How to do this dark jewel of a book justice? An Agatha Christie-esque whodunnit set in a sinister stately home in the 1920s, featuring a Groundhog Day time loop and Quantum Leap-style body-hopping. The plot: tormented Aiden Bishop is trapped in the various bodies of the inhabitants of Blackheath House, doomed to relive the same day over and over again until he solves the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle. Thrilling, addictive, genuinely terrifying, utterly original and mind-fizzingly ingenious… I cannot do it justice, and nor can I get it out of my head.
After a long day of driving and visiting friends in another town, my little knackered family of three hit Asda to get the weekly shop over with. As my husband loaded bags into our trolley, I decided to wheel Mary in her buggy to the clothes sale rack for a quick gander. Having sung various Regina Spektor songs to my daughter, and chat-chat-chatted to her throughout our shop, as I always do, I stopped for approx. 10 seconds to check out a rather fetching blue jumper.
That’s when it happened.
An older man, perhaps in his late sixities, approached me.
“Talk to her!”, he declared loudly. “Describe the things around you! It’s how she’ll learn to speak!”
I was struck momentarily dumb. I simply did not know how to respond to this strange man.
“Oh hello,” he addressed Mary, “you look surprised that someone’s actually talking to you.”
Enter the red mist…
“I talk to my daughter all day,” I responded, adrenalin surging through me. “And you’re surrounded by people who love you and talk to you all day, aren’t you sweetheart?” I said to Mary. “That’s why you’re such a great little talker.”
Something made him backtrack. My tone. My language. The realisation that I was not to be patronised by this man, or any man. I got talking to him. I sensed loneliness beneath the condescension. His daughter was grown up. He’d only got to see her at weekends (which is sad, but it really is easier to be Daddy Fun Timez when you’ve only got 48 hours to fill).
Then he started talking in depth about how babies love beetles and it hit me that he might not be the full shilling. My anger left me. My husband caught up with us. We left the man on surprisingly good terms. As we walked away he called out: “Remember the beetles!”.
But it got me thinking about unsolicited advice and the tyranny of presumption. Even if I was genuinely not engaging with my baby, how would a stranger’s judgment help the situation? What if I was struggling with postnatal depression? Or recently bereaved? Or running on 2 hours sleep? The arrogance of anyone, no matter their parenting experience, approaching a stranger in this way has me lamenting the lack of basic kindness and empathy in some people’s hearts.
So, on to my top 5 unsolicited advice offenders:
OMG, thank you! All the months of mothering and classes and manuals and visits from health professionals and Googling and MumsNet chats and discussions with family and friends has left me with a gap in my knowledge that only a sanctimonious prick with a latte on the bus can fill! Thank you so much for your help!
I’m not ageist, truly. The wisdom of old people gives me life, and when I was pregnant the most chivalrous and caring strangers were all past 70. But a tiny minority can be quite judgmental. If you raised your babies in the 1950s, is there any chance things might have changed just a teensy bit? And perhaps it’s now best not to, for example, give my baby Scotch to help with teething?
Relatives Who Had Their Babies Decades Ago
I wouldn’t dream of suggesting I know best how to deal with a screaming two-week old, and I had one just 7 months ago! You have forgotten more than you realise. Have some humility.
Those people who sneer at the advice of trained professionals such as doctors, midwives and health visitors, advocating a return to ‘common sense’, e.g. giving your 4 month old a chocolate digestive. Denial of expertise is what put Trump in the White House. No thank you.
Comments Section Crusaders
Those knobs that lurk below. Those spreaders of bad juju. Find any article online about breastfeeding or co-sleeping or baby-led weaning and check out the unsolicited pearls from BrexitJohnny1066 who feels the world will benefit from knowing how disgusting he finds toddlers who make noise and how bad behaviour simply did not exist in his day and blah blah blah blah blah blah bleurrrrggghhhhh….
So here’s the one piece of unsolicited advice I’ll give: if a parent hasn’t asked for your opinion, don’t offer one. You know not what you do.
The inverted commas are on account of my failure to leave my baby crying for more than a nanosecond. I admire parents who can fight through a week of cries in order to have a baby who can soothe herself back to sleep at the end of it, I really do, but my pansy heart can’t hack it.
So, I’ve been sort-of sleep training Mary. Instead of feeding her to sleep in the living-room with lamps on etc., I take her into the bedroom, keep the lights off, put her in her sleeping-bag, and feed her to sleep on the bed. Once she’s asleep, I slip her into her cot and tiptoe away. She still has her sleep association between boob and dreamy time, but she at least has a vague idea of where she is if she wakes up. The poor little thing was falling asleep in one place and waking up in another. No wonder she was discombobulated!
The penguin of the title is a wonderful mug from Paperchase that has a lid in the form of a penguin head (his body forms the mug), which keeps drinks real toasty. If I make myself a cup of tea and put the lid on, I can have a restorative hot drink waiting for me after my nightly getting-bubs-to-sleep routine. Magic.
The owl is Ollie the Owl, a marvellous sleep aid in the shape of a big fluffy owl toy made by The Gro Company. His tummy lights up, his wings contain buttons that play a lullaby, white noise, heartbeats and rainfall, he is activated by your baby’s cry, and he even pours tired parents a nice cold gin and tonic from his beak.
That last function is imaginary but he’s still an excellent comrade in the quest to get baby the F to sleep!
We’ve got to a pleasing stage in Mary’s development in which she can’t stay awake for more than two hours at a time. Our little clockwork mouse kips around 10am, 1pm and 4pm, and in that time I get to READ. An hour or maybe even more of blissful bookage, punctuated, at the moment, only by some local middle-class menace wielding a hammer/chisel/drill/hedge-trimmer/trident of Neptune/staff of Gandalf, trying to make his penis larger by doing DIY ALL DAY LONG. Not a moment of sunshine is to be left unsullied, according to this neighbourhood Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor.
Poorly concealed rage aside, I’ve recently been devouring Agatha Christie facsimile editions while Mary snoozes. I’m currently on The Murder On the Links, a cracking Poirot murder mystery set in the North coast of France during the 1920s, and I’m loving it. I often reach a real juicy plot twist just as I hear my baby meowing for me, and I’m only a teensy bit ashamed to say I keep reading until the meows become angry squeaks.
A Bookworm Mum has to take her thrills while she may.
When Kinder Egg started making pink ‘girls’ and blue ‘boys’ eggs I, like so many people, thought: “Enough, already”. What a massive buzzkill for kids to be told that unicorns and cupcakes are for girls and spaceships and dinosaurs are for boys. Why should this be? “Scrap all gendered toys!” I thought. “And scrap the clothes, too, while you’re at it.” After all, babies have no concept of ‘male’ and ‘female’. That’s on us.
Ah, but little baby girl clothes… Pink mittens and socks with bows! Floral headbands and love-heart patterned sleepsuits! Ngngngngngngng. I admit it. I’m a complete sucker for them.
That’s not to say I think that boys shouldn’t be allowed to wear a sugar pink onesie embroidered with daisies, or that girls can’t rock a pair of dungarees with a forklift truck stamped boldly on the front pocket. Who cares? Gender is fluid. We live in woke times. (I should also add that many of my baby’s most beloved outfits are yellow or white or some other neutral colour, printed with animals and stars and other items that have, for whatever reason, escaped the tyranny of gender.)
But the sight of Mary in a chintzy dress and bluebell shaped hat, looking like the love child of Legolas and Thumbelina, makes my girlish heart sing!
(I must add, however, that anything with “Daddy’s Little Princess” or similar written on it deserves to be vomited upon from a great height.)
I never made a birth plan, figuring that you can’t plan such things as getting a baby from womb to room in the way that you can plan, say, a picnic or a visit to the dentist. On the one hand, I was right. Even if I HAD planned to give birth at home or in a pool or whatever else, I wouldn’t have got my wish. On the other hand, I was pretty ignorant about certain aspects of childbirth and if I have another baby I will be armed with a watertight plan in case I’m put on The Drip – aka Satan’s Nectar – again.
The Drip is used to induce birth. When my waters started trickling out a day after Mary was due, they were a funky colour. Think of moss mixed with rust and a dash of Nutella and you’re pretty much there. It turns out that Mary had charmingly done a nice big poop in my womb, and so she had to come out asap. No dilly-dallying for Mary and I. No slow and steady journey from first contraction to last. The Drip fast-forwards things at an insane speed and made me think that I might die.
I didn’t scream. I prefer to internalise anxiety and pain. But I did make noises, towards the end, that wouldn’t have been out of place in a barn. My contractions went from “oh, these are fine!” to “I. Need. An. Epidural” at breakneck speed. There was no time for an epidural. At 8pm I was sitting in the hospital waiting-room watching Eastenders. At 9.04am I was holding my 8lb 7.5oz slippery bundle of love in my arms. Given that much of those initial hours was spent waiting for a pessary to work (it didn’t), having a bath and eating Wine Gums, that’s a fast turnaround.
So if we have another baby, I will be armed with a plan. If I’m put on The Drip again I will immediately ask for an epidural. I ended up numb from the waist down anyway, since I needed my second-degree tears stitched up in theatre, so I may as well have used that delicious numbness to push our jumbo baby out.
I will also make sure that my cannula is put in correctly, on the front of my hand. One of the midwives put it in the front of my wrist, exactly where my hand bends, and, four and a half months on, it’s still bruised. My vaginal stitches hurt less.
I will also remember to remove my specs, put on a nice flowery nightie, and tie my hair back as soon as labour starts. So fast did things move that in a photo taken immediately after Mary was born I’m still wearing my specs (lopsided) and the XXL man’s black t-shirt from Asda that I entered the hospital wearing. I look deranged.
A plan might just prevent this, and while I probably won’t go full ‘essential-oils-and-Enya’, I will do my utmost to avoid the barnyard madness from reoccurring.
On the subject of sleep, I’m writing this from our living-room while baby Mary sleeps in her pram in the kitchen, large muslin cloth shrouding her from sight, cooker hood fan on, Leonard Cohen singing softly of tea and oranges nearby. These are the ludicrous measures I go to in order to be able to type during her morning nap, because my baby has THE EARS OF A BAT.
My husband and I spend our evenings, after Mary’s conked out, tip-toeing about the cottage, wincing at creaky floorboards and cracking bones, whispering entire conversations to each other, laughing with our hands covering our mouths, and watching TV with the subtitles on. It’s exactly like the John Krasinski film A Quiet Place, in which terrible monsters are drawn to people if they make the tiniest noise, except that our terrible monster weighs in at just over 15lbs.
It’s odd, because, like I mentioned in my last post, Mary can snooze in the noisiest surroundings. I’ve seen her sleep through a waitress dropping a tray of crockery in a packed coffee shop, or while boisterous toddlers throw themselves around like WWF fighters on a mat beside her. But the sound of Andrew and I kissing each other goodnight beside her cot? GOOD MORNING WORLD! Where’s the party at?
When we get our new house with an actual UPSTAIRS things will be different. But for now, it’s goodbye listening to dialogue and hello sneezing into cushions while The Boss slumbers in her tiny blankety throne.
In one of lifestyle blogger Emily Norris’s YouTube videos, her four month old son Jackson shows all the signs of needing a nap: rubbing his eyes and ears, making little crooning mogwai noises like Gizmo from Gremlins, etc. So what his mum does is take him to his cot whilst he’s nice and sleepy, lay him down inside it, and simply leave him to fall asleep on his own.
At four and a half months, our Mary has never managed this astonishing feat, and we have to essentially trick our baby into bed. I can breastfeed her to sleep, while Andrew has to rock her to oblivion while playing Billy Joel. Then, when she’s in a deep slumber, we slip her into bed and tiptoe out. If Mary wakes and we’re not there, she cries hot salty tears of anguish and wails as if we’ve abandoned her in the Kalahari desert.
Must we ‘sleep train’ our girl, leave her to cry and break all three of our hearts in doing so? Or will this situation resolve itself like the Era of the Binky did? (We were told we’d have to ‘wean’ Mary off her binky/dummy/pacifier, but at three months she simply removed it from her mouth with her own chubby paw and never wanted it again.)
Strangely, Mary is actually a good wee sleeper, snoozing for eight hour chunks in her bedside cot, and can fall fast asleep during wacky baby classes, on her playmat, along my outstretched legs, and even when she watches TV upside down, back arched over my lap (don’t ask).
So we’re going to give it to six months, and pray to the baby gods that she learns to view our bedroom as a dreamy paradise, rather than a wasteland where babies are left to perish.
Books have been my saviour since I was a shy child holed up in my bedroom reading Brian Jacques, Robin Jarvis, J K Rowling, E Nesbitt, Philip Pullman et al, and now that I’m a new mum they’re proving to be as much of a lifeline as they ever were.
So here are the books that have been a balm to my frazzled soul, from pregnancy to post-partum delirium…
The Old Friends
In the later stages of pregnancy, when I was waddling from couch to fridge and crying over butter commericals, I needed ease and familiarity, and so I reached for some old friends. The Adrian Mole diaries by Sue Townsend. Poirot murder mysteries by Agatha Christie. The Sally Lockart quartet by Philip Pullman. The Earthsea Saga by Ursula Le Guin. Jeeves and Wooster stories by P G Wodehouse. Bridget Jones’s diaries by Helen Fielding. Revisiting these perennial faves reminded me that, even though my life was about to change forever, I would always have these old pals to comfort and console me.
As hilarious as Bertie Wooster is, he’s never going to help me deal with cracked nipples, so I’ve turned to a few baby manuals for advice.
Your Baby Week by Week by Caroline Fertleman and Simone Cave takes you through the first six months of your baby’s life, and covers all the basics, from sleep patterns to how many dirty nappies you can expect to change daily. Whilst I’ve laughed heartily at some of the book’s suggestions (at three months my baby should, apparently, have been feeding only once every three hours – HAHAHAHAHA!) there’s a lot of sage advice on offer here and it’s put my mind at ease on many occasions.
You’ve Got It In You by Emma Pickett is a lovely, down-to-earth guide to breastfeeding and has helped me no end with the surprisingly tricky art of getting milk from nip to lip. Happy Mum Happy Baby by Giovanna Fletcher is a gorgeous account of the joys and mania of new motherhood and made me feel both normal and less alone in the twilight hours.
As great as these books are, sometimes, after a long day of reading nursery rhymes in increasingly daft voices, pretending to be Piglet and giving a running commentary of every banal task I do so that my baby knows I’m nearby, what I need is pure escapism. This is where fantasy books come in. The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss are two of the best books of their genre and I cannot wait for the third and final installment of The Kingkiller Chronicles. Next I’ll be re-reading A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin. Hot bubble bath + cup of tea + a chapter of a nice chunky fantasy = the most relaxing half hour of my day.
Knowledge to Stop Brainrot
Finally, I think it’s a good idea for me to keep learning new things so that my brain doesn’t melt into a big pink gooey mess, so I’m currently reading The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte. Brusatte’s writing style is witty, engaging and entertaining, and the subject matter is so exciting that the book is actually giving me goosebumps.
As for the books I read with wee Mary? That’s a whole other post, and a whole other source of joy for a bookworm mum.