Me with my 4-week-old son

8 home truths I’d go back and tell myself as a new mum

Update 21/12/2015: This post – along with all future parenting and family posts – will now appear on my new site, www.therewegoblog.com. Come over and take a look!

Three years ago today I sat on my sofa with a beautiful, healthy, 4-week-old baby, at the start of my much-anticipated year of maternity leave. And I hated it.

Every. Second.

I felt lost, tired and lonely. I begrudged my baby for taking up my precious time. I genuinely hadn’t considered quite how all-consuming life with a newborn baby would be (I naively bought a copy of Teach Yourself HTML and CSS to keep me busy. Yes, really.)

In short, I was an idiot. And 3 years on – sat on the same sofa while my kids take a rare nap at the same time – I can’t help but wish someone had taken me aside to explain a few home truths. Granted, I probably wouldn’t have listened. But here’s what I wish I could go back and tell that new mum on the sofa…

4-week-old baby

1. You do not have to launch a business.

Or write a novel. Or learn Mandarin. Yes, every magazine you read at the moment seems to be full of ‘inspirational’ women who’ve done all of those things while they’ve been ‘off’ work, and good for them. But you know what? All you need to do right now is get to the end of each day with a scrap of sanity and a baby who’s clean(ish), fed and still breathing.

2. You are allowed to sit and do nothing.

As in, absolutely nothing. If the baby is asleep on your chest and you can’t move from the sofa, that’s OK. In fact, it’s what Homes Under the Hammer was made for. This time doesn’t need to be filled with ‘something useful’. You sitting there, on that sofa, with the baby on your chest, is ‘something useful’. You will realise this one day, when it’s too late.

3. You will not get this time again.

Yes, you’ll have another baby, and you’ll have another year ‘off’. But it won’t be the same the second time around because this baby will be a toddler and that toddler won’t ever want to sit still. I know you get annoyed when people tell you this. But please, just try to hear them and know that what you see as boring today will seem like a luxury in a couple of years.

4. You don’t have to enjoy it.

Newsflash: sleepless nights are no fun. You don’t have to pretend you’re enjoying them. And you don’t have to feel bad that you’re not. Chances are, the well-meaning friend who chirps ‘enjoy every moment’ isn’t up for the fifth time that night, with cracked nipples and a screaming baby. It’s OK that this is no fun right now, and it’s OK to say it.

5. Your career will never be the same.

For better or for worse, it just won’t. Sorry. Yes, I know you think you’ll waltz back into your job and everything will be just as it was. I won’t bore you with the specifics, but it won’t be. Get used to the idea now, be prepared for change, and try to be open-minded about the future.

6. Your body won’t always be like this.

I know you feel like a frump and you barely recognise yourself in the mirror. But it IS temporary. You’ll get back into your jeans – they’ll just fit differently from now on. Everything will. On the other hand, listen to your husband when he says your boobs look amazing. He’s right – they do. Unfortunately they’re temporary, too.

7. You need to accept help.

Those offers of casseroles and cleaning and child-free time? Take them. Every single one of them. It’s OK to not be the magazine mum who can juggle the dinner and the cleaning and the childcare and still look like she’s jumped straight out of the pages of Good Housekeeping. It’s embarassing that you can’t find any clean pants or socks, and you’re eating Cornflakes out of a saucepan. I get that. But those women offering you help? They’ve all been there. Saucepans and all.

8. You are going to be a great mum.

I know you’re wondering what the hell you’ve done. I know you secretly keep questioning if you’d do it again, if you could go back. And I know you feel guilty that, right now, the answer is probably no. But fast-forward a few years and you’re doing it. You’re a fully-fledged mum, figuring things out as you go along, with 2 little people who look up to you as their everything. And it’s only now you realise that you wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Bedford embankment print

The one where I crowdfunded a piece of art via Facebook.

Bedford embankment print

I’m a sucker for a framed print. Just ask my husband.

I got Anthony Burrill’s work hard and be nice to people poster for my 30th because, when it comes to life mottos, he took the words right out of my mouth. I chose tomorrow is a lovely day for the nursery to remind me that newborn babies do eventually learn to sleep, and night feeds don’t actually last forever (though it might feel like it). And I hung Jane Foster’s London bus in my little boy’s room in the hope that, growing up, he might be as inspired by the city as I was.

So when I saw designer Tabitha Mary’s prints of Bedford’s Pavilion in The Park and Kiosk in The Park, it was love at first sight. The Pavilion café is right next to my first house. And Russell Park – which is home to The Kiosk café and also happens to be at the end of my street – has been something of a lifeline during 2 stints on maternity leave.

If only, I thought, there was a print of Bedford embankment, where my husband proposed and we had our wedding photos taken 10 years back. I’d been looking for a photograph or print of the old suspension bridge for years, but nothing I found ever quite hit the mark. I looked into the idea of commissioning Tabitha to design something, but couldn’t cover the costs (unsurprisingly, statutory maternity pay doesn’t cover bespoke artwork).

And that’s when I turned to Facebook. I’m a member of some brilliant community groups – Castle Residents’ Association and We Are Bedford to name a couple – that act as both a calendar of local events and a platform for networking. So I posted on each page that night explaining that, if a few of us clubbed together, Tabitha would be happy to design something just for us. While I knew there’d be plenty of interest, I wasn’t sure how many people would be willing to stump up their cold hard cash for a print that didn’t actually exist yet. So it’s fair to say Tabitha and I were equally surprised by what happened next.

Pavilion in the Park BedfordKiosk at the Park

Within a couple of hours I had emailed Tabitha a list of 20 people who wanted in on the action, so she agreed to go ahead. That was Tuesday. By Wednesday night the print was available to buy on her website and she’d already sold 50. And by Friday – 3 days after that first tentative Facebook post – locals were posting pictures on the thread showing Tabitha’s prints decorating the walls of their homes.

I’ve seen the phrase ‘the power of social media’ bandied about all over the place, but this time it was more than just a cliché. And it wasn’t the only thing that stopped me in my tracks that week. While I was drumming up local interest for the print, a friend was busy with the rather more worthy task of raising thousands of pounds for a local family who had their house ravaged by fire. Via Facebook and GoFundMe.

Fast-forward a few more weeks and Tabitha has been commissioned to create a similar design for the July issue of arts and culture paper The Bedford Clanger (they’ve covered the story here). You can buy that one on her website, too, and I’ve no doubt the good people of Bedford aren’t finished with her yet.

As for my own embankment print, I’ve decided to hang it next to my desk at home. That way, when I’m working, I’ll be reminded of 3 things:

1) If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

2) There’s power in people.

And 3) Bedford is a pretty great place to live.

Bedford Clanger cover

Boy and girl doll fallen over

Why I bought my son a doll’s house for Christmas.

Boy and girl doll fallen over

OK, so the title of this post is a bit misleading. The reason I bought my 2-year-old son a doll’s house for Christmas is as simple as this: he wanted one. He was given a cardboard pop-up version that he fell in love with, then fell on top of. So I decided to find him one made of sturdier stuff.

After spending an inordinate amount of time trying to work out where the apostrophe should go (I followed The Guardian’s lead and went with singular doll, although I’m still not convinced), I turned to Google. And 5 minutes in I had one question:

Why on earth are they all pink?

Take Tesco.com for starters. On a page that returned 65 results for ‘dolls house’ (yep, they’ve scrapped the apostrophe altogether), only one wasn’t based on a saccharine palette of pinks. I looked elsewhere and found exactly the same thing. Rose. Cerise. Scarlet. Blush. Turns out pink is the colour of the moment. If you’re a doll.

And that’s when it dawned on me. Doll’s houses are for girls, right? That’s why Tesco files them under ‘Barbie and other dolls’. I should be looking at trains, trucks and construction kits for my little man-in-the-making. Or perhaps I could – as a friend helpfully suggested – get him a more boy-friendly fire station instead.

The thing is though, while that would make a pretty great present, I don’t live in a fire station. And nor does my son, my husband, or – as far as I know – anyone else, whether they’re male or female (it’s worth pointing out the friend in question used to be a fireman, so it made a lot more sense for him). But we do all live in a house, or a flat, or whatever. So in the spirit of encouraging role play, why is it any weirder for a boy to play with a doll’s house than it is for him to play with, say, a car, which is just a miniature version of something that people – regardless of gender – use to get from A to B?

Boy and girl doll in house

I realise that’s not a particularly articulate train of thought, so it’s lucky I’m not the only one harping on about it. Let Toys Be Toys is a campaign that aims to put a stop to gender-stereotyped toy marketing so that boys and girls can decide what they want to play with. The LTBT team put forward a pretty great case for exactly why that matters here. In a nutshell, though, it means toy makers like Meccano might not market their construction kits solely to boys in the future. And publishers like Usborne and Ladybird Books have already stopped dictating which of their titles can be read by whom.

But it doesn’t stop at toys and books. Only last week I tried to find a toddler dance class for my son at Center Parcs. There were 2 to choose from, but the one that worked best with our schedule – mini ballerinas – was exclusively for ‘fairy princesses’ according to the booking info. I’m guessing the organisers have never heard of Carlos Acosta or BalletBoyz – proof, if it was needed, that boys can do ballet without sprouting a pair of breasts.

And there are more subtle examples. Turn the clock back a few months and, when I found out I was having a baby daughter, several people asked when I was going to re-paint the nursery. As in, the cream nursery my baby son had managed to live in perfectly well for almost 2 years. Because I was having a girl, I’d be painting it pink for her arrival. Obviously.

Girl doll and train

Now don’t get me wrong. As a kid I loved anything pink and glittery. I did ballet. I collected My Little Ponies. And once my daughter is old enough to have an opinion she can have the pinkest room in the land if a) she wants to and b) I can be bothered. But I also had a metal detector. A big, ugly, black metal detector that did exactly what it said on the tin (though I never did make my fortune unearthing buried Roman coins). And I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have been filed under ‘girls’.

The idea, then, that a toy can only be played with by a girl or a boy doesn’t make any sense to me. Especially when we’re talking about a 2-year-old. The kid spent a good 30 minutes playing ‘pirates’ with an empty loo roll yesterday, so it’s safe to say he doesn’t give a monkeys.

The idea of repainting a neutral room seems just as bonkers, and that’s coming from someone who has a slight obsession with paint. As it goes, I left the room exactly as it was for my baby daughter. She sleeps in the same cot, surrounded by the same 4 (cream) walls. And yes, she’s still a girl. And I booked my little boy in to Baby Bollywood instead. He wore a jangly skirt and pretended to be a butterfly. And he’s still, miraculously, a boy.

As for the doll’s house, I found a beautiful unpainted wooden one for a tenner on Facebook. My son plays with it every day, and he absolutely loves it. And you know what? One day my daughter probably will, too.

Boy and girl doll

Take a look at Let Toys Be Toys for more info. And if you’re looking for a gender-neutral doll’s house, try Plan Toys and Lundby.

I eat gluten-free food. Get over it.

Toilet sign

image © kuponjabah

A few years ago, I stopped eating wheat. That means bread, pizza, pasta, cake, crackers – all the things I previously loved – are off the menu. You’d think I’d be the only person to have an issue with that, right? After all, I’m the one whose dinner looks a little different. I still cook ‘normal’ food for my family, and I wouldn’t dream of inflicting my gluten-free* food on my friends.

Except, there’s a whole bunch of people who seem to care about what’s in my shopping trolley. Like, really care. People like Julia Llewellyn Smith (who I’m sure is perfectly lovely and merely trying to earn a living, but who has just so happened to hit a big fat gluten-free nerve). The title of her article for The Telegraph says it all: The great gluten-free scam. It turns out I’ve been scammed, you see. In my search for a bikini body, eternal youth and inner peace, I have succumbed to the fashionable food whims of Nicole Richie, Gwyneth Paltrow et al. I – fickle little white, middle-class female – have jumped on the GF bandwagon, and will simply be swept along with the next faddy food trend to hit the pages of Heat.

Well, Julia, try telling that to my bowels. Because it’s pretty hard to argue with explosive diarrhoea.

Turn the clock back a few years and it all started on a shopping trip to ASDA. The nice lady behind the pharmacy counter took me to one side and asked if I’d thought about seeing a doctor about my stomach. I’d bought so many packs of Diocalm from her that I’d become a regular without even realising it. And the truth is, I’d always had a bad belly – my poor husband was used to leaving restaurants or friends’ houses early when I needed to spend another night on the loo doubled over with cramps. It had been that way since I was a kid.

With the pharmacist’s words ringing in my ears, though, I made an appointment with the doctor and had tests to rule out food allergies, before she diagnosed IBS and listed various medications I could take. I didn’t fancy popping pills, so she suggested an alternative – I could see the nutritionist, and look a bit more closely at my diet. Off I went, and the first thing she asked was whether there was anything I suspected may have an adverse effect on my gut. A fondness for Marmite on toast and pasta with pesto had given me a good inkling, so our focus settled on wheat.

So, that week, I cut it out. And everything stopped.

As in, everything. The gas, the bloating, the cramps, the diarrhoea. Everything. Completely. Stopped.

I hadn’t needed to take any pills, and I’d discovered new grains and alternatives to wheat in the process. I even found a whole range of convenient ‘free-from’ foods in the supermarket. I was happy. And so, I thought, would everyone else be. I’d figured it out. End of. Right?

Wrong. Because for some reason that I’m yet to get my head around, there are a whole lot of people who would rather I just ate wheat. They’re the ones who proclaim loudly at the dinner table that ‘people in third world countries aren’t so fussy about what they eat!’ and, ‘isn’t it funny how these gluten-free foods didn’t exist years ago!’. Hilarious, I’m sure.

To make matters worse, I am the worst of the worst as far as gluten-free eaters go. I am that dirty word. Intolerant. In other words, I’m not coeliac, but I just can’t seem to eat wheat-based foods without spending all evening on the toilet.

Gluten free written in flour

image © Marek

And so, I ask the waiter if I can have the gluten-free bread in an embarrassed whisper. I apologise to the dinner party host for being that annoying gluten-free person at the table** (no need to roll your eyes – I’ll do it for you!). And I listen when the same old anti-GF discussions come up, and wish the ground would swallow me – and the gluten-free lump in my throat – whole.

But then, last night, I read said article. I’ve read dozens of its kind – peppered with words like ‘craze’, ‘fad’, and ‘trend’. It places me – and 1 in 5 others – in a gluten-free ‘community’, as though we receive a weekly newsletter and meet up for coffee mornings to discuss our bowel movements. But this time, I found myself wondering, why am I apologising? Do people really think I’d rather eat cardboard bread than a lovely, squishy tiger loaf? Never mind the agony of an evening spent with a stomach full of wind – try watching your friends tuck in to a pizza. Or forking out over the odds for a loaf of bread made to feed one of The Borrowers.

And yes, I’ve read the same articles as you – the ones about the Chorleywood process and the perils of factory bread. And I realise there’s probably a lot more to it than simply cutting out wheat. But it’s far easier to pick up a loaf of Genius bread in my local supermarket than it is to source some 10-hour-proved loaf that may or may not agree with my gut. And with 2 young kids to look after, it’s just not really worth the risk or the petrol.

Perhaps it’s because I have a grumpy newborn and a bad case of sleep deprivation. But I’m amazed that people care so much about what’s on my plate. I’m a Christian, and a feminist, too (as unfashionable as it is to admit to either of those things, let alone both in the same sentence). Yet neither of those choices has ever garnered the same negative response, the same need to challenge, as the fact that I’ve chosen to stop eating wheat.

So, to Julia and the rest of the anti-GF brigade, I would simply say this. Please have a word with my digestive system about this whole gluten-free ‘craze’ it seems to be caught up in. Because believe me, missing out on a huge hunk of bread and butter is far more inconvenient for me than it is for you.

______

*Although it seems to be just wheat that my stomach can’t handle, most free-from foods cut out gluten entirely. So, although it doesn’t need to be, most of the pre-packaged food I eat is GF.

**I should clarify that my friends and family (particularly my lovely mother-in-law) constantly go above and beyond to accommodate me at the table, and I am so grateful!

Me, on our doorstep

I grew up on a council estate. And I miss my doorstep.

Me, on our doorstepThis afternoon, as my little boy took a nap upstairs, the sun came out.

It flooded our front room – warm beams of light I barely recognised after a long, cold winter.

I wandered out to the garden, but there’s never any sun out there at this time of day. I peered down the alleyway in the hope of a stray chink of light, but there was nothing.

So I opened the front door and stood on the doorstep, basking in the golden glow. The daffodils in our front garden had all turned their heads towards the sun and we stood, silently, for a good minute or two.

Then someone walked past. And I realised I looked like a nutter, shut the front door and scuttled off inside.

The thing is, on the council estate where I grew up, we didn’t have front gardens. Your front door just opened out onto the street. And if the sun came out and it wasn’t in the garden, you’d just sit on the doorstep. Or pull a patio chair through the house and pitch up out the front. If you walked down to the bus stop, you’d pass about 50 per cent of your neighbours on the way, doing just that.

The more I think about my old doorstep, the more I miss it.

It’s where our first dog, Buttons, waited when she wanted to come in (there was no such thing as walking the dog – you’d let her out, she’d take herself off for a wander, then later you’d let her back in again).

It’s where my best friend from 5 doors up and I held jumble sales, selling bits of tat from each other’s houses. To each other.

It’s where the video man delivered the evening’s knock-off viewing.

It’s where I waited for friends to finish their lunch and come out to play.

And it’s where we basked in the sun, if that’s where the sun happened to be.

These days, if my doorstep could talk, it wouldn’t have much to say. We live in a nice area. Doorsteps are strictly for postmen, newspaper deliveries and general thoroughfare – a half-way point between the house and the car.

Certainly not for basking in the sunshine, anyway. Not in a nice area like this.