Monthly Archives

June 2015

The particular sadnesses of a pregnant woman at Glastonbury

Oh hi there, I’m the fucking worst. This time last year, you see, I was at Glastonbury for free on my husband’s press pass.

I was washing in the hospitality area’s only slightly traumatic facilities (as opposed to the fully PTSD-flavoured ones the public had to use). I was sleeping in a weather-proof Wendy house instead of a tent. I had unlimited access to the backstage VIP area.

And I was fucking miserable.

I mean miserable. I scowled through a DJ set at Bloc 9. I threw a legitimate tantrum because my husband had the temerity to do his actual job for a couple of hours and, while he was away, I fell over briefly. I cried when the Pixies played, because they were so old and sour-looking.

I know. I know. I am the worst.

In my defence, I was two months pregnant.

And I wasn’t a good, glowy, blooming content sort of pregnant – I was in the stage where you just want to go to bed forever and shut the world out. I was hormonally unpleasant to be around.

Let me be clear, I went to Glastonbury voluntarily. I’d been to a million Glastonburys in my teens and loved then, so I assumed I’d enter into the spirit of things once I got there. But I entirely failed to do this.

I hated the mud. I hated the noise. I hated tramping for miles through soggy filth only to end up at the arse-end of a crowd, downwind of the loos, watching tiny people on a faraway stage perform songs that I ALREADY OWNED STUDIO VERSIONS OF.

I hated being buffeted by loud, happy fools who kept walking into me without psychically intuiting that I was pregnant. I hated not being able to drink. I hated how it wasn’t the 1990s and I wasn’t 16 and The Orb wasn’t playing and I wasn’t on some dodgy mushrooms having the time of my life.

Most of all, though, I hated being such an ingrate. I was here on The Guardian’s buck, and was probably spoiling Stuart’s first Glastonbury, but I didn’t seem to be able to stop being such a buzzkill.

My feet hurt. My back hurt. I kept having to throw up every couple of hours (a month after this I was diagnosed with hyperemesis gravidarum), and I’m afraid to say I got quite whiny about the loos. I very specifically wanted to be on my sofa watching TV and getting a foot rub, and I was biologically opposed to anything that wasn’t that. I think I tried to persuade my husband that we should go to bed early on Friday night, and not in a sexy way.

Things improved markedly on Saturday, though, and I put that down to one horrendously obnoxious revelation.

I saw her dancing aimlessly in the Green Fields while I was glumming around in the rain, halfheartedly contemplating getting some sort of hemp aura massage: a happy pregnant woman.

There she was, contentedly swaying in the drizzle, her bump protruding prettily under her tie-dye skirt, all beads and ear-cuffs and smiles. She seemed perfectly happy to be here in the middle of this stupid field with all these trustafarians. She didn’t seem like she was going to lose her mind over a spilled chai tea latte like I had that morning.

Maybe, I thought, I should learn from her example, let go of some of this preggo angst, and make the most of things.

But then I thought, maybe fuck her.

Maybe fuck her stupid dreadlocks and her stupid band of adorable mop-haired children probably all called Fern, and her stupid crocheted bra top, and her stupid tan and scruffy partner and circle skirt and open smile and perfect bump.

They say love is the greatest power, but I’d have to disagree. At that moment it felt amazing to turn off my guilt-sodden misery and activate 1,000 volts of pure, undeserving hatred.

And it allowed me to enjoy the rest of the festival. Obviously I constantly wanted to go home with every fibre of my being, but occasionally thinking fuck that happy pregnant woman, fuck this, fuck everything somehow freed me up to crack a smile at Jurassic 5, dance at Fujiya & Miyagi, and even briefly contemplate returning with my child to enjoy the kids’ field.

And now, one year later, as I sit here with my son and glass of frizzante enjoying the Glastonbury coverage from the comfort of my sofa (foot rub pending) I’d just like to thank that woman for being the unwitting recipient of my silent, horribly obnoxious attentions.

Happy pregnant woman, thank you, and I’m sorry. But I couldn’t have done it without you.

Five parenting sins I have already committed

1. I dress my baby like a giant hipster
I don’t know why I’m driven to clothe my son as though he owns a pop-up artisan unicycle boutique, but somehow I can’t help but do it every morning. Handmade babygrows with Beatles lyrics screen-printed onto them. His own Doctor Martens. A suede sheepskin gilet, for god’s sake. A gilet. If I saw an adult dressed the way I dress my son, I’d want to punch them, or at least tweet obliquely about them. Hopefully all this is offset by my own wild hair, vomit stains and thousand-yard-stare. Although that’s probably all the rage in Brixton right now, right? Damn it.

2. I let him bang his head the day he was born
In my defence I was trying to put him back in his cot using abdominal muscles rendered entirely useless by my emergency c-section. He slipped from my grip momentarily, and in that moment I went through the horror of the whole murder trial, my husband’s face distorted by grief, and my eventual prison execution in the showers. Then the baby lightly thonked his head on the side of the crib and gurgled, and I shrieked for the midwife. He was fine. He had a slight red spot on his forehead for an hour, and I felt like the worst person alive. Happens a lot, apparently.

3. I take him to the toilet with me
Calm down, Yewtree, it’s just because I don’t want to wake him up. His current method of going to sleep is this: shouting, squirming and kicking, staring into the distance making “rrr, rrr, rrr” noises, crying, and feeding, for forty-five minutes. Once he’s finally off I risk waking him if I put him down or unclip him from the baby carrier, so he is privy to about 50% of my toilets. Hopefully therapy will be free in the future.

4. I wasn’t overcome with wonder when I first saw him
I was bleeding out on the operating table when the doctor first laid Herbie on my chest, and I begged him to take the baby away in case I dropped him. When I next came round in the recovery room, he was nestled in my cleavage like a little squirming worm, and my brain just couldn’t take him in.

Instead I focused on the nurse, who was asking me if I wanted a cup of tea. Because throughout labour I had it in my head that I was making too much of a fuss, I said no, but regretted it as soon as she walked away. So my overriding memory of the first time I held my son is of just a mental blankness, and a deep, deep sadness around tea. I prefer him to tea now, though, I should say.

5. I let him sleep in bed with me (safely, obvs)
If I had a pound for every time someone said the words “rod for your own back” when I told them this, I’d have at least a tenner by now. But he won’t sleep anywhere else. Also, secretly I like it. Soon enough the sleep training will begin, and then all will be guilt and tiredness.

But for now I am enjoying his little grunting breaths and his tiny fat weight and warmth in my arms, even if I can no longer actually feel my arms themselves. Presumably he won’t want to be cuddled against me like a teddy bear when he’s 18, will he? Will he? Oh god, will he?


Motherhood and identity

Originally published on The Pool

I go by many names. On Starbucks cups, I’m “Rubato”, because that is the way of Starbucks cups. At work, I’m “Not you, the other one”, because I have a colleague called Robin and he’s far more obliging and debonair than me. And at every doctor’s office I’ve ever visited, I’ve been “Roe-been Wheel-dare” – because apparently doctors’ receptionists the world over are part of a mysterious cabal that rejects normal human pronunciation.

Now, though, I have a new name – “Herbie’s mum” – and, to be honest, I’m still figuring out who that is.

This time last year, you see, I wasn’t anyone’s mum. In fact, I’d reached well into my thirties without remotely wanting to be – I was quite happy living in London, working at BuzzFeed UK, and generally gadding about unencumbered by dirty nappies. And I knew myself pretty well. I was prone to self-doubt. I was fond of hazelnut lattes and the books of Donna Tartt. My dislikes were open-mouthed chewers and, depending on the day, everything in the universe. My weaknesses were sitting and pizza.

But then the maternal urge rolled in all at once, like a storm. I fell pregnant in spring, married in summer, got priced out of my south London postcode by aggressive local upcycling in the autumn, and moved to commutable Kent by Christmas.

One month later, my son was born under the harsh surgical lights of a 4am emergency caesarean, all alarms and hastily put-on scrubs, and too much blood. I spent 72 hours awake on the delivery ward, letting cups of tea go cold while my husband, Stuart, and I marvelled at this tiny new piglet-person squirming around in my cleavage. And then we were sent home, my little instant family; two of us full of needle marks, one of us sawn open, and all of us shell-shocked.

That was 10 weeks ago. In that time, I haven’t had a hazelnut latte or read a Donna Tartt novel. I have eaten piles of pizza, though, during that first week home, when the three of us camped out in the living room, listened to tinkly indie playlists, and just cried and cried and cried (although Stuart would like it to be known that he did not cry, and did press-ups instead).

I thought that when I had the baby I would be essentially unchanged, just me plus a baby, but that’s not the case. At times, I’ve been a mess. My body has been a giant tender bruise, and I’ve been so shaky and uncertain that, for a while, I stuttered when I spoke. I’ve become more sentimental and prone to tears, but at the same time less tolerant of other people’s bullshit, because I have a baby to raise. I have, it turns out, infinite patience for tiny bald men who shout at my boobs all night, provided they are my children.

Eventually, Stuart went back to work. Of course, I knew he would – the plan was for me to take a year’s maternity leave, not him, but still. Watching him leave that first morning, knowing that now, for 12 hours a day, it was just me and this giant responsibility, I felt myself shrink to a dot and disappear, like Sandra Bullock in Gravity, helplessly backflipping off into infinity.

You might have read Stuart’s work, by the way. He’s the Guardian’s X Factor liveblogger and, crucially, he writes a weekly column about what life is like with his new family. You may have read the full story of Herbie’s hairy birth, or about how I have a giant osmium skull now. I treasure these columns. They’re like little postcards from Stuart’s side of things. Marriage can feel fragmented with a new baby in the mix, especially when suddenly one of you is doing most of the parenting and the other most of the working. But, when I’m up with the baby at 4am and I’m so tired that I can’t form thoughts, Stu’s columns precisely describe the joy and terror I’m feeling, and I always enjoy them. Even when he threatens to lift me up by the ankles and wipe my bum in a national newspaper.

Soon I realised that, if I spent every day indoors with my boobs out and Herbie on my lap, I’d just turn into the creepy moon-door lady from Game Of Thrones, so I decided to Get Some Fresh Air. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to Get Some Fresh Air with a breastfed newborn, but it’s a trial. It involves putting him down so you can get dressed, picking him up because he’s crying, pulling on a sock on while jamming your tit in his mouth, changing his nappy, jamming your other tit in his mouth, changing his nappy again, changing your clothes because he’s vomited all over you, noticing four hours have gone past, running outside with the pram, then having a little cry because your baby is so tiny and you never noticed before that the world is so full of spinning knives.

Once I got past the front gate, though, I took an experimental jaunt to Lidl and frankly I’ve never looked back. They should market Lidl as a playground for new mothers – the aisles are wide enough to accommodate even a giant Humvee of a pram like mine, and the shelves are full of treasure, like reasonably priced German gingerbread, and occasionally a wetsuit. Emboldened by daily Lidl excursions, during which no one stabbed me and I didn’t accidentally abandon the pram at the zebra crossing, I took to running errands in town with my son cuddled against me in a fabric wrap. But still, something was missing.

Back in my pre-baby London days, my social life was something that was just there, waiting for me to dip into it. No matter what was going on, a trip to the pub or a dinner round a friend’s was just a text and a Tube ride away. Now friends were trickling down from London at weekends, but it was event socialising; they’d come down and make faces at the baby, we’d all laugh, and then they’d leave. There was no one to just hang out with anymore.

Again, this was always the plan. I’m the one who blithely skipped off into the suburbs, where I don’t know anyone, and started a family. But I didn’t think the lack of company was a problem until a nice old lady in town started cooing over the baby, and I almost fainted from the attention. Soon I was deliberately swerving the baby towards clumps of old ladies whenever I went out, hoping that they’d catch his newborn scent and engage me in conversation. Something needed to be done. I needed to talk to other humans.

The most logical humans for me to meet would be other mothers. Other mothers seem like normal people – many of them also enjoy coffee and sitting – but talking to them involves an entirely new skill set. My initial forays so far haven’t gone brilliantly; at the last mother-and-baby group I attended, I sidled up to a woman and offered a cheery, “Nice baby!”, but she backed away, looking frightened. More recently, I’ve made tentative inroads with a friend of a friend. We don’t like the same things, or work in similar fields, or have anything in common at all, but I’m realising that a) that’s part of being a parent among parents, and b) that’s OK.

It’s fine if you don’t have anything in common, because parenthood is enough. It doesn’t really matter if you don’t like the same music if you’re both going through it – raising a child is terrifying. Raising a child is about love and fear and making tough decisions, and sometimes it’s reassuring just to sit and drink a coffee with someone who gets that.

So, it’s been a steep learning curve, but despite the giant cut in my belly and all these new challenges, I have Herbie. He’s everything. I’ve become baby-mad. Specifically about my own baby. I now understand every Facebook parent who shares photos of their child every five minutes, because as my diminishing follower count will attest, I Instagram my son daily. I’m obsessed. I want to capture him from every angle. The love I feel for him is cellular, and sometimes it feels as though I’ll go berserk with it. When I’m not with him, I miss him – I physically miss him, so I sigh over photos of him, leaking breastmilk everywhere. Even when he’s just in the nextroom. I’ve only known the boy for 10 weeks, for God’s sake. Motherhood has turned me into some terrible, milky-boobed stalker.

With Herbie, my identity is changing day by day. First, I was a home, then I was food. Now his world is opening up and he’s noticing more around him, I am a clown, dancing for his amusement and his comfort when all the new sensations get too much. Soon I’ll be someone new – the person who ignores Herbie’s supermarket tantrums, the fixer of scraped knees, the disciplinarian, the embarrassing, uncool mum. These isolating newborn days will be over, and I’ll miss them, even though I may reclaim some sleep and sanity. I’m looking forward to being all these new people, though, because they’ll mean I managed to be a decent parent. I’d still quite like a hazelnut latte, mind.

The mixed messages around alcohol and pregnancy

Originally published on The Pool

During my pregnancy last year, my doctor and I would meet weekly to laugh about my latest hilarious health misadventure.

We chortled through my gestational diabetes diagnosis, and hooted when a combination of a cracked rib and hyperemesis gravidarum caused me to redecorate her waiting room in projectile vomit. Finally, when I bruised my coccyx going over in a chocolate shop and started to unravel with stress, my doctor unequivocally prescribed a night on the sofa with a glass of wine.

“What?” I responded. “Aren’t pregnant women supposed to avoid alcohol?” “Well, yes and no,” my doctor told me. “You shouldn’t drink in the first three months of pregnancy, and then stick to a couple of units of alcohol a week if you drink at all. But in this case, I’d say, ‘happy mummy, happy baby’.”

So, that night, I took her at at her word and enjoyed a very stress-relieving glass of chilled chablis. I also sipped prosecco at my hen party, champagne at my wedding and a particularly throaty cabernet sauvignon during my honeymoon – happy in the knowledge that, because I was drinking very moderately, I was operating within medical approval.

But now the British Medical Association (BMA) is warning that any alcohol consumption during pregnancy could damage an unborn child.

“Exposure to alcohol before birth affects up to one in every 100 infants,” says Professor Sir Aynsley-Green from the BMA. “It is one of the most significant causes of childhood brain damage, learning disability, poor behaviour and even criminality. There is no ‘safe’ limit for alcohol consumption during pregnancy.”

Even more terrifyingly (at a point when, let’s face it, you’re probably terrified enough already), the effects of alcohol damage may not be initially detectable, according to the BMA’s Professor Sheila Hollins, ranging from “subtle damage that affects intelligence, behaviour and relationships to severe physical and learning disabilities”.

This news has sent me racing upstairs to check my sleeping five-month-old son over for (possibly invisible) signs of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. He seems fine now, if scandalised at being poked awake, but if he goes on to develop some problem linked to my alcohol consumption, will I brush it off with a blithe, “Well, my doctor said ‘happy mummy, happy baby’?” Of course not.

But it seems cruel to penalise pregnant women, especially those of us who indulged before we realised we were pregnant (in fact, that’s probably how a lot of us became pregnant). What with feeling blue, suddenly hating your favourite foods and the very real threat of tipping over in a chocolate shop, most expectant mothers have enough to worry about.

Clare Murphy from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) agrees: “Women are being scared witless by current alcohol messaging.

“If the guidance needs amending in any way, it is to reassure women who have had an episode of binge-drinking before they found out that they were pregnant that they are extremely unlikely to have caused their baby harm.”

BPAS also claim that risks to babies are often exaggerated. So which is it? Are we harming our unborn children by drinking, or not? With my doctor telling me one thing and the Department of Health saying another – not to mention that, during the same hospital visit, one midwife said I should avoid alcohol, and another advised that wine could bring on labour – I was awash with muddled guidance during my pregnancy.

Professor Aynsley-Green has called alcohol messaging “inconsistent, contradictory and confusing”, and I’d have to agree. Conflicting advice is often the way of pregnancy. One minute you’re told to avoid peanuts, and the next peanut butter is back on the menu, and even the birth plan you’re advised to lovingly craft is often flung in the bin the second you hit the delivery suite.

Whatever the outcome of the BMA’s recommendations, however they translate to NHS guidelines for pregnant women, I think doctors and midwives should find a line, and stick to it.

I don’t judge anyone for drinking during pregnancy, and I’d prefer not to be judged myself and, I mean, I really enjoyed drinking during my pregnancy – it made the ride that little bit easier.

But the bottom line is this: had my doctor not told me to go ahead and have that glass of chablis, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to drink it or any alcohol during my pregnancy, and I wouldn’t be hovering by my son’s cot right now, wondering what’s to become of him.