Thursday, 27 February 2014

Advice About Advice

Short of standing on a tall building with a megaphone and shouting 'does anyone know the best way to get red wine out of a tablecloth?', you are unlikely to ever experience an onslaught of advice quite like that which having a baby brings.

Relentless, confusing, undoubtedly well-meaning but often too-bloody-muching, one of the greatest challenges post-baby is learning to sift through this stuff, taking the good, leaving the rest. Like a discerning gourmet at a cruise ship buffet.

Here is a piece on doing just that I wrote for the excellent US website Quick And Dirty Tips:

Monday, 24 February 2014

Can I Choose My Child’s Friends?

Can I choose my child’s friends? I would certainly like to. Particularly the six-year-old’s. He is a boy, and a boisterous one, and he is drawn to kids with similar personalities – who like fighting, wrestling, rough-housing. Now, I am not misguided enough to think his friends are leading him astray – they aren’t leading him at all, they are simply fellow-travellers along his chosen path of mayhem – but they are definitely Not A Good Influence, in that they encourage his already-pronounced tendency to get himself into trouble at school.

I wish he would hang out more with the thoughtful, quiet ones. It’s not that he isn’t interested in books, and animals, and history, just markedly less so than in pretending to be a superhero fighting a dastardly super-villain and aiming a series of precise killer blows. When these quiet, thoughtful boys do come on play-dates, I am charmed to see how long my son can sit with an atlas, locating the countries through which the Amazon passes, or making complicated Lego structures. ‘See,’ I think smugly, ‘he’s really very intelligent and sensitive. He just needs the right peer group to develop that side of him.’

The pity is, when offered a choice between the ‘right’ peer group and the wrong one, there is no contest in his mind. He would merrily knock the nice kids out of his way to get to the raucous ones and raise a bit of kiddie hell. So, given that his inclination does not lie in the direction I think best for him, should I intervene and try to reshape his path?

Does interfering in this way make me a hopelessly controlling, uptight, Wanna-Be Alpha Mum? And if so, how much does this matter?

Perhaps I should just make peace with it? After all, I pretty much control what he eats (at least I try, unashamedly), what he watches (again, I try. There are always a few episodes of the Simpsons that sneak through and provoke awkward questions – ‘what’s sex and why are Marge and Homer having it?’), even what he wears, in that I buy the clothes, even if I don’t dictate what combinations he chooses. So, maybe its time to stop agonising over his freedom of choice, and simply promote the matches I approve of, and freeze the ones I don’t?

There are mothers who do this, blatantly. One of them even said to me recently, as we walked back from dropping our boys to their class, ‘X (her son) wants me to invite Y (cheerfully aggressive kid, very popular with his classmates, box office poison with mums) over, but I’m not going to, because I think he’s a terrible influence, and every time he comes round, X behaves like a thug for days afterwards.’ At least she was open about it. Other mothers are more subtle – regretfully tied up for any engagement that involves certain children, endlessly free for certain others. They are quite clearly skillfully manipulating their offspring’s friendships, carefully cultivating those they approve of, cauterising those they don’t.

And yes, I have noticed that the pre-selecting sort of mother doesn’t much invite my son around, so I do see the way it works, and the potential it carries for one or two kids to be left right out, if everyone adopts the controlling-mother stance.

And then I think back to my own childhood, and my enduring fascination with the ‘bad’ kids. The ones who were exciting, unpredictable, always in trouble. The ones with whom I got told off, sent to the headmaster’s office, even suspended once. With whom I had my first sneaky cigarette and other rites of childish passage. And I look at them now, and see how upstanding, resolute and impressive they are as adults, and I think – ‘hold back a while, maybe the kids are better judges than we think…’ Blog of the Day Mon 24th Feb

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Making The Best of Musical Beds

Those of you who read this column last month will know I have been trying to move the three-year-old into her own bed, for the first time ever. It wasn’t easy, but patience paid off and she now happily sleeps there. Every night. Til morning. Its something like a miracle, and happened almost without trauma in the end. You see, first I played the waiting game, lying quiet in the long grass. Then I said idly one day, ‘Maybe if you don’t want the room, one of the boys will like it.’ Suspicious pause. ‘No, that is my room and I will sleep there.’ And she has ever since.

When all else fails, I recommend appealing to the basest instincts: sibling rivalry and territoriality.

The trouble is, nature abhors a vacuum. So do the inhabitants of a four-bed semi-D. When little B moved out, she created the conditions for my husband to move back in. This is the first time in almost a year that the poor man has been able to go to bed, in his very own bed, with his very own wife (I should clarify, for his sake at least, that we are not one of those couples who believe in separate beds; this was a move born of necessity only). But it hasn’t been easy. When I say ‘almost without trauma’, I do mean ‘almost’. The trauma, such as it has been, was mine.

When you are used to sharing a bed with a cute little toddler, re-entering the world of adult co-sleeping is very tricky. A grown man, who snores, hogs duvets and takes up an adult amount of space, is a very different proposition to a sweet little cherub. Even her habit of lying sideways across the entire bed at first seemed endearing in comparison with the giant form now beside me. 

The first night, I missed little B terribly, and barely slept because I checked on her so often. I also kicked my husband viciously every time he moved, and hissed ‘stop that!’ at him. I held on to the covers for dear life in case he wrest them from me, and when he did start to snore, I elbowed him furiously in the side. Secretly, I longed for B to wake up and decide to be scared of foxes, so I could reverse the swap and switch bed mates. With typical contrariness, she slept like an angel.

‘I’m sorry,” I muttered in the morning. ‘I’m just not used to you.’ He looked a bit withering. And bruised. After that, I settled. I rediscovered the joys of a large, warm, solid figure beside me, someone to chat to in the middle of the night if I feel so minded, and we even reached an accommodation over duvets. All good.

There is another problem though. The heat-seeking missiles that are the two older boys regularly torpedo themselves from their own beds into ours in the middle of the night. When husband and I were a divided force, this worked out ok. One of them would thunder into him in the spare room, the other could take his pick, and no bed had more than three people in it. This seemed like a pretty good result. Now though, because we are once more united in the marital bed, that’s where everyone heads. Which can mean five people on a disordered night. Which is ten elbows, ten knees, ten feet, God knows how many toes. And still just the one duvet. Clearly, like the complicated formulae I was never good at in school, there is more than one possible permutation here. Perhaps I’ll move into little B’s room…?    

posted to 

Monday, 17 February 2014

Back to Bed

The three-year-old has never had her own bed. The boys slept in my bed ‘til they were about one, then moved easily (ish) into their own rooms. Little B reversed the process. A brilliant sleeper at first, she had a Moses basket, then a cot in which she slumbered peacefully. But at six months she started waking all through the night, and so started coming into our bed. Soon it became ‘mine and mummy’s’ bed, while long-suffering husband moved into the spare room. ‘This is where me and mummy sleep,’ she tells visitors busily. If they ask where Daddy sleeps, she looks bored.

But now it’s time to gently steer her towards the next stage of her development – the mighty independence of her own room. So, a trip to Ikea. ‘You can pick your very own bed. Any bed you like’ (me, trying to whip up an atmosphere of enthusiasm). ‘Can my new bed go in our already room?’ (her, suspiciously). ‘No love, this is for your very own room’ (hysterical cheery inflection on ‘very own’). ‘No thanks, I’ll just stay in our already room’ (her, losing interest, wandering over to examine a plush velvet carrot with eyes and smiley mouth); ‘can I have this though?’

We bought a bed anyway, and a new duvet cover and pillow case, and a kind of collapsible trunk to go under the bed and store stuff in. My inner Arab Grandmother (I really do have one, I’m not being racist) fought with my more pragmatic self over the size of the bed. The inner Arab Grandmother was horrified at the extravagance of buying a cute little bed that the child would grow out of in a couple of years, and wanted to get something she could have until she leaves home at the age of 38, and squash friends into when they get old enough to need to hide out in each other’s houses because they are too drunk on alco-pops to go home. But the pragmatist reasoned, ‘no, it needs to be cute and little and appealing, because that way she might actually sleep in it.’ The success of the mission clearly depended on acceptance of a certain impracticality.

Bed home and assembled (it took much longer than that in real life of course). Three-year-old delighted with it. She put so many dolls and teddies into it, there wasn’t a scrap of room for her, said she loved it ‘and I will sleep here every night.’

Bedtime. ‘I don’t want to sleep there. I want to sleep in our bed, with you mummy’ (pitiful wail). ‘But this is such a lovely bed, why don’t you want to sleep here?’ (me, faking calm reasoning voice). ‘Because I’m scared…’ long pause, eyes casting around desperately... ‘I’m scared of…’ more pause. ‘I’m scared of foxes’ (triumphantly).

So that’s it. She’s scared of foxes. Although I’m not sure she’s ever seen one. We’ve tried the expert tips: make the child’s room inviting, put her favourite toys in there, encourage her to play in the room … all of which works just fine, by day. Come night, like a nervy racehorse, she will not go into that bed from any angle, nor subject to any bribe or cajolery. I may eventually have to blindfold her and lead her in. Meanwhile, I’ve decided to shelve the move for the moment – any mention of ‘sleeping in your own bed’ is beginning to provoke hysteria – on the basis that discretion is the better part of valour. But this is a strategic retreat, mind, not an admission of defeat.