Daddy’s Lucky Duck

The one thing Ra-Ra hates more than anything – more, even, than being bathed – is being dressed. She hates having necklines stretched over her head and her hands coaxed into sleeves and out through the other end. I always bunch up the sleeve fabric to make it easier for her, and she always yells blue murder. It’s one of our rituals.


It’s not surprising, then, that I noticed when it started to get difficult to squeeze her head through her preemie vests, which Kanthan had bought from Baby Gap in Chicago soon after she was born. When her onesies began to get tight around the toes, I noticed too.


So for the first time, I’m retiring some of her clothing. Finally – finally! – she is big enough to fit into items meant for newborns. As of the 26th, yesterday, she is three months old, so the clothing is a sobering reminder of how much catching up she has to do – that, not only was she born two months too soon, she also lost a lot of ground.


She’s not quite there yet. She can still fit into her Baby Gap preemie long sleeved vest, the one that says “Daddy’s Lucky Duck”, though I hope it won’t be for much longer. Grow grow grow I keep thinking, hoping that the labels will give me the evidence I crave.


Ra-Ra is not short of clothing – besides the huge pile of hand-me-downs, there are lots of gifts from friends – though clothing that fits has been another matter entirely. In those early, crazy days, when she lived in an incubator and wore nothing but a nappy and a collection of probes, all of them went into my cupboard where they could wait to be sorted out. When she first came home, very little fitted her. There were the Baby Gap clothes, some Woolies things (a gift from a friend of her big sister Aura) and a delivery from Little Lumps, which knew I had a premature baby thanks to my tweets. Besides those, and a couple of items from my sister which were small enough to fit her, her wardrobe was seriously limited. I ordered more leggings and onesies online from Little Lumps and, with regular washing, that’s how we’ve managed since early April, even with the odd poonami (a delightfully apt word I picked up from Sheena Kretzmer via Facebook).


Today was the next big step. I packed most of her preemie clothes away – some will be kept to remind her (and us) of how tiny she once was – and sorted through everything else. Newborn into the box stored under her changing mat; 0-3 months and up back in the cupboard. Some of the gift clothing is so beautiful that it saddens me to think of the poo and vomit that will inevitably end up on them.


There were moments of anxiety. I would pick up a fleece onesie with anti-pill fabric, examine the label and think “0-3 months? Are you serious?”. To be honest, I still can’t imagine her getting big enough to fit into some of these clothes. She has to grow so much to get anywhere near them. And yes, she has grown so much already, but I’ve been a little too close to notice, and from my perspective, it seems painfully slow.


Still, today was good. The thought of those clothes unsorted in the cupboard bothered me, and now that I have ordered them, the world makes more sense. It has been something of a rite of passage, too. When every tiny little bit bigger matters so much, vests and leggings and babygros become trophies, signposts on the way to normality.



This Face

Sitting at home with a baby can get boring, I’d heard. You miss adult stimulation. There is only so much poo and wee and vomit you can take without wanting a change of scenery.  And yet I can gaze at this face for ages and be completely entranced.

I can’t imagine ever getting tired of watching the tiniest changes flitting across her features. Wearing her pink wizard hat, she is entirely magical.

Faces of Ra Ra

The Mother’s Day Red Velvet Cake

This is a post primarily about cake.

When Raphaela was in NICU, I’d walk past the coffee shop at the Sunninghill Hospital several times a day. Nestled against the wall, waiting to confront the unwary passer-by, were the cakes: death by chocolate, Bar One cake, baked cheesecake, carrot cake and, of course, red velvet cake.

So it was that those weeks became indelibly associated, not just with antibacterial hand gel and beeping alarms and feeding tubes, but also with… red velvet cake. That’s perhaps why, when my husband asked me what I wanted to do for my first Mother’s Day, my second thought was: I want to bake a cake. Specifically, a red velvet cake with cream cheese icing.

(My first thought was: I don’t want spa vouchers of gift sets or any of the things we associate with Mother’s Day marketing. All I really want is to spend time with my mother, and for her to spend time with the baby.)

But the cake was the thing, even more so because I wasn’t able to bake it the day before because, well, breastfeeding. I can’t remember the last time I baked a cake – years ago, probably. Baking a red velvet cake from scratch is a challenge. I’ve attempted it before, but this time I didn’t want to take the risk. I didn’t want to just buy a cake either; there was something about the mixing and making that mattered. So I bought a cake mix and frosting, and – in a moment of extreme extravagance – heart-shaped silicone muffin pans.

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Pillsbury is one of our clients so this was the perfect excuse to try the product.

I got home from the shops an hour before my mother was due to arrive. This was where a cake mix came into its own. No faffing about with buttermilk or red food coloring. You measure the water and oil, chuck in the eggs and it’s done. No worrying about disasters and, most importantly, I got to lick the batter in the bowl.

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I got to lick the batter in the bowl. This was incredibly important.

l mixed, baked and iced the cupcakes in record time, photographed the process, placed the muffins on one of the Portmeirion plates I’d received as a gift for wedding number 1. And then… waited.

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All the Portmeirion is a leftover from wedding number 1. I plan to use it as much as possible.


In the end my sister came along too, with her two daughters, which was a bonus because this would be the first time that Ra-Ra would meet them. (Endless bouts of bad germs meant that they couldn’t see the baby until now.)

Victoria and girls meet RaRa
Raphaela weighs up the situation.

The cake was a hit with them. I’m glad I baked it. Cake is decadent and unnecessary. We do not need cake in our lives, which of course is precisely why we do.

Pump It

Late this morning I nipped out to the framers to deliver a work for mounting. It was a spontaneous decision: my husband was home to look after the baby, while weekend traffic would make driving to Rosebank less painful; the thought of accomplishing this task while I had the baby with me was too overwhelming, so I grabbed the chance to get something done.

The baby was fed (bottle and top up boob) before I left. I hadn’t expressed for the next feed – I’ve been battling to keep up – but I calculated that I had some two hours’ grace before she needed to eat again. Off I went.

I was wrong, of course. While standing in the queue at Herbert Evans, where I’d bought a birthday present for my stepdaughter – she turns 9 later this month – I got a call from my husband.
“You have a hungry baby,” he said, over the sound of crying.
Shit, I thought.”Already?” I said. This was an hour and a half ahead of schedule.

It took me more than half an hour to get home, half an hour of all sorts of messy emotions. Panic. Intense regret (your mother is a complete shit, Ra-Ra) and resentment that it’s impossible to do anything when one is breast feeding a baby. Breast feeding, I’ve discovered, is your life. It has to be; there is no room for anything else. If you’re not feeding, you’re expressing. If you’re not expressing – willing the sodding pump to work faster and your underperforming boob to step up to the plate  – you’re sterilizing bottles. And so it goes, day in and day out. Nights too.

(I had wanted, of all ridiculous things, to bake a cake for my mother today, who’s coming for tea tomorrow. It’s been a long time since I’ve baked. Not going to happen. Probably just as well because, you know, carbs and all that, but still I’m somewhat bitter about it.)

It’s 4.30 now. I’ve been expressing for the past hour and a three quarters and I still don’t have enough for two feeds. (How I’m going to manage when I have to go back to work, I don’t know. Just the thought sets off a limpid wave of anxiety waiting to crash over my head.) The next big test will be Tuesday, when I have to appear on a panel at an FMCG marketing conference in Newtown. There, I can’t just drop everything because the baby is hungry.

Managing means planning ahead, which means I’m going to have to spend every spare moment over the next two days hooked up to a breast pump. Breast, as we all know, is best. I never expected breast feeding to be one of the hardest and most frustrating things I’ve ever attempted. I’ve got the Jungle Juice. I’ve got the Eglonyl. And I’m still struggling. Small wonder that so many women give up.

Thoughts ahead of Mothers Day

A post written for

“Sorry, you can’t pick her up. She vomited up her feed so it’s better to leave her.” The nurse in NICU is polite but firm. I nod numbly as I look at my daughter, lying in her incubator and waving her arms like a sea anemone in a tank. Three days before, she was born two months too early. A feeding tube is taped to her cheek while a drip pokes, huge and horrible, into one impossibly small hand. Her tiny body is mapped with probes linked to wires linked to screens that report on heart rate, blood oxygen concentration, respiratory rate. This is what tethers her to life, and what will record her departure from it if she doesn’t make it.

I’m terrified that she might die. I’m also terrified to admit to myself that this is what I’m afraid of. When I get back to my bed in the maternity ward, I sob noisily into the sheets. I choke out words, aware that I sound like a diva in a B-grade melodrama: I can’t do this. I can’t face weeks and weeks and weeks of this. I can’t.

This, I realise then and there, is what it feels like to be a mother. It is to place your heart on the edge of a cliff and let it balance there, for as long as it takes.

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Mother’s Day this Sunday will be my first. For all sorts of reasons, most of them very good ones, I never really expected to have a child of my own. I was one of those women who regularly joked about my ovaries being in exile. I fled whenever somebody brought a baby to the office (what if they expected me to hold it?!) and, as I headed into my forties, assumed that I would settle happily into being a godmother, aunt and, later, stepmother. Roles that involve inhabiting a parental role from time to time, but with one crucial difference: you get to hand the child back to the grownup who has to worry about toilet training, and school, and repeating the F-word in a piping voice in a public place.

Then again, I never really expected a whirlwind romance and marriage in the last year of my 30s, let alone to a man who, in his mid 50s, was game for parenthood third time around. A baby wasn’t entirely outside the realm of possibility – we’d agreed that I would stop taking the Pill – but it seemed so unlikely. Then, on my 41st birthday, my doctor’s receptionist told me that I was six weeks pregnant, and everything changed.

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No concept is as loaded with piety and cliché as motherhood. I know this only too well. Whenever I’ve written about divorce, depression and my lack of interest in having children, strangers (invariably men) would write to me to tell me that I was being selfish, that a child would fix my unhappiness. I would roll my eyes as I thanked each respondent for taking the trouble to type a mail to me; I’ve never regarded motherhood as manifest destiny, and still don’t. The notion that women must be mothers in order to be fulfilled is nonsense, and I would have been perfectly happy to remain child-free.

Which brings me to the point of these words. What does it feel like to be a mother – at least for someone like me, who never really imagined that I would become one? When I first looked at the calendar at the beginning of this year, at May 8, I guessed that I would have a reasonable idea by the time Mothers’ Day arrived. By then, I would have been a mother for two weeks, give or take, depending on when my doctor scheduled my c-section. (You can have a natural birth if you want, he said to me, but at your age, your bones are more brittle…)

Life always has other plans. On February 26, two months and three days before her due date, my daughter was yanked from my womb, where she had been perfectly comfortable thank you very much. My doctor, warning that the blood tests indicated that I had all the symptoms of preeclampsia and was about to go into renal failure, had insisted. “It’s more dangerous for the baby to stay in your tummy than come out of your tummy,” he had said in his quiet singsong voice.

So my initiation into motherhood was horribly panic-stricken at first and then strangely attenuated. For the five weeks my baby spent in NICU, her care was the responsibility of nurses. Every day, I would pump breast milk and go to the hospital to hold her, but I was a visitor. I could leave. It was only after she came home that the gravity of this small person – weighing just under 2kg – became clearer. This is it, I thought one of those first nights as I staggered from my bed, drunk with sleep, to change her nappy. This is real. There is no going back.

In the two months that my daughter has been in the world, I have changed in all sorts of little ways. Not the disrupted sleep patterns – as an insomniac, I’m used to that. The chronic anxiety is familiar, too, even if now the source of my angst is pumping enough breast milk and childcare once I go back to work. But there has been a subtle shift in other ways. I’m no longer fazed by projectile poo, for instance. I care even less about my hair than I did (the other day, sick of how long it takes to dry, I sliced off my ponytail with the kitchen scissors). When I shower or use a hairdryer, I no longer imagine I can hear a mobile phone ringing – I hear a baby crying instead.

More than anything, I have discovered, becoming a mother has restructured the passage of time. This is not just the relentless cycle of expressing breast milk, feeding, sterilizing bottles and changing nappies (according to the packaging, specially designed to handle runny poo). The existence of my daughter has also altered the meaning of each moment in the most prosaic sense. I had not expected this. Before I married her father, when I was in the grip of severe depression, I couldn’t imagine turning 40. My story had run out of road; nothing lay beyond but a dreadful shade of grey. Now the next 20 years are accounted for, probably more. Having turned my narrative inside out, this small baby now determines the arc it will follow.

Oh, we have good moments and not so good moments. I can lose track of time watching different expressions flit across my daughter’s features. (I’ve classified her changing faces, which range from Alabaster Angel through Angry Tomato to Grumpy Old Man and Naughty Elf.) I’ll kiss her toes and waltz her to the soundtrack of Amélie and our world will be filled with the magic of one another. At other times, I am frighteningly close to overwhelmed. What if I lose my job because the office realises they can manage without me? What if I slip back into depression? What if the responsibility is ultimately too intimidating? And yes, every now and then I catch myself resenting how trapped I feel. Little, inconsequential things I used to take for granted, like leisurely sundowners with friends or the freedom to spend half a day running errands, are little things of the past, which of course has made them bigger things.

“Motherhood is a role, not an identity,” an old friend of my husband tells me over dinner. (He is the president of the International Union of Psychological Science, so he should know.) Still, it is a role that dwarfs every other I have attempted. To go back to 1987 and quote the Climie Fisher ballad I loved when I was 13, love changes everything. My daughter is my magnetic north, a quietly insistent tug at the centre of my being. Whether she’s sleeping in her crib or screaming blue murder, she is the fulcrum for my heart, which remains balanced, quietly, on the edge of a cliff.

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