Lessons in Motherhood

The roller-coaster ride that was life with a newborn already seems like light years away at a distant time in my past. In reality, that sharp learning curve began only seventeen months ago when my first child was born. But the months have whizzed past me at a million miles an hour, despite the minutes sometimes ticking excruciatingly slowly in those sleep-deprived wee small hours with a crying babe.

Now, as I prepare to embark on that crazy rush of a journey all over again, I am trying as hard as I can to recall the best and the worst of times. At the end of next month, when our second child comes into this world, I should be a little more prepared than I was the first time round. I should be more confident, braver, and more knowing thanks to the lessons I have learnt – surely?

I have no doubt my two children will be very different from each other. Of course, they will be keeping me on my toes, and each of them their very own person. But there must be some aspects of life with a new baby that will be easier because I have already been down this milk-stained, sleepless road before.

I have tried, I think, to bury the hardest times beneath layers of happy rose-tinted memories of cuddles and baby-soft skin. But that’s not helpful. I want to try and remember the tough times and the trials as well as the magic of falling in love with my child.

I have learnt more in the last seventeen months than in the last three decades. I don’t want to remember all the lessons, I don’t want to forget others. Here though, are the lessons I have learned are most important to me, as I get ready for another round of this terrifying but magical journey that is motherhood.

1. I will trust my instincts

No-one will know my baby better than me. I will listen to her, and I will believe in myself. I will know her, I will know what she wants and needs, and I will trust my judgements.

2. It will get easier

It might take six months, but one evening, my little girl will go to bed easily. She will sleep for much of the night and so will I. In those quiet dark hours before that happens, I will remember that it will get easier. In those long days when I can’t settle her and I’m not sure what is wrong, I will tell myself that this too shall pass. In the meantime, I will keep trying my best.

3. I will feed my baby in the way I believe best

I hope to breastfeed again, but I will not exhaust myself and put undue pressure on myself to do this exclusively. I want my daughter to take bottles from her father from a couple of months of age. Perhaps this will give me a much-needed rest, perhaps it will give me precious time with my beloved toddler. It will do no harm. When it comes to solids, I will introduce food at the pace that suits me and my baby.

4. I will make the most of the early days

And the days that follow. I won’t worry about laundry and tidying and reading up on the best parenting methodologies. Instead, I will cherish the moments that pass too quick and we will never get back as she grows too fast. I will hold her as much as I can, and I will ignore the chatter about forming bad habits or spoiling a baby. While she is baby enough to fall asleep in my arms while blissfully oblivious to the world around her, that is what she will do. You can’t spoil a baby.

5. I will cherish the feeling of being the luckiest person in the world

because I am a mother.

Mums, work and the myth that they have a choice

cat_02 I’m the kind of woman who should go back to work to boost the economy, apparently. You see, I’m a stay at home mum who spends her days trying to nurture a little boy’s mind, instil in him creativity, adventure, ambition, problem-solving skills and a desire to succeed. Yet, according to a government-backed report, it’s women like me holding this country back.

The report has been done by the Women’s Business Council, and in this story in the Daily Mail, we’re told how its authors are urging bosses to support working families through flexibility. The report was commissioned by ministers, who we are also told  believe it is unacceptable that highly skilled women don’t get ahead in the work place to the same extent as men.

I’m one of those skilled women, but I chose to have a child. I am no longer a senior reporter at a national daily. I no longer run a team of reporters and help mentor them while building tomorrow’s front page and today’s online splash. I no longer sit around the top table in the middle of the day and decide what readers will discover tomorrow.

I’m one of those skilled women, however, who still finds every day a mental challenge. I still work hard to push myself and get the most out of each day I can. I still believe in achieving my goals to the best of my abilities. I still mentor, its just that my charge is a toddler. I still bust my gut, basically, and finish every day exhausted and spent. I believe what I am doing at home with my child will one day benefit the economy, even if the powers-that-be can’t measure its worth right now.

There are many problems, in my eyes, with decrying stat-at-home mums for not getting out there and helping boost the nation’s growth figures. Firstly, the myopic perception that millions of women have a choice is insulting. Many women cannot find work which will allow them to uphold their parenting beliefs. Many women cannot find childcare that is affordable or practical or suitable. Many women are discriminated against after a maternity leave break. Many women are discriminated against before that maternity break is even taken.

It is an issue that men simply do not have to face. Even those that choose to stay at home will not face the same discrimination as many women before and after the birth of their child. They will not face the same challenges when they do return to work. For many women, those challenges include such realities as choosing to keep breastfeeding – if they can find somewhere suitable at work to express. They include realities such as choosing to stand up to the judgement of colleagues, peers, and other mothers, simply for deciding to return to work. I don’t believe men face the same challenges.

Debate over the cost of at-home mothers to the economy also pits mothers against mothers. Once again, we are seeing judgements directed towards mothers themselves for their personal choices. If a mother chooses to work, and is able to do so, then surely that is her choice. If a mother chooses not to work, and again is able not to do so, then surely that is her choice. By subtly encouraging women into one corner or another on this issue helps nobody and only works to destroy the support networks that all mothers can and must build around each other.

Sadly, for too many mothers, the option to work or not just isn’t there. They have no choice. So, instead of arguing that at-home mothers must help to boost the economy, surely more needs to be done to give them options. There is still, sadly, not enough flexibility in the workplace for mothers to truly do what they want or need to for themselves and their families. For as long as companies continue to be bound by conventional working hours and practices, mothers will fail to have the options open to them that they should. For this, they should bear no blame.

All children are born equal

Putting your baby to sleep in a cardboard box might sound uncaring, but for parents in Finland, it’s a tradition which dates back 75 years. They aren’t, admittedly, using just any old box otherwise destined for recycling. It’s lined with a mattress, comes with standard issue sheets – and best of all, this make-shift basinettte is free.

Until reading this article on the BBC , I’d not known about the simple cardboard box given to all Finnish parents by the Finnish Government. But now that I know of its existence, I can’t stop thinking about what a superb idea it is.

The basic concept, as detailed in the article, is that all expecting parents are sent a free box of essentials from the Government before their baby is due. They have the option of receiving a box for each child they have – but can opt for cash instead. Many don’t. Inside are items such as a small mattress, body suits, outdoor wear, bathing gear and bedding. According to the article, parents looks forward to getting their parcel, find the  items invaluable, and regard it as common practice to use the box with the mattress and sheets supplied as their baby’s first bed.

I love this on so many levels. First of all, what an amazing gesture from a Government many will have paid taxes to for years. What a way to say, ‘we value your decision to become parents’. By providing essentials too, it is a symbol of acknowledgement of the needs of new parents and the demands of new babies. It is a way of saying ‘here is a little help – for you and your child’.

I believe babies themselves are great levellers, but this gift too serves to recognise all parents as equals. By giving every parent the same box, with the same items inside, the message is clear. All children are born equal. All have the same basic needs for warmth, comfort, food, and clothing. Their biggest need is, of course, love, and perhaps by sorting out the essential shopping list for parents, the Finnish Government is helping them concentrate on giving their love without distraction. Maybe.

For the parent-to-be who receives the box, I can imagine the excitement of opening up the cardboard. ‘What’s inside? How teeny are the clothes? Imagine our newborn fitting into this little box…’, these are the sentiments I can imagine the parents-to-be whispering in wonder.

Whether we like it or not, pregnancy comes with stress and difficulties. A little box like this, however, must help in taking away a few of those headaches. Here are the essentials – you’ve got all you need. You see, parents-to-be, there is no need to hunt out the most expensive bassinette or the most exclusive designer sheets. They will, after all, be used for barely four months. Instead, why not use something tried, tested, relied upon by generations, and clearly safe and suitable for a newborn? Again, forget about shopping for the best rocking bassinette stand, or the chicest sleep suit – concentrate instead on your baby.

As I said, I love the idea of the cardboard box. We might not have anything similar here in England, and we certainly didn’t in New Zealand where the Little Mister was born, but I think we can all learn from its significance. Every newborn is a gift to be loved and cherished and valued by all. For me, the cardboard box is a reminder of that.

My daughter will be beautiful, and I will tell her so

I haven’t met her yet, but my daughter will be beautiful. I will think it, I will tell her it, and I want her to feel it and believe it.

This week, comments made by Liberal Democrat minister Jo Swinson in an interview with The Daily Telegraph made me think hard about beauty and body image. Ms Swinson, who we are told has campaigned previously about changing a culture which makes people feel bad about themselves (think magazines promoting fad diets and papped shots of skinny celebs on beaches), was apparently talking about ways to raise the self esteem of your kids. But telling your girls they are beautiful isn’t the way to do it, she says.

Ms Swinson, who doesn’t have children, argues that parents can in fact knock the body confidence out of their daughters by giving them the impression that being beautiful is what they need to be in order to succeed. She asks us, instead, to praise our little girls for being inquisitive and completing tasks.

When my little girl is born in two months time, I know already I will think she is beautiful. I know already that I will hold her in my arms and not be able to think anything else. Her beauty will be in my eyes, yes, but I will also tell about it repeatedly as she grows up.

Why? Because she will grow up in a world where beauty is noticed, where it matters, and where it is commented upon. She will grow up in a world where beauty is valued and is sought after. She will grow up in a world where all around her, beauty is talked about. That is our world, and I don’t agree with trying to change it.

Yes my daughter will also grow up in a world where completing tasks and being inquisitive are valuable skills to have. These too are tasks I will praise, just as I praise her inner and outer beauty. I will encourage her to question, to be kind, to give life her all and to seek out adventures. But I will also encourage her to be beautiful – in all the ways she can.

I want my daughter to have confidence in herself and believe in herself. I want her to have the courage to back herself, to promote herself, and be brave enough to do whatever it is she wants to do. I can encourage her self-belief by telling her of her own strength, her own courage, and her own beauty. I can help her become brave and independent by helping her build a notion of herself as a woman who can do whatever she wants, and get wherever she wants to be.

By helping my daughter become a woman with solid self esteem, strong self beliefs, and firm courage behind her convictions, I will be helping my daughter be beautiful. I will also be helping my daughter to build the confidence in herself she will need in order to maintain her esteem in the world we live in.

I refuse to ignore the emphasis our society places on beauty. My daughter will be beautiful, both inside and out, and I want her to know it.

Who needs who? Identity, dependency and children

cat_02 Dependency. It was possibly the word which frightened me most in my first few months as a mother. As I came to realise the level to which my newborn was reliant on me, I couldn’t help but feel fear. Looking after myself was difficult enough, and I often felt I wasn’t even quite managing to do that. So when I held my tiny bundle in my arms for hours on end in those early days, I couldn’t ignore the growing sense of unease that was building up inside me. This little boy needed me and his father above all else. He needed us for security in this big and bright new world. He needed us for food and shelter while he grew from a squirming baby to a more independent child. He needed us for love, and, for at least a a while, it felt like he needed us for everything.

As I grew into motherhood, as the days turned into weeks and I felt a little more confident about knowing what he needed, I was almost able to relish my son’s complete reliance on me and his father. When we got it right and realised he was hungry or tired or uncomfortable or too hot and responded accordingly – those were the times when I congratulated us. Our little boy needed us for everything, and we were able to give him everything he needed. However, it was when we couldn’t work out his needs that my lack of confidence in my skills as a mother returned. This child of mine had no choice but to be wholly dependent on us – and I couldn’t always work out what to do.

Seventeen months into motherhood, and not long from embarking on the journey of life with a newborn all over again, I have come to terms with the reality of a child’s dependency on his parents. With love and the best of intentions, it need not be terrifying – and instead becomes the most natural way of life in the world. What I haven’t quite resolved is my own dependency on my child.

Of course a child needs his mother. But to what extent does a mother need her child?

On the surface, there are many ways in which I need my child. I notice the need most when I am not with him and I miss him terribly. In those few hours that he may be out at the park with his dad, or the shops with his grandmother, I wonder what he is doing, what he is saying, how he is feeling and whether he is laughing. I can’t wait to see him again, and hear how his outing was while holding him close to me because I missed him too much.

What troubles me though, is how much I need my child for my own identity. It is inevitable that I have changed since his birth. My sense of self is defined now at least partly in reference to my role as a mother. Of course I am still the same person I was before my son was born, but this new mother that is me has worries, thoughts, beliefs and views that didn’t exist in that previous life.

I don’t think I want to depend on my child for my identity. Yes, I need him now, and yes, he has changed me and is a part of me. But I want to be a mother who is still a woman and a person in her own right and a being capable of independence. I don’t think I have found a way to be that woman yet. Instead, I am still a new mother, working out her new identity, and trying not to be wholly dependent on her child.

Am I Doing This Right?

cat_02 Even on the days when life goes to plan, I can’t stop a little voice inside my head questioning whether I’m doing this right. ‘This’, of course, is being a mum, a parent, a grown-up, a provider, a mentor, a teacher, and a guide. The list doesn’t end there though, because really it is infinite.

I’m learning on the job and trying to find my way as each day passes, I’m giving ‘this’ my all, and I’ve never tried harder at anything – but the question doesn’t go away. Am I doing this right?

I still remember the horrible realisation I came to about motherhood around the moment I was told my baby and I were well enough to leave hospital and go home. I could no longer ignore the fact that I felt utterly lost. I had no idea what to do with this tiny bundle who was mine. I was overwhelmed by the concept that he needed me completely for his very survival. The responsibility was too big.

Or was it? Sixteen months on, I still don’t know if I’m doing this right, but I’m confident I’m not getting everything wrong. I learn every day from my son, and with each day that passes I know a little more about him. Somehow, he helped me learn how to calm him and soothe him. He taught me the meaning of his different sounds and expressions, and he showed me how he felt comfortable being held or rocked. I learnt, somewhere along the way, to pay more attention to the little things. I figured out that trusting my instincts and following his lead would see us get there in the end. I decided that I had to believe that every difficult phase would pass.

Most of the time, my boy and I are happy. He is healthy and learning and growing, and he loves the world around him. I love his company, I love watching him learn to be independent, and I love that he still looks to me for reassurance.

Am I doing this right? Probably not completely. But I am there for my child when he needs me. I encourage him to be kind and gentle and inquisitive. I am trying to teach him about all that is good in the world and show him the value of a smile and true love.

I don’t expect that little voice that keeps asking, ‘am I doing this right?’ to disappear anytime soon. But for my son, that’s probably a good thing.

When Nothing Matters More Than Being Here

cat_02 The story behind today’s terror attack is still being written. The news is still being made. We don’t know everything yet, but on a street in London, a man lies dead.

He is a son, he was a once a child, he would have brought love and laughter and brightness into the world.

This news as it becomes known is hurting those who hear it. It knocks the breath from me. Is it because I am now a parent? I moved back to this city for my child. Partly for a better life.

What we don’t know tonight, as we go to sleep in our quiet and leafy London suburb, is why. We don’t know the extent of it or what it may be. We are calling it a terror attack.

In September 2001, when this city was sent home from work after the towers across the ocean fell, I rushed home to my parents. In July 2005, living in Taiwan, I called them in a broken voice from a public phone box while London panicked and people died on its streets.

Tonight, I lay my child gently in his cot after holding him tighter and holding on to him for longer than I had last night. I had just heard the words: terror attack.

I had pressed his body to mine and let him rest his head on my shoulder. I stroked his hair and felt his breathing slow. When he slept, I stood for a while and watched. There was nothing to rush away for. My sixteen-month-old boy – this is your world.

I have been reminded tonight of what is important. There is nothing more important than truly being present in the life of my child. I do not mean being here in body to put him to bed each night. I mean being here completely, to listen, to watch, to care, and to love. I mean him knowing that I am here, always. There is nothing more important than seeing him happy. There is nothing more important than showing him the best of this world.

He will learn of the grief and despair. He will come to know the anger and hurt and heartache. He will discover the unjustness and the ugliness. But while he is too young to know that evil exists, there is nothing more important than me being here.

On Not Being Perfect

I am not the perfect mother I dreamed I would be.

I am not quick to jump out of bed to respond to piercing cries at 5am. I roll over, bury my face beneath the duvet, and hope my little boy will go back to sleep.

I am not full of energy at 4pm. I am watching the clock, hoping we get through the next few hours without a plea from my little boy to do something that involves summoning up more effort than I can muster.

I am not a success in the kitchen. My home-made baby food is rarely eaten, toast often makes its way onto the little boy’s table for dinner, and I feed him biscuits to make my life easier.

I am not creative enough when it comes to playtime. I should get out the paints more often, build forts that are more exciting, and involve my little boy more in activities such as baking and gardening.

 

I am not the perfect mother I dreamed I would be.

And, sixteen months into motherhood, I have realised she doesn’t exist.

The mother I have been dreaming of was made up. Yes, you can find her in myths and stories, but really she is just a creation of words. She was put together by men and women, parents, society, narratives, and stories – they all worked together on building this picture of the mother who entered my dreams.

 

Sixteen months into motherhood, I don’t want to be perfect anymore.

Instead, I want to be perfect in the eyes of my little boy. That won’t mean I am the perfect mother of my dreams. But it will mean that I am good enough.

 

If my little boy knows that each day I try and do my utmost for him, that is good enough. If he knows that I try to make him laugh, I try to make him food he will like, I try to think of fun new games and I try to guess what he is telling me with his big eyes and baby babble – if he knows that I do these things every day, that is good enough.

If my little boy knows that each morning, I can’t wait to lay eyes on him because I have missed him all night, that is good enough.

If my little boy knows that I will always scoop him up when he falls, hold him when he is sad, and be there in the night when he is scared, that is good enough.

If my little boy knows that I’m trying my best to get excited about golf, that I’m searching for ways to make our games more exciting, and that I love taking him to the park everyday even though his antics terrify me, that is good enough.

 

Today, at the park, I was not the perfect mother I dreamed I would be. I was tired, my back ached, my hair was not brushed, my tracksuit was smeared with yoghurt and sticky crumbs of toast. I pushed the buggy slowly, I did not go down the big slide with my little boy, I moved gingerly around the play equipment while we played hide and seek. But he loved every second. His loud belly-deep laughter filled the park. His squeals of delight at finding me on the other side of the tunnel brightened up the playground. His wide eyes and broad smile made him look like the happiest boy in the world.

Today, at the park, I think he thought I was perfect. And that is good enough.

How Feeding a Baby Makes a Mother

 cat_02 Gone forever is the day when choosing a formula brand, a pouch of baby food or a kind of sippy cup was as simple as picking the closest one off the supermarket shelf. No longer are we purely deciding to reduce breast feeds or introduce solids because, well, it’s time. Now, it would seem, each choice we make along the path of feeding our babies is about creating our own self image. That’s right, it’s not just about the child any more. It’s about us.

A piece of research on this theme caught my attention this week. Published in the Journal of Consumer Culture, lead author Sara Afflerback and her team discussed the findings of their study into infant feeding choices. As with many studies in this area, the sample size was small and limited – in this case to white middle class Americans – but their findings still made me take note.

Titled ‘Infant feeding consumerism in the age of intensive mothering and risk society’, the team explored the motivations behind infant feeding decisions. These included whether or not to formula feed, what breastpump to buy, what, if any, prepared baby food to buy, and when to introduce utensils such as a sippy cup.

Essentially, they found that new mothers were negotiating their own self image as mothers through feeding choices. They would identify with broad notions of what it meant to be a good mother (for example, good mothers breastfeed), and that would influence their decisions.

Out of the study came two common themes – baby oriented consumerism (where shopping choices were made through seeking qualities for babies) and mother oriented consumerism (where the choice was based on qualities in a product that the mother sought for herself.)

What the researchers found was that consumerism related to good mothering. Good mothers, for example, notice when a child is ready to move on to a sippy cup – so they go out and get it.  Consumerism, then, is intrinsically linked to the constructed image of good mothering. A good mother recognises a baby’s needs and responds by buying the right product. Similarly, she chooses bottles and formula and other devices by deciding which are best to ease colic or wind or settle a crying baby. “Thus when buying certain brands of formula or bottles , they are not just buying food and feeding devices, but are purchasing their babies’ comfort,” the researchers found.

Yet they also found that it wasn’t just a good mother who responded to baby’s needs – it was also the broader motherhood clique that reacted to instances of good mothering. The model of breastfeeding groups was used to show “a system of rewards and punishments for compliance with the demands of intensive mothering, which strongly advocates breastfeeding”. Meaning, that good mothers (in this case those that breastfed) had access to certain social groups others were excluded from.

The study was very much carried out with an acceptance of the trend for intensive mothering – that is putting the child’s need over the mothers. The authors said in this context American mothers were expected to breastfeed to minimise risks to their infant’s health, and the cultural association between breastfeeding and good mothering put them under pressure. Not breastfeeding was accompanied by a sense of failure and guilt. Formula feeding, in fact, was apparently construed as so risky that it didn’t only impact the child’s health but also – potentially – the mother/child relationship. The authors even went so far as to say that in popular discourse poor mother/child bonding can be associated with criminality and violence.

Putting aside the outrageous idea that feeding a child formula can result in them spending a life in and out of prison, the researchers made some interesting connections.

The idea that new mothers, when they are fragile, impressionable, and desperate to do right by their dependents, are being manipulated as consumers is not groundbreaking. But what struck me was the way that consumer choices become a way for mothers to create themselves as the mothers they want to be. The choices also become a rule book by which social cliques can form and groups of mothers can exclude other mothers of newborns.

The social construct of the good (intensive) mother who puts her child above all else is, in my view, one of the most damaging ideas of our time to a mother and baby. For the new mother under pressure to conform to the mould it is unhealthy. Intensive mothering presents an image easy to aspire to – because surely if you are putting your child above all else you are a good person. But surely buying your way into fitting the model does little for the goodness of your child. My argument is not that a mother must always put herself first before her child. It is more that a new mother’s needs must also be met if she is to be able to meet those of her child. Sometimes, it’s not worth spending all night filling the freezer with organic home-made fruit purees if it means you’re not going to get any sleep and your milk production is going to drop as a result.

Some mothers need to formula feed, some mothers need to buy packaged meals, some mothers have children who can’t work out how to use sippy cups. These mothers are good mothers. They, like all mothers, will hopefully one day have the courage to walk into a supermarket and buy the brand or item they want – not the one that will validate society’s creation of the perfect mother.

Little Children, Big Prejudices

 If you are four years old and fat, it isn’t likely to be your fault. To add to your woes, however, is the probability that you won’t have many friends. You’ll be shunned by your pint-sized classmates, whether you are a girl or a boy, just because of a number on the scales. Or so say researchers at the University of Leeds.

According to a new study, very young children reject story book characters who are overweight, but not those who are disabled. The study involved researchers reading a story to over 100 children, and then testing their responses to the characters – one of whom has become known as “fat Alfie”. The children didn’t think Alfie would win races, be good at school work, be happy with his looks or get invited to parties. Only one of 43 children chose him to be their personal friend over another character who was drawn to look like he was an average size.

The research was led by a Professor Andrew Hill, who said it showed that even young children were aware of the huge societal interest in body size. “It shows that by school entry age UK children have taken on board the negativity associated with fatness,” he said.

It wasn’t a large study, but it did show that at least to some extent many children will have a negative view of overweight classmates. Furthermore, according to Prof Hill, their views could underpin later “weight-related victimisation of peers”.

In essence then, are we teaching our children to be bullies? If their minds are made up at the age of four that they don’t want to be friends with someone because they are fat, haven’t we as parents taught them to shun a significant proportion of the population? And have we drummed it into them at such an early age that their victimised peers aren’t even old enough to realise why they aren’t getting invited to birthday parties?

The study in my view wasn’t only shocking, it was depressing. My child is too young to understand concepts such as gender, let alone those relating to body size. Yes, he learns at an alarming rate, but the idea that he will have weight prejudices instilled in him within three years seems impossibly sad.

That such little children can carry such significant prejudices based on appearance is frightening. But of course they carry them because they have learnt them from the world around them. With their sponge-like minds they have spent their first formative years absorbing the prejudices, distastes and dislikes of the adult world. Through a process akin to osmosis, they have learnt to echo the unkindness of grown-ups and unfairness of a society that values aesthetics above all else.

As a parent is it possible to teach your four-year-old to reject the common thinking of the society that inevitably shapes them? As an individual, is it even plausible to aspire to bring up a free-thinker who can turn their back on widespread prejudices? Perhaps it is optimism, perhaps I am being naive, but I don’t think it is impossible to wish for this for your child. It’s also not impossible to try and teach them to be better than the adults around them. Judging people is an ugly habit. Perhaps it is one we can teach our children to never pick up in the first place.

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