Thursday, 30 August 2012

When I grow up...

Can you believe I started writing this post over a month ago and couldn't get any further than an opening sentence? This is a difficult piece for me to write because it means accepting some uncomfortable truths about myself and how I feel about my life. Quite how you start writing something that says "I don't know what meaning my life has" is beyond me.

About 3 weeks ago, I went to a photo shoot session that I'd been lucky enough to win (that is something else I want to blog about because it was a phenomenal experience). As we were unwinding post-shoot, I asked Andrea, the photographer, how she got into the industry, fully expecting her to tell me how it had been a lifelong passion and something she'd pursued for most of her life. Her story was remarkable and more along the lines that a pivotal event in her mid-30s made her suddenly reevaluate everything she was doing and ask herself what it had all meant, what would her legacy be. When she couldn't answer that, she decided on a total career overhaul, to send herself back to college and start doing something she enjoyed. That path took her to photography and now she produces some astonishingly beautiful art. I walked away from the conversation asking myself the same questions. If my life suddenly ended now and I had to reflect on what I have achieved and what it has all meant, what could I really say I've done?

Recently, I reflected on my role as a mother and homemaker, and somewhat defiantly asserted that I am perfectly satisfied and fulfilled with this as my occupation and that it is no problem for me to have put any thoughts of a professional career on the back burner until my children are all in school. I stand by that, but chatting with the photographer last month really started me thinking about WHAT I will do when my youngest child starts school and my days are my own again. 

When I was a youngster, I had dozens of ideas about what profession I would undertake when I grew up. When I was 9, I wanted to be a vet (until thoughts of having to put animals to sleep deterred me). When I was 12 I wanted to be a journalist, much to my grandmother's horror! At 15, I wanted to go into law and actually spent a week's work experience in a solicitors office. Realising that I'm not ruthless enough to be a good lawyer put paid to that ambition, and from there I cycled through archaeology, anthropology, teaching, nursing, midwifery - actually, I've lost track of all the career possibilities that have fluttered in and out of my What I Want To Do When I Grow Up spectrum. So here I am, 28 years old, wife and mother, and absolutely naff all idea of what I want to do When I Grow Up. 

I know that I want it to be meaningful. I've always said I wanted a "career", not a "job". I want to make a difference to other people's lives, and set an example to my children that nothing is beyond your reach if you work hard enough. But do I have the courage to see this through? I have friends and family who do Important Jobs, and have Offices and Letters After Their Names. I confess to being more than a little intimidated by listening to my family chat about this, that or the other development with their workplaces. Will I ever be able to contribute to that sort of conversation? 

How do you measure "success"? If my children are happy, well adjusted individuals with a loving, secure family background, can I realistically ask for anything more? Without wanting to get into an existential conundrum (to which I am exceptionally prone), why does it matter in the grand scheme of things if I live my life quietly, without a high-flying career? My childhood best friend and I used to dream of all the wonderful things we would achieve, and while she is indeed off being Important now, my life is much more subdued and domestic. Nobody beyond my immediate family will remember me after I'm gone. My name will never be in history books. That doesn't bother me but it also doesn't help this lingering feeling that I ought to have SOME idea of what I'm going to do When I Grow Up. 

Perhaps this is a common feeling amongst stay at home parents. I'd certainly welcome any feedback from others in this position, and especially any tips on how to deal with it. I have a couple of friends who've recently returned to work after taking time out to care for small children and I'm dying to pick their brains about how they found it. 

The big bad "B" word - bedsharing

I'm going to try and resist the temptation to write a load of "for" and "against" points in this post. There is a wealth of evidence that sleeping in the same bed as your baby is perfectly safe as long as you observe a handful of safety points, all of which are nicely summarised here. This post is simply my personal experience of it, particularly in the last 3 months since my youngest son was born. 

I first discovered bedsharing quite by accident. My first son was about 3 weeks old and I was beyond sleep-deprived. He was not an easy baby by any means, especially when it came to sleeping. He hated his Moses basket, screamed if put in a cot, snoozed briefly in the car seat as long as you stood up swinging it back and forth but woke the moment you put it down. After 3 weeks, I was deranged with tiredness. My friend's mum, a wonderful midwife, came to visit and asked me if I'd tried lying down on my bed to feed him. She helped me get comfortable, pointed out the safety do's and don'ts and left us to it. He went to sleep! And he stayed asleep for hours. AND I SLEPT TOO! When we woke up, I felt like a new woman and resolved to stick with this marvellous practice every night. When my second son and then my daughter came along, there was no question of where and how they would sleep, and the same applied when this baby was born. 

What differed this time was the attitude of the health care professionals I encountered. Previously I felt I had to play down the role of bedsharing in our lives, or print out studies demonstrating that it was safe as responses to the concerns of health visitors. Lying in bed on the postnatal ward after Baby T was born in May, however, my eyes were drawn to a little A4 poster on the door (which I cannot for the life of me find an online edition of!) containing a drawing of a bedsharing mother and baby, and a summary of the safety advice. It seems that finally the medical profession is recognising that most mothers will, at some stage and sometimes only for one night out of desperation, have their babies sleep in bed with them and that rather than put forth blanket advice to not do this, it is far more sensible to at least tell parents how to do it safely. I'm surprised that I actually feel SO much better for being able to come out of the closet and talk openly to my health visitor about bedsharing!

So what have the last 3 months actually been like for us as a family at bedtime? Well, mostly pretty good. T is, for the most part, a great sleeper. On average he wakes 2 - 3 times a night to be fed, at which point he turns half onto his side, snoozily latches on and then falls asleep again when he's done. I am very pleased to not have to leave my bed in order to tackle the night feeds! Recently he's taken to falling asleep around 8pm at which point we put him in the carry cot downstairs and then I move him to his cot in our room when we go to bed, where he'll sleep until around 2am. I have to confess that for the first few nights he did this, I couldn't sleep. I felt very anxious even though he was only a few feet away! When he's lying next to me, I can quickly check that he's still breathing, he's not too hot or cold etc. When he's in his cot, I worry that I wouldn't immediately know if something was wrong. Plus when we fall asleep in bed together, I like to hold his little hand and I miss that when he's all the way over there in his cot! 

It's not all sunshine and daisies though. My hips and back are struggling with lying in the same position all night. Left to my own devices, I like to sleep on my front, limbs sprawled out as much as I can! Definitely can't do that with a baby in the bed. Lying on my side is my least favourite sleeping position. We've also had to contend with a bed that isn't really quite big enough... we only have a 'small double' bed, not a full double. It's a squeeze with me and my husband in (both sprawly, inconsiderate sleepers!), but adding the baby to the mix makes it a combination of uncomfortable and not really safe (baby gets too hot in between the both of us, or is too close to the edge of the bed if I lie in the middle). So in order to make it a safe sleeping environment, my husband has taken to using either the air bed in our room or the spare room, or sleeping on our (admittedly very comfortable and big) sofa. We've had to put a lot of work into replacing that lost intimacy of sleeping next to each other but we're doing alright with that. We both know it won't be forever that the baby is in our bed, plus we know that if it became a real issue for our relationship, we could simply invest in a bigger bed and then all snuggle in together safely!

As much as I'm looking forward to getting my bedspace back and being able to sprawl again, I know I'll really miss waking up next to a little baby face. My older children all abandoned my bed by their first birthday (apart from occasional nights if they were poorly or had a bad dream) and it was a sad moment for me to realise that I wouldn't curl up for a snooze with them again. My husband and I have said repeatedly that we're really throwing ourselves into embracing all the hard work of a baby's first months this time because we know Baby T is our last and if we wish this time away, we will regret it.  So yes, bedsharing has its bad points as much as its good points, but I wouldn't give it up for the world.