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An Agnostic’s Guide to Answering Your Children’s Questions About Death

 

Talking about death to children is not an easy thing to do – far harder than teaching the facts of life! But how do you approach it when you are not sure of your own answers? I have tried to put together the worries and questions my children had, and how my husband and I, as agnostics, approached the answers.

I remember the first time my children came in contact with the death of an animal. We were taking our dog for a walk one day when they were four years old and came across two frogs on the road that had been run over by a car. As far as an introduction to death is concerned, it was gentle enough, being animals that they weren’t attached to, but also rather gruesome as they were very flattened and there was some blood.

I tried to avoid the area around the frogs, but it was too late – they had seen and were instantly fascinated.

“What’s that, mummy?”

I couldn’t do anything but be honest, “Those are two frogs that have been run over.”

“Are they dead?”

“Yes.”

After that, many more questions started about death, and continued for months. They made that leap that I had been dreading, which was to ask if humans die, and if they would die. And, of course, if I would die. Every question ended up cutting me to the quick, as I felt that this knowledge of death was a loss to their innocence much more significant than any talks about where babies come from. My main problem, of course, was that the questions they were asking were questions that plague me, and for which I don’t have a clear answers.

If I had a strong faith, I think the questions would bother me a lot less. Equally, if I were a confirmed atheist I would probably not have too many qualms about saying that your time on earth is all there is. But I am neither of those things. I’m a wishy-washy, undecided, befuddled agnostic. But I am also someone used to giving straight answers to my children’s questions. So here are some of the questions I was asked, and the way my husband and I chose to answer them.

My children were between the ages of four and six when the burst of questions came, and so we gave answers that we felt were appropriate for that age. We based them loosely on a foundation of religious belief, while not sticking to any particular religious doctrine.  We mostly made it up as we went along. We decided that since we don’t know for a fact what happens after death, we may as well make it sound pleasant!

What happens after you die?

I knew that I couldn’t possibly raise them with the idea that there was nothing after you die. For me, the idea that you would cease to exist was too frightening a concept to give a young child, even if it is what I fear may be the reality. It makes for a much more gentle introduction to death to say that it isn’t exactly the end, just the end of one state and the beginning of another. Who is to say that’s not the truth?

The next question what exactly do we say is on the other side? We had been raised Catholic, so heaven was the most natural recourse we came to, rather than reincarnation. I was raised with the idea of heaven but no hell, so that was what I went with. My husband and I decided to paint a very traditional view of heaven, as a beautiful and magical place that was accepting of all beings – human, animal, insect. Just beware of making it sound too enticing, as my children started getting the idea that they really wanted to go to heaven right now! I explained to them that it was a place that you can’t visit – once you are there you have to stay. (This message got a little confused when they thought they had already been to heaven; it transpired they had confused a glimpse of the afterlife with a lovely holiday in Devon!)

Does your body go to heaven?

The differences between my children became very evident during our conversations about death. My son took everything at face value, and was entirely satisfied by my answers.  My daughter, on the other hand, would mull over everything I said, and kept coming up with some new questions to ask:

“Did the frogs go to heaven?”

“Yes, of course,” I replied.

“But they were on the road. How did they go to heaven?”

And so began the next phase: the soul. I actually feel that this is the central part to an agnostic’s answer about death. I don’t believe in any one religion. I don’t feel comfortable teaching my children a particular religious doctrine, because I don’t believe in it. But the idea of a life force is something that I would like to believe in. Who’s to say that it doesn’t exist? The concept of a God doesn’t even need to come into it.  So I feel safe to tell my children that they have a life force, or soul, that exists beyond just their body.

This answer, which I felt quite proud of, actually freaked out our daughter rather a lot.

“But I want my body!”

So we decided to say that you get a new body in heaven, and it can be whatever body you want. She was determined that she would feel different as it wouldn’t be her original body. I tried all sorts of approaches to help with this: your body changes all the time, but you don’t notice it (new skin cells, hair growth), you’re already growing all the time, becoming a grown-up and you don’t mind that. But nothing helped. This went on for weeks and months, especially at bed-time. Eventually we realised that what she was afraid of was the fact her normal body would be left alone on earth. She asked me if I would be in the same grave (or, to use her words, gravy) as her. I said “yes, of course” and she was completely reassured by that, and hasn’t mentioned it again!

I’m worried heaven doesn’t really exist

This was something that my son asked. He is much less ready to believe in things that he doesn’t see, he questioned the existence of Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy from a very young age, so this was another on his list.

In this area (unlike for Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy!) I decided to be fairly honest early on. I told them that in fact no one has been to heaven and back again, because it’s not a place you visit, so it isn’t something that anyone has seen. However, what happens is different people believe different things about what happens when you die (I mentioned reincarnation – they weren’t convinced!) and that it’s a question of what you feel not what you know.  They both seemed to be happy with that answer – one because he thought there probably wasn’t, but it didn’t bother him, and the other because she felt there was, which she found reassuring.

I don’t want to go to heaven without you

This one was a heartbreaker. Another from my daughter. I made it simple and said that I would be there waiting for her, to which she then replied “I don’t want you to go to heaven before me.” This then became the idea that upset her a lot, which of course is a common fear for children. We told her that we had to go a bit before her to get her room in heaven ready for her. She was still troubled by it, and in the end we just told her that we would only go when she was happy for us to go and get her room ready when we are all very, very old. It was reassuring enough, and hopefully by the time it becomes an issue we really will be very old!

Are there baddies in heaven?

This is the problem when you don’t want to introduce an idea of hell! Of course I said “no” but then my son asked, “but where do the baddies go when they die? Do they go to a baddie heaven which isn’t nice?” I found it incredible that they had made up hell all by themselves! We were very firm that we were not going to introduce any concept of hell, as it just creates fear and guilt. I told him no, there is not a baddy heaven. What happens is that when the baddies die they are able to realize that what they did on earth was bad and so they become good. “But what if they don’t become good?” I simply said that they all do, because you understand a lot more when you die.

A little note on prayer

My daughter was upset when my parents’ dog Aramis died, and told me that she was going to miss him, and wished she could tell him that she missed him.  I’ve also talked about my grandmother, and she said how she wished she could have met her. I therefore brought in the idea of prayer – I told her that you can say a prayer to those who have died, and tell them all that you want to.  I also told them it was a good time to say thank you for all the good things that have happened in the day. I think regardless of any religious belief, it’s a good opportunity for reflection, and is reassuring to feel you still have a link to people (or pets!) that you miss. I have over-heard my daughter on many occasions saying her prayers by herself:

“Good-night grannie, good-night Aramis, good-night squashed frogs…”

 

 

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Children with Christmas Birthdays: A Survival Guide

tree-1283772_1920As with most people, the run-up to Christmas is absolute chaos in our household. However, we have the double bonus of having twins with a birthday the week before Christmas itself. If you have children with a birthday around this already jam-packed time of year, then you know what I am talking about: a manic period of birthday AND Christmas shopping, birthday AND Christmas party preparations, birthday AND Christmas gift-wrapping, answering relatives’ requests for birthday AND Christmas gift ideas. The list goes on. I love the Christmas season, but there are definitely times when I wish I could bury my head in the sand until Christmas day itself when everything is magically ready. If you want to how to be super-organised and glide seamlessly from a fun-filled birthday to a fabulously festive Christmas without breaking a sweat… then please let me know as I haven’t worked that out yet. Until then, here are a few tips that I have learnt over the years that I find helpful. Maybe share with friends and family members who might not be quite so familiar with what you are going through. I don’t promise this will make you less busy, but they are the honest tips that I try to keep to (unlike “start preparing in July.” Fantastic idea. Never managed it.) 

  1. Do a clear-out of toys and games that your child doesn’t use. It will look like Santa parcel-bombed your house shortly, so be fairly brutal. You could say, “If Father Christmas sees you don’t have any room for gifts, he’ll have to get you something small.” That often focusses the mind. Or just do it when the children aren’t around.
  1. Do understand that when you ask people to “buy small” they will probably ignore you. Instead you could try to ask for “experience” gifts. Less immediately exciting for the child on the day itself, but it can be something special that the giver can do with the child. A visit to a fun attraction, cinema/theatre tickets. There are lots of choices. Book/magazine/comic subscriptions are also good.
  1. Do prepare as early as you can manage. The earliest I’ve really managed to start is October. Before that you have all the added chaos surrounding the start of the new school year.
  1. Do keep an ongoing “present idea” list on your mobile at all times I don’t just mean for the children, but you still have others to buy for and little time in your brain-space to even think about them at this time of year with everything else going on.
  1. Do ask friends and relatives to come up with their own ideas (if you think they will be reasonable!) I’ve found that one of the hardest parts of this time of year is how exhausted my brain becomes trying to keep track of everything I need to do. When you are also asked to come up with ideas for other people too, then it’s ready to melt. Plus before you know it you’ve given away your best ideas! This is only suitable for those you trust not to ignore number 2 too much.
  1. Do ask relatives to clearly label gifts they send from Amazon One of the difficulties I have is that people very kindly order gifts for the children for both Christmas and birthday from Amazon, and I have to chase up, or look through emails, to get the explanation of which gift is for whom, and whether it’s for Christmas or birthday and often who it’s even from. I recommend you ask people to add the details in the address eg: “Jane Smith (BD, from Granny)” or “Jane Smith (xms from Aunt E.)” The added bonus is the ability to answer with confidence when you are asked “did you receive what I ordered?”
  1. Do ask people to gift-wrap their own gifts Sometimes it’s not possible with online orders, but often it is, and you can tell people that for you it’s really worth the extra it costs them. Ask them to buy a smaller gift if they don’t want to spend the extra on gift-wrap (it’s true Amazon does over-charge somewhat). It circles back to number 6 above, and also saves you a lot of sorting and gift-wrapping time.
  1. Don’t worry too much about keeping birthday and Christmas celebrations completely separate There are certain rules of etiquette with a birthday around Christmas – you don’t wrap a birthday gift in Christmas paper, you don’t give a joint birthday and Christmas gift (though you may spend more on one than the other). I also used to extend this to only decorating the house for Christmas after the birthday was over. However, I’ve learnt that the fun of Christmas actually accentuates my twins’ enjoyment of their birthday. The two are inextricably linked for them, and they look forward to opening their birthday gifts under the tree. Equally, I sometimes put Christmassy gifts in the party bags.  Just go with it!
  1. Do consider having an additional celebration for your child another time of year Some people celebrate “half birthdays” so that your child can have a special day that isn’t shared with Christmas festivities. Personally, we celebrate my twins’ Saints Days (it’s a French tradition). It doesn’t have to be anything big – we gave a small gift and have a day where they get to choose a special meal. It’s something family can also celebrate. It’s additionally useful with twins as they not only share their birthday with Christmas but also with each other! This gives them an individual celebration, albeit on a smaller scale.
  1. Don’t be too hard on yourself You will end up letting something slip, whether it’s managing to do all the Christmas cards, or finding the perfect gift for someone. Keep a little time for the bits you enjoy about the season – I love making my own mince pies and Christmas cake. Yes, it adds more to my to-do list, but I get such satisfaction eating my own handiwork! Oh, and always put on some Christmas music and sip on a festive drink when doing the wrapping-up. The gift-tags may become haphazard, but the time will fly by!

 

 

If the Ugly Sister Got the Prince: Teaching Your Kids About Unfairness 

One of my favourite stories growing up was Cinderella – not the Disney one, but the beautifully worded and sumptuously illustrated Ladybird Fairytale, with the three royal balls, satin slippers, and sisters that were beautiful but so bad tempered that they appeared ugly. I read and reread that story so many times, mainly coveting the three increasingly beautiful ball gowns, but the subliminal message was clear: be good and kind and good things will happen to you. Be greedy and mean and you will get nothing but bitterness. This is a good message that we all try to teach our children, and we try to reinforce it as we bring them up: from the beginning we teach the difference between right and wrong with praise and reprimand, reward and punishment. But what happens when they grow up and see that others around them sometimes do the wrong thing and get away with it? Or when they do the right thing and lose out?

“Er, excuse me - actually, it was my shoe… Oh, never mind.”

“Er, excuse me – actually, it was my shoe… Oh, never mind.”

I first started thinking about this when we went to a local Easter Egg Hunt. It shouldn’t really be called a “hunt”, more of a “scramble” (ha, ha!) as the eggs are just scattered in full view on a flat field and someone shouts “Go!”, opens the flood gates and the children run all together to grab some for their Easter basket. All the children are told at the beginning that the maximum they can collect is four, so that there are enough to go around. But of course many children completely ignore this rule and I could see them with overflowing baskets filled with at least twenty eggs. My two have had fairness so drilled into them that they obligingly picked up their allotted four and moved off. But they noticed that other children had ignored the rule, and not only had they not got into trouble, they were actually benefitting from disobeying as they had far more chocolate than those children who were being good. It’s essentially the equivalent of the ugly sister successfully forcing her foot into the slipper and the prince giving her a full-on kiss on the mouth.

Of course, as a parent, if you notice this injustice you can counteract it to a certain extent, by providing an extra treat for having been good. But you can’t take away the fact that those other children have still ended up being rewarded for their bad behaviour, and will probably continue to do so as their parents clearly don’t see a problem with it! So how do I teach this reality to my children, when it is so different from the message they are getting at home, or from the poetic justice they read about in their stories? How do I make sure that they continue to choose to do the right thing, when they see themselves lose out because of it?

Partly, I can explain that although those children have the immediate reward of more chocolate, there are less tangible, indirect disadvantages to their behaviour. In the long-run their greediness will mean they will have trouble maintaining friendships as people won’t enjoy being around them. But this is another way of teaching that in the end justice will be served, and this isn’t always the case. I know from my own experience at school that those children who are pushy and unpleasant never seem to be short of like-minded friends. I can’t really judge the quality of their friendship, but I think once you are getting into those technicalities, the message of justice you are trying to teach your children has got a little lost.

So there needs to be a more robust answer that I give my children when I am encouraging them to do something that, although right, means they end up with less than those who are doing wrong. I think the only way to do it is to be honest: life is unfair at times, others will get away with being naughty, but external reward is not why we try to do the right thing in the first place. We do the right thing because it is the right thing. But how do you make a child understand the value of this?

I always try to explain why something is right, and mainly it involves telling them to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. “Think of the children who ended up without any eggs because of those other children’s greediness. How would you feel if it were you?” Their stock response to my “How would you feel?” question (I do it a lot!) is always “Sad.” They obviously get the gist, but I do try to increase the vocabulary so they understand the different emotions involved: disappointed, frustrated, angry, upset, hurt… Children usually start out very self-centred – you have to teach empathy. But I believe that once you open their eyes in a consistent way to other people’s feelings, it’s a form of enlightenment that stays with them for life.

I would like to believe that those greedy children will eventually learn empathy (and some manners!) but the reality is that many of them probably won’t, and may never even realise there is value in behaving differently. They will never know the happiness that comes from making someone else happy. So, if the ugly sister gets the prince – do you want Cinderella bitter about the injustice? No, we want her happy that she didn’t marry a capricious prince, and bold enough to leave her tyrant sisters in order to do some charitable work for people who deserve it. Justice needn’t always be poetic, just personal.

———————-

Image source: Ladybird Books Ltd. See it on Amazon here

 

 

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…”

Combination-feeding twins: Top Ten Tips

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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.

 

The third option: Combining breast and bottle for twins

1526989_538866736209850_352082975_nThis is a piece I wrote a few years ago when my twins were three. I thought it might be useful for anyone who is about to, or has just had twins and is contemplating the difficult issue of breast- or bottle-feeding. It doesn’t have to be either/or, and after a lot of muddling through, I managed to combine the two with my twins for seven months. It is quite a long piece, but I feel it covers a lot of issues you don’t find in twins books. A shortened form of it appeared in the Tamba magazine in 2011.


My twins are now three years old – life is so much easier now than it was a year ago! The first few months after their birth were the hardest of my life, despite being over the moon to have my “instant family”. Part of what made the time immediately after the birth so difficult (apart from the sleep deprivation and getting over a twin delivery!) was the anxiety and guilt over the decision not to exclusively breast feed my babies. I can look back now and feel happy that I managed to mix breast and bottle-feeding for seven months, but it wasn’t plain sailing partly due the fact that there is almost no information on how to successfully combine breast- and bottle-feeding twins. I muddled through and found a way that worked for me and my babies, but I felt that I wanted to share my experience with twins-mums-to-be in case it can be of any help.

Great expectations

I was always certain that I would exclusively breastfeed any baby I had, and when I discovered I was expecting twins, it never occurred to me that I would treat them any differently than if I had had them as singletons. After reading a couple of books about twins, plus the tiny sections on twins in other baby books, I felt confident that that was not only possible, but straightforward. I’ve since realised it was just the first of many situations where I had to let go of the idea that I could approach raising twins in the same way as raising a singleton.

There is a lot of information available on the benefits of breastfeeding, but next to nothing about bottle-feeding. This is to encourage mothers to breastfeed, and rightly so, however what happens if you find you are unable to? Where is the information on how to choose formula, how to ensure you don’t over-feed your baby, what to look for in a baby bottle? And what about if you don’t want it to be either/or – where is the information on combining the two? This is particularly important when it comes to twins.

No matter how many books you read or advice you listen to, nothing prepares you for the reality of caring for and feeding two newborns. My daughter fed within a few hours of delivery, but my son wasn’t interested. I felt so exhausted from the birth that I probably didn’t persist with feeding them as frequently as I should have within the first 24 hours of birth. This may be a contributing factor to the fact that I simply did not have enough milk to feed my two exclusively, and I never experienced the milk let-down. They lost a lot of weight in their first week, which is common, however they lost up to the maximum that is considered “normal” and were dehydrated.

I tried pretty much everything to build up my milk supply – I ate and drank as much as I could (my hips regretted it later!) I fed the babies frequently – sometimes every hour or hour and a half – which meant I sometimes had no gaps between feeds, because as soon as I finished feeding one baby, the first one was hungry again. I felt that my breasts never had the time to “reload. I then started to feed them simultaneously to save time, but I found breastfeeding very painful at the beginning, partially due to both twins being tongue-tied. Having pain in both breasts at the same time was hard to bear. Also, as a novice at breastfeeding, it was hard to latch one on and then latch on the other – the first one always seemed to slip off, which increased the pain.

Bottle guilt

After a week of this, and my babies still being dehydrated, unhappy and losing weight, the community midwife told me to top them up with a bottle. I was initially reluctant, but I really had no choice as they were not thriving, and they were not receiving enough nourishment from breast milk alone. In a way, it was a relief that I no longer had a choice, but I felt like I had failed at my first task as a mother. I felt guilty that I dreaded each breastfeed because of the pain, and that maybe this had contributed to their failure to get enough nourishment; I felt guilty with every top-up bottle I gave because I felt they weren’t receiving all the benefits of breast milk; I felt like a failure as a mother and as a woman because I alone couldn’t provide the most basic of needs to my newborns. I thought to myself “How would I have cared for them in the wild?” All I can say is sleep deprivation, first-time-mother panic and the guilt of not keeping to the letter of what is recommended is a potent combination for feeling depressed and anxious.

I certainly don’t mean this as doom and gloom, and “look how hard I had it” – all parents of multiples have it hard to start with, and I was very lucky in other ways – mine weren’t premature and I had a lot of support from my husband and my family. I did manage to muddle through and continued to combine breast and bottle until mine were seven months old. Here’s what ended up working for me:

Practical guide to combination feeding

I started out breastfeeding each baby in turn, then passing each to my husband to top them up with a bottle. This didn’t work for me. The whole process used to take about two hours from start to finish, even with two people. I also never knew how much to top up with, and in fact we ended up overfeeding the twins (yes, it is possible with bottles) and they vomited frequently, had bad wind and tummy aches, which didn’t help the colic. I realised at the end of my husband’s four-week paternity leave that this wasn’t sustainable, even with support. I woke up one morning (or night – it’s hard to tell in the early stages!) and realised I had to change the routine if I was going to be able to continue to breastfeed at all.

I decided literally to half breastfeed, half bottle-feed. I would breastfeed one baby and bottle-feed the other for one feed, and then swap over at the next feed. Alternating feeds worked really well for me. It meant if I was on my own, the process of feeding two babies didn’t take so long because bottles went down a lot faster than a breastfeed. I could monitor, at least half of the time, exactly how much the babies were taking, and I knew I would have enough breast milk for a feed now that I wasn’t trying to split each feed between two babies. Also, it meant that if I did have someone else around, they could give the bottle at the same time as I breastfed, which saved a lot of time, especially if we were out and about (the few times we were at the beginning!) It also meant that over-feeding was not such an issue, since I could more or less follow the guidance on the formula packet, without trying to guess how much breast milk they had taken.

I always used to start the feeding cycle with the bottle feed for a few reasons: Firstly, because formula takes longer to digest than breast milk. By starting with a bottle, it meant that it was always the baby who had last had breast milk who would go first, and the one who had taken a bottle would have a longer gap before their feed.  That way, I tried to reduce the number of times I had to sit through one baby crying with hunger while I was feeding the other. It’s not fool-proof! It also meant that the baby that was going second didn’t have to sit through a whole breast-feed (which takes a long time at the beginning) until they got fed. Bouncy chairs were a God-send at that time, and can pacify a peckish baby until his/her sibling has finished (also not fool-proof!)

If either looked like they needed a top-up between feeds, I used to offer the breast, so that I kept my milk supply up and they didn’t start getting more bottle than breast, and then start to reject the breast. It also meant that they weren’t too over-full for the next feed and get out of step with their sibling. My milk supply easily coped with what was the equivalent of feeding one baby. In fact, once my two started to go a little longer between feeds at night, I started to have enough milk in the mornings to breastfeed both (one after the other. I confess I never mastered the art of breastfeeding in tandem). Then at the 11pm (ish) feed, my husband gave two bottles so that I could have some extra sleep.

If it happened that I was giving an odd number of feeds in a day, for example seven, I would alternate daily which baby got four breast feeds in a day so that I didn’t end up with one having more breast than the other. After a while, I actually did end up giving more bottles to my son than to my daughter because he was the hungrier baby, and she was a very windy baby and was more comfortable after a breast feed.

Nights didn’t follow too much of a pattern. I just tried anything to get them to sleep – sometimes just offering the breast so there wasn’t the hassle of preparing bottles, sometimes just giving bottles in the hope that formula would keep them fuller for longer.

Finding a routine

I did have to stick to a feeding routine in order for this to work. I only started doing that when they were a few weeks old – I don’t think newborns are really capable of any routine to start with, and I think muddling through as best you can is probably the only way, until you find something that suits you and your babies. I eventually worked out (with the help of my health visitor) how many feeds the babies needed in a 24-hour period, and tried sticking to a 3- to 4-hourly cycle once they were a few weeks old. Again, this was an adjustment as I never thought I would impose a rigid routine to newborns, however I needed to get the twins in synch somehow, otherwise I really would have lost my mind! I was as flexible as I could be, and did offer top-ups of breast-milk if they were hungry.

It was always a bit of a juggle when the babies grew out of one routine and needed a new one, for example, when they were ready to drop a feed. It’s difficult to tell if they are ready to drop a feed if you have them in a routine and not feeding on demand. You end up being afraid of changing the routine in case it messes everything up and your babies end up cranky, and you more tired. Again, I had a good health visitor who helped me with that.

Concerns over nipple rejection

I am very lucky that my babies took so easily to combining breast and bottle, because I know that some won’t take to bottles at all, and some won’t go back to the breast once they have had the quick and easy flow of a bottle teat. I don’t know if I had particularly easy babies in that respect, or if I by chance introduced the bottle at the right time for them to accept both. I can only tell you what worked for my babies.

I introduced the bottle after they had been exclusively breastfed for one week. I thought that would be too soon, but it worked fine. If you introduce the bottle very late (say, a month or two down the line) they apparently may not take to it at all, however I obviously personally don’t have any experience to say that authoritatively. The type of bottle I used may be significant – there are a few on the market that say they are suitable for combination feeding. I personally used the Tommee Tippee “Closer to Nature” bottles, which to me looked the most like a breast(!) These served me very well.

I also tried to replicate the latching-on to a breast when I bottle-fed. I would rub the teat by their lips, and wait for the babies to open their mouths for the bottle, rather than shoving it in so that they didn’t get out of the habit of opening their mouths to latch on to the breast. I didn’t do that all the time, because sometimes you just want to take advantage of the faster bottle and get it done quickly. This is probably the only problem I did have with combination feeding – my babies sometimes didn’t try to latch on properly to the breast. This problem did resolve itself, and eventually they did swap between the two as if it were second nature to them.

Happily ever after

I managed to keep going like this for six months, and then I gradually weaned them off the breast when I felt ready, and when I felt my babies were ready. After a while, I looked forward to breastfeeding my babies, because it no longer became a source of guilt, stress or pain. It did become a lovely feeling of closeness between the babies and me that no one else can feel.

I hope that this opens up a third option to twin-mums that isn’t discussed in many books. I’m sure there are a lot of different ways of combining breast and bottle, and if that is what you want to do you will find your own way that works. I only wanted to show that it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation, and share the practicalities of how I went about it. I also hope to prevent other twins-mums who may not be able to breastfeed exclusively, from feeling the guilt that I went through. If your babies have received any breast milk at all, you are doing really well, because it is far from simple with more than one baby, and, I believe, practically impossible if you are not receiving support from others. In any event, your babies are not going to remember whether you breast-fed or bottle-fed them, but whether you provide comfort and love. There is so much more to being a mother. I hope my experiences are helpful to you, but do whatever is right for you and your babies.


 

In a nutshell

  • Breastfeed one baby and bottle feed the other at each feed.
  • Alternate which baby gets the bottle or breast at each feed.
  • Start with the bottle feed since formula takes longer to digest than breast milk.
  • Try to get your baby to latch on to the bottle as if it were a breast.
  • Don’t feel guilty about not following the guidelines to the letter.