Had a bit of a revelation this week. The thing is, being a parent you are learning how to manage new stuff every day. And just as you get one thing under control they change their habits, likes, reactions, whatever and you are back in the dark again wondering what to try next. I think that’s probably true even if you are doing it for the second or third time. They are each their own little parcel of crazy contradictions and joyous mayhem!
So, with that in mind, it’s easy to feel that you never know what you’re doing. Meanwhile, everyone else seems to be in total control. It’s the perfect storm for feeling that everyone is looking at you and wondering what the hell you are doing!
My husband and I recently attempted our first hotel stay away since baby K was born. He’s 14 months so it’s been a while. We’ve done visiting parents and family and friends, but this time we had booked a posh hotel and were looking forward to a proper mini-break. Ha ha ha!
First mistake was booking a posh hotel. One year olds don’t care where they stay and have little respect for other people’s property, or other people! We spent all his waking hours herding him back towards us and trying to stop him from bothering anyone else. I was convinced that every guest – none of whom had children and all of whom were there just trying to relax – hated us and thought we were totally crap at controlling our boy’s behaviour. I even wanted to shh him when he was laughing too loudly at breakfast! Later I decided we were probably worrying too much, perhaps they liked the laughter and were judging us for being too controlling and hovery. Either way I was very conscious of everyone else and almost forgot we had gone there to relax ourselves… In case you were worried we found the bar once baby was in bed and all was well! But it got me thinking – perhaps most of the criticism was in my head!… especially when it was time to say goodbye any everyone wanted to wave to little K and wish us well!
My inkling that perhaps we were not being judged as much as I’d imagined, was then reinforced by a blog I read. It was a very well written and amusing blog about how annoying ‘helicopter’ parents are in parks. In a nutshell she said she went there to let her kids feel free to play, but felt that other mums gave her evils (or ‘stink eye’ as she called it) if her children were left to it. I thought I agreed with her, but then I read the comments… Other mums had said they felt bad as they might be seen as that parent but they never meant to seem judgey, only that if a child asked for help they would help, or if they seemed lost they’d look around for the mum. Some said they only hovered as their little junior always climbed too high and had no sense of fear or that they’d had a bad experience before. I suddenly realised the writer had been judging the ‘helicopter’ mums and they felt just as paranoid!
I remembered a moment in a supermarket some time ago where a mum was clearly close to tears as her daughter screamed and launched a packet of new potatoes all over the floor. As the little summer delicacies rolled along the aisle I sent her what I thought was a look of sympathy and support, and was about to go over and help her pick up the escaping potatoes. But before I could she turned on me: “What are you looking at?” she barked with narrowed eyes. At the time I’d thought bad thoughts (I admit it; she was mean I was trying to be kind!), but now I realise she was feeling awful and assumed that I was judging.
It’s dawned on me… 99% of the time we are probably not being criticized. No one else can do it better. They all know it’s hard! And even if you are being judged, there’s very little good that can come out of thinking about it – better to assume you are not! I’ve discovered if I smile and say something to the person I feel is casting aspersions, they generally admit they’ve been there, they have five, or that they’d find it hard too if they did and then… ‘isn’t he cute’ and ‘how old is he?’ And suddenly none of it mattered anyway!
I know I’ve written this about parenting, but it occurs to me this might apply to lots of things. Perhaps my worries about my writing, house keeping, friends, fat bits, work, dress sense, husband, family blah blah are mostly in my head! Wouldn’t that be great? Let’s pretend it’s true even if it isn’t, it’d save us a whole heap of worrying!
Found a great saying the other day: My worrying is very successful… 99% of the stuff I worry about never happens! It seems an appropriate close to today’s blog!
Food has taken over my life. It’s not even me that’s eating it (mostly). For the past 6 months I’ve basically been delivering around 9 meals a day. At one point that was 9 milk feeds and nothing for me as I didn’t have any spare hands or minutes, but now we’re into weaning (just change two letters and it’s waring – go figure!).
So, it’s 5 milk feeds, 3 ‘solid’ feeds (how can they call that mushed up vomit solids?!) and a meal for me and my man at the end of the day. It’s endless and exhausting and occasionally highly entertaining!
Hours spent in the kitchen slaving over an Annabel Karmel cook book leave you with pulped fruit, pureed veg and mushy chicken all neatly spooned into ice trays, and a very smug feeling – until you realise that actually getting this stuff into your baby is a whole different ball game! …Basically, he chucks what he doesn’t like, so I just spent all those hours making delicate little canapés for the dogs.
If I’m honest, I was really dreading this whole stage. Squashed banana has always made me gag! And that stuff that mums wipe off the table into their hands – urgh! And the things that they do like licking stuff of their child’s fingers or picking out bogies – reeeeally?! So, I had to psych myself up.
Having said this, we started the whole food thing early. That was a whole other battle. How are you supposed to know when to do anything when advice is so contradictory?… 4 months was always the norm, now suddenly it’s 6 months. Can they sit up? Are they interested in food? Yeeees, but that was at 4 months. So we went for it. It was clearly a success as baby K has got entirely stuck in and started sleeping through the night (though they say the connection between these two events is mythical, well it wasn’t for us). But it’s certainly a journey. Yet another learning curve. I’ve learned so much new information in the past year – like an entire degree’s worth – most of it about stuff I never really wanted to know in the first place!
Anyway, there we were: Day one. Little bottom perched in big high chair, cute clean bib in position and mini spoon in hand. I offered up the fruits of my labour… only to have them returned in a splattery spitty mess seconds later along with a look of absolute disgust!
Our rented house is definitely going to require an entire blog post to itself (once we’ve moved out and got the/some of the deposit back!) but there’s no hiding the fact that there is rejected food splattered up walls! Thank goodness for the dogs (never thought you’d hear me say that!) or the floors would be thick with dried slop that I don’t have time to clean up – at least you can’t see dog spit!
There are at least a thousand things you can’t give a baby for fear of allergies, choking, or alien invasion, so planning meals is a bit of a minefield. And the homemade vs shop bought ‘organic’ options is a conundrum too. But we’ve found our middle ground and I’m pleased to say we have made progress. More food goes inside baby K than on him (more like 60/40 than 40/60!) and enthusiasm has improved – mainly in the form of ‘mmmmm mmmm mmm’ noises and flapping excited arms.
I’m not surprised he gets excited – the little prince is brought offerings of three or even four courses including finger food appetisers, nutritious blended mains and generally fruit-themed deserts. We don’t eat like this!
Mostly though, it’s good we don’t eat like him. If we did we’d be doubling our body weight every couple of years and also finding bits of lunch in our ears or eyebrows at around 3pm when we wake up from our naps. Oh, hang on – that does happen! Not the nap obviously, but randomly discovering he’s sneakily smushed some unrecogniseable food substance into my clothes, generally at a moment where I can’t do anything about it, happens quite a lot. It’s so glamorous being a mum!
it’s worth it: Worth scrabbling through the freezer amongst all the little pots of mysterious green stuff (damn, must start labeling them); the endless planning ahead; the messy disgusting state of everything; because he’s growing and smiling and enjoying it all. I never realised how much fun it would be to watch him try jelly for the first time, or taste pineapple or experience philadelphia’s creamy coolness on his tongue. Imagine what it must be like to have all those new tastes coming your way.
The endless preparation, laying out, delivery, clean up (then clean up again as he generally pukes at least some of it up once we’re all done) leaves you with little time to do anything else much, and makes it close to impossible to leave the house (the prospect of doing all this in a café where the high chair is probably too big so he slides around, other people distract him and he’s likely to strain for a poo very loudly half way through is just not that appealing!). It means doing anything for yourself is likely to be out of the question and has left me feeling slightly neglected: No time to exercise, grabbing a ready meal when you get a minute and growing steadily paler and paler. I jumped on the scales the other day to check how bad things have really got and nearly had a heart attack. So focused was I on the huge numbers which had appeared, that I failed to spot the little hands pressing down on the weighing plate just behind my feet! I forgot about my weight, because all of a sudden our little boy can crawl!!
Hmmm keeping him still to be fed is going to be even more interesting now!
Having passed the four month baby stage I have to accept that I am no longer a new mum (even though I think it’s possible I’ll feel like that right up until the day he moves out!). It’s got me thinking about the completely upside down nature of time. I’ve been mulling it over in between the endless feeds, naps and baths and realizing just how much it’s all changed since baby K arrived. It’s only now that I am through those insane first few months that I can see what bizarre expansions and contractions of time have occurred.
For starters, people ask me how it’s been – an odd sort of question that comes up surprisingly often, I think they’re looking for a speedy summary of the past 4.5 months and I find I give a different answer every time I’m asked. But what it boils down to is this… it’s been the longest fours months of my life, and the shortest; so much has happened and nothing at all has happened.
It’s been so long that I can barely remember who I was before baby K arrived, and strangely I don’t really need to.
It’s been so fast that he’s already weaning and those days of painful breastfeeding and endless nights awake seem years ago.
It’s been full to the brim with mutual learning and growing and changing and shifting and smiles and tears and walks and occasional sleeps and newness and familiarity.
Yet nothing really significant has occurred. Only what every other mother and baby experience, I suppose. Except that words like ‘only’ or ‘just’ have no place here anymore. (I now realise ‘I’m just a mum’ is officially the most ridiculous phrase in the English language.)
When I tried to explain this mind bending duality of time to a friend and fellow mum she nodded sagely: ‘the days a long but the years are short,’ uttered the guru. It is so true. Not that I’m anywhere near even one year yet – wow that seems a long way off!
I watched some old family DVDs with my mother-in-law recently. They were of her and my husband when he was around 1 year old, growing up in Tanzania. I could see, as I listened to her telling me about the places and people depicted, that these scenes were fresh and vibrant in her memory – it was all so recent despite it being almost 40 years ago. It struck me that at that moment in her life there was no second child, no wife for her firstborn, and certainly no grandchild; in fact no expectation of all the life that was yet to come. And here I stand, in her shoes and the thought of watching iPhone videos with baby K’s wife 20 or 30 years in the future is just too hard to imagine.
Of course we strain to see the future throughout our lives, and motherhood only magnifies that as things change week to week. We constantly obsess over the next stage – weaning, walking, talking, school – worrying about who they’ll be and what they’ll do, and yet we desperately work to hold onto moments, like butterflies. The dichotomy of time again.
The other side effect is that, at this very focused time in my life, I have become aware of the status that time gives you. The mother of a 6 month old said recently ‘just wait ‘til he starts…’. And I found myself bowing to her superior experience. Six weeks ahead of me on this hectic journey is six weeks of seniority in every sense! It made me smile to myself – in no other job would a few weeks make such a difference!
For me, the time warp effect really began to kick in during the birth. It wasn’t until afterwards, when my husband and I were cozy in our little room with this new tiny person and day blending into night and back to day again that we began to talk about what had happened and how we both remembered the dramatic 30-odd hours of baby K’s arrival. My memory was all in snapshots – me leaning over a window sill and swearing loudly, me being moved in a wheelchair to a birthing room, me on all fours throwing up from the pain while several people watched me pant (no idea who most of them were and not a moment I’d care to repeat), more swearing, the running of the water for the water birth then a dramatic exit for an epidural and the realization and water birth wouldn’t be happening, more swearing, dozing as the anaesthetic relief finally hit, druids singing next door (was that real or an effect of the gas and air? Nope, it was real – that could only happen to me!), then more drama as the emergency c-section was suddenly mandatory, probably some more swearing, shaking as they administered more anaesthesia and then pressure on my belly and suddenly a cone-headed slightly squashed little guy appearing from the other side of the hanging blue sheet hiding all the gore. All those hours were reduced to a few moments.
For my husband, on the other hand, the hours had stretched out, yawning into the night – he was able to fill me in on all kinds of new and interesting details (apparently I had been swearing a lot more and a lot louder than I had originally thought!).
And then baby K came home and a minute of crying felt like a lifetime, whilst a two hour nap could pass in a flash. Sleep was a thing of the past. Now night hours yawned like chasms in between snatches of sleep, stretching out before me. But instead of this being the dreadful torture I had anticipated, these hours were actually filled with a new sort of magic – low light and the soft smell of baby, feathery hair tickling your cheek and the two of you feeling like the only people in the world. Perhaps I’m looking back on them with nostalgia even at this early stage – no doubt there were many where I was falling asleep as he fed, or begging him to stop crying, exhausted from rocking or singing the same song a hundred times. How funny that my rose tinted glasses are firmly in place already, particularly when anyone who knows me will recall my total lack of those magic specs as I prepared for the horrors of motherhood!
Another odd adjustment is that mums become experts at time projections: if he doesn’t sleep now I’ll need to move that feed and shift that appointment and get him to take a nap earlier this afternoon so that I can fit in the feed this evening and get him bathed by 6 etc etc. Every action has a knock on effect and impacts the little dude’s subsequent mood/capability to eat/night sleep etc – seriously, I can project the impact of one missed sleep somewhere into the middle of next week! It’s particularly true in the initial months when baby is feeding at least every 3 hours, suddenly your day is broken into 7am, 10am, 1pm, 4pm, 7pm, 10pm, 1am and 4am. There is no longer night and day, only three hour slots, and within each slot you will feed, play, change a nappy, possibly get him down for a nap and maybe have 5 minutes for yourself or get some sleep!
This journey is a long one. It’s the ride of your life. It destroys your life (or at least the one you had before the baby). But it is your life, and it’s incredible and humbling and empowering and exhausting!
And now here I am, baby asleep and a whole hour to myself. What am I doing? OK yes I’m being productive and writing my blog, but secretly I’m kinda hoping he’ll wake up and give me that big gummy smile. I’ve missed him!
This should really be called Facebook Like And Compare Identity Dysmorphia – or F.L.A.C.I.D. Yes, I think that works. It certainly sums up the miserable impotence of this phenomenon!
The problem is, just as alcoholism, violence or drugs in a parent often generates similarly damaged children, with the FLACID syndrome we find we are both impacted by others’ behaviour and succumb to it ourselves. And I have discovered that it can be most dangerous amongst new mums, though I think it works on everyone.
What am I talking about?… the smug-posts. The stunning pictures of people having an amazing happy time in their perfect lives. Lives that simply aren’t like mine! Lives that make me feel I must be getting it all wrong.
“Hooray little Joey slept through the night!” Whaaaat? How? Why? Why not me?
Scroll down to sunny shot of family with new baby on the beach – really? They survived the flight with a 3 month old? How did they afford that? Did she have a personal trainer to get her figure back that fast?!
Scroll down to people in bar clinking glasses and smiling in a selfie. Everyone else is out having fun and partying while I’m home being puked on! Great.
You get the idea. I’m not a jealous kind of person but you sure start to sound kinda green eyed. This doesn’t bring out the best in you, particularly when you’re sleep deprived and it’s 3am and you’re scrolling through Facebook as you feed your baby.
But… those Joneses must be kept up with it seems because what did I do when baby was born? Er announced it on Facebook with a super cute pic – obv! And could I resist posting a little shot of baby K on a plane to Rome? Nope!
The fact is, having lived all over the place it’s hard to keep up with all the people I’d like to and this provides a convenient catch-all, so news of the engagement, wedding, baby etc did sort of need to be shared. But I do admit I like the ‘likes’ and I love the comments and who doesn’t want everyone else’s approval? I used to love posting news of my latest safari adventures or updates on which article had just been published. These days I try a little harder to curb my content though.
The thing I’ve realised recently is that there is Facebook and then there is reality. No one is actually living the perfect existence they present on Facebook. I mean obviously I knew that, it’s just that it’s easy to buy into it all in moments of weakness. It was a friend’s little tale of strawberry picking mayhem that really brought it home to me though… She had posted a stunning sunny shot of her blonde boy reaching for a giant ripe ruby red strawberry and it honestly looked idyllic. But the truth behind the image? Well that same little angel got bored in ten minutes, had a tantrum whilst his baby sister pooed all over herself. Mummy marched them all back to the car only to realise she had dropped her keys somewhere in the enormous field of strawberries and also that she’d left her wallet at home and couldn’t pay for the few strawberries they had collected anyway! Now that sounds more like it!
Not too long ago I posted more of a ‘reality’ post that mentioned the misery of a walk I’d taken. While everyone else had been enjoying the sunshine, I had attempted to get my screaming baby and two wayward dogs out of the house. I had ended up with the aforementioned screaming baby mounted on my chest; dogs dragging me across a field; enormous stinky poos in mandatory poo bags (a metaphor for life in some sense – carrying ‘shit’ around with you really stinks up your day …or something!?); and to top it all off copious amounts of vomit down my front. I posted about my misery… and the response was overwhelming. 20 comments and countless likes! I rarely get that many responses to my entire blog write up! Perhaps everyone else is feeling the same, I realised. Not necessarily specifically about walking with dogs and a baby, but about the need to share some of life’s crap! I don’t mean ‘I baked a cake’ sort of crap, I mean the shared experiences or the gone-wrongs – the kind of stuff that provides material for the observational comics. Let’s face it human nature isn’t that nice – we can all get on board and be supportive when something is truly rubbish, but sharing in other people’s happiness is a whole heap more difficult.
On the other hand, writers [are supposed to] have a philosophy about this (I think partly because they’re known for suffering a spot of envy at others’ success!). The fact is that since no one else can write the way you can, have the ideas you have, combine words and sentences the way you would, you are completely unique. There are as many slots for success as there are great writers theoretically. Or at the very least one writer being published doesn’t make it one person less likely that you will be published. With this in mind it’s far better to be pleased for others, build networks of contacts and enjoy learning for each other. For some reason I have found this really easy to adopt and have enjoyed helping others and feeling ok about asking for help myself – spread the positivity. Right?
And there’s a second writing theory that applies here – or will once I’ve explained my thinking. You see a writer is generally attempting to reach a mass audience and in doing so automatically fails since no two people think or feel or experience the same things. The audience is made up of individuals each having their own day, week, life. So what can we do to draw them together? Find the commonalities. We all know what it’s like to have a terrible day, or to struggle with a new role, many of us know what it is to want to put our children on ebay (just momentarily of course!) – and strangely we remember the sting of these difficult moments far longer than the glow of the parts that are closer to the perfection we think we seek. These are the threads that hold us all together.
Yup. So now I think it’s time to apply these two theories to our Facebook lives… First to be more positive about celebrating others’ successes and second to throw in some reality checks! So this is my appeal – people post your happiness as much as you like, let’s spread it far and wide and share in each other’s fabulousness, but let’s include some reality posts too and have a good laugh sharing some of the really crappy things in life. Examples from the past week of my life would include having to leave a christening early because I was covered in milk; a bottle of fake tan exploding all over my [rented] bathroom – I mean ceiling to floor; and finally fitting into a pair of old favourite skinny jeans only to find I had a builders bum exposed for the entire day! Hope you’re all feeling better 🙂
Hi everyone, sorry I’ve been quiet for a while – I’ve been working on a project that, quite literally, shits all over the poo diaries: A tiny human being who can out-poo an elephant after a curry! In fact I have a whole new set of poo stories for the diaries collection (or should I say diarrhea collection?!); from the vibrant green variety to the korma style yellow stuff that comes out with such force that it reaches his armpits (no exaggeration) and can be projectile across rooms. Yup, my little man arrived and I guess you could say it really did ‘hit the fan’!
Life has gone from being paid to write about safaris, taking wildlife photographs in the bush and – right at the end – interviewing Bono’s wife and her fashion designers about their interest in TZ jewelry company URU, to… being puked on at least 17 times a day, battling with naps (for him, not me, oh no, definitely not me!), putting on 5 washes a day and occasionally attending a mum and babies fitness class in a futile attempt to shed the big belly I now have. Oh and lots of poo, of course. The shine has gone, there isn’t much glamor in my new arrangement. But just last week we reached the three month mark and he laughed for the first time and I can honestly say it’s the best sound I’ve ever heard in my life (and I consider that I’ve heard some pretty great sounds – lions roaring across an African night, rugby scrums as they engage, the ocean lapping at the shore, I could go on…).
It got me thinking… about perspective, distance, and having a sense of humour. I mean I’ve been in some fairly ridiculous situations since having a baby. At the time I may have cried or allowed my stress levels to bounce off the ozone layer, but looking back, what amazing material for stories to share.
So in the spirit of laughter – and because he’s sleeping (little hands at right angles either side of his head like a pea on a fork!) and this is the first opportunity I’ve had to write anything at all since he was born – let me share a few of my experiences as I’ve begun my 18 year training programme in becoming a mum!
I definitely have to start with breast feeding – hmm not all it’s cracked up to be as a natural and simple solution to feeding your baby. They don’t warn you about the pain (for ‘pain’ read ‘agony’) of cracked nipples, the weird sensation of ‘let down’ or the embarrassment of high pressure leakage! That’s definitely caused some humour.
Early on I had managed to drag myself – on time – to one of the many doctor appointments you are expected (by some miracle) to attend after you have a baby. I was so proud of myself for making it but realised that the timing coincided with the need to feed him. I mentioned it to the receptionist. “If you’re happy to feed here then that’s fine,” she smiled and turned away. Hmm… in reception… with other people. I looked about despondently for a chair that offered some slight privacy. Luckily the other receptionist sensed my dis-ease (not my disease!) and rescued me: “there’s an empty office just there, you could use that if you like.” I smiled with relief,moved into the empty room and settled down to feed him, but for some reason the little blighter just wouldn’t latch on. Milk fired across the room like machine gun ammo, spattering the papers on the desk, the back of the leather chair and my little boy’s face just for good measure!
I managed to stealthily remove a couple of top sheets that were just blank headed paper whilst thanking my lucky stars for baby wipes and the fact that I hadn’t been in reception. There, the milk explosion would have resulted in a much more embarrassing moment as innocent sick people were sprayed in the face!
If I thought that was awkward it was nothing compared to my more recent experience. I was preparing for baby K’s christening and feeling thoroughly exhausted, pale and unattractive when my in-laws came to the rescue with a spray tan and babysitting combo. What a treat! Except…
Since this was my first spray tan I was briefed about getting undressed and putting on the disposable pants (fond memories of post-natal joy!). I was standing ready for the beautician to come in and spray me when my thoughts turned to when baby K might need feeding again. This is dangerous when you’re breast feeding, it triggers the milk. Just at the moment the beautician entered in her perfect, light pink top, I began to spurt milk like a crazed cartoon character! And she thought she’d be the one doing the spraying!
She was very kind about it, being a mum herself, and in the end I got tanned wearing my bra! All good, right? Nope!
In my embarrassment, I attempted to get dressed and leave quickly once I was done, throwing my jeans on and making for the door. I had forgotten about the dreaded string knickers… Just as I reached reception my actual pants (large lacy numbers that should not be seen in public and you only wear post birth!) emerged from the bottom of my trouser leg! I honestly could have died! Not only had my knickers been on display for all to see but now everyone was speculating – either I had no pants on or was still wearing the nasty string disposable ones. Neither was good!
You get used to being embarrassed, I mean childbirth doesn’t exactly leave you with a great deal of dignity. Since then I’ve cried in Sainsbury’s, been in town with puke down my back and milk down my front, answered the door half dressed, been weed on several times… Whatever. I clearly have very little shame left or I wouldn’t have publicly shared the stories above! (Luckily for you guys I have just enough to spare you the many comedy moments of my birth story!).
But something that I have found more difficult than sacrificing my dignity is the absolute change. It’s not just physical, though that would be enough. It’s the fact that you will never be alone again; the way you suddenly think differently; time operates in three hour slots, not morning/afternoon or night/day; weird and wonderful brightly coloured things appear all over the house; doing basic housework is a feat of vast achievement; you forget to brush your teeth or put mascara on both eyes; you suddenly are excited about and interested in the most minute and tedious details; you will never go out in public without a car seat and a pram again. The list is endless, and no matter how much you knew and prepared before, it is one hell of a shock. It changes everything about your life and your relationship and you, fundamentally.
The required equipment for a baby is also overwhelming. I swore I wouldn’t bother with most of it. In Africa they survive without prams, car seats, baby bouncers, teething toys, so why would I need it all? But it doesn’t work that way… I mean what kind of a mum would I be if my child didn’t have a bloody Sophie the Giraffe to chew on?! And there you have it. Sucker!
I used to laugh at women desperately trying to exercise in the park with one hand on their buggy and a screaming baby looking on in horror at mummy’s wobbly bum. Again, I have succumbed. Well, let’s face it there’s no going to the gym or getting out for a run with a new baby. What choice did I have?
In fact the buggy becomes your new best friend. But, oh, how I battled at first to learn to get it all in and out of the car, let alone doing it holding a baby at the same time. It’s a whole new level of learning, patience and dexterity. I broke nails, I pulled muscles, I still have bruised legs. The thing weighs a tonne, and I swear the guy who gave us the demo in the shop was a genius! Our pram barely fits in the boot of my car and must be placed precisely at the right angle and the right way round in order to get it in. Add a screaming baby and some rain and it’s a real laugh (note the heavy sarcasm here).
Of course doesn’t stop with the pram. There’s also the baby bath, baby manicure set, change table, change mat, baby bag, bath toys, mobiles, bouncer chair, Moses basket, baby gym, bottles, steriliser, travel cot… You should see how full my car is when I head to my parents’ place for a couple of days. And this from the girl who spent a year living out of one 20kg back pack!
And on top of this, the logic of guidance for mums is as flawed as our brain function post-birth. I mean, let’s take the steriliser as just one example.
1. Apparently we all MUST sterilise, but as soon as you open the lid of the steriliser everything in it is no longer sterile anyway.
2. The steriliser collects nasty brown stuff in the bottom that must be cleaned out every time, generally with the dish cloth which is surely less than sterile!
3. Nothing dries in there so when you put milk powder into a bottle ready for adding water later it sets into nasty lumps, but you can’t dry anything as the drying up cloth would contaminate it (it took me 3 months before anyone mentioned the solution to this!)
And the greatest irony of all is that if you over-sterilise you risk your baby not developing a strong enough immune system! Oh well, once they’ve pooed on the change mat, been sick on their hands and then shoved them in their mouths, and been licked by the dog a few times I guess we’re even!
OLD DOG NEW TRICKS
As a new mum there is so much to learn. It starts with the feeding and the sleep training and then first aid and health care, play and development and into teething/dental care and weaning. I feel like I’m studying for another degree, and yet it is all fairly mindless and mundane and warrants no certificate at the end of it all.
Plus, there’s so much that can go wrong: inconvenient feed times
(like at his christening where my planning went wrong and I hadn’t considered my outfit carefully and while everyone else sat down to starters I had removed my dress in the bathrooms and was feeding baby in my underwear sitting on the loo!); mega poos in a public place when you forgot to pack a spare outfit; screaming during weddings/christenings/anything where it’s important to be quiet etc. And the pressure you put on yourself to be the smiling, calm and glamorous super mum of the glossy magazines is incredible. It’s amazing the coping mechanisms and ability to anticipate problems you develop. There should be certificates for those skills alone – maybe like a guides thing where you collect the badges!
And all the while you are mourning your old self: your old body (which I slagged off no end but would now give millions to have back!); old job (where you were respected as an intelligent adult member of society and didn’t feel like an inept learner); old timetable (when staying up at night was fun and the day was not divided into 3hr feeding slots!).
But – just as everyone told me – it does get better and a little personality begins to unfold. First a smile aimed right at you, then learning to grab or lift their head and now a laugh; a beautiful tinkling, rolling giggle that makes tears rise up in my throat and a giant idiotic smile spread across my face.
I haven’t slept in three months, yesterday was a disaster, today I’m doing better. I’m not saying I’m out of the woods, just maybe out of the bear trap! It’s been hell, it’s been joyous and tear-filled and exhausting and incredible. And here I am with a nearly 4 month old – we’re all pretty ok and I’ve actually sat down to write a blog post! Ok, it took me three weeks to finish it, hemce it being a little bit all over the place, but it’s done and you’re reading it. (I hope you’ll be a little bit forgiving if it doesn’t all quite work, and perhaps you’ll even let me have the ‘published it’ badge!) Next target is to return to my book, but it will still be there next month whereas baby K will never be this age again. Did I just say that?!
In the non-literal sense, I’ve been building a home from the ground up these past two months and it’s got me thinking… which parts are actually important?
It all started with finding the property – and that’s definitely part of it, feeling safe and protected from the elements, being in a location that suits who you are. It’s certainly practical, but it’s hardly the critical ingredient. I think I’ve proven I can live just about anywhere over the years – I’ve done studio flats, student housing, my dark little Kenyan bungalow, and our great big place in TZ, a 26 bed dorm in Sydney, a tent which I moved throughout Southern Africa and all sorts in between! The walls and the location don’t make it home.
Step 2 was buying some basics and unpacking my suitcase, borrowing some things, and beginning to personalise the place, but the fact is it was empty until Damien arrived.
As soon as he landed and joined in the process the whole thing came alive and we shopped and we cooked and we discussed, and there is no question that good helping of love makes home considerably more, well… homely! But I’ll return to that later. For us, the next step was more practical – the arrival of our shipping container.
As we unpacked we unleashed great splashes of our old life together into our new one. The pieces sat a little incongruously together initially, but are slowly starting to meld. The unloading of ‘stuff’ marked an interesting transition for me. Some of it I had missed, or really meant something to me – often the old things or the keepsakes – but a lot of it felt overwhelming. This was partly because our tiny house here in the UK represents around a tenth of the space we had in our old house in Mwanza (!) so there were practical elements to consider, but also I was shocked by how metaphorically cluttered everything suddenly felt. Did we need all this stuff? How did we collect so much? I realised I’d been enjoying sense of freedom at having only ‘the basics’ until all this arrived and, whilst I was very happy to be reunited with personal items and see our beautiful Zanzibar furniture again, it felt rather like eating a MacDonald’s – all good fun but somehow artery clogging, slowing you down.
Since then we’ve sorted through the boxes and found homes for what we wanted to see every day, put several (ok around 40!) boxes into storage and found a balance for our new home. But I have vowed to shed anything I don’t use every six months or so.
Next step… the dogs! I’m the first to vouch for the fact that pets are part of a home (though I’m more of a cat or goldfish sort of a girl) and my husband was so excited about their arrival that no one could deny it’s part our home-building process (in fact, the night before I was kept in hospital for observation, potentially about to give birth, and you should have seen how torn he was – see my baby born or go to collect the dogs at Heathrow?!?! Really?!). It was no mean feat to get them here but now they are very much ‘at home’: Treading muddy prints through the house, taking up what little floor space we have with their beds and bowls and spreading short blonde hairs into every nook and cranny!
What’s ironic is that I’m sure I can feel how much they are missing Africa and it’s making me miss it even more instead of making me feel more settled. It must be a shocking transition for them arriving in the UK for the first time in their lives without any comprehension of what just happened when they were loaded into boxes and put on three different flights! And now it’s different smells, no open doors so they can wander as they please, no lizards or hyrax to play with, or askaris, different food, different weather, different rules. I can’t help but empathise a little.
Anyway, so we have the roof over our heads, we have each other, our stuff and our pets, but is it home? Not quite, somehow. It’s pretty great, don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, we have so much and we have just left a home where people have so little. But it doesn’t feel real yet. It’s like the set for a play. We are, of course, awaiting the arrival of our baby any day now, but even that doesn’t quite feel real yet (despite the size of my stomach and the ache in my back and hips!). So what will actually make this a home for us, and for our son? It’s so strange to be creating a home for a whole new person, one whose personality is not shaped. I wonder what he’ll make of it all; which parts he’ll come to love, which items he’ll treasure (from the teddy he’ll choose as his favourite in his childhood, to the family heirlooms he’ll hang onto in his adulthood). What other ingredients must we add to make a foundation for him to grow?
I think perhaps it’s partly about shared memories – our house is a bit of a blank canvas right now. It definitely helped when my dad put our wedding photos up on the wall, but now we need to start making new memories here. And I think it’s a little about traditions – how your family does things, from Sunday roast to Christmas Day, cements your little unit and reflects your values. And the repetition of a family tradition makes it comfortable, and memorable too. We’ll have to decide how we do things, how we blend the traditions of our two families and of our multiple cultures to make it all work. I haven’t cooked a roast here yet, come to think of it, perhaps that’s a place to start. And as for Christmases, we are already starting to have our own unique little pattern of Italian, Scottish, English and African influences. No doubt I can add an Easter egg hunt and birthday treats and dog walks and movie nights and bonfire night parties and all those little adventures that we loved in our childhoods.
All that will take some time I guess. As will the other crucial element – people. Of course, I have my fantastic husband and best friend. In fact, I’ve just been blubbing over the movie The Notebook – not a good one to watch when you’re already emotional and full of hormones! I can’t believe I’ve never seen it before. It actually made me very conscious of the simple truth that home is really just wherever your partner is when it comes down to it and the children have left and the dusk sets in. But right now I’m at an earlier stage in proceedings and we will soon have a baby, so I think there has to be more to it than ‘us’ even if that is at the core of it all.
There’s no question that one of the elements that adds such richness to life is people. Friends and family. I guess it’s the thing that, as ex-pats, made us constantly refer to ‘home’ as the place where we were not (I think I have mentioned before how in England I was always going ‘home’ to Tanzania, in Mwanza my holidays were spent at ‘home’ in England). Home is where our favourite people are, and sadly for us they are scattered everywhere. We miss a lot of people in our lives, and we know that we will see them, but you do need friends who are part of your everyday life and who share in regular slices of your days. So now it’s time to meet some people here and make some new friends. I’m just having a hard time finding ways to this whilst I’m 39 weeks pregnant, can only waddle and feel like a bit of a weird potential-friend stalker! Again, I guess it takes time. I’m also finding it tough that our new friends will never have known me before we were a couple, or even before we were parents. How strange that will be (surely they will only ever know part of me?), and yet it has to happen if we are to settle here properly.
In the past I’ve been more of a ‘home is where my hat is’ sort of a girl, and never needed much to make it so. But here is a whole new stage in life. If home is where the heart is – I’m not sure mine is necessarily here. It maybe under an acacia somewhere on an open plain teaming with wildlife as the sun rises. But my loved ones are here and so my heart is here, and who can fail to feel happy when winter sun catches bare barked trees in silhouette or when someone greets you in your own language in a culture you understand and are accepted in? England has a lot of good parts and we will build a home for the foreseeable future. Perhaps the critical ingredient is time. And love, lots and lots of love.
I’d love to hear your additions to this list of what’s important, perhaps you’ll inspire us or help us find more things to get us settled. As always, thanks for reading.
Who’d have thought that a miniature human weighing just a few kilograms and unable to walk or talk yet, could cause so much fuss!
I’m learning that it’s all very well getting pregnant and moving across continents and playing ‘new house’, but at some point you will be forced to face reality and actually prepare for the arrival of this tiny person in a way that you have never prepared for the arrival of anything else in your whole life.
In the past month I’ve done antenatal classes (where I learned to clean chicken korma from a doll’s bum!); discussed my birthing options (until I’m so confused I’m considering just requesting that I be knocked out until it’s all over); and bought all sorts of mad additions to the house (including the cutest cot you’ve ever seen, a daunting looking bath contraption and a car seat which hubby is currently proudly sporting in the back of his car!). But even all of this has felt a little bit like play-acting… until, one fated sleepless night I decided to read the dreaded baby book. Alien words like ‘transition’ (previously a nice innocuous word suggesting a positive change – a sort of caterpillar to butterfly thing perhaps? Not in this case!), ‘crowning’ (previously associated with gold and diamonds. Not in this case), ‘episiotomy’ (that word should not contain the phonetic of ‘ease’ in any form!)… and as the night wore on the reality that this baby has to come out, one way or the other, set in.
It’s an odd concept to actually face: having to prepare for pain. This is not something we do. Pain is something that’s generally a surprise and warns us something is wrong. There are very few circumstances where you plan for it. I mentioned this to hubby. “Torture?” he suggested, helpfully! …Fantastic!
And the one piece of advice everyone thinks it’s worth offering up…? ‘It’s really important to stay calm.’ HA HA HA.
With this in mind I decided I should really get back into yoga. I am really missing my DVD-assisted guru, Nina, in TZ, plus I thought it might be a good way to meet people. I’m told to bring 2 pillows and head for a local church hall by 10am. At 5 to ten I have two big orange sofa cushions in the back of my car and am desperately searching for a parking space in our new town. I get a bit lost, which results in a late entry just after everyone has said who they are and how pregnant they are. I stumble in, red faced, massive orange cushions in tow (everyone else has little, tasteful, discreet affairs I notice!) and everyone turns to me in unison. “Hi,” I say to the expectant (in more ways than one!) crowd, dropping a pillow onto someone else’s mat space and desperately trying to retrieve it without groping her in my flustered state. “I’m Mel… and I’m late, sorry.” I add pointlessly before plonking myself down, a little too hard for the size of me, in the only remaining space. Needless to say no one spoke to me for the duration and my hopes for some mummy networking were crushed. Oh well, maybe next week, with smaller pillows and better parking planning! Still, the yoga itself was ok.
And what does this weekend have in store? Well an exciting visit to Oxford to visit our hospital and meet our consultant, see the facilities and learn even more about the grueling ordeal ahead! Whoop whoop! Maybe they’ll take some more blood and urine if I’m really lucky!
The upside of all of this, though, is that it is all part of the preparation to actually meet that tiny person. I’m glad I’m being forced to take all these steps or I might never have got myself ready. I’d have happily done 10 months of pregnancy and then gone ‘oh, maybe I should consider the baby at some point!’
I guess my plan is simply to set expectations, of myself and of tiny person, as low as possible. That way I won’t be disappointed, I might just be pleasantly surprised. It’s not that I’m a pessimist, just that so many people share such awful tales of misery, isolation, pain and the occasional psychotic break that saying I plan to get showered and dressed every day is just a step too far, so I’m not saying that.
Managing hubby’s expectations, however, may be something of a different ball game. Even at this stage, he looks at me dragging my enormous self around and exclaims ‘Darling, tomorrow you must do nothing. NOTHING. Just relax.’ But in almost the same breath there are expectations of cleaning, collecting things in town and what we might have for dinner, and on returning from a day in the office there is always the expectation that you have achieved something. And NO, having tea with a friend or undertaking a creative pass time does not count – it falls, apparently, into neither category. It is not physically relaxing nor achieving something that contributes to the house… hmmm. A difficult one, particularly as I know that once baby actually arrives every mum I’ve ever met has told me that the only way to survive is tea with friends and lots of cake! Oh well, I guess it won’t be too difficult to avoid as long no one talks to me at yoga!
So, we’re almost there: 1 set of shipping, 2 dogs, 3 expected visitors, 4 more medical appointments and 5 weeks remain before we might just end up with a baby that hopefully doesn’t go too pear-shaped! I’ll keep you posted ☺
Note: For those of you who signed up to this blog because you were interested in my travels, my photography or my writing, and haven’t the slightest interest in kids don’t worry, I don’t want this to become a parenting blog and I’m not going to stop traveling, taking pictures or writing, but I guess since it’s all about ‘life as me’ some of these life things do have to come into it. And how I manage being a mum and trying to still be me, is bound to be a big part of the next chapter. Bear with me, I’ll try to keep it light and human.