Lies, damn lies and mental health promises…

theresa-may-mental-health

PM Theresa May saying nice-ish stuff about justice and mental health in an almost convincing manner.

Talk is cheap. Something I’m sure Theresa May is aware of as she continues to embark on her programme of saying nice-ish, sensible things whilst backing them up with fuck all.

Today it was all about the ‘shared society’ (very different from the ‘big society’, you understand) and reforming mental health services. Today she uttered the ground-breaking words that will, no doubt, go down in history:

“For too long mental illness has been something of a hidden injustice in our country, shrouded in a completely unacceptable stigma and dangerously disregarded as a secondary issue to physical health.”

Well, thank God a political leader is finally talking about this… If only we’d had someone like Theresa May in a prominent cabinet position for the past six years… Oh wait… Continue reading

Of home births and hero worship.

Recently, it’s really struck me how we all (or at least those of us who spend too much time googling shit and carry around an abundance of middle class guilt) aspire to a certain kind of birth. Pain-relief free, in a birthing-pool and, ideally, at home. The natural way.

(Incidentally, this line of thinking partly started because of the whole Helen-home-birth storyline on the Archers, which has since paled into insignificance).

Before I go any further I should say – if you did give birth at home, then props to you. I ain’t no hater.

But I do feel like women who manage to do it all ‘naturally’ receive a particular, celebrated status. They are sometimes talked about in a way that I rarely hear women who had assisted births being described. “Such a hero”, “amaaazing” etc.  And I don’t think that status serves anyone. Because, for one thing, it dictates how you should feel about your labour. At home with no pain-relief? You should feel good! In hospital with an epidural and some ‘assistance’. Bad. Obvs. Continue reading

Mental health services: a matter of life and death

On 4th January 2014 me and my mum turned up at A&E in Manchester. I was afraid of my own mind. I was the most tired I’d ever been in my life but when I tried to sleep by body was tensed with anxiety and horrible thoughts piled on top of me like a lead weight. I had a 10 week old baby to care for, but I couldn’t enjoy this beautiful, bonny boy because I was ill. I was very very ill. 
Without the love and support of my endlessly sensitive and understanding family, and the wonderful mother and baby mental health unit that’s took us in, I genuinely don’t know where I’d be now. I’m sure my boy would be okay, but I do believe those mental health services saved my life.
Even as I write this I feel self-conscious; what will people who didn’t know about it think of me? Will they see me differently? But I’m not ashamed, I’m proud to be a survivor of a condition that is as cruel and unbidden and potentially fatal as any physical illness. And this separation between ‘mental’ health and ‘physical’ health is a false divide; an incredibly harmful one at that.

When I came out of the unit I was still not strong. It was 12 weeks of therapy, followed by an 8 weeks mindfulness for depression group that really changed everything. Now I have the resources to protect myself against further episodes. I am stronger than I have ever been. I am so grateful to live in a country where health care is free at the point of delivery.

But this care is under attack. The notion that a body set up to protect the sick and vulnerable should be ‘economically viable’ when subject to vicious spending cuts is inhumane. But even if we took compassion out of the equation (which it often seems the Tories have already done) it’s utter fiscal stupidity. Without occupational therapy and ongoing support people with chronic mental health issues move from low risk to high risk, when that happens they either need intensive community based care or a hospital bed.

Now, I’m no economist but I’m pretty sure a group gardening class costs less than having somebody sectioned.

So Dear, Dear Readers, please share this post and sign this petition. If you live in Manchester please lobby your councillors and MP.

For some people this will be a matter of life and death.

_______________

Less advice, more washing-up: 6 ways to support new parents

Friends, cousins, grandparents; lend me your ears!

Hurrah! Your daughter or son/brother or sister/cousin/friend has just become a parent. You are likely to be very excited, and so you should be! Frankly, if you weren’t I would judge you. However, in your excitement over the baby you may not be quite up on your new-parenting etiquette. You will no doubt have the best of intentions. You will want to swoop in and lend a hand, maybe give a few hints and tips if you yourself have had a baby, or, like, read about it online. This is all good stuff, but it may need a little moderating. Remember, these people you have known for years have suddenly been handed the biggest responsibility of their lives, whilst also being sleep-deprived. This is not a combination that serves sanity at all well.

But do not fear! I have coined 6 simple rules to avoid any baby-related faux pas. (you’re welcome).

 

1) Become a Yes Man.

People we are close to are often the ones we’re most honest with. You know, like if a colleague at work says something you disagree with you let it fly, but if your sister says it you have a 30 minute stand-up row with her. (How dare she say Kim and Kanye’s love isn’t for reals??) It’s hard to tell a stranger when you think they’re wrong, but much easier when it’s your best mate; the person who has held your seventeen-year-old hair back in the loos after misguided boozing. This honesty is a sign of your closeness in itself, right?

Well, yes, but for now, just give it a rest. It doesn’t matter what they say, your new-parent friends/family are RIGHT. If they think it’s time for the baby to eat, they’re right. If they think it’s too cold to go for a walk, they’re right. Basically, unless they suddenly announce that they’ve decided to feed their baby McDonalds’ strawberry milkshakes instead of breast milk/formula, then they are right.

When baby first arrives on the scene most of us are one massive ball of doubts. Should I put an extra layer on him? Oh, but maybe he’ll overheat. It’s only been an hour, but I think he’s hungry, should I feed him? Is this okay? Is that okay? Arg *minor brain implosion*

So, when we actually make a decision, the last thing we need is to be told we’re wrong. Smile and nod. Smile. And. Nod.Oh, and say how well we’re doing; everyone likes that! Got it?

 

2) Sometimes advice is ill-advised.

There is one, simple rule for giving advice to new parents, and it is this: wait to be asked. Just. Wait.

Have you any idea of the level of advice-saturation a new parents’ brain is under at any one time? They are likely to have been to birthing-classes, read books, talked endlessly about babies with the world and his wife. They will know a lot. And even if they don’t, within a month of socialising with other mums your daughter/sister/cousin/friend will be well aware that there are 50 different ways to do everything. And all of them are the right way.

So just be patient. You may be itching to tell your loved one that it’s easier to do it this way, or to try this little trick you learned from a friend. But if you can manage it, keep it to yourself. If the baby is safe and the parent is okay, then what’s the harm? You will see when they’re struggling; that’s the time to tentatively offer suggestions. Just suggestions, mind you. e.g. you could try this, rather than you should try this.

The problem with advice is that to a sleep-deprived, doubting, first-timer it can often sound a lot like judgement. However nicely you put it, your words of wisdom may only be heard as You’re doing that wrong, I know how to do it better.

 

3) Be negative – in a good way.

I remember when my Bubs was tiny small. There he’d be in his little chair, with his chubby cheeks and sceptical facial expressions, and all my visitors would be cooing over him. “Aw, he’s soooo cute.” They’d say. And he was, obvs. But some days I just couldn’t see it. I was tired and emotionally exhausted and I didn’t have much enthusiasm at all for the little bundle that had caused these states. Of course it was lovely to be surrounded by loving people; I wouldn’t have it any other way. But sometimes, what I could have done with, was a bit of negativity.

A signature quizzical look from early Bubs.

A signature quizzical look from early Bubs.

“What??” I hear you cry. “You just told us we weren’t allowed to disagree or make judgements, what do you want from us woman???”

Well, I want you to be positive about their parenting, but just a little bit negative about parenthood. Okay, I’ll explain…

It’s is vitally important to hear that ‘it gets better’ and ‘having a baby was the best thing I’ve ever done’ and all that crap. You do need that. But. There comes a point when you just need someone else to sit next to you and say “yeah, mate, it’s shit when sometimes, isn’t it?”

Proper, down to earth, honesty. Because if you say that he’s much cuter when he’s asleep, or bloody hell that cry is piercing; I’ll feel a smidgen less guilty for thinking those things.

 

4) Ask Questions.

It is quite easy to visit someone close to you, spend hours with them and their new baby and not really ask them a single question past the obligatory how are you? greeting, which no one actually answers anyway. You will, of course, ask how baby slept last night, you might ask how feeding is going, or who’s doing more nappy changes. These are all fine, nowt wrong with a bit of baby chat. But somewhere in there, throw in a few questions to the parents. Directly to the parents.

How are you finding it? Have you seen Strictly this week? Do you want to come for lunch next Thursday? What’s been the funniest thing that’s happened since baby was born?

You know, just normal stuff. I’m not telling you to grill them or anything. But it’s amazing how little attention you pay yourself as a new parent (more on that here). It’s all about baby, so sometimes you need a bit of help to actually notice yourself. And a reminder that you are still a human being in your own right is nice too!

 

5) Remember, it’s not about you.

Of course, no one actually, consciously thinks that visiting a new baby is and all-about-me event. However, you may have imagined it in a certain way. Perhaps you wanted lots of cuddles, or a good long chat with mum/dad. Maybe you were hoping for a walk. Well, if you can, just let go of all that.

You may find that your gregarious care-free friend/son/brother has turned into a protective, cautious father overnight. He may not want you to hold the baby at first. Conversely, maybe all mum wants to do is have a nap, leaving you alone with a sleeping baby for an hour. Deal with it. And, whatever it is, try not to take it personally. You’re not being rejected or ignored, your just being included in this peculiar, mundane process we call parenting.

 

6) Do the dishes, then leave.

Make your own tea; clean your own mug (and whatever else is piling up by the sink); bring a ready cooked meal; take a load of washing. Do these things are you’re instant god-parent material. Nuff said.

 

Team Granny!  I was lucky enough to have my own personal cleaning service.

Team Granny!
I was lucky enough to have my own personal cleaning service (thanks mums!)

 

So there you have it. All you need to be the perfect visitor. Oh, and a bottle of wine never goes amiss either…

What are your dos and don’ts for supporting parents? Do you wish someone had told your loved these rules before you had kids? Leave a comment below, visit my facebook page (like me, like me!) or tweet me @aafew

Pincer Grips and Cheerios #2: Test or guide? You decide!

“It’s not a test, it’s just a guide.”

These were the first words of the lovely staff nurse who was about to go through my son’s 9 month health check. I had sat down mumbling something about not knowing what to put for some questions in the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (which I rant about here) . I was supposed to be able to say if Bubs did the random things listed such as poke for a Cheerio in a clear bottle (again, see previous rant). The options are ‘yes’, ‘sometimes’ and ‘not yet’. But the thing is my son hadn’t fancied playing with the blocks I wanted him too in order to make it all into a game “that is fun for you and your baby”. I surround him with stimulating and creative baby activities and he decides whether or not he’s up for them. He can sniff out a remote control/phone/ipad at 20 metres so something like that usually distracts him. That or climbing around the furniture.

Well, it didn’t matter any way, because it’s not a test. Not a test, not a test, not a test. Aaaaaand breathe…

As she went through the form, all of the ‘yeses’ I’d ticked were passed over quite quickly. One section she read over herself and said, almost to herself,  “that’s perfect”, which is obviously good, except that I didn’t really know what she was referring to. However, any time she got to a question for which I’d ticked ‘no’ or even ‘sometimes’ she’d stop and say something like “so, we’ve not got 3 words yet?” and I’d confirm that we hadn’t. Obvs. She always responded to this with the phrase “that will come”, which was lovely and I am sure meant to be reassuring. But the thing is I didn’t think I needed reassuring, because there’s nothing wrong! Of course immediately the irrational anxiety fairy pops up on my right shoulder and starts to whisper “are you sure there’s nothing wrong? I mean you’re not exactly a baby expert are you?”. Shut up anxiety fairy! Shut the F up! 

Then we came to the ‘problem-solving’ section of the guide-not-a-test. I hadn’t ticked ‘not yet’ at all, I don’t think, but I had ticked ‘sometimes’ a lot. Mostly because my son doesn’t often hold two toys simultaneously for a minute or poke at crumb inside a clear bottle. ‘Sometimes’ seemed the most accurate. He’s actually a pretty good problem solver. For example the other day my mum brought round some figs in a plastic box for him to try. She put them on the ground in the garden whilst I went inside to cut up a fig up nicely for little Bubs. Meanwhile, had got into the box and bitten and squeezed the fig until he got at the fruit himself. Pretty nifty I thought. But still, that was not such a ‘perfect’ area according the ‘guide’.

 

Problem Solved

Problem solved, biatches.*

 

I am open to the possibility that there are some really good medical and psychological reasons to test ‘problem-solving’ at this age, but I am not sure I like it. They can say ‘it’s not a test’ til the cows come home but it feels like we’re already assessing children’s ability/intelligence against each other before their first birthday. I’m a bit like, can you not?? Okay, I know comparison is not the objective here, it’s more about catching any developmental problems as early as possible, but some of the stuff it’s looking at is quite advanced (in my humble opinion) so a mum does start to fret. I mean, does the fact that my son only ‘sometimes’ plays ‘pat-a-cake’ with by banging two toys together really point to any significant developmental issue? I don’t think so. O do I? I said SHUT UP, anxiety fairy!

Any way, I think all would have been fine in this “not a test” scenario, except that when we’d gone through the questionnaire the nurse went to get the scoring sheet, and totted up all of my baby’s totals for the different categories. Right…

Sorry if I’m being a bit dense but I thought ‘questionnaires’ that are scored and assessed were, well, you know, tests. The score sheet looked like a bit like this…

 

Yes, you get the idea. I've cropped this image so that my fellow obsessive mothers can't start doing self-assessments on their children.

Yes, you get the idea. I’ve cropped this image so that my fellow obsessive parents can’t start doing weekly self-assessments on their children.

So she adds up it all up and then she says that, yeah, everything’s great and he’s doing really well. All of his scores are ‘in the white’, it’s just problem-solving that is in the ‘grey area’, so can she get in touch about that in a month or so? ‘Yes, that’s fine.’ I reply meekly, despite the fact that I actually think it’s over the top and will just worry me. I then tell her about some other ‘problem-solvingish’ tasks that he does regularly and she agrees that that’s great and says that the questions are specific so there are other examples you can use. But she’s still going to call me to check up. I don’t feel particularly listened to at this point. Breathe, Aileen, breathe.

Does anyone else get this weird thing when they’re with health professionals that they become meek and mild and eager to please? It happens to me all of the time. I mean, I am gobby to put it mildy. I can rant on with the best of them (oh, you’d noticed that?) but when there’s a nurse or a doctor there I lose my nerve. What if I’d said ‘I don’t really see the point of you chasing this up, I’m sure you’re really busy and we are very attentive to our son’s development so I’ll call you if I need to.’? It would have been perfectly polite and within my rights. But I am inexplicably drawn to agree with whatever the person who has the ticklist and the medical training says. Now, yes, this is partly because they have the medical training, fair dos. But these professionals will be the first to say that you’re the best ‘expert’ on your own child.

No, I think I’m afraid. Not quite sure of what. Of being told off I suppose. Of being seen as something less that a perfect, attentive, give-my-all sort of mum. I don’t think I’m the only one with this feeling. There are thousands of mothers out there who can talk the talk of relaxed parenting but, ultimately, can’t bear the thought of not being seen as Supermum. We really do need to chill out, guys, like, seriously. Or even, God forbid, have enough confidence in our own parenting to be open to a bit of criticism without it destroying our very being.

I don’t think the anxiety I experienced was the fault of any of the health professionals I encountered. I am quite capable of whipping myself up, not to mention what happens when that pesky anxiety fairy gets involved! But I do think it was partly the fault of that bloody questionnaire. It is sent out so long in advance you have plenty of time to ruminate over any ‘not yet’ you may have ticked, wondering what the answers to these questions, which are frankly bizarre at times, all mean. Someone may well be screaming at their computer screen right now, saying ‘Well pull yourself together woman, the checks are for your child, it’s not up to them to look after your precious little feelings’. Fair point, except that it sort of is. Especially as this particular centre were key in supporting me through PND. Healthy mother, healthy baby, right? In the dream scenario all parents would look at the questionnaire objectively and not fret on any level about their own child’s strengths and (more pertinently) weaknesses. But that ain’t gonna happen any time soon, so let’s work within the a-lot-of-parents-are-easily-worried parameters.

So, I have two suggestions:

1) Don’t send the questionnaire out in the post. I know it saves time, but you go through it all any way and Health Visitors et al have a MUCH better idea the real issues that the questions are actually getting at any way. (Dear Mr Stupidface Health Minister, this will involve actually funding preventative children’s services, grr).

2) Don’t show the parents the bloody score sheet! The nurse I saw (who was lovely and good at her job, just to say again) pointed at the grey area she had marked next the problem-solving section. This was not the mental image I needed. Then I got to thinking that, actually, what if all of his scores were in grey? Or a few were in black? There are a lot of 10 month olds that don’t do all the crazy malarky on those lists. I know people who didn’t crawl before they were one, or speak before they were two. Guess what? They are very clever and can stand up on their own and everything! So, yeah, we just don’t need to see that. Tot it up after we’ve gone on our merry ways. Because, let’s give credit where credit’s due, these people have trained for 3+ years, they will know if they need to follow anything up with having to look at a score sheet.

Actually, on second thoughts, I just have one suggestion:

1) Scrap the questionnaire! Bin it! It’s a stupidface!

The nurse we saw made a few jokes like ‘who wrote this questionnaire, hey?’ with the accompanying comedy eye roll. She also said this check used to be a more informal chat but that now it’s more ‘thorough’. I have worked in the public sector, ‘more thorough’ may well have been code for ‘a crapload of extra paper work’.

The thing is that when you put a list of questions between two human beings it automatically shuts down any natural conversation. You’re both focussed on the piece of paper and not so much as each other. It can leave parents feeling like they haven’t been listened to, though this is often not the fault of the Health Visitor.

Apparently the Ages and Stages Questionnaire is now being rolled out UK wide. I’d like to read the evidence that says it picks up things better than the previous system of letting trained health professionals talk to and spend time with families. I haven’t had any luck googling it so far (please comment if you know about these things). But I have a horrible suspicion that has more to do with the governmental obsession with standardisation and stats. Oh no, we can’t just trust professionals to do their jobs well and their managers and colleagues to flag up any problems, no no, what they need in more forms! 

And then of course, there’s the fact that sending that getting parents (who are more likely to over- or under-estimate their children’s abilities for varying reasons) to fill in the form and having a more ‘ticklist’ approach in the meeting saves time. Which saves money. Which means you need less health professionals. Which means you can make more cuts. Bleurgh. Boo. Naughty naughty Tories. Etc.

So, parents of Britain. Don’t worry too much about the ‘not yets’. You and your Health Visitor will know pretty quickly if there is a glaring issue. And maybe think about raising the ‘what the F is this ASQ business about???’ issue with your MP. People power and all that.

But, most of all, just bloody chill! It is possible you have produced a child that will not be ‘top of the class’ in every arena at every stage. That is OK. They will still love you. And it takes a lot more than the lack of a pincer grip for social services to be called. 

 

Just to drive the point home, I think Sure Start centres are, like, well good.

Just to drive the point home, I think Sure Start centres and Health Visitors are, like, well good.

 

 

 

*I feel both heartily amused and slightly ashamed that I have captioned my 10-month-old son using a swear. Ah well…

Of swimming and Kegels: The postnatal exercise chat.

If you have had a baby in the UK then, at some point very soon after you gave birth a midwife, nurse, physio, health visitor or all of the above should have talked to you about exercise and recovery. It is very very very cool that this happens (I actually mean this, though I know sarcasm is what you’ve come to expect from me) but in my experience I have found that the subject of this chat tends to fall into two different categories: the essential bit and the optimistic bit.

The Essential Bit.

Now, Dear Reader if you take nothing else from this post, nay this entire blog, take this. Do. Your. Pelvic. Floor. Exercises.

And. Keep. Doing. Them.

Got that?

The midwives etc will probably have harangued you about this a few times. And if you went to a pregnancy/postnatal yoga classes you have probably experienced the ever so slightly awkward silence that happens when the instructor says something like

“And now we’ll do our pelvic floor exercises. And lift…”

No eye contact happens in that part of the class. Absolutely none. 

But as much as you may not want to hear another mention ‘making a motion as if to stop you passing water’ ever again in all of your days, there people are right!  Especially when they tell you to do them for the rest of your life and not just until you’re ‘back to normal’. As if that ever happens any way.

At first it’s not difficult to remember your Kegels (as American baby books seem to insists pelvic floor exercises are called) when you’ve just gone through labour. Because, let’s be honest, we have a few embarrassing reminders. If you don’t know what I’m talking about then I’m afraid you’ll be lost for the next little while. In fact, if you haven’t wet yourself at least once on the way to the loo shortly after giving birth (and beyond) I’m afraid we just can’t be friends. We just can’t.

(Pregnant ladies, sorry if that last paragraph has horrified you, but, sister, it’s happening.)

When things start to get a bit less Tena Lady, though, and you’re mind is on other things – or one very loud and pooey other thing – it’s easy to start slacking. DON’T. Don’t ask me how I know, just take it from me. Keep up the Kegels!

Therein lies the most useful part of the postnatal exercise chat. Shall we practise now ladies? And lift…

 

The More Than Slightly Optimistic Bit.

I think I got ‘the exercise talk ‘ in one form or another a total of three times. When being discharged from hospital, when being discharged from the community midwives and then again when I went into hospital for the crazies (around the 10 week mark). The first two times I was warned “No exercise other than walking for the first 6 weeks.” Um, yeah, that’s totally fine.

The first 6 weeks? Try 6 months! I hardly bloody exercised before I had kids, why am I going to start now that I’m being woken-up three times a night? If I have baby-free time it will be spent drinking wine and watching offensive television, or sleeping. Thank you very much.*

 

Incessant evening rocking was all the exercise I needed when my son was 6 weeks old.

Incessant evening rocking was all the exercise I needed when my son was 6 weeks old.

 

So, yes, the 6 weeks came and went, and the next six weeks came and went, without so much as a lunge in sight. After a while I did start to go to a delightfully laid back class called ‘Rock Your Baby’ where I could sit Bubs in his sling whilst feeling the burn to a soundtrack of ‘Radio Gaga’ and ‘Moves like Jagger’. Ideal.

Because, the thing is, when you have a baby pretty much the only way you can exercise is with your baby. Yes, okay, you could go out to an evening class that starts at 7.30pm and finishes at 9pm but until you’ve got the sleep thing down that is basically self-torture. And even after, when the magical, mythical ‘evening’ returns to your lives going spinning may not be the first thing you want to do with it. (See my previous wine and television comment).

This is why the next bit of repeated advice from health-professional seems a bit incongruous.

“Swimming is a great way to exercise for new mums.”

Is it? Is it? I mean, yes, I get logically why it is. Non weight-bearing, uses the whole body, calming to the mind etc. But there’s this other issue that sort of gets in the way here. It’s that I have a baby. And babies aren’t that good at swimming. Okay, yes they are, they’ve got the ‘dolphin reflex’ or something and if you pay £12 a week from the age of 3-days-old they’ll be  swimming like a fish before they’re weaned, blah blah blah. But I can’t very well strap Bubs to my back and start doing lengths now, can I?

And even if you can find childcare there are other issues. Like, do breastpads even work in the pool? I have this unshakable image of a new mum happily booming up and down unaware of the two white vapour trails following behind her like she’s a jumbo jet.

There’s also the swimming costume issue. I believe we should all be proud of our postnatal bodies (see previous post) but we’re not, are we? And catching yourself in one of those awful leisure centre mirrors the first time you that bravely don your tankini once more just isn’t great. But that’s nothing compared to suddenly being half naked infront of 50 strangers when you’re at your most physically vulnerable. In my local pool they have a cafe on the same level as the pool and people basically sit out on a terrace and watch the swimmers. Fully clothed. With a cup of tea. Whilst I’m aware that I will be very glad of this facility in later years when I can lazily play on my phone whilst the kids splash about, it currently makes me feel like a postnatal whale in an aquarium.

 

So, that’s it really. I don’t entirely hve a point with this post except to say, you know, go for a walk every now and again but I wouldn’t stress about exercise. Do it when you want to do it. Maybe trick you’re baby into thinking you’re playing a delightful game with them when really you’re using the little one in as human dumbbells. But don’t sweat. We’ve got enough to worry about.

 

 

 

 

*exercise is, like, really good for your mental health (and physical health, obvs). you should in no way take my nonsensical ranting as discouragement.

 

Baby development checks: Pincer grips, Cheerios and a thousand more things to worry about.

Be afraid, be very afraid.

Be afraid, be very afraid. 

Through our letterbox this morning arrived a very important document. It was the letter notifying us of our son’s 8-9 month health and development check. I had been eagerly awaiting this as he is already 9 months old and, you know, I think he’s pretty well developed. However, I was not quite prepared for the Spanish Inquisition that lay inside the envelope.

Now, before I go any further lets just get one thing straight. I am eternally and overwhelmingly grateful to live in a country where my son receives a health and development check, free at the point of delivery, as standard. The NHS is quite a wonderful thing. I have been to hospital 3 times since my son was born (including the birth) and I have never had to worry about anyone handing me the bill. This is a brilliant part of our society and one that I’m scared will be eroded over the next decade if bloody ‘Dave’ and his school friends have anything to do with it (grr, arg). So I will proceed to have a good long moan with the proviso that you know I really really really love the NHS. Good.

So, the 9 month ‘Health and Development Review’ letter arrives. The title is enough to instill fear into the heart of any previously employed mother. Review? That’s what they do at work to see if you’re doing your job right or not. You know, they get you to fill in that crappy self-assessment form, which you always lie on because your boss is going to read it, and then there’s the meeting. *shudder* It’s hard not to immediately jump to the conclusion that my parenting thus far is about to undergo a performance review. And guess what? There’s even a self-assessment questionnaire attached.

If you are a parent who has not yet received a questionnaire like this then I just have one piece of advice: DON’T LOOK AT IT. Leave it neatly folded in it’s envelope and put some time aside the day before your appointment to go through it with your baby. Granted, that will still give you 24 hours to obsess over the weird and wonderful list of accomplishments your baby doesn’t have but but you will marginally more sane than if you had been thinking about it a fortnight in advance. So, just ignore it as long as you can. It’s either that or be an uncommonly balanced individual who has no care for what health professionals think of their child and feels completely secure in their parenting abilities. Though, if you are that person I’m really not sure why you’re reading this blog. Can I read your blog please?

The reason I give out this sage advice is that a) the questionnaire is about what your baby can do at the point of the ‘review’ and b) because the amount of things that it asks if your baby can do is insane. I shall give you a few choice examples (if you are easily prone to my-baby-is-underdeveloped-paranoia look away now):

Does your baby pick up a small toy with tips of his thumb and fingers? (You should see a space between the toy and his palm.)

Well, that’s oddly specific for a start. I don’t if the person who compiled this questionnaire is aware of this but babies have quite small hands. How exactly am I supposed to observe said space? Should I crouch on the floor and crane my neck? Won’t that just freak him out? Also, have you ever tried to get a 9 month old to pick up the specific toy that you want them to have? Unless you complete this task in an entirely white room with no objects or furniture, I guarantee that they will charge off to play with a table leg as soon as you place the item in front of them. And believe me, I tried it today. Oh no, I am not above getting irrationally anxious about whether or not I can see a gap between a building block and my son’s palm.

Next question:

Does your baby say three words, such as “Mama”, “Dada” and “Baba”? (A “word” is a sound or sounds your baby says consistently to mean someone or something.)

Well, thanks for clarifying what a word is. Those brackets are really starting to irk me. And the answer is no, my son doesn’t have THREE WORDS at the age of 9 months. And even if he did, how would I know? He says “dadadadadadadada” a lot and, less frequently he says “mamamamamama” (encouraged enthusiastically by yours truly). Who’s to say when that random babbling suddenly turns into words? Not me. I know babies who haven’t had any language til they’re closer to 18 months. So, back off survey, alright? (Actually, I had words at 9 months and am still perversely proud of the fact, bleurgh).

And last but not least, the pinnacle of randomly specific infantile feats:

Does your baby poke at or try to get a crumb or Cheerio that is inside a clear bottle (such as a plastic soda pop bottle or baby bottle)?

Again, thanks for clarifying what a clear bottle is, would have struggled with that one. And, more importantly, what the fudge? In what scenario would I know the answer to this question? Why am I taking food from my baby’s hand and putting inside a vessel that he has no hope of retrieving it from? I’ve got it! They’re trying to trick us into doing this and then, when they see we’ve ticked yes, they will point their fingers in ours faces and say “Aha! So you torture your child with food they can see but have to hope of eating??” Enter social services.

Okay, maybe not, but what’s all this Cheerio business? There are actually three questions that refer to a “crumb or Cheerio”. What’s that about? You better not try this out with a Cornflake, mate, or the whole exercise will be null and void. You’ll have to start all over again. Crumb or Cheerio. These are your only options. I feel like Nestle paid someone somewhere serious money to get their branding on the Ages and Stages Questionnaire. I really wouldn’t put it past them. I have visions of mothers rushing out to buy the ‘multigrain Os’ just so that they can make double sure their child has that prefect pincer formation that the Health Visitors will be looking for. And if you think the supermarket own brand will suffice for this activity think again, cheapskate. 

Oh and by the way, you’re not supposed just fill in this form based on your existing knowledge of your own child; you’re supposed to observe your child doing all of it and “make completing this questionnaire a game that is fun for you and your baby”. Fun? Fun?? In what universe is attempting to get a 9 month old to complete a series of specific tasks fun? “Reach for the Cheerio darling, no, no, not the remote control, come back here!”

What makes this whole process even less fun is the dawning realisation that you will have to tick ‘no’ several times. It’s like someone is coming into your home and pointing out what your baby can’t do yet. “Oh, he can’t hold onto the sofa, bend down to pick up a toy and then return to standing?” Awkward.

The thing is that my rational mind knows that no one is expecting my Bubs to be able to do everything listed on the survey. I’m pretty sure that no baby can ever do all of it. They must put extra-advanced stuff on, you know, just in case. But if that’s true then I think there should be a little note stapled to the front of the questionnaire that reads:

Dear parent, we would like to reassure you that you’re baby is in no way supposed to tick all of the following boxes. In fact, if they did then it is likely that they would be one of those weird genius children* who take their Maths GCSE at the age of 8 and never truly fit in with their own peer group. Rejoice, therefore, in your own child’s uneven and average development; it bodes well for their future social interactions. Yours sincerely, the NHS.

Or something like that. Just a suggestion.

 

 

 

 

 

*Apologies if you have a weird genius child. I actually think that’s pretty awesome. But you know, comedy value and all that.

Lies, Damn Lies and Breast-feeding Workshops #2: The Converts.

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Dear Reader, I would like to relate to you a conversation I had with another mother, last Sunday morning after Church.

She had an older child, probably around four years old, and a six week old baby, so of course I chatted with her a bit. She seemed very nice (I am sure she is very nice!). Then we got onto the subject of breast-feeding. She mentioned that the health visitors in her area were quite clueless about breast fed babies because almost all of the women in her area formula fed. The rest of the conversation went something like this:

Me: Wow, I would’ve thought they’d absolutely adore you, if you’re one of the only breastfeeding women. I had the opposite experience, especially with midwives, I felt like I couldn’t put my son on formula, thought I’d be drugging him or something mad! He was under his birth weight at four weeks so I ended up having to.

Her: Yeah, well it’s what works for you isn’t it… *trails off*

Me: Well no, it was that I just didn’t have enough milk, there was an issue with my supply and it was actually the health visitor who told me to put him on it.

Her: Yeah, well, they say if you keep going it will eventually come in. But if it’s too much for you… *trails off again*

*awkward momentary silence*

(During the silence I wanted to say this: ‘Well, they say a lot things don’t they but they are bloody wrong! OK!? I tried really hard and, yes, it was too much for me because I had a hungry baby who I couldn’t feed and who screamed all the bloody time!’)

(What I did say) Me: hmm, yeah, well, I mean, I did give him some breast milk until he was 3 months but, you know… Well I’m going to get a cup of tea. Nice to meet you. *fake smile*

Grr!

Now, some of you less familiar with the subtle language of judgement may think I have overreacted to her comments. But, oooh, it was her tone. Her tone I tells ya! Just ever so slightly patronising and, even worse, sympathetic. Like ‘we can’t all do what’s best, but never mind.’

Most breast-feeding mothers I know have absolutely no judgement of us who bottle feed our babies. We do what works and most understand that sometimes breastfeeding just doesn’t work. However, there are some who think they know why women stop breast-feeding. They think it just got a bit too hard so they gave up. That’s partly because almost everyone who breast feeds finds it really tough at first so there’s an assumption that you either grit your teeth and stick with it or you give up. This assumption implies that all women find it equally hard. But we don’t.

At one of the breast-feeding workshops I’ve written/ranted about previously (here) the workshop leader began by telling us a bit about herself, naturally.

“I first gave birth in the 1970s.” She declared. “I was the only woman on a ward of 26 who breast fed” *pause for nods of approval* “and I found it easy, I mean, I wondered why more people weren’t doing it. So I became a breast-feeding coach.”

Well, I don’t know about you but I think that is one of the worst reasons I have ever heard for teaching something. I’m teaching this because it’s easy. But it does neatly encapsulate the whole ‘if I can do it I don’t see any reason why anyone else can’t’ attitude that those few evangelical breast-feeders put out there. And why wouldn’t they think that? They went to the workshops. They listened whilst the healthcare professionals made it very clear that everyone can breastfeed; you just need the right support and technique. Right? Wrong!

I know this mum just believed what she’d been told. Not only about breast milk but also all the implied bad stuff about formula. And I know she meant no harm because, as a successful breast-feeder, she doesn’t know the crippling middle-class guilt that comes with not being able to lactate sufficiently. She has no idea that there is still a small part of me, for all my brazen ranting, that feels like a failure. If there wasn’t her ever-so-slightly-condescending attitude wouldn’t have bother me quite so much. And perhaps I should have shared that with her. I wonder what would have happened if in that moment I hadn’t reacted by making evasive manoeuvres towards the tea and biscuits but instead offered an honest account of my feelings. Ooh, but that’s a bit scary.

Next time someone put my hackles up by making a casual anti-formula remark maybe I’ll respond differently. Instead of staring at my shoes and mumbling something apologetic; or making a swift exit; or giving a lengthy and impassioned speech on why I believe formula was the best choice for my baby, thank you very much; I might just talk about how it felt when I realised my son had been hungry for 4 weeks. I’ll just be honest and share how hard it is not to feel like a failure. I’ll be vulnerable.

Yeah, that’ll shut ’em up!