Thursday, March 29, 2012

the shadows in the early hours

"The mention of my child's name may bring tears to my eyes, but it never fails to bring music to my ears. If you are really my friend, let me hear the beautiful music of his name. It soothes my broken  heart and sings to my soul" - Author unknown

It occurred to me that this blog is largely about healthy babies and children, and hasn't really touched upon unexpected events or problems. Today I want to reach out to those parents and friends of those who face difficulties and sadness along their path of parenthood; for I am in awe of you. 
I find your strength inspirational. 

A few years ago, I went to see my friend, a week before her third baby was due. We had lunch, chatted in the sunshine, laughed at our children playing together in the garden. As I hugged her goodbye, I clearly remember saying, "the next time we meet you'll be holding your baby in your arms! Good luck for your labour!" 
Several weeks went by, and I didn't hear from her. I thought she was probably snowed under with 3 under 4's on her hands, so didn't contact her until about six weeks later, when I left a message for her. She phoned back a few days after to tell me that her son had been stillborn. She had given birth to him on her birthday. I was so shocked I didn't know what to say. We were both crying and I wanted to see her and hug her, to share her tears. She needed that precious space and time to grieve with her family, and I understood that. I gave her what she needed. But I felt devastated for her. She later moved away with her family. For the first couple of years I would send a card or email on his birthday, but then I began to wonder whether it was somehow inappropriate. Happily, they had another baby and settled into their new life. I have all but lost touch with her. I think of her often, wondering how they were able to deal with the heartache. 
I know of close friends who have lost a baby, too. As someone who has been fortunate enough not to have suffered this kind of loss, I cannot begin to imagine how it feels, and all I can do is give them love and time.

I try to think about how a bereaved parent must feel to know that the baby they love is gone. Their baby will never know how it feels to experience the sand and the sea, the sunshine, ice creams, the swings. They will never have the emotional first day at school, the day their child learns to ride a bike without stabilisers, the first lost tooth and the fairytale of the tooth fairy. 
They will never face a day where they feel like they are at breaking point with toddler tantrums, or trying to teach their child to go back to sleep when they awake in the early hours. They will never experience the cold toes and fingers as they creep into bed with their mummy and daddy and wriggle around all night, keeping them awake. 
Instead, they will sleep, and wake in the early hours, to a brief amnesia; before it is replaced with the flooding grief, the shadows of the darkened room engulfing their hearts, the silence of the hours deafening them. 
To anyone who has been bereaved in this way or another, I am so sorry for your loss. I can't take your pain away. I can't bring your loved one back. But if you know of a friend or loved one going through this pain, you can be there for them.
Say to them: "Tell me about your baby. Tell me everything you can remember. I will listen, and laugh with you. I will share your joy. I will comfort you. That person has left an imprint on your life, so show me what they looked like, the colour of their hair. Tell me how it felt to hold them in your arms, if only fleetingly, not for the lifetime you had dreamed of. I will cry with you, I will celebrate their life and I will love them with you. And when you feel ready to take the next step, I will support you in the next part of your journey." Don't shy away from talking to them about their baby, but be respectful of their need to grieve and have the space, the time to come to terms with what has happened to them. 
You can't make them suddenly better. But you can give them your love, compassion and time. You can give them space and give them the opportunity to talk if they want to. Take their cues, and listen.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Rewards and Consequences

"The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn and change" Carl Rogers

Let me start by making one thing clear: I know that I am not a perfect parent, and I never will be. There is no such thing. I try my best. 

I work hard at trying to understand my children, taking their feelings into consideration, and teaching them right from wrong. I try really hard to be patient with them, not shout, not get cross, and "model good behaviour". I really try my hardest, each day, to listen to them, share in their wonders, try to understand what is causing their frustrations/anger/dismay or fear. I bend over backwards each day to make sure they are warm, comfortable, well-fed, clean, and happy. I will forgo any of my own comforts, desires and needs in the name of love. 

But oh, my. 
They really know how to push my buttons. 
They know what makes me tick.
They know how to cause a massive distraction in order to influence a situation to their own advantage.
They can expertly make me look as though I am a rubbish mother in one moment, and a crazy, disorganised, ranting cow in the next.
My daughter is an expert negotiator. I am considering sending her on a mission with Kofi Annan. 
She knows how to argue her case, giving a reasoned and well-thought defence, leaving me occasionally baffled as to an appropriate, "I am the parent, you are the child" response. What do I do?

Sometimes, I can be a shouty parent. Each time I shout I feel guilty for shouting, which makes me feel like I am out of control, which ultimately makes me feel like a bad parent. 
These are the days when, as I tuck my children into bed in the evening, and I look at their little sleeping faces, and they are peaceful and beautiful, I feel a prick of self-resentment at having failed to be in control, calm and serene in the face of the challenges that children bring. I feel that failure all over, and it sometimes makes me feel so sad that I have lost my temper with them, all the while knowing that they are little people, with thoughts and feelings, who will one day grow up and be big people. I wouldn't shout at an adult, so why do I shout at my children? For me, the answer is feeling stressed, but that is no excuse. So in that case, I need to work out how to  manage stress. Simple, eh?!
What I find hard, is that I spend so much of my day trying to explain about "using kind hands" or "using kind voices", or "doing good listening", "doing good sharing", and "being kind to each other", and yet they argue, snatch from each other, ignore what is being said to them, show disrespect, and do the opposite to what is being asked.
 But often, they play nicely together, help each other out when stuck with something, chat to each other to make each other laugh, hug each other, help me by tidying up their toys, "cleaning" the bathroom (baby wipes come in very useful), reading books together, comforting each other if one of them is sad, and are simply gorgeous together.
 It really bugs me that for the past four years, at each meal, I ask my daughter to "sit nicely at the table, please do not sit cross-legged on the chair". She still does it, after all this time. There is a good reason: if she sits like that, she tends to spill her food down her clothes, which has been pointed out, but yet she still does it. Why? Is it habit? Is it to annoy me? Is it to show she wants control? Is it because I am too prescriptive and because I am not letting her get away with the little things? Or is it because she expects to hear me saying it? I really don't know - but it really annoys me that I have to say the same thing to her at every meal. The result: inward Arrrggghhhhhhhhhhh!
And the consequences of not following the "house rules"? Time out, and if they don't go, there will be a loss of treats, or a loss of bedtime story or evening TV.
The time out corner is not a place to go for punishment. It's a place to go to calm down, to retreat into themselves, to find a way to settle back into their usual state of being. I used to ask them to stay for one minute for every year of their age, but now I encourage them to come back to join in with whatever we are doing when they are calm and appropriate. I don't go over why they went to time-out, but they often apologise, and we have a hug. These are the days I feel in control, feel as though I am a good, authoratitive parent.

But just as important is the positive stuff: rewarding good behaviour with praise, star charts and spontaneous rewards (an unexpected treat, like staying up a bit later, a magazine, or an ice lolly). 
But the most important part of parenting, in my opinion, is love. Everything I do for them is borne out of love, including the discipline I endeavour to give them each day. It is because I love them and want to nurture them that I try so hard, because I want them to grow up as rounded, compassionate, empathic adults, who know right from wrong, are respectful and kind, and are secure and happy with themselves and their lot in life. 
I remind myself every day how lucky I am to have two gorgeous children who are happy, healthy, and full of life and dreams.
I can't describe how wonderful it is to find little notes from my daughter at least once a week, saying "dear mum, I love you", with lots of hearts and kisses. That is my spontaneous reward. My son tells me several times a day that he loves me, and gives me the most life-fulfilling hugs. Together they are my guiding light in the world, they are leading the way.
I am willing to continue to educate myself so that I may learn and change, and ultimately, pass this philosophy onto my children.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Reading for Pleasure

"In the beginning was the word and the word was ours..." From Michael Rosen's poem, "Words are Ours"
Above: me, reading to my daughter, aged six weeks.

I can distinctly remember the first time I read The Gruffalo to my daughter. I was 38 weeks pregnant with her, my little baby who was tucked inside me, curled up in a tight spot, and probably wondering where all the Room had gone.

I had one of those big bouncy ball things that are great for exercising, toning up wobbly bits, sitting on to do figure-of-eights to try to get Baby into the optimal birthing position, and great for using in labour. They're also a pain in the neck to store safely without them taking out a small child like a bowling ball, but that's another story...

On this particular occasion I was sitting on the ball whilst reading The Gruffalo aloud to both my daughter and my husband. "Are you paying attention?" I asked him. He looked a bit distant, but nodded. "Good. Because you're going to get to know this book very well!"
I continued reading to the end, at which point my hormones got the better of me, and I shed a tear. I felt quite soppy at the time, mostly because it was the first book I ever bought to read for my baby, and reading it for the first time felt almost like a ceremony, a beginning of something.

But I read that book every day until she was born, and we continued to read this book, and lots more besides, every day to both of our children. 

It is so important to read to our babies. Why? Because it helps them with their vocabulary and speech development; it helps them make an association with words and pictures; and it is great for bonding, too. It also sets a habit in place, where reading is an integral part of their daily life, intended for pleasure, cuddles, fun, laughter and chats about what's happening in the book. Here are some tips on reading with your baby

However, it doesn't stop with reading. Talking through what you're doing whilst holding your baby, walking around with them, pushing them in a buggy, carrying them in a sling, bathing them, peeling potatoes, putting the rubbish in the bin, tidying up - anything and everything can be verbalised with your baby. Communicating with them, explaining what you are doing - even explaining that you're going to change their nappy and the reason why, in simple language, is not only respectful (even if you're unsure whether they understand or not, if you consciously do so repeatedly, they will soon learn what the word "nappy" means and what that soggy uncomfortable feeling is), it is engaging them in what you are doing, and it enables the baby to understand more about the world they are getting to grips with. 
My son particularly enjoyed lots of time in the sling. I would alternate between having him facing me, and facing outwards, so that he could see what I was doing. He enjoyed watching me prepare food, and I would give a commentary on what I was doing: "I'm peeling this carrot which is orange. Can you smell the food I'm burning in the oven? That's because Mummy forgot it was in there until now! Oh, look, it's raining outside! I'll have to bring the washing in, now!" etc. That was a typical day for me, but I digress...

The National Literacy Trust has tips and suggestions on how to communicate with your baby, and includes their qualitative research report for their face-to-face project. One of the most fascinating facts is that at birth, a baby's brain has an enormous capacity for learning, and the greatest potential for learning is within the first two years of its life. So if you feel self-concious about talking to your baby, remember that it is helping their speech development, and it is developing your bond with them, too. The more you talk to them, the more natural it becomes.
When they start talking to you, it becomes a fascinating new experience and insight into how they view the world. Allowing them to ask questions, listening to what they are saying, repeating back to them, are all important aspects of communication. When they learn what the word "no" means, everything changes again, but that's the joy of parenting: it is a constantly-changing whirlwind experience!
But for me, the most rewarding aspect of reading to my daughter, is that she reads to me, now. It is a wonderful gift to hear your child read to you, not only understanding what the word means, but to be able to explain the text in their own language and relate it to their own experiences or ideas. Of course, spelling out words that she previously didn't know, such as "Could you pop to the shop to get me some c.h.o.c.o.l.a.t.e, please?" no longer holds any water, as she's onto me in a flash. Perhaps that's why I've lost a bit of weight, lately...

Friday, March 9, 2012

Nurture yourself

"At work, you think of the children you've left at home. At home, you think of the work you've left unfinished. Such a struggle is unleashed within yourself, your heart is rent." Golda Meir

When my daughter was just over five months old, I returned to work. It wasn't my choice; my maternity leave had finished, and we needed the money. It was a time I had dreaded. I didn't want to go back to work. I was enjoying my time with my daughter - she was becoming very interesting. And she was very, very cute and beautiful. I was still breastfeeding her, and had decided to express to give to the nursery whilst I was working. I had arranged to breastfeed her at lunchtime, being that she was in the building in the next street.
On the first day I reluctantly handed her to one of the nursery staff. I stroked my daughter's cheek, said a cheery goodbye, and left the building. I heard her crying as I left; I instantly found myself crying with her as I walked into work.  I felt like I was the worst mother in the world for leaving her. When I arrived, I was greeted by my colleagues, then left to get on with it. A full clinic after six months off. It was time to turn off my baby brain and start thinking, again.

In my coffee break I locked the door to my room and expressed some milk, whilst gazing at a photo of my daughter. I was in a rush - I had patients to see, and paperwork to catch up on. I had found the morning challenging so far, but also wanted to get to see my daughter at lunchtime, to feed her, cuddle her, smell her and hear her laughter. I was in a hurry to get my work done before lunchtime so that I could see her.
My life went on like this for two long days per week, for several months. I found it incredibly difficult to work and be a mum. It was a difficult juggling act - not from a time point of view - but from the guilt I was experiencing. I felt terrible that I was leaving my daughter in a nursery, when she should be with me; and I felt terrible that I seemingly wasn't performing to the standard I had reached before going on maternity leave. I wanted to be the best I could be - as a mother, and in my job. My coffee breaks were spent expressing; and my lunch breaks were taken up with breastfeeding my daughter and then rushing back to my desk, to eat lunch whilst doing my admin before starting my afternoon sessions. As a result, I lost social contact with my work colleagues. My morning coffee session and lunchtime visit meant that I didn't see them at all. We worked in our own rooms, so unless I needed to ask them something or saw them walking past, I had precious little time to interact. Overall, it was an intensely painful, lonely experience governed by guilt and feelings of inadequacy, capitalised by the need to be the best I could be. And for who? It wasn't for my daughter - I would have preferred to be at home with her; it wasn't for my bosses - although resentment built up over time because I felt that I had been ignored and overlooked, and that they had no idea of the mammoth effort it was taking me to do my job; it wasn't for the sake of finances - despite the ridiculous situation I was in, where I needed to work to boost our money pot, which by the time I had paid tax, NI, fuel, nursery fees, pension, and packed lunch I was effectively working one day a week for free and was a constant source of frustration, anger and irritation; 
I was doing it for me:
 I was putting myself through all of this in order to ensure that my daughter continued to receive the breastmilk I felt she needed to give her the best she could have despite the awkwardness of doing so; and I was working to the standards expected of me by my bosses, colleagues, patients, and myself. I was putting an enormous strain on myself, with perhaps unrealistic expectations of my abilities as a mother and in my job. I felt the guilt of my choices and hated the situation I was in. Guilt led to resentment, frustration, anger and helplessness; and was only remedied by the passage of time, and my daughter's developmental milestones.

However, in retrospect, I feel that those early days at nursery were brilliant for my daughter. She settled after a couple of months, and became very sociable. She also caught every bug going, resulting in lots of sick days (and more guilt when I had to stay at home to look after her instead of working, knowing that I was causing a great deal of inconvenience and annoyance). She thrived on those two days in nursery because she met lots of other babies and toddlers, and was cared for by other adults. I partially attribute her outgoing, bubbly nature to her social interaction from such a young age. We have a wonderful relationship with her: she is unharmed by those early days. She also has a strong, healthy immune system, thanks to the multitudes of viruses and bacteria she came into contact with at the nursery!

If I could go back to see my younger self 6 years ago, I would mother her. I would reassure her that guilt is not necessary. I would explain that it is not the quantity of time spent with my daughter, but the quality of time we had together. We went for walks, went swimming, to music time, the library, the park, shopping, reading, painting, collecting leaves. Those days were the days in which I showed her the world in chunks of time that were meaningful, enjoyable, and fun. I would give myself a hug, and say, "you are doing brilliantly, enjoy the moment, enjoy the time, because this stage will pass and will be replaced by something else to think about, plan for and make changes. Guilt will only make it harder for you to get things done, and most importantly, it will stop you from enjoying the simple pleasures of motherhood". Whether I would listen to my own advice would be debatable, since I was in a cloud of my own self-determination to succeed - but it may have helped!
Several years later and I am still experiencing guilt - not spending "enough" time reading to my children, not playing with them for long enough because I was too busy, not taking them to the swings or the beach frequently enough. Or forgetting to be the tooth fairy for my daughter's first lost tooth. It was a particularly bad moment, whereby the previous evening had  been spent in excitement at the process of putting her tooth in a box under her pillow, only for me to be too tired and forgetting to replace it with some money before I went to bed - resulting in tears and disappointment the following morning. "Don't worry", I told her. "The tooth fairy was too busy last night, but you're first on her list for tonight!"

Parenthood is full of these examples. How we deal with it is dependent on our own conscience, our own standards, and our own childhood experiences. If you can, view guilt as a reminder of why you do what you do - not a moment to self-criticise how you do it and how you can do things better. If you can ask yourself why you did something a certain way, listen to the answer, react to your own feelings and then release them without fear, then you're on the right tracks. 

See your children as your teachers, for they can show us how to nurture ourselves as we nurture them.

About Me

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I am a mum to two children, a registered nurse, a trainee breastfeeding counsellor, reiki practitioner, photographer, and generally into keeping things natural. Going back to the basics in life, respecting nature, the planet, and each other. Teaching this to my children and others who are interested. This blog comes from a good place, and is intended to give the reader an opportunity to look at things from a different perspective, and make an informed choice. I welcome constructive comments and would like it if you could share (acknowledging me as the source) and follow the blog. Many thanks!