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.


First month with Delilah

It’s crazy to think Delilah has been here four weeks already. A month. A month with three children. A month as a family of five. It’s strange to think that a tiny person who mainly sleeps, feeds and excretes has taken up so much space in our lives.

Talitha and Ophelia are besotted with her. I wondered if their interest in her would wane but it hasn’t and, thinking about it, it never did between them either. They continue to be in love with each other, always wanting to know where the other is and what the other is doing. Now with Delilah here, they both come looking for her first thing in the morning, arguing over who gets to lie next to her “to see her eyes”. Ophelia keeps asking “Where Lilah?” and “Is she awake?” followed by “I want hold her”. Talitha’s refrains are “Delilah’s so tiny!” and “She’s such a beautiful baby!”

Third time around, the baby thing is so familiar, it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Changing her, burping her, dressing her, slinging her, holding her one handed while doing all sorts – it’s all practically muscle memory. We’re confident we won’t break her.

There’s also no worrying about whether we’re doing the “right” thing. I mused to Laurence about this last night as he sat in the arm chair holding a sleeping baby while watching The Olympics. With Talitha we might have spent the evening making many attempts to put her in the Moses basket. Putting Delilah down hadn’t even occurred to him as an option. He was quite enjoying a cuddle.

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The new challenge is learning how to parent the older children with a newborn. This struggle is mostly mine. I’m the only one who’ll ever have all three on my own at least for the next few months.

I’m also the one who has grown and birthed a baby and now has all her instincts pulled into this tiny, needy human being. It’s easy to feel that the older ones are just too hectic, that they’re crowding us and to feel a bit out of control. I have to consciously keep reminding myself that my older ones are very little still; they still need much from me. At two and a half, Ophelia won’t let me forget that, often asking to be picked up or to be cuddled in bed at times when I can’t. Talitha is a lot more independent at five years old, and willing to go with the flow as is her personality, but I’m aware that she needs more than she’ll demand.

We’ve tried to make time for me to be with each of the girls individually, either with Delilah or on my own if Laurence is around to hold her. That’s done masses both to help me recalibrate and to give the girls the reconnection they need. I’ve found in these times that Talitha gets more affectionate than she normally would, cuddling, kissing and saying the sweetest things. Ophelia melts into me. Both drink up the attention.

delilah's first month-2

I’d thought that I might be tandem breastfeeding again and I had massively mixed feelings about the possibility. Las time, breastfeeding a toddler and new baby simultaneously built up my milk supply quickly while helping me avoid any engorgement. It kept the connection between me and my first born strong and I credited it with helping us avoid jealousy or feelings or rejection.

Still, it was hard work. I struggled to help her wait her turn when I found it too difficult to nurse them together. My breastfeeding aversion never completely went away though I felt fine breastfeeding the baby. When she finally weaned about a year and a half later, I felt sad but ready.

This time, I was willing to wait and see what would happen. Ophelia readily accepted that the baby would have my milk. She needed no explanation. She also did not ask to nurse. She told me that “muh” was for the baby. For a long time she didn’t breastfeed and I wondered if that was the end of it. I knew it would be easier in some ways to just breastfeed Delilah but I didn’t want to withhold something my toddler might still need. Two-and-a-half is on young in the natural weaning age range. “Don’t offer, don’t refuse” is weaning strategy so I knew that by not offering, I was weaning her. I felt conflicted both ways.

In the end, she did ask again. In the past month, she has nursed a handful of times. I don’t feel I can call it breastfeeding as she just puts her mouth to the breast but doesn’t really latch. In a few moments, she is done. She is weaning. I have to trust that she is ready. I have to trust that I will meet her need for attachment in other ways now that she is moving on.

delilah's first month-4

Breastfeeding Delilah has been its own experience. I haven’t worried like I did with the others. With Talitha, everything was new and so much was a battle. With Ophelia, I worried that I’d once again end up not making enough milk and having to fight to breastfeed her. With Delilah, I’ve known that it would be OK. Still, I had to work to help her latch correctly and she’s only just started waking up on her own for feeds. I also dealt with a bout of mastitis a couple of weeks ago.

When I was pregnant, friends asked if I was looking forward to breastfeeding and babywearing a newborn again. To be honest, I’d forgot what it was like. Once I’d adjusted to the news that we were having a third child, I mostly focused on the idea of having just that, a third child. I hadn’t really thought that much about what having another baby would be like. I feel like I’ve spent most of this month drinking in her baby smell, delighting in the light weight of her, staring at her sleeping face and playing with her tiny toes.

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How could I have forgot any of this? And how can someone we’ve known so briefly seem like she’s always been a part of our family?

PS: The TotsBots nappy Delilah wearing is the Annabella Floral Easyfit Star, a special edition print by Joules. It’s a handy one-piece nappy system and so far, no leaks. It was sent to us by TotsBots – a pretty addition to our nappy stash.


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.

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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.


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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