The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting

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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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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.

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The supporting role: being a birth partner

“Never underestimate how hard labour is… for the man.”

So said a friend’s husband after his first child was born. Of course, we all mocked him mercilessly at the time. But I take it back. Being a birth partner IS hard – you just don’t realise until you are one.

I have now been a birth partner one and a half times. Half, because I was almost there when my first niece was born. I was with my sister, L, at the hospital for a couple of hours up until she was taken into theatre for an assisted delivery.

I know first-hand the positive difference a good birth partner can make. I was determined to appear calm, reassuring and positive at all times, masking my omnipresent fear that something might go wrong. Considering how well L knows me, this was a task in itself. I wanted to be the greatest support to her, both physically and emotionally, that I possibly could.

Before my own first labour I had written an essay in the “birth plan” sections of my maternity notes. Nothing went to plan and I felt increasingly terrified and out of control.

More than anything I had wanted to avoid that for L, but it wasn’t to be. My disappointment for her was combined with frustration that I hadn’t really been able do anything to help. Of course the important thing was that appropriate medical intervention was available where necessary and ultimately mother and baby were fine, but it was far from the birth that L had planned.

For my second labour, my birthing plan contained a single word: “epidural”. I believe L’s was similarly concise. I got my wish and had a very positive experience. When L’s second time came I headed to the hospital hoping for the same for her.

L’s partner T and I are two of the people who know her best. Each of us has a unique relationship with her, meaning we were able to provide stronger and more wide-reaching support as a team than either of us could as individuals.

T was far better than me at providing physical support. He knew, and was able to show me, the exact way L wanted her back rubbed during contractions. We took it in turns but he was more successful – I couldn’t believe how hard she wanted it done and feared hurting her. We both willingly sacrificed our hands for her to crush during the agony of ever-closer contractions, but T was the one who could provide comfort by holding her.

Emotionally, I think I had the edge.

When it came to empathy, I didn’t have to use my imagination. I know only too well how agonising labour is and how frightening it can be. I remembered what I had wanted and needed, and because L is so like me in many ways, I assumed (largely correctly) that her wants and needs would be similar. Plus, I have known her my entire life. We are so close that we know how the other’s mind works, and at times have an almost paranormal ability to read each other’s thoughts.

When the midwife tried to persuade her to use the gas and air, L kept shoving it away saying it made her feel like she was suffocating. I knew she was recalling the feeling of being unable to breathe underwater which has always terrified both of us when scuba diving. I was able to explain this to the bemused midwife, who then knew to stop pressuring her to use it.

The one thing I wish someone had done for me was help me control my breathing. As a result I became almost obsessive about it with L. Through every contraction I reminded her not only to breathe but how to breathe (“Breathe in through your nose, now breathe out through your mouth…”) A small part of me worried she would get irritated, but I figured she could always tell me to **** off. It wouldn’t be the first time. But I need not have worried – afterwards, she told me she found it incredibly helpful.

When the midwife finally accepted that gas and air wasn’t cutting it, the anaesthetist was busy elsewhere (by the time she was available it was too late.) L started to show signs of panic. T’s gentle and reassuring approach failed to calm her down so I became necessarily brutal and told her sharply to pull herself together.

I don’t think that she’d have taken it from anyone but me, and I doubt anyone but me would have known instinctively that she needed to hear it. Fair play to her – that was the last we heard about not being able to do it.

It is distressing seeing anyone suffering, let alone someone you love dearly, but in the event I was surprisingly dispassionate. Perhaps the inevitability of labour and birth made it easier to detach from L’s immediate pain and focus on helping her get through it.

For me, the worst part of either of L’s labours was when I wasn’t there. It was the 45mins when my first niece was being delivered in theatre. I was waiting outside, with no idea what was going on. Unable to offer L anything by way of support, I felt completely out of control as well as terrified something was wrong. At times of high anxiety I get eczema across the backs of my hands. By the time a midwife came to tell me that L and baby were safe and well, I was bleeding across my knuckles.

When my second niece was born, I was right there and it was incredible. Snapshop memories: the outstanding bravery my sister showed summoning up all her reserves of energy to push her daughter into the world; the sound of the baby crying when only her head was out (unusual, apparently – normally their lungs are too squashed); her perfect, tiny body as she was born; the moment when the midwife put her straight into her mother’s arms as T said “it’s a girl” and all the pain and fear of the past few hours just melted away.

The baby wasn’t the only one in the room who cried.

My advice to anyone privileged enough to be asked to be a birth partner is this: (1) Accept – you will never see anything so amazing in your whole life. (2) Be calm and positive throughout – if you are scared do not let it show. (3) Do your research: ask in advance what the expectant mother wants from you. I forgot to ask L, relying instead on instinct derived from our close relationship and my own experiences. Next time I will ask her. Oh hang on, she says there is never, ever, ever going to be a next time…

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Nativity hazards: parental expectation and the Christmas camel

Two years ago, with Christmas fast approaching during the Heir’s nursery year at school, the following exchange took place:

The Heir’s teacher: I asked your son to be Joseph in the Christmas Play.
Me: [Surge of maternal pride]
Teacher: But he didn’t want to be Joseph.
Me: Oh dear.
Teacher: He saw the other costumes and has chosen to be…
Me: [brief moment of hope reignited – a shepherd? a wise man?]
Teacher: … A camel.
Me: [hope fades]

In fairness, the Heir embraced his chosen role with enthusiasm, and managed on the big day to at least appear to be in the right place at the right time throughout. If I had never before seen a camel divide its time between picking its nose and fiddling with its genitals, I was merely grateful that the latter remained inside his camel costume for the duration.

Similarly, when the Spare made his theatrical debut on the same stage a few short weeks ago, it coincided with a seasonally inappropriate enthusiasm for naturism. While all around me parents willed their little darlings to remember song lyrics and steps, I prayed that mine would keep his clothes on.

Having now enjoyed/endured (delete as appropriate) a grand total of four pre-prep nativity plays, I have a healthy respect for the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. No wonder the teachers look exhausted by the end of term – those twenty-odd minutes the children spend on stage represent hours and hours of hard work scripting, rehearsing, creating costumes and generally ensuring that everything is perfect for an audience of expectant parents.

The first problem these long-suffering staff encountered was at the casting stage: the Spare came triumphantly home and announced that he was going to be a polar bear in his year’s nativity. Intrigued to know how such an unlikely animal might be scripted into the traditional setting, I questioned his teacher who confirmed this was just wishful thinking on the part of the Spare. I wondered briefly whether his sheer strength of mind might result in a hasty relocation of Bethlehem to the Arctic Circle, and was relieved when, reconciled to the absence of his favourite animal, he chose instead to be a star.

Then there is the learning of lines and songs. As both my sons are currently obsessed with all things lavatorial, it came as no surprise when rehearsing the songs at home that they quickly replaced several key official words with base interjections of their own. Cue much sniggering and egging each other on to further excesses of silliness until almost every other word of several songs had been substituted. After many fruitless attempts to make them stick to the correct lyrics, I decided to turn a deaf ear and thankfully they were neither brave nor foolish enough to treat their teachers to their own versions.

On the big day, the audience were requested, politely but firmly, not to wave at their children whilst on stage as they would be “in character”. We were also asked not to use flash photography because not only would it distract the children but would interfere with the quality of the professional DVD that was being recorded (yours for £16…) The DVD creates an additional hazard the savvy parent quickly learns to avoid – being interviewed on the way out and immortalised on camera. The first year O and I can be glimpsed ducking out of the way, but we have now perfected the art of lurking behind until some other poor soul has been preyed upon then making a dash for freedom. This is probably a good thing as I am not sure my contribution of “that was hysterical” would be greatly appreciated among the misty-eyed “it was wonderful”s and “they did so well”s delivered by other, more sentimental parents.

Of course I do think it is wonderful and I am thrilled that my boys have the confidence to stand on stage and deliver lines to a packed theatre at such a young age, but thus far my overwhelming feeling afterwards has been of relief that they weren’t centre of attention for all the wrong reasons. Hopefully the year will come when I can just sit back, relax and enjoy the show, but I am not quite there yet.

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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.

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The truth about the summer holidays

I am sitting on the freezer in the garage, eating Ben & Jerry’s straight from the tub. Week Four into the summer holidays and desperate measures are called for to save the few remaining shreds of my sanity. I have a maximum of five minutes before my idyll will be ruptured by shouts of “Mummy, mummy, MUMMY!” or the screams that herald one son thumping the other, so I spoon the ice cream into my mouth as fast as I can. I need the energy to get me through the next few hours until bedtime and I have already eaten every morsel of chocolate in the house, even the 80% cocoa solids one that I don’t like.

You see, I am not a mother who embraces the holidays with open arms. Since my Facebook newsfeed is full of the unparalleled fun other parents are (apparently) having with their offspring, I am forced to conclude that either I am an intolerant mother or they are exaggerating to impress their virtual compatriots. I, for one, slightly dread the endless progression of days to be filled, sibling fights to be refereed and activities to be dreamed up that invariably take more time to tidy afterwards than they actually keep the boys entertained for in the first place. This on top of the usual daily round of washing, cooking, (occasional) cleaning and generally trying to run my household. Having chosen to put my career on hold when the Heir was born five and a half years ago, and with a husband who works very long hours, I can honestly say that extra time spent with my children is not always a luxury.

Of course it isn’t all bad: I appreciate that I am lucky to be able to spend so much time with the boys, and that O would relish the chance to swap the two and a half hours a day he currently spends commuting for time spent with his family. It is just that eight weeks is an awfully long time to fill continuously with exciting entertainment. I do as much as I can to prepare in advance of the holiday: throughout June and early July I stockpiled various weapons in my armoury, filling up the arts and craft box, replacing long-dead batteries and amassing previously-unwatched Disney films. Best of all, I discovered that Nectar points can be converted to Ebay vouchers, which I used to purchase a vast bundle of used Lego. The look of incredulous delight on the faces of the Heir and Spare entirely justified the fortune I must have spent in Sainsbury over the past decade to have accumulated so much credit.

We started well, with a packed calendar and myriad activities. I try to avoid the big commercial favourites because they are so unbearably crowded (during a wallet-busting trip to Legoland last summer we spent so long standing in queues that we managed to go on a grand total of seven rides all day). However, the lovely weather opened up endless possibilities of picnics, playdates, nature walks (later using our finds to create “artwork” for the kitchen wall), den-building, and generally having fun outside. When the sun was simply too hot, I dredged though websites, books and magazines for indoor entertainment ideas and we have had great fun experimenting with new things. Any spare minutes were spent happily sorting and playing with the new Lego.

A trip to the beach when last we visited Granny and Grandad yielded a motley collection of stones, and in a flash of inspiration we decided to paint them. This proved a big hit and the kitchen is now home to a herd of brightly coloured stone creatures. Admittedly it wasn’t a hundred per cent success: the Spare painted more of his own hands and the table cloth than his stones; everyone entering the kitchen for the next three days ended up with glitter adhered to some part of their person; and I stuck my thumb and forefinger together when I resorted to superglue after PrittStick failed to stick pipe cleaner “legs” to stone “beetles”. But these were a small price to pay for keeping both boys entertained for the best part of an hour – something of a record for the Spare.

However, despite best intentions, my early holiday enthusiasm has diminished with the slow passing of time, and our busy schedule has tailed off into perhaps one structured daily activity. I spend the rest of the time bribing the boys to help clean out the chickens with the promise of a trip to the toyshop, bribing them to be nice to each other with the promise of a trip to the toyshop and turning a blind eye to them causing havoc creating obstacle courses across half the house (which I later bribe them to tidy up with the promise of a trip to the toyshop…)

Best of friends when they see each other only outside school/nursery hours, the Heir and Spare are currently at an age where too much time in each other’s company invariably results in wars of word and fist (I have it on good authority they should grow out of this by the time they reach their early thirties). It can be hard to gear activities to a level that suits both of them. The Heir will spend ages colouring, creating Hamabead dinosaurs or even (occasionally) practising his letters, but the Spare’s tolerance for any activity involving sitting still times out after approximately thirty seconds. He gets bored, and finds distraction in the destruction of his brother’s creations. On these occasions, when the Heir resorts to violence, I can’t blame him.

Once I realised that we would all benefit from a little time apart, I began to investigate options for outsourcing. A little bit of research revealed any number of holiday clubs and courses to suit most interests and pockets. I enrolled both boys into a week-long course of swimming lessons, happily envisioning a daily half-hour spent sipping Earl Grey and surreptitiously reading a magazine whilst pretending to admire their progress. Alas, the water-phobic Spare steadfastly refused to get in the water unless I got in with him and my bergamot-infused dreams dissipated as I towed him reluctantly from one side of the pool to the other.

When all else fails and both my brain and patience levels are completely drained (usually on a daily basis) I park them in front of a DVD. Even then they often fight over what to watch and instead of gently but firmly impressing upon them the need for harmony and sharing, I put one in the playroom and the other in the sitting room, each with the film of their choice. During the holidays even more than usual I choose my battles wisely.

In fairness to the Heir and the Spare, both have good imaginations and often come up with their own ideas. Yesterday, they decided that the one place they really wanted to play was inside the large dog crate that we keep to house the occasional sick chicken. I entertained a brief fantasy about locking them in for ten minutes while I had a cup of tea in peace, which remained unfulfilled largely because there was no available padlock. My sons mean everything to me, but after several weeks of their undiluted company I have decided that right now I love them best of all when they are asleep. Bring on the first day of term.

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“A girl next?”

I don’t often feel inclined to slap people, particularly pregnant women, but the other day I came across a worthy candidate. I found myself sitting next to her at a party, watching a small pack of children – among them my two sons and her own boy – charge about in high spirits. I knew her only a little, so followed the usual talking-to-a-pregnant-person etiquette: congratulations: when was she due; how was her pregnancy etc. Then I made my mistake. Did she know whether she was having a boy or a girl? “Oh yes, it is a girl this time,” she said, smugly. “I am so lucky to be having one of each – that is what everyone wants.”
“Oh?” I replied, “Is it? Actually I am completely happy with two boys.” And I got up and walked away before the twitch in my hand became uncontrollable.

Perhaps, to be charitable, she had forgotten that I have two sons (unlikely, given that I had introduced them to her moments earlier). Most likely she just didn’t think. She could have said: “I am so lucky to be having one of each because it is what I have always wanted”, which would have been fine. Instead, in one loaded sentence she inferred that it is inferior to have two sons. She was also ignorantly implying that I, as the second of two daughters, was a disappointment to my parents.

It was the most tactless comment of its kind I have ever experienced, despite the number of people who felt it appropriate, during my second pregnancy, to tell me that I must be “hoping for a girl this time” (Must I? I guess I missed the antenatal class covering that one) and later, when the Spare was born, to speculate that O. and I would now want a third, to “try for a girl.” I was deeply offended by the implication that I should, or even could, be dissatisfied with my second gorgeous, healthy son.

Until I had the Heir and the Spare it had never even occurred to me that, in modern liberal society, there might be considered an “ideal” gender division among your children. If I thought about it at all it was to count myself lucky that I don’t live in an age or culture where my entire pregnancy would be dominated by the pressure to produce a son. However, conversations with other parents have shown me that my experiences are depressingly common. In fact, I got off lightly compared to some. The near-universal theme is that other people (friends, family, a random stranger encountered in the supermarket) assume parents must want one baby of each gender. One mum even had someone buy her a book on “choosing the sex of your baby” when she was planning a second child, because “of course you want to have one of each.”

Mothers of a boy and a girl have been treated to such delightful comments as “you can relax now because you have one of each” and “now that you have a boy and a girl your family is complete” (because parents of same-sex siblings have incomplete families, right?) I know of more than one mum who had people suggest her third pregnancy must be a mistake as she already had one of each.

Turns out there is a further complication: the absolute best way of doing it, apparently, is to have a son followed by a daughter. A good friend has been told that she has “done it right” not only by having one of each but by having her son first. Another friend was assured how “clever” she was to have had a boy and then a girl.

Often the pressure for gender preference comes from the older generation, for whom tact isn’t always a concern. One grandfather, himself father of two girls, said to his pregnant daughter: “if it’s not a girl I’m not interested, I won’t know what to do”, while conversely another dismissed his third in a line of granddaughters as “another bloody girl”. Again, there is often a much-voiced desire to have a “pigeon pair” of grandchildren, even if the parents themselves have no preference. This weight of expectation can be daunting, worrying and downright harmful – I spoke to one mother who believes that pressure from her partner’s parents contributed to her severe postnatal depression as she felt she had “let them down” by having another daughter.

I would have imagined that, for those who have struggled to conceive or carry a baby to term, gender preference seems an unimaginable luxury. But it turns out that it isn’t always negated, particularly among concerned others. One friend, pregnant through IVF after years of disappointment, had no personal preference but her parents-in-law, despite knowing how hard-got this baby was, still insisted on telling her how much they wanted a grandson (which they didn’t get).

There is a prevailing feeling in my social circles that, if you have to have two the same, then having multiple daughters is somehow preferable (never, however, from people who have exclusively sons of their own). Some comments are downright offensive. I know mums whose second or third sons were greeted by “poor you”, “never mind” and “what a shame”. Another reported an acquaintance saying to her “I’m so glad I’ve only got girls, I’d hate to have boys”. Sons, it would seem, are perceived to be harder work. Well guess what? Parenting is hard work, irrespective of whether you have sons or daughters. Boys and girls? Swings and roundabouts.

Probably because we had no real preferences either way, O. and I never found out our baby’s gender during either of my pregnancies. Many people do, however, and say that if you have a strong preference it is helpful to come to terms with the gender of your child as early as possible. One mum confessed that, upon finding out her unborn child was third boy, she subjected her family to “a weekend of hell with me swearing and cussing that I was going to be surrounded by testosterone and penises…” before becoming reconciled and falling instantly in love with him. Indeed, almost everyone I know who was initially disappointed by the results of a prenatal scan claims to have been completely accepting by the time the child was born.

Unsurprisingly, our own childhoods influence our feelings on this topic – the desire to repeat positive experiences and avoid negative ones. I am so close to my sister that I was with her during her labour, which has definitely made me look favourably on same-sex sibling bonds. (I did secretly used to want an older brother – firstly so he could be like Julian from The Famous Five and later so I could date his friends – but I would never have swapped my sister for him.) Equally, many people who have bad relationships with their brother or sister prefer a different gender balance than the one they endured themselves, in case of history repeating itself. Additionally, what you want before you have children may change according to what you have first: a second-time parent is influenced by what sibling they want for their firstborn.

I believe that a great deal of gender preference comes down to stereotypes. Over and over I hear women say they want girls for the enduring quality of the mother/daughter bond. But there is no reason that a mother and son cannot be equally good friends. I have a strong relationship with my mother, but I don’t in any way feel bereft because I won’t have an identical one with a daughter of my own. Having a girl doesn’t guarantee a close friendship, any more than having a boy means you won’t be looked after in old age. The Spare’s favourite colour is pink and, age three, he enjoys trying to walk in my high heels. I find this amusing and I certainly don’t tell me he can’t because he is a boy, but I am not secretly hoping it means he will be gay (although if he is that is fine) in order to be my “substitute daughter”.

The pregnant woman at the party angered me with her tactlessness, but ultimately it didn’t really matter because I am absolutely thrilled with my boys. I never felt an overwhelming desire or any pressure from my nearest and dearest to have a daughter in preference to, or as well as, a second son and I certainly don’t feel my family to be “incomplete”. No two children are alike, be they boys or girls, so perhaps it would be helpful to focus on a baby as an individual rather than a gender. Ultimately, whatever the parents’ thoughts may be, it is never appropriate for others to voice anything other than enthusiasm for a baby of either gender.