Thursday, 19 March 2015

Tantrum Taming

The following piece, written for US website, on the subject of toddler tantrums and how to deal with them, seems to have attracted a surprising amount of controversy. Some parents seem to feel I am raising a monster by giving in to my three-year-old's hysterical reaction to a cup or spoon she doesn't like. Maybe they're right...

Maybe not though. Really, is she going to be spoiled for life because I switched the cup she didn't want? I doubt it? Grow into a Godzilla-like beast, making incessant, uncontrollable demands of all around her simply because I chose not to enter into a battle with her over a spoon or fork?

Or, is there a possibility that somewhere in her childish mind she might even appreciate that I am being decent and kind, and that this might in turn encourage her to adopt the same attributes when dealing with other people? From what I can see of the playground dynamic, a bit of kindness and decency might go a long way.

One woman called it "the worst parenting advice ever." Really? Worse even than those people who still think 'spare the rod and spoil the child' is a sound recommendation? Oh come on!

Naturally, when I saw the type of reaction this was getting, I did think – is this actually bad advice I'm giving out? I mulled over it some more, and I have decided that no, it isn't. Why should my daughter not learn to expect tolerance and an imaginative response from me? I may think she's being silly about the cup, but what matters here is that she does not. The choice of cup means something to her, and so, as a parent, I think its fair enough to try and understand that.

Finally though, the proof of the pudding is, as ever, in the eating. I cannot predict the future, but I can see what happens in the now: when I resist my daughter and refuse to change the cup, she is capable of having a full-blown tantrum over it - not always, but it does happen. Whereas, if I make an effort to enter into her mindset and say, 'ok, you hate that cup, I get it! What a horrible cup!', then suddenly she is the one saying 'it's ok, its only a cup.' Instead of screaming with frustration because no one understands her, she feels listened to and as a consequence her behaviour becomes much more reasonable.

But, of course you can decide for yourselves:

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Boys V Girls? Vive La Difference

I had two lovely boys, and then a lovely girl came along. "You wait," the mothers of girls said ominously. "Girls are a totally different ball-game..."

So I waited, and nothing seemed terribly different. A baby, basically, with the usual sort of baby demands. Then a toddler. Then a pre-schooler. And then wham! There, suddenly, was the difference they had been talking about.

My sons went to Montessori – the same Montessori as my daughter in one case – and came home with tales of what they learned, usually animal-related, and paintings they had done.

My daughter, now four, comes home with a minute blow-by-blow account of who was nice and who was mean to her. Which other little girls let her play with them, and which didn't. Who let her sit next to them and who didn't. This kind of analysis goes on and on.

Her detailed examination of the social scene in her Montessori rivals Jane Austin for the level of awareness and sophistication she brings to it. And finally I understand what other mothers of girls mean when they say sadly 'children can be so mean to each other...'

here is a piece I have written on the topic for

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Best-Laid Birth-Plans

Did you have a birth-plan? I certainly did, and very careful and prescriptive it was too. No inductions, no epidurals, no cutting, no shaving, no interventions, just lovely, healthy, natural birth.

I was very happy with it. And then the baby came along, and the plan went right out the window. Instead of lovely and natural I got out-of-control, terrifying and very, very painful.

Despite ending well – adorable, healthy baby, no major physical traumas – I found the experience difficult, and all the more so when I contrasted it with what I had expected and hoped for.

I know I am not alone in this, because I heave learned that just mention the word 'birth-plan' in a room full of mothers, and half will laugh ruefully, while the other half shudder.

Here is a piece I wrote for, on birth-plans, why we have them, and what happens when they go wrong:

Thursday, 12 June 2014

My Hero Likes My Book!

This is really a boast disguised as a blog... but hey, I'm excited and cannot help bragging a little.

Oliver James, psychologist and author of many really excellent books, including They F*** You Up, Affluenza and The Selfish Capitalist, has long been the psychologist I admire the most. I used to read his column in the Guardian many years ago, before I had children, and I warmed to his sane, clear, kind approach to human relations, particularly families.

Once I had children, his books became a lifeline. Because they were without hysteria, very well written, and because they are full of hope. Instead of telling me that my mistakes had 'ruined' my child forever, James's belief has always been that, although the first two years are very important, they are not the only chance we will ever get to do this right.

Thanks to Oliver James, and my mother, I learned to do my best, and to expect the best of myself, but also to get over it when I had a bad day. Put it behind me, don't dwell guiltily on my failures, get up the next day and try all over again.

So when I wrote my own book, How To Really be A Mother, I finally, after many months, nerved myself up to send him a copy.

And you know what? He read it. And he liked it! Here's what he said:

"I have read innumerable other books trying to do the same job but this is really excellent: well done! A splendid book. If I get a chance to recommend it I shall take that chance..."

Here's what I said: 'YEAY!!'

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Surviving The School Gates

It's not just your children who go to school, it's you too. And while the whole 'School-Gate-Thing' may not be quite as fraught as a thousand articles about what Claudia Schiffer is wearing to drop Clementine and Caspar off, or the best healthy muffin recipes for lunchboxes might suggest, it's not simply a matter of being on time and not forgetting the schoolbag, either.

Here is a piece I wrote on navigating the politics, style stakes and playdate planning, for the excellent

Monday, 26 May 2014

Doing It Our Own Way!

The instinct to help mothers – especially new mothers – is a great one. But too often it comes with an awful lot of 'You Should...' attached.

Here is a piece I wrote for the jolly good US site on the subject, as part of their 'Supporting Moms' series:

‘I know she means well, but she’s driving me crazy,’ a friend said recently about her mother. The friend just had her first baby – the first grandchild too – and her mother was being wonderful; cooking, cleaning, constantly offering help. Unfortunately, she was also constantly offering advice, mostly of the ‘you should…’ kind. ‘You should bath her before the evening feed.’ ‘You should supplement with a bottle at night.’ ‘You should put her down for a nap when she’s still awake, not rock her to sleep.’

Sometimes it was ‘you shouldn’t…’ just for a change. ‘You shouldn’t feed her so much. I’m sure she can’t be hungry’. ‘You shouldn’t use that detergent, it’s too harsh for her skin.’
‘I know she’s trying to help, but she just makes me feel I’m doing everything wrong,’ the friend, close to tears, eventually said.

... to read the rest, go to

Thursday, 15 May 2014

What Kind of Mother Does Society Want Us To Be?

Society has considerable expectations around women as mothers; the kind of mother we will be, the things we will do and, therefore, the sort of children we will produce – these are matters that Society, like a strict and judgmental Aunt, has strong views on. And to make it easier, Society likes to give us little labels, quite as if we were Spice Girls: Tiger Mother, Routine Mother, Hugger Mother, Sancti-Mother, Hipster Mother, Slacker Mother and so on. And hey, who cares that the labels don't actually fit anyone?

In one way, we cannot blame Society for this – after all, our children are part of the story. The way they grow up, the sort of people they will become, will influence the shape of Society in the future. The few who are extremely brilliant or extremely dysfunctional will have, perhaps, a direct impact – by inventing a new type of energy, or killing a president, for example – the vast majority will simply be an organic part of a constantly-shifting mass, gently moving it minute distances in one direction or another.

So, I accept that Society has a vested interest in what we mothers do and how we do it. The problem is, Society’s views on the matter are quite contradictory.

On the one hand, and starting at the beginning, Society wishes us to behave like the High Priestesses of a temple during pregnancy, ensuring that we carefully optimise our chances of producing a perfect baby, because Society likes to work with good raw material. Society wants us to form strong bonds with our babies, because that way they are more likely to be emotionally stable and less inclined to riot or throw rocks at the police. Society likes us to breastfeed, because that will limit the likelihood of obesity in later life, and instill good early eating habits for the same reason. Society wants us to listen and respond to the needs of our children, because this gives them self-confidence and makes them less likely to become alcoholics or drug-addicts.

Society, you see, is a complete catastrophist, and incapable of nuanced response, always dealing in crazed disaster headlines, never shades of grey. Things going wrong, for Society, always result in fire! Famine! Dread! never just a bit of a shame.

But – don’t think of getting over-excited and taking all this attachment stuff too far, because Society does not like it when it gets too extreme. Hugger Mothers are too hippy, too free-flowing, too resistant to consumerism, and therefore likely to produce children who may opt out of Society in order to start a commune, or become irritatingly alternative about things like the emotional need for a new kitchen or car. Breastfeed for too long – anything over a year, really – and suddenly it becomes, not a benefit to mother and child, but something weird and a bit off.

Refuse to discipline your child on the basis that you believe in complete tolerance, and Society, just like that strict Aunt, will get very finger-wagging about the need for boundaries. Tend constantly to the needs of your child rather than your own, and Society will tell you that you are raising a monster. Fail to dress nicely and have your hair done regularly while you go about this business of raising children, and Society will silently accuse you of Letting Yourself Go.

Yes, Society is utterly inconsistent in its expectations around mothers, and sending out hopelessly mixed messages.

The real question is, how much should all this matter to us? Of course, it’s nice to feel in step with our world, to bask in the light of social approval around our ‘choices’, but does it really matter a damn what Society thinks?

Well, yes, I would argue. For me, anyway. Because I am not at all immune to the need for general good opinion. Perhaps I lack the courage of my convictions, but I still like a little pat on the back from time to time, the feeling that I am doing the right thing in the eyes of Society. And so when I let my children sleep in my bed for too long (until about three months ago actually, in the case of the three-year-old), I find myself hiding this information from those around me, because I know they are going to say sternly, ‘that child needs her own bed, you’re just encouraging her to be needy.’ When I breastfed the eldest until he was nearly four, this was a dark secret, known only to my very closest. When brisk friends asked ‘are you still feeding him?’ I would mutter something about ‘not really,’ and turn the subject.

You are probably all thinking what an almighty wimp I am, and you’re probably right. But such, I confess, is the weight of social disapproval.

And so, when I see Society getting every more prescriptive about the ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’ way to bring up children, this bothers me. There is so much judgement now around everything mothers do – from the type of car seats we use, to the food we buy, to the kind and amount of exercise our children get and the schools they go to – so much scrutiny and advice, that it is quite head-spinning.

A friend who had her first baby recently asked me, in all sad seriousness, if I thought she was seriously jeopardising her baby’s future if she didn’t buy a flat-lying pram, even though she couldn’t fit it into her car boot, ‘because the books say its bad for his back if he doesn’t sleep lying flat.’ I said I truly thought he would be ok, and then I thought how mean Society is to put mothers under extra, totally unnecessary pressure. But also how Society is fundamentally decent, and would undoubtedly back off it only it knew how unhelpful all this stuff is.

So, I thought I would tell it: Society, back off! Stop watching and judging us. We will do our best, and it will be good enough. The things we don’t do are because we cannot reasonably accommodate them within our lives. As the old saying has it, anything that gets past us, wasn’t meant for us. So leave us a alone and go and peer critically at someone else for a change.