Archive for parenting

The Stormageddon Effect, and Other Parenting Emotions

(First published at the Huffington Post)

When you tell people that becoming a parent has introduced you to a whole new range of emotions, they probably expect you to start going on about loving your child in a way you’d never loved anyone before, that kind of thing. But that’s not what I mean – to be honest, no love can ever compare with the way I felt about the sharp glittery cheekbones of David Bowie when I was 15. Everything since has been downhill.

However, it’s certainly true that being a new mum introduced me to new emotions. If I had to name them I would call them:

1. The Responsibility Brick.
It’s such a sensible word, “responsibility” – calm, down-to-earth. But for me it conjures up vivid memories of the first day I was left alone with my baby. She was a month old. There was a small and virtually helpless human being in my flat, and nobody else. Just her, and me, in sole charge of her. I was 29 but I felt 14. Who on earth had thought this was a good idea? (Answer: me, about a year earlier. But what did I know?)

2. The Doormat Syndrome.
The parent-baby relationship wasn’t a give-and-take relationship, I realised: it was a give-and-give one. At a month old, you don’t even get a smile as a reward. The best reaction you can hope for is Not Crying. My reward for sleep deprivation, endless anxiety, and the attempt to make my body feed another person when it really didn’t want to (breastfeeding was not a success) was that a baby just stared blankly at me as opposed to screaming? It didn’t feel like enough. In a partner, this level of being taken for granted would have been a dealbreaker. In a baby, I discovered, there wasn’t really anything I could do about it except wait till she was old enough to lisp the sentence, “Thank you, Mummy, for everything you’ve ever done for me. I’m so sorry I didn’t mention this before.”

(She’s seven. I’m still waiting. But at least I get smiles now.)

3. The Can’t-Can.
As the (endless, fleeting, endless) time went on, I discovered another emotion, or rather a specific fusion of two emotions: the feeling that you absolutely can’t do something, coupled with the certain knowledge that you are going to do it. It’s the Can’t-Can: a dance in which you drag yourself out of bed and breastfeed at 3am, or don’t eat for hours because you can’t put the baby down for long enough, or pack a changing bag and put the buggy together and get on the bus and go out, and all the time you’re doing these things your entire being is demanding that you stop, please please just stop and go and lie down far away from the baby where it’s peaceful and you can clear your head. But you don’t. You know exactly what you need and what’s best you for you, for your mental health, for your physical health, and you do something different, because you have to.

It was a new experience for me. It was character-building, and I don’t think that part of my character would have got built if I hadn’t become a parent, so that’s a good thing. But I can’t say I really appreciated that at the time. I didn’t want to have my character built. I wanted to sleep, preferably in a hotel in a different country with no children within a designated 100-mile radius.

4. The Stormageddon Effect
This one is named after a recent episode of Dr Who in which the Doctor claims to speak Baby (and apparently the baby in question liked to be called Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All, which is totally believable.)

The books I read when I was pregnant claimed that you’d know what your baby needed, you’d learn to recognise the different types of cries. It worked with my second child, but not with my first; I had no intuition. I’d pace up and down for hours trying to work out if the baby was crying because she wanted sleep, food or medicine – or something else more complicated that I hadn’t thought of yet and she couldn’t articulate. The keys to my car, maybe? A doctorate in particle physics? A pot of bacon-flavoured jam? By the time she was old enough to tell me what it was she needed, she’d be too old to remember. In the meantime, like most parents, I’d just try things until something worked.

Luckily I never needed to get as far as the bacon-flavoured jam, so things can’t have gone too badly. But I remember that feeling, that attempt to understand someone who was clearly trying to communicate something, but couldn’t because the language barrier was too high. If anyone ever does learn to speak Baby, I swear I will change the names of both my daughters to Stormageddon in gratitude.

It Gets Better
There’s a video project called It Gets Better, for LBGT teenagers. It’s admirable, and someone should do one for new parents. It did get better. It got better enough that eventually I did it all over again, and it turned out the second time was brilliant, because I’d been broken in by the first time. I had been comprehensively taken apart and put back together by my unwitting engineer of a baby, and the resulting construction was still me, but a me who could parent.

(Of course, there’s still a part of me that just wants not to be responsible for anyone. But then, in seventeen years’ time both the kids will have left home (probably) and my partner and I can spend my time lying around the house drinking cocktails, or whatever it is people without children do with their time. I don’t remember. But it will be fun to find out.)

Of course, you do get to dress your babies up however you like. That's a plus.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Mum

(First published on the Huffington Post)

Two major films were released last Friday, both adapted from bestselling novels published in previous decades.

Firstly, there’s I Don’t Know How She Did It, from the novel by Joan Le Carré. This gritty 1970s-set thriller features retired spy Georgina Smiley, pulled back into a world of secrets to find the woman who betrayed the Service – but which woman is it?

It’s not easy juggling a lifestyle that includes ultra-secret spying, being separated from one’s cheating husband and walking down grimy London streets looking pensive. Played by Helen Mirren with dignity, intelligence and a hint of cruelty, the character of Georgina has reignited the debates first sparked by the novel.

Should women be spies? Is it really a suitable profession for a sex notorious for backstabbing, gossiping and betraying each other at the first opportunity? The media has been overwhelmed with articles on spying, and particularly on how the career can be combined with a family life when it is by nature a secretive job. One feels sympathy for Georgina’s cheating husband Alex: it’s clear she was spending all her time at the office in a miasma of smoke having furtive conversations with other women whose marriages were also suffering. Her return from retirement to take on yet another murky, complicated investigation illustrates where her loyalties lie. No wonder Alex strayed.

And, as many articles have pointed out, what about all the spies and spymasters who just get on with spying and spymastering with far fewer resources than Georgina? Georgina is at the top of her profession, or at least was once, and appears to be relatively wealthy. Moreover, she has unfailing support from her friends and colleagues (admittedly, mainly secret and unofficial support), such as Peta Guillem (played by the redoubtable Benedictine Cumberbatch, famous for her portrayal of detective Shirley Holmes). Ultimately, Georgina fails to represent the real workday life of the spy, making it hard to empathise with her.

The week’s second novel adaptation is Worker, Lover, Husband, Dad from the 1990s Alastair Pearson book. This is a lighter, but still significant, drama about Kevin Reddy, a New York dad who juggles three children, a high-flying job with constant business travel, and a potential love interest. Media interest in this film has mainly focused on the high-quality acting by hit sitcom star Matthew Perry, who ably portrays the harassed father as he attempts to fulfil the four title roles and keep everyone happy.

However, the popular consensus is that the film lacks an element of tension, since everyone knows men can juggle any number of roles with ease, particularly if they have – as Reddy does – a supportive wife who helps with the children, arranges his social life and turns an understanding blind eye to his potential infidelities.

Ultimately, I Don’t Know How She Did It is a women’s film: dark and low-key, it reveals its secrets slowly and conversationally. Women will appreciate the fact that virtually everyone in the film is female, and the emphasis on solving problems through talking.

Worker, Lover, Husband, Dad is aimed more at the male market – many middle-class men will empathise with the travails of Reddy as he attempts to make a lot of money to maintain his already luxurious lifestyle while trying to make sure at least one of his children remembers what his name is.

Next week, we look at the return of Danielle Craig playing the ever-appealing Jane Bond, and we talk about the film version of James Eyre – the story of the young orphan tutor James and his imperious older mistress Miss Rochester with a dark secret in the attic.

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Five Obvious But Essential Pre-Baby Discussions

OBEDs, or Obvious But Essential Discussions, are the ones that you think you don’t need to have, and then some time later it turns out that actually, you really did need to have them. Potential examples include “So what, to you, constitutes infidelity?” and “Is checking Facebook a sacking offence in this company?”

When deciding to have a baby, people sometimes seem to omit the pre-baby OBEDs, and thus I have made a few suggestions below. A few of many. Many.

1. Do you change nappies?

If the answer to this is anything but “Yes, of course!”, have a serious think about whether this baby thing is a good idea. Not because avoidance of nappy changing is evil – lots of perfectly nice people don’t want to change nappies – but firstly because it shows a worrying desire to avoid engaging with the messy realities of baby care, and secondly because someone’s going to have to do it, and it leaves the nappy-changing partner stuck. Want to go out somewhere on your own? Well, make sure you stay within a ten minute radius of your baby in case you get summoned home to change a nappy your squeamish partner won’t touch. See how quickly that could get annoying?

I am not speaking from direct personal experience, by the way, but I have encountered this. I ran into a local mum at the dentist recently, and she said she mustn’t be too long because she’d left the kids with her husband and he “didn’t do nappies”. I nearly told her that in that case she shouldn’t do her husband, but instead I just fumed silently.

2. If you’re working the next day and I’m looking after the baby the next day, which one of us gets up at 3am when the baby’s crying?

There is more than one right answer to this, but you need to ask so you can gauge the level of response. Many people with full-time jobs are used to the idea that they need a full night’s sleep before they can give of their best. They have a point. But it’s a point they’re going to have to give up, because if you’re looking after the baby all day, you’re probably going to want to take turns at getting up in the night.

Breastfeeding can complicate matters, in that usually only one of you can provide that. If that means you’re always the one getting up at night, I suggest you spend as much weekend time in bed as possible. And don’t do housework, unless unavoidable. Just sleep whenever you can, pausing only to eat enormous bars of chocolate.

3. How do you feel about arriving late for everything?

I hate being late. But ever since my first child was born, it’s been more likely than not that we’ll arrive at any given event at least half an hour after it starts, probably more. Children are the Time Lords of lateness. They play with time. They roll it up in a ball and merrily throw it away. It is an inexhaustible resource as far as they’re concerned. Until it turns out that they’ve missed out on going to the park because they refused to get ready, and then suddenly it’s all your fault because you can’t make time stop till they want it to start again. In brief: your relationship with time is going to get complicated.

4. How much mess can you cope with?

I have been to houses that have young children in them, and they have been spotlessly clean and tidy save for a clearly delineated area for toys, which are tidied away every night. I am in awe of this and also completely unable to achieve it. If I walk across our living room and don’t trip over at least one pen, plastic brick, chess piece shaped like Eeyore or discarded apple core, then I assume I must have come home to the wrong house. You may be one of the tidy parents. But don’t rely on it.

A tip: getting a cleaner is helpful not just because of the cleaning, but because it forces you to tidy the house sufficiently to make it possible for someone to vacuum it once a week. If a cleaner is impractical, try to persuade someone to come round regularly, stand in your living room, and tut loudly. Elderly judgmental relatives are good for this – anyone who can induce the requisite cocktail of shame and panic.

5. How long can you play with a baby for, before your brains start running out of your ears?

Follow up questions:
- How many nursery rhymes do you know all the words to?
- How do you react when someone hits you in the stomach with a plastic hammer and runs away, giggling?
- How many of your treasured possessions will stand up to repeated shaking and/or attempts to consume them whole?
- Will the sight of an adorable toothless grin reconcile you to getting mashed banana spread across your work trousers?

Again, there are multiple right answers, but it’s worth picturing these scenarios in advance. See also: how much Teletubbies and In the Night Garden can you watch before you lose all control and begin to sing obscene songs about Ninky-Nonks?

Of course, in the future we will entertain our babies by plugging them into the computer. Mine's started already.

 

Blaming the Parents

In my last post I mentioned that a multitude of culprits have been fingered for the recent riots and looting. One of the front runners now seems to be The Parents, as illusrated by the disturbing news that the mother of one of the alleged rioters is to be evicted.

Generally speaking, blaming the parents is a popular exercise whenever someone commits a crime. And there is a certain degree of logic to it – though none whatsoever to evicting the parent of someone who hasn’t even been convicted of anything yet. I mean, what? But I absolutely believe that bad parenting can damage people, and I’m sure there are plenty of youths out there whose parenting was far from ideal.

However, doesn’t parent-blaming raise more questions than it answers? Assuming that the rioters’ parents didn’t instil traditional morality in them, didn’t control them, didn’t teach them not to smash in other people’s windows and set fire to shops,  or whatever it is that they’re being blamed for not doing -  why didn’t they? Why did these parents not know how to parent in a properly authoritarian manner?

Well, sticking with the same logic, presumably the fault lies with… the parents. The parents of the parents of the rioters can’t have brought the rioters’ parents up properly. Why not? Because of their parents. By now we’re three generations back and moving fast, because where do we stop? With that guy who apparently we’re all descended from? Then why aren’t we all criminals?

I am taking this argument to its logical conclusion not because it makes any sense, but because I want to argue that blaming parents for the action of their adult children is usually an unfair thing to do. I certainly don’t want to be held totally responsible for everything my children do throughout their lives. (Especially my eldest, who is already only a hairsbreadth away from opening her own evil underground lair.) Certainly I have a responsibility to be the best parent I can manage, but I believe that most parents mostly do try to be that, to the best of their abilities and opportunities. One of the problems is that everyone’s idea of what constitutes a good parent seems to be different (too much smacking? not enough smacking? too harsh? too lenient? too controlling? too neglectful? You can’t win this one). I suspect, too, that there’s a large element of classism, and perhaps racism, operating here: often the ‘right’ kind of parents are seen as the middle-class, white ones who have the money and general privilege which helps so much when bringing up children.

I would further point out that society puts a lot of pressure on people to become parents, without really providing many tools to help them know how to do it.

And finally, as has been pointed out extensively in the Guardian and elsewhere, the fact that a lot of the rioters seem to have been young and unemployed suggests that social injustice is far more of a factor in all this than anything else. A lot of these people are squashed between lack of jobs on one hand and steadily decreasing benefits on the other like a slice of cheese in a particularly depressed sandwich. Not an excuse, but surely a factor. (Incidentally, the petition to remove benefits from this group of people may be one of the stupidest ideas I’ve ever come across. Do the petitioners understand how criminality works?)

Anyway: discussions of blame are everywhere already so I won’t add to them any further. I just wanted to make the point that saying the parents are solely respnsible for the actions of their children is basically turtles all the way down.

What are babies, exactly?

Interacting with babies is weird, especially if you are the person they used to live inside. Obviously what they are, technically, is very small people. But at various different times, and stages, I have seen my babies as the following:

Tiny intelligent human beings who are temporarily unable to express themselves in a clear and articulate fashion.

Alien creatures from the planet Fetus who may have come to save us or to kill us all. We won’t know which until it’s too late.

Basically kittens with hands.

Diabolical creatures sent to torment me and taking delight in doing so, like those medieval paintings where pointy demons with pointy swords poke hapless humans whose only sin was thinking that parenthood might be fun.

A bit of me spun off and allowed to grow separately, like a cross between a human cucumber and a live severed head.

Small friendly people speaking an elaborate and largely incomprehensible-to-me language which involves a lot of gesturing. Failure to understand the nuances of said language can lead to crying. On both sides.

Supurb physical comedians with the comic timing of Charlie Chaplin. And the ability to do pratfalls and come up smiling. Some of the time.

So I guess if you put all those together and average them out, I think of babies as miming alien kittens or the demonic severed head of Charlie Chaplin. I should probably hand in my parenting card now.

 

cat and baby

My cat, on the other hand, just thinks babies are a threat who must be destroyed.

In praise of the happily childless

So imagine you have a couple of friends. They’re both fond of you and you’re very fond of them, but you find hanging out with them a bit tiring because one of them wants to be looked after all the time and the other one is emotionally manipulative: she spends half her time telling you how great you are and the other half shouting at you because you won’t buy her ice cream. And then she wants to play a game with you, for three hours, except she’s making up the rules as she goes along and you don’t get to choose what they are. While you’re trying to play the game, the first friend keeps hitting you in the face and giggling. Also, neither of them pay their way and they both want to be with you all the time. In fact, they’re both living with you and expecting you to feed and keep them.

To put the above paragraph another way: if you’re used to dealing with adults and with situations you can walk away from, having children is something of a culture shock. There are parents who think everyone else should be parents too. Go on, they urge, you won’t regret it, it gives life meaning, have two! Have three! Have a dozen, why not? You can stop any time you like. Everyone else is doing it. Do you want to be left out, alone in your old age, with nobody to look after you? It’s a BIOLOGICAL IMPERATIVE.

Well, of course it’s worth it – at least most people find it’s worth it, and I certainly do. But while children are great, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them as a thing to do with one’s life. In fact, studies suggest that non-parents are generally happier. Apparently being richer, less tired, less tied down by responsibilities and more in charge of one’s own life turns out to promote well-being: who could have seen that coming?

I’m not promoting childlessness either, particularly. It’s just that I’ve read posts by parents who think everyone should have children, by non-parents who think parents should have to justify their parenting, by parents who regret having children, and by non-parents who regret not having children. And I fall into none of these categories. Yet the category I’m in is surely not a rare one: I’m a parent who’s happy to have children and also happy for other people not to.

I love having happily childless friends for purely selfish reasons. They’re available to go to the pub, they’ll come over for dinner, sometimes they’ll even babysit. I can go for an outing with them and they’ll enjoy the novelty of playing with my daughters while I lie around eating chocolate. Friends who don’t have children, but do like other people’s children, are brilliant for parents.

So I would urge all my friends who don’t want kids to continue resisting any social pressures they may encounter, and instead to devote their energies to entertaining my children. And in return for their helpfulness now, I shall encourage my children to visit them in their old age and bring them fruit baskets. Or enormous bottles of gin. Whatever will seem appropriate to the 2050 pensioner.

An average baby frequently captures adults, but usually has no idea what to do with them.

Further tasty virtual flies from the Web

- These toy photography pictures are very pretty. I think most people who possess both toys and camera must have tried this (or at least I have: see picture).

A toy lion at a festival

My pet lion at the Big Chill festival

Be your Own Souvenir. Who doesn’t want a tiny plastic army version of themselves?

- Oh wow, little paper record players as wedding invitations.

- Now that we know you can hack traffic lights, I foresee many more instances of this, and possibly the collapse of the traffic light system, probably followed by the collapse of civilisation as we know it. The link, by the way, may not be worksafe, depending on how your work feels about pictures of little green electric people copulating.

- Lacking though my hands are in the ability to make small exquisite cupcakes, I still appreciate the fact that other people can do it. These topiary ones are lovely, the rainbow ones appeal to my inner rainbow, and the steampunk ones – well, if the phrase ‘steampunk cupcakes’ doesn’t make you want to grim maniacally, then clearly you’re not me.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but: non-worksafe video of Creme Eggs having sex. Happy Easter.

- And finally, what I believe is the obligatory kitten link: Parenting is Thoroughly Sisyphean

The Interactive Guide to Bad Parenting

There is one experience above all others where one is constantly judged, criticised and ruthlessly blamed for every tiny mistake. And I don’t mean Dancing on Ice.

No, if you would like to wallow, thoroughly and muddily, in the swamp of social disapproval, I suggest becoming a parent. (If you are one already, you will presumably know this.) Nothing else really gets that everything-I-do-is-wrong feeling properly going. You will be scrutinised by the media, by experts, by strangers on buses, by your neighbours and by your own family, probably including the person, if there is one, with whom you are having your baby (or babies), and you will be found wanting.

It’s not all bad news though: you will probably also find yourself watching and critiquing other parents in your turn, in an ecstasy of vicarious disapproval. Something about the state of parenthood brings it out in people, like piles and the ability to shamelessly discuss the contents of nappies at dinner parties.

I want to write a book called You’re Doing It Wrong: The Interactive Guide to Bad Parenting, which would take you through parenting in a choose-your-own-adventure style, only every time you make a decision, it will turn out to be wrong. I even wrote some of it.

(The basic point I will make in my imaginary book is that when you’re having a baby, a lot of people, books, websites and media articles will tell you what you should be doing at every stage. Much of the advice is contradictory, and a lot of it is judgmental. Some of it is also very useful. But if you listen to it all you’ll become a gibbering wreck. So, beyond the basics, you’re probably best off trusting your own judgement.)