Months 2 and 3: Public Transport Palooza (and your handy guide to travelling as a performer with a baby)

The following post is pretty long. It is a guide to being in the showbiz trenches (travelling and performing concerts alone) with a baby. A caveat: she’s totally worth it, because THAT FACE.

This morning Beatrice woke up shrieking at 7.45am (I’m saving “screaming” for special occasions now when she does the Code Red version). I’m very lucky; she now sleeps for about six or seven hours a night, although she doesn’t tend to go to sleep until at least midnight.

Bojan, I noticed, was next to me (he wasn’t when I went to bed). I got home last night/this morning at 1am after a concert in London; he got home at 3am after a concert in York. He’s barely had any time off since she was born, and December has been the busiest of the three months she’s been with us. We both woke up; I started feeding her. He said, half-asleep but gleefully, “You know what we can do now? GO BACK TO SLEEP. We can sleep ’til noon.” He sighed with pure happiness and rolled over and was instantly snoring. Poor thing.  He’s got a concert at the Wigmore tonight, but at least he can sleep all morning. I have a glorious day off, and a C minor Mass tomorrow (Saturday), a carol service on Sunday, and a funeral on Monday, but the last two are in Oxford, so my life is much easier than his right now.

So far, since she was born, I’ve done eight gigs, a few rehearsal-only days, and one singing lesson in London. Only two days of work didn’t involve Beatrice coming with me, because  Bojan happened to be free, so he stayed at home with her. I’ve also had two travel-only days, around a concert day near Norwich. That was nice (good gig, nice people, good fee), but also awful (too far to travel alone with a baby on three different forms of public transport in freezing weather). Most of my work has coincided with Bojan’s, so mostly I’ve been on my own, dragging her around from Oxford to various other places. All she’s had as a result is a mild cold, thank goodness.

While we work, one of us has to be with the baby, because she feeds (the use of this word has made me want to say “It’s feeding time at the zoo!” every time I feed her) every hour or so in the evenings, and it’s inevitably me, because, well, it’s my product she’s eating. So getting back at 1am last night/this morning (ok, I exaggerate, it was 12.40) involved coming home on a bus from London to Oxford, with a baby strapped to the front of me.

I’m writing this account for a number of reasons:

  1. To cheer myself up: so I can look back and say, “wow, I was really tough and awesome in those early months. Good for me.” And when I say “look back”, I mean next week when I’m not working because we’re in America for Christmas and I can’t remember why my back hurts. But also years from now. Especially if I have an office job in the future – so I can remember that it wasn’t all glamour.
  2. To brag: yes, to brag. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, in terms of exhaustion and mental energy in the face of an unhappy small person who really just wants to be at home in the bedroom attached to a boob with many, many consecutive seasons of the West Wing (and more recently Gilmore Girls) on in the background, not being moved further than, say, as far as it is to the park in her lovely pram (third-hand from another singer, which is the best way). The journey on the bus last night was easy, but I’ve had other nights when it hasn’t been, when she’s screamed pretty much all the way home, and the only thing that will keep the screaming at a low ebb is to continually bounce her in my arms and sing “Baby’s Boat A Silver Moon”, still the only lullaby I know, for two solid hours. Never mind the back pain. And then you have to be beautiful and groomed and switched on for a concert. I’m pretty pleased that I’ve managed it, but it hasn’t been fun.
  3. The longer-term purpose of this blog is to keep a record of what it’s really like to have a tiny baby as a jobbing singer, for myself (when/if we decide to have another one), but also for anybody who’s thinking about doing it and wants an unromantic look at the reality of parenting a new person while performing. And also, it’s nice to have an account of what Beatrice is like right now. I’ve already forgotten the details of the first few weeks, and I’m quite sad about that. It’s not that I want to re-live it every day, and I certainly don’t want to go back to what I can remember vaguely as a sleep-deprived nightmare. It was punctuated every hour and a half by the reminder, every feed, that my nipples were bleeding, and that I’d forgotten to drink enough water (the stabbing headaches that come with breastfeeding are quite something). But the point is that now Beatrice can do exciting things that she couldn’t do back then, and I want to remember what she was like as a true newborn. I guess the thing is that you have to be able to type with two hands to get a reliable account down.

Anyway: public transport and babies. It’s miserable way of travelling. But it CAN BE DONE.

We don’t have a car, and the train is prohibitively expensive (and the station’s on the wrong side of Oxford for us), but we do live about an eight-minute walk from the bus stop.

The bus, which is a fairly comfy long-haul coach, goes straight to London for the low, low price of £6 per single journey if you spend £72 on twelve journeys at once. Which means, in a beautiful example of cosmic justice, that I have become That Person, the person I used to roll my eyes at, the person with the baby who gets on the bus and you think OH GOD, NO NO NO NO DON’T SIT NEAR ME, and you also think WHY ARE PEOPLE SO £*%#ING INCONSIDERATE, BRINGING THEIR OFFSPRING ON PUBLIC TRANSPORT? THAT BABY IS TOO LITTLE TO BE OUT. TAKE YOUR BABY BACK HOME, YOU MONSTER. WHAT MAKES YOU THINK YOU CAN BRING THAT INFANT ON THIS BUS WHEN THERE ARE SERIOUS COMMUTERS TRYING TO GET TO WORK?

Here’s the answer. It’s now blindingly obvious to me, like a huge neon sign advertising a West End show. Why did that person bring that baby on a bus?

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When I took her in for a full day of rehearsals last week the babysitter had cancelled the night before, for the very good reason of a stomach bug (better no babysitter than a vomiting baby several days later. But it was a rough day). So this is the face I made at 7am that morning, with the prospect of a full day of sitter-less rehearsal ahead, and this is the face that would greet the “why are you on this bus with your baby?” question, if anyone dared ask it. Do you know why I’m here, Mr Commuter, apparently ignoring me but also wordlessly kicking me under the table every five minutes and sighing and grimacing every time you look at my baby? I’m commuting too. I am going to WORK. We are the same, you and I, except I have another human to look after while I commute. Now go back to your laptop, you exceptionally irritating little man. And yes, I’m about to change this baby’s diaper right in front of you. Just concentrate on your emails and you won’t notice a thing.

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Contrast with this face, on my way to London yesterday at lunchtime with Beatrice FOR THE LAST TIME THIS YEAR!!

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So here’s what you do if you have a baby and you have to get to a rehearsal and/or concert some distance away from your home.

1. Organise a babysitter. Top tip: make sure you have this list of people ready BEFORE you give birth to your baby. In your befuddled, sleep-deprived state a month later (I went back to work at four weeks, but I don’t recommend it), or even two months later (the luxury!), you will need to phone someone (a) reliable, (b) baby-friendly, and (c) at short notice. If you haven’t already made your list (I hadn’t), you will suddenly not be able to remember the names of any of your friends, let alone figure out who fits those criteria.

A note of explanation: you need to hire a babysitter because it is not possible to be fully in charge of a baby and also fully involved in your rehearsal. It makes you look unprofessional, it inevitably annoys your colleagues, even if they claim it doesn’t, it’s disruptive, and you’ll be horribly frustrated both as a musician and a parent. I have now done it twice, and it was awful, even though my colleagues were very nice about it and very complimentary about how lovely and calm Beatrice was. You might need to occasionally feed the baby (because you can hear her hungry screams two floors away), or help the babysitter with something during the rehearsal, but your head needs to be in your score most of the time. Also, holding a baby makes it impossible to also hold a score and pencil, let alone turn your pages at the right time. GET A BABYSITTER. The babysitter can do anything, from just occasionally handing you stuff while you suavely feed the baby and sing at the same time with your music on a stand, to being someone who takes complete charge of the infant in a separate building for three hours while you do a concert. On any point in that spectrum, they are worth the money. If they’re your friend, then even better; they can provide ace moral support. NB: even if they’re your friend, be sure to pay them. Properly.

2. Get your stuff together. Babies require a lot of gear. When I go to London to work with Beatrice, I get everything ready before I manoeuvre her into the sling, because once she’s in we need to start moving immediately or she’ll get angry. My boots need to be on my feet when I put her in the sling. My phone and keys need to be in my pocket. My concert bag needs to be fully packed, with no uncertainty about whether I’ve remembered my nice earrings. But also – oh, joy – for the bare minimum of away-time, which is 2.5 hours’ travel each way with a three-hour rehearsal and a concert in between, there’s an additional backpack stuffed to the gills with roughly twelve hours’ worth of baby stuff.

Here’s my current, and evolving, list, in no particular order:

  • About ten diapers (because WHO KNOWS WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN)
  • Two tiny bottles of newborn formula
  • A bag of frozen breast milk (she decided yesterday that she hates formula, so it was good that I brought that – things might’ve gotten really ugly otherwise)
  • A bottle
  • A clean baby blanket to lay her on at the venue/on the bus
  • Three extra outfits in case of diaper explosions. This is not a joke. Pack them.
  • A bag of clean wet wipes and a bag for dirty wipes (we use the washable kind)
  • A package of emergency back-up disposable wipes (you can never have enough)
  • A little toy with a bell inside that she’s just started being able to grab, for distraction
  • Three pairs of socks (she kicks them off with great cunning)
  • Two muslins for soaking up spilled milk/baby puke (though she very rarely throws up, you never know when you might get caught out) – I’ve only actually ever used the muslins to soak up water, because…
  • A water bottle. Breastfeeding is desperately thirsty work, and although sometimes a water bottle can leak and soak your concert clothes (unless your muslins were in the same bag and saved your dress! Yeah!), it’s worth taking the risk and shoving one in that baby bag. Be sure it’s firmly closed and upright.
  • A changing mat, preferably one you can whip open with one hand and also fold easily with one hand. Pre-crease it if necessary and practise at home.
  • Three hats: one in the bag, one on the baby’s head, and a spare in your coat pocket
  • A plastic bag in a VERY easily accessible area, for anything that might get apocalyptically dirty. Putting it in your coat pocket is a good idea.
  • Breast pads/shields. Bring about six for one day, just in case. When you feed on one side, the other side will leak/spray (depending on how recently you’ve last fed from that side), and you will also leak uncontrollably during concerts if you haven’t fed for a while. Sometimes the baby decides to sleep for an hour or two, and who wants wet patches on their nice concert dress? Not me.

Optional extra, if you’re going to work without the baby, or if you’ll be separated from the baby on the trip for several hours: a manual breast pump (one that doesn’t require electricity and is compact and can be shoved into the bag of baby things) and pre-sterilized storage bags. You’d better hope the venue has a fridge, or all that liquid gold is going to go to waste. Apparently it can only be left out for an hour at room temperature, but I’ve brought home bags of milk pumped at the Tower of London (the choir room kitchenette is great): I stored them in the fridge during a carol concert, and then brought them home in my rucksack – and they were still cold when I got home, so they went straight into the freezer for later use. Thank goodness it’s winter.

Side note: I never used to understand why women pumped breast milk on tour/at work. I’d never bothered to talk to anyone about it, or to think about it for more than a few seconds. I had a vague idea that it might be uncomfortable to have full breasts for an extended period of time, and that it was good to take home the extra milk for the baby, or something. I now know that after a few hours of not feeding, it becomes agony. The pain is acute and uniquely desperate. I’m struggling to find a comparison to make to explain the sensation to you, but it’s something like having an insect bite, say, on your arm. At first it’s just noticeably there, a slight swelling, but eventually you realise you’ve been bitten by a poisonous spider and the bite is getting bigger and bigger, with dramatic swelling, and all the blood in your body has apparently gone to that spot on your arm. The pain is unbearable, your skin is tight, your flesh is rock-hard, and there’s an evil tingling sensation in the middle, where the bite is, that’s more of a burning than a tingling, really, and it does not bode well. The overwhelming feeling is of pressure.

Top tips: (1) your boobs will leak eventually if you leave them for too long, but the leaking won’t actually relieve the pressure, only take off the top 5% of it. The pain will continue. And (2) if you leave them for too long you can get something called mastitis. I don’t want to get into that here. Just look it up.

Back to the main story, though. Now that you’ve assembled all your gear, congratulations! You’re ready to travel. But before you go:

3. Make sure you’re actually ready. 

  1. Is your baby very, very recently fed?
  2. Is your baby very, very recently changed?

If you have any distance to travel before you can safely feed or change the baby again (say, a ten-minute walk to the bus stop, or a twenty-minute tube ride to a train), it’s worth doing this now. If your baby is asleep, good luck to you – you can do (2), but probably not (1). The reason you should double and triple check that your baby doesn’t want milk right now and couldn’t possibly be topped up any further: babies who are peacefully sleeping in a sling (motion sends them to sleep) can wake up the moment you stop walking at the bus stop. They will shriek inconsolably just as you’re congratulating yourself on how easy this parenting-while-working thing is, and then you’re screwed, because it’s below freezing outside and you can’t take the baby out of the sling to feed her, and WHERE IS THE GODDAMN BUS? OH, IT’S LATE AGAIN. And then everyone at the bus stop hates you and you have to walk away from the queue and bounce around/dance on the spot with the baby still in the sling, pleading with her to please stop because it’ll all be fine in a minute, really, just sixty seconds, shall we count together? One, two, three, four… oh, crap. Um, baby’s boat a silver moon/sailing o’er the sky/I’m going to change the words because/I’m really bored of them/Scan, lyrics, scan/So that I stay sane/Where is that infernal bus?/This is really bad.

Re (2), changing the baby, I don’t think I need to explain that one. Better safe than sorry.

This is why I have to allow an extra hour of prep time to make sure I leave on time. If you have a baby you’ll know how they mess with your timings, but if you’re going to a gig and you’re on a schedule, be sure to allow extra extra time.

So: you’re ready to go. The baby is fed and changed. Now what?

4. Mental check: Phone/keys/wallet/concert dress/shrug/tights/concert shoes/makeup bag/hair stuff/hairbrush/music/folder/jewellery/bus pass/oyster card/oh-wait-I-can-just-use-my-contactless-card-instead/ok-we’re-done.

No time to mentally check the baby bag. You’ve triple checked that already, right? It’ll be fine.

5. Walk to the bus stop. 

6. Wait for the bus. 

Baby still asleep, or quietly alert? Congratulations! Accept compliments from strangers, smile, and tell them that really, she’s an easy baby. Yes, she’s your first. You’re very blessed, etc., etc.

7. Get on the bus. Request the nice downstairs priority seat because, well, just look at you. You’re laden like a camel on the way to a Bedouin market. She might even sleep for the whole journey. My daughter usually does on the way to London, and then refuses to on the way back, but every baby is different. These are the two eventualities, equally cute. You’ll notice that I put her on the seat next to me; this is because she gets overheated for two hours in the sling, and also because if she’s awake she gets very cross. The safety implications bother me, but I haven’t figured out a better way yet.

8. Changing priorities. (Enjoy that pun? I did.) Now, make sure you check that baby’s diaper at least once on the bus journey, preferably in the middle and again towards the end. But do not make the mistake I made last weekend and change the baby in a leisurely way even though she’s kind of grunting and bearing down and making strange, concentrated faces at you – just as the bus is pulling into its first stop in London, where you’re supposed to be getting off. That means she’s about to spray you with acid-yellow poo the moment the diaper is off, and it will fill the changing mat like an infernal lake and also spray onto your nice white-and-blue dress and the really nice scarf your husband gave you for Valentine’s Day four years ago. And guess what? YOU didn’t bring a change of clothes, did you? You only brought several extra outfits for the baby. You’re going to have a yellow stain on that dress forever.

So let’s say you’ve reached your destination without incident. The hard part is now over, assuming you have a babysitter ready and waiting.

9. Arrive early for your rehearsal, for easy handover.

Remember that the handover takes time – you have to explain where all the stuff is and set them up somewhere unobtrusive, near the rehearsal space but not too near, with the bag ready and everything accessible for them; they didn’t pack that bag, you did, and if they need to find diapers/wipes/a bottle in a hurry they won’t want to dig through three emergency outfits and a blanket and all the other paraphernalia with rising panic as the baby yells or poo leaks onto their lap. Or both. They need to know where everything is BEFORE you go away and start rehearsing.

So you do your rehearsal, you have a break in the middle (feed during that break, and do not refuse offers from colleagues of a cup of tea and a piece of cake), you do a bit more rehearsing, and then you have an hour or two between the rehearsal and the concert to eat and get ready.

10. Somebody will offer to bring you dinner. Accept this offer. Do not go out for dinner with the baby, even if you are in the West End and it seems cool to try. Stay put in that dressing room! You won’t regret it. Babies and restaurants are bad enough at the best of times, but tonight you have to get your head in the game for a concert as well, and trying to breastfeed in a straight-backed chair at a Chinese restaurant before a gig while you try to eat with one hand AND talk about the birth to your colleagues is not the ideal preparation. I tried this at 8 weeks or so and it was pure, unalloyed misery.

11. Get ready early. Stupidly early. During the break dinner break, put your makeup and dress on long before you think you have to, and ONLY then are you allowed to eat (you can also eat during the interval, assuming there is one, if a nice person has brought you some food before the concert or, if you’re superwoman, if you’ve brought food yourself). Soon everybody will come back to get ready for the gig, and the room will be crowded, and you’d better be ready to go before that, especially if your baby is in the room with you. Time has a funny way of bending and then snapping back and spanking you while shouting “Surprise! It’s concert time and you’re not dressed! Ahahaha!” Let the babysitter hold the baby while you do your dress/hair/makeup. Don’t feel you’re suddenly on primary baby duty just because you’re done rehearsing, or you’ll find it’s five minutes before the concert and all you’ve done is feed the little one for an hour, chatting happily about the horrors of birth (again) with childless colleagues, and you now have no time to get ready, and the baby doesn’t want to be taken off the breast, and you’ve forgotten to drink any water or eat anything, and OH GOD NO.

12. Try to sneak in a last-minute feed before you go on stage. This only applies if you’re ready to go (dressed, fed, makeup done, hair pinned, etc.). Place a muslin strategically under the baby’s chin so that if she’s in an unfocused mood or only moderately hungry (i.e. not latched on furiously, efficiently draining every drop), she won’t dribble half of the milk back out onto your dress. She might also do this because she’s in a different environment and new things are fun to look at. Like mirrors. Who IS that baby in the mirror who seems to follow her everywhere she goes?

13. This is important: choose a concert dress that allows easy access to your boobs. I should’ve mentioned this before, but having a concert dress with a deeply plunging décolletage and/or quite stretchy fabric is a great idea. If you come offstage in the interval, or after the whole thing is finished, and the babysitter is at her wits’ end because the child is screaming, you’ll have to get that boob out at lightning speed, and if it’s not a flexible dress, you will rip a seam. If you somehow manage not to rip a seam, another pitfall of the inflexible dress is that you won’t be able to get the boob all the way out, or pull the fabric sufficiently far away from the baby’s mouth to prevent huge milk stains. And the concert will be over, so you won’t really care in the moment, but you’ll be annoyed the next day when you unpack that concert bag and remember that the dress is dry clean only.

The concert is over – hurrah! Congratulate the babysitter on a fabulous job, but don’t let her leave yet. Sit down and feed the baby (see above for tips), and then give the baby to the babysitter so that you can pack your stuff up. DO NOT CHAT ENDLESSLY. Everyone will want to praise the baby and talk to you about her and say merry Christmas and whatnot, but you have to get all your ducks in a row because there’s a long journey ahead, and you don’t want to get locked inside St Martin in the Fields with a suitcase, a backpack, and a baby strapped to your chest just because you dilly-dallied. I speak from experience.

14. Before you leave, refill that water bottle. You’ll need it on the journey back, and you won’t have access to a tap or a shop that sells water for another few hours.

15. Head home. The earlier rules for getting to London/your destination apply here again, but be aware that you might want to strategically take a cab, or accept a lift from a colleague (if you’re lucky) for part of the journey, depending on whether or not it’s Saturday night and there are likely to be lots of drunk/rowdy people on the tube and/or bus you were planning on taking. Just get home as swiftly as possible. Also, remember that you have the right to take up two seats on that bus. You need to be able to put the baby down somewhere to change her, don’t you?

16. Arrive at home. YOU’VE DONE IT – GOOD JOB. Put your concert bag and the baby bag in a corner – you can unpack tomorrow – and concentrate on getting your (I hope) sleeping baby into bed. She’ll probably wake up when you take her out of that sling, and you’ll probably need to feed her again. Keep the water bottle close by. Tuck her in when she’s done; brush your teeth; take off your concert makeup if you’re feeling really energetic. Enjoy the sleep while you can – she’ll be up in a few hours.

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So that’s it for now – in Beatrice development news, she’s just found her left hand (does that mean she’ll be left-handed?) and has been turning it over and staring at it, mostly in a fist, for the last three days. She used her fist to whack a dangling Christmas ornament of The Skater two days ago and I nearly died of happiness.

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We leave for the US on the 20th and will spend Christmas with my mom in Illinois. I can’t wait. I hope that you, dear reader, have a very happy holiday season with the ones you love.

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Seven weeks and four days: sleep deprivation/Dorothy Parker reincarnation

A short(er) post to make up for the excessively long one last time. With pictures as a bonus at the end.

Ten things to be grateful for when I’m too tired to think, typed with a (mercifully!) sleeping baby on my chest, and my God does she smell good when she’s been tucked under my husband’s chin for a while and has residual aftershave smell on her:
 
1. I have a nice husband who cleans. But also, if I’m holding the baby and we’re both at home and hungry (this doesn’t happen often), he cooks, even though he’s not especially comfortable with cooking. We’ve shuffled ourselves into pretty clearly delineated roles in our marriage: I cook, he cleans – I love doing laundry; he loves putting sheets on beds (or at least he hates it less than I do). A wonderful friend sent us one of those boxes with pre-sorted ingredients and recipes, so even though we ate lunch at 5pm today, it was an overall win, because it was easy and healthy and delicious. We’re about to have dinner now, at 7.45pm, from the same glorious box. Two dinners close together is no bad thing. 
2. Bojan (see above) found a dead bird on Sunday, just before Beatrice’s godparents came over for lunch. It was under the dining room table; he dealt with it before I noticed it was there. The crucial part is that he found it before I did, thus averting a wifely nervous breakdown. I’d rather deal with something that’s alive, no matter how disgusting or large or dangerous, than pick up a tiny dead bird – or anything dead. Their sad little folded wings!
3. On Saturday I took Beatrice to London on my own, where she was valiantly babysat during the rehearsal and concert by the other of her godmothers (Eleanor), and then we had dinner together for a whole twenty, maybe thirty minutes before she started screaming. I got her back to Oxford by myself because B was also doing a concert that night. I got home at 11.30pm. He got home at 1am. She cried for an hour and a half on the Oxford Tube, and I thought I was going to die of exhaustion and backache and embarrassment, but I didn’t. Going to the shops with her now seems like child’s play by comparison. Things get easier (she’s more interactive; we begin to get something back) and harder (she gets heavier; she’s more vigilant about being put down; she’s stronger and can scream louder than ever; the sleep deprivation is building and building). But we cope. 
4. The Blenheim Singers had a photoshoot today. It was outdoors at Blenheim Palace in freezing rain, but everybody was in tails and ballgowns and nobody was screaming, so it felt like a holiday. I was shocked to discover that I do still fit into my red dress. This is because Beatrice eats like a starved lion, and I lost all the baby weight about two weeks postpartum (which is probably too fast), putting me back at a pleasantly plump happy place in which most of my clothes fit again, creating a reassuring sense of normalcy. I’m eating pretty well in the brief gaps when she’s not screaming, but (don’t be too worried) sometimes I’m too upset or tired to eat. I usually make up for it the next day. Speaking of which:
5. Is there anybody else out there who was ambivalent about chocolate, even maybe had a mild dislike of it, and then had a baby and suddenly wanted to eat it all the time? It’s a whole new world of chocolatey fun.
6. Although babies exhaust you in new and gruelling ways, and possibly turn you into someone who snaps and is impatient during conversations about THE FUTURE (because THE PRESENT is so all-consuming), it’s possible to get a few hours’ sleep and feel better even if you genuinely thought your life was over the night before. What remains, for us at least, even during the worst moments, is that we love each other (and the baby, even when she shrieks). I can hold fast to that in the dark moments, thank God.
7. Breastfeeding is now easy. It has been for a few weeks, but the transition from “excruciating” to “enjoyable” happened so slowly that I’ve only just noticed.
8. The book The Wonder Weeks has helped a lot. I now understand that neurological and developmental leaps make babies miserable. They have a growth spurt, during which the circumference of their heads suddenly increases, and they wail and grizzle and behave appallingly for a few days; then their brain catches up and they start showing off their new skills.
And this is delightful. They look at you instead of just seeing you; they make new sounds, little chirps and chirrups and coos that are fascinating and fill you with hope (and extravagant, unwarranted pride). They suddenly learn to cry in five different ways instead of one, and you learn to read their cues and give them what they need – food, a hug, a change, a walk around the house, a chat. It’s weird and fascinating and reassuring. I met an eleven-week-old baby at Blenheim today, and his dad told me that he’s just started being able to grab things – he now knows he has hands, whereas last week he didn’t. Beatrice doesn’t know that she has hands yet. It’s amazing to think that watching her figure that out will be a major memory for me, and I have it to look forward to.
9. FRIENDS, NEIGHBOURS, RELATIVES. They visit you, they bring you food and make you beautiful quilts, they admire your progeny, they listen to your completely horrifying/boring stories about birth, baby poo, and brain development and smile indulgently and tell you you’re doing a great job. I’m very lucky.
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10. Beatrice laughs in her sleep. When she’s awake, and delighted, she just smiles and makes funny little squeaks and coos, but when she’s asleep she does this sophisticated, smug little chuckle – smiling with one side of her mouth and going “heh, heh, heh, heh” like someone hearing a vicious bit of gossip. It makes me think she might be the reincarnation of Dorothy Parker. Where did she learn to do this? Why does she only do it in her sleep? Is it some half-buried memory that she’ll lose as she gets older and forgets the things she learned in the Vault of Souls? The Vault of Souls, I should explain, is a place I’ve invented to account for her vivid personality, which at seven and a half weeks is so distinct that I can only conclude she was someone else in a previous life; and then, obviously, she hung out at a very colourful cocktail party in the sky, a velvet-upholstered waiting room with Aviations and 1930s jazz being played a little too loudly in the background, before being reassigned to me. It’s ridiculous (and completely blasphemous), but for now I’m going with it.
Goodnight, everyone.

Beatrice: the first month

With apologies to those of you who are here to read book reviews, of which there have been precious few over the last few months…

I had a baby on the 22nd of September. She’s called Beatrice Illyria, and she’s wonderful. Here are some photos (because it would be rude not to share):

Twelve hours old:

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One and a half days old (with new Dad and new Grandma):

One week old:

Two weeks old:

Three weeks old:

Four weeks old (her first trip to London; my first gig after giving birth):

And most recently, on Monday, at four and a half weeks old, she urges you to vote if you haven’t already:

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Beatrice will be five weeks old tomorrow. Things I have learned so far:

1. Newborns think they’re still in the womb. This is why they often freak out when they’re left by themselves or left to kick and move when they’re not being tightly surrounded by something, be it a wrap, sling, or someone’s arms, and consequently:

2. Newborns really like to be held. All day. My daughter likes this especially at the moment because she’s apparently going through a cognitive leap at four and a half weeks, which means that she’s more overwhelmed than before by sounds and smells and things that she sees because her senses are sharper, and this means that she can only really fall asleep while (1) nursing or (2) being held after nursing, in a sort of yoga “child” position (I never understood the name of that position until now) with her legs folded under her, her arms under her head, and her head tucked under mine on my chest. If I don’t hold her like this for at least ten minutes after feeding while she drops into deeper and deeper sleep, she will instantly wake up when she’s put down in a cot or basket, away from the sound of my heartbeat and the smell of my skin. And she will be very displeased. This is probably because:

3. Newborns don’t know they’re separate from their mothers yet. This one boggles my mind, but it makes sense – they have no sense of personal identity yet. Being separated from their mothers causes them huge distress, because it just doesn’t feel right to be alone. When they’re upset, they scream. Because the sound of a screaming baby is hugely distressing to its caregiver, we spend most of our time trying to prevent or stop the screaming by holding, feeding, changing, talking to, and stroking the baby. Consequently:

4. Newborns are all-consuming. Which means that the caregiver can go all day “without getting anything done”.

I know I’m accomplishing something by keeping her alive and [relatively] happy all day, but the weeks have slipped by in a blurred stream of feeding, sleeping, feeding, napping, changing, rocking, feeding again (and again) and trying to cook and eat one-handed, and I’ve only written half a chapter of my second draft in the last month. I haven’t written any thank-you cards for the incredible and generous gifts of food and baby things we’ve been given, or answered more than a handful of emails, or made it to the grocery store alone more than a couple of times. I wanted to figure out why, and disabuse myself of the frustrating notion that I SHOULD be able to be as productive as I was before, so I kept a log yesterday of what I’d done over the course of about seventeen hours, from Monday evening to lunchtime on Tuesday. Here’s what happened.

Warning: this is much longer than I thought it would be. It turns out I can type quite a lot, one-handed. Also, when there’s nothing to do but type one-handed, it’s possible to be really productive. I’ve edited it in bed this morning, while she feeds, with both hands, but most of it was written yesterday.

Monday, 24 October

7.15pm onwards: All evening, my daughter engages in an activity called cluster feeding, which means she nurses for five to twenty minutes until she seems to fall asleep, but then can only be put down for about a minute each time before screaming and demanding to be fed again. Tonight this goes on for over five hours. She doesn’t feed efficiently when she cluster-feeds: she chews and sucks and pulls herself off every few seconds, then screams and then attaches herself again, latching on poorly (which means that it stings). The word that comes to mind is “vampiric”, though I’m grateful to be able to do this cluster-feeding thing more easily now that we’re both much better at breastfeeding, four weeks in, and I don’t find it screamingly painful any more. In the first two weeks I would cry almost every time, or at least have to stifle a shriek when she latched onto my chapped, bleeding nipples. In the first two weeks I also had contractions every time she fed; breastfeeding stimulates the production of oxytocin, which causes contractions, which makes the uterus shrink back to its normal size little by little after the birth. All good and necessary, but unbearable. Now I don’t feel as much, and she’s better at feeding (during the day, anyway) – it’s a skill both of us have had to learn.

Often, in the evenings, and this evening is typical, she screams while eating and then pulls herself off, then tries to find my nipple again even though it’s still in her mouth, frantically shaking her head back and forth, bobbing and swinging away and then back, her mouth wide open, making a desperate growly “raaa-aaa-aaa” noise. It’s heartbreaking and infuriating and I have to resist the urge to drop her on the floor, because this goes on until well after midnight. I try to talk to her calmly, to stroke her back and her head, to will her to just calm down and feed normally, the way she does during the day. I alternate sides, but I feel as though I’m being torn to pieces, and I’ve developed a pounding headache that stabs with each suck. Dehydration? Probably, but I can’t reach that water bottle. This is why we need at least two caregivers at all times – so that one of them can fetch beverages.

Is there even anything left in there? I test it – apparently there is. As the evening wears on, I keep thinking I’ll make coq au vin. I’ve told my husband I will, that there’ll be something for him to graze on when he’s home at 1am from a concert in Cambridge, but I can’t seem to make it to the kitchen, and I’m becoming increasingly exhausted. The ingredients are on the kitchen counter, waiting; we even went to the store and bought bacon!

I do not manage to make coq au vin. For some reason this surprises me.

At about 10pm I give up and, during a few minutes of calm, manage to eat some pre-cooked chicken breast and some apple crumble from the fridge. I finally put away the stew ingredients so that they don’t go bad. I’ll try again tomorrow.

Tuesday, 25 October  

1.30am: Bojan gets home at some point around now, and Beatrice and I are finally asleep in bed with all the lights on in the bedroom. I manage to wake up and say hello; he puts her in her cot and crawls into bed. “Thank you,” he says, holding my hand, “thank you for being brilliant and doing this, and being you,” and I think he might be crying. I try not to cry too; I’m too tired to speak for the first time since she was born – the lack of sleep is finally starting to wear me down. I squeeze his hand and fall asleep again. It’s worth noting here that he has been utterly heroic since she was born, working through his exhaustion and looking after me exquisitely. It’s hard to understand how I got so lucky.

6.45am: Beatrice wakes up. How has she slept for so long? Is there something wrong with her? Newborns are supposed to eat every two hours – at first she woke up every hour and a half, but lately she’s been sleeping from midnight-ish until at least 4am, and, for the last two nights, until 6.30 or so. Alarming or impressive? A fluke? I can’t decide. I feed her – she’s calm now and eats with long deep sucks and doesn’t come off once until she’s done. Then she seems to fall asleep, but as soon as she goes in the cot she stars fussing, and then she’s crying and straining again – more tummy pain (breastfed babies poo less frequently, and when they do it’s explosive. The rest of the time it’s typical to strain and grunt like constipated ogres until they’re held. When she’s held, she can fall asleep). B suggests putting her in bed with us to calm her down. Everyone gets an hour’s sleep and nobody gets smothered.

We don’t want to do this too often because we sleep under a fluffy duvet and she could suffocate if she ends up under it, but she seems to love being in bed with us. I want to safely bed-share; most of the time she sleeps in a beautiful side-car cot borrowed from generous friends, but often she won’t settle unless she’s in with us. Figuring out how to do this safely – I know how to do it in theory, but I’m terrified to try doing it all the time –  is on my list, along with “write thank-you cards”. I haven’t done much on my list in the last few weeks.

7.45am: She wakes up again. I feed her in the “I’ve given up” position, lying on my side.

7.59am: B’s alarm goes off. I sit up and keep nursing Beatrice; he goes downstairs and has breakfast. I can smell toast, which is almost painfully tantalising. When he comes back upstairs to get dressed I ask him if there’s any left, trying to sound light-hearted (I fail). He goes back down and makes me some and brings it upstairs while I feed Beatrice. He also brings tea, which goes on the stack of books on the bedside table. I discover after he’s left that I can’t reach it.

8.30am: B leaves. I offer a cheery goodbye. I feel like I haven’t seen him for days. At least tonight he’ll be home at dinner time, or late-ish dinnertime, around nine, rather than the after-midnight post-concert situation of the last few days. We’re both freelancers; he can’t take time off, so he’s worked most days since she was born, except for a coincidental week off from when she was one week old to when she was two weeks old, after my mother left (she was here for the first week and essentially saved our lives).

8.51am: I’m doing really well, feeling in control, with Beatrice propped up on me, feeding again, until a lovely musician friend calls from Edinburgh to see how I’m doing, because I complained on Facebook last night. People being kind always makes me cry, and when she asks how I’m doing I say “Good!” but then she says, “Are you ok? I saw your Facebook post,” and I say, “It’s crap. I’m so lonely,” and sob down the phone, and she tells me I’m doing a great job and that I’m brave and amazing. I’m not convinced.

Beatrice does some explosive poos while I’m on the phone, which lightens my mood, not least because looks as though she feels much better. I get off the phone in a much brighter frame of mind, then lift her up to give her a hug and see a patch of bright yellow poo on the duvet: it’s soaked through her diaper and her clothes because I stayed on the phone and didn’t change her fast enough. I finally exit the bed for the first time this morning and lay her down to clean her up. She’s very serene – she likes being on the changing mat because it means she can stare at the closet, which fascinates her), and then leave her for a minute to put the sheets in the laundry. She screams as though she’s being attacked by wild beasts, which, on reflection, IS probably what she thinks is about to happen. Then she nurses again for an hour – I try to put her to sleep but she screams again as soon as she’s put down, so I just keep nursing her. I read the Grantchester Chronicles and look at election coverage on my phone. I wish the New York Times would make their big crossword free – doing the mini one at 6am is never enough.

10.30am: She appears to be asleep. I put her down and SHE STAYS ASLEEP – thank you, Holy Mother of God. I run downstairs to tidy the kitchen and briefly consider a shower.

10.31am Throwing caution to the wind, I decide to make coq au vin instead. I doubt there’ll be another opportunity today (and I’m right).

10.56am: I become guiltily aware that the combined noise from the washing machine and the frying onions and NPR’s All Things Considered are probably preventing me from hearing Beatrice scream. Oh God, is she even still alive? I run upstairs to check. She’s asleep. All is well. I am a great parent.

11.01am: Was that a squawk? A scream? I go to the foot of the stairs to check. No – silence. I carry on cooking. This isn’t so hard.

11.22am: The post arrives. Several cards, and a Halloween-themed onesie for Beatrice from my mother in Illinois! She’s put the return address as “Grandma Sherri”, which momentarily confuses me. It’s the first time I’ve seen my mother’s name and the word “grandma” written down together.

11.30am: My retired neighbour Anne comes to visit. I knocked on her door yesterday at about 6pm in desperation because I hadn’t spoken to another adult all day, and the upshot was that I had a cup of tea (and Beatrice was hugely charming and attentive), and I said that she’d better come round today and help me finish the cheesecake brought by another friend (so I wouldn’t eat the whole thing myself). We sit in the kitchen and talk about adult things, I think – actuality, I’m pretty sure we talk mostly about Beatrice, but it feels like an adult conversation because she’s a cogent person who uses words. She’s brought her own coffee so I don’t have to make it. I finish making the coq au vin and manage to set a timer. Beatrice squawks just as I’m finishing my cheesecake, which is pretty good timing. Anne remarks that I seem to have it all under control, and I give a hollow laugh but try to accept the compliment. Beatrice goes to sleep on my chest, grizzling quietly. It’s worth noting that I still haven’t dressed or showered, but Anne is kind enough to say that my pyjamas are passable as real clothes.

11.54am: Anne leaves and I put Beatrice gingerly down in a basket in the darkened living room – I haven’t put the blind up yet today. I decide not to make it any lighter – she’s still making little grunting noises, but she seems to be 80% asleep. Could it be time to finish my cup of tea AND have a shower? I decide to do both, at the same time.

12.02pm: the silence is magical. I’ve been distracted by the remaining two pieces of cheesecake, and have eaten them. I really must have a shower now.

12.05pm: I turn the shower on. Beatrice squalls from the living room, so I run back in, pick her up, and go back into the bathroom as an afterthought to turn off the shower. Then I realise that it’s really hard not to drop a baby into the tub while you hold her with one hand and lean over the tub to turn off a tap with your other hand. I manage it and take her to the sofa to nurse, but in putting her down on my lap to undo my bra, I drop her head a little too quickly onto my thigh. Her face contorts and goes crimson; she screams – from surprise or pain, I can’t tell. I bring her up to my chest and hug her and stroke the back of her head, hating myself. She immediately stops crying. Oh God, maybe she’s just really stoic and I’m a bad parent. She seems to have forgotten already – maybe I’m a good parent after all.

12.10pm: She’s eating frantically, as though she’s been starved for days. My mind wanders to that Roald Dahl short story, Royal Jelly, about a baby who won’t gain weight until its beekeeper father starts sneaking royal jelly from the hives into its formula. No such problem here, but her name IS Bea, and there’s lots of punning potential there, which makes me happy. I like calling her Bumble Bea. I am getting quietly hysterical. I just want to put her down and take a nap. My left arm is holding her up and my thumb is against her waist; I can feel her insides gurgling. How marvellous is man! What a wondrous thing I’ve made! Then I feel how warm her diaper is against my other fingers. Warm and wet? Or just warm? Please let it just be warm. I think it is – I think that dampness is just my fingers sweating. She doesn’t need to be changed right this second.

12.22pm: She pulls herself off dramatically, launching her body away from me and flinging her little arms into the air above her head, fists clenched. They drift back to her sides incrementally.

12.23pm: Asleep on my lap, she does the most exquisite grin, the first really symmetrical one I’ve seen. She looks like someone from her dream has told her an incredible joke. It doesn’t count as a “social smile” yet, but by golly, it’s charming. For a second her face is vastly characterful, like that of a much older child, and I get a fleeting glimpse of my youngest brother Elliot (now a rakish 24-year-old): the way his face looked the time he put a dead frog under my pillow and was really pleased with himself, probably around the age of 12. She’s going to be so cute. We’ve done well.

12.26pm: I’m too scared to move her into her cot in case she wakes up and cries again, so I sit there gazing, getting a crick in my neck. She’s grinning quite a lot in her sleep, moving her tiny hands and feet, and switching every couple of seconds between frowning and grimacing and raising her eyebrows. I could watch this forever: she reminds me of Rowan Atkinson or some other stretchy-faced comic, such is the infinite variety of the faces she can make. She grunts and chirps and chuckles. Then there’s another stomach gurgle. Oh yes, the warm nappy – I’d forgotten. Better change that, lest another outfit be sacrificed to the gods of poo. Sorry, sleeping baby…

12.32pm: I move to change her, but then the stew timer goes off. I put her down and – a miracle! – she doesn’t wake up. I tiptoe off and turn off the stew.

12.34pm: SHOWER TIME AT LAST! Oh look, my tea from before is still on the shower windowsill. STILL DELICIOUS, THOUGH. I am in heaven.

12.51pm: I’ve never timed a shower before, but in the interests of this mini documentary, I find that it was seventeen minutes long. Considering I didn’t wash my hair, that seems inexcusable. But she’s still asleep, and I got to listen to half of the NPR Politics podcast. Ahhhhhh.

1.05pm: Another kind friend sends an email, offering to make dinner next week and bring extras for freezing. She saw my miserable Facebook post last night. I feel guilty, a pathetic whiny person who shouldn’t have complained, because now the sun is (sort of) shining and Beatrice is asleep, and it doesn’t feel as impossible to cope right now as it did last night. Then I remember the refrain of everyone who already has children: “Accept all offers of help!” I decide that this is sensible. I will answer that email as soon as I can. I suspect it’ll take me two days to do so.

1.08pm: putting away clothes, I find all my pre-pregnancy leggings in a box. This is exciting: they’re long enough to wear boots with, which is a major step towards getting out of the house now that it’s cold. But we don’t need any groceries except for bread, and I could just make rice for lunch. And if I go to a cafe with her in a sling and try to write, she’ll get overheated and cross, and there won’t be anywhere to put her down. But if I take a buggy she might get too cold. And she’ll hate being left in the buggy if she’s awake. It all seems like too much. We’ll stay at home.

1.20pm: she squawks just as I’m halfway through folding laundry and thinking about bringing my laptop downstairs to do some writing. By the time I make it to the living room she’s nearly in full swing, but she calms down when she sees me. I remember I should’ve changed her half an hour ago, and sure enough, the poo is cruelly dry, stuck to her bottom. (It’s worth mentioning here that milk-poo is almost completely odourless, so don’t be alarmed, dear reader.) Therein lie the seeds of nappy rash; I’m a bad mother to have left her so long. I press a cold, very wet wipe to the suffering area for several seconds, and it works: we have a clean Beatrice without having rubbed her bottom raw. She gazes at me placidly, and I flatter myself that she’s looking right at me rather than over my shoulder. She’s calmed down, at least, so I don’t rush. I feel like a good mother (it’s the small victories) until I see a cat hair lodged in her bottom (HOW?), so I get a second wipe and try to grab it. And then, calm and happy, she makes a face as though she’s silently saying “ooh!” and emits an abrupt little fart, and then pees all over the changing mat. I yelp. It pools out around her and begins to soak into the back of her stylish mint-green-and-white striped onesie, which she’s worn for exactly – what, three hours at most? I run to get paper towels, dry everything off, wipe her down again, and look around for an emergency outfit. There’s a little purple onesie in the changing bag, which is now my handbag. (This is not a tragedy; I have never been a handbag person.) She looks cute in it, and kicks her little legs happily, punching the air with her fists, and looks as though she wants to smile at me, but doesn’t quite do it. Her thighs are getting wonderfully fat. Her toes are tiny miniature versions of mine. She’s clean and dry, and everything is under control. I’m a good mom.

1.29pm: Nursing on the couch again, she swallows furiously for half a minute, then pulls herself off me, coughing delicately, and gets sprayed in the face with three separate streams of milk. It reminds me of the fountains at Versailles, and I feel obscurely proud. After a couple more minutes someone knocks on the door, and I silently curse them and their entire family as I stick a little finger in the corner of her mouth to unlatch her, put her down in a safe position on the couch, clap the breast pad back over my boob, reassemble my bra and then my dress, and answer the door – by which time they’ve gone. “Hello?” I say to the empty street, not wanting to have done all that for nothing. “Oh, hi,” says a man, appearing from behind a truck in a high-vis uniform. It looks like he’s with Thames Water or something. He points to a silver vehicle I’ve never seen before. “Could you tell me whose car that is?” I wonder if it’s blocking a drain cover, but I don’t want to get into a discussion about it; I can hear Beatrice protesting again. “Sorry, no,” I say, adding lamely, “I don’t have a car, so I don’t really, you know, notice other people’s cars…” I dash back inside; she’s rolled over and is half face down in a muslin, screaming. I am a bad mom. They’re breathable, but still. Clearly everyone who said the couch is the most dangerous place for a baby was right. I apologise to her and latch her back on. Interrupting a feeding baby is a dangerous business.

1.49pm: Sleepy and full of milk, Beatrice falls off, flinging her hands up again and rolling onto her back on my lap, and does a little smile in her sleep. Her hair is getting blonder by the day as she loses her dark newborn hair and grows a new head of it; her eyelids are delicately veined, like the thinnest painted porcelain, and she’s growing golden eyelashes; her expressive mouth, with its perfect Cupid’s bow, is cherry-pink. She’s the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen, which I realise is an enormous cliche, but she really is. I need to get so much done today, but I don’t care. I think I’ll just watch her for a little while.

I was going to end it there, but I had to add one more thing:

Wednesday, 26 October

10.35am: Nursing, she pulls herself off and gets sprayed in the face with milk, in the usual way. “You got sprayed right in the face!” I say, and giggle at her. She looks straight at me and gets the most wonderful look in her eyes, as though she’s just figured something out. Then she smiles. And smiles again, and again. It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life, a smile that reaches her eyes, full of delight and newness, the first real smile in response to someone – the long-awaited “social smile”. I call Bojan even though I know he’s teaching. “Guess what?” I say. “She just smiled.” And I start to cry.

Pregnancy is (literally) undoing me.

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My Sunday so far, with apologies to people who are already parents and will have no truck with self-indulgence at this stage:
1. Wake up. Move slightly, and experience violent, searing sensation of muscles just below sternum ripping apart, as I have every morning (and twice every night) for the last two or three weeks. Immediately begin to scream quietly for a few minutes, alarming my husband. Explain as he says “should I call someone?” that diastasis recti is normal, and I’ll be fine in a minute, but for now I literally CANNOT MOVE OR I WILL BREAK.
2. Get up sideways in spite of blind panic. Immediately feel better. Husband goes back to sleep.
3. Breakfast alone while listening to “The Longest Shortest Time”, and cry because parenting sounds so hard. Pull self together. Brush teeth. 
3a. Decide to stay at home instead of going to mass, because of tiredness/missing the latest submission deadline for the book/general dishevelledness.
4. Do some writing, achieving more this morning than I have in the last week. Rejoice at apparent return of attention span. Worry that it is temporary.
4a. Second breakfast.
5. Put away presents from yesterday’s baby shower. Become overwhelmed at the generosity and thoughtfulness of friends, especially Roya’s handwritten notes attached to small baby items saying why they might be useful. The tiny Peter Rabbit stickers are strangely moving. Cry again.
6. Imminent plan: go back to bed, because everyone keeps telling me to catch up on sleep while I can.
Soon I’ll write something really thoughtful about pregnancy. Maybe even today! But not right now.

Sun, sea, and carbon monoxide: avoiding smoke in Croatia

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Not Porto, just FYI. But they do play good classic rock here. (It’s called Sveti Martin.)

Croatia is glorious. Too hot for me, you understand, but that’s probably because I didn’t inherit many of the Portuguese genes from the Brazil side of the family, so I’m about as Anglo-Saxon-looking as a person could possibly be without also having blue eyes. I burn and peel rather than tanning, tend to get very woozy in high heat, spend most of the summers in Croatia asking for glasses of ice in restaurants to hold against my chest and neck, and my position on sun exposure is “skin damage” rather than “much-needed vitamin D”. This is probably why I chose to live in England (not that it stops me from constantly complaining during the Very Dark And Cold Months of October to April). Being about seven months pregnant also means that I find the heat here utterly unbearable, and can’t stand up for very long. 
IMG_4013Nevertheless: I do love to swim. The sea here, ringed by rocks (not sand) and sweet-smelling pine trees, is great, almost surreal – clear as glass, mostly calm, and warm enough to dive into every day – and the evenings here are beautiful. The best time is the hour or two spent outside just as the sun is setting, writing in an unjustly half-empty restaurant called Porto (where Renato and Lorena make probably the best food I’ve ever eaten in my life, right down to the very newest dish, clam carpaccio), on the harbour here in Losinj, the island where my in-laws live. I’m very lucky to be here on holiday, the last time I’ll be allowed to fly before baby C-B makes an appearance at the end of September. And though I can’t think straight enough to write new words in the intense heat of most of the day, those cool evenings – what would be called “very warm evenings” in England – have been a vastly productive time. The second draft of the Witchy Book is coming along very nicely.
The people here are beautiful too – quite literally beautiful, all tall and tanned and slender and gorgeous, and the little kids swim naked and fearless in the sea from an exceptionally young age, leaping off the rocks and shouting to each other happily in the water. Nobody ever seems to get hurt or upset (even a little girl who stepped on a sea urchin the other day was calmed pretty quickly by her parents), and everyone’s terribly social and generous. It’s not exactly a culture that’s kind to introverts, mind you. There’s been a significant culture drain; the public transport is horribly disorganised; and there’s still a lot of corruption here; but the atmosphere is one of a relaxed, gentle lifestyle where most of the summer is spent drinking coffee, swimming, eating, and gossiping. People are fiercely loyalty to their families, and they enjoy food and wine and good company in the most genial way. There’s no rushing about. Everyone laughs a lot. It’s lovely to be a part of it, albeit as an adopted daughter-in-law, someone who sits around trying desperately to understand what’s going on because her Croatian isn’t very good. People are patient with me, and I’m learning the language slowly, a little more every summer. It’s nice. 
The one big, ugly fly in the ointment? Everyone smokes.
Everyone. As in – EVERYONE. It’s like Beijing in 1991. 
Smoking is unequivocally a bad thing to do to yourself, right? It’s even worse to constantly subject everyone else to its products – including one’s own tiny children on a crowded beach, and pregnant women sitting nearby. Passive smoke is more toxic than smoke inhaled directly by the smoker. This is a well-established fact.
And now I have to apologise for the torrent of rage that’s about to pour forth. But it’s been eating at me for days, and I can’t keep it in any longer.
 
There is apparently no escape; no matter where I go – open-air restaurants, the beach, cafes, bars by the sea, my in-laws’ garden – I get smoke blown in my face by strangers and relatives alike. I’ve put up with this for years, feebly making excuses about being a singer, laughing self-deprecatingly as I leave the room or go for a quick walk or wave the smoke away, trying not to think about or mention my grandmother, Gabriella Brazil, who died horribly and slowly of emphysema after a lifetime of chain-smoking, but I’ve suddenly reached the end of my tether. It’s probably something to do with being overheated all the time – it IS summer in Croatia, and patience is running thin in my overheated body. 
 
The trouble is, politely asking supposedly sane adults to stop (adults whose unborn grandchild’s health depends on not being exposed to toxic chemicals through my bloodstream) only elicits looks of disbelief, and protests that “Hey, it’s open-air, it’s fine!” When B gets cross with them and pointedly walks away with me, or insists that really, they need to stop, they’re just baffled. Apparently we’re overreacting.
 
We’re not. I’m so angry.
 
Exposure to cigarette smoke in pregnant women leads to pre-term labour, dangerously low birth weight, and stillbirth, and its effects on small children are disastrous, much worse than its effects on adults. A quick google search brings up the contents of secondhand smoke from the Cancer Research website – horrifying stuff, even worse than my prim American non-smokers’ brain thought it was. 
 
The culture here is wonderful. I love it. But it needs to evolve past its current state, which is one of total disregard for public health.
Until it does, I’ll keep enjoying the brilliant grilled fish and the lovely atmosphere, and I’ll keep swimming (though I won’t linger on the rocks among the smokers). But I’ll think twice about being so polite about secondhand smoke next summer when I bring the baby with us, in (I’m not going to lie – I’m excited about this) a cute little sun hat and (gasp) adorable baby water wings. I can’t wait to play with it in the shallow rock-pool bit of the seaside and dip its toes in the deeper water to remind it of its ancestry and the sea I swam in while I was pregnant with it. But then we’ll leave the beach and go home and read indoors, away from the sun, exactly as we did this summer, before we met. I expect it’ll burn just as easily as I do if we stay out there for too long. And I won’t have anyone smoking around my baby.
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Ludicrously delicious fish and blitva (potatoes and spinach) on the island of Unije, a few days ago. And still, in the restaurant, everybody was smoking. I give up. 

An entirely sentimental, non-factual, totally biased view of Europe on the eve of the referendum

While I’ve only been in the UK eleven years, give or take, and I’m not eligible to vote in the referendum this week, my livelihood, and that of my husband, depends on being able to travel and work freely within the EU.
Every time we travel to collaborate with different orchestras and choirs, we learn something, not just because we’re working with a mixture of the world’s best musicians, but because being in a different country is just very good for your brain – it stretches it and challenges it and makes you see yourself in a new way.
Another thing that’s worth thinking about: families these days are more complicated and widespread than they were in the past. Being part of the EU means, to use a tiny example, being able to easily travel to see Bojan’s parents, siblings, and nieces. If we leave the EU, suddenly it will be prohibitively difficult to go and see both his family and mine.
Paola Cuffolo has written something very, very intelligent and emotionally lucid about what it means to be a European living in the UK, someone who holds only an EU passport but has always lived here, and has never needed to be anything other than a European to participate in, and be formed by, British culture.
If you value the arts, travel, communication, and curiosity, this post is worth reading, regardless of how you’re going to vote. Please give it five minutes of your time.

thelittlestnoise

So, indulge me for a minute, if you will. Unless you are clinically dead, you will have noticed that in the UK we are about to vote in a referendum about whether or not we should stay in the EU. Well, I say ‘we’. I am personally not eligible to vote: having spent only 27 and a quarter years out of my 28 in this country, rather than going the whole hog of being born here, I am not entitled to an opinion on the matter, but that’s a fascinating argument for another day. Like everyone else, however, I have read countless facts and figures for both sides, but since both sides seem more interested in beating each other than in the actual question, I thought I would throw all those out the window, for the moment. You’ve all read them, so there’s not much point in me re-iterating them…

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20 Books of Summer (two weeks late)

Inspired by Eleanor over at Elle Thinks, and in an attempt to escape, if only temporarily, from the unbearable dreadfulness of this week’s events in the world of politics, I’ve put together a list of books to attempt to read for an event run by Cathy at 746 Books: “20 Books of Summer”. I’m technically behind already (the event officially runs between 1 June and 1 September), because the first half of June was the tail end of several weeks of non-stop singing work, but I’m back in the game now (translation: mostly unemployed again, and thus writing/reading to my heart’s content). The Witchy Book continues apace, and I’ve decided to have my “Summer of Reading” coincide, dates-wise, with the last three months of my pregnancy. I’ve just entered the third trimester today, so it seems like nice timing.

[Disappears to assemble pile]

And here they are!

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Now they’ll probably sit like that on the bedroom floor until somebody (me) trips over them in the middle of the night.

Here are some reasons I haven’t read them yet:

  • being intimidated by their length
  • being ashamed that I didn’t read them when they were a big popular deal [The Goldfinch is a good example] and consequently being too embarrassed to be seen reading them in public “after the moment”
  • being nervous about taking them out of the house because they’re signed copies
  • having started them when I bought them, then getting distracted, and then being too embarrassed to pick them up again, as if they’ll rebuke me when I do. I know, I’m weird. I also used to give my stuffed animals equal time and attention (there was practically a rota) because I was worried about offending them.

The longer they sit on the shelf, of course, the worse it gets.

Here’s the list, in no particular order, with brief notes (some aren’t in the picture; and there are more than twenty, but I’m giving myself some leeway to choose what matches my mood at any given time. I won’t be able to read all of them by the 23rd of September):

  • Kelly Link: Magic For Beginners – I’m pretty sure that Eleanor (Elle Thinks) gave me this after she’d reviewed it. I read the first short story: delicious and dark. Can’t wait to finish them all.
  • Katherine Howe: Conversion – Katherine Howe came to my attention about a year or two ago, probably through writing about witches and also being quite academic; she edited the Penguin Book of Witches, whose delectable cover belies its rather desiccated contents (nothing but contemporary accounts of witch trials, which left me yawning, to my shame). Conversion is a YA novel that’s allegedly a sort of modern update of The Crucible, set (I think) in a girls’ school somewhere in New England. She was kind enough to send me some water-transfer temporary tattoos of the gorgeous cover art because she’d run out of signed bookplates. I haven’t used them yet, but I’ll treat myself when I’m reading this.
  • Neil Gaiman: The View from the Cheap SeatsThis just came out. Unfortunately it’s a signed copy, a late birthday gift from me to B, so I can’t take it out of the house. But I’ve used an Audible credit to buy the pleasure of Neil Gaiman reading it aloud to me. I think that counts.
  • Adam Sisman: John Le Carre: The Biography – my dad sent me this last November after my miscarriage to cheer me up – he knows that I always feel better when the subject of spycraft is on the table – and I listened to the first chapter or so in the audiobook version. It’s a huge book, but I’d like to tackle it properly before the baby arrives (though it might be wiser to leave it for middle-of-the-night feeds from October onwards).
  • Melvyn Bragg: The Adventure of English – I started reading this on a tour to America with That Choir back in 2014 (I think?) and lost it in a worryingly luxurious plantation-reminiscent North Carolina hotel bedroom. They promised to post it back, but never did, probably because they figured out what the postage would be to the UK and couldn’t be bothered. It belonged to my husband, so I hastily bought another copy and… promptly forgot about it. I’ve just started reading it again. It’s delightful; so delightful that I might just start from the beginning again for the full effect.
  • Ann Patchett: State of Wonder – embarrassingly, B gave me this wonderful-looking book as a Christmas present in 2013. It went on the list immediately because of the mounting guilt I feel at not having read it. It’s a signed first edition, which is why it hasn’t yet left the house. Which is why it hasn’t yet been read.
  • Kate Atkinson: A God in Ruins – I loved Life After Life, although I was also extremely traumatised by one of the final scenes. A God in Ruins came out SOME TIME AGO and I bought a copy immediately, because I’m a hardback fetishist. I then exiled it to the Shelf of Shame (unread books) and promptly forgot about it.
  • Ruth Goodman: How to be a Victorian – this was a Christmas present to myself, er, two years ago, when my dad gave me a nice Amazon voucher and I used it entirely to buy books. I remember hearing a review on NPR. Apparently it’s very down-to-earth and myth-busting, and doesn’t shy away from the gross details of Victorian life. Fun.
  • Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant – after listening to/reading Ursula le Guinn’s angry response to this book with utter glee, I started reading it and just stopped.
  • Will Cohu: Nothing But Grass – I have no idea why I own this. I think it was in the Christmas haul a year and a half ago, but I’m not sure.
  • Hilary Mantel: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – again, something I bought very quickly after its release and then was too scared to read, because I missed the moment.
  • Anthony Trevellian: The Weightless World – a book published by the wonderful people at Galley Beggar Press, with whom I have a bizarrely friendly Twitter relationship. I also need to finish How to be a Public Author, the wonderful satirical “non-fiction” book from “Francis Plugg”, but that’s another story.
  • Jonathan Gibbs: Randall – another Galley Beggar book, but I have no idea what it’s about, or why I own it. I have a horrible feeling they may have sent me a copy for review around a year ago. There’s something about the black background with splotches of yellow paint on it that’s unbearably excellent as a cover design.
  • A. L. Kennedy: On Writing – I’m currently halfway through this, so it might be cheating to have it on this list, but this is one of the most wonderful, darkly funny things I’ve ever read about the vicissitudes of being an author. Highly recommended. It’s a collection of her blog posts from several years ago.
  • Hanna Rosin: The End of Men – happily, I knew about this from the Slate Double X Gabfest before it was featured on Orange is the New Black. Bizarrely, I’m a little nervous about being seen with it in public. Ridiculous.
  • Philip Pullman: Northern Lights (Three Novels) – to clarify, I’m halfway through the second book, where I floundered (I felt the plot was getting really tedious), and B is not impressed – he loves all three. I’d like to finish them, at the very least, to get a better insight into my husband’s brain.
  • Susan Cain: Quiet – her Ted Talk was so, so good, and I’m all for championing introverts and the importance of recognising the possibility of success and innovation without having to shout and be super popular and the kind of person who, I don’t know, somehow enjoys public dancing or whatever. I started this over a year ago and… maybe it was the teensy typeface? In any case – time for it to come straight back onto the reading list.
  • Simon Armitage: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – another gift from B, a modern rendering by the inimitable SA of the original tale. He was quite cross that I never read it. I like Arthurian things, and I like SA, so I really ought to get down to it.
  • Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch – Bought it, shelved it, then saw an amazing mezzo I’m slightly in awe of reading it on a plane on a tour we were on and thought, well, I’ve missed the boat on that one – can’t be seen reading it after her. Utterly ridiculous.
  • Edward St Aubyn: Patrick Melrose Novels – ok, so it’s ridiculous to think that I can get through all five of these this summer, but I’d like to at least try the first one or two. I’ve heard people say that the books made them physically sick because of the abuse that’s catalogued in them (they’re heavily autobiographical fiction), but I’m still intrigued; his send-up of the Booker Prize in Lost for Words was wonderfully spiteful and very, very funny, and I got these after I’d read that one in the hope that I could just bathe in his prose a little more. B is ahead of me on this one, having read the first two or three already.
  • Jessie Burton: The Miniaturist – oh God, she’s already releasing the sequel at the end of this month and I still haven’t read the first one? I think this is at the top of my list in terms of Things That Intimidate Me Because I’m Late To The Party. And her website is so cool, and she’s so casually excellent on Twitter. And ugggghhhhh will I ever be profiled in The Observer as a debut author? Extremely unlikely.

On that depressing note, an additional thought: because I’m hammering away at Draft 2 of Witches Sniping At Each Other Amusingly In Oxford (definitely not the official working title), I won’t have time to write a proper review of each of these books, but I’ll try to put something up on each one – maybe short reviews in batches.

I actually can’t wait – it’ll be so good, so wholesome, somehow, to get back into reading after having slid into the mind-corroding habit of being on my phone all the time because I’ve been commuting between gigs. In the meantime…

Are you doing 20 (or more) Books of Summer? Share your list!

EBx

Summer; the witchy book; singing vs writing

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Wedding-present roses in our garden. They smell strong and sweet and boozy-syrupy.

It’s summer now, and the weather is (finally) reflecting that: last week I was still sporting my winter coat (which I can just about still zip up with Baby C-B in tow, stubbornly facing the wrong way so that we STILL don’t know its sex, and kicking happily at every opportunity), but it was genuinely hot today, nearly shorts weather [gasp], if I were the sort of person who owned or wore shorts. Caveat: it was only hot by my standards, a neat 24 degrees Celsius while I was at work in London today. We’re getting to the point where, in the UK, the days are so long that it feels surreal: the sun is well and truly up by 5am, and as I sit here and write this on the couch at 9.46, it’s raining, and there’s lightning and thunder outside, but the sky is still reasonably aglow; the sun has only recently set.

It’s been quite a while since I posted anything. I was a little (very) overwhelmed by the heart-rending and generous response from everyone who read the miscarriage piece I wrote in January, and for some reason that meant that I stopped writing here for a few months. Back in early May (or possibly late April), I wrote a very grumpy post while sitting in a hotel room in Bangkok, mostly about how hot it was and how I couldn’t deal with the heat at all, and how I was very dispirited about my singing work and couldn’t figure out what my job was. Because the wifi in the hotel was so bad, the blog post didn’t load, though I thought it had and checked back a week later to see if it had got any views, only to discover it was still in drafts. By that point I’d cheered up and decided to stop complaining, and was grateful for the glitch.

At that point, just over a month ago, I’d stopped feeling sick all day, but I still wasn’t quite having a fun time with my pregnancy. I wasn’t really looking pregnant, as far as I could tell, just moderately fatter than before; and in more existential arenas, I couldn’t figure out who I was. I was waiting for feedback on the first draft of the witchy novel, and I was on a trip to Thailand and China with B, who was working and had brought me along as a plus-one. I knew almost everyone in his orchestra; being around them, though they were all incredibly welcoming, made me feel like a weird non-working hanger-on. It was amazing to be back in Asia, particularly with someone I love, but I was worried about the one reported case of Zika in Thailand, and I was too hot, and the food was making me sick.

Worst, I hadn’t worked properly for a while, and I was beginning to lose sight of my identity. Was I less of a singer if I wasn’t bringing in enough money to even pay my half of the rent? Was I more of a singer because I’d made the decision that it wasn’t morally tenable to keep working for the group I’d just left? Was I a writer? I was certainly spending all my free time writing, or thinking about writing, or making notes for a new book, which (fortuitously, given the trip) was set in China. But being in writer-limbo as I waited for feedback on my book made me uncomfortable, and (well-meaning, lovely) people kept asking about it, and I had nothing to tell them beyond the following stock responses.

“Yes, I think I did everything I could to it. I was pretty happy with the manuscript when I sent it in. But I was also sitting on my couch for three months writing it and trying not to puke the whole time. So…”

“No, I haven’t heard back yet. I don’t know why I haven’t heard back. But the London Book Fair sets agents’ schedules back by many weeks.”

“No, I’m not editing it right now, because I want to wait for feedback… Yes, I’m working on something new. No, it’s not a sequel.”

And, most irritably:

“No, I don’t know when I’ll be published. I don’t even know if I’ll be published. No, I don’t have a book deal. An agent is reading the first draft. That’s it. She’s just a nice woman who’s agreed to look over it for me and give me feedback, and she’s very busy, and no, I haven’t heard back, or I’d have told you by now. Who’s been telling you I have a book deal?”

Things are better now. I’m starting to call myself a writer more regularly, which, if you’ve ever dithered and agonised over whether you can do the same, you know is a strangely hard thing to do. After all, there’s no money coming in… but isn’t that the point? How many people get paid to write while they’re also working on a novel? Actually, please don’t answer that if you know someone who does – it’ll just make me feel worse.

I’m still a singer – but that’s winding down, not least because I cancelled a year’s touring when I resigned from That Choir in January, and although the last few weeks have been frantic, the other work that was planned around the year of touring will come to an end around the middle of June. Soon it’ll be baby o’clock. I have maybe two or three projects scheduled for between mid-June and my due date, which is is 23 September, in case you’d like to pester me on Twitter around then with “ANY BABY YET?” and other such questions. (I jest – I’m sure I’ll still want to talk about it, even then.) After that, nothing until April 1st next year. But it’s ok; I’m not panicking. Here’s why.

I had the sort of beautiful, fulfilling day today that I haven’t had in months. I rehearsed with a group I never thought I’d be cool/famous enough to work with, the Early Opera Company, for a concert tomorrow of Monteverdi and Rossi. I spent time with colleagues whose work I love and admire, and who are wonderfully good company, and I sang well, which was a relief after having lost my voice last week due to a new and exciting symptom: pregnancy-related, voice-destroying acid reflux. I’ve made my peace with crunching antacid tablets in large quantities, because hey, they make them in mint flavour in this country! So that’s good.

On the way home, I read a lot of opinion pieces about NBC and the AP pre-emptively calling the nomination for Clinton, and got annoyed, but quite enjoyed it. I’m actively looking forward to the primary race being over, but I’m also deeply (perhaps foolishly) optimistic about Bernie’s chances of getting the nomination in the case of a California win and a contested convention. It’s weird to feel so good about something that’s been shouted about so loudly and nastily over the last few months, and which I’m genuinely tired of hearing about, but I was in a very calm mood about it today. I’m just looking forward to seeing what happens.

There’s something that ties all this together, my feelings about the election and about singing: as I’m about to give up on both things, I’m becoming much more serene about them. Today I proved to myself that I’m still a good singer, that pregnancy can’t stop me from being well prepared or expressive, that I’m still a good colleague – and what my teacher once called me, in a slightly backhanded compliment, a “conductor’s singer”, someone who’s highly attentive to conductor and orchestra, and whose first priority is making collaborative, intelligent music, not Acting And Being A Large/Loud Personality (nobody there today was that sort of singer, but they exist in large numbers, and we are of Different Schools Of Thought). I’m happy about these reminders of who I am as a musician, and they’ve give me the strength to leave music for a while and become a person who primarily writes in the lead-up to the birth. Because I’ve been reminded of who I am, I know I can come back to singing with my identity intact – which means I can leave for a while without freaking out.

Similarly, just as the Sanders campaign is (almost certainly) coming to an end, I’m feeling better about it than ever. It’s been good to have a real progressive in the race, and for him to have lasted so long in spite of all projections to the contrary. He’s changed the party for the better – that’s undeniable. I’m proud of him. I’m proud to have supported him. I look forward to the direction the party takes once this is all over, because I know so many new people, and not just young people, have been energised by the message of social change and social justice. I can feel it happening: people just want the world to be more fair.

Things end; that doesn’t mean they didn’t have value while they lasted.

My favourite thing today was morally suspect, in that it was enjoyment derived from someone else’s inconvenience. I spoke to B on the phone after work (he’s in Glasgow) and he was grumbling about his concert this afternoon having been messy because they hadn’t been able to rehearse properly. Why not? I asked. Because, he said, they had to share their rehearsal space with a coffin, complete with occupant, because there was a funeral planned for the break between the rehearsal and the concert. The coffin was gone by the time the concert started, of course, but it was too late (SO SORRY FOR THE PUN): in the rehearsal, they hadn’t been see each other properly, and the correct set-up was impossible, so the concert didn’t go terribly well. The real kicker is that they have another concert tomorrow, in the same church, and there’s another funeral scheduled at the same time, so the same thing is going to happen. Tee-hee.

In writing news: I came home this evening to a message from a long-lost acquaintance, asking me to be one of the teachers on a creative writing course for high school students to be held in Oxford this summer. I’ve never been more flattered in my life, or felt more simultaneously excited and imposter-syndrome-ridden. But I’ll pour everything I have into creating afternoon workshops for these kids that will make them love telling stories. It was only a tentative enquiry – I still have to send in a workshop plan and talk to the organisers officially – but it’s exciting to think that this is a small step to building up a portfolio.

Oh, and I’ve just realised I never gave you the promised update: I did get feedback on the witchy book. It was good. We had a really productive discussion about the direction for the second draft, and I’m working on it now in the moments between rehearsing and travelling and losing my voice and devouring antacid tablets. Progress is being made. From mid-June, when my singing hiatus begins, it’ll be full steam ahead. I have to credit my dear friend, the wonderful novelist Harriet Smart, who listened patiently to my panic when I’d had an email back from the agent detailing the issues she had with the book, and gave me (over the course of a two-hour phone conversation) some of the best and most generous advice I’ve ever received. She kick-started my imagination, which had sunk into stasis because I’d stared at that book for too long. She is a genius (and also writes some of the yummiest Victorian detective fiction ever).

I’m going to get back into reviewing books again soon, too, as a guest blogger over at Elle Thinks, the internet-home of the divine Eleanor Franzen. She’s one of the best and most intelligent writers (and poets) I know; go and check out her blog for a real treat.

That’s all for now. It’s good to be back in the land of electronic over-share. I’m sorry this isn’t more focussed and topic-specific, but I’m getting back into the swing of things (and it’ll be better once work calms down). Onwards.

We Need to Talk about Miscarriage

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I had a miscarriage in November. It was “early”, which meant it left me feeling completely devastated but also oddly undeserving of my own grief; I had barely been pregnant before it was all over, but we had already told our parents and siblings.

I’m not writing about this because I want attention or sympathy, although some might cite my chronic tendency to over-share, or my love of medical statistics (and they’d be right – pregnancy is fascinating, but reliable, non-anecdotal advice can be hard to find, so I’ve become obsessed with seeking out good sources of information). The reason I’m writing about it now is that the only thing that made me feel better afterwards was hearing other women’s stories of their own losses, or talking to people whose partners had had miscarriages, and being reassured that a loss is a loss, no matter how early. I want this account to exist so that others can read it and (I hope) feel a little bit better.

My first instinct was to mourn; my second instinct was to feel guilty about mourning, because other people had reached eight, nine, twelve weeks, eight months, even, and I had only reached five weeks. How could I be sad when I’d suffered so much less? I also wept with fury when I received, exactly a month after my own miscarriage, a pregnancy announcement from close friends. It wasn’t their fault; they had no idea. But I raged, and sobbed, and was a mess. B was disappointed with me: weren’t we their friends? Shouldn’t I be nicer? How could I react like that when I should be happy for them? I tried to explain that yes, I was happy for them, thrilled even – or at least I knew I would be, soon; just not at that particular moment.

It’s a tired trope of the time we live in, but it’s worth repeating: your feelings are real. They might be selfish, or inappropriate, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Allow yourself to be sad if you need to be sad.

***

I knew I was pregnant long enough to construct a potential person in my head, a really clever, charming child with funny mannerisms who liked being taken to the Ashmolean Museum and then for cake in the cafe downstairs. Until November I had only been interested in girls’ names, but as soon as we found out, I felt like I was pregnant with a boy (although studies show that when women claim to “just know” the sex of their child, they’re right at about the same rate as chance: 50% of the time). We wandered around an exhibition of Venetian drawings and talked happily about the fact that there was just one name, that name, and it was perfect. It was so perfect that I couldn’t imagine it being a girl any more. My lack of symptoms worried me a little, though. It didn’t quite feel real.

I began bleeding a couple of days later, painlessly. It was the weekend, so I rang 111, which is the UK non-emergency number, and asked what I should do. They told me that painless light bleeding in early pregnancy was nothing to worry about, but that I should call again immediately if I experienced strong cramping, or began to lose large blood clots. They scheduled me in for a scan at a nearby hospital two days later. At about 3.30am on the morning I was due to go in, I woke up in a lot of pain, barely able to speak, and knew exactly what was happening. I followed the other, grimmer instructions they’d given me: save any tissue you lose, put it in a clean container, bring it in to your appointment for analysis. “We need to know if you have an infection,” they’d said. “Oh, I’ll be fine,” I’d responded cheerfully, trying to push my fright back down my throat.

I could barely look at it when it did come out. It was just a sort of dark red sac. At that stage the embryo inside was still effectively just a blastocyst, barely even an embryo, the size of a small red lentil. All I could do was say oh my god, oh my god, over and over. B put it in a tiny tupperware box, swaddled in the white tissue I’d caught it in, and put it in the fridge as we’d been instructed, which seemed so horribly sensible. The next morning I put it in my handbag, unable to decide whether or not to treat this thing as something, or just a medical object like a urine sample. I was alone; B was in rehearsals all day. I took a cab to the hospital, but there was a terrible traffic jam near the entrance and I had to walk what seemed like miles to get to the place where they’d scheduled my scan. My back ached.

When I got there, I walked through a large waiting room full of very pregnant women, looking tired but content, and eventually reached my destination: a smaller, silent waiting room. There were two couples sitting in it. The women were crying quietly; neither was visibly pregnant. The men sat holding their hands, or trying to get them to agree to coffee. I had a couple of bananas in my bag and offered them up; the women jumped at them. They’d been sitting there for some time, they said, and were starving, but their partners didn’t feel they could leave their wives to go and get food in case their wives were called in while they weren’t there. Sharing food is an extraordinary thing, even if it’s just bananas. Suddenly we were all friends, tenuously, in spite of the fact that we were all very close to tears. Everyone talked about their pregnancies, their bleeding, their hope that in fact it was probably ok, even though everyone knew it wasn’t. We expressed optimism for each other. I think we all meant it.

I was called in; they did a pregnancy test on the urine sample I’d been asked to bring in. It came back negative; my hCG (pregnancy hormone) levels were so low that my body didn’t even think I was pregnant any more, but I’d known this would happen; since the bleeding had started I’d been obsessively taking cheap pregnancy tests, and they had all been negative. The worst part was having to sign a”release of foetal tissue” form. I cried a lot. The nurse explained to be quietly that since the pregnancy test was negative, they wouldn’t be doing a scan; there was no point. I was definitively not pregnant any more.

The doctor I spoke to later that morning was compassionate but matter-of-fact: “I know it probably doesn’t help to tell you this, but miscarriage at this stage is extremely common,” she said. “Go home and eat some iron-rich foods: spinach and steak. And have some orange juice to help you absorb the iron. And try again as soon as you feel ready. I’d be delighted if you conceived in the next cycle.” She gave me a leaflet from the miscarriage association. I went off to teach someone conversational English, then had tea with a priest. I told them both, which was probably inappropriate. They both expressed horror at the fact that I was going on with my day as planned instead of being at home in bed. I went home, reading my leaflet on the bus. It was comforting at first, but when I got to the part about “commemorating your baby”, I started crying again. It was too much. I put the leaflet firmly away in a dark corner of my handbag and read political commentary with fierce concentration until I forgot what had happened.

That night B brought home the most expensive steak he could find, and a really nice bottle of red wine. He also brought a friend who was staying the night on her way home because of bad weather. She did some Reiki on me, which made me cry a lot more, and made up Bach flower remedies which I took on tour. I wasn’t sure if it had made a difference, but the utter compassion of her actions was overwhelming. I was getting tired of crying, though.

The next morning I had to go on tour. I cried for eight hours on a delayed train to Edinburgh, feeling like something had been stolen from me. I spent a lot of the next month crying.

***

The thing that is supposed to make you feel better is that, if something goes wrong at five or six weeks, that potential person you spent so much time imagining was never viable in the first place. A lot of people told me that this miscarriage was my body “getting ready for the real thing”, which helped, and then made me angry. Why shouldn’t it work the first time?

Early losses are categorised as such if they occur before twelve weeks, and most are due to chromosomal abnormalities, in which case there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop the body rejecting something that wouldn’t have survived anyway. Behaving moderately “badly”, i.e. behaving as if you weren’t pregnant before you knew you were, probably won’t have an impact, so feelings of guilt about an accidental glass of wine at four weeks can be assuaged. As Emily Oster points out in her excellent book “Expecting Better”, at that stage of development, if a cell is killed off because you drank three glasses of wine at a party, it will simply be replaced by another cell, with no damage to the blastocyst. If a much larger number of cells die, there is no pregnancy: it’s an all-or-nothing situation, but at that early stage you probably wouldn’t have known you were pregnant unless you were trying. To kill off enough cells to actually end a pregnancy at this very early stage, you would have to binge-drink, or use a lot of recreational drugs.

There are varying statistics on the likelihood of miscarriage at various points in pregnancy, but it is useful to know that while about 25-30% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, the vast majority of losses happen before twelve weeks; and of those, most happen at around the time mine did, at five to six weeks. A friend with a robust six-month-old baby told me she took great comfort in this website while she was pregnant, which gives the daily odds of miscarriage from three weeks and zero days onwards. Watching the numbers drop so steeply was reassuring, she said. At three weeks, the risk is 33%. Almost no one knows they’re pregnant at three weeks; that’s a whole week before a missed period. By five weeks, the risk has dropped to 17.3%, and by seven it’s a glorious 3.9%, and thereafter it drops rapidly to 2%, where it stays for the duration of the pregnancy.

***

Some things I wish I had been told before I started trying to get pregnant:

  • Often, if you’ve been on the pill for a long time, your first pregnancy will end in an early miscarriage.
  • The rate of miscarriage at five weeks is higher than you might think, somewhere between 17% and 30%.
  • Having had one miscarriage, or even two, probably has no impact on your likelihood of having another one (although there is disagreement on this; some studies suggest having had one miscarriage actually decreases your chances of a second one, and some suggest the opposite).
  • Twelve weeks is not a magical cut-off point; the likelihood of miscarriage drops rapidly, but in a smooth curve, up to the twelve-week mark. There is no perfect time to break the news of a pregnancy; there is no “safe zone”. Stillbirths (much later miscarriages) still happen, although they are rare.
  • Some people have “missed miscarriages”, in which the foetus dies without the mother’s knowledge, often after an early scan at which things appear to be developing normally. Because this sort of miscarriage is not accompanied by dramatic bleeding, the mother may go several weeks until finding out.
  • An anecdotal fact: almost everyone I talked to who had children had also had a miscarriage, sometimes with their first pregnancy, but often in between healthy pregnancies. Before twelve weeks, chromosomal abnormalities are the overwhelming cause of miscarriage, and there is nothing you can do about them.
  • Molar pregnancies and ectopic pregnancies are rare, but scary. They can result in positive pregnancy tests. They never end well.
  • Miscarriage will knock you out emotionally and physically in a way you’ve never experienced before. You might not be a very nice person for a while. You may just want to stay in bed for a week. You may become clinically depressed.
  • Probably related: having a miscarriage raises the likelihood of divorce.

***

In a way, I was lucky: it was early. A friend recently miscarried at five and a half months, and when I found out, I couldn’t stop crying: for her, for her husband, for the idea they had built, for the utter cruelty of it. They were so far past the “danger zone”, the socially agreed-upon 12-week mark at which announcing a pregnancy is considered “safe”. She might have felt that baby kick. I have no idea what the circumstances were, but she would have had, in some sense, to give birth. What happened to me was at least quick: waking up in agony in the middle of the night, unable to speak except to wake my husband up and say “pain“, knowing exactly what was about to happen, running to the bathroom, and then losing something that was definitely something, but wasn’t in any way recognisable as a baby.

There’s another way in which we are overwhelmingly lucky. As I write this, I’m just over seven weeks pregnant. My life has become dominated by nausea, and I can’t seem to get anything done except write, and read, and pick half-heartedly at crackers and omelettes. I’ve become obsessed with sorbet ice lollies (mango flavoured ones are a winner). Even looking at my phone makes me feel sick, but that’s reassuring: only about 5% of women with nausea miscarry in the first trimester, compared to around 30% of women without nausea. The statistics are on our side this time. At seven weeks and one day, the likelihood of miscarriage has now dropped to about 3.5%. This is so close to the 2% risk at 12 weeks that I feel able to share the news openly. Also, I’m tired of feeling sick all the time and not being able to complain.

***

I conceived again just six weeks after I lost the first pregnancy. They told me this would be likely to happen; after a miscarriage, your body is in “fertility overdrive”, and conception is even more likely than it would be in normal circumstances, where even under ideal conditions the chances are about 32% the day before ovulation.

The traditional advice used to be to wait until six months after a miscarriage before trying to get pregnant again, but new evidence says the opposite: in fact, the likelihood of a second miscarriage actually rises after six months of waiting.

A week ago, looking for a pregnancy vitamin that isn’t the size of a horse pill (my gag reflex, already strong, has gone into overdrive), the man in the shop asked me if I was pregnant.

“Yes,” I said. “Six weeks.”

He looked at me sideways. “Hmm. Don’t people normally keep it quiet until three months?”

I took a breath. “Yes, but I had a miscarriage in November, so I’m telling people about this one. I want to enjoy it while it lasts. And I want to tell people so that if it happens again, I’ll have their support. But everyone’s different. Some people are happier not saying anything so they don’t have to give bad news after they’ve given good news. Anyway, the rate of miscarriage risk drops really dramatically between five and twelve weeks.” I swept my finger downwards in the air, drawing an invisible graph. “Currently I’m at about 7%.” I beamed at him.

“Right. So how many months would your baby have been now? You know, the first one.”

I froze, staring at the shelf of pregnancy vitamins. He had surely meant it as a harmless question, but to me this was a monstrous thing to ask, a reminder of something I’d very deliberately avoided thinking about now that I’d moved into my second pregnancy. I didn’t want to be one of those women who kept track in their heads of how old their baby would be, or dreaded the original due date, even though I knew some of that was inevitable. Couldn’t I be allowed to let go of the first pregnancy and just be happy in the current one? Had I brought this on myself by admitting to a previous miscarriage and opening up the topic? What gave him the right to poke at my grief just as it was starting to fade?

“I don’t know,” I said slowly. “I was due in July, last time. With this one I’m due in late September.” I paid for some ginger candy to quell the nausea, and left.

***

B can’t stop telling everyone he sees at work, especially his colleagues who have children. It feels real to him, too – my queasiness is affecting what we eat, my previous enthusiasm for complicated cooking reduced to a strange fervour for antacid tablets and leftover cold porridge, and a pathological fear of all cooking smells, particularly spices. And the people he tells have been so delighted and helpful that I think he wants to keep hearing their reassurance: That’s so brilliant! Congratulations! Don’t worry, people much poorer than you have managed to raise perfectly fine children. 

I can’t stop telling people either (and this post constitutes the Big Reveal, far ahead of socially acceptable schedule). It feels so sunny and exciting to be pregnant again. My due date is the 24th of September, the (Catholic) feast day of Our Lady of Walsingham. Sound.

***

For many people, miscarriage is an intensely private experience, but I found it isolating and disturbing to keep it secret, so I began telling people, one by one. First my family, then my friends. I wanted them to understand why I was so wretched, why I might not want to hear about pregnancy announcements or births for a month or two. The support that followed the revelation was overwhelming and immensely touching, and I’m glad I told people. Every time I told someone I felt I was healing a little bit; every expression of sympathy and concern was like a dab of ointment on a raging wound.

I want that network if it happens again, which is why we’re not keeping it a secret this time. But the main thing I’ve learned is how different it is for each person, just as every pregnancy is vastly different; grief affects people in different ways. And none of your feelings, if you have experienced a loss, are wrong or inappropriate: anger, jealousy, disbelief, sadness, exhaustion – these are all real, and allowed. Keep it secret if it hurts to talk about it. Share it if that’s what you want; there will be sympathy and support from kind people when you need it.

We shouldn’t treat miscarriage as though it is shameful or embarrassing. In any other situation, if someone is ill or bereaved, they let people know, and they allow people to help, or at least to understand why they’re not available any more, or why they’re not themselves. A miscarriage is essentially an illness and a bereavement wrapped up together, making it doubly hard to recover. And yet when I had my own miscarriage, I did feel somewhat ashamed of it, in spite of my strong beliefs about openness, that sharing information and demystifying these things makes our society more compassionate. The only thing that helped was to talk. It’s a painful subject, but if nobody talks about it, newly-pregnant women won’t be prepared when it happens to them – and it will. Let’s keep talking.

 

That Is Not Your Office! (A Brief Rant)

Venice-Basilica-di-San-Marco

Yes, I know San Marco probably has office staff. But that’s not the point. 

This is a short one. But it’s something that’s been bothering me for a long time. It’s mostly about musicians, and isn’t meant to cause offence.

So: my pet peeve of 2015 is when someone posts a picture of a gorgeous cathedral or concert hall and says “My office for the day!” or equivalent. It makes me crazy.

I used to have a 9-6 job at a research firm, and I’ve never felt more psychologically and spiritually downtrodden in my life than I did during those few months – because I wasn’t cut out for it. That’s why I became a singer, to get away from what my brain reacted to as crushing monotony.

Some people are cut out for those jobs, though, and they love them. They do meaningful, crucial things like working on dictionaries (shoutout to my friends at OUP), and cancer research; they teach (I can’t even begin to say how important teachers are, and how undervalued); they do freight theft investigations; they write for websites that help women talk to each other about Stuff (shoutout to Eleanor); they run construction companies; they respond to pleas for help from constituents, or refugees, or people at the other end of a suicide hotline; they translate. Some of them do things that would seem really boring to other people, things that are still incredibly important. People in these jobs are really lucky to have benefits and a regular income, and the freedom to see their families and loved ones every day, because they’re not on the friggin’ road all the time.

But creatives are lucky too, because we’re able to make a living doing the thing that we love, even though it periodically makes us tired and miserable just like everyone else who does a job. We have freedom of movement and a regular change of scenery. And we make music, or art, or words at a high level on a regular basis, things that move people and change their lives or the way they think.

But musicians shouldn’t pretend that a cathedral is an office, because it’s an appallingly self-regarding kind of humble brag that belittles people who work in regular jobs: “Oh look, poor me, off to the daily grind in the Leipzig Gewandhaus/Bath Abbey/Insert Name Of Stunning Building Here etc! It’s just like any other job, haha! #soblessed #sohumbled.”

It just makes me feel a little sick every time someone does it. Acknowledge how lucky you are, take a picture, be a little smug that you got to see the back end/vestry/whatever bit of the place the public normally wouldn’t get to poke their noses into — but don’t call it an office. People who actually work in offices might love seeing those pictures and hearing about your exploits, but they might also be dying inside, just a tiny bit, because they wish it was them doing that job. Maybe they’re the version of you, in a parallel universe, that stayed in a full-time job because you couldn’t afford music college or art school, or didn’t have family who were willing to let you live at home until you’d made it in the arts.

That is not your office. Please stop it.

And finally, I know that nobody who does this is doing it maliciously. I’m overreacting SO MUCH. Apologies.