The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting


Leave a comment

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.’”

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Daddy-time: Why we all loved paternity leave

A couple of weeks into paternity leave with our eight month-old daughter, my partner T. phoned me at work.

Him: Would you like to meet for lunch?
Me: [Delighted] How lovely. Yes. Where are you?
Him: Just down the road. We’re outside A&E.
Me: WHAT?
Him: [Hastily] But it’s OK, we’ve been in, and she’s fine.
Me: What happened?
[Pause]
Him: A pan fell on her head.
Me: [Horrified silence]
Him: [Small voice] But only a little one.

So far, so stereotypical. But that was more than a year ago, and we’ve all survived. More than that: sharing the parental leave was one of the best things we’ve done.

For him… well, he can speak for himself. [And does, below.] A. got to forge a close bond with an already adoring father which will last her all of her life. More immediately, she didn’t have to take one huge step (doing without me) at the same time as another (starting nursery). For me, it was a chance to reduce the hit that maternity leave inevitably takes on a mother’s career but without, in the first instance, having to leave my beloved little dot with strangers. (I went back three days a week at first, and that helped too.)

It was good for us all in another way, too: it forced me to shift from keeping a steely grip on baby-related decision-making to being prepared to trust him. More than that: to accept that, for a while, he would know more about her routine, her development, her likes and dislikes, than I did.

That wasn’t easy at first. I’d been her primary carer from the day she was born: breastfeeding (after a traumatic start), learning to make sense of her wants, getting some kind of a grip on her routine. Then weaning her, encouraging her, watching her past each milestone. Learning slowly how to be a parent, and then learning again, by changing every day how I did things. And all the time having her there, close by me, kissable on demand and almost always consolable in my arms or at my breast. Now, I had to hand her over, knowing he would make mistakes, wouldn’t do as I did, wouldn’t be able to reassure her as quickly as I could.

To make it even harder, for nearly six weeks of those months of intense mother-baby bonding T. hadn’t seen her at all. He’d been overseas for work. My first day back at the office, Little A.’s aunt would have done better on a “what does she need when?” quiz than her father. Probably her five year-old cousin would have.

For all that, it worked. For a few days, T. phoned me every half hour to check some small detail of routine or ask me where her shoes were. For a week after that, I was phoning him almost as often – for reassurance. The only person who adjusted seamlessly was Little A. herself. But we got there. And it was almost worth the stress of learning to leave her, to come back in the evenings to small chubby arms reaching out of a high chair, and a radiant smile on a food-smeared face.

True, T. didn’t – still doesn’t – look after Little A. exactly in the way I would. There was an awful lot of what he calls independent play and I call leaving her on the floor while he gets on with his own stuff. But then independence is a useful trait. Plus she wouldn’t have been up so many of Edinburgh’s hills on my back, nor been introduced at so early an age (ever, probably) to the joys of ornithology. And at least I came home to find my supper cooking away on the hob, which is more than T. did when I was on mat leave.

As for his pan-related blip? Well, probably the biggest challenge to co-parenting (for me) is coming to terms with different attitudes to risk. But, being charitable, parenting is a steep learning curve, and it’s even steeper, in some ways, if you are suddenly presented with a crawling, grabbing little monster, than if you can build up to it through the transition from staying put to reaching, rolling, udging, etc. And I’ve said it before: if we can’t force ourselves to leave dads to get on with the childcare, un-micro-managed, we’ll always be the “experts”, and we’ll always be expected to do all the work.

That’s where the new legislation comes in. For a month now, dads in England and Wales have been able to share parental leave. They even get some statutory pay for. Let’s hope it makes a difference: in 2013, only 1 in 172 dads was taking additional paternity leave. (For an exception, see my fellow blogger.) Even in Scotland, where some sharing was already an option, T. was very much the exception among our friends and colleagues.

I’m not sure how optimistic to be. Employers can always find more subtle ways to discourage new fathers: making them feel more vulnerable to redundancy, or encouraging a macho culture in which this just isn’t “done”. (In 2014, around 2 in 5 dads didn’t even take the paternity leave they were entitled to, apparently believing there was a social stigma around it.) There’s also the financial aspect.

And, of course, it’s not for everyone. Some mums, understandably enough, don’t want to give up any of this precious time. (As one friend put it: “The day he takes some of the pregnancy off me is the day he gets some of the maternity leave.”) But I can’t believe that the current imbalance is down to no other couples wanting to do it. So fingers crossed. As for us, we’re hoping to be able to do it again, this time next year.

T. says:

Why don’t we have five day weekends and two day weeks? A common refrain in many an office. Well, when I took paternity leave that’s exactly what I got. Five days of fun every week. Only two days of paid work, right enough, but one of us was always going to take the leave and we’re paid roughly the same so the family income wasn’t affected.

Setting it up was a breeze: the HR manager at work ran the process like clockwork. Technically I was not on paternity leave, as employment law stipulates that one cannot take that part-time. Instead I made a formal flexible-working arrangement for three months. My employers could have rejected my request but had they done so I could have forced the issue by requesting paternity leave and working no days. This arrangement suited both parties – they got me for two days of the working week and I got Little A. for three.

I took the leave from January to April. I was never worried about my ability to take care of A. but I was aware it would take some getting used to. Was I prepared? What would I forget? With this in mind, I took a day’s holiday and had a practice run. A. and I went to the museum and met a friend for lunch with Liz at home ready to help out if necessary. As it was, it all went well and when the big day came we happily waved Liz off to work and got ready for our day.

It was easy enough; A. was still sleeping twice per day so we went for long walks up the local hills while she did so. Between times we shopped or played, or she played and I cooked and cleaned. I also got to join the weekly meet-ups of the mothers and babies from our NCT group, which up to that point had been a mostly all-female affair. They were one of the highlights of my week. A. was lovely to spend time with but her conversation was rubbish.

While I have no problem with Liz’s parenting style, it is not the same as mine. I am far more willing than Liz to let A. try something and fail before helping her. I also have more faith in her ability to bounce – both literally and metaphorically. A bruise won’t kill her and nor should a setback stop her trying. The three months of Daddy-time allowed me to shape my daughter in the ways I wanted; they also let me learn how to care for her.

So do it: it gives you time off work; it give you precious time to be fly solo and finally it lets you bring up your kid in the way you want. One note of caution, though: don’t drop pans on your child’s head; trips to A&E are a real waste of time.


2 Comments

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?