Tag Archives: motherhood

The last feed

I remember the first feed like it was yesterday.

That tiny, alien creature, all purple and waxy white, placed upon my exhausted body as I lay on our bed at home, high on gas and air and the enormity of what I had just achieved. Holding my baby close, the baby that for the past nine months had lived inside me and for the past nine hours had pushed me to the limit, feeling the unfamiliar suckling at my breast.

I had hoped, before he was born, to feed him for a year. When I realised, as his weight began to plummet over his first few days on the outside, that things would not be as straightforward as I’d planned, I hoped that maybe we would make it to six months.

But tongue tie sorted, and after several weeks of learning from scratch how to carry out this most natural of functions, we sailed past that first milestone – and just kept on going.

He fed at least three hourly, night and day, for two years.

It was exhausting, but it felt so right. I was proud to have overcome those initial obstacles, to have figured out how to make breastfeeding work for both of us, to have mastered the art of feeding in the sling – to have written two novels with him nursing there.

I did wonder though, after that second year, whether he would ever stop.

That was my adjusted goal, in line with WHO recommendations: to “continue breastfeeding up to the age of two years or beyond”. And then as that new deadline approached I decided to let him lead the way as far as weaning was concerned.

I wasn’t expecting him to go quite so far “beyond”…

We had a few shaky moments, soon after he turned two. However gentle and respectful my parenting aspirations I really, really needed to get some sleep. But then just as I thought I might need to make the decision for us he decided he didn’t need to feed at night any more.

Daytime feeds continued, every three hours.

As we went into the fourth year, that eased off. It would be just twice a day, before his nap and at bedtime. And then just for his nap. And then sometimes not even for that. He would go a day or two or three and I would think perhaps we were done, and then he would ask again for booba and I did not say no.

I often asked him, in those last few months, if there was milk. It was hard to believe that my body could be so adaptable, keeping up a sporadic supply for as and when my boy decided he needed it. But he assured me that there was, and sometimes I still felt the letdown, the rush of oxytocin.

I miss that, a little, now that he has stopped.

I tried to remember to take photographs. It was easy in the early days (once I’d got over the initial insecurities), but my confidence dimmed again as he got older. Our society does not take kindly to the image of a preschooler on the breast, however much a nearly four year old is well within developmental norms to be not quite weaned.

Still, I captured a few. I am glad to have them now: those pictures of the (almost) last feed.

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The actual last feed passed unnoticed. I suspect it was a naptime, one afternoon when I snuggled beside him in his bed as he fought against the tiredness permeating his little body. Perhaps it was an afternoon when I dozed off, too: enjoying having my child close, the whirlwind of energy temporarily stilled.

It is a strange feeling, knowing that I won’t nurse my child again. I can already feel a levelling out in the relationships in our family: my husband has been so incredibly supportive of our sustained breastfeeding journey, and part of me is so happy that there is no longer that imbalance in our parental roles.

There is at the heart of it all, though, a sense of loss.

Something happened last night that brought it to the surface, made me realise that we are in the midst of a powerful transition.

Arthur’s cries startled me from sleep at about two in the morning. He very rarely wakes at night nowadays, and it is even rarer that he calls for me. But he was: shouting “Mama!” with increasing urgency. I leapt out of bed and down to his room, and found him kneeling on his new cabin bed peering into the almost darkness.

I searched out his eyes and held him close, his little body shaking. I asked if it had been a bad dream and he nodded, head still nestled in my neck. I wanted to ask what it had been about but I didn’t: I waited.

Moments later he pulled back and looked at me.

“I dreamt you died, mama. I dreamt you died.”

I lifted him out of the bed and we snuggled on his beanbag. His eyes wide open and breathing shallow as he rested his head against my chest, my hand gently stroking his hair and reassuring him that I was very much still there. Every now and then he would ask, “Why did you die, mama?” I didn’t know what to say, so I held him closer.

I felt my breasts fill with milk, but he did not ask to feed and I did not offer.

After a while of lying there I asked if he would like to come and sleep with us or whether he would prefer to go back into his own bed. He stood up and walked across the room, climbing the ladder up to his bed as I hovered close behind. He pulled the covers up to his chin and looked at me, smiling when I said he could come to us at any point if he felt scared.

He closed his eyes and went to sleep and I went back to my own bed and lay there in the almost dark, thinking.

In his world, one where he has been nourished physically and emotionally at the breast for as long as he has been alive, I suppose a piece of his mama has died. I am still here, though, and I can still comfort him.

Things will just always be a little different from here on in.

Now you are four

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Dear Arthur,

You know, you have almost got me lost for words.

I have been looking forward to writing this post, to reflecting on the wonderful little person who you have become, but now that I am here I have absolutely no idea how to contain you on this page.

Four really is the most magical age.

Over the course of last year, you began to shed the things I associated with your babyhood: the night waking, the nappies, the breastfeeding. That last one you only called time on in December – I was beginning to wonder whether you ever would, but I am so glad I left it up to you to decide when to stop. We were both ready, I think.

We still have the sling, used sporadically now but invaluable for long walks and hectic crowds. I love still being able to carry you when you need it, but more often than not you are charging ahead, leading the way – and I love that, too.

You are so confident out in the world – within our little town especially, but it doesn’t take you long to get your bearings wherever we are. We’ve taken lots of trips this past year, and you really are the perfect traveller. Curious and engaged and full of energy. I’m looking forward to all the travelling we have to come – and to learning Spanish with you, I know it won’t be long until you overtake me!

I know how privileged I am to still be spending so much time with you. By rights we should be gearing up to you starting school now, but we’ve decided to hold back at least a while – and for that I am very grateful. You love your forest school – and hopefully we will find another that will take you when you are deemed too old for that particular adventure to continue. The forest certainly feels like a more appropriate venue for your learning than within the four walls of a conventional classroom.

The forest, and the beach, and the gymnasium, and the theatre. The town you love to walk or scoot or bike through and say hello to familiar faces as we pass, your friends that range from 6 months to 60 years.

And then there are the worlds that you create at home. I thought your imagination was spectacular this time last year, but it really has exploded once again. You are fascinated by Star Wars – though you have only read the books so far. When we finally watch the films I think they might just blow your mind.

You do still love watching movies, but it’s playing out the roles yourself that you have really revelled in over the past few months. Luke Skywalker. Peter Pan. Buzz Lightyear. Woody.

You put on the costumes – at least the closest we can find – and leap around reenacting scenes and creating new scenarios. Or you use your lego to create ever more advanced vehicles for your characters to inhabit, combining the mini figures to create original narratives which can play out for hours.

Your lego has become your favourite tool for building, though you are fascinated by the construction challenge of your new marble run too, and cannot wait to make something with your new tool kit. A doll’s house, you said, inspired by the one I used to play with many years ago that you discovered at my parents’ house this Christmas.

There is something so alluring about those miniature worlds, and I am excited about the prospect of (re)discovering them with you.

I get waves of anxiety sometimes, worrying that we are doing the wrong thing by following the road less travelled. But there is no escaping the fact that our education system is sick, and I think if we follow your lead then we cannot really go wrong, feeding your curiosity and helping you access the world of grown ups as and when you are ready to do so.

It’s amazing how, as you grow, all preconceptions I had about this parent – child relationship begin to fade away. You have so very much to teach me.

And I still have so very much to learn.

All my love for always,

Mummy xxx

 

The wisdom of a child

I have been working on two pieces of writing this week. My December resolution seems to have done the job, and whilst I haven’t written every day I have relished that blissful state of being immersed in creative writing – though interestingly both pieces have their roots in fact.

One more solidly so: each year at around this time since Arthur was almost one I have written a book about the previous twelve months – lots of photos, and words that attempt to capture the essence of his adventures and how he has grown.

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The first was a chunky board book made by a company in the states. I couldn’t actually find anyone who would create a custom one off in the UK (business opportunity anyone?), so that was pretty expensive… The next two I made myself using blank board book templates. Totally achievable, especially with some sticky-backed printer paper, but more than a little time-consuming.

This year I really couldn’t face the logistics of actually putting the book together, and now that Arthur is old enough that chewing books isn’t generally in his repertoire I figured a standard paperback would be fine. So I went to Blurb, and used their very excellent software to put this year’s book together. It would have been almost entirely painless had I not left it until the last day for ordering to get it delivered in time…

I can’t wait to see it, and to read it with him. It’s interesting for me seeing how these books are developing year on year: there’s a lot of rhyme, and more so this year just because there’s more text in general. There’s also definitely more imagination creeping in, reflecting Arthur’s cognitive growth and understanding. I think as he gets older the foray into metaphors might be quite fun – and there will still be the base pleasure for him of a story that is based on his own experiences.

The second piece I’ve been writing this week is too, in a way. It was inspired by something Arthur said to me a little while ago – actually woke me up with, as in crept into my room and whispered it into my ear whilst I was still half-asleep. He said “I dreamt this house was the Millennium Falcon, and outside was the entire galaxy”.

Recalling that now I guess I could have taken the story it inspired into a whole intergalactic sci-fi direction, but in fact the world it brought to mind (particularly in the context of those sleepy mornings) was one where a mother and son were trapped, facing seemingly unsurmountable challenges together.

It has an aura of Room about it, but it’s actually closer to 28 Days Later – without the zombies. I really enjoyed the process of writing from a very intimate, domestic starting point and through my characters (who are not exactly me and Arthur) discovering a whole other backdrop to their existence that I had no clue about when I began.

I took the time to plan once I started to realise what was going on, though, so I think I know where things are headed now. One, or maybe two, more sessions and I should have a first draft done – and I’m quite excited about crafting this piece into something submittable.

It’s all been a wonderful reminder of how utterly inspiring hanging out with a little person all day really is. There is no doubt that it’s hard work, and sometimes I find myself wishing that I had more hours in the day that were not filled up with the mundanity of family life.

But it took having a child to finally empower me to realise my dream of becoming a writer: and when I take a moment to stop and reflect on just how magical that child is it is not hard to understand why.

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A question of balance

The unschooling diaries: week thirty-six

Finding balance is at the heart of any parenting journey, whichever way you choose to do things.

But I feel like having headed off down the unschooling path there’s a whole other challenge to be faced – because it’s not just your own views and needs and desires you’re trying to factor in, and those of the people whose opinions you value, but those of your child(ren) as well.

I thought, when Arthur was just a hypothetical, that I knew exactly what kind of parent I’d be. My experience as a teacher had taught me that I was likely to be fairly child-led, but I also knew (or thought I knew) that I would eschew screen-time in favour of more ‘wholesome’ pursuits, and envisaged hours spent elbow-deep in arts and crafts (to satisfy my own desires as much of those of my hypothetical child).

It turns out that, apart from in very special circumstances, Arthur’s not super keen on painting and gluing and sticking. And he really, really loves his iPad. I guess that’s partly my fault for letting him loose on it in the first place, but there was always a niggle in the back of my mind (birthed both by my genuine belief in the power of cinema (teaching again), and by the residual resentment left by my own television-starved childhood) that suggested that maybe moving image (and video games) has a potentially vital part to play in the development of a modern child.

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So he watches things. Movies, mainly – and more recently a few TV shows. I favour retro offerings: there’s something about modern editing that reminds me a little too much of the addictive appeal of drugs – hallucinogenic, exciting, but ultimately leaving you hollow and empty. And so yes, I curate the range of films and TV shows I give him access to.

I also refuse to let him sit and watch as much as he might like to. For most parents I imagine that’s not especially controversial – the idea of setting strict limits on the amount of screen time a child should have is pretty much a given – but in the unschooling community it’s enough to make me at the very best an outlier.

It comes back to the whole addiction thing though, for me. To that innate human tendency (maybe not all humans, but certainly lots I know) to do the thing that’s bad for you even when you know you’d be better off doing something else. With Arthur, I see the switch from real engagement to glazed-over eyes, the prickliness when I ask him if he would like to do something else, the closing down of perspective on the ‘real’ world as the virtual world becomes increasingly compelling – and it is then that, for better or for worse, I intervene.

I get the whole unschooling thing about letting kids find their own way through the multitude of distractions on offer. I get that it has huge payback for their self-efficacy to genuinely get to choose how they spend their time. I get that I might not always get it right when I make a choice for my son – and that the impact of that on him goes beyond my simple error to something deeper in his developing personality.

And yet, I will still push to get him outside. I will fight his desire to stay cocooned on the sofa on a sunny day, because I know that once he crosses the threshold he will remember how good it feels to breathe fresh air and have the space to run.

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We had a day like this last week. Arthur basically wanted to hibernate: stay in his pyjamas, cover himself in soft things, and hunker down in his nest. And we did that, for a bit. I hunkered down with him – because more than often when he wants to sit and watch a movie he wants one of us to watch it with him – and we watched Peter Pan, and we talked about it.

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And then he wanted me to to put something else on, and despite the fact it was getting close to lunchtime he wanted to stay in his pyjamas: and I said no.

So instead we got up, and got dressed, and got out of the house. We took the aerobie to the green, and raced each other through our giggles, and looked for blackberries. And it was awesome. And he loved it.

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And part of me thinks (or at least thought, in that moment) that we should be doing that all of the time, because of course being outdoors is way better than being cooped up inside with a screen. But then part of me knows that his imagination is relishing in the inspiration it is getting, day in day out, from its exposure to the Disney and Studio Ghibli back catalogue.

Ultimately I have to remind myself that it is all about balance. And my balance won’t necessarily look like yours, or my mum’s, or my friend’s, or my sister in law’s.

But that’s ok, because if there’s one thing that I am learning about this parenting business it’s that we all get to do it the way we want to – and it’s only when we’re persuaded to make decisions that we really don’t believe in that the trouble really starts.

 

 

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“A portrait of my child, once a week, every week, in 2016.”

We had a bit of an epic day of travelling last week, me and Arthur.

It was the funeral of the father of one of my oldest friends up in Stourbridge, and I really wanted to be there. It meant a crack of dawn start and eight hours on peak hour trains to get there and back from Devon, but fortunately this little man took it all in his stride.

He is such good company, and so curious about the world. I just can’t believe how grown up he’s getting.

Linking up with Jodi at Practising Simplicity for The 52 Project. 

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“A portrait of my child, once a week, every week, in 2016.”

Looking back over my photos from this week, it is the ones of me and Arthur together that stand out the most. I know it’s cheating a little bit to call this a portrait of him, but in my defence he still, even as a confident and independent three year old, feels in many ways like an extension of my self.

I wonder if it always feels like that, being a mother? There’s a quote it brings to mind:

“Making the decision to have a child – it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body” Elizabeth Stone

For me these toddler years, with all of their wonder and challenge, are a critical moment in this. Perhaps it is because I have chosen a route through parenting where we are very much attached, but it is only now that I am really starting to feel us begin to articulate our separateness. Him as an incredible bundle of energy and potential, me as a whole new creature to the one I was before I bore him.

It’s exciting, but it brings with it too a sense of loss.

The cuddles help with that though. And this week we have loved exploring our together-yet-apart bodies through yoga. By which I mean mainly me attempting to rediscover well-worn poses whilst he clambers delightedly all over me.

I pretend to be annoyed that it makes it near impossible to practice how I used to, but secretly I love it.

Linking up with Jodi at Practising Simplicity for The 52 Project. 

On women and writing

My son has not been 100% the past few days, which has meant much more time sitting on the sofa having cuddles than usual. During one of these moments yesterday afternoon, whilst savouring the calmness of the three year old nestled at my chest, I had a bit of a revelation.

I found myself looking at my bookshelves, idly imagining my own published work sitting up there one day, and then it struck me: the overwhelming majority of the books in my life were written by men.

I couldn’t in that moment put my finger on why that was, but I knew it was significant for me – as a woman and as a writer. So today, what with it being International Women’s Day, I decided to do a little investigation.

As I am so often wont to do, I turned my gaze inwards first: tried to work out what it was about me that had led to such a literary gender imbalance. These books I have around me chart my reading history back to my teens. I have never got around to organising them in any particular way, and the resulting cacophony of titles is not easy to analyse, but however many times I went back again to look the facts remained the same: I have, over the past twenty years of my life as an avid adult reader, amassed a library which is almost entirely male-generated.

McEwan, Banks, Rushdie, Murakami, Self: all literary idols of my teens and twenties, all fantastic authors in their own right, but peculiar role models for a young woman trying to find her way in the world.

I didn’t think so at the time of course. I remember having a strong desire to be taken seriously as a reader and as an intellectual in my very male-dominated social and family circle. I remember arrogantly dismissing Austen – the only female author I remember studying at school – for what I saw as her obsession with vacuous romance. I remember being switched off by chick-lit as frivolous and a waste of reading energy (though I never looked beyond the covers to find out if that was actually true).

Of course as time went on I read – and loved – books by female authors too. Just not enough.

As my mind shifted to the context of all this I began to wonder whether it was merely a phenomenon isolated to my own book collection. I suspected probably not – certainly my sense of the world of the professionally respected writer is of one that is very male dominated. But I had already established that my lifetime’s research in this field was somewhat skewed, so I figured it was worth investigating.

Turns out it wasn’t just me. A quick google search threw up a woman whose novel proved eight times more attractive to agents when submitted under a male pseudonym; a study which revealed that 75% of the books reviewed in the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement were written by men. I’m sure further research would have given me plenty more reassurance, but I’m pretty confident that it’s not just my bookshelves that are biased.

The reason why is somewhat more elusive. Are there actually less female authors than male ones – or good ones anyway? This question was explored at length in a fascinating essay written by Francine Prose in 1998, resurfacing when V.S.Naipaul expressed a similar disparagement towards Jane Austen as my teenage self in comments he made in 2011. The answer is of course complex and multilayered, with a multitude of reasons why women write, or don’t, and why people want to read what women write, or don’t (or at least what the publishers think in this regard).

A hypothesis that has recurred over the years is that is has something to do with motherhood: that ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’. Or if you are going to succumb to kids, just make sure you only have the one.

For me, the opposite is true. Or at least I thought it was. I found becoming a mother extremely motivating – liberating, even – and the birth of my son will always be intrinsically linked with my reasons for finally putting virtual pen to paper and writing my first novel. However as time goes on it has all started to feel a little self-indulgent, a waste of my ‘potential’, of my ‘education’  – both the desire to plunge myself headfirst into parenthood, and the equally strong desire to use all my spare moments to write. The voices from my past are surfacing and telling me that just writing and looking after a kid are hardly valuable uses of my time. So those precious minutes are being eaten away because I feel like I should be earning money (though I am lucky enough at the moment not to strictly need to) and because I feel that I should be doing something ‘worthwhile’ (though I have already dedicated ten years of my life to teaching).

I am wondering now, as I work all this through, whether I shouldn’t be seriously rethinking my priorities. But that would mean a commitment to this role of Writer, an assertion to myself and to others that I am good enough, and it is worthwhile.

I’m not sure that I’m there yet. Though coming across another article about how what separates unsuccessful female writers from successful male ones is the very reticence that I recognise wholeheartedly in myself has given me even more pause for thought.

And I am glad to say that my explorations did not throw up only negatives. I found this article about ten women authors who published after age forty particularly encouraging – there is still time, and hopefully plenty of it.

Also encouraging is the fact that one of these authors is currently sitting on top of my reading pile: a reading pile which for perhaps the first time ever is made up of books entirely written by women.

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None of this is by design. I never consciously set out to not read books by women, or indeed to seek them out as I grew older. But the shift in my literary gender balance is not entirely accidental either. I think it speaks to where I am right now with myself, as a woman and as a writer.

I’m still figuring out exactly where that is, but once I do? You’d better watch out, world.

 

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