I am bereft. And spent. So this was my first five-day week at work since coming back from mat leave in December. LORDY. I am the human equivalent of a deflated balloon; prone on the party floor, covered in fag ash, a little bit of vomit and specks of glitter. Now all I want to do is flop onto the sofa and have my mind numbed by bad TV. Possibly whilst drooling on my own chin and necking wine like it’s juice. How do people do this every week?
It also feels so weird to not spend Friday with my little toddler buddy. Fridays were like all the best bits of mat leave condensed into one day per week. A shot of maternity leave or maternity leave lite. On the weekends every play area is teeming with 50 different versions of Conan the Rampaging Toddler. You take your life into your own hands if you venture into the ball pit. Who knows what is lurking in the depths? Definitely e-Coli. And lets not get started on watching 50 toddler-divas try and share one plastic rocking horse (because of course they all want the same one). Formal hostage negotiation skills are needed. On the weekend it’s Lord of the Flies. But on Fridays everywhere was empty. We frolicked round the soft play venues and parks of SW17 with gay abandon. It was nothing short of fabulous.
Going back to work five days a week has also prompted a hefty dose of mum guilt. As mothers we not only get to push our babies out of our vaginas, forever ravaging our bodies, we also get mum guilt, forever ravaging our minds. As you tiptoe the fine line between your needs and your child’s needs it can raise its head at any given moment. And putting Bella into nursery for five days has unleashed THE GUILT (Caps Lock required). My rational brain tells me that she is really happy there. In fact she cries when we come to pick her up now (which is dispiriting in a whole new way). My rational brain also knows that as nice as our flat is, we don’t have 20 different baby dolls (THANK GOD, TERRIFYING), a bubble machine, a host of dinosaur toys, or daily singing time (well technically I sing, but it could also be classified as inflicting ear torture). In the blue corner we have the rational brain, in the red corner we have mum guilt. And mum guilt wins every time.
I also now feel a pressure to make the weekends EXTRA SPECIAL, as we only get those two days with her. And that means not just sitting in front of the “TV babysitter” watching back-to-back episodes of Hey Duggie and Justin’s House. (Incidentally, Justin, AKA Mr Tumble, seems very asexual, like an aggressively cheerful Ken doll. I am positive that if I took his clothes off there would be a plastic mound where his man-bits should be). However, thinking about it, extra special is all relative these days. Bella is a cheap date at the moment. I am an exceptionally cheap date. So extra special can be nothing more than going to the playground and letting her go on the slide 500 times in a row. And then the swings. 500 times in a row. And then the roundabout. 500 times in a row. Whilst I watch on, taking the millionth video of swing-time, and devouring all her rice cakes (the apple ones are JUST delicious). So that’s where I will be every Saturday and Sunday from now on. It’s a done deal.
It’s Mother’s Day. I am a MOTHER. Sometimes I still double take at that, like I am playing in the dress up box and someone is going to tell me to take the costume off soon. The last seventeen months have sped by so fast. I can barely remember those early days of bleeding nips and brushing my teeth with Sudocrem by mistake (and WHAT. A. MISTAKE). Looking back now on my motherhood journey, here are ten things I would tell my newly mummed self:
The emotional rollercoaster of oxytocin driven euphoria immediately followed by sleep-deprived despair is totally normal, especially when you first get home from hospital. It’s normal to feel a tad emosh. You are at the mercy of a powerful cocktail of progesterone, oestrogen and anything else your body can throw in there (the hormonal equivalent of a Long Island Ice Tea). You aren’t going mad. You will even out.
It’s OK to feel trapped, like the walls are closing in on you and your squalling newborn. Having a baby in the darkest, dankest depths of the British autumn, when you can’t go outside or you’ll end up with a gangrenous trench foot, is hard. Expect cabin fever and don’t fight it, instead RELISH the time you have to lie prone on the sofa watching every Netflix boxset going. This won’t last forever and you’ll wake up one day and realise you haven’t watched Say Yes to the Dress in months. (PS I love the US version of this because it’s always clinically obese brides trying to squeeze into ill-advised, strapless fishtail dresses, whilst their skeletal and “angry because they are hungry” bridesmaids tell them they look great whilst secretly smirking behind their skeletal hands. Car crash TV.)
Don’t turn to Dr Google for everything. It is a false friend, where all roads end in cancer or a rabbit hole of barely disguised parental despair.
Don’t worry about what everyone else thinks ALL the time. On one hand it’s great that we live in a world where we can access information at the tap of a finger and where we can see how everyone else does it, all laid out on a rose-tinted grid. But on the other, it means we constantly judge ourselves against yardsticks that really don’t matter. All that does matter is that you do what’s right for you, and you get through it all with your sanity intact and your little one intact.
Hug Bella all the time. Hold her close and breathe in that lovely baby-biscuit smell (that somehow heady combo of pee, milk and sweat). For she will soon be a rampaging toddler, aka “Conan the wrecker of living rooms and chaser of cats”, and will only want cuddles when ill.
Physically, birth is like getting hit by a truck (slowly). Expect to feel like your vagina has run a marathon, and don’t try to do too much too soon. Enjoy. The. Sofa. (I realise a lot of these centre on the joy of a nice sit down).
Take care of your relationship as well as your baby. You will be cross with your partner at the beginning, for sleeping more than you, for not having leaky tits full of milk, for not having to wear an adult nappy, for not smelling of milk and sick…the list goes on. (And let’s face it you will be cross at EVERYTHING on two-hour sleep increments. You may even find yourself kicking the Hoover just for being, well, a Hoover: guilty.). But don’t let things fester, men are not mind readers (thank god) and you need to keep talking.
Travel anywhere and everywhere whilst she is small. When they are tiny you can strap them to you and off you go. And you can sit in cafes for hours, knocking back flat white after flat white until your eyes bleed and your hands start to tremble, with them slumbering on you. When they get to rampant toddler age, and the PRAM RAGE kicks in, suddenly you are confined to the vicinity of your immediate postcode.
Don’t be afraid to talk to other mums (AKA don’t be so British). Maternity leave will be lonely, so you need other mothers around you. Don’t be scared to say hi, no one will tell you to piss off (let’s face it, we are too British for that too).
Eat more cake. You need it. You deserve it. Eat it all.
One of my first blog posts was about how my three-month-old baby had more diva requests than Mariah Carey. Celebrity demands to ban vacuuming (Jay Z), have only cylindrical vases (Kanye), be lowered onto a sofa (Mariah), have 20 white kittens (again, Mariah) or 28 bottles of water at room temperature (Lady Gaga), were nothing compared to my tiny new-born diva. As Bella has grown up she has maintained her J-Lo ‘tude, it’s just the demands have changed and woe-betide any mother (read rider) that doesn’t keep up.
So here are her current top 12 demands:
1. Do not leave my sight, even for a second. With the advent of separation anxiety Bella wants me within arms reach at ALL times. I can’t even leave her side to go to the bathroom. Ahhh to pee alone without a miniature voyeur. One sweet day.
2. I will allow no one but mother to pick me up. Bella of course has a wider entourage of lackeys to attend to her every whim, but she has assigned me the job of chief-picker-upper. If anyone else tries to get in on this act she will swiftly make her displeasure very clear and they will be fired immediately.
3. My food must be yellow. Bella was a very enthusiastic advocate of baby led weaning at the start, but she hit ten months and suddenly would only put yellow food in her mouth. Mangos, cheese, bananas, bread and porridge are top of Bella’s list of demands. And she KNOWS when I try and trick her. I can’t coat a courgette in cheese so it looks yellow. She knows that there is GREEN food hiding under there.
4. I will not sit in the high chair for more than fifteen minutes. The high chair rage starts for seemingly no reason, other than she has finished eating and therefore must be taken somewhere more fun immediately. It is usually prefaced by a series of epic ‘mic drops’, where left over food, spoons, wet wipes and socks are all dumped onto the floor with increasing force.
5. I will under no circumstances wear a bib. Bib rage also occurs on a regular basis. She will not be constrained by such a mundane piece of clothing.
6. And ditto for socks. No sock lasts on her foot for more than five seconds. I am seriously considering making some with ties attached, “Socks on a String TM”.
7. I need a separate room, nay wing, for all my toys. Currently Bella’s toys have turned our once calm, dare I say chic, lounge into a budget version of the Fun House. There are Day-Glo instruments of fun lurking under every cushion and I am using the Jumperoo as a coffee table.
8. I will NOT SIT IN THE CAR SEAT. This one gets full caps lock. We don’t have a car so we don’t have to put her in said seat very often, but when we do she unleashes full throttle squalling banshee diva, which no amount of distraction can placate. It’s like we have Naomi Campbell strapped in the back seat.
9. I must never be allowed to become bored. This one just gets worse as they get older. Bella needs to be constantly rotated round our weapons of mass distraction. It’s basically a parent powered merry-go-round, where you are the horse.
10. How dare you keep me out of cupboards and bins. Now she can only zombie shuffle at the moment, but it’s enough to get her to ALL the places she really shouldn’t go: the bin, the cupboard where wires and batteries go to die, the cat litter, the cat food dish, the laundry basket…the list is endless. Try and dissuade her from attacking said hazard and the result is not pretty.
11. I will not sit in my own filth. This one hasn’t changed, and is still fair enough. Neither would I. But at the same time…
12. How dare you expect me to stay STILL whilst you change my nappy. Bella does not want to be restrained by the the changing table so it’s like trying to wrestle a nappy onto a wriggling piece of angry custard.
Last week we went to see my parents back up t’north. It was just lovely to be welcomed back into the warmth of the familial bosom, and I am not going to lie, it was even better to have someone else clean the high chair (the high chair is officially my nemesis, constantly crusted in the concrete that is dried Weetabix). But what wasn’t so good about being with the ‘rentals was that they couldn’t pick Bella up and cuddle her any more. In the six weeks since they last saw her she’s developed full on stranger danger and separation anxiety. My parents aren’t complete strangers, but they live so far away that they are definitely on the “stranger spectrum.” So every time they tried to lift her she would look back at me with confusion brimming in her eyes and then switch to full on red-browed squall within moments. This is sad for them, as they just want to shower her with affection, especially my Dad, who turns from gruff northern gent into PUDDLE OF GOO whenever Bella smiles.
I have found separation anxiety really hard to deal with over the last couple of months even though I know it is JUST A PHASE and I know it won’t last forever. Part of this is frustration that it’s so traumatic to hand her over to other people, when she used to be so happy to be passed like a parcel around a group of big cooing adult faces. People don’t seem to be very understanding of this behaviour in a baby. Some take it as a challenge. It’s like when you go out with a playa and you think you will be THE one to change him. “He just hasn’t met the right girl,” you say as he tries it on with every Lycra clad vagina in the immediate vicinity. People also think they will be THE one to change Bella, THE one she won’t cry on, so they keep on trying to pick her up. And trying. It turns into the oh-so-fun game of who can make my baby cry the most. Or they back off so fast they trip over their own feet, with a look of horror in their eyes, like she is a wild mustang to be feared, and ask me if she’s always been this difficult and clingy.
The separation anxiety has also made me start to ask what kind of person Bella will become, and wonder if she will be introverted or shy. Now, there is NOTHING wrong with this, nothing at all, but I am nervous because I used to be introverted and found it very difficult. “WHAT?” I hear those who know me cry. “Introverted! YOU? You could talk wallpaper off the wall.” And that is true now, but this wasn’t always the case.
When I was at school I was a figure of fun. Why? Well, because kids can be mean and I gave them plenty of fodder, a) I was aggressively tall and skinny, all elbows and knees, with snooker player spectacles (prompting the nickname “stick insect”), b) I had a MULLET and I only washed it once a week if it was lucky (prompting the nickname “chip pan head” and c) I was introverted…and introverted was always said as if it was a VERY BAD THING. At one point my teachers even had a quiet word with my parents about this. So it always seemed to me that my self-contained way of dealing with the world was just wrong, and that I should be trying harder to pass myself off as an extrovert. All this pressure was dumped on a poor adolescent riddled in hormones who looked like a cross between Billy Ray Cyrus and Timmy Mallet.
Over time I learned to adapt and change how I interacted with the world (and lost the mullet), but the idea that being quiet is a stigma has stayed with me. Even now I find it hard to leave my entire personality spread eagled on the table at first meet. So with this pedigree I worry about Bella. I keep descending down my own private ‘what if’ rabbit hole. What if she can’t talk to anyone at school, has no mates, and spends her time locked in her room listening to mournful EMO music, with too much eyeliner on, wearing waistcoats with small mirrors sewn onto them (flashback alert)? What if she LIKES REM?? What if she ends up getting called Big Bella? I mean she’s going to be tall with us as parents. You can’t fight genes. What if she never leaves her own bed,not even for custard creams, having to be winched out aged 30 as I look on wringing my hands, clutching my pearls and wailing “if only…”
Before I reach for the gin (read as I reach for the gin), I need to have a strong talk with myself. Why does it matter, so what if she is quiet? Apparently over a third of the population are introverts. Not only that, we need introverts. They are some of the most creative and powerful people driving society forwards, and that’s a whole different blog post in itself. Whatever Bella ends up becoming, all I can do is support her and love her. I will save her from strangers until she is cool with them again. And I pledge now to never make her feel wanting or guilty for how she is. Unless she is listening to REM, then judgement will be passed and words will be had.
Today we got ‘baby-bombed’. Again. This is when a total stranger approaches at great speed, usually cooing loudly, and GRABS, or in more extreme cases, KISSES your baby without asking. On this particular occasion it was an older lady, hunched over double, so she advanced unseen below my eye line. Her gnarled hand, long nails painted a venomous red, reached out for Bella’s (let’s face it) generous thighs and she gave them a vigorous squeeze. Then she went for the classic one-two manoeuvre. Her rouged face came closer and closer to Bella as if in slow motion; I could see the saliva frothing at one side of her mouth, a thicket of wiry hairs on her sagging chin and a light dusting of dandruff on her shoulders. Then came the moment of truth. She KISSED Bella on the cheek. KISSED HER. How is that OK? Would you go up to another consenting adult on the street, jiggle their legs then plant a smacker on them, whilst making unintelligible noises only dogs can hear? No. You’d get punched or possibly shanked. Definitely told to f**k off. So why is this OK with a baby?
Baby bombing is an all new hate for me, and since having Bella I have found a host of new things that either annoy me or please me that never did before. Things that never even got onto my radar pre baby. Admittedly this is probably exacerbated by my emotions being somewhat closer to the surface than ever before, “mum-motions” if you will.
So, my new HATES:
TOP of my list, especially since Bella has developed stranger danger and separation anxiety. The typical M.O. of a baby-bomber is to swoop in all loud and high pitched, grabby fingers outstretched. On one hand I am pleased that complete strangers find Bella so cute they can’t help but touch her. But on the other (and this one wins) I also hate it because you don’t know WHERE THEY HAVE BEEN. And she regularly loses her shit during the thigh jiggling. Who wouldn’t – if someone came up to me and started pinching my (also generous) thighs I would weep for a week.
There was a period when Bella would not nap in the house. We would put her in her lovingly prepared, warm cot in her painfully expensive sleeping bag and she would shriek like she was lying on a bed of nails wrapped in a cat o’ nine tails. During this period she would JUST get off to sleep when inevitably the postman would ring the doorbell. ARGHHHH. Cue rabid squalling from the nursery. Eventually I disconnected it.
Now the Underground has never been a favourite, it’s not like if asked what I was doing today I would answer “oh just ride the Bakerloo line for a few hours, maybe jump off for some quality time on the Jubilee, feel the dirty breeze in my hair – BOOM”…but with a baby the tube is beyond tedious. There are a handful of accessible stations (stations that are entirely useless for any normal journey), no one stands up for you even with a passive aggressive British DEATH STARE directed at them, you develop guns of steel carrying the pram up 1000s of stairs and it is always hotter than an actual circle of hell.
The pavements of SW17
So I have spent many a day pounding the pavements of Tooting and surrounds, and have come to the conclusion that they are not in the least bit pram friendly. They may even inspire me to write a STRONGLY WORDED EMAIL. For a sleeping baby they are the equivalent of a new fairground ride: The Baby Boneshaker. It is effectively like going off-road, I need me a Land Rover not a buggy.
My new LOVES:
Smell of Baby Poo
This will sound weird, and it’s not at fetish level, but I love the smell of baby poo. Why? Because it means she has BEEN. This is what six weeks of constipation did to me, six weeks of watching Bella strain and strain, her face puce, her eyes watering, her little hands shaking, all simply to produce a series of dry dusty rabbit pellets.
Before Bella I was well on my way to becoming a coffee snob. I didn’t feel safe unless my coffee came from an independent establishment where Barista was a PROPER job, where there were ironic captions from lesser known beat poets on the walls and where everything was made from burnished wood, even the cups (yes I would put up with lip splinters to feel confident in my cortado). I even once trialled a bean that had passed through a weasel first (yes pooed out and turned into a latte, yum). But now I am all about a simple Costa. It has baby changing as standard, it has room for a battalion of prams and you can stay for hours without being evicted. What more could any mum want?
Actually any animal print. I always have been a fan, but was never entirely convinced I could pull it off. But now I am obsessed with it, for both Bella and me because it is the best pattern for covering up a multitude of food based sins. Those grubby little avocado hand marks don’t even show up on a leopard print blouse, and the sweet-potato vom just blends in to the tiger print onesie.
When I first started this parenting gig Dr Google was my lifeline. Not only was I desperately sleep deprived, existing only on Hobnobs and a prayer, but I also had ALL of the questions and they came up constantly, day and night (especially night). I was in uncharted territory without a guide and worried incessantly about every move I made. The “Week by Week” book was good, but it couldn’t tell me WHY HER POO WAS GREEN. Reassuringly Dr Google was always there for me, a mere tap away. I didn’t have to wait for a reply or make an appointment. It was there for me at 4am whilst I lay awake with a baby strapped to my breast. It allowed me to wrestle a modicum of control back at one of the most unpredictable times of my life. And most importantly Dr Google never looked down its nose at me. It did not give me a condescending smile and enquire if I was a first time mum in such a way that I knew what it was actually asking was “were you dropped on your head as a child?”
But what you realise after about four months is that Dr Google is a false friend. We have all had false friends in our lives. At university I must have spent half my student loan on those dust-like cereal bars that look healthy but have more calories than a McMuffin. And don’t get me started on the pantsuit I bought that, whilst excessively comfortable and lunge-friendly, gave me a giant camel’s hoof that couldn’t be taken out in public.
And why is Dr Google such a pernicious false friend?
Firstly it has a penchant for all queries leading to diagnosis cancer. It also takes you down bottomless rabbit holes. Because it’s online where every opinion is welcome, you never get resolution, just seventy different, completely opposing views. You also find yourself wading through a baffling new acronym lexicon, including DH – dear husband, DD/DS – dear daughter/son, AIBU- am I being unreasonable (probably yes), DML – dear mother-in-law (I suspect the dear may be heavily laced with sarcasm in this case), and so on and so on. You start out with one question and end up with ten more, convinced you are an awful mother. Ultimately turning to Dr Google becomes an exercise in self-flagellation.
Here are nine things I turned to Dr Google for and apologies in advance, a lot of these are poo related.
1.Why is her poo green? This will happen at some point, probably at 3am, when you can’t even see the nappy properly. Dr Google will direct you to the Poo Pantone; yes, a spectrum of baby poo swatches, from Honey Mustard to Vivid Khaki to Wild Charcoal. As reassuring as this is, when you are trying to colour match in the middle of the night and don’t see your particular shade on there you can easily spiral out of control.
2.Why is she grunting like a wildebeest in her sleep? No one tells you that by about four weeks old your baby will start to sleep-grunt like an unholy combination of the Predator and Beavis/Butthead. Dr Google provided a host of potential solutions; elevating the bed, a reflux wedge, Infacol, colic water, vaporisers, earplugs (for us not her), howling to the new moon at midnight whilst rubbing yourself down with heather. Nothing worked, it just stopped at about eight weeks old, because it was (let’s hear it) JUST A PHASE.
3.What’s the longest a baby has gone without a poo? Reassuringly Dr Google told me they can last a couple of weeks, although if that actually happened I think I would lose my mind and start chanting to the gods of baby bowel movements.
4.Why did she just do a RABBIT PELLET? A rabbit pellet! And the turd queries just keep on coming.
5.How do I get a baby to drink from a bottle? We had an epic battle of the bottle with Bella. Dr Google provided a smorgasbord of potential solutions for this. My favourite was the suggestion that you should start breastfeeding and then sneak the bottle teat in half way through. I tried this and Bella stopped drinking, looked up and laughed at me. Mama didn’t raise no fool.
6.When should I start a routine? Here Dr Google directs you towards two opposing camps of parenting gurus. There are those who believe you should get your baby on a strict schedule the moment they pop out of the womb (perhaps to prepare them for a timetabled world of Outlook and Skype meetings) and those more laissez-faire experts who believe in going with the flow. With SO much to read you just end up ping ponging between the two until you are more baffled than when you started (if possible).
7.How do I get her to self-settle? There is a point when you think self-settling is the holy grail of parenting; you believe it exists and the idea of it gives you hope, but you’ve never seen it personally. Thanks to Dr Google I quickly learnt that I was doing EVERYTHING wrong here, and that Bella would still be either sucking on a boob or a dummy aged 21 in order to get to sleep. In the depths of the blogosphere I did find one thing that worked; replacing the dummy with a strip of cloth that I rubbed all over my chest like some kind of milky dance of the seven muslins.
8.How do I get my baby to nap – IN. THE. HOUSE? After they learn to self-settle they should be able to nap in the flat, in a bed. But no. Apparently at four months old she should’ve been sleeping for circa two hours at lunchtime and waking up refreshed and delightful, not sleeping for 30 minutes max before waking up a raging red eye-browed beast.
9.What can you do to help teething? Baby teeth seem like a pointless waste of time. All that protracted pain only for them to fall out and be replaced. Babies should just gum away at things until they hit adolescence. That or baby dentures. In the absence of mini falsies, I have spent TOO MUCH time Googling teething remedies and TOO MUCH money buying teething remedies, from devilish powder that gets everywhere and resembles class A drugs, to an amber bracelet that got stuck in Bella’s fat folds, to delicious tropical smelling gel that I want to eat as well, to a plethora of toys designed to be GUMMED to death all of which last about ten minutes before being lobbed out of the pram (literally toys, out of the pram).
Raising our little humans will always come with questions because looking after a baby is like nailing soup to a wall. They change constantly and just as you think you have it figured out the bar moves and you have to start all over again. But now I am saying NO to Dr Google. NO to the rabbit hole. NO to having 40 tabs open on my phone. OK even writing that scared me, so maybe it’s not NO, it’s sometimes. Dr Google will be my occasional friend, my once a month for coffee and cake friend, but no longer my bestie. What’s changed is that I am slowly learning to trust my instinct. Now my instinct is definitely not always right, but I am tired of Dr Google telling me I am always wrong.
Last week I got asked by another woman, a mum no less, “why are you still doing THAT?” A perfectly innocuous question I hear you cry. But the THAT in question was breastfeeding. And THAT was said with such disgust that what she could have been asking was “why are you still mutilating small dogs and locking them in disused refrigerators?” Well everyone knows I am a cat person. Why indeed.
This question really got under my skin. As a first time mum you are always on the cusp of a guilt trip. You are convinced that you aren’t doing it right MOST of the time, so you don’t need any help feeling bad about your choices. But of course I said nothing. Of course. So, warning up front, this may get a bit ranty. How you feed your baby is such a personal decision and there is no one right way to do it. I am still breastfeeding Bella at eight months, and I have got to say I have not felt wholeheartedly supported in that decision. I did not expect to feel bad for breastfeeding. A few weeks ago the Royal College of Midwives announced they were putting new emphasis on supporting mums who bottle feed as much as those who breastfeed, which is great because I think that support is THE most important thing. Whichever way you choose to go, whichever way you can go, as you can’t always choose, will ultimately work for you and your baby and should be supported.
So when I was asked why I was still breastfeeding, despite myself I felt guilty. Maybe she IS too old; maybe if I don’t stop now she will still be supping on my boobs into adolescence. I will have to turn up at her university Fresher’s Ball to make her a White Russian (only classy cocktails for my gal). I will have to live under her dorm bed. I will be a 50 year-old husk of a woman, dedicated only to feeding my daughter, with two spaniel’s ears for breasts. I will be like one of those really sad dairy cows you see on the news, tied to a fence with pumps on their udders for 23 hours a day. The spectre of “Bitty” looms menacingly on the horizon. I need to constantly remind myself that she is eight months not eighteen. I also feel guilty that I am depriving Phil of father-daughter feeding bonding time (although nowadays there is more meaningful time spent over a piece of avocado than milk). And I feel guilty for not getting away from her more often as breastfeeding does tie you to four hour increments of freedom at most. Listen to that, I feel GUILTY that I can’t take time to myself more often…I am actually ridiculous.
So why am I still doing THAT eight months in? Well it’s not because I just love how my veiny, baggy, puppies-in-a-sack boobs look (FYI, so sexy). Firstly it was so ridiculously hard in the beginning that I resent giving it up when it is now easy. My nipples bled for almost four weeks. Bella was constantly sicking up a hideous pink mixture of old milk and my blood. I had to sleep with nipple balm under my pillow so it was warmed up and therefore soft enough to apply at any given moment, before, during and after every feed. And Bella fed a LOT. A LOT. At the beginning she was a classic cluster feeder. At one dark point she chowed down every 45 minutes between the hours of 5pm and whatever time we all crawled into bed. At the end of every night (I say end, ha) I wanted to scream into a pillow whilst simultaneously hitting myself in the face. So because breastfeeding was so hard won, part of me doesn’t want to give up on it now it’s simple.
And breastfeeding is great now, both practically and emotionally. In pure practical terms Bella is a lean, mean, breast-emptying machine. She is done in five minutes flat. And it’s convenient; I don’t have to carry bottles with me, I can just flop out said saggy boobs whenever, wherever (a lesser known Shakira song). It’s also cheaper, nay free. Phil made this very pertinent point, as he and his excel sheet are masterfully keeping us afloat during these perilous statutory pay times. And lastly, someone told me that breastfeeding burns between 200-500 calories a day. With my continued addiction to Nutella and my ball-bag stomach I need all the help I can get. As well as practical plus points, emotionally there is also no doubt I feel close to Bella when breastfeeding, especially when she stops, looks up and beams at me halfway through. Heart. Melts.
Saying all this my breastfeeding days may soon be coming to an end. Why? Because Bella has just developed both two teeth and a penchant for clamping down on my nip like a rabid terrier with a bone. Those teeth might be small but they are like two tiny razor sharp knives when applied to what was once an erogenous zone. This is NOT a fun game. THE PAIN. THE PAIN. So the finish line is in sight, but until then, yes, I am still doing THAT.
So it seems that the great British summertime, that fickle friend, may finally have arrived. I say this whilst crossing all my digits, as I am well aware that in the UK we can go from bikinis to galoshes in the space of 24 hours (obviously I will not be wearing a bikini. No one deserves to see that. There isn’t enough mind bleach in existence to erase such an image). So as the mercury hits 24 degrees I have unveiled my pallid, nay blue flesh. My legs look like uncooked turkey thighs complete with thickets of unshaved hair. Despite my hirsute unreadiness I have always LOVED summers and I particularly enjoy them in London. They are so very different to the summers of my ‘youf’ spent up t’north.
In SW17 you know summer has landed when you head to the common and there are a wealth of neon inflatable chairs, far too many people playing that inexplicable game where you lob sticks at other sticks and some dude flying a drone, who you suspect is somehow looking up girls’ skirts. In Blackpool we knew summer had arrived when we got sent to Gran’s house to play next to the canal with the feral cats whilst she cooked us liver and chips in Trex followed by a generous helping of Neapolitan ice cream. And maybe if we were lucky after all that we got a trip to Kwik Save followed by a game of Spot The Ball.
Summer with a baby is fraught with all sorts of new conundrums. Foremost amongst them is protecting Bella from the sun. Being out in it is fine for my chamois leather skin (when I am proper old I want to resemble a shrivelled tan handbag) but she must be shielded at all costs from the FIREY ORB. Added to that she has a vampiric reaction to sunshine, shrinking back in her pram seat, squeezing her eyes shut and growling like an angry Shih Tzu. Growing up in the 1980s we had a somewhat laissez-faire attitude to being in the sun. My parents used to lather themselves up with sunflower oil and vinegar before hitting the beach; yes they were one piece of tinfoil away from actually frying themselves. Sun tan cream was for pussies. We even had a sunbed in THE HOUSE. Once on a family holiday to Spain I burnt my shins so badly I could see my face in them. I am determined this fate will not befall Bella, so I smother her in layers of Factor 50 until she looks luminous. Her big-gal pram also has a woefully inadequate sunshade (it seems to cover her forehead and that’s about your lot) so I end up darting swiftly from shadow to shadow like I am the only player in some weird, shade hunting game. When we go on holiday and it gets even hotter I am going to have to pour her into a head-to-toe wetsuit, like a neoprene baby ninja.
As well as what to dress Bella in, another issue is what on earth to dress my post partum body in when the sun comes out. Straight after having Bella I lost loads of weight quickly as the water left my body and I deflated like a sad lilo at the end of the holidays. But then I reached equilibrium and since then I can’t seem to shift the post labour “gunt” (an unholy union of gut and… yep, I don’t have to say it), a wobbly, pendulous, needs vacuum packing into jeans, gunt. What to dress this new body part in when the temperature soars is a problem. Thus far my answer has been dungarees and I own ten near identical pairs with varying leg lengths. I basically have the wardrobe of a 90s children’s TV presenter. I half expect Ed the Duck to launch out of my closet every time I open it to bemoan my lack of sartorial choice. I tried to buy a playsuit, the slightly flashier cousin of the dungaree, to hilariously awful results. I ended up looking like a big fat baby with a camel’s hoof.
Then there is summer’s rampant insect population, all of which seem to make a beeline (see what I did there) for Bella. The worst are those limp bluebottles the size of baby birds who act like they have had a few too many tequilas, crashing into everything and sliding to the floor in a heap. And then there are the bees. We have all seen My Girl. Macaulay Culkin’s character was killed BY A BEE. Our flat also seems to have been hit by a coordinated attack from a moth army, who, when not eating holes in my favourite items of clothing, are leaping out from behind the nursery curtains, flapping their massive moth wings with what seems like gusto and scaring the bejesus out of me. This all means constant vigilance when it comes to protecting Bella from these vicious and ubiquitous creatures. (Thank god I am not raising a baby in Australia, or somewhere with ACTUAL insects, I would probably lose my mind.)
So although I bloody love summer, I fear that I may spend this year in a state of high alert, ready to leap into action. Ready to apply sun cream, dive for the shade or defend from rogue insects at any given moment. Summer, summer, summertime, time to sit back and unwind? Not so much.
So I might be having a mid-maternity leave crisis. I just tried to get my nose re-pierced. I traipsed all the way to this tattoo shop in Earlsfield only to be told by a very responsible man who was more piercing than face that I couldn’t have it done whilst breastfeeding. I was strangely gutted. The last time I had my beak pierced I was nineteen years old and rampaging around the wilds of South America, wearing head-to-toe “local” clothing (the kind that marks you out as anything but local), downing tequila from the bottle and passing out on the street. The “gap” in gap year actually stands for memory gaps. I fear I am trying to recapture a sliver of that heady, heady freedom as I slide irrevocably into domesticity. And I am sliding. Last night after I put Bella to bed I found myself cleaning the kitchen. Rather than sitting down on the sofa with a jumbo bag of Hula Hoops, a well-deserved glass of Gavi and another episode of Say Yes to the Dress, I was marigolded and vigorously scrubbing the top of the washing machine. The top of the washing machine. Then the draining board. The draining board. And then I looked at our bargain washing up liquid and thought “well, it really comes out too fast, so actually although that was cheaper it’s a false economy.”
That was how I knew I had changed. Ask Phil, ask my mum, ask my old flatmates, I have never been a particularly conscientious person when it comes to cleaning. Not cleaning myself, there I am on point, but house cleanliness. I mean I am not unhygienic and don’t live in my own swill, but let’s just say I used to have a laissez-faire attitude to it all. One particular highlight from my younger flatshare days was when I let a cup of hot chocolate grow mould under my bed (the kind of mould that is so fluffy it almost looks like a pet you want to keep). It was my flatmate’s Newcastle United FC cup, a treasured piece of Toon Army paraphernalia, but rather than wash it I threw it straight in the bin. At university the cleaner for our halls went on strike after we wore her down with our mould growing antics and our insistence on using the carpets as wardrobes. See, laissez-faire.
Since having Bella and being at home more I can feel myself turning more and more domestic. Day by day I feel myself slipping into the stereotype of the stay at home mum as I run around the flat trying to tidy things whilst Bella is either asleep or distracted. Both of these things could end at any given moment so it adds an air of jeopardy to proceedings, like the Supermarket Sweep of cleaning. But this means that you learn to grab every minute you can to DO STUFF, because you might not get a single second, you might get ten minutes or on exceptionally lucky days when a butterfly in outer Bolivia has flapped its wings at the right time, you might get a WHOLE HOUR.
It is also changing my relationship with Phil, as I slide irrevocably into domesticity. Before Bella I saw us as best friends with no real roles. In fact Phil is far better at cooking and far more attentive to cleaning than I am, but now I am evolving into lady-about-house. It is my responsibility to look after Bella, corral the never-ending stream of laundry, mop up the vomit, soak the poo stains, empty the nappy bin, tidy the toys away, sanitise the bejesus out of everything she touches and wash the dishes on a daily basis. And this isn’t because Phil asks me to or expects me to, it’s just a natural evolution because I am at home a lot of the day and I don’t want to spend time in a flat that smells pervasively of baby poo.
As well as the daily chores that come as a side dish to looking after a baby, there are also a PLETHORA of daily decisions that have become my responsibility. These are on a spectrum, from tiny choices such as what to pack in her nappy bag (beyond the obvious nappies) to more momentous ones like when we start weaning. Sometimes I talk to myself about these, boring my way to a resolution. Sometimes Phil gets this treat. Last night was a classic example. In what world does which clothes we put her in at night when it’s 22 degrees outside require a 30-minute monologue? “Shall we put her in the sleep suit and the vest? Or just the vest? But then maybe her arms will get cold? And the sleeping bag or just a blanket? And should we open the window, but what about the foxes that make very loud sweet fox love outside her window every night at 5am?” AND SO ON.
I never expected us to change into the traditional stereotype of mum and dad, yet it happened within weeks of her being born. This has not only made me question myself but has also really dented my confidence. Firstly I never saw myself in this role, I was WORKING WOMAN, at the office for twelve hour days on conference calls with China with a headset that made me feel like a cross between Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl and a 90s Madonna. Secondly, I am also fundamentally just not very good at running a household. I am the opposite of a domestic goddess. If there was such a celestial being I think she would be called Hooverite, and she would send me to domestic goddess purgatory to clean public bathrooms with only a toothbrush and my own spit until I got good at it. I am not one of those people who has Tuppawear in different sizes (I don’t in fact have any Tuppawear at all), I always put colours in with the whites and am constantly surprised when nice crisp shirts turn a mottled pink, I seem to iron creases into clothes, and I can’t really wash up properly, my plates always have bits of stubborn cheese stuck to them. I no longer grow mould in receptacles under my bed, but I just don’t have the type of brain that lends itself to efficient domesticity.
So I am learning as I go, and some days this stresses me out more than it should and has given me a mid-maternity leave crisis. I am a work in progress. A slow work in progress. Yesterday when washing I turned a white cushion; you guessed it, mottled pink. It will be interesting to see what happens when I go back to work and am not spending twenty hours a day in the house. But for the moment this is the new normal. I am one crinoline skirt shy of being a 1950s housewife. And for the first time I get why 1950s housewives had a well-known addiction to speed.
This morning I went into Bella’s room to find that it stank like the inside of a Glasto Portaloo at the end of day three. I half expected to find a festival reveller passed out under her cot having fully soiled themselves. Not only had Bella pooed herself in her sleep, she had also done her first ADULT POO. For those of you not intimately familiar with the topic of baby shit (I have become that person who spends too much time on Dr Google looking at the poo-Pantone), breastfed baby poo looks like chicken korma and smells OK (OK being all relative). However as soon as they start eating purées and solids they start to produce adult-like poo, which bloody stinks. You need a Hazmat suit and tongs to remove the evidence. My only consolation is that one day she will be changing my pensioner nappies. Her first foray into the world of adult turds is a sign that she is growing up fast.
In fact now she is six months old she is looking more and more like a little girl each day, and less and less like a capuchin monkey. I had a frightening flash forward to her as terrible teen, which, if she’s anything like me, will be truly horrific. One day she will be going out sporting inappropriately tight velvet outfits from Bay Trading and I will put on my mum voice and tell her that she “forgot to put on a skirt” and to “get back upstairs and put some clothes on”. She will be sneaking off to the park to drink cider (read lighter fluid) and heavy-pet with boys who work at McDonald’s. Phil has already got a list of probing questions and a torch to turn inquisitor on her first boyfriend, or girlfriend, or gender-nonspecific-friend, as the case may be.
The biggest change so far has been moving out of the newborn phase, which happened at around three and a bit months. This created a maelstrom of bittersweet emotions inside me. On the one hand I am beyond excited by her development into a proper child. “She ROLLED OVER”, “she PUT HER FEET IN HER MOUTH”, “she SAID HI” (she definitely didn’t) being just a snapshot of text messages to my mum over the past few weeks. But on the other hand I also hark back with rose-tinted nostalgia for those (let’s face it horrific) newborn days. How quickly we forget.
So how do you know when your baby is leaving those hallowed fresh-from-the-vagina days behind?
Here are nine sure-fire signs:
1. They start looking weird in romper suits. At the start rompers are the easiest to put their floppy bodies in as they scream bloody murder at your sheer audacity in dressing them. But from about four months they start to look like Matt Lucas in a onesie.
2. Their bald patch grows over. When they are first born, if they have hair at all, they develop a monk-like bald patch where they rub their heads when sleeping. When this starts to fluff-over you know your newborn days are numbered.
3. They don’t fall asleep on you anymore. At the start they would just pass out on you at any given moment like your dribbling drunk uncle at Xmas. Now they are just TOO EXCITED (imagine eyes bulging) when in company to do any such thing.
4. In fact they don’t fall asleep anywhere anymore. You start to walk that tiredness tightrope – too tired and they won’t nap, not tired enough and they won’t nap. Basically they will only sleep whilst lying in a south facing direction, with you standing on one leg and rocking them to the rhythm of “Stayin’ Alive”.
5. You have to invest in distraction techniques. Weapons of mass distraction (more on this to come) are essential to keep them from getting bored and firing you.
6. They start to get thighs like the Michelin man. They get folds on their folds and you just want to EAT THEM. Their thighs are particularly crease-heavy, and don’t get me started on the “multi-gina” (thanks @ElleHuntingford for that very apt description).
7.The you-facing carrier starts to piss them right off. Suddenly you are carrying a wriggling piece of snarling custard.
8.They move to the big gal pram. You know it is time when you have to concertina them into the bassinet and being laid flat, unable to see the world around them, creates merry havoc.
9.They start to gum everything. Anything in arms reach goes straight in the mouth for a generous gumming. Anything. Your hand, your hair, cushions, napkins, cutlery, the side of the table, the floor, their feet, the cat.