The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting


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Double standards and the hands-on dad

They’re not as light as they look, are they, children? The picture of the buggy on the Mamas and Papas website portrays a svelte hipster in an achingly nice sweater propelling his Little Darling along without a care in the world. Probably he would glide casually up Gipsy Hill. Well, I’m no hipster. I’m an overweight 1990s throwback and I used to dislike climbing up that hill when all I had to do was pick up our curry for two from Crystal Palace. With my child in tow I have seriously considered crampons and a rope.

It’s the trips first thing that bite the hardest, when the air is cold and apparently serrated as it stabs its way down to my pounding lungs; my legs still ache from wandering aimlessly around the lounge the night before fruitlessly trying to settle The Boy; and my head aches from dehydration because for some days now there hasn’t really been enough time to pour myself a glass of water. When I reach the top I pause and gaze back over London. I pretend it’s to enjoy the view, but when you’re basically crying because you’re so unfit you can’t see much anyway. I stop simply so I don’t keel over. It is on such a morning and in just such a state of obliterated reverie that a woman stops her car at the traffic lights, winds her window down and yells at me: “Nice to see a father doing a shift for a change!”

I don’t react, partly because I haven’t regained the power of speech after my mountaineering exertions, but mostly because I am a little shocked at being screamed at, and bewildered by what might cause someone to reach such as state of agitation that they bawl at me in the middle of the road before driving on. How egregious must my gender appear to her to be, that it should provoke such an odd reaction to the sight of a man pushing his child up a hill?

The Boy is sick, a consequence of eating mud, or poo, or another child’s finger, or some such hostile infiltrator of our carefully and endlessly sterilised and disinfected existence, and I am off to Sainsbury’s to buy some form of chemical plug for his effervescent rear end. His front end is pretty volatile when it comes to that, and my lurch up Gipsy Mountain has been accompanied by bouts of prolonged, agonized screeching. All illnesses suffered by an infant are of course exacerbated by their immediately catching a cold. In short, his world is ending, the ravens are leaving the tower, all is lost, and worse still his teeth are all hurty. Happily we are still at the stage where the dummy is a pacifier rather than a useful projectile weapon, and so it is that, finally becalmed, we mooch forlornly around the aisles looking for his medicine.

I used self-service supermarket tills long before The Boy was born, essentially because I am a misanthrope, and any form of interaction avoidance technology is absolutely fine by me. But there is a flaw in the system, a loophole exposed by The Boy’s company and ruthlessly exploited by enemy forces. The prowling assistant whose job it is to relieve bagging areas of their unexpected items will make a beeline for any buggy. The one in Crystal Palace Sainsbury’s is particularly persistent. “Breathe on her,” I plead with The Boy inwardly as she inevitably approaches, “breathe on her hard. Give her your cold. It’s the only way she’ll learn. It’s too late for us, but you might just save others.”

“Isn’t he amazing?” asks the assistant, apparently rhetorically, bending over the buggy. I smile. As it happens I agree with her. The Boy glares. We routinely tell friends The Boy takes against that it’s random and he’s just in a bad mood. He isn’t. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He just doesn’t like you, and he doesn’t like the persistent assistant in Crystal Palace Sainsbury’s.

“You’re amazing,” she continues, firmly unabashed, “but you don’t need that, do you.” With that she reaches into the buggy, removes the dummy from his mouth, and then wanders off to help someone buying a six pack of Tennent’s who can’t do so without its being verified that he is eighteen. That it’s 8.30 in the morning, and the singular odour of the individual in question suggests that he’s already put away three or four, is not an impediment to the persistent assistant’s willingness to verify, cheered as she is by her heart-warming encounter with my child, fortified by the sense that she has righted a hapless father’s mistake.

You will think I should have said something to this idiot. You might say I should have retorted with something sharp and witty to the woman who stopped her car to yell at me. I should certainly have said something unpleasant to the toothy Underground gate attendant who, having obsequiously held the luggage gate open for the improbably attractive mother pushing the ostentatiously vast pram, let it swing back on The Boy and me at Tower Hill. I might have been more aggressive in pursuit of a seat on the train home from London, when all those miserable bastards looked up, thought, “he’s a man, he’ll cope” and stayed exactly where they were. I could have pulled my colleague up when, after what I will admit was a fairly melodramatic, morning-after rendering of the story of what a nightmare The Boy had been when I tried to get him to go to sleep the night before, she replied with a sympathetic tut and the line “sometimes they just want their mum, don’t they…”

The truth is my stock reaction to all of these offences – and they are offensive, not innocent mistakes or me taking it wrongly, but considered, prejudiced views of fathers generally – is to smile weakly and walk on. The anger hits me ten minutes later, when having run the incident or conversation back through my mind I realise that it would not have happened had The Boy’s mother been pushing the buggy. The delay is caused by the fact that the prejudice is in me too. I can’t very well be morally outraged (I have a good go, mind) because ten months ago I would have made a lot of the same mistakes. Although I like to think that I wouldn’t have snatched a dummy out of the mouth of someone else’s child, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me to stop my car to yell at a dad in the street.

There’s an extent to which we bring this nonsense on ourselves. Just one in 172 fathers take Additional Paternity Leave. Certainly among the couple of dozen fathers at my office I am the only one who has done so to date. Worse still, four in ten fathers don’t take paternity leave at all. Statistically, therefore, fatherhood is a relatively rare public sight. I can be as upset as I like by it but I ought not to be surprised.

A recent Frog Pyjamas post makes the point that the very terminology of fatherhood is wrong. I am not “happy to help out”. Happiness doesn’t come into it. (For the sake of clarity, I am well beyond merely being “happy” to be a father, and never more so than when I returned to Sainsbury’s the following weekend and saw the persistent assistant sneezing heavily.) But I know dads who refer to looking after their kids alone in the evening as “babysitting” without thinking it’s at all an odd way to put it. When I breathlessly announced my impending fatherhood to my male colleagues, my trembling hand clasping the grainy picture of what we had been assured by the medical staff was some form of human life, I felt the searching glances of more than one of them, trying to determine whether I regarded these tidings as wonderful or a dire, personal tragedy.

My own father, for whom such things as Additional Paternity Leave were not available, gazed sagely down on his grandson on hearing these complaints and remarked that such sexism will probably be a thing of the past when The Boy is staggering around with his own buggy. I’m not so sure. Equality tends only to come to those who campaign for it. At the very least it requires dads like me to stop grinning and walking on.

Guest blogger: Steve

Grumpy father trying and failing to resist the unbending and thus far all-powerful will of his first child

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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.