Posts Tagged ‘pregnancy’

Terms and Conditions

December 7, 2016

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.

A pre-baby update

November 10, 2016

It has been a particularly long silence since my last post in July. JULY! It is hard even to think back to then – to warm sunshine and long evenings, and all the leaves being green.

‘The pram in the hall’ has long been to blame for women finding it so hard to find time to write. This has to be less of an excuse for me, now the pram is very much a pushchair and Vita is two (unbelievably) and we have a considerable amount of childcare. I wasn’t, however, prepared to find being pregnant again such a struggle. Due to some wonderful combination of luck, naivete, and spending a heavenly couple of months in Italy when Vita was ripening in my tummy, being pregnant first time round was pretty straightforward. Yes, there were a few aches and grumbles and moments of exhaustion, but there was always the chance to rest, and life seemed to go on pretty much as normal.

Not so this time round.

I suppose, once you come to think about it, it makes sense. Leaving aside the exhaustion of looking after a two-year-old (and childcare, wonderful though it is, doesn’t cover all the extra things like laundry and cleaning and nightmares and illnesses and sicking things up and throwing breakfast all over the room and refusing to nap and ripping off nappies …), there’s also the fact that I’m a couple of years older, and those couple of years have been relatively sleepless and physically draining. But I thought it would be like last time. So it has been shocking to watch my life, which had found a very happy new balance, turn, well if not quite upside down, then certainly sideways.

black-rainbowHave any of you read Black Rainbow by Rachel Kelly? It’s her memoir of suffering from post-natal depression, which she experienced soon after her second son was born. Rachel Kelly was a high-powered journalist at The Times, but soon spiralled into the depths of a terrible, utterly debilitating depression from which she was, somewhat miraculously, rescued by reading poetry.

Reading her book not only made me wish I had more patience and skill with poetry, but also made me think how dangerous it can be to try to do too much. Women today are lucky to be able to have careers and children. We all know that, for sure. We are less lucky, however, in that trying to do both – and trying to do them both well – can all-too-easily push us towards a nervous breakdown.

For me, what was already a bit of a juggle, with pregnancy thrown in too, became impossible. Things began to spiral, but luckily before the bad moments loomed too large, the husband succeeded in bossing me about into a much better place. This has meant that I’ve had to let some things slide. Social engagements have all been cut. Cooking has been swapped for Deliveroo. Writing the novel has been temporarily shelved. Work in the bookshop ended rather earlier this time round. And, alas, this blog has also been put to one side. Please forgive me?

Thank god, I have still been managing to read and to write. I hope you might have seen some of my bits of journalism? I always try to update the sections on the Emilybooks homepage with links, but in case you missed them, here are a few of the pieces of which I’m most proud. I would, of course, love to know your thoughts on any of them.

THIS piece in the Spectator about a mobile library for homeless people. I am especially interested in using books as a way in to challenging situations – if we can talk to one another about what we’re reading, then we can soon talk about so much more. I suppose I’d like to think of this piece as the third in a ‘series’ of sorts, coming after this piece for the Guardian about reading in prisons, and this for the Spectator about reading in the Calais migrant camp. I hope there will be more pieces to come.

waking-lionsTHIS interview for lovely website Five Books with author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen about contemporary Israeli fiction. She was brilliant at talking about how novels were so tied to politics, while remaining remarkably positive and inspiring. I really enjoyed, by the way, her novel Waking Lions.

While I’ve not been reviewing on here so much, I have been reviewing elsewhere, which has been wonderful. I was thrilled that both these books I reviewed for the Spectator went on to make the Man Booker shortlist – Hot Milk by Deborah Levy and Do Not Say we Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. I’ve also been doing some paperback reviews for the Guardian Review. I should say that this is my absolutely favourite bit of newspaper, and so to be amongst its rustling pages has brought me an amount of pleasure wildly disproportionate to the modest length of my reviews. There should be a couple more coming out in the coming weeks, but here is my review of the especially brilliant novel Last Things by Jenny Offill. It’s also been really fun reviewing for Country Life magazine. Again, there are some more in the pipeline, but here is my review for them of the new Elizabeth Jane Howard biography by Artemis Cooper.

giving-up-the-ghostMeanwhile, Emily’s Walking Book Club has been thriving. Our last meeting of 2016 was last Sunday, when we discussed Hilary Mantel’s weird and really wonderful memoir Giving up the Ghost. We talked a great deal about ghosts, and childhood, and memories, and illness. We all loved Hilary Mantel’s amazing prose style – how clever she is to keep us so gripped, while inspiring daydreams and recollections of our own childhoods too. We were still in full flow as we came to the end of the walk, and I almost wished we could have set off for another loop of the Heath (though I think that might also have nudged the baby out…). It’s a knotty book that doesn’t offer a neat resolution or easy distillation of truth. You don’t get that ‘aha’ moment, where everything  neatly slots into place. As Mantel writes about her blotchy school essays, held together with bits of her mother’s embroidery silk:

Truth isn’t pretty, I thought, and the pursuit of it doesn’t make pretty people. Truth isn’t elegant; that’s just mathematicians’ sentimentality. Truth is squalid and full of blots, and you can only find it in the accumulation of dusty and broken facts, in the cellars and sewers of the human mind.

It’s a book full of truths, and therefore a messy one that inspired a great deal of discussion.

Other recent meetings have been to discuss Barbara Pym’s poignant but witty novel about getting old, Quartet in Autumn, and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, which everyone seemed to love revisiting just as much as I did. Getting out into the fresh air – especially when feeling so huge and cumbersome, being surrounded by friendly faces, and discussing such excellent books has been a real lifeline. I shall miss it over the coming months, while I have a break for the new baby, and am looking forward to taking it up again in the new year. There will definitely be a meeting in March, and perhaps even February – we shall just have to see how the new balance works out, once the baby arrives.

And I think the same ought be said for Emilybooks. While I would love to imagine finding the time to write about the many books I hope to read while feeding the new baby, who knows how it will all work out? It’s more likely that the baby will be latched to one breast while I am trying to control Vita, who’ll be marauding around the living room throwing her toys at us, or else my eyes will be too glazed from sleeplessness to be able to focus on print. I remain optimistic, but I must ask you to remain patient, and forgiving, while I navigate through such an uncertain, but ultimately very exciting, time.

 

Bye bye bookshop

October 13, 2014

You are just like my cat.

Thus spoke a young woman in the bookshop the other day. I had just heaved myself up from putting a book away on the bottom shelf – no mean feat when one is quite so heavily spherical – and she had caught me exhaling perhaps a little too vociferously. I certainly didn’t feel especially feline.

The lady’s cat, it transpired, had just been pregnant. She said that as she herself was only twenty-seven, she’d never given much thought to being pregnant or babies before, but watching her cat get more and more pregnant had made her really think about it all. And, she explained, it was very funny because I looked just like her cat when she’d been about to give birth. She giggled slightly madly, and I could only feel grateful that she didn’t have a pet elephant instead.

It was one of the stranger exchanges to have taken place in the bookshop over the past few weeks. Saturday was my last day: now – with under two weeks till due date – the blissfully wide open space of maternity leave spreads out ahead of me.

A friend dropped into the bookshop on Saturday afternoon, and stayed for a little while, chatting to me in any brief gaps in what turned out to be a particularly busy day. This must be the nicest place to work ever, said my friend, who had been quietly and smilingly observing the various comings and goings over the past half-hour.

I could only agree.

And, though certainly tiring, it has been a particularly special place to work when so obviously pregnant.

The thing is, my enormously protruding bump has turned out to be an amazing signal of common ground, an open invitation for conversation. I imagine it’s not dissimilar to going for a walk with a very sweet pet dog. Everyone wants to come up and say hello, stroke or pat it, ask some questions, and tell you about their own. Of course, in a bookshop, one has conversations with customers all the time. These are, however, always about books, and while I am at my happiest chatting away with people about what they enjoy reading, it transpires that most people are keener to talk about babies.

In the bookshop over the past months, I’ve had at least ten conversations a day about having a baby. They don’t usually begin with someone telling me I’m just like their cat. A more standard opener is: ‘Do you know what you’re having?’ or, ‘Where are you having it?, ‘Is it your first?’, and – especially over the past few days, accompanied by looks of faint alarm – ‘How long have you got left?’

There have been other comments, which are rather funnier: ‘You are getting nice and fat.’ Or from one rather awkward gentleman, ‘I had no idea you were so, so … well …’ Um, pregnant? I eventually had to offer.

These are just opening gambits and before long the customer has launched into smiling reminiscences of their own pregnancy, or offered advice on babies and children. Over the end of the very hot summer I was given a great deal of sympathy while I was so visibly melting. Someone offered to buy me an ice cream and one lady advised me to time it better with the next one – she said that she’d had all her babies in the early spring so she hadn’t needed to turn the heating on all winter. I’ve been given all sorts of advice: from what sort of sling to get, to the pros and cons of routines, and, my favourite: ‘If anyone offers you any help, take it … always take it. If you say no to help with the first one, no one will offer you any help at all when it comes to the second.’

Sometimes there’d be a note of cynicism along the lines of ‘read/sleep/have fun/go to the cinema now while you still can…’ but any vague hints of the horrors to come have always been compensated for by a very tangible excitement and feeling of goodwill. The customers were always smiling as they left, wishing me good luck, all the best, asking to let them know how I get on.

I’m sure that some of them, with whom I’ve built up a bit of a friendship and rapport over the years are genuinely interested in my baby, but for many I think this strange happiness that comes with seeing the bump and talking about babies is more of a reminder of something universal and miraculous.

People have babies all the time. It is, of course, how we all came into the world. There shouldn’t really be anything so special about it … and yet it is – evidently –undeniably, unavoidably exciting and mindblowingly amazing. A whole new person is about to arrive in the world! A whole new life!

For many of these customers, their children are no longer babies. Parents come in and are usually rather fraught, with their scootering sprogs knocking all the books off the shelves, making a racket, demanding the sixty-seventh Beast Quest book. Or their children are teenagers, or going off to university – all so grown up. It must be easy to lose sight of the quiet miracle of the start, when they are so tiny and helpless, all wrinkled and squashed, more like a frog than a human. Perhaps seeing the bump inspires a chance to remember this special time of newness, firsts, and beginnings.

The bump is such an obvious visible cue that it is impossible to ignore it, it is impossible not to think of a baby being just in there, so close to coming into the world. Perhaps seeing me heave my roundness around the bookshop is not so unlike the lady watching her cat fill up with kittens.

To return to this particular exchange … After a long account of the ins and outs of her cat’s birth, the lady said that I so reminded her of her cat that she’d like to give me one of her kittens. Somewhat bewildered, though touched, I politely declined. I explained that I already had a pet tortoise, who might well find it hard to adjust to life with a baby around, and the addition of a kitten as well would be a recipe for disaster. I could just see the kitten playfully pouncing on a terrorised Daphne, whose curious head would never emerge from her shell again. The lady seemed a little disappointed, but I think she understood.

As I left the shop at six o’clock on Saturday, looking especially spherical after having scoffed a great deal of cake – thank you dear bookshop colleague – and bearing flowers, cards, and a stack of books, just in case I find I am able to read while breastfeeding in spite of what the cynics warn, accompanied by the husband carrying a load of boxes for when we eventually manage to move house (let’s hope), I felt excited about this next chapter, and also very aware that I’d just experienced a strangely wonderful few months.

I would never have imagined that having a bump would prompt so many people to be so chatty, friendly and open, so full of stories and advice and excitement. Working in the bookshop has been exhausting, for sure, but as people keep telling me in an attempt to reassure me about the sleepless nights to come: you don’t really mind feeling so tired when something amazing is happening.

So bye bye for now bookshop … see you on the other side.