A Tale Of Two Mothers

I want to tell you a story of something that happened to me the other day, on International Women’s Day.

I had to go to the Doctor’s with my son. It was for something and nothing, but as we were in the waiting room and Arthur was charging up and down another mum arrived with a huge double buggy. Arthur immediately went to say hello and inspect the buggy wheels, and I struck up a conversation with the woman.

She was Polish, I think, and had one little boy sat squirming on her lap. She indicated the buggy to point out her adorable three-month-old. Arthur, who had been causing trouble, was sat on my hip by this time and listening in.

“Your first?” Asked the mother with a smile. It’s a question I hate, but I smiled back and answered yes. “Ah, you will not be so worried about germs and dirt when you have two more! And next time you will have girl!” she laughed. I tried to smile and not to be too sad that she had mentioned that girl-baby that I know will never be. The one that has a name; two actually, as my husband calls her something different. I swerved and asked her if she had three children.

“Four!” she replied, brightly. “My oldest are 16 and 12, he is two and also the baby.”

“That’s wonderful,” I reply, meaning it with all my heart. All that love, all that homework, all those lives. Lovely. But I could feel it. My own story always demands to be told, no matter how much I suppress it, and I could feel it bubbling up now, as it always does. This woman, glowing with the pride of her brood, with eyes that were bright with love and exhaustion, was looking at me. It was my turn. I swallowed.

“I don’t think we can have another,” I said. “We tried for years and Arthur was conceived by IVF.”

I watched as those eyes widened in horror as she said “Oh, but you must! Just imagine if when he is older something happen to him” (here she made a noise and a sign against the evil eye) “what then? He need brothers and sisters!”

I had nothing. All I could do was clutch Arthur tightly to me and close my eyes for a minute. He was there, it was done, there was nothing to worry about. This sweet woman could have no way of knowing that she had just been the voice in my head at 3am, when I’m feeling most anxious and vulnerable. She didn’t know that. I tried again, weakly.

“ I can’t have another.”

There was a pause. “Well, perhaps not yet, heh?” smiled the woman kindly. At this point, thankfully, the health visitor came out to welcome her and I was alone with Arthur.

Later that day we ventured to the shops. I was still feeling pretty bruised after my encounter; despite the fact that we decided almost as soon as Arthur was born that we couldn’t go through IVF and HG again, it’s not a decision that rests there. I’ve been feeling it a little lately. We wandered into the local shop. I didn’t really need anything, we just needed to get out of the house. I was standing contemplating the baby shampoo when I heard a strong South East London accent say “Aw, he’s smiling and waving at me! Innee lovely! Look at those eyes!” I looked up to see a woman in her 70s smiling at Arthur. She asked me the usual questions; age, name, and then, with an urgency I recognised, she said “I couldn’t have ’em. Well, I had four but I lost ’em all. They said it was my womb couldn’t hold ’em in.” There was a beat while we looked at each other and I let that sad story, told so simply, sink in. “I’m so, so sorry,” I said. “We tried for four years and had to have IVF, so I understand a tiny bit of what you must have gone through.”

Her face lit up “And he’s here now!” She said, looking fondly at Arthur, reaching out a hand to him. “He’s here,” I said, realising how much that mattered. Here we both were in a corner shop in London, me and the baby who might never have been; who should never have been if it wasn’t for medical science and years and years of research. The mother with no children looked at him fondly again and said “And I bet you all make such a fuss of him!” Here she looked at me very seriously. “You do make a fuss of him, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I assured her. “He is very much loved.”

“Good,” she said, looking me straight in the eye. “I’m glad you had him, in the end.”

“Me, too,” I said, blinking back tears. “Oh, me, too.”

I saw her again the next day, telling her story to another woman with a pram. I thought how she must do this every day, so that someone else knows about her babies and knows they were real, that she carried them and carries them still. It did me good to meet both of those mothers; the lucky one with four children living and the one whose four children never were. We all have a story to tell, we all carry it with us. The miscarriages, stillbirths, the years lost to trying to conceive, or the years of childbearing and child-rearing and giving up ourselves for the children we love. None of it is easy, but I bet that if I asked either of those women they’d tell me they didn’t regret a day.

And neither do I.

To all the mothers and aunties of every stripe; Happy Mother’s Day.

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Stretch Marks and Scars

I was 35 when Arthur was born which had never been my intention. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t one of those people with a “plan” to have two kids by 30 or anything, but I sort of thought it would be earlier (and easier) than this.

Having said that, being an older prima gravida does have some advantages. A lot of friends and family had their babies quite a while ago, so I’d already changed my fair share of nappies. I’d also heard a lot of truthful birthing stories, so my Birth Plan was basically “Get the baby out without killing either of us and we’re cool”. No home water births for us. I read the hypnobirthing book with a healthy dose of scepticism. (Read: I giggled like a loon at the idea of my atheist joker of a husband reading aloud the visualisations during birth. I thought it might give us a laugh though).

One of the most interesting personal developments to come out of all of this though is a genuine respect for my own body. The media likes to bang on about getting one’s “figure back” or being your “pre-birth weight”. Honestly I’ve realised that in the heat of parenting, when you got up more times in the night than an elderly incontinent, a bit of sugar is the least you deserve. I was back to my “pre-birth weight” pretty quickly, but that’s mainly because of HG and the fact I wasn’t skinny to begin with thanks to four years of comfort eating. My post-natal body is quite something.

My breasts are hilarious. Huge, saggy, stretch-marked and one is at least two cup sizes bigger than the other. My husband regularly sings “Hooray, up she rises/She’s got breasts of different sizes” when I wander round nude. Which I do all the time now, because I just Do Not Care. So liberating.

My belly has a lot going on, too. I remember thinking I’d got away without stretch marks until after the birth when I finally dared to look in the mirror. Ah. There they are then. I don’t really mind them at all now, despite my obsessive use of products to keep them at bay while pregnant (newsflash: these work about as well as wrinkle or cellulite creams).

I love my c-section scar. I think it’s cool, like a tattoo or piercing. Sadly it’s not visible thanks to the overhanging spongy flesh. I won’t be wearing bikinis any time soon, but honestly I didn’t wear them before anyway.

I’ve called a truce with my body. We’re OK now. I’m unlikely to ever be a size 10 ever again and that’s fine. I recently watched an old family home movie on which 13-year old me was chasing around after my little brothers and cousins. I already had a big bottom. It was a revelation, frankly.

The really important thing to me now is health. After 9 months of throwing up every day, you stop taking that for granted. My body managed to grow a baby despite the fact I was barely feeding it. It has, in turn, fed that baby for six whole months. It can already walk long distances again, as well as perform complicated yoga routines. My body has healed itself admirably. Food is wonderful now; rather than restricting what I eat because I want to be smaller, I’m eating what I want because I can. I’m still enjoying food far too much to stop eating chips just yet. HG is great for perspective on dieting.

My body and I have always been wary allies. I’ve never loved it. But now? Now I think it’s amazing. 

Have you tried ginger?

After four years of trying and a tough round of IVF I was finally pregnant. It was one of the best moments of my entire life, but I already knew I was thanks to the dreams I’d had all night long. Positive after positive. My body was trying to tell my mind. To finally get that result on the stick, to be able to rush into the bedroom and tell my husband “You’re going to be a daddy!” was just wild. I’ve never been so happy. We had a week of celebrating, opting to tell people rather than do the cautious wait as most of the family knew we were having IVF treatment. I think it’s something that should be discussed, not hidden away.

But that’s a story for another time.

Today I want to talk about what happened after the pregnancy test. After the euphoria. Today I want to talk about Hyperemesis Gravidarum.

We had a week of joy. Endlessly talking about the baby, what we’d do, where we’d live. Our best man came to stay for the night and shared the news that his wife, too, was expecting. We celebrated with pizza and toasted each other’s good fortune.

And then I got sick.

This wasn’t just morning sickness. This couldn’t be cured with ginger biscuits and eating little and often. This was absolutely off-the-charts vomiting. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t drink, could barely move. All I could think about was the little life inside me, trying to survive whilst I puked and puked. At the end of my sixth week of pregnancy I ended up in A&E with severe dehydration. The hospital gave me a couple of bags of fluid and sent me home. By now I was on the entry-level drug for HG, cyclizine. It didn’t even touch it. Thankfully, an emergency scan showed the little heartbeat that was already going like the clappers, so we knew things were OK with the baby. But while he was cooking away, I couldn’t share a bed with my husband any more because his smell (I couldn’t believe how strongly he smelled all of a sudden) made me sick. We couldn’t even hug each other for comfort during those frightening days.

It was when I started vomiting blood that we got really scared. I remember a real low point. I was still trying desperately to struggle into work. I’d vomited on the train into a bag, then continued to vomit on the 20 minute walk from the station to the school where I worked. I just didn’t know how I could carry on. In the end I went on long-term sick leave, something I had never even considered I would need to do just for being pregnant. Over the course of six admissions to hospital, drips, overnight stays, chemo-strength anti-emetics and eventually steroids, there was never any doubt in my mind that this was a serious illness. On one overnight stay my mum lost count of how many bags of fluid they’d given me at 12.

By the 16th week of my pregnancy I had lost ten pounds in weight. I know that that was partially down to the vomiting, but also loss of muscle tone. I wasn’t able to move, so I was literally wasting away. On a visit to my parents’ in Lancashire, I was hospitalised again and found out for the first time what proper care looked like instead of being patted on the head and sent on my way.

By August I’d had a few ‘good’ days. My childhood friend (also my husband’s cousin) was getting married. He means the world to me, and I was determined to go. It turned out to be the final straw. I woke in the night shivering uncontrollably, and the vomiting started again. The next day, my husband drove me back to Lancashire and I transferred all of my care there. Away from the stews and smells of boiling hot London, cared for as an invalid by my parents, I made as much progress as I was ever going to. Thanks to my parents and the staff of Wigan’s Royal Albert Edward Infirmary, who finally prescribed the steroids I should have been given weeks earlier, I started to have a few vomit free days. I was still weak and terribly nauseous, but the worst had finally passed. By this time I was seven months pregnant. Without the drugs I was taking, managed carefully by my GP, there was no way I would have got to this point.I can’t imagine how I would have coped without the incredible support I received from my family; my brother even gave up a week of his holiday to care for me while my parents were away.

I’m really, really glad that Hyperemesis Gravidarum is in the news at present. People need to know about it, especially employers, and to understand that it is a real and debilitating condition. It makes me, and the other women I know who suffered, incredibly sad and angry that the BBC still saw fit to refer to it over and over again as ‘severe morning sickness’. That condition is bad enough, but HG is something else entirely.

 

I look at my beautiful, amazing 3 month old son and I’m so grateful that our fertility treatment worked, and we were able to bring him into the world with the help of the NHS, my parents and parents-in-law. But as to ever trying for another, I simply cannot imagine putting myself, my husband, and most importantly my son through it. We’d need more fertility treatment too, so it’s pretty much a non-starter. I know I’m not on my own in feeling this way. 

 I’d like to thank my parents, husband, in-laws, staff of the Albert Edward Infirmary for their amazing care of me and my baby Arthur. I’d also like to thank my head of department and headteacher, who were unfailingly supportive and understanding. 

If you or anyone you know is suffering from Hyperemesis Gravidarum, please encourage them to seek help from the wonderful women at www.pregnancysicknesssupport.org.uk, where I found out what my care should be and found the strength to demand it.

The Magic of Make-up

I decided to name this blog muminmakeup even though my devotion to make-up’s healing properties is something I’ve never really talked about before. I have always been one of those women who cannot leave the house without mascara. Not a permanently high-maintenence, full-face-of-slap kind of a girl, but someone for whom a little bit goes a long way. 
The love affair began at school, as I looked with envy at the girls who wore make-up and flouted the rules. I’ve always had translucent, Tilda Swinton-style eyelashes. Unlike the great Ms Swinton, however, I refused to embrace them. I was desperate for gorgeous, long thick Bambi lashes. I can remember sneaking into my parents’ en suite to raid Mum’s make-up bag. I’d bypass the frosted 90s lipsticks and go straight for the brown mascara (which, as far as I know, Mum switched long ago to black). I loved the definition it gave to my eyes, the hint of glamour and the grown-up world to come. 
The problem was, you see, that I was a Good Girl. My school didn’t allow any make-up, not even a hint, let alone the full orange faces so many of the girls in my year sported. I had watched them all being called out at the end of assembly and shamed for their Jezebel-like behaviour, and vowed that would never be me. So I contented myself with the entirely useless trio of clear mascara (I mean, why), light dusting of powder on my spotty face (like throwing a cup of water on a raging inferno) and Boots vanilla flavoured lip balm (smelled amazing, did nothing).
All of this meant that when I finally reached the heady land of Sixth Form I was ready to develop my relationship with cosmetics. The perfect Shirley Manson-from-Garbage kohl-ed eye. The Rose-from-Titanic nude lip. The flawless skin out of a bottle I had always craved. I could wax lyrical about each part of the puzzle, every product and why it makes everything feel better. Make-up is one of the loves of my life, but I had genuinely never realised how much I relied on it until I became pregnant. 
I had the worst pregnancy. The absolute worst. Suffering from Hyperemesis Gravidarum (yes, like Kate Middleton only for the whole nine months), I could barely lift my head off the pillow most days. For six months I was in and out of hospital. Fluids, needles, vomiting until there was nothing but blood. It was truly awful, and I lost myself. It wasn’t until my parents took over and moved me back up North to be cared for that I could see any kind of light at the end of the tunnel. That was when I began to wear make-up again. 
It was like finding myself. I could look in the mirror at a woman I recognised as me again. I applied it lovingly, every day, in a sort of ritual. Foundation, eyeliner, mascara, bright lips. Make-up gave me a boost when I needed it most. I’m sure that towards the end of pregnancy most women are buying beautiful baby clothes and dreaming about their child. I still couldn’t get past the end of each day, so buying a gorgeous new Clinique matte lipstick was enough for me. 
Fast-forward to a week after the birth. I had done the staying in pajamas all day thing maybe once or twice, but it wasn’t for me. I started to approach parenthood like a job. Up at 7.30 for a shower whilst my husband and baby still slumbered. Outfit on, make-up on. It’s another ritual, albeit an incredibly fast one, a race against my son who’ll be waking up for a feed any moment. I can do the whole thing in seven minutes, start to finish. It’s amazing; there really should be a medal for it.
Strangely, no matter how bad the night, or how little sleep, a shower, proper outfit even if just leggings and a tee, skincare and make-up routine makes me feel polished. Makes me normal. Makes me me. What’s more, somehow I feel more able to cope with a baby. Make-up is my armour, my war-paint, my shield. And here’s the really strange part: It makes me feel like a better mother, even though I know that’s nonsense. It works for me the way fashion, caffeine or running works for others. 
I know there are people who think that a reliance on make-up has more to do with men than women. A symbol of the patriarchy, of how women feel they have to look to meet society’s beauty standards. This has been discussed elsewhere and shot down by far better writers and beauty officionados than I. It may well be that way for some; but for me it has nothing to do with it. 
It just makes me happy, and who doesn’t need that? 

*Please note: a version of this post will be appearing on http://www.themumclub.Com. Check them out, they’re great!

Resolution Revolution

January. The most miserable, grey, cold month of the year, and yet somehow also the month we’re supposed to use for strict physical self-improvement. Diets, exercise, cleanses, detox, running with a personal trainer at 5am before work…

It’s never really done it for me. I’ve always been a September goals kind of gal. As a teacher I adore September, with its gorgeous warm light, morning mists, new stationery (oh, how I love the new stationery. More on that another time), and the sense of a new beginning, the mental challenge of a new academic year. I’m a geek, you see, and I’ll always be much more into mental challenges than physical ones. 

This year, though. This year is different. I spent most of last year in and out of hospital with a very difficult pregnancy, suffering from Hyperemesis Gravidarum for the whole nine months. I couldn’t work, so when my colleagues and students were celebrating the start of a new year, I was starting my maternity leave two and a half months early. Not for me the lovely squeak of a new board pen on the whiteboard, new uniforms and fresh smiles. I was staying in Lancashire with my kind, generous parents, which nevertheless was all a good 200 miles from my own husband and home. 

So this year, I’m embracing the New Year. I’m even embracing the resolutions, which I normally shy away from and just pick a word of the year instead. (Last year’s word was ‘adventure’. That was an understatement).

There is no way, though, I’ll keep something going for an entire year. No way. I’ve tried it before and just failed on a hideous level, beating myself up with it from February to December. I can’t imagine that being much better with a little baby in tow, either. It’s a waste of my time. So I’m doing things a little differently. I had a good idea. 

I’ve seen people use old jars for things like this before. ‘Happiness’ jars, where you write down one nice thing that happened in a day and place it in. That kind of thing. So I decided to wash out an old coffee jar (I don’t have lovely Kilners hanging around, and any I do have are put to use), write down twelve different monthly challenges and pick one out on the last day of each month. Some of them are health-related, but many of them are just nice things I’ve been meaning to do for ages but never got around to. Like reading a poem every day. I adore poetry, and every now and then my husband and I spend a pleasant hour just reading our faves to each other. I’m aware this makes us sound like over-educated douches, and I must stress that we never plan it, but still, this is what we do sometimes. Or practising the piano every day for ten minutes, which is what I beg my students to do; ‘Just ten minutes a day and I swear you’ll notice a big difference!’

So… here’s what I came up with. 

Some of these are the more traditional health and fitness goals, but you’ll notice I’ve made them achievable. ‘Lose four stone’ is something I’d really like to do by December, but let’s face it, even breastfeeding like a demon I’m very unlikely to manage something that huge, and it’ll just haunt me and make me miserable. So I’ve made them tiny, bite-sized goals. I love the brain resolutions the best. I love listening to the ‘Coffee Break French’ podcast anyway, so doing that once a day will be a joy. Doing an online course? Ooh! Fun! In what? No idea, but I’ve got time to think about it. I’ve tried to do those pesky Morning Pages (from the book ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron, every frustrated creative has a copy) so many times, but failed because I was expecting to do them EVERY MORNING FOREVER. Clearly unlikely. 

I’ve given myself permission to put a resolution back if it doesn’t seem like the right time for it. If I have loads of events then five fruit and veg per day might be a stretch, whereas reading the books might still be achievable. You get the idea. 

If you’d like to try it for yourself then please, go ahead! 

*Disclaimer: I still picked the most boring one for January. No sugary treats. Because, well, it’s January. 

Let me know what you’re doing this year!