Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Letter to Alannah: Part 3

Dearest Alannah

You are sleeping now, curled up in the small double bed that all four of us bipedaled creatures of the Holly Cottage share since the arrival of Oscar four months ago. You are lost up in a ball of quilt, or maybe spreadeagled across the pillows where you especially love to be in the middle of the night - despite the protests and resistance of your dearest, loving parents. The rest of us will join you there in that space in just a little while, claiming corners and edges of bed space for the precious few hours of sleep that might be. 

You are a most beautiful child - picture perfect with white blonde kiss curls, striking blue eyes and perfect, clear skin that has been air brushed golden by summer's sun. But you barely let me touch, let alone brush your hair. You've worn a dress possibly twice in your life - and both those times probably lasted only a couple of hours. While you do crave adornment as any little princess might, you don't have the time or the patience for bobbins and slides. You are gone in a flash of blonde bombshell in your wellies and hoodie to explore and splash and run and hide. 

You are a wild and a defiant spirit. You truly are. You thrive on the muddiest of puddles, you exalt in throwing your head back in deep, (and surprisingly) bellowing laughter as you are carried like "a sack of paytos" over your father's back around the garden. You torment the Holly dog and tease her with your brown bread and honey sandwiches. You love your brother fiercely, and so much so sometimes that I anguish in your breath-taking hugs to him. You love chips and sausages, and jelly and strawberries. You savour the home baked scones and bread that you help us to make. You run through the dark woods as we retell the antics of your hero, Peter Rabbit. You delight in movies like Rango and 101 Dalmations, again and again and again - strangely loving the most villainous of characters that are written off as the bad guys. Knowing every word of that ode to the infamous "Cruella, Cruella.."

You are three years old, plus about thirty six hours. You arrived as a bright eyed and startlingly alert baby girl and you have kept me on my toes ever since. We have journeyed together, you and I, through blissful babymoon and daily walks in the woods phase, all the way past wobbling toddler and determined twos. I can count on two hands the days we have been apart. We still breakfast together and share each breaking dawn. And while we tend to separate over the course of the day, we still end each day wrapped up together in a knot as we relive the highs and the lows in our own reflections - "Mumma, tell me the story of the day...". 

And everyday, as you oscillate through your own extreme peaks and definite lows, everyday you break my heart. You tear it right down to its bare threads and then you build it right back up again only to begin the cycle again and again, and yes, again and again. You are my joy and my pain. Your joy is intoxicating and your fierce spirit and defiance stare rudely in the face of my own. 

The Holly Cottage blonde bomb-shells
Three years on this Earth for you, and three years a mother for me. My greatest learning of life, yet. And we learn together. You - seeing, feeling, understanding - for the first time. Me - seeing, feeling, understanding, appreciating - for the second time. But this time, differently, this time with the sense of my own dear and stoic mother. 

What an amazing love, what amazing loves. And I continue - daily, hourly - to be humbled, astounded, and torn wide open.  

Three years ago, I thought I knew everything. I really knew nothing. 

All my love to you Alannah, and a happy happy birthday!

Your Mumma, forever xx

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Call the midwife: a Home Birth in the Holly Cottage

Right so - those of you who are squeamish or who have no interest in the intimate details of getting a baby out of a woman's body...feel free to stop reading right now. All others, continue at your peril...

So. You're having a baby. You'd like to have a natural birth. You're forty. You've read all the stuff about how the scale of interventions and C-section in hospitals in Ireland are on the rise, and the odds of having a natural birth plummet sharply once you walk through those gaping doors of the nearest maternity unit. You're still wincing from the memory of the episiotomy (Google it boys...and cross your legs in solidarity with your women folk) first time around. Where do you go? Who do you turn to?

Call the midwife. 

And I did. I called a few in fact. And they were all wonderful. Forget the consultants. They are useful for when there are problems, real problems. The midwives are the superwomen, and supermen (of course). 

Having explored a few different avenues I settled on Neighbourhood Midwives. From week 30, after a few very debilitating and frustrating visits to the consultants in the HSE (I promised myself I wouldn't go on a rant about that here but I'm open to hours of such ranting if anyone wants to indulge me!!!) all my antenatal visits were held in the kitchen of our home, Holly Cottage. Tea being one of the important opening rituals of all the appointments, this was quickly followed routine checks, paperwork and the wonderful listening in to the baby's heartbeat. That was my favourite bit. Relief, joy, love - all those emotions rolled into those precious moments when baby Oscar - who was just baby at that time - was revealed to us by wonderful technology. No long hospital queues, no impersonal rigmarole, no processing line. The midwife visits were as easy and as casual as that, yet markedly professional and deeply respectful. I also have to mention the support from UK Birth Centres team - Linda in particular. This is the mothership behind Neighbourhood Midwives and the backbone for the limbs in Ireland. Even when my mother passed away five weeks before Oscar was born, Linda was there supporting me in my decisions and being a welcome friend from afar. 

So we got to know each other, a little bit at least, the midwives and the residents of Holly Cottage. And that was important, as delivering a baby is a pretty intimate act and one certainly needs to feel safe in the hands of the ones doing the delivering. And I did, we did. Sure there were moments when the scaremongering peeked it's ugly head into my steady thinking - but that's why I told only those few people around me who knew us best and knew to trust our decision. Who needs negativity at a time of such positivity?

And so, the due date came and went. Despite strong opinions that he would come early, Oscar arrived fashionably late on a bright and sunny afternoon. When the pains started at 3am, I called our primary midwife, Madeleine, immediately, and she was over in a flash - although I'd love to say she flew as superheroes do, she did arrive by car. And she watched and waited, and watched and coached patiently and discretely as I continued in very casual labour up until about midday...and that was when the fun began. 

Love Love Love
Pain is relative and while some would say it's in the mind, it sure as hell is manifested in the body. What worked for me? Breathing through the pain, letting go of each contraction one at a time, not thinking about the last one or the next one, not thinking, just being. Just breathe. And pressure from the man on the main action area for me, my lower back. With a few hours to go I sank into the birthing pool. OMG. These should be mandatory for all births - home and hospital, and anywhere in between. Such sweet relief and comfort in all that balmy heat. So I stayed there for the next couple of hours, breathing and doing plenty of oohing and aaaahing. Thank the universe there was no video! Tea was made and drank, the neighbours kids went and came home from school and I could hear them playing in the garden next door as Oscar pushed through for his final descent. Surprisingly and incredibly, I actually did try to escape in those last minutes - to who knows where, and to what purpose not even I know, but I did - it seemed perfectly rational at the time. And just as all about me had convinced me that an escape might not be such a good idea, the final descent was over and our little man was there in my arms. All eight and a half pounds of him. He was expertly guided out at 3.59pm on May 16th 2016 by Midwife Madeleine (no tears, no dreaded episiotomy - phew!) while Midwife Gail whispered affirmations in my ears and held me steady. Literally. 

And once he was out...well there was only great joy and celebrations. More tea was made, a placenta delivered and cord cut only when the last of the goodness was transferred back to Oscar. Holly finally relaxed outside once my distressing vocals subsided, Alannah came home from the minder and wondered why mumma and dadda had been messing about in a paddling pool in the kitchen without her all day, and who the hell was that bundle of joy pressed against my breast? And life just settled back quickly to its easy pace from there on and we all stared as the tiniest and newest of us quickly captured our hearts and our minds and it was like he had never not been there before. Baby Oscar. Beautiful, beautiful John Lennon might sing. 

And as we settled in to the music of his coos, our beautiful midwives packed up their bags, tidied up everything, and said their farewells. Midwife Angela tidied up the main man Oscar and checked him over - that was the last bit - and then they were gone. And four became five.

There's plenty of detail glossed over here but for the purposes of this piece here's the take home message: call the midwife. If in doubt, call the midwife. If not in doubt call the midwife. Call them anyway. They have the power to ensure that one of the most important events in your life is one that is safe, calm, peaceful and natural. What a gift and what a great skill to have. Use it! 
Beautiful Oscar

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

We follow the sun

It seems like 'transitioning' is the buzz word in our house these days. Everybody is doing it...Alannah is transitioning to her new room in play school - very grown up with a proper big slide and what's this? No more nappies? Phew, sighed The Earth as it is relieved of even one of its contributors to the heaving stockpile of soiled nappies toddlers can create. Mind you, Oscar is making up for it...

It seems like only yesterday that I was sitting here in the Holly Cottage, in blissful ignorance I might add, for the arrival of our own little princess and my own transitioning to mother. And now she is climbing the stairs without assistance to a new classroom, running on ahead into the 'dark woods' as I struggle to follow with a thriving babe in arms. 

Oscar is transitioning too - he is aware now of his surroundings and he knows the benefits of making his voice heard. When the princess isn't here he is quiet, sleepy...and chats away to himself no end. But when the storm returns, he observes keenly...watching her every move, waiting his turn and drinking in all the fun that being a mobile unit will bring him in the future. 

The garden is transitioning also - winter green manure cover is well established across the most of it, courgettes have possibly passed their peak and tomatoes are blushing nicely. Ambitions were low this year in the Holly Cottage garden, and to be truthful I'm glad we got to where we did, not knowing how the new arrival would impact on moving about the place and all that comes with that. Spuds are all out to avoid the attentions of the greedy slugs and vibrant beetroot awaits daily encounters with goat's cheese. And that's it, pretty much. A few apples to fall and of course the odd delight squirrelled away in the freezer for the darker days. But we are pretty much on the wind down (to you know what).

It's one of the main drivers in the lives of us living this far north - we follow the sun. She comes and she goes and she wondrously lights up the night in summer while keeping her glare low all through the winter. We respond accordingly and this year flip-flops graciously won out over summer wellies, hurray! And sure, it's not over yet...but we are transitioning. 

It's the sunflower that beckons the change. And I must change too, as newborn becomes bouncing babe that wants more entertainment and princess wants to stay in play-school forever. A quick check in the mirror and I delude myself that I am the same as I was at the start of the summer. But that's certainly impossible. Daily clashes with the threenager and four months of broken sleep have taken their toll. But yoga prevails and has the power to restore. And on this day when I learned of the passing of a truly inspirational woman and dear friend - not much ahead of me in her years but miles ahead in her wisdom - I am grateful for every diminishing minute of this Irish summer, its highs and its lows. Because life is for those of us who are, living. 

So, welcome sunflowers, welcome the change that's coming, welcome transitioning. Farewell summer, farewell newborn stage, farewell toddler princess and bittersweet farewell darling, beautiful Judit. 

We followed the sun, in life, in work, in nature, together. 

For Judit. 

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Because Life begins at...

Today life begins, again, at 41. Isn't it great?! The day started in the blurry regions of 5.30 am as the little princess snuggled in to say 'Can I rub your tummy Mumma?'. Poor thing thinks that there are more babies waiting in there to come out...mind you, it may appear a bit like that... And then the 10 week old wriggled on the other side and let a yelp out of him - cat like - not to be forgotten. A few doors away I could hear the rustle of Holly's tail, picking up on the waking sounds - ears pricked, waiting for the door of her sleeping quarters to open and her breakfast to arrive. 

Birthday bouquet
Morning is a strange time in our house, for me anyway. It kind of creeps in, steadily and stealthily from about four-ish when Oscar wakes for a feed. After that I don't really sleep...I generally just hold him in my arms or on my lap and lie back and enjoy the moment for it's immense peace and silence. He sleeps, in that blissful space that only a well fed newborn can sleep. Is he dreaming? And we sit or lie there for a couple of hours, until herself awakes around the six mark and then it's full steam ahead for the next fourteen hours, until she fades again back into the mess of quilt and pillows left over from the night before. 

Smile! And the whole world...
Today is my birthday. And what a lovely day it turned out to be. Instead of bemoaning the fact that I was another notch on the 40 decade, instead of freaking out about the three silver hairs that have invaded my fringe, instead of tainting the day with downbeat and defeatist thoughts I decided to go with the positive and run the risk of joy. Oh happy day! Cuddles and smiles abounded, only a few moments of angst with herself near bedtime and no sudden clothes changes where Oscar's nappies just couldn't take it. A precious shower early in the day, a sneaky coffee before 11am, a nap with cutsie newborn, baking with the princess, and candles blown out more than four times with small people, and dearest brother and father. And wildflowers on the window filling the room with heady scent Meadowsweet, every shade of green in the garden and a homegrown blackcurrant enlivened smoothie startling my tastebuds. Simple pleasures. But pleasures nonetheless. And a whole host of other birthday pleasures yet to be enjoyed with friends and family, not least of all when the man gets home. 

Life beings when you decide to live it. Usually only when you realise how easily it can be taken away. And that probably meant a painful experience and some serious soul searching. Well, the measure of pain only amplifies that of joy when it comes, and when joy comes in simple daily pleasures, well...then life surely has begun. 

"Just another little stretch baby brother..."

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

July is Green

July is green, officially. And every shade of it - all more than forty of them. The perfect lucent green pearls of peas, the pine forest green of phallic courgette, and all the others - emergent pear green, leek green, fig green, spinach green, cucumber green, tomato green and so and so forth. And then of course the leaf greens: mint, oregano, thyme, chive, blackcurrant...July is indeed awash with green! Add a splash of blackcurrant, an emergent golden sunflower, cornflower and starflower blues, purple beetroot tops and lavender meets oregano flowers. Poppy red and pale pink rose draws the eye in the midst of all these representatives of rainbow. 

Green collection - with splash of strawberry
And we are all the better for it. All that green has now been proven to be beneficial to the viewer. 'Restorative environments' - places with a green space basically - is the phrase that some give it. And aren't we lucky to have it? And not just to look at. Summer's bounty so far has been rewarding - although in truth, I really wouldn't like to be reliant on our garden for complete sustenance. Our limited space - or is it limited experience and know how? - means that we would be pretty hungry if we were hanging on for the modest spud harvest or the odd bit of fruit and veg that we can sustain on our maxed out back garden. The peas are delicious but take a lot of space for the return, the courgettes are ridiculously plenty for a time and the spuds disappear quickly. Tomatoes and cucumbers require sun and heat - and the small greenhouse only fits a few. And five pears? Better than none! Maybe some smart choices in relation to timing and/or a polytunnel and things would be better. 

Or maybe leave it to the experts? Ah, but where would the fun be in that? The picking of peas with the little princess, her wonder as the spuds are unearthed, the joy of a late strawberry after sun has completed its ripening and it is picked at the moment of perfection. And no air miles on those artichokes! Simple pleasures. Sure, we reap what we sow - and one could barely imagine such a rainbow of colour in the deepest dark days of winter. And while the pain in my back makes me wonder sometimes why we bother to do it at all, the bountiful shades of green that restore us each day coupled with the perennial hum of our busiest bees, probably equal in the pleasure. And sure, we're only halfway there - plenty of tastebuds to be tested yet. 

Life with two small humans is busy but I did manage to capture essence of rhubarb today in a form that will surely last beyond and long after Christmas 2016 (dare I mention it!). Rhubarb chutney - a simple but powerful blend of fresh rhubarb, apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, ginger, oranges and mixed spice. And barely a dent in the wall/glut of summer rhubarb. Jam will make another small hole in the supply, but barely. Apparently it can make
a great wine but I'm not quite ready for that adventure yet. Plenty of time for that. 

Simple pleasures for sure, and plenty of green to frame it. 

Monday, 11 July 2016


Life is a tad busy here at the Holly Cottage. Have I adjusted to being at home 24/7? Yes. Am I glad to be a full time domestic goddess? Sure. Is everyone happy and healthy? Gloriously and thankfully. Am I on holidays, as so many casually refer to maternity leave being? Absolutely not - far from it. Hats off to stay at home parents! Forget the midnight and early morning feeding sessions for the new arrival, herself is also up at the crack of dawn and she definitely qualifies as the duracell kind. Wow. Where does all that energy and enthusiasm come from? Poor mumzy sadly laggs behind - must be those midnight feeds. It's certainly nothing to do with midnight parties.

And so, all are busy. The 8 week old being his cutesy self, the near 3 year old being her adorable threenager self, Holly being...well, Holly. And the rest of the residents? Just being, watching on in a surreal blur of parenthood.

Bee heaven, HC 2016
Busy as bees. And they - the bees - certainly are busy. And not a cry of complaint sounded. Thankfully we seem to have a very vibrant and healthy population in our garden - my next job is to set to identifying each of the different species present. And figure out how many of the 97 species - yes!! 97 different species in Ireland - are frequenting the Holly Cottage garden. Luckily there are some online resources available to do this - thanks to the great work of the National Biodiversity Data Centre based in County Waterford. Bees are important for our lives, not least for the delicious honey they create and which we seem to consume a lot of here in the Holly Cottage. Beware of what type you lift off the shelf in the supermarket though because not all honeys are created equal. Blending and processing can remove most if not all of the goodness (proteins, natural superpowers etc.) - so best to buy local and possibly even direct from your friendly suited beeman or beewoman. 

Red-arsed bumble bee....awww.
Listed as vulnerable to
 extinction in Ireland...double awww.
So how important are they and what are we doing about the widely reported global decline? Well, some clever economist/scientist types have estimated that the work of the bees is worth millions...more would say priceless. Our cute little black/amber/ginger/blonde winged friends are of enormous significance in terms of pollination and provide an altogether free service to us to pollinate food crops for our human family. What would happen if we lost them? Global famine? Global collapse of economies? Let's hope that doesn't happen, but it might. And the pollination of cherry blossoms by hand, as has to happen in regions of China, may have to be carried out by us clumsy and ground-bound humans in a ridiculously more widespread fashion. 

Thankfully we have a National Pollinator Plan in Ireland (of which I was humbled to be even a small part of its creation) which we hopefully will see the fruits of (pardon the pollination pun) in years to come. On a local scale, and I guess you can't get more local than your own garden, pesticide free and a generous planting of wildflowers will do the job. Nothing too fancy, as bees are less fussy than us in what they might consider worthy - dandelions provide the forage food for the hungry gap in May and clover species are also a significant food source. Basically, less weeding!

A Humble Bee made this :)
On a more sensory front, we have also discovered a very sweet and beelicous way of supporting the local bee economy. And it comes in a very attractive and tempting way - honey cake! The talented work of the Humble Bee company has given life to what may be one of the most interestingly irresistible cakes to be tasted outside of our own kitchen for some time. Made in County Offaly, this is one to watch out for. Simply beelicious to paraphrase a well known Corkonian domestic queen! Watch out for it. And in the meantime, spare a thought for the busy bee. We need them a hell of a lot more than they need us.  

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Celebrating Oscar

The Irish summer is truly upon us - glorious sunshine and thunderous showers interspersed with periods of intense heat and then sudden wintry temperatures. And all in the space of five minutes! This is Ireland. And this is why our winter wardrobe also doubles us as our summer one - albeit without the gloves and scarves. 

We do have to be grateful however for the summer we had in May, those fabulously Mediterranean like days that beckoned the arrival of the newest member of the Holly Cottage brigade, the little bundle that is Oscar. 

"You talking to me?"
And this tough little man is testament to the truth that every child is different. Where Alannah required hourly attention, he is more than content to sleep for periods of hours in the daytime while the rest of us are busied with blowing bubbles through the hollyhocks, and stalking the emerging fruits of the Holly Cottage summer garden as we wait impatiently for their juicy, sweet delivery. 

Alannah has adjusted, though she does have a tendency to shout loudly into his face while hanging clothes pegs off his ears. He just stares in meditative silence. And she doesn't quite understand why we have to bring him with us everywhere we go - "leave him here Daddy, Oscar doesn't want to come" - just as well the 31 month old isn't in charge. Or is she? More of that again.  

Oscar just watches on, watching all stoically - and what does he see? At this stage it's only what lies within arm's reach. And yet somehow it feels he can see through us all. 

Our 42 days of togetherness has come to an end, and he is officially out of the newborn stage - already??!! The rabbit sized sleep suits of the earliest days are now giving way to more robust and manly outfits be-decked with dinosaurs and the cutest lions and elephants. This time is going to ebb and flow too fast. 

The nights are long but I am rewarded with the sweetest of secret smiles and unlimited hugs. And mummy's recovery from the guts of a year of carrying this handsome little warrior has been thankfully smooth and uneventful. Sore shoulders and lower back pain have returned - a sharp reminder of the challenges of nourishing a ravenous, exponentially growing human. But funny how the immense pleasure and satisfaction in watching him grow and develop cause all these irksome side effects - and the memory of nine months of nauseous pregnancy and intense hours of birth - to fade in the shine of his smiles and the light of his eyes. Mammy's boy, eh?

This is a time to celebrate. So here's to Oscar and the life before him, here's to the people who have helped us on his journey into this life, here's to the Holly Cottage brigade who are humbled at the gift of him and here's to the joy that he has already given. 

We are celebrating Oscar, heartfelt and wildly.