The Daddy Appreciation Society

For a fairly long while, maybe nine months or so, I had been quite convinced that my daughter didn’t particularly like me. Or rather, that I was fine, but that she would much, much rather spend time with her “dada” than with me. This wasn’t just hormonal, sleep-deprived paranoia. The evidence was incontrovertible. She would cry if I, rather than my husband, gave her cuddles. She would cry if I, rather than my husband, helped her with her meals. She would cry if I, rather than my husband, changed her nappy. She would cry if I, rather than my husband, sat next to her. You get the gist.* She learnt to say duck, dog, light, car, cat, lion, tiger, up and “dada” (obviously), before she came up with “mama” (and even then only because circumstances forced the issue, on which see below). The only thing she was agreeable about me doing rather than him was breastfeeding. (Which was useful, as he is a bloody good father but he absolutely needs to work on his lactation.)

My husband, of course, found this completely brilliant. I’m not sure he would ever admit it but I think he believes it to be divine justice for the fact that my son was the founding member of the Mama Fan Club (No Daddies Allowed) and his fandom continues to such a degree that my teenage Take That fixation looks positively half-hearted.

Because of my son’s approach, I had already read most that the internet has to offer about what to do when a child prefers one parent to the other. I had consulted that oracle of respectful parenting, the mighty Janet Lansbury, whose advice has seen me through many a parenting conundrum. And her words are so wise that they bear repetition here (although I would heartily recommend that you read the article in full** if this is pertinent to your family):

  1. Our children’s adoration is a given, and hard as that may be to believe in the face of “go away, Mommy,” it isn’t at all personal.
  2. Young children live in the moment. So, “I don’t want you” (or even “I don’t like you”) means “I don’t want you in this moment,” or “I don’t want you to do this activity with me”, etc. These are temporary and superficial, rather than deep and permanent rejections.
  3. Our child only feels safe rejecting us because he or she is secure in our love. So, rejection is a back-handed compliment of sorts. We’re doing something right. Of course, it still feels crappy.

Janet advises, essentially, that the “Rejected Parent” rises above it, remaining constant, loving and (ideally) keeping a sense of humour about the whole thing. It’s important for the child to know that the Rejected Parent hasn’t taken it personally. And for the “Preferred Parent”, they should feel confident in their child’s ability to accept their firm and loving limits (so not just caving in and changing the nappy or running the bath or whatever it is that the child has decided the Rejected Parent should not do). They should also (and I think this is particularly important so I’m going to quote) demonstrate their “utter faith in [the Rejected Parent] as an able and loving parent”.

This is Good Advice. And, it turns out, much easier to follow when you are the “Preferred Parent”. So I must apologise to my husband for the fact that I doled out Janet’s sage counsel with all the sensitivity of Donald Trump negotiating border security with Mexico.

I mean, don’t take it personally?! Are you kidding?! Every rejection feels like a twisted knife in my stomach or a punch to the throat. My heart wrenches with every turn of the cheek, with every plaintive cry of “dada!”. And my husband (although he would deny it) has been absolutely revelling in it for the past few months. He has categorically failed to follow Janet’s commandment of not thinking “poor baby” when our daughter remonstrates; the pity pours from him when he extricates himself from her grasp to go to work or even just to another room. “Don’t worry, baby, Daddy’s here,” he says, as he comes to calm her in the night.*** I hate it! How has my husband not spent the last two years in a state of perpetual hysteria? It is AWFUL.

Well. Awful, with a tiny side of convenient, it must be said. We have been able to share the day-to-day care of our daughter to a degree that felt unthinkable with our son. My husband finally knows what it is to have a child who would prefer that you never again take a pee in private. Although he has basked in her adoration, he has also gained experience of the suffocating weight of being seemingly indispensable.

And (the clue was in the past tense at the beginning of the post), the times they are a-changin! Our daughter is hugely, magnificently stubborn. And when my husband told her he was going back to work after a blissful three weeks off over Christmas, she suddenly (and immediately) learnt to say “mama” and turned her focus almost entirely to me. It was so deliberate as to be pretty hilarious. (For me, at least.) She spent three full days doing her absolute best to ignore my husband, indignant as she was as to this apparent betrayal of their special relationship. The following week brought a certain rapprochement, for sure, but I am still receiving considerably more affection than previously.

And so we find ourselves here. Both Preferred and Rejected, not quite in equal measure any more but probably to a degree that we can both tolerate. We have a better understanding of the position of the other. Neither of us can find a moment of peace in our busy home.

We are both bloody lucky.

Life is good.

Team Daddy

* I knew she didn’t despise me entirely because she was quite content for me to do all of these things in the absence of my husband. Which was fortunate for all of us, I guess!

** Janet Lansbury’s great article is here http://www.janetlansbury.com/2015/02/when-children-prefer-one-parent/ I would also really recommend her amazing book “No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame”, one of the very few parenting books I have ever reached the end of! A complete game-changer.

*** I realised, after a while of growing increasingly outraged by this flagrant undermining of my position, that my husband was actually just mirroring what I have long said to my son when coming into his room to soothe him upon a tearful night waking: “Don’t worry, darling, Mama is here.” I never for a second meant that my son should take his comfort from the fact that it was me and not my husband who was there. Sorry again, darling!

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New Year: New Starts or Same Old?

New Year’s resolutions seem to be getting a bit of a bashing on my social media this year! I have no interest in obsessing about my weight or adopting a crazy diet or giving up booze or any such nonsense, but personally I really enjoy the ‘new term’ feeling of January and the opportunity to reflect and plan for positive change. I might not keep up everything over the whole year, but some things usually stick and I feel better for them.

This year I really want to focus on my own well-being, physical and mental. The adage “you can’t pour from an empty cup” resounds. I have spent much of 2017 tired, in pain and feeling anxious and I feel as though I’ve reached my limit of what I can give to others (my family and the community) in this current state. So I’m desperate to get back to good health. For me, this means a renewed focus on exercise – I’m going to commit to one hour of PT and one run a week, in addition to my current Pilates session – and also an attempt to eat better. I’m not about to give up sugar or caffeine but the two comprise around 60% of my current diet and I feel totally shit for it. And I think in December my Deliveroo count was at around… *whispers*… five a week. So, more home-cooking and fewer sugary snacks. Takeaway is going to be limited to Friday night only and I’m going to try to cut down to one ‘treat’ a day (I know this is still loads but I can’t even admit what I’m reducing from!!). Hopefully more sensible, balanced eating will develop over the year. And I’m sure that if I can feel less crap physically, I will feel better mentally too.

Another thing that I know will help my mental health is to cut down on my spending, which frankly had gone NUTS by the time Christmas arrived. I have a few exceptions already agreed with myself (ear piercing, teeth whitening and a Keep Cup and reusable water bottle!) but otherwise I’m going to cap all non-essential spending until the end of March. If I want to buy anything new, I need to sell something to raise the funds. I’ve done this before and it was hard but satisfying. I have already started to unsubscribe from the many, many emails I receive from my favourite online shops, which feels worryingly like a bereavement. The next step, that I am dreading also, is to unfollow the online retailers who tempt me daily on Instagram. It feels sad, because I love to be inspired, but actually it is too hard to resist the lure of beautiful things, multiple times a day. I’m less sure about Instagram influencers – should I unfollow them too, even if I find them funny and/or interesting? It’s hard, when the lines have become so blurred between marketing and entertainment. What do you think?

Another aspect of life that has been getting me down is the state of our house. It is cluttered and, frankly, a mess. I am going to write a list of things we need to do and focus on getting at least one job done each week. First up – BE GONE, CHRISTMAS! I’m so sick of our droopy tree!

So far, so selfish! Looking outward, I want to get back to volunteering and I’m going to take January to explore some options, with the goal of starting something new in February. I previously helped as a legal volunteer at the Prisoners’ Advice Service and Liberty and I’m hoping to gain some further experience in the social welfare/human rights areas. If anyone has any suggestions/opportunities, let me know! I’m also going to continue my work as a trustee of A Mile in Her Shoes – we have lots to do in the year ahead, including from a legal perspective, so I’m excited about that.

I also want to do MUCH more to improve my waste from an environmental perspective. I absolutely loved the idea of @arthur_eats on Instagram to change one small thing each month and I’m determined to get on with it instead of merely admiring from afar! First up, I am going to stop bulk-buying 500ml bottles of sparkling water (and drinking about five a day). It is so terribly wasteful and simply not justifiable. I am completely addicted though, so I am going to be kind to myself and buy some large 2 litre bottles to make the weaning process a little more gentle. So, a reusable water bottle is one of my ‘permitted’ purchases! Any recommendations? I need something that can go in the dishwasher or I’ll never use it! Next to go will be my preposterous disposable coffee cup use (hence the Keep Cup on my ‘allowed to buy’ list).

Next up, I am going to borrow a resolution from last year, that I stuck with for a few months, which was to read more. I adore reading but often find myself in an unsatisfying cycle of Instagram/Facebook scrolling and online shopping instead. Hopefully the spending ban will help with this one! Any must-reads for the new year? Nothing too taxing to begin with please!

Finally, I want to see much more of my loved ones. 2017 has been a completely brutal year in terms of health for my family. Unfathomable in many ways, to be honest. But what has been made clear is that taking people for granted is for fools. You have to invest your love, and time, to make the best memories. The moments I’ve had watching my children bond with their grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and close friends have been, without doubt, the best moments of the year. So I need to do better. Invite people, travel more, be less absorbed by my little life and more committed to my wider family. I can’t fix anything, or anyone, but at least I can be there.

And that is a LOT to be getting on with. I am excited to begin: I love fresh starts!

What’s your NY resolution policy? Do you have any plans?

Just do it indeed. Less talk, more action, Gemma!

Parenting: the Santa Clause

My son, who is three, recently asked me if Santa Claus is real. (In what I think might be my finest parenting moment to date,) I said, “well, Santa is a magical story. Some people believe in him and some people don’t. It’s up to you if you believe in him or not. I think it feels special at Christmas time to believe in Santa.” He replied, at the time, “I don’t believe. He doesn’t even think everyone is nice.” (My son is adamant that the lyrics to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” are that Santa is “making a list, checking it twice; going to find out who’s not even nice” so I think that’s the source of this slight misapprehension as to Santa’s classification system (as commonly understood).) However, since then, he has been thoroughly immersed in Christmas preparations, both at home and at nursery, and it’s safe to say that he is now on board. In fact, I have never seen him more excited.

Being three, he remains quite sketchy on the details. But he is asking lots of questions and his memory is terrifyingly accurate, so I think this is the year that we need to confirm the role that Santa will play in our family’s Christmas.

I feel fairly sure about my general approach. I don’t like the idea of lying to my children, so the entire myth does sit a little uncomfortably with me. But I am also completely sold on the magic and wonder of Christmas, so I’m hopeful that vague answers as to Santa’s authenticity will see me through the next few years of parenthood! I’ve been quite clear that a Santa who is kind and loving would bring presents for everyone and wouldn’t believe in labelling children as “naughty” or “nice” (we’ve talked before about how people can do “bad” things but that doesn’t make them a “bad” person etc). I won’t tell my kids that Santa won’t come if they don’t “behave”. I won’t deploy an elf to spy on them and report back to Santa, so as to frighten them into believing that there is some sort of jeopardy involved with Christmas. (I know lots of people use the elf just because it’s funny to see it in different places in the morning and I can see how that might be amusing, though for me the fact the most commonly-used elf looks like the main protagonist in a Christmas horror film would preclude any such enjoyment). I won’t force them to sit on Santa’s knee so that I can take a festive photo – my son in particular is extremely suspicious of strangers and the idea that he would want to sit on an unknown man’s knee for a chat is fairly fanciful (I appreciate this may change if he decides that it’s a hotline to the North Pole but for now the idea is quite laughable).

To each their own but I feel quite decided about these things. To paraphrase the mighty ‘loaf – I’ll do anything for Christmas but I won’t do that (or that or that…).

What I’m less sure about are the specifics. Growing up, Santa brought stockings for my sisters and me and he also left us presents under the tree. I don’t recall what I thought my parents’ role in the whole affair was but I can only apologise for what I assume were many, many years of misdirected gratitude. In my husband’s family, Santa brought stockings only and presents under the tree were from his parents. I like the idea of sharing presents as a family (and not giving Santa all the credit!) but I do remember the huge excitement of going downstairs to see if Santa had been and I’d quite like to enjoy that again with our kids…

Growing up, that wave of excitement on Christmas morning would carry me and my sisters down the stairs and into the living room, where we would impatiently take turns to open our presents. I’ve heard talk of families waiting until after lunch for opening presents, but I think this would involve an overly-ambitious level of self-control for my family (to be honest, I think the kids and I might manage but my husband is the person who, aged three, stole into the lounge one morning before Christmas and opened EVERY SINGLE PRESENT under the tree, leaving his parents with the unenviable task of working out what belonged to each child and from whom it had come, and he has retained this same spirited enthusiasm for presents to this day!)

And what should we say about why Santa does different things for different families? We’ve already discussed the idea that some children might not be lucky enough to have toys for Christmas (we have an AMAZING toy appeal run in our area by StokeyParents and so my son is well-acquainted with the idea of giving to others) but I’m not sure how to explain this in the context of Santa Claus. I feel glad that, having debunked the idea of naughty children not getting presents, he shouldn’t conflate being deprived with not being deserving, but I think this is still quite tricky to explain.

So, what do you do? Does Santa come to your house? Do you keep him to the bedrooms or is he allowed in the living room? Oh, and what tipple does he favour on Christmas Eve? (I vote whisky but my husband says beer – unluckily for both of us, our son thinks we should leave him a cup of Oatly!)

Please share your Christmas traditions – Santa-related and otherwise!

Pondering his mama’s oddly ambiguous answer to the question “is Santa Claus real?”…

Gender Expectations: A Tale of the Unexpected

Clearly I’m biased, but I think my daughter is seriously cute. A little bundle of pale skin, gappy teeth and chubby thighs, with a smatter of ginger-ish hair on top. Recently she’s become a bit suspicious of anyone new, but if you can win her over, her smile will make you grin. She was strikingly similar to my son when first born; they have diverged a bit now – in particular my son has deep brown eyes that remind me of chocolate buttons (somewhat cruelly given that his allergies were responsible for my dairy-free diet for more than three years) and the colour of my daughter’s eyes is hard to pin down but seems to be settling into a steely sort of grey/blue – but they remain pretty similar. Which is perhaps one of the reasons that she is mistaken for a boy approximately 90% of the time. Although, come to think of it, that would make more sense were it not for the fact that my son is mistaken for a girl around 30-40% of the time.

And wow, people are EMBARRASSED if/when they realise they’ve made a mistake. Like, completely mortified. To the point that I try to ease their discomfort: most frequently, I hear myself saying, “it’s ok, she just looks like a baby! Babies don’t need to look like boys or girls, do they? They’re just… babies!” (you’d think that perhaps I would have honed this, given how many times I’ve said it, but nope – that’s pretty much verbatim). And if they still look desperately uncomfortable, I add that if I thought it were a problem, I would dress her in more “girly” clothes; man, if I really cared, I’d stick one of those (I’m sorry but) RIDICULOUS bows on her almost-bald head.

Because, as a second child, she wears her fair share of hand-me-downs from her big brother. And I have always thought that gender-neutral clothing makes sense for kids. I absolutely hate the idea boys should be interested only in cars and tractors and fire engines and have them emblazoned on their clothes at all times, or that girls should wear pretty shoes even if they are too slippy-soled to allow for climbing a slide or kicking a ball, or that certain colours should be reserved for a child according to their genitalia… This approach has allowed me to enjoy buying clothes for my son over the last few years, without the fetters of expectation. He really suits pink, he loves animal prints and sparkly things and pom poms and metallic shoes – AND WHY WOULD HE NOT? These things are all awesome! I wouldn’t feel comfortable using his wardrobe as some sort of political statement about the ludicrousness of gender-based stereotypes; I haven’t bought him dresses or skirts (although I am perfectly relaxed about the idea that he will want to dress up as Elsa from Frozen in the future, as is his Generation Alpha rite of passage). But I don’t feel limited to the “boys’ section” of the shop for sure and, in fact, I try to buy from independent brands that generally don’t seek to segregate their range into two distinct parts.

Because of this, I had assumed that his clothes would pass easily to his wee sister. She does wear some of them. And when she is wearing them, she often gets mistaken for a boy. People are obsessed with gender as a binary construct and with allocating one of those genders to babies, that is without doubt. And they are extremely likely to assume that your baby is a boy if they are wearing blue, green, brown, grey, red… anything but pink it would seem. It turns out gender-neutral might actually just mean clothes for boys that aren’t awful traditionally “boyish”.

And I would have thought a few months ago that this post would end here. She wears his clothes, she gets mistaken for a boy sometimes, I don’t care but wow other people seem to care a lot, isn’t that funny, the end.

Except that I seem to have developed a taste for dressing her in beautiful, traditionally “feminine” clothes. Dusty pink cashmere and Liberty prints and adorable little rompers… And she looks so bloody cute I can’t even handle it.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

WHITHER MY PRINCIPLES?!

I honestly, HONESTLY don’t care when people think she’s a boy. I genuinely feel nonchalance when having the conversations described above, occasionally some mild bemusement depending upon how awkward the other person seems to be feeling. But now I’m second guessing myself. Maybe I do care? Maybe my subconscious is in charge of my online shopping? Maybe my subconscious is a big fucking hypocrite?!

As I think about it more, I wonder if I would feel more upset for my daughter if she were five and everyone thought she was a boy. I don’t *think* I would worry for her. But if she were ten? Fifteen? Twenty-five?

I am a woman who has never felt particularly feminine (indeed who feels totally ridiculous using the word “woman” to describe herself), who definitely wonders if some aspects of life might have felt a bit easier if she was pretty…

Am I trying to reclaim femininity for my daughter now, in case she needs or wants it later?

If that is what I am up to (and I genuinely can’t work it out), then it strikes me as a profoundly futile task. My daughter’s femininity is resolutely none of my business or doing. I will teach her, and my son, all I know about womanhood, and what (little) I know about femininity, if they are interested. But how she lives her life, how she presents herself to the world, how she feels about her self: those are matters for her.

So as long as her clothes remain practical – as long as they don’t fetter what she can do or what I will allow her to do – hopefully it doesn’t matter too much what colour they are or what preconceived notion of gender she meets when she wears them. And if she’s anything like her brother, she’ll be styling herself within the year anyway.

Number of times he was called a girl in this outfit? At least three in one afternoon. Leopard print is for girls apparently.

Number of times she was called a boy in this outfit? At least six. Lightening bolts are for boys apparently. I thought, as per the previous photo, that leopard print was for girls but not when teamed with lightening bolts it seems.

Blush pink cardigans and cashmere bonnets and hearts and sparkles on shoes. My guilty pleasures, it turns out. Cute, huh?

Village People

It’s become something of a cliché to talk about a parent’s need for a village to raise their children but, as I lie in my bed failing to sleep off a debilitating bout of infective mastitis and I hear my wonderful nanny taking care of the children downstairs, it feels like an omission not to talk about it.

I live far from my parents in Scotland, and quite far from my husband’s parents in the south of England. I didn’t go to school or university in London. Many of my friends from law school or work have since moved to the sticks to raise their kids: escaping terrifying stabbings on the doorstep, choking pollution and exorbitant house prices in search of charming village greens, enormous back gardens and (it would seem) a fucking hideous commute.

My sister moved to south London a couple of years ago; though it’s not really *that* far, it involves a day trip, organised in advance, rather than popping in to see each other. (My other sister moved to Mexico, so it’s a good job she’s so lovely or I’m not sure we’d be on speaking terms.)

So to where/whom do I turn, when my left boob turns a blazing red, I have a dizzying temperature and I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck?

My husband, luckily. He is supportive and amazing and I’m very very glad he’s mine. But he works tremendously hard (largely so that I can focus on looking after the kids) and I can’t call upon him every time that I wish I could: he has meetings, deadlines, responsibilities that can be passed on only in fairly dire circumstances.

My best friend, thank god. I’m not sure exactly how we managed it, but 17 years after meeting at university, we live literally around the corner from each other. She also has two kids, one of whom is just a few weeks younger than my son. There have been times when our circumstances haven’t allowed for anything more than toiling through life’s mundanities with our heads down (and will she ever forgive the betrayal of me moving to New York shortly after our sons were born instead of staying here to enjoy our maternity leave together?!) but more recently we have increasingly found ways to help each other: sometimes we take care of the other’s kids so we can get some work done or go to an unavoidable appointment; some blissful days we hang out all together and we drink tea and (increasingly often) take it in turns to offer mediation services for toddler squabbles; sometimes we all have supper together (although always at her house – did you see my previous post?!). I am so grateful that my best girl is so close.

Finally, I have the world’s most incredible nanny. She started working for us when I started working part-time when my son was around 16 months and she continues to improve my life in every possible way (not just when I’m too sick to get out of bed).

This triumvirate of THANK GOD are my saviours.

But three makes a pretty small village! And sometimes my husband is stuck at work and my best friend is doing the school run and my nanny is looking after her other charges or (god forbid) on holiday and I find myself thinking that I need more support!

I often find refuge online: I chat to fellow parents, some of whom kept me sane and made me laugh (usually to the point of waking a sleeping baby with a snort) during endless spells of cluster feeding, worries about allergies and reflux, problems with breastfeeding and weaning, and wondering if dungarees make me look like a children’s TV presenter and, indeed, if that is actually a problem… I’m not sure I can overstate how important some of these friends were to my confidence as a parent and to my mental health when I moved to New York and my village of three was a tiny village of one.

I have also noticed, since writing this blog in particular, that Facebook and Instagram hosts friends from school with whom I’ve not spoken in years and family friends and friends from my former work and friends of friends and some complete strangers, who are parents now or hope to be and who want to talk about parenting, who are going through many of the same things as me and who are helpful and kind. The best bit about posting a new blog article is, without doubt, the conversation that often ensues; it makes me feel a part of something, and maybe sometimes like I’m helping a bit too.

So I am growing an online village too, which makes me feel happy, mostly. But it also leaves me wanting more sometimes. In part because I think the internet can bring a sense of false intimacy, a feeling of closeness that might be a bit less profound than you realise. The second is that I can’t leave my kids with a virtual babysitter (obviously the TV has its place, but it isn’t very good at feeding them or changing nappies). So when the shit hits the fan and I am struggling to cope, my online village is generally too distant, literally and sometimes figuratively, to be able to help.

And I don’t just want a village for emergencies! When a long day looking after two kids stretches before me, with the only prospect of adult conversation the Amazon delivery driver or the woman who makes my takeaway coffee in our local cafe, it would help (definitely a little but sometimes a lot) to meet up with a friend in the playground or have them pop over for a cup of tea (or wine, depending on how long the day in question has been thus far).

But… (and I feel like a teenager writing her diary as I type) making new friends is so hard! I’ve often chatted to fellow mums in a cafe, at a baby music class or even in the GP’s waiting room, but I’ve never been brave enough to bridge the gulf of unfamiliarity and vulnerability to ask them for a coffee.

I’ve also seen lots of meet-ups for mums on Instagram but I’ve only been brave enough to go to one so far (an “OLA Mama mum meet” about photography, which was fantastic but I arrived late, perhaps missing the mingling, and I didn’t feel like I’d overcome my nerves by the time I left again!). Tomorrow afternoon, if I can shake this wretched mastitis, I’m going to Victoria Park in East London for a picnic/chinwag/couple-of-hours-of-preventing-my-son-climbing-into-the-lake-like-the-last-time-we-went-there organised by a lovely local mama with whom I share a love of leopard print and the Dalston Curve Garden, which I’m pretty sure means we are bound to be lifelong friends. Maybe one day I’ll FINALLY go along to Forest Kids Hackney, as inspired by that same local mama (though I will perhaps hold off until my son’s favourite thing to do in public isn’t to run away from me and hide), or try out one of the many new apps that launched in the last six months or so for making mama friends, like Peanut or Mush (I *think* they’re a bit like Tinder but with (I assume) much less shagging).

There are so many opportunities to meet people if you want to, but so often I find that I’m too anxious or too shy or too preoccupied with life (does anyone else spend most of their free time (“free” in the loosest sense of the term) doing laundry, ordering groceries and packing up clothes to return to online shops?!) to make the effort. I’m inherently lazy; I want the benefit of friends without having to put in the work! Clearly the answer to that is to sort out my priorities, but ugh: speaking to new people is so hard!

It’s time for another antibiotic and hopefully some sleep now, so I’m going to press post and check in the morning if writing with a fever is as productive qualitatively as well as quantitively. I suspect not, but hopefully in the meantime you can let me know if you have made new mum friends and, if so, how! (And can I come along next time?)

Where is everyone? 

Beans on toast

I have a confession: I absolutely loathe cooking.

I love to eat – I really, really love to eat. But at the moment, my love of eating is falling second to my hatred of getting food onto my plate.

Before I had kids, this laziness was disguised by a job that kept me in the office for long hours, enabling me to justify the purchase of breakfast, lunch and often dinner five days a week, and a husband who loves to cook, enthusiastically picking up the baton at the weekends without even realising he was doing me a favour.

Now I’m at home and there’s nowhere to hide. And I am primarily responsible for ensuring the nourishment of my children (though fortunately my daughter still finds much of her sustenance from my boob). I do an ok job of making sure my son is offered a balance and range of mostly-healthy foods and he eats pretty well. Don’t get me wrong, he is apt to eat only watermelon for supper one day and declare the same watermelon “yucky” the next: he is a toddler. But generally, he eats vegetables, fruit, nuts, some white fish, meat in the form of “Daddy’s Special Bolognese” (a marketing triumph, if I do say so myself) and carbs as long as they are pasta, bread, cereal or, um, pizza. (He’s allergic to dairy, soya, eggs and peanuts so they aren’t on the menu.)

But I don’t think he is presented with a healthy picture of adult eating habits, when he spends his day with me. Often I skip lunch, or just eat his leftover veg and humous, supplemented with a million sugary snacks and cups of tea to keep me going. (My sugary snacks are generally fancy organic chocolate because I can’t eat dairy but I know I also kid myself that it would be worse, somehow, to be eating a Mars bar every day and so give myself some sort of relative kudos for my sugary snacks not being as “bad” as they could be. What a snob.) He seldom sees me eat supper: officially, because he eats at 4.30pm and it’s too early for me, unofficially because god knows what I’m going to cook and it might well be beans on toast or something from Deliveroo and it certainly isn’t going to be the same as him in the model of family eating that I actually would like him to see and absorb.

I posted recently about breastfeeding both of my children and how it suits us all at the moment. I didn’t confess a benefit of breastfeeding that I find a bit shameful and hard to admit, namely that one of the reasons I love it is that it makes me feel like I am useful. Because at times I feel like I’m pretty terrible at everything else. And nothing makes me feel more like a shit mum than my hatred of cooking. [Edited to add: I wondered about taking this paragraph out, as I think I must have been feeling a bit blue when I wrote it and, actually, I think I am a pretty good mum, most of the time. Ok, there are some definite areas for improvement. Cooking is one. Using my phone too much is another. Muttering swearwords under my breath is a third. I mean, my swearing is top notch, but my muttering needs work. I know this because my son spent the other evening before bed running madly around his bedroom, completely naked and transferring bright yellow nappy cream onto the carpet and the chair, shouting “FUCK’S SAKE! FUCK’S SAKE!” at the top of his voice. Oops. Anyway, I’ve kept this paragraph in, because I am trying to write honestly about motherhood and I don’t think I’d be doing that if I edited out all the miserable bits on a sunny day when I find myself alone in a cafe without kids, feeling fairly cheerful!]

Every now and then my guilt around the issue galvanises me into action. I read some cookbooks and blogs, I make a meal plan, I do a big online grocery shop… and sometimes I even stick with it for a week or two. But I never seem to manage to keep it up.

People often suggest easy meals that I could prepare quickly, and I appreciate the help, I do, but I’m not sure I have ever really successfully conveyed the extreme lethargy that consumes me when I stand in front of the fridge and think about having to prepare anything. I detest chopping onions, unwrapping raw meat, draining pasta, washing a lettuce, picking some fucking coriander… I hate it all. It is a visceral loathing that completely drains me of energy and initiative. And sometimes I can overcome it, my conscience stepping in and refusing to allow fresh fish to be wasted or an unexpected visitor to be fed takeaway, but it is exhausting to fight in this way and I don’t have the capacity to do it every night.

Can anyone relate to this? I feel quite ashamed to write it but I also really want to be a better example for my family and I’m not sure where to start, again. I don’t feel like guilt is the right motivation for radical change but that, to be honest, is my prevailing emotion when I think about food and cooking. Help! Is there a way to frame this more positively?

What do you mean, none of these are appropriate first foods? 

Breastfeeding: not just for babies

Sorry, I made myself laugh with my click-bait-y title. Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about breastfeeding my husband, or a family pet.

But I do breastfeed half of my family: my baby daughter, who is seven months old, and my toddler son, who will be three in August.

My baby feeds “on demand”* but actually is fairly undemanding. She can go for quite long stretches in the day without feeding and she seems efficient in terms of feeding for hunger rather than comfort. In fact, she has been so determined to breastfeed on her terms that she decided at two months that she would feed from one boob only (it took my son a year to come to the same conclusion that my left boob is somehow deficient), giving me that not-at-all-coveted One Massive Tit, One Tiny Tit look that I’d finally gotten over during her pregnancy (when both tits became unfeasibly large despite not producing much milk at all). But lopsided boobs (and a few rounds of mastitis in the neglected left boob) aside, it’s going well: she’s relaxed, I’m relaxed, it doesn’t often hurt, all is good.

I’m still finding her relative indifference to breastfeeding quite unexpected, because it is such a departure from my son! He feeds in the morning when he wakes and at bedtime, but I’m fairly sure he would happily partake in his favourite drink throughout the day and night if I hadn’t placed some limits on it for my own sanity during pregnancy (when my milk pretty much dried up and nursing became painful).

I hadn’t anticipated that I would breastfeed him for so long. I presumed, if I gave it any thought at all, that I would try to breastfeed from birth and then when he was around one he would start drinking ‘normal’ milk and we would stop breastfeeding. Ha. Just like that.

I learnt pretty quickly, however, that, as with most things baby-related, it wouldn’t be that simple.

To begin with, I found breastfeeding to be quite brutal. From tongue ties to reflux to allergies to damaged nipples to recurrent mastitis (all or any of which I can discuss at length if anyone else is suffering or interested for any reason)… it was harder and more painful than anything else I’d ever experienced. But then it got easier and then it got much easier (and then, to be honest, it got much harder again – feeding during pregnancy wasn’t much fun) and then it got much, much easier. And when I occasionally wonder why we have kept on going (usually because someone has asked me about it), I pretty instinctively answer, why not? He is happy, I am happy, it’s good for both of us** and it comforts and nourishes him if he’s poorly. Why would we stop?

Obviously one potential reason would be that some people think it’s weird. In particular, some people seem to have some quite strict (and as far as I can tell fairly arbitrary) rules on when it ceases to be appropriate to breastfeed your child, including:

  • when they turn one (presumably because the needs of a baby who is 365 days old differ so starkly from those of a 366 day old baby?);
  • when they get teeth (according to Dr Miriam Stoppard, the “appearance of teeth” signals that breastfeeding should be “gently suspended”.*** Speaking as a woman who was bitten on the tit a couple of times by a teething nine month old, I can see what may have prompted her to spout such bullshit but I’m going to stick with WHO advice to breastfeed exclusively up to six months and with solids until two or beyond anyway, thanks);
  • when they can tell you that they want milk (although I’m not sure exactly what this means, as I’ve always found it fairly obvious when my babies want milk, however they choose to communicate it. My daughter’s favourite way to show me currently is to lurch suddenly from upright in my arms to horizontal, with her mouth gaping open, which is entirely effective but slightly hair-raising. My son will occasionally stop feeding to tell me that he’s “going to try a different latch”, so I think he is quite far beyond this deadline, whenever it may be).

Fortunately (and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, given how susceptible I am usually to the curse of Giving a Fuck What People Think), this is one occasion when I genuinely couldn’t give a shit. I don’t believe that there is anything unnatural about breastfeeding a toddler: my breasts still make milk for our mutual benefit, it’s bloody genius!

And so, for as long as we are both comfortable with it, we will continue. I think that’s my bottom line for feeding generally: do what is right for you and your child (whether that is exclusively breastfeeding or formula only or a mix of the two) for as long as it is right for you and your child. I’m assuming we’ll draw the line at some point before he leaves home. If we don’t, well, perhaps you’ll be able to read about it in the lifestyle pages of the Daily Mail 😂

My main health warning regarding breastfeeding a toddler is that you are quite liable to take a few kicks to the face. I’m not sure it smarts less for being a kick with a delicious, squishy foot enclosed in a cute penguin slipper, if I’m honest… 

*I actually hate the expression “on demand”: it is somehow suggestive of an unreasonable baby and a put-upon mother. I tend to think of it simply as feeding responsively to her needs.

**I’m not going to regurgitate the various health benefits for children and mothers of breastfeeding, although it is perhaps worth noting that some do extend beyond one year and, indeed, from a mother’s perspective some benefits (such as reduced risk of some cancers and osteoporosis) seem to increase the longer she breastfeeds. So yay for that. Here is the NHS page on breastfeeding for a brief summary of some of the benefits if you’re interested: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/Pages/benefits-breastfeeding.asp

*** I can’t actually recommend that you read this article but here it is for reference: http://www.mirror.co.uk/lifestyle/health/when-should-you-stop-breast-feeding-1259599

Buy stuff; feel better

I saw a post on Instagram tonight relating to the closure of an online kids’ clothing shop that I have used a couple of times. The ensuing discussion was about the difficulties that small retailers are facing currently, in particular given the prevailing exchange rate. Although I hadn’t often used this particular shop, their closure made me feel surprisingly sad, and weirdly… guilty.

Since they ruined my figure and forced me to wear only clothes that allow the hasty removal of a boob at a moment’s notice, I have re-channelled my shopping compulsion in the direction of my children. I bloody love buying them clothes. In part because they look so cute in everything that it is extremely rewarding; also because they are so pleasingly quick to grow that I get to do it almost continually, which is extremely gratifying for an addict. I generally dress them in fairly gender-neutral clothes (I mean, I don’t care if my daughter wears dresses (as long as she isn’t physically inhibited by them) but I don’t want every t-shirt my son wears to have a fucking tractor on it and, if it does, then I’m happy for it to be handed down to my daughter). I try to dress them in well-made, ethically-sourced clothes. I want them to wear things that are fun to wear and fun to look at. And I don’t feel like it’s very easy to follow this approach using high street brands only.

So, tonight has provided a useful reminder that it is incumbent on me to continue to give my custom to the small shops that I follow on Instagram, who import the clothes I like and from whom I gain inspiration, because if I don’t, THEY WILL CLOSE.

Moreover, although I am a ridiculously avid online shopper, I also think there is a responsibility on me to frequent my local shops and… ACTUALLY BUY FROM THEM TOO … if I want them to stay around. I have an amazing local kids’ shop – Olive Loves Alfie – and they curate a beautiful collection of original and ethical kids’ brands. And yet I know I have been guilty of admiring something in the shop only to buy it at a later date online. (This isn’t because I am waiting for a better price, in my defence – it’s because I online shop in a daze of exhaustion and breastfeeding-induced oxytocin and so quite often justify purchases online that I have ruled out in the cold light of day!)

And, whilst I am confessing my sins, I am particularly bad at relying on Amazon Prime for books and art supplies, when I have a decent local bookshop and several local arts and crafts shops and most of my favourite online shops also stock these things. I do this despite knowing that Amazon have been accused of horrendous working conditions for staff and that the impatient, reckless consumerism that initiatives such as Amazon Prime have promoted props up the gig economy that has left so many people underpaid and burdened by the artifice of self-employment.

I. Must. Do. Better.

I know that I am writing from a place of privilege. I spend more on kids’ clothing than most people do: I appreciate that. And I am not proposing to stop buying things from the high street altogether (my children’s white vests will be M&S until I die, I’d imagine). But I really, really value my favourite online shops and local boutiques. And yet my valuing them is totally meaningless unless I actually give them my money.

I thought I’d share this in case it resonates with you too. And because, even if you don’t take it as a call to arms, at least you can use it as inspiration to buy something guilt-free in the name of supporting a small business?!

In case you are interested, my favourite brands are Mini Rodini, Kid+Kind, Tootsa Macginty, Indikidual, Bobo Choses, Beau Loves, Hugo Loves Tiki, Whistle and Flute and Molo – and The Bright Company and Sleepy Doe (for PJs). And my favourite online shops are Scout and Co, Bon Tot, Junior Edition, Desmond Elephant, Olive Loves Alfie, The Wee Department Store and Scandimini. For books, check out Smallprint Online for an absolutely beautiful collection. 

He often dresses himself and I don’t think it would be nearly so edifying if he didn’t have such excellent basics (including a wide range of animal prints) to choose from! 

Why some babies sleep and some babies torture you instead

I wrote this post a month or so ago and never got round to sharing it. Unfortunately for me (not least because I have never wanted to be able to  use the adjective “scrotal” to describe accurately my under-eye skin), it turns out that mere contemplation of a blog post on the topic of sleep was sufficient to trigger an enormous, calamitous Sleep-Jinx. I should have known better. We are in the midst of the six-month sleep regression/first teeth hell. My poor baby no longer naps for longer than 20 minutes and wakes pretty much every 40 minutes at night. Somewhat ironically, I am too knackered to edit the original draft, let alone write something new, so here it stands. A testament to my enduring naivety and in memory of the last occasion when I had more than two consecutive hours of sleep. 

It is probably waaaay too soon to say it but my daughter seems to be a decent sleeper. [*Laughs hollowly*] I mean, she wakes at least twice in the night for milk and sometimes she can’t settle and some nights she chats away for a couple of hours when I REALLY wish she were sleeping and all I can think is that my son is bound to wake up just after she finally goes to sleep (because this is pretty much a dead cert)… but that all seems eminently sensible for a five month old baby.

My son, bless his heart, was a TERRIBLE sleeper. He has allergies and had reflux and the longest stretch he ever did until he was well over one was about three hours (save for one remarkable night when he slept for about seven hours and my husband and I spent most of it staring at him wondering if he was ok). He slept on one of us every night until he could roll over and lift his head up well, so that we felt comfortable letting him sleep on his tummy, but even then easing him from boob to bed was a complex exercise in stealth and guile (owing much to the “Hug ‘n Roll” technique deployed by Ross in Friends). We bought a super-king sized bed and co-slept until he was around one, at which point he slept in his own room until about midnight and then would come and kick one of us in the head until around 5am, when he would wake up for the day.

I have never know desperation and exhaustion like that caused by my beautiful, restless son. I can barely remember the first year of his life: it passed in a sleep-deprived fog. I spent much of my time reading about infant sleep through bleary eyes; we came up with countless (and ineffectual) plans to improve matters; depending on our frame of mind, we either frantically sought or frustratedly dismissed counsel from our patient friends; in the end, we even had a sleep consultant come to help us for a few days.

My conclusion now? Some babies, like some adults, find it difficult to sleep soundly or for long periods at a time. This almost certainly isn’t anyone’s fault. It isn’t going to be solved by blackout blinds or white noise machines or a lavender-scented bath or a bedroom at the perfect temperature or the right bedtime story (although those things might help a bit). As someone who read pretty much everything the internet had to offer when searching for The Cure, I genuinely am sorry to break the news… but there is no panacea for babies who are shit at sleeping.

Other babies sleep better. They like sleeping on their backs and they can settle themselves if they’re not hungry or wet and they even go down “sleepy but awake” and get themselves to sleep. (Before having my daughter, I simply did not understand this concept; it was hard to think of a more preposterous and enraging suggestion as to how I might go about getting my baby son to sleep). But hey, guess what?! This doesn’t have anything to do with the parents either! So if you have a Sleeper and you’ve been feeling smug about your superior parenting skills, don’t. (Or at least don’t overdo the smugness in the company of anyone who hasn’t been quite so blessed.)

I appreciate my sample size is small so we’ll have to put any claims of scientific rigour to one side. But based on my anecdotal evidence, my conclusions are as follows:

  • If your baby doesn’t sleep well, bad luck, my friend. Seriously, you have my every sympathy. My advice for you is do whatever you have to do to get some sleep during this difficult time and know that it will improve at some point. (I can’t say exactly when, I’m afraid, as my son is two and a half and he still wakes most nights.)
  • If your baby does sleep well, then congratulations! Your job is to commiserate with the unfortunate bugger referred to above and perhaps look after their children whilst they have a nap. You should try to bring them coffee and cake, regularly (because, in the absence of sleep, they probably now subsist exclusively on caffeine and sugar). And, most importantly, you should never (seriously, NEVER) suggest that they “try putting baby down sleepy but awake”.

Final thoughts from today: maybe it is my fault after all! I no longer have a sleeping child in my sample group. The only reasonable advice I can actually give based on the evidence before me is: SLEEP WHENEVER YOU CAN BECAUSE YOUR BABY MIGHT STOP ANY DAY NOW SAVE YOURSELF DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU

My son’s approach to sleeping in his cot

My daughter’s approach to sleeping in her cot (until she hit 5 and a half months – PRAY FOR ME)

Me for the last two and a half years 

No offence intended, but…

You may have noticed a bit of a gap since my last post. I started blogging full of enthusiasm and feeling as though I had something I really wanted to share. And I was surprised by the kind response and the extent of engagement, from friends, acquaintances and some complete strangers. But then, if I’m honest, I felt tired, and worried about writing anything more. I found myself stuck on the question of why it is so hard to address the different ways in which we reconcile motherhood and life beyond. In particular, I thought it would make sense for my next post to discuss why I am currently a stay at home parent, but I felt apprehensive about broaching the topic. And then, in fairly time-honoured tradition, I allowed my anxiety to spiral, wondering if I could continue to talk about any of my personal experiences of motherhood – breastfeeding my toddler, co-sleeping with my baby, possibly delaying the school start of my August-born son until he is five, etc – without inadvertently offending someone or instigating a stressful debate.

Objectively, I know that my opinion on the best childcare option for my children has absolutely no bearing on the merits of someone else’s decision regarding the care of their own children, and vice versa. And this is also true for the multitude of other decisions I make about the raising of my children: some agonised over for weeks or months with my husband; some instinctive or obvious or not even needing discussion, but all specific to our personal circumstances and beliefs and therefore largely irrelevant to anyone else. But even knowing this, some recent discussions I have had, and my failure to articulate my view without upsetting some other parents, has been bothering me.

When does attempting to be objective turn into “no offence intended, but…”? Nobody wants to be the “no offence intended, but…” person (ranking second only to the “I’m not a racist, but…” person on the Katie Hopkins Scale of Odium). But (ha!), when it comes to our children, it seems very difficult to talk about our opinions, why we have made the decisions we’ve made, without that being heard as a judgment or a criticism by (and of) others. Why is it so hard to step back and consider things impartially? Why are so many of us on the defensive? Against whom, or what, are we defending ourselves?

And is it even worthwhile raising these questions, if what is at stake is either so personal so as to be inapplicable to anyone else or so difficult to discuss, or inflammatory, that people become upset or angered?

I don’t know the answers to these questions (although it feels like one of those situations where “The Patriarchy” and/or “The Daily Mail” would be a reasonable response to at least one of them). I don’t think that just because a topic is hard, or contentious, that it should be avoided, but, at the same time, I don’t currently feel sufficiently robust, or informed, or articulate, to take on all that divides us!

It might be a bit cowardly but, for now, contemplating my personal experience, asking some (probably rhetorical) questions and perhaps prompting a gentle discussion on Facebook or Instagram is all I can muster.*

Bear with me if you can.**

Processed with VSCO with a8 preset

You said WHAAAAT to a group of working mothers? Oh Christ. 


*I’m currently reading “The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck” so perhaps will feel more comfortable courting controversy in due course 😂

 

** I just realised I’ve asked you to bear with me for two of my three posts so far. I am extremely demanding of your patience. Thanks if you’ve managed.