10 reasons toddlers are awesome teachers

Toddlerhood is my favourite stage so far. Seriously, terrible twos, threenager – why does the world take such a negative view of this vibrant time in a baby’s life? When I thought about it, I quickly realized that to be fair, most stages of childhood and adolescence are judged harshly and labelled negatively. Poor teens certainly don’t escape the judgement levelled their way.

Perhaps it’s because once babies pass the newborn stage, they become ever more expressive in their communication. Newborns obviously communicate too – loud and clear with their cries – but in a culture that still sadly misses to see the ills of methods like sleep training, crying in the first year of life is culturally expected and even ignored rather than explored.

Newborns are awesome: the new baby smell, absolutely adorable, tiny, mushy bundles of hugs that allow parents to binge on Netflix while at the same time bonding, snuggled in close. Toddlerhood is, in so many ways a far cry (pun intended) from those early days and I fully admit that I enjoyed and miss that stage every time I glimpse a photo of my former newborn curled into me.

To be honest though, right now, I think that nothing beats a toddler. There is something exquisitely remarkable about the way these little humans perceive the world. With that in mind, here are my top 10 reasons to celebrate and learn from toddlerhood, a stage that is animated, dramatic and only too fleeting:

1.They’re aware but not self-conscious

Toddlers notice it all because they’re learning by paying acute attention to the flurry of activity that is the world around them. And yet, they’re still a ways away from becoming self-conscious and self-critical by caring what the world thinks of them. I think that’s pretty amazing.

2.They’re so curious

Again, how better to learn skills and get a picture of how to do stuff if not through a pointed curiosity? Toddlers are always exploring and forming impressions but are unimpeded by set-backs or what we’d call the sheer monotony of repetition. From learning to blow bubbles and holding the wand just so, to pouring sand from the bucket a thousand times to learn about texture and the laws of gravity, toddlers have the curiosity and exploration capability of a NASA scientist.

3.The energy!

This one is pretty self-explanatory for anyone who’s ever interacted with a toddler but I don’t just mean the physical momentum, the lively attitude that toddlers have towards life is remarkable.

4.The passion

Toddlers are anything but indifferent. They react to everything and everyone with such feeling. This may not be how adults behave but it is healthy, in fact infinitely more so than suppressing and quashing big or uncomfortable feelings. No, I’m not suggesting that grown-ups should act on their big feelings because we have the ability to regulate ourselves. But perhaps if we regulated our outward actions rather than toning down our deepest inner feelings, we’d be a lot happier, much like our toddlers.

5.The preferences

When a baby reaches toddlerhood, the combination of mobility and words results in lots of preferences as the whole world opens up for the first time. So many things are suddenly possible and the possibilities are endless and so are the likes and dislikes. It is an amazing learning experience to watch a young baby turn into a complex little person.

6.The joy

Pine cones, water, blades of grass, iPhones, doors, stairs, kitchen cabinets: everything holds such joy and wonder for a toddler. By contrast, we as adults often pride ourselves on how little can impress us anymore; most things in the world have lost their joy, including the natural marvels of the very planet that sustains us. Trees, the sky, the moon, a sunset – meh, we’ve seen them all. That leads to a poignant question: is it the child who sees joy in everything, or the adult who sees joy in nothing, that makes the better teacher?

7.The slapstick comedy of it all

Toddlers and children at all stages of development find nothing more hilarious than the weird pronunciation of a random word, or a funny sound or happening (usually someone falling down). There is something wonderful about not taking life too seriously.

8.Being present in the moment

We often emphasize that toddlers have short attention spans and at their stage of development, they do. What we don’t often notice is that having a short attention span also means that if a toddler is engaged in an activity, the whole of that little human is engaged in it without zoning out or the mind drifting. And then, when said little human is done, they’re totally done, to move onto something else completely. Short, sharp bursts of activity that equal total presence in each moment and task at hand.

9.They’re love in action

Sometimes toddlers have big feelings and inevitably these lead to some big upsets, with a temperament that goes from cool and playful to blazing, red-hot in under a minute. Sometimes this can be because they are resisting a boundary being set by the adult in their lives. But, what humbles me every time is the endlessly loving nature of a toddler – after even the biggest of upsets (that they may not even understand the underlying reason for), they will come right back, smiling from ear to ear and plant a big kiss on the cheek of the offending party, throwing their little arms around that person’s neck for a tight hug. This is nothing short of love in action – no grudges held whatsoever. It’s absolutely beautiful.

10. They’re authentic

Babies aren’t born knowing which half-baked stereotype society expects them to conform to depending on colour, race, religion, gender, sex, socio-economic background etc. As active toddlers, they don’t think of how or what they’re supposed to be and so, they just are. And they let others be too. They have preferences but not biases or notions so they conduct themselves with an unbridled and utterly admirable authenticity that knows no limits.

they’re children NOT assholes

The Goldbergs is one of my favourite shows. I always love watching an episode to lift me up in that light-hearted way where you know there’s a schmaltzy, feel good ending with a valuable lesson about what it means to be a family and love each other no matter what’s said or done throughout. I admit that I’ve often cringe-smiled at the part where inevitably Murray, the father, will refer exasperatedly to his boys as ‘the morons’, while looking theatrically pained at something they’ve done or not done to affect his peace of mind and time in front of the television. All in all it’s a show that delivers what it promises; a satirical representation of how the previous generation did things.

Today most things have changed since the 80’s and as research has emerged, we generally like to think we do things better than our parents’ generation did. For one thing we wear seat belts without even thinking about it and our children’s car seats aren’t those death traps from back in the day where a legitimate form of shock-absorption used to pad out the plastic shell of a seat, was a nice bit of sponge (I remember this because my sister once ate through it as a toddler, don’t ask). A lot has changed to help parents keep children safer – at least physically.

But what about feeling safe or even relevant, mentally and emotionally? Here is where we as a society (at least some of us) seem to have gotten worse rather than better. For some reason, what I’ve been hearing a lot from the mouths of parents is verbal abuse of their child by means of swearing about them whilst making casual conversation or commiserating with other parents. E.g.: ‘Sorry I’m late, my 3 year old was such an asshole this morning, he just wouldn’t get dressed!’ or ‘Ughhh, I’m so tired, my kid was up in the middle of the night, she’s acting like such a d*ck at the moment!’

And then there’s social media. Oh the parental vitriol that’s trending on there. I recently read something and made what felt like the colossal mistake of replying to the poster in a closed group on Facebook. The particular poster was a mum who wrote an abusive one line rant about how her child was extroverted and a non-stop talker. According to her, the child wouldn’t ‘shut the f’ up’ and this was ‘ruining’ her summer. Earlier that week another poster had called their child some filthy names. The child in question was three years old. When I read the comments section an overwhelming majority of replies were what I can only interpret as a show of solidarity whereby, people had in turn referred to their own offspring in the most heartbreaking ways. All this, in a group that was supposed to be a child friendly, positive, supportive and a safe space. In fact the fundamental aim of the group is to share stories and focus on the strengths of the child and what’s most outrageous is that the founder and administrator is a prominent author on child development who expounds the virtues of respectful parenting in her book (which her online group is named after).

My mind told me to ignore and unfollow the post. My heart told me to say something to show compassion for the child and so I did. I wrote to the poster offering up that there was another perspective in this situation – that of her child. I suggested that her child would be deeply hurt knowing that his/her authentic self and presence was enough to ruin their mother’s summer. Two other posters agreed and one included a link to an article about how the way we talk about our children changes our own mindset towards them, even if we use abusive language jokingly but do it enough times. This means, if we call our children assholes, we actually start seeing them negatively.

The poster and (too many) other like-minded members immediately became disrespectful and abusive to me and the two others who’d chimed in about the importance of using respectful language about children. I was shocked but not surprised. As the thread quickly deteriorated the most memorable things I remember being called included, ‘sanctamommy’ and ‘that new mum without a sense of humour’. I apologized and started again. I clarified that I utterly felt for and appreciated the parents feeling worn out but could not see the funny side of using derogatory and disrespectful words to describe kids. It did not sit well with these particular people, that I felt abusive language towards their own children was something that was avoidable.

A few of the members even trawled my profile so they could come back with tailored quips around how I knew nothing about motherhood because my child couldn’t answer back yet because he wasn’t out of diapers. They told me that whether I like it or not, ‘three year olds are total d*cks’. A few also told me that my comment showed no compassion or empathy for the poster and that her mental health was as important as that of her child. Again, I tried reassuring them that of course I felt for her. Only, I also felt for her child. That was the wrong answer. Another member told me that the poster was looking for a safe space to vent and not to hear about her child’s apparent perspective.

I ended up leaving the group realizing that despite its upfront mandate, championing the strengths of the child wasn’t what these people were necessarily there to do. I also wrote to the author who founded the group about how unsafe the group felt but I never got a reply. I was intimidated and heartbroken for the children – I cannot imagine how being spoken to/ about so disrespectfully, day in and day out by the adults who are supposed nurture and protect them must feel and unfold in the depths of their psyches. Sadly it’ll probably cause them to do exactly the same to their own children because cycles have a habit of repeating.

I’m left with a sense of profound sadness and some lingering questions:

Since when is it sanctimonious for someone to suggest that the authentic version of a child is a beautiful and amazing thing?

Since when is it sanctimonious to politely suggest that mum and dad refrain from swearing like sailors when talking to or about their own child?

How and why is it a given that advocating for respect towards children is something that automatically insults parents?

If we as parents cannot even enjoy our children’s childhood, it is us who need to change something and not our child.

If all this comes across as something that comes only from the mouths of ‘sanctimommies’, then something’s clearly very wrong. There’s a serious flaw in thinking where on one hand, it’s harsh/ judgmental to call out parents who berate their children. Yet, it’s wholly acceptable for parents to treat children as if they are the biggest unwanted nuisances who warrant such harsh judgement for behaving like kids.

I’ve noticed that foul language often flows freely when:

  1. i) The offending child expresses an untimely (and hence inconvenient) need and;
  2. ii) When a child is perceived to be ‘acting out’ (i.e. being a normal child with their own unique personality).

In terms of the former, let’s take a moment to imagine how it would feel if you and your spouse were due to go to a friend’s house for dinner and you needed to go to the bathroom before you left home. As a result of what is often a knock-on effect, you both arrive later than expected to your friend’s house. At some point during the evening, you overhear your spouse referring to you as a total asshole, one that just had to go to the bathroom. Eye rolling follows an irritated apology that your spouse utters. Your spouse acts outraged that everyone had to deal with and be impacted by the bullshit of your basic human needs. When you’re both finally back at home, you’re still feeling sore about the humiliation you suffered at the hands of someone who’s supposed to love and respect you. You then see their post on Facebook and Twitter that you’re just a self-centered little sh*t who threw off the entire evening with your ridiculous antics. There’s an angry faced emoticon because they also felt the need to illustrate that your behaviour is exhausting and always drives everyone nuts.

Would you feel respected and loved? How would you react to or even describe such an exchange? – I would describe it as toxic and emotionally abusive and say that anyone in that situation needs to leave it at an accelerated pace. But imagine that you couldn’t leave because the person severely name-calling you was your whole world and you had to depend on them for everything from sustenance and shelter to love, security, self-esteem and connection. Wouldn’t that be terrible and twisted? And yet for some reason as a society we’re okay to put our children in that kind of environment every day. One that leads to psychological suffering and mental illness.

As adults, we have a lot of choice and we routinely exercise the power to make choices. We choose to bring our children into the world. We choose to be the ones to raise them. Apparently, some of us then choose to name-call our child and berate them at their slightest expression of autonomy if it’s out of sync with how our life would look if we were childless (incidentally a choice that wasn’t made).

The lack of respect and tolerance towards our children is disgusting. There may be people reading this who do use degrading language and believe they’re just letting off steam or that they don’t really mean anything by it and it’s no big deal.

But words are so powerful.

Words can be used to build someone up or as a weapon to dehumanize and belittle and ultimately to tear someone down. Many parents who talk so negatively about their child will say they do so behind their backs so the child is oblivious to the names he or she is called. But that doesn’t matter because your children will become what they behold and if you see them as assholes behind their backs, chances are that’s how you see them when they’re in front of you. And because you do, they see it too.

Despite the comparably mild but still disparaging language used by the dad in The Goldbergs, the overall sense that one gets from watching the show is one of reassurance – family is annoying and yet at the same time, awesome. There is a certain connectedness between the family of characters on the show that real families where verbal abuse and negative language are commonplace, lack in spades. In reality, we don’t aggressively swear at or about the people we feel connected to.

In real life the parent who is okay calling their child names (the reason doesn’t matter because there really is no justification strong enough), does so not with comical bemusement but with an anger and bitterness that seems to always lurk beneath the surface, just waiting to come out. There’s no warmth and where there’s no warmth, there’s no connection. There are just children trying to be children and do their best to grow into the bigger versions of who they are today. And bigger does not have to mean broken unless parents are unable and unwilling to accept and honour these little humans who reside with them. And my wish for these little humans is not sanctimonious, it’s simple: that their parents treat them as children and not as assholes.

he needs to learn

The other day, my fifteen month old son expressed a need that has become a rite of passage for babies of his generation. That need was to have a phone that was kept nearby on the table, left there by someone who was visiting us. I’m referring to this as a need because from the perspective of my young one, it certainly wasn’t a mere whim or want – in his eyes it was an absolute compulsion. He had to have the phone.

My son reached out his arm from over my shoulder, I felt his body tense up and he yelled out for the object in a way that was unmistakable baby – expressive, loud and proud with enough frustration mixed in, to get his point across very clearly. Now, this post is not a rant against screen time for littles of his age. What stayed with me about the experience was that the person (I’ll be discrete and not call him out directly as family, friend or foe but it might be easy to guess as one group is often more vocal than the others) proceeded to glance at his phone, look at my son and I with narrowed eyes, and say in a tone that was somewhere between taunting and disapproving: “he needs to learn that that’s not for him”.

He didn’t move his phone an inch but let it be exactly where it was, as a lesson for my baby or maybe more aptly, for me. Of course, my son kept his little hand outreached expectantly and only got louder until I removed him from the vicinity of the phone and offered him one of his toys to play with instead. His distress gradually dissipated once he was immersed in a new game with me and the toy, however mine did not. In fact it turned to outrage because nothing about the sentiment had any sense or compassion or love to it.

”He needs to learn”

I can read between the lines and I’m calling bullshit. That right there is code for so much more than the fact that my son wanted a phone and, ironically it’s got nothing to do with the healthy learning of a young child. In my baby’s fifteen short months on the planet it’s a catchphrase I’ve already become sick of, having heard it too many times (often from the same people) for the various needs my baby has naturally expressed. And sometimes, it’s not even about my baby but code for telling me that I’m too responsive/ loving to him.

So here’s what I have to say to the anonymous person who inappropriately stuck his oar in one too many times with his utterly misplaced and obsolete ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ mentality:

You need to learn that you have no bloody right to decide what my child ‘needs to learn’. I’m not even sure what that phrase means to you and your kind. To me, it means he needs to be curious about the world around him – to explore and master new aptitudes which include emotional intelligence as much as fine and gross motor skills. You may have the latter but you severely lack the former to a degree that’s alarming for an adult with a fully developed brain.

You need to learn that no matter how much you try and talk down or belittle the way I’m choosing to mother and raise my child, you’ll never be able to change the way I respond to and express my love for him. Nothing you say will convince me that I need to ‘teach’ him life lessons by being distant or withholding my love from him.

You need to learn that as much as you may not like or even be aware of it, babies and children learn by imitating people around them. In this case you should also learn some consistency in your thought process because if I remember correctly, it was only minutes before the phone incident that you had been marveling at my son’s dexterity with a fork, when he’d skillfully eaten pasta for dinner. Guess how he learned how to use a fork? It was from watching others use one. In his mind, there’s no difference between wanting something like a phone and wanting to learn how a fork or spoon works. It’s all learning for him. He’s figuring out the world without labels or value judgements because those are attached to everyday objects by adults. He’s simply learning.

You need to learn that that he wanted your phone, was indicative not of his bad manners or lack of learning but more of the world we live in. Many adults (including me) around my son and those his age, now live with their phones and IPads perpetually attached to them as extensions of themselves. I won’t attribute value to whether this is good or bad but I will ask you this: Is it surprising that my son wanted to have mastery of something that’s become as common place at most dinner tables as a plate or a fork?

Your sort has often smugly turned to me and said, “that’s right, he’s just a baby and doesn’t know what’s good for him. It’s up to us to teach him right from wrong”. You’re absolutely right that he doesn’t yet know there are some things that are safe to be played with and others that could hurt him. Obviously, I’m not about to let my baby play with anything that’s remotely dangerous for him – you know that and I know that. But that’s not what we’re really talking about here. What we’re really talking about here is value judgement.

You make value judgements about things that you deem too valuable to you to honour a small child’s curiosity in a safe and limited way. Okay, so maybe two minutes with your phone may have proved too costly in case he toddled off with it and hid it or threw it somewhere. I can understand and appreciate this. Mums are used to looking at fractured images on a smashed screen, it’s one of our countless skills and comes with the territory. I can empathize that you wanted an intact screen on your IPhone.

What royally pissed me off, was that you neither moved your offending phone and nor did you try some healthy distraction. In other words, you were unable to show compassion in your response to a baby. Instead you snidely took it upon yourself to try and punish curiosity. It wasn’t your place, it wasn’t appropriate and it wasn’t okay.

You need to learn that your attitude is yours to keep but your resulting behavior is thoroughly offensive and disturbing. I take it you know little about the brain development of  babies/ toddlers because if you did, you’d know that at that age, even if it’s the kitchen knife, your choices are to either remove the object from the environment or remove the child. Children who are but a few months over the age of one do not have the reasoning capability to understand that your phone isn’t for them. That you decided to show my child something he’s not yet developmentally capable of seeing shows your stupidity, not his or mine.

Another remark that was made recently suggested teaching my son patience by not letting him leave his highchair until all the grown-ups were finished with their meal. What.The. Fuck?!

You need to learn that you can’t teach a small child to be patient by controlling and restricting his right to move around because you’ve grown impatient with his vocalizations of boredom. Do you actually think that would lessen his yelling? Again, your two choices include either distraction (which in the highchair situation usually works for one minute) or changing his environment so he can play unrestricted. Oh wait, those aren’t your choices, they’re mine. You only have one choice – it’s to shut the f’ up, smile politely and finish your meal. Thanks for visiting, see you again soon!

When my son is older, perhaps if you’ve learned enough, you can teach him virtues like patience and tolerance by waiting patiently in a line at a checkout or, not giving someone the finger if they were driving too slowly for your liking. Because it’s true ‘he needs to learn’ that stuff. But apparently, so do you. Because despite being an adult you seem to lack the very discipline and lessons in self-regulation that you’re trying so hard to impart to my child.

You need to learn that the impression you leave is that of an arrogant bully who given half a chance will disguise controlling behaviours (perhaps even to yourself) as those that teach about right and wrong.

You need to learn that you treat others (especially younger humans) like second class citizens because to you the phrase ‘he needs to learn’ is actually is about feeling superior and controlling actions through fear and punishment and not about providing gentle guidance to those you supposedly love.

Thanks to you and others like you, what I have learned is this:

I will teach my child to be compassionate instead of cruel.

I will teach my child self-regulation by modelling it myself.

I will teach my child that while society is largely based on certain rules that are to be followed, no rules are to be followed blindly.

I will proudly teach my child to break rules if they oppress another or strip someone of their dignity and respect. The same goes for rules that appear to be there for the convenience of one person over the curiosity of another.

And I will definitely teach my child that it is healthy and normal for babies and young children to be enticed by objects in their environment. This includes phones. It is up to us as the adults to make that environment, safe, nurturing and suitable and not up to the baby ‘to learn’ how to do so.

Of course my son needs to learn certain lessons in his life and I aim to teach him well.

He needs to learn.

But not from people like you.

 

the price of empathy

empathy

I was recently sent an article ominously titled “Being a good parent will physiologically destroy you, new research confirms”. The one liner below is a tagline that casually read: Empathizing with your kid is great but it comes at a price.

As I read, what basically came across was a piece about empathetic parenting and a research study claiming to confirm how such parents impact their own immune systems negatively because of their approach to their child. It states how, when said parents see their children suffer psychologically, “their immune system takes a hit”. Let me get this straight. A parent has a physiological reaction when they witness their own offspring in distress? No?!! You don’t say?! Radical. NOT. As is probably glaring to you, this article hit various nerves for me. And surprisingly, it’s not because it is in fundamental disagreement with how I attempt to live my life as a parent and person. Nope, what got to me were the severe fallacies and shortcomings in the study that underlie almost all of what forms the premise for this piece (I say almost because it does acknowledge the positive impacts and outcomes that empathetic parenting has on the child, so at least kudos there).

So, in order of how they first ‘hit’ me, here are my qualms with what appears to be a desperate onslaught against empathetic parenting.

Firstly I’m willing to bet, that if the same team from Northwestern University put their minds and grant money towards and researched empathy in general, they’d probably find that empathetic people’s bodies react the same way even if it’s someone else in their family/ friend circle/ society they deeply care about, other than a child. Ergo, their ennui would then extend beyond just the realms of parenting and into how empathetic people in general (some of whom also happen to be parents) are intent on killing themselves with the kindness they bestow on their fellow human beings. What a weak day when we can conclude that empathy isn’t worth its price.

But hang on a minute, what about other emotions, feelings and mindsets that present as individual parenting styles? I’d wager another bet, a safe one already proven by countless scientific studies (more on these studies below), that most big emotions and mindsets that are rooted in stress towards a situation (in this case something to do with your child), would cause a negative physiological reaction in one’s body. This includes parents who show no empathy and instead choose anger expressed explosively by lashing out at the child or denial of the situation passive-aggressively expressed as a corrosive indifference to the child’s distress. Just because one might be inclined to outwardly ignore a stressor, does not mean that their body isn’t internally reacting to the situation. Following this thread of reasoning, it’s not empathy that leads to poor outcomes for parents but just the basic biological fact that our bodies react to stress and perceived stress at a cellular level whether or not we have an empathetic approach towards the little humans in our life. I wonder if they used a comparison group of exceedingly non-empathetic parents and a control group of parents with varying degrees of empathy. I doubt it but if so, what did they find? We’ll never know because they choose to concentrate only on the ills of empathy.

My next annoyance with this study is that it doesn’t appear to disentangle other factors such as, is a child’s depression surfacing due to other negative family factors like parental marriage stress or financial family constraints? This is pretty important because other ‘stuff’ that’s happening simultaneously, would definitely be linked to the child’s emotional and psychological health (both of which would directly impact the said parent too).

And then there’s my qualm with the sample size being statistically significant and therefore relevant. I’m not certain a sample size of 247 parent – teen dyads is actually representative of all empathetic parents because choosing a sample size is based on things like the prevalence of a trait in the general population, confidence level, margin of error and standard deviation etc. How does one accurately determine the total number of empathetic parents present in a given population when unlike something absolute and fixed like eye colour, empathy is a fluid and nuanced trait that can increase or decrease in a person throughout a period of time depending on other factors affecting them?

No one would deny raising a child empathetically will have some impact on a parent because empathy isn’t always easy. But guess what, perhaps that might be because parenting isn’t always easy. I don’t know of any parents who will disagree with that sentiment.

There’s no doubt that being childless is probably ‘easier’ on the health and psyche (and in a women’s case, easier on the body/figure/waistline etc.). However, I’d say if the choice is between being a disengaged and distant parent to protect one’s own health, it’s a better one to be a childless and healthy adult. Which brings me to another simplistic and broad generalisation the article makes – that “good” parents aren’t able to meet their own basic needs. This is bull IF the parent  (no matter what their attitude to parenting) has a strong support system of trusted and willing friends or relatives ones to help with making the proverbial “village” to help raise the child a.k.a the literal future of society.

And finally, I’m left wondering – what was the larger point of this study? Most studies are designed to add something to the fabric of society, whereas this one seems to give weight to encouraging a diminished sense of empathy amongst those who likely already struggle with developing it. If the point was to promote self-care amongst caring parents, I’d say that the mark has been missed greatly because I don’t think empathy and nourishing oneself are mutually exclusive. In fact, I’d argue that true empathy begins inward and radiates outwards – after all, isn’t it through cultivating reflection and awareness of our own emotions and feelings that we build the ability to understand the feelings and emotions of another?

miracle of empathy

Having had my curiosity piqued, I did a quick and nerdy literature review-style search about empathy and found a wealth of research done by the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy that reiterates over and over, the mental, physical and psychological benefits of having an empathetic approach – both for the empathizer and recipient. These look at empathy in various and diverse populations and environments and can be found here.

What appears to be a common theme is that empathy fosters deeper connection to each other and actually has significant health benefits. On a social level, it is the glue that holds all relationships together and promotes collaboration over conflict. It also seems to determine overall satisfaction with intimate and other relationships. If I, as one mum can teach my son how to access all of that good stuff simply by being an empathetic parent, I’d say the value of empathy by far out does its so-called ‘price’ tag.

 

 

a walk down memory lane (with babe in tow)

This is the path I walked to get to school. For many years, many years ago. Today I’m exploring it with baby C. This place is so familiar to me, even after 15 years. Yet I can’t help but to soak it in, as if seeing everything anew. To be walking here with a child, to have walked here as a child. The weather is perfect for a winter’s day. English countryside with a few villages nestled cozily inside. Grey and misty. Fresh and earthy.

The leaves have long fallen from the majestic trees that surround us. Ah – the trees. Baby C is looking up wide-eyed as we walk under the canopy of branches. I bend down besides his pushchair to see the world through his eyes. Trees have always fascinated me too. I gauge a place by its’ trees. They stand tall, like giant anchors in the ground. A testament to all that survives and persists, while the rest of the chaos rises and recedes.

I breathe in deeply to acknowledge the haunting beauty and timeless wisdom here in this part of the world – borne by what has been left untouched. Baby C takes his own deep breath. He knows well, what I am trying to relearn. He’s wholly connected with what’s around him.

This walk began as a way of getting some fresh air and some coffee from the local grocery store. A means to an end. I couldn’t have predicted it would leave us both feeling so rewarded. My normally very chatty little one and I walk in a silence of understanding. He points to what he sees now and again, to make sure I partake in the beauty as he does. I do. This route is a relic from my school run. It was always just a part of my childhood routine. Today it’s been transformed into so much more – into something wonderful and surreal.

Trying to capture the moment. Yes, I used a selfie-stick.

 

To the new mum who’s had a rough first year

To the new mum who’s had a rough first year,

No one could have prepared you for this ride. To say this year has been intense is a laughable underestimate of gargantuan proportions. The exhaustion. The overwhelm. The terrors and the joys. The sheer love that floods you when you watch baby napping, snug and safe in your arms. Or maybe the guilt if it doesn’t. The doubts that gnaw deep down, in your very bones at every stage. As you’ve sat like a zombie in a rocking chair at 3 a.m. in those early hours, trying to feed your newborn. Thoughts racing through your mindlessness as the rest of the world slept peacefully, undisturbed by your anxieties.

Your life has changed endlessly, as have you. And yet it hasn’t escaped you that the change you’ve become, isn’t always honored or even acknowledged by family, friends, employers or even society. You’re expected to return to ‘normal’ or ‘business as usual’ – the sooner, the better.

Being a new mum has taught you things about yourself and those around you, that you never expected. Support has come from surprising places – like that formerly distant neighbor who has transformed into a friend and ally.

Judgment has also come from equally unexpected places and from the mouths of people you’d never have imagined to be so narrow-minded. By now you’re probably used to questions you hadn’t given a second thought before you became a new mother.

“Is he a ‘good’ baby?” (you ponder this one, realizing that you’ve never really met a “bad” baby)

“Why didn’t you breastfeed?”

“Why did you breastfeed?”

“Isn’t it time you took away that breast/bottle/dummy?”

“What? She still doesn’t sleep through the night?!”

“You let your little one watch Paw Patrol already – didn’t you know screen time is evil?”

“Does he self-soothe yet?”

“How will he learn to self-soothe if you keep picking him up every time he cries?”

And each time you’re asked these questions and other such questions, please do no pondering and instead, just an internal eye-roll. Because let’s face it, such questions make as much actual sense as they do real difference – absolutely none.

As baby turns one, so does your motherhood. Congratulations and happy birth day to you, amazing one! You are awesome. How ever your heart and baby require you to mother, you are doing a stellar job that only you could do. And even when you don’t feel it, you are strong. No matter how weak or small you have felt during the more difficult days, you are exactly the mum your baby needs you to be. You are the person you need yourself to be. And on this journey of unfathomable growth and change, you’ve not only raised a baby from a newborn into an almost toddler, you’ve also brought into existence the nurturer of that life – you’ve become a mother.

So let’s raise a toast to your first anniversary in one of the most demanding roles in the world. Having taken it one day at a time, you’ve continued to show up for 365 days. With zero sick days. No matter how difficult this year may have been and how dizzying the future might feel – know you’ve got this, momma.

It takes a village

Meeting baby C. It was love at first sight.

 

Since becoming a mother, I’ve often found myself breathing into a brown paper bag. For all the unparalleled beauty of being a momma and being part of the miracle of life, there’s a lot to feel daunted about. For one, there’s the obvious task of learning how to nourish and care for a new-born life – every two hours. I guess society’s way of preparing us for the chaos that is the first few weeks (months/ years) is by telling pregnant women to “get as much sleep as you can before the baby comes”. Hands up if that’s actually worked for anyone. Anyone? No? Me neither! And anyway, at least for me, becoming a mum means that my most peaceful sleep only happens when baby is asleep next to me.

Getting back to new motherhood. We’ve all heard the saying that it takes a village to raise a child. This makes perfect sense. It always makes me think of a place where family and friends are close by. People have (make) some spare time to come over, and everyone gets along enough that once a baby is born, the whole ‘village’ just springs into action and so begins the raising. It’s a warm and cozy scene, where the new momma and baby bask in the glow of each other.

New mum lovingly attends to her precious new baby. Her needs (such as nutritious food, household chores and, emotional and mental wellbeing) are provided for by a cocoon of love that is made up of her nearest and dearest. For some reason, this image in my head includes lovely warm weather and dinner at a big and welcoming dining table. The atmosphere is soaked in celebration and gratitude. Baby is doing the rounds being passed from one set of loving arms to another while momma eats. This is my personal reverie. It’s wholly fiction. My own initiation into being a new momma couldn’t have been more different.

Bonding with baby C was what gave me every ounce of strength I had and still have today. Having given birth in December, there was a seasonal kind of isolation itself. In this part of the world (Toronto, Canada), winter is a time when we’re all getting ready to be snowed in for the next few months – I call it hibernation mode. Doesn’t sound bad in theory does it? New momma hibernating at home, bundled up with baby for a few months.

Unfortunately, there was no village to go into hibernation with, which set the initial experience up (at least the postpartum part of it) to be desolate instead of warm and loving. I’m from the UK and I moved away from my own parents who still live there a decade ago. My sister went back to visit for Christmas (a plan made well before I was pregnant). The result? – I had virtually no family support system in place for the initial few weeks when I gave birth.

For any new parent, I now akin the first few weeks after the birth of a baby to being wrapped up emotionally and physically in a Wizard of Oz style cyclone. It swirls you up, up and away from your old life and deposits you into a place of your very own journey of self-discovery. Only unlike Dorothy, as a new parent you’re not looking to find your way home, back to your old life. You’re looking to pave a path to find wisdom, strength, courage and love for a wonderful new way of living and it includes another little human being. Transcendent but also naturally very overwhelming for anyone. I can honestly say, it was probably the most difficult time in my life.

For reasons then unknown to us, that we’ve only recently become aware of, my husband was not able to cope with this momentous period of change. Two days after giving birth, I found myself in the middle of a home invasion by in-laws whose primary goal was to celebrate Christmas with as little disruption as possible. My husband was literally holed up in a corner of the house also known as the guest bedroom.

While I recovered from my C-section, some ‘well-intentioned’ remarks from said extended family members included discouraging me to use my prescribed morphine tablets for pain relief and instead to do something less ‘worrying’ by getting off the couch and taking a walk. I was also informed that as it was Christmas time, a roast beef would be cooked and brought over to the house and if I didn’t want to partake, I could eat around it. I’m a vegetarian. All I wanted was to order a pizza but was told that was a rude and unappreciative notion because it wasn’t a Christmas food. This was the vein in which things continued for the duration of the festive period.

As you may have guessed my first Christmas as a mother was not just a right off, it was downright disastrous and traumatic. I missed my own family every minute and was reminded on numerous occasions by my husband’s, that things were tough for everyone. Apparently, I was the unreasonable one due to my hormones. They weren’t my parents and they felt uncomfortable being put in a position where they were expected to play that role. I was gobsmacked and did what any ‘hormonal’, postpartum woman would do. I cried and cried and cried. All alone, up in the master bedroom with my new baby and no real food, company or words of comfort. Not very village-like at all. I guess not everyone is comfortable around emotions and vulnerability. For me, these two things are coming to define motherhood.

Sometimes you have to build your own village. Person by person, hut by hut. Shortly after Christmas, I found that I lost my ‘filter’ and inhibitions and started talking honestly and openly about my experience. I talked to my parents and told them, how as a nursing mother, I was being told to eat the salad leaves around the meat that had been prepared and brought to my house. I can only imagine how my parents must have felt being so far away. In lieu of being with me (they were coming mid-January) they called in reinforcements in the form of a post-partum doula. That sweet and lovely lady and I connected on so many levels and are still friends. I called good friends and let the tears flow free like they needed to. I told them that even though they had hectic schedules around the holiday season, I needed them. And I needed them to bring me a Starbucks on their way over. And you know what? They came. They’d simply assumed that I’d appreciate space and spending Christmas exclusively as a new family unit; mum, dad and baby C. When they realized I was not just ready but in need of their company and love, they were there.

I read and reread every leaflet that my hospital had sent as part of the going home package when they discharged us. I decided to be conscious about making my own support network by signing up for free public services available to new mums. These included weekly visits with a post-partum nurse and a social worker. I am so grateful for such programs in my part of the world. By the time the winter melted away and spring drifted into summer, my social worker had helped me and baby C find our way into a wonderful early years centre. It was here that I met and became friends with some likeminded mothers with babies of a similar age and stage as baby C.

I also found my tribe thanks to Facebook groups. I know, tut, tut for relying on Facebook – I’m a walking millennial cliché. I’m proud of that label. Increasingly, villages can and often do begin with social media and sometimes that is also a good way to sustain the ‘real life’ ones. A while ago I did a shout out to mums in my neighbourhood on one of these groups and got an unexpectedly positive response. Playdates ensued for our babies.

What my experience taught me within the first few days of motherhood was that to stay sane and nurture my baby, I’d have to find ways to nurture and nourish myself. Almost a year after those harrowing few days after giving birth, I’m learning to view this as an imperfectly positive experience. On hind sight, this was a challenge that provided me with a crash course in something new mums often struggle with: self-care.

Over baby C’s first year, I’m proud to say I found us our very own little village and it’s thriving as it continues to grow and evolve with us. I also learned that if it takes a village to raise a child, it surely takes one to a raise a new momma as well.