Archive | March, 2011

Thinking about Parenting

29 Mar

My daughter appears to be going through a challenging week. I don’t know if it’s teething-related (we’re still waiting for four big molars which seem to rumble occasionally) or because of nursery. It might be neither, and I’m probably projecting my nursery worries onto her. Either way, she is getting over a cold and has been sleeping more than usual, but also takes quite a long time to fall asleep in the evening.

Today she couldn’t agree with any of my plans, so getting ready for nursery was a struggle, getting home again was stressful because she could only be distracted from screaming with the help of a giant banana (after supposedly having eaten a good lunch just half an hour before), a trick which I only thought of halfway home, and the idea of stopping cuddling so that I could prepare her afternoon snack was met with a shouted “No!” followed by throwing herself on the floor.

At times like these it is difficult to stick to my plan of working towards what I have identified as my ideal parenting approach. I’m a big fan of the idea of Good-Enough Parenting, but nevertheless, when it comes to my daughter’s care, there are certain criteria which I find important to bear in mind. I will probably never feel ‘good enough’ for my standards (what mother ever does?), but I still try  to aspire to a parenting style that feels right when I think about it in calm situations. When your child is snatching someone else’s toy in the middle of a heaving birthday party where all the other parents appear older, wiser, better-educated, calmer and more confident than you, it’s impossible to decide on your approach there and then, but if I think about it in advance and decide on a general stance, I find it slightly less stressful and it means that I don’t resort to the same behaviour as my daughter’s in order to restore fairness in toyland.

I see my parenting approach as constantly in flux. How I respond to my daughter depends on her development, her mood, and other situational variables. Now she is beginning to talk, it is clear that she can understand most of what I say to her, so it is now possible (and quite fun) to negotiate with her, e.g. ask her to hand my glasses back rather than prise her fingers off them.  What is constant through all of this is my image of how I’d like my daughter to feel, the kind of person I’d like her to become, and how I’d like our relationship to be. So, ideally, I would like her to feel comfortable, confident and safe. I would like her to be curious, responsible and kind. And I would like our relationship to be built on trust: for her to know that she is always appreciated and that she can rely on me, and for me to know that if I give her the space to develop at her own pace, the end result will be fine.

The idea of acting according to the relationship you would like to have with your children is something I came across recently, I think it comes from Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting. I haven’t read his book yet, but it is on my list. Similarly to many of the eye-opening insights which have guided me through my daughter’s life so far (babyled weaning, for example), I first came across Unconditional Parenting on Mumsnet. Recognising the risk associated with making my daughter think she has to earn my approval has thus far helped me resist falling into the ‘good girl’ trap. I still need to get used to the comparatively long-winded way of praising her (“X might feel sad if you take her toy away. – Look how happy she is now you’ve given it back!” vs. “Give that back! – Good girl!”), but I hope it will help her to develop her own values rather than encourage her to do things merely for an instant meaningless reward.

So when my daughter keeps waking up when I try to leave her room after having fed her for an hour already, I try to remember that she is doing it for a reason, that it is my job to find out what that reason is, and to help her cope with it. Huffing and puffing and getting fed up is sometimes inevitable, but if I work hard to behave like the kind of mummy I want my daughter to have, I feel much better when she finally does stay asleep, so it’s a win-win situation really.

The Witching Hour, Cooking and the Single Mother

21 Mar

One aspect of our daily routine can be quite difficult on occasion: the witching hour. This term is more commonly used to refer to the time of day when small babies cry inconsolably for no apparent reason, but it seems an apt description for the problem I am trying to explain.

Luckily (well, you know), I didn’t become a single mum until my daughter was 15 months old. This meant that she was just starting to walk, could occupy herself for (very) brief bits of time and was sufficiently robust yet small enough to be carried around on my hip with just one arm. This allowed me to do pretty much everything one-handed at times when she simply would not be put down without screaming the place down and absolutely had to be physically attached to me: cooking – easy; pushing her pushchair with her on my hip while carrying a bag of shopping – tiring but fine thanks to the one-handled design of the Loola Up; washing up – a challenge but ok; vacuuming – would be fine were it not for the frightening noise; going to the toilet in the middle of the night while cuddling a non-sleeping, clingy, confused baby – not great but totally doable. Thanks to her size which seemed to match the length of my arms and torso perfectly, as well as her enjoyment at observing my activities at adult-level, the transition from a two-adult  to a one-adult household was slightly easier than it otherwise might have been.

But now she is two years old and a whole lot more heavy. And sometimes we get to dinner-cooking time and she’s tired, and nothing is right, and she wants cuddles, and I’m tired too.

I’ve tried putting her in her Patapum carrier on my back, and unless she’s really upset she loves it most of the time. But it takes me about 10 minutes to put it on properly, so I usually think ‘let’s just get on with the cooking, we could have been almost done by now’. So this is too much faff for an everyday solution. I had hoped that giving her a play kitchen for her birthday would entice her to occupy herself with that while I got on with things in my kitchen, but no luck.

One change I have implemented is to dedicate about one afternoon per month to batch cooking when my daughter sees her dad. This means I have a freezer full of food that I only need to throw in the oven or into a saucepan, like a home-made ready meal. A real stress-saving solution, and if you batch-cook enough different meals, it won’t even get repetitive until the second week.

But I’m still looking for ways of cooking with a tired toddler which lets me get on with it and shows her that I am doing something that is just part of our evening while reassuring her that I am not far away and she can occupy herself with something interesting. Is this just something I will have to learn to live with or am I simply not encouraging her to be independent?

The Cupcake Backlash

19 Mar

Something I have been thinking about for a while is this whole cutiepie bunting-cupcake-vintage business. In my city there has been a veritable explosion of tiny cafes with interesting decor who sell all sorts of elaborate cakes, vintage shops, vintage-look shopscraft markets and swing dancing club night type events which require extravagant costumes and make-up. Along with these came the cupcake decorating courses taking place in said shops, the cupcake tastings at the markets, and the hairdresser creating vintage-looking hairstyles. And now there’s even a centrally located new branch of the WI for women in their mid-twenties.

This cutesy-revival is probably due in part to the popularity of the well-known London Hummingbird Bakery and Primrose Bakery and the appeal of women like Nigella Lawson and Kirstie Allsopp who with their wholesome charm entice women to focus more on the domestic arts like baking and home decorating .

Now, I like cupcakes and pretty clothes just as much as the next person! It’s very satisfying to bake a perfect cake and decorate it. (Well, I imagine it would be…) But I’m really uncomfortable with how seriously some of my friends take all of this. They seem to be permanently on the hunt for the next vintage treasure, striving to achieve the perfect Joan-from-Mad Men-look. When they are not travelling around the county in order to peruse the latest vintage fair, they are perfecting their make-up application skills or hunting down the best cakes in town. And they’re either in very good careers or doing postgraduate research.

So it all made me wonder about Third Wave Feminism/ Post-Feminism and the whole empowerment issue. To explain briefly, using a very simplistic example: some women don’t like high heels because they cause foot and back problems, cause physical discomfort and, at worst, make it difficult for women to run away in threatening situations. Other women argue that high heels make certain outfits look better, make them feel more sexy, and, after all, if they choose to wear them, they are not oppressed by patriarchal views of feminine beauty, but rather empowered. I don’t agree with this because when you have been conditioned for all of your life to go along with a specific idea of what makes a woman beautiful, it is not really a choice. So some women might not realise, but the reason why they feel more appealing while wearing high heels is because society tells them they are: TV, pornography, competition among friends – it is hard to go against the grain because you’d be the odd one out. It means that women are so busy trying to keep up with the latest fashion crazes that they have no time to sit down and think what would actually feel good for them.

Similarly, I would argue that all of the vintage-hoohah going on at the moment serves to keep women in their place. All of these women in their mid-twenties who are the target demographic for the events and services mentioned above are essentially practising being a 1950s housewife. Because the 50s, with their hourglass figure, perfect makeup and lovely dinner parties, are fashionable. But what about the lives of 1950s housewives was so worth aspiring to? According to Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room not a whole lot! The novel follows a central female character in her friendships with different women and mothers who eventually comes to the conclusion that marriage holds far more advantages for men than it does for women. The plot unfolds against a backdrop of neighbourly social events and domestic violence, and paints a scene of absolute misery endured by women behind a front of immaculate dresses and exquisite cooking and husband-pleasing skills. The book ends with the liberation of some of its characters through the advent of feminism.

So why would we glorify an era which was really not very kind to women? Do women now engage in this meaningless hamster wheel of  appearances because they subconsciously want to reassure men that even though they are highly educated and determined, they are really just desperate to please them and make a nice home so they are no threat to masculine hegemony? They might be highly educated and enjoy their interesting jobs, but they could drop it all at a moment’s notice in order to raise a family because they have been practising? Isn’t this a step backwards? Women have fought to enable us to live a different life. Surely one of the points Mad Men is trying to make is how ridiculously racist, homophobic and misogynistic the male-dominated world of the 50s and 60s was. So why would you try to become like the women who were degraded by their husbands and marginalised by society?

One could say that perfecting the skills of a 50s housewife in the 21st century is a way of showing sympathy for their plight, perhaps it is playing with perceptions of womanliness. But this would only be the case if people baked cupcakes and enthused over pencil skirts in an ironic way. And they don’t. Choosing to spend your time and effort on clothes shopping and home making, carefully crafting an image, is empowering because you know you could change the world instead by choosing to portray yourself as a different, more rebellious, kind of woman? I don’t think so.

Consumerism means that many women will strive to excel at what is portrayed as aspirational. There must always be a reason to make people buy more stuff and not worry too much about politics. If you’re into the second half of your twenties or beyond, you might want something more classy than a mini skirt and snake-print platforms (or, like mine, your thighs might think that their circumference has to correspond to the number on your birthday card). So in order not to feel inadequate in your femininity, you have to devise a look and spend time compiling props. You have to make sure you understand the reason for the appeal of red velvet cupcakes, otherwise you’re not a proper woman.

But while being a dedicated follower of fashion is entertaining if a bit pointless in the grand scheme of life, the universe and pay gaps, idealising the lifestyle of an era so oppressive towards women is a slap in the face of feminism. And don’t even get me started on burlesque!

Settling in at nursery: The way it’s done in Germany

17 Mar

I have just read a very thought-provoking post over at maternalselves, a blog by two academic mothers. I thought about commenting, but I think I have too much to say.

My daughter, too, goes to nursery so I can work on my PhD. She has been going since she turned 18 months, and it seems to be going ok as far as I can tell (and I find it difficult to tell most of the time). Her nursery also reserves only a week for the settling-in period: on the first day, we both went together to meet her key person who asked about food, milk, and sleeping (she has always fed herself, drinks no cows milk as I still breastfeed her, and is unlikely to nap at nursery as she feeds to sleep, which is fine because she only does half days); on the second day I left my daughter for 15 minutes and she cried the entire time, but was cuddled by her key person for all of it. The third day I left her for 30 minutes and she cried for most of that time, but was calm when I picked her up (I wasn’t sure if she’d just run out of tears). The fourth and fifth day I left her for 45 minutes and an hour, and she seemed fragile, but resigned. At the end of the week, the settling-in process was declared successful, and the key person recommended leaving her for two hours the next time instead of leaving her for a whole session, which was an option I gladly took as it seemed cruel to me to leave her for longer after she had been away from nursery for three days.

Since then she has been very positive about nursery, running excitedly to fetch her shoes when I ask her if we should get ready to go. But sometimes she seems more reluctant to jump into the hubbub of her group, and the extremely informative feedback of “She’s been fine. She’s eaten.” whichI usually receive at the end of her session isn’t really enough to allay my worries that she doesn’t really feel safe there, it’s all a bit much for her and cuddles at home would be much better.

I can’t help but compare my daughter’s nursery with what I know about nurseries in Germany as my oldest friend works in one and is always willing to provide her point of view as an educator. Her nursery, along with many nurseries in Germany, follows the Berliner Modell [Berlin model/scheme], a research-based, carefully worked-out approach to nursery education.  Developed by Kuno Beller in the 1980s, the aim of the Berliner Modell is to equip nursery staff with the knowledge and skills to assess a child’s developmental stage and needs, and to offer them activities and challenges based on what they have observed in order to foster the child’s motivation and self-confidence. One of the key ideas is that each child is treated as an individual – there are no pre-determined timeframes and ‘one-size-fits-all’-approaches. A child is frequently offered activities specifically for them, as a sort of ‘intellectual treat’, while the other children do something else.

The scheme is based on extensive scientific observations of nursery children and encompasses all aspects of the nursery experience as well as the interaction between nursery and home. It is a fascinating and extremely child-centric method. However, I would like to give an overview of only one part of it: the settling-in process. Remember my description above of my daughter’s first visits to nursery? If we lived in Germany, it would have gone as follows –

On the first day, we would have met her key person who would have asked a wide variety of questions about our home situation, my daughter’s development and interests as well as any concerns I might have. Then she would have shown us around the room, letting my daughter observe the other children and take in her new surroundings at her own speed, venturing from my lap out into the room when she felt ready. The key person would have gently interacted with my daughter, but only following her lead and taking care not to intimidate her. This would have taken around an hour.

The rest of the week would have passed in a similar fashion, with my daughter and me both getting to know her key person and the other staff and children. This would have enabled my daughter to observe that the other children trusted the staff, and it would have allowed me to feel reassured that she would be well cared for. Through observing how my daughter and I interacted and how I looked after her, i.e. when changing her nappy, the key person would have gained an insight into what made my daughter comfortable and what she was used to in order that my way of looking after her could be replicated. On occasion the key person and I would have performed tasks in parallel, me with my daughter and her with another child so that she could observe my way of doing things and I could learn to trust her.

After becoming more comfortable at nursery, I would have gradually removed myself from my daughter; first by staying out of the way when she was playing, and then by leaving the room for perhaps 5 minutes one day and if everything went well, for longer on the following days.

This process would have taken around four weeks with frequent reviews of our progress and specific tailoring to my daughter’s needs.

I realise that doing things this way  at my daughter’s nursery would require a lot more organisation and present quite a burden for the staff. But my friend’s nursery does not have the same rules regarding children:staff ratios as we have in the UK so that she occasionally has to look after up to 11 children between the ages of a few weeks and five years (no, this is not ideal and she is not happy about it) – and she still manages an individual settling-in schedule for each new child.

In conclusion: I really wish that my daughter’s nursery had been (were) more transparent about their didactic approaches so that I could feel reassured that they are aware of everything that matters to parents. I wish that they were more flexible with the settling-in and devised this phase in cooperation with the child’s parents. Because even though my daughter seems fine most days, I still can’t help thinking that sending her to nursery at such a young age, forcing her through the settling-in process, has broken a little part of her.

The Breastmilk Icecream controversy

11 Mar

Most people are probably aware of a London ice cream parlour’s offering of breastmilk ice cream thanks to the endless column inches dedicated to the topic. The Guardian weighs in as usual, but gains my approval because they published a piece by the woman who provides the milk for the Icecreamists ice cream parlour. There is also Zoe Williams’s article (loved her ‘Anti-Natal’ column!), which is far more informative than most other comments because she actually tastes the ice cream.

The Analytical Armadillo has written a great post about the recent breastmilk icecream outrage. What I find particularly interesting is her interpretation of the accompaniments served with the ice cream: Calpol, an Avent bottle and Bonjela. She notes that these three items are actually far more disgusting than icecream made of breastmilk – Avent contravenes the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, Calpol contains carcinogenic colour, and Bonjela isn’t all it’s hyped up to be either. Breastmilk, on the other hand, contains vitamins, minerals and stemcells, to name just a few of its over 200 ingredients.


10 Mar

Hi there,

This is my new blog. I decided that I needed a space to write down my ideas on parenting and life with a toddler, and this is it. I am planning to write about the fun stuff, the challenges, general approaches and parenting philosophies, as well as reviews of assorted child-related paraphernalia, places we have visited, and cooking/baking ideas.