Terms and Conditions

Or should I say term and conditions…

40 weeks came and went on Sunday – and the baby is now officially overdue. I think I would be feeling more relaxed about this had the past few weeks not been a bit of a rollercoaster.

Firstly, this whole waiting around thing is new for me. Vita was a week early, which took us by surprise and also meant that I was expecting this one to be early too. It’s odd how vague ‘feelings about’ things can soon cement themselves into indelible fact in one’s head. After Vita’s lovely birth, thanks to hypnobirthing, we are doing the same thing again (although this time we’re hoping for the added plus of a home birth). When the hypnobirthing lady came over a few months’ ago for a refresher evening, she, somewhat mystically, asked me when the full moon was nearest the due date. Babies have a habit of coming around the full moon, she said. I raised an eyebrow. It’s because, she said, there’s so much energy around then. The husband’s eyebrow remained raised. The labour wards are always busiest around the full moon anyway, she said, noting the eyebrows and then changing tack. Of course, then I had to look up the lunar situation, and discovered that the full moon was a couple of weeks’ before the due date. Right, I decided, that’s when the baby will come. I stopped even thinking of the due date being 4th December, and instead it was fixed to arrive on 14th November.

The day came and went, and on the following Monday I went for a routine appointment with the midwife. I think I might be having a few mild contractions, I said. Probably just Braxton Hicks, but they have been going on most of the morning. I stopped myself from saying anything about the full moon. She prodded my tummy. Humm, she said. Either the baby has got extremely low down in your pelvis and labour’s about to kick in, or it might have turned sideways. Would you mind popping down to the hospital for a scan, um, now? Nothing serious? I asked. Oh no, I’m sure it’s fine. Should I bring my hospital bag? Oh no, don’t worry, it’s just to check the position’s right.

I called the husband on the way to the tube. Just popping in for a scan. It could all be about to happen, they just want to check the position’s ok. What shall I do about the builders? he asked. I should say here that we have been getting cupboards put into our bedroom (so that when I spend most of the forthcoming nights in the bedroom, not asleep, it will be a nicer environment), and the building work ended up dragging on and on… None of us wanted them to be around during the home birth – least of all the builders, who looked increasingly pale every time they saw me. I don’t know, I said, you’re the architect.

At the hospital, the scan was done straight away. Thanks, I said – it’s amazing of you to squeeze me in like this. The doctor was unsmiling and had tattoos all up her arm. On went the cold jelly and up came the picture of the little one. The baby is transverse, she said. You are now a high-risk pregnancy. You cannot leave the hospital. If your waters break, the cord could be prolapse and you wouldn’t get here in time to save the baby. You must stay in the hospital until Sunday, when you will be 39 weeks, and then we will give you an emergency C-section. This was on Monday afternoon.

It was not a good moment. And the next few days weren’t good either. The first night was spent in the waiting room, as there was no space on the ward. (Presumably because of the full moon.) The antenatal ward, once I got there, is not a fun place to spend time. Aside from the fact that you are confined to a windowless purple-curtained cubicle, all day and night you listen to people doing one of the following things: arguing with their partner loudly; snoring loudly; watching telly loudly; or, worst of all, going into labour extremely loudly. Try to enjoy the rest, the husband said, as I grumbled tearfully on the phone to him after the second night of listening to labour screams going on from 3 to 8 a.m. He was running around manically trying to deal with his work, the builders (who had been dismissed then re-summoned), the washing machine, and ferrying Vita about.

Anyway, in the end, the clever baby managed to turn back into the right position all by itself. The doctors’ plan changed daily, as the baby slowly wriggled itself around, and by Friday I was released, and told we were back on for the home birth. No C-section, no induction, no turning by the midwife, no forced breaking of the waters, but back to the sanctuary of our living room and plan A. HOORAY!

Which brings me, at last, to books. For this was ten days ago, and – when not looking after Vita – I have been doing rather a lot of sitting around waiting, trying not to think about the baby not being here yet. The real worry is that if it is too late, I will have to be induced, and then I will have to go back to the wretched antenatal ward. And also, weirdly, the contractions have a habit of suddenly ramping up and then disappearing again, so that last week, early in the morning, the midwives arrived, the birth pool was semi-inflated, and Vita’s granny summoned to collect her, only for everything to return to ‘normal’ a couple of hours later.

So I have been in need of a good book: one that’s easy for my extremely distracted brain to dip into, and that will hold my attention. Having also finished all my work, this was to be the first book I would be reading entirely for pleasure for quite some time.

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And so I came to pick up the beautiful object that is the latest hardback published by Slightly Foxed: Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. I know and love Ysenda’s writing from her Spectator columns and also from her very wonderful book The Real Mrs Miniver, which I wrote about here.

Her new book is all about girls’ boarding schools, from 1939 to 1979. Weirdly, I think this might be all the more interesting for readers who, like me, didn’t go to boarding school, for it is an astonishing anthropological study of a certain species, evident now as a grown woman who:

sleeps with the window wide open; feels homesick on Sunday evenings even though she is now at home; never touches cauliflower cheese; keeps an old address book in which most of the addresses have been there for so long that they don’t have postcodes; knows the Matins Collects by heart; fears unpopularity even among fully grown women in middle age; and still associates Friday with the smell of fish.

While of course there are moments of empathy, reading the book is more of a case of fascination with all the differences – there really was a time when girls woke up to find their hot water bottles had become blocks of ice, when they rebelliously – ravenously – tried to heat cans of baked beans over a candle flame in the dead of night, when they could choose between ‘cricket in the nets or dusting’ for their morning activity, and career prospects were known as ‘jobs’ in inverted commas because they were regarded as trivial, optional, and primarily a means to get a husband.

Ysenda has interviewed dozens of women about their boarding school experiences, and renders their stories largely verbatim, giving the book a documentary edge which makes it stranger than fiction. Listening to the stories in the words of these women makes you feel like you are there with Ysenda, having a cup of tea with them in their lovely kitchens, and hearing these treasure troves of memories which are solid gold to anyone with a curious bone in their bodies.

For instance, Maggie Fergusson recalls the snobbery of Mother Bridget, the headmistress of St Mary’s Ascot from 1956 to 1976. Ysenda reports that:

Mother Bridget … kicked off the first Latin lesson of the new 11-year-olds in 1976 with this ice-breaker: ‘Now, hands up any of you whose house is open to the public.’ ‘Quite a few hands did go up,’ remembers Maggie Fergusson, ‘and this started a chat about a few of the girls’ stately homes, before we started doing any Latin … When my eldest sister Kitty came to look round,’ Maggie said, ‘it was pretty clear that Mother Bridget didn’t think much of us as we actually lived in Ascot, which wasn’t really good enough. She was saying to my mother, “Well, I can’t promise that we have a place for your daughter …” when one of the mothers with a big country house came into the school and flung her arms round my mother, as they were cousins. That changed everything. Mother Bridget said she would take Kitty after all.’

I found myself entranced and gripped by the book, in spite of the fact that there is neither plot nor main character. Gosh it’s such a weird world, I kept on thinking, as the pages seemed to turn themselves. Ysenda is extremely clever at finding the crucially revealing detail time and again, laying it out with such grace and skill, and then – rather then telling us what to think – just letting it speak for itself.

For instance, in her chapter about ‘pashes’, Ysenda notes how romantic girls used to be:

‘Oh, yes, pashes,’ Sal’s sister Georgina Hammick said to me when I reminded her of those long-forgotten schoolgirl adorations. ‘I do remember. You wrote poems to their eyebrows.’

She doesn’t need to point out how far a cry from today’s schoolgirl sexting this is.

The past has rarely felt like such a different country as it does in this book – mostly because the attitude to girls’ education has changed so much. The happiest school seems to be Hanford because girls could bring their ponies and there were such things as ‘galloping matrons’ who took them riding. ‘The entry of all examinations is purely optional’, states one prospectus, as a positive. In fact, a complete lack of academic ambition or concern is shown to be the rule everywhere except for Cheltenham Ladies’ College, which gets its own chapter. This results in endless funny moments: ‘Miss Fleming taught History and didn’t know any,’ said Amanda Vesey. Or, when Ysenda asked a group of Old Girls from Hatherop Castle if there’d been a lab in those days, she receives nothing but a blank look:

‘A laboratory?’ I expanded … ‘Oh that kind of lab!’ one of them said. ‘I thought you meant a Labrador.’

Smiles, laughs, gasps, frowns … My face has been well and truly exercised by the observations and recollections woven together in this extraordinary book. (Perhaps a good warm up for the labour to come.) It has been a lifesaver for this weird hanging around time, and I highly recommend it as something to occupy oneself during the similarly weird Christmas period which fast approaches. The only thing is, I’m not sure if someone who did actually go to boarding school during this time would find it a pleasant trip down memory lane, or an unwelcome return to a banished nightmarish world. Are any of you boarding school Old Girls? If so, please will you read it and tell me what you think? Finally, it goes without saying that any other tips for distracting myself over the coming ten days from the looming threat of induction and return to the antenatal ward would also be most welcome.

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33 Responses to “Terms and Conditions”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Oh poor Emily! What hell for you.. in the past I’ve heard of v hot curries and action films being recommended to get the baby moving.. although another friend found acupuncture did the trick.. Thanks for this great review – I’m giving the book to my mother for Christmas as she was at boarding school all through the war. I was also at a school in Scotland where we were allowed our ponies & it did make all the difference! No galloping matron though, alas..

    Well I do hope you’ll be out of your misery soon! xx

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thanks! Yes we have tried a curry, but perhaps an action film could be this evening’s entertainment. I hope your mum enjoys the book – and how interesting that there were other schools where ponies were allowed too. Wonderful!

  2. Amanda Craig Says:

    Deepest sympathies. Totally agree re Ysenda’s book – laughter can also induce labour….

  3. Riv Says:

    Amazing post Emily – best of luck with the birth – I once stayed with posh friends of my husband in the Cotswolds. They had an invitation on the mantelpiece where the dress code was ‘Regency’. Anyway I went to the loo and didn’t come out for a long time because there were copies of the newsletter from our hostess’s old public girls school that were just comedy gold. One favourite bit was a huge group photo of lots of women outside a castle and it said, “We were jolly pleased that every single one of us was able to attend our fiftieth school reunion and a special thanks to Lady Elizabeth something-or-other for putting us all up”.

  4. Ben D. Shiriak Says:

    I love your blogs. This was the best yet. The portion about the wait in the hospital could be turned into an op-ed for American newspapers about British medicine. Good luck with your delivery.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thank you so much. I should add that the medical care and the midwives have all been fantastic – most of the misery stemmed from the fellow inpatients.

  5. Ben D. Shiriak Says:

    I do have a good idea for distracting yourself. Follow websites lie Frum Watch and Lost Messiah. Frum Watch collects some of the most incredible stories about ultra-Orthodox Jews and posts on Facebook.

  6. Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis Says:

    The next full moon is Tuesday. 😉

  7. biblioglobal Says:

    Oh, I have to read this! As an American who has hardly even met anyone who went to boarding school, I’m fascinated by British girls boarding schools.

    Hope the baby comes soon!

  8. Maureen Dreyfus Says:

    Hi Emily, I do hope things have stayed ‘normal’ for you – whatever that means. Alternatively maybe baby has safely arrived by now and you are feeling, well, I don’t know really, ‘happy, relieved, fed-up or none of the above’. I cross fingers things are going well for you, the Husband, Vita and possibly ‘the little new person’. Love Maureen

    _____

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thank you so much Maureen. Still pregnant here… but feeling normalish. As Vita puts it, rather philosophically, “our baby coming soon”. Let’s hope!

  9. Cosy Books Says:

    Several years ago, a neighbour of mine was in your position with an early first baby and overdue second. She was desperate to get things moving along and decided to mow the lawn. She couldn’t find the trimmer to tidy up the edge along the fence so she got down on all fours with the kitchen scissors! Coincidence or madness…but things ramped up after that.

    Terms and Conditions has been a must-read ever since I first heard about it. Glad you enjoyed it, Emily!

    • emilybooks Says:

      Blimey – getting down on all fours to trim our non-existent lawn seems like a step too far, I’m afraid … but perhaps a bit of gentle dusting might do the trick instead. Thanks for the tip! I hope you enjoy the book – it is wonderful.

  10. BookerTalk Says:

    This would be hilarious if there wasnt a serious side to it with the trauma of an emergency c section. How on earth are you keeping sane??

  11. Carol G. Says:

    If you are offered any treatment, BRAIN is your friend: Benefits? Risks? Alternatives? Intuition (yours)? Nothing (what happens if I do nothing?) it is your body and your baby. My grandma was a full moon believer, too. Best of luck!

  12. Alice Says:

    How frustrating! I hope you’re not still overdue and have enjoyed a pleasant hypnobirthing. I’ve never had children, but I can imagine by the 9th month you’re really just ready to get them out into the world.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thanks Alice, I’m afraid I am still waiting… Vita has started singing happy birthday to the baby in an attempt to coax it out, so erm watch this space as they say.

      • Alice Says:

        Oh dear, well hopefully baby will be kind to mummy and head out soon. On the plus side, Vita sounds adorable! Already the helpful big sister.

  13. JAR Says:

    Emily, hopefully by now you have had the baby at home – and all is well. Sending all good wishes your way.

  14. Emma Carroll Says:

    Hi Emily,

    I saw the (almost) full moon tonight and thought of you! Hope your baby has arrived by now and you’re all doing well.

    Lots of love,

    Emma xxx

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thanks Emma, so lovely to have your good wishes. We were all ready for the full moon, but still no baby yet! I suppose it can’t be too much longer…

  15. emilybooks Says:

    Just to say that Ezra Jack was born – peacefully and at home, with wonderful midwives – at 1.25 a.m. on Saturday 17th Decamber. We are all well – more news soon.

  16. JAR Says:

    Mazel Tov! Much happiness to the whole family.

  17. jill Says:

    so thrilled al lis well, congratulations

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thank you! It is all wonderful. I keep hoping to have a moment to write a new post but hands are rather full.

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