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Attachment parenting, Parenting, Uncategorized

Attachment Parenting A Toddler: Beyond Breastfeeding and Babywearing

4 March, 2014

Last night Tim was out late so I had two little people on my hands at bed time- this is pretty rare for us. I hunkered down with them both, one on each side, breastfeeding to sleep, their guzzling and gulping the only sound in the treacly silence of a countryside evening.

Their eyes began closing as if on command, and they held hands across my belly. “What a perfect picture of attachment parenting!” I thought, ever so slightly wryly.

Truth is, this is rarely what mothering looks like for me. I find tandem breastfeeding uncomfortable and over the last year I’ve encouraged Ramona, who is three, down from a billion breastfeeds a day to just this one breastfeed at bed time.

Even last night, a second after I had that thought, baby Juno decided sleep is for suckers and instead burrowed under the duvet, popped back up with a fork (you know) and climbed atop my tummy, yodelling and waving her weapon about. (It is testament to the power of the boob that Ramona carried on drifting off to sleep regardless.) This peaceful, tandem breastfeeding and tandem babywearing thing just doesn’t seem to fit us with grace and ease!

Ramona rarely rides about in a sling these days – she prefers to run, scoot or sit upon her dad’s shoulders – clinging to his head and stealing his specs. We do cosleep – but her with her daddy in one double and Juno and I in another.20140304-134021.jpg

It’s funny, because when our children are babies attachment parenting seems to mainly be about those three behaviours.

Of course, babywearing, breastfeeding, and cosleeping is how attachment parenting often LOOKS but no official AP sergeant has ever demanded these things in order to make it on the AP team. Because attachment- based on a quite unwooly psychological / mental well being- theory- really mostly comes down to nurturing connection and responding quickly to a child’s needs, with respect.

But when the baby has been weaned, when they want to sleep in their own bed, when they opt for the scooter over the sling, what does attachment parenting look like? As they grow, and these things become a little less a part of their lives, many parents feel a bit lost.

I for one began burying my head into books again, searching for ideas about child development, communication and nurturing connection with this wild and wonderful toddler in my life. 20140304-133829.jpg

There are five main ways that our attachment parenting philosophy has influenced our parenting an older child:

Validate
I reckon this is the Big One, the crucial part of our communication with toddlers. If attachment parenting is about connection, trust and responsiveness then our toddler need to feel understood and they need to feel that their emotions are valid, loved through their big feelings. We need to knock on the head “You’re okay, honey!” and ” Don’t worry!” – replacing them with an acknowledgment of how they are feeling; “You lost your toy? And I can see you are really upset” and “You are frustrated about that!”

Get into the habit of repeating back to them what you hear. Don’t add to their emotion “OOH, YOU ARE SUPER, SWEARINGLY FURIOUS!” (hehehe) but do give them words if they can’t find them- “upset” is a nice word that covers lots of emotions.

Start with your baby. Even when they cry as a tiny one, instead of “Shhhh” as them “Were you worried that I had walked away?” (Or whatever) – of course, while offering your boob because that IS what they want, a lot of the time.

This validation is a communication habit for a lifetime, for children, for friends, and colleagues.

Standing back
Strangely, it feels as if so at a loss are attachment parents when their kids hit the toddler years that they become “helicopter parents” – hovering over their child’s every move, as if worried of severing the attachment.

This isn’t the way, dudes.

Attachment parenting is about responding to a child’s needs and as they grow one of a child’s most demanding needs is that of autonomy. They need to know they are in charge of some stuff, they need to know they have a say on the things that impact their lives. (They also – importantly- have a right to this.)

Has your child, through tantrums, been asking for more space to exercise their will and their choices? What areas will you let go control of? Their clothes? Their food? Their play?

The attachment parents is the one that stands back when their child strikes out for independence, knowing that sometimes meeting the need of an older child can sometimes look like the EXACT OPPOSITE of meeting the needs of a baby.

Touch
And yet. Children still need touch. A parent’s hug can still fill the cup of an older child who has emptied themselves emotionally. A cuddle can change direction of an afternoon of play between kids that has become quite wrestle-based! Sometimes I wonder if a toddler’s physical (by physical I mean a lot of pushing) play is a plea for more touch.

Touch activates important chemicals in our bodies, and sometimes toddlers, and parents, can be so busy that we don’t activate them enough. It may be a cuddle, joining in with the wrestle, or even a massage that can restore a connection lost in mayhem.

The other day Ramona was struggling a bit and we kind of invented a game. She lies on her back and I just do the motions for different things over her body. So I say “spiders creeping up” and tap my fingers all over her from feet to head and “sun shining down” and whoosh my fingers back down from her head to her toes- like the whooshing sun, you know?!? I did different animals and weathers for about five minutes and it was almost like a meditation. There have a been a couple of times since when she has been really sad that she has asked me for the creepy spider game again.

It reminded me how substantial good healthy physical contact is with our busy toddlers and how it can meet needs that are hidden amongst rambunctiousness.

Empathy
The most helpful tool I have found in my parenting kit (what, you didn’t get a nice bumbag filled with gadgets? It comes out just before the placenta) has been an ability to empathise. And I don’t really know where it came from. I struggled for about a year feeling overwhelmed by the strength of a two year old’s feelings, almost annoyed and frustrated – primarily I imagine because I couldn’t FIX it. I felt almost redundant.

I wish I could remember what triggered the change. (It was quite possibly finding out about play urges– a child’s instinct to play/throw/climb/burrow is as strong for them as BREATHING!) But somehow I just began seeing things from our daughter’s perspective- and I got a bit of a glimpse into how annoying and frustrating HER day must get! Being so curious, but not being given the space to follow up discoveries. Being so excited but finding that shouts of glee aren’t welcome. Being so opinionated but not being heard.

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I’m no parenting saint AT ALL and I do feel infuriated sometimes but stepping back from my feelings and attempting to see things through her eyes REALLY helps.

Play
Play is a form of communication for children, so if we want to nurture a strong connection with them we need to play hard too! Play has also rescued many a moment for us that was spiralling into disconnection.

If Ramona is doing something that breaks our one rule (No harming people or people’s stuff) then I will often use play as a way of recovering any shaken connection. So a couple of days ago Ramona was enjoying pulling apart a friend’s house plant. I explained to her why house plants need to not have their leaves ripped, but she continued. I was picking up that Ramona was running on empty a bit so I firmly said “I’m not going to let you pull apart that plant” and then I began to cry big, ridiculous sobs and pretended to be the plant “Noooooo, don’t pull meeeeeeeee!!!” And we had a silly old game of plant chasing kid and kid pulling plant. (A classic.) Later on, when Ramona was full up and connected again, we had a conversation about keeping people’s stuff safe.

Attachment parenting is not about avoiding all tension and healthy boundaries/ guidelines, but IS about creating a good, receptive environment in which to discuss these things in a respectful way. Play is often a bridge between inappropriate behaviour and necessary discussion for us.

One of the best books I have read on the whole of childhood based on attachment theory is “Letting Go As Children Grow” by author of cosleeping bible, Three In A Bed, Deborah Jackson.

“The letting go process does not have to wait until the rebellious teenager explodes with anger and frustration. It does not even have to wait for a two yea old to become ‘terrible’. We can let our children go from the moment they are born by trusting in the process of nature and responding to their needs as they become apparent.”

How does attachment look in your family these days? I’d love to hear from families with different ages.

Family Travel

The pockets of others

26 February, 2014

I was remembering recently some of those days when Ramona was a baby and my husband would go off to work, how I would look despairingly at the long day ahead, how it seemed to yawn on and on. 6:30pm, that exhilarating moment when Tim would open the front door, was so completely in the distance that it wasn’t even a speck on the horizon. It had dropped off a far flung cliff, like a suicidal Woody Woodpecker, a mocking laugh, a wisp of smoke.

And I LOVED being a mum. But, sheesh, those days alone just. Stretched. On,

People with one baby quite often ask “How is it with two kids?” and I begin to say “Oh, AMAZING and SO EASY!!” and then I remember that the four of us have been on the road together, in each others pockets, since Juno was four months old and really I barely have a clue about juggling the needs of two little people at one time!

How fortunate are the girls, to have their dad around so very much? And how fortunate am I, that when I am feeling a bit clung to I can easily take a breather? And that the days are full, chockablock, bursting at the seems with stuff to do, too MUCH to do?

It couldn’t be more different, these days.

(We weren’t really made to do this parenting thing solo, eh? We need gaggles of friends and neighbours and sisters to thrive. One of my friends, Jenny blogged beautifully about this very thing this week.)

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We have slowly etched our way around the coastline of the North Island (of New Zealand, that is, NEW ZEALAND, a whole other STRATOSPHERE! *googles stratosphere* Oh, actually, no, I mean, WHOLE OTHER HEMISPHERE) catching up with friends. And there are new family members, children and babies, oh, so many bonny babies. It has been amazing just bustling about with them, living in each other’s pockets, doing our days all together. Charity shopping together. Pretty much mostly just charity shopping together.

We’ve been hunting through possibilities of dining tables for the bus. We had our hearts set on a formica table but in this land awash with ancient woods they KNOW the value of a nice formica table. Pfft. We have looked high and low, we’ve had every friend on the hunt with us and finally, last week we found one, HURRAH! There was much back slapping and hooting, as if Tim and I had really succeeded at something. Yep, folks, our ambition has shriveled to this.

We’ve been so inspired by the stuff our friends are up to – our friends who have an organic bulk buying co-op thing casually going on, those friends who do a great bit of co-housing, the family with the beautiful home who Know The Way Of The Vintage Tapestry.

I made new friends in Wellington, bloggers I knew from the Internet who were actual Real Life People. Thalia from Sacraparental and Tasha from Maybe Diaries. Two awesome new feminist, attachment parenty, social justice loving friends.

We went to the New Zealand Unschooling Camp and met a crowd of people who stunned us with the simple ways they were fully living their dreams, growing food and having adventures. (A whole other post about unschooling coming soon!) A family who are travelling in a bus and unschooling their FOUR BOYS for OVER A YEAR, one woman who unschools with a little tribe, a kindred-spirit mother unschooling with her awesome lad.

Gosh.

We’ve been busy.

So busy that I sometimes forget this little ache in my heart that just wishes my sister, Jo, and her family were close by. Her taunting me by blogging amazing recipes involving cream cheese and salted caramel doesn’t help. I want to have a cup of tea with her and eat her baking.

We are coming to the end of our nomadic stage… we are thinking of heading back to Thames this weekend, a cool little town at the start of the mightily majestic Coromandel. We might nuzzle down for a bit. Perhaps learn about growing stuff properly, search for a bit of land to call our own. (Bit more serious than a retro table, eh?) We have not at all been swayed towards Thames because they have some of the best charity shops in New Zealand. (We have.) (What, dad?! That is perfectly reasonable criteria to base a new land ownership on!)

Life might start to look slightly more normal. But we are going to cling to our sense of adventure, seek a tribe to live life with, pockets to dwell in.

And we will try as hard as we can to avoid anything that might leave one of us staring at the clock willing the minutes to pass.

This is a featured post – please see my disclosure for more on that.

Parenting

How to be a Vegetarian Parent

5 February, 2014

Now. You wouldn’t think I’d need a guest post on raising a vegetarian family, what with being a vegetarian since the tender age of 10 when my plate of sausages I’d ordered in the cafe came accompanied by a little plastic pig and I was traumatised into vegetarianism.

However. The second day of Baby Led Weaning with Ramona I came into the kitchen to see her having a little picnic with her older friends, who had dished out the sausage rolls they’d bought with them and Ramona was gleefully cramming them into her mouth! Ramona now opts for meat, meat and more meat whenever possible…. Although she happily tells everyone as she scoffs that “Mummy doesn’t eat animals!”

So. It is with great interest and delight that I have the wonderful Chris of Thinly Spread contributing to my How To Be A _____ Parent series today, all about her vegetarian family.

I’m delighted to be here on one of my very favourite blogs writing about one of my very favourite things! I have been vegetarian since I was 19 back in 1986 (eek!), my husband cast off his meat eating ways when he was 15 and our children have never eaten a morsel of anything dead. They are now 17, 16, 14 and 8 and are adept at resisting peer pressure, advertisers, well-meaning lunchtime supervisors, friends’ parents and teachers. So – how have we done it?

Thinly Spread’s Top Tips for Raising Vegetarian Children

  • Tell them why: We’ve always been open about why we don’t eat meat. Obviously when they were younger we spared them the gruesome details and just told them that we didn’t want anything to have to die to feed us, as they got older we talked more about the meat industry itself. Living behind a butcher’s has definitely helped with this one – seeing a whole dead pig being carried in on a bloodied man’s shoulder is far easier to connect with a life gone than a bit of meat, sanitised and wrapped up in cling film on the supermarket shelf.
  • Make it Easy: It isn’t hard to find veggie treats and sweets so they don’t need to feel they are ‘missing out’. The hardest bit for my youngest in particular is when sweets are handed out at school (on a fellow pupil’s birthday not just teachers chucking sweets at children) but he’s happy now he knows we will trot to the shop and get him a veggie alternative. They even make vegetarian marshmallows now which has made campfires and hot chocolate much easier!

Baking with Kids

  • Don’t be Too Worthy: Vegetarianism doesn’t have to be all hearty wholefoods and brown gloop neither does it have to be over complicated and time-consuming. Fill plates with colour and flavour and lots of variety think about texture, smell, flavour and appearance – vegetarian food looks so good!
  • Grow Your Own: It is so satisfying to pull a parsnip the size of a child out of the ground and then serve it up in a soup or roasted with sage for lunch. Picking sweetcorn cobs and then racing them to the ready boiling water to make the most of their sweet goodness is a memory maker. We have a very small patch but I’ve always made room for a few veg for the pot – it gives them ownership over their food when they’ve grown it from seed and is a fab way of introducing new vegetables to small children! Even a pot of parsley on a windowsill or some cress grown as a caterpillar to add to an egg sandwich delights small children.

cress caterpillar by thinlyspread.co.uk

  • Stick to ‘the Rules’ but…: This is the tricky one. Food rebellion is often a child’s first opportunity to flex his/her muscles and test the independence water. One of my children used to store all his food in his cheeks like a hamster and it took all my strength not to make a big issue out of it, another wouldn’t eat carrots for a year – the first is now in his late teens and wolfs down everything at phenomenal speed and the other eats carrots happily. I have tried to allow them freedom to manoeuvre telling them that it’s fine if they want to try meat at other people’s houses but that it won’t be cooked or eaten in ours – none of them have been tempted, so far!
  • Teach Them To Cook: I think this is important whether you are veggie or not. Giving children ownership over their food, allowing them to choose a recipe to cook and helping them acquire the skills to do so encourages them to explore and to discover new flavours. Mine take great pride in producing a family meal even if it’s just pasta and cheese. Cooking with love is one of life’s simplest pleasures and once they have the tools and techniques to drum up some dinner I can kick back and relax!

cooking with kids

I’ve tried to make vegetarianism just ‘what we do’ with no pressure, no drama, just quiet, calm normal every day life. As they’ve grown I’ve gradually introduced more information but made it clear that they can do with it as they wish. I’ve fed them with love with delicious cruelty free food and they are growing into caring, thoughtful adults before my very eyes. In the Autumn my eldest will spread his wings and fly and is contemplating veganism (mainly because he’s not keen on dairy – he used to projectile vomit after a yoghurt as a baby which was quite something to behold – he cleared a whole double bed with a stream of it once) and, at the moment, I can’t imagine any of them popping out for a burger. If they do, I’ll still love them but will bombard them with veggie lasagne, chilli, burgers, salads, soups and cake until they give in!

You can normally find Chris over at Thinly Spread where she blogs about family life and sometimes at her vegetarian food blog Life Is Delicious. She has written about vegetarian food and family life for various sites and publications and you can see some of her recipes on Great British Chefs.

Parenting

How to be A Mindful Parent

15 January, 2014

Today’s How To Be A Mindful Parent contribution could not have come at a better time! Mindful parenting is difficult at the best of times but moving to a new country and trying to figure out what we’re doing seems to have made this even harder. The wonderful Lisa Hassan Scott’s How To Be a Mindful Parent made me stop and reflect on what I need to do to become more present in these hectic moments.How to Be a Mindful Parent - 3 lifechanging yet simple practices

There are some days when it feels as though the world is against me. Today we’re ten minutes late for the dentist. We’re trying to leave the house when one child suddenly announces that he needs to use the loo (not a number one, you understand), the other two are bickering instead of putting their shoes on, the lunch still hasn’t been made for when we get home and I remember that I’ve missed a deadline and there won’t be time tonight to work on anything. My mind is busy, busy, busy and I’m wishing I could escape from this stressful situation.

Mindfulness is the opposite of having a busy mind: it is filling the mind with only one thing at a time. Sounds easy, right? Of course you know from experience that it’s not.

Try sitting down and staring at a candle flame or a pebble or a flower for five minutes or more. For most of us, within the first minute we’re thinking about our shopping list or the ridiculous thing we said yesterday or the work we’ve got to get done tonight. It’s not easy to fill the mind with a single thing.

Mindful parenting involves allowing the mind to focus solely on this present moment with our child(ren). It involves letting go of worries about the future or anxieties about the past. It involves letting go of labels, expectations, and our own personal baggage that can get in the way of a truly authentic experience with your child.

At the heart of Mindful Parenting is Connection
After all, this is the aim of mindful parenting: connection. A mindful parent seeks to establish a meaningful connection between the parent’s authentic self and the child’s authentic self. We let go of what we are expected to be, what we used to be, what we hope to become. We allow our child and ourselves to simply be who we really are.

It’s essential to first let go of thoughts about being ‘good at it’ because it is simply a practice. With mindful parenting we release judgements and criticism; we practice acceptance. We are all learning and growing every day. You wouldn’t expect to sit down and play a Chopin sonata after your first piano lesson, and similarly nobody’s going to be a totally mindful parent all the time. Give yourself a break.

So allow me to offer up some ideas for how our parenting could become more mindful, and as a consequence, more meaningful.

Check in with your thoughts
1. We can become aware of our thoughts. If you do only one thing to engender deeper connection with your child, this is it. Imagine your mind like a television screen, a canvas or a blank wall. Across the surface of the mind thousands of thoughts float each day. Some are fleeting, others draw us in and invite further consideration. When we are in the hothouse conditions of parenting, gentling a crying baby, supporting a toddler in a tantrum, dealing with older children who are arguing—in all of these situations myriad thoughts arise. When we are low, we might think:
“I can’t do this.”
“I’m not cut out for this.”
“Why is this happening to me?”
“I wish I were somewhere else!”
“I hate this.”

And when those thoughts take over and multiply, parenting is invariably harder and we feel more disconnected from ourselves and our children. We might end up behaving in ways that aren’t in keeping with our overall parenting philosophy. Then the critical thoughts arise (“I’m a bad mother”) and these sow the seeds for further disconnection and unhappiness.

When you become aware of your thoughts you find yourself in the driver’s seat. Instead of being at the mercy of your thoughts you are in charge and can choose to divert the mind or interrogate the veracity of those thoughts. You are not your thoughts. Practice checking in with yourself and watching what pops up on the canvas of your mind. You may start to notice patterns. The first step is awareness.

Get Grounded
2. We can ground ourselves. To bring ourselves smack dab into the present moment we can make ourselves completely physically present. Grounding usually has to do with our relationship with the Earth. So you might stand for a moment and sense your feet touching the floor. You might stop and become aware of your physical body and the space that it occupies (more often than not you may also become aware of where you’re holding on to tension—raised shoulders, clenched jaw, etc.).
But my favourite way to ground myself is completely child-centred and harnesses the power of human touch. I just touch my child. The sensation of his skin, the chubby dimples of his knuckles, the flyaway down of his hair—all of these feelings draw me away from unhelpful thoughts and straight toward my child. This is no absent-minded touch. It is a meaningful interaction that makes our connection real on the outside, so that we can connect deeply from the inside.

Breathe
3. We can breathe. Goodness, it sounds so simple, doesn’t it? From the moment we’re born, til the moment we leave this life we breathe. It’s automatic, totally involuntary. The rhythmic, pulsating, wave-like movement of the breath can become a cornerstone of calm in our lives. Focussing on the ebb and flow of the breath can drown out the unhelpful thoughts that lead us away from connection with our children. Instead of the din of thoughts (“What a mess!” “There’s too much to do!” “I can’t possibly meet everyone’s needs today!” “What a horrible day this is!”), we can let the mind hover over the calm tidal inhalation and exhalation.

When we’re stressed, we usually clench the tummy muscles, shoulders and face. We lock up the breathing mechanism and instead of filling the lungs, the breath only reaches the upper chest and ribs. Allowing the breath to move right down towards the tummy softens those muscles and calms the mind. When parenting is hard and you need connection with your child(ren), try the pursed lips breath: breathe in through the nose and when you exhale lightly purse your lips and gently but smoothly blow the breath out until you have released every little bit of breath. You may be surprised at the length of your exhalation and how quickly your tummy becomes involved. Repeat as many times as you need to calm yourself and let go of tension.How to be a mindful parent

Each of these three ideas is a practice. It’s something we try to do as much as possible during the day, but there are times when we might not feel as though we’re terribly good at being mindful. All of our responsibilities won’t go away, but mindfulness can help to bring a little more peace to pressured moments.

Self-care
One of the fruits of all of these practices is self-compassion. With time and practice you will become more aware of the way self-critical thoughts beat you down and prevent you from living authentically as a parent. Don’t let them win: persevere. Even better, if you can get to a Yoga class, a one-to-one teacher or a meditation class, then do. In my opinion, it’s the best investment you can make into your parenting.

Trips to the dentist only come round twice a year, but as a parent I face challenging situations every day. There’s no one recipe for being a “good” parent. With mindfulness we let go of those value judgements and we simply aim to be the parent our child needs. No parenting manuals, no how-to’s. Just real, satisfying, meaningful connection.

©Lisa Hassan Scott 2013.

Lisa Hassan Scott is a Yoga teacher, freelance writer, breastfeeding counsellor, home educator and mother of three children ages 4, 8 and 11. She blogs at lisahassanscott.co.uk.

Parenting

A friendly request from the mother of two beautiful children *awkward face*

19 December, 2013

A few days after her third birthday my daughter, Ramona, turned her enormous blue lakes of eyeballs upon me and implored; “Am I beautiful, mummy? Are my eyes pretty? I don’t think my eyebrows are beautiful though.”

THERE’S a gut wrencher for two parents who try really hard to get across the value of the heart rather than the face. There are a million places she could have gotten such a question; the songs we listen to and sing, conversations overheard, even the quite carefully chosen stuff we watch and read. But, you know what, I think the way adults interact with her is a big part of it.

Barely a day passes where someone doesn’t comment on her outfit or hair or prettiness.

Please don’t.

Please don’t greet my daughter by exulting her beauty. She IS beautiful, just as many rosy cheeked kiddos are, but she has enough indicators rushing at her all day about how wrongly important this is- it doesn’t need to be confirmed by friends, family and strangers.

I know how hard it is though- giving a compliment feels like a great instant rapport builder- I so often point out what a cool hoody my nephews are wearing as a way of engaging them. It’s especially hard not to exclaim about an outfit when the toddler has clearly dressed themselves and is wearing two frocks over pyjamas and a Santa Hat.

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My advice is to go prepared. When you know you are visiting nephews/ grandchildren/ friends with kids deliberately avoid “Cool Jumper!” and “What pretty hair!” and have some other possibilities in your mind for rapport.

How was your journey here? I got the bus and there was loads of traffic!

How has your day been today?

What animals do you like? I love elephants the most.

Are you reading many books these days?

Who’s this dude? (Referring to the teddy/ action figure they may be holding.)

Mostly though, a simple Hello will do and more natural interactions can come a bit later, as you and this child get more comfortable with each other.

If you are wondering what possible harm a little “Aren’t you gorgeous!” can do – particularly when it is common for adults to compliment each other on their appearance – consider the TV programme Fat Talk. Cameras followed school kids around for a while as they did a simple experiment that involved avoiding ALL talk of body descriptions and compliments. The results were stark- the teenagers felt much, much better about themselves when it was all avoided- even compared to receiving really positive feedback on their image.

It’s not that the word “beautiful” needs to be yanked out of our vocabulary – not at all. I’m not sure there is a parent out there who hasn’t looked at their child and, with a heart bursting with love, spontaneously erupted with a proclamation of their beauty! But in this setting, where people have a close relationship with the child and all manner of things are spoken of, it exists as just one strand of a child’s intricately woven existence. Their physicalness sits next to their kindness, their rambunctiousness, their humour, their insightfulness- whatever other factors of that child’s personality there are, rather than being the primary strand always and constantly commented on.

So please, think twice about commenting on a child’s appearance.

I’ll do my part as a parent and will put The Little Mermaid audiobook in the bin. I will take seriously conversations with Ramona about marketing and advertising and we will don our open yet critiquing hats when it comes to stereotyped fairy tales and films.

Perhaps together we might be able to stave off body insecurity for a few more years at least.

PS For more parenting/ travelling / thrifty blogging follow through Facebook or Bloglovin

Parenting

Shared Paternity Leave: Let the Mad Men stay home

2 December, 2013

One of the best parenting decisions Tim and I ever made was to share our employment and stay-at-home- parenting equally. After a long maternity leave- 14 months- I went back to work for 2.5 days and Tim reduced his days to 2.5. It worked perfectly; we both enjoyed solo time in adult environments and both got to spend quality time with Ramona. Ramona continued to breastfeed when I was around, we learnt how to hold a more linear conversation again and our status as co-parents, equal to Ramona in everything, was consolidated.
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Just last week the government announced new plans for shared paternity leave. Fathers have been able to share leave with a mother for a couple of years now but new policies make the arrangement more flexible and could mean far more parents take it up. Policies like these, and workplaces that allow flexible working such as mine and Tim’s arrangement are VITAL for gender equality in the workplace and at home.

But what is actually like for a couple who share their parental leave? Here I speak to my colleague, Ian, who also writes beautifully at Royal Blue Baby, about what it was like taking over the full time parenting of the “precious one” after six months. As he points out, workplaces are still structured around gender roles from the Mad Men era and this must change.

What made you decide to share parental leave?

The precious one’s mum is quite organised so we were chatting about it before the first scan. I hadn’t really pondered what it would be like to spend so much time washing up pink garish plastic things in a sink, so I just thought “Yeah, sounds like fun. Why not?” Besides being up for a challenge we both know that we’re lucky to have been able to make the choice, but the main thing was that we see parenting as a partnership. And I thought it’d be fun and different.

Was there a single moment that made you realise you wanted to do it?

Not really. As I say, I’d committed to it like you might respond when someone suggests a pint or two a week on Wednesday. But I knew I wanted to do it as it just seemed like a fantastic chance to experience something that a few years ago I never thought I’d do.

How did your work respond to the request?

I was lucky. People have said to me that it would be career suicide where they work but for me my manager was especially supportive. He’d done something similar when his son was little as he’d been a free lancer and built his work around caring for his son. He almost ushered me out the door. Weird.

How did you find it amongst the community baby activities? We hear horror stories of dads being made to feel alienated at Mums and Tots…

People ask this a lot. I hear stories but I haven’t experienced it. Before I went on leave I was adamant I wouldn’t be a joiner-inner but then whether it was for my sanity, for his development or just to stop being housebound, I went to stuff. Whether at baby college or music groups and the like and I never had a bad experience. Although I preferred structured play to a glorified toy room in the days before he was truly mobile. That’s not to say that people were always coming up to me and giving me hugs and firm handshakes as I strode through the door radiating modern man. They weren’t.

Lots of times I went to things and sat on the periphery but I never thought I was being picked on. Often I’d go to groups and people clearly knew each other. I never expected that I’d jump into the middle of a group and start telling them all about my travails with the precious one. In most situations people talk to the people they know. Often I wasn’t bothered about swapping stories about poo and sleep. Sometimes I would meet people and chat. I’m pretty relaxed about it when I go to things. Now he’s fully mobile I go to a play group most Friday’s and I know the odd person, sometimes people offer me a brew and sometimes they don’t. I’m not always trying to make friends so I’ve always concluded it’s about my attitude as well as other peoples.

PS – “mums and tots” how sexist. “Parents groups” “primary carers and kids” please!

There is one particular group of people who suggest that under threes should never leave their mum, as even their dad doesn’t have the same instinctive response to a child. How would you respond to them? Did you feel any deep down instincts kicking in?

I never met those people at play group (maybe they alienate the dads?) I had great fun with the precious one and I think that he did too. He seems to have survived as happy as he always was. I think that this touches on the most profound change that me taking over at the six months mark had on our family. At first neither of you know what you’re doing, then you start fumbling along and then the mother surges ahead as she is spending so much time with the baby. Then, and I think this is visible in 99% of parental couples – you kind of fall into a pattern where the woman becomes the project manager and the man the project officer. Sure, I was “hands on” and getting stuck in to the tasks but it’s the woman who knows when they need sleep, food or if they’re just a bit miffed about something. I don’t think that’s instinct as much as experience – especially from having that daily ongoing close contact. So, after we swapped it only took a few weeks (as they change all the time) for us to become much more equal and in many ways I started making the calls.

I don’t think we would have got to that point if I hadn’t taken the leave. I don’t think of it as a release of some ancient instinct, more I just really didn’t want anything bad to happen on my watch.

Men would say to me “I couldn’t do that.” And clearly some women think men are hampered by their penises but I just don’t see it. Anyone can do it – it’s not like a cryptic crossword.

What were you favourite bits about taking paternity leave?

I learned to be comfortable with an Orla Kiely bag. I danced to the Spice girls with nine women that I’d never met (and babies!). As well as those self-perception changing memories, it was such a good chance to do something totally different and be challenged in a new way. I loved being in charge and the stuff I said above about what that meant.

Once the winter ended and he got mobile the two of us did lots of midweek road trips to friends and families – that was loads of fun. I think people were surprised to see me as a self-sufficient parent. I also think that without his mum being there friends felt more able to get involved with bathing and bottles and sleep. The two of us loved it and I love seeing him hanging about with old friends.

Do you feel there might be any long term benefits from it?

Definitely – I think it’s changed my perspective about work and family. And I think the precious one is quite relaxed about spending time with both of us. It’s hard to say about specific things as its more that it’s totally changed our family dynamic. I would recommend it to anyone who can.

What is your situation now?

Now we’re both at work doing four days and he goes to nursery for three. So we both still get our time with him individually and our time together. Plus we get the break from the sterile sanity of office life. In truth, I was ready to go back so I like this balance. He also loves nursery and is gutted on the days when he doesn’t go.

Do you feel you have a totally equal parental partnership?

I think so. We both bring different things to it. I’m the strict one. I play a bit rougher but we’re both comfortable taking on the main role. If one of us goes away with work the other knows what they’re doing and he is fine with it.

I feel that policies like this could have an enormous impact on gender equality both in the workplace and the home. What do you reckon?

Absolutely. I think we’ve got so far to go – if you look at the low pick up – to change the culture but getting the policy in place is a starting point. Having a better balance in how we care for our children in a world where most couples need to both be in work is so important. It’ll be great for women who want careers but it will also help men claim their right to be involved with their family and I can’t see how it can do anything but good for the child.

What else do workplaces and government policies need to do to generate gender equality amongst parents?

It’ll take a while. It’s how you shift the culture and who will drive that shift. Most businesses are run by middle aged men who often have sacrificed their family for career, it’s unlikely they’ll push it. For women who might have sacrificed career for family they can easily resent it. It’s one of those areas where our generation is saying to our parents generation, we want to do it differently. That means that shift will probably be clunky and take time.

One of the interesting reactions that I got from a lot of women before I went on leave was, “do you think she’ll still agree to it when the time comes.” And “I wouldn’t let my husband.” Which was symptomatic of a wider sense that is the woman’s leave and I was muscling in. That’s what has to change.

I was chatting with a friend of mine who has just gone back to work and we agreed that we were both surprised that how to manage family and work is so low down on public discourse. Essentially office life was designed in the days of Mad Men and despite all the changes over time we’re still confined to a largely 9-5 go to a certain place model. It’s not compatible with a young family. Change this and then (wo)men can have it all!

Finally…… Would you do it again?

I will be in a few short months time.

Thanks Ian! I reckon sharing the stay-at-home parenting role is the least mad thing a man could do. It’s most often better for the family and society when parents can do this.

I’d love to hear from readers- what is your situation? How does it effect your experience as equal co- parents? What do you think needs to change in order to attain gender equality at home and in the workplace?