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So this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over, a new one just begun…

24 Dec
Holiday, Summer, Mediterranean, Sea

The most blue water I’ve ever seen

This third year as a single mum has been the most busy, and the most successful at work for me so far. My daughter has turned into a proper big girl: life with a 3-year-old is so much easier than with a baby or toddler.

This year my daughter has learned

to dress herself

to put her own shoes on

to recognise her own name

to recognise letters and name them according to what they represent in her letter puzzle

to come to my bed when she wakes up in the middle of the night

to go to the toilet on her own and wash her hands

to cut up food

to use scissors, a hole-punch and sellotape

what the post office is for and how exciting it is to send and receive letters

how to complain loudly about the bus being late and then choose her favourite seat when it arrives

several nursery rhymes and Christmas carols

going to ballet school

 

My year has brought the following accomplishments:

a tiny semblance of a social life

getting onto people’s radars at uni to be considered for jobs and feeling part of the ‘big people’

my first semester teaching literature to undergraduates

being praised by my supervisor for the feedback I gave my students for their essays

an internship at a small-but-influential literary organisation linked to my university (a particular highlight was attending an event and being told “this is x, have you met?” when x was someone who has written and been mentioned in academic texts I have read, and also an MBE and all-round impressive person)

suggesting a book review to a major journal on the spur of the moment, and having it accepted for publication

finishing a chapter of my thesis

presenting my research at a small conference in London

securing funding to attend as well as presenting my research at a major international conference in a Mediterranean country in the middle of the summer, mingling and networking for 3 days in a 5-star hotel, exploring the island and coping fine with the heat

 

Next year will bring:

hearing back about my abstract submissions for 3 conferences (2 UK, 1 international), 1 competition and 1 publication

submitting a proper article to a proper peer-reviewed-and-everything journal

my 2nd semester teaching literature to undergraduates

running a conference with 3 other students

hopefully the completion of 2 further chapters of my thesis

saying goodbye to our lovely nursery and its community

SCHOOL! and thus the official end of my daughter’s baby years, going to uni together, doing spontaneous fun things on weekdays, knowing she’s only a 5-minute walk away when I’m working, waiting at the uni bus stop with all the students, etc etc…

 

It’s been a good year. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been majorly hard at times. I still have the feeling that my life has gone down completely the wrong path and there is nothing I can do to change it and direct it towards what I actually want. If you imagine the events that led to my becoming a single mum as an explosion (which is how I still see it), basically I’m still feeling dazed with tinnitus ringing in my ears. But at the same time, I have felt a new level of freedom through finally getting some results from my research, going out occasionally, and generally taking part in life. I feel slightly less ‘needed’ by my daughter. Of course she still needs me and I usually enjoy looking after her, but it’s all so much less intense now that she can do most things on her own, goes to sleep relatively easily, and because she is generally hugely intelligent and lovely (shameless bragging alert). I’m crossing my fingers that at the end of 2013 I’ll be able to report a similar list of achievements, and with my sanity still somewhat intact.

 

Merry Christmas, if you celebrate, and if you don’t, have a great winter break!

Sometimes nice people can make your day

7 Dec

The lovely GP who daughter and I went to see this morning told me all about her mother-in-law’s sister’s daughter’s wedding in my home city, asked about my research, called me a ‘sensible mum’ in a message to someone else, and told me I’m doing an ‘excellent job’ with my daughter. She gets fed, watered and cuddled most days, but sometimes it’s still nice to hear this. Especially when our circumstances mean that next semester I will probably have to miss out on teaching experience which is vital for my CV. Daughter got a sticker for being very patient during our conversation and not minding the stethoscope, so she’s happy, too.

Feel the Fear and do it anyway

22 May
Calendar

“Should have had allergy test appointment by now”
The hospital letter said there might be a 13-week wait for my daughter’s allergy test, and I knew I’d lose track… Luckily it only took about 2 weeks.

Sometimes it is useful to be a feminist because it means that while sometimes we might not be able to change our situation, we at least have a chance to keep our own thoughts and disagree with the status quo.

Something weird happened today. A brief explanation: I am going to go to London to present a paper at a conference next week. It’s a weekday, and I’ll be gone all day, so my daughter’s dad is taking the day off and looking after her. That’s great and stuff, he is usually ok about taking time off work when I have a uni-related event.

The weird part starts here, and I really found it quite a shock.

Our local gym has recently started offering preschool gymnastics sessions, and as my daughter loves moving and running and jumping and, as of two weeks ago (it’s still so exciting when she learns something new), skipping, I thought I’d take her there one of these weeks. I haven’t got round to it yet, and while we were reading a story about dancing I suddenly thought, that’s it, let’s do it next week. But that is the day of the conference.

So I thought, brilliant, her dad can take her, she’ll love it, and it’ll give them something to do. Of course he can decide how to fill the day himself, but he’s never looked after her for a whole entire day before, and I know on days like that you can get a bit sleepy and/or crazy from the lack of adult contact. Plus he has a car, so it’ll be a doddle to get there and back.

So I told him my idea, and… ‘no, it would be too stressful’. Too stressful?!! After I have found out about the sessions, and (theoretically) booked a place a week in advance?! When I take my daughter we’ll have to take the bus there and back, which obviously takes longer so necessitates snack planning, plus possibly planning an extra-easy lunch as she might be tired and thus probably want constant cuddles.

That will be the 8th new group we will have tried out together, whereas all her dad does is take her to the library (which is great, I was pleased when he suggested it last autumn!) at carefully scheduled times to avoid the weekly dads’ session. Some mums have probably been to many more groups, but to be fair, we have stuck with our music group for two-and-a-half years so far, plus most of these groups were explored before I seriously went back to uni. Plus there’s also the small, totally un-stressful matter of taking an 8 to 36 month-old to uni seminars with food, toys, being on time despite buses, worrying about nap scheduling and toddler disruptiveness! And potential judging of parenting skills at the GP/dentist/baby clinic/nursery. All pressure which is solely reserved for my parenting experience!

So don’t ‘stressful’ me! With a car and absolutely no time pressure all day this would be a piece of cake.

But this way I get to enjoy another first, and the potential satisfaction of investigating and planning a new activity appropriate for my daughter’s current interests and skills, and hopefully her enjoyment and excited chatter as the result of it all. In short, parenting brownie points – they’ll be mine, all mine.

I like going to groups and activities because usually my daughter enjoys it and, while I’m confident and comfortable in my parenting approach, I find it useful to see how other parents interact with their children. In my experience, isolated parenting breeds abuse. I don’t mean that everyone should go to three groups every day and adopt another family including the parents, all I’m trying to say is re-evaluating our parenting practices every so often is a good thing. Plus staying in all day is dull.

I have been loosely following the Elisabeth Badinter responses, and while I think she raises some points worth thinking about (if only to re-evaluate our feminist position), I really don’t understand her notion of the über-mother who takes on everything and doesn’t allow the dad a look-in.

Unlike Blue Milk’s experience when she left the birthday party planning to her husband, my daughter’s dad would simply not do it. He is very generous with money, and time when possible, our parenting relationship could be much worse than it is at the moment. He would totally plan a birthday party if I told him the place, time, invited guests early enough, etc. But all initiative has to come from me. Sometimes I feel like a bit of a single-mum fraud because he gives me lifts, gets bits and bobs at the shop for me, and usually is available at the drop of a hat if I/we need him. All of this is very appreciated, and I know that many single mums just don’t have this. But when it comes to moving along with my daughter’s development (things like finding new activities, games, what parts of daily life/the world she might find interesting now, needing new clothes, responding to her questions about complicated things in an appropriate way), the responsibility rests squarely on my shoulders.

It would be great to have someone who understands that school applications have to be done in September, so open days have to be investigated, Ofsted reports have to be consulted, and short lists have to be compiled, and it’s all so hugely important and bloody scary that doing it all on my own seems sleep-robbingly overwhelming. Of course he’ll probably insist on coming to open days, but I’ll get to choose which ones, and what if it later turns out I wasn’t aware of some crucial information or missed a deadline or something. He wouldn’t be aware of them.

Take the photo above, for example. It was a reminder for myself that I put in the calendar to make sure that I couldn’t forget about my daughter’s allergy test. Did her dad set himself a reminder? I doubt it.

But the thing is, while trying to allow my daughter most possible chances and choices and securities in life is big and scary and most probably impossible, I don’t want to give away any of this responsibility. I want to be involved and plan things for her, because I don’t want to wake up one day and realise I haven’t been on the ball enough. And I enjoy doing all these things. It is daunting going to new groups, but it is also useful, not least for the local gossip like which schools have a good reputation but are actually not great in some respects.

Dads who don’t take part in the community aspect of child-raising exclude themselves from something which is a large part of an under-five’s life. Yes, it’s great that my daughter’s dad sees her as often as he does, he clearly wants to be involved in her life and thinks of nice things to do at the weekend, but if I didn’t tell him, he wouldn’t even know that she goes to a music group (nor have been aware of the chance for him to become a trustee, something which is marginally useful for his career), or her friends’ names, or the fact that nursery compile a folder of photos to document her development which allows us a brilliant window into what she gets up to without us.

I will of course continue to keep him in the loop because it’s good for my daughter. And of course many parents are prevented from much more than weekend activities anyway because of work, or they have a set-up which specifies that only one parents holds the responsibilities outlined above while the other one contributes something equally vital to family life.

I enjoy everything I do for my daughter, even when sometimes the responsibility feels too much without an equal partner by my side. And of course her dad is not a bad dad for not immediately agreeing when I suggest something to do in his time. It would just help on the difficult days if it was sometimes acknowledged that I do things that other people find too ‘stressful’ on an easy day. I guess that is the difficult thing about being a single mum with no family nearby: no one knows how much effort you put in to get through the day, and no one is grateful for that effort. But we have to keep going to meet our own expectations because no one will make you feel better when you think you’ve failed. There is no safety-net.

That Time Cover: ‘Are you Mom Enough?’

12 May


When I came across this excellent analysis, I thought it might be interesting to analyse the composition of the controversial Time cover.

A particularly interesting point raised in this article is the fact that the cover photo is engineered to evoke sexual undertones. And once you start seeing the photo through this lens, it becomes clear just how carefully the portrayal of Jamie Lynne Grumet and her son has been engineered.

Clothes and Hairstyle

First, there’s her appearance: in some articles discussing the photo, Jamie Lynne is referred to as a ‘willowy bombshell‘: she’s skinny, she has flawless luminous skin, she’s blonde, she wears fashionable clothes. She might practise attachment parenting, but the mother on the Time cover (I feel it’s important to distinguish between the mother-representation on the cover and the actual person Jamie Lynne Grumet, as they are likely to be different people) is no earth mother who knits her own lentils. But neither is she too fashionable, hence the sensible flat ballerinas. See, she’s just right – not too crunchy, not too plastic – everyone can relate to her.

The way this mother is represented creates a tension: her hair is modestly pulled back, and the colour of her blue tank top and skinny jeans seems deliberately chosen to hint at common representations of the virgin Mary (albeit a bit more 21st century). But wait, her shoulders aren’t covered and she’s not wearing a bra, so is she a woman of virtue or of loose morals?

Body Language

Her  facial expression is both docile (closed mouth, neither smiling nor not-smiling) and defiant (head held high). The fragility of her thin frame is called into question by how strong and robust her posture makes her appear, while the allusion to the virgin Mary, who is usually portrayed in passive positions, contrasts with the active supermodel-hand-on-hip pose.

The mother’s posture is supermum through-and-through: her hip-jutting says she is ready for any criticism the viewer wants to throw at her, while her arm protectively cradles her son’s shoulders. She is both hard and soft, alluring and motherly.

At the same time, her facial expression is quite blank, and so are her clothes – they are simple and a non-offensive colour. She is a blank canvas ready for any viewer’s feelings to be projected onto her: is she making breastfeeding fashionable? A ‘hippy’? Aggressive? Submissive? Outrageous? A pervert? A role model? Just an average mother?

Text and Image Interaction – Questioning Mothers’ Shagability?

Then there’s the big red question mark superimposed on her nether regions – surely an accident, one might think. But this is the cover of a major magazine, there are no accidents, and text and image are designed to interact for maximum effect in the reader’s mind. So perhaps the question mark is placed here deliberately to call into question the sexuality of mothers who breastfeed for an ‘extended’ period.

There are two questions an uninformed reader might ask themselves: first, does breastfeeding give rise to sexual feelings once the baby is one day older than an arbitrary number of weeks, and secondly, can a breastfeeding woman still be sexually attractive? Is motherhood incompatible with stereotypical conceptions of womanhood? Not just motherhood as it is commonly represented in the media, because that is often seen as the epitome of femininity, but motherhood when a woman shows such extraordinary dedication to her children? (NB I am well aware that the average world weaning age is around 2.5-7 years according to Dettwyler, but nevertheless, breastfeeding a child or several children for several years is a special commitment which can occasionally take a lot out of mothers.)

The Child

Grumet’s little boy is dressed in trainers and camouflage cargo pants – very ‘big boy’ clothes that seem to hint at a child who is happiest running around in the countryside or playing football.  They make him look more grown up than he actually is, so that he appears as a big, strong, stereotypically masculine figure next to his mother. While it is obvious that he is standing on a chair, this nevertheless serves to make him look taller, and thus older, than he really is, thereby increasing the outrage factor.

Conclusion

The composition of this image and its interaction with the chosen text serve to press different buttons in each reader’s mind, so that it’s simultaneously possible to be filled with admiration or disgust at the 26-year-old mother who feeds her three-year-old son and her five-year-old adopted son, and the fact that she has two children and manages to look so glamorous.

Personally, I think it’s great that there are mums who breastfeed for several years, including adopted children, and it’s useful that attachment parenting might gain more attention in the mainstream media as a counterweight to all those ‘Supernanny’ techniques. I don’t think the competition which the headline is trying to create is necessary or beneficial for anyone; surely it’s time to leave the mummy wars behind. In addition, I can’t help the impression that Grumet and her son have been exploited for the sake of magazine sales.

Why I (try to) practise Attachment Parenting

3 Apr

After I separated from my daughter’s dad I thought seeing a counsellor for myself would be a good idea to keep my thoughts straight and find a way through the confusing mess created by the issues he kept secret throughout our relationship. I was extremely lucky to see a great counsellor through my university’s free counselling service. I had had counselling before, but this time there was so much going on that my counsellor decided to work with me for just over a year. Obviously we covered many issues to do with my relationship, but as many people probably know, ending up in a co-dependent role as I did is usually the outcome of childhood programming which has gone wrong at some point.

With my counsellor I worked out that my attachment with my mother is likely to have been ambivalent attachment. There is a very concise list of possible manifestations of this attachment style here, if you want to find out more. My counsellor didn’t go as far as diagnosing anything because she does not practise that kind of therapy, but what she told me about this kind of attachment style, and what I subsequently read on my own, resonated with me. I know, and she knows, that my mother has her own issues, and I have certain theories about her childhood and attitudes to my sister and me, but I don’t want to go into them now.

Suffice to say, I do not want my daughter to grow up feeling how I did. I never felt close to my mother, or comfortable spending time with her. If for Sartre ‘hell is other people’, then for me hell is sitting in a quiet room on my own with my mother because I know that the way I am sitting, every breath I take and every time I swallow my saliva will be judged, and that judgement will be expressed through glances, humming, and hurtful little digs designed to undermine my confidence. My mother has never told me she loves me. Really. Ever. This is not normal. The only time she told me that she was proud of me was when I told her I had made my husband move out (with good reason) because she had not managed to do this in her own marriage until the situation had gone past untenable. I still feel awkward when it comes to physical affection, or even just proximity, with friends and acquaintances.

My daughter is kissed and cuddled every day, and she recently started telling me occasionally that she loves me, indicating, I hope, that she feels loved, and that she understands that what we say to people can have an impact on how they feel. I hope affection will be a part of normal life for her. Similarly, I want her to be independent, as well as supported. She will never be told that I have to say no in order for her to learn frustration tolerance. This does not mean I will allow her to do anything and everything, but in everything I do I strive to show her that I acknowledge her wishes and to treat her with respect. Most of all, at the moment I think avoiding extremes and rigidity is important, and seeking moderation and picking one’s battles might be the most healthy way forward.

At the moment, although I have been feeling great recently, some of my issues with my mother have been coming to the fore again because of her visit. This visit has followed the usual pattern of excitement at her arrival, feeling overwhelmed by all the gifts she has brought with her, disenchantment at the realisation that she is still locked in the same thought patterns, resentment, feeling guilty for the resentment, and finally feeling sad when she has to leave again because she is my mother, and she does try hard to be better sometimes.

This time her visit has been especially taxing because my daughter has discovered a small, but very important word since the last visit: ‘no’. She enjoys making up her own mind, having her own plan and sticking to it. I know this is healthy and normal, she’s testing her boundaries etc. etc. Usually I would do some reading on how to handle this new phase in my daughter’s emotional development in a way that makes her feel safe, loved and taken seriously, and that lets me remain calm and positive.

This time though, the new phase hit out of the blue. One week we were enjoying the birthday comedown, the next we have hours (well, feels like it) of negotiations regarding on which side to get out of the car, as well as constant attempts to run across roads. Putting it like that, perhaps it would be best for all of us to avoid cars for a while. I couldn’t find any parenting inspiration because I usually do that online, and my mother has a deep suspicion of people who use the internet for longer than two minutes.

On top of this came my mother’s insistence to be involved in every single negotiation I had with my daughter. Often our conversations didn’t even start out as negotiations, but simply as quick conversations about what we would do next in order to go to the park while it’s still sunny. My mother’s  insistence on being involved, talking, being heard, giving instructions, commands, on taking over my role, meant that by the end of most days daughter and I were a frazzled heap of mixed emotions and short fuses. For my daughter this was complicated by the fact that her grandma and I spoke German to each other, and I’m never sure how much she understands. For me it was difficult because my mother’s way of handling diverging opinions reminded me so much of how she was when I was younger and still living at home. As I said to my daughter’s dad on the couple of occasions I made him stay after her bedtime so I could offload my annoyance, I’m not surprised that I became the person I am. Even my just three-year-old daughter gets no compassion, no empathy, no understanding, no niceness from her grandma as soon as she has her own opinion.

I am not proud of the way I handled these difficult situations. On a couple of occasions I lost my patience and ended up picking up my daughter and carrying her where I wanted to go rather that trying to talk her round or letting her have some autonomy, although I had previously decided only to do this in dangerous situations. I did not confront my mother about how her behaviour was making my daughter feel confused and isolated. One morning I attempted explaining my current strategies for diffusing tantrums about to happen and key phrases that seem to work well, as well as my reasons behind them, only to be met with a host of parenting tips (‘at this age they really need to know boundaries’ – well yes, but not such harsh pointless boundaries that they end up too scared to say a word in public or to form any opinion at all! / ‘Please don’t leave her at home on her own while you go out in the evening’ – It hadn’t even crossed my mind, and I’m insulted that you think I might do this before she is at least 16!) that made me feel so misunderstood, patronised and disrespected as a parent that I decided keeping my mouth shut for a while would be the safest option.

Our contact is already limited because of the great geographical distance, and after deliberating for several months I have decided it would be beneficial for my daughter to have some sort of (heavily monitored) relationship with her grandma. But before the next visit int the summer I have some serious preparation to do, as well as work on standing up for my daughter’s best interests more.

I’m just glad to have done so much counselling, because I’m not sure that I would be able to disentangle my emotions arising from my daughter’s behaviour from those brought about by the way I was parented.