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.





Fifth Day of Advent: Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding can be such an emotive subject on blogs and social media that I feel I need to caveat this post before I begin. This blog series is about things which make me personally happy. There are lots of things which are healthy or good for you or good for other people, which don’t make me happy in the least, and so will get no mention here (exercise, green juicing and taking my kids swimming spring to mind). Lots of women choose not to breastfeed or want to but aren’t able to, or do so but don’t enjoy it much. That is no-one’s business but their own, and this blog is certainly not trying to criticise or guilt-trip, I just want to talk about something which has been a significant and unexpected pleasure for me.

As a teenager and young woman I gave no thought to how I would feed any future babies I may have. Probably my underlying assumption was bottle feeding. I had been bottle fed, as had both my parents, and that certainly seemed to be the cultural norm where I grew up. When I was about twenty-three I had a job working in public health. My role was mainly in smoking cessation, but I was part of a small team of people responsible for promoting healthy eating, breast and cervical screening, breastfeeding etc, and breastfeeding became something I really considered for the first time. I learnt that there were significant health benefits to both mother and baby, and noted to myself that, when I had a child, I really must try it.

Fast forward five years or so and I am pregnant with my first baby and sitting in an appointment with my community midwife. She asks me how I intend to feed the baby. I am still somewhat ambivalent about breastfeeding, but announce that I intend to give it a go. She snorted slightly, and said “Well, it’s very hard work, you know. You probably won’t be able to.” At that moment my ambivalence hardened into a steely determination to feed my baby for at least three months if it killed me. There were moments when I thought it would kill me. Anna struggled to latch on at first, and so I had to express and syringe feed. I felt enormous, bovine and humiliated hooked up to the hospital’s industrial pump. Back at home when, aged about 6 days, she fed nonstop for nine hours I sat with bleeding nipples and tears pouring down my cheeks wondering what I’d let myself in for. We were lucky, however, to have the support of an angelically wonderful breastfeeding counsellor who got things sorted out for us pretty quickly. I always remember what she said to me: “The amazing thing about breastfeeding is that there is this little person you love more than anything in the world, and there is one thing they need more than anything else in the world, and you are the one person in the world who can give it to them.”

Picasso, Maternité

Picasso, Maternité

There were times when I found nursing frustrating. It meant I was always the one who had to get up in the night, there was no such thing as time off, and it was a long time before I could even leave the house by myself. Expressing never really worked for me, so pumping and bottle feeding wasn’t an option. However, for me, the advantages of breastmilk far, far outweighed the disadvantages. There was no faffing with bottles and sterilisers. Half asleep in the middle of the night I didn’t have to do anything more arduous than lift my pyjama top. It was always available, I couldn’t forget to take it out with me, and it provided instant comfort as well as nutrition. There was the satisfaction of knowing that it had plenty of health benefits for my daughter, but for me, it was the warm, loving intimacy of feeding that really made me happy.

I have heard some women say that their partners felt excluded by breastfeeding, or that they didn’t breastfeed because they were worried that he would. I was very fortunate because my husband was 100% supportive of my decision to breastfeed, and never seemed to feel in the least excluded by it. He would bring me snacks and drinks while I fed, take the baby to wind her and settle her afterwards, and, in the early days, would lie on the bed with us, curled protectively around me as I curled protectively round my feeding baby.

Happily breastfeeding came more easily to Sophia, so my nipples had things far easier second time around. She was a more restless feeder than Anna, though, and I was far more likely to find myself exposed to the world in the middle of a cafe/train/school playground. I am still feeding her now, although when she turns one shortly I am planning to drop daytime feeds and wean her onto cow’s milk in a beaker instead, just carrying on the early morning and bedtime feeds. I still love breastfeeding, but I am ready to have a little more freedom, and to be able to wear dresses which aren’t wrap dresses again!

I certainly never expected that breastfeeding would make me as happy as it has, but it has been one of the most enjoyable parts of nurturing and mothering my babies, and one which I feel enormously lucky and privileged to have experienced.

The Food of Love

I love food. No big secret there. I spend a very large proportion of my waking hours either shopping for food, cooking, eating or thinking about what I want to buy, cook or eat.

The last couple of months, though, have challenged this love somewhat. Sophia is now eating three meals a day (and by ‘eating’ I am using the baby definition, which actually means throwing to the floor or smearing as widely as possible across face, hair, clothes and anyone unwise enough to be in her vicinity), and so in addition to all the other family meals I have to think about what she is going to eat. If there’s one thing hungry babies don’t like, it is mummy vanishing into the kitchen to spend ages cooking, so Sophia’s food needs to be planned and preferably cooked in advance.

My husband and I have always eaten separately from Anna during the week. There are several reasons. One is that my husband is almost never home before 7pm, often much later, and, in my opinion anyway, that is far too late for a young child to be eating and going to bed. There is the option of me eating with Anna and husband eating alone later, but that would still be two  separate meals, and it is not something we’ve seriously considered as we both feel that taking the time to sit down together for a proper meal, sometimes a glass of wine, and really catching up on each other’s days, however dramatic or mundane those days have been, is a real cornerstone of our marriage. I sit at the table with Anna, and chat to her, and sometimes have a snack to keep me going until dinner at 8.30pm, but I am always glad to have that adult time to look forward to. Another, more prosaic, reason for our decision is that we (especially I!) love spicy food. Rarely a week goes by without us eating Thai. Indian or Mexican style food, and Anna has made it abundantly clear that she is not a fan, and I’m not prepared to give up my curries in the interests of a family meal.

My plan was (and is) that now Anna and Sophia can now eat their evening meals together. This is working a lot of the time, but they’re not always eating the same food, so often I’m cooking separately for them. Sometimes this is because Sophia is still on a strict(ish) no salt, no sugar regime, and I don’t want to deprive Anna of reasonable treats for the sake of eating the same as her sister. Sometimes Anna has eaten a big school lunch and only wants a sandwich. And sometimes I want to take advantage of the fact that Sophia is yet to develop an intolerance for green veg and cram as much spinach and broccoli into her as I can before she decides they’re inedible. Anna has been of that view since she was about fourteen months. Meals I have discovered which work for both of them are eggy bread, beans on toast, macaroni cheese, pasta with tomato and veg sauce, baked potatoes, and chilli (without the hot spices). I’m working on increasing that repertoire, but in the meantime, a standard day can see me making porridge and toast for breakfast (having previously batch cooked the granola my husband eats), then something for mine and Sophia’s lunch, then a snack for Anna when she gets home from school, then an evening meal for Sophia, an evening meal for Anna and an evening meal for us. Throw in a play date guest, or a bake sale at school, or an ungovernable yearning for chocolate brownies, and you can see why I’m never out of the kitchen.

I still love food and cooking. I love the sense of nurturing and providing for my family. And I am thankful daily that we are lucky enough to be able to afford plenty of good, safe, nutritious food and the fuel to cook it with. But. But. Sometimes it just all feels so relentless. It’s not just the cooking, it’s planning it, and making sure we’ve got the ingredients in stock, and then clearing the kitchen, loading and unloading the dishwasher, picking up the discarded food from under the table and wiping everything clean, washing the filthy bibs and muslins and mopping up the spilt milk. There is a certain, inescapable, amount of drudgery involved, and it can be difficult not to feel overwhelmed by it, and lately I have been.

cinnamon bunsOn Sunday, though, I surprised myself by trying a new and fairly complicated recipe for cinnamon swirl bins, just for the fun of it. I’d got the recipe from Jenny Colgan’s novel The Little Beach Street Bakery (if there’s one thing I love more than a good chick lit novel, it’s a chick lit novel with ace recipes in it!), and I was a little trepidatious because dedicated viewing of the Great British Bake Off has taught me that sweetened, enriched doughs can be very tricky. I could almost see the sceptical look on Paul Hollywood’s face. But, do you know what, they worked! They were absolutely delicious if I do say so myself. Their appearance could probably be tactfully described as rustic, and I may have been a bit heavy handed with the icing (although no one complained), but they tasted incredible – so much nicer than anything similar you can buy. Along with an omelette they made a fantastic lazy Sunday brunch which we all enjoyed (I stretched the no sugar rule sufficiently to give Sophia a taste), and I rediscovered my love for pottering in the kitchen. Perhaps simply because they weren’t an essential meal it made baking them all the more enjoyable. The food I make generally comes out of love for my family, but it was nice to reignite my own love of food too.

Walthamstow to a Tea

I’ve posted before about how much I love where I live. But one of the things I love most about it is that it is constantly evolving and never fails to surprise, and delight, me. Take Sunday just gone, for example.

We’d had a quiet day at home, getting lots of boring but useful jobs done. Anna had decided that cleaning would be fun, so never one to avoid an opportunity to exploit my child, I armed her with a duster and a bottle of polish and let her get on with it. One entire bottle of polish later (thankfully some kind of organic, almond oil based none-child-killing polish) and the house definitely smelt cleaner at least. The wooden floors do have a few lethally slippery patches where polish was accidentally split, but hey. Husband meanwhile had the distinctly less fragrant task of unblocking the outside drain.

At about 4.30pm I remembered I needed to go out to buy milk for breakfast. Husband suggested we all go and get some fresh  (and non-almond scented) air, and perhaps an ice-cream cone. We popped Sophia in the sling, Anna grabbed her sandals, and off we went. Ten minute later we were all licking delicious cones of Gelupo gelato, which one of our local shops has started selling. And I say ‘all’ advisedly. We didn’t buy a cone for our seven-month old, but strapped to my chest in her sling, the proximity of it proved to be too much for her, and she lunged at it, licking determinedly. I know refined sugar isn’t really a good idea for babies under one. Or, I guess, for anyone really. But I didn’t have the heart not to let enjoy a couple of licks. Second-child syndrome, I suppose. I was all about the organic spinach with Anna at the same age.

We strolled through Walthamstow village, past the beautiful Vestry House museum and the old almshouses. And then it all got exciting. There is a restored Tudor house in the heart of Walthamstow village called, imaginatively enough, the Ancient House. It’s a lovely building, and I was very excited when I saw that the gate was open, and there was a sign pointing into the courtyard advertising a yard sale. We went in, just out of curiosity to see inside. In this case, curiosity was amply rewarded. tea setsWe ended up with a gorgeous vintage French tea-set, some pretty Victorian glass bottles, a Victorian tea-cup and saucer and coffee cup and saucer, a Victorian serving tureen and a delightful little forget-me-not pattered cup and saucer for Anna, because she fell in love with it. All for £17. Yes, you read that right. £17! The lady who was selling had a business hiring out vintage china for weddings, and making tea-cup candles, but she has had to move out of her workshop unexpectedly and needed to get rid of stock fast. Very sad for her, but I have to admit we were thrilled to benefit and give a good home to some of her lovely things.

So there you go. Only in Walthamstow do you pop out for a pint of milk and come back with a perfect sixteen-piece vintage tea service!

School’s (almost) out for the summer!

In just under an hour I’ll be collecting Anna from school for her six week holiday, and I Just. Can’t. Wait. This has been such a long half-term, at the end of the year which has seen the biggest change in her life, and she is exhausted. Absolutely on her knees. I’m longing to have her at home to cosset and cuddle and just hang out with. Six whole weeks when I don’t have to spend the first ninety minutes of the day barking instructions – “Eat your porridge, finish your milk, clear your dishes, clean your teeth, wash your face, get dressed, find your sunhat/bag/water bottle/hoodie/gloves/bookbag/homework folder, put your shoes on.” And, above all “Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up!”.

I’m quite proud of myself, though. A whole school year during which I have been at various points, heavily pregnant, recovering from a c-section, recovering from a broken foot and looking after a newborn baby, and Anna has only collected one late mark (caused by a last minute poonami from her sister which required a full change of clothes for me and her. Don’t ask.) The rest of the time, come hell or high water, we have screeched through the school gates at 8.50am. Other than the days when my parents have been here. “I don’t have to run the last bit when Grandad takes me to school, Mummy”, Anna informed me the other morning.

After our adventures last summer and at Easter we’re keeping things fairly low-key this summer. A trip up to Liverpool to stay with my parents next week, a week at my mother-in-law’s flat in Penzance later on in the summer, and then a couple of days in North Wales with my mum and dad again at the end of the summer. This is partly because my husband has a busy autumn coming up at work and so can’t take much time off, and partly because Sophia is seven months, eating solids and desperate to crawl, and therefore not a particularly rewarding travelling companion at present. I think it also works out really well for Anna, though, as she needs some time to just be.

No doubt a lot of her time is going to be spent reading. About two months ago, she suddenly ‘got’ it, and went almost over night from painstakingly sounding out the fascinating (ahem) adventures of Chip, Kipper and Biff in the school reading books to devouring chapter books as quickly as she can get her hands on them. Roald Dahl, Francesca Simon’s ‘Horrid Henry’ books, the Worst Witch, My Naughty Little Sister, Enid Blyton – her tastes are pleasingly eclectic, and, like mother like daughter, she is more often than not to be found with her head in a book. I’m loving re-visting my own childhood favourites with her. At the moment we’re reading the Ramona books, by American author Beverley Cleary, together, and I think I might almost be enjoying them more as an adult than I did as a child.

Anna journalWriting is still more of a challenge for Anna, although she is making good progress. We were chatting to her teacher about how we could encourage her to keep writing in a fun and enjoyable way over the summer so that she doesn’t lose her mojo, and she suggested we got her to keep a diary. Next thing I know, yesterday morning Miss M handed me a beautifully wrapped parcel. When Anna opened it, inside was a personalised decoupaged journal for her to use over the summer. Anna is so thrilled and excited, and I am incredibly touched and impressed. One of my closest friends is a teacher, and I know from her how difficult and stressful and exhausting the summer term is for teachers. Yet in the midst of organising school trips and sports days, and writing reports, she has found the time to do this because she wants to encourage Anna to keep up with her newly developing skill. Teachers are amazing.

I’m not sure how much time I’ll get to blog over the next few weeks, but hopefully I’ll have my girl’s diary to look back on as a record of our summer.