Sunday, 30 March 2014

Mothering Sunday

Today is Mother's Day in the UK. Or, for the more traditional, Mothering Sunday. I learnt something new about this occasion today - although it is now a celebration of mothers, Mothering Sunday used to be a day where people returned to their "mother church". This was generally a cathedral or large local church. It was one of the few times that servants were given free days to see their families.

I quite like this. I have a slightly ambivalent relationship with Mother's Day. Obviously it brings me a lot of joy now that I am a mother, but there was a time when it was a painful reminder that I wasn't a mother yet. And I know that there are so many women who will feel the same way today, and who will feel isolated by the celebrations going on around them.

I think whether you are Christian or not, there is something comforting about the idea of being called back to a community. The early Mothering Sundays were opportunities for people to reconnect with their roots and to be part of something bigger. Wouldn't it be nice if the occasion was something similar today?

An occasion to celebrate communities.

Communities including women who want to be mothers, but aren't yet, or maybe never will be.

Communities including people who have lost their mothers, or who have a difficult relationship with their mothers.

Communities including mothers who have lost their children, or who are estranged from them.

Because while being a mother is a wonderful yet difficult job, communities have a part to play in raising and guiding children and young people, and in supporting parents. Or at least they should. I feel that we are losing that sense of connectedness in our society, which is sad. Everyone (parents, children, none of the above) fares better in a society where people are connected.




Monday, 24 March 2014

Learning to be a good role model

I want a lot of things for Eleanor. I want her to be confident, sociable, calm, emotionally mature, resourceful, practical, outdoorsy ...

In short, I want her to be Not Me.

That's the thing about parenting, isn't it? We think about our weaknesses and hope that we will find some way of ensuring our children develop the opposite traits. So when I'm feeling anxious, or shy, or hot-headed, I think, "I hope Eleanor doesn't have to deal with these emotions when she grows up!" When I attempt anything vaguely DIY related and inevitably fail, I hope that Eleanor will be more hands-on and able to deal with practical things. When I'm stuck indoors on a not-too-nice day and getting cabin fever I hope that Eleanor will not develop my aversion to cold and rain and mud.

The trouble is that children learn by observation, so as Eleanor's primary caregiver, what I do will have an effect on what she does in future. Knowing this has made me more aware of my shortcomings than ever, and my attempts to change are often frustrated.

For instance, not long after Christmas I dug a hole in the garden to plant out our Christmas tree. I am not at all green-fingered, but hey, I need to learn to do these things, I can't leave all the manual work to my husband, what will that teach Eleanor about gender roles? But in doing so, I managed to trigger the SPD I suffered from during pregnancy and spent the following week in agony. Months later I'm still getting SPD twinges. So that went well.

Then there's my temper. To talk to, I seem very mild-mannered, but I am easily frustrated and can get a bit, ahem, shouty. I've been really trying to work on this in recent months and most of the time I succeed in avoiding yelling, but sometimes it all goes wrong and the effort to suppress the screamy urge is too much. I want Eleanor to grow up to be calmer and more in control of her temper than me, but how will she learn that watching mummy effectively throwing a tantrum?!

I saw a quote recently which gave me some comfort. I can't remember exactly what it was, but it basically said that when you are trying to raise your child in a way that is different to how you normally act, or how you were raised, you force your brain to use neural pathways that are weak, as they haven't been reinforced over the years. This makes me feel better – I'm fighting my brain here! That would explain the headaches ...

Although it's hard now, I know that the more I persist in trying to be a good role model to Eleanor, the easier it will get as those neural pathways strengthen. Hopefully this will help her to grow into a secure, able and level-headed young woman – with the added bonus that I might teach myself to actually be those things too!


Does anyone else find it hard to be a good role model to their children? How have you risen to the challenge?

Thursday, 20 March 2014

"They've got to learn" – but what are they learning?

"They've got to learn." Those four words seem to come up a lot when discussing parenting. Often they are applied to scenarios such as leaving a child to cry, either at night or when the parent has got 'too much to do', or using time out/naughty step to correct unwanted behaviour. Basically any situation where attention is withdrawn from the child, this is rationalised by the phrase, "they've got to learn."

But the problem is, that's often where the phrase stops. I very rarely hear it followed through with exactly what they've got to learn. I suspect if we delved deeper, words like, "independence", "self-soothing" or "self-reflection" would come out. But is that really what a child learns when we withdraw attention?

I'm hesitant writing this blog post because I don't want to give the impression that I'm judging other parents. I'm really not. I just feel like this handy phrase is being passed down from generation to generation without criticism and maybe it's time we stopped to think before trotting it out. I'm not saying, "don't do controlled crying," or, "don't use time out." I'm not a fan of either, for reasons explained more fully in this post about gentle parenting. But if they are achieving what you want to achieve with your child then go for it.

The important part of that last sentence is, "if." When it comes to any parenting choice we need to think about whether it is really going to get what we want for our children. And that's why trite phrases like, "they've got to learn," are so unhelpful - because they encourage us to just go with it unthinkingly. After all, learning is good, right? So if this is the way children learn, then we should do it.

But let's think a bit harder about all this. Does leaving a baby to cry herself to sleep teach her how to self-soothe? Is falling into a fitful sleep after exhausting yourself crying a particularly soothing act? I'd say not. I'm not a sleep expert by any means, but for more information on self-soothing this post is brilliant – and was a great comfort to me when Eleanor was small and would only fall asleep feeding, rocking or being walked about in the carrier.

Similarly, if a baby's desire to be held is ignored during the day so the caregiver can get some chores done, does that teach him how to entertain himself? Or does it give him the message that those chores are more important than his needs so he may as well keep quiet? I know this is a really hard one – Eleanor wanted to be held almost constantly as a baby and it made getting stuff done so difficult, until I got a baby carrier so I could wash up, type essays, hoover etc and cuddle her at the same time. She now entertains herself pretty well, so giving her attention as a baby has not impeded her ability to 'learn' that skill.

Or what about the toddler placed on the naughty step for a misdemeanour. Does she learn to sit there and reflect on why her behaviour was wrong? Or does she learn that doing something wrong (which she may not yet fully understand is wrong) will lead to the withdrawal of attention which, to a toddler mind, is tantamount to the withdrawal of love? Would it be more helpful for a parent to stay with her and lovingly explain why her actions are unacceptable?

As I've said, if you've really thought your parenting choices through and believe that they are right for you, don't let me stop you. Hey, I don't know your family, I'm not judging. But let's do away with these meaningless, blanket phrases and make sure our reasoning is sound.

Or, even better than doing away with them, let's reinvent them. Yes, my daughter's got to learn.

That she is worthy of attention.

That she is loved no matter what she does.

That she is important.


That I am there for her, and I always will be.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

"Enna's bein' a dardener!"

A while ago I blogged about how lovely it is to finally have our own garden for Eleanor to play in. The trouble is, the garden needs a lot of work to make it truly a family space, and the winter put a stop to most of our gardening efforts. So when today it was beautifully warm and sunny, we decided to make a start.

Eleanor has now reached the stage where she likes to helpful. Sometimes. If it's not something she's done before. Ask her to do something helpful on three or more occasions and you're pushing it. Novelty drastically increases her helpfulness.

So we exploited this today and asked her to help in the garden. It was basically a case of moving soil and bark from one part of the garden to another, very nearby, part. She loved it!



"Look at you," I said, "you're being a gardener!" And for the next 20 minutes she proudly repeated the phrase, "Enna's bein' a dardener!"



I was amazed at how long she stuck with this activity. Even my attempts to draw her attention to some worms fell on deaf ears as she completed her task - and she loves 'widdy worms'. (Actually, she did end up accosting one poor worm, who was relocated several times before she decided to go back to 'dardening'.) I'd definitely underestimated her concentration levels, and her enthusiasm when given a job to do.

After a while she got bored of the task and went to get the outdoor chalks and her ball. She decorated the patio and any other flagstones she could find. She climbed on rocks to get a different angle to throw her ball from. She watched aeroplanes soar over the street. She generally just enjoyed being outside on a warm day.

I'd love Eleanor to grow up to be green-fingered and I look forward to when she's old enough to understand about growing things. It surprised me just how much pleasure she got from simply shifting soil about so I can't wait to see her planting things out and watching them grow! I hope this is the first of many 'dardening' adventures we have together!



Saturday, 8 March 2014

To Eleanor, on International Womens Day 2014

Dear Eleanor

It is Saturday 8th March 2014. You are two years old. I wonder how old you'll be when you come to read this?

It's a strange world we live in right now, Eleanor. A world where, despite all the progress we have seen over the last century, women are still too often treated like second-class citizens.

A world where some girls feel forced to give up education when their periods start because they don't have access to decent sanitary products.

Where one girl was shot in the head for daring to suggest that girls have an equal right to education.

Where far too many women live in fear of domestic violence.

Where women are expected to treat harassment on the streets as a compliment.

Where a national newspaper - yes, NEWSpaper - deems it right to devote its third page to an image of a topless woman every day.

Where the books you read are almost always boy-heavy, as are some of the TV programmes you watch, as if the population wasn't really 50% female.

Where clothes for girls as young as, and younger than, you encourage them to aspire to be a princess, look pretty and be generally pleasing, when boys are encouraged to 'be the boss'.

I could go on.

But there is hope, Eleanor. Projects are cropping up providing girls with the sanitary products that will enable them to complete their education. The girl who was shot in the head? She survived, and is now doing amazing things to promote equality in education. More and more people are speaking out about violence and harassment towards women. There is a thriving campaign to end Page 3. And parents and children alike are finding a voice to protest about the sexism seen in products aimed at children.

When you do come to read this, Eleanor, whether that is in 10, 15 or 20 years' time, I hope you shake your head in wonder. I hope by then you will live in a world where all people are seen as equal, as having a right to education, dignity, safety and representation regardless of gender.

I am trying to be part of the change. I hope you will be too. Better still, I hope you will not need to be, because change will no longer be needed.

Happy International Womens Day.

Love, Mum

Thursday, 6 March 2014

How to Get Your Baby To Love Books

Eleanor loves books. I mean, LOVES them. She spends most of her waking time looking at books, whether I'm reading them to her or not. Roughly 85% of what she says is repeated from a book. She asks to go the library almost every day.

I remember when she was a fairly new toddler, a friend of mine with a baby asked me how I encouraged her to love books. Well, as today is World Book Day, I thought I'd share my wisdom with you all. Lucky you. So here's my step-by-step guide to getting your baby to love books ...

1. Read to them.

It's that simple. Read them books, willingly and enthusiastically, and they will grow up knowing that books are enjoyable.

I'm actually tempted to leave the guide there, because it really is that easy, but if you're looking for some extra tips, read on.

2. Choose books wisely.

I remember getting frustrated trying to read a story to Eleanor when she was around five months old. After just a few pages she started to whine and squirm. She was bored - there were too many words, and seeing as she didn't understand any of them, I can now see why she got so restless. So start out with books that have few words but lots of pictures. Talk about the pictures with them, point things out. Books with flaps and different textures are great for babies. As they get older, gradually increase the word count. Now Eleanor is 2 she will happily sit through a full story. Several times over. In one sitting.

Also, as your child gets older, be very wary of books 'for boys' or 'for girls'. Children should be encouraged to read whatever they want, not feel that one type of story is off-limits for their gender. Plus, gender neutral books can be passed down to siblings and cousins of either gender, saving you money!

3. Make books available.



This one goes against all my anti-mess instincts but ...

Once your baby is mobile and able to pull books off shelves, don't be tempted to hide them away. Let them get to their books, explore them, choose what and when they want to read. I remember a friend telling me they overheard a grandparent in a doctor's waiting room tell their grandson that they wouldn't read him a book because it wasn't bedtime. I found that so sad. Bedtime is a great time to read - but I think that reading to children whenever they ask (as far as is practical) is the best way to really kindle a love of books.

4. Take them to your local library.

I've written about why we love libraries before, so won't repeat myself. But do read my previous post for more information on this. Eleanor really does adore the library, it's one of her favourite places. And it means you can expose your baby to a variety of books without spending a fortune. I try to let Eleanor choose at least a couple of books to take home, which means I've read some questionable ones, but she likes getting a say in what she reads and I want to encourage her to develop her own tastes.

5. Share your favourites.

In the picture above you'll see our copy of 'The Owl Who Was Afraid Of The Dark'. I remember reading this book in Year 2 at primary school and loving it then, so when I saw a second-hand copy for sale when I was pregnant I bought it. Eleanor loves it, and I think that's partly because I love to read it, so put that extra enthusiasm into my voice. So if you have an old favourite, dig it out (or track down a copy) and share it with your baby whenever you feel s/he is old enough.

So there you are, those are my tips for encouraging a love of books. If you have any tips of your own do comment below.

And if you're unconvinced about the value of getting little ones to love books, just think about this. I have a rubbish cold today, but I've managed to get some much-needed rest this morning while Eleanor pulled books off her shelves and 'read' them to herself from memory. If that reason is not compelling enough for you, frankly, I don't know what is.