Why November 17 is Significant

Today, November 17, is World Prematurity Awareness Day. The Empire State Building has been lit up in purple to raise awareness of the leading cause of death in babies in the US. Around the world, 15 million babies are born premature every year, and 1 million of them will not reach their first birthday. Last year, I read this fascinating story on how premature babies were cared for as part of a sideshow on Coney Island in New York; I never imagined that it would come to mean so much to me personally.

My daughter was born 10 weeks premature on February 26. Her due date was April 29. She was perfectly happy where she was, but because I had pre-eclampsia, my doctor had no choice but to yank her out way ahead of time. I will never forget the strangeness of that day, and the confusion I felt as she was placed on my chest after being weighed. This tiny, screaming life, outraged at being in the world. I remember how terrified I was that she might die, how each gram she gained was a victory. How my husband and I took turns sitting for hours and hours and hours each day, holding her next to our skin, willing her to grow. For five weeks, motherhood was something I shared with the nurses in NICU.


When she came home from the hospital, she weighed less than 2kg. She was dwarfed by her car seat:


Look at her now!


Having a premature baby means that whenever people ask me how old she is, I never know what to say. Do I give her age from birth, which will confuse them because she’s clearly too small, or her age from her due date? (Usually, I give her age since her birth date, and then try and explain.)

I worry sometimes that she might have been damaged in some way by her difficult start in life, and that my health problems will cast a shadow over her life. She’s small for her age, and she hasn’t started to sit on her own yet.

I’m very grateful for the quality care she received at Netcare Sunninghill Hospital. I’m also grateful to Discovery for paying her hospital bill: this is why medical aid matters so much.

I wonder what pregnancy is really like. I missed out on two months of pregnancy at its most physically intense, and though I know it would have been uncomfortable, I do feel a sense of loss.

Ultimately, though, I will never stop being grateful that Raphaela Ragini is as healthy and happy as she is. To be born premature is to run the risk of all sorts of health problems and developmental issues and I hope that she will overcome them all.

Who would have believed we could get through all of this, my baba? Tiny as you are, you’ve never done anything but embrace life. Your smile lights up my world and I love you very, very much. Happy November 17.




Keeping the boobs going

“I hope you’re keeping those boobs going,” my mother warns me down the phone. Yes, I’m at the airport and yes, I’ve pumped, I assure her. I gaze through the glass at the apron, slick with rain. #badweather is trending in Cape Town, though it’s trending everywhere. My Twitter feed is filled with photos of a tornado that swept past the airport in Johannesburg. Already, some wit has decided that it should be named after Bonang because “they’re both in the business of wrecking homes”.

The queue next to me murmurs like bees waiting quietly to swarm. We should have begun boarding ten minutes ago, but nothing has happened yet. My mother accepts my story, though she’s not happy that I will be back so late. I think of the Medela bottle in its carry bag tucked into the pocket next to my laptop. I filled it in the Slow Lounge, my poloneck top and dress hoiked up over my bra in the privacy of one of the cubicles. (I imagined staff wondering why I was taking so long, and worried about what they might think.)

Thank God for the Slow Lounge at any rate. A toilet cubicle might not be the best place to express breast milk, but theirs are spacious and private. By 5.15pm, my boobs were painfully engorged and it was a tremendous relief to decant something, anything. I’d managed to express a little earlier, in a toilet cubicle at the client before the tech guy miked me up for my talk on brands and communication. Just enough to delay the pain.

Breast feeding while working isn’t easy, but breast feeding while travelling is even more of a challenge, as I found out during today’s trip. Normally I would say no to travel, but this was a favour for the chief creative officer and our biggest client. Not that I’m ever good at saying no at the best of times, but I believe in not disappointing clients if at all possible.

This, my first flight since having Ra-Ra, required a bit of preparation. For one thing, the prospect of being away from her for so long, and having to have so much pumped for her, catalyzed something I’d been holding out on for a while: formula.

Yes, dear reader, I caved. Last Friday, I finally accepted that I just can’t keep up. Either I spend the entire day plugged into my baby, or she starves. Neither is a serious option. At the time, I found the decision extremely stressful, to the point where I was conscious that my eyesight was negatively affected. For about half an hour, I went through the obligatory self-loathing and mild tearfulness before pulling myself together and admitting that not being under so much pressure is a relief.

Oh, every time I read the message on the NAN tin about how its contents are not breast milk, and the message on the Tommee Tippee box about how breast milk is the best food for babies, I feel an awful twinge of guilt – but not enough guilt to get the milk flowing reliably, sadly. Yes, I would very much rather my baby was exclusively breast-fed, but it’s not possible.

Today is the 26th, which means it is five months since Ra-Ra was born. She’s nowhere near that in real terms, of course, and she still fits into newborn clothing, but five months is what the calendar says. Today was also the longest I’ve been apart from her since she was born – more than 12 hours by the time my husband picks me up at the airport. I’ve missed her, but I’ve handled it better than I thought I would.

I’m writing this as I sit on the plane flying back home. The rumble of the engines fills my ears as we sail over the dark, cold earth 37,000 feet below. The family in front of me murmur in a language I can’t quite catch, though I think it might be Dutch. The captain is announcing from the “flydeck” that we’re about to begin our descent. The runway has just been changed because the wind direction has changed, which means we will land six minutes later than planned.

I’m aching to hold my baby, and I can’t wait to have her in my arms again.


A Visit to the Doctor

Today I took Ra-Ra for her first ever real doctor’s appointment. Not the sort where you just go for a check up – the kind where there’s something wrong and you need a diagnosis and a prescription.

Ra-Ra started coughing on Monday. It got steadily worse, and by today I thought I’d better take her to a GP. As a premature baby, she’s vulnerable to respiratory infections and I don’t want to take any chances.

By coincidence, the doctor she saw was also born premature. Dr Tiny Mhinga’s nickname comes from the fact that he could fit in a shoebox when he was born. He’s clearly come a long way since then:

RaRa Dr Mhinga

Ra-Ra handled the consultation with aplomb, and stayed calm throughout the long and drawn out visit to the pharmacy to pick up her prescription. She’s on Augmentin, Celestamine and Prospan syrup.

I was thrilled at how happy she seemed to take her medicine, but it has turned out to be too good to be true. The 3ml of antibiotic suspension she’s supposed to get twice a day has, so far, been vomited up or spat out.

Despite the diagnosis – an upper respiratory infection – she seems her normal self. Right now she’s dozing  in my left arm, stirring every now and then in order to suckle. (I’m typing this post on my phone.)

I’m hoping that later, when I give her the Celestamine, she keeps it down and goes to sleep. Half the people I know are sick – my parents, my sister and my husband who is in bed with flu – so it’s no wonder she’s developed something.  I can only hope that I escape the dreaded lurgy. Touch wood.

A Whole New Juggling Act


Three weeks ago, I dreaded the idea of going back to work.

A week and a half ago, I’d reconciled myself to the inevitable.

Six days ago, I was looking forward to it.

Today, five days in, I’m managing – just.


This is a whole new juggling act. I’m loving being back in the energy of an office, having face to face conversations, and getting stuck into new projects. I really do get a kick out of the work I do, and I like the people I work with. I didn’t realise how much I had missed it until I was back in the thick of it.


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Baby and laptop

Ra-Ra is a different story. On Monday, while I was reconnecting with my colleagues and sitting in meetings, she was dealing with the trauma of not having Boob at her beck and call. On Tuesday, my mother described feeds involving flailing limbs, spitting, head butting and screaming. “If she could have sworn at me, she would have,” she said. On Wednesday, I ducked home in between meetings to feed her, and on Thursday I did the same. I took a lunch break, something I almost never do – not for me, but for her.


The trouble is that Ra-Ra has decided that she no longer likes feeding from a bottle. In fact, she hates it. My mother is finding it hard work to keep her entertained long enough to distract her from the fact that Boob is not around. Yesterday, I had to feed her after dropping her off because she started protesting before I could leave; then I popped back to top her up at lunchtime, and then again after work. Today, I got a frantic call from my parents while in a meeting that ran over time, begging me to come and feed the baby. Luckily I was able to duck quite quickly, but I won’t always have that option.
So I have something of a problem. As long as my baby hates feeding from a bottle, my life is going to revolve around breast feeding – something that is not entirely compatible with working in an office. This means limiting meetings, especially if they’re far away; I’m very lucky that my office is a six-minute drive from my parents’ home. All-day workshops? Working late? Travelling? Forget it.


I don’t know how long this hatred of the bottle will last. I’m very happy to be back at work – but I will admit that I’m worried that I’m going to drop some balls.

Four months old today!

“Is that your baby?” the woman says to me while I wait in the pharmacy the other day. “It looks like you’re holding a soft toy.”

Though it’s tempting to ask whether she takes me for some sort of loon who walks around with a soft toy in a baby carrier, I smile and explain. She’s nearly four months old, I say. She was premature and that’s why she’s so small.

Today, four months ago, Raphaela Ragini Pillay was unceremoniously yanked from her comfortable, warm abode and brought into the world 10 weeks ahead of schedule. After five weeks in NICU, she came home. I spent that first week juggling a new baby and a new business pitch before finally settling down to get to know our daughter.


I’ve come to know her faces, which range from Alabaster Angel to Angry Red Tomato. My names for her include Raphaela, Ra-Ra, Nunu and the Nunu-est of Nunus as well as Droolie Andrews, Grumposaurus Max and Fiddler Crab.


Her eyes are slaty grey with a hint of green, like a distant hill on a rainy morning. She frowns when she’s concentrating on suckling. I think she gets that from me. “Focus,” I tell her when she fusses and spits out the nipple. “Focus on the task at hand.”


She’s smiling more now. Oh, I live for this smile.

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We listen to lots of Mozart, mostly the piano concertos played by Daniel Barenboim, with the Bach French Suites to mix things up a bit. We’ve also started play with the toys I bought her from Baby City, which are designed for babies’ limited vision.


Ra-Ra has developed quirks. Her rigid routine established in NICU is a thing of the past. She’s into cluster feeding these days, which means she’d be attached to my boob the entire day and half the night if she could. When she was younger, we regularly took her out to restaurants with us in the evening, but I can’t see that happening again any time soon.


Ra-Ra has lots of friends. There’s the original and greatest, Loquacious Mancini the zebra from Brooklyn. There’s Muncho the monkey (named by Mia), Taneekwa the African-American doll, Lorenzo Mancini (Loquacious’s flashy Italian cousin), Ralph the rhino and Bev the elephant. Just this morning, Ra-Ra also met Bruno the bear who speaks to her in French.


I miss her terribly when I’m away from her. Last week, my husband and I went to Emperor’s Palace to watch the Jazz Epistles. They were remarkable and the show was wonderful, but for every moment of it I felt a great ache at the core of my being: that I wanted to hold my baby, and just then I could not.


Happy four months of being in my world, Raphaela Ragini. You may be small, but you’re the biggest thing that has ever happened to me.


Introducing Raphaela Ragini Pillay

Sketch inspired by Raphaela Ragini. The angel's wings are a reference to the character in Faraway, So Close! while the fish - yin to the wing's yang - is a tribute to her Piscean birthdate. My favourite dream as a young child involved dancing with a giant goldfish on my grandmother's lawn.
Sketch inspired by Raphaela Ragini. The angel’s wings are a reference to the character in Faraway, So Close! while the fish – yin to the wing’s yang – is a tribute to her Piscean birthdate. My favourite dream as a young child involved dancing with a giant goldfish on my grandmother’s lawn.

I knew, the moment I found out I was pregnant, that I would need to think about names. A name is such a very serious thing – a reflection of oneself and one’s aspirations as well as the ability to navigate family politics –  and I wanted something that would stand the baby in good stead throughout life. I knew exactly which name I wanted for a little boy. If the baby was a girl, though, I was less certain.

For various reasons, I leaned toward something Italian. For a start, my sister had taken up two of the available sensible/posh English names my family favours, which somewhat narrowed choices. Both of my stepdaughters have names ending in –a and I wanted to continue the pattern. Olivia would have been my first choice once upon a time, but it’s just too popular now. I was one of a rash of Sarahs at school- three Sarah Bs in high school alone – so I wanted something a little different.

Kanthan worked in Sardinia in the early 90s, where he picked up Italian as well as a taste for Mirto and proper Parmesan. His first daughter, Aura, was born there. My mother studied Italian at university. I grew up with Italian as part of my musical vocabulary, so I feel an affinity with the language even if I don’t speak it. An Italian name made sense. But which one? Chiara was one option I considered, as well as Fiamma.

Then Kanthan suggested the name of a character in his favourite movie, Faraway So Close, directed by Wim Wenders. Raphaela is an angel portrayed by Nastassja Kinski, who moves among and above the people of post-wall Berlin. As a lapsed film buff, I like the cinematic connotations. It’s also why her name contains a ph and one 1, when there are various spellings.

Here is Nastassja Kinski in the role of Raphaela:


As for Raphaela’s second, Tamil name, we needed to wait until after she was born. Tamil names are chosen according to times and their associated auspicious syllables, one of which was Ra.

In the list of Ras, one stood out. Ragini (pronounced RAgini with a hard g as in gift) means melody. A feminine form of Raga, if you like. My mother, husband and mother-in-law all liked it (which, if anyone knows the politics of names in families, is a massive win). There are singers and keen amateur musicians on both sides of the family, so it’s a pleasing nod to both our histories and love of music. There is a piano waiting for us at home, and I can’t wait to play it for her.

I think Raphaela Ragini has a certain ring to it. She will definitely know when she is in trouble. And she will almost certainly be unique no matter which school she attends. We’ll probably all call her Ra-Ra for short, which – given the fanfare with which she will be greeted when she finally gets to go home – will be entirely appropriate.

Welcome to the world, Raphaela Ragini. Love, your mother xxx

Holding her for the first time

Sarah and baby

Tiny. Astonishingly, impossibly tiny. That is the first thought I have when the nurse hands me the pink-blanketed bundle. I know that premature babies can be a lot smaller than this, but this…. Tiny, perfect hands tipped with the faintest specks of fingernails. Eyes fringed faintly with lashes. How is this real?

“You don’t have any eyebrows yet, “ I tell her, “but when you do get them, we’re going to have to talk about eyebrow maintenance. No shaving them off and drawing them back on.”

She’s a doll. A doll that can move and yawn and pull faces reminiscent of a grouchy old man reading newspaper stories about #FeesMustFall. I try to imagine her the size of a normal newborn, able to suckle. Laughing and playing. Rolling her eyes at bad jokes. Grown up. Squeezing my hand and telling me it’s going to be ok at my deathbed (it’s very Hollywood and elegantly staged. I’m surrounded by everyone I love and it’s perfect.)

All of it telescopes back to this moment where finally I have her in my arms for the very first time. I daren’t touch her skin, not just yet. She is kept in a GE Giraffe branded incubator, surrounded by monitoring devices that flash like the deck of the Starship Enterprise. There are pings and bings and beeps. This is the soundtrack to her life. Talk to her, Best Beloved says, so I do.

I tell her about all the places we’ll go and the bedtime stories I’ll read. How her dad will teach her to code, and probably be the disciplinarian. I’ll  start her on the piano until she’s too advanced and needs a proper teacher. We’ll negotiate the issue of bribery around practicing. How she will meet her sisters and her cousins and the animals and how, a year from now, we’ll have a birthday party for her at which we’ll try and control the sugar. Maybe I’ll commission a flourless cake.

It’s hard going. The tears keep welling up and pouring down my nose, not a good situation in a highly infection controlled environment. Best Beloved holds a tissue for me and I blow, though he doesn’t squeeze hard enough for me to get the necessary pressure going. “I’ve never done this for an adult before,” he says.

We sit there together. She sleeps in my arms. I talk about how I’m looking forward to being vomited on and how I’m even ok with projectile poo, because that means she’s big enough to come home.

“For the longest time, I couldn’t imagine anything like you,” I tell her, choking up again. “Now I can’t imagine the world without you in it.”

Cheesy, yes. But suddenly, desperately true.