Saturday, December 31, 2011

Good riddance 2011, come on in 2012!

2011 didn't start off too well. I was lying on a camp bed on the floor of a children's hospital ward as the fireworks screamed all around. I got a 'bonne année' from the mummy of the baby in the next cot, and the nurses popped champagne corks in the corridors, but I wasn't too thrilled about this new year. Baby Elsie was red and sweating in her cot, overcome with a fatigue I wasn't used to seeing, and I was sick with worry about this little creature who had only been alive a few precious months.

Those sleepless nights in the hospital gave me plenty of time to worry about another central figure in my life. I thought about Mum; in between chemo, the prospect of a transplant and difficult months of recovery ahead. We spoke on the hospital phone; words of encouragement about Elsie doing little to calm my distracted mind.

Elsie recovered, the hospital non the wiser for what had brought her in. We continued to get used to our new roles as parents and marveled at each new magic trick Elsie pulled out of her hat. Despite our short nights and changed lives though, Marek was starting to get restless. He was stagnating at work, having learned all they had to teach, and fatalistic about his chances of finding another job elsewhere. Polish, non Dutch-speaking... financial crisis. The odds seemed piled against him and he was at a loss of what to do next.

Then there was me, not keen to hand my baby over to someone else to bring up, not really missing many aspects of my work, but compelled to keep my word, return part time, see how it went. The change was difficult for everyone. Elsie cried for weeks when she was left at the crèche in the morning, and continued bursting into tears when I picked her up even longer. My guilt of leaving her was only slightly relieved by comforting words about the importance of teaching children to become independent social creatures. The shocking enjoyment I allowed myself to feel when away on a work trip and out for dinnner with colleagues was immediately tempered by a report from Marek about Elsie bursting into tears when she saw a photo of me. I thought of work when at home and of Elsie when at work. It didn't help when the people who were supposed to be caring for her fell short. Not giving her enough to drink, keeping her in shoes all day, showing her cartoons, keeping her inside all day, not changing her nappy frequently enough... it all built up, and when the management fired all the staff we had our excuse to withdraw her. Just in time for the Christmas holidays.

No, 2011 wasn't my favourite year. There were magical moments, usually focused around the new little being in our lives. A wonderful family holiday in Cornwall, when Elsie could watch her young cousins running around (although tinged with a missing Grannie, who was dealing with that slow transplant recovery). Several fantastic trips to visit the Polish family, watching Elsie more and more at home with new faces and enjoying being surrounded by her other language. Then of course the visitors we received, the family and friends who came to stay, popped by for a cuppa or invited us over for lunch. It goes without saying that 2011 had its good days as well as all the challenges we faced.

2012 is going to be better though, that's for sure. Elsie's a little madam but we love her to bits. She is strong and knows what she wants - she'll get what she needs from this year. Marek's got a new job, starting in the middle of January, in the same company but with more interesting work, more money and the vitally important opportunity to progress. He will have a new challenge to deal with, and the kind of enjoyment that comes with getting stuck in to something new. I have increased my working hours, but will endeavour to travel less. Having more time to complete my work will, in theory, allow me to switch off when at home and spend all that quality time with the little one. She, in turn, will be happier because we have found her a crèche that comes with recommendations from people we know and trust, where they do not believe in showing kids tv and have a garden where she can run around with her new friends. Elsie has learned so much in the past year - walking crawling and communicating - she's going to pass by some major milestones this year too, and we can't wait to be there when she does. Then there's Mum. After an incredibly low low a couple of months ago, she is making her way right back up again. The drugs are coming down, allowing her to shine through, and although she hasn't got the all clear yet, there is even a chance she will make my little brother's wedding in Canada this spring. 

Come on 2012, I'm ready for ya.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Whistle

She knocks the tower over, triumphant squeals despite the fact that this is not the first, not even the tenth time this has happened in the past few minutes. She toddles over to the scattered blocks and I scan the shelves for something else. Elsie may not be bored of the build-tower-topple-tower-build-tower game, but Mummy needs something new.

Spotting the perfect thing to draw my little girl away from her beloved blocks, I bring the bird to my lips and give a short sharp blow. The bird lets out a squawk and Elsie turns her head quickly, letting the blocks fall to the ground and allowing herself to be drawn to this new game. She comes over quickly, head tilted slightly, the edge of her mouth drawn upwards giving away the anticipation she feels. I bring the bird back to my mouth and blow into the wooden whistle again, seeing her face lift as the magic repeats.

Soon her hand is out, reaching for the toy and I hand it over explaining what to do. ‘Just like bubbles’ I explain, as she puts the whistle to her lips. ‘blow through the hole’. Before she can draw breath her face breaks into a wide grin and she puts the whistle in her mouth. She exhales, but not into the whistle or displaying any sign of having grasped how to make the bird sing. She squeals around the object in her mouth, imitating the bird’s squawk almost perfectly, but creating it all on her own.

Mirror

She looks over to the box, filled with its furry bodies, legs and ears poking out of the top, a muddle of genderless animals waiting to be cuddled. She toddles over and, not seeing what she wants, starts pulling at the limbs, flinging the teddies to the left and right as she searches for Teddy, her special bear. Once he has been located with a triumphant ‘Eddy!’ she clutches him to her body with an arm, left hand holding on to a fluffy ear, right thumb locked firmly in her mouth. She wanders into the hall and catching sight of herself in the mirrored cupboard door, pauses a moment, watching herself cuddling the bear. She seems to like what she sees and gives herself a grin, even takes out the thumb in order to see her whole face. A sideways glance as she moves away and she’s on to the next thing, trailing Teddy behind her.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Gifts

I got three presents for Elsie's birthday.

When Elsie started at nursery, she was miserable. She cried when she was dropped off, she cried when the nursery staff put her on the ground to play, she cried when she was picked up and she was clingy and nervous at home. The first two weeks were not fun. Slowly though, slowly it improved. First I noticed the changes at home. Instead of needing to see us at all times, Elsie started toddling off to other rooms while we got on with other things. She cried less, clung less. Next the reports from the nursery staff changed. She stopped crying when they put her down to play and seemed more settled. On Elsie's birthday I went to pick her up as usual. Generally when I show up, Elsie has been put in a highchair and is watching the other children, tired after a long day, her thumb in her mouth and the other hand clutching her doudou. On her birthday for the first time, I looked into the room and saw her before she saw me. She had her doudou in one hand but was using the other to rifle through the toys in a box. She picked something out and moved on, seeing whether there was something more interesting in the next box. I exchanged smiles with the nursery nurse and the anxiety at the back of my heart slipped away. That first present was seeing my little girl settled and happy somewhere other than in her own home.

The next day, I checked the balance at the cash machine. We're not on the bread line, but money has been tighter in recent times. We took the decision for me to stay home with Elsie for a year and it was definitely the right choice. It did mean holding back though and I always check the balance before withdrawing cash so I avoid taking out our last tenner. The amount on the screen that day surprised me though. It was much more than I was expecting and it could only mean one thing. My first salary since restarting work had been paid in! We got a couple of bottles of beer to celebrate. Feeling happy being back in my balanced life of work and family life was the second present.

Two days after her birthday, Elsie's party was a lot of fun. Her fellow one-year-olds crawled and toddled about, ignoring one another until they spotted a toy in someone's hands that they liked the look of. We sang happy birthday, the candle was blown out and birthday icing was smeared on faces and furniture. Once the crowd had dispersed, party bags in hand, we were sitting back and congratulating ourselves when the phone rang.

It was mum asking how the party went and I was suddenly blinking back the tears. A year ago I would be speaking to my mum every day, but she has not phoned for months. The treatment for the cancer that is long gone has taken her down the roughest road she has ever been down and the lows have been very low. Recently though, things have been starting to improve. That short call, the interest in her granddaughter's first birthday, the questions about the food, games, people... A month ago I would not have imagined it would have been possible. Having that glimpse into the future, when mum will be back to her old self and able to focus on the people around her who love her was my third present. That was the best present of all.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Spacial Awareness

One minute the biscuits are on the table, the empty pot lying discarded by the beaker. The next, she's scooped the biscuits into the pot, the top is on and she's shaking them like a rattle.

Impressed, I congratulate her on her genius and pick her up, out of her highchair. When I set her down on the floor she sets off at quite a pace. Straight into the wall.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sharing

I cut half the mango into baby-hand sized chunks, and use the knife to push them into Elsie's bowl. 'Mango?' I ask her, as she follows me out to the dining table. She looks up expectantly, so I scoop her up, slotting her legs into her highchair holes and her arms into her long-sleeved big. She leans towards the mango, and soon has a chunk in each hand, the juice dripping off her chin and a look of content concentration as she chews.

I bring the other half from the kitchen and take a bite. It's a good ripe one. For a moment the two of us share a happy quiet moment. Suddenly, Elsie stops chewing, drops one of her chunks and points her finger at my hand, and the remainder of the mango.

'Elsie', I start, 'this is Mummy's mango. It's exactly the same as yours, just not cut up. You eat yours and if you want some more later, I'll give you some.' Her mouth pouts, but she follows my pointing finger and takes a fresh chunk from her bowl. I put mine aside for a moment, and sit back.

Elsie turns to me and smiles a wide grin, mango visible behind her three teeth. I smile back, and tell her what a clever girl she is to chomp away with so few teeth helping her. She moves a hand towards me, holding out a piece of mango. I suddenly feel inadequate. 'Are you sharing your mango with me?' I ask, as she maintains her grin. Her hand is steady. I take a small bite and she opens her mouth with mine, bringing it closed and 'num-num-num'ing as I chew the shared mango.

I think I thought being a parent was about teaching rather than learning. I've never been more wrong.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

defying the laws of physics

In Brussels shops and on the streets
The people point and stare
Oh Elsie, what are we to do
About your crazy hair?

It sticks straight up, no brush or breeze
Persuade it to lie flat
And you just smile out at the world
Despite being laughed at

It doesn't bother me at all
I think it's cute as hell
Your eyes and smile so beautiful
A punk with no hair gel

I just hope all that sniggering
Does not upset your mood
You're not defined by how you look
That pointing is just rude

Hold up your head, ignore them all
Keep your happy face
Be proud of it, that fuzzy crown
That takes up so much space

And if it starts a complex, chick
We'll all be here for you
With kisses, love and, if you want
Some shrink therapy too

Monday, June 27, 2011

stay at home mum

We walk past the Italian restaurant at the end of our road and the waiter putting out tables, the nice one, waves us a friendly bonjour. I check the road and thank the driver who stops to let us across, steering the pram around the various parts of machinery that the guys working on the train extension have left strewn about.

As I approach the corner pub, the lady who is always either working or drinking there spots us, and comes over 'Eeeeelsie! Eeeeeelsie!' she calls. 'How are you today?' She meets Elsie's solid stare with a smile and remarks on her hair. Again. We move off and wish her a good day. She got a wave from Elsie yesterday, but my little girl doesn't seem to be in the mood today.

We pass the mini supermarket and I look out for the checkout girl but don't see her. Yesterday I left Elsie with Marek to pop in for some cold beers. The shop was full and the girl was stressed. When I said hello, she looked at me and asked where the little one was. 'but I want to see her!' she protested, when I said she was outside. I considered calling Marek to the door but glanced down the long queue and decided the checkout girl would probably survive without her dose of Elsie just this once. She, however, had other ideas. 'I'll be right back Madame' she said to the lady behind me in the queue and skipped outside to where Marek and Elsie were waiting. 'Oooooooooh' she cried, right into Elsie's face. 'You're so mignonne!' as her fingers squeezed and squashed her chubby cheeks. 'I abandoned the queue to see your little girl' she confided to Marek, before giving one last pinch to the highly surprised and slightly amused baby, and running back in.

We continue down the road that leads off the roundabout and as Elsie has started moaning, I decide we can make a little detour and head to the newly renovated garden around the spring statue. As I bring the pram to a halt under a tree, Elsie lets out a little trill of anticipation, and I unbuckle her and sit her on my lap on the bench. For a moment she sits there, looking around her and taking in the plants, trees, sunshine, waiters setting up for the lunch shift and pigeons pecking at the ground. She pulls herself up to standing with a wide grin and I help her get a grip on the back of the bench. She's staring off behind me and I turn to see the man pulling at the cherry tree branches and picking off the fruit. Cunning.

Soon a lady comes up and smiles at Elsie. 'A little boy?' she checks. I smile, and shake my head. 'A girl.' The lady looks put out. 'She looks like a boy. Beautiful eyes.' Elsie uses them to look at her warily, then after a second or two, flashes her a quick smile. 'It's hot for little ones.' the lady says, taking a look at what Elsie is wearing. 'I would put her in the bath this afternoon when it heats up. Play with her little boats and give her an early bath.' I try not to giggle. 'Yes, good idea.' I don't think the lady cares enough to hear about Elsie's eczema and the bathe once every two days advice we've constantly received. 'That's what I'd do anyway' she sniffs, and walks away. I thought it was only Poland where unsolicited advice was bandied about.

I strap Elsie back into the pram and we head off to get our shopping done before lunch.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Er, no.

She looked at me and smiled. 'I think you might want her to walk more than she wants to herself!'

My jaw dropped and I almost let go of the baby's hands. My little one had a look of gleeful concentration on her small face and was pulling me along, tugging at my fingers as her little legs trundled on, each foot taking one wobbly step at a time.

Let's think about that. Hmm. If I had a baby who would sit and play quietly with toys, wouldn't that be preferable? If I had a baby who could be put down with a book and left to turn those pages over and over, satisfied with her own company, wouldn't I just let her get on with it? If I had a baby who would take the cues from the time we turn her onto her tummy and follow her little push ups with attempts to move herself around, rather than turning onto her back and screaming, wouldn't I leave her to sort herself out on the floor? Do I like spending my time bent double, trying to stop Elsie ramming herself into sharp edges, trip over innumerable hazards and slide on slippery floors? Like hell I do.

The times that I've let her cry just a few more moments, in a vain attempt to show her she is her own person and can comfort herself; the times I've held myself back from rescuing her from a teary push-up, willed her to push herself along with her powerful legs; all those exercises and cheerful encouragement we've given her to stretch out and grab those toys that lie just a little out of reach... all these moments and more came flooding back as this woman looked at us and made her judgement.

Not all babies crawl. I didn't. I don't know what that means - which parts of my brain did not develop as they should because I didn't coordinate those particular muscles as others do. Perhaps crawling makes the connections in the brain that are necessary for NOT FREAKING OUT when 30 years later some stupid bint says you are forcing your daughter to do something she is not ready for.

Babies at this age are generally too young to walk. Agreed. But when this particular baby has sat and played for as long as she finds a particular toy interesting she has a little moan, reaches up and as soon as a hand is offered, she takes it, pulls herself up, and with a huge grin of pride, she steps out. She wobbles and she wavers. The helping hands are vital and on occasion they break her fall, but she is the driving force behind this movement. She wants to use her legs this way to explore and navigate. It has very little to do with what I want. Believe me.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Making the world hers

Please remind me, if we ever do this whole baby thing again, that I thought Elsie was a miserable sod for most of the first eight months. Just so I'm prepared. Don't get me wrong, I love that little moaner to pieces, but she has always been, shall we say, insistent. Her personality has shone through pretty much from day one, and she has always made it clear when something is not to her liking. Loudly.

The midwives in the maternity ward were openly impressed by the noise that those little lungs powered in the first few days of Elsie's life. After hours of being thrust against closed bones by drug-induced contractions, she didn't have the smoothest entry into the world. Even so, her ability to go purple and apparently stop breathing out of pure rage, became notorious. I remember physically shaking and wondering what the hell I should try next, as she woke from a nap on one of those early days and snapped back into continuous heart-breaking cry mode. I always felt she was fighting against something - fighting sleep if she was tired; fighting the silence with her noise. Of course, those days did not last and we got to know (more or less) why she was crying... hunger, fatigue, being in one place for too long, someone looking at her not quite right... the list just seemed to go on and on.

As she grew and developed, things around her became more interesting, time was spent doing more than just eating and sleeping, and the light at the end of the tunnel started shining brightly. She still relied on us to play with her, never being one for sitting quietly and playing by herself, but sometimes we could get her to explore a new toy for ten minutes at a time. We were never quite sure how new situations would turn out and other babies' ready smiles tended to be met with intent stares. Elsie observed and analysed and only after considering all her options, would she grace someone not in the immediate family with a smile. That was not always a given either, and tiring from situations quickly, Elsie was always full of energy for and interest in the next thing.

Recently, I've seen this change. Fear of new people has evolved into genuine interest in other beings. Ambivalence when brought into contact with other babies has developed into open excitement at the contact and interaction these situations provide.

The first time she squealed at a dog, smiled at the supermarket checkout girl, laughed at a pigeon; the first time she 'ooh'ed at another child to provoke a reaction, my heart filled up and I could feel the smile on my face. Finally, I felt, she was experiencing the moment, interacting with her environment, accepting her place in the world.

Yesterday we went to a playgroup in a place we have never been before. As we entered and she took in all the activity and children and toys, Elsie was quickly straining to be out of my arms. I sat her in a group of little ones and watched as she grabbed a toy spanner, stuffed it in her mouth and beamed at those around her. Hell yeah, I thought as she let an older girl come up and 'feed' her from a toy baby bottle, not breaking her grin. My little girl has figured this out.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Mummy fail

'Come on, let's go and see how she's doing...'

I nodded and followed him into the baby's room, quietly slipping through the door and peeking over into her cot. She was breathing calmly and steadily, her body turned to one side and her bedtime rabbit clasped tightly in one fist. Her long lashed eyes were tightly shut and in the darkness we could just make out her rounded cheeks, lips slightly parted, a look of pure innocence on her sleeping face.

Marek smiled and turned to leave, but I couldn't resist a closer look. As I stepped towards her, she suddenly sighed, started and turned towards me. I couldn't see if her eyes had opened but I quickly slipped out, hoping she'd settle back without properly waking.

My plan didn't work. I heard a wimper, a little cry and then what sounded like a thumb being sucked, a rabbit pulled in closer and muffled sounds of an upset baby moving around trying to find a comfortable position in which to go back to sleep. I felt awful and debated the merits of going in and comforting her against the risks of waking her up more and making the whole situation worse.

While I was considering the pros and cons, the baby made the decision for me. The soft sounds of tinkly nursery rhymes reached me through the door. She had decided to soothe herself back to sleep with the help of her musical mobile. Clever girl.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

when bad things happen to good people

The baby was eight weeks old when we heard the diagnosis. We'd got through the worst of the sleepless nights and breastfeeding troubles, and were slowly surfacing after having been chucked overboard, nappies and teddy bears swirling in the churning waters around us.

I remember her voice as she told me. A calm overtone almost covering the tremble. When she suggested I sit down, I didn't, not immediately. I held on to that moment just for a second. I knew I did not want to hear what she was going to say and I consciously allowed myself to feel that anticipation, enjoy the few moments I had left not knowing that someone so important to me was so fragile.


If any of us could have taken away any of the pain that was to follow, if we could have swallowed the poison that coursed through her veins in the next weeks, borne the rashes and sickness, shivered with her fevers, we would have. I was sheltered from the worst of it - told to focus on this new life who depended on me, not to worry needlessly about what could happen. When we met, she was cheerful and over the worst of each particular episode. Each time she saw the baby grown and changed, we laughed about how well she looked, how this whole mess was a ruse to get out of babysitting. We talked through the options logically, but couldn't help the tears that spilled. Our new refrain: It's SO unfair.

Friends queued up to visit and offer whatever they could. She was almost embarrassed by the countless acts of kindness that showered down on her, on the family. Such strong love, heartfelt warm wishes and soft kind words carried her along, through the dark days, into the sunny spring that was mostly spent resting at home. We felt gratitude, but knew it was simply a reflection of the way she treats the people in her life.

The baby is now eight months old and we are embarking on the riskiest step of the attack on this illness. It will solve all our problems, or take everything away from us. And the worst thing is, all we can do is watch.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Raspberries

I don't know when you learned to do it; stick your tongue between your lips and blow out, a twinkle in your eye and excitement in the squeal that followed.

It got a good reaction in Poland, when you were sitting proudly in your highchair, charming your grandparents with your concentrated chewing; stuffing handfuls of whatever you were given into your mouth. A pause, a swift look to check all eyes were on you, and then a big pthhhhhhheew! Food sprayed all over the table, shrieks from the assembled company, with your Daddy and me trying our best to look stern and not give into the sniggers that threatened to break out. Pleased, your face split into a wide grin, happy that you could provide such entertainment.

When you finish a feed, and your head is on my shoulder, I sometimes feel a tickling high up on my arm. Your lips vibrate on my skin and slobber drips slowly. A low hum crescendos into an abrupt 'bah' as you lift your head and experience the sudden breaking of contact.

Out in your sling, the wind sometimes catches you and ruffles your hair, which sticks straight up at the best of times. Unfazed, you blow back, shouting into the breeze and blowing raspberries for all you're worth.

Like all new discoveries, its attraction has gradually faded. We hardly ever have to hide our amusement while being sprayed with food now. My arm only sometimes gets the tingle of baby lips blowing out. But the wind knows better than to mess with you, little girl.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Six months on and I'm still not used to this...

The concentration draws her eyebrows in over her eyes as she turns it over gently in her hands. First it goes one way and then she flips it over so the label appears. Her eyes widen and she grunts in satisfaction as she sees what she was after. She grabs the label and brings it towards her mouth. I catch her eye and she studies me solemnly, sucking on her prize.

Sometimes I catch myself making expressions that I recognise from her own little face. Or a sudden look of Marek's brings her to mind. Her face is as familiar as my own mirror reflection and yet changes almost daily. Her round cheeks and dark features echo my own, but her eyes are her Daddy's. She is unique, herself, our daughter.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

springy


As I pushed the pram over the rough ground, I breathed in deeply and smiled to myself. This is what I had imagined, those days last year when the belly was pushing at my waistband and my feet were swelling. The sky was blue, the sun was shining down on us and a smattering of t-shirt clad youths were spread over the grass, making the most of the beautiful weather. Elsie let out a sudden cry and I frowned. That wasn't in my hazy daydream of spring. I looked round the pram hood and saw her looking out, big eyes taking in the springlike scene, thumb hovering ready for when her eyelids grew too heavy. She was ok.

I carried on, zigzagging along the park's many paths, trying to slow my legs to the pace of someone who has nowhere to go. This doesn't come naturally. I always walk as if I'm on my way to work, or late for a meeting. A man stood, juggling five balls and I watched as he kept them all airbound. I noticed the other mums, and dads, silently pushing prams or chatting in pairs, and wondered about their charges. The sun had brought a crowd of lunchtime sunseekers out around the fountain and I snuck a look at them as we circled the water. There were schoolkids, sharing headphones and snickering in small groups. Couples were lying on the warm grass, entwined in their own private bubbles. Colleagues chewed on sandwiches, ties loosened and jackets folded neatly next to them.

Elsie's eyes were drooping as I peeked around the pram hood, but her hands were neatly resting in front of her, her thumb nowhere near her mouth. I continued through the grand arch, and down the paths through the trees. The parrots' squawking and the distant cries of children kicking a ball around almost covered the faint sounds of traffic. I trudged on, round flowerbeds full of colourful bulbs, behind statues, through pathways lined with benches and under enormous horse chestnut trees, buds close to bursting.

The next time I checked, Elsie's eyes were closed and I was struck, as I am each time I see it, by just how peaceful she looks when she sleeps. My job done, I paused briefly on a bench, rocking the pram with my foot and looking around at the scenes around me. Her first spring is getting off to a good start.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Little Hands


Dear Elsie,

Before you were born I had this idea that I'd mutate into a full-blown mummy blogger; unable to contain myself, documenting every little change and development that my darling child went through. You are five months old, and that just hasn't happened. There are countless photos and a youtube channel, but very few blog posts have gone up with you as the star. One reason is that there just hasn't been time. It's incredible how days disappear in minutes, weeks merge into each other and before we know it, you've notched up another month. The other reason is that I don't feel up to the task. Everyone knows that blogging about your offspring is dull, unless it is done with considerable skill and wit. That is daunting. You are the most precious thing I have, and I don't want to do you a disservice by reducing your magic to tired cliches.

Having said that I'm afraid that the months and years will pass and we'll forget the little things that make us smile, shrug and tear our hair out with incomprehension. So, forgive my incompetence and I'll give this mummy-blogging a go.

Your little hands have led the way through these past months. They have evolved from another unpredictable part of what life throws at you to fully recognised and controlled parts of your body. Gone are the days when they would spring up and hit you in the face making you jump in surprise, and often cry out. We have even passed the stage where you would use them to vaguely bat at objects within reach. Now, you reach out and explore with your little hands. When I put you in our bed to feed, you turn towards me, arms outstretched and mouth open and ready.

During feeds you seek out my hand, take a finger in each of your little hands and pull and push them around as if they were a stress toy. Other times, you grab my flesh in your little fists and twist it with amazing strength. When you're really sleepy, I just get the odd stroke, or a little hand resting on mine. Your hands show no mercy for your dry skin, which we treat as gently as we can. While we massage in cream, bathe you in oily water and avoid soap, you scratch at your skin, leaving red marks, and occasionally bloody traces. The skin around your right thumb is red and bumpy - the result of repeated sucking, and your nails are kept as short as possible, to save your skin. Your daddy cuts your nails as you feed. It used to go unnoticed, but now you pause and stare. Wide eyes take in the nail clippers and your dad's concentration.

Last week I had you on my hip as I took an apple from the fruit bowl. You reached out and touched the fruit, an eyebrow raised and the curiosity evident on your face. As I took a crunchy bite, you stared at me and then cautiously smiled. After watching me very carefully, and continuing to reach out, I let you touch what was left. You brought the apple core close to your mouth and gave it a tentative lick. After a disgusted face, familiar from our recent attempts with carrot and apple purees, you had another go. A few more licks and you were done. You gave me a last unimpressed look and stuck your thumb in your mouth.

You use your hands to explore, although your mouth takes over that task from time to time. If I hold out a favourite toy, you reach out to take it from me, but inevitably the next place it ends up is in your mouth. This evening your Daddy was holding you as you spotted the plant on top of the fridge. Out came the hand and you touched the ends of the spiny fronds, open-mouthed. After a while you gave the branch a tentative tug, and then another, firmer. Your confidence strong, you pulled it towards you and in the direction of your mouth. Your curiosity made us laugh out loud.

If you sit on my lap, your little hands rest on mine. When you're tired and your thumb is firmly stuck in your mouth, head on my shoulder, I hold your other little hand. I cover it in mine to stop you scratching at your skin, but more importantly, I just hold your little hand.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

milking cow

I eyed the pump with a mixture of distaste and resignation. It had sat in its box for the last couple of months, but taking it out again brought it all flooding back.

Elsie took almost a month to learn how to breastfeed. Before she was born, I had this vague notion that breastfeeding was a natural process that therefore came naturally. Ha. Ok, so I'd heard of cracked nipples and other monstrosities but assumed in my naivity that these minor discomforts would be brief, or not affect me at all. I'd put my baby to my breast and she'd feed. Right.

The caesarean got us off to a shaky start. As I was wheeled to the recovery room, the baby was handed to me and she lay on my chest as tears and the corridor's bright lights blinded me. Daddy was left holding the baby as I was examined and almost an hour passed before I could join my new little family.

The days in hospital, blurred by morphine and lack of sleep, were punctuated by midwives who encouraged us, squeezing and repositioning, giving tips on waking her when she dozed mid-feed and providing equipment designed to repair the bloody cracks, soothe sore sensitive skin, get milk from boob to babe.

Home, and we had check up visits from midwives as Elsie was losing weight. Hour after hour, I held on to brief moments where she latched on, sucked down sustenance and slept replete. But then a midwife arrived, weighed her and told me she'd lost more. There was no choice but to express my milk, try feeding and then give her the bottle, which she inevitable gulped down. I tried getting advice from others - most were kind but clear: Get rid of the bottles, she'll learn. If she has the choice between bottle and breast, the bottle is much easier. They're not stupid, babies. She'll get nipple confusion and never breastfeed. But we were under surveillance and this was not acceptable. You've tried. You can't spend all your time expressing, washing bottles, sterilising bottles, trying to breastfeed, bottle feeding. Why don't you just go to formula? Make your life more simple. It felt like defeat. I gave myself six weeks.

That day, in the fourth week, when suddenly the gulping usually reserved for the bottle was heard while Elsie was at my breast, I was stunned. She had learned. The midwife's words rang in my ears She'll learn. They always do. Another couple of weeks and she was a purely breastfed baby.

The weeks passed and you would never know now the problems we had before. She has been putting on weight steadily, her cheeks filling out and feet straining to escape through the end of sleepsuit legs. There have been hiccoughs - those infamous cracks leading to infection and fever - but stories of friends' troubles in this area opened my eyes to just how common these problems are. Perfect mummies recounted their stories of mastitis, milk drying out, blisters... the list went on. My eyes were opened.

Now Elsie is four months old we're thinking of starting some baby rice; see whether she's ready for more than just milk. It'll be mixed with breastmilk to start with. Hence the pump. This time though, things are very different. It's easier to express without desperation.