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Paradise… once you get there.

  Entering the spacious British Airways 777 and locating our seats at the front, with ample legroom and a pulldown table on which to place a bassinet for our 19-month-old, my fiancé and I may, perhaps, be forgiven for feeling just the tiniest sproutings of optimism. Here we are, about to embark on a two week holiday in the Caribbean on a nice, mid-morning flight, and said 19-month-old has been deprived of a suitable amount of sleep so as to, surely, guarantee an imminent and long nap. We’ve equipped ourselves with an immigration-busting amount of toddler snacks and an assortment of new and old favourite plane-friendly toys, as well as a laptop full of Peppa Pig and In the Night Garden. And, if that wasn’t enough, we have the assurance of six additional members of my other half’s family sitting behind us and dotted about the plane. As we sit down we notice another, similarly aged small child sitting in the row opposite. Looking back, I’m not altogether sure why this was a reassuring sight… Perhaps I had illusory expectations of empathy, or the conspiring whisper of a failsafe tip to amuse a bored toddler shared across the aisle? Perhaps my innocent, pre-11-hour-flight-mind entertained deluded visions of the two toddlers amusing one another as we parents sat back and watched The Imitation Game with a nice beaker of white wine?

Needless to say, within 40 minutes of take-off all expectations, illusory or otherwise, deluded visions and certainly any remaining straggling, apocalypse-defying roaches of optimism have pelleted, bird-poop-like, back down to the Gatwick runway. Gone, too, are 80% of Lara’s carefully selected and rather expensive plane snack selection. Toys old and new lie in ruins a toddler’s throw span from our feet. It’s around this point our dour-faced air host duly hands us our ‘bassinet’ – read slightly larger-than-average baby bouncy chair harnessed to the pull down table in front of us, rendering our pull-up entertainment systems un-pull-up-able (not that we’ll even be able to contemplate any entertainment during the next 10.5 hours). A foul smell drifts into my nostrils and I look, innocently, towards the toilets at the front of the plane. Across the aisle, the sweet-faced toddler settles at once into his bassinet, cuddled in a blanket and gently suckling on his dummy.

Lara has never liked a bouncy chair. She was never one of those small babies you could strap in and then allow to gently undulate themselves to sleep. As I recall, she only really started to appreciate her bouncy chair when she discovered she could bend double and access delicacies on the floor from it. So one can perhaps understand her rage when her hapless parents attempt to strap her into one on a plane full of un-asleep people. Never mind my subsequent discovery that the terrible smell lurking like a guilty, gassy dog about my nose is not, in fact, coming from the toilets up ahead but from the chair itself, or, more precisely, the still-ominously-damp strap that goes between the legs. Call me paranoid but I know what baby diarrhoea smells like. And now my baby, her clothes and my lap, despite none of us having committed any such defecatory offence, smell that way.

Two hours later and I find myself keenly resisting the urge to throw hateful looks at the couple opposite, tucking neatly into their in-flight meal as their toddler continued to slumber without a peep. I, meanwhile, am busy spooning actually-quite-tasty pasta into mine and OH’s mouths due to his heroic (well, it would have been if he’d had a choice) relinquishment of his chicken tikka to our still-very-much-awake, curry-loving offspring… all the while trying to avoid breathing through my nose owing to the still-present ‘bassinet’, mocking us odorously from its entertainment-restricting perch. 

Time seems to coagulate into pools of scorched-eye misery as Lara rages, literally, against us, the bassinet, the machine (being us, again, wrestling her into her gro-bag to encourage a sleep-like environment) pausing only to gratefully accept some desperate (and ultimately useless) Calpol. We manage, at some point, to corner our sour-faced host and tell him he might as well take the bassinet away. I tell him it smells. He protests that he “got it from its packet, it will have been cleaned”. Me: “Well it smelled like baby poo and it was still wet.” Him, very uninterestedly: “Oh. Well, maybe it wasn’t cleaned very well.” And that was that.  

Grateful respite comes as members of the family take turns attempting to entertain Lara, who is by now at the mood-swinging, unpredictable stage of toddler tiredness, roaring with laughter even as the tears of rage continue to track down her cheeks. I attempt to watch several inflight films, from Cake (too depressing) to Little Miss Sunshine (a trusty favourite but had forgotten the ear-splitting scream at the beginning. Too reminiscent of real life) to The Imitation Game which I can tell is good, but I’m not quite getting enough of to actually retain chunks of the plot, due to a squint-inducing screen and a strange audio quirk which renders Benedict Cumberbatch all mumbly but Keira Knightley almost unbearably shrill. 

Toddler across aisle eventually wakes up and begins to play happily with Play Doh. Lara steals his book and my hopes of their playing happily with one another are dashed in twenty seconds of baleful stares. They spend the rest of the flight ignoring one another. He sweetly watches Peppa Pig on his mother’s laptop with some cute child-friendly headphones. Lara, probably wisely given aforementioned audio quirk, refuses the inflight headphones so we have to play our episodes of Peppa and Night Garden on very low volume. Having been awake for more hours than she usually sleeps at night, we attempt sleep-lulling Lara with the jigglyshuffle, which, probably because she hasn’t gone to sleep this way for at least six months, renders her perplexed, rather cross and still very awake. Toddler across the aisle settles down for his second nap, bottle in mouth, and his father throws us a judgey sort of look as Lara continues to whine miserably. I wonder, briefly, if this is karma for ever having felt a scrap of smugness at Lara’s never having needed a dummy or a bottle to sleep. 

Plane lands in Antigua and perfectly-nice-but-now-unfortunately-enemies-for-life family disembark along with 80% of plane’s passengers. Lara has now gone from tired and irritable to riding her 38th wind and is quite happily playing peekaboo with her grandparents, who’re sitting behind us. We complete the last stretch of the journey to touch down in Tobago an older, wiser and decidedly smellier family than before. Upon the retrieval of Lara’s buggy at baggage claim and the insertion of her into it, she promptly falls fast asleep and stays that way until we reach our holiday home about 45 minutes later. Despite it being gone midnight UK time, Lara uses the tantalising new reality of finding herself in a whole new place to fuel her 39th wind, running up and down the veranda and then gifting me with such a huge nappy-full of defecation I do not realise that it has stained the only-really-useful-holiday-vest I’ve just changed into until the next morning. 

Things, I’m happy to report, have become decidedly better since then. Despite a fairly sleepless first night (during which I spent at least two hours being beaten about the face by my suddenly-desperate-to-co-sleep child) the second night went like a dream and we’ve all caught up on sleep and settled quite happily into island life. Our party has enjoyed incredible views, paradisiacal beaches, rainforests, waterfall swims, varying degrees of burns, many pina coladas, awesome food and some excellent snorkelling – leading to an equally excellent ‘shark scare’ for one of us – and, of course, the obligatory contribution of our blood and flesh to a variety of oddly silent insects. All chronicled in much better detail by the blog of my future brother-in-law and his OH here

As I write, the breeze is gently lapping at my face as the Caribbean sun beats its unforgiving steel drum upon the dancing palm trees, potted asphalt, obscenely lush flowers and flattened creatures surrounding our villa. In a short while Lara will wake up from her nap and we will wander the quarter mile or so down to Stonehaven Bay, our local stretch of idyll. There, I shall have a suitably calorific cocktail, either a pina colada or an island-style margarita, and then take a dip in the bath-temperature sea as OH dances Lara back and forth from the lapping waves. 

On tomorrow, that barb on the horizon, that bitter little cinnamon twinge at the back of my tongue, we will dwell not. Tomorrow our little scoop of tranquility reaches its crescent of conclusion. Tomorrow is the bastard flight home. 

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I’ve seen the future and it’s throwing a tantrum

It’s been a busy few weeks chez the Bris-cott household. Lara has notched up the litres of foreign pool water swallowed and added Spanish and Italian to her palate, we’ve seen a hell of a lot of our families and I’m still scratching after being bitten to buggery by a variety of Mediterranean critters. The holidays have been lovely. Lara was, on the whole, very well-behaved – she did not scream too much on the flights, she performed nicely for several babysitters and generally didn’t wake up in the night too much after the initial few days. Having come home in a haze of sun-balmed tranquillity, ready to get back to the old routine and even begin taking on some freelance journalism work, I was therefore wholly unprepared for the sudden emergence of Monster Child.

I don’t know if she somehow knows that I’m planning to wean her off the boob during these, the weeks surrounding her first birthday, but all of a sudden my previously manageable – if not quite angelic – little girl seems to have regressed into a very very angry, inconsolable infant. First there’s the new scream she’s perfected – an ultrasonic rip of pure outrage, mauling your eardrums like a sonorous blade. Here’s a little taster:

Secondly, there’s a new wariness bordering on loathing for her formerly well-respected (if not quite beloved) cot. As soon as she catches sight of it, she begins to cry. I breastfeed her, she usually falls asleep, but as soon as I lower her in, as soon as one square millimetre of her paralytic, gro-bag clad form hits the mattress, she’s awake and re-mustering her assault on all ears within a mile radius. This all whilst standing and rocking against the bars, her face, showing up on the monitor, a paroxysm of rage.

She can keep this up for between 5 and 20 minutes before falling asleep with her head hooked over the bar and then, eventually, sitting back down and plunging headfirst onto the mattress and thankful oblivion. By this point I can either breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy that second glass of wine I’ve just poured (or coffee if it’s a nap rather than bedtime) or in about ten minutes or so she will start crying again, haul herself up to a standing position once more (why? When have you ever awoken from an unhappy slumber with the innate compulsion that standing upright will make everything better?!) and the whole sorry cycle will repeat itself. At night I am reminded of those first few weeks of sleep training around month five or six where I would watch the clock and pray. Now it’s just ridiculous. On Monday night she woke up at 3.30am. I left her, painstakingly, till 3.55am by which point she had put herself back to sleep and woken up again about four times, before giving in and going to get her. At 4.55am she was still feeding. Surely this isn’t normal for a healthy eleven-and-a-half-month old?!

 

Then there’s the eating. I’ve moaned about this before, I know, but since then things have developed – not the least of which her ability to work out my tricks. She seems to go through cycles of eating almost everything I give her for about a week or so, then barely anything at all. At the moment, she’s so knackered after not napping or sleeping well she’s at her most fussy and I’m lucky if I can make her something she will deign to taste, let alone swallow. Tired of cooking and wasting food, I’ve resorted to mini sandwiches, Babybel, cucumber, toast fingers, banana, nectarine and yoghurt. Anything vaguely resembling a pudding is, of course, inhaled without question.

 

Nappy changing is also a constant battle these days – gone are the moments of peaceful smiles and winsome chirping when placed upon the change mat. Long gone. As soon as we are laid down upon the mat, we scream, we writhe and we kick. As soon as we are bare-bottomed, we must escape by ANY MEANS NECESSARY. As soon as a new nappy is produced, we must fight all attempts to have it fastened to one’s rear and instead grab it and hang on with the grip of a very small Titan, using teeth if needs be. If the opportunity to get a foot or indeed any other appendage inside the dirty nappy before it is discarded and then smear the contents onto any part of the nappy-changer arises, we must seize it.

I wouldn’t mind the fussy eating, nappy battles or even the lack of sleep if it had come at a better time. As it happens I’ve just taken on my first freelance gig and am trying to scrape as much work into my Lara-free moments as possible. Which, at the moment, is proving an almighty challenge as my Lara-free moments mainly consist of watching her wage war on her cot bars through the monitor, trying to wedge the phone under my chin while scribbling undecipherable shorthand into a notebook and desperately trying to ignore the echoes of her screams as they gnaw round my lower intestines. Will it get any easier? According to my far-too-cheerful plumber, father of two grown up sons, no.

I can only hope that this horrible phase is just that – a phase – caused by a combination of post-holiday unsettledness, unusual noises in the house (we’re having a new shower and dishwasher installed, a mere 10 months after moving in) and that old, reliable tune – teeth. As it is, weaning off breastfeeding is sliding ever lower on my list of priorities right now as it is one of the only sure ways of calming her down. Plus, she doesn’t bite anymore. Which is nice of her. Hopefully, in a few days or weeks I will report back with happier news. For now, however, I see those Terrible Twos and I raise them Onerous Ones.


A tiny person who thinks and farts

When last I blogged it was about being nine weeks pregnant and, funnily enough, here I am at another nine week juncture. Nine weeks and three days, to be precise, since I stopped caring about my unplucked eyebrows. Nine weeks and three days since blearily singing misremembered pop songs while smeared with vomit at 3am took on a whole new meaning. Nine weeks and three days since my world fell to the mercy of a tiny, yowling, brand new person who thinks and farts and devastates a room with her smiles.

Some things you come to expect from motherhood during those long, rotund weeks of pregnancy spent reading books, Yahoo Answers and Mumsnet. Other things you are told to expect, from NCT leaders, your family, every woman over the age of 40 and Babycentre.co.uk. But for the most part, a lot of first time mums have no f*cking clue until they are thrown right in there, covered in poo and vomit in the wee hours, desperately trying to remember all 12 days of Christmas their true love gave to them while their offspring gazes up at them from the changing mat with a faintly appalled expression.

The business of 3am.

Yes, they told me I’d be sleep-deprived. Yes, they told me to get as much shut-eye during those first baby-free weeks of maternity leave as possible. And I listened and took it all on board with an ambivalent laissez faire, que sera sera and yeah-it’ll-be-hard-but-it’s-easy-if-you-love-them kind of ideology shared by many a knocked up 13-year-old. On this side of the 40-hour push-fest I can reply that yes, you love your baby but boy, that does not make the transition from the eight-hour-plus unbroken paddocks of slumber to sporadic 1-3 hour sleep grasps any easier. Especially when your body is a wreak after two days of pushing out a 6lb 9oz human (3lbs of which I’m sure was her head) and you can’t sit down or shuffle up a bed without pulling stitches in an area that should NEVER have contact with a needle and thread.

“But I’m a night owl/ insomniac/ one of those slightly mad-eyed people who function on less than four hours of sleep a night,” you cry. Ok, well I’m guessing that you don’t spend those wakeful hours up, out of bed and traipsing to the kitchen with a squalling infant to make up a bottle, or attaching said squalling infant to one of two very sore nipples who don’t know what they ever did to offend anybody. All the while moving twice as slow and three times as bandy-legged as usual. So if you’re pregnant, sleep. If you’re not pregnant, sleep. It’s the best friend you never appreciated until they confessed they weren’t a baby person and turned their back on you forever.

The poo/sick debacle.

I never thought of myself as particularly squeamish but wow. How does such a little digestive system create so much weird-looking, evil-smelling gunk? And the sick – it may be white and milky but it still has that vomit stench which, even though it has come from a pure, innocent little baby and I haven’t been on a raging night out in a pathetically long time, still elicits feelings of nauseated shame and the nagging sensation I’ve spoken out of turn.

Raging against the parent.

They tell you that sometimes a baby just cries for no discernable reason. Week three and we discovered just what that meant, and no amount of back-patting, swaddling, nursing, increasingly shrill singing, rocking, shushing, bouncing or jostling made the slightest bit of difference. Babies are humans, humans are weird and each one is different, even when they are 50-something centimetres long and weigh less than 7lbs. Our particular little character likes to lie on her back on a changing mat, preferably bare-bottomed, while the mat is jiggled back and forth by a parent talking in a high-pitched voice. It’s a bit weird, yes, but it shuts her up after four hours of relentless wailing, so who gives a sh*t?

The magic 6 week barrier of it-all-getting-easier.

That’s what we’re told, isn’t it? Six weeks post-partum the tiredness, the pooping, vomming and colicky rages all magically improve? Well, this is an interesting one. For me, life at nine weeks is still exhausting, full of surprises and doubt, but everyday brings more joyful, shining moments I want to record so I can play them back over and over in 20, 30, 50 years time. And yes, it is easier than it was in the early weeks. But that’s not just because the baby sleeps more and eats well and seems to be past the worst of the colic, it’s because we’re all a little more used to each other. Motherhood didn’t get easier, I just got used to it. That, and the moments when, out of the blue, she will stop wailing, lock eyes with me and give me the biggest stunner of a smile that shines right up into her eyes… And suddenly all the poo, vomit, tiredness and screaming matters as little as these increasingly bushy eyebrows of mine.


Hey world, why all the tradge?

“Adele wrote 21 when she was in the depths of break-up despair and a little bit fat. She’s now happy, in love and getting fit… Her next album won’t be half as good.”

If I’ve overheard it once, I’ve overheard it a million times. And not just about Adele and the beautifully melancholic whine-fest which I can only listen to if I reeeeeeeeally want to that is 21. I don’t remember a time I didn’t know because it was constantly drummed into me that tragedy is easier to write than comedy. Is it because the world is sick with cynicism? I learned at the age of 15 in a very poorly-executed GCSE Speaking and Listening presentation that you can’t, for love, money, or the desperate pitch of an eraser at an over-achiever’s head, MAKE an audience laugh. So why is it so easy to make them cry? Or, should I be asking, why is it so easy to make them want to cry?

As a journalist I have always found the most popular stories – whether that’s measured by website hits, comment, or even ye olde letters to the editor – are negative. Always. And I don’t have to link to a pyscho-babble article in the Guardian to say why: People love tragedy because it makes them feel better about their own lives. It’s why EastEnders is still going after nearly 30 years, it’s why the glossies and the red tops are always searching for that one in 10 billion shot which’ll make Cheryl Cole look fat and why that story probably got more hits than any government budget updates over the past 5 years combined. And it’s probably the reason why Someone Like You, in all its wailing glory, was the best-selling UK single of 2011.

Today I found out that my last post, that heartfelt, yowling whine from one of the most teeth-pullingly frustrating times of my life was one of the deciding factors in my current employers offering me a job. A job which I love and which has given me everything I so wanted for so long. There’s a lot to be said for tragedy.


Data Journalism: I heart Excel

If your ears, like mine, automatically fill with white noise whenever you hear the word ‘Data’, boy are you in for a revelation! Data ain’t just about the numbers – data backs up claims, conditions our judgement of fact and fiction, and pretty much powers journalism. This was the topic of this week’s CJS lecture delivered by course leader Glyn Mottorshead.

We were also taught how to use some of the basic – and not so basic – data mapping tools. After running into a bit of a java/firewall/scripting block when trying to use the pretty wordle tool, I decided to put some of Glyn’s lecture into practice.
Here is my geobatch mapping the number of children injured in road traffic accidents across Wales from 1995-2000:
Children injured in car accidents
I will also try and upload a wordle map as soon as I can work out how to persuade my computer that it’s not an evil hacking thing.


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