Tuesday 30 December 2014

Is breast always best?

Photograph: Justin Paget/Corbis, The Guardian
I'm currently sat breastfeeding my six week old baby. This comes somewhat of a surprise to me because I fully intended to formula feed him from day one, and would have done so had he not fed well from the offset. The first skin to skin in the hospital was like something out of an NHS 'how to breastfeed' DVD, all that was missing was the new age pan pipe music playing in the background. If this had been my first ever attempt at breastfeeding I would perhaps have been ignorantly less understanding of mothers who chose to formula feed.

My firstborn, however, had the feeding instinct of a baby seal eating breakfast at The Ritz. He was a far cry from what the health professionals told me I could expect – I was in pain from day one and my baby screamed at my breast every feeding time but I was told that was simply part of the 'learning curve'. After weeks of pain and bleeding, a breastfeeding support worker, two midwives, a health visitor and a call to the doctors later, all that could be concluded was that my baby was just extra hungry. They seemed happy that he was putting on weight and therefore my pain was secondary – insignificant, even. Looking back maybe I didn't emphasise just how much pain I was in, but I was a first time mum and what did I know? This was the first revelation that mothers were expected to put their needs on the back burner to do what was 'best' for their baby at literally all costs. 

The next couple of months were tough and the night feeds, unbearable. I would meet up with other mothers who seemed to be enjoying breastfeeding and it made me feel hard done by. Why couldn't I enjoy it too? On top of this, the pressure to carry on breastfeeding was high, with every health professional telling me not to give him any formula whatsoever. They patted me on the back for persevering, telling me what a good job I was doing, while I wallowed in self pity and resented feeding times. This was not the bonding experience I was promised. I carried on for nearly four months until I couldn't take any more and I sobbed as I gave him his first bottle of formula, led to believe it was on a par with feeding him arsenic. He guzzled it back happily and he seemed contented for the first time ever but this did not stop me feeling guilty or judged by a huge percentage of mothers and health professionals. 

I had many reasons for not wanting to go through the anguish of having another child but breastfeeding was high up on my list. It sounded a pathetic reason not to have another baby – 'you can always bottle feed,' they would say. Of course I could, but I was all too aware of the connotations of that decision once my darling baby had arrived. Deciding to bottle feed baby number two, however, was something that I felt I had to do for my own sanity, knowing how reluctant I am to quit anything once I start. I drip fed my decision to close friends and relatives early so that they were prepared for my 'reckless' parenting choice. I even spent a whole afternoon researching medical papers on breastfeeding and formula feeding and was surprised by how manipulated the facts are by health professionals. I concluded that formula, although secondary, was still a pretty healthy alternative to breast milk and I didn't have a problem with feeding it to my baby because, for me, the pros outweighed the cons.

When my second baby was born I realised that my experience the first time around was far from normal. I now understood what it meant for breastfeeding to be a bonding experience – I had no pain whatsoever and he fed like a dream. This time around couldn't have been more different from my first experience but those dreadful memories of feeding my firstborn came to the forefront of my mind all too soon. On my first night in the hospital I could hear the sobs of a lady in the bed opposite me as she attempted to feed her baby. He screamed unless he was at her breast and so she called out for help from the midwives because she was exhausted and in pain. They told her there was nothing she could do except to feed him formula. By the second night this poor woman was beyond herself and a midwife took the baby and fed him to give her a break. "I've failed my baby!" she cried. This lady was already feeling bad enough as it was, but the next morning a midwife came to me and reeled off the 'facts' about breastfeeding, one being that giving ANY formula would destroy all the good work the breast milk had done. The lady in the bed opposite overheard and burst into tears.

I'm not sure why women are presented with such an 'all or nothing' attitude to feeding. Sure, exclusively breastfeeding means that the baby has more protection against illnesses, but any breastmilk still passes on antibodies to the baby. No one will tell you that for fear of the unquestionable NHS guidelines. I have no idea why formula has become such a taboo when it is so readily available in hospitals and has had years of medical research to improve it. The pressure on women to breastfeed is unfair. I was led to believe that formula feeding was the selfish option, as though women were solely thinking of their own convenience and not giving the 'best' to their babies, but this is a totally unfair conclusion that leaves already vulnerable women feeling hopeless. We are expected to put our physical health over our mental health, as though we should be perfectly able to function on three hours sleep a day and take any pain and difficulties on the head. 

My experience of breastfeeding this time around has not come without it's difficulties, but because of my first experience I was not prepared to go through that again. After a week or so my baby had oral thrush and I was in excruciating pain feeding but I was quick to get help when I had problems and had no issues with introducing formula when the pain got too intense. I felt like I was coping really well and was pleased I had manage to breastfeed against the odds, yet when I told health professionals I was combination feeding I was met with disapproval. Despite me telling them it was working really well for me and my family I still received a list of reasons why combination feeding is a no-no. 

Now let me tell you what that disapproving attitude does to mothers – it makes us feel like failures. It makes us either 'give up' or carry on with breastfeeding out of duty and not love. When I exclusively breastfed my firstborn I was told I was doing 'ever so well' but I would like to suggest that this phrase is highly unhelpful for both breast and bottle feeders. I was not doing well at all, my mental health was at an all time low and reeling off NHS guidelines was doing nothing to appease me. What was insinuated was that I was doing well to suffer; well to give up on sleep; well to squash my relationships; well to forget about my own wellbeing; well to become a martyr. Clearly, I was not doing well at all. Of course, no medic will ever tell you to go give your baby formula to give yourself a break, but once a mother has made a decision to do so this should be respected. If a woman feels supported, she is more likely to listen to advice and try again if she feels able. What I am saying is that mental health needs to be more carefully considered when new mothers are fed information.

This time round I am told it is a 'shame' I've had to introduce formula. Well let me tell you it is neither a shame nor something that I had to do; it came out of a place of freedom and self respect; one that has enabled me to carry on breastfeeding where I would otherwise have stopped; one that has enabled me to spend time with my other child so I am not constantly stuck in a chair feeding, prioritising my baby over him. It's ironic that now I've upped the breastfeeds again because it's easy and convenient (both entirely selfish reasons) I get a pat on the back for it. Well, I deserved more of a pat on the back the first time around when I introduced formula in order to restore my mental health and relationships. Don't let anyone fool you that formula feeding is always the easy option – a decision that goes against the grain takes a lot of guts and no woman would ever make that choice if she felt her baby was at harm.

So I'm here to tell you that you're doing well whether you formula feed or breastfeed because no doubt your choices have been deeply considered. Neither should have to jump to their defence but instead be encouraged to support one another. What is 'best' is not only about physical health but mental and emotional health too. Only you will know what is best for your family.

Sunday 21 December 2014

You know you have a child at Christmas when...

It's that time of the year again where we long for peace on earth... or in our own homes at least. Christmas is all about family, but no Christmas will ever be the same again once you have little ones to share it with. Here's how you know you have a child around at Christmas time:

Your Christmas tree looks like it's been vomited on by a tinsel monster
Gone are the days of a beautiful pine tree with baubles that are colour coordinated with your Farrow and Ball feature wall. No, you now have a practical plastic tree to avoid unwanted pine needles spread around the entire house – or worse, being eaten by small children. Not only this, but try telling your little one that, no, they can't have their misshaped, glittery Santa decoration they made at nursery on the tree. Have a heart. The trouble is they've made several of them, and you don't think they will forget about last year's efforts do you? It's okay, you think, I'll just place them neatly behind the more tasteful ones, but now you have a handy helper whose distribution skills are on a par with a drunken postman. Before you know it, your tree is looking rather lopsided and full of multicoloured tinsel that is more suited to one of dame Edna's dresses than your Farrow and Ball paint.  

Your children resemble Duracell bunnies
In the weeks up to christmas it's like they have been gradually wound up until they are more hyperactive than a puppy on sherbert. So much for peace on earth. And whose idea was advent calendars?! As if kids need any more reminders of how many days they have left to go completely and utterly bonkers. A countdown to Christmas is one thing, but then some evil manufacturer decided to add chocolate into the mix too: that little bit of extra sugar to just tip them right over the edge. Thanks a million. 

You consider a less traditional Christmas dinner
Imagine how many hours a year parents spend trying to get their kids to eat vegetables. Now imagine a day when they are expected to eat a whole meal full of every variety possible. Not only this, but some smartass decided to introduce a one-off extra just to piss kids and parents off everywhere: sprouts. Geez, why not just make them eat Grandma's ear wax, that'd probably go down better. I don't know about you but whenever I plan a family meal out I go for the meal with the lowest risk of tantrums: pizza. Is pizza express open on Christmas Day?

You hope to God for gift receipts
Every family with have that one relative who gets your kids the most annoying presents known to mankind. Such relatives have no concern for how much space you have in your living room for a plastic slide, or how much mental capacity you have for a toy that plays jingle bells on repeat. It's all very well on Christmas Day but this relative has no idea how irritating it is to hear jingle bells in the middle of March. Still, at least their all-singing, all-dancing toys will save you a trip to Vegas. 

There are tears before 3pm
Christmas is a day of heightened emotions and all that excitement is sure to land with a crash- usually at 3pm when grandma is trying to listen to the queen's speech. You try to keep your cool but you realise that you have nothing left to bribe them with because they've already had more treats than a circus chimp. Instead you have to resort to distracting them with uncle Brian's jingle bell toy until you eventually have a melt down yourself. 

You secretly like resorting to a little kid at Christmas
Not only do you have a legitimate excuse to watch Polar express on repeat, you get to play with the scalextric you never had as a child. Deep down you have to admit that Christmas has never been better. Go on, admit it, there's nothing quite like seeing a child's excitement on Christmas morning. 

Friday 5 December 2014

Post Natal Bodies: Does my bump look big in this?

I was told on several occasions how much pregnancy suited me; that I was 'blooming' or 'glowing'. There is something about a baby bump that makes people see a woman's body differently; she is beautiful because of the life she is creating. Her body reflects the awe we see in nature; the miracle of life (that and the lovely skin, hair and the temporary boob job, of course).

But what if I told you this photo was taken one week after the birth of my second baby? Would it change your opinion of how I look? Does my bump become less beautiful?

As soon as I'd had my first baby, eyes would wander to my waistline. It seemed almost instinctive for people to assess my post-natal figure, even when I felt at my most vulnerable. A few months down the line I got a few "You've done well to lose the baby weight" lines, as though I then merited some sort of validation for what merely time had done on it's own; as though losing my bump was as much of an achievement as growing a life itself.

I remember going to the theatre soon after I'd had my first baby and watching some young dancers wearing crop tops, flaunting their flat little midriffs. A friend turned to me and said "do you remember when your belly looked like that?" Short of bursting into a bout of hormonal tears, I accepted that my friend, along with most people who have not had children, had no idea how a post natal belly should look – nor how long it would take to go down, if at all. In fact, I had no real clue myself because I'd never known anyone open enough to tell me. I felt a little bit disappointed with the way that I looked.

You see, the media would have you believe that when a celebrity gives birth, her belly shrinks back to the flat, toned stomach she had pre-pregnancy. The true nature of a post natal belly has become a taboo subject, making women ashamed of their rotund midriffs. Women who give birth for the first time look down in shock when they see their little paunch with now no 'miracle of life' inside to validate it, rushing to the H&M sales to stock up on oversized jumpers.

But why do we feel the need the need to hide our bumps? Mine is still the same one that worked a miracle, why should I disguise it with control pants and baggy jumpers? Why should I add to the taboo and make more women feel less comfortable about their bodies, when they should be proud of what their bodies have been through? Let's not believe the celebrity tripe that we're fed with. I'm sure their bellies are bound look a lot flatter than mine with a personal trainer on hand, a full-time nanny and money for all the cosmetic surgery they want.

Actually, a year or so after I'd had my first baby my stomach looked better than it ever had because I worked hard at getting my figure back, but we need to give ourselves a realistic expectation as to how long it takes for our bodies to adjust. I'll update you on my blog how long it takes for my bump to go down this time (all be it with less time and energy to exercise!) but in the process I need to respect what nature has put me through. We need to give ourselves credit for the body changes bestowed upon us, not be ashamed of them. This is just part of life and the sooner we, as individuals, are ready to accept that, the more accepted women will feel about themselves on the whole.

So yes, my bump does look big in this but I refuse to be told I am less beautiful because of it. I'm learning to accept myself and what life throws at me, and this is just one of those things. Sure, I'd rather have my flat tummy back, but it's not unachievable, it will just take time. Lets give ourselves a break and learn to be proud of what we've gone through and the miracle of life we have created.

Monday 1 December 2014

Get Your Baps Out: Feminism and Breastfeeding

I remember walking home from school, aged fourteen, and being shouted at from across the road by two lads telling me to "get my baps out" - and no, they weren't enquiring about what I had in my packed lunch box. Of course when you're younger and boys say things like this to you you shake it off as immaturity, until you reach adulthood and realise that some men still have no problem with these inappropriate requests. 

I grew up in a home where sex was rarely spoken off; where anything remotely sexual on TV was turned off with tuts before I'd had chance to question anything. I remember asking what a condom was, aged seven, and my mum told me I was too young to know. I went to school the next day and asked a boy in class, whilst gluing and sticking, and he informed me that it was "what a man puts on his willy when having sex." "Oh," I said, carrying on with my collage, satisfied with his answer. I've no idea how I knew what sex was but no doubt this education was also from the school playground.

Growing up i had two contrasting views about sex; one extreme was liberal and crude, the other was conservative and prudish. I never knew quite which camp I was in or how I should see my body. Was it something to hide or expose? On top of this, the media told me that I needed to look a certain way and make myself more attractive. Women's magazines criticised female celebrities for putting on too much weight; men's magazines were plastered with women with ample bosoms, flaunting their curvaceous figures. My body became subject to scrutiny from others and I started to feel very self conscious about the way that I looked. 

There have been plenty of challenging situations for me concerning my identity and self-worth as a women but none more so than when I became a mother. Everyone was telling me to get my baps out and now it was a perfectly acceptable thing to do. Not only was it acceptable, it was expected of me. Before I knew it I had every midwife under the sun grabbing my boobs and showing me how to shove them in my baby's mouth. I was told to feed on demand, to get them out whenever was asked of me, I had no control over it, or where this happened. I would go out in public and try to be discrete about feeding but my little boy was hardly that, fussing and pulling away from me every five minutes and exposing me to the world. I would visit my work office and the same men who freely commented on women's chests before I'd had children were now telling me it was fine to feed in front of them if I needed to. 

Suddenly I was being asked to ignore everything I was told in life - both that my body was sexual and that it should be hidden. It didn't quite compute with me. I was told that breastfeeding was the most natural thing in the world but it certainly didn't feel that way. It felt weird that my parents were such advocates for breastfeeding and expected me to do so too, despite my father acting very awkward around me when I did. I would go out of the room instead and feed in isolation which wasn't much fun either.

To make things worse, celebrities were catching on to the breast is best bandwagon and flaunting themselves doing so, wearing flirtatious outfits and half exposing a breast. They give the message that breastfeeding is now somehow both nurturing and sexual which somehow doesn't sit right with me. Maybe they're right to portray such an image to bridge the gap mothers feel when we breastfeed, but I'd like to know if there really are any women who find breastfeeding sexy because I certainly don't. Is this how we want mothers to be portrayed? 

Tamara Ecclestone breastfeeding
When did breastfeeding become such a controversial issue anyway? You only have to write a facebook post about it to know that everyone has an opinion on it. One woman will tell you it's her right to feed in public, another that it's her right to formula feed. Another will ask what about the right of the child to have natural milk from her mother? Another will question whether breast milk is actually best for her contented formula-fed baby and rested family. 

You will notice that all of the above are about the women making choices. I am all about independent women, but it seems slightly unfair that when myself and my husband decided to formula feed our firstborn after four months of agony that any judgement was directed solely at me. It seems that there is too much placed on women to be the sole provider and decision maker for their child. What about the right of the father and his responsibility to support and encourage his wife and family? 

Our society is one that tells me I am a sexual object to be looked at by men; the same society that tells me how my post natal body should look; how I should raise my children; how I should apply myself at work. This is the same society that pays women less than men; that often portrays that my influence is far less important than a male 'equivalent'. So why are my feeding decisions so important to you and why should you care? Or is it because I'm raising boys and I need to teach them that women should get their baps out anytime they demand? 

I've no idea how you tackle an issue that has unnecessarily come under the scrutiny of such public opinion. It is no one's business how a family chooses to feed their child. If you ask my opinion, women need to feel supported no matter what method of feeding they (and their partners) choose. It's a shame that society focusses so much on the physical and not on the mental and emotional transition that motherhood involves. 

Tuesday 25 November 2014

The not-so-perfect, perfect birth

There is a lot of pressure on expectant mothers to have the perfect birth. They are encouraged to write detailed birthing plans, from pain relief options down to aromatherapy and whale music; as though to make your experience as close to a spa day as humanly possible. After suffering from post traumatic stress after my first birth, I have struggled with the thought of giving birth again; the thought of going through what I did the first time around seemed unthinkable to me. Throughout this pregnancy I have felt very low, wondering if I could cope with a newborn again, let alone the pain of childbirth. Opting for an elective cesarean this time around was something that was not an easy decision, but seemed right for me and my family. Now I should know, of all people, that births rarely go to plan but I somehow thought I was exempt from that by having an elective cesarean. 

A week before my planned cesarean, and two weeks before my due date, I started to get a lot of pain. I felt I was unlikely to go into labour early as I was two days over with my first so I figured the pain was just Braxton hicks. At my last appointment with the midwife I asked her about the pain I was in - extreme lower back pain and bad nerve-type pain when I walked and contractions seemed to be happening often but weren't regular. The midwife told me that the pains sounded like 'head fitting pain' – the pain of the baby's head getting lower into my pelvis. Despite my previous irregular contractions with my first labour I still opted to trust a professional over my own instincts. It probably sounds silly to you but I have no idea how to take my own pain seriously. I have learnt to deal with pain - both physically and emotionally - by trying to squash it, as though it was some kind of weakness. I walked the mile long walk home with my 3 year old, stopping every few minutes to deal with the pain.

The day went on and the pain got worse, but the contractions did not seem to follow any pattern. The pain also felt a very different pain compared to my first born's - much lower down and pelvic, as opposed to higher, more period-like pain. I rang the hospital triage about it to see if I could be examined and they told me it sounded like head-fitting pain too. Two professionals, who was I to doubt them? 

So I battled on through the night, taking cocodamol and using breathing techniques to cope with the pain. What the hell is this 'head fitting pain'? And how come no one told me about it before?! I didn't get much sleep but once I was up the pain eased a little and I felt relieved that I would probably be able to have my elective cesarean as planned. But things soon heated up again. I tried to time these so called contractions but got frustrated and gave up because they were all over the place - roughly every five minutes but didn't seem to be getting longer or closer together. The pain was so intense though and I was mentally feeling like I couldn't take much more - how long was this going to go on for? No one seemed to be able to tell me. I rang another midwife for advice. Yep, head fitting pain. They all must have some sort of handbook on head fitting pain and who was I to doubt them? 

By the second evening I was close to tears and exhausted at the thought of another sleepless night. I tried ringing the labour police again (aka. triage) but no reply. I decided that I was going into hospital no matter what, they'd at least be able to refer me to page twenty four in the head fitting pain handbook, telling me when the appropriate times to question symptoms and waste hospital time were. 

On arrival I was directed into a waiting room and told do a urine sample. There's something about medical surroundings that make my body react; my contractions slowed right down again and I couldn't even pee in a pot. What pregnant lady can't pee in a pot?! I may as well have had hyperchondriac stamped on my forehead. I looked down at my belly and convinced myself that, yes, I was in fact pregnant, and quite possibly in labour. Once I'd been taken to be examined the little monitoring machine showed a graph which measured my contractions. And there it was on a bit of paper: Science. I felt like taking it and framing it on my bathroom wall for the next time I considered avoiding going to the doctors. Science says I should trust my body. 

It turns out I was 7cm dilated. Ring any bells? Yes, the exact same thing as with my first born. Each medic I saw questioned my decision for a cesarean - "do you not want to try for a natural delivery now?" As though 30 hours of labour had really sold it to me again. No, thank you. I somehow knew I would not be able to deliver naturally. But as each person asked I grew slightly weaker. I've come this far, maybe I should continue? Maybe going into labour naturally was a sign I should deliver naturally too? Neil started to speak for me, knowing I would be deluded with thoughts of what I should be doing instead of what's right for me. I started to feel anxious, wondering how long the pain would last and whether there'd even be time for a cesarean. And that's when something amazing happened for me; a word of encouragement at just the right time. 

During my appointments with my psychologist, she gave me a number of exercises in order to help me to deal with post traumatic stress from my first birth. She gave me cognitive behavioural therapy techniques and meditation exercises in order to deal with stressful situations more effectively. One of these exercises was to develop my 'compassionate self' - in other words, to learn to be kind to myself and override the critical thoughts that I have about myself. She told me I needed to imagine a compassionate figure in these meditations and to record what positive words of affirmation the figure had. I opted for an angel: a muscular, tall, protective angel. I felt a little stupid imagining this figure standing there and listening to what he said, but it helped to have an image to refer to that would calm me in times of anxiety. 

One time the angel showed me a picture in my head of a huge storm at sea. I felt quite scared by this image as the waves crashed and did nothing to ease my anxiety. Then he took me to the eye of the storm - a place where I was still surrounded by chaos but almost encased in a room of glass, looking out and protected. The angel told me that I was not exempt from pain but that I could be protected within it, that I somehow did not have to carry the weight of it - that was not my responsibility. 

So in the midst of labour, when I was laid in pain and wondering how long this was going to go on for, I received a message from a friend. Not knowing anything of my 'imaginary angel,' she sent me a message after finding out I was in labour and it gave me a sort of inner strength at just the right moment. She said "I'm praying you know peace in the middle of all that's happening. It's like you're in the eye of a storm." I immediately felt calm, as though there was a tangible presence next to me. Who knows if there was really an angel, or if I was high on drugs, but something changed after that.

So, thanks to the help of a friend, an angel, and a shot of diamorphine, I felt all the tension go and an excitement that I have not felt in a long time. I was close to meeting my baby – the baby I very nearly didn't have due to my fears. I was wheeled to theatre, my heart's desire – though in reality I had no heart for any of it, just a baby at the end. Neil was asked to leave theatre until they were ready to operate. It felt strange to be given a spinal when I was not delirious with pain like my first birth –  It all felt very sane, 'normal' in fact. Neil was invited back in as though we were in fact there for a tv show, under the bright lights the stage was set. Neil held my hand. 

There seemed to be a lot more tugging and pulling than last time - I think my memories of the first cesarean are distorted by the fact that being out of pain was all I cared about at the time. Now all I cared about was the whole thing being over as quickly as possible. I tried to overhear what the surgeons were uttering. Was the baby ok? Was my anatomy in order? Would they be kind enough to give me a nip and tuck while they were at it? 

I remember the moment my firstborn was delivered: the deepest tug from the pit of my womb and an unforgettable cry. This time there was lots of tugging about, feeling my whole body vibrate with each tussle, as though they were in some sort of tug of war with the baby. It turns out they were because fourceps had to be used to remove him as he was stuck deep in my womb. I now know that having a cesarean was a very good decision indeed - this labour would not have progressed and would have resulted in a cesarean anyway. 

Eventually feint gargled cries could be heard. They took him for checks and I waited while they told me it would take about thirty minutes to stitch me back up. Eventually Neil brought him to me and I strained my head to get a look at him. I could just about make out his tiny little face: his beautiful, beautiful face. And he was talking to me; making little noises at me. It's quite an incredible thing to meet your baby for the first time.

My birth was not pain free; I felt misunderstood; I felt overwhelmed at times. But, to quote the Kung Fu Panda, I felt an 'inner peace' throughout it all. My birth was far from perfect, but the things I've learnt from it have been invaluable. The name we had already chosen for our baby was Freddie; his name means "Rules with peace." He is a lesson to me to choose peace over anxiety - to let it 'rule' over me despite my circumstances. 

Monday 3 November 2014

I'm not posh but I'm not pushing

cesarean, csection, not posh but not pushing, childbirth, birth, parenting, pregnancy, birth plan, mother diaries
"Too posh to push"

I'm not sure who invented that phrase or why class has anything to do with giving birth. It assumes that, if you're privileged, birth can become something on a par with getting your bikini line waxed. The nitty-gritty births – the 'natural' kind – are for the hardcore, working class mothers who are prepared for a bit of hard graft; popping out their babies in time to make meat and potato pie for tea. And along with the people who consider c-sections something for snobs, there are also the mothers who rave about giving birth naturally. You hear their stories of how wonderful it was to have a four hour water birth on nothing but half a paracetamol. "I did it!" They say. It's no wonder that when my first birth resulted in an emergency c-section that I felt like a failure.

I always thought that if I were ever to give birth again (and maybe because I thought I never would), that I would give birth naturally, as though to prove something to the world. I'd actually got pretty good at blocking out all things birth and babies and when I found out I was pregnant again, four years later, the memories of a difficult birth were all too raw. I was referred for help to deal with post traumatic stress but despite my obvious anxiety this did not stop the consultant recommending that I try for a natural birth 'because it's best.'

Best. People are very good at telling mothers what is best, and at no other point in a woman's life is she told more about what is 'best' for her than when she decides to have children. Best for what? Statistics? Finances? Respectability? If you are considering my medical health then my mind comes into that equation too. Usually the people who seem to be most forthcoming with advice about what is best are the people who have never been through what you have.

Now don't get me wrong, I am not one to shy away from a bit of pain. After having experienced a burst appendix during my current pregnancy I can safely say that was the most intense pain I've ever been in. It was, however, a lot less traumatic than my first birth, and despite a mere 32 hours of labour I still wondered whether to try for a natural birth again. After all, c-sections are by no means an 'easy' option; they involve intensive surgery, pain and weeks of prolonged recovery. They involve scaring, body disfigurement, self-injecting and wearing rather fetching embolism stockings for about a week. People who have never experienced one say to me "Oh, just opt for a c-section," as though it really is on a par with getting your bikini line waxed. The truth is, there is no easy way to give birth and no right way at that. What is best for one woman will be entirely different for another.

What has struck me about being given an option this time around is how much pressure there is on women to have the perfect birth experience. There are many women who have had positive experiences, but a lot of these women do not have grace for those who do not – it's as though they can take credit for their genetics and circumstances; as though birth is purely about mind over matter and determination. This attitude makes the rest of us feel penalised if we have complications; looked down upon if we opt for more medicalised ways to deal with childbirth.

The thing is, I need to have grace too. Grace to accept that some women do find childbirth wonderful and that I was just one of the unfortunate ones. I need to learn to listen to their stories and accept them as encouraging experiences. I need to know that a difficult birth experience does not necessarily equate to another, it just might. But every women is different, and one woman's motive for having a natural birth will be entirely different to another's. I have come to realise that, for me, giving birth naturally had become more about identity and self-worth than about actually doing what is best for me or my family. It's not like I didn't give it a good go the first time round – my problem, if anything, is that I push myself too much. Refusing pain relief at 8cm dilated is just damn-right stupid. I could do that again; display my working class roots to the full, but what that would do for my mental health is another thing entirely. At what point would I be kind to myself and say I needed pain relief? At what point would I accept things not going to plan? At what point would I be proud of myself? What would it take to say "I did it!"? You see, I did it the first time around. I don't need your applause for that; I don't get a medal. No one looks on my child any differently because of the way I birthed him.

So, this time I am having an elective c-section and you have no idea how hard it has been for me to make that choice. It is not, as some may think, an easy way out for me or a means of avoidance – it is about giving myself the birth I really want. It is about choosing a birth where I can be more prepared for the pain and the healing and know roughly what that involves. It is about being in a good place mentally when my baby arrives. It is about giving myself a birth that fits my preference for planning and knowing roughly what's around the corner. It is about choosing a birth that means I can prepare my son for the impending arrival of his sibling and make sure he is cared for. It is about accepting that long labours and big babies run in my family of small-framed women. And yes, it is about having a better night's sleep before the chaos starts. Above all, it is about being kind to myself. Call me posh all you like, but I, along with all women, deserve to have a good birth. I'm not posh, but I'm not pushing.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Tantrums and gingerbread men... Why parenting shouldn't be easy

gingerbread man, tantrums, parenting, mother diaries, parenting toddlers, toddlers, terrible twos, terrible threes, why printing shouldn't be easy
There are moments in parenting when you think you have quite possibly got it nailed. (Okay, so maybe nailed is not the word you would use, but perhaps you would say that life seems to be getting a little easier). Now I'm expecting another child I am told quite frequently by those with multiples about how my life will change again. Please note that these are the people who also chose to have more than one child and are the same people who warned me of how hard my life would become before I had child number one. It's as though I'm supposed to turn around and thank them for their predictions about how horrendous my life will become, because when people speak negatively over my life I feel a whole new sense of wellbeing and in turn I become such a better parent. Not.

Despite my nearly-four-year-old being quite a handful, he is nothing compared to what he was like as a baby. At least he now makes me laugh, he's independent enough to do things by himself and we can have an actual conversation rather than talking in gobbledygook. I would say that, on the whole, life is a lot easier. Sometimes, however, he likes to remind me just how fickle children can be and will decide to bring about a whole new challenge just to put me in my place.

The fact is, as a parent, there is probably never a moment when life suddenly gets easier. Take, for example, my day today. Albie woke up and thought: do you know what? Mum's had it too easy for too long – I will make sure that she has the opportunity to develop her craft as a parent further. And my day went a little something like this...

Firstly Albie decided to 'lob' random items around the house: his shoes, his toys, the remote control – and when I told him to stop it he looked at me and laughed. I managed to distract him by threatening the naughty corner and wavering the offer of a cinnamon bagel.

Next Albie decided to up his game by swinging from the curtain onto the sofa. I politely asked him to stop, to which he looked at me and laughed and continued. Hilarious. So I imposed other threats, such as no TV, and he stopped.

Then he went to the toilet and peed all over the floor.

Next I needed to get some things from the shops. Albie thought it would be a great game to try and push every item that was at the front of each shelf to the back of each self. This resulted in a domino effect of the rear items which cascaded down the back of the shelves. Before I could tell him off he darted to another isle, leaving me shouting "Albie!" in an annoying pissed-off-mother voice, which actually translated as 'I do mean business but I don't have a clue how to actually do business with a three year old. Somebody please help me.' When I eventually found him he was picking out which crisps he wanted and I only persuaded him to put them back by the promise of a snack at home before we went to visit a school later.

Next we went home and he had some grapes and he happily watched TV for a bit until the time came to leave the house MID PROGRAMME. This is one of the biggest parenting errors, ever. What, you mean you want to stop him from seeing what happens to Marshall on Paw Patrol?! How would you like it if the TV got cut off right before the X-Factor results? Same difference. But you realise that you really need to leave the house or you'll be late. How could I bribe him this time? "Albie, would you like to be a really big boy and turn the TV off all by yourself?" No. You see, the whole as-soon-as-they-can-communicate-makes-life-easier theory goes straight out of the window. I know from this point onwards I am royally screwed.

And so the fight continued as I tried to put his shoes on. He wanted to do it all by himself though. All by his really slow and easily distracted self (and we needed to be at the school within five minutes). There goes the as-soon-as-they-are-more-independent-life-gets-easier theory out of the window too. I ushered him out of the door but he was in no mood to walk down the road (and certainly in no mood to act like a prize pupil). As we walked I told him he could have a gingerbread man on the way home if he was a good boy and he reluctantly agreed to be compliant, but still with a face of thunder.

So we got to the school and he immediately climbed on the chairs in the reception. "Can you get down, Albie, please?" No. "Remember what I said about the gingerbread man?" He reluctantly got down from the chairs and lied on the floor instead. "Can you get up from the floor, Albie, please?" No. And so it continued until a member of staff came to show us around. She was all smiles and asked what his name was – to which he responded by giving her deadeyes and then refusing to look at her.

As the nice lady showed us round Albie shouted at the top of his voice "I don't like this school!" I reminded him about the gingerbread man and he then gave me deadeyes too, as though he now resented the gingerbread man. Albie was smart enough to know that I couldn't give two hoots about giving him a gingerbread man and that I was actually way more concerned with manipulating him into behaving in the way that I wanted.

I looked away for two minutes to discuss school dinners and after-school-clubs and I suddenly realised that he had destroyed an art display on the wall. I apologised profusely – but I was also struggling to multitask listening intently to the lady and watching my somewhat difficult child who had now discovered the school trophies and had the look of 'I would like to lob one of these' on his face.

When we got outside I told Albie he couldn't have a gingerbread man, to which he responded by having a full on melt-down in the playground and I literally had to drag him all the way home, screaming (that's him, not me, though I was close).

See how much easier my life is now?!

I am, of course, under no illusion that my life is going to get any easier with another child in tow. I have no doubt that when number two comes along that my life is not going to be a walk in the park, or at least not a leisurely one. But since when did we start measuring the quality of life by the ease of it? I find it odd that parenting is the only life experience where people are put off by a bit of hard work. Can you imagine if we thought that way about our careers? We would all forget about ambition; we'd scrap the training and apprenticeships; we'd shy away from promotions; we'd opt for unrewarding lifestyles. Ah but life would be so easy...

So please, if you would like to tell me how hard my life will become as a parent of two, go and tell it to someone who lacks ambition and drive for life instead. Having children is not about making life easy. Nothing will push you to your limits more, but nothing will be more rewarding (from my short experience anyway). The things I was warned about before having Albie have most certainly happened, but were they helpful things to say at the time? No. Because dread is not the same thing as dealing with something difficult and coming out the other side. Are things as difficult as people said they would be? Yes. And no. They are harder. But they are easier because they involve the person I love the most, who would not have existed otherwise. I'm grateful for the hard times because they make me who I am, keep me stocked up with good blog material and, like my son, give me more of an appetite for life than gingerbread.

Thanks for reading my blog. If you have any comments I'd love to hear them!

Tuesday 30 September 2014

How to name your baby

baby naming, how to name your baby, birth, pregnancy, giving birth, baby names, cute names, funny blog, parenting, parenting blog, mother diaries

Naming a baby: a task that little girls dream about doing one day – so much so that they start collecting mental notes of good baby names from the first time they play with a doll. So, you've found out you're pregnant and you start working through the 1001 baby name book, complete with highlighter pens and a notebook. You never expected to come across so many hurdles over something as simple as a name. Well, here are some rules you should know about before you announce your choice of baby name to the world:

1. Be original.
After all, you don't want your child to be the fifth Ellie in the class, that will do no good for her self-esteem, right? She will need to feel unique, so you scour the internet for 'unusual baby names' and realise that in order to be original you also need to call your baby something like Jardinella. You try it out on a few people and are greeted with raised eyebrows and very opinionated lectures about why it is not a good name. Best to play it safe...

2. Follow the trends.
So you decide on something a little more 'normal' and risk having an unoriginal baby name. It's the sacrifice you need to make to have more chance of people cooing over your baby rather than giving you blank stares. So, you search in the top ten baby names and decide to call your baby boy the number one boy's name on the list. Unfortunately this is too predictable for many people who reply with "Oh, another Oliver" and you decide you need a happy medium.

3. Note names to avoid
After going from one extreme to the other you decide you'd better name your child by a process of elimination. You can't call your baby after your granddad if your husband's granddad is still alive too – he might not be too pleased at playing second fiddle. You also can't call your baby after any other children you know already, especially naughty ones. In fact, if you have any relatives who work in schools you best check with them that your baby is not going to remind them of the class clowns first. Oh, and god forbid you pinch your best friend's favourite baby name....

4. Thou shalt not steal
As we know, most women have always had ideas about what they will call their children and woe betide you if you happen to have the same name choice for yours – you will have a fight on your hands. Don't just think that this applies to female friends who are trying for a baby – no, this applies to all friendships, regardless of relationship status, age, or whether they may not have children for another ten years. What, you picked Alfie?! But that was my baby name. Word gets around that you stole Kelly's baby name and no one speaks to you for a while. How could you stoop that low?? How could you??

5. Consider your name carefully.
What would the shortened version of the name be? What will they get called at school? Does it go well with the second name? Have you thought that a second name of Esther may not be such a good idea if you're calling your little girl Polly? Have you written out the initials? Have you said it really fast? Read it backwards? Read it upside down?? You never imagined naming your baby was such a scrupulous process.

6. Bargain with your partner
You think you've finally got your baby name approved by the majority of your friends and family but your partner is just not buying it. He or she would like something completely different to you, so you have to place bets or create a sort of reward chart to earn enough stars to name your own child. Either that or you threaten them at gun point, which is probably not advisable if you plan to be a respectable parent. Though the real test for respectability is in what you name your child, of course.

7. Tell everyone your name.
You need to run your final name past everyone to check for any last minute things you hadn't thought of about your baby name. And it's a good job you did because you simply hadn't considered the negative connotations of the initials for Neil Oliver Bromley. The problem is, everyone has a completely different opinion. Some will love your baby name, others will hate it. You literally can't win.

Naming a child is potentially one of the biggest tests of your life; you will either be regarded as having no taste whatsoever or risk subjecting your child to a lifetime of bullying. Or, you could just not give a crap what anyone else thinks and name your child what the hell you want... now, there's a thought. Happy naming!

Thursday 18 September 2014

How are you feeling? Expectations on expectant ladies.

pregnancy, how are you feeling?, how to feel when pregnant, what to expect when you're expecting, mother diaries, anti natal depression, anti natal

Telling people you're pregnant provokes instant questioning; like how many weeks along you are, whether you'd like a girl or a boy or if you've seen the latest offers on stretch mark cream at the pharmacy. The main question you get on an almost daily basis is "how are you feeling?" which can often leave you feeling that there are only a select few correct answers to choose from. Finding out these correct answers happens by trial and error; by sympathetic faces, glowing smiles or raised eyebrows. If you're pregnant for the first time, here is a guide to the things you are expected to feel during your pregnancy:

How are you feeling?
Although this is an unpleasant side effect of pregnancy to say the least, you can't go wrong with saying you feel a little sick. You will be greeted with a wealth of sympathetic faces, all offering you their perfect solutions for morning sickness and a ginger biscuit with your tea. Although you may find the advice somewhat unhelpful, take it and run because it will be more helpful than the reactions to any other response you will give.

How are you feeling?
Saying you feel fine will provoke a number of bitter and twisted people telling you to 'get ready' for when you will feel sick (because surely you can't go through the whole pregnancy and feel no hint of sickness or discomfort, right?). Then you get the people who had horrendous morning sickness themselves telling you how incredibly lucky you are, leaving you feeling like you're the world's most unjust person and you end up apologising for feeling fine.

How are you feeling?
Telling people that you feel tired during pregnancy is like opening a can of explosive worms. Tired?! You don't know the half of it! You will be bombarded with comments about how tiring your life will really be once you have a baby who keeps you up all night and you'll wish you had never opened your mouth.

How are you feeling?
Like baking cakes and knitting cute little baby booties
People love to see expectant ladies absorbed with motherhood; sampling pots of colour for the new nursery, spending hours of research into which buggy has the best power steering or reading books that will turn them into the closest thing to childcare perfection since Mary Poppins. So go and join a knitting club before rumours start out that you're an apathetic parent.

How are you feeling?
Although the majority of women feel overwhelmed at some point during their pregnancies, vocalising this seems to be a taboo subject. What, you mean you're apprehensive about something as blissful as motherhood?! Maybe the majority of people forget just what a whirlwind it is to be a parent and, despite the highs, it is perfectly understandable to feel a little apprehensive now and again. If you don't feel like dancing around the room at the thought of rocking a screaming, pooping and vomiting machine all night I won't judge you for it.

How are you feeling?
Despite how incredibly stereotypical it is to be emotional during pregnancy, this never seems to make it publicly acceptable to burst into tears after seeing a picture of a cat kissing a dog on Facebook. It's so cute, I'm welling up just thinking about it. But the real problem happens when you do have reason to be emotional and everyone simply responds with "Aw, bless you, it's just your hormones." ...No, actually, it's because my house just burnt down.

So who knows what you're supposed to be feeling right now? No one. Nobody will have any idea what a tiny person will bring to your life, or how much you will change. Don't worry, in a few years' time you will be armed with plenty of parenting advice to bombard the next expectant mother in line. But please don't.

Sunday 31 August 2014

Unrealistic expectations: 16 truths and myths about feeding your baby

Deciding to breastfeed my newborn baby seemed the obvious choice - why would I not want to do something so natural and beneficial to my baby? Every time I went to see a midwife I would be greeted with posters and pamphlets full of pictures of happy mothers breastfeeding their babies. I never once thought that it would be a challenge. The problem is that there are a lot of myths surrounding feeding a newborn baby that can be most unhelpful for new mothers.

Unfortunately, much of the information that new mothers are provided with may leave them feeling like they are doing something wrong, or that they are a failure if they find breastfeeding difficult or if they choose to (or have to) use formula. From the experiences of most of my parent-friends, they didn't realise how much of a challenge feeding could be and many faced disappointment or felt disillusioned in the first months of parenthood.

Below are a list of things I was told as facts before I breastfed my baby, many of which were unhelpful or not founded in truth. I decided to look into these things to see if I could find any evidence as to whether they were actually true or not. I will say though, that although I have tried to research the facts as accurately as possible I am obviously bound to be influenced by my own experiences too. I am not an expert in medical research and would therefore encourage you to look up these things yourself if it is important to you. My aim is to support women whatever their feeding choice and give them better information so that they can be better prepared and seek the right help if they need to and have more realistic expectations of early motherhood.

1. Breastfeeding will happen naturally.
False. Only 23% of mothers are still breastfeeding at six months (1) which gives you a clue as to how difficult it is. What is expected to be the most natural thing in the world takes a lot of practice and determination. As opposed to one popular myth, I do not think babies 'instinctively' know how to feed – it is a learnt process for both the baby and mother. Mothers can develop mastitis, thrush and will most certainly experience some pain in at least the first week of feeding. Many women go on to find that the pain eases and breastfeeding does indeed become easy and even pleasant for them. Each mother will have a very different experience, but it is important to know that if someone finds it difficult it is not always entirely down to technique or perseverance - some babies may just be more difficult to feed than others. Other mothers and babies have medical conditions making it more difficult or impossible. It is important that new mothers are equipped with people to help them in the first few weeks of their baby's life and that new mothers are prepared mentally and emotionally.

2. Mothers who formula feed are more likely to have post-natal depression
Partly true. What this fact doesn't inform you is that the group at highest risk were those that planned to breastfeed but couldn't (2). The study concluded that:

“Our results underline the importance of providing expert breastfeeding support to women who want to breastfeed, but also of providing compassionate support for women who had intended to breastfeed, but who find themselves unable to,” they argue.

If mothers were made to feel supported whatever their feeding choice then I strongly believe that this would benefit both formula fed and breastfeeding mothers and lower post natal depression on the whole. I would suggest that one of the most important things is that you do not take on board unnecessary pressure and that you ask for help if it is needed.

3. Babies who are breastfed do not get trapped wind
False. I was told that only bottle fed babies need to be helped to get rid of excess wind after a feed but my baby was breastfed and needed to be 'winded', otherwise he was very restless. He also had colic which actually seemed to ease once he was on the bottle, but this could have been entirely down to his development stage.

4. Breastfeeding reduces the risk of cancer for both mother and baby
True. But this is only relevant for babies who have been breastfed for over six months. Those breastfed for up to six months do not appear to have any decreased cancer risk compared to bottle fed babies. (3) As most mothers stop breastfeeding by six months I would suggest that this statistic is irrelevant for the majority of the population. There is also evidence to suggest that ovarian cancer is reduced for women who breastfeed but again this is only significant in mothers who breastfeed for two years or more (4) which I consider highly impractical for most women. What does this also mean for women who never have children?

5. Babies who are breastfed have increased immunity and reduced risk of allergies
True. This is probably one of the biggest reasons for choosing to breastfeed because breast milk passes on the mother's antibodies to the baby. There is evidence to suggest that babies who are breastfed have healthier immune systems for the duration of breastfeeding, others say longer. From many of the studies I have found it was hard for me to conclude just how much breastfeeding reduces allergies by. One stated that asthma found in breastfed infants was 7.7% as opposed to 12% of formula fed babies in the first two years of life (5). Another study concluded that children with asthmatic mothers were actually more likely to develop asthma later if they were exclusively breastfed. (6)  There are numerous studies done on this so you may find some of the links at the bottom of this post helpful.

6. Breastfed babies are exempt from infections and illnesses
False. Although babies may be less likely to pick up infections during the period of breastfeeding, it is likely that once they are on solids and in settings such as nurseries and play groups that they will pick up plenty of illnesses in the first 6-12 months of life regardless of if they are breastfed or not.

7. Breastfeeding serves as a contraceptive
Partly true. Although breastfeeding is supposed to have a contraceptive effect this is not a failsafe theory. I know at least two of my friends who have conceived whilst breastfeeding so it is more common that you think.

8. Bottle feeding is expensive
True. Breast milk is free, and although you will most probably be spending more on the weekly food shop for yourself to stock up on calories, your extra expenses may not be as high as a tin of formula. The cost of formula feeding is approximately £40/month for six months (or until your baby is on solids).

9. Breastfeeding prevents obesity
Inconclusive. There are studies to suggest that breast milk lowers the risk of obesity in children, alongside others that say there is no evidence for this (7)  I would suggest that if parents who bottle feed their babies are intentional about giving their children a healthy diet and teach their children about portion control this will have a significantly higher influence on their BMI.

10. Breastfeeding helps mothers lose weight
Partly true. Woman burn up to 500 calories a day by breastfeeding which is all well and good if you are suddenly on a rigorous diet (not very practical or advisable when trying to provide nutrients for your baby!). The reality is that those 500 calories will need to be replenished in order to make sure you have enough energy for you and your baby. I was constantly hungry whilst breastfeeding and put on weight during this period (but this was probably because early motherhood didn't allow time to make myself healthy food and I lived off Haribo instead!).

11. Mothers who breastfeed bond better with their babies.
False. Of course some mothers may find it a bonding experience, and others may not. No one can dictate what is going to enhance that for you and your baby. For some mothers breastfeeding is painful and difficult and they can end up resenting feeding times (hardly a bonding experience). For others breastfeeding is extremely bonding – they feel more relaxed and feel sad when the time comes to give up. Breast feeding may allow for more skin to skin contact, whereas bottle feeding may allow for more eye contact.

12. Bottle fed babies sleep longer
True and false. On the whole formula fed babies will sleep longer because formula keeps their stomachs fuller for longer. Breast milk is easier to digest which means that breastfed babies are likely to want feeds closer together. Other factors need to be considered, though, like the temperament of the baby and other external factors.

13. Bottle feeding is unhealthy
False. Although breast milk is the best option in terms of nutritional value, this does not mean that formula is a bad thing to give to your baby. There has been significant scientific research into creating formula in order for it to have all the nutrients babies need to thrive, otherwise they would not be able to sell it! In some cases formula is better nutritionally if the mother has a deficient diet or has to take certain medication (8).

14. Breastfed babies will have higher IQs
False. One study stated:
"Mums with more resources - with higher levels of education and higher levels of income - and more flexibility in their daily schedules are more likely to breastfeed their children and do so for longer periods of time."
Therefore concluding that intelligence was more directly linked with parenting and resources than any benefits of the actual breast milk itself (9) 

15. Breastfeeding is more convenient
True and False. Many mothers prefer breastfeeding because it is on tap whenever you need it and wherever you go. Breastfeeding also means you are hands free to do things like read a book which you may not find as easy whilst bottle feeding. Other mothers find it an inconvenience having to breastfeed in public or having limited ability to spend time independently. No one method is more convenient than another, it is purely down to personal preference.

16. Whatever is most natural is always best
False. Using contraceptives is unnatural but it doesn't stop the majority of people thinking that they are a better option than a house full of children. You cannot conclude that because breastfeeding is the most natural option that it is better - you must conclude it on it's actual benefits (which are, of course, many). Some conclude that bottle feeding is a recent invention and argue that up until recent years women coped without breast milk alternatives. In actual fact babies have been bottle fed for thousands of years.

There are plenty of other facts and myths surrounding breastfeeding and formula feeding which you may wish to look into, (although it is unlikely you will be able to make any substantial conclusions without investing considerable time into it, or conducting studies yourself!). The research is so varied and has different contributing factors which means that it is very difficult to be well informed. I do, however, hope that some of what I have written will dispel some myths for new mothers and enable them to feel confident about their feeding choices.

If you choose to breastfeed then you should be referred to a breastfeeding support worker who can give you help and advice. You may also find The breastfeeding network helpful.

If you decide to formula feed you may find The Fearless Formula Feeder website helpful.

taken from hscic.gov.uk
2 Taken from The NHS News, based on latest research.
3 benefits of breastfeeding, Natural resources defence council (nrdc.org)
4 benefits of breastfeeding, Natural resources defence council (nrdc.org)
5 archives of disease in childhood (adc.bmj.com)
6 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11182011
7 taken from the American Journal of Nutrition
8 taken from livestrong.org
9 parentdish.co.uk and Bingham Young University, Eurekaalert.org

Other references:

Sunday 17 August 2014

War wounds: coping with birth trauma

Women are amazing creatures. You realise that, no matter how the birthing experience goes, that mothers are pushed to the limits of their physical capabilities. Despite my birth not going to plan I didn't really have time to think about that amongst tackling feeding, changing nappies and an endless washing pile. I talked about my traumatic birth to those close to me but there was no time to process what I'd been through - it was a case of plodding on with the intensity of motherhood. My birth went so wrong that it almost made a good story and I didn't mind telling it, or finding the humour in it.

After the chaos of motherhood had died down and I battled through a somewhat difficult year with a feisty and very hungry baby, I found that certain situations would provoke a reaction in me. Friends would tell me of their 'easy' births (if there's ever such a thing) and I would feel all this anger in me. I would avoid hanging around with people who were blissfully enjoying motherhood because I felt like a failure compared to them. Women who found breastfeeding bonding or enjoyed waking up in the night to rock their little one or loved their new life of mums and tots groups made me run a million miles away. I found myself avoiding certain friendships or conveniently going to the toilet whenever the subject of birth came up. People would ask me "when are you having another, then?" and every time I'd feel like they may as well have said to me that my pain was not valid; that my struggles didn't count. I found the question insulting, as though they'd just asked me when I would be going to war again.

Now, I'm a very open person, but mental health issues are very difficult to talk about. There's almost a taboo about admitting you have any sort of weakness, as though one affecting your mind is less serious than one affecting your physical body. In the light of Robin Williams' death it has helped me to understand the importance of honesty about mental health. I may not be able to tell you these things in person but for some reason I can write about them here.

At a wedding, two years after my son's birth, I'd left him with his Nanan and I was looking forward to letting my hair down. Instead, I found myself sat on a table full of other mothers, mopping up dribble and talking in baby language. I was forced to talk about teething and nappy rashes and I suddenly felt physically sick (and, no, I wasn't even close to intoxication). Someone started talking about how much they were enjoying parenting and how they couldn't wait to have another child, which provoked everyone else to join in with expressing the joys of motherhood, whilst they cooed over their little ones. Feelings of anger and inadequacy rose up and I had to make a quick exit. I sobbed in the toilets for over an hour. Sobbed. For an hour. Two years after my birth. That's not normal, right?

The weird thing is I was enjoying motherhood. My screaming child had turned into an entertainment system that made me laugh everyday, gave me cuddles and was full of character. I wanted to experience that again but I how could I? How could someone willingly go to war?

My decision to have another child, nearly four years later, didn't come easy. Deep down it was what I wanted and I was so used to blocking out negative feelings about birth and avoiding other mothers (and weddings) that I just allowed myself to think of all the good times of having a child and the life we would have in the future.

And then I got pregnant.

And it was like a hurricane just blew threw my house and I couldn't see for all the dusty memories I'd swept under the carpet which were now encircling my head. I started to panic. I would literally wake in the night in a sweat. I needed to tell others of my 'joyful' news and instead I wanted to bury myself into a hole and hide. I felt really scared and overwhelmed and no one would understand me. How could you plan a pregnancy that you don't want to go through? It's the most ridiculous thing. I would either be met with expressions of extreme excitement or looks of "what the hell are you doing?" I found neither response helpful. But I wanted another child more than anything.

Thankfully, due to a previous emergency c-section, I was given the option of having another one and Neil and I had decided to grab this opportunity, knowing that I could change my mind at any point. The consultants were, of course, pushing me to have a vaginal delivery but we stuck to our guns because of my past experience. It felt like a weight had been lifted and I knew that I didn't have to deal with any feelings of uncertainty, extreme pain and failure again.

But the feelings of relief were short lived. Something was deeper.

I was referred to see a consultant midwife to discuss my feelings about the birth. She was the first person who validated what I'd been through. She looked through my pages of notes from my delivery and expressed her total understanding of me wanting a c-section. She listened to me and she made me feel like I was not the weak person I thought, but I was, in fact, extremely brave. She told me I had symptoms of post traumatic stress and referred me to a clinical psychologist who I am now seeing on a weekly basis.

I'm finding this time in my life the most intense I've ever been through. There are things that have come to light that are much deeper than childbirth or physical pain. I have deep-rooted beliefs about myself which are extremely unhelpful and affect my daily life. My life has been about avoiding failure, avoiding pain, avoiding mistakes. If you're a parent you will know that's impossible.

When I started this process I wished I had done it sooner after my birth. Now I wish I'd done this long before I'd even thought of having children. Motherhood is such an intense time and brings about all sorts of emotions which you can brush under the carpet or deal with. This is not always easy and can be very painful, but vital none the less. If you've had negative emotions connected with pregnancy or parenting (or anything, actually) I would urge you to pursue help. Please don't let your fears control you and stop you from having the life you want.

If you're struggling with birth trauma or negative feelings associated with birth or motherhood you may find these links helpful.


Sunday 10 August 2014

The twelve things new mothers need to know.

no pain relief, childbirth, things all mothers need to know, birth certificate, mother diaries, parenting, motherhood
If you're pregnant or a new mother you will probably find that you are bombarded with advice about how to be a parent. I listened to a lot of stupid things I shouldn't have and put way too much pressure on myself as a new parent. Looking back I wish I had listened to these things instead:

1. Your birthing experience will not go on your resume.
Whatever your birth is like, whether you deliver your baby in two hours or thirty six, whether you have no drugs or an epidural, it DOES NOT MATTER. Please don't put pressure on yourself to have a particular birth – preferences are great but ideals are not. However your delivery goes you deserve a medal just for bringing a little person into the world.

2. Trust your own instincts.
The love you feel for your little one will be overwhelming. You'll be bombarded with advice about what is best for your child but don't allow it to consume you – only you will really know what is best for your baby so trust yourself and don't feel guilty about saying "thanks, but no thanks" to any advice that isn't helpful. Take others' comments with a pinch of salt and trust your own instincts.

3. Take all the help you can get.
If a friend offers to cook you a meal, look after your baby to give you a break or clean your house then two little words are in order: "yes, please." Grab all the help you can get because you would be crazy to think that you can do it all on your own (unless you have super hero powers). You don't get any medals for seeing how little sleep you can live off or for cleaning your house one handed whilst feeding a baby. You are human. You will need help.

4. Be kind to yourself.
It seems ridiculous when you're a new mother that you should ever prioritise yourself over your baby, but it's really not. A happy mother is a happy baby – I honestly believe that. Make sure you put yourself first every so often. If your baby naps and you have a choice between hoovering up and grabbing some sleep too, take the sleep! Life always feels much better after a nap. And if you haven't started the day with a well needed coffee then put your baby down for two minutes. Babies don't have to be held all the time and, believe it or not, they can wait a few minutes longer for food. Get a baby bouncer so you can do things like get a sandwich or have a shower whilst supervising them. Choose the things that make life easier for you and don't beat yourself up.

5. Be real.
You will have days where you feel like you can't cope, days when you want to chuck your baby out of the window and days when you feel like you're the on top of the world. Learn to be a little more rational and try to take your emotions with a pinch of salt because they may well be all over the place. If you can't face seeing people right now that's okay, just know that after a nap, some food or on a day where your baby isn't crying all day you may well feel like a different person. However, being a mother can be really tough so it's important that if your feelings get too overwhelming that you are honest with people. Motherhood is often idealised and makes new parents feel less able to talk about any negative emotions associated with having a baby. It's important to always be real with yourself and others so you can get help where it's needed.

6. What feels like forever will feel like five minutes in a few years.
You'll feel like you're the only mother up for hours in the night or that you'll be physically feeding them forever. Although it will seem impossible to get your head around right now, there will come a time when you will have a full night's sleep again, your child will feed themselves and you can leave them in front of a whole Disney film while you read the paper. Try to gain perspective and enjoy the cuddles and smiles, knowing that the dirty diapers and sleepless nights will also be over before you know it.

7. It doesn't matter how you feed your baby (within reason!).
It is no one else's business how you choose feed your baby and both breast milk and formula are healthy methods of feeding. Whatever choice you make do it because it is genuinely the best for your family and your sanity.

8. Everyone is different.
Every woman will have a completely different birth experience and will also choose completely different parenting methods. Every baby will be completely different and respond to different parenting techniques in different ways. Just because one piece of advice worked for one baby it doesn't mean it will work for yours. Take the advice that benefits you and leave the rest. Please don't take on board other people's judgements of your parenting, but likewise have grace for others who choose to do things differently to you.

9. Have a sense of humour.
Laugh. Laugh at discovering you have sick all over your back when you're walking down the street or that you accidentally flashed your boob to the mailman mid-feed. If you can laugh at the downs you will never have laughed so much in your life. Take yourself a little less seriously and you'll have a lot more fun because of it.

10. Give your body time.
Your body has gone through a massive trauma by delivering a baby into the world, give yourself time to heal. So many mothers agonise over how their body has changed or are too keen to get into the fitness regime and lose the baby weight. Concentrate on getting used to life with a baby first - respect your body for what it's been through and try not to speak negatively about it. You will be able to lose the baby weight but these things take time and commitment.

11. Think of crying as baby talk.
Babies cry. A lot. Some babies cry more than others. If you have a baby that cries a lot this has no reflection on your parenting skills, it just means they will probably grow up to know more of what they want in life and be a good communicator. Babies cry in the most awkward of situations (like when you're driving!) so try to keep your cool. If you can't work out why your baby is crying after you've checked for the obvious (hunger, tiredness, signs of illness etc.) then it's okay to leave them for a few minutes whilst you grab yourself that well-earned coffee.

12. Don't forget who you are.
Please, please, promise me that after a year of parenting you will not have filed away your favourite past-times or ambitions. You are still the same person you were before you had a child – sure, it may be harder to do the things you did before but you can still bring elements of them into your life. Don't become so consumed in diapers that you forget what you're about. You will do your chid a favour by letting them know that, although you love them more than anything, your world does not solely revolve around them.

If you're a mother, what advice would you have given yourself as a new parent?