Don’t Fence Me In

“Everytime I see that daughter of yours, I’m reminded of the amazing playpen I used for my three kids.” 

My son has always had a really long concentration span. He started moving at about 14 months, and by that time he could sit and listen to a whole pile of books, or enjoy a shape sorter or a push button toy for 15 minutes at a time. He didn’t get easily distracted, and if you put him somewhere, he generally stayed there.

My daughter is now nearly 2, and if I tell you that a tornado would be a more friendly house guest, you might get some idea of the havoc she can cause. Shelves are for climbing, toys are for throwing, electronics are for biting. She can also sense a cupboard being opened from the other side of the house with the help of her spidey senses.

I’m not here to debate the merits of playpens. For some, they might be lifesavers. If you have more than one small child at home at a time. If you have work you need to be able to focus on at a moments notice. If your home is a rental and you’re unable to babyproof the really dangerous parts like stairs or wires. If you’re that selfish kind of parent who likes to pee alone. (How very dare you.)

Some people will say they teach firm boundaries. Other people find that their kids are even wilder once they are on the other side of them. All I know is, I don’t have one. And personally, I don’t want one. They seem a little too cage like for me, and it’s never been something I needed. While I know our parents generation will often sing their praises from the rooftops, I think I’m a little too ‘generation babywearing’ to see the benefits.

Anyway, my work is flexible and I only have M at home most days.  (Plus, she keeps finding things that I’ve lost, which would never happen if she were restricted to just one area.)

But seriously though, your comment bugged me.

My daughter has an unquenchable curiosity for absolutely everything. Whatever it is, she wants to touch it, hold it, yank it into pieces, devour it whole. While you used to call R a ‘good boy’ for ‘sitting so nicely’, M’s personality somehow means she needs walls, boundaries, reins. It’s as if her insatiable appetite for learning about the world needs to be tempered and calmed.

There’s safety, of course there is, but then there’s also just diminishing her personality.

I want to give her as much freedom as I possibly can. I want to be able to say ‘Yes’ as often as possible. What parent doesn’t? When we’re out the house, in the land of roads and cars and other people’s best china, I sometimes feel like the only word I say is no. I spend what feels like every minute lifting her onto my hip and away from cigarette butts or the long distance calls she seems desperate to make from other humans landlines.

When we walk back into our home, I breathe a sigh of relief that I can say yes, or turn a blind eye. That she can be free to explore and play without those words ringing in her ears. Stop. No. Wait.

So there are eggshells and sometimes lego men in my meatballs because she ‘helped’ me make them. The DVDs are never on the DVD rack anymore, let alone in their original alphabetized categories.. There are tiny bite marks in most of the candles in the one non-babyproofed bathroom cupboard. I regularly find jewellery in the toilet. And I’m pretty sure I’ve lost about 4 sets of keys and a whole lot of perfectly fresh fruit to the kitchen bin.

And you’re right, none of this would have happened if I had your “amazing playpen”.

But honestly? That makes me want it even less.

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5 Ingredients to Tempt the Pickiest Toddlers

Somewhere between the ages of 1 and 2, you may begin to notice a startling and unexpected developmental stage appearing in your baby. An opinion. While they used to allow you to shovel in any old food all whizzed up in a blender or mashed up with a fork, suddenly they are pressing their lips tightly shut, shaking their heads firmly and throwing entire bowls of spag bol face down on your beige carpet faster than you can say ‘Here comes the aeroplane!”
Never fear, after extensive research into babies entering toddlerdom everywhere, here is the definitive list of the 5 ingredients a toddler will never turn his nose up at.

  1. Dirt.
    We’ve all been there. You’ve lovingly prepared a plate of chicken and rice but your baby won’t even take the first bite. Don’t take it personally. They probably don’t realise you spent 2 hours roasting vegetables to make your own stock for this recipe which you found by googling ‘simple baby food recipes’. We have the answer. Have you considered dropping it on the floor? No, not there by the high chair where you just vaccumed. Try on the pavement outside your house where that dog from next door usually does his business. If that doesn’t work, wedge it down the side of the car seat and give it a couple of weeks, there’s nothing babies like more than the taste of slow aged fowl.
  2. Danger.
    Babies don’t like boring food. You know the rules, you musn’t season with salt, but apart from that feel free to go wild. If tumeric, paprika and cumin don’t work, have you considered letting your baby choose their own ‘toppings’ from the bathroom cabinet? Drain cleaner, Cillit Bang, washing powder, these are just a few of my own kids favourites. If yours prefers a slightly different texture, try wrapping the food in live wires, or poking it into a plug socket as finger food. Be creative! We’ve had some great success placing meals onto turned on hair straighteners- BBQ style, as well as mixing in those tiny pieces of lego all babies love for some extra crunch. Nom nom nom.
  3. Competition.
    Y’know what tastes awful? Scrambled eggs. Y’know what tastes delicious? A sibling’s scrambled eggs. Bonus here is that the older the sibling is the more bribeable they will be, and the better their acting skills can be honed too. Get them on board with the plan by offering a small bribe like an episode of Peppa Pig or yknow, a five pound note, if they can ‘unwillingly share’ the meal they also wouldn’t usually touch with a barge pole with said younger sibling.
  4. Timing.
    This one works just as well for older kids, and it relies on a simple rule. What tastes like arsenic during the day time, is progressively more delicious the further past seven the hands of the clock go. While the cheese sandwich you offered at 4.30pm was the most offensive thing you could ever dare to do as a parent, the 9.45pm meal of quinoa salad and stuffed aubergine with lentils may as well be a bag of chocolate buttons in its inevitable appeal. In short, when your little darlings are shouting “I’m huuuuungry” mournfully from their beds like they’re prisoners of war, this is the ideal time to offer broccoli.
  5. Privacy.
    If all else fails, wait until they are distracted by something else, such as wiping snot on your freshly folded washing or climbing a bookshelf, and quietly prepare the food out of their line of sight. Tiptoe to your own bedroom and hide in a corner with the bowl hidden completely from view. If you’re not sure what I mean, imagine it’s the last chocolate digestive biscuit and nap time is too far away to fairly expect you to wait for. Toddlers find that kind of silent behaviour just as suspicious as we do in return. They’ll show up, indignant and open mouthed in no time. Finish off the theatre with a stern “No, this is Mummy’s food” before giving in. Fair Warning: This will probably only fool them for one bite, so make it a big one.  

There you have it. No more excuses for kids who won’t eat their veggies. Just make sure the meal is a week old and sprinkled with shards of glass, in a secret location where their sibling is chowing down after 10pm. Simples.

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One Day I Will…

We look to our mothers. As women, I mean. We look to our mothers to see what being a woman is all about, what’s going to happen when we grow up, what our place in the world might one day look like. Little girls with too big handbags on one shoulder, a playphone tucked under our ears as we stir fake soup on a tiny version of the kitchen we beg for treats in. We take everything in, and learn silently how to hold ourselves, how to talk and argue back and reason and pick our battles. How to care and nurture and go out to work and build a home.

But what happens if what we’re looking at is intrinsically flawed? If that formative relationship is poisonous instead of restorative? You want to find a life-long partnership and your mother insists on being hopelessly alone. You want to create a career which you love, but your mother never loved a thing in her life. You can’t imagine a future where your children don’t mean everything to you, but your mother doesn’t know the first thing about you or your siblings. Who should you look to then?

I don’t know about you, but I look to my daughter. This week is Mothers Day, and International Womens Day too. So many people seem to feel that they can’t be feminists, or worse still, that they are somehow ‘bad’ feminists because their main focus is on being a mother. Whether you choose to work at home or out, have kids or not, wear red lipstick and thigh high boots or dungarees and army boots, I wish more women understood that simply to support each others choices and freedoms is to be a feminist.

“My mother taught me…” “My mother showed me..” I won’t pretend I don’t envy the strong and smart women around me who have been given their confidence in feminism as an inheritance. Passed down, from one generation to the next. My feminism is uglier than that, more awkward, self-made. But there’s something pretty special about that too. I’m creating something brand new, something I never had. I was told quite plainly by the woman who should have made me feel invincible, that “It’s only natural to love your sons more than you love your daughters.” So how could I help but feel somehow inferior? Almost.. unwanted.

And yet, this year on Mothers Day, and this year on International Womens Day, for the first time I have a daughter of my own. A daughter I love so much I sometimes think I might squish her little face off. A daughter I want to inherit not just my feminism, but the whole wide world too. A daughter who I want to feel invincible.

So I look to her. I look to her despite my gaze being dragged towards the past more often than I’d like. I look back to her every time I forget that I’m not inferior. I look to her to decide what my place in the world should look like, what being a woman should be all about. I look to her so that ‘One Day I Will’ see her looking back at me.

 

 

 

The Formula for a Happy Baby

I took a bus ride today with my daughter. She is 11 weeks old. About five minutes into the bus journey a woman sat down adjacent to my seat, and smiled at my baby girl. “What a pretty baby” she commented. “She looks so happy and healthy.” I thanked her, and smiled in return, and then checked the time so that as all mothers of new babies do, I could begin the arithmetic we all spend the first few months working out. How many hours since the last feed, how long the most recent nap was, when you want the baby to settle later than night, and all the other futile calculations that our newborns ignore and do whatever they fancy regardless of.
I mentally calculated that it made sense to offer her some milk, and I put her back in the buggy and reached for my nappy bag. I took out a muslin and placed it over my shoulder. I unscrewed a bottle of sterile water, and reached for my nifty formula holder thingie which allows me to measure out an exact feed and take it with me for the day. I mixed the powder into the water, gave it a shake, and reached for my little girl.

“Oh,” the woman commented with a sad shake of her head. “What a shame to give something so processed and fake to her when she’s so tiny and innocent.”

Now don’t get me wrong here. I have a lot of opinions on breastfeeding, and nearly all of them are wholeheartedly pro. I believe Breast is Best. I believe that it’s a huge failure of the media and an important feminist issue that so many teenagers and even adults believe that breasts are solely for sex rather than feeding our children, I even agree with the ban on discounting formula and I have no bad feelings towards the many NHS hospitals who do not provide it on the post-labour wards.

I do not however, believe that it has magical properties which raise my children’s IQ, or stop them from becoming obese. I don’t think my breast milk will imbue them with a great work ethic or even protect them from allergies and intolerances. Most of all, while I believe that it is an amazing start for your baby if you can do it, I don’t believe it’s the right choice for everyone. And dear stranger, until my offspring is looking far less than ‘happy and healthy’ than you yourself just noted, I certainly don’t believe it is any of your damn business what choice I make and why.

I won’t bore you with my own journey, as we all have different reasons for how we choose to feed our children, and as I recently said about career choices, we only have our own families to answer to. I do however have something to say to the woman on the bus, and anyone else who thinks I or they should be ashamed of the processed nature of the food we give our ‘innocent’ children.

You aint’ seen nothing yet.

If you’re looking for something for me to be ashamed of, come round at 3am, when I tell my baby to shut the hell up when she’s been awake for 3 hours straight for no apparent reason, and then stay to hear my 4 year old repeat it to his Thomas the Tank Engine the following day. Pop by at 5am when I forcibly drag him back into his bedroom and threaten to take away everything he owns if he doesn’t leave me alone until 7. Watch me take lazy mornings off from being the mummy of a new baby to chat to old friends and continually replace the dummy in my daughters mouth rather than interact. Peek through my living room window on the days where I just simply cant be bothered to entertain my son and he has about 4 hours of unadulterated iPad time on the sofa, or when I look at my watch, notice that I’ve missed supper time, swear loudly and announce “Cereal for dinner!” to his great joy.

I could keep going, because like all parents, I have tons that I could label a ‘shame.’ Enough to keep me up at night if I suddenly decide I’m looking to self-flagellate. But reaching for the formula container by choice or by necessity, ensuring that my child is gaining weight, is well fed and happy, simply isn’t on the list.

'Does it come in soy lite?'

Is it any of your Business, if it’s Working for me?

I turned on my computer this morning to find links to four separate articles about working versus non working mums on my Facebook newsfeed.

I have no issue with people discussing the topic, after all, it’s a difficult and often heart-wrenching choice for anyone to make, and deserves discussion. This is especially true today, where the costs of childcare often make the financial side of having a career almost irrelevant, and yet the costs of living are so high that every penny counts. This dynamic forces women back into the workforce where they might otherwise choose to stay home, all for the couple of hundred pounds difference between the salary they receive from their employer, and the cheque they hand over to their childcare provider each month.
We also live in a time where taking five or ten years ‘out’ to have kids, often results in the way back ‘in’ being an impossibility. All very well while the kids are at home, but most of us are hoping for another thirty or forty years of more than waiting by the school gates once they’re out of nappies. Feminism is in the spotlight more than ever, and the debate is still raging whether your parenting choices reflect your opinions on equality of the sexes.

Yes, there’s a lot to say on the topic. If you fancy, we can go out for coffee and I can tell you my own story of how I came to work part time. The bits I like, the bits I don’t like so much. The guilt I feel when I ignore my 9 week old for an urgent deadline, the happiness I share with my 4 year old who I am lucky enough to pick up from school every day.

Oh no, sorry. I wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to the organisations and media outlets who want to get up close and personal with me. Who know what’s best for me, my husband, and our children more than I do. The newspapers who have clearly had a quick look at our yearly income and budget and know how much we need to get by. The university lecturers who eavesdrop on me and the hubby in bed at night when we discuss our work/life balance. The research bodies who know how good I am at my job, and how much my kids like or dislike their childminder, who understand without even asking what my plans for the rest of my life are, the personalities of my children, the aspirations of my other half. I am just so glad that they feel like they know me well enough to give me their opinions as scientific fact as to how I live my life.

I’m talking to Harvard University, who for some reason are putting manpower and funding into research that tells us that “the daughters of working mothers enjoy better careers, higher pay and more equal relationships than those raised by stay-at-home mothers.” Well, I’m somewhere in between on the working scale, so my daughter isn’t completely screwed up then, but I’ll be sure to tell all the strong, unselfish women I know who have made the hard choice to stay at home with their kids that their offspring will be minimum wage women in abusive relationships. Cheers Harvard.

I’m talking to the National Childrens Bureau, who have asked “whether ‘outsourcing’ motherhood is the best way to create a healthy society”. Give me a minute while I call all the fantastic women I am proud to know who work both in and out the home, whether it’s to make ends meet, or to be excellent role models for their kids, or simply because they are bloody great at their jobs, and let them know they are contributing to the loss of functional society as we know it.

I was referring to the EU council, who have thrown their two cents in, calling the “number of mothers working part time… a social challenge.” May I just take this moment to apologise to the whole of Europe, for the gall I’ve had to dare to find some work/life balance in our household. I can’t believe I ever thought I had the right to do a job I enjoy, at the same time as attempting being a hands-on parent.

That’s just three examples, all from the month of June, outlawing working mums, stay at home mums, and part time working mums. In one calendar month. Can you just stop to think for one second what an article that suggested that men were “outsourcing fatherhood” would be like? What the reception would be to the suggestion that the sons of stay at home dads are going to be incapable of forming well adjusted relationships or holding down jobs?

I have hardly met a mum in my life who doesn’t carry around some level of guilt for the choices she makes in terms of her career and kids. The ridiculous thing is, it’s clearly a completely personal decision, based on your finances, your family planning, your own goals, or simply how much you enjoy both your job and being with your kids all day!  And yet so many incredible women carry regret or uncertainty, fuelled by the ridiculous media attention and the questions they force on us collectively every time we switch on the computer or open a paper. “Should you wait to have kids? Do you work too much? Is there ever a right time to go back to work? Should you give in to social pressure to find a job?” The list goes on, when the only question any woman needs to ask herself is, “Is this the right choice for my family?”

We’re there already media, we’re judging ourselves right left and centre. We really don’t need your help.

Do as I say, not as I do?

I saw a post on a forum recently that made me think. The lady in question was asking for advice on making friends. She is a stay at home mum, and lonely. The friends she does make, she feels like it is only ever her who is making the effort, and they disappear if she stops doing so. She joked, in the way we all do when something is too painful to address head on- that when is she unwell or out of action, the only people to notice are her parents.

We tell our kids to be nice to everyone. We chastise them for leaving someone out in the playground or for excluding one of their peers from a birthday party list or a play date. And when they come home and say that little Jane Smith is not their friend, or remark that they don’t want to play with Billy Jenkins, we are full of ready encouragement to build bridges.

“I’m sure she is lovely when you get to know her”

“It’s not nice to call someone boring. Maybe they were just shy”

“Give him a chance, I’m sure you have lots in common.”

If our children become openly rude, or ignore us, we often resort to threats.

“If you aren’t nice to people, they won’t want to play with you.”

“Remember, you won’t get invited to Sally’s birthday if you don’t invite her to yours. And her mummy says she’s having a Frozen theme…”

But at what point do we change the rules? As adults we readily accept we can’t be friends with everyone. We hoard our free time zealously and portion it out to the creme de la creme of our social circle, the people who make us feel fabulous, who bring out the fun in our lives, the ones who really understand, those who are in sync with what makes us, us.

We might not be as blatant as the average four year old, but don’t we all have our ways of saying ‘you can’t play with us’?

It wasn’t a big deal, I just had a few people over.

Oh, I didn’t see you or of course I would have invited you to join us!

I didn’t know you would be interested in coming with, definitely next time, remind me.

Some of us are nicer than others. We make the small talk, we invite those along who would obviously feel left out or hurt. But at the end of the day, life is busy. We all have kids and jobs and homes and responsibilities, and our time is never our own. We all repeatedly choose one thing or person over another, even down to as simple a choice as whether to call back a friend, or use that precious time for 5 minutes peace and a cup of tea.

I don’t have a judgement to make. Although I have been a victim of it from time to time, generally I’m probably one of the worst culprits of this cliquey behaviour. I make snap judgements about people, I hate it when friends invite a third person along on an outing, regardless of how nice they might or might not be, I just don’t really want new people in my life most of the time. I have zero patience for those that for completely arbitrary reasons get on my nerves, and probably the worst of the list, I don’t dislike any of this about myself. I have no desire to be a nicer person or to be the one who goes out of their way to make the new girl feel welcome.

I just wonder what I will say when I have a 4 or a 5 year old. When R starts deciding he has an opinion on his birthday guest list. Can I in good conscience tell him he has to play nicely with everyone, when I don’t follow my own rules? And why bother anyway, when it’s only a matter of time before he learns the euphemistic language necessary to tell people to go away in a socially acceptable manner.

In fact, maybe I should just teach him that instead.

It’s almost worth it for the day I receive that call from his teacher.

“Mrs Sokolic, your son has told one of the other children that ‘Usually I’d be happy to include you, but we’ve had this game of hide and seek organised for a while now, and I wasn’t the one to set it up…. so….'”

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Start Listening

I have never felt so helpless in front of another human being.

I have been a child, strapped into a highchair or a car seat, wriggling for freedom to run and play. I have been a teenager, full of angry hormones, shouting and demanding independence and insisting I know best, met with inflexible rigidity. I have been a woman, crippled with labour pains, fighting against my own body for release and comfort. But standing in front of you, I have never felt so acutely another persons hands wrapped casually around my heart.

You are my sons teacher. But I am his mother. To you, that title may not mean much. Yes I gave birth to him, but I do not have any qualifications or certificates to prove my worth. I don’t have years of experience or references from children now grown. I don’t have a shiny laminated badge with my credentials, and I can’t issue you a formal letter with expectations or give you any funding or resources.

But that title. That word. Being a mother to that little boy means I know. I know the obstinate way he mutters under his breath crossly when he’s done something naughty, I know that as soon as we walk in a room he will be counting the lightbulbs, (including which ones are faulty.) I know from how far his head is tilted to the right how much difficulty he is having seeing something, and I know from the subtle head wobble when he is too tired to try. I know when his frustration at being left out or overwhelmed is causing naughty or difficult behaviour, and I know when it’s just a symptom of the dreaded threenage years like any other fully sighted child.

You are his teacher. But I am his advocate. I’m the only one he has. And it’s a ferocious balancing act throughout which I’m scared nearly all the time.

Scared to argue my case, because I know that we’re paired together my son and I. Who knows how I could unintentionally offend you and without any malice on your part, have it taken out on my helpless child? Frightened of not saying enough, and leaving him without the same opportunities that so many other children and parents take for granted. Practising with my husband in the morning before I approach you, trying to find that elusive tone of voice, or expression that will make my words appeal to you. Hoping that you will put aside the issues of resources and check-boxes, and just look at this mother who has no pride, and would crawl over hot coals if it meant that you would believe she isn’t hysterical, she isn’t trying to upset you or make your life harder, she’s just acting on the most basic instinct on the planet, that of a mother protecting her young.

I am one of thousands of mothers whose child needs that bit of extra help. We shouldn’t have to write letters or shout loudest or cry tears to be heard. We shouldn’t have to pick our battles and decide which parts of our children’s school life aren’t as important for them to access if it turns out that we can’t fight for them all. We certainly shouldn’t have to feel scared that we’re going to be ignored or condescended to or fobbed off with excuses when we summon up the strength to stand our ground against the system.

But in a world where these situations are often the sad reality, please acknowledge how it takes immeasurable courage for me to approach you. I am the advocate for my son. I’m the only one he has. For the time being, I am not only his eyes, but also his voice. And I’m asking you to stop simply hearing me, and start listening.