I cannot believe it. I am rocking The Baby Whisperer's baby to sleep. It's a (surreal) Tuesday afternoon in September and we are at Bauer Media's photo studio in Auckland; I am interviewing postnatal advisor Sharlene Poole, who's better known as New Zealand's Baby Whisperer, about becoming a mother, and we're also creating a video about winding a baby – using Poole's very own son George to demonstrate.
Seven-week-old George Francis Poole has had enough of being filmed and has been getting scratchy, so Poole has handed her son to me so we can continue our interview. I am doing the dance all mothers know and George has noisily nestled into my neck as I bob up and down, side to side.
It's only a few minutes before my arms begin to ache and my back begins to protest (hey, I'm out of practice) but eventually his teeny body slumps into mine and grows heavy, surrendering to sleep – and I can't help but think, 'If only my coffee group could see me now'.
Sharlene Poole was like a superstar to us when we were new to motherhood, grappling with getting our babies to feed, bring up wind and sleep as they should - and she is just as highly revered today, with new mums regaling her on social media for 'saving my sanity' and 'changing our lives'.
In an era where there is so much parenting advice - and much of it conflicting - all mothers really want is someone warm and motherly to hold their hand and tell them what to do for a little bit.
In the early 2000s I watched her baby care segment religiously on TVNZ's Good Morning show, which was hosted then by Mary Lambie. Poole featured on the show for six years. I adopted her baby winding technique – the same one we are filming today – and followed her advice on how to soothe your little one to sleep. I interviewed her several times when I was editor of a parenting magazine.
At 16, Poole was the youngest student to have ever been accepted into the private early childhood college she trained at in Christchurch. She worked in preschools and as a maternity nurse in England before deciding to focus her career solely on new mothers and babies. She has assisted hundreds of parents in New Zealand and abroad - working round the clock with them in their homes, showing them how to care for their babies. She 'knows' babies, and her demeanour is calm, confident and serene.
It always struck me what a perfect mother she would make, yet she had no children of her own.
I remember asking her once if she'd like to have children and her answer was yes, if she had a man. Poole has not been perpetually single, yet neither in a position to plan for a family – and that's enough said, suggests Poole, who is fiercely private about this part of her life.
Taking the leap
So now here she is at the age of 40 – without a man but she does have a baby. Everything about her experience speaks modern motherhood.
Wee George Francis, who is named after his great grandfather, was conceived - on her very first try - using donor sperm, and Poole will be raising him alone.
What made you take the leap?, I ask her.
"I've had clients over the last 10 years who have had a sperm donor baby and I've seen them do it - and none of them have had the experience [with babies] that I've had," she explains.
"And then there was my step great grandmother, who didn't have children, and who I used to stay with in Wellington when I did the Good Morning show… She used to be on my case the whole time: 'What are you doing? Why have you not got a man? You've got to have a child.'
"She had married my great grandfather when she was 40 and in those days it wasn't appropriate to have a baby when you were 40. But she told me it was her biggest regret.
"I was 37 when she died. I was sitting in her house when I thought to myself, 'I have to be proactive'. I had talked about using a sperm donor if I got to a certain age and still wasn't in a relationship…
"So I went on the waiting list and started the process - because it's easy talking about it but to do it was quite - not scary - but 'okay right I'm doing it now'.
"And just as well I did because it took two years to get to the top of the waiting list."
Fear of being judged
Despite some morning sickness to contend with in her first trimester, she says her pregnancy was "brilliant".
"I loved being pregnant and I really miss it. During my first trimester I was working long hours and it was tiring doing that along with the nausea, but that was all."
Baby George was born by caesarean section on July 14, and his birth went as smoothly as his conception and the pregnancy.
How did you feel the first time you saw him?, I ask her.
"I just felt very peaceful," she replies. "I didn't know what I was having so the first thing was 'is it a boy or a girl?'
"I had love for him straight away, from before he was even born - and it just feels so normal to be holding a baby in my arms.
"Breastfeeding feels different because I haven't done that before. And he had to have a little lip tie lasered (when the skin that connects from the upper lip to the gum can affect feeding and later, teething) and that was a little waaahh moment for me.
"But really, it just felt very right and normal. Everyone kept saying to me 'it's different when it's your own'. Yes it is different - but it's not like 'wow, this is different'.
"To be honest I've felt this love before. All of those babies I've helped care for over the years, working 24 hours a day with, I fell in love with them too."
Poole's first few days with George were spent at Waterford Birth Centre in Hamilton. She had wanted to go somewhere quiet, where she knew she'd be supported but left to her own devices.
"I had a little bit of fear in pregnancy that people would watch me and judge me – here, the midwives would pop their head in but I just really enjoyed doing it on my own."
The question on everybody's lips (or, at least, minds) has been, 'So, how is the Baby Whisperer really finding motherhood? Has it been as easy for her, with her own, as she makes it look with other people's babies?'
The short answer is yes, it has been easy for her.
"The whole way through my pregnancy people kept saying to me, 'It's going to be so interesting seeing you as a mother. After all of these years, it would be a laugh if your baby was really unsettled.'
"I can understand why people say it but it did get a bit repetitive," Poole says.
In truth, it's been "reassuring" for her to find that all of her experience with others' babies really has come to fruition - her introduction to motherhood has gone smoothly and there have been no real surprises.
George took two or three days to settle back into a good feeding/sleeping routine after his trip to Auckland with his mum for our interview - and the round of visiting friends and family that followed - but Poole had expected that.
She giggles at one of her first encounters of being 'observed': "At one time [at the birthing centre] I said to the midwife on duty, 'If you like you can watch me do a breastfeed just to make sure I'm doing it right - but I think I am'.
"I kind of felt like I should involve them because that was their profession, so these two midwives came in - and they'd all been told who I was – and they were intrigued to watch me and then they gave me the thumbs up - so that was nice."
Now home with George in her house in Raglan, which her mum helped her purchase late last year, she has been proactive about warding off the loneliness that can come with being home alone with a baby.
"I've had my mum here and then I had a friend from Auckland come down and stay, and then I had my mum come back and then I've had friends from Raglan popping in and bringing firewood in. So, really, all I've had to do is look after George and everybody else has looked after me.
"I had been a bit teary after my mum had left after that first trip and it wasn't that I was scared, it was just that after being so independent, it was a new emotion to me..."
She says family and friends have been hugely supportive.
She's a proud mum, quick to report that her son is in the 90th percentile for height and topping the charts for weight.
He's feeding and sleeping well round the clock. She describes him as a "hungry baby" with a strong personality:
"And that has been hilarious - so he loves his sleep and he loves his food and if I don't give him his food quick enough he kicks his foot and he drops his lip and he's mwwaaaaah," she laughs.
She knows little about the sperm donor but thinks she might contact him when George is old enough to understand.
I ask her about her plans for the future: "Well, this is all unknown territory for me. While mothering is so normal and easy for me, it's working out financially how to do this - how I can work without having to put George into daycare."
Poole has already started doing the odd phone consultation and will go back to doing home consultations in a month or so when her paid parental leave runs out. She admits it's not easy, servicing a mortgage on her own - "there is a bit of stress that comes with thinking about money" - but she also knows she has the support of her family.
"Dad died in a diving accident when I was 13 - he was 44 - and it was incredibly hard for Mum financially in those first few years after Dad died. She doesn't want to ever see any of her children struggle the way she did.
"Having George has drawn us closer together and she's loving being able to help me with George, so I know she is really happy to look after him when I need to work."
Poole would ideally like to start doing consultations in the form of a retreat scenario, where new parents come and stay with her and George:
"My house is big enough to accommodate a mum and baby and it's got beautiful views of the harbour, so when I'm ready, maybe in the New Year, I will start to advertise."
Keeping it simple
Someone as maternal as Poole, you imagine to have been one of those little girls who cherished dolls but Poole tells me she was just as happy tearing around the property on motorbikes, growing up with her three older brothers on an orchard in Tauranga. She sums up her childhood:
"I had a good balance [growing up] and I find that if I look at a lot of my clients' children or friends' children, as a whole, they are taken out in the car a lot or given stuff to do a lot, rather than having an environment which is set up for them to explore on their own.
"I'm very aware of it and I want George to be happy doing other stuff as well as being 'entertained'."
Gentle but firm boundaries, providing lots of opportunities to explore and being part of the community are the ideals that Poole intends to live by in the way she raises her son.
I ask her if she plans to have more children. "I would love to but I don't think I can financially. If my circumstances change, then maybe. So, who knows, never say never - but my biological clock is ticking."