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I’m doing it wrong (says the internet).

Many things change when you have a baby. Your body, your hair, the shadows under your eyes, your bank balance, your relationships, and the information dished out to you through your social media feeds.

Based on the types of conversations I have online, the photos or articles I look at and the demographic box I fit into (city dwelling 30-something mother of two), I get quite the cocktail of ads and ‘suggested posts’ served up to me on Facebook and Instagram. Sometimes I imagine there’s a plucky young Facebook executive casting their eye over the data report for the day and thinking to themselves, “based on her criteria, today this lady saw ads for leggings that make you two sizes slimmer, washing powder, toddler shoes, gin, adult slippers that look like shoes, a wine sale, crumpets, sleep consultants, frozen chicken nuggets, anti-wrinkle cream, multi-compartmented lunchboxes, a device you stick in your lady parts that connects to your phone to say how much work your pelvic floor needs, and more wine. WHAT IS THIS LIFE?!”

Sometimes I’ll see an ad for a bar opening, but when I scroll back to look it’s gone. I’m sure that same young exec is saying “LOL! Sorry, our mistake, we temporarily thought you were someone with a life. Here’s an ad about cheap haircuts”.

But my morbid fascination lies with the ‘suggested articles’ containing well-meaning advice from pages where I just know the comments sections will be filled with “I am the best ever parent and person!” undertones. I’m under no illusion that if I dared to comment with a query on the real life application of some of the advice I’d be met with the online equivalent of “YOU CAN’T SIT WITH US!”

Don’t get me wrong, some of the information is genuinely helpful and I’ve learned some awesome life hacks (putting a pool noodle under a fitted sheet to stop toddlers falling out of their new big kid bed = genius), but a lot of the time I wonder if people actually do all of these things, or if they just pretend they do for the internet.

For example, apparently my morning should include:

  • A brief (10-20 minute) session of gentle stretches and meditation to prepare me for a day of mothering
  • Taking 5-10 minutes over a cup of lemon in warm water to stimulate digestion
  • This bit is never explicitly mentioned, but taking the cue from “stimulating digestion” I assume the next step is to go for a poo
  • A mindful shower followed by body lotion application
  • A healthful breakfast, eaten while calmly planning my day.

Cool, sounds lovely, something to strive for in my “house by the beach where everything is white, tidy, and smells like French Pear candles” fantasies. But then the next bit gets me unstuck, because I’m also supposed to:

  • Respond immediately to my waking child so they don’t feel abandoned, but I’m also supposed to let him/her wake and spend time in their own company to learn to be comfortable in their own surroundings (which one, internet, which one?)
  • When I hear my child wake, I’m to put five hair ties on my right wrist, so that if I raise my voice during the day I can move it to my left wrist, then berate myself that evening over all the hair ties that moved (note: I’m gonna need more than five hair ties)
  • I should lie in bed with my child before they get up (or take them to mine if they’re still in a cot) and spend 20 minutes connecting with them and sharing gratitude rituals. I have two children though, so do I just pick a favourite? I guess that’d give them something to feel gratitude about
  • Allow them to choose their own clothes if they’re old enough to do so, because #ChoicesAreEmpowering
  • Eat breakfast together with my children to model healthful choices and #Togetherness (but wait, wasn’t I supposed to eat breakfast calmly on my own?)
  • Involve the children in gathering what’s needed to pack into bags, along with the personalised organic bento boxes you’ve prepared, before you head out the door together (presumably it’s almost dinner time by this point?) for some #MakingMemories magic.

Maths is not my strong point, but a brief tally up of how long everything will take suggests that I’d need to get up at Ridiculously Early O’clock to make this sort of morning come together. I’m not sure I’d get buy-in from the kids on the lying still and doing gratitude rituals bit. Also, we’re out of lemons and if Ricies aren’t considered a ‘healthful’ breakfast then shut up Internet.

So I guess night time is for creating the organic bento snack boxes, washing all the clothes that the children have chosen and unchosen, preparing dinner for the next night, and ‘reconnecting’ with my partner. Oh, and running the home business I’ve started after being fired from my job for consistently swanning in at 4pm saying “sorry I’m late, the children have only just finished dressing and packing their bags for the day, btw does anyone have any spare hair-ties?” (because you need to be something other than just a mother, but please, make it a home business about being a mother, and definitely don’t let it draw your attention away from your children for a single second when they’re awake). Which means going to bed about an hour before needing to get up again. And that’s totally at odds with the next sponsored article that popped up, letting me know that getting 8-10 hours sleep per night is the best way to get back into my skinny jeans.

 

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How our mornings often start.

 

 

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A variation of this originally appeared as my column in the August/September edition of Little Treasures Magazine (NZ)

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Don’t worry, baby.

Even the briefest of scrolls through parenting sites indicates that anxiety in children and babies is a hot topic. Anxiety in adults can be difficult enough to identify and treat – let alone in a tiny person who is just learning about their world. I had a chat to registered psychologist, Cate Hey, about  developing emotions. This article appeared in Little Treasures Magazine, and is easier to read here in this pdf: AnxietyinBabies

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Hold Tight

The good old pelvic floor. Worth thinking about more than just when the kids ask you to jump on the trampoline. My article about this important but often forgotten about body bit, written for Little Treasures Magazine, featuring the lovely Stacey Law from Leto Women’s Health.

The pdf here is easier to read: PelvicFloor 

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Now it matters

At the risk of coming across as a bit neurotic and high maintenance, I think having babies has made me a bit neurotic and high maintenance. Previously mundane or everyday situations have taken on a whole new meaning now that there are two tiny humans in our life. The little things have become big things, and motherhood can feel a bit like one of those reality TV shows where people have to make it through obstacle courses covered in soap while big padded gloves throw unexpected blows. Except there’s no cash prize, and instead of an exciting purpose-built course, the obstacles are things like long queues at the supermarket. For example:

Holiday traffic with the husband before kids: “Oh rats, traffic is at a standstill. Never mind, let’s listen to some music, have a chat, and share the chocolate bar that’s in my small and tidy handbag”.

After kids: “Noooo! I’m down to the last three crackers for the bored toddler, and then there’s nothing but a half-empty packet of crystallized raisins somewhere in the depths of my enormous bag. If the car stops moving the baby will wake up and want to be fed, so we’ll have to pull over and get even further back in the traffic, which means we’ll be late home and late to bed, then the kids will inexplicably wake up two hours early tomorrow, so while I find the Wiggles play list and break the crackers up into tiny pieces to make them last longer PLEASE JIGGLE THE GODDAM CAR TO KEEP THE BABY ASLEEP”.

Choosing a restaurant before kids: “That one looks nice, let’s see if they’ve got a table at 7pm – we can wait at the bar and enjoy a drink if there’s a wait”.

After kids: “Do they have highchairs? Do they have a kids’ menu so that we can pay slightly less for food that they probably still won’t eat anyway? Is it noisy enough to drown out the sounds of potential meltdowns, but not so noisy that it causes a meltdown? No no, we can’t go to that one – last time we went there the toddler stuck a decorative berry up her nose and I had to block one of her nostrils while shouting ‘blow! Blow as hard as you can!’ until the snot-covered berry shot out onto the table. Ok that place looks good, and they open at 5, so if we order the second we sit down it should be fine. Or we could just stay home”.

Daylight Saving before kids: “Yay! Long evenings! Leisurely walks after work because the sun is still high in the sky! Awww, Daylight Saving is finishing now? Oh well, those first few days will feel like we’re getting a sleep-in”.

After kids:I’ll order some blackout blinds as soon as I’ve finished explaining why it is actually bedtime even though we applied another layer of sunscreen just a couple of hours ago. Daylight Saving is finishing now? Ah, so this is the bit where the kids don’t cotton on to 5 A.M. being the new 6 A.M. or is it the other way around? Either way, it’s too early, please go back to sleep and let me revel in the pseudo sleep-in”.

Procrastinating work before kids: “Wow, I’ve left it a bit late to get this done. I can finish it this evening, though”.

After kids: “This is a bit close to the wire, but if I start the second the baby falls asleep I can get it done by midnight. Wait… is that? Yep, that’s definitely an ‘I’ve got an ear infection and we’re going to going to spend the next four hours at A&E’ cry”.

Hearing neighbours dragging the wheelie bin down the driveway at 11pm before kids: “Must be bin night. Is ours even full? It can probably wait another week”.

After kids: “What kind of monsters bang and scrape their bin right under the kids’ window? Why didn’t they take theirs out when they saw me at the curb forcing the lid down on our overflowing bin well before 7 P.M? Ooo, but now their bin is out and it’s dark, do you think we could sneak in a few nappies that I couldn’t cram into ours?”

 

I’m sure my thought patterns will return to normal at some point, maybe when the girls are teenagers. There’ll be a whole new set of obstacles then, but perhaps we’ll be able to discuss them at a restaurant late one summery evening after being stuck in holiday traffic.

I originally wrote this piece for the NZ Winter 2017 edition of Little Treasures Magazine.

The name game

Before I had my own babies, I couldn’t understand why people would say “still deciding on a name” in their birth announcement. What? You’ve had nine months to prepare for this moment! How hard it is to choose a name? Er, actually harder than it looks, I discovered when pregnant for the first time.

Jeremy (my husband) and I had decided not to find out what we were having, so we needed options both ways. We set perimeters on name-choosing rules, such as checking there were no notorious criminals with that moniker, no names of ex-partners or meanies from school, and making sure it wouldn’t sound silly with our last name (when we got married, I was keen on having one family surname, but filled out the forms somewhat reluctantly because my married name makes me sound like a drunk Irishman).

We both loved the same boy’s name. Sorted. A girl’s middle name would be Clare, after my mother. BAM, we were nailing this naming thing and I was only about eleven minutes pregnant.

But then we needed a girl first name option. My favourite name forever had been Nina, but that’s what all the grandkids call my mother in law, so it was struck off for being too confusing. Both of us loved the name Frankie, but we’d already used that name up (without much foresight) on our cat. Jeremy didn’t like my suggestions, and I didn’t like his. And so began months of conversations that started with me enthusiastically reading from a long list I’d compiled that day, then ended with me huffily saying “well YOU think of a better option then. No, not that one. Not that one either”. We opened the floor to family and friends. Ideas flew thick and fast, but none of them quite right. I started watching the credits of movies and T.V. programmes, in the hope that I’d spot The Perfect Name scrolling up our screen. Nope.

I still held fast to my shortlist of favourite names, and one of my wise friends said, “look, pick your favourite, and then if the baby is a girl, just weakly announce that’s what you want to call her in the delivery room. Jeremy will be so relieved you’re ok he’ll go with anything”. Then we found out I was going to need a scheduled caesarean, so that strategy went out the window.

One evening after talking on the phone to my best friend Amy (while making a vat of porridge for my post-dinner snack), I waddled back to the couch and Jeremy said, “Amy is a really nice name. Have you ever met an Amy you didn’t like?” I immediately looked up the meaning and hormonally shouted, “it means ‘beloved’ or ‘loved friend’! It’s going on the shortlist!”

Not long after, our beautiful daughter was placed on my chest, and we immediately agreed she was an Amy. Best-friend-Amy was thrilled, promptly got a puppy and named it Jeremy.

Second time around, I understood why one of my friends got an official government department letter stating they had to register a name for their third baby or one would be allocated for him. We still had our boy name up our sleeve, but not an agreed-upon girl name to be seen. I’d pulled out my old shortlist, but all options were rejected. We started pondering if having a cat and a baby with the same name would really be such a bad thing.

To further complicate things for ourselves, we realised that all our names (including the cat’s) ended in an “ee” sound. Would child #2 feel left out if theirs didn’t, too? Something to ponder as I ate my nightly tub of ice cream.

A few nights before baby #2 was due to make a nameless appearance, as my latest suggestion had just been rejected for sounding like a stripper’s name, I sat down to read a new book to Amy. I didn’t have a whole lot of energy (or ankles, for that matter), but I was totally into the main character in the story – a little cutie called Tilly. “Hey, ‘Tilly’ is a really nice name,” said Jeremy as he walked past on his way to find me another bag of chips, “if the baby is a girl we should call her Tilly”. And so we did.

Several days later, I was explaining to the hospital midwife prodding my breasts that Tilly’s middle name was Judge, after my Granny (that was her last name), which I hoped would balance out the cuteness of a name like Tilly. “Oh love”, said the midwife, “I don’t think you’re allowed to call her Judge – there are rules about giving names that indicate a ranking – like King, General, and Duke”. “Nooo!” I shrieked, “I’ve already announced it on Facebook!”

Fortunately the pleading letter I sent to the department of Births, Deaths and Marriages outlining the family history of the name was accepted. I also threw in that I’d probably only use her middle name when she was naughty and I needed to use her full name for effect…I’m pretty sure if they knew how often I now shout “Tilly Judge McPike!” they wouldn’t have let it through.

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This column was originally published in the NZ Autumn 2017 edition of Little Treasures Magazine.

Rachel’s Boob-boo

On Valentine’s Day, Rachel Smalley used her ‘Rachel Smalley’s Opinion’ slot in the NZ Herald to have a substantial crack at women who’ve gone under a plastic surgeon’s knife or needle.

Boob jobs, in particular, have really gotten Rachel’s natural tits in a tangle. Rachel takes a stab that she thinks plastic surgeons like to call ‘boob jobs’ ‘breast augmentation’. Great sleuthing! Plastic surgeons DO like to call boob jobs ‘breast augmentation’, because that is the medical terminology for the procedure. Enlightened by the first few paragraphs that small nipples are in, and a B-cup is the new D-cup, I started getting a bit antsy when Rachel waded into “just be happy with your body; plastic surgery is for weirdos” territory.

“Ooooh, careful, Rachel”, I thought to myself, “have you forgotten #LardoGate? Remember that one time you accidentally left your mic on during the ad break in your radio show and said that New Zealand women are all a pack of lardos and heifers for having an average weight over 70kgs? People got pretty cross about that”.

So, the woman who looks down her nose at any woman who isn’t sub-70 also won’t abide anyone who doesn’t just accept how she is. I wasn’t alone in my brow furrowing over that paradigm (although the fact I can actually furrow my brow kind of makes me okay in Rachel’s Book of Looks), and found a welcoming community of fellow “What-The-Fuck?!”-ers in the Herald Facebook comments section.

And then shit got weirder. Rachel, the journalist who has brought our attention to topics such as the Syrian conflict and the state of the NZ health system, made a cringe-worthy leap by suggesting anyone who faffs about with their body is giving up their right to be taken seriously. She goes as far as to say it gives her grave fears for the future of women. Equality and a non-natural figure are mutually exclusive, apparently. Um, Rachel? Donald Trump called and he wants you to lead his team of speechwriters.

By that token, am I, with my chemically lightened hair, to be taken less seriously than my naturally hued or male counterparts? Careful with that one, Rachel, because those sun-kissed tresses you rock don’t look 100% god-given. And should a common utterance in boardrooms across the country be, “that’s an excellent idea, Janice, but could someone with thinner lips and a less perky pair of tits suggest it so we can put the plan to our shareholders with some credibility?”

I know some highly intelligent, confident and successful women. Some of them have fake breasts, and some of them don’t. Sure, it’s not a flawless, peer-reviewed scientific study, but I’d like to table my theory that the breasts do not maketh the woman.

A core component of feminism (or a supporter of equal rights for women, if the term “feminist” makes you clutch at your pearls and say, “oh but I’m not an ACTUAL feminist – I shave my armpits!” Side note: men can be feminists, too) is the right to freedom of choice. Implying that it’s anti-feminist for women to make decisions about their own bodies is about as anti-feminist as it gets.

There are many reasons a woman may elect to star in her own personal episode of Nip Tuck. Maybe it’s a breast reconstruction following a mastectomy, a breast reduction to stop chronic neck pain, a spot of Botox so people will stop saying, “why do you look so angry all the time?” a bit of filler to pad out wrinkles caused by a past life of smoking or sucking on sipper bottles (watch out for that one!), having ears pinned back, a breast augmentation to reclaim a bit of pre-motherhood pertness, or a breast augmentation just because she really fucking wants one. Is everyone who has dabbled with the dark arts of plastic surgery to now hide away, shamed by the knowledge that Rachel Smalley disapproves of their life choices? Or, should non-natural ladies be rounded up and burned at the stake for their selfish disservice to the advancement of womankind?

I’d like to know where her editor is in all of this. Did they not say, “Hey Rach…wait, can I call you Rach? No? My apologies, you’re a professional woman who can choose how she wants to be addressed, so Rachel it is. Hey Rachel, don’t you think your column delivering solid burns to anyone who has surgically spruced themselves is a bit on the body-shaming spectrum?”

I want to like Rachel, I really do. She’s intelligent, she’s successful, she supports charities, she’s written some incredible pieces, and delivered some hard-hitting interviews. She’s a mother (I noted the #humblebrag about reading Dr Seuss to her son in the Boobs article), a committed runner, and a woman who has climbed the ranks in her career. Inspiring. Noble.

So why did Rachel take a misguided stab at the synthetic-sisterhood? Spoiler alert: it’s not because she has “grave fears for the future of women”.

Rachel is in the enviable position of being able to reach a great number of New Zealanders, via multiple media forms. She has the nation’s ear, if you will. Instead of using her platform to deliver a thought-provoking or uplifting message, she used it to take a deliberate bite out of a woman who used to be her friend.

Rachel refers in her column to “a woman” she saw in her social media feed over the weekend who had recently had a boob job. Rachel doesn’t like That Woman’s boobs, oh no she doesn’t, because they’re fake and too far apart. She goes on to accuse That Woman’s boobs of not even liking each other because they’re SO far apart. She reckons That Woman’s boobs might even be having an argument, because they’re SO far apart. They’re SO far apart, you could drive a Mini Clubman through the middle of them, she tittered.

I know That Woman. She helped Rachel integrate into a new community several years ago. They had shared interests (That Woman even inspired Rachel to take up running. Go, Sisterhood!), kids of similar ages, and mutual friends. Kids’ birthday parties were attended, ladies’ getaways were shared, lasagnes were delivered during times of sickness, all good friendship stuff. Then they had a falling out. It wasn’t a particularly spectacular falling out – Julie Christie isn’t clambering for the rights to turn it into a series – but feelings on both sides were hurt, and the friendship was laid to rest. Relations were frosty, but then last year I was with That Woman at a marathon event and we bumped into Rachel. Smiles and running results were exchanged. It seemed that the frost had thawed and the two of them could happily exist around each other at mutual gatherings without any blood (or Chardonnay) being shed. Because moving on and letting go is what grownups do.

Apparently not, judging by Rachel’s Valentine’s Day column.

I get it. Friendships end, and that’s really sad sometimes. But passive-aggressively pissing in the nation’s ear about it and body shaming many others by way of collateral damage is a dick move at best.

There’s a lot of sadness and uncertainty in That Woman’s personal life right now, which made the “yo titties SO bad” jibes a bitter pill to swallow (and having seen them in the flesh, I can confidently state that those boobs are things of beauty). Another friend and I stood beside That Woman as she worried her unintentional #PersonalProblems weight loss made her chest look too bony for the dress she was about to wear to her 40th birthday party (which she’d just almost cancelled). We assured her she looked amazing, because she did. Celebrations ensued, fun times were had, and guests peppered their social media with the party pics that Rachel found oh-so-offensive.

Rachel’s boob shaming column tried to take the shine off That Woman’s 40th (seriously, it must be a special kind of bitterness that drives someone to choose a woman’s 40th birthday as the ideal time to start ankle-nipping like an inbred Jack Russell). At first it did. That Woman felt humiliated, hurt, and angry. But then she decided that she’d take this particular lemon life had lobbed at her, slice it up, and pop it in a gin and tonic.

So, That Woman has commemorated Rachel’s sanctimonious drivel with a custom printed t-shirt. She’s had two made, and has sent one to Rachel in the hope she’ll remember to use her privileged platform to build women up instead of picking them apart.

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That Woman is an awesome woman indeed.

Step aside, Sanctimommy

Not only does the Internet offer up things that make me laugh and give me the opportunity to see what complete strangers are doing with their lives and décor, it helps me feel connected to the world on days when I don’t see any other adults. The Internet has also introduced me to the concept of the ‘Sanctimommy’.

A sensational mash-up of the words ‘Sanctimonious’ and ‘Mommy’, a Sanctimommy exists to tell the rest of us exactly when and how we’re screwing up parenting, without sparing our mediocre mothering feelings.

Let’s say you entered a picture of your family enjoying a picnic at the beach for an online competition. “Oh cute”, chimes in the Sanctimommy, “but I can see a bottle of bought sunscreen on the blanket there – it blows my mind that people rub toxic chemicals on their precious baby’s skin. I make my own from organic oils. It’s time consuming, but I actually love my children so it’s worth the effort. Those sandwiches are clearly made from refined flour – are they even homemade?” Suddenly, your happy family snap has become a metaphor for your failings as a parent.

In the same way that my grandfather used to listen to talk back radio just to wind himself up, I often find myself reading comments’ sections in the full knowledge that I’m just going to get all huffy and nostril-flarey about the outpouring of judgement from mothers who think they know best. Sometimes, ignoring the “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” advice I dish out to my kids, I’ll even bash out a snarky and defensive comment in retaliation. I’m not alone in getting my hackles up – one clever mother has devoted an entire Facebook page to rolling her eyes at Sanctimommy chatter.

‘Attachment Parenting’ seems to be a hot button for many a Sanctimommy. Strict followers of the movement uphold that attachment concepts such as baby-wearing, co-sleeping, breast-feeding on demand, and practicing positive discipline will result in children who are more secure and empathetic than their counterparts. Some followers believe in it so strongly that they form mothers’ groups only open to women who adhere to the attachment guidelines (ok, I get it, I often like to surround myself with like-minded people), and seem to revel in shaming mothers who don’t in online forums, suggesting that they obviously don’t love their babies as much as attachment parents do (yeah, that’s where they lose me, too).

I dabbled in a bit of Attachment Parenting myself. Not from any position of moral superiority, but because I had a noisy little baby who seemed insatiably hungry and would not sleep unless she was carried, and a toddler who wanted to get out and do stuff. The front pack became our best friend as I sashayed into my role of Baby Wearer. The baby slept in our room in a Moses basket, purely so she didn’t wake the entire household when she woke every 45 minutes demanding to be fed. I was an Accidental Attachment Parent, and it worked for us for a while. I’d like to say I also strictly followed the “positive discipline” angle, but somehow I don’t think “please do what I’m asking so I don’t lose my mind for the 47th time today” is quite the positivity Attachment Parenting is gunning for.

A sore back, sciatica, exhaustion, and nipples that were in danger of looking like the thumbs of a cross-eyed builder all indicated that perhaps Attachment Parenting wasn’t for me. The Sanctimommies peppering my online research into how to break out of attachment revealed that perhaps I was just a crap parent. Fortunately, I was immune to the wrath of their judgement, having been fully inoculated against it whilst researching caesarean deliveries before my first baby was born. Terrified by the tales of surgical complications, babies that wouldn’t bond with their mothers, and the surety that I would be less of a woman if I didn’t welcome a baby into the world via my lady-parts, I asked my obstetrician to reconsider his caesarean recommendation. Who did he think he was, a doctor with a mere twenty-year’s obstetric experience, to question me, a first time mother with a solid six hours of Googling under her belt?

Commonsense prevailed, and baby #1 was born via caesarean with her collarbone intact. She still seems to love me just fine, and I’ve never heard her say “I’m throwing this tantrum as a direct result of the fact that I came out the sunroof instead of the door!” By the time I was pregnant with #2, I was Team C-Section all the way. Both my caesareans were medically necessary, but – get your pitchforks ready now, Sanctimommies – I’d have one again even if it wasn’t. Because it worked for our family. Am I scathing of those who birthed naturally? Hell no! I tip my hat to you all.

Support, humour, and a space to vent make up the best parts of the online world for parents. Pregnancy and child rearing are minefields, and we can all learn a lot from each other through sharing experiences and solicited advice. What the Sanctimommy seems incapable of understanding is that there is no one definitive correct way to parent. Different approaches work for different people, and so long as no child (or mother!) is being put in harm’s way, then that’s ok. You over there with your dolphin assisted birthing and paleo cupcakes, well, you do you, and I’ll do me. I may even check out your blog sometime and attempt to make your buckwheat pikelets.

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Originally in the Summer 2017 edition of Little Treasures Magazine

Go with your gut

In the glamour stakes, the gut ranks somewhere alongside the armpit in the eyes of most people, and is generally left to its own devices. Far from simply being a means of getting food from one end of our body to the other, the gut is the powerhouse of our immune system, and a factory for brain chemicals. I spoke with Rosanne Sullivan from The WellBeing Centre in Auckland and found out why we should be giving this part of our body a whole lot of love and attention.

“It’s estimated that roughly 80 per cent of our immune system is location in our gut”, says Rosanne Sullivan, ” and a significant amount of serotonin (our ‘happiness hormone’) along with other brain chemicals are made in the gut. Yet despite being one of our biggest organs, the gut is not often a popular topic of conversation. But it’s something we should pay a lot more attention to, as the negative effects of an under-performing gut can present in surprising ways.

“The gut is a big, long tube”, explains Rosanne,  “existing to extract goodness from food whilst providing a barrier to unfriendly organisms and toxins entering the blood stream. Good gut flora (the “good” bacteria) keep the cells of the gut healthy. When they’re out of balance with interlopers, such as bad bacteria or certain yeasts, the gut may become permeable, meaning toxins or even food particles could make their way into the blood stream”.

A hostile takeover

Certain foods, stress and antibiotics have the potential to upset our insides.

With diet, it’s the usual suspects we know we should avoid that could trigger or exacerbate a gut imbalance. Rosanne suggests minimising the family’s intake of processed cane sugar, refined white flour, sugary soft drinks and too much fruit juice.

Rosanne points out, “It can be hard to avoid antibiotics, as they are necessary to treat certain illnesses. But antibiotics kill off some of the good bacteria in the process of killing off the bad bacteria, so multiple courses of antibiotics without re-balancing the gut may cause issues. Good flora numbers may also decrease for adults and children during periods of stress”.

What can happen when the good guys are outnumbered?

Reflux, colic, excessive spilling, eczema, oral thrush and nappy rash are on Rosanne’s list of symptoms that could signal your baby’s system isn’t working as it should, and she suggests a nappy check for unusually sloppy or hard stools, or for undigested food (for babies on solids).

“Sometimes”, says Rosanne, “a temporary food intolerance can occur when good gut flora is at a sub-optimal level. For example a child may have tolerated dairy all their life, but a compromised gut barrier following a bout of sickness or course of antibiotics has allowed dairy proteins into their blood stream. This could trigger an immune response to dairy. Temporarily avoiding dairy whilst taking measures to boost gut flora can help bring things back to status quo”.

Aside from tummy troubles and skin woes, Rosanne points out that with so many brain chemicals being manufactured in the gut, it’s worth giving your child’s gut flora a bit of attention if you notice a change in behaviour. No promises though – it might just be the terrible twos kicking in! And, of course, do contact your GP if you have serious concerns about your baby or child’s behaviour.

Building up your family’s flora

Probiotics

Rosanne says taking probiotics is a great way to help good bacteria repopulate the gut when numbers have been depleted (for example, after a course of antibiotics). Available from pharmacies, health food stores and directly from Naturopaths, probiotics are available as loose powders or in capsule form for babies through to adults, and generally need to be kept refrigerated.

“Following a course of antibiotics, 3-6 weeks of probiotics is beneficial in regenerating good gut flora”, Rosanna suggests.

For children and babies on solids: You can try adding probiotic powder to drinks or cold food (e.g. mix into yoghurt).

For babies: Try mixing probiotic powder with a little cooled, boiled water and feed it to them from a soft spoon. If you’re having trouble getting probiotics into a breastfed baby you can even sprinkle some of the powder on to your nipple during feeding.

Everyday diet

Besides taking probiotic supplements, there are foods we can introduce into the whole family’s diet that will help promote good gut flora numbers day-to-day. Rosanne’s top picks are:

  • Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and miso soup
  • Coconut kefir (you can find this in the fridge in health food stores)
  • Milk kefir, and plain yoghurt
  • Sourdough bread might be an alternative to standard bread.

(Note: Sauerkraut and kimchi need to be unpasteurised as the pasteurisation process may kill the good bacteria. Most New Zealand-made ones fit the bill, which can be found in the chiller of specialty food stores, or you could try making your own at home.)

For babies, Rosanne suggests using an eye dropper to drop a few drops of sauerkraut juice, straight on to their tongue: “Some babies make a funny expression the first few times they try sauerkraut, but they soon develop a taste for it”.

Pregnancy

Prior to birth, a baby’s gut is completely sterile. Gut flora is passed from mother to baby at birth, from the birth canal, and/or from the mother’s skin following delivery. With that in mind, building up a healthy maternal gut flora during pregnancy is a good way to help your baby on the path to a healthy gut and immune system. Along with the healthy, balanced diet always recommended during pregnancy, you could try boosting your good gut bacteria with kefir, plain yoghurt or fermented foods such as sauerkraut.

Breastfeeding

Many a breastfeeding mother has suffered through a bout (or five) of mastitis. Sometimes home remedies such as massage and a warm shower may stave off mild mastitis, but antibiotics are often needed to combat the flu-ish, painful condition if it becomes serious.

Antibiotics passing through to the baby via breast milk can be a cause of concern for parents. Rosanne explains “taking probiotics may be of benefit to your baby during and after a course of antibiotics. You can take them yourself, AND give them directly to your baby as well – there are special formulations for babies and children. Probiotics can help to repopulate good gut flora, and if thrush/nappy rash occurs in the case of a yeast imbalance, then a Candida cream with zinc might be helpful as well”.

If you suspect you or your child has an ongoing gut flora imbalance, it may be helpful to see a naturopath. In the case of severe or sudden illness, always seek immediate attention from your doctor, or call 111 in an emergency situation.

Dr Nicola Mohan from Mt Eden Village Doctors adds her views on the probiotic movement:

“Our gut contains a multitude of beneficial bacteria, and when this balance is disrupted (for example by antibiotics) problems such as antibiotic induced diarrhoea can result. A probiotic is a preparation containing live bacteria that aims to replenish or add to the number of helpful bacteria in the body.

Research supports the use of probiotics in some settings – for example, probiotics are routinely given to very premature babies in neonatal units to protect them from serious gut inflammation. There is promising evidence to suggest that probiotics may also be useful in shortening the duration of an infectious diarrhoeal illness and preventing bowel upset following antibiotics, helping clear gastric infections, and reducing the frequency of upper respiratory tract infections (the common cold). Probiotics might provide benefit in a number of other situations, and many studies continue to investigate this, as well as the optimal type, dose and duration of use of probiotics.

While probiotics are generally thought to be safe to take, with few to no side effects, people with serious problems of the immune system or severe gut disease should seek medical advice first”.

Published in the August/October 2016 edition of Little Treasures Magazine (New Zealand)

Secondary Infertility & IVF

This is part two of a blog originally written for If Only They’d Told me, about endometriosis, IVF, and (spoiler alert) motherhood. You can read part one here

I’ll just do IVF

I remember breezily thinking in my twenties, “oh, I could always just do IVF if I don’t get pregnant naturally.” The reality of IVF was a little more intense than I anticipated. The first hurdle was All The Needles. I’m a needle-phobe. I turn into a gigantic child in the face of injections, IVs and blood tests. I’m fine with actual surgery, but not the needles that come with it.  You’d think after three surgeries for endometriosis (which involve IVs and drainage tubes) and Amy’s caesarean delivery I would have gotten over myself. Nope.  I had to do my first injection about an hour before we were leaving for Jeremy’s 40th birthday dinner, which was probably for the best as there was no time for stuffing around. We’d already decided that for the sake of our marriage it would be best for me to do my own injections. The injection was similar to an epi-pen, really easy to use…and when I summoned my big-girlness (and promised myself two desserts as a reward) and jabbed myself it actually didn’t hurt at all. The nightly injection was to stimulate my ovaries to get as many eggs as possible ready for release. Regular internal ultrasounds monitored how many eggs were on the rise. Herein lay hurdle two: Would enough eggs mature to make the IVF cycle worth continuing?

For a few days it looked like a resounding “no”, but fortunately things got going and we could carry on. Another injection was added to the mix at this point to stop my ovaries from releasing the eggs before they were ready. I was feeling like a pro about my nightly injection, and only wavered slightly when I found out there’d now be two daily injections, and that the new one was the more traditional syringe-style that needed to be drawn down. (Sidenote: the two year old son of our close friends was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes several months later, and as I watched him cheerily tolerate his multiple daily injections and his parents coming to grips with the reality of a lifetime of managing his condition, I felt the hugest sense of shame about how I’d thought I was “so brave” dealing with a few weeks of pissy little needles). With my ovaries rearing to go, I was given one final injection (the “trigger shot”) to take home with instructions to use it at precisely midnight so that my eggs could be harvested at an exact time. The eggs are harvested via a probe with an attached needle, which is a painful process, but the drug administered (via IV – I didn’t even flinch!) was so amazing that I was completely wasted and didn’t care one bit. Jeremy has a video of me in recovery, giggling, slurring, and trying to hold up 12 fingers (?!) to demonstrate the egg yield. Six eggs were mature enough to fertilise with the sample that my husband had gallantly provided that morning (FYI, he said the, er, “motivational material” in the little room was a bit crap). Hurdle three – will any eggs actually fertilise? – was cleared, with three of those six eggs fertilising. From our three embryos, only one continued to divide, so back we went to have our embryo inserted. This step isn’t painful at all (the embryo is transferred in via a very thin tube straight into the uterus), but my parents looked after Amy so that Jeremy could come with me – we figured he should at least be in the same room as me when I got pregnant.

Legs in Stirrups Chit Chat

While the nurse performed an external ultrasound and I got my legs sorted in stirrups while nervously chattering away (something about being nude from the waist down without any pre-anaesthetic drugs while in the presence of many medical people makes me want to fill silence with chit chat), the doctor in the vicinity of my nether regions commented “ok, what I’m seeing here looks really good.” Without pausing to engage my brain to think about other things he might mean, I babbled, “Oh thanks! I go to OFF Wax in Newmarket, they’re really good…” Cue mortified silence from my lovely doctor and hysterical laughter from my husband as he staggered around trying not to knock over medical equipment in a fit of mirth. My doctor confirmed that he had, in fact, been referring to the ultrasound view of my uterus. Even though I’d been assured I could just go about my day as normal after the embryo had been inserted, I barely moved for the entire day and went to great lengths not to sneeze. So began hurdle four: The seemingly endless wait to see if the embryo would stick. The lab called the day after our only viable embryo had been inserted to say that one of the other embryos had proved to be a late-starter, and we now had a very healthy look blastocyst on ice. This news was good, but it actually really threw me. I kept wondering what should happen to it if the current embryo took. Although I hadn’t had the myriad of hormonal swings that I’d been prepared for (I was watching TV2’s Private Practice at the time, and I was WAY less of a tool about IVF hormones than Addison Montgomery), worrying about that extra embryo really got to me. So much so that when the nurse called to gently tell me my blood test showed the first embryo hadn’t taken, I took it quite well and decided it must be some sort of sign that the other one would implant.

Two months later I had daily blood tests to pinpoint the perfect time for embryo #2 to be inserted. I was also having acupuncture (look at me, actually paying someone to stick me with needles and finding it really relaxing!) and planned to go straight to Ponsonby Acupuncture following embryo transfer to increase my chances. On the morning of our scheduled transfer, the lab called to say defrosting was a success and they’d see us in a couple of hours. I was so excited, and kept looking at the photo they’d emailed me of our little bunch of cells, imagining the little person those cells would turn into. A short time later I jumped out of the shower to answer my phone…it was the lab calling to say that they were really sorry, but the cells were dying off one by one and the embryo was no longer viable. I was devastated, and sat sobbing, dripping tears, water and shampoo all over the carpet. Jeremy was amazing about it, and took me out for a massive bowl of creamy pasta and several buckets of wine while my parents looked after Amy. We decided to take a breather before trying another round of IVF. I continued with acupuncture to get myself in top shape. I always thought acupuncture was fringe lunacy, but have since been convinced of the benefits. I also took a trip back to see Dr Insull as I could point to an exact painful spot on my abdomen where I could sense endometriosis trouble. A laparoscopy revealed scarring had stuck over one of my fallopian tubes (exactly where I could feel the pain), but there was no new endometriosis in evidence – great news from a fertility perspective! I started wondering if maybe falling pregnant naturally wasn’t completely off the cards. Herein began a little bit of actual fringe lunacy: A very good friend and I read about fertility by the moon, where you were supposed to stand, barefoot on the grass, staring at the moon every night. The theory being you’d get your cycle to match the lunar cycle, ovulating on a full moon. I tried it (and, oddly enough, I did start to sync up with the moon). My friend also sent me Lily of the Valley soap. Something about the scent of a lily attracting sperm. Probably a load of bollocks, but I smelled really pretty. It was nice having a buddy in baby-making who I could commiserate with over negative tests every month.

Secondary Infertility and well-meaning advice

Secondary infertility is a tricky old beast. Especially when people weigh in with their opinions. My family and close friends knew what we were going through and how much we wanted a second baby. My parents, in particular, were a huge support as they’d gone through their own struggles on the “when are you giving your daughter a sibling” front (the eleven-year age gap between my brother and me was not by design). Other people who vaguely knew of our struggles would offer well-meaning nuggets of sympathy along the lines of “oh well, you’ve already got one baby, some people can’t have any at all”, which is true, and we love Amy more than anything in the world, but that wasn’t really the point. We didn’t feel our family was complete. The other gem was “you’ll get pregnant when you least expect it”. Really? I least expected to get pregnant when I was on the pill. Not when I’m doing ovulation tests, going through IVF, having acupuncture and standing on the lawn staring at the fecking moon night after night. On the flipside, there’s the “when are you having number two?” question, often from complete strangers. Usually this question could be politely brushed off with a “one day!” or “we’re hoping soon!” response, but the harmless question in itself could make me feel like bursting into tears, especially if it came the day of yet another negative test. When I was recovering from my last endometriosis surgery, a lady and I were chatting in a park as I watched Amy play. I’d never met this woman in my life, but she said she hoped I was thinking about giving my daughter a sibling, as it was “very selfish” to have an only child. I thought to myself “she has no idea how badly I want to give Amy a sibling and what I’m going through”, but then was even more furious about her judging anyone’s personal choice about how many children to have.

When do you draw a line in the sand?

Many months and negative pregnancy tests later, Jeremy and I went for a long walk together while staying in Taupo over Easter. He was in the middle of a health kick after discovering he had ridiculously high blood pressure and cholesterol, and I’d just returned from attending the funeral for the mother of one of my closest friends. The high blood pressure and saying farewell to someone well before their time had made us take stock of what was really important in life, and I was worried that I was on the cusp of becoming obsessed about having another baby. I didn’t want to wish away time waiting to see if we’d been successful each month – Amy was growing so fast, and I just wanted to enjoy her. We talked about how far we’d go, and finally decided that we’d calmly do two more rounds of IVF, and if that didn’t work then we’d draw a line in the sand. We agreed we had a wonderful little family of three, and should think about a second baby as a bonus. We decided to start the next round of IVF that month, so I got myself all geared up to pick up my drugs from Fertility Associates when Day One would inevitably roll around two weeks later. A week after our Taupo trip, an hour before I was about to host a baby shower for a good friend, my baby-making buddy called me on FaceTime, holding up a positive pregnancy test. I was so excited for her I couldn’t stop screaming. She said she was sure I was pregnant too. I said it was very unlikely, but that I was nervously excited about starting IVF the following week.
The next weekend, with IVF due to get underway that coming week, I decided to do a test…one for the road. When two lines started appearing, I really thought my eyes were playing tricks. With shaky hands I showed the test to Jeremy, and we sat there, grinning like a pair of idiots, before calling our family and close friends. Again, despite all-day sickness, I was so grateful and happy to be pregnant. I still miss my pregnant belly and look wistfully at pregnant women in a way that makes Jeremy lay my pill packet next to a glass of water every morning in a very deliberate manner. I was more nervous about pregnancy the second time around, and more aware of what could go wrong. Nine months later, we welcomed Tilly into the world. There is so much love for this new little person, and I tell both my girls how wanted and loved they are every day. Watching Amy hold her baby sister in the hospital will endure as one of my favourite moments of all time, and Tilly constantly looks at her big sister with such adoration that it melts my heart. I will try to remember these moments when they’re teenagers threatening to kill each other and accusing me of ruining their lives.

( this post originally appeared on If Only They’d Told Me )

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