Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Book shame

Just a quick one here, though I'm hoping to be back tomorrow-ish with some words about my hopes for 2015.
For now, though, an issue that's been vexing me: what do I feel about the books that I love? Or, can I get over my apparent need to write or talk only about the more literary, impressive, books that I enjoyed, and be more open, with readers of this blog but also with myself.  Repeat to self: if you enjoyed a book, you enjoyed it. They don't all have to be great literature, and there is no need to be ashamed of anything that I'm reading.

It's so hard! And it's all about the constructed self-image, not that I take a great deal of care about this but I do like to think of myself as someone with good taste (I suppose we all do) and I'm also aware that I go on about how little time I have. Maybe my imaginary reader scorns me for guzzling my way through the Susan Hill series of Simon Serailler books, or for having enjoyed  All Hallows at Eyre Hall as much as I did. I look at these and am fairly confident they're not going to win prizes or be widely known in 100 years, and one of my inner voices says that this must mean they're not "worth it"...worth what? My reading time, or my writing time, or the reading time of anyone who visits this blog or my Goodreads page? Or is it even more laughably conceited than that - "these books do not merit my endorsement, because I am a Serious Reader who must only be associated with Very Serious Books"?

I am packed with self-loathing when I find myself suspecting this is how I'm thinking, and so an early resolution for next year is this: I will read what I enjoy, which might sometimes mean a fine aesthetic appreciation, sometimes a furious socio-political engagement, sometimes a happy nostalgia, and sometimes the pure reading pleasure of something I can't put down. I will not engage with the part of me that wants to put the books in boxes as worthy or unworthy, "high quality" or "low quality", and will test out a new assumption: a book is "high quality" if it made me involve myself with it, and kept me reading - I can trust myself on this, and share my thoughts on it. It will improve me as a reader, and as a writer, because the more I can identify this magic ingredient, the better I'll be at spotting it as a reader, at helping to draw it out as an editor, and even trying to produce it myself as a writer. I'll go back again to Francine Prose, and learn from her every word, and I will get over myself a bit!

All this will work with the help of my glorious new Paperwhite (reading! All the time! In the dark! One-handed! New books at a single click!) and I swear I will write about them all, even if they only get a few lines, and this sort of honesty will improve everything. Though I'd never admit it if I read Fifty Shades of Grey.... 

Friday, 19 December 2014

Adding a phrase

My singing teacher gave me a piece of wonderful advice.

Sometimes you're learning a song and the breath control is hard, because the phrases are long. Take, for example, the first line of Linden Lea, an English classic and grade 4 piece, I think:

"Within the woodlands, flow'ry gladed, by the oak tree's mossy moot"

Even if you're taking the whole song at a bracing gallop, it's a long one, and because it's right at the start of the song you're not quite in flow yet, but it spoils it if you breathe in the middle. When I started singing this I'd always be turning a bit purple by the end, and "mossy moot" would come out as a hissy, last-bit-of-air-escaping-tyre, squeak.

How to get this better? Practise the phrase, not as it stands, but with an extra sub-clause at the start, so sing, again and again:

"Within the wood, within the woodlands, flow'ry gladed, by the oak tree's mossy moot"

Your breath budget now has to last a few syllables longer, and you get used to spreading it right to the end (with perhaps still a tiny bit of hissy squeaking at the end). Then, sing the phrase again with the extras cut off the start, and wonder of wonders, you've got loads to spare, you cruise through it easily and triumphantly, so much that you're not even having to take in a massive gasp before starting "the shining grass blades, timber-shaded, now do quiver underfoot" (another long one).

As with singing, so with life. When I had a small baby, who rapidly became a toddler, I thought my life was full to bursting. Meeting his needs was consuming every scrap I had to offer, aside from what I spent on work. Then I had baby 2, and more than double the demands on my time (surprisingly, the existence of a smiling, disney-eyed snuggly mother-magnet doesn't make a three year old less clingy), and gosh, these six months have been hard. But when Bonzo goes off to playgroup some mornings, my time sighs and stretches into the space, I revel in the slowness of life with the baby, we potter and chatter and burble and tickle and it is easy, so easy.

That was step 1, the first extension to the phrase, and it was building up my strength and skills at handling two. Then, enter the scruffy dog, a beautiful shabby needy lurcher, and now there are three warm bodies that all want to be touching me, three potential danger sources all of whom could hurt any of the others (and themselves - so there are nine different hurting combinations available, before you count one of them hurting several at once). The chaos levels have stepped up further, and the carpets are hairier, but the big blessing turns out to be the way that it's just drawn my breath out for longer. Now, when H goes to work and takes the dog with him, "all" I have to deal with is two children and there are "only" two sets of needs (mine don't count). I feel foolish at how well this mind-trick is working on me, but at the same time it's wonderful. I don't feel more overwhelmed with three dependents; I feel more capable at all the times I only have two, or one.

Of course all this sends me back to my terror in pregnancy about whether I could possibly hold enough love for both of my boys, whether there was enough of me to go round. It turns out that there is, that actually the "me" has grown (no, "I have grown" doesn't say what I want it to), and that my mothering muscles are strengthening with each day of (tear-inducing, soul-breaking, exhausting) exercise. 

Now all I need to do is work out what to use all that spare breath on...

Monday, 17 November 2014

Dr Jack Newman's Guide to Breastfeeding

Dr Jack Newman's Guide to Breastfeeding, Jack Newman and Teresa Pitman, 2014, Pinter & Martin

Shout it from the rooftops! The famous "Dr Jack" has issued a new edition of his breastfeeding book, and I was thrilled to get a review copy because he's such a well-respected man, has coined so many of the phrases that have been incorporated into the narrative of breastfeeding, and has some fantastic material available online.

It's a huge book, and dense, and I couldn't stop myself from opening it straight away. I've really taken my time reading it, though - partly because there's so much of it, and partly because I feel so many different things about it so I've been trying to sort these out in my head before writing about it.

One-line verdict? Yes, buy it if you're interested in breastfeeding, particularly if you're involved in any way at all with supporting breastfeeding mothers. But, don't make it your only breastfeeding book.

I could expand on it like this or, more easily for me, give you a few examples of what I loved and what I didn't.

I loved the authoritative tone. This man is an expert, and not afraid to say so. He has vast experience of mothers in his clinic, and writes with extreme confidence about what has worked for them and what will therefore work for others. It's an exciting contrast to most other current breastfeeding books, which are written by women and tend to reflect that in their tone and style. Now, let's be clear, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding is hands-down my favourite and is, as the title might suggest, exceedingly womanly in tone. It might have been written by a favourite sister or aunt, and I love it so much for this - I feel the authors are standing right alongside me. But, (and this is a big, personal, FOR ME, but) it's refreshing to read a man's point of view, when I spend most of my time these days communing with women.

I didn't love the flipside of this tone, which is the description of "the mother" and "the baby" rather than "you" and "your baby". It's one thing that suggests to me that the book is best suited to breastfeeding supporters rather than breastfeeding mothers. It also, to my mind, doesn't do justice to Teresa Pitman's contribution - she's listed as co-author but the book is written from the "I" point of view but that "I" is clearly Dr Jack, even though I've no doubt she's contributed significant amounts to the book.

I loved the challenge of some of the assertions, making me think more about some of the breastfeeding truths I have held to be self evident...the best example would be the assertion that if a baby of, say, four months, isn't growing sufficiently on breastmilk alone, it's better in many cases to introduce solids rather than formula milk (this is a gross simplification of the argument - you'd need to read it in full for the nuances, and the intermediate steps that are suggested). I subscribe to the "middle of the first year is usually the right time for the gentle introduction of solids" idea, and was slightly shocked at seeing an expert advocating introduction at four months. The argument sort of makes sense, though, and challenges me to think harder about what is "best" in a situation where breastfeeding isn't going too well.
He also writes in such a powerful way about the virtues of at-breast supplementation, and the evils of sippy-cups, and again this isn't the only truth, but it's just wonderful to see such strong views expressed so consistently. It forces me to examine exactly what I believe and why.

I didn't love the way that claims are sometimes flung about without citations to support them. Another thing about the WAB is that, perhaps because it is so warm and fuzzy, its authors take great pains to support all of their factual statements with proper, up to date, references to research. Dr Jack doesn't feel the same need to do this because, well, he's Dr Jack, and what he says goes. I've no doubt that there's science behind the factual statements, but I was frustrated by not being able to flick to a reference and then go and read more behind a claim - I don't want to believe it just because he says so.

I loved the scientific explanations of areas such as how drugs pass into breastmilk, and how breastmilk helps immunity. These were pitched at the right sort of level for me, written with the same authority as the rest of the book, and have enhanced and deepened my own understanding. I've not seen another popular breastfeeding book that does this, and it's a really positive dimension to the book that would on its own justify adding it to your library. I'm not in a position to tell mothers a drug is safe or not to take, but where she's got information about it already, I like it that I'm in a better position to explain this to her and help her understand it - it's a new go-to reference for me, along with a copy of Hale that I was lucky to inherit.
In general, all the technical stuff is just great - I've not seen anywhere else a step by step set of instructions on using gentian violet, or such a thorough systematic explanation of reasons for breast pain, or such good illustrative pictures of positions and techniques (though I didn't much like the one that showed Dr Jack's white-sleeved arm reaching in and expressing an anonymous breast).

I didn't love the "case studies". Some of them made useful points, but I felt that some were included mainly to illustrate the way Dr Jack heroically stepped in and saved a foolish woman from the error of her ways. Actually, that's slightly unfair - they're generally about how other healthcare providers didn't give good advice, but the structure of some of them - a straight telling of the story, with interjections in italics describing what Dr Jack thinks is wrong with what a mother had been told - is a little bit sneery. I suppose again this tells you about my own background and my previous loves - I want to read mothers' stories in their own words, like the two fabulous Flower books (Adventures in gentle discipline and Adventures in tandem nursing), with a bit of heart to them. And the mothers I work with, on our helpline, or in meetings, or one to one on my sofa, or at a noisy dropin - they're not case studies to me. They're rich and complex and often vulnerable people, or at least they're in a vulnerable time of their lives, and for the time I'm with each mother I'm really "with" her, not detached in the way that would let me see her as a case study. You'll see this isn't something wrong with the book - it's a very natural reflection of who the author is, ie a proper real clinical doctorman, not a provider of mother-to-mother support. But for me, as a person, it was less appealing.

I loved the pieces on colic and on late-onset low milk supply. On colic, there's nothing revolutionary in there but it's warm, reassuring, sensible, and feels reassuringly systematic, a sort of "try that, then this" - it's a chapter I'd be really happy to recommend directly to a breastfeeding mother, rather than needing to be mediated through a supporter. And the stuff on late-onset supply problems is fascinating because he essentially says that you can sometimes get away with sloppy technique in the early weeks if you have a great supply, but the effects then can show later, when your supply stabilises but your baby's not taking milk well (there are other reasons too). Again, challenging, and a difficult way of thinking to present to a mother, in fact I think I misjudged it the other day with someone, making it sound as though she was storing up problems - but it's informed my thinking, and deepened my knowledge, and will be a section I go back to again and again. 

In summary I really did enjoy it, and it's already got some pages bookmarked and has taken a place on my reference shelf: in fact, I've already had cause to pull it out in conversation with a mother. I'd unequivocally recommend it to someone who already has WAB and wants to expand their library to give them more technical information for supporting mothers, but I'd then say well, read it with your critical eye on, question whether all the facts are truly facts, and don't forget that it's legitimate to come to breastfeeding support from a different place, a motherly place - don't be so dazzled by his masculine authority that you forget there are many ways of skinning a cat. Mothers are, in my view, the ultimate experts on their own babies, not in a brainless "happy mummy, happy baby" way, but in a careful learning of listening to your own instincts and your own baby, and learning each other's language. Nothing can override this, not even a very knowledgeable doctor.

Maybe only one reader of my blog will "get" this last line, and he may not have made it to the end of this post, but if he has, just for him, the line that springs to mind is "Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me". Anyone else, I'm happy to expand on that if (as seems unlikely) you're interested.

I should make it clear that I had a review copy from Pinter & Martin, my favourite publisher in the whole world apart from Mother's Milk Books, though I'm also developing quite a crush on Praeclarus Press, and these are only the ones that cover mothering-y stuff, don't get me started on my fiction list. Also, in case this looks familiar, I wrote a shorter review of the book for inclusion in LLLGB's "Breastfeeding Matters" members' magazine, with one of my other hats on.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Digital footprints, or trying to interact

I made a bold statement on twitter today - I'm planning to spend a week or two really consciously deepening my digital footprint. Perhaps this phrase has common use, perhaps not: I'm using it to mean I want to acknowledge online content that's held some meaning or pleasure for me, whether that's through a simple "like" or "favorite", a share or retweet, or a comment on a blog.

Some of this has come about from a conversation with a friend the other day where I was explaining how I use online material. I always have facebook and twitter open as tabs on my browser, and whenever I get a couple of minutes at the PC I glance through, and open up any links that look vaguely interesting as new tabs. Then one of my boys needs me. Some hours, or days, later, I might have some at-PC reading time, and then I'll cast my eyes over the million open tabs, and read through some of the things I've opened earlier.

I love this way of getting myself lots of great stuff to read, but I fear I've become a passive and lazy consumer, and it bothers me that, particularly when I'm reading people's personal blogs, it's just rude to take, take, take, and never even acknowledge. So, I want to put myself out there, and to engage with anyone who's written something that entertains me or makes me think, instead of nodding silent approval in my head and closing the tab. I love it so much when anyone comments on my blog, even when it's a one-worder - the feeling that you're not talking into completely empty space is so very gratifying.

To help persuade myself, I brainstormed some of the things that stop me from commenting - there are plenty, but none of them are great reasons.

The blog or article writer is too important to care what I think or whether I liked it  - this hits me when I know someone has a mass of followers, or when the piece already has 300 comments. What will it add if I also say "great post!"?
Well, on this one I tell myself that it must be very boosting to have 300 people commenting on your post, but probably even more boosting if the other 500 who read and enjoyed it were to say so too. Also, the vanilla "great post!" comments are quite dull, so the challenge for me is to say what I liked about it, even if it's only a line or two - I've troubled myself to read it, so why not trouble myself to think for just a couple of minutes longer about why exactly I thought it was so great?

I don't have anything to add - the writer already covered it so well  - this applies to some of the more polished blogs that I read regularly. Basically I'm awed by the writer's skill or knowledge or experience or sheer articulacy, and I don't want to sully their page with my adolescent admiration or pretentious attempts to join in. Yes, I know. I think with this one I just need to believe that if someone is putting their content "out there" then they probably are interested in responses to it, even if they're a bit incoherent.

I don't want to look like a stalker - is this just me? When a blogger posts regularly I may well read all of his or her posts, but fear being "that commenter" who always pops up and says something, as if they were unhealthily obsessed with the blogger. This is probably most relevant to the blogs with a smaller readership and few comments- do I look lurky and weird if there's exactly one comment per post, and it's always from me?
Here, I need the courage of my convictions. It shouldn't matter if I'm the only commenter, and I also need to look at my own responses. I've never read a comment on this blog and thought "oh no, her again" - it wouldn't occur to me. When people comment regularly I love it, they become one of the audience that I have in mind when I'm writing, and actually I mourn it when they stop, because I fear they've become bored of me.
If I'm enjoying someone's work, I should be proud to tell them that every time I enjoy a piece of it, and if they're putting so much out there, then it suggests they're happy to get plenty of feedback.

He/she never responds to comments - again, a loaded one for me. We "shouldn't" (no, I don't know where I'm getting this normative statement from) only comment on blogs to get validation in return, so it "shouldn't" matter if the author doesn't acknowledge comments, or only acknowledges the particularly interesting ones (which may well not be mine). It does sting, though, particularly if you've tried hard to add something to the discussion, an intellectual contribution or an honest offering of your own story.
This might be one where I need to monitor what happens. I do think that if I was visiting someone's blog really regularly, always commenting, and never hearing anything in return, I might need to take this as a strong indication that the author isn't that interested in engaging with me. But, I also need to bear in mind that I'm not brilliant at responding to comments myself, even though I'm always thrilled to read them. Perhaps I see them at night on my phone then don't get round to a response when I get to the computer, or perhaps I can't think of anything to add to the conversation, and am not good enough at accepting that a gracious acknowledgement is still much better than silence.

I disagree with what's said in the post - if I find something really offensive, I might not want to engage because I suspect the author isn't someone I want to spend my precious time with. But if it's an interesting debate, and I feel a kinship with the author, then I'd enjoy a bit of constructive disagreement, and would hope he or she would, too.

I found the post uninteresting  - here I let myself off the hook. If it just didn't spark anything for me, and it's someone I've never read anything from before, I think it's fine just to let it go, as you would with a neutral stranger at a bus stop. If, on the other hand, it's someone I know and usually enjoy reading, perhaps I can still engage, by adding to their topic. After all, something had made me click on the link originally, even if it was only an interesting title - by commenting, I might get some conversation that takes us further into that subject.

I'm worried about "mixing causes" - not just in the LLL sense, but more generally. My online persona is somewhat confused - here on the blog I talk quite a lot about books and quite a lot about babies, with the books being all sorts of things; on facebook, my children are the main subject; on twitter there's quite a bit of work stuff. I don't really make the link very explicit - while my identity isn't hidden here, it's also not exactly shouted, and I don't use many photos or names; I don't generally share my posts via facebook (though I think I might with this one - trusting that only the very interested will get through it); I only tend to tweet about book-related posts not the more personal ones. Still, I'm aware that anyone interested can link up the three and it's just a little bit weird for me. If I comment on an accountancy blog using my blogger profile, then people mainly interested in FRS 102 might stumble upon my post about my miscarriage; if someone comes across from the Pinter & Martin book club they might be baffled by the posts on here about other books, and even more baffled by the financial instruments tweets.
I'm not sure why this is a problem, though - I'm not on a quest to accumulate followers (except, in another sense, aren't we all?) and I'm not ashamed of any of the personal experiences I share on here. If someone I was at school with when I was 15 and am now halfheartedly facebook friends with finds me on this blog and reads my outpourings, what's the worst that can happen? She can laugh at me. I'll live.

Writing on a smartphone is a nightmare  - well, this one's true. But it's where I come back to the point that engagement matters, and that casual interaction with any material doesn't do it justice. I need some kind of system for marking things for follow up if I read them on my phone and want to comment, or I need to get quicker at using my phone keyboard, or I need to permit myself sometimes to write only short comments, because this is still better than the "read and run" approach.

I'm too busy writing my own stuff to write about other people's stuff  - meanness! I want to be more generous. I want to say you, "mummy blogger" who thinks you're talking to yourself, you're not, I read that account of your day and I felt every minute of it with you. I want to tell these indefatigable book reviewers that I love what they're doing for me, that they let me feel sometimes that I've read things I've no time for, and they've let me feel clever and inspired. I want the people who write about writing to keep on writing about writing so that sometime I can move from reading about writing to actual writing, and how can they know I want them to do this unless I tell them so, and tell them which bits I loved, and why?

This is what it comes down to. I love the range and depth of what I find to read across the internet, and particularly on blogs, and I want this environment to stay this rich, and to get richer, and I want to be woven into the tapestry, not to be at the sides watching in silence.

Think of it as Kipling, substituting "internet" or the hideous "blogosphere" for "garden":

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
By singing:-" Oh, how beautiful," and sitting in the shade
While better men than we go out and start their working lives
At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives

I'm off out with my dinner-knife, coming to a gravel-path near you.

Saturday, 8 November 2014


When you start to learn the basics of throwing pots, you're desperate to get going. You watch a demonstration, someone sitting there with the clay singing through their hands, rising, falling, charmed like a snake, soothed and coaxed into beautiful symmetry, smoothed by the patter of their words.

Then you try it yourself, sling a lump on the wheel, start it moving, have a stab at getting it centred, then rush, rush, get your thumb in there, start pushing, pulling, you want it to grow, you want to make a thing like you just saw her make! And it collapses. A tiny assymmetry at the start gets amplified with each turn, but by the time the sides are coming up it's too late, you can't do anything about it, so you keep going, maybe turn the wheel faster, pull harder, try and push it back where you wanted, mutter, look around, chuck more water on, then BAM it's down, it's off, your whole top edge has seared off sideways and is slumped in the water catcher, while the remnants of the base spin on, mocking you with their broken misshaped edges.

The key is to centre the clay, and I don't think it's a skill you can explain, because it comes from somewhere way beyond and behind language. All you can do is get it in roughly the right place on the wheel, set it going, put your hands there and feel, feel where it's not right then brace one hand, firmly but without gripping to make dents, and place the other one just so, on the top, angled down, press it exactly right and breathe with it. It's moving all the time, you can see it as trying to get away from you or you can say wait, this clay is singing to me, it's urging me to get it centred, to make it whole and clean and complete and ready to begin, and you relax your whole body apart from your listening hands, and switch off your brain apart from the bit that can pick up this song, and you wait, and lean, and adjust, and balance, and suddenly there it is, that sweet spot, like a humming glass, it's centred. If you have to ask whether it's right, then it's not, there's no mistaking it when you've got it.

Of course you can mess up the pot from there, and I usually do, and of course getting your clay centred isn't something you do right once then never struggle with again. But when it works, oh the physical and spiritual joy of it, the satisfaction of knowing that you listened well.

Why this, now?
Because it's exactly the same feeling as coaxing a baby down to sleep in your arms or a sling. There's a pattern of movements which can be reliable, but to make it work you have to pour your energy into a special focus on the feel of your baby's body, where the tension's going, how to correct his motion with yours. One sway-step might work to step him down from the world to begin with, but it changes as he floats away. In the critical few minutes between awake and asleep, your breathing has to align, your movements constantly reflecting and stilling his, your senses all alert to where his attention might prickle and grab and splutter to the surface, distressed at being pulled out but unable to resist for himself. It's a musical kind of magic, a skill you relearn every time, and the sweetest of sweet spots when it works - if you listen hard enough, you can feel the moment when it's truly sleep, the moment when once more you have done your job well.

As for the rest of the analogy, no, I don't think I believe my children will grow up wonky if I don't always do very well at helping them to sleep. But I do think the start matters, I think we set patterns and more importantly these early years define our relationship, how well we can listen to and respond to each other, how smooth the dance can be.

And one day I'll get the chance to cover my hands in clay again.

Monday, 13 October 2014

The narrow road to the deep north - Booker shortlist #5

I'm banging out posts this evening because I feel a moral obligation to have as many of my thoughts published as I can before the prize is announced.
No, I won't be getting through the whole list before tomorrow evening but will be trying to read a little more of the Mukherjee so I can make an official pronouncement of my view some time in the middle of the afternoon (glorious solipsism here, yes, I do truly know that no one could care less what my view is or when I express it, but it feels as though it matters to write as if someone did).

So, the Flanagan.
I don't know what to make of this one. I struggled to get going with it, but it did draw me in, and had me turning pages and even carrying it around like I was with the Smith. I cared (somewhat) about the people in it, and I shuddered where I was meant to at all the grim POW bits.

It's not taken my heart, though, and careful thought says this is for two reasons:

1. Somehow it seems calculating. Take a gruesome subject, or a subject that affords gruesomeness, and milk it in as much detail as possible, interspersing it with a "human interest" angle that makes the book seem more ambitious and hence a bigger achievement. This basic plan is there, and has been followed, but you can still see the pencil lines. I've a kind of distaste for books where a true story, or true situation, is milked for artistic return like this - it's the same as my distaste for Holocaust fiction, unless it's done incredibly, remarkably, heart-stoppingly well (I'm thinking of Fugitive Pieces here, which follows the same schema really, but does it with such perfect beauty that it doesn't matter).

2. Having said this, with the structure the author has chosen, the book just needed more editing. If you're going to flip-flop in time and between locations you need to do it really elegantly, and with an eye to the ease of your reader, unless you're deliberately introducing confusion as some kind of literary metaphor. It doesn't seem to me that it was deliberate in this case, more careless, and someone needed to take a pair of scissors to the MS and rearrange some of the early scenes in a different order.
Still on the editing, I recall reading once a simple piece of advice for writers not to give two of your key characters names beginning with the same initial. This sounds so petty, but actually it does matter. Unless you're really properly a well-established Great Writer, you need to remove all the impediments between your reader and comprehension - it's arrogant not to, to expect them to fight through this. No, Dorrigo and Darky aren't that similar, and thinking for a minute about the context is enough to work out who we're reading about now, but I resented having to put that minute in.

I'm perhaps not a writer's ideal reader: I don't treat the work with reverence, and I certainly don't set aside long silent concentrated hours for reading, ensuring I note subtexts, taking notes to aid my comprehension, and so on. Except, if a book earned it, I would. I read War and Peace with the dovegreyreader family tree bookmark slotted into the front of my e-reader, because I needed it, and the book repaid every bit of my investment in it. Even with shortlist #6, the Mukherjee, I groaned when I saw a family tree and a map at the start, but I'm using them, because there's something about the quality of the text that's making me want to.

If I'm in doubt, though, about whether these pages are earning each precious minute I'm spending on them, I want to read without deliberate barriers. I want to play guessing games about interesting stuff, like the characters' motivations, or whodunnit, or which bits of what the narrator says is unreliable - not about which D-person is which.

One more thing - I'll not write a spoiler, but there's a plot twist of sorts in there near the end which was a damp squib and, to my mind, added nothing.

I didn't really intend to devote a long post to sticking the boot into the Flanagan because I actually did quite enjoy it, and thought it had more literary merit than any of the others I've finished so far, apart from the Smith. I suppose it's that those two points above really held ,me up from finding it anywhere near as valuable as I could have done, and that's a big shame given that a good strong critical editor, and a long enough editing process that would allow time for this sort of issue to rise slowly to the surface, could have moved this from being a good book into a very good book, even if it couldn't reach the heights of greatness.

To rise again at a decent hour - Booker shortlist #3

I'm posting not-in-order here, because I loved the Smith so much I had to write about it first.
Only a quickie on this one. Another good reason for leaving it a little while before writing about it was that it had struck me as ephemeral, and I wanted to give it chance to settle to test my instincts on that.
Those instincts turned out, for me, to be right. I can't say I didn't enjoy reading it - I read Ferris's first novel however many years ago when it came out, and this is very much the same tone, so it made me laugh, and is the only one on the shortlist to have done that.
But it's got so little substance that I couldn't possibly think of it as a prizewinner - there's no deeper meaning, no complexity of language, somehow not enough display of skill. I *know* writing funny prose is in itself a skill, but I can't help wanting something more writerly, when you're talking about a proper serious prize like the Booker.
Less than a fortnight after finishing this and all I could tell you about it is:
- the protagonist is a dentist who has a range of existential crises and supports the Red Sox
- there's some kind of weird conspiracy about a suppressed race who have suffered more than the Jewish people
- the dentist's receptionist is called Connie, and he used to date her
 - mobile phones are referred to throughout as "me-machines"

Honestly, I don't recall how it ended, or quite how the dentist was involved in the conspiracy, or the names of any other characters (including the protagonist, actually) - it just wasn't complex enough to leave any barbs in me. I still enjoyed it more than the Jacobson, and would endorse it as a beach read or something for a long train journey, but not a prize winner.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

How to be both - Booker shortlist #4

Skipping around a little here, because I've not written yet about the Ferris (short version - fine, made me laugh, but not prize-worthy) but tonight I need to get my feelings off my chest about the Smith, How to be both.

When books start with weirdly laid out text and half sentences and breathless stream of consciousness and self-conscious defamiliarisation exercises (think person from past seeing person from present using a small black object with a shiny front to render pictures, that kind of thing) I usually slam it closed. With this one, I started it late-ish one night and nearly gave up in disgust: in fact I was close to abandoning the whole Booker project since I couldn't see how I could possibly get through this modern, self-indulgent nonsense, and nor could I see how I could have any respect for a set of judges who'd chosen it for the shortlist.

Fortunately my focus on the task won, because I loved it, goodness, I loved it.

I loved both of the main storytellers (a historic and a modern), I believed in them, I trusted them, I felt their pain.
I loved the historic setting, and the world of art it took me into.
I loved the depictions of friendship and romance.
I loved the utterly convincing voices (particularly of Francescho).
I finished it and turned straight back to the beginning, because I wanted to look back at it with the perspective of the ending.
It's made me want to read about the paintings in question, and listen to the music.
 Most importantly, it's made me wish I'd written it, made me wish I could have half the skill and craftsmanship that Smith's shown here. I wish I'd ever written even one character as true as Francescho or George. I wish I was brave enough to use words in the ways she does, to try out things that are bold and challenging and difficult.

I still hate the front cover, although it's a picture that's mentioned in the book, so you can see why it's there, because it makes a thoroughly non-shallow book look shallow. And I'll stick to my original view that some of the defamiliarisation stuff really is clunky (though nothing like as clunky as in the Jacobson). But these are tiny things in the context of a book that pulled me in, had me reading on the stairs, reading with it propped open with my foot while reading Winnie's New Computer to my boys, reading as I danced the baby to sleep....this is what prize books should do to you, and it did.

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)

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
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: 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.

Monday, 3 March 2014

More new beginnings

It's not meant to have such a tone of weariness as perhaps it does, but I'm feeling weak and irresolute about more new starts.
We moved house last week, away from a nice enough but damp rented place on one side of Bath to an owned, warm place on the other side. The house is going to be great - it's not the kind of place you'd fall in love with, but it's got space (I have my own study!) and a garden with a bit of room but not too much, and a big greenhouse, and lots of toilets (this seems to be the part that's most impressing bonzo).
I suppose just thinking back to other posts, I'm struggling to gather strength for all that newness again. When we first moved to Bath I found it so hard to drag us out to meet people: I remember making pathetic little hand-drawn calendars desperately filled up with any kind of group I could find, just so I'd feel we had somewhere to go to, and I remember coming home and making little notes whenever I met a new mother and child, her name, the child's name, something that might help me remember was all a bit "like me, like me" but still with all that effort it was hard hard hard, hard to overcome my current natural introversion and force myself out there.
And now it's the same all over again. Our nearby neighbours seem friendly but are a whole generation older than us (at least), and we're on a cul-de-sac so I'm not even seeing people walking past. Bonzo's had the chicken pox so in our first week here we didn't leave the house, but now that we can I'm too shy, I'm too tired, I can't build up the resolve.....we managed a walk to the shop this afternoon but I'm starting to think my mouth's sealing up, I can't just initiate a conversation, I can barely talk.

Such a negative take, and not really how I feel, but somehow the comfort of the internet's just what I need at the moment. Perhaps I'll get it all out of my system here so that I won't, when I finally meet some people here, let out a huge splurge of incoherent self-pitying rambling that will have them backing away and making excuses...

The latest attempt at baby number 2 is progressing well, though - 26 weeks now, so I'm impressively bulky and it's starting to feel believable.

I swear I'll be back to this again soon with something more positive, or at least better written and more interesting. Perhaps the incentive of having such a gloomy post on the front of my blog will be enough to make me write something again soon and knock it off....