A time to cry

It’s been a tough week.

I feel like I’m carrying a stone weight in my chest. Everything is hard. I cry often, but nothing seems to take away the pain at the centre of my being.

I know the diagnosis of autism for my son will be the best thing in the long run. It’s already helped.

But I’d kind of wrapped my head around it being ADHD. He is high functioning, and very affectionate (in an awkward, stick-insect kind of way) and I’d persuaded myself that ADHD was the answer to his rage, his argumentative streak, and the difficulties he was having in school. ADHD seemed more limited somehow, more manageable, its effects smaller (I know this is not always the case, but from my reading, children with ADHD who have high intelligence seem more able to develop coping strategies).

Autism was a shock. I still feel sometimes that it isn’t right … and then my son has a complete meltdown, screaming on the living room floor, and I know this isn’t typical 11-year-old behaviour by a long stretch.

I’m aware that I’m grieving. Tears. Denial. Anger. Depression. Yup.

I feel a little guilty saying it. I know there are children with autism who are non-verbal, who will always need full-time care, and whose successes will be things we all take for granted. I know that J has high intelligence, and is likely to be able to go to university and get a decent job. For someone with autism, he has every advantage. His prognosis is as good as it could be, in one sense.

But then I look at my family. I look at everything we’ve lost over the last 11 years. I think of the rows, the frustration, the things we’ve not been able to do because of J. I know that this is going to continue now. Things are not going to get better.

I’m sad. I’m sad for me. This is not what I wanted, when I imagined motherhood. I didn’t want a child who woke me through the night until he was seven, and who still, at times, wakes me for unreasonable reasons, so that I’m often tired and irritable. I didn’t want a child who is obsessed with screens, and Sonic the Hedgehog, and who is unwilling to try new things, even things he knows he would enjoy. I didn’t want a child who has to be persuaded every night that, yes, he must do his teeth; and yes, he must wash.

I’m sad for my other children. I didn’t want family trips out to be made miserable by one child who complains the whole time because they didn’t want to come, even though if we’d stayed at home he would have been bored and miserable. I didn’t want some family trips to just not happen because the thought of going to a theme park and queuing and managing J’s impatience and disappointment, as well as two other children, just felt like too much. I didn’t want family games to always be an exercise in behaviour management, and to often end in pieces being thrown across the room, and doors being slammed, because J didn’t win.

I didn’t want my desires and longings for motherhood to be slowly eroded until I feel I don’t want to do this any more.

I didn’t want to write this blog.

But you know, all this week, I’ve felt this permission in my heart, from my Father, to grieve. It’s almost like he’s sitting with me, saying, “I know. It’s ok. This isn’t how it’s meant to be.”

Because he of all people knows that this world isn’t the way it was meant to be. He sent his own Son, after all, to bear all our griefs. He has had his own heart broken too.

The book of Psalms has many songs of lament. I’ve read them often. They give words to pray when words are hard to find. Most lead us to a positive end, affirming God’s good power, and our hope that good will prevail in the end.

One ends with the sombre words, “Darkness is my closest friend”.

I’ve often returned to Psalm 88 and wondered why it ends in darkness.

I think it gives us permission to grieve when we know things are not going to get better. J is not going to get better. This will afflict him and us for the rest of his life. It may well be that I, as his mother, suffer more than him, watching him live a different life. I hope that’s the case. But he may suffer much too. He may want to get married but be unable to find someone to accept him. He may want close friends, but be unable to connect to people meaningfully. He may have close friends and lose them, because of his social ineptitude.

This is my Psalm 88. I will blog another time about hope, about God’s goodness, about the rainbows he is painting through this storm.

But right now I am sad. Right now I am angry. Right now I need to cry.

And if you are dealing with hard, hard things, know that it is ok for you to cry too. God is listening.

Not alone

My oldest son was diagnosed with autism on Tuesday.

I don’t quite know what to do with the diagnosis yet. It sits in my chest like a stone, hard, heavy, painful.

He’s been under the neuro-developmental team for 18 months, and we’ve known for at least three years that there was something going on. We’d kind of wrapped our heads around it being ADD, and felt he had some autistic traits, but because he’s doing so well academically, I suppose we had ruled out a diagnosis of autism.

And I’ve realised that I’m the kind of person that holds onto hope, however unlikely it seems. I want to believe the best, I want things to work out, sometimes to the point where I won’t accept the obvious fact that something isn’t working out.

I mean, when your 11 year old is rolling round on the living room floor, crying and screaming because you’ve told him he can’t have any more X-box, you’d think it would be obvious that something was not quite right.

Still, it’s hard to accept. He’s my son. I want the best for him. I want a happy, simple life for him, with a good job, marriage, kids.

Suddenly all those things are looking less likely, perhaps even less possible.

So I’ve come back to this blog (after a looong break) to try to process it all. I suppose I’m aware that lots of other mums are going through the same thing, and will go through it in the future. By putting my journey of acceptance out there, then perhaps I’ll help someone else.

After the meeting with the consultant, after driving my son home and picking my other kids up, and cooking tea … my first big concern was how autism would affect my son’s acceptance of Jesus and the gospel.

We’ve already encountered some problems. I mean, he has a really hard time accepting that he might be wrong, so wrapping his head around personal sinfulness might be hard. He seems to struggle to engage with the church service (we go to a more charismatic-leaning church at the moment, so emotions are high on the agenda) … he doesn’t like to sing, and just wants to draw Sonic the Hedgehog through the sermon. He also checks out during our family worship times, or cracks silly jokes and distracts his brother and sister.

Can he even become a Christian, I feared. The obstacles just seem too high for him.

Almost immediately I felt the reassurance of God. Nothing is too hard for Jesus. He has defeated death, sin, hell, Satan. Autism is no obstacle to him.

Jesus can save my son. It’s a spiritual work, not mental or emotional (though of course the Holy Spirit will transform those things as he works). And maybe my son will always struggle with aspects of church and spirituality. But Jesus has a special place in his heart for the broken, the weak.

So my first fear was laid to rest.

 

My heart for you, if you are a fellow mother, struggling to accept your child’s future, is for you to press closer to Jesus. He is so strong, so good, so kind. I know it might not feel that way right now. But he is. He will sit with you while you weep; he’ll weep with you in fact. He knows this world is not the way it should be. You are not alone.

 

Boredom Bingo

One of the things I’m attempting at the moment is to work out the major stresses in our family, and then to try to implement solutions. I’m finding that often the problems are more to do with my attitudes than anything else … however I did work out that my son repeatedly asking for screen-time was a major stress on me.

I’ve always been a bit leery of screens. They seem to me to be the equivalent of fast-food for the brain. Growing up, we only had two channels and they only showed kids TV for two hours a day. So at most I’d watch an hour of TV a day, and an occasional film. I was quite happy writing, drawing, and playing with toys or friends.

Son#1 however, absolutely loves screens. This seems to be characteristic of ADHD – after all, exciting TV and video games require little effort in terms of concentration, and can provide a lot of the stimulation people with ADHD crave.

So I understand the magnetic attraction my son feels for screens. What I find really hard to cope with is his apparent inability to entertain himself without a screen.

During the school holidays and weekends he follows me around asking for more X-box, TV, or games on the kindle. He disputes the rules we had clearly established about screen time during the holidays. He is relentless in this, and as an introvert I find his constant demands for attention and screens exhausting. So we have come up with Boredom Bingo!

112 Jonathan's castle

I wrote out a long list of activities that are alternatives to screens. I was careful to involve activities that require Son#1 to think of someone else’s needs and preferences, not just his own – so one is ‘plan a day out for your little sister’, and another is ‘make a card for someone who needs cheering up’. I also wanted him to have some activities that were chores, like putting away toys.

20161001_102638The idea is that any time he feels bored, or when it is not screen time, instead of asking me for screens he can pick an activity off the boredom bingo sheet. When he completes the sheet he gets a small prize (like a bar of chocolate – nothing too expensive!) I’ve put sixteen activities on one sheet, so it should take him at least a week to complete it. He gets the immediate reward of ticking off the activity (or you could offer stickers to a younger child); and the incentive of the reward at the end of the sheet. He also gets the reward of feeling that he has achieved something.

And hopefully, I’ll get a break from the arguments over screen time!

Here’s the link to the pdf if you want to steal the idea for your own family 🙂

boredom bingo

Thoughts from the pit

I had such a strong vision of how our family was going to be. Thirteen years ago when I said, “I do”, I thought we would have a tribe of happy children, gathered peacefully around the table. With Christmas coming, my vision turns to games played around the fire, stories shared with food, children listening as we whisper the reason for the lights and presents, the joy that we have a Saviour.

I know now that this was an ideal, even in ordinary families. The peace is disrupted by sin, selfishness, illness, and tiredness. Those moments of peace and joy, when they come, are precious.

I think the past ten years have been God slowly prying my fingers loose from my vision. I cling on tightly, because this is what we have been taught to want. Peace, happiness, gently glowing fairy lights and thankful faces.

I think God has a different vision. And now that we have accepted that our oldest son actually has some pretty deep issues, I’ve been working through a process of mourning my vision, and learning to accept and live in what God, in his wisdom, has given instead.

God’s vision is one of self-sacrifice, where we learn to make space for other peoples’ difficulties and differences. It hurts. It means that maybe our family worship times have to be short, snappy, fun, rather than slow, deep and thoughtful. But you know what, that’s where my husband excels. So maybe God’s vision is also one where I learn to let go of control a bit more.

God’s vision is one of forgiveness, where we walk the hard road of saying, “You hurt me, but I’ll accept the pain of that rather than break our relationship”. We are walking with him in this, following the footsteps of Jesus.

God’s vision is one of love, where we show kindness when we are reviled, patience when faced with ingratitude, and persistent generosity when our efforts go unrecognised. We could not learn these things so well if life was always easy, if our children were always obedient and thankful.

If I have learned one thing in this life it is that the harder road is always the better one, though it may hurt. The best things of God are those won through pain, through trial. Just as the best views are found at the top of a rugged mountain path, the greatest love is found through sacrifice.

God knew this. It’s why he allowed sin into the world. It’s why he sent his Son to live here, instead of remaining in perfect peace and joy in heaven. It’s why he allowed us to crucify his deeply loved Son, so that the whole Trinity could enter our brokenness and love to the fullest measure.

God seeks to draw us up into his higher life, his life of sacrificial love, his life of forgiveness and mercy. Will I still fight him? Or will I embrace the opportunities he has given me to experience deeper love, deeper forgiveness, deeper grace?

Running Joy

I must start with a disclaimer. I don’t run. I am bad at it. I imagine I look like a string puppet from behind. Apparently my feet don’t pace evenly but randomly, like a penguin. Or so my loving husband tells me.

However, in my days of yore I took part in cross country races. (I always came last. Long-legged boys from older classes would leap past me, gazelle-like, splattering me with mud as I picked my way around the bogs, trying to avoid wet feet.) Follow the path at your feet

I like the idea of running; but I’m just not good at it. And I’m ok with that. I enjoy other sports instead like badminton and the school run.

So why am I writing about running?

I know this blog is about joy but bear with me for a few paragraphs. I’m kind of in a boggy place right now, in terms of joy and spiritual life. I suppose it reminded me of those old cross country runs, slogging along wet gravel paths, trying to find the least slippery way through the mud, that feeling of not enough air, of pushing your legs to take one more step. One more step. One more step.

I haven’t slept through the night for nine months now. BabyGirl sleeps. But I lie awake, trying not to think about irony, or how I’m going to survive the next day, and how much damage I’m doing to my children my being grumpy and exhausted all the time.

It’s a slog. Reading the Bible is painful. Praying just ends up in a vague mess of tears and pleas for help which so often seem to go unanswered.

And it struck me that when the Apostle Paul described life as a race, he meant a marathon, not a sprint. There are times when your frozen legs feel like lead, the wind is in your face, hail is stinging your cheeks and other runners are passing you. It feels like you’re not going to make it. You’re wondering why you entered this race in the first place.

I’m tired. I’m irritable. I’m angry with myself for letting my short temper and impatience get the better of me again and again. I’m frustrated that I cannot hold onto God more firmly, or make more room for the Holy Spirit to work in me, or let the life of Jesus into my home through me.

Where is my joy? I’ll be honest … right now, it’s a damp little flicker that seems to be failing against the dark.

I know I’m not the only one. Which is why I’m being open about it. This blog is about joy, but I always wanted it to be clear that there is joy for the hard days as well as the days when the sun shines and running is all downhill. In fact, there is joy especially for those days.

There is joy in knowing I’m flexing spiritual muscles, even though it hurts. I’m learning to give myself up for my children, to be more humble, more sacrificial, more like my wonderful Jesus. It’s tiny baby steps. But it’s progress.

There is joy in knowing that I’m loved even here, even now. Even when I’ve nagged the husband, and berated the kids, and lost my temper, and told God that he isn’t being fair, stamped my spiritual feet and told him that he’s asking too much. (To which he softly replies, “Too much?” And holds out his wounded hands).

There is joy in kneeling at the cross and reminding myself of the forgiveness that is mine. The grace that is poured on me to start again tomorrow as if today never happened.

And soon the sun will be out, and the path will be dry at my feet, and that finish line will be visible on the horizon.15 View from Garden

I’m still alive …

I’ve been rather quiet lately … the stork paid our home a visit four months ago, and our new BabyGirl has kept me very busy!

12 Pembroke
Motherhood

The arrival of a baby into a family is an occasion of both overwhelming joy and stress at the same time. My emotions have run into peaks of love and delight and valleys of despair and anxiety these past months. I have understood the meaning of God as my rock as I have so desperately needed a constant, a level surface under my feet. Emotions are like breakers, threatening to sweep me away.

In times of stress it is so easy to cling to the old lie – “things will be better when …”

I place my hope in a change in circumstances, looking forward to easier days. But this is a false hope. Easier circumstances would relieve some pressure, but our calling in this life is not to seek ease or mere happiness. We are on a quest for joy, and the Bible assures us that joy is found in service and sacrifice, and in knowing Jesus better, not in comfort or ease.

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve. Mark 10:43-45

Prayer has been particularly hard as hormones and sleep deprivation turn my brain to cotton wool. I have found great peace in simply offering my day to the Lord at its start, determining to serve him, my husband and children, trusting him to provide the strength.

My default is to panic when I have a poor night’s sleep. My automatic thought is, “I won’t cope tomorrow”. And of course it is harder to cope with two rowdy, challenging boys and a new baby with less sleep. However, the discipline of pausing that thought and reminding myself that my loving Father has provided me with the right amount of sleep, and that he will provide me with the grace to cope, has brought great peace and blessing.

It is a discipline, though, and many days I fail.

What are you struggling with at the moment? Are you waiting for comfort and ease? May I encourage you instead to look to Jesus for your strength and joy, and to determine to trust him to provide for you what you need for today, to do the work he has given you to do.

Motherhood … a privilege?

There is a trend at the moment to be really ‘honest’ as a parent. What this means is, we talk about how hard and horrible it is to be a parent and how annoying children can be, and call it being candid or brave.

There is a tendancy to view children as an interruption, their demanding baby stage as something ‘to be got through’, and we make every effort to minimise the disruption children bring to adult life by using nurseries, nannies, and doing everything we can to get our babies to sleep so that we can go back to ‘normal life’ as quickly as possible.

'Helping'
‘Helping’

While I find it helpful sometimes to talk with other parents and realise that I am not the only one who struggles with my temper, whose kids won’t put their shoes on when asked and interrupt conversations … I feel we are looking at only one side of the coin.

I talked to my mum about this the other day. She had a really good career in the civil service before I came along. She was gradually being promoted up the ranks, and when she fell pregnant actually had the higher wage out of my parents. In modern terms, it made no sense for her to give up work and stay home.

But that’s what she did. She gave up her career, a comfortable wage, and her independence, and stayed at home full time. I asked her if she ever regretted it, or missed working. I expected some wistfulness perhaps, or some words about being glad to give it up because she knew it was the right thing.

“Not at all,” she said. “I loved being at home.”

That’s all very well, a modern mum might argue. If someone loves being at home then great, that’s lovely for her and for her children. But not for me – I need to work, I need more than just caring for children.

But my mum didn’t stop there. She explained why she loved giving up a good career and staying at home full time with disobedient, frustrating kids (and believe me, I could be frustrating – I refused to go to sleep alone until I was well over three, and I would not wear wrinkled socks – my shoes had to be taken off and on until there were no wrinkles at all).

“Being a mother is an honour,” she exclaimed with passion. “These children have been entrusted to you. It’s a great blessing to be there to raise them and teach them.”

Wow. I don’t think anyone has ever said that to me in almost seven years of parenting. People have said how hard it is, how demanding, how it sucks the life out of you and leaves you with stretch-marks, bags under your eyes, and nothing resembling a life.

No one ever called it an honour. A privilege. A blessing.

My mum did a great deal that day to restore my sense of mission in motherhood. Before I had kids I wanted to be a good parent. I saw children as a blessing. But somehow over the years, the lack of sleep and our children’s resistance to love and discipline, not to mention the negative comments in the media and from other people, all ground me down until I wearily resigned myself to another fifteen years or so of not doing the things I loved, and perhaps working at a low-grade job for a few hours a week so that we could afford to pay for a holiday abroad, or university fees.

Amazing what a few words can do. I fully acknowledge that motherhood can feel like drudgery. It is hard work. It demands more than I feel I can give most days.

But I remind myself that I am honoured to bring new life into this world. I feel that more than ever right now as my little girl moves within me. Yes, pregnancy comes with pain and nausea and discomfort but also incredible blessing. I get to give life to someone. To three Someones, with souls and personality and potential to bring great joy into this world.

I remind myself that I am privileged to be one of the most significant people in the life of three human beings. It is my words that will guide my children to success or failure, to good character or weakness. It is my hands that will teach them kindness and love. It is my arms that will embrace them, my belief that will inspire them, my faith that will encourage them.

I remind myself that children are a blessing. They are a gift, not a right. There are thousands of women who would give anything to be woken tonight by the cries of a newborn, but who will sleep soundly because their womb remains empty, or because their baby never came home.

The needs and demands of my children, their mess, their disorganisation, their interruptions – these are blessings too. They have taught me more love and patience than I would ever have otherwise learned. I am so far from perfect but my children have also taught me about forgiveness. I can scream at them in the morning because they have not put their shoes on despite being asked seven times … yet at three o’ clock my son runs out to hug me as if I was the best person in the whole world.

And to him, for now, I am. To him I am the most beautiful woman, the best cook, the best mummy in the world. I’ll take that award.

46 Bute Park Zach took this

So although I think it is helpful to acknowledge that motherhood is hard (in fact, soul-achingly painful at times) … let’s also remember that we are honoured, privileged, blessed. Yes, immense self-sacrifice is involved, but that is our gift to give. Our love, our advice, our support will make a world of difference to the next generation. Let us rise to the challenge and not be afraid.

Good for all the wrong reasons

Last night we ate TV in front of a film. We don’t often do this as a family, but it was late and I’d had an exhausting day. Bedtime came, the film wasn’t finished, but Daddy turned it off anyway as it was bathtime.

“NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

This is not my four-year-old. This is my oldest son, soon to be seven.

He wants to finish the film (though we’d warned him it wasn’t likely to happen at the start).

He wants more to eat.

He doesn’t want a bath.

His angry protests used to shock me, baffle me, send me running to my parenting books full of anxiety about spectrums and syndromes. I’d dredge google for the one article which would explain how to stop my son from rebelling against every single directive we gave him (from ‘brush your teeth now’ to ‘don’t hit mummy’).

Now my husband and I just exchange weary glances. Whose turn is it to field this new ten minute battle to get our son to comply?

Then son#2 pipes up.

“Ok, Daddy,” he says, as virtuously as a four-year-old covered in ice cream and sprinkles can.

At one level, I hear trumpets and angels singing.

Obedience! Compliance! Eagerness to please! This is what I expected in a small child (with pockets of rebellion). Not one long war since the age of 2.

So why does son#2’s response fill me with unease?

I think it’s because, about thirty seconds later (punctuated with machine-gun fired ‘no’s from son#1) he said, “I’m not shouting, Mummy. I said ‘ok’.”

My son is being good. I should be pleased. I am pleased.

But he is being good for all the wrong reasons.

 * * * * *

We have sneaky, deceitful hearts. Those of us who cling to the notion that there is good in everyone just waiting to be tickled delightfully to life need a reality check.

I know just from looking at myself that my heart is like a giant pit. Light falls into the top and it looks ok. A bit dusty, a bit cluttered, but nothing too nasty. When I dare to delve deeper I find corners as black as pitch, and like tangled necklaces I find, with my love of helping people, other desires, like wanting to look good, a craving for praise and adulation, and just basic selfishness. Our motives are so mixed it can be hard to separate the good from the bad.

It was the Pharisees, who did all the right things, that Jesus opposed far more than the prostitutes and swindlers who came to him for help.

if I give my body to be burned, but have not love, I am nothing

Son#1’s sin is obvious. It is in-your-face, bare-faced rebellion.

Son#2 is outwardly a fairly good child. He is mischievous sometimes but his worst faults, at the moment, are mostly passive – forgetfulness, carelessness, impulsiveness. But self-righteousness?

These are big words. Hard to use on a four-year-old. In truth, his sins are seedlings, in their infancy. If I am able to train him conscientiously, many will not grow to a great height and he may learn to do good instead of evil.

But I want him to do good for the right reasons. I want him to seek to please God, not people, not even me and my husband. I want him to do good for love of goodness itself, not for selfish reasons.

* * * * *

This cultivating of little souls leaves me often overwhelmed, often out of my depth, often clutching for those certainties I thought I had before the reality of life with children swept all my parenting ideals out to sea.

But it also reveals much deeper truth and joy than I ever imagined. It reveals my own soul to me. I am both my children in my relationship to my Father.

I rebel. I scream ‘no!’ in the heavenly face. I pummel with my puny fists against the everlasting arms and I tantrum when the will of God dares to go against mine.

But I also have days when I manage, somehow, to do something good and then immediately I am tugging on my Father’s sleeve. “See? Look what I did!”

And more often than not it is like the time my children called me out into the garden to see their ‘work’. With beaming faces they showed me a pit of sodden mud, grass and stones which they had created.

They had forgotten that stones are not to be mixed in the flower bed, and that they must not play with the outside tap. They conveniently overlooked the black mud caked on their shoes, streaking their clothes, oozing between their fingers and smeared all over their faces. They honestly expected me to be overflowing with admiration.

We all walk this tightrope between willfulness and self-righteousness.

It is the cross which keeps us balanced. I look at Jesus and find forgiveness for all my rebellion, hope that I might learn submission like his which says ‘not my will but yours’.

I look at Jesus and cannot possibly hold onto pride. However much good I do it will always be mud-smeared and mixed with selfishness compared to his pure, burning love and utter self-sacrifice.

So I try, on my best days, to stop picking at my children’s outward behaviour. I try to take their gaze off themselves, and turn them to him. I try to do the same myself.

My Breastfeeding Story

This follows on from this post. It was meant to be my next post but Easter got in the way!

 

When I fell pregnant with my first son, I planned to breastfeed. I looked forward to it. My mother had breastfed all three of her daughters without any fuss, and I expected to just take to it. It was natural, after all, and none of the pregnancy books/magazines/websites suggested that it would be anything other than a natural and easy experience.

My son’s birth was designed to shake me from my determination to control and be the best at everything. I developed pre-eclampsia and he had to be born ten weeks early by emergency caesarean (instead of full-term in water, as I’d planned).

All my expectations were shattered, including the joy of breastfeeding. I didn’t even get to see him for twenty-four hours, and after that my physical contact with him was severely limited. My milk supply dwindled, despite hours spent with my ‘mean green milking machine’ (as my sisters dubbed the hospital’s breast pump), and after three months I gave up in tears.

I quickly realised that formula was the best option for me and my son, and managed to let go of the guilt.

Then two years later I was pregnant again. After we clocked up more than thirty weeks of pregnancy and began to grasp with relief that this baby would not arrive prematurely, I was ready to breastfeed again. This time, I assumed, all would be straightforward.

However, this was no picnic either. My milk came in late, and we spent one night trying to console a screaming baby who could only get dribbles of colostrum from me. We gave him formula in the end, using a sterilised spoon to avoid the horrors of ‘nipple confusion’.

Eventually my milk came in, but our son was still struggling to latch properly. We spent the first three or four weeks of his life visiting different breastfeeding support groups, when really I needed to be resting. Eventually one lactation consultant realised that our son had a tongue-tie (when the connection between the tongue and the floor of the mouth is too tight). Another trip out to the hospital to get his tongue clipped, and finally we made some improvement.

It was still another few weeks before we really got the hang of it. Those were long, exhausting months. Feeds could last as long as an hour.

So to spare other mothers the agony of struggling to feed for weeks, and finally giving up (I was literally hours away from throwing in the towel) here are my tips for breastfeeding:

Recognise early on that this may not be easy. Some mums and babies take to it like ducks to water, but for many it is a painful learning experience!

Get skin-to-skin contact and establish breastfeeding as early as possible, ideally in the moments after birth. Make sure your partner and midwife know that you want this, or your baby will be plonked on top of your nightie, and everyone will forget about trying him on the nipple once the post-labour nausea and exhaustion kick in. It was several hours before I tried my son on the nipple, and I’m sure that affected how he took to it.

Get support. Ask other women who have breastfed for their tips and support. Have your partner, your mother or a good friend with you when you are shown how your baby should latch on – it is very difficult to see yourself whether your baby has a good latch. It was my husband who would tell me the latch was not correct, and insist I disengage our son and try again. Without his support, I would not have been able to feed correctly, I would probably have developed mastitis, and been forced to give up.

Mastitis is an infection of the milk ducts. Basically, if your breast is not properly drained during feeds then your milk ducts can become blocked and infected. The way to prevent this is firstly to ensure your baby is latching correctly. Secondly, if you notice hard, sore lumps developing in your breast apply a warm flannel to the area and gently massage them to loosen them and push the milk down to the nipple. Express (by hand or machine) to ensure the milk flows again.

If your breasts are cracked, bleeding and sore you can buy nipple shields for a few pounds to give your nipples a break for a few days. This can also help with a poor latch. If you are in serious pain, I honestly do not think it will hurt to give your baby expressed milk or formula for a day or two, from a bottle, in order to give your body a chance to heal. Don’t give up expressing though (you may find hand expressing less painful) or you risk developing mastitis.

If your baby is frantic and cannot latch on because he or she is too hungry, don’t be afraid to give them a small drink of expressed breastmilk or formula from a bottle that they can calm down enough to take the nipple. I know all the midwives are screaming out ‘nipple confusion’ but in my opinion the risk of this is overstated. If you gave your baby a bottle every feed for a couple of days you might find a problem, but the odd bottle here or there isn’t going to make much difference.

Babies are forgetful. You will have one amazing feed when they latch on perfectly and take a full feed without a fuss. Then the next time you feed they will gape and suck half-heartedly, fall of the breast, and generally go back to being newborn and having no idea how to latch on. Until they are at least six weeks old they aren’t aware of patterns, and so expect them to be erratic in just about everything.

Some mums I know have found their baby loses weight on breastmilk. This may be because the mother produces poor quality milk, in which case formula is the best option. However, I suspect sometimes this is because of the general advice offered about breastfeeding which is the worst advice ever: “Ten minutes on each side”.  I know of no newborn who can drain a breast in ten minutes, leaving mum at risk of mastitis; and also this completely ignores the way milk is produced. The first milk the baby takes is quite thin, almost watery. As the baby drinks the milk becomes richer and thicker, contains more calories, and is more filling for baby. It is very important to give your baby one breast and let them drink until it is empty. Then offer the second breast to top them up and let them drink until they stop. This may take as much as forty minutes with a newborn as they are weak and fall asleep often (keep waking them!) As baby gets more efficient then you may find ten minutes is enough. However, in the early weeks that is not nearly long enough. Ensure you alternate which breast you offer first between feeds so that each side is drained every other feed.

Rest. Mothers today seem to feel they must get back to normal as quickly as possible. For some women this seems to be perfectly fine – a couple of my friends seem quite capable of going grocery shopping within days of giving birth, and if this is you then enjoy it and be thankful! For most mums I know, pregnancy and birth strips them of strength, vitamins and energy. Feeding a baby requires all those things, and rest is essential. If you are using up all your energy on housework, chores and visiting friends then your body will be slower to repair and will be trying to preserve calories instead of giving them to your baby. Rest. Rest and rest. Take naps with your baby (be rude to visitors if necessary). Hang a sign on your door asking visitors to call during hours convenient to you. Eat takeaway and ready meals for as long as you need to. Take long baths. Catch up on TV shows while you breastfeed. Listen to the Bible or sermons. Sit. You and your body have earned it. For the first few weeks I noticed a huge difference in my milk supply on the days when we were busy and I was rushing around.

Eat. Now is not the time to worry about losing your baby weight. There will be plenty of time to do that later, and establishing breastfeeding will help more than counting calories now. Breastfeeding takes an enormous amount of energy – 2,500 calories is your recommended intake. I lost 1lb a week while feeding my son and I enjoyed cake, ice cream and chocolate daily. It was the best diet I have ever been on! Mothers make a mistake eating low fat food during these early weeks. Right now your body and your baby need good amounts of healthy fat (cheese, lean meat, butter, whole milk). Enjoy guilt-free eating for the first three to six months!

 

Drink. Have a glass of water to hand when you sit down to feed your baby. You will find thirst hits you often in the early weeks.

 

Take your time and relax. Breastfeeding is God’s way of giving new mothers regular forty minute rests through the day when your body needs it! Don’t feel guilty about the laundry, dishes and hoovering. Those can wait. After a few weeks your baby will be much more efficient and feeding will take less time. Right now, you and your baby are in the best place on the sofa or in bed. Enjoy the intimacy and a valid excuse to put your feet up. Within a few weeks you will be longing for that excuse!

 

Be determined. Breastfeeding, especially early on, can feel endless and a waste of time, but I promise you that if you persevere it is far easier and less time consuming than formula feeding. I remember feeling so disheartened after putting my first son to bed each evening, and then facing a mound of bottles to be washed and sterilised, when all I wanted to do was sit down and rest. With breastfeeding I could put my son to bed and enjoy my evening. When he woke in the night I could pick him up before he began properly crying, pop him onto the breast and fall asleep while he fed in bed next to me, then stir to put him back in his cot (once he was about three months old and we had established feeding). With my first son night feeds were desperate. I’d scramble to find my dressing gown, stagger downstairs and find a safe place to put him while I warmed the bottle and his cries escalated to hysteria. Sometimes I’d overheat the bottle and stand in a panic running it under a cold tap while he screamed. By the time he’d fed, I’d be more awake than asleep and would often lie awake until his next feed. What I’m trying to say is, if you persevere through the early weeks, breastfeeding becomes easier than formula.

 

I just want to end by returning to the theme of this blog – life to the full. Neither breast nor formula feeding feels like ‘life to the full’. Either way baby wakes you through the night, and sometimes wants to feed all day. Either way you are exhausted and pushed to your limits, physically and emotionally. Parenting is an exercise in self-sacrifice. But, to quote my favourite person, “Whoever would hold onto his life will lose it; whoever gives up his life for me will save it”. By raising a child in love, for Jesus, you are spending your life in a worthwhile way, and you will find it full of joy.

 * * * * *

My favourite feeds with my second son were the night feeds. I had terrible post-natal depression, and the first six months of his life are mostly a black hole in my memory. Apart from the night feeds when we would sit, just him and me, enclosed from the darkness in lamplight, and I would pray.

Guilt-free Parenting (4) – what does it look like?

This blog entry has been written and reworked about ten times this week. I’m really struggling to expand on what I mean by ‘what is the most loving thing?’

You’d think it would be obvious, but in my personal experience, and in observing other parents first hand (and on forums and other blogs) I have come to see that our motives as parents are often veiled, even to ourselves. We can think we are loving our children, when we are not.

I think the best way I can do this is to offer examples from my own parenting experience to illustrate what I mean. What I don’t want is for anyone to feel I am judging them for their parenting decisions – I recognise that for most of us, parenting is done in survival mode, and often our decisions are born out of sheer desperation!

When I first became a parent I was determined to be the best parent I could be. This, I think, is probably what most of us aim for. No one cradles their first child and thinks, “Well, now my life has changed. I’m going to be a safely average parent.”

However, speaking personally at least, my motive included a hefty dose of pride. I didn’t see this at the time. I thought I just wanted what was best for my baby (and I did, but this was at least equally matched by pride). The pride was first in my belief in my ability to be the perfect parent (I had no idea that tiredness and the nature of children would reveal a new level of impatience and selfishness in myself); and secondly in my desire to be the perfect parent. I wanted to be admired and looked up to as a good mum. I wanted my children to be glad they had me; my husband to see what a great mother I was; and I wanted other people to ask me for advice because I had such lovely, well-behaved, securely attached children.

Oh I’m blushing now. Such honesty has come through years of falling again and again to my quick temper, my impatience, and just basic selfishness that doesn’t want to play cars or talk about lego spaceships, but wants to check facebook for the tenth time this morning (or just finish a cup of coffee without having to get up to wipe someone’s backside, for pete’s sake!)

Looking back, many of my choices were a mixture of pride and love. I did genuinely want the best for my babies, and still do, but mixed in with that is that pride at being a ‘good parent’, and also a desire for my own fulfilment.

What I mean is that I believed having children would bring me fulfilment, and make my life complete. (If you read a bit of my blog you’ll understand that a strong driving force in my life has been a desire for ‘life to the full’). What I believed would fulfil me was being the best parent ever. This led to a skewed decision making process, where I put the interests of my baby above my husband, and my own physical and mental health. That’s what a good mother does, I thought, and I was determined to be a good mother. It also led to a great deal of disillusionment as my children, far from fulfilling me, drained me of all energy and happiness and left me an exhausted, gibbering shell.

One way I thought I was being loving was because I couldn’t bear to leave my sons to cry. I had read all the blogs and books which labelled ‘crying it out’ as cruel. How could I leave my helpless baby to cry alone in the dark? All he wanted was his mummy. But I was exhausted and unable to function because of sleep-deprivation.

Now, there is a huge difference between a baby under three months of age, who is still learning to trust his caregiver and who is still disorganised in their sleep rhythm, and a baby of six months and older, who usually is getting enough nutrition during the day to no longer need milk at night, but who also now is securely attached to their parents and knows their needs will be met. There is also a huge difference between the child who is very anxious and needs a great deal of reassurance and close contact with his parents, and the baby who has just become used to a habit of falling asleep that is now disruptive to the family.

Let me explain – my two sons were bad at falling to sleep. Neither of them would willingly just lie there, close their eyes and drop off. Those cute pictures of babies who have fallen asleep in their high chairs are a mystery to me. My boys fought sleep. The only time they fell asleep without protest was in the pram or car. (And yes, we tried swaddling, dummies, patting, picking up and putting them down. In fact we could probably write a book of ideas to try to get your baby to sleep.)

With my eldest we got into the habit of rocking him to sleep. We had read the books and knew it was a rod for our backs in the making, but there was no other way he’d sleep when he was tiny. It’s time together, I tried to tell myself, bouncing around in a darkened room at 8 p.m. … though all I really wanted was to sit down on the sofa and not move for two hours. However, when he got to nine months old and woke every night at 2, 3 and 5 a.m. to be rocked back to sleep, and when he got too heavy for me to do it (we had been taking shifts) my husband put his foot down. (Did I mention that the rocking had to be done standing up? If we sat down our son would scream blue murder).

Basically, we were held hostage by a nine month old baby.

Again, looking back, my motives were mixed, but had a great deal of selfishness in them. I couldn’t bear to leave my baby to cry – the reason was partly because I feared we were refusing a need for comfort, but also a great deal of it was because I was protecting myself. I didn’t want to feel upset because he was crying.

Again, I want to stress that there is a huge difference between the crying of a four-month old baby, for example, and a nine-month old. My son was waking because he wanted to be rocked, not because he needed us. We realised this because he would quite happily settle if we rocked him in his car seat and not in our arms. It was the motion he wanted, not reassurance or physical comfort.

And his want (not need) was making us exhausted, irritable, and resentful.

Having left him to cry himself to sleep for a few nights, I realised that this had been a good decision. We all needed a good night’s sleep, our son included. He just needed to realise that it was possible to fall asleep without being rocked. His cries (which lasted 40 minutes the first night, 30 the second, and then gradually tailed off until he would moan for about ten minutes each night) were an angry protest, not distress. I should also add that my husband would go in to check him every ten minutes or so, until we realised that this was actually upsetting our boy more. He settled more quickly and with less crying if we just left him to it (listening out for that hysterical, I need you cry).

The joy of the ‘loving’ principle is that it will look differently with each family. The key is knowing your child, and knowing yourself. If my child is anxious and needy (some babies just are) then it would not be loving to leave them to cry at any age. If my child is demanding and whiny then it is loving to teach them that they are not the centre of the universe. Asking ‘what is the most loving thing’ balances the needs of each family member, and allows parents to decide for themselves which ‘wants’ of their child they are able to allow, and which they must lovingly decline.

To give another example (if you’ve read enough please just skip to my summary at the end), a child may want to sleep in their parents’ bed, but it is not always loving to give in.

I had planned on allowing our children into our bed, but once I realised this involved being repeatedly elbowed and kneed in the back, not to mention having my pillow stolen and being forced right to the edge of my bed because my son hates feeling ‘squashed’ (by which he means having any part of his body in contact with another human body) we quickly returned him to his own bed. We were all much happier that way, and occasionally, if he can lie still and enjoy being close to us, he is allowed to cuddle in bed in the mornings (if his parents are already about half awake and it is nearly time to get up).

Lastly, asking ‘what is the most loving thing’ has really helped me as my children grew older. A small baby has very basic (albeit very intense) needs – food, sleep, and security. In the long run, many of the decisions we agonise over actually make very little difference to their developing into healthy, happy adults. However, as the child develops and grows, how we relate to them and the choices we make have increasing weight in their lives. I realised recently with my two boys that their ‘love’ needs are very different. My second son, age four, is very easy for me to love. His primary need seems to be for cuddles, and as long as I am available for a quick hug and kiss at frequent intervals, he is very happy to play by himself. I love giving hugs and kisses, so our personalities meet very well.

My older son … he is another kettle of fish altogether. He has never been cuddly, pushing me away from a very young age when I tried to offer physical affection. Cuddles are asked for always on his terms, and they are usually very intense, brief, and sometimes silly. What he loves is when I play with him, talk to him, and just generally do stuff with him. I find this form of love very hard to give. I am an introvert – I love my own headspace, and my oldest son loves to invade. He will ask a thousand questions in an hour. He will tell me all about the picture he drew, the lego model he built, and while I try to be affirming and positive, some days my heart sinks. Some days, I can barely talk by the time my husband comes home, my resources have been so drained.

I am very slowly learning how to work out the most loving thing in each situation. Usually, the most loving thing is for me to set aside whatever I am engrossed in, and give my son at least half my attention. I am very bad at doing this, especially when I am tired. But, I have learned, sometimes the most loving thing is to explain to my son, kindly but firmly, that mummy is tired now and needs to stop talking, and that he must think of mummy and go and play quietly in another room (or find his brother and talk to him).

 * * * * *

A quick summary, because I being concise is not one of my strong points and you may have got lost in my ramblings:

This question, ‘what is the most loving thing?’ does three key things for us as parents.

  • It clarifies my motives. Had I asked this question when my son was waking us through the night, I would have made the same decision as a young parent to leave my son to cry, but it would have been for very different reasons. As a result, I would have had far more confidence in the decision. It would still have been hard to hear my son crying the first few nights, but I would not have been wracked by guilt for months afterwards. In fact, we probably would not have got to that point of extreme exhaustion in the first place.
  • It reduces the issues involved to one basic question – the question I asked in the first blog entry of this series – is my child loved and feeling secure today? If I can say ‘yes’, then I am making good decisions. If I am not sure, then perhaps I need to reassess and ask again, ‘what is the most loving thing’?
  • It keeps us from swinging to the extremes of parenting – either making myself the centre of all decisions and putting my child’s needs second; or putting my child at the centre of all decisions, and thus making everyone else’s needs secondary, including my own. Neither is healthy for the parents or the child. Instead, a balance is needed, where parents make sacrifices so that their child grows up loved and nurtured, but also where a child learns that the universe does not revolve around them, and that they exist to serve as well as be served.

Ultimately, going back to the whole point of this series, this question releases us from the guilt we so often feel as parents.

It frees me from the need to judge others who have decided differently from me (so I am not sitting in disapproval when my friends choose to return to work and employ a child-minder – I trust them to make loving decisions about their own family, knowing themselves and their own children).

And when, as happened recently, someone declares to my face that my choice to stay at home full time is the ‘lazy’ option, I may laugh (and then blush as I realise they are serious), and I may feel bewildered and a little angry (really? You think this is the easy option?), but ultimately I am not bothered. Because I know they are wrong. I have not made this decision out of laziness. Perhaps, as I’ve said above, my original motivations were not purely selfless or loving, but now, knowing the daily grind and exhaustion of being a full-time mum, I am still choosing it. My husband and I have looked at the options and concluded together that this is the most loving thing for our boys at the moment. And quite honestly, the longer I do it the more I realise it is the right option for me too.

My life is lived to the full as I learn to love.