A Note to the New Nurser

Next week, my baby girl turns a year old. I’m still breastfeeding her – just as I did my son, until he was almost 2. As a nursing mum, I’ve learnt a lot over the last couple of years – about my children and myself, but also about the attitude of others towards a fundamental parenting choice that I’ve made. In the post, I want to encourage you – especially if you are mum to a new infant – with some of what I’ve learnt.

Just to be clear – I know not everyone can or wants to nurse. I don’t judge that. So if that’s you… Then please don’t feel judged! You are just as much a woman and mother as those using their breasts to nurse their babies because you can still nurse through your responsiveness to your child’s needs.

In the rest of this post, I will use ‘nursing’ to mean feeding baby with breast milk… But I absolutely know that there’s no reason that a bottle-fed baby can’t be ‘nursed’ in the broader sense every bit as much as a breastfed one.

1: Breastfeeding or Nursing?

Let’s start with a distinction. In British English, most people talk about breastfeeding rather than nursing. I’ve got no problem with either term but I do sometimes feel that when we talk about just breastfeeding some infer that feeding your baby is all the breasts of a new mother are for. It’s clear that, for an infant, your milk provides nutrition and hydration. But it also provides comfort and stability at a time of enormous upheaval. The sound and smell and touch of you makes up so much of what your baby needs in its first months, and there’s no place they would rather get it than nuzzling at your breast. It is an amazing gift of creation that your body is designed to be everything that is needed in these opening months. This is why I far prefer the term nursing to breastfeeding; but, whatever we call it, we need to remember that, as mothers, we are nursers – of body, mind and spirit – of our babies. And we should not be ashamed of that.

A lot of women feel that they don’t make enough milk and therefore choose not to nurse. You need to remember that the milk you produce increases over time to match the needs of your baby. A breastfed baby nurses little and often, especially at first – their tummies are tiny and breast milk is digested more quickly than formula. Unless they are losing more weight than anticipated for a newborn and your midwife has concerns, you are doing just fine.

2: Exclusivity

When we are nursers, and we respond to our babies day and night as they need, we can sometimes find that partners, parents and others struggle with the exclusive nature or our relationship with our babies. Don’t get me wrong – it is vital that you include your partner and carve out time for both of you together, and that you accept offers of help from friends and family. But you should never feel guilty that your baby needs you more than others. Grandparents, aunts and uncles will have years to forge relationships with baby – but baby needs you now; ‘in a minute’ is not a concept that infants can, or should have to, understand. That one’s for the grown ups.

3: Intensity

Caring for an infant is unbelievably intense; nursing one is a whole other level of intense. You need to stay fed and – crucially – hydrated. You may spend days on the sofa at a time. This is normal. It is okay. You are not weird and your baby is not weird. (And, believe me, you’ll miss those hours of tv catch up when you’re nursing number two with number one on the loose!).

4: Four Hours between Feeds is a Myth

Some babies can and will feed every four hours. A nursing baby probably won’t – my son fed about every 90 minutes for months, even after I started solids with him. At a year, my daughter still takes milk or food every two to three hours, including at night. Each baby is different, their needs are different, and a nursing mum needs to go at their pace. There is nothing wrong with you or your baby if you cannot reach the four-hour target (which seems to me to be a falsified ideal that succeeds only in stressing new mums).

5: The First 8 Weeks are the Hardest

When I was nursing my son, I struggled with latching, bleeding and repeated mastitis. I was in excruciating agony every time I nursed, and I was ready to give up. Then my mother-in-law – who had nursed five children – shared some crucial wisdom with me: if you can get through the first 8 weeks, you’re through the worst of it. And she was right. Once I broke through the 8 week barrier something just clicked – and I actually started enjoying my special time with my baby boy.

6: After 6 Months…

Statistics show that the number of women who nurse their babies drop significantly at 6 weeks and 6 months after birth. Those of us who continue to nurse after 6 months face a raft of new pressures; in my experience, this can manifest itself in pressure, as you start solids, to swap the breast for the bottle – and a lack of understanding from many when you choose not to. Why would you? Nursing is exhausting, time consuming… But it is your choice. It is rewarding. You might even enjoy it! If you and your baby are both happy to continue, then you should – guilt free. Your milk is still the best thing for your baby, even when you start to complement it.

7: Nursing and Sleeping

I have always nursed my babies to sleep, have co-slept with both, and didn’t start night weaning my son until he was 15 months old. I will probably do the same with my daughter because she is not yet ready to give up those feeds. My son woke every couple of hours every night until he was 2 – and then suddenly the penny dropped, and he slept. I had stopped nursing him to sleep just a few weeks before. We were both ready – and the slow decline in milk supply meant that, when we stopped, I didn’t suffer the mastitis that I had feared. This was just one of the bonuses of going at the pace that suited both myself and my baby; the other was an enormous sense of peace.

8: Back to Work

I have returned to work as a nursing mother twice, and both times have worried about milk supply and the transition back to proper bras (a two-edged sword!). Your body is clever, and knows what you need when you need it – even when you’re at home some days and don’t see baby for hours on others. The real struggle for a nursing mum in the workforce is childcare when baby is ill. Employers may not know – or may simply forget – that an ill baby reverts to newborn and rejects everything except milk, sometimes for days. You need to make nursing that baby your top priority especially if, like both of mine, they categorically refuse formula milk. Not every HR department is sympathetic to this, and it is important that you are transparent with your needs and familiar with your work place’s policies for working mums. If necessary, get your doctor’s endorsement.

9: This too shall Pass

Some days, you can’t bear the thought of another feed. But even if, like me, you nurse until your babe is a full-fledged toddler, you nurse for such a short time. Remember that.

10: A Lesson in Love

Nurse for as long as you and your baby are happy to keep doing so. You are not only responding to their needs but investing in your future relationship with your baby. When you nurse on demand, you practice a level of self sacrifice that much of our society doesn’t understand, but the dividends are worth it: a toddler who knows that you will respond to him. Practice at the kind of selflessness that you will need to navigate the years ahead. Your responsiveness and self sacrifice will give your son or daughter confidence, and a vital message about what it is to be in relationship with others.

In short? New-Nurser, you’re doing one of the hardest things in the world. You’re doing it with no sleep. You’re learning a whole new kind of love, maybe even coming to a whole new understanding of God’s love for you – love marked by devoted sacrifice and piercing joy. But when it all seems too much, think on this: when your nursing days come to a close, you will miss that intimacy with your baby -and you’ll be glad that you stuck with it.

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Nerdinator: The Rise of the Geeks

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Another post inspired by a bit of catch-up viewing on Netflix. This time, it’s been the later series of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ – a show with just enough relationship entanglements to appeal to general sitcom enthusiasts, and spades of geekdom to draw in people like me. The popularity and appeal of the show has left me wondering: is it at the expense of the nerd and geek? Or did we suddenly become mainstream enough to be considered – dare I say it? – cool?

Perhaps you, like me, were in that special sidelined group at school – the group that enjoyed Star Wars or Star Trek, that liked to play role-playing games, that had little or no interest in make up or sport or whatever else the majority of kids were into. Or perhaps you were in the groups who played MMORPGs – maybe World of Warcraft or Minecraft, or myriad variants thereof. Shunned socially, sometimes viewed as odd, weird or outright repulsive, the nerds and geeks of schools up and down the country laboured under the label of ‘different’ and were maligned accordingly. I use the past tense because it seems to me that there is a much higher tolerance and admiration for these groups now than 20 years ago, and I suspect that it is this that makes shows like The Big Bang Theory possible to green light in the first place.

But why this sea change? Is it, as Bill Gates has been wont to observe, that we end up working for the nerds and geeks (thus his exhortation to be kind to them)? Is it that, as those school cliques grow into adulthood, we come to see each other beyond the raging hormones of adolescence and encompassing struggle for identity?

As the cool kids and the geeks and nerds become the responsible adults, maybe it is as simple as society coming to terms with us and understanding that we are not threatening; rather, we can make a really valuable and positive contribution to society. A little case in point; the chances are that you’re reading this post on a tablet device or smartphone of some kind (it’s certainly been written on one!) – technology made possible by the nerds and geeks who wanted to make the gadgets of Star Trek a reality. You make quotidian use of the Internet and, in what has to be delightful irony for that most socially unacceptable of groups, the social media that we use every day is the work of those selfsame geeks and nerds.

I suspect that a greater understanding of conditions like Asperger’s and autism also plays a part, as less extreme cases (rather like Sheldon’s in ‘The Big Bang Theory’) often demonstrate dedicated interest in something that others might find unusual and real difficulty with social interactions. As this is studied – both medically and through the social lens of characters like Sheldon, or arguably some aspects of recent incarnations of Dr Who or current reimaginings of Sherlock – it makes it ‘okay’ to deal empathetically with people like this in our day to day lives.

Geeks have moved from being portrayed as the odd outcasts to being sympathetic and interesting, and having a vital role in culture and society. Geek chic and geek style glasses are a real deal, gracing media everywhere. We know what Comicon is, and we might well ‘get it’ even if we’d never go ourselves. As we appreciate their likenesses to ourselves, we seem to have developed a genuine fondness for the geek subculture.

This is epitomised, to my mind, in a comment made by Leonard in season 7 of ‘The Big Bang Theory’. Asked why he is friends with Sheldon, he explains that the loveable anti-hero is loyal, trustworthy and a good friend. It’s almost a Shylockian ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ style statement, underlining the humanity of geeks and nerds. We may be different, but we are still human – and moved by the same passions and seasons as mainstream society.

This post also features on my official site, www.annathayer.wordpress.com .

The Salt and Sweet Water Tongue: Writing the Sacred, Writing the Profane

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Over the weekend, I read some of the more recent reviews of my Knight of Eldaran trilogy on Goodreads. More than other genres, fantasy has a bit of a marmite thing going on – you love it or you hate it; it’s difficult to be anywhere in between. Consequently, some reviews will be good, others not so encouraging. Whilst I was expecting this, what I was not expecting was specific criticism for use of profanity and graphic content.

Now, some context before I go further: I absolutely respect the opinions of those who find profanity, blasphemy, or sexual content in literature unpleasant or outright abhorrent, and the point of this post is not to ridicule or belittle those views. Indeed, I myself have a low tolerance of these things in what I watch, read – and even write. Many of those reviewers who have commented negatively on graphic content in ‘The Knight of Eldaran’ have been from North America, and it is true that what we in the UK consider ‘swearing’ seems to start from a slightly different baseline than our compatriots across the puddle. Even so, the comments I read got me thinking.

If you are someone who finds swearing uncomfortable, be aware that the following paragraphs will reproduce some of the langauge that has been criticised in the novels.

The Knight of Eldaran‘ is what I might call historical fantasy. It seeks, to put a Tolkienian term on it, to create an ‘inner consistency of reality’. That means that characters are going to make choices that we as readers aren’t comfortable with. As a writer, I genuinely struggled with whether or not to have characters use words like ‘bastard’ or ‘bloody’, because these are words that I would not use myself, and gratuitous swearing – so ubiqutous in so many parts of our culture – pains, irks and disgusts me. I considered coming up with some in-world equivalents, but in the end made the call to include this language.

Perhaps you’re reading this and wondering what objections readers could have to swearing. If they’re a parent, they may just want to guard their children from exposure to such language and concepts – and the argument ‘kids know far worse’ in no way invalidates parental desire to protect their children. Linguistic theory also clearly shows that we copy and emulate what we are exposed to and, whether for children or for ourselves, we may decide that we don’t want to use those kinds of words, and that therefore limiting our exposure to them is prudent.

For people of faith, purity of word can be a vital outward sign of their reverence for God – and so they eschew profanity. Indeed, for Christians, there is guidance in James to this effect, in James 3. Exhorting his readers to beware of their tongues, which can both praise God and curse their brothers, James exclaims: ‘Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?’ (NIV James 3:11). The purpose of the striking imagery is clear: purity of language can be a signal of inward purity, and we should aim to be holy as our Father is holy. Indeed, given the Johanine declaration ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’, human words – which are creative, just as that first Word – have a sacred quality that we should be in awe of. So to misuse words – or to use ‘evil’ words – is a bad idea. (What exactly constitutes good and evil words probably needs to wait for another time, and for those with more philosophical or theological gumption than myself!).

So, as a Christian… how do I justify the language that I use, when others consider some of it to fall in that ‘evil words’ category?

The profanity in my novels – which, to my mind, consists of the two words I’ve already mentioned, with the possible addition of ‘whore’ (which one reviewer also objected to) – is as far as swearing in my books goes. While it is language that I am uncomfortable with, it is infrequent and never used gratuitously. It always serves the purpose of building character – and it goes without saying that none of the characters who use it are framed as morally virtuous at the time that they do. In this way, the swearing in the novels demarks characters who are morally skewed: command over their language reflects their command over their moral compass.

Perhaps the most notable example comes part-way through ‘The Traitor’s Heir’, when Eamon (who is in the middle of what I call his ‘evil montage’) attacks Giles, furiously screaming “Bastard!” at him. There is no way that the reader is called on to applaud Eamon here, either in his action of his verbal expression of rage. Indeed, in the third novel, Eamon himself recognises his brokenness in language that would  be familiar to readers of James:

“You speak with a measured tongue.”

“A measured tongue? My tongue is a fountain that pours out saltwater one moment and fresh the next,” Eamon answered passionately. It had sworn him to the throned and to the King. What two things could be more different?

Ultimately, it could be argued that swearing in this fantasy trilogy serves to highlight the moral choices of its users.

Similarly, the sexual content of the novels – in this case, the extra-marital liaison between Eamon and Alessia (which is never described graphically or at length, but is certainly hinted at figuratively) – cannot be considered to be framed in a morally positive way. It is clear that both Eamon and Alessia are in some measure deceiving and abusing each other at first. While I do think that they come to genuine feelings for each other and, in the trilogy’s epilogue, a committed long-term relationship, it is not until they have learnt to respect each other and each other’s brokenness that their relationship becomes truly meaningful and mutually edifying.

I understand why some readers would have reservations about story-telling with swearing and sexual  content – especialy Christian readers coming to a trilogy by a Christian writer. I didn’t want to use either element gratuitously – and don’t feel that I did. I decided to walk a tricky line down the middle (and I’m open to the idea that I have stumbled en route). I’m sure I’m not the only writer – whether of faith or secular – who has grappled with the same decision.

So why did I take the risk? Because I didn’t want readers to reject the novels’ heart  – which is a story about the complex moral maze that we all navigate, and the way that we can be sustained in it by grace and redemption, whatever we have said or done, as long as we accept the call on our lives and dedicate ourselves to following it as truly as we can – on a technicality. Because if God is giving you a nudge to say that he’s there, it’s far easier, and more comfortable, to nit-pick your way out than to listen.

I’m not claiming, by the way, that my novels masterfully proclaim the great truths of eternity. But I will tell you this: I’m a great proponent of what Tolkien calls eucatastrophe (indeed, I’m working on a book of critical essays on it right now, and it is my favourite word to play in Hangman). Eucatastrophe essentially posits that stories in general – and fantasy in particular – can serve as startlingly clear connections to higher truths. Being, like Tolkien, a Christian and writer of fantasy, it is my hope that any such revelatory moments that come from reading my work point in the same direction.

Comments, thoughts, or quibbles? Are you a writer, of faith or none at all, who has had similar choices to make? Leave a comment or get in touch!

This post is also published on www.annathayer.wordpress.com. I’m experimenting with posting my blog thoughts in both places!

A Universe of Gates: Thoughts on ‘Stargate: Universe’

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Been a while since I’ve written a post – returning to work after maternity leave will do that to you! – but part of it can also be explained by what I’ve been watching on Netflix: Stargate: Universe.

For context, you need to know that I loved Stargate; SG-1 began broadcasting when I was in my early teens, and I was (and remain) a devotee of both the story and the story-telling. Okay, the first two seasons are a little hit and miss, but as the series grew it was plain that this was wholesome storytelling, in so far as it delighted in the personalities and quirks of its protagonists, was able to paint against a grand canvas, but didn’t take itself so seriously that it couldn’t explore itself through the lens of the parodic. The series was a winning mix of character driven story telling, with humour, compassion and challenge, with a good dose of sci fi. Perhaps, as Christopher Judge (Teal’c) said in a recent interview, the series wouldn’t be made today – but there’s real charm and quality to it. Much the same can be said for its spin-off, Stargate Atlantis – which I also enjoyed immensely. In fact, I love the series so much that when I first applied to Cambridge it was to read – you guessed it – Egyptology.

You can imagine how excited I and my fellow Gatephiles were in 2009 when Universe was first broadcast – we were looking forward to more of the same (even if we were expecting rather better cgi). It’s not what we got.

Judging by the way the ratings figures look, I stuck it out longer than many. But I didn’t last. Just five episodes into the 2009 run, I gave up. To me, it just wasn’t Stargate.

Fast-forward to 2016. I’ve been rewatching SG-1 while subjecting my husband to this formative part of my adolescence, and come across SG:U. I’m still routinely stuck on the sofa nursing a baby in the evenings, so I decide to give it a go – for completeness’ sake.

The short of it is that 7 years’ absence has given me the ability to see the series for what it is. Criticised by many as too much like a soap opera or masquerading as the revamped Battlestar Galactica, Universe is dark, gritty, more interpersonal than interplanetary (especially in its first season). It’s a story about ‘the wrong people’ – in the wrong place and at the wrong time to boot. It’s difficult to really empathise with any of the characters because, with the possible exception of Eli Wallace, they are all flawed, broken, or outright self-serving people. Even when, like the O’Neill’s, Carters, MacKays and Weirs of the preceding shows, they are strong, cunning, intelligent or diplomatic, it comes at a price, and 11th hour plans never come off without a hitch. Nobody has plot armour.

It was a bold – and intentional – step on the part of the writers and producers. And it was in many ways the death of the franchise. But with the benefit of emotional distance, it’s clear to me that while SG:U is not really ‘Stargate’, it still in many ways exemplifies good, character driven story telling – which was, after all, what really made its predecessors.

I felt like it was a third of the way into the second season before Universe really found its feet, by which point its cancellation had been sealed – just as the series started to explore a little more of its inherent scifi story hooks. By the time I reached the closing shots of the final episode, I was close to tears. I had genuinely come to care about these characters, and wished that I had just a little more time with them.

The entombment of Destiny‘s crew in stasis and the uncertainty of Eli’s fate is poignantly metaphoric of the fate of the franchise and its fans. Like many of the latter, I feel betrayed by the impending Stargate reboot, which intends to make almost 20 years of wormhole travel worth much less than one of the parallel universes in the quantum mirror. The eradication from canon of these series feels like the equivalent of hurling the toys (and soother, and muslin, and bottle) from the pram in a maelstrom of intellectual property fury. It is, to put it bluntly, not cool.

I have no doubt that the rebooted Stargate movie trilogy will look impressive, or that it will amass vital dollars in theatres. It will probably even accrue a new generation of fans who dream of aliens amid the pyramids of Giza. But, Emmerich and co, here’s the snag: 20 years of storytelling doesn’t just disappear because you will it to. And, when all is said and done, I rather suspect that the new fans will go back to the television series; and that the box sets of SG-1, Atlantis, and even Universe will be highly tradeable commodities on eBay long after the collector’s extended rebooted Stargate Trilogy edition drops down to £2.99 and free postage.

Like my writing? Check out my sister site www.annathayer.wordpress.com to learn about my award-winning fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran‘, and my work on Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, you got me: I’m a geek.