Wednesday, January 30, 2008

From instincts to egg-timers... I want to give birth under a tree!

Last night I hosted the first meeting of our new breastfeeding group. It was so lovely to have a room full of mothers (mostly new ones but a couple of old hands too) and lots of tiny babies. Actually, lots of very young babies the same size as Bella. Here was I celebrating the lack of health visitors knocking on my door with scales in hand and feeling sure that Bella was huge and perfectly fine thank you, and then along come three babies half her age and exactly the same size. I think they are just big babies, but still, as I am packing to leave for the UK tomorrow, that familiar sensation of uncertainty is beginning to creep in.

What is it about the western world’s obsession with weighing babies? Last night we learnt that at least three of us had experienced being alerted about our babies’ slow weight gain, despite their physical and emotional development being right on track. I only discovered that the centile normally used for weighing and measuring babies in the UK is based on formula-fed babies, not breast-fed ones, after I had started giving Jemima solids. My request for the health visitor to use the breast-fed one from then on was greeted with much skepticism and a ‘well, I don’t know where I put it, but if you insist. It is really not that different’.

I pointed out that the discovery that breast-fed babies’ weight gain normally tails off a bit at around six months, whereas the formula-fed babies’ does not, was quite important given that it was this very fact that led my health visitor to panic me into getting Jemima onto solids “ASAP!”. The full story from my book will be up on this site soon, but last night just reminded me of what it is like to be a new and insecure mother without accurate information. After the evening ended I read
a leaflet on breastfeeding myths written by La Leche League which I have decided should be included in the bounty bag they give you at the NHS antenatal classes.

I suppose, being in Cambodia and also being a second time mother, I have just not had any of those group conversations about sleep, feeds, routine etc that I had the first time round, since Bella was born. Meeting lots of mothers again last night made me miss it a little bit and remember just how important it is. It also showed me how much more confident one can be just going it alone. Of course the first time mothers had been going for regular check ups and had lots of questions, just as I had the first time round. Many of them began with “How do you know?” How do you know when your baby is full/when your breast is empty/when they need to feed/when they need to sleep… I realised that most of my answers were: ‘your baby will show you.’

It took me right back to the days of Wednesday teas with my lovely ‘first timers group’ organised by the National Childbirth Trust. I was so new at it all, had not read any of the books the other mothers had and all my beliefs or instincts about parenting were shaken by the slightest comment or question. I even picked up a copy of Gina Ford’s ‘Contented Little Baby book’ at one point. I was exhausted by the time I got to 830, mother have toast and juice for breakfast, or whatever the advice was for that 15 minute period of my day in my new egg-timed life as a mother, so didn’t pay it any heed. This time round I feel I have a good balance of experience, support but mostly, confidence in my baby’s ability to tell me what’s up.

I really am thinking aloud here, sorry. Where is all this going? I’m just trying to sum up what it feels like to be going home I think. Maybe if I put it this way:

Yesterday I hung out with an inspirational friend and new mother who was visiting PP. Normally she lives in a tiny Cambodian village by the river, with no internet connection, and is entirely dependent on her baby’s responses and the occasional ‘help!’ text to me.

Today I received news that another friend has just given birth to her first baby under a tree in a village in Sudan where she lives with her Sudanese husband who, yes, delivered the baby girl!

Tomorrow I will fly back to Winchester, where beautiful mothers push their designer-clad babies about town in state of the art prams, top of the range buggies (are they even called buggies now?) and where the baby book shelves of Waterstones are heavily laden with Gina Ford’s series. There are lots of trendy, young, work at home, baby-wearing dads around too.

Talk about extremes! I am left feeling a bit nervous, very excited but mostly dismayed at how utterly mundane and normal my life is. I want to give birth under a tree!

If you like this post have a look at the Parenting Manual Fatigue Club on Facebook, for the revival of parental instincts .

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Jemima's new friends

As I write this Bella is asleep and Jemima is in the paddling pool with three Khmer children we met yesterday, begging outside our gates. They are washing each other's hair and chatting away despite not understanding each other's languages. It's great - I have three baby sitters and they all seem supremely happy. So I may as well take this time to tell you how it came about that, on the first day that James and I were home alone in three and a half years, we ended up entertaining three children we had never met before.

We had it all planned, the perfect Sunday morning. Our friends were coming to take the kids for a few hours so that we could stay in bed, read the paper, have baths and do all the usual blissfuly lazy stuff that childless couples do on Sunday mornings.

Then came the text Could you bring them over to our house rather than us picking them up? N.B. Never go out and drink too much with the people who are planning to look after your kids the next day. No problem though, we can come straight home and continue as planned.

Finally out of the house we were gently accosted by three dirty children begging at our gates. "Wait twenty minutes" I said. "We'll be back and I have some food in the house". They did and I packed them some bags with sandwiches, apples and bottles of water.

"Thank you! Do you have any clothes?" they asked sweetly.

"I'll have a look. Just come inside the yard and play while you wait, ok?"

Twenty minutes later and I had rid Jemima's cupboard of half her clothes, her book shelves were a little emptier and her toy baskets a little lighter. As the children looked gleefully at the huge bags I was giving them I wondered how on earth they would get them home and what would happen to it all.

"Are you going home now?"

"No, Can we stay and play?"

"Ok, just for half an hour"

Two hours later they were bathed, scrubbed, fed and dressed in Jemima's clothes. All the while I was lecturing them - "Not all westerners are good. If you are invited into a westerner's house do not go in - especially if it is a man". Talk about mixed messages.

At this point James and I collapsed on the sofa inside our peaceful house twiddling our thumbs, while the three siblings (two sisters and a younger brother) played happily outside.

"So this is what it will be like when the girls leave home!" James remarked a little gloomily. "It's very quiet isn't it?"

Then came the next text We'll bring the girls over in 20 minutes ok?. Only then did it slowly dawn on us that we needed to get the kids out of the house fast! Jemima can be a generous soul but there is only so much one can expect from a three-year-old girl who is packed off for the morning and comes home to find three children in her place wearing her clothes and cuddling her dolls!

So I piled them and the seven other children I found waiting in the street into a Tuk-Tuk, with a buggy, full of toys and books, stuffed in as well, and we raced off to the Wat (Buddhist temple, home to monks - this one has a tiny village in its ground as well) where they lived, hoping we would not pass Jemima en route. I dreaded seeing where the kids lived, but also wanted to know what their situation was and whether or not they would get to keep any of the things we had given them.

It could have been worse. I mean sharing a room no bigger than six square feet with both your parents and eleven siblings is pretty hellish I admit (Yes. Twelve kids and I met them all) but at least they had a roof, and a mother and father. By Cambodian standards that was not bad. The house was brick with tile floors (which they sleep on with no mats), very clean and had family photographs on the wall. Pa was out but Ma Liang was lovely and looked healthy. For all of her kids to still be alive - as she pointed out herself - was proof of a certain level of good health and fortune.

Ma Liang cooks and sells food in our local market. She did not ask me for anything and we sat and chatted for a while and I asked if she minded that I had taken her kids in for the afternoon. She did not. She told me they beg in the mornings for the money to go to school in the afternoons (not on Sundays). Then we hugged and I said I would come back to see them again soon to see if there was any small way I could help them.

I got home to find Jemima looking rather suspiciously at the mess in the garden.

"Who has been playing here?" James told me she had asked, the minute she arrived. We told her everything, minus the details about what we gave away, and she was perfectly happy.

Of course you can just imagine how many tiny pairs of feet were peeping underneath the gate this morning! The bell has been ringing all day and now, as I said, three of them are playing right now with Jemima. Despite missing out on our morning in bed it was worth it. They are such sweet kids and at least it keeps them off the streets and safe. Strangely enough, Jemima does not seem to have noticed that they are all wearing at least one item of her clothing. Or perhaps she does and just doesn't care.

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The Parenting Manual Fatigue Club...

I need your help. Five minutes of your time is all it might take to save me from serious embarrassment. My friend and might-as-well-be-agent Tara has set up a group on Face Book which is, well, largely for me:-). It is called the Parenting Manual Fatigue Club... for parents who don't want to be told what to eat for breakfast. It is a group for parents who want to be informed, rather than ear-bashed, so that they then feel empowered to parent intuitively. It is a Face Book space for parents to chat/let off steam but also a way of promoting my blog and my book. I hope you can appreciate that, while I understand that I have to put myself out there if I want to get published, this terrifies me. At present - given that it was set up a few hours ago - it has precisely two members, Tara and me. Please join it,and invite all your friends to join as well - whether out of genuine interest, solidarity or sheer pity - I am not proud. I'm even considering cash bribes. Thank you.

Here is the link and below if the official blurb...

This is a group for mothers and fathers who are mostly at home with their children (be that at ‘home home’ or in a far away land), have issues with prescriptive parenting manuals, enjoy a more relaxed, natural, instinctive approach to parenthood, are mostly loving it BUT seek inspiration, enthusiasm, realism, and shared experiences.

You can share these experiences with each other and with Georgie Treasure-Evans, a talented young writer and emerging new voice about everything and anything to do with motherhood.

Georgie has been writing about motherhood for three years with articles published in various UK newspapers and magazines including The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, New Consumer amongst others. She has also volunteered as a peer counsellor and supported breastfeeding mothers in Europe & Asia.

Her first book 'The Contented Mother' (as yet unpublished) is a brilliantly witty and honest story of her experiences of throwing away the manual and putting her faith in her child and her own instincts as a new mother. Here is what some people have to say about it:

"You have an infectious enthusiasm. You come across as very "real" and approachable. I like the 10 points at the end of each chapter which summarise your philosophy.” Mother and best-selling child-care author, Deborah Jackson

“It left me feeling inspired and raring to have the baby and get on with being mummy!” Jo Crocker, expectant mother and Primary School Teacher.

“The tone of the book was warm and inviting. I felt like I was listening to a friend when I was reading it. I have thought about it since I read it, on a number of occasions. It relaxed me to think about your approach and I am sure our son benefited from that” Kasia Hatchell, Mother of two and Dietician.

Having recently had her second child and now living in Cambodia, she writes an entertaining and deeply moving blog entitled ‘Motherland’ - all about the joys and challenges of positive, natural and intuitive parenting as an expat in a developing country. Here are a few of her many readers’ comments:

I've just had a good read of your blog. It's SO interesting... much more interesting than reading some of the drivel of "poor me, here I am on the school run" that gets written! Annalisa Barbieri, Co-founder of and Columnist for The Guardian and New Statesman

You have restored my faith in mothers. Samantha,UK

LOVE this blog. Can you please stop making it so compelling?! I came in early to do work but all I'm doing is reading it. Jo Trzcinski, Australia

So, join this group –

- If you want to share stories / experiences or just put questions to parents who favour a more positive and intuitive parenting approach

- If you are inclined, or have already dared, to go against ‘convention’ to follow your instincts

- If you too are an ‘expat’ parent embracing both the challenges and the joys of parenthood away from home

- If you want to hear from and support Georgie as she attempts to encourage and inspire other parents to trust their natural, parental instincts

If you like what you read, then please help get Georgie published. You can do this by:

1) Reading MOTHERLAND (which includes excerpts from her book)
And :
a) leaving a comment on it!
b) rating it as a favourite on Technorati (easy! just click on the little green button)
c) forwarding the blog address to all your friends
d) inviting all your FB contacts to join this group.
e) Raving about it and giving out the blog address at parent and baby groups
f) Writing about it in your local parenting newsletter (e.g. NCT in the UK etc)

2) If you like the book excerpts and think you can help get Georgie published (like, you’re a literary agent or best friends with one!) please contact her about the full manuscript via the email address below.

Thank you!

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Friday, January 25, 2008

The school run...

Someone commented recently that my blog is ‘so much more interesting than reading some of the drivel of "poor me, here I am on the school run" that gets written!’ I was deeply flattered, particularly because the author of that comment happens to be a brilliant journalist and inspiring mother. But it also made me appreciate how easy our school run is (what with door to door tuk-tuks, and being able to leave Bella at home with Srey Mach and all that) – so much so that I am not often moved to write about it. Except on occasion… like today for instance.

The first hour of our day could have taken place at home in Winchester, or any other part of the so-called ‘developed world’. It was just another morning getting ready for school. Except for the fact that I, having just remarked, last night to James, that I am coping perfectly well on next to no sleep, albeit in a hazy, fuzzy sort of planet of my own, rather lost the plot. Put it this way – had you happened upon our house at about 8am you would not have thought that it was the home of that nice Mummy who writes that blog about positive parenting. Instead you would have heard Jemima crying in the bathroom and seen me brandishing a pair of nail clippers and holding onto her arm too tightly.

“Life can’t always be fun Jemima! Your nails are filthy and too long and I am cutting them right now!”

So much for gentle coaxing and fun games. I stopped short of sitting on her and needless to say her nails are still long and still dirty. Instead I marched her out of the front door and to off school, via the petrol station where she unwisely asked me for a tiny carton of strawberry milk. I snapped at her that we could not buy things every time we left the house, that little cartons of milk are a waste of resources and just end up littering our planet, and that there were children in this country who have absolutely nothing. Very constructive, I know. Three harshly delivered lessons on life’s miseries, and she hadn’t even reached the school gate.

I’m sorry if I have blogged about all this before, but this is where I find raising children in Cambodia continually perplexing. How do I get the balance right so that Jemima can enjoy a normal, care free childhood with occasional treats, whilst also being aware of life’s injustices and learning to live with compassion? I am so determined not to turn Jemima into a spoilt expat brat - easy in a city where there is little to do with children that does not involve spending money in cafes (the only places with shady, outdoor play areas), or on toys (lined up tantalisingly next to the soulless, indoor shopping mall soft play areas she loves and I hate) that I’ll end up burdening her with my own overactive conscience and raising a guilt-ridden child. This is the kind of thing I dwell upon on our easy school run.

As usual, outside the garage there were two children asking for money. The older girl looked about Jemima’s age but was probably older, and she was holding in her arms her younger brother who was obviously too big and heavy for her to carry easily. They were both in rags, snotty and miserable-looking.

“Som loi?” they asked me, but I try not to give money to children because they may just have to take it all back to a beggar master. Of course, if they have no money to give him, or her, they may get beaten, so this is not necessarily the right answer either. But the street kids’ organisation Friends International ask us not to give money to street kids as it keeps them on the streets, so I don’t. However I have never been able to just walk away so we bought them some apples and muffins instead and had a little chat to see if I could find out something about their lives.

“Do you have a mother or father?”

“Our father is dead, but our mother is not dead yet” the girl replied, before thanking me for the food and sitting down on the curb to eat it with her brother. Not dead yet. I wanted to ask more but those few words gave me a pretty good picture of how she experienced life.

“What, Mummy?” asked Jemima, as we got back in the tuk-tuk. I told her what the little girl had said. “But where is her Mummy?” I told her that she was probably working and wouldn’t it be hard to have to walk around the streets all day carrying your younger sister and asking for food.

When I think back on it now I realise I needn’t worry about teaching Jemima about any of this. These sorts of encounters, and the conversation that follows, happen to us several times a week. They are surely lessons enough. I should probably have a lot more confidence in her natural, instinctive ability to absorb, understand and – as much as a three year old is capable – empathise.

I have noticed that ever since we arrived in Cambodia, when she was 16 months old, Jemima has never asked if she could eat any of the food that we buy for the children. Sometimes if we have time to hang around and play, I buy for her too, but as a rule I do not. She has joined me in giving apples (her favourite fruit), ice-lollies and corn on the cob to the street children for two years now and never once made a fuss about not being given any herself.

Yes, I know I should have more faith. But then again, you did not hear her demanding I take her out for a Babyccino last weekend…

If you liked this post read this or visit here.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

We are not alone....

I can't write today. My brain is about as clear as the open sewer opposite James's office - he now works for a small British NGO called Health Unlimited, so I think it is only appropriate that he should be made to share the day to day experiences of those he is trying to help.

Arabella was on the boob from 5am until 7am without a breather. I jest not. And that was after a good old feed at 11pm and again at 3am... who was worried about me giving her solids and making her less hungry for breast milk?! I don't want to put pictures of my kids up here but basically look at the one already here and double Bella's length and that's what she is like now. Not wider, just very, very long.

But I now feel much better because a good friend of mine T just messaged me to say that her two-year-old daughter was up feeding all night. She tried singing (I was humming to Bella for ages last night too. She lies on my chest and is soothed by the vibrations), but every time T nodded off her daughter would say "More, Mummy!' until she sang again and so it continued. After an hour of this her daughter rolled over and said: 'No, not working, want booby'!

Thanks T! You should feel so proud! I feel so much better and hope you have helped reassure all other mothers that they are not alone!!!
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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Travelling with kids Part One

I feel like writing down a few of our recent travelling experiences. There is a whole chapter on travelling with kids in my book, and I will publish a bit of that on here while I am gallivanting around the UK in February visiting family. Oh hang on, I’ve just remembered I’ll be alone with two small children, no house and no car for a month. A more accurate description might be slogging around, sponging, begging, scrounging for lifts, beds, meals, toys, warm clothes, wellies, raincoats… Still it has to be done. Two tiny new babies have been born into my life back home and I have to go back and see them and their mothers. I could not live this life without regular trips home to my beloved friends and family.

So, I’ll just give you a few of my favourite moments on the road since we came back to Cambodia after Bella was born, six months ago. The first one that springs to mind was the rare spontaneous moment James and I decided to actually make use of that long part of the day when, despite our attempts at denial, both children are awake and raring to go. Most weekend mornings we wake at 7 but never actually get round to anything other than lounging around the house eating breakfast and playing games until about lunchtime. On this particular Sunday, when Bella was about one and a half months old, we remembered we had the Oxfam car for the weekend, so we packed a picnic and headed out of town in the direction of Takeo, a small town about 70kms out of Phnom Penh.

We do not have a car for two reasons. We cannot afford one and we live in a city with far too many cars already and where there is absolutely no reason to have one. I cannot think of a city in the world easier to travel about in without a car than PP. I’m not suggesting walking – PP is flat and smallish but busy, quite smelly, stupidly hot and pavements are few and far between. I love walking with my children but the short distance to our local cafĂ© is quite enough to get us all very sweaty, rather stressed because Jemima has been just missed by a moto about 20 times, and a few hours closer to the day they diagnose me with skin cancer.

No, no. Why walk when at our disposal we have no less than four affordable modes of door to door transport – motodups (moto taxis - no great photos sorry but they can carry anything and any number of people you want them to - including breastfeeding mothers and out-patients on a drip - with a friend holding up the bag behind them),cyclos (bicycle rickshaws), tuk tuks (motorbike rickshaw carriage type things) and taxis. The first are not safe but feel great, the second are wonderful for a relaxing trip around the quieter streets, the latter are boring but good for the airport, and tuk tuks? Well, what could be better!(This one was taken when we arrived nearly two years ago - a spot of shopping for the house.)

They come to your door, the kids love them and don’t have to be strapped, moaning, into car seats, and they give you precious moments to cuddle your children on your laps in a climate which is not conducive to physical contact. They tried and failed to introduce public transport into Phnom Penh. People are so used to being able to flag down a motodup in the street or on their doorstep, and then be dropped off right outside their destination, that buses and bus stops seemed a far less attractive option.

I do worry about the fumes we breathe in when we are out and about in a tuk tuk, but the air pollution here is much less severe here than other Asian cities, or London, for the time being at least. I would not drive in PP either. I just know that I would certainly kill at least one person, perhaps injure another hundred and be a very stressed mother. You need to have your wits about you on the roads here – motorbikes come out of nowhere, there are no rules - which actually works because no one breaks them and no one gets cross - but it also means you have to be on the alert 100% of the time. I haven’t this sort of brain, even without two children chattering at me from the backseat.

One of the things I will miss most about living here is the daily ease at which we can leave the house and get about town. I can happily do without the wasted time, endless negotiations and wrist ache that the art of getting kids into car seats involves. I am already wondering what I will do when Bella gets bored and starts crying on the motorway when we go to the UK. If she does that here when we borrow the car I take her out and feed her. The traffic here is so slow and the Landcruiser from work is the biggest thing on the road so it feels pretty safe. I dread just having to let her cry for half an hour until we can get off and stop. When I think of it, Bella just never ever cries because there is always someone – whether family (Srey Mach included) or random stranger on the street – to pick her up.

The other thing about not having a car is that, a fact that we are reminded of when we do occasionally borrow the work vehicle, driving around Cambodia in a four-wheel drive (I am vehemently anti- SUVs in any conditions other than flooded or dried out and rutted dirt roads) with the air con on, looking down out of high windows at life in the streets, completely cuts you off from the country we are living in. Given that we live behind gates, eat out mainly in western restaurants and my best Khmer friends other than Srey Mach are my regular tuk-tuk and cyclo drivers, well, a car would be the final frontier between us and them.

Sorry! Huge digression but all in the interest of painting a picture of life here! What I was leading up to was that not having a car makes the occasional trip in a car all the more luxurious and exciting! And it makes us far more likely to explore than when we use the bus, which feels like it needs more planning.

So, that day we headed out through the pouring rain (it was the rainy season, unlike now) and enjoyed an actual conversation while the kids slept. Even better was the fact that we switched on the radio to find that one of our favourite Radio 4 programmes, From our own correspondent, was on the BBC world service! Only if you are an expat will you understand the joy and nostalgia that comes with discovering something like this! One of my most missed activities from the UK, apart from country walks, is staying in bed on weekend mornings eating toast and listening to Radio 4. Heaven. More digression!

Ok, we arrived at Takeo and drove to the lake side. I say lake side, but actually in the dry season there is no lake, only rice paddies. After some negotiations with a local boatman we climbed into a rowing boat with an outboard motor and sped across the flooded rice paddies to Phnom Da – the ruins of a very ancient temple (500ad Funan period – pre-Angkorian) on the top of a small hill. We were greeted and guided by the usual entourage of scruffy barefooted children who watched with fascination as we changed Bella’s nappy on a tree stump overlooked by a couple of long-horn cattle.

After that we took the boat over to the small town of Angkor Boray where we visited a tiny museum which shed more light on the Funan period (this part of Cambodia was a perfect stop-off point for merchant sea voyages from China to Malaysia so was a busy prosperous era) and told a bit about the Buddhist and Hindu traditions of the time. There were a handful of statues of Hindu gods and goddesses and some carvings in stone which had been taken from the temples but not a lot else. It is sad that tourist sites such as these are always woefully inadequate when it comes to information and presentation and it is easy to come away with less info than you could glean from a guidebook. I guess you could say it’s not surprising in such a poor country etc but when you see how much development is going on here and how many huge and posh hotels are being erected (with no regulation, and often after forcible evictions of previous occupiers of the desired land), well it is a shame that they don’t put more resources into their tourism so that more people would visit and the local population would make some money from it. That’s probably why they don’t bother. The government is only interested in the all-inclusive resort style tourism which stands to make a handful of already very rich folk even richer. Cultural heritage is undervalued it seems.

We finished off our adventure with a meal of rice and various different meat and vegetable dishes in a ‘Hang bay’,‘rice shop’, or blue chair restaurant as we call them, due to the abundance of blue plastic chairs in all of these open-air food stall/restaurants. Of course this was in the days before Bella had started eating, but since it is relevant I will just say that this weekend just passed, also in the countryside, Bella, on her second week of solids, sat quietly shovelling rice, fish and papaya into her mouth for about half an hour! More on Khmer food in another installment… I have to get Jemima from school now… And I will also come back to tell you about New Years Eve, which we spent playing musical chairs by the river in our favourite weekend getaway, listening to 1950s French tunes and eating roasted pig (not I, mostly veggie/occasional free-ranger)…

Reading back over this, our trip doesn’t sound so interesting now, (but I have written it so I will publish it anyway!) But it was hugely exciting for us, in this country where there is not that much to do with kids without a little research and planning. The boat trip was fast and bumpy, the temples were interesting and it was just so great to get out of the city and hang out with ever-friendly, ever-inquisitive Khmer people for a change.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

A total pile of tripe... grrrr

How many of you have seen this? It is the most ignorant column I have read in a long time, criticising the NSPCC's campaign against experimental TV involving babies and children. Worse were the comments below in praise of his idiotic article. Here's what I just posted on The Times website.

Mick Hume and his, obviously out of touch and therefore perhaps excusably ignorant fan club, need to read up on the wealth of scientific evidence that shows the psychological damage caused by leaving a baby to cry. The stress of prolonged abandonment causes babies to suffer permanent damage to the brain cells. This results in emotional and behavioural disorders, such as stress, lack of confidence, depression, addiction and anorexia, in both childhood and adult life. If this is too taxing for the brain (perhaps you were left to cry as a baby) bear in mind that children raised with respect, love and affection are a lot nicer to be with, more functional and ultimately better for our economy than children raised in fear of aggressive punishment. Statistically half of Britain (probably the same people who commented here) live in fear of its teenagers. The same teenagers you would apparently happily leave in charge of your babies as part of a TV experiment?

I ran out of word space and am off to punch something...

Have a look here for more about what the NSPCC are up to.

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Srey Mach

For ages I have said I will write about Srey Mach (pronounced Sray Might), our beautiful and brilliant house-help. Well today is the day. As I write this she is lying in the hammock with Bella singing I Wish You a Merry Christmas. I keep telling her that it is January and we have to put the carols away for next year, but it isn’t going in.

In the Telegraph article,
Baby is on Board , I wrote about how I succumbed to the ex-pat tradition of employing household staff. It only took me two weeks of chasing after ants, running away from cockroaches, daily sweaty slogs to the market, sweeping, mopping, sweeping, half day excursions to pay bills, sweeping, and all in a climate akin to a Swedish steam room, to grasp that there really was no other option if I was ever going to achieve anything in my life.

Even though Srey Mach comes every morning, I still find housework an on-going battle in this country. Just as we sit down to do a puzzle, or I get settled for a feed, I realise I haven’t cleaned up the juice on the floor which is attracting three different kinds of ants or I need to kill the mosquito biting my leg, or that I am breaking into a sweat by sitting still because I forgot to put the fan on. And then of course I need to find paper weights pretty quick as Jemima’s freshly painted paper flies about the room.

Just as we are all ready to leave the house (and you know how long that takes) I notice I have forgotten to clean the highchair. I notice this because, as I am closing the front door I see a long line of ants (sorry to keep on mentioning the little buggers) trooping in and out, whispering ‘mango and banana, at twelve o’clock’ to each other as they pass. I clean it up, try to live with the fact that I, wearing Bella, am now saturated with sweat and could really do with another shower, and call Jemima.

“Right, I really am ready this time. Let’s go!” I hear myself saying about ten times a day. Inevitably, Jemima is not. Tired of waiting, she is changing her clothes, lost in a game or has changed her mind about going out altogether. So! Anyone who has the same high-minded principles, about not employing household staff to do your dirty work, as I had, before living this life for myself, might want to avoid airing them here. I warn you, after a day of all of the above, and the heat to boot, I can become very foul-mouthed.

Seriously, I did a lot of soul-searching before I decided to employ Srey Mach. I knew I would be (mostly) lovely to work for and give a decent salary, perks, rests etc, but I wondered whether these well-paid jobs as domestic staff for expats are stopping people from getting a good education and a better job with less pay? Very possibly, although nearly all my friends pay for their staff’s education. The reason Srey Mach only works mornings, despite being on a full-time salary, is because I discovered that, at 23, she still has four years of high school to finish. We offered to pay for this and then realised that of course she would have to attend! Which meant afternoons off work. Actually I much prefer this because, despite everything I say above, I want a normal life and I want to be at home alone with the kids in the afternoons. There must be a lot of expat kids who have never cooked a meal or had to put away their own toys. I enjoy making dinner with Jemima and am currently trying to gently teach her that she needs to help me clean up afterwards:-)

But is it immoral to have someone else do my cleaning? Especially here where it immediately takes on a colonial feel - white woman drinks tea while brown girl cleans the loo. I don’t know. I used to clean other peoples’ loos when I was a student and I didn’t mind. So I just make sure Srey Mach knows that I did the same as she is doing now once and that she and I are entirely equal. Oh, and cleaning the poo off Bella’s nappies is my job.

No, I think the biggest issue is that Srey Mach comes to my house every day and sees how we live and how much money we spend on things. In England at least my cleaner (if I could afford one) would be spending the same on food, household things etc as I would. Here expats live on a different level to local people when it comes to eating western food, buying furniture, coffees etc. I am constantly aware that Srey Mach’s salary, while appropriate to the Cambodian economy, and much higher than a locally paid salary, is still mere pocket money to most westerners. The very fact that I say I can afford help here and not at home is the thing I find most shameful and confusing. Should I be paying her a western salary? If the answer is yes then we would not be able to employ her at all, as we ourselves earn way below the minimum wage in Britain right now. Or would paying her that much be distorting the local economy even more?

My answer to all this is simply to accept that I could not live here (away from all family support and close friends) if I had to spend my days tied to the house, with no time for my children let alone writing or voluntary work. So either we go home or we try to be good employers, offer proper contracts, health insurance etc etc. It took me a while but I have finally admitted to myself that in Cambodia, I could not do without Srey Mach!

She wears Bella to market everyday giving me valuable writing time. She keeps the house manageable and the fridge always full of fruit salad. She pays our bills (wearing Bella) and kills cockroaches for me while I perch pathetically on the kitchen table. I trust her with my children, and, while I would never consider having a full-time nanny raising my girls (I struggle enough with Jemima being at school and under someone else’s influence for a few hours each day – two days back after the holidays and she is calling everyone poo again. Grrr), I consider Srey Mach's help and time with my children as a pretty good replacement for the kind of family support I might get if I were living back home and able to ask sisters and grandparents for some help.

But there is a much bigger reason why we could not do without Srey Mach. We are undoubtedly her last priority, and it drives me crazy on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. But when she tells me why she is late (she stopped to help a man who had malaria and had collapsed in the street dropping his money everywhere), why she forgot my change/keys/to pay the electricity bill (she slept at a friend’s last night because her crazy cousin who lives next door - the drug-selling, violent one who is out on bail - was threatening her with a machete), or why she lost the $100 for said bill (she was followed home and mugged), I can only agree. We should be her last priority, quite frankly! And before you ask, it is all true. If we did doubt her - which we just never have, something about the way she tells it all and just knowing who she is – we are very welcome to go to the hospital where she took the sick man, ask the motodup driver, visit her house, meet her cousin… I’ve met his sister now I come to think of it. She stole my engagement ring when I let her come and learn from watching Srey Mach work. I always wonder how much she got for it because the diamonds are fake! (I did not want conflict diamonds.)

Srey Mach has a big heart, is always trying to help people, and has a life that is unimaginably stressful. I suppose her situation is a microcosm of this traumatised country we live in. There is nothing unusual about Srey Mach in Cambodia, which just makes it even sadder.

Her father died when she was a child, and one brother died a few years later. As a result of this she has been working since she was a teenager, first in a sweatshop, before finding her first expat job for a lovely friend of mine, who basically trained her, taught her English and is probably, no definitely, largely responsible for turning her into the somewhat feisty young woman that she has become today.

Srey Mach lives with her mother, two brothers (Visnar, our night guard, and another who is more or less wheelchair bound after a motorbike accident) and one sister. Until recently her other brother and his wife and four children also lived with them and made her life hell. One of the children stole from her, her brother threatened her and spent all her hard earned money on gambling, and the wife was just unpleasant and did nothing to help around the house. They eventually left, only after Srey Mach’s mother gave them $1000, their share of the value of the house. Srey Mach came to the house at midnight one day in tears asking us for the money because her brother had threatened to kill her if she did not pay him. “He told me he did not care how I got it, I could sell my body for all he cared.”

Her family sagas continue. Each week she reveals bits of information which horrify me and make me wonder how she manages to keep it together at all. She seems to be one of the few members of her family who is honest, hard-working and trying to make something of her life. I’ve a good feeling we will always support Srey Mach in someway or other. She is pretty much family after all. Now I had better go and show her this and make sure she does not mind me publishing it!

Have a great weekend all.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Baby-led weaning

Thank you so much for so many totally lovely and encouraging comments about my book and my blog everyone. Keep them coming! Last week I said I was pondering over whether to start Bella onto solids or not. Well I was not quite accurate. She had already tried mango, some porridge (oatmeal) and she had a good old chomp on a dried apricot. I was actually wondering whether or not to continue. She is only just six months and we live in a country full of exotic diseases. Perhaps I should wait a little longer?

I had hoped to delay the whole food thing with Bella for as long as possible. For her own good, and out of general laziness on my part, I decided I would just watch and wait until she was absolutely ready, without any encouragement from me. But about two weeks ago I got the impression she was definitely trying to tell me something.

The fact that she started feeding almost continually throughout the night might have been a sign, but then again she could have been teething, or just needing more breast milk, not necessarily solid food. When she became able to sit up unaided (wobbly so), something we are advised to wait for before introducing solids, I knew at least that she had got that milestone under her belt. Bella has always put everything in her mouth, but when she started launching herself violently towards our plates and forks at meal times, I admit I became a little curious, but still not convinced. Babies like to explore with their mouths. The idea that this means they are actually hungry and want to eat food seems unlikely to me. It is not as if they know what food is or how it will make them feel. No, it was the day I dressed Bella in Jemima’s old yellow dress and saw that it fitted her perfectly, that clinched it for me. I have photos of Jemima in this dress. She is one-year-old and has just taken her first step. It drops below her knees and she, a taller than average toddler, wore it well into her second year. Bella is six months, I have no idea how much she weighs or what centile she is on, but I now have a hunch she is very, very big – in a long and narrow sort of way.

So I gave in, exhausted, and decided to offer her some food. I put a bowl of porridge, a spoon and a peeled banana on the tray of her high chair and resigned myself to the long, messy road ahead. Bella looked down, took the spoon, shoveled up some porridge and put it straight into her mouth. This girl is a natural. It took Jemima months, nay years, to learn how to use a spoon. Since that day, (after a couple of days rest while I lost my nerve and puzzled over whether or not to continue), Bella has toyed with spinach, courgette, apple, pumpkin, toast dipped in tomato soup, toast dipped in celery soup, carrot, yoghurt and banana. It is all going in. Sadly the evidence is in her nappy, gone are the days of toffee-scented poo. I am mourning the end of an era, loving having Bella eat with us at each meal, and am making a big effort to feed her just as much breast milk as before (during the day at least – she is welcome to sleep through anytime she is ready.) And, as you may have guessed by the long list of foods, I am doing this the baby-led way. I.e. no mashing, no freezing, no ice-cubes, and very little spooning into mouths…

When I was five months pregnant with Jemima I heard an interview on Woman’s Hour with the Deputy Programme Director for the UNICEF UK Baby Friendly Initiative, Gill Rapley. She had just completed a study on ‘Baby-led weaning’. (The name is misleading because it does not refer to weaning off the breast but to the introducing of solids.) The basic idea was that we should allow our babies to find their natural progression with solid food just as they do when learning to walk and talk. Her studies showed that babies are not ready to eat solid food before six months, or before they are able to sit up unaided, pick up food and put it in their mouths. And that at this stage they do not actually need to have their food pureed and spoon fed. They could instead benefit from being allowed to choose for themselves from a plate of unsalted finger food, softly cooked carrot sticks, pieces of cheese, pasta twirls etc. Anything with peel on is great – cut in chip shapes they can hold easily. They scrape the fruit or veg easily off the peel without it all mushing up in their hands.

The babies who took part in the study were allowed to start at four months old. The fact that none of these babies were able to feed themselves until they reached six months shows that if left to their own devices, a child will not eat before he or she is ready. It has taken us all this time to discover what the babies have known all along – that they are not ready for solid food before six months.

The study also showed that: ‘babies are at less risk of choking if they are in control of what goes into their mouth than if they are spoon fed. This is because babies are not capable of intentionally moving food to the back of their throats until after they have learnt to chew. And they do not develop the ability to chew until after they have developed the ability to reach out and grab things. Thus, a very young baby cannot easily put himself at risk because he cannot get the food into his mouth in the first place. On the other hand, the action used to suck food off a spoon tends to take the food straight to the back of the mouth, causing gagging. This means that spoon feeding has its own potential to lead to choking – and makes the giving of lumpy foods with a spoon especially dangerous.’

Also, by giving them the independence to choose for themselves what they want to take from the plate and what they do not, we are teaching them to be aware of their appetite, nutritional needs and to have fun playing with their food. This method would also prevent babies from eating food they are not ready for - the study showed that babies, if given the option, will reject certain foods to which they are later discovered to be allergic. It also showed that babies will choose to eat what their bodies need, hence one day they might eat lots of cheese or fish because they are lacking protein, but another day reject those foods and just eat vegetables. Given that the babies were not eating until six months, they did not need to be introduced to one food stuff at a time but could try everything at once.

Giving children control over their food intake also enables them to identify the tastes they like and dislike. If the food is presented separately it is possible to reject the offending item only, whereas if they are blended together they will very likely reject the whole meal. You can read more about this here and if you check out the great forum IWANTMYMUM.COM you can hear from lots of people who have tried and tested the method. Please do not give your child grapes unless you cut them up and teach them from a young age to bite into them as soon as they put them in their mouths. Grapes are sadly the perfect shape and size to choke a child or baby if inhaled.

It made perfect sense to me and one day soon I will publish some of the chapter from my book where I talk about how this all worked out with Jemima. (I shall be in the UK for most of February and unable to blog. To keep you entertained I plan to publish excerpts from my book. This is a huge scary step for me, having thus far only given my book to designated readers. Please be gentle in your feedback!)

For now I shall just say that having four at the table is a delight. Jemima loves it. She says “It would be nice if Bella could join us for lunch Mummy wouldn’t it?”
Talking of lunch, my time is up. But here are some of my favourite meals for Jemima, which Bella is slowly beginning to try too, and some ideas for baby-led meals.

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Recipes for toddlers and baby-led meals

Here are some of Jemima’s favourite meals, with variations for including babies. Bella is slowly beginning to try all of these. You might want to add lots of salt and pepper for grown ups! More ideas for baby-led meals will follow as and when I get inspired. Read here to know what I mean by baby-led introduction to solids!

We are mostly veggie I’m afraid, so no meat ideas, but there is one lovely fish recipe here too. Basically I find that Jemima will eat whatever we do, more or less, and loves vegetables if in some lovely meal or with a sauce. Steamed veg on the side does not really do it for her, so the more garlic, onions etc the better. Bella will hopefully just follow in her footsteps… N.B. Please research further for info on safe and unsafe foods but please do not give your child grapes unless you cut them up or watch them and teach them from a young age to bite into them as soon as they put them in their mouths. Grapes are sadly the perfect shape and size to choke a child or baby if inhaled.

Spinach pasta
Healthy, easy and quick – my favourite for when in a hurry.

Puree steamed spinach – either on its own or with a bit of cream / cream cheese / splash of milk, and grated nutmeg. Pour over pasta and pile grated cheese on top! That simple and they love it.

For babies - Bella sucks the pasta clean of spinach and then chews her way through the pasta too. I scoop up more spinach and offer it to her on my finger too.

Veggie lentil spag bol
Fry onions and garlic and any veg you like in olive oil (we usually use small chopped peppers, courgette, carrot and mushroom). When onions are soft add red lentils and a little water. (or tinned lentils if in a hurry). For dried lentils keep adding water til soft. Throw in a tin of tomatoes, some dried/fresh herbs and add salt and pepper for adults later. Serve with spaghetti and grated cheese.

For babies - cook some extra twirls or tubes for babies to hold, cut some of the veg into chip size before frying, and cut fat chip size cheese instead of grating. Maybe help feed them some of the lentil sauce.

Veggie lentil shepherds pie
Make the above but stick in the in oven with mashed potato or sweet potato or a mixture of both on top instead of pasta.

Courgette pasta
Jemima loves courgettes and they are great for Bella to hold and scrape the flesh off the peel without it all mushing up in her hand. So cut courgettes into chip sized batons if giving to babies. Steam and toss into favourite pasta shapes with a little sour cream, crushed garlic and grate cheese on top. Add pine nuts or cashews for protein.

Originally called Sole Florentine, we call cheesy fish and spinach

This is so lovely I would happily produce at a dinner party. Looks good in the middle of a big plate (or very yummy but less posh with mashed potato). Takes 30 mins (unless doing with child in which case can kill a whole afternoon). Feeds four adults or very hungry kids. Jemima loves this one best of all and I see no reason why Bella won’t be able to eat this with her hands very soon.

Fry 1 onion, 1 garlic with juice of one lemon, three peppercorns and two bay leaves in olive oil and white wine/water (prob not wine for babies! but I do for Jemima). When onions soft add big pieces of white filleted fish – we use something big and chunky from the local market but any of your favourite would do, or salmon maybe? (ideally avoid cod and get sustainably fished…)

Poach fish for 5 mins on each side and keep what is left of poaching liquid, removing pepper corns and bay leaves.

Put a good layer of steamed spinach on bottom of a mid-depth over dish. Place fish on top.

Add 4 tsp butter to poaching liquid. Stir in 2 tblsp flour and ½ cup of milk until have a creamy white sauce. Pour over the fish and grate parmesan over the top. Bake in hot oven for 10-20 mins.

For babies
– Just let them at it with their hands! Cut spinach up, give big chunks of fish to munch on, let them suck off all the sauce….

Spinach and feta quiche
Jemima has always loved quiche, this is our favourite but I tend to make up new ones depending on what in our fridge/veg basket. Find a short crust pastry recipe and follow! Line a quiche dish and bake blind for ten mins (score the pastry with a knife first). Fill with steamed spinach and cubes of feta. Pour over mixture of 3 beaten eggs, half a pint of milk, spoonful of mustard and black pepper on one side for adults (or if your child likes black pepper – mine does not!). Bake for 30 mins approx.

For babies
– Just let them at it with their hands as above!

Easy bean stew with feta
This is a Peruvian recipe with a difference. Cut 1lb potato and1lb pumpkin into cubes (and some bigger chip size ones for babies) and cook til just getting soft. Fry onion and garlic, (one optional chilli), 1tsp cumin and add a tin of tomato. When onion soft stir in potato and pumpkin and a little water and cook til they are soft. Stir in a can of white beans (cannelini/lima/butter), a cup of sweet corn and a cup of peas. Crumble feta cheese on top and lots of fresh thyme and parsley. We sometimes use coriander because Jemima loves it. Eat with lovely bread.

For babies – Just let them at it with their hands as above, but cut some veg chip size for her! Feta cheese might be a bit salty I have not given this to Bella yet. She loved the pumpkin especially.

Baked potato with tuna

Jemima likes this with tuna, tiny chopped celery and mayonnaise. Also loves that on toast. Bella loves baked potato cut into chip size, as the skin holds it altogether and makes very easy to eat. Also good is baked potato with beans, cheese, the lentil recipe from above, anything you want… I use normal potatoes as well as big baking ones – Jemima likes the little ones.

Any kind of vegetable soup

We eat soup for lunch every day. Sometimes from a recipe but often just based on what veg we have in the house. It is such a good way to get loads of veg into Jemima and you can make lots and freeze or eat two days in a row.

For babies – you can imagine that Bella makes an incredible mess and I do feed her a little too… Dipping lovely bread in is nice and fun for kids as well. Jemima’s favourites are pumpkin, celery, and minestrone, but anything will do, especially when brightly coloured!

Jemima also loves veggie lasagne with courgettes, carrots, peppers, broccoli, mushrooms etc or with pumpkin and spinach etc.

I will add more baby meals each week as I get inspiration but to begin with, chip shaped pieces of softly cooked vegetables or fruit, especially in their peel, are great. I tend to adapt whatever we are eating to suit Bella, as shown above.

We eat a lot of yoghurt and fruit salad and a brilliant one for babies is yoghurt and dried apricots blended – lots of iron in apricots.

One more thing - Ginger water. I have been drinking pints of the stuff ever since my friend told me it would make my skin glow. It doesn't, but ginger is a brilliant natural antibiotic and great for parasites and digestion. I try to get Jemima to drink it as often as possible. Just grate ginger into a bottle and fill with water and keep in the fridge.

All this makes us sound incredibly healthy. We also cook and eat loads of cakes, ice-cream, muffins etc so don’t be fooled, we get through butter way too fast in this family. Finally, the lack of Khmer food is apparent here – mostly because I have put down what I like to cook with the kids – i.e. easy and familiar! Stir fried veg seems too crunchy for babies and Jemima doesn’t eat much. And the curries are also not so great for babies! (The truth is I went right off Khmer food when pregnant, but I will get round to writing down the recipe for the lovely coconut fish amok one day soon).


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Friday, January 11, 2008

On Beauty

I have not had time to blog today. Too busy fretting over whether or not to start Bella on to solids (6 months yesterday and feeding ALL NIGHT!) and trying to get some actual paid commissions for a change. Check me out next week for my thoughts and experiences of baby-led introduction to solids (with favourite recipes thrown in), and more...

For now, here is something beautiful that I have up on my wall to remind me how I want to live my life. Hope you find it as inspiring as I do. Have a lovely weekend all.

On beauty, (Audrey Hepburn's words, as she approached the end of her life.)

For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.

For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.

For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.

For beautiful hair, let a child run their fingers through it once a day.

For poise, walk with the knowledge that you never walk alone.

People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed and redeemed; never throw out anyone.

Remember, if you ever need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of each of your arms.

As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands: one for helping yourself, and the other for helping others.

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Who's Jim?

I have just realised that unless you are British you will not understand the stupid title of my last post. I cannot imagine anyone is losing sleep over this but as I am in a procrastinating mood I'll just explain anyway.

Jim'll Fix It was a TV programme for kids in the '80s. Children wrote to Jimmy Saville (a very strange, rather controversial character with fake tan, long, white hair and shiny tracksuits - not that the kids noticed or cared) with their wishes. I wrote asking him to fix it for me to be the robber in a break-in but oddly enough I was never called in. But he did help children ride in hot air balloons, meet their heroines and fly to the moon. The hilarious (and sexy) Louis Theroux made a documentary about him. I wish I had seen that. Now to some real work. I aim to write to three editors before Bella wakes up. Or write a proper blog post? Hmmm, I'll just make some coffee while I think about it. And write a new to-do list...

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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Dear Jim, Please can you fix it for me to be Mother Supporter? (Oh, and to get published would be nice too)

Ok enough complaints about the neighbours and miserable poems for one week. Today I feel like writing about why we mothers and fathers need lots and lots of support, information, updates on the latest research, and encouragement, and a lot less opinionated advice. Someone should create a new position called a Mother Supporter, and when they do, or, if such a job already exists, it should be rightfully mine. Ok I may have absolutely no qualifications for this as yet, but here’s why I know I am right :-).

Oh sorry, one more neighbour-related bit to kick off. It is relevant I promise. While the mad woman next door was yelling again for most of Saturday, James and I began to wonder if we had done something bad in a past life. Because when we looked back over the years we realised that we have been plagued by anti-social neighbours for our entire life together so far. Our last house in Winchester was wedged neatly between two chain-smoking, snarling, gnarling, grumpy old folks on one side, who refused to acknowledge us other than to argue over an inch of grass pathway, and two chain-smoking, snarling, gnarling, grumpy teenaged boys on the other side, who were so foul that they caused their poor single mother to scream at them day and night. Jemima’s last words would have been F**k and Worse had we not fled to Cambodia.

Before that, in our lovely, tiny, just-married attic flat, when babies simply did not come into the equation, we shared our bedroom wall with a small child that cried for hours every night for a year.

I finally gathered up the courage to go over and ask, very nicely, for they were a lovely couple obviously struggling and exhausted, whether there was anything at all they could do?

“Perhaps” I boldly suggested, never having considered anything remotely related to child-raising before, “you might take her into your bedroom for a while? Maybe she just needs to know you are close-by?”

“Oh! We had not thought of that. Yes, maybe we ought to try that”.

Hey presto the problem was solved and I forgot all about it until this Saturday seven years on, when it dawned on me that I was meant to be a motherhood guru extraordinaire all along. Hoorah!

I wrote in my Christmas letter home to friends and family this year that if only there were such a career as a Mother Supporter I would like to have it. I realise I need a lot more experience and am planning to train as a breast feeding counsellor as soon as I am back in the UK, but ideally in some years to come I would love to spend my days helping parents do things exactly the way I think they should be done. I’m joking (or just being very honest?). But seriously, I do think a lovely, part-time, nicely-paid job as a Mother Supporter would be just great.

Well this week it looks like my wish has come true (If a little sooner than I thought and minus the pay of course). For when I returned from my New Year frolics by the river I happened upon no less than five requests to meet up and talk about parenting, in my in-box. And no less than ten positive responses to my suggestion of setting up a breastfeeding group in PP (inspired by a 5am call for help by a very new mother who had been up all night vomiting and her baby had not fed for many hours). And I have sent an average of 20 texts a day since last Thursday to my dear friend Jo who is struggling with breastfeeding her brand-new baby. Poor Jo! I hear you cry. She texts me first I promise.

I am spending my days sharing thoughts and ideas on everything from co-sleeping to breastfeeding to tantrums. What fun. And it gets better. There was a very interesting discussion over how and when to manage the breastfeeding group. Some mothers wanted toddlers and little folk around whereas others, including me, welcomed the chance of finishing a thought, perhaps even a sentence, and so definitely did not. I know that I cannot actively listen (not for long anyway), or contribute anything thoughtful or coherent, with Jemima and friends around me. What seemed like a bit of a dilemma for a while soon became… da da! Two breastfeeding groups! Hoorah, now everyone is happy!

I ran a breastfeeding group back home for a while and it was so brilliant, especially to encourage women who are getting to six months to continue breastfeeding past the difficult, hungry, frequent waking stage (which I am in now, sigh, yawn) and on to the quick and easy bit that so many women never get to experience.

Here in PP where women are far away from family and close friends and where there is no formal breastfeeding support network, this kind of group, along with other Mother Supporter activities, is essential. Because basically being the kind of mothers we want to be requires a lot of support and encouragement. My own mother is a regular on this blog, probably my greatest Motherland fan actually. And she often emails me lamenting the way she did things with us, recognising that, in those days, it was the done thing to park your pram outside a shop for half an hour, or to put the babies in their cots awake and move out of earshot. And there was no support if you felt uncomfortable about following the advice.

This is why I wrote my book. (Oh, to answer all those lovely people who have asked me when it will get published, I have yet to convince an agent that there is a market for it. If you think there is please say so!) I was so disillusioned with the Gina Fords and even the softer Baby Whisperer type ‘manuals’ out there, which seemed to allow no room for parental instinct to love our babies as we want to, that I decided to write my own story, to encourage other women like me. I thought maybe a simple story of an ordinary mother who ignored all the mainstream advice (on sleep, feeding, solids, safety, discipline… hmm, yes, pretty much everything) and decided to follow her nose, while also investigate the more ‘alternative’ (how ridiculous) and evidence-based research out there that is not so easily accessible, would be a nice thing for other new mothers to have.

Phew long sentence, sorry, but Bella about to wake and Jemima about to come out of school so no time to edit. Got to go now, and that’s it really anyway. Here’s to parents supporting and helping each other to listen and respond to their babies and children. I am off to eat lunch with my girls before meeting a new mother whose baby is suffering from terrible colic. Perhaps I could do what the scary woman from
Channel 4's Bringing up Baby did and forge some qualifications and charge $1000 a day. Hmmmmmm...

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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

If you read and enjoy my blog...

please let me know! I can see by my stats site that I have readers from all corners of the world and I would love to know who you are and what you think of my blog! You can either leave me a comment on the site, at the bottom of your favourite post, or email me. Many people seem to have trouble with the comment option so if you email me on I can forward them to my comments pages.

If you don't see your comment on the site after a day or two please email me. The Blogger comments option often fails :-(

Please take the time I would love to know who my readers are! Consider it charity - if you let me know you are there I can show publishers that I have fans.

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So much for thinking positive. Another terrible poem...

Sorry sometimes it is the only way I can put what I feel into words, albeit terrible words!

Yesterday you asked me: what is it like to be a mother in a foreign land? How do you feel living in Cambodia?

Fine, lovely, easy, privileged, interesting.
Lonely at times, home-sick at times, sweaty, but mostly fine.
Nothing special.

Can you write about it for our magazine?
I said I hadn’t the time. It would take me weeks to write it all into one concise article. It is unmanageable. I don’t know where to start.

Ask me today. I’ve changed my mind. Today I can’t seem to find the time for anything else.

Three mothers, in the market this morning, held their sick babies in their arms and begged for money.

I am not supposed to give. It is encourages them to beg.

I do give. Every time.
Guilty. Ignorant.

Another mother in the street smiled at me.
Too fine, too lovely, too easy, too privileged.

She was pulling her house behind her.
A simple, wooden rubbish cart, filled with play-things for her two children, also inside.
Carelessly discarded tin cans, broken bottles, bits of string, used paper, metal scraps – all to be sold and re-used for her living. What living?
Presumptuous. Ignorant.

Does she feel the same about her children as I do, mine?
Yes surely, though I doubt she has the luxury of time nor the peace of mind to dwell on it much.
Arrogant. Ignorant.

Eyes lock, I try to connect…
How to look?
How to smile?
Don’t show pity.
How to get across compassion, love, understanding?

As if it makes a difference to her anyway.

Another mother drives past.
Tiny and beautifully presented behind the wheel of a frightening animal of a vehicle, shiny and black. Darkened, reinforced windows. Child in the back, bodyguard beside her.
All wrong

She hoots loudly and the rubbish collector gets out of her way.

Nearly home, I receive a text from my friend back home. It’s the middle of the night. She can’t sleep.
She has been in England seeking asylum from Kenyan atrocities for five years.
Alone, in a flat granted her only by virtue of being paralysed, her body destroyed by torturers, she watches the news of the latest violence.
The last time she heard from her children they were in a bush hiding from wild men with machetes. Six days ago now. No more news.
She’s safe and warm in England, where civilized people do not wage brutal wars on their own people.
But she is not their people.
She is not welcome there.
She is still waiting; five years of waiting.
Will they send her back to face her persecutors?
They are also waiting.

I have run out of words. Ask my friend how it feels to be a mother in a foreign land.

If you liked this terrible poem click here for an even worse one.

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Friday, January 4, 2008

Thinking positive

I can’t write much today. James’s family has just left, Bella has been feeding at two hourly intervals day and night, ever since I told people she was sleeping through, the dog next door continues to wake us early every morning with its howls, and I have just heard that one of my dearest friends in the world has given birth to her first baby, a little boy. I am (respectively) too sad, too tired and too excited to write. So I shall leave you with this letter that I wrote two weeks ago to my neighbours. They show no signs of responding so we may as well enjoy the funny side – think positive is one of my new year's resolutions after all.

I am off to sleep with Bella. I know this is a mistake because it means letting Jemima at large in the house with her little friend Sofia. I did this, this morning, with a different friend. I let them play behind the closed door of her bedroom for nearly an hour. “We’re having so much fun!” I could not bare to spoil it, especially when she was mourning the departure of her cousins.

Of course when I opened the door I wished I had (spoiled it, I mean). The shelves, drawers and cupboards were bare and her bed was nowhere to be seen. We found it an hour later. It had been hiding underneath a debris of clothes, books, puzzle pieces, paper doll clothes, tiny beads… Clearing up with their participation was fun, you can imagine. Oh well, it was just another reminder that we have way too much stuff in this house. I discovered bits and pieces I’d forgotten we had. Time for another clear out. Oh that reminds me I also need to blog about taking my girls and their cousin to give presents to Sok Chan’s family this Christmas. Oh so much to say! Next week I promise.

So no, on second thoughts I won’t disappear with Bella after all. I’ll sit and join their play and continue to text Jo, the newest member of the 'very clever, incredibly brave, just been through hell but now deliriously happy brigade' (mothers, in case you are no longer with me). The one good thing about being hours and oceans away from your favourite people is that when something happens in the middle of the night we are the first to know. I’ll see you next week with lots of interesting posts I promise.

I have already told you about one set of neighbours. This letter was addressed to the ones on the other side.

Dear Sir

Apologies for writing in English but I know you speak it well - better than my French these days.

I am writing to you from the house next door because I never seem to find you in and your wife will not speak to me. I do not understand her hostility, but it makes it hard to gather the courage to come over and speak to you personally. One time I tried when you were out she shouted "tell those foreigners to go away". So please forgive my emailing you instead.

As I write your dog is howling so loudly I cannot hear myself think. I am tired again because he woke us all up today, as he has done for the last month (since the other one savaged our cat).

No doubt your wife will come home and the dog will stop howling. But she will start shouting for hours on end, as she has done for the two years that we have lived here.

I am sorry - I want to be a good neighbour, I have often found you to be pleasant and civil and we greatly appreciated your contribution to our cat's vetinary bills. I once had your sweet daughter over for play and dinner.

But my patience is running out. It feels as if our life is invaded every day by yours. Can you help?

Your dog is obviously unhappy to be left alone. I work at home in the mornings and am at home with my children for the rest of the day. It howls the minute it is left alone and does not stop until someone comes home. You can imagine what that is like for us on weekends when you go away. Perhaps it needs a new friend or someone to care for it when you are out?

Perhaps you could also ask your wife to stop shouting at the top of her voice? It scares my toddler, wakes my baby, gives me a headache and makes it impossible for me to work.

As I write this I realise it is ridiculous to have let this go on for two years without coming over to speak to you. I did once come at 6am on Sunday morning to ask your wife to stop screaming but she just shouted something at me and closed the door. My husband came yesterday but there was no one there.

It is Christmas and I believe in peace and good will. I hope you will find a way to make things better for the year to come, and that we can be happy neighbours again.

Thank you and very best wishes

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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Happy New Year from Phnom Penh

Happy New Year! I want to tell you all about dancing under the stars by the river with lots of children on New Year's Eve, and exploring, by torch light, a once beautiful, now abandoned art deco hotel on top of a mountain in the dead of night, but you will just have to wait until Friday. School holidays and visitors are keeping me busy. Take it as proof that despite having a cleaner/baby wearer extraordinaire each morning (I want to tell you about her too), I really am a full-time mother first and writer second. But enjoy the story below just to keep you going. Oh, and perhaps tomorrow I shall treat you to a letter from me to my farcically anti-social neighbours - just to give you a good laugh.

Here is a nice story I have been meaning to share with you. A few weekends ago, in Kampot province, we took a boat down the river to the sea. The boat man jumped out and after we all gasped and ooohahhhed we realised that it was only ankle deep. Ha ha, what a joker. We spent the next half an hour running and splashing fully clothed through the water in what felt like the middle of the ocean.

Remember that there really is nowhere very nice to run in Phnom Penh and it is usually incredibly hot. For what felt like the first time in two years we had the space and breeze to run and run and run. It was beautiful, the sun was setting and the water was deliciously cool. Jemima and I played a game where we ran away from each other as far as we could and then turned and ran towards each other with our arms spread wide, ending in a huge hug.

I will never forget the look of delight on her face, nor how alive I felt during a stage in my life where I am usually hot, sweaty and lethargic. I hope Jemima will always remember this rare moment of magic in our lives.

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