Monthly Archives: September 2006

Two For Joy

After all the waiting, the wondering, the worrying, the nail-chewing, the pacing of grooves in the floor, the vodka….

…..the blogger-formerly-known-as-Magpie and her co-blogger over at Pomegranate Pages, That Girl, have now had their referrals from China. 

I repeat: They have now had their referrals from China.  In a few weeks, they’ll be GETTING TO SEE THEIR NEW DAUGHTERS.

That Girl’s daughter is eight months old and her name is Yang Chun Hua Ju.  She is living in Guangdong Province.  And, apparently, she’s a restless active child.  Heh – I have one of those.  That Girl is in for some serious safety-proofing.

And, the one I’ve been waiting for most eagerly of all – J’s daughter is almost one year old, and she’s currently living about 100 km from Yang Chun Hua Ju, in Beiliu City.  Her name is Guo Xue, which is pronounced Gwo Shooay (I hope I have that right).  Xue means ‘snow’.  Doesn’t that sound beautifully onomatopoeic?

J. was kind enough to e-mail me copies of the pictures, and she is the most amazingly gorgeous baby.  She has wispy, fluffy hair and a little round face, and she looks so solemn and serious and thoughtful, with an ancient, ageless look in her eyes. If you check out their blog within the next day, you can get to see the first of her photos for yourself – the close-up mug shot, making her look almost like a little statue.  I’m so looking forward to getting more up-to-date photos.  And – I really hope – someday getting to see the girl herself.

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Filed under Glory, glory, hallelujiah

In which I butt in on somebody else’s questionnaire

"So I have some personal questions for you," J. tells us on Pomegranate.  Given that a) Pomegranate is a Chinese adoption blog aimed at other Chinese adoption bloggers and b) several of the questions clearly relate to personal experiences of Chinese adoption, I think it is a reasonable bet that this particular collective ‘you’ is aimed at people who are adopting/have adopted from China.

So, by all rights, I shouldn’t be answering them.  I mean, I acquired my child the lazy way.  I had no paperwork to fill out beyond the forms for my maternity booking appointment; I didn’t get asked any awkward questions by social workers; I didn’t even have to wait all that long for him.  I have, in short, not earned my way to answering this questionnaire.  I am being a questionnaire fraud here.

Not, admittedly, that I’m letting that stop me.  I mean, these are questions!  They’re cool!  They’re fun!  So I’m going to do it anyway.  But I do at least feel appropriately guilty about it, if that makes any difference.


Your child’s Chinese name (assuming s/he has or will have
one)…are you a) using it as a middle name, b) using it as a first
name or c) not using it at all? Why?

N/A.  But this whole issue is, as it happens, something I find interesting enough to have given quite a bit of "So what would I do?" thought to. 

While it would depend at least somewhat on how easily the name could be pronounced, what I’d really like to do if I were adopting from China would be to keep the Chinese name as her first name (since it would be her first name chronologically and so it would make sense to keep it as her first name in the other sense as well – it would be a way of showing that her Chinese heritage was a crucial part of her).  Then I would have a name of my own choosing as her middle name (because choosing names for their children is what parents get to do) and, unless the first name was very easy for English people to pronounce, I would use this as the name I called her (to make life easier).  Then, if feasible, I would have a name that was as close as I could get to a translation of her Chinese name as her second middle name (since the topic of the meanings of names fascinates me and I love translating names in this way).  Then I would hope that she never wanted any monogrammed linen.

What are you most looking forward to experiencing with your child/ what do you most enjoy doing with your child?

Watching him experience/learn new things, and snuggling up together.

What’s your favourite book about adoption?

I’ve only read one and a half – The Kid, by Dan Savage, and part of From China With Love, by Emily Buchanan.  They’re good in different ways, so I don’t know if I could pick one.

What will/do you miss most about your life pre-parenthood?

Being able to do the stuff I want on my own schedule, when I feel like it.

What’s your favourite children’s book (any age group)?

No way could I choose.  Too many fantastic ones out there.

Lifebook – excited to start or terrified of screwing it up? Top tip?

If this applied to me, I’d be terrified of screwing it up.  What I’d probably do would be to delegate it to my mother, who’s excellent at this sort of thing.

What hobby do you secretly hope your child will take up and love?

Well, something he could make a fortune from in order to support me comfortably in my old age would be good, but I honestly didn’t have particular hobbies in mind.  What I hope for is just that he’ll take up some hobbies and love them, whatever they are.  I want him to be the sort of person who throws himself into life wholeheartedly and passionately.

Thinking about it, I would be disappointed if he wasn’t a keen reader, but saying that I hope for him to be one is putting it the wrong way, since I’ve always taken it for granted that any child of mine will love books (and it’s totally clear by now that, in this child’s case at least, I am completely correct).

Co-sleeping – "well of course" or "maybe but I just don’t see any of us would sleep"?

Depends what stage of parenthood you’re asking about.

Pre-Jamie: "Co-sleeping?  Well, obviously that’s fine for people who want to do things that way.  But, let’s face it, I don’t much fancy the idea of having a struggle with getting him out of our bed later on.  And besides, there’s at least some evidence showing possible association with increased SIDS risk.  Nah – I’ll do the sensible thing and get him used to his own cot from the start."

Twelve days post-Jamie’s birth: "Co-sleeping?  Nah, not for me.  I already decided that, didn’t I?  I’ll just get Barry to put this camping mattress down here on the floor for me.  Then when I get really exhausted doing the night feeds and really really can’t face getting up again with him I can just lie down here with him on the mattress and rest a bit.  Because I wouldn’t want to co-sleep, oh, dear me, no." *

Two months post-Jamie’s birth: "Screw it.  Co-sleeping."

Two months and a few days post-Jamie’s birth:  "Good grief, this co-sleeping thing is brilliant."

In anticipation of eventual second child: "Co-sleeping?  Well, of course!"

If you’d had sole choice of your child’s name (assuming you didn’t), would it have been different? Wanna tell us what?

His first name would have been David.  (His middle name is the one I chose – my father’s name.)  The name David is one of the few that’s not only a lovely name, but also has a meaning I like (‘Beloved’) and a character associated with it who’s pretty cool to be named after (shepherd who goes up against a giant and wins?  That’s the kind of courage and skill I’d like my child to show.)  Unfortunately, it’s also the name of Barry’s former boss-from-hell.  That one got vetoed quickly.

‘James’ was Barry’s choice – it’s after a friend and workmate of his who died at far too young an age, from a severe asthma attack.  Barry made the decision to name his son after him then, long before he met me.  It’s not one I would actually have picked, but it was perfectly OK with me.  Funny how impossible it is now to imagine him having had any other name.

In the movie of your life, who plays you?

Alyson Hannigan.

Sleeping. Light on, light off? No, YOU silly.

I was always a ‘light off’ type (not because it bothered me, but just because I took it for granted that, well, when you go to bed you switch the lights off) until I met my husband, who is a night owl and almost invariably comes up to bed after me.  I started leaving a nightlight on for him, and didn’t realise how used I’d become to it until I went on a course in London a few years back and realised just how weird it now felt to turn the light off before going to sleep.  I will very happily sleep either way – I have slept through discos when I got bored with them.

China – experiment with food or not?

N/A.  But if it did apply – well, I like to think I’d experiment, but Karen’s recent experiences are pretty daunting!

What’s your favourite China adoption blog (after this one of couse..ahem…)?

After this one, it would be The Naked Ovary.

*As my public health service announcement for the day, I shall point out, to anyone who doesn’t know this, that this is a well-known stupidly risky way of doing things.  Tiredness is thought to make co-sleeping more dangerous, because it makes you sleep more deeply, which might make you less aware of the position of the baby in the bed.  I don’t know if there’s any hard evidence for that theory, but it is generally considered sensible to avoid co-sleeping when very tired – which is, of course, just when you most want to do it.  In fact, this is one of the major arguments in favour of co-sleeping from the start – it means that you stay fairly rested from the start and (hopefully) never get into the situation of co-sleeping when you’re exhausted.

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Filed under Here Be Offspring, I think this line's mostly filler

The Houdini Chronicles – This Time It’s Exhausting

Jamie has now learned to climb out of his cot even without using my nightstand as a foothold.

Remember when I said that if this happened, we could be in for some really interesting evenings?

(I know you know I meant ‘interesting’ in the Chinese sense, but I’d better clarify at this point that it’s actually ‘interesting’ in the sense of really boring as a post topic, to anyone who doesn’t happen to be a doting family member of the child in question.  I mean, this is the kind of post that makes me cringe when I read it through as I picture my meagre readership running screaming for the blogrolls so that they can delete my name.  Oh, well, the hell with it – everyone else can skip this post.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

On Wednesday evening, when the getting-out-of-the-cot really turned into a problem, I started with the ‘Just put him back in his cot as soon as he gets out and he’ll you’ll eventually get bored’ technique.  Jamie found this to be such a wonderful game that by the time I decided my tolerance for it was lower than his and moved on to Plan B (my husband’s suggestion of ‘Just hold him on our bed until he settles down and goes to sleep’), he was thoroughly awake and remained so through the next hour of us lying there with him (we took turns so that each of us could gulp down a hasty and lonely dinner).  While this method, unlike the first, was actually rather a pleasant and peaceful experience – he did settle down even though he didn’t go to sleep, and I enjoyed the feeling of that little body snuggled against mine as I lay down and relaxed for the first time all day – I could see that it was going to pall fairly rapidly as the days/weeks/months (delete according to Jamie’s endurance level.  Hmmmm.  Let me think…) went by without me getting any time for my husband or myself in the evenings. 

So, after over two hours of all of this plus repeated resettling attempts on the part of Barry, who is usually pretty good at getting him to calm down, we eventually moved on to Plan C – CIO, The Sequel (a.k.a. The Point At Which Attachment Parents Start Having Apoplexy).  Barry took one side off the cot so that we knew he could climb back into it, put him down to sleep yet again, went out, shut the bedroom door behind him, and held it shut forcibly so that Jamie couldn’t pull it open again.  I went in after a couple of minutes and then again after a couple of minutes more to check him and resettle him again, and, after about seven or eight minutes of furiously enraged screaming, he simply climbed up onto our bed and fell asleep there.  Looking, I might add, unbelievably adorable.

After he’d been there for about fifteen or twenty minutes, I made the mistake of moving him back to his own bed.  Once Jamie does get to sleep, he’s normally a very sound sleeper, but I think on this occasion he’d stayed up so late that he was just too overtired to settle properly.  So we went back to Plan A.  By this point he was half asleep and only summoning up the energy to get up at intervals, which made it doable (I could sit outside the door and read in between replacing him, so I did at least get a smidgen of my eternal journal backlog cleared), but it was after midnight before he was finally conked out enough for me to get away with taking a shower and going to bed myself.

So, on subsequent naptimes and bedtimes, we saved a lot of time and a lot of exhaustion (his and ours) by moving straight to Plan C.  Jamie screamed for three or four minutes at Thursday’s nap, ten or twenty seconds on Thursday evening, and by Friday was back to going down without a peep, which, as you can imagine, has been an enormous relief. 

However, we are having some practical problems with the whole half-cot-half-bed thing (it still has one side on and one side off).  Jamie is a wriggler.  He doesn’t move around as much in his sleep as he used to (we used to find it highly amusing checking when we went into the bedroom in the evenings to see how many degrees he’d managed to rotate/which corner he’d wriggled into since we left him), but he still rolls around enough that it takes a full set of cot sides to keep him from rolling right off the bed.  Not having said full set of cot sides is having the rather inevitable result.

On the whole, he’s doing an impressive job of taking the experience of suddenly waking up on the floor in his stride.  On one occasion he woke up after a bit of rolling around bouncing off my wardrobe and simply climbed sleepily back up onto the cot; on another, he just slept through the rest of the night there and woke up in the morning, giving the slipper next to his face a blearily puzzled look before pressing it happily to his cheek with a look of "Oh!  A slipper!  Well, that’s all right then."  Or, to put it another way, my child is adorable to a world-imploding level.  But we could still do with improving the current situation somewhat.

We were, as it happens, on the verge of moving him into his own room anyway, so the obvious plan at this point is simply to ditch the cot altogether and move him onto the single bed that’s already in the room that we’ve used as a playroom/second spare room since we moved in, but nevertheless refer to, in optimistic anticipation, as "Jamie’s room".  (All right, I know this doesn’t have a cot side either.  The point is, it’s wider than his cot-bed, so we’re hopeful he’ll stay on it.  Although, of course, it’s also higher, so if he can’t stay on it he’ll have further to fall). 

If this had all happened a few days later we could have moved him straight away, but the in-laws are down here this weekend for Barry’s birthday and my brother-in-law is going to be sleeping in that room.  Since moving Jamie for a night only to move him back again for two nights and then back again sounded somewhat confusing for him, we’re hanging in there with the half-cot-half-bed for the moment.  On the plus side, all this does at least mean that I no longer have to worry about moving the nightstand out of his reach every evening.

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Filed under Don't let the bedbugs bite, Here Be Offspring

Uh, yes, I did know that. But thanks anyway.

The gorgeous-and-divine Tertia has written a post entitled Do they owe the sisterhood anything? – the ‘they’ in question being celebrity mothers who conceive in their forties.  I am shamelessly hijacking this in order to give me a jumping-off point to rant about a perennial irritation of mine – in view of this, I should probably specify from the start that my irritation here isn’t primarily with Tertia, but with the way this subject gets treated generally.  Besides, Tertia’s too gorgeous and divine to get all that irritated with.

From Tertia’s post:

Let me share with you a fact that you might
not be aware of. Your fertility
declines, fairly rapidly, after the age of 37… So many women don’t seem to realize that
age has an enormous affect on your fertility… Women see other older women having babies –
high profile celebs seem to pop out babies left right and centre. Look how easy it is for them, surely we can
wait too…

 What the poor woman in the street doesn’t
realize is that many of these older women who are having babies after the age
of 40 have done so with assistance (fertility treatment) and often with the use
of donor eggs… I know that, many don’t. And that makes me a little cross.

 I think it creates a false sense of security,
a false sense of how much time an older woman has left over in which to start
trying for a family. It makes me want
these older celeb moms to come out and be honest about the fact that they
needed help to conceive, that it isn’t easy to get pregnant on your own after
40…

 And yet, do they
owe us anything? They have the right, just as we do, to be
private about who and where and when they conceived…

 What do you think? Do you think these older celeb moms owe us any
form of honesty about how difficult it is to conceive later on in life, or don’t
they owe us anything?

Well, my answer to that question would be "Hell, no."  The mere fact that you are a famous singer/actress/whatever does not mean that it somehow becomes your job to educate the public on fertility issues, and the mere fact that the poor sods never actually get any privacy does not mean that they are not technically as entitled to it as anyone else.  The details of how they build their families are their business, and whether they choose to share that information or not is up to them.  (Oh, and the answer to Tertia’s other question – the one I didn’t quote – is that, no, I’m not infertile.  Or at least I wasn’t when I last tried to get pregnant, although I should point out that since then I’ve passed that magic age of 35 at which a woman’s eggs all start to implode and so this may, for all I know, no longer be true.)

But I’ve got a question of my own here.  Is what Tertia says really true?  I don’t mean about the decline of fertility in later life: I know that’s true.  I mean, is it really true that substantial numbers of women are unaware of this fact?

I know it’s widely believed that this is the case.  Ever since I can remember, I’ve been reading articles in popular women’s magazines at regular intervals on the general theme of how women are foolishly leaving childbearing until their biological clocks have run down, all because they’re blithely ignorant of the risks.  I’ve yet to see anyone present any evidence that this is the widespread problem they claim it is – after all, when you can dig up one or two examples of women who made this mistake and are willing to tell their stories, why bother with any actual figures?  But I’ve seen the claim itself made more times than I could count. 

Which means, presumably, that millions of other women have also read those articles.  With the number of people telling us what a major problem it is that women don’t know that there’s a time limit on our fertility, I wouldn’t have thought there could be that many women left who are oblivious to the fact that there is a time limit on our fertility.  The term ‘biological clock’ has become a cliché, for goodness’ sake.  Oh, I have no doubt at all that there are some women out there who really don’t have a clue that getting pregnant at 40 is likely to be far more difficult than it would have been at 20.  But does anyone actually have any hard data on the proportion of women in, say, the mid-twenties to mid-thirties age range who are postponing childbearing based purely on the belief that, la-la-la-la-la, they have all the time in the world?  I certainly haven’t seen any figures.  And, in the absence of figures, perhaps journalists could stop assuming that this supposed ignorance is the huge problem they keep saying it is.

Of course, there are plenty of women who postpone childbearing for other reasons.  What I’m doubting here is whether there are really that many women for whom "Well, it’s not as though I’m going to have any major problem getting pregnant no matter how late I leave it" is a major factor influencing their reproductive decisions.  I suspect it’s much more common for people to postpone childbearing for the same reason I did – because they felt that their lives were not currently at a stage where having children would be a responsible and appropriate decision for them.

Personally, I made the decision that I shouldn’t have children until I had the emotional maturity and financial stability to take on responsibility for a dependent life, plus a prospective father with whom I could see myself being happy to share the job, and my life, on the sort of long-term basis that would be necessary.  It’s a choice that was spoken of disapprovingly in a BMJ editorial almost a year ago: "[T]he availability of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) may lull women into infertility while they wait for a suitable partner", wrote Bewley, Davies, and Braude.  (By the way, if you’re having trouble with that link, try it again after September 17th – on-line BMJs are only available to members until a year after publication, but should be available to the general public after that.)  What they’re silent about is what, precisely, they’re suggesting should be the appropriate alternative to waiting for a suitable partner.  Unsuitable partner?  Sperm bank and single parenthood?  Both of those have quite enough potential disadvantages that I preferred to take my chances on waiting for Mr Right.

I wasn’t ‘lulled into’ postponing childbearing by the belief that IVF was a fine-and-dandy backup plan (in fact, I was fairly sure that if it turned out I couldn’t get pregnant then I’d want to adopt rather than go down the road of fertility treatment) or that my ovaries were going to stay young forever.  I postponed childbearing, despite feeling desperately impatient for a baby and anything but ‘lulled’, because I didn’t feel that the mere fact that I wanted a baby gave me some sort of automatic right to have one without considering the consequences for the baby.  (And, for that matter, the other person involved in conceiving it.)  I believed (and still believe) that my parental responsibilities began before conception and included considering not just whether I wanted a baby, but whether I was in a situation to give it the good start in life that I wanted to give it.  I knew I was risking heartbreak by doing things this way; and I also knew that that really wasn’t the most important issue, because it wasn’t all about me.

All of which is why I find the ‘Postponing pregnancy?  Why, they clearly don’t have a clue about basic biology.  What fools these women be!’ articles intensely irritating.  When you are trying to stick to life choices you believe to be responsible and ethical despite knowing that there’s a very real chance they might ultimately result in an unhappy ending for you, it is somewhat galling to see yourself portrayed in media stereotypes as making those choices out of ignorance.   I do realise that ‘Postponing pregnancy?  Why, they’re clearly making sensible and well-thought-out decisions after careful weighing of the pros and cons of different alternatives.  How responsible these women be!’ doesn’t have quite the same immediately apparent potential for attention-grabbing headlines, but it’s an image I’d like to see journalists portraying more often.

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Filed under Sacred hamburger

Water baby

Swimming, like signing, is something I originally had excellent intentions about introducing Jamie to at an early stage, which didn’t quite come to fruition.  Before I had him, I was determined to start taking him swimming from the start so that he could grow up familiar with the water.  After I had him, I started thinking about the kind of logistics that don’t really occur to you before you have children (well, they didn’t to me, anyway), such as where you actually put the baby while you’re drying yourself off.  On the cold tiled floor?  Or do you just go home in your sopping wet swimming costume?  Presumably the answer involves bringing a car seat into the changing rooms, but I couldn’t figure out what I’d do with it after that – wouldn’t it be too big to fit in a locker?

Given the number of people who do take their babies swimming, I think it’s a reasonable bet that a perfectly good and straightforward answer to that question exists, and I suspect that if I’d ever done the obvious thing and rung the local swimming pool to ask I’d probably have found that there was a designated Car Seat Storage Area for others facing this particular conundrum.  However, I didn’t, for the same reason that I wasn’t doing the signing – I was feeling rather overwhelmed by the whole motherhood thing, and adding in any extras just seemed too daunting.  It was easier just to put the whole thing off until, um, some undefined later date.  Then we got to that undefined later date and, faced with the question of how I would keep an extremely mobile toddler from running off and getting into mischief while I got myself dry, I realised belatedly that starting while he was a baby would have been considerably easier.  So I put it off yet longer.

However, I was determined to stop procrastinating on this one at some stage – I firmly believe that everyone should know how to swim.  So, eventually, I set last Tuesday as the date that we would go along for Jamie’s introduction to the world of tiled echoey walls and large expanses of chlorinated water. 

I read him his Busy Babies Go Swimming book in hopes that he’d make the link when he found himself in a real live swimming pool, and even tried to get a rubber duck like the one the little boy has in the book, as I knew this was a touch he’d appreciate.  Unfortunately, the only toy duck I could find incorporated an educational shape-sorting toy and a noisy electronic version of ‘Oh, My Darling Clementine’.  (Much as I hate to spoil a good isn’t-it-sad-what-childhood-is-coming-to-today anecdote, honesty does compel me to point out, in all fairness, that I only actually looked in one shop.  Jamie now refuses to stay in his pushchair  whenever we stop in any shops for longer than a minute – he can get out of a British Kitemarked five-point harness in a matter of minutes – and I decided that abandoning the shopping trip was the simplest route.  I didn’t want a rubber duck for him that badly.)

We then had a last-minute hitch when the boiler broke down and the swimming pool closed for the day.  Since Tuesday is my day off work, and this Tuesday was the day Tumbletots started up again, and we were visiting my mother last weekend to bid my grandmother farewell before she returned to the States, this weekend was the next chance I had to take him.  So, this morning, we all headed off to the local leisure centre and paid an exorbitant amount of money (two adults, one child, one pair of armbands) for the few minutes I felt would be quite sufficient for his first introduction to the world of swimming.

I was highly relieved to find that they had the wonderful innovation of family cubicles, thus meaning that we could trade off the tasks of getting ourselves changed and seeing to a wriggly toddler who was decidedly not happy about this strange new environment.  When Barry put the armbands on him, he freaked out.  Nooooo!  Horrible tight things!  Nooooooo!  I tried to point out to him that they were the same as the armbands in the Busy Babies book, and either this information or the calming tones of our voices persuaded him to at least accept them for now, but he was still fairly unnerved by the whole experience.  He clung fiercely to me as we went out to the swimming pool, where we discovered that they didn’t have a toddler pool.  This meant taking Jamie into the big pool, with the hordes of screaming children and the water that’s just slightly too cold when you first get in because you’re meant to keep yourself warm by swimming energetically, in much the same way that a toddler new to the pool doesn’t.  Jamie’s reaction to this, as you can imagine, could be best described by sentences containing the word ‘limpet’.

Having read all the parenting books on the need to Respect Your Child’s Fears And Not Force Him, I was quite happy just to hold him and give him whatever time he needed to decide that he wanted to let go of me and start exploring a bit.  Barry, who doesn’t read parenting books, decided to be a bit more proactive, and instigated a game where we stood a few paces apart and floated him back and forth between us through the water.  Within seconds, Jamie was loving it.  We only stayed a short while – I wanted to leave while he was still happy rather than waiting until he got tired and whiny – but he enjoyed himself hugely, splashing around and kicking and playing with the floats in the pool, and was even starting to get the idea of very, very rudimentary attempts to propel himself forward.  When I took him back to the changing rooms to get him ready to go home, he even started playing quite happily with the Armbands Of Evil (putting his mouth to the nozzle, as that was what he’d seen Barry do).

On the way home, we dropped into one of the local shops for something else and I managed to find one of those children’s puzzles with pieces that you fit into wooden holes for only a couple of quid, so he played with that a bit when he got home.  Then he spent a while playing with his Play-Doh after his nap.  So, I can go to bed tonight glowing warmly with the knowledge that my son has spent his day engaged in Enriching And Educational Activities, not to mention rounding it all off with vegetables for dinner.  Feel free to start throwing eggs at me.

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Filed under Here Be Offspring

And I would do it again

Dr Crippen has been asked for advice by Sammy, a teenager considering career choices.  In this age of increasing government interference and a disintegrating health care system, is it still worth going into medicine?  Or would this young person be better advised to apply to a different course?

Dr Crippen, who describes himself as ‘a middle aged GP who has been beavering away in the NHS for over 20 years’, makes the sad admission that if he’d known at that age what he knows now, he would have made a different choice.  Not, I gather, because of the way he feels about doctoring itself; but because of the appalling ways in which doctors, and the NHS in general, are messed about by the government and the public.  As for Sammy, Dr Crippen advises him or her (it isn’t clear) that "if the passion burns deep, then you must do it. But it if it is just one of several options, then I would look elsewhere."

What I’d have made of this advice at that age, I’m not sure.  I certainly didn’t feel as if I had a deeply burning passion to do medicine – which worried me somewhat, since it had been made quite clear to me that it would involve a lot of hard work and exhaustion and stress and, all in all, it sounded like the kind of thing that you probably ought to have a burning passion for if you were going to have any chance of not hating it.  Young and immature, I didn’t as yet have enough sense of who I was to have any real feel for who I might be as an adult, which made it hard to picture what I might be happy spending my life doing.  I didn’t really know what it felt like to have a deeply burning passion for one particular job rather than others, but it seemed a fair bet you’d know it if you had it. 

All I knew was that medicine sounded as though it was likely to be interesting, one way or the other, and that I liked the idea of doing a job that did some kind of good in the world.  And, yes, being a firefighter would have probably fit that description better, but there was no way I had what it took to be a firefighter – I was hopeless at anything physical.  Not that I was at all sure I had whatever it took to be a doctor, either – didn’t it involve having, um, some kind of superpowers, or something equally daunting?  But I had always been good at academic stuff, particularly science, and that seemed like, well, at least some kind of a start.  And none of the many other things that I could have done really sounded all that interesting. 

I applied, in the end, because it was a path I couldn’t turn away from.  Because, even if I didn’t have a deeply burning passion at that stage, I did have a deeply burning, unarticulated, knowledge that if I didn’t at least explore this path, I’d regret it.

All this was a long time ago, I remember.

My training was easier than Dr Crippen’s.  A lot easier.  He qualified in the dire days that we now speak of in hushed tones, the days of the one-in-two rotas and hundred-plus-hour weeks, the days when you were left with no time or energy to do anything outside medicine, the days when your soul and spirit were ground down to powder.

I qualified in 1995, when reforms were already taking over.  The worst on-call rota I’ve ever worked was a one in five (one night in five and one weekend in five of being at the mercy of my bleep and still having to work a full day the next day).  The worst shift system I’ve worked had a week of twelve-hour nights once every five weeks with days at home to sleep, with easier shifts for the other four weeks.  (Evening shifts, which are actually the worst in a way because of the way they impact on your social life, were sensibly split up on this rota so that you never did more than two or three in a row.)  All of this was doable (except the full weekends on call, a torture now mercifully consigned to history). 

Dr Crippen says that doing medicine will deprive you of your twenties.  In my case, the reverse was true – I think my twenties were far better than they might have been if I were doing anything else.  The first half of my twenties was spent at university, and I don’t think any other course is quite as good as medicine for giving you a ready-made social life.  It must be said that I was at a university (Liverpool) renowned for the quality of its medical students’ society, so maybe other medical students wouldn’t have as good an experience.  But I had a truly fantastic time. 

Then I graduated, and started on the long hours, and had less time to spare.  But the time that I did have was, in a way, even better.  Finding out that I could handle a job as challenging and worthwhile as medicine gave me a confidence I hadn’t had before.  And there was a camaraderie in those long hours that I haven’t quite found anywhere else before or since – the Blitz spirit, the feeling that, yes, it was crap, but we were all in it and facing it together.  Somehow, I don’t think I’d have had the same experience working in law or finance or pure science.

It still wasn’t easy, and will never be for any junior doctor – there
were times when I felt so exhausted that my brain no longer felt
connected to my body, times when I was so sleep-deprived that I would
fall into an abyss of unconsciousness between one thought and the next as my body
tried to wrest control away and grab the sleep I needed, times when I
was so ground down that all I could do was come home and force myself to
eat something before I fell into bed.  Sore-footed and refractory,
indeed.  But, for me, these times were intermittent rather than
constant.  I had enough time off to rest, recharge, have a life.

I’ve got to add that, looking back, I probably went through that stage at just the right time.  I caught the window between the evil soul-destroying hours of decades back, and the increasing bureaucracy of recent years.  I built my own training scheme, picking up a six-month job here and a six-month job there according to whatever I felt I could do with learning a bit more about, ending up in some unexpected parts of the country and finding I could make a life for myself wherever I moved to.  These days, I’d have to join a training scheme and have three years of my life spoken for, at the end of which time I would be expected to go out and start work as a GP whether or not I felt I still had anything to learn from hospital jobs.  I’m glad I didn’t have to do it that way; and I think that the experience of a doctor trying to train as a GP today would be different from that of either myself or Dr Crippen.  (And, of course, the experience of a doctor trying to train in any other specialty will be different again.)

There were times we regretted/The summer palaces on slopes

Dr Crippen points out that if you want to be rich, medicine is not the best way to go about it.  As a teenager I was aware of this, and also aware of the fact that it was supremely unimportant to me.  I knew that, as a doctor, I’d always be comfortably off and never want for money.  I knew that, given that this was the case, job satisfaction was well above riches in my priorities.

I don’t, as it happens, even make anything like the hundred thousand a year that Dr Crippen gives as a ballpark figure for a GP’s earnings.  There’s a simple reason for this; I chose to become a salaried GP, employed by a practice, rather than buying in as a partner.  While I would love to earn a hundred thousand a year, I wouldn’t love it enough to saddle myself with the hassle and commitment involved in being a partner.  I’ve tried to picture what amount would be enough to persuade me to do this, and I’ve come up with a blank. 

So, I have a job where I work four days a week and don’t take work home (not as such, anyway, although trying to keep up with the journal reading can get crazy), and I still earn enough for us to have a lovely house in a very nice area, and two cars, and for my husband to stay at home full time with Jamie while he’s small.  Of course, it’s fair to say that my expenses are lower than Dr Crippen’s in other ways (I don’t live in London and have no intention of having four children), and also to point out that, from a financial viewpoint, it helps that we didn’t have Jamie until we were in our mid-thirties and had both had several years of full-time employment to put us on a sound financial footing.  But unless money really is your top priority in life – which I’m assuming it probably isn’t if you’re thinking about medicine in the first place – then I would not let concerns about it put you off a career in medicine.

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

There are a number of reasons why people try to put you off doing medicine.

There are, as I’ve said, the hours.  These have got better.  (At least, they’ve got better in terms of both the total number and the length of the individual shifts that doctors are expected to work.  The trade-off of this is a lot more shift systems, which can wreak havoc with some people’s family lives, social lives, and sleep patterns.)

There is the current state of the NHS.  This is probably the primary reason that everyone Sammy knows is advising him or her against a career in medicine.  You will have to deal with the fact that the NHS is at the mercy of some astonishingly clueless people.  Of course, you’ll probably have to deal with that anyway on the receiving end, whether or not you make medicine your profession – which is a thought that actually bothers me a lot more than the myriad ways in which the government is screwing up my profession.  That, I have to say, simply makes me more determined to stick around.  So far.  I reserve the right to change my mind on this as time goes by.

There is the fact that you will have to deal with the harder, grittier, side of life.  You will have to deal with telling people they’re dying, and taking care of them through their death.  You will have to deal with the grief and pain of people who have lost loved ones.  You will be faced with difficult ethical decisions.  You will have moments when the cruelties of fate rip your heart out and stomp on it.

This, I have to say, never put me off either.  Horrible things are going to happen in the world whether I’m there dealing with them or not.  If I’m there, at least I have some control in how they’re dealt with.  Walking away from my profession wouldn’t cure the patient with metastatic cancer – staying with it may mean that I can make sure he and his family at least get some support.

The hardest part, for me, is the frustration.  The frustration of knowing you can’t ever do enough.  Of knowing that I can’t see all my patients on time and still spend as long with each of them as they want.  Of knowing that I can’t spend as long with each of them as they want even if I don’t see them on time, because, um, I have to do other things occasionally like eat and sleep.  Of having to tell people that we simply don’t have an explanation for their symptoms, no matter how debilitating they are.  Of not having a magic wand.

But set down/This set down/This:

If you go into medicine, you will be able to make an actual difference in people’s lives.  This may be through actually doing something impressive like curing them, but it’s more likely to be in other ways – alleviating their symptoms, calming their fears, or just being a listening ear when they need it.  But you will be doing something that matters.

You will have the chance to learn how to deal with situations you would never have thought you could deal with.  In learning how to deal with them, you will find depths in yourself that you never thought you could find.  Ever see those recruiting ads for the Army that show you the kind of challenge that Army officers have to face and end with the slogan ‘Army Officer – Be The Best’?  Being a doctor is another way of being the best.

You will become more than you ever thought you could be.  To switch from Eliot to Yeats for a moment, you will be the centre that does hold when things fall apart.

Would all this have been of much help to me when I was making the decision myself?  Probably not.  It would just have scared me – yet another polemic about the horrors and wonders of it all to make me think "But surely I’m not the kind of person who can do this sort of thing!"  And, you know, at the time I wasn’t.  I really wasn’t.  That’s the point.  I became that person as a result of being willing to try that path.

The piece of advice that actually did help me most at the time came from a friend.  "I think you should do it," he told me, "because if you don’t, you’ll always wonder whether you could have done it or not."  That, unlike scary stories of hours or stress or inspiring stories of wonders awaiting me, was something at my level, something I could relate to.  I understood the idea of a challenge.  I understood the idea of giving things a try, just to see.

And if I’d tried it and it turned out not to be for me?  Then I could have done something else instead.  This is a piece of advice you may find of more practical help: You are not making a once-and-for-all decision, at this point in time, as to whether or not to spend your entire life working in the NHS.  If you decide after qualifying that medicine isn’t for you – well, a degree is a degree, and there will be a number of other jobs open to you.  If you decide that medicine is for you but the way the NHS do things isn’t, then there are a number of other countries you can move to where you may find medical practice more congenial.

But it was for me.  I don’t want this to sound as though I’m some kind of fantasy TV doctor of the 50s, dedicating my every moment to sitting selflessly by my patients’ bedsides and doing so with a willing heart.  There are plenty of days when my main thought is "When the hell do I get a coffee break?"  But in every one of those days, if I look for it, there is something else, something better – something to make me smile, or something to make me laugh, or something to make me think.  Plenty of days have all of the above.

I have had many moments of wondering whether I was right for medicine.  But I have never, since I started, had a single moment where I seriously wondered whether medicine was right for me.  It is right for me to the depths of my soul.  If you want to hear something positive from someone who has a career in medicine, there it is.  I would do it again.  I would do it again.  I would do it again.

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In search of a tie-breaker

The next on my list of planned posts is now, following the latest votes, tied between:

a) Guilt as a weapon against formula-feeding mothers

b) Why baby books should be treated with extreme caution

c) Why I decided Jamie should have the MMR.

So, if anyone would like to throw in a tie-breaker vote, feel free.  (For that matter, if anyone would like to add to the original votes in order to move an unpopular one further up the list, feel free.)  Meanwhile, I’ll get started on the first of those three while awaiting further votes.

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Filed under I think this line's mostly filler

The Houdini Chronicles, Part III

We’re visiting my mother this weekend (which, if you’re wondering, is why you won’t see this post until Sunday afternoon at the earliest even though I’m dating it Saturday – I don’t think anyone has located the exact whereabouts of my house from this blog, but I’m not actually about to advertise our temporary absence from it on the Internet). My mother bought a small cot last year to put in the spare room for visits of her First Grandchild, but two months ago Jamie got big enough to climb out of that, so now we’re back to bringing the travel cot, which has higher sides, on visits.  Since it doesn’t have a proper mattress, we put a folded-up duvet in the bottom to pad it, along with a pillow for him.  (I can tell you, it’s good getting past the magic one-year-old mark and being able to stop worrying about SIDS.)

Today, after setting the cot up for his nap complete with duvet and pillow, I looked at it and mused "Hmmm… I wonder how much longer it’ll take him to figure out that if he piles all of that bedding up at one end and then stands on it, it’ll boost him up just enough to get out?"

About fifteen minutes, as it turned out.

Fortunately, I escaped this particular joyful milestone in my child’s life, since Barry said to me as I picked Jamie up to take him up for his nap "Do you want me to settle him?  After all, he behaves better for me than for you."  My natural instinct to protest that I could so get him to behave perfectly well thankyouverymuch did struggle briefly against my other natural instinct to take the offer of help and run, but it wasn’t even close – I thanked him profusely, handed Jamie to him, and waved bye-bye with a light heart.  So, while I got to read some more Harry Potter to my mother, Barry got the fun of holding a wriggly toddler in place on the bed until he finally fell asleep.  Of course, there’s still tonight to deal with….

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Filed under Here Be Offspring, How quickly they grow up

Off-label parenting

An addition to the voting has put "Why I’m Not An Attachment Parent" into first place as The Post Readers Most Want Me To Write Next. 

I hope that’s not too misleading a topic description – this isn’t going to be one of those anti-AP polemics from people who are convinced, based on apparently no knowledge of child psychology whatsoever, that AP makes children excessively dependent or spoiled or the like.  Personally, I’m fine with the philosophy behind it – it’s hard to object to the idea that parents should seek to foster strong emotional bonds with their children, that breastfeeding is highly beneficial, that parents should be physically affectionate and emotionally responsive.  I don’t like the way that its advocates tend to mistake some potentially useful ideas for Commandments As To How Thou Shalt Parent engraved in stone and handed down from On High, but that’s hardly unusual in the world of parenting, and blaming AP advocates specifically for that behaviour would be a little unfair. 

What I reject, and have always rejected, is the label.  Even in Jamie’s early months, when I was battling heaven and earth to keep him exclusively breastfed in the face of difficulties, carrying him everywhere to an extent that Jean Liedloff could barely have found fault with, and abandoning all my pre-baby plans about getting Jamie used to his cot from the start in order to curl up on a mattress with him every night and blissfully co-sleep, I flat-out refused to call myself an Attachment Parent.

(I want to stress, here, that this is how I feel about the label – it isn’t how I think anyone else should necessarily feel.  It says particular things to me that I don’t like; it won’t say those things to everyone, and nor should it.  If it’s a label that suits you, excellent.  None of what I say is intended to be an attack on attachment parents collectively, and I truly hope it isn’t taken that way.)

There is no doubt that labels have their uses in life – they’re what make it possible for us to conceptualise, to categorise, to think about things in a structured way.  But that’s a double-edged sword.  Labels can also narrow our thinking.  Labels can be a way of tidying something away into a neat little box in our minds.  There are a great many things in my life that I’d love to have tidied away into neat little boxes (any volunteers?) but my parenting has never been one of them.  I wanted more space to let things flow as they might (and, apparently, to mix metaphors sufficiently to make an English teacher’s brain explode).

Once, on the AP mailing list I subscribe to, a mother was talking about the difficulties she was having with setting limits for her three-year-old son – he’d start to cry and fuss, and she’d feel obliged to give in.  When I inquired as to what she found difficult about letting him cry, another mother on the list objected that I clearly hadn’t understood what AP was all about.  Now, as it happens, I know perfectly well that AP is not all about giving in to your child’s tears no matter what – that’s just the stereotype of AP held by people who know next to nothing about it – and I dug up some apt quotes from the Sears’ webpage to back this up.  But it occurred to me afterwards that this touched on a key part of why I dislike the idea of putting any one particular label on my parenting.  I don’t ever want to make my parenting decisions based on "what Parenting Style X is all about", regardless of what the X might be.  I want to make them based on what Barry and I feel is right for Jamie and right for us, right for our family as a whole, whether or not they happen to agree with what it says in the Officially Sanctioned Handbook Of Parenting Style Whatever.

Labels can also be divisive.  As I said above, AP advocates are hardly the only parents prone to OneTrueWayism – that attitude certainly isn’t something I’d blame on AP, as such.  But I do think that, to some extent, it’s something I’d blame on the very act of labelling.  A label can be a way of saying that I’m doing things Right while you’re doing them Wrong.  When we talk as though one group of parents has some sort of exclusive claim to something that should, after all, be a deeply inherent part of parenting in general, what sort of attitudes does that foster towards parents who do things a little differently? 

I have actually heard the term ‘detachment parenting’ used by die-hard AP-ers to dismiss people who don’t parent according to AP-sanctioned principles.  Even where that specific term isn’t used, stereotypes abound.  The usual alternative with which I’ve seen AP parents compared in AP writings is the mother (and it is usually the mother who’s specified) who Leaves Her Baby To Cry In A Crib In A Room Down The Hall.  (Among other things, non-AP parents apparently all have unusually large houses – the rooms of these hypothetical non-AP’d babies are always ‘down the hall’.  We never seem to hear references to babies In A Crib In The Room Next To The Parents.)  When these babies are taken out of the Room Down The Hall, it’s apparently only to shift them from one Plastic Bucket to another – ‘plastic bucket’ not being meant literally, but as a derisive term for anywhere you can put a baby (car seat, bouncy seat, swing, high chair, pushchair) that isn’t a sling.  And, of course, putting babies in these Plastic Buckets means that you can’t possibly be forming any decent sort of attachment to them.  No, indeedy!

The problem is that AP sometimes seems to lose sight of the wood for the trees.  Breastfeeding into childhood, babywearing, and co-sleeping are looked at as the cornerstones of attachment.  (Oh, yes – and, of course, signing the blood oath that you will Never Abandon Your Child To Cry and will, in fact, spit in contempt whenever the name of Ferber is mentioned.)  Now, personally, I can think of excellent reasons for doing all these things (apart from the spitting in contempt) – we all know the health benefits of breastfeeding, babywearing can be both convenient and fun, and co-sleeping was, for me, a gift from the Parenting Gods and the saviour of what tattered shreds are left of my sanity.  But I think they have a fairly limited relationship to the strength of your attachment to your child.  It is perfectly possible (and not even particularly difficult) to wean your baby early or start her on formula from Day 1, use a pushchair for trips and a cot for night-time, and still foster a wonderful attachment.

I have to borrow Beanie Baby’s excellent analogy here – breastfeeding, babywearing and co-sleeping as routes to Better Parenting are like footrubs and candlelit dinners as routes to Better Marriages.  They’re potentially good ways of improving bonding, but hardly the be-all and end-all, and not even the only way to a blissfully happy and well-bonded relationship.  Far from it.  Attachment is the sum total of how you respond to and interact with your child in a thousand tiny ways day after day after day throughout his childhood.  There isn’t a single specific way to go about this, and, paradoxically, thinking that there is can actually interfere with your ability to meet your child’s needs – while the vast majority of children will thrive on AP (as they will on most parenting methods) it can cause problems for the child who really needs to be left alone to cry for a few minutes to release tension or whose mother is struggling with such severe breastfeeding problems that continued efforts to breastfeed are actually impeding her attachment.  AP is no more immune than any other child-rearing how-to to the potential problem of letting the dogma get in the way of the baby.

And the other problem with labels is that they can blind us to the fact that, in real life, it actually isn’t that easy to categorise people – we do have this annoying tendency of not fitting into those neat little boxes.  I breastfed Jamie into toddlerhood, took him into bed with us every night until he started sleeping through of his own accord, carried him everywhere during his pre-crawling months, own four different types of baby carrier, and go out to work only because my husband is staying home and therefore one of us is always with our child.  I also started him on formula supplements from four months old, left him to CIO when he was thirteen months, weaned him when he was sixteen months, use a pushchair when I want to take him anywhere, and am planning to put him into his own room (which isn’t Down The Hall, but would have been had we managed to get the house we’d originally planned on buying) within the next couple of weeks.  All of these are decisions I’m happy and comfortable with, decisions that were right for our family.

So, does all this mean I’d qualify as an Attachment Parent or not?  I’m guessing that, if that was ever voted on, votes would be divided.  And I don’t particularly care.  I might or might not be considered an Attachment Parent, but I’m an attached parent.  Not because of, or in spite of, any of those things, but because of the way I’ve reacted to and responded to my son over the twenty-one months since his birth – being there for him, responding to his needs and wishes, caring for him, letting him know at every stage just how much I love him.  I don’t see any of that as being, specifically, an Attachment Parent.  I see it as being a parent.

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