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.

Prime Ministers, Princesses and Perfect Role Models

She was meant to be a role model for millions of little girls. In a make-believe fantasy land, she was meant to be a heroine who could look after herself and an adventurer who sought out excitement and new challenges. We were meant to love her for all of this, and the supposed imperfections that were intended to make her seem somehow real. Crucially though, she was never real. Merida was a Disney character. And she was a Disney princess at that.

As I write, more than 200,000 people have signed a petition to Disney over Merida’s sparkling makeover. In true Disney fashion, her transformation has seen her leave behind her imperfect self in exchange for a dazzling, sexy, skinnier model better suited to join the official collection of Disney princesses. There has been much hand-wringing over her redesign. Her original creator has spoken out – this is not the Merida she had intended to send forth into the real world. The petitioners have decried the scrapping of a character who was at last a princess millions could look up to. Critics have detailed the death of a role model who for once taught girls they could save the day on their own and they didn’t need glitter in order to do it.

The problem with these arguments, however, is that maybe Merida was never a princess in the first place.

For many decades, story-tellers have constructed the image of the princess. She must be beautiful, even if we don’t realise it at first. She must rely on a saviour, even if she is brave and doesn’t initially appear to need anyone’s help. She must, in the background, have a family behind her. In the future, there must be a new, powerful family she can become a part of.

Merida mark one, however, didn’t fit the construct – and that’s why she had to change. In true storybook style, she became a real Disney princess almost overnight.

I for one will not be lamenting the death of a role model. Merida was a character in a world inhabited by stereotypes. It was not a world I would look to for role models. And when Merida grew up, lost weight and got sexy, she confirmed that she had never in the first place been the pin-up girl millions of mothers had been waiting for. She was, in fact, part of a larger narrative where even ‘princesses’ who were brave and strong and independent were simply waiting to slim down into a more glamorous version of themselves.

Merida has been on my mind, not only because of the comment generated by her transformation, but because I am expecting a daughter later this year. I am not going to deny her the escape from reality that Disney offers. I am not going to resist the sparkling fairy tales that Disney will tell her and that will no doubt fill her world. I am not going to to hide from her the land of make-believe that Merida inhabits.

I believe these constructs are a part of our life now. Whether I believe they are damaging or not, I believe they are important at least to acknowledge. We live in some way amongst them. Our lives are shaped by their creations and made less richer for their prejudices and stereotypes. I might not want my daughter to aspire to the Disney heroine embodied by Merida, but I won’t stop her from dreaming a little. And while she dreams, I will also try to expose her to a world more balanced, more fair, more real and more free.

Who then to pin up on the wall of my unborn daughter’s imagination?

Many, many years ago, my Brownies group was visited by Margaret Thatcher. I didn’t know anything about the politics of this woman who shook all of our hands as we stood in a row in our brand new hall. I think there is a photo somewhere in my parent’s loft of me, awkward but proud, having just shaken the hand of the most important woman in England. I remember few other details about that day, or why indeed, the Prime Minister came to visit.

What I do remember though is suddenly being aware of wanting to go places, of wanting to succeed and achieve. It wasn’t, I realised, something anyone should take for granted. Success, instead, was a concept to aspire to. It wouldn’t, especially for a woman, just happen.

As I grew up, I realised I didn’t agree with a lot of the political ideas of that woman who came to see us that day. I was reminded though, last month, of her visit to our Brownie hall and the impact it had on me. With her death, a new wave of political activists made their views heard. Yet the lasting impression Britain’s first female prime minister made on me as a school girl was not about right or left wing ideologies. It was about being brave and strong and standing up for your beliefs.

I don’t intend to present a former British Prime Minister as the perfect role model for my child one day. I’m also not saying that this woman remained a role model for me as I navigated my school years. However, I hope that my daughter will one day look up to and learn from a person who has the courage of their own convictions. I hope she will find a figure to admire who is brave and strong and unfaltering in their self-belief. I hope she will believe that she too can be anybody she wants to be, as long as she works at making that happen. I don’t think she’ll get there by learning her lessons from Merida.

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