Monday, February 25, 2013

Good advice

I'm all ears again. Hoovering up advice like the rookie mum that I am.

So far my favourite two pieces of advice for surviving the first few weeks after birth are these:

1. Never stand when you could be sitting, and never be awake when you could be asleep.
Wise words indeed from the Wondertwin. It's true what they say about that whole giving birth and caring for a newborn baby: it really is rather tiring.

2. Never cancel your day's plans just because you had a bad night.
So if I planned to have a coffee with a friend, even if my sleep was decimated the night before, I should still make the effort to go. I may be grumpy, and look like crap. But at least I'll get out and about, which is a lot better than being grumpy and looking like crap and stuck in the flat feeling sorry for myself. My sister, who had twins and a c-section to contend with, gave me this advice. She knows a little something about sleep deprivation. So if she can make this philosophy work (not that I'm being competitive....) then I shall certainly try to do the same.

What's the best - or the worst - piece of advice you've heard, for dealing with life-after-birth?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A proper writing project

I'm glad lovely Lady P ran a little behind schedule. Not least because it gave her longer to fatten up, and me longer to rest.

But also because by being late, she allowed me to make a meeting, optimistically scheduled for 3 days after her due date - with my new literary agent. That's right, an actual agent. Mine! 'My agent': I love saying that. And I love my unborn child for hanging in there so I could meet the agent properly and kick start discussions about a real, proper, book project.

Two years ago, when I started blogging, it was as a means to an end. I had the idea that writing something, however frivolous and slimline, every few days, would be a good habit to get into. Spending that time at my keyboard would inevitably lead me to get my teeth into a 'proper' writing project - like a modern classic novel, or an incisive, moving, critically acclaimed and commercially successful short story collection. Or a fought-over, massively bankable screenplay. (Always good to set your sights high, right?)

What happened instead is that I enjoyed blogging so much I didn't have much time or energy left for other writing. The blog quickly became an end in itself, and a very satisfying one, at that. Dreams of making a career out of writing faded, against the bright reality of a well paid Big Corp job and the fun of writing for myself, in my spare time.

I guess the lure of the 'proper writing project' was always going to reel me back in. So in recent months my glamorous e-entrepreneurial friend and I have been working on a book. As we embarked on a quest for an agent I decided to raise my social media profile - hence my increased volume of tweets, Instagrams, Pinterests and Facebook posts. I won't say anymore about the book until we have a publisher and it is really real. But I can at least tell you it is bloody brilliant.

I don't know whether it's all the writing practice my blog gave me, my social media bleatings, or just sheer good luck, but we have managed to find a lovely, clever agent to represent us. Now all we need is a publisher... watch this space!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Nobody talks about Day Four

One does, as an expectant mum, hear a lot about how magical the early days with a newborn are. One also hears a lot about how challenging this time can be. (Of course, if you're an optimist you choose to hear the magical stuff louder than the challenging stuff.) 'The early days' or 'those first few weeks' are described as if they are one long contiuum of experience.

Not so. On Day Four, everything changes. There are lots of changes, some small and some significant. The pain of Day Four is that this is the day they all collide.

Even the poppers on a babygro are hard work on Day Four
Here's what happened to me:
  1. The endorphins wore off. That post-birth haze of joy had probably been receding for days. By Day Four it had been depleted altogether.
  2. Some other bad hormones come in and replaced the endorphins. Let's call them 'the crying hormones,' for lack of the scientific name.
  3. The sense of marvel reduced. Just only a tiny amount, but still. Gazing in wonder at the incredible creature we have produced was a great pastime for hours and hours at first, but that could only last so long. We still love her to a terrifying degree, but the frequency with which we say 'oh my god look at her little mouth!' or 'isn't she beautiful' did lessen. On each day before, we had taken at least a dozen photos. On Day Four, not a single photo was taken.
  4. The sleep deprivation kicked in. I can cope with two or three night's poor sleep on the trot. By Day Four my nerves were wearing rather thin.
  5. The outfits run out. We had enough sweet, co-ordinated outfits to take us through the first few days, but the laundry could not be put off forever. Although we did consider just dressing her in a towel, it's not really a good look.
  6. The friends who have been keeping their distance for a couple of days, to give us space, start a-calling and a-wanting to visit.
  7. Last but absolutely by no means least, my milk, as they say, 'came in'. On top of all these other niggles and strains, suddenly instead of breasts I had enormous boulders. And Lady P, used to sipping a little colostrum with ease, suddenly was expected to suck a rock the size of a watermelon. She was furious. Absolutely, blood-curdlingly, furious. I was, frankly, scared of her.
I survived*. Most people do, it seems. Thanks to the Breastfeeding Hotline, Aptamil (contrary to the Breastfeeding Hotline's advice, but never mind that), a good chat with some friends, and a long hot bath (enabled by the doping effect Aptamil had on Lady P). And I chatted to some friends, who had survived this so-called magical time and kept their baby alive since then too.

And that's when I realised... everyone goes hits the same massive bump in the road. Some people hit it three days in, others more like five, but everyone hits it. And hard.

And yet no-one tells you to expect it. Maybe it's like labour, and you forget the specifics - which is why I wanted to write this post. It is my legacy to any expectant mums. Preparation is key. If I'd know Day Four was coming, I'd have stocked up on chocolate and made sure I knew how that complicated breast pump worked in advance.

*In fact, Day Four now seems like a distant memory. Thanks to some good team work with TLOML, the establishment of the semblance of a routine, and a fair amount of faffing around with expressing and bottle feeding, we are now feeling a little more in control and a whole lot happier. I'm sure we'll hit some more bumps in the road ahead, but we're a lot more able to cope now. And back to taking dozens of photos every day.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

7lbs 1oz, since you ask

She's here! The most delightful baby imaginable.
Lady P

She arrived late on Saturday, and I'd love to tell you about the labour and birth in graphic detail. I could also fill you in on her temperament, her long legs, and whether she is hairy or not (she is). And I'd be happy to share the details of our care in hospital, how that birth plan worked out for us, and whether my pedicure survived (it didn't).

But I know what you're going to ask. It's the first thing everyone wants to know: 'What does she weigh?'

It's a strange question, really. I mean, assuming she's not massively premature or hugely oversized. She's a baby. She weighs something between 6lbs and 8lbs. You know, the kind of thing babies usually weigh. The details are irrelevant. If someone says to you 'I met this great guy', you don't immediately ask 'how much does he weigh?' Nor, on finding out you are going to have a new boss, do you ask 'how many stone?' So what's with the baby weight obsession?

Unfortunately for our interested family and friends, TLOML and I are not big birth weight watchers. And the Whittington  Birth Centre vibe is all about letting you take your time, after delivery, to marvel in your new baby and bond as a family. So they didn't weigh her for at least an hour after she was born. Meanwhile we used that special bonding time, obviously, to call our mums and text our nearest and dearest. (I would like to point out I did restrain from tweeting at least.) Everyone we told asked us the same thing.

'What does she weigh?'

We didn't know. We knew she was alert yet chilled out, incredibly beautiful, and had great big feet. We were immediately certain of her future as an Olympic gold medal-winning swimming supermodel. But we did not know her weight.

Well, we do now. Our lovely little Lady P was 7lbs 1oz at birth. A fact we have now started to include in all birth-related communications.

PS We're calling her Lady P because she has a certain elegance that suggests an aristocratic bearing. Again, something else we could have told you long before we knew her weight.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Taxpayer funded pins and needles

I'm fortunate to have always enjoyed good health. Which means I've never really got great value out of the NHS. I'm okay with that, being as I am a total leftie. But still, it's nice to feel like I'm clawing something back now. This pregnancy is proving to be a great opportunity to get my money's worth.

It's not just the basic care I'm getting - all those check ups, my flu jab, the fact I can give birth in a lovely birth centre. That's an excellent start. But I'm enjoying the extras too. Remember all those extra scans we got? And I'm going through an industrial size bottle of Gaviscon every week (free, on prescription). It's all gravy.
My Gaviscon bottle - shown here next to a regular London townhouse, for scale
Today I scaled new heights. Who knew you could get acupuncture on the NHS? Well, you can. And I did.

My hospital, the Whittington, offers acupuncture in the maternity unit, for pain relief, to turn breech babies, and to induce labour. I was a little bit sceptical, I'll be honest. Research on the efficacy of acupuncture is patchy at best. But I figure, if it's NHS-funded that must mean someone who knows more about healthcare than me has decided it is worth a punt. According to the practitioner I saw, they believe it's saving them money in reduced C-sections and fewer chemical inductions.

Anyway, even if it doesn't work, it gives me something to fill another long afternoon of maternity leave with. So, at 6 days past my due date, I checked in for my first session. Pins were placed in areas which will apparently help 'with descent' and send extra blood to my uterus. After I mentioned a couple of pregnancy symptons she chucked in a few extra needles to combat heartburn and water retention. My scepticism began to dissolve as I felt weird sensations, almost like electric shocks. Goodness knows what it's doing, but something is definitely happening around those needles.

It's hard to create anything like a calming, spa-like environment in a curtained hospital bay. So on one side of me I heard a long discussion about bowel movements, and on the other a woman made a noisy phone call to her aunty to discuss a funeral. Despite that, I was so relaxed that I almost fell asleep. Not sure if it was the effect of the needles, the hospital warmth, or the fact I could do nothing but lie still and breathe. But for whatever reason I came out of there feeling like I was walking on air.

And did it work? Well, given that I'm 41 weeks pregnant, the chances of me going into labour in the next few days are extremely good - with or without the needles. Still, I got out of it what I wanted: a diverting and pleasant experience. And the satisfaction of enjoying another health service, thanks to the good old NHS.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Grand Romantic Gestures

I don't know why on earth the British have a reputation for being stuffy, unemotional, or unexpressive. But apparently - according to TLOML and other Americans - it is so.

Proof of the Brit's ability to make a grand romantic gesture can be found at our local Marks & Spencer.
Because nothing says romance like a garlicky breaded chicken fillet.

One aspect of our international reputation that is, perhaps, well earned, is that of a nation of animal lovers.The dog crazed men of Chelsea aren't the only ones who think it's nice to get their pet a Valentine's Day gift.
I like the slightly bitter tone of this email: the references to 'underappreciated' flowers, and the companion who 'will never let you down'. Sadly for me and TLOML, the animal in our life is thoroughly underappreciative. He yowls for food day and night, only pausing to eat or sleep. And his efforts on the new exercise routine have been disappointing: 'let down' doesn't even cover it.

So I guess we'll just have to save our romantic gestures for one another. I'm off to M&S to buy a chicken parmo.

Monday, February 11, 2013

My deaf ears

I can't help it. For months I was absorbent as a sponge, I really was. Because I'm constantly blogging or tweeting about pregnancy, I invite more than my fair share of pearls of experience from others. Until very recently I was eager to hear about others' experience, and keen to learn from those who've been through it before.

But as of now any advice that comes my way falls on deaf ears. I think I'm just so stuffed full with it all that I can't take in anymore. TLOML says it's my fault for banging on, tweeting and blogging about my pregnancy so much: no wonder I get a lot of feedback.  And as I said, until just now, I've been gobbling it all up eagerly. So no wonder I'm a little overwhelmed with it all.

Or maybe what's putting me off the barrage of advice is the fact that a fair chunk of it is just kinda doom-laden. By well-meaning friends who've been through it before, I am told I might as well book my epidural now. And that rarely will we have the time or energy to cook a nice dinner. Our hopes to travel, or occasionally go out on a date, or even read a magazine once in a while are gently scoffed at. Meanwhile TLOML is told he willl be feeling left out (as he won't be involved in babycare). And that we will argue a lot and I must be placated at all costs.

It sounds miserable. Will our baby really be such a tyrant? Will I? And are our lives over? Yikes! I'm pretty sure it's too late to take this baby back.

Fortunately, I'm optimistic naive enough to believe that, while it will be very painful, giving birth will ultimately be very rewarding. And that although we will of course, be tired beyond all reason, we will also be happy. And in it together. I want to go into this whole thing feeling upbeat, positive and excited - rather than tensed and expecting the worst.

I've stopped reading the weekly 'your pregnancy' emails from NHS, Bounty, Babycentre, Babycenter, HiPP, Aptamil and Cow & Gate. (On reflection, perhaps I signed up for too many.) I've even stopped watching One Born Every Minute, the ultimate source of birth horror stories.

The only kind of birth stories I now want to hear are positive, 'I didn't even notice I was in labour & then the baby slipped out like a bar of soap' stories. The excellent Tell Me a Good Birth Story site has plenty of good ones and I've read them all many times over. Similarly, I only really want to hear from friends who say things like 'Yes, it's tiring but motherhood is wonderful', or 'The sleep deprivation is tough but my goodness it's worth it'.

So if you've offered me any advice in the past few days, and I seem to be glazing over, forgive me. I'm choosing blissful ignorance, or vague positivity. Life as an optimist is really much more pleasant.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Relinquishing control

Being mentally prepared for labour and birth is a good thing. Taking time to consider your preferences, and to document them in a birth plan, is a useful exercise. But it is generally recommended to keep any open mind. Anything can happen, and it's important to be able to go with the flow. Accept that the birth may take a different course than what you have planned, and don't freak out if you can't get into the birthing pool, or have an epidural, or it turns out to hurt way more than you expected.

Well, that's all very sensible. But I'm just not sure it's achievable.

I live a highly structured, fully itinerised life. I write things on lists and then I do (or buy) them. Things don't 'just happen' to me, and I rarely go with the flow. Sure, I like a bit of spontaneity - but only if it doesn't interfere with my plans.

So my plan for labour and birth is really quite fixed. I really want to use the pool, and I hope to avoid medical intervention. I have created several itunes playlists for different points in my labour and have written clear instructions for TLOML about which ones to play and when. (Yes, I know.)

Too specific?
I have also been quite particular about when I want all this birthing activity to happen. I'm trying to make a meeting with a literary agent early next week. Plus the cleaner comes on Wednesday morning. And my sister is in town next Thursday and Friday. So my ideal is for labour to start on Wednesday afternoon and be over by Thursday morning.

I know, I know, it's ridiculous. There's at least a two week window now in which my baby could make her appearance. And all sorts of circumstances could arrive which render my playlists completely redundant.

But I'm just really hoping for a like mother, like daughter scenario. Fingers crossed she'll be as keen on structure and plans as I am.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Size matters, and sometimes you just have to ship the big stuff in

Continuing on from my popular 'everything is bigger in America' thread from previous years, I have a new 'everything is smaller in Britain' discovery to share.

TLOML regularly asks his mother to send drugstore items to us here. She very kindly shops for him, packs it up and ships it over - which is more than a little inconvenient, I imagine. She's a good mum, of course, and doesn't complain.

But I do. 'You know, you can buy all the same stuff here. You don't need to ask your poor mother to go to all this trouble,' I say.

Then the shipment arrives, and we do the side-by-side comparison, and I eat my words.

One of these body lotion bottles is from a UK retailer, and cost about a fiver, so we thought it was a fairly standard size. The other was sent from the US and cost also about a fiver, and is probably considered a standard size there. Can you guess which is which?

As for the painkillers, no prizes for spotting the tiny Boots packet, which cost less than £1. The giant bottle of US painkillers cost ten times as much but will last thirty times as long.

Sometimes, bigger really is better. That's clearly not the case with fruit, or cars. But where drugstore essentials are concerned, our American cousins are really onto something. And thankfully for us, TLOML's mum is kind enough to keep shipping on request.

We really do have the best of both worlds: sensibly sized apples and access to enormous bottles of body lotion.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

On babies and punctuality

I stopped work at 38 weeks, which is just two weeks before the baby is due. I figured if she comes on time, two weeks will be plenty of time to relax and prepare. Especially if I spent my last month at work mainly resting while working from home. Which I did.

Plus, people always tell you that first babies are always late.

And yet... some instinct inside me insisted she might come early. Hence our state of extreme overpreparedness: the bag has been packed for weeks, I avoid going South of the river for fear of being stranded in labour, and we are careful to ensure it's never been more than a week since our last date. Oh, and that we are never low on milk or bread.

In fact although first babies are more likely to be late than second babies, they are still predisposed to arriving a smidge ahead of their due date (week 40). Find the stats here, in this fascinating blog. To save you the detailed read, here's a chart I pilfered from it.
Courtesy of Probably Overthinking It by Allen Downey
The chances of a baby - firstborn or otherwise - arriving in week 39 is higher than in any other week.

TLOML's attitude is that since she has a date scheduled, she should just arrive on that date. He's a stickler for punctuality.

Personally, I think it would show a certain proactiveness if she arrived, say, a day early. But please, no sooner. I'm due a few more days of Special Time yet.

One thing neither of us will countenance is a late baby. There's only so long we can maintain this state of high alert and constant readiness.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Our final last ever date night

A little over a week ago, TLOML and I went for a 'Last Ever Pre Baby Date Night' dinner. I was just 38 weeks pregnant, but we wanted to be prepared and have had a good date night in the bank in case the baby came early. We are, I think, the world's most overprepared parents-to-be.

We went to La Patagonia, an Argentine restaurant in Camden, which TLOML declared mucho authentico. He should know, given the amount of time he spends in Argentina 'on business' (eating steak). They have a proper parrilla grill to cook on, which the waiter proudly told us has already started several fires. TLOML had entrana, and I had grilled vegetables with sides of morcilla and chorizo.

All week long we talked about how delicious that dinner was.

6 days passed and still no baby. Delicious though La Patagonia was, we weren't sure how much longer we could savour the memory of that date night. So we went for another 'Last Ever Pre Baby Date Night' dinner. This time we went to Chicken Shop, a ten minute walk from Fox Corner. It's a hip rotisserie chicken place from the people behind The Electric and the gaggle of hip members' clubs and restaurants they have spawned.  It was quite the buzz when it opened in Kentish Town last summer, and we've been waiting for it no longer to be the hot new spot so we can try it. (We don't like to be ahead of the curve, with all the teething problems that entails).

The menu at Chicken Shop is beautifully simple. We ordered everything on it.
Well, excluding puddings, of course. That would be greedy. A whole chicken and four sides, by contrast, is just the sensible thing to do. The food was excellent, as it should be when the menu is that small. It is up there with Porchetta for making a virtue of only selling one thing, and doing it so well that that one thing is all you want to eat.

Best of all, we sat next to the Norfolk chicken farmer who supplies their chicken. We clocked him and his friend as soon as they walked in because they didn't look like the other clientele. In as much as they were 20 years older and, well, looked a little agricultural. He proudly told us that he supplied the chicken, and that Chris Martin (the singer, they helpfully clarified, not the football player) had eaten his chicken in this very restaurant. They were very proud, and rightly so.

So, now we have another great date night to reminisce about once the baby comes. She's due in about a week. If she's late, this could be a rather expensive month.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Transatlantic Television

This weekend Americans will consume 1.2 billion chicken wings.

No, that's not what they normally consume as a nation. It's at least 3 times the number of wings eaten on a normal weekend.

It's the Super Bowl: second biggest day of food consumption in the US after Thanksgiving. On Super Bowl Sunday Americans all over the land get together in large groups, to eat wings and dogs and chips, and watch the two league-winning football teams play for the title of Super Bowl champions. It's kind of a big deal. To the point where streets are quiet, because everyone is indoors watching. Even people who don't really care about football. (I know, because I was one).

Indeed, 'tis the season of outstanding televised events, of the sort that America does so very well.  I'm talking about the Super Bowl, the Oscars and the Globes, and I'd even throw in the Inauguration Ceremony too. All of these events are staged on a grand scale, fully star studded.
The Super Bowl on telly
By contrast, we have... what? The FA Cup Final? Easily 50% of the people I know don't watch that, or even really notice it's happening. And they don't have Beyonce singing at half time. The Baftas, similarly, is rather small scale and somewhat lower on glamour than the Oscars.

The best British TV event I can think of was the Royal Wedding. But we may have to wait another 30 years for such pageantry. And the Jubilee was just an afternoon of sheer misery, watching jaded TV presenters interviewing sodden jingoistic lunatics going on about how brilliant the Queen is. Lame.

Queen's diamond jubilee: fearne Cotton and Paloma Faith
The Diamond Jubilee on telly (image from BBC)
But that's all right. We do brilliantly at many other things. Like insightful radio shows, quality TV news, and good documentaries. And thanks to the joys of cable TV and the internet (and a rather useful proxy service that allows us to pretend we're in the US when we need to), we can have the best of both worlds. I pepper my diet of The Archers and BBC News 24 with E! red carpet coverage. And TLOML can enjoy the Super Bowl.

The only downside is that our wings won't be the real thing, and we won't be surrounded by cheering Americans. But since I got used to listening to Radio 4 on a sunny deck in Malibu, I'm sure TLOML can cope with watching the Superbowl in rainy old London.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Tea time

Last weekend I went for a lovely afternoon tea with some girlfriends. It was a mini baby shower, replete with a sweepstake on when the baby's due, tiny sandwiches, and cupcakes with nappy pins on the top. (The pins were inedible but at least were made of plastic, so not as dangerous as they sound). It was a real treat. I love a good afternoon tea.

TLOML, by contrast, is baffled by the concept. He has been ever since we first spent a weekend with my parents. On Sundays my mum always does a big roast for lunch, and then later we'll have afternoon tea. The table is laden with scones, crumpets or tea cakes, egg salad sandwiches, cakes and some little sweet things like brandy snaps or millionaire shortcakes. We eat it at about 5, maybe 6pm at the latest.

'What is this?' whispered TLOML to be, as we sat down for tea that very first time.
'Tea', I said, leaving the 'you idiot' unspoken.
'But... it's not just tea, there's all this food. What meal is this?'

The penny dropped. And it's a fair question. After all, this is a meal named after a hot drink, one which you consume as part of the meal. It's your last big meal of the day, and yet it's clearly not dinner. And it consists predominantly of cakes, which we have been raised to know is not a proper meal.

Still, in our family at least, it is a regular part of the repertoire. Not just for special occasions in fancy hotels, but for everyday life when you've had a big lunch.

As it happens TLOML rather likes this kind of tea. But he is still rather confused by it, and refuses to consider it a proper evening meal. The clarion call 'what's for dinner' will still cry out at about 8 or 9pm.

To add bewilderment on top of confusion, any evening meal in the North is 'tea'. That's just what they say instead of 'dinner'. (They eat dinner at lunchtime, but let's leave that for another time). Living as they do in North Yorkshire, my family have 'tea' every night of the week - whether it's cakes at 5pm, or chicken casserole at 7pm. Quite how TLOML will cope when we move up there in the spring is a bit of a worry.