Saturday, March 30, 2013

Two truths and a white lie

These are three things I have told TLOML about Saltburn, the little surfer town in North Yorkshire that we are moving to this week:

1. Saltburn exists in a microclimate - something to do with being a distance east of the Pennines - which means the sky is always blue and it rarely rains.
2. People on the street will put money in a newborn pram. This tradition is dying out a bit but still persists among the elderly and the generous.
3. The tap water there is so deliciously soft we will never need to use our filter jug again, and our washing up liquid and showergel will lather up with abundance, and last for ages and ages.

One of them is not true. Can you guess which?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Gurning and smiling

According to all those baby books, Lady P is about to hit an important milestone. She should be able to smile any day now.

Actually 'What To Expect' tells me some babies can smile at just four weeks old.  Show offs. We won't judge her against arbitrary 'average child' milestones. Although we might note with some pride that she could hold her head up very early on, and has been bringing her hands to her mouth since birth like some sort of genius. Okay, so I am judging her against those milestones. I'm afraid it's irresistible.

To be honest the smiling thing is not just about my child hitting important developmental milestones. It's about a reward for me. Yup, that's right, pretty much entirely selfish. But I've been tending to her, feeding her, singing to her, comforting her, wiping her bottom, and more for almost six weeks - so far her main response has been to cry, puke on me, or fall asleep. A smile, a sign that she knows and likes me, would be a very nice reward.

In an attempt to coax that reward out of Lady P I am energetically smiling at her at all opportunities. She's definitely responding. Instead of the usual wail or sleepy face I'm getting some pretty impressive gurns in response.

For my American readers, allow me to explain gurning. It the name given to the pulling of a crazy squelchy face. There's a gurning competition every year at the Egremont Crab Fair. I know, it's weird. It's one of those uniquely British things that seem to have been made up for the purpose of demonstrating our quaint eccentricity in blogs like this one.

Here's a man competing in the gurning contest:
Copyright Ben Russell
Here are Lady P's latest attempts:

It's not quite the radiant smile I'm looking for, but I think it's a step in the right direction.

Monday, March 25, 2013


It's been almost a year since we moved into Fox Corner. A year living in the same place. Madness. Plus we've got a newborn baby so we've got all this time on our hands, of course. So obviously we're going to move house again.

We're not just moving for kicks. We have good reasons. The many cockamamie features of Fox Corner are less charming than deeply irritating, and on a daily basis. Lady P takes up way more space than we had ever imagined. Her clothes need a bigger wardrobe than mine. And her sound - her wail, or her 'lovely singing' as I sometimes call it, in an effort to stay calm - fills the whole flat too, which makes it hard for TLOML to work from home. It's time to expand, and to upgrade.

But in our straitened circumstances (my 40% maternity leave pay cut) upgrading in posh NW3 seems a bit foolhardy. Instead we're moving to Saltburn, a lovely little surfer town in North Yorkshire. What's lovely about Saltburn is that a months' rent for a three bedroom house only costs a smidge more than we pay per week for our two bedroom shambles.
Saltburn: it's a lot like Malibu

Other lovely things about Saltburn include my favourite little sister and her family, a Victorian pier, and a couple of excellent chippies*. Plus my parents are five minutes drive away. It's a really nice low-key little town, the perfect place for us to explore family life and enjoy Lady P, far away from the distractions of London's bright lights. By which I mean, we figure she's going to trample all over our wining and dining social life anyway so we might as well leave London for a few months.

This will be our fourth house move together, and my fifth in 3.5 years. Since November 2009 I have moved from London to Beverly Hills to Malibu to Manhattan to London to Saltburn. So you know by now we've got it down. It's a doddle, since every time we move we clear out more stuff, and I get even better at establishing storage systems in new kitchens.

Apparently the most stressful events in a couple's life are moving house, getting married and having a baby. TLOML and I managed all three in the past year and we're still on pretty good terms, so I say bring it on: the Yorkshire life beckons.


*For American readers: fish & chip shops, purveyors of chips, battered fish, battered sausages, mushy peas - and curry sauce or gravy depending on where in the country you are. Way more delightful than they sound.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Lady P gets the best of both worlds

Yesterday we registered Lady P as a US citizen born abroad. This required us to go to the US Embassy, a cool 50s building in Mayfair with a golden eagle the size of a Hummer on the roof - and a virtual moat of security measures on the outside. They could probably dispense with the Stars and Stripes and the 'US Embassy' sign, to be honest. There's no mistaking which Embassy it is.

After a couple of hours of shuffling from one queue to another, Lady P was confirmed as an acceptable American. Her passport and social security number will be with us in a week or two.

I'm pleased for her. Having dual citizenship means she''ll never need to go through the visa shenanigans that TLOML and I have, whether she chooses to live here or in the States. Having a British passport allows her to hop around Europe always joining the short queue at the borders. And she can visit Cuba, unlike other Americans. Having two passports means she could also visit Israel without it preventing her visiting the rest of the Middle East, should she wish. They could also be useful if she wants to pursue a career as an international criminal. Like most parents, we want to enable her to do whatever she wants in life, so I'm glad we've opened up a few options for her.

Best of all, she can get in the short queue at both ends of a Transatlantic flight. I'm just wondering whether, as her parent, I can skip the 'foreigners' queue too.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A minor domestic dispute

Washing up tubs. You know, the plastic tub you put inside the kitchen sink. Pretty standard kitchen fare, aren't they?

TLOML does not think so. He is dead against them. I have suspected this for a while, since he's forever taking ours out of the sink and resting it on the worksurface so he can 'get to the sink better'.

Finally last week I confronted him. The arrival of Lady P means our kitchen worktops are now cluttered with expressing and sterilising equipment, special bottle brushes, and a special draining rack to dry the special brushes on. (Yes, we may have gone a little overboard on the cleaning equipment. It's the neurotically clean American in the house driving that, needless to say).

Anyway the point is that we don't have room for washing up tubs littering the place up. So I confronted him.
'What do you have against it?' I asked. Bear in mind I'm a little sleep deprived, so if I sounded a bit fractious, that might be why.
'What is it for?' he counter-asked. Always the lawyer...
'Well,' I explained, 'It's so you can tip liquids away, down the side of it, even while you have a sink full of washing up.'
'But we have a built in drainer next to our sink,' he pointed out. Bear in mind too that he's getting about 45 minutes more sleep than me - I know because we compare notes daily - so has the upper hand where reasoning is concerned.
'Okay, but also it's nice because it's softer than the sink so you won't smash wine glasses in it.'
That was the best I could do. TLOML pointed out that we don't often smash wine glasses, and if we do it's not because the sink is particularly hard, but that some glassware is quite fragile, and would probably smash if you knocked it too hard against a paperback, never mind a plastic washing up tub.

I have to admit I was stumped. TLOML is right, it's a redundant piece of equipment. Yet every British kitchen I know has one. Well, except ours, since we have thrown it away.

TLOML claims no Americans have these silly washing up tubs. Is he right?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Transatlantic Nursery Chat

Lucky little Lady P is going to be bilingual from the start as we are immersing her in two languages: English and American.

TLOML changes her diaper when she's pooped, and sticks a pacifier in her mouth when she's hollering. And I, by contrast, put a clean nappy on after she's done a poo, and give her a dummy when she's skriking.

Oh, hang on a second, that makes three languages: Northern English. Skriking is a Northern word for screaming or crying. Along with gip, which means sick (as in, 'Oh little Lady P, are you gipping on my shoulder?'), it's become a word I use much more frequently now we have a wild, screaming, vomiting creature living amongst us at Fox Corner.

For what it's worth I prefer the English words in the main. They are somehow more baby-friendly. 'Posset' sounds so much more pleasant than 'spit up'. 'Muslin' has an innocence to it, whereas that 'burp cloth' just sounds bawdy. 'Diaper' and 'pacifier' sound like clinical equipment, whereas 'nappy' and 'dummy' are straight from a nursery. And 'receiving blanket' sounds like something that might be used in a religious ceremony, perhaps a baby sacrifice event - till you learn it's just a lovely swaddle cloth. The only exception, I think, is 'poop', which is much cuter than dirty smelly 'poo'.

We use these Transatlantic alternatives interchangeably - which is great for the development of Lady P's cerebral cortex. She'll grow up learning there is more than one word for most objects, and thus grasp the concept of language very early on.

But there is one word I want to stick to, to the exclusion of all other (American) alternatives: I'm pushing hard to be called mummy, and not mommy or mom. It's the only name I think a mother should have, and I'll be disproportionately upset if I don't hear it on her lips one day. So I'll keep saying it to her, over and over, and just hope she's listening.
Are you listening, Lady P?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Oceans of patience

This week's lesson is in patience.

I am not a patient person. In fact, I'd go so far as saying I'm known for my impatience. TLOML has more patience than me, a lot more, but still he has his limits. The UK Border Agency with their 7 month visa process hit up against them fairly quickly. And British waiters - the ones that fail to meet eye contact and take ages to notice we need menus or fresh drinks - also incite some grumpiness. Yes, we are neither of us models of forbearance. We like instant gratification, rapid results, and for life to tick along at a satisfying pace.

Or so we thought. Until Lady P came along and taught us that there is just no point cutting corners. Changing that nappy hastily, without proper care to creases and pulling the little ruffle out around the legs will surely come back to bite us later that day. Putting her down when she looks like she just might be asleep will only result in an angry baby and twice as much effort to calm her again. Cramming the bottle of milk into her quickly because it's the middle of the night and we're tired will bring out a burpy fit of rage.

There are no shortcuts.

So we've undergone something of a revolution these past four weeks. It turns out we are both very very patient people. We do have the capacity to jiggle her on our knee for thirty monotonous, muscle burning minutes. We have it in us to stand and rock her for twice as long, if that's what it takes. Taking almost an hour to feed her 4 oz of milk, with long, backrubbing burp sessions between every few gulps, is absolutely fine with us.

Who knew?!

One thing hasn't changed though. And that's the rate at which we like our G&T served. The moment she's asleep, that Hendricks better be splashing into a glass near me or there's big trouble.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Eating the elephant

My wise and glamorous entrepreneurial friend tells me that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Not that she eats a lot of elephants, so far as I know. But she often tackles large and apparently unmanageable tasks, and does so by breaking them down into bite size chunks.

I have decided to take the same approach to raising Lady P.

By raising, I mean creating a baby who settles for a nap without fuss, isn't dependent on a dummy, doesn't need to sleep in our bed every night, and has a reasonably predictable eating and sleeping schedule. (Later we'll be creating a toddler with a nice attitude, and a child with good manners, but let's cross one bridge at a time).

As you can tell, I have set quite a high standard for her, and for us. I was just determined not to get into bad habits, that's all. I was always a bit sniffy about people whose 2 year olds still use dummies, or can't go to sleep without having their hand held. I figure you have to nip that stuff in the bud.

But maybe 3 weeks old is a bit early to be so strict. After all, it's a lot to handle, being born and existing in a world you didn't even know was out there. I feel for her. No wonder she needs rocking to sleep sometimes. And we're both learning the basics here, like how to feed effectively. So if she's wailing for food in the middle of what I thought would be a good long nap, I just need to take that on the chin and provide the boob she demands.

So as I said, it's like eating an elephant. One bite at a time.

Right now I'm focussed on learning how to get her to feed properly, frequently and till she's satisfied. Once we've got that sorted we might start to think about getting her to sleep without resorting to a buggy ride or curling up together (not that I don't like curling up with her, it's just, well, like I said, bad habits die hard). And one day we'll get rid of that dummy.

For now, we're savouring the first bite of elephant. It's a little chewy, but still very satisfying.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Dining with Lady P

Three weeks in and we decided it's time we clawed back our social life. Lady P has trampled all over it, with her tiny, wrinkly, little feet. Enough!

Actually, we hadn't done too badly in some ways. Since she was born we've managed to cook and eat a decent meal every night, and sat together to enjoy it (albeit with the odd interruption) - which is important to us both. Still, dinners out, and leisurely pub lunches, have been in short supply. I've been nervous to go out and meet friends for coffee in case Lady P wakes and demands food and the world sees my rookie-mum ineptitude.

But you can't stay home forever. So we ventured out.

On Friday morning I met a girlfriend for coffee nearby, at a Starbucks that's always full of buggies. Lady P slept throughout. Phew.

On Friday night we bamboozled Lady P into coming out for dinner. We just did our usual bathtime and bedtime routine but tucked her up in the buggy instead. She was none the wiser, and slept throughout dinner. We considered this a major triumph: it was a proper date night, just the two of us, and we actually talked about something other than Lady P for more than 5 minutes at a time.
Chilling in Curry Paradise

Enjoying a beer in the Freemasons

By Saturday we had become really bullish. We took Lady P for lunch with TLOML's best man at the Freemasons in Hampstead. She awoke. She liked what she saw - the light from the window, presumably. She socialised, pooed in her nappy and fed in a completely uninhibited way. Good for her. Afterwards I walked down to Kentish Town for a coffee at Doppio with my friend the gambler. Lady P was, by now, getting into the North London social scene - again, she gurgled, glugged, and gurned without a care in the world. And on Sunday we met a few friends for a drink in the afternoon, with Lady P in a sweet little dress, full of milk so she would sleep for the most part. Again, it was fairly successful, unless you count the last 5 minutes when she screamed bloody murder till we removed her from the scene. It might have spoiled the atmosphere for other drinkers, but it didn't bother us any.

So we've broken our duck, and are no longer housebound. We are lucky in that where we live, like so many parts of London, is very baby-friendly. Fox Corner is right in the middle of a swathe of nappy valley that cuts across North West London. It used to annoy me a bit, all those buggies cluttering up the nice places to eat and drink. But I'm very grateful now.

It struck me that if we were in New York it would be very different experience. You don't see so many buggies in the bars and restaurants of Manhattan.  At brunch, somewhere lowkey and grown up (like Cookshop) you might see one or two under 5s. I suspect it's because they have cheaper childcare so the babies can be left at home. I imagine you'd feel a bit of an idiot breastfeeding in any of our old haunts in Chelsea. By contrast, in North London, you actually feel like a bit of a weirdo for not having a babe in arms. I counted four babies at the Freemasons, and several toddlers. We were not the only buggy in Doppio, either.

At some point Lady P will be less portable, and a lot less willing to sleep in her Bugaboo while dinner is served around her. So for now we will make the most of it, and make the most of our baby-friendly locals.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

101 ways to kill your baby

Wow. I thought pregnancy was a bit of a minefield: all those risks to which you might expose your unborn child.  But compared to the mild frisson I experienced when eating soft cheese or taking a hot bath, caring for the little mite now she is actually born is a terrifying white knuckle ride.

First there's the ever present danger of incorrect climate. Babies are rubbish at managing their own body temperature, which is why the John Lewis baby department - with its many blankets of different weaves - was invented. She must not be too cold, or she'll perish. Too hot, and she'll get too, well, hot. And too cosy and she will sleep herself to death. Given the recent weather, swinging from balmy spring day to frosty grey dampness, maintaining an even temperature in a drafty room is no mean feat. So we have a baby monitor that tells us if the room is too hot or too cold. It is always too hot or too cold. We are constantly running in there and turning radiators up or down, removing blankets, opening windows, and generally thwarting Lady P's lame attempts to sleep.

And sleeping is important. Overtiredness can lead to all sorts of other problems, and I don't just mean that it prevents us having a peaceful G&T. The best way to get her back to sleep is to cuddle her into submission. But that is the path to co-sleeping... and the risk of squashing her to death. We could swaddle her, as many people recommend, but apparently swaddling stifles the Moro reflex and puts them at risk of falling into too deep a sleep (and therefore cot death).

Once she's asleep, but not too deeply, and at the right temperature, you'd think we could relax. Wrong. We have to worry about flat head syndrome, and the potential for brain damage (or a weird shaped head, meaning she can never get a buzz cut. Hmm.). To avoid the flat head thing we need her sometimes to sleep on her side, or with a pillow - and therein lurks a suffocation risk.

Also, too much sleeping and not enough eating will make her floppy and jaundiced, apparently. So, on the rare occasion she is knocking out ZZZs for more than 3 or 4 hour,  I need to wake her for a feed.

You can't do wrong for doing right, as they say Up North.
Breaking all the rules: chomping on a suffocation device while lying  on a pillow with a loose blanket
After my post on advice I was given some excellent advice from our favourite New Yorker's wise sister - 'never try to make a happy baby happier'. With every day that goes by I see more clearly the value in this advice. She is so often screaming that when she isn't, we don't want to disturb the fragile peace.
So if Lady P is perfectly happy napping with a pillow in a cold room, or snuggled into our bed a little warmer than recommended, well, we let her. With frayed nerves, and watchful eyes, but still, we let her.

After all, what doesn't kill us makes us stronger.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Labour: just like building your dream house

One of my favourite British TV shows, which I missed the most when we were in the US, is Grand Designs. (Gratifyingly it has become one of TLOML's favourites too.) Grand Designs follows interesting home builds - unusual restorations, eco-friendly new builds, and so on.
A Grand Design house (image pilfered from Channel 4)

Most weeks the people building their dream home liken it to labour. As in 'this house is our baby and building it is like giving birth.'

I have a new perspective on any use of birth as a metaphor. I now know that nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, is anything like giving birth. Giving birth alone is like giving birth, and it is like nothing else.

Having said that, I noted a couple of interesting parallels with the dream-home building process.

1. Naive optimism
The happy fools who are turning their grand designs into a home are always unrealistically optimistic. Kevin McCloud, the presenter, scoffs at their budget estimates and their idea of a reasonable timeframe. He is always right: in a dozen series I've never seen a home built on budget, or on time.

And yet the owners always think the impossible can be done, no contingency will be required, and the build will be weatherproof before winter. Just like I thought, when we arrived at the birth centre at 4pm, that I was very far along and would doubtless be delivering Lady P in an hour or so. (She arrived 8 hurt-y hours later) The same kind of naive optimism that lead me to ask the midwife, after a couple of pushes, 'do you think she'll be born on the next push?' (In the event I had about an hour of pushing ahead of me.)

2. Foolish pride
Often the owners decide to despatch with specialist support from professionals like project managers, quantity surveyors and even architects. And even when the windows arrive on site completely the wrong size, or the entire building team quits en masse, and Kevin McCloud raises his eyebrows and says 'Are you sure you can manage this build without help?' the foolhardy owners are too proud to admit defeat and hire in the experts.

Similarly, even when it became apparent that I had many hours of labour ahead of me, and the pain was hugely more than I had anticipated (for who could anticipate such pain?!), I bit my lip, banished thoughts of an epidural, and said to TLOML 'this pain is totally manageable'. Pure pride.

For what it's worth, I'm glad my optimism and pride won the day. Lady P was so alert, and calm, swimming up to meet us, and I felt pretty much 100% within a day or two of giving birth. So taking the natural (optimistic, prideful) path paid out for me. Still, if I'd know beforehand quite how much it would hurt and for how long, I wouldn't have been quite so bullish.

I'm like those chumps at the end of the Grand Designs episode, sitting in their dream home, laughing at the fact they went £100k over budget and they nearly had a nervous breakdown in the process, saying 'If I did it over again, I would do it just the same.'

They usually go on to add 'I'm not sure that I would do it again though.' That's where we differ... two weeks in and we're already confident we'll be doing this whole birth and newborn thing again some day. Only next time, I'll know how much pain to expect.