“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.
“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.
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.
“Three girls! Poor dad!” Thanks, you’ve just told my children their dad wishes at least one of them were a boy. He doesn’t.
“You have your hands full. Are they all…?” My eldest has started answering this one, “Yes, we’re all girls.”
“Are you going to keep trying for a boy?” I guess the assumption here is that that’s what we were doing the second or third time. I’m always tempted to respond asking for advice on how to do that. I mean, is there a specific position for conceiving boys?
Truly, I know that this is meant as friendly conversation. I almost said “polite” but it isn’t that. Certainly not to my children. It’s the usual everyday childism that casually ignores children’s feelings while speaking about them, in front of them. It’s not unique to being “a girl family” as Talitha has dubbed us. Mothers of boys are familiar with it too.
But yes, it is meant to be friendly. So I respond with this in mind, telling my daughters when the stranger has passed that people are just surprised we have so many girls in our family.
Then I wonder how to inoculate them against the underpinning message that their gender is their most defining characteristic since it’s so often the first or only thing people choose to comment on.
By aggressively gendering children, we’ve created a society where we pay lip service to the idea that children can be anything they want to be while showing them something quite different. By and large, boys are expected to be tough, adventurous, capable and boisterous whereas girls are expected to be emotive, cautious, sociable and gentle. None of these characteristics are innately problematic. However, they’re also not innately gendered.
BBC Two recently aired the documentary “No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?” which convincingly ties the way we treat our children to the gender inequality they experience as adults. The show continually returns to brain scans of boys and girls which debunk the myth that we are neurologically different. Gender is socially constructed. It’s a good starting point if you’ve not given the issue much thought before. And it’s still interesting if it’s long been a concern.
As a parent of a six year old, I was shocked at the gendered views the programme’s seven year olds held about men and women, the opposite sex and themselves. Perhaps home educating has sheltered us from some of the gender stereotyping pervasive in institutions?
Our children see Laurence as involved in caring for the home as I am. He is as likely to change a nappy as I am when he’s around. They may have “girly” toys but most of their toys are gender neutral or even toys stereotypically considered “for boys”. Their dressing up box houses princess dresses alongside costumes for a builder, doctor, police officer and pirate amongst others. We aren’t precious about their clothes and spend most of our time outdoors, giving them lots of opportunity to get messy and encouraging them to take risks.
Yet we have still imparted clear, at times unhelpful, ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman. In their minds, fathers go out to work and mothers stay at home to look after the children or at least work part time or from home. We try to communicate that this is a choice we’ve taken together for this period of family life but that it isn’t the way everyone does it.
Actually, we don’t consider it ideal ourselves. Laurence wants more time with the children. I’m hungry for more time to work as our kids get older. While a major life change where we both work and care for the children part time isn’t possible in the immediate future, we want to work at striking more of a balance in the present and to think about how we could change things more radically in the years to come.
I’ve also felt challenged recently to counter my learned helplessness. From hanging picture frames to mowing the lawn to figuring out what’s up with the dishwasher, I routinely leave DIY and maintenance jobs to Laurence. He is better at them (more practice, perhaps?) but what does my constant refrain “We’ll ask Daddy to do that later” say to our girls.
I hope that his involving them in these tasks helps to undo the effect of my shying away from attempting them. Talitha wielded a power drill to put our furniture together when we moved in. I’m not sure I’ve ever touched one. She knows how to put our tent up though I still don’t. They both love helping him build fires. But when things go wrong, they’re still quick to say, “Don’t worry. Daddy will do that.” My words in their mouths.
So I’m taking little steps. I learned to light the wood burner when we moved in. We take turns driving when going somewhere. This weekend I rowed our dinghy to the boat for the first time. I was terrible at it but I hope that they’ll see something in me working at difficult jobs rather than always leaving them to the person who’s more practised. I bought a wetsuit so that I can be the one to take them into the sea instead of making that a daddy thing.
We’ve been questioning what we’d do differently if they were boys. Would we be more inclined to take them out with a ball? Would Laurence involve them more in looking at rugby and cricket? Would we have the same standards in terms of grooming and manners? Would we value the same things? Would we talk to them the same way or talk about the same things? The conversation is ongoing.
From the positive pregnancy test, we start imagining the new baby, their gender a part of that. We’ve opted each time to know the sex at the twenty week scan. We even did a “gender reveal” video with Delilah (total heart melt looking back at that – how little they were!).
Yet, throughout my pregnancy with her, I felt uncomfortable about how important we made the fact that she was a girl. It doesn’t decide who she’s going to be. Being a “girl family” doesn’t decide who any of them are going to be.
Every now and then I have one of those I-hope-I’m-getting-it-right moments. I had one of them last night in the kitchen, chatting with Laurence about awkward conversations I’ve had about home education recently. Home ed is an easy concern trigger for me because it’s so blatantly alternative. Yet I wander down this hole when thinking about a lot of my day-to-day decisions when it comes to my children, knowing there’s no sign from the sky with a clear answer.
“I’m not worried about their education,” he answered. I waited for some form of “I believe in you, babe” call to positive thinking but instead he gave me this reminder that we pass to each other every now and then: “As long as they know they’re loved, as long as they love others, as long as they do good in the world – that’s what it’s about.”
The work of parenting involves a whole lot of confidence building so they have the tools to realise all those things. Where do we get started with that mammoth task? I was asked to share how we nurture our children’s self esteem as part of Families’ #LoveYourselfProject and it’s struck me that no simple to do list works here. It’s the sum of so many of our own little attitude shifts, so many little actions along the way.
It’s less about about telling them they’re beautiful and more about refusing to complain about our own perceived physical flaws. It’s less about praising their intelligence and more about listening to their stories, showing them that you value what they say.
I don’t go in for much praise. Personally, a lot of praise made me worry about my performance growing up, accomplishing the opposite of what it was intended to do. I was told I was so bright. In response, I felt I must not fail.
Confidence building answers deep questions that live inside all of us: “Am I safe? Am I loved? Do I matter?” Our role is to answer our children’s questions with actions that say: “You are safe – you can trust me. You are loved – there are no conditions on my love. You matter – I respect you.”
The questions are asked over and over again from birth onwards, and they will be answered, one way or another. If our own store of positive thinking is running low, it will be difficult to find the resources to adequately answer them the many times a day they’re asked.
Certainly I’m in a place right now where I realise that I must address my own hurts, my own past and grab hold of the answers to my own questions (“I am safe. I am loved. I do matter.”) so that I have energy for even basic parenting, let alone to model the confidence and freedom I want my children to grow up knowing.
I keep finding myself responding to any of the question “How’s the pregnancy going?” with “Fine, thanks. Just tired.” It’s not totally inaccurate.
Even compared to my own two previous pregnancies, I’m physically feeling positively spectacular to the point of sometimes forgetting that I’m even pregnant. That is if you don’t count the fact that I almost always need the toilet and even if you don’t see me making millions of bathroom trips when we’re out and about, you can bet “Need a wee” is there on my mental list of things I’m trying hard to ignore.
When I say “tired”, though, I mean crushingly exhausted. By 2pm most days all I can think of is lying on the sofa and letting the kids do their thing, checking in with me now and then. Any afternoon activity that requires my involvement has become something I will pay for later, usually by needing a 7pm bedtime, which means stuff that needs to get done in the evenings does not get done.
That has a knock on effect with the other thing I’m not saying in “Fine, thanks. Just tired.” I know that I’m a bit depressed. I have been for a while.
Most days involve mustering all of me to get out of bed, stay out of bed, do the basics and try to be present with my kids. It helps that we have commitments to meet with other people most days and even if I don’t talk about what’s going on, the company and the change of scene help.
Heaviness and hurt walk around with me most days, with a little anxiety joining us when I’m not expecting it. I find myself obsessing over every detail of the day when I wake up for the loo in the middle of the night. What happened? What did I get wrong? Why did I say that?
There is actual stuff going on in my life that I can’t talk about here but mostly, I have every reason to be happy. And I am. I enjoy my children and my husband immensely, work has slowed but is still coming in here and there (probably for the best with the lack of time and energy), we are comfortable and I am really looking forward to meeting this baby.
The girls have dubbed her “Butterfly”. “Heh-oh, Buh-fy!” Ophelia says to my tummy, stroking and kissing it. Who could but melt? She really does seem to understand there’s a baby in there now.
On the flip side, I find myself getting needlessly stressed over small day-to-day details, I am irritable with my family, I often feel like I’m not doing anything well, I am not enjoying getting bigger, needing to wee all the time, having little energy, and at 22 weeks pregnant, I’m still scared about what adding another child to this family means.
She is unquestionably wanted but the thought of spreading my resources in yet another direction, of establishing breastfeeding again, of sleepless nights, of coping with my other two children’s changing needs, of helping my Ophelia transition from being the baby of the family, of delaying other things I want to do a bit longer, of the general upheaval that comes with a new baby, of the thousand other things I can’t help worrying about…
No amount of anyone saying, “You’ll be fine” actually sates these thoughts. Because along with some of the perfectly valid stuff on my mind trundles a whole load that doesn’t make any rational sense, not even to me. Yet they are taking up as much space. And that’s probably because I am so often feeling like I’m not coping right now.
At the same time, it’s been difficult to identify for myself that something is up, rather than that I’m just being a bit pathetic. This isn’t like the crushing lows I experienced pre-kids years ago where I was literally out of action and needed to be medicated or else.
I have been depressed at times since having children but I’ve somehow managed, as I am now, to keep going, even if I am operating at a lower level than is normal for me. So, I’ve remained reticent, questioning how bad it has to be before I can call it what I know deep down it still is, depression.
I see the strangeness in being unable to say this face to face yet being willing to speak it into a computer screen, knowing that people who do and don’t know me will read it. It’s been a back and forth debate over whether to talk about it here either.
Anything I write about here opens me up to criticism and well-meaning but sometimes misguided attempts to solve a problem that can’t be solved by someone else. It’s one of the reasons I tend to only blog about the hard bits of parenting through the lens of what I feel I am learning from them or once I’ve reached some sort of resolution I can reflect on.
Yet even though I’m only at the point of knowing that I need to do something, I feel it’s worth sharing in case it helps someone else feel less alone, and that maybe it’s OK to not be OK.
I’ve had the word “balance” on my mind a lot recently, probably because the concept has felt elusive for a long time.
I try to grab hold of it by making the most of naptime and planning our days the day before, making sure we have a good mix of days in and days out, parent initiated activities and free play.
I sometimes successfully edge closer to it by going to bed on time.
I strategise for balance by sending my kids to a childminder (both girls for three hours one day and just the toddler for three hours another).
I’m pushing for balance by taking up running – I’ve been twice so far with a local group of mothers.
Yet I’m beginning to think that balance isn’t an achievable goal. Not for me, anyway. Not in any sense that’s total. There are days when the toddler doesn’t nap but clearly needs to nap. Days when I didn’t plan because…so many reasons…I just didn’t. Days when we don’t go out because I can’t face the effort of getting out and talking to other people. Sometimes that’s OK. Other times I end up wishing I had taken us all out.
Too many nights I lack the discipline to make myself go to bed when I should. Or I do but can’t shut my brain off. Sometimes I feel like falling apart just looking for that hole punch or that glue stick. I look around at all our stuff and want to throw it all away because I can’t find anything.
My children seem happy with their new childminder (a local friend from our church) but I worry every time I drop my nineteen-month-old off, just like I worried about her sister at that age. But I need the time and she’s so obviously happy there. So in a sense this gives my life some balance and in another it doesn’t.
It’s hard for me to tell whether balance skirts away because of something I’m neglecting to do or whether it’s, even at least partly, beyond my control. I find myself blaming myself for not feeling settled, for not always being happy, for not being all the things that it looks like good mothers, good people, are.
When I take it to God, I know that “balance” has become in my soul another word for “perfection”. And if I cling to it, I will end up beating myself with it. But that if I give it to Him, I can be free.