Category Archives: family

The Things I Never Knew About Childbirth and Having a New-born

I love to read so during pregnancy, I signed up to a few baby sites. They sent information through weekly and I read it all. I like to be prepared. I felt prepared but still I have had many surprises that I am going to write about. Mostly so when my daughter asks me in 25 years’ time, I will have a reminder of those ‘whaaaat?’ moments.

  1. The Pain: I already mentioned in previous blogs about birthing positions but it was such an eye-opener that I feel I must mention it here. First, I will acknowledge that pain is subjective and every woman experiences it differently. Having said that, the labour pain I felt was manageable despite being induced and on a syntocinon drip (which is meant to make it more painful). Until I made the mistake of lying flat on my back. Those minutes of being in that position where the most painful, second only to the post-birth examination. Upright was a million times better. Again, I’ll reiterate the hell the post-birth examination was. It was the single most painful part of giving birth and nothing to do with the baby. When the midwife had to examine me for tears/lacerations, it was all I could do not to scream the house down. After 8 hours of labour where I barely made a peep. Horrible. Steel yourself. Don’t be like me and mentally heave a sigh of relief once the baby is out. Hold it for that final examination to be over and pray you don’t need to have stitches.
  2. Inability to make decisions: even before the exhaustion and sleep deprivation peaked, I struggled with making the simplest decisions. Specially to do with the baby. First, I couldn’t decide what the room temperature was. I’d spent most of pregnancy feeling like I had a very hot water bottle strapped to me. I simply couldn’t tell if the ambient temperature was just right or if it was cold but that suited my constantly hot self. And it was important as there was a little baby who couldn’t tell me how she felt and she didn’t have much fat to insulate her in those first few weeks. I also struggled to decide what to dress her in, what to eat and when to eat it and when it was best to ask my mama to have her for an hour so I could try to have a nap. It took roughly 3 months to reset my brain into first gear. I’m nearly back to full capacity 9 months later.
  3. The sleeplessness: I thought I understood that a baby sleeps for short periods initially day and night but as time goes on, the intervals get longer and longer until you can manage some (few hours of) deep sleep. My baby never seemed to need much sleep. First two months, it was mostly 1-2 hours sleeps for her which means less for me as I was feeding, putting her to sleep then laying down and listening for too long if she was going to stay asleep. By the time I drifted off, she was beginning to surface so I was barely getting any quality restful sleep. Daytime was worse because whilst at night she would let me put her down, in the day time there was none of that (there still isn’t). She seems to have an internal sensor that is on in the day time. This sensor alerts her when she is asleep that she is being removed from human arms. As soon as her head touches down, her eyes spring open and all traces of sleep are gone. My mama was here for the first 6 weeks and she found a way to put her down for 1 nap a day. The idea was to give me the best chance of some sleep. Did I sleep? Not much. I would lie down and listen to even the minutest sound in the house. Eventually the exhaustion would come over me but usually I would have wasted an hour so that if I got 1 hour, I was lucky. By week 2, I felt like a zombie and that feeling didn’t leave until she was over 3 months old.
  4. The guilt: every time she cries, I feel guilty as hell. I can’t seem to rationalise the fact that babies cry. You can do your best and do everything you can think of and then some and still, they cry. Even when I ignore her and carry on with my essential tasks, my heart feels so heavy with guilt hearing her cry. Even when I can see she is faking it (they learn these tricks way too early) and there are no tears, I feel this overwhelming guilt. I spent the first few months focusing all my energy on her and avoiding her cries. So much so that I would forget to eat, drink or have a wee until my body was desperate. A couple of months after my mama left, I had to have a word with myself. It was only after I reminded myself that a few tears wouldn’t harm her that I started to get on with everyday tasks. In the early days when I was trying to get her to sleep in her basket, it was tough. She would wake every hour and I was exhausted. Lots of people advised just letting her cry herself to sleep once I was satisfied she was fed, had a dry nappy and the room temperature was just right. I struggled on and on until I thought I had to try it. That night, I settled her down in the basket and lay in bed next to her. She was up within the hour so I didn’t pick her up. I let her cry. She cried and cried and cried some more. She was not stopping! I lay awake listening to her and after about 5 minutes, I started to cry myself. I rocked her basket but didn’t pick her up. I left her for as long as I could (probably 15-20 minutes) and the guilt nearly killed me. I didn’t try that again for a month. Again, she just continued to cry until I gave in.
  1. The joy: so many little things that I always thought were cute in babies now bring me the most intense joy. When my daughter wakes up, searches for me and smiles the biggest happiest smile because I am there. When she reaches out her hand to touch my face as if to check I am real. When she laughs joyfully, as only children can. When she fakes a cough to get my attention. When she notices I am off-guard and pulls my glasses off with glee. When she grabs my sleeve/hip/belt as I walk past her highchair. When she splashes in the bath. When she comes back in from a walk with daddy and her face lights up on seeing me. My heart is always full to bursting with all the little joyous moments each day. And full of dread for when I must leave her and go back to work.
  2. The pride: Every time she does something the first time…the first social smile, the first proper belly laugh, the first babbles, the first time she rolled over, the first time she sat up without support, the first time she crawled, the first time she pulled to stand. I watch her figure out how do something the first time, the intense concentration on her little face as she works it out. I watch to see the triumphant expression on her face when she succeeds. I watch the surprise on her face when she falls over or bumps into something and how hard she tries not to cry. I was so impressed that when she was immunised on 3 separate occasions, she cried for less than a minute each time. Same with when she got her ears pierced. I know I am biased but she is such a brave little girl. Her joy, her determination to learn new skills and her bravery make me such a proud mama.

Our journey together is at its very infancy so I am certain I will discover many more unknowns along the way. Suffice it to say, I am loving motherhood and I cannot wait to see what our tomorrows will bring. What fun!

WWF, footie and Ayo

Three words you wouldn’t usually find together in one sentence. Ayo is a game played in Nigeria. In Hausa, the same game is called dara. I was taught how to play it whilst visiting a relative’s house and I fell in love with the game. One day, my mama travelled to Lagos and came back with one for me. It is one of the best gifts I have ever been given. It comes in a wooden case and inside are 12 holes. The exterior of mine was embellished with hand-carved patterns in the wood and it was beautifully stained a deep brown/red. It smelled of the oil used to stain it and the playing stones were seeds from a tree native to the South of Nigeria. There are many variations of it, as with all the best games. Classically, at the beginning of the game each hole (called a house) would have 4 stones and each player takes turns to pick up the stones of a house belonging to them and place a stone per house until you got to the last stone in an empty. After the opening play, the aim is to reform a hole of 4 stones which is then won by a player. This sounds dead boring but I promise you it is not. Because all the holes don’t start out empty, there is a lot of dropping and picking stones, forming big ‘houses’ (holes with lots of stones) and when you learn the patterns, you can win a lot of houses. A bit like Monopoly where the better player acquires houses and eventually the losing player has no house to play with. Watch it played here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1M7qf05ud4

Like I said, I fell in love with the game so I studied it and worked out all the winning patterns over time. Eventually, like a chess player, I could read the game 2 or 3 moves ahead of my opponents. My stepdad was a competitive and passionate man. In the evenings after dinner, we would sit in the living room, either playing Ayo or watching his favourite show WWF. When my Ayo first came, I wasn’t very good. Neither was my sister or the young cousins who lived with us. My stepdad was familiar with the game so in the first few weeks, he won pretty much all the time. My sister and I were competitive too so losing wasn’t easy for us but we took losing with grace. Not my stepdad. He would whoop and fist pump after each round he acquired someone’s house. The more he won, the worse he was. He would goad us, laugh in our faces and even did this thing where he pretended to wipe your face. Oh, we would get so frustrated! I remember having to fight the tears so hard and I think I complained bitterly to my mama behind his back too. Bear in mind, I was probably 6 or 7 and my sister about 10 years old. However, cultural rules were strict and we could not behave badly when we won. Neither could we refuse to play when he wanted to. As the days passed and we lost game after game and had to endure his behaviour, our determination to become good grew. Slowly, we began to win more rounds. Then more matches. Happy days when we got so good that we won most of the time. The tables were turned. We tried to be respectful children but it was impossible to hide our victorious smiles. We sat politely but inside we were doing cartwheels and fist-pumping. We had a good old giggle as we lay in bed after lights out, relishing getting our own back. Before long, he grew bored of losing and lost interest in playing with us.

My stepdad didn’t watch a lot of TV but he enjoyed sports, wrestling in particular. WWF used to be on TV on weekend evenings. My sister and I became keen wrestle mania fans. Back in the day, we liked the Undertaker, Tan Tanka, Yokozuna, Bam Bam Bigelow and the Hart brothers (I forget the name of the cute blond one every young girl was in love with). As soon as the opening credits played, we would leave whatever we were doing and sit in front of the TV with my stepdad. My mama would shoot us disapproving glances and find somewhere else to be. There was something brilliant about the deep voice over the loudspeakers announcing each wrestler then their ‘theme’ music would be played and the wrestler would make their grand entrance to chants and boos from the audience. The Undertaker was for me the unforgettable one. He dressed all in black, never spoke, never looked up and had long greasy hair covering his face. His music was creepy and he came with a coffin! Woah! That blew my mind back then. I used to imagine he came with a coffin that had a dead body in it. On the rare occasion, he would glance up, his eyes shone with an other-worldliness. I was scared and excited in equal parts. On special fights, not only would he beat the opponent, he would put them inside the coffin. What?! Awesome!!!

My stepdad’s favourite WWF wrestler was 1,2,3 kid. Young man, slight frame but very athletic and won a lot of fights. I remember his name clearly because my stepdad would get very excited if it looked like his guy was in danger of losing. He would passionately bang on the table and shout ‘c’mon’ at the TV. When the excitement got too much, he’d be on his feet and would literally jump on and down as 1,2,3 kid got on the corner ropes and flung himself down at his opponent. In the excitement, he would forget his name and call him 1,2,3,4. That made my sister and I laugh so hard and we would try to correct him in between gales of uncontainable laughter. We needn’t have bothered, he couldn’t hear us over his shouting at 1,2,3 kid to finish the other guy.

Whilst on the subject of TV excitement, international football was something else we shared with my stepdad. The most memorable footballing moment for me was Atlanta ‘96, the Olympics when the Nigerian Super Eagles won gold. This was the Kanu, Samson Siasia, El Rufai era. The golden years of Nigerian football. The first few games were good but as we all started to believe in our team, the matches became bigger and bigger. The final few games were epic. The whole of Yola was talking about the Super Eagles and there was a festive atmosphere everywhere. On the evening of the final, everyone had plans for where they were going to watch. People congregated in homes that had generators so that if NEPA (electrical supplier) cut power, we would still see the match. Our home was one of the congregation points. There must have been about 20 of us crowded around the TV. Even mama had caught football fever by then. At kick off, there was absolute silence. It felt like all of Yola was holding its breathe. I cannot remember what the score was but with every goal, you could hear the cheers echo across town. The winning goal came very close to full time. I remember we were collectively leaning forward and whispering go go go! A genius footballer, one of our eagles got the ball and dribbled it past a few defenders and then blasted the ball into the back of the net. And we all erupted!!! I don’t think I have ever felt electricity like that since. Every cell in me was vibrating with joyous energy. The cheers kept coming all around the town in waves, late into the night. We were all screaming and crying with joy. There was hugs and kisses all round, even for my stepdad who didn’t do public displays of emotion as a proper Fulani man. Now that is one moment I will never forget. One of my fondest memories of my stepdad.

Baby Now What?

I wrote about the day I gave birth (blog entry called Childbirth) and described the physical process. Harder to put into words is the emotional process that day and the next few days as my baby and I started on our journey together. I’ll start at the beginning. When I woke up bleeding that day, I knew Savannah (that’s my baby’s name) would soon be here. I was scared. That labour would be painful, more painful than anything I had ever been through. I was scared that when it came to it, I wouldn’t be able to physically push her out and might end up needing a caesarean section. I was scared that Savannah might run into trouble and have complications. I was scared that I was going to be a mother and I didn’t know if I’d be any good at it. The main feeling that morning was fear and anticipation. I could not wait for the scary bits to be over, to hold my baby in my arms, to be a mother.

I had a scan printout from 28 weeks of pregnancy which captured her face. The shape of her face was clearly outlined and you could make out where her eyes and mouth were. I must have built up an image of Savannah in my head although when I thought about it consciously in the days leading up to her birth, I couldn’t quite see a clear picture. It was a bit of a shock when she finally popped out and the midwife bundled her into my arms. I looked at her and I couldn’t quite compute what she looked like. Not like my subconscious imagined because every time I looked away and back, I felt a dart of surprise that this was Savannah. The face I was looking at was the face belonging to the baby who was moving about inside of me just a few hours earlier. She looked like her dad and she had lots of curly hair.

I handed her back to her dad as I delivered the placenta and was examined for tears (thankfully none!) and given a little clean. When she came back to me, she was rooting about so I got into position and stuck her to my still-normal-feeling breast. Lo and behold, she opened her mouth and started to suckle. That almost blew my mind. It was the reality check I needed. My brain was starting to connect the dots. I had a baby. For real. Trying to get milk out of my boobies.

So, did I fall madly in love at first sight as people often describe it? Not quite. Naturally I loved her but it wasn’t a sudden flood of emotion. Perhaps it was the exhaustion of the day but it was all a little muted. I was dirty, exhausted and hungry. At my midwife’s suggestion, I mustered up all the energy I had left and shuffled to the bathroom, half hanging onto my husband as my mother held her granddaughter. As I stood under the hot shower (which annoyingly kept stopping whenever I stood still), I started to feel less drained. When I was washed, and dressed and smelling of the lovely shower gel I’d used, I had tea and toast (inhaled it more accurately) then I sat half asleep on the comfy armchair and watched my mama hold Savannah.

3 hours after her birth, the wheelchair was brought in to transfer me up to the ward where I was to spend the night. I sat in it and was handed Savannah. This was when I felt an almost overwhelming feeling of protectiveness. She felt so small, so fragile as I held her close. I pressed my face into the side of her face and felt the warmth seeping into my soul. Up on the ward, my husband and mother settled me in and said goodnight. With the curtains pulled around my bed, it was the first time I was alone with Savannah. As she lay in the cot, I lay down and closed my eyes, my hand resting on her cot. I found it difficult to sleep. Every fibre of my being was attuned to her and I was listening for the tiniest sounds from her. I didn’t sleep much that night (or any night for the next few months). When we were discharged, I sat in the backseat next to her and watched her carefully as her dad drove us home. This watching continued for the next few days until I got used to her face.

So, in the first few days, I felt warmth, protectiveness, love and fear. The falling in love bit came later. The first time I felt that exciting, blood surging, butterflies in the stomach love for her was weeks later when she started smiling socially. Every time she smiles, I feel a surge of in-loveness that makes my knees a little weak. When she smiles deep into my eyes, especially first thing in the morning, I fall in love all over again. She looks at me the way my mother looks at me. With an unconditional deep love that is incredibly humbling. When she reaches out her chubby fingers to touch my face or grabs me when I go past her highchair, I fall more in love. When she laughs with pure unadulterated joy as I tickle her or throw her up in the air, it’s love like no other. Now many months in, as Savannah learns to express herself and her personality is starting to take shape, I feel love for her like I never imagined I would love. I thought the love I had for my mother was unmatchable but it is. It is the same yet so different. Every day, I fall more in love with this innocent, beautiful child. Every day, I feel her essence seep into my very core and wrap itself around all that I am. I know that this love is the forever kind. The I’d take a bullet for her kind. The I am all in and so vulnerable to be hurt kind. The best kind of love. I am in love with her. Totally, madly, deeply.

Boarding School…In the Beginning

Here in the UK, when one mentions boarding school, you evoke the image of an old stately building sitting in vast manicured lawns with the occasional 200-year-old oak tree and outdoor tennis courts. The sort of private institution attended by the children of the wealthy and the odd scholarship working class kid. I went to boarding school. Of a totally different class. In Lagos, Nigeria. Yes, I was in Queen’s College Yaba (QC or QCY we fondly call it). QC is one of the best public secondary schools in Nigeria. It is also infamous for a breed of QC girl – stereotypically loud, someone who puts on airs and is into their material wealth. In reality, most of us are normal down-to-earth girls. However, there is a certain QC-factor many of us carry with us for life.

My mama is an ex-QC girl but my (older) sister was in a reputable military school in the north so we all expected that I would join her. I was all geared up for it. I sat their specific entrance exams and went on a week-long interview. Despite my best efforts, I didn’t make the grade (my parents weren’t military enough apparently). Luckily, I did well enough in my national common entrance exam to have been offered a place to Queen’s College. As my mama considered whether to appeal against the decision of my sister’s school to change the rules after a gruelling recruitment process (which I excelled at), I had one of my vivid dreams where I saw me checking into QC. Weird because I had never been or even seen any photos of the school. It felt like a vision of my future and I told my mama I was happy not to fight for my place at the other school. I was going to Lagos.

We got to Lagos a week before and had to go through a series of tedious administrative processes…full medical, bank tellers, school uniform outlets, book purchases. Mama even braved the markets (she hates markets) to buy the endless required items on our many lists. I was excited and nervous and already, I missed my sister and home. A big positive was that my grandparents still lived in Lagos then and their home at least felt familiar. On that first Saturday, we all had to get to QC before 6pm. We left home after lunch (which I barely ate) and as we got onto the 3rd mainland bridge, we hit traffic. My heart sank into my shoes. I felt a darkness descend over my soul and I thought I was going to be sick. To make matters worse, the traffic was all headed in the same direction so the agony of anticipation was prolonged.

It was utter chaos. Have you ever been on a farm when cattle have to be corralled and branded/tagged? Being the granddaughter of a farmer, I have and I can tell you it’s not a nice scene. Cows are not docile like sheep and I think they are cleverer too so once the first lot have been through, they moo a message back to the herd and the rest all go a little wild. They start to struggle against the humans try to feed them through the metal paths. Their nostrils flare and dribble and their eyes take on a wild rolling look. It is not pretty! Combine that with all the shouting men, the mooing, the smell of branded flesh, cow pee and poo…you get the picture. This was how the scene I was faced with felt.

Parents were giving up waiting in the long traffic queues leading up to the school gates. There were people everywhere in the streets surrounding QC as everyone but the drivers disembarked and grabbed luggage, buckets, school bags, brooms and mops. Irritable drivers honked as people staggering under all that load wandered in and out of traffic. Older students spotted returning mates and there were squeals of joy and excited chatter as friends were reunited after the long summer holidays. In the middle of all the chaos were the newbies. Me and my fellow JS1 girls. Silent, quivering wretches whose young faces bore expressions of doom. In our shiny new uniforms and shoes. Taking it all in, dragging our feet, praying for salvation. At least, that was how I was feeling.

First, we had to find the administrative block and queue to submit bank tellers, get registered. All JS1 queued to get to a marquee to be allocated a house (I drew orange for Obong House and not the blue for Obasa my mama had been in). Then we had to find our House station where we had to hand over the cleaning supplies, sign in and be told our dorm and then the senior girls had to root through our bags to fish out any contraband. This process took ages! By the time I was fully processed, it was approaching 6pm and the dean had reached a climax as parents/siblings said goodbye and tired senior girls continued to check everyone in.

I had to make two trips across (dormitories, dining hall and library were separated from the administrative, class rooms and staff quarters by a gated wall). I found Obong 6 (dorm 6 in Obong House), dumped the first lot and hurried back to find my mama. It was time to say goodbye. I gave my mama the longest hug, inhaling her familiar smell and fighting back the tears the threatened to fall. Mama was misty-eyed too as she kissed me and promised to be back on visiting day 3 or 4 weeks later. I gathered up my bits and pieces and with leaden feet turned and crossed over, using up all my will power to stop myself running back and begging mama to take me home. At the gate, I turned and waved one final time and I swear I felt like a dead man walking to his execution. I made my way back to Obong house, claimed an empty bunk and sat on it.

I don’t know how long I sat there for before Zara, my lifesaver found me. Zara is actually my mother’s second cousin but for ease of explanation, in QC she was my cousin. She was a senior girl, in SS1 when I started in QC. She found me in all that confusion and gently guided me through the process of finding a mattress for my bed and making the bed, finding an empty locker and arranging all my belongings in it and putting my bathing things together in my bucket. She sorted out my life and earned my eternal gratitude and then she disappeared back to her House (Obasa, on the opposite side of the dorms). I can’t remember if I had dinner that evening but I remember meeting the other junior girls. The JS1 girls all looked as lost as I did and that made me feel a tiny bit better. I was relieved when it was lights out. As I slid into bed onto my crisp new sheets in my crisp new nightie, I was overcome with sadness and homesickness. I didn’t think I could bear it. I wept into my pillow until sleep swept me into oblivion. I wonder how many other JS1 girls did the same?

Childbirth

I did it! Au naturel thanks you very much! I was so worried that my android pelvis would not be able to naturally deliver a baby, especially a baby who wasn’t small. Of course, had I been incapable of pushing the baby out, a caesarean section would have been okay by me but I really wanted to do it the ‘normal way’ so that I could get on with bonding with my baby and be back on my feet as soon as I could. The day before I had the baby, I had a scheduled scan to make sure the baby’s growth was on track. Everything looked great and her estimated weight was not a small baby. Worse, looking at the growth charts, if she carried on growing at the rate she was, she would be a large baby by the time I got to 40 weeks. I said prayers and I spoke to the bump for the rest of the day, urging her to come on out as soon as she could. Anytime now. I was 38 weeks pregnant. I felt huge and ungainly. I was getting breathless with minimal exertion. I wasn’t sleeping well. Mentally, I was geared up for labour. I had completed my antenatal classes and I knew what to expect including the ‘ring of fire’. I just wanted to have my baby in my arms. That night, just before midnight, I had the strongest craving for an ice lolly. Of course, there was none at home so I roused my hubby and we went to the nearest 24 hour shop.

I woke up in the wee hours of her birthday, bleeding lightly. I had lower back ache that had been there for days but otherwise I felt fine. Baby was moving about as usual. I called the delivery suite and was asked to come in. I had to tell the hubby a few times to get a move on, get ready and drive me to the hospital. I think he was completely unprepared for me to have the baby that day. My mother on the other hand only needed telling once. She was dressed and downstairs. The waiting hospital bag was placed in the boot and off we went.

In Triage, the baby was monitored and she was absolutely fine. I was examined and my cervix was 3cm dilated and thin – the official landmark marking the start of active labour. I got a room and settled in. 3 hours later, my cervix remained at 3cm and the obstetricians were twitchy because of the bleeding so I was induced and then placed on a drip to help the labour along. As the drip was cranked up, the contractions intensified. At first, I was comfortable enough sitting up in bed, doing controlled breathing. 2 hours in, I started to walk about and that helped too. Another examination and I was 6cm dilated. Progress. Another hour and I needed the gas and air. I think it helped but to be honest, the light-headedness was all I could process. I kept feeling like I would fall so I had to stand by my bed and hold onto the headrest. I ended up kneeling on the bed, grabbing the headrest for balance. As a side note to those of you who are going to have babies after reading this, the pain of my contractions was 10x worse whenever I lay on my back to be examined. My advice is, being upright either standing if you can or kneeling on the bed. It honestly made a huge difference in the experience of pain.

5 hours after the drip was started, the pain changed from a rhythmic contracting vice-like pressure to a feeling I can’t describe. I felt an uncontrollable restlessness come over me, like I needed to ‘do something’ other than just breath and bear the pain. This was the urge to push. I told my midwife who tried to keep my mind off the feeling as she was expecting it to be another hour before I was fully dilated. I could keep still and I said again, I think I am going to start pushing. She examined me this time and in a surprised voice, she said ‘You are ready to start pushing.’

My first few pushes were ineffective. I felt like I was pushing but I was directing my energy wrong. When I finally bore down and pushed into my bottom, praise came from my midwife. She wanted more of the same. With my husband’s arm to hold onto, I remained kneeling and I pushed with everything I had with every crushing contraction I got. About 15 minutes in, I suddenly thought ‘what if I can’t do this despite my best efforts?’ I watched the midwife examine me and asked if I was making progress. She was all smiles. ‘Oh yes’ she said. ‘ Do you want to feel the head? It is full of hair!’ I declined to release my hold on my hubby. I was still woozy from the gas and air but I was given a new lease of life by that news. ‘Ok baby,’ I whispered to the bump. ‘We can do this.’ I was sweaty and dizzy but I was also very excited. It was nearly over. I pushed and pushed until every muscle in my body was trembling from the effort.

Then came the ‘ring of fire’. This is the bit where the head comes out and your pelvis is at maximal stretch plus your perineum (the skin) is stretched to tearing point. It feels like you are on fire down there. Luckily though, this is when you don’t have to push any more. You just ‘pant. Breath, breath.’ The fire subsided somewhat as the head came out then it felt like everything paused for long moments then more stretching (baby rotates, shoulders born, one at a time). Then a hug gush as the rest of the baby and fluid pops out. She cried as she hit the mattress and I felt the biggest lift. All the worry and stress was gone. We had come through labour. The relief was a little premature. The placenta came a few minutes later. Then the midwife had to examine my insides and perineum for tears. Now that hurt. Like I was being stabbed by a thousand sharp knives. Despite the gas and air the midwife made me have before. Good Lord! I was prepared up to the point. That pain is the only pain I remember with clarity today. The contractions, the pushing, the ring of fire have all faded away mentally but I am scarred by the post-delivery inspection.

As I stood on shaky legs in the shower under a warm spray, watching the blood wash away, I could not believe that I was now a mother. This morning, I had a large bump. Now, I had a jelly-like bump and a baby to hold. Back in bed, I drank tea and ate buttered toast. Never had a simple breakfast tasted so delicious as I stared at the bundle my mother held. ‘This,’ I thought to myself in amazement, ‘Is the first day of the rest of my life.’

The Power of Dreams

My aunty forwarded one of those inspiring videos about life and happiness. One particular message struck me. It said something about having a dream then making it happen. Of course, it is easier said than done. It is not quite that easy to turn a dream into reality but those people who are the happiest are those who had a dream then put their all into making it a reality. I have many dreams. Through hard work and luck, many of my dreams are already a reality. I got into medical school, I graduated. I applied and got into speciality training and I am gaining experience as a paediatrician. I met a man with a big heart, fell in love and married him. We bought our lovely first home, a permanent abode after my many years of moving from flat to flat.  I fell pregnant when we were in good place and the baby has been growing well with the easiest pregnancy. I am getting ready to realise one of my biggest dreams – giving birth and being a mother. So yes, my bucket is overflowing.

This is about my professional dream.  I used to think I would be happy to graduate, specialise as a paediatrician, get a consultant post and settle down to a routine. With the recent political shenanigans and the more I work in the NHS, the more I realise I want more. I want more out of my life and I also want to contribute more than the daily grind. Don’t get me wrong, I know in my current role I do make a difference to lives. There is nothing more satisfying that when I have done a good job and I know that parent or child’s life has been changed for the better, no matter how small that change is. However, many days I look back after a busy day and think was that worth it? Those days which are all about paperwork and administrative tick-boxing exercises that contribute nothing except to some faceless manager’s satisfaction.

The part of the world where my life started (Yola) is lovely in a lot of ways but there is a significant poverty. In terms of economics but also in healthcare terms. Nigeria as a whole fails to cater to the healthcare needs of its population unless you have lots of money to go private. The North-East of Nigeria is one of the poorest when you look at health outcomes. In particular, looking at childhood. The statistics (where there are any) are shocking. Nigeria, for all its wealth, regularly features at the bottom of tables for health outcomes. We are in the bottom 5 for most outcomes including maternal and under 5 morbidity and mortality. For the non-medics reading this, morbidity refers to how much ill-health and disease (sickness there is) there is and mortality refers to how many are dying.

Mothers naturally should come in a low-risk group. Most should be healthy young women doing what is most natural – getting pregnant, growing a baby and then delivering the baby. Young children, although fragile because they are not mature yet biologically are despite all of that resilient on the whole and have bodies that are full of strong healthy organs with endless potential for healing. What we are failing to provide is basic care. Basic antenatal care, trained birthing assistants, hospitals to assist in difficult deliveries and facilities for emergency caesarean sections (surgery) for those women who cannot do it naturally. Infections, on the whole preventable and most totally treatable, cause a lot of the morbidity and mortality in Nigeria. Many of the other things we provide here in the NHS is simple supportive care, allowing patients own bodies to heal themselves in a secure environment.

So here is my dream. I would like to set up a women’s and children’s health centre. Big dream I hear you say. Yes, I am aware. It will be a huge task. I worked at the FMC in Yola for 4 months in 2012. I saw how much need there was and the things that were missing. I know a lot of the patients we couldn’t help were those who lived far away from town and did not come to us until their disease was too advanced for us to be able to do anything. Mothers died in childbirth because they did not have adequate antenatal care so predictable problems were not discovered until it was too late. Preterm babies died because they were born out of hospital in environments not hygienic enough and did not get simple breathing and feeding support and early treatment with antibiotics. Term babies were born too small because their mothers were undernourished and unwell with treatable conditions during pregnancy but were not diagnosed and treated. Very few of the patients we couldn’t help needed fancy expensive medicines or surgery. It was simply too little too late.

On the positive side, those that did come to us in time had better outcomes than those suggested by the statistics I read about on WHO and the likes. Those preterm babies born at FMC Yola thrived and majority survived until discharge. Sure, their progress was slower than here in the NHS because of a lack of basic equipment and provisions like oxygen and breathing support, working incubators, labs, fluid pumps, parenteral nutrition for those too young to feed by mouth or through the stomach. But survive they did because they are little fighters.

So what I dream is to provide all those basic things to the mothers, babies and children free of charge if I can manage to raise funds or at the very least at the smallest prices possible to give those with little the chance to quality healthcare. To go with that, I would like to provide an outreach service to those isolated villages. Run clinics, provide immunisations, antenatal vitamins and nutritional support, teach about prevention of infections and when it is vital to seek early medical help. Central to that idea is to train some of the villagers to provide safe simple birthing assistance, supportive care for new-borns and how to diagnose and treat the most common infections and provide first aid. All little things but added up should cut the numbers of mothers and children suffering unnecessarily and prevent the many preventable deaths.

My grandfather listened to me talking about my dream and was (rather unexpectedly) downbeat about it. He pointed out that it wasn’t as easy as I was making out. Actually, I know it will be difficult to do and as I have never done this before, it is a monumental task. There is so much to do to get this off the ground. However, here is my plan. I will start small and do this project in stages. I will deal with the complications as I get to them. A journey of a thousand miles has to start with that first step. I have taken my first step. I have dared to dream and I have written down my dream in black and white. Now onwards and upwards. Watch this space.

Don’t Sweat the Small Things

Sometimes in life, we allow small things which on their own are not significant to add up and turn into a massive problem. I speak from experience.  I am a creature of habit so I like things to be a certain way. To a degree, I do have obsessive compulsive traits. That is not unusual in a doctor. It takes a certain type of personality to go through medical school and then to work in hospitals and face all the horrors that can come with the territory. When I was living on my own, it was easy to use those OC traits for the good. Everything had its place in the little space I had. No mess was left where it was. Everything was clean and orderly. My personal life was organised to a T. In direct contrast, my professional life despite all my best intentions often felt out of control and at best, it was an organised chaos. Dealing with humans and ill-health is by its nature very unpredictable. You do all you can do and things get worse in some patients. In some patients, you barely have to do anything and everything gets better anyway. Which sometimes makes me question exactly how much we as doctors are able to influence and if it has more to do with patients than us.

Anyway…my lovely ordered life was turned on its head when I met and moved in with my husband. He is the spontaneous type who makes ad-hoc plans and also changes them (or should I say ‘forgets’) without warning. He is so full of energy that he cannot be neat. When he makes a mess, he would rather clean it up later. Later being in a few hours, days, weeks or even months in some extreme cases. I used to get really worked up about these things and ended up cleaning up after him because it was too much of a hassle to nag him into doing it. Then I started to resent having to come home after a long day’s work to organise everything again or use up my precious days off sorting. Now I have swung the other way. I have become an expert at turning a blind eye. I refuse to see the mess and I will generally not tidy up if it is not my mess. So whilst I complain less and I try to let him get to it in his own sweet time, it hasn’t lessened the stress it causes in my mind. I will literally obsess about the mess not being there.

Whilst I generally get on with my fellow doctors and nurses at work, there is inevitably one who is like a thorn in my side. In my most recent rotation, there was one such nurse. I will call her Nadine. She is a senior nurse with a lot of experience – this is usually an asset but in her case, she thought she could tell me how to do my job. I am usually quite laid back and approachable at work but I am certainly no pushover. I can’t be because as a registrar I have to take overall responsibility for patients out of hours. Well, Nadine decided because I was a new registrar that she had to question all my decisions, mostly indirectly. This really riled me because the decisions that I made were either straight forward or those which were more complicated were discussed with the consultant as per usual practice. I found that lack of respect very irritating and at the start of the job, I had to avoid any contact with Nadine until I could detach myself enough not to care. Once I realised by talking to the other nurses that it was not unusual for Nadine to give rotating doctors a hard time, I was able to maintain professionalism by communicating what was essential and just tuning out the negativity. What Nadine (and I) felt in the grand scheme of things was insignificant as long as I did the job I was there to do and I did it well. By the time I left, I think she had gained a grudging working respect for me.

I guess what I am saying is that I have come to realise some facts of life. Main fact being that most of life is not within my control. Fact is that there are many small imperfections and it is not always possible (or maybe even desirable) to make them perfect. I don’t always find it easy to let those little things go but when I do, it is less stressful. As long as I control those things I can control and make life as good as I can within my little bubble, I can live with the little things. Life is hard enough without sweating the small stuff.

The First Pupil of Nadi Nursery School

I cannot remember a time when I did not love to read. It was a skill that seemed innate to me and before I was in primary school, I was reading well above my expected age. My mama always says thank God for that love because my sister was the opposite. She loved to play and focusing on learning to read was not a priority. She wanted to be out and about and had no time for it. My mama despaired but things soon turned around. Because there I was in nursery school, learning to read ahead of what I was being taught and when my sister saw that, she decided it was time for her to learn too. I was also learning to read and write Arabic by the age of 5 so my brain must be hardwired for it.

One of my aunties, Aunty Dijatu Balla is the proprietor of Nadi International and a lot of people know that I was their first ever pupil. She wont stop telling them about me every chance she gets. Back in the day when Aunty Dijatu was planning to open her school, my mama was a sounding board for her ideas. I doubt they noticed her limpet of a daughter (yours truly) stuck to her side, listening to everything they said. When the time came for her to think about recruiting pupils (finally!), I gave them both a shock. I would like to come to your school I said. I wasn’t quite 2 years old yet. Most nursery schools recruited children 3 years or older because there were 2 years of nursery before primary school education began at the age of 5-6 years. I was a year early. Really? She asked. I was certain. I must have convinced both her and my mama because she agreed to enrol me. I was overjoyed. I hated being left alone when my sister went to school and Mama was by then working for the Government so she too had to go and leave me alone every morning. I could not wait for term to begin (I think we started in January, just over a month after I turned 2). I don’t remember too much in the way of details being that I was so young but I definitely remember my yellow check uniform dress with the maroon collar and waist band. I remember feeling like I was the bees’ knees when I put on my brand new uniform, complete with brown school sandals and lacy white shocks.

Nadi back then was in a little bungalow off Mubi Road in Jimeta, Yola. It had a few small classrooms and the bit which would have been a sitting room in the house was like our hall. I remember the hall the most. It had sliding doors leading into it and on the sliding doors were life-size pictures of Big Bird, Bart and Ernie from the popular children’s TV show Sesame Street. The highlight of the day was when we all of us would sit on the 2 long wooden benches, our arms around each other’s shoulders and sing nursery rhymes. The best one was ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ and we would all rock from side to side in complete synchronicity as we sang the few lines over and over again. We also loved ‘If you are happy and you know it, clap your hands’ with all the motions. Oh the simple joys back then!

Another vivid memory was of the baboon in the house next door. He was held in captivity by a long rope tied around his waist. It was long enough for him to climb up the high wall separating our school from his home and sit and watch us. When we were let outside to play, we would without fail run to that bit of wall and try to catch his attention by singing and dancing. One of our classmates, Fatima Silas, must have been terrified of him because we took to singing her name to the baboon. The baboon would stare longingly at us, wanting to play and when our dancing and singing got too much for him to bear, he would try to jump down to us and his rope would pull him back. We would all scream at the tops of our lungs and race back into the school room, scared he was trying to grab us. The next day, we were back by the wall to try and get him to react once more. I wonder where Fatima Silas is and if she remembers this at all.

I remember a few other names from those years. Altine Hungush, Amal and Mamie Sewa. Mamie Sewa was one of the first pupils with me because her mother was our head teacher. I remember her mother well. They were Ghanaian and lived not far from the school. Sometimes, I would go home with them and if I was there long enough before my mama came to pick me up, I would get fed. I still remember how delicious I found their ‘foreign’ food. There was a dish with garri, palm oil and something else. The something else I cannot remember but I know I took a lot of pleasure from such a simple dish. I remember the food and how she and her husband always spoke gently and with love.

Nadi was a great 2 years of my life and when I finished there, I moved onto Airforce Primary School as there was no Nadi Primary School yet. Nowadays, Nadi is not just Nadi Nursery School. It is a nursery, primary and secondary school. A huge establishment located in purpose-built premises with hundreds of young children, having their minds shaped. In the office of the proprietor is a framed picture of me when I went back on its 20th anniversary to receive a special award. I am so proud of my alma mater!

The Most Precious Gift

It is 2 days before Christmas and everyone here is busy buying last minute gifts, wrapping them, decorating their personal spaces, starting Christmas lunch prep and all the other little things that make these holidays so great. I too am getting ready for a very special day and it is not Christmas. Sure I am looking forward to Christmas. I am going to spend the day with my husband in Oxford on Divinity Road no less with some of my dearest family. It will be wonderful I am sure but the day I am looking forward to comes later (hopefully much later!). I am expecting my first baby and my due date is 2nd of April 2016. Which means that as I am 6 months pregnant now, anything could happen. It could happen any day. Being a paediatrician, I am more aware than most of the unpredictability of pregnancy, going into labour and childbirth. I wake up every morning thanking God that my baby is still in there, safe and warm, their organs developing in the proper environment. I go to sleep praying that the baby remains in there for another couple of months at least.

Since I found out I was pregnant, I have been doing a lot of thinking and planning. As you do. First I have been thinking about time. Am I going to be ready for this? Many people have told me it will be the hardest, best, most satisfying, life-changing, painful and joyous thing to happen to me. I have always wanted to be a mother. I think even before I knew I wanted to be a doctor, I wanted a little girl of my own. I know I will love my child with everything I have and I know I have a lot of stamina (you can’t be a paediatrician and not have a lot of willpower and mental toughness). What I don’t know is will I be a great mother? Like my mother, will I be able to balance love and discipline, teach my child what is right and what is wrong and bring them up to be a decent human being? I pray for that the most. To be as good a mother to my child as mine was (and still is) to me. My mama is definitely a cut above the average mother. She was a single mum yet I never felt anything was lacking in my life. In fact when my sister and I reflect on not having a father, we both think that we have lost out on nothing and probably gained a lot from not having that side of the family to influence us. If our parents had stayed together, we would not have been nurtured in quite the same way. We would not have been encouraged to know and speak our minds in the same way. We would not have known that having a great mum is not just enough, it is the essential ingredient in a happy childhood.

I have tried hard not to think of all the potential complications that comes hand in hand with growing a baby and then delivering it. But I cannot escape the fact that this baby will one day be ready to come out and I will have to get it out (or at least give it my best shot). When I was studying obstetrics in medical school, a lot was said about the shape of pelvises and the birth canal. Particularly about which are favourable shapes (those with beautiful childbearing hips like my beautiful sister) and which ones are not – the android pelvis (damn you all!). I sat in the audience wishing that was a class I had skipped. So yes, I have an android pelvis (boyish in plain speak) so nature is not on my side when it comes to pushing this baby out. Thankfully, both my husband and I have small frames and the predicted size of my baby is small meaning I have a fighting chance. I will give it everything I can when the time comes to deliver the baby naturally. Fingers and toes crossed.

I have started setting up the nursery and not gone mad buying gadgets and fancy things all the moms tell me were never used. I look to my sister as inspiration. Before she became a mother the first time, she was a bit of a shopaholic. She would buy all sorts of useless things because they caught her eye in the spur of the moment. Then she fell pregnant and it seems overnight found self-control by the bucket-loads. She became super-organised and wrote list after list and budgeted. She stuck to her plans and her son had everything he needed but nothing was done to excess. Brilliant! I have made notes and I would like to be just like her. I have lists too and every time I tick something off, my little heart does a jig. I am on the way to being a mother.

Before I hit 24 weeks of pregnancy, I didn’t dare to dream about actually having the baby. That is because medically, I know that few babies born before 24 weeks of pregnancy survive and those who do survive, do so often with a lot of complications and a poor quality of life. I was terrified of having a baby who was more likely not to make it than make it. I did not want to think properly of baby names, of delivery, of breastfeeding, changing dirty nappies or being kept awake at night. Just in case this wasn’t meant to be. I know there are no guarantees in life and anything might happen yet but the longer my baby stays in closer to that due date, the more fighting chance we have of having a long happy healthy life together.

Lastly, I am ecstatic that I get to have a little person that I have (without putting much thought into it) been growing to love and cherish for the rest of my life. This baby is literally eating from my food, growing off the nutrients I have taken on board, sharing my blood, and getting oxygen from the oxygen I am breathing in. My baby is swimming around (I can feel the slow sliding rolling movements and the occasional sharper kicks as I write this) within my tommy, in a little sac of clear warm fluid. Maybe the baby is sucking their little fingers, blinking their eyes, practicing becoming a football player. It is the most amazing feeling to think that as I sit here this little person is being built in the incubator that was once the size of a satsuma which is now larger than a watermelon, shoving all my other abdominal organs out of the way to make more space for the baby. I cannot wait to meet my baby when they are ready to face the world. The one thing I do not worry about is that I will be at their side from the day they arrive until I am no more. I cannot wait for the beginning of the rest of my life.

Mind the Gap

I watched a BBC documentary on The Taj Mahal Palace, one of the best hotels in the world located in Mumbai according to the documentary. It certainly looked the part. The opulence and the service was certainly worth the thousands a stay would set you back by. This struck me but what struck me more was the homeless families who made their home outside the walls of the hotel. The poor women who sold recycled flowers to make enough to feed their children. Where were the men who fathered those children I wondered? If the Taj was so successful, couldn’t it be charitable enough to feed its resident poor? How could the guests stand to walk (or more likely drive) in past those poor wretches into such luxury?

This sort of wealth inequity is replicated all over the world of course. The less industrialised the nation, the more likely you are to see scenes like these replicated. In Yola where I come from, this is very much in evidence. It is not unusual to see a huge mansion complete with high surrounding walls, an impressive iron gate manned by gatemen and perfectly manicured hedges sitting next to a hut, little more than a lean-to with dry barren land surrounding it and the inhabitant(s) unable to afford 3 square meals and clean drinking water.

When I was little, we would have bouts of feeling charitable and go visit one of those poor homes. Most of them are inhabited by single old women. Some were called witches because of their social isolation or maybe because of their disdain for some of our archaic cultural norms. Many are just poor and alone, without a benefactor to lift them out of abject poverty. A good proportion were quite old and really did need a hand. My friend and I would go in and give their hut a spring clean, refill their water pots (their lounde) and clear out accumulated rubbish. We would leave with their prayers for us and our mothers ringing in our ears. These women managed because they had neighbours like us who would go in periodically and help out.

That is one thing I love about Yola. By Yola I mean Yola town. Not the metropolis that is Jimeta which has lost most of its old school community (or maybe being ‘new’ never got a chance to form the same bonds). No one can deny that poverty is pervasive in the society there but actually, so is charity. It is imbedded in our culture to look after our neighbours. No one in Yola that I know of has ever died of starvation (malnourishment is a different kettle of fish). If your neighbour struggles to find a meal, they could simply turn up at meal times and they would get fed.

I remember one of our dear matriarchs who had little herself always fed more than just herself and her dependents. We always had food to eat at hers even though she was poor herself. When we went to see her before we went off to boarding school, she would ask for forgiveness (in case she died before we came back) and forgive us any infractions then she would rummage under her mat and give us some of her precious savings so we could buy something. We would demure unfailingly but we also knew we had to take it. Because not to take it would be seen as disrespectful and a sign we did not value her loving gesture.

This was 2 decades ago. Things are changing but charity is still very much alive. I am not sure whether the local children are still doing what we did back then but I sincerely hope so. Especially because as religion and politics become more and more of an issue and many of those in our communities claim to be religious. Well then. If that is true, true poverty should never be an issue. Islamically, Zakat is part of our core duties, one of the 5 pillars of Islam.

“Be steadfast in prayer and regular in charity: And whatever good ye send forth for your souls before you, ye shall find it with Allah”                                        Qur’an Chapter 2 Verse 110

For any Muslim who can afford to support their living themselves and have something left over, they should donate 2.5% of their wealth to those who are in need. This is Zakat. Imagine if in a society like Nigeria where an estimated 50% of the population (87 million) are Muslims. Now imagine that about half of them can afford to pay Zakat. If even half of those (20 million) contributed 2.5% of their wealth to a community fund that was well-managed, things would be so different. So I challenge the practising Muslims who preach all things good to sit up and remember this core duty of ours. More than a billion Muslims across the globe, a good proportion with enough wealth to alleviate poverty all around them. Let’s do it people!