The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting


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I thought children were hard work – until I got a puppy…

I have wanted a dog for as long as I can remember. Ever since I was read The Famous Five books at the age of four and went through a phase of making everyone call me George, I longed for a Timmy of my own – companionable, eager to please, and ever willing to help me out of trouble.

In my childhood, as the younger daughter of two self-confessed cat people, it was not to be. Not until my late thirties, mother of two young children myself, did my dream became reality.

Just days after convincing O that the time was right to add (yet) another animal to our menagerie, I saw a photograph of a small black puppy in a rescue shelter and fell in love. A month later, the Hound joined our family.

Three months on, I have come to the conclusion that Enid Blyton never owned a dog. Where, in all 26 increasingly tedious volumes of The Famous Five, is the part where Timmy is returned by anxious neighbours having wriggled through a hole in the fence and been discovered galloping at large through neighbouring farmland? In which book does he come home from a solo adventure that involved the discovery of someone else’s recycling crate and concluded with the shredding and scattering of several empty bottles and boxes across the lawn? When does Timmy find a dead pigeon in the woods and, when it is taken away and buried, immediately sniff it out and dig it up again, returning triumphant to disembowel it on the kitchen floor? Would that be the same non-existent week in which he destroyed an UGG boot, a pair of Crocs, and a Hunter welly?

In fact, as I have come to discover, the only realistic thing about Timmy is how much George loves him and how much Uncle Quentin initially doesn’t. Because love him we do. (O has yet to admit to it, but I know he does.) But that love doesn’t stop me wishing several times a day that I’d never seen his photo in the first place.

As a first-time dog owner, I underestimated just how hard it is to bring up a puppy. I might even go so far as to say that the Hound is harder work than the Heir and the Spare. There are many similarities – needing plenty of food and exercise, a love of water, mud, sticks and general havoc, and constant determination to explore all the places I wish they wouldn’t. They charge through their waking hours and then suddenly fall asleep as though a switch has been flicked in their brains. They bring me “gifts” – from the Heir and Spare it might be a handful of earthworms or a fragment of unidentified animal jawbone found in a ditch, while the Hound recently brought me the very desiccated remains of a mole before he changed his mind and decided to keep it as a snack. When he first arrived, I determined that he would be the one male in our household who actually listened to me. That was wishful thinking.

Despite the upheaval, when I look at the puppy with my sons my heart melts. I’m a firm believer in the myriad benefits of children growing up with pets, and even after so short a time, the Heir, Spare and Hound have formed deep bonds. Sure, the boys get irritated when the puppy steals their tennis balls and turns whatever they were playing into a game of chase, or chews up Lego pieces left lying around, but their annoyance is laced with amused tolerance. Daily, I watch them gaining confidence in their handling and control of him (in so much as he can be controlled) and the greeting both boys and dog give each other every morning and after school each day is heart-warming. Sometimes it seems as though they love the dog more than they care for each other.

To an extent, I have taken the duties of dog ownership away from the Heir and Spare, leaving them with the fun parts. This was a deliberate decision. I plan gradually to delegate increasing responsibility to them as time passes and they become more mature, but at present I want them single-mindedly to enjoy dog ownership. To this end, I am the one who feeds him, walks him during the week and picks up his poo, and I do the lion’s share of his training, although they both help to reinforce this. I prefer it this way – it was my decision to get a dog.

When the Hound first arrived the Spare – then aged five – was quite intimidated by his bounciness and puppy biting. It has been wonderful to watch him relax and welcome interactions with the Hound. The Heir, a future Steve Backshall, rarely fears any creature, but it has been a learning curve for him getting the Hound to stop seeing him as another puppy. It was hard at first, as he just wanted to cuddle and play, but the Heir becoming more authoritative has helped cement the Hound’s place at the bottom of the pecking order but in the heart of our family.

One thing I had not anticipated is the extent to which having a dog restricts your activities as a family. We haven’t renewed our Merlin passes because dogs are obviously not welcome at places like Legoland and Alton Towers. (Secretly I am grateful for the excuse, but it is disappointing for the boys and O.) Even our National Trust membership hangs in the balance, as dogs are not allowed in a lot of areas. Unfortunately, these prohibited areas are usually the ones the boys most want to go to.

Staying away from home overnight requires more planning because so many places don’t allow dogs. Even staying with family and friends becomes more difficult because most houses are not puppy-proofed. On a recent visit to my sister and her family, we kept the puppy corralled using baby gates until he worked out how to wriggle over them, after which we had to watch him like a hawk to stop him chewing shoes and toys, or thieving food from the kitchen. I have yet to take him to stay with my parents. Their two cats have never forgiven me for having children and I fear that the presence of the Hound, whose abiding passion is the pursuit of small furry creatures, might push them over the edge.

Yet for every door that is closed by dog ownership, another, wider, one opens. We have lived here for seven years yet in the last three months, because we have to take the Hound out daily, we have discovered dozens of glorious new walks. Every weekend now includes lovely family treks offering new trees for climbing and new rivers to paddle in. Dogs provide a conversational icebreaker and through the Hound we have cemented friendships with other dog owners and discovered a welcoming community that we never even knew existed.

As I type this the Hound is flat out on the kitchen floor. On the sofa, one foot resting on the shiny back of his new best friend, an equally tired Heir is playing Minecraft on his iPad. He was anxious when he came home from school today, because another child had been unkind, but the physical closeness of the puppy seems to have calmed him. At the kitchen table the Spare is reluctantly finishing his homework. Scattered around the room are the chewed remains of a letter from Inland Revenue and several dirty socks which the Hound has relocated from the washing machine. For once, there is peace, and I embrace it. This is our new normal and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


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Well done Serena – but please, folks, don’t expect us all to do that

So Serena Williams won the Australian Open when she was eight weeks pregnant. Good for her. I did something amazing in the first trimester, too: some days, I even got out of bed.

When I look back on my early pregnancies, especially the second one, there are no sporting achievements to remember. Instead, there is exhaustion: leaden-bone exhaustion. And there is puke. A lot of it.

Some snapshots. Hanging over the loo, my head actually in the bowl, vomit in my hair, knowing that if I made myself lift my head up, I could be sick again and buy myself maybe five minutes’ relief from the all-pervading nausea, but too miserable even to do that. Stopping on the way to work to be sick behind a bin in central Edinburgh. (Yep, classy as hell.) Standing in front of a room of students, my goals narrowing from the usual criteria of being as engaging and informative as possible, to the simple aim of getting through the class without spewing on them.

And then, the second time round, constant guilt – through the constant sorry-for-myselfness – that I had so little time or energy for my adorable toddler.

It wasn’t a happy time, however happy the end result. So why recall it now? Certainly not to denigrate Serena Williams: about as inspirational a woman as you could hope to find, with reserves of talent, strength and endurance I can barely imagine. But when I hear stories like that, while part of me thinks “Fantastic” and “Aren’t women amazing?” there’s also a part that thinks: “Oh God, here we go.” Because here’s another reason for some men (and even some women who breezed through it) to accuse those who us who found pregnancy a body-invading ordeal, of malingering. (And yep, there are plenty of them out there: just check out the charmers here or here.)

Trust me, we weren’t. If you want to know what pregnancy is like, for those who get it hard, think of the worst hangover you’ve ever had. The horrible, all-consuming nausea. Only it doesn’t go away. For months and months. Then imagine you also have flu, so lifting your arms and legs is like doing weights. Even standing up for more than a few minutes is touch and go. Then envisage trying to get through your days without more than a handful of people knowing that you feel like this. Because of course you haven’t hit the magic 12 weeks yet. And I’m just talking ordinary bad pregnancy sickness: not the back-in-hospital for dehydration kind.

So yes, all credit to Serena, and to Alysia Montaño running an 800m race at 34 weeks pregnant, and all the other women who continue to achieve great things while they are growing another person. But personally I found it more helpful when the Duchess of Cambridge spoke out about her experience of hyperemesis gravidarum, than I do all the current raving about “what woman can do”.

Yes, of course I’d take Serena as a role model for my girls any day, especially over a woman whose entire career is being married to a prince. But when I saw pictures of Kate trying to smile and get through an awards show, I felt less alone. I knew that she, too, must just be thinking: “Please don’t puke, please don’t puke.” The more honesty there is about how hard those early months can be, the less pressure women feel under to pretend everything is just fine. The more we might feel it’s OK to tell people, and to take time off. And the less excuse any partners will have for that oh-so-understanding phrase: “Making a fuss.”


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Parenting in dark times

With my more direct hat on, I’d call this post: ‘How to be a good parent when the world is turning to sh*t.’

My girls are still small, so I didn’t face the immediate challenge many parents did on November 9. I didn’t have to explain to them what the hell had just happened or why Daddy and I were using quite so many bad words. Nor did I have to tell them why we and a group of fellow parents were drinking too much and boycotting all media last Friday night. (On June 24, I did try to tell Little A – in three-year-old-friendly terms – why I wasn’t at my best. However, her only response was to demand a snack, so it seems safe to assume she didn’t grasp my real opinion of Brexit.)

But as I ask myself how I’m going to bring my daughters up – as I stare into the gulf between the world they look set to inherit and the one I want them to live in – I figure I have challenges enough. We all do.

I want my girls to believe in human equality regardless of race or religion: to believe in it at so deep a level that they don’t even have think about believing it. I want them to empathise with refugees as desperate fellow human beings, not fear them as a rabid alien force hell-bent on stealing jobs and bombing cities. Yes, Theresa, I want my daughters to be citizens of the world and proud of it.

How do I teach them these things when it seems to have become OK to be openly racist? When being anti-Muslim can get you, oh, all the way to the White House. When there are violent attacks on Poles living in the UK? When some of my own friends and colleagues have been verbally abused for not being British? I want to bring up compassionate, loving human beings, but there is so much that will teach them to hate.

I also want to bring up confident women. I want it never even to occur to my girls that they aren’t as good as boys. I want them to value themselves for themselves. I want them to grasp the future with ambition and confidence. How can I do that when the newly appointed ‘leader of the free world’ has been caught on video boasting of serial groping? (FFS: his idea of a compliment to his own daughter is to say that if she weren’t his daughter, he might be dating her.) How can they not see this as a man’s world when that same self-proclaimed ‘grabber of pussies’ has just signed a bill to jeopardise women’s reproductive rights and put their lives at risk across the globe?

How can I look forward to the future for my children – let alone their children – when the life that people like me have been living for generations has comprehensively screwed up the planet? When for one major step forward (Paris climate deal), we have another lurch back into the fossil fuel dark ages. (Yep, him again. That man with the terrifying politics.) How do I – how can I – explain that to them?

Of course, I’m writing this from a position of massive advantage: even having time and scope to ponder these dilemmas, in itself, a kind of luxury. I know parents across the world are struggling to bring up their children in war zones or in famine. I cannot imagine the terror they face. Even in this country, there are mothers and fathers struggling to put meals on the table. When I kiss my girls goodnight, I’m not worrying about whether I can feed them tomorrow or whether our home will be taken out by a bomb. I know how lucky that makes me. But these concerns of mine are real, for all that.

So this is what I think I should do. Since this is one of the rare occasions when my professional life (as a climate ethicist) gives me some kind of claim to know what I’m taking about in this blog, I’ll go further: this is what I think we, as parents, should do.

We shouldn’t accept this bleak future. We had our children, so we owe it to them to leave them a decent society and a planet which hasn’t been totally trashed. Start with climate change. We can fight for our children by acting together. Marching, lobbying, petitioning, giving to environmental causes, supporting renewables, joining global movements for action. Locally, nationally, globally. We can show our own commitment to that change by changing what we do ourselves. (Drive less, fly less, use renewable energy, eat less meat and dairy. Etc.) Yes, many parents are short on spare cash – let alone spare time – but there’s almost always going to be something you can do.

And think about it this way: there are an awful lot of parents out there. That’s a lot of voters, a lot of consumers, a lot of potential givers to charity, or signers-up to living sustainably. If we used the voice we have together (Mumsnet, any takers?) maybe someone would listen.

If we think we should bring up our children to care about other people and the world they live in, that doesn’t change just because the ‘bad guys’ are in charge. It makes it more urgent. If society will tell our children that it’s acceptable – even patriotic – to be racist, or that women shouldn’t be presumptuous enough to want control over their own bodies, we have to keep on telling them otherwise, louder. And showing them. If we want them to grow up as strong women or as men who respect women, we have to be the strong female role model they need, or the male feminist. If we want them to be compassionate, we should make sure they see us having the courage of our convictions: supporting the victims of violence or discrimination, helping refugees, donating to food banks, campaigning for change.

And of course, we have to do all this without scaring them with too many of the dismal facts, too early. They need space to be children, too, and to grow up at their own pace.

So it’s a tall order. But it’s not all bleak, the picture we have to show our children. Yes, those who are old enough to understand will have to know about Trump, about UKIP, about institutionalised climate change denial, xenophobia, and sexism. But we can point them to the Earth2Trump movement, to the ‘Bridges not Walls’ and ‘Love Trumps Hope’ banners all over the world last Friday, to those who have opened their homes to refugees, to the Women’s Rights Marches and their vocal, visible support from women and men. Yes, too many mothers had to explain to their daughters how a man with no experience and horrifying opinions won the presidency over a much better qualified woman. But they could also have reminded them of the many great female role models and success stories out there, from politicians to activists, sportswomen to scientists.

We should also remember that we have a huge resource in our hands, as parents. Our children are not only the people who will live in this un-brave new world: they are the ones who will, in a generation’s time, be reshaping it. We are bringing up the citizens of the future: the ones who will hopefully do a better job than we have. As well as being scared, maybe we should be a bit excited by that.


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My family and other people: The impossible task of parenting in public

I see her all the time: my pre-motherhood self. I see her in unimpressed strangers if my three year-old launches a ‘BUT I WANT IT’ rage over some withheld treat, or the baby wails in her buggy on the bus. I see her in the man whose face falls when we sit next to him on the train. I even see flashes of her in the café owner whose frozen smile and barbed comments have left my girls and me effectively ASBO’d. Most of all, I saw her in the student who spent an entire carol service glaring at the two families in the row behind: four harassed and (initially) apologetic parents, two wriggling and vocal toddlers, and a baby I was trying to breastfeed under my coat so she didn’t scream the place down.

Ten, twenty years ago, I couldn’t bear it when children had snot running down their face. My internal monologues on the people who ‘let’ their children scream during weddings were a masterclass in intolerance. I used to wonder why parents whose babies kept me awake on a plane weren’t marching them up and down the aisle from take-off to landing. I would have loved the latest transport innovation: child-free zones.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like children. I adored my little cousins and later my nephews and friends’ children. But I thought parenting was just a matter of doing it the right way. I thought badly behaved kids = terrible parents. I failed altogether to grasp two simple truths. 1) Children are their own people. 2) You’re so desperately tired – from the start of pregnancy until, well, forever probably – that it’s impossible to follow even the simplest rules.

Calm but firm, I thought, looking superiorly around at all the uncalm, unfirm parents and rampant children around me. That’s all it takes. Now I wish I could go spiralling back through the decades and chant at my former self: ‘Calm but firm. Calm but firm. CALM BUT FIRM. Ha ha ha ha ha.’ Then I’d go round apologising on her behalf.

Of course, I still judge other people’s parenting. (Be honest: we all do it.) But I’ve got a whole new margin of tolerance, and a whole new realm of understanding. There is some bad parenting – there is some shockingly awful parenting – but there are a lot more parents who are trying their best, even if that isn’t always obvious to the childfree bystander.

I understand, now, that the four year-old sprinting up and down the train carriage has probably been allowed to do that because she’ll yell herself silly otherwise. I know if you are only going two bus stops more, it’s not worth wresting the baby out of the buggy to calm her down. I understand that the mother clutching her wailing infant on a plane may be too exhausted from a zillion sleepless nights to stand, never mind walk. I know the baby may be teething, or have sore ears.

I know that snotty-nosed mite’s parents probably did just wipe it, because I am now horribly familiar with the incredible speed and volume of toddler snot production. (Scientists should really be trying to replicate it as an energy source.) I realise it’s at least a possibility that the happy couple asked parents not to remove their noisy offspring from the wedding ceremony. (Although I’m still kind of with younger-me on that one: I whisk my own babies out at the first squeak, with the result that the only wedding service T. and I have sat through together since A. was born was the one with the no children rule.)

Now I think why on earth have a kids’ menu if you don’t want actual – living, breathing, moving – children in your café. (Faced recently with a notice on a restaurant indicating that children were welcome only if they were quiet and still, my sister and and I laughed out loud and took our hungry brood elsewhere.) I realise that parents have to do some of the things they enjoy with their little monsters in tow. It’s that or have no life. And why the hell not? It’s crucial bonding. Plus children are part of society – even if some commentators seem to forget that – and get as much if not more out of museums, galleries, parks and holidays as we do.

Most of all, I understand just how hard it can be to say ‘no’ to a small person who has your heart firmly gripped in their little fist. And I know how bad you can feel when you give in to those disapproving stares and end up being stricter than you actually think is fair.

But that doesn’t mean it should be a free-for-all. If we expect tolerance, we have to show some consideration. As parents, we’re not always good at that. We are all too inclined to think the world should revolve around our children, and that they are so cute that everyone should be prepared to overlook even the most outrageous behaviour. (People are much the same with their dogs, I’ve noticed, and it is every bit as misjudged there.)

Why should the childfree should have to put up with all the noise and mess that goes with being around small children, when they don’t get the amazing, intangible positive stuff that we get from parenting? It’s not like we do them a favour by having children. (In fact, as an environmentalist, I feel like I should thank anyone who chooses not to.) Maybe we should remember that more often than we manage to do, caught up in those day-to-day exhaustions and petty battles.

There’s a line somewhere between letting your toddler stand up on the bus seat to chat to the passengers behind, and watching her drag all the books off the shelves in a shop; between handing out ‘I’m sorry’ goody bags to fellow passengers the minute you step onto the plane, and sitting silently while your progeny throw food and pull hair all journey. And, of course, there are venues and venues. Anyone who has had a special occasion meal out ruined by someone else’s running, shouting child is entitled to be pissed off. But it’s just plain stupid to take a laptop into a ‘yummy mummy’ café and expect peace and quiet to work.

As for me, I like to think I have some intuitive idea of where that fine line lies between being over-restrictive to my girls and inconsiderate to others. But I still fall off it, on one side or the other, on an almost daily basis.


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Overprotective parenting: not always a bad thing

Once upon a time a mother took her sons to a busy, rural playground. The older boy (aged three) played while his baby brother was confined to a pushchair. After a few minutes the little one demanded his mother’s attention and, in giving it to him, she took her eyes off her older boy for about 45 seconds. When she looked up again, he had vanished from sight.

Snatching the baby out of his pushchair, she ran around the playground fruitlessly calling. Realising he wasn’t there, she sprinted down the short hillside to the tree-banked steam in the valley. The little boy was paddling in the knee-deep water, oblivious to the angst he had caused.

Several potential alternative endings to that story make my heart go cold. I was lucky. I had not been attentive enough, and if anything terrible had happened to the Heir, it would have been my own fault. Yes, I stopped watching him for less than a minute, but even a few seconds can be too long.

The Heir is now seven years old and (usually) less prone to running off, but I still struggle to find a balance that allows him and his brother some independence whilst not taking undue risks. How much freedom should, indeed can, we safely allow our children? What risks, if any, should we encourage them to take?

For me there is a distinction between necessary and unnecessary risks. The former are those that we must allow our children to take in order to enable them to grow up independent, physically and emotionally confident and able to thrive in adulthood. On the other hand are unnecessary risks, to which we expose them through carelessness or inattentiveness, or for our own trivial convenience.

Some parents seem just plain stupid and make decisions the rest of us can only shudder at. Take the woman on holiday in Benidorm who allegedly left her nine year old twin boys to find their own way back to their apartment while she went out on the town. Her children survived unharmed (physically at least), but they might easily not have done. In another misjudged case – however much one might sympathise with their sentiment – it is hard to understand the Japanese parents who left their son alone in a bear-inhabited wood as punishment, only to return and find him gone.

However, it isn’t always so clear-cut. Sometimes, an avoidable error of judgement can end in tragedy. Do I believe that Madeleine McCann’s parents were to blame what happened to their daughter? Absolutely not. Would I ever have left my sleeping children in an apartment and gone out for supper in a nearby restaurant? No way in the world. Likewise, is anyone accountable in the horrific July incident where an alligator drowned a toddler as he paddled in a lagoon?

I accept that there will inevitably be situations beyond my control. However, there are many that I can and should influence. I never assume that anyone else, be they friend, grandparent, or lifeguard, has responsibility for my child unless specifically agreed. Unlike some of my contemporaries, I would never, even briefly, leave a sleeping baby unattended in the car. Instead, I scoured the area for “pay at pump” petrol stations and always lugged the unwieldy baby seat into the shop for a pint of milk.

When the Heir was a baby and toddler, I was obsessive when he was eating, never turning my back lest he should choke. At the playground I would be just behind him on the steep steps up to the slide, or begging my husband not to push him too high on the swing. I was sometimes accused of being overprotective and worrying too much, which made me question my judgement as a mother.

As the boys have grown more mature I have been able to adapt my approach, letting them take more risks and be more independent. Ironically, at times I now find myself the victim of other parents’ anxieties about my sons’ adventurousness and my acceptance – even encouragement – of it. I fear that to parents whose approach differs wildly from my own I can appear irresponsible. I can understand this – in our health and safety obsessed society we aren’t exactly encouraged to evaluate and take risks. However, I’m trying my best to stick to the distinction between necessary and unnecessary risks, and it seems to me that some are necessary.

My more relaxed approach is still within limits. I let the boys play out of sight at home, but not in public places, where there is the possibility of undesirables lurking with malicious intent. They may not ride a bike, scooter or pony without a crash helmet, neither do I let them play in or near water without a responsible adult present. These constraints they accept with good grace; others less so. I am extremely concerned about letting them go into public toilets unaccompanied. The Heir, now seven, is especially indignant, but I insist they come into the Ladies with me if their father is not with us. I don’t know what the accepted age for this is, but at the moment I am just not comfortable with it. These things (and many others) are non-negotiable.

Elsewhere, I have learned to be flexible. I allow them to climb trees of their choice, but have taught them how to do so safely, to judge if a tree is suitable for an attempted assault and to ensure they can make their own way back to the ground. In the swimming pool they love nothing better than to be flung high into the air by their father, to come crashing down into the water. I watch mutely with my heart in my mouth, mentally running through all the awful things that could happen.

Yes, I am regularly pushed outside my comfort zone, and the inbuilt maternal obsession with protecting my children from harm. But I cannot, and will not, wrap them up in cotton wool for the sake of soothing my own mind. If I am too protective during childhood, in later life they will be ill equipped to deal with the harsh realities of the world. I applaud campaigners in Canada, whose determination to reintroduce the concept of “risky play” has led to the availability of funding for innovative playground schemes.

Our garden is edged by private woodland, so I am very fortunate to be able to allow the Heir and Spare the freedom to explore in a relatively “safe” environment. It is not quite The Famous Five, but free-ranging across an acre of woodland seems a fair compromise in a world where children need to develop skills for adult life whilst avoiding the unknown but real threats that fill their parents with semi-permanent fear.

When I reflect on their early years, or wonder if at times I am still overprotective, I remember the words of my great aunt, an experienced paediatrician, when I confided my worries. “There is no such thing as overprotective,” she told me. “With all the worst accidents I saw in my professional life, the parents said: ‘But I only took my eyes off them for a second.’”


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Educating not fat-shaming: parenting and body image

“Mummy, are you fat?”
“Er- I don’t know. Do you think I am?”
“Yes.”

And so my daughter, aged nearly three, moved effortlessly into the world of female body preoccupation. (In terms of tact, though, she takes after her father.) Reading about the influence of childhood on body image, I’m now wondering how worried I should be.

Apparently, if we call our daughters fat, they are more likely to grow up with body image problems, whatever their size. Well, duh. But they are also less likely to have a “healthy” BMI, making such comments as ineffective as they are unkind. Other research warns us that trying to control our children’s diet, commenting at all – even positively – on their weight, or otherwise encouraging them to pursue thinness, could be setting them up for a future of insecurity. That’s for girls and boys.

So we need to be careful what we say. I hope it’s obvious that you don’t make disparaging comments about your child’s weight once they’re old enough to understand. (And certainly not when they’re an impressionable adolescent.) But beyond that, I’m not quite sure what we should be doing, or just how early all this starts.

Am I wrong to exclaim over the delicious chunkiness of our younger daughter, aged nearly 11 months? Should T. and stop referring to her (adoringly) as the “small fat one”? I can’t imagine it’ll harm her – we’ll stop before she knows what we are saying – but are we sending the wrong message to her big sister? Or is it OK because we’re countering the prevailing thin-is-best mentality? (“I’m kissing her chubby little arm,” Little A. announced the other day, cutely but – in light of this research – disconcertingly.)

I’m also stuck on how not to control my children’s diet in a bad way, whilst also doing all the things I’m supposed to be doing to control it. Because let’s not forget that other thing we are always reminded to worry about: childhood obesity. Of course, we can make sure we provide mostly healthy food, don’t make a big deal about the odd biscuit, and encourage our boys and girls to enjoy running, jumping, and generally rampaging. But I need to be able to explain myself when my daughter wants chocolate buttons every night instead of broccoli, and I don’t give them to her.

I get that, “Don’t eat that, it’ll turn you into a porker”, is out, but what about: “It’s bad for you to eat too much of that”? According to one researcher, that’s out too. Which seems very limiting. Of course we shouldn’t tell our children to be thin, but presumably we can and must encourage them to be healthy, and that’s got to involve some education about different foods.

I could always imitate a couple of my friends and appeal directly to the effects (positive or negative) of certain foods, in a non-weight related way. “Eat this fish, it’ll make you clever.” “No, you can’t have that drink. The sweeteners always make you behave like a maniac.” Etc. I’m also hoping that teaching my girls to enjoy cooking food as well as eating it is a positive thing: part of making it a legitimate pleasure. But it’s always going to be a balancing act.

Then there’s the still more difficult task of policing what others say. Can we? Should we? Of course, if they are actually offering insults, or waving pictures of Lindsey Lohan around and asking, “Don’t you want to look like that?” But what about the family friend who mock-stumbles and says, “Oh, aren’t you getting heavy?” as they throw your child into the air? It’s meant jokingly, even affectionately, but I wonder how young is too old to say that to a child.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but this troubles me especially for girls, scarily high proportions of whom already worry about their size. It can’t take long for our daughters to pick up that “You’ve lost weight,” is pretty much the ultimate compliment in the adult female world. Or that they never hear their mothers telling each other that they look great because they’ve put weight on.

Which brings me, of course, to the real challenge. It’s not just about what we and those around us say to our children. It’s not even just about what we do (or don’t) encourage them to do. It’s also about what they see us doing, and hear us saying to one another.  If we constantly comment on our own and each other’s weight, if we spend our lives dieting, we’re setting them up for body insecurity. And, hopefully, if we enjoy a range of food, exercise, and generally don’t make a thing of it, then they will have a better chance of following suit. Again, duh. But that doesn’t make it easy to carry out.

I don’t diet. That’s simple, since I made promised myself several years ago to stop wasting my life on such a futile occupation, and reinforced that when it came to the baby weight second time round. But I do have some spectacularly unhealthy food habits I don’t want to pass on, starting with an inability to eat anything cake or chocolate-related in moderation. If my girls pick up my chocolate binges but not my love of cycling, they will not only not be thin – which doesn’t matter – but not be healthy. Which does. And even if they are, that all or nothing approach to sweet treats has its roots in a food-as-sin mentality that I wish I could unlearn.

So for me – as I expect for many mothers – demonstrating a healthier attitude to food means quietly re-examining some of my own eating patterns. But it also means shedding a lifetime of insidious little phrases. “I shouldn’t, but I will.” “Oh, OK then: I’ll be naughty.” “I won’t. I’m trying to be good.” All of which tell our daughters that food is something they should feel bad about enjoying, and so, almost certainly, make them think about it all the more. And which tell our sons, if not the same, then at least that that’s what they should expect from the women in their lives.

It’s going to be a struggle. But it’s one worth trying, for my daughters. For the record, when Little A. said I was fat, I laughed and said I thought I was a pretty normal size but that it didn’t matter anyway. I don’t know if that was the ideal response, but it was the best I could manage at the time.


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The rise and rise of online competitive parenting

All is quiet. Not the ominous stillness of earlier when, somewhere out of sight and earshot, the Heir and the Spare were wreaking untold havoc, but that blissful, relaxing silence that occurs only when they are sound asleep in bed.

It is time to pour myself a glass of wine and congratulate myself on not having poured myself a glass of wine up until now.

It is time to look at Facebook and immediately wish I hadn’t.

Because, after a day when nothing has gone right, one thing guaranteed to make you feel even worse is a newsfeed full of posts by other parents showcasing what a wonderful relationship they have with their perfectly behaved children.

Today, someone has posted a picture of their little darling tucking into half a rainbow of fresh veg. Instantly, I feel guilty about having taken the Heir and the Spare to McDonalds.

Somebody else has shared photos of their child’s “art” and I’m ashamed because I would rather eat a pint of gravel than let child + paintbox anywhere near my kitchen.

Next up is another offering from the mum who catalogues her family’s educational after-school forays into the great outdoors and whose children are more wholesome than a box of organic apples. Today, that rankles because the Heir and Spare spent an hour playing Minecraft earlier because I had to bribe them to do their homework. Okay, that’s a lie. It was at least two hours.

Finally, there is an update from a serial offender – a mother whose children appear to work their way through a daily list of chores like little rays of domestic sunshine. Truth is, I find it easier to tidy up myself (or most likely just let it stay messy), but should I worry I am setting my sons up for hardships in later life by not teaching them domestic skills?

Parental brag posts are acceptable, even welcome, if we are talking about the sharing of an occasional, genuinely proud mummy moment. However, serial braggers are up there in my list of Least Favourite Parenting People, along with the one-time friend who told me airily, having returned to work when her baby was four months old, that her maternity leave had been “just like a holiday”. (I was mired in exhaustion, breastmilk and nappies at the time.)

Too many of these posts, and the poster starts to look like the modern equivalent of the stereotypical competitive school gate mum, who asks about your child’s achievements only in order show off the superiority of their own. At best, it’s tiresome. At worst, it’s yet another reason for vulnerable fellow mums to beat themselves up through constant comparison and finding themselves wanting.

Perhaps I’m being unfair, though. Whilst there doubtless are people who post with unfavourable intentions, there’s also the possibility that social media is turning all of us into a new breed of inadvertently competitive parents.

As most people incline towards sharing only the best parts of their lives on social media, it is easy to assume that these perfect moments are representative of the poster’s daily life outside Facebook. But, as a friend recently pointed out, posts on social media show only snapshot moments in that person’s life. Forgetting that we all do the same, suddenly it appears that everyone else is a better/more successful parent and we start to feel insecure about ourselves. So many posts, including completely innocent ones, can be misinterpreted and read as implicit boasts or criticism.

However easy it is to judge and to compare, with such limited information available it is utterly pointless. Maybe the mother who posts pictures of her children eating vegetables is celebrating a year-long battle, hidden from social media, of trying to get her child to eat any food that wasn’t pasta. Maybe the meals she photographs are the only ones where her child eats vegetables at all. Who knows? What I do know is how much easier it is to relate to those more honest parenting posts that share the highs as well as the lows, ideally with a good dose of humour thrown in.

As another friend puts it, “It’s not like anyone posts pictures of their tearstained toddler eating chocolate buttons in front of Peppa Pig with a tagline saying ‘Yep, this is sometimes how I parent.’”

But I think we should.