Tuesday, 7 November 2017

'Oh why can't we start old and get younger?'

The experience of real butter will always remind me of my granddad.
Sitting at the table with the waxed tablecloth as old as time,
in their kitchen that always smelt faintly of gas.
There was always butter - Connaught Gold. Salty, creamy.
Just at the right temperature for spreading on fresh, seeded wholemeal bread.
I remember the taste, a layer of butter, a layer of tart blackerry jam.
I remember sitting there, savouring it, never wanting it to end.

I have the memory of it now, and it's as clear and real to me today as it was when I was 7, 8, 9.
Sitting in the kitchen, eating bread and jam.

I miss him.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

The far side of the postpartum experience: mourning, loss and recovery

It’s a really weird experience, going through pregnancy and having a baby. You foster that life that grows inside you and then it emerges into the world and continues growing. But for a long time it’s not independent of you – it relies on you for food, to keep it warm, to lull it off to the sleepy-world. Your baby is an extension of you, and you are an extension of your baby. And then, it begins to shift. Baby can move, baby begins to realise they are independent of you. Then baby begins to eat food. Real, solid, human food that anyone can feed her. She relishes this new set of experiences. Baby can crawl. Baby is growing up.

Somewhere along the way this story stops being about you as a pregnant body, you as a new mother. The bleeding stops, your stomach slowly and steadily decreases in size with each passing week. You can walk farther than a mile without needing a rest, you get to sleep. You aren’t craving sugar and carbohydrate all the time, your body has replenished the iron and zinc that it donated to the placenta. There are newer babies that replace your baby as the ‘new thing’ and that is beautiful too.

Somewhere along the way this story starts being about you again. You, and this other little human, this baby that is now independent of you, that can be cared for by a loving and well-meaning relative or a minder. She needs you, of course, but it’s not in that primal, biological ‘basic needs’ sort of way, more of an emotional support and a care-giver like anyone else could be.

And then, what are you? It’s been eight months of breastfeeding and naps-in-arms. On the outside, little has changed. It’s still breastfeeding and naps-in-arms. But a subtle shift has been tip-tip-tipping away the last few weeks. Fewer feeds, sometimes napping in the bed. More solid food. Trying to stand. The change now is taking place in your own body. A niggling change, as your body shifts once again.

Bodies are funny. Nothing happens suddenly, it’s all subtle thief in the night type stuff. You feel a little cramp here and there and feel the hormonal shift that you can’t really explain to anyone else. Your body is changing, again. You’re beginning to phase out of being a postpartum body, and back to being a regular (what does that even mean?) woman who has the capacity and the potential to do it all over again.

Matter has this impatient, eternal desire to perpetuate its own existence and to reproduce itself. It just wants to keep on keeping on. And you realise that your body is just a part of that bigger picture. It’s a funny thing, adjusting to all these changing roles. It’s a funny, emotional time. A time for grieving a loss, anticipating the return of an old friend, expectation and waiting. It’s a time for crying and not being able to say why. Of incomprehensible rage and a void of sadness welling up. A huge part of being a breathing, feeling body is the huge amount of feeling that it entails.

We don’t talk enough about the feelings. The feelings matter a lot. 

Monday, 18 September 2017

Some thoughts on 'the time will fly by'

It seems the 6 month+ version of 'is she a good baby' is 'make the most of it, the time will fly by'. It seems like all of a sudden strangers in the supermarket queue and middle aged people on trains are full of this wisdom. It's another one of these emotional cliches it seems everyone has internalised, and really, I have no idea why it's such a popular one. 

Firstly, experiences of time are subjective. Gretchen Rubin, who I love, has this mantra - 'the days are long but the years are short'. I get it, I love it, but I've never been a person who has found time to fly by. Honestly. Maybe it's because I've spent so much of my life working in numerous jobs, studying, working on hobbies, travelling back and forth to whatever place is 'home' or 'temporary home' or whatever, but time has never seemed to rush past. There is honestly nothing more agonising and slow than a 1 hour 40 minute Ryanair flight when your headphones are dead. Or 1 hour bus journeys twice a day. Or polishing cutlery. Or repeated the same movements week after week at the barre. Maybe I'm a total weirdo, but I've never felt the rush of time whizz through my outstretched palms, facing down my impending demise. Time is time, it's experienced in lots of different ways, but for me it never ever flies.

Secondly, there is a certain privilege in this testimony. Someone in a FB group posted a comic the other day and it went like this:

Mother and father are walking with baby. Mother pushes buggy. Father carries baby. 
Mother goes 'oh but it's such a long way and she's so heavy'. 
Father gushes 'one day she'll be too big to carry'. 
Father walks off into sunset with babe in arms, mother pushes stroller.

That's great, that's beautiful, but it's kind of bullshit. Why? Because babies are freakin' heavy, and my back and shoulders ache a lot of the time. It is totally central to the gendered inequalities of parenting in our society that the father in this comic is lauded as being some sort of bloody martyr while the mother wants the easy way out. I hold Anna and feed her and carry her about for about 8 hours a day. I love to put her down or better still, have someone else hold her. I can't wait for the day when she can just sit on a chair herself. 

Finally, babydom doesn't seem like all that much fun, guys. You pee yourself 10 times a day. You have to ask for absolutely everything you need, and you can't even customise your requirements. Why would I want my baby to stay in this suspended animation stage? I want her to flourish. To go to school, climb rocks, fall down, get back up, love and travel and cook and dance. I don't want her to be a baby for any longer than is absolutely necessary, for both her sake and mine. This is because babies are a hell of a lot of work, and also because I think she'd rather be a sentient being, squishy and adorable as she is.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

What it looks like, five and a half months of livin'

Five and a half months. Can you believe it? I can't. Sometimes I look at Anna and I'm totally floored by the fact that she exists. Every day her face looks a little different (I personally think she's starting to look a bit like me), every day her noises are a little more enthusiastic, her play choices more discerning. It's really crazy. 

Here's a few thoughts about it all:

How do I feel? I feel exactly the same as I did before. I don't really feel like 'a mother', I don't feel like any divine and sacred wisdom has been imparted upon me. I have a lot of lovely conversations about caring with mothers, grandmothers, aunties, people on the train or in the street. But when I'm without Anna, it's not as if I get knowing looks from other women, an 'I know you have experienced it'. It's weird, I feels I'm only a mother when I'm actively caring for Anna. Outside that, it's all a bit abstract. I don't think I know a whole lot about being a parent, I've only been doing it for the wink of an eye, and I'm constantly being challenged in new ways and having to renegotiate what exactly it is I'm about. I sort of feel like me, enhanced. Like I have this cool little buddy to come around with me and who I can explain things to. 

Caring for someone is so much more challenging and exhausting than I could ever have imagined. I breastfeed Anna, so 24 hours a day, I am on call. I wake up several times a night, if she needs a nap more often than not she needs to be fed to sleep. Recently she's been going through a phase of waking up every 2-3 hours. That's a lot. Being someone's sole source of sustenance is a big responsibility. It's time consuming, calorie consuming. It's wonderful and I don't regret it for a minute, but how on earth can a breastfeeding woman be expected to do so much, with so little support. That isn't a slight on the wonderful people in my life, that's a slight on our fragmented society. Caring for another little person is so tough when we live such solitary lives.

I think it's a good idea to slow down. I did lots of things in the first few months. We went to America, Sweden, the UK. I cleaned, a lot. I breastfed for about 7 hours a day (at least). I had an idea that I needed to go on with my life and take care of Anna. But that is too tiring, not least of all when recovering from pregnancy/labour. That's not to say I don't enjoy bringing her places where babies don't normally go. Proudly having her in a sling while I present at a conference, having her attend meetings, bringing her to conferences, libraries, the pub, Business Class flights. It's been really liberating to to break the mold, of keeping the baby hidden away unless it's pristinely dressed, silent and sleeping. Anna is as important as any adult and not only does she deserve to be present, but we can all benefit from having babies and children present in the things we do, to remind us of who we keep things going for (they are the future adults, after all), and that if a space isn't accessible for a woman and her baby (women do most of the caring after all) then maybe the space should be changed. But back to my original point. I'm tired, and I really enjoy spending time at home and going for long walks.  

To conclude: I enjoy caring for Anna a whole lot but it's very tiring and I sometimes wish I could press pause and have a break for like three hours. The presence of babies in public life is important. I am tired, but not very tired. A nice tired. Anna is a fantastic, joyful human. PhD, ha ha ha. Babies are better when they don't puke all over everything. Tummy time is a concept I never knew about before having a baby, but now dominates a lot of my waking life.

This post was very fragmented, but I think that represents what my life feels like right now: it's lots of little bits, half finished, all the time. But it's great.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Have baby, will travel

Anna is 21 weeks old (!!!!!) today! In her brief jaunt on planet earth Anna has travelled a lot. I mean really, really, a lot. All three of us are totally exhausted. We have been to:
  • Belfast (on a train - we did first class on the way up, standard on the way back)
  • New York (Aer Lingus - business class on the way over, economy on the way back)
  • Sweden (Norwegian - budget airline)
  • Newcastle/Durham (Anna and I travelled alone sans Leo, it was fine - Aer Lingus/Stobart Air over, Ryanair back)
  • Cork ( train down, car back)
Here's some stuff I learned on our travels:

Sure, the first time we went away I had a slight freak-out the night before, but after that it was fine. Plus, Anna was really young then and we were pretty much still in the 'I need to be strapped to you 24/7 phase' which made getting the headspace to plan packing hard. When we went to America we had access to a washing machine so we definitely packed way too much. By the time we were on our way to Sweden I had it down. Planning everything and giving yourself way too much time is essential with a baby because they will poop/sick/you will lose something at the last minute, and it's good to have a buffer. Always have a buffer.

Where you will sleep is very important
If it is too hot/bright or if the mattress you will sleep on with your baby is too soft, you will not sleep well. It is hard to function if you haven't slept well. Obviously. Try to take care of yourself first and foremost. You can't take care of anyone else if you aren't your best self.

My baby still hates the car
Anna doesn't enjoy being strapped in in the car. This means we just avoided cars as much as possible. Public transport was our friend, and when we needed it, taxis (and a few times, the car). Enduring the screams has probably aged me +5 years. We drove home from Cork and she cried a lot. I found it really hard. At 4.5 months, she still really resents being strapped down (don't we all, love). I hope she gets used to it. 

Pack light
Easier said than done when you've an intensely pukey baby that requires multiple costume changes a day. But honestly, just having hand luggage (it is possible!!) saves time and hassle. Everyone packs too much anyway, you know it's true. I've pretty much accepted I may not be able to read a physical book for another few months, but with a pair of headphones I listen to podcasts every day. Plus, headphones take up basically no room.

It's easy to be happy when you're rich
You know those middle-class English families you see on trains with well-behaved children and a smiling, relaxed demeanour? They're happy because they're calm, their lives are ordered and they've got money. Paying more for extra space on a plane or train, being able to go by car (I guess, if your baby doesn't hate the car) and having people be nicer to you because you're going business makes a huge difference to your mood. We were really lucky to get Business Class (first time, probably the last time), and actually First Class on the train was totally affordable. Having that extra space, but also the extra attentiveness of staff was amazing. It was, of course, angering too because everyone should be very kind always, and this kindness is especially lacking when you find yourself back in economy.

How people behave towards you makes a huge difference
On my flight over to Newcastle I was sitting beside a man who was expecting his first baby. He was quite emotional to be beside such a little and excited baby. He was chatty and kind. On the way home I was sat next to a man who refused to even acknowledge us, even though Anna kept smiling at him. I found, every time someone made eye contact with Anna, wished us well, or offered to carry something, it elevated my mood. If we were ignored, pushed in front of, or spoken to rudely, it made my mood sink a little. Having people be kind to you makes such a difference when you're out there in the world with your baby, especially without a partner. You're quite vulnerable at times and do need an extra pair of hands and a smile from a stranger.

It's your (and your baby's) right to travel. Don't feel embarrassed
I had a few people (I guess ones who don't have children) make snarky comments about us travelling with a baby. But at the end of the day, Anna is a human being, and has the right to use public transport just as much as anyone else. As well as that, to assume that babies shouldn't be in public places is to render their mothers (generally) invisible too. Babies are wonderful. Sometimes they cry, or coo, or scream, or laugh. But, hey, so do adults. Babies should be seen and heard, it's normal and good, and exposing them to new things from a young age is great for them. We were all babies once. Look at Donald Trump, he still is one.


It's such a huge privilege to not only have the means to travel, but to have a passport that means we can take Anna anywhere we can afford to go. When she's older, I will have to explain that a lot of children in the world can't do that. We're very lucky, and we shouldn't forget it for a second.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The myth of the Good Baby

The question I am most frequently asked is about my baby is - 'is she a Good Baby'. What is this supposed Good Baby? Well, it's inferred that a Good Baby sleeps 'through the night' (what does that mean, anyway?), doesn't cry too much, but also should cry sometimes because that's a good sign, feeds enough to be gaining weight but isn't 'on the boob night and day'. A good baby is the stereotypical configuration of all our worst, most selfish and scientifically void expectations of a tiny human. 

How can so many demands and expectations be made of such a tiny, flawless and perfect human being, so unblighted by the rules and fancies of culture and convention, gender roles and glass ceilings? A baby is a baby, and a baby just is. If it cries, it cries. If it sleeps, it sleeps. If it doesn't, it's because it isn't born with the innate ability to regulate it's sleep habits. Sometimes it will cry without a specific identifiable reason and all you can do is hold it close and love it. That's not bad.

In the Christian tradition, babies are baptised so that they can be absolved of Original Sin. It used to be that babies who died before baptism went to limbo/purgatory, but then the Catholic church reneged on that idea. All those poor babies who were just floating out in space were granted their rightful place in heaven then, I suppose. It's many years since I've believed in sinners or sins, and I've never believed that a tiny human, so innocent and impulsive, is capable of being anything other than good. 

Now, Anna does actually sleep pretty well, and smiles at strangers and stops crying when her need is met. But if she didn't, and if my future children don't do those things, is it right to call them Bad Babies? Is there some sort of bad baby bootcamp where they learn to sleep for 12 hours straight, never do poo-splosions and coo sweetly upon waking, not cry out for their mother who is not in the room, therefore is not currently in their world?

If we could just cut out this nonsense about bad babies, like we should about women being delicate or 'hormonal', periods being embarrassing, maybe women would be able to chill out, enjoy their experience as mothers, and love their baby for who they are and not what society says it should be.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

The fourth trimester comes to an end

They say that human infants are born too early. Some of the least developed of all mammals at their birth, you won't see them standing up after a few hours like a foal, or leaving their mother for the wide world after a few days. Human babies are frighteningly fragile and dependent for a very long time. 

The Fourth Trimster is the term used to describe the first three months of a tiny human's life. In this time they are so helpless. They need you for everything. At the start they cannot move much, have no circadian rhythm to speak of, have tiny stomachs that need filling constantly, and can't tell who you are much more than recognise your smell. I was unprepared for just how alone my baby seemed in the first few weeks. I felt mournful for her. I felt bad for bringing a tiny human out of her comfortable dark place and into a world of smells, noises, discomforts. 

When Anna was 5 weeks old she looked up at me with big eyes and smiled a big smile as we nursed. That was the most definite sign of forward progress. During our Fourth Trimester we did all those things they call 'attachment parenting' that I just call being a decent adult to an infant you gave birth to. I wore her in a sling, she slept near by and gradually just beside me. I fed her around the clock, whenever she seemed even the slightest bit restless. I never let her cry if I could help it, because there was no need. She slept in my arms during the day, and we were never apart.

I kept her close to me at all times, at first, gradually introducing more people into her life so that now, at 12 weeks, she spends several days a week being held and talked to by various relatives and friends. I want her to feel part of a wider unit than just her immediate family, so this feels like a natural step. It's also important for my sense of self. I don't want to be the only person who can make my baby happy. Knowing she can feel safe around other people is crucial because I want to be a lot of things, not just a mother (although that's a Very Important Thing). 

Now here we are. Standing at the edge of a new place, a wide open space full of light and rolling grass. This is the future. Anna isn't a tiny, helpless newborn anymore. She's a little baby, three months old, who lies on the ground and kicks and swipes. She smiles and gurgles at anyone and everyone. She sleeps with her arms above her head, loves when her dad holds her stretched out. She's growing so much, and will continue to do so at breakneck speed until my little baby is able to do all sorts of incredible things. 

Becoming a new parent is scary as hell, but I'm sure being born is too. We now look forward to what's to come with impatient anticipation. 

Here's to the future, with love.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Postpartum reflections: 10 weeks on

When Anna was just brand new I was trying very hard to convince myself that everything was already fine. 'Act the way you want to feel' just doesn't work when you've given birth, unfortunately. We did a lot of cleaning, I made sure I had multiple 'I'm fine, see, I even have to shower' showers, I generally moved around a lot and rested a little. I really didn't sleep much that first fortnight, and by nighttime every day I was blubbering all sorts of nonsense. All in the name of wanting to be on top of things before I could even realistically know what those things might be.

Now Anna is 10 weeks old and I'm finally allowing myself the time to recover. My body is tired, so tired. Bits and pieces aren't what they used to be, and making sure the bed doesn't have any puke on it isn't going to fix that. I need to give myself time. I've been enjoying going out and about with Anna more. We went to the cinema, met friends in town, went shopping. We baked a cake for Leo's birthday, relaxed on puke-covered sheets. We take day-naps together now. I rarely shower. I can also do things that feel liberating. Last week I did potatoes while breastfeeding in a sling. I also left the dishes for hours and didn't feel bad about it. We didn't go to the shops and I didn't change out of my pajamas. It was glorious.

Today we went to IKEA and I realised I can't really push a full trolley right now. My abdominal region is an absolute disaster. Anna is feeding less frequently now that she's bigger and that's left me feeling achy and uncomfortable. I felt like I'd been transported back to the first week, 3/4 days in, when the milk was coming and I was a mess. I got an email for the fitness classes I did antenatally, to join the postnatal group. I laughed and deleted. Who are these women who, six weeks on, can do squats and lunges and burpees? I feel, physically, like a wrung sponge. If I do anything outside of lots of walking and stretching, it'll be some relaxed pilates. I'm laughing at my past self who thought she would be able to jump right back into things. My days of planks might be a distant memory. 

We're growing into each other, and I'm giving myself time. Learning such a significant new addition is all-consuming, She's an amazing human and helping her grow is unbelievable. Time. We need to just give it time.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Baby's first weekend away

This weekend we took Anna to Belfast for her first ever trip away from home. It was a roaring success. The weather was beautiful, we were in First Class on the way up (oooh la la), we had three totally unnecessary and glutenous courses at Pizza Express (does anyone ever not use a voucher there?) I finally chopped my hair, and we had a brilliant bath/junk food/trashy tv blowout in the evening. Absolute heaven. Doing everything with Anna feels very emotional and significant, I know I'll remember this weekend forever.

I had been a bit apprehensive about how travelling with a baby might go, but it was a total dream. If anything, I was the party pooper (labour is really hard work and my body is far from it's best self = walking a lot is very hard work these days and I have all sorts of emotions). Because newborns basically just sleep, eat and smile up at everybody, Anna is super-portable, and breastfeeding means she can be instantly calmed down. 

No worries, happy baby, happy parents. 

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Domino midwife-led care at the Rotunda: a first time mother's experience

From September through to March when my baby was born I was registered with the Domino scheme at the Rotunda.  Prior to that I was living in the UK so I was getting my antenatal care solely through the NHS. I was really keen to have my birth experience as midwife-led as possible. I am uncomfortable with the medicalisation of childbirth and pregnancy and know midwives to be more than competent when it comes to the excellent work they do helping women to give birth. 

I wanted that experience for myself especially as, faced with the prospect of giving birth in Ireland, I was very worried about the implications of religious influences on healthcare (and the rhetoric about the 8th Amendment, quite frankly, had me scared senseless, something which was unfounded, I came to realise). As it turned out, the Domino scheme was just right for me. The midwives were at all times professional and caring, and the early release from the hospital was exactly what I wanted. Their postnatal care was an absolute godsend. That being said, there were some issues I had with the scheme, mostly from an organisational point of view, and I will discuss these too.

What is the Domino scheme?

Domino is midwife-led antenatal and postnatal care 'in the community'. For low-risk women there is the option of attending a health centre in the local area to have checkups with midwives. This means you can avoid going into the busy and often frenetic Rotunda outpatients for your checkups, which are frequent. If you need any specific checks, you can just go into the Rotunda and a Domino midwife will do what needs to be done. I had to go in for an extra ultrasound to check baby wasn't in breach (she wasn't, she just had a big bum that felt like a head!) and she just told me at 11 am that morning to meet her there at 2 pm, and I was in and out within ten minutes.

Postnatally, a community midwife will visit you for up to a week. I can only speak for my own experience, but the midwives checked mysutures (stitches for tears, most women will tear a little), checked my mental and physical wellbeing (a bit ironic really, the time you need the most sleep and rest is the time of your life you will not get it), weigh your baby (crucial in the early days), and offer breastfeeding support (latch latch latch, ladies).

The Domino midwives also have a mobile number you can ring 8am-8pm and while they don't always answer it (high demand) I was able to reach them a number of times for specific information.

Getting on the Domino scheme

I called the Rotunda in advance to ask about the scheme. The website didn't mention Killester, the area I was living in Dublin 5, but I was really relieved to hear that I would be covered. In fact, we moved just before the birth, to Donabate, Co. Dublin, and again the midwives were happy for me to continue my Domino care. Luckily, they have a clinic in Swords which is nearby. At my booking appointment I inquired about the Domino scheme and was referred to the Darndale clinic from that point on. 

The practicalities of the Domino visits

I attended the Darndale clinic because I was told it was heavily undersubscribed (territorial stigma, eat your heart out).  I found the process to be wonderful. Since I am a PhD student it was no problem to have my appointments in the morning, so the Darndale clinic suited me better than, say, Coolock which were all in the evening.

I would cycle over for the appointment around 10am (I received a reminder text the night before) and combine some exercise and fresh air with the visit. The queuing system was somewhat disorganised, you took a number but there wasn't really any connection between these numbers and the midwives, it was just for us women to organise ourselves. It felt quite typically Irish, to be honest, and added to the feeling of confusion on my first visit, when I sat for over an hour waiting.

The appointments usually last between 10 and 20 minutes. Your urine is tested (when you're pregnant you pee in containers constantly), blood pressure checked, maybe a blood sample taken if you have low red blood cell count. Then you stomach is palpated and the midwife listens to baby's heart. There's always the opportunity to ask questions, and the midwives seemed to really cater their care to how they perceived my preferences to be. For example, I asked a lot about natural birth options, whether a Doula could be brought in (no, basically) etc. so I was recommended hypnobirthing a number of times.

You take your own medical file and keep it at home, which made me feel more involved overall.

The good and the bad

The maternity services in Ireland, like the health sector in general, are not the most efficient. That being said, during my antenatal, birth and postnatal care, I received a highly professional and caring service from all midwives and doctors. My only sources of stress stemmed from the administration of the care (breastfeeding support aside, but I will address that in another post). Unfortunately, how the system is structured really does affect how you will receive your care, so the two cannot be separated.

The 'goods' were plentiful. I received amazing care for highly qualified individuals, and got the opportunity to educate myself through antenatal classes and researching for and writing a birth plan. The appointments were convenient and short, and the clinic was quiet and not stress-inducing (the Rotunda, on the other hand, was very stress-inducing for me).

The bad - Postnatally, the midwives visit your home for up to a week. However, they don't give you a definite time-frame, it could be any time of the day. This uncertainty, coupled with a new baby, no sleep, recovery pain and a messy house, does nothing for your mental wellbeing. I was woken from brief naps several times by the buzz of the doorbell. A little forewarning of, for example, a three hour window in which they might call would have made all the difference. 

As mentioned above, the queuing system and general atmosphere behind the midwife's door was often chaotic. I don't like to be rushed, especially when I'm concerned about aspects of my care, or just really really confused, as I often was (hey, there's a lot to learn first time round). Depending on the midwife I met, we could either go through all my questions in detail until I was satisfied, or I could end up feeling, frankly, fobbed off. I persevered and eventually I got all the information I needed, but I do understand why many women end up being unprepared for their births and why misinformation abounds and intervention rates are so high.

Final thoughts

That the Domino scheme exists and operates so successfully is a huge credit to the maternity system. I would love to see a shift towards this type of care as standard. It would unburden the Rotunda hospital to an extent, and make life easier for women. If you value midwife-led care and the convenience of attending appointments nearer your home, and if leaving the hospital shortly after giving birth (I left 20 hours after delivery) is something you want, the scheme is really useful. Having a midwife visit your home is so handy, especially in the early days of breastfeeding.