Tag Archives: babies

On choosing change (and the end of maternity leave)

If you can picture Dick Van Dyke dressed as a chimney sweep, bring to mind his terrible cockney accent and remember the tune of ‘Chim Chim Cheree’ then you can bring to life the words I’ve had floating round my head today. (If you can’t, brace yourself for some slightly random song lyrics from Mary Poppins):

Winds in the east, there’s a mist comin’ in
Like somethin’ is brewin’ and ’bout to begin.
Can’t put me finger on what lies in store,
But I feel what’s to happen all happened before.

(Ooooh, can you feel those tingles? Mary Poppins is on her way!!)

The seasons are a’changing. It’s true of national and international politics (about which I will make no comment here), it’s true in our garden, but it’s also true in our little family. Maternity leave has come to an end and the rhythms of our life are shifting. The shape of what’s coming is still unclear, but I feel excited; hopeful. I have been doing a lot of thinking in the past year, and especially the past months (you might have noticed the lack of blogs…), about what I want to do in the future. I thought I might have a roadmap by now, but it hasn’t arrived.

I find myself without a set timetable, or a fixed job (yet), but I have intention. I have thought about what matters most. I have thought about what I don’t want to do. I have found things I want to explore further. I have some strong instincts and I am learning to trust them, rather than needing exact plans. Just a few weeks ago I felt in turmoil over it all, but some convictions are settling.

If the idea of my maternity leave ending has confused you, since I announced in my last blog that I had quit my job, then let me explain. I am not going back to Tearfund or to my old job. But I am not staying in my maternity leave rhythms of full-time childcare. It’s maybe an artificial decision since I am still at home, but for me it is an important one. We decided on 9 months of maternity leave, and so I am moving into a different headspace. Jubilee has begun to settle with the childminder some of the week (very happily), and I have (the extraordinary gift of) some child-free space in the week.

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I could tell you that I have mixed feelings about the end of maternity leave, but that’s not really true. I have loved having so much time (in fact, all the time) with our little girl. I am deeply grateful for this country’s maternity policies and the situation of our family that mean I could have nine months with some income whilst staying at home every day with our kids. But I am also really happy to be able to start to work a few days a week outside the home, and share the care of the kids more with Andy and our lovely childminder. I am more alive and fulfilled when I have something else to do in my week away from my children. And I am happier when I come back to them (which they love).

I once had a slightly eccentric colleague who thought that married women shouldn’t work outside of the home because they flood the labour market when there are men out there who need the money more (the implication being that married women can live off their husband’s earnings). I have all kinds of problems with that philosophy, but the main one is this – it assumes that the only reason people work is for money, for economic survival. I think work (both inside and outside of the home) is so, so much more than that. It is a way to find purpose, meaning and fulfilment, it is a way to contribute to the wider culture and society, to serve and to show our love for the world, to express the people that we are. I believe that the work we do raising our kids is all of that, too. Work confers dignity on people – I’ve seen it in many corners of the world. When we believe we have something to offer, and can thereby support ourselves and our families, we feel worth something (and I don’t just mean as a capitalist unit). I know it isn’t always all of that, and I  undoubtedly have an idealised and privileged view. But it’s how I feel.

I believe that raising children is an extraordinary privilege. I also think it can be a brilliant life rhythm – when we (as women, at least) are of childbearing age, we also are at a point of life when we have the energy to change the world! (Or at least, we have some energy!) We could get ahead! And get stuff done! And then these tiny people arrive who demand every ounce of our energy. We have to switch gear and focus, and invest so much in the next generation. Having children upsets career paths and slows us down. But painful as that sometimes has felt for me (not that I even have a ‘career path’), I think it can also be a healthy life rhythm, and not just for mothers – if other members of the family also get involved. Andy’s life has certainly taken on a different, slower rhythm since Jesse arrived.

I believe in the work of raising kids, and I also believe it’s ok to want to be doing other things too. I want to go out into the world again and do some work beyond my family. Raising children is definitely the hardest job I have ever had, and I’m grateful that I can share that work with others (mostly Andy), and make some space for something else. If I have the choice, and I do, then there are other ways that I want to contribute to the world at the same time. There’s always a lot of chat about needing to go back to work after maternity leave for financial reasons. Maybe as women we feel we need to apologise for not being with our children full-time. (Did you see that BBC pilot, Motherland? Remember the impossibly perfect super-mum who says to the working mum demurely – “I don’t know how you do it, I just love my children too much”). Probably financial pressures do push a lot of women back into work sooner than they might otherwise choose. But I think returning to work can also be a positive choice, for a woman and for the whole family. It certainly feels that way for me, and (I think) for the other three members of the family.

In my next blog I’ll talk about what I’m actually going to do! And what I’m exploring too…but in the meantime I would love to hear about your experiences of maternity leave ending, or how you think about balancing family and work…

 

 

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These are the days of…

Well, as the weeks go by it seems I have less time to write rather than more. Hello sleep regressions and early teething. I rack my brains for something interesting to write about but I can’t seem to pull it out of the daily practicalities. But then I remembered a post I wrote earlier this year, about a book called Simply Tuesday, and how it talked about the importance of marking and naming each phase of life, and so I decided to write something about the very humdrum, beautiful dimensions of my life in May 2016.

These are the days of small things. Of small people and small ambitions. These are the days of endless plates of pasta for the wee man who won’t eat much else. Except pizza. And cheese. And endless handfuls of grapes. These are the days of fighting an endless battle against his eczema with creams and medicines that he hates, of dressing him in vests and babygrows to limit his scratching. The days when we don’t take him swimming and might not get to put him in shorts for the summer.

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These are the days of new words multiplying on his tongue every day. Of hearing him call everyone ‘guys’, most amusingly when telling the bath water to listen to him and stop running away down the plughole. These are the days of cuddles and stickers and dens and putting out pretend fires every day with the help of the entire cast of Fireman Sam. Of big emotions and amazing comebacks.

And for the smaller of the two, these are the days of gurgles and early grabs, of smiles and dark hair turning blond. These are the days when we never know whether to expect long stable sleeps or waking every hour. When my little finger is the only dummy she’ll take and settle with. When white noise permeates our waking and sleeping.

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These are the days of being in the house and sitting on the deck and gazing at the broken fence and overgrown garden beyond. There are afternoons to bask in the sunshine and chase toddlers down with sunscreen and hats, and hold crying babies and try to fork platefuls of dinner into your mouth while calming and bouncing them.

These are the days of contentment one moment and drudgery the next. The days of a unique and short season with its inimitable but unpredictable rhythm which ends I don’t know where. The days that end with lying on the sofa because it’s already nearly time to feed her again.

These are the days of romcoms on netflix, even the ones I never thought I’d watch.  Of The Mentalist and The Good Wife. Of podcasts that always get drowned out by shouts and screams from small people. These are the days of spending nap time tidying up but never getting anything really tidy. Of baking just to have something to show for myself at the end of the day.  Of writing lists and menu plans to make myself feel I am achieving things. Of a weekly outing on my own to a yoga class where I am the youngest participant and I never talk to anyone.

These are the days of solidarity with other parents who share our small rhythms. Of playdates and improvised picnics. Of endless singing of nursery rhymes and doing actions, even after the kids are in bed, because it’s the only music in my head. Of blind panic in the school holidays when all the toddler groups stop too. These are the days when I walk the toddler up the hill to the childminder with his sister in the sling, and he insists that I carry him too, and so I waddle up the road with a child on each hip. The days when we plead with him to share his toys and to stay in bed at night and to eat something and to get in the car and to wear a hat and to take his medicine and to hold hands when we cross the road. And the days when sometimes we don’t bother (that’s not to say we let him run into traffic).

These are the days of longing for purpose in the world beyond my children (not that there isn’t full and deep purpose to be found in nurturing our kids) and an afternoon that doesn’t involve carrying a baby everywhere. These are the days of feeling spent and like there is so much I am failing to do. Of wondering when I’ll find the energy to talk to the neighbours or even get hold of a compost bin. Days that feel small and never-ending. And then there are days of blissful gratitude for these two most indescribably beautiful kids who are greedy for my attention.

These are the days that will be gone before I know it.

 

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Life with two kiddos

We have reached the first milestone of the little lady’s life – six weeks – so I figured it was a good moment to take a breath and write something about how life is going.

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Newsflash: We’re still alive! And miracuously we are more than just surviving. I am enjoying life. When I thought ahead to life with two kids, to my days being full of nappies and toys and playgroups and naps, and my nights being broken, I was more than a little afraid. I was bracing myself for a struggle. I had all kinds of tactics and mantras ready to get myself through. But I forgot the bit about a gorgeous new human being joining our family and all the joy that would bring. Somehow I hadn’t anticipated the flood of love for these two tiny people that would carry me (and us) through. (I don’t think it’s just the hormones). I am crazily grateful for my incredible, kind, resourceful husband and our amazing kids.

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Ok, our house is in permanent toy chaos (the laundry chaos ebbs and flows), but I feel calmer, so much calmer than last time, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. It helps that our life is already structured around caring for a small person and so the shift in our family routine doesn’t feel so enormous. Then there’s the fact that Jubilee was born fairly healthy and has had no major health scares since. Feeding was tough at the start, but we’ve emerged into a place of calm and stability, and it’s nothing like the emotionally traumatic experience we had first time round. Sure, sleep is broken, but I know it’s not forever, and right now we can cope with it (she says, ignoring the horror stories that surround her from friends with slightly older babies…). Without the background of grief and fear and emotional exhaustion, I’ve felt able to enjoy these past few weeks, and enjoy this beautiful, irresistable new baby, much more than last time. And that has been an indescribable relief and gift.

Another part of the puzzle is the incredible tide of practical help we’ve had from the people of Luton. We’ve been here just three months, but a group of local friends organised a food rota for us that meant we were still getting dinners brought to us every other night, a month after Jubilee was born! (and you know, there were some pretty amazing meals too – one night we had rabbit stew!!). We are taking ALL the help we can get right now and not feeling at all guilty (actually Andy is better at that last part than me). Our friends (some of them old, some of them new) have come and cleaned our house, brought fresh flowers, filled our fridge and freezer with good food, put together furniture, done DIY, organised our kitchen cupboads, plumbed in our washing machine, brought homemade salted caramel and oreo cheesecake, had us round for dinner, chauffeured us to and from the hospital, soothed our sick and overwrought  toddler to sleep in his hospital cot when we were wrecked, done our grocery shopping, gone out on emergency shopping trips for nipple guards and breast pads, babysat Jesse while we escaped for some downtime, built train tracks with him whilst we napped upstairs, installed waterproof roofing on our garden cabin, and kept us sane. And I’ve probably forgotten plenty other things. Seriously, we have been so well loved and cared for, it’s hard to even imagine the state we’d be in without this amazing crew.

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I know it’s early days, but they are good early days and I’m grateful. This season has shot me right back into living one day at a time, and my planning horizons have shrunk back to about a 36 hour limit. So I’m not worrying about next week (actually I’m rejoicing as my in-laws are arriving) or next month, I’m just thinking about the night and the next day, and I reckon they’ll be just fine. As Elise Blaha Cripe, another blogger and new mother of two wrote recently:

I know that this is all just phases. I know these phases are so extremely short. I know that there is magic coming tomorrow and the day after that. More importantly, I know that TODAY is magic.

Before we had Jubilee, I had friends tell me that things would be much easier the second time around, and others tell me that the hardest transition ever is going from one to two kids. Six weeks in, the first of those predictions feels most accurate, so whatever else is coming I am thanking the cosmos (well, more specifically I am THANKING GOD) for these past weeks and our beautiful kiddos.

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Seeking kindness at Christmas

Last week, amidst all the pre-Christmas chaos, I had a day off and I would like to say thank you to the universe. A day when Jesse was with his childminder and I wasn’t working. I didn’t organise the house or write lists, I didn’t try to get a hard start on finishing up work before maternity leave, I didn’t sort through the baby clothes or make bunting or tidy up the relentless toy chaos or get on top of Christmas (despite all those inner voices telling me I should). I spent the morning sitting in bed.

And I found myself craving kindness.

I am tired and there is so much to do. Parenting our little boy is a beautiful, sublime gift and a gruelling marathon, intensified during that last week by our attempts to wean him off his milk bottles (he’s quite indifferent to the milk itself but completely addicted to the comfort of sucking on the bottles). Andy was doing all the hard yards and the crazy wake-ups because I was exhausted and emotional. I felt grateful and guilty and scared Jesse would never sleep a whole night again.

Our new home is an incredible gift and a joy, but there is an inevitable list of tiny ongoing domestic disasters and things that don’t work that sometimes just overwhelms us, pushing us into the worst versions of ourselves.

Being heavily pregnant with a completely new cast of midwives and doctors who have to keep being retold the story of Jesse’s birth at each new appointment is hard. The baby seems healthy but is big and there are ongoing conversations about the birth, some of which are fine and some of which push me over the edge. I am up and I am down.

It’s only a day now until Christmas and I have barely completed any preparations. I had all kinds of grand creative ambitions for hosting Christmas, baking and batch cooking ahead of time, creating beautiful memories, treating family, giving thoughtful and meaningful gifts. And the reality is that very little of it is going to materialise. Heck, making my own lunch is enough of a challenge right now. I’m trying to make peace with very low expectations.

And then there is the wide world, which keeps breaking in. The families who have had to abandon their homes and carry their children across new countries in bitter winter, in the hope of finding safety. The people being bombed, attacked, shot at, persecuted, violated. So many people who won’t feel safe this Christmas, not for a moment.

As I sat in bed on my morning off, I tried to think where I could find someone to say kind things. I wasn’t seeking actual people to talk to, it was a lay-low kind of a day in which I mainly wanted to hide away from the world. So, podcasts? Sermons? The Bible? Who could I google? What should I read? I couldn’t think of much, and then I remembered my friend Travis’ website, The Work of the People, full of thoughtful and beautiful films of wise and reflective people, and I starting watching some of them. And it worked. There was this one from Glennon Doyle Melton, and then a little gem from Rowan Williams in which he starts –

‘Living in reality, I guess, ought to be the easiest thing of all, and it’s the hardest. Because our minds are really active, fabricating worlds that we can cope with. The real world isn’t a world we can easily cope with, however much we think we’re coping…the world is bigger than we can cope with. So, somehow connecting with the reality which is not just the one I make for myself to keep myself comfortable – that’s faith, that’s where we have to end up.’

Somehow hearing him tell me that of course the world is more than I can cope with made me feel ok. It made me feel human and weak and inadequate but loved and accepted all the same. And that it was ok that I’d run out of energy to fabricate a word that I could cope with.  Of course it’s too much. But there is acceptance and kindness and grace for me. And he used a beautiful metaphor for grace, that cosmic kindness bending towards us:

As I talked to him the landscape changed. There was a different light on it.

The story of the first Christmas sounds to me like more than anyone could cope with, or feel on top of, let alone the thought of all that might follow. So I will be trying not so much to cope, or to expect myself to be on top of anything in this season, but instead to rest and listen out for kindness and acceptance. Who can say what will arrive with us or stare us down in the days that follow? But I have faith in a bigger picture than I can explain, one that I don’t need to fabricate or fully understand in order to be carried by. And I’m thankful.

Andy recently recorded some of the worship songs he has written in the past year or so, ready for an event over new year, and I was listening to one in the car this week. It speaks beautifully of that ache of our current brokenness and not-enough-ness, the promise of the healing to come, and the reality that God is here right now, in all the not-yet-ness. So here is a recording of it if that sounds like something that would bless you this Christmas (and his website, for more tracks and resources is www.andyflan.com).

May you have kind Christmases.

 

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Family news

I’m sure by now plenty of you have guessed that we have some family news. Yes, there is a new Flannagan on the way, due mid January 2016 (so we’re coming up to 15 weeks).

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We are completely thrilled, and I haven’t really been ill which is a bonus.

I’ve been wearing lots of loose fitting tops and getting a little concerned at the size of expanding bump, wondering if maybe there was more than one bambino in there, but it turns out it’s just the one. Which is probably about all we can handle!

It does of course raise all kinds of questions which friends have been asking.

Given the difficult nature of Jesse’s birth and that traumatic first few weeks, how am I feeling about doing it all again? And getting past that stage, I’d be the first to say that Jesse’s first year was really hard for me. I felt like I was drowning for good chunks of it. And now we’re going to do it all again, with a toddler on the side as well?!

(The toddler part is actually less concerning than I thought it might be. Jesse is a complete delight right now. Endlessly fascinating, increasingly communicative, joyful, brave, inquisitive. I’m so glad he’ll be on this adventure with us every day).

Right now, I feel weirdly optimistic about the whole thing. Life is so full that there isn’t a lot of time to think about it very much, so I’m happy to file it under the ‘next year is ages away’ section in my brain.

Amazingly, I don’t feel anxious about the birth itself. I’d love to have a natural delivery, and after swotting up on my sister-in-law’s Masters dissertation on birth-place choice (she’s a midwife) I feel informed and empowered and would love to avoid being in a hospital. But I can deal with however things play out.

The first week (the stroke, the seizures, the time in intensive care) all seem like a distant, hazy memory (which I guess is part of what the hormones do?), and I don’t feel scared of a replay. There is no reason to expect any of those things to happen again, and there’s no way I would be allowed to have such a drawn-out delivery this time (the stress of which probably caused Jesse’s stroke).

Then the trauma of the weeks that followed – feeling like the living dead and also like a monumental failure because breast feeding wasn’t giving him enough calories, all the crazy solutions we tried, getting to the end of myself in every way… That stuff I’m less confident about because there’s no way of knowing how it will go. I’m fairly rubbish when I have minimal sleep. I hope I produce enough milk to fully breastfeed this time because spending more than an hour doing both breast and bottle at every night-feed was a killer for months on end. But if I don’t, I think we’d make different choices about the alternatives this time round, and go a bit easier on ourselves. Knowing we’ll weather it all together makes all kinds of things feel possible.

I have friends with two small children and they give me confidence because it doesn’t look like it’s killing them. Most of them tell me that the newborn phase is easier the second time round.

I have another friend who felt like her life pretty much disappeared when she had two because it revolved so entirely around two small children. And that’s definitely a fear (not that there’s anything wrong with life revolving entirely around kids, especially for a season. But it doesn’t fill my heart with joy, if I’m honest, because I like the other bits of life).

But in the big picture it’s amazing and exciting news. Jesse will have a brother or sister (and we’ll find out which this time!). Our family is growing. We’re so grateful to have been able to get pregnant. And 2016 is ages away!

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Our Advent Miracle

Today our Advent baby turns one.

A year ago he was pulled out of me by a surgeon while his daddy whispered in my ear and told me stories about the days we first found out we were pregnant.  There was a gasp in the room to see such a big, beautiful, blond bombshell emerge; and I lay there, wide-eyed and waiting, not knowing yet whether the baby was a boy or a girl, aching to see him and know him and hold him.  They put him on my chest, but I could barely feel him from all the drugs numbing my body.  His daddy held him, and sang to him, and I fought to keep my eyelids open.

A year ago in the evening he was admitted to intensive care and put on anticonvulsants to fight his fits.  I’d thought his little twitches were sweet, his rhythmic drumming, synchronised to my own heart beat.  It was agony to have him taken away – not to be able to hold him or feed him – and not to know what was wrong or what would happen next.

Then we found out about the stroke.  And many of you began to pray.  Family, friends, friends of friends, colleagues, churches with some vague connection to us.  Hundreds, thousands of people praying for our advent baby around the world, sending love and hope to him and to us.

A week later he emerged from the machines and the tubes.  Like the story goes, on the seventh day of creation God rested because all that he had made was good.  It was a miracle to walk out of the hospital with him, and we were crazy grateful. There was no way of knowing then what the consequences of the stroke would be and when we would see them.  He had six clinics to check in with regularly, and at the very least they would see him until he was six.  A section in his left brain had been starved of oxygen, and no-one could say for sure what that part of the brain controlled.

And this past year our boy has gone to a lot of clinics.  And one by one they have all discharged him.  Even the one baseline clinic, the one that deals with children who have had strokes, have sent us home for another year, and if all is well then they will discharge him too.

Today our bright-eyed, adventuring, people-loving, cuddly boy turns one.  I can’t find words for all the gratitude.

Yesterday we gathered with a few locals in our TRA hall to mark the occasion, and he bounded around chasing balloons.  His dad even fed him cake.

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Thank you, if you prayed, or thought of us.  Thank you for your kindness this year when we have needed it so much.  At the start of this Advent season of waiting and hoping, I pray that this sweet boy is a sign to you of grace and miracles.

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Three take a trip to New York

We have fled our home city and flown across an ocean since I last wrote. Here’s the first instalment from our big trip…

A few months back, we were invited to New York to contribute to a conference that inspired us about city leadership, and I almost burst with excitement at the chance to visit the Big Apple.  Sure, we’d have our nearly-eleven-month-old with us, but how hard could that be?  People travel with babies all the time; we live in the middle of a big city ourselves; what could go wrong?

Well, let me try to paint an honest picture of taking a big transAtlantic trip with a small child.

Things started to get challenging when the poor little man developed an ear infection on our long haul flight. To be more accurate, it started before that when the booking made for us turned out to not include any accommodation for the wee man other than my lap, and had Andy sitting two seats away from us.  There was a lot of screaming (from Jesse mainly, but also inside my head) and only the tiniest amount of sleep. But we were stoical.  I can’t speak for the other passengers: the lady across the aisle was passionately extolling the virtues of Benadryl to me.

After a late arrival, an interminable queue in immigration and an exhaustion-defying sprint across Washington airport from my hero of a husband, the aeroplane doors we re-opened to admit us (thanks to some teary begging) onto the tiny flight to New York.  And then there were some views. IMG_2878We had the unspeakably good fortune to be staying with friends who live absurdly centrally, right by Central Park.  Demonstrating an insane level of hospitality they invited the THREE of us to SHARE their ONE BEDROOM APARTMENT with them, even though one of us was a sick, jet-lagged baby.  I imagine that they were hoping for more sleep than was possible in their lounge on an air mattress whilst a baby wailed in the next room.

Staying in an actual apartment rather than a hotel room made tons of stuff way easier for us – making food for Jesse, being able to stay up past seven o-clock, laundry facilities.

And then there was the conference.  It turns out that I still have unrealistic expectations when it comes to my capacity to participate in grown-up events, whilst looking after my child.  It continues to come as a rude shock to me when Jesse doesn’t seem to be interested in playing quietly in the corner whilst I hang out with the adults.  So, I dipped in for occasional five minute contributions, and otherwise we walked up and down fifth avenue whilst I hummed ‘puttin’ on the ritz’ and rewarded myself with coffee.  Andy played with the grown-ups.

And then the conference ended, and Andy collapsed in an exhausted heap. I thought about booking the little man into soft play, Manhattan-style, but have you seen the prices?!  The time, the effort, the money…it just seemed like a crazy thing to do for a still-poorly baby.  So instead, Jesse and I mastered the subway, and set out in torrential rain to see the Statue of Liberty.

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Hitting the subway

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Well worth an outing in the rain

At least we can say we saw it.

There wasn’t a lot of sleeping happening, and there was a limited amount of time I could prevent Jesse from breaking things in the apartment, so the only solution seemed to be hitting the town, repeatedly, and dodging the rain. After the hazy view of the Statue of Liberty, we crammed in the Empire State Building, the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, Central Park and the High Line.  We even made it to lunch at the Shake Shack in Grand Central Station.  (That last one was a personal mission, born of my exasperation at not managing to eat out once in the big city because of napping needs…)

At the top of the Empire State Building

At the top of the Empire State Building

 

Controlling traffic from the High Line

Controlling traffic from the High Line

Getting out and about was exhausting on so little sleep, but what else are you going to do in New York? There were definitely moments when I fumed with frustration and resentment – here I was in one of the greatest cities in the world, with no freedom to go and do the things I wanted.  The parenting was relentless in its intensity.

But that’s a pretty ungrateful mood to stay in.  We got to visit an extraordinary city.  We were shown great kindness.  We ate burgers, and at other moments there was wine and coffee.  It was a long shot from those halcyon days of travel as a couple, but we made it through and hit some iconic landmarks on the way.  The photos make me feel better about it already.

And afterwards there was health and sleep and space and sunshine.  (see the next instalment).

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In my 34th year…

In a few days it’s my birthday and I’ll be 34.  I’m pretty excited because I still feel like ageing is a competition and the highest score wins.  You know those nine year olds who like to tell you they’re “nearly ten”? I am still that person.

I don’t have any regular habit of annual goal setting or list making, but it seems like as good a moment as any to reflect on this past year.  There has been a monumental addition to our family and accompanying change in perspective, as you will know (welcome, tiny overlord).  But there have been other happenings too, and I thought I might use my birthday as an excuse to catch you up on them. So here are the five biggest things that happened in my 34th year.

1. Yes, I (we) had a baby.  And the whole world changed.  We had a scary start which I’m only really beginning to process now, and were kept afloat by grace for many weeks.  There were huge battles with breastfeeding that nearly sunk me and mad, exhausting highs and lows.  I’ve tried to be honest here on the blog about the journey of it all.  But maybe I don’t say enough how extraordinary, joyous and beautiful it has been too, and how much fun it is to be parenting my with amazing husband.  Somehow Jesse has got to be ten months old, and there is nothing in the world like being his mum.  He loves people and raspberries and cuddles.  He wants to walk everywhere (which involves backbreaking handholding right now until he can actually balance).   Somehow, without me noticing, under the smokescreen of reacting to a series of immediate needs, the whole organising logic of our lives has changed.  We love him like crazy people.

Not so interested in posing right now...

Not so interested in posing right now…

2. I (or, again, we) wrote a book.  I’ve been wanting to catch you up and give you news about it for ages but we haven’t known when it would appear in public.  It looks like it will materialise in actual 3D book form early next year.  I can’t confirm the title quite yet – although it is all about mission (in the Christian sense) and how it’s more enormous and glorious than we often realise, whilst also being less burdensome and oppressive than we tend to make it.  It’s full of stories from years of travelling with Tearfund and other friends, but then it lands in our own neighbourhood with how and why we choose to live like we do now, in the inner city.

The experience of writing it, with Andy, has been both exciting and overwhelming at different moments.  Getting to work creatively together was the good bit.  And I’ve found more confidence in my writing as things have progressed; at the same time I have suffered by comparing myself with Andy, repeatedly.  Collaborating on the project has often been uncomfortable, mostly because of our different styles and priorities.  There have been days when I’ve wanted to give up and make him write it all.  But I’m pretty sure the end result is much richer and deeper because of our different approaches, and the way we have sharpened each other.

Look out for it in my 35th year…

3. I reached my ‘ten years at Tearfund‘ anniversary (still waiting for my badge and certificate though).  Reaching such a milestone is something of a joke given that I went there on a two month temp contract, in between acting jobs, in order to nurse my broken heart and hang out with my friend Caroline.  I thought of it as a brief sojourn in the wilderness before returning to the things I was meant to do.

But then my perspective on everything started to change.  This was both disruptive and wildly disorientating.  I wondered if I should give up acting and go to Africa and feed people (final conclusion: probably not).  I felt guilty, I felt confused, I felt humbled and inspired, and pretty much all along I felt like a fish out of water.  Defying all explanation, I am still there.

And now I’m looking at returning after maternity leave, unsure of what I’ll do for them since motherhood has made me less excited by frequent travel.  Story to be continued.

4. We met loads more neighbours, and specifically, we met a heap of people from our estate who don’t live in our building.  Regular readers will know we love our neighbourhood and have certain rhythms we try to commit to in order to build strong relationships here, and love our neighbours.  Until this year that was entirely restricted to our building.  Because there are already a lot of people to get to know right here.  Also we’re the only building on our side of the street so we feel like a separate world (it’s a very wide street).  There are ten buildings across the road that are also part of the estate which always seemed like a different universe.  But then we helped re-launch the Tenants and Residents’ Association and suddenly discovered there were a lot more neighbourly locals!  We (the new TRA) hosted a Big Lunch for the estate, recently put on a gardening workshop and more socialising is planned!

Everyone assured me that having a baby would help massively with getting to know the neighbours better, but I’m not sure I’ve found that to be true yet.  I’m now getting to the stage where I recognise several mums in the park and can chat (which is *fab*), but I don’t think it’s made a big difference in our block.  Perhaps because it’s been a tough year and I’ve been less outgoing.

5. I decided to seek some help in relation to my spiritual and emotional well-being.  The challenges of this year have been significant.  Their intensity has lessened as the months have gone by, but I feel frayed.  I wonder if there are some things I need to face and work through rather than just soldiering on.

Recently I sought out a Spiritual Director because I feel a hunger to grow in my faith and I feel a little stuck.  And I decided to look for a psychotherapist to help me process all that happened around Jesse’s birth, and some other things it brought up.  These are relatively new decisions I’ve taken after considerable mulling, and I’m not going to be feeding back on the blog about how they go.  But I know there can be a lot of stigma attached to asking for help in this way, so I thought I’d be up front about it all.  Space and wisdom are what I crave, and I’m hopeful that these two people will help me find some.

So there you go, my 34th year.  Nearly half way to my three score and ten – woohoo!

 

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The books that kept me afloat

There was a moment last Christmas when I was struck by a terrifying thought. My three week old son was sleeping in my lap, and I was looking through an exhausted fog at one of the Christmas presents Andy had bought me. It was the novel, Philomena, by Martin Sixsmith. I had been to see the film at the cinema just days before going into labour, and had loved it. And now I could enjoy the book.

Or could I?

What if motherhood meant spending this entire year pinioned under a helpless infant? What if the moments I did not spend feeding/changing/entertaining/ soothing my child were all given over, by necessity, to sleep?

(This was the crazy, twilight hour of early parenthood, when I didn’t really understand that things would change and get easier, I just thought “This is my new life and I don’t think I can do it”).

More to the point, WHAT IF I CAN’T READ ANY BOOKS

I had a vague memory of hearing other mothers lament that since having children they were no longer able to read more than half a magazine article at a time. What if I had to give up reading books for the year (or longer)? I wasn’t ready (for any of it, frankly).

I know, I know, it’s not the worst thing in the world not to be able to read books for a little while. But it does matter to me. Reading is a big part of what nourishes my imagination, develops my empathy and humanity, and enables me to step back from the smallness of my own life. Sure, sometimes I love to escape, but more often I need to reconnect with other people’s windows in the world we share.

Nine months in and I’m unspeakably relieved to say that I have not had to give up reading books, and in fact I’ve read some beautiful, wonderful pieces of writing, many of which have done wonders for my psychological and emotional survival. Although there are certainly less of them than in previous years.  They have not been books about looking after babies (although there have been desperate, sleep-deprived moments when I have reached for all the familiar guidebooks, skim reading them in search of a panacea, and I’ve googled everything that mothers google). Instead, I have found that my need for stories has outweighed my need for information. Even in the baby-lit category, what I have drawn strength from is the stories of other mothers, not the dos and don’ts of parenting.

It’s not a long list, but I’m so relieved it’s there at all. So here’s a whistle-stop-tour.

phil bookI started with Philomena, resolutely developing my one-handed reading technique as Jesse nursed, his eyes closed contentedly. I persevered with the book mainly out of stubborn determination, to see if I could actually get through it whilst looking after a newborn baby. Contrary to the general trend, Philomena the film was a lot more interesting than Philomena the book. But still, I felt victorious that I had made it through, in a thousand tiny installments.

I got a little cocky and headed out to our local library, returning with three significant tomes. Two of them were returned, untouched. But I loved The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. I was fascinated by the world and the characters she had created, in a sigperiod of history I knew little about. I renewed the book three times in order to continue wading through it. Tragically, it was then recalled to the library for another reader so I never got more than half the way through. I have put it in my Christmas list because I am desperate to know what happens to Alma.

One of the bloggers I follow recommended a new book by Lisa-Jo Baker and on a whim, I downloaded the ebook onto my phone (easier to manoeuvre whilst breastfeeding than an actual book). It was called Surprised by Motherhood which sounded like the understatement of the year, but at least in the ballpark of what I was feeling. It did me good. I needed someone (frankly I surprisedneed a lot of people) to tell me that motherhood is hard. And to prove that they knew that from experience, with their honest story. I also needed reassurance that it is glorious. And I liked the book because my blog-reader was a little overloaded with American mothers (that’s another story), and Lisa-Jo is South African.

 

Then, the summer came and we went on holiday with my parents (translation = with free childcare). And Andy was around all day, every day. So I devoured a series of excellent books (in this new economy, this means I read three books in two weeks), mainly recommended by my wonderfully well-read friend, Sophie. I adored the hilarious Where D’ya Go Bernadette by Maria Semple – it was brilliantly original, funny, moving and optimistic. It was an easy summer read, but not trashy at all. I relished discovering a hitherto unknown Victorian novel called Odd Women by George Gissing, about singleness and, specifically, female singleness in an era in which the traditional, nuclear family was idealised. The novel presents such a breadth of experience and tragedy within a small section of society, and I almost wish that I had to write an essay on it for my degree because there would be so much to say. And then there was Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, leaping artfully between contemporary Hollywood and 1950s Italy, with a familiar detour at the Edinburgh Fringe.  Again, I loved the story and the beauty of the words, but I also loved its optimism.  I can do tragedy, but it seems like so many contemporary novels are just so cynical and jaded; in stories I crave hope and a belief in redemption, probably because I know how much I need them in life.

Then somewhere in there I also read Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection which I sought out in an attempt to help me to relinquish my perfectionism (it’s a long, slow, painful journey).

I just finished, and loved, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life – having loved her first two novels when I was about 18 and not read another since.

And now I am reading two books which, in different ways, are about mothering: Found by Micha Boyett, and Ordinary Mum, Extraordinary Mission by Joy French and Anna France-Williams.

What else can I say, except that they have all helped.

I remain open to recommendations!

 

 

 

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On the advice they give new mothers

The two pieces of advice I have been given most often in the past few months are these:

1. Nap when your baby naps.

2. Take all the help you get offered.

Now the first one is a nice idea, and probably any mother’s best hope of getting sufficient rest to survive the rest of the rollercoaster.  But I don’t think I’m completely alone in generally having NO IDEA when my baby is going to nap. I’ll spend an hour trying to soothe the tired wee man to slumber, never achieving more than 10 minutes of shut-eye; then a few hours later I’ll have zoned out in front of netflix post-feed, only to suddenly realise with alarm that he has been asleep in my arms for the past 90 minutes and I have just missed by best window for sleep all day.

Or you know, he naps in the sling, and who can sleep standing up?

But the second worthy piece of advice, that has proved more practical; I could claim to have taken it to heart quite convincingly.  We’ve had a lot of help, and I’ve been very grateful.  I would have had a breakdown without Andy in the past 3 months, and that’s no exaggeration.  He has loved and encouraged me tirelessly, taken on every practical household task, run baby-led errands across the whole city, and been a gorgeously adoring father to Jesse.  And I would also be run ragged had it not been for our parents’ practical help and regular visits.  Jesse’s health would be a continual source of fear and anxiety had it not been for the support of some incredible friends who also happen to be healthcare professionals, as well as the amazing staff at Tommy’s.  Our diet would have been fairly abysmal without so many friends making us dinners.  There would have been far more tears and angst without the amazing cheerleading and handholding of our wonderful friends.  I could go on.

And yet.  I’ve realised that deep down I believe that I should really be able to do it all on my own.  It’s a perverse, deep-seated vein of independence that threads through my very core.

I think I should really be able to cope at night with a screaming baby single-handedly, without waking Andy.  Single mothers do it, don’t they?  I should be able just to throw Jesse in the sling and take off every day to achieve whatever normal people achieve – the shopping, the cleaning, the socialising, the cooking.  I should take it all in my stride, make it through, weather it all.

It’s a strange fantasy – one that as been disproved at every turn of motherhood so far, but somehow, that belief is still there, deep down.  I’ll give it points for tenacity.  At some level I believe that to need all this help is weak and shows that I am a failure.  That a better person would manage it all themselves.

I hate that I think that.  I don’t know if it comes from my habitat (the modern, individualistic city), my upbringing, my education, my personality, or a combination of them, but I think it’s a destructive pattern of thinking and I want it to change.

So I have a new mantra – I can’t do it on my own.  It’s not a confession of failure, but a testimony to my need for community and friendship, and my belief that we’re not supposed to manage any of it alone.

It’s good advice for new mothers, but it’s also good advice for everyone else.

All offers of help are very welcome at this time.

 

 

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