Mother’s Day

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Boone and me, we’re on first name terms these days, have been for a while. It’s hard to pinpoint when he started doing this but whenever it was, it was overnight. I’ve a feeling it was around the same time in his development when he started saying things like “Oh, don’t worry, it’s fiiiiiine,” and “Trust me, I know everything.” All I know is that one day he called me Mama (so sweet, so Southern) or, when he was feeling lazy, Ma (so mother of a mobster), and the next it was the name I’ve always had, the name my parents gave me, the name everyone else knows me by.

Growing up, I only knew of one family where the children called their parents by first name and even then I think it was only their father that they called Billy, a name that’s inherently diminutive and affectionate. The next time I’d come across this naming practice was watching Dharma and Greg in the late nineties. Remember Dharma? Her parents were old hippies who she called Abbey and Larry and to this day I remember Dharma’s impassioned speech about being homeschooled and how she learned about science and geography by going on a hot air balloon ride. The things I remember. Anyway, I thought that calling your parents by their first names, to their face, not behind their backs in a teenager-y tongue-in-cheek sort of way, was unusual, a bit strange.

Then one day, Boone started calling us Joseph and Siobhán, as though he’d never called us anything else. If I, out of habit, happened to refer to Joseph as “Daddy,” Boone would give me a very serious look and correct me: “Joseph.” It reminded me of when the euro first came in and the cashiers looked at you as if you were the stupidest person on earth if you slipped up and said pounds or pence, even though that was exactly how you had referred to your national currency your entire life until just last week.

 “Well,” says Leah, on hearing Boone’s new nomenclature for us, “that’s . . . progressive.”

At first I was bemused because it sounded funny but this soon got mixed in with sadness as I’d really liked being called Mama. I felt unrelated. I began to panic. Will he ever call me Mama again? Tell me I have videos of him calling me Mama! I wanted to tell everyone, the general public, his teachers that say “righteo” when I tell them we’re on first name terms now, “No, no, no, you don’t understand, this wasn’t my idea!” (Although, I have to admit, it does seem like an idea I might have.)

When I tell people about this, they either look a bit heartcrushed for me, or else they jump in with an assured “it’s a phase.” Every once in a while, I’ll sense a whiff of “you’d want to nip that one in the bud,” as though it were a sign of disrespect, or permissive parenting, or both. Nobody seems to see it as a good thing.

But I like it. I like that Boone’s teachers now have to refer to me as “Siobhán,” not the universal, faceless “Mum.” I like how it makes me feel more like an integrated self, less divided between the two lives of before and after Boone. I like that by using my first name, Boone sounds self-assured, his questions more like questions than whingeing demands. I like that, if he continues this into adolescence and beyond, there won’t be a pet name to keep me static in my maternal place, that our roles might evolve to that of adult to adult more easily. I probably like it for all the same reasons as Abbey and Larry in Dharma and Greg.

Besides, it doesn’t change a thing. I’m still his mother, he’s still my son. Of course, I have to remind him of these facts from time to time and reiterate that no, he doesn’t know everything, that I am his mother and everything I do and ask of him is in the interests of his safety. Knowing Boone, I’ve a feeling I’d have to remind him of these things whether he called me Mama or not.

On Friday, I went to a “special mother’s day surprise” at Boone’s playschool. There were little chocolate cakes and heart-shaped biscuits and questionnaires the children had completed about us. Apparently, I’m five years old, my favourite food is porridge, and my favourite drink is tea. Since only one of those things is true, I decided to ask Boone the questions myself when we got home. When I got to the question “how much do you love me?,” Boone answered:

“Five euros.”

“Five euros?!”

“Yes, that’s how much it costs.”

It may not seem like a lot but five is Boone’s favourite number and in his mind, five is the most, the best. I think that’s why whenever we play shops, everything Boone sells costs five euro.

I sigh and say, “Oh, Boone, I just love being your mama.” He giggles and so do I.

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“Oh, you look adoooorable!” he says.

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A little thing called love

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Lately, Boone’s been telling us a lot that he loves us. Sometimes he says it because he’s very pleased with us, sometimes he says it because he wants to butter us up, but most of the time he says it just to say it, like in those sweet, sweet moments just before he goes to sleep or when we’re all sitting around not doing much of anything. It always makes us laugh because he doesn’t just say I love you, he says, I looooove you, letting the ‘o’ drop and deepen until it all sounds very grand and cinematic. There’s also more than a hint of tongue-in-cheek roguery to these declarations—Ralph Fiennes’ character in The Grand Budapest Hotel comes to mind. We attempt to match his grandeur and tell him that we love him, too, and then we all bask in a love haze.

I never expected this reciprocation. I’ve always known what it’s like for me to love him. It physically hurts—the blood that used to flow in and out of my heart unnoticed, I can now feel with every squeeze of my blood vessels. There are a lot of songs about love in the world but when I heard this song a couple of years ago, I thought that’s it, that’s what mother love is like!  It’s that almost bad-for-you love, it’s the crawling desperation of “I will love you ‘til the end of time/Promise you’ll remember that you’re mine.” I know that Lana Del Rey’s referring to loving a tattooed bad boy but she may as well be singing about my boy, the one who makes my eyes burn every time he walks into the room.

I had been wondering if Boone really knew the meaning of I love you, so the other day, I asked him.

“It means . . . I like you and think you’re fantastic!,” he said.

I’d say he’s got a pretty good understanding.

So far, right now

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Mooching

Breastfeeding was hard. But not the first time; in fact, the first feeding went fairly well. In the months leading up to the birth, I had devoured Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding, attended the breastfeeding class at the hospital, and annoyed breastfeeding friends, no doubt, with my requests to see “how they did it.” I was prepared—or so I thought. When I sat down with Boone that first time, I was all “nose to nipple,” as I’d been schooled. He latched on perfectly (or so it seemed to me) and suckled. I was very pleased with myself. I was breastfeeding! The midwife said “that’s grand” and handed me a pamphlet. By the time I left the hospital, I was fully confident in my assumption that breastfeeding was going to be easy, the least of my worries. He had fed twice, on both sides, after all.

What I hadn’t prepared for—what I could never have prepared for—was Boone’s overwhelming desire to be alive. I mean, he really, really wanted to be alive. He cried out, begging me to keep him alive, all the time. The daily visits from the magic-fingered midwives and my frequent consultations of my trusty Ina May helped but could never assuage this desire of Boone’s, nor soothe my poor sore nipples. I tried not to wince but still my toes would defy me and curl under for every feed. Sometimes, there would be a reddish-brown streak in Boone’s spit up and I’d scream, thinking that my baby was suffering from internal bleeding. It was with a sense of both relief and horror that I’d realise I was the one bleeding and that Boone had swallowed my blood, the vampire baby.

On the third day rubber bands went snap, snap, snap along my milk ducts. I could feel this once dormant part of my body coming to life, fizzing with electricity. Veins popped up, just like on a cow’s udder. My boobs were massively uncomfortable. None of my so-called maternity or nursing clothes could contain them. Huh, I thought, so this is the look plastic surgeons are going for. “Is that your nipple?!?” shrieked my sisters. “It looks like a doorknocker!”

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Amidst all the soreness and my somewhat crazed wailings to lactation consultants and other healthcare professionals that my nipples were being “formed into a conical shape” and that I was getting thrush, I was really impressed by this milk production. Milk! Milk that drip dripped every time Boone cried, milk that seeped at the edge of his mouth as he fed, milk that sweetened his breath and made him smell even more like caramel. Eventually, the soreness subsided as we both learned how to do this thing until one day it didn’t hurt at all and Boone, good student that he is, had a latch that looked just like the idealized cartoons in the midwives’ pamphlet. Best of all, I could see that first layer of fat being laid down, turning his spindly little newborn limbs into chubby little baby ones. I couldn’t have been more proud, or felt more important.

I spent most of my days feeding Boone and feeding myself so that I could feed Boone. I thought I had had an appetite when I was pregnant but it was only at this point that I was really eating for two. As I lay supine on the couch, I thought about all the animals I’d ever seen feeding their young and how the mothers would lay there, supine—just like me. The maternity-leave lattes I downed in the name of calories and calcium began to tang in my mouth in a very unappealing way. I would ignore this, of course, and remind myself that I needed that latte and while I was at it, that hunk of cake with cream, thank you very much. As the months went on and breastfeeding took on a greater significance (that is, it was everything—comforter, sickness and teething gauge, sleep aid, love transmitter), I became more and more uncomfortable with consuming dairy. One day I heard a voice say loud and true: that milk’s for the baby cows. A chance visit to April’s family’s dairy farm and her explanation of the dairy process confirmed these persistent little niggles I’d been having. I thought about becoming vegan.

This wasn’t the first time I’d thought about becoming vegan; the last time was in Portugal when I had eaten a whole chicken. The idea had been bouncing around in my head for a while when about this time three years ago, I was watching Oprah when my BFF (that would be Alicia Silverstone to everyone else) came on. She was promoting her vegan cookbook, by way of promoting Whole Foods, by way of promoting a Broadway play she was in at the time. I did no research; I simply let the Oprah marketing do its thing and I ordered the book. Just to, you know, try it out.

It arrived right when I needed it, smack in the middle of dissertation writing. I couldn’t have asked for a better distraction. Since I was looking for a really good distraction, I decided to forego the vegan lite section intended for beginners, with its easy recipes and inclusion of mock meats, and go straight to the back of the book, to the advanced vegan section with its labour-intensive, Japanese, supremely clean, macrobiotic madness. My BFF, she tried to warm me. She had made suggestions like going out to eat in Asian restaurants and getting store-bought snacks. My quest for dissertation distraction, however, was such that I had to cook every single breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and every condiment and snack in between), each meal consisting of several individual components that needed to be steamed or roasted or simmered gently for a good 40 minutes. More than once, I thought that I really could do with one of those industrial looking six-ring cookers.

The intense change in both the foods we were eating and the new style of cooking we were doing was equally matched by an intense improvement in our well-being. After just over a week of millet porridges, miso soups, and sides of steamed green vegetables with everything, we felt vital, energetic, amazing. We’d never felt so good!

It was never going to last, of course. Since I’d approached it as an experiment and had gone about the cooking as if I was in some sort of vegan bootcamp, it doesn’t surprise me that after about six weeks, I gave up. I can remember having a heart-sinking moment one of the very few times I’d eaten out during that six-week experiment; I was in a vegetarian/practically completely vegan restaurant, sitting down to have my meal and cup of tea, all proud of myself, when my hand automatically shot out to the milk jug on the table. I retracted my hand sheepishly only to look up and see that I was sitting opposite an ice-cream parlour. So this is what it is to be a vegan, I thought. Then, one evening in the middle of trying to enjoy a soya yoghurt, its grainy texture and overall taste proving anything but enjoyable, I declared that life was too short to go without dairy, specifically Irish dairy in the form of plain natural yoghurt. There were also the other white obstacles like mayonnaise and butter and ice-cream to contend with, not to mention the fact that I couldn’t get used to non-dairy milk in my tea.

We told ourselves that we had tried but it was just too hard. We couldn’t eat anything. It was just too hard. I was also pregnant by then, which had the effect of turning me off most food items.  Food was fine as long as it had never ever been anywhere near a clove of garlic or slice of onion. It was also fine as long as it didn’t have any flavour or resemble food, in general. But about a year later I was breastfeeding and food (the stuff that had flavour and texture!) and the fact that I needed so much of it, was brought back into focus. We’d gotten ourselves into a rut of relying on cheese and eggs because they were convenient. I ended up eating my own weight in beurre aux cristaux de sel de mer on our holidays. I wish I could remember the copy on the packet but it went something like this: aaaah, creamy butter melts on the tongue to give way to the suprising crunch of a salt crystal, at which point you just about come all over yourself. At the time, this copy was relevant to me. In the space of a week, I’d managed to consume two blocks of the stuff and even I, self-proclaimed lover of heart-hardening butter and salt, had to admit that it was too much. The not too subtle thoughts I kept having about baby cows wouldn’t stop, either. All of this pulled me towards going vegan again. This time was different. This time, it was a conviction, a calling. This time I didn’t say to myself that I was going to try out being vegan but that I was going to go vegan.

I didn’t have a timeframe, nor did I know exactly how I was going to make this change but I knew that it was going to happen, somehow. Sure enough, once I had made the decision, things started happening. I came across vegan blogs, had chance conversations with people who’d either given up dairy or were at one point vegan. All of the things that I’d previously seen as obstacles became small, solvable details. I ordered a few more cookbooks and dipped in and out of my BFF’s book and shock, even went so far as to cook dishes from the easier section. Unlike the time of the six-week experiment, I didn’t feel great immediately. I had cravings for chocolate or bread or “something sweet” constantly. The cheese craving kicked in at about the five-week mark. I persevered, I experimented more, the cravings eventually passed. About three months in, I began to feel nourished. I felt good in my blood. My taste buds changed and things I’d never really considered delicious before, simple things like black coffee with toast and jam, or bruschetta with chopped tomatoes, tasted delicious. I discovered almond milk and how nice it was in my tea. I became a sentimental fool for vegetables and developed the compulsion to write romantic pop songs for kale. Ooh baby, you’re so good to meeee, I can’t wait to get you into my machine, etc. At almost every meal I found myself saying “I love being vegan!”

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A little torrential rain isn’t enough to keep me away from €5 falafal!

Soon enough the notes I’d been taking along my “vegan journey” took a decided turn for the woo-woo. It wasn’t just a dietary change anymore but something much bigger, that bigger thing being a thing called . . . love! I had started out thinking that I had made this change to accommodate my new-found empathy for other breastfeeding animals but slowly I realized that was I was doing was actually an act of love. I wasn’t too surprised to find that this love extended to other beings but what did take me aback was what an act of love it was for me. I have had to practice saying no in the face of pervading culture, to stand up for myself and to ask for what I want, and often as a consequence of this, for help. Doing all of these things have been to the benefit of not just the good feeling in my blood but also how I feel about myself in my brain. None of these things I’ve had to do were easy. It was very difficult, at first, to say no to kindly offered cakes at friends’ houses, or to ask for something not explicitly stated on a menu in a restaurant, or to let friends know that I’m vegan, full in the knowledge that they would then freak out about what they could possibly give me when I visited. I must have thought really badly of people before because the first time I asked for soya milk in my latte, I was trembling with the thought of putting someone out and this leading to rolled eyes on their part and a bright red face on mine. As it happens, none of this has ever happened. Well, I probably have gone red-faced but the types of response I’ve gotten to my “special requests” have fallen into one of two categories: nonchalance and/or niceness. Asking for help, it turns out, invites care. Some people even seem to appreciate the challenge. All of these responses, I appreciate and welcome with open arms. And a special note to friends: whenever you make an effort, no matter how small or humble you think it is—be it offering peanut butter or beans on toast or buying vegan biscuits or stepping into a health food shop for the first time in your life—this generosity means the world to me and makes me feel loved. Thank you!

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Sometimes, I furtively eat things that were Not Purchased on the Premises. Nobody cares.

A lot of people say to me that being vegan sounds like a lot of work. And I have to concede that it is; I’ve had to learn new cooking methods and experiment with unusual ingredients, overcome shyness and open myself up to alternatives, to become comfortable enough with my own values so that the discomfort of others doesn’t bother me, and to always, always bring a snack. While this work may not always be easy, it’s also not that hard. In fact, all of this work is a pleasure. It’s like the idea I came across in yet another book I read when I was pregnant, the National Childbirth Trust book called Your Birth Year where they advised that if you didn’t love your new baby straight away to act out love through care. They said that by simply carrying out basic babycare—feeding, bathing, dressing—the love would come. This idea of love through action really struck me; the notion that love can be an active work, not passive acceptance or patient waiting, but real work. For me, the work of being vegan is love in action and, as with breastfeeding, it is a gift.