Are we commiserating or just reinforcing our parenting mistakes?

Parenting is SO hard. You’re only human. You can’t keep your temper / watch what they’re doing all the time / *insert some other good decision*. There is so much pressure on mothers these days.

True.

We are going to make mistakes, some of them big. There is no question about that. What’s been bothering me lately is how obsessed we seem to be with putting bandaids on each other when we admit that we’ve done something wrong. Wrong. Because parents do things that aren’t OK. Good parents do things that aren’t OK. There is a world of difference between acknowledging someone’s feelings about having done something they consider wrong while trying to help them not be consumed with guilt, and rushing in with, “It’s OK, we all do it.”

For one thing, that’s not really listening. I’m not saying we should sit in judgement over other people’s parenting choices. Their kids are theirs to parent. However, I find it really weird when I’m with a group of mums and one admits that she’s done something she’s ashamed of, like shouting at her children or spending the day pretty much ignoring them, and all of us hurry in with stories of when we’ve done it, a flurry of “I understand” and reassurance to high heaven. I have many times been this mum and I have many times been the one to tell her that it’s fine.

How is it my right to dictate that she must feel about the situation? Sometimes, it’s OK for us to feel a bit crappy about doing something that doesn’t hold with our morals and standards. Maybe it’s OK for a friend to just listen and be there with no value judgements either way. It can help to just get it out there with someone else who’s had to face the toddler tantrums, sleep deprivation and the social isolation that many mothers experience.

Not only does insisting that it’s OK to mess up and keep messing up the same way again and again ignore what a mum might truly be feeling but it opens up potential for reinforcing negativity. For everyone involved. I might go away feeling better about losing it with my toddler and lose it even more, for example.

Are we so enveloped by a culture of complaining about everything – our children, our parenting, our own parents, the government – that it’s just easier to say that kids are resilient so what we do doesn’t matter? Is that easier than really listening to each other, noticing the beauty in each other and simply saying, “You’ve had a hard day. I can see how much you love your children and that you’re disappointed in yourself for what you’ve done. Tomorrow is a new day.” The responses sound similar but the latter doesn’t reinterpret, praise or criticise the other person’s experience, I feel.

All of this is just me having a little think out loud. I’d love to know your thoughts. When does commiserating cross the line?


Embracing your femininity

Both times I’ve been pregnant, I’ve found that something about this state makes me extraordinarily comfortable with my appearance. I feel light even as I get heavier and much at peace with my femininity. Last time, it was unsurprising. My hair got thick and glossy. My skin was the clearest it’s ever been. However, even this time around with my hair getting a bit ratty and my skin breaking out more and more, I still feel utterly beautiful, carrying this baby.

But that’s not what I’m supposed to say.

It’s become a cultural dictate that we should view ourselves with a degree of self-deprecation. Physically, certainly. It’s only humble, only wise, only healthy. Only female. One has to wonder who stands to gain from such constant dissatisfaction. What would happen if we stepped away from it? If we decided to take stock of our femininity in whatever form it takes for us? What if we were each to stand stark naked in front of the mirror, really take in what we see and and give thanks for it? What if we were to don our favourite dress and instead of fumbling over the bits of us that have changed over time, we silenced the criticism and embraced awe?

We might feel awkward, ridiculous, even guilty at first. Perhaps over time, we’d start believing what we said. Even better, maybe our children would grow up without quite as many of the hangups that have plagued us. In speaking beauty over ourselves, we speak it over them too. Maybe they’d go out into the world with an inner voice that’s a bit stronger, one more able to handle the media messages, the peer pressure, the myriad of things that teach us that dissatisfaction is normal.

At least they’ll have seen us satisfied.


This post was brought to you by John Lewis.


Who comes first, my spouse or my child?

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Four years ago, I made big promises to this guy and to God, before our family and friends. It’s still one of the best decisions I’ve made in life, the start of a real adventure.

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Photos by Courtenay Photographic. You can see more of the set here.

Two years ago, we were joined by this little person.

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And now we’re expecting to be joined by another.

16 weeks pregnant

So, we realised that we better get it in quick before February if we wanted to have a romantic getaway because the opportunity probably wouldn’t present itself for another few years.

The thing is, it just wasn’t as simple as that.

harptree court
We decided to revisit beautiful Hartpree Court, the 18th century bed and breakfast where we’d spent our wedding night and where this season’s Big British Bake Off was filmed. Holy ground, my friends.

You see, back when Talitha was 19 months and we’d made these plans, 27 months seems proper grown up. “So much will have changed by then,” we told each other. And we were right. She now sleeps in a single bed in her own room, doesn’t breastfeed at night anymore and mostly sleeps through. The “mostly” is what bothered me in the lead up to our big weekend.

Talitha recently stopped waking up and reassuringly staying in her bed, calling out or crying for us in the night. Instead, she disconcertingly comes straight into our room and asks for one of us to do something for her, usually me but Laurence does most of the nighttime parenting now. She has even gone downstairs looking for us if she doesn’t find us in our bedroom.

I didn’t expect her to do this at someone else’s house, though, but it turned out that she is so familiar with her grandparents’ house that when we stayed there the weekend before so she could try out the room she’d be in on her own, she happily got out of bed and came looking for us in the room we usually all stay in together.

So, of course, my mind started going into overdrive. What if she just gets out of bed and goes looking for us downstairs in their house? What if she gets confused and scared? How much of this “special holiday” we’ve been preparing her for does she understand?

We had a long chat about it and agreed that Laurence’s parents would likely hear her because you’re always more alert if you know you have to be. We also felt that Talitha has a strong attachment with them and would be reassured by their presence in the night, even if she’d rather have us with her.

I have, a few times in the past, brushed aside my discomfort with leaving her because I felt it was what was expected of me and it’s gone against my instinct. I’ve always ended up regretting it. But I knew deep down that it wasn’t the same this time. I wasn’t really worried. The fact that my concerns only surfaced days before the event made me think that they didn’t run that deep.

Harptree

As it turned out, they had a lovely time. Talitha did wake once in the night but it seems she wasn’t fazed by us not being there. She’s so at home with her Grandmum and Puppa. So, it seems that it really was good timing, even if we had been a bit worried about it all.

But it sparked for us a really interesting conversation about where the balance of needs are at this point in our family. I read an interview last week in The Guardian of a couples therapist who’s written a book about prioritising our marriages above our children for a number of reasons.

It irked me. Not because I don’t think Laurence is important or that our relationship needs to be guarded and nurtured but because it just seemed to be such a simplistic take on the matter. I haven’t read the book so I can’t comment on that but from what came out of the article, I just couldn’t understand how you could reasonably boil it down to “my child or my spouse”.

Harptree bamboo

Parenting our child is our joint mission. It has actually made us closer together. We are more deeply in love with each other because we are so in love with her. That dynamic will change over time as Talitha separates from us and goes out into the world. We will all change. And so will our needs.

There are times when her needs take precedence over ours because of her primal helplessness as when she needed to be constantly held. I sacrificed my need for space because I knew that her need for physically intimacy would not always be as great. At other times, one of our needs has taken that place. My pregnant discomfort led us to gently night wean. She is over two and I knew that she was able to cope. My need for sleep without nausea and nursing aversion had to take precedence.

Harptree the great british bake off

And now it seems that the balance of needs is such that we can have the odd night away – and so can she. No rushing or forcing necessary. Everything’s happened in its own time.


Singing her to sleep

Now that Talitha is no longer rocked or fed to sleep, we’ve discovered a huge repertoire of songs to lull her before pretending to fall, or actually falling asleep, ourselves. The bedtime routine goes something like this:

Talitha: Read [insert book name] please.
Laurence/Me: We’ve already read three books. Books all done.
T: One more!
L/M: No, no. All done. Time to sleep.
T: I don’t want to sleep.
L/M: I can go for a bit so you can sleep.
T: No! No! Don’t go! Don’t go! Daddy/Mummy stay there! Sing!

And so the songs begin. Laurence’s theory is that we’re bargaining with her to get what we want, to sing rather than read another book. I wonder if Talitha knows this is the way it’s going to go anyway but let’s the drama play out of a natural sense of order.
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Blessed is the Peace Maker – Story of Mum exhibition

I’m participating in Story of Mum’s virtual exhibition running over the summer, which gives me two tasks, to curate a piece of artwork from their collection and to create one of my own. One of the statements that spoke loudest to me is the one above. It’s from the “I’m a mum and a…” collection.

“And I don’t know what I am yet…” resonates strongly with me because, if asked to do some soul searching and define myself, I’m not sure I could or should do it just yet. There’s an exciting sense of exploration and openness in that statement, like she’s looking forward to years of experimenting, mixing and matching. Her life doesn’t start and end with her children but they are a very important part of who she is.

It’s interesting too, because when you become a mother that, to many outsiders, becomes your whole identity, especially if you stay at home with your children most or all of the time.

I think that’s why it irks me when someone insensitively asks if I’m “just” a mum and to top it off uses the word “mummy”. No one should call me “mummy” unless I’m theirs. It’s just an error of language. They’re asking whether I work outside of the home. But language carries power. I’m not about to call myself as “just a mother” and I won’t let you either.

Motherhood can require of you the greatest creativity you can muster. It can call out of you a place of peace you didn’t know existed. A mother’s patience is a powerful energy. There is no “just” about any of this.

That’s why for the create bit I added to Story of Mum’s poem describing mothers one of the most solid definitions I have for women who give themselves to this exciting and exhausting life:

Peace Maker

Then after I added it, I realised it should be one word. But no, I like it like that. In many ways, mothers are both, especially in the earliest days. We’re both the peace and the ones enabling it. It’s a gift to us as much as it is to our children.


Six steps to keeping my temper with my toddler

It’s been a rough week with Talitha. Tantrums on her side, frustration on mine. It would be easy to say that she’s been defiant but, really, she’s just learning and exerting her independence. This is a good thing. After switching the TV on because I needed a break and crying on the sofa after I’ve put her to bed, I’ve come face to face with a big part of the problem. It’s not about her making me angry, it’s about the anger that already lives inside me. Frighteningly, I can see there is a lot of it.

I can respond with calm the first, second or even third time through sheer will but bring in the fourth conflict or tantrum and that peace needs to come from a deeper place that my determination. Toddlerhood doesn’t just bring out the best and worst in you. I’m learning that it has the potential to batter the worst out of you if you’ll let it. So I’m letting it. I’ve known for years that I have a problem with my temper. My daughter is finally giving the motivation to do something about it.

Here’s what I’m thinking so far…

1. Start from a place of calm
Talitha won’t let me put a nappy on her or have the potty anywhere near her so I slap my head in frustration while she looks on with amusement. I’m amazed at how easily this scenario has unravelled me. I could justify it – what about the carpets? – or I could look at what’s really happening. The carpets can be cleaned. In fact, they’ll be industrially cleaned when we move house soon. I’m being pulled apart not because what’s she’s doing is forceful but because I haven’t stored up inner resources to deal with this conflict.

I need to find moments in the day where I can refocus and rediscover peace. For me, this means meditation at naptime or after she’s down for the night. It also involves prayer before I go to sleep and while I do repetitive tasks like the dishes. God is the source of my peace so this is where my focus goes. Whatever you believe, I think all parents needs to find their source.

2. Plan ahead
As I said, I might hold on to my temper the first, second or third time but the fourth… So the question is, why am I setting us up to get into so many conflicts? It puts us in a position where neither of us can win. Surely it’s better to avoid them altogether. This came up last week in our ToddlerCalm workshop but looking back on the past week, it still bears exploring.

Planning ahead to avoid conflict involves tackling lifelong bad habits I’ve accrued. It means becoming organised, being proactive and being on time. It plays out in packing the bag and laying out clothes the night before, creating and following a reasonable cleaning rota, checking train times and leaving much more than enough time to get to the station. Basically, the more stressed I am, the more likely we are to get into a standoff.
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ToddlerCalm – learning to parent with love and respect

I have actively resisted going to parenting courses, partly because most that I’ve come across have seemed at odds with my parenting philosophy. I find it weird when any list of techniques is universally applied to children by strangers who don’t know them. It’s the same reason I’m careful about what parenting books I read. My rule of thumb for any parenting advice I receive is to ask:

1. Is this coming from a place where the child’s feelings and experience are considered valuable?
2. Does this approach recognise that parents have to find their own answers?
3. Does what’s being said here acknowledge every child’s uniqueness?

Let me say it now: ToddlerCalm is a big fat “Yes” to all these questions. I wanted to go to one of their classes when Talitha was eighteen months and started having tantrums. All in all, she has quite a laid back personality but, like any toddler, she’s busily exploring. In that process, she’s experimenting with her independence and testing limits of everything from the law of gravity to how will mummy respond.

I’m very aware that if we’re not consciously reflecting on what we’re doing, we can become reactive in our parenting. We end up responding to normal toddler behaviour with learned habits that are so deeply ingrained they almost feel instinctive, even though they grate against our conscience. For me, this involves raising my voice unnecessarily and the urge to hit (which I have never acted upon).

In the culture that I grew up in, these were very normal disciplinary strategies. As an adult reflecting on these and other punishments I experienced or witnessed, something deep inside me rejects it all. There must be a way to help our toddlers grow into people who are physically, emotionally and socially healthy. And if there is, it’s neither controlling nor permissive.

So I do my reading around. I think my thoughts. I lay them on Laurence when we get the chance. But we’re parenting together. He has his own experiences and his own wisdom as Talitha’s father. The ToddlerCalm workshop gave us a chance to listen to ideas that made sense to us, then go away and work out what we believed and what it would look like.

We covered a bit about the way a toddler’s brain works and what’s developmentally happening for them. Did you know a toddler’s brain is twice as busy as ours? No wonder they sometimes have a meltdown! It was eye-opening and reassuring to hear that complex skills like true empathy, sharing, reason and manipulation are just not possible until they are much much older than we would have expected.


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