The Incredible Hug

Me Being Really Good at Hugging

When I was about 12, I made this very fervent and slightly pathetic little prayer:

“Please please please Allah, make me really good at EVERYTHING.”

I was in the PE changing rooms at school, after a particularly useless attempt at playing hockey, waiting for a shower under the eerie eye of the lesbian PE teacher who everyone said would whisk the shower curtain away while you stood there, trembling and naked. This was back in the day where lesbians were considered, to small children, more terrifying than vampire banshee ghostbats.

There I was, shivering in my horrible red and thoroughly un-Islamic gym knickers with scrunched up eyes, praying to the Doer of All Things Good Such As Reminding You To Bring Your Gym Kit So You Don’t Have To Wear Something Skanky Out Of The Lost Property Bins. (That’s beside the point. Stick to the point, Medina.)

So I have been pondering this one recently, the frustrated ambition (not the lesbian ghostbats), being as I currently am about as capable of launching a successful creative career as a piece of old chewing gum squashed into some tarmac. To give you a bit of context, my main classification of success these days is not walking out of the door with baby poo on my trousers, or cooking food that tastes like something scraped out of an archaeological dig.

Not long ago, while mindlessly surfing the net with a sleeping baby attached to my boob on afternoon (as one does), I stumbled across Hyperbole And A Half, a blog of such staggering hilarity that I spent my entire glorious hour of peace while the whole rest of the house was asleep poring through the blogger’s archives, by turns breathless with laughter and despondent at my own comparative lack of creative direction.

OK, so it wasn’t just envy at her marvellously witty illustrated posts, but also at her 3600 something followers. Yowzers. How does one get so well read? Is it really just a case of being great?

I tried to put the baby down so I could go back and read; she grabbed on tightly in her amazing sleep reflexes (don’t drop me out of the tree, mother squirrel). I tried to sleep, having gone to bed at 1am and getting up with two somersaulting kids at 6am after very broken sleep, and by this time was a gabbling lunatic, but I couldn’t. Tried to get up, but every movement out of our hug made Cavebabe flinch in her sleep and threaten to wake up with a caterwaul.

So I lay there, feeling about the emotional equivalent of an over-microwaved MSG chicken flavoured Pot Noodle, as creatively inspired as a blob of factory-made cheese (not even the interesting stinky stuff) that had been squashed into the underside of someone’s sock, depressed at not being amazing enough.

Then it struck me: why did I need thousands of blog followers to be classified as amazing? Why couldn’t I just be amazing at something basic and human – like hugging? Cavebabe didn’t need a super-fantastic famous blogger mother. She needed a really amazing hug. Surely that was far more useful, in that exact moment, than having a vast glittering presence in the murky depths of the blogosphere.

Where did this insane need for mass approval come from? At school, I did amateur dramatics, I sang, I played guitar, performed my songs, danced, took part in gym displays. I was an all-singing, all-dancing, straight A success machine. Apart from being crap at outdoor sports, that is.

But I no longer have the shadow of exam grades, University requirements or competitive friends to keep this creeping phantasm alive, the will-o-the-wisp of worldly success, the eyes boring into my back declaring whether or not I am SOMEBODY based on what I have achieved. I would like to start dedicating some serious time, instead, to something far more important: the art of hugging. A real hug is, after all, what would pretty much solve all of the world’s manifold ills.

Imagine, for a moment, the warmth of arms encircling you, transmitting their owner’s tenderness and care in a sort of infrared love-wave, water in their cells dancing with desire for your wellbeing, their dance inviting the water in your own cells to join in, passing on their infectious ease, correcting the kilter of your subtlest movements, healing every invisible wound.

The impulse to kiss bare skin must also come from this same primordial touch-balm; your lips are where your skin is thinnest, where the tingle of love crosses the barrier between people most easily, benevolence crossing the semi-permeable membrane of your talking apparatus and silencing it.

This is where I really should be striving for excellence, in making my arms available for limitless loving, in offering all hurt beings a truly incredible hug.

Mamma Mia!

Bundesarchiv Bild 135-KB-12-087, Tibetexpedition, Tibeterin in Tracht mit Kind

I was recently asked by my midwife to feed a friend’s newborn baby who didn’t seem interested in the breast.

(A male of the species, not interested in the breast?! Unbelievable, but true.)

I remembered the first time I fed Shamsie, the surreal experience of having a food product (correction: a dynamite liquid gold superfood) coming out of a body part that had previously not enjoyed so many public appearances. I didn’t realise how lucky I’d been, with two babies who latched on like pros and were little squidge monsters within a couple of months.

This baby, on the other hand, was a tiny little thing, only a week old and weak from hardly drinking any of the milk his mother had been pumping.

(An electric breastpump, for those of you who haven’t been initiated, is a weird sort of proboscis that attaches to your nipple and slurps away at a slow, rhythmic pace with a faint whirr, sucking like some sort of sleepy, extraterrestrial hoover. Enough to make any new mother feel like a commercial dairy farm.)

The baby’s mother was doing admirably, not remotely stung at the thought of another woman breastfeeding her baby, even with that tsunami of hormones that usually makes first-time mothers a bawling wreck merely watching an advert of golden retriever puppies chasing toilet rolls down stairs.

Was it weird, breastfeeding another woman’s baby? Not in the slightest. I was surprised; it happened so seamlessly, him nestling into the crook of my arm like he’d always been there, before I even thought about the strangeness of it.

He latched on fine, opened his sleepy eyes in a concentrated, slightly frowning stare directed at a freckle on my collarbone, fed for ten minutes solidly, then lapsed back into that glorious doze that newborns do so well. Still floating in the miniature ocean in their mothers, coccooned in an absolute peace not yet broken by car horns and sirens and snappy voices.

Job done, I headed home; I had absorbed some of his bliss. The rough track seemed wide and sunlit, I glid over the cracks etched by acequia overflow, now filled with concrete rubble, as if they were a clover lawn. A donkey and her fluffy, doe-eyed foal watched me passively from the next field. Rosa bobbed happily in her sling, not knowing – or not minding – that her food source was being shared.

According to Islam, babies who are breastfed by the same mother are considered ‘milk siblings’ and aren’t supposed to marry. Now, I don’t know if just one feed counts, or if – as was the case in medieval Arabia, where cities were so riddled with diseases that babies were sent to be fed by Berber women in the countryside until they were two – this law only referred to children who were raised and fed along with a wet nurse’s own children.

In either case, what it means is that Islam considers breastmilk to be as important as genes. Something of your body has entered the bloodstream of another person (wow, doesn’t that sound intense!) and gone to build their bones and muscles and brain tissue.

The whole experience gave me a flicker of inspiration towards becoming a breastfeeding counseller. That bliss, the two-way bond that mother and newborn experience that is so out of this world – as well as replete with health benefits – is the most incredible gift I could imagine giving to a new mother.

However, the length of the training involved (and the 4,400 pounds NCT course fee!) are slightly off-putting. On top of that, it seems that some women have had such difficulties with breastfeeding – sore, cracked and even bleeding nipples, mastitis) that any advice from breastfeeding counsellers came across as unsympathetic, impractical or just plain wrong.

Poor bedside manner might account for much of it, but the truth of the matter is that we are only coming back to breastfeeding as a society in the West after quite a prolonged period when it was deemed immodest, unhygienic, perverse or even (as my cousin’s wife put it) ‘disgusting’.

In the UK, despite a huge NHS-backed push to encourage breastfeeding to at least 6 months, there still prevails a bit of a ‘Wahey! Tits out for the lads’ attitude towards it. Under the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, breastfeeding mothers in the UK have always been able to breastfeed in public (despite concerns in 2008 that babies older than 6 months wouldn’t be protected by an amendment to this law). Nevertheless, our shrinking violet genes dictate a bit of a stuffy, corseted, Victorian approach to feeding our cubs.

I’d like to conduct a bit of research. What have been your experiences of breastfeeding? Did you love it, suffer for it, get weirded out at the idea? Have you ever been asked to leave restaurant for it? Amusing anecdotes about accidentally squirting long-range milk into an unsuspecting waiter’s eye are also much appreciated. Do you get ’em out while buying broccoli on the market, or shy away in quiet corners? Partners, what did you think of your lady’s new food-producing boobs?

Just think if it as keeping abreast of the issue…(sorry, had to be done.)

Love (TM)

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