Mummy is from Mars…and also from Venus

Mars Venus

Different planets, same solar system…

I have come to the realisation that I am an annoyingly contrary parent. I could blame it on having twins with very different personalities… and so I shall. I sometimes feel that being a twin parent is an opportunity to witness a nature/nurture experiment in action. But it’s a lot more complicated than I thought. Although my twins were born on the same day to the same parents, and have had as similar an environment as it is possible to have, that doesn’t make their upbringing identical. They have one very big difference in their experience: me. Since they are both so different, I end up being different to them, while hoping that they don’t pick up on any inconsistencies!

I first became aware of it when my two first started to be properly mobile. My son, who I shall call Ernest from now on, (not his real name, but appropriate nonetheless) was a very cautious toddler. We used to persuade, encourage and cajole him to climb on a climbing frame, or go down a small slide. “You can do it!” I would say. “It’s completely safe – I’ll catch you,” I would coax him. We praised every tiny step towards overcoming a fear. We would call him courageous, brave, grown-up – you name it.

And then there was my daughter, who I shall call Joy (again, not her real name.) While Ernest was trying to pluck up the courage to go down a two-foot slide, she was hurtling headfirst down helter-skelter. While Ernest was reluctantly climbing onto the first rung of a rope ladder, she would be jumping off the top level of a climbing frame with gay abandon, utterly trusting that we would catch her, whether she’d warned us or not. And was I praising these feats of bravery and courage? Not in the least. “Joy, be careful. Think before you jump. Check it’s safe first. Not so high.” We were desperately just trying to keep her alive!

And it doesn’t stop at those first days of teaching courage to one twin, and caution to the other. As they get older, and their personalities continue to develop in very different ways, I find myself constantly promoting the opposite of what they naturally want to do. Ernest loves his Lego sets, always following the instructions to the letter, never using any item for anything other than its original purpose. Joy takes a scarf and wears it like a dress and puts pencil cases on her feet as shoes. Am I congratulating Ernest on his ability to follow complex instructions and praising Joy’s out-of-the-box creativity? Well, yes, sometimes. But I’m also telling Ernest to use his imagination and make up his own constructions (thank you The Lego Movie – that helped!) and Joy to use things as they were intended otherwise they get damaged.

You try to be completely fair as a parent. As a twin parent, you are acutely aware that any inconstancies in approach are immediately recognisable, and cannot be explained away as “he/she is older/younger than you.” I realise I am often giving mixed messages to my twins. To one twin, I’m the one that’s constantly trying to get him to do things he finds scary, playing down the consequences, and teaching the value of taking a little risk. To the other I’m the one preventing her from just experiencing care-free fun, telling her to stop and think first. Their memories of me when they are grown-up may not match up entirely! But being fair with twins, or with any children, does not mean the same thing as treating them exactly the same way. Children are all born different, and you have to alter your parenting style accordingly, which becomes very obvious when your children are the same age.

Sometimes I do listen to myself when I am telling one twin they should be reading more, and the other one that they should be more active, and I wonder “why am I constantly trying to push them away from their natural inclination?” It’s not that I don’t value what they are doing naturally – I must do, because I’m always trying to get the other twin to do it. I have to remind myself to stop and marvel at the things they can do naturally, without any push from me. I just also see a value in teaching them what they wouldn’t think to do for themselves, because it will help them be more balanced and rounded (and safe, in my daughter’s case!)

So how to get around this and not have your children think that you are inconsistent or unfair? The first step is to be aware of it, and think about how your children will hear what you are saying. They may see you encourage their twin to do something you are telling them not to do. Make sure you explain why. If you know why you are doing it, your children will understand when you explain.

Make sure to praise what they are doing naturally so that they know you feel there is a value to what comes more easily to them. There are always two sides to every coin: if your child is very cautious and afraid of risk, they are likely to be very good at understanding consequences and keeping safe. If they don’t think before they act, and don’t consider safety before doing something, they may be more adaptable to change and open to new experiences. (This is also a development issue that resolves as they get older and experience more “consequences.”) If you have a child that is a bit rigid about keeping to the instructions, it means they are very good at structured, logical thinking and problem-solving. If they never want to follow the instructions or use things as they are meant to, it probably means they are very creative and independent-minded.

I may be different in what I encourage each twin to do, but the underlying message is always the same – I want to help them to be the best versions of themselves they can be. I don’t want to mould them into something they are not, but that doesn’t mean they don’t benefit from a little encouragement to develop aspects of themselves they wouldn’t think to do on their own. I just must always remember to temper it with an understanding of their underlying nature.

I think it’s impossible to ever disentangle genetics from environment. I am different to each twin because they are different to me, which starts an endless feedback-loop where you no longer know how much is genetics and how much is your response to those genetics. So what do I say when someone asks which of the twins’ traits are nature and which parts are nurture? It probably depends on who’s asking…

Decoding your child’s school day

confused

“We basically did nothing all day.”

I think it’s a fairly universal truth that it is hard work to find out from your children what exactly they have done all day at school. If you do manage to extract something more than a “nothing” or an “I can’t remember”, there can still be obstacles. Here is a fairly typical conversation I had with my daughter when I picked her up from school the other day:

Her: “They said I was ok mummy”

Me: “Who said you were ok?”

Her: “The lady in the office.”

Me: “Why were you in the office?”

Her: “Bailey took me.”

Me: “Why did Bailey take you?”

Her: “Because you take someone with you when you go to the office.”

Me: “But WHY WERE YOU THERE?!?”

Eventually it transpired that she had had a sore throat, but that the “lady in the office” had decided it was mild enough to wait till home time.

A parent’s impression of their child’s school day can be rather nebulous, and so I thought I would share a few techniques I’ve developed to get a bit of a firmer idea of what their school day is like.

1.  Ask the right questions

I can’t emphasise this one enough. If you ask a completely open question like “How was your day?” or “what did you do today?” you are opening yourself up to “fine” and “I can’t remember.” Most children, and some adults too, draw a blank when they are asked such a broad question. They can probably only conjure up what they did in the last couple of minutes, and that’s only with a fairly attentive child. You should only expect answers that are as good as your questions.

2.  Be specific 

Here are some examples of more closed questions that may get you a better answer:

Who did you sit next to at lunch today?

What game did you play at playtime?

Who makes you laugh in your class?

What was your favourite part of today? (A bit open, but sometimes works)

Is there anyone you don’t like to play with?

What book did your teacher read to you today?

If you’re lucky, this will be an opener for a conversation that will end up providing you with a lot more detail. Your child is more likely to remember and recount events when it’s part of a natural conversation.

3.  Ask about what interests them

For a lot of children, this is often playtime! Asking about what spellings they worked on and what they learnt in maths might not be the most scintillating conversation for your child, and they may not make much effort to remember. This may be what you want to find out, but if there is something specific about their learning you want to know, I recommend asking the teacher. So ask about the games they played, who they like to sit next to, who brought the tastiest snack, and who is the cheekiest child. You’ll end up learning a lot about their social groups, and how well they are fitting in.

4.  Do your research

If you do want to know a bit more about what is happening in the classroom, then do a little research on the subject. Find out about the class’s timetable, what themes or activities your children are working on, and which teachers they are working with. Hopefully the school will have already provided you with a lot of this information, but if not, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Then think of specific questions related to it, eg “Did you start your nature picture in art today?” or “which instrument did you play in music?”

5.  If you can, volunteer

This is a great way to have an insider’s view of your child’s school day and to put names to faces. Plus your children will love having you come into the class – it makes them feel very special. Even if you can’t do this regularly, see if you can offer to help on any one-off school or class events.

6.  Don’t believe everything you hear

A teacher once said “if you take what your children tell you about me with a pinch of salt, I’ll take what they say about you with one!” Even the most truthful, honest and intelligent children misinterpret words and actions sometimes. So before you are incensed and ready to give a teacher/other child a piece of your mind over something your child has told you, just breathe and get your facts straight first! It might all be a misunderstanding.

7.  Be prepared for the conversations that come at awkward times

Children have incredible timing. It will be just when you are rushing to get them out the door, or when they have got to bed really late that they come out with something like: “N told me I was mean” or “N made fun of me”. These are the moments when your children are needing your guidance and reassurance, but why couldn’t they have bloody told you at 4pm when you had nowhere to be and you had just asked them how their day had been?!? You can’t control when these issues will pop into your child’s mind, and I feel it’s really important to deal with them when they arise. You can’t recreate these moments at a more convenient time, because their attention will likely have moved on to something else, and the message you wanted to give will be lost.

 ——-

Even with all this effort on your part, you are still likely to get your fair share of “can’t remember” and “nothing”. The fact is you are never going to know everything about your child’s day. Children begin their independent life when they start school, albeit in a very limited and controlled way. They are making their own friends, taking on new responsibilities, and having a life separate from you. This means you should accept that you cannot know everything they are doing. The best you can hope for is to create as many opportunities for natural conversation, and be available when they do want to talk. Try not to get frustrated that they can’t remember the details you would like to know. I know that at the end of a long day when my husband asks how my day has been, my mind draws a blank and I find myself saying “Fine…”

Twins at school – individuals but undivided

 

Friends for life

Friends for life

My twins have recently started a new, much bigger, school and as I went through the enrolment process I was faced for the first time with having to actively choose to keep them in the same class. In the UK, while parents of primary-aged twins are given a choice (school-size permitting), I think the general expectation is that twins will be kept together unless parents say otherwise. I learnt that where we are in the US it is the other way around: after Kindergarten (Reception year) the expectation is that twins will be split up, unless the parents request to the contrary. I did exactly that, but I have to admit that my heart was in my mouth until I had confirmation that they would be kept together.

Having to actively request for them not to be split up felt very strange to me, as I had thought keeping them together would be the default position. I started to feel that somehow I was going against a general consensus that separating twins at six years old is for the best. I had never examined my reasons for keeping them together before, beyond the visceral feeling that my twins have always been together and would be so upset to be separated. I was, however, aware of the arguments for separation: the promotion of independence and self-reliance; the prevention of co-dependence, with each twin only developing half a set of skills; the reduction of competitiveness; the forging of independent friendship groups; and, sometimes, improved behaviour. I know all of these advantages, and understand parents making the choice to split their twins because of them, and yet in my gut I could not bear the thought of splitting them up so young. Was I just being sentimental? Could I not face the reality that eventually my twin babies were going to start leading separate lives from each other? Was I in fact hindering the development of their independence and individuality?

I realised I had to come up with more reasons than “it doesn’t feel right”. (Although, I don’t think that in itself is a bad one!) So after some serious thinking and soul-searching, here are my six advantages for keeping twins together:

  1. Keep it natural

Yes, twins will eventually go their separate ways, and go to different classes, different universities, and, eventually, lead entirely independent lives, albeit with a hopefully close relationship. This is the natural progression, and so it will happen in its own time without the need for its imposition before the twins themselves are ready for it. I don’t believe that keeping twins together makes the separation later all the harder. I think when they reach a certain stage in their development they will choose to do things separately, in the same way as children stop sucking their thumbs and give up their baby blanket; it’s heart-breaking to see them grow up, but reassuring that they are adjusting comfortably to their new stage. Separating twins when they really don’t want it will certainly have an immediate negative effect on their confidence and emotional wellbeing. A gradual transition is gentler, more natural and less traumatic.

  1. Independence starts at home

 Starting school is not the first time I have considered the issue of twins’ independence. When you are a twin parent you learn from the start that promoting self-identity for each twin is very important. You make sure that they have toys that belong to each individually, you make sure they have a bit of individual “mummy” or “daddy” time on occasion, you let them choose activities independently, the list goes on. I am always on the look-out to make sure that just because one twin can do something, it doesn’t mean the other isn’t bothering to learn it. Working the different TV remotes is a good example – my daughter always lets my son do it because it comes naturally to him. I have to remind her to do it herself sometimes, even if she finds it frustrating that it takes her longer. These are things that become so second-nature to twin parents, that I think perhaps those without twins don’t always realise that these are issues we are addressing on a daily basis. The classroom is not the only way they are learning independence.

  1. It needn’t be extreme

 Having been a teacher, I know there are many opportunities to allow children to be independent from each other while still in the same class. In time they can be in different groups within the class for certain activities, or sit at different tables, or be assigned different tasks. And they can also attend different afterschool clubs and activities. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

  1. Being a twin is a fact of life

Twins are going to be twins for life, long after they are finished with school. Their experience of life is always going to be a twin one, ie; they will always have shared experiences that go beyond that of just a ‘normal’ sibling. They share the same age, the same birthday, the same parents, the same childhood experiences, and often the same friends. And this will carry on to a lesser extent throughout their lives. Twins have to forge out their own independence in the face of such similarities and shared experience, and it is something that can be done whether or not they are also sharing a class. There is an important value in learning to be individuals while they are together, and not just when they are apart from each other.

  1. Logistics

Aside from the psychological and emotional aspects to this issue, there is also a logistical one. Schools are not set up for you to have two children in the same year but different classes, therefore every school event, parents’ evening, and school trip is going to involve clashes and difficulties, where you are supposed to be in two different places at once. There is also an advantage to the teacher knowing and understanding the dynamic between both children, as it leads to a greater understanding of them. There is continuity for the children, and the parents, where they have the same set of rules and expectations from the teacher. And, if you are lucky with your teacher, any ‘twin’ issues or co-dependence or competitiveness can be dealt with sensitively and effectively within the classroom.

  1. Enjoy the advantages

I think sometimes there is a feeling that twins should be separated at school because that is the experience that other children have. Singletons must face going to school alone, whereas twins are at an advantage because they have a ready-made friend and ally in their class. And this is absolutely true, it is an advantage, and there’s nothing wrong with that! That is an absolute perk of being a twin parent – you know that your children are not going to be lonely, that they will have someone looking out for them. Yes, they may stick together a lot at the beginning, but my two have always made friends with others, and played independently from each other once they feel settled in to a new place. The experience is just less traumatic for them, and I am deeply grateful for that. Lord knows there have been a lot of times when having twins has made life harder in the past (like no sleep for two years!), so I’m going to take the pros where I can get them!

Being a twin is a unique experience, both at school and far beyond that. To try to make their experience in line with everybody else is futile, as it never will nor should it be. Eventually they will grow up and lead separate lives, but in the meantime they are creating precious shared memories that will last a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CONFESSION

Naughty or nice?

Naughty or nice?

I am going to admit to something that is taboo for a grown-up to say. Especially for one who has been a teacher and professes to love children. But here it goes: There are some kids I just don’t like. I know that sounds mean; how can I dislike a small child? But when I became a teacher I learnt that children are smaller versions of grown-ups: some you love, some you think are OK, and there are just a couple you really have an aversion to. (The trick is not to show it of course!)

It was brought home to me the other day when my daughter told me something that had upset her at school. This is a new school for her, and her first time in a proper big school, having only attended a small Montessori until now. She has settled in amazingly well, and is so eager to please her teacher. She was working hard on making a pattern with coloured wooden shapes, and a boy threw something at her work. She asked him to stop, but then he did it again and upset all the shapes and the pattern she had been making, and there was no time to start again. I asked if she had told the teacher, which she had, and the teacher had told the boy off, so at least I knew it had been dealt with.

She was obviously upset by the fact he had ruined what she had been working on so hard, but what mostly had upset her was the fact that he had seemed so pleased about it. She told me, “He looked happy that he had damaged it and upset me, mummy.” She was so confused by this idea. I could feel my inner protective-lioness creeping up. Just who was this beast-child? I wanted to go and tell him exactly what I thought of him. There is nothing like upsetting my child to bring about my taboo-hatred. Here was my sweet little girl with nothing but kindness and generosity in her heart, being exposed to deliberate meanness. She just could not understand why someone would derive pleasure from upsetting another person. To be honest, I’m a grown-up and I still don’t get it. I felt a little chink of her innocence being taken away.

Up till now I’ve always tried to explain naughty behaviour in other kids as having a cause – either they want attention, or they are tired, or they have got into bad habits. Just because someone does something you don’t like, it doesn’t mean you should stop liking them. But what about those people who just get a kick out of annoying others? Children often start out pretty self-centred, and generally have to be taught compassion and sympathy. But we all know adults that don’t ever develop it, and they were all children once.

You know when you send your children to school that you are letting them into the world without you, to fend for themselves in that brutal social jungle called the playground. This won’t be the last time my daughter has to cope with someone behaving in a way that upsets her. We all have to learn that while we shouldn’t put up with people being mean, it’s something everybody experiences from time to time. I have to teach her that it’s perfectly reasonable to be upset by that behaviour, and to tell the teacher, but that at the same time some kids are just like that, and to try to concentrate on the good things that happened at school.

This was a small incident of course, but it played on my mind how I should approach teaching my children to cope with unpleasant behaviour in others. Finding the balance between being patient and compassionate of others’ bad behaviour, while not accepting being a victim of it, is a tricky business. I try to teach them to find the good in people, and look for what may be provoking the less desirable traits; the “even good people do bad things” approach. I think it makes for a much more tolerant society if we do. But I also have a responsibility to teach them that there are some people you are just not going to like, and that is perfectly normal. That’s how we feel as adults, and so we should expect no differently of our children. It’s just important to ensure they know how to draw that distinction, and not be overly accepting, nor overly intolerant.

Of course that applies to me too. And I like to I think I’m pretty clear on how I draw my distinctions, as a few days later I intervene when my son is upset with my daughter: It turns out she was gleefully breaking up a sand pile he had been making. “What are you doing?” I say. “You know that was upsetting him. Why would you do that when you wouldn’t like it done to you?” “Oh, sorry Mummy.” She says, chastised. A time-out ensues. “Ah well,” I think to myself. “She must be over-tired…”

Balloon Mortality

Tick-tock

I think I am not the only parent who slightly dreads their children being given balloons at a party. This was especially true when mine were toddlers. I knew eventually the tears would come, either because of the loud bang of its bursting, or the disbelief that what had once been a beautiful brightly-coloured, round play-thing had suddenly been reduced to a limp rag. Usually both. I used to be sorely tempted to try to avoid the situation entirely, and not bring home balloons after parties, as I did get a bit fed up with the rigmarole, to be honest. But then I had an epiphany: balloons are often a child’s first introduction to mortality.

We all know children have to learn this lesson eventually: nothing lasts forever. But it’s a hard lesson to accept, whether you are a child or an adult. And nothing teaches it quite so simply or eloquently as a balloon. There is no escape from balloon grief! Either they are plucked in their prime with a dramatic “pop”, slowly deflate and wrinkle to a soft mass, or ascend directly to the heavens.  Either way, the ephemeral life of a balloon is something every child has to face. And perhaps how we deal with our child’s disappointment may be telling about our own approach dealing with certain of life’s unpleasant inevitabilities.

I realised the way in which I reacted to my children’s distress may well affect how they cope with that concept in the future. My first impulse was denial and avoidance; let’s try not to have too many balloons, and prevent the upset. But then that denies children the pure, unadulterated joy of a maddeningly lightweight ticking-time-bomb-ball. Plus it turns you into a meanie. And, besides, you are really only delaying the lesson. Yes, it may all end in tears, but it’s mighty fun until then.

Another approach we can have as parents is to say “don’t worry, I’ll get you another balloon.” Bearing in mind my analogy, I’m not sure this is the best message to give! After all, balloon bereavement needs a little grieving time… I also think that it’s important for children to realise that they can have a lot of fun with something, and that it has to come to an end. I’m really not trying to be a spoilsport here, but I think we can make a rod for our own backs if we try to prevent the inevitable disappointment. Regularly providing an immediate replacement for the lost balloon doesn’t allow your child to be consoled some other way; a cuddle, a different toy, playing a game. Before you know it, they will be expecting you to resolve any disappointment and provide them with a substitute. They won’t learn how to cope with it another way.

As children grow this is a message that will have to be repeated in a variety of contexts – the end of a party, a broken toy, a good friend moving away. And, of course, that first introduction to death, whether it (hopefully) comes in the form of withered plants, dead insects, or the loss of a pet. The message remains the same, even if the degree of sadness may vary considerably. You can’t protect your children from unhappy events, or disappointing outcomes, but you can teach them how to handle them.

So perhaps what parents have to do is learn to accept our child’s reaction. They will have balloons. Those balloons will expire and your child will be upset. Just go with it, sympathise with them, explain the laws of balloons. And then try to distract them with something else. It is still just a balloon after all.

 

 

 

 

Combination-feeding twins: Top Ten Tips

1526989_538866736209850_352082975_n

They’re cute. And oh-so-hungry.

I struggled with breastfeeding my twins when they were born. I had really wanted to breastfeed them exclusively as I knew this was what was best for them. But, as with many aspects of parenting, reality is very different from the theory. With a combination of babies with tongue-tie, dehydration and weight-loss, not to mention very painful breastfeeding for me and a shortage of milk, I ended up having to introduce formula on medical advice. I was worried that this meant no more breast milk for my babies, and therefore no more of its wonderful benefits. But introducing formula does NOT need to mean the end of breastfeeding. It is perfectly possible to combine the two, as I did in the end for seven months.  Combination feeding is little talked about, but it can create a more sustainable solution to breastfeeding twins. Without it I certainly would not have been able to continue breastfeeding mine for as long as I did.

Here are my Top Tips on how to go about it:

  1. Breastfeed one baby and bottle-feed the other at each feed 

    This was the perfect solution for me. If you top up with formula after a breastfeed it is difficult to work out how much to give, and is incredibly time-consuming. You also risk over-feeding your babies (which I did) and end up being far more acquainted with the term “possetting” than anyone should, not to mention exacerbating any colic. This way is perfect if you have help, manageable if you are alone, and enables you to measure more accurately how much your baby has fed.

  2. Start with the bottle feed 

    It takes less time than a breastfeed, so the second baby doesn’t have to wait so long to be fed.

  3. Alternate which baby receives breast milk at each feed

    This means the baby who had the formula at the last feed will receive breast milk at the next feed. The breast-fed baby will most likely get hungry sooner than the bottle-fed one, and so can be fed first with the bottle at the next feed. Making a note of which baby had which feed can help a sleep-deprived brain keep track of whose turn it is.

  4. Be prepared to be flexible

    Don’t feel that you have to stick to any rules, including mine! Each baby is different, each parent is different, and you need to find what works for you. It’s impossible, and very stressful, to be completely structured and follow recommendations to the letter. That’s true for any newborn, and doubly so for twins.

  5. Don’t feel guilty

    For a long time I felt guilty with every bottle I gave my babies. I thought I was failing them as a mother by not providing them with the best start. Breastfeeding is not a test of maternal aptitude. Yes, breast milk is ideal, but try to get used to the fact that it is impossible to be ideal in everything you do for your child. Babies don’t drink milk forever; before you know it you’ll have the headache of weaning and potty-training, and the breast/bottle question will feel like a distant memory.

  6. When giving a bottle, pretend it’s a breast

    Sounds weird. What I mean is, allow your baby to latch on to it like a nipple, rather than shoving the teat in his or her mouth. This may help prevent nipple rejection, as babies can easily get lazy and not open their mouths to latch on to your nipple if they are used to the ease of the bottle. (I did sometime lapse with this when I was trying to save time. See point 4.)

  7. Give breast milk if your baby needs a top up between feeds

    It will keep your milk supplies up, it shouldn’t over-fill one baby making their feeds too out of synch with the other. I even started giving two breast-feeds in the mornings as I had enough milk for both.

  8. Bouncy chairs are a godsend

    They can help a hungry baby wait a little more patiently while their sibling finishes a feed. You will probably still get the odd screaming-session though.

  9. Take each day as it comes

    Don’t look too far ahead. If you are struggling with breastfeeding, imagining the next few months living this way can seem nightmarishly daunting. Don’t plan how long you will breastfeed for. Think about what you can manage: “I can do one more day/week” then reassess again at that stage. Just remember, if your twins have received any breast milk at all, you are doing amazingly well.

  10. Keeping your sanity IS important

    Raising twins is a lot about logistics; trying to keep two babies with different personalities, appetites, needs, likes and dislikes on the same schedule is one of the hardest parts of being a twin parent. In the beginning this feels like an impossible task, and you may feel like you are losing your mind and your sense of self. You need to do whatever you can, cut whatever non-essential corners there are, in order to cope. That is ok. As long as your babies are being fed, burped, changed, with an occasional cuddle, you are doing brilliantly. Everything else is a bonus, including breast milk.

 


 

Read my full experience of combination feeding twins here.

Learning from your mistakes: it takes practice

Beautiful, but not perfect

Beautiful, but not perfect

I was recently watching a documentary by Stephen Hawking called Into the Universe, and there was a line in it that really struck me. He said “there is no such thing as perfection.” In fact, the creation of the universe was reliant on that fact – if all matter had been perfectly geometrically scattered after the Big Bang, then none of it would have started to clump together to form the beginnings of stars and planets. Everything would have remained in a perfect state of geometry, all pieces of matter equally distant from the next, balancing all gravitational pull. Hawking goes on to say

So next time someone complains that you have made a mistake, tell him that may be a good thing. Because without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.

It’s not such a radical idea I know. We all say “nobody’s perfect”, but having the very notion of perfection presented as something imaginary, that cannot be found anywhere in the universe, is something that speaks to my annoying perfectionist side.

I’m not a perfectionist about everything – one look at the state my house is in most of the time can tell you that. But I can be hard on myself when I make mistakes. I have even been known to avoid a situation rather than risk making mistakes or making a wrong choice. I am much more comfortable in my familiar academic territory of researching a subject, learning the theory and then trying to apply it, in a perfectly ordered, structured way. And then I had children.

Parents often say “babies don’t come with a manual”, but you know if they did, I would have read it cover to cover, underlining important passages! Nothing slings you in at the deep end like having a baby (or, in my case, two.) For all my baby-book research beforehand, I was utterly clueless when it came to the reality of parenting. Everyday you are faced with the multiple mistakes you make – the only way to learn is trial and error. Not an easy thing for a perfectionist. Any time my babies had too much wind, or didn’t feed well, or vomited, I agonised over what I must have done wrong, and was frustrated that I hadn’t found the right answer. And then finally, just as I would start to feel as though I had got the hang of something, they would insist on growing and developing which meant I had to start from scratch again, learning something new, like weaning or potty-training. At each new stage I was clueless once again, making countless mistakes, feeling like I was making it up as I went along.

My children are six now, and my role as a parent has changed significantly over the years. The balance starts to shift at this age from mainly seeing to their physical needs, towards dealing with emotional and psychological needs. And one of these issues is helping your child learn to learn through their mistakes. You don’t want your children to be perfectionists (perfectionism is, after all, an imperfection!) and you don’t want them to feel bad about making mistakes. I am acutely aware that children learn primarily by example, and if they see me upset by my mistakes, or worse still, impatient with their mistakes, they will feel inhibited to try something new for fear of getting it “wrong.”

Luckily I’ve had six years to get used to making mistakes of my own, and in many ways I have also learnt from my children. I’ve watched them have to learn every single one of their skills through trial and error – after all, no baby comes out of the womb walking, talking and dressing themselves. I have admired how they didn’t give up until they could crawl towards the forbidden electric cables, pick up and swallow that tiny piece of muck, and take my best pair of shoes from my wardrobe and put them on their own little feet. Each one of those was a personal achievement which they never would have managed without practice and patience. Learning through our mistakes is something we are all born innately to do, in order to achieve the many skills we take for granted. I don’t think many of us would blame a toddler for falling over on his 2nd step, or mispronouncing a word; we all know it takes a lot of practise to walk and talk. In fact we often find the mistakes along the way quite entertaining. This is something us perfectionists need to remember when trying to achieve the more complex skills we, and our children, strive for later on.

So what can I do to not inhibit my children’s natural instinct of trial and error, or to mitigate any part of them that may be naturally perfectionist? When I feel I’ve made a mistake, I now try to ask myself afterwards, “What should I do next time that happens?” And then try to stick to it (that’s the hard part!) I don’t hide my mistakes from my children, I tell them when I think I did something wrong, and explain what I think I should do instead next time. I apologise to them if I think I’ve been hard on them for something they didn’t deserve. Initially I thought “Will I damage their image of me if I admit I did something wrong?” but I think what I am doing is giving an honest account of being a grown-up, and being human. We make mistakes, we sometimes make a lot of them, but it’s how we deal with them that counts. And of course, I encourage them to stick at something even if it’s hard and I try not to be impatient with them for not showing speedy improvement.

I still make plenty of mistakes. I wish I were more patient when my children are incredibly slow at getting ready for school. I wish my first thought when something gets spilt or broken wasn’t “why can’t they be more careful!” The main difference now is that I realise there is no such thing as a perfect parent. The best I can hope for is to keep learning to learn from my mistakes, so that I’m not constantly making the same ones, but rather coming up with new mistakes all the time.

So next time you strive for perfection, don’t; the Universe depends on it.