End of a (Breastfeeding) Era (see also: The Mum Guilt Chronicles)

My son, now 10 months old, was exclusively breast fed for the first five and a half months of his life, and has been partially breast fed since then. In recent weeks, however, my milk supply has dropped a lot, we’ve gone down to one feed a day and generally seem to be moving in the direction of stopping breastfeeding altogether. This in itself makes me feel emotional, but the recent confirmation that my son is allergic to cow’s milk has added a whole new layer of complexity and emotion to the situation.

We already suspected the allergy – when we moved him onto formula at seven months he constantly developed a red rash around his mouth, so he has been on dairy free formula ever since – but now it’s been confirmed by the hospital’s allergy clinic and I’ve started reading more into it I’m worried that I should have cut dairy from my own diet months ago (why did no professionals ever advise me of this?) , and that the fact he has been breastfeeding all this time may in fact be contributing to his constant rounds of illness. My rational brain tells me this won’t be the case, but mum guilt is beating me repeatedly about the head anyway (when doesn’t it?!).

Fortunately a call today with the lovely Camden Baby Feeding team backed up my rational brain’s argument to some extent – the fact he never showed any obvious signs of milk allergy in the early months of being exclusively breast fed would indicate that negligible amounts were reaching him that way. Nonetheless, they recommend that now it’s been officially diagnosed, if I do want to continue breastfeeding I should really consider either cutting all dairy from my diet or stopping breastfeeding.

Even though stopping has been on my mind for some time already, I feel suddenly devastated at the thought of it, and am already mourning the loss of that closeness we still share (albeit only now for a few minutes each day and probably not with any real nutritional benefits to him). In my heart I know the time has come to stop – and my head tells me I’m lucky to have even made it this far – but that doesn’t make it easier to accept. My baby is turning into a little boy, essentially the first proper sign of him not needing me anymore (at least not in the same way) and as natural as I’m sure it is, that makes me feel sad.

On the flip side, the thought of no more pumping and freezing of breast milk does instil a certain sense of relief…Every cloud…

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Motherhood (cont’d), Guilt & Moth Balls

I have decided that the topic of the research proposal for my master’s degree will be guilt and shame in new motherhood, because my God if there are two emotions I’ve felt near-constantly since having my son 9 months ago it’s those. I was pretty good at the guilt thing before having a baby, particularly where pursuing my ambitions (writing, studying, going freelance) was concerned. But since the baby things have amped-up ten fold. Now, on top of kicking myself about not pursuing the ambitions, my inner monologue spends much of the day berating me for all the things it perceives I’m doing wrong as a parent. Whilst the rational side of my brain knows it’s wrong (or at least grossly exaggerating) and I’m doing the best I can, it’s a hard voice to ignore.

Since returning to London in January (how is it already March?!) we’ve started to settle into a routine, or at least we had started to, until the cycle of nursery-related illness started. In the past month alone I’ve had to keep C home from nursery three times (once for a full week). He’s currently on his second round of antibiotics and whilst he is livelier in himself he’s still coughing and congested. It’s felt like Groundhog Day for weeks; as soon as he starts to show signs of improvement he gets ill again. I feel bad for him but also for myself (and here’s a prime example of where the guilt comes in), because when I have to keep him home from nursery it knocks my schedule out of kilter too. Last Friday, for example, I had to miss a whole day of uni, and given that returning to my studies has been having a hugely positive impact on my mental health that hit me hard. As weekends are family time and Mondays/Tuesdays are time with my son, that’s meant not being able to do any uni work for several days, which is stoking the embers of my anxiety nicely.

But on the flip side, I’m trying to make the most of being with C on Mondays and Tuesdays. I’m conscious of the importance of being really present (the other part of my research project involves mindfulness interventions) and not distracted (still working on this but getting better). I’m also trying to make sure we have fun together, because I know this time will never come again. We now attend Zip Zap baby classes every Monday morning, which he loves, and this afternoon I took him to a free trial of the local Gymboree class (not so sure about that one – bit too ‘organised fun’ for my liking). Nothing makes me happier than seeing his little face light up when he experiences something new. He’s such an explorer and I want to nurture that as much as possible.

When I’m not guilting or attempting mindful parenting, I seem to be permanently preoccupied with a million and one things, from the important (booking summer holidays) to the exciting (organising my best friend’s hen do) to the downright mundane (moth balls for the wardrobes). It’s incredible how every spare second can be filled with so much stuff. Pre-baby me was not dissimilar, the difference now is that there’s even less spare time to do it in. Sometimes it feels like life is one giant to do list, by day it’s things relating to the baby and by night everything else. It was only last weekend, when my husband gave me the greatest gift of breakfast in bed and some time to read my dusty stack of magazines, that I realised how long it’s been since I allowed myself to just relax.

On the social front we’re managing pretty well. Now we have a baby we’ve realised that the best way to keep the social life ticking over is to invite friends round for dinner. Fortunately my husband is a total Masterchef so it’s working out well (for me, as it means I don’t have to cook..). I’ve been ordering cases of premium wine like there’s no tomorrow (in the guise of wanting to broaden my horizons, but in reality just wanting to get rat-arsed and have less painful hangovers) and our flat is perfect for hosting dinner parties in. We’ve also enlisted a couple of babysitters so we can have the odd night out too. I have to remind myself that a few months ago this seemed completely out of reach – it’s all about the small wins when you are navigating early parenthood, and this certainly counts as one of those!

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Eight Months In: All Change

The last three months have been, for want of a better word, insane. In November, after weeks of searching for – and finding – a new (two bed – more room for baby) flat in Brussels, it was all-change on my husband’s job front and we had to abandon signing the new tenancy agreement at the eleventh hour and re-focus our attention on finding a new flat in London to move into the first week of January. With a seven month old baby this was not the easiest task, but somehow I managed a two day trip to London with a ridiculous amount of luggage and my son for a series of back to back flat viewings, half of which I had to cancel due to a 1.5 hour delay on the train (thanks for that Eurostar). And the good news is that despite the cancellations and the tight timeline we were hugely fortunate to find a place that ticked almost every box.

Upping sticks and leaving Belgium so suddenly has been difficult to adjust to. One minute we thought we would be there for at least another year, the next we were moving back to London, the city where I lived on and off for 10 years but in all honesty didn’t see myself returning to live in, especially with a baby. But here we are. And now the dust is starting to settle I am seeing the many positives to this move. For one, we are closer to our friends and family. For another, I have been able to switch from a distance learner to an on campus student to complete the remainder of my Master’s course, which has just re-started after a year’s hiatus. The move also forced my hand where returning to work was concerned. I knew I didn’t want to to return to my job, but had been feeling nervous about quitting with nothing else lined up. Now I have the freedom not only to re-start my studies but also pursue my dream of becoming a freelance coach. And we have managed to find a lovely nursery for our son to attend three days a week whilst I pursue my goals.

In short, everything is positive. And as much as I don’t want to put a ‘but’ in here, I have to be honest and admit the last few weeks have been really tough. Our son is wonderful and he lights up my life, but the nights are still not great and besides being chronically tired I am constantly battling the inherent mum guilt about his well-being (Is he eating properly? Is he stimulated enough? Am I doing any of this right?) Since we returned to London my anxiety has returned ten fold, for reasons I can’t fathom other than a combination of tiredness, hormonal changes and a latent reaction to the stress of the past few weeks. C starting nursery the week before last was also anxiety-inducing, and since he started he’s had back-to-back coughs and colds which is inevitable but has nonetheless been tough to deal with. As his mother and the one who is not technically working in a nine to five role, the responsibility for his welfare lies with me. If he’s sick, I’m up all night with him, and I have to pick him up early from nursery. If the nursery is closed for bad weather (which is on the way, apparently – wonderful), he has to stay at home with me. Suddenly, the three days I have earmarked for work and study disappear, and my stress and anxiety levels increase. On the two week days I am scheduled to have him with me I worry that I should do more with him. The one downside to our new home is that the nearest park (Hampstead Heath) is a half an hour walk away, and in the immediate vicinity the pollution levels are very high (another thing I worry about, especially given our son is showing signs of having a weak chest). Whereas in Brussels I would take him out every day in the local area, here I wonder if it’s good for him to be constantly exposed to all of the pollution. But if we don’t go out my mental health plummets and he gets bored.

I hope I don’t sound ungrateful. Not a day goes by when I don’t count my many blessings. But burying emotions isn’t healthy, and maternal mental health is an important issue that needs to be discussed. It’s been eight months since I had my son and at least three days a week I still feel like I’ve been hit by a freight train. I do think the sleep deprivation is a big part of that, especially after a recent meeting with friends whose babies sleep through the night. But it’s more than that. Having a baby is wonderful, but if you already had issues with self-esteem and anxiety before baby came along, the addition of tiredness, raging hormones and the overwhelming feeling of responsibility that comes with being a mother can really mess with your head. Nobody discusses it but they should, because I’m certain I’m not alone in feeling this way. Some days are good, others are really, really bad. Even now. Especially now. Because now is when I thought I’d feel completely normal again. And sometimes I feel anything but.

But. Today is a good day. It didn’t start well, admittedly (son crying non-stop from 5am), but now C is at nursery, I am at my computer with (hopefully) a good few hours of study ahead of me, I have (much-needed) coffee and the sun is shining through the window. It is in moments like this I remember to breathe in, breathe out, to cherish, to soak it all up; the good, the bad and the indifferent. This crazy life. My life. Is. Beautiful.

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Six Month Check Up

No matter how solid your relationship (and I consider mine to be rock solid, thank God), becoming a parent shakes its foundations. For one, there’s the obvious sleep deprivation, which, as readers of this blog will know all too well, has been the biggest challenge I have faced since becoming a mum. When you don’t sleep more than three hours at a time (yep, still the case after nearly six months) the outcome is a state of permanent crankiness that inevitably puts a strain on your relationship. You don’t mean to snap at your partner over stupid little things (‘Why can’t you put your shoes here instead of there? What is WRONG WITH YOU??’) but find yourself doing so at every opportunity, which only serves to make you angry with yourself as well as with them. But you’re so goddamn bone-tired that you do it over and over again. Gah.

Then – and just as importantly – there is the sudden lack of free time. To do anything. Even basic needs like eating, washing, brushing teeth and going to the toilet come second to the needs of your baby (Note: when you’re a breastfeeding mum not finding time to eat properly is particularly problematic as it interferes with your milk production. I know this to be true and yet still regularly fail to eat my meals on time. Yesterday I actually resorted to eating C’s discarded mashed avocado to avoid starvation. Out of his bowl. With his plastic spoon). You think this will improve as they get older but sadly this is not the case. By the time they reach five months they are more mobile and becoming conscious of their effect on you (read: turning into manipulative demons). This is a lethal combination. Time to kiss goodbye to toilet breaks and buy some adult incontinence pads.

Which brings me nicely onto my next point: There is no better form of contraception than having a baby. Especially when you live in a one bedroom flat. For the past six months my husband and I have exchanged whispering sweet nothings in the bedroom with whispered baby chat over the kitchen sink as we hurriedly brush our teeth before bed (our bathroom has windows into the bedroom so we can’t even use that past 7pm these days – bang go the romantic, candle-lit baths we used to enjoy so much). My boobs may have grown but I feel about as sexy as a dairy cow (not helped by the fact I am constantly having to pump in order to keep up my supply – on the occasions I have tried to supplement with formula C has developed an angry red rash around his mouth, suggesting an allergy. Brilliant). Every day as I wander around in my sick-stained dressing gown, absent-mindedly clutching an organic carrot and humming Iggle Piggle’s song from In the Night Garden, I promise myself that today will be the day I make an effort with my appearance. But by the time my husband gets home I’m so frazzled I’m still wearing the hoodie with bits of carrot stuck to the front (hey, at least I made it out of the dressing gown) and am struck by the realisation it’s been two days since I brushed my hair.

When you become parents you have moments of panic about losing your identity – both as a couple and as individuals. Eventually that panic rises to a crescendo and you decide it’s time to re-enter the social scene. You organise childcare and have a night out, drink too much, stay out late and generally shirk all parental responsibility for a few hours. It is BLISS. But when your small-human-sized alarm clock goes off at half past six the following morning you curse yourself to hell and cry into your (cold) coffee, vowing never to do it again.

In short, being a parent is a bit like being entered into an ultra-endurance race you realise too late you haven’t trained nearly enough for. But nonetheless you’re in it. For life. So you may as well get your fat ass over the obstacles and make the best of it (Note: Coffee helps. A LOT).

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Okay, Mama?

I’ve been wanting to write a post about maternal mental health for quite some time, and as it’s world mental health day there seemed no better time than today. So (deep breath), here goes…

It started with the miscarriage. Nine weeks, although the baby technically didn’t make it past six. Nothing can prepare you for how it feels to see no heartbeat on the screen. Your throat dry, the air so still you could choke on it. A sympathetic touch from the doctor, then back out into the world. Except suddenly it’s different, all of it. And you’ll never be entirely who you were before that day.

After my miscarriage I wrote a blog post about it, and was inundated with responses from women who’d been through the same thing. Private responses, mostly, because they didn’t want the world to know it happened to them too. Of course I understood, because miscarriage is by its very nature a deeply personal thing. And yet. When nobody talks about an issue it becomes the proverbial elephant in the room. And the worst part of that is, if it happens to you, you’ve no idea you’re not alone.

Almost exactly a year after my miscarriage I delivered a beautiful, healthy baby boy. The delivery was traumatic, and afterwards I had to stay in hospital for five long days, hobbling around the room I was sharing with my husband and son dragging a catheter bag in my wake, and being poked and prodded (and, on one particularly mortifying occasion even photographed – yes, down there) by a steady stream of medical students who assured me that my case was very rare (hence the photos). It was, in short, nothing like how I had imagined giving birth to be.

A few days post-delivery a friend blithely commented in an email that “if women knew what childbirth was really like they’d never do it in the first place. That’s why they don’t tell other women.” I have to admit I take umbrage at this position. Granted, if you’re pregnant you probably don’t need to hear the detail of someone else’s traumatic birth (I learned my lesson sharing my experience with one pregnant friend who I’m afraid I may have scarred for life – if you’re reading this, sorry again), but surely it’s good to have at least a low level awareness that things don’t always go without a hitch. Because if you do go on to have a bad experience you know you’re not alone, and you’re not expected to deal with it alone.

Since having my son I’m not afraid to admit there have been some dark, dark days. I’d read about postnatal depression, but never thought anything of the sort would happen to me. And whilst I’m fortunate that I haven’t had clinical depression since giving birth, nonetheless there have been times when things have felt pretty goddamn hopeless.

I thought the first few weeks would be the worst, when we got home from the hospital and were trying to figure out what to do with this little person in our midst who would need feeding every two hours. And whilst the sleep deprivation was unimaginably hard, I look back on that time now with fondness because in some ways it was a hell of a lot easier than the last few weeks have been. I didn’t know about the four month regression until it hit, and my God did it hit, like a tsunami. One minute we were starting to get more sleep and thinking we had things figured out, the next: BAM! Everything we thought we knew was turned on its head.

Fortunately now (I write this touching wood) we’re coming out the other side, and working with a sleep consultant in the UK has contributed hugely to this improvement. But God, the guilt I’ve felt about it, the weight of people’s judgement when you say you’re trying the crying out method because you’ve reached the end of your tether and you’ll do anything to make things better. And the anguish when your baby is crying and you aren’t able to scoop him up in your arms and comfort him (before you judge I must point out the method involves going in every ten minutes to verbally comfort the baby, not just leaving them alone until they stop crying).

[As an aside, it feels horrible when you’re doing the crying out method but it works. My son now goes to sleep without a murmur, wakes only once or twice a night, and in the morning he still greets me with an enormous smile, so whilst that’s not conclusive evidence he won’t be mentally scarred in the long term, speaking as someone who’s started to get some semblance of her life and sanity back, it’s enough for me].

The point I’m trying (in my own rambling way) to make, is that motherhood is hard. Bloody hard. From conception onwards things often don’t run smoothly. It can be a lonely and emotional rollercoaster, and yet women are expected to deal with it and keep all the plates spinning: work, relationships, family. And the fact a lot of women are too traumatised and scared to share their experiences makes it all the more isolating when you’re going through it yourself. You don’t feel like you can ask for help because you don’t see others asking for help. You feel a failure because everyone around you seems to be coping so much better than you. Well my experience has shown me this is not the case. And it seems that finally the tide is starting to turn. Women are beginning to open up about the challenges of pregnancy, birth and beyond, and receive the emotional support they need. Long may it continue.

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Parenting Level 2: Access Denied

This week I’ve learned a valuable lesson, namely that just when you think you’ve turned a corner with parenting another hurdle will pop up in the road and floor you. The only way to cope with such hurdles is to try and keep sight of the bigger picture i.e. you may be facing another setback now, but look at how far you’ve come (answer: very far, well done you). Adopting the ‘this too shall pass’ mentality is also helpful. And keeping a sense of humour is (hard but) vital. [See also: Cake.]

For us, by far the biggest issue to date has been sleep. Sometimes I feel I’m going crazy with my obsession to get C to sleep. There are (many) days when it is literally all I can think about. I look at other mothers (big mistake) and wonder why they aren’t tearing their hair out over this issue. They don’t worry that their appointments clash with baby’s nap times, or refuse to leave the house until their little ones have slept at least twice. Are their babies just better sleepers than mine? Or am I making too big a deal of it?

Last week we started a two week sleep routine, working with a sleep consultant in the UK. It didn’t get off to the most auspicious start as, on the very first day, I got struck down with a high fever and stomach bug and C developed a cough that has since turned into a cold (which, as I type this I can feel the beginnings of  in my nose and throat – joy!)

Despite these issues, by some miracle we saw an almost immediate improvement in C’s sleep. Indeed for several nights he slept virtually all the way through from 11pm until 6.30am without any night feeds (you may remember that previously he was waking three to five times a night for feeds). It seemed so easy I didn’t dare to tell anyone of our success, which is just as well because right now I would have a serious amount of egg on my face.

Fast forward a week and we seem to have had another full on regression. Those halcyon nights without wakings or feeds have been replaced once more with broken sleep and – worse even than before – fits of hysterical screaming (to say he’s found his voice would be an understatement) that cannot be abated with the tried and tested sleep methods. It’s hard enough leaving a baby to cry for ten minutes at a time during the day. When it’s the middle of the night and you are in the same room it’s virtually impossible. Last night, after almost a solid hour of screaming I gave in and went against all the sleep training rules – rocked the crib, picked him up, fed him, you name it. And still he cried every time I put him down. His day naps have got worse again too. Last week there was one day he slept for a glorious hour and a half in one go. I didn’t know what to do with all the time! Then yesterday we were back to fighting for a paltry thirty minute nap every few hours. When you only have two (fragmented) hours in your day where baby doesn’t command your full attention it’s a very different experience…

With all the angst of the (not) sleeping it’s easy to lose sight of the wonderful things about being a mum. C is, in the most part, a delight. His little smile lights up my day, no matter how hard things are. I absolutely would not be without him. And in my more lucid moments I know this is another phase and it will pass (and that motherhood is made up of such phases, and I just have to learn to live with that). But by God are some of the phases challenging. This one has been especially so because the sleep training requires us to be at home most of the time, eschewing all non-essential trips out (read: coffee and sanity checks with friends). I have been optimistically telling myself it will be worth it if we manage to crack the sleep problem, but now I’m beginning to wonder if ‘cracking the sleep problem’ is too ambitious a goal. Either way, I’m conscious I am in dire need a mental health break, so today I’m breaking the rules (again – sigh) to meet a friend for lunch. It may mess further with his naps, but if it helps mummy take a step back from the ledge I’d say it’s worth it…

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It’s a good job he’s cute…

Three Months and Drowning (Literally)

Let me preface this post by saying that not a day goes by when I don’t count my blessings. That said, this week it’s felt as though we’ve angered the gods in some way. We returned from holiday on Sunday expecting to find a clean – and dry – apartment. What we found instead was a home stinking of stale floodwater, with pink residue all over the kitchen floor, damp towels festering in the sink and, to really top things off, a freezer full of partially defrosted food (including a month’s worth of carefully pumped and labelled breast milk). The cleaning lady hadn’t been despite saying she would, so aside from all the other issues the place was a dump.

I’ve mentioned before the building works that have been going on downstairs since March. Well, the latest debacle has been a water leak. About four weeks ago we went out one day and returned to find the kitchen swimming in water. We dried it up and went out again, only to find the same thing had happened a couple of hours later. After that, nothing happened for a week, but then the same thing again. We told our landlady who arranged for her plumber to come, but he couldn’t find the source of the problem. It was evident that the water was coming from above (I mean, it was pissing through our ceiling..), but as our neighbours had no such problem with their place, the mystery continued. Eventually water started leaking into other places – the apartment next door as well as the medical centre and building works below (karma is a bitch, hey?) And so our landlady reported the issue to the building syndic/manager, and various workmen were duly sent to investigate, only to leave scratching their heads as the first plumber had done. Fast forward a week and we arrived home from holiday to find the situation described above, after yet more workmen had traipsed through the apartment in our absence. We cleaned the floor as best we could, arranged for a new cleaner to come on Wednesday to try and get the pink dye out of the tile grouting and went about our business.

When the cleaning lady arrived on Wednesday morning I showed her around the apartment (against the backdrop of a screaming baby – more on that later), and as she started to work on the floor water began seeping out from under the appliances just as it had before, so she ended up having to dry the entire floor before she could even start to clean it. The final straw came at 5am this morning when, after a second terrible night of being up with baby every 2.5 hours, I brought him into the kitchen so as not to disturb my husband, only to find myself standing in a puddle of water, the floor having totally flooded yet again during the night.

Now I consider myself to be a fairly resilient person, but after six months of disruption with the building works (incidentally also the entire duration of my maternity leave) this new problem has, if you’ll excuse the pun, floored me. On top of having a (currently inexplicably grizzly) three month old baby with sleep issues I’ll admit I’m finding my sense of humour to be wearing thin. This wasn’t what I signed up for, does anyone know to whom I should address my letter of complaint?

And then there is my gorgeous baby boy. Gorgeous he may be, but he is also somewhat of a sleep terrorist. And for the past week or so he has been really out of sorts, crying for no discernible reason, demanding attention every time I move out of his eye line and downright refusing to go down for his day time naps. The result being a cranky and overtired baby and a zombie-like mother who is running out of ideas – and steam. Our holiday was lovely, but not quite the relaxing experience I had envisaged. I did manage to grab a little extra sleep thanks to my husband, but taking a cranky three month old to a wedding and on a three-site French adventure proved more testing than either of us had expected.

Don’t get me wrong, I am LOVING being a mother, and I know that in the main we have got more than lucky with our amazing son, whose general disposition is sunny and relaxed. But by God I would love him to sleep a bit more (and more easily). I’m becoming murderously jealous of my friends whose babies are already sleeping through the night at virtually the same age, so much so I’m struggling to even meet up with them. The sleep struggle is REAL.

A friend said to me the other day that mothers don’t tell new mothers how hard it is because they don’t want to scare them. But on the flip side of that, if this secret club of knowing mums don’t divulge the reality, surely it makes it even harder for the new mums when reality bites? I’ll wrap things up with that question, not least because there’s water seeping across the kitchen floor as I type and my son has just vomited on my shoulder.

Ah, these halcyon days of maternity leave…

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