Tuesday, 19 December 2006

In the midst of life

Having got all evangelical about home birth, I want to do the same about home death. Whenever I talk to someone about the death of someone close to them, I'm reminded how unusual it is that the two deaths I've experienced - my father and my grandmother, my father's mother - were both at home, not in hospital. Both of them I saw die; and I'm sure that if I hadn't seen my father die it would have taken me a long time to really believe that it had happened. He also made an incredibly brave death - something I'm not sure anyone has the option of in a hospital.

I do want to read The American Way of Death: I suspect that nothing much has changed since Nancy Mitford wrote it. I particularly hate people who extract money from you by hushing you into embarrassment, and I'm fairly sure that funeral directors come into that category.

What also sticks in my mind from my father's death are the florist who got quite pushy when my mother said she just wanted red roses to put on the coffin - obviously, a beautiful gesture can't be a beautiful gesture unless it costs more - and the local vicar, who after half an hour of talking about my father was still failing to get his name right. This turned out to be a good thing, as we decided we didn't want someone like him involved with the funeral, so we ran it ourselves.

It was lovely - as lots of people said afterwards, and then wondered if they should have. We chose poems and asked different people to read them: I read 'Fear no more the heat of the sun' and my Welsh partner of the time read 'And death shall have no dominion'. And we asked people my Dad had worked with and members of societies he's been in to just stand up and talk about him. It worked so well that someone we hadn't asked felt able to stand up and talk too, which was wonderful.

But in a way the situation was very simple. Last year a very good friend of mine died, and as he was in his mid-fifties and a lovely, lovely man, he had loads of friends as well as dozens of relations. He'd worked for the university too, so there was a huge memorial service in one of the colleges. There were two problems for me: one was that it felt odd to claim him as a close friend (he'd been one of my two best friends for some years) when so many other people had claims on him. I felt almost a fraud. But the other was a more general problem: the huge memorial service was to celebrate his life, but it took place not that long after he'd died, and his illness had been quite a sudden one. And I didn't want to celebrate his life: I wanted to mourn his death.

It almost seems as though you're not quite allowed to do that any more. I suppose there's a difference between funerals and memorial services, but even funerals seem obliged to have a positive slant. If you're genuinely Christian they probably ought to be anyway, but hardly anyone I know is. Though I suppose if you're going to believe anything, that's when it'll be - and why as an atheist I take particular care not to cop out at that point.

I suppose the sanitisation of death, removed to hospitals and controlled by other people, is related to the hygienic nature of funerals and their lack of outright emotion. Perhaps the latter is an English thing, though? I can't imagine Italians, for instance, dabbing with hankies instead of sobbing over the coffin, but perhaps I'm just thinking in cliches.

I suppose, also, that I don't like personal, domestic events to be taken over by church and state (and doctors). Ha! That ties up a preference for homebirth with being anti-marriage very neatly...

Friday, 15 December 2006

Five weeks old

So today it's five weeks since I gave birth. It seems like ages. The child is getting huge, and is currently insatiable - feeding every hour or so this evening. (At least I've worked out how to boot up obne-handed: it turns out that the key marked alt gr does the same as alt. What on earth can the gr mean, though?) My body's pretty much back to normal and has been for quite a while, except that I still have that weird brown line down my middle - linea negra, it's called, although mine also has dots on either side and so looks, yuckily, like an operation scar - and my pelvic floor isn't quite so super as I thought: twice this week I've realised I needed to go to the loo, an have dashed there and not quite made it. I blame this on my fabulous bladder capacity, which is such that even at nine months pregnant, I was only needing to pee two or three times a day. A, not pregnant at all, seems to go five or six times at least. [Digression: I love the vagary (can that be singular?) of the English language which makes it correct to say nine months pregnant but five years' experience and two weeks' notice (unless you're a semi-literate film company that doesn't employ sub-editors).]

So, um, five weeks go I had a baby. Four weeks ago we had sex for the first time after the birth. This was something of a revelation as all the books seem to say six weeks and that's a long time to go without a shag... But then someone said to me yesterday, fancy my being up and about, and I thought that odd as I had been the next day, five weeks ago. Perhaps it just proves the uselessness of generalisations when applied to individuals. Argh. Infant now sceaming too much to ignore so I'll continue later.

Tuesday, 12 December 2006

An accident

A bleak day today. On Friday night we went out to sing carols with a friend of ours. On Saturday, we found out that, later that night, her 24-year-old son had been in a car accident. There was no more news yesterday except that he was in intensive care, in one of the best units in the country for this kind of injury. This morning, he was slightly worse. Tonight, she's waiting to turn off his life-support machine.

It was a string of cliches: he was driving, there was ice, he was going too fast, he'd had a couple of pints, he wasn't wearing a seatbelt. The two friends with him had seatbelts on; they walked away with scratches. He'd been in an accident before when he wasn't wearing a seatbelt; it didn't convince him. He went through the windscreen and hit the road. His injuries sounded horrible. Why on earth did he think he was invincible? What a stupid, stupid waste.

A relation of his told me she felt she wanted to work in road safety, to try to say something to people his age that would make a difference. I went to a film a year or two ago before which, for some reason, all the ads they showed were the ones that target drunk driving. They scared the shit out of me. They were really horrible - graphic and shocking. I don't know what else anyone can do. And meanwhile, someone who was only 24 is pointlessly, stupidly dead.

Thursday, 7 December 2006


Met a friend of mine for lunch who's a don - I think: it's quite an odd term, isn't it? - at Newnham. She gave me a book that she said she'd read while breastfeeding. It's one of those 1960s Pelicans with the blue spine, and it's called Patterns of Infant Care in an Urban Community. Cool! It's actually very readable and interesting, too, quite apart from the cool factor.

A is in the bath with the infant, who seems to like water, which is good as it's taken me decades not to flinch when it goes anywhere near my face. The child needed a wash, as it was dressed by the health visitor, who didn't apparently understand the point of the nappy wrap, which is to contain. She hadn't done up the leg poppers, which meant *leakage* , which meant that the poor child was wet to its heels. It hadn't complained, of course - it's been peacefully asleep for most of the afternoon, presumably building up stamina for a night of insomnia. Last night was hell. It screamed and screamed - some the sort of shrieks that make you convinced you must have somehow stuck a pin in it. Surely it can't be wind when it hardly gets wind during the day? Anyway, I fed it and fed it until I was drained dry, a mere husk. We have lost our copy of Stop Your Baby Crying, which might have helped.

We schlepped all the way to the surgery this afternoon, tempest toss'd (or is it tost?* Probably either), because the health visitor thought the child looked yellow. It does, but so do I - it's having an anglo-Indian mother that does it. It also depends on the lightbulb. The doctor said at great length that they might do a blood test, or then again they mightn't: my decision. I eventually decided that we weren't going to have any paranoia this early on, so we'll leave it until our next appointment in two weeks. And home we came.

* Yes, it is. I looked up the Robertson Davies novel, as that was quicker. Robertson Davies is wonderful, this trilogy especially. Well, I've read his second trilogy, also brilliant and rather more serious, I suppose, but not the third, which I've consciously been saving up to have as a treat (partly because after that there isn't much more, really). There's something about his tone that appeals to me, I think - his sense of humour, his use of words, the sly allusions: it's all very attractive. I also believe what he tells me, which may be one of the ways I recognise a good writer. I recently read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and found myself reflecting again on how little I trust Rowling: I don't think her characters are properly realised - she just doesn't seem to *see* them - and I don't think she's going to be able to knit together all the holes in her plots. And none of that would matter so much if she wasn't such a *dull* writer. I return to Diana Wynne Jones with relief: superficially similar, but worlds apart in terms of humour, convincingness, and sheer style. If I ever have a dog, I'll call it Sirius.

Tuesday, 5 December 2006

From here to maternity...

More shrieking today; then I put the infant into a very naff vibrating chair, which it decided it liked. Oh no - what if it grows up to have *really terrible* taste??

I'm getting behind myself, and the birth is seeming increasingly distant, so it's time to play catch-up.

So we went to see the omniscient Mr Lim, and lo and behold... well, he didn't exactly see through the baby's head, but *something* happened, because suddenly my uterus was free of placenta, and a home birth presented no more risk than it would to the next person. Callooh! Callay! I went shopping to celebrate, and bought many more tiny garments in the charity shops of Mill Road. Also a fishing basket - I like baskety things to put toys in, and this one can also be sat upon.

Spookily, as though my body had just been waiting for the okay from an expert, my waters broke the next morning. Unfortunately, nothing else happened. I'd persuaded A to swap haircut appointments with me - we share the same hairdresser, which is handy - so as there was no action I headed into town to be snipped. Did a whole lot of Christmas shopping - in Halfords, glamorously - and came home. Drank raspberry leaf tea, then went out to a gospel concert and joined in the choruses, but nothing seemed to be getting going. The amniotic fluid went on leaking - it's an endless supply, the books said. I was yomping through maternity pads until A reminded me that we had a house full of nappies, so I road-tested a few terries.

By the next day, we were beginning to worry slightly, as you only have a certain amount of time after your waters break before they want to induce you - which, surprise, means ending up in hospital after all. NOOOOOOOOOO! So we started working our way down the list: eat a pineapple, drink more bloody raspberry leaf tea (filthy stuff), have a shag, have a curry, go for longish walk with friend and hyperactive pug. Also struck by cleaning urge and nearly asphyxiated myself spraying some vile orange kitchen cleaner into the under-sink cupboard then sticking my head into it. Coughing for ten minutes didn't start anything. Curses! And so to bed... we've read that the prostoglandins in semen that are supposed to get labour going are even more effective taken orally, and A has spruced himself up accordingly, but as it happens we're too knackered for any hanky-panky and pass out as our tiny heads hit the pillows.

I wake up at six the next morning, again, and wander downstairs to finish the rationalisation of the under-sink cupboard. Information design segues neatly into domestic ergonomics, and I'm trying to find the perfect location for a nappy bucket. At about half-past seven I decide I can't be botherered to have breakfast, and it might be a good idea to get some more sleep. So I go back to bed. And then not very much later, there's a funny kind of feeling that's sort of in my front and mostly in my back. And fifteen minutes later, another one. A is beginning to stir, and has done this twice before, so I ask him if he thinks it might be a contraction. He says yes. Oooooohhh...

And so they continue. They don't feel like anything contracting: the most localised pain is at the base of my spine. An hour or so later, they're getting closer together and rather more painful. And then suddenly quite a lot more painful, and nasty because you can feel the pain approaching and know it's goinbg to hurt, but also that nothing you can do will stop it. The only thing you can do is shout "Noooo, please..." and crouch over the sofa. At about nine-fifteen it seemed like time to call the midwife, and time to see if getting into the bath might help the pain. It's a big cast-iron rolltop which I habitually spend hours steeping in, next to a pile of snacks and paperbacks, but of course not ideal... we'd thought about a birthing pool (you can buy them on eBay, naturally), but then there'd been the possibility of a Caesarean, or at best a hospital birth. And bugger, we hadn't written our birth plan yet, either. I'd been pretty sure I'd be early - I've got a fast metabolism, and my menstrual cycle is only 24 days, so I reckon my body generally doesn't hang about - but hadn't, of course, acted on this assumption....

So by quarter to ten it hurts quite a lot, and I'm shouting "Where's that bloody midwife?" (Answer: trekking over from Cambridge) and "Get that bloody bubblewrap down!" (We have a brick floor, and I'm only prepared to take authenticity so far.) By about ten o'clock I've had enough of the bath, and want to be ON all fours, IN the living room, ON the bubble wrap, so I do that. I see what they mean about things being very clear when you're in labour. The midwife arrives with a great clattering of metal things - cylinders of gas and air, I discover later, which we never actually use. There isn't really time for introductions. "I don't suppose I could get you to lie down so that I can do an examination?" she says. "No," I agree. Being examined isn't high on my list of priorities at that moment.

We're apparently in second stage already. My blurred memories include lots of people's mobile bloody phones going off, and idiotic conversations - there's no reception in our house unless you stand in the garden. Surely there ought to be some situations in which you simply don't answer the phone? Thank heaven I'm not in a hospital room full of bleeping instruments: I need to concentrate and I don't multi-task at all well. An assistant midwife arrives and starts filling in a form with a very scratchy pen. I ask her if she could please not, and it comes out much more polite than it is in my head, weirdly. Our ante-natal teacher had warned us that language inhibitions might be loosened, and A was worried that my language might be even more - erm, colourful? than usual, but oddly there's no urge to swear, and I yell inarticulately instead. My throat hurts for days.

This bit hurts less because you can feel the purpose. But it's not as obvious as it could be: there's one huge urge to push, but after you've taken it as far as you can - like singing a very long phrase in music - you have to decide how far back to come and how much to breathe in before pushing again, and this time there's no involuntary urge to help you. I get frustrated because I can feel that there must be some trick to it: if I could only get the breathing right, it would all be easy... For much of the time, it really does feel as if you're doing a very big, hard pooh: so much of the pressure is on your perineum, and that's right next to your bum, so there doesn't seem much difference. And you push and push, and then *have* to give up for a bit and relax, and you feel everything going back inside again. Hell! At some point the midwife says I can feel the baby's head, so I reach underneath: it's warm, but squishier than you'd think. After that we don't seem to get anywhere for ages: I grit my teeth and push when the urge comes, and the midwife says "Excellent!" and I have to ask her to be more specific - "Push!" or "Don't push!" because I don't know if excellent means nearly there or go on. But she's good: she doesn't say too much, but what she says is worthwhile: she suggests shifting my weight from foot to foot (this shifts the baby about in your pelvis so it can find the best way through); later she suggests turning the other way around. I've been leaning back against A, who's sitting on the piano stool - who'd have thought *that* would be a useful birth accessory? - but turn and grip his ample waist instead. He is perfect: I mostly ignore him but know he's completely solid and reliable, and what's more know that being ignored won't upset him: he's left his ego behind for this one. Wonderful man.

Eventually, when I feel as though I really need to just give up - and I'm fairly fit and healthy, so how does anyone who's not get through it? - we get to a different place and the midwife says to stop pushing just for a moment while she does something, and then a baby comes out. Head-first onto the bubble-wrap, A says later. It's 1221 - nicely palindromic. Goodness knows why or how, but I remember our lack of birth plan and manage to gasp that we don't want to know what sex it is, we want to find out for ourselves, so the midwives wrap it up in a towel and hand it over.

Yuck, it's horrible. Its head is really pointy and its nose has a Bajoran-style fold in it, quite apart from the waxy covering. Oh well. We sit down and look at it anyway. It feels like ten minutes, but is actually about an hour, just recovering and meeting the baby, and giving it its first feed, which seems quite straightforward. My most coherent thought is that it has no eyelashes so is probably a girl, since boys always seem to have long fluttering ones and therefore it's desirable for girls, with the typical perversity of sexism. The midwives come back now and again and say "Haven't you looked yet?" and eventually "We can't fill in our forms until we know..." We've had a change of assistant and the new second midwife is the one we met at the NHS classes we started the week before to supplement our NCT classes, in the hope that we'd meet some new parents both more local and less spookily from an identical social demographic. It's she who points out that - damn and blast it! - we still have the third stage to do.

There's nothing in the whole world I want to do less than push again. My first try is pathetic. For the second one, I try a bit harder and eureka! There it is! But wait. I have in fact passed a blood clot much the size of a placenta. Yuck and double yuck. In fact there is quite a lot of blood around by now, as the second midwife calmly points out. Give it one more try, she says, and then she strongly recommends the syntometrin injection, which is the one that speeds up the delivery of the placenta. Having had a totally drug-free birth up to now, I'm strongly tempted to get fetishistic about refusing this, but luckily sanity prevails. And anyway, the third contraction never happens. We have to cut the cord so she can use it to pull the placenta out. Nobody has mentioned that A has done this twice before, so when it's presented to him it's not quite the Big Moment that seems to be expected. Ah well. The injection in my thigh is stupidly painful - how the hell can THAT hurt? But thankfully, the wretched placenta comes out and is complete. My original midwife had a horrible tale of a woman who had a normal home birth, then couldn't deliver the placenta, so got taken to hospital, where it turned out to be attached to her uterus, so she had to have a Caesarean to get it out. Labour and a C-section - how crap is that?

Around now I lie down on our handy divan thing, and look out of the window at the glorious autumn day - which begins to fade alarmingly, and the light to yellow, and I think I'm going to die, after finding the perfect man and having the perfect baby... It's the blood loss, but the fade to black is just how they show death in the movies, and for a few moments I stare death in the face. And then I remember to say something, and am told to get my head down, and call for food - I missed breakfast to rationalise the cupboard, and lunch to give birth - and start stuffing food into my mouth. A little while later, the first midwife suggests taking a bath, but not standing up, and so I crawl across the ceramic-tiled floor of the hall to get there, feeling suitably penitential.

The bath is lovely. I shall stop in there for the moment. To be continued...

Sunday, 3 December 2006

Bloody amateurs

Great Scott, it's like Little Shop of Horrors here - the bit where the plant is getting bigger and begger and yelling FEEEEED MEEEEEE! Except that the infant doesn't articulate it - it screams very loud, and then it screams even louder. Then it knaws its tiny fists to show that it is STARVING and you are CRUEL... This is while you're running through all the other things it could be - wind? boredom? nappy change? - because it's only *half an hour* since the last feed and you really can't believe that the child can be hungry again. And all it can do is convince you by sheer volume. WAAAAAAAAH!

The midwife said this might happen, and that it might betoken a growth spurt. So now it's going to be a Giant Baby, too? Eek!

Otherwise, life is slightly lacking in anticipation, as we watched the final episodes of Buffy on Friday night. It did not disappoint - what a fabulous series, and a fitting ending. In all seven seasons, there was only one episode that we both thought was under par. Astonishing. Joss Whedon is our god. We've been telling people we're going to watch them all again from the beginning and watch Angel concurrently. They think we're joking.

A lovely poncey afternoon yesterday: we got together five singers (well, three plus A and me) to do the Britten 'Hymn to St Cecilia' as a slightly belated celebration of her day on 22 November (she's the patron saint of music, and the day was also Britten's birthday). Last year we did a workshop on it which involved quite a lot of analysis of the text, and some of it made sense for the first time. The year before, I got together a group of singers at the very last moment (eventually phoning every bass in Cambridgeshire); two of them are now dead, including the tenor who was one of my two best friends in the whole world. So now I want to try to sing the piece every year and remember previous occasions.

We worked our way through the Oxford Book of English Madrigals, too, and once again managed to find one we'd never sung before. This seems to happen however many years you've been using the book for. This time it was 'Adieu, ye city-prisoning towers' by Tomkins: the words seemed a heartfelt farewell to city life, something with which I felt a great deal of sympathy, having just finished seven years of commuting.

One of the singers was complaining about some group that had chucked him out, which seemed a bit rich as he's a member of a group that's recently chucked me out... Amateur singing is mostly fantastically rewarding - especially when you realise what a dog's life a professional singer has (I'm thinking about rank-and-file consort singers, not the tiny proportion of mega-stars) - but when there's back-biting it can't half get nasty. The most successful groups I've been in - well, maybe there's only been one, in fact - are those that stay very clear about the fact that if you were a pro you'd be doing it for the money, but if you're an amateur you're doing it for the FUN, and so if it's not fun, you've got it wrong. Almost all groups at some stage seem to get ideas above their station and either start wanting to be terribly terribly good - which would be okay, except that it invariably means aiming beyond the abilities of the group, which makes it all a horrible fag, which means it stops being fun, and kapow, you've blown it - or get completely sidetracked. Almost every choral society I've been in has had some ongoing saga whereby *somebody* wants the women to wear something 'to make us look more professional'. It's never the men - they stay in their DJs and nobody messes with them. No, it's always the lay-dees, and it may be scarves, or little jerkins, or some ghastly frock or robe or sash or... aargh. Hours and hours of committee meetings. Like vampire slaying, music-making can have only one leader. Wasn't it Shaw who said the best form of government was a benevolent dictatorship?

I seem to have got rather earnest. It's because I've been sucked dry and left an empty husk. The child is whickering again now. Wasn't there something like this in The Midwich Cuckoos?

Friday, 1 December 2006

Shake it all about

So you know when there's a bit too much to be done as well as all the breastfeeding, because instead of looking to see which breast you pinned your little hairclip on to tell you which you were going to use for the next feed, you just glance to find out which breast is still sticking out after the last feed, pack it away and drag out the other one... I know it won't be long before I walk down the high street exposing myself involuntarily. The question is, I suppose, will I care? Ooh - anyone remember that 'Not the Nine O'Clock News' sketch in which the woman arrives home with one breast exposed (it wasn't Pamela Stephenson in this one, for I suppose an obvious reason)? The husband, approaching along the hallway, looks at her, looks at it, looks at her... She looks down, sees the breast, and says "Oh my god! I left the baby on the bus!"

Off for our hearing test today, which we passed with full marks. It's just the start of a life full of tests and assessments, I fear - welcome to Blair's Britain, otherwise known as World of Statistics [TM].

My stomach has now assumed pre-pregnancy beergut proportions, which seems pretty good when today is only three weeks since giving birth. Presumably it all just depends what kind of stomach you have - it's certainly not through any special activity on my part. How do you do pull-ups, anyway?

The child has caught its father's stinking cold, which is a pain - lots of snuffling and grumpiness, poor mite. Even when their noses aren't blocked, you wonder how they can breathe while breastfeeding. Add snorts and snuffles and it seems even less likely.

I see I'm having random thoughts. Oh well.