but when I really needed it, it gave me such strength. I wasn't Helen, alone, I was Woman, Mother, part of a body that grows and embraces us. I'd almost forgotten it, as the night feeds gradually trailed off, but it's been reawakened for me recently, with the challenges of intense toddler needs, and my imminent brand new child. I can plug back into this network-web without permission, and without putting my hand up - it's the biggest club I've ever been in, and by far the most fulfilling.


 Look At All The Women is now available to buy from: The Mother’s Milk Bookshop (as a paperback and PDF) – we can ship books around the world! and as a paperback from Amazon.co.uk.
Book cover for Look At All The Women by Cathy Bryant
It can also be ordered via your local bookshop. If you’d like to get involved in the ‘Look At All The Women’ carnival please find more details about it here: http://www.mothersmilkbooks.com/carnival-2/ Please take the time to read and comment on the following fab posts submitted by some wonderful women:
‘Moments with Mothers and (Imaginary) Daughters’ — Cathy Bryant, guest posting at Mother’s Milk Books, shares more poetry from Look At All The Women — her own version of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ and a poem inspired by her imaginary daughter.
 ‘The Cold Cup of Tea’Marija Smits shares some poetry that gives a glimpse into the everyday life of a mother.
 ‘Creative Mothers: You Need to Stop!’Georgie St Clair, shares an important reminder, that all mothers need to dedicate time and space to be creative.
 ‘The Mothers – Or Promises to My Future Child’: Kimberly Jamison posts to her blog The Book Word what she has learnt from her own mother, and writes an open letter to her future child.
 ‘Bonobos are my Heroines’: Ana Salote at Colouring Outside the Lines puts the nature back into nurture.
 ‘Baby Body Shame: it's Time to Push Back’ — Stephanie from Beautiful Misbehaviour wants to challenge society’s treatment of the post-birth body.
 Helen at Young Middle Age talks about finding strength from thinking about all the other mothers, during hard times.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014


Just a quick check-in one, really: I have a couple of longer posts in drafts but they're not quite ready for the world yet.
I'd forgotten this stage of my first pregnancy. A little over 36 weeks, and the world is slipping away from me, or perhaps I'm slipping away from the world. I find myself inexorably drawn inwards, to quiet and reflection and a sort of contemplation of my core. I want to shut down everything that isn't absolutely necessary - no calls, no emails, no contacts. Nesting never really hit me last time and it hasn't this time either - I suppose my version is a kind of "interior nesting", a compulsive need to get my mental house in order before starting on this journey again.
It's quite a bit harder this time, what with an about-to-be-three-year-old who's practising his use of the word "why". There's also a big work target that just has to be met before I can have the baby - the book has to be submitted, and it's all written now (as of tonight!) but I'm awaiting editorial comments and will have some more work to do on it. Somehow I feel sure that I'll be able to hold off on the birth until the book's done, but it's a frustrating blockage - I can't quite let go and surrender to the sort of trust in my body that I want, until this final external task is completed.
No, of course there are other external things too, we need to eat, I need to fold tiny baby clothes and find my nursing bras and pack a bag and work out exactly what will happen to bonzo when I'm not there with him, but these are all known needs, and really now I am driven by felt needs. I need to be an animal, I need my instincts for warmth and dark and privacy, I need to lose swathes of time to communing with the new child before we meet face-to-face.
I'm brimming with hopes for the opportunities that six months away from working will give me, even if I'll also be wrecked by the realities of combining toddler and newborn care. But these are vague fancies, really, compared to the vivid reality that is all inside and that I must inhabit fully.

Please send positive waves or vibes or thoughts or hopes or prayers, whatever form comes most naturally to you.