Now that the children are a little older, I am finding that I finally have time to look in the mirror. This is a very depressing past-time as over the last 9 years, I appear to have aged 90 years. Bags under the eyes, lines traversing the face, spare tyre around the tummy and plenty of black hair turned grey! Some of these aspects I find acceptable (crows feet while not exactly welcome, are a sign of a life spent smiling) or readily remedied (thanks L’Oreal) – and I may finally get to claw back some benefit from that under-utilised gym membership. What I found very frightening was to see the piles of dyed black hair clogging up the plug hole of my bath every time I washed my hair. Hair-loss – extremely frightening. There was definitely a bit at my hairline which looked thinner than previously and I started to find the jokes that I had made about my husband’s retreating hairline less amusing. (When he had denied any hair loss, I had told him that he should tattoo his hairline and then we would have physical evidence of whether or not he was receding – funny I thought at the time, not so funny now that I am suffering the same fate!).
So when I next trotted off to the hair salon to get a hair cut; I wow-ed at the massive poster in the window which promised “Thicker, fuller hair could be yours” with a whole new product range targeted at thinning hair. Even for evidence-based scientists, rationality goes out the window when faced with fear and the potential of hope, however unlikely. The hairdresser was kind enough to doubt my need for the product but was only too happy to sell me the entire range given my disposition. He warned me “It works on your scalp so if you feel it tingling on your scalp, you’ll know it’s working.”
Over the next two weeks, I diligently used the entire product range, and indeed, soon after I felt a tingling on my scalp. “Ooh, I can really feel it working!” I thought to myself and liberally applied more product. The tingling got stronger. I inspected my hair daily. “Hmm” I thought to myself, my hair is looking fuller. More product slapping. Hang about, this product is starting to itch more than tingle now. That must be a sign of all the new hairs that are sprouting out of my scalp, because I know that when new hairs grow they can sometimes itch. More product. What fabulous hair I now have, well worth the itch because as everyone knows: “you must suffer for beauty”.
A week later, I was clearing out the detritus of school letters and notes that had formed at the bottom of Big Sis’s school bag. Oops, I have not yet paid the school dinner money. Thank goodness, I am in time to give permission to a school trip.
Then, I saw it and the penny dropped.
“There has been an outbreak of nits in your child’s class”.
It was quite something other than new-age, hair-growing potion that had been working on my scalp and my vain mis-belief had led me to tolerate it blindly!
For the next 3 weeks instead of gentle, herbal, hair-regeneration and scalp renewal product, I was in the chemist hoarding chemical agents, the more toxic the better. None of the homeopathic agents for me, I was for all-out chemical warfare and instead of wishing for hair growth, I was happily pulling out my own hair with a fine toothed nit comb shouting “Out damn nits!”
Vanity really doesn’t pay.
Shrink Grows Kids is 2 years old! And more exciting things are happening: I have been offered two book deals and am about to sign up with the lovely people at Pan Macmillan for my first ever book. So thank you to everyone who has read and supported my little site. Your reads gave me the confidence to continue and it has led me to things beyond my imagination.
Those who followed my journey from the start may have realised by the tone of some of my blog posts that I started this blog as a child psychiatrist that had been somewhat cast aside by her profession for her decision to work a maximum of 3-days a week such that she could be there for her children. Working so little is highly frowned upon in a profession where apparently working till 10pm and on Saturdays is deemed a standard working week (thanks Mr Hunt). In the battle of children vs career, for me children had to win out.
It’s a tough decision faced by many driven parents and I respect the individual choices made by others even if they differ from mine. For me, I am lucky enough to be married to a banker who pays the mortgage and financially as my post-tax income would have been equivalent to quality childcare, money was negligible in the decision making. Unluckily, being married to a banker means that for much of the time parenting responsibility falls to me as Banker is often out of the house before 06:30am and not back again until 8pm, if he is even in the country. Thus I squarely felt the responsibility of how our children turned out was down to me. As a child psychiatrist who spends days and years hearing and helping children and families that have struggled, it seemed implausible not to at least attempt to practice what I believe and preach: spend time with children.
For quite some years I took positions that allowed me to work a 3-day week by virtue of my being over-qualified and under-paid and saw friends and colleagues speed by in the race to the top. It was not without its frustrations, anger, tears, self-hatred and despair. What was the least anticipated, yet most destructive was the loss of identity. I would never have seen myself as one for airs and graces and felt that I took people on face-value, but it was amazing how naked I felt when stripped of a prestigious job title. Signing on reluctantly for gym membership post-baby fat one time I felt wounded to see that the lady had listened to my description of my work circumstances and had written: Occupation: House-wife/ Doctor.
I had never identified myself as a house-wife. A mother yes, but not a house-wife. I don’t and doubt I ever will darn my husband’s socks (although once my mother-in-law did offer to teach me).
It was with this inkling that I wanted something more that I tentatively set up my blog. Slowly by slowly, with your help, a sense of confidence and purpose grew that even if the system would not support me, I could use my skills to support myself. I started speaking to friends about work outside of the NHS which although I loved, had rejected me for my lack of ambition/ work-ethic/ dedication because of my insistence on limited hours. We set up a little private practice which has been doing great. This led to more confidence in my ability, to connections and friendships which have led to more and more opportunities, which have eventually culminated into a return to a prestigious NHS position on MY TERMS – 3 days a week. Alongside, the material from my blog has continued to grow, albeit slowly of late, and I am still pinching myself that a publisher is willing to support me in growing it into a book. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I could or would become a writer.
My horoscope predicted that 2016 could be one of the best years of my life (so be happy all Pisceans) and I am really looking forward to the year. My message to other parents that chose children over career is to say “Believe in yourself”, give it time, you never know where it might lead you and soon you’ll be back on top.
THANKS FOR SUPPORTING MY BLOG.
WATCH THIS SPACE FOR NEWS OF MY BOOK!
Here are some posts from rock bottom that might help:
I’m writing from the eaves of the in-laws’ farmhouse in the middle of nowhere in rural France. Sunlight is pouring in from the mosquito netted windows where the shutters, traditional of the region, have been flung open against the two foot thick walls.
Outside, set against the gently undulating silver of wheat fields that form patchworks with the bright-yellow of the sunflower fields, a blue oasis nestles like a magnet to small brown children. I can hear their high pitched squeals and splashes of water as they cannon-ball/ dive/ slide/ leap into their granny’s pool. The sun is forever shining; the ipad-hardened eyes of gritty-city children have opened to the simple delights of warm weather and water. This is not the chlorine infused, electrically heated sanatorium-like institutions where they are used to being drilled to swim strokes, but a splashing/ shouting/ dive-bombing free-for-all under the semi-watchful eye of Banker relaxing on a sun lounger.
And the best part?
I don’t have to be there.
I can hole up in a room of my own with my laptop. I feel I can only now truly understand Virginia’s sentiments.
September is upon us and I wonder if there are other parents out there like me who are finally feeling free? Feeling that for the most part the intensive back-breaking part of our job as a parent has been broken. The start-up we started has flourished and is headed for break-even. That we can finally breathe.
This time last year, I was still weighted with nervous anticipation about how Lil Bro would fair at school and mourning the loss of small kissable feet and their replacement with sweaty ones laden with verrucas. This year, having seen Lil Bro gain in confidence and social skill over the last year and Big Sis continue to thrive, I feel differently; almost as if a weight has been lifted; a strange mixture of relief, freedom and entitlement. As the kids approach 8 and 6 years, not even the most chauvinist can dare say that their needs now require the “maternal” instinct. Having given up sleep, life and career for the best part of a decade, I feel excitement that these next years might be my time to reclaim my life. That “me-time” that had been consigned to history might actually make a re-appearance and that I might actually be able to take time to feed my soul with books, art, writing rather than my children broccoli, cucumber and disliked super-foods. Requisite selflessness can now secede into my more natural selfish position.
That yoga class, that recipe, that job opportunity, those designer clothes, that hair-cut, that book I meant to write. That woman I meant to be. It now seems so much more possible. I would have shouted it to the roof tops “THERE IS LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL!”, had I not known it to be inhabited by a family of loirs.
Then in strops Big Sis, wet and dripping, fresh from the pool; a vision in pink which is now “so babyish” but whose body had failed to grow as quickly as her attitudes meaning that she is still forced by me to wear the pink goggles, swimming costume and flip flops. She is closely followed by a trail of wet footprints.
Big Sis: Where’s my towel?
Me: I don’t know. Where did you leave it when you last used it?
Big Sis: I dunno
Me: Well, where did your father say it was?
Big Sis: I didn’t ask him. I came to ask you.
Me [incredulous]: You walked 50 metres from the pool where your father was and where your towel is most likely to be, to ask me hiding up a flight of stairs on my laptop having been nowhere near the pool today where your towel is because you think I might know?!!
Did I say a light at the end of the tunnel? I meant a firefly…
Its mothers’ day again which always gets me thinking about my own mother and how the passing of time changes our relationship. Over the last few years I have been having “Freaky Friday”- mother-daughter role reversal experiences.
As my parents are getting older, the hospital appointments start mounting and I am required to accompany them to hospital. Visits home have sometimes involved the adjudication of “childish spats” between my parents where both parents are sulking in different rooms in their house refusing to talk to each other. Then there was the incident with the phone bill.
My mother, who is now retired, kindly helps out with school pick-ups a few days a week when I am at work. To help me to be able to co-ordinate with her better, I purchased her an android mobile phone and a phone contract as she and my father were living in the dark ages of land-line and a Nokia that was never turned on. She was delighted and I showed her the functions and informed her of the contract of 300 free minutes call time. I had been reassured by my sister that that was sufficient because “Mum is sensible, she has a landline. She won’t need more than that a month on the mobile”.
A few months passed and the phone was working brilliantly. If I had a change of plan – “Big Sis has a play date – you don’t need to pick her up today” I could get hold of my mother straight away. Her phone contract was tied to my mobile phone contract and was paid monthly by my direct debit arrangement. As I rarely exceed my phone contract limitations, I rarely check my monthly phone bills.
Then one day, I decided to sort out my finances and go through my accounts. To my shock and horror, my mobile phone bills had gone from £24.00 a month to between £150 and £500 pounds a month! I went back to look through my on-line statements that I had not checked. There in full-colour, including helpful pie-charts were the breakdowns of the calls made from my account and my account for my mother. Let’s just say that someone was eating the lion’s share of that pie, and it wasn’t me. 300 free minutes were just the tip of the iceberg in my mother’s social life.
Helpful that mobile phone companies are these days, they also give you a full listing of every single number that had been called: several phone calls to Taiwan and several hour long conversations with various friends and family were all listed.
You can only imagine the conversations that followed, the net result of which was me frogmarching my shame-faced mother (“You said it was unlimited minutes”) down to the Vodafone shop to have her phone account transferred to her own name and most importantly billing account. Although I was not exactly pleased with the out-of-pocket expenses, the humour of the situation was not lost on me and it was my own fault to assume that my mother would be “well-behaved”, and comforting to know that far from being lonely and isolated as many retired people are, she has a very active social life!
I was a strange mixture of smug and shaken at the realisation that roles had been reversed. I was the “grown-up”, “responsible” adult now. I could “take care” of other people now, in fact, it was now my “responsibility”. Visions fast forward to a time when I will have to sponge bathe my parents and mush up their food as they can no longer chew, and other things that only doctors and elderly care-workers can really imagine (like the time when helping an elderly patient out of a chair she pee-ed on my feet in open-toe sandals).
Then, last week I was sick in bed with the flu. As all parents understand being “sick in bed with the flu” is meaningless to young children. It does not mean you can’t still be woken up at 6am by bouncing on your bed. It does not mean you can lie in bed and avoid the school run. It does not mean that you avoid helping them with their homework and stopping their squabbling and beating each other to a pulp. As a parent “being sick in bed” means that that’s where you should be, but you are in fact still doing everything that you are required to do at home only in a bad tempered manner and periodically shouting “Can’t you behave, I’m sick!”
On the third day of this, my mother calls.
I tell her that I am sick.
She tells me that she will pick up the children from school, take them to her house, give them dinner and bring them back in the evening. She asks me what I want to eat for dinner. She will cook it and bring it around when she drops the kids back.
That’s when I realise that there is no role reversal.
She is still my mother.
No one looks after you quite like your mother.
Happy Mothers’ Day!
A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a professor. She asked me how my children were. Being conscious that my part-time status should not account for nothing, I bragged:
“Oh, my daughter is in the final of the Borough Poetry competition and my 5 year old son is playing chess”.
What surprised me was her response.
“Oh – you see, that proves it’s all “G””
(G is the behavioural geneticists’ abbreviation for genetic effect – yes, we behavioural geneticists actually do talk in terms of “G” and “E” (environmental effect) in common parlance rather than actual coherent words).
“Oh” I said, “I was about to say that it proves it’s all “E””.
Of course, we all know that both “G” and “E” play an effect in outcome, but it is funny to see how (even in two people that study it) our interpretation of science is coloured by our own personal view; or perhaps rather, we skew the science to suit our own needs and to support our chosen behaviours.
My personal view is that parenting matters. I would not have gone part-time and sacrificed career advancement if I did not believe that I would be making a significant positive impact on the outcome of my children. I am more likely to see positive outcomes in my children as being directly related to my input, rather than what would have happened regardless if I was there or not.
If you believe that outcomes are solely genetically determined, then parenting no longer becomes important, and you may as well excel at work and farm out childcare. Equally, if you have chosen to excel at work and farm out childcare, it would suit you very well to believe that “it’s all about G”.
So here’s the route to Big Sis’s poetry success and how come Lil Bro is playing chess at 5 years, and you can decide for yourself on the G and E in these instances.
Big Sis is good with words. She is interested in them and from as young as 3 years she would always ask questions about the meaning of words:
Big Sis: What does imagination mean?
Me: It’s something that you think about in your head.
Later, when I asked her to concentrate on colouring within the lines:
Big Sis: What does concentration mean?
Me: It’s when you use your head to think about something.
Big Sis: No. That’s your imagination.
At that point, I bought her a dictionary so that she did not need to rely on my lack of defining prowess; the point being that she was interested in words and their meaning from a young age and I provided her with the tools to pursue this.
In addition, I read to Big Sis (and Lil Bro) every night from the age of 1 year, until they could read chapter books for themselves, and I will still read to them more challenging books when we are on holiday. I will define (to the best of my ability) difficult words and ask questions to check that they understand what I have read to them.
I have a book of poems my sisters and I wrote when we were Big Sis’s age. My father encouraged us to write them and he had them bound in a fancy book. They are absolutely hideous (all basic rhymes and no substance – “I love school. It’s so cool.” – you get the tragic idea) but strangely appealing to young children. Sometimes I would get this book out and read them to the children.
When I found out that Big Sis was studying poetry at school, I went to Waterstones to buy TS Elliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”. We have a well-loved cat, and so I thought that this would be an accessible poetry choice for Big Sis. Indeed it was. We read all the poems together. Lil Bro takes to Macavity, Big Sis to the Pekes and the Pollicles. We will soon be taking advantage of the return of the “Cats” musical at the West End.
In one poem, TS Elliot says “How else can a cat keep its tail perpendicular?”
Big Sis asked for a definition of “perpendicular”.
I explained that it means when something is at right-angles to something else. I stand up and demonstrate with my arms perpendicular. At that moment, our cat jumps out from under the bed with her tail up. “There look” – I say pointing, “that’s what it means to have a tail that is perpendicular.” Big Sis understands.
“But”, I say to Big Sis, “I think that Mr Elliot has another meaning when he asks this.”
“Show me what you look like when you are sad or ashamed of yourself.”
Big Sis, the master of drama, slumps and hunches over; slinking away.
“Now show me how you look when you are proud.”
Big Sis sits up straight and tall.
“Look”, I say, “You are “perpendicular” to the ground when you are proud. I think this is what TS Elliot means; he is talking about pride rather than the position of the cat’s tail.”
Later, Big Sis is practising ballet moves in the hallway.
“Mum!” She shouts.
“My leg is perpendicular.”
Lil Bro has always had excellent spatial awareness. One Christmas just after his second birthday I thought about presents to get him. Being Chinese, the first toys that come to mind are educational ones. I thought I would get him a jigsaw, something he could realistically manage like a 3-piece. His Aunty, who is also Chinese and so of the same “educational toys” mind set also buys him jigsaws – Thomas the Tank Engine ones; only, she has no children and so did not appreciate how many pieces a 2 year old could realistically do – and bought him 6, 10 and 12 piece jigsaws.
One evening, I was cooking dinner so I put Lil Bro at the table with the 3 piece jigsaws. He wanted the Thomas ones, so I put those out as well, just to keep the peace while I cooked. The next minute, I turned around and there he was sitting with the 6 piece puzzle completed. I nearly dropped my saucepan.
“OK, then clever clogs” I thought, here’s the 10 piece.
That was also pretty much consumed.
My Christmas present was a complete waste of money, he never did 3-pieces. By the time he was 3, 24-35 piece jigsaws were no problem. We even played “Jigsaw-offs” – infant versus geriatric; where Lil Bro and my mother would race as to who could finish an identical 24 piece jigsaw faster. Lil Bro was victorious.
By 4 years old 50 and 72 pieces were fine. By that time, I had emptied out several toyshops of their jigsaws.
At weekends, when Big Sis was at her swimming lesson, Lil Bro and I would sit in the coffee shop next door and eat porridge. The coffee shop had chess and draughts sets for customers to play with. To kill the time, I taught Lil Bro to play draughts and then chess. I am not the greatest chess player myself. I tend to take pieces with no overarching strategy; pretty much ending most games with no conclusion as my bishop and king chase the opponent’s knight and king hopelessly around the board. Still, by 4 years, Lil Bro knew how the pieces moved. I installed a chess game on to the ipad at home and encouraged the children to play it.
By chance, there is a chess club that runs in the same community centre that the children go to Chinese classes at (they go to be at one with being “Chinese” – their Chinese is even more hopeless than mine). One day, Lil Bro, aged 4 years said “I want to go there and play chess”. Given that the time clashed with their Chinese class. I said it wasn’t possible, but when it came to the summer holidays, I asked if they wanted to go to Chess Summer Camp for a week.
Big Sis was not keen.
I said to Lil Bro, “Your sister doesn’t want to go. Are you sure you want to go, even on your own?”
He said yes.
I went to check with the Chess Camp leader – wasn’t he too young?
The Chess Camp leader said some of the best players in the club were 5-6 year olds. Still, I wasn’t happy to send Lil Bro on his own and I eventually managed to twist Big Sis’s arm to go with him.
After a week of chess camp, and the initial enthusiasm, we carried on playing chess occasionally now and then. I didn’t think anything further on it. Then 3 months later, Lil Bro says to me “I want to go to chess club”.
Man! I thought. I wrack the local websites for chess clubs that are not going to clash with their Chinese class and are not too expensive. Finally, I find a cheap club on a Saturday afternoon at the local library. It’s good, but there is one teacher to eight children at greatly varying ages and abilities. Plus, smack bang in the middle of Saturday afternoon is not the most convenient time.
I get the chess teacher’s contact details. I ring around a few mothers I know whose children might be interested in chess. I set up a chess club for 3 boys after school in a local coffee shop.
So…what do you make of it?
My view is this: clearly, both Big Sis and Lil Bro have genetic predispositions to be good at certain things. I come from a family of mathematicians and engineers; Banker from a family of lawyers and linguists. Go figure that these genes are knocking about our chromosomes.
But can that be all?
What if I hadn’t been there to notice?
What if I had noticed but done nothing about it?
What if I had noticed it but derided intellectual pursuits and tried to knock it out of them?
I am pretty sure that Big Sis would still have enjoyed and been good at writing and Lil Bro would have found chess by himself at a later age. But would they have been in the final of a poetry competition at age 7 years, and been playing chess aged 5 years?
Do these things matter?
Might they not reach the same end-point in adulthood?
That is the more interesting question that is so hard to answer because of the lack of the counter-factual. But my view is this: if life is a journey and your outcome is your destination; genes will drop you off at the airport. If you are lucky it will be London City Airport, if you are not so lucky it will be Luton Airport Parkway. Parenting provides your back-pack: it can be empty; or it can be full of maps, restaurant and hotel reviews, travel guides, good books, a compass, a thermos of cocoa and a bag of chocolate chip cookies. It might not be everything you need, but it sure helps you on the way.
Ultimately, where you go from there is up to you.
Shrinkgrowskids is officially a year old, and I am so glad that I have made it to this milestone! Thank you to the 117 subscribers and the many more regular visitors. Shrinkgrowskids is being read in 102 countries worldwide, and especially in the UK, USA, Australia, France and Brazil. If you are reading this in Brazil, “Hello!” I do not know who you are but thanks for your time!
When I started writing a year ago, part of the impetus was as I was frustrated that a Consultant Child Psychiatrist was unable to find work that fit in with parenting responsibility. During the school day I wanted to do something with my knowledge, not just the dishes. I would meet up with other women (lawyer, business consultant and tech consultant) in local coffee shops complaining about the career paths that we had given-up out of necessity, not truly free will. Over the year, I have come to realize that times-they-are-a-changing and that there is nothing that can hold back the tide of change for equality any longer.
Employers will increasingly be encouraged to promote women
Men will become increasingly involved in parenting
Men and women will become treated more equally at work
Parents will not automatically be assumed to be mothers
Children will be happier raised by parents of both genders
I am finally seeing and living through change. I might get to witness the end-game of feminism in my life-time. Thanks to the major research funding bodies colluding to only fund research in institutions that are putting in place strategies for gender equality, over the last year, my University has been falling over itself to send women like me on Women’s Development Programs and Mentoring schemes. Although some schemes need fine tuning and we are yet to confirm if lip-service converts into true commitment; with a gun-to-its-head it really looks like progress is going to be made on this. Thank you funding bodies!
This leads me to believe that progress and change can and will eventually filter to all professions, we just need more “financial-guns-to-heads”. Many of my friends in the city say “yes, but it won’t work in banking/ law/ accountancy/ consultancy”; because “of the nature of their work” and “client expectations”. Yet, who dictates “the nature of their work” and why do “clients expect” things to be delivered at awkward times of the day (or rather night)…? We as a society do not have to accept the status quo. We can press for change. Given incentive everything can change.
It reminds me of the arguments made by people opposed to the European Working Time Directives (EWTD; European laws that prohibited doctors from working more than a 48 hour week) for doctors when I was a trainee. In those days, we worked 96 hours a week. On some weekends, we worked Saturday 9am through until noon on Monday. I’m telling you the sleep deprivation of motherhood was nothing compared to this and after this experience all-night breast feeding was a doddle. Believe me, it is far easier to wake up and slap a baby to your breast than it is to wake up to catheterise a gentleman. It was thought “impossible” for the system to change to allow doctors to work less because of the “vital” work that we doctors were doing. How could patient care be transferred safely from one doctor to another? Impossible!
Well, as it turns out, all doctors have now moved to shift work without a massive rise in the death rate of patients. Indeed arguably care is better as doctors have had a decent amount of rest. I can never forget the poor patient that sat in hospital for a whole week without being seen by any doctors as my colleague on a weekend shift had forgotten to put his name on our patient list. The medical system was forced to change by financial penalties for non-compliance, bringing with it a surge of female applications to medical school. Medicine is still not ideal, men still dominate the upper echelons and prestigious specialties, but at least the days of long hours culture is gone. It is not beyond the wit of man to change systems in other institutions to afford their employees a better work-life balance; their talented junior women a real shot at success and their talented junior men a shot at being a decent father. They just need the financial incentives, because at the end of the day, money is the only cattle prod that works.
Indeed, it is money (or rather lack of it) that will likely be the solution to my other bug-bear: the lack of high-functioning part-time jobs in medicine. After struggling to find a position in London happy to take me on a part-time basis, it turns out that the NHS are so short of money that they are now happy to employ part-time Consultants. Not because they value retaining female staff or work-life balance, but because they no longer have enough money to pay for full-time consultants. Either way, it is good for me and other parents who wish to work part-time as a Consultant in the NHS. Fingers crossed that over the coming years something will turn-up for me. In the mean-time I’m thoroughly enjoying my University position that allows me to interact with some of the greatest minds in Child Psychiatry, and on my days off, as waiting lists have exploded in the NHS; private practice is booming. It is hard to argue against well-paid work that can easily be fit in between the school drop-off and pick-up. It’s sad that this can only be done in the private sector, particularly for a die hard NHS supporter like me.
What of my coffee-morning compatriots? After a period of part-time work at a lower level, the lawyer has succumbed and returned to full-time work at Big Law Firm and has employed a nanny. The business consultant has set up her own successful business, which operates on her terms within school hours. The tech consultant moved out of London and is content to be a stay-at-home mother. We all moved on, and its now pretty hard for any of us to find time for a cuppa. Maybe its that the children are growing, maybe its a sign of the times, but good women can no longer be kept down.
The other day a younger male friend who just got engaged told me he was thinking about taking his wife’s name…
Who knows where we will be a year from now?
In the meantime, I hope you will continue to read my blog. Here are some of my reflections on parenthood from the last year.
I was not brought up to believe in Santa. Being from Taiwan, Christianity and Christmas were not as prevalent as in the West. Once we moved to the UK, my family joined in with the festive spirit with a plastic tree (Made in Taiwan) and a large meal (non-turkey Chinese food), but we never had stockings and Santa never visited. Once or twice, I remember wishing on a star on Christmas Eve that Santa was real and that we would get presents from Santa, but it never happened.
As teenagers, my sisters and I even had a bet that my mother didn’t know what the festival of Christmas was celebrating. We were right, my poor mother put on the spot muttered something about Jesus on a cross, to which there were many peals of laughter and shrieks of “That’s Easter!”. This Christian festival confusion amongst the Chinese may explain why one time in Hong Kong I saw a Christmas decoration being sold at a market stall that depicted a cheerful Santa Claus figure on the crucifix…quite bizarre to say the least!
Remembering my Santa-less childhood, I was quite certain that my kids would have the full Santa experience. Letters would be written and posted, mince pies and carrots would be left out at the fire place (and duly consumed leaving a designer sprinkling of crumbs), stockings would be filled and gifts delivered under the tree. When Big Sis was almost 2, she had requested a new play kitchen from Santa. As we were celebrating Christmas with grandparents in France, and were not lugging a wooden play stove and sink unit on the plane, we recorded video footage of Santa (who bore more than a striking resemblance to Banker) delivering her kitchen to our flat to be played to her on Christmas day so that she knew that Santa had delivered it! Santa’s wrapping paper was always bought separately and hidden lest a clever brain wonder why Santa has the same wrapping paper as Mummy and the whole Santa build up would be flawless with meticulous attention to detail. I have even gone so far as to shake bells gently next to the sleeping heads of my children on Christmas Eve so they may subliminally hear Santa’s sleigh bells in their sleep. I’m so sad, I know.
In all honesty though, the upside of the myth of Santa is so great, I can’t see why people complain about him and the commercialisation of Christmas. Without Santa and the Easter Bunny, I don’t know how I’d get my children to eat their greens, stop having tantrums and generally behave themselves. The threat of “Santa/ Easter Bunny is watching” is enough to stop my kids, in their tracks and reconsider their actions. Coca-Cola, Clintons and Americans in general should be given a medal from all parents in my book for the invention and popularisation of these characters as the good behaviour of my children from October to March is basically down to these two characters. If only someone could invent a fictitious character for the summer months, then the calendar year could be covered.
However, now that Big Sis is seven, I am beginning to wonder when the penny will drop. I have heard varying ages for the “Santa realisation” moment, ranging from 5 to 10 years. Some of Big Sis’s friends are already “non-believers”, but given that earlier this year I overheard Big Sis and Lil Bro having an existential conversation regarding Harry Potter, God and Santa, and coming to their own conclusion that only Santa was real as they had received physical presents from him, I’m reckoning on belief still going strong. I’m starting to worry though about Big Sis’s cognitive capacity if at the age of 7 years she can continue to believe that some old geezer can fly around the world delivering presents to all the children in the world overnight. I suppose though, that it is only slightly less plausible than the entire adult world telling her consistent lies and making her write and post letters and leave food out for non-existent people and sneaking around behind her back. Maybe I should be grateful that she finds it more plausible that Santa is real than that her mother is deceitful. Maybe I’m just too good at “being Santa”.
That is until now. In my old age, I am getting sloppy. Lil Bro asked for a watch from Santa for Christmas and I ordered it off Amazon to be sent to Banker’s office. He duly brought it home and showed it to me and left it on the coffee table. I went to bed forgetting to put it away. The next morning, remembering my mistake, I rushed downstairs, snatched up the watch and hid it. The kids, as always were up before me and were having breakfast with their father. Throughout the day, no one mentioned the watch so I thought I had got away with it. Then, the next morning Big Sis out of nowhere says “It was very strange, yesterday Lil Bro and I saw a watch on the coffee table. Then it disappeared.”
“Hmpff” I said, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
I will repackage the watch and hope for the best, but I think my cover may be blown. I thought about returning the watch and swapping it for another one, but maybe this is how all cons fail, myths explode, truths get outed; the inevitable slip-up made from complacency over time. And maybe it’s time that Big Sis realises the truth, and I realise that we can’t hang on to our children forever. At some stage they wise up for better or for worse.
We’ll see what happens…
I heard about Cath Kidston’s #totesbig/totessmall campaign and laughed, surely for all parents it’s #totesbig? Mine’s this fetching strong and waterproof Longchamp number.
Carrying large quantities of “vital” stuff around with you all day has never been quite so important as when you have kids in tow. The ante on organisation is raised on having children, purely because logistically, there is so much more that is required to be remembered and carried with you at all times in preparation for all eventualities. We all have a “very organised friend”. Someone who is always on time, never forgets anything and prepares for everything. For me it’s my big sister. When baby Lil Bro yakked up lunch all over himself, and I had not brought a spare baby-gro, who should pull one out of her handbag? Apparently a spare, even though her child no longer wore baby-gros. When we went on a weekend break with the extended family and I forgot to pack towels, who produced a whole spare extra set which she had packed “In case”? Yup, my darling sister. Indeed, whenever I go anywhere with her, I can rest on my laurels as I know that if I have forgotten anything, she will be sure to have “spares”. Thank goodness!
Although I have moments of organisational inspiration (packing a volcano making kit in my suitcase on a holiday to Sicily so I could teach the kids about volcanoes in-situ), at other times I am pitiful. For instance, when Lil bro was a baby I remember joyfully pushing the buggy to my mother-and-baby yoga class in Primrose Hill thinking that I was on time for once, but actually having forgotten the entire meticulously packed Cath Kidston baby changing bag on the table at home. Thankfully, what I lack in organisation, I make up for in practical, can-do attitude. I didn’t miss my yoga class, I just popped into a newsagent. I got some funny looks from the skinny and beautiful Gwyneth types that frequent Triyoga Primrose Hill with their yummy-mummy nappy changing bags, matching cashmere blankets, Sophie giraffes and wooden rattles when I rocked up with nothing for my baby save a 34-for the price of 30 jumbo pack of nappies and a pack of Johnsons’ wet wipes. Well, what more do you need – eh?
At the start of this summer though, I thought that given that I am now a blogger and passing on my worldly (ahem) views on all things parenting, I would write an illuminating blog about all the things “one” should carry in their totes when travelling with young children on holiday. Here is my list:
Bottled water (I know it’s heavy, but always comes in handy)
Snack (usually of the pre-packaged biscuit/ chocolate variety – but on a good organisational skill day, a pair of satsumas)
Like all good doctors, I espouse the sin of sun worshipping, although a little dose here and there to relieve vitamin D deficiency doesn’t do any harm. Still always best to carry sun hats, sun glasses and sun screen with you at all times over the summer hols. A warm waterproof top is meticulously tied around the waist of each child should the weather take a turn (Brits will understand this!).
My kids (like most) are terribly impatient in restaurants, and will not stop asking “When’s the food coming?” as if I have personal telepathy with the kitchens. For distraction purposes, I have found it well worth my while to carry sticker books around with me at all times. In addition, fully equipped pencil cases as pencils and coloured pens can be transformed into any activity: drawing, colouring, noughts and crosses, the shape game (where one person draws a random shape and the other turns it into a picture of something) , pass the portrait (where one person draws a head on a picture, folds it over and passes it to the next person to draw the upper body, then passes it on etc.) and an endless possibility of other games. If we visit a landmark (like a cathedral) or an art gallery, the children will always be asked to draw what they see as this really makes children look carefully, observe and remember what they have seen. I carry 2 of everything because do you think it is possible that they could share? It’s not worth the grey hair.
I know that most people just let their kids use their iphones or ipads, but I am of the old school who fuss and worry about tech getting broken. It comes from my dad’s indoctrination of us in childhood over the perils of biscuit crumbs and spilled milk on the Commodore 64 such that anyone holding food or drink was not allowed within a 3 metre radius of “the expensive computer”. I carry cheap his-and-hers cameras with me to give to the kids to take photos as part of a game or just to see what they find interesting. Looking over pictures they have taken at the end of a day trip is always fun, particularly when you find that the beautiful city of Rouen you visited had nothing more worthy of photographing than a mannequin in a shop front…
The children got “kiddigos” (hand held TV/ games console for little ones) for Christmas last year. As exposure is strictly rationed, the effect of producing the kiddigo is dramatic. The kids are only allowed to use them for the last hour of a long (3+ hours) car journey if they “have been good” during the earlier parts of the journey, and it’s really amazing how well the constant threat of losing the screen time can keep the kids at bay.
So, with all this “well prepared vital stuff” being carted with me everywhere on holiday, you can imagine what a peaceful time we had. It was all going wonderfully smoothly, with hardly a hiccup of “Are we there yet?” or wails of boredom and running up and down in restaurants, until a day trip to the Citadel at Carcassone. We exited the Castle to go home. “I need the toilet” one of them said. “No problem, I’ll take you” I said. Only to find, it was a number 2 of diarrhea proportions. Only to find there was no loo paper in the ladies or the gents. I looked in both.
Despite having a variety of splendid craft and technological activities in my bag and enough sun protection to keep a Scotsman from burning in a dessert, there was no tissue or wet-wipe to be found.
Having unsuccessfully attempted to use pages of the sticker book as toilet paper, it was – OH CRAP – literally.
Well, as I said, what I lack in organisational skill, I make up for in can-do attitude.
Maternal hand it was….
Where was my big sister when I needed her?!
I can’t believe that Lil Bro is starting school next week.
The sleepless nights, the wiping up of bodily solids and fluids, the sleepless nights, the heaving up and down, the sleepless nights, the pushing here and there, the sleepless nights, the feeding and bathing, the sleepless nights, the changing into clothes and out of clothes, days are over. He can do all that by himself now, which has all led to this point: his departure in to the big wide world. Ok, so its only reception, but if what happened with Big Sis repeats itself, I am sure that as he turns to wave goodbye to go into his class I will get a glimpse of his future teenage self, waving a goodbye to leave home forever. That split second transformed into a movie slow-motion. That’s why I’ll be packing the hankies.
Parents up and down the country are laying out crisp, clean uniforms and ironing or stitching on names, and wondering where did that strange, squashy, floppy, bundle get to? How did ‘it’ possibly become someone that was going to inhabit these long trousers and enormous shoes? And the cheekiness of time to cheat you into thinking at times “Oh my God, my life is over, this is never going to end”; when in fact, it’s gone in a blink of an eye. You have become that annoying “well-meaning friend” whose eyes you wanted to scratch out as they told you “They grow so quickly, you must enjoy this time”, as you jiggled, bounced and paced around in your puke-stained pyjamas –turned-acceptable-day-wear, willing your baby to sleep. You look back with rose tinted glasses at those times. You remember those tiny, fat, irresistibly kissable feet that smelt of talc (rather than the smelly, sweaty, verruca prone ballet/ football feet they have become), and the little hands that reached upwards to be enfolded in yours and the clear eyes that looked at yours with nothing but innocence and love. It wasn’t so bad, the crying wasn’t so loud, the poo wasn’t that disgusting; you are now accustomed to a messy house and sleep deprivation anyway.
This, my friend is about the time that you absolutely need to reach for your contraception….!
“Raising Boys”, and its sequel “Raising Girls” have been worldwide bestsellers for parenting author and psychologist Steve Biddulph. These books are about “differences” in girls and boys and how parents must adapt their parenting by their child’s gender. As I come from a family of girls, I keenly bought “Raising Boys” when Lil Bro came along. Yet, reading it made me wince and I didn’t even bother to get “Raising Girls”.
The indispensable mother
The notion of the indispensable mother is an example of the typical “Male authority figure tells largely female audience what they should be doing” parenting fodder of the past. Male anthropologists, male paediatricians, male psychologists, male psychiatrists all rushing to get their two-pennies bit in on how women should improve their maternal performance. Once women started to move towards professional work roles, the same male experts sought to keep women tied to their babies by citing pseudoscience to support the need of babies for their “mothers” as opposed to gender-neutral “parent”. Steve Biddulph (although he is by no means the worst culprit, as he at least tries to create a role for dads), is guilty of this by citing the specific requisite of maternal (over parental) presence in the early years of parenting in his book “Raising Boys”. A typical example of a phrase that gets my goat is this (page 11 of 3rd Edition):
“What all babies and toddlers need most is to form a special bond with at least one person. Usually this person is their mother. Partly because she is the one who is most willing and motivated, partly because she provides the milk, and partly because she tends to be cuddly, restful and soothing in her approach, a mother is usually the best equipped to provide what a baby needs. Her own hormones (especially prolactin, which is released into her bloodstream as she breastfeeds) prime her to want to be with her child and give it her full attention.”
Although I was motivated to be a good mother, I expect my husband was as motivated to be a good father and to form an equally strong “special bond” with our children. Much of the “willingness” and “motivation” to be a good mother (compared to father) is driven by guilt and social pressure, rather than being inherent or biologically mediated. Much of this guilt comes from the expectation to be “cuddly, restful with a soothing approach” perpetuated by books such as this. I’m not sure that Steve has encountered many modern mothers but “frazzled, shell-shocked and muddling through” are the more appropriate words that I would chose. He then tries to give scientific credence to his position by bringing in hormones. Even if prolactin were some magic love potion (which it isn’t), he probably doesn’t know that fathers and expectant fathers have increased prolactin concentrations compared to un-mated males (Nelson 2011) and clearly hasn’t seen the figures on the number of mothers that actually continue to breastfeed (<30% at 6 months).
There is no robust scientific evidence that maternal care is better than paternal care. Ben Goldacre aficionados will know that in order to robustly prove this, the scientific gold standard would be a blinded and controlled study with a very large sample size over time. i.e. following a large cohort of babies raised mainly by men and another raised mainly by women (matched for economic, educational and social factors) and then assessing the children blind to whether they were raised by mothers or fathers. Guess what? This has never been done, largely because there have never been a sufficient number of male primary childcarers. Even amongst widowers or male divorcees lucky enough to have full custody of their children, I am guessing that the majority remarry with stepmothers taking over the role of childcare, or some female relative swoops in like a fairy godmother to relieve “incompetent” men of their primary parental responsibilities. Naturalistic studies are only now becoming possible because of the advent of increasing numbers of same-sex parents. We should soon be able to scientifically compare two dads with two mums and be able to answer the question of the necessity of maternal care; but until the evidence is out, I don’t think that “experts” should inject so much gender bias and judgement in their advice. From my experience with working with same-sex families, men have made damn good primary childcarers. In my mind, there is nothing inherent in the Y-chromosome that incapacitates good parenting by men; it is society, perpetuated by the experts, media, and let’s face it, even you and I.
The myth of extreme difference
The concept of the “Raising Boys” and “Raising Girls” franchise is that boys and girls are inherently, “biologically” different, and therefore require to be “nurtured” in different ways. More likely, it is a marketing ploy to allow largely the same information to be repackaged and re-marketed. For instance, in his “Raising Boys” book Steve provides a handy list of questions that you should ask a school to evaluate if it will be any good for your son. This list includes: “What statistic does the school publish about boys’ progress?” and “Do teachers shout at children at this school?”. These are useful questions to ask, but like these examples, the whole list of questions is equally appropriate for girls – so why differentiate?
Yes, yes, I am medically trained (which can not be said of Biddulph) and am therefore well aware of the anatomical and hormonal differences between the male and female of our species. However, unlike Biddulph I do not believe that the biological differences are so great (asides for urination and reproduction, which are obviously different). Even for overt biological differences between men and women, such as musculature, although the mean strength/ speed of the average man will be faster than the average woman, the overlap will be great. Christine Ohuruogu can still run faster than most men. This will also be the case for any neural or psychological correlate that you wish to cite. Typical “male” qualities: aggression, high sexual drive, lesser verbal/social skill; are also found in many women. A sizable proportion of most normally distributed “male”/ “female” traits will be overlapping. Further, many of these supposed “biological” gender traits are exaggerated by society. The relative liberation of women in the last century has seen women freed to express their sexuality, aggression and turn to vices previously the preserve of men: smoking, drinking, ASBOs, fisticuffs and the like. At this point in time, we are unable to comment on pure “biological” gender traits as we have never lived in a gender-neutral society.
Even if you buy into strong biological gender differences, the fundamentals of human security, the stuff that makes a child flourish: warmth, love, praise, affection, guidance are universal not gender specific. Why would you need 2 different books to tell you this?
Perpetuation of gender stereotypes
Biddulph cites gender differences in child psychiatric disorders as a basis for his differentiation of the sexes. Higher levels of conduct disorders in boys being a reason for why boys are in crisis and in desperate need for particular parenting; followed by higher rates of eating disorders and self-harm in girls meaning that we must now fear for our daughters and treat them differently. However, any psychiatrist will tell you that all psychiatric diagnoses have biological and environmental aetiologies. This is why I love my subject area, it’s not simplistic; it is about the subtle interplay of biology with environment at all levels. Do boys have a genetic predisposition to fighting, stealing and getting into trouble with the police (components of conduct disorder), or do we as a society encourage this? Boys are encouraged in rough and tumble play; boys are encouraged to stand up for themselves, physically if necessary. Boys will be boys after all? Do girls have a biological predisposition to eating disorders? Or do we as a society encourage this? Girls are encouraged to care about their looks, from the day they are born and the first relative that describes her as “Beautiful”. Does drawing up specific parenting plans led by gender-based social pressures lessen or perpetuate old gender stereotypes? There is even a whole chapter in “Raising Boys” on “Boys and Sport”…need I say more?
Over the last decade, we child psychiatrists have been seeing increased numbers of male anorexics on our wards and females in youth offending units so times, and gender-roles, are-a-changing. Yet although changing social factors influence the symptoms, signs and behaviours that may vary between girls and boys, and with time; the loneliness, disconnectedness, anger, helplessness, frustration, despair and self-loathing that drives them is universal and unchanging. Promoting differential parenting strategies based on outdated stereotypes of what it means to be a girl or a boy seems backwards facing. Society is moving towards equality, why should parenting be any different? Drawing up parenting strategies by gender to me seems outdated and secondary to helping individual children build resilience and thrive.
If Steve is promoting the “male” and “female” off the peg M&S suits over the unisex overalls; I think we need to be moving on from this to bespoke Saville Row tailoring.
Nelson, Randy F. (2011). An Introduction to Behavioral Endocrinology (Fourth ed.). Sunderland, Mass: Sinauer Associates Inc. p. 438. ISBN 0-87893-620-3. (Apologies, this reference came from Wikipedia and has not been personally checked).