Archive for August, 2010

It ain’t easy being green

I’ve always liked the idea of green living. Living sustainably and not taking more than we need from the earth makes total sense to me. However, putting the principles into practice hasn’t always worked out. There was the ill-fated compost bin: the idea of dumping all our fruit and veg peelings to rot in a big tub in the corner of the back yard seemed, for some reason, like a good idea at the time. But when the bin, and the indoor ‘compost caddy’ by the sink started attracting an army of flies (presumably drawn by the putrid stench), I had to concede that my husband was right for once: the compost bin has now remained untouched for over a year.

My first foray into ‘grow your own’ was similarly short-lived. The first couple of weeks were fine, the excitement of watching little shoots sprout from the soil and grow into fresh leafy salad making me feel like domestic goddess extraordinaire. Sadly, buying planters from the 99p shop turned out to be a false economy. The stones I’d chucked in the bottom were no substitute for proper drainage and the first heavy rainfall saw my mini salad crop turn into a waterlogged swamp.

So when I received a selection of eco-friendly products from energyrethinking, I wasn’t sure if it would be for me. However, as I looked through the products and browsed the website, I realised that perhaps I’m not such an eco-disaster after all. The reusable shopping bag was a nice addition to my collection; I get my main weekly shop delivered, but always try to bring my own bags when I’m popping into the village for extra bits and bobs. The pack also included a hippo water saver – simply pop it into the toilet cistern and save water on every flush. There’s an obvious pun here that I’m not going to use… Rather, it’s a dead easy way to do a little bit for the environment, and if your water is metered it could save some pennies too. There were a couple of bits in the pack that I know I won’t use, but in true eco (and money-saving) style, those bits can go to someone who will use them, via my local Freegle group – which is my top tip for saving money, recycling all sorts of unwanted junk and getting involved in your local community. And if I can get some decent plant pots from Freegle next spring, I may well use the salad seeds from energyrethinking and give that home growing another go.

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My poor little baby (well, my toddler actually, but he’s still my baby) is not well. He’s had a cold for a couple of days, which developed into a nasty cough. Last night (overnight, involving little sleep for my lovely husband) the cough developed into a horrible chesty wheeze. By this morning breathing was clearly a real effort for him – his little chest was visibly straining with each breath as he worked every muscle trying to get enough air.

I phoned NHS direct, who were very lovely, and advised taking him to the GP as soon as possible. I duly took him this morning, expecting to come away with perhaps some antibiotics, but mostly the reassurance that it was just a bad cold, nothing to worry about, and that it would be better in a couple of days. And we did come away with antibiotics – a small bottle of neon yellow medicine that smells like a sweet shop and needs to be stored in the fridge. We also got some soluble steroids: four pills to be taken once daily with food for the next five days; an inhaler complete with spacer and mouthpiece; and the worrying news that with a family history of asthma and hayfever on both sides, we should probably expect some sort of breathing trouble over the coming years.

I feel so sad for him. I hate to see him unwell. At times today he’s clearly felt rubbish: lots of lying on the sofa/floor, lots of cuddles, and this morning the occasional wail of “don’t feel nniiiiccee”. I wish I could somehow wave a magic wand and make him feel better.

I also feel guilty. Guilty because I know in my head that there are many, many children out there with health problems that are much worse (although in my heart I just feel gutted for my wheezy, coughing little boy). Guilty for not taking him to the doctor sooner (despite the fact that if I’d taken him yesterday, it really would have been just a cold – the serious bits came on very quickly overnight). Ridiculous abstract guilt that I’ve somehow caused his eczema and possible asthma by living in modern society (like I could have avoided it) and this morning while in the shower, fleeting guilt that I’m not still breastfeeding him, as if I were he might never have got the cold in the first place.

Perversely, I’m also feeling a bit pleased. When he’s been at his worst, all he’s wanted is to have a cuddle with me or his daddy. He seems so independent these days that it’s nice to be reminded that he does love me and that when things are tough, he just wants to snuggle with his mummy. But I hope I have my independent little man back on form very soon.

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I’ve been finding lately (possibly since becoming a mother – I’m not sure) that there are so many demands on my time, I just can’t keep up with everything I’d like to do. Or even, really, with everything I need to do to continue to be a reasonably functioning human being.

My second son is only 4 months old at the moment, so technically I’m on maternity leave. I’ve been doing the odd bit of work as ‘keeping in touch days’. Most days I’m looking after my 2 year old as well as the baby, which makes it very difficult to get things done, especially if I want to spend more than four minutes on any given task. Happily the toddler goes to mother in law on Wednesdays and to my mother on Saturdays; even this leaves me feeling stressed as I save up jobs to do on those occasions, forgetting that I’ll still be looking after one child all day.

I try to cook from scratch, although last night’s marmite and spinach on toast, whilst tasty and kind of fresh, isn’t quite the meal I had in mind when I devised the weekly plan and ordered the shopping. I’m responsible for all the laundry, lots of the bills and budgeting, tidying and organising. And also, as of approximately two months ago, I write a blog. I feel like I’m busy all the time, although compiling this list, it doesn’t seem like very much!

I’ve found that in trying to fit everything in, there have to be compromises. For example, when I’ve had big freelance jobs on in the past, husband and I have had a few more ready meals then we otherwise might. At the moment I’m feeling a bit under the weather, so the laundry has waited, piling up in the basket for a couple of days.

The big compromise at the moment is blogging and sleep. Since I’ve started blogging, and reading several dozen blogs along the way, I’ve seen my usual ‘I’m breastfeeding through the night’ bedtime of 9.30 pm pushed back to about 11.00 pm most nights. Given that the baby has started waking to gurgle, smile and play (but definitely not feed back to sleep) at 5.00 am, and the toddler wakes up at around 6.15 am (husband gets up with him, but they do disturb me in the process, despite good intentions), I am seriously, seriously tired. Exhausted. And my kitchen is a serious mess. Never mind, I’ll clear it all up on Saturday when the toddler is at my mother’s. On that note, I’m off to bed.

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Thinking literally

I love seeing my son learn and develop. His speech has come on in leaps and bounds in recent weeks and he astounds me with his level of understanding. However, I sometimes forget that he hasn’t yet picked up all the subtle nuances of adult conversation; sometimes toddlers can take things a little too literally.

A classic example was a couple of weeks ago. We arrived home from a quick trip to the village and (neat and tidy as ever) I dumped the shopping on the living room floor. My thoughtful toddler starts ‘putting the shopping away’ – grabbing each item and staggering into the kitchen with it before hiding it in a random cupboard. He picked up a loaf of bread.

“Bread goes in the bread bin”

says Mummy cheerily. He tottered off, and not long after I heard a telltale clattering. I stuck my head round the kitchen door in time to see him on tiptoe, trying to lift our fresh loaf of bread into the mucky kitchen bin.

My habit of talking constantly to him backfired again when, getting dressed one morning, I casually asked

“Where are Mummy’s trousers?”

Quick as a flash, he reached into the wardrobe, and several pairs of jeans and trousers neatly folded on the shelf were flung enthusiastically to the floor, accompanied by a winning smile. It’s hard to feel cross when his intentions are so good and he just wants to be helpful.

My favourite example, and the one that inspired me to write this post, happened just yesterday. I was in the middle of changing his nappy when my toddler caught sight of his Cars DVD. Deciding that he wanted to watch it, and watch it NOW, he wriggled away just as I finished doing up his vest.

“What have you forgotten? Is there something missing?”

I asked, waving his discarded jeans in the air. He turned round, looked at me and declared firmly,


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It’s BabyD’s birthday tomorrow, and one of the presents we’ve bought for him is Willy the Dreamer by Anthony Browne. It’s a gorgeous book, really quirky with loads of hidden detail. The drawings are, I think, inspired by various famous works of art, or by the style of the artist. There’s a Dali pastiche, with melting bananas in place of clocks, and a burning banana casting a shadow in the background. Another page looks very like Henri Rousseau’s jungle scenes, and the last is reminiscent of Rene Magritte. I also see characters I recognise from films and from Alice in Wonderland. The book is a fascinating artwork in itself, taking various styles and reproducing them with a witty and idiosyncratic twist.

What has really interested me, though, is that I really like this book. Not so long ago, I would have found this sort of thing very frustrating. I like to feel like I’m a clever person. When reading Jilly Cooper (ok, admittedly not usually the actions of a clever person, but bear with me), I love it when I recognise one of the literary allusions – spotting the odd line of Wordsworth or Catullus dropped nonchalantly into the dialogue gives me a satisfying sense of being ‘one of the gang’, in on some little joke that those who aren’t as well-read wouldn’t get. However, this is a double-edged sword. Because, of course, for every in-joke that I get, every smug nod of recognition, there are several that pass me by. When I read a quote from a poet that I didn’t recognise, I’d be really pissed off, mostly with myself for not having read enough and not knowing enough. “I don’t know whether this is Shelley or Byron – ugh, I’m so pathetic and thick.” I couldn’t bear the idea that there are people out there who’ve read gallons and gallons of poetry and literature, and who know things that I’m never likely to know.

I would have expected that Willy the Dreamer would evoke the same feelings. There are several pictures in there that look vaguely familiar, and that I’m pretty sure would have me chuckling with recognition if I was an expert in modern art. But for some reason, knowing that there are jokes I’m not getting and things I don’t know isn’t winding me up so much today. Either this is because Anthony Browne is somewhat more talented than Jilly Cooper, and his books are rich and beautiful regardless of whether you can spot every artistic reference and inspiration. Or possibly it could be because I’m becoming a little more comfortable with myself, more confident in the things I know, and in my ability to find out the things I don’t know. I do still feel like I have a lot to learn, and that I’ve a long way to go before I really understand ‘being in the world’, but perhaps part of the way there is becoming relaxed about the ideas that I can never know everything, and that there will always be people out there who know a hell of a lot more than me.

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My mother has been clearing out her filing cabinet. In amongst the expired insurance policies and orders of service from marriages that have long since ended in divorce, she found my baby record card. This was the card given to her by the midwife in 1983 to record my weight from birth to my first birthday; the equivalent of the ‘red book’ I received when my baby was born in 2008.

I was surprised, intrigued and amused between the differences between the two records. The reassuring “Don’t worry if your line isn’t exactly the same as our example, after all every baby is different” is a sentiment that some of today’s over-zealous health visitors would do well to take on board. The chart is pleasingly simple, with three unlabelled lines to broadly indicate the expected growth curve, compared with the nine labelled centiles on my baby’s chart. Tellingly, the table in the 1983 version has ten spaces to record your baby’s age and corresponding weight; the 2008 baby could be weighed 32 times in their first year.

My favourite thing about the 1983 baby record is the somewhat ‘direct’ tone of its advice.

“Your baby’s weight is a guide to how he is developing. It’s a mistake, however, to think that a baby must be fat to be healthy because it’s just not true. Fat babies can grow into fat adults and everybody knows that overweight people are prone to health problems. So you owe it to your baby not to let him get too fat.”

I expect that many mothers today would be horrified to hear their child referred to as “fat”, especially by a health professional. But that’s exactly why it’s important that we do use these direct terms. Politely referring to kids as ‘overweight’, or even worse using medical terms like ‘obese’ gives parents a get-out: they tell themselves that the smarty pants doctor is applying some spurious label, thus avoiding facing up to the reality that they have a responsibility to manage their child’s weight. Why not call a spade a spade?

Of course, as well as the refreshing simplicity and honesty of the baby record card of 1983, there was a negative difference that outweighed all the positives. More on that tomorrow…

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Breastfeeding rates in this country are shockingly low. Only 35 per cent of UK babies are being exclusively breastfed at one week, 21 per cent at six weeks, 7 per cent at four months and 3 per cent at five months. (Unicef Baby Friendly Initiative) The reasons for this are complex and intertwined. There isn’t enough support for breastfeeding mothers: maternity wards are short staffed, with many midwives having no up-to-date breastfeeding training and those that do often too busy to attend to struggling new mothers. Health professionals are often ill-informed and unsupportive, quick to recommend formula as a solution not just to feeding problems, but to sleep issues, post-natal depression and a host of other problems.

The biggest issue, though, is that breastfeeding is simply not seen as ‘normal’ in most parts of society. Young women having a baby today are unlikely to have been breastfed, or to have seen a baby being breastfed by their family or friends. Many women won’t even have held a baby until their own baby is born. There simply isn’t the natural support network that there might have been, say, eighty years ago, when babies were raised as part of an extended family network.

The prevalence of artificial feeding in the media and in society means that breastfeeding is too often perceived as unusual at best and weird, freakish and disgusting at worst. There are shelves upon shelves of formula in the supermarket. The accepted image for a ‘feeding room’ (the special little windowless cupboards in shopping centres, often complete with nappy changing area and stinking bin full of nappies, where women are expected to hide away and breastfeed) is a bottle.

One of the few things the government has successfully done to counter this trend is to ban all advertising of formula for babies under six months of age. Of course, formula companies got round this by introducing ‘follow on milk’, which they can and do advertise as a way of promoting their infant formula brand. Their blatant disregard for the spirit of the law in their unwavering pursuit of profit, along with all the issues above, can make a breastfeeder feel pretty despondent.

But my heart was lifted a little when I saw my baby record card, which my mother had kept since my birth in 1983. I was absolutely astounded to see, right there on the card issued by the NHS to each and every baby, a half-page advertisement for Gold Cap SMA formula. Yes, the advert has the usual disclaimers that breast milk is the “preferred” feeding method, but the majority of the text (not to mention the very presence of the advert) serves to seriously undermine breastfeeding.

“Infant formula is intended to replace or supplement breast milk when breast feeding is not possible or is insufficient”

The reality is that with the right advice, breastfeeding is rarely not possible. It’s even less likely that established breastfeeding would be ‘insufficient’ – if a baby is fed on demand (rather than attempting to impose some arbitrary routine or schedule) then the body will naturally produce more milk to meet the baby’s increasing needs. The advert for formula, appearing on an official and authoritative document, likely to be referred to when mothers are worrying about their baby’s weight and at their most vulnerable, could only serve to undermine breastfeeding. That the NHS would accept payment from formula manufacturers for advertising space in this way shows how little they valued and supported breastfeeding back in 1983.

There’s still a long way to go to normalise breastfeeding again and for society to support breastfeeding mothers. However, when I see evidence like this of where we’ve come from, I feel that at least we’re heading in the right direction, and that one day, eventually, we might get back to doing things as nature intended.

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