Thursday 22 October 2015

Why there's no such thing as an easy baby, but there is such a thing as a bloody hard one

People told me that there was no such thing as an easy baby – they told me that all babies are difficult, and, having had two, I know this to be true. But this comment did not appease me when my firstborn cried for hours on end. I would express how hard he was and I would hear the same response: "well, babies are hard, love."

Other parents made light of it, as though I was a naive first mother. Of course I knew that most mothers had been in my shoes; the sleepless nights, the relentless feeding; the monotony; the not knowing whether they were getting enough food, the not knowing if something was wrong. But the crying; the endless crying? I wasn't so sure.

He was the only one in the hospital that you could hear down the corridor (even though I had my own room). "Bloody hell, he's got some lungs on him,' the midwives would say. I kept pressing the buzzer for help all night: "He just won't settle," I said, at my wits end. One midwife told me I would just have to stay up feeding him all night, another more sympathetic midwife propped me up with cushions because she realised I was going to fall off the bed with my baby in a heap of exhaustion.

We were lucky enough to have friends who delivered meals to us after I got out of hospital. Some timed it at the rare moments he napped peacefully, others as I was wrestling to feed him, and others left their meals outside the door with great understanding that perhaps I did not want to be seen after two hours of sleep. One friend delivered a meal on week two and asked how we were getting on. "He seems so restless," I expressed anxiously. My friend chuckled: "babies are restless." Despite all the kindness we had received with gifts and meals and blue balloons left on our doorstep, I just wanted someone to tell me that it would get easier, that it wouldn't always be like this, that it's bloody hard sometimes.

My husband went back to work and I felt quite isolated in the house, not knowing who to call for help. Who could I ring who wouldn't tell me that all babies were hard? My baby would cry for hours on end. I began to suspect the C word.


That word that no one else understands unless you've had a baby with it.

"Isn't that just a made up diagnosis?" one friend asked, as her baby laid quietly on a baby mat for the whole hour she visited. The same friend who told me that her baby never cried.

No one believed me about the colic because he never seemed to time his crying fits when people came to visit. I thought that perhaps it was all in my head until my mum happened to see it one day. She thought I should call the doctor because she'd never heard a cry like it. "He's like this everyday. mum." I said.

I tried everything; the colief, the gripe water, the infacol, baby massage – all of which seemed to make him worse. I tried feeding him at different times, for longer, for shorter. My days were filled with trying to find ways to overcome it, to beat this thing that was killing me inside. How long would it go on for? Was my baby in pain? What was I doing wrong?

And then after four months the colic stopped. But he still cried. He woke up screaming every morning without fail until he was three and a half years old. He cried whenever the wind blew in his face or if a bus went past.

Other people seemed to stun him into silence, or at least distract him. Everyone interpreted this as a 'chilled' personality, as though two hours in Costa is a good enough assessment of temperament. I would express that he was far from chilled and I would get the response "well, he's chilled every time I see him." What, am I making it up? I felt like I was going mad.

Four years later I was expecting another baby and my whole being was filled with complete and utter dread. But when my second was born he just laid in my arms and stared at me. I figured it was just the birthing drugs that must have got into his system or something; of course babies aren't that placid, right? There's no such thing as an easy baby. The midwives nicknamed him 'happy' because at two days old he looked like he was smiling.

I got home and he slept quietly. He woke from his naps by cooing. I tentatively awaited the chaos that was about to explode. And it never really did. Sure, he didn't sleep very well, and I had difficulty with feeding him, but all that seemed a breeze compared to the first time around.

"Second-borns are always easier," people told me. "You're more laid back with your second," they'd say, but I was still listening with my first-time-mum ears – the ones that heard dismissal of mothers who found things harder than others. And sure, perhaps I am more laid back, but could that stop my baby from crying for hours on end? And if so, was I to blame the first time around? Do all babies and parents come from the same mould? Along with all those who find their second baby easier is an equal number who find them harder.

My second born is nearly a year old, and he is hard work. But the whole baby phase seemed to pass me by and I look back on it with fondness. And yes, part of this is because I knew I wouldn't be doing it again, but part of it was out of sheer relief that it wasn't like it was the first time around.

Why am I telling you this and why does it matter? Because I almost didn't have another baby at all for the reason that I thought all babies must be the same, or that I somehow inflicted the hard work upon myself the first time around by not being laid back enough. If I had had a baby like my second born first I would have been very smug, likely to come out with comments like "Isn't colic just a made up diagnosis?". And I meet mothers of 'easier babies' who do this; who speak of motherhood with ease and push the mothers who find it hard into a corner. If you've never experienced a baby with colic you have no idea how horrendous it is. If you've never had a sensitive baby who screams every time a bus goes past you have no idea how trying to calm him takes over your life.

And if your baby cries incessantly please know that it's not your fault. It won't always be this way. And should you choose to have another it may be easier, or it may be harder (unlikely), but it will be very different. No matter how many rules and routines you follow, no matter your own temperament, or your genetics, there is no given for what sort of little person you will be graced with. So let both the hard and the easy things humble you, not make you cold to those that struggle or bitter to those that seem not to. There may not be such a thing as an easy baby but there is such a thing as a bloody hard one. Hang in there, it will get easier.
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Thursday 8 October 2015

"My dog ate my son's reply slip" – Why parents shouldn't need to make excuses.

It is my son's school harvest festival today. I know that because it said it on the pink sheet of 'dates to remember' that I found in my child's book bag. In fact, it said it on several letters in the run up to it, along with the letter about the quiz night and the school photographs and the recycling day where they plan to make a giant paper-mache statue of a stressed-out mother with all the millions of letters that they get (okay, maybe not the last one, but you get my point.). But it is safe to say that I know it is harvest festival, along with the hundred other things I know about; like my son's reading practice, and the phonics homework, and the permission slips I need to return, and the children's parties he is invited to, and the presents I need to buy. I know, I know.

I knew about the harvest festival when I bought some cans of food ready to take in. I knew about the harvest festival when the school sent home a label the day before for my child to write his name and draw pretty pictures on so he could pin it to his food. I knew about the harvest festival when my phone buzzed and reminded me of it. I knew about the harvest festival when I was half way to school and Simeon's mum said 'are you going to the harvest festival?' And I said "Oh, crap, I forgot the tins." and she looked at me with that face that says 'awkward', as the mass canned food she had brought spilled out slightly from the bag in the bottom of her youngest's push chair.

When I got to my son's classroom the side was covered with nicely wrapped hampers and huge bags of food for the homeless, all with beautifully drawn labels with pretty pictures on and smily faces 'love from Emily' 'I hope you like the food, love Harry'. My hope of rectifying the situation by nipping into co-op for a few tins of beans (basically anything I could carry with my youngest strapped to my chest) had not appeased the situation. I started to feel my palms sweat as I coyly asked the teaching assistant for a pen so I could write my son's name on the three tins I'd brought in; spaghetti hoops, beans, and some sort of minced beef in a tin that my son had chosen. She looked at me blankly. Of course she did, I mean, how simple is it to get your child to write his name on a bit of paper and collate it to a tin of beans? Hard, actually, when they would much rather be watching Umizoomi and you're trying to feed a ten month old his breakfast. I then realised I hadn't got a bag for the tinned goods, so I had to take my youngest's nursery things out of his to put them in. This resulted in me carrying random baby clothes and a toy elephant whilst trying to help my eldest to put his book bag in his drawer, whilst also trying to stop my ten month old grabbing at my hair and leaving me with a bald patch. I left a trail of baby socks and baby-grows on the classroom floor, having to manoeuvre between the other parents' legs to pick them back up. And I walked out looking like a washer woman, also carrying a loaf of bread that I had bought for ourselves along with the tins because I hadn't had time to go shopping, and I thought we deserved toast more than homeless people. Obviously.

On leaving the classroom my son was shouting something at me and I was too busy trying to gesticulate which his bag of tins was so he would know that I did in fact leave him some to take. I walked out feeling rather flustered, a shit mother and a bad citizen.

What my son was gesticulating to me was that he had a new teacher for the day and he was excitedly pointing at her and smiling. He pointed her out to me because this new development in his life was important to him. He didn't really care that I had left him cans or not as long as I listened to him. And I actually made it to his harvest festival today, and his little eyes lit up as he noticed I was there. He beamed at me with the most beautiful smile – and I knew in that moment that he knew I cared about him. And it's in those moments you have to give yourself a break and realise that what the teachers or the parents think of you doesn't matter – that it doesn't it matter that I forgot to make him write his name on a bit of paper because I spent time playing games with him instead; that it doesn't matter if I forgot to donate buns to the cake stall because I was too preoccupied thrashing him at Connect Four. Who decides that mothers and fathers need homework on top of it all too?

Now don't get me wrong, I totally appreciate that parents need to help their children to learn or to give them permission for school trips, and god forbid that we stop donating things to homeless people, but when there is more than one letter a day to keep filing away and updating your calendar from it gives me information overload and I forget things. I forget about the important things because I'm bombarded with unimportant things, like how the fish pie has been swapped for the fish cakes on the school dinner rota. Do I give a shit?! And maybe there are parents that do, but surely most would be happy to let their child choose what they want for lunch out of the selection of perfectly healthy options, and let them learn to make their own decisions. And I know how hard it must be for schools to try and organise school dinners, festivals and school trips, or to follow policies and curriculums, but there's a reason I did not become a teacher and have no desire to be one. Please don't give me homework too.

Newsflash: parents aren't just parents (which, and I don't care how cliché it sounds, we all know is a full time job in itself) – they still hold down other full time jobs, maintain relationships, pay bills, cook tea, clean... they have a life just like every other citizen. At what point did someone decide that it's okay to give parents a million other responsibilities, on top of caring for their children with all their heart? It's the equivalent of becoming a chef and then being told you ought to learn about botany because it is vaguely connected to your job and the ingredients you use. Does it make the dishes taste any better? No. In the same way that creating hampers or baking cakes doesn't make me a better parent.

I sorted through my son's book bag last night, and amidst the letters of dates and information overload was a little envelope that said 'mum and dad'. I opened it to read a little note he had written:

"I just love you."


It's enough.

We're enough.

We might forget tins of beans but we're enough.

And all the other (unimportant) letters went straight in the bin.

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Thursday 1 October 2015

Were you labelled a 'sponger' for taking maternity leave?

I got a taxi last week. Now I'm sure you couldn't give a damn how I get from one place to another, but bear with me. It seems that whenever I get into a taxi I partake in the usual 'polite' conversation with the taxi driver in true Peter Kay style: "are you busy?" And conversation ensues about very British things like the weather or the traffic or, if I'm in the taxi for more than ten minutes, issues about society today. The problem, though, is that although most taxi drivers are perfectly nice people, many have made me more aware of prejudices against women, and, more specifically, mothers. This is, of course, nothing to do with their profession and perhaps more to do with the fact that I am more likely to chat to a taxi driver than a bus driver or an office worker. 

While I was pregnant with my youngest child I took a taxi to the hospital. I had already walked the three miles to work that day so I was hardly going to put my swollen ankles through any more walking (which for the purpose of this blog post implies that I am not a lazy person). I explained to the taxi driver that I was going for a prenatal appointment and then we got talking about children, and it was all very lovely and civil until he asked me if I knew the sex of my child.

"A boy," I said.

"Oh, that's good," he replied,  "It's better to have a boy because he'll make something of himself." 

I'm sure his comment was harmless, in the sense that most ignorant comments are; they don't hurt anyone initially but create a chain reaction of perpetual sexism that we seem to be perfectly ok with. Yes, men still earn more than women, but are we happy to just accept this as the norm? If I had a daughter would I tell her that's just the way it is and she should simply wish to be born a male? 

On another taxi journey with a different driver, we got talking about various things; the weather, the traffic and holidays. He spoke about his frequent holidays around the world, mainly to America. We talked about how American citizens only get two weeks paid holiday. The taxi driver was very sympathetic (as someone who clearly took a lot of holidays) and I agreed and said how we're very lucky, especially as American women can't take as much maternity leave either. 

"Oh I agree with that!" He said, as his face turned from a jolly smile to one of disgust, "Women sponging off employers, it's unfair for small businesses."

"And so what do you suggest mothers do?" I asked. Clearly he thought I didn't have any children because I was on my way to a meeting, and maybe he thought mothers don't go to meetings or invest back into the economy they've been 'sponging' off. 

I have had a lot of people reflect this view to me about women on maternity leave and my view is not unsympathetic to small business owners, but that does not leave me without a voice as a mother who works very hard. People are quick to say their opinion but very slow to read up on the facts.

"How much salary do you think my boss had to pay for me while I was on maternity leave?" I asked 
"Oh, I don't know..." He said, looking as though he was calculating a figure too large to comprehend.
"Nothing." I said, cutting him short.
"Oh." He said, looking slightly surprised.

I continued to say how I had complete sympathy for my previous boss, after all, he had to find my replacement, albeit probably on less of a salary than me, and he had to cope with me going to appointments in work time and was very accommodating. But let's not start getting arsy with women for sponging off employers when employers don't actually have to pay them anything at all. 

The taxi driver felt sorry for people who have less holidays than him, yet he probably doesn't care if his employer pays for his privilege of having more holidays. He's just glad of the opportunity to go on holiday and get paid for it. So, you say, maybe I'm not sponging off my employer, but I'm sponging off the government? To be clear, the government pays 90% of a mother's wage for the first 6 WEEKS of her maternity leave, and £139.58 a week for the next 33 weeks (that's £558.32 per month for around seven months, should you choose to take it). Now I am extremely grateful for the money the government invests into mothers, and that's not so I could lounge around watching Jeremy Kyle. When I took my first maternity leave I was in a state of shock as to how hard it actually was to raise a child. I found myself desperate to get back to work (despite the fact I'd earn very little after childcare), not because I didn't love my son, but because it's bloody hard work. But I stayed at home with him for nine months because, for me, I felt it was important. I figured that nine months in the scheme of things, was a small investment into the security of a little baby who would grow up 'to make something of himself.' (And I'd say the same if he was a girl). For other mothers this is different but, in my case, I wanted him to have one family member around – and, as I earned less, it made sense to be me. 

So what can I do with £550 a month? That's not enough to cover my mortgage, let alone feed my family of four and pay for clothes and all those Costa coffees you think I'm out supping all day. I am grateful for a husband who supported me, but even so, we had to seriously clamp down on our finances. It doesn't sound much like sponging, does it?

On my latest (and hopefully last!) maternity leave I looked after my children in the day and spent nap times and evenings building up my portfolio and making contacts in order to start my own business. I did so because I am passionate about what I do (to make something of myself?) and it made sense to do so now because if I went back to work I would be earning next to nothing after childcare. I also wanted to be in control of my hours so I could do school drop offs and have a little time with my kids. Admittedly this means I often work into the early hours but this is the price I willingly pay. I do not complain about my lifestyle, but I'd like a little more respect than to be labelled a sponger.

We have an attitude in this country that if you're not working hard in a paid capacity you are of little worth. I challenge you to try and look after two children for the week and tell me a week in your work is harder (and that's not me moaning about how hard life with kids is, I'm just genuinely asking you to consider what it's really like). Unless you are extremely unfortunate, juggling three jobs and scrubbing toilet floors to survive, I would bet you'd find 'work' an easier option; less rewarding, maybe, but easier none the less. I look back at both maternity leaves as hard work. £550 a month is hardly going to buy me a car is it? Looks like it's another taxi fayre for me. 

So what's the solution for the government? Should we stop having kids? But who would raise the next prime minister or the next rocket scientist? Should we put our children into institutions? But who would provide enough love and security to raise people who are compassionate and self assured? That's not to say it can't happen through institutions, or that it's guaranteed through family, but for me I know only myself and my husband can offer our children a special bond that will give them a good start in life. I couldn't care less what job they do as long as they have a good work ethic. I couldn't give a shit how much money my sons earn as long as they are kind.

So why are we so adverse to supporting mothers? Why do we value it less than paying an extra two weeks a year for people to go to the Bahamas? Why do we belittle women and tell them they are spongers and that they will never make anything of themselves, simply for having ovaries? I work bloody hard and I don't actually know many mothers who don't. In fact, most mothers I know are the hardest working people I've ever met, so don't give me any crap about how all mothers are spongers or that I don't invest back into my economy. Now excuse me while I go to another meeting.
...Taxi? I think I'll catch the bus.

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