Friday, 31 January 2014

Chinese New Year with a toddler

Happy Chinese New Year everyone! China is quite important to our family as it's the home of my brother and, therefore, Eleanor's uncle. He likes to give Eleanor gifts relating to Chinese culture, and I often talk to her about China to help her understand where it is that her uncle lives. It's very important to me that she feels he is part of her life even though she sees him very rarely.

So I try to mark Chinese New Year for her. Last year, as she was still very little, we just dressed her in a traditional Chinese outfit my mum had bought for her when she went over to visit my brother, but now she's a it older and more able to understand things, I wanted to do a bit more. Trouble is, she's still a beginner at crafts, and an internet search of CNY-related activities turned out a lot of things that I would basically have ended up doing myself with Eleanor looking on in boredom.

I did, however, see one nice idea on Pinterest - a picture of a plum blossom tree with the blossom printed on with cotton wool. Plum blossom is symbolic of winter in China, so this seemed fairly appropriate. I set Eleanor on the task with delicately printing the 'blossoms' on the paper, and ... er ...

Yeah ... not exactly the result I'd seen on Pinterest! But hey, she's two years old, what can you expect? And she had a good time 'paitin the pum bossom' so that's the main thing! I then cut out the bits of pink and stuck them around a tree trunk I drew.

Craft activity done, we spent some time chilling out and reading books about China.
The zodiac book (or 'zodizat bup' if you're Eleanor) was found at my wonderful local library after a lot of rooting around and is a lovely retelling of the legend which Eleanor has really engaged with. Her birthday present last year from her uncle was a decoration showing all the animals of the zodiac* so she liked having a story to link to the decoration. The nursery rhymes book was a first Christmas/birthday gift and comes with a CD, so we're quite familiar with it and I can even manage to sing the songs now! Eleanor even has some favourites which she'll sing along to, obviously with no sense of meaning at all but I think she understands it's another language and not just different sounds!

We finished off our Chinese adventure with stir fry for dinner - OK, not exactly imaginative, but I'm not a very good cook!! By the end of the day, Eleanor was quite excited by the whole concept - "It's Tinese New Yee-yah!" "It's the year of the horse!" "Enna born year of the rabbit!" "Mummy born year of the mouse!"** I don't know how much she really understands, but it's been a chance to have some messy fun, explore another culture through reading and singing, and just have fun!

* This decoration. She's obsessed with it. It hangs in our kitchen/diner at the moment and she spends most mealtimes naming the animals. She even fell asleep naming the animals last night!
** Two notes here. One: I know it's a rat in most stories, but in Eleanor's nursery rhyme book it's a mouse and the animal on the decoration looks like a mouse, so that's what we're going with. Also, it didn't stop with Eleanor and Mummy. I had to try and think of a person to assign for almost every animal. It was quite a challenge!

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Tuesday, 28 January 2014

I am a Stay-at-Home Mum (*awkward face*)

An interesting phenomenon has come upon me recently. When people ask me what I do, I say to them, “I'm a stay-at-home mum.”

And then I do an awkward face.

I will often also follow it up with a slightly half-baked comment about looking into working from home, but then people ask what sort of thing I'm looking into, and it gets messy, because I keep changing my mind on that and now feel rather anxious about pinning my colours to the mast only to change my mind again in a couple of weeks.

I never intended for this to happen. When I went on maternity leave, I fully expected to go back to work when Eleanor was 9 months old. Then I was offered voluntary redundancy and, as I wasn't particularly passionate about my job anyway, I took it. The plan was to wait until Eleanor was a year then look for work in schools, as I wanted to eventually train as an English teacher.

Well, I applied for a job just after Eleanor turned one, and the experience of leaving her for just a few hours for the interview made me realise we weren't ready for it yet. I applied for more jobs a few months later but got nowhere. Then came the summer holidays when I couldn't job-hunt anyway, and by the end of the holidays I'd decided that, actually, staying at home was probably the best thing for our family.

Why? Well, here are the main reasons:
  1. My first pregnancy was very difficult due to developing SPD at around 30 weeks. By the end of my pregnancy I could barely walk, and even before then, my last few weeks at work were horrendous as I was in constant pain. There is a chance that with the next pregnancy the SPD will come back sooner and worse, and we do want at least one more child, so I don't want to repeat the experience of working through major pain.
  2. As you've probably gathered if you've read around my blog, some of my ideas about raising Eleanor are, umm, shall we say not mainstream?! I honestly don't set out to be 'quirky alternative mum', it just kind of happens because I'll only do things that I feel are right for us, and those things are often, well, not mainstream! So finding a childcare provider who would be sympathetic to our way of doing things was a challenge I just didn't feel like facing, especially as nursery and childminder places in my area are very much in demand so I couldn't be too choosy.
  3. We realised that we could afford for me to stay at home, so well, why not? So many mums I speak to say they wish they could stay at home (or wish they could have done when their children were younger) so actually, I'm very lucky!
So, with those reasons, why do I still feel the need to pull an awkward face and try to justify my decision?

I suppose part of it is me feeling uncomfortable with being lucky enough to do this. I hear my friends talking about how hard it is juggling work and home and I really feel for them, and deeply admire them too! I feel almost embarrassed that things are a bit easier for me, and it makes me feel like I should just keep my mouth shut because I don't want to seem like I'm rubbing it in anyone's face.

There is also a sense that by opting for this oh-so-traditional role, I'm letting the sisterhood down a little bit. It's a tricky one. I absolutely believe that men and women should have equal rights, opportunity and pay, and it's difficult to square this belief with my gut instinct that I should be at home with Eleanor right now. I also feel a little bit like I'm letting myself down – I'm quite well-educated and showed a lot of promise at school, and yet here I am, jobless. But then I reason with myself that I didn't feel fulfilled career-wise in my previous job anyway, so I'd probably still feel like this even if I had gone to work. I do worry about the message I'm giving Eleanor as I want her to know she can be and do anything, but maybe that ought to include just being a mum if that's what she wants?

And then there's the issue of perception and reality. I'm sure when people hear I'm a stay-at-home mum they expect me to have a spotless house, do loads of exciting, crafty activities with my daughter, make wonderful elaborate meals and frequently bake cakes. I don't. I'm not a born housewife; I hate housework, I'm a rubbish cook and I don't like to bake if I'm pushed for time, which is always when you have a child. As for the exciting activities, I try to do some but then I just have to clear up, and that's housework, isn't it? (I do keep my house as tidy and clean as possible, honest, but spotless it ain't!) So I'm left with the feeling that, although maybe I am meant to be a stay-at-home mum right now, perhaps I'm not a very good one!!

All that said, I do feel blessed to be able to spend so much time with my daughter, to see her growing up, day by day, into an individual. I love that when she's off on one of her weird monologues I can almost always tell what she's on about, even if it means that I often function as a translator! I love that I get to play with her so much, even if it gets a bit repetitive. And I love that maintaining our attachment to each other during these formative years is pretty much effortless, even if it means sacrificing the joys of regular adult company for a while.

So yes, I may not feel 100% comfortable in my role, but I am still very happy that I am a stay-at-home mum.

*Awkward face*

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Am I weird yet, Dr Christian?

Well, well, my social media has been busy today. There has been a lot of talk about comments made by Dr Christian Jessen as part of an article in 'Closer' Magazine about a woman who breastfeeds her 4-year old. According to him, breastfeeding after 6 months, "has no effect," and breastfeeding an older child, "could result in behavioural problems."

He later attempted a climb down claiming he was misquoted and was referring to the situation in the article. He sent a tweet saying, "of course breastfeeding beyond 6 months is fine. The story was about breastfeeding a six year old boy." Actually, Dr Christian, it was about breastfeeding a four year old boy, but seeing as you claim breastfeeding beyond 6 months has no benefits I'm guessing you're not very good at paying attention to things, for instance the considerable body of evidence suggesting that breastmilk has benefits way beyond infancy.

In a further climb down, he has released a statement on Closer's website saying that there is, "no harm," in breastfeeding a 4-year old but, if breastfed until the age of eight they may become, "overly dependent on their mother." (The age of eight is mentioned as the mother in the original article expresses some hope that her child will continue feeding to that age.) He cites no research to back up his claims about over-dependence and behavioural problems, but he did very helpfully retweet some bloke on twitter saying that, "Breastfeeding a 6year old is just weird," and used this as back-up for his opinion. Well, if some random guy on twitter says it ...

So I'm rather confused, Dr Christian. At what point does breastfeeding become, "just weird"?

My daughter turned two last month. We're still breastfeeding. I remember when she was few months old someone made a comment about continuing to feed her until she was two and I gave the woman a funny look. Two? Yeah, right, pull the other one. And yet here we are. I can't really imagine feeding her at the age of four, or six, or eight, but then two years ago I couldn't imagine her feeding for this long. (Actually, exactly two years ago, it was looking unlikely that we'd last two months, let alone two years, but that's another story!) Every time a milestone came along in her life - 6 months, 1 year, 2 years - I just couldn't see any real reason to stop. Maybe in two years time I'll find myself still feeding her, still not really seeing a reason to stop.

But here is a doctor saying at some point this would get weird. So what's the line? Up to 4 years is fine? Or up to and including? Is it on the 5th birthday that weirdness will descend and my confident, sociable daughter will suddenly cling limpet-like to me and refuse contact with all other human beings? Or the 6th birthday? Or when a stranger on Twitter tells me so?

The thing is, very few women set out to breastfeed an older child. Lots, however, set out to breastfeed a newborn. Then as the days go by that newborn becomes a regular baby, then a toddler, then a pre-schooler and beyond. And some women (a small proportion in our country but a much bigger proportion in other cultures) will find themselves still breastfeeding. How is that weird? That child will only be a day older than they were yesterday when they still wanted breastmilk, what changed overnight?

Or maybe, just maybe, being given the opportunity to make her own choice about when to give up this very important part of her life will show my daughter that I trust her to make big decisions in her own time, and will make her a more secure, confident person.

I could be wrong. But at least there's evidence to back up my point of view beyond a single tweet saying it's weird.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Our Screen Free Day - a link-up with #LetKidsBeKids

If you've read around my blog a bit, you'll know that I fret about screen time, whether that's TV or computer-type devices. We've been doing pretty well at avoiding screens since those posts on the whole - Eleanor no longer looks at pictures on my phone and very rarely looks at the laptop either. But she still watches at least a couple of TV shows a day (albeit 10-minute ones) and she will slouch on the sofa with her toddler-tablet like the world's smallest teenager.

So when I heard that Karen over at Let Kids Be Kids was organising a screen-free day for Sunday 19th January, I decided I'd test myself and take the plunge.

We planned some activities in for the day to keep Eleanor busy, but we knew that the big challenge would be first thing in the morning. Often when we walk downstairs Eleanor will say to me, "Watch Raa Raa!" or, "Watch Abadas!" (Those are pretty much the only TV programmes she watches. She can pretty much recite whole episodes of 'Raa Raa the Noisy Lion', she's watched them so many times) Usually we relent and let her watch a couple of episodes before breakfast, and maybe one or two afterwards, so I was quite anxious about how to distract her from these demands. In the end, it wasn't that bad - she just wanted to look at books at first, and it wasn't until about 8.30am that she realised that she hadn't watched any TV and had the long-expected meltdown about it. I offered her a few alternatives and she decided to play with her train set, which she did very happily. Crisis averted.

We then went to the farmer's market in our town. After the success of our walk a few days before I decided to walk there with Eleanor, and my husband met us there with the car. In the end we probably spent three times as long getting to the market as we did actually there! It had been dry when we set out but started to drizzle and then properly rain, so we didn't hang around for long, but it was good to see how far Eleanor could walk without the incentive of puddles!

Then came Eleanor's nap time and an unexpected challenge - what do I do now??! I'm terrible for faffing about on the internet and most days I waste Eleanor's nap time playing online. If I don't do that, I'll often catch up on TV instead. Deprived of these options, I ended up cleaning our kitchen more thoroughly than I have done in ages, and then I settled down to do some knitting.

(That's knitting. I'm not quite sure why I feel the need to illustrate this. It's actually a cardigan for a newborn that I started before Eleanor was born then abandoned when I realised that babies STEAL ALL YOUR TIME. Oh well, I'll save it for the next friend to have a baby.)

Once Eleanor was up and fed, we played with trains and read books until it was time to go to our next activity - Messy Church. If you're of a churchy persuasion and have small children, I thoroughly recommend Messy Church. The format varies from place to place, but at our local church it consists of about an hour of doing different craft activities (you can pick and choose which activities you do and in what order) followed by a short 'service' (basically a bit of singing and dancing followed by a story or a child-friendly talk) then topped off with a shared meal. It's a fantastic chance to try different crafts out with your kids and there's something for all ages - yesterday Eleanor played with playdough, did some colouring in, decorated a little jewellery box and sabotaged what could have been a very nice little picture frame.

(You can see in the background of that picture that the card should have had a border of lolly sticks. Eleanor decided that it looked better without them and pulled them off. My daughter, the wrecking ball.)

We only did about half of the activities because Eleanor preferred to just wander around, and was keen to get into the church sanctuary for the singing and dancing - and in her case, climbing under the communion rail repeatedly. Fortunately the minister didn't seem fazed by this!

We went home, played and read some more, then Eleanor went off to bed, falling asleep much more quickly than normal. Again bereft of TV and laptop, I did some more knitting before having the one thing all parents need the most after a busy day - an early night!

It surprised me how easy it had been to keep Eleanor away from screens all day. It helped that it was a weekend so I had my husband to help; often I use TV as a distraction while I go and get dressed or get the laundry on, so having someone else to entertain her was useful. But other than that, it really wasn't hard. The harder thing was keeping myself away from the laptop! But it meant that I achieved more and had some proper downtime instead of staring at a screen.

In the end, we didn't need to do anything particularly exciting or elaborate to get through a day without screens, which just proves that anyone can do it! You don't have to travel anywhere, or spend lots of money - long walks, local events and favourite toys are really all you need!

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Thursday, 16 January 2014

Puddle Hunting

Today is a beautiful day in our little corner of the world - sunny, cool but not chilly, and still a little wet underfoot from the recent rain. Perfect conditions for a puddle hunt, I thought, so that's what Eleanor and I did this morning. (I'm not sure where the phrase 'puddle hunting' came from, it was just something that I said once to Eleanor and she liked it, so it stuck.)

Not far from our house is an unadopted road leading onto a bridleway, and it has some epic potholes so is a great place to take Eleanor for a good splash. It never ceases to amuse and amaze me how Eleanor will happily plough into an enormous puddle, while I'm cautiously stepping around it, trying my best not to put a foot in it despite wearing wellies! When we've gone puddle hunting before we've not ventured too far up the road, but this time Eleanor was insistent on hunting out more puddles and we walked further than ever before, and went back and forth along the road and bridleway twice to get maximum enjoyment from the puddles!

(Apologies for the rubbish pictures, it was a bit hard to take them one-handed wearing gloves!!)

We're lucky enough to live in a small, former industrial town on the outskirts of Leeds and it often feels like the meeting of two worlds. This morning, walking along the bridleway halfway up a hill, it struck me how I could look one way and see nothing but fields and trees, but if I turned my head the other way I could look down the hill and see a shiny new housing estate, with houses packed close together. In one ear was the sound of birds, in the other I could hear sounds from the nearby mill and factories. It's amazing how you can feel like you're in the countryside so close to the bustle of the town. I really need to take more advantage of this, so that Eleanor will keep her love of the great outdoors.

It's a while since I'd taken Eleanor for a proper walk, due to illness, injury, wet weather and the simple fact that I'm not keen on being cold. But I was surprised at how far she could walk, how sensible she was about crossing roads, and how much energy she had. Last time we did this walk we didn't go as far and I had to carry her the last few yards. This time she could happily have walked for much longer had I not been so conscious of the need to get back for her nap! I guess it's just my brain adjusting, as it will have to do continually, to the fact that my daughter is becoming ever more capable, more energetic and stronger. She will surprise me more and more as she grows.

It seems bizarre to think that this is the same girl who, this time last year, couldn't walk. I wonder how far we'll be walking on our puddle hunts next year?!

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Friday, 10 January 2014

A kiss is still a kiss

Every now and then the whole of the UK media collectively gets their knickers in a twist about something parenting related, and a good chunk of British society follow them in the briefs-bending fun. This week the topic that has got everyone's undergarments knotted (OK, I'll stop with the pants puns now) is the question of whether we should make a child kiss a relative.

Short answer: No.

Why not? It's quite simple: our children's bodies are their own, and we need them to know that. We need them to understand that just because someone says, "kiss me," or makes an advance, doesn't mean we have to go along with it. 

And yet I have seen so many comments from people saying that it's utterly ridiculous, OF COURSE you should make a child kiss a relative! But ... why? Why should you? Would you make an adult kiss anyone they didn't want to? No? Then why do it to a child?

I've seen and heard a few interesting defences of forcing a child to kiss a relative, and here are my thoughts on them:

It teaches them respect - umm, what? We teach respect by NOT respecting the wishes of our child? How does that work? Also, I have respect for a lot of people. I respect my mum and, yes, I kiss her. I respect my husband and, yes, I kiss him. I respect my doctor and ... oh wait. No. No, we don't kiss everyone we respect do we? I'm pretty sure I respected my teachers at school but it would have made things pretty darn awkward if I'd kissed them. Maybe, just maybe, there isn't actually a correlation between kissing and respect. But there is often a correlation between kissing and love, which brings me swiftly to my next point.

It teaches them love and closeness - I vividly remember a moment when Eleanor was about 5 weeks old. My husband had picked her up in the morning and brought her into our bed. She was looking at him and he pointed to me and said, "Look, there's Mummy." She turned her head and gave me the biggest smile, she was so delighted to see me. Children don't need to be taught how to love, they do it naturally. And if you think you need to MAKE a child love you, what does that say about your relationship with them? Children will love anyone who they see often and who shows them warmth, respect, interest and affection - and they will often want to show their love through kisses and cuddles. And that's fine, so long as it's their choice. This isn't about saying children can't kiss relatives. It's about giving them that choice.

The relative may feel upset if the child refuses - Well, that's too bad. But, y'know, that relative is most probably an adult with a fully developed brain and so is likely to be well equipped at dealing with that upset. Children's brains, especially in the toddler years, are still developing and their ability to deal with emotions is not as fully-fledged as an adult's. So I'd say we should be more worried about the child being upset about being made to do something they don't want to do than about an adult's hurt feelings. Eleanor sometimes refuses to kiss and cuddle me. I deal with it. I know she loves me, I don't need her to express it constantly.

This is just paranoia about sexual abuse - I like to think I'm fairly level headed. I know abuse happens, and it can happen to anyone, but equally I know that, thankfully, it's rare, and the odds of it happening to my daughter, or anyone, are slim. But, firstly, I don't see any harm in giving my daughter the tools to recognise when something's not quite right in a relationship. And secondly, this isn't just about preventing abuse. It's about recognising every person's right to personal space and bodily autonomy.

I'll explain with an anecdote. I remember when I was at school, seeing a gaggle of children surrounding a boy and a girl and shouting, "SNOG SNOG SNOG!" I didn't know these children, they were a couple of years below me. Maybe they did really want to kiss each other. Or maybe one of them wanted to more than the other. But there they were, being told, nay, ORDERED, to kiss by all their friends and anyone else who had happened to walk by and decided to join in. Perhaps they would have preferred to do this more privately? Perhaps they didn't want to do it at all?

One day, many years from now, Eleanor may be put in a similar situation, where she is being egged on (or, to put it more bluntly, pressured) to kiss someone. I want her to have the self-confidence to be able to say, "Actually, no, I don't want to do this right now," and walk away. And hopefully, by teaching her now that she can choose not to kiss someone, she will have the courage to make that choice in the future.

But two teenagers being made to kiss is totally different to a little child being made to kiss a relative, I hear people cry. And yes, in many ways, it is different. But, in the words of the song, a kiss is still a kiss. It is still someone entering your personal space, regardless of the intention behind it. And sometimes that's just not desirable. Not wanting to kiss someone, or be kissed by them, is not necessarily a sign that we don't love them - sometimes I'm not comfortable with being kissed just because I feel stressed about something else, or I'm a bit under the weather, and I just don't want my personal space invaded at that particular moment, by anybody. And that's fine, isn't it? Similarly a child may refuse to kiss Aunt Mildred for no reason other than that they're engrossed in what they're doing at that time. If it's OK for me to refuse a kiss, why wouldn't it be OK for a child?

Most parents want their child to be independent. A big part of independence is learning that we have control over own bodies, just as we have control over our actions, our words, our interests. Giving a child the right to choose how, when and to whom they give physical affection is one small way in which we can tell that child, "You're you, you matter, and you can make your own decisions in life." I find it hard to see how you can argue with that.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Books for boys, books for girls: how innate is this?

When Eleanor was born, I was halfway through an Open University course on Children's Literature. As part of this course, I studied the rise of gender segregation in children's books from the eighteenth century onwards, and an interesting point kept popping up: while girls would (and still will) read books intended for both girls and boys, boys would only read books intended for boys. Put bluntly, girls see boys' books as providing action and adventure that girls' books tend not to contain, but boys see girls' books as a load of sentimental, pink mush. But how innate is this divide?

Over the past two years, I have read A LOT of books aimed at babies and toddlers (largely thanks to our wonderful local library) and I've noticed a worrying trend. Even in books aimed at very tiny people, gender divisions creep in. For instance, Eleanor has a book called That's Not My Fairy in which all the fairies are female - because boys aren't supposed to identify with fairies, right? Ladybird's similar offering, This Little Angel fares better with one angel out of five being male, but conversely another book from the series, This Little Footballer has four boys and only one girl. Considering the rise of popularity of football with girls, this is surprising to say the least. Here, the inclusion of a token girl seems to say, "well, some girls play football, but it's not really normal, now is it?"

So even with the most basic of books, gender divisions are being taught. And they creep into some books aimed at toddlers too: one of Eleanor's favourite library books is Get Dressed, Max and Millie which shows two friends, um, getting dressed. It's a lovely little book, but what riles me is the start where Max and Millie are playing dress up. Millie dresses as a princess and a fairy, Max as a builder and a superhero. Humph. (Another book about dressing up that Eleanor likes is Zoe and Beans: Look At Me which is much more gender neutral and even shows the boy and girl dressing up as each other at the end!)

Have a think about some of the picturebooks you've read and you'll notice a creeping inequality. Much as I adore The Gruffalo, where are the female characters? (Thank goodness for The Gruffalo's Child which ever so slightly redresses the balance!) How often do you see a book where the main character is female, or where the gender balance is equal, let alone girl-heavy? Perhaps this is one of the reasons why girls read boys' books but not vice versa - girls are so under-represented in books aimed at the very young that girls just get used to reading about boys, but boys don't get used to reading about girls.

So what to do? I'm certainly not going to refuse to read Eleanor anything with any less than 50% female representation, because the pool would be so small I wouldn't be able to satisfy her seemingly limitless appetite for reading! Instead I try to slip in comments to even up the scales, or subvert the text a bit - for instance, I might have changed the gender of one of the footballers in the aforementioned book. But the day will come when Eleanor can read and will notice things like that, and what to do then? Well, hopefully by then I'll have found a decent collection of books which show girls as more than fairies and princesses.

And here's where you come in - what books for little ones have you found that give a good representation of girls, or simply that have equal male and female characters? The more we share our knowledge, the more we can raise the profile of these books and give a message that we want more of the same!