Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Being allowed to love motherhood... and a yoga meditation to help us!

Thanks so much for all your comments and emails everyone. You keep me going. You also distract me when I should be studying, like right now. But I'm tired and have thoughts I just have to express. The good news is that my Khmer friend is breastfeeding after all!

I do not know if she is mixed feeding with the formula that her parents bought her. She did not answer that question and I did not want to push her. But her text said something along the lines of "We are so happy. We are breastfeeding successfully and will carry on". Hoorah! I'm so happy. Not just for the baby but for the mother.

We often think we are putting pressure on mothers when we advocate breastfeeding. I think we forget just how many mothers, who do not end up breastfeeding, really, really wanted to at the beginning, but did not succeed for lack of support, reassurance and lanolin sore nipple cream.

The Kundalini Yoga teachings say that the baby shares the mother's aura, or electromagnetic field, from birth until they are three years old. They specify that the mother and child should remain very close for the first 40 days outside the womb. This is not only to make the baby feel safe and secure. The modern pressures on new mothers are to get their life back, let their baby cry a little, allow the father to bond with a bottle, use a cot, get back to work... They all seem to be in favour of the mother, but I think they simply prohibit bonding, encourage resistance to what a mother's instinctive role is meant to be, and cause frustration, exhaustion, even post-natal depression.

All the mothers I know who have truly followed their instincts, who have stayed close to their babies through co-sleeping, baby-wearing, breastfeeding where and when either mother or child feels like it, are the happiest mothers I know. They have no conflicts, they are not trying to follow any prescribed method or hurry back to life as it was before. These are the women I hear using expressions like: "I feel like I have come home", or "I have found my purpose", or "I have found peace". I know a lot of mothers - surely this can't be a co-incidence. Mothering as nature intended, with the support and encouragement of our social network, is usually without any of the trauma that both mother and child so often seem to experience in western child-raising cultures. (Arrgh writing this reminds me why I wrote my book! To encourage mothers. I've lost faith in it but I must work on that one day. Hmm, I digress, sorry.)

So, having said all this I thought I would share a lovely moment I had with Jemima last week. It was just the usual morning Tuk Tuk ride back from school. But it was one of those moments when you want to give thanks to the universe for being alive. Jemima was on my lap cuddling me and telling me she loved me 'soooo much'. She was laughing and throwing her head about and her hair was blowing in the wind. I know that of all the memories I want to hold onto forever, this one will never fade. It's not corny to admit it. Being a mother is the most valuable gift I could have ever wished for. I want to live my life as mother in a way which ensures that, whatever happens to me, I will never, ever look back and regret not having spent enough time with my children, or cuddled them enough, smelt them enough, listened to them or looked at them. As I write this my sister is in England supporting the husband and children of her dear friend who is dying of breast cancer. We should live every moment as fully as we can and never take our blessings for granted.

I know, I can hear lots of stressed out mothers screaming at me already. So here are two things to appease you. One is simply that not all our school runs are so lovely. On Friday we walked to school and Jemima had to step over a huge dead rat. Today at exactly the same spot, though I had forgotten, she said: "Where's the rat?" We looked down and there was its skeleton, stinking in the heat of the sun. OK, not a such a great story but a little bit of description is always nice.

This one is much better. Also last week, we had one of those horrible evenings when everyone was crying, no one got to sleep on time and I was hot, bothered and at the end of my tether. I wanted to scream and shout and throw things in a way that only tired and hormonal mothers do. But, for a change, I did not. Instead I lit a candle, sat on the floor and looked through my meditation files from my course notes. Three minutes later I was calm, could be civil enough to help my children to sleep despite their protests and focused enough to recognise that I needed a bath and an early night. (A miracle for me as I am the world's worst late night phaffer. I never get to bed before 10:30, and that's on a good night). The result was so effective that even James was calm and receptive to my mood. He offered to let me sleep in the spare bed while he did Bella duty. I was asleep at 930, fed Bella once at 12 and slept on until morning. That is the best night's sleep I have had since she was born. Here is what I did:

It is called Meditation for Emotional Balance (Sunia Antar). You could look it up on the internet for a picture or more information before practicing it, or just follow my instructions and enjoy the benefits. It can take as little (no less) as three mins, and as many as eleven (no more).

Drink a glass of water. Water imbalance is often a cause of emotional discomfort or lack of focus.
Sit cross-legged with your arms crossed across the chest and hands placed under your armpits. As though you were hugging yourself. Keep your head straight and raise the shoulders right up to the ear lobes without cramping the neck. The action of pulling up the shoulders and tightly locking the entire upper area creates a solid brake to the four sides of the brain.
Breathe slowly and deeply. Long, slow and deep breathing gives us indirect control of our minds. This eliminates obnoxious behaviour and promotes a calm mind regardless of circumstances.

After three minutes of this healing meditation you will find that while the thoughts will still be there, the feelings will not. Every mother should know this as they and their children will benefit. Life is too short to keep on feeling negative, when allowing ourselves a few minutes of stillness can help us regain positivity and calm.

Sat Nam. Love, Peace and Light.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

You thought your in-laws were bad! On breastfeeding...

Last Sunday night, just as I was putting the girls and myself to bed for an early night, a friend from my breastfeeding group called. Her Khmer friend was in hospital with her six-hour-old baby and having problems breastfeeding. Her first baby (now one year old) was not breastfed because the woman’s mother insisted that her daughter had wrongly shaped nipples for breastfeeding. The baby was given rice milk from birth.

So off I went to the hospital. I have done this before but I am always amazed by the sheer number of people congregating in the maternity units. There is one benefit to be gained from not offering food or drinks in hospital – your family rallies round. Each room, not to mention the corridor, was crammed full of family members, from small children to grannies, all fussing around the mother, offering home cooked food, another blanket, and lots and lots of advice. Did I say benefit? Well I do love the idea in theory. In practice unfortunately, the sheer volume of people can interfere with the mother’s bonding with her new baby, and the well-meant advice is often harmful and misguided.

My new friend’s room was just as packed. I was nervous that they would wonder who this western woman thought she was, coming in and offering advice about breastfeeding. Little did I know that her father was interrogating James outside:

“Is your wife a doctor?”
“oh, she’s a nurse right?”
“Urm, no”
“What is…”
“She’s a breastfeeding counsellor!” he sort of lied.
“Oh, good!”
Apparently a peer counsellor, untrained but experienced, might have been confusing, what with the language barrier… so James explained to me later. But I know he was just scared. There were a lot of people.

They were all very friendly however and it was quite clear that the mother herself desperately wanted to breastfeed her second child. So we chatted, I helped her latch her baby on, reassured her that her nipples looked perfectly normal to me and that her daughter was latching on and sucking perfectly. Then it became clear that the whole family thought that she did not have enough milk, so I explained about colostrum and the fact that her milk would not really come through until day three or four. Then I encouraged her to take off the baby’s clothes, and her own layers, and hold her skin to skin for as much time as possible. This actually goes against Khmer culture where they believe that a newborn baby and mother lose dangerous amounts of body heat during labour so they each wrap up in several layers of towels and blankets, which of course prohibits the breastfeeding hormones from doing their job. In the countryside they still practice ‘roasting’, whereby mother and child spend a month in a hut lying over hot coals, sauna style. Luckily this woman was educated enough not to throw away the colostrum, which many Khmers believe is dirty and bad for the baby.

I left the hospital feeling hopeful that she would enjoy a happy breastfeeding relationship with her new daughter. The next day she called again with the same concern. “I have not got enough milk”. I went over the facts once more and received a text a few hours later: “My baby is now absorbing milk. Thank you so much for your help”. Hoorah! I knew she would need lots of encouragement but it seemed as though the case were closed. I got distracted with other things and that was that. Until this evening, when my friend updated me on the woman’s progress. I am gutted. Despite her education, her parents have convinced that her milk is too yellow after all. It must be bad, they thought, so they went out and bought a tub of formula and that was that. Gutting.

I know it is no use getting upset or too involved (although I have texted her of course and offered to meet up with her tomorrow!) but it is hard not to feel angry. It was so disheartening in the hospital to see the number of brand new babies on bottles all along the corridors, and more so because the grandparents and mothers offering them were so proud of the fact. “Formula” they said to me happily, as I cooed over their babies. The laws against advertising formula milk mean nothing in a country like Cambodia. The image of a fat, formula-fed baby is desirable - just that morning James’ colleagues were expressing disapproval and disappointment over how small Bella is. (She is not small. She is just slim and long…but there were no tubby rolls for them to pinch and squeeze.) I am not angry with Cambodians. It is the formula companies I feel disgusted with. Infant mortality in Cambodia occurs at a rate of 65 deaths per 1000 live births. In 2000 it was 95 per 1000, so the situation is improving thanks to breastfeeding awareness campaigns. But while the formula companies continue their aggressive advertising campaigns, babies and children continue to die unnecessarily. In a country as poor as Cambodia, women, babies and children need all the health benefits offered by breastfeeding that they can get.

Grrrr. I'm off to bed. For a far more articulate read about very naughty formula companies check out Baby Milk Action. Good night all.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Why yoga is so lovely for mothers

I have just come back from my yoga class and am aware that I have said for months now that I would talk about why Kundalini Yoga has helped me so much as a mother. So much so that I have begun to train as a teacher. (Hence my very infrequent, inarticulate blogging. I will keep on blogging, but it will be less regular and less frequent). Here is why I think all mothers should give it a go (Yoga, not blogging. Or both actually.)

I have practiced yoga for about eight years now, in many of its different forms. Determined not to give it up after becoming a mother, I started going to a two hour evening class once a week when Jemima was five weeks old. It was an incredible way for me to unwind and really focus on myself. I use to (still do!) love zoning out with magazines or TV when I want to relax, but I am aware that as I do this I am filling up my mind even more and still giving my attention to something else – usually something meaningless and instantly forgettable - other than myself. Yoga is purely for me. Or at least in begins that way. It gives me time to reflect on how I am feeling and on what is going on in my body and mind. It gives me a chance to empty my mind, and just be me – not a mother, not a wife, not a friend/colleague… just me. I used to float back from a yoga class feeling re-charged and ready to give myself up again, as I opened the front door, knowing my life was about to be overtaken by the needs of my baby. I’m sure those classes really helped me to calm down and live in the moment. Instead of setting myself or my baby the usual goals I was able to take each day at a time and really enjoy just being at home with Jemima. That was then.

When I came back to Cambodia with Bella in September I decided to wait until she was three months old. My body just did not feel ready. When it did I started Anya’s Kundalini yoga for the first time. I loved her classes so much – different to any other yoga I had practiced before. They were dynamic, accompanied by beautiful music and involved a lovely balance of physical exercise and spiritual awakening. But they were at 9 – 1030am and I had got into a pattern of writing at that time each day while Bella slept. I was certain that I would not have time for writing and yoga. I was already totally exhausted because (as you all know) Bella is a frequent night waker. So I gave up the yoga, telling myself there was no way I could find the energy to do physical yoga classes in the morning, or fit my writing into fewer mornings. At about the same time James was complaining that he hardly saw me. Every evening I was writing, emailing home, trying to advertise my blog or catching up with all the things I had not done in the day. By each weekend I was totally shattered and ended up being bad tempered, feeling low and homesick, sleeping in and generally no fun for the children or James, who was basically having to entertain them all weekend so I could sleep. A friend pointed out gently that perhaps I needed to find a balance and find constructive time for me. So I went back to yoga, thinking that I would be worth it, even if I was much busier. Guess what? I wasn’t.

In two weeks I was writing only three mornings a week, no evenings and still producing the same amount of material – probably better as well. I was more positive and I had tons of energy. Really, I know I sound like I am advertising a health tonic or a diet product but Kundalini Yoga really has been the most effective way of keeping energised, calm, focused, positive, and fit. I have also found it incredibly healing emotionally. Sorry, does this sound boastful? Please do not take it that way. This is not about being any better than anyone else, but better than myself. Not even 'better' exactly - just more effective and happier ... What I mean is, if anyone had told me four years ago that I would be living on only 5-6 very broken hours sleep a night, with two children, breastfeeding, washing nappies, writing, running groups and helping others breastfeeding etc, cooking, playing, etc etc etc… well I would have hidden under my beloved duvet. I have always loved bed and needed lots of sleep. These last few weeks I have been woken every hour and fed on many of them. I should be screaming at everyone, tearing my hair out, ordering take away and never getting out of bed. This is the me I would have imagined. This is the me I have been in the past. I have also always been an emotional person and slightly concerned that my family’s mood will be too dominated by my own. That is definitely what was happening a few months back. So what I am trying to say is not that yoga is making me perfect, but simply a lot happier and able to cope, and a bit nicer to be around. Even James, who raises his eyebrows skeptically at the mere mention of a chakra, admits that my regular Kundalini yoga practice has made his life a lot easier! And we are both very lucky that I can do it during the day because of the wonderful Sophy who looks after Bella while I am gone. If we were in England I’d have to do it in the evenings, or beg babysitting favours of friends. (Hence my dream to open a yoga centre with a crèche… one day!)

Oh goodness I have gone on and on and still not said anything about why yoga! But it is time to get Jemima and if I do not publish this now I never will. So this can be part one. I'll carry on soon. Hmmm… I said that last week and know I still owe you tips on traveling with kids. They are coming. I promise. In the meantime why not go and find out for yourself?

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Backpacking with the kids in Vietnam...

Time to tell you all about our travels. I have just written to friends and family - one of my long letters home I write every so often. Forgive me but I am more or less cutting and pasting. So this will be a bit more letter like than my usual blog posts. Still have to sort out photos. And my baby for that matter. Bella woke every 20 minutes last night for most of the night. Something is up and I have no idea what. Anyway enjoy this and look out for my top tips on travelling with kids that will follow some day soon.

What an adventure. I felt like I was in my early 20s again, except with a husband and two kids. We took three night trains, a thousand buses (including a very cool brand new, still tagged sleeper bus decked out in pink floral duvets, pillows, walls – a bus with beds! You can imagine how exciting I found that, let alone what Jemima thought of it all!) For those of you who know Vietnam and want details we spent 3 days in beautiful Hanoi, 5 in the mountains round Sapa, 3 in Halong Bay, via Haiphong, a couple in the old capital Hue, a few more in gorgeous Hoian, then made our way to the My Lai massacre site and spent some days at the beaches near there and around Quy Non. Then bussed back to Ho Chi Minh and on again to PP. We covered a lot of ground now I think about it.

The highlights: Jemima’s general excitement at nearly everything we proposed. She could not contain herself on the night trains and even got excited for bus journeys long after she should have become bored by them (our shortest journey was about 3 hours “I don’t mind Mama, I’ll have a little rest") stumbling across music and dance and water puppet shows in at least half the places we went to; a boat trip around Halong Bay; exploring the old quarters and spice markets of beautiful Hanoi (amazing architecture) by cyclo; swimming with Vietnamese tourists on stunning golden sand beaches off the tourist trail, watching local boys catch crabs and make fires and cook them, and squatting on stools by the road side eating roasted sweet potato, sticky rice and mango on tiny barbeques tended by Montagnard ethnic minority groups in the mountains near Sapa.

I loved seeing these people carry their babies everywhere (I have come back with three beautifully woven, colourful baby carriers! We had six carriers with us overall while we travelled). They breastfeed on demand until at least two years and generally I observed that their babies never cried and were totally chilled out. It was sadly typical actually – the town of Sapa itself has been colonised by Vietnamese people who have migrated there for the tourism (which developed around the attraction of the mountain people and their traditional way of life, stunning crafts etc) but the local tribes would be very unlikely to get jobs in restaurants, shops etc. They wandered through the town selling their wares with excellent English. They presumably need to be kept as they are or they would not be so interesting. For their sake I hope they can preserve their unique cultures, but it seemed unfair that the modern world remains largely inaccessible for them should they choose it. What I found most fascinating and sad was that as soon as you hit the town there were children in buggies, with bottles, or in play pens in shops. That is the modern way of doing things the Vietnamese people have adopted from us Westerners. These babies were so different and often crying from boredom or lack of physical touch. It was so interesting to see it right along side the ‘attachment' parenting approach. Well, at least it is if this is your main passion and interest as it happens to be for me! it was a true testimony to all I have read, studied and experienced, laid before my eyes. Vietnamese were all surprised that I was breastfeeding and carrying – they probably saw me as very primitive, like their mountain folk who they look down upon! Ho hum…

The blips…
hmmmm, in no order of priority… Jemima’s long-awaited hard-roasted egg (on said Montagnard barbeque) exploding in a fountain of blood, yolk and tiny baby chick embryo before her eyes. She was cool, I became a vegan (well vowed to, one day soon) and we didn’t order a replacement egg. Have I told you that unhatched chicks in their various stages of in-utero development are a delicacy here too? That and duck’s webbed feet; the 6 hour journey leaving PP on our first day turning into a 12 hour one as the bus stood still in a mile long, five-car wide traffic jam in rural Cambodia, 37 degrees Centigrade, middle of day, for 6 hours while we waited for a ferry capable of carrying about 8 cars at a time to cross the Mekong river. Surreal. We moaned a lot but the kids seemed oblivious. It got worse - at the border we discovered that our ruck sack was covered in pee from the leaking loo on the bus. Disgusting. The start to our holiday was no reflection of the rest of the trip you will be glad to hear.

On travelling with kids:
We were amazed. Everyone says it, but you can still never quite believe the children will be ok and tolerate it all until you experience it. But they were just totally cool with everything. Jemima's mantra became: "I am loving this holiday so much I can’t bear to go back to Cambodia!” (She only kept repeating it because it made us laugh so much the first time and she loves to entertain).

Bella had a ball because we had nothing else to do but carry her (gorgeous climate so not TOO sweaty to wear her all day unlike here) and go and see things. So she was fed a hundred times a day, cuddled/held non-stop by us and a hundred very forward, frankly very annoying, in-your-face Vietnamese and Chinese tourists. She didn’t care, she loved it, in fact she positively encouraged it by flashing one of her smiles and reaching out to them. Jemima on the other hand was often to be seen running away, shrugging off and shouting “NO!” as she defended herself from the onslaught of grabbing, drooling and general mauling from people just desperate for a feel of white skin and blonde hair. And James and I became practiced at reciting: “Thank you, yes they are, aren’t they? 9 months, 3 and a half, no sorry no photos today”. We managed to keep smiling most of the time though I was tempted to scream “Children don’t enjoy being laughed at and chased and manhandled by total strangers!! Back off you maniac.” I lost it only once when I had to have the usual argument about the fact that Bella is not a boy – they were insistent every time “Girl? Girl? Really? No…she looks like a boy!”. They carried on long after I had turned my attention elsewhere as if we would eventually change our mind and say, "oh actually you are right she is a boy after all." On one such occasion after I did not change my point of view they grabbed Bella’s nappy protected groin to find out if I was really sure... and then Jemima’s! Argghhh! They made me appreciate how gentle and shy the Khmers are, despite their equal adoration for fair skinned kids. We were tourists but often felt like the main attraction.

Jemima did miss her friends. She talked about them a lot and was excited at the thought of coming back home and to school, but she made friends everywhere we went, with gentler Vietnamese women and nearly every western backpacker in sight. She also became adept at evaluating public loos, on a scale of: “Oh this one is not very lovely is it Mama?” to, “Hmm, I think I’ll pee on the grass, yeah?” Yogis out there, the Breath of Fire has another use – it is totally lifesaving when you don’t want to smell. Really it got me through some of the most nauseating stenches out there… the only one it did not work on was that of rotting fish in a sweet little fishing port where we negotiated a trip to an island.

Vietnam is an amazing country and very sad when you see how much has been destroyed by the various wars. Really the legacy of the American war is hard to accept. We visited the famous My Lai massacre site – where the Americans landed in a village in broad day light and raped and killed women, children and grandparents – hundreds, I forget how many exactly – and then tried to burn the evidence. The site was very moving – the houses that were burnt down were left like that, some reconstructed so we could imagine what it had been like. The whole thing was documented by an army photographer – how weird. He must have just stood there and filmed the lot. There were shocking pictures of terrified women and children standing against a tree with the caption: “Moments before being shot down dead” or similar. It made you face the darkest, most horrific capabilities of humankind. The village today looks exactly as it must have done then. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, people were working in the rice paddies, it was a scene of peaceful medieval activity in a way. I imagined soldiers sneaking up on women and children working around the house… and realised that as I was imagining it, it was happening in the Middle East… No one has learnt anything from history. It could be Iraq now. (Actually if the US had done their history before invading Vietnam they would have also seen that they would never win against such a battle-hardened, always victorious nation…)

Despite all this Vietnam today is so much more developed and wealthy than I had imagined. It was like going to Europe compared with Cambodia. I have got so used to living here but I was reminded that it is arguably the poorest, least developed and most damaged country in the region. And the gap between rich and poor seems so much more visible and shocking here as well. In Vietnam there were lots of local tourists – it seemed a middle income country although of course I know there are areas of real poverty too- rural mostly. Yet I did not see much extreme wealth or poverty – if it exists it is not as widespread as here. In one morning in PP you will see naked kids on the street high on glue or mothers begging with their babies sharing the same road as the most expensive SUVs on the market.

So there you are. I have written way too much and Bella will wake from her nap any minute. It is overcast and cool here and I'm inhaling the damp dusty ‘about to rain’ smell I love so much. I'm so excited! I will make some tea and curl up and watch the rain drown out the ants with Bella. Jemima is playing at a friend’s this afternoon. The sky has darkened since I started this paragraph and there are now terrifying cracks and booms followed by various children’s screams from around the neighbourhood! I love it but it does sound rather like war. In a minute the down pour will begin and I will not be able to hear myself think - when it drums on the tin roof you have to shout to make yourself heard. I won't hear Bella either so better go see what she is up to. Practical travel tips will follow one day soon (Have I said that already?)

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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Where have I been?

Dear everyone, I am back. Thank you for your emails and messages wondering when I am going to be back in Motherland. I am so sorry for long quiet absence. Our three week backpacking trip to Vietnam was a total adventure and despite all my intentions to blog from time to time I did not go on-line once. How liberating that was!

I love email, not to mention my blog and all the fruits of communicating to other mothers, but spending three weeks focusing entirely on my family was incredible. Especially when the reality of living my life in Cambodia while maintaining contact with all my friends and family in the UK means that I have basically doubled the number of people who I care about, want to write to, and hear how they are doing. It's brilliant but overwhelming at times.

Phew, life is so busy now we are back, it is hard to hold onto all that time we have just had to just breathe! The most amazing thing about travelling is that it is a complete escape from everything. You have nothing to do each day except enjoy and get from a to b. We were told countless times that a nine month baby was too young to travel. Ask Bella what she thinks of that.

She spent three weeks in the sling on me or James, breastfeeding whenever she wanted, playing with everyone she met and of course, had her sister and father around at all times. Since we arrived home on Sunday she has been put down a hundred times, made to wait for her feeds and generally had to adapt to the inevitable competition for my time. I reckon travelling with small babies is the best thing for both parent and child. The former never gets bored of being stuck at home playing peekaboo and the latter never has to be put down while dinner gets cooked, siblings get dealt with or washing gets done. Of course it is expensive but it can be done on a budget if you have the energy. Our trip was way cheaper than many one or two week's holidays in the sun.

Actually since we returned all I have wanted to do was sit down and write about the whole amazing experience but I have been busy interviewing prospective teachers for Jemima's class next year. I am not complaining. What a privilege to be able to choose my own child's teacher - the wonders of belonging to a parent run school. I am just explaining away the last month's silence at Motherland. We now have two days of classroom observation so it may be next week that I come back to tell you all about our adventures in Vietnam and just why I think travelling with kids is not only absolutely possible, but also totally brilliant and recommended!

I look forward to resuming my usual two to three blog posts a week soon - well, actually I ought to add that I am starting to train as a Kundilini Yoga teacher on Sunday and this will take up weekends and evenings for a good long while. So my posts may be a little less frequent (this could be a good thing) or a little shorter (this will surely be a good thing.)

Jemima is telling me that I am missing her dance performance and Bella is heading for the computer wires so will sign off now. I am off to take the girls to a story reading afternoon at a cafe near here. How lovely. I'll try to come back this week, otherwise next week for sure!

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