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. 

Friday, 21 April 2017

My newborn hates being swaddled

Swaddling used to be the 'standard' sleeping aid for a newborn. Then the SIDS research brigade who want to ruin everything that could possibly help new parents get some much-needed shut eye said swaddling was a SIDS risk. So now midwives don't recommend swaddling. Whatever, we got a swaddle sleeping bag as a gift, and Anna's startle reflex wakes her up at unpredictable moments unless she's wrapped up tight at night. She kind of looks like Frodo after he's been stuck with poison by Shelob, I don't like it, but it's the only reason she sleeps more than 40 minutes. 

But god damn, she hates that swaddle. Baby loves swiping with her newly-discovered arms, the swaddle is a prison of parental convenience.

Here's a recreation of how our early morning routine goes. This typically takes place any time between 4am and 7am. 

Baby: I hate swaddle *struggles and tries desperately to get out of swaddle*
Me: Oh, but you love swaddle. Here, I feed you.
Baby: Oh ok, but I really do hate swaddle *some non-committal attempts to get out of swaddle*
Feeding ends, baby goes back asleep with swaddle slightly looser than before, perhaps a little hand is gentle creeping out of the top.

-30 minutes pass-

Baby: I hate swaddle *struggles with greater urgency*
Me: Here, I feed you.
Baby: *Struggles with greatest level of urgency*
Me: Ok, I take it off.

-Baby wriggles, does extreme stretching for several minutes, vomits liberally all over self -

Rinse, repeat.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Week 6: the struggle is real

Week 6 of our life with Anna was really hard. All the work I'd done to get to a state where I was 'managing' unraveled before my eyes, and I was once again crying at 1am, 2.30am, 4am, 5am etc. It's actually scary what just a few nights of little sleep can do to a person.

Some people live in the past. I, however, project my worries into an imagined future. So, when our little baby who was sleeping for 2.5-4 hour stints from about three weeks began waking up every 40 minutes, or not settling at all, I freaked out. I imagined that that was it, I had broken the tenuous balance of 'just enough' sleep, that it was my fault and we were going to spend the next 12 months getting up on the hour. 'But I need to finish my PhD', I sobbed to myself. 

I knew week 6 is a huge developmental milestone for a baby. Anna was going through some serious stuff - all that growing and figuring out is exhausting and scary for such a tiny human. Instead of acknowledging that it was an important phase, and she would grow out of it, I freaked out. I didn't see the good - how we'd successfully taken the train on our own and becoming more relaxed feeding in the wrap. I only saw the scary, uncontrollable things.

A lot of good came out of that week. Anna looks into our eyes with a face lit up with a big smile now. She gurgles and babbles. If you try to hold her on your knee she determinedly straightens her legs and 'stands'. She sits in her bouncer and watches curiously as I do things in the kitchen. Her eyes follow me or Leo around rooms. Can anything possibly beat that?

I'm writing this for the sake of providing a well-balanced account of my experiences of life with a newborn. I sometimes struggle. It's ok to struggle, but it's also important to put those struggles into context, into the catalogue of 'life experiences' and not blow them out of proportion. The most important thing to remember: if you freak out in the middle of the night and throw a huge strop, always remember to say sorry.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

5.5 weeks

Little Anna is nearly 6 weeks old. It's been the longest and the shortest of times I've ever experienced, and I'm sure she'd agree, if she could. 

Last Tuesday we reached a huge turning point. It seemed to happen in the blink of an eye -  my little sleepy-eyed newborn turned into a fully fledged human! I looked down at her, and she was gazing earnestly up at me, with her big eyes shining and alert. She's also started smiling and gurgling. As well as that, she's upped her limb-flailing considerably. Arms up in this 'champion' gesture after eating, legs kicking wildly whenever she's laid on the floor. Leo is particularly impressed by her strong legs.

I'm sure this doesn't sound like a huge deal, baby smiles, world keeps turning, but after weeks and weeks of giving constant care to someone to whom you might as well be a piece of toast or a chair, this is monumental. To have her suddenly engage with you, use her eyes to communicate in one of the very limited ways she can, is huge. It makes your heart swell and you cannot stop smiling, because this little baby finally acknowledges you. 

In other positive news, the possetting is beginning to taper off. Or maybe it hasn't, maybe I've become so used to being coated in a layer or regurgitated milk that my sense of proportion is entirely skewed. (Naw, I'm joking, it definitely has). This is seriously welcome, as cluster feeding (the horror!) has recommenced in the last two days.

For those not in the know, cluster feeding is intense periods of feeding (constant, it's constant) that accompany developmental milestones. You also get extra bonus fussiness, bouts of crying and general unreasonable baby stuff. I'm seeing a lot of reddening of the face, followed by some serious wailing. 

But you know what? It's totally cool. I am hoping and hoping that every passing day of fussiness, constant feeding, and every night of broken sleeps (although relative to some other babies I hear about, it's really nothing, I get at least 6 hours every night, she's really sound like that) means she's closer to being her best self. She's closer to being able to feed efficiently and quickly, closer to having a functioning digestive system, being able to lift her head up, getting fat and being the healthiest she can be. What's a few months of fussy baby, relentless feeding, puking and broken sleep, for a baby that is growing and learning and changing at such tremendous speed? Babies are total champions really. Well done, Anna. Well done.

Leo made this baby gym!
Anna particularly enjoys swiping at the heart shaped bells that make a nice jingling noise.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The one most important lesson I've learned about motherhood so far

I've been a mother for a grand total of 3 weeks and 4 days. So obviously that makes me some sort of expert. Ok, while I'm admittedly very new to this crazy life, I have had to do some major adjusting, as all new parents have to. It's been the fastest learning curve of my adult life. Having a newborn is really tiring, and, honestly, in those first few days, before they have any limb control, can't see or smell you properly, and aren't really reassured by you, it can be less-than-rewarding. All you have is the irrational love you feel, the hormones keeping you awake, and the expectations for the future.

I found myself losing my temper at night when I had to wake up, and my baby is actually really sound. She'll sleep for between 2 and 4 hours at a time at night. That's amazing, based on what I've read on The Google. She's generally really chilled out and accommodating. Right now she's sitting in her bouncer possetting gently all over her bib and making wonderful finding herself noises and chewing her hand. It'll probably be at least five minutes before I need to pick her up and give her cuddles again. That is amazing.

But it was tough, and I lost my temper frequently - at Leo, at the situation, at my own perceived failings. In those first few days I felt like Leo was a much better mother than me. The guy has boundless patience and never harbours resentment. I, on the other hand, was a Progesterone fulled monster, prone to bouts of tears that were not always 'isn't it so great that we did this' (although there were probably more happy tears than sad tears, such was the volume of happy tears I cried). 

I indulged myself and wallowed in the postpartum messiness for a bit longer than was probably fair, about two weeks. I gradually tried to integrate self-calming techniques into my habits so I would stop freaking out every time she puked on my top (about ten times a day, big deal, that's what wipes are for), or if her latch or the let-down was painful (in the early days I would grimaced, before I realised breathing in was a much better tactic than snapping at Leo).

I still lose it every now and then, especially when sleep has been minimal and it's late at night. I think fondly of the limitless naps of my pregnancy, being able to just lie there with nothing pending. But lately I've been reminding myself of one crucial thing, the point that makes all the tiredness and discomfort redundant.

She didn't ask for this.

My baby didn't ask to be brought into the world. And while I'm sure those 9 months in the womb were cushy beyond belief, coming out into all of this - learning to eat, use her lungs and grow her tummy and communicate, that's all hard work. Coupled with that, she can't see properly, tell us how she feels, or dictate anything about her environment. All she can do is cry and suck. So how could I hold her accountable? How could I be resentful of her waking up and wanting to be fed or cuddled? She can't help it if she pukes, her stomach is the size of a walnut. If she cries because she doesn't know what she wants, who I am to judge? 

I read a lot of online content where people complain about how tired they are, how frustrated they are with their baby's behaviour etc. I had my time to wallow, all 14 days of it, and I am so ready to cut my ties with that sort of thinking. It does no one any favours. Aside from those who have unplanned/unwanted pregnancies, the rest of us choose our path. We have months to mull it over, educate ourselves and prepare for the journey ahead. We go to classes, buy the little baby grows and get excited. We take pictures and savour the prospects. So I just remember that, when I'm feeling tired or low. I wanted this. I actively chose this. She didn't. She had no say in the matter. So my role now is to give her the best possible time I can before she can make choices for herself. Nothing more.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

The first three weeks

It’s been a rollercoaster, life with our little woman. Leo goes back to work tomorrow, bringing to an end the first phase of the postpartum period. For three weeks we’ve been living in a bubble – walks during the day, eating chocolate digestives by the packet, endless cups of tea, nighttime feeds, tears (so many tears) and trips to the Rotunda for one reason or another. It’s been, probably, the most transformative three weeks of our lives, at least since we went through this experience as newborns ourselves. It’s really amazing just how much time it takes keeping a tiny person ticking over. Breastfeeding has been one of the hardest things imaginable, I never would have thought it would have been such an overwhelming task. I’ll write more about that later, but all I want to say for now is that the support in Ireland, I feel is inadequate. I am a healthy and smart young woman, and the struggle I felt to establish breastfeeding with my baby almost drove me to quit the whole thing, and made me feel truly incompetent and helpless. But we got there in the end, we’re still getting there to be honest, but it get easier every day. Today we walked to Newbridge House in Donabate and I was able to feed her in the sling as we walked, a milestone for us.

If I could characterise the first week, it would be ‘struggle’. A huge struggle. I slept only a few hours, and Leo didn’t sleep many more. The problems all seemed to centre around breastfeeding, and we even thought we might have to spend a night in hospital on day 3/4. Luckily, Leo is a super human and devised an amazing feeding schedule on the advice of the doctor. He also let me sleep for a chunk of time, which saved me from breaking down altogether. The first days were made harder by two things – recovery itself (although by all means I had an excellent delivery, needing only a few stitches). I lost a bit of blood and was pale and feint for a few days. This made it hard to summon up the energy to do what needed to be done, but the hormones got me where I needed to be. My body was generally exhausted and sore from the whole thing. I went through the entire labour in one day, and that shock to the system was something indeed.  The second thing was the lack of preparedness. We realised Anna was a lot smaller than most of the baby grows we had, and the bibs were totally inadequate. We did a lot of fervent and too-small, uneconomical washes in those first days. I also didn’t realise how important simple things like a comfortable chair and a breastfeeding pillow would be. Eventually we all got the hang of changing nappies and feeding, and Anna began to thrive. For her one week birthday celebration, we had a cake.

Week two was a muddle of more of the same. We had a lot of visitors around, which was exhausting for me and stressful for her. The milk came in, which brought with it a sense of relief but also pain and confusion about what to do, and when. I attended a local breastfeeding support group and am looking forward to getting to know those ladies more. Our public health nurse came and weighed Anna, and gave us a lot of information about her development and immunisations etc. She was amazing and kind, it was a real reassurance. Somehow, in spite of the business, we managed to take our first train journey, have our first meal out (Korean), get some sleep, and keep the house in a reasonable state of cleanliness. I know the advice is to take it easy, let the house get messy and take care of yourself, but I have never been one to…take advice. No, not really, but I love having a clean space, it relaxes me and a relaxed mum is a relaxed baby.

Week three, here we are. Anna and I made it to our first meeting together (!), the service user forum at the Rotunda. It was a great experience, I am keen to share my suggestions and feedback on their maternity services, and it was great to initiative Anna into service user engagement at such a young age. We had her two week GP checkup, and she’s gained a good bit of weight, which is a huge relief. Last night we even got about seven hours sleep. Since she’s gaining weight I no longer feel like I need to rigorously get her up every 2-3 hours for a feed. If she can sleep 4, more power to her. The main thing getting me down is the posseting, which is constant. I have to change my top several times a day, and we’ve had quite a few explosions already. I hope she grows out of it soon. I knew babies peed and pooped a lot, the vomiting is something else altogether. Tomorrow will be a challenge – our first day home alone, but luckily after that it’s the weekend, and we get two full days with Leo before it’s back to the grind. I’m really looking forward to getting into our ‘real life’ routine. This is it, it’s her and me at home most of the week, with Leo in the evenings and on the weekends. I’m wondering how realistic it is to hope to get PhD work done so soon, but I’m up for the challenge!