Things No-one but Your Baby Teaches You

Waiting in sympathy as an old friend wonders if today will be the day she gives birth, I am reminded of what a steep learning curve first-time motherhood is. We learn about Henry XIII, cirrus clouds and sodding xylem and phloem at school, but anything related to womanhood, birth, or anything icky like that is woefully absent.

I remember one time at secondary school, a girl who’d dropped out to have a baby with a local squaddie came to talk to the female students, obviously under the pretext that she would deter us from doing the same thing. All I remember is her saying birth really hurt. That, a few textbook references to puberty in biology class, and our exuberant gym teacher’s ‘little chat’ with us around age 13 about our ‘P days’, was the sum total of education about our incipient womanhood.

So, when you decide you have finally outgrown your solitude and wouldn’t mind a wee bairn in your life, you have decades of programming to overcome, usually without any wise old women (except your mum, and she might give you the worst traumas of all) to advise, teach and reassure you. What do you do? Go online, to Mothering.com, or Mumsnet, or more radical places like natural birth forums (get thee to Google and the scales shall fall from your eyes). For so many women, the first baby they hold in their arms is their own.

There are so many new dexterities that you must learn when you become a parent, especially a mother: birthing; breast/bottle feeding; burping; lowering a sleeping baby into a cot without waking them up; calming a fractious baby when you haven’t slept for months and are pretty fractious yourself; wheeling buggies up and down stairs or hills, especially with heavy bags of shopping; cooking with a clingy baby in a sling or on a hip; having sex with your partner with a baby anywhere in a ten-metre radius; changing nappies in cars; removing snot without incurring loud screams; getting two or more kids ready for school with a baby to look after also; reading a book without falling asleep after half a page; putting a child into a car seat when they don’t feel like it; what to do about fevers, coughs, kids that don’t eat; finding ANY time to do yoga like you’re supposed to spend your maternity leave doing; preventing crawling babies from climbing up stairs or finding paints/cleaning products/that one nail in the corner under the sofa that you didn’t know existed…

…and then there’s also the subtle, invisible learning, like how to deal with tantrums, challenging behaviour and disrespect without taking it personally or turning into a fire-breathing dragon…

…not to mention the psychological issues dredged up from our own upbringing…

…and bang in the middle this practical PhD-cum-SAS training-cum-twenty year long meditation retreat, you’re meant to go back to full-time paid work?! What does it look like we’ve been doing, lying on a beach in the Bahamas having our cellulite wrapped in algae?!?!

Mothering is given minimal or no value in industrialised society. Women are just men with boob – which are meant for entertainment, not nutrition. We’re supposed to do everything men do, for two-thirds of the pay, and not complain that we also have a whole other job going on – the ‘Second Shift’ – which is far more personally important to us than the paid work, though impossible without the salary. And since nobody but other mothers will nod and commiserate, we sigh, label our complaints as ‘moaning’, and shut up and get on with it.

Nothing ever changed without people making a stink about it needing to be changed (a particularly a propos metaphor for people who have to change nappies on a regular basis). But we now have the financial necessity of having two incomes in order to maintain roofs that we rarely have time to spend under. Mothers already feel guilty that they’re not doing enough – how have we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the idea of proving ourselves to be ‘as good as the guys’, fighting above our weight on an uneven playing field, and placing on ourselves this massive extra burden?

The female brain is far more complex, responsive, and therefore prone to frazzlement than the male brain. We have a smaller, lighter brain, but with a more convoluted cerebral cortex, meaning more surface area, meaning more neurones, meaning more thinking. Hence we are more prone to depression and anxiety, and often have a harder time falling asleep (especially annoying when your husband is snoring within seconds) even though the extra sleep does us a world of good. We need to make an effort to disconnect and relax our minds. Now those flower arranging classes don’t seem so superfluous, right?

Women have always worked, inside and outside of the home. I was once walking around Leh in Ladakh, the culturally Tibetan Himalayan region of India, when I saw a woman walking back from her allotment, bent double with a basket of produce on her back, while also knitting a complex patterned jumper for a small child. Multi-tasking is our (slightly clichéd) hallmark.

But when the work involved becomes very complex and stressful, in highly stimulating environments, and when your kids can’t just run about the village but are hyperactive, overstimulated creatures who need to be kept safe from cars, internet predators, and a whole host of constantly changing dangers, let alone all our own troubles that we have to process, our minds are under strain that we often don’t allow ourselves to recognise.

I don’t know how to end this optimistically except to urge anyone reading to recognise the effort, time, and thought that goes into parenting at large, to shed the patriarchal lens that edits out the female experience – as richly varied as it is – and start accommodating women who are raising small kids, often against huge odds. Yes, it makes us tough, but we don’t want to turn to armadillos. Early childhood is the beginning of a person’s life; we don’t need to burden it with unnecessary stress and anxiety.

Most of all, if we can deal with our own anxiety, embed rest, joy and simplicity into our lives, we model it for our children. This is one thing we can handle in a future that has always been uncertain and always will be. Godspeed and rest well!

More Than A Strike: Women’s Day and the Sweet Spot

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International Women’s Day brings with it a pot pourri of feelings for me. Some pleasant, rose-like, delicate, joyful, and uplifting (I went last night to a local production of The Vagina Monologues and was reminded once more of how wondrous it is to be female), while others are malodourous or sickly, bits of old sock and rancid cabbage that have fallen in with the fragrant twigs. There are so many challenges women face, from physical aggression and violence all the way through unequal pay and sexual harrassment in the workplace to the subtle disdain expressed in daily interactions with people who think less of us because of our gender.

About halfway through the morning I remembered the housework strike. Yay! I thought – time to put my feet up. Things didn’t pan out as I thought, however. My husband was still working on the house (we’ve been living in a building site for the last six months, and for four months before that he was working harder than he’s ever worked, learning on the job, to turn the ruin we bought into a home) and I had been out a lot over the past few days, so there was a build-up of chores that had come to a head.

So we struck a deal. Yesterday I had a fair bit of housework and even gardening to do, and today I’ve struck. Is it weird to hang my apron out of the window now? People might think I’m just being absent-minded.

To be honest, I have to give thanks that my husband cooks a lot, does a huge amount of childcare, washes up frequently, and when he attacks the kitchen or bathroom he stays up late listening to talks online while he cleans and leaves it like new. On top of that, he supports me working (even though with the kids my hours are limited) and his money is, as he says, my money. So striking isn’t exactly an urgent need for us, even though I like the idea of standing in solidarity for so many women who don’t enjoy those conditions.

On the other hand, a housework strike has the interesting effect of highlighting my own near-robotic cleaning and tidying behaviour (although you wouldn’t know it to see my house). Having to stop myself from “just sorting this out”, every ten minutes or more often, is hard. Am I habituated to the idea that women are designed to clean? Certainly we’ve programmed ourselves to – and for me that was a long, hard process, mostly because I had so much resistance. So many brilliant things I could be doing instead of menial work! Plus I have a very sore nerve that gets easily prodded when I see men leaning on or expecting women to clear up their mess, even women with whom they have no reciprocal support arrangement.

But the bottom line is that housework needs to be done, and if you don’t do it yourself, you end up paying a woman to do it for you. This does keep a good number of women in employment, even though it’s poorly paid and precarious work. Yet if you educate those women to have ‘better’ jobs, you create a vacuum (how appropriate) at the bottom of the work pyramid.

What ends up happening is that immigrants and people from disadvantaged backgrounds fill that gap, creating a kind of tiered system of care and support that further divides women, but this time on an ethnic or class basis. Can an economy handle everyone being highly educated? The reality for so many university graduates in the US and UK who can’t find anything but internships seems to testify that it can’t.

On a personal level, the ego loves to rail against being obliged to do ‘low’ work, especially if it’s for no pay. This is why Women’s Day is complicated for me: I have to strike (pardon the pun) a balance between empathy for female troubles and awareness of my own ego’s eagerness to demand more for itself. What it really comes down to is that a strike of housework isn’t enough – we need to go on strike from our egos, too.

Yes, the world changes when people complain, especially en masse and loudly (there’s a Spanish saying: ‘El que llora mama’ – ‘He who cries gets to breastfeed’). But on a day-to-day basis, surely it’s healthier to find a way to deal with the rage and resentment that being a woman can generate without letting it eat you up inside or destroy your relationships with resentment and blame. For all the advantages that feminism has brought with it (which I enjoy enough to be able to write this, so I ain’t complaining), there needs to be a parallel campaign to find the sweet spot between working for change on the outside AND on the inside.

That’s what I find so admirable about women, and men, when they are under pressure, in asymmetrical, unfair situations, and instead of falling into hatred and self-pity, allowing that anger to fester, feeding off the illusion of “It’s all his/her fault”, they rise above it, forgive even if they don’t forget, stay calm in the face of hurtful words, keep ploughing forward no matter what is thrown at them, and prove they are the better people. The world is not fair, life is not fair. But there are ways to deal with inequality that, while taking intelligent steps towards addressing that inequality wherever possible, do so with grace and wisdom. The inner peace it takes to achieve this spreads all around, like light from a window on a dark night spilling out and showing there is indeed a garden out there.

 

Buttons and Mirrors: Seeking a Cure for Firstworlditis

Despite the (not especially ironic) name of this blog, I haven’t written about parenting for a good long while, mainly because I’m usually to be found flailing my arms and tearing my hair out about it myself, and not sure I’d have anything constructive to say.

However, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my buttons: the things I am exceptionally sensitive to when it comes to my kids’ behaviour (obviously their essence is wonderful, as I try to remind myself when handling yet another crisis in the house involving fists, Nerf bullets, or pitch battles over the Latin name for avocados – I kid you not).

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Dusk over some avocado trees. It’s Persea americana, in case you’re interested.

Mainly, what bothers me is ingratitude. Actually, all the multitudinous things that bother me can all be boiled down to ingratitude. To wit: expecting someone else to deal with your dirty work (ingratitude towards people who really are cleaning up after you); grasping, demanding attitudes, without thanks or reciprocation (ingratitude towards gifts and help from others); wasteful, careless, destructive behaviour (ingratitude for the space and resources being enjoyed), etc. etc.

But as the psychologists would say, every conflict is a great big flashing LED arrow pointing to an opportunity to grow. So, not wanting to be a great big screaming Hollywood bratlet myself, I’ve decided the only way out of this thing is to go into it, and pray I come out the other side alive.

Affluenza

This disease of ‘firstworlditis’, or affluenza as some call it, has been noted by many people, and not all old fogeys harping on about the good old days of kids selling newspapers in blizzards to pay for their baby siblings’ tuberculosis medicine. (They did have to walk sixteen miles through minefields carrying their desks on their heads to school every day, eat mouse cassoulet for dinner and sleep in cardboard boxes by the side of the M1 in their day, but they’re not the only ones who can make comparisons.)

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Photo of my street about 60 years ago, when kids had to go to school in wheelbarrows.

About fifteen years ago, a friend of mine took a trip to the US right after a journey to Iran. In Iran she had visited an all-girls school where her friend was teaching English. The students had been given the task to write an essay about anything they wanted, and the results were very revealing: the essays were on subjects like love, faith, poetry, death, family…all very thoughtful and questioning.

When she later went to the US, my friend visited another friend (there are a lot of friends in these paragraphs, stay with me) who also worked at a high school, in Texas. He had also recently set an essay, in which the students had to write about whatever they liked. The essays were universally on topics such as ‘My New Trainers’, ‘My Motorbike’…

Clearly this isn’t exclusively a child-parent issue. In fact, adults can be the snottiest brats of the lot. Think about the gifts we have enjoyed for millions of years, the simplest things like rain, fertile soil, trees…and think of how much respect we used to have for the forces of nature, in the knowledge that we had to live in balance with it or its could crush us like so many cockroaches under its massive, environmental shoe. How the desire for more, bigger, now, has led to the wholesale destruction of life-giving forest, the desertification of once-rich soil by surface mining, a fatberg under London, and not one but TWO plastic waste islands in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, each roughly the size of Texas.

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Some local destruction. Kind of picturesque though.

Mirror Mirror

So this nerve that ingratitude hits in me is really just a small reflection of a much vaster problem, one that I’m an intrinsic part of, as a First World Baby who struggles to show gratitude due for all the gifts I enjoy all the time. There is a line in the Qur’an that says: ‘If We had willed it, We could have made rain salty.’ And elsewhere, the repeated refrain in Surat Ar-Rahman: ‘And which of Our favours do you deny?’

When the Sheikh of the Jerrahi Sufi Order, Tosun Bayrak, visited my hometown, I asked him about gratitude; I was going through a painful divorce (are any divorces painless?) and having trouble finding gratitude in myself. He was astounded, and simply explained all that I have to be thankful for – beginning with life itself. Tosun Baba passed away a few days ago, the same day as a family friend – reminders to treasure this gift while there’s time.

The mirror metaphor has a lot of meterage: part of ‘affluenza’ is the problem of surrounding a small, self-centred life with mirrors, cutting off the long view, both in space and time (the view of others, of the perspective of years…) and obsessing over small details, the lint collecting in our collective navels. How do I look, how do people see me…self-consciousness is like taking your perspective out of your own head and turning its floodlights, by turns critical and fawning, on your own figure as it goes about its business. If you have a hard time breaking through sadness to gratitude, try looking at what comes to you before you’ve even asked for it, and see how your heart bursts its banks.

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A local mirror. Also rather more tasteful than I had meant to portray.

Here’s another metaphor: the examples we are exposed to, both in real life and in fiction (TV, film, vlogs…) are a kind of artificial mirror that creates the same behaviour in us – if we aren’t alert to this tendency. Just seeing how we as a family start interacting after watching a mere hour of Disney tween sitcoms, in which every other line is a wisecrack and everyone is basically snapping each other’s heads off to canned laughter (watch Friends with the sound turned off and you’ll see what I mean), I am astonished how quickly we all start imitating them – including me.

By contrast, yesterday at Jum’ah, I noticed a woman there I hadn’t seen before, with the most beautifully serene, slightly bashful aura. I thought: this is what humility looks like – not humiliation, as so many people would have us believe humility is, arguing for brashness and swagger as a way of protecting our vulnerability. It made me see that humble does not mean having the air of a whipped dog – humiliated, broken, fearful.

In actual fact, real humility (not acted, ersatz humility, aka spiritual vanity), is the best kind of noble. A truly humble person is so because they are big enough to be aware of their own faults, brave enough to bring them into the presence of the Most High, and strong enough to work on them without losing hope for every mistake they know they’ll continue to make. And it’s beautiful to see; if only we saw it enough, all around, maybe we would start to mirror it too. Imagine a ring of mirrors like that.

Jobs for the Boys

farm boy

From ‘The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes’, collected by Iona and Peter Opie, Puffin, 1963

Today is the eighth birthday of my eldest child. This time eight years ago, I was giddy with tiredness and wonder, nestling in bed with a round-faced little sun of a boy. The first night I noticed how his chin would shudder forward like a tortoise’s, with that newborn quality of skin that is lost so soon – softer than air, and slightly bath-wrinkled.

I still see the same boy when he is asleep, though now a thousand preoccupations flit through my head at various times that obscure the view: mostly it’s when he’s lounging about the house after school reading comics, pestering me to play videogames, or – my biggest bugbear – to watch YouTubers play Minecraft. Really. Blue-haired twenty-year-olds who probably still live with their mums but who are gods to squillions of kids who aren’t even bothering to playing the game themselves. Agh.

I am realising that I place so many expectations on my firstborn, which were perhaps placed on me as a firstborn, or which I place on myself. There are vague notions of integrity and resilience, thinking-outside-the-box – which is in tension with the need for respecting authority (i.e. MINE) – and all sorts of health issues, from not eating tons of gacky sweets and Cheeto-type polystrene-covered-in-cheese-powder to going to bed early, changing socks regularly, getting fresh air (do children even notice when air isn’t fresh?), not staring at screens for long periods, and doing ‘improving’ things such as learning to play musical instruments or doing sports. No wonder all he feels like doing is flopping out and reading comics.

(I have to say I read them too when I was young – I was the one who introduced him to them. They are very funny, if you like surreal slapstick Spanish violence.)

But I wonder how children, boys in particular, are meant to get a ‘healthy’ picture of work, when there is no-one around – particularly men, their prototypes – to show them how it’s done, until they’re already adolescents and way too interested in squeezing their spots to be learning how to use a radial saw.

Basically, work is either too dangerous, or too child-unfriendly to be able to involve kids in, which is all to the detriment of children’s future working lives. By contrast, both of my parents worked from home: my dad had an office in the attic where he did graphic design, and my mum ran a shop on the ground floor (part of our house) from which she also sold books mail order.

This gave me a strong image of self-employment, which seemed as attractive then as it does now. My dad would take breaks from tiresome computer work to go into the garden and dig up potatoes, while my mum would play Motown, soul and country on a tape recorder and sing along loudly whenever she could get away with it. It seemed like the perfect way to balance different interests without having to be overburdened by any of them for too long – just right for a person with a lot of interests. Who needs a steady income, right?

Now, though, my eldest son sees me working on a computer or iPad – emails, translations, etc. – and the only work he sees my husband (his stepdad) doing at home is emails too. (My husband manages a mobile restaurant which he takes to trance festivals…not really the ideal environment for an 8-year-old to do work experience in.)

His father, on the other hand, is a carpenter, which might offer plenty of wonderful imaginary opportunities to whittle things together, but in practice usually involves heavy machinery that could slice your arm off if you’re not careful, as well as late nights keeping to deadlines and dusty, noisy site work. It’s all a bit stymying for a kid who wants to get stuck in and learn first hand, quite the opposite of the bad old days where boys of six would be expected to look after herds of sheep (“Little Boy Blue, go blow your horn, the sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn…”)

The general idea nowadays seems to be that kids should avoid all thought of adulthood until they near the end of school, by which time the classes themselves will have shaped their interests and nurtured their skills enough to give them a bash at choosing a career. But I don’t buy this one bit. I knew I wanted to be a writer, to live abroad and learn different languages, from my son’s age, and I never really wavered in that decision. Careers advice at GCSE told me I should be a prison warden.

Having time to daydream, play music, study, travel, make things, meet people…that always figured heavily in my career plan. Since leaving university I haven’t written a single CV. I can’t say I’m earning bags of money, of course…or that I even have that much time on my hands, with three kids on them too…but, you know, it’s the principle of the thing.

So how do we show children the realities of the adult world without stultifying them with computers from a tender age? I don’t really have any answers, but I get the feeling that we need to be less stultified by computer work ourselves, for a start. Maybe combine it with gardening jobs, or painting and decorating, all the manual labour jobs that self-made intellectuals look down on but which actually provide a neat bit of income, as well as mental space to stretch out in.

Then there are all those dreaded afternoon kid’s activities, which parents have to practically have a PA just to organise, especially with several kids who all want to go in different directions at once. Take my advice: have quintuplets, then you can just take them all to tennis and read a book in the stands.

Maybe what we need is activities that adults and kids take part in together (a tricky one to achieve when you have a toddler who rips everything to shreds, but one can dream). Perhaps pottery, or swimming, origami, or forest school outings where everyone can learn something and/or teach something to someone else. It all seems too separate, the pre-teen’s world and the adult’s, and yet there’s this terrifying gulf in the middle called Teenagehood to traverse without a canoe let alone a paddle in sight.

The blame often goes to peers luring kids off in the wrong direction, but peers only take the place of adult role models when those adult role models aren’t there, or when their lives are protected by plate glass. Apprenticeships could help for older kids, but the imprinting starts much younger. The very nature of modern adult work is at fault, and no-one can hope to change it but us.

The Mother With No Mind

The angle he sees me at
makes me all triangles
jawbone, earlobe, nose
elbows everywhere

A table is an overhanging rock
on a wind-bitten mountain path
the room a cave cathedral
with electric stalactites
the stairs a Giant’s Causeway
our diminutive patio is a
basketball court, zones marked by
patches of cement
dogs are like elephants
except the neighbour’s pug
which is more like a chaise longue
that snores
children are Titans
and we adults are mobile skyscrapers
with the power to pick him up
and stride vast distances
yet he is not daunted
by his size. His reality is not
that he is 8 months small but
that we are infinitessimally tiny
and he is merely
one degree tinier

*

Writing with anything
on anything –
stubby felt tip in
older son’s school book –
grabbed at any time –
5.30 am after a night of
insomnia induced by
unidentifiable itching
(a flea, or incipient allergy to lentils,
or too much coffee and thrillers)
I wonder if this
mothering life
is what they call
No-Mind?
Get up – don’t think! –
set the mechanisms of family in motion
food made, mouths opening,
“WASH YOUR HANDS!”
clean dishes, break up fisticuffs,
hang out laundry
(there is ALWAYS laundry)
continue thus until the bedtime story
is garbled as mouth loses contact
with brain and I crash out anywhere,
on anything –
is this surfing the crest of ego,
always slipping just out of its sticky reach?
It is khidmah, for sure,
although maybe my complaining
nullifies its bounties, or am I just
not taking time to witness them?

*

He sleeps on my lap now.
Here are the gifts: glossy curls
forming at the back of his head;
his hand laid flat on my belly
fingers kneading as he dreams;
his warm velour’d weight on me
and the breathing
deep and restful
even if I am not.

Afterbirth

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The carob seedling that took two years
to grow two feet was planted over
half of the placenta that took
nine months and eleven days to develop
and forty minutes to birth
into a bucket, so dense with my blood
it looked like crushed raspberries.

There are pieces of me buried all over,
one beneath a pomegranate tree
in a nearby Andalusian garden;
another under an apple tree in a
Norfolk farm – the only one in the orchard
to fruit the first year.

The goodness of meat
that once nourished my babies
before they opened their mouths to eat
the meat that died in the act of birth
now feeds those stalks and leaves,
sipped thoughtfully by xylem and phloem
(words I learned eighteen and a half
years ago, the only ones that have
travelled forward from Science GCSE)
and plumps out fruit that I
shrink from eating lest it be
cannibalism:
my flesh into theirs,
vegan victuals from viscera.

Parts of me are already underground.
The backward-rolling echo of tombs
reaches me half-asleep, feeding
a dozing baby, not knowing if an hour or
ten minutes have passed, the way
the mind dashes forward during prayer
and a third rak’ah feels like a fourth.

Time is plastic when one has already put
an organ into a tiny grave, when one’s footprint there
roots the soul to the soil. It owns me now
in three segments, yearning for the last piece
(currently in my freezer) to join them underneath
an avocado sapling, followed one day
by the rest. Like taproots busy seeking
low lying aquifers there are unseen ligaments
that tie me to the world
so that the hot air balloon of my thoughts
– straining against its ropes –
does not spiral off and be vaporised
by the sharp edge of the atmosphere.

There are parts of me
all over, buried too deep
for dogs and foxes to despoil
deep as the bones of an ‘aqiqah lamb
must be buried too.

Home Birth Hat Trick

Whenever I mention to people that I gave birth at home, the usual response is ‘¡Qué valiente!’ – or ‘That’s brave!’

The truth is less glorious: not being too fond of hospitals, especially labour wards with their somewhat notorious reputations, it was as much out of an aversion to going to hospital as bravery that kept me home.

With my third home birth under my (considerably loosened) belt, I have to admit that none of them would have happened were it not for a few key factors:

1) Excellent care from an independent midwife – an endangered species these days. Having a warm, grounded, experienced person who believes in your ability to birth naturally is a huge help. In a way, the less she interferes, the better a job she’s doing. It’s an expensive option (in the UK even more so than in Spain) but well worth it for the peace of mind and sense of confidence she conveys.

2) Having straightforward, healthy pregnancies. This I can’t claim any credit for. All my babies were head down, back to front (which is a lot less weird than it sounds), I had low blood pressure, and apart from minor complaints was generally OK throughout each pregnancy, thank God. Although I do know two women with chronic fatigue as well as one with severe Crohn’s disease, all of whom gave birth naturally at home, if you have complications in pregnancy it’s always wise to consult your doctor and midwife when considering a home birth.

3) Being born at home myself, and growing up hearing nostalgic stories of how my mum went into labour (unable to locate my dad, with no food in the house), and having ice cubes put in her mouth (it was mid-August in Granada, before the era of A/C) while she gazed at the Alhambra…alright, so only the last part sounds romantic. But I’m still convinced that hearing affirmations all my life that home birth was quite normal, safe, and actually filled with wonder programmed me to believe the same would be true for my own births. Even the weird stories were evocative somehow, like an ex-boyfriend who was born onto a picture of Ronald Reagan’s face in a newspaper. Come on, you don’t get that in a hospital.

Ron. Not the first thing you want to see in this world, but could be worse.

Ron. Not the first thing you want to see in this world, but could be worse. (Imagine if it was Ed Miliband!)

Then there are all the other elements that helped along the way: a crowd of home birth aficionados living in my town who enthusiastically supported my decision; having my parents nearby to look after my older kids while I gave birth; being well nourished (very important); having the kind of house that I actually wanted to give birth in; not sitting in an office chair for long hours or commuting during pregnancy (apart from being exhausting, sitting in a chair for long hours tends to misalign the uterus and contributes to more breech births); living in a hilly area where I had to do a lot of walking up and down steep slopes (apparently the best preparation for labour); and so on.

As you can see, none of this is really my own doing. I was incredibly lucky, or blessed, however you want to look at it. The only thing that I have to own up to is my stubbornness. I just never imagined myself giving birth in hospital. Some people say it is the naïvety of inexperience that makes women decide to have a baby at all first time around, let alone give birth at home, but second or third time – well, that’s just plain obstinacy.

To be sure, I am more aware now of things ‘going wrong’ (you’ve already heard the horror stories so I won’t drum them in). In these – rare – cases being in a hospital is preferable, but any midwife worth her/his spurs would get you there as soon as things started going pear-shaped. Another way to look at it, of course, is that things didn’t go pear-shaped at all: it’s just the way they went.

Still, in less dramatic cases, being at home with a sensitive, skilled caregiver is still preferable to being in an impersonal place where staff changes when shifts end and the itch to free up a bed might cause them to hurry things up (the classic ‘Pitocin – epidural – foetal monitor – obstetric delivery’ pattern). If you choose to give birth at home you won’t have a queue of students coming into the delivery room while you’ve got your legs in stirrups, that’s for sure.

Description      English: “Maternity Home in Yakutsk”. Maternity Home in Yakutsk, Russia. Not, as I first thought, septuplets. Wikicommons.

Description
English: “Maternity Home in Yakutsk”. Maternity Home in Yakutsk, Russia. Not, as I first thought, septuplets. Wikicommons.

I can’t knock hospitals, though, for those times when they are necessary. Many a woman has had an excellent hospital birth, some angel of a midwife who appears at a crucial moment, or next-generation equipment that saved a baby’s life. The few times I’ve been treated for anything at a hospital, I’ve been immensely grateful particularly to the nurses, who used all the subtlety at their command to make light conversation to distract from a needle or other sharp proddy thing going in somewhere.

This kind of caregiver provides not just a service but also warmth, candour and intimacy at a time when you are vulnerable. However, this is also what a good home birth midwife will offer: she will help you trust that your body knows what it’s doing, with a little bag of kit to keep an eye on things just in case.

While I would encourage any woman who is of sound body and mind to go for a home birth if she wants one, the reasons for doing so must be more because of the benefits of birthing at home rather than the fear of going into hospital. The benefits are not just the lazy girl’s prime motivation, i.e. not having to get out of bed, but also being able to make your space as comfortable and familiar as you like. Third time around I actually managed to have the nice tea lights, essential oils burning, best friend massaging acupressure points with Neroli oil, and Calendula flowers floating in the birth pool (previous times I was focussing so much on the contractions I didn’t care two hoots about environment).

Birth Pool in a Box. I used a regular sized one for the first birth, a mini for the second (kind of cosier), and then a La Bassine pool for the third, which was also great.

Birth Pool in a Box. I used a regular sized one for the first birth, a mini for the second (kind of cosier), and then a La Bassine pool for the third, which was also great.

All three of my children were born into water, in a birth pool like the one pictured above. This meant I didn’t need to use drugs: the warm water is a natural pain reliever and is really quite blissful. You need to be at least 5 cm dilated (some midwives will wait for more) to get into it as it can slow the labour down otherwise. But overall, drug-free labours tend to be shorter; epidurals, for instance, blind you to when your body is contracting and make it hard to push, slowing the process down and raising the likelihood of an assisted delivery.

Speaking of pain, I was recently told by a first-time mum-to-be that she wished her mother would stop telling her she wouldn’t be able to handle it. Really, you CAN handle it. A man would pass out, but you won’t. Women who claim to feel less or no pain in labour just recategorise the feeling mentally, describing it as ‘discomfort’ or some other sensation. In Ina May Gaskin’s game-changing Spiritual Midwifery (after reading which I was pregnant with Caveboy the 1st within about twenty seconds) contractions are described throughout as ‘rushes’.

Highly recommended if you aren't freaked out by pictures of naked hippies with armpits like small furry mammals.

Highly recommended if you aren’t freaked out by pictures of naked hippies with armpits like small furry mammals having their nipples tweaked by their equally hirsute menfolk.

I would say that only about a hour in each of my births was actually painful, and this time goes very fast. Breathing into it, embracing the feeling as one step closer to meeting your baby, riding this primordial, volcanic wave of a feeling will make it seem less like something to be fought, reducing the amount of adrenaline (produced by fear) in your body. Tensing up during the contractions creates lactic acid around your muscles, which is what causes cramp and increases the sensation of pain, hence relaxation being everything in labour .

And so much of giving birth, perhaps all of it, is just allowing something the deepest recesses of your brain already knows how to do. There have been cases of women in comas who have given birth. I thought of that as my midwife told my friend that my pushing was ‘involuntary’. That’s exactly how it felt: not forced in the slightest, just allowing this innately instinctual movement to take place (and despite having a 4.130 kilo baby I didn’t tear).

The greatest bonus to not using anaesthetics is that I was fully conscious all the way through the labour. All sorts of interesting insights drop into your brain between rushes. At one point it occurred to me that while it might not seem very spiritual while you’re going through it, what is spiritual about birth is that perhaps for the first time in your life, you willingly submit to going through fairly extreme levels of discomfort, purely out of love for another. Love is so huge, so brilliant, that it makes pain look transient and insignificant beside it.

Our cat Nelly who gave birth to three kittens this morning. That grin tells you a lot about a natural birth!

Our cat Nelly who gave birth to three kittens recently. That grin tells you a lot about a natural birth!

This alertness continued afterwards; I remember being positively chatty with number 3 when he showed his head above the water. He was pretty perky as well – another benefit of not using drugs (babies born this way breastfeed better, too). Despite a day of some pretty heavy post-partum pains I was high as a kite for pretty much a month off the endorphins provided by a natural delivery.

But it’s uncomfortable for me to talk about these wonderful birth experiences, knowing that for so many women birth is traumatic. It breaks my heart that my experiences place me well into the minority among my peers. Fortunately, there are ways in which we can reclaim the beauty of birth, the empowerment it offers us (We did it! We brought another person into the world! That was us!). Part of this change is physical (the postmodern lifestyle, in which everything takes place virtually, is a disaster for birth preparation) but a larger part of it is psychological.

Both women and men need to turn our conditioning around and deliberately erase the negative messages seen in movies, or told to us by thoughtless older women whose own births didn’t go smoothly. A non-interventionist birth paves the way for the most intense endorphin high ever experienced in the human body – both for the mother and the baby – and creates the ideal conditions for bonding while protecting the mother from post-natal depression.

Rather than the question “Why make a woman experience pain in labour when she can have drugs?”, we can ask ourselves, “Why prevent women from having such a blissful connection to her body and her child?” Childbirth is a leap into the unknown: even women with dozen children say that every birth was different. What makes it amazing is seeing it not as falling, but as flying.

Rewild the Child (no Rewiring Required)

A quick thought while the baby is asleep in the sling…

It’s an ongoing thing for most of the mothers I know, the complaint that ‘my kids just don’t know how to play’. The blame usually gets put at the feet of gadgets, things that can be used to while away long hours on planes (those rubbery iPad covers with alien-like protuberances so kids can play car games spring to mind) or car journeys, or sitting in dentist’s waiting rooms, or just hanging out at home. The 3 month Spanish summer holidays are looming and the thought is troubling me as to what my kids will get up to all that time.

When there’s no toys or electronics to play with, any length of time seems unbearable; one friend recounted how her son (9 y.o.) had a tantrum at the thought of a 40-minute wait in an office yesterday, but once he’d finally accepted the reality of it he calmed down and waited patiently. It was the idea of having ‘nothing to do’ in all that time that freaked him out initially. “We used to be able to wait for much longer!” she recalled, “We didn’t need stuff to play with…we’d just play.”

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/video/2015/apr/08/time-to-rewild-your-child-george-monbiot-video?CMP=fb_gu

Another contact, a city planner, gave a great resumé of how kids aren’t really able to play ‘wild’ as most of us used to do when we were kids: ‘Urbanist Enrique Peñelosa once said “The measure of a good city is one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can safely go anywhere. If a city is good for children, it will be good for everyone else. Over the last 80 years we have been making cities much more for car mobility than for children’s happiness.” And that’s the crux of it, cities are built for cars, not kids/people.’

Although I get a lot of ‘Muuuum…I’m bored” at our house, I’m relieved and delighted whenever I see my kids playing (always with other kids, or at the very least with each other) without anything in the way, not even a swing or a roundabout. Creative types often comment that boredom was essential to the development of their art when they were children. I’ll rehash an old theme by saying the same’s true for me: I grew up in a couple of small villages where I did a lot of reading, making up stories, fiddling about on the guitar and just daydreaming.

Visiting my son’s old Waldorf school recently, which has moved (strangely enough) to my parent’s old house, I noticed a breeze block with a large piece of wood on top in the garden. The teacher commented that they don’t put anything to play on in the yard so that the kids will invent things: the wood and brick were put there by the kids to balance on. In another corner was a teepee made of bamboo. Kind of cool, don’t you think?

What it really comes down to, and what makes me sad when my kids pester me for Lego et al (it’s been birthday week…always the cue for weeks of pre-emptive materialistic preoccupation) is that we’ve become so accustomed to seeking happiness outside of ourselves, in an object, a phone, a toy…even another person. Playing with friends isn’t deriving happiness exclusively from them – it’s finding it emerges spontaenously from the alchemy of toegtherness.

We were at the plaza yesterday for a reading of Don Quixote in 30 languages (the most exotic being Mongolian), Cavegirl buddied up with some English kids who were playing by some rocks, pretending it was a kitchen, and I was warmed by the thought that imaginaton isn’t dead, and kids’ society is still capable of pulling out fantastical games from the ether. Innocence isn’t dead; we just need to have the space sans gizmos, to remember it. That’s a comfort.

You Forget

The same eternal newborn returns each time
to different arms, does the same belch
(in various tongues)
deposits the same spit-up
on T-shirt shoulders,
sealskin coats and jellabiyahs
saris, kurtas, kimonos
striped sweaters and batik robes.
Reeling back through its
tireless trajectory it
did the same on togas, Celtic cloaks
bare skin and button-neck Victorian blouses.
This is a well-practised baby
educated in how to curl its toes
when the sole is stroked
expert at rounding its lips towards
a touch on the cheek
it snuffles politely when hungry
– eyes closed to smell better –
or howls with gum ridges exposed
face the same outraged knot
no matter the colour of the cloth
and there is the same hiss as it feeds
same gulping, same satisfied silence
fists arrayed in sleep
as though a triumphant boxer.
I could be an Aztec and
the same rhythm would ensue:
change, feed, burp, feed, burp, sleep.
They cooed as I do,
kissed noses, tickled bellies
squished rolls of fat on arms
made up silly, fond names
crooned lullabies
walked about at night to calm a gassy gut.
All arms understand rocking
knees recall being half-crossed
to form a triangular bed
and bounced in regional variations of a horse
eyes find these delicate fingers familiar
rush to trace the extraordinary
tiny face, to meet the old, old gaze
so knowing it makes you bashful
lips always returning the refrain
“How amazing! So tiny! You forget…”
They intend it as parents of grown-older kids
who keep speed with their growth
so they never seem small
but inside that meaning is another:
they too were that ancient child once
fresh from the other world,
then the ancientness seeps out and
solidity creeps in
and you forget.
Go to sleep, little baby:
in sleep you are
returned.

Art and Honesty: When Slick Makes You Sick

Workout videos always amuse me. This afternoon I was trawling through YouTube to find a good pregnancy yoga video, my 4 1/2 daughter beside me. First we found one of your classic vids, an unusually slick production for the UK, complete with a wood fire in the background, random Zen-like objects on the shelves and French windows onto a tranquil patio (though we could still see the cameraman in the glass of the woodburner).

Warmed up by now, I keep searching and find an American prenatal pilates workout, which exceeded all my expectations (not to mention my fitness levels). The glowingly tanned instructor sashayed onto the screen like a starlet, the tracking shots zoomed in dizzyingly from all over (even the ceiling), and she kept talking about buns. Where I’m from buns are something you eat. Can’t you just call them buttocks and get it over with?

The music was energetic enough to send me into early labour, in fact I had to turn it off after a couple of minutes thinking I was having a kind of cultural heart attack (and I’m half American).

Still looking for decent exercise vids, we then found another British yoga clip that brought things back down to a manageable level of reality. The instructor wore an old tracksuit, the handheld camera jiggled about, there was a terrible glaring light in the background, and after every line the instructor pursed her lips in an apologetic sort of grimace. Ah, that’s more like it! A healthy dose of British realism.

While chuckling to myself over this transatlantic comparison during my familiar pregnancy-induced insomnia, I realised that this isn’t a million miles away from where Muslims are – in the global, cultural digisphere – from the kind of slick PR values currently steering the zeitgeist. For years we’ve heard people saying things like, ‘When are Muslims going to start making decent magazines, TV stations, films? Where are the Spielbergs of the Muslim world? Why can’t we get it together and make things just as well as what’s made in the West?’ And of course there’s the political gripe, which comes just as often (with a self-gratified sneer) from the Islamophobia corner, ‘Where are the Martin Luther Kings, the Gandhis, the Mandelas of the Islamic world? Where are those voices that make the whole world stop and listen?’

The answer to the former question is one that is changing rapidly right now. Navid Akhtar, a regular documentary maker for the BBC, is currently looking for ‘founder members’ to subscribe to (i.e crowdfund) a wonderful digital TV platform called Alchemiya, clearly a cut above the rest in terms of production values, and with the ethos of presenting the most beautiful and fascinating content from the Muslim World today – as often as not emerging from among Western Muslims. People like Canadian-born film-maker Adam Shamash, whose recent video for Californian hip-hop artist and poet Baraka Blue’s song Love and Light was filmed in Fez and London, are upping the stakes with great passion and verve. (If you’re careful you might see me in that clip too…)

In the vanguard of any movement you’ll always find artists. Speaking plain truth and down-to-earth wisdom is the quiet but constant Peter Sanders, whose photography career started with the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix (he took the last shots of Jimi onstage before his death) and now meanders over the Islamic world capturing faces of saints and schoolkids, worlds inaccessible to the average blogger or newsreader.

Another Muslim Peter is that of the ever-dynamic Gould variety, whose Sydney-based design company pulls a lot of punches and whose Facebook page has over 100,000 followers. His Creative Ummah project, which is likewise looking for support at the moment on LaunchGood (another interesting Muslim enterprise), would create an online learning platform for everything from art to zoology (well, maybe the zoology is going a bit far), highlighting all the talent currently out there in the Muslim World.

And Yusuf
Islam
is back in the saddle with a new album, this time collaborating with an old friend from the Sufi 70s, Richard Thompson, and co-produced by Rick Rubin. One of few Muslim artists who have known serious limelight, Yusuf masterfully injects listenable, well-turned-out tunes with arresting philosophical thoughts.

You get the idea. I’d love to highlight all the Muslims currently putting immense efforts into raising the standards across the board, bringing beauty back into art and design (check out Lateefa Spiker, Iona Fournier-Tombs, Soraya Syed, and my very own dad for inspiring, bar-raising work) but there isn’t the space here and they might unfriend me for writing something embarrassing about them by accident. The point is that as the generations of Western Muslims move into second and even third, the production quality we expect is filtering down into the work we produce. No more cheap books printed in Lahore with text slipping off the page and spines that come undone after one reading.

My problem is that there’s something I quite like about the rubbishy productions we’re growing out of. Sure, the book-lover in me balks at poorly designed covers and pages so thin you can read the whole book just by holding it up to the light, but there’s something kind of honest about it nonetheless.

There is a tipping point at which content begins to be eclipsed by form. For many Muslims, this is exactly what we’re reacting against in the western sphere, an artistic and political stage in which looks mean everything, in which a US president can speak movingly about freedom and justice and the fight against terror while STILL not closing Guantanamo Bay, killing untold numbers of Pakistani and Syrian civilians using drones, or continuing to use cluster bombs even though they are known to kill children who think they’re toys.

We expect politics to be devious, but there has to be honesty in art or all is lost. I would much rather watch an Iranian film with poor film quality on YouTube for its awesome cinematography, brilliant script and effortlessly realistic acting than a Hollywood blockbuster in HD replete with clever jokes, jaw-dropping CGI effects and score sung by some chart-topping megababe. I suppose it’s the frustrated traveller in me that is riveted by ruins, prefers crummy worker’s restaurants with good eats over five-star places, and seeks out people selling food from trays on their head in the street to find out about the meaning of life.

The answer to the second question is not so dissimilar, either. Full marks if you’ve heard of Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and former judge awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her tireless campaigns for women’s rights. Or Samira Saleh al-Nuaimi, an Iraqi lawyer and political activist who criticised ISIS aka Da’esh, on a Facebook page and was tortured and executed for it. (It did appear in a few newspapers, with some photo credits even spelling her name wrong). Meanwhile there are people like the affable Sudanese London-based Sheikh Babikir, who never ceases to preach peace and love and hugging trees, as well as thousands of other ‘good’ teachers with the same message; surely Abdallah Bin Bayyah’s plea for a ‘war on war for a peace upon peace’ is a quote worthy of Gandhi. But love and compassion doesn’t hit the news quite like a beheading.

The voices do exist: they just don’t have full make-up, excellent English and a retinue that keeps the red carpet rolling. ‘Neither did Gandhi or Martin Luther King’, you say. That’s true; but things have changed immeasurably since then. To make your voice heard now in the galaxy of user-generated content online, you have to drown everyone else out. You need a YouTube channel, a manager, a lawyer, a dozen advisers to keep your career on track, a personal trainer, some sort of bizarre diet involving immortality mushrooms, lots of famous friends who will invite you to their shows so you can be photographed there, and the expectation that you are worth it, dammit.

So while I applaud those people who are creating higher quality art and design, more functional websites, better translations, more beautiful gifts, and films to knock your socks off, I’d like to spare some time for the jumble sale rejects, the people with good hearts and great words whose suits aren’t snappy and whose colour schemes suck. May we never get so cool that we forget the dust and decay of the real world. In the great, metaphorical landscape of the internet, I’d rather be in downtown Zanzibar in a pair of flipflops eating a mango than shopping for Prada in a Dubai mall any day.

Man in Stone Town, Zanzibar, not eating a mango.

Man in Stone Town, Zanzibar, not eating a mango.