Sunday, 29 March 2009

breast behaviour

A friend came to visit the other day and didn’t ask the obvious question.

She didn’t ask it because she is polite and tactful, but it hung in the air so I answered it anyway.

“I’ve always worked on the basis that I’ll stop breastfeeding him when he stops wanting it,” I said.

We both looked at Snooks, who earned this nickname from his eagerness to partake in the activity christened by the Engineer and I ‘snookling’. The intransitive verb, to snookle - I snookle, you snookle, he/she/it snookles etc covered the snuggling element combined with the imbibing of nutrients. And it sounds much less carnal than suckle. I even found the word ‘feeding’ too biological to describe what was happening when he was attached to my body. It made me think of hyenas.

And as the friend and I looked on, Snooks, now one year old, sporting eight teeth, almost walking and trying a few words (his current vocabulary is restricted only to things beginning with D - dadda, daddy and my personal favourite, doidy doy) was showing no signs of letting up.

My friend remarked that she had seen someone breastfeeding a child recently who could compose full complex sentences, and that this was a little disturbing to see.

I know, I know. I have heard many say the same. I watched Kate Garraway’s Channel 4 documentary, Other People's Breast Milk last year, which showed matronly American women feeding two at a time before they ran off to play on the swings. I wasn’t repulsed by it, as the programme makers clearly intended, only irritated by the ‘freak show’ subtext and the willingness of people to expose their most intimate moments on television.

But I did assume as I watched that this would never be me, that I would never fall into such a minority activity that it merited a television documentary that would inspire yelps of disgust from the kind of people I hang out with.

My assumption has always been that these women who breastfeed older children have chosen to do it for their own ends, rather than that the child simply did not want to stop.

And if it was just about my wishes, no I would not continue for much longer, as it is tiring, it can be embarrassing (Snooks chooses his moments; Mass, right in the middle of the transubstantiation) and it means I never feel in full possession of my own body. Like having a lodger, the place is still mine to live in, but any major refurbishments are out of the question.

But it is not just about my wishes. The World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding for two years and even the NHS advice, which remarkably is heeded by only four percent of women in the UK is to exclusively breastfeed for six months.

And the other side of the story from the embarrassment and shared occupancy is that it is a wonderful comfort to both of us.

It is also more convenient than carting bottles and powders and sterilising equipment all over the job. And it is free.

The Engineer and I are planning another Mediterranean jaunt this summer (full-time permanent employment now having been resumed, thanks to the Engineer’s good reputation in the industry and a lot of prayers) and I have no fears about tap or bottled water and dehydration in the lovely, lovely heat.

And this week I was suddenly grateful again that we have continued to snookle despite the increasing odd looks in Starbucks, as Snooks went down with tonsillitis and was refusing anything by mouth.

As he howled between doses of painkillers and penicillin, I desperately cast around for something to soothe him. Something warm, I thought, yes and sweet. Yes some warm, sweetened water with a bit of milk in it. Oh yeah, that is pretty much breast milk, which is what he is having. What’s more, the anti-bodies will help him to fight the infection, I thought, feeling myself relax a bit, and it is easily digestible, unlike formula, so it won’t make him sick as it lands on top of all the weird stuff he is swallowing four times a day. And it’s on tap. And it’s safe. I’m making him well. Phew.

Sunday, 22 March 2009


Is it a real word? I don’t think so and if it is it shouldn’t be.
I first came across it as I mentioned earlier (the Rules) in the doctor’s surgery when I was hoping to find a solution to Snooks’ piercing squeal (as yet, nada).

I think it means ‘exposing your child to other people so he learns how to rub along with his fellows ’ or it could mean ‘making your child do what you say so you are not tut-tutted at in the supermarket’.

Whatever it is, a lot of strangers seem anxious that I should do it. It is often the riposte delivered when I say that I have given up work to stay at home with Snooks.

‘Oh he needs to be around other people,’ they say. ‘He needs to interact with other children,’ I am told, firmly.

I didn’t say I planned to bolt the doors each morning after the Engineer departs for work, draw the blinds and hold him to me murmuring ‘Mummy loves you the most’ until tea-time.

Snooks, as it happens, is a wildly sociable baby. From the moment he could focus, more or less, he demonstrated a clear preference for young blonde women whom he would beam at as we trundled our way around the streets and shops of south London.

He was the first of his little gang to smile and has always been ready to play whenever anyone else was up for it. It is true, he prefers adult company to his peers but then this too only shows a rather sound grasp of his ‘society’ as he knows that food, tickling, whizzing around like an aeroplane and snoozing on a warm broad chest all involve adult participation.

His first social occasion was a dinner party, where he was passed from knee to knee and sung ‘The Day I Went to Sea’, earning him a new hat and the nickname Captain S. McGinty.

He attended both his father’s and mother’s birthday dinners turning a resolutely sour French waitress all gooey with his twinkling smile at one and being invited to some kind of Masonic meeting taking place in an adjoining room at the other.

And at six months, on his first trip to the Med with the Engineer and I, he pulled another waitress, this time a brassy blonde Spaniard, who blew him kisses across the room as she served the endless stream of gruesome English tourists.

But as he is getting older and more mobile, and some of his first friends are disappearing to nursery, he and I need to make sure we have a community to be part of, for his entertainment and my sanity.

To this end I find myself peering at church notice boards to establish whether they run a playgroup, as oddly, it seems to have been left to the good will of elderly female Christian parishioners to provide socialisation for mothers and toddlers who have not chosen the nursery/back-to-work route.

And what a service they provide too. For around £1 a go, I get all the tea I can drink and a rather bossy mother figure, and he gets the run of the church hall.

Snooks loves it, and despite the gap in age (he is usually the youngest there) and height (he is small but perfectly formed) he takes off like a tiny bull in full charge, head down, fearless, into the crowd. I watch anxiously from the sidelines, nursing my tea, as he wrestles the most interesting looking toy out of the hands of a boy twice his size and then wince at the inevitable, but well-disguised shove he gets as a result.

I have asked other mums when they think it right to intervene and restore order – this boy was playing with that toy first and will you please take your foot off my son’s fingers - and had varying responses. Some get in there immediately establishing the ‘who had it first’ code, instilling some sense of external monitoring. Others believe in a more laissez faire approach so their children will learn about hard knocks – how to give and receive them – without their intervention.

I find it almost impossible to stand by and see Snooks puzzling over the injustice when something he thought was his to play with, that no one else seemed to want and he has dragged across the room to show me, is snatched from him moments before he reaches his destination, and then tossed aside by the assailant. He looks at me in confusion.

So is the news that Life Isn’t Fair part of his socialisation? Or do I bring in the big guns at this point and tell him “Life isn’t fair and in fact it may suck sometimes but your reward will be in heaven if you don’t snatch the toys back off the other children.”

Maybe I just give that little tyke who took the train off him a good clout next time we go to playgroup. Tempting. Very tempting.

Monday, 16 March 2009

mothers! II

My own mother is haunting me.

It could be the approach of Mother’s Day, the arrival of which is hailed with the subtlety of a battering ram by the retail industry (not that this has even dented the consciousness of the Engineer who had to be told this week, in a slow clear voice that this was My First Mother’s Day Ever, and was therefore Important).

But I think it may also be down to a particularly nasty bout of food poisoning I suffered after some ill-considered hoovering. No not that sort of hoovering, silly. This is the sort, I am ashamed to admit to, but that I believe other mothers will recognise, which involves popping the bits of food left behind by our offspring into our mouths rather than finding a nearby bin, or for goodness sake, just leaving them behind.

This is bad enough but on this occasion, whatever it was I consumed without a second glance as I cleared the table after a quick Starbucks stop was certainly not anything myself or Snooks had been eating, and would probably no longer have even been classed as ‘food’. I should not dwell too long on this detail, as the nausea has not entirely gone, and the last time I vomited that violently was when I drank a bowl (yes bowl) of gin during a school retreat to Prinknash Abbey. (I should just like to absolve the Benedictines of any responsibility here. They were not to know what fifth form Convent girls were like).

Stricken down as I was, but of course, not able to take a day off, I spent the day lying very still on the settee while Snooks played around me, helpfully coming over to tap me on the face whenever I dozed off.

The apparitions started the night before when at 2am the Engineer and I were locked in a strange embrace, I curled up in agony claiming that childbirth was not this painful (true) and he wrapped around me trying somehow to squeeze the pain out.

I would not say my mother’s ghost actually appeared to me but the mental image I have of my father trying to comfort her in a similar way, not long before she died, has never entirely left me and on this occasion was very clear indeed.

Now the thing is, I have often complained over the last year that it saddens me that my parents are not able to meet Snooks as I think the admiration would be mutual. But this was not exactly what I had in mind.

And so as I flitted in and out of sleep and fever while my little son played I kept being caught with the sense that my mother was here, keeping an eye on things.

In a more worldly way, my brother and sister have told me that when they became parents, they opened their mouths and out came the words of our parents and that it would happen to me.

And so it does. I find as I sing to Snooks at night, or as I walk behind him into the kitchen, holding his little hands above his head, I see my mother doing this with one-year-old me. And when I bend over to talk to him, hands clasped on my thighs, I see the black-and-white photo of her in exactly that aspect, coaxing me forwards as I gallop towards her on my hobby-horse.

While these sudden extra-sensory visitations could be down to the Mothering Sunday season, or may have come out of my delirium, they are probably simply wishful thinking.

Happy Mother’s Day all you mothers and children out there.


Slowly, it is dawning on me what this business of being a mother is all about.

Standing on the outside looking in I could see it was about responsibility and love, hard work and fun. But I thought that it started and ended between the mother and their child/children.

No, no, no. During the last months of pregnancy at work a colleague, who has three children one of whom is taller than her (and so she was really qualified to talk) told me that I was joining the International Club of Motherhood.

Ahh that’s nice, I thought, without really thinking about it. I was too terrified of everything ahead of me to think about any of it.

I also, internally grimaced a bit, in the way I read two female writers grimacing in a newspaper recently, about the smugness of mothers, and doubted I would be part of any kind of club.

But I am beginning to understand now, that for starters, it is not a choice. Once you have crossed the line, you’re in, whether you like it or not.

I first observed this change in my international status while pushing Snooks around the streets in his pram, where I noticed the frequency with which I was asked for directions had gone up. I have always been a stopee – on my first and only trip to Dublin years ago, I practically ran guided tours for lost Americans. It must be the Irish Eyes – but now there seemed to be a shift in the type of request and the person making it. I noticed people stopped me without hesitation, assuming my good will and knowledge. They were a bit more polite than they used to be. I thought for a minute they might call me ‘mum’.

Perhaps it comes from me. I am less fearful about the unknowns wandering the streets than I used to be. I assume they can’t do much to me that would hurt, or be more public and exposed than childbirth. In the back of my mind is always the thought “I pushed this child into the world with my stomach muscles without the aid of medicine. What can you do to me?”

I took my mother-of–the-world status to a new level during the snowfall last month when I ordered a gang of teenagers to ‘Hold your fire!’ as I tried to cross a road they had brought to a standstill by hurling bricks of snow at the passing cars. The biggest of the boys repeated my words to his troops with such reverence that I struggled to keep a straight face and resist the urge to give him a hug.

This week I heard a direct appeal to the ICM, one which I would not have noticed before. It came during Comic Relief Red Nose Day when three of the female television presenters whose job was to get the detached, sceptical, skint watching nation to donate money, put themselves in the place of the mothers they had met on fact-finding trips to Africa who were losing their children to malaria and AIDS.

I might have doubted their sincerity in the past, wondering why, just because they had a child, they seemed to be so moved by someone else’s tragedy.

But when Davina McCall told all mothers to do something to help these children, just at that moment, I felt that call.

It was not the same sense of social responsibility or even personal loss which has lain behind donations I have made to particular charities in the past. I just felt compelled to help.

However, it may be that an appeal to fathers or brothers or aunties would have had exactly the same effect and I have simply been got by a skilful manipulative ploy for a good cause.

So while the tearful Engineer willingly went and found the credit card while I dialled the donations number, I have the feeling my television watching may be monitored carefully in future in these financially difficult times.

Membership of the ICM could be a costly business.

Monday, 9 March 2009

the big one

Snooks is one.

It is a momentous occasion but I am not really sure how to rise to it. Either I am so overwhelmed with feelings that I cannot actually feel them or I am simply exhausted.

To others, the year has flown by and they can’t believe he is already a year old. For me it feels like every day has been worth about five of my old days making this about five years on.

I have learned more in the last year than I did in the whole three it took me to get a law degree - though that is not saying much as a large part of that was spent lying on the lounge floor ‘drifting’.

I am asked if I cried on the day, but just like every other day since he was born, there has not been room for crying.

Amid the balloons and the presents and the zoo and the cake and his wild excitement about it all, I just did what I always do – watched him with a mixture of delight and terror, so focussed on his happiness that I forgot about mine. I think this is pretty much what parents do, but it is very new to me.

There was a moment, the night before, when the Engineer presented me with a chart of Snooks’ weight, a line graph of the figures I had texted to him every other Wednesday from the local medical centre after wrestling Snooks out of his clothes and onto the scales, when the whole 52 weeks mapped into a wiggly line ascending just under the World Health Organisation’s breast-fed baby line, flashed past and I felt a sudden blast of grief that it was all over.

This extraordinary year, the mind-blowing experience of bringing new life into the world (I still can’t quite fathom that. Like death, it seems to be beyond human comprehension. No matter how much it goes on, we are still shocked and in awe of it. A male friend asked me, days afterwards, what the moment of birth was like and the only words I could find were, ‘It is like going to the very edge of existence’), the cotton candy first weeks of his life when I felt like I was living someone else’s – it felt too good to be mine – followed by endless days of up and dress and wash and feed and change and wash and feed and out for a walk and coffee and anything sweet and feed and walk and more cake and coffee and home and change and feed … not including, you notice, much sleep.

Then came teeth, smiles, holidays and a haircut (Snooks’ hair has been his best and worst feature since he was born. Blessed with a crop of sandy silk at birth, he went from Mohawk to 1950s comb-over and now sports a thick, blonde spiky do which is the envy of every gay male shop assistant we meet) and then the sudden short days of autumn when we had to race home across the common in the pitch dark having forgotten about the seasons, still constantly watching – is he happy, is he warm, is he cold, is he breathing?

Then Christmas was upon us and we mums huddled together in the rainy streets discussing how many presents to buy, whether falling needles were dangerous and how long we could go indoors with the extended family before needing to regroup.

The New Year brought more change as some returned to work, leaving their babies for the first time with nannies and nurseries and sent word back that it was grim out there, fighting to keep a job that employers were itching to take away because a distracted mother, whose heart is at home, is not welcome in the recession-hit workplace.

I did shed a few tears around then, as the Engineer’s job was secured on a handshake and then withdrawn, leaving us facing financial ruin six days before Christmas. An avalanche of responsibility hit hard just as I had my dream of a warm, safe, family Christmas within my grasp.

So as the year comes around, the crocuses and daffodils and the soft spring sunshine remind me of the view from the hospital window and the day that Snooks arrived.

How do I feel? I want every moment to last five years.

Monday, 2 March 2009

the Rules

Last week I vowed I had not nor would not read any parenting books.

But it has since been brought to my attention (by the ever vigilant Engineer) that this is not entirely true.

So in the interests of maintaining professional standards of clear, accurate copy (I thought I was the writer and he was the maker of things work) here are the true facts; I have read two books given to me by the health visitor when Snooks was born a year ago – The Pregnancy Book and Birth to Five – produced by the NHS for new parents.

Not exactly parenting books, I would say, but more in the mode of a Halfords make and model handbook – very good on the detail of where to find the parts but not much on how to actually drive.

Echoing the NHS ante-natal, post-natal and simply in-the-middle-of-natal care, they give you a steer about the basics and then you are pretty much on your own.

But I have to admit that on returning from the hospital with three-day-old Snooks this time last year, I was very grateful for the ‘this is how you keep a baby alive’ tone and found both books answered some questions I had been too embarrassed to ask. These included ‘What do children eat?’ and ‘How do you wash a baby?’

(I still had to consult a friend on the finer details of infant ablutions however, as although I had visited most parts of the male anatomy on some pretext or other in the past, I had never been there in the capacity of a cleaner before.)

Now as we approach Snooks’ first birthday, I feel more confident that I can keep him alive without the need for books.

However socialising him (a term I learned from our GP recently as I struggled to hold a conversation with him about Snooks’ ears while the patient squealed at a pitch which made mine meld back into my head) is a different matter.

These are the books I have doggedly avoided and I realise that I may come to rue the day that I didn’t subscribe to the baby Rules – those books that tell you how to produce an obedient, omega-3-fatty-acid-eating toddler who feels the power of the Naughty Step and has learned through ‘controlled crying’ that asking his parents for attention really is a cry in the dark.

Snooks already demonstrates a healthy scepticism for regulation putting his fine set of teeth to use on any visible flesh that is not his own, examining the contents of the kitchen bin in detail and of course, attempting at least once a day, to reach the water in the toilet bowl.

Stern-faced finger-wagging and patient reasoning fail to divert him from these favourites and the GP’s advice to turn away from him when he squeals has only resulted in his delight that the Engineer and I conveniently turn our back while he hurls spaghetti at the sideboard.

I can see the landmarks looming ahead – the first tantrum in the supermarket, the beginning of ‘no!’ and the first time a door is slammed in my face.

But the one I have anticipated since the day I fell in love with the swaddled bumble sleeping in the cot beside my hospital bed 12 months ago is when, at 17, he introduces me to a chewing, sullen, adolescent beauty he wants to marry, and my heart breaks.

I might be glad of a copy of the Rules then.