Friday, 16 December 2016

Unexpected Loneliness of New Motherhood

There's that lovely moon again, a kindly face watching over her sleepy brood. Awake for another nocturnal milk feast, I treasure these simple moments of just baby, moonshine and me, but those first months of motherhood were tinged with loneliness - a surprising predicament that I hadn't prepared myself for.  I associated loneliness with the elderly and the bereaved.  What right did I - a healthy, mobile person, with a family and a home- have to complain of loneliness?  Encouraged by similar experiences shared on social media (see Channel 4's special loneliness season). I finally feel able to share my thoughts on this wonderful and challenging chapter.

Photograph: Amal Hirani
Why was new motherhood so lonely?

1. The Monologues.  I went from teaching full time in a secondary school, talking with hundreds of people a day, to being alone with my newborn, nine hours a day, everyday.  Sure, we 'chatted' in our own way and those delightful smiles and gurgles went a long way, but I would yearn for my partner's return, that wonderful moment of hearing the key in the lock.  Of course, I have a phone, but people weren't always available for that rare window when I wasn't feeding, changing, bathing or settling him to sleep.

2. Physical Discomfort.  My partner's paternity leave flashed by in a pain-killing haze of stitches, engorged leaking breasts, haemorrhoids and post-birth bleeding.  I dreaded his return to work; I still felt so broken.  For me, breastfeeding didn't really become comfortable until the fourth month.  Staying at home in greater comfort, attempting the perfect latch was the better option.  Loneliness was the price I paid.

3. Mental Anxiety.  I'd like to think of myself as outgoing and confident.  New motherhood found me lacking in this self-assurance and I hadn't yet learned to trust my instincts. I dreaded social occasions, becoming panicky in large groups.  Having always been a confident speaker, I was now rather sullen and if I did say something, I would usually regret my contribution.

4. Exhaustion.  It's hardly a news flash, but the regular night feeding is tough.  Everyone tells you to sleep when your baby sleeps, but it's not that straightforward.  For the first week, my adrenaline was so high, that all I wanted to do was to stare at this tiny human, this miracle of life.  He'd only really properly sleep on me, or my partner, which is lovely, but after the SIDs warning, I was petrified of squashing him.  This new level of tiredness made socialising impossible.  Again, it was better to be lonely than face the world.

5. The Mission of Leaving the House. My parents visited when they could and weekends usually brought family and friends.  But in the day-to-day, fresh air and conversation were the best remedies for loneliness, but that meant taking everything necessary for nappy changing, feeding, leaking, soiling, thirst, hunger, cold, warmth, rain and sun.  I would have preferred to use a baby carrier, but I quickly developed mastitis if I walked too far with our little one pressed against me.  We did have a pram but to avoid the crying, I usually ended up carrying him and pushing the buggy one-handed.  Our local station had too many steps to take a buggy and the 'Mind the Gap' warning suddenly provoked real fear.  The tradition of confinement in some cultures seemed like a good idea.

6. Fear of Rebuke. I cared too much about what people thought and wanted to be regarded as a 'good' mother who had her shit together.  If my baby suddenly started crying in a shop, I'd quickly want to soothe him, but also not to attract negative attention.

7. Isolation. Few of my friends had children and my family all lived a train or plane away.  Because of numbers 2-5 above, making new mum-friends wasn't easy. I really wanted to meet other mums. I was astounded at what all mothers had endured to bring new life into the world and enraged anew at how maternal strength had been dismissed by the patriarchies of history.  I wanted to know their stories and share my own. Playgroups or baby classes were good options, but could be very hit and miss. Some were very unfriendly and didn't even ask your name, some were brilliantly led and gave you tea and cake.  In the early days, the few I went to were rather rubbish where I paid £8 to feed and change my baby amidst the chaos of a baby sensory disco, next to nannies who stared at their phones.

8. Routines.  I did make some lovely new mum-friends, but hanging out wasn't always possible. Their babies actually slept in stationary buggies; my little one would need walking outside in a sling.  My spirited wide-eyed baby would usually be too distracted to feed out and about; my friends mostly bottle-fed and could feed and pause without their rejected leaky boob hanging out.  Conversation would go between how much milk the babies drank, sleep times and weight percentiles.  I never really knew and would often return home feeling like I was doing everything wrong. 

My experience was very mild compared to other new mums.  Moreover, it was only when I was alone with my baby that I truly got to know him.  By the time my first baby was six months old, I was more confident to mix with the world. I've now got two little boys and despite moving to a new area, I've not experienced that same intense loneliness again.  I've regained my self-confidence and have learned to trust my instincts.  I've made new friends at playgroups and playgrounds and it's my chatty confident toddler who now makes the introductions.  If I see a parent who's also braved leaving the house, I try to make the effort to say hello as it's far too easy to ignore everyone else once you've found your clique.  But sometimes, we don't leave the house, or my only adult chat is with the check-out cashier, but that's ok these days because it's the price we pay and we'll soon hear that key in the lock before bath time.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Winter Lethargy and Advent Joy

We had almost given up on winter.  The heavy artillery of chesty coughs had begun its offence.  Sore throat patrols left no tonsil untouched; runny nose gangs rampaged in their wake.  The eldest was dosed up on Calpol and the baby's chest smeared with snuffle-balm.  It took a ninja's speed and a pianist's dexterity to wipe the snot streaming from the little noses.  "No, Mummy.  No wiping.  Put it back."  After a few indoor days to recover, it was time to emerge into the world again.

Leaving the house with two tots is challenging enough, but by winter, the effort is near-impossible.  It takes a whole morning of ebullient positivity, chattering about all the fun things to do in the cold; precision timing to ensure the baby is fed, changed and layered up; expert persuasion to will the toddler into woolly layers and waterproofs; a scout's preparation to have pockets stuffed with snacks, drinks, tissues, gloves and keys... where are the keys..?! And then I've missed the narrow 'get out the door' window: baby needs feeding/changing again and playgroup will be finishing soon anyway.

Hibernation seems like a better idea, curled up and snuggled down for weeks on end: safe, warm and cosy. The depressing daily news and shaky political climate make indoor time a more attractive option anyway.  The world seems hostile and I gather my little ones into the warmth of the sofa-den.  The elder echoes my mood: "stay at home, stay at home," his rosy nose glistening in the electric light.  We're lucky to have a warm home to enjoy, I think, with food, toys, books, TV.  I'm feeling so tired too, yawning just on cue.  Okay: maybe just one more day at home.  One more.

Then Advent begins and with it a renewed duty to my family to get out the house.  Having failed to get an Advent calendar, I need to think on my feet.  We've got a little Christmas tree but it's fairly bare, awaiting hand-me-down decorations.  I imagine that pine cones might look ok, so I scribble a note behind a big number 1, cut from an old Christmas card: collect and decorate pine cones.  Sealed in an envelope and dropped on the doormat, he discovers it the next day- in spectacularly dazzling sunshine, fit for this magical month: "look Mummy!" And then the miracle happens, he gets his boots and his coat and his hat and his gloves and with our little baby bundled to my chest, fed, changed and layered-up, we set off on the hunt.

Each step on the crunchy frozen grass shakes off our lethargy.  We look up at the various trees, peeping above the rooftops and try to find some green amongst the spidery barren branches.  After a morning of cheerful marching, my boy attempting random conversations with any passer-by and pine tree spotting, we locate our bounty and spend the afternoon with PVA glue, glitter and ribbon.  Inspired, I scribble another note for day two: find some holly and we become arborists, locating the spiky trees, laden with toxic-red berries.  We even make a wreath from a coat hanger, to display proudly on the door.  Day three receives a special visit from Granny and Granddad who give our Advent quest to find a donkey more energy than a double caffeine shot, braying and singing all the way to the zoo.  Day four's draw a robin forces us out again for red cheeks and stomping, singing and searching. By day five, we've become an outdoor family, living in muddied boots and chunky knitwear, with permanently rosy cheeks and wild woolly hat hair.

And then it's day six, find sticks to make a star, and disaster looms: "No mummy.  No more numbers".  We just about manage a little stroll in the fog: a mini miracle that we left the house at all.  I end up having to carry my two year old on my back with the younger in a carrier on my chest.  Just enough twigs are harvested in a desperate act of determination to make this count.  A few hours and tantrums later and I'm sat at the kitchen table, still struggling to tie the dank crusty sticks into a star shape.  The baby's getting bored in the Jumparoo while the older one finishes off yet another 'Andy's Dinosaur Adventure', having lost interest ages ago.  This wasn't the plan.  I momentarily rest my head in my hands and can hear my toddler rummaging in the cupboard.  I look up as he leans on my leg, to see that he's put the yellow cone part of a lemon squeezer on his nose: "I'm a pelican.  More numbers on the door mat?"  By bedtime, he's gone off to look for more envelopes four more times.

I'm glad I forgot the Advent calendars, otherwise we wouldn't have a chain of festive numbers ascending along the fireplace, the vacant string promising more: outdoor treasure hunts, crafting and random acts of kindness.  Advent has ushered us out into the world again.  A little blast of fresh air in the morning makes our cosy afternoons more relaxing, albeit making, baking, being a pelican or bingeing on CBeebies.  The runny noses seem to have magically cleared up too, a white flag in the face of Christmas: the season of possibility and joy.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Parenting in a New World of Walls

All a parent ever wants is a better world for their children, safe and full of opportunity.  Over generations, my family has gradually bettered themselves financially and academically.  On my dad's side, he was the first to attend a university, juggling school work with weekend shifts at his parents' fish shop.  On my mum's side, daughter of a Punjabi Civil Servant, her grandfather travelled on a dhow across the Indian Ocean to find new opportunities in British East Africa; her parents had emigrated on British Passports to escape Idi Amin's racial purification programme in 1972.  My childhood was happy and comfortable in bucolic charm, with a colour television and piano lessons.

I was twelve before I really understood racism.  Growing up in Tory Lincolnshire, the current hotbed for Farage's Brexit fans, I was aware of being a little different:  I had a Granny and a Naniji; I worshipped in a Church and in a Gurudwara and my mum sent me to my friend's pyjama party in a salwar kameez- an etymological master move ("pajama" is Hindi for loose trousers).  At age seven, I heard the school bully, eleven-year-old Walker, call my brother a "brownie".  Misunderstanding his meaning, I proudly interfered, stressing that I was a Brownie and my friends are Brownies, too.  My gang of Girl Guides then chased the offender around the school field, rudely chanting "Walkers Crisps".  Later in detention with my shamed face against the wall, the racial slur swept under the carpet, the Headmaster simply concluded, "Well, Walker, you're hardly a Golden Wonder".  

My plucky confidence was undone by one single incident at high school.  I remember walking alone down the corridor at lunchtime.  Up ahead were a group of boys, but it was fine because some were from my primary school and I'd even been at one boy's tenth birthday party, joked with his mum and eaten pizza in their kitchen.  That same boy gestured at me and as I smiled, he sputtered, "Paki".

Wounded, I gave no rebuttal and quickly walked along the corridor that seemed to go on forever, bursting into tears as I finally turned the corner.  It'd never occurred to me that I was so different to him.  I felt humiliated by this loaded word; my ego was shattered.  I felt unwanted, exiled from my hometown, my place of birth.  A friendly face found me at the end of the corridor and ushered me off to the Head's office.  Later, I silently accepted a muttered apology, but I couldn't meet his eyes.  The matter was closed, but I have never forgotten that moment.

If the Head had been a known favourite of the KKK and Neo-Nazi party, would there have been an apology, a consequence, or would I have had to accept the abusive language of fear and division.  Would we have studied race, abuse and identity in Literature?  Would the History syllabus include Apartheid, American Civil Rights and the evils of European Fascism? Would we have been so sure that the future could be free from prejudice?

Twenty years later, we are a generation on and we feel lucky to be able to build on our ancestors' hopes of raising children in a better world: freedom of religion, LGBT rights and instant global communication.  Our two little boys have a mixed heritage from England, Kenya, Tanzania and India; Sikhism, Christianity and Islam, but what defines them more is their delight in the moon and the stars, swings, trains and dinosaurs.  To have openly xenophobic leaders is an uncomfortable truth and our path forward is suddenly unclear and frightening.  For the sake of our children, all children, we have to speak up against hatred, smile at strangers and perform random acts of kindness.  Little by little, we can dismantle the walls (or fences) of fear and make the world a welcoming place.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Super Loon

Like many in the world, I've found it hard to see a bright future with Mr President-Elect waiting in the wings. The romantic-comedy of Mr O's two terms is set to transform into a full blown tragedy: lunacy fuelling tyranny.

The task of bringing up two little boys into this new world suddenly got a lot harder. The democratic election of a self-professed molester has legitimised the sexism that we are fighting against.  The teaching of respecting women and men equally has always been necessary, but the weight on our shoulders just got a lot heavier.  I talked at length to both boys about the importance of gender equality, fair pay and how to be a true gentleman in all situations. At only two years old and five months young, I'm not sure how much they took in. But even without my guidance, my toddler already knows that his Duplo granny can drive the Duplo tractor just as well as the male farmer figure that came with it; the little Duplo girl who accompanied the gardening set can also fix the train just as well as the cap-wearing boy on the picture. When giving out pretend tea and food to his various soft toy picnic guests, all get an equal share of whatever imaginary delight is on offer.

Our boys may well see their Papa leave for work every weekday, but they also see him making morning cups of tea for the family, changing nappies at the weekend, cooking dinner when he can and folding the laundry.  They will also see their mum building intricate railway tracks, bowling a cricket ball and attempting keep-me-ups in the garden.

We should thank BBC's CBeebies for challenging our traditional expectations of gendered roles. Nina, the young female scientist, is the face of experiments, explosions and gadgets: a refreshing change to the bespectacled older white gentleman. In Andy's Dinosaur Adventure, Andy is the  young enthusiastic museum worker who is apprentice to Hattie, the older female dinosaur expert, a revered Doctor in Paleontology and courageous global fossil hunter.  Footy Pups is hosted by the talented star of  English women's football, Rachel Yankey OBE.  The Pirate Captain on the popular Swashbuckle game show is also female, a welcome alternative to the tired and worn out image of the Doctor Who- like relationship of the experienced and educated older male figure to a young, usually very attractive, female side-kick. Even Shakespeare had already started to challenge these gender roles with strong female powers on the stage: Titania, Olivia, Lady Macbeth as well as the historical Cleopatra and Elizabeth I, all with their younger respectful male servants. It's a shame that the Miss Universe-owning Business Tycoon and next US President seems oblivious to the worth of women beyond his own carnal satisfaction.

Pro-Trump women on a discussion panel on Radio 4's Women's Hour were asked whether they'd allow their daughters to work in Trump's office.  Their answers were resoundingly in favour of the idea, impervious to his proven track record, that makes a woman's worth limited to her attractiveness.  And some men would learn that that is acceptable, too. Calling women names like "pig, dog, slob, disgusting animal" would become commonplace, instructing other men on how to molest and over-power women and commenting on little girls' sex appeal will no longer be 'just' abhorrent "locker room banter" but discourse in the Oval Office.

Perhaps it's not so surprising that such political madness and lunatic Trump policies have coincided with the passage of the supermoon, the closest the moon has been to the earth since January 1948, the month of Mahatma Ghandi's assassination. The lunar effect on human and animal behaviour has long been tracked and analysed; law and enforcement report a rise in crime during a full moon and we all  know about werewolves.  I also find myself transfixed by the cratered face of the moon, periodically looking up to chart its rise from the ground to its zenith. My eldest stares out of the window and then bounces wildly on the bed, somersaulting and shouting "da moooooon".* Our baby's face turns to the warm glow of the east as the dusk sky darkens before bath time.

There's nothing like an enormous moon to bring you back down to earth.  The mighty moon has seen many triumph and fail, witnessed the creation and extinction of different species and is powerful enough to dictate the tides and correlate with the fertility cycles of womankind. Sitting aloft in his tower, Mr PEOTUS may well be in a commanding position of tyranny but he, like all of us, is a nobody in the eyes of the moon.  And if that isn't comfort enough, just know that the only trump that our toddler cares about is the funny sound and stinky smell that parps out of his bottom.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Wonder in mankind

Today was one of those perfect Autumn days.  Big cosy coats and woolly hats cocooned the little ones as the cold air rouged our cheeks.  The sun shone low through the trees; the crisp orange, yellow and red leaves crunched underfoot. The earthy smell of decaying leaves reminding us that winter is around the corner.

One of the many great things about becoming a mum is that you experience the world anew. Mundane objects become intricate gizmos as you try and answer the repeated "what's dat?" (potato peeler, measuring scales, dental floss). You can be moved to tears by the wonder of mankind's achievements as your child points out every aeroplane, waves at helicopters and cheers on every train. Basic science suddenly fascinates you again: magnets, fireworks, the sun going down and the shape-shifting moon coming up. The hope of a new generation getting to grips with the big wide world.

As well as such rediscovery, mankind seems more wonderful too. When you're flying solo, life's too busy to notice other people and you can manage by yourself perfectly well, thank you very much. However, there's something about having a little baby snug against your chest that makes total strangers smile at you.  For a fleeting moment, their kindly face connects with your contentment and there's a shared silent moment of simple joy in the world.  And you need those strangers, too.  While doing the shopping or posting a parcel, I'll also be pushing our snoozey toddler in the buggy while jiggling our baby to sleep in the sling. I am usually in need of an extra pair of hands and I am delighted to report that even without asking, shop doors are opened for us, hard to reach items are passed to me and particularly thoughtful humans have even offered to carry my heavily laden basket. When merely leaving the house can be such a major challenge, it's a relief to know that the world isn't such a bad place after all.

As Americans go out to vote today, whatever the potential outcome may be, I want to register my good fortune to live in a place that shows everyday respect, kindness and care.  Autumn always brings change, but after the rotting of beautiful leaves and the dark cold of winter, spring will soon be here again. Whatever the outcome, the world will still be full of love, peace and wonder.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

The story behind that nursing mum's smile

I always knew I wanted to breastfeed. I imagined cuddling a brand new little sleepy baby, drinking contentedly and smiling up at me: his mummy. I pictured lunches with old friends, coffees with new mummy friends, my little baby feeding, gurgling & sleeping on my lap.  I knew of all the health benefits and had attended all the breastfeeding workshops and read all the leaflets.  I understood about supply and demand. I loved the idea of continuing to use my body to make the food for our baby and the ease of not having to worry about sterilising bottles or warming bought powdered milk , appealing to my low-maintenance lifestyle. I was ready and excited. I knew that 'labour' would be hard work but after all that, the feeding would be easy, wouldn't it?

I hadn't appreciated that after a 'normal' birth, we'd be home so soon, long before the milk properly came in, far from the midwives trained to help you latch your baby on.

It never occurred to me that when the milk came in on day three, breasts became painful boulders all the way up to the armpits.

It never occurred to me that the let down of milk, the contracting of muscles & releasing of milk, would require controlled breathing to cope with waves of pain.

I never realised that I would leak milk inbetween feeds.

I didn't know that the milk could spray uncontrollably for a minute or two.

I didn't realise that feeding a tiny new born baby would require such patience and perseverance, that getting the 'perfect latch' could seem so unattainable.

I hadn't pictured my baby crying in a rage of hunger and frustration while we stumbled over the basics of feeding. Me crying too, in pain, sadness and an overwhelming miserable feeling of failure.

I hadn't prepared myself for blocked ducts, mastitis, over-supply, engorgement or the indignity of doing the shopping with chilled cabbage leaves tucked inside my bra (great for reducing inflammation, fyi.)

But I'm one of the lucky ones. I was lucky to have plenty of milk to offer and a baby who could, eventually, latch on. I have a wonderful husband who made emergency trips to late night shops to buy a breast pump, backup formula milk and changed nappies; he brings me snacks, drinks & muslin cloths while marooned on the sofa for epic nursing sessions.  I was lucky to be able to feed from both sides. I was lucky to have had a 'normal' birth at 38 weeks (both times) and could feed without worrying about an abdominal wound, major tearing or the after-effects of strong drugs.  I didn't have to worry about cracked, bleeding nipples or breast abscesses. Believe me, I've had it relatively easy.  I was also lucky to have been helped by great midwives, breastfeeding councillors, sympathetic listeners at the end of the NCT breastfeeding helpline and my own mother who breastfed all her three children. The best advice I received was to relax, lie back and let my hungry newborn root around and find his own way on. Not all women in the world can access such services, support or even the formula milk that would've been a pretty good substitute if I'd not been so doggedly determined.

After a couple of uncomfortable months, we eventually got there. I kept going because my babies continued to grow and gain weight. And I'm so glad we kept going.  I know that some new mums manage to feed without any issues, but many, like me, really struggle.  Many chose other good options or have to give up, or told to give up. My doctor told me to stop feeding because of suspected mastitis.  I'd usually take the doctor's word as law, but luckily (?!), I'd had a bad case of the same thing before and was told by another doctor that the best thing is to keep feeding, to keep the milk flowing. Antibiotics would make the milk temporarily saltier, I was told, but that was all.

Considering this common struggle to establish the art of breastfeeding, I find it surprising that this basic need of nourishing a baby still receives such hostility amongst some people in some places.  While many places do encourage nursing mums, including cafes & churches, some still find it unacceptable. Thanks to the nature of social media, nursing mothers have shared stories of being shamed in public, banished to a toilet or told to stop.  In response, breastfeeding sit-ins have been organised to challenge this old-fashioned view, raising awareness and trying to force change. Social media giant, Facebook, had previously censored images of breastfeeding but after the rise in the controversial "brelfies" [breastfeeding-selfies], such sites have reviewed their policies. I was recently breastfeeding outside the hospital and a few women commented,"good on you!" "You go, girl!" All positive reactions, thankfully, but I do find it strange how something so natural has become so radical.

I'm pleased to report that I have become the breastfeeding mamma that I hoped to be, casually offering a feast to my little one like it's no big deal. It's not an act of exhibitionism but a basic practical need to feed a baby.  I've written this for all the new mums who might struggle a bit or a lot or not at all. I've written this for everyone to know a little more about the background story of that mother smiling down at her baby, breastfeeding on the bench in the market square, at a service station or midway on a hike by the sea.

Monday, 17 October 2016


It's 2:16am. I'm feeding our baby in our dimly lit room. The radio churns out smooth Classic FM and all its jingly adverts; the light's been on all night, and hasn't really been off since our baby's birth 4+ months ago. Another device plays a recording of 'womb sounds', complete with a stranger's heart beat. The swishing swashing of amniotic fluid and an amplified quickened pulse reminds me of listening to our baby's heartbeat from week 12 of this pregnancy: a comforting awesome sound, reassuring new parents that there is indeed a little life growing inside this opaque body.

He seems to like the sound. His gulps have slowed down and his breathing has deepened. He looks asleep but his mouth is still firmly attached to my body. He's brought his little hands up to his face. His eyes are definitely closed.

He's still drinking, but he's surely almost done. The next news bulletin has come on, signalling that we've been up for a while.  I want to rush its finale and get back to sleep. But then again, he looks so content and I don't want to move. Perhaps if I just close my eyes for a bit...

...I awake only a few minutes later as little one stirs. A good time to transfer him to his mattress that  rests next to ours. I need to get to the bathroom and bin the dirty nappy. I get up and  notice a light on in the box room: little one's future bedroom.  I see that the soft light is coming from the uncurtained window. I didn't realise that there were street lights there. I go to look and I'm caught in the most magnificent moonlight: the brightest yellow full moon, clouds sweeping across it. I want someone else to see this and I'm about to call out when I remember the time.

Instead. I just stand there, immobilised by the beauty of this huge lunar display. It's so close and imposing; a little stretch and I could reach it. I feel the moon's stare, standing guard over these little children. Sentinel in the silence. I feel true happiness in this quiet moment and so lucky to have given new life to the world, protected by this mighty orb.

Yet, it's not all joy and wonder. It's taken me a while to reflect on the first years of motherhood, in all its light and darkness. For the first time in 2.5 years, I want to write again and explore my metamorphosis into "mummy".  I want to share the ups and downs which I was totally underprepared for: pain and eventual joy of breastfeeding; recovery from birth; loneliness & friendship; parenting books and advice; gizmos & gadgets; guilt; pride; being a working mum; what it's like the second time around.

With the super moon behind me, I crawl back into bed.