Birth story

First published in The Mother magazine, Issue 72, Winter 2016

My watch stopped at 6.15am on 8th March 2013, at the same moment my body told me it was moving into the first stages of labour; the show felt like a plug suddenly unblocking. I hoped for an active VBAC home-birth with my independent midwife, after a traumatic first labour almost three years earlier, resulting in an emergency caesarian under general anaesthetic. I was emotionally and physically ready for labour, vowing to stay out of hospital at almost all costs.

The morning passed peacefully as my surges gradually intensified. I vividly remember nursing my 33-month-old son Ewan, crying silently as he suckled, treasuring this moment knowing it would be his last feed as a single nursling. When my surges became too much, I gently unlatched him. He cried and cried as if sensing a sudden catastrophic change was about to take place.Ewan in the birthing pool Continue reading Birth story

Forest School and Us

Ewan at five years old, in his element in the woods
Ewan in his element in the woods

First published in The Mother magazine issue 72, Winter 2016

My son at Forest School

Sitting quietly on a log, I observe my five-year-old son as he carefully places some leaves onto the roof of his fairy house. Ewan then scampers off to find additional roofing material to ensure the fairies are kept dry, totally immersed in play and at one in his environment. My son’s fairy house has taken six Forest School sessions to complete, complete with a washing line in the garden and fairy furniture made of out moss and leaves inside.

Set within a beautiful broadleaved, native woodland owned by the National Trust in the Peak District National Park, this Forest School site is truly magical. All around Ewan children are also engaged in free, exploratory play; a cluster are playing super heroes in one of the dens, another group are leaping in and out of a make believe pirate ship and a couple are fishing with stick rods with shiny leaves proudly attached as their catch. A lone child sits contemplatively on a log by the fire, companionably close to a Forest School assistant, whilst another child stirs a magic potion composed of natural materials collected from the forest floor. Finally, a group of children are peeling bark off hazel sticks with support from the Forest School practitioner, beginning the process of making swords for the upcoming knighting ceremony, which will commemorate the children who are leaving forest school this term.

My family at forest school
My family at forest school

The familiar sing-song voice of the Forest School practitioner gently breaks the children’s activities. They all happily ‘come and join in our small circle‘, sitting on logs at the fire circle to share food and drink together; hot chocolate warming and raisins and jam sandwiches energising. Nourished, the children return to spend the rest of the morning playing or joining in the supervised activity if they wish.

As the session draws to a close, the children gather around the fire circle to reflect on the session. Ewan says in a clear, confident voice ‘I enjoyed making the fairy house’. As the children return to preschool, a fifteen-minute walk through the woodland and across a sheep field, I observe Ewan squelching through mud, climbing over a gate, splashing in streams and hiding behind stone walls with the other children. His exuberance reassures me, confirming that after much deliberating I did choose the right pre-school environment for him.

Finding Forest School

My search for a suitable pre-school for my son appeared futile until I stumbled across an advert for a Forest School Open Day. From that day forward we did not look back. A few days later, on a crisp winter’s morning with temperatures as low as minus six, we headed out into the frozen woods. Captivated, from that day forward we did not look back. We were welcomed into a small, nurturing Pre-school with open arms, run by a committed team of staff who were passionate about re-connecting children with nature. We were delighted when Ewan secured a place at Playgroup the term after his third birthday, knowing it was well worth the thirty minute commute to enable Ewan to experience the many delights of Forest School.

Ewan at Forest School for the first time
Ewan at Forest School for the first time

What is Forest School

Forest School was introduced in the UK in the 1990s, after staff from Bridgwater College in Somerset visited Denmark. Forest School has grown exponentially since then, popular in early years settings but also expanding across other providers, such as secondary schools, children’s centres and adult therapeutic services. The Forest School’s Association define Forest School as ‘an inspirational process that offers all learners regular opportunities to achieve, develop confidence and self-esteem, through hands-on learning experiences in a woodland or natural environment with trees.’

Forest School takes place regularly over time, a minimum of one session per week spanning ten weeks or more, with a high-level of learner to practitioner ratio. Sessions go ahead in all weathers and seasons, apart from in high winds, allowing learners to become immersed in the natural world. For learners to successfully engage with their environment, they need to be suitably dressed for the weather, be it cold, wet or hot, and they need to be given permission to get dirty, to play in the mud and to take risks.29 April 2015 (4)

Re-wilding habitats

In The Wild Network’s discussion on how we can re-wild habitats, the authors point out that ‘ The most important species to be reintroduced to our fields, woods and meadows are kids.’ How true this is! As my children play in the woods, I am acutely aware they are an endangered species. We rarely see other children exploring our local outdoor spaces. Our children are perhaps the first generation of captive children, kept ‘safely’ hidden indoors in an often virtual world, or shipped from one organised activity to the next. This can lead to what Richard Louv in 2005 termed ‘nature deficit disorder‘. No longer are children able to freely explore their local woods, streams and fields.

This disconnect from nature has far-reaching consequences, including growing levels of childhood obesity, a raft of emotional and behavioural problems and loss of ‘natural’ skills and knowledge, such as an appreciation of plants and animals, the ability to forage and environmental awareness.

For the next generation to be guardians of the natural world, they need to return to wild places, where they can risk-take, play freely, be creative and simply ‘be’. Forest School serves to fill this gap, vital in our overly prescribed, results-driven educational system and electronically connected era. It is therefore exciting Forest School is growing so rapidly, with many schools, parents and children experiencing its many benefits.image133

Forest School in our lives

Our family time is often spent in the woods, exploring and learning about the natural environment together, erecting shelters, cooking on an open fire, boiling water using a Kelly Kettle and at times even wild camping. I feel more connected to myself, my children and nature when I am in the woods. There really is no place I would rather be, which makes me very happy.

After two wonderful years at Playgroup, Ewan has now moved to a Forest School for home educated children. Our daughter Tessa, who is two-and-a-half, attends Woodland Adventurers at Playgroup, an outdoor session which prepares toddlers for Forest School. I have been a parent volunteer at Playgroup for the past year. I always leave the site feeling a deep contentment and peace within myself. The experience is also enriching for the children, who derive a lot of pleasure in addition to many other positive outcomes, from simply being able to play in a woodland setting.

It was for these reasons that I made the decision to train to be a Forest School Practitioner. I am now part-way through my training, having recently joined the Playgroup team as a Woodland Adventure Leader. Forest School is leading me down an exciting new career path, one where my love of working with young children and nature is combined. My eyes have been opened to new ways of learning whilst my self-confidence has improved, as well as my ability to achieve, learn and face fresh challenges. I am not only learning about how to use tools or light a fire or work with children in an outdoor environment, I am also discovering more about myself, a process at the heart of Forest School.

The future

The next generation face an uncertain, challenging future, yet it is one enthused with hope. I believe Forest School is part of the answer. I hope it is a movement all children are fortunate enough to experience in some form. For my children, it is an integral part of their daily lives, the ethos deeply ingrained in the way we home educate and live day-to-day. We are working and growing in partnership, where I am a learner as much as my children. I am my children’s facilitator and their guide, I hope one who points but does not lead the way.

As a new mum over half a decade ago, I never envisaged we would be walking down an alternative parenting and educational path. Wherever it takes us, I am confident this is the right way for us, with no destination in sight but enjoying the journey. On this family adventure the trees and the fairies are our dear friends, who lend us a hand when we stumble and fall. In return, we nurture and respect them, sharing the wild places together.

Resources

Websites

–  Forest School Association

The Wild Network

– Forest Schools Education

Books

Sara Knight; Forest School and Outdoor Learning in the Early Years. 2Nd Ed. 2013. Sage.

Richard Louv; Last Child in the Woods, 2005. Workman Publishing.

Tessa’s birth story

My watch stopped at 6.15am on Friday 8th March 2013, at the same moment my body told me that it was moving into the first stages of labour; the show felt like a plug suddenly unblocking. I hoped for an active VBAC home-birth with my independent midwife supporting me, after a traumatic first labour almost three years earlier. This had resulted in an emergency caesarian under general anaesthetic and complications afterwards for me. I was emotionally and physically ready for labour this time, vowing to stay clear of the hospital unless there was simply no alternative.

The morning passed peacefully as my surges gradually increased in intensity. I vividly remember nursing my 33-month-old son Ewan in bed around lunchtime. I cried silently as he suckled, treasuring this moment as I knew it would be his last feed as a single nursling. He gripped on for dear life, as if sensing a sudden catastrophic change was about to take place. When my surges became too much due to the suckling, I gently unlatched him. He cried and cried as if he knew.

At lunch-time I alternated between eating and rocking on the birthing ball to ease my strengthening surges, which were coming around every five minutes or so by now. Ewan bounced in and out of the birthing pool his Daddy was preparing, delighted we had a large paddling pool in the dining area! Feeling it was time for quiet, I hugged Ewan tightly, feeling a sense of loss as my parents took him and our Labrador Hector to their house.

As an early March dusk settled on the chill world outside, I prepared the lounge, lighting candles and putting on meditative music. This was my birthing space. I rocked from side to side on the birthing ball, quietly accepting each surge, resting between them, feeling that this was the beginning of a long but exciting road ahead.

My husband and I ate supper quietly, both feeling a little apprehensive. The thought of a caesarian still lurked somewhere in my mind, even though I was fit, healthy and emotionally prepared. Thoughts that I had developed a close relationship with my midwife over the previous eight months calmed me. I had seen Rachel regularly and established a level of trust with her which ensured I felt comfortable in her presence and interventions at this crucial time.

As the evening wore on, Rich and I rested in the living room; I lay on the floor or rocked almost meditatively on the birthing ball as he slept lightly on the couch. On this beautiful night I laboured quietly in familiar surroundings, calm and ready. As the space between each surge lengthened, the pain developed in intensity and moved into my lower back. It was then my suspicions of a posterior labour took hold. If my baby was back-to-back, as Ewan had been, my labour would be longer and more intense.

Rachel arrived in the early hours of the morning, examining me at 4cm dilated and encouraging me to be active to help labour become more established. I walked up and down the stairs and around the house, rubbing a labour blend of rose, jasmine and lavender on my skin between surges. My vocalisations rose, then fell, with the arrival and dissipation of each surge. My tuneful humming was an instinctive and necessary reaction to the tightening surges in my body, arriving unselfconsciously and drifting away as the pain faded. Rachel periodically and unobtrusively examined me as I laboured, a fact I had accepted as necessary due to my previous caesarian. These examinations did not cease the flow of my labour, in stark contrast to the electric foetal monitoring of my previous labour. Rachel’s knowledge and experience of home-birth proved invaluable.

I focused all my efforts on moving baby downwards, talking quietly yet powerfully to baby to move ‘down‘. I had developed a conversation over the past few months with baby, so communion came naturally. Our most intense conversations took place whilst in meditation a few weeks previously, as I willed baby to move from a breech to an anterior position.

As the snow started to fall softly outside, I moved around the house on all fours as Rich prepared the birthing pool. My body rested in the warm water, but the peace of this space slowed my surges down. I fixed my gaze out of the window, following the snowflakes falling softly to the ground as the pain intensified. A vision suddenly materialised of my toddler son laughing, running up and down the garden path, his hair bright blonde against the blueness of the sky. I reminded myself I was labouring now in order to ensure our son would have a companion by his side in this very garden. This striking image eased the pain somewhat, as did the hands and calm words of the second midwife, who had just arrived. As Nicky poured water over my aching back I relaxed, her presence comforting. It was now midday; my labour had slowed down, so I left the birthing pool, managing to eat and drink a little after touching dry ground.

I walked up and down the stairs, I rocked, I hummed loudly. I was shown positions to help baby rotate, preferring a position squatting holding onto the wall as Rich firmly pressed into my hips. I felt baby rotate slightly and the surges intensify more and more, my voice rising to match the pain. My baby and I worked in synchrony, moving together. By 4pm I was fully dilated and ‘in the zone‘. I entered the pool again, my vocalisations two different musical tones as I rocked and involuntarily pushed at the peak of the surges, urging baby to move downwards as my hands also pushed downwards.

An hour later I left the pool and entered transition. This was simply the most intense pain I had ever experienced, beyond words and any past feeling. I asked for Entonox, feeling a failure for requesting drugs, but also shaky from the huge intensity of the pain, unsure how else to progress. Vaguely aware of talk of hospital, nightmarish thoughts flooded my mind of bright lights flashing, loud machines, strict procedures, cold clinicians and ultimately another caesarian. This instantly halted any feeling of surrender, of giving in. Instead I rose above it, riding above wave after wave of pain. I did not hit the wall; I believed I could achieve a natural birth, every inch of my being willing me to.

Nicky massaged my lower back as I continued to squat, nibbling toast and honey in order to boost my energy reserves so I could progress to the active pushing stage. I willed baby earth-side, aware this stage was taking an age whilst pushing away fears of an ambulance whizzing me to hospital or worse than that, death for me with baby stuck in the birth canal.

I moved from a squatting to a kneeling position and back again as I pushed and pushed, vocalising loudly, directing baby ‘down‘. I heard Nicky encouraging me to talk to baby, for its head was almost born. Rachel lay a mirror on the floor and saw baby’s head emerge, then slide back. A feeling of near triumph entered my consciousness as I was informed of this.

It was 7pm; I was utterly beyond any exhaustion ever experienced, beyond fear, beyond my own life, I was something else; I was giving birth, in all its splendour, beauty, mystery, purity, pleasure and utter pain, in its untidiness, its physicality, its animalism and its plane beyond normal living, in its raw reality and ultimately its life giving joy. I had deeply grieved the loss of this with my first birth and had visualised this moment for months. Now it was really happening.

The darkness of a second night of labouring enveloped me and my helpers, who had become my saviours. We all worked together for this the final push. I was squatting with my feet firmly on the lounge floor when with total amazement I birthed my baby; the head was born, then the body was ejected from my body. My baby lay whole and very much alive on a blanket on the carpet. I shook uncontrollably, totally spent, knowing I was unable to birth the placenta naturally. Assuming my newborn child was another boy, I glanced down to see the umbilical cord. Rachel asked if I wanted to sex my baby. I was even more amazed when I discovered our baby was in fact a girl. Unconditional love suddenly overwhelmed me as I gazed at the tiny purple human being lying below me. Was she really mine? Our daughter, Tessa Rose, arrived earth-side at 7.17pm on 9th March.

Still shaking, I was helped up to the sofa, where I scoffed a pile of biscuits and drank for England, craving fluid and sweetness after the most exhilarating, exhausting day of my life. I was so tired I could hardly hold my daughter, let alone feed her. My visions of lying in maternal bliss and biological nursing were forgotten in the reality of the moment, as felt a haze of unreality surround me. When Nicky announced she had a ball to go to, I gasped, unable to comprehend anything beyond these four walls. My life for the next week was a nest in my bedroom, as the snow continued to fall in the unseasonably cold March temperatures outside.

Ewan arrived the afternoon after his sister was born, instantly nursing, his only way of dealing with the massive change we had brought into his life. People came and went as I lay upstairs, learning my daughter as she learnt me. Three days after the birth, my daughter lay blissfully asleep in my arms having just fed, her tiny head on my breast. Surging through my whole body was the thought this was where she and I were meant to be. It was as if the world had suddenly shifted beneath my feet. I willed myself to etch this moment securely into my consciousness. Two and a half years later the image of my newborn daughter lying in my arms has remained as tangible as if it had just happened, for she is lying there still, in my arms to sleep after a feed. Long may that remain.

Our Nepalese adventure

Ewan and Tessa
Ewan and Tessa

First published in ‘The Green Parent’, Feb/March 2016, Issue 69

My family and I stand entranced on the roof of the world, pausing for breath as we gaze at the awe-inspiring view of the Langtang Himal before us. We are on the summit of Kyangjin Ri, thousands of prayer flags fluttering in the wind, awesome snow-capped mountains rising majestically in every direction around us. The silence and almost unearthly stillness of 4,779 metres is suddenly broken by the soft chuckles of my twenty-month-old daughter Tessa, as I pull her round out of the sling to join us for a proud family photo. We stand relieved, exhausted, amazed, as our trekking guide freezes this moment in time. I hold Tessa tightly in my arms as our four-and-a-half year old son, Ewan, stands safely between me and his Daddy. As we continue our fifteen-day trek, I muse on what has brought us to this moment; four faces smiling into a camera, snow mountains projected sharply behind us, dazzling azure sky above, like a family airbrushed into a photo-shoot, yet this is real. So, what led us to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, six weeks in Nepal with two young children? Continue reading Our Nepalese adventure

What shall we do today?

A mother and daughter's microadventure

This article was first published in Juno magazine, edition 43, Spring 2016.

What shall we do today?

A micro-adventure is a fun, easy way to make the most of a free day, Caroline Cole discovered

One Wednesday morning in late February I find my daughter and I home alone without any plans. Amongst the daily list of household chores we could do today, I wonder what we can do which is more challenging, exciting and embracing of the freedom such a day offers. This is a rare opportunity to do something different and memorable, just mother and daughter together. We are car-less, but have countryside right on our doorstep. Continue reading What shall we do today?

A Nepalese Adventure

Mummy and Tessa descending from the summit

First published in The Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2014: THE STORY OF US, edited by Teika Bellamy, Sept 2015 

Your rhythmical sweet breathing calms my racing heart as I climb steadily at this high altitude. You sleep soundly, strapped firmly to my back in a sling, the safest place on earth, your sanctuary. I feel you stir as I reach Kyangjin Ri, hundreds of prayer flags fluttering in the wind, awesome snow mountains rising majestically in every direction. You are only twenty months old, ‘bis mahinar‘, as I have replied to continuous enquiries from local Nepalis and amazed tourists alike. I force a smile to encourage my husband on, as he labours in this thin air with a far greater weight than I, that of our four-and-a-half year old son, Ewan. Continue reading A Nepalese Adventure

Mothering Through Breastfeeding – the sequel

This article first appeared in Le Leche’s breastfeeding magazine ‘Breastfeeding Matters’, July/August 2015, edition 208. DSCN0679

Caroline tells us about her tandem nursing experience, and how breastfeeding has always felt like the natural choice for her and her babies.

As I write this, my son and daughter’s tandem nursing days are drawing to a close, as Ewan is gradually and naturally weaning from the breast. He is four and a half years old. His younger sister, Tessa, now twenty months, nurses day and night. Words can never do justice to what my life has been like since having children; they have been the most eventful, joyous, challenging, memorable, exhausting and reflective years of my life, filled with laughter and tears. I have learnt to juggle, both physically and emotionally, two growing nurslings. My children have taught me more than I ever imagined, about myself, about breastfeeding and about life. Below I share a little of this enfolding journey, of mothering, of breastfeeding, and how the two converge.

Pregnancy

Nursing remained a place of sanctuary, support and comfort to Ewan throughout his third year. He persisted, even when there was little milk left as my pregnancy developed, seeing this out to the day I went into labour. As Tessa grew inside me, so did the unwelcome feeling of being ‘touched out’. These strong feelings were telling me to push Ewan away. I struggled to come to terms with the first negative feelings around feeding Ewan, which left me guilt-ridden and shocked. This was compounded with the physical challenge of nursing while pregnant, as my nipples became sore and my bump grew bigger. I persisted by placing boundaries on when Ewan could feed and for how long, not feeling ready to completely wean him yet.

I vividly recall Ewan’s last feed as an only child, the day I went into labour. As we lay snuggled up in bed I silently wept, aware the next time he fed would be radically different and that our relationship would alter once the new baby came along. Ewan was oblivious to my tears as he fell asleep dreamily on the breast. A few hours later, my parents came to collect Ewan, leaving me to labour in peace with my husband, and later, my independent midwife. My hope was for a natural home-birth this time, having experienced an emergency caesarean under general anaesthetic with Ewan. Continue reading Mothering Through Breastfeeding – the sequel