The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting

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Well done Serena – but please, folks, don’t expect us all to do that

So Serena Williams won the Australian Open when she was eight weeks pregnant. Good for her. I did something amazing in the first trimester, too: some days, I even got out of bed.

When I look back on my early pregnancies, especially the second one, there are no sporting achievements to remember. Instead, there is exhaustion: leaden-bone exhaustion. And there is puke. A lot of it.

Some snapshots. Hanging over the loo, my head actually in the bowl, vomit in my hair, knowing that if I made myself lift my head up, I could be sick again and buy myself maybe five minutes’ relief from the all-pervading nausea, but too miserable even to do that. Stopping on the way to work to be sick behind a bin in central Edinburgh. (Yep, classy as hell.) Standing in front of a room of students, my goals narrowing from the usual criteria of being as engaging and informative as possible, to the simple aim of getting through the class without spewing on them.

And then, the second time round, constant guilt – through the constant sorry-for-myselfness – that I had so little time or energy for my adorable toddler.

It wasn’t a happy time, however happy the end result. So why recall it now? Certainly not to denigrate Serena Williams: about as inspirational a woman as you could hope to find, with reserves of talent, strength and endurance I can barely imagine. But when I hear stories like that, while part of me thinks “Fantastic” and “Aren’t women amazing?” there’s also a part that thinks: “Oh God, here we go.” Because here’s another reason for some men (and even some women who breezed through it) to accuse those who us who found pregnancy a body-invading ordeal, of malingering. (And yep, there are plenty of them out there: just check out the charmers here or here.)

Trust me, we weren’t. If you want to know what pregnancy is like, for those who get it hard, think of the worst hangover you’ve ever had. The horrible, all-consuming nausea. Only it doesn’t go away. For months and months. Then imagine you also have flu, so lifting your arms and legs is like doing weights. Even standing up for more than a few minutes is touch and go. Then envisage trying to get through your days without more than a handful of people knowing that you feel like this. Because of course you haven’t hit the magic 12 weeks yet. And I’m just talking ordinary bad pregnancy sickness: not the back-in-hospital for dehydration kind.

So yes, all credit to Serena, and to Alysia Montaño running an 800m race at 34 weeks pregnant, and all the other women who continue to achieve great things while they are growing another person. But personally I found it more helpful when the Duchess of Cambridge spoke out about her experience of hyperemesis gravidarum, than I do all the current raving about “what woman can do”.

Yes, of course I’d take Serena as a role model for my girls any day, especially over a woman whose entire career is being married to a prince. But when I saw pictures of Kate trying to smile and get through an awards show, I felt less alone. I knew that she, too, must just be thinking: “Please don’t puke, please don’t puke.” The more honesty there is about how hard those early months can be, the less pressure women feel under to pretend everything is just fine. The more we might feel it’s OK to tell people, and to take time off. And the less excuse any partners will have for that oh-so-understanding phrase: “Making a fuss.”

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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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Baby brain and the working mum

Baby brain, according to convention, renders us incapable of remembering our own names – never mind anyone else’s – through pregnancy and into early motherhood. Perhaps it does. But from the point of the working mother, the real concern is not – or not only – minor or temporary memory problems. It’s whether motherhood affects your brain long term, and more especially whether it will affect your ability to do your job. Seven months into the return to work, here is my take: it does, but not necessarily in a bad way.

I wasn’t at my best, work-wise, for much of my pregnancy. I wasn’t at my best anything-wise. I suppose some of that could be down to ‘science’: if a recent study is to be believed, I was over-using the ‘emotional’ side of my brain in order to prepare to bond with my child. But for me, any decrease in productivity could be explained just as well by the fact that pregnancy, physically and mentally, was extremely hard work.

Four months of puking violently doesn’t exactly encourage maximum brain function, especially when for two of those months I was must-sleep-now exhausted, no matter how much sleep I actually got. On top of that, there was the last trimester of waddling, aching, and feeling increasingly scared about the physical ordeal ahead (a marathon, according to our antenatal instructor’s inauspicious analogy). And, for all of it, unbelievable excitement and about equal impatience. Think about it. Eight months spent knowing you will meet the love of your life at the end of them. Enough, surely to distract all but the most automated of workers.

Then there were the first few months of motherhood. Months in which my body more or less recovered and my mind started to appreciate what I had taken on. Months in which I fell in love with my daughter again and again. Months in which I barely dared leave her for fear she wouldn’t be there when I returned. I could no more have gone back to work then than I could have run an actual marathon.

Yes, my memory was shot to pieces, but then so was everything else. If I noticed that my top was inside out before I left the house, it was about all I did manage. I forgot what I was going to say, half-way through saying it. I wandered around cafes oblivious to the fact that I was displaying my nursing bra to the world. When I did realise, I didn’t even have the energy to be embarrassed. Baby brain? Well, yes, if baby brain is the understandable by-product of sleeping no more than three hours at a time and learning by experience how to handle something harder – and more emotionally demanding – than any ‘proper job’ that I, at least, have ever done. My own highly scientific study (AKA asking my friends) suggests that a lot of new mothers feel the same.

Fast forward to when A was eight months old and I had got myself to a point – unimaginable in those intense early days – of being able to leave her. For some time, it was difficult to see beyond the all-pervading, brain-numbing problem of sleep-deprivation. Our plan, when we divvied up the parental leave pre-birth, was that our baby would be sleeping through the night by the time I went back to work. Alas, this reckoned without our utter inability to impose any kind of sleep training in the face of her extreme rage. At eight months, she was waking three times a night.

For weeks, I walked, talked, attended meetings, taught, thought, wrote, as if through a heavy fog. I got used to it – the surprising thing, looking back, is that I still did my job adequately – but it was tough. And my ability to function as a motivated, enthusiastic employee, rather than keep up a spectral impression of one, dramatically improved when my daughter dropped to one wake-up a night. (For the record, that’s still the routine at fourteen months – and that’s the last pregnancy in which I’m going to waste time predicting what my baby will do when.)

But beyond the physical drag of tiredness – and the practical point that I can no longer work all hours to get something finished – there is the emotional change. There is the fact of Little A, and all that means to me. I don’t just mean the difficulty of parting from her each day, although that was hard enough at the start. (The first day I called my partner about a dozen times: “Is she OK?” “Yes, she was fine when you last asked ten minutes ago, and she still is.”) I mean the fact that, at some level, she is always on my mind.

Of course, all this affected my focus. Not only in terms of minor memory lapses. (Like some back-to-work friends, I have them but I’m not sure they are anything new: for years, I’ve relied on smart phone alerts to make up for a complete inability to remember times, dates, and places.) I came back to two significant changes, although luckily only one of them appears to be permanent.

Firstly, I found it a lot harder to lose myself in a project. I was as out of practice sitting down and thinking as I had been at running, when I tried, not very successfully, to get back into that. Disconcerting but – again – hardly surprising given not only the cluster of distractions I’ve just listed, but also the fact that for eight-plus months I hadn’t had the luxury of more than half an hour to concentrate. It was reassuring to hear from at least one other mum in the same line of work (and at least one dad) that this was not just me. And, more reassuring still, it has (mostly) come back.

Secondly, perspective. In a way, it’s stating the obvious. This small person, who wasn’t even a cluster of cells two years ago, now matters more to me than anything else in the world. That changes the way I respond to everything else. Of course it was always going to change the amount I have invested, emotionally speaking, in what goes on at work.

Before anyone screams at me for selling out the sisterhood by being that gender-stereotype-confirming cliché – a woman who drops her game at work now she’s a mother – it’s not that I don’t care. In some ways I care more. It’s a matter of what I care about. I’m not detached from whether I do my job well. Of course I still want to do that. Even if I hadn’t wanted to succeed before – which I did – I would now, to set a good example for my daughter. And given that my day-job involves writing about climate change, it matters to me in a whole new way now I have this stake in the next generation.

But in terms of the set-backs, big and small – in terms of office politics, difficult students, rejected papers – I’ll put my hand up to caring less. Of course, it still bothers me at the time, especially negative feedback, and of course I still try to learn from it. But, now I have a child, there’s a new bottom line to any negative development, any bad or disappointing news. “Is it about her? No? Then it can’t be that bad.” And, work-wise, that could actually be a good thing. Motivation but with a newfound ability to shrug off those knocks and annoyances you can’t avoid? If that’s a long term effect of baby brain, it’s one I’m more than happy to live with.