In the autumn I took part in a women’s therapy group, hosted by a local postnatal mental health support service. I had been struggling with anxiety, mainly on the theme of health worries, but surprisingly, every week that I went along I seemed to find myself talking mostly about breastfeeding.

I guess it’s been more of a source of stress than I had realised. Bear with me while I therapeutically blurt out the litany of complaints:

  • Pain, in the beginning. I think nipples have to toughen up like guitar-playing fingers do.
  • Several periods of oversupply. I never would have guessed that my little molehills would turn out to be such overachievers…! It’s an understatement to say I do not enjoy lactating – it’s so weird to have body parts that have always just been lumps of meat, come to life and start doing this bizarre thing and suddenly you find yourself dripping milk when you step out of the shower. I particularly hate seeing my breasts full of milk and can’t bear to touch them like that. I dread the engorgement that is likely needed for me to get off this breastfeeding train eventually.
  • One bout of mastitis so far and constant fear of recurrence. Several episodes of blocked milk ducts.
  • Very fast letdown which the baby struggled to cope with for the first few weeks or months.
  • Having a baby who is so interested in the world around her that she cannot focus on feeding. Coupled with the fast letdown, this results in mess and embarrassment. The only saving grace is how little time on the breast she actually needs to get the milk into her – five minutes or less.
  • Worrying about whether my baby is feeding enough. As well as the distraction, she has had spells of flat out refusing to feed. She’s only on about the 15th percentile in weight, although she is a bundle of bouncy energy. I think breastfeeding works best for the type of person who has a lot of faith in “nature” and is comfortable not to even notice how many times the baby feeds per day, trusting that everything is just working out. For a person like me who likes to take detailed, quantified notice of everything, it’s a recipe for stress.
  • Having my nipple bitten. This happened one day when her first two teeth were new and razor sharp, and she actually drew blood. The shock! No-one ever tells you how much trust will eventually be required in putting your nipple into that little mouth… and how horrible it will feel that you can’t trust your baby not to hurt and injure you in this intimate place.
  • I have lost a ton of weight, which alarms me. I would also like my cycle back as I worry all is not quite right. In short, I would like my body back; long after pregnancy is over I still feel it is colonised, not quite my own.
  • Being solely responsible for feeding her, being unable to leave her with anyone for more than a few hours (and even then, having to pump – which by the way is also very weird and makes you feel rather like a dairy cow)… doing all the night feeds, every night… just feeling very tied down in a way that enlarges the gulf between my experience and that of baby’s dad.

All that, and yet somehow I have made it through eight months – and am still going.

I did introduce a bit of formula along with solid foods at around five months. We were going through a breastfeeding crisis – she was complaining and refusing every time I offered during the day, so that I had to sneak the boob upon her during naps, or else give her expressed milk from a bottle instead. I was beside myself with frustration and worry over my full and leaking breasts, whether she was getting enough, and somehow taking the rejection personally and feeling very upset. So I decided to start, one feed at a time, replacing breast with formula.

It didn’t quite work out like that. I replaced one feed out of the 11 or 12 she was having per day. I let one or two more feeds simply go since she was eating solids so well. It took about two months to feel that my milk supply had adjusted to accommodate this, so that stopped me replacing any more.

And at some point, the crisis passed and she seemed happier again to feed from me, happier than she’d been for a long time… and I found I wanted to continue. It felt as if we had tried to break up our symbiotic milk-exchange relationship, found it too heartbreaking, realised we wanted to make it work after all, and were both making a renewed effort.

Then on Christmas Day, she began refusing me again. She had had her last overnight feed at 6am and I couldn’t get her to feed again until 2:30pm. On Boxing Day, even her bedtime feed was a wrestling match with both of us in tears.

So in early January I had to conclude it was basically the end of daytime breastfeeding. I was due back at work soon anyway, so it wouldn’t have been able to go on very much longer. I’m now pumping once a day and the plan, believe it or not, is to continue doing this at work and bringing the milk home for the next day’s mid-morning bottle.

I didn’t know that brief happy phase would be quite so brief, and now I may never again breastfeed her sitting on the sofa with daylight streaming in – something that’s been such a huge part of my daily life for months, is just gone.

I still have the big bedtime feed, and the night feeds, lying cosily side by side in bed. Those have always been the best. And I guess there is something quite special in it, a closeness that only I get to experience with her.

In so many ways it would be much easier doing formula. There would be no more wondering whether she’s getting enough – I could measure it precisely. No more over-producing and spilling. No more constant fear of mastitis.

So why haven’t I stopped? Why can’t I bear to let it go; why does even the thought bring tears instantly to my eyes?

Incidentally I think she learned not to bite me from my reaction to that one incident – I startled her by crying out in pain. She’s a sensitive wee soul. Now whenever the teeth graze me she stops herself and watches me cautiously. I had been saying “no” firmly every time I felt them come near me, and at Christmas I was wailing with guilt at the thought that maybe I’d scared her off feeding altogether – although, as my partner said, who can really blame me for being scared of being bitten?

Why am I so attached to breastfeeding when she doesn’t seem to be? Perhaps the whole “breast is best” thing has got under my skin; a case of mummy guilt, wanting to continue giving her some passive immunity to common bugs, the least I can do for her while I’m not around all day. Health anxiety undoubtedly plays into that.

Or perhaps it’s just that breastfeeding has been an intense and significant part of our relationship so far. Perhaps I’m worried it’s the one thing that makes me “mummy”.

Probably it’s a mix of all these reasons. I’m not sure how much longer I will go on; I’m not setting any goals or deadlines. I wonder how I will feel in the future looking back on this time – will I wish I had just spared myself the stress? Or will I gain a clarity that I lack just now?

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Another four months

Another four months have passed since I wrote about the first four months with my baby. My partner has just begun his four months of parental leave; we are overlapping by two weeks, so that we can all adjust, and I can finally get some time to do my own thing – which includes some writing.

I have so much to say… so much to work through. Do I even know how to write any more?

I’m having a tough time these days. January is always a hard, tired time of year. The sleep situation is not great right now, and prominent among the mess of feelings around restarting work is the dread of having to do it on little sleep. The worst effect it has is on my mood and ability to feel positive.

But, it will pass, sooner or later. Everything is so very temporary.

I’m looking forward to work itself. I visited the office a few weeks ago, and the head of service, service manager and team manager all sat down with me to tell me about new projects coming up that I may be involved in. It sounded exciting, and it was awesome to feel I haven’t been sidelined or forgotten about – and for them to agree so easily with me reducing to four days a week. It was also lovely to have this whole chat with baby on my knee, as if to demonstrate there is no conflict between these different elements of who I am now.

But as I face the end of my maternity leave – the end of this strange period in which me and her have existed in a bubble – I find myself grieving hard and this takes me by surprise. I knew it would be hard to go back to work, but it’s more than that; it’s the loss of something I can never get back to.

I think back over the summer and one particular day keeps coming to mind, as a focal point for my sentimentality, even though it was like so many other days and nothing remarkable happened. She was two months old. It was a warm day and we took a long walk along the shoreline, her in the buggy and me pushing. We came all the way back and ended up at our nearby shopping mall. We sat in the bar area by the water, I had a diet coke, she had a breastfeed, and she fell asleep in my arms. I was in a T-shirt and she was in a sleeveless romper; after spending the entire pregnancy bundled up in jumpers and scarves feeling yuck, I was grateful to rediscover long walks and light clothing – and to have this beautiful little person to share it with.

The strange thing is that I wouldn’t even want to wind the clock back. Mothering a baby is bloody hard – the early days particularly hard when everything is so new and overwhelming. I cannot imagine how anyone finds the resources to go through it all a second time – pregnancy, labour, birth and recovery, establishing breastfeeding, all the many stages of sleep deprivation… Do we just forget it all in time?

She alone has been constantly with me through these days. I’ve been her world and she’s been mine. We’ve survived together. Somehow, she seems to be thriving, even if I’m not, yet.

It’s hard to put into words what I feel for this baby. I know her like I know myself – although she is constantly changing. I’m completely enchanted by her. I feel a fierce compulsion to make sure she is well and happy and has everything she needs. And I’m exhausted by caring for her. Becoming a mum has shone a spotlight on weak points like never before, as I’m frequently pushed to my limits: My need for sleep. My need to be productive, efficient. My need for a bit of breathing space now and then.

My need for safety – I’ve been frightened by the responsibility of looking after this dependent little person, although my anxiety has calmed down a fair bit since I last wrote. The challenges of breastfeeding require their own post, but we are now also dealing with establishing solid food. I brought a big chunk of the “old” me to this task, starting with educating myself on what the latest studies say about when to start and what foods to give; planning in what order to introduce new foods, and in what form; then making lots of puréed food and freezing it in small portions… But while I can plan her feeding schedule and quantify her nutritional needs all I like, I cannot make her comply with this plan! She is generally doing really well, but there are days she throws me curveballs and refuses to breastfeed, or mealtimes become a lengthy struggle with an increasingly stroppy baby who merely wants to grab and play with everything that comes near her rather than eat – and I find it very hard to be relaxed about it.

For a while I was disturbed by the contradiction of loving her and finding her hard work. Delighting in her one moment, then a little later tearing my hair out because she won’t sleep or won’t feed. Crying my eyes out at the thought of having to go to work and leave her, then crying because I’m desperate for a couple of hours to myself. Spending a frustrating hour getting her off to sleep at night, furiously lamenting the lack of an evening… only to sit down afterwards and do nothing but look at photos of her on my phone.

But the contradiction just has to be embraced. Otherwise, it produces endless guilt, at the gulf between my immense love for her and the superhuman resources I would need to be the perfect mum. There is tremendous vulnerability in allowing yourself to love that much and hold that love in tension with your flawed self and your own needs.

Perhaps evolution has bequeathed parents with permanent rose-tinted glasses towards our children precisely because of how hard a work it is. The glasses hide the permabags under the eyes. They ensure we will, somehow, find the resources for this.

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Becoming a mummy: the first four months

I first saw her at twenty to one in the morning, at the end of 30 hours of labour that culminated in a forceps delivery in an operating theatre. I was very unwell from the spinal block, uncontrollably shaking, and I looked at this little face and felt she was a stranger. A stranger I was to mother, beginning in such a bad physical and emotional state I couldn’t even bear to hold her.

My newborn

Several hours later, recovering on the ward, we began getting to know each other. Gazing at each other for the rest of the night, we began to be enveloped in the primordial mother-baby love that, biologically, predates and underpins all other loves. A love that I was primed for by the cosiness of kicks and stretches distorting my pregnant belly, but that is still surprising at turns.

A peculiar possessiveness in which I resented the constant stream of visitors and the social obligation to hand her around. An acute, aching sense of her vulnerability and the continual wondering if I was taking care of her adequately. Remembering the hospital midwife’s comments that she was a great little feeder and was desperate to feed, and crying my eyes out at the thought that I might have been letting her down somehow.

So much crying (me, not her); missing the hospital stay, in which me and her existed in a little cosy bubble and were taken care of; feeling grief at being discharged from the community midwife who had been seeing me weekly – somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that this would come to an end and feel like a loss; welling up uncontrollably at an animated film in which a baby was left by his mum at an orphanage, and again at a book in which a brown hare tells its baby “I love you to the moon and back”.

Saying goodbye to my mum who had stayed with us for 10 scorching summer days. Then being left alone with baby at 4 weeks when her daddy went back to work, which was so overwhelming I spent the first few days in tears.

Missing my “old” life, not for any particular thing, but just longing for the familiar and safe.

Figuring out how to take basic care of myself while caring for her, which just seemed impossible. Debating whether I could justify taking two minutes to put cream on my horrendous post-birth haemorrhoids after a shower when she was already crying out for me. Wondering what kind of sick society leaves a new mum so unnaturally alone to care for a baby, which did not seem like a realistic one-person job – but knowing that having maternity leave at all is actually fortunate.

Figuring out how to get myself and her out of the flat… one of the first such attempts resulted in uncontrollable crying in the chemist’s and having an audience of staring fellow patients as I tried to console her. I grew to hate all attention we received, especially when she was upset. Hating the starers, hating the people who would look over sympathetically at the baby and ignore me, and hating those who came up to indulge themselves and coo over the baby with no sensitivity to the fact that she was in distress and so was I. Hating the commentary some people would give me, the inaccurate interpretations of my baby and unsolicited advice. “He’s crying for his bottle!”

Breastfeeding. Getting through the toe-curling agony initiating each feed that would go on for the first few weeks. Trying to assimilate confusing information: finish the first breast first, before offering the second, so baby gets the calorie-dense “hind milk” – but when is the first breast finished? Does it really take 30 minutes regardless of breast storage capacity, flow rate, and baby’s feeding efficiency? Then, fire-fighting engorgement and lumps and having to forget all about fully emptying either one of them. Suffering a bout of mastitis weeks after I thought it had all settled down.

Dealing with a flow so fast it frequently choked her and sometimes resulted in vomiting the entire feed back. Then weeks later, after she’s learned to cope, dealing with her being easily distracted, coming on and off every few seconds, so that I find myself flashing a milk sprinkler, making a huge mess again, and avoiding having to feed in public because of this.

Night feeding. Dragging myself out of slumber, often drenched in postnatal night sweat, anxiously wondering if I am ill again or just feeling it because my body wants to be left asleep. Lifting her into the bed beside me, lying down and letting her drink her fill and fall back asleep. Picking her up for a precious sleepy cuddle before tucking her back in. Then trying to resettle myself and my confused circadian rhythm.

Staying in bed as late as she will, sometimes as late as 10am. Often not finding a suitable moment to have a shower and get dressed before it’s lunch time, as she only naps in my arms or out in the pram (so much for “sleep when baby sleeps”). Not much liking this slow, lazy pace of life that’s forced on me.

Light and carefree summer walks with the pram, discovering parks and cafes I hadn’t known were on my doorstep. Enjoying walking again after the heaviness of the third trimester had slowed me to a snail’s pace. It benefits both of us to leave the four walls behind, even if we never go very far. To the nearby shopping mall several times each week, just to walk around or get a drink. Lifting her up to watch the people roller skating and see the disco lights.

How unbelievably gorgeous she is. Her perfect little button nose and triangular mouth, the way her bottom lip twitches as her tongue plays in her mouth, as if she’s mouthing some unheard story… the way her face blossoms into the most beautiful baby smile. The innocent curiosity as her beautiful face looks around at tree branches from her moving pram. The wee hand that is ceaselessly, playfully exploring, doing its own tiny dance even as I feed her. The way she kicks vigorously while playing, with such a determined expression on her face. Her developing sense of humour, the delicious little chuckles as I make silly noises and faces and blow raspberries on her bare tummy.

The sensual decadence of cuddles, kissing her soft cheeks, letting her nap splayed out on my front. Going round Tesco with her sleeping in a baby carrier attached to me, her head resting on my chest, the pure luxury of getting this continuous warm hug while grocery shopping.

Being intimately acquainted with what her bowels produce; having her little mouth leave its saliva on my nipples… the unexpectedness of these physical intimacies. Finding it perfectly natural to pick bogies out of her nostrils or wax from her ear lobes, things I would never do for anyone else, as if she’s almost an extension of me.

Slowly getting to know some other new mums living nearby over coffees. Wondering how on earth to cultivate deep, supportive friendships through a haze of sleep deprivation and in the presence of a fussing baby.

Finding myself creating the stability and security I crave, in strange, desperate ways: always having everything I need in exactly the same spots around me – glass of water, lanolin cream, notebook, tissues, muslin cloth. Watching the same Disney movie over and over and over, day after day, then eventually trying another one and watching that over and over and over again. Making the same banana jelly dessert again and again. Eating the same protein bars every day.

Feeling unsettled by the changing season and the earlier darkness. Anxiety crippling me, drowning me in a general dread of future motherhood challenges I fear I am not going to be able to deal with. Getting worked up about her immunisations and how unwell she may feel afterwards. Worrying about my own health, picturing medical crises and engulfing myself in silent, sweaty panic in the dead of night.

Telling myself to think of some point in the future when things will be easier. Then feeling awful for wishing time away.

My four month old

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An update on my “journey”

I previously wrote about trying to conceive, and the setback of being diagnosed with endometriosis. When I last wrote several months ago I wasn’t sure of the extent of the problem, or what (if any) help might be needed.

I eventually got a copy of the surgeon’s report and learned exactly where all my endometriosis is. My bowels, bladder, appendix and other other digestive organs seem to be fine – it’s mainly just the reproductive bits that are riddled with scar tissue and stuck together.

At the follow-up appointment in July, the doctor advised that IVF was an appropriate way forward, without treatment of the endo, and that we qualified for a couple of cycles on the NHS. The waiting time is a year, so we could go on the waiting list, keep trying, and have time to mull over the IVF option properly. So we went with that.

I thought about what I could do that might help my body beat back the disease. I went on a gluten-free diet in August, and started gearing up for a fitness drive. I don’t know whether it was just a coincidence but I felt better in August than I had for months: full of energy, like I could walk all day long.

But I never got to continue my experimentation with diet, nor did I buy that FitBit and start properly working out, because on a holiday in Spain in early September, this happened:

Positive pregnancy test

Needless to say, we were shocked! I’ve taken a lot of tests but I’d never seen that second line before. My first feeling on seeing it appear was actually confusion: what is this?! Quickly followed by hyperventilation… delight and terror in equal measure.

I’m now 15 weeks along, and I guess I should feel reasonably hopeful that I will actually have a healthy baby in my arms around next May. The miscarriage risk is higher with endometriosis, but should have dropped to very small by now. The risks of various other complications are also higher. I will need to educate myself more, but also remember my Stoic practices. It’s all too easy to become overwhelmed with concern over uncertainties that cannot be controlled.

As fortunate as I feel to be in this position, I must admit I have not enjoyed pregnancy so far. The first trimester has been grim. Really grim! Around 6 weeks I was struck down by what I thought was a virus, but turned out to be pregnancy rhinitis (who knew that was a thing? Still sneezing 9 weeks later!) coupled with the yucky, shivery cloud of exhaustion that would hang over me for months. I have hardly been able to do anything besides work, spending so many evenings holed up under a blanket, sleeping almost all weekend sometimes. A 10-minute walk can wipe me out. Even now I am desperately awaiting my second trimester renewed energy… it’s not here yet! At least the powerful nausea has gone. There are other weird and wonderful symptoms that probably will not go: a desperate aching thirst and horrible taste in my mouth; strong, off-rhythm palpitations that occur when I lie down as my heart struggles to deal with the extra volume of blood in my body.

All in all it has put me to the test like nothing else has. Is it my age, am I too old for this? Fasting the month of Ramadan was a walk in the park by comparison; doing a full day’s work after insomnia robbed me of any more than a couple of hours’ sleep, no problem. I thought I was strong and capable. But the relentlessness of the struggle to carry on daily life these last few months has really worn me down at times.

It doesn’t help that the outcome of the pregnancy has to be regarded as pretty uncertain for the whole first trimester. To think that it could all be for nothing! And because of this fact, we have developed this compelling cultural taboo around making the pregnancy known until after the 12-week scan – which leaves you somewhat isolated in your suffering and having to try and hide the effects. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the cruel, complicated effects of our collective phobia of bad news – and Brene Brown’s thinking around this.

(Actually, I told quite a few people: people it felt natural to tell; people whose support I would need, anyway, if something went wrong. I even gave in and told my work team around 10 weeks – although that did feel strange – but I felt I needed to offer some explanation for why I was so off-colour; oh and, of course, the early morning crisps-and-diet-coke binges and the ridiculous stash of comfort food on my desk! 😆

Crisps, nuts, cookies, chocolate, fizzy sweets


As for how I feel about becoming a mum now, I can’t say my ambivalence has totally settled. It’s hard to feel excited when you’re feeling so rough, and there have definitely been some spells of “Oh my God what have we done?!”. But I’m glad it is happening. I am ready for this journey – or as ready as I’ll ever be 🙂 I surprised myself with a flood of adoration at the sight of our baby’s face in profile on the ultrasound. Those scan pictures never really meant much to me before, but it turns out when it’s a baby we have made together, it’s just so, so precious. Being given newborn clothes and other items by my mum has also triggered a peculiar rush of blissful disbelief – accompanied by a ramped-up dread of the worst happening, as if it is simply too much good fortune to really be happening to me. It’s never been easy to picture myself having a child, for many reasons; but it wasn’t easy to believe that buying a home or finding a job I could thrive in would happen either: at least a part of it is just my habitual belief that things I might want are out of my reach. I guess the silver lining of such a pessimism is how amazing it feels when it starts to look like you were wrong.

Posted in endometriosis, personal reflection, trying to conceive | Tagged , , , , , , | 15 Comments

A Muslim Reformation?

I recently read ‘Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now‘ by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The book is an attempt to persuade Western liberals to stop regarding Islamist violence as a politically-motivated aberration that has nothing to do with true Islam; to recognise that movements such as IS do in fact draw from the core texts and tenets of the religion, and that therefore, the only way to stop them proliferating is for Islam to undergo a Reformation in which the faith is reinterpreted and revised for the present day. In her view this would have to mean letting go of some core doctrines, such as belief in the Qur’an as the absolute and infallible word of God.

Well, I found the book frustratingly shallow. There was no recognition at all of the complex interplay between global politics and religion: she notes that Hassan al-Banna – who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – wanted a return to a precolonial era, but she does not discuss the effect of colonialism at all. She cites that “Pew found that 91 percent of Iraqi Muslims and 99 percent of Afghan Muslims supported making sharia their country’s official law”, noting that these countries “are considered to be transitioning to democracy” but failing to note the glaringly obvious thing these countries have in common: recent invasion by Western coalitions.

She is in thrall to the West, and seems to take a very rose-tinted view of its actions: she contrasts the cult of martyrdom in IS with “in the Judeo-Christian world … the concept of self-sacrifice as a noble act when it aims to preserve the lives of others. In the United States, we expect the men and women of our armed forces to be willing to die to protect their fellow citizens.” In other words, self-sacrifice in Islam is aggressive in nature while in the West it is benevolent and only concerned with saving others. This is laughable.

Her arguments about the nature of early Islam as a conquering, expanding empire, and the way that that has fused a political model into the religion, did ring true for me. It’s clear that IS is an attempt to recreate the Islamic empire of old, although I’m sure it is a mistaken one in many ways.

I think the legacy of the rise and decline of an Islamic imperial power also makes Western infractions – colonialism, greed-motivated invasions of oil-rich Muslim nations, support for the occupation of Palestine – sting all the worse for Muslims. It has left a sense of solidarity across the Muslim world that amplifies their grievances and deepens the fault line between East and West.

But Western nations are trying to hang on to a threatened hegemony too. In many ways I feel that the Muslim world holds a mirror up to the West and we don’t like what we see, but we refuse to recognise ourselves in it. There is a somewhat analogous pattern of solidarity across Western nations that shows itself in our huge, demonstrative sympathetic responses to terrorist attacks in Western countries (the flags overlaid on Facebook profile pictures and so on), and comparative silence over the continual attacks suffered in the rest of the world. We seem barely aware of this selective solidarity, let alone able to see it as a threatening thing. And yes, there are violent, extremist fringes in our crumbling empires too. The Brexit referendum has unleashed an ugliness that has shocked a lot of people.

There is a nastiness that comes with the memory of lost power. Moral superiority is easy when you’re still on top. We pride ourselves on our liberal tolerance, our practical shows of solidarity with the most marginalised, disadvantaged or oppressed groups; but to some extent, this is made possible by idealising those people in their powerlessness. As soon as they make a move to empower themselves in a way that makes us feel unsafe, we have a problem. For British liberals this can just as easily apply to disenfranchised, marginalised Brexit voters as to radical Islamists.

Having said that, though, I would certainly rather live in a country that clings to a liberal identity (however flawed and arrogant it may be) than one that clings to a religious identity.

And I suppose this gets at the heart of why I was drawn to read the book: I may be one of those “misguided” Western liberals that insists global power dynamics are relevant to discussions about terrorism and freedom of speech, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also agree with Ayaan in finding aspects of sharia law deeply problematic, and strongly value the rights afforded to women, gay people and religious minorities in the West. What should we do with these feelings? Is white guilt making Western liberals come up with too many excuses; is it even perhaps condescending to maintain that an equal exchange of ideas is not possible?

During the EU referendum campaign, technical arguments were rejected out of hand by many because they came from “elites” – that is, they came from power, and the desire to resist and take back power was stronger than anything else. If Muslim countries are increasingly adopting sharia as a reaction against Western imperialism, trying to restore a unifying identity and come out of the West’s shadow post-colonialism, what influence can non-Muslim Westerners possibly have? Does a Muslim Reformation only stand a chance if non-Muslims stay out of the conversation?


Posted in Humanism, politics, social justice | 3 Comments

On parenthood: longings and fears

Part of the magic of having a child for many people surely is underlining a union with a beloved partner – preserving it forever in the double helix, to borrow from a poetic Jewel lyric. The entwining goes beyond the partners to the wider family members. It is marvellous to think that a decision to have a child will mean the creation of many new loving familial bonds; that it means the creation of a grandchild, a niece or nephew, a cousin. Births are to be celebrated: they keep the family tree growing and dynamic; they counter-balance the onward march of ageing and death. Children bring joy because they feed the primary human meaning-making machine that is family, offering new promise of love, connection and growth.

It’s also a scary prospect. Differences and disagreements can come into sharp relief in the raising of a child. Moreover, having a child means a one-way ticket into an important lifelong relationship with a person you haven’t met yet! What if they turn out to be someone quite different from who you imagined? We all know profound relationships are a risky enterprise, that they have the potential to make us very happy or very unhappy – but we keep on taking the risk, I suppose because on a deeper level, they are simply what human life is all about.

Raising children is very resource-intensive. That’s what I find hardest to swallow about it. I have a tendency to feel my resources are scarce (which in many ways they are), and to be terrified of insufficiency. Money, time, energy and sleep are all things I never quite feel I have enough of. I crave security: I want to feel my resources are more than adequate for what is required of me. Going hand-in-hand with this is a craving for calm, order, clean, tidiness; a craving to have everything under control, a futile desire for completion in a life-process of constant flux.

I don’t feel good about these cravings – in fact I feel shame about them. They feel like weakness. But there’s no point denying that having a baby represents a major challenge for me. I catch myself in ridiculous thoughts like “the coat hooks are full of our coats, where on earth would we hang a child’s coats?” I’m continually testing my fitness for parenthood, cross-examining myself and finding myself lacking. For a year I’ve been pre-emptively dealing with all of the stress without getting any of the joy. I’m exhausted already!

These fears fan the flames of my passionate belief in equal parenting. I see the intensification of the mother role and heightened expectations of mothers over recent decades as unhealthy, imbalanced. (Actually, having just read Of Woman Born, maybe it’s not such a recent thing.) It’s hard knowing that I would face an uphill struggle against prevailing culture trying to stave off the worst of its prescriptions – although, part of me also relishes the chance to be at the forefront of change. 😉 But I’m aware that as a woman entering the institution of motherhood, I would all too easily find myself expending more of myself than my partner. I can only be realistic about that.

There is a difference between a mum and a dad. Anyone who has been raised by a mum and a dad knows this. It may not be biologically inevitable, but it is biologically kick-started by pregnancy, birth, and breast-feeding, and culturally perpetuated by the reality that mum will take a long period of leave from work and dad won’t (the new shared parental leave arrangements don’t go far enough to change that), and mum will probably be the one (if any) to work part-time, cementing her status as the principal parent who manages all practicalities and knows how to meet every need of her child. So close is the resulting emotional bond between a mum and child that the child’s happiness becomes a major focus of her life.

Many women want to be mothers precisely because this picture appeals to them; and many mothers wouldn’t have it any other way, saying the rewards along the way are worth every sacrifice. In many ways I’m sure I would love being ‘mum’ – and sometimes I get a glimpse of how amazing that might feel. I don’t feel that love is a scarce resource. I’m just afraid of being overwhelmed by the practical demands of life, and of losing ‘myself’, whoever that is. But then, I suppose I am as well-equipped to find the right balance as I could hope to be.

And I might be fighting a losing battle with an inner uptight control freak, but it doesn’t seem right to discount parenthood based on feeling temperamentally unsuited to the chaos a small child brings. It’s easy to forget that it’s a journey of diverse phases. You think your decision is to have a child but years later that child is gone and a teenager is in its place. You think your decision is to embrace “family life” but in the end that family grows up and leaves, and depending where they go and what they do, your day-to-day life might not look all that different from that of the couple next door who didn’t have a family. But you will have very different memories; you will have an adult child in your life; and you will have learned – and continue to learn – so many different things about the world through witnessing the unfolding of their life, through their presence in yours. A decision on parenthood is a decision on all of this.

There are people for whom decisions about parenthood, religious belief, or career choice are plain sailing. I have never been one of them. I take longer, more torturous routes through life’s questions. But that’s who I am… and it’s OK.

Posted in feminism, gender, personal reflection, trying to conceive | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

A trying process

I once wrestled with religion, as my longest readers may remember; I spent a period of my life figuring out what I believed, or could believe. Nowadays, I’m wrestling with motherhood – with whether I can, and whether I should. In many ways it’s a similar process. For one thing, it’s plagued by anxiety: I’ve somehow managed to maintain a near-paralysing level of fear about being a parent at the same time as becoming desperately fixated on seeing a positive pregnancy test. (My partner, meanwhile, suffers from neither affliction. Maddening!)

Early on, I scared myself by stumbling across ‘trying-to-conceive’ forums. These have a culture of ruminating obsession, where posters think nothing of writing about various intimate bodily signposts, in a cryptic, acronym-filled language that I couldn’t even understand. The single-minded desperation that was being expressed there was not something I could relate to, nor did I want to.

But perhaps part of my horror reaction was that I knew I had it in me to be like that. The uncertainty of when and if, coupled with the succeed-or-fail nature of the monthly cycle of trying, waiting, and checking – these are the ingredients for neurosis. I was already concerned about a baby changing my life, and here was evidence that it could take over my life in an unhealthy way long before it was even conceived!

Trying to conceive is essentially a monthly gamble, and a fixation on “winning” can grow into a monstrous, disproportionate thing. To make matters worse, you are rolling a dice whose weightings are completely unknown. Every month is a rollercoaster ride of heady hope followed by crushing disappointment and the horrible suspicion that the odds may be much worse than you first assumed.

Because after all, when you don’t want to get pregnant, you operate under the assumption that even one little lapse in protection will be bad news. When you throw the protection in the bin and nothing happens, it naturally leads to a sense that something must be wrong.

The early days were quite intense. I lay awake at night grappling with the enormity of the knowledge that I might become pregnant soon. I daydreamed about having good news to share. I awoke early with random butterflies of excitement, as if it was Christmas. I found myself upset and worried, after just two or three months of trying. This disturbed me a lot. It seemed so pathetic, and considering that even being in a position to be trying is a privilege I’d waited a long time for, it seemed wrong to be feeling anything negative at all. (Not that it’s ever been possible to shame myself into feeling more positive, but I always try…!)

But I got used to the routine, and no longer think much about it, except at key points in each cycle. I check for the surge in my luteinising hormone right before ovulation; always fun at work peeing into a cup and dipping the little stick in. I can usually forget about it all for the following two weeks, but the beginning of a new cycle is always a blow, no matter how much I know it’s coming by then. I don’t put myself through the torment of pregnancy tests any more, except when I am looking forward to a big glass of wine. 🙂

Unfortunately, prolonged uncertainty feels like instability. Every month is a fresh chance to change my mind and let the ever-present fears and doubts about parenthood get the better of me. They never actually do. But they go unchallenged, untested, and grow arms and legs and teeth. If I’d got pregnant when we first started trying, we’d have a baby by now, and I can’t help but think I’d be better off.

Instead, the clock ticks on, and I drift through life like a traveller stuck at an airport. I wake up on the weekend feeling empty and bleak, looking for anything I can occupy myself with that might feel a little bit worthwhile for a moment. I have become desperate for pregnancy, to relieve me from this suspended animation; to set me off on a journey again that, however frightening, will at least give me direction and purpose.

I couldn’t wait for the laparoscopy, which seemed like it would end this uncomfortable limbo. Clearly that hasn’t quite been the reality. It has made me aware, though, that it may not be enough to grit my teeth and wait like this. I may need to be prepared to undergo invasive medical procedures to have a chance of getting pregnant – and still live with considerable uncertainty and waiting.

Since it seems my drive to have a child only just trumped my doubts and fears to begin with, would a need for risky endometriosis excision be the final straw that breaks its back? Or is its tenacity in the face of so much fear just a sign that it cannot be snuffed out; that ultimately I will do almost anything I have to do to make it happen? I don’t know.

It just seems so unfair. The last thing this anxious over-thinker really needs is lots more time to anxiously over-think.

But I suppose this process can be thought of as a journey in itself, that, no matter the outcome, will teach me something about myself. Maybe I will come out the other side a little wiser, even a little happier. Here’s hoping.

Posted in endometriosis, personal reflection, trying to conceive | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments