Boys to Men

Since as far back as I can remember, one of my favourite topics of conversation has been ‘men’. From passing notes about boys in school to giggling with the girls about guys to relatives asking when I was going to find the right man to marry. My relationship with men has had it’s highs and lows. I have gone through boy mad phases and long periods when I’ve wanted nothing to do with them.

The other day my husband was busy mending something and had his toolbox open. It was overflowing with all types of tools. I thought back to when I first met him; he didn’t even own a screwdriver. In a short period of time he’d acquired a mass of tools to fix any type of problem. It made me think how much this man had grown from a boyfriend who used to leap onto night buses with me, sleep till noon and enjoy lazy brunches, to a husband and father who’s main focus is protecting and providing for our family. It made me stop to appreciate what an amazing job he does and my thoughts turned to the men who take on this role. It is not easy. It gave me a new perspective on men, because I’ve not always thought so highly of them.

I banned boys from my fifth birthday party and aged nine announced I was allergic to them, specifically the loud, boisterous ones that were eager to show off their private bits and ‘accidentally’ trip up in the playground to look up girls’ skirts. Unfortunately around this time I developed a crush on a boy in the year above. So new and intense was this feeling, that under a mad haze of euphoria, with my stomach feeling like it was under the attack of a million butterflies, I asked him out. He mumbled something about me being too young and delivered my first painfully brutal rejection that no amount of Walkman rewinds of Kylie and Jason’s Tears on My Pillow could soothe.

After my 11+ I was carted off to an all girls boarding school. At last, no boys! This should have been my idea of heaven. Within the first few weeks the gossip about why the science lab was short on test tubes had completely grossed me out and the expectation to sit around braiding each others hair was just a bit weird. As soon as I was in, I wanted out. Suddenly all I could think about was boys. Boys. Boys. Boys. The boys were on the other side of the school wall. I became good at climbing walls. I just thought they were so cool, I liked the way they made playing pool look easy, I was entranced by their heated competitiveness when kicking a football in the park and the way they started nudging each other, then pushing, then hooking an arm over each others necks.

By fifteen I was a mature, sophisticated woman. A woman who, from photographic evidence, was taking makeup lessons from a drunk clown. I was never impressed or interested in boys and their cars, I was always more about boys who would put their jackets over my shoulders when it was cold and pretend they knew something about astronomy.

By twenty I was completely disillusioned with men and stuck between a highly addictive, unstable relationship and a world of clubbing where some of men’s worst traits were revealed under the mask of alcohol. During this time I began to lose respect for men. Sometimes a girl did just want to dance without some bloke grinding up behind her. Some men seemed to lack any control of their hands, especially when a girl’s outfit included a skirt. Some men didn’t come to dance, they just stared. Some were solitary, prowling around the edges of the dance floor waiting to corner the girls who looked the most drunk. I watched men as they watched girls. I saw how worthless some saw women, how they thought the cost of a cheap drink bought their time. I heard the conversations of groups of men and the derogatory words and phrases they used. Then, after a particularly heavy night out, I watched dawn break and proclaimed that all men were pigs.

It was the new millennium and in the moments of life between the sounds of Kelis’ Caught Out There, TLC’s No Scrubs and Destiny’s Child Independent Woman, I saw men as weak, pathetic beings who at the flash of a purposely exposed Wonderbra cleavage turned into idiotic docile dogs.

Over the next few years I phased out men and began an amazing period of my life where I was back to being just me. No boyfriends, no dates, no men, nothing. I went to the cinema on my own a lot and always felt a thrill asking for a ticket for one and particularly enjoyed having the armrest to myself. It was a magical time in my life and one of necessary self discovery. I knew I didn’t want to cut men out of my life indefinitely but I took a step back and promised myself that if a man came along, he really had to knock me off my feet.

As I was living this new and wonderfully uncomplicated existence I was asked out a few times. I would instantly dismiss men on the most superficial level, too cocky, too fat, too short, too tall, too rude, too bald. Too many teeth, not enough teeth, awful jacket, bad shoes, too creepy, too nice. I once turned down a date just because the guy was a doctor, he fell under the category ‘too boring’. My conversations with men were very brief until the day I agreed to meet a man who I hadn’t been able to come up with any negative adjectives for. We had a ten hour non stop conversation. He felt like home. In a few short weeks I was happily sharing the armrest.

In the 4 years we’ve been married I’ve seen this man step up to the role of husband and father. Provide for my every need. Support me through huge transitions, the best times and some of the worst times. He’s never failed to take my calls at his desk when I’ve been in tears because I just can’t handle another toddler tantrum. I’ve seen a man nod sympathetically when I have gone on another pregnancy hormone fueled tirade and pretend to understand why such a trivial matter has turned my world upside down.

I could not have got through the births of our children without the safety and reassurance he provided. I have seen him work harder than ever before to put a warm, safe roof over our heads. I’ve seen a man that leaves at the crack of dawn, deals with the demands of work and comes home to be grunted at by a frazzled wreck that barely resembles the woman he married and on seeing that her day may not have been filled with breezy play dates tells her to put her feet up while he does bathtime. I’ve seen a man who had the exact same expression on his face as his newborn daughter the moment she let out her first cry. I’ve seen the lightening speed at which our daughters race to the front door the second they hear the key in the latch. I’ve witnessed a special kind of love that only exists between a father and his child. I’ve seen a man who just makes everything easy for us.

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I was probably one of the toughest nuts to crack, it terrified me and went completely against my independent nature to allow him to take the reigns of both our lives but in doing so and seeing him build us a life and home has allowed me to experience and, much to my surprise, actually enjoy a side of my womanhood that I never knew existed in me. No one could be more surprised than me that I find such joy in spending my days with our children. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to immerse myself wholeheartedly into motherhood during these precious years. Every day feels like he’s taking his jacket off to put on my shoulders.

Now I am 34 and I think sometimes men don’t get the recognition they deserve as husbands and fathers. It’s such an important role and equally as hard as that of wife and mother. So much more focus seems to be on babies and mothers at the beginning of family life. My husband gave me my most treasured piece of parenting advice just before our first baby was born, he highlighted the fact that we would both be new to parenting and neither of us would have all the answers. We would have to work together. This really stayed with me and it made me recognise and tame my inner motherly control freak that wanted to do everything my way. Every decision made in caring for our children, however minor, has been a joint one.

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This week he called me over to our 5 month old daughter and said “watch this”. He clapped his hands and to my astonishment she clapped hers! I asked him to do it again. He did. Then she did. I was astonished because at the moment my daily playtime routine with our youngest is tummy time with toys and mostly me making silly faces and talking or singing to her. This baby and I are together all the time and I hadn’t picked up on her readiness for the next stage of development but my husband, through weeks of working late nights, video calls and weekends busy decorating had brought out this incredible moment.

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Some weekends I see fathers with newborns doing laps of the park. It makes me smile because I always think, somewhere indoors, there is probably a shattered mum with her feet up enjoying a cup of tea that’s actually hot. These men are marvellous.

My Breastfeeding Journey

I was just thinking back to the first few months of breastfeeding my first daughter and how difficult it was. I remember it taking at least thirty minutes of latching and re-latching for her to feed successfully. I remember dreading the moment she would latch on and the searing pain it would cause. It makes me feel sick, even now, thinking about that pain. I remember feeling like an absolute failure that we didn’t even come close to resembling a mother and infant in a pre Raphaelite painting. I really thought it would come so easily and naturally but I struggled from the first time I tried.

I had tried and failed to ‘pop her on’ when she was delivered and as I clipped my brand new nursing bra back up I decided I would try again once all the midwives had left the room. As soon as they did, I made a second desperate attempt to get her to latch on. As I sat hunched over this miniature human being, a nurse breezed in to collect some paperwork and he saw that I was struggling. I will never forget how he immediately stopped what he was doing, sat beside me and adjusted us into a tummy to tummy position. He brought my left arm over in line with my baby’s back as I cradled her in my right arm. He was a real life angel and I felt so grateful that he stopped to show me. He explained how to get a good latch and so I tried again, several times. Each time she went on I would get a rush of excitement followed quickly by a wave of sadness when her latch broke. He assured me we would soon get it right and left me feeling a great deal more confident and relieved she was getting at least a few drops of colostrum.

Exhausted from four days of labour, I slept through the night and so did my baby. The last thing I can remember before I fell asleep was staring at her silhouette in the plastic bassinet in the gently lit maternity ward, she made everything wonderful. I remember feeling this incredible force that made it impossible for me to leave her side even when I had to go the bathroom. It was only when my husband arrived the next morning to take us home that he suggested we feed and change her. It sounds crazy now but it just hadn’t occurred to me to do those things during the night! She hadn’t made a sound! Little did I know then, that would be my last full nights sleep for a very long time!

The next few weeks my baby and I relentlessly worked on getting her latch right. Her mouth was so tiny, I would tickle her cheek and wait for her to open it and when it was at it’s widest quickly pull her towards me. Nearly every time her mouth would close just before she could get the right amount of breast tissue in. It really hurt when she hadn’t taken enough in her mouth and at times, out of sheer frustration I would end up trying to stuff extra in with my fingers!

I remember the awkwardness of breastfeeding in public for the first time and getting tangled in my pashmina in an attempt to protect my modesty. Although I wasn’t embarrassed, I was very aware there may have been members of the public who may have disapproved. There were a few times when we were out when she would suddenly de latch leaving me exposed or she would come off just as my let down started and milk would spray over her head onto the table in front of us.

Because our latch was never quite right I became sore very quickly. My lowest point came one day while I was in the shower, the stinging from the cuts was unbearable as the water jetted onto them. On my right side I had one really deep wound that was bleeding. I was also lumpy, swollen and feverish from mastitis. It was a gruesome sight. I was convinced the damage to my nipple was permanent and that my body was ruined, disfigured and I would never again enjoy it the way I did before I gave birth. It was the first and only time I seriously considered bottle feeding. Two very close family members had been pressuring me to bottle feed or at least mix feed from the moment I got out of hospital, they had no idea I was struggling, they were just adamant that it was better. Formula to them was seen as a luxury product and in their opinion breastmilk always needed supplementing. These were two views that my newly acquired maternal instincts were completely against. I really believed that my body could provide all the nutrition that my baby needed just as it had when she was in my womb. I just had to look at her and see that her eyes were bright, her skin looked healthy, she was gaining weight, happy and never cried from hunger. I think that was the main problem, I’d been to my health visitor about latching issues but all she did was smile and say “look at her, she is thriving!”. She was thriving but I was in agony and dreading every single feed. At that moment, in the shower, a drained, exhausted, hopeless mess, I decided I could no longer go on breastfeeding. It was too painful. I was defeated.

As I imagined the two of us bottle feeding, I remembered that I still had an emergency feeding bottle and single carton of formula that I’d packed in my hospital bag just incase I hadn’t been able to feed at all. Luckily at the moment I decided that I was ready to use it stubbornness got the better of me. It sounds extreme now but my exact next thought at the time was, “if I don’t feed my baby with the milk in my body she won’t survive. This milk belongs to her. I am willing to endure any amount of pain for my child”. From that moment, every time she latched on I took the pain, I was determined that she have what was rightfully hers. When the pain drew tears from my eyes, I turned all my focus onto my baby. I would close my eyes and deep breathe as she contently suckled drawing my blood as well as her milk. I would alternate different positions, the football hold and side by side, so that her soft tongue and not her hard top gum would rub against the wounds.

While desperately reading and watching all I could about breastfeeding I came across Lansinoh cream, (I call it miracle cream) it healed wounds without forming a scab. My husband went out and bought me a tube immediately. It instantly made feeding so much more bearable.

I couldn’t write about my breastfeeding journey without mentioning my husband. His support was incredible at this time. While I was struggling with latching, I would sometimes see him out of the corner of my eye sitting on the edge of his seat, holding his breath for every attempt we made. He would wake up in the night, hearing us struggling and gently ask ‘is she on yet?’. He never pressured me to carry on breastfeeding and he never pushed for bottle feeding. He just held my hand, reassured me at all times and showed sympathy every time I would wince in pain as she nursed. His attitude was calm and this was vital in keeping me positive about the whole experience.

I was now slathering this heavenly Lansinoh cream on after every feed and as I became more comfortable I’m sure this had a direct impact on my baby. She seemed more relaxed at feeds and as she grew she became better and more efficient at nursing.

When she was three months old I suddenly realised that we were breastfeeding with ease, there was no pain and I was popping my baby on just the way I had imagined before I gave birth. We had done it! And strangely, I was actually enjoying it. I was hooked on the rush of oxytocin every time I fed her. It made me feel warm, happy, content and above all, madly in love. I could not get enough of her. It’s such a powerful hormone that it was one of the things I looked forward to when I came to breastfeeding my second daughter and it was vital in lifting me out of some low moments that I had. I could be feeling weepy and exhausted but as soon as I breastfed I would feel renewed, full of energy and filled with love. Anytime I found myself breastfeeding, I found myself misty eyed and tracing round their beautiful soft chubby cheeks with my fingertip.

My breastfeeding experience with my first baby was very different to the one I had with my second and the one I am now having with my third. I never coslept with my first baby when she was really young, so to feed her I physically had to sit up and take her out of her Moses basket. I really cherish those memories of quietly nursing her in the glow of a night light and feeling like we were the only two people left on the planet.

Fast forward three and a half years and I’m sat here feeding my third daughter. I’m watching how much she is enjoying her milk, she makes me laugh because when she’s sleepy, she shuts her eyes and raises her eyebrows and makes it look like such an effort to draw milk. I love the way she squidges my breast in time with her gulps. I love that when she wakes at night she wriggles towards me and nudges and roots at my chest. I love that the only feeding equipment I need is a muslin. I love the look of satisfaction on her face after she’s fed. I love the warm feeling of pure love that courses through my veins with the start of my let-down. I love that when she wakes up I can always nurse her back to sleep to buy a bit more time for me to rest. I love the natural healing qualities of breastmilk and how a few dabs cleared her skin rash and a few drops unblocked her stuffy nose. I love that when my breasts feel a bit full I know she’s probably due another feed. I love that it’s a comfort for when she had her injections. I love that my let down is set off by her crying or merely a passing thought of feeding her, such is the power of nature. I love that whoever is carrying her has no choice but to hand her back to me when she is hungry. Most of all, I love that breastfeeding is something just for us to share, it’s a special time where we become physically attached to each other just the way we were when she was in my womb.

My babies grew for so long inside my body that after the birth they suddenly seemed to belong and be shared by everyone, and rightly so but as wonderful as that was, it sometimes felt like one of my limbs was being passed around family and friends. Breastfeeding was vital in reconnecting again.

I would say that the moment my babies and I became separate people was not when the umbilical cord was cut, it was when we stopped breastfeeding. I remember deciding to do the last feed and feeling ready to let go. To my fascination they just seemed to know it was time, they never again pulled at my top for milk, they seemed ready for the next phase in their life.

I’d had no control if I was able to conceive or not, no control on how my body grew and changed, no control of when the baby would come out. So being allowed to decide when we stopped feeding was the first time I was I charge of what happened to my body. It was important that I was the one to decide when I was ready to ‘cut the cord’.

The only reason I decided to breastfeed in the first place was because it seemed like the natural option, I made the complete wrong assumption that only my baby would benefit. It was the biggest surprise to find that there were so many benefits for me as well.

Another lovely surprise we had was that we were able to do some work for a couple of companies. The one I did with my first daughter I was still quite nervous about her latch. When it came to shoot with my second daughter, she was roughly eight weeks old at the time, it was a breeze.

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One thing I have learnt from looking at these pictures is that sometimes breastfeeding isn’t as easy as it looks. I never ever take it for granted. I have a very faint tiny scar on my right side, it always makes me smile and reminds me of the moment in the shower and how far I’ve come on this breastfeeding journey.

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