My furry ball of wool

I am the needle, with you as my thread;
separate beings but where I go, you’re led.
In those early days, when you were curled up small,
i’d wrap you up in blankets, or muslin to keep you cool.
You were complex and compact, like tightly wound yarn,
and each cry required fixing, so I learned to darn.
We were bonded – and bonding – every waking hour;
you’d wail for my body when I was in the shower
and you’d yearn for my milk as I closed my eyes to sleep
but when nestled near my breast, I wouldn’t hear a peep.
You could say we’re in a bubble – but it’s more a ball of wool
that will slowly be unravelled: you’re the thread and I’m your spool.
I will guide you like a needle, keep you grounded like a bobbin,
let you run, explore, be free –
but keep you safe and bound to me.

by Annie Ridout

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My daughter Joni has just turned six months. She is suddenly sitting up at the table with us, shovelling down porridge, pureed kale and beetroot, pear & potato soup, sleeping through the night and making me laugh, cry and gasp – constantly.

This morning I was reflecting on our (/her) journey thus far; remembering the colicky evenings of early months, the piercing cries when we tried to take her around the supermarket in her buggy and the CONSTANT need for milk – like, every 30 minutes throughout the summer. Lanolin became my best friend.

Of course, there is also the first time your baby rolls over unaided – I turned around and Joni was suddenly in a yogic seal pose, big eyes beaming up at me – her first giggle (when I accidentally tickled her) and all sorts of other beautiful, magical, joyous moments. But these moments stay with you, ingrained in your memory, and that’s why I was contemplating the more challenging times. When you’re in the midst of the sleepless nights, hysterical crying and refusal to settle, it feels like it will NEVER end. But it does. And then you forget all about it. I’ve even gone as far as to tell friends that Joni never cried at night. I actually believed that to be the truth, until Rich gently reminded me that it was a big, steaming pile of babyshit.

When the colic arrived – very suddenly, one evening, as our sweet relaxed baby became inconsolable unless my nipple was in her mouth at all times – we panicked. What the hell do you do with a baby who won’t stop crying? Well, just feed her constantly we decided. But this meant feeding her all evening without a moment to myself. I couldn’t go to the toilet without her. Someone said: don’t worry, it only lasts a couple of months. A COUPLE OF MONTHS, we said; we were hoping a couple of hours. Then around three and a half months, it stopped. She was suddenly happy in the evenings.

We went through the same thing with sleepless nights, as in: baby up every hour wanting to feed or be comforted. We were lucky that Joni actually loves her sleep so we haven’t had too many of these but they’re torturous.

And the feeding. I was told by a midwife at the hospital that as Joni was a big baby, i’d need to supplement my breast-milk with formula. I wanted to fully breastfeed so ignored her advice and it turns out she was wrong – I didn’t need to supplement – but Joni did have a seemingly insatiable appetite. Until one day, when she started taking more during each feed and only needed my boob once every couple of hours.

When I think back to the more difficult times I feel like Joni barely demands anything now, which is obviously quite far from the truth – but it just does get So. Much. Easier.

And so for all those new parents wondering if they’ll ever sleep again, get to go to the supermarket without whistling, cooing and trying anything to calm a manically crying baby, and hoping their nipples won’t forever burn and ache – don’t worry: it will soon be a (relative) walk in the park. And you’ll be forgetting all the hard bits and remembering the amazing bits and telling your friends a whole load of lies about how your baby has never cried, was sleeping through the night from birth and had a feeding routine down as soon as she popped out.

Motherhood has changed me

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Towards the end of my pregnancy, Rich and I began wondering how we’d change after the birth of our baby. We questioned whether we’d find the same jokes funny. A friend reassured us, confidently: “Of course you’ll find the same jokes funny!” and she was right – Joni was born and we were pleased to note that we’d each retained a sense of humour. We still found farts – and other basic humour – hilarious.

But as the months go by (we’re approaching Joni’s fifth month) I’ve been noting the changes in me. Because whilst Rich and I still communicate in the same way, make each other laugh, enjoy film and art, take an interest in current affairs – I feel that having a baby has altered my sense of self quite profoundly.

It’s the small, unexpected changes that I find most interesting. I knew my body would be changed by the pregnancy and birth – for one, I now have a belly layered with stretch marks – so I was prepared for this. What I wasn’t prepared for were the following…

1. Sensitivity to sound

At first, most newborns will sleep soundly anywhere. They’ll fall asleep on your chest and lie there for hours. They’ll sleep in the car, the pram, the moses basket, the sofa, your bed. Anywhere. But then they become more awake and alert; fascinated by the world – and so the silhouette of a tree might prevent them from falling asleep on a walk, or a flashing light will jolt them from slumber.

But the biggest sleep preventer, for Joni, is noise. I’ll put her down to nap, leave the room and accidentally drop my keys on the floor. BANG – awake. So i’ve taken to walking around the house with my index finger perpetually affixed to my pursed lips, going “shhhhh!”. It might be good practise to make noise while a baby naps in the day but I don’t give a shit – we’re all a lot happier when Joni’s had a decent nap.

2. A deeper interest in maternal lineage

As I navigate blindly through the misty landscape of motherhood, I’m often looking to my mum for guidance. Not always asking her for it immediately, but instead imagining how she might have dealt with certain situations. And then I go to her for clarification – often asking about my grandmother and what she would have done, too. I cherish my maternal lineage and the qualities in my mum and grandma that I hope have been embedded in me, so that I can pass them on to Joni. Becoming a mother has reminded me of the time, love and nurturing that my own mum put in to raising me. And her mother before that.

3. Risk assessing

A friend told me recently that the way a new mother’s brain functions could be compared to a psychotic brain. The constant risk assessments – “if she’s not strapped into her buggy properly, a car might career off the road (a drunk driver?) and she’ll fall out and die. But if she is securely buckled in, the whole thing will fly in the air and i’ll dive towards it to make sure it lands safely” – can torment a new mother on every outing. This is in stark contrast to my previously lackadaisical attitude to being a pedestrian. But it is a necessary aspect of parenting: protecting our helpless babies from external dangers.

4. Next level organisation

I thought I was organised before Joni came along but that was NOTHING. These days, an appointment without her means getting up early to express milk, storing it in the fridge until it’s time to leave, making sure the nappy bag is full of outfit changes, wipes, muslins, nappies – and enlisting the help of Rich or my mum, who’ll need to be available to look after her while I go in.

And then there’s the multi-tasking. Try holding a baby on your hip while running a bath (and monitoring the temperature carefully, as it can’t be above 37 degrees), going to the toilet – as bath will inevitably lead to a long feed so no escape – preparing bed clothes and shutting the curtains.

5. Feeling more spiritual and connected to the earth

Having Joni has made me acutely aware of London’s pollution, of people smoking, of chemicals, of waste. It’s made me look at the planet differently because I want Joni to live a long, healthy life in this beautiful world; and her children, and their children. It’s no longer just about my generation. And so while i’ve always respected the earth, I find myself making even more effort to be less wasteful and more green.

It’s also reignited my spiritual self. I’m more in tune with the earth’s energies. I’m contemplating life and death and connectivity. I see auras and believe in karma, once again.

6. Putting someone else first

I’d heard other people say that once you’ve had a baby, they will always come first. But it’s an abstract concept until you look into the eyes of your newly-born flesh and blood. Suddenly you hardly matter at all; all that matters is this new being. Some mothers aren’t prepared to relinquish their centre-of-my-own-and-everyone else’s-world throne for their baby and this is what makes them resent becoming a parent. But they are the minority. Most mums would give their own life in an instant to save their child’s life. It’s a truly unconditional love.

I’m sure i’ll continue to change with each new beautiful moment or challenge that motherhood throws my way. My essence remains unaltered but I feel there’s a new layer on top, and some deeper layers that have resurfaced. And I wouldn’t forfeit any of it.

It’s National Poetry Day. Here’s one that resonates with me today…

If—
BY RUDYARD KIPLING
(‘Brother Square-Toes’—Rewards and Fairies)

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

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Obvious Child – a witty, touching romcom written and directed by Gillian Robespierre – has been nicknamed the ‘abortion romcom’. But this isn’t quite accurate. It’s a comedy, yes, but the jokes revolve around the seemingly doomed love life of a twentysomething woman and materialise in her self-deprecating one-liners. There are very few jokes about the actual act of terminating a pregnancy.

The narrative arc begins with stand-up comic and book shop assistant Donna’s discovery of an unwanted pregnancy, followed by the ‘will she/won’t she’ conflict and the resolution is an abortion. Comedy does weave in and out of the dialogue but to dub the film ‘abortion comedy’ makes light of Robespierre’s courageous decision to tackle one of the most taboo feminist issues of today.

According to Guttmacher Institute, ‘half of pregnancies among American women are unintended, and four in 10 of these are terminated by abortion’. So it’s fairly common. Why, then, does this remain such a touchy topic, and one that is most often excluded from contemporary arts? Perhaps it’s because acknowledging a woman’s right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy means giving women power and in patriarchal Hollywood, this doesn’t sit comfortably.

That’s why it’s such a triumph that the film, which made it to Sundance following a successful Kickstarter fundraising campaign, has been a resounding box office hit. You see, people are ready to talk about feminist issues – and they’re ready to admit that women are funny too. Well, some of them are.

I found the film sensitive, endearing and empowering to watch. The writing is intelligent, the acting is great – particularly Jenny Slate’s portrayal of Donna – and it is genuinely funny. But most importantly: it makes you think. It takes you on Donna’s journey and challenges you to put yourself in her shoes – what would you do if you found yourself pregnant from a one-night-stand?

While abortion may be legal, common and perfectly reasonable subject matter for a film – let’s not forget that it’s a difficult, painful decision to make; and it’s rarely taken lightly. But we all respond differently to traumatic situations. Some might cry, others will become introspective and withdrawn – and others make jokes to ease their inner turmoil.

What makes Obvious Child so realistic is that it cleverly depicts the complex emotions Donna is experiencing. It doesn’t trivialise abortion; it documents how one woman deals with it – and that happens to be by turning it into a big joke.

Thankfully, Robespierre didn’t opt for a trite Sex and the City-esque monologue, detailing every last thought flying through Donna’s mind, to demonstrate her inner distress – instead she found clever, alternative ways to hint at it. Like the single tear that wells up in each eye as Donna lies in surgery, waiting for the anaesthetic to kick in before the procedure. Whoops – spoiler alert. But you may as well go in knowing that the outcome won’t necessarily be everyone’s idea of a happy ending. For me, it is the perfect ending because women should absolutely have the right to terminate or to go through with a pregnancy – and Obvious Child simply documents one example of the former.

Following her termination, Donna sits in the recovery room surrounded by other young women in gowns. This scene is poignant, as it addresses the fact that abortion really is commonplace. It’s happening every day. And the patriarchy, Hollywood and the anti-choice brigade ought to get used to it.

As Paul Simon says in the song that the film title is derived from, The Obvious Child: ‘I don’t expect to be treated like a fool no more’. We’re hearing you Paul – and neither do us laydees. We’ve had enough of being told what to do with our bodies and we’ve had enough of being dictated to about which subject matter is appropriate to discuss. Good on Robespierre for going with her heart and creating such a compelling piece of art.

Back on track

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The moment I found out I was pregnant with Joni – after weeing on a stick and seeing two blue lines appear – I went for a run. It was early, around 6.30am, so Rich was sleeping. I remember it being a cool September morning with a clear blue sky and the sun just beginning to shine. I ran fast through the streets of Walthamstow, elated, a new bounce in my step.

I’d been running daily, between three and seven miles, for five years. Nothing put me off – i’d be out there with severe hangovers, in torrential rain, on icy winter pavements, in the blisteringly hot Sicilian morning sun. I love running. I love feeling my heart beat fast, my body warming up – and perspiring – controlling my breath so that i’m not panting. I love crunching the auburn autumn leaves with my heel, feeling the sting of a December morning on my cheeks, running under a pink sky as the sun begins to rise and darting past newly blooming spring flowers.

So when, at 8 weeks gestation, I developed bad morning sickness – throwing up from the moment I rose until midday, sometimes longer – I was fairly disappointed that I could no longer go for my morning run. I assumed that the sickness would ease at 12 weeks (that’s what everyone tells you) and that i’d then be able to run again – but mine continued until week 30.

To plan b: swimming. I realised I could swim through the sickness if I had a small snack first thing, so from then on I swam between 30 and 60 lengths every weekday morning. If I felt particularly weak, tired or sick – i’d take it easy, but often I felt amazing in the water so i’d take to the fast lane and swim front crawl – much to the surprise/ dismay/ disgust of fellow swimmers who assumed pregnant women are disabled by the foetus growing inside them – until I hit a (metaphorical) wall. I was still swimming up to, and past, my due date. I could see the man on the front desk growing increasingly concerned as my bump got bigger and bigger and I kept appearing. He’s Chinese and explained that in his culture pregnant women stay at home, sometimes in bed, for the last few months.

Swimming helped me to maintain a decent level of fitness throughout my pregnancy. I felt heavy and tired towards the end, but never breathless. And so after giving birth, I spent the first two weeks resting and doing pelvic floor exercises (SO important – if you don’t want piss yourself when jumping/ sneezing/ laughing etc for the rest of your life) then I began doing gentle pilates, using YouTube videos, and baby yoga classes. At six weeks I got back into the advanced pilates I was practising pre-pregnancy and today, at 12 weeks postpartum, I went for my first run.

As well as being my first post-birth run, it was the first time i’ve been separated from Joni. I left Rich with two bottles of expressed milk and a recently-fed, chirpy baby and set off. I was wearing my new Nike running trainers from Runners Need, chosen by the assistant after she watched how my feet landed when I jogged on a treadmill, and a very supportive Nike sports bra. As I ran along the pavement and into Priory Park, I was surprised by how comfortable it felt to run. Then after a half a mile, I felt a burn in my throat. It reminded me of when I first started running and all the shit that had settled in my lungs was pushed up into my throat. That’s why runners spit. So I spat, did some stretches and set off again. I went round the park three times (about 5k), stopping to catch my breath and stretch, remembering little tricks like arching your back for a burst of energy (yoga tip), then spotted a dodgy geezer lurking in the Philosopher’s Garden and sprinted back home to safety. Feeling a bit scared always helps me to pick up speed.

At home I warmed down, did half and hour of pilates then showered. And I’m still feeling HIGH an hour later, as Joni feeds and I write this.

So good to be running again.

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Yesterday morning, Joni and I got up early for our first trip into town without Rich. This may sound like a simple task but when you have a big heavy buggy to lug up and down stairs, potential mid-journey meltdowns or nappy disasters and a baby who likes to feed a lot – it takes some planning. Basically, disaster could strike at any time.

Fortunately, the 91 goes from Crouch End – where we’re staying – all the way to Trafalgar Square. So we hopped on and Joni had a feed which, along with the vibrations of the bus, lulled her into a deep sleep for the duration of the journey. I sat reading my book: Blueprints for Better Girls by Elissa Shnappell – a great collection of short stories about women and girls – waiting for that meltdown, or nappy disaster, but it didn’t happen.

We got off on The Strand, walked through a bustling Charing Cross station and over the Golden Jubilee bridges – posing for a photo, bopping to the steel drums and then delighting at the discovery of a lift to take us to ground level – and walked down the river to the BFI.

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We met our friends for a coffee then the three mums pushed the three babies back towards Southbank Centre, feeling like a power buggy brigade. Feeling like those mums. But whatever – spirits were high, the sun was shining and the babies were all being lovely and smiley and calm.

As part of Southbank’s Festival of Love, the Heartbreak Hotel – a 70s motel – has been set up in Festival Village, under Queen Elizabeth Hall. The theme is the brainchild of Lyn Atelier – and Walthamstow’s neon sign maker-extraordinaire, Chris Bracey, designed a whopping bright sign for it:

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We had a soda water at The Department of Cheer, a pop-up bar, though the strong smell of mint and ginger suggested a mojito might have been the drink to opt for if you’re not a breastfeeding mum. But they did their best to jazz up our non alcoholic drinks with fresh lime. That was after walking through The Museum of Broken Relationships

I’ve wanted to see this touring exhibition for years. The curators ask people to donate relics from past relationships that they no longer have any use for. So there are kinky handcuffs, an unworn hand-sewn wedding dress, shoes, a wedding ring and lots of other memorabilia.

With each object, the previous owner has scribed a note explaining the significance. Some are so sad – tales of broken hearts, lost love and adultery abound. Some are humorous (the ones about sex). But all touch a nerve, because most of us have been in that position when a relationship ends: what to do with the photos, presents, letters – burn them? Keep them in a box? Donating them to this museum seems like a good option, as you’re letting go – but without the rage of destroying your material memories, or the secretiveness of keeping them stored away.

On the same floor, there’s an installation homage to the problem pages of 70s teenagers. Dear Cathy and Claire: an Exhibition of Letters to Jackie Magazine’s Famous Agony Aunts is exactly what you’d predict: lots of letters. But they’re displayed in a mock 1970s office – brown with patterned wallpaper, typewriters and desk lamps. And they’re rather funny to read.

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After a discussion about what we’d each done with the physical remnants of past relationships, we headed to Canteen for lunch before going our separate ways.

Joni slept most of the day – just waking for feeds and to have a little look around – and I was pleasantly surprised by all the lifts and ramps, which make Southbank really accessible and buggy-friendly. It wasn’t until we reached the front door that she began to CRY so I hurriedly pulled the buggy in, slammed the door and tended to her, feeling grateful that she’d held out all day.