Author Archives: perplexedparent

About perplexedparent

A delighted but exhausted stay-at-home mum of 6-year-old twins; frequently bemused, often fascinated, and constantly behind schedule.

Maternal – Instinct?

Recently a few people I know have had babies and it made me think back to when I had my own, and how the reality of having children is so different from your expectations in so many ways. One of the expectations I had was that I would immediately develop a “maternal instinct” that would switch on as soon as I gave birth. It is something you always hear about – that mothers instinctively know exactly why their baby is crying, and how best to console them. I had always loved babies and children and so I didn’t ever doubt that I would have this instinct.

So I gave birth to twins. And they cried. So I fed them. And they cried.  So I changed them. And they cried. So I burped them. And they cried. So I cuddled them. And they cried. And I cried, because I still had no blooming idea what was the matter.  Their cries sounded like baby cries, and I had no better idea than before I had given birth what they meant. Never in my life had I considered that I would be one of “those” mothers who don’t get the maternal instinct. If I, who loved children from the moment of still being a child myself, couldn’t develop it, what did this mean? All those years I had thought I was cut out for motherhood must have been a delusion because here I was failing at the first test!

When you are in the throes of dealing with sleepless nights, colic, and physically recovering from the trauma of birth, you don’t think straight. I wasn’t able to sit back and look logically at what was happening (there wasn’t the time!) I just kept waiting for something to “kick in”. I looked at other people around me who would say with assurance “they’re hungry” or “they have wind” and I would accept it as fact, because I had nothing inside me telling me otherwise. No preternatural ability, no primitive instinct switched on in my gut. I was lost at sea, rotating through a series of possible solutions to their cries; hunger, trapped wind, wet nappy, too hot, too cold, too lonely. I felt ashamed that those around me seemed to know better than I did what my babies needed.

Now those days are so far behind me, and the idea that someone else would know my children’s needs better than I do seems thankfully alien to me. I’m not saying I always get it right, but through those first few months and years of sleepless nights, the colic, the tears, the booboos, the giggles, the cuddles you come out the other side having a pretty good idea what your children need. It’s precisely through that floundering and not knowing what the heck you are doing you end up knowing your child’s every mood, facial expression, like and dislike.

If there is such a thing as maternal instinct, it’s the instinct that you want to find an answer; you want the crying to stop, you want to understand your child’s noises, you want to know how to make them happy, how to get them to behave, how to get them to eat their vegetables. You keep trying, failing, and trying again. You get it wrong. You think other parents manage better than you. (You also think some parents are loopy…) But at the end of the day no one else knows and loves your children as you do.

So for anyone who is about to, or has just had a baby, be patient. Maternal instinct is not a switch, it’s more like a rapidly changing dimmer that converges to “on” without ever really reaching it. You just get more comfortable with not having any idea what you’re doing – just as you master one skill, another problem will come up that you’ve never seen before, and you have to make it up as you go along all over again.  None of us know what we’re doing, we just do what we can and hope for the best.





How Do Reindeer Fly?

I like teaching my children. I love it when they ask me questions like “What makes a rainbow?” and “Why do we have lips?”  I encourage their natural curiosity and try to give them a simple grounding in science and nature. But every so often come those slightly awkward questions, like “how do reindeer fly?” I was caught off-guard with this one, distracted by the bed-time mayhem, and at first answered “well, they can’t.”  But when I saw their confused little wide-eyed faces looking up at me saying , “but how does the sleigh fly then?” I realised my terrible mistake. I quickly backtracked. “Oh, you mean Father Christmas’s reindeer. Oh that’s something different. They have special magic.”

And here-in lies that delicate dance parents have between teaching their children science while allowing them a childhood filled with magic. I have taught my children about how drops of water bend the sunlight to make rainbows at the same time as telling them stories about pots of gold at the end of them. The incongruity of it isn’t lost on me, but I couldn’t possibly imagine bringing up my children without their believing in magic, Father Christmas and the tooth fairy.  It may be an inconsistent approach to teaching children, but it’s one I stand by.

I often ask myself, how do I draw the line? Which parts do I give the “honest” answer to, and which parts do I allow them a little whimsy? Am I clouding their understanding of nature, explaining on the one hand that animals need wings to fly, while telling them Father Christmas’s reindeer can do it without them? And, crucially, are they going to start thinking they can defy gravity and fly without wings if they believe a little too readily in it? My answer is, I make it up as I go along.  I answer with science 90% of the time, and give them just a little magic the rest of the time.  Learning the laws of nature, and knowing how to observe and understand the world around us is incredibly important. But so is believing in magic.

Growing up I believed easily in everything. I believed so firmly in Father Christmas that even when other children at school started to tell me that it was my parents filling the stockings, I simply did not believe them. “I have proof – he wrote me a letter,” I would inform them confidently, and ever so slightly condescendingly. When my parents began to worry that I might be laughed at at school, they decided to break the news to me. I remember the moment vividly, and how it rocked my world and everything that I held as certain.  However, I do not regret for one moment ever having believed. My childhood was magical and wonderful because of it. When else in life can you have the opportunity, and innocence, to believe that a kindly old gentleman of indeterminate age gives all children around the world the very gift they had been wanting? When else can you believe that maybe, just maybe, if you concentrate enough, your magic will change the channel on the TV, or (as my daughter believes) change the colour of Daddy’s boxer shorts. It’s a world of possibilities and wonder, of children’s stories so vividly exciting just because you believe they might be true. It’s the birth of imagination.

Science, logic, observation and enquiry are essential to our minds, and to answering important questions about the world around us and our place in it. I firmly believe that feeding and satisfying children’s natural scientific curiosity is essential. But imagination also has a very important place. We need it in order to come up with innovative ideas and new concepts. But, most importantly, we need it because it’s fun. Believing in fairies and pixies and pots of gold are all part of developing that imagination, as well as creating some magical memories.

My son has a naturally scientific mind. He is very logical already at six years old. He questions my “magical” answers very closely. He has already asked me outright whether Father Christmas is real. I feel a little guilty, but I just told him a bare-faced lie, because I couldn’t imagine having a six-year-old who didn’t believe in magic.  He will have his whole life to believe in science and the laws of physics, but the time to believe in magic is so precious and short, I’ve kept it going a little longer. So for now, while most reindeer are ground-dwelling even-hoofed herbivores, Father Christmas’s reindeer fly using special Christmas magic.

Make a Choice – Why you can’t have it all

I read an article by Rosa Brooks the other day lambasting Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In”, saying that we should instead “lean out”.  We should stop trying to achieve so much in so many spheres. If we try to be the best employee, networking and travelling at the same time as volunteering at our children’s school, making crafts and cupcakes, and taking them to endless clubs and enrichment programmes, we end up exhausted, overstretched and miserable. Of course this is true for people with normal energy levels (there are always some who are born to be Duracell bunnies…) The author’s solution to counter a culture of endless ambition is to instead enjoy “long lunches, afternoon naps, good books and some nice, slow hours in the La-Z-Boy.” She also encouraged that we spread the word, that men and women alike must try this so we remove the pressure of being ubiquitous both at work and at home, and challenge the idea that more work means better work.

It was a very entertaining article, aimed at “the rest of us”, ie: those who can’t hope to achieve all that Sheryl Sandberg has. Clearly I fall into this category, and I liked the idea of moving away from a culture of long hours and 24-hour availability to your work. Having a husband who is a successful lawyer, these are issues that we discuss at home on a regular basis. But I was left a little unsatisfied after reading it. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first. The author was, after all, shining a light on the impossible ideals that are put on women: finding that perfect balance of successful career and caring for your children. And then I realised what bothered me:  nowhere did she suggest that you should choose between the two.  She suggests you simply to do less of both, and spend more time on yourself. She was not much different from Sheryl Sandberg herself, it was just that their source of happiness was slightly different. True, I think most women, in fact most people, would probably prefer Rosa’s model of happiness, but her article is still pervaded by a sense of entitlement that I find worrying.

What has happened to making a choice, accepting a trade-off and living with the consequences? As far as I am concerned, gender equality is about giving both men and women free and independent choice to make decisions in their lives. The more I see women struggle with “finding the right balance”, the more I feel that they have not made a choice at all, but rather are trying to have their cake and eat it. Rosa bemoans when parenting becomes an “intensive, round-the-clock” activity, in competition with your work, and rightly asserts that you may simply become crushed under the pressure. But what is parenting if not an intensive round-the-clock activity?

Rosa compares the pressures of ubiquity at work to that of the “equally-pernicious culture of intensive parenting.” Should the two really be so quickly tarred with the same brush? I certainly believe the culture of constant availability to your work is damaging to people’s health and happiness, and is indeed a culture. However, I don’t believe that constant availability to your children is a matter of culture, nor is it “pernicious”, but just the reality of being a parent.

Rosa describes women who leave the workplace due to the pressures of balancing work and home as “dropping out” of work. This seems rather condescending to me – why shouldn’t it be considered a free and valid choice for a woman, or indeed a man? I exercised my free choice when I gave up work to be a full-time parent at home. I had always known that that was what I wanted. I am lucky that my husband has a well-paid full-time job that allows me to make that choice. Many people don’t have that option, in particular single parents or those on low incomes. But of those who could make the choice to stay home, whether women or men, many don’t. Why is this?

It seems to me that the main problem here is that we still use careers as our key measure of worth as an individual in society. And full-time parenting has been put very low on the list.  Many women (or men) feel that they would go crazy if they stayed home full time. I know this because that’s often the response I get from people when I say I am a stay-at-home mum. They tell me they need the outside stimulation, socialisation with other grown-ups and the ability to use their education and skills. I don’t quite know how to take this – as a compliment that I am able to survive the deprivation of these elements of normal social integration, or as an insult that somehow they ‘need’ that stimulation, but that my brain can do without it.

My response is somewhere in between. I do miss that some of my education and skills are being underused, but that is true of any job I could think of. I have had to develop a whole set of new skills. And anyone who tells you that they are not intellectually stimulated when they are around children have never had a conversation with an inquisitive six year-old. I have found myself racking my brain (and plundering Wikipedia) for answers to questions so fundamental I never think to ask them. In the process I have relearnt things I used to know, and learnt a whole lot more besides. The world around you seems so much more interesting and miraculous when viewed through the eyes of a child.

Children also have a tendency to ask you some difficult metaphysical questions, such as why do people do bad things, what happens when I die, and do you miss your Granny in heaven, at odd times of the day, like when you are brushing their teeth or in the car home from school. You can’t plan these conversations, they come when they come.  I made the choice that I don’t want to find that it is someone else’s thoughts and values that are passed on to my children because they happened to ask the question when I was at work.  I may not be using the skills learnt during my degree, but what I am doing keeps me thinking on my feet and matters more to me than any job could.

That’s not to say there aren’t days when I feel utterly fed up with the endless laundry, the making of packed lunches and the Sisyphean task of tidying the house.  I fully admit that I don’t feel intellectually stimulated by the vacuum cleaner, and I am not going to get a pay rise for getting the kids to school on time four days in a row (a mighty achievement for me!) But then every job has its elements that are necessary but tedious.

I often think of the episode of The Simpsons when Lisa is going crazy because school is closed, and she is asking Marge maniacally to “Look at me! Grade me! Evaluate and rank me! I’m good, good, good and oh so smart!” That’s me! Society isn’t going to congratulate me or give me a promotion for what I do.  It has become taboo to champion stay-at-home parenting, as it doesn’t generate taxes and would seem to encourage a return to the dark ages where women had no right to choose. But here is my manifesto: Don’t lean in or out, but take a decisive leap.  Make being a stay-at-home parent a valid and valued life choice.  Show the world that it is a timeless role that has nothing to do with “dropping out” and everything to do with wanting what’s best for your children.