Monday, June 30, 2008

Re-Learning the Lessons of Life

This morning my one year old taught me a valuable lesson of life. I lay in my lazy Sunday bed reading my book while Daisy and Poppy played in the curtains. Their combined giggles and glees were like an ice-cream on hot day… all you need.

Then they made their way over to my wardrobe to pull out my shoes. One by one they were inspected and thrown to the side while the next discovery was made. Then Daisy asked me to pull out the mini step-ladder from under my bed so she could reach the other shoes. The ones I deliberately keep up high away from grubby hands. But it’s Sunday, and she said please without prompting, so I pull it out and set it up, and grubby hands paw my red suede heels. Lesson 1: it’s always worth an ask. The answer might just be yes.

Once Daisy lost interest, Poppy then assesses the step-ladder. It only has two steps but she’s never climbed one before. Climbing is a very new skill, and I could see the step-ladder was going to be a practise ground. And so I watch from the cover of my duvet. She tries to climb them like stairs but they’re too narrow. Eventually she realises she can do it if she holds onto the sides to pull her up. After several attempts she ascends the first step, and contemplates the second. She climbs down. This takes a degree of tricky footwork but she gets there. She then practises the first step over and over again. Up and down. Up and down. Up and down. Coos of self-appreciation accompany her efforts. She then tries the second step. Unsure. Unsteady. She wobbles. I clench my hands in restraint and stay behind the confines of my bed. This is her lesson to herself. She makes it. Squeals in delight to herself. She looks down at the floor anxiously and begins her descent. She gets it wrong, has to climb back up. Tries again. Four attempts later she gets it. For the next 15 minutes she climbs up two steps, and climbs down two steps, practising her new skill over and over again. She doesn’t give up and she doesn’t give in. Each time she assesses the space between the steps and the step and floor. Her feet just touch. It’s a tough climb but she does it over and over again. As my pride swamps me I realise she’s given me Lesson 2: try, try and try again. At last you will succeed. Practise, practise, practise, at last you will perfect.

She’s one and she knows that instinctively. I’m 38 and I’ve long forgotten it. There are things I want to achieve but I keep giving up at the first wobble. I look at her and I see that I must try and try and try. I must keep trying until I succeed.

I thought I would be the teacher, but this is a relationship. We both give and we both take. She will keep teaching me and I will keep trying. One step at a time.

(c) AKG 2008

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Home is where the heart is

Having a lazy morning with the girls. We’ve read books in bed, with Sam the cat curled up between us as the pigeons coo outside our window. Today will be a stroll rather than a sprint. Yesterday a job opportunity came my way. A six month leap into the real world. For a brief moment I really did flirt with the ‘old me’. I could see her putting on her smart suit, I could imagine her striding off to the train, and my heart pounded a little as I saw her waltz into a room full of adults and take on the world. I ran my hand along the rail of pretty cloths that gather dust above the piles of weary-worn jeans and sweat pants in my wardrobe. Just a step away from being mummy-me and a step into business-me. And it was so tempting. Like a glistening cool pool on a hot balmy day.

But then I woke up this morning and the girls clambered under my duvet and we read Rumble in the Jungle. Daisy practised her lion roar and Poppy triumphed her first elephant trumpet. That would all be gone.

We then padded out into the garden in our pyjamas and threw water and sand on the grass and chased the cat. That would all be gone.

We ate lunch together and Poppy finally got to grips with putting a spoon in her mouth. Daisy had a tantrum and I felt like strangling her but we got through and she chased Poppy up the stairs with squeals of giggles. I kissed them both and got a cuddle back and off they went to sleep. All that would be gone.

As they sleep I claim my private peace at the computer and write. I write my blog, I write my next magazine article. I watch the news. All that would be gone.

We teach each other. We show each other. We talk. We giggle. We share our world and that would all be gone. They also drive me up the wall, drive me to distraction and drive me to edge of sanity, but I have no doubt that would not all be gone. In fact, with a rushed morning and the dregs of their day, I’m sure that would not be gone at all.

I would gain so much by going out to work again. My sanity. My self-esteem. My identity. We could certainly do with the money. But I would loose so much more. We would loose so much more. So for now, home is where my heart is.

(c) AKG 2008

Friday, June 13, 2008

Pretty in Pink

When I had two little girls I did think my life would be viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of princesses and girlie things. Little did I know though, just how pink it would get. I’m currently at risking of drowning in a sea of pink. My eldest daughter is two and a half. Just two and a half. I thought she would be at least five before my fashion advice was no longer required and an independent princess would emerge. But no, the Pink Revolution has arrived and it’s taking no prisoners. I’ve been punked. Or should I say, pinked.

The princess is a tough cookie and has very high pitched demands. To do a quick inventory of the latest pink accessories, we have shoes (all pink, every single pair, including wellies), pants, dresses, bags, doll’s pram, coat, clips, ribbons, pens, chalk, and blankets. And it doesn’t end there. No, no, no…. the pink pound knows no limits. Out shopping recently in the supermarket, she spotted some pink loo roll. Clutching the packet to her chest like a box of treasure, she carried it down all the aisles until the checkout. Now, while the rest of us use white, but she will only perform if there is pink to wipe up with. Her favourite poem is about a Pink Yink who likes to wink while drinking pink ink. Enough I thought! But no. If you can’t stand the pink, get out of the kitchen. At a recent picnic I asked her what sandwiches she wanted – Egg? Peanut butter? Chicken? Ham? “Pink” was the answer. Ham it was then. She will only eat pink yoghurt and drink raspberry smoothie. Surely things have gone too far when her favourite food has nothing whatsoever to do with taste??

But the thing that tickles me… well, pink… is that this is not nurture – this is pure nature. Somewhere deep inside her genetic make-up, a pink princess has burst free. I always dressed her in trousers and although I bought the odd pink item, they were outnumbered by a rainbow of greens, reds, blues, purples and orange. The pink has come from within – the pink link of genetics.

Last week a new development took place. The princess has become a warrior. She now refuses point blank to wear trousers. Only “pretty skirts” and “pretty dresses” which, of course it goes without saying, are pink.

And so I sigh and give in. I fought a good fight, but I now concede defeat. Pink is the new black. The new blue. The new red. Pink is powerful and pink has won. So I must take my pink princess and march forward enjoying the innocence of such a glorious colour….. no doubt I’ll be wanting it back when the black days of Goth descent upon us…

(c) AKG 2008

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Happy 1st Birthday

My baby is one. Last night I held you when you woke up and cried in the middle of the night… you were just hours from being one and I sat in our rocking chair in the dark holding you in my arms and wondered at the fact I had been holding you for a year. A whole glorious year. And that wonder wandered to a question I just can’t answer. What did I do before you? What did I do when I woke during the night before you and Daisy came along? How empty and lonely the dark of the night must have been. I have only held you in my arms for one year of my 38 years and I cannot for the life of me think what I did before. Holding you is so real and complete that it is hard to imagine my life had any real meaning before you and Daisy filled my arms, and my heart. A year ago I didn’t know you. I loved you of course, loved your swell in my belly, and your kicks under my ribs. But I didn’t know you. I couldn’t wait to meet you but I could never have known the beauty of you. I could never have imagined your serenity and your twinkle. I would never have thought you up, because you are beyond all expectations. I could never have imagined how special you would make me feel.

Only one year and I have become a better mum, a better person, a better woman, a better writer and all because of you. Happy 1st year my precious girl… and thank you in advance for all the wonderful years ahead… so many adventures together, so many hugs, and smiles and belly laughs. What did I do before I held you at night? I just don’t know. But I’ll hold you every night in my heart for the rest of my life.

(c) AKG 2008

Standing Up For Routine

There has been a lot of debate recently – in fact, there has probably been arguments since the first homo sapiens were born – on the best way to bring up a baby. Recent rantings have escalated in no small part to the C4 documentary series Bringing Up Baby last autumn, which followed three methods of childrearing with a view to exploring which was best. Naturally they couldn’t come to a conclusion because at the end of the day, different approaches suit different people. But sadly it also failed because – in the interest of TV ratings no doubt – it focussed on the extremes of each method which was pointless because as everyone knows, no baby is text book and all the ‘rules’ out there are to be used as guidelines to be adapted to fit in best with your situation. Scandalously though, to some degree, it also involved child cruelty – and I point the finger here not just at Truby King leaving hungry babies to cry, but to the continuum method which seemed to stifle infant’s need to exercise their limbs, and, worse, encouraged children aged two to play with knives!

The greatest damage though I felt was the impact it had on modern routine methods. Sadly all ‘routine’ methods are now being lumped together when in reality the Truby King’s militant approach bears little relation to any other book I’ve read on the subject including Gina Ford.

Now I’m going to do something I don’t normally do out loud. I’m going to stand up and confess “My name is Alana, and I use Gina Ford’s Contented Little Baby book”. Why am I normally a little reticent about this? After all it’s one of the best selling books on the subject of childrearing, and in my experience, it works (and by ‘works’ I mean developing a very contented little baby). What I have noticed is that people who use a routine method pass no judgement on those who don’t – merely shrug with a ‘there but for the grace of god go I’ as mothers talk of sleep resistant babies, whereas people who don’t use the routine method – and I would vouch have never even read the book – seem to feel they have the right to criticise us who do. So I want to start a revolution. I want to stand up and be proud and urge all you who quietly follow Gina, to scream it from the rooftops.

So why am I an advocate? Because for me, and lots of my friends, it works. I accept that it might not work for everyone, and pass no judgement on how other parents bring up their children as long as everyone is happy and the baby - and family and marriage - is thriving. For me, following a routine has made my baby rearing enjoyable, satisfying and fun, and more importantly, I have two very very contented little babies, and one very happy family.

I’m the kind of person who lives by lists, and I personally love routine. When I had my first baby two and a half years ago, I was overwhelmed - with love, and with fear. And while I was a very competent adult who had backpacked the world and reached the top of my career, I was pretty clueless with the little bundle of joy who, without having to pass any sort of test, and with no instruction manual, I was allowed to take home from the hospital. And so I read some books. Actually I read a lot of books. And I decided to follow the one that seemed to fit my personality, and our family’s needs, the best. I don’t agree with those people who rubbish the use of books and say it should all be instinctual. Personally I felt like I’d had a lobotomy and could hardly remember my name, so trying to find, never mind rely on my instinct was too frightening for words and I know most mothers feel the same. Also, what is wrong with reading books? In ‘the good old days,’ mothers probably didn’t need to read books on childrearing because they were surrounded by their mothers, grandmothers, aunts and a close-knit community. Certainly in the West, those days are gone, and so of course we seek out advice. When we learn to drive, we read up on the road codes, take driving lessons and pass a test. When we buy a computer we read an instruction manual. Why on earth, when we do the most important thing we’ll ever do, would we not consult the experts?

Routine methods are criticised because they organise children to fit into our Western lifestyle. I’m unsure why this is seen as a negative. Surely it is an essential! The continuum method – where the baby is physically attached to the mother or father for the first six months of its life, including sleeping in the marital bed – is apparently based on a tribal method. I worked for UNICEF for years and travelled to several African countries where indeed the women carried their babies around with them all day, strapped to their bodies. Why? Not because they had debated the best way to bring up a baby! But because that was essential to their culture and way of life. Those women had to carry the babies with them as they worked in the fields, or ground corn or walked miles for water. They didn’t have crèches and they breastfed. They don’t sleep in the same room as their children because that is what some expert tells them. They do it because they don’t have lots of bedrooms! They bring their babies up in the manner that suits their lifestyle, and we should do the same. What is best for the baby, and its family, is surely what enables the baby to thrive best in its actual situation.

Routine works for two reasons – it benefits the baby and the family. Firstly, children thrive on the familiar. As a baby, the routine is developed to ensure she is never hungry and never over-tired. As she gets older, the same daily patterns of food, play and sleep, food, play and sleep gives the child comfort and security, no matter where they are or what they are doing. My two year old finishes her lunch and pulls me to the stairs to take her up to bed because she knows she is going to have a lovely lunch-time sleep. If we are out, I put down the buggy seat and she goes to sleep there. Every single night of her life she has had the same bed-time routine – tea, play, bath, books and bed. It means she is secure in the knowledge that while so much changes around her, there is comfort in the familiar. We can travel anywhere and as long as we can give her the comfort of the same bed-time ritual, she is happy to sleep. Both my toddler and one year old old baby have developed great sleep patterns, sleeping through the night, and eating well, (of course they have their off days like everyone else – they’re not Stepford children!)

The second reason it works is that it helps a mother’s sanity and compliments the family dynamic rather than disrupt it. I know when my babies will sleep; I know when they will want to eat. I’m not trying to second guess their needs, and I can arrange our days accordingly. I’m not saying it’s easy – it’s bloody hard at first but the benefits are worth it, a hundred times over. Every night since Daisy was born she went to sleep at 7pm. Even in the early days of initial parenthood my husband and I were able to sit down together in the evening and take stock. Now, both of them sleep through the night from 7pm and, having devoted ourselves to them all day, we now devote time to each other, sitting down together every night for a meal and a chat. My babies are happy and sleeping well, and we as a couple are happy, still able to spend essential quality time together. Our children are the centre of our world – but they don’t rule it. We are the parents and it is our responsibility to set the boundaries. I’m aware that what has worked for me and others like me, won’t work for someone else. That’s as it should be – life would be very dull if we were all the same. My children will be no cleverer or happier than someone who takes a more instinctual approach – what works is what makes the family happy. But for those who do follow Gina Ford, or routines like hers, please, stand up and be proud. Be content, and enjoy your contented little babies.

© AKG 2008
Published in Spring issue 2008 Modern Mum Magazine