Ow ow ow ow ow!

I always knew that if I could, I would breastfeed my children. It didn’t really occur to me to consider any alternative. So when this little tiny body  was placed wriggling and screaming against mine in the delivery room I fully expected some sort of auto pilot to kick in and for us to be away. If only it were that simple. What they don’t tell you is that while breastfeeding may be completely natural, it is definitely not normal. It turns out that not only do mums not have a clue about how to hold or support a baby, the babies themselves often don’t really know how to go about extracting the good stuff from the fleshy mountains thrust before them. So the first few weeks found us fumbling and floundering around and using all kinds of new words like ‘latching’ and ‘let down’ and ‘vasospasm’ (don’t look it up, it hurts just reading about it).

Something else that they don’t tell you is that while breastfeeding is natural, that doesn’t mean it won’t hurt. Toe-curling pain as some would describe it. I could think of other ways to describe it, but perhaps here isn’t the right medium for expressing that (no pun intended). I also happened to be unfortunate in coming up against quite a range of other problems associated with breastfeeding that not everyone experiences, making the first 2 months really rather difficult. And in all honesty, pretty miserable.

You may wonder (as did some of my friends and even the doctor) why I continued. And I’m not really sure I know what the answer it. I have no problem with bottle feeding a baby, but I do think that determination was part of it for me. And laziness definitely came into it- I really didn’t want to be sterilising and preparing bottles in the middle of the night! So I kept going through the pain, the milk-soaked clothes, the awkward positioning, the down-to-the-minute-timed pain killers, the unquenchable thirst, the over-heating and all the general discomfort that comes with breastfeeding. It probably didn’t really help matters that I’m actually quite squeamish about anything related to my body and so it has taken quite a lot of mind over matter to come to terms with feeding a baby from my own body.

I have been heard to say that I can’t wait for baby to be weaned and off breast milk. In those times I have been reminded to stop and think about this statement carefully because it’s likely that I will miss it when it’s gone. Most of the time I don’t think that’s true- I genuinely am looking forward to having my body back, being freer to move around without feeling tied as the only one who can sustain this little life and not feeling any more pain or waking up with damp clothing. There is definitely nothing glamorous about breastfeeding! But while this is true, there is nothing glamorous at all about having babies or feeding them, there is something very earthy and beautiful about growing and nourishing another being. I am unashamedly proud of, and grateful for what I have been able to do when I look at our little girl and I think that all her growth was because of me. It is something precious and unique that has come from my pain and discomfort.

Sometimes, when she is feeding, she looks up at me and smiles, or she makes little noises of satisfaction. This is when I realise that there are bits that I will miss. It’s hard being so tied to another person and feeling restricted and sometimes trapped. But it is also breathtakingly beautiful how much she loves to feed from me. I am safe, I am warm and I am her life source. I cannot think of any other situation where I would endure what I have been through, but I look at my baby and I know that I have done it gladly.

Imaginary Conversations

Sometimes, when I am really, really tired- often in the middle of the night when I’m sitting feeding baby but trying not to wake up too much so that I can go back to sleep as quickly as possible when she’s finished- I imagine what a conversation would be like between us:

Picture the scene- it’s 6.12am and baby is gurgling, cooing and thrashing her arms and legs next to me in bed. The reason she’s next to me in our bed is because she woke up every hour from midnight onwards and I got fed up of getting out of bed to see to her. Her fingers are reaching out to poke me in my eyes, my nose, my mouth, and she periodically tugs on my hair. I, meanwhile, am lying resolutely with my eyes shut desperately willing her to go back to sleep, or it to not be something past 6 when I actually do look at the clock.

Baby: “mum, mum, mum, mum, mum, mum, mum, mum, mum, mum, mum, mum, mum, mum”

Me: “I’m asleep”

Baby: “mum, mum, mum… wake up, wake up, wake up… it’s light outside”

Me: “It definitely is not light outside. Go back to sleep”

Baby: “mum, mum, mum… I’m so happy. I love being in your bed. I love stroking your face. I love morning cuddles”

Me (feeling slightly guilty for being grumpy but still with my eyes tight shut): “So do I. But I also love sleep, and I do not love that you wake me up every hour”

Baby: “Love sleep? Why would you love sleep when you could be awake and playing? I love playing with you mum. And I love waking up to cuddle with you in the night. You’re my favourite person and I just want to be near you all the time.”

By this point I’m now feeling really guilty so I open my eyes. She smiles at me and I instantly feel less grumpy, and more guilty. I don’t know how it works, but all she has to do is smile at me and I honestly don’t mind all the lack of sleep in the world.

But she’d better not be still doing this when she’s 10 years old.

tiredtired

A lesson in gratitude

My baby has some lovely toys. Some that we have bought for her, and thought very carefully about what sort of development or enjoyment she might get out of each one. Others that have been bought for her from people who want to give her nice things. She seems to like her toys, she smiles and reaches out for them. She seems to enjoy being entertained by the ones with lights or music.

Which is her favourite toy though? This one:

IMAG0540-1Now, I’m not even sure what this is, but when she sees it she flaps her little arms up and down and smiles and giggles. It makes a strange squeaking sound and I think it’s meant to be some sort of butterfly, or caterpillar, or alien… And whatever it is, it was passed on to Esther in a bag of toys and books that someone else’s baby had grown out of.

Don’t get me wrong here, I am very grateful for passed on toys and games. What amuses me here is that Esther has no idea how much money is spent on her. Or what money even is. All she knows is that the sound and shape of this thing makes her happy.

I’m not going to churn out some great philosophical statement from this, but I do think that sometimes it’s worth remembering that the best things in life don’t have to be new, or shiny, or expensive. We don’t even have to be able to identify exactly what there are. But it’s definitely a good thing to find enjoyment in the small, strange, squeaking alien butterfly caterpillar things in out lives.

TV or not TV… that is the question.

Every parent wants what’s best for their child.

A sweeping statement, but one I’m fairly confident is true.

The problem is figuring out the definition of ‘best’. Never mind what this book says, or that book says, or what other mums say, or what the health visitors say… I’m not always sure that I know what I mean by ‘best’.

I mean, my baby is only 5 months old and yet already I’m finding myself trying to work out how to go about life with her. How long it’s ok to leave her crying before going to sleep, the ‘best’ way to get her back to sleep the 7th, 8th, 12th time she wakes up during the night, whether it’s ok to allow her to be entertained by the TV…

Let me explain a little bit more. Most people advise that breastfed babies aren’t fed to sleep every time they wake up because the likelihood is that they’re not hungry but just looking for comfort and they need to learn ‘good’ sleep habits at an early age. And I have previously been known to say (probably rather pompously) that I would never use the TV to entertain a child rather than playing with them.

The thing is though that, as much as I would like to be, I’m not a super mum. I’m not really super anything in fact, I’m just a very normal (and permanently sleep deprived) person.

Last week I was trying to eat my tea with a very wriggly and slightly grumpy baby on my knee. Eating with one hand isn’t easy at the best of times but the wriggling was making it harder than usual. So I turned the laptop round, searched YouTube for Peppa Pig and hit play. It worked. She remained still, interested in the colours and moving shapes long enough for me to finish my tea. I don’t think this is a bad thing, but I did feel a slight twinge of guilt when I sat baby down in the living room to play with her and the first thing she did was to turn and look at the (switched off) TV.

I don’t want my baby to be plonked in front of the TV to keep her quiet.
But I sometimes just need a few minutes to catch my breath.

I don’t want my baby to learn bad sleep habits.
But I need to make sure I get enough sleep so I can look after her properly during the day.

I don’t want my baby to rely on me for sleep forever.
But I can’t stand to let her cry when she’s so little.

The best piece of advice I’ve yet been given was simple: you need to pick your battles. Sometimes it’s simply not worth fighting when the fight is not worth the outcome. This means that I try not to feel guilty for letting her watch TV when I need to have some brain space to myself. I try not to worry about the future of sleep when she wakes up for the 6th time and I just need to get her back off again as quickly as possible. I try to remind myself that she has only been in this world for 23 weeks and if she needs to cuddle into me for comfort during the night then that’s ok.

I don’t know anyone who is a super mum. And that too is ok. And as hard as it is, I think I’m learning to have confidence in the decisions I make without worrying what other people will think, or whether my child will be ruined for the rest of her life.

Sometimes I just have to remember to pick my battles. (And thanks mum for the advice!)

Hot chocolate and baby sick

So I’ve been a bit off the map for the past few months. The past 5 months to be precise.

The reason?

A new addition to our house and family. A beautiful baby girl. And I’m not biased, (honestly) she actually is the most beautiful baby in the whole world. She’s such a joy and delight to be with and I spend each day with her growing more in love and more in awe of her.

This is all true. BUT (there’s always a but)…

I don’t want to put anyone under false illusions. Babies are hard work! The past 5 months have been a blur of sleepless nights (sleep deprivation is one of the cruellest forms of torture), ear-splitting screaming, horrendously potent nappies (seriously, how is it that tiny people make such horrible smells??) and on demand (and often painful) feeding. Oh yeah, and the sick. ‘Baby sick isn’t really sick’ I was told. Liars! Sick is sick. Full stop. And babies produce a lot of it. I’m pretty sure that sometimes it’s more than they’ve taken in but what do I know?

And so it is only now, as I sit with a soya hot chocolate, (apparently a large amount of my baby’s sick was probably due to a milk allergy. You live and learn!) that I actually feel like I’ve got time (baby’s asleep) and energy to form proper adult sentences.

There is so much that I want to say. So much I have learned, and am learning. But nap times are short and so I will save my two pennies worth on breastfeeding, new-mum guilt, angry babies, the poo conversations and the difference between ‘me’ and ‘mum’ for another time.

I reckon I’ve got about 4 and a half minutes before baby wakes up, so forgive me while I dive into Harry Potter for a few precious moments of quiet.

Why I (almost) feel sorry for Richard Dawkins

So, Richard Dawkins thinks that the moral thing to do for babies diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome in the womb is to abort them so that the parents can ‘try again’.

I’ve just read over that sentence 4 or 5 times because I can’t believe that I have actually put words together in such a way that they read that sentiment. I love words. I love writing, and I love language. It makes me feel sick, angry and incredibly sad that words have been used to convey such a despicable thing.

Before I start properly, I just want to say that I’m not trying to offer any sort of comment or opinion on abortion or right to life. The problems I have with what Dawkins said are his comments that it would be ‘immoral’ to allow a Down’s Syndrome baby to live. I offer no judgement on people’s decisions in their own lives, but I do have a problem with saying that it is immoral for Down’s Syndrome babies to be born.

Here are Professor Dawkins’ reasons for saying what he said.
1: A foetus has no human emotions therefore abortion is not wrong
2: Individuals with Down’s Syndrome have nothing to offer society and so it is better for everyone that they are not brought into the world at all.
(As a contradiction, by the way, he seems to think that those children and adults with Down’s are alright to remain alive. How magnanimous of him.)

Aside from the immense anger I feel at the injustice of his comments, I can’t help also feeling a small amount of pity towards Dawkins. He clearly places at once such little value and such an impossibly high value on human life.

I believe that every individual (from conception) has value, is valued and is important. Not because they might one day be scientists, or engineers, or diplomats, or shop keepers, or opticians, or farmers, or politicians, or computer programmers. And neither because they might be kind, or generous, or loving, or helpful, or funny, or empathetic. But simply because they have been created and are alive.

Human value cannot come from what we can do, what we are capable of or even how well we can interact with others. Because if it did how would we even begin to measure that? There would always be some people who didn’t make the cut and then we’d be living in some sort of ‘Brave New World’ or ‘The Hunger Games’. But maybe that’s actually how Dawkins views us all to begin with?

Bringing things closer to his specific comment, I have so many angry questions I want to ask him. Why Down’s Syndrome? Why stop at abortion? Why not euthanase all individuals with Down’s? Why stop at Down’s Syndrome? Why not get rid of anyone with cerebal palsy? Or Autism? (Yes I know he stated that Autism is different but I’m afraid that just doesn’t wash.) What about multiple sclerosis? In actual fact, if human value is based on productivity and contribution to society why not also throw in the deaf, the blind, people with no legs, people with heart defects, mental health problems, curvature of the spine…

You see it is not our job or our place to decide who is valuable. The word ‘value’ has so many layers and can be viewed from so many angles. There are so many beautiful faces to the human existence and anyone who has spent time with someone with Down’s Syndrome (or any other disability for that matter) will tell you how much light and joy they can bring to others as well as how much they can live a happy and fulfilled life. No, they might not become doctors or nurses or lawyers, but then neither will a whole chunk of the population for many other reasons.

As for his first point- that a foetus doesn’t have human emotions. I’m not even going to begin getting in on that debate, but all the points I’ve just made about human value still stand.

The more I think about it the more I think I actually feel sorry for Richard Dawkins. (As well as being furious and angry with him.) The beauty of humanity is its richness and its depth. It’s in something so simple as experiencing excitement, or knowing peace, or being so closely entwined with others and yet still being able to learn something new and delightful in each other.

Professor Dawkins is missing this and this is both a great travesty and a complete outrage.

 

Here is a great article in response to Dawkins written by a mother of a girl with Down’s Syndrome:

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/hayley-goleniowska/richard-dawkins-down-syndrome_b_5697336.html?1408622091&ncid=tweetlnkushpmg00000067

 

The Autism Files: Where’s Wally?

Do you like Where’s Wally books?

I personally hate them. If I can’t find him within seconds then I get frustrated and annoyed and usually end up slamming the book and chucking it down in a thoroughly bad mood.

A lot of people with autism view the world from a different perception from most other people. (Please note that although I am making generalised statements, I am also careful to say ‘most people’ or ‘a lot of people’ because of course there will be wide variations within people.) One of the areas in which many people with autism are different is their visual perception of details. Many people with autism have a very good eye for details. They may be able to find a dropped hair pin quickly. Or notice changes in a room’s decor or layout that are quite subtle.

Uta Frith (a developmental psychologist) talks about how many people with autism are exceptionally good at finding Wally quickly. She has put forward a theory termed ‘central coherence’ which refers to the ability to see the bigger picture. For a lot of people with autism, this is something that they find very difficult. Their attention to and focus on detail can result in not being able to ‘see the wood for the trees’. So while someone with autism might be able to find Wally really quickly, they might also struggle to give a wider perspective on what is happening across the whole picture. Likewise someone with weak central coherence might struggle to understand the gist of a story, a comic or a conversation because they can only focus on the individual details.

Apply this to the perception of the every day world and I think you’ve got a recipe for very anxious living. You might have read my earlier sentences about being able to find things quickly and thought that sounded like a good trait to have. And it would be. But imagine if you could never turn it off. If every single thing, situation and environment that you looked at was made up of each tiny detail. I think this would be exhausting and stressful. If you looked at someone’s hair and didn’t just see ‘hair’ but saw each individual strand. And if any of those strands were out of place or twisted and that bothered you, this could become highly distressing.

Someone once told me of a young man who simply could not walk into the living room of his own house after an armchair had been moved from one side of the room to the other. His central coherence was so weak that once the chair had moved, the room was no longer his own living room. He could not enter it because it was not the room he had expected it to be.

There are two faces to every coin, and two sides to every story. For people with autism there might be some benefits to being able to focus so intensely on details- this article suggests that people with autism are more skilled at using airport screening cameras for example. But there are also complex difficulties with not being able to read or understand generalised concepts and situations, and the immense stress that can come from having to focus in on every little detail of every single thing you see.

Related articles:

http://www.springerreference.com/docs/html/chapterdbid/334619.html

http://autism.about.com/od/causesofautism/a/AutismBrain.htm

http://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science-news/small-study-suggests-adults-autism-excel-screening-tasks