First Night Nerves

Dressing up time!
Dressing up time!

Yep I know he’s 19 months old, nearly 20, but last night marked my first night away from Little J. Some people I know find that hard to believe but I was breastfeeding for the first 16 months of his life and since then haven’t had the need or desire to leave him for a night (well actually if he’s woken up x number of times I’ve had both the need and the desire but you know…).

So last night…it was my old school’s inaugural alumni dinner. I’m still good friends with my group of eleven school girls, we see each other regularly and message daily. They were all keen for this dinner and two months ago when I agreed to it I thought it might be a ‘good thing’ to do on my parenting journey.

Hmm. Now is probably an opportune moment to note that any simple night away is, for me, a tad more complicated. I have a pesky panic disorder that makes going away specifically very hard work for me. It started when I was about nine or ten and continued until I was 18…I didn’t do sleepovers, school trips…I was the only one in my entire (albeit small) year at school who didn’t embark on Duke of Edinburgh. I didn’t know I was having panic attacks then…it was terrifying. At 18 I had ten glorious panic-free years and I took my opportunity; went to university, travelled the world and worked all over the place. Then almost four years ago the panic attacks came back…with a vengeance.

In some ways I’m grateful. Well no I’m not actually, I’m not grateful at all! But I’m resigned. Returning in such a big way at this age meant I sought help in a different and more considered fashion to when I was younger. And so as a totally growed up grown up I undertook research; I learnt about the brain, had a course of CBT, tried mindfulness, and learnt strategies to cope with anxiety and panic.

Despite that, panic still added a layer of emotional complication this weekend to an already interesting milestone of leaving LJ, and also being further away from him than ever before in terms of distance. My old school is about a two hour drive from my house and I’d planned my excursion this weekend to give myself the best possible chance of not panicking. LJ was at home with my mother-in-law during the day and then Andrew overnight. I drove and didn’t drink so I could leave any time. I also stayed in a hotel rather than with family or friends so I could bail out at any time without awkward conversations.

And… Tick, tick and tick…worked a treat and no panic!

I actually really enjoyed it. I was confident about LJ being safe, and regular check-ins assured me he was happy. I do think when you are part of something that means the world to you, you carry it with you and wear it like a large confidence boosting yellow polka dot hat. Being part of my little family definitely acts as my yellow hat…it gives me a feeling of security, knowingness and an inner calm and strength.

I have toyed with some guilt today for having had such a nice time and for leaving him at all when I didn’t actually ‘need’ to but mostly I think it’s brilliant. I’m still me and I ultimately want LJ to know me and sometimes that means I will be out doing things for me, doing all sorts of things that contribute to making me me.

More importantly than all that though was that LJ had a great time…he was pleased to see me when I got home which was so sweet, but he had a very happy weekend. He was completely normal and himself,  he was cheerful and slept well (far better than when I’m in the house).

A number of my friends find it hard to understand that I’ve only just left LJ and as for breastfeeding until he wanted to stop…well I felt like a pariah at times. The same friends (and more) tell me it’s a ‘good thing’ to leave them as soon as possible overnight to get them used to being away from you. They also tell me that nursery is really ‘good for’ a baby and controlled crying is doing ‘what’s best’ for them.

I think dependence breeds independence and I see that so much with LJ. He’s only little but so naturally confident, inquisitive and sociable. I don’t know if nursery or preschool will be ‘good’ for him but I think he will really enjoy at some point in the future when he’s ready. I didn’t believe that leaving him overnight as soon as possible would have been a ‘good thing’, or indeed practical given breastfeeding, and I hope tonight and the coming days don’t reveal difficult repercussions from this weekend. But what I can say with little doubt is that completing this particular parenting milestone at this particular time was actually a VERY good thing indeed…for me.

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Sticks and Stones…

stones

Andrew is back from his travels in the sunshine. It is so lovely seeing him and Little J reunite. The biggest change Andrew can see in LJ is his language. I’ve noticed that too…his vocabulary is burgeoning daily and it is really beautiful to hear. We went from repetition of a few very sweet words…app-pull, track-tor, clock…to far too many to list now.

I wonder what he’s going to do with this new found skill…hopefully chatter happily his whole life long. For now it will certainly help him communicate his needs and express his emotions and hopefully alleviate some of the frustration that comes with being a toddler.

Anyway all this chatting got me thinking about language and the way it is used as we grow older, and in particular the way it can be a tool for manipulation and inciting negative feelings or behaviours. In politics and religion this can sadly be very true with devastating results but I’m talking, nay ranting, very specifically here about parenting advice…

After spending some time this week on Dr Google I’ve had a personal epiphany…finally! The language used by parenting experts, particularly concerning sleep, manipulates a vulnerable reader into feeling that they need the advice even more than they already feel as though they do.

A lot of the advice you can find on the internet is not simply put there in a caring sharing sort of way. Instead there is often an agenda…sales and marketing for most (where I think the most damage happens) and guilt and defensiveness for others.

Often the language used is aggressive and patronising, along with manipulative. Now that I’m out of the mire of worrying that I’ll ruin my baby’s development if they don’t sleep at the right time for the right length of time and with the right sleep props (ie none!), I can see how damaging this use of language has been for me and can be for other new parents.

That’s not to say there’s no good advice…in my opinion there are some gems of experts out there that explain their theories, present evidence-based advice, empathise and don’t patronise. I’ll probably get to those another day.

For now I thought I’d list a few of my least favourites phrases that I’ve been introduced to since having a baby. I am hoping that they will serve as a reminder, particularly when feeling vulnerable, to read things more as they are; to counter-research any advice and ultimately to remember that most ‘expertise’ is merely personal opinion dressed up in pound notes and sent out as The Rules.

Accidental Parenting

The premise of this one is that following one approach with your baby one day (or more likely one night) may lead to other behaviours that you may feel the need to respond to.

BUT

This phrase doesn’t take into account that in particular moments parenting in one way is the perfect thing to do. Babies change rapidly and what works now for maximum happiness or sleep (as this phrase is most bandied about when talking about sleep) may not work next month or even next week. Yes there may be longer term consequences but that doesn’t mean those consequences are always all negative or that the parents haven’t considered what they might be.

My biggest problem with this phrase, therefore, and where I think it wields the most damage, is that it is startlingly patronising and completely disempowering. It assumes that parents bumble along making mistake after mistake and are left with problems to solve, or problems for the experts to solve. At its most base it is saying to parents ‘you are wrong…you do not know what you are doing or why’.

I think the widespread use of this term can induce guilt in tired, worried parents and, most worryingly, can inhibit them from following their natural ‘in the moment’ instincts.

Disastrous Results…when used to talk about any element of routines, naps, sleep.

It often goes hand in hand with accidental parenting and has made me so nervous in the past. It is so vague and yet so inflammatory. It preys on the fact that, for a lot of new parents, everything does feel like a disaster. It offers no perspective and is entirely subjective. What sort of disaster does it refer to? Are we talking about a grumpy baby at bathtime or bringing up a Kevin (as Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin…my personal worry!).

It is encouraging fear and doubt and worry just at the point when you need reassurance, perspective and kindness.

Self Soothe

I’m not sure if my issue here is with the concept rather than the language. This neat little alliterative term sounds fairly innocuous but I don’t think it’s broken down enough by parenting experts and its meaning analysed.

Babies are expected to do so little in the daytime…they can’t feed themselves, talk, walk, manage their bowels, even coordinate their limbs to begin with and yet there is an expectation that babies can learn to self soothe…ie regulate complex emotions enough to calm down and fall asleep alone, with no help. A baby doesn’t even know it has a self to soothe.

It’s madness and consistently emphasising the need for parents to teach babies to self soothe sets up for failure those of us who don’t want to leave our babies crying. And so in our increasingly desperate, sleep deprived state we go on seeking yet more wonky parenting advice.

Sarah Ockwell Smith covers the problem with self soothing in wonderful detail in this article on her website.

Should…in front of almost anything to do with your baby.

Surely ‘should’ is far too precise for anything to do with being a person, let alone a baby. It is symptomatic of the ‘one size fits all’ parenting books that don’t recognise uniqueness or individuality. I don’t sleep, learn or think the same as my sister, let alone someone I don’t know.

I think it is kinder and more realistic to use the word ‘might’ or ‘may’. Your baby might be ‘sleeping through the night’ by 12 months or they might not, or they might sometimes but not always! You may find your baby takes their first steps at ten months, or you may find that your baby is still bottom-shuffling at 18 months. You get the idea!

Daddy Daycare

Ok it’s not often used by parenting experts, but I thought I’d throw it in here anyway..it’s not daddy daycare, it’s parenting.

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That’s the end of my rant for now, I hope if you’re tired and irrational this helps a little. I’m going off to have a chat with Little J now, my dispenser of innocent and happy words.

Happy or Sad?

Is he under there?
Is he under there?

Little J and I are fending for ourselves at the moment while Andrew is enjoying sunnier climes in Barbados.

I’ve been really interested in what LJ may be feeling and thinking since Andrew has gone away. We get intermittent exclamations of DaDA! and I’ve been telling him the truth; that Daddy is at work ‘wuk’ and that he will be for some time, but isn’t Daddy lovely and won’t it be nice to see him soon. I was going to tell him about Daddy being in an aeroplane but I thought he might get confused and think every aeroplane was Daddy, or that Daddy was in an aeroplane for the whole time. I don’t know, I got confused!

Overall we are having a very lovely time. A steady flow of family visits is keeping the entertainment levels high. LJ has seemed quite content; having fun in the days, sleeping well (so far!) and settling happily at bed times.

I’m absolutely sure that LJ is aware of Andrew’s absence though and there are little things that make me sure he is missing him, even if he doesn’t know how to label his emotions or express them as we would.

We saw a lot of Andrew’s family this weekend and LJ was unusually overwhelmed. He got very excited when he heard people arrive at the house but then took longer than normal to ‘warm up’ to people and we even had some very out of character and quite heart breaking sobbing after people had been with him for a few minutes. I can only surmise that he was expecting Andrew and was then disappointed not to see him.

Today we Skyped…LJ was calm and very chatty to Andrew and not at all upset when we said goodbye. I later asked LJ whether seeing Daddy had made him happy or sad and he made his sad noise… I high fived LJ at breakfast yesterday and he immediately turned expectantly toward the kitchen door, hand outstretched…DaDA!…(LJ is very inclusive when it comes to congratulatory gestures!). Perhaps he had forgotten that ‘Daddy is at work’ or maybe he was gesturing in the general direction of outside. I like to think that in that moment LJ thought Andrew was hiding somewhere in the house, just biding his time for the perfect high five.

Hmmm it’s such a guessing game and one I’ve been trying so hard to play. I so want to respond to this separation well and ensure that LJ is equipped with the rationality and emotional intelligence to manage future separations. I wrote this blog post to get some clarity and actually I think what I really need to do is stop analysing it all so much.

Happy or sad? Well who knows, maybe a bit of both and that’s ok. LJ probably is happy, I am. But I’m also sad in that I’m missing Andrew. I’m happy that I’m missing him though, I would be sad if I wasn’t! Happy or sad is too clear cut a distinction to make….it’s too black and white for complicated emotions.

So I’m just going to keep muddling through with this period and, as for the state of Little J’s psyche…well I’ll really just have to wait and see!

One in Ten

There’s been a lot in the papers this week about stay at home mothers and their decline in numbers since the eighties with only 10% of (all) women staying out of the workforce by choice (not necessarily to raise children). With these headlines has come some stereotypical and outdated representations of what staying at home to raise children looks like and some fairly offensive terms to describe us.

Because of this I can’t quite work out if we’re being fed a negative or positive spin on this story from the papers, who break the figures down (somewhat skewed perhaps) to state that only 1 in 10 children have a parent at home full time…how sad that a whole generation of children are being cared for outside the home? Or hurray, look at all the workplace opportunities for women and the childcare options available to parents?

It would seem that the Government are going for a positive take on the figures…extolling the virtues of having more ‘economically active’ women in society. This view is despite waffling rhetoric a few years ago from David Cameron about rebuilding family values to make society better…or perhaps it was bigger…

For what it’s worth my view is that Little J will really benefit from having me at home with him in these early years and also from having Andrew around a great deal of the time. We are fairly unique in that the pattern of our lives is such that it doesn’t conform to the standard working week. This would make childcare arrangements confusing and time when all three of us are together would be almost non-existent.

Also I like to put my all into whatever I’m doing and currently I am putting my all into raising a happy, confident member of society, so I really balk at the idea that I’m on the negative side of a working/not working discussion. I don’t actually think there should be a negative side, except to examine how happy people are with childcare arrangements and to explore why some people don’t feel they have, or actually don’t have, a choice in the matter of how they raise their children.

Because I think ultimately the point with us is that I don’t have to work. When we decided we would like to try to have children we had already made a choice about our working life. I’ve already said how fortunate that makes us…and, of course, a lot of parents on both sides of the statistics won’t be in a position to choose.

So dear government and dear society…

Please don’t declare me ‘economically inactive’ because I am not currently working and so not paying income tax. It is a derisory term that feeds negative opinions of stay at home mothers. I am not using the system for any benefits whatsoever (indeed if I found the smallest of part time jobs I would be eligible for all sorts of tax benefits and state support). I have worked and saved hard for twelve years in order to make this choice and I will ‘rejoin the workforce’ in the future.

Please also don’t assume that I conform to some sort of stereotypical and farcical image of a dozy housewife in a pinny. I have never felt so mentally and physically engaged. My skills base has grown more than it ever has done in an extremely short amount of time, with most of those skills transferable. My beliefs and opinions have become better defined and my passions greater.

Please look at the opportunities and support you offer older women in going back to work. They haven’t lost anything of who they were before children, instead they have gained immeasurable experience. It is short sighted at best, and prejudiced at worst, not to recognise this fact.

I am more than whatever work made me. I am also more than what being a mother makes me. I’m me, not ‘just me’…ME. Oh and I’m really happy and having loads of fun. Is there a statistic for that?