Ronan at… hang on. How old is he again?

Poor Ronan. He is suffering from a serious dose of Second Child Syndrome. A few days ago, I was talking to a mother with a little boy around his age. She proudly told me that her little boy was fourteen months old, and asked what age Ronan was. I, shamefully, was stumped. “He’s about a year and a half, I think. No, hang on. He can’t be. I’m pretty sure he’s younger. What do you get if you take March away from July?” Eventually I figured it out, but I did have to check this handy website to be sure of the exact details.

Yes, of course, I know how old my child is. Roughly. There you have it: 481 days old. No wonder I’m having trouble remembering: that’s an awful lot of broken nights’ sleep.

So, what has he been up to since we last heard from him, shortly before his first birthday? Quite a bit, although growing the usual complement of teeth has not been high on his agenda. According to conventional wisdom, babies should get their first teeth between five and seven months old, and, by their first birthday, they should have locked all of the incisors down and moved on to the molars. Ronan, however, was gummy for some considerable time. Even with his first birthday a few weeks off, he remained, like Nanny Ogg, firmly unident. At the time of writing, he still has only six teeth, though he seems to be trying very hard to force the next six out in a single go. I’m sure you can imagine how this affects his general disposition. Thank heavens he was fairly sunny to start off with…

He is noticeably more physical than his older brother. Although they both took their first steps at about the same age (roughly fourteen months), Eoin was reluctant to use his own legs, and tended to lobby loudly to be carried at every possible opportunity. Ronan, on the other hand, rapidly progressed to scrambling up the furniture, throwing himself over the back of the sofa, and climbing the stairs whenever he got a chance. Indeed, he developed such a passion for the stairs that, for a few weeks, climbing them was pretty much his favourite activity, and the one thing absolutely guaranteed to jolly him out of a spell of bad temper. Whenever tantrums threatened, all you had to do was open the stairgate and invite him to climb as high as he liked to be met with a huge, sunny smile. Eoin once remarked, laconically, that “those stairs are a great old friend for him”, which suggests that either I have the world’s most deadpan four-year-old boy, or that we quote far too much Father Ted around our children.

It's a pity you can't hear the excited squeaking he was doing at this point. He’s interested in food. Very interested. Extremely, passionately interested. If you are in the kitchen for any length of time, it won’t be long before you find him clinging to your leg, making rather pathetic noises. He has, you see, realised you are in The Place Where The Food Comes From: he hasn’t eaten anything for at least twenty minutes, and can any growing boy reasonably be expected to survive like that? I’m beginning to wonder if he is part-labrador, or the spiritual heir of Winnie the Pooh. He is, inexplicably, the only blonde in a brown-haired family, after all.

Because his physical development seemed to be so much more rapid than his brother’s, we wondered if he’d lag behind Eoin verbally. It’s hard to judge accurately, as I was too slack a parent to write a detailed and dated list of every word either of my sons has said, but, while tidying some papers, I did manage to turn up a list of all the words Eoin could say at sixteen months. It’s funny to see how many similarities there are. Ronan’s first word was “raspberry”, while Eoin’s was “blackberry”; this is not surprising given their mutual love of soft fruit, but is a little spooky in view of the fact that Ronan is a Raspberry Pi baby. He can also say blackberry (naturally!), blueberry, there, flower, daisy, cat, goo-boy (good boy), Mum-mum-mum (Mummy), da-dee (which does not refer to his father, but, rather, is a general expression of approval), Da-da-da-da-dee (which actually does mean “Daddy”), and Meeee! (meaning “minion”. Please don’t judge us: Eoin watches the films, so Ronan is inevitably exposed to the little yellow guys). Eoin’s vocabulary covered a similar range, though he was evidently more interested in dogs than cats, and his animations of choice were Bagpuss and Abney and Teal. Ronan also has a number of words which he definitely understands, although he can’t yet say them, including Eoin, wave, clap, pat, toothbrush, stairs, bath, tea, pudding and garden. Once, shamefully, he tried to say McDonalds, but I think it’s best for all concerned if we just pretend that didn’t happen.

Ronan is a filth-wizardHe loves fruit, cheese, the beach, taking all the pots out of the kitchen cupboards, his Geiriau Cant Cyntaf book, surreptitiously posting Harvey Margaret (his stinky toy rabbit) into the dustbin, chucking his bath toys into the shower with you when you are trying to wash your hair, “Sweet Child o’ Mine” (he’s moved on from “Piano Man”), and covering himself in earth while helping in the garden. He hates eating from his own plate when he could be eating from someone else’s, shampoo, or staying still for too long. His hair is never tidy, and I once found him trying to lick the toilet. He’s a lovely, crazy little ball of energy, and I wouldn’t be without him.

That's some serious crazy hair he has going on.

Ronan is ten months old, and a bit.

I’m sorry, Ronan: your post got a little lost along the way this month. It must have been because I have been so busy chasing you around: I’m not used to having two mobile children, and this month’s changes have certainly been a bit of a shock to the system.

You aren’t actually crawling yet, at least, not in the strictest sense of the word. You do, however, manage to propel yourself backwards with a great deal of vigour. As you can’t see where you’re going, you tend to end up getting stuck under the sofa a lot of the time, whereupon you squeak furiously until one of us comes to rescue you. You combine this backwards commando manoeuvre with your other favoured form of movement: like Unterholzer’s dog, you get about by rolling. I can tell you think it’s all a bit of a faff, and you’d really rather just be running after your big brother, but I’d be quite happy if you held off on that until I’d had a chance to work out a couple of Ronan-containment strategies.

You are making a lot of interesting sounds, and we’ve had a few moments when you have said what sound like words. My mum was amazed when, as she was feeding you roast lunch one day, she asked you if it was good lamb, and you promptly repeated “good lamb” in a small, clear voice. I realise that this is a bit of an infinite monkeys with infinite typewriters situation, but we have, at least, established that you understand the word “pudding”, judging by the way you bounce up and down in delight when we say it. You have a very endearing habit of grinning and drumming on your tummy when you’re enjoying a meal, and you can spot a banana from twenty paces. You still don’t have a tooth in your head, but we reckon that, once they start appearing, there’ll be no stopping you.

The most exciting achievement this month is that you have learned to wave, sometimes to Daddy, and frequently to Eoin, who is pretty much your hero. Eoin is very impressed about this, in part, at least, because it means he has his own personal groupie: the boy loves an audience.

We all love you lots, Snuggly. Try not to drool on us quite so much, though, eh?

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Ronan is nine months old!

IMG_2849.JPGWell done, Snuggly Jeff: three quarters of a year is no mean feat! I’m glad to see that you can rock a crocheted Cthulhu bib with the best of them. Unfortunately, you’re not feeling too well today: a streaming cold and your ongoing battle with your teeth have combined to make you a bit of a sad little Snug. I’m hoping that you’re going to use some of the same super-strength which enabled you to defeat the Dread Yarnmonster of R’lyeh to kick the cold into touch. In the meantime, we all promise to cuddle you lots.

Happy 3/4 birthday!

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.

 

 

 

Ronan at eight months: some vital statistics.

IMG_2757.JPGThe second child really doesn’t seem to come in for their fair share of update posts, but, luckily for little Snuggly Jeff, I happened to notice that today was the 11th. Here he is,  looking rather thoughtful on his way to collect his big brother from nursery: as you can see, he’s really growing up. Here’s a little update on his progress so far…

Height: Unknown: he won’t stay still long enough for me to measure him! I think he’s going to be tall, though.

Weight: A bit of a tumshie. We’re definitely at the “screw-on wrists” stage of development.

Eyes: Blue, still. Large. Extremely intense.

Hair: Mysteriously blonde. Neither Stephen nor I are exactly sure how that happened.

Teeth: Zero. He and I need to have some serious words with his gums: all this fruitless teething is getting to be a real pain in the backside.

Favourite foods: Toast: any time, anywhere. Bananas. Salmon. Asparagus. And – ahem – chips. He still hasn’t had any cake, but he continues to turn himself inside out in pursuit of it.

Favourite person: Eoin. There’s no question. He’s even been trying to say “brother”…

TelephoneFavourite toys: His cuddly rabbit, which Eoin insisted on naming “Harvey Margaret Stick-one-up” (little Harvey is due for a name-change very soon). The same toy phone that I’m willing to bet you had when you were little. This fellow, right here →  Anything with lights or mirrors on it, or, preferably, both.

Favourite song: Oh, dear… I did so well with Eoin. He loves David Bowie, Imelda May, The Cure, Nina Simone, Joy Division. He’ll turn on Radio 3 and listen to Allegri, Dvorak or Mozart with just as much delight as anything modern. He’s pretty good on the whole music thing for a three-year-old. Ronan is less of a success. His absolute favourite song? “Piano Man”, by Billy Joel…

He’s a lovely little lad: sunny, cuddly and, generally, pretty chilled-out. Over the next few months, we are mostly going to be working on crawling, babbling, sleeping longer, and getting past the 80s easy-listening music. Happy eight months, little Snug!

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.

Half a year of Ronan

Poor Snuggly Jeff suffers rather badly from Second Child Syndrome: he hasn’t had a lot of update posts, and indeed, for the first few months of his life, I had enormous trouble remembering whether he was born on the tenth or the eleventh of March (FYI, past-self: it’s the eleventh). What can I say? I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep at the time, and things like precise record-keeping go somewhat out of the window under those circumstances. Now, though, we are all coming out of the fug, and we’re all feeling inclined to celebrate six months with the small dude.

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Ronan has grown up a lot in the last while. He’s developing a proper little character: he loves swimming, avocados, mirrors, picture books, toast with marmite (just a scraping), and, somewhat inexplicably, Kate Bush (but emphatically not “Wuthering Heights”). Despite never having tried any, he’s absolutely obsessed with cake, and will try to climb into the plate if he sees any. He’s also desperately fond of his older brother: Eoin can make him smile even when he is at his most grumpy, and both boys absolutely light up in each other’s company.

I had such a lot of fear when I was expecting Ronan: I was terrified of another difficult birth and another extended bout of PND. Nothing could have been further from what actually happened: a calm, well-managed birth, and a chilled-out, relaxed, happy baby. We are very lucky to have him, and I only hope the next six months are as good as these. Happy half-birthday, little Snug: we are all very, very glad you’re here.

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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!

I heard there were over 200 cases of forced transvestism involving Mr Sweeney last year.

It’s a sad fact that, in general, sewing patterns for little boys can be a pretty poor show. You can knit some pretty excellent jumpers, hats and so on, but, when it comes to sewing, an awful lot of the boys patterns on offer are at best a bit “meh”, and at worst, not the sort of thing I’d dress a child in for fear of them having the living snot beaten out of them. I know that designers like Rae Hoekstra are keen to redress this, and I’m certainly keen to have a go at Rae’s Flashback t-shirt since I’ve got over my fear of sewing knits.  All the same, I do find myself drooling over girls’ skirt and dress patterns (The prints! The pintucks! The tiny collars!); I don’t have a girl of my own to knit for, but I do have a small and very cute niece who is still too young to protest about me dressing her up in whatever crazy fabrics come my way. I just finished New Look 6576 for her, but I wasn’t sure about whether or not it would fit: I needed an appropriately-sized model, and, well, one thing led to another and this happened:

He's not scarred for life. Honest.

Poor Ronan: the indignity of it. Cross-dressing is obviously all very well if it’s your own choice, but it’s quite another thing to have your mum up and put a dress on you out of the blue. Fortunately he wasn’t too fazed by it, and I was able to get a good idea of how the sizing worked out.

Once you look past the icky styling on pattern envelope (Wow! Such appliqué! Very Sequin! etc), NL 6576 is a very simple a-line shift dress which should act as a good canvas for some of the printed cottons in my stash, but which also ought to work well in a heavier-weight fabric as a pinafore.

New Look 6576This is the medium size, which is a bit large on 5-month-old Ronan, but a much better fit on 7-month-old Emer. It’s a roomy style, and I suspect that the large would fit up to 18 months, though you might be getting more into tunic territory in terms of length. The fabric is a crysanthemum-print cotton which I’ve had in my stash for ages: I was aiming for something which was feminine without being twee, and I hope that this sort of bold floral works. I made the facings out of a fat quarter of purple cotton with a smaller floral sprig, and I edged them with orange bias tape because, hey, there’s always room for bias binding, right?

Contrast facing

That photo is a bit ropey, I know, but it turns out that tiny, cute dresses can be a bit tricky to make and photograph due to their small scale. I had a bit of a wrestle with the facings, and, in the end, I decided to topstitch them rather than attempting to understitch all those minute curves. All the same, I’m pretty pleased with this, and I’m looking forward to making it up in some other fabrics: I have a comic book advert print featuring decoder rings and moon shoes which is calling my name rather loudly. I have some alternative children’s patterns to try out too, but for the moment I’m happy to see what I can do with a simple shape and some interesting fabric.

As I’ve worked out the sizing, there shouldn’t be any need to press my model into service for future fittings. It’s a pity, though: he does manage to rock the look.

Ronan rocks his dress

A big tip of the hat to Roisin of Dolly Clackett, who kindly allowed me to copy her title format: I couldn’t resist the Father Ted reference. Poor Ronan has been known as Mr Sweeney since I put the dress on him on Friday…