Thursday, 20 September 2012

A 1930s childhood and its lessons for today

The Heart is Highland - Memories of a Childhood in a Scottish Glen by Maisie Steven, now in its third edition and very proudly published by Lonely Scribe, is a book that is close to my heart. It was on my desk, waiting to be edited, on my first day in my first proper publishing job as a desk editor. More than ten years on, it's still one of my favourite books, and Maisie is one of my most cherished authors.

If you've read this blog before you might think that The Heart is Highland is something entirely separate from Lonely Scribe's parenting books, coming under the heading, on our booklist page, of social history and memoir.

Recently, however, I've been considering the book in a new light and wondering whether, in fact, it ought to sit more closely alongside those parenting books. It paints such a vivid picture of a rich and happy childhood that maybe we should be thinking of it as a way of gaining some valuable perspective on the way in which we parent our children today.

There isn't space here to tell of all the delights that are in the book, which is a child's-eye-view of each month of the year in the beautiful Highland glen where Maisie and her sister lived with their parents during the 1930s. It's a lovingly detailed and engaging story, peppered with quirky characters and episodes from community life (it bears comparison with Call the Midwife and All Creatures Great and Small - and, like them, would be wonderful adapted for television). 

The author herself makes a case for the book being seen as more than just a nostalgic look at the past, when she says in the introduction:
"It would be a pity if these reminiscences were to be seen as mere nostalgia for the past; better, surely, to take from them something positive for the future... For me what seems to shine through is just how much more quality of life means than standard of living, and how happiness is not, contrary to the message of today's aggressive advertising, dependent upon material possessions. Surely we can choose in different ways to regain that lost simplicity."
This strikes a chord with me as a modern parent trying to navigate my three small children through a complex world. I try, in my own way, to give my children a taste of the kind of childhood Maisie enjoyed. We keep chickens, grow vegetables, cook, read and explore the outdoors with our children. They are lucky enough to have much in common with the young Maisie, although they are growing up nearly a century later. I've found it fascinating to re-read the book now that I'm a mother myself.

And the author herself, the product of this Highland childhood? I've been privileged to know Maisie for more than ten years - although we've never met in person - and she's now in her eighties. In all the time I've known her she has been unfailingly open-hearted, honest and generous, cheerful, willing to work to deadlines and quick to make suggestions. She's dealt in a quiet and dignified way with all that life has thrown at her in recent years (including the death of her husband, and a stroke that affected her ability to write). She's a mother and a grandmother, a qualified dietician and the author of several books, including The Good Scots Diet - and The Heart is Highland is a book that she once thought she'd never write. Thankfully her son Kenneth, also a writer, gently encouraged her to pick up her pen. As Maisie explains in the book's introduction:
"...I made a very tentative start with the month of January. And then a strange thing happened. As if a cupboard full of old treasures had been opened and the contents spilled out onto the floor, all kinds of memories began to surface - of people, places and events, and of customs and traditions, some of which I had not thought of for more than half a century."
Maisie's skill, at both remembering and then capturing on the page the scenes of her childhood, makes The Heart is Highland a book that I hope will continue to find many new readers. It's truly a book that speaks across the generations.

You can like the book's Facebook page using the link on the right: I'll be posting updates and maybe a few more extracts there.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Giving breastfeeding mothers a break

We all know the feeling of desperately needing some time to ourselves. Whether it's time to have a bath in peace, to read a book, to go to an exercise class or just to sit with a cup of coffee, as mothers we often crave a few minutes (or, better, a few hours!) to just be free of the constant demands that small children make on our attention. It doesn't make us bad mothers to want this alone time. Being a parent is hard work, no question. Whether you've got one newborn, or a larger brood, the daily shepherding of little humans through their daily lives can be delightful, but also exhausting, repetitive and - at times - lonely and boring. And in today's society the other pressures on mothers are great - we are constantly bombarded with (often contradictory) messages about what we 'should' be doing: getting our babies into routines, sleeping through, eating solids, so we can get our lives and our bodies back...

This can weigh particularly heavily on a new breastfeeding mother. Even mothers for whom breastfeeding is working beautifully often feel they are somehow not doing 'enough'. I hear a lot from new mothers about 'getting started expressing', not because they need to be separated from the baby, but to give their partner a chance to do feeds, or to allow them to go on a long-planned hen weekend, or because grandma wants to have the baby for a day. Mums often sound ambivalent about this - the hassle factor of expressing and bottle-feeding to please others can seem like an extra burden. I also hear a lot from mums who are tired out from constantly feeding the baby, trying to keep on top of the washing and cleaning, shopping and cooking meals - and their partner doesn't get home until late in the evening. They think their lives would be easier if they weren't tied to the baby by breastfeeding, and expressing and bottle-feeding, or feeding formula, seem (or are made to seem, by others and the media) like the keys to more 'freedom'.

I think we have a problem here that's a real threat to breastfeeding: it becomes the 'fall guy' for the other problems of new motherhood. Feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for your new baby? Blame the breastfeeding that keeps you tied to the baby 24/7. In need of a break? You can't have one if the baby won't take a bottle. Want to keep up with your hobbies and interests, or see your friends? Not while you're breastfeeding! Want to eat a curry, go for a few drinks, have an evening out? Not if you're still breastfeeding! (Note the 'still' - it's part of the not-so-subtle pressure to stop breastfeeding early). Partner won't look after the baby? How can he, if you won't bottle feed? Baby won't sleep at night? Breastfeeding's the culprit. No time to yourself to exercise, get your hair done, go shopping? Yep, breastfeeding's the problem. I say, this is all rubbish. It's not about the breastfeeding. It's about society's attitudes and how they play out in individual families. I truly believe that breastfeeding is more flexible than many people think, and I think it's possible to balance your life as a breastfeeding mother with the other parts of your life that are important to you.

Of course life will never be the same now you have a child (breastfeeding or not). That's not a bad thing! This is a new chapter. You will not 'get back' to how you were before. But you will be able to enjoy the things that made you happy before you became a parent, albeit in a new, different, possibly even better way. Some things may be off the agenda for weeks, months or even years (I loved long tramps over hills and dales before children), but new opportunities will come along to compensate.

It's not selfish to put you, and your little family, at the centre of things for a while. If you want to turn down invitations to distant, child-free weddings, do so; if you don't want to let the grandparents have your child overnight, you don't have to. If you don't want to be bothered with expressing and bottle-feeding, you can forget all about it and just carry on breastfeeding for as long as you like. Be polite but firm when dealing with those who have an opinion about what you're doing. Part of parenting is learning how to make the choices that are right for you and your family and standing by those choices. And the choice to continue breastfeeding, and thus to not accommodate requests that conflict with it, is very valid. 'Can't you just give the baby a bottle?' is an often-heard question, to which 'no' is a perfectly acceptable answer.

So, some practical tips about how to get a break as a breastfeeding mother, that don't assume the breastfeeding is the problem. First, and perhaps most importantly, work out what it is that's important to you. Presumably the breastfeeding is important to you, because you did it (yay!) and you're still doing it (yay again!). But you'd love some time, to just do something. Let's see how that might be achieved. Obviously it helps if you've got some support - a partner, family nearby, friends. But even if you're on your own, there are things you can do to carve out some time for you, while continuing to breastfeed. Marshall your resources: if you've got support, draw on it. Tell people what you need and ask them to help make it happen. If you don't have support, see if you can get any (breastfeeding groups are a great place to start).

When my children were newly born I couldn't bear to be physically separated from them, even if they were only downstairs. This lasted several weeks and seemed to be part of my instinctive response to my baby - along with the gut-wrenching feeling I got when they cried, and the way I sprang awake, fully alert, when they made so much as a murmur. (And the way my boobs leaked at the first cry of hunger, from my own baby or someone else's.) Don't rush the first few weeks. Get what help you can to enable you to just be with your baby, let them sleep on your chest, feed as long as they like, let the house go to the dogs. Read this poem.

However, even in the early weeks, you may want a little time - to take a shower, for example? I remember agonising over how I could have a shower when I was alone with the baby. What if she woke and needed feeding? I put her in a bouncy chair and took her into the bathroom with me, then showered at breakneck speed. I soon realised that wasn't very relaxing and took to getting up early (while my husband was still at home), having a shower and then going back to sleep! Or I'd shower at night. The point is, you can change these things around. Try things out. You'll get to know what works.

With a tiny baby you can feel as though you literally never put the baby down. Slings can be a godsend and enable you to do things around the house and get out for a walk, but it can feel liberating to have a few minutes to yourself without a baby physically attached to you. Luckily, other people can wear slings and carry your baby too - so get your husband or partner to go out for a walk with the baby in the sling (or pram, if the baby likes the pram) while you do... whatever you like. Watch telly, do chores, paint your toenails. Or go out for the walk too, just not holding the baby! I used to love hanging up the washing while someone - anyone! - held the baby for ten minutes. I was outside, in the sun, with my arms temporarily free, alone with my thoughts. I learnt to savour those moments.

When you're up with the baby in the night, and doing a lot of night feeds, it can feel as though you never get comfy in bed or have space to yourself. When my second baby was not sleeping well my husband would take him downstairs when he got up for work, and look after him for an hour so I had the bed to myself for a much-needed extra hour of sleep. I loved him for it.

It can be helpful to focus on what you can do. You have lots of 'thinking time'. You can plan, make lists, decide what you will do in the future when you get chance. (That future comes sooner than you think!) I wrote two-thirds of a novel while on maternity leave with my second baby - when he napped, I typed. I imagined and planned the scenes while breastfeeding, then wrote them up when he was asleep. It's not a great novel - it's not even finished! - but it's a testament to the fact that I managed to keep a little bit of head space for myself and my ideas while at home with a small baby.

I missed reading when my babies were small. Either I was too tired to read, or I couldn't hold the book and turn the pages while breastfeeding (other mums I know were more adept than me!). A friend having her second baby deliberately made the choice to sit up and have the light on during night feeds so that she could read while feeding at night, reasoning that she might as well make best use of the time if she had to be awake. Now I have a smartphone I would browse and read on that if I were spending hours on the sofa feeding a newborn. (Sadly my breastfed baby is now 23 months old and she wants to play on the smartphone while feeding.)

Getting out of the house alone - just for a while - can really make you feel as though you've had a break. At weekends I used to feed the baby, hand her to Daddy, then go out for an hour or so, often to buy something for lunch. It needn't have been shopping - it could have been a haircut, a walk round the park, a coffee with a friend. Leaving a breastfed baby for an hour with a trusted friend or family member is definitely doable.

Often there are breastfeeding-friendly ways round even quite complicated arrangements. In my book Breastfeeding: stories to inspire and inform, one mother tells how she attended her sister's wedding in South Africa when her breastfed baby was just 12 weeks old. She planned in advance, pumped a stash of milk, got the baby taking bottles, then flew out to SA for the weekend, attended the wedding, pumped while she was there, then came home and carried on breastfeeding. A friend of mine had evening Paralympics tickets but her baby point-blank refused to drink from a bottle. We talked it over and in the end she brought her daughter's bath and bedtime earlier over a few days beforehand so that the baby (who sleeps well at night!) went to bed earlier and my friend could get to the Olympic Park in time for the event. As mothers, particularly first-time mothers, it can seem difficult to adjust routines that seem to be working well - but breastfeeding, and babies, can be more flexible than we think, if we give them chance.

This post has covered a lot of ground - but it boils down, again, to the importance of support for breastfeeding mothers. Sensitive support, that addresses the real issues and doesn't shift the blame onto breastfeeding, can make all the difference.