Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Stay Where I Can See You

A recurring theme in my thoughts is why my eldest child is not good at playing by himself – it’s something I’ve written about before in The Shame of a Modern Parent.

“My Bob used to be out in the garden all day at his age, I had to call him in for his dinner” someone said to me recently, and I wondered why my children do not do this.

I came up with two theories, both involving it being my fault.

Theory One – Nurture: T, the first born, had two years of fuss and attention and so still demands it whereas B, the second born, was fed, changed and put into his pram and so is placid and able to play quietly and absorbed by himself. J, the baby, is also content to bottom shuffle around playing with what she finds.

But is this due to Nature or Nurture? Were my children born with these temperaments or were they created by the different situations of their early years? Although my parenting principles were the same, the practicalities of having one, two or three children meant I did things differently. I’ve decided that all first children should come with siblings. Nothing distracts your attention more than another child and I do think it’s healthy that a mother does not always come running to a child’s demands – but it’s very hard not to when it’s just you and them.

Theory Two – T is reluctant to play by himself because I encourage him to stay near me. Last week we were out at a small rural garden centre in the play area. T disappeared into a maze of paths between some small box hedges and my automatic reaction was to call “stay where I can see you!”

I later thought to myself, if I don’t encourage my son to go exploring between box hedges in a place like that, is it surprising that he doesn’t feel inclined to go off and play away from me?

In modern times we panic if we don’t know where our children are at every moment. Are there more dangers or are we more paranoid? This is something discussed in a chapter of Liz Fraser’s A Spoonful of Sugar: Old Fashioned Wisdom for Modern Day Mothers, in which Liz’s Granny shares advice on parenting from her day.

There is a lot of good advice in the book, a return to the basics rather than fussing and paranoia. But Granny does say “times have changed and you mustn’t feel too bad about being more cautious.” There is a difference, Liz writes, between real risks, like more traffic and perceived risks, like there being more child snatchers. Traffic is now more dangerous but we perceive there to be more snatchers because we hear more about them. “Hearing more stores on the news about muggings does not mean there are more muggings”.

I feel sad for T, he’s a confident child but not confident to leave a certain radius of me – because I won’t let him. Liz’s advice is to “try to give our children more space to be by themselves in order to learn what’s safe, in such relatively safe environments”. Here I’m wondering if I’m confusing the issues of playing independently and playing away from me, but I do think there is link. He is still young to be going off on his own, but the incident at the garden centre has made me consider that I might be giving him mixed messages about independence.

If we keep our children too close to us in fear, will they ever have the courage to explore? Tonight we were talking about the story of The Secret Garden and I wondered, would the modern child follow the robin through that door or has our anxiety numbed any sense of curiosity?

Friday, 21 August 2009

Slummy Mummy and the Feminists: Why do we Categorise Mothers?

In my review of “mummy lit” I have yet to read The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy by Fiona Neill – but it is on my shelf.

However, I have been doing some Internet research and came across some interesting comments on the book by Katie Roiphe on Slate. She writes “What is being celebrated here is the mindlessness of a certain type of child-rearing, a mindlessness we as a culture are currently infatuated with.”

That resonates with me because I’m wondering why mothers and housewives have become stereotyped in modern literature as being demented or desperate, proud to be exhaustingly scatty and never in control, self-obsessed with their own neuroses. In the “mummy book” I’m writing I hope to create a heroine who more reasoned mothers can relate to. With three children she will of course have stresses and periods of chaos in her life but her story will share the humour found in simply raising children and the issues you encounter without creating a whirlwind of disasters.

I googled “Katie Roiphe” and got sucked into more interesting but time consuming reading. She is a writer, professor and feminist. I thought she had some pertinent points. In an interview in The Sunday Times she said “We think we can create the perfect child by giving them the right music lessons or choosing the right pushchair...When I was a child, children played, and I don’t remember expecting my mother to give me her attention no matter what she was doing...There is a danger in the way we focus on raising our children...”

These are issues I find myself thinking about a lot as I ponder what it is to be a modern woman and mother and I was starting to respect Katie Roiphe’s opinion. But many people don’t it seems. On an American blog I found vitriol over her suggestion that using a child’s photo on your Facebook profile indicates a loss of your identity to your children. The comments went beyond the Facebook issue, and I agreed with many. “Maybe I am wrong...” wrote Laundry and Children “...but I always thought that feminism was about affording women choices...why is it that the “feminists” seem to think that the only choice that is acceptable is to be a working women?”

I am touching on a huge discussion, one which creates much diversity of opinion. But so, it seems, do mothers. “There is something weird about the way mothers are ranged against each other, like football teams; the yummy ones against the slummy ones, the at-home ones against the working ones; the traditional ones against the modern ones...” writes Zoe Williams in The Guardian, interviewing Liz Fraser whose A Spoonful of Sugar I am currently reading.

These are subjects which I hope to come back to with more thoughts. But as I tidied up the house this morning I was wondering, maybe naively, why we have to categorise mothers in such a seemingly negative way. Can’t we just all be Mothers?

Monday, 10 August 2009

Song Lyrics

My five year old is into words – he never stops talking and has an answer for everything. I should be proud, he gets it from me. I’ve realised that he’s me with a willy, which means at times our relationship is probably more tempestuous than it should be. So, he loves words, nonsense words and rhyming words. This has the potential for trouble as he walks around chanting “lucker-chucker-fucker” completely unaware of his social disgrace.

Tonight he was singing a lovely song as he cut out the pictures of Mr Men we’ve been drawing. He’s into song lyrics at the moment, been listening closely to James Morrison in the car, picking up on what he says, asking me about it and why he doesn’t say the words properly – no D on your “hard” James Morrison! B, the three year old, said that when he couldn’t hear the words he was just going to sing “nothing nothing”. Baby J, 15 months, smiles and bounces her legs, although she prefers High School Musical.

I love the way children take everything so literally. But when they’re analysing lyrics this doesn’t always work. I have to turn off Leona Lewis “Bleeding in Love” whenever it’s played on the radio as T pesters me about how can she be bleeding in love, if she’s bleeding is she hurt and why is that happening if she’s in love? When he heard Madonna sing “get off my street” he asked, did that mean she was going to walk on the pavement?

Tonight the lovely song was in rhyme, very impressive: isn’t life great...mums are hard to tolerate,” which made me feel like such a failure.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

The Complexities of going to the Park

Last night I was reading a section in Steve Biddulph’s “Raising Boys” titled “Why boys scuffle and fight”. The answer is testosterone. “There’s no doubt it causes energetic and boisterous behaviour...Boys feel insecure and in danger if there isn’t enough structure in a situation...they begin jostling with each other to establish the pecking order.”

This is interesting, but difficult to know how to deal with in practise. Today was a good example.

My two boys were playing in the park with three children they don’t see that regularly so don’t know that well. They were just settling down, playing around each other while they got used to each other again, when two other boys about the same age arrived. The youngest, probably three but a big three, was being a dinosaur, approaching our children with hands out and growling. Ours didn’t like this, my three year old shied away, said he was scared. They all became aggressive with each other, prowling around the equipment, running off saying “he’s going to get me”, but not in a way that was fun, interactive play.

As a mother I was concerned whether my boys started the aggression or were just responding to those boys. The atmosphere did change when they arrived but that may just have been because there were two groups, unknown to each other. Following what Steve Biddulph says the two new boys felt intimidated so responded with aggression and ours were galvanised into working together and forming a united front against the “interlopers”. On a positive note our children were suddenly having a wonderful game making dens and running about, even if it was to “get away” from these other boys.

Steve Biddulph writes that aggression is a reaction to no structure; he goes on to talk about why boys get into dangerous gangs. But should we provide structure in the park or is it important to let them experiment with relationships and behaviour? Is it too easy to say “they’re just being boys” when we should be dealing with their aggression? Were they victims to their testosterone or simply being badly behaved!

As mothers do we sit back and let them find their own way or should we interrupt and encourage them to “play nicely”. I only intervened when the frustrations became physical and then I insisted they said sorry and told them all off, equally, as one group. I’m not someone who’s afraid of talking to other people’s children and maybe the other parents didn’t approve, but they were sitting eating Pringles on a bench while their son was grabbing at mine!

It is so difficult to know how to respond to two active and vocal boys. The more I discipline the more they react but I can’t use that as an excuse to let them do and say whatever they want. Steve Biddulph may have some interesting theories but, in the moment, when confronted with noisy reality, it’s always difficult to know how best to practically apply those theories.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Me Time: Selfish or Altruistic?

In my current trawl through Mummy Lit (researching the market for the book I hope to write) I have just come across a section charmingly titled “Who The Fuck Am I?”

I sometimes wonder in this modern age if we spend too much time thinking about ourselves – what I want, me time, who am I? Is it good to be aware of yourself, does it make you a happier person, or has it been overdone with the result of creating a selfish society of people ultimately out for themselves?

Modern women/mothers can be very “me” centric; we are told to be by books, magazines and television, told to find “me” time amongst the chaos. I wondered if this was the result of feminism awakening us to ourselves or the selfish slant of modern society? But then reading Can Any Mother Help Me? I realised that women of history were interested in what they wanted too, but, being less empowered, were less able to get it and therefore often discontented.

Is our obsession with Me Time because, as mothers, we can’t just take it? If my husband wants to get a haircut he goes to the barbers. If I want a haircut I have to try and find someone to look after at least one child and get an appointment which fits in with picking up the others. Which is why I rarely go to the hairdresser!

I don’t really mind. I am immersed in my role as a mother, enjoying it, most of the time, and learning that the more you put in to it the more you really do get out of it. However, I am human and I do have my wobbles. Would they be fewer if I had more Me Time?

All modern parenting books talk about “me” time as if it were a right. But what I’m wondering about is whether this makes us selfish and therefore no longer capable of devoting ourselves entirely to family life? Is this a problem or does it create a healthier balance for all, ie, parents who are more fulfilled and therefore happier and children who can appreciate that not every minute of every day should revolve around them?

My Me Time is when the children are asleep – I guard it very jealously, this is why I get very crabby at five past seven, five minutes into “my” time, if they are chafing against my requests to clean teeth or being silly, fighting, whining they can’t get to sleep, coming out into the kitchen to ask for a drink. (As I write this the three year old is whining that his older brother is keeping him awake, I am ignoring him, in a minute I will tell him very sharply to go back to bed!)

I’ve learnt that I need some silence in my evenings to keep me sane. At the moment I’m having lots of silent evenings as my husband is working in Bangladesh for a month and a half. This has left me with three children in an unreasonably wet summer holiday (I’ve risen to the challenge and we are enjoying it – no deadlines and time to do lots of things we can’t do within the restrictions of a school schedule), but the bonus is lots of silence in the evenings for reading, writing and thinking projects – I apologise if this is making me too introspective.

I’ve just read a novel (yes, another benefit of being on my own is a lot of reading) about a group of mothers who were entirely “me” centric, dragging their babies between bars and beauticians or leaving them with nannies. At first I was scathing but became more tolerant when I remembered how debilitating having a first baby can be. Looking through my journal from when I had T they are full of my anxieties about doing things right and the overwhelming realisation that this is my responsibility, forever. This can be very isolating. I was lucky; I had a great family and community around me for support. If your pre-baby life has been consumed with a dynamic job, fashionable clothes, weight-loss, heeled shoes and socialising it must be a huge shock to have to put someone else’s priorities first. Many women struggle with this, hence the media call for Me Time.

So, Me Time, is it a good or bad obsession? We are all human, even mothers who are supposed to give selflessly to their children. I read a great quote in Steve Biddulph’s Raising Boys “A mother needs others to support her, so that she can relax and do this important work. She needs to be cared for, so that she can care for her baby.” My question is, does the modern drive for Me Time make us unreasonably selfish or produce people more in touch with what makes them happier, ultimately benefiting us all?

NB, the charmingly titled section is in The Yummy Mummy’s Survival Guide by Liz Fraser and is actually quite helpful with lots of useful advice on why having children will completely change you and your life and how to cope with this. Hearing that other mums struggle with the same things as me and how they cope is always my greatest therapy.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Happy Housewives

Do we moan too much? Darla Shine, author of Happy Housewives, says yes. The basic premise of her book is that housewives spend too much time moaning about how hard their lives are when really we should count our blessings and get on with it. “When did it become fashionable to be an out-of-control mother on the edge?”

Darla chats at you from her kitchen island about how great it is to be a housewife. She shares her journey of how she came to terms with giving up her career in television to raise her “babies” and learnt to love her new role.

It’s not for everyone. Darla argues that every mum should stay at home with their children, leaving behind careers like she did. I’m sure many women would love to do this but don’t have the choice, they have to earn money. Darla is rich and spoilt and fairly disengaged from reality - one important criterion for her new house was that it had to have a swimming pool and she was annoyed to discover there was no built-in barbecue. She’s American and does things stuffy English girls like me don’t approve of, like waking up her seven year old son just to tell him he can stay home from school to watch movies with her.

But I loved the book. It was great to have such a chirpy endorsement of what I do, especially when some people do put you down, albeit unintentionally – one friend referred in passing to my “dropping out”, the implication being it was negative to leave law for housewifery.

This week I could hear Darla’s voice echoing around my house, spurring me on; one morning I’d already damp-dusted every room and finished the ironing by 8.30. “Happy housewife?” I thought, rinsing out a pooey terry-towelling nappy. Yes. It’s smelly but fulfilling when you really go for it and think you’re doing a good job and can see you’ve achieved. There’s nothing more satisfying than watching your children scoff down something you’ve cooked. The converse is of course that there’s nothing more demoralising than having them refuse to eat something you’ve spent time and effort on, but Darla has an answer for that – “It’s okay to admit that some days really do suck”.

A lot of what Darla says is just common sense to me – but obviously not to other people! A lot of what she says is shallow and something I can’t relate to. A lot of what she says made me think – after a hard day, “would you want to come home to you?” A lot of what she says is hysterical - “I read a report that only 30 percent of married women were having orgasms on a regular basis...No wonder the women at the PTA are a bunch of crazy bitches”.

But the central message is sound. It’s all about celebrating, being proud of being a stay at home mum whilst recognising the realities – “Some days I look at my children when they’re out of control and I wonder why they’re misbehaving, what I’m doing wrong.” - and how to cope with them.

Happy Housewives is very much aimed at a certain market of women with choice and Darla has been criticised for her simplistic attitude of what’s right and wrong for women and their children. But the success of the book, website and now radio show demonstrates how many women relate to what she says – for all her faults she has touched a nerve, found a gap in the market that women want to be filled.

Darla is trying to start a revolution “Let’s fight this stupid image these desperate housewives are giving us”. Her message is simple but effective, stop moaning and work at things and you will enjoy yourself and feel more fulfilled. You can’t have it all, she says. “I think something will suffer, either your marriage, your kids or your sanity”. She’s old fashioned in her approach; many reviewers don’t like the slant she takes on husbands – “They want only three things in life: attention, appreciation, and sex”. But I’m sure husbands would approve of her recommendations – don’t nag him to death and don’t use motherhood as an excuse for not having sex! Relationships aside she’s encouraging some really important things for society like trying to bring families together for meal times, home cooking and talking to your children, basics which are lost in today’s world to the detriment of everyone.

She takes on feminists – “I’m annoyed that they’ve dropped the ball for women at home”. I would argue that feminism means having choice and that women like me choosing to stay in the home is liberating. We are empowered because giving up our careers to take on this domestic role is not imposed on us, as it was in the 1920’s with the marriage bar as described in a book I reviewed recently, Jenna Bailey’s “Can Any Mother Help Me?” Those mothers felt resentment as they were forced to give up jobs. We can now decide that being at home is better for our families and chose to do so and therefore feel more fulfilled. Fashion is changing I think, it’s not unusual for thinking women to elect be in the home and not the office. I’ve seen the other side and am grateful for the life I can now have. Darla would agree entirely – “Let him freeze his ass off on the train while I sleep...”

Happy Housewives is a fun book with a message. There are practical tips; when it comes to housework, “if you think it, do it” recipes and web links. I think I’m naturally a housewife, I like wearing my apron, so I didn’t need much encouragement from Darla. But it’s refreshing to have someone so excited about what you do.