Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Moment I Became a Mother : Pip's Birth Story

When do you become a mother? I always thought it was the point at which you gave birth; the physical delivery of the child within, to then become a babe in arms.  Thinking about it now, I’m not so sure.  Mothering happens from the moment we see those two blue lines, from avoiding alcohol and unpasteurised cheese to attending pre-birth classes, they’re all part of mothering, or at the very least, our journey to becoming a mother. This is the story of my journey.

I was 25 weeks pregnant with Pip when I visited our local hospital and had a tour of the birth centre. I never got to see the labour ward.  I’ve never had a panic attack, but, in one of those birthing suites, I felt I came pretty close to experiencing what one must feel like.  A crashing, sudden wave of extreme emotion, a feeling of claustrophobia; as though the walls were closing in on me, an immediate sense of needing to leave the space I was in, right NOW.

Once I'd made a break from the intense stifling heat and reached the cool air of the concrete foyer outside, I felt marginally better.  But in the days that followed, I realised that I had a problem; I was petrified of the inevitable path that lay before me. My reaction took me by surprise; I hadn’t expected to feel that way.  Common sense told me that sticking my head in the sand and ignoring the issue would not be the correct course of action.  I needed to address it - head on.  I had already registered for NCT classes and the hospital’s ante-natal classes; a double dip attempt to ensure I was equipped with as much information as possible. Yet in this case, I realised, it wasn’t just information I needed to help me; what I needed to understand was how I was going to cope psychologically with the challenge of birthing.  I had visualised Pip’s birth as a calm, positive experience, but after visiting the hospital, I didn’t feel confident that I had the self control to make that happen.  It was then that I decided to enrol in hypnobirthing classes.

I hadn’t even heard of hypnobirthing before I became pregnant.  One of the main theories behind hypnobirthing is that the majority of pain experienced in labour is due to fear and tension, which can be eliminated through relaxation techniques.  I enrolled myself and my husband on a 2 day workshop, which we completed when I was around 30 weeks pregnant.

The course and workshops taught us relaxation and self hypnosis techniques, it dealt with my fears, and talked in detail about the various physiological stages of labour and how a woman may feel during each of these stages.  Husband (who had more or less been dragged along protesting; "Do I have to come? It’ll be full of sandal wearing, lentil munchers") was brilliant.  He embraced doing all the exercises with me, in fact, I think he actually quite enjoyed doing them.  We watched videos of mothers hypnobirthing in real life. Calm, peaceful, drug free experiences showing the labouring mother in a state of peaceful relaxation. Watching these films was a genuine eye opener for me, my only previous experiences of watching real life birth had been watching ‘One born every minute’ on TV.

In the weeks after the course, and preceding Pip’s birth, I listened to the hypnobirthing CD we had been given and practiced the exercises every day.  As Pip’s due date approached, I realised how much my viewpoint had changed.  I now had no fear about labour.  I saw my body as a vessel; carrying precious cargo, I saw it as my job to bring my son into the world, in as calm and pain free way as possible. I felt that any tension or stress I created in myself, would just make his journey more difficult.  I felt an inner calm about the whole thing. 

One day post due date, my contractions started after dinner.  In true last style, I hadn’t yet put up the wall decals I had bought for Pip’s nursery, so for as long as the contractions would allow, I popped up and down the small step ladder in his room putting the final flourishing touches to his black and white ‘monkey jungle’.   At midnight I took a bath and finally, as the intensity of the contractions increased and the timing between them  lessened, we departed for the hospital at 3.30am. 

I still remember our midwife greeting us in the birthing centre. I thought she was one of the most beautiful women I’d even seen.  Half Spanish, half Welsh, olive skin, dark hair. Her eyes matched the blue of her scrubs, and she wore little turquoise earring studs that also co-ordinated.   I felt at ease in her presence.  She showed me into a room and we agreed that I would sit in the bath there whilst she prepared the room next door that had a birthing pool.  As it was, I never left my temporary residence.  A small narrow NHS bath, with husband sitting on a stool next to me, became the place my body told me was the right place to be.  Gas and air helped with some strong contractions, but was otherwise my only aid.   That, and the techniques I’d learnt on the course.  I can still remember sitting in the bath practising the ‘rainbow‘ relaxation exercise.  In second stage labour things seemed to slow and monitoring revealed that Pip was starting to get distressed.  I had to be persuaded to leave the soothing water that had become my sanctuary.  When I saw the midwife planned to use a birthing stool I felt apprehensive, but I put my trust in her and did as she said. Pip was delivered a few minutes later. It was just past 7am.

The umbilical cord had been wrapped tightly around his neck and was cut by the midwife during delivery.  As she passed him to me, my first thought was what a mess he looked. His face was blue and swollen.  It looked huge compared to the rest of his tiny body, everything about him was round, tightly curled, like a fist.   I held him for a few seconds. Looking at his face, his hair.  Amazed by him.  A miracle. The midwife quickly took him again, rubbing him vigorously with a towel on his back and chest, trying to get him to breathe more easily.  "He needs oxygen," she said. In the next moment, the door of the room was closing and she, Pip and my husband were gone.

The minutes I spent alone in that birthing room after Pip was born were possibly the longest minutes of my life.  Lying prostrate, wondering; 'Is he alright?'  The room seemed so quiet.  A midwife I hadn't met before came in; "Everything is going to be fine," she said, "Shall we deliver the placenta whilst we are waiting?".  Suddenly, my contacting uterus hurt, and all I could think about was my son somewhere else in that hospital, not knowing whether he was ok. My calm failed me, and I started to feel agitated.  Delivering my now non-budging placenta naturally didn’t matter a jot to me. "But you’ve done so well doing it naturally up to now." The second midwife seemed disappointed. After a short discussion, I was given an injection to release it.  No stitches or remedial work were needed, (due I’m sure, to my prolonged submersion in water) so she disappeared, placenta in a bag.  Alone again. Tick. Tock. Seconds passing on a very slow clock.  A paediatrician with a cheery smile poked his head around the door;  "I’ve just seen your son. He’s going to be fine". Then, only then, did I start to feel reassured.

I’ll never forget my husband walking back into the room with Pip in his arms, wrapped tightly in a fresh, white towel.  After what seemed an eternity of waiting, I got my first proper cuddle.  In that moment, it finally felt real; I was a mother. We stayed, Pip and I, skin to skin, laid on the birthing mat, for the next two hours.  The most amazing, magical two hours ever.

Our midwife came to say goodbye, her shift had finished.  I was almost sad to say farewell, her uninvasive but reassuring presence throughout the night had meant a lot.  For me, hers was a face I shall remember forever (even if it had just been an ordinary one, rather than the beauty it was,) but for her, within a few births we would become just another couple she had successfully delivered a baby for, our faces fading into obscurity.

She knelt beside me; “ Before I go, I just wanted to tell you - You’re an incredibly strong woman”. 

I was surprised. Me? Little old me, who cries at sentimental stuff on the TV.  Wow. Yes, Me.  I guessed she didn’t always say that to everyone. I thought about how far I had come; in myself.  How even before Pip had been born, actually, I had already started mothering, determined as I was, to overcome my fears and to give him the best journey I could into this world.

I've no doubt that hypnobirthing got me a lot of the way there. It might not be everyone's proverbial cup of tea, but it worked for me.  Pip's birth was one of the most positive, life affirming experiences of my life. 

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Rays of Sunshine

After what feels like weeks of non stop rain, the sunshine has finally arrived. Already my memories of soggy July are fading, and my inner optimist is hopeful for a sun baked August.  In the preceding weeks I’ve often repeated to myself, the old adage; ‘carry your weather with you’, but some days, I’ll admit, the weather has worn me down. I feel it should be sunny in July, that I have a right to bask in a few warm rays and absorb some essential vitamin D. When the weather gods fail to deliver (despite constant prayers), I find my positivity floundering, especially with a young ball of testosterone bouncing around.  So, hurrah indeed for a much needed slice of British sunshine and for the warmth and happiness it spreads.

Apart from the wonderful weather, these are the things that have me cheerful this week:

Our Garden

The hydrangeas are in bloom.  Huge powder pink pom poms with confetti like petals. The frequent rain has left some of them lying on the mossy ground, but I don’t care, I still think that they look wonderful.  Hydrangeas are one of my favourite flowers.  Every time I walk into the garden and see them they give me pleasure.

The plum tree is now ripening fruit too. Small green hard pellets are gradually turning a light pinky red colour before they deepen into dark purple juicy plums.  Last year I made plum ketchup, jam (a disaster) and chutney with the fruit from the tree.  This year the tree seems to have become a favourite hang out for the local green parakeet population. Yesterday I counted four of the luminous little blighters trying to camouflage themselves within the leaves as they pecked away at my plums. That said, it seems likely that it will be a challenge for them to eat the lot so I’m hopeful I’ll have at least enough to ensure a repeat production of last year’s well received ketchup.

Cherries, Berries and Fruity Flavours

In this warm summer weather, fresh fruit has never tasted so good.  Especially if it’s been kept in the fridge. I find cold nectarines especially refreshing.  Normally, I tend to buy my fruit from the supermarket, for ease as much as anything else.  But this last two weeks, I’ve been visiting a market fruit and veg stall.  Large, plump beetroots, sumptuous oranges, huge slices of red watermelon, sweet red strawberries, giant peaches - all to be found at rock bottom prices.  I have indulged myself in an abundance of fruity delights. However, the piece de resistance; my ‘cannot walk past without buying’ fruit, is the humble cherry.   I simply love cherries and on the market, they’re an absolute bargain. I dread to think how many cherries I have eaten this week, but it’s a lot.  Simply delicious.

Summer Brights

Maybe it’s the sunshine, but I’ve found myself drawn to bright, cheerful colours this week.  We needed some new teaspoons (why do teaspoons disappear more often than everything else?) and I settled on these.  I think they’re fabulous.

Which colour would you choose?
A Birthday

It was husband’s birthday on Saturday.  I make a real effort to make everyone’s birthday in our house special.  I don’t believe birthdays should just be special for children.  When I think about how hard my husband works to provide for us, and generally, what a good man he is, it makes me want to make his day extra special.  It was a special day.  Pip and I rose early to wrap presents, and Pip wanted to decorate the lounge with balloons as a surprise (that’s what we’d done for his birthday so it had to be the same.) We had made a red velvet cake the day before, and in the morning, finished decorating it with chocolate stars.  Husband seemed genuinely pleased with his presents and we took a long walk to Chiswick House, had lunch and relaxed. In the afternoon, at Pip’s insistence, we played ‘pass the parcel',  just the 3 of us. Funnily enough, Daddy didn’t seem to mind that Pip won the ‘Percy' wooden train at the end. 
Red velvet cake with cream cheese and mascarpone frosting

A Boy

After some deliberation we chose our moment, and decided to peek ‘inside the envelope’ given to us (at our request) by our sonographer and discover whether the baby inside was a boy or a girl.  We were delighted to find out that Pip will have a little brother. It’s been lovely this week looking through the boy section of the names book and window shopping for some baby things with the knowledge that we have another son on the way.

For more reasons to be cheerful, or to share your own, link up at Mummy from the Heart.

Reasons to be Cheerful at Mummy from the Heart

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Inside the Envelope....Pink or Blue?

Saturday was Husband’s birthday.  In honour of the occasion we decided to pretend to be trendy young things and headed off to E&O in Notting Hill for a spot of tasty pan-Asian cuisine. 

The place was abuzz with Notting Hill’s finest when we got there.  Gorgeous, good looking sorts that assimilated themselves into the vibrant, cool location with ease.  It was a warm evening and I was grateful to see we were sat by the open window.  My pregnancy radiating it’s own warmth from within, I appreciated the extra ventilation.  We indulged ourselves in a short spell of people watching whilst waiting for our aperitifs and perusing the menu; sweet potato and aubergine tempura, chilli squid, Thai fishcakes, blackened cod. Yum, double yum.

Two flutes of champagne appeared at the table. 

"I know you’re not really drinking but this is a special occasion." said Husband. I assumed that he was talking about the fact it was his birthday.

Then his meaning became clear.

With a flourish, he produced a small brown envelope; the envelope, and laid it on the table between us.

“I think we should open it.” he grinned.  “We found out that you were pregnant on your birthday, and I think it would be nice to find out whether we’re having a boy or girl on mine.”

In the week that had passed I’d looked at that envelope hundreds of times on the kitchen dresser and not once had I been tempted to peek. But there, in the moment, suddenly I felt  excited; childlike, giddy, bubbles rising within.  Should we? I wondered, should we do it?

We had known Pip was a boy. I enjoyed knowing. Throughout my pregnancy I felt it helped me to bond with him.  When struggling in second stage labour, I visualised him, thought about him; my son - it helped me break through the pain, and the final difficulties of delivering him.  I had thought that perhaps this time, it might be nice not to find out; a point of difference for this pregnancy from the last, but I wasn’t wedded to that thought either. 

"Carpe Diem."  A little voice whispered inside my head. And suddenly I thought, ‘Yes, why not?’

“Go on then..let’s do it.”

As he opened the envelope, I felt every beat of my heart pounding inside my chest.

“She wrote it on a blue piece of paper” I said.

“It’s not there!” said Husband, fumbling but trying not to look.

“I can only feel the scan photo’s...” 

Finally, after much foraging at the bottom of the envelope, a small square of paper was revealed. Husband placed it with the plain side, face up on the table.

“Let’s turn it over together...”

Wow.  A boy.  A brother for Pip.  I had to choke back the tears; suddenly I felt overcome with emotion.  The miracle of human creation can be quite overwhelming. 

My whole life, I've always wished I had a same sex sibling.  I watched my brothers grow from being children fighting over toy cars to become men that are the best of friends. I often wished that I had the closeness they’ve got, perhaps it was because they were both boys, perhaps not. But the thought that Pip may have the benefit of a relationship like theirs means a lot.

Letting the news sink in, we looked for the first time at the pictures of our little merman swimming peacefully in my amniotic fluid. We talked about what he might be like. We wondered how he might be similar or different to Pip. We laughed about the fact, that even before opening the envelope, we knew if we were to have a boy, finding a name to agree on would be a struggle. (I do favour a good left-field name choice.)

During the course of our meal, I felt him, our baby boy, gently kicking away, as if saying ‘Hi Mum, so you know I’m a boy now... are you pleased?’.  The sentimentalist, slightly crazy lady in me, shut my eyes and sent him a message, telling him, how delighted I was that he was a boy (and also promising I'd make sure he got as just a good a name as his brother, and that if he was listening to the conversation at the table, he shouldn’t worry about being landed with one of his father’s silly suggestions.)

It was a memorable evening for all the right reasons. I’m glad I know. It may sound strange, but I feel even more connected to my baby now than I did previously.   I can’t wait to meet him.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Sweet Memories

If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can picture myself as a small girl standing in the village ‘Sweetie Shop.’  I can paint a picture of it from memory, time has erased none of it’s magic. I can see myself standing outside the shop window, it’s shelves laden with toys and boxes of chocolates; smudges visible on the windows from noses pushed up hard against the glass.  The plain concrete step gave no hint of what lay within, it was only as we passed through the painted red door with it’s transparent glass panel that we had any hint of the joys that awaited us. Inside, it was our own candy corner; enchanting us with meticulous displays of mouthwatering delights; as we floated on an anticipatory cloud of sugary bliss.

The floor was covered in old red tiles. Directly opposite the door was a large wooden counter, filled from waist height with all the popular ‘countlines’ of the day.  Uniformly ordered in size, the largest were at the top; slabs of red and gold dark chocolate Bournville, deep purple Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, followed by Fruit and Nut and then, towards the end of the row, a few lesser known delights, such as ‘Old Jamaica’- no doubt stocked as one off’s for regular punters. Oh, how different the world was before Green & Blacks.  On the next row, smaller, but more popular bars, their popularity indicated by their facings.  Mars, Marathon, Twix, Topic, Picnic, Boost, Drifter, Caramac, Fry’s Peppermint Cream, Mintola, Munchies.  A kaleidoscope of choccywoccy temptation.  On the wall behind the counter, a couple of shelves stocked the most popular boxed chocolates of the day; Black Magic, All Gold, Neapolitans and Milk Tray.

The left wall of the shop was lined with shelves. Neatly placed clear plastic jars with black screw top lids stood to attention, each containing their own candy delights, whispering silently; ‘Choose me...choose me.’ Once selected, they would be weighed out in the large silver scales at the back of the shop and placed into a white paper bag with the corners screwed tight. I used to love looking at the sweets in the jars.  My mother would sometimes buy a ‘quarter’ of something for herself, her adult tastes were not for me, she favoured Clove drops or Aniseed twists. Sometimes she’d buy small round silver balls which she called ‘silver ball bearings’. These were very hard and needed to be sucked for a long time, when you reached the end, often you found a little brown pip. I think it was aniseed. I didn’t like it.  Occasionally she bought Cola Cubes, we all liked those, and once or twice, coconut chocolate mushrooms, which were 3D moulded, and save for the coconut, did look remarkably like real life mushrooms.

There were two areas of the shop set out as more specific destinations for children. On the left, just by the door, another counter, selling ‘pocket money’ type sweets.  Polos, Finger of Fudge, Sherbet Fountains, Curly Wurlys, Refreshers, Love Hearts, Tootie Frooties (I loved Tootie Frooties) Fruit Pastilles, Smarties, Opal Fruits, Chewits.  The counter with the till was alongside this.  The till was a heavy, ornate metal machine, like the ones you see in antique emporiums today, with large circular lever buttons. As a girl, I felt 'Till lust' every time I looked at it. Playing shop on that masterful till would have been so much fun.

Beside the till there was a purpose built stand selling Tic Tac sweets; white, green and orange pellets that looked like pills. My mother used to keep a box of these in her handbag (breath fresheners after a sneaky cigarette I now suspect.) As a small girl, I didn’t like the sweets but I used to like opening and shutting the small plastic lid of the box, counting them out and putting them back in again. When the box was empty I would ask to keep it, and try to use it as a vessel for homemade flower petal perfume or some other homemade liquid concoction - usually a drink. It always leaked but still I would persist when the next empty box became available - clearly I was still discovering about trial and error.

My favourite part of the shop was hidden behind the large birthday card stand on the right hand wall.  A small alcove, filled with boxes and boxes of penny sweets.   I don’t remember getting pocket money as a small child, so I can only assume that my mum would allow us 10 or 20 pence to choose some sweets with. Hidden away in that corner of the shop my brothers and I would unknowingly give ourselves an impromptu maths lesson as we added up our 1/2p’s 1p’s and 2’s, and took very seriously the business of choosing whether to have a large white chocolate mouse for 2p or instead have 2 cola bottles for 1p each.  It was not a process that could be rushed; we spent many intense moments deliberating salivating over the various boxes with the prices scrawled on them in biro pen.

Black jacks, Fruit Salad, Drumstick lollipops, Milk bottles, Flying saucers, Candy shrimps, Liquorice laces, Gobstoppers, Jelly rings, Sour cherries, Candy necklaces - we loved them all. Drumstick lollies were amongst my favourites, along with the jelly rings you could wear on your fingers and white chocolate mice.  But the one thing I always wanted in my white paper bag, were the candy cigarettes.  It seems shocking today that these even existed, but those small matchbox size replicas of real life cigarettes were my favourite.  I used to enjoy pretending to puff on them, just like my mother did in real life.  Candy cigarettes made me feel grown up.  My brother’s must have was ‘fizz whizz’, the sachet of popping candy that would crackle and fizzle on your tongue. Sometimes on the walk home as we lagged behind my mother, eating our swag, we would do swapsies. He always drove a hard bargain, but it was rare that I ever gave him a candy cigarette.

My mother didn’t have a car when we were small. The only food shop in the village was the Co-op and so frequently we would trail the half mile from our house with her to buy provisions. Each and every time, our route would take us past the sweet shop and it was on one of these journeys, that I experienced my first true case of childhood ‘want’.

One day we walked past the shop and saw that the window display had been changed and new stock had been added.  Sat in a blue rectangular box, a bear, named ‘Teddy Robinson’ stared out of the window at me.  He had golden fur with white accents on his ears and glass brown eyes, but what was special about him, was that you could remove his body fur. He had a fur bodysuit, with a zip at the front that allowed his body fur to be taken right off.  Underneath, his stuffed body was covered in white cotton with fur topping his hands and his feet. He came with a pair of pyjamas. Blue bottoms, and a top that had blue sleeves and a white panel at the front, with a rainbow on it.  I thought he was simply the best thing I’d ever seen. I wanted Teddy Robinson more than anything in the world.        
“Please Mummy, Pleasssseeee,”  I would beg as we walked past the shop.  My mum didn’t have a lot of money, and gifts outside Birthday or Christmas were unheard of in our house. “You’ve got lots of teddies already” she’d say.  She was right, of course, I had, but none like that one.   Every time we’d walk towards the shop, my heart would start beating faster as we approached the window, I’d pray he was still there, that no-one had bought him, and once we got there, I’d scan the window quickly, looking for him in his blue box, and then feel relieved, knowing he was still there.

Easter proved to be the answer to my prayers; an Aunt sent me some money in a card. Possibly she was getting rather old and forgetting the value of money, as it was a princely sum for a small child to receive as an Easter gift.  I begged my mother to take me to the sweet shop as soon as it was open.  Ceremoniously, I handed over the crisp green £1 notes, and finally, Teddy Robinson was mine.  I think my mother must have had a word with the shop owner a long time before, as he seemed to have a sense of how badly I wanted him.  As he took the box out of the window he said that he would be sad to see him go, as he loved T.R too, and he hoped I would look after him.  I promised, like a good girl, that I would.

I’d love to sit here now and say, I’ve still got Teddy Robinson today. But the truth is, all these years on, I don’t know what happened to him.  Just as my tastes changed, and I moved on from jelly rings and chocolate mice to Orange Hubba Bubba, I also at some point left Teddy Robinson behind.  I don’t remember ever making an active choice to get rid of him, yet at some point, he seemed to disappear. He did however, teach me the valuable lesson that sometimes you have to wait for something you want, and despite the fact I don’t have him today, that lesson has stayed with me.

The Sweet Shop has also gone too, it is now an office for an insurance brokers.  The
overheads of modern life just weren’t able to sustain a business built on penny sweets, and that seems true not just of the sweet shop in my childhood village, but of many towns and villages all over the UK.  Pip will have his own memories in life, based on the time in which he lives, but if I had one wish, I would love to transport him back to my sweetie shop for a moment, to see his face light up and share the magic; I’m sure it really was as good as I remember.

I'm linking this post up to the Once Upon a Time linky at the fabulous Older Mum in a Muddle, and also to the Save Every Step 'Life's a Journey' link up, where the theme this month is childhood sweets.

Once Upon A Time

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

20 Week Scan

Last week I hit the 20 week milestone. The wait between our 12 and 20 week scan seemed to stretch on forever. Worrying voices niggled at me. Is baby ok?   My body showed the burgeoning signs of pregnancy; a blooming stomach and buoyant breasts - as if reassuring me.  Even the mirror tried to be my assuring friend; ‘No’ the reflection spoke back; ‘You’re pregnant. Look how much you’ve grown since you last wore those. They do NOT fit’.  And then somewhere around week 17, perhaps stirred into action by a turbulent flight to Greece, from the depths within, I felt movement.  The little one was indeed alive and kicking.  I felt better.

Today we had our 20 week scan.  Last night in bed, baby and I played touch ping pong. I pressed in on my tummy and he / she kicked back. Communication through a series of prods and kicks assured me that baby was still with me. The question preying on my mind was; is everything as it should be?  Of the many people who knew about my scan today, virtually no-one asked; "Are you nervous?" It is an anomaly scan, after all. The question on everyone’s lips instead was; "Are you going to find out the sex?" I know I’ve asked the same thing of others.  I hadn’t realised how irritating that can be, especially if you’re nervous or worried about how your baby might be developing. 

Last week we made an emergency dash to hospital after some spotting. It all turned out to be fine, but in the run up to today, I was nervous, I was anxious, and frankly, all I cared about was that our baby was developing as a human should be at this point in time.  As far as I was concerned, pink or blue didn’t really matter.  The luxury of that knowledge could be a pleasant afterthought.

Thankfully, all was as it should be.  With relief, we watched him/her bounce around a bit and got a superb side profile view of the face.  It was fascinating to take a peek within and see our little one moving around, waving arms and legs at us and making sucking motions with his/her mouth.

"Would you like to know the sex?" the Sonographer asked us when she had established that everything else was ok.  Did we want to know? We were undecided.  Nothing we’d seen on the the screen in front of us had given anything away.   In the end, we decided to keep our options open.  The Sonographer agreed to write down the gender of our baby on a piece of paper and sealed it in an envelope for us.  

As we left the hospital, we talked about the various grainy images we’d seen on the screen. We hadn’t even reached the car park when Husband said; 

"I’ve got an inkling. Shall I tell you what it is?"  
"Oooh, go on then," I grinned. "So have I".
"No way! I’m sure it’s a boy."

Clearly one of us isn’t destined for a second career conducting ultrasounds.

Right now, hidden in the kitchen, is a small sealed brown envelope containing an as yet, unknown secret. 

Will we get to the end without opening it? I really don’t know. Would you be tempted?

Friday, 13 July 2012

Childhood Revisited

Last weekend I took Pip to visit my parents; a special visit for my Mum’s birthday.  On Friday morning we embarked on a two hour car journey to the sleepy north east Essex village I grew up in.  Since having Pip, my parents have visited us far more than we visit them. I find it easier that way (although writing this, I realise whilst it’s easier for me, that’s not necessarily the case for them.)  Since returning,I feel slightly remiss for not taking him to visit them more, he absolutely loves their house and the part of the world they live in. As we rolled into the drive, the delight at having us visit them was obvious, they bounded out to the car like a couple of young puppies; excitement had it seemed, banished any sign of  the ‘old dog’ in either of them.

Life in my parents village is everything that London life is not.  It’s calm and quiet, a Co-op, a post office, a hardware shop and a butchers is about as exciting as it gets on the shops front, and I jest not when I say, you need to drive 10 miles to find a decent latte.  ‘Popping out for a coffee’ is an alien concept to my parents.  The only place they pop for a coffee is into the kitchen, to put the kettle on.  Little things like this remind me how different life in London is - and how much I take the infrastructure, the amenities and facilities of my everyday life for granted.

I don’t think I could become a village girl again.  But that said, every location has it’s pros and cons, and as much as our little corner of London is relatively leafy and green, it doesn’t even come close to the wonderful countryside my parents are blessed with every day.  Woolly sheep roaming in a field at the end of the garden; tall, oxygenating trees towering over gardens; neighbouring properties with chickens clucking contentedly as they roam freely during the day; next door’s cat popping in through the open back door to have a no-strings-attached cuddle.  In closed off, security conscious London, life just isn’t like that.

As I watched Pip race around my parents house and garden exploring this weekend, I enjoyed a long trip down memory lane.  We sat at the dining table eating our lunch, the same table my brothers and I ate at all our lives, and I found myself thinking about the continuity of life, about real life genetic family trees, and how special it is to have generation after generation sitting around the same old ancient table.

On Friday we took a walk to the local woods.  As children we played there a lot, picnicing on play dates with friends and playing hide and seek.  My brothers had no fear of getting lost, they would march with purpose off the beaten track to make dens from sticks deep in the wood.  I was more timid, Hansel and Gretel etched in my mind. What if I got lost and couldn’t find my way back?

Walking through the wood with Pip and my parents was magical. The recent wet weather meant it was muddy, but the sun shone on us and we didn’t see a single other soul - the wood was ours for the afternoon.  Our mud spluttered wellies strode through the well worn paths exploring. Pip was sure he’d seen the Gruffalo..."with two eyes and a big shiny nose". Then, he decided, it was time for a ‘Bear Hunt’, and so, just as the book decrees, we sloshed through mud and waded through a big swamp. ( Actually it was a large puddle, but you’ve got to use your imagination.)   Experts say that reading to your child is invaluable, and as we enjoyed our afternoon, role playing our way along the meandering paths lined with ancient trees, I realised how much storytime and reading has benefitted him, and that he’d absorbed far more than I thought, as his memory reeled off ‘I’m going on a Bear Hunt’, word for word.   Seeing the obvious benefits of all the reading we’ve done, shared by him in such a spontaneous and fun way, made me very happy.

The wood we visit is wild, there’s still some coppicing, but large areas are just left for long periods to let nature take it’s rambling course.  If you know what you are looking for, there is lots to forage for.  Visiting these places with my Dad is special, his knowledge of nature and wildlife is so comprehensive, it always makes for an interesting walk.   On this walk, we found thickets of wild raspberries growing freely.  I’ve never found wild raspberries anywhere before.  ‘More’ cried Pip; ‘More’, as he cupped his little hands for the juicy red fruits before stuffing them into his mouth all at once.  I was reminded of my walks home from school. I would stop to pick blackberries from the hedges along the way, one day I put them in the pockets of my summer dress, and stained them purple.

Can you see them? Raspberries peeking out from behind the brambles.

On the Saturday we visited a vintage vehicle fair at Long Melford Hall.  Steam engines, tractors and vintage vehicles galore adorned the muddy fields.   Pip was in his element.  Stalls and stalls of old tools, agricultural implements, random collections of things; Old Virginia tobacco tins filled with screws, jam jars filled with random buttons. Battered door knobs, old keys.  All things that once belonged to something or someone else, but were now looking for another use or a new owner.  I find it strange how something such as an old rusty key or door knob may seem uninteresting on it’s own, but when you put them all together, collectively they seem more interesting.  I enjoyed perusing the various collections of ‘junk' we saw and keeping this in mind. Later, we enjoyed sampling fayre from stalls laden with handmade artisan sausages, breads and homemade cakes. The rain stayed away, and as the sun found it’s way through the clouds, we gorged ourselves on local delicacies.  Then there was the fairground. Small but perfectly adequate for a 3 year old boy.  It was almost too much excitement for one day.  Pip slept better that night at my mum’s house than he has ever slept at our own.

I’ve always maintained that London can be a great place for a child to grow up, particularly, if as a parent you take advantage of the many facilities, educational and cultural attractions it has to offer. I’ve never subscribed to the view that you need to leave the city when you have children.  But, being at my parents this weekend, surrounded by rolling fields, the outdoorsy-ness, and the sense of open space and freedom I had myself when I was a child, I did wonder if perhaps, Pip is missing something. I have resolved to try and visit my parents at their house more often, getting out of London, enjoying the countryside and exploring new places not just for Pip, but for all of us.  It’s relaxing in a different way from the norm, and as the old adage says, ‘a change is as good as a rest’.  I feel quite excited at the thought of it.

I'm linking this post up to Reasons to be Cheerful at Mummy from the Heart.

Reasons to be Cheerful at Mummy from the Heart

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Midnight Makery

Let it be said, right at the start; I’m not a person that is very good at making things.  Some people are wonderfully talented, they can craft, sew, knit, throw clay onto a potter's wheel and emerge with amazing sculptural pots - there seems no end to their talents.  I am not one of those people.  Some people are amazing cooks; I’ve read some mouth wateringly good blogs with photography worthy of Delicious magazine to match.  Whilst I’ll concede, I am better in the kitchen than at the sewing machine, I am not one of those people either.  So, it was with a heavy heart that I listened as my mother dropped a huge stone like hint into the rock pool of my well being and let the ripples flow towards me. 

“It would be so lovely if someone would make me a cake for my birthday”.  

I waited for calm stillness to return but then, just in case I hadn’t heard correctly the first time..PLOP..along came the follow up, as she added wistfully; 

"No one ever makes me a cake".  GUILT.  That’s what I felt. Pinging at me from all directions, like overstretched strands of elastic.

Making a cake for my mother is not like making a cake for any old Tom, Dick or Harry. Move over Mary Berry. You are not the undisputed Queen of Cakes. Possibly you are the princess, but it’s probably my Mum with her 27 year old trusty Kenwood mixer, who reigns majestic over all things cakery.  Pressure. That’s what I felt at the challenge ahead.  Of all things kitchenesque, baking is probably the thing I’m least good at.  I was never particularly good at science at school, or maths for that matter. When I attempt to bake, I find that I end up getting foxed.  For example, in those situations when I want to use a different size tin to that prescribed in the recipe and then can't work out how to adjust the quantities of ingredients needed.  That’s when I think, I should have paid more attention to that maths lesson on πr².

And so it was, that last Thursday, still with a mountain of holiday washing to get through, and an architect champing at the bit to sort out details of structural beams on the house project, I found myself ignoring them all, as I set out to make THE CAKE.

I tried to enthuse myself, I honestly did. I thought, ‘Hey, maybe I’ll even try and make a foodie blog post out of this.’ How hard can it be?  Answer - not as easy as I thought.

It started well enough. I popped out to the shops in the morning. List in hand. Prepared. I ventured into the cake decorating shop, I bought my fondant icing in the colours I wanted. I even checked with the woman in the shop; "Is this going to be enough icing to cover my cake?" "Oh yes, plenty there," she reassured me.

Returning home. I felt super organised and enthusiastic. Like all good food bloggers, I took a photograph of my ingredients at the beginning. 

All weighed out and raring to go...

I made my cake. (Mary Berry’s Victoria Sponge recipe). Husband, a much better cake maker than I, had instructed me to double the mixture, to ensure the cakes were ‘extra high’ as we’d decided to make a layered cake. (Unfortunately I forgot to take a photograph  of them when they came out of the oven, but they were pretty impressive.) 

The day continued.  Just some jam and buttercream needed and the icing/ decoration, which I planned to do after husband and I had eaten our dinner that night.  Therein lay the first problem; we didn’t finish dinner until after 8pm, we were both tired and time showed no time of slowing down as the kitchen clock measured our minimal progress.

I’ve always been good at delegating.  Husband got the task of making the buttercream and layering the cake with jam and cream, whilst I set about making the decorations.

In these situations, it’s always good to have a design plan.  I had a ‘sort of’ plan - the loose kind of ‘wing it’ plan that I often have. Purple icing for cake base, with white and yellow and lime green flowers.  (Made with special puncher purchased from the cake shop which I had yet to work out how to use.)

Of the many things I learnt that Thursday night about cake decorating, these were my most valuable lessons:

Lesson 1. Do not try to teach yourself to make fondant flowers at 9.30pm the night you need to finish the cake.  It turned out to be far trickier than I thought.  The icing was either too thick or to thin or too sticky, and as I hadn’t been able to buy any ‘Tygol glue’ to glue one on top of the other, I also had to improvise at the last minute. (The Internet recommended denture paste but deciding this might be unpalatable, (and also lacking in said denture paste)  I opted instead for a thick paste made from Royal Icing Sugar and water after a distress text to a cake-making friend.)

Enthusiasm waning I forgot to take a neat and tidy picture...

Lesson 2. Release your inner control freak.  “You’re putting too much buttercream on.” I lamented to Husband. “It will be far too sweet’. "It’ll be great..." he said, ladling yet more onto the cake.  In the end I just gave up interfering. I had the fiddly flowers to worry about. (Putting it politely.)  By 9.30pm I’d decided that the end objective should just be delivering a cake, not worrying about what it tasted like.

Lesson 3.  Always buy more icing than you need. Especially if you are using one colour to cover the base of the cake (and the shops will be shut when you are making it).  At 10.45pm this happened:

No amount of stretching was going to get the purple bad boy to fit.

The purple icing barely covered the top of the cake.  At this point, exhausted after hunching over flower petals for most of the evening, I had a sense of humour failure. (Obviously completely blaming the woman in the cake shop for the deficit of icing.)
Husband: ‘Well, we could leave it like this and you can go and buy some more icing tomorrow and finish it.” “No, I need to leave for Mum’s at 10am” I wailed. “I haven’t got time..” . I felt like throwing the whole thing at the wall. Be GONE Cake. BE GONE.

Lesson 4.  Even when it seems like all is lost. It hardly ever is. Especially if you’re willing to bend the rules a little bit. Or in my case..the best before dates.

In a flash of inspiration, I remembered that there was a box of various packs of unopened icing in the cellar left over from last year’s Bob the Builder cake (made by the husband I might add. ). I dispatched Husband to the Gruffalo’s cave to see what what there, and prayed to the icing fairy.  He emerged with a bumper 1kg pack of white icing.  Hurrah! We were saved. The slight catch was it turned out to be two months out of date, but I took cheer from the fact it was still fully sealed and the mice obviously hadn’t got to that corner yet of the cellar yet.  The executive chef in me made the decision to use it.  My logic’s nearly all sugar...what's in it to go out of date?

Thank goodness for my husband and his strong kneading muscles. It was like a rock.  A little while later, he’d rolled it out and stretched it over the cake.  It’s not as easy as it looks covering a piece of cake in a whole piece of fondant icing.  With the exception of a very dog-earred bodged patch towards the bottom he did a pretty good job.

Lesson 5: Husbands can be very helpful in situations like this.  Especially when, as mine did, they make up humorous songs about ‘making a cake for the mother in law' to buoy your spirits.

At 11.30 pm I began the job of sticking on the flowers.  After some emergency mass production of some more flowers in alternative colours, as obviously, white on white was now going to look a little..strange.  

Lesson 6: Flowers are a great thing to use for the novice cake maker.  Apart from the hassle of making them they do cover a multitude of sins.  Cracked edges and bodged white icing - gone.

At 12.30am the cake looked like this.  I went to bed praying that the flowers would still be stuck to it when I emerged the next morning.

6am. Flowers still intact. Phew.

Overall, I was quite pleased with how it turned out. Depending on the angle you looked at it, it was a little lopsided, a sort of leaning tower of cake.  I wish I could say I enjoyed the whole experience more, but frankly, it was a labour of last-minute love.  I'm sure my mother appreciated it, although the unanimous verdict from my direct speaking family was that it was ‘too sweet’. (At least they didn't say the icing was 'off'.)  

I think I'll be heading to M&S for next year's cake.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Look how BIG you are...

I appreciate honesty, I really do. It’s a noble quality.  I like the fact that my friends and family are honest people.  The fact they say what they think.  But just occasionally, I wonder if they could ‘gild the lily’ somewhat, and perhaps not be quite so forthright.  For instance, when talking about my pregnancy.

I opened the door yesterday to my friend, she’s lovely; a super, straightforward Northern lass; another person who tells it as it is.  “OMG, she squealed..” "You’re HUGE”.  Laughing as she passed the buggy over the doorstep she then lobbed a final verbal hand grenade at me; “You’re going to be absolutely MASSIVE by the end.”


My Mother and Mother in Law aren’t much better.  I’ve lost count of the times that my Mum has asked; “You’re sure there’s only one in there?” (Yes, of course Mum, unless ultrasound machines tell lies). My uber-slim Mother in Law is also quite happy to put her two penneth in;  “I don’t mean it horribly dear, but I'm surprised you are SO big already.” 

I’m nearly 5 months PREGNANT for goodness sake.

Thinking about it, I’ve decided that the people around me are just not used to seeing a bigger me; or perhaps Pip’s pregnancy was so long ago they’ve forgotten what I looked like.  In my non pregnant state, I’m a bit of a bean pole.  5ft 8 and slim.  I’m one of those lucky ladies that has never needed to watch her weight.  Despite eating mountains of cake, my whole adult life I’ve wavered at the top of the ‘underweight’ BMI band. I don’t know why my body is that way, maybe I have a high metabolism. My brother and my Dad are both rakish looking individuals too.  It was only after having Pip, when I discovered coffee as a coping mechanism for dealing with the knackered-ness of new motherhood and embraced the world of creamy full fat lattes, that I ducked under the ticker tape and gratefully edged into the ‘normal’ BMI bracket.

Some people can be pregnant for months and not show.  I had a friend who didn’t declare her pregnancy until she was seven months and even then, you couldn’t tell.  She just looked like she’d eaten a large roast dinner.  I, on the other hand, when pregnant, look like Mr Skinny from the Mr Men;  more specifically, the image of him where he’s swallowed a pea and has a large bulbous stomach.   For some reason, my babies chose to sit in the front seat, they tuck themselves up as prominently as possible between my two hip bones.  It does look ridiculous, by the time Pip arrived my bump almost looked phallic.  Perhaps it’s that which makes me look more pregnant than I actually am.

It seems that members of the public agree.  Fellow holiday makers seemed shocked when I told them that I wasn’t due until the end of November.  On Sunday, at an afternoon tea stall at a local exhibition I bumped into my old NCT teacher.  When I told her when my baby was due she counted off the remaining months on her fingers, looked at my bump and then raised her eyebrows pointedly.  Ditto the cashier in the supermarket yesterday; exactly the same finger counting process and then a surprised look at the bump.

What gives people the right to judge? To suddenly become experts on the exact size a pregnant woman should be? I’ve stopped telling people the actual due date, because I think if I just say November then possibly this will mislead them to think I’m due at the start and not actually 4 weeks later.  I love being pregnant I really do, I love the bloom of my bump and for once, having some buoyant breasts but frankly, I'm getting a little tired of feeling like I have to apologise for being the size I am at the stage I am.  At the risk of sounding a ranty hormonal pregnant woman, the only person who is allowed to tell me how big I am is Little Pip.  a) Because he's so small anyway my growth must seem exponential to him, and b) because I find his take on the whole pregnancy quite endearing.  Take this morning's comment; “Mummy, your boobies are getting too big to fit in this house.”  (As a normally very flat chested woman, how could I not take that as a compliment?)
Telling a pregnant woman how big she is is not helpful. At. All. Especially when it comes from random members of the public. And the irony of it all is, if there’s one thing that makes me feel like reaching for a doughnut - it’s people telling me how big I am.

At least my husband thinks I’m beautifully buxom. Either that or he should become an actor...

Monday, 2 July 2012

Lost Baggage

I have come to the conclusion that taking time out from the milieu of everyday life is incredibly worthwhile.  Holidays may be luxuries, but in my book they are justifiable luxuries; they’re right up there with a good quality night cream once you reach a certain age. I think both are restorative necessities.

We spent the last week on a Greek Island in the Med.  I can’t proudly sit here and say I saw all the sights or educated myself particularly on the finer aspects of Greek culture. I didn’t. Sample the night life? Not so much, at four and a half months pregnant.   For a whole week, I just relaxed on the beach, played with my little boy, chatted to my husband, sunbathed on a lounger, read my book, ate freshly caught fish and ripe, mouth wateringly tasty tomatoes, and forgot about the strains and stresses of our London life.

Sometimes stepping back from the day to day helps you gain a new perspective.  As I sat on the beach, I thought about all the things on my to do list, and reflected that the stress I sometimes feel about certain things is disproportionate to the value they add to me, or my family, and perhaps it’s better to just let some of them go.  As the monotonous motion of the waves lapped gently against the sea shore, I reprioritised what was important, released my mental clutter and let it sail away on the outgoing tide.

The next six months are going to be a test of endurance for the Plum household.  We have to finalise the details for our house renovation project, tender it to builders, find a flat to rent, manage the project through, and in the middle of it all (minor detail) have a baby.  I’ve always prided myself on being a multitasker, but even I think I might struggle with this feat.  When Pip was born, I couldn’t even finish a cup of tea without it going cold, I was so absorbed in looking after him. By the time baby no 2 is here, I’ll be having to don a hard hat and walk around a building site, no doubt with him or her cossetted in a baby sling.  Do they make hard hats for babies I wonder?

As I reflected about the challenges ahead this last week, I tried to be realistic.  To face the facts. Some things - the house project, and baby, will just happen - because they have to happen.   And other things, will become superfluous, or put on hold until a later date, because that’s the only way it can be.  I really wanted to participate in Nanowrimo this year; to have my plan ready and fingers poised ready to tap away come 1st November. Is that a realistic goal? Probably not.  With a baby due on the 29th, I am sure I will be trying to make a million decisions on the house project before then, in order to buy myself some time in the first few weeks once baby is born.  

Here’s my plan.  These are the things I’m going to focus on, and if I get them done, I might have some time to get cracking on my personal writing project for November. It’s an incentive to get through my list on time.

To Do List.  July - October.
  • Finalise plans and award tender to builder by mid August (preferably to builder that charges only arm - rather than arm and leg)
  • Decide on fittings for Bathrooms and Kitchens/ Floors/ Lighting by end August. (Procrastinating prohibited)
  • Find rental accomodation, pack up / throw out rubbish/ move house by start October. (Be ruthless about chucking out the chinz and plastic toot toys.)
  • Unpack, settle.  (Nest a little - no doubt lament lack of nursery.) Mid October.
  • Start supervising work at house. ( Pull hair out umpteen times.)
  • Have baby. (How hard can it be the second time around?!)

Additional priorities:
  • Finish Pip’s first year photo book. (It would be lovely to compare pictures of him with out newborn on a month by month basis.)
  • Get very early head start on Christmas shopping. Realistically, I’m going to do none in December.
  • Formulate plan for Nanowrimo so I’m ready to start 1 November if everything on the above list is on track. (Accept that this is optimism and if it doesn’t happen, so be it.)

Everything else must wait. (The blog is the exception to this..of course.)

Daunting? Yes, a little. But after our week away, and some ruthless mental prioritisation I’m ready for the challenge.  As I retrieved my trusty red leather holdall from the carousel at Gatwick, I felt enthused and ready for the months ahead.  I’ve left all my other head fluff behind, I’m focussed and ready with my hard hat for whatever the next six months wants to throw at me.  Wish me luck, folks.