Saturday, 29 November 2008

Ideas in the Night, and Seeing my Work in Print

Funny how so many of my creative ideas and writing thoughts for my blog come while I'm putting J to bed, and can't immediately get them down on paper. His bedtime routine takes up to an hour, although it's been swifter lately since I've figured out the feeding-him-to-sleep-in-the-Ergo trick. It must be my equivalent of 'having ideas in the shower'.

With an average of eight wakings per night, for 14 months, I reckon that to be about 2000 times I've responded to J in the night. Whew. Every one of those interactions, or at least the cumulative effect of all that consistent night-time parenting, must be instilling some sort of security, right?

I wonder. Another mom was telling me how her 10 month old just doesn't seem to notice whether she is there or not, and is happy as long as there is stuff going on and other people to interact with. He doesn't seem to have hit the 7-month-separation-anxiety stage that J seemed to have virtually from birth (and it only worsened at 7 months). Another mom remarked, "Oh, it's because he's so secure. You've made him so secure." And I thought, what, and I haven't, because he cries every time I leave the room? I don't think so.

It seems they are all different, and we just work out our individual strategies to deal with it. I now almost enjoy my 'quiet time' with J when he wakes up and I get to enjoy his cuddliness, and also just try to be in the moment. I sing mantra's to him sometimes so that doubles up as spiritual practice I guess ;) Multi-tasking and all that.

Yesterday I received a copy of Juno magazine in the post - the winter issue in which my article 'Ten Months on: Surrendering to the Shifting Tides of Motherhood' appears. An odd feeling to see photo's of me and J, and actually read my words in print. As usual I devoured the rest of the magazine, a brilliant one, and was inspired by its articles on the research behind home education and on the role of media advertising in children's upbringing. I feel proud to be part of a publication that provides such a welcome contrast to the mainstream parenting magazine industry, which all too often focuses on 'controlling' children and improving their 'behaviour', rather than looking at them as whole beings. I'm re-reading the brilliant Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn and his thoughts on behaviourism and why it shouldn't be applied to human beings, are sobering indeed. I feel freshly resolved to commit to the 'path less taken' as far as discipline is concerned.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Mother Guilt

A few days ago I picked up a book called 'Healthy Mother, Better Breastfeeding' by Francesca Naish and Janette Roberts. In line with my current field of study I thought it might be helpful. And parts of it are: I particularly liked the affirmations to use when you are feeding, to help relax and settle into it instead of thinking "Oh god not again, I have a million things to do" which I think many mothers suffer from in the beginning (and even not in the beginning). I also liked the information about herbs that are safe or unsafe for use when breastfeeding, and the way the book normalises co-sleeping and night-feeding. We need more of that to battle against the Gina Fords and Tracey Hoggs of the world!

But what I didn't like was the strong implication that the mother's duty is to be completely and healthy in every way. No coffee, certainly no alcohol, no non-organic foods, only purified water, etc. Tinned food is suspect as is just about every kind of synthetic material in your house. It was so profoundly unrealistic. And also hugely middle-class bias. Hey, I'm supposedly middle-class and since being a full-time mother I can't even afford organic food for the most part.

It worries me because this is not what we need to get more women breastfeeding. I suspect it will put off those who already think it slightly inconvenient. My research, for example Gabrielle Palmer's excellent The Politics of Breastfeeding, leads me in the opposite direction: a woman can breastfeed successfully and give her infant or child all he/she needs, on a barely adequate diet. Yes, the woman may suffer nutritionally if her diet is poor, but the baby won't. The baby takes what it needs to survive. This is particularly why breastfeeding is so crucial in Third World countries, where the water is often not only 'impure' but downright dangerous, and the food may be of limited variety.

And, of course, I felt the familiar mother guilt coming on as I read about all I 'should' be doing to give my baby the purest breast milk possible. Luckily I'm wise to these twitches these days and I quickly put the book down and went on doing the best I can, with what I have to work with (which isn't perfection, sorry ladies).

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Reflecting on My South African Past

I just finished reading an excellent book set in Kenya, Away from You by Melanie Finn. Although I'm from South Africa, it struck so many chords with me: the common history of our countries and the brutally honest way the author deals with it, interwoven with strong characterisation and the most lyrical prose. It's not often I read a book and wish it wouldn't end!

It's good to be connected back up to my African past: something it's easy to forget in my day-to-day city life in Brighton. I grew up in a place of contradictions, and that is what this book so accurately conveys: the poverty alongside wealth and greed, the beauty beside appalling devastation, and the love/hate relationship its own natives often have with the continent. Like the main character, I am also living in a land that is not my native one. Yet I have acclimatised to it so well, I'm scarcely aware of this most of the time.

When I try to explain race relations in South Africa and the phenomenon of white guilt to my partner, it all seems so obvious to me: but incomprehensible to him. Which is why it was so refreshing to read this book and feel at home in an idiom where I don't have to explain myself.

I don't miss South Africa much anymore; when I do, it's more my own personal memories of the place, and my childhood and university days, that I think about, rather than the country itself. I have an ambivalent relationship with it to say the least. I wanted to move to England since I was a teenager, and idealised the country. Watching snippets of the film This is England last night, I realised how foreign this country still is to me, in many ways.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Advice, Tantrums and Doing Less

J and I have both been battling colds and coughs, which somewhat marred our last weekend's trip to London. Funnily enough though I feel a lot more content coming out the other end of it, more in tune with myself. Being ill slows me right down, because I haven't got the energy to make too many over-ambitious plans and run around that much. Hence, this week has not been a productive one, writing-wise, although I've been teaching a fair amount of yoga, doing some cover classes. I was too ill to teach one on Sunday and had to cancel, which I've never done before, but I literally didn't have a 'voice' to teach. I sound, as I've been teased today, like an old spinster - "Pass the sugar, dearie"- or perhaps an adolescent boy whose voice is starting to break. Not the usual husky deep voice I get when I have a bad chest, just this. I'm sucking furiously on Fisherman's Friends and hoping it will be adequate to teach tomorrow.

Actually I'm settling into winter now, although it's become frighteningly freezing quite suddenly the last three days. I enjoy feeling cosy and anticipating the warmth of my home when I return! I have done some 'free writing' in coffee shops which keeps me going, but my novel has been untouched and I'm dying to get back to it. Today was my breastfeeding peer support course, thought-provoking as ever. This time it got me thinking about why all of the counselling courses I've done insist that no advice can be given. I find this deeply frustrating because I think, once the empathy and the reflective listening and all that is in process, there does come a point, especially in the field of breastfeeding problems, where some suggestions and information are needed - indeed, wanted. How to know if or when to steer things in that direction? When someone is openly asking you, "what do I do?", and you know of things that could help them, how can you not say something? In matters of 'what should I do about my relationship problem etc', then sure, the wisdom and the answers must lie within, but when people come to a place explicitly offering breastfeeding support, surely they expect some information and possibilities to consider?

I have been struggling to deal with J's tantrums: his frustration at not being able to touch certain things, and his seeming inability to let go of it; as well as his resistance to just about anything I wanted to do: change his nappy, dress him, put his coat on, or put an end to an activity so that we could, say, go out. It mystified me as it seemed too early in his development for him to be having tantrums (books say 27 months!) and so of course, in typical mommy-self-bashing style, I wondered if I was doing wrong. Fortunately I found this blog about a mother's experience of what Dr Sears would call a 'high needs child', which put things in perspective for me - I realised it could be so much worse, and on the whole, although strong-willed, J is a delight. Fortunately the cycle seems to have passed and the last couple days he has been better, perhaps in part because I've calmed down a bit and have been more 'present' with him.

I have a lot of blog topics planned...but I'm trying to fit my yoga practice into my evenings now having given up on doing it in the morning - J is just too clingy and I can't get into it at all. And trying to get to bed earlier too...have felt better for some early nights and lie-ins. Will try to write more regularly on here too so as to get all the thoughts out before they build up too much!

P.S. The picture has nothing to do with anything. I just thought it was funny!

Monday, 10 November 2008


Technorati Profile

Eco-Housewifery and Other Mysteries

I have a new computer monitor...hooray! It's fantastic, and came to me absolutely free, courtesy of a good friend who I've spent most of today chilling with, along with our two babies. I've been so used to looking at a flickering screen, that this feels like a real treat.

The weather is extremely melancholia-inducing at the moment. Hence I gave up and left the house after lunch to avoid getting stuck in it. There's only so much housework I can do - and today it was very little. As a 'SAHM' (Stay-at-Home Mother) I feel barely related to those moms who actually enjoy the 'home-making' thing, such as Shannon Hayes, the 'eco-housewife' and author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, discussed in Tracey Sutton's article in Brain, Child Magazine's Fall 2008 issue. I was in awe reading about how Hayes survives on about 3 hours sleep, gets up to milk the cows and spends all day working hard to provide her family with the basics -with childcare thrown into the mix.

I am far too lazy for that. I like a bit of play, a little navel-gazing, a bit of literature, and a lot of socialising. I like to just enjoy the day alongside my developing toddler and watch his forays into the world. I wept when I read Kyo Maclear's Pictures of Awful (Brain, Child, Spring 2008) this morning during J's nap. It was a moving yet unsentimental essay on watching one's children gradually release the awful-ness of the world: the cruelty, the heartlessness, the wanton destruction. It hit me for the first time that, right now, J doesn't know. He has no idea what he's in for. He doesn't know about Hiroshima and Auschwitz and the Iraq War. To him, the world is a trustworthy place.

I remember when, as a teenager, I posted affirmations all over my walls. I liked to read them morning and night and during the day when my confidence wavered. One day my sister saw one of them, which was about the world being a safe place. Something like 'I am safe at all times.' She said, outraged, her innocence already fractured at the age of fifteen: 'But that's not true.' Especially in post-apartheid South Africa, that didn't seem true. We both grew up in a nation full of fear.

How to strike a balance between a healthy guardedness and a trust in the sacred of life? My yoga and meditation practice bring me back, over and over, to the fact that I cannot control anything other than what is internal to me. Yet, and especially now as a mother, I feel a strong need to help make the world a better place. If I didn't, what kind of person would I be?

Making the world a better place, some argue, is best achieved in one's own 'back yard': through bringing up one's children in a way that reflects certain values and ideals. I've been struck in a hard place by reading Cynthia Eller's article Why I hate Dr Sears (Brain, Child Magazine). It led me on to discover blogs that discussed the attachment parenting philosophy of Dr Sears, America's 'favourite paediatrician', with scepticism and even disdain. At first I felt shocked - not because I've adopted Sears as a 'parenting expert', but because I hadn't questioned his prescription of attachment parenting practices 'across the board' - to all parents and all babies, everywhere.

I realised that I have been a little naive in my willingness to take on 'natural parenting' and 'attachment parenting' as a package deal. Something about being a new parent made me long for certainty, for answers, for a way to know that I was doing the right thing. So when I found the natural parenting community online and through Dr Sears' work, I felt that I had found that. And soon, anything of the opposite polarity became anathema to me - and evidence of bad parenting: controlled crying, sleep training of any sort, putting young babies in buggies.

I'm grateful to these articles and blogs for bringing me back to the broader, more sociological perspective that used to be second nature to me in my more academic years. For helping me to remember that these ideas are socially constructed and change constantly, and that dogma is dangerous. The debate must continue, and I hope to be part of it.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Brain, Child Magazine

I finally got round to ordering some back copies of Brain, Child magazine. It's an American magazine aimed at 'thinking mothers'. I've devoured my five issues and am hooked... it's full of personal essays about all manner of motherhood issues from raising mixed-race children, to how teenagers stay drug-free, to co-sleeping with a seven-year-old. All very well-written, with distinctive voices. What I like most about it is, unlike some other parenting publications, it doesn't lean strongly down on one side. There is even a 'debate' column where two writers discuss opposing views on a topic such as whether to raise your child vegetarian or not if you are.

I'm now plotting essay and feature topics for the magazine. I'm back on track with following 'Writer Mama''s tips to break into freelance writing, and feel motivated to start writing some fillers and making even pitching to a newspaper to cover a particular area. I'd like to cover the spoken word scene again and maybe get into some events for free ;)

I'm looking forward to seeing my second freelance print published article at the end of this month, appearing in Juno magazine. A bit nervous too, though, because it's such a personal essay and will feature photographs of me. Somehow, despite wanting to be a successful writer, I also want to be anonymous!

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Letting Go

This time of year, autumn, always requires a big letting go for me. Letting go of the summer, which since moving to England always feels like it was too short, and letting go of my fear of the dark. And, yes, my fear of change. Especially this year, when I've so recently celebrated the turning of a full year's cycle since the birth of my son. I could let his babyhood be dragged from me kicking and screaming as it were - or I could let it go gracefully. With grace is the key.

Recently I've decided to let go of the notion that J will sleep through the night anytime soon. Or even sleep a longer stretch than two hours. I feel so relieved since making this decision. It was causing me (and more importantly, him) more torment to try and change his sleeping patterns, than it does to just go with the flow. It's such a cliche, but it's true in this case, and in so many others.

Letting go is hard in a culture that prizes making things happen. Right now I'm going through a process of sifting through the remnants of my old 'career life' and finding the bits that I want to keep, and make into a new whole. At first, when I hit six-months post-partum, I thought I would be able to do a complete 'organ transplant' of my old creative life, onto this new life. I started being madly productive again, and exhausted myself in the process.

And now, six months later, I'm realising that this was never going to work. Trying to re-write a novel that is in pieces all over the place, while writing non-fiction for the web and breaking into print media, while blogging, while following others' blogs, while reading and researching, teaching yoga, and reading astrology to try get back into astrological counselling...sheesh, sometimes I wonder if it's megalomania I suffer from or just a ridiculous lack of commonsensical perspective.

It's so, so painful for me to let go of any of the projects so dear to my heart. Even to let go 'for the time being', because I'm afraid I'll never come back to them. I'm afraid that at the end of my life, I'll look back and say 'oh I was doing this that and the other..then I became a mother and it all went out the window.'

I keep coming back to the fact that this time with J is so short. So fleeting. So not worth spending it worrying over other stuff. But somehow I need to keep feeding the parts of me that are creative, or I lose myself. I'm trying to extricate my sense of self-esteem from a need to earn money and be part of the economically productive sector of society. It's the first time as an adult that I've not been in that place. I'm looking around at my new world, and there are still empty spaces - I don't know what they look like because I haven't created them yet.

So, I'm letting go of the old me who needed to have ticked a million things off a list every day to feel good about herself. I'm letting go of the me who needed others' approval to validate what she does with her days. I'm letting go of the material values of our society that put making money above family and friends. I'm letting go of the need to know where this phase in my life is going, and when, oh when, I will have some independence and career success back.

Keeping journals has always been a big help. I've been journalling since I was about nine years old, and all my old childhood and teenage journals are still in a locked toy chest back home! When I'm a bit lost, I refer to past journals (at least a 2 year gap is ideal) and sigh in relief that I'm no longer that confused, that agonised, and mostly, that self-absorbed. There's nothing like motherhood to prick the balloon of your own self-importance. Hooray for that. But reading over my journal from September 2005, today, I also felt sad for the person with a multi-directional future, stretching out in front of her, full of limitless possibilities. Then I turned the page, and saw that my job seemed to suck up all my time, then, and I resented it fiercely. How more wonderful that what sucks up my time now is something as rare and precious as a child who loves me.

In the new year I look forward to starting the NCT breastfeeding counselling course. This is a direction I never thought of before having a baby, but now seems so right. It combines so many of my loves: counselling people, working with women, working with babies, research, activism (or lactivism), and, at a later stage, hopefully teaching too. Part of me is scared because it's yet another interest to incorporate into my life, and I know something else has got to give. I'm wondering whether to keep pursuing the yoga teaching actively or just doing a workshop and cover class here and there. Often I feel I'm being led in directions I don't understand yet. But how arrogant would it be of me to expect to understand, anyway. I'm going to let go of that too.

Mothers Uncovered Exhibition in Brighton

In previous blogs I've mentioned the Mothers Uncovered Project in which I took part, discussing my experience of motherhood with several other new mothers. The experience was reassuring, affirming, and thought-provoking.

Coming up now is the Mothers Uncovered Exhibition at the Tarner Children's Centre, Ivory Place (off Morley Street), Brighton. Public viewings are on Monday the 10th Nov to Friday 14th Nov : 1.00-2.45pm ,
and on Monday 4.30-5.45pm.

Bit late notice, I know, but thought I'd just put it out there! The exhibition will include a viewing of the video made out of the sessions, photographs taken by the participants of their daily 'mothering' lives, and comments from the participants. Let's celebrate and affirm motherhood!