Category Archives: Things about being a parent

123 days

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On the 15th of May, I met my baby boy.

My doctor lifted him out of my womb and held him up over the curtain, crying, for me to see. He was immediately different to his sister, who’d taken her sweet time in exhaling her first breath. “Hold his hand,” my doctor said, and I hesitated because he was still covered in that white waxy stuff, and bits of blood. But then I did, and said “Hello!” and he stopped crying and looked like he was listening. “Hi. Hi there, little guy,” I said. “He recognises your voice,” my doctor said, “That’s why he’s stopped.” Then they took him to be weighed, with his father in tow. He cried some more. The anaesthetist wiped the goo off my fingers.

At my daughter’s birth, I saw her scrunched up little firsts next to her scrunched up little face, and there was instant recognition. “Yes, that’s her. That’s my baby,” went my mind. With him, there was just awe. It’s like I hadn’t believed he’d been growing inside me, not really, and so when I beheld the living fact of him, I was flattened. Astonished.

He was supposed to be a small baby. He was almost taken out a week early because it looked like he’d stopped growing. We were expecting him to be around two-and-a-half kilos – almost a kilogram smaller than his sister had been. But he wasn’t. He weighed more than she did and was longer that she was. After two months of worry, it felt like a miracle.

We gave him a name. We changed it 24 hours later. Now he’s got three of them – the first one means “little fire”, fitting, since we were evacuated in the middle of the night on a Tuesday when I was seven months pregnant, with runaway blazes sweeping over the mountain towards our home. The second name was my great-grandfather’s, and the third was my maiden name. He’s the last child that’s going to come of out of my womb, so he’s got to carry a lot of family names with him through his life.

He’s unendingly sweet. After his first hour of life, he’s barely cried at all. He has fed reliably greedily since day one, which is probably why he’s now as long as the average 6-month-old, with chubby cheeks and thigh rolls to die for. He feeds and sleeps like clockwork. He loves his bath. He laughs at his sister, and it’s her voice he listens for when she’s in another room. (She adores him, when she remembers he’s there – and even though she whispers to him “I love you” and calls him “Aidan Bear” and says he’s her little buddy, his arrival put her back in nappies for a month or two. She was disturbed by the change, but didn’t even know it.)

Now that he’s four months old, and I’m going to work in an office for the next few months (as a freelancer on contract), he’s going to start having his feeds supplemented with formula. I’ve loved feeding him so much that this feels a lot like failure. I want to keep him on me and with me for longer, I’m not ready for him to be taking little steps into independence. But I know that no matter how long I waited, I wouldn’t ever be ready. I couldn’t wait to get his sister onto the bottle, and I celebrated everything she did that would make her less reliant on me, but this one – this one, I want to keep close.

I had read, long before I had children, that there is something very special about having your first baby; but that there’s something special, too, about having your last – a different something. He’s my last baby, and he’s like a treat. He’s like my prize. He’s like a treasure I’ve earned.

(I haven’t been ready to write about him until now because it’s only in the last few days that I’ve started feeling normal again after his birth. Like myself. Even though I’m still feeding him, things are more routine now. I feel like I am coping, finally. The first few months with two children – not. a. joke.)

“You’ll never have to worry about her”

20150120_180242 Lil A started at a new school two weeks ago. It’s a big pre-primary. She’ll be there until she goes to Grade R. It’s a much more structured place than where she was last year, and I worried that she’d struggle to adjust to the stricter routine and the focus on actual skills (her previous school was very sweet, and small, but as far as I could tell, all she did there was sing songs and run around in the playground, chasing the chickens). I wasn’t sure she’d be too happy to stay at school until 3pm either – eating lunch at school, sleeping at school, being away from home for such a long stretch.

But every day when I pick her up, she’s got paint under her fingernails, bed hair and a huge grin on her face. “I sleeped at school!” she tells me. She shows me to her bag, gets her shoes from her locker (they are big believers in Bare Feet at this school), kisses her aftercare teacher goodbye and jumps her way to the car with me. And it’s been like that from day one.

Pick-up time is, as any parent of a preschooler knows, absolute chaos, so I didn’t get to speak to her teacher at length until the parents’ evening a week after school had started. I figured that if they weren’t having to peel her off her father in the mornings (he’s got the short end of the stick, having to do the drop-off), and if he could see that she wasn’t crying when he left her there, it must all be okay. But still. I worried. It was a new place and a new kind of place – a structured classroom, with things like a reading corner, a puzzles table and a separate art room. And she’s only two – how much newness could she handle at once?

At the parents’ evening, I waited for a chance to ask her teacher how she was doing, to get more than “she was fine today!”. Of course, everyone else wanted the same thing. “Is he using the potty or the toilet when he’s here?”; “Is she eating at lunchtime?”; “How do you get her to sleep in the afternoon because we never manage at home!” – I found out a lot about the kids in my daughter’s class that night. There was so much I wanted to know about how Lil A behaves when she’s at school – is she as chatty as she is at home? Does she make up songs and play elaborate games of make-believe with the dolls and tease the teachers by calling them by other people’s names? But there was no time, and part of me didn’t want to be That Parent. So as we were leaving, I asked her teacher quickly, “Is she really okay? She always seems fine and happy, but what is she like during the day?”

Her teacher looked at me and blinked. “Ava’s fine!” She said. “She’s a very calm, easy-going child. You’ll never have to worry about her. She does what she’s supposed to do, and just gets on with things. You’re lucky.”

And I am.

But her brave face, her poise, her eagerness to please and her confidence in doing what she knows will help her to fit in and not be any trouble – it kills me. I crumble in the face of it. My child will never be the one who is noticed first in a class, I’m starting to realise. She’ll be the one that is so calm and easy-going that it will take a while for her teachers and maybe even her peers to notice her, to know her. And I’m thinking, maybe, sometimes, it must be nice to have the child who kicks up a fuss, makes himself known, even if it is as the class hooligan. And then I see her from behind when I pick her up – she’s sitting alone at a little table, playing with her hat, watching the more boisterous kids in the sandpit, twirling her hair, and oh, how I love her.

Learning to eat … as a family

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This week, we started eating all together, at the dining room table, like decent human beings.

It’s something I’ve wanted to start for a while. I’ve read so much about the importance of shared mealtimes away from the TV – what it does for family cohesion and establishing eating patterns and healthy habits in small children – but it’s just never really come together. Lil A has been eating supper at 6, usually haphazard meals thrown together. Scrambled egg sandwiches with raw carrots has been a favourite, and baked frozen fish with leftover sweet potatoes. She’s been eating her main meal at lunchtime and so supper’s always been low-key for her, in her highchair, while her dad or I cook our dinner, or send work emails, or feed the dogs, or exercise. Then once Lil A was in bed, my hub and I would scoff our food down in front of the TV.

But no. This was the week that that was going to change, hopefully forever.

I knew this would change what and when we ate, but I didn’t foresee how difficult the change would be. Firstly, getting a meal from scratch on the table by 7pm means starting at 5, especially because Lil A wants nothing more than to “help me cook” – in other words, putting her step stool in front of the counter and using her tiny whisk to stir sugar into water and then eating bits of everything I’ve chopped up. And then, once we’re all finally sitting and ready to eat, she doesn’t really know what to do with herself. Having been left to feed herself and get on with it, she’s suddenly confronted with both of us willing and able to give her attention while she eats, which, of course, means she just doesn’t eat. And after five minutes of picking, she hops off her chair – because she can.

We’ve not found the answer yet. We’ve just decided to only attempt this family-at-the-table thing three times a week, and have had to accept that, at first, she’s only going to be able to sit with us to eat for a few minutes at a time, and hopefully she’ll be able to tolerate it for longer and longer as she gets older. Whatever she doesn’t finish on her plate, she gets for lunch the next day and, left to her own devices, she’s been polishing it off. I suppose we should give her smaller portions for supper, too, seeing as she’s still getting a cooked meal at lunchtime.

But the main thing I’m struggling with is not commenting on what or how much she eats. I’ve read that this is the best (possibly only) way to keep food from being a source of guilt or reward for your kids. I don’t want her to attach as much guilt to food as I did as a teenager and young adult, and I also don’t want to use it as a reward or punishment for her. I don’t want her to attach emotion to it. I don’t want her to become an emotional eater as an adult. i want her to enjoy food and to respect it. So once she’s said she’s had enough at the dinner table, I have to bite down hard on my tongue and quash my instinct to say “No, you haven’t. Just one more bite”, or “How about you just finish your carrots, then you can watch TV?”. I’m trying to get better at simply making sure that everything on her plate is healthy, so that no matter what or how much she eats, she’ll be getting something good. Toddlers are really good at knowing when they’ve had enough to eat and eating only when they’re hungry, and I really don’t want to mess with that. When we leave her to eat by herself and get on with it, I’m confident that she eats as much as she needs, but with eating at the table, I’m worried that she’s just saying she’s had enough because she’s got bored with sitting still. So I need to keep reminding myself that she’ll eat if she’s hungry, and that she will probably finish her food the next day when she gets her leftovers for lunch. It’s hard, though! So many of us were raised under the “you can’t leave the table until you finish your food” philosophy that it just comes naturally to try to encourage your kid to eat more than they would otherwise.

As far as what we eat goes, so far, we haven’t had to change very much, actually.

If you’re curious or want some inspiration for what to feed your tot (especially if you eat the same food, don’t want to eat too much meat, and don’t want to overload on carbs at night), have a look at the dishes we’ve made so far – they’ve all got Lil A’s approval. And that’s not easily won – she’s two-and-a-half and very particular about what she eats!

Spinach, mushroom and feta crustless quiche

Quinoa taco bowl

Jack Monroe’s spaghetti puttanesca

Greek fish tacos

Italian Chicken Caprese

And here are the resources I like to use to find tot-friendly family food:

Dinner vs Child on the Food52 blog (makes for pretty hysterical reading and has great ways to introduce complex flavours and “exotic” dishes to kids)

Jack Monroe in the Guardian (a bonus is that her recipes are also really budget-friendly)

Feel free to follow my yummysuppers board on Pinterest for some free inspiration – I cook 80% of the dishes I Pin onto it, and lately they’ve all been appropriate for family dinners. I’m not ever going to be dedicated enough to be a food blogger, but I think I’m getting to grips with the (relative) “art” of knowing which blogs to visit and which recipes to recreate.

Things I don’t want to forget about you

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  • Last night, you wanted to read a “magazazine” instead of a storybook at bedtime. The only one we have is a freebie from the pharmacy and it’s very boring, but you turn every page carefully and look up and say “what’s that.” and then I have to try to explain the sparse pictures and ads: “The man is sick.” “Shame, poor man,” you say.
  • Hot days have “big sunshine”.
  • You tell me when your food is “too spicy”.
  • You know that you have hazel eyes and red hair, and that I have grey-green eyes and brown hair. And that your Daddy’s hair is too short for a bun, and you ask me to put your hair in a bun, or a “pewtail” or “two pewtails”.
  • You know your left from your right, and can direct me to and from school – “turn left!”, “go straight!”, “turn right!” – and you know what red and green traffic lights mean.
  • You call spiders “crabs” but then correct yourself and say “it’s a crab no maybe it’s a spider”, every time.
  • You’re convinced your full name is “Ava Schell” because our cat’s full name is “Oskar Schell”.
  • When you’re feeling sick, I ask if you’re okay, and you shake your head and say “Ava’s not okay.”
  • Right now, at nearly two-and-a-half, I am your favourite person. When you’re with me, you don’t want anybody else. “No, Daddy, go’way!” and “No Naume today!”. I’m trying to stop you from being so mean but I want you to be allowed to feel what you feel.
  • When we tell you to smile for photos, you say “Show me your teeth!” and then you hold your mouth open like you do for when we brush your teeth. It is not an attractive look.
  • You are obsessed with your shadow. “Come shadow, go get dressed now,” you say when it’s time to get ready for school.
  • You are completely potty-trained except when you sleep, but you refuse to use any toilets other than the ones at home – and you haven’t had an “accident” yet. You are clearly very determined.
  • Restaurants are your favourite places. Every evening you say hopefully, “Go restaurant?” You love sitting at the table with us, colouring in, and talking to the waitresses. (Garage petrol attendants are another favourite of yours. “Bye, man!” you say as we drive away.)
  • You also like to run through the shops (“sops”). It is not my favourite habit of yours.
  • Clothes don’t bother you too much – you don’t really care what you wear. But you have strong opinions on shoes and hats. I usually dress you according to the hat you’ve chosen.
  • Your favourite colour to name is beige, but, somehow, when given a choice, you will always choose the thing that is pink. (Painting your room blue and refusing to dress you in anything pink might have had the opposite effect to what I was hoping for.)

My favourite collections of words

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Here are my five favourite sentences/lines from children’s books (the topic for Writers’ Bootcamp for today is Your Five Favourite Words, but I’ve exercised a bit of artistic licence here).

1. “That very night in Max’s room, a forest grew … and grew … and grew, until the ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around.”

The assonance and alliteration in that part of the sentence, the way it rolls around in your mouth, is just a tiny part of the late Maurice Sendak’s genius.

From Where the Wild Things Are, or, as Lil A calls it, simply “Max”.

2. “Night came with many stars.”

I never read Sylvester and the Magic Pebble as a kid. Lil A got it from an American cousin and every time I read it to her, it breaks my heart. That one sentence conveys so much desolation and beauty, wrapped in such a simple little package.

3. “It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like ‘What about lunch?'”

There are so many lovely little gems in Winnie the Pooh. On Lil A’s bookshelf is a copy of the first version of Winnie the Pooh ever published. It used to be mine when I was little. It’s written in AA Milne’s own voice, addressed to his son Christopher Robin, who has a beloved bear called Edward. Even before he became known as Pooh Bear, the sense of exactly which kind of bear he’d go on to be is right there in that very first book.

On a trip to New York a few years ago, I spent a lot of time staring at the original Winnie the Pooh toys at the Public Library. They’re all faded and their fur has been loved off – whether by time or Christopher Robin, it’s hard to say – which made them even more charming than they are rendered in fiction. They were real toys. And despite the Disneyfication of the “brand”, I like remembering that it all started as a real story told to a little boy by his Dad, about his favourite bear.

4. “The Lupine Lady is little and old. But she has not always been that way.”

Miss Rumphius is another favourite from an American cousin that I had not read myself as a child. The watercolours are gorgeous, for one thing, but I also really love how it carries so many truths about old age that children are usually shielded from in books and pop culture. It’s about an old lady who is not a witch – which is unique in itself. But further to that, it’s about an old lady who used to be a little girl. These sentences capture that idea very neatly, and I think it’s an important thing for all of us to remember on a visceral level. As adults, we all know intellectually that the elderly were not always elderly, but I know that I forget at times that not very long ago, they were exactly like me.

5. “I know a bear and when it is sunny, we go for a picnic with brown bread and honey.”

This might sound like another line from Winnie the Pooh, but it’s from Lil A’s favourite book, I Know A Rhino. I bought this book for her because the main character is maybe a boy, maybe a girl. He or she is equally happy playing in the mud and dressing up in a tutu. Their gender doesn’t matter, which is unusual for a children’s book. So I bought it more for the pictures than the words, but now I love this sentence about the bear. It always makes me hungry and seems like a good way to live. When it’s sunny, we go for a picnic. Yes.

And, as added value, here are some great resources on feminist-y children’s books. You’re welcome.

  • A Mighty Girl’s guide to cool picture books for little ones
  • A Mighty Girl’s favourite fairy tales
  • This Guardian article from 2009 (yes, pretty old, but does include Pippi Longstocking, of which I wholly approve)

Is there such a thing as a girl brain?

Spoiler alert: no. Well, not from birth, in any case.

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My two-year-old has become obsessed with the idea of babies in tummies. We’ve got four good friends who are pregnant enough to be showing and since hearing that so-and-so has a baby in her tummy, Lil A has started saying that basically everybody has a baby in their tummy: she’s got one, one of the expectant fathers has one (which, as I’m sure you can imagine, he loves).

This obsession raised the question round drinks recently: is Lil A “programmed” to be interested in babies? Would a little boy be as intrigued?

I expected my feminist husband to jump in as soon as I started saying “She’s only interested because we put a lot of emphasis on it, and we might not if she were a boy,” and “Even if boys and girls were programmed to feel a certain way about babies and modes of transport and sport, which I’m convinced they are not, she’s two years old and I doubt there’d be any reproductive hardwiring kicking in yet,” and “You’re joking, right?”. But he didn’t.

My husband has thought of himself as a feminist for years, since we were in university and I was still scared of the term, and didn’t like its connotations (until my best friend told me to stop being insane and that to not be a feminist was not far off being a racist and I realised what feminism actually means). But when it comes to the physiology of the brain, my husband admitted to believing that those of men and women were necessarily different. And not just because of experience – because of the way they were created in the womb. The way they were wired.

And so I realised that if my pretty progressive, “enlightened” husband thought that, pretty much everybody else did as well.

So, here’s my PSA. There are no “hardwired” differences between male and female brains from birth. Except these, of course. The only differences that are at all meaningful have been created by individuals’ experience. If studies show that same-hemisphere connections are stronger in male than female brains, while women’s brains show stronger cross-brain connections, making them able to multitask and “be good hostesses”, it’s not because they were born that way. It’s because those men had been praised for being singularly focused on a task at hand since they were little boys (and probably because their fathers made a special effort to teach them how to read maps, for example). It’s because the female participants were encouraged to be able to multitask by watching their mothers help with homework while supervising a toddler in the kitchen and making dinner when they were young girls – because that’s what was expected of mothers; because their social connections were emphasised by the women’s parents and teachers while they were growing up.

And so, basically, the reason Lil A is so interested in babies in tummies is that it’s something we pay a lot of attention to when our pregnant friends are around, and she is shaped by what she sees. And also because, ew – it’s a weird thing, when you think about it. A little baby. In an adult’s body. Did I mention how broody I am, by the way?

And there’s the nod to Writers’ Bootcamp, Day 1. Even if you know me well, you probably don’t know this: that I’m finally ready for another baby.

Famous last words (and a few first sentences)

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“Nope. I’ve never had that.” I tried not to make my relief too visible.

We were at our local bar-slash-restaurant, our group of neighbourhood mothers whose kids are all around the same age and at the same school, and one of our party was describing her daughter’s tantrums.

“She flails around and looks like she’s possessed? And just screams her head off?”

The other mothers could identify. Most of them had had to carry their toddlers, in the throes of serious meltdown tantrums, through shopping malls at least once; or have to steer their screaming progeny into the special naughty corner of their bedroom every few days.

You never want to be the mother to admit that, actually, your two-year-old just doesn’t do tantrums. She is extremely stubborn, yes, and has a very set idea about how things should be done, but she’s just too even-tempered to ever throw her toys, literally or otherwise. So I just muttered quietly that I hadn’t experienced that particular parental rite of passage, and then, when the subject changed to our kids’ wilful independence, tried not to feel a bit embarrassed when one of the other moms told me how her daughter tells her every day that she has to help Lil A put on and take off her shoes at school (how is it that my kid is the only one in her class who can’t dress herself? I obviously didn’t get the memo about making your kid independent enough to have total dominion over her footwear). At the end of the night, I walked home with the unsettling suspicion that Lil A was developing differently to her peers.

But then there was Sunday night, and Lil A’s first full-blown, fear-instilling, limb-flailing, blue-in-the-face-howling tantrum. And then her second, about an hour later. Both meltdowns left me quaking, shaking, baffled – they were both at bedtime, usually a very tranquil hour in our home, involving a storybook, a cuddle from both parents, laying her down in her cot and hearing her saying “bye, Mummy” as I close the door. Last night, instead, she started wailing and flailing as soon as I lowered her into her cot, and then stood up and screamed so loudly and for so long that she went hoarse and her lips went blue. The whole time, I was fighting every instinct to pick her up, knowing that as soon as I did she’d be less likely to go down again. But when she got to the blue-lip phase, I finally gave in, only to be kicked and pummelled, and told “porridge!” in no uncertain terms.

“Oh my god,” I thought as I carried her quickly through to her high chair in the dining room, “I’m basically an abusive mother, making my kid go to bed when she’s starving.” But then I tried to put her in her high chair, to  more kicking, more shouting, furious shaking of head. Then I left her standing in her room alone, with the door open, hoping she’d get bored or distracted, but had to go back in five minutes later when her wails hadn’t changed in pitch or intensity. I checked her nappy, checked for fever, tried to cuddle her, tried to rock her, tried everything in my comforting-mom repertoire, and eventually left her in her cot so that she didn’t see my tears.

She fell asleep, eventually, after an eternity of my adrenalin-fuelled heartbeats.

And then woke up an hour later, must have remembered that she’d been expressing her dissatisfaction at something or other, and continued where she left off.

This time, I picked her up immediately and took her to her high chair so that she’d eat something. She’d been too tired to eat supper a couple of hours earlier, and sure enough, she immediately grabbed the piece of toast I put in front of her.

She took a few shuddery breaths before taking a bite.

Then: “Ava’s cry.”

A few bites later.

“Ava’s sad.”

(Chew, chew, chew)

“Ava’s noise.”

A small pause, and then, matter-of-factly:

“Ava’s naughty.”

Cue my already fragile heart breaking a little bit.

I assured her that she wasn’t naughty, but that her crying and making a noise wasn’t very nice, and next time she should say “Mummy, toast please”, and then I put her to bed, and she said “Bye, Mummy” as I closed the door.

I stood outside her door for a while afterwards. So it turns out my daughter does do tantrums, I thought. And that I was just as helpless in the face of her overwhelming distress as the other mothers had described themselves as being. I’d scrambled around, trying a million different things to appease her, hoping she’d guide me on what she wanted and needed, but of course, she was too tired and too upset and too little to communicate properly with me, and I should have been firm but kind, and just made her sit in her highchair until she’d calmed down enough to eat the first time around. But, in those moments, I’d literally been unable to think. I don’t think I’ve felt as useless as I did that night since the time Lil A threw up all over me in the reception area of a very fancy game lodge (and then rushing with her to the hospital two hours away when she didn’t stop throwing up) just before her first birthday.

All I can hope is that it’s another year and a bit before I feel like that again. As the mother of a generally chilled child, I am ill-equipped to deal with any deviation in her behaviour. Basically, the problem is, my daughter has spoiled me.