Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Mother love and other love

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 Quincy on the ancient portable TV. She’d suck on that bottle, little hands grabbing at it, and eventually her eyes would swim and her lids fall. She’d sleep in my arms, or on the bed beside me, while I half watched that weird US show and gazed at her perfect face.

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.


Em said...

what a beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing it.

Michelle said...

It is beautiful. Truly lovely. Made my day that has.

delurking - that's how much I liked it :-)

Lucy said...

I loved reading this, thank you. Daniel was also back to back with me during labour and birth - not nice at all!

Deb said...

As you probably know, I'm very pro-breastfeeding, very attachment-parenting, very pro-mother-love. But it saddens me that people seem to feel the need to set up the various relationships within a family in competition with each other, that mother-love is often interpreted to mean that others must be excluded. It was lovely to read this post, and see how your family has built those relationships. It sounds as though each relationship within the family supports the others, and that's a great thing :-)

HelenHaricot said...

thankyou for the post. We also have an unusual set, in that we have a SAHD - not quite what I wanted, but how it is, and the girls run to both of us for hugs and cuddles, and the youngest knows he is the one who will get up for her in the night now she doesn't bf.

emma said...

a glorious post.

and that last paragraph - what an affirmation of family.

thank you so much

Elaine said...

I can't find the words, perfect springs to mind

Allie said...

Well, thank you all for your nice comments!

Hi, Michelle - now you've de-lurked, please feel free to comment again!

Helen, I actually thought of you when writing this as I imagined that you had some similar experiences.

Deb, I think that it is true that sometimes there is competition in family relationships. I suspect that if we'd only had one child we might have found ourselves smothering poor P a bit! Two kids certainly added some balance.

It does sadden me sometimes when I see dads who are very low in confidence when it comes to comforting their toddlers. Being without the 'magic chest' doesn't have to mean that you are second best. Gosh, that might be a slogan!

Louise said...

Thanks so much for sharing that. Your children are truly very lucky to have such wonderful Mums xxxx

Gill said...

Yet another brilliant read Allie! And as you know I'm dead impressed with the way you've worked things out.

Food for thought re: biology and 'number one parent'ing. Sharing childcare works fine, with the people who are prepared to put the children first IME.

Elizabeth said...

I've enjoyed that beautiful post! I had over 20 years of babysitting experience before having my own. When I was young my mom taught me lots of good comforting techniques that did not require the 'magic chest', and most importantly just how important it was to get to know every baby well. I used all of the techniques. I never comforted with milk--mine was complete rubbish and both kids were like Pearl and lost lots of weight until going on to formula and we never used dummies. I taught my husband them--so we were both always able to comfort them wherever we were. Basically it comes down to knowing what the child needs and lots and lots of love--your post proves that!

Liza said...

Lovely post, but I'm now jealous of your perfect sounding family!
Having never had anyone to share childcare and all that goes with it, the way you and Dani split children, home, and work, sounds so idyllic. Your children are lucky to have 2 such loving and dedicated parents, and you are obviously doing a great job with them, as they are such lovely kids. Hope you're not missing the others too much, enjoy the quiet while you have a half empty house and appreciate the noise all the more when its full again.

Allie said...

Aaargh! We are not perfect - no way perfect. I am short tempered too often and we have a fair amount of bickering in our house... Not smug here - just appreciating what I'm lucky enough to have.

Liza, A is a lovely boy too, so you must be coping well. I am full of admiration of the way you've taken on the PTB on his behalf when necessary.

I am not someone who thinks that any family set up is the best for everyone (perhaps that's obvious!) But, what I mean is that I, in no way, think that single parents are short changing their kids.

dottyspots said...

Thank you so much for sharing this - it was a really touching read :)

Liza said...

Oops, no I didnt mean it to come across like I thought that you thought that. huh, does that even make sense, oh i know what I mean!

I'm just very envious at the moment of any child having 2 very loving parents coz I am seeing A hurting so much lately. the older he gets the more it affects him when he is being let down constantly by his dad.
Last saturday me and A even had a row about it, he told me that I should order his dad to come over and I should not let him cancel all the time. As much as i wish it was in my power to do what he wants me to do, I cant.

I didnt mean that you sounded smug in your post, just that I'm envious and sometimes want what you and others have. Most of the time I dont mind being a single parent, but there are times occasionally, like now, (- usually when A has cried for the 3rd or 4th saturday in a row) when I want that idyllic life for him.

Allie said...

Oh, poor little A. And poor you for having to find your way through someone else's cock-ups.

Glad you didn't think I was being smug.

I think you should hold on to the fact that you give A the best experiences you can. None of us can do more than that.

these boots said...

Lovely post, thank you.

Our situation here has some similarities, with DD1 I had working days out of the house every so often from 3 months, so DH had to contend with the expressed milk. With DD2 he opted to drive the whole family everywhere when I worked out of the house, so that I could feed her between meetings and stuff. There's a definite mismatch over the housework - but the "mothering" is pretty much equalled out, I'd say. It's great, because on the very few occasions I need to stay away overnight, I know they're all completely happy and at ease. :-)

Kirsty said...

that was lovely to read!

Sharon said...

This is so lovely. Thank you for writing about how you all worked together to find the best way forward for your family. It's inspiring.

Beth said...

Finally catching up on some blog reading. Thank you for sharing this v. lovely post.