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Guest post: Our patchwork fields, unravelling at the seams

In this special guest post – and in a departure from my usual ramshackle style – a fellow parenting blogger (who wishes to remain anonymous because of the nature of her work) writes about her fears for the future, and the present day, ahead of tomorrow’s EU referendum.

The night before Jo Cox was brutally murdered in her constituency I couldn’t sleep. My uncharacteristic insomnia was in no small part because I was in the midst of an incredibly tough week looking after my poorly one-year-old whilst also struggling with illness myself. But it was also because thoughts of the forthcoming EU referendum were swirling around my mind.

Until that night I really hadn’t given the referendum much thought – I would vote Remain and that would be that. But, having finally engaged my brain about it properly for the first time, I suddenly realised just how real the possibility of leaving the European Union actually was. I could sense an irreversible shift in our society was about to take place and felt incredibly uneasy about what could happen over the coming weeks and months. But I couldn’t pinpoint precisely what it was that I was so afraid of.

When I got up that morning after a night of tossing and turning, I was miserable and exhausted. I dragged myself through the first half of the day, looked after my son as best as I could and, in the snatches of time I found, jotted down the beginnings of a blog post on my iPhone to try and express whatever it was that was tugging away at the back of my mind.

Because my thoughts the night before had taken me back to the last time my sleep had been blighted by something other than a hungry baby, in the spring of 2015. When I had my baby that April I very nearly died. Cooped up in a sweltering hospital ward, my body was recovering from major blood loss and my mind was a tangle of hormones and fears about how on earth I was going to get over what had undoubtedly been the most traumatic experience of my life to date.

One sleepless night midway through my hospital stay, and at a particularly low moment, one of the night duty midwives came to do my observations and could see I was struggling. She perched on the edge of my bed as my baby squirmed in the plastic crib next to me and my husband tossed and turned in a chair in the corner and quietly told me a story.

She told me about how she’d moved to England from Italy to pursue her dream of becoming a midwife at this London NHS teaching hospital. About how she was horribly homesick in the beginning because she knew no one, and was finding the language difficult. About how she’d called her dad back home in Italy in tears because she was finding it so hard and didn’t know how she was going to get through it. About how her dad reassured her and told her that, one day, everything would suddenly fall into place, and the intensity of her current fears and worries would be nothing but a distant memory. And about how her dad had been right and how much she now loved her job and was so pleased she’d made that decision to come here to live and work.

She wanted me to know that it would be the same for me. And that, while my feelings and concerns and that moment were completely valid and important, one day they would somewhere in the background rather at the forefront of my mind, and I would be happy. And she was totally right.

Of all the amazing people I met in that hospital that week, it was her words which stayed with me the most.

That midwife was probably one of dozens of individuals who were involved in the care of me and my baby son who were born outside of the UK. Highly-skilled, caring and hardworking people who are able to work in our hospitals – and other institutions that care for our country’s most vulnerable people – because of the free movement of workers between the EU member states.

After I wrote this story down last Thursday, I went on to think about what might happen in our society if we did vote to leave the European Union. I mused that, in the short-term, there would probably be protests from the vocal and active community on the left who vehemently want to remain in the EU. About how this could all-to-easily lead to clashes with protestors on the right. The real potential for violence and unrest all around our country which could, in turn, lead to familiar scenes of looting, riots, disorder and all-round chaos.

Except this time we would have no stable government to steady the ship and get things back under control.

Because, chances are, Cameron would have had to resign, opening the door for the politics of this country to take a dramatic lurch to the right, legitimising the views of those who can’t seem to understand that our country – and indeed every country in the world – is built on the inevitable migration and movement of the human species. That’s how most of us ended up here, after all.

I was worried about becoming an isolated nation. About how the value of our currency and the solidity of our economy could plummet – indeed, the Bank of England have recently confirmed as much. And how the people at the very bottom of our society – those who are already struggling the most – could end up struggling even more.

I got all of this out of my system and, with a splitting headache, eventually sat down to watch England vs Wales with my sick child fitfully sleeping in my arms.

Little did I know at that point that the horror, violence and awfulness that I so feared had already begun on our streets. Because, over the next couple of hours, I barely watched a kick of the ball, as the terror of what had taken place in Birstall, West Yorkshire, unveiled itself on social media.

I can’t put into words my feelings over the coming hours and days. I felt sick to my stomach. A mother. A talented campaigner. An effervescent chink of hope and decency in a seemingly murky sea of cynical political manoeuvring. Snubbed out on the streets that she called home.

And, when it emerged that Jo’s killer appeared to be politically motivated, I suddenly realised what it was that had been nagging away at me. I realised that it wasn’t the prospect of apotentially unfixable division occurring between those who fall on different sides of the debate, it was the fact that the fragile stitches that knit our patchwork society together had all-too-obviously already begun to unravel.

Before last week I felt proud and lucky to live in a tolerant, open-minded and democratic country where we could freely express our views and openly exercise our right to vote on important issues.

But then Jo Cox lost her life because of these very values.

This referendum represents everything that’s gone wrong with our democracy. After all, the only reason it’s even happening is because David Cameron wanted to score a cheap point in his most recent General Election campaign. Cheap it may have seemed when he committed to it back in 2013, but now the true costs are making themselves known.

What do we really think we can achieve by leaving the EU? I don’t think anybody really knows. But what we would definitely achieve is political and financial instability, the real risk of more violence on our streets and a huge question mark over the future of this country.

That’s not the kind of future I want for my son. Or for that lovely midwife who took the huge personal leap to move here to follow her dreams and help people like me, and babies like mine.

But, above absolutely everything else, is the simple fact that two children have lost a mother. And, even if we do vote to remain part of the EU, and the complex but beautiful fabric of our society is mended over time, there is absolutely nothing in the world which will ever be able to fix that.

Postnatal Retreat, Manoir la Croix de la Jugie

At the end of summer 2015, when Herbie was seven months old, I was struggling with sleep deprivation, depression, and an expanding Bourbon biscuit-based waistline, and Stu was lamenting what little time he got to spend with Herbie every day. So when we were invited to a (disclaimer: free) week-long postnatal retreat in France, we jumped at the chance.

Although the notion of being stranded in the countryside with a bunch of strange families sounded at first like an ITV2 reality show, the retreat blurb said it focused on rebuilding post-natal fitness and wellbeing, with exercise classes for the mums, quality dad-time for the dads, and hearty living for everyone. Plus we live right by a Eurostar station, so it almost seemed rude not to go.

Here’s our first ever family Eurostar selfie:

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The Manoir
La Jugie is an ivy-strewn 18th Century farmhouse with its own bergerie (converted sheep shed), pool, and apple orchard. It sits deep in the green hills of Limousin, a 30-minute drive from Limoges (you can fly there or get the train from Paris). Inside it’s all exposed beams and graphic rugs thrown over stone floors, with delicious cooking smells coming from the cosy kitchen.

It turns out hosts Clio Wood and Bryn Snelson redecorated the manoir in their unique style when they bought it; it was only after having her own baby in 2014 that Clio founded &Breathe Postnatal, when she couldn’t find a retreat that suited her.

The house sleeps 16, so we basically had a floor to ourselves, which was great for shushing Herbie to sleep, relaxing after an exercise class, or just to bury your nose in a book when communal life got a bit too communal – there was even a delightful book-filled reading nook for this very purpose.

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Fitness
This is the bit I wasn’t looking forward to. In adult life I have basically been super-thin but horribly unfit (thanks, cigarettes!), or sort-of fit but kind of chubby (thanks pizza/running!). I took up competitive biscuit-eating during pregnancy, though, and hadn’t stopped, so the notion of sausaging my post-C-section bulk into lycra didn’t really fill me with joy. However, La Jugie’s own buoyant trainer Caroline Bragg allayed my fears.

Our ensemble twice-daily sessions took place in the bergerie or the covered terrace, and incorporated circuits, pilates, cardio, and even resistance training with our babies in carriers – but all carefully modified for postnatal bodies (did you know you shouldn’t do crunches after a C-section? Nor did I), and at our own pace. Despite myself, I enjoyed my sessions, and have kept up (sort of) with the bespoke training plan Caroline gives you at the end (although I do it too sporadically at the moment, and mainly for Herbie’s amusement. MUST DO BETTER).

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Food
Honestly, when I heard I was going on a ‘fitness’ retreat I expected to be on a diet of celery, and said a tearful farewell to ‘real food’ before I left. But I hadn’t reckoned on Clio’s amazing hearty fare and love of long, boozy dinners. Breakfasts were a smorgasbord of fruits, oats, cheese and bread, lunches were chunky soups (my favourite was the curried apple) with huge hunks of bread, and dinners were giant pots of cassoulet and pots au feu with salads (and pudding!). Everything tasted fresh and fabulous. Plus, the fact that all the families came together every evening, chatting and eating with our babies on our laps, added to the sense of bonhomie, and made dinners all the more delicious.

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Relaxation
Part-and-parcel with the week came an hour-long in-house professional massage for everyone. Mine was so good I passed out within minutes and shelled out for an extra session later in the week. Hot showers, late mornings, fresh air, good food, and getting your heart rate up all contributed to an overall sense of wellbeing, and on good days Bryn even ferried us out for trips to the village, shops and even the zoo. It was a bit rainy for the pool, but we explored the grounds and even scrumped a few apples (don’t tell Clio). And, as we all know, theft is very relaxing.

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Was it worth it?
Oh my god yes. The entire week was a much-needed series of deep breaths after the panic of early parenthood, and left me brimming with a sense of wellbeing I hadn’t realised I’d lost. Meeting other new parents was a bonus to this; we all put a brave face on to begin with (I was horribly intimidated by everyone) but slowly we came together and realised that we were going through very similar struggles. I honestly credit Clio, Bryn and Caroline with saving my sanity, a bit. The retreats are a wonderful idea generally, but I think few people could run such events with the warmth, welcoming and sense of fun that they possess. I’ve made some friends for life here. Thanks so much, you three.

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If you’re a new mum and you’re dithering over your summer holiday, take a look at the 2016 retreats – they might be just what you need. If you can’t commit to a week, keep an eye out for the day retreats that are coming soon to London.

Oh, and if this review sounds overly enthusiastic, it’s because I am. In fact, to paraphrase Victor Kiam, I liked it so much I joined the company! I now help with &Breathe Postnatal‘s social media and content, because I found my retreat so valuable in terms of recovering my equilibrium after the drama of becoming a mother.

If that’s not a ringing endorsement I don’t know what is.

Oh, and here’s a final note from Herbie:

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Sorry about all the spit.

 

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.

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.

8 ways to whinge about your pregnancy when you work at BuzzFeed

I’m a staff writer at BuzzFeed, and I shamelessly mined my pregnancy for source material – so here are all my pregnancy posts. I stand by them all: