When a second child becomes a toddler

I can’t remember when exactly I started thinking of Talitha as a toddler rather than a baby. I look back to a visit home to Trinidad and Tobago when she was a fourteen-month-old flower girl in my brother’s wedding. I think I viewed her then more as a child than a baby.

That blows my mind because Ophelia is sixteen months now and yet I’m surprised whenever I ask her to put her shoes away and she does! Is this a second child thing? Will I forever keep her “the baby” in a way I haven’t with my first?

As if to prove to me that toddlerhood is here, tantrums have begun. Mini struggles that remind me to dig out forgotten strategies of redirection and slowing down. I find myself at times more impatient than I should be because I’ve become used to a child who can mostly be reasoned with. I’ve had a year and a bit of the baby stage, which, though challenging in it’s own way, doesn’t require the type of creativity that navigating life with a brand new toddler demands.

And I feel like I need to read the books – the ones I read before and the ones I never got around to – not just because I’ve forgotten so much of this but because this child is so different from my first. It’s hard to describe just how because Talitha is strong-willed too but maybe Ophelia is more obviously (and more loudly) so. She’s stretching me in ways I remained inflexible the first time around.

When a second child becomes a toddler-2

More than anything, I need to pause and look at and listen to this child. Drink her in and enjoy her. Slow right down and not rush her through. It’s easy to wish away the stressful moments when I don’t know what to do, when I can’t quickly and simply “fix” her problems.

It’s easy to miss the magic happening in her brain, the building of language, movement, music, creativity, of recognition and relationship. Sixteen months old. She’s still a baby, really. But I’m getting to see the start of the woman she will be.

Home educating – Feeling the fear and choosing it anyway

Laurence and I started talking about homeschooling (that was the term we used at the time and we still use both terms now) before Talitha was born. I may not have even been pregnant with her yet. I’m not sure.

I remember I brought it up while we were having a stroll around Clifton Village, where we used to live, and he was pretty scandalised.

I grew up knowing families who homeschooled and disliking school myself. He went to boarding school and, on balance, found the experience positive. Fast forward and our first baby is four next week. She would have been starting school this September, except we didn’t apply.

It was no big conflict for either of us. Laurence is probably even more settled on the idea than I. It’s genuinely a mutual decision and certainly the right one for this year.

We’ve decided to keep ourselves open to whatever may come in the coming years. Home education seems like the route for us, given the information and having done the soul searching (I’ll get into our reasons more in another post or this one will be insanely long), but that doesn’t mean that things can’t change, that the discussion is now closed until they’re eighteen.

In a way, that’s relieved some of the fear I’ve had about stepping into the lesser known. I don’t have to make the choice now for forever and ever, amen. We can just try things and see how we go. School will still be there if ever we need to make a change.

What’s interesting to me is that many of the things I’m worried about probably aren’t what others expect to be on my mind. Academics don’t worry me. Talitha, like most children, is naturally hungry to learn. She’s a sponge for asking and observing how things work. She alarms and delights me on an hourly basis.

And even if she weren’t doing any of that, I’m confident that having a parent help guide her exploration and a wealth of time to pursue her passions beats getting lost in a class of however many children, stuck in a system that may or may not suit or interest her.

I’m also not worried about socialisation, not here in Bristol. We already know so many home educating families and there is more going on than there is time to do it all.

No, the things that concern me have to do with me – not her. I worry about missing out on a career, about putting too much pressure on Laurence to work and about the state of our finances. I already yearn to work more and feel frustrated that I don’t have the time or energy to do it.

But home educating is also something I really want to do so it’s not a case of martyring myself. It’s a much more complicated struggle than that. I feel fear and guilt in equal measure over not working and wanting to work. We put so much pressure on ourselves, don’t we?

And with that, I worry that I don’t have the patience to spend that much time with my children. Part of me feels horrendous admitting that but if another parent said it, I’d tell them that it’s normal. Life with kiddos is tough. So I’ll extend to myself the same grace.

That said, I think it’s also hard only getting snatches of time with your children and if flexischooling were a more readily available option, we might well consider it.

Another thing I feel nervous about is being SO responsible for my children’s social life. Talitha is at an age where she longs to be with other children so much of the time. I’m sociable but shy so I find it draining having to go out and see people every day, especially if it involves meeting new people.

I got really worked up about this the other day but then she went through a series of days where she absolutely didn’t want to go anywhere or see anyone and asked to stay home with me and Ophelia and “make things”. I guess, she needs a balance too. So, I can probably lay off being propelled forward by fear and guilt every time I’m filling in the calendar.

The point is that taking this path, this year at least, gives her the freedom to choose how and when to meet people, to interact on her terms.

Since home educating is something we are doing together, we are learning to take each other’s needs into consideration. Mine don’t just disappear because I made a choice a little less ordinary.

Breathe for connection

“I can’t stop crying!”

She’s told me this a lot recently. I generally don’t ask her to. Enough adults struggle to express their feelings. I’m one of them.

But this time I needed her to stop crying. Ophelia had just fallen asleep in the sling on my back and I really didn’t feel prepared to soothe two crying children at once.

We’d left the zoo. On foot because our car is broken. She was on her scooter and we were going uphill, which would have been fine except we’d stayed out too long. We may have had too much sun. I was conscious that we needed to hurry or we’d miss ballet.

It amazes me the leaps my almost-four-year-old’s emotional intelligence has taken. She articulates for me what I can’t discern in times like these: “I *can’t* stop crying.” Can’t. Not won’t.

I put my arms around her, aware that I’m risking waking the fourteen-month-old on my back. It’s a risk worth taking.

“Let’s breathe,” I suggest. We’ve been doing this every now and then. I say breathe in or out and we both do.

We breathe for me as much as for her.

Breathing gives me a chance to stop and think about what’s happening before I react. Sometimes it’s all I need to help me calm down. Particularly if they’re both crying, I need to breathe, to visualise, to pray, because some sort of alarm goes off in my head and renders me anxious, prone to getting shouty.

And her?

When we’d stopped breathing, she wiped her eyes, smiled, got back on her scooter and nearly beat me to the top of that hill.

Start as you mean to go on?

Laurence worked in London last week so it was my first time being alone with our two children for that length of time. I worried about it a little bit beforehand but then I got our diary all booked, worked out a game plan for staying on top of the house and keeping in touch, and got on with it. And it was surprisingly OK.

The thing is, just under a year ago, when Ophelia was a newborn and Talitha was two and a half, the thought of having to do bedtime on my own filled me with dread. I reached out to my local La Leche League group and friends with more than one child because whenever he worked late or was away, I felt like I was drowning. Despite knowing better, it felt like a forever situation at the time.

Everything does. Just recently, I told a friend that Ophelia has now reached the stage where she won’t nap when we’re out and about, not even in the sling, but that when we’re home, she’ll sleep for 1-2 hours per nap. She reminded me that it wasn’t long ago that Ophelia was having 15-30 minute naps and waking up tired, which I was struggling with. How quickly that changed and I hadn’t even noticed. At the time, though, it felt like it might always be that way.

You’d think I’d have learned this lesson the first time around with Talitha, that everything changes quickly, that it makes sense to just get through today. With Talitha I believed the phrase repeated to me again and again: “Start as you mean to go on.” The trouble was, I didn’t know how I meant to go on. I worried that she would be in our bed forever. I couldn’t know that she would choose to sleep in her own bed at two and that I’d miss her. That phrase is pretty meaningless when I consider how quickly children change.

The challenge this week was getting Ophelia to settle for the bit of the evening before I go to bed. She is tired by Talitha’s bedtime but she still needs a lot of body contact to sleep. This usually isn’t a problem when two of us are around so rather than put in the effort we did with Talitha to settle her in her cot several times before turning in for the night, we’ve just passed her back and forth.

On my own and in need of some baby-free time, I settled her multiple times and eventually put her in bed with Talitha, checking on them frequently. It was at times frustrating. We made it to the weekend without despair, though, and that was mostly because I wasn’t agonising over what I felt she “should” be doing, which is what I did with Talitha. It just was what it was and wouldn’t be forever.

There is power in accepting a situation, in living in today, in knowing things will change and allowing myself to be surprised when they do. A “problem” becomes a problem when I forget that.

Beyond the Sling – book review and giveaway

I’m a big fan of reading parenting books. I know some people think they distract you listening to your instinct. I believe a good book, with solid footing in science, common sense and compassion can help you separate what you do because it’s left over from your own childhood and how you are naturally wired to parent.

Mayim Bialik’s Beyond the Sling is very much that kind of book. Best known these days for her role as Dr Amy Farah Fowler on insanely popular American sitcom The Big Bang Theory, Bialik has a PhD in neuroscience in real life. She also has a breastfeeding counselling qualification and is mother to two boys. This book serves as a simple, joyful introduction to attachment parenting, the lifestyle she and her sons’ father have chosen for their family.

I read Beyond the Sling as an attachment parent. I nodded along to her description of attachment parenting: “It is for people from all walks of life who seek to parent gently and who believe that an independent adult is one who was allowed to form a healthy dependence and attachment to her caregiver in her formative years.” There was little that was new for me. However, it was so refreshing to read how another family does things on a practical level.

The book is organised around things babies need: a smooth entrance, milk, holding, nighttime parenting, potty. And things they don’t need: stuff, unnecessary medical intervention, pressure and punishment.

There are even a couple of sections on what mothers need, which is great to see since this style arenting is often equated with maternal martyrdom, which it certainly isn’t. You can’t parent well if your own resources are running dangerously low.

What stood out to you in the list around what babies do and don’t need? After reading the intro, I went straight to the potty section! Not that much is written about elimination communication (helping your baby to the potty rather than leaving her to wee and poo in a nappy) and it’s really interesting reading about how it works in a real family context.

Bialik demystifies the practice. I felt pretty reinspired to keep going with it but I’m still only managing to do it on a very part-time basis. The principles that underpin it make a lot of sense to me, though.

Bialik writes: “The investment and effort we put in when our children – no matter how we parent – affects them and us for the rest of their lives. EC is one investment we stand behind (no pun intended) all the way, but I think that the outcomes of EC can be used by parents even if they potty-train the conventional way.”

Beyond the Sling by Mayim Bialik-2

Then I flipped to the gentle discipline chapter. This truly was a breath of fresh air. We’ve been finding the world of parenting a three-and-a-half-year-old a tricky one. As Talitha develops her opinions and ideas and explores life and its limits, it’s sometimes hard to know how to relate to her in a way that is neither harsh nor permissive.

Bialik defines gentle discipline as: “parenting without violence, relying instead on respectful communication and seeking to see your child not as someone lesser or weaker than you who you can and should control, but rather as a partner in your life and a source of potential joy and loving interaction.”

Her examples of what this looks like for her family are extremely helpful.

I think this book is an especially inspiring read for a new parent who wants to feel able to trust her (or his) intuition. For me, it was both encouraging and entertaining.

I love Mayim Bialik’s writing. I actually read her blog on Kveller for a while before I realised that she was in The Big Bang Theory! I was excited to hear that she was writing Beyond the Sling, though it’s taken me a while to finally read it.

Pinter and Martin have recently republished it for a British audience, which I was delighted to see because I’m a big fan of theirs too. Do check out their other titles.

In fact Pinter and Martin are offering one of my readers the chance to win a copy of Beyond the Sling. Just tell me what stood out to you in the list of things babies do and don’t need and enter the Rafflecopter widget below.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Beyond the Sling is available on the Pinter and Martin website for £7.99 at the time of writing.

Giveaway ends 12.00am on December 24th 2014. Open to UK residents only. Entrants’ email addresses will be passed on to the Circus Queen newsletter – you can opt out at any time.

The second nine months

“Look, leave her in the pram. She’ll be fine. You need to stop picking her up all the time. She should be feeding every three hours,” the doctor told me at my eight-week check up with my first daughter.

I felt embarrassed. Actually, I felt humiliated, like I was being told off for doing the thing I felt helpless to stop doing.

I picked newborn Talitha up and breastfed her. I told the doctor that I literally could not hear what she was saying above the baby’s crying.

I couldn’t even look the woman in the eye. I felt like every inch of me was a picture of maternal failure.

I began to blub about how she was not gaining weight, about all the people I was seeing about it and about the fact that I’d been told to breastfeed her as often as possible, not to wait for or schedule feeds.

Even more embarrassingly, I began to cry. I looked up at the doctor. She looked stunned and very uncomfortable.

Looking back now, three and a half years later, I think she meant well.

She didn’t want me to burn out. She knew that parenting is hard.

Though it was not her place to offer the opinion that she did, especially since it was not based in medical fact (the evidence supports breastfeeding on demand), I genuinely believe that she thought she was helping me.

I also believe that her words may have stung with greater force than they were said because I was vulnerable. Anything could hurt me. It’s easy to forget how fragile new mothers are once we’re no longer there ourselves.

The second nine months

But while this one incident is still so clear in my memory of that blurry time, how many times did I hear that message?

Don’t pick up the baby. She’ll get used to it.

It didn’t make sense to me then. And now that I’ve had a second baby, I’m even more baffled by this advice. Babies are already used to being carried constantly. We carry them in our bodies for nine months.

The gentlest birth involves much work, much squeezing out into a world of bright upsetting lights and scarily loud sounds. And yet we expect a sudden transition?

Tada! You’re here. Lie there, will you? The food’s no longer on tap. You better get used to it because one day you’re going to be out in the real world.

My first baby loudly protested being put down. Whether that was her hunger (she was tongue-tied and had trouble accessing milk), her personality or her reaction to a traumatic birth, I’ll never know.

The second nine months-2

My second baby slept so much, we could put her down quite a lot. It was pretty incredible. The moses basket actually got some use.

But as soon as she was alert enough to know what was going on, she let us know that that was not the way things were going to go. It wasn’t what she wanted, what she needed.

Every baby is different but every baby’s needs in those first months are strong, sometimes overwhelmingly so.

And whether it’s a first baby or second or more, it seems from my own experience, from what I’ve read and from conversations with other mothers that adjusting our expectations could go a long way in reframing how we feel about that time of utter dependency.

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In the very early days with my firstborn, my mind kept going back to what our NCT teacher had called “the fourth trimester”. It helped me view my body as continuing to sustain this helpless being from the outside of me – an extension of pregnancy.

Then four months hit. She went through a classic time of being unsettled and I went through a time of trawling the internet for answers, feeling like I was losing my mind.

Thankfully, I came across talk of sleep regressions. Just knowing that our experience was shared, helped me accept it. I was no less sleep deprived but I was reassured.

Around that time, I also came across the term “the second nine months”. It conceived babies as only gradually growing away from their mothers, as needing much holding, nighttime care, much feeding. And it absolutely made sense to me then.

Ophelia turned nine months on Monday and it still makes sense to me now. I have worn her in slings for most of these months, nursed her at almost every peep, kept her in my bed and tried to see her life the way she sees it, that she has been a part of me and I of her.

The second nine months-5

She is mobile now. This special time of total connectedness is fraying. I can see it alarms her at times.

I can also see she is getting used to it, gradually. That she wants and needs to bumshuffle away from me. More and more.

This time I’ve mostly done what I wanted, what felt right, with mothering a new baby. It’s been hard (at times so hard) but I’ve also reaped the benefits of meeting her needs.

There has been much joy in the mundane and much simplicity despite any frustration (and there has been frustration).

I’m sitting here, typing with her asleep in my arms at 9pm. I look forward to her joining her sister upstairs for this portion of the night.

This time I know it will happen all on its own. She will outgrow her babyhood without any hurrying.

Dear children

Dear children,

May the times I am serene outweigh the times I get stressed.

I pray that you remember my patience and sense of humour more than my melodramatic huff.

May the silly power struggles over selective eating and my disproportionate anxiety over your bordering on bizarre diet pale next to memories of us peeling carrots together, “painting” chicken and chowing down on hearty roasts together.

I hope you’ll remember our snuggles on the sofa more than our rushing around to get anywhere vaguely on time.

I do hate that you now ask “Are we late?” almost as a reflex.

I want you to look back and see a history populated with books we read together, rather than too many “Let me finish this first” moments.

I would really rather you remember the places we go when we get there, over the unrepeatable words I mutter when I’m lost or finding the new skill of driving a bit too much.

I’d love it if, in the balance of things, you see more paintings that were enjoyed and less worry over messes accidentally made.

I want you to know that you had a mother who was present.

I want to know that I was.