The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting


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Educating not fat-shaming: parenting and body image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Big C: one mother’s journey through breast cancer

We might not find it particularly easy or even joyful, but we all know the benefits of breastfeeding. Immune support. It’s there on tap with no need to sterilise bottles. It can help provide protection from breast cancer… The list goes on.  Although not particularly blessed in the breast department, I managed to (just about) feed each of my boys for at least five months, and encouraged other mums to do the same through my role as chair of a local NCT group. I was an exercise fanatic, I didn’t smoke, didn’t drink that much (although I’m not a saint), I wasn’t overweigh… I was not expecting to be told, at the age of 33 and barely a year after my second son was born, that I had breast cancer.

Early detection is absolutely critical and I thank my lucky stars that I decided to go and tell my GP, on that wet morning in late August 2010, that I had found a small lump, no bigger than a frozen pea, in my left breast. Some months down the line, my GP confessed that she nearly didn’t refer me to the screening clinic as she was convinced it was nothing, given I had only just weaned my youngest son off breast milk. It was only because I had burst into tears on her that she decided to make an appointment for me.

At the clinic, I wasn’t too concerned. The consultant did an ultrasound and then her demeanour changed from chatty to businesslike and she said she wanted to do a biopsy and a mammogram. Still I wasn’t worried! It didn’t occur to me that women my age who have followed all (well, nearly all) the rules for healthy living, should get cancer. She said that there was something there but it was highly likely to be benign and we would know more in a week.

The day of the results was a bright autumn day in September 2010 (I can remember the date, the time, what I was wearing). My husband P and I were taken into a side room at the clinic and the consultant said: “Your results have come back and I’m afraid to say that it is breast cancer. But it is early stage so there is a lot we can do about it.” At this point she paused. I remember just sitting there, numb to the core. Cancer? Really?? That word meant surgery, hair loss, death. Still I felt numb – no words came to me. The consultant carried on talking through the treatment plan, and she wanted to perform another biopsy as they thought there was another tumour alongside the first. I wasn’t really taking it all in. I remember turning to P and seeing his face absolutely blanch. All I could think was that I wouldn’t see my little boys grow up, in fact would I even see Christmas? Did early stage mean I had months, rather than weeks or days to live? The consultant was, by this stage, beckoning me over to another room for the biopsy. I asked P to call my mum – I knew I couldn’t tell her, she had lost her sister to breast cancer five years ago, was she about to lose her daughter too?

I still wasn’t able to speak or even feel anything, even through the ordeal of an x-ray biopsy (being sandwiched in a mammogram machine for over 40 minutes whilst the doctor periodically took images and then samples). In fact it wasn’t until the consultant led me back into the waiting room to see P that I fell apart. The room was full of ladies over 60. I suddenly realised the enormity of this and how young I was and I collapsed on the floor, sobbing. A kind nurse appeared and she and P got me to a side room and sat with me, holding my hand, hugging me and passing me tissues until I had cried it all out. I have never cried that much in my life, it just wouldn’t stop.

The days that followed blurred into one. My mother, although utterly shocked, rallied and came down to help with the boys. H, my eldest, had just turned four and had started reception. S, aged one, was in nursery. Appointments at the hospital merged together, meetings with consultants, oncologists, breast care nurses, leaflets, leaflets, leaflets. It was decided that radical surgery and immediate reconstruction would be the best plan and so, just ten days after that initial diagnosis, I was in the Royal Surrey County Hospital, Guildford.

The surgery itself was an epic seven-hour ordeal followed by a two-week recovery in hospital, surrounded by elderly ladies who all looked at me pityingly, their heads tilted sideways. And then I met Helen – a bubbly, wonderful mum of two (slightly older than mine) who was in the bed across from me. Helen was recovering from an infection in one of her reconstructed breasts, following a double mastectomy (she had the BRCA 1 gene and had found a lump that was quite advanced and aggressive).

She would perch on my bed as I lay there in a morphine-induced fog, surrounded by drips and machines, chattering away and really making me laugh. The night we ordered take away pizza because the food was so vile and watched x-factor curled up on my bed was the night I knew I was going to get through this.

At this point just thinking about my little boys threw me into a state of complete panic and fear. My only experience with cancer had been losing my aunt and so that was my frame of reference. Whilst in hospital and then recovering at home it was obviously impossible for me to function normally as a mother, although we kept everything as low key as possible in front of them. I never wanted them to visit me in hospital because it would have been too traumatic for them. For the first few operations, I was on the ladies cancer ward which is a very difficult place for a child to comprehend and anyway, the risk of them bringing in infection would have been too great. Plus, as a survival instinct, I had mentally detached myself from Anna – the Mother, although I kept photos of them next to my bed and welcomed their cards, pictures and paper flowers.

The other mothers at H’s school and our local friends were incredible. We had meals cooked and delivered for us and one lovely friend even washed H’s PE kit each Friday night so I didn’t have to worry about it. My parents and in-laws were fantastic too and took turns to come and stay so that I could really rest and recover. After leaving hospital, I was initially in so much pain that I couldn’t do anything apart from move very slowly and carefully around the house. Not being able to drive for eight weeks was tough as well. H knew something wasn’t right but we kept the atmosphere as happy and ‘normal’ as possible. He could see the dressings on my back quite clearly and we told him I had had an operation on my back which seemed to satisfy him. The most important thing was to keep up the charade that everything was ok – that helped P and I keep our heads together.

It wasn’t really until about three months later that I found the boys helped me to focus on getting better and feeling positive. I would often lie awake at night thinking about the ‘what if’ and then I would creep into their rooms and watch them sleep.

Because of the extensive surgery and the removal of most of my lymph nodes, the consultant and oncologist were satisfied that the cancer hadn’t spread and thus ruled out any chemo or radiotherapy. I would have to go on hormone therapy for at least five years as the tumours were triple positive (which meant they were fed mostly by oestrogen so it was imperative to remove this hormone from my system to prevent future recurrence). Those first few months post surgery and diagnosis were hard and both P and I were tired, stressed and irritable. I had to go through more operations to fix the reconstruction and I have chronic nerve damage to my back as a result of the reconstruction. The hormone therapy drug, Tamoxifen, caused my body to react so badly that I ended up having a hysterectomy (hilariously, just a week after P had put himself through a vasectomy).

The hardest phase was actually about six months after my official diagnosis, when all the hospital visits started to peter out. I became anxious and fearful and wouldn’t leave the house. Friends still came over to jolly me along but I was terrified and the enormity of it all hit me like a truck. I ended up having counselling and was put on anti depressants. Looking back, I think it was really to be expected – I had spent too long pretending to be fine and never really got to grips with how I actually felt. I bottled it all up and eventually the lid blew off.

It was terrifying to have a taste of my own mortality at a time when P and I had only really just got our heads around being parents. We tried desperately to be upbeat in front of the boys but it didn’t always work out that way. Talking to H now (aged eight), I asked him if he remembered those months when he had started school and his view was that he knew something was up but that he is glad he didn’t know the full extent as it didn’t upset him. I have since told him what happened and we talked through what cancer is and how, given the right and also timely treatment, it can be 100 per cent curable. It is more poignant now as there have been other mums in his school who have been diagnosed and so he is able to offer kind words and support to those boys who are upset – it’s not something I ask him to do, he just wants to. I am very proud of the way in which he has dealt with everything and he is now a remarkably sensitive and kind little boy. S is still too young to understand, but I will tell him when he’s old enough.

I also realise I was lucky. I use that word carefully, because I clearly wasn’t lucky to get cancer in the first place but I was lucky to have found it early and for it to have been treatable. I was also lucky to have the support of an amazing group of doctors, nurses, family and friends who helped P, me and our two little boys through those really dark times.

Guest blogger: Anna

To mark the end of her five year remission, Anna will be running the Virgin London Marathon in April 2015 for Breast Cancer Care – a charity that gave her so much support through their helplines, young women support groups and publications. Every penny goes towards helping another person through the fear and uncertainty of a cancer diagnosis. If you would like to sponsor her, please go to: www.justgiving.com/Annalisa-Alexander1


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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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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?

 

 

 


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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.