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The Summer of Love

The blankets have been put away and swapped for a snuggly duvet, there’s a fresh chill in the air and the first Summer of love with my baby girl is coming to a close. We spent a month soaking in the Bulgarian sunshine and joie de vivre, getting her weaning off a great start with flavoursome Bulgarian fruit, veg and yoghurt. She swam in the Black Sea and was serenaded with Bulgarian songs. Though not yet walking she danced (nay, even led) her first Horo being held in the arms of my father at a Bulgarian-Swiss wedding in Zurich. For those that don’t know, the Horo is a traditional Bulgarian dance, best attempted after a few glasses of Rakia.

She has also connected with her roots from up North, celebrating the 80th birthday of her Great Great Aunt in a working man’s club, and having her first taste of Granny’s Yorkshire Pudding – the first of many I’m sure.

In stark contrast to the life affirming, has been the life threatening. I’m hoping that unlike a cat my daughter will have more than 9 lives; in her 8 months of life she has already used two of them. Driving to the airport in heavy rain, our car aquaplaned and spun through three lanes of busy traffic. It was sheer luck that no cars hit us; we managed to escape the incident unharmed, and continued on to catch our flight. The second incident chimes neatly with my regular theme of “stuff that happens on buses”. A lapse of concentration on the part of a bus driver caused him to close his doors just as we were trying to board, and he started to drive off with the wheel of our pushchair stuck in the doors. Luckily he heard my screams and stopped within a few seconds. Again, I was left very shaken, but we were unharmed and able to continue with our day.

A recurring theme in many parenting books is the importance of spending time “being present” with your child. It’s a hippy turn of phrase, but it’s just about applying full attention to the enjoyment of your child’s company, without worrying about your to-do list or attempting to multi-task. Easier said than done when you are trying to convince a sceptical family that you’re not so bad at being a housewife after all.

Now is the time in her development where I need to be present in a much more literal sense. With her short blonde locks, she resembles a small Daniel Craig, determined to throw herself into the face of danger. While for James Bond that generally means skiing down dramatic slopes chasing villains and glamorous ladies, for little miss it mostly means landing face first in the carpet. She is busily trying to pull herself upright and doing downward dog at every opportunity. Either she is a very yogic baby, or she is using her bottom to communicate with some higher power – waving frantically to try and combat the poor signal coverage in our house.

With the Summer over I’m conscious of the diminishing time I have left before she starts nursery in January. I think back to that day on the hard shoulder of the A20, where things could have turned out so differently, and I’m doubly aware of how precious this time is. Time to be present with my little yogi, in every possible sense.


The Bell Curve of Control

As we journey through our lives, from beginning to end, the level of control we can exert would probably resemble a bell curve for most people. At one end of the scale is my little girl – now 6 months old. As she wriggles and shuffles, holds objects and moves them to her mouth, she is starting to truly experience the joy of having control over her physical being. Her desire for independence seems to grow daily.

At the other end of the scale is my disabled Grandmother, who needs round the clock care. Although she understands the limits of her physical condition, she has a fiery spirit and an unbreakable determination to grip on to what remnants of control she has left. Unfortunately for my parents, this translates as her constantly firing (or refusing to hire) her carers for the most tenuous of reasons. Examples include “she has once worked in Greece”; “she used to be a nurse. Nurses spend their time sleeping with Doctors”; “she was too nervous” (err, I wonder why..); “anyone under 65 will be too busy thinking about love”. Perhaps her standards are so exacting because really, her ideal carer would be herself. Although even she wouldn’t meet her own criteria, as an ex-teacher and therefore “too intelligent”.

When we become parents we teeter at the top of the curve. Not only do we enjoy full control over our own lives, but also can wield as much control as we choose over our little dependents. As a loose parenting philosophy, I aim to apply control sparingly – as little as is necessary to provide a safe and comfortable environment for my baby and those around her.

The first real test of this has come now that my Daughter is old enough to have food. The concept of Baby Led Weaning is that from 6 months babies are able to eat real food, and feed themselves – thus affording them full control over their own weaning process. As well as the autonomy this offers to babies, it also means no money or time wasted creating various purees – winner!

I’m pleased to report the process is going well so far. She has been munching on the best fruit and veg Bulgaria has to offer, plus toast, yoghurt, chicken and various other things. She isn’t swallowing much, but at this stage she doesn’t need to. As a parent it can be really tough to let go of the reins. I have to control my own sense of panic when she quite literally bites off more than she can chew. But then watching how she carefully and deliberately moves the piece in her mouth until it inevitably comes out is a magical thing indeed.

It’s early days, but I love how quickly BLW is developing her curiosity around food, and her sense of self-sufficiency. I loaded a spoon with yoghurt and held it right in front of her mouth – so she could easily have sucked yoghurt from the spoon as I held it for her. Instead she deliberately took hold of the spoon herself before putting it in her mouth as I let go. Setting the tone for the years to come, I had to trust in my child, and just let go.

My mid-year review

At the end of last year I set myself some workplace style objectives for 2012, and my life of motherhood beyond. If you need a reminder you can find them here..

So, almost half way through my maternity leave with my daughters 6 month birthday fast approaching, it’s time for a quick self-assessment to see how I’m doing.

Nail the basics

Given my general clumsiness, and appalling history of house-plant maltreatment (I once killed a cactus), many of my acquaintances must have secretly doubted my ability to look after a baby – not least myself.

Well, I am proud to report that my little girl is happy, healthy and un-dropped. She seems generally satisfied with the standards of care, and only a couple of small lapses have given rise to some stern feedback.

The latest of these arose when I somehow managed to pick her up in my sleep. This wouldn’t necessarily have been a problem, had I aimed for the right end. Instead, I awoke to the sound of a screaming child, and a puzzled husband asking me why I was holding the baby upside down. This was unsettling for all concerned, not least my daughter who made very sure that her disapproval was felt. This has not happened again.

Add value

The life of a Mum on maternity leave gets quickly booked up with a variety of Mother and Baby activities. Many of these are for the benefit of the Mums – Baby Cinema, post-natal fitness, Mum-friend coffee dates. But there are also great classes available for the babies. Already, my little one has been exploring her flexibility and balance at Baby Yoga, and has been swimming unaided underwater in her Waterbabies lessons. Next up will be Baby Sign Language classes – I just can’t wait to start communicating with her!

Be sustainable

After persevering for too long with an unreliable nappy laundry service, and dabbling with eco-disposables, I have finally found my ideal green nappy solution in Gnappies. You get some very cute re-usable pants, that can take either a re-usable cloth insert, or a 100% biodegradable and compostable disposable insert – the best of both worlds! I use cloth when we’re in the house, and the biodegradables when out and about. Adding the non-poopy ones to your compost pile is actually good for your veggies!

In an effort to economise, I am in Waitrose rehab. I’ve fallen off the wagon here and there, but it’s not been quite as tough as I thought. Fresh lemongrass and harissa paste are available in our local Asda, so we’re managing to cope.

Stay sane

At risk of sounding all a bit “smug Mum”, I am really enjoying my maternity leave, more than I thought I would. In my nightmares I feared long sleepless nights, followed by long endless days, spent sobbing quietly on the sofa in front of Jeremy Kyle.

In fact I have a busy diary, a bevy of lovely Mum friends and a new-found passion for baking bread from scratch. Work-life balance has tipped fully into life-life balance, and I am treasuring every second with my little girl. That’s not to say I don’t miss work sometimes – like coming to the end of a holiday it will feel right and proper when it comes time to go back. But until then I shall continue to live the Yummy Mummy dream.

Be a 50’s style housewife

I have realised that my housewife fantasy was mainly based on the idea of wearing nice outfits and baking cakes. The reality of attempting to keep an entire house both clean and tidy is really not that appealing. I am doing my best with moderate success, and my fantasies now revolve around hiring a cleaner.

Book Review: The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff

This book was first published in 1975. It sometimes shows it’s age, but remains a fascinating insight into the child rearing practices of the Yequana tribe of Venezuela. Jean Liedloff developed her philosophy of the Continuum Concept based on her observational research, spending time living with the tribe, and comparing their parenting and it’s outcomes to traditional Western parenting. As you might have guessed, the Yequana’s are the goodies in this equation, with Western parenting presented as a Dickensian villain.

My first critique is that her theories seem to be based purely on her own interpretations of her observations. So although more formal research may support some aspects of her beliefs, references to science are minimal, and the approach is very subjective. I think she’s certainly onto something here, but she compromises the validity of her work somewhat by getting carried away with speculation and hammering her point home with an industrial sledgehammer.

So, what is the Continuum Concept? In a nutshell..

We are born with a set of instinctive expectations of what life should be when we are a baby. They are based on the normal experiences of a Human child born in the wild. Her view is that evolution has not had time to catch up with the pace of change in the last few centuries. If our Continuum expectations are not fulfilled during babyhood, our sense of self is compromised, and we will spend our adult life trying to recreate them.

In practical terms, babies are born expecting to be held in their mothers arms and to be in close contact with caregivers most of the time. It’s highly distressing for babies to be left alone or not receive a response to their cries, as their expectations are to be in fear of the (once very real) risk of predators and they are very aware of their helpless reliance on others for survival.

The hallmarks of the tribe she lived with are that the children are well-behaved and happy with an excellent sense of self preservation. Adults are cheerful, patient and enjoy working. Jealousy and competitive feelings appear non-existent. Her conclusion is that this contrast with our more self-centred and unhappy Western society is due to the differences in child-rearing practices.

Lightbulb moment

One aspect of her theory that struck a chord with me is the importance of a caregivers expectations. She believes that children are inherently programmed to do what is expected of them, not necessarily what they are told to do. So if a parent expresses surprise when a child does something good, they may feel they are offering encouragement, but the impression the child takes away is that they have done something that was not expected of them, and may be discouraged from doing it again. By pro-actively telling a child not to do something, you may be giving them the impression that you expect them to do it.

Once children are beyond babyhood, parenting in the Yequana tribe is based on using this sense of expectation. The adults get on with their work leaving children to do as they please, and trust that the children will look after themselves, and will gradually show increased interest in their activities until they are old enough to join in. This is invariably the case, with Yequana children showing no interest in rebelling.

Whilst I’m not prepared to let my child play with sharp knives as the Yequana’s do, I’m inspired to be mindful of this principle in the way I raise my daughter. I will try not to make too much of a song and dance about it when she does something good, and I will be careful not to give her ideas – ie. telling her not to do something before she has shown any sign of wanting to do it.

In conclusion…

There are chunks of this book that are worth skipping – namely the lengthy description of the seven stages of hell that a crying Western baby goes though, and the spurious list of societal woes (including homosexuality) that can be attributed to our Western anti-continuum ways.

It’s also important to note that this does not serve as any kind of parenting manual. After putting forward a strong argument for Continuum child rearing practices, it offers little in the way of useful guidance as to how these practices could translate from a small jungle community to the infinitely more complex Western world. If you’re the type of Mum that wouldn’t dream of leaving your baby to cry, you can feel smug that your child’s Continuum needs are probably being well met. Hardly a shocking revelation.

However, criticism aside, it’s very much worth a read just for the insight into a civilisation so different to our own. It’s exciting to think about the breadth of cultural possibilities for our species. If you dream of a happier more caring world, this book will help you keep that dream alive.

Pick’n’mix Parenting

Parenting is instinctive. If I were to never read a parenting book in my life, I would still be a perfectly fine parent, and my daughter would become a well-rounded individual. They are entirely unnecessary, and I love them.

Just to qualify that a little – I don’t love all of them. I’m not a fan of any one-size-fits-all “follow these magical steps” style guidance. No-one should ever be a slave to restrictive programmes prescribed by self appointed parenting gurus. All babies and families are different, and parents should never go against their natural judgement.

The kind of books I do like do any of the following – share the experience and wisdom of other parents to inspire me with ideas I might not have thought of by myself, increase my understanding of child development or just give me a new perspective to inform my own thoughts on parenting.

Like diving into a pick ‘n’ mix sweet selection, I will load myself up with the stuff that looks good, and just ignore the stuff that doesn’t. Primed with my bag of ideas, I will put down the books, go forth and parent.

In between the bus-related anecdotes I will also start including some book reviews in this blog. If you’re also partial to a parenting tome, then this might help you decide whether to read the books in question. Or it might be enough to give you the gist so you don’t have to. I will try and be as unbiased as possible, although a little of my own beliefs on parenting will inevitably seep through. At this point I may as well fess up and admit that while I don’t subscribe to any one specific school of parenting, I’m at the more hippy-dippy end of the scale. I’m generally a fan of letting my baby set the pace of her development and routines, and would like to provide gentle support as she finds her own way towards adulthood.

Coming up first will be a review of “The Continuum Concept” by Jean Liedloff..

The “good baby” myth

Life as a new Mum in Leyton is a life lived on buses. There’s not much going on, and the bus is the most convenient escape route for those brandishing an unwieldy pram. I make this point to excuse myself for two blog posts in a row based loosely around something that happened on a bus (insert predictable “you wait and two come at once” joke here).

So I was on the bus, and the grandmother of the baby in the pram slot next to mine struck up the normal small talk – how old, boy or girl, etc. Then she said “Is she good?”. Filled with pride, I gave her a knowing look, and said “Yes, she’s really good”.

What do people mean when they refer to a baby as “good”? They normally mean a baby that sleeps a lot (when convenient for the parents) and doesn’t cry very much. It’s a strange phrase to use, as it suggests that babies who don’t conform to these standards are somehow “bad”.

If I were to have taken her meaning as above and answered in all honesty, my little girl is going through a not so “good” phase at the moment. She is waking often in the night, and is sometimes finding it difficult to get back to sleep. She goes through phases of crying a lot during the day. But I answered as I did because there is no such thing as a “bad” baby. There are just babies who happen to be content or babies who happen to be distressed. Whether she is happy or sad, my baby is pretty much the best thing in my world – “good” is understating it.

Of course, the lady on the bus was very well meaning, and would have been sympathetic if I’d have chosen to bore her with a detailed account of my baby’s sleep routine. Referring to babies as “good” is so ingrained in our language, that it would be ridiculous to suggest people stop; I often do it myself without thinking. But it is symptomatic of the value placed on quiet / convenient babies in our society, and the latent pressure on parents to manage their behaviour.

It makes me sad to think that there is a burgeoning industry in books on how to train babies to cry less. Crying is the main form of communication that a baby has, and it’s a dangerous myth that no crying always equals a happy baby. If a baby has been trained to understand that crying will not bring the attention and comfort that it needs, it will stop crying not because it’s happy, but because it has given up. Why any loving parent would want their baby to stop communicating with them is beyond me.

For those with a passing interest in babies or developmental psychology, the article below makes for a fascinating read. It challenges those who advocate “cry it out” techniques with research-based evidence.

Evolutionary Parenting: Educating the experts

Each time I am kept awake at 4am by an unhappy baby, I take a deep breath and remind myself that (contrary to popular belief) babies do not cry just for the joy of being a pain in the ass. Being a pain in the ass is what their teenage years are for.

The sunshine of smiles

According to many theorists, human babies are born too early. Most mammal species manage to drop their sprogs when they are fully formed and ready to skip along with the herd. If we were to align with normal mammal behaviour, gestation should be 21 months rather than our paltry 9. Hence the first three months of a baby’s life are sometimes referred to as the forth trimester. Our helpless little newborns still have more in common with the foetus that blossomed inside us, than they do with the independent individual they are destined to become.

On the bus this morning, a very special moment happened. I became aware of a strange noise behind me. I turned to find that a couple of ladies were busy entertaining my daughter, and being rewarded with big gummy smiles for their efforts. As she left the bus, one of them turned to my little girl and said “bye bye baby, your smile has made my day”.

Two things struck me. Firstly, that my baby was now capable of making new friends, of her own choosing, all by herself. Her days as a helpless newborn were behind her, and she was beginning her journey towards fully fledged personhood. Secondly, babies really do bring out the best in people.

With mini-me in tow, the world becomes that little bit friendlier. Yes, even in London. I know. From Grannies on the bus telling me all about their Grandchildren, to heroes on the Tube helping me up the stairs with my pram. One man even offered to help me up the stairs when I had my baby in a sling. I’m not sure what he had in mind – perhaps giving the both of us a fireman’s lift to the top? Still, it’s the thought that counts.

Basking in the reflected sunshine of my baby’s smiles, even the parenting police can be thought of as a force for good. For those that have not yet been apprehended, the parenting police are plain clothed officers that masquerade as members of the public, constantly on the lookout for wayward parents in need of corrective action. I have only been stopped on two occasions so far. One was for the classic “Baby not wearing hat when outdoors” offence (she had a hood, and it was a quick trip between warm shopping centre and warm bus). The other was the slightly more obscure “baby must have hood of pram up on bus to prevent things falling into her eyes”. I never quite understood what the officer in question was expecting to fall from a (frankly quite solid looking) bus ceiling.

It’s easy to feel affronted when someone takes it upon themselves to critique your parenting skills. But then I realise that these strangers have looked at my baby girl, and decided that they care whether her head is warm enough, and they care whether unspecified objects attack her on buses. In a world that can be harsh and indifferent, that’s a nice thing.