1/5 It’s always better on holiday.

What is it about the way in which our capacity for guilt increases exponentially the minute we set eyes on our first child?

It strikes me that this is not something that women in the past (and when I say past I’m obviously referring to some vague, romanticised bygone era, as opposed to a concrete period of time), would have felt as acutely. Back then, before women’s liberation is I suppose what I’m talking about, being a mother and a home maker was a given for the half of the population with the ability to give birth. The division of labour was simple: Men go out and make the money, women stay home and deal with the domestics. I’m not naive enough to think that these were equally valued roles, because read any advertising copy from pre1960s and it is immediately obvious that they weren’t (‘The Kenwood Chef does everything apart from cook – that’s what wives are for!), BUT, there was no stigma attached to staying at home. There was no judgement from other women, because communities were full of them, in the home, in and out of each other’s kitchens, providing support and gossip and cups of tea.

Now, post liberation, we have choices. There are still enormous issues around managing a career and a family (maternity leave, the cost of childcare and the attitudes of some employers towards women of child bearing age to name a few), but there is no longer a culture of women being resigned to life as a housewife. And thank God right? But what about those of us to choose to stay at home? How do we manage the dual expectations of being career woman on the one hand, and domestic goddess on the other? What if we choose to opt out of one of them?

My eldest child is three and a half and it is only recently that I am becoming comfortable with my choice to be a stay at home parent. I no longer feel compelled to follow up a question about what I do now, with a statement about what I plan to do in the future. I no longer feel that I have to remind others (and myself), that I did have a career and that I am an educated young woman, who just happens not to work. I no longer feel obligated to validate my existence to strangers at parties. Mainly because I don’t go to any parties.

Enough is enough! I am at home, because I choose to be! My husband values my contribution to our family as highly as he does his own. We both work, but only one of us gets paid.

There are days, Lord knows, when it feels like bedtime will never come. As soon as one stops whinging the other starts crying, I gave someone water in the wrong cup, they both need to play with the exact same dinosaur toy NOW, the baby’s nappy explodes and blah, blah, blah, I can bore myself with the minutiae of my day, let alone anyone else. Mostly though? I have a pretty nice life. We wake up and often have nowhere in particular to get to, so we stay in our pyjamas until we have reason not to. The boys are increasingly self sufficient and play together happily, while I potter about (who am I kidding, dash about frantically), doing the things I need to do, before getting roped into some game or another. If the weather is nice we get to go to all the good places when everyone else is at work or school and I catch myself, on a Wednesday afternoon, throwing pebbles into the sea, and I cannot believe that this is my life. That things can be this good.

But then the guilt.

Where did this puritanical idea that we are supposed to grind ourselves to the bone come from? That it is normal to be constantly tired and stressed and over worked? Maybe it’s because I was, all of those things, for as a long as I was a teacher, that I found it so hard to get used to being free of all of that. And felt so guilty for not being on my knees at the end of every day. Surely I was doing something wrong, I should work harder! Life should be harder!

I’m writing this in the evening. The last of the sun is shining through the trees and into my bedroom. The kids have had a good day, mostly free of cup related drama, and are now sleeping, more than likely until a (reasonably) civilised hour tomorrow morning. It is easy to think about life in soft focus, maybe with a nice vintage Instagram filter over the top of it, and to gloss over how incredibly difficult I found the first year after my second baby was born. About the feeling of utter exhaustion when attempting the heady combo of parenting a nearly two year old while heavily pregnant. The dark, dark days of waking six times in the night and then getting up and attempting to get a tiny baby and toddler out of the house, so that I didn’t go completely insane. I have done my fair share of hard work these past years and I do the work of being a parent relentlessly, day in and day out, and damn it, I put a lot of effort in. I have been a shark with a bad New York accent for the past WEEK to get my child to get dressed y’all. And yet, there is still a voice in my head that says I don’t do enough, because I don’t go out to work. Even though I don’t want to go to work! What special brand of crazy is this that we mothers inflict upon ourselves? IT MAKES NO SENSE!

So I have stopped. I have always loved the line from Jacqueline by Franz Ferdinand that goes, “It’s always better on holiday, so much better on holiday, that’s why we only work when we need the money”. I listened to it a lot after I finished my degree and was dossing around New Zealand for a year, but I am beginning to apply it to this phase of my life too. Being a stay at home parent is not what I would call a holiday (hahahaNO), but I love it. I choose it. I am in a position of immense privilege to be able to choose it, and I refuse to waste a second more of it by feeling guilty for doing so.

These photos were taken on an actual holiday. Where we swam every day, and walked in the countryside and let the kids watch too much TV and drank more beer than I have in the last year. It was brilliant and at the end of it I just felt so incredibly thankful not to be going back to work, and that my days at home, don’t look that dissimilar to my days on holiday.

This post was not actually supposed to be some braggy brag fest about how wonderful my life is, so sorry about that tangent, I will now return the original subject of my inner turmoil about letting down my feminist foresisters. Because I do feel like I’m maybe letting down my feminist foresisters, with the not working and the distinct lack of smashing through glass ceilings. But guys, it’s okay, I’m not here, repressed in my home, crying over the mangle and mourning my inability to vote. I’m HERE, liberated, making choices and raising my family and contributing to society and all that good stuff. I just don’t have a job, but it’s cool.

Bottom line: I know that in ten, twenty years, when retirement still seems a million years away and I am back at the daily grind, that I will look back at this time as so golden. I will have forgotten how many times a day I had to say, ‘please use your normal voice’, about the times I lost my patience and had to shut myself in the bathroom, and how I once sobbed at a toddler group with a baby crying in my arms and a toddler crying on the floor because ohmygod this shit is real and hard and exhausting, (no wait, I will NEVER forget that one). But I will forget the relentlessness of it, and the guilt and the worrying, and I will remember the cuddles, the stories, the trips out in the afternoon, the buzz of my children’s first words, first steps, first I love yous. It will be so, so golden. And I will not waste it feeling guilty.

Don’t waste it feeling guilty.

Learning at home: Reading.

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This week, at just shy of three and a half, the Mancub learned to jump with two feet, and read. One of those things was just on the cusp of worryingly late, the other? Well allow me at least a second to Mom brag: the boy can read. Words. Short words admittedly (cat, dog, pot, win), but he sees them, sounds them out, and then tells me what they say. To say that he is excited by this development is something of an understatement. He laughed hysterically for a minute after he read his first word before shouting, ‘Write another!’. And another. And another.

At this point I believe I’m supposed to insert some sort of platitude along the lines of, ‘It’s incredible! Unbelievable! I don’t know where it came from!’, which would be something of a misnomer. I do know where it came from, because I taught him to read. So obviously I knew it was coming and it doesn’t really surprise me, but nevertheless, I’m pretty blown away by it. I’m only human, just like he is only three.

Anyway, I thought it might be nice to share a few of the strategies I have used here, because they are things you can do with a child of any age, providing they find them fun and engaging and providing they are ready. Feel free to take a few of them away, or just ignore them and write me off as a terrible show off. If you’re new to this blog or don’t come here often I should also probably point out that I am a primary school teacher by trade, hence my ability to ramble on about this topic for far too many words.

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I don’t think there are many things that we are obligated to do as parents. Feeding and clothing our children is a good start. A few toys are essential I suppose. Love, warmth, affection, but certainly nothing as complicated as the thousands of parenting books on the market would suggest.

Reading for me, like clothes and food, is a non negotiable. Stories, comics and magazines. Poetry, nursery rhymes and information books. All children love being read to, and if they are read to frequently, all children will, eventually, want to learn to read for themselves. It might be when they are two, it might be when they are seven, but I fundamentally believe that children have an innate desire to learn that needs little encouragement.

What we, as parents, carers and teachers have the power to do, is to put out that flame of desire in an instant if we push them too soon, or make reading a chore. Learning anything, whether it’s riding a bike or reading a book should always come from a child’s willingness and ability to do so. I’m absolutely not advocating here that we sit down all kids at age 3 and teach them phonics (that that is happening in nurseries across the country makes my heart sink), just that we to read to them, as early and as often as possible, then the rest will naturally follow.

But, my kid showed an interest. He had that desire, and he has a good grasp of words and letters, so I did some things with him that moved his reading forward to the point he is at now, where he can decode short words himself and make a good guess at many others based on their context and initial letter. Here are a few of the things we’ve been doing over the past year.

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Strategies for Reading With Children.

As I have said, for me the single most important thing a parent can do with regards to their child’s education is to read to them. I had a bedtime story every night until I was around ten years old, and I still remember the feeling of sadness when I realised I was too old to have one any more. No child would ever want to read unless they have an incentive to do so. Reading them stories that they love provides that incentive, as well as about a million other benefits.

Alongside this you can begin to introduce your child to the phonetic alphabet. There is no harm in teaching letter names (A, B, C etc), but it is more beneficial in terms of learning to read to teach the phonetic sounds (A is a hard a, like at the start of Apple, B is buh, C is cuh, E is eh like at the start of Elephant etc). I bought a few simple alphabet books and used these as a starting point, (I would trace the letter with his finger and sing ‘Buh is for ball, Buh-Buh-Ball or whatever was on that page). We also played with magnetic letters (Can you find me puh for parrot?), letter jigsaws and stampers. We wrote letters on pebbles and we traced them in the sand. (Side note: our ridiculously complex language means that all letters can represent many different sounds, so it’s best to go with the most common. However the Mancub’s name ends in a y, which in his name makes an ‘ee’ sound like at the end of monkey, so I taught him right away that Y makes a ‘yuh’ sound at the start of words, but an ‘ee’ sound at the end. He doesn’t seem to find this too confusing, but usually refers to Y as ‘ee’. You might want to do this if your child also has a phonetically complex name such as Phillip or Cedric).

As your child begins to learn some of their letters and sounds you can introduce games like I Spy. The Mancub always finds this easier if instead of spotting things around the room that we can actually see, we play on a theme, (I spy with my little eye, an animal that begins with duh… Duck / a dinosaur that begins with sss… Stegosaurus / someone who begins with mmm… Mama). Sometimes I would collect a bunch of objects on a tray and we would play I spy with them, and you could also use those ‘find it’ books. The point of all this I spying is to focus on the initial sounds of words, as a segue into being able to spell and read them. As a way of encouraging them to think about it from the opposite perspective you could ask your child, I’m writing a card to Grandma, what letter does Grandma begin with? If they’re old enough they could write or use a stamper to print the first letter for you. You could also do this when your writing shopping list (what letter do I need at the start of bananas?), or you could write a story together (they tell you a story, you write it down, but ask them for help with some words).

If your child is enjoying books, they know most of their letters and can pick out the initial sound of familiar words, you might like to start helping them to segment words (break words up into their individual sounds), and blend them (put them back together again). This sounds complicated, but is basically what we’re doing all the time when we read and spell unfamiliar words. We sound them out, we turn those sounds into a word. A nice way to do this is play a game based on your child’s interests. The Mancub loves Octonauts, so I ask him, ‘Which Octonaut am I? D-a-sh-ee’, and he is able to put those sounds together to say, ‘Dashi’. We have done lots of this sort of thing on different themes, and he likes having a go at sounding out words for me to guess too.

Finally, once you put those skills together, you have the building blocks of reading. In time your child will go from having the component parts, to being able to look at a word and sound it out ‘c-a-t’, and know that it makes the word cat. It’s magic really, and it does just seem to happen over night. Of course not all children take this route to learning to read, but it is the one most commonly taught in schools now.

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This is the beginning of a long journey. The Mancub doesn’t yet know that sometimes two letters go together to make a sound like sh or ch. He finds it hard to read words longer than three letters, because it’s still too challenging to hold onto all of those letters in his head and blend them. And then there’s words like ‘the’ and ‘was’ and ‘he’, that can’t be sounded out and just need to be learned by heart.

But he’s on the road and he’s so excited to get going that it’s infectious.

I hope you’ve found some of these little activities of interest or of use. Ultimately I think my only advice is to be led by your child, to use their interests and enjoyment as a starting point and to do little bits here as they want to, (we play these games for no more than a few minutes at a time, and by no means each day).

If you’re child is anything like mine, the laughter that follows the first time they read the word ‘bum’ out loud will be worth it.