Posts tagged ‘family’

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.

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.

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.

The Red Tent

The Red Tent is an ancient tradition amongst nomadic cultures, where an actual red tent would be used as a retreat for women whilst they menstruated and for 40 days after birth. New mothers would not set foot outside the tent during this time and would see no-one other than their female companions.

We’ve mostly moved on from using a tent these days (camping in the garden mid-Jan just wasn’t a practical option), but in many cultures the tradition of new mothers to hide themselves away persists. My Bulgarian Grandmother begged me not to leave the house or allow any visitors for the first month of my Baby’s life. Parenthood is about getting to know your child, and what better way to do this than shielded from the distractions of the outside world?

It’s not just about getting to know your child though, it’s also about getting to know yourself and what motherhood means to you. It’s about trusting your own instincts above any advice, traditions or pleading Great Grandmothers. In the spirit of this, myself and my Daughter bust out of the Red Tent pretty sharpish. I just couldn’t wait to share her with the world and share the world with her.

So, I’m two months in and learning fast. Here are a few of my many discoveries..

– My Daughter has a cheeky sense of humour
This first expressed itself as per the oft repeated scenario below..

Baby: Ah Mummy, I note that you cleansed my posterier just now, and furnished me with some clean undergarments. Great work! I shall honour my newfound cleanliness with a celebratory poop. Huzzah!

Later on, as poops have become less frequent, we have graduated to the following game..

Scene.. Night-time, bedroom, parents asleep
Baby: Alas! I am hungry and in need of boob..
Me: [rubs eyes, and drags herself to sit up in bed]
Me: [stares confusedly at her peacefully sleeping baby]
Me: [gives up after a while and snuggles back under the duvet]
Baby: Ahahaha, I fooled you! What larks.. But seriously I really do need a feed, so if we could get this show on the road that would be great

(Yes, the internal monologue of all babies does indeed sound like Stewie from Family Guy)

– Mumsnet is a great resource for new Mums
Mumsnet gives you the chance to get answers to some of life’s essential parenting questions. Such as – What do you do if you have your baby in a sling and you need to pee? (Answer – Keep in situ and work around them. Mind their heads on the paper dispenser). Are onesies appropriate casualwear for the on-trend 0-3 month old? (Answer – Apparently so. Unless your baby has a front row seat at the Gucci babywear Spring / Summer collection. Then it may take some good accessories to pull off an Asda sleepsuit).

– Boob and poop are really fun words to say in silly voices
Motherhood is a great opportunity to move these words up the ranks of your conversational vocabulary. It is also hilarious to do voiceovers for your baby in an unspecified foreign accent. Especially when they are a bit drowsy post feed, and bearing a striking resemblance to a drunken old man. “aah, I was at the boob last night. Just the one I said, but then there were two of them (hic). I had a few too many boob..”

– From funbags to feeding stations..
It’s surprising how quickly your nipples stop feeling like private property. I am a relaxed breastfeeder, and will happily unleash the boob in all manner of public places, in front of work colleagues, anywhere really. I generally fare OK at keeping my modesty intact. Although a Mum friend recently had to point out (as I was sitting in a cafe, post feed) that my nipple was on full display. Perhaps I’m a little too relaxed.

– I prefer baking and crafts to housework
It’s just who I am. I’m sure a bit of dust is better for baby than breathing cleaning chemicals anyway.

– My life is alive, with the sound of music
We’ve all heard the saying “a face only a mother could love”. Well, I have a singing voice only my own baby could love. But luckily she does love it, and at two months old it’s one of the few things that can make her smile. This has turned my life into a musical. I find myself explaining what I happen to be doing in the kitchen to the tune of some popular hit. Although, as much as she humours my bastardised remixes of Beyonce or Bohemian Rhapsody, nothing beats a bit of “You are my sunshine”.

Bogling around your living room to dancehall reggae whilst holding your baby is also a great way to re-tone those abs.

– Life will never be the same again
The amount of love you can feel for someone you only just met is simply overwhelming.

The beautiful Barkantine

Like most Mums-to-be I followed a simple process when deciding where to give birth – which is my nearest hospital and does it have a birthing suite (with birthing pool and the works please). Bosh – done. That was until I happened to overhear my Yoga instructor talking about the Barkantine Centre in the Isle of Dogs, East London.

Apart from the immediate attraction that its name included a pun (the Barkantine in the Isle of Dogs – geddit? Arf), it sounded like a wonderful place to give birth. Now having given birth there, I can confirm that it is, and I am inspired to shout from the rooftops of the interweb about how great it is.

Before I launch into the positives, let’s start with the cons. The Barkantine is a standalone midwife-led birthing centre. Therefore it is not part of a hospital. This means that they will only accept mothers who are low risk (this is assessed at 36 weeks). If there are any significant complications during the birth, you will need to be transferred to the nearest hospital – the Royal London. They have a special arrangement to ensure that the transfer is as speedy as possible, but obviously it won’t be quite as quick and convenient as getting wheeled down the corridor from a hospital birthing suite to its labour ward. As of 2009 data, the chances of transfer are 28% for a firstborn child, and 5% for women who are already mothers.

So those are the cons – what are the pros? The Barkantine has a birthing pool, en-suite, double bed, birth aids and access to a large balcony in each room. So far, so similar to the birthing suite in many hospitals.

So what makes the Barkantine special?

Firstly, there is no postnatal ward. From the birth stories I have heard, no-one seems to have anything too positive to say about postnatal wards. The impression I have is that they are noisy, depressing and rather lonely as your partner gets swiftly dispatched home just when you need them most.

Once you arrive at the Barkantine and are given a room, that room is yours until you leave. This means you can recuperate and get to know your new baby in a calm peaceful environment. More importantly it means that your partner can stay with you.

The hours after the birth of my baby were truly magical. My Husband was able to support and help me as I recovered from a lengthy labour, and his assistance was key to finding the right position for Baby’s first breastfeed. We even had a romantic meal of takeaway Fish and Chips together. Being able to take the time to recover and bond in the privacy of our own room was priceless – quite literally as the Barkantine forms part of the NHS. So even though it feels like a privately run service for people of wealth, it’s free! It was like we went away to a nice hotel and came back with a baby.

We could also enjoy calling friends and relatives with our news and updating pictures of our little one to Facebook. As it is not a Hospital then it’s fine to use phones and electronic equipment – a nice bonus!

Aside from the novelty of a rather dashing male Midwife, the other thing that makes the Barkantine stand apart is the standard of care. The Midwives and staff are not only consummate professionals, but they are warm, friendly and welcoming. Of course the staff at my local Hospital are also caring and professional, but you often got the feeling they were reading from the NHS textbook, and were more focussed on explaining what should happen, as opposed to listening to what we wanted.

In contrast, the approach at the Barkantine is much more personal – the Midwives are there to support you to have the birth experience that you want. It felt like asking an incredibly knowledgeable friend for advice. It was comforting to know that while options of intervention were always available if needed, we would not be pressured into taking steps purely to speed up the process. By the end of our stay there, we knew the names of everyone we dealt with and hugged them goodbye.

It was telling that, in discussion with a Midwife at our local hospital, she admitted “I don’t like the way we do things here – it’s efficient and it works well, but it’s like a production line. It has to be, because of the number of babies we deliver. In an ideal world, all maternity services should be like the Barkantine”

Barkantine website