Eoin is four

Happy (belated) birthday, Eoin! Like your little brother’s, I’m afraid your birthday update post has been a little delayed. Unlike Ronan, though, you are very aware of what is going this year: you were talking about your birthday for weeks, and, now that it has been and gone, you are already looking forward to the next one. Fortunately, you’ve been good enough to give this post the once-over, so I know that these definitely are things you really like…

Doing science, with a Hex-bugYou still have an unswerving devotion to any and all “things that go”: cars, aeroplanes, bin lorries, bicycles, trains… One of your favourite places in Penarth is the train station: the station master chats to you when you come to watch the arrivals and departures, and, if he happens to have a tin of Roses in the office, he always lets you pick out the strawberry creams, which are your favourites.

Your fondness for strawberry creams is perhaps explained by the fact that they have red wrappers. You are absolutely obsessed with the colour red – “You know, it is my favourite colour, Mum” – and have told me, most seriously, that your birthday party is going to involve red balloons, red plates, red table cloths, red party whistles… In fact, I’m not sure whether it will look more like a child’s birthday celebration or an AGM of the Communist Party, but you are not to be swayed. Red is the best colour, and you won’t hear another word on the subject.

Autumnal eoinYou love “doing science”: you have a globe and a magnifying glass, which are used for much important cogitation, and you take copious notes (intelligible only to you, alas) in your very own lab book, which is a Moleskine one just like your dad’s (yours, naturally, is red). Together with your dad, you have already been conducting some fairly serious experiments involving candles and vacuums, and I recently overheard the two of you having a rather worrying conversation about how to make hydrogen. You enjoyed doing a hands-on science lesson at nursery, but opined that “it wasn’t as exciting as Daddy’s science experiments”, a fact which I put down to the nursery’s very sensible insistence on not using combustible materials.

Eoin studies the pebblesI realise I’ll look like the world’s most pretentious parent if I point out that your favourite food is sushi, and that you are on first-name terms with the staff in the Cardiff branch of Yo! Sushi. It might balance this out somewhat to admit, guiltily, that your second-favourite food would probably be a chicken nugget Happy Meal, or a massive bowl of chips. You love helping in the kitchen, though, and have appropriated the roles of “Season Man” (the person in charge of adding the seasoning to a roast) and “Mr Pressy-Hand Man” (the person in charge of the oven timer) for yourself. You’re keen on a bit of baking, and you love helping to pick fruit and vegetables from the garden. In fact, you’re a bit too fond of this: I don’t think anyone else got a single strawberry this summer, as you beat us to every one.

You love telling jokes, especially about dinosaurs with one eye (“DO-YOU-THINK-HE-SAW-US?”), although sometimes your humour can be a bit surreal: “What do you call a man with a rabbit on his head? Simon!” Your taste in music has broadened, but remains, I hope, reasonably cool for a small boy. Your current favourites are The Cure, The Smiths (“Can we have ‘Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before’, please?”), The Jam and David Bowie, though you are always a tiny bit disappointed that every Bowie song can’t be “Rebel Rebel”. You recently heard Blondie’s “Hanging on the Telephone”, and announced to the room in general that this was a very good song. You have also been known to use music to tease me: if “Rather Be” by Clean Bandit comes on the radio, you insouciantly enquire whether I like it or not (you know I can’t stand it), and then proudly announce that you find it a very relaxing song, actually, and could I turn the volume up, please?

Eoin and Colin the CaterpillarYou love dogs, cake, cwtches, laughing, dancing in circles, chasing your little brother, and going to the beach. You’re a really lovely, bright, affectionate little boy, and I hope you never get to big to hug me or hold my hand.

Happy birthday, Sausage!

Love,

Mummy xx

PS Given that I worry a lot, irrationally, about not being a very good mother, it’s pretty telling that, when I read this list of your favourite things out to you, you pointed out in a very serious voice that I had forgotten one of the most important things. What could it be? “You, Mummy! You have to be on the list! I love you!” You really are a sweetheart, aren’t you?

I am a Bad Mother: Part 4. In which I feed my baby formula.

Again, a caveat: I am Not That Kind of Doctor, so what follows
is merely a record of my personal experience with infant feeding.
Please don’t take what I write as a substitute for medical advice!
This post may also include words such as engorgement, lactation
and other breast-related things. You have been warned.

 It has taken me a long time to start writing this post, which is due in part to the fact that I still feel rather conflicted about the issues involved. From a medical point of view, I feel somewhat ill-qualified to give an accurate perspective of the breast vs bottle debate, as I simply do not have the time, training or access to data which one would need to conduct a proper scientific survey of the medial and nutritional issues involved. Additionally, I realise that the fraught question of how and what parents feed their babies is inextricably bound up with a variety of societal factors, including class, education, the availability of a support network, body image, bonding, and mental and physical health. These can both increase pressure upon the feeding parent, and act as a confounding factor, making it harder to determine with certainty whether the apparent advantages of breastfeeding are causally related to the breastmilk itself, or merely correlated. Nonetheless, this is something I need to get off my chest (Gah! The pun: it hurts!), and I hope that reading about my experiences might help someone else in the future.

Many first-time mothers have doubts about their ability to breastfeed adequately, typically centred around the concern that the baby might not be getting enough nourishment. Some of those fears may be justified, some are probably not. I, however, knew from the first that I was likely to face problems with breastfeeding and milk supply, as, in 2004, I had had a breast reduction. If you are interested in the details (and you might well be: the type of reduction surgery performed can impact differently on your future ability to breastfeed), I had a Lejour reduction, and I remember the surgeon telling me he had removed at least 2lb of tissue from each breast, which would mean I lost somewhere between 1.5 and 2kg of breast tissue in total. The surgery was performed for free by the NHS as I was suffering from bad back and shoulder pain, thanks to my over-generous frontage. I was still left with large breasts: it took a while for things to settle down after the operation, but eventually I ended up being about a 32E. Considering I had started off as a 30G, though, I could deal with not being a petite B-cup: I may still have been curvy, but things were much more balanced, and I wasn’t in pain any more. My overriding emotion was gratitude: suddenly I could do all sorts of things in ease and comfort: play sports, run for the bus, wear dresses, find underwear in a colour that wasn’t surgical beige… For a while, everything was peachy. Then, in 2011, I had Eoin, and things went a bit wrong.

My first pregnancy: I fail at breastfeeding

If you have read the other posts in this series, you’ll know that I had gestational diabetes during both pregnancies, and that it really knocked me for six the first time. As a nervous first-time mum with an inconvenient history of anxiety, I was very concerned about the impact my feeding choices might have on Eoin, and I was firmly convinced that one of the ways I could attempt to right some of the wrongs I had done him by being diabetic (I know, I know) was to do everything I could to ensure I fed him breastmilk instead of formula. In some cases, mothers are able to feed very successfully after reduction surgery, and I was determined I was going to be one of them. I haunted the BFAR website, I grilled my midwife, I had several pre-natal appointments with lactation consultants. I was delighted when I realised that I was able to produce some colostrum, and, on the advice of the hospital, diligently set about harvesting it. Unfortunately, colostrum-harvesting is a time-consuming, tricky business, and it is certainly not helped by being so terrified about your blood sugar levels that you are essentially starving yourself. For weeks during my third trimester, I sat on my sofa with a bag of sterile syringes, getting hungrier and sadder, expressing until I was covered in bruises, yet producing only one or two millilitres of precious liquid a day. By the time I went into labour with Eoin, I had collected about 30ml: to put this in context, this is roughly the amount that a newborn might be expected to drink in about two feeds in the very early days. I fed this to him from a cup while in hospital, and put him to the breast whenever he was hungry. My technique was assessed by a range of midwives, nurses and lactation consultants, who all agreed everything was going excellently. I was patted on the back and sent home on day three after the birth, certain that I wasn’t going to need those bottles and the box of formula I had bought “just in case”. It was at this point that the problems started.

Even in breasts which have not been tampered with, it takes a few days for the milk to come in after birth, and, unfortunately Eoin was desperate for more food before my body was in any way ready to give it to him. He was latched on pretty much constantly for the third day and night, but the only thing that happened was that he got progressively more ravenous. It was only at three in the morning, when he was utterly hysterical with hunger, and had lost his voice from screaming, that I recognised I was going to have to give him formula. I fumblingly mixed up a bottle, fed it to him, and was horrified when he just kept screaming. I remember thinking that all I had done was give him the energy to be really furious. It took another bottle half an hour or so later before he finally calmed down and fell asleep; when I woke up a couple of hours later and heard no crying, I was half-convinced that he was dead, so constant had his distress been until that point.

Notwithstanding the two emergency bottles, I was still certain that I could try to feed Eoin myself, and, the next morning, set about latching him on when he woke up. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to me at the time, I was beginning to feel the first stirrings of post-natal depression. This initially manifested in a rather odd way, although I have since met one other person with identical symptoms: I would be physically sick for much of the time, notably whenever I held Eoin. This got worse very quickly, until I could only hold him for a few seconds without vomiting. The doctor gave me anti-emetics, but I wasn’t able to keep them down. I was then given omeprazole, which, while it stopped the actual sickness, did nothing alleviate the rushes of nausea I would suffer whenever I held Eoin, or whenever he cried. It was only when the PND was diagnosed, and I was able to start taking citalopram, that things got even a little better. In the immediate aftermath of the birth, though, I was really rather unwell: I couldn’t eat, I lost weight dramatically quickly, I was permanently cold and exhausted, and I was pretty much unable to hold my son. Against this backdrop of mental and physical sickness, I was simply unable to continue trying to feed Eoin myself. I did try, but still no milk came in, and still he screamed hysterically until I caved and offered him the bottle. It was only a couple of days after having decided that formula feeding was the only viable choice for us that I finally showed signs of engorgement. I remember thinking how horribly mistimed it was, but in truth it is highly unlikely that I could have continued trying to breastfeed given how ill I was. The whole thing felt like a horrid failure from beginning to end: as I saw it, I hadn’t managed to carry Eoin successfully, I couldn’t give birth to him myself, I couldn’t feed him. The pleasure I should have been able to take in my new baby was entirely sucked away, leaving at worst a depression and at best a flat hopelessness that lasted for around a year and a half.

My second pregnancy: I fail at breastfeeding again, but I fail better

With Ronan, my feeding goals were much more modest: I knew that exclusive breastfeeding would be unlikely to happen, but I decided that I was still going to try to breastfeed him if possible, even if this might ultimately be doomed to failure. The stretch goal, so to speak, would be successful mixed feeding, but, again, I was under no illusions that this might not be possible. I was pleasantly surprised, when discussing my feeding plans with midwives during my antenatal appointments, that nobody turned a hair: I was assured that I would get all the support they could give if I wanted to try to persist with breastfeeding, but that nobody would judge me in the slightest if I ended up using formula. Crucially, I was reassured with the words I had never heard during my first pregnancy, namely that formula is absolutely fine for the baby, and, while breastfeeding is obviously a wonderful thing, it is only best if it works for both the mother and the child. I still prepared myself for both types of feeding, unpacking both the breast pump and the bottles, and stashing an emergency box of formula in the kitchen cupboard. I still expressed and stored colostrum, but, crucially, I didn’t feel anxious and beleaguered about it in the way I had done the first time around. In fact, when I arrived at the hospital for my section, clutching a cool bag full of syringes of frozen milk, the midwife on duty was somewhat taken aback, and told me that they didn’t normally see people being so prepared.

Feeding got off to a slightly rocky start: due, perhaps, to the insulin I had needed to take before the delivery, Ronan’s blood sugar levels were very low after birth, and the milk I could give him was not doing enough to bring them back to an acceptable level. For the first two days he was given small formula top-ups on the consultant’s advice, via a nasogastric tube. As you might imagine, he was not best pleased with the tube (he pulled it out himself after 24 hours), but his sugars soon stabilised, and, when we were released from hospital, he was happy, healthy and taking a mixture of breastmilk and formula. Midwives and the health visitor called regularly at the house over the next few days, and I was, proudly, able to show them that I was indeed managing to breastfeed Ronan, at least for some of the time. Latches, positioning and the like were checked, and everything seemed to be going well. I noticed, however, that, no matter how long I tried to feed him for, he never seemed settled. Indeed, he seemed to get more and more dissatisfied as time went on, fussing and pulling away after a couple of minutes, and he only really seemed to calm down after he subsequently had formula. I decided to break out the heavy-duty breast-pump, and see what I could managed to extract from myself by main force and industrial-strength suction. The answer, sadly, was not much. No matter how relaxed I was, no matter how much I thought of Ronan, the most I could ever pump was the foremilk: no let-down ever happened. One particularly prolific day, after spending hours hooked up to the infernal machine, I managed to collect about 80ml. On one hand, I was very proud of this, as I knew it meant that I knew for sure that I was producing something, and that he was getting some form of nourishment from me. On the other hand, when Ronan knocked this back without flinching in a single feed and then looked for more, it was apparent that I was never going to be able to give him more than a tiny proportion of the milk he required myself. Although I did consider persevering with mixed feeding, it soon became apparent that the game wasn’t worth the candle. At fourteen days old, Ronan had his last feed from me, and has been formula-fed ever since.

While I had an immense sense of guilt and failure over my formula feeding of Eoin, my emotions with Ronan were very different. A lot of this was probably due to the fact that I was not horribly depressed the second time, but I think it was also related to the fact that, with Ronan, formula feeding was a decision I was able to make in my own time, with the opportunity to weigh both the pros and cons without the sense of panic, terror and outright illness which assailed me previously. It was also a relief to realise what exactly was going on with my post-operation breasts: although I have no official diagnosis for this, it seems apparent that I have nerve damage following the reduction surgery, a not-unexpected consequence. With Eoin, I couldn’t understand why, when I was apparently able to produce at least some milk, he seemed unable to drink any useful amount. My discovery, with Ronan, of my missing let-down reflex explained a great deal: effectively my body was completely unaware that there was a baby trying to feed from it. While I could make milk, I couldn’t do anything useful with it. While this was frustrating on one hand, it was also immensely vindicating: on some level I had certainly blamed myself for not trying hard enough with Eoin. Maybe if I had pushed on and fed or expressed through the sickness, the dehydration and the fear, I could have managed to Do the Right Thing. But I hadn’t pushed on: I had just taken the easiest option… The self-hating internal refrain went on and on. It turned out, in fact, that there really was very little I could have done: try as you might, you can’t regrow your nerves through sheer force of will, and teaspoonfuls of foremilk on their own are not enough to be particularly useful to a baby. This time, I can honestly say that I felt very at peace with my decision not to pursue trying to breastfeed.

Why is it still difficult to write about formula feeding?

I began this post by saying I was still somewhat conflicted about the issues involved: I should note that this is not because I feel, in using formula, that I have in some way fed my children an inferior food. Obviously, breastmilk is the natural way for mothers to feed their babies: if it weren’t, we would be born with kettles and boxes of Cow and Gate strapped to our chests instead of mammary glands. However, while breastfeeding may be brilliant if it works for you and your baby, it is clear that formula is a perfectly good feeding choice too. The recent Ohio State University study into long-term outcomes from both feeding methods found that neither was appreciably more beneficial than the other. Crucially, this study examined feeding outcomes in relation to siblings, and so was able to eliminate a great deal of the selection bias seen in other studies of the long-term effects of breastmilk versus formula. For what it’s worth, I was myself formula fed as a child: barring the inexplicable gestational diabetes, I have no health problems, I am not obese, and I am bright enough to have managed to collect four degrees in various esoteric subjects. The fact that I was not breastfed does not seem to have done me any harm.

Why, then, do I still find it difficult on some level to be an “out-and-proud” user of formula? I said above that I was at peace with my inability to breastfeed, but note that, even though my chances of successful breastfeeding were very low, I still began by trying to feed Ronan myself. If I were to have another baby, I would do the same thing: mix-feed for as long as was practical, before moving on to exclusive formula feeding. I think the truth is that I now know what my physical and physiological limitations are, and this is comforting. As with so many things in pregnancy and parenthood, all one is trying to do is to regain a measure of control, of stability, of certainty. You want to feel you have done the Right Thing, however that might be defined. Bluntly, it seems to me that the breast-versus-bottle debate is concerned not so much with the nutritional, developmental and sociological benefits of one particular type of infant feeding versus another as it is with the way you define yourself as a mother, as a woman, as a thinking, responsible person. It shouldn’t be this way, but nonetheless your feeding choices invariably seem to brand you: modest/immodest, feckless/overattached, selfish/selfless, martyr, hero or villain. I confess that I feel the need to tick a box here: if I’ve given a baby my expressed colostrum, if I have tried to feed them myself, then I have done all I can, and I can continue to feed them formula with a clear conscience. But – and this is a big but – why do I feel I need this absolution in the first place? Why not feed formula from the first, if you know that, realistically, this is what you will be doing in a few days anyway?

Absolutely honestly, I think my reasoning stems, predictably, from guilt: my reduction, while medically very desirable, was not a life-saving procedure. I could have held on, surgically unaltered, and perhaps then I would have been able to feed my children myself. Perhaps, though, things would still have gone wrong, and I would then be beating myself up for another set of reasons. I don’t think I have managed to deal properly with this guilt yet, absurd as this might seem to other people. What I do know, though, is that for every irrational twinge of reduction/formula-based shame that I feel, another mother is feeling a very similar emotion for another reason. Extended breastfeeding, switching from breast to bottle, exclusive pumping, feeding through reflux, allergies and intolerances: all of these choices involve hard work and soul-searching, and all are likely to incur the judgement of outsiders. This, really, is the nub of the matter: as parents, we place enough pressure on ourselves without having to deal with the hoiked-up judgeypants of the neighbours, the people at playgroup, the staff of the fancy hotel restaurant (I’m looking at you, Claridges), and the Daily Mail. I have never felt so bad about formula feeding, or so angry at others’ thoughtlessness, as the day that someone came up to me in the cafe at Anglesey Abbey and told me that, if I had only loved him enough to breastfeed him, Eoin would have been happy and content instead of crying. This is the kind of nonsense no parent should have to deal with: life and infancy are far too short to agonise over whether a baby’s milk comes out of a breast or a packet. However you feed, you are doing your best. You will be fine. The baby will be fine. Unless there are medical issues at play, your feeding choices are yours to make, and none of anyone else’s business. The most important thoughts I could leave you with are the mantras of both the BFAR organisation and the Fearless Formula Feeder website. The former states that, in attempting to breastfeed after surgery, you must define your own success, whether that be through colostrum harvesting, the use of a pump or a supplemental nursing system, or simply through knowing that you have done all you can for your child. Measuring yourself against an unreasonable standard is not helpful. The Fearless Formula Feeder reminds us that the most important words we can say to any mother about her feeding choices are “I support you“.

This is how I would like to end: if you are reading this post because you are contemplating breastfeeding after a reduction or some other surgery, or simply if you are struggling with feeding in general, however you are feeding your baby, whether by breast, formula or both, you are doing the right thing. Be proud, and ignore the judgey comments: the people who make them are honestly not worth bothering about. I support you.

 

 

 

I am a Bad Mother: Part 3. In which I have a Caesarean section. Again.

Warning: there will be some discussion of childbirth in this post, so,
if you’re only here for the knitting, I’d suggest that you look away now.
It’s also a bit of a long one…

Alright: I realise that most people don’t give two hoots about how I happened to transfer two small human beings from inside my body to the outside world, and my reading of STFU, Parents has given me all too keen an awareness of the dangers of over-inflating the significance of your own birth experience. This is my blog, though, and my introspective pregnancy-woe-venting session, so I’ll write what I like. Less flippantly, it’s certain that my experience of labour and birth the first time around had a substantial negative impact on the way I coped in the immediate aftermath of the delivery, and on my post-natal mental health in general. As such, I think it’s a topic worth addressing.

When I was expecting Ronan, people would ask polite questions about the pregnancy, and how I planned to give birth. How I felt about my answer would depend on where on the emotional and mental curve I happened to be at that point, but I almost always found myself having to defend the fact that I was not going to attempt a VBAC. Sometimes the questions and my responses were both calm and rational, but at other times I felt very judged for having a Bad Medicalised Birth™ rather than the empowering, natural VBAC for which I should have been striving.1 It didn’t matter that the exigencies of carrying and delivering a baby when one has gestational diabetes put me in a position where a Caesarean was the only realistic option, or that the circumstances of Eoin’s birth led more than one consultant to suggest that it was highly unlikely I could ever have delivered naturally. There was frequently a sense that I was in some manner taking the coward’s way out, or that I was putting myself and my body through a hideous surgical process when I could, instead, have been doing The Right Thing. A Caesarean section is very often perceived to be a failure, an artificial process, and a bad birth, while the natural, low-intervention route is seen as the only way to have a good birth. While I would never wish to judge anyone’s birth practices, and while I am delighted that so many women have empowering, successful VBACs, I would hope that my experience demonstrates that it’s possible for a repeat Caesarean to be empowering and successful too.  First, though, I should explain what went wrong the first time around.

A Bad Birth

So much of our experience of pregnancy, birth and motherhood consists of striving to do The Right Thing, and to measure up to some hypothetical gold standard of parturition, as nebulous a concept as that might be. When I was expecting Eoin, I diligently went along to NCT classes. Most of the other attendees were planning low-intervention, midwife-led births (a lucky few even ended up getting them), but, having just been diagnosed with gestational diabetes, I was very aware that my experience was likely to be medicalised, and, by extension, compromised from the start.

Particularly at NCT classes, people talk a lot about the “cascade of intervention” in childbirth: briefly, the idea is that any medical practice used to hasten a delivery can and will have a negative impact on the rest of the process. Once some form of intervention has taken place, it is likely that you will need another and another, until you find yourself strapped into a set of stirrups on an operating table, drugged up to your eyeballs, while a team of surgeons gets to work on your nether regions with a set of Kielland forceps. Understandably, this is something most of the other members of the class were keen to avoid, but it was something that I knew I was likely to have to face. Because of the diabetes, and the concomitant gigantic baby I was supposed to be harbouring,2 I was to be induced two weeks early. I felt rather guilty as I explained this to the group, and, although they were all extremely supportive and non-judgemental, I already felt as if I had failed.

As it happened, I needn’t have worried about the induction. I unexpectedly went into labour three weeks early: the contractions started on a Thursday as I was, symbolically enough, baking bread with a friend. As we sat in her kitchen, drinking tea and admiring the loaf (which, of course, I couldn’t eat because of the diabetes), I noted that I seemed to be having a lot of Braxton Hicks contractions, but that I was sure it was nothing to worry about. Things got a lot tougher over the next couple of days. On the Friday, I was having contractions every ten minutes or so, and finding it rather difficult to do anything useful, like eating or sleeping. By Saturday, the contractions were every three to five minutes and things were getting pretty serious. Somehow, though, and despite all evidence to the contrary, I was still convinced that they were Braxton Hicks, or at the very least the earliest stages of labour. By 4.00am on Sunday morning, though, I had had enough, and we ended up in a taxi to the hospital. I was still terrified that this wasn’t “real” labour (I didn’t think it was bad enough, which suggests I either have an unexpectedly high pain threshold, or I’m a closet masochist), and was pretty certain the hospital were going to send me home to wait it out for another week before they performed the induction. The taxi driver, however, was pretty firmly convinced that this was the real thing, not least because I was sick twice during the ride to the hospital.3 When we got to the labour ward at 6.00am, I was surprised to be told by the midwife that I was 8cm dilated, and that I’d have my baby in no time. There was some congratulation for the fact that I’d got this far on a couple of paracetamol, a hot water bottle, and a half of mild in the pub on Friday evening. Then, everything went wrong. I kept having the contractions, but no waters broke, no transition happened, no baby arrived. Things got more painful, and I got more exhausted: I had, by this point, been in labour for three days, and I didn’t have anything left to give. Sometime around one in the afternoon they told me to push, and I pushed, dutifully and fruitlessly, for two hours. It became apparent that I wasn’t getting anywhere. The midwife gave me the gas and air mouthpiece back while the doctors tried to decide what to do with me, but by this time it wasn’t having much of an impact on the pain. At one point I must have passed out: I remember dreaming, being brought round by another contraction, and thinking, Father Jack-like, “Oh, God, am I still in this fecking hospital?!” I had a very clear sense that the only way this would ever end was if I died: it wasn’t that the pain was unbearably bad, even at that point, but rather that it had been going on for so long, and there was nothing I could do to get the baby out and make it stop.

Being taken for the emergency Caesarean section was a bit of a blur: the midwife, who had been monitoring Eoin, lost the trace on his heart, there was a bit of a commotion, and suddenly my bed was being pushed down the corridor into an operating theatre. I wasn’t even aware of the section itself happening: it seemed as if one minute I was being prepped, and the next, Eoin was being lifted out, fist-first like Superman. In many ways, though, the operation was the best part of the whole business. I was exhausted, stunned and, I think it is fair to say, somewhat traumatised. I was convinced that, somehow, I hadn’t really given birth to Eoin at all, rather that something had been done to me while I wasn’t really aware of it, and now, suddenly, there was this angry, hungry creature to deal with. I had enormous difficulty bonding with him: the guilt of this disconnection, combined with the guilt of having had the section in the first place, of having been diabetic, of having failed to breastfeed him, all piled on top of the other mental and emotional issues I had in the postnatal period to tip me into a very lengthy bout of depression. For a long time I was too scared to contemplate having another baby, and, when I was pregnant again, I was terrified of facing the same situation.

Eoin, a few hours old and none the worse for having been delivered by EMCS. Photograph by Stephen Lynch.

Eoin, a few hours old and none the worse for having been delivered by EMCS. Photograph by Stephen Lynch.

A Good Birth

Fortunately, my experience with Ronan couldn’t have been more different. I suppose I should be thankful for being diabetic in my second pregnancy, because it took the responsibility for making a decision about the method of delivery entirely off my shoulders: it is NHS practice to induce mothers with gestational diabetes early, and, as a (temporarily) insulin-dependent person with a history of previous Caesarean delivery, such an induction would not have been recommended for me. The best advice was that I should prepare myself for an elective section, and the doctors hoped I was not too upset at not being able to try for a VBAC. Upset? I was so relieved I could barely believe it.

I was, understandably, far more aware of what was going on during this second delivery, and, inevitably, I have to admit that it wasn’t a particularly private experience. I think there were probably twenty people in the operating theatre along with me, many of them students, and there was a slightly comical moment in which everyone in the room, including me, had to introduce themselves to the others. In the blur of the emergency section, I don’t think I had registered that the operating theatre was just a small room in the middle of the delivery unit: in my mind, it seemed much more separate and strange. This time, being taken for the operation was almost alarmingly prosaic: I walked down the corridor in my hospital gown and slippers, thorough a door that looked much the same as all the others, and spent a little time having a chat with the medical staff. The only jarring thing was the presence of the very large operating table on which I was shortly to be sliced open. Of course, a Caesarean is never going to be comparable to a water birth in a candle-lit room with soft music playing, but frankly I don’t think anyone would expect it to be. Yes, there was an operating table, and yes, there was a huge tray of ominously sharp-looking sterilised instruments. Yes, it did feel a bit as if the world and their dog were in the room with you. But I can say with complete honesty that my procedure was relaxed, calm and, believe it or not, thoroughly enjoyable. People were friendly and informative, and explained every step of the operation to us. I wasn’t particularly bothered about having music playing, but this would certainly have been possible if I had wanted it. In fact, the only thing I was determined I did want was as much skin-to-skin contact with Ronan as possible, as soon as possible after he was born. Fortunately the medical team were quite happy for this to go ahead, so, unlike the first time around, I was put back together again while holding a small, warm and slightly confused person against my chest. I really can’t underestimate the importance of this skin-to-skin contact: I understand that sometimes, when there are serious medical complications, it isn’t possible. But Eoin, notwithstanding his somewhat early arrival, was perfectly healthy at birth, and I really wish I had pushed harder to be allowed to hold him this way too. I had a great deal of difficulty bonding with Eoin, and this in its turn exacerbated the problems I had with depression and anxiety. With Ronan, again, it was completely different: as I held him in the operating theatre, it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that I could feel myself bonding with him, minute by minute.

Ronan, one day old, and also quite happy to have exited through the sunroof.

Ronan, one day old, and also quite happy to have exited through the sunroof.

If you have spent any time reading around the topic, you will no doubt have realised that there is a very unhelpful rhetoric surrounding childbirth, along the lines that we can control our experience almost perfectly if we are knowledgeable, prepared and driven enough. Now, I am not for a moment suggesting that knowledge and preparation are a bad thing, but ultimately, however many books you read, and however many hypnobirthing classes you attend, they aren’t going to outweigh physical factors like the shape of your pelvis, or the size of your baby’s head. I have two friends who planned for drug-free home births. Both were similar ages, fit and healthy, well-informed, and thoroughly prepared. One was lucky enough to have the natural home birth she wanted. The other, however, ended up with a lengthy and traumatic hospital birth. What did those two women do differently? Nothing. The mother with the hospital birth: did she just not try hard enough? Did she somehow not deserve the birth she had prepared for? If she had only wanted the home birth a bit more, she could have made it happen, right? Nonsense!

Unless you are very lucky, childbirth can entail a loss of control over what happens to you and your body. For many people, myself included, an emergency Caesarean might be a life-saving procedure, but it can also be traumatic and can leave you feeling as if you have lost all power and agency. For many mothers, a successful VBAC can be the experience which allows them to exorcise some of the demons left behind after such a difficult delivery. However, an unsuccessful VBAC can pile one failure on top of another: given my diabetes, and the long, difficult and ultimately fruitless labour I had had with Eoin, this was simply not something I was prepared to attempt. After a difficult birth, the main thing you are tying to do in a second delivery (apart, of course, from ensuring everyone is safe and healthy) it to regain some of the agency which you lost the first time. A VBAC can be empowering, of course, but, properly handled, a Caesarean section can be too. I wouldn’t have changed my experience of Ronan’s birth for the world, and I am very grateful to have had one birth on which I can look back with happiness, even if that birth was not the one that conventional wisdom told me I should have wanted.

1It’s important to note that, in the vast majority of cases, the critical judgements came from people who didn’t know me and my situation well.
2I was told that, at 36 weeks gestation, Eoin was already well over ten pounds in weight, and generally off the top of the scale as far as size was concerned. Born at a pretty average seven pounds, he turned out to be a small baby with a ridiculously big, heavy head. Those ultrasounds don’t always give you the whole picture…
3Don’t worry: I had brought a bag with me. The taxi was unblemished at the end of the trip.

Scrappy recycled shirt for Eoin

Things have been a little heavy around here lately, what with the depression, the diabetes and the rest of the “motherhood is not a bundle of laughs” posts. I have some more instalments planned for the series, but I wanted to break things up a little: with this in mind, here’s the first sewing project I’ve managed to complete since my fractured foot healed enough to allow me to operate the foot pedal on my sewing machine.

Last week, Eoin’s nursery held an “Eco Week” in which they thought a lot about different ways they could reduce, reuse and recycle, culminating in a fashion show featuring outfits made from recycled materials. Predictably, some parents had amazing skills with cardboard and glue: one dad even fabricated a giant, 3D Thomas the Tank Engine costume for his son out of old boxes. I, unfortunately, am utterly ham-fisted when it comes to this sort of thing. There was only one possible course of action: root through my scraps, offcuts and odd buttons, and see if I can make anything wearable out of them. Eoin, as you might imagine, helped vigorously, frequently by picking out an impractically small remnant and asking me to make an entire garment out of it. Patchwork shirt pieces Eventually, though, we managed to come up with a pile of material which was both usable for me and, crucially, Eoin-approved. I toyed with the idea of buying a new pattern for the purpose, but, in the spirit of recycling, I ended up pulling out my copy of Heather Ross’s Weekend Sewing, and tracing off the pattern for Kai’s Shirt.

I’d like to begin by noting that the book really is lovely to look at: I initially bought it for the lovely picture of the Yard Sale skirt on the cover, and I spent a great deal of time drooling over such eye-candy as the adorable mint-green Singer Featherweight which appears in many of the internal illustrations. The patterns cover a good range, from garments for both children and adults to a number of different accessories. I was, however, aware that reviews of the book had been mixed, and many readers had had issues with sizing, instructions, and the making-up process. As more of a newbie, I had let this put me off trying any of the patterns, but, this time, I considered myself up to the challenge. It’s a simple-enough pattern, and the cutting was straightforward. As you can see from the picture above, I even attempted a bit of a hack on the back of the shirt and pieced it together from three fabrics. Things were going so well. There were flat-felled seams: it was beautiful. The shirt itself is pretty boxy, but it began by going together easily enough. Shirt frontLater on, though, I ran into some issues: the sleeves sit somewhat awkwardly in the armscyes, and the collar was, bluntly, a beast to assemble. Admittedly, I haven’t made a collared shirt before, but it seemed to me that the length of the collar itself did not match up to the dimensions of the neck opening. I ended up having to fudge the back of the neck quite badly: there are some pleats on the inside of the collar from where I just couldn’t make the fit work any better (you can see them in the picture on the left if you embiggen it). Judging by the reviews, I’m not the only person to have had these issue, and I have to admit I’d be reluctant to make the shirt up again for a more formal occasion. It was fine for my purposes, though, and it’s certain that using a neglected pattern from my stash was much more in the spirit of the exercise than buying a new, potentially better-fitting pattern would have been.

While I may not have been blown away by the pattern itself, I’m really rather pleased with the wayShirt back the shirt as a whole worked out. Together, Eoin and I managed to come up a reasonably decent colour scheme, and, although the whole thing does somewhat resemble a Shite Shirt, I don’t think it’s overly crazy. You may recognise the brown polka-dot fabric on the back yoke from my Simplicity 2226 skirt, and the blue dot on the collar from the central piece of my Quilt That Almost Wasn’t. The sleeves are from a scrap of Ikea cotton (it’s the Cecilia print, which is, unfortunately, discontinued), and the main body panels are, variously, a pin-print fat quarter from Busy Bee Fabrics (blogged here) and the leftovers of a tape measure design which I had previously used for a cushion cover.

Eoin spent a great deal of time poring over the contents of my button jars (a certain amount of pouring went on in addition to the poring, as I’m sure you can imagine). Button circleAfter we had cleared up the mess, and I had retrieved some of my more precious buttons from Eoin’s pockets, we had a set of seven buttons in a rainbow of colours. Aside from simply being cheerful, this fits well with the nursery’s theme for the term, in which each week is dedicated to a particular colour (eco-week, naturally, was green). Given half a chance, Eoin would probably have covered the shirt with bias binding, zips and pom poms in addition to the buttons, but I cherished a fond hope that he might wear it again after the fashion show, and, with that in mind, tried to urge him to be moderate in this respect.

After a somewhat fraught couple of evenings spent wrestling with the collar and facings, the shirt was finished in time for Eoin’s fashion show, and he wore it proudly in among the tinfoil robots, bubble-wrap fairies, and cardboard box tank engines. I may not be able to make a convincing costume out of papier-mâché, but I hope I managed to come up with something reasonably cute. The wearer, naturally, is adorable.

Eoin in his crazy shirt

Beach mornings

Eoin at the beachFor Eoin, hunting for beach glass is a serious business: a young man cannot consider himself properly equipped without his magnifying glass. Fortunately, the tired beachcomber can always enjoy a hot chocolate on the pier after long, windy walk. Cheers!

Making round-up

People often say that, when you have a second child, you don’t really get the same benefit from maternity leave as you do with the first: you can’t nap when the baby does (if the baby does nap at a convenient time and place, that is, and I’m smelling a lot of “if” coming off that plan), you can’t just slop around the house in your pyjamas with your similarly pyjama-ed baby because there’s another vocal person who needs to be taken out and entertained. You certainly shouldn’t find that you have more time for general knitting and sewing: perish the thought! This is probably true if you are either a stay-at-home parent, or if you go out to work at a regular 9-5 type of job. I, however, usually work from home. Now, I love my job, but there is one inevitable downside to the situation: I’m usually not able to start work until 7 or so when Eoin goes to bed, and tend to carry on late into the night. Suddenly, on maternity leave, my evenings have become free, and, though my priority a lot of the time is to catch up on lost sleep, I do have far more time to get into the sewing room and let loose.

Rather than writing separate posts for the ever-growing pile of finished objects, I thought I’d do one big round-up of All The Things. First, though, I need to give a little shout-out to the most important creation of the last six months, Snuggly Jeff himself. Here he is, in more conventionally-masculine garb than he has been wearing recently, determinedly masticating a rubber giraffe.

Snuggly Jeff

He’s five-and-a-bit months old already, and scarily huge. He also has a wonderful laugh, a great interest in books (usually to chew, admittedly), and a mercifully high level of tolerance for being dressed up in crazy outfits. Good baby, that one.

And now, the finished objects!

  1. The long-awaited Aidez cardigan (designed by Cirilia Rose), ravelled here: I’ve blogged about this before, but I finally managed to finish it two months before Ronan’s arrival. Now I’m not pregnant, it’s a little baggy in the body, but I can live with that. A word of warning to any large-busted knitters planning to make this, though: you will need to conduct some substantial modifications to the front: you could go for bust-darts if you are that way inclined, but you are likely to have to widen the fronts substantially too. I’d say planning for button-bands from the beginning might be the best way to go.
  2. High Water jumper by Veera Välimäki, ravelled here. A lovely design which would work for boys or girls. Unfortunately, Eoin objects to the yarn in which I made this: apparently it’s too scratchy. Ah, well…
  3. More High Water. He’s smiling under duress, all the while muttering, “It itches”.
  4. Scraptastic hat by Jane Tanner, made from the remnants of my Color Affection shawl, another Veera Välimäki design. Ravelled here. I managed to make it a little too roomy, but I’m calling that a design feature. Slouchy, you know?
  5. Turn a Square hat (Jared Flood, ravelled here) for Stephen. Stolen by Eoin, despite the fact it was (a) ridiculously too big and (b) made from the same much-complained-about yarn as his High Water. Clearly his head is made of sterner stuff than the rest of him.
  6. Antler cardigan (tincanknits, ravelled here) for Eoin, knitted in a fit of pique after he refused to wear the High Water jumper. I gave him shortlists of yarns and patterns, and asked him to choose his own jumper on the understanding that he would actually have to wear this one. It turns out he has good taste!
  7. Longus Socks for Ronan (ravelled here) from Clare Devine’s fabulous Sock Anatomy collection: if you’re interested in sock construction, I’d advise you to check this out. Every design uses a different heel and toe combination, so you get to practice tons of techniques while making adorable socks for small feet. Two of the patterns are also available in adults’ sizes.
  8. Nathaniel the squirrel-cushion, from Ysolda Teague’s Whimsical Little Knits 2. Knitted when I was in full-on nesting mode, obviously, and ravelled here. A word of warning to prospective Nathaniel-knitters: he really does need the button eyes, although they are not specified in the pattern. Without them, he looks less like a squirrel and more like a big grey amoeba.
  9. Ronan’s Pixi hat, from Robynn Weldon’s Elfbaby pattern. Ravelled here. Cute, cute, cute!
  10. Puerperium cardigan by Kelly Brooker (ravelled here), which fitted Ronan until about three months and stood up to many soakings with various bodily fluids.
  11. Pebble bodywarmer (Nikol Lohr, ravelled here), which also did sterling duty until about three months. It was also made from the “scratchy” yarn (it was an unfeasibly giant single ball: I still have tons left), but Ronan was stoic, and did not complain.
  12. Pumuckl Hat, also from Robynn’s Elfbaby pattern (ravelled here), also adorable. I’m hoping it will fit into the winter.
  13. The first of the sewing projects! This is a Coco from Tilly Walnes’ pattern (available here): I think this is being classed as a wearable toile for the moment: I demonstrated my usual lack of sizing awareness and made a 6 when I really should have made a 5. I suspect I’ll be talking more about this in a future post: sizing is a bit of an issue for me as I perpetually seem to think I’m a lot bigger than I am, which means I end up with sack-like garments. See how I’m holding the waist in in this picture? There’s a reason for that…
  14. Another Coco, this time the tunic version. Also a 6, so a bit on the big side, but I don’t think this is such an issue with a top. I also think I managed to balance the print and plain sections better on this: I’m a bit of a stranger to playing with prints, and I think the first dress came out a bit Minnie Mouse-ish, while this is a bit more balanced.
  15. Another Coco! This one is a size 5, and a much better fit. I also kept this one short (I added a couple of inches to the length of the first dress) which, I think, works much better: the high neckline needs to be balanced by a shortish skirt, otherwise the dress looks a bit puritanical. I’m very pleased with this version.
  16. Simplicity 2226, in the shorter of the two lengths. Again, I mucked up the sizing of this: I made an 18 (to approximate a UK RTW size 14), and I could get a friend in there with me. Simplicity seem to add mad amounts of ease to their patterns! It’s a lovely style, though, and I’m planning another version in a smaller size.
  17. Clémence skirt from Tilly Walnes’ book, Love at First Stitch. As you may be able to tell, I’ve developed a bit of a Tilly obsession: her patterns are simple yet elegant, and her instructions are fabulously clear. I used a parasol-print cotton which I have had in my stash for ages: it dates from the time when the Cambridge John Lewis was in the Grafton Centre. I realise this will mean nothing to most people, but Cambridge-based readers will be shaking their heads in dismay at my long-term hoarding tendencies.
  18. Vogue 8295 in an appallingly badly-chosen fabric, also from Grafton-era John Lewis. It’s a lovely print, but I had no concept of drape or body when I chose this. The skirt nearly ended up in the bin years ago when I couldn’t make it come together, so I’m impressed I managed to salvage it. This is also an 18, and I can confirm that Vogue do not add much ease to their patterns. Breathe in…
  19. Botanical-print Delphine skirt from Love at First Stitch. I need to blog about this in more detail, but for the moment, I invite you to admire the fabulous fabric! Ikea FTW.
  20. More botanical Delphine. I’m very pleased that I managed to get the beetle to sit right on my thigh.
  21. New Look 6576 for Emer, fetchingly modelled by Ronan, and blogged here.

This is a bit of a mammoth post, and hurrah for you if you’ve stuck with me up to this point. I’m planning to write about a couple of the projects in more detail (I also need to cover my ongoing struggles with the concept of ease), but I hope this quick overview is interesting. If anybody would like to know more about a particular project, let me know!

Knitting progress, against the odds.

Very shortly after I posted the picture of Eoin cheekily inserting himself between my camera and the quilting fabric yesterday, I heard him wake up and start making some horribly familiar barking, wheezing noises. He has had a few bouts of croup since last winter, and, though we had hoped he might have grown out of it, it seems he managed to get a small dose again. Thankfully, it wasn’t bad, as croup goes: the first time he had it was the worst, and then I was seconds away from calling 999 (If you’re ever in that situation, don’t hesitate: the A&E department the next day told me there’s really no such thing as a false alarm when you’re dealing with an infant with breathing difficulties). Fortunately, Eoin was fine then, and seems well recovered now: last night’s sleep was not too broken, and, although he did have a couple more breathless episodes, I think the worst thing from his point of view was a bad dream in which a lot of minions were trying to get into bed with him, “but I didn’t want them to, mummy!”. After a domestic day of helping Stephen with designing an experiment (“You don’t need to solve the problem, daddy: I’ve done it for you”), building duplo machines and helping me cook, he is now safely tucked up in bed, and I have taken the chance to do a little work on my Aidez cardigan.

Despite a lot of reading around on the subject of shaping, not to mention some very helpful suggestions from other kind knitters, I was still no closer to a strategy for inserting bust darts into the design. The problem is mainly that I have a lot of trouble visualising things in three dimensions: making darts in fabric when sewing is no problem, because you can pin the blasted things in, see how they look, and easily change them if necessary. To me, at any rate, bust darts in knitting seem to entail some form of precognition, not to mention a much more highly-developed mathematical ability than I possess. Basically, in terms of Stuff About Knitting Which Scares Me, bust darts are right up there with stranded colourwork and steeking. I realise I am going to have to deal with this at some point, but I suspect the way to work though my problems might be to try to insert the darts into some plain stockinette fabric, rather than into some fairly complicated (for me) cabling, on which I am only just keeping my head above water. I’ve been planning a Cria since I tried one of Ysolda’s samples on at the 2011 KnitNation: it was the lovely grey one you can see in the linked pattern, and I’m pleased to report it was only a tiny bit snug in the 34″ bust, which goes to prove that a smaller size with well-thought-out shaping is likely to be far more flattering than a jumper in your actual bust size, which is probably just going to hang off you everywhere else. This feels like a sensible place to start my adventures in shaped knitting: Ysolda even uses the Cria as an example in her section on bust darts, and you can’t really get much more hand-holding than that.

Of course, cheering though my Cria plans may be, I was still no closer to a solution to my potential bust issues with the Aidez, which does have a reputation on Ravelry for coming up rather small in the fronts. After a lot of mental wrestling, I looked again at the garment photographs, and thought, “For heaven’s sake, this is almost entirely unstructured: it’s supposed to hang loosely at the front, not fit neatly. This is actually kind of why you’re knitting it, pregnant person!”. So, I did what any sensible slapdash knitter would do, and decided to just add an extra two stitches into the stockinette panel on each front. This should give me an extra centimetre of width in each front, which should hopefully be enough to stop the cardigan looking skimpy. I’m planning to keep the extra width going all the way up the front, and then just decrease a little more rapidly for the neckline.

Of course, now I am worried that the Aidez is going to come out too big (I really struggle with the concept of ease), but, let’s face it, if I wasn’t worrying about this, I’d find something else to panic about. So far I am about a third of the way up the left front, and I’m actually feeling pretty pleased with myself for having managed four separate cable patterns in one garment. You’ve got to take your knitting victories where you can.

In other news, I may have received my oddest spam comment so far: a chunk of text out of what appears to be an academic essay on the sermons of John Donne. This is pretty spooky, not least because I have a good friend who wrote her PhD thesis on this very topic, and I’m really hoping that an unscrupulous spambot (is there any other kind?) hasn’t been plagiarizing her work. Mind you, it makes a change from Viagra advertisements: this may be the first time I’ve been mildly interested in anything a spammer had to say before I consigned the comment to the bin. Spambots, take note!

PS: oops. I missed one…

I know, I failed to blog again yesterday: I was busy cooking an overly-tomato-based curry.

By way of an extra post, this is what happened when I was trying to photograph the fabric earlier today: someone inserted himself between it and the camera…

Cheese!“Take a photo of me, Mummy! Not the fabric: it’s boring. I’ll say cheese. Cheese!”

I think that’s a Marmite stain from breakfast on his pyjamas: I may be a slattern, but at least his intake of B vitamins is good.

Fabric love

Yesterday, Eoin and I headed out to Tredegar House with Sam and her little boy: we didn’t go into the house itself, as toddlers and historic homes don’t usually mix well, but there was quite a lot of climbing about in the playground and a great deal of jumping up and down in muddy puddles (this last being, as you may know if you have your own small people, an inevitability). There was also, particularly excitingly, a visit to Busy Bees Patchwork, a fabric shop which is handily located in one of the outbuildings of the House itself. I really need to go back and visit on a day when Eoin is otherwise occupied, because there was such a vast range of fabrics to admire that I’m sure I didn’t manage to do it justice today.

I did, however, pick up some fat quarters:

Fat Quarter CollageRed and blue prints for inclusion in a planned quilt for Eoin (of which, more later), and sheep and pin prints for me. It’s healthy to have a stash of fabric, you know, just in case the zombie apocalypse comes and you don’t have enough quilting cotton to see you through.

The pin print is particularly lovely: if I was in a position to fit one at the moment, I’d say it would make a fabulous dress, maybe in a shape like this one, only without the extraneous bows. Or this one, which I actually have somewhere in the chaos of the wool room. I just have to wait for the bump to (a) appear and (b) disappear first. 17 weeks to go…