Holiday Stress

In our household holidays always seem to start badly. I become a monster. I write lists and sub lists. I snap – a lot. I create piles of items ready to be packed at least a week before the date of departure. These piles then get thrown over by the kids and each room becomes a sea of clothes, towels and toiletries for us to trip over. I buy things we don’t need to add to these piles. Wet suit shoes. Children’s goggles. Mini sun cream. I start to sweat more. We pack the suitcases then I squeeze in an extra ten plastic bags of essentials. The contents of the boot overflows both out on the road and onto the heads of the children.

I have realised this is for two reasons. Firstly, I am afraid of change. At home, we have our little routines and our little props that we roll out in desperate measures. I am not good at leaving these behind. Secondly I convince myself that I am entirely responsible for how much fun we will have. I worry that if the children are grumpy or unhappy it is my fault and I must have brought them up terribly.

When we arrive on holiday it takes me around two days to adjust. The first day we unpack and I mentally list everything that the new accommodation lacks compared to home. The second day I decide that in order to cope, I must recreate what we do at home. I try and take control of everything and convince myself that holidays are rubbish. It’s just as hard as at home, but without my comforts.

Gradually I do something important. I breathe. I relax and I realise that actually not being at home is essential. At home one of us would be doing jobs: fixing lights, gardening etc. If we weren’t, we would be feeling guilty that we weren’t. On holiday these jobs are out of reach enabling us to relax and spend time together. The fact that we don’t have the contents of our house is liberating. Who cares if my son wears baggy, flowery trousers for a day because he has run out of clean, boy clothes that fit him?

Lastly and most importantly, we are all here together. Just the four of us. I watch how natural my husband is with the children and how they light up in a different way under his glow. I start to lean on my husband for help and we begin to enjoy good quality, relaxing family time together.

Holidays are so precious. We are lucky to go on one in the first place. Yes we may come back more tired than when we left but they create moments when memories are made and are worth every stress.

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Does my mobile phone use have a negative impact on my children?

We all use our phones frequently throughout the day. The list of uses of a smartphone is endless; email, weather, map, music, banking, oyster card, entertaining the children..There are times too when, I admit, I use my phone to switch off. To escape for two minutes. I browse social media. I read a news article. And feel slightly calmer and more connected. But at what point does my use of my phone become destructive to my children rather than constructive?

A study by eight paediatricians, published in the official journal of the American Academy of Paediatricians, observed a selection of parents using their phones in a restaurant. The study showed that the impact phone use has on children depends on the extent to which the parent is absorbed by the phone. If the parent briefly checked their phone but was still interacting and engaging with the child then the child didn’t change their behaviour. However if the attention of the parent was engaged mostly by the phone then this would often have a negative impact on the child’s behaviour. They may start acting out or get more vocal in order to win back the attention of the parent.

The Chinese government was concerned about the growing use of smartphones and the negative impact this was having on children. They launched a campaign showing images of children and parents with a giant mobile phone blocking them and keeping them apart.

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They were clearly agreeing that if the attention of a parent is taken up by a phone, it can prevent them from interacting positively with their children.

In the popular book “Toddler Taming”, Dr Christopher Green writes about “grades of attention” and the impact they have on a child’s behaviour. He describes grade A attention as “undivided and uninterrupted” under which “a toddler thrives”. He then describes lower grades of attention, grade D or E, when the parent thinks they are giving undivided attention but the toddler knows better. They may begin to act out, for example by asking lots of questions they don’t expect you to answer. As the grades of attention get lower, the behaviour gets worse. The child may empty the contents of mum’s handbag, turn off the TV, start shouting or even bring out the winning line “I need to go to the toilet”.

Psychologist Dr Chen Yu published a study in the journal “Current Biology” and found the first direct connection between how long a parent pays attention to a child and that child’s ability to concentrate. They then found that a child’s powers of concentration later influenced how they performed at school. Dr Yu argued that the shortest attention spans in babies were among those whose parents got distracted and looked elsewhere or sat back and did not play along. He said parents could encourage children to sustain attention through showing an interest in what their child is playing with. This would suggest that if we are checking our phones too often rather than focussing on our children, we could be having a negative impact on their ability to concentrate.

However if the reason that using mobile phones is bad is that our attention is taken away from our children, surely that can apply to a whole range of other activities? If I direct my attention towards my son, there are times when my daughter will act out to redirect the attention back onto her. I recall talking to a friend and my son climbed onto a high chair knowing I would intervene. We can’t write phones off as entirely destructive to our children. We just need to be conscious of how much time and attention we dedicate to our children and possibly realise that we use our phones more than we care to admit.

Vygotsky, in his publication “The Role of Play in Development”, argues that it is actually when a child is paid less attention that they are more likely to take part in the type of independent play that develops imaginative play. They have the opportunity to enter “an imaginary, illusory world in which their unrealisable desires can be realised”. He makes it clear however that he only believes this type of imaginative play is possible from age three.

This delivers a contradictory message to the other research described. So as parents we need to find our own balance. Quality time with our children, when we give them our full attention, has a positive impact on their behaviour. But it is OK that this cannot be maintained all of the time. Whether it be our mobile phone use or the practicalities of life – cooking, cleaning, sibings, etc – that distract us, our children need, at times, to be able to play on their own. Let’s be thankful that the phone makes our busy lives easier and enjoy the time it frees up to spend some good quality time with our little ones.

Go on..tell me how I look…I dare you

When you get pregnant everyone comments on how you look. From the moment you reveal the news, until the day the baby is born, someone always has something to say. This continues after birth. You introduce your baby for the first time but the initial comment people make is often about your appearance rather than about your baby.

I didn’t actually care how I looked pregnant. It was the least of my worries. In my first trimester I was constantly trying not to be sick. In my second trimester most of the time I forgot that I was pregnant.  In the third trimester I was more excited about my baby’s kicks than whether or not I was getting fat. I mean I was getting bigger. I was growing a human, right?

There was nothing that anyone said about my appearance that made me feel good. “You look gorgeous” made me remember people were analysing how I looked. “You’re tiny!” Made me worry my baby was not growing properly. “Gosh, you’ve got bigger” made me think…well yes….I have….I have a baby in me…so I would hope so. One lady at work observed, “you are really showing now”. My thoughts were: I am 38 weeks pregnant – I certainly hope I am showing. Grrr.

Then my baby was born. I still didn’t care. My boobs were the size of my head, my stomach was floppy and I was regularly covered in vomit and poo. But I was euphorically happy and felt my life was complete. I loved my baby more than anything else in the world.

Still the comments kept coming. The classic opening line of “wow! You look SO well” just made me believe that everyone talks rubbish because err….really??? I haven’t slept in two weeks, I have one massive, pale boob out and there is vomit on my shirt.

Rather than share observations about someone’s appearance when pregnant or with a new baby my advice is to either make them laugh or make them food.

When meeting my new baby one close friend asked, “would you like me to get my ball out whilst you feed to make you feel more comfortable?” This made me laugh and relaxed me rather than forcing me to analyse how I looked at a time when I really didn’t give two hoots.

The memory of my first meal at home after I had my daughter still makes me salivate now. My daughter was lying on a blanket on the kitchen table whilst I annihilated a beef stew with Yorkshire puddings and roast potatoes made by my father in law. Oh yeah.

The time comes when we mothers have to confront how pregnancy and having a baby has altered our physique. In the meantime let’s try and steer each other away from appearance being a focus during such a special time.

Alone but Never Alone

Having a young baby can be a rather lonely time.

The first few weeks of being a parent are a blur of so many emotions, from extreme love and joy, to despair and fear. But eventually things settle down and you start to feel slightly more on top of life. If you are lucky enough to have help, they probably return to work or home and it’s just you and the baby.

The day starts (whatever time that is – 4am, 5am, 6am, 7am if you are lucky) and however much you were up in the night, you get out of bed, get dressed and make yourself a cup of tea. If you have a partner, they probably go to work and then it’s you and your little bundle. Right.

A young baby, even a baby of up to around ten months, doesn’t do a huge amount. What they do is adorable and amazing BUT compared with life before, it is notably more repetitive.

As a teacher my working day is non stop, full of interaction, challenge and variety. There were many times at home with my little girl that I missed this and actually felt lonely. I was, by definition, not alone BUT there was only so much stimulation my baby could bring. I felt like I should be constantly talking to her (as this is what we are advised) yet it sometimes felt forced and futile to explain “ooh, look….a blue square fits into the yellow lid”, when she couldn’t fit the square in herself or even show any sign that she had taken in what I said.

Often I would decide to go out to the farm, a park, or a playgroup. Even then, I would look jealously at other mums interacting and felt like I had “talk to me”, written across my forehead. Actually, I would often end up having a chat with someone over the swings or at the duck pond and it would surprise me how much this changed my mood and made me feel a little more human.

Someone reading this might presume I had no friends. That I should just have made an effort to meet more people. But having my first child I found I needed to work hard to balance my time so that I had enough time at home to give my baby good sleeps, tend to the house and relax compared to enough time to see other people. It was when I didn’t get this balance right that loneliness would creep up on me.

The problem was that when I felt lonely, I immediately felt guilty. How could I be so ungrateful? There I was, lucky enough to have a healthy baby. Lucky enough to live in a country that PAYS me to spend time with my baby. Lucky enough to have a house and my own space. But I couldn’t avoid how I felt.

As my little girl started to talk, this feeling subsided. Don’t get me wrong, I still highly valued adult company but being able to interact with my child added a new level of fulfilment.

I don’t think there is a solution to this feeling but I think we need to acknowledge that it is a common sentiment felt by mums and dads today and to recognise that it’s ok. We shouldn’t feel guilty or ungrateful. It is temporary and will pass. Maybe we should, however, pop next door more readily, call up our friends or not be afraid to strike up conversation over the swings on a more regular basis.

Discipline. Gulp. 

Discussing discipline scares me. It is a much talked about topic and people have very strong opinions on the issue.  Disciplining my own children frightens me because I know the way I go about it will influence the person they become and their relationship with me. Gulp. Disciplining also involves constantly making decisions. Decisions which are new. Decisions that I have not had training for. The outcome of these decisions, I may not see until it’s too late. Gulp again.

I have established that there are certain golden rules:

  1. Be consistent
  2. Remain calm
  3. Set clear boundaries

I can’t say I have mastered these rules. My daughter refuses to sit on the potty. Yes, I have screamed, “sit on the pottyyyyyyyyyyy!” My son refuses to lie on his back to have his nappy changed. On a bad day I have whispered expletives whilst trying to pin him to the changing mat. My little girl climbs into the front of the car, rather than her car seat. “Just get into your seat – NOW”, I say less than politely.

SO in order to try to master the art of discipline, I have divided it into four categories: “Obvious” discipline, “Blurry” discipline, “Do I even need to” discipline and “I Didn’t See Anything” discipline.

Obvious discipline is easy; “No, you must stop sitting on your baby brother.” “No, that is a drink just for mummy and daddy.” “No darling, don’t put that piece of pasta up your nose.” I am consistent, clear and firm. These boundaries are clear.

Then there are times when I set boundaries for my children and then happily watch them blur because I am simply COPING. Blurry discipline: “We don’t play with toilet paper” becomes blurred when I end up actually giving my son the toilet paper to play with just to stop him putting his hand in the potty whilst I’m cleaning poo off the floor. “We don’t eat food off the floor,” though I have consciously turned a blind eye to my son hoovering up the sweetcorn under his chair whilst I try and encourage my fussy toddler to finish two mouthfuls of her dinner. “We don’t watch TV in the morning darling,” unless of course it’s before breakfast, before nursery, before dinner, in the car etc…

Even my daughter can spot “Blurry” discipline. Recently, at bedtime, she was adamant that she choose “a blue or a purple or a red book” from her bookshelf but she couldn’t reach. She strained on tippy toes whilst I told her, “no, choose a book from the floor”. I was feeding her brother and didn’t want to interrupt him. My little girl began screaming “no! I want a blue or a purple or a red book from the shelf!” Starting to get sweaty, I had a brainwave, “I know darling, go and get your step and then you can reach a book from the shelf!” She stopped crying, looked at me and laughed, “hahahaha, that’s funny mummy. First you said no and then you said yes, hahahahaha”. Busted.

The form of discipline that ties me in knots is “Do I Even Need To” discipline. We are at the park and my daughter has brought her favourite little “Wilkinson’s” buggy. Another child spots it, wants it, takes it. My little one snatches it back like a protective mother bear and the other child falls on their bottom. So many discipline decisions. What do I do? “Do I even need to discipline?” They snatched, she snatched. It’s her buggy but she should share…ah! I’m actually secretly hoping that buggy thief’s mum will step in before I have to address my aggressive pusher of a daughter. But she doesn’t, so something needs to be done! Ah! After 100 thoughts in a second, I address the situation as best I can; “darling, the little girl fell over because you snatched the buggy back, please could you say sorry”. Phew.

Finally, “I Didn’t See Anything” discipline. We all know there are moments when our little ones are acting out simply to get a reaction and wind us up. My son will look me straight in the eye and drop his cup on the floor. My daughter will take a sticker and put it straight into her mouth, giving me that, “go on mummy, tell me off, you know you want to”, stare. I look away. Proud of myself for not taking the bait.

I feel discipline is an art I will never totally perfect. BUT, if I understand discipline better, maybe I will find it easier to remain calm and somehow instil a selection of clear boundaries. There will be moments of comedy, there will be screams and there will be tears but I will remain consistent and committed so I know I have done everything I can to produce big people that I am proud of.

Confident Parenting

Last week I was hurrying back from the park in the witching hour, just before tea with both kids in the double buggy and my eldest was screaming. This is a common occurrence at this time of day; just getting her into the buggy is like wrestling a large tuna fish into a net. Once I have exhausted, “oh, wow, look at that aeroplane”, “would you like a bread stick?” and “get into the buggy in 5, 4, 3, 2..” it’s just a case of pinning her down whilst I buckle her in and start jogging the short walk home. Half way home, sweating like a beast and pretending that I looked in control, I noticed that she had changed her scream to, “shoe! shoe!”. As a result of the kicking and screaming, her shoe had come off. I cursed loudly (in my head!) and was just about to turn back when a lady passing by commented very abruptly, “errr, the reason she is crying is because she has dropped her shoe”.

Boom. A range of aggressive expletives exploded in my mind. I didn’t have time to reply as the lady carried on her rapid walk and breezed on past. Let’s be honest, I’m not the sort of person with the courage to say anything anyway. BUT I was seething.  What I wanted to say, apart from the line of insults was: “Yes. I know she has dropped her shoe but no, actually she is crying because she is tired and hungry and doesn’t want to be in the buggy.”

This lady was TRYING to help but actually ruined my afternoon. Why? What should she have done?

I realise now that the reason this lady made me angry was because my confidence as a parent was low. As a result of my little girl screaming, I was questioning my ability as a mum. The lady’s tone reinforced the view which I had already formed and it was this that made me mad.

This is not the first occasion when others have offered help or advice and instead of feeling grateful, it has had a negative impact on my confidence and self-esteem. Why is it so easy to lose confidence and to question our ability as a parent?

In most cases, there is little evidence to show how we are doing as a mum or dad. Unlike previous jobs, there is no appraisal where our superiors let us know how we are doing. There is no pay rise for high performance. No statistics to show value added. Plus, we certainly weren’t doing those jobs 24/7 on very little sleep.

As parents we are given so much advice by such a wide range of people. Some of these people have had a great influence on us in the past: mothers, fathers, mothers in law, close friends. All trying to be helpful and offering advice. Not to mention the previously-blogged-about unrealistic images of parenting online.

So, how can we be confident parents who are able to accept help and advice and who ultimately know that WE will make the right decision for our family?

I have found that I simply need to BE MYSELF. I cannot escape the person I am and who I was raised to be. If letting my child cry themselves to sleep at three months would make me feel guilty and uncomfortable then I should ignore anyone who advises otherwise. If letting my little girl cry herself to sleep at twelve months makes our lives better, then likewise, I should ignore anyone who says different. If cooking chocolate brownies makes us all happy because we love cooking them AND eating them, then I should do this regularly. If driving long distances makes me stressed and mad, then I should avoid this unless it is absolutely necessary.

I also need to ALLOW MY CHILD TO BE THEMSELVES. All children are different, because they were born so and have been raised so. If my daughter hates sitting down in the buggy then that is because she likes walking, not because I am a terrible parent. If my son likes to take all the books off the shelf and examine them, then my living room will be a mess but I shouldn’t feel self-conscious when I have visitors.

We should focus on the moments which do actually give evidence we are doing a good job. The smiles, the coos, the giggles, the cuddles. If we encourage ourselves to think about it, the list is endless.

Dr Seuss once said,
“You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.
You’re on your own.
And you know what you know.
You are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”

Routine

Routine

Prior to having my first little one, I read an unhelpful amount of books about raising children. All of them advised that some kind of “routine” is essential to having a happy child. I also recall, when my first child was very young, being asked on numerous occasions by older generations, “do you have a routine yet?” or “have you got them into a routine?”.

This gave rise to feelings of sheer horror. At eight weeks, I knew deep down that no, my little girl was in no kind of routine what so ever. I was just trying to keep us both alive. Whenever she cried I went through my checklist: Hungry? Windy? Wet nappy? Tired? Usually one of them seemed to meet her need. But did I know without trying at least three? No. I had no routine and as a result, felt like a failure and wanted to run away from anyone who mentioned the “r” word.

At nine weeks I read (dipped into!) “The Baby Whisperer” by Tracey Hogg and learned about the E.A.S.Y routine. I began to understand that this was the kind of routine that suited me. It didn’t suggest that if my baby woke five minutes before schedule, I had failed. Instead, Tracey Hogg advised that I learn to “read” my baby and allow her to tell me what she needs through certain cues, eg. rubbing eyes and yawning when tired. I found this very helpful and started to observe my little girl more carefully. As a result I began to learn what she needed without experimenting on her every time she cried. A routine started to evolve. But a FLEXIBLE routine without confidence crushing deadlines. I began to realise why older generations brought routine up so often. They had experienced that it does actually make life easier if you know what to expect and when. This results in calmer, happier children and parents.

I learned that this routine MUST BE FLEXIBLE, as sticking to the same routine every day is IMPOSSIBLE. I would be lonely and never leave the house. With one child, I would have had to say “no, I don’t want to go for cake, my child needs to sleep in 23 minutes”. This is crazy. Firstly I would have said no to cake. Secondly and more importantly, I would have said no to ADULT COMPANY – the holy grail of staying sane when times are tough. With two children, if my routine wasn’t flexible, we would never leave the house. My oldest would have to stay home whilst my little boy naps and vice versa.

There are times, of course, that even when I am trying to stick to my child’s “normal” routine, it doesn’t go according to plan. Some mornings, when they were little my daughter or son would perfectly follow a routine of eating, playing and then sleeping and would go down like a snuggly little bear. BUT there were also times when my little bear would show me they are sleepy (yawn etc..) but then turn into a grizzly bear. Not sleep. Eat. Play. Ahhhhhhhh.

Children are complex, beautiful, sensitive, mini human-beings-to-be. They aren’t fully developed. At these times, when my child’s routine is thrown off, rather than getting cross with myself and feeling like I have failed, I will try to remember this more. I am prone to over analysing and coming up with any reason under the sun as to why my child is not conforming to my expectations; teething? Hot? Cold? Over stimulated? The list goes on. But I never know why – I just guess. The point is, it doesn’t actually matter. Why should my complex human-in-the-making conform to my expectations every day? My daughter is two and a half now and still does not. She constantly surprises and delights me and I love it.

IN CONCLUSION. The most useful lesson I have learnt is to read my baby’s cues. The second most useful lesson I have learned is that sometimes they are rubbish and you have to experiment again to work out what they need and not to beat yourself down for doing so. The third is that routine makes life better but needs to be flexible to ensure that life goes on both for you and your friends and family.