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.





Twentieth Day of Advent: Me-time

Virginia Woolf famously declared that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. I am not financially dependent on my writing (which is just as well!), and although I don’t quite run to a room of my own, I don’t really feel lack of physical space causes me any problems. Perhaps because my writing doesn’t quite reach Ms Woolf’s literary standards, or perhaps because I am incurably nosy, but my favourite place to write is in a familiar, moderately busy cafe. When it is going well I get so immersed I don’t notice what’s going on around me, and when the Muse hasn’t visited then I can eat cake, eavesdrop and people-watch.

The thing which is lacking in my life at the moment is mental space, head space, me-time, call it what you will. Of course, this is the other side of the coin of that which makes me very happy indeed – my lovely daughters. I am also very happy that I get to be a stay-at-home mum and so see as much of them as possible. But if there is a downside, it is a lack of time to myself, for writing or reading or bathing or even going to the toilet. A joke has been doing the round on Facebook recently:

beautiful-pink-unicorn-10063789Santa Claus: So, Mum, what would you like for Christmas?

Mum: I’d like a beautiful unicorn please.

Santa Claus: Oh, come on, be realistic.

Mum: [sighs] Oh, ok. What I’d really like is five minutes to do a wee by myself and drink a cup of coffee while it is still hot.

Santa Claus: So, what colour unicorn were you thinking of?

There is probably a slightly manic edge to my laughter there.

I am in awe of households with children where both parents work outside the home. Their lives must be challenging in ways I can’t even imagine. But there just might be some benefits too. My husband habitually gets off the tube a couple of stops early and walks the last bit to work through a park. He’ll casually mention that he popped into Pret at lunchtime for a coffee and a sandwich. If he’s lucky enough to get a seat on the tube and manages to avoid being hit by the flying pig then he might read the paper on his way home. He misses out on stuff too, but I do envy those microscopic moments of time when he is only his own responsibility.

But there is an upside, other than all the quality time with my amazing children. No, I am not saying that in a sarcastic tone. The upside is that you become very good at making the most of the time you got, and it makes you disproportionately happy. Yesterday, husband, as he often does, volunteered to take Sophia with him when he took Anna to her swimming lesson. That meant I got over two hours to myself. During that time I made a macaroni cheese for tea, cleared the kitchen and washed up, vacuumed the dining room, living room, stairs, landing, our room and Sophia’s room, contemplated vacuuming Anna’s room and decided there was just too much stuff on the floor and so settled for making the bed and doing a quick tidy round, hung out a load of wet washing and put the dry stuff away, cleared a bookcase which Sophia had been perilously close to pulling over, found new homes for all the books and took the bookcase upstairs out of the way, wrote my blog post, and still had time to sit with my book and a sneaky slice of rocky road for at least ten minutes. Excuse me if this is over-sharing, but I even did an unaccompanied wee.

A lot of what I did were fairly mundane domestic chores, but just doing them by myself, while bopping along to some cheesy Christmas tunes instead of either simultaneously entertaining Sophia or stopping her throwing herself downstairs, or creeping round terrified I might wake her up, made me feel incredibly lighthearted. Having some space and a bit of me-time also meant that I felt much more enthusiastic and energetic about mothering when the children got back.

Today has been slightly different. Husband needed to do a bit of work this morning, so while writing this post I have also been making a frittata, super-glueing a dragonfly and watching the baby monitor wondering why Sophia is most definitely not asleep. I still feel pretty happy, though.

To walk, perchance to sleep

Blogging with a newborn baby to look after turns out to be a little less easy than I’d hoped. How naive of me – second time around I really should know better.

Sophia actually sleeps pretty well at night (touch wood, fingers crossed, quick offering to the gods of Baby Sleep), but the days are a little trickier. Up until about week 10 she would normally fall asleep when I fed her, and I could gently lower her into her Moses basket afterwards, or alternatively she’d drop off in the pram on the (very short) walk to collect Anna from school, and with a bit of luck would stay asleep once we got home. This freed my time up wonderfully for treats such as putting a load of washing on, stacking the dishwasher, putting clean laundry away, making a start on dinner or doing Anna’s reading book with her.

Suddenly, a couple of weeks ago that changed. Sophia got wise to my ploys. Five minutes after I slid her into her basket her eyes would snap wide open as realisation that she was no longer on mummy’s breast dawned. Similarly, the minute the pram was over the doorstep she’d be wide awake, and no amount of backwards and forwards pushing or jiggling would do the trick.

She’s generally a happy little thing, and wakes up quite content and ready to play, or cuddle or just sit in her bouncy chair and watch what her sister is getting up to. But if she doesn’t get enough sleep during the day, then come The Witching Hour, 6pm – the time before my husband gets home, when I am trying to make Anna’s tea, get her things ready for the next day, bath her and put her to bed, Sophia suddenly becomes hysterically inconsolable with tiredness. Mummy holding her and bouncing her up and down whilst singing might fractionally alleviate the awfulness of the world temporarily, but that isn’t particularly conducive to getting anything else done, and leads to some fairly stressful evenings. Therefore, getting her to sleep for a decent length of time during the day is now my number one priority.

Walking the streets whilst pushing the pram generally does the trick, but not only does it not leave much time for blogging or anything else, it is fraught with difficulties, and my tolerance levels for fellow human beings are fast decreasing. You see, it appears that there are, shockingly, people living and working in Walthamstow for whom my baby’s nap is not a primary consideration. I know. Outrageous. They therefore do things which make a noise. And so, quite simply, I hate them. Some of the individuals who have invoked my rage are

1) Anyone on a motorbike.

2) People who load/unload their vans noisily. Do not drop things in, place them carefully I implore.

3) In fact, I’m not mad keen on anyone with a motor vehicle actually. They’re noisy, and they mean that I sometimes have to stop pushing the pram to cross a road, thus breaking the pushing rhythm.

4) People who commission building work on their houses. Massive house price increases mean that my neighbourhood is now Loft Conversion Central, and whereas I can understand people wanting to make room for growing families without the astronomical, probably prohibitive, cost of moving, I am staggered at the selfishness of them doing it now, when I have a new baby.

5) The designers of supermarkets and shopping malls. What is with the ridiculously smooth floors? I need traction, dammit.

6) Groups of teenagers laughing, chatting and teasing each other on street corners. What’s that all about – I thought they were meant to be inside playing computer games these days, not out in the fresh air socialising.

7) Other people’s children crying or laughing or talking too loudly. I mean, you’ve been here parents. Don’t you understand? I’m not asking that you gag them permanently, just for the next few months or so. Or, you could take them somewhere else to play, I’m not totally unreasonable.

8) People who phone me. Yes, I know I could put my phone onto silent. But I’m tired and I forget. And I don’t want to hate myself because that would augur an unhealthy lack of self-esteem, so I hate the callers instead.

This list is not in any way designed to be exclusive. There are many more offenders, but I hope that this gives a flavour, and some indications of what to avoid if you’re anywhere in my vicinity.

sleeping SophiaAt the end of the day, though, I may have blistered feet and anger management issues, but this little face makes it all worthwhile.

Hello Kittens

This is Day Five with our new kittens, Percy (black) and Henry (tabby) and I’m already forcibly reminded of those early days with a newborn baby, though with a few notable exceptions.kittens1

One similarity is the clearing up of poo. Thankfully Percy and Henry are pretty well trained, but their arrival chez nous was rather complicated by the fact that Percy had had a little accident in the cat carrier on the way here. He’s a very fluffy kitten, with quite long hair, and it took ten minutes of my friend holding him over the sink while I attacked him with baby wipes to get him clean. Possibly she was marginally less wriggly, and definitely less fluffy,  but it was very reminiscent of my husband and I trying to change our 8 week old daughter’s very dirty nappy in an old-fashioned train toilet with no changing table. The difference, of course, is that at 10 weeks old the kittens are litter trained bar the odd accident, and it took me three years to get my daughter to that stage.

Another similarity is the struggle to give medicine to a small animate being who doesn’t want to take it. We had to give our kittens three doses of worming medicine on three consecutive days. Day One I cheerfully grabbed a kitten, grabbed the syringe, and then realised I had no free hand with which to open mouth, and, in fact, that one hand was proving grossly inadequate to restrain a kitten who had clearly got the idea he wasn’t going to like this. We tried again when my husband got home, and dose one was (eventually) successfully given. Day Two was even more problematic. I stupidly let my husband toddle off to work at 7.30am, forgetting that he had an evening event and wouldn’t be home before 11pm (way after my bedtime), and the kittens hadn’t yet had their daily dose. I tried to draft Anna in to help me, but frankly (and, arguably, predictably) she was about as much use as a chocolate teapot, because every time the kitten wriggled she just let go. A cat-owning friend who also has children at Anna’s school volunteered (translation: was guilt-tripped) to come home with me to help, and embarrassingly she was the one who got scratched. I felt very bad. This morning, Day Three, husband tried to make good his escape with an airy ‘see you tonight, darling’, but I was ready for him. Deploying tactics similar to those used on the kittens I prevented him leaving until the third (and thankfully final) dose had been administered. It was him who got scratched today. Not by me, I hasten to add. I’ve now been advised by another cat-owning friend that wrapping a towel around is the best way to contain them, and I will definitely try that in future. On the cats, rather than my husband that is.Percy

The third similarity I’ve noticed is probably just me, but, as when Anna was a baby, I keep panicking that the kittens have stopped breathing. They’re still very small and so need a lot of sleep, and they seem to sleep so deeply, and breathe so shallowly that I start to panic, and find myself lying next to them, hand on back to try and feel breathing, or hear signs of life. I know. It is just me.

The final similarity is cost. Thankfully we have a free at the point of need NHS which takes care of a baby’s health needs, whereas kittens have to be expensively treated at the vet’s. However, medical care aside, one of the things I remember about being pregnant is that when someone tells you you need a piece of kit – cot, pram, sling, high chair, bouncy chair – without much questioning you simply hand over your credit card, only to result in shock-induced early labour when the bill finally comes through. Same with the kittens. The vet told me they needed flea treatment, worming, vaccinations, specially formulated kitten food etc etc, and it all seemed eminently reasonable. Until I saw the bottom line. Eek. A baby might actually be cheaper, at least I could breastfeed them.

Other similarities are more akin to looking after a toddler than a newborn – insatiable curiosity, determination to make a beeline for the one thing you don’t want them to have, manic jealousy of any animate or inanimate object they feel is getting too much of your attention. The kittens are constantly trying to bat my hands away from the laptop, just as Anna used to do.

The biggest difference is that you don’t have to get up several times a night to feed and comfort kittens. I was worried about leaving them on their own at night, but as my husband has a cat allergy and so we’re keeping them out of the bedroom, there wasn’t any real alternative. And they seem fine. They have the run of the kitchen and dining room, with their bed (as yet unslept in, they prefer our furniture of course), litter tray, food and water and seem perfectly happy with that. Henry

And they’re utterly adorable. They always sleep curled up together, which is incredibly endearing, and when they’re awake they either go completely crazy chasing each other’s tails, which is also very cute, or they’re mega affectionate, and climb on to my lap for cuddles and strokes, purring like mini steam engines. Last night I had what is perhaps the ultimate comfort experience as I sat, in my pyjamas, eating a bowl of homemade chilli, watching Great British Bake Off, with two sleeping kittens on my lap. Autumn evening bliss.