The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting


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Well done Serena – but please, folks, don’t expect us all to do that

So Serena Williams won the Australian Open when she was eight weeks pregnant. Good for her. I did something amazing in the first trimester, too: some days, I even got out of bed.

When I look back on my early pregnancies, especially the second one, there are no sporting achievements to remember. Instead, there is exhaustion: leaden-bone exhaustion. And there is puke. A lot of it.

Some snapshots. Hanging over the loo, my head actually in the bowl, vomit in my hair, knowing that if I made myself lift my head up, I could be sick again and buy myself maybe five minutes’ relief from the all-pervading nausea, but too miserable even to do that. Stopping on the way to work to be sick behind a bin in central Edinburgh. (Yep, classy as hell.) Standing in front of a room of students, my goals narrowing from the usual criteria of being as engaging and informative as possible, to the simple aim of getting through the class without spewing on them.

And then, the second time round, constant guilt – through the constant sorry-for-myselfness – that I had so little time or energy for my adorable toddler.

It wasn’t a happy time, however happy the end result. So why recall it now? Certainly not to denigrate Serena Williams: about as inspirational a woman as you could hope to find, with reserves of talent, strength and endurance I can barely imagine. But when I hear stories like that, while part of me thinks “Fantastic” and “Aren’t women amazing?” there’s also a part that thinks: “Oh God, here we go.” Because here’s another reason for some men (and even some women who breezed through it) to accuse those who us who found pregnancy a body-invading ordeal, of malingering. (And yep, there are plenty of them out there: just check out the charmers here or here.)

Trust me, we weren’t. If you want to know what pregnancy is like, for those who get it hard, think of the worst hangover you’ve ever had. The horrible, all-consuming nausea. Only it doesn’t go away. For months and months. Then imagine you also have flu, so lifting your arms and legs is like doing weights. Even standing up for more than a few minutes is touch and go. Then envisage trying to get through your days without more than a handful of people knowing that you feel like this. Because of course you haven’t hit the magic 12 weeks yet. And I’m just talking ordinary bad pregnancy sickness: not the back-in-hospital for dehydration kind.

So yes, all credit to Serena, and to Alysia Montaño running an 800m race at 34 weeks pregnant, and all the other women who continue to achieve great things while they are growing another person. But personally I found it more helpful when the Duchess of Cambridge spoke out about her experience of hyperemesis gravidarum, than I do all the current raving about “what woman can do”.

Yes, of course I’d take Serena as a role model for my girls any day, especially over a woman whose entire career is being married to a prince. But when I saw pictures of Kate trying to smile and get through an awards show, I felt less alone. I knew that she, too, must just be thinking: “Please don’t puke, please don’t puke.” The more honesty there is about how hard those early months can be, the less pressure women feel under to pretend everything is just fine. The more we might feel it’s OK to tell people, and to take time off. And the less excuse any partners will have for that oh-so-understanding phrase: “Making a fuss.”


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My family and other people: The impossible task of parenting in public

I see her all the time: my pre-motherhood self. I see her in unimpressed strangers if my three year-old launches a ‘BUT I WANT IT’ rage over some withheld treat, or the baby wails in her buggy on the bus. I see her in the man whose face falls when we sit next to him on the train. I even see flashes of her in the café owner whose frozen smile and barbed comments have left my girls and me effectively ASBO’d. Most of all, I saw her in the student who spent an entire carol service glaring at the two families in the row behind: four harassed and (initially) apologetic parents, two wriggling and vocal toddlers, and a baby I was trying to breastfeed under my coat so she didn’t scream the place down.

Ten, twenty years ago, I couldn’t bear it when children had snot running down their face. My internal monologues on the people who ‘let’ their children scream during weddings were a masterclass in intolerance. I used to wonder why parents whose babies kept me awake on a plane weren’t marching them up and down the aisle from take-off to landing. I would have loved the latest transport innovation: child-free zones.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like children. I adored my little cousins and later my nephews and friends’ children. But I thought parenting was just a matter of doing it the right way. I thought badly behaved kids = terrible parents. I failed altogether to grasp two simple truths. 1) Children are their own people. 2) You’re so desperately tired – from the start of pregnancy until, well, forever probably – that it’s impossible to follow even the simplest rules.

Calm but firm, I thought, looking superiorly around at all the uncalm, unfirm parents and rampant children around me. That’s all it takes. Now I wish I could go spiralling back through the decades and chant at my former self: ‘Calm but firm. Calm but firm. CALM BUT FIRM. Ha ha ha ha ha.’ Then I’d go round apologising on her behalf.

Of course, I still judge other people’s parenting. (Be honest: we all do it.) But I’ve got a whole new margin of tolerance, and a whole new realm of understanding. There is some bad parenting – there is some shockingly awful parenting – but there are a lot more parents who are trying their best, even if that isn’t always obvious to the childfree bystander.

I understand, now, that the four year-old sprinting up and down the train carriage has probably been allowed to do that because she’ll yell herself silly otherwise. I know if you are only going two bus stops more, it’s not worth wresting the baby out of the buggy to calm her down. I understand that the mother clutching her wailing infant on a plane may be too exhausted from a zillion sleepless nights to stand, never mind walk. I know the baby may be teething, or have sore ears.

I know that snotty-nosed mite’s parents probably did just wipe it, because I am now horribly familiar with the incredible speed and volume of toddler snot production. (Scientists should really be trying to replicate it as an energy source.) I realise it’s at least a possibility that the happy couple asked parents not to remove their noisy offspring from the wedding ceremony. (Although I’m still kind of with younger-me on that one: I whisk my own babies out at the first squeak, with the result that the only wedding service T. and I have sat through together since A. was born was the one with the no children rule.)

Now I think why on earth have a kids’ menu if you don’t want actual – living, breathing, moving – children in your café. (Faced recently with a notice on a restaurant indicating that children were welcome only if they were quiet and still, my sister and and I laughed out loud and took our hungry brood elsewhere.) I realise that parents have to do some of the things they enjoy with their little monsters in tow. It’s that or have no life. And why the hell not? It’s crucial bonding. Plus children are part of society – even if some commentators seem to forget that – and get as much if not more out of museums, galleries, parks and holidays as we do.

Most of all, I understand just how hard it can be to say ‘no’ to a small person who has your heart firmly gripped in their little fist. And I know how bad you can feel when you give in to those disapproving stares and end up being stricter than you actually think is fair.

But that doesn’t mean it should be a free-for-all. If we expect tolerance, we have to show some consideration. As parents, we’re not always good at that. We are all too inclined to think the world should revolve around our children, and that they are so cute that everyone should be prepared to overlook even the most outrageous behaviour. (People are much the same with their dogs, I’ve noticed, and it is every bit as misjudged there.)

Why should the childfree should have to put up with all the noise and mess that goes with being around small children, when they don’t get the amazing, intangible positive stuff that we get from parenting? It’s not like we do them a favour by having children. (In fact, as an environmentalist, I feel like I should thank anyone who chooses not to.) Maybe we should remember that more often than we manage to do, caught up in those day-to-day exhaustions and petty battles.

There’s a line somewhere between letting your toddler stand up on the bus seat to chat to the passengers behind, and watching her drag all the books off the shelves in a shop; between handing out ‘I’m sorry’ goody bags to fellow passengers the minute you step onto the plane, and sitting silently while your progeny throw food and pull hair all journey. And, of course, there are venues and venues. Anyone who has had a special occasion meal out ruined by someone else’s running, shouting child is entitled to be pissed off. But it’s just plain stupid to take a laptop into a ‘yummy mummy’ café and expect peace and quiet to work.

As for me, I like to think I have some intuitive idea of where that fine line lies between being over-restrictive to my girls and inconsiderate to others. But I still fall off it, on one side or the other, on an almost daily basis.


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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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Why I want more for my daughters than girls’ clothes

“What a lovely little boy.”
“She’s a girl, but thank you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” [Peers closer.] “Oh, she’s got pink on her vest. Of course she’s a girl.”
“Er- no. SHE HASN’T GOT A PENIS, so of course she’s a girl. It’s got nothing to do with the colour of her vest.”

Alas, only three-quarters of that conversation actually happened. The last bit is just what I wish I’d said.

My blue-eyed, fat-cheeked nine-month old is regularly mistaken for a boy. That in itself wouldn’t trouble me: at that stage, left to themselves, they mostly just look like babies. However, I am bothered that people feel they have to apologise for the mistake, as though I’ll be hurt that she doesn’t look ‘feminine’ enough. And it is irritating – because of what it implies – that this happens every time she’s dressed in anything that isn’t stereotypically girly. (And never, of course, when she is.)

Because it’s not only when she’s in her cousins’ bluer hand-me-downs that this happens. (That, at least, would be unsurprising, if still a bit depressing.) Rather, it seems that there’s no such thing as gender neutral anymore: almost everything I naively thought of as unisex is assumed to be (and sold as) boy-wear. A baby is only allowed to be a girl if she’s wearing pink, lilac, pale purple, flowers, birds, or butterflies. Or sometimes kittens or rabbits. Oh, or a dress. Obviously. Everything else – most colours, almost all animals, and (of course!) anything transport related – is for boys.

And I use ‘allowed’ advisedly. If I correct people on my baby’s sex, I get accusation almost as regularly as apology. An aggrieved: “But she’s wearing blue/dungarees/a picture of a truck.” Like I’ve been false advertising.

All this is annoying enough, but it’s even more disturbing when combined with another trend on the baby circuit: baby girls sporting bandanas decorated with a bow or flower, in lieu of long hair. Just to make sure, presumably, that no-one could mistake them for a boy.

This depresses me. Of course I’m not saying don’t do it. It would be the height of hypocrisy to complain about being told how to dress my girls, then lecture other mothers on how to dress theirs. I’m not suggesting we should all be like the couple who not only eschewed all gendered clothing and toys, but refused to disclose the sex of their child until he was five years old. Far from it: I have lots of fun putting my girls in dresses and flowers – it’s just not all I dress them in – and I would love plaiting my three year-old’s hair if she would let me.

But I see these headbands so often that it seems like yet another thing we’re expected to do. I’m starting to feel as though boys are the default, and it’s taken for granted that parents of girls will mark them out as different. Often, even more annoyingly, in intensely impractical ways. There’s no way I could get my wriggling, grabbing, crawling little monster to keep anything like that round her head for more than ten seconds. The sunhat is a battle enough.

Of course, that’s my real bugbear. It’s not just about colour coding. It’s about, effectively, curbing what girls can do. And it only gets worse as they get older. Take the other week. Scene: a major supermarket. My quest: sandals for my three-year-old, for an outdoorsy holiday and charging around the garden without picking up any more splinters. Not too demanding, you would think. But you’d be wrong, reader, because my three-year-old is a girl.

There they were: the shelves of shoes next to one another, one heavily pink, the other mostly blue. I’d expected that. But it went further. The girls’ section featured what looked like fashion sandals. Perfect for attending a party (at least, if it was a sit-down-and-play-with-dolls kind of party); hopeless, as far as I could see, for muddy running, paddling, or climbing. The boys section was a different story. Two sturdy pairs of sandals, securely velcro-strapped, ready to withstand plenty of dirt, and altogether much like a mini version of those sold in outdoor shops. Clearly designed for just such fun as my intrepid Little A. had in mind.

Even the waterproof sandals, presumably both intended for beach-holiday paddling, were starkly gender-divided. In the boys’ corner, closed toed, robust. In the girls’, flimsy, strappy things that promised nothing so much as a sprained ankle at the first scramble over boulders or race up a pebbly shore.

I can’t express how cross this makes me. I was expecting the same outdoorsy shoes in both sections, only with the girls’ ones covered in flowers and pinkness. That would be annoying enough. (Message to my adventure-loving, climbing, jumping daughter: “OK, you can do these things so long as you look pretty at the same time.”) But not having a girls’ equivalent on display at all? That’s basically saying to my girl and all those like her that she shouldn’t be doing those things, full stop. And saying that to her at three years old. What will it be like – what will she expect, of the world and of herself – by the time she’s ten?

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. What she’ll expect, after all, is exactly the kind of society she’s growing up in: one so packed with double standards that women can still be required to wear high heels to the office. But of course that only makes me more furious.

No doubt there’s more I should be doing about this. Petitioning the excellent Let Toys Be Toys campaign group to turn their attention to clothes. Barraging the offending stores with indignant emails. I’ll try both. In the meantime, I did what I often do anyway, and bought from the boys’ section. My daughter now has a pair of sturdy, multi-terrain sandals in her favourite colour: blue. She loves them.

 

 


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Mama fat: why I won’t worry about weight loss this time round

Some pregnant women put on a bump, and that’s it. No other discernible weight at all. Not just photo-shopped celebrities either: women I see on a regular basis. From the back, you would never guess they were pregnant.

Well, I’m not one of them. Nearly seven months in and I look almost as inflated from the back as I do from the front. From the side, I look like Daddy Pig. When I reveal my due date, it is to barely suppressed disbelief that it is not, in fact, tomorrow.

I know from last time that it’ll be the same after the birth. Week after week, another new mum friend would show up to our get-togethers in her pre-pregnancy jeans, apparently effortlessly lithe, while I continued to look five months pregnant (on a good day).

And last time it bothered me, absurdly if, I gather, typically. It wasn’t so bad when I was actually pregnant and could pretend I just looked blooming. But even then – even amid the fear and excitement of preparing for birth – I found time to notice how many of the other mothers in my antenatal classes had not acquired my generous contours. (And when I stop to think about that, WTF? You can bet your life our partners weren’t sitting there worrying that the other dads were taller/fitter/less bald than they were, and they weren’t the ones who had shortly to shove a baby out of a small hole.)

Then, barely over the terrors of a first few weeks when weight loss (our beloved new daughter’s) had given T. and me quite enough real stuff to worry about – and still struggling through an endless grind of expressing, feeding, expressing to make up for my abject failure as a dairy cow – I was noticing again. Noticing that nothing fitted except maternity clothes, that my stomach had all the resilience of a deflating balloon. Spotting a theme to our new-family photos: Little A gorgeous (if frighteningly small), T. proud (if tired)… Oh, and what the hell is that? Jabba the Hutt’s flabbier sister, squashing herself into the frame. In one early snapshot of A., I mistook my thighs for the sofa.

Months two to six were when I really minded. Not so much that I stopped cramming as much food as I could into myself. (Mostly cereal bars: I retained sufficient sense of proportion to mind very much more about getting the milk supply up. Plus I’m basically greedy.) But enough to feel conspicuously un-yummy mummy when I was out and about, to waste a whole lot of time and energy stressing about it, and to start exercising very much sooner – in retrospect – than I should have. I even went to one of those buggy fit classes, lumbering around at the back of a pack of already (it seemed) marathon-ready fellow mums, failing abysmally to do a single press up, trying to ignore the fact that any kind of formalised exercise class has been an anathema to me since the ritual humiliation of PE lessons at school. To add insult to injury, none of this made any difference at all.

This time, though, one thing will have changed: I’ll be trying my very hardest not to care. That’s partly my promise to the child I already have: a small girl brimming with energy and appetite, who already notices everything, and whose main role model I am. I have no desire to pass on any weight-related neurosis to her. (Which, apparently, I all-too easily could.) But it’s also my promise to myself, born of the period of perspective I can now look back on, when the hormones had settled down after delivering and feeding Little A. but before they went crazy again this time around.

Because, of course, it was stupid to mind. Understandable, given the barrage of “lose the baby weight” magazine headlines and parade of improbably skinny celebrity mums – surely they can’t all be flat stomached at four-weeks post-partum? – but stupid nonetheless. Stupid partly because, as it happened, a lot of the extra weight came off of its own accord in the second six months, when I cut down the breastfeeding and (oh the irony!) the exercising. (Some of it never did, and that’s OK too: I just have a new “natural” size.) But stupid mainly because there’s quite enough of emotional turmoil, good and bad, in early parenting, without adding something so completely trivial to the mix.

When I look back on my first months with Little A. (and, fingers crossed, her brother or sister), I will remember the life-changing love and life-changing terror. I will think about those warm, sleepy cuddles, the agony and joy of breastfeeding, those delicious, gummy smiles. About how my own baby’s crying sears me like a physical pain, about the quiet desperation of never getting enough sleep. I will think how short those days really are: how quickly our babies grow and become someone else. More wonderful and more engaging every day, but no longer that new, fragile, helpless little person.

I won’t look back on how long it took me to squeeze back into my favourite dresses, or care if that pair of jeans never made it past my hips again. Of course, I would care if I never got back into running or climbing, or getting out into the hills again, but that’s different. That’s about being healthy – and doing something that keeps me reasonably sane – not just body image.

So that’s what I remind myself of, now the hormones have me in their grasp and the media wants me to believe that I should be able to produce a baby one minute, model a bikini the next. When I catch a glimpse in a full-length mirror, I laugh, or remind myself what an amazing thing that rapidly-ballooning body is doing, and how lucky I am that it can do it. And afterwards? Well, Kate Middleton may be paparazzi-perfect within hours of her daughter’s birth; for me, it would take a few centuries longer. But if I have a healthy, happy baby, and I’m getting even a modicum of sleep, I’m just going to be grateful for that.

As for that third of new mothers who, apparently, feel pressurised to lose their baby weight to please their partner, they need to change something in their lives, but I don’t think it’s their body shape.

 

 

 

 

 


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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