Lost in Lactation: Miserable musings of a moaning mum

plastic bags stuck in branches

How my mind feels sometimes! Credit: Cinto2 License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Lost. I feel so lost. Like I put myself down somewhere and I can’t for the life of me think where. Glimmers of my former self are scattered all around the place. Like discarded rags, unopened bottles of ketchup and half empty beer cans. That’s what it feels like inside. And it smells. The stale, dank smell of something festering.

I used to do brilliant things. I’m sure I did. And I know they’re out there somewhere. But right now I’m struggling to see beyond the end of the day, let alone imagine the life I’d like post-having-Zephyr.

I’d heard people talk about the sacrifices they make when they have children but I never really knew what they meant. I think I just assumed I’d be able to carry on doing most of the things I did, only with a little person in tow. But now I realise I can’t do everything AND be the mamma I want to be. I simply don’t have the time.

I feel frustrated because I know I have much to offer. And I feel trapped because all I can see are endless days of reading stories, changing nappies, driving to this activity and that, and the long afternoons waiting for Daddy to come home.

Then I feel guilty because of course I love my son and I desperately wanted a baby but I wasn’t really prepared for the sense of loss I now feel for my former life, my former freedom.

I know it’s a phase. I know it will pass. I know that as soon as I can lift my head out of the quagmire I’ve allowed myself to become embroiled in, things will start to look brighter and the opportunities I’m seeking will emerge. Some time soon Zephyr will be able to spend time with a childminder and I will have pockets of time which I can use either to work or to invest in projects that will generate some income.

Oh to bring some money in! I’m not sure why (apart from the obvious fact that we need it) but it seems so important to me that I do this. Somehow I feel a deep urge to be able to contribute financially to the household coffers. Maybe it’s about equality or maybe it’s about having a sense of self-worth. I could analyse the whys and wherefores but frankly I don’t have the energy and the baby will be awake soon.

Certainly I need something to help me bring back my sense of myself. Anyone got any ideas? Answers on a postcard please.

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Fiery Fennel Pesto

I first discovered fennel pesto during a stay at Sunseed low-impact living centre in southern Spain, where there is an abundance of fennel along with its unmissable fuzzy fronds. This recipe is a great way to use up those fuzzy fronds. Plus, it’s super easy to make and really very good for you – especially if you suffer from digestive problems. It makes a surprisingly tasty alternative to bog-standard basil pesto, and this version with its fiery twist, really shakes things up a bit. Use it as a dip, spread it on toast or simply mix it with pasta for a quick, healthy, hearty meal.

Raw ingredients for basic fennel pesto

Basic fennel pesto ingredients

What you’ll need:

  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 30g sunflower seeds
  • 250ml olive oil
  • 50g fennel fuzz (just the wispy leaves, set aside the stalks)
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • 1 medium red chilli (finely chopped)
  • 20g parmesan (optional)

What to do:

  • Put the garlic cloves, sunflower seeds and olive oil in a food processor and blend until smooth
  • Add the fennel fuzz, lemon juice and salt and pepper, and whizz it all up again
  • Gradually add the chopped chilli, tasting as you go to make sure the heat is right for you.
  • If you so desire it, grate the parmesan straight into the food processor and whizz it up one last time
  • And hey presto… you have fiery fennel pesto!

If you like your pesto liquidy, simply add more oil. If you like your pesto sweet, add a handful of sultanas. And if you like your pesto cheesy, add more parmesan (or veggie cheese of your choice). Your pesto should last for a week or so in the fridge…
Mmm… yummy!

bowl of fiery fennel pesto

Fiery fennel pesto

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10 things I miss about life before parenthood

I’ve been a bit quiet on the writing front these past months – partly because I’ve been uber-busy, but also I realise, because I’m over the saccharine-coated “isn’t parenthood wonderful” phase and have waded head first into the quagmire that is raising a toddler.

This last week has been tough. And by tough I don’t mean it’s been difficult and challenging – although it’s been that too. I mean I’ve felt utterly emotionally exhausted, drained of all sense of myself and at times completely unable to cope. Now I’m not usually one to post self-indulgent “woe is me” status updates on Facebook, nor am I one to follow that entirely sensible but seemingly impossible to implement parenting advice to “sleep when the baby sleeps”. But last week I did both. Hell, I was crying when he cried so I may as well sleep when he slept!

I’m coming out of it now – there’s no way I could even contemplate writing anything when I was in the thick of it. But rather than try to find my way back to the “parenthood is wonderful” state, I thought I’d embrace the “parenthood is bloody tough and my life was way easier before” modus operandi. No doubt life will be wonderful again – Zephyr’s kisses in the morning give me at least a glimpse of that – but in the meantime, I thought I’d treat/torment (delete as appropriate) myself by dreaming about all the things I miss most about my life before parenthood.

…At 36 I’ve had plenty of time to go to all night parties and spend three days lying around feeling rubbish afterwards, so don’t expect me to pine over the loss of youthful indulgences. No, my list is far more mundane than that…

cartoon of a woman sitting on the toilet dreaming

Oh to poo in peace! Credit: Thirteen of Clubs License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

  1. Going to the toilet alone
    This has to be number one on my list. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a bloke and I don’t need half an hour in the bathroom, a good book and a strong coffee to aid me in my toiletry quest. In fact, I was fine for probably the first year – having a small person accompany me to the toilet barely registered. But after a while, it became too much. And then the lack of privacy in the bathroom became a symbol of the extent to which my body and my time no longer feel like my own. Oh to be able to poo in peace.
  2. Washing
    Yes, I miss washing. Sounds crazy huh? What kind of a smelly, unwashed bint am I? The truth is, my life with child feels so busy and my to do list so unmanageably long, that when Zephyr sleeps I prioritise work, admin or housework over washing. I guess it says a great deal about my sense of self-worth that responding to emails and sweeping the living room seems more important to me than a daily shower. By the way, I’m aware I may have lost many of you by now. I mean who on earth starts a blog post with details about their hygiene rituals? (My mum is not impressed but she probably balked so much at number 1 that she’s not actually made it this far)
  3. Dinner with a girlfriend
    Once I get past the trauma of having my absolutions disrupted by the practicalities of parenthood, I am able to start dreaming about the things I really miss. Like dinner with a girlfriend. Not as in eating food at the same time as a girlfriend, but actually going out for a meal and maybe even a few drinks, at an adult establishment, preferably one with a breakable vase and thin-rimmed drinking vessels on the table. Impossibly small taster portions with ridiculously named glazes and sorbet between courses would be just great. Thank you very much.
  4. Eating in peace
    Of course, a taster menu in an overly expensive Michelin-starred restaurant as described above is the holy grail. In actual facts, I’d be content with merely eating in peace. These days I find my meal is either interrupted by a waking baby (his timing is impeccable), delayed by a not yet sleeping baby, or poked and prodded by a wide awake, sitting on my lap baby.
  5. First-hand food
    This brings me nicely to my next point. Trying to ensure my fussy toddler consumes enough wholesome food to keep him alive feels like an ongoing battle. My efforts to feed him homemade humus, pates, pasties and general mush are thwarted on a daily basis, with the result being that he eats large amounts of bread and goats cheese whilst much of my food intake consist of a toddler’s half eaten meals. So fed up was I with eating second-hand food that the other day I actually served our visiting friends a selection of toddler leftovers for lunch. I wheeled out the mini-mezze serving platters and had I not told them, they would have been none the wiser.
  6. Not washing
    I know, I know – we already had “washing” and now we have “not washing”. Let me explain… Because we use cloth nappies, people frequently ask whether we have to do many more loads of washing than before. Well the answer is yes we do, but not because of the cloth nappies. Those account for one or two extra washes a week. Meanwhile, having a little person, generating mess on themselves, mess on me and mess on everything around them, has vastly increased my weekly washing portfolio. How I long for the days when I could wear a top for more than three hours before having to change it.
  7. My handbag
    Not being much of a make-up wearer, there was a time not so long ago when I used to go out with just a small purse. Nowadays, what with all the nappies, babywipes, snacks, sippy cup, milk bottle, teething paraphernalia and keep-em-amused toys and books, I almost need a 10 litre ruckack just to be able to leave the house. And that’s without thinking about the pushchair, sling or other child transporting device. I console myself with the thought that some time soon the nappies, wipes, milk and teething paraphernalia will be a thing of the past. But no doubt there’ll be other things to think about by then.
  8. Uninterrupted sleep
    If I cast my mind back I can just about remember the days of sleeping blissfully through an entire night, not waking once and opening my eyes through choice in the morning, rather than as a result of having a toddler sat on my head. Of course pining for sleep is the obvious parental woe and naturally everyone is different, but the parenting style we’ve chosen means we’re still co-sleeping and I’m still (just) breastfeeding. So I’ll have to wait a wee while longer before I can enjoy a full night of uninterrupted, unadulterated sleep.
  9. Weekend self-development workshops
    In a lot of ways, being a parent fits really nicely into my life right now. I don’t have a desire to work at a career full time and I did enough partying in my twenties and early thirties to last me until, well, at least next year. Plus my partner’s vocation means we go to a lot of festivals throughout the summer, so my socialising needs are well taken care of. What I really long for though is to be able to go off for a weekend and indulge myself in some kind of self-development workshop. A yoga retreat perhaps, connecting with nature at Embercombe, seeking out my authenticity with Jamie Catto or finding my feminine power with Jewels Wingfield. It seems such pastimes are not only the preserve of the middle classes but also of the responsibility-free.
  10. The absence of bits of stuff
    This is a funny one and, like all of the above, no doubt particular to me. Does anyone else find that little people come with bits of “stuff”. I have no idea where they come from but somehow there always seems to be bits of stuff around where babies and toddlers are involved. Sometimes it’s uneaten morsels of food, gloops of porridge and the like. Other times it’s lost items of clothing or the missing piece of a jigsaw. And sometimes it’s just random bits if fluff. It doesn’t really matter what it is or where it came from. It’s there. And it’s annoying. Oh for a life devoid of bits of stuff.

The list above is of course specific to my situation, my child and my parenting style. No doubt there are a whole host of other things that my fellow parents pine for, which I’ve not thought of or have yet to encounter. I’d love to hear the things you most miss about life before parenthood. If you feel to, please leave your comments below…. think of it as a much-needed, collective virtual moaning session!

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Baby First Aid: Getting to know the basics

Nathan practicing dealing with a choking baby

Nathan practicing dealing with a choking baby

It was when Zephyr started on solids that Nathan and I realised neither of us had much of a clue about first aid for babies. What on earth would we do if the little man was choking… or worse? Nathan’s very practical but was keen for some clear guidance and while the first aid course I did back in 1995 was comprehensive, it was also 20 years ago!

So, when we heard about a baby first aid course happening in a local village hall, we signed ourselves up. The course was put on by the British Red Cross, at the request of a couple of local mums who had identified a need in the area. It took up half a day (10am – 1.30pm), cost £45 per person (£10 for those on a low income) and covered everything you need to know to provide basic first aid for babies and children.

First Aid course trainer instructing participants

Our Red Cross trainer in action

The trainer from the Red Cross was knowledgeable and approachable and I would highly recommend booking on to one of their courses if you’re at all unsure of what to do in an emergency. Topics covered on the day we attended were:

Author holding practice dummy on its side

Me practicing what to do if a baby is unconscious but breathing

For each scenario we got to observe what to do, to have a practice and then to watch very well put together videos of impressively composed parents responding to emergencies. You can view the videos via the links above and find a whole host more on the Red Cross website, covering a range of topics from allergic reactions to nosebleeds. If you think you know roughly what you’re doing but want to refresh your memory, the videos are a great place to start. If on the other hand you’re someone who likes to have the information at your fingertips no matter where you are, you can download the Red Cross’ handy Baby and Child First Aid App direct to your phone. That’ll give you videos, animations and tips plus a handy hospital finder – in case there’s an emergency while you’re out and about – all for free. Either way, there’s plenty of information out there and a variety of ways to access it.

Man practicing mouth to mouth resuscitation on a dummy

Nathan practicing mouth to mouth resuscitation for a child

I know I sound like an advertisement for the Red Cross (no they didn’t pay me!) but their resources really are very good – and accessible no matter what your financial circumstances. And remember, if you want to attend a course but can’t find one in your area, it’s straightforward enough to organise one yourself… I’m certainly very grateful to the enterprising mums of Cheddar who organised ours!

It may have been several months into Zephyr’s young life before we managed to get it together and go on a course but it was worth it. We both feel much more confident and better resourced for it, and while we hope we’ll never need to use our newfound skills, we’re definitely glad we have them to draw on should the need arise.

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Easy peasy mushroom pâté

This recipe is so unbelievable easy that I make it most weeks. I’ve always been rubbish at keeping the kitchen stocked with quick, ready-to-eat foods but since becoming a near-constantly-hungry-breastfeeding-mum I’ve realised the importance of being able to access wholesome food at the drop of a hat.  And now that the little man’s onto solids and feeding himself, I’m enjoying experimenting with nutritious pâtés and pestos that can be kept in the fridge and are full of healthy and essential-for-growing-baby oils (did you know babies need more fat in their diets than we do?).

This mushroom and sage pâté is a great way of getting Zephyr to experience the yummy goodness of mushrooms without getting weirded out by the slimy texture.  And it’s the perfect finger food when combined with his favourite staple of the moment – a slice of bread!

The Recipe

…is vegan & gluten-free, makes 200g of pâté & takes 15-20 mins

mushroom pâté on toast

mmm… mushroom pâté on toast

What you’ll need…

  • 200g mushrooms
  • 1 small onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • a handful of sage
  • a glug of olive oil
  • a few grinds of black pepper

What to do…

  • Finely chop the onion and garlic
  • Place them in the pan with a glug of olive oil and fry them on a medium heat for 5 minutes
  • Meanwhile, roughly chop the sage and dice up the mushrooms nice and small
  • Add the mushrooms and sage to the pan and fry it all together for 10 minutes or until the mushrooms have shrunk down and softened
  • Transfer the mixture to a food processor and whizz up until the pate is of a spreadable-but-not-too-liquidy consistency
  • Add black pepper to taste (and olive oil in the unlikely event that you need to loosen it up)

Note: the trick to getting the perfect spreadable pâté-like texture is not to use too much oil – it’s tempting to poor over extra olive oil as the mushrooms are cooking but a wee glug at the beginning really is enough!

Finally, in case you didn’t know, here are some amazing mushroom facts:

  • Mushrooms are the only fruit or vegetable source of vitamin D (but only those grown in sunlight contain it, so for full effects make sure you use portabellos or other mushrooms that aren’t grown in the dark)
  • Mushrooms are jam-packed full of B vitamins including riboflavin, niacin and pantothenic acid
  • Mushrooms are great for boosting your immune system as they help to increase the production of antiviral and other proteins
  • Mushrooms are a good source of important minerals such as selenium, ergothioneine, copper and potassium
button mushrooms

button mushrooms Credit: Dawn Endico

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The forgotten side of the vaccines debate

balance scales

Credit: Jacqueline Tinney (under creative commons license)

The recent measles outbreak in the US has made it nigh on impossible to open a newspaper or participate in social media without facing a barrage of opinion pieces by people anxious to foist their strongly-held views about vaccination on others. Of course it’s for good reason that the subject occupies so many column-inches: it’s about our health – and not only that, it’s about the health of our children.

But there’s one side of the debate that’s getting ignored. In fact it’s not just getting ignored, it’s getting wholeheartedly drowned out. And that is the side of what I’ll call the ‘not just yetters’ or the ‘accidental non-vaxxers’. Now before you all clamber to deride me as an ignorant, selfish and irresponsible parent for not having yet vaccinated my 9 month old baby, perhaps you could take just a few moments to hear me out. Because I believe I am part of a not inconsequential group whose perspective is often overlooked and who can easily become hostages in the polarisation of the debate and as a result end up becoming non-vaxxers by default rather than design.

Most of the parents I know who have not yet vaccinated their children are ‘non-vaxxers’ not as a result of a vehemently strong opposition to vaccines but because they are genuinely unsure of what is best for their child so have held off on vaccinating until they have the answers they feel they need to make an informed decision. The trouble is, as any new parent knows, the first year of parenting is tough, and looking after a baby is all-consuming. New mums don’t have time to wash their hair – let alone do hours of research on relatively complex areas of scientific endeavour. Even if the information were clearly presented (which it’s not), the amount of time required to read through – and importantly digest – even the most rudimentary details about the history, safety, efficacy and component parts of each vaccine as well as the risk posed by the various diseases the vaccines are designed to combat, is way more than most of us new-on-the-job parents can cope with.

Now, before you jump angrily up to say ‘well, the rest of us managed’, or get on your high horse and propose mandatory vaccination as the solution, I would remind you that I’m merely informing you of a state of affairs that is the reality for some engaged, but not entirely convinced, parents. And whilst forced vaccination may seem a proportional response to an important public health issue, if this is your stance, it’s worth checking in with what kind of a society you want to live in – one that stifles questioners and stamps down differences of opinion, or one that seeks to engage with those who question, and provide transparent, balanced information as a means to improve understanding of the issues.

One thing that is evident from the current status of the vaccines debate is that it is extremely polarised. This means there is very little space for those of us who don’t entirely fit into either camp. As it stands, you’re either with us or against us. Pro- or anti- vaccine. And if you do decide to delay the start of your child’s vaccination schedule or to opt for specific immunisations, you quickly learn to keep your decision to yourself, not to talk to other parents about it for fear of being judged. It becomes your dirty little secret, which of course only further inhibits open discussion and hampers efforts by those seeking to educate themselves on the issues.

But it’s the vociferous mud-slinging (if you don’t vaccinate, you’re stupid, you’re selfish or you should be jailed) that really stifles meaningful engagement. The name-calling of all those parents who have chosen – at this stage – not yet to vaccinate, and the condemnation of us as bad parents, willfully neglecting our children and putting our lofty ideals before our children’s health, only serves to silence any potentially sensible discussion between those of varying persuasions. And as with any environment in which the middle ground is stamped down, the result is a hardening of opinions, with people forced to take more extreme positions than they otherwise would, and the loss of that valuable space in between in which dialogue happens and shared understanding can grow.

You see, not all of us are Andrew Wakefield sympathisers convinced of the link between MMR and autism. Parents’ concerns over vaccines are wide and varied. For some it is about safety, for others it’s about whether vaccines are really the ‘magic bullet’ we’re told they are. Some parents are worried about the quantity of vaccines given while others are concerned over the frequency. No doubt there are parents who have other reasons for holding off on immunisation, and still others who are worried about the whole lot of it and don’t know where to start in picking it all apart. Part of the problem is that vaccination policy takes a distinctly one-size-fits-all approach with a vaccination schedule that is the same for every child, despite the fact that human beings are not homogenous and people react differently to vaccines just as they do anything else. This uniformity in effect means that parents are not being asked to choose between vaccinating their child and not vaccinating their child – they’re being made to chose between one very specific vaccination schedule, and not vaccinating at all.

The lumping together of every parent who raises any kind of concern about the safety or desirability of vaccines is unhelpful and indeed counter-productive. – If, that is, your aim is to ensure the health of as many people as possible – as opposed to being driven by a need to loudly proclaim your righteousness. Even if you disagree with the validity of the concerns raised, it serves no one to dismiss them out of hand and deride those who express them without at least acknowledging that the plethora of information out there makes it difficult for parents to make easy decisions. Why can’t we admit that we don’t have all the answers? And recognise that those of us who are confused by it all need help in moving forwards – not accusations and finger-pointing?

It feels to me that the entire subject is enveloped in fear. Fear that our children will develop deadly diseases, fear that vaccines will cause our children to be ill or introduce toxins into their fragile bodies. Even writing this piece makes me feel fearful: fearful that my pro-vaccine friends will hate me for ‘selfishly’ not yet vaccinating my child and for questioning things they regard as obvious; and fearful that my anti-vaccine friends will shun me for giving ammo to the pro-vaccinators. No doubt, I’ll get shouted down by people who – despite my efforts to explain my need for space to understand it all – will feel the need to express their anger, point the finger and belittle me as ignorant. But I’m writing it anyway because I know I’m not alone in asking these questions and I’m tired of my voice not being represented in the myriad of articles on the subject.

The truth is, I’m scared. Scared that by not vaccinating my child at all I’d be putting him at risk. And scared that by vaccinating him I’d be putting him at even greater risk. I know I could never forgive myself if my actions caused him to become unwell, or worse. But is fear a good reason to vaccinate him? Is fear a good reason not to vaccinate him? Is fear ever a good reason to do anything?

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A triple chocolate fudge cake that’s actually good for you… raw, vegan, healthy & delicious!

a raw, vegan, triple, chocolate, 'fudge' cake

Triple chocolate ‘fudge’ cake… Happy Birthday to me!            Credit: Peter Cadney

Today is my birthday. Therefore I need chocolate cake. It is also, however, the month of January and like most people I know I’m on a health kick after the excesses of Christmas. But help is at hand… my good friend Peter has offered to make me a raw, vegan, triple chocolate ‘fudge’ cake… a birthday cake that’s not only decadently rich and super chocolately but is also good for me!

…Truth be known, he made me the chocolate cake over the weekend but it was so utterly yummy that we gobbled it all up forgetting to take any photos. Alas, we’ve had to make another one… Here’s how we did it:

The Recipe

…is vegan & gluten-free, makes a 7 inch cake & takes 45 mins plus freezer time

What you’ll need…

For the base:
100g walnuts
200g dates
40g roughly ground cacao nibs
Optional: pinch of salt

For the cake mix:
350g cashews
200g dates
1 avocado
40g cacao powder (or cocoa)
2 tablespoons of coconut oil
50g creamed coconut
3 tablespoons of maple syrup, honey, Xylitol or other sweetener
3 tablespoons of water
juice of a quarter of a lemon

For the frosting:
150g coconut oil
100g cacao powder (or cocoa)
2 tablespoons of maple syrup, honey, Xylitol or other sweetener
Optional topping: desiccated coconut or flaked almonds with a drizzle of honey

What to do…

To prep:

  1. Soak the cashews for at least an hour or overnight if you can
  2. Smear the cake tin with coconut oil (I use a silicone cake tin mould as it makes it very easy to pop the cake out when it’s done)

For the base:

  1. In a food processor, whizz up the walnuts until coarse, and set aside
  2. Whizz up the dates, until they form a sticky dough
  3. Using your hands, mix together the date dough, walnuts and roughly ground cacao nibs
  4. Once well mixed, transfer the mixture – by now the texture of sticky crumbs – into the coconut oiled cake tin; gently press it down but don’t be too overzealous as compressing too much will result in a solid rather than biscuit-like consistency

For the cake mix:

  1. On a low heat, warm the coconut oil and creamed coconut until dissolved
  2. Whizz up the cashews with the 3 tablespoons of water until it either forms a smooth paste or a sticky ball; set aside
  3. Whizz up the dates along with the avocado, the melted coconut oil and creamed coconut mixture, the lemon juice and the cacao powder… until smooth
  4. Then add in the cashew mixture and a sweetener of your choice to your taste (we used 3 tablespoons of maple syrup)
  5. Once well combined, spoon the cake mix on top of the base and smooth down using the back of a spoon

For the frosting:

  1. On a low heat, warm the coconut oil until dissolved
  2. Meanwhile, sift the cacao powder before adding it to the liquid coconut mixture
  3. Add sweetener of your choice to taste
  4. Stir well before spreading in a thick layer over the cake mix

To finish:

  1. If desired, sprinkle with desiccated coconut or flaked almonds and drizzle with honey
  2. Place in the freezer for 2-3 hours
  3. Remove from cake tin, cut into 12 hearty slices and dazzle your guests with the healthiest chocolate cake ever!
a slice of triple chocolate 'fudge' cake

Nom Nom Nom!          Credit: Peter Cadney

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Education: The burning question

a pile of booksIt dawned on me when my son was around three months old. I was sitting in an Irish pub with my son’s ‘step-granddad’, slowly supping a pint of Guinness, when the topic of schooling came up. As we shared our experiences of school, musing over the best and worst aspects, discussing the purposes of education and the unique challenges facing the next generation, the realisation hit me: education is another massive aspect of being a parent that I have yet to get my head around! It seems I’d been so preoccupied with nappies and breastfeeding and sleep and generally staying sane during those first months that I hadn’t really given the whole education issue much thought.

Of course, every parent knows their child needs an education and for most people in the UK, a day nursery and then school at 5 is a well-trodden route they’re happy to follow – particularly given time pressures and economic necessity. But as we chewed the cud that day, it occurred to me that if we want to give Zephyr the best possible start in life, my partner and I have got some hard thinking to do about the educational choices we make for our son. Considering the importance of education and the degree to which it shapes us and determines the ways we interact with the world over the course of our lives, it seems essential that as parents we fully engage with how our children are educated. To me, preparing Zephyr for life amidst both the chaos and potential of the 21st century feels like not only an enormous responsibility, but one that requires a very holistic approach. And I’m not entirely sure whether conventional schooling can deliver. So while the black stuff worked its iron-infusing magic, I found myself wondering what other options were out there… Montessori? Steiner? Community schools? Home schooling?

That conversation, Guinness and craic-fuelled as it was, really energised me. I started to get excited about exploring all the educational options available to us. And I began to see the potential in educating my child in a way that is tailored to his specific needs and interests and that takes a broader perspective than the seemingly rather narrow one offered by conventional education. I wondered whether it was possible to provide a child with an education which truly drew on his or her interests and strengths, and that worked with his or her preferred learning style. Could that education encompass the main subject matter required to be “successful” in the modern world, but also equip an individual with the skills and capacities necessary for navigating the challenges widely recognised as facing us in the 21st century and beyond? If we were to go down the home schooling route, would I, as a ‘parent-teacher’, be better placed to provide an education that offered engagement with the aspects of being human that tend to be at best overlooked by, and at worst stymied by, the public schooling system? Unencumbered by modern education’s obsession with grades, could I create a learning environment which prioritised enjoyment of the task over attainment of the grades? And would a child-led approach be more likely to encourage a proactive attitude to education and instil a lifelong love of learning? As all these questions and more swirled round my head, I determined to spend time researching optimal educational methods and alternatives to conventional education, and to embark on an exploration of holistic approaches to schooling children.

That was a few months ago when I was in the midst of what I now know to be the honeymoon period, reveling in the marvel of having brought a child into the world. Like most new parents I was full of ideas and ideals about how I’d like to bring up my child but the day-to-day realities of parenthood had not yet set in.  No doubt there will be people who deride my early parenthood musings over alternative education as the idealistic ramblings of a first time mum. But does it matter? I continue to feel enthused by the concept of home education and alternatives to conventional schooling and am keen to learn more. I am keeping an open mind about where my research will lead me and as I begin my journey with this I am reminded that it’s all too easy to write off embryonic ideas as naïve and impractical. After all, surely it’s only by giving space to that initial spark and by nurturing early impressions of what might be possible, that new and innovative ideas can start to take shape and in time bear fruit?

Idealistic beginnings, far from being a distraction or something to weather until the cynicism of middle age sets in, can be the stimulus required to set one on a path to active engagement in possible alternatives to the status quo. I remember the time when, as a young undergraduate I would argue passionately with my conservatively-minded uncle about the sorry state of the world and put my case for the necessity of and potential for change. He would inform me dismissively that I would grow out of my idealistic leanings, and – “just you wait and see” – I’d be on a straight, conventional path by the time I was 30. Thankfully, he was wrong, and I am not. I still have an active and inquiring mind, a propensity to question that which I don’t understand or which doesn’t sit well with me, and a belief that I am capable of finding the answers myself, given a little space and time.

And isn’t that – at least in part – what we hope our children will get from their education? Confidence and self-belief? A sense of active engagement in the world? And a desire to learn and to ask questions? These are the kind of qualities I think a good education combined with thoughtful parenting can instil, and which – alongside the right practical and intellectual tools and capacities – can enable a child to thrive, rather than just survive, in this complex and constantly changing world.

Meanwhile, the belittling of emergent ideas that run contrary to established ways of doing things remains an integral and indeed necessary aspect of maintaining ‘business as usual’. But when it comes to educating Zephyr, this only encourages me to go back to basics, to identify my core objectives in educating my child, to question the established tenets of education should they fall short of my child’s needs, and to seek out alternatives wherever I may find them.


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The big secret about becoming a mamma… and how you can prepare yourself!

If you were to position yourself discreetly in the corridors of maternity wards or between the biscuit jars at children’s centres around the country, you might be lucky enough to catch snippets of conversations between first time mums. And once the quiet murmurings about long labours, birth weights and sleepless nights had been uttered you’d likely hear a familiar refrain: “I had no idea! I can’t believe no one told me!”.

Now, at the risk of breaking the first tacitly maintained taboo of motherhood, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: becoming a mamma is a shock! A big shock. OK, it may seem obvious to those of you who’ve been through it – and apparent but as yet unfathomable to those of you who haven’t – but let me assure you, those first few weeks of motherhood are overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to scare you! But in my opinion it pays to be prepared, yet even for the planners amongst us, the focus during pregnancy tends to be on matters pertaining to the birth. Beyond that, you may have gotten all the kit (baby clothes, cot, car seat etc) but the chances are you won’t have given too much thought to how you will actually feel in those first few weeks.

So, to make your life that little bit easier, I’ve made a list of the things I wished I’d known as a first time mum. OK, some of them I was lucky enough to know about in advance but on most of them I was either innocently or willfully ignorant.

3-sided co-sleeping cot positioned next to parents' bed

A co-sleeping cot can make things a whole lot easier

1) Get yourself a ‘co-sleeping cot’
This is number one on my list as it’s the one thing that prevented me from enduring sleepless nights and going quietly insane in those first few months. Opting for a three-sided ‘co-sleeping cot’, positioned on mum’s side of the bed, can mean there’s little or no need (depending on whether or not you’re breast or bottle feeding) to get up in the night. Babies wake at night, usually because they need feeding, so keeping your baby as close as possible can be the difference between getting very little sleep and a enjoying a full night of (slightly interrupted) rest. The fact that the cot is separate from your bed means that concerns over the dangers of co-sleeping are reduced, plus you can gradually move the cot away from the bed as and when you and your baby feel ready.
At the end of a very long day, why make your life more difficult by having your baby sleep in a cot that requires you to get out of bed several times a night?

2) Make & freeze meals in advance
You may be a wizz in the kitchen, someone who adores the creative process of preparing food, but believe me the last thing you’ll wanna be doing when little one arrives is slaving over a hot stove! You will however need nutritious and preferably tasty food to get you through the first few weeks post-childbirth. My advice to you is to take a little time before the birth to pre-prepare some wholesome meals you and your partner can easily heat up and enjoy each day. It doesn’t need to take a long time and you’ll need access to a freezer to do it, but it’s well worth the effort. In one week I made 4 weeks worth of meals simply by cooking 10 portions instead of 2 when I made dinner on 5 consecutive days… OK, so sometimes we ate pizza in those first weeks, but for the most part it was healthy home-cooked food all the way!

front cover of 'Food of Love' breastfeeding book

My breastfeeding bible

3) Think about breastfeeding before you have to do it
If you plan to breastfeed, seek out good advice before your baby arrives. It may be the most natural way to feed your baby but it’s not necessarily easy. As women today we’re not usually exposed to breastfeeding enough to be able to gradually observe and learn over the course of our lives pre-baby. But happily there is plenty of help, support and advice available. The NHS offers free antenatal breastfeeding ‘classes’ (ask your midwife) and there are lots of good books out there. Personally, I recommend the fantastic and hilariously funny “The Food of Love” by cartoonist and mum-of-two Kate Evans. Not only is it comprehensive and easy to read but it’ll have you in stitches throughout.

4) Ban visitors in the first week
Now this may sound drastic and perhaps even impossible to implement depending on your family, but it’s worth earmarking at least a few days as ‘new family time’. I probably don’t need to tell you that giving birth is an intense experience. No matter how sociable you are, it’s highly likely you’ll need a bit of time to recover from the immediate aftermath. What’s more, particularly if daddy is around, you’ll probably want a wee bit of time to bond as a family. It’s also worth knowing that due to a drop in a woman’s hormone levels 3-5 days after the birth, you’re likely to feel a little down in that first week. Known as the ‘baby blues’, this temporary dip in a new mum’s mood is different from the more serious and long-lasting post-natal depression but can feel debilitating at the time, and at the very least it will make you wish you didn’t have visitors to deal with. So: there’s actually a medical reason for banning or at least keeping a cap on visitors in that first week. True, it might mean an awkward conversation with your parents/sister/mother-in-law – or all of the above – but it’s a good idea to at least float the idea of having a few days in which to acclimatise yourself with your new circumstances before the masses descend.

Author breastfeeding baby son

Me feeding my wee one in those first few days

5) Do nothing except nurse your baby and sleep for the first couple of weeks
This is actually very important. Whether you’ve had your baby at home or in hospital, via C-section or orgasmically 😉 you will need time to rest. Even if, like me, you’re a doer with the unhelpful trait of measuring your sense of self-worth by how much you can ‘get done’ in a day, for the first couple of weeks at the very least, nursing and sleeping is the best use of your time. A new baby is a blessing. She needs you to be there for her. Completely. This is not the time to worry about tidying the house for visitors or showing off your new addition to your mates down the pub. It’s a unique and precious time that you’ll never experience again. – Even if you have another baby, there won’t ever be a time when you and your baby can do nothing but bond and get to know one another for the first time. Everything else can wait.
But if it really can’t…

6) Ask for help
Bringing a new life into this world is massive – one of the most life-altering, mind-blowing processes living things are capable of. To put it mildly, it’s no mean feat. If you’ve never in your life asked others for help, now is the time. Swallow your pride and ask your mum/best mate/work colleague to pop over and put a load of washing on for you. Request that any visitors to the house do a bit of washing up while they’re there. Ask a friend to make a bit of extra dinner and drop it round on her way past. Hell, you can even ask the health visitor to take out the recycling on her way out. And if you don’t have a partner by your side or a network of friends and family you can call on, see if you can get a bit of support via the NHS or local services just to help you out in those first few weeks.

7) Let the housework slide
This of course follows from point 5 but it’s important and so worth reiterating. This is NOT the time for housework! The house may look like a tip but getting some rest and caring for your baby in these early days is the most important thing for his and your wellbeing. If an untidy house has a negative impact on how you feel, arrange for someone to come and do a bit for you. Either way, surely this is one time in your life you can let yourself off the housework?!

8) Don’t arrange any social outings in the first month
You’ve just been gifted the most beautiful little creature you’ve ever seen in your life and you’re proud. So very proud. You want to show her off, wet the baby’s head perhaps and yes you’ll probably feel the need to get out the house at some point. But no matter how eager you are, I’d caution against organising any social outings. Meeting friends in a café or popping over to a friend’s may seem easy as pie under normal circumstances but when you’re trying to get to grips with the mechanics of having a new baby even the simplest of activities can feel way too much. Saving the first outings until you’ve got your head round the whole thing a wee bit will almost certainly make socialising a whole lot more enjoyable. And believe it or not, in the first month even a trip to the local shop to buy bread will feel like enough of an outing!

9) Remember the baby blues will pass
As described under number 4, a drop in new mums’ hormone levels 3-5 days after the birth can cause what’s known as the ‘baby blues’. It’s different from post-natal depression and typically lasts only a day or two (a couple of weeks at most – seek medical advice if it persists any longer than this) but can leave you feeling tearful and unable to cope. Similarly, it’s not uncommon to feel overwhelmed by your new circumstances or even ambivalent towards your ‘bundle of joy’. In the midst of all that blood, sweat and meconium the little bundle can feel like more than you can handle. But don’t worry if you don’t bond with your baby immediately or if you wonder what the hell you’ve gotten yourself in for… it’ll come together in the end. You will love your baby. You will emerge from the baby blues. You may just need to give it time.

newborn baby wrapped in blankets

My precious bundle

10) Listen to your gut
I might have left this little nugget till last but it’s by no means the least important. In fact, even if you ignore all of the above, it’s worth coming back to this one. As I said at the outset – and I can’t emphasise this enough – becoming a mamma is overwhelming. More than likely it’ll challenge you in ways you never thought possible. And that starts with those first few days and weeks. So go easy on yourself, surrender to the process and throughout it all listen to your gut, or your heart, or whatever it is that helps you feel grounded. Resist the temptation to do things because you think you should. Those early days of motherhood are unique and precious. So, lie back, put your feet up and enjoy your baby.

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Birthing Zephyr: Ideas for a natural birth

Newborn lying on mummy's chest in birth pool

Natural birth
Credit: Jason Lander & Persephone

When I first conceived of this blog post I envisioned an introduction to my birth story – a tidy, compact way to present my own birthing experience as a prism through which to see a different side of birth: one that posits labour and birth not as something to be feared but as something to be embraced. My primary motivation was to help other first time mums prepare themselves for the experience of giving birth by showing them that birth can be beautiful, empowering, transformative and something to draw on as a source of strength.

But then I unwittingly initiated a dialogue about birth settings on social media and the responses took me by surprise. I realised what I’d known all along: birth is far from tidy or compact! It doesn’t flow in linear fashion and it won’t be reduced to a set of helpful hints that can be followed step by step to achieve the desired result. Birth is messy and instinctive and primal and unique. Every woman’s experience is different and every baby comes in its own way. Despite my good intentions, my nice neat blog post would undoubtedly have had the unintended consequence of oversimplifying the process and perhaps even of marginalising women whose experiences differed from my own.

As that was most definitely not my intention, I’ve made some adjustments and reframed my ideas in a way which I hope is helpful and not hurtful. I’ll probably have made some mistakes but I hope these can be a starting point for further discussion. After all, sharing our stories and reflections about what worked for us and what could have been different is all part of our collective learning, and I hope we’ll keep talking about it and keep supporting each other to give birth in whatever way works best for us and our babies.

My own experience of birth was positive. I say that with hindsight of course – at the time it was difficult, painful and long – oh so long! But I feel like I got much more out of my birthing experience than just my newborn son, as precious and awe-inspiring as he is. The journey I went through in those three days empowered me to a degree that nothing else has. Seven months on I still draw daily on the reserves of confidence and self-belief it bestowed upon me. I now feel able to embrace life with a calm knowing that I can do anything I put my mind/heart/soul to. As a result, I believe that birth has the potential to be a rare but priceless opportunity for a woman to really meet herself and to realise the innate strength that resides within her. And for that reason I’d like to share with you some of the ideas that have emerged from my own birth story.

Author during late pregnancy

Birth can be beautiful, empowering and transformative

I’ve written a full, no-holes-barred account of my birth story which you can read in all its glory here. But for those of you who just want the highlights: My labour was long, 45 hours to be precise, and it made me look inwards on myself in a way I’d never before experienced.  It also brought me into communion with three of the most important people in my life: my partner Nathan, my wonderful friend-doula Ruth and my precious son Zephyr.  I had Zephyr at home, with the curtains drawn, and in as quiet, gentle and supportive an environment as we could together muster. Yes, it was intense, yes, it was painful, and yes, at times I wanted it to ‘just stop’! But it was also powerful and strong and mind-blowingly awesome!  I was fortunate enough to have the natural, engaged home birth I had hoped for, and although the experience was at times unbearable and utterly exhausting and by the end of it I felt completely drained, I also felt extraordinarily grounded, calm and clear.

So, drawing on my experiences and knowing the incredible power a positive birth can have, I am sharing below some of the things I feel helped me to have the experience I did.

1) Having a doula
Having my friend and doula, Ruth, at Zephyr’s birth was the best decision I made. I know Zephyr would not have had the amazing natural birth he did without Ruth’s gentle, holding presence and unwavering, wise woman strength. A doula is a birthing assistant who supports you, emotionally and physically before, during and after the birth. She is there solely for you (unlike midwives who usually have other women to attend to) and, as an experienced birth attendant with a clear understanding of the kind of birth you’d like to have, she can advocate on your behalf. In my experience advocacy is her key role – she can liaise with the medical staff, take care of the logical, rational side and make sure that the environment is right for you, whilst you focus in on the important, and frankly all-consuming, task of labouring.  By holding space in this way, a doula can help create the conditions you need for doing what your body is made to do: birth your baby.

2) Having a regular meditative practice before the birth
Whether you manage this every day of your pregnancy or only in the few days leading up to the birth, it’s a good idea to take time to get into a quiet, meditative space in the run-up to going into labour.  Meditation, yoga, a form of visualisation (drawing on hypnobirthing techniques for example) or some other grounding practice, will all do. Giving birth is the most intense thing I have ever experienced and I needed to go inside myself to be in the right space for it. Quieting my mind and connecting with my body through my breath was invaluable preparation.

3) Trusting my body and giving it the time it needed
Women’s bodies are designed to be able to birth a baby. But labouring is intense and can be overwhelming especially if you’ve not done it before. As I learned for myself, it can also be painful and long, but it is doable. If you’re keen to birth your baby naturally, it’s worth holding off on opting for an induction or accepting offers of pain relief for as long as possible as these things do impact on your state of being. They can also prevent you from benefiting from the hormonal processes required to give birth naturally, in particular the ‘love’ hormone ‘oxytocin’ which creates uterine contractions and is best produced when you’re feeling safe and loved. Moreover, it’s worth knowing the effects of the various pain relief drugs on offer – so many women I have spoken to said they would not have taken such-and-such a drug had they known how ‘out-of-it’ they were going to feel.
Try not to be led by fear of what could happen if you let nature take its course.  When you get to 9 months, especially if you pass your due date, you’ll most likely feel ready to have the baby and it can be tempting to head straight for the hospital, to try to speed things up with an induction and/or to accept some kind of pain relief. My experience of talking to other new mums suggests that once you step on the ‘rollercoaster of intervention’, it can be very hard to step off again.  For most women, labour takes time and rushing it only makes the whole experience more difficult.
Giving your body the time it needs and trusting that your baby will come when the time is right is one of the major challenges facing a birthing mother. Remember that you can do this and that you know your body better than anyone else can. It’s easy to feel that medical professionals are better placed to judge what’s best for you than you yourself are, especially if it’s your first pregnancy. Of course the training doctors, midwives and other healthcare professionals have received is an invaluable resource to draw on.  However, medical professionals are trained to recognise problems, abnormalities and risk factors and can therefore be more predisposed to identifying such things. In addition, concerns about the repercussions of any potential failure to identify a problem, can make them even more keen to err on the side of caution and take the ‘safe’ option, even if it deprives a woman and her baby of the natural birth they were ultimately capable of.
So, by all means make use of the information and expertise your local practitioners can offer you. Educate and inform yourself as to the options available to you should you need them, but also trust your body and your baby and give them the time they need to birth.

4) Doing the relevant research
There’s a hell of a lot of information out there. You need to be discerning about the information you seek out and let in. Factual accounts of the nuts and bolts of labour and birth are helpful but only go so far. By all means get to grips with the different stages of labour and the various options for monitoring, intervention and pain relief but don’t make these the sole focus of your research. Giving birth is visceral so it’s worth getting a sense of what it actually feels like. You can do this by watching births on youtube and by reading other women’s stories of their birth experiences. But make sure you steer clear of negative accounts, the kind that make giving birth sound like a horrendous experience to be feared and gotten through as quickly as possible. And if a new mum tries to tell you about her awful experience, acknowledge her need to share but politely inform her that you’d rather not hear the details at this stage. I found watching natural and home births on youtube really helped me and Tell Me a Good Birth Story opened my eyes to a range of positive experiences.
Read books that chime with your sense of the kind of birth you’d like to have and attend a birth preparation workshop with your partner, preferably with a birth practitioner, whether midwife or doula, who strongly supports natural births. The workshop I participated in made me realise that some things that are safe for many labouring women are not recommended by NHS midwives whose need to ensure they are not held responsible if things go wrong means they stick within certain lowest common denominator parameters.  This climate can easily make intervention seem a better option than birthing your baby naturally. Above all, don’t overwhelm yourself and remember that once the birthing process has commenced, all that really matters is…

newborn baby crying

Newborn baby Zephyr

5) Going with the flow
Once you’re there, this is the most important thing. We can all have our birth plans, our visions and our ideals, but at the end of the day birth is not something you can control. We can set in place some of the conditions to help facilitate the birth we’d like to have but what matters is how we experience the birthing process, not the form it takes or the setting it’s in. Whether you give birth at home, in hospital with pain relief, via C-section or some combination of the above, the more willing you are to go with the flow and allow nature to take its course, the more likely you are to have a positive experience. It won’t guarantee it of course but it might help.

The ideas I’ve offered are just that: ideas. Borne of one woman’s experience of one birth. Others will have had different experiences and will no doubt have alternative visions of what enables a positive, natural birthing experience. We all have our own stories to tell and our own wisdom about what works… what’s yours?

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