The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting

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Let’s change how we talk about dads and childcare

My partner and I both have full-time paid jobs and our one-year-old daughter is in nursery four days a week. I work a compressed week (five days’ work in four days) and do about two thirds of the childcare and half of the housework and cooking. T. works five days a week and does the rest. I’ve lost track of how often I’ve been told how lucky I am that he does so much. No-one (apart from me) has ever told him how lucky he is that I do even more, or for that matter how unlucky he is to have less time with little A. Instead, he gets told how unusual he is.

What’s not unusual is, unfortunately, this discrepancy in how we’re judged. Take the disapproving reaction to my friend’s announcement that she would have to spend a few nights away for work when her daughter was 11 months old. “But what will happen to the baby?” she was asked – not once, but repeatedly. “Err – she has a father.” T. spent five weeks abroad when Little A. was five months’ old, and not once were we asked who would be looking after her.

Or take this mother’s article, which the same friend posted on Facebook. The author had attracted cyber-fury for daring to say that looking after children can be boring, but what horrified my friend was the casual way in which this liberal, professional woman described her husband as ‘helping’ her with their young children.

And that’s the particularly depressing thing: it’s not just men who are using this vocabulary (although particular mention should go to the two male friends of friends who describe themselves as ‘babysitting’ when they look after their own children, especially the one who demands a day playing golf to recover). It’s also women, including intelligent, modern, well-educated women for whose opinion I generally have a lot of time.

I have no problem with saying I am lucky in some of the things my partner does. I’m lucky that he’s a great cook, that he is a ‘morning person’ happy to do breakfast and the nursery drop-off most days, and that he has become so obsessed with vacuuming (a task I hate) that he doesn’t trust me to do it properly. I’m less lucky that he thinks sheets should be left to fester on the bed for at least a year, regards his mountain bike as second in importance only to our daughter, and is apparently incapable of putting washed clothes away or taking out the recycling.

But that works for him too. He’s lucky that I have juggled my working hours, starting early and foregoing lunch breaks, so that we can keep Little A. out of nursery one day a week. He’s less so that I never do the washing up, and am so monumentally bad about getting out of bed that every one of those early starts becomes a whirlwind of rushed crossness which I somehow make into his fault. We are both lucky in having an enchanting, affectionate and good-natured little girl (5am rage aside), which tips the balance in the delight/endurance see-saw that is looking after a toddler.

However, I do have a problem with being called ‘lucky’ for the mere fact that T. takes on any of these tasks. Yes, there’s one sense in which I am, if ‘lucky’ means ‘luckier than most’ or, for too many of the mums I know, ‘luckier than me’. A recent mumsnet survey confirms what plays out among most of my friends and family: that even working mothers still do the majority of household chores and childcare. But using terms like ‘lucky’ (me) or ‘good’ (him) implies that a father who does more than nothing (although less than half!) is going well beyond what can be expected of him. Subtext: childcare and housework are a mum’s job. Even when she has another one as well. (Or, for the stay-at-home-mum, even in weekends and evenings, when other people’s ‘day jobs’ come to an end.)

This infuriates me. But then I can hardly criticise when I do something almost as bad myself: incessant micromanaging. It won’t help to correct any gender imbalance that dads are so often written off as incompetent carers. (My friend, asked who would look after her baby when she was away, was not only outraged on principle but also insulted on her husband’s behalf.) And it will be hard to do anything about that impression if even those of us who don’t believe it are incapable of handing over the baby without a list of detailed instructions.

Of course, stopping is a lot easier said than done. (I’m saying it, but I’ve so far failed completely to do it. Just ask T.) The very fact that mums do more childcare tends to make us the experts – plus we are often more risk averse – and it’s almost impossible to leave anything to chance when it comes to your little one’s well-being. But maybe we should bite our tongue sometimes. Is the baby actually in danger? No, then let it go. Because every time we explain to a father how to feed, dress, or entertain his own child, we only reinforce the archaic idea that it’s our role to do all that, and we are just temporarily delegating.

I realise that for some women that’s not necessarily a problem: two thirds of working mums are happy with the way things are, according to mumsnet, or at least don’t want their partners to do more. I certainly don’t want less time with my little daughter. But I wish the women surveyed had been asked not just whether they wanted their partners to take on more childcare or housework, but whether they would have liked them to find more time to do things together as a family. I have a feeling the results would have been different.

Where the current situation suits both partners, great (although that still leaves us with the question of why dads are so much less likely to ‘choose’ time with children rather than at work/exercising/in the pub). But for the sake of those mums who aren’t so happy (and there are plenty), perhaps we could all rethink some of the signals we send. It won’t solve anything: we need social, legal and cultural change to do that, starting with Scandinavian-style parental leave. But it would show that we don’t buy into a set of stereotypes our grandmothers would recognise.

So let’s try to trust our partners a bit more when they are looking after our (and their!) children. And please can we have a ban on terms like ‘lucky’ or ‘helping out’ when it comes to dads and housework or childcare. If you wouldn’t praise a mum for doing something, don’t praise a dad for doing it. Or better still, praise them both.

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How motherhood changes friendships

I have lost my conversational mojo. After almost six years of all-encompassing motherhood, I can still think up witty retorts, but they usually form in my head several hours, or days, too late.

This – like so much else about parenthood – has had a major effect on my friendships. I am so afraid of being boring that I withdraw from certain social situations I would once have relished. While everyone else discusses exciting jobs, exotic travel destinations and current affairs, I do not want to be that woman who talks about her children. Despite becoming adept at gauging who is genuinely interested when they ask about my boys and adjusting my response accordingly, the problem is that for a long time my life has revolved exclusively around the Heir and the Spare. Until very recently (the Spare has just started nursery class at school which has revolutionised things) I barely had the energy to string a sentence together, let alone partake in an intelligent conversation.

I’m not alone. Changing friendship patterns are one of the things all new parents have to navigate, and I don’t know anyone who has found it easy. From the outside, it can too easily seem as though we no longer have time for our single or childless friends, but the truth is much more complicated. For me, somewhere between a lack of babysitter, taking a break from my career, and a crisis of confidence, my casual acquaintances and a number of closer friends fell by the wayside. Bogged down by exhaustion and trying to keep at bay the damaging tentacles of post-natal depression, in the early months I could do little beyond survive on an hour-by-hour basis. Misinterpreting the reasons behind my lack of contact, some people assumed that I no longer wanted to spend time with them. Others weren’t interested in spending time with small children (fair enough) and obviously found the post-baby me less fun to be around. It is true that my priorities had changed, meaning I had less time for, and interest in, some of the things I had previously enjoyed, so friendships based around those activities became less central.

I am, however, extremely lucky to have kept an all-important core of friends from my pre-baby world. Despite often having even less idea what to do with a newborn baby than I did, these people offered unconditional love and whatever support they could, be it turning up at our house and cooking supper, carrying the baby while I slept, or sending regular text messages to make sure I was doing okay. I was a pretty hopeless friend to them most of the time, but thank goodness they cared about me enough to hang in there and wait for a coherent me to reappear. In recent months I have finally begun to emerge from the cocoon of early motherhood (to compare myself to a butterfly would, alas, be a step too far, although in late pregnancy I did share certain characteristics with the post-binge Very Hungry Caterpillar.)

Rather than burden longstanding friends with endless exposure to ankle-biters, the obvious thing is to form new friendships with other parents, but that isn’t always straightforward. Although children are undoubtedly a useful conversational ice breaker and a great way to meet new people, there still has to be that je ne sais quois to spark an enduring friendship. Over the early years I dipped my toe into endless toddler groups and classes, but ironically, having felt at fault for doing too much of it myself, I found the endless talk of nappies and breastfeeding pretty mind-numbing. Usually, I couldn’t get away quickly enough.

When you really click with people who have children of a similar age, it is a wonderful thing, but for me this only happens when motherhood is just one shared bond among many. Some relationships begun during our NCT classes have since matured into real friendships – few things bring you closer than going through late pregnancy, childbirth and the early years at the same time, even more so when those people can make you laugh till you cry along the way.

And when the Heir approached his fourth birthday we stumbled upon another pool of potential friends: school. At a drinks reception to welcome new parents, I found myself discussing a recent high-profile scandal with a small group of like-minded women. From that moment, I felt sure these fellow mums were going to play an important part in my future and sure enough, two years later, they rank among my dearest friends. Turns out the initial basis for enduring friendship had nothing to do with our children: it was confessing that we’d all googled photos of Prince Harry naked.


Who needs a car? Parenting on public transport

When my husband and I announced my pregnancy our families breathed a collective sigh of relief and said: “Well you’ll definitely have to learn to drive now.”

Aged 38 and 39 respectively when the happy event occurred, we had managed to live very effectively in various parts of the UK without being able to drive a car. Over the years this caused raised eyebrows whenever the subject arose, despite the fact that we lived in cities where driving was never a very good idea and certainly not necessary. But the reaction of others suggested a belief deep within the British psyche that you are not a “proper” grown up unless you drive a car, or at least have the ability to do so. This attitude is, in my experience, particularly prevalent amongst the older generation. My husband’s mother has, I’m sure, a frown line arising solely from this issue. And thus the hope from our loved ones that a baby would mean we would have to grow up at last and get behind that wheel.

Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. 16 months into our daughter’s life we still haven’t quite got around to arranging the lessons. And the interesting thing is that, in my humble opinion, we manage just fine without.

Some might think we didn’t have an auspicious start, when we left the house with little B. aged two weeks for her first bus trip. (I waited two weeks to give her some chance of developing a basic immune system.) No sooner had our little family unit headed for the bus stop across the road, when we were greeted by a local “gentleman of the road”. I had spotted him from our flat window on previous occasions but this was our first meeting. He tended to wait outside the Oxfam shop to accost donors with the line: “Is there anything worth having in there?” whilst nodding at their bin bags.

On this occasion, catching sight of the baby in her pram he shuffled over and peered in, congratulating us and cooing over her. Obviously excited by her beauty, he announced that he would do a dance for us. My husband took this opportunity to mutter that he had to go to Superdrug and darted off, leaving me and the two week old to deal with our new friend. He took a step back and then launched into an extempore modern jazz routine which ended with him opening his coat with a flourish. I was relieved to see that he had clothes on underneath. I clapped nervously and then as the phrase goes, made my excuses and left. Thus little B. began her journey on public transport. A good omen I think.

Since then the two of us have spent a lot of time on the grand old Lothian buses. All mothers will know the main drawbacks of travelling with young babies on the buses: the dreaded words from the driver, “I’ve already got two on”, and the embarrassment when the baby decides to have a screaming meltdown while the eyes of what feels like an entire battalion of Edinburgh matrons bore into the back of your neck. There is also the stress of queue jumping buggies but on the one occasion this happened to me I was delighted to find that my fellow passengers all rounded on the woman in question and insisted I embark first.

But the buses have also meant that my daughter is very much a people person and people watcher and greets most of humanity as if they are friends she hasn’t yet made. I put this down to the affectionate attention she received from fellow bus passengers from that very first trip onwards. The fact that she can have a good look around and peer at the strange shenanigans that almost inevitably occur on public transport make journeys much easier than I think they would be were she alone in the back of a car whilst I, by necessity, ignored her in the front.

Longer trips are mostly made by flying, although we did manage one very seamless train-ferry combo for a holiday in Arran. This does cause some eco-guilt in me and I know it’s not ideal, but with relatives in Birmingham and Bristol, the alternative would be five to seven hour train journeys and I’m afraid the heart just quails at that prospect.

I’ve undertaken many trips alone with B. on planes and she’s a great little traveller. I’ve been lucky in that her screaming is kept to a minimum and she is content to stay sitting on my lap. For now. Other passengers, who obviously sigh internally when they see us get on board and no doubt think, “please don’t sit next to me”, have been pleasantly surprised and have complimented the baby on her aeroplane manners. One elderly gentleman insisted that my little boy had behaved really well, despite me repeatedly correcting his “he” to “she” and despite the fact that she was wearing a dress, but you take what you can get and in the end I smiled politely.

One word of warning though: changing the little blighters in the toilet cublicle is generally a nightmare. Confined space, tiny pull-down changing table, always turbulence just at the wrong moment moment and a hopefully irrational fear that the baby will slide down the rubbish chute and out of the plane.

It may be that my experience of a car free life avec child is unusually positive but I don’t think so. I fully acknowledge that if we lived in a rural area it would be much, much more difficult but to an extent we do arrange our lives for our convenience. Who knows, maybe one day one of us will finally step into the right-hand front seat of a car and know what to do with it. Maybe when the child needs to be carted around her various improving activities. But then again maybe not – we’ve just bought a baby seat for our bikes….

Guest blogger: Farrhat

Lives in Scotland with her husband and toddler and is reluctantly contemplating returning to work as a lawyer

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Never say never: notes to my pre-motherhood self

Pre-motherhood it was easy to make confident decisions, to plan what, as a parent, I would and would not do. Now, as I enter the final furlong of my first year as a mother, I have adapted to my ‘new normal’ and many of my old certainties just make me laugh. Here are a few things I have realised over the last all-consuming, confusing, sometimes painful but ultimately joyous nine months.

The things I swore I’d never do versus what actually happened:

I was not going to shout at my husband. It’s a clichéd trap that I was not going to fall into. We have a great marriage, right? Of course we would carry this into parenthood and always ‘be on the same page’…

Hahahahahahahahaha. Whilst I pick myself up from the floor laughing, read on. The first disagreement we had was in the hospital over whether to give our baby girl formula as my milk was delayed in coming in due to a rather interesting labour. My husband had been NCT’d (that’s a whole other blog) and felt that administering Aptamil was tantamount to poisoning her. I, on the other hand, whilst remaining determined to breastfeed, had survived being bottle-fed as a child and just wanted to get some fluid into our girl.

And so it began. Over the next few months we disagreed over many, many things – driven, in the main, by sheer eyeball-weeping tiredness, but also by fear. Fear that our smallest parenting choices would somehow harm this sacred thing we’d been allowed to carry home. Our disagreements usually played out in hushed passive-aggressive hissing over the sleeping infant and in my sleep-deprived, cranky, sore and hormonal state, I thought only I had the capacity to understand and soothe my child.  If I found that circling the crib three times, throwing salt over my shoulder and chanting got our girl to sleep then why the hell couldn’t he do it too?  Although I have found that a mother’s instinct is to be trusted, my “it’s me or no one” mentality was clearly insane (but I regret to say that sometimes it reappears).

If I had this time again, I would try to listen to my husband more, to let him do more and to not try and conquer this thing alone as he too needed time to evolve his unique and special role in our daughter’s world.

I was not going to give my child a dummy. Why would I need one? Surely they are for mothers who don’t understand their children? Or worse still…are lazy?

Hahahahaha… Sorry, I will stop this. Newborns like to suck and, contrary to popular belief, they aren’t always hungry. After a few weeks, following a suggestion from my Health Visitor, I tried giving E. a dummy. It immediately soothed my crying bundle and gave me (or rather my nipples) much-needed time away from breastfeeding and even the chance to have the odd shower. Dummies may also have a further positive – scientific research suggests that babies who go to sleep with one are potentially less likely to suffer from SIDS. Certainly that made me feel better about my decision, but to use one obviously has to be your own parenting decision. The dummy disappeared from our lives as quickly as it appeared – I realised around four months that it had become a sleep aid so went cold turkey and hey presto, a better sleeping baby! But I’d like to thank the dummy fairy in any case for preventing early insanity. Mothers who don’t resort to one or have babies that don’t need one – I salute you.

I was not going to buy loud, obnoxious, plastic toys. My child would have traditional, educational wooden toys and learn from me and from nature…

I was told by other mum friends I should get a specific all-singing, all-dancing bouncer. I turned my nose up at these helpful people and bought instead a sleek Scandinavian-designed bouncer with a traditional wooden toy bar. My little girl would go to sleep in it if she was tired, but would start to shout quite quickly if not ready for sleepy time. At dinner one night at a fellow new mum’s house, she went into another early-stage inexplicable meltdown and other mum offered her son’s shiny plastic bouncing chair. Little E. was mesmerised and remained so for most of the evening. Suffice to say, Amazon received a ‘buy with one click’ visit that very evening and I’ve subsequently turned my nose back to its usual position on this one.

I was not going to let my personal appearance and standards drop. I remember visiting a new mum just before teatime one day only to find her un-showered and still in her PJs. This was not going to happen to me.

I think I managed to shower and dress most days. But make-up, deodorant and hair-brushing became unfamiliar in the first few months. On one memorable occasion, I managed one eye of make-up but completely forgot the other only to discover this in a mirror a few hours later in a coffee shop loo. I also frequently wore PJ bottoms as legitimate day clothing and continued to wear posset covered tops out after only ‘showing it’ the muslin. I’m better now but things like this don’t matter so much anymore anyway…

Not so much something I swore I’d never do, but rather something I thought I didn’t need…new mum friends. Why would I need new friends? I have friends, most of whom have children and some live near me.

I remember asking a friend with children whether it was worth attending the paid-for parenting classes recommended to all new parents, to which she replied: “not for the information but you need to buy friends”. How right she was. These women were going through exactly the same thing as me, at exactly the same time. I found I could be more honest with them than with some of my closest friends and have formed new and valuable friendships.

Over the last few months I have learned a lot, but there are many things that I now know and do that I wish I had learned much earlier. In no particular order:

As long as my baby is fed, clean and cuddled I am doing a great job. In the early weeks I strived for what I saw as perfection and constantly found myself wanting. I do what feels right for me and my baby but am willing to adapt – I no longer put unnecessary expectations on myself.

I wish I had been kinder to myself just after E. was born – I had just done a monumental thing and had earned the right to eat chocolate and wallow for a while without feeling guilty.

It took some time but physically I do now feel like “me” again.  At times, I never thought I would.

Bad times happen but they also pass – the baby will sleep and the phase will end.

Sometimes I felt alone, helpless and confused – sometimes I still do. I don’t know any new parent that hasn’t despite what front they may present. It helped enormously to share my fears.

It’s okay to cry – either through hormones, tiredness, frustration or joy. I let them come, they are cathartic.

I trust my instincts more – friends, midwives and well-meaning women from an older generation will give advice, but they are not bringing up my baby.

I should accept help when it is offered. There is an African proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child.  I thought that accepting help meant that I wasn’t doing a good enough job. With the power of hindsight I can now see that was really silly.

The intensity of love I feel for my child constantly surprises me and the mild-mannered and polite former me will quickly become a tiger to protect her.

It is perfectly acceptable to say no to visitors. I found there were two types – the ones who popped over unannounced to see baby and who sat and expected to be fed tea and cake whilst prodding my sleeping bundle in the hope she would perform like the proverbial monkey. I wish I had found a nice way to put them off, but I didn’t and sat with clenched teeth through many a well-intentioned visit, wishing they would leave us to sleep, panic or just stare into space. The second type of visitor were the ones who checked in advance, brought their own cake and did the dishes or a pile of laundry. They were always welcome.

I need lots of hand cream – I wash my hands so many times I frequently end up looking like the Skeksis from The Dark Crystal.

From even a few weeks in I encountered competitive parents. I have learnt to ignore them or better still, bin them. My child will develop at her own pace.

I find that I have hidden vats of energy and patience (although not with my husband) after days of little sleep.

I have experienced every type of emotion possible – sometimes within the space of an hour.

I really should sleep when baby sleeps – sod the hoovering and there really is no need ever to iron anything.

Buying stuff for my baby – even muslins and changing mats – is actually more fun than buying things for myself. Who knew?

All in all, my experience of motherhood so far is that it is one of the hardest, most demanding and least recognised jobs there is, but I wouldn’t change a thing. The only problem is, just when I think I’ve cracked it, something changes and I feel hopelessly confused and lost again. Anyone fancy writing me a guide to the next 18 years?

Guest blogger: Nicky

Currently taking time off from her career in Broadcast Media having had her first baby . Loves her friends, good food, cuddling her cat and annoying her husband.