2/5 This much I know.

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So, parenting.

I don’t know, I’m sure some people manage it, but in my experience it is impossible to have a baby, and then not let said baby take well and truly over your life. Pregnancy, birth, feeding and raising tiny humans has utterly dominated my every waking moment for the past 4 years and has made up the fabric of my day, every day. Which has been both wonderful and totally bonkers, inspiring and, well, intense.

Right now though, I feel like some of the fog is lifting. I can sustain my attention for more than 60 seconds on topics other than cloth nappies and the best strategy for getting your toddler into their car seat without giving yourself an aneurysm. I am beginning to prioritise myself more, and my need to get fit and use my brain in different ways, rather than always feeling at the bottom of the pecking order. There is, oh my God imagine, space in my life for more than just babies. A dog! Why will no one let me get a dog?

Part of the reason for saying farewell to this blog is that the impetus to write incessantly about parenting has waned. But while I am still here, not quite clear of those all encompassing toddler years, I thought I would write down the most important stuff that I have learned. The pearls that I want to pass on, to other people still very much beneath the mist, trying to figure it out, with only 4 hours sleep and a strong coffee to their name.

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The very most important thing I know: We all fuck up. Like, you can read all of the Janet Lansbury you like, rehearse all the right things to say in the midst of an epic toddler tantrum, be the most zen and empathetic earth mother to your three year old who has very specific cup preferences, but at some point, you will lose your shit. Not in a ‘I’m strategically raising my voice to get you to listen’ way, but in a ‘Dude, I am exhausted, my patience is in the gutter, you are pushing me to my goddamn limits and I am just yelling because I am full blown ANGRY with this TOTAL LACK OF COOPERATION YOU ARE TAKING THE PISS MY GOD!’. This is not a thing that any parent is planning on, and shit, when it happens on the way into Sainsburys with a thousand judgey old people staring at you, know that it will be one of the low moments of your life. But guys, we are human, and while I LOVE positive parenting sites like Janet’s, I think we need to be honest that sometimes a situation will just push a button and we will yell and it will be ugly. It’s okay, our children will not be emotionally broken as a result of this, and it absolutely does not undo all the other good stuff that we do. On behalf of mothers everywhere, I am officially cutting us some slack.

Parenting though, it’s a judgey game. Actually I think it begins way before we are even parents and we are in a restaurant and there is a family on the table next to us. Ipads are on, pasta is being thrown and the parents are just benignly drinking wine and pretending not to notice the breadsticks that are being crushed and then liberally sprinkled about the floor. And we sit there and we think, ‘That will never be me, I will never be that parent, I will do so much better than that’. It carries on when we have had our baby, and you see an eighteen month old in the pushchair chowing down on a packet of Quavers and you act all aghast, because suspiciously cheese flavoured reconstituted corn shall NEVER pass the lips of YOUR preshus angel. And then again when you’ve got a toddler and you see those big kids dominating the bouncy castle, bumping yours right out of the way and onto their faces, while their parents drink beer and literally could not give less of a shit, and you vow to never let your children be such obnoxious little brats that leap all over babies without a care in the world. We all judge, of course we do. Judgement is useful! When you are thrust into the oblivion, I think it is good to look around at what others are doing and syphon off the things that you like, and want to emulate, and the paths that you swear you’ll never go down. This is all a healthy way to work out the parent we want to be. But also, shit happens. The afore mentioned shit in the last paragraph for example. And it helps precisely no one if you are there, looking on, at parents having a hard time or wilfully ignoring their children, because they’ve had ENOUGH that day, and passing judgey judgement. I am trying my best to remember that, and to not be a dick.

So if we have ascertained that we are all going to have bad times, and that we will refrain from being too harsh on others who are having bad times, what about the rest? Repeat after me: there is no right way. I know amazing parents who put a ton of effort into their interactions with their children, set up wonderful Montessori style activities, and are mindful of everything they do. I also know amazing parents who work full time and drop their kids of at child care every day and let them watch a ton of TV in the evenings because they are all freaking tired. I have written a lot about the guilt that suddenly descends when you have kids and makes you feel like whatever you’re doing? Not good enough. NOT. GOOD. ENOUGH. But the conclusion that I have drawn is that if it is working out for you and you’re family? Probably good enough. I am definitely the geekiest parent on the block and if there is stuff in our family that is bothering me (my kid has started waking up in the night again, my kid hasn’t eaten any vegetables in a month, my kid has an all consuming obsession with sharks at the expense of any human interaction, let’s say, just as an example), then you can bet I will be up all night scouring the internet for ways to improve the situation. But I do try and separate out the stuff that bothers me, because it bothers me, and the stuff that is driven by what I think I should be doing, because a Mormon lady in New York is doing it.

A word on parenting blogs: There are some amazing women out there who write inspirationally and honestly about their time with children (shout outs to Renegade Mothering, Parenting Illustrated with Crappy Pictures and Recipe Rifle for keeping it so real). For the most part though, once a blog has paid sponsorship, they have to maintain their brand, and their brand is usually them, being a completely perfect parent. Of course they are dealing with the same crap as the rest of us, OF COURSE THEY ARE, but they are photographing and writing about fun trips to the pumpkin patch, or how they just weaved their own yurt out of felt. Which is cool, I love those blogs! I love felt yurts! But the phrase ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’, has never been so apt.

Here are some other things I know:

Never tell the mother of a new born to ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’, ‘savour every moment’ or that is all ‘goes so fast’. It does go so fast but a day when you’re up at 5am and your partner is away and it’s raining and the internet has broken also lasts a thousand years, so that kind of makes up for it.

Instead, take the mother of a newborn food: cake, coffee and meals she can reheat. Literally the only gifts worth giving.

This too shall pass, this too shall pass, this too shall pass. They will stop doing that annoying thing that they do eventually. Sure, they’ll start doing some other annoying thing instead, but a change is as good as a rest right?

And seriously, if I was to pass on one piece of actual advice to the parent of small children it would be this: Ignore them sometimes. I am cultivating a style of parenting I like to call ‘conscious neglect’ (admittedly i might need to work on my branding), because honestly, it’s okay for kids to fend for themselves for a good chunk of the day. I think a lot about my Grandma, who raised three children in the North of England during the 1950s. She had a job and did all of the domestic chores without even a goddamn vacuum cleaner or washing machine, while her husband worked away a lot. Seriously, how was this even possible? Well she sure as shit wasn’t putting together colour match wheels and busy bags and making toast that looked like a little bear (although that bear toast? OMG). And yet she was still an amazing mother. So I think about her when I tell my kids that they have to entertain themselves for a while so I can cook, or get dinner ready or mess around on my iphone and feel thankful that I don’t have a mangle and that it’s no longer an expectation that I scrub my front steps every day. They’ll be okay on their own for a while, and it makes me appreciate the times when I sit down to do something nice with them all the more.

I’m sure I’m forgetting things. How to do a one handed nappy change on the parcel shelf of your car for a start, but that’s okay, you’ll figure it out. I need to go and do some other stuff: Plant some cabbages, swoon over yellow kitchen tiles, read a BOOK, Snap Chat a friend, secretly buy a dog. Stuff that still exists, waiting for you, when you emerge from the fog.

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.

The problem with Princesses.

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^^What the Disney Princesses would look like with realistic hair. Via Buzzfeed.

Oh those bloody Disney Princesses, I knew they’d catch up with me one day.

Before having children I viewed them as the axiom of everything that was wrong with childhood in a supposedly post feminist world. In the name of shifting films, books and an awful lot of merchandise, little girls are bombarded with images of these supposedly perfect examples of womanhood, with their nipped in waists and doe eyes, swirling dresses and no notable qualities other than the ability to sing, dance and make their man happy. I swore up and down that if I ever had a daughter, the Princesses, along with Barbie, would be categorically unwelcome in our house.

And then I found myself in a situation where today I sent my eldest son to preschool dressed as Cinderella, asking me, ‘Does my hair look pretty?’, not having read him a bedtime story other than a rotation of fairy tales for weeks.

My main problem with fairy tales, and in turn the highly branded line up of Disney Princesses that they have spawned, is that they tend to depict women as one of two tropes: the kind, sweet, animal loving protagonist, who enjoys singing with blue birds and baking pies, but who has no discernible problem solving skills nor desire for anything beyond being rescued by a handsome prince (see: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Jasmine etc etc); and the evil antagonist, who is driven mad by her jealousy of anyone younger and more beautiful than her, to the point where murder is inevitable (Malificent, Ursula et al). The message is clear: these are your choices girls, a simpering beauty or a total bitch. It is limiting to say the least.

In their defence Disney have made advances of late, most notably with Brave, which features Merida, a much more robust, independent, smart as a whip kind of a Princess, who provides an antidote to the irksome saps who rely on their Princes to get them out of trouble. Frozen also focuses on the love between two sisters, as opposed to winning the approval of a man, yet falls short for me, because it’s still inexplicably done whilst dancing around in sexy dresses, when clearly an anorak and boots would have been much more appropriate attire for a snow covered mountain.

However, the classic ‘Princess’ range remains predictably dull. I was convinced, in desperate times (ahead of a three hour flight and vaccinations), into buying two issues of the Dinsey Princess magazine (BEST SELLING MAGAZINE FOR GIRLS!). Honestly, this stuff is just mind numbing. In the latest issue readers are invited to play a game whereby the winner gets to be Princess Aurora’s bridesmaid (OMG! Squee!), while the stories focus on the characters’ ability to pick flowers, bake cupcakes and, I kid you not, prepare a romantic picnic for their prince. Is anyone else sensing a rather tiresome theme emerging here?

Is this really all little girls, and more pertinently the parents of little girls, want (I say girls because I assume that’s who Disney look to for feedback)? Or is this just what they are being spoon fed? Why couldn’t Disney take those original characters, and put them into new situations that highlight more aspirational qualities: Cinderella’s picnic gets hijacked by the Stepsisters, so she single handedly forages for a new one, before building an escape route for her and the Prince in the process, (as opposed to the actual solution which was… She got rescued by some swans. I mean, really?). It just feels like there is no appetite to update these characters into strong, smart women with attributes to aspire to. Disney, and I can only assume vast swathes of parents, are happy to stick with this bizarre 1950s idea of women as something to look good and be rescued. Nothing more. It’s depressing.

As the parent of a boy who is currently Princess mad, I obviously have a slightly different take on it. It is not so much what he aspires to be that I worry about (I can only assume that his desire to be a Princess will be relatively short lived), but with how he is seeing women being portrayed.

I remember hearing an interview with Caitlin Moran, talking about whether or not she lets her young daughters watch pop videos. Another woman on the show revealed that she doesn’t let her daughter watch Rhianna’s music videos, because she considers them too sexualised, while Caitlin countered that she lets her daughters watch them, but also has a frank conversation about their content: ‘Poor Rhianna, how do you think she feels dressed like that? What if she has a cold? Or is on her period? I bet she’d rather be wearing a nice cardie.’ Instead of censoring, she uses those portrayals of women as a means to discussing how they are problematic and offering up alternatives.

I’ve taken my lead from this I suppose. I haven’t banned fairytales (although the versions we read are the classic stories, rather than the Disney adaptations), and he has been allowed to watch some of the Disney Princess films and listen to the soundtracks. But we talk about the endings, at an age appropriate level, and within our play I try and subvert the roles, at least a little, to make sure he knows that Princesses can be strong, capable, brave and intelligent, as well as pretty and kind.

I also ensure that the Princesses aren’t by any means the only depiction of women and girls he is exposed to. Zog by Julia Donaldson and The Paper Bag Princesses by Robert Munsch both offer direct alternatives to the traditional fairy tale ending (one princess shuns royalty in order to be a Doctor, the other declines her Prince’s offer of marriage when he criticises her appearance), and there are plenty of examples of other strong, feisty girls on our bookshelves from Lola of Charlie and Lola to Pippi Longstocking and Matlida. Films, I admit, are harder to come by, and I would love recommendations of U rated films that feature a strong female lead that aren’t even necessarily subverting the traditional female stereotype but are just… girls, doing their thing (Despicable Me, Brave and Annie are my favourite examples, but it’s hard to find others).

Ultimately, I know that it is the women and girls around him, who serve as his most important role models. I am grateful that both of his Grandmothers are as happy digging for minibeasts in the garden as they are baking cakes in the kitchen, and that his best friend is a girl who can outrun him as much as he can outprincess her. He also has a whole range of other interests and I am currently indebted to the Octonauts who feature both a female engineer and pilot, for some much needed balance in our house.

The Disney Princesses might be getting the better of me at the moment (especially with renewed requests for a Cinderealla doll), but I’m in this for the long haul, and I know I’ll win out in the end.

Hair.

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I like long hair on men. Some of my favourite men (my husband included), wear their hair past their shoulders, so I was never going to be in a rush to cut my son’s hair into a classic ‘boy crop’. It has never struck me as particularly feminine either. I know in reality women are far more likely to have long hair, but I dunno, Axl Rose? That’s some serious testosterone going on there, no?

As a result, I just kind of let the Mancub’s hair do it’s own thing, growing frustratingly slowly for my liking actually, but finally making it past the nape of his neck in soft little baby wisps. I think it looks cute, and he loves it long (I have in fact asked him several times if he would like his hair cut shorter, always to be met with a very decisive ‘no’), and he even lets me drag a brush through it occasionally these days.

I have already written extensively about how I have no problem whatsoever with my boys choosing to do or wear things that are typically deemed ‘girly’. They can play with whatever toys they like and pick out their shoes from whichever side of the shop they are drawn to, wear that dress if they so choose. In other words, I am fully prepared to support them in their girliness. Which is why I guess this has caught me off guard a little, because I don’t really associate long hair with being girly (my husband is 6’6 and typically pairs his long hair with a beard and a biker jacket, so effeminate is not a word I would ever use to describe him), and so it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that long hair on a boy would cause such utter confusion.

To be clear, he is, since his hair grew past his neckline, mistaken for a girl almost 100% of the time by strangers. Admittedly it’s an easy mistake to make when he’s in his princess dress, or his pink leggings. But he can also be wearing his most boyish clothes (black trousers, oatmeal jumper, blue and silver jacket, carrying a toy dinosaur), and people will still tell me, ‘Oh, isn’t she cute!’.

I get it. I once, mortifyingly, mistook a boy for a girl when I was a supply teacher, and referred to him as such in front of the whole class (cue many giggles and very red cheeks on both of us). When meeting new children, especially those in school uniform, hair and names can be the quickest signifiers of gender, and when the child has a unisex name (as he did, as mine does), it can be easy to jump to the wrong conclusion. Most people are profusely embarrassed, and so I rarely correct them and instead leave them to work it out for themselves if they’re around long enough to do so.

I have discussed this with the Mancub. Occasionally I will say, ‘Oh, he thought you were a girl, that’s nice isn’t it?’, to which he always seems very blasé. When we have talked about hair cuts I have explained that sometimes people will think he’s a girl if he keeps his long hair (without attaching any negative connotations), and he’s still excited to grow it long like his (female) cousin. In short: it doesn’t bother him. Hurrah! I win feminism! My boy is happy to be mistaken for a girl!

But does it bother me?

Sometimes, yes. Dammit.

The frequency, the relentlessness of it bothers me a little. That people don’t take the time to check, or to ask his name before telling me something cute they overheard my ‘daughter’ saying. That he is dismissed so quickly as something he’s not, even if it’s not necessarily offensive, but because it’s incorrect.

But these are strangers, not people with a vested interested in my children. Just strangers making an off hand comment, and a fair assumption, based on appearance and their best guess at the time.

So I don’t let it bother me often, because life is too short. Unlike his hair.

For the love of Barbie.

Okay, so it’s time to get a bit ranty. It’s been all fluffy bunnies, or more accurately babies, and smiley toddlers for a while over here, but I’m still an angry feminist so let’s dial this up a bit.

I was perusing Pinterest the other night when I came across this photo of Barbie modelling her (bang on trend?) Sharpie swimsuit, with the caption, ‘What a fab idea, why didn’t I think of this?’. Because that’s right, this isn’t the handy work of a small child with dreams of being a fashion designer, but her (in my opinion woefully misguided) mother.

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Childcare: Why don’t men pull their weight?

A really interesting article written by a man who went part time to do his fair share of childcare. There do seem to be a lot of myths surrounding why men are still so much less likely to put their careers on hold and a lot of excuses to hide the fact that ultimately, men don’t want to stay at home and raise babies.
Sadly (although I’m not sure for who), we didn’t have any choice as my husband makes signifcantly more than me (not hard), and also doesn’t have the sort of career that would allow him a break, whereas i can easily take a break from teaching and return after a few years. Recently he has been fitting some childcare into the mix to allow me to do some odd days, and working from home allows him to be much more hands on than most, but he still isn’t party to that daily grind of looking after a toddler.
I made a choice to stay at home with my children, which I don’t regret for a second, but part of me resents the hit that my career has taken as a result and that it is still women, above all, who are expected to make such sacrifices, while it is grandparents and childcare that fill in the gaps rather than fathers.

Childcare: Why don’t men pull their weight?