End of an era

My eldest daughter, Jackie, nuzzled her way up and latched on to my breast whilst I was still in the recovery room after her caesarean birth over six years ago, and I’ve been physically nourishing my children ever since. In fact, I’ve been either pregnant or breastfeeding (or both) for longer than I was in High School. From the start of my first pregnancy, I was always keen to breastfeed if I could – I knew it was more convenient, cheaper, and healthier for myself and my babies; but I had no idea what a physical and emotional pathway it would take me on, or how long that journey would last.

429954_253895268030061_1225564724_n

First time for us both

Jackie weaned naturally from the breast when she was eighteen months old, and I was six months pregnant with her brother. Benjamin was a little harder to get started, but he fed slowly on drips of expressed colostrum from a syringe; then, thanks to the amazing guidance of the nursery nurses on the labour ward, graduated to both breast and bottle. He surpassed all expectations in his ability to feed and gain weight, and we left the labour ward five days after he was born. By the time his gastrostomy was eventually fitted, I was already pregnant with his baby sister.

Caitlin was a greedy little thing from the start. She fed for eight hours solid in the delivery room, while I was still attached to a syntocin drip and waiting for a bed in the labour ward. As a baby she would regularly drink more milk than her little stomach could handle – with inevitable consequences. By the time she started nursery at nearly a year old, she was able to go eight hours without milk, but morning, evening and night (and during the day on non-nursery days) she would still ask for ‘beebee,’ or just clamber up and pull down my top. She can feed lying, sitting, kneeling, standing up; whilst I am sleeping, cooking, tube-feeding Benjy, or reading a story to Jackie. It’s the easiest way to lull her to sleep, and the nicest way to comfort her when she is upset.

Caitlin is two and a half years old. I’ve breastfed her for more than the World Health Organisation’s recommended minimum time, and longer than 99.5% of UK mums. I’m starting to get tired of spending my evenings sitting in a darkened room feeding her to sleep, of not being available to my other children when they need me, of only wearing saggy old bras, stretchy tops and quick-access cardis. I know she doesn’t need the nourishment any more – she has a huge appetite for solids! Hopefully, she’s old enough to understand a little. She talks in long sentences, is ready to abandon her cot for a big girl bed, and almost ready to toilet train. So, after a few days of explaining, “Beebee’s going to run out soon. Beebee’s nearly empty,” our breastfeeding journey also has come to an end.

To be honest, she’s taken it much better than I have. A couple of nights of cuddles with Daddy (I’m so lucky to have a hands-on, supportive partner) and Caitlin has gone to sleep with remarkably little distress. She still comes asking when she’s tired or upset, but after a quick reminder that, “Beebee’s all gone now,” she can easily be distracted with a toy or something yummier to eat.

To be honest, I was devastated. There were doubts. There were tears. I was terrified that my little girl would think I was rejecting her, would be utterly confused by the change, would hate me. I was worried about how I will now fulfil my role as a mother. I was lonely as I sat downstairs waiting for Daddy to finish putting her to bed. I was sad that one of the main things my body was built for, it will never need to do again.

And the pain – oh my goodness – pain worse than when my milk came in as a new mum! I had hoped that Caitlin really wasn’t taking very much milk any more, and there wouldn’t be much of an adjustment to make. When my engorged breasts showed me how much milk I was making, I felt even more awful for taking it away from her.

Ten days on and we’re both doing better. My boobs are starting to settle down, even if I can’t lie on my front just yet. Caitlin will allow either me or Daddy to put her to sleep with very little fuss. She still comes into our bed for cuddles in the night, but it’s no more than cuddles (I’m still keeping my top on just in case!), and long may they continue. It still breaks my heart when she occasionally asks for milk, when she’s upset or just taken a tumble. It takes all my strength not to say “Oh go on then, what harm could it do?” But if Caitlin can be strong, then so must I.

Maybe in the longer term this will actually enable me to be a better mother? I’ll be less stressed because I’ll have more time for work and play. I’ll feel less guilty because I can do my share of the chores in the evening instead of playing on my phone behind Caitlin’s back while my husband does the laundry and makes packed lunches for tomorrow. (Yes, I know breastfeeding is an important job too, but sometimes it’s been hard for me to feel that).

Maybe I can find time to get fit in the evenings. Maybe I can stop eating biscuits all the time (I’ll have to stop eating biscuits all the time now I’m not burning 500 calories a day making milk!). Maybe my husband and I can spend our evenings together sometimes. Maybe we can even leave the children with a sitter and have a night out. Maybe I can go out with my girlfriends, or to the committee meetings that always seem to be scheduled for feeding time. Maybe I can dawdle home from my pilates class instead of rushing to be back for the end of bath-time.

Maybe I can be more available for all my children. On the second night of our weaning experiment I was able to camp out in the garden with Jackie – just for fun! If Benjamin is awake in the night, from now on I’ll be able to go and lie with him for as long as he needs me, rather than just popping his projector lights on and leaving him to his own thoughts. With two adults now able to meet the needs of all three of our children, we have more flexibility. Maybe this is the right thing for all of us.

I’m so lucky to have had only good experiences with breastfeeding, to have been physically able to feed for so long, and to have been supported by my family and community to do so. I was never one to keep it under wraps – my children wanted to feed anywhere and everywhere, and wouldn’t tolerate being hidden away under a scarf or muslin. During my first few weeks I was sitting by the checkout in Sainsbury’s breastfeeding Jackie, and an older lady came up to me, not to complain, but to tell me how “lovely it was to see”. When in hospital with Benjamin, the nurses always let me bend the rules and bring Caitlin onto the ward too – they would even sneak me cups of tea and pieces of toast to keep me going. The only problems I’ve encountered have been my feeding children’s biting, tweaking, pulling, hitting, and twanging…

I’m proud of what my body has done over the last seven years, and immensely grateful that it was able to. I’m amazed at how my outlook has changed through being a first-time mother, then mother of a child with complex needs, then mum of three, and a breastfeeding mother to all of them.

Because it has been so easy, so comforting, and so special, breastfeeding has become part of my identity; almost a crutch. Pregnancy and breastfeeding made me feel like a real woman. Now, I have to find a new way to feel like that. Now, I have to mother my children by my words and actions alone. Now, I have to see if I really have what it takes, and that’s scary. With big changes coming up – Benjamin will be starting school, and I’ll be going back to work in a couple of weeks – I’m no longer quite sure what kind of mother I am or who I will become. I guess I’ll start by dawdling home from that pilates class and shopping for some lacy bras.

IMG_20180621_140332_073.jpg

Advertisements

What should a four year old be?

At four, Benjamin should be a cute, tousle-headed, tearaway by now. In and out of the paddling pool all summer; under my feet all winter. Chattering nineteen to the dozen. Learning to pee on a ping-pong ball. Spoiling his big sister’s games, and being too rough with his little sister. Big enough to be making his own way at preschool; still just little enough to creep into my bed for cuddles. Except, according to the doctors’ first predictions, he shouldn’t even be here at all.

I wonder what Benjamin would say about what he should be?

“Well mum, I am definitely tousle-headed and I’m totally cute – and don’t I know it? You can see I’ve got an eye for the ladies, brunettes in particular. I give them a wink, a sideways glance and that lopsided smile and they’re smitten. But if you’re there, mum, I’ve only got eyes for you.

“And I do love the water. I might not be in and out of the paddling pool but I love it when you trickle the bathwater over my chest. It’s a rare treat that we go swimming – but when we do I can stretch out my stiff muscles like nowhere else. Please take me more? I know you’re nervous that you can’t support my head. But I trust you. Trust me? I’m lighter in the water and you might feel stronger if you try it.

“I know I’m under your feet all the time. My chair, with its sticky-out wheels and sticky-outer handle. My medicines, with their sticky drips everywhere. My tubes and wires, always getting tangled and caught up. I know it takes you longer to do everything, because you can’t just potter around the house, you have to take me with you, moving me from room to room, chair to chair. Your constant shadow. I love to be your shadow. I love to watch you work, listen to you hum along to the radio. I love it when you let yourself have a little dance. I wish you would dance more (although I wish we didn’t have to listen to Radio 2 all the time).

“I might not chatter but you understand me, mum, even though I don’t talk or even make baby noises. You know when my body language says I’m uncomfortable. You know when something has caught my eye. You know when I’m tired. I wish you would trust yourself more because you know. You’re my voice, mum. I know you’re tired of advocating, questioning, pestering, and fighting. I feel bad, mum, that you have to do all that for me. But I know you wouldn’t have it any other way. I know, when you’re in the mood, you love a good fight against the world.

“I know I’ll always depend on you to change my nappies, to feed me, dress me, bathe me, to make sure I get the right medicines at the right time, to do my physio and to clear out my lungs when I can’t cough for myself. Sometimes you just get on with it, silently: I’m just another task that has to be done. Sometimes you linger over it, taking the time to kiss my eyelids, to massage my feet. To drink in my special scent. I drink in yours too. You are my world.

“I love my sisters. I know each of them by sight, sound and scent. I hope they don’t resent me. I know that by my very existence I spoil more than just their games. I cherish the times when they come to me, lay their heads on my chest, and kiss me. But I love just to watch them too. They are so colourful, so shiny, so busy. I’m never bored when I am with them. I light up when Jackie gets home from school, or Caitlin wakes up from her nap.

“I hope you’re proud of me, mum. I work so hard. I know you are proud of me. I hear you tell people over and over again how good I am at holding my head up now. How I can look to the left and hold it. How I wave hello (but only you know that’s what I’m doing). I hope you know, mum, that at the end of a therapy session, when I’m so exhausted all I can do is dribble, that I’m proud of myself too.

“I know you’re scared to let me go to preschool, mum. You think ‘They won’t know him like I do. They won’t keep him safe. What if something happens?’ But I’m four now; within a year I’ll be at school. And we both need some space, mum, and you will feel less guilty about skipping my therapy if I’m getting it there too. I hope that might mean you have more time for cuddles. Because even though I can’t creep into your bed, I live for your cuddles. When my whole body is tense and fighting against itself, in your arms I relax. When you stroke my hair I feel special. When you rub my feet I feel like you and I are the only people on earth.

“I know this wasn’t in your plan, mum. But when does life ever go exactly to plan? Especially when you bring children into the mix. All I can do is live from day to day and I wish sometimes you would too; maybe then you would worry less, dance with me more, and cuddle me tighter.”

Four years of teaching from you, Benjy and I’ve still a lot to learn. Big cuddles from mummy on your birthday xxx

An earlier version of this article was highly commended in the Carers UK Creative Writing Competition 2017.

‘Nanny Grinstead,’ with love

When I was five, my grandmother took me – just me, not my mum and dad, not my noisy, bitey little brother, just me – on a holiday to Folkestone. I don’t remember very much about it: I know we stayed overnight in a hotel, which was a massive treat – mum and dad never, ever, took us to hotels. I know we went on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch steam railway, because I remember seeing a postcard we brought back. I remember there was shortbread in little packets in the hotel room. But mostly I remember the feelings that weekend generated. I had never felt so special. For 48 hours Nanny made me the centre of her world. I had never felt so special.

I guess that’s what all grandparents do. But to me, ‘Nanny Grinstead’ (named for the town where she lived, to distinguish her from my paternal grandmother, ‘Granny Poole’) seemed to make me feel extra-special. I was her first grandchild and her only granddaughter. I gave her her first great-grandchildren and her only (to date) great-granddaughters. Although once I left home and moved north I rarely saw her, I felt a bond stretching across the miles and the generations, and I know she felt it too.

If I inherited most of my looks, my impatience and my perfectionism from my paternal grandparents (I wish I was less of a perfectionist. I wish, like Nanny Grinstead, my favourite phrase was ‘That’ll do’), I like to think I got at least some of my better characters from Nanny. Above all, I hope that like her I am always generous with my money, belongings and time.

Born in 1922, Nanny (whose real name was Marjorie), passed away earlier this week, just a few days after her 95th birthday, the last of my children’s great-grandparents to do so. Nanny lived all of her life in East Grinstead, and knew everyone there. You couldn’t go ‘up the town’ with her without stopping to greet half a dozen people. She didn’t gossip, she just loved a chat and to look out for her friends. At Christmas, I have never seen anyone with so many cards as her. They would cover every sideboard and surface, cascading down the walls like waterfalls.

She was widowed when I was eighteen months old and lived alone in a neat little bungalow. I remember always being fascinated by the under-floor heating, which would rise up from slatted vents in the carpet like steam from a New York fire hydrant. There was a macramé hanging basket in the porch and always antimacassars embroidered with ducks on the armchairs. Not to mention the fact that she had two loo roll holders side by side in the WC. 

I imagine it would be pretty frustrating to have your neat and tidy domain invaded every so often by a pair of marauding grandchildren but, if it were, she never let on. She tolerated us rushing in, pulling all the games out of the toy cupboard, bouncing up and down on the giant teddy she once won in a raffle (she was the luckiest person I ever met – I never knew her to enter a raffle and not win), and rearranging every single one of her precious collection of wooden elephants. The only place we somehow knew we shouldn’t disrupt was her bedroom, although I would often sneak in to gaze at her sitting at the dressing table with her back to me, brushing her hair, or to look at myself in her full-length mirror, something we didn’t have at home – if I wanted to see my bottom half I had to stand on my parents’ bed, then jump off again to see my top half.

Nanny was definitely no pushover – if I needed a telling-off, I would get a telling-off. Hard-of-hearing for as long as I can remember, if you spoke too quietly, or merely said something she didn’t understand or didn’t agree with, you’d receive a brusque ‘Eh?’ But a decade of dependency in a care home weakened her mind, body and spirit. By the end, she was pathetically grateful for my pathetic attempts at communication from a distance. By the end, her hair was thinning and her skin almost translucent, so fine it felt like silk. By the end she had few belongings, although more than you would expect could fit into that one small room at the care home, little dignity, and very few peers left. She outlived her younger sister and most of her friends. There were occasional glimpses of her feisty nature and sparkling eyes, but truly she had had enough. Thank goodness for her eternal companion – Sky Sports.

Nanny had a pathological obsession with sport. Until her stroke, she would get up every Monday morning to go swimming in the local pool. I went with her once or twice – it was freezing! At school, she excelled in stool ball – a uniquely dangerous Sussex sport kind of like cricket played at head height. Football, tennis, snooker and especially cricket, you name it, she would watch it. She would take a cantankerous like or dislike to the players based on very little – during the nineties she could frequently be heard referring to the England cricket captain as ‘That Atherton.’ She also loved nothing better than a game – and I think having grandchildren was a pleasure to her for that reason. Cards, especially, were her favourite. She would get out her button box for betting and me, my brother, mum and her would play Newmarket while dad hid behind his newspaper and muttered about the ‘Devil’s picturebook.’

When I was in junior school, I interviewed Nanny about her time in the Land Army, for a project. She was full of tales of the camaraderie, full of jokes about having to bury the carrots in sand to stop the mice from eating them. It must have been tough for an educated middle class girl to knuckle down and work the land like that, in all weathers, but if it was, she didn’t say. And it didn’t put her off a bit of cultivation. The garden at her bungalow was always full of runner beans, raspberries, rhubarb and sweet peas – even if it was generally full of weeds as well. She focused on growing, not on tediously weeding, and who can blame her? In autumn she would take us blackberrying along the old railway line.

After that trip to Folkestone, I would regularly go and stay with Nanny Grinstead for a few days at a time. The part of the week I most looked forward to was her Thursday afternoon shift volunteering in the League of Friends café at the Queen Victoria hospital. I guess it was my first taste of work experience, my first taste of doing something useful, my first taste of interacting with people, and I loved it! I loved sneaking out from behind the counter to collect the dirty cups. I loved the big old urn and the checked tea-towels. I loved counting the stock – packets of Frazzles, Wagonwheels and Polo Mints – to see what we needed to re-order. I loved taking orders, taking the money, and giving people change. I realise now that I must have got under her feet all the time. I must have been slower than her at all those tasks. She must have had to recheck the stock-take when I wasn’t looking. But she never let on. She never told me to go and sit down and do some colouring. She always indulged my enthusiasm. She was the first person to let me go in a loft – my parents always assumed I would put my foot through the ceiling.

Many of my memories of Nanny revolve around food. Whenever I stayed she would make sure we went out for lunch at least once. Sometimes with her best friend, Auntie Joan, whose gruff Scottish husband would only eat sausages. Nanny would always get in a Kellogg’s ‘variety pack’ of cereal for my breakfast. She had a small kitchen with mugs hanging on hooks under the cupboards. Together we would bake sweet concoctions of sugar and desiccated coconut stuck on a base of melted chocolate. She would do things with condensed milk. She made an amazing pudding of ginger biscuits soaked in sherry, stuck together with whipped cream and the entire thing coated in melted dark chocolate. It looked like an enormous caterpillar and tasted like all the good bits of a trifle with none of the fruit. On one visit she brought out an old electric waffle-maker (my Grandad had been a great one for gadgets), and every visit after that we begged her to make batter for waffles again. When I went off to university she let me raid the boxes and boxes of old cooking equipment in her big double garage (She drove a succession of Minis – trading each one in when it was three years old so that she didn’t have to go through the stress of getting an MOT). All my saucepans, wooden spoons and fish-slices came from her. I must have been the only person who turned up to Fresher’s Week with two fish slices.

The last time I saw Nanny was in April. She was in a geriatric ward in Redhill from which she was not expected to return. Yet, once again her tough-as-boots old body pulled her back from the place where perhaps her mind already wanted to go, had wanted to go for some time. I am so glad I made the trip: I took Caitlin (who tottered around the ward, almost tripping up gentlemen in dressing-gowns and Zimmer-frames, delighting the old ladies, and causing the staff to ask if I could possibly bring her in every week to cheer everyone up). She will now be able to know, if not to remember, that she did meet her great-grandmother. I think maintaining that link between the generations is important. And I am glad, now, that Nanny is finally able to rest with peace and dignity. No longer reliant upon others for her most basic of needs. No longer in pain and not able to understand why. No longer alone in a sea of faces. And I am glad that she got to spend her final days in the caring environment of the ‘home’ that had been her home for so long, with staff who truly did care for her and were as much family to her as I was, with a decent palliative care package that meant she didn’t have to move to an unfamiliar, clinical hospital ward. Nanny’s death is the end of a generation for my family, the end of an era, the end of something special, but the special qualities she embodied live on in her daughters, granddaughter and great-granddaughters. May she rest in peace.