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Happy UK Mother’s Day – Body of a Motheress

Flaps of fabric at the mercy of a relentless wind or the invariable fluttering of ample bird wings. That’s what I heard when I listened to my son Enlai’s heartbeat for the first time while eight weeks pregnant.

I imagined his tiny heart beating inside the echo chamber that was my womb, thinking about how for a time my body would be host to two heartbeats, each beating at its own rate. Eventually, my frame would accommodate two of every organ, four eyes, eight limbs, and countless veins, arteries and capillaries.

The woman-to-mother metamorphosis, with panoptic physical changes, made me observe and appreciate my own form as I never had before. My wonder and respect for the female body’s capabilities has grown as I have grown, from being barely pregnant to a mother of a six-year-old and a 20-month old – its ability to conceive, to house and nurture, to deliver, to feed, to care for, to soothe.

I realised that I and my fellow pregnant women were all too oft required to surrender our bodies during pregnancy, not only to our unborn child, but also to doctors, midwives and nurses, to passersby on the streets. While visiting my midwives during the last trimester, I remember on several occasions having my legs open to their easternmost and westernmost points with my knees north, allowing latexed hands inform as to whether all was okay. As I walked along streets, into shops or onto public transport, strangers would touch my belly. My bump was no longer mine; it seemed to belong to anyone who found it fascinating. I never minded; I was touched by the touch.

While pregnant with my second son Lumen, I was more attuned to my body’s adjustments. I knew I was pregnant before an early predictor test could tell me I was. When I began bleeding in my first trimester and assumed I miscarried, my body was hinting to me to go slow, to perhaps listen to more of Miles’ Kind of Blue, less of his Bitches Brew. I learned that I developed a subchorionic haematoma, which the outer fetal membrane eventually reabsorbed. It is at this same time that a friend told me she had miscarried and another friend divulged that her son and daughter were conceived via a donor.

This is a woman’s body, when she decides she would like to have a baby, until the time her body says to her she can no longer have a baby – her blood speaks to her like the hands of a clock speak to the rest of the world, her fallopian tubes may reveal to her that her uterus will have to welcome the eggs of another woman, her abdomen may hint at loss of life, her skin may become discoloured, stretched, freckled, moled or swathed in bumps, her hormones may wreak havoc, her breasts may swell to the size of watermelons and then become saggy apricots, her hair may become as full as the girl’s in the shampoo ad and then fall out en masse. Her hairline might change altogether. She may be confronted with haemorrhoids, spider veins, or varicose veins. She may get a tingling in her breasts when it is time to feed her baby or a throbbing and fever when the baby wasn’t hungry. She may suffer pelvic organ prolapse, she may urinate without knowing she has. She may welcome prominent biceps from carrying this, and back pain from carrying that. Her foot size may increase. She may have new curves, loss in muscle tone and changes in fat deposits. And when her body wants to say to her that she can no longer bear her own children, she may cry, she may scream, she may be grateful for what her body has already given her or mourn what it could not.

Contemplating the body of a mother, I embarked on a project which entailed photographing mothers’ body parts. The initial concept was to document a change in identity when a woman becomes a mother, highlighting the forgotten, whether they are body parts consigned to oblivion by a partner or the woman herself when she became a mother. I gave them the option of telling me which part of their body they’d like me to photograph or allowing me to choose.

As projects do, this one evolved. While some moms offered their Caesarean section scars and the stretch marks on their breasts, bum and bellies, others asked if there was a way I could photograph their insides – “My insides are ripped apart when I see my child hurting. How do you photograph this?”

Throughout my sessions with these moms, I was reminded of Robert Frank’s words – the eye should learn to listen before it looks. My eyes listened. Just as my heart listened when I heard my son’s heartbeat. And when the eyes and heart listen, stories unfold. Stories of life lived and given. Given and lived.


My Breasts Are Better Than Kate Upton’s

With the amount of breastfeeding news stories in the media, what else could there be to say about the topic? Compare my mom boobs to a model’s jubblies? Maybe. Add that to a few other observations about the sweet suckledom, a subject which seems to invite the most opinionated, some of whom shock the bra straps right off me.

The first person – an elderly gentleman – to provide a mouthful on my own mammary glands proclaimed, “Oh, this is most inappropriate. You should cease this nonsense immediately.” I was in an embassy, and I began to breastfeed my 12-week-old son in what I thought was a discreet manner. Mind you, I never used a nursing cover – an apron-like garment that conceals the feed. I assumed that if I wasn’t keen to eat under a blanket during meal time due to a feeling of suffocation, my son probably wouldn’t be either. This gentleman – or not-so-gentle man – made me cry with his unsolicited comments. Due to still-settling hormones, and what felt like a betrayal by the breast is best campaign, I wept, tears falling on my feeding son’s cheeks. I said nothing to the man, but I wanted to say, “I make milk. The boob juice feeds my child, best stuff on the planet for him right now. It’s a bit of a superpower I have. What do your man-boobs do?”

The second time I was the recipient of comments of the anti-boobs-au-lait-in-public variety, I was having dinner at a local pizza joint with a friend, my five-year-old and my five-month-old. There were two other diners – a man and a woman – across the room from us. My friend asked if I heard the comments the man just made: “Oh that breastfeeding is putting me off my food. It’s outrageous.” I’m happy I hadn’t. What I found odd is that this man’s back was to me. The woman he was dining with felt obligated to inform him that there was a semi-visible breast in the vicinity. The man kept turning around, and it was after the fourth or fifth time doing so that my friend was tempted to say something. I finished feeding my son, we got the bill and we left.

There were other times when observations voiced were kinder, more innocent. When I fed my son Lumen in the playground, a handful of my older son’s friends felt compelled to gather around me as if I was Santa redistributing gifts that the naughty kids never received. Some giggled, others asked why I was doing this, and one young boy asked, “Does it hurt?” I answered honestly, saying that there were times when it was painful. He then asked, “Then why don’t you stop?” I responded, “There’s a little thing called sacrifice that mothers do for their children. And of course the meta-analyses of scientific studies of this milk that’s coming out of my breast and into Lumen’s mouth right now prove that his immunity is being boosted and that feeding anything else to him right now is more likely to make him ill.” The bemused little youngster ran away. One young girl, part curious, part frightened of cannibalism, shouted, “He’s eating her. Aaahhh. Run away before he starts eating us.”

While spending time with my fellow moms, one remarked on my “milk sprinkler system” as I brought my son to my breast. And I told her that I was going through a box of disposable breast pads quicker than Kim Kardashian can post selfies. A couple of additional moms made note of the way the veins on my mama melons pulsated as my son was feeding. Like a lactation landscape of blue roots throbbing under pale, rolling hills. If only JMW Turner were alive today.

Chest chatter aside, there are other things about breastfeeding that I was unaware of until my moment arrived. I was incredibly fortunate that both of my boys latched on with nay difficulty. Despite this, I was ill-prepared for the letdown sensation, often referred to as the milk ejection reflex – the tingly, pressurey pain in breasts when the milk lets down, set off by hormones to stimulate the melon muscles to squeeze out the goods. If my sons so much as cried, letdown occurred. And if another baby cried, if I simply looked at a letter showing a hungry child in an impoverished country, if I heard a machine whose sound resembled my breast pump, letdown followed. Loony boobs, perhaps, but I’d like to believe mine were breasts of the hyper-empathetic strain.

As well, I was ignorant to how using a breast pump can be considered practice for a mammogram. The machine manages to serve as a flower press for the boob blossoms, with a noisy suction attached to it. The noise frightened my breasts on occasion, and letdown became letmebackup. I had to use my iPod to drown the noise, and the milk flow got its groove back.

I learned that breastfeeding on demand is no joke. My younger son has had an appetite from the day he was born, and I was supplying the nipple tipple about every two hours, including in a moving lift/elevator, on trains and buses, on the floor of many a shop, at art exhibitions, on curbs/kerbs. I had a tremendous amount of gratitude for shops that had breastfeeding rooms or WCs/restrooms that didn’t smell like toilets.

With breastfeeding on demand came the realisation that breastfeeding sucks sometimes. Literally. With my Enlai, we both had a bout of thrush/yeast infection – he in his mouth, and I in my breast. Common during breastfeeding because it thrives in moist, warm, sugary spots – which is exactly what a baby’s mouth is like during breastfeeding – the infection can then pass to the mama’s mamilla. Fun, fun times, but easily curable with prescription cream. With my Lumen, I had mastitis five times. Because he was feeding so often, my breasts were always full. If he overslept or decided he wasn’t as hungry one day, this was enough for a bout of mastitis – inflammation or infection of the breast. Imagine a hard, burning, throbbing baseball under a breast, making it tender to the touch and giving the body to whom the boob belongs a fever, chills, aches and pains. Now imagine breastfeeding with that same breast, up to 12 times a day. Admittedly, I do not have a high pain threshold, but mastitis was agony. Agony.

And although my personal feeling that once a woman becomes a mom, she loses a lot of her inhibitions – with doctors, midwives and nurses checking out her girly bits and asking when the last time she had a roll in the hay was, how can she not – I was still keen to keep feeding time a private party. To this end, I was ecstatic to make the acquaintance of breastfeeding tank tops/vests, especially while breastfeeding during those cold winter months. Those vests answer the call of modesty, and truth be told, they look less pornographic than some of the breastfeeding bras.

To those semi frontal feeding faultfinders, I have this to express: I am most proud of being a mother and of trying to give my sons the best possible start in life. I am swollen with pride that I persevered in breastfeeding, and perseverance is the correct word. Despite the fact that only 25% of six-month-olds in the UK receiving any breast milk at all, and with exclusive breastfeeding rates running at less than 1%, I managed to breastfeed both of my sons exclusively for at least six months. I say that those appalled with breastfeeding in public may want to have some words with the Department of Health and its “breast is best” campaign. Might I suggest you ask these lactivists to change the slogan to the less-catchy “breast is best, but only behind closed doors”. And while you’re speaking to them, you might also want to ask them to curtail their somewhat aggressive campaign, so as to not make my fellow moms who are not able to breastfeed feel like they’ve let humanity down. I want to ask you what you think of the da Vinci, Rubens and Picasso paintings, among the hundreds of others, depicting breastfeeding, some with – shock, horror – milk dripping from the nipple. Or even the Victoria Memorial right outside Buckingham Palace, whose statue facing the palace shows Charity, a seated figure breastfeeding a baby while placing her arm around another infant and with a third infant at her feet.

I want to say to these folks that I’ve no doubts that, given the chance to stare without anybody judging you, you have probably admired Miss Upton’s and her well-endowed contemporaries’ jubblies. And these jubblies may be the jubblies that helped sell a thousand copies of a certain sports, fashion or obscene magazine, but my bosom, my smaller-but-still-perky, vein-mapped, subjected-to-thrush-and-mastitis bosom is the bosom that helped launch two little ships.

Snapshot on Suzy Flood

Having been exposed to the work of photographer Suzy Flood and thinking it something very special – beautiful, sublime, haunting, timeless – I found myself asking her to photograph my son Enlai.

Her photographs of young children stayed on my mind days after looking at them.  I could see these children’s faces everywhere I looked.  Their gazes seemed to be fixed, and collectively, it seemed as though the children were amongst a group that perhaps lived in the woods, laughing, playing, singing, running around barefoot and climbing trees.  And they only stopped long enough to take a photo for Suzy.  Because of this, I imagined she had some sort of magical power over them.

Of course the children she has photographed are not Children of the Woods, nor is Suzy a magician.  What she is is a photographer who knows what she’s doing and, upon meeting the child, realises the image she wants.  She gets a feel for the child, allows him/her to reveal themselves and is patient for that revelation.  I asked Suzy if I could interview her to gain insight into her and her practice.  Below is an excerpt from this interview.

Despite W. C. Fields’ advice to never work with animals or children, you have chosen to.  What made you decide to start photographing children?  Crazy, I know but I think that’s the draw for me.  The challenge, the unpredictability and the amazing little people I discover during the process.  Kids are just incredible.

Can you remember what initially made you decide to try your hand in photography?  My mother had an old brownie camera and I was completely fascinated by it.  Most photographers say it was the magic of the image but for me it was all about the machine, the rest came later.

Do you think having a child had an impact on your approach to photography and the subjects that you chose to photograph?  Completely.  If you showed me a crystal ball ten years ago (my daughter is now six) I wouldn’t have believed what I saw — me photographing children?  Life is very funny.

Were you exposed to art and/or photography as a child?  Yes.  Mostly film and some photography, again from my mother.  Lots of Italian and art house stuff.

When I first saw your photographs, I thought of Julia Margaret Cameron photographs.  What or who inspires your photography?  Where do I begin? August Sander and Rineke Dijkstra for their direct formal approach to portraiture.  The many anonymous Victorian photographers for their romance.  Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange and Sebastião Salgado for their heart and dedication.  Many more but I won’t bore you.

While working for Condé Nast, Hearst, Time Inc. and The New  York Times Magazine Group, did you ever run into difficult situations over creative differences?  Nothing major, although I remember once I had a camera malfunction while shooting Joanne Woodward at her home.  I was gutted and they couldn’t use any of it.  And she was so lovely she brought me sandwiches!

Do you prefer to photograph in a studio or outdoors?  Definitely outdoors.  There’s something about children in nature that I find really compelling.  And those grey London skies couldn’t be matched by the most expensive studio light made — although it gets a bit tricky for me when the sun comes out!

What camera(s) do you shoot with?  I miss my film cameras greatly but when they stopped making the films and papers I liked I spent many hours perfecting a digital process that would meet my vision and quality standards.  I now happily use a Canon 5D Mark II mostly with a beautiful 50mm 1.2 lens.

What do you require, if anything, children to bring to one of your shoots?  Bring themselves and some patience, maybe a small treat to “make the magic happen”.  Sometimes a prop, a toy, hat, or costume can add a little something.  I generally tell parents to keep clothing simple and not too dark (no stripes please).

How much input do parents have during a shoot?  It varies.  Most parents are pretty hands off, which seems to work well with most kids.  Sometimes I have them hold the reflector, which keeps them on the scene but busy.  My best pictures happen when it’s a collaboration between me and the child.  Having said that, some parents have proved incredibly helpful and artistic.

Why do you think parents would opt for you to photograph their child(ren) as opposed to a more commercial photographer?  That’s hard for me to answer without embarrassing myself but some clients have said they liked the timeless quality of my pictures and could see them hanging in their homes beside ancestral photographs.  I’ve also been told that they look more like something you might see in a gallery and that really appeals to some families.  I don’t know, I guess they’re just different.

Suzy will have a booth at Cabbages & Frocks Market in London this Saturday, 26 October from 11am to 5pm.  She is offering 20% off her session fee for all November bookings.

Brain Frieze: The Art Edit

It’s no big secret that I love art.  I’ve put pen to paper – or fingertips to keyboard – about a variety of art-related topics, about how my father exposed me to art from a very young age, about exhibitions my sons and I have been to, about teaching art to little ones.

So it comes as no surprise that come October every year, as a Londoner, I get this giddy feeling in my belly.  I anticipate all the works that I will be able to see, all the art my sons’ pretty little eyes will be able to take in.

It’s not all about that miniscule art fair in Regent’s Park every tenth month of every year.  Frieze, I think it’s called.  It’s about the air in London for those whole 31 days.  It’s autumn and chilly but the sun still comes out.  There’s rain, but there’s a crisp day not too far away.  There’s half-term and Halloween, but above all, there is art.  It’s everywhere, hiding under burnt-orange and red-yellow leaves, beneath the tyres of black cabs, ebbing and flowing with the Thames, splashing on brollies, lurking in old stairwells and inside gargoyles’ mouths, and hovering in Turner skies.

The Frieze Art Fair is like the patriarch who invites his entire family of galleries – the distant cousin in Bogota, the grandchildren in New York, the aunt in Beijing and the nephews in Paris – to come to town wearing their best garb and showcase themselves as if they were Prince Harry’s “crown jewels”.

And like patriarch Michael Corleone, Frieze can be intimidating.  Especially if you’re a parent with a child whose attention span is…oh, did someone say pizza?  Or if your child is having a tantrum and in so doing, about to knock over an £8,000 sculpture.  This year, while I would like to take my boys to Frieze, I think that for health and safety reasons – my health, their safety – I’ll opt to take them to the Frieze Sculpture Park, as well as expose them to art at different white cubes around town, on alternate days.

It’s good for their being, this art stuff.  While at the “Photography, Motherhood and Identity” exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery (which runs until 5 January 2014), my six-year-old Enlai asked a lot of questions and made a lot of comments, including noting that Ana Casas Broda’s body was different than mine.  We talked about female bodies and how they may change after giving birth, and I reminded him that this is often how humans learn and make sense of the world around them – by comparing and contrasting.  And this led to a conversation about balance, about responsibility, about unconditional love.  All this from looking at one photographer’s project.

Here are some local exhibitions I think my and your youngins might enjoy:

Some sweeties for your sweeties

Pop over to Blain Southern on Hanover Square to see Candy, a show highlighting Damien Hirst’s Visual Candy series alongside Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ candy sculptures.  Children will likely appreciate Gonzalez-Torres’ candy spills made of candies individually wrapped in coloured cellophane.  They are allowed to “interact” with these candy sculptures, choosing to touch, take or eat the candy.  Hirst’s colourful paintings, two entitled “Some Fun” and “Dippy Dappy Dabby”, set out to question the implication that aesthetically pleasing art is inherently insignificant.  This, from an artist who said “…art is about life – there isn’t anything else.”

Lots of flashing lights

I took my 14-month-old Lumen to see Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima’s I-Model at Lisson Gallery, and he seemed completely fascinated.  Perhaps it’s because light itself is his namesake, but it was as though he was hypnotised by the glittering panels of coloured LED numbers and the connected wires that were sculptures in themselves.  We stepped into the domed “Life Palace (Tea House)” structure after taking our shoes off and sat – mesmerised – by the constellation of blue lights, with numbers glowing and blinking in the dark space.  The fact that it is highly unlikely that Lumen understood the concepts and years of research behind these pieces is no matter; he was intrigued by what was in front of him, and this is always enough for me.

A sort of anti-painting which includes painting

In all honesty, I’m eager to take my little fellas to this show, The Show is Over at Gagosian Gallery, Britannia Street, for the sheer amount of artists exhibited, several of whom are some of the most remarkable artists of the 20th century, including Willem de Kooning, Yves Klein, Roy Lichtenstein, Sigmar Polke, Richard Prince, Gerhard Richter, Ed Ruscha, Cy Twombly, and Andy Warhol.  While I imagine Enlai and Lumen might welcome the diversity of works on display, I am fascinated with the concept of the negation of painting.  These works show punctures and slashes, monochromatic planes, and anarchistic symbols, all of which aim to confront the limits of painting.

Ashy phones and radios

Similar to the relics our children may have witnessed at the British Museum, Daniel Arsham’s ash- and glass-cast treasures – Polaroid camera, film projector, radio, Mickey Mouse telephone, microphone, and locks – provide an entry to conversations with our precious little people about history, civilisations, technology, and materials.  A relatively small exhibition by Arsham, who is a sculptor, painter, filmmaker and architect, #recollections at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery also includes a life-size cast of broken glass and resin of himself.  He looks like a contemporary version of a petrified Pompeian who is shielding his eyes from something.  I will ask Enlai if he thinks he was shielding his eyes because he was appalled by the threat of technology, was he making a gesture of denial about what was happening around him, was he trying to pause for a moment to make a mental note of all his surroundings, or was the sun too bright that day and he forgot his sunglasses.

Tutankhamen’s tomb and cloth sculptures

There are not one, but two exhibitions worth taking the munchkins to at Annely Juda Fine Art just off New Bond Street.  Yuko Shiraishi’s Signal show features eight paintings and the installation “Netherworld”, the latter of which I’m most enthusiastic to expose my boys to.  Inspired by the thought that death and stars are related, and influenced by the structural design of Tutankhamen’s tomb and the cycle of a star’s life, she created the installation – placed in a closed off section of the gallery, which is tinged in blue to resemble the night sky – to depict the numerous layers in an Egyptian tomb.  The early works of Japanese artist Katsuhiro Yamaguchi are on display in Imaginarium, his first show in London.  A member of Experimental Workshop, whose philosophy was to treat experiment as if it were as important in art as it is in science, he wants viewers to interact, even involuntarily, with his works, which in this show include light sculptures, cloth sculptures, vitrines, drawings, photographs and videos.

Human and computer collaboration on abstract paintings

In a space between analogue and digital lives Jeff Elrod’s art practice.  His show at Simon Lee Gallery, which includes large-scale abstract paintings, explores late 20th century abstraction and the emergence of sophisticated software and print technology.  His pieces, with such titles as “Sock in the Eye”, “Orange Julius” (oh, the memories of having an Orange Julius at the local shopping mall are rushing back to me!) and “I Can’t See Neon” include blotches, scribbles, doodles, spots, flecks, streaks, sprays, and frazzled lines.  I imagine my boys will be inspired to create their own versions of Jeff Elrod pieces, minus any help from technology.

An electric alphabet soup

My sons will have no idea of the history, the three years behind Shannon Ebner’s The Electric Comma show on at Sadie Coles HQ and a parallel project Black Box Collision A which is on view at the gallery’s mews location, but they don’t need to.  While my little guy is being exposed to letters in books and my older guy is busy studying for spelling tests, I think they’ll both appreciate and feel a sense of familiarity with Ebner’s letters and words.  The show features six black-and-white photographs depicting portions of The Electric Comma, which began as a 13-line poem, as well as a video that animates photographs of the portable changeable message sign (usually used to inform of accidents, road closures or detours) the artist rented, taken in 15 different positions over the course of one day.  Black Box Collision A is made up of 13 large-scale photographs of the letter ‘A’ which were found on walls, vehicles, electronic surfaces and building façades.  I think Enlai and I will attempt to come up with words or cities or countries that begin with the letter “A” for each of the 13 photographs.

Pop goes the art show

There’s something in this exhibition – Pop Imagery at Waddington Custot Galleries – for every child.  The group exhibition of painting and sculptures by such artists as Patrick Caulfield, Claes Oldenburg, and Robert Rauschenberg includes objects easily recognisable to children, including flags, targets, maps, colour pyramids, robots and a giant meatball on a spoon.  I’m guessing it might be a bit tricky to keep small hands off of some of these pieces.

2013: An Allergy Odyssey

I look at pasta and baguettes, at pastries and ice cream with disdain.  In the back of my mind I know they’re inanimate objects, but when I stare at them, I imagine they are lurking with malevolent intentions.  When I walk past bakeries, I sometimes resent that alluring aroma that invades my breathing space.  And when I pass the nut section in my market, I get this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I’m not worried about what these foods may do to my waistline; I’m the mother of a child who is severely allergic to multiple foods.

Months ago, my now 14-month-old son Lumen suffered a series of anaphylactic reactions.  I suspected the culprit was milk after his first anaphylactic reaction.  What I didn’t imagine was that he would be allergic to over 20 additional foods.

After his second anaphylactic reaction, he was given a skin prick test and an immunoglobulin E (IgE) blood test which measures the blood level of IgE, one of the five subclasses of antibodies. The immune system makes antibodies, proteins that attack antigens, one antigen being food allergens.

During the time we were awaiting the IgE blood test results, Lumen suffered two more reactions, one from breast milk.  The doctor ordered me to go on an exclusion diet, eliminating all the foods he suspected Lumen might be allergic to.  While only trace amounts of the allergens were likely coming through my breast milk, these scintilla quantities were enough to cause a reaction.  This is exactly what happened.  As I was breastfeeding Lumen in the hospital, he started to develop a rash all over his face as well as become agitated.  The doctor who was sitting right next to me told me to stop feeding immediately.  She gave him an antihistamine and told me that I was no longer allowed to breastfeed my son.  What had nourished him exclusively for the first six months of his life was now threatening his life.

Test results in, the doctors confirmed that Lumen was severely allergic to multiple foods, including milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, rye, barley, oats, soy, corn, peas, green beans, sunflower, sesame, lentils, chickpeas, coconut, strawberries, and bananas, among others.

Upon revealing the test results to me, the doctor gazed at me with a look all parents in my situation must get – a look that said it wasn’t the end of the world, but that it would be a voyage for the vigilante, one who would soon become familiar with obsessive compulsive hand-washing, crumb-cleaning disorder, paired with paranoia-induced paralysis which becomes a mild or maybe not-so-mild form of agoraphobia, in addition to becoming a slave to ingredient lists and in the case of swelling, rashes, and wheezing, feeling a lonely contestant in the game of name that food perpetrator.

Before we left the hospital, the doctors prescribed Neocate LCP, a 100% amino acid-based infant formula to be used by babies with multiple food protein intolerance under strict medical supervision.  Without a prescription, one tin of this formula costs £33 ($53).  We walked home, and as soon as we entered our flat, I sat on the floor, holding Lumen and crying.  I couldn’t stop crying.  And I felt very alone.  It was at this moment that Lumen also started crying because he was hungry.  As my breast milk leaked through the breast pads and my shirt, I made a bottle of this new formula for my little guy.  The formula reeked to me of rancid potatoes, making me gag.  Unsurprisingly, Lumen was not interested in drinking it.  He started banging his head on my chest, saying “Oooh, oooh.”  Whenever I would breastfeed him, I’d say, “Let’s have some foooood!”  He was saying “food, food” as he knew how.

From the moment he was born, Lumen has loved his “food”.  I fed on demand, which was about every two hours.  I suffered from mastitis five times because any time he didn’t feed right at the two hour mark, my breasts became too full, and I wasn’t always somewhere where I could empty them.  On this particular day when Lumen’s doctor directed me to cease breastfeeding cold turkey, I could feel a sixth bout of mastitis coming on.  I called my doctor to ask for a prescription for a pill that would dry up my milk as I couldn’t bear mastitis at this already trying time, and I didn’t want Lumen to smell my milk or have an allergic reaction as I held him to my chest.  My doctor refused and essentially said that I would have to endure the pain.  That night, with Lumen still refusing to drink any of this formula and crying as he never did before, I felt completely defeated.  We both eventually cried ourselves to sleep.

I woke up in the early hours, the bed underneath me soaked with breast milk.  I was so frightened Lumen might have an allergic reaction lying on this milk – he is so sensitive that he has not only suffered anaphylactic reactions from ingestion, but from contact – that I moved him and laid several layers of blankets underneath him.  I prayed to a god I was finding it difficult to believe in any longer.

I called the hospital in the morning to inform the doctor that Lumen refused to drink any of the formula, and he said to bring him in.  After examining him, the doctor said that if he didn’t drink any formula in the next 48 hours, he would have to be admitted for intravenous feeding.  Lumen seemed to understand the doctor, and with the help of prescribed cherry vanilla flavouring, started drinking the formula that night.

Everything in our lives has changed.  We eat differently, we think differently, we behave differently, we react differently, and it is difficult for us – including my six-year-old son Enlai – to completely relax.  Being the mother of a child with multiple severe allergies means that we often do not eat at the same time, as a family.  At this stage, I feel it’s unfair for Lumen – who, in addition to his formula, now eats about 10 different foods regularly – to have to watch his brother and me eat a variety of foods, most of which he is not allowed to eat.

It means only rarely going out to eat and even then, always bringing Lumen’s food with us.  It means limiting the time we spend in bakeries or coffee shops because the wheat allergen can be airborne, as can milk powders, egg powders and “nut dust”. It means complete removal of peanuts and tree nuts from our home and not allowing anyone to enter our home with either.

It means utilising a magnifying glass as if I’m Sherlocka Holmes to read ingredient lists.  And becoming frustrated when the ingredient lists are not available or are in another language.  I’ve become an expert in learning what grano, linsen, and majs are.  It means contacting corporate headquarters to find out the ingredients and even then, sometimes finding out the hard way that they either forgot to inform me of one ingredient or that one of their employees managed to cross-contaminate food.

It means less play dates than we used to have, and when friends do come over, having to give them an unfortunate but necessary education on how a crumb can be responsible for taking a life.  It means scouring rooms, pavements, playground floors, and park walkways for food scraps.

It means separate kitchenware for Lumen – cutting boards, cutlery, sponges, towels, pots, pans, dishes, everything.  While washing items in the dishwasher should theoretically remove the possibility of a food allergen, because he is so sensitive, I do not take any chances.  I wash all of his kitchenware separately, by hand, with dish soap and his sponge.

It means reading toothpaste ingredient lists.  It means having to throw away hundreds of pounds worth of shampoos, conditioners, cleansers, lotions, creams, and makeup.  And seldom wearing perfume.  It means only kissing Lumen when there is nothing on my lips or just Vaseline.  It’s mind-blowing how many beauty products contain food allergens.

It means no teething powders because one of the ingredients is milk.  And no liquid Calpol, Nurofen or Tylenol because they contain xanthan gum, and xanthan gum is derived from either wheat, corn or soy, all three of which Lumen is allergic to.  It means having to become comfortable with using paracetamol suppositories.

It means changing his laundry soap and washing all his clothes separately.  And it means big brother Enlai has to either shower now or, if he wants to take a bath, to only bathe using the same emollients Lumen uses.  It means no harsh chemical cleaners when cleaning our home.

It means having to endure looks from passers-by who see Lumen drinking his pink-tinted formula, often times I suspect because they assume I’m giving him sugar-packed strawberry milk.  One woman felt compelled to tell me off for giving my son “such a bad start in life.”

It means having friends and family afraid to touch or kiss Lumen, which breaks my heart.

It means that when we travel, having to call the airline/train operator well in advance to inform them of Lumen’s allergies, and to call at least two or three more times before our departure to confirm his allergies.  And on the day of travel, to remind the attendant at the counter and the air/train hostesses of his allergies.  It means that if one single person on a flight opens a pack of peanuts and the “protein dust” travels or enters the ventilation system of the aircraft, we are at risk of an anaphylactic reaction in the air.

It means Enlai and I having to apply copious amounts of lotion to our hands because we wash them so much they often crack and bleed.

It means having to show anyone who may ever be alone with Lumen how to use the EpiPen and to remind them often how to use it.  It means familiarising myself with cetirizine, ranitidine, dalivit, seravit, dermol 500, eumovate, hydrocortisone, cetraben, epaderm, asthma inhalers and spacers.  And it means having to thoroughly weigh the cost-benefit of vaccines.

It means Lumen not being allowed to go to nursery because he requires 1:1 care, and there are no nurseries that provide this.  And if he is in any infant classes or is eventually allowed to go to nursery, it means having to make certain they know he is not allowed to be near a wide assortment of products, including egg boxes, egg shells, face paints, play dough, certain crayons, markers, and paints, modelling materials, such as nutty cereal boxes, and collage/filling materials such as pasta, nuts, beans and seeds.  And if ever there’s a field trip to a petting zoo, farm or any place with animals, it means extra caution is required.  While Lumen does not have an allergy to cats and dogs now, children with food allergies are more likely to develop additional allergies later, including to animals, dust, grass, mould, etc.

It means having to educate fellow parents that while it may be the most convenient thing for them to make a peanut butter sandwich for their child to take to nursery/school (for nurseries/schools that still allow any peanut products), it puts children with severe nut allergies’ lives at risk.

It means relying on the frankness of folks at the Anaphylaxis Society, and leaning on fantastic friends who also have children with food allergies.  I have two friends who have been nothing short of amazing, one of whom was my own bona fide You Have Just Learned You Have A Child With Multiple Allergies Tour Guide at the market.  She taught me in about one hour what must’ve taken her months, if not years, to learn after reading countless ingredient lists.  I was lent a practice EpiPen and allergy cookbooks, and received incredible support when we’ve discussed new allergies, skin prick tests, food challenges and other allergy issues.

Despite the change, my sons and I are happy.  We laugh a lot.  Lumen is thriving, in the 90th percentile for both height and weight.  His skin is beautiful.  And he hasn’t had an anaphylactic reaction in eight months.  He is the subject of an article being written for the British Medical Journal.  Enlai continues to be Enlai, always caring and very protective of his little brother.

Enlai and I are still trying to come up with a name for the evil villain who wears a cape emblazoned with a capital “A”.  Allergy Man just doesn’t seem a wicked enough moniker.  Moveable Feast Mobster, I ask him.  Or how about Comestible Crook?  He wasn’t keen on either suggestion.  He asked what my cape will have on it in this battle, and I replied, “I guess M for ma.”  He laughed and responded after much thought, “Maybe it should be C for crazy crumbs-cleaning ma.”  Perfect.  I’ll do whatever it takes, including being a crazy mom who is constantly cleaning crumbs and giving dirty looks to the croissants in the patisserie window.

Play It Again, Ma, for Mother’s Day

When I was a child, my mom used to play music on Sundays.  She probably played it every day, but it’s that Sunday music I recall most.  She’d pick out a few albums, including the usuals — Nicolette Larson’s “Nicolette”, Eric Clapton’s “Slowhand” and Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” — lean them up against the wood record player console cabinet, pull the first piece of vinyl out of its sleeve, place it down on the turntable, position the needle on the groove, and let life happen.

She would dance and sway her head while singing along to the lyrics.  And I, a five- or six-year old, would imagine I was Nicolette with her long hair and roller skates singing about how it was “gonna take a lotta love to change the way things are”.  While some were honouring the sacred and holy day, I was falling in love with Dylan asking a lady to lay across his big brass bed.  Those drums and a very early understanding of anticipation have never left me.  As my mom would close her eyes and hum along to Clapton’s “Cocaine”, I would sing, “She’s alright, she’s alright, she’s alright, cocaine.”  Wrong lyrics I would learn years later, but similar meaning.

The slightly muffled music coming from the speakers, the air, the time together is what I remember before my mom broke my heart.  Not in a “No you can’t have a quadruple scoop ice cream” or an “I don’t care if Sally Sue has the glitter hula hoop that emits a tune if you gyrate just right, you’re not getting one” sort of way, but in a way so profound it has impacted several aspects of my life.  I don’t believe she did it intentionally.

My mom is the child of a woman who — I’ve been given the impression — was not the most maternal.  She had some of her many children taken away, and my mom was forced to live in several different foster homes.  My mom married, had her marriage annulled, eventually met my father and became pregnant with me all while still a teenager.

I won’t make excuses for the fact she abandoned me and my brother as a lost traveller will sometimes leave behind his belongings in an attempt to persevere, but perspective is a helpful tool in life.  As are adversities.  She had adversities, I have adversities, my sons will have adversities.  But whichever hardships might be thrown their way, my boys will never, ever have to worry about me not being there for them.  For as long as Enlai and Lumen will allow me to, I will continue to sing and dance with them on Sundays and Wednesdays and probably even Tuesdays.  We will boogie until our limbs are shaky, sing the wrong lyrics, and laugh.

In honour of this Mother’s Day, I’ve gathered a list of some mother-related songs, written by mothers for their children, by sons or daughters for their mother, songs about mothers, about choices, about childbirth, about the passing of time, the majority of songs which are admittedly fairly sad and strike a personal chord.  My boys have listened to all these songs, and while the little guy wants to dance to everything, including ballads, my big boy is asking about lyrics and why singers choose to sing songs the way they do.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers who listen to music with their children, who sing and who dance with them.

Aloe Blacc – Mama Hold My Hand

John Lennon – Mother

James Brown – Mother Popcorn

Ray LaMontagne – Hey Me, Hey Mama

Lauryn Hill – Zion

Christina Aguilera – Oh Mother

Nina Simone – Blues for Mama

This Woman’s Work – written by Kate Bush and covered by Maxwell

For Mama – written by Charles Aznavour and covered by Ray Charles

Anaphylaxis, Blurriness and Life Lines

My son was gasping for breath.  I felt my baby, my seven-month-old Lumen — whose tongue was swollen and whose lips were so inflated his top one was blocking his nasal passage — slipping away. And I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t know what was happening.  He was crying, wheezing and burying his head in my chest.  And then he closed his eyes.

I called emergency, and when the ambulance arrived and checked his vitals the paramedics informed me that he had suffered an anaphylactic reaction.  This was to be the first of four within a matter of days.  All of them were similar, except for the third, when he woke up at 1am with his left eye so swollen he couldn’t open it. He stirred and then started crying hysterically, and because due to recent events I was sleeping with the lights on, I could see that this reaction was different.  He couldn’t catch his breath, and he was floppy.  Anyone who knows my Lumen knows he’s not floppy, even when he sleeps.  Two days prior, I was taught by the A&E doctor how to administer the EpiPen.  And in those early hours, I jabbed my son in the outer, upper third portion of his thigh. His demeanor changed.  He smiled at me, and he was bouncing up and down on the sofa.  If one administers this adrenaline injection one is required to call emergency.  When the paramedics arrived this time, they informed me that I may have just saved my son’s life.  Bittersweet words for any parent.

When we walked down the stairs to climb into the ambulance, I had to hand my son to the paramedics because I could not stop shaking and crying and feared I might drop him.  In the ambulance, they monitored Lumen’s vitals.  Because his heart rate and blood pressure continued to drop despite the injection, the paramedic said they would have to turn on the siren and inform the resuscitation team at the hospital to be ready.

The last month is blurry.  I see Lumen, and I see his big brother Enlai.  I see them giggling and crying.  I see both of them scared, sometimes for the same reason, sometimes for different reasons.  I see the inside of ambulances, with maternity kits, defibrillators, and the irony of gurneys branded with Pegasus.  I see eczema and blood, a nurse’s empathetic visage, and words on paper I don’t want to read.  I see life all around me, and again, I see death.

There are questions about life and death that I will never know the answers to, and maybe I shouldn’t.  As if he was following some sort of foreshadowing brief,  Enlai was asking questions about death and dying the week prior to Lumen’s anaphylactic reactions.  “Ma, what does ‘dead’ mean?  Will you die first or will I?”  I have my own hypothesis about what happens to humans when they die, and I shared my theory with Enlai.  Although he is five going on about 20, despite my explanation that we humans are unaware who will die when and that chronology doesn’t always factor in dying, he insisted that I would die first.  I responded that I don’t think we can say this with certainty, and that when a friend read my palm years ago, he declared that I had the longest life line he’d ever seen.  Enlai asked what a life line was and why I was talking about my palm, so I translated.  “Enlai, I will be here to take care of you and Lumen until I’m very, very old,” I said, and added, “Lumen and you will always have each other and should always look after one another.”

During the course of Lumen’s anaphylactic reactions, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about the cemetery where my granny is buried.  There is a section for babies, and I would often wander to this section after visiting her grave.  I don’t know why.  I remember thinking how small the plots were and how short of a span that dash on the gravestone represented.  I am not a morbid person, nor do I have a fascination with death.  I do, however, have an appreciation for the confrontation and acceptance of death, and for artists such as Damien Hirst and poets like Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allen Poe, who underscore death in their respective art and poetry.  They, I believe, have a special understanding of life and what it is to live.  Viewing and reading their nods to mortality, I seem to appreciate life more.  I live more fully.  I live and I laugh.  And I love.

Despite the fact that food allergy-induced anaphylaxis is not a death sentence, it can be life-threatening, and this scares me. US data extrapolation — with similar findings reported in theUK — shows 150 deaths annually per 100,000 people, and a study in Denmark detailed an incidence of 3.2 cases of food anaphylaxis per 100,000 inhabitants per year with a fatality rate of approximately 5%.

The term anaphylaxis comes from the Greek words ana, meaning against and phylaxis, meaning protection.  But Lumen is not against protection.  He has me, a vigilant mom who loves him and his brother more than anything.  The gods, or whomever sent Lumen to me and then threatened to take him away four times, have only proven that they do not know me.  I’m biased, to be sure, but I know the world needs Lumen.  And I’ve reassured Enlai by showing him Lumen’s life line, which is as long as they come.

My Lumen

You, my week-old son Lumen, are a miracle.  My belly was not plump with your presence by conventional means, nor was everything straightforward during the pregnancy.  I stare at you now with an overwhelming gratitude for every cell of which you are composed, every utterance of your petite lips, every grasp of my finger with your tiny hand, your wrinkly knees and strong legs, your cry to which I will respond for all of your days, your light.

After feeding you at 4am this morning, I somehow thought of Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”.  I must have been pondering how quickly time goes.  Your brother — him with his four-syllable words, logical explanations and eyes that seem to have experienced several lifetimes — will be five years old this month, and it seems like last Wednesday I was cradling him in my arms as I do you now.

I want to hold on to this time, the right here and right now, these moments with you and your brother, these moments which remind me of Wordsworth’s lines: 

Ye blessed creatures, I have heard the call
Ye to each other make; I see
The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee;
My heart is at your festival,
My head hath its coronal,
The fullness of your bliss, I feel—I feel it all…

…Behold the Child among his new-born blisses…

To my special, special Lumen, thank you for these first days of what I know will be an extraordinary life.







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Going Into Labour at Work

‘Twas the week before my maternity leave,
And everyone at work
Kept asking what I was still doing there
With the imminent birth.
With T minus 13 days until
My little bun was done baking,
I thought I might play a joke on my boss
And shout out during my last week, “Ahh, my waters are breaking!”
My plan in place,
And I felt full of mischief, full of glee
But little did I know
The joke was on me…

My boss and I get along like a house on fire. I’m more the humble abode component, he’s more the fiery, energetic element. From day one, he has had me howling with laughter at stories of his wild life in South Africa. When I say wild, I mean outrageously outlandish — a combination of a childhood, adolescence and adulthood that could easily be depicted across the tabloid talk show, pulse-pounding police pursuits, and mafia documentary genres.

Though it may seem incongruous with having lead such a life, he is generally Sovereign of the Softies. Throughout my pregnancy at work, he would indulge me with Caribbean rotis, bacon baps, piri piri chicken wraps, homemade sandwiches, bakewell tarts, and dates (of the edible variety; I believe his pimping days ended long ago). And he always had treats for me to take home to my little guy.

So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that in my last days at work, he created a makeshift labour ward/delivery room ready for me in case my waters broke at work, and my contractions were coming on so strong that making it to the hospital was not an option. He even offered to be the obstetrician extraordinaire.

But, before you go doling out accolades and nominating him for a Nobel Prize in recognition of his work in maternity achievements, I recommend you view his labour ward/delivery room.

(Please note that what you are about to witness might be disturbing. These photos and the explanation of them should not be shared with any US-based employment lawyers).

The contents and my boss’s reasoning for the delivery room accoutrement include (L to R):

A desk lamp – “In case I need to go up and retrieve the baby”

A mug – “Obstetricians work long hours and need coffee during deliveries”

Wooden blocks – “Old school stirrups”

A lunch box – “Something to keep the baby insulated and take him home in”

Scouring sponge – “In case I need to clean my shoes up afterwards”

Methylated spirits – “If it can remove ink stains, it can probably remove any stains from the delivery”

Box of staples – “No explanation needed, really”

Antibacterial hand wash, gel and wipes – “I’ve heard things get messy”

Yes, the joke was on me, and needless to say, I’m happy to be home on maternity leave now with absolutely no chance of going into labour while at work.

Father’s Day – Thank You for the Music

It’s Father’s Day, and for those that have followed my blog, you are aware of the love and admiration I have for my dad. Although we speak regularly, it has not been easy living in different countries. There are things I miss about him – his quiet way, his cooking – but what really saddens me is the time he and my son are missing together. I tell my son stories about his grandpa, show him photos, and remind him of all the times they wrestled around as superheroes and played on the beach. And now with the sweet pea that will make its way from my belly to the outside world in a few weeks, I am already thinking about the moments that will be missed.

For the rest of my days, I will tell my children stories of their grandpa. I will tell them about the time I didn’t want to tell grandpa that I had a school field trip because it meant grandpa would have to make me a packed lunch. As a single parent who was working full-time, I understood how difficult things were for him, as much as a seven-year-old can, and I didn’t want to burden him with one more thing. As he dropped me off at school, he saw that there was a bus waiting for us, and asked me what was happening. I lied and said I didn’t know. He walked up to my teacher and asked if there was some sort of field trip, and she said there was and asked if I had told him. At this point, he told me to get back in the car, and drove me to a nearby 7-Eleven and bought me a sandwich, some Funyuns, a Sno-Ball, and a Welch’s grape soda, and the attendant packed it up in a brown paper bag that was as big as me. I didn’t usually bring a lunch to school, but when I did, my granny packed me what I refer to as “the monochromatic lunch”. The brown bread bag served as my lunch bag, and inside was a peanut butter sandwich with wheat bread, some graham crackers and some Saltines. So on this field trip day, unintentionally or not, my children’s grandpa made me feel like a princess. I had the best lunch of everyone on the bus that day. I was the envy of all my classmates.

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