Books I read in 2014

I LOVE having others recommend books to me… so I’m going to tell you a few books I read this year and perhaps you’ll find a new friend for your shelves.

Roddy Doyle’s “A greyhound of a girl” entertained and moved me. I liked John B. Keane’s “The Bodhrán makers” and Frank O’Connor’s “An Only Child”.

I enjoyed Charles Frazier’s “Thirteen Moons”.

It wasn’t as affecting as his “Cold Mountain” but still an amazing read, as a 12 year old narrator is given a key, a horse and a map and sent to run a trading post at the edge of the Cherokee Nation.
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Of course, as usual I re-read Anita Shreve’s “The Pilot’s Wife”.

I LOVE this book. I live differently after I read it. I got it in 2000 when I was pregnant with Oran. It was free with a box of tea bags and I was very dubious that it could be insightful or moving but it proved to be both.
She published her new book “The Lives of Stella Bain” which harked back to an earlier novel, which I can’t name or it would spoil the twist!

Kinta Beevor’s “A Tuscan Childhood” is autobiographical and evokes the landscape and artistic milieu of the author’s family.

I’m currently reading Barbara Ehrenreich “Smile or Die” which is a perfect antidote for anyone who’s fed up with the devotion to “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne. I get the theory of the Law of Attraction and creating vibrations to attain our desires, but the die-hard proponents of the theory seem sadly lacking in compassion to me… if you take the theory to its logical conclusion, then EVERYONE deserves their circumstances, and my 47 years have shown me that’s nonsense; we all need to help each other and be sympathetic and empathetic, rather than judgemental. Ms. Ehrenreich’s personal experience is with breast cancer treatment and what she identified as a dangerous addiction to preaching positivity to ill and depressed people.

I found two John Holt books which I hadn’t read before: “Instead of Education” and “Freedom and Beyond”. Like so much he’s written, I found myself nodding along.

I’m re-reading Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” after studying it 33 years ago for my English exam. I usually read very fast but am trying to deliberately slow down and savour his brilliant story of Pip, Joe and Mrs. Gargery, Miss Havisham and Estella.

For Christmas, as well as a bookshop voucher, I got a copy of Charlotte Bronte’s “Villette” which looks brilliant – based on her own experiences teaching in Brussels. The cover says it’s about bearing repressed feelings and cruel circumstances with heroic fortitude.
Villette

The book which has had all of the older family members laughing this Christmas is the compilation of satirical news stories from Waterford Whispers News.
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One of our favourite spoof stories was:

WWN story

And this one:
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I’m reading Roald Dahl’s “Esio Trot” to Eamonn and we are both loving the story of Mr. Hoppy who loves his neighbour, widowed Mrs. Silver, and gains her love by “magically” helping her to achieve the dream of having her per tortoise grow bigger.
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Anthony Hopkins, playing C. S. Lewis in “Shadowlands” says “we read to know we’re not alone”, (quoting a student’s father, I think, who was a primary school teacher). That phrase stays with me and I feel there’s truth in it. I guess it’s why the breastfeeding, home birth and home education newsletters are so important to me from my memberships of these support groups. I have old newsletters from MANY years ago (20, even) and I know they may seem superfluous now that all information appears available on-line (for a fraction of the cost of felling a tree) but I am SO GRATEFUL for the trees and process that produces paper for me to hold. I can’t imagine nursing a small baby with a phone or screen in hand instead of a newsletter or book!
Here’s to many happy hours reading in 2015!

Our 6 year old: learning to spell and read

Learning to read… that magic when the squiggles on the page become something you can decipher!
This is not a “how to” post, merely a description of what’s happening now for our youngest, the 6th child to learn to read from our family. He’s aged 6 years and 11 months.

Yes, I know I could have taught him years ago. (My mother had Glen Doman’s “Teach your baby to read” which describes a process of using flash cards and having a fluent reader, aged 2 years).

Yes, I know I could have read up on all the latest teaching fashions.. it was Letterland in Ireland for some of his older brothers at this stage, who are now aged 19 and 21. Now many schools seem to be using Jolly Phonics.

Yes, I know I could get exercised about whether phonics or whole word methods are preferable. I could engage in heated debates regarding the orthodoxy of teaching reading methods.

But…

A little Secret…

I have NEVER TAUGHT a child to read!!!
Or spell!!!
Or do times tables!!!
There… sue me!!!

Here’s what I did:

I read books.
And newspapers.
And magazines.
I got membership newsletters from La Leche League, the Home Birth Association of Ireland, “Sa Bhaile” (former Irish newsletter for home ed.), Home Education Network, the Miscarriage Association of Ireland, the Irish Haemophilia Society, The Mother magazine and before that, The Compleat Mother.
I borrowed copies of “Education Otherwise” magazines and John Holt’s “Growing Without Schooling”.
So I’d be nursing a baby/toddler/older child(!) and reading.
Whatever I wanted to read.
I read Jane Austen, Maeve Binchy, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Ina May Gaskin, Marian Keyes, Sheila Kitzinger, Alexander McCall Smith, Anita Shreve….

So all the children here think books are sacred.. and important… and worth looking at everyday. They picked up the idea (along with mother’s breastmilk?) that words have power and magic and are enjoyable and a GOOD THING.

I never told them they SHOULD read.

I just read.

For myself.

I read to them too, of course… we read Walter Macken and Shirley Hughes and C.S. Lewis and Dr. Seuss and Tolkien and Enid Blyton and Michael Morpugo and J. K. Rowling…

We went to the library and borrowed books on tape and CD.

So last night at a time that was more than 2 hours later than his notional (more honoured in the breach than in the observance) “bed time”, Eamonn (6) said:

“Will you snuggle me?”
“Yes.”
“How do you spell ‘snuggle’?… NO! WAIT!!”
Deep quiet thinking..
“S… N…G… now wait, DON’T tell me…”
More thinking, I swear I could hear the cogs turn in his brain, or the synapses firing..
“S.. N.. U.. G”
“Well done! ” I said. “You got SNUG .. now, you just need the “gle” sound…”
More thinking..
“G..L?”
Let me remind you, he is not yet a reader. So SNUGGL is a pretty brilliant try, I think.

I’ll keep you posted!

Celebrating the birthday of an adult who was my baby

Glass of wine?
Check
Reminisce with baby photos?
Check
Sentimental movie?
Check (The Time traveller’s Wife)
Chocolate?
Check (A tub of Heroes, intended for 5 weeks time!)

I have a curious sense of dislocation with going through the hours of this day, when 28 years ago I was giving birth to my first boy. It’s not the time that has elapsed which gives me this sensation but it’s the fact that he lives far away on Maui, Hawaii with a time difference of 10 hours between us. It can be hard to get a mutually acceptable time to talk on the phone. Thankfully, there’s post and text and facebook messaging and so many ways to keep a connection.
It’s odd to be celebrating in his absence, but it affirms for me that this day was SO significant for me and needs marking, even without the guest of honour.
I remember the details so clearly.. my Dad driving me to the hospital in Dublin and then leaving me and returning to Wexford.
Does anyone labour without a support person of their choosing now?
I was 19.
I had done antenatal classes in a group of 5 women with a local midwife, in her home. When she finished the business part of the evening, we would lie on the floor of her sitting-room, eyes closed, relaxing to soothing music, while she made tea. I think now that those classes were more about educating me to accept the hospital procedures than about helping me make informed decisions for mine and my Baby’s care.
I was told I was “going nowhere fast” as the partogram was consulted… imagine the cheek of me, to not dilate at the required rate of 1 cm per hour. So my labour was speeded up with oxytocin and after 2 hours of that, I was going mad and asking for pain relief. I was assessed as being 3-4 cms at this stage.The pethidine made me space out and I remember a midwife being annoyed that I wouldn’t focus on her when she wanted me to. 10 mins later, I told them I needed to push.
“Nonsense!” I was told briskly.
Then she put her hand on my stomach and there was a sense of urgency as I was wheeled from labour to delivery…. honestly, who designed this notion of orderly women dilating at a set pace, in a certain room, which then had to change DURING TRANSITION?!!!
In my 4 home births, I have laboured in the kitchen, sitting room, bedroom, bathroom, polytunnel, lane … oh, and in the mobile home for one birth… but I never moved much for the grand entrance moment… that was about being in my space and being comfortable and reassured with my trusted midwife, whom I’d gotten to know during the pregnancy and previous births.

And who had the bright idea that labouring and birthing women should lie prone? I was squatting for my home births.

The pethidine made Darragh drowsy and unresponsive.

“He has no rooting reflex!” I told the medic who let me hold him for 5 minutes before taking him away for 12 (!!!) hours.
“Are you a nurse yourself?” was the response and then the condescending you-would’nt-tell-these-porkies-to-a-child: “He’s a bit tired; we’re just taking him for observation”.
I was brought to the ward and told to sleep.
Sleep?
I lay there thinking: these are the MOST important hours of his life and I should be with him.
I got up at various times and asked several people could I see him and was told to wait til morning.

Now, I would roar til I got to be with my son, but then, I was too compliant and a “good” patient. Back in 1986, there was no rooming-in at this (or any?) Irish hospital.
Despite the separation and the staff feeding him formula without my permission, when my chart clearly said “breastfeeding”, we managed to get breastfeeding happily… thanks in no small measure to having seen my 5 siblings breastfeeding and believing it was natural and having been loaned La Leche League’s “Womanly Art of Breastfeeding”.

I was sure of two things: I was absolutely besotted with this new person, (the song I couldn’t get out of my head was Billy Ocean’s “Suddenly”, with the line “you wake up and suddenly, you’re in love”) and there had to be a better way to give birth.
Thanks to the Home Birth Association (then Home Birth Centre) and some home educators I met who had home births, I discovered that birth can be empowering and even ecstatic.

I’m grateful that we bonded fiercely, despite hospital interference, and that our connection feels strong and true.

Discovering Our Baby Has a Condition

Discovering our baby has a condition
Once upon a time, a boy was born in January, beside the fire in his parents’ bedroom. He had 4 older brothers and a sister and he was ADORED. His mother was 40 years old, celebrating this milestone a few months before her eldest turned 21, and felt very blessed to be gifted with such a joy. Like his siblings, he was carried in a sling and breastfed whenever he wanted and life was just peachy.
When he was 5 months old and liked to sometimes lie on a blanket on the floor, he started to get bruises on his back. The first time, the family tried to reason what had caused this. He had startled in his mother’s arms; maybe that had somehow been the cause? The family often welcomed foster children… could some-one have hurt him? But he was never out of sight and hadn’t cried or been upset…
Two weeks later, he was having a bath with his mother and she saw a great fat purple-black bruise, like a slug, on his back near his shoulder. They had been at a birthday party with a bouncy castle but he had been in arms the entire time and nowhere near the castle….it was a mystery. The parents went to bed that night thinking “who can we ask for advice?” In the morning they thought of the lovely midwife, K, who had welcomed him with them. She was very clear. This needed investigation. So for the first time since his postnatal check, he saw a doctor.
“Tell me what you think it might be” his mother asked, as she was told to go to the hospital for tests.
The doctor didn’t want to guess. So the mother decided to list out anything awful she could think of so she would hear this expert deny it.
“Leukaemia” she said.
“He’s too young.”
“Haemophilia” she said.
“Your father would have to have it.”
He wrote the referral letter for them to attend the paediatrician in the hospital 30 miles away.
“No rush” said the doctor kindly. “You could go tomorrow.”
But she had to know as soon as possible.
She drove there that day and waited while the medics tried to get a blood sample from her distressed son. Then home and distractions, waiting to hear.

The phone call the next afternoon was quite casual.

“Something was a bit strange with one test. Please come in tomorrow to have it repeated.”
No clues, no hints.
“DON’T look on the internet” his aunt advised.

It was the day he turned 6 months old- Wednesday July 23rd 2008. She took a photo of him in a lovely outfit friends had sent from Australia.
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That would always be the photo of the day the world changed. The day when not-knowing became knowing.
The blood test seemed harder.
They tried to get it from his foot. But the flow stopped before the vial was full. The junior doctor said he would go with the sample and implore the lab to try to test it, as they often found it difficult when there wasn’t enough in the vial.
The baby calmed and nursed.
“What does he eat?” asked the paediatrician.
“He’s fully breastfed. He‘s six months old today.”
“So you’re going by the WHO guidelines?” said the paediatrician.
“It’s what I’ve always done. He has 5 siblings from 21 to 4. None of them had much interest in solids before 8 or 9 months of age. The guidelines kind of caught up with me.”
“But you give vitamin D?”
“No. As I understand it, the issue is about sunlight and if we get 20 minutes even in December our pale skins can..”
“3 hours per week“ he interrupted impatiently. “We can’t tell Irish parents that… they’d park the babies down the garden for that length and burn them!”
The room began to fill with student doctors, some of whose skin colour at our latitude might need more than 20 minutes to get their requirement of sunlight for vitamin D so the conversation ended.
The bruises were photographed.
Somehow the time passed.
A nurse said “If we don’t find a blood-clotting disorder, we will be talking to social workers.”

She did not know what to pray for.

And then it was explained: it’s the APTT blood clotting test. Normal clotting time is 38 seconds but his was taking 73 seconds.
The doctor phoned a haematologist at Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin, Dublin.
“She says, a male with that clotting time, almost certainly it’s haemophilia. Go to Crumlin tomorrow and they’ll do more tests.”

Haemophilia
Czars of Russia
Rasputin
Bleeding to death from a cut

That was all she knew
Lovely, blessed, cocooned ignorance

The phlebotomist in Crumlin was quick and sure when it came to taking a baby’s blood test so the distress didn’t last past a quick cuddle and breastfeed. The results would be available on Monday.
Somehow, the weekend passed.
There were lovely calls and emails from worried family and friends, promising prayers and candles and novenas and support. There was the usual family life of laundry and meals; routine things keeping a scaffolding around them as the world changed forever.

So on Monday, July 28th they were told he did indeed have Factor viii deficiency, Haemophilia A, severe. His body made no Factor viii (8), a blood clotting factor. The factors are like dominoes, the parents were told, so when 1-7 work fine , they try to set off 8 which is absent so 9+ can’t do their job. The most likely scenario was the baby would have bleeds into his joints which if untreated would cause arthritis. These would begin when he became more mobile and was walking so from around 2 years of age, he would need transfusions of Factor viii three times a week, for the duration of his childhood.
“We’ve never used a playpen” said his father. “Would it be helpful for him?”
“The bleeds are spontaneous” the doctor explained.
“What if we pad everything he might come into contact with when he’s walking?”
“The bleeds are spontaneous.”
“What if we…”
“It’s SPONTANEOUS bleeding” the doctor emphasised.
“Oh, so it doesn’t matter what we do?”

The hospital appointment explained many things. 30% of cases of haemophilia are new mutations, so having no family history. It’s rare enough.. About 100 people share the diagnosis in Ireland.
The specialist nurse and doctors assured the family the Factor was no longer from human blood but a recombinant product. Small children’s treatment was about €500 per dose, which the tax payer covered.
A social worker explained the supports that were available and asked them how they felt.
What the mother wanted to say was “stuff all the free meds and supports! I just want my little boy to be healthy.” So she said nothing. They went home with books, leaflets, a DVD, information about the Irish Haemophilia Society.
Time passed as it does.
The boy started to walk. He didn’t have bleeds.
She took him to Lourdes.
Twice.
He turned two years old.
They dared to hope he might be in the 10% who didn’t have joint bleeds.
He turned three years old.
And then one day, on St. Patrick’s weekend in March 2011, his leg was swollen and hot and he couldn’t walk. So he and his mother stayed overnight in Crumlin for treatment with the factor viii replacement transfusion. The hospital discussed starting regular treatment.
“Maybe it’s a once-off? Can we wait and see?”
But at Easter, he and his mother were back in overnight in the hospital for treatment.
He began receiving treatment every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
In July he had a port-a-cath fitted in his chest so his parents could do his treatment at home and not have to travel to hospital so frequently.
When they go to hospital they see children who are very sick and so they try to count their blessings and be grateful.
Sometimes the boy asks why does he have haemophilia and he says how wishes he didn’t.
So does his mother.

Weaning gradually, with love

If new breastfeeding mothers had a cent or a penny for every time they got asked:

“How much longer are you going to nurse that baby?”

“When are you going to wean?”

“Surely she’s too old for that now?”

they’d probably have a good start on the child’s college fund.

When two of our six were tandem nursing, I was told authoritatively by a family member:

“You have NO LIFE!”

which meant: “you can’t come to concerts and the pub and places where real life is happening because you’re always with those babies!”

Ah those babies!

Little hands, little gurgles, little night time snuffly noises when they wake to nurse and don’t have to work themselves up into a frenzy to find you because they’re right beside you in the big bed and you can just snuggle and think of all the women who right at this moment are with their breastfeeding babies throughout the world:

in hammocks

on straw mats

in apartments

in farmhouses

in one-room dwellings with three generations sharing living space

in penthouses/palaces(?)…

you get the idea.

I found it hard to watch the news when my babies were very small. Any story about children being hurt, by accident or evil; any sad family tale would cause me to be a snivelling wreck (and the empathy with suffering people only deepened with each new baby). A side-effect of mothering hormones?

Language is so important.

There’s a wonderfully warm, supportive facebook group in Ireland called “Extended breastfeeding”. I joined before the membership was 100 and now it’s over 4,000. But what counts as “extended”? (Certainly, a distractable 5 month old wanting to watch their sibling playing and forgetting to unlatch before turning their head during nursing might fit the bill!)

There have been times I have answered the “and how long did you nurse your babies?” question with a truthful-but-not-the-whole truth reply on the lines of “well, they all had the World Health Organisation and Irish Department of Health’s recommended 2 years and beyond”…

The last child to wean was curious as to how long each of his siblings had nursed. On hearing that one had weaned at 3 years and 2 months of age, his thoughtful six-year-old reply was “that sounds like an early time to stop breastfeeding.”

Now, where could he have gotten that idea?!!