Thursday, February 28, 2008

Forget multi-tasking - we're multi-careering!

The other night my husband asked me why I was tired. He knows this question is grounds for divorce but he seems unable to stop himself. I gave him a withering look and explained calmly: “I’ve been in peace negotiations since 6.30am this morning. Between conflict resolution and crisis management I have not had a break and it’s now 7pm. If I was part of the Israeli – Palestinian peace talks – something for which I am highly skilled – I would not now be standing making your bloody dinner.” That ended that particular conversation.

And so when we went on holiday recently and, as I have frequently done since resigning a high-powered job to look after my two babies, I hesitated insecurely over what to write on the landing form’s ‘what do you do?’ section. I looked at my clan who were imploding around me and quickly scribed “chief negotiator", extremely pleased with myself. Now I look forward to filling in those wretched forms. The other day I decided to be ‘project manager’ – organising the lives of a two year old and a baby requires titanic skills in that area.

I had thought when I took time out (note I’m not saying time off) from full-time employment that my CV would start looking a bit threadbare when I emerged from the posit lined clouds of early motherhood. But I have to say I’m now rather pleased with it. I reckon by the time I’m ready to face the weary world of work again I’ll be up for any job.

I am top management material with my negotiation, conflict resolution and crisis management skills, ability to work weekends and availability for on-call duties 24 hours a day. I’m a people person; albeit a Little People person. I can also add Structural Engineer to my portfolio having emerged relatively unscathed from the what-appears-to-be-deliberately-so-frustratingly-stupidly-designed-this-had-to-be-invented-by-a-man array of baby and toddler items that needed assembling. I hadn’t cried for years before I had to put together our first baby’s pram.

Naturally I am a highly trained nurse who not only can apply Poo Bear plasters with ER precision but can now calculate a temperature with a mere hand-to-head swipe. I am Teacher, often of things I never knew I knew! I am Inventor, Artist, Masterchef. I am Pillow and Punching Bag. I am Cleaner and Chauffeur. I am Hairdresser and Bodyguard. I can speak when sleep-deprivation has sucked all words from my brain. I can sing while stirring the soup and writing out the shopping list.

Finally I am a Diplomat. In the midst of recent potty training Daisy decided she wanted to wear pants to bed. Clearly a straight no was not an option: she’d cry, and I’d get annoyed and who needs that when the clock is ticking down to “MY TIME”. It had to be a yes that satisfied all parties. So now she leaps into bed at night with her pants over the top of her sleep suit like SuperToddler. And you know what? Surely that makes me a SuperMum? Must add that to the CV…. Now, who wants me? And what are the holidays?

(c) AKG 2008

Monday, February 18, 2008

Why has no-one invented Satnav for mums??

After months of hint-dropping – and running empty on present ideas – against my better judgement, I bought my dearly beloved a Satnav for Christmas. Unable to cycle to work anymore, he’d bought his own car and I thought at least I’ll be blissfully unaware of the new woman in his life. But a bit like Princess Diana said, there are now three people in this relationship. Not content to confine the maddening mumbling map to his own car, he brings it into mine whenever we travel en famille.

Her irritatingly banal BBC news voice enters the vacuum of our car, disallowing any real conversation and coming between us like a filling in a sandwich.

I wouldn’t mind if we genuinely needed directions. I wouldn’t even mind if I was a rubbish map reader. But we don’t. And I’m not. Still, every journey now is delayed for ten minutes while he studiously enters in the digits of our intended destination (which is only 2 miles away down a straight road…), and then we spend the next 40 minutes being dictated to by a disembodied fishwife telling us every .2 of a mile to turn left, turn right, go straight, go here, go there. Go to Hell I want to yell, but I try to accept this new marital relationship with some dignity, even while she is leading us on a merry dance round the most circuitous route known to man (and woman).

The first time we used it, it duly took us to Bridewell Lane. Unfortunately it was Bridewell Lane in a different town to the one we wanted. As I bore into him with that well-perfected, raised-eyebrow look of disgusted condescension, he muttered something about using proper postcodes and cheerily reset the damn machine to start the farce again.

Seriously… under what other possible circumstances would a man enjoy – nay, love – being dictated to by a stern humourless woman he doesn’t know??? Ok, let’s not go there.

So with conversation impossible, and the kids screaming in the back from being strapped into their carseats for an illegal amount of time while Bossyboots in the corner drove us all round the bend, and another, and another… I got to thinking. Why hasn’t someone invented a Satnav for mums? Let’s face it. When you first bring your babe home from hospital, who wouldn’t pay their life’s savings for a kindly voice in the corner telling you when to feed the baby, when to put the baby to sleep. Make a cup of tea. Sit down. Phone your mum to come over and do the ironing. When to pick up the baby. Dress her in warm clothes – no, not that silly, the pink one! Hold her silly, she’s crying. No, not that way – over your shoulder, she needs winding. Do you know nothing???

On second thoughts…. Maybe not.

(c) AKG 2008

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Deceive to Achieve!

When I lovingly rubbed my pregnant stomach, thoughts meandering on the beautiful relationship I was going to have with my child-to-be, birds tweeted and blossoms bloomed in my rose tinted vision of girlish giggles and hand holding happiness. I wanted an honest relationship, one where I talked to her openly, and she learned from my wisdom and off we trotted into the sunset with bunnies hopping beside us.

And then I became a mother. A real one. Not the fantasy type we see in magazines, and parenting books.

We do have an honest relationship, my two year old and I - as long as the truth suits me of course.

I never thought the best bit of mothering advice I received would come from my brother, but one day he cunningly told my neice that the zoo was closed for repairs when she was hounding us to go. I raised my eyebrow in admonishment (only being a mum to a baby at this stage, I was foolishly allowing myself that sanctimonious 'that's not how you're supposed to do it' air people-who-are-yet-to-do-it' have).

"Deceive to achieve, Sis. Deceive to achieve. It's the only way," he claimed as my neice sauntered off to play with her doll, satisfied she was not missing out on the elephants.

I was shocked of course. This was not how I was going to do it. Oh no no.

Oh no indeed. It's astonishing how quickly one's sanctimonious know-how evaporates the second children reach the Age of Un-reason.

Now I actually pride myself on the creativity of my deceptions. It amuses me in ways my husband finds rather disturbing. My latest Uber-scam (if I may be so modest) is the Brocolli Bombshell. After months of feeding my beloved organic, home-cooked, multi-coloured, multi-nutritional, multi-tasty morsels, the wretched Age of Stubborness took hold and all things green became the deal-breaker on culinary negotiations. Here was the deal - she would not break.

As I pleaded with her one day that she could not have Pesto Pasta for every meal, the little devil of deception that lives in the dark recess of my brain whispered back to me.... "Oh yes she can....."

My eyes fell upon the frozen bags of pureed vegetable cubes I'd just made for my baby. Aha!

Now Daisy can have Pesto Pasta as often as she likes - she just has it with two cubes of pureed broccoli, or green beans, or courgette - absorbed and hidden by the strong flavoured, green coloured pesto. Riding high on my success, I now chuck a cube of cauliflower in with her pasta cheese sauce.

I can't win them all. And nor should I. She has plenty of scope to get her way. But those moments when I secretly win - the ones when she is happy with my answer, and I rub my hands with witch-like glee - Score One for mummy! Yes I know, I really should get out more...

(c) AKG 2008

Friday, February 8, 2008

Are we on Speed?

Speed is a relative notion - just ask the hare and the tortoise.

Last week, when my mum came to stay, she took half an hour to make a tuna sandwich. I was incandescent with impatience. In the time it took her to butter two slices of bread, open a tin, spread some mayo and slam it all together (although in fairness, she would never slam, but gently place together - herein lies the beginnings of our differences methinks), I had fed the baby, detached screaming toddler from self-imposed prison under the dining room chair, prepared our dinner, read half the paper, watched the news headlines, put the babes to bed and sent two text messages. I was about to start hoovering the house in a fit of agitated pique when the plate finally arrived at my table.

It certainly looked the same as mine would have. It didn't seem to taste any different than the ones I make. But there it was in all its glory - the Half Hour Tuna Delight.

And so began one of those mother daughter debates (you can use other words here such as arguement, rant or fight, but for the purposes of diplomatic relations, I'm sticking with debate). She says I do everything too fast - I eat too fast, I talk too fast, I walk too fast, I drive too fast. I even, god forbid, get ready in the morning too fast! Of course I splutter my indignation at such suggestions - doesn't she understand I have so much to do? If I don't do everything at warp speed I'll fail as a mother, loose my husband and the house will disintegrate around our very ears. As for the children, how else am I to get through the day with two little monkeys if I don't move at Olympic pace?

She gives me that look. You know the one. The look that says, Oh please. You think you have it hard now? Try doing all that - but with none of the time saving devices you have - I had no washing machine, no tumble dryer, no microwave oven, no steriliser, no disposable nappies, no car! And by the way, how did I produce such a drama queen?

It's amazing how much one's mother can say with one slightly raised eyebrow.

Naturally I poo pood her with that condascending tone that we reserve for our mothers, something along the lines of 'in your day you didn't have half the pressures we modern mums do' and raced off to hang the washing out in 1 minute flat.

But between you and me, I think she's right. I barely finish one task before my mind has moved on to the next. My children must wonder who the mad woman is who attacks them with a facecloth every morning before ramming a toothbrush into their mouth, swirling it around and yaking at them to 'spit' before they've swallowed their last bite of breakfast. I'm not sure I've ever actually walked down my front path to the car - I'm usually just a blur of movement with a baby under one arm and 14 bags hanging off the other, shouting at my toddler to hurry up.

So it's a bit late being February and all. But here's my New Year's Resolution. Chew my food. Walk down my path. Let my kids finish their breakfast. I'm not sure I can stretch my tuna sandwich making skills to half an hour, but I'm going to give it a damn good try.

(Published in March/April 2008 issue of Infant & Maternity Magazine)
(c) AKG 2008

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Cherish your angels

Yesterday a close friend of my husband's died.

Just like that.

He was 39, funny, caring, outrageous, and kind. He leaves behind a shattered wife, and the two loves of his life - aged 3 and 18 months. Yesterday, in a moment of freak accident, as his snowboard careered off the edge of a mountain in brilliant sunshine and glorious surroundings, their young lives changed forever. His exhuberance for life was only matched by his adoration of his girls - girls that will now grow up without him to hold their hands, to dance in puddles, to shout "Daddy, Daddy" when they find a ladybird in the garden.

I know his wife, his many many friends, and his family will make sure those beautiful girls grow up surrounded by the best memories of their dad they can offer. And despite my lack of religious belief, i know - because it can be no other way - that he will walk beside them every step of their young lives.

last night my husband broke down as we went in to check on our own girls. so precious. so beautiful. so needing of us. so let's cherish them. let all of us who have them, cherish them.

lets make sure we hold their hands, dance in puddles and chase ladybirds in the garden. we must, not only because we can, but because we owe it to those who can't.

(c) AKG 2008

Survival Guide to Motherhood

Ok, here are some simple questions. If you’ve never had a baby, you can be excused for wondering why I’m asking them. If you are a mother, then you’ll know there are no simple answers and these are the questions that torment us on a daily basis. Are they deep and meaningful? No. Will they contribute to the great philosophical debates of our time? Probably not. But as a parent, you’ll be asking them every day, and if you are anything like me, ranting whenever you get the chance.

If you are a mother with at least one baby (and the answers get harder with each additional child!), how do you:

Pee in public?
Shoe shop?
Get your legs waxed?
Buy petrol?
Go food shopping?

These might seem like mundane tasks that most of us can do with our eyes shut. But throw a toddler into the mix and they become near impossible feats. Let’s take a few examples. I have a newborn baby and a toddler under two, both still in nappies. Now throw in a double buggy and the inevitable plethora of bags (handbag, change bag et al) and I’m like an elephant tramping through the forest destroying everything around me. I should come with flashing orange lights and a siren. Shopping for shoes (in crammed stores where they come with a price tag under €300) is just not possible. Shopping in any high street store, where the gap between clothes stands seems designed to be exactly two inches narrower than my pram, is an obstacle course. Having had my fill of back peddling to extract clothes dragged into my pram wheels, reversing out of shops because I can’t get to the back where the really nice tops are and manoeuvring a heavy pram, two children and 14 bags up a flight of steps because there is no lift in the shop, I now buy my clothes on-line – you get to shop when the kids have gone to bed, drink a cuppa while perusing the latest trends and have them delivered straight to your door. I’ve been forced to become a Boden Babe.

Now excuse me while I talk toilets. No matter how many times I do the maths, a buggy just doesn’t fit into a public loo cubicle, and many baby changes now don’t have loos in them, so I have been forced on several occasions to pee in public… literally. I’ve had to jam the pram against my cubicle door so the babes are in sight while using the facility with the door open for all and sundry to watch. I know people say you leave your dignity at the hospital door when you have a baby, but you’d think you might be able to keep it intact on a shopping trip! I’m going to be sexist here, but shops, loos and shopping centres must have been designed by men. Of course they don’t actually mind peeing in public, but for goodness sake, can someone not think to make cubicles a bit wider? I no longer choose shopping venues for their actual retail opportunities, but purely for their toilet facilities. Ask me about any shopping centre or high street in a hundred mile radius and I can give you a loo rating. Maybe we should invent a standard symbol for shopping centres – if you have a child you can pee in this store!

And as for those essentials that us women need to carry out to look semi-human? As if it isn’t bad enough that we have to carry excess baby fat, look ten years older because of sleep deprivation, and forget some days to even brush our hair, it’s also impossible to even get our legs waxed. There is such a niche market for a beauty salon with crèche facilities! There is a fortune to be made for someone with two ounces of sense.

And petrol. Are we really supposed to put petrol in our cars and then take a toddler and baby out of their car seats, into the shop, pay, pull said toddler off the sweet counter, ignore subsequent tantrum, and then strap them all back in again???? I’m sure I’m not the only parent who would drive miles for the luxury of a pump attendant.

One major high street retailer gives the impression of being family friendly and all for helping mums. They provide highchairs and baby change facilities, and flasks of hot water to heat baby’s bottles. But they won’t heat baby’s food so if I go out for the day I can feed my baby, but not my toddler and the tables are so tightly squeezed together you can’t get your pram at the table. Everytime I go into town now I have a mental map of where to pee, where to change nappies, where I can eat and feed them, and where I can get into and through the shop with minimal destruction.
Now I’ll admit, we women are pretty adept at the daily Great One-Handed Assault Courses – holding a baby while achieving all manner of domestic chores, but really do they have to make it so difficult? In 21st century Ireland, why is it so hard to be a parent??

Looking after kids is difficult enough without the added stresses of bad planning. But I guess if we all start voting with our feet, these places may realise that they have a captive – and desperate – market of parents who need help!. There are a few far-sighted places that know how to make our lives just that bit easier. The new Dublin shopping centre at Dundrum is an example – all the kids shops together, baby changing on every floor, large open food areas and even a crèche! A major supermarket also takes the stress out of food shopping by allowing you to zap barcodes and pack your food into shopping bag as you put them into the trolly saving you that awful assault at the end of the shop of taking everything out and then packing it all away again. I wouldn’t contemplate shopping anywhere else. Maybe if the hands that rock the cradles start rocking the boat a little, we’ll get the facilities we need – and deserve!

(Published in Modern Mum, Winter 2007 issue)

(c) AKG 2008

The Truth about Childbirth - what the books don't tell you!

The minute you are pregnant, you are assaulted with advice and information. You read, you absorb, you learn the facts, yet it is impossible to translate the words on the page to a reality you can’t quite grasp. So the shock of childbirth and childrearing hits you like an avalanche, and can leave you reeling in alarm. All those lovely pictures of women in books cradling happy newborns bear no relation whatsoever to the wailing creature beside you and the Wild Woman of the West staring back in the mirror. There is so much left unsaid by the books, so much left for you to find out for yourself. So here it is. In black and white. Read it if you dare. The truth from one who knows.

Let me give you an example of what the books don’t tell you. Hell is sharing a room with five newborn babies, and their pained mothers. Tortured hell is trying to sleep in a room with five babies after 48 hours of labour and an emergency c-section. Initially unable to get out of bed because of stitches and tubes, the final insult is that you can’t even throw a pillow at the woman snoring beside you.

A symphony of embattled cries – from the Squeakers to the Squealers – can all be captured, at full volume, on a night in a maternity ward. And would they be considerate enough to all follow the same routine? Of course not. Squeaker starts first, lighting up his tune of wailing, wounded animal, finally settling after 15 minutes of stressed hushes from mum. A few moments silence where a cruel interval of sleep finally takes hold is soon shattered by the Squealer’s rendition of a cat being strangled. This lasts 20 minutes until every occupant in the room is wired to pinging point. But it’s not over. Screecher and Bellower now kick off the finale leaving you wondering if in fact this is some cruel joke and Jeremy Beadle is going to pop his head round your privacy curtain any minute. Of course, once the neonatal orchestra have rested their instruments for a blessed moment’s reprieve before beginning the whole cycle again, you are just drifting off to desperate slumber when your own angel wakes and angrily screams for her nocturnal feed.

To add final insult to sleep deprived injury, those annoying mothers who seem to be able to sleep through anything (including their own baby’s wailing) kick up a beatbox of al capello snoring to accompany your lonely feed. And believe me, there is nothing worse than being awake when all you can hear is the satisfied snoring of someone enjoying the one thing you desire most in the world (wait till you get home and your husband does the same – it’s nearly grounds for divorce!). This is hell. You are straddling your catheter, too sore to move, bedsores developing from sitting too long on a hard bed, babies are screaming, people are snoring, nurses are talking, and you know that sleep is now a long lost friend you may never see again.
“Stay in hospital for the rest” people say to you before you give birth. Are they having a laugh?

Let me give you another example, and I apologise now for the - how shall I put it – ‘toilet’ talk. You are told about the three stages of labour, but every mother knows there is a fourth – the first ‘movement’ post birth. Most post-partum mums suffer from constipation and two days after my c-section I gave birth to triplets – hard poo, harder poo and excruciatingly painful poo. In fact, after both my pregnancies, I screamed more on the loo than in the labour ward! Forget packing your hospital bag with lotions and potions and frilly nighties. A family size box of All Bran should take priority over everything.

And then there’s the trapped wind. This is also extremely common, yet no book I ever read told me I could expect to be writhing in agony thinking I was having a heart attack as the bubbles danced in my rib cage and forced me to sleep sitting up for two nights.

Now, shall we talk about breastfeeding? Oh the books rightly extol its virtue as the best way to feed your beloved, and of course it is. But when they refer casually to engorgement, mastitis, and cracked nipples, they in no way prepare you for the pain. The god-awful, teeth-clenching, tears-in-your eyes pain. Let’s not even go there with the squirty boobs.

So why the hell do we do it? We do it, gladly, because the books also can’t tell you stuff that make it all bearable, the stuff that even makes you go through it all again without a second thought.

Books can’t describe the sweaty smell of a newborn’s head that inhales you into a contented coma, and lasts inside you like a magic vapour to dispel any pain and tiredness. Books can’t describe the softness of your baby’s skin against yours – so fragile, so soft, so in need of your protection. Books can’t describe the internal combustion of your heart when, a few weeks old, she gazes at you, and smiles. She connects to you and angels sing. That connection will last a lifetime. Just like no-one can prepare you for the death-defying tiredness, so no-one can prepare you for the love. Just as nothing can prepare you for the pain, the discomfort, the insanity, so nothing can prepare you for the emotion, the sense of protection and destiny, the overwhelming beauty of knowing your life has taken on new meaning and will never be the same again.

Even in the depths of despair during those lonely hours of the night, when hungry screams wake you from the dead, when a gummy gaping mouth clamps onto your sore bruised nipple making you wince in shocked pain, when the thought of trying to fumble in the dark to change your 20th rancid nappy in 12 hours nearly sends you over the edge of reason, a little hand strokes your skin, one eye pops open, a tiny head emits that addictive sweaty newborn smell that will never be forgotten, and suddenly all is right with the world.

You have begun a journey that will never end. A journey more splendid, more adventurous, more scary and challenging, more rewarding and enlightening than anything you could have imagined – or read about. No person, no book, (and no magazine article) can tell you, because it is your journey. Enjoy it. The pain will ease, the wonder will not.

Just don’t forget to pack the All Bran.

(Published in Modern Mum, Autumn 2007 issue)

(c) AKG 2007

What a Wonderful World!

Like most people, I could see from birth, but somehow between life and living I lost the magic of sight. I learned to see again at 36, and it was not glasses or laser surgery that renewed my vision, but the eyes of my 17 month old daughter. Now I look at the world through fresh bright eyes, I absorb the beauty of everyday things, and I have learned all over again to appreciate what a wonderful world it is.

Anyone who has ever watched and loved the Dead Poet’s Society understands the principle of standing on a table, or on top of a hill, to gain a different perspective on the world. I now realise there’s an even better view – and it’s about a foot high. One day, following the advice of one of my many baby / toddler tomes, I got down on my hands and knees to crawl around the living room at Daisy’s height to assess the potential dangers that lay in reach of curious fingers and eager mouths. It absolutely amazed me: so much furniture to climb, so many corners to investigate, so many cables, hinges, nooks and crannies. So much dust! It also felt quite daunting. Tall towering plants, giant mountainous furniture, so many tempting objects frustratingly out of reach. I then realised how much my daughter had to look up all the time, and so I decided to make a concerted effort to get down on the floor to her level as much as possible. Now I regularly become a hobbit for the afternoon, and the little people have a great view! Although it can be daunting, it is also so very exciting. Flowers in the garden tickle your face, cuddly cats stride past as big as elephants allowing you to hug them with your whole body, low wide window ledges beg to be climbed onto to watch the world go by, a jungle of shoes in the bottom of the wardrobe cry out to be waded through.

Watching my child discover all her ‘firsts’ has been a journey of discovery for us both. The first time she experienced wind on her face and tried to sweep it away with her hand, I felt just how gentle a whisper of breeze can feel. It is something we take for granted, yet it makes her giggle with delight. The first time she saw snow, her face wide in amazement and confusion, I took fresh delight in tracing my hands through it and tasting its icy goodness on my tongue. We took time out from the bustle and rush of going somewhere and stood in the garden eating snow and it felt so good. The first time she saw the ducks in the park, wide-eyed and excited, I quacked till I was hoarse and we laughed at their sheer silliness. I’m 37 and now I quack at least once a week – it’s so good for the soul! The first time she stepped in a puddle, confused by the moving ground, she looked at me for reassurance. For 25 years I had avoided puddles, too grown up to wet my feet. But that day I stamped in a long lost memory and rediscovered its delight all over again. We stamped all the way to the shops and it just didn’t matter that our feet got wet. And it wasn’t just with my eyes I found new adventure. Eating her first strawberry, I tasted the sweet red berry anew. Those first delicious drops of ice-cream – how heavenly for us both! Eating wibbly wobbly jelly with our hands – can there be more fun?

But as with all new discoveries, lessons have to be learnt. Those beautiful bright blue eyes are so innocent and naive and although I wish she could hold on to that wonderful world forever, I know I have to show her that it may not always be so. At the moment, every dog she sees is a big cuddly pal like Harry next door, who wants to lick her upturned face and let her pull his tail. I somehow have to teach her to be cautious without dissipating her delight in animals because I know not every dog will be as patient as Harry. In every new person that says hello or comes to the door, she sees a new friend to give and get hugs from, whose hand she will happily take to play in her wonderful world. At some point though, I will have to teach her to distinguish friend from stranger, because I know not all strangers are friends.
I need to teach her that sometimes the world isn’t so wonderful – wasps, nettles, deep water, cars, strangers and I dread seeing the bright light in her eyes diminish just a fraction. I will have to teach my fearless enthusiast caution and calm and it breaks my heart. It is just so hard. How can I pull her away from the toilet telling her it’s ‘dirty’ when she takes such squealing pleasure from the rush of flushing water? Yet I must. How can I tell her not to put the daffodil head in her mouth and eat it when they must just look so enticing? Yet I must. How can I be stern and cross and tell her not to pull the cat’s tail, when he rolls in front of her flicking it tantalisingly in her face? Yet I must. Not all toilets are as clean as ours. Not all plants are safe to eat. One day the cat just might fight back. With every new adventure we must both learn the delights and dangers. So I guess, as with everything in parenthood, it’s all about balance. I want her to keep teaching me how wonderful the world is as we explore its array of miracles and beauty every day, and I want her to learn from me how to be safe, and kind and respectful.

And I suppose that is how it should be – we will teach each other, my child and I, and between us our world will be a better place.

(Published in Modern Mum, Summer 2007 issue)

(c) AKG 2008

Spoons at Dawn

Eating is such a natural human activity, food such a pleasure of everyday living. It’s as easy as ABC; the bread and butter of life. I used to think food was a little about nourishment, a lot about health, and all about pleasure. And then I had a baby. Shortly afterwards I entered the wonderful world of weaning. Suddenly, food was a little about pleasure, a lot about nutrition, and all about willpower. Hers versus mine, just in case there was any doubt. The jury is still out on who is winning the battle of the wills, although I can firmly say my seventeen month old daughter long ago won the battle of endurance.

It started out peacefully enough. The ridiculous pleasure that first teaspoon of baby rice brought, quickly usurped by the insatiable satisfaction of pureed apple (organic of course), boiled to an inch of its life and lovingly poured into delicate ice-cube moulds (heart shaped naturally). Oh the joys of motherhood! Oh the pleasure of spooning pure unadulterated nourishment into my child’s gummy gaping mouth! The pleasure only intensified as her precious palate explored the culinary feasts of pear, carrot, sweet potato, broccoli, courgette, peach and plum. Oh the joys of motherhood! Oh the love of sharing a rainbow of tastes and pouring pure goodness into the body of my child! I could almost see Daisy’s insides glow with glorious goodness, the sight of her soft pink lips open and gaping like a baby sparrow enough to dispel the growing exhaustion of organic food shopping, washing, peeling, coring, chopping, steaming, boiling, containing, freezing and defrosting.

And then it all got complicated. As the recipes became more interesting, and dishes deserving of more advanced palates had to be prepared and cooked, so my daughter was developing and becoming more interesting as her personality emerged. And just as her palate matured, so did her mind, and with chicken and broccoli pie came determination, and with fish and potato surprise came willpower. As I was discovering life was now about kitchen slavery, she was discovering life was now about choice and control. Hers that is, just in case there was any doubt.
The unrivalled pleasure of ensuring only goodness went into my child still drove our foray into food together, and I scoured the baby books for recipes that drizzled with imagination and colour, hung out like a groupie at organic markets to buy the best vegetables, planned weekly meal charts around food pyramids and colour nutrition (yes, nutrition is all about colour apparently), and graduated from ice-cube trays to tupperware containers. Each new week brought a new adventure – sauces, fish, herbs, pulses. Some were even hugely enjoyable – pure fruit jellies and heart shaped pizzas. But when pureed foods were replaced with texture and diversity, so my cherub, all gaping mouth and devotion, was replaced with teeth – both mental and physical. I was prepared for the fact that each new flavour or dish might take a couple of attempts before passing the ‘swallow stage’ – precipitated by the ‘put in the mouth, make strange face and spit out again’ phase. I was even prepared for the fact that the odd dish might never make the grade. C’est la vie – I’ll never be an offal fan, everyone has tastes. So when I’d lovingly spent an hour making cottage pie with extra vegetables (all neatly chopped to mini-baton size) that would cover at least 8 lunches and it went down with a smile and a thumbs up, the pride would burst from my chest. Oh the joys of motherhood! Oh the exhausted pleasure of doing something right!
What I wasn’t prepared for was the confusion. Mine that is, just in case there was any doubt. How could she love ham and cream cheese triangle sandwiches with the crusts cut off on Monday, and loath them on Thursday? How could chicken and vegetable fried rice go down a treat on Tuesday and end up on the floor on Saturday? How could weetabix with homemade blueberry smoothie be the love of her life in March and the devil incarnate in April? And more importantly how was I meant to know? Oh the heartbreak of motherhood! Oh the exhaustion and frustration of throwing good food out and trying to mind-read a toddler! And it wasn’t just the food itself. Some days she would eat like a horse and the next eat virtually nothing. She’d have days where she only wanted fruit (oh the nappy joys of those times) and others only bread. Well planned out weekly food charts grew dusty with neglect as desperation to get anything into her took over. It wasn’t all bad I have to say, and on the whole she ate well and over a period of time I would realise she had covered all the nutritional necessities. But it was a shift in my mindset, not hers, that brought harmony. Upon reading tomes of baby books on feeding and eating, I discovered that her display of will power was perfectly normal, and her ever-changing appetite levels perfectly acceptable. She wasn’t a devil child. I wasn’t a disastrous mum. This was just motherhood. This was just toddlerhood. I had to relax my near manic obsession with seeing her eat whole meals three times a day, with nutritious snacks in between, and go with the food fetish flow of a toddler. If I looked back on a week as a whole, I realised she always ate what she needed so at least I could relax that she wasn’t going to starve. I grew to accept the haphazard regard for different foods she had loved one week and refused to eat the next – sure, it showed spunk and spirit and made me love her even more.
Now we have a new attitude to food. A little about routine, a lot about nourishment and all about fun. We play games, we try new things, and if they don’t work out we go back to the old favourites – if I can figure out what the current old favourite is. I still have many frustrated over-exhausted moments where I have to walk out of the kitchen to take a deep breath, regain my perspective and go back in to pick up her tasty home-cooked food from the floor and make her a sandwich instead, but on the whole we enjoy our exploration of taste and touch and texture and on the days she eats my new Annabel Karmel spinach and cheese lasagne, freshly made and happily eaten with a toothy grin, I lovingly put her to bed with a satisfied knowledge that the future is peachy. Or pear. Or plum, depending on Daisy of course.

(Publsihed in Modern Mum, Summer 2007 issue)
(c) AKG 2007

Pillow talk

One of the last taboos of childbirth – the topic that flushes cheeks and raises eyebrows the most – is sex-life after birth. Is there one? Is it the same? How soon? How sore? Are you kidding?

As with virtually everything connected with childbirth and children, there just isn’t an easy one-answer-fits-all. Some women need a lot of time to feel psychologically and physically ready, whiles others hop straight back on the horse. Probably the single biggest factor affecting amorous post-baby encounters is sleep deprivation. Annihilating exhaustion, especially in the first few weeks and months, can cleanly divide a previously complex lifestyle into two very simple modes – asleep and awake. Since the awake hours are filled to capacity with feeding, nappies, washing, eating, cooking and just keeping yourself and off-spring barely alive, that leaves the asleep mode for just that - pure unadulterated, life-saving, marriage-saving, sanity-saving sleep. Even 20 minutes can get you through another cycle of feeding, burping and changing and keep the deranged woman within at bay. I have never been a good sleeper, always envying those lucky people who could merge with their duvet and clock out for eight to ten hours without so much as a toss and a turn. I’ve certainly never been able to cat-nap, close my eyes for forty winks or tune out while watching Eastenders. Until I had a baby. Still at work when I went into labour, which lasted nearly two days, my energy reserves where pretty low before I even got home. Three weeks of four hourly feeds later, and I wasn’t fit to know my name. There were times my husband thought the devil had moved in with him so at least he wasn’t being tempted to seduce me. But nature helped out so I didn’t actually die (or kill my husband). I became the martini girl of sleep - proficient at nodding off anytime, anywhere, anyhow. At one point I was sure I’d had an equine blood transfusion upon discovering I could even sleep standing up holding a dirty nappy in my hand – seriously, I was out for at least ten minutes! I became dispossessed. I had narcolepsy. I could zone in and zone out with light switch speed. If sleep deprivation is not a killer, it certainly can be a passion killer - let’s face it, in those early days, what woman wouldn’t prefer a sleep to a shimmy in the sheets? Even my husband, who was left with his libido fully intact, sought snooze over sex on many occasions. As he aptly put it, forget penis envy – its all about pillow envy. But there is a new type of romance that emerges at this time which doesn’t of course have to culminate in shenanigans between the sheets. There are few sexier images than your exhausted partner sprawled asleep on the couch with your dozing baby on his chest, finished bottle slowly slipping from his hand.

Another strong argument for cuddles over coitus is sheer physical ability. I had a caesarean which, although meant I was not up for bedroom aerobics in the first few weeks, at least meant thoughts of intrusion where not the stuff of nightmares. The only advice I was given, and would give, is take your time, go slow and let things happen naturally according to your body’s recovery. And the upside is, you can feel like a teenager again, working your way through the bases and reliving the good old days of heavy petting. Ability to have sex aside, there are other practicalities which, if to be borne and overcome need a sense of humour and a stern constitution (probably your partners). There’s nothing quite the passion killer if your man is put off by squirting boobs. Hey ho, as I told mine – this is intimacy at it’s best!

Unfortunately, many women suffer from a lack of body confidence after the birth of their child. I think I resented this the most – after everything I had gone through with the pregnancy, birth and death-defying first weeks of sleep deprivation, I at least wanted to feel like the glorious goddess I should, having accomplished such a life-giving miracle. I still look at pictures of my honeymoon (one month before I got pregnant) – tanned, slim, carefree, sleep indulged, and I wonder will I ever look like that again. I took my first pregnancy as a licence to eat half a tub of Hagaan Daaz ice-cream every night for nine months, so no surprise it took me a long time to get back into my pre-pregnancy clothes. I’m lucky in that my husband (at least pretends) to love me for me and not my figure, so I added floppy tummy to squirty boobs and told him he was lucky to have someone to sleep with who had such glorious padding. I’ll always love him for agreeing whole-heartedly saying who needs to be deadlegged by someone’s hip bone? Barely able to find mine, I felt terribly reassured.

The early months can be hard (no pun intended) and I am lucky to be loved by a wonderful man who understood that we needed to go at my pace. He understood that ‘no’ meant ‘not just now love, I’d rather run naked down the street than have sex at the moment, let me sleep for 3 months and I’ll get back to you’, and not ‘never’. He accepted me, bulges and all, because those bulges gave him the most precious thing in his life, his daughter. Some nights as our beautiful baby lay beside us in her carrycot, we just held hands, and I don’t think we had ever loved each other as much.

Once the mind-numbing early months develop into a routine and your child starts to sleep through the night (or most of it at least), life returns a little to normal and the deranged woman within makes fewer and fewer visits. Many of the above factors still linger in the bedroom casting a shadow – albeit receding – on memories of your pre-baby sex-life. But – unromantic as it may seem – since every other successful aspect of baby-life comes down to finding a routine, so perhaps for a while at least, sex needs to be scheduled. Maybe that’s why baby’s lunch-time naps where invented?

But for me at least, the most important factor in keeping a marriage sane when madness prevails all around, is not the number of times a week the headboard gets shaken, but simply romance. All it takes is a look, a hug, and if you can find the energy to uncork a bottle, a cuddle on the sofa with a glass of wine between feeds. Eighteen months on, and pregnant again, we are still lacking the willpower to go out much, so we always make a bit of an effort on Saturday night with a special home-cooked meal and a bottle of wine. I even put on some lipstick. Occasionally we talk about life before babies, sometimes we dream about holidays with built-in lie-ins, but mostly we talk about Daisy and the one on its way. And despite the seismic shifts in many aspect of our relationship, as we fall asleep on the sofa mid-way through the film, we know we wouldn’t change a thing.

(Published in Modern Mum, Summer 2007 issue)

(c) AKG 2008

Mum's Know Best!

In celebration of Mothers Day, I decided to ask a few mums I know some simple questions. I wanted to know – from the people who do know – what were the best – and worst – things about having a baby. The answers, like motherhood itself were varied, heart-warming, heart-wrenching and beautiful.

Unconditional love came top of the poll for the best thing about being a mum. That beautiful feeling of being loved no matter how you look and how scary you can become with no sleep rated above all others. I personally love the fact I can give myself a fright in the morning when I pass by a mirror and spend a traumatic few seconds wondering who the mad hag is in my house, yet my girls don’t bat an eye. No other relationship feeds the ego as wonderfully as mother and baby – the sheer unadulterated, uncynical, uncomplicated joy on their faces when they see you first thing in the morning. They don’t play hard to get (yet), just hard to get off your leg. Another ‘best thing’ that topped the poll was the privilege of being a front row observer to the best show in town – the truly amazing process of watching a ball of screaming nappy turn into a walking, talking, opinionated, emotional, loving, playful, fretful, obstinate funny human being. In no other relationship are we privy to such an open invitation, or as one mum put it – “talking to your little children as adults and marvelling that one day, not so long ago, these clever, kind, resourceful fun creatures actually came out of your bum or tum!”. That amazement never seems to stop.

The third most common ‘best thing’ about being a mum was the chance it gives you to have fun and be a child yourself again, be it re-discovering how wonderful the world is, or playing football like an eejit, reading books about talking tigers who come to tea, and hand painting till the cows come home. I personally like the fact I can moo like a cow and roar like a lion any time of the day. Others of course, take it a step further, as one mum confessed, “the best thing about being a mum is being able to run along the street with a buggy in the rain, chasing after two children on scooters shouting ‘Wheeeee’ at the top of my voice without getting arrested for breach of the peace!” There were many other wonderful things about being a mum but I’ll recount just one more because I loved her brazen honesty. “One of the three best things about being a mum? Being able to park in the wide parent and child spaces at the supermarket because I’m a rubbish driver and find the normal ones too hard!”

And so, to equally allow that all important outlet for venting, I also asked about the three worst things about being a mum. Number one complaint by a mile was exhaustion, exhaustion, exhaustion, or as one mum put it – “the longest on-call of your life and those wretched sleepless nights to the point of vomit and collapse, no matter what.” In all the answers I received, the word ‘relentless’ appeared often! Coming in at a close second was lack of personal time and space. Linked in with drudgery, lack of privacy (I personally can’t remember the last time I went to the loo during the day and was able to close the door!), and not being seen as someone other than ‘mum’. I particularly liked one mum’s desperate hankering over her lost freedom – “inability to quit work half way through the day and go to the pub on a sunny afternoon and get trollied.” She then confessed she wasn’t sure she’d actually ever done it, but the fact now she couldn’t made her want to cry!

Thirdly, lack of spontaneity featured high in responses, with many complaining that it takes at least three hours to get out of the house each day. There were lots of hankerings for surprise weekends away, and being able to lie in on a Sunday and watch telly in bed. It must be noted, there were also more than a few grumblings about turning into our own mothers!

When I asked what was the hardest moment or time, nearly all replied it was the anguish of coping with a sick or injured child, or medical emergency. As one poor mum explained, “we had to watch him hooked up to tubes and wires in an incubator, powerless to make him better…. Those were the longest, hardest, most ghastly and desperate days of my life and I would have given anything to take him out of there and wrap him in my arms.” This was followed closely by the crippling guilt of leaving (or abandoning as many put it) our children into childcare.

Without exception, the biggest single worry we face as parents, is the thought of something terrible happening to our children beyond our control. The fear was palpable coming off the pages.

I finally asked those brave, hard working, stressed, happy mothers to offer up one nugget of advice, the one must-have grain of truth, the one glimmer of hope to an unsuspecting mum-to-be. And the great collective experience offered up to you on this Mothers Day – listen politely to all the advice, and then do what YOU think is right. Although you think your instinct is trapped way down in the bottom of your boots, dig deep and then listen to it. Accept the advice you know suits you, and abandon the rest. Your instinct is your best guide. You’ve already carried your baby around for nine months and already done a great job. Keep going. Enjoy the best bits. Don’t get hung up on the bad bits, and let the good days cancel out the bad. You’ll realise in time there’s always lots more good days to spare.

Published in Modern Mum, Spring 2008 issue)

(c) AKG 2008

Hormones & Chromosones

As any couple with tell you, having a baby can have a profound effect on your relationship. On one hand, parenthood takes you to a new dimension - this extraordinary shared experience; this overpowering sense of joint achievement; this glorious and beautiful product of your love. On the other hand, it lays the ground for the most bloody of battlefields, a frosty waste ground where swords are drawn at dawn, where chromosomes and hormones battle it out for who can claim to have done more work, who is more tired and who can cope best with the tantrums.

Recent research discovered that one issue parents argue about is who feels the most tired. I can believe it. I can also say, without any glimmer of feminist irony, that if a man knows what’s good for him, he will always concede that it is his partner – we have to contend with the chunky thighs, the shredded nipples and the lion’s share of baby vomit on our shoulder – at least give us the sleep deprived martyrdom we deserve.

Now my husband is fantastic. He changes nappies, he bathes our toddler, he even makes a mean Teddy Bear face scrambled egg with tomato eyes. But dare he even intimate that he is tired in the morning after I’ve been up all night feeding our newborn while he has snored his head off beside me, and I could happily throw him out the bedroom window. This loving husband who only minutes before had made me weak at the knees watching him roll about the bedroom floor with our toddler, now becomes the devil incarnate as he fails miserably to acknowledge and appreciate that while he may indeed be tired, on a scale on one to ten, I am off the Richter scale and to hear him complain is enough to send me (albeit irrationally) over the edge.

Discussing this issue at mother and toddler group, it seems to be a pretty universal complaint. In times BC (before children), having a man who was good in bed meant something entirely different (and how we got into this mess in the first place!). Now, being good in bed means he doesn’t snore, doesn’t look too cosy under the duvet as you struggle with nappy changes in the dark, and most of all, letting you know how tired you must be (hug needed here) while not implying you look 104 (Oscar winning performance here). A cup of tea first thing is the bonus that makes him a practical god in the bedroom. I know, I know it’s irrational, but let’s just blame it on the hormones. Now, men tend to be grumpy in the mornings at the best of times (let’s blame it on the chromosomes), but my husband had the audacity one morning to ask grumpily why I found it necessary to speak to our newborn baby in the middle of the night (by ‘speak’ you can translate soft cooings to stop her crying so as not to wake him!). Right there, right then for a split second before my withering look made him shrink to three foot tall and make a swift exit to the bathroom, I could have caused him some serious damage. Only for the fact we weren’t in the kitchen where the sharp knives are kept, I’d be a single parent now.

Now, not many men know this – or at least they don’t until their partner has a baby – but a woman’s sanity hangs in the balance in a mere three minutes. At 6pm, she’s sane, happy and not bothered by the yoghurt all over her top from toddler’s tea. By 6.03pm, if hubby has not yet bounded through the door to sweep toddler out of eye and ear range for 15 minutes, she is a fuming time bomb. They come home (late) to find the Wicked Witch of the West has moved in and taken charge of their children. Let’s blame it on the hormones, but those XY chromosomes will need body armour if they don’t get home on time!

It’s easy however, to get too complacent about our martyrdom that we carry the lion’s share of work, have the right to wear the thorny ‘I am more tired’ crown, and need a medal for keeping sane amidst the insanity of terrible two-dom. Deep down we know – although we would never, ever admit it out loud - that we are the lucky ones. We may watch the clock until they get home from work so we can hand the children over without a word and run upstairs to lock ourselves in the toilet because we’ve had a day of tears and tantrums; we may defy death by struggling out of bed, again, to sooth a little brow; we may loose our reason over an uneaten plate of lovingly made new-recipe tuna pasta, but I suspect we wouldn’t trade places for all the diamonds in Boodles. Because we also get the benefit of all those smiles and cuddles; we get to play puddle splashing and smear paint all over our hands to make pictures; we enjoy the pride of watching our beloved’s eat well. We get to watch them every second as they grow and develop and we get to see the delight on their faces as they achieve so many of their ‘firsts’.

Somewhere along the way I had a change of heart (blame it on the hormones). I realised I don’t have the monopoly on tiredness. He works hard and is allowed to feel tired too. He does his fair share of night-time soothing and still has to keep it together all day at work. For him there is no lunchtime nap when the little ones sleep. He’s allowed to feel frustrated too – I may moan desperately about lacking adult company, but he doesn’t get to enjoy our children’s company all day. It must hurt to be waved off merrily by his daughter as we plan a long day of fun together without him.

Probably hormones and chromosomes will continue to battle it out for millennia ahead. But in the meantime, if there are any men reading this – for goodness sake, and for the survival of your relationship, make her a cup of tea in the morning and tell her you can’t imagine how tired she is. And mum’s, don’t be too hard on him if he yawns in the morning – their chromosomes just don’t have what it takes!

(Published in Modern Mum, Winter 2007 issue)

(c) AKG 2008

Guilty as Charged

When you first see the two blue lines on the pregnancy test, motherhood looms before you as a prized treasure and your days are spent in glamorous contemplation for the moment you finally hold your baby in your arms and declare yourself ‘a mother’. But with all the glory and beauty comes hard work and confusion – motherhood is one of life’s great levellers. Now nothing can break your spirit like the will of a two year old (I’m sure some country somewhere must lock people up with a toddler as a brutal form of torture), but there is an even harder challenge that comes with parenthood. Guilt-tripping is a journey every mother regularly travels. In fact, guilt trips become an everyday occurrence for most of us.

Just this week alone, I’ve felt guilty about leaving my two year old with a childminder so I could spend some quality time with my new baby. Then the next day I felt guilty that my toddler was spending the day with me, and not interacting with other kids. I feel can’t win, no matter what I do!

It’s hard to be lonely when you’re a mum. Not because you have a child attached to your limbs 24/7 but because your brain never stops talking at you about what you should be doing (according to Supernanny, Gina Ford et al), what you’re not doing (according to your mother, neighbour, 5th aunt twice removed), and what you are doing… wrong. From the minute I’m woken by the dulcet tones of my nocturnally challenged toddler, till I drift blissfully into unconsciousness at the end of a long day, my brain never stops analysing my performance. Here’s a typical day in my head:

My beloved wakes at 6am and reluctant to depart my duvet till a more reasonable hour I either put in my earplugs and stick my head under the pillow, or shout grumpily to the next room that it’s still ‘sleepy sleepy time’. Guilt trip: was that bad? Should I not bound enthusiastically into the room like a demented Stepford Mum and lift my needing child into my bed, but then, if I do that am I encouraging her to sleep with us and it’s a slippery slope and before I know it she’ll be in our bed every morning, then all night and she’ll be 15 before she moves back into her room, but then again, I need to encourage good sleep patterns so should I go in and sooth her or should I just ignore it an she’ll learn. It’s 6.04am and I’m already exhausted from over-thinking.

I get my baby up at 7am. Guilt trip: She looks so peaceful but I’m trying to get her into a routine so I need to wake her so I can start the day’s feeding (curse Gina Ford’s Contended Baby book), so it’s for the best but I feel so bad getting her up when she just got back to sleep but it’s better that I feed her now so I can plan my day, but is that bad because maybe I should be dictated by her routine, oh dear god will someone tell me what to do, where’s the damn book?

I breastfeed her. Guilt trip: I love feeding her but it’s so restrictive and my toddler hates it and is wrapping her arms around my neck in slow strangulation, and I wish I could stop breastfeeding so at least someone else can give her a feed, and I could go out for a night and have a couple glasses of wine, but that’s terrible because she’s my child and I should want to be an udder for her, but it’s so hard with two, and I really want to stop because my boobs are sore, but I fed number one for 7 months so I can’t really stop number two at 4 months because that wouldn’t be fair, and she might resent me when she’s older and oh how I wish I could sink a bottle of gin.

And so my day continues. I guilt trip about not spending enough time on my toddler. I then guilt trip that I’m being too distracted with my toddler and not spending enough time on my baby. I feel guilty about wanting a life outside of the house, and then feel guilty while getting my legs waxed that I’m not an earth mother who should grow hairy legs in favour of finger painting on the walls (being an earth mother I surely wouldn’t care about the wallpaper). I feel guilty if I have a day in the house with them because I‘m too tired to go out, yet I feel guilty if they spend too long in the car seat, or don’t get their lunch time sleep on time because we’re at playgroup. I feel guilty about drinking tea, wine and eating chocolate while breastfeeding, but then if I don’t eat at least one Galaxy bar a day I’m grumpy and then feel guilty about shouting. I feel guilty about eating too much tuna (mercury levels!!!) and then about not eating enough (Omega 3!!!).

It’s almost enough to send me over the edge of reason and head for a holiday at The Priory. But of course – as with all things parental – every so often, the clouds move back so the sun can shine on your silver lining. Just as the guilty voice can drown out thoughts, so pride can make you feel like shouting out from the rooftops. You allow yourself to see your child as an outsider might. She is laughing, confident and happy. Surely you must be doing something right? Your house is still standing, your clothes are all vaguely clean, and there is food in your fridge. Some may even be organic. Surely that’s a good sign? Your toddler gets all the pieces in her jigsaw for the first time, and her face turns to yours in open delight as she hugs you. Somewhere, somehow I’m doing something right.

So I’m trying to take less trips to guilt-land, and ride the waves of pride a little more. Like an alcoholic I must stand up every morning and say out loud, “my name is Alana and I’m a good mum”. Because I am. I may not get it right all the time. I may make mistakes every day. But I’m doing the best I can and I think that’s ok. And for a little time at least, when my girls are smiling and giggling at each other, the guilt takes a back seat as pride overwhelms me and I feel like the best mum in the world.

Published in Modern Mum, Winter 2007 issue)

And then there were two...

It’s funny how something so routine and natural - so mundane it has been done billions of times, and will be done billions of times again - can be so unique, so personal, so original each time. For me, two children in 19 months meant two pregnancies less than a year apart. Same body. Same process. Totally different experiences. Totally different babies.

Daisy was positioned all at the front, and I experienced cramps, elephantitis (medically known as oedema, commonly known as water retention), and total and utter exhaustion. She engaged early and couldn’t wait to come out, surprising us before term, and forcing her way into the world with maximum drama.

Poppy was positioned all at the back, and I had sciatica and back pain, and all day nausea. She decided to do things her way, ensconced herself in the rare frank breech position and refused to budge, having to be forcibly removed, screaming furiously into the world.

With Daisy, I was a beached whale, bloating to twice my size (I blame the damn water retention, but my husband and waistline hint at the daily tub of Hagaan Daaz), while with Poppy I was trim and neat, and had to practically lift my jumper on the bus to get a seat. In my first pregnancy, I wallowed in the sacredness of my condition, languishing on the sofa after work, indulgently eating ice-cream by the pint, and being as precious as possible about lifting, working and exercise. With a lively toddler to run after and my husband working overseas throughout pregnancy number two, I didn’t have the luxury to wallow, languish or indulge. I had to get up every morning regardless of how sick or tired I felt, lift and run after my daughter, cook, clean, entertain and work with barely a nod to the fact I was pregnant. Ice-cream? Not likely. By the time I’d given Daisy her tea, played and danced the Wheels on the Bus 14 times, bathed her with a breaking back, read The Tiger Who came to Tea for the 4638th time and finally put her to sleep, I could barely muster poached egg on toast before I hauled my weary soul to slumber.

Both pregnancies were also enjoyable in different ways. The first was all about the excitement of the unknown, reading, dreaming and anticipating. The second was all about the knowledge of what was to come, the wonderful times ahead of me, another character to get to know and love.

But in the weeks running up to Poppy’s birth, I felt an enormous guilt for what was about to befall my young daughter. She was the centre of our world; she got our undivided attention, and clearly thrived on it. Her confidence and happiness shone out and when I stroked her little head at night I realised that she was still just a baby herself, and now about to be usurped by a younger model. She was going to be the ‘big sister’ but was she ready? Would she cope with having to share our attention? Would she love her little sister, or hate her, and us? Would she feel less loved? Having just got used to being a mum to Daisy, with all her quirks and personality traits, how would Poppy fit into our family dynamic? What beat would she bring to our symphony of three?

A few hours after Poppy’s birth, Daisy blew into the ward like a tornado ripping through a sleepy town, all chat and wild hair. It took a couple of minutes for her to spot Poppy. Silence. She looked at me, and back at Poppy. Back to me. Pointed a finger. “Eh?” Her question for everything. “That’s your sister. That’s our new baby, Poppy.” She peered over the edge of the cot, looked back at me and then triumphantly poked her sister violently in the eye squealing excitedly as she nearly blinded Poppy with a high pitched “eyeee!” – her new word of the moment. With that she proceeded to wheel Poppy’s cot down the ward claiming her as her own. My husband and I smiled. That went well, we thought. Poppy’s eye was still more or less intact and Daisy seemed happy enough.

It’s sad how naïve two adults can be.

Hospital visits were one thing. Bringing the interloper into Daisy’s home was quite another. The first slap took us by surprise. Wrapped in the warm fuzz of newborn love, we had looked at our ‘flower girls’ and thought all was well with the world. Daisy even earned loving praise by giving her sister big hugs (Poppy probably didn’t appreciate being squeezed half to death and regularly having her eye poked, but at least it was all positive). Then from nowhere came an almighty slap which nearly swept Poppy out of my arms. We were shocked. Despite loud remonstrations the slapping continued. We thought we’d done everything right. I’d shown her pictures of babies and explained as best I could what was happening. We’d done up the new shared nursery so she could get used to it before the baby arrived. We’d even bought Daisy her first doll and pram so she could replicate what I was doing. Whollop! Tantrum! Whollop! Poor Poppy’s hungry cries were often drowned out by Daisy’s jealous screams.

Suddenly my dream of two little sisters, close as peas in a pod, lovingly playing together as they grew up together disintegrated into nightmare images of squealing sisters at war. I saw years ahead of battles and bruises, tempers and tantrums. I’d dreamt of harmony, not hatred. I’d envisaged play, not punches. I’d imagined love, not war.

But a week is a long time in toddlerhood. The downside of having a toddler is that everything demands maximum drama. “I’m upset, so EVERYONE IS GOING TO KNOW ABOUT IT!” The upside of having a toddler, is that they have very short memories. In no time at all, Poppy in her midst is becoming the norm. Daisy realises she gets much better attention from us if she is nice to her sister, and gradually, being nice, is coming naturally.

Now, a few weeks in, Daisy’s first words in the morning are “Pop”. Her eyes seek out ‘Pop Pop’ every time she enters the room, and thankfully not to whollop her. Her dad and I no longer get hugs at bedtime: they are reserved for her sister.

My dreams are coming back. I’ve no doubt the months and years ahead will have their fair share of battles and bruises, tempers and tantrums. But I’m fairly confident we’ll have a greater share of harmony, play and love. Peas in a pod? They’re as different as carrots and broccoli. But then variety is the spice of life.

And as our symphony of four begins, their different beats dance together in song.

(Published in Modern Mum, Autumn 2007 issue)

(c) AKG 2008

Iron Lady to Ironing Lady

On discovering I was pregnant I received a deluge of congratulations and good wishes, endless advice and cautionary tales. They ranged from the sublime – “ it’ll be the best thing you ever do” to the ridiculous – “your only accessory for the next 5 years will be baby vomit and dribble;” and from the positive – “you’ll never regret a minute of it” to the depressingly negative – “you’ll never sleep properly again”.

And while all of these things are true to a lesser or greater extent, no-one and nothing prepared me for the absolute upheaval a new baby brought. I had always been a do-er, and never been afraid of hard toil. Twelve hour days at work were food and drink to me; burning the candle at both ends was a way of life. I thrived on lists and deadlines, there was always a plan, a place to go, someone to see, something to do.

Being pregnant gave me more lists to write, new things to learn, and a whole new set of plans to make. But I should have known a child of mine wouldn’t play by the rule book. I’d written my birth plan (in colour code of course) and had it stacked neatly on top of my hospital bag. My drug-free, natural birth which would see me breastfeeding within seconds of arrival went up in a puff of epidural, as I endured a drug-infused emergency caesarean high-intervention drama, unable to hold her, let alone feed her, for the first few hours of her life. The realisation that Daisy would turn my pre-ordered life upside down began the day she was born. I’ve kept a copy of that plan to give myself a laugh every now and again.
The earth-mother image I’d had of walking round the house, baby at breast, suckling at ease, evaporated in the daily struggle with nipple guards, industrial double breast pumps and a stiff neck from sitting stock still for hours once she latched on in whatever position I’d ended up contorting into to get her to feed.

But we settled into our life together, Daisy and I, and we found our routine. I happily produced colour coded charts for the fridge door to keep me (and my husband) in line for feeding, sleeping and playing.

But the final demise of my grand plan came from me myself. Suddenly, instead of looking forward to going back to my busy, high-octane job, I realised I couldn’t leave her every day. The career that had driven and defined me all these years just did not seem as important right now compared to my new mission. The cosy bubble of maternity leave refused to burst, and handing in my resignation somehow didn’t seem like a hard decision at all. Daisy was only going to be a baby once, and I would have plenty of years in the future to work full-time again.

But in the months that followed, I had to remind myself that this was what I wanted. Much as I loved and took delight in her as she progressed and developed from a beautiful sleeping babe to a tearaway crawler who seemed to know exactly where I didn’t want her to go, and the exact thing (plug, cat food, phone) that I didn’t want her to eat, I found it hard. Sometimes unbelievably, overwhelmingly hard.

It was relentless, thankless, frustrating, lonely, frightening and all-consuming. I had managed a team of twenty people for God’s sake, surely one small baby couldn’t be this hard? I’d made a hundred decisions a day, managed multi-million euro budgets, hired and fired, and developed complex, long-reaching strategies. Now, there were days I could hardly decide whether she needed a coat on or not, water or juice, courgette puree or broccoli. Working for an international aid agency, I had travelled without thought to war-torn countries, but now found a trip into town a major expedition that required such military precision that even a list-fiend like myself could barely manage it without forgetting something.

Of course being at home also meant I took over the lion’s share of the housework, and the days seemed to roll into each other in an endless blur of washing, ironing, hoovering and cooking. There were moments as I stood over the ironing board wondering where I had disappeared to. Somewhere between childbirth and child-rearing the workaholic Iron Lady had become the houseworn ironing lady.

But then a strange thing happened. One day, she finally used her feet instead of her head to get down from the bed – a move I had been trying to teach her for weeks – and I felt a pride I’d never experienced before, and a final realisation of the job I had to do. So, amidst the poo and the vomit and the never-empty washing basket, I started to put proper value on what I was doing. Every time she smiled at me, reached a new milestone, picked up her first piece of finger food and successfully put it in her mouth on the fifteenth attempt, I realised that spending my time on her was the most important thing I could be doing. I finally came to terms with the fact that as a mother my life was very different now. Yes, the housework was still a pretty thankless job, but the feedback and acknowledgement I missed from being ‘the boss’ now came in the form of a toothy grin, a squeal of delight, and those first, heart-stopping words… “mama”.

I still have days when it just won’t come together, but I have many more where the joy of chasing her round the floor to wild screams of delight, and the priceless feeling of cuddling her in my arms as she dozes off to sleep, fill me with pride and satisfaction. I opened some new doors to ensure I still had a part of my life which was mine – guitar lessons and early morning runs, and I’m still addicted to making lists and colour coded charts. But I am happy in my new career – it’s much harder and more responsible than the one I had before, but more enlightening and satisfying. For now at least, being a mother is the most important job I can do.

Oh, and the accessories I wear nowadays? I do manage an Orla Kiely bag every now and again, and the odd piece of jewellery, but the baby vomit and dribble is definitely there. And I wear it as a badge of honour. Who knows – it may even become fashionable.

(Published in Modern Mum, Spring 2007 issue)
(c) AKG 2008

Mothers and Daughters

My mum and I have always been close, but often with such closeness come brutal honesty and friction, so our relationship has been a tumultuous and tender mixture over the years. The odd shouting match and slamming down of phones are not unheard of. But there are also lots of hugs and chats, and always, ‘I love you’s’.

The morning after my emergency caesarean at the birth of my first child, mum arrived into my hospital room with a hug and a pot of home-made blackberry jelly jam. Amid the euphoria and sheer happiness I felt at finally meeting my daughter, I was also aching and fragile and afraid to move too much. Contemplating getting out of bed to wash, never mind pulling off and on clothes over my stitched and sore body was too awful to consider. However, after we’d stared in wonder at the precious new addition to our family, naturally claiming her to be the most beautiful in the world, mum coaxed me to take a shower.

She helped me take the tentative steps to the bathroom, and supported my weight as I stepped over the bath and under the shower. She gently hosed me over with the soothing warm water and reverently sponged the soap around my bruised body. Then, after helping me out, she rubbed the towel over my legs and back, and softly patted dry my wound and dressing.

At 72, my mother was still caring for her baby. At 36, I was just learning how to take care of mine. At that moment I realised that the journey I had embarked on with my new daughter would never end. It was for my life, just as my mum’s mothering of me was for hers. I’d spent nine months preparing to be a mother, but with Daisy’s birth, two things happened simultaneously. I became a mother, and I became a daughter all over again. The unbreakable bond I formed with my beautiful new baby shone a light on the one with my beautiful old mum.

Realising now the relentless tough slog that motherhood is, I have renewed respect for how hard my mum must have worked to bring my brother and me up, and how thankless a job it must have been at times. Unlike today’s modern men, my father’s generation paid little heed to the business of babies, and all the upbringing and housework fell squarely on her shoulders. Nor did she have all those modern amenities that make my workload barely tolerable - sterilisers, tumble dryers, disposable nappies and microwaves. I know we have different pressures on our 21st century lives, but I can’t help feel we’re ‘softer’ today, having lost some of that robust ‘get on with it’ attitude of our parent’s post-war generation. I can just about keep my head above water as it is – how would I have coped without a washing machine?

Up until I had my daughter, I only remember my mum as a mother to a stroppy child, a wilful teenager, and a wild twenty-something. Now, as I see her tenderly care for her grand-daughter, I appreciate how she must have been a mother to me as a baby. As she radiates love for my daughter, singing sweet songs, stroking her tiny face and making her giggle, it makes me feel loved all over again as I must have been back then.

My mum had an annoying habit when I was growing up of always saying “you wait, you’ll understand when you have kids of your own!” As I stropped out of the house in an adolescent huff, or threw a teenage tantrum, I’d raise my eyes to the heavens and bemoan the endless words of caution, beratings, and instructions on how to behave. I smile ruefully now as I look at my own babe in arms, and realise I will probably say every one of those warnings and lessons to her too, because behind them all is love. And now of course I do have a child of my own, I do understand. I understand how my wilful personality must have broken her spirit at times, just as Daisy stretches mine to its limit when she refuses to eat, or ignores my feeble attempts at discipline.

Having lived through many phases of life, from toddler to schoolgirl, from student to traveller, from career queen to party girl and wife, I now enter a new phase – motherhood. And I realise that the cycle in our relationship has turned again. When I was born, I was dependent on my mum for everything and as I grew up she was my carer and teacher. As I became independent our relationship changed to one of equality and friendship. But as we both grew older and my life separated from hers, the balance shifted again as I began to take a greater role of caring for her needs as she aged. And now it has come full circle again as my reliance on her returns.

Those first frightening days with Daisy were made easier with the knowledge that my mum was by my side. She helps me out when I can’t find the time or energy to cope. She listens sympathetically on the end of the phone as I wail at my own incompetence, and cheers alongside when I get something right. She makes me a cup of tea and tells me to sit down – the best bit of advice anyone can give a mum!

Of course when she comes to stay we still argue, and I still throw my eyes up to the heavens. But at the end of a long day when I’ve put my baby to sleep, I can come down the stairs to hear my mum fussing in a newly cleaned kitchen knowing that for a few hours this evening, I’ll be fed, and hugged and probably berated. And that’s ok, because while learning to be a mother, I still very much needed to be mothered.

(Published in Modern Mum, Spring 2007 issue)
(c) AKG 2008