The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting

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How having a daughter has made me more of a feminist

I’ll start by being clear: I was never not a feminist. But among the things that get me heated – human rights violations, climate change, the barbaric way we treat other animals – the wrongs faced by affluent women in affluent societies were not, until recently, near the top of the list. Yes, they bothered me, but there is only so much energy most of us can devote to being outraged.

Since my daughter was born, however, I’ve found a whole new fount of feminist indignation. I am reminded every time I open a paper or follow a link on Facebook that her life will be harder than it might have been simply because she is a girl. And I find that very hard to bear. What I accepted for myself, if not with resignation, at least with fairly low-grade grumbling – “yes, it’s crap, but it’s nothing compared to Saudi Arabia” – makes me furious, distraught, for her.

It breaks my heart that my bumptious little dot will grow up in a world in which teenage girls accept sexual harassment as normal. That she faces a future in which derogatory language and casually discriminatory behaviour are so pervasive as to have rightly been coined “everyday sexism”. Hell, one in which even female-named hurricanes are apparently granted less respect than male ones. (You don’t believe me? It’s in the Washington Post.)

Unless things change, my daughter will be judged by her looks, whatever she does and whatever she grows up to look like. She will be taught by image after photo-shopped image to regard thinness as a cardinal virtue, and by a production line of twerking Lolitas that sexualisation is the route to success. If she is like her mother – or a scarily large number of her mother’s friends – she will devote years of her youth not to reveling in being young, but to unprofitable and unfavourable comparisons of her own body with those flaunted on billboards and magazine covers; not to enjoying exercise for its own sake, but to one gym membership after another, seeking a shortcut to an unreachable perfection.

No matter how intelligent, how talented, she is, she will find it harder to get up almost any career ladder than she if she had been born a boy. Any visual media career would, almost certainly, have a shelf-life as long as she could present a pretty face and adolescent figure to the world. (Yes, there are exceptions, but they are few and far between.) If she shares the experiences of some even in my own profession – academia – she will regularly be ignored or talked over, with all the insecurity about her own ability that that breeds. If she takes time out to have a family of her own, she will risk (at best) a setback to her own career.

And whatever she achieves in other areas, novel after novel, film after film, magazine after magazine will tell my girl that her life is incomplete until she has been “saved” by that holiest of holy grails: a partner. (Most of them, for that matter, will imply that that partner has to be a man.) If she is like too many of the women of my generation – smart, successful women – she will spend more of her teens and twenties obsessing about her love life than she does relishing her opportunities, her friendships, and the start of her career. All this makes me miserable. And angry.

At the moment, my small daughter is wonderfully oblivious. She’s one of the most boisterous of her little cohort, fighting her male playmates for the plastic slide or baby walker, bashing her father on the head as he carries her down the street, escaping at the world’s fastest toddle from any activity which requires sitting quietly still. But that happy ignorance cannot last.

Something, sometime will dispel it. A chance word from an unthinking adult will alert her to the fact that, like it or lump it, there are different rules for her. I don’t know exactly when, but in a world in which even plastic bricks are gendered, it can’t be too many years away. It might even come from me, if I don’t watch myself, since I’ve found myself occasionally joking that some action or gesture “isn’t very ladylike”. It doesn’t matter now, but it soon will, and I could kick myself. (Her father does better, if only by virtue of his proud approbation for her loudest farts.)

So here, for what it’s worth, is my promise to my little girl. Of course I’m not going to cut her off from all the enjoyable and positive things currently considered “girly”: from playing with dolls to the life-changing wonderfulness of female friendships. But I will not let them define her. I will try, day after day, to contradict what the media, and too much of popular culture, is telling her about how she ought to live and what she ought to be. (And, yes, I would buy dolls for a son, if he wanted them.)

I will buy her toy railways, and proper, build-something-interesting blocks. (None of that pink, make-your-own-beauty-parlour abomination, although she’s welcome to enjoy the new female scientists range.) I will show her videos like this brilliant ad and buy her books where the heroine subverts gender stereotype (starting with this wonderful tale of a princess who rescues her prince only to ditch him when he proves decidedly unreconstructed).

When she gets older, I will take her career aspirations seriously. I will never, by word or expression, give her reason to believe that some paths are off limits because she’s a girl, and I will pick an immediate fight with anyone who tries to do so. (Engineer like her grandfather? Brilliant. Playing rugby for Scotland? Great, only let’s hope she hasn’t inherited my lack of coordination.)

I will find female role models to counter the barrage of Barbie-figured, famous-for-their-looks celebrities. Politicians, scientists, sports stars, but also the many talented and successful women that I am lucky enough to have as friends, family, and colleagues. I will make sure she always knows that my career is as important as her dad’s and that family life – that elusive “work-life balance” – is as important for him as it is for me. (It helps that he took some of the parental leave, and would do it again if we have another baby. Also that he is really quite good at hanging out the washing, and better in the kitchen than I am.)

If I can, I will teach her to eat and to live healthily, but without making a fuss about it. And by cultivating (or at least faking) a healthy indifference to whether I can squeeze into a particular size of jeans myself, I will try to counter the body-image neurosis that she will be taught to accept as her feminine inheritance.

I know my limitations, though, and I know them even though I make all these plans with the full support of her father. We can do a lot, as parents of girls. We can teach them to question the received truths that society throws at them from the moment they are born. We can do this in what we do as well as what we say. But we can’t do it all.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Not all of it: we can’t change biology, as our guest blogger has pointed out. Our daughters, if they want to have sons or daughters of their own, will face a time pressure their male counterparts, by and large, don’t. But there is a lot they could be spared, given some effort at the societal level.

And that’s the really depressing thing: none of this is new. Much of it could have been written by my mum, more than 35 years ago. It’s because things haven’t changed – or haven’t changed enough – that I’m feeling so outraged now. We need collective action: from consumer pressure to end the sexist categorisation of toys (it worked with Hamley’s) to the kind of wholesale institutional change needed to ensure that sexual harassment actually gets reported, because it will be taken seriously.

And, parents of boys, we need your help. We need you to teach your sons to regard their sisters and female friends as every bit as brave, as worth listening to, as likely to be interested in building a Lego masterpiece or jumping in the mud, as they are. We can create girls who expect and demand more, for themselves and for each other, but unless they are to face numerous personal sacrifices to get it, we need the men who will surround them – the brothers, husbands, boyfriends, friends with whom they will inherit our society – to be prepared to give it.


Comfort without religion: teaching my son about death

“There are dead people under these stones,” remarks the Heir, hopping merrily from one gravestone onto another. “Do you think the big ones have really fat people underneath them?”

Although we are trying not to laugh, my husband O. and I are somewhat taken aback – not by the nature of the comment (a friend shared her knowledge on this subject with him at half term) but by the apparent indifference with which it was delivered. Death has been a popular topic with my eldest son ever since the sad demise of his granny’s cat a couple of years ago, but up until now his conversations about it have been laced with some anxiety.

When Daisy, said much-loved cat, was put down, I found myself in something of a quandary. I wanted the Heir to understand about death, and that it is final (hence my dislike of euphemisms such as “falling asleep”, “passing” and “lost”) but he is a sensitive little soul and I did not want him to become overly frightened.

So, very matter-of-factly, I explained to him that next time we went round, Daisy would not be there. I was straight forward and practical, telling him that she had been very old, her heart had stopped beating and she had died. (Now wasn’t the time to go into the vet’s role in her death.) I said that although her body had remained, the part of her that was her character and feelings etc was no longer there. I answered his questions as best I could – that he already had some understanding of how the body works was very useful – and was honest when I didn’t know the answers. I skirted round certain areas, telling him a firm “no” in response to “can I see Daisy dead?” but not elaborating (thankfully he hasn’t asked) about the various methods of corpse disposal. It wasn’t until the aforementioned half-term chat with his friend that he became enlightened about burial and I have yet to mention the alternatives…

Once he had an (albeit childishly innocent) understanding of the concept of death, I did my best to “normalise” the subject. I drew his attention to occasional road-kill when we were out in the car, in an interested rather than a ghoulish way. I let him look at and touch dead rodents intermittently brought in by our cat, and he saw that these things held no fear for me. When going round the supermarket I taught him that meat comes from animals. He listened attentively and I thought I was doing a great job until he said “pork comes from pigs, beef comes from cows… what animal does broccoli come from?”

Inevitably, we came round to the fact that people as well as animals die. It began with his interest in genealogy. Once he learned that Granny and Grandad were Mummy’s mummy and daddy, and that his other granny was Daddy’s mummy, his logical mind brought him to ask about “Daddy’s Daddy.” I told him that Daddy’s Daddy had died several years ago, that he was a wonderful man who would have loved the Heir and the Spare very much. As it was purely abstract he was very accepting and has had some lovely chats with O. about what “Daddy’s Daddy” was like. (He has refused point blank to use any other name.)

What I failed to take into account was what he would then do with this information and the effect it could have on other people. One Sunday lunch, as we sat round the dining table with O’s mother, the Heir suddenly announced “Daddy’s Daddy is dead.” Luckily my mother-in-law is made of strong stuff and where a lesser woman might have crumbled, she remained calm. I felt terrible – but how can you teach tact to a four year old?

When the Heir asked me outright “what happens to you when you are dead?” I had to think very carefully before answering. With the exception of Father Christmas (I disagree with Richard Dawkins that it is harmful for children to believe in this particular fairy tale) and the occasional white lie (“I have absolutely no idea who ate all your chocolate buttons…”) I generally prefer that my children be told the truth. They are very logical and in my experience so far fabrication or even sugar-coating ultimately leads to confusion and uncomfortable situations. So I told him honestly: nobody really knows, but lots of people have various theories about it.

Religion can help enormously when it comes to offering comfort on the subject of death. However, although respectful of other people’s faith (as long as they don’t use it as an excuse for inappropriate behaviour or try to force it down my throat), I fall on the atheist side of agnostic, and am therefore unable to find or offer solace in the form of any definitive god, heaven, afterlife, reincarnation or whatever. I do not necessarily either want or expect my sons to grow up with the same (lack of) beliefs as me, but I want them to be well educated about all scientific theories as well as religions so they can then make an informed choice.

I left the subject of gods and religion largely out of our early conversations about death, but once the Heir started school I was no longer able to filter what information he received. Recently, we were driving home from school and I asked whether he had heard the thunderstorm that afternoon. He had indeed: “Mrs X [a teacher] told us thunder is God getting out of bed”. I am sure it was just a harmless throwaway comment, offered to comfort a child frightened by the storm, but nonetheless I was surprised. As far as I am aware his fairly multi-cultural school is non-denominational, although they do put on a nativity play every Christmas.

“How does she know it was God?” I enquired. “Maybe it was Father Christmas getting out of bed?” The Heir fixed me with a steely gaze, leaving no doubt as to his opinion of me: “Father Christmas lives in the North Pole, Mummy,” he said. “We wouldn’t hear him getting out of bed.”

It is hard to know where and how to draw the line. I want to protect my boys from some of the harsh realities of life for as long as I can, but I do not want them to be brainwashed. If I felt able to placate them with tales of comfy cloud beds, meeting up with dead friends under the watchful eye of a nice chap with a long white beard then perhaps I would, but I cannot pretend to believe something when I don’t. Ultimately, he will find out soon enough that Father Christmas isn’t real (I was disillusioned at an early age by a small friend telling me, apropos Christmas stockings: “I don’t believe in Father Christmas, but I do believe in mums and dads”) and when the time comes he will be sad but he will recover. If, however, I feed him comfort-blanket scraps of faith that I don’t believe in myself, his distress when he becomes disenchanted will be a thousand fold.

I was forewarned about so many aspects of parenting, such as teething, sleepless nights, potty training, learning to read and write, but this was something for which I was completely unprepared. For us, the whole subject is very much a work in progress – the Heir is still only five years old – but I hope I have done a good job so far. As with so many things regarding my firstborn, it assumed such significance: I had a perfectly innocent canvas to work with and I was desperate to do the right thing, seeing my responsibility as educating but not indoctrinating.

We are making headway – his grave-hopping comments prove that somewhere along the way he has started to feel more relaxed about the whole subject. Perhaps he has taken lessons from the Spare, who either just isn’t as sensitive or is benefitting from second child-itis, fearlessly absorbing crumbs of information destined for elsewhere. The other day I went up to kiss him goodnight and found him out of bed, lying on the floor. “What on earth are you doing?” I asked him. He giggled naughtily: “I am just pretending to be dead.”


Two wheels good? Cycling with baby

This weekend marks the start of National Bike Week, and two months since I became, reluctantly, a cycling mum.

My disinclination was unsurprising, given my extreme risk aversion when it comes to Little A. If there’s no obvious concern, I’ll search about until I find some obscure possibility to obsess about. With cycling, I didn’t have to search too far.

Not that I’m not a fan. I’ve biked to work myself for years, except in pregnancy, when I was scuppered first by morning sickness and later by the bump-icy cobbles combination. I’ve mostly loved it, weather and taxi drivers not withstanding. (Also not withstanding our city’s unwritten law that no street is complete without at least three large pot holes.) But entrust my perfect little girl to a horribly insubstantial piece of plastic plugged into a not-much-more-substantial piece of metal, then pedal off with her? On actual roads, with actual cars. Terrifying.

What made me do it was the nursery. A depressing circuit of places I didn’t like, most of which didn’t have space anyway. Then, by pure chance, an opportunity to get her in somewhere completely fantastic. The only downside, apart from the soul-mortgaging fees, was that it was most of the way to work, when we’d counted on somewhere close to home. I’d imagined cycling with her as something to enjoy of a weekend (green and pleasant tracks, picnic in the pannier, very much the Famous Five vibe). It became, instead, the most convenient way to get her to and from nursery. My partner, an avid mountain biker, was enthusiastic. I was resigned.

Over the intervening months, cycling moved steadily up the list of things I was nervous about doing with her. To hedge, I did endless research. The route: trial and error to find the quietest back-road option, with the fewest right turns. Baby seats: I took advice from colleagues, searched online, agonised over small differences between the two main contenders. Her dad put an end to this by going to the shop, talking to a man, and buying one. Ditto a helmet. (To his credit, he chose one with sharks on it, and not a lurid pink.)

When we had amassed the kit, we created a fake baby (rucksack filled with books) and practiced with it. I was glad I did. (Extreme wobbliness, but also an undignified struggle on the big hill.) The first time I actually put her in the seat, it was to creep up and down our extremely quiet street. Even then, I made my partner run alongside, ready (presumably) to throw himself heroically between her and any possible danger. The first time he did the nursery run, I insisted on cycling along behind, to keep an eye on her. A long way behind, it turned embarrassingly out, but I could hear cheerful shrieks and see her arms waving about, so I guess she was OK. It was a week before I dared do it myself, and then I was driven to it by the sheer inconvenience of the bus-plus-walk alternative.

When I did, it was pleasantly anti-climatic, as any cycling parent would no doubt have predicted. She’s a less unwieldy shape than the fake baby, which helps, and she was used to being on a bike by then, albeit a rather faster one. (Fortunately, she isn’t yet able to articulate unfavourable comparisons.)

And now? Well, her dad still loves it, and mostly I do too, although there is a constant worry slide-show at the back of my head. We’re both a lot more cautious than we were before, and we both thought we were careful, then. Most drivers are considerate, too, although there is still the odd dickhead. Crucially, she appears generally to enjoy her two-wheel adventures. Even faced with full-on Scottish rain, she seems less miserable than me, but that might be because she, at least, stays dry. (All-in-one waterproof: essential baby cycling kit.)

There are some unexpected hazards. She’s worked out how to get her feet out of the straps and spends much of the journey kicking me in the bum (a strange but not entirely unpleasant sensation, like being pummelled by a baby bear). Less happily, she has discovered that she can also reach forward far enough to pinch me very hard in the lower back. I have yet to figure out how to stop that one.

But enough of the downside. Since the next week is all about getting families out and about on bikes, this is why, for all my initial trepidation, I’m glad we are doing this.

It’s eco-friendly. (Also cheap, at least once you’ve got the kit.) I don’t just mean that we’re not churning out greenhouse gases, although if everyone who could cycle or walk to work or nursery did, that would make a difference. I mean that I like to imagine that little A. will grow up to a world no longer structured almost exclusively around car travel, and that by encouraging her to take these green options now, I’m helping her to be a part of that.

It’s good for me. Much better exercise than cycling on my own, since an extra 10+ kilos (plus seat) is a significant extra load in our decidedly hilly city. It’s also pretty much the only exercise I get, nowadays, and so an essential component in keeping me not only reasonably fit, but also something approaching sane.

It’s good for her. Most important of all. It’s partly the fresh air (and I know I’m lucky, living in a city, to have found a route where she actually gets some of that). But it’s also the idea that I’m introducing her to a healthier lifestyle. No, I’m not suggesting that sitting on the back of the bike is, in itself, keeping her active. And yes we’d have put her on her own little bike almost as soon as she could walk anyway. (Her dad would see to that.) But being simultaneously assailed by childhood obesity headlines, and by a series of media images that could drive any sensitive girl to the opposite extreme, I figure the best I can do is try to teach her to live fairly healthily but without making a big deal about it.

Making exercise fun for children is part of that, of course, and on the cycling front it’s great to see events like this delightful balance bike race, alongside more hardcore biking challenges. But it’s also about making it part of the day-to-day: an unquestioned element of the routine. And I’m hoping that her parents pedalling away with her for fifteen or twenty minutes, four days a week, is helping to accustom Little A. to that.

Which brings me to a final bugbear. It would be nice to see more being done not only to promote but actually to facilitate this kind of exercise-as-standard mentality. Which includes more than lip service being paid to making our cities safe – and, also crucially, seen to be safe – for cyclists. (Bike lanes? Yes, but they’ll just be lines on the road, and we’ll stop them halfway up a busy hill. Oh, and we mustn’t upset the motorists, so we’ll let them park in them. Bike boxes? Here you go. But we won’t actually do anything to stop everyone else using them. And so on.)

Campaigns like the fantastic Pedal on Parliament are working hard to get cycling provision built into road design. If politicians would look up occasionally from their never-ending stats on how we are becoming a nation of fatties, and pause a moment in hunting for someone else to blame, they might actually learn something. If I was borderline petrified of cycling my baby to nursery, as an experienced cyclist in a not-gigantic city (and an occasional eco-warrior to boot), what chance is there that mums and dads without the pedalling practice will be rushing to introduce their children to it?





Feminism and fertility: The IVF perspective

Kirstie Allsopp (finder of houses and a dab hand with a glitter pen and a staple gun) is in the Twittersphere firing line for the advice she would give a daughter, were she to have one: don’t go to university; start work straight after school; stay at home and save up for a deposit [on a house]; find yourself a nice boyfriend and have a baby by the time you’re 27.

Allsopp is known for her blunt and outspoken views, but this is a difficult message in an era of female equality. Among other outraged reactions, a headteacher from Berkshire has deemed her remarks ‘rather patronising‘ to teenagers. But Allsopp qualifies her opinion: “Women are being let down by the system… At the moment, women have 15 years to go to university, get their career on track, try and buy a home and have a baby. That is a hell of a lot to ask someone.”

I can’t speak for Kirstie, or Twitter, or the headteacher from Berkshire. I can however speak as a woman who has benefitted from living in this era of female emancipation. I worked hard at school; I got a good degree from a top university; I have nearly 14 years of successful work experience behind me and, before leaving to go freelance a couple of years ago, I achieved a senior position in my field of choice. Like Kirstie, I am a ‘passionate feminist’ – I think that all people who want men and women to be equal are feminists. I am also a woman who has just survived nearly four years of fertility treatment.

I was lucky enough to meet my partner at university and, with a few blips (we were young!) we have been together ever since, finally tying the knot nearly six years ago. At that point, at just over 30, we both knew we wanted a family but wanted to ‘be married’ for a few years first and in all honestly were having too much fun to want to trade it in for sleepless nights and a hanger on.

After a few years, when we felt we were ready, we started trying for a baby. We felt excited, scared and a bit naughty. I think we thought we were pregnant the first time we tried. In the following first few months, I would say things like “let’s not try this month as I want to be able to drink at my brother’s 40th…” If only I had known. By that time, at nearly 33, we were already a bit late to the party – a good proportion of our friends were already one down and thinking about a second (or third) but it wasn’t until after six or seven months of trying that we sensed something might be wrong.

The three years that followed were the hardest of my life. Our lack of ‘bump’ became all consuming. We stopped drinking alcohol, ate organic, monitored ourselves to within an inch of our lives but still – nothing. We tried to remain positive but suddenly bumps and babies were everywhere. When we moved to ‘assisted fertility’ we were very open with our friends and family which proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Whilst we were grateful for our friends’ concern, the constant “how is it going?” was tough to deal with (“it’s not going very well guys”).

It is only now, four years on, that I realise quite how horrific (and I don’t use that word lightly) the last few years have been. IVF is intense. I put my body through constant physical abuse – the multiple daily injections; the journeys in and out of enforced menopause; the yo-yo emotions; the weight gain and general bat shit craziness. Our strong marriage was tested and tested again, our finances took a battering but worst of all was the indescribable feeling of anguish and loss of hope when yet again a cycle had not worked or a precious embryo that you had loved from the moment it was a speck on a screen in a petri-dish had simply vanished or stopped growing inside me.

I am one of the lucky ones. I delivered a healthy baby girl at Christmas but I have friends who for emotional, physical or just plain financial reasons have had to stop trying and look for a different dream. My friends and I are not alone – the NHS cites that around one in seven couples has trouble conceiving (around 3.5 million people).

I don’t know whether our amazing daughter will be the only child I carry. The likelihood of us being able to extend our family naturally, given our history, is small. We have decided not to pursue IVF again, both for the sake of our marriage and our daughter. I don’t want to be a (single) mess of a mother in the first few years of my daughter’s life for an outcome which is uncertain.

So, where am I going with this? I am overjoyed to have a daughter. There’s still a fair way to go before true equality is reached, but it’s a great time to be a woman. I want my little girl to understand that she can be anything she wants to be, have anything she wants to have and be judged on her talents and intelligence and not on her weight and her looks. But… I will be arming her with knowledge – that, in the absence of major scientific breakthroughs, nature still plays a large part in female fertility. It isn’t fair and it is still one thing that men don’t really have to think about (although many infertility problems are experienced by men too) but for women it does get harder as you get older, and there is a time limit.

Not everyone will have problems and I know many women who have conceived naturally into their 40s. For that I am truly thankful – I would not wish the pain and hopelessness of infertility on anyone. But, just as we don’t know what lies ahead for us in old age, we don’t know what our own unique fertility window is. That being the case, I wish that women could have better access to basic fertility screening in the same way that we are offered screening for different cancers and other illnesses. I wish for earlier intervention (if there is a suspected problem) and help that is not governed by your postcode. Our GP told us we needed to prove that we had had sex every other day for three years before we could be classed as ‘infertile’ and therefore receive basic testing. I want to see greater support and advice for women where there might be a problem or where age might be a factor but where the woman is not ready, hasn’t found the right person or is not financially able to consider a child. All this would allow women to take control of their family-planning decisions based on knowledge.

Some women may not want to be mothers, but many will and any early indicators that it may be a rocky road may help inform the decisions that we make. Do I regret my degree and my climb up the greasy corporate pole? Not a bit, but I would have definitely have made different decisions were I to have known what was ahead of us. For me, having a family would have been more important than that pay rise or that deadline.

So, whilst I may not agree with Kirstie’s generic advice for girls, I believe that she raises an important debate – our girls should be aware that there may be choices to be made for some if they want to have what they want, what they really, really want.

 Guest blogger: Nicky

Currently on maternity leave with her first baby having temporarily escaped the world of Broadcast Media. Loves her friends, good food, cuddling her cat and annoying her husband when not pureeing everything in sight.


Learning to love dirt and germs

My two sons are in the chicken run. The five-year-old Heir, still in his school uniform, is covered in flecks of straw. He has his arms wrapped round Grace, a bundle of huffy orange feathers who is emitting resigned clucks. The Spare, dressed in just his wellies and a pair of pants, is crouching down and poking his finger into something that may or may not be chicken poo. In his other hand is clutched a fresh egg that he has just collected from the nesting box.

In the month since we got our five hens, this has become a regular sight. For the boys it was love at first sight and although the feeling isn’t entirely mutual, the hens are surprisingly tolerant and three of them sometimes allow themselves to be picked up and carried about in exchange for handfuls of corn.

Five years ago the very idea of this scene would have filled me with panic. I wouldn’t have seen two happy and confident little boys interacting with their beloved pets, I would just have been worrying about the possibility that the hens were carrying some contagious, life-threatening disease. That’s because, as a new mother, I spent an inordinate amount of time obsessing about hygiene. Whilst, of course, it is important to keep the newest of babies away from unnecessary germs, and to sterilise if using bottles in the early days and particularly when using formula, I took it to a whole new level. My paranoia extended to begging would-be visitors to keep away if they had even the hint of cough or cold, and waiting in the car at the doctor’s surgery until my appointment so the baby wouldn’t be exposed to nasties from other waiting patients (yes, really).

I remember watching in fascinated horror as a friend reached out, picked up a plastic toy and passed it to her baby, who immediately put it to his mouth. She didn’t know when it had last been washed and – worst of all – we had just seen another child chewing it. The Heir, then just a few months old, was grabbing for a similar toy but before he could touch it I snatched it away, thoroughly cleaning it with a baby wipe before passing it back to him. (No, we weren’t playing in a landfill site, although given my level of anxiety you would be forgiven for thinking it. We were at a local playgroup with dozens of other mothers enjoying maternity leave with their babies and toddlers. You could tell the new mums from the second and third timers – just watch for the baby wipes.)

Then came the day of revelation. The Heir, a few months old, just weaned and already fairly mobile, was grubbing about in our bedroom. After a few moments he emerged from behind the laundry basket with something stuck to his lip. Closer inspection revealed this to be a spider’s leg. A hasty finger sweep of the inside of his mouth found two further legs, but I never discovered the remaining five or the body. I can only assume that he swallowed them. That spider was the first non-organic, non-lovingly-home-cooked thing that my precious little boy had ever eaten. But it did him no harm and for me realisation dawned – it was time to relax my germ offensive.

Refusing to expose my infant son to potential germs was not only time-consuming but also doing his health no favours in the long-term. The idea (supported by the continual exposure of parents to adverts for cleaning sprays that eliminate 99.9 per cent of germs, wipes for every occasion and countless other allegedly essential hygiene products) that we need to eradicate all germs for the wellbeing of our children is at best erroneous, at worst actively harmful. If your children are never exposed to germs, how can they build up immunity? I did see the irony in my behaviour – I breastfed my baby in order to give his immune system the best possible start in life, yet I was refusing to put him in situations where he could continue to develop this immunity. Perhaps worst of all, my behaviour was getting in the way of him having fun because not only was I spending time cleaning that I could have spent playing with him, but I was preventing him going into situations he would have enjoyed because of my fear of what he might catch.

So I bit the bullet and accepted that a bit of grime and dust wasn’t going to damage him. It took time, but eventually I relaxed to the extent that germs and dirt have long become an accepted part of our everyday life. My hoover remains in semi-retirement and although I did invest in a steam cleaner, it only puts in an appearance when our feet start sticking to the kitchen floor. I ignore best before dates on food and go by the proviso that if it looks fine, smells fine and tastes fine it probably IS fine. By the time the Spare was born, two and half years after his brother, I was one of the chilled out mums at playgroup.

When the Heir started part-time at nursery, for the first few weeks he picked up every bug going. By contrast the Spare, exposed from day one to whatever came home on the hands, clothes and sneezes of his big brother, had already developed a strong immune system and never had this problem.

As my babies grew up into little boys and became more independent, I realised that if I made them wash their hands after every potentially germy situation they may as well stand permanently under a tap. Although basic rules of hygiene are of course essential – as each reached the potty training stage I insisted that hands must be washed after a trip to the loo, likewise before mealtimes – I actually quite like them to be grubby: if they are covered head to toe in good clean dirt it invariably means they have been having fun, as long as they have been jumping in puddles of mud not manure and damming streams rather than sewers.

Although it mostly comes naturally to me now, the relaxed approach it isn’t without its drawbacks – one of my hardest moments of parenting so far was stopping myself from recoiling in disgust when the Heir presented me with the wriggling, crawling results of his latest bug-hunt. But at least I am no longer a Dettol spray vigilante, and my sons are happier and healthier for it.