For our children, for us all – making more noise on gendering

“Is your husband a sports fan?” my phone provider’s rep asks nonchalantly. Distracted, I reply, “Yes he is but he doesn’t need his phone to…” The penny drops. “Hang on,” I flounder, “Isn’t that kind of sexist? Shouldn’t you ask if I’m a sports fan?” They sound amused, “Well, are you?” I’m flustered. That kind of isn’t the point and I tell them so. I tell them they should not be asking that question, that it reflects badly on their company.

Then I move the conversation along quickly because I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable, even though I feel uncomfortable. I want to challenge, not shame. In any case, my discomfort isn’t really with them but with a culture that isn’t evolving fast enough. They casually make this gendered assumption and speak it out loud because it’s not only deemed acceptable but it’s profitable. Get me talking about my husband and sports and maybe I’ll sign up to the deal. But we move on and I forget. I’ve mentioned it. Perhaps that’s enough.

It’s more than I would have done in times past. It’s more than I did on Monday when the theme park employee smiled at my four year old and told her that the next show was “the girls’ show”. Should I fill in the blank and assume that the pirate show was “the boys’ show”? But I don’t react. I return their smile and thank them because they’re just being friendly, even though they’re reinforcing a message I consider harmful to my child. My four year old chimes, “I’m a girl!” Then I really don’t feel like I can say anything. Except I do once the worker is gone. “We know boys and girls can like the same things,” I say. We smile and shrug at each other. And we do go to the show. Because my children love to dance and they recognise the Lego Friends from Heart Lake City.

But as I put my seven year old daughter’s World Cup chart to one side, I wonder if the captions I give the things they hear and see are enough. I wonder if asking questions is enough to prompt them to think critically and ask their own. I explain my concern about the gender stereotyping in an Asterix comic book and worry that I’ve appeared to judge my child for liking Asterix. I am frustrated with myself for not kindly but firmly challenging everyday stereotyping. Even if talking about it in the privacy of our home goes some way to helping my kids ask the big questions about gender and identity, we have to have these conversations with people outside of our echo chamber if we want things to change.

I hope my exchange on the phone gives the rep that called me pause. They’re calling me again tomorrow. I wonder whether I raise it again either with them or in a letter of complaint and gently articulate what’s on my heart with this, that though I may not follow sports myself, I’m raising three girls who may well do. The world around them does not get to decide their interests for them.


Done at three: saying goodbye to the baby phase

I started writing this when Delilah was upstairs having a nap and the older two are watching Netflix. The morning’s excitement included Delilah refusing to wear a nappy and using the potty instead – mostly. She’s been doing this off and on for a couple of weeks. At some point I will get it together and give the situation enough focus to help her close the deal.

She’s twenty-one months old and I’m so aware that life won’t long be punctuated by naps and nappy changes. She saying lots of words now and is determined to keep up with her older sisters, often refusing to be carried, insisting that her little legs will take her wherever Talitha and Ophelia go. She soon won’t be a baby anymore. Some would say she’s not a baby now. She probably would if she could.

When Ophelia was her age, I was one month pregnant. When Talitha was her age, I was trying to get pregnant. Yet it doesn’t seem strange that she’ll soon be two and no other babies are potentially or actually on the way. In fact, we’ve closed that chapter as firmly as we can with a doctor’s appointment for Laurence.

Life is oh so full with three children and yet the idea of trying for a fourth baby did come up from time to time. But neither of us ever suggested it with any seriousness and neither experienced the deep longing for another child that I did before conceiving Delilah. Despite exclaiming as I got out of the birth pool with Ophelia that I was never doing that again, I got teary parting with most of the baby things and I ached for another baby in a way that I can’t explain. It didn’t feel like we were done. We fortunately welcomed Delilah. And I haven’t known that ache since.

I expected to be really emotional about the vasectomy (there’s time for that yet, of course) but mostly I’ve felt relief. I’m ready to move out of the baby phase. As much as I’ve loved it and, oh, I have loved it, I’m happy to leave the physical demands of pregnancy and small babies behind. I can’t imagine facing the exhaustion of the first trimester again. And I’m as busy as I want to be.

I’ve felt space incrementally opening up for other things as we move out of the intense baby stage. There is room in my mind for people and projects beyond the ones under my roof. I’m looking forward to writing more and creating more content. And yes, Delilah is not yet two and I am still home educating so I won’t go too crazy running down ideas but I’m not expecting to be hitting the reset button with a newborn so I feel able to dream harder and plan more concretely. It’s all vague right now but I’m still allowing myself to get excited about the possibilities.

You hear people say that you just know when you’re done, when your family is complete. I’m not convinced that that’s the case for even most of us. There is part of me that can’t quite believe we won’t have another baby but I’ve realised the melancholy attached to that has more to do with feeling nostalgic for my three babies than with wanting to do it all again.

Talitha will soon be seven and I am haunted from time to time with the thought that I somehow didn’t soak it up enough, that short phase when she was really little. Logically, I know that worry is misplaced. Even if it weren’t and I hadn’t enjoyed her earliest years as much as I could, there’s just so much to delight in right now. Taking pleasure in the present is ultimately what makes it easier to move on.


On punishing myself as a parent

“You should never leave someone alone if they don’t want to be alone!” my six year old appealed to me. Laurence had been gone for a couple of days. The twenty month old was doing early mornings with the change of seasons and I was running on a deficit of sleep.

After a particularly tiring day where every transition had been a struggle for my four year old, I just felt done.

Now she wasn’t ready to get out of the bath and all I wanted to do was put the baby to sleep so I could sleep. So, feeling at the end of all my patience and creativity, I shouted at her and left the room for longer than I should.

Actually, I knew what I needed to do. I could see even in the moment that I needed to find a way to reconnect with her to help her regulate her upset, climb out of her primal brain and listen to my reasoning.

But I just didn’t want to. I didn’t want to be responsible, to do the work of remaining calm and reflecting instead of reacting. I just wanted her to listen to me right now so everyone could go to sleep and I could clean the kitchen, watch Netflix and go to sleep myself. So I effectively threw a tantrum and removed the only grown up from the interaction. Then physically stormed out of the room.

Talitha sat beside the bath, comforting Ophelia, quite upset herself when I returned. Somehow, we managed to get everyone to bed, with Ophelia sleeping in with Delilah and me. And I’d love to say that all’s well that ends well, except that the stress I’d generated in that experience carried on playing out long after they’d all gone to sleep.

By the time Laurence got home late that night, I was in full on defeatist mode. I’d moved from feeling upset about our evening together to picking apart all of my relationships. He reminded me that when he’d checked in with me earlier in the evening I’d said we’d had a really good day. But I was too tired to detach from how we’d ended it. How I’d ended it.

Another restless night, another early start but I woke up feeling a lot calmer, with perspective somewhat restored. I realised I had a couple of options. I could say, “I messed up. I’m going to keep messing up. What’s the point?” And I could extend this to imagining myself an imposter, walking around with this epic disparity between what I know and what I do.

Alternatively, I could treat myself kindly and speak to myself as I would a friend who’d lived through the battering of the night before. I could empathise with myself that it was a hard situation, that I was tired, on my own and that I’m only human.

The first approach would effectively involve me beating myself up. I might even justify by subconsciously reinforcing that if I made myself feel badly enough about my behaviour, I wouldn’t repeat it. I’d been trying to modify my behaviour by punishing myself, without even realising that that’s what I was doing. But punishment is ineffective.

It’s just not possible for me to maintain my calm if I don’t feel good about myself. I will inevitably register normal, everyday experiences with my family as emergencies if my inner world is characterised by scarcity because I’ll have nothing left to give. How can things change if I’m constantly telling myself that I am wretched and that things will never change?

On the other hand, if I can connect with myself, through empathy, remembering all the beautiful things I do, I can see that I have a huge capacity to give and receive love. I can see that I am always capable of learning new things, of growing and evolving.

For me this involves prayer, putting my hand in the hand of an eternal Parent. I also have to put myself in situations where I can open up to safe people to share and listen deeply so that I can experience and practise empathy. I read and listen to people who promote kindness and respect. I apologise to my children and make myself accountable to them.

And I choose to forgive myself. I keep forgiving myself because a bad moment, a bad evening, week or even season doesn’t define me.


Don’t wait to talk to your kids about sex

My six year old asked me the other day whether men’s bodies store sperm or make it continually. She qualified the question by pointing out that she knew baby girls were born with all their eggs.

As we talked we got on to the subject of what happens once a month when an egg isn’t fertilised, how you insert a menstrual cup and why I’m not menstruating at the moment (ie lactational amenorrhea).

She wandered off, seamlessly losing interest and moving on to something else but I paused, grateful that we’re able to have conversations like these. I’m also aware that talking openly about bodies, sex and relationships isn’t standard fare for many families with younger children. Personally, I think it should be.

For a start, whether we’re aware of it or not, we communicate with our children about intimacy and physicality from birth. Asking to pick a baby up and allowing them to indicate, even if only subtly, teaches the beginnings of consent. I wish I’d advocated for my older two when people picked them up without warning, let alone without asking.

By parenting babies responsively – cuddling them when they cry, and perhaps breastfeeding and bedsharing – we prime them to expect physical touch to be positive. We’re also modelling the empathy we hope they’ll show others someday. Can you imagine a generation whose sexual experience is characterised by empathy?

As toddlers, we help them redirect from accidentally hurting others. We work at making time and space so we can respect their body autonomy around nappy changes, potty training, leaving places or getting dressed. We also talk to older children about respecting younger siblings by making sure they are playing in a way that everyone’s happy with. My three year old is very good at telling me, “It’s her body, what she says goes!” if she thinks that I’m coercing my 16 month old.

But many of us can wrap our heads around these respectful parenting practices and still balk at the idea of talking to under-10s frankly about puberty and sex. Heck, a lot of us even cringe at the idea of using anatomically correct names for genitals with our kids.

I just want to encourage you that with practise, you can comfortably use the words “vulva”, “vagina”, “clitoris”, “anus”, “penis” and “scrotum”. If it feels awkward it could be worth asking why. Is there something inherently scary or dirty about genitals, to your mind? Or is it simply a lack of practice?

This is really worth challenging in ourselves, from babyhood if possible. Using correct names tells children that these are just body parts and that we can talk about them just as we would talk about anything else, no shame attached. Yes they are private but they aren’t off limits for discussion.

It could also deter sexual predators, who are less likely to target children who use these terms. And should the unthinkable happen, children who can accurately name their body parts could more effectively aid an investigation.

A brilliant side effect of getting comfortable with using these words early on is that by the time your kids are asking, “Where do babies come from?” you may already feel a lot more comfortable talking about bodies.

To work out how to respond to a question like that in an age appropriate way, I’ve tried to follow my children’s lead. I’ve asked, “Do you want to know how the baby gets inside the mummy or how the baby gets out?” Or I might give a short answer and let them ask for more details. My saying, “An egg from the mummy meets a sperm from the daddy and that grows into a baby” was followed up by the question, “How does the sperm get there?” which gave me the opening to talk about the mechanics of sex in a very straightforward way. No “special cuddles” here.

My eldest may have been five when we had this particular conversation. She thought it was hilarious but it was all very matter of fact.

This actually wasn’t the first time we’d talked about how a baby was conceived through sex but she hadn’t remembered. In fact, I feel like I’ve had loads of these conversations with my six and three year olds, which I find pretty interesting. Any extraneous information I supply tends to get naturally discarded. So I don’t really worry about going into “too much” detail because they take hold of what they need and lose interest in the rest.

Like many parents, chats like these are new territory for us so we find reading books to the children a really helpful way to open up conversations and give us the language we need to create a positive script around bodies and sexuality for our family. We’ve read How You Were Born over and over, a sweet home birth story that talks positively about pregnancy and birth. My eldest loves it even though she knows she was born in a hospital. More recently, we’ve read It’s My Body, What I Say Goes (clue in my three year old’s refrain to me), which talks about safe and unsafe touch and trusting your instincts.

My six and three year olds just love It’s Not the Stork. It’s an extremely thorough book looking at bodies, gender stereotypes, conception, sex, safe touch – the works. There’s also a section on different families like single parent, fostering or same sex parent families. I’m reading my eldest the next one up from that, It’s So Amazing, which goes into more detail.

I think it’s so important not to wait to have “the talk” someday. It’s so much easier to create a family culture where sex is a comfortable topic when your children are young than trying to introduce it when preteens are already undergoing body changes and have possibly received misinformation from other sources. You also don’t know in advance whether your child might undergo puberty early or late. If you inadvertently communicate from early on that you find talking about sex and bodies awkward, they may find it unnatural to bring you their questions.

I am so aware that my children may not always want to talk to me about these things. I can only hope that I’m laying a foundation of trust and respect so that they feel able to. And beyond that, that I’m helping them accrue a mental library that they can draw upon. That way they can test the messages they get about sex from elsewhere as they develop their own values and make their own decisions.


Our homeschooling month – October

November is well underway but I don’t want to miss the opportunity to look back on what we got up to in October. Reflecting helps me to make sense of what our lives look like right now. Yet I’m also cautious because I would hate for someone to misconstrue this as any kind of “how to”. The shape of our home education mirrors the shape of our family in whatever season we happen to be in. For this reason, comparison is unhelpful. That said, I like seeing what other people get up to and perhaps the same is true for you.

Talitha got seriously into cursive handwriting this month. She asked me to write out an alphabet of lowercase and uppercase letters in cursive and religiously traced and copied them. She kept it for reference and checked with me if she wasn’t sure how letters joined together. Now almost everything she writes is in cursive as she wants to practise. I hadn’t intended to suggest cursive to her anytime soon so it’s one of those things that’s been led entirely by her, which is probably also why she’s got the hang of it quickly and finds it fun.

Ophelia is also writing lots of letters (mostly not in any particular order) and can now identify a lot of their sounds. She’s also suddenly started picking out the beginning sounds of words and points to words in books to ask what they are. She’s enjoying longer stories now, often asking questions or making surprising observations as we read to her.

The month’s big read aloud was Heidi. Talitha requested it, having read an adaptation. We’ve really enjoyed it though it’s a lot heavier than I remember! We’re still going, actually! Laurence has also started reading her Tarka the Otter.

We’ve continued to follow Story of the World, which I’ve mentioned before. We’ve spent the month on Ancient Egypt. The curriculum moves on to other things soon but we may stay here for a while as it’s really captured both girls’ imaginations. Talitha particularly enjoyed making a cuneiform tablet and a hieroglyphic scroll and listening to me read Jacqueline Morley’s Egyptian Myths.

We missed the monthly French lesson as it fell in half term when we were in the Isle of Wight with friends but they’ve been learning French on an online programme called Muzzy. I got a huge discount on it earlier this year but was a bit confused by it. Now that the baby fog has lifted a bit, I took another look and it’s actually pretty impressive. Talitha needs some support to do the written games but she’s getting a lot out of it and Ophelia enjoys the videos.

Violin practice has naturally added a little structure to our day. We hit a wall with it this month with Talitha not wanting to practice and I reminded her that she didn’t have to do it. This freed us to talk about what she was finding difficult and what we could change to make practice more enjoyable. I needed to recognise that it is a tiring instrument to learn. I think she’s benefited from knowing that she’s in charge of the process, and that it is a process – it sometimes takes time to learn things.

We’ve vaguely continued using Lynn Seddon’s Exploring Nature with Children, if only for ideas of what to look out for on our walks and read aloud suggestions. The harvest moon so captured both of their imaginations. We tried looking at it from the woods opposite our house but the kids weren’t keen so we viewed it from our top floor instead. I wish we’d taken them to the beach to see it rise as friends had done. Next year. We also made leaf crowns, did a spot of pond dipping and had fun sketching pumpkins in our nature journal as well as learning about their seeds.

This month also threw up a fun opportunity to learn about Diwali, India and Trinidad & Tobago – where I’m from and where the Hindu festival is a big deal. We made diya inspired lamps from air drying clay and had a go with henna.

They’ve been gardening with Laurence as he gets into micro greens and continues his challenge to keep our salad going through the winter. They also planted some bulbs in the front garden bed. We may be getting an allotment so they may be getting into that too. I’d like to say I would too but I’ve got out of practice with gardening and I think I may have lost interest! Is that bad?

The girls asked if we could do a “theme” and they suggested sea creatures. They used to have themed days at their childminder’s in Bristol. To be honest, I was really daunted by the idea. Anything I have to prepare is still really tricky when Delilah is often in arms in the evenings.

As it turned out, they were happy to come up with their own crafts and asked to do activities and experiments from the aquatic issue of Whizz Pop Bang. We still have a few more to do and they’re not ready to move on yet so we’ll be continuing with this theme too.

We’ve read pages they’ve chosen from our animal encyclopedia, looked at books from our collection and the library and checked out videos online. I’m trying to weigh up whether Blue Planet 2 would be a bit scary. Talitha has been sketching various animals and writing down her favourite facts about them.

Serendipitously, this all tied in with a field trip to Plymouth Aquarium with a home education group for a workshop day. I’d love to take the girls back for a day where they could just wander and spend more time on whatever they find most fascinating, though.

The trip made me realise that we really don’t need to be travelling long distances and doing lots of activities. While that stuff is fun, it’s tiring and maybe not the best way to spend our resources. So I’m trying to focus instead on slowing down, keeping it local and making the most of what’s free. Education is not a sprint. We don’t have to do it all now. We hopefully have lots of time to explore different things at the ages when they’re the most meaningful.


Waking up in Cornwall – a life update

I was reorganising the playroom the other day (because when am I not reorganising that room as if I’ll one day walk in and magically find there isn’t too much stuff in there) and I had a bit of an epiphany. I wasn’t holding a baby. There wasn’t a baby calling for my attention. She wasn’t even in the same room, off instead with her sisters in the adjoining living room, genuinely trying to join in with whatever game they were playing.

I know it’s been like this for a while. They make a lot of space for her and I’m not even sure she’s aware that at fifteen months old, she’s a good few sizes smaller than they are. But I don’t know. Filling a bin liner of stuff-we-are-so-not-keeping-why-did-we-even-bring-it-with-us-in-the-move, I recognised a clarity of mind that’s been absent for some time. I feel like I’m waking up from a two-year stretch of dysfunctional sleep in which my dreams have mainly consisted of trying to wake myself up or trying to lift my eyes to see something above me and finding my lids an obstacle. It feels like freedom.

Nine months on from our move to Cornwall, a settling the length of a pregnancy, I’m waking up somewhere new, somewhere I’d never imagined being. My life looks so different here. My children are considerably older. It’s becoming a stretch to call Delilah a baby. She has only to start walking and I’ll have to admit what she already knows that she is a child. Ophelia is suddenly, at three and a half, full of conversation, reasoning and astonishingly well-expressed opinions. Talitha is on to chapter books and bigger questions and showing me how to do stuff. Six feels like such a different phase but then I’ll always feel that way about the eldest, I guess.

But it’s not just about the kids. Something has shifted for me outside of that. Perhaps the physical space is impacting the landscape of my mind. I do believe in that sort of thing. I am spending so much more time outdoors than I ever have in my life and there must be some effect specific to being confronted by so much beauty so frequently. I am amazed that I get to exist here right now.

There’s also something in the practicalities of how our life has changed. I’ve had to make more of an effort to grow a social network. Concern for the kids has been a powerful motivator in that regard. Coming to terms with that has been such a freeing thing, to know that I just have to go for it so I’m just going to go for it. Recently, I recognised that I experienced a huge loss of confidence when I moved countries eleven years ago and I’m really only starting to recover some of that now, through this process.

At the same time, I still harbour a lot of fears around taking these wonderful connections that I’m making with people and going further with them. Yet I know that caution is double edged and while not making myself vulnerable, not opening up might spare me rejection, it also prevents me from going as deeply as I want to go with people and anyone who already knows me well knows I am always longing to go so, so deep. So, yeah, that’s something that’s going to take time but it’s also something that doesn’t happen on its own.

Waking up from the baby haze means starting to ask a lot of questions again about what my life is going to look like, about where I’m going to invest my love and energy. I feel the need to create, to reach out there, to be a part of something bigger again.

Inevitably, my thoughts also turn to God. I don’t shy away from talking about faith here on this blog but it is difficult sometimes to know how to frame it when mostly my mind is full of questions and my heart is hungry. I know others who say they’ve found great sustenance in God in times of overwhelm like the baby rearing years and cross country uprooting. That’s not me.

Honestly, I feel like I’ve not had time to process a lot of things that have happened over the past few years and that I haven’t had the clarity to contemplate. I’ve felt sometimes like I’m walking into spiritual experiences broken, with doubts and disappointments that should not be named for fear of what others might think. This is no way to live so I won’t do it anymore. I am hopeful that God’s hand still holds me when I feel uncertain about being touched. I don’t know what the journey looks like from here but I am so open.

I suppose this post is a bit of a chatty one, attempting to start throwing my thoughts out there again with some regularity, even if it means at times laying myself uncomfortably bare.


Beautiful reads for kids – Storytime magazine

I love a good print subscription. We have a few for the kids and they get such a rush opening the post and looking through new magazines when they arrive. Magazines often throw things up for us to explore further or new activities to try. In the past, we’ve mostly done science and nature ones but every now and then I’d eye up a fiction magazine. I finally got my chance to get a closer look when Storytime asked if we’d like to review their magazine.

The illustrations are fresh, colourful and quirky, in the style of modern storybooks. The pages are of a heavier paper stock, not card but not flimsy. These are magazines made for collecting. We certainly won’t be throwing them away.

The content is pretty timeless. My eye was drawn to this poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, made more accessible for my kids by the illustrator’s keen sensibility. Talitha went ahead and read both issues we were sent but when I read them to her afterwards, we talked about the art of reading poetry, that it’s often transformed by reading aloud. Ophelia was taken by Gabriel Setoun’s “Jack Frost” poem, following the many pictures he paints on the windows at night, verse by verse.

The magazine brings together classic and original tales, myths and legends from around the world, fairy tales and rhymes. They are carefully curated, the tales thrilling and the standard high. My older two, at three and six are delighted with it but I imagine they would have been a good fit for me at ten or even older too.

Along with a fact or a themed activity to accompany each story, there’s a “storytime playbox” at the back with word searches, brainteasers, prompts for drawing, crafts, recipes – all offering a chance to take the stories further. There’s even a game to play. Springing you further into reading, each issue concludes with book recommendations for children too.

Storytime has clearly been carefully conceived and it’s certainly beautifully executed. We’ve had ours for a few weeks now and they’ve gone most places with us. Ophelia has her clear favourites that’s she’s asked me to read over and over. Talitha has so many questions about things we come across in there. I love that there are no adverts and that it raises discussions about geography, different cultures and the natural world. They just love getting lost in beautiful stories.

Storytime sent us two issues for review and have also given us a year’s subscription in exchange for this post. All gushing is entirely honest, though. I absolutely love this magazine and what they stand for as a social enterprise, working with schools, charities and councils to make high quality reading materials available at a low price.

If you’re a home educator, you can grab a discount on your subscription here. Storytime sends out educational resources to go alongside each month’s issue.