Wednesday 20 May 2015

So, what's it REALLY like having more than one child?

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What's it REALLY like having more than one kid? I get asked that a lot. Slightly traumatised parents-of-one raise the question tentatively, as though I am a spy on the other side, able to inform them of whether it will be worth their while to step into the great unknown of multiple offspring.

I have asked that question many times, longing for someone to tell me what it's that it's ten times easier with two children, as though that's what we're all truly aiming for as parents. Parenting, by default, is not easy and I'll admit that up until six months ago the thought of having more than one seemed, quite frankly, unbearable. On top of the general hard work that my firstborn brought with him was the fact that I didn't have a mumsy bone in my body; even hearing a baby crying brought me out into a cold sweat. Some people were understandably surprised when I got pregnant again, others implied they'd long awaited it. Some warned me that it wouldn't just be twice the work, it would be ten times the work. On top of not knowing what I was letting myself in for I also felt a traitor to all the parents of only children I had previously confided in, sharing in our agitation about being constantly asked whether we were 'having another.' 

didn't want another. And I did want another. And I wished someone had written an honest post about what it was really like. Well, this is that post. Kind of.

Some people are perfectly happy with one child and I feel a strong defence for them every time someone asks me if I feel more complete for having more children. No. I do not. I might feel more content, or happier, but please do not ask me if I feel complete, as though parents of only children are walking around limbless. I'd go as far as to say that my eldest child is no more complete for having a little brother either, as much as he cherishes him. He does not need his brother to be any more of a person than he was already.

Do I have regrets? Yes. In the same way I have regrets about marrying my husband or having had any children at all. I regret marrying my husband on the occasions he doesn't change the toilet roll properly, or, worse, does something I find hurtful (and none of us are exempt from doing hurtful things). I regret having children when my four year old jumps on me at 6:30am, or when he refuses to eat the nice sandwich I bought him with the last of my Costa gift card credit (times are hard). Within a few hours (or on the harder occasions, days) my faith in love will be restored and my heart will flutter over a mere text message from my hubby, or I will feel a deep sense of satisfaction when my child squeezes me so tight that I could burst with all the love in the world. Regrets are a choice. Life is hard sometimes. Difficulties are a given. 

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Admittedly, life is harder. My washing pile is frigging huge; I never get to the bottom of it, ever. The mere thought of it gives me butterflies in my stomach - I hate unfinished business. I'm learning to accept it and just do what I can. My house looks like, well, it looks I have two children. Ten, actually, if you call in at 6pm. Some people might maintain a level of house-proudness: I don't. I don't for the fact that I can't bear to do work that I'll only have to do again in an hour or so. I consider acceptance a better approach, and it's doing me good too. The bonus of this is that I care less what others think of me. I choose to do fun things over tidying. I'm off the hook, to some degree, providing there is a certain level of hygiene. 

I expected as much when I had another child. My time is pressed more times than Robinsons does lemons. I always have a handful of unsent text messages on my phone, after being distracted by a child who needs his bum wiping or a baby that has vommed all over my top. I compensate by cutting out things that normal women do, like wearing make up everyday; preferring the practicality of getting my children fed over giving my cheeks some colour. People have stopped saying 'you look tired, are you alright?' Because I always look tired. The other day I caught myself unawares in a mirror and literally made myself jump. I think I've aged ten years in six months. 

The benefit of this, though, is that in some ways I definitely have more freedom. I've become like one of those old women who doesn't give a crap what she says anymore. I accept that I may not be as well presented but I am a less hurried person. People still love me without makeup or with an untidy house (or if I forget to edit swear words out of my blog). And if you don't then great; you are one less person to forget to send text messages to. And sure, my time is limited, but I'm used to that with one child. Parents become experts at finding five minutes to do things like unload the dishwasher in-between making breakfast; time you previously took for granted. I can safely say I never take time for granted; time to me is like cake when you've been on a diet. The moment you take a bite of it again it tastes oh. so. sweet. All the better, in fact, for not having it as much.

And time is helped too by the fact that my children, even with four year's difference, entertain one another. Admittedly sometimes that's by my eldest seeing if breadsticks fit up his brother's nose, but mostly it's all good. The reward of having another child is that they look at each other and burst into fits of laughter, just because they're brothers. There is a lot more laughter in our house, and there are a lot more tears. The highs are higher, and the lows are lower. 

The biggest low of having kids is the freedom that is wiped from under your feet the moment you leave the hospital with them wrapped up in some ridiculous bear onesie that's three times too big for them. I wasn't sure how I could possibly lose any more freedom after I'd given most of it up for one child. Well, here's how: For starters, babysitters now have to look after two of your kids, not one and to be honest I think I'd even feel a bit awkward asking supernanny to take on the task, let alone someone I do actually intend to text back (eventually). You find yourself dropping children off to different places, or have one child tagging along uninvited to kid's parties. Eventually I'll have to cook double, if not triple, the amount of food I do now. I will have to help with two sets of homework and have countless friends over for tea. But by then, hopefully, I will have more sleep to cope. The sleepless nights are still bloody horrible – no parent will ever get used to them (if they say they love staying up at night, they're liars. LIARS). 

Like sleeplessness, though, many things are often a lot worse in foresight than they actually are (Okay, so maybe not the sleep thing). But seriously, the amount of things I was dreading beforehand have faded into insignificance compared to reality. Getting out the house with two kids takes a bit of adjusting, but you do it because you have to and then you think, that wasn't so bad. Bathing them both at the same time? Not so bad. Bedtimes? Not so bad. Your baby does an explosive poo while your eldest is pouring salt all over the cafe floor? I can deal with it. Both children crying at once? Tra la la laaa. A whole night of no sleep? Bloody horrible. 

Is my life more fulfilling? I have to be honest and say that I'm sceptical of people who have kids in order to find some sort of fulfilment; kids are not fulfilling – unless you mean filling your life full with plastic toys and cbeebies. But I am honestly happier – Note: happier, not more complete. Admittedly it helps now that boy no.1 is nearly at school and boy no.2 just opts for smiling over screaming for the majority of the day (Winner!). God knows how parents cope when the rogue gene of 'I'll scream until I get what I want, but I'm giving no clue as to what that actually is' happens to be in the DNA of baby no.2. I am incredibly lucky that baby no.2 is pretty easy going and I have very few bad days. I'd go as far as to say that I'm enjoying myself, which, considering that the first year of my firstborn's life was the slowest year of my life to date, is a pleasant surprise.

So I can't tell you how life will be for you if you choose to have more than one child. I can guarantee it will be harder and more exhausting (sorry). But no one ever became a parent for an easy ride, right? For me the highs have outweighed the lows. My life is better for knowing these two little people. It may be possible for me to regret having kids, but It's not possible for me to regret having them.

Wednesday 13 May 2015

Tea and sympathy: Overcoming anxiety

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If you didn't know already, it is mental health awareness week this week. This may not mean anything more to you than re-sharing a few sympathetic posts on Facebook, or it may resonate deeply with you over an issue you or your family have faced surrounding mental health. If you follow this blog you will know that for me it is the latter. A post I hesitated over the 'publish' button a few months ago in an is this too personal to air in public sort of way, ended up provoking quite a lot of discussion surrounding motherhood and mental health, so much so that I got invited on radio to speak on the subject. Some confided in me privately that they had been through similar things, others admired my bravery, though to me it felt as brave as flashing my knickers in public (and, believe me, they're not quite as sexy as they used to be). Suddenly I was an expert in mental health, discussing it live on air as though I had more of a clue what I was talking about than all the sleepless nights and palpitations would insinuate (or maybe not).

I'll let you in on a little secret: I am probably no more clued up on mental health than the average person, I've just happened to experience something in my life that fits into that category. In fact, I'm no more an expert in mental health than I am at knowing how to make you a good cuppa, which depends entirely on how strong you like your tea, or whether you even drink it at all. Being an expert in mental health somehow seems to imply the same thing; that you can be an expert in something as individual as how much milk you have in your brew. Well, of course I won't know that unless you educate me, in the same way that I am doing so about my battles with mental health. I'm just someone with a story that someone labelled as a mental health issue. Who knew?

And that's exactly it, I didn't know. My first revelation of any mental health problems was being diagnosed with post traumatic stress after the birth of my first child. Although this came as a bit of a shock, it was relatively easy to deal with in the scheme of a life of anxiety and depression, symptoms of which I had experienced from the age of five years old. I didn't know that until a nice lady in a hospital room casually spoke of my 'anxiety' as though it were as obvious as an elephant in the room. Well how was I to know when no one else had ever pointed it out to me? How was I supposed to admit to the elephant in the room when no one ever talked of mental illness, especially not to children? How was I supposed to know I needed more than just tea and sympathy?

My memories of school consist of mostly bad ones; from the early days of being picked on in the playground, to the time I was too anxious to admit I'd had yet another bad nose bleed in class; from the first time I intentionally banged my head so hard against the wall I made it bruise, to the time I literally wet my bed at the thought of going to class the next morning. Aged thirteen. But I did leave the house the next day. I cracked on with life with a smile on my face and no one knew.

I can only think it was mental stress that, aged seventeen, I came out in boils and abscesses which I tried to hide from everyone. Well, wouldn't you? I was so embarrassed by the state of my skin that I didn't tell anyone about the one that grew to ten centimetres under my arm until desperation point set in (despite me struggling to stack shelves at my weekend job, sporting a comedy swollen arm). I was taken to hospital to have an operation and the doctor said he'd never seen anything like it. I thought he was telling me I was disgusting rather than praising my ability to cope with pain.

But I cracked on with life and no one knew, other than thinking I was perhaps a little shy or awkward from time to time. I had a good sense of humour and a pleasant smile; my ammunition.

Around the same time I would randomly burst into uncontrollable tears, usually confined to the toilets at lunch time. I had friends but felt lonely. The combination of having constant negative thoughts running around in my head along with the fact I struggled to sleep left me feeling constantly exhausted. Once I woke in the night with severe stomach cramps, literally crying out in pain. Initially the doctors were sympathetic, suspecting an appendicitis, but on ruling that out they told me to go home because it was all in my head.

In my head.

But I cracked on with life with a smile on my face and no one knew.

I would bite the skin from around the sides of my fingers until they bled. I would peel the skin off from around my lips. I told people I had cracked skin with the cold weather. You may still notice the odd plaster on my thumb from time to time – old habits die hard. I would go home on an evening and just cry at how overwhelming life felt, or bang my head against the wall as though that would somehow get rid of all the thoughts in my head that were exhausting me. As I got older I would go to the doctors with various ailments in the hope of getting what I really needed: The, while I'm here, I've been feeling a little low recently, line. I never got anywhere because I made it sound as trivial as a common cold. They responded with condescending sympathy. I didn't want sympathy. Just a good cup of tea and for my brain to switch off. I thought that everyone must think like I did; I thought that they were all such incredible people for doing things like getting on aeroplanes and saying they enjoyed it. Because they couldn't possibly, right?

But I cracked on as normal. Because I was normal, right? And I'm sat here writing this and thinking, was that really me?

I would feel physically sick in certain situations and I've no idea why. Simple things like going to the butchers to ask for meat, or anything that involved working out measurements and weights on the spot which brought me out into a cold sweat. I would pre-plan every outing, imagining what I would say in my head over and over, should a difficulty arise. Some days the thought of leaving the house was too overwhelming, but I'd always leave. I'd always face my battles head on. I'd crack on with a smile on my face and no one knew.

My perfectionism would drive me to extreme lengths, desperate to be successful, or at least admired. I would avoid failure like a bad smell, god forbid I would have to face criticism of any kind. People would call me little miss perfect as though I had it all together somehow. They would roll their eyes at the things I was good at: 'is there anything you can't do?' they'd say, 'you're so lucky.'

I didn't feel very lucky. Little did they know that my motives were because I felt anything but.

I'm not sure why I'm telling you all this, other than the fact that I owe it to myself and every other normal person who has experienced something labelled as mental health. Here I go airing my dirty laundry in public again at the risk of being branded a looney or an attention seeker. But if I were truly as such I would not be writing this in a relatively coherent way, nor would the attention-seeking fit in with my relatively introverted persona. I write risking the fact that people will look on me differently, or that they will look on my life as one big cover up. All those years I avoided it just made the voices louder in my head, telling me I was useless. All the years I couldn't admit I was scared or just how lonely I really felt because I thought it made me sound pathetic. All the years I skirted around therapy because I thought that mental health was just some phrase that described people with, well, real mental problems, not mine.

See, I'm not just writing this post to raise awareness of mental health, nor to simply make you aware that it happens to extremely normal and well functioning people. I also write this post to give hope – hope to people who resonate with any of this that you can tell the voices in your head to do one. Hope that it doesn't always have to be this way. Now don't get me wrong, those voices still come at me like a tonne of bricks from time to time, but I've got better at politely telling them to leave me alone, or on other days to less politely fuck right off. I have realised that I do not have to live with this; this ridiculously low self esteem and self loathing. I'm alright, you know. I make mistakes but I'm alright.

To tell you how to overcome anxiety is a whole other (thousand) blog post(s) that someone far better equipped in psychology should write, but I'll start you off with that four letter word: HOPE. I haven't even fully overcome but I'm choosing to be an overcomer. I have good days and bad but I'm choosing not to be a victim of them. I've had whole days where I've not had the same weight on my shoulders that I've felt for thirty years. Thirty fucking years of my life, like I had a physical weight on my shoulders. For those of you who have experienced anxiety or depression you will know just how incredibly freeing that is (or sounds) to have experienced life without it. I remember hearing someone else say they felt free of it only a year ago and me thinking if only. But it doesn't have to be an if, but a when. And although you may slip back a hundred times or more, just experiencing the when once makes you crave your healing like it's a drug. Though life may get tougher for a while, there's no going back. Your mental illness is not who you are, it's not who who were born to be. And hope sits just around the corner with all the weightlessness you'd dreamed of.

So I press on with small steps. I've been to the butchers and ordered some mince beef. I bite my skin a little less. I've said no to people without caring about offence. I even complained in a restaurant last month. Get me.

Now, lets put the kettle on. How do you like your tea again?

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Wednesday 6 May 2015

Why you should vote on behalf of your children

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I am currently sat browsing the internet, sifting through political policies. Like a large proportion of the voting population, I am undecided who to vote for. I am disillusioned with politicians, partly because of the way they make promises they can't keep, and partly because I haven't a clue what things like 'non-doms' and 'Trident nuclear deterrents' are (though at least it makes me look them up). Perhaps you're sat sniggering at my lack of political knowledge, but I am probably joined by the 40% of people who find the process too confusing to put a simple cross in a box. I don't consider myself an unintelligent human being, and yet half of the policies I read may as well have been written in mandarin, or some other language I previously thought was just a small fruit. Besides which, the way we choose our government is getting more and more like a game show; voting for whoever has the most charisma or whoever bigs up their policies the loudest. Still, as the old sepia photographs of the suffragettes haunt my Facebook feed, I cannot not vote. I have a voice and I need to use it, even if it means spoiling my paper.

There has been a lot of talk about 'working families' and how each political party will benefit us. I use the term us because I have a family and I work so I presume that I'm included in that category. Because I am juggling both conventional work and being-a-mother work, it means that I work twice as hard and earn less money than I've ever done in my whole life. I will go as far as to say that I consider looking after my children far harder work than my day job and I therefore spend the vast majority of my wage on childcare so I can go to an office instead and get a cup of tea made for me at nine o'clock in the morning. Sure, I'm ploughing my wages back into the economy, but unless I didn't love my career (or didn't have such a tea addiction), it would be verging on futile. Labour and The Conservatives have promised me more free childcare, but only after I've squandered three years of wages on it. What are we supposed to do? Stop having children and thus start the slow descent to our extinction?

Although I doubt I will ever become a stay at home mum (more for sanity than financial reasons), it's worth considering the mothers who want to work hard looking after their own children. Do they not work hard? According to government policies, they are to be discouraged because they do nothing for the economy. Rightly so, you may be thinking, but here's something I would like you to consider when you put that cross in that box: are you voting for yourself or on behalf of your children? And are you simply voting for your own, or the next generation?

I am not suggesting that we go back to the 1930s, where woman stay at home and look after the children and the men bring home the bacon. What I am suggesting, however, is that bringing up children right is extremely important in order to raise the next generation of people who will contribute to our society. Of course we are always going to want to vote for the party that most fulfils our own needs right here and now. It's not fair, after all, that you work hard and pay taxes which are squandered on stay at home mothers who sit and watch Jeremy Kyle all day. God forbid that in ten years time your own daughter finds herself unexpectedly pregnant at the age of sixteen and it's down to you to provide for her and her baby.

See, the problem with voting solely for yourself is that society will never get any better and the divide between the rich and the poor will be greater. Please don't give me any crap about the extremely wealthy people who have worked hard all their lives to get where they are today - so have I, and so has the cleaner who spends all day getting blisters on her hands and feet scrubbing floors for minimum wage. She was never given the option of a good education because she just happened to be born into the wrong family, and cleaning floors is all she knows. Will you give her a leg up so that her children have more chance of making a better living than her? Sod her, you say, and with that the possibility that her son could be the brain surgeon that saves your life in twenty years if he had the opportunity you voted against.

I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones; I had a good education and went to university, albeit with debts I am still paying back (or would be if I earned enough). I live in a modest but nice house because loving parents helped with a deposit. But my own children may not be so lucky. If I vote for myself I will vote for the free childcare and the things that will help myself and my husband and our careers. But what if I vote for my children? What if I have a child who, god forbid, has a disability and cannot work like I can? What if I have a child who gets made redundant and can't afford to look after his family? What if, in the future, I gain a grandchild with foreign blood?

I am not advocating that we raise our children to think this country is a free for all, or that we shouldn't have consequences for our actions. A fairer society doesn't mean one without boundaries. As a loving parent I say no to my sons, but I also want the best for them. Do you think I will love one more than the other if he earns more money? Of course not. I, along with mothers from all backgrounds, want to treat my children fairly. I want my children to be happy. I want to give them the best possible life I can, not one where they are raised to believe that they deserve something simply because they are lucky enough to have it.

So on with the vote...

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Monday 4 May 2015

So, you've just given birth. Here are 8 things you can expect...

Kate Middleton, Hello magazine
Unless you've been hiding under a bearskin, you probably won't have been able to escape the photographs circling the internet of a perfect baby princess, held by an equally perfect looking mother. If you are also a mother you will probably have seen the photographs and thought, seriously, how the hell does she look like that after childbirth? And then you remember that, ah yes, she has a make-up artist, a personal dresser and a hair stylist on hand. And that's just the baby. 

And then there's Kate, looking like she's just off to do a modelling shoot. Some have responded in bitterness, "it's alright for some," they scorn. Others act dismissively, "well, of course she looks that good when she's that privileged." Well, really, what did you expect? Did you think she'd greet the paparazzi in a blood stained nighty, with her hair stuck to a sweaty forehead? I didn't think so.

If I had wanted to leave the hospital the same day I gave birth I would have been hobbling with catheter in tow and a face as pasty as the hospital porridge. Still, even if I had had more straight forward births I doubt I would've wanted to be stared at by strangers as I graced the hospital carpark, let alone have my face slapped on a tabloid newspaper. 

I do have photographs of myself just after I gave birth. I had wires stuck in my hands and a baby stuck to my boob. I look bloody knackered. Of course I don't show anyone those photographs - they are for my memories. I look on them with both fondness and trepidation; they conjure up all sorts of emotions in me, memories of physical pain and the feeling of complete and utter bewilderment. The second time around, although a rather more positive experience, I still felt as vulnerable as an elephant on a tight rope, and as clumsy as one too. Thoughts flooded back from my first birth; how the hell do women do this? What the hell is expected of us? 

And then there's Kate - stood in a designer dress, discretely covering her protruding belly and possibly stretch marks. And she's waving and smiling, after having her hair done and her makeup artist wipe away her sweat and tears. If someone had started twisting my hair in ironing tongs after giving birth I think I would have found another slightly less orthodox use for them. But Kate can't do that. She's not allowed to go outside in a hoodie and sunglasses. She's not allowed to start sobbing uncontrollably that she's just been in ridiculous amounts of pain. She's not allowed to scream at her husband during labour, or call him a nob for getting her into this mess. She's not allowed to tell the world she's struggling with the baby latching on or that her stitches are uncomfortable. No, she has to put on her make up and face the. whole. wide. world. Which would you rather?

It kind of got me thinking about what is expected from a woman after she gives birth. There is a lot of preparation for the actual childbirth, the choice of pain relief, the birthing pools, the breathing techniques. There is all this emphasis on the birth and then it's like, WHAM: off you go lady, you're on you're own now. And you sit in the hospital bed with this squirmy little thing and feel slightly shell shocked. You wonder if all women feel the same, including Kate.

Some women will be out of hospital cooking tea before the midwife has had time to dispose of the placenta. There are others, however, who may seem like they have it all together but inside they're thinking oh my god. So, if you haven't given birth yet, or you have and you feel like this, then here are some things that might help you to know you are not alone.

1. Your body has been through the equivalent of a marathon.
So, you've just ran a marathon. What do you do? You go home and you rest. Unfortunately, babies are not always that good at letting you do this. You are going to feel unbelievably tired so take it easy when you can and get all the help you can get. - don't feel shy about accepting help. Remember to be kind to yourself and take the rest over things like cleaning. It can wait, seriously.

2. Your body will take time to heal
On top of going through the marathon of labour, it is likely your body will have some war wounds. You might find walking difficult or you might wince when you pee. You will also have the equivalent of a heavy period for days or weeks after the birth. It's all good, you just need time to heal. Don't overly exert yourself and don't be too quick to get back into any sort of exercise regime. 

3. Your belly won't look that different. 
You may look down and wonder whether the baby actually came out at all. Give it time. 

4. You feel clueless
Everything is new to you and you can't expect to be an expert over night. You can read all the baby books in the world and nothing will quite prepare you for what's ahead. Things like breastfeeding might not necessarily come easily, in fact it may be one of the hardest things you do. Make sure you get all the help you can and take each day as it comes.

5. You might not bond with your baby straight away.
Although some ladies are on a high after giving birth, many are not. Many may not feel the elation they expected to feel once they have their little one in their arms. Some mums just take time to adjust so don't beat yourself up if you don't bond straight away. If you find that you're still having negative feelings after a few days make sure you talk to someone to make sure you don't have post natal depression.

6. Babies sleep a lot in the first few days
Give it a few weeks before you conclude you've got an angel baby. 

7. Every baby is different.
My first baby screamed every day of his life until he was three years old. My second baby just smiles. If you're blessed enough to have a placid baby, make sure you don't go getting all cocky and start writing your own baby books and dishing out advice to every other new mother. Likewise, if your baby is more of a challenge know that it's not your fault, you are doing the best you can and just because your baby is vocal doesn't mean you're not doing a great job.

8. The fourth Trimester
This concept helped me to come to terms with the fact that my newborn did not like to be put down or struggled to sleep on his own. It's helpful to see the first three months of your baby's life as the fourth trimester - your baby is just getting used to the world so don't expect him to feed or sleep like a pro just yet. In fact, don't expect anything. Just try and enjoy the cuddles for now and don't be too hasty with the routine just yet.

Have you got any advice for mums who've just given birth?