The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting


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Can’t sleep, won’t sleep: Surviving postnatal insomnia

“Sleep when your baby sleeps.” Yeah, right.

Everyone warns you about disrupted nights, though nothing prepares you for being woken, some nights, every 45 minutes. From two to seven months, two hours was a long sleep for my younger daughter. Even her big sister – no perfect sleeper – had left me totally unready for that.

Nobody warns you that you mightn’t be able to sleep even between those imperious alarm calls. That, as if this amazing, impossible motherhood lark wasn’t challenge enough already, you can be let down by your own body.

Nobody tells you about lying next to a sleeping baby, zombie-tired but irredeemably awake. About the time sliding by as your thoughts run in unproductive but unstoppable circles. Exhausted frustration to near-resignation. Then another cycle of almost-but-not-quite-dropping-off. Finally, sobbing panic at the thought of the long, fast-approaching day. A day with two infinitely valuable, infinitely demanding little persons to be kept alive and fed and happy.

No-one tells you about listening for your baby’s slightest movement. One moment hearing her stir and deciding it’s pointless trying to sleep when she could wake any second. The next panicking because you can’t hear her, and waking her yourself to ascertain that, yes, she is still breathing. About how sometimes you will end up waking her to feed, hoping the ensuing sleep will be a chance to sleep yourself. (It wasn’t, usually.) Or how you will tell yourself what a terrible mother you are to have disturbed her. (Those are not the hours for rationality.)

At least, nobody told me. I hadn’t heard of postnatal insomnia until I had Little L. Then, frantically Googling (usually at 2am), I found only brief mentions on the official websites, usually as a codicil to postnatal depression. It was only by trawling through the message boards that I found other new mothers grappling with it as a standalone problem. (Or perhaps not entirely standalone. Looking back, I can see how easily that tear-drenched middle-of-the-night panic could have spiralled into PND.) But, because it is a very real problem, and in the hope of helping someone else, here is how I got through my months of sleep deprivation.

Co-sleeping. I never planned to do it: it rang all the alarm bells in my risk-averse head. But when I only had to wriggle across to feed L. to sleep, then back to my side of the bed, I didn’t ever have to wake up all that much. And – an unexpected benefit – I loved it so much that I wished I’d done it first time round. (Tip for the similarly cautious: under-the-sheet bed guards. They stopped her rolling into me and under the duvet, but I could lie across them to breastfeed.)

Talking books. I tried some of the standard insomnia tips. Prescription and even over-the-counter drugs are, alas, incompatible with breastfeeding. So I was left with camomile tea (For weeks, I kept it by the bed.) With not staring at a screen before or in bed. (The 2am Googling: bad idea.) A hot bath. (Like, when exactly?) I even tried downloading what claimed to be a self-hypnosis insomnia cure. (I ended up more awake than ever, but distracted by planning methods of torture for the deeply annoying narrator.) Talking books actually blocked out that unproductive escalation of worry. Books I loved, but knew inside out already. They tricked me into sleep because I wasn’t thinking about it. It didn’t always work, but it did more often than anything else.

Early nights. For the insomniac, it’s a case not of sleeping when the baby lets you but finding out when you can sleep, and moving heaven and earth to make space for it. For me, that meant going to bed almost as soon as my toddler did. Then, I could grab a few straight hours while L. was carted round the house in the sling on her dad, or cuddled by whichever aunt or grandparent was to hand.

Friends. Girls I could text after a bad night, begging them to come round, warning them I was liable to burst into tears at any moment. Friends who showed up in twos or threes, loaded with cake and their own toddlers to entertain mine, who carried Little L. around when she cried, picked up A. when she tumbled over, and barely let me get out of my chair. Those expensive antenatal classes we did the first time round? Totally, totally worth it: they brought these indispensable ladies into my life.

Acceptance. The single most useful piece of advice I found in all my obsessive online research was that there is no miracle cure. Two friends saying of the two hourly wake-ups: “That’s just what it’s like when you are exclusively breastfeeding” was about the most helpful thing I could hear. After that, I wasn’t constantly thinking: “Oh I can’t wait to crack the sleeping so I can enjoy parenting again.” I was relishing her already. And it means so much, looking back, that I didn’t let the sleep crap undermine that.

The truth is, we can deal with it. Even a double whammy of insomnia and a six-feeds-a-night-baby. Once I found I could cope even with only an hour’s sleep, I was spared that 5am how-will-I-get-through-the-day panic. Yes, there was more Peppa Pig than I ever thought I would countenance, and I felt – and still feel – terrible at how much snappier the tiredness made me with my adorable A. But I knew I could keep both girls fed and cleanish and mostly cheerful, even if I was on reserve battery myself. Armed with the swat team of friends and cake, I even laughed my way through some of those zombie afternoons.

And while insomnia has nothing going for it, there is something to be said for the baby-led night-time wake ups. With a toddler and a houseful of chores, quality time with a second baby is thin on the ground. From that first besotted night in hospital, thinking how crazy I was to worry I couldn’t love a second baby as much, the night feeds have been just for me and Little L. For all the tears (mine and hers), there are memories that I will treasure. That moment when she stops raging and begins her trusting, shut-eyed questing. Her happy, snuffling noises. That warm, cuddly intimacy, even through the haze of exhaustion.

L. is nine months old now and at least starts the night in the cot. Her dad handles some wake ups, she’s down to two or three a night, and I (mostly) sleep better. I wouldn’t say I’ll be sad when she eventually sleeps through, but there will be some things I’ll miss, after all.


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The supporting role: being a birth partner

“Never underestimate how hard labour is… for the man.”

So said a friend’s husband after his first child was born. Of course, we all mocked him mercilessly at the time. But I take it back. Being a birth partner IS hard – you just don’t realise until you are one.

I have now been a birth partner one and a half times. Half, because I was almost there when my first niece was born. I was with my sister, L, at the hospital for a couple of hours up until she was taken into theatre for an assisted delivery.

I know first-hand the positive difference a good birth partner can make. I was determined to appear calm, reassuring and positive at all times, masking my omnipresent fear that something might go wrong. Considering how well L knows me, this was a task in itself. I wanted to be the greatest support to her, both physically and emotionally, that I possibly could.

Before my own first labour I had written an essay in the “birth plan” sections of my maternity notes. Nothing went to plan and I felt increasingly terrified and out of control.

More than anything I had wanted to avoid that for L, but it wasn’t to be. My disappointment for her was combined with frustration that I hadn’t really been able do anything to help. Of course the important thing was that appropriate medical intervention was available where necessary and ultimately mother and baby were fine, but it was far from the birth that L had planned.

For my second labour, my birthing plan contained a single word: “epidural”. I believe L’s was similarly concise. I got my wish and had a very positive experience. When L’s second time came I headed to the hospital hoping for the same for her.

L’s partner T and I are two of the people who know her best. Each of us has a unique relationship with her, meaning we were able to provide stronger and more wide-reaching support as a team than either of us could as individuals.

T was far better than me at providing physical support. He knew, and was able to show me, the exact way L wanted her back rubbed during contractions. We took it in turns but he was more successful – I couldn’t believe how hard she wanted it done and feared hurting her. We both willingly sacrificed our hands for her to crush during the agony of ever-closer contractions, but T was the one who could provide comfort by holding her.

Emotionally, I think I had the edge.

When it came to empathy, I didn’t have to use my imagination. I know only too well how agonising labour is and how frightening it can be. I remembered what I had wanted and needed, and because L is so like me in many ways, I assumed (largely correctly) that her wants and needs would be similar. Plus, I have known her my entire life. We are so close that we know how the other’s mind works, and at times have an almost paranormal ability to read each other’s thoughts.

When the midwife tried to persuade her to use the gas and air, L kept shoving it away saying it made her feel like she was suffocating. I knew she was recalling the feeling of being unable to breathe underwater which has always terrified both of us when scuba diving. I was able to explain this to the bemused midwife, who then knew to stop pressuring her to use it.

The one thing I wish someone had done for me was help me control my breathing. As a result I became almost obsessive about it with L. Through every contraction I reminded her not only to breathe but how to breathe (“Breathe in through your nose, now breathe out through your mouth…”) A small part of me worried she would get irritated, but I figured she could always tell me to **** off. It wouldn’t be the first time. But I need not have worried – afterwards, she told me she found it incredibly helpful.

When the midwife finally accepted that gas and air wasn’t cutting it, the anaesthetist was busy elsewhere (by the time she was available it was too late.) L started to show signs of panic. T’s gentle and reassuring approach failed to calm her down so I became necessarily brutal and told her sharply to pull herself together.

I don’t think that she’d have taken it from anyone but me, and I doubt anyone but me would have known instinctively that she needed to hear it. Fair play to her – that was the last we heard about not being able to do it.

It is distressing seeing anyone suffering, let alone someone you love dearly, but in the event I was surprisingly dispassionate. Perhaps the inevitability of labour and birth made it easier to detach from L’s immediate pain and focus on helping her get through it.

For me, the worst part of either of L’s labours was when I wasn’t there. It was the 45mins when my first niece was being delivered in theatre. I was waiting outside, with no idea what was going on. Unable to offer L anything by way of support, I felt completely out of control as well as terrified something was wrong. At times of high anxiety I get eczema across the backs of my hands. By the time a midwife came to tell me that L and baby were safe and well, I was bleeding across my knuckles.

When my second niece was born, I was right there and it was incredible. Snapshop memories: the outstanding bravery my sister showed summoning up all her reserves of energy to push her daughter into the world; the sound of the baby crying when only her head was out (unusual, apparently – normally their lungs are too squashed); her perfect, tiny body as she was born; the moment when the midwife put her straight into her mother’s arms as T said “it’s a girl” and all the pain and fear of the past few hours just melted away.

The baby wasn’t the only one in the room who cried.

My advice to anyone privileged enough to be asked to be a birth partner is this: (1) Accept – you will never see anything so amazing in your whole life. (2) Be calm and positive throughout – if you are scared do not let it show. (3) Do your research: ask in advance what the expectant mother wants from you. I forgot to ask L, relying instead on instinct derived from our close relationship and my own experiences. Next time I will ask her. Oh hang on, she says there is never, ever, ever going to be a next time…


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Mama fat: why I won’t worry about weight loss this time round

Some pregnant women put on a bump, and that’s it. No other discernible weight at all. Not just photo-shopped celebrities either: women I see on a regular basis. From the back, you would never guess they were pregnant.

Well, I’m not one of them. Nearly seven months in and I look almost as inflated from the back as I do from the front. From the side, I look like Daddy Pig. When I reveal my due date, it is to barely suppressed disbelief that it is not, in fact, tomorrow.

I know from last time that it’ll be the same after the birth. Week after week, another new mum friend would show up to our get-togethers in her pre-pregnancy jeans, apparently effortlessly lithe, while I continued to look five months pregnant (on a good day).

And last time it bothered me, absurdly if, I gather, typically. It wasn’t so bad when I was actually pregnant and could pretend I just looked blooming. But even then – even amid the fear and excitement of preparing for birth – I found time to notice how many of the other mothers in my antenatal classes had not acquired my generous contours. (And when I stop to think about that, WTF? You can bet your life our partners weren’t sitting there worrying that the other dads were taller/fitter/less bald than they were, and they weren’t the ones who had shortly to shove a baby out of a small hole.)

Then, barely over the terrors of a first few weeks when weight loss (our beloved new daughter’s) had given T. and me quite enough real stuff to worry about – and still struggling through an endless grind of expressing, feeding, expressing to make up for my abject failure as a dairy cow – I was noticing again. Noticing that nothing fitted except maternity clothes, that my stomach had all the resilience of a deflating balloon. Spotting a theme to our new-family photos: Little A gorgeous (if frighteningly small), T. proud (if tired)… Oh, and what the hell is that? Jabba the Hutt’s flabbier sister, squashing herself into the frame. In one early snapshot of A., I mistook my thighs for the sofa.

Months two to six were when I really minded. Not so much that I stopped cramming as much food as I could into myself. (Mostly cereal bars: I retained sufficient sense of proportion to mind very much more about getting the milk supply up. Plus I’m basically greedy.) But enough to feel conspicuously un-yummy mummy when I was out and about, to waste a whole lot of time and energy stressing about it, and to start exercising very much sooner – in retrospect – than I should have. I even went to one of those buggy fit classes, lumbering around at the back of a pack of already (it seemed) marathon-ready fellow mums, failing abysmally to do a single press up, trying to ignore the fact that any kind of formalised exercise class has been an anathema to me since the ritual humiliation of PE lessons at school. To add insult to injury, none of this made any difference at all.

This time, though, one thing will have changed: I’ll be trying my very hardest not to care. That’s partly my promise to the child I already have: a small girl brimming with energy and appetite, who already notices everything, and whose main role model I am. I have no desire to pass on any weight-related neurosis to her. (Which, apparently, I all-too easily could.) But it’s also my promise to myself, born of the period of perspective I can now look back on, when the hormones had settled down after delivering and feeding Little A. but before they went crazy again this time around.

Because, of course, it was stupid to mind. Understandable, given the barrage of “lose the baby weight” magazine headlines and parade of improbably skinny celebrity mums – surely they can’t all be flat stomached at four-weeks post-partum? – but stupid nonetheless. Stupid partly because, as it happened, a lot of the extra weight came off of its own accord in the second six months, when I cut down the breastfeeding and (oh the irony!) the exercising. (Some of it never did, and that’s OK too: I just have a new “natural” size.) But stupid mainly because there’s quite enough of emotional turmoil, good and bad, in early parenting, without adding something so completely trivial to the mix.

When I look back on my first months with Little A. (and, fingers crossed, her brother or sister), I will remember the life-changing love and life-changing terror. I will think about those warm, sleepy cuddles, the agony and joy of breastfeeding, those delicious, gummy smiles. About how my own baby’s crying sears me like a physical pain, about the quiet desperation of never getting enough sleep. I will think how short those days really are: how quickly our babies grow and become someone else. More wonderful and more engaging every day, but no longer that new, fragile, helpless little person.

I won’t look back on how long it took me to squeeze back into my favourite dresses, or care if that pair of jeans never made it past my hips again. Of course, I would care if I never got back into running or climbing, or getting out into the hills again, but that’s different. That’s about being healthy – and doing something that keeps me reasonably sane – not just body image.

So that’s what I remind myself of, now the hormones have me in their grasp and the media wants me to believe that I should be able to produce a baby one minute, model a bikini the next. When I catch a glimpse in a full-length mirror, I laugh, or remind myself what an amazing thing that rapidly-ballooning body is doing, and how lucky I am that it can do it. And afterwards? Well, Kate Middleton may be paparazzi-perfect within hours of her daughter’s birth; for me, it would take a few centuries longer. But if I have a healthy, happy baby, and I’m getting even a modicum of sleep, I’m just going to be grateful for that.

As for that third of new mothers who, apparently, feel pressurised to lose their baby weight to please their partner, they need to change something in their lives, but I don’t think it’s their body shape.

 

 

 

 

 


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Daddy-time: Why we all loved paternity leave

A couple of weeks into paternity leave with our eight month-old daughter, my partner T. phoned me at work.

Him: Would you like to meet for lunch?
Me: [Delighted] How lovely. Yes. Where are you?
Him: Just down the road. We’re outside A&E.
Me: WHAT?
Him: [Hastily] But it’s OK, we’ve been in, and she’s fine.
Me: What happened?
[Pause]
Him: A pan fell on her head.
Me: [Horrified silence]
Him: [Small voice] But only a little one.

So far, so stereotypical. But that was more than a year ago, and we’ve all survived. More than that: sharing the parental leave was one of the best things we’ve done.

For him… well, he can speak for himself. [And does, below.] A. got to forge a close bond with an already adoring father which will last her all of her life. More immediately, she didn’t have to take one huge step (doing without me) at the same time as another (starting nursery). For me, it was a chance to reduce the hit that maternity leave inevitably takes on a mother’s career but without, in the first instance, having to leave my beloved little dot with strangers. (I went back three days a week at first, and that helped too.)

It was good for us all in another way, too: it forced me to shift from keeping a steely grip on baby-related decision-making to being prepared to trust him. More than that: to accept that, for a while, he would know more about her routine, her development, her likes and dislikes, than I did.

That wasn’t easy at first. I’d been her primary carer from the day she was born: breastfeeding (after a traumatic start), learning to make sense of her wants, getting some kind of a grip on her routine. Then weaning her, encouraging her, watching her past each milestone. Learning slowly how to be a parent, and then learning again, by changing every day how I did things. And all the time having her there, close by me, kissable on demand and almost always consolable in my arms or at my breast. Now, I had to hand her over, knowing he would make mistakes, wouldn’t do as I did, wouldn’t be able to reassure her as quickly as I could.

To make it even harder, for nearly six weeks of those months of intense mother-baby bonding T. hadn’t seen her at all. He’d been overseas for work. My first day back at the office, Little A.’s aunt would have done better on a “what does she need when?” quiz than her father. Probably her five year-old cousin would have.

For all that, it worked. For a few days, T. phoned me every half hour to check some small detail of routine or ask me where her shoes were. For a week after that, I was phoning him almost as often – for reassurance. The only person who adjusted seamlessly was Little A. herself. But we got there. And it was almost worth the stress of learning to leave her, to come back in the evenings to small chubby arms reaching out of a high chair, and a radiant smile on a food-smeared face.

True, T. didn’t – still doesn’t – look after Little A. exactly in the way I would. There was an awful lot of what he calls independent play and I call leaving her on the floor while he gets on with his own stuff. But then independence is a useful trait. Plus she wouldn’t have been up so many of Edinburgh’s hills on my back, nor been introduced at so early an age (ever, probably) to the joys of ornithology. And at least I came home to find my supper cooking away on the hob, which is more than T. did when I was on mat leave.

As for his pan-related blip? Well, probably the biggest challenge to co-parenting (for me) is coming to terms with different attitudes to risk. But, being charitable, parenting is a steep learning curve, and it’s even steeper, in some ways, if you are suddenly presented with a crawling, grabbing little monster, than if you can build up to it through the transition from staying put to reaching, rolling, udging, etc. And I’ve said it before: if we can’t force ourselves to leave dads to get on with the childcare, un-micro-managed, we’ll always be the “experts”, and we’ll always be expected to do all the work.

That’s where the new legislation comes in. For a month now, dads in England and Wales have been able to share parental leave. They even get some statutory pay for. Let’s hope it makes a difference: in 2013, only 1 in 172 dads was taking additional paternity leave. (For an exception, see my fellow blogger.) Even in Scotland, where some sharing was already an option, T. was very much the exception among our friends and colleagues.

I’m not sure how optimistic to be. Employers can always find more subtle ways to discourage new fathers: making them feel more vulnerable to redundancy, or encouraging a macho culture in which this just isn’t “done”. (In 2014, around 2 in 5 dads didn’t even take the paternity leave they were entitled to, apparently believing there was a social stigma around it.) There’s also the financial aspect.

And, of course, it’s not for everyone. Some mums, understandably enough, don’t want to give up any of this precious time. (As one friend put it: “The day he takes some of the pregnancy off me is the day he gets some of the maternity leave.”) But I can’t believe that the current imbalance is down to no other couples wanting to do it. So fingers crossed. As for us, we’re hoping to be able to do it again, this time next year.

T. says:

Why don’t we have five day weekends and two day weeks? A common refrain in many an office. Well, when I took paternity leave that’s exactly what I got. Five days of fun every week. Only two days of paid work, right enough, but one of us was always going to take the leave and we’re paid roughly the same so the family income wasn’t affected.

Setting it up was a breeze: the HR manager at work ran the process like clockwork. Technically I was not on paternity leave, as employment law stipulates that one cannot take that part-time. Instead I made a formal flexible-working arrangement for three months. My employers could have rejected my request but had they done so I could have forced the issue by requesting paternity leave and working no days. This arrangement suited both parties – they got me for two days of the working week and I got Little A. for three.

I took the leave from January to April. I was never worried about my ability to take care of A. but I was aware it would take some getting used to. Was I prepared? What would I forget? With this in mind, I took a day’s holiday and had a practice run. A. and I went to the museum and met a friend for lunch with Liz at home ready to help out if necessary. As it was, it all went well and when the big day came we happily waved Liz off to work and got ready for our day.

It was easy enough; A. was still sleeping twice per day so we went for long walks up the local hills while she did so. Between times we shopped or played, or she played and I cooked and cleaned. I also got to join the weekly meet-ups of the mothers and babies from our NCT group, which up to that point had been a mostly all-female affair. They were one of the highlights of my week. A. was lovely to spend time with but her conversation was rubbish.

While I have no problem with Liz’s parenting style, it is not the same as mine. I am far more willing than Liz to let A. try something and fail before helping her. I also have more faith in her ability to bounce – both literally and metaphorically. A bruise won’t kill her and nor should a setback stop her trying. The three months of Daddy-time allowed me to shape my daughter in the ways I wanted; they also let me learn how to care for her.

So do it: it gives you time off work; it give you precious time to be fly solo and finally it lets you bring up your kid in the way you want. One note of caution, though: don’t drop pans on your child’s head; trips to A&E are a real waste of time.


The Big C: one mother’s journey through breast cancer

We might not find it particularly easy or even joyful, but we all know the benefits of breastfeeding. Immune support. It’s there on tap with no need to sterilise bottles. It can help provide protection from breast cancer… The list goes on.  Although not particularly blessed in the breast department, I managed to (just about) feed each of my boys for at least five months, and encouraged other mums to do the same through my role as chair of a local NCT group. I was an exercise fanatic, I didn’t smoke, didn’t drink that much (although I’m not a saint), I wasn’t overweigh… I was not expecting to be told, at the age of 33 and barely a year after my second son was born, that I had breast cancer.

Early detection is absolutely critical and I thank my lucky stars that I decided to go and tell my GP, on that wet morning in late August 2010, that I had found a small lump, no bigger than a frozen pea, in my left breast. Some months down the line, my GP confessed that she nearly didn’t refer me to the screening clinic as she was convinced it was nothing, given I had only just weaned my youngest son off breast milk. It was only because I had burst into tears on her that she decided to make an appointment for me.

At the clinic, I wasn’t too concerned. The consultant did an ultrasound and then her demeanour changed from chatty to businesslike and she said she wanted to do a biopsy and a mammogram. Still I wasn’t worried! It didn’t occur to me that women my age who have followed all (well, nearly all) the rules for healthy living, should get cancer. She said that there was something there but it was highly likely to be benign and we would know more in a week.

The day of the results was a bright autumn day in September 2010 (I can remember the date, the time, what I was wearing). My husband P and I were taken into a side room at the clinic and the consultant said: “Your results have come back and I’m afraid to say that it is breast cancer. But it is early stage so there is a lot we can do about it.” At this point she paused. I remember just sitting there, numb to the core. Cancer? Really?? That word meant surgery, hair loss, death. Still I felt numb – no words came to me. The consultant carried on talking through the treatment plan, and she wanted to perform another biopsy as they thought there was another tumour alongside the first. I wasn’t really taking it all in. I remember turning to P and seeing his face absolutely blanch. All I could think was that I wouldn’t see my little boys grow up, in fact would I even see Christmas? Did early stage mean I had months, rather than weeks or days to live? The consultant was, by this stage, beckoning me over to another room for the biopsy. I asked P to call my mum – I knew I couldn’t tell her, she had lost her sister to breast cancer five years ago, was she about to lose her daughter too?

I still wasn’t able to speak or even feel anything, even through the ordeal of an x-ray biopsy (being sandwiched in a mammogram machine for over 40 minutes whilst the doctor periodically took images and then samples). In fact it wasn’t until the consultant led me back into the waiting room to see P that I fell apart. The room was full of ladies over 60. I suddenly realised the enormity of this and how young I was and I collapsed on the floor, sobbing. A kind nurse appeared and she and P got me to a side room and sat with me, holding my hand, hugging me and passing me tissues until I had cried it all out. I have never cried that much in my life, it just wouldn’t stop.

The days that followed blurred into one. My mother, although utterly shocked, rallied and came down to help with the boys. H, my eldest, had just turned four and had started reception. S, aged one, was in nursery. Appointments at the hospital merged together, meetings with consultants, oncologists, breast care nurses, leaflets, leaflets, leaflets. It was decided that radical surgery and immediate reconstruction would be the best plan and so, just ten days after that initial diagnosis, I was in the Royal Surrey County Hospital, Guildford.

The surgery itself was an epic seven-hour ordeal followed by a two-week recovery in hospital, surrounded by elderly ladies who all looked at me pityingly, their heads tilted sideways. And then I met Helen – a bubbly, wonderful mum of two (slightly older than mine) who was in the bed across from me. Helen was recovering from an infection in one of her reconstructed breasts, following a double mastectomy (she had the BRCA 1 gene and had found a lump that was quite advanced and aggressive).

She would perch on my bed as I lay there in a morphine-induced fog, surrounded by drips and machines, chattering away and really making me laugh. The night we ordered take away pizza because the food was so vile and watched x-factor curled up on my bed was the night I knew I was going to get through this.

At this point just thinking about my little boys threw me into a state of complete panic and fear. My only experience with cancer had been losing my aunt and so that was my frame of reference. Whilst in hospital and then recovering at home it was obviously impossible for me to function normally as a mother, although we kept everything as low key as possible in front of them. I never wanted them to visit me in hospital because it would have been too traumatic for them. For the first few operations, I was on the ladies cancer ward which is a very difficult place for a child to comprehend and anyway, the risk of them bringing in infection would have been too great. Plus, as a survival instinct, I had mentally detached myself from Anna – the Mother, although I kept photos of them next to my bed and welcomed their cards, pictures and paper flowers.

The other mothers at H’s school and our local friends were incredible. We had meals cooked and delivered for us and one lovely friend even washed H’s PE kit each Friday night so I didn’t have to worry about it. My parents and in-laws were fantastic too and took turns to come and stay so that I could really rest and recover. After leaving hospital, I was initially in so much pain that I couldn’t do anything apart from move very slowly and carefully around the house. Not being able to drive for eight weeks was tough as well. H knew something wasn’t right but we kept the atmosphere as happy and ‘normal’ as possible. He could see the dressings on my back quite clearly and we told him I had had an operation on my back which seemed to satisfy him. The most important thing was to keep up the charade that everything was ok – that helped P and I keep our heads together.

It wasn’t really until about three months later that I found the boys helped me to focus on getting better and feeling positive. I would often lie awake at night thinking about the ‘what if’ and then I would creep into their rooms and watch them sleep.

Because of the extensive surgery and the removal of most of my lymph nodes, the consultant and oncologist were satisfied that the cancer hadn’t spread and thus ruled out any chemo or radiotherapy. I would have to go on hormone therapy for at least five years as the tumours were triple positive (which meant they were fed mostly by oestrogen so it was imperative to remove this hormone from my system to prevent future recurrence). Those first few months post surgery and diagnosis were hard and both P and I were tired, stressed and irritable. I had to go through more operations to fix the reconstruction and I have chronic nerve damage to my back as a result of the reconstruction. The hormone therapy drug, Tamoxifen, caused my body to react so badly that I ended up having a hysterectomy (hilariously, just a week after P had put himself through a vasectomy).

The hardest phase was actually about six months after my official diagnosis, when all the hospital visits started to peter out. I became anxious and fearful and wouldn’t leave the house. Friends still came over to jolly me along but I was terrified and the enormity of it all hit me like a truck. I ended up having counselling and was put on anti depressants. Looking back, I think it was really to be expected – I had spent too long pretending to be fine and never really got to grips with how I actually felt. I bottled it all up and eventually the lid blew off.

It was terrifying to have a taste of my own mortality at a time when P and I had only really just got our heads around being parents. We tried desperately to be upbeat in front of the boys but it didn’t always work out that way. Talking to H now (aged eight), I asked him if he remembered those months when he had started school and his view was that he knew something was up but that he is glad he didn’t know the full extent as it didn’t upset him. I have since told him what happened and we talked through what cancer is and how, given the right and also timely treatment, it can be 100 per cent curable. It is more poignant now as there have been other mums in his school who have been diagnosed and so he is able to offer kind words and support to those boys who are upset – it’s not something I ask him to do, he just wants to. I am very proud of the way in which he has dealt with everything and he is now a remarkably sensitive and kind little boy. S is still too young to understand, but I will tell him when he’s old enough.

I also realise I was lucky. I use that word carefully, because I clearly wasn’t lucky to get cancer in the first place but I was lucky to have found it early and for it to have been treatable. I was also lucky to have the support of an amazing group of doctors, nurses, family and friends who helped P, me and our two little boys through those really dark times.

Guest blogger: Anna

To mark the end of her five year remission, Anna will be running the Virgin London Marathon in April 2015 for Breast Cancer Care – a charity that gave her so much support through their helplines, young women support groups and publications. Every penny goes towards helping another person through the fear and uncertainty of a cancer diagnosis. If you would like to sponsor her, please go to: www.justgiving.com/Annalisa-Alexander1


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Nativity hazards: parental expectation and the Christmas camel

Two years ago, with Christmas fast approaching during the Heir’s nursery year at school, the following exchange took place:

The Heir’s teacher: I asked your son to be Joseph in the Christmas Play.
Me: [Surge of maternal pride]
Teacher: But he didn’t want to be Joseph.
Me: Oh dear.
Teacher: He saw the other costumes and has chosen to be…
Me: [brief moment of hope reignited – a shepherd? a wise man?]
Teacher: … A camel.
Me: [hope fades]

In fairness, the Heir embraced his chosen role with enthusiasm, and managed on the big day to at least appear to be in the right place at the right time throughout. If I had never before seen a camel divide its time between picking its nose and fiddling with its genitals, I was merely grateful that the latter remained inside his camel costume for the duration.

Similarly, when the Spare made his theatrical debut on the same stage a few short weeks ago, it coincided with a seasonally inappropriate enthusiasm for naturism. While all around me parents willed their little darlings to remember song lyrics and steps, I prayed that mine would keep his clothes on.

Having now enjoyed/endured (delete as appropriate) a grand total of four pre-prep nativity plays, I have a healthy respect for the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. No wonder the teachers look exhausted by the end of term – those twenty-odd minutes the children spend on stage represent hours and hours of hard work scripting, rehearsing, creating costumes and generally ensuring that everything is perfect for an audience of expectant parents.

The first problem these long-suffering staff encountered was at the casting stage: the Spare came triumphantly home and announced that he was going to be a polar bear in his year’s nativity. Intrigued to know how such an unlikely animal might be scripted into the traditional setting, I questioned his teacher who confirmed this was just wishful thinking on the part of the Spare. I wondered briefly whether his sheer strength of mind might result in a hasty relocation of Bethlehem to the Arctic Circle, and was relieved when, reconciled to the absence of his favourite animal, he chose instead to be a star.

Then there is the learning of lines and songs. As both my sons are currently obsessed with all things lavatorial, it came as no surprise when rehearsing the songs at home that they quickly replaced several key official words with base interjections of their own. Cue much sniggering and egging each other on to further excesses of silliness until almost every other word of several songs had been substituted. After many fruitless attempts to make them stick to the correct lyrics, I decided to turn a deaf ear and thankfully they were neither brave nor foolish enough to treat their teachers to their own versions.

On the big day, the audience were requested, politely but firmly, not to wave at their children whilst on stage as they would be “in character”. We were also asked not to use flash photography because not only would it distract the children but would interfere with the quality of the professional DVD that was being recorded (yours for £16…) The DVD creates an additional hazard the savvy parent quickly learns to avoid – being interviewed on the way out and immortalised on camera. The first year O and I can be glimpsed ducking out of the way, but we have now perfected the art of lurking behind until some other poor soul has been preyed upon then making a dash for freedom. This is probably a good thing as I am not sure my contribution of “that was hysterical” would be greatly appreciated among the misty-eyed “it was wonderful”s and “they did so well”s delivered by other, more sentimental parents.

Of course I do think it is wonderful and I am thrilled that my boys have the confidence to stand on stage and deliver lines to a packed theatre at such a young age, but thus far my overwhelming feeling afterwards has been of relief that they weren’t centre of attention for all the wrong reasons. Hopefully the year will come when I can just sit back, relax and enjoy the show, but I am not quite there yet.


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Double standards and the hands-on dad

They’re not as light as they look, are they, children? The picture of the buggy on the Mamas and Papas website portrays a svelte hipster in an achingly nice sweater propelling his Little Darling along without a care in the world. Probably he would glide casually up Gipsy Hill. Well, I’m no hipster. I’m an overweight 1990s throwback and I used to dislike climbing up that hill when all I had to do was pick up our curry for two from Crystal Palace. With my child in tow I have seriously considered crampons and a rope.

It’s the trips first thing that bite the hardest, when the air is cold and apparently serrated as it stabs its way down to my pounding lungs; my legs still ache from wandering aimlessly around the lounge the night before fruitlessly trying to settle The Boy; and my head aches from dehydration because for some days now there hasn’t really been enough time to pour myself a glass of water. When I reach the top I pause and gaze back over London. I pretend it’s to enjoy the view, but when you’re basically crying because you’re so unfit you can’t see much anyway. I stop simply so I don’t keel over. It is on such a morning and in just such a state of obliterated reverie that a woman stops her car at the traffic lights, winds her window down and yells at me: “Nice to see a father doing a shift for a change!”

I don’t react, partly because I haven’t regained the power of speech after my mountaineering exertions, but mostly because I am a little shocked at being screamed at, and bewildered by what might cause someone to reach such as state of agitation that they bawl at me in the middle of the road before driving on. How egregious must my gender appear to her to be, that it should provoke such an odd reaction to the sight of a man pushing his child up a hill?

The Boy is sick, a consequence of eating mud, or poo, or another child’s finger, or some such hostile infiltrator of our carefully and endlessly sterilised and disinfected existence, and I am off to Sainsbury’s to buy some form of chemical plug for his effervescent rear end. His front end is pretty volatile when it comes to that, and my lurch up Gipsy Mountain has been accompanied by bouts of prolonged, agonized screeching. All illnesses suffered by an infant are of course exacerbated by their immediately catching a cold. In short, his world is ending, the ravens are leaving the tower, all is lost, and worse still his teeth are all hurty. Happily we are still at the stage where the dummy is a pacifier rather than a useful projectile weapon, and so it is that, finally becalmed, we mooch forlornly around the aisles looking for his medicine.

I used self-service supermarket tills long before The Boy was born, essentially because I am a misanthrope, and any form of interaction avoidance technology is absolutely fine by me. But there is a flaw in the system, a loophole exposed by The Boy’s company and ruthlessly exploited by enemy forces. The prowling assistant whose job it is to relieve bagging areas of their unexpected items will make a beeline for any buggy. The one in Crystal Palace Sainsbury’s is particularly persistent. “Breathe on her,” I plead with The Boy inwardly as she inevitably approaches, “breathe on her hard. Give her your cold. It’s the only way she’ll learn. It’s too late for us, but you might just save others.”

“Isn’t he amazing?” asks the assistant, apparently rhetorically, bending over the buggy. I smile. As it happens I agree with her. The Boy glares. We routinely tell friends The Boy takes against that it’s random and he’s just in a bad mood. He isn’t. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He just doesn’t like you, and he doesn’t like the persistent assistant in Crystal Palace Sainsbury’s.

“You’re amazing,” she continues, firmly unabashed, “but you don’t need that, do you.” With that she reaches into the buggy, removes the dummy from his mouth, and then wanders off to help someone buying a six pack of Tennent’s who can’t do so without its being verified that he is eighteen. That it’s 8.30 in the morning, and the singular odour of the individual in question suggests that he’s already put away three or four, is not an impediment to the persistent assistant’s willingness to verify, cheered as she is by her heart-warming encounter with my child, fortified by the sense that she has righted a hapless father’s mistake.

You will think I should have said something to this idiot. You might say I should have retorted with something sharp and witty to the woman who stopped her car to yell at me. I should certainly have said something unpleasant to the toothy Underground gate attendant who, having obsequiously held the luggage gate open for the improbably attractive mother pushing the ostentatiously vast pram, let it swing back on The Boy and me at Tower Hill. I might have been more aggressive in pursuit of a seat on the train home from London, when all those miserable bastards looked up, thought, “he’s a man, he’ll cope” and stayed exactly where they were. I could have pulled my colleague up when, after what I will admit was a fairly melodramatic, morning-after rendering of the story of what a nightmare The Boy had been when I tried to get him to go to sleep the night before, she replied with a sympathetic tut and the line “sometimes they just want their mum, don’t they…”

The truth is my stock reaction to all of these offences – and they are offensive, not innocent mistakes or me taking it wrongly, but considered, prejudiced views of fathers generally – is to smile weakly and walk on. The anger hits me ten minutes later, when having run the incident or conversation back through my mind I realise that it would not have happened had The Boy’s mother been pushing the buggy. The delay is caused by the fact that the prejudice is in me too. I can’t very well be morally outraged (I have a good go, mind) because ten months ago I would have made a lot of the same mistakes. Although I like to think that I wouldn’t have snatched a dummy out of the mouth of someone else’s child, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me to stop my car to yell at a dad in the street.

There’s an extent to which we bring this nonsense on ourselves. Just one in 172 fathers take Additional Paternity Leave. Certainly among the couple of dozen fathers at my office I am the only one who has done so to date. Worse still, four in ten fathers don’t take paternity leave at all. Statistically, therefore, fatherhood is a relatively rare public sight. I can be as upset as I like by it but I ought not to be surprised.

A recent Frog Pyjamas post makes the point that the very terminology of fatherhood is wrong. I am not “happy to help out”. Happiness doesn’t come into it. (For the sake of clarity, I am well beyond merely being “happy” to be a father, and never more so than when I returned to Sainsbury’s the following weekend and saw the persistent assistant sneezing heavily.) But I know dads who refer to looking after their kids alone in the evening as “babysitting” without thinking it’s at all an odd way to put it. When I breathlessly announced my impending fatherhood to my male colleagues, my trembling hand clasping the grainy picture of what we had been assured by the medical staff was some form of human life, I felt the searching glances of more than one of them, trying to determine whether I regarded these tidings as wonderful or a dire, personal tragedy.

My own father, for whom such things as Additional Paternity Leave were not available, gazed sagely down on his grandson on hearing these complaints and remarked that such sexism will probably be a thing of the past when The Boy is staggering around with his own buggy. I’m not so sure. Equality tends only to come to those who campaign for it. At the very least it requires dads like me to stop grinning and walking on.

Guest blogger: Steve

Grumpy father trying and failing to resist the unbending and thus far all-powerful will of his first child