Selfish Mother

I recently discovered a fantastic blogzine called Selfish Mother. It’s a collection of blog posts from cool, clever, funny, interesting, inspirational women who happen also to have given birth. The posts frequently, but not exclusively, focus on some aspect of motherhood – often those dilemmas which are close to my own heart of how best to balance being the best possible parent whilst also retaining a sense of self and a place in the world which isn’t just “Anna and Sophia’s mummy” – even if that will always be my most important role.

maman_grey_scoop_sweat_with_red_grandeThey also have an on-line shop selling super-cool sweatshirts and t-shirts with ‘Mother’ or ‘Maman’ slogans which raise money for various women’s charities. I love ethical fashion which gives me an excuse to buy more clothes in a  good cause, and I adore my cosy yet stylish Maman sweatshirt.

For a while I was a lurker; I read, but lacked the confidence to contribute. A friend who also follows Selfish Mother encouraged me to post, and so I have dipped my toe in the water, and yesterday published this article about where my time disappears to. I hope you enjoy!

The longest month

Just three weeks ago I blogged about how January wasn’t too bad after all. Clearly I was too smug, too soon, because I am now suffering from January blues along with the rest of the Western world. It is such a long month! Christmas already feels several lifetimes ago, and there is still another week of January left!

It is dark when I drag myself out of bed in the morning, and getting dark by the time we get home from school pick up. When it’s wet playtime at school Anna comes home a bundle of frustrated energy, and it is just too cold and gloomy to face taking her to the park to run it off (it’s not me who doesn’t want to stand around in the freezing cold twilight, you understand, it is because I have to consider what is best for Sophia), so she comes home and runs it off in the house instead.

I’ve had a mini flare up of a long-term health condition, which isn’t at all serious, but has left me feeling completely run-down and exhausted – not helped by a teething baby waking up several times each night. Anna came down with a cold last week, which she has now passed on to me, and, judging from the amount of baby sneezes this morning, to her little sister as well.

The fact that I spent half my housekeeping budget for the month in the first few days of it as we entertained friends and treated ourselves to celebration meals (and bottles of fizz) over New Year is now coming back to haunt me now, and we’re definitely going to be living off the contents of the freezer and the store cupboard for the next week. I will be googling imaginative things to do with lentils, tinned kidney beans and corned beef shortly.

I’ve been trying to keep positive and optimistic, because there were still good things going on: Sophia has started walking, which is exciting, and we have booked a home exchange holiday to Paris and Marseille at Easter which I am looking forward to soooo much, although it seems light years away at the S walkingmoment. This morning, though, my husband had a meeting with his accountants to finalise his tax return, and they casually informed him that his employer have been using the wrong tax code all year, and so he owes an extra £3,000 in tax, payable right now. That was the moment when I had to put up my hands and concede defeat. I’ve fought it, but January has got me.

So roll on February. Not everyone’s favourite month, I admit, but I like it. My birthday is in February, it’s Pancake Day, Valentine’s Day and half term – lots of little treats to look forward to – and the mornings and evenings should be getting lighter all the time. The level of hibernation I’d really like to go right now for isn’t possible with a six year old who needs to go to school each day and an energetic almost-toddler, both of whom insist on a certain amount of feeding, washing and entertainment,  but please excuse me if I spend as much time as humanly possible for the rest of this month in my pyjamas, wrapped in a blanket or duvet, eating the last of the Christmas chocolate and moaning to anyone unwise enough to attempt to engage me in conversation.

My baby scientist

Many months ago I wrote a post declaring that, while Sophia was a small portable baby, before the hassles of weaning and nap routines set in, I would get out and about and explore London – museums, galleries, parks and more. That turned out to be slightly hubristic, as shortly afterwards I broke my foot, and spent the next two months basically unable to leave the house. By the time I had recovered, Sophia was eating solid food and, after so much enforced time at home, had settled into a helpful but fairly rigid routine which centred around naps in her cot. She is not a fan of sleeping out and about in the pram or sling (unlike her sister, who refused to sleep in her cot!), and although that generally suits me as it gives me around 90 minutes of ‘free’ time a day to indulge myself with cleaning the bathroom or making this delicious sugar-free banana bread for the children, it is a bit limiting when it comes to adventures outside Walthamstow!

However, every now and then I decide to brave a day trip, just to prove to myself that Sophia won’t spontaneously combust if she is limited to a couple of 20 minute cat naps, and also to try and expand my horizons fractionally.

Sophia is registered with the Babylab at Birkbeck College, part of the University of London. This centre carries out academic studies on babies and toddlers to try and understand various aspects of brain and cognitive development. I heard about it, and, as the studies are all totally non-invasive and the comfort and wellbeing of the baby is paramount, I loved the idea of Sophia being able to do her bit to contribute to the sum of human knowledge before she could even talk. Last Friday we went for our first visit as part of a new study on the effect of smart-phone/tablet use on babies’ sleep patterns and development.

I was fascinated to take part in this. My gut instinct is that screen time can’t be good for small babies – Sophia certainly doesn’t use any baby-apps, and Anna was at least three before we allowed her to use specific child-friendly apps under supervision for carefully controlled amounts of time.However, I would love to know if my instincts are right, or if I am simply a dinosaur reacting against something which had no place in my childhood but which will be a fundamental part of my daughters’. What better way to find out than through a proper academic study?

Sophia wore various monitoring devices which registered her brain waves, eye movements, heart rate and body temperature, and engaged in different activities – traditional play, watching video clips, playing with an i-Pad. We will go back and repeat the experiments in five months. In the meantime, if anyone lives in London and has a baby, do consider getting in touch with Babylab, as they are always after more baby volunteers. Your baby gets a super-cool ‘I’m an Infant Scientist’ t-shirt for their efforts, and it really is a very rewarding process.

S in PretAfter our scientific endeavours, Sophia and I went and had a light lunch in Pret a Manger (Pret sandwiches are one of the few things I miss from my working-nine-to-five persona), and then she fell into a completely exhausted sleep in her pram and I carried on the scientific theme of the day by visiting the Wellcome Collection. This is a fascinating museum, for ‘the incurably curious’, devoted mainly to exhibits on medicine and human biology. The exhibition on obesity had examples of healthy portion sizes which made me want to weep, but I also saw ancient Japanese sex-aids, far more pairs of obstetric forceps than I could cope with without crossing my legs, and a lock of George III’s hair. Analysis has revealed abnormally high levels of arsenic in the hair, giving a probable explanation for his madness but to my mind raising many more interesting questions.

I then walked the short distance to St Pancras, my favourite of all the many lovely London stations, and spent a little while admiring its gothic magnificence and giving thanks to John Betjeman who saved it from planned demolition, before getting the tube back to Walthamstow, school pick-up and day-to-day life.

2016 Reading Challenge

As I have blogged about many times before, books and reading are absolutely fundamental to my life. Recently, however, I feel I have lost my reading mojo. I still read a lot, but more often than not I am re-reading an old favourite, or reading blogs or recipe books.Nothing wrong with any of that, of course, but I am starting to feel a little bit stale.

There are a few barriers to reading new things. The first is time. The reading I do do is in snatched moments – a couple of pages when Anna is watching telly and Sophia is happily occupied with one her toys, another sneaky glance when I’m waiting for the pasta to cook, and then as much as I can manage (normally not much) before I fall asleep at night. It is quite difficult to accommodate anything that needs much concentration or brain power in these tiny windows.

The second is my unruly emotions. Since having Anna I have found that I can’t cope with sad, poignant, violent or traumatic events very well, either in art of life. Since having Sophia, that has worsened. I spend far too much time silently panicking about all the misery and pain in the world, all the illnesses and accidents and senseless violence, and how they could affect my precious girls. In the little time I have for reading I want escapism, not powerfully crafted reminders of the vulnerability and fragility of life.And many books provide this escapism. The problem is, it’s hard to predict. A few years ago I read an utterly charming and heartwarming book about a single mother starting up a knitting shop in New York, and through the classes she taught meeting a wonderful group of friends who enriched her life. It was absolutely delightful until, without much warning, she died of ovarian cancer in the penultimate chapter, leaving her friends bereft and her young daughter heartbroken and motherless. I haven’t quite got over that yet.

The third problem is my addiction. I don’t want to be flippant, but, rather as people who have issues with alcohol or tobacco learn that they can’t be social drinkers or have ‘just one’ fag at a party without sending themselves spirally back into damaging addiction, so I worry a bit about me with books. When I am reading a new book I love I tend to lose myself to the world completely. And I do mean completely. I have missed my stop on trains and buses countless times. I have been late for work. I have sat in a busy public place in floods of tears, utterly oblivious to the consternation of those around me, because I am so absorbed in the world of my book. The thing is, I can’t afford to do that now. I genuinely am a little worried that if I read too much my compulsion will grow and my children will spend too much time in front of the telly  in dirty clothes eating cheese sandwiches because I am too absorbed to play or wash or cook.

So, three good reasons for me not to read. But the overwhelming case in favour is that reading is so much a part of who I am that if I don’t read I will be losing myself.

bokcaseLocal libraries set a summer reading challenge for school children – to read and rate six new books over the course of the summer holidays. In other words, six books in six weeks. So it occurred to me that if they can do that, so can I. Only to make it a more sustained effort I am challenging myself to 52 books in 2016. I was very sceptical that I could achieve my Advent blog challenge, but I managed it, so to incentivise myself with this I am also going to blog monthly about what I have been reading. The aim is not that these books are all great literature. I am going to read what I love, and so I expect that chick lit, detective fiction and the odd cookery book will make up a large part of the list.

I am doing pretty well so far. We are half way through January, and I am right on target having read 2.5 new books so far this month. And so far Anna and Sophia remain (reasonably) clean, well-fed and contented. Early in February I will be reporting back on them – watch this space!

Just be yourself…unless you’re a parent

We live in an age in which individualism has almost cult-like status. Across all types of conventional and new media we are bombarded with a message which comes down to ‘be yourself’. It is a hugely positive thing that we are no longer constrained by social expectations of what someone of our age/religion/class/background/ethnicity/sexuality/gender can or can’t do, and it has given many square pegs the chance to set forth to seek out a square hole of their own rather than making do with the round one next door.

There is only one snag. As soon as you become a parent, this all changes, and suddenly the weight of societal expectations is full upon you again. It starts even before you get pregnant. You may have been a carefree party girl, but you’re suddenly confronted with warnings on bottles of alcohol exhorting you to avoid while ‘pregnant or trying to conceive’. The positive pregnancy test brings a whole load more restrictions. Since my first pregnancy, seven years ago, I have read articles warning pregnant women against: painkillers, anti-histamines, antibiotics, cigarettes, alcohol, caffeine, shellfish, raw or partially cooked eggs, nuts, soft cheeses, pate, cured meats and fish, cleaning products, stress, jacuzzis, hot baths, strenuous exercise, insufficient exercise, unwashed fruit or vegetables, cat litter, farm animals, gardening, long-haul travel and new furniture. I have probably missed a few out, but you get the gist. Quite how you are to avoid stress while adhering to this list has never been explained.

I mean, obviously you need to be sensible when you’re pregnant, and there are things which could increase the risk of something going wrong with you or the baby, but when did your body suddenly become everyone else’s business, just because you happen to be gestating?

Things only get worse once the baby arrives. Ironically you will still read articles telling you to follow your instincts, and that you know your baby best. However. These tend to be submerged by the healthcare professionals/well-meaning friends and relatives/blogs/magazine articles/parenting books giving very specific and entirely contradictory strictures. Your baby must never get too hot because it increases the risk of cot death, but they must never get too cold as it increases the risk of old ladies berating you in the street for not having them in a hat and 18 blankets. They must be breastfed, exclusively, for six months, but you should express milk and get them used to a bottle to enable your partner to bond with them. And don’t leave it too late to wean them because toddlers breastfeeding well, that’s a bit icky, isn’t it? Your baby must sleep on their back in a crib or cot to avoid cot death, but you should be aware that this is unnatural and means that they will not be able to bond with you or form emotionally sustaining relationships for the rest of their lives. If you do decide to co-sleep then you must not have consumed drugs or alcohol or be too tired. Luckily tiredness is rarely a problem for new parents. You must carry them in a sling for bonding and colic relief but push them in a pram for safety and good spinal development. They must be stimulated, but not over-stimulated. It is important to get them into a good routine early on, but you should also make sure that you are listening to your baby, following their cues and being entirely flexible.

If you practise controlled crying then you are monstrously selfish as you are putting your own need for sleep above your child’s psychological well-being. On the other hand, if you don’t, then you are making a rod for your own back and creating a spoilt child whose brain will be stunted due to lack of proper amounts  of sleep.

When it comes to weaning you must wait until they are exactly six months for fear of causing obesity and/or food allergies. However, it is also important to listen to your baby and wean when they seem ready. If they are not sleeping through the night you should give them some baby rice from four months. You can follow Annabel Karmel and spend several hours a day pureeing everything in sight before spoon-feeding your little angel from bowls and spoons that definitely do not contain BPA. Or you could go for the baby-led warning approach which means you wave goodbye to your carpets and serve ‘family food’ to your baby from day one, letting them feed themselves. Be aware, though, that ‘family food’ should not contain salt, sugar, raw or partially cooked eggs, nuts, shellfish, or highly processed ingredients. Please don’t think that you can mix and match; that seems to be the parenting equivalent of saying you’re a bit Christian and a bit Hindu, but go to Mosque with your friend sometimes. It is important that your baby gets vital micro-nutrients as soon as possible so you must ensure a well-balanced diet, but remember that food before one is just for fun. Don’t make mealtimes a battle, but it is essential to maintain boundaries.

Don’t forget, by the way, to follow your instincts.

Babies need a lot of toys which have been specifically designed to stimulate them at their particular stage of development and you must ensure you take them to a range of expensive classes. Except that too many toys and organised classes will stifle their creativity and mean that they will never be able to amuse themselves and so are actually counter-productive as well as being a waste of time and money.

You should go back to work because children thrive inter-acting with their peers in a childcare environment, and you will be setting them a good example of hard work and achievement. As long as you don’t mind missing out on their most important milestones and them calling their key worker ‘mummy’, you selfish career-obsessed bitch.

Your children are only young once, so don’t waste it doing housework, just enjoy playing with them. As long as they are eating three meals and two snacks a day which have been cooked from scratch using a wide range of fresh organic ingredients in a spotlessly clean kitchen. And note that dust mites cause allergies so as a minimum you should wash all soft toys and bedding on a hot wash at least once a week and dust and hoover all rooms where your child spends time daily. The germs which cause nasties like flu and norovirus can survive on hard surfaces for up to seventy-two hours, so make sure you wash all toys and surfaces in the home several times daily with a disinfectant spray, but build up your children’s  immune systems by using all-natural cleaning products such as lemon juice and bicarbonate of soda.

Once they’re school age you must help them to do their homework as it consolidates classroom learning, but also ensure that they learn only through  unstructured play. If they are going to learn a musical instrument they should start young, but not too young. They should avoid telly while also having a good understanding of popular culture so that they don’t feel left out in the playground. It is essential that they become tech-savvy because that is the future, but too much screen-time will make them obese and might cause ADHD. Obviously they need lots of exercise, but also time for creative pursuits, time with friends, time with family, time to listen to music, time to read, time to follow their own interests, time to help around the house, and time to go to organised classes and groups so that they can make friends, learn new skills and socialise.

You are not allowed  to be yourself when you’re raising children. As a society we don’t seem to be able to cope with the concept that parents can do things differently from each other and yet still raise happy, healthy, well-balanced children. Why is it so difficult to accept that a single mum who works full-time and relaxes at the weekend by teaching her son the violin and taking him to local folk music festivals is making choices just as valid as the happily married, tone deaf stay-at-home dad who’s passionate about computer games? Sure, their kids might not turn out exactly the same as each other, but, newsflash: that’s ok. There should be as many different ways of parenting as there are different parents and different children. There are a few basics which pretty much centre around loving and feeding your child, keeping them physically safe, and ensuring they get an education when they’re old enough, but otherwise parents and children will be  far happier and more relaxed if you do things in a way which suits you and your child and your family and your circumstances. You can be yourself and a good parent too.