Tuesday, 18 November 2014

ALL mums are full-time mums

I've ummed and ahhed about writing this post for a long time. Part of me felt that, as a stay-at-home mum, I didn't really have a right to rant about this issue. But then it occurred to me that maybe I'm the right person to rant about it, to show that nobody wants this stupid label, not even the mums to whom it supposedly applies.

The label I'm referring to is "full-time mum."

It's a label I've been given a fair bit when I've said that I 'stay at home' with my daughter. (That's also problematic as I don't actually stay at home with her, believe it or not we leave the house on a regular basis. But it's the lesser of two evils.) I've never been comfortable with this label, and have always been careful to avoid using it myself.

Why? Because by calling me a full-time mum, you are implying that working mums are part-time mums. Which is absolute nonsense. There is no such thing as a part-time mum.

I'm willing to wager that a woman who leaves her children in childcare or with another relative in order to go to work thinks about those children all day. In many cases, working mums will be going out earning money that is essential to give their children the upbringing they wish for them. I fail to see how a woman who spends however many hours and days away from her children in order to pay for the roof over their heads, the food on their plates, the clothes on their bodies and maybe even a nice holiday or two for them, is any less of a mother than one who stays at home.

Not that I'm saying that the only reason a mother should go back to work is financial necessity. There are lots of reasons why a woman would want to go back to work - perhaps she has a highly rewarding career, and so will serve as a fantastic role model to her child. Perhaps she needs the mental stimulation of being elsewhere and doing 'non-mum' things in order to be the best possible mum she can be when she is with her children. And there are probably countless reasons I haven't even thought of too.

Whatever the reason, you don't stop being a mum at nursery drop-off. Before I had Toddler, I went to work five days a week, and for all that time spent in the office I was still a wife. How is this any different?

I suppose next time I'm called a full-time mum I should say this:

Yes, I'm a full-time mum. As is the mum who works three days a week. As is the mum who works five days a week. As is the mum whose children are in school now. As is the mum whose children are adults and have long since left the family nest. Once you become a mum, you never stop being one, not even for a minute. Whatever you do career-wise, it's as full-time as you can get.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Night weaning - the saga continues

In my last post for the Breastfeeding Diaries, I was considering night weaning. I thought at the time that Toddler was showing signs of wanting to night wean ... nup, wrong about that one!! The problem now is that she's almost dry at night now, but the night feeds tip her over the edge from time to time.

So this week we decided to try night weaning. It was half term so my husband was off work, theoretically meaning I'd be able to catch up on lost sleep during the day. I looked up this guide to gently night weaning by Dr Jay Gordon, which I'd read months before but had never got round to trying. If you don't have time to read it, it basically goes something like this:

Night 1 - Feed child when they wake for a feed, but put them back in bed awake and settle by patting/stroking etc.
Night 2 - Repeat.
Night 3 - Repeat.
Night 4 - Pick up and cuddle child, but do not feed. Put back in bed awake and again settle by patting/stroking etc.
Night 5 - Repeat.
Night 6 - Repeat.
Night 7 - Do not pick up child, settle in bed with patting/stroking etc.
Night 8 - Repeat.
Night 9 - Repeat.
Night 10 - Repeat.

And continue until child stops waking up. Great! Night weaning in just 10 nights! Sign me up!

Except, when I tried it, it looked something like this:

Night 1 - Feed child, but as she instantly closes her eyes, have no clue of whether she's properly asleep or not and end up putting her back to bed asleep by accident.
Night 2 - Feed child, catch her just about on the cusp of sleep so a little back rub suffices. Feel like all is not lost, ignoring fact that she's getting a bit of a cold.
Night 3 - Repeat.
Night 4 - Pick up child and cuddle for a bit, then get confused over whether Night 1 really counted so end up feeding her anyway. Get her to bed just before she falls asleep, again a back rub suffices.
Night 5 - Pick up child and cuddle, but by now the 'bit of a cold' has descended into a full-blown snot-and-cough-fest. Feel guilty. Feed her but still console self with the fact that she goes to sleep in her bed. Just.
Night 6 - Snot-and-cough-fest continues. Abandon night weaning attempts altogether.

So either night weaning in 10 nights is not really realistic as life (and snot) gets in the way, or ... I'm just a bit rubbish at night weaning.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Breastfeeding Diaries: To night wean or not to night wean?

Last time I posted for the Breastfeeding Diaries I was really struggling. The whole experience of breastfeeding a toddler was becoming really irritating, and part of me really felt like stopping.

Then, all of a sudden, it got easier.

I can't even tell you what about it changed. She's still messing about quite a bit, although perhaps less than before. She still has days where she seems to want mummy milk every time I sit down. She still wants feeding in the night.

I think it must just be that my attitude has changed. Writing my last post, and reading the responses, seemed to prove to me that I do want to carry on until Toddler is ready to stop. And, in hindsight, things were generally quite stressful at the time of the last post - my husband is a teacher and so had just gone back to work after the summer holidays, so we were both getting used to our previous routine and not having Daddy around as much. Once we'd got back into the swing of things, everything, breastfeeding included, felt easier.

Something interesting has happened this week, though. We've been talking for a long time about attempting night weaning, but it has never felt like the right time - nights would probably get worse for a while before getting better and there's always something we need to conserve our energy for! However, in the past couple of weeks Toddler has started to be dry at night. (She's not dry in the day, far from it - trust my daughter to do things the wrong way round!) This has thrown up problems as she has woken in the night asking for the potty a few times, then it's really hard to get her back to sleep, so we have revisited the idea of night weaning as a way of reducing these night-time potty visits. This is something my husband and I had only discussed, and not in front of her, but suddenly she started talking about sleeping all through the night without mummy milk! Hurrah! Could this mean that she might night wean of her own accord?

We're not getting our hopes up yet, because it still hasn't happened! Although at most bedtimes recently she has said that she'll just have a cuddle in the night and go back to sleep without mummy milk, when she has actually woken up and I've offered a cuddle she has been distraught. It's interesting. Last night, for instance, I went through, sat by her bed and offered to cuddle her and she started to cry. At first in amidst her sobs were phrases like, "want to go to sleep without mummy milk," and, "want to have a cuddle," but if I put my arm round her she'd push me away. She got more and more worked up, then started saying, "want mummy thing! want mummy thing!" then she pointed at my chest and cried, "want THOSE!" (Nice, kid.) So I picked her up and took her to the chair for a feed.

I'm not sure what to make of this. Is it Toddler wanting to night wean but struggling with it? Or has she picked up that we want her to night wean and is trying to do it but doesn't really want to? The fact that she felt she couldn't ask directly suggests maybe it's the latter, but then we've talked to her about night weaning before and she hasn't even tried. Maybe she's caught between still wanting the comfort of breastfeeding in the night but also feeling uncomfortable from a full bladder and starting to understand the link between drinking and needing a wee. I really don't know.

So, at 33 months, breastfeeding is feeling a lot easier generally but is throwing up some tricky questions! Still, it does seem that we may be a step closer to night weaning, even if there are many steps to go, so that's a bonus!

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Breastfeeding Diaries: 32 months ... and struggling

In most of my posts for the Breastfeeding Diaries I've tried to focus on the positives of nursing beyond infancy, or at least end on a high note. Unfortunately, I don't think this post is going to fit that trend.

Toddler is now 32 and a half months. I had hoped to allow her to feed as long as she wanted to. But now I feel like I'm hitting a wall.

It's hard to put my finger on what's different suddenly. We've had tough spells before where I've felt like giving up, but that was generally when she was teething and nursing could get quite painful. I kept going through those times by telling myself that she needed the comfort of breastmilk at that time, and of course by the time the tooth emerged, things were easier again and I was happy to continue.

But this time the issue isn't pain. It's, for want of a better phrase, pratting about. Those cute little quirks I mentioned in my last post on this subject, like the weird positions and the attempts to read and talk whilst feeding, are getting exasperating. I don't know whether they're becoming more regular, or I'm becoming less patient! It's compounded by a lot of 'on-off' behaviour and little habits like trying to put her fingers in her mouth while feeding. She's also getting more grabby and will try and pull my top down when she wants milk, of course oblivious to whether not it is a good time and place to be exposing her mother.

On more than one occasion recently I've said that if she can't be sensible with mummy milk maybe we need to stop. I'm not just saying it to get her to stop messing about in that moment - I'm genuinely feeling like maybe it is time. But then I've no idea how I would go about stopping anyway. I still feed her to sleep for her nap and when she wakes at night, and I don't know if I can really face the hassle of changing that. Also, she still asks (nay, demands) to be fed quite regularly so I know she's still keen and deep down I don't want to put her through the upset of stopping.

I think I do want to carry on. I think. But I don't want to carry on if it's always going to be this annoying. I've tried talking to her about it but she is not quite ready to understand yet I don't think.

If anyone reading this has been through something similar and has some pearls of wisdom to share, please do comment!

Friday, 5 September 2014

How (not) to potty train your toddler

We're in the throes of potty training at the moment. It's not going well. In fact, it's not been going well for around three months now. Three months or, as it feels, a PIGGING ETERNITY.

I'd love to be able to write you a really informative blog post about how to potty train in a gentle, respectful way. But I can't. I can, however, tell you what NOT to do – because I've done it all myself.

So, if you want a child who can use the potty AND to preserve your own sanity, DO NOT:

  1. Pounce on the very first tiny sign of possible readiness at a ridiculously young age (19 months, in case you're wondering) with such zeal that your child then becomes afraid of the potty and refuses to tell you what's going on in that nappy of hers.
  2. After giving up the first attempt, abandon the very notion of looking for signs of readiness and decide that the only sign you need is that her cloth nappies aren't fitting her very well any more. Yeah, that's really not an indication of readiness.
  3. Other things that aren't actually signs of readiness include: it's summer, daddy is on holiday so around to help, all her peers are doing it already. No, honestly, NONE of these things are connected to your child's ability to control her bladder. Who knew?
  4. Aim for complete inconsistency. Try nappy free time but then decide you are squeamish about breastfeeding a bare bottomed toddler so insist on training pants. And a nappy for outings and naps. So basically she has NO IDEA what covering (if any) her posterior will have in the next ten minutes.
  5. Try to avoid clean ups by persuading your child to spend her nappy free time sitting on the potty watching TV or YouTube videos, thus making her think she's entitled to screen time EVERY TIME she sits on it.
  6. As soon as you're starting to make progress, go away for a few days. Somewhere that makes continuing with potty training hopelessly impractical.
  7. Get to the point where it's been dragging on so long and you're so frustrated you start yelling about how all her friends have figured it out already. (Seriously, even if you end up doing all the other things, please please PLEASE try not to do this. Although if you have done all the other things, you'll probably feel as stressed as me, so ... yeah, try not to do the other stuff either.)

And finally, under any circumstances, DO NOT:

  1. Forget to check whether there's anything in the potty and then trip over it. Really. No.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

6 Things a Mother Who Breastfeeds Her Toddler Will Recognise

OK, that last post was a bit heavy, so to distract myself and lighten the tone I've been pondering about the things that make breastfeeding a toddler different to breastfeeding in the early months. It's one thing nursing a little baby who can barely support it's own head and who can only coo or cry – when you've got a little person who is fully mobile and almost talking like an (albeit, fairly drunk) adult it's a whole different ball game! How many of these do you recognise?

1: The naming – OK, I've covered this one before, but I still think hearing Toddler ask for 'mummy milk' is immensely cute ... most of the time. However, when we're going through the supermarket and she yells, "WANT SOME MUMMY MILK," I kind of miss the days when her only means of requesting said mummy milk was gnawing at her own fist.

2: The shape throwing – I've heard it called gymnurstics, I've heard it called lactobatics. Whatever you call it, it's ... umm ... interesting. Toddler's piece de resistance is balancing with one foot on my leg, the other in the air, bottom above her head and arms outstretched. It's quite something to behold.

3: The multitasking – Toddler will regularly leaf through a book while feeding. Often a big hardback with nice pointy corners to jab me with. And then there's the attempts to continue talking/singing through a feed: "Old MacDonald had a mmm, mm-mm mm-mm O!"

4: The need for an object – Linked in with the last one, anyone else have a toddler who just has to have something to hold onto whilst feeding? This started a few months back when Toddler was getting in a pickle because I asked her if she wanted to play with her trains or have mummy milk. Turned out the answer was both!

5: The 'subtle' comments – OK, this one isn't ToddlersT doing. And it's probably quite universal. Seems that however you feed your child, other people will have an opinion, and some will feel the need to 'hint' at that opinion. And feeding beyond infancy seems to attract a lot of 'hints'. From the person who tells you how they once heard someone say breastfeeding a toddler is weird, to the person who suggests to your child that she's too old now, other people will find a way of indirectly expressing their view on the matter. Well-meaning, I'm sure. And at least it's not outright condemnation. Sigh.

6: The snuggles – Everything above considered, the best bit by far, the absolute icing on the cake, of breastfeeding a toddler is the cuddles. A newborn wants cuddling ALL THE TIME. A toddler has far too busy a schedule, thank you very much. What with re-imagining her bedroom furniture as an assault course and acting out episodes of 'Charlie and Lola' with a range of farm animal finger puppets, sometimes the only chance I get for a cuddle with Toddler is when she's feeding. And for just a few minutes, I can sit back and relax, my lovely bundle in my arms, and remember how sweet it was to hold that much smaller bundle all those months and years ago. And then she's off again.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Gentle Parenting Through Grief

"Mummy's sad."

"Yes, darling, Mummy's sad."

"She's had some really bad news."

"Yes, that's right."

You may have noticed I haven't blogged much this month. (What do you mean, you haven't? You hang on my every word, right?) That's because this month got off to a pretty bad start.

At around 7am on Friday 1st August, just as I sat down to breakfast, I got a phonecall. Or rather, my husband did, from my mum. When my mum calls my husband's phone, I know that means it's bad news – she does it to make sure I've got someone with me. As he talked to her a number of scenarios raced through my head, but not one of them was close to what had actually happened – my aunt had died, completely out of the blue. We learned a week later that she had been ill for a while, but nobody knew this – she probably didn't know it herself.

I could make this blog post a tribute to her, but really, I don't think I have the words to express what a wonderful, inspirational woman she was. Instead I want to talk about the impact the news had on my parenting.

As I burst into tears that day, Toddler became deeply upset too, and my husband took her out of the room to try and calm her. I didn't tell her what had happened – I didn't feel up to explaining it to her, and besides, it was seven months since she'd last seen my aunt, so I didn't think she needed to know straight away. So we just said I'd had some really bad news. But as the day wore on, my obvious distress was making her very upset, and the smallest thing was setting her off into a full-blown tantrum. I decided that the best thing I could do for her was to go out for a bit, so I left her with her dad and went to see my cousin.

It was a hard decision to make. Having practised attachment parenting/ gentle parenting since Toddler was a few months old, I was used to being her main source of comfort, her rock. But that day I was a very shaky rock, and I was bringing distress rather than comfort. It was hard to admit it, but she needed space from me at that time, and I needed space from her.

One thing that has surprised me about the effect grief had on my parenting was the way my patience seemed to wear thin so much more easily. When I went home that day, I found Toddler's high emotions, testing at the best of times, deeply frustrating. I'd spent the last few hours with people who were deeply grieving, I was grieving myself, why did she have to cry over not having the right toy to play with?

It's that frustration that I'm still struggling with. It got easier for a while, but the funeral was last week, and that has made the grief feel very raw again. I've found myself with very little patience for Toddler's perfectly normal toddler behaviour – her refusal to follow instructions, her tendency to mess about when I'm trying to get her changed, her tantrums, and recently her nap refusal. Being a gentle parent feels really, really hard right now.

Last Saturday I took to Twitter to express my annoyance at myself for taking my low mood out on Toddler. I got a number of responses from some lovely, wonderful mums telling me it's normal, we all do it, and I'm really grateful for their show of solidarity. One tweet really stuck. It said:

"it's hard to be there & present for someone else's needs when our own needs are unmet ... Self-compassion."

This really struck a chord. I realised the reason I was being so impatient and snappy was because I simply don't have the headspace to remember how to be a gentle parent right now. There's a large part of my mind still desperately trying to grapple with the fact that my wonderful, active and apparently healthy aunt is gone from this world forever. I'm still deeply worried about the effect this is having on my relatives. Remembering all those tactics to stay calm and handle the challenges my spirited and independent girl will inevitably throw at me is just beyond me right now.

The trouble is, the only thing that will fix this is time. In time, I'll come to terms with what has happened. In time, those who were even closer to my aunt will adjust to life without her, although we will, of course, all miss her deeply and unendingly. But while that time passes, I need to carry on being a parent, and raising my daughter in the gentle way I believe is right for us. How I'll manage this, I don't quite know yet. But I know I need to be gentle with myself, too.

Thank you to those lovely mums who comforted me on Saturday night without even knowing why I was down, your kindness means a lot to me.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The line between support and pressure: A post for World Breastfeeding Week

When I was a child I went to a childminder. I don't have many recollections about that time, but one thing which has strangely stuck in my mind was the time when, after finishing my lunch, she told me to put my knife and fork together on my plate. I didn't understand what she meant and tried several different positions, all with the tips of the knife and fork touching - because that's together, right? But every time I tried, she would say, "no, put them together," in an increasingly exasperated tone until she lost patience and put them side by side for me. Only then did I realise what she meant. I felt pretty stupid.

What has this got to do with breastfeeding? Well, the other day I was talking to a friend who said that she'd read (I don't know where) that all the pressure to breastfeed is stopping new mums from even trying because they don't want the hassle. Having not read the source I don't know how true this is, but it does point to a problem, or a perceived problem, that there is more pressure than there is support. Telling someone to do something is useless unless that someone is shown how to do it, much like my childminder repeating an instruction over and over when I needed to be shown what she meant.

It's quite hard for me to write about this topic, as actually, I didn't feel pressured to breastfeed at all. I was asked at one of my midwife appointments how I planned to feed and I said I wanted to breastfeed, and that was it. Of our three NHS antenatal classes, half of one session was devoted to watching a DVD about breastfeeding and asking some questions afterwards. And when my Health Visitor paid her first visit she gave me some leaflets and a little demonstration with a doll and a knitted breast (which I found rather comical). Personally I didn't feel that constituted pressure, but then I wanted to breastfeed, so the information was useful.

Similarly, after birth I didn't feel particularly pressured. At one point when I was really struggling my husband said he thought I was being put under a lot of pressure, but I didn't see it that way. Yes, I had a lot of midwives giving me advice, and when I mentioned feeling like giving up and using formula they would just give more advice - but that was exactly what I wanted them to do. To me it was support, it was encouragement. When I said I was thinking of giving up I expected them to agree with me, and I knew that I'd be heartbroken if they did. So their continued advice gave me the courage to just keep trying until I cracked it.

I don't doubt that there are genuine instances when mothers are actually pressured - I've read stories of women being told they were bad mothers and didn't love their child enough if they gave up. But equally, I've probably read a similar number of stories about mothers being pressured to give formula for health problems such as slow weight gain or reflux, even though in the cases where the mothers persisted in breastfeeding these problems did work themselves out in the long run.

So when does promotion become pressure? I think the big problem lies in what happens in those few weeks after birth, perhaps even in the few days after birth. I was in hospital for three days, and if I'd left sooner I'm not sure I'd have been able to carry on breastfeeding, but a lot of women are rushed out after 24 hours or sooner. When in hospital, midwives are overstretched and just don't have the time to support women who are having difficulty with feeding. Back home, one midwife visit a day (if that) is not enough to keep breastfeeding going when things are tough - mothers need access to support groups, breastfeeding counsellors, peer supporters etc. Support groups aren't always easy to get to, and counsellors and supporters are usually volunteers who, wonderful and dedicated as they often are, have their own lives and therefore may have limited time. There is the option of seeing a lactation consultant, but my understanding is that many of these charge (as they are generally not employed by the NHS) so new parents with all sorts of other money concerns may not feel able to afford this service. And besides, are new parents told that this support is available? I was given a leaflet with the numbers of local breastfeeding counsellors (of the two in my town, one had given up counselling and the other didn't seem forthcoming with help - although I may have just got her on a bad day) but it was months later that I heard the term 'lactation consultant'.

This all adds up to a situation like little me desperately trying to figure out how to place my cutlery without being properly shown, then feeling embarrassed and ashamed that I couldn't. As much as pressure may be in the eye of the beholder to some extent, promotion without proper follow-up support will lead to mothers not being able to breastfeed then feeling guilty about it. I don't know what the answer is, but I think that more funding to allow for increased midwife numbers (in the wards and in the community), more support groups and more access to professional support such as breastfeeding counsellors and lactation consultants would certainly help. That funding, however, doesn't seem forthcoming as this government just doesn't see breastfeeding as a priority.

In the meantime, we'll just have to help each other. I have huge admiration for mothers who give up their time and money to train as peer supporters and breastfeeding counsellors, whose only payment is the knowledge that they're helping other mums. But even without that training, I think we can all play a part in normalising breastfeeding, talking about the highs and lows, offering support to friends and family members (even if that is just bringing a meal round so a mum can have an extra hour to focus on feeding instead of cooking) and generally showing that it can be done, in an unpressured, non-judgmental way.

If women are being put off by all the pressure to breastfeed, that's really sad. If you feel like that, please know that support is available, you may just need to do a bit of digging to find it. You don't have to figure it out on your own. And, when it does work out, it really is a wonderful thing.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Breastfeeding Diaries - no, I can't just cover up!

The other week I saw this article which shows exactly why a breastfeeding mother can't always 'just use a cover' when feeding in public. The photos in the article made me really chuckle - anyone who has a child over the age of two months will know they're wriggly things when they want to be (which tends to be when you don't want them to be) so covering them up with a blanket/scarf/sheet becomes a battle! But one thing frustrated me, and that was the comments.

Aside from the predictable "I'm going to ignore all your points and tell you to cover up anyway" comments there were some from people who claimed to be 'all for' breastfeeding in public, BUT (and if there's a but, you are by definition not 'all for' anything) if this mother had covered from the very start the baby would be used to it.


First of all, why should a new mother, still getting the hang of breastfeeding, have to contend with covering up too? It's hard enough figuring out how to support their wobbly head with one arm while guiding their frankly clueless little mouth with the other hand, should poor mum have to do all this while trying to keep a scarf in place?

Secondly, while some babies will happily go along with being covered, many won't like it, and will register their dislike as soon as they have enough coordination to start flailing about and dragging the cover off. It doesn't make a difference whether you've only just started using a cover or have fed under a blanket from day 1 - babies develop, and as they develop they find new, often forceful ways of expressing themselves.

Why do I say this? Because when Toddler was a baby I really struggled with feeding. There is no way in the first two months of her life I could have managed to coax her to feed under a cover, because I needed a completely clear view of what I was doing. Even the slightest bit of fabric could cause an obstruction that would send my reluctant feeder into a tizz. I did managed to use a cover briefly after this period, but then she worked out that those funny things on the ends of her arms actually BELONGED TO HER (seriously, her mind was blown by this) and, not only that, she could USE THEM! And use them she did - to shove away anything I attempted to cover up with while feeding. She wanted space, she wanted a clear view of me. As she got older she wanted to see her surroundings. No way was this kid submitting to a cover.

And what was the upshot of this? I didn't feed her in public until she was around eight months old. I was too embarrassed, I thought that because these covers existed that meant I had to use them in public, I didn't want to make a scene, I didn't want to be stared at.

But for those eight months, it was a nightmare. I had to try and plan social engagements around feeds, which meant I often ended up late and stressed, or having to leave early. At a time when my life had already changed beyond recognition, this increased my sense of isolation. I would become panicky about going out for a longer stretch of time because where would I feed her? I missed large chunks of a friend's wedding reception by going back and forth to our hotel room to breastfeed.

I really, really, REALLY regret not breastfeeding in public sooner. It was only as I became more informed that I realised that I had every right to do so, and nobody should make me feel like I ought to cover up. And do you know what? I've never actually had a negative comment. I don't think people even notice most of the time. I still get nervous about feeding in public, but I've come to realise that most people couldn't care less what I'm doing, they're just going about their daily business. As am I.

Don't get me wrong, if mum and baby are happy using a cover, then great. But don't assume that, just because your baby was happy to be covered up, then all babies are happy to be covered up. Or that all babies SHOULD be covered up. Making new mums believe that feeding their baby is so shameful that Joe Public must be shielded from possibly glimpsing the act could lead to them becoming isolated at a very vulnerable time.

So no, we can't 'just use a cover'. For many mums, it's a heck of a lot of trouble to go to. If Joe Public is that offended, it's far easier for him to look the other way.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Breastfeeding Diaries: "If they can ask for it, they're too old."

I've heard a lot of 'reasons' why toddlers shouldn't be breastfed, and they do all tend to be pretty illogical. But the one that confuses me most is this: "If they can ask for breastmilk, they're too old for it."

Say what?

Toddler figured out ways of asking for various foodstuffs from around the age of 18 months. She could ask for "apoo" (apple), "mana" (banana) and "bedtit" (breadstick) before she worked out a word for breastmilk. Should I have denied her these foodstuffs as well? And when she comes to me now asking for "tow mout" (cow's milk) or "orange doose" (orange juice) should I say, "no, you're asking for it, so it must be bad for you"? If this rule doesn't apply to any other food or drink, why should it apply to breastmilk?

I think it's quite sad, though, that this particular old wives' tale is so prevalent, because it could deprive mothers of some pretty amusing (and occasionally heartwarming) conversations!

Toddler's first word for breastmilk was "mut" or "mot". That gradually evolved into "mummymut". Or, more commonly, "MORE mummymut!" Then one day, tired out from the regular feeding that marks a teething session, I cried, "But you've had LOADS of mummy milk!"

Yep, you've guessed it. The demands then turned into, "LOADSA mummymut!"

Eventually she realised that phrase didn't really make me feel inclined to feed her, so she progressed onto "little TIIINY bit of mummymut" in a wheedling voice. She still uses this phrase sometimes, or a variation on it. And she never just has a little tiny bit.

Then there's her signal to swap sides. At first it was just "side" then that turned into "errside", usually said with a grin and a wrinkled nose. I was actually quite sad when she figured out how to say "other side" properly. Although it sometimes comes out as "udder side" which makes me feel GREAT. I love being quietly reminded of my similarity to a cow. Really.

Once when I was feeding her before bed she climbed down after one side. I like to tank her up before bedtime so I gently said, "have you forgotten something?" She grinned, said, "other side," and climbed back up. That then became a little skit she did at practically every feed. She'd wriggle off, look back cheekily, say, "dotten something?" then throw herself back on my knees shouting, " OOOTHEER SIIIDE!" She still does that sometimes. It still makes me chuckle!

Other times, what she says makes me realise how important "mummymout" (as it is now called) is to her. A few months ago she fell and badly grazed her knee. After cleaning and dressing the graze the only way I could calm her down was to feed her. For weeks afterwards she would regularly relive the incident, almost always with the phrase, "you had some mummymout to mate you feel better." (She refers to herself in the second person. And, as you've probably guessed, she can't pronounce 'k'. I'm trying not to stress about it.) Even now if she's hurt or very distressed she will sometimes ask for, "mummymout to mate you feel better." I love knowing the comfort it brings to her.

Then there was the line she came out with the other day, which really touched me. Mid feed, she looked up and in a very matter of fact tone told me, "mummymout is tastier than water or tow mout." May not be much competition, but it made me happy!

Seriously, anyone who feels they have to give up breastfeeding because their child can talk is missing out on some weird, funny and sometimes very moving conversations!

Monday, 7 July 2014

Our First Day Apart

I'm under no illusions about the fact that some, nay, most people who read this post will think this is a big fuss over nothing. But hear me out.

On Saturday it was a momentous day in our region. The Tour De France set off mere miles from where I live, and the whole of Yorkshire went Le Tour mad. Bunting, yellow bikes, Frenchified pub names - you name it, we did it. It really was a great event. I have minimal interest in cycling, I can't even ride a bike, but even I was swept up in the excitement.

But it was also a momentous day for Toddler and me. Because, after two and a half years, it was the first day we spent apart.

Yes, yes I know. Most of you reading had to go back to work in the first year of your child's life. Some of you will have spent weekends, maybe even longer away from your little ones. One day away after two and a half years seems trivial, right?

But it didn't to me. Because every day for two and a half years Toddler had been with me. And I'd been there for her. I'd spent the odd afternoon away from her, but never a full day. But I had an all-day event booked, and due to road closures I had to get there before 7am, and didn't finish until 5pm. Ten hours. Twice as long as I'd ever left her before.

In the run up I was really anxious about how she'd cope. Just a few weeks previously she went through a particularly close-to-me phase (I flatly REFUSE to use the word 'clingy' because I hate the negative connotations associated with it) and wanted me around all the time. I was so worried this would last, and she'd spend the day being miserable.

And then there was breastfeeding to factor into the equation. She still feeds pretty regularly - I'm talking newborn frequency during the day - so I worried about how she'd cope without that. I also worried about the effect suddenly not feeding for 10 hours would have on me - would I get engorged? Or would it reduce my supply?

In the end, it turned out I had little to worry about. A couple of weeks before she suddenly started asking for daddy throughout the day, and lighting up when he got home. Don't get me wrong, she has always loved her daddy, but something definitely changed. So on the day she had a lovely time with him. They hung out at our church and watched the caravan and the race go past. Then they went back to his parent's house with Toddler in the carrier so she nodded off. She had a decent nap (another concern as I usually feed her to sleep at naptime) then hung around the house until I was all done. She asked for 'mummy milk' just once, as Daddy laid her down for her nap, but she has half asleep and nodded back off straight away.

And me? I actually cried saying goodbye (she was fine about it though) and missed her loads through the day. But there was some relief there - we'd had a particularly intense week as I was stressed about work, she was ill on and off so we didn't get out much, and there were some major tantrums going on - on both our parts! So a day away from being Mum probably helped to relieve the pressure. And the lack of breastfeeding didn't seem to have any effect at all.

Afterwards, I assumed she'd be up half the night wanting to catch up on mummy time (and mummy milk) but she only woke up once. In fact the only negative issue we had was when I fed her to sleep for her nap the next day. When I laid her in her bed, she started crying and saying, "Don't want Daddy to stop," obviously thinking she was still in the carrier. When she realised she wasn't, it woke her up properly. We tried to get her to sleep but in the end she wouldn't, which resulted in a particularly kicky-and-screamy bedtime. But everything's been fine today, so hopefully it was just a blip.

I know that all this will be commonplace for many mums. But it was a completely new experience for us. I feel so lucky to have been able to spend every day with my daughter for 30 months. She was very separation-sensitive when she was younger so I absolutely believe this was the right thing for our family and I'm glad I could do it this way. But equally, I feel so proud of how my little baby who hated to be put down has grown into a confident little girl who can spend time away from mummy without even a tear.

It's so reassuring to know that all those days spent together haven't hindered her confidence and independence. In fact, I'm convinced that all those days spent together were exactly what she NEEDED to grow into her own little person. This may not be the case for every child, but it was for mine. And the reunion cuddles were just LOVELY!

Friday, 27 June 2014

Breastfeeding - there is no normal. And that's normal.

I don't know if it's because I'm a first-time mum, or particularly neurotic or a bit of both, but I seem to spend a lot of time worrying about what's 'normal'. As if there's some benchmark of child normality and if my daughter doesn't fit that, then I must be doing it all wrong.

Now that I've had a bit more practise at parenthood, I can usually quash these worries with the silent mantra, "It's normal for her." Toddler is very much her own special person, and she's all kinds of ace, so who cares if she's not like another child her age? But when she was a baby, when that brilliant personality wasn't quite popping out yet, when all I had to go on was her weight and nappy habits, I was always anxious about whether she was 'normal', by which I mean whether I was doing it 'right'.

Breastfeeding was a particular source of anxiety, especially as most of my mum friends were formula feeding either partly or wholly so I had a skewed sense of comparison. I remember worrying about how long each feed took, and obsessively counting the number of feeds my daughter had in a day to make sure she was getting enough. And the older she got, the woolier the guidelines got and the more I worried!

But recently I saw some interesting research carried out by Medela which I wish I'd seen in those early months with Toddler. It showed that when it comes to breastfeeding, as with so many things in child-rearing, there is no 'normal'. Take a look at this, for instance: 

I wish I'd seen this when Toddler was a nipper! She took aaages to feed - I remember once being late to a baby group because she had spent 70 minutes on the first side!! Some of the reactions and comments I got at the time made me feel like this was completely wrong, that she was just 'using me as a dummy'. (A bizarre phrase - what exactly did babies do before dummies existed? Oh yes, they comfort fed!!) But actually, I think those long, leisurely feeds helped me to build the strong supply I needed at the time - and that has seen me through for the last 30 months of breastfeeding!

When Toddler was a newborn, knowing how many feeds she needed per day was easy - "8-12 times in 24 hours" was seemingly plastered on every surface of the maternity wing! But as she got older, there was very little guidance about how often she 'ought to' be feeding - aside from baby training manuals which I steered clear of due to the fact that they generally made me want to hurl them against the nearest wall. I got the vague impression that she 'ought to be' feeding less from around the age of four months, and then still less after solids were introduced at six months, so I gradually reduced the number of times I offered a feed. Looking back, I don't think it's a coincidence that it was around four months that she dropped off her centile line, never to return. I wish I'd known then what I know now - that it's perfectly fine for a non-newborn to still want regular feeds. Heck, at two and a half she still has around 7 or 8 feeds in a 24 hour period!

I think it's really encouraging that research is out there to show new mums that 'normal' just doesn't exist. Ignore the advice that says babies should be fed every four hours, or that you should limit time at the breast. Every baby is different, every mother's supply is different. Trust your baby to show you when they're hungry, and trust your body to give them what they need. Because in most cases that's all you need!

Monday, 23 June 2014

Pushchair bans - Is our society anti-child?

Recently I saw a story that got my goat. A cafe bar in Leeds has imposed a ban on customers bringing in pushchairs, citing health and safety reasons. But this isn't what has got me annoyed - no, it's the comments from Joe Public commending the cafe for their actions, and even saying pushchairs should be banned from buses.

Yes, you read that right. There are people who think PUSHCHAIRS SHOULD BE BANNED FROM BUSES.

I'll come back to the hideousness of that point later. But even the comments that restrained themselves to merely discussing the horrors of buggies in eating establishments also tended to rail against the noise of crying and screaming from the children. So even if the parent had used a sling, or carried baby in using a car seat, this would still not have met with the approval of these miseries. This is the revealing part of these reactions: the pushchairs aren't the problem. It's the children.

There seems to be a surprising number of people who see children as an inconvenience. Never mind the old adage about children being seen and never heard - these people don't even want to see a child. They apparently think that parents should stay at home and raise their offspring behind closed doors, so that they don't get in the way of the oh-so-important grown ups.

Back to the bus point. Imagine this - you're a mum of two small children. You don't have a car. You need to get somewhere that isn't in walking distance - perhaps you need to go to a particular shop, or you have a medical appointment. Now, it's conceivable that if you had one child you could pop them in a carrier, but if you've got two, unless you're really adept at tandem carrying then your only real option is a buggy of some kind, and to take that on the bus.

But what if that wasn't an option? What if these perpetual moaners got their way, and buses banned pushchairs? What would you do then?

Being a parent can be a very isolating experience. Suddenly just getting out of the house is tough. If you have no car, getting anywhere further than you can walk is a battle. And yet there are people in our society who want to isolate parents even more, to cut off their access to public transport. There are still more that feel aggrieved by parents who dare to try and have a nice lunch out, or even just a coffee, with their children in tow to break up the monotony of the day or to have some much-needed time with friends.

It makes me fume. Children, and by extension their parents, are increasingly treated as irritants. In one of the playgroups I go to, the version of 'Wheels on the Bus' they sing contains the line, "The children on the bus make too much noise." Yes, that's it, tell them they're noisy and annoying from infancy. That'll really help their sense of self-worth and belonging.

The trouble is, a baby who is kept indoors for fear of offending others, a toddler who is taught that they are inherently bothersome, a child who is made to feel unwelcome in public places becomes a young person who is disengaged and disrespectful. Because why should they engage in a society which has been putting them in the wrong since birth? Why should they show respect for people when they haven't been shown any themselves?

Perhaps if we all accepted children as part of our society, wholeheartedly and with open arms, then we would be able to maintain a more harmonious relationship with young adults. Just a hunch. And wouldn't that be worth walking around a buggy for?

Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Breastfeeding Diaries: nursing a nearly two-and-a-half year old

One thing I haven't talked about much on this blog is the fact that I'm breastfeeding my toddler. Part of me has reservations about posting about this, as I know breastfeeding can be an emotive and divisive issue - and 'extended' breastfeeding even more so! But it feels strange to gloss over it, as it is a pretty significant part of my relationship with my daughter. After all, it's something we do surprisingly regularly on a daily basis!

A few weeks ago I saw that Zena's Suitcase was starting a Breastfeeding Diaries link up and I started to wonder whether I should join in. It is such a great opportunity to share stories about nursing, and perhaps a voice from the 'extended' breastfeeding camp would add something to the mix. Also, by talking about my experience, perhaps I could go some way towards demystifying the slightly thorny issue of breastfeeding a toddler, by showing that it isn't the preserve of hippy earth mothers* - all sorts of mums breastfeed beyond infancy!

At the time of writing Toddler is just eight days shy of being two and a half. So what is it like breastfeeding a two and a half year old? Well, it's fidgety - if she's in a restless mood she will twist and contort to alarming degrees during a feed. She also likes to have things to hold onto and play with while feeding, so I will regularly have to breastfeed her while being hit in the face with a book or while a toy car navigates its way round my chest.

But it can also be calm and snuggly - nowadays, the most sustained cuddles we have are during feeds, especially when she's a bit tired or has just woken up. Yesterday she wanted 'mummy milk in Mummy and Daddy's bed' after she'd woken from her nap so we snuggled up together for about quarter of an hour. I could practically feel the oxytocin flooding my brain as I held my still-slightly-snoozy little girl in my arms and told her how much I love her.

It's draining at times - if she's teething, or something developmental is going on, she can feed on an hourly basis during the day. Fortunately she only has one or two night feeds, but the demands of regularly producing milk throughout the waking hours can be tiring. On the flip side, if I wasn't breastfeeding I'd have to find some other way of comforting and reassuring her - at least this way I get to have regular sit-downs!

And, most importantly, it's her call. Some people say that breastfeeding beyond infancy is just about the mother's needs. It's not. Seriously. Have you tried getting a toddler to do something they don't want to? Do you really think a toddler could be persuaded to latch on and feed against their wishes? I only ever offer 'mummy milk' at nap time (to get her to sleep, because I'm too lazy to battle her to sleep through other means) and before we start the bedtime routine. The rest of the time, she asks for it - nay, INSISTS on it! The time will come when she decides to stop, and that's fine, but it's her call. I'm not forcing her to breastfeed, I'm just not forcing her to stop either.

I hope that joining in with the Breastfeeding Diaries means that more people will get to hear about 'extended' breastfeeding in a positive, down-to-earth, normal way. Because really, I'm not much different to any other mum. And my daughter is not much different to any other toddler. We just happen to do something that, in this society, is seen as different. But it's the most ordinary thing in the world to us.

* P.S. Sorry if you're a hippy earth mother, you're great too! In fact, I'd love to be more like you but I'm a rubbish hippy. Honestly, I've tried.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Am I a feminist?

If you've read around my blog (and if you haven't, please do!) you will notice that a particular concern of mine is resisting sexism and gender stereotyping in the way I raise my daughter. From this, you may extrapolate that I am a feminist.

The thing is, I don't actually know if I am.

The trouble is that whenever I try to find a definitive definition of what feminism is, I run into difficulty. Because there doesn't seem to be a definitive definition. Different groups think different things about what it is to be a feminist, so it's really hard to work out if my values and way of life are compatible with the label. I'll read one thing and think, "yes, I agree with that!" Then I'll read something else and think, "oh, now I'm not so sure if I fit."

On the one hand, I am a bit of a traditionalist, although perhaps an accidental one. I took my husband's name when we married, which some feminists would frown on. I left my job to 'stay at home' with my daughter, and while I do have my own business now, I do still think of myself as a mum first and foremost. I do the lion's share of the housework. And before I became a mum I had some very stereotypically 'female' hobbies, including knitting and baking. I do sometimes joke that I should have been around in the 1950's!

But if I think more carefully about it, I'm not quite the anti-feminist walking cliche I appear to be on the surface. I had thought about double-barrelling my surname when we got married, but then we booked our honeymoon before we had the conversation and it hadn't occurred to me that they would ask what to put as my surname. In a moment of panic I blurted out my then-fiance's name, and that was that. Decision made. Besides, when I think about it, my maiden name was my father's surname so whatever I chose I'd have been named after a man anyway.

It's similar with me leaving work when I became a mum. As I've mentioned before, I had every intention of going back to work, but then I was offered voluntary redundancy and, well, it made sense. I wasn't especially happy in my job and I intended to train as a teacher anyway, so why go back to a job that I knew I'd leave before long. Of course, the teacher training hasn't happened yet, and there are a number of reasons for that, but the main one is that my daughter seems to be particularly sensitive to separation, so I sought an option which meant I could be there for her as long as she needs me. It makes sense for me to be the one to stay at home at the moment as any regular job I could get wouldn't attract a salary we could live on - not because I'm a woman, but because I don't have the requisite experience or training.

Then there's the housework thing. Yes, I do most of it, even though I now work at my own business. But the great thing about my job is that it's flexible - I can set my own hours, which means I can make time to cook tea, do the ironing, etc. My husband's job is not nearly as flexible and considerably more demanding in terms of hours, so again, it makes sense that I look after the house. When I had an office job, the split was far more equal, and when my husband is on holiday he helps out a lot. And besides, I'm hardly an obsessive housewife - the washing pile often reaches a critical point before I tackle it, hoovering happens once a week at best, and meals tend to fall in the 'can make in less than 30 minutes after husband is home' category. Maybe my ineptitude in this area cancels out the gender stereotype!

What it all boils down to is that I've chosen this path. I made the decision to change my name, even if it was a spur of the moment choice. I didn't become a 'stay at home' mum grudgingly, but gratefully - I was so happy to have the chance to spend more time with my wonderful child. I'm less happy about the housework, but I certainly don't feel shackled to the kitchen sink, I just accept that I've got the lighter workload so it's only fair that I pick up the slack around the house.

And isn't that part of what feminism is all about? The right to go for any role we want, even if that role is a 'traditional' one. The right to be a CEO, or a stay at home parent, or anything in between. Isn't it about having access to the same opportunities as a man, but making our own decisions about which of those opportunities are appropriate to us?

I believe that men and women should be raised equally, educated equally, paid equally, treated equally. I am angered by the widespread treatment of women as second-class citizens, something which has been highlighted by a number of recent events, including the abduction of over 200 Nigerian schoolgirls, and the murder of a Pakistani woman for choosing her own husband. Interestingly, I am much more fired up about these things now than I might have been five years ago - whether this is to do with my age, or the fact I have a daughter of my own, I'm not sure. But it has made me realise that, globally, men and women are not even nearly equal yet. And that makes me angry. The creeping sexism in childhood - the pink/blue divide, the pointlessly gendered toys, the pressure on girls to prettify themselves and boys to play it tough - makes me angry too. I hate that my daughter could be forced into a pigeonhole she may not want to fit in by this bizarre swing in attitude toward childhood.

So, does that make me a feminist?

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Being the mum of the 'wild child'

I'm beginning to suspect that Toddler is what people in gentle parenting circles would call 'spirited', and what people in not-so-gentle-parenting circles would call 'difficult', 'demanding', 'a handful' and maybe even 'wild'. How I describe her very much varies according to how stressed I am about it!!

She's not a 'bad' child, if you can even use that word to describe someone so young. She very rarely lashes out at other children, and while she will sometimes hit or kick me it's never maliciously - she either thinks it's funny or she's registering her frustration at me trying to change her nappy or physically restraining her from doing something dangerous. She can be defiant, but it's generally in a good-natured, jokey way. She's just not the kind of child who can sit still, or wait for things, or ... well ... do as she's told.

This is challenging enough for me at home but I have to admit that when we're out the eyes of others makes it seem so much worse. Yesterday, for instance, I took her to the library, as I do every Tuesday, for their Rhyme Time session. She had been getting a bit better at these sessions - she still wouldn't sit quietly but she was more engaged in the stories and rhymes. But for the past couple of weeks she's been hard work. Yesterday, she insisted on climbing on and off a soft block intended for sitting on, bouncing on it then jumping off. I was feeling a little embarrassed by it at first, and then another mum told her daughter not to do exactly the same thing and I felt a wave of disapproval that I would let my daughter be so 'naughty'. Whether that wave was real or imagined, I don't know, but try as I might to not let it bother me, it did.

She then started to try and escape the children's area by climbing over the gate, which resulted in her getting her feet stuck, shouting, then screaming when I unstuck her feet and carried her back into the circle. When it came to 'Ring a ring o'roses' at the end, she threw herself on the ground in protest, then cried when it was over and she hadn't had chance to join in. I felt so embarrassed by the end I was glad when she bolted for her pushchair and I could make a quick escape.

Today we went to a playgroup. She copes much better there as it's mainly free play, although I did have to cope with her shouting, "want a biscuit!" at the top of her voice while the leader was going through the notices before snack time, and while the other children were sat, angelically silent and bemused by my daughter's screaming and squirming. Then at the end of playgroup, she once again refused to join in with a song then cried when it was over because she hadn't had chance to join in. Sigh.

I must admit I'm struggling with this phase in Toddler's development, but I know that it's me who needs to adapt to the situation, not her - she's too young to be expected to change. She will learn to be patient, sit still, join in etc. etc. all in good time but she's on her own schedule and I need to respect that. Still, it's hard when I feel like other parents and carers must think she's a 'wild child' and I'm not doing enough to rein her in. I'm very aware that our society prefers to force the child to change, using punishment and rewards, but that's not what I want to do. I trust my daughter to find her own way and I believe that when she does it'll leave her more confident than if I'd tried to coerce or cajole into obedience.

So, yes, I need to change. I need to become more patient with her, more organised so I'm not stressing out when she refuses to get ready to go out, more relaxed about how she's experimenting with her own physical abilities. And I definitely need to develop a thicker skin. Because even if people do think I'm not doing my job properly, I know I am. It's just that the job description I've made for myself might be different to the one they've made for themselves.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Why my daughter is crying ... and why I won't be posting pictures of it

She woke up.

I turned off Youtube.

Another child was using the swing she had decided she'd had enough of two minutes ago.

I turned off the TV.

She banged her foot.

The singing fish at a friend's house was singing.

I pretended to unsuccessfully pull my nose off.

I couldn't fix the crayon she broke.

These are a few of the reasons Toddler has cried over the past couple of days. Some of them – banging her foot, and, arguably, the singing fish – were fairly legitimate. Heck, I feel like crying when I wake up sometimes. Others are a bit more out there, and therefore amusing to us adults, with our fully developed brains.

About a year ago I first saw that website, 'Reasons My Son Is Crying'. Yes, I chuckled at some of those reasons. But it didn't sit comfortably with me. While other people found it funny, I was picturing the scene: a child in great distress, looking to their parent for comfort, while their parent whips out their camera to take a picture before attempting to console their child. "Oh you're crying – right, hold that thought – where's my phone – that's it, keep crying, keep crying – Aaand – done. Aww, do you want a hug?"

I do sometimes make light of the reasons why Toddler cries. Because they can be pretty ridiculous to my grown up eyes. But I try not make fun of those reasons in front of her, and I would certainly never stop to take a picture of her tears before comforting her then post it online.

If you think I'm being over-sensitive about this, just think about how you'd feel if the person you loved most in the world, who you felt most secure with, took a picture of you crying and put it online. Does that sound nice? No, it doesn't, does it? I'd much prefer a hug in those circumstances.

We all cry from time to time. Toddlers cry a lot because they haven't learnt emotional self-regulation yet, and because this big wide world is pretty confusing when you've only been in it a couple of years and don't understand all the rules yet. While a wry chuckle after the event can help a parent cope with the irrational tantrums, I really don't think we should be withholding comfort and mocking these poor kids online.

And, just to point out, toddlers don't have a monopoly on irrational crying. Here are a few reasons I've cried over the past few days (I should point out I'm ill and a bit stressed out, I don't cry this much normally!):

An unanswered e-mail.

Toddler bouncing on the bed for 20 minutes when I needed to change her nappy.

'One Born Every Minute'.

Peaches Geldof's last column for 'Mother and Baby'.

Toddler taking an hour and a half to go to sleep.

In isolation, these reasons seem pretty irrational. But other stuff was going on, and these things were the last straw. I imagine it's very often the same for children.

And if anyone had taken a picture of me in those moments, they'd have risked not having an operative camera thirty seconds later!!

Thursday, 3 April 2014

In praise of free play #LetKidsBeKids

I haven't done a post to link in with Let Kids Be Kids for a while, and there's a reason for that: I haven't done much. That is to say, I haven't done much that is particularly bloggable. (Yep, I made up that word. But it's a good word. Use it in a sentence today.)

A combination of teething hell for Eleanor and starting up a business for me (more on this ... oh, at some point, when I have the energy) means that I haven't been putting much thought into the activities we've been doing together. Three days a week we go to groups and on the free days it's all too tempting to veg out at home and just let her entertain herself with her Duplo or soft toys. On nice days we've been out in the garden, but again we've done nothing much other than pottering about, terrorising worms. (Well, Eleanor does that. I try and stop her. And inevitably fail.)

But hang on - is that really a bad thing? After all, she's two. Only two. While crafts and specific messy play activities are nice and everything, is there really anything wrong with a two-year-old just doing her own thing?

Today a news story is going round about the chief of Ofsted saying that more children should start school at the age of two. I find this unspeakably sad. In the UK we already have an earlier school starting age than most other countries, despite so much evidence showing that children learn best through free play. Willshaw seems to have missed the point to me: if children are not ready for school at the age of 4 or 5, perhaps the problem lies not with the child but with the starting age - an extra year or two to develop could be all they need. But I digress.

My point is, free play is important, especially in the early years. I think it actually helps with communication - Eleanor will chat away to herself while she's engrossed in her play world, mimicking things she's heard me say, lines from books and, ahem, TV. And she will happily line up toys and count them too, so it's helping with her number skills. She doesn't need formal schooling to teach her these things - she's basically teaching herself, we've just got her started by reading, talking about numbers, and talking to her in general.

And Eleanor isn't that interested in structured play anyway. I take her to a playgroup once a week where they have a short craft activity at the end. Sometimes she joins in but for the past couple of weeks she's been more interested in playing with their fabulous doll's house. And that's fine. I'd rather leave her to do something she enjoys than try and cajole her into sticking things in the 'right' place and end up finishing it myself when she wanders off! Similarly, at home, if she wants to spend half an hour playing Ring o' ring o' roses with a toy rabbit and orangutan, why should I try to persuade that she'd rather do some painting for ten minutes of entertainment followed by twenty minutes of cleaning up?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying structured activities are bad. If they're what the child wants to do, then great. This morning Eleanor demanded that we 'bake teddies' (i.e. teddy-shaped gingerbread) at 8.30am. I went with it, even though my preference was for changing out of our pyjamas. But there's enough pressure on parents without them worrying about setting up exciting crafts that they've seen on Pinterest but that will ultimately end up with a half-finished cardboard animal of some description, mess all over the floor and a child who has tottered off to play with their cars. Yes, if the kid is bored, pull something fun out of the bag to mix things up. But if they're happy, let 'em play for goodness sake, and get yourself a cuppa!

I'll leave you with a picture of a game Eleanor likes to play called See How Many Soft Toys You Can Fit In A Potty. You couldn't make it up. Well, she can. And she did. Because she's two.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Learning to be a good role model

I want a lot of things for Toddler. 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 Toddler 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 Toddler 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 Toddler will not develop my aversion to cold and rain and mud.

The trouble is that children learn by observation, so as Toddler'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 Toddler 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 Toddler 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 Toddler, 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, 6 March 2014

How to Get Your Baby To Love Books

Toddler 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 Toddler 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 Toddler 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.

Toddler 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 her 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. Toddler 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 Toddler 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.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Toddler shoes: because apparently girls don't go outside

This morning, on our way to Toddler's music group, I noticed she was walking funny. Then she asked to be carried when we'd only just reached the end of our street. It suddenly occurred to me that we hadn't had her feet measured in over three months.

I know, I'm a wonderful mother aren't I?

So this afternoon we took her to our local shoe shop and, sure enough, she's gone up half a size. Time to part with some cash. The shoe shop stocks Clarks children's shoes so we had a look at their girls' range.

Every single shoe in Toddler's size had big open bits in the top. They were either Mary Janes or T-bars. (Yes, I had to Google shoe styles to find the proper names!) When we got home we looked at the Clarks website to see if there were any other options, and they did have some trainers, but they were all canvas.

Now, that would be fine for indoor wear, or for walking down a clean, dry path. But my daughter likes walking on grass and splashing in puddles and going to places that tend to be muddy. Because she's a child. Children like exploring the outdoors.

Obviously Clarks knows that children like exploring the outdoors because the boys' range is so very practical - lots of trainer styles and leather. So how come girls don't get the same options?

To be fair, we have previously had some much more practical shoes made by Clarks, but that makes their current range all the more disappointing. They've actually taken a step backwards in the choice they offer to young girls. Yes, I know this is probably their spring/summer range, but do you know what? We live in the UK. It rains here in all four seasons, and grass and mud exist all year round too. So children need shoes that will keep their feet dry for more than five minutes. That's why the boys' range is full of leather trainers.

Perhaps Clarks are expecting girls to stay inside until the weather is dry enough for them to go out without fear of messing up their pretty little shoes. Well my girl doesn't. She'd go outside in her pyjamas if I let her. And she doesn't much care about keeping her shoes pretty. She just wants something that fits so she can walk and run and climb just like any child.

Looks like I'll be buying from the boys' range then.

Friday, 14 February 2014

What is Gentle Parenting?

OK. Before I get started here I want to make something clear. I'm not an expert. I haven't read every book going so my use of parenting terms may be a bit loose. Furthermore, I've only been doing this motherhood thing for 26 months, with one kid. So what follows is what gentle parenting means to me, and is not intended as a judgement on any other way of parenting. Heck, I don't have all the answers, so who am I to judge?

But anyway.

A few times on this blog I've mentioned the term 'gentle parenting'. But what actually is it?

Well, despite it's rather woolly sounding name, it's actually rooted in an understanding of the human brain – more specifically, a child's brain. It's also influenced by childrearing practices that are considered completely normal in many cultures, and were probably considered normal in our culture once too. So before anyone dismisses it as a fluffy, new-age fad, it's not.

For me, gentle parenting is about asking myself three questions:

  1. Would I like it if someone treated me like this?
  2. Am I being reasonable in my expectations of my child at this stage in her development?
  3. Is this helping her to grow into the kind of person I want her to be?

Let's look at these each in turn.

So, number one. This is a rule I try my best to live by. (Note I say 'try my best'. I'm not always successful. Too often, I'm unsuccessful. But still I try.) I do believe that, as far as possible, you should treat others how you wish to be treated. So it makes sense to apply it to my relationship with Toddler. Would I like it if someone yelled at me? No. Would I like it if someone I love ignored me when I was deeply upset? No. So should I do those things to Toddler? No.

There is a limit of course. I wouldn't particularly like someone changing my nappy. And I wouldn't like someone to say no to me if I asked for icecream for breakfast. So, of course, I'm sensible about this – if it relates to health, hygiene or safety I may have to ignore this rule. But most of the time I don't have to.

Number two – here's where the science comes in. I'm not very good at science, but one book I've found that explains child brain development very clearly is ToddlerCalm by Sarah Ockwell-Smith (you can read my review of this book here). Basically, I have to continually remind myself that Toddler's brain is very different from mine. Huge chunks of it (the empathy bit, the logic bit, the emotional regulation bit) aren't there yet – or at least they are still massively under-developed. The rest is a mess of links and connections that haven't been pruned down yet. Which explains why an innocent question about what she wants for pudding might trigger off a 10 minute monologue quoting a dozen children's books. She hasn't sorted the wheat from the chaff yet, mentally speaking. So when she's reciting 'Horsey Horsey' to herself instead of telling me which tights she wants to wear today, I have to stay calm and repeat my mantra – "she's only two, she's only two, she's only two ..."

So this means that I need to fill in for the bits of her brain that aren't working quite yet. If I ask her to tidy up but she's off in her own little world, I may have to accept that I'm doing the tidying for now. If she has a tantrum over something seemingly ridiculous, I have to be the calming, consoling bit of her brain rather than ignoring her, or worse, laughing at her. (Although I may share the most bizarre tantrums with friends or on social media later when she's not around. Because if I don't laugh about it, I'd probably cry.)

Number three is probably the most crucial question. There seems to be a bizarre contradiction in our culture where we want our kids to be obedient and quiet and do as they're told until they're sent out into the big wide world where they have to be independent and assertive and think for themselves. So as much as I can I try to remember the qualities I want Toddler to possess when she becomes an adult.

This means I don't make her say sorry, because I don't want her to grow up thinking that sorry makes everything better. It often does if it's sincere, but using the word as a 'get out of jail free' card is not sincere. It means I think hard before I make a rule, to make sure it's actually necessary and just me exercising my authority for the sake of a quiet life. It means that if she does something wrong, I take the time to explain to her why it was wrong, and hopefully will one day help her to work out how to put it right, rather than inflicting a punishment on her that she will remember long after she's forgotten what she did wrong.

So that's what gentle parenting means to me. It's essentially about treating my daughter respectfully – like I would any adult, with the caveat that as she isn't an adult, she'll need a little more help while she learns and grows.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Why I hate princesses

Toddler and I were eating lunch yesterday when she launched into a little monologue (as she often does). "Have a bootiful face, think bootiful thoughts, dance like a fairy." Oh great, I thought. That's that awful bit from Sleeping Beauty. And my two-year-old daughter has it stored in her brain.

In case you don't know what I'm on about, we have a Ladybird Books version of Sleeping Beauty. I got it second hand when I was pregnant, because I had fond memories of Ladybird books as a child. I'd clearly blocked out the awful messages it gives young girls.

What Toddler was reciting was the part of the story where the good fairies give the baby princess her gifts. As well as the gifts listed above, she is also given the gifts of being kind and loving and singing, "like a nightingale." We are not told all the gifts, but apparently these are, "everything in the world one could wish for."

Really? So girls, beauty, dainty dancing and a pretty voice are what you ought to aspire to. OK, being kind and loving and thinking beautiful thoughts is better, but how about also being brave, determined, confident? What about innovative, courageous, problem-solving thoughts? (I tend to add my own lines, such as, "The sixth fairy said, 'You shall do well academically.' The seventh fairy said, 'You shall be daring and adventurous.'" How long until she can read and realises they're not there?!)

I didn't think much about the princess culture before I had a daughter. But when I started to think about it, I realised I don't like what these stories are telling, or will tell, her. I mean, let's have a look at some:

Sleeping Beauty - if a man kisses you when you are asleep and therefore unable to consent, that's fine. In fact, go ahead and marry him.

Cinderella - you can escape a miserable life by dressing up and pretending to be someone you're not, thus bagging a man.

The Princess and the Pea - a 'real princess' (therefore the most desirable wife) is so delicate the tiniest discomfort is too much for her.

The Little Mermaid - to gain independence you must lose your ability to express yourself. And to get the man of your dreams you must give up your former life entirely. Or, in the case of the original, give up your life.

Beauty and the Beast - if a man is aggressive and threatening towards you, don't worry, you can change him. (Err ...)

I could go on. The point is that princess stories aren't the innocent, twee little tales they seem to be. They have a common theme that beauty is all-important, the main aim of a young woman should be marriage, and if life is hard, the best thing to do is wait around for a man to save you. Oh, and once you're married, it's happy ever after.

Now, I'm a married woman and I do believe that marriage is important. But it's not the only important thing a woman can do. Nor is it a ticket to everlasting happiness - yes, it does bring happiness, but sometimes things can be hard, and successful marriages require work. And beauty is not all-important - at least, it shouldn't be. Girls and women are equipped for far more than looking decorative, giving a nice twirl and humming a pretty tune.

As Toddler gets older I know the princess culture will become less and less avoidable. Eventually she will see the Disney films. She may even ask to buy the dolls, and if not, she'll probably come across them at a friend's house. I'm not sure how I'll handle this. At the moment I can limit her exposure to the handful of Ladybird books she has, and I can interject my subversive comments. But as she grows up with these fictional role models all around her, how do I keep her feet on the ground and help her to believe that she is complete in herself without a 'prince' and that she can aspire to be more than eye candy?

I'd love to hear from parents of girls who feel the same way. How do you deal with the whole princess thing? How do you keep it balanced with messages that this isn't all there is to being a woman?