Friday, October 6, 2017

Marks & Spencer leaves the continent


Image via AD

I know, I know. It is old news that M&S is leaving The Hague. We heard they were closing down about a year ago but then it didn't happen and I kept secretly hoping their departure would be postponed forever.

Marks & Spencer opened in The Hague at the beginning of 2014, around the same time that our daughter Yu was born. I remember my parents coming back from the center on those first postpartum days  with tubs of their lemon curd yoghurt. I didn't know it would become such an important place for us, one of our safe places in the city. They had the loveliest café, full of light, a view to the city, and a giant Escher painting. They served the nicest tea, cakes and of course scones with jam and clotted cream. Whenever we went for lunch there we always had their Tikka Masala chicken, with bread and mango chutney. Not only that but they had the most perfect -and private- changing room together with a giant breastfeeding seat.

Photo by Niki from Life in The Hague

I have memories of so many coffee dates with friends there: Yu and one of her best friends M. learning to crawl and then racing down the ramp that led to the tables by the windows. Getting lunch with my mom just a couple of months ago, heavily pregnant and dead tired from walking the city, having smoothies with a friend that has now moved to Scotland. Searching the aisles for their Empress Grey tea (often out of stock), so loved by many. Buying jelly fruits, chocolate and even an amazing penguin-party-at-the-igloo cake for Christmas.


Last Wednesday I was walking the center and I saw they were having a clearance sale. As in, everything should go, and then they leave. It was so sad to enter the building, find the 2nd floor was already empty and most of the stuff was gone. No baby clothing left (aside from a pack of 5 bodies and some summer hats), not one sad box of tea (all tea! gone!), just some random things around. I asked a manager if they were really doing that bad, but he said the decision was made to close down all European Marks & Spencer shops, not just the Dutch ones.

It feels so sad. I know I am not alone in the feeling. I know it's just a shop, but it feels a part of our early days is going.  Are there places in your city that make you feel like home and bring you back to happy times?

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The morning coffee


Or how I am becoming my mother.

For as long as I can remember my mom would wake up and drink her cup of coffee before she even had breakfast, before anything happened. She would often say she could not function without it and would request nobody talk to her until she had it.

Now I understand. I have loved coffee for quite a long time, started drinking it regularly during my years at university, then stopped because it made me nervous, shaky, borderline psychotic, then came to see the ritual as a moment of calm, to be enjoyed with friends while talking. I almost completely stopped when we were struggling with infertility, then started again when Yu was born. I drank so many delicious lattes while going through the city during our long stroller walks. Most recently, when I was doing the working-mom run every morning I would reward myself with a proper Italian coffee at the train station on the days when I was able to quickly get it before running-running-running to get to the train and to the office on time.

 Now that I am staying at home again and being ever-so-tired all the time I look forward to my coffee every morning. I don't want to say I need it but it really does wake me up and I enjoy every single sip. For it to happen I (or the loving husband) need to wake up very early, normally after the baby's first feeding, so that I can drink it before the get-ready-to-go-make-breakfast-pack lunch-dress-the-toddler-brush-teeth-here-are-your-shoes-put-on-your-jacket dance takes place.

We recently got a milk foamer and it has been the best kitchen gadget addition since... the KitchenAid probably.  We use it everyday, for the toddler's loved babyccinos as well, who now also drinks her "coffee" a cereal-based caffeine free alternative called Bambu.

Do you have any morning rituals? Any favorite gadgets? What can't you live without?

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Luxembourg with small kids

The first time we went to Luxembourg I was secretly 7 or 8 weeks pregnant,after the IVF that brought us Yu.  During our long walks there we discovered the most amazing playground in a city park and we prayed we'd be able to come back with our children. It has the form of a giant pirate ship wreck and all around there are sand pits and water pumps where the kids can run around and get wet.

This summer my mom was with us for a couple of months and at the end of her stay we wanted to take a short weekend trip. We remembered Luxembourg and thought it would be a great place to visit.

Our first stop was of course that playground, at Parc de Monterey (45 Avenue Monterey, at the intersection between Avenue Monterey and Villa Louvigny). It was a warm sunny day. That place is really paradise for the small ones.


 Another fun thing to do with children is taking the "Pétrusse express", a little green train that takes you down to the old city, where you will see the Fortress and the main historical sights. Our 3.5 year old loved the experience. She also found it very amusing to listen to the explanations through the headphones. The train leaves every half an hour from Montée de Clausen near the Bock Casemates.



While we were walking down in the "Grund" quarter we found yet another very-well-thought-of playground.  Aside from the games for kids it had an outdoor gym, a super clean bathroom a hammock and the most amazing skate park, the perfect place to have a picnic.It is near 2 Rue de Saint-Quirin


 If you need to breastfeed I fell in love with  Namur (27 rue de Capucins). It is a small pâtisserie-café that supplies the royal family (if it is good enough for them...). They have a changing table (though you do have to go up quite a few stairs) and the best strawberry milkshake ever. While we were there, at least another 3 moms were there with their small ones.


There is a small playground nearby and the cutest children clothing and toys shop, Palazzo kids, just in front (30 rue de Capucins). We also visited the famous "Chocolate house" (20 rue marché aux Herbes), right in front of the Grand Ducal palace. Breakfast was nice, the hot chocolate is good, we loved the rock n'roll decoration in the 2nd floor, but for some reason the place was better in our memories.


 When  we first came to Luxembourg we met Fiona and Rasmus who took us for ice-cream at Bargello (13-15 rue du Fort Elisabeth). Naturally, we had to go again. They have delicious gourmet ice-cream flavours. I had ricotta with fig and it was very, very good.


We really like the city, if you are in the area it is the perfect place to visit for a couple of days.



Friday, August 25, 2017

Laia Isabela's birth story



Our beautiful daughter Laia was born on June 30 at 10:50, weighing  3900 gr. and measuring 52 cm. when I was exactly 41 weeks pregnant. We had been waiting for so long. Every week after week 34 (when her sister was born) felt like a relief... until the point where I started to worry she would never come by herself.  My mom arrived when I was almost 37 weeks. We really did not think I would make it past 38 weeks (my due date was June 23) and everybody joked that I would spend my birthday giving birth to this girl. But both dates came and went. We've had a lovely summer (for Dutch standards) and those last days were hard. I remember I could not sleep from the warmth, the back pain and the difficulty finding a comfortable position in bed, my feet were swollen and I felt enormous even when I kept walking and walking up until the very end. I did gain about 15 kg (I stopped weighing myself when I reached that point... I didn't want to know about any further weight, at around 38 weeks) eventhough I ate healthy food and kept active. I guess your body will do what it has to do.

On May 31st, timely coinciding with our 7th civil wedding anniversary, we went for what we expected to be a routine checkup only to realize that the baby was way up high touching my ribs (from being almost engaged in previous appointments) and since I was 36 weeks and 5 days and had tons of amniotic fluid (polyhydroamnios) the gynecologist recommended an External Cephalic Version (in other words, they turned the baby). It luckily went well and the girl stayed down for the rest of the pregnancy. At that point they started doing prenatal checkups very often. One week after that, just before I reached 38 weeks there was a day where I did not feel the baby move a lot and that raised all kinds of red flags. Since our girl seemed to be measuring "too big" and I had all that fluid they talked about starting an induction -right then and there- it was June 9. I was alone at the hospital, but I felt the baby was fine (I had been hearing her heartbeat all along) and still wanted a chance at labor starting spontaneously, when the time came. They had me checked for gestational diabetes, verified that the baby's blood and mine had not mixed during the EVC and monitored both of us. They ruled out all the known causes for polyhydroamnios, so that remained a mystery, but it was a relief as well.  I had to go for fetal monitoring everyday from then on but was told I would most probably be induced during the week that followed.  After 3 days of daily checkups a different gynecologist looked at us and decided to let us wait, since the measurements late in pregnancy are not that accurate and the 32 week scan (when measurements are more reliable) showed she was within the normal size range. I did not have diabetes, our blood hadn't mixed, my blood pressure was fine (regardless of my swollen ankles), I was feeling well and she was active, moving a lot, with a strong and steady heartbeat. So we waited, and waited and waited. I went on long walks with my mom, I ate eggplant parmigiana, I talked to the baby, I went to Monkey town and jumped around with the toddler. But she was way too comfy inside. There were some days where I had intense Braxton Hicks or a night where I had a couple of  regular contractions; but that lasted 1 hour or 2 and then... nothing.  When I reached 39 weeks and days I started asking how far they would let me go (I did not want to wait so long anymore) and they said by week 40 we could start discussing an induction. I was afraid she would be too big and I would tear myself badly or that the placenta would stop working.  Then week 40 came and I was told if there was no medical reason / fetal distress they would not induce labor until week 41. I was relieved by learning that latest research shows that inductions do not necessarily lead to more interventions or c-sections. And so we scheduled an induction for the day I was 40 weeks and 6 days. The baby was engaged, but I was only 1 cm. dilated and so they could not break the membranes.

Last belly picture at the hospital while waiting
On June 29, at 15:00  a Foley catheter (a little balloon) was introduced in my cervix. After this, they connected the CTG to monitor the fetal heartbeat and possible contractions. I was supposed to have the catheter on until 6:00 am of the next day, when they would check if I had dilated any further and if I was around 2-3 cm. by then they would proceed to break my membranes and start oxytocin (pitocin) if needed. The procedure did not hurt, it was only a bit uncomfortable, like getting a PAP smear, as they have to use a speculum to push the catheter in. After they introduced it I started feeling mild menstrual-like cramps, every now and then but I could handle them and I was told this was normal. The husband stayed with me until about 18:00 pm, when he went back home to have dinner and get rest, as we expected everything to start happening early in the morning the next day.  He left me with a Fanta and some chocolate chip cookies. I was mostly entertained, chatting to my family  and losing time on the internet. I video-called Yu and my mom who were home, showed them my hospital dinner and waited. At first I had the room at the maternity guard for myself, but later another woman (who presumably was also there for an induction) came, together with her husband. It was weird and sad because as soon as she came they closed the curtains in the middle of the room without saying hello or acknowledging me (though I tried) and she kept moaning and sobbing to herself. I would have liked to talk to her, offer comfort, but she mostly seemed annoyed that she had to share the room. It was so different from my first experience at that same maternity guard, when I stayed for a week on bed rest at the hospital before Yu's birth and other women would come and go but we'd  talk to each other and bond over why it was that we were there.

At around 22:00 pm I tried to get some sleep but as I was dozing off, around 23:00 regular cramps, that were starting to get more painful in intensity woke me up. I walked to the nurses in the guard, but they told me to take a couple of paracetamol and ride it out. However, 10 or 20  minutes after I asked to be connected to the CTG for monitoring because it was becoming too painful and I really felt something was happening.

Finally, at 24:10 they connected me to the monitor and at 24:29 I had contractions every 4-5 minutes with the maximum intensity (100-120 on whatever scale they use to determine uterine activity). At 24:43 the doctor finally came to check me and it turned out I was already 4 cm. dilated. This was the official (spontaneous) start of labor, they took the Foley catheter out and told me I could call my husband in. Mark arrived soon after and we moved to the labor and delivery section.

By 1:22 we were in the room I would deliver, I was still 4 cm, but I could barely stand the pain and most of all I felt it was starting to progress very fast.  I requested an epidural, as this time I was determined to get pain relief. Funnily enough, the nurse in charge suggested I take a warm shower instead as "hot water is the best analgesic" and "we didn't know if labor was going to go so  fast that maybe the anesthesiologist would not have time to come from home".  I already knew the risks of an epidural (I might get a fever and antibiotics as a consequence, contractions could get slower, I had to get an IV drip in case my blood pressure dropped and I would not be able to stand up until after delivery) and had thought long and hard about it. My previous birth had been extremely fast (I went from 4 cm to 10 cm. in less than 3 hrs) and intense, with a tiny baby, and I did not want to try that level of painful intensity with a larger baby.



 I think they sensed my determination and called the gynecologist, who have me the talk about the risks (again). She was confident I would do well with it, as I had been through birth before and was going to be able to feel the sensations / contractions / urge to push and finally got the anesthesiologist. I really do not know why they try so strong to dissuade you from pain relief, as if there was value or medals for going through it.

The blessed epidural came at 1:59. I was a bit scared of that part where they tell you to sit very still while they put it in, but it did not hurt at all. I still felt the contractions, and they were still very mildly painful, but they were manageable, like menstrual cramps. At some point I started to feel very numb and the pain totally disappeared, though I did still feel my uterus contract.

At 3:08 they came to check me again, I was 6 cm. dilated, which was a good progress, right out from textbooks,  and contractions were regular and efficient. Two hours passed and by 5:00 am I was still 6 cm. and my contractions had become irregular, so they broke the membranes to generate efficient contractions and we were told to wait.

Around 6:30 we started playing music to call Laia, we listened to some of the music we always played her and her sister while in the womb: 
 Origin of Love, ( Mika),
Cuando Llegaré (Natalia Lafourcade and Emmanuel del Real),
Amor de mis Amores ( Natalia Lafourcade),
Around the World  (Daft Punk),
Gypsy (Suzanne Vega).

I think it kind of worked because I started feeling contractions. But at 7:08 the obgyn came again and I had not progressed from 6 cm. So they started me on oxytocin. They told me to rest because the active part of labor was yet to start and we had been awake all night (I have an obsession with the CTG and loved to see how often the contractions came and how high they'd go on the scale). I was able to sleep a bit. The contractions became strong almost right away. I felt weak, tired, dizzy, thirsty. The breakfast trolley came and I had some milk, orange juice and bread with raisins. I was so happy to eat. And then I started shaking and vomiting, but I felt no pain. I thought it was an effect of the anaesthesia, but they told me it was my bodies' reaction to the intense contractions, that the pain would be unbearable without the pain relief. I felt like that girl in the Exorcist.

Finally, at 9:29 I was 10 cm. dilated. But Laia was a bit "high" still, so they told us to wait to start pushing, so that she would go down by herself and my cervix could become softer. At 10:00 am they checked my vitals and I had a fever, so I had to get antibiotics and wait until they were all in to start pushing. (They said this was a consequence of the epidural, but I think it is just what my body does with labor, as with Yu I did not have an epidural but I also got a fever just before starting active labor).

At 10:40 I was finally able to start pushing. I think I pushed through 4 contractions. The gynaecologist in training that was assisting the obgyn was the best... he kept encouraging me and made me feel so confident and powerful. Him  and Mark . At those moments, being told you are "doing great" and that they see the baby coming is what keeps you through it. Only 10 minutes after, at 10:50, Laia was born. They put her in my arms right away (after totally failing at getting a photo of Mark cutting the umbilical cord, pro tip: hand the nurses a phone or some other simple device that they will be able to use). It was the happiest moment, having her in my arms after so long, talking to her, holding, feeling, smelling her.


Then at 11:00 I was told I had to go to the operating room... my placenta had detached from the umbilical cord when they were trying to pull it out and they had to extract it manually. I think this was the hardest part for Mark, as he stayed alone with our girl and was told I had to get general anesthesia. It turned out, since I had an epidural, they just had to up the dose and I was conscious during the whole procedure. It was very entertaining and I did not feel anything. They were finished quite fast, but I had to wait about an hour in observation at the intensive care unit to make sure I was not losing blood and everything was fine. I was so thirsty. They must have known because the nurse came with an ice-pop that tasted like heaven. I could not wait to go back up to our family. It seemed like such a long time, but around 13:00 they finally pushed me up to our room. It was pure joy to find Mark,  Yulia, my mom, my mother in law, and Laia sleeping peacefully in her cot.

I have such complicated feelings about birth. Both my birth experiences were very positive,  I remember them fondly and happily and yet I also can't stop thinking of the process as violent, even when this time I was under anesthesia. People describe giving birth as a mystical experience. I think it is mystical, in ways: like going to the deepest pits of hell, of horror and pain and then coming back to the most undescribable joy and love. Like experiencing eternity. Having my body take the lead was like being possessed, without having any power against it. Fear is inevitable, being able to let it happen, to embrace it, to lose all control and flow were the hardest parts but also the what let me make it through to the other side.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Pregnancy: the 2nd time


 Being pregnant the second time was in many ways the same and in many others different. I still got lucky with almost no nausea during the first trimester, just a queasy feeling when I went without eating for a long time, for which healthy snacks (apples, bananas, yoghurt with granola) were the solution. I craved orange juice, salmon, enchiladas verdes, steak. I think I threw up only once. The constant tiredness was the same, maybe even more, with a toddler added to the mix. I remember coming home from work, having dinner, showering and going to bed at the same time as little Yu.

I started showing a lot earlier though. I think the body just "remembers" and everything gets pushed upwards and outwards almost immediately. I started wearing my maternity jeans sometime around week 10 or 11 because I just did not want to deal with tight waistbands. On my first pregnancy I was still wearing the loosest of my jeans up til week 28 or something.

I was a lot more achy this time though. I started having round ligament pain pretty much since the beginning. I also had a lot of trouble sleeping and felt some kind of weird pain in one side of my pelvis. I believe it was pelvic girdle pain (formerly known as pubic symphisis dysfunction), but the pain was not located in the center of the pubic bone, rather on one side, so maybe it was some weird muscular pain due to everything being stretched.


In terms of managing the pregnancy, since Yu was born quite early (at 34 weeks) I was considered high-risk and handled by the gynecology department of the hospital. My cervix was measured at different stages, to determine its length and possible weakness and to consider a cerclage. In the end it was not needed because my cervix was in the correct size range. I was also monitored closely: for diabetes, anemia, etc (not routine tests in every pregnancy within the Dutch healthcare system). Moreover, from weeks 10 to 36 I had weekly injections of progesterone, which seems to have an effect in preventing preterm birth. 


After Yu's unexpected early arrival we did not know what to expect in terms of when our second girl would come. Reaching 34 weeks was a relief. It coincided with the week I started maternity leave. From then on, we knew what to expect and we were glad for every week that passed. My mom arrived when I was 36 weeks and 5 days. At that point on one of the prenatal checks we saw the baby's head was way up high in my abdomen (from being down and close to engage in every other appointment) so they turned the baby (the procedure is called an External Cephalic Version) and luckily it went well. We also found out that our baby was measuring slightly above average and that I had a lot of amniotic fluid (polyhydroamnios) without any explained reason.


And then we waited, and we waited, and we waited. I reached full term (38 weeks), I reached 39 weeks, and then 40. I was feeling Braxton Hicks and every now and then a slight cramp, but then it would stop. I had swollen feet, but was otherwise feeling ok, still energetic, still walking a lot. In the end our girl was born at 41 weeks exactly. I never thought I would be overdue, at that point we were so eager to meet her already. I was also afraid she would be too big and that birth would become difficult. I will write the story down as soon as I get a moment.


This time I really wanted to document the pregnancy: knowing this might be our last, and haven't been able to do so last time, we did a pregnancy photoshoot. We hired Erika Bourne Photography, and we loved the results. She made us feel comfortable and the whole process was easy and enjoyable.


I was also very grateful that my closest friends organized me a baby shower, which I also wasn't able to have last time. I felt so blessed and overwhelmed by everyone's kindness. I am still in awe that our little girl is here, that we are a family of four.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Of Baby-led weaning, purées and smoothies: a feeding story.


When Yu was around 6 months we decided to start experimenting with solid foods. I had been reading well in advance about feeding methods and recommendations. I went through the Canadian, British, American, French, Mexican and Dutch advise from their respective pediatric organizations. All advise was contradictory. Should you start with proteins? With vegetables? With fruit?

In the end I trusted my gut and made a mish-mash of methods. Some things are really absolutely out of the question, mainly not giving any honey until after the 1st year (knowing well about the Clostridium botulinum risk I waited well until she was 18 months) and avoiding hard round pieces of food that could present a choking hazard like nuts or whole grapes. We also avoided salt and sugar, but did use some spices in a little tea infuser to gradually add flavour to her food.

I mostly followed baby-led weaning, starting by letting her play with soft-steamed little broccoli trees, sweet potato or cucumber sticks (to suck and bite). But I was also super excited to make my own purées, I received a french book with tons of baby recipes a present ("Family cookbook" by Laurence Haurat)  and all the recipes sounded so tasty that I decided to give it a go. Baby-led weaning purists will tell you not to combine methods or it will somehow "go wrong" but I didn't really believe it and just did a bit of both.


We did introduce 1 food at a time, letting her have it for 3 days to observe her reactions and only afterwards making mixes of previously eaten foods. We never gave her rice meal as it is completely stripped of nutrients and preferred to use a mix of cereals (oatmeal, wheat) with her steamed-fruit in the morning. When she was about 10 months old we started with yoghurt and different types of cheese. We also started with peanut butter on her bread (a very common Dutch breakfast staple) as I read that starting with allergens early might decrease the risk of developing allergies later.

She was always an avid eater and tester: she loved zucchini, eggplant, carrots, pumpkin, avocado, banana, blueberries, spinach, green peas and most fruits as well as egg and little pieces of meat.

Everything you read tells you that in order to avoid fussy and picky eaters you should introduce a variety of flavors and foods very early on. Well, ha ha. I say. Yes, sure, right. I guess those people's children did not  reach toddlerhood yet. Our girl was really used to all kinds of food: she would eat things like ratatouille and surinamese roti with pleasure. And then, slowly, she developed her own will; learnt how to say no and there were days where she would only eat orange food. Or green food.

She is now 3 years and a half and we struggle. She goes through phases -that last 2 to 4 days- where she will eat a lot of food but she then reverts to requesting the classic bland foods small kids like and refusing to even try veggies she used to love so much. So she eats a lot of yoghurt, bread with peanut butter, pasta and cheese. And we have to bargain and bribe and negotiate to get her to eat a few pieces of carrots or green stuff. We have tried all the tricks: have her help me cook and prepare her meals (which she loves), arrange food on her plate in fun figures, ignore her, let her starve. In the end she eats when she eats and she doesn't when she doesn't. I like to give myself praise as a parent whenever she eats a whole plate of spinach (over her cheesy thin pizza) or when she requests carrot soup, but most days it is still something I worry about. Trying to make sure she is getting plenty of vitamins and nutrients while not making meals a battlefield is a challenge.

 Lately we have tried things like spinach-banana-orange juice or cucumber-ginger-apple smoothies, which she loves, but I am still uncertain if those are actually any good, with all the finely cut fibers and (natural) sugars concentrated.

Spanish pediatrician Carlos Gonzalez's words on this interview really struck a cord:

 "You should eat vegetables, leave your children alone and, in the end, they'll probably eat vegetables also. But there are changes in food preferences in a lifetime. Between one and 16 years, most children would prefer macaroni to vegetables. They will change again, unless you make them really hate vegetables."

I do not have any answers but in the end I think there is only so much you can do as a parent but the child will still decide what it needs and what goes into his/her body. And toddlers will be toddlers and what they are is defiant, strong willed and stubborn. I want to trust that as long as she keeps seeing us eating a varied, healthy diet she will pick it up and start trying and enjoying all kinds of food again. 
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This post was written in collaboration with The Honest Company's Feeding Stories Campaign.
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