What’s in my bag?

I’ve never done a “What’s in my bag?” post before, but I always enjoy having a nose at other people’s, or at the photo pool on Flickr. Yesterday, I posted a photo of The Great Biannual Bag Transfer on Twitter: I tend to carry a lot of stuff with me, and changing the contents of my handbag from a summer one to a winter one is often a bit of an undertaking. Mobeena asked for a list of all the stationery goodies in the picture, but it wasn’t easy to fit into 140 characters; additionally, I suspect there are a few other curious types out there who’d like to see what I’m carrying (and to understand why my bag is so heavy!). You can click the photo to embiggen.

What's in my bag? Lots, that's what. That’s a heck of a lot of pens, I think you’ll agree! I do use them all, I promise. So, here goes…

  1. The (outgoing) summer bag: this is a custom Maya from Timbuk2. I’m not quite sure where I first encountered Timbuk2 bags: they’re made in the USA, and aren’t readily available in the UK. They are well worth tracking down, though: they’re practical, customizable and virtually bomb-proof. The floral print is discontinued now, but they always have a range of lovely designs to mix with the plain fabrics. You can’t see it in this picture, but it has a purple lining with white polka-dots: this makes me very happy.
  2. The (incoming) winter bag: custom Eula, also from Timbuk2. Sadly, this one doesn’t have the polka-dot lining. It does, however, have a waterproof purple one, which makes it much more winter-ready.
  3. Welsh vocabulary and grammar booklets in a nifty little holder: I’m trying to learn, and you never know when you might have some time.
  4. Pens, pencils etc: the first set. From left to right, these are: Parker Urban ballpoint, J Herbin cartridge rollerball with Diamine Teal ink, Pilot Coleto (these are customisable and pretty fabulous), Zebra mechanical pencil, Uni Jetstream ballpoint, Mediadevil stylus, Paperchase mechanical pencil. These normally live in a pocket of the bag, ready to be grabbed for quick scribbles.
  5. Laurige pencil case, usually containing the second group of pens (see 8). It’s small but it holds quite a lot.
  6. Travel pass holders, one containing train tickets, and one holding my Oyster card (hey, I might go to London!) and Iff card, which is a sort of Cardiff version of the Oyster card, except that it only works on buses. The one on the left has a short story by Jeanette Winterson printed on it, and the one on the right is from a science fiction exhibition at the British Library a few years ago.
  7. Car keys and house keys. The latter have a Lego Darth Vader as a keyfob: Eoin approves.
  8. Pens! More pens! From left to right, they are: Platinum Plaisir (Medium, Diamine Teal), Pilot MR (Medium, Herbin Poussière de Lune), Kaweco Sport (1.5mm stub, Diamine Ancient Copper), Kaweco Skyline Sport (Broad, Herbin Lie de Thé), OHTO Tasche (Medium, Diamine Emerald), Jinhao X750 in gold and black (Medium, Diamine Monaco Red), Jinhao X750 in silver metal (Medium, Diamine Royal Blue), Jinhao 159 (Medium, Herbin Terre de Feu), Parker Urban (Medium, Quink black).
  9. L’Occitane Rose Quatre Reines hand cream.
  10. Miniature bottle of hand sanitizer, because children.
  11. Extremely compact Esprit umbrella, which my mum gave me when I was being too scatty to carry my own.
  12. Handkerchief, the cotton kind: I go through far too many tissues, and this is an attempt to be a little more green. It’s being weighted down by the dog end of a packet of chewing gum.
  13. Lavender Balm from Rose and Co Apothecary, who have the best shop *ever* in Haworth, just opposite the Brontë Parsonage museum.
  14. “Raydori” Traveller’s Notebook: this is a version of the Midori Traveler’s Notebook made by the very talented Ray Blake. It has my name stamped on the front, and a plethora of lovely stuff inside, including a diary and an in-depth DIYFish planner for the month. Tucked into the pen loops are another Coleto (containing different inks from the first, and another mechanical pencil) and a Uni-ball Needlepoint rollerball.
  15. Wallet: this a super-fancy DKNY one from Brown Thomas in Dublin, which my sister-in-law gave me for Christmas a few years ago. I think she knew that, without her, I’d pretty much be using an old envelope as a wallet, because I’m scruffy (witness the fact that there are six times as many pens in this bag as there are items of makeup). Thank you, Mairead: it’s holding up very well!
  16. Bag of needments: a handy little pouch in a tape-measure-print fabric, containing such useful items as paracetamol tablets, plasters, and, appropriately enough, an actual tape measure. It was a present from Polly, who is excellent at spotting things like this.
  17. iPhone 5C, which is not always upside down… It’s in an Otterbox Commuter case, because, again, children.
  18. Concealer. Nothing fancy: I think it might be Rimmel. I’m really not very good at makeup.
  19. Swiss army knife: this is the Climber model, picked largely because a girl should never be without scissors and a corkscrew.
  20. Onya folding shopping bag: I’m so used to the charge for plastic bags in Wales that it feels really odd over the border in England, as people seem to thrust bags on you at every opportunity.
  21. Folding hairbrush. I’m not that much of a scruff…

I hope this has been interesting: I’m off to start the jigsaw-like process of trying to get all the things to fit back in my handbag…


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.

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!

I am a Bad Mother: Part 2. In which I have Gestational Diabetes, and don’t handle it well.

As I said in my last post on this subject, it doesn’t seem as if either my body or my mind likes being pregnant. I can certainly pinpoint the stage when things all started to go wrong the first time around, though: it was when, completely out of the blue, I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes at around 29 weeks. The whole situation was a bit of a mystery. I had no family history of diabetes. I was pretty active, and eating healthily. I hadn’t shown any of the usual symptoms, and indeed I had barely put on any weight at all. Nobody would have had any idea about my underperforming pancreas had it not been for the hospital’s policy of screening all pregnant women for diabetes, whether they were showing symptoms or not. I can’t say for sure whether or not it was a good thing that I was diagnosed. I have to hope that the whole rigmarole was worth it for the boys’ sake. And, who knows? Maybe I would have had the peri- and post-natal depression anyway. What I do know is that it was with the diabetes diagnosis that I started to lose control over my pregnancy, and, to a degree, my sanity.

I think much of the problem the first time around stemmed from the hospital’s “one size fits all” approach to treating the condition. I had gestational diabetes, which, obviously, I must have caused by being grotesquely overweight and persistently gorging myself on chocolates and cheeseburgers. When the diabetes got worse, week-by-week, to the point that I needed insulin to control my blood sugar, well, that meant I clearly wasn’t trying hard enough. The fact that I needed insulin during pregnancy was also clearly an indicator that I was well on the way to type 2 diabetes after the delivery. Why couldn’t I just put some more effort in? Didn’t I have any self-control? Did I actually want my baby to die? Oh, and, by the way, the consultant happened to be running a study of obese mothers with diabetes: did I want to talk to a social worker about my bad food choices and how they would affect my unborn child?

As you can imagine, this was not the most helpful approach for them to have taken.

What was in fact happening was that I started out eating a fairly normal, balanced diet (cutting out, of course, any obvious sugary items), but, in response to the constant criticism from the hospital, I began cutting more and more foods out entirely: not just starches, but all fruit and most vegetables too. By the end of the pregnancy, I was really only eating fish and leafy greens, and I was getting so fixated on my apparent failure to control the diabetes with diet that I was pretty much terrified of eating. As for the weight issue,Lorna and Eoin well, this is me about a week after Eoin was born: you can judge for yourself. I’m afraid I have absolutely no idea who took the picture, and I do look a bit of a state: I was already getting fairly unwell at this point. I think it’s fair to say, though, that I was not obese.

Perhaps if I had been more blasé about the whole thing, it would have been better. However, I was far too determined to do the right thing, and was desperately trying to measure up to the consultant’s impossible standards. Instead of being supported, I was left feeling that everything I did was wrong. I didn’t realise at the time that gestational diabetes inevitably gets worse no matter how carefully you eat, or how much exercise you do: it is your placenta that makes you insulin-resistant, and the only sure way to ameliorate the condition is not to be pregnant any more.

Fast-forward three years, and, having moved cities and now pregnant with Ronan, I was again faced with the likelihood of diabetes. Thinking about how badly the diagnosis had affected me the previous time, I was, understandably, pretty worried about how I and the medical team in this hospital would deal with the situation. At first, things seemed to proceed along the same lines: I had no symptoms whatsoever, and all early tests were clear. Suddenly, around 28 or 29 weeks, I was again diabetic and bracing myself for the anticipated misery. I am incredibly grateful to be able to say that I couldn’t have been more mistaken: the entire medical team was supportive and understanding, and, more to the point, they actually listened to my story and took on board the details of the situation. When I described the meals I had eaten, they didn’t accuse me of lying. When I worried about the severe restrictions I was going to have to place on my diet, they kindly pointed out that this was a temporary condition, and if I needed to take insulin in order to be able to eat a balanced, healthy diet including the occasional piece of fruit, then so be it. When, as was inevitable, my blood sugar started to get harder to control, they didn’t immediately accuse me of illicitly eating chocolates and chips, but rather reviewed my diet and discussed insulin dosage in a measured, sensible manner. They were thorough and caring, but notably absent was the overwhelming sense of blame which had pervaded my first experience. With Eoin, starting insulin was seen as the final confirmation of my absolute failure. With Ronan, it was very definitely a necessary short-term measure, one which would enable me to go on leading a normal life. It might be interesting to note that, while my mental health was so much better during my second experience of diabetes, the physical impact on me was almost identical: again, I put on very little weight (about 2 kilos) up to the point of diagnosis. Again, I promptly lost it immediately I stopped eating any and all cake. Barring my blood glucose levels, I never showed any symptoms of diabetes, and my HbA1c, when I’m not pregnant, is totally normal. Ronan was, like Eoin, not the macrosomic monster-baby you might expect, but rather smack-dab in the centre of the size bell curve. Really, the only difference with my second pregnancy was that I didn’t spend my final trimester hovering between blind panic and a crushing sense of failure.

Again, I have to underline the fact that I am not that kind of doctor. This post is not intended to be a substitute for proper medical advice. What I do want to say, though, is this: if you’re reading this, and you’ve recently been diagnosed with gestational diabetes, please learn from my mistakes. Firstly, it’s honestly quite likely that there’s nothing you could have done about it. People do like to play the blame game when you’re pregnant (and get used to it, because it doesn’t stop when the baby’s born), but it’s entirely possible that you would have been diabetic whatever you had done. While it’s probably not a good idea to prepare for pregnancy by putting on a pile of extra weight, it’s important to note that being large doesn’t inevitably mean you’ll develop gestational diabetes. Other significant risk factors are your age, and whether or not you have a family history of diabetes: there’s really not a great deal you can do to change these. Don’t panic about food, like I did: once you cut out the obvious problem foods (sugars, processed stuff), there’s really nothing to be gained by starving yourself. A low-GI diet should work, but, for heaven’s sake, don’t try to eat a low-fat diet too: get plenty of nuts, avocados, full-fat yoghurt, eggs, cheese and oily fish into yourself. They’ll help to balance out the overall GI of your meals, provide valuable nutrients, and, crucially, keep things tasting good. If you need insulin, make your peace with that. Be grateful that you’re unlikely to need it forever. When you’re pricking your fingers to check your blood glucose, or looking for a new spot in which to inject, remember that there are an awful lot of people for whom this is daily life, not just a frustrating side-effect of a biological process. Understand that, while this may mean you are more likely to develop diabetes later in life, it is not a foregone conclusion. Be sensible, be cautious, but don’t be paralysed by fear, and don’t ever feel that you’ve failed. Take it from me: it isn’t worth losing your mind over.

I am a Bad Mother: Part 1

There’s a deliberately inflammatory title for you, if ever there was one. On one hand, I want to follow it immediately with a desperate reassurance that of course I’m not a bad mother: perish the thought! On the other hand, though, it is precisely this feeling of guilt, of failing, of out-and-out unfitness which has, I think, underscored a lot of the bad experiences I have had around pregnancy and birth. It has certainly been a contributing factor in several years of post-natal, peri-natal and just general depression. For some time, I have contemplated writing a post, or a small series of posts, about this, the intention being in part to articulate some of the problems I have had, and, in doing so, to exorcise them. That’s the hope, anyway: we’ll see if it works. I do, however, have another motivation: at various low points, I have found myself trawling forums and blogs, looking for someone who has been in a similar situation to the one in which I found myself. Whether or not finding such testimony would have done anything to forestall or alleviate the depression, I don’t know, but I do know that I didn’t find anyone who had had experiences all that similar to mine, and that this definitely contributed to my feelings of isolation. I hope that, in writing about my pregnancies and births here, I might be able to help some other worried future reader, if only by letting them know that they’re not alone. Although these posts will inevitably be concerned with medical matters, I must preface everything with the caveat that I Am Not A Doctor (not that kind of doctor, anyway: I’ve never heard of an emergency situation in which someone shouts, “Get me a bibliographer, stat!”). These posts really are my personal thoughts and experiences, and are no substitute for proper medical advice: if you have any concerns about physical or mental health during pregnancy, please speak to your doctor or midwife.

I have come to the conclusion that neither my body nor my mind deals well with pregnancy and its aftermath. From minor annoyances like the Unexpected Pregnancy Nosebleed Epidemic, through gestational diabetes, difficult births and feeding problems, to episodes of depression which left me some pretty dark places, the whole process has felt fraught with difficulty. This is compounded by the fact that it all feels so self-indulgent: you are continually beset by a self-loathing interior monologue telling you that other people have real problems. Other people’s babies have serious disabilities or life-threatening illnesses. Other people’s babies die, for heaven’s sake. Other people suffer debilitating birth injuries. What do you have to complain about? You had a baby and you just plain couldn’t deal with it. You’re pathetic… And so on. It may be a cliché, but it seems to me that, if your mental health is being affected, then you have a problem, no matter whether or not your situation meets some vague criterion of seriousness. It’s totally normal to feel, some of the time, that you’re doing badly as a parent. It is, I would suggest, not normal to respond to a bad day by assessing the contents of your medicine cabinet and asking your child if they would be happier if you weren’t there anymore. It’s normal, when pregnant, to worry about how you’ll cope with your baby. It’s arguably not normal to be considering whether you should have your (very much wanted) baby adopted or have a late termination to save them from having to be raised by an awful person like you.

I don’t know if there is any way I could have avoided this depression, but I do honestly believe that there are ways I could have dealt better with the diabetes, the birth, and the feeding issues. It’s these three factors which I plan to discuss in my next posts: again, remember that I Am Not That Kind Of Doctor, but, if you are in a similar situation to me, I do hope that my experience (and the fact that Eoin, Ronan and I are still here and, mostly, happy) might give you some help or sense of solidarity.

Gardens and printing and spiders: oh, my!

Yarntastic printMy lovely friend Eileen has just set up a new blog, in which she’s writing about gardening and printmaking, with a healthy dose of family life thrown in. There may also be the odd arachnophobia-based story, too, marauding spiders being an occupational hazard to the keen gardener.

Eileen made the fantastic yarn print, above, for me, and the Doctor Who-inspired one below for Eoin, the house’s resident Dalek fan: as you can see, she’s much more artistic than I am! If you like growing things, making things, and reading posts written by a generally top-notch lady, do head over to her blog and check out what she’s up to. Just don’t forget to mind the spiders!

TARD-ish print

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.

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.


An anthology of one’s own

Warning: this will be somewhat picture-heavy, and may be a bit self-indulgent…

I’m sure I’m not alone in being a bit of a stationery geek: I can’t be the only person out there who feels a sense of longing when faced with shelves of beautiful blank notebooks in Waterstone’s, who lusts after Moleskines, who has bought a Traveler’s Notebook not because she needed to document a journey but rather for the sheer joy of possession. I do, however, tend to suffer from a paralysing indecision when confronted with the notebook of my dreams: what should I use it for? What should I write in it? What if I write the wrong thing, mess it up, make myself sound stupid or self-aggrandising or… Argh! Better just to put the book on the bookcase, untouched, and just admire it in its pure state, right?

One Christmas back in the mid-nineties, my uncle gave me what was, in those days, pretty much the platonic notebook. He brought it from America, and I had never seen anything quite like it before. It had thick, creamy pages, it was bound in soft leather and fastened with a thong. Basically, it looked like the sort of volume in which Leonardo da Vinci would have sketched embryonic helicopters, in which Count Almásy would record his affairs and his study of African geology alike, in which Dr Jones senior might document his search for the Holy Grail.1 I loved that notebook with all the strength of my unreasoning passion for stationery, but, of course, I hadn’t got a clue what to do with it. I kept it, untouched, until I went to university. There, studying Renaissance and eighteenth-century literature, I encountered the concept of the commonplace book, and all at once I knew what I was going to write.

Commonplace Book Collage

A commonplace book is, in essence, a sort of literary scrapbook: it’s a repository for extracts from and observations on whatever books the maker might be reading or studying at the time. Sometimes these observations are arranged thematically (John Locke, for example, came up with an influential method of compiling an index to such a book), but mine was more or less a chronological compilation of extracts, added because they resonated with something I was working on at the time. I added to it gradually, sometimes writing a great deal, and sometimes abandoning it for months at a time until another text piqued my interest. I finished my degree, moved to Leeds to study for an MA, then to Preston to teach part-time, then to Florence to take short courses in Italian and Art History. The commonplace book came with me, gradually becoming fatter, more battered, more stuffed with quotations. I finally finished it during the early stages of my PhD, and, for some time, the Commonplace lived on my bookcase, unopened. Recently, though, I took it down from the shelf and began to re-read the entries I had made. It feels horribly vain to say this, but I found it a very beguiling experience: some passages were very familiar, while others seemed to have been written by another person: a lot of time has passed, and I am no longer working in academia. If pressed for a quotation now, I’d probably be just as likely to come up with a line from one of Eoin’s story books. Re-reading the commonplace book was like looking into the life of the person I once was and, far from being the reductive, navel-gazing experience you might imagine, it was actually really interesting.

Although I did not consciously make an effort to order my book thematically, a number of distinct patterns emerge. A lot of the entries are concerned with stories and storytelling: the first entry is a selection from an essay on narrative by Ben Okri, which I found in one of those tiny 60p paperbacks which were all over the place in the mid-nineties. Remember the Penguin 60s? I was an indiscriminate collector both of these and the Phoenix versions, from which I took this extract.

Ben Okri on narrative

Of course, no reflection on stories and storytelling would be complete without a passage from the Arabian Nights:

Scheherazade and the Fall of Troy

The manuscript illumination on the facing page concerns the popular medieval myth of the Fall of Troy and the founding of Britain. Elsewhere, I’ve inserted some passages from A.S. Byatt’s collection of fairy stories, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. The quotation below is from “The Story of the Eldest Princess”: here, in defiance of the usual fairy tale tradition, the eldest princess of three refuses to fall prey to the usual hubris of elder children in quest-fables, and instead forges her own destiny. The quest is then fulfilled by her sister, the second princess, while the youngest princess realises that she is left with no story: “She felt giddy with the empty space around her, a not entirely pleasant feeling. And a frisky little wind got up and ruffled her hair and her petticoats and blew bits of blossom all over the blue sky. And the princess had the idea that she was tossed and blown like the petals of the cherry trees”.

A S Byatt,  Job, Pastiglie

As you can see from this opening, I’ve also quoted from the Book of Job. Reading through the book, there’s a certain amount of Biblical and liturgical quotation, which is unsurprising given that a lot of the literature I was studying at the time was steeped in these traditions. But, my word, there’s a lot of Job. I happen to remember the reason I wrote down this passage: it’s engraved on a glass panel in Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge (because I’m a good librarian, I found the record here).

There’s more Job elsewhere in the book, alongside Shakespeare and Madame de Stäel: in this case, I think the passage stuck in my mind because reminded me of Lord Sepulchrave in Titus Groan (it’s the owls).

Tempest, more Job, Corinne

Hidden under this amaretto wrapper is yet more Job (it was, in passing, the first amaretto I ate: I was amazed by the fact that you could light the papers and watch them float): owls excepted, I think the fascination with the particular book stemmed from the fact that I was reading a lot of Blake and listening to a lot of Vaughan Williams at the time of writing. Hey, I was a Cambridge undergraduate: being a bit pretentious was practically in the job description.

Dickens, Dante, even more Job and an Amaretto wrapper

This passage and the Dante on the previous page were both added after I’d visited the Tate and spent a long time admiring the Blakes (obviously: see above) and Rossettis.

Other frequently-occurring topics, appropriate for an embryonic librarian, were heteroclite collections and unusual taxonomies. As a postgraduate, I did a lot of work on Victorian periodicals: my MA dissertation was on representations of the Great Exhibition in the popular press, which meant that my fascination with apparently unrelated artefacts and texts being jammed together into one varied, eccentric entity was particularly strong at that point. I still love this passage from Foucault which I found at that time, on the arbitrary nature of the ordering principles behind some collections (I wish the Chinese encyclopedia were real, though sadly I suspect that it isn’t):

Foucault's "Chinese Encyclopædia"

This is the beginning of the description of Felicité’s bedroom in “Un cœur simple” by Flaubert: the passage continues, enumerating the pieces of bric-a-brac and the unconsidered trifles the old woman has collected, and which have meaning only for her, and, of course, for the reader.

Flaubert on collections

I’ve just noticed that past-me made a mistake in passage above: “peigne” should, of course, be “peignes”. Oh, the shame… 

Most of the extracts, though, simply passages which caught my attention, without any real thematic connection. As well as Flaubert, there’s Baudelaire and Barrett-Browning, Eliot, Shakespeare and Sappho.

Baudelaire and Barrett BrowningPhlebas the Phoenician in French

Shakespeare and terraced houses

Sappho, Gissing and lots of pressed flowers

Lest anyone worry that I was getting really above myself when I added the Sappho, I should note that Buffy fans may recognise it from the last episode of Season 4 (it’s the poem Willow paints on Tara’s back in “Restless”): I got access to a television during my MA, and it somewhat toned down my attempts to be intellectual!

Historically, many commonplace books were beautiful, lavishly illustrated documents: Henry Tiffin’s commonplace book in the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum, documented here, is one of the loveliest I’ve seen. Similarly, judging from the evidence of Pinterest, an awful lot of people now keep a sort of commonplace book in the form of an illustrated journal, typically heavily decorated with scraps, stickers and washi tape, and often very beautiful. My book was made a long time before these techniques became popular, and I don’t have anything approaching Henry Tiffin’s artistic ability. As you can see, though, I did add photographs, postcards, tickets and suchlike to my commonplace book. Some photographs, like this one of the sea at Lytham, were fairly successful.

Fishermen at Lytham

Others, like this view of Haworth churchyard, were more questionable: I had forgotten I was using a colour film instead of a black and white one, and took all my pictures that day with the addition of a red filter.

Photographic problems

As you can see, it ended up looking rather as if I had taken a day trip to Hades instead of to the Brontë Parsonage Museum. Later on, evidently while I was still thinking about the Brontës and Haworth, I added a postcard of my favourite square in Florence, the less-fashionable Piazza Santo Spirito:

Haworth Churchyard/Santo Spirito

I finally completed the commonplace book during the early years of my PhD: though I tried to start another one at the time, my heart was, for some reason, not in it. I wrapped my finished book up, put it away, and carried on living an un-recorded life. Looking back on it now, though, after some years, I find that the book I made, while it would not win any prizes for being a well-planned aesthetic object, is really rather dear to me. It’s a sort of a time-capsule in volume form, a glimpse back into the life I had a decade and a half ago. Indeed, for the first time in years, I felt the urge to start another commonplace book: I found a Moleskine, wrote my name and the date on the endpaper, and started collecting. I doubt that this book will be in any way as stereotypically learned as the first, made as it was with all the zeal of a student of English Literature. It will, however, be a reflection of my life now (tellingly, it already contains quotations from Elizabeth Zimmerman and Maurice Sendak, and an extract from the Dewey Decimal Classification), and that, after all, is part of the point.

1Apologies for the declining seriousness of these comparisons: I did say it was the mid-nineties, didn’t I?