Pearlie and I are both feeling a bit odd and the house seems very quiet with the others away at camp. At bedtime on Sunday we had a nice cuddle and P told me that she loves me and will forever – and I told her the same. I don’t often blog stuff about our family relationships but I have been meaning to for a while – and this week seems to be the moment. I’ll post about what we’ve been up to later this week.
Dani gave birth to Pearl in April 1997 - about five and a half years into our relationship. I don’t want to talk about how the children were conceived as I think that this is their information to share, or not, as they wish. They know all about it and we’ve always been completely honest.
Dani’s labour was induced as P was sixteen days ‘late’. Luckily that didn’t lead to an escalation of intervention – one dose of prostin gel and Dani strode into labour like a woman on a mission. During the second stage the sun was setting and there was a fantastic view across the sea. Dani managed never to lose her focus, in spite of their best attempts to irritate her (like trying to break the waters, as it was on their list - even though her labour was progressing beautifully!) and she gave birth standing up. I was chucked out of the hospital in the early hours and walked home without my feet touching the ground.
We were complete novices with the whole baby business – had never even changed a nappy before Pearlie was in our lives. Dani had a really tough time with breastfeeding – something we’d both decided would be important. Dani fed that girl pretty much constantly but, over the first four months of her life, P fell steadily off the growth charts – and looked scrawny. That was a really worrying introduction to the parenting game. We couldn’t understand what was happening and were terrified of ruining the breastfeeding altogether if she had any formula. I think I was biting my tongue for the last month or so of this time – really wanting to offer P a bit of formula but very well aware that that decision was Dani’s to make. The stress was compounded by the fact that Dani was due to go back to work (Mon-Fri 9 to 5) when P was four months. We’d always planned that Dani would have built up a stock of expressed milk, but there was none of that to spare, so when Dani started work we started giving P some formula too. This actually worked fine nutritionally – P gained weight and got herself settled on the 2nd centile line (the one she’s followed ever since!) and Dani breastfed her every morning, lunchtime and during the night.
So, from the start we learned that being parents was not going to be something we could plan and execute! We learned that we needed to be flexible – and the next change of plan was when P was 12 months and Dani decided that she needed to work part-time too, as she wasn’t seeing enough of Pearlie. That set up a pattern of work and childcare we’ve stuck with ever since.
But, what I really want to write about is how I bonded with P and what I learned – something of a baptism of fire. When she was four months I found myself looking after Pearlie alone for several hours a day, with no magic boobs! For the first few months I found she was most calm and ready to take the milk if I held her against my naked breast and snuck the bottle teat in her mouth. That didn’t make it very easy to go out! Later on she was happy to take bottles from me but I was very careful not to overdo that – so she still breastfed.
Pearlie wasn’t that keen to go out until she was mobile on her feet – slings and buggies often frustrated her. (She tried to climb right out of a back carrier when she was about fourteen months!) I spent a massive amount of time alone with her in the house. She was a very ‘sparky’ baby from birth - she used to strain to sit up if placed on her back after about three months. There wasn’t much of a gap between sitting, crawling, walking and running – all done by 12 months. I spent most of my time on the floor in those early months, building stacking cups to be knocked down, proffering hammers for the walloping of pegs, and conducting crawl chases round and round the kitchen table. We had agreed from the start that the person at home with the baby wasn’t expected to get anything done in the way of housework – we stacked washing up, left buckets of nappies, kicked the toys into a heap.
After a full morning of play, and a flying visit from D for a breastfeed, P would get tired mid-afternoon. I used to make a bottle of formula and curl up with her in the middle of our double bed – and put
One of the problems I have with some of the ‘alternative’ parenting ideas is the absolute supremacy of the role of the birth mother. I am an avid fan of breastfeeding and I think that there are lots of times when birth mothers get a lousy deal. But I also think that it can be self-defeating to declare yourself ‘the one and only’ for your child. Maybe some people want that – but neither I, nor D, did.
Nearly three years later, after a very sicky, itchy pregnancy – I gave birth to Leo. This was not a fun birth. Leo was OP (back to back with me) and had been for weeks. I knew this – his knobbly knees stuck straight out my belly – and I also knew that he needed to turn round. After three days and nights of contractions – including a terrifying night when I let them give me a sleeping pill and spent hours wandering in a confused haze between my bed and the toilet – I was exhausted. I cried while they rigged me up with epidural and drip. The epidural didn’t work properly – leaving me with a ‘window of pain’ down one side. The breathing I’d been doing to manage the ‘natural’ contractions didn’t help much with the pain of the contractions once I was on the drip. Eventually I was fully dilated and Leo was still the wrong way round. They gave me a ‘spinal’ to kill all feeling from the middle of my torso and said they’d do their best to get him out with forceps. I swore a lot about the possibility of ending up with episiotomy and caesarean wound – the only time I’ve ever sworn in front of medical staff! I had the good fortune to have a very experienced Doctor who the midwives said was great. He was apparently a consultant in his own country but was only a registar here (why??) and he managed to rotate and extract poor Leo, who came out very bruised and misshapen of head. My most scared moment was flat on my back in the operating theatre when I caught sight of a box labelled ‘hysterectomy packs’ – erk! Dani stayed right with me in the theatre and, most importantly to me, went with Leo when they whisked him away to the special care unit to stick a needle in him and start antibiotics.
The staff couldn’t figure out who she was – most assumed she was a midwife as she was in those weird operating theatre clothes! I was made to stay in for three days while they pumped the boy full of antibiotics – this was because I’d had a slight fever during the labour. The midwife told me that this was probably because of the epidural... Whatever, I hated it and so did he – and not a drop of colostrum or milk came to my breasts. I exchanged frantic phone calls with Dani, while the doctors from special care fought with the midwives over whether or not Leo should be given a bottle. In the end I couldn’t go on with zero sleep and a frantic screaming baby and I gave him a couple of bottles. Dani knew I was very sad about that. We were so desperate to get home.
At home, something soaked my shirt as I sat down to my first meal in my own kitchen. Leo never touched another drop of formula! Dani was there right through my hideously broken and bleeding nipples – taking Leo and rocking him while I applied Jellonet and cried. (Still got the scars!) Poor Pearlie had been very unsettled by my stay in hospital and I was desperate to be with her. I needed, and wanted, Dani to pop Leo in a sling and take him for walks – something he loved. It did settle down, gradually, with lots of thinking and re-thinking, and healing nipples!
The whole business of two kids was (in some ways) more challenging than one had been. I had to go back to work gradually, from when Leo was about four months, and I was glad that Dani was always there for him. I expressed loads of milk, which Dani lovingly poured down his vests! He was generally happier to wait for a boob to return than allow any fake teat or spout to sully his lips. But I knew he was safe, loved and that Dani was bonding with him in the way that I had with P as a baby. She was taking him here and there (P was a very active toddler!) and being his parent without me available. We both feel that being in that situation was vital for the building of confidence.
I breastfed Leo until he was two and I am glad that we had that. Some of my happiest memories are hoisting a sleepy, bathed, heavy little toddler onto my lap for a ‘bedtime feedy’. But I was just as glad that he had Dani to give him banana to squish and tuck him up in his buggy with his ‘mama’ (dummy) for a snooze when I wasn’t there.
I guess I could have been a ‘one and only’ mother for a child, or children – if I’d had to. Some of the sharing involved has been tricky to work out at times. But I wouldn’t have wanted a partnership where I was the only one who felt she could soothe the crying baby, be acceptable in the night, or know what toy was beloved. I don’t think biology is nothing – sometimes I think that Dani finds Pearlie easier to understand and I find Leo easier. But, I think that too much can be made of it all – biology, ‘instincts’ and ‘motherhood’. I think that what children need is love and commitment, more than anything else. Of course, I can only speak from my experience and I may one day be contradicted by my children, but I think that reliability beats most things in a childhood. I think that being there, every day, cooking tea, finding a plaster, cuddling, talking – that is what makes relationships deep and trusting.
Before we ever had children, Dani and I talked about what would happen if we split up– perhaps a bit gloomy, but we wanted to make sure we had the same basic ideas. We agreed that the children would always stay together – that their sibling relationship would be respected by both of us. And we knew that, whatever might happen between us, we would both be parents to both these children for the rest of our lives. If I hadn’t trusted in that fact, 100%, I’d never have had children with Dani. Thankfully, that situation (splitting up!) has not arisen – and I think it unlikely that it will. I believe that one of the things that has made our relationship so strong has been supporting each other through the years of babies and little children – now not so little. It is not all roses – real life never is – but I feel very lucky to have such wonderful children and a partner who is as much ‘number one parent’ as I am.