joni

My ten-month-old (as of tomorrow) baby is officially mobile. She’s learned to crawl and although she tends to give up quite quickly, becoming distracted by a piece of fluff rather than exerting herself and retrieving the fun toys that i’ve grabbed to lure her, she occasionly moves quite fast. Like in the bathroom earlier, when she spotted a toilet roll and lurched across the (albeit one-metre-squared) floorspace to unravel it before I could stop her. And so another chapter begins. No more axes (for wood-chopping) on the sitting room floor, the wood burner needs a guard, the Nurofen on my bedside table will be promoted to the ‘medical box’. (This is the first medical box i’ve ever had. Becoming a mum made me feel as if I should up my game in this department.)

I knew that Joni would crawl – a friend brought round his ‘cage’ a few months ago for this eventuality – but I didn’t realise how exciting it would be to watch her becoming increasingly independent. People photograph the first smile, film the first steps and record first words but there are other little milestones that I hadn’t – pre-Joni – given any thought to. And they matter too. Well, to immediate family and very generous friends they do, anyway. These are them… 

Rolling over 

This is a big deal in the baby world. Newborns spend their days being cradled or lying on their backs but then suddenly they learn to flip their little bodies over, ending up in a yogic seal pose: arched back; big eyes beaming up at you. It’s something of a triumph. For you both. 

First murmurs 

First words are wonderful but long before that happens the baby goes from a nearly non-verbal being to one who makes sweet cooing sounds, as if she’s singing. Until now, crying has been the only sound they’ve made so this is literally music to your ears. 

First time they reach for an object

We naively attached a brightly-coloured mobile to Joni’s car seat when she was a few days old. We thought she might like to play with it while we drove – alas, she wasn’t in the slightest bit interested, as all she wanted was to do was cry as loudly as possible until she was no longer in the car. But one day, she reached for the dragonfly dangling above her and started to find it fun. Watching her interact with a toy was very sweet. And an end to the constant crying was pretty sweet too. 

Holding a bottle 

Another distraction for car journeys was bottles of water or milk. But it meant me doing my ninja dive onto the back seat to feed her. So when she took it off me and began feeding herself I was both amazed and relieved. Another step towards independence. 

Sitting up 

After learning to roll over, babies learn to sit up. This changes your life immeasurably as they can now be dumped in the highchair, or popped on the floor anywhere; giving your arms and back a break. Joni seemed very pleased with herself when she learned this skill around Christmas.

So I guess the next recognised milestone is walking. But i’m looking forward to the little, less-acknowledged accomplishment that will precede it. Now excuse me while I grab Joni’s ankles to stop her from crawling out the front door.      

During pregnancy I relished the weekly emails I received from the NHS about the development of my baby. They were always spot-on; offering perfectly-timed information about both the baby and me. I also dipped into online forums for quick answers to any questions I had. But I avoided ‘how to’ books on pregnancy and parenting because I wanted to work it out for myself, at my own pace. 

Whenever i’ve had a practical question and haven’t wanted to go to the doctor or health visitor (which is always because I never want to go to either) i’ve gone to my mum. That’s probably why we started off feeding Joni puréed food rather than opting for the popular baby-led weaning. Basically, all the things I think my mum did really well for me when I was growing up, I want to repeat. 

For people who don’t have a network of mothers around them to answer their questions, ‘how to’ books (ie. how to breastfeed, sleep train – or not – co-sleep, feed your baby etc) may offer some reassurance. But I can’t help but wonder if – on the whole – they actually confuse, rather than help, new parents. 

When using forums, mum-friends, our own mothers/ aunts/ sisters for advice, there will be a variety of ideas about everything but then you can pick and choose. In contrast, a ‘how to’ book suggests that there is only one way. It acts as a bible and the fact that it has been scribed by a ‘professional’ makes it seem more legitimate, so people are being led to believe that these pages can actually transform them from a tired, emotional, confused, scared parent into a sleeping, head-strong, fearless parent with a clear vision. 

I may only be nine months into this parenting game but one thing I know for sure is that no parent feels that way all the time. What’s more, how can the author of a book offer you sage advice for rearing a baby s/he has likely never met? Your mum’s met your baby. And your friends have too. So when Joni, aged five and a half months, was up feeding for two hours during the night and my parents wondered if she was hungry for something more filling than breastmilk, they were looking at me and Joni and making a sensible suggestion. They waited for me to ask, which is important – ‘cos I don’t know any new mum who wants unsolicited advice – and then jumped at the chance to tell me that she was probably ready for proppa grub.

We mashed up some veg, gave it to her, she spat it out, we tried again the next day and eventually she started gobbling it down. She also stopped waking for those epic night feeds. Then we started to introduce lumps and to give her pieces of banana to feed herself. She loves it. So feeding = tick. With no book consulted. 

Next came sleeping. We wanted to be able to get Joni off without me nursing her to sleep (ie. feeding her from my breast until she dropped off into a milk-induced-coma) and to sleep through. This is where the books really fuck with your head. I know this because at 4am one morning, I ordered one from Amazon. I was desperate for sleep. Sleep book sales must peak at ungodly hours as blurry-eyed, sleep-deprived parents decide they can no longer cope and will pay for any help they can get. Only, it’s not help. Because it’s talking about a baby that doesn’t exist, or belongs to the author, or a sleep clinic trial – and how that baby learned to sleep.

So I read a few pages of this book, freaked out that Joni’s naps were all at the wrong time, decided that I was terribly disorganised and failing at motherhood and stopped reading. Then I realised that the book was the failure, not me. I talked to Rich and we decided to try our own techniques – after all, we know Joni better than anyone else. We soon found our own solution. She now gets herself to sleep and stays in her cot from 7pm until 7am. This might change, but we’ve had about four delightful months of it and can now cope with unsettled periods, as and when they arise, with the knowledge that all babies eventually get themselves to sleep and sleep through. Joni has done it before, she can do it again. You don’t need a book to tell you that. 

The ‘how to’ books instil fear and then offer solace. So the author might (as was the case with the one I read) say that your baby will never sleep through the night if they aren’t napping properly. That means three naps, at the same time each day, in the cot. Not in the buggy, or your arms, or the car. So if you stay in all day, everyday – and DO NOT nurse your baby to sleep, or leave them to cry – they’ll nap perfectly and then sleep through the night. Except that’s not telling me how to get my baby to sleep. The author can’t tell me that because there’s no one secret solution. It’s all trial and error. I walked for miles to get Joni off in the buggy, delighted when she snoozed in the car and used my breast to send her off every night. Until one night when I put her down awake and she went off in her own so I knew she could do it. Since then, she’s had her boob/ bath/ book routine and gone to bed awake, had a moan then dropped off. It comes with age (of baby), patience and not listening to the ‘experts’. But mostly, it comes from using your intuition and instinct – those invaluable things all parents have but that we’re taught, by the ‘gurus’, to ignore. 

I recently had a weaning conundrum. I have no idea how much milk Joni drinks each day so couldn’t work out how much formula she’ll need when I ease off breastfeeding. Google couldn’t give me a satisfactory answer to my simple – but important – question so I emailed a wise mother of two little ones whose advice I know I can trust. She instantly replied with the exact info I was after: follow-on milk, three small bottles a day – and with no ambiguity or judgement. Other mothers are a most valuable resource.

And lastly, my latest problem: Joni biting me when she breastfeeds. I read that your baby might bite you once but your reaction will be so strong that they’ll never do it again. Only, that’s not true. Joni bites me all the time when she’s teething. It isn’t excruciating but i’d prefer if it wasn’t happening. As this dilemma is relatively new, i’m yet to find a solution so answers on a postcard, please. But just don’t point me toward a bloody book.

Mastitis: a pain in the tits

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Minutes after Joni was born she managed to locate my nipple and latch on for her first milk feed. She was a hungry baby and breastfeeding got off to a good start. Bar the usual early niggles (sore nipples, baby needing constant feeding), Joni took to it well and so did I. Then on about week three, a friend mentioned this infection called mastitis. She told me that when her son was a tiny baby she began to feel unwell, developed a fever and flu-like symptoms (achey, knackered) and had to go to bed. It was to do with a blocked milk duct. Gosh, that sounds terrible, I said.

A few days later I was having a lovely picnic with my mum and sister in Epping Forest. We sat on a rug in dappled shade cooing over Joni. When my back started to ache, unbearably, I put it down to carrying around a heavy baby. But when my right boob also started aching, I felt sick and left my dinner untouched so that I could go to bed, a little bell rang. I spent the night sweating and shivering, and the following morning at the emergency doctor’s surgery, waiting for three hours until they prescribed me antibiotics. I was worried about taking them, as I thought it might interfere with breastfeeding – which was now painful as it was inflamed from the mastitis – but the doctor said it wouldn’t clear up on its own.

I spent the next few days feeling like shit – trying to celebrate my birthday belatedly, as i’d spent it in labour. And then the infection left my breast and I was fine. (Antibiotics didn’t interfere with breastfeeding).

Around six weeks post partum, I got back into running. I left Joni with my mum and dashed around the park, feeling elated as endorphins rushed through my body. I waited a day then ran again – about two miles. But the next day I felt a familiar aching and tiredness. My boob hurt. Mastitis was back. I panicked, tried to get a doctor’s appointment but couldn’t and decided to treat it myself. A combination of cabbage leaves in my bra, hot compresses, baths, loads of rest and plenty of water cured it.

A couple of weeks later I began running again. A few days later mastitis returned. And this pattern repeated three more times until I (begrudgingly) stopped running. I found that running helped when I’d had a bad night’s sleep; the cold morning air woke me up and raising my heartbeat filled me with energy – but it wasn’t worth risking illness. My body was clearly saying: slow down, you’ve just given birth and you’re still breastfeeding a big baby on demand. I had tried three different sports bras but it didn’t make a difference. I also expressed before heading out. Apparently, it can be the arm motion blocking the ducts – but mostly, it’s the body rejecting over-exertion.

An unhelpful NCT breastfeeding counsellor sat watching me breastfeed when Joni was about five weeks old and our group met up. After hearing i’d had mastitis, she told me the latch wasn’t right, ie. I wasn’t feeding Joni properly. I told her i’d had three midwives check and they all thought it was fine. She then changed her mind and said it was good. I remember feeling pissed off that she was sat watching and judging me – new mums can be very self-conscious in those early weeks – and also that she had got it wrong. It didn’t feel helpful, it felt intrusive. The latch was fine – the mastitis was down to trying to do far too much too soon (exercise, cleaning the house, lifting heavy things).

And i’m writing this post for three reasons. 1. So that anyone reading who is breastfeeding and begins to feel the beginnings of mastitis will know what’s happening to them. 2. Because it’s so important to rest and recuperate after giving birth. Some women get back in to running but i’d say start really slowly and stop if your body isn’t coping and 3. because rather than taking antibiotics, which isn’t ideal for mum or baby, it’s possible to cure blocked ducts and mastitis naturally. Feed through it (it won’t hurt for long), stick cold cabbage leaves in your bra (Savoy is best, not sure why – but it worked for me), use hot compresses (a flannel soaked in hot water pressed against your breast, or a hot water bottle), drink loads of water and chill the fuck out. The last instruction is the most important. But if it’s not clearing up after this, best to check with the doctor because i’m not one.

I hope someone else can learn from my mistakes. And happy breastfeeding – it’s such a beautiful way to bond with your baby, even if it does take a while to get into the swing of it.

Joni smaller

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.

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.