The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting


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Parenting in dark times

With my more direct hat on, I’d call this post: ‘How to be a good parent when the world is turning to sh*t.’

My girls are still small, so I didn’t face the immediate challenge many parents did on November 9. I didn’t have to explain to them what the hell had just happened or why Daddy and I were using quite so many bad words. Nor did I have to tell them why we and a group of fellow parents were drinking too much and boycotting all media last Friday night. (On June 24, I did try to tell Little A – in three-year-old-friendly terms – why I wasn’t at my best. However, her only response was to demand a snack, so it seems safe to assume she didn’t grasp my real opinion of Brexit.)

But as I ask myself how I’m going to bring my daughters up – as I stare into the gulf between the world they look set to inherit and the one I want them to live in – I figure I have challenges enough. We all do.

I want my girls to believe in human equality regardless of race or religion: to believe in it at so deep a level that they don’t even have think about believing it. I want them to empathise with refugees as desperate fellow human beings, not fear them as a rabid alien force hell-bent on stealing jobs and bombing cities. Yes, Theresa, I want my daughters to be citizens of the world and proud of it.

How do I teach them these things when it seems to have become OK to be openly racist? When being anti-Muslim can get you, oh, all the way to the White House. When there are violent attacks on Poles living in the UK? When some of my own friends and colleagues have been verbally abused for not being British? I want to bring up compassionate, loving human beings, but there is so much that will teach them to hate.

I also want to bring up confident women. I want it never even to occur to my girls that they aren’t as good as boys. I want them to value themselves for themselves. I want them to grasp the future with ambition and confidence. How can I do that when the newly appointed ‘leader of the free world’ has been caught on video boasting of serial groping? (FFS: his idea of a compliment to his own daughter is to say that if she weren’t his daughter, he might be dating her.) How can they not see this as a man’s world when that same self-proclaimed ‘grabber of pussies’ has just signed a bill to jeopardise women’s reproductive rights and put their lives at risk across the globe?

How can I look forward to the future for my children – let alone their children – when the life that people like me have been living for generations has comprehensively screwed up the planet? When for one major step forward (Paris climate deal), we have another lurch back into the fossil fuel dark ages. (Yep, him again. That man with the terrifying politics.) How do I – how can I – explain that to them?

Of course, I’m writing this from a position of massive advantage: even having time and scope to ponder these dilemmas, in itself, a kind of luxury. I know parents across the world are struggling to bring up their children in war zones or in famine. I cannot imagine the terror they face. Even in this country, there are mothers and fathers struggling to put meals on the table. When I kiss my girls goodnight, I’m not worrying about whether I can feed them tomorrow or whether our home will be taken out by a bomb. I know how lucky that makes me. But these concerns of mine are real, for all that.

So this is what I think I should do. Since this is one of the rare occasions when my professional life (as a climate ethicist) gives me some kind of claim to know what I’m taking about in this blog, I’ll go further: this is what I think we, as parents, should do.

We shouldn’t accept this bleak future. We had our children, so we owe it to them to leave them a decent society and a planet which hasn’t been totally trashed. Start with climate change. We can fight for our children by acting together. Marching, lobbying, petitioning, giving to environmental causes, supporting renewables, joining global movements for action. Locally, nationally, globally. We can show our own commitment to that change by changing what we do ourselves. (Drive less, fly less, use renewable energy, eat less meat and dairy. Etc.) Yes, many parents are short on spare cash – let alone spare time – but there’s almost always going to be something you can do.

And think about it this way: there are an awful lot of parents out there. That’s a lot of voters, a lot of consumers, a lot of potential givers to charity, or signers-up to living sustainably. If we used the voice we have together (Mumsnet, any takers?) maybe someone would listen.

If we think we should bring up our children to care about other people and the world they live in, that doesn’t change just because the ‘bad guys’ are in charge. It makes it more urgent. If society will tell our children that it’s acceptable – even patriotic – to be racist, or that women shouldn’t be presumptuous enough to want control over their own bodies, we have to keep on telling them otherwise, louder. And showing them. If we want them to grow up as strong women or as men who respect women, we have to be the strong female role model they need, or the male feminist. If we want them to be compassionate, we should make sure they see us having the courage of our convictions: supporting the victims of violence or discrimination, helping refugees, donating to food banks, campaigning for change.

And of course, we have to do all this without scaring them with too many of the dismal facts, too early. They need space to be children, too, and to grow up at their own pace.

So it’s a tall order. But it’s not all bleak, the picture we have to show our children. Yes, those who are old enough to understand will have to know about Trump, about UKIP, about institutionalised climate change denial, xenophobia, and sexism. But we can point them to the Earth2Trump movement, to the ‘Bridges not Walls’ and ‘Love Trumps Hope’ banners all over the world last Friday, to those who have opened their homes to refugees, to the Women’s Rights Marches and their vocal, visible support from women and men. Yes, too many mothers had to explain to their daughters how a man with no experience and horrifying opinions won the presidency over a much better qualified woman. But they could also have reminded them of the many great female role models and success stories out there, from politicians to activists, sportswomen to scientists.

We should also remember that we have a huge resource in our hands, as parents. Our children are not only the people who will live in this un-brave new world: they are the ones who will, in a generation’s time, be reshaping it. We are bringing up the citizens of the future: the ones who will hopefully do a better job than we have. As well as being scared, maybe we should be a bit excited by that.

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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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Can’t sleep, won’t sleep: Surviving postnatal insomnia

“Sleep when your baby sleeps.” Yeah, right.

Everyone warns you about disrupted nights, though nothing prepares you for being woken, some nights, every 45 minutes. From two to seven months, two hours was a long sleep for my younger daughter. Even her big sister – no perfect sleeper – had left me totally unready for that.

Nobody warns you that you mightn’t be able to sleep even between those imperious alarm calls. That, as if this amazing, impossible motherhood lark wasn’t challenge enough already, you can be let down by your own body.

Nobody tells you about lying next to a sleeping baby, zombie-tired but irredeemably awake. About the time sliding by as your thoughts run in unproductive but unstoppable circles. Exhausted frustration to near-resignation. Then another cycle of almost-but-not-quite-dropping-off. Finally, sobbing panic at the thought of the long, fast-approaching day. A day with two infinitely valuable, infinitely demanding little persons to be kept alive and fed and happy.

No-one tells you about listening for your baby’s slightest movement. One moment hearing her stir and deciding it’s pointless trying to sleep when she could wake any second. The next panicking because you can’t hear her, and waking her yourself to ascertain that, yes, she is still breathing. About how sometimes you will end up waking her to feed, hoping the ensuing sleep will be a chance to sleep yourself. (It wasn’t, usually.) Or how you will tell yourself what a terrible mother you are to have disturbed her. (Those are not the hours for rationality.)

At least, nobody told me. I hadn’t heard of postnatal insomnia until I had Little L. Then, frantically Googling (usually at 2am), I found only brief mentions on the official websites, usually as a codicil to postnatal depression. It was only by trawling through the message boards that I found other new mothers grappling with it as a standalone problem. (Or perhaps not entirely standalone. Looking back, I can see how easily that tear-drenched middle-of-the-night panic could have spiralled into PND.) But, because it is a very real problem, and in the hope of helping someone else, here is how I got through my months of sleep deprivation.

Co-sleeping. I never planned to do it: it rang all the alarm bells in my risk-averse head. But when I only had to wriggle across to feed L. to sleep, then back to my side of the bed, I didn’t ever have to wake up all that much. And – an unexpected benefit – I loved it so much that I wished I’d done it first time round. (Tip for the similarly cautious: under-the-sheet bed guards. They stopped her rolling into me and under the duvet, but I could lie across them to breastfeed.)

Talking books. I tried some of the standard insomnia tips. Prescription and even over-the-counter drugs are, alas, incompatible with breastfeeding. So I was left with camomile tea (For weeks, I kept it by the bed.) With not staring at a screen before or in bed. (The 2am Googling: bad idea.) A hot bath. (Like, when exactly?) I even tried downloading what claimed to be a self-hypnosis insomnia cure. (I ended up more awake than ever, but distracted by planning methods of torture for the deeply annoying narrator.) Talking books actually blocked out that unproductive escalation of worry. Books I loved, but knew inside out already. They tricked me into sleep because I wasn’t thinking about it. It didn’t always work, but it did more often than anything else.

Early nights. For the insomniac, it’s a case not of sleeping when the baby lets you but finding out when you can sleep, and moving heaven and earth to make space for it. For me, that meant going to bed almost as soon as my toddler did. Then, I could grab a few straight hours while L. was carted round the house in the sling on her dad, or cuddled by whichever aunt or grandparent was to hand.

Friends. Girls I could text after a bad night, begging them to come round, warning them I was liable to burst into tears at any moment. Friends who showed up in twos or threes, loaded with cake and their own toddlers to entertain mine, who carried Little L. around when she cried, picked up A. when she tumbled over, and barely let me get out of my chair. Those expensive antenatal classes we did the first time round? Totally, totally worth it: they brought these indispensable ladies into my life.

Acceptance. The single most useful piece of advice I found in all my obsessive online research was that there is no miracle cure. Two friends saying of the two hourly wake-ups: “That’s just what it’s like when you are exclusively breastfeeding” was about the most helpful thing I could hear. After that, I wasn’t constantly thinking: “Oh I can’t wait to crack the sleeping so I can enjoy parenting again.” I was relishing her already. And it means so much, looking back, that I didn’t let the sleep crap undermine that.

The truth is, we can deal with it. Even a double whammy of insomnia and a six-feeds-a-night-baby. Once I found I could cope even with only an hour’s sleep, I was spared that 5am how-will-I-get-through-the-day panic. Yes, there was more Peppa Pig than I ever thought I would countenance, and I felt – and still feel – terrible at how much snappier the tiredness made me with my adorable A. But I knew I could keep both girls fed and cleanish and mostly cheerful, even if I was on reserve battery myself. Armed with the swat team of friends and cake, I even laughed my way through some of those zombie afternoons.

And while insomnia has nothing going for it, there is something to be said for the baby-led night-time wake ups. With a toddler and a houseful of chores, quality time with a second baby is thin on the ground. From that first besotted night in hospital, thinking how crazy I was to worry I couldn’t love a second baby as much, the night feeds have been just for me and Little L. For all the tears (mine and hers), there are memories that I will treasure. That moment when she stops raging and begins her trusting, shut-eyed questing. Her happy, snuffling noises. That warm, cuddly intimacy, even through the haze of exhaustion.

L. is nine months old now and at least starts the night in the cot. Her dad handles some wake ups, she’s down to two or three a night, and I (mostly) sleep better. I wouldn’t say I’ll be sad when she eventually sleeps through, but there will be some things I’ll miss, after all.


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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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.