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.
The thing about trying to get poems published is that the sheer bloody admin involved is practically a full-time job in itself. The deadlines, the rules, the formatting, the online submissions, the stamps and self-addressed envelopes… I had to create a spreadsheet just to keep tabs on where I’d submitted what to and when, and if there’s one thing I loathe in this life it is spreadsheets.
So, with a newborn at home and a big old chunk of maternity leave ahead of me, I’ve made the liberating decision to take a year off from poetry submissions. Instead, I want to use what’s left of my free time to write about what it’s like to be a new mum, from the vomit-clogged horror of those early weeks of pregnancy to the curious joy of hearing your baby fart in her sleep.
No meticulous editing or re-drafting or trying to find the perfect words – just a frank account of what it’s like to be a bookworm mum, beginning with the books that have helped me through the wee small hours…
This poem first appeared in New Writing Scotland 35 (August 2017)
I was a minnow of a girl, tossed
by the storm. Banished from Algiers
with the skin of my belly tight
as a drum, packed with the kicks
of my Caliban, whose diabolic
father knew a trick or two.
Many moons rose. I wove an eel-
grass cradle, chased mischievous
spirits from my driftwood door.
Waves curling behind me like claws,
I screamed him out. Beneath a squid-
ink sky he hit the sand as lightning struck.
I loved my moon-calf dear, stroked
the bristles on his cheeks, caressed
his crooked spine. I held him high
to pick our olives, figs and oranges
until my salty breath ran out
and I became pure essence.
Prospero offered my boy stolen fruit
on open palms, beguiled with wily
spells. Now Caliban bears wood
like a mule, weeps over his chains
until iron turns to rust and man
turns to beast with a poet’s tongue.
Ah, his words might be as sweet
as peaches. At night, he rocks
gently, sings lullabies; but they are
few, and brief, and soiled with curses.
Oh, he could be so tall if he would
only walk with unbowed spine.
The girl holds out her cup and sinks onto the hearthside stool, gulps again the bitter tea beneath the midwife’s gaze. Those eyes, buried in skin crinkled as raisins, will have seen a thousand like her: those who chose the wrong time to give in, or didn’t choose at all. The walls gather close as gossips, windows weeping steam, flames tonguing the grate. Then comes the quickening in her core, the poker-heat, the rush of liquid, brown and slippery as cooking-oil. A vision ensues: a shrivelled underwater foot emerging; a boiled potato torso; four tuberous limbs… The midwife shovels the mulch into the fire, hands glistening like ham, as the girl inches towards the couch, packing a wad of cloth between her thighs, inhaling the stench of burnt meat, sweltering in the fug.