Monday, 22 September 2014

J - Booker shortlist #2

Honestly, I don't want to waste any more time on this one. It's bogged me down, deterred me from my journey, made me sleep rather than read, made me irritable.
Trying to think of a sort of intelligent critique rather than just saying it's rubbish, I note the publisher's assertion that this is nothing like Jacobson's normal work, but respectfully disagree - it's like it, in that it's hard work to read, and a big old waste of paper.

Pretentious and try-hard, with all the classic mistakes of a very new writer.

Unnecessary world-building?  Yup
Lots of silly made up names? Got it
Conspiracy and "twists" laid on with a trowel? Absolutely
Hijacking of something that's actually important to make a book that just, well, isn't? In there!
Special affectation of typography, for this book alone? This is the "overindulged writer" special.

Really, I can't think of a redeeming feature, other than that it wasn't longer. It didn't make me laugh, or think; it didn't make me want to go and explore anything in the book; it didn't give me even a moment's pause after I closed the covers. It is, to me, lazy and silly and very very under-edited (just one example - he should have had a big pat on the head for managing so convincingly to write in the boring pompous voice of "Phinny", and then should have had it scored through with red lines, because convincingly boring writing is just boring, and that's not a merit).

The only germ of readability in it was some of the pages of verbal wrangling between the two key characters, but even that is so sparsely distributed, and becomes so contrived and dull by the end, that its value is lost.

The blurb also says the novel is "to be talked about in the same breath as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World" - well, yes, in the sense of "if you would like to read a dystopian novel, put aside this nonsense as quickly as you can and read one of those two, because they're both much much much better". 

Thursday, 18 September 2014

We are all completely beside ourselves

Booker shortlist time! My favourite time of year!
Honestly, I have no time to read, can't even manage to get through Saturday's paper, and yet somehow at Booker time I find these little pockets of time, squeeze in a few pages here and there, ponder the contents in between, with only a little bit of neglect of my children.

I got my Book People bundle on Tuesday, and despairingly put them all aside to do my parent volunteering morning at the playgroup, but I'd managed to arrange them in length order. order, I'll be reading

We are all completely beside ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler
J - Howard Jacobson
To rise again at a decent hour - Joshua Ferris
How to be both - Ali Smith
The narrow road to the deep north - Richard Flanagan
The lives of others - Neil Mukherjee

My prediction from the covers is that it has to be the Flanagan or the Mukherjee. Jacobson just can't win again (it was a travesty last time); Ferris is a lightweight; the Smith cover looks like a cheap movie spin-off.

And the Fowler?

It didn't start promisingly - enjoyable enough, but a bit too much like any old stoner college romp.
The "twist", though, which I might be the only person who read it without knowing about, makes it a bit more special.
I don't really want to ruin the book for anyone who's reading this not having seen it, but her sister is a chimp - there you go. They were brought up together and then Fern (the chimp) was removed from the family home - the book is the narrator's exploration of what happened surrounding Fern's leaving.
Interesting idea, engaging tone, but for me something was missing. I think it's perhaps just that the whole thing tried slightly too hard. Unreliable narrators are my favourite, and an adult retelling a child's story is prime territory for this, but it was all done so self-consciously, with too many interjections about maybe this didn't happen, perhaps I've remembered this wrong. It was almost as though the author lacked the confidence either in herself as a writer or us as readers so she had to write UNRELIABLE in ten-foot letters across each page - when she could have trusted us to see this.

I also found the ending a little glib - almost as if there was a page count to be reached, and once she'd got there the author just rushed to come up with a conclusion to all the loose ends, without thinking too hard about how she'd got there.
I don't know, it was an enjoyable read, and made me want to look at some of the extra information that she linked to at the back, but I don't think it was great literature, and I can't imagine wanting to read it again. For me, both of these rule it out as a winner - it's just not momentous enough, or ambitious enough, or skilled enough. Almost, I thought "I could write that", where what I want is to read things where I think "I wish I could write that", or where I'm desperate to work out how they did it so I can have a go, or where I slam the book closed in despair that I'll never write that.

So onto the Jacobson - I couldn't be doing with the Finkler Question so am hoping this one's got a bit more going for it. Less than a month till the prize is announced!

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

So big

Not an original observation, but one that needs to be made.

He was my baby, my precious tiny firstborn. I've written elsewhere about the astonishing levels of intimacy in our relationship, with perhaps the most surprising thing for me being the physicality of it. Of course there's breastfeeding, but it's more than that - we owned each other's bodies, with no clear line between us. He weaned during my second trimester, painlessly, seemingly resigned to the absence of milk and open to discovering the joys of food. We still slept together, though, usually squeezed into his single bed, him nestled into my back as my bump grew.

In a trite moment, this shifted so completely. Baby 2 arrived, and baby 1 become boy, suddenly, one Sunday morning. Now he's massive. Not just his enormous hands, huge head, the hair on his legs, but the way he holds himself and how he moves.

I am still regularly entranced by this whirlwind of a boy, with his captivating thought processes, his articulacy, his exuberance and creativity and spontaneous affection, but physically it's so so tough, as if someone has hacked apart the Lyra/Pan bond. Today I woke him from a sleep and he cried so hard, tried to sit on my lap and curl back into me but he didn't fit, he couldn't nestle how he wanted to, and however much he tried to get me to position my hands for his wishes, it wouldn't work. He wasn't satisfied, but worse, I was irritated and un-tender. Why was this big lump trying to act like a baby? His skin's not smooth (it is), his eyes aren't disproportionately big (they are), he doesn't smell sweet and milky (actually, this one's true, he's usually a bit whiffy, in the way of 3 year olds), HE'S NOT A BABY which somehow, if you're not careful, becomes HE'S NOT MY BABY.
Oh precious firstborn, you are, you are. My body doesn't cry out for you like it did, because it's being poured into the care of another, who is soft and smooth and fuzzy and smells perfect and whose head fits in my collarbone. I swing behind me and swipe your feet off my back when you crawl into my bed in the night, all without breaking the curl around the other baby. I sometimes flinch a little bit when you come and sit on me naked straight after going to the toilet. And tonight we fought about bed, driven by my desperate desire to spend some sweet time with my new one, alone putting him to sleep, without having to indulge your needs. But honestly, I know it, even if I forget it, I know you're only three, I know your language is ahead of your emotions and that you need me as much as you ever did. I know that when I push you away you just come in closer and harder, that I'm still your prop against a confusing world, and I don't want you to be forced out there alone, bullied into growing up before your time just because an interloper has arrived.
I want to cherish my little boy even though someone else is now my baby, and I want to see him for the size he is. Can anyone press the pause button for me so we can get this sorted out?

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)