The Return of the Mum
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:
Advice to My Former Self – Desperate Working Mother of Two Young Children
Did You Get Maternal Adjustment Disorder?
A Room of One’s Own
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…
Freaky Friday: My Mothers’ Day Post
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!
Does parenting help chess and poetry?
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.
Shrink grows kids: One year on
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.
Did you get Maternal Adjustment Disorder (MAD)?
Exploding the myth of Santa
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…
Organisational hell – what to pack in a travel handbag
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….!
Did you get Maternal Adjustment Disorder (MAD)?
Maternal adjustment disorder (MAD)
This is not a real disorder, but it should be.
Adjustment disorder is a real disorder (included in World Health Organisation mental health classifications) and I have just bunged “maternal” in front of it to describe how I and many other mums I know felt when we became mums.
The legitimate diagnosis of adjustment disorder is described as a “state of subjective distress and emotional disturbance, usually interfering with social function and performance, and arising in the period of adaptation to a significant life change or to the consequences of a stressful life event. The stressor may have affected the integrity of an individual’s social network or the wider system of social supports and values” (ICD-10). It’s supposed to apply to stressors like migration, bereavement or adaptation to illness or disability; but why not modern-day motherhood?
Having a child is a significant life change. What I found distressing was not the obvious sleepless nights, financial pressures, breast feeding, fevers blah, blah, blah, but the subtle but seismic change in identity and power. As much as I’d like to say that this life-changing experience affects both genders equally, currently I do not think this is true, and by-and-large for most families, the brunt is borne by the mother.
This is of course a modern-day phenomenon as even one generation ago; women grew up without expectation of financial independence, of autonomy, of economic power. They were defined by their husbands and felt no big loss when they settled down to have a family. They came from a position of inequitable power and continued.
For me, up until childbirth, I enjoyed financial independence. I was quite satisfied with my identity as a doctor with intelligent colleagues and friends, thank you very much. I had a healthy salary, I rented my own flat, I owned my own car; I bought whatever I wanted with my money. For a time, Banker lived in MY flat and drove MY car. At another time, I lived in his flat and drove his car. We shared the household chores. Our relationship was 50:50.
So where did it ever say, that once you pass a melon-sized being from out of your nether regions that that contract with your partner, with society, with your own self had to be torn away with your placenta?
From hence forth, I was no longer me. I was Mrs Banker, or mother of Big Sis and Lil Bro. Even though I had kept my own surname, once Big Sis and Lil Bro came along with their Dad’s monogram, it was inevitable that I would now be referred to as Mrs Banker. Staunch refusal to change my name on my passport led to my being interrogated at Heathrow airport for child trafficking as the official doubted my relationship to 2 year old Big Sis due to non-matching surnames. Thankfully, Big Sis came to the rescue as I started my feminist “Taking your husband’s name is an outdated sexist practice” rant at the official by saying “Why are you getting cross MUMMMY?”
I was still a doctor, of course, and yet, not the academic high-flying, arse-kicking-doctor-stroke-clinical-academic-jet-setting-to international-conferences-doctor I had set out to be. For ease of life, I went from full-time clinical work with academic productivity, to full-time clinical work with no academic productivity, to part-time clinical work, to part-time research work. It eased my life, but the loss of status and identity still tastes bitter. It’s only two steps and a push to considering an art-course, or maybe running a loss-making boutique funded by my husband to keep me quiet…I’m joking, but some jokes speak truth. Several other doctors I know have given up medicine when their children came along which is such a waste of talent, and yet, the NHS (like many other employers) does very little to support high-level part-time working, preferring to source doctors from abroad.
Stepping back in a career is sufficient to “affect the integrity of an individual’s social network”, as work is not just about money, but about esteem, about intellectual stimulation, about friendship, about intelligent conversation. It’s replacement with discussions about faecal consistency with other MAD mums, raucous bouts of “Jelly on a plate” to a mute baby, and various “telling offs”, rebukes, unrequested nuggets of parenting advice, raised eye-brows and generally being spoken to like an idiot, from teachers/ parents/ friends/ the supermarket check-out lady/ any random stranger, just doesn’t bear comparison.
And the first (and last) time Banker ever dared utter “What have you been spending my money on?”…that stuck in the throat. Never since graduation had I had to ask permission to spend money. I earned money; I spent it how I saw fit. Yet, with declining hours of work, come diminished income and the inherent shift in power dynamic in the relationship. As I am now “at home more”, there somehow passes an unspoken expectation that the days of shared laundry, cooking, cleaning and household chores are over. An unspoken expectation that money has to be “asked for”, and “kindly bestowed”, a nagging worry of “Could I manage financially alone, having stepped back on the career” should the worst happen and our relationship falter, – or worse still, would I feel I could not leave?
At times I stared at myself in the mirror and barely recognised myself. I had turned into “Hockey-mom”. There is nothing wrong with Hockey Mom, but she was not who I had ever identified myself with.
But at least the children will be grateful for my presence won’t they?
The other day, Big Sis said: “Mummy, you’re lazy”
“Why?” I questioned.
“Because you only work 3 days a week.”
%$£”&*!! [Thought – not spoken]
I’m telling my story, but I know many other mums who have felt the same.
The treatment for adjustment disorder?
Most of us learn to accept our fates, and “adjust” to survive.
Some of us find new pleasures in our new roles, however unexpected.
I guess that’s the beauty of life.
Caveat: some people do not get better from adjustment disorder, and their diagnosis shifts to depression. This goes for MAD too, and depression in mothers is pretty common.
The Battle Hum of the Tigger Mum
Most Western parents who read Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” book read in horror. For those who have not read the book, it recounts the strict disciplinarian parenting style and relentless focus on academic and musical achievement of a Chinese parent. For people brought up in the Far East, it’s different. On a visit to a friend in Hong Kong, I asked her if she had read the book. She looked at me hard to decipher whether I would judge her if she were honest, before replying; then we both laughed in agreement that for us “What she describes is just normal.”
I’m not saying it’s normal to timetable your children’s free time so that they are working all day and collapse exhausted at night, or to emotionally blackmail your children into 4 hours of piano a day, but the tiger parent ethos of involvement in your child’s education and emphasis on scholastic achievement is part and parcel of Chinese, and many other cultures. In reality, I don’t think that this is too far removed from Western values. There are also many Western parents who “expect” their children to achieve; the difference is that they “expect” their child’s school (particularly if it is fee paying) to deliver this expectation rather than to be personally involved. To this end, if Johnny does not get into “the best school/ university”, the teachers can expect a parental rant, whilst for the Chinese parent, either the child would have delivered the expectation (due to the parents’ support) or the parents will feel like complete failures and blame no one more than themselves. To the Chinese parent, the Western attitude of abdicating responsibility for education to schools is rather strange. To the Chinese parent, the school (however good) is only one arm of the education battery, rather than the entirety and personal responsibility is taken for education.
This usually involves extra work at home (to a varying degree from acceptable to bordering on abusive), educational outings (museums, libraries, art galleries, historical landmarks), educational conversation (ranging from fully answering any question the child asks (possibly involving graphs, Venn diagrams and how to construct a computer program to answer that exact question…), to grilling on times-tables and “What’s the capital city of…”) and mostly an extreme nosiness on the state of their child’s performance in relation to other children (whereupon, if there is a hint of not keeping up, efforts are redoubled). When test scores come back less than perfect, there is a focus on the mistakes made rather than correct answers, not necessarily because anything less than perfection is acceptable (although there is this too!) – but because the parent is trying to understand where the child requires additional help so that they can provide it. All this is quite frankly a lot of hard work, but a Chinese parent will feel somewhat a failure if they do not do this (to greater or lesser degree) as it’s practically in their blood.
Understanding where this parental drive comes from is important as it is purely a case of Darwinian adaptation to environment and survival of the fittest at its best. Historically in the East, as was the case in Jane Austen’s times, the future of your family and your predicament in old age was dependent on either securing a good job for your son or a marital match for your daughter. In the West where these were achieved by birth right or having refined manners, children were encouraged to look down on lower social classes or were indoctrinated to sit up straight, know their soup spoons from their dessert spoons and make gentile conversation lest Mr Darcy be in the vicinity. In more meritocratic societies where a peasant with a PhD could become better regarded than a banker’s son without, having academically accomplished children is an economic investment. Generations of positive selection for successful “tiger mothers” has led to a society where tiger-parenting is the norm. Interestingly enough though, now that the job market is becoming increasingly global, “Who your parents are, or which school you went to in the UK” is paling in significance to university degree obtained in the worldwide jobs competition, and as such I have witnessed more and more British tiger parents emerging. For example, in my children’s Mandarin class (which my children are sent to purely to be in touch with their cultural identity), half the children in the class are European, sent to learn mandarin at age <4 years to enable them to be “competitive” in the future jobs market. There are also parents living in tents overnight to be the first in the queue to obtain application forms for sought after academic schools and gymnastic classes. I think tiger parenting has definitely arrived in the UK.
My personal view is that achievement is important. Achievement, “developing to the fullest” and “achieving potential” is a ratified right in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (alongside the right to healthcare and education). Encouraging work ethic in children to obtain achievement is not a sin. To this end then, I fully put my hands up to being a tiger mother. Do I check my children’s homework? Do I stress the importance of getting all their spellings right? Do I make them do 10 minutes of a workbook each day on top of work set by the school? Do I supervise their reading every day? Do I coerce my daughter to practice piano for 10 minutes at least 4 times a week? Do I insist (with varying success) this continues in the holidays. Do I express disappointment if I do not think they have really tried? Do my children think that my favourite hobby is doing workbooks with them? Do I pack a “Make your own volcano kit” in our suitcase for a holiday to Sicily as I know we will be going up Mount Etna and I want to explain how it works to the kids? When I go to their school, do I scrutinize the work of other children in the class and compare it to that of my own kids? Yup.
However, I would also agree with Western values that scholastic achievement is not the be all and end all for success. It is interesting that in the UK the Chinese population outperform other ethnicities in school exam grades, yet they continue to under-perform in employment thereafter considering their academic qualifications. The Guardian 2011, reporting on findings of the Equality and Human Rights Commission Report stated “British Chinese youngsters are the highest performing ethnic group in England at GCSE”, and “British Chinese men and women were twice as likely to be in professional jobs as their white British counterparts. But average earnings remained around 11% lower throughout the population than for those classed as ‘white Christian’”. I would argue that this employment underperformance of the British Chinese is in large part due to the fact that their critical period of development (childhood) was too focused on academic attainment at the cost of interpersonal skills. Play-dates, parties, drama club, debating team, sports teams afford regular opportunities to practice social skill. What better way to learn the diplomacy and politics of the board room than years of practice in the locker room? Whilst largely attainment alone will get you into a top university, it is interpersonal skill and political savvy that will get you into the Western boardroom.
Further the cultural focus on respect for elders, authority and hierarchy indoctrinated in Chinese homes that facilitate academic achievement and lead to success in the workplace of the East, inhibit the free thinking, challenging of norms, stepping outside chain of command and assertive attitude required in the Western workplace. Transplanting elements required to succeed in one environment (the East) into another (the West) can only get you so far, and again, harking back to Darwinian theory, adaptation to new environment is required for success. Another approach to think about this adaptation to environment is in relation to Westerners hoping to crack it with the Asian premiere league now that China is touted to be the next super-power. Your received pronunciation won’t get you noticed, but it generally helps if you have a PhD from a top global University.
Further, although “success” is paramount to the tiger parent, this is measured purely in terms of academic/ career and financial success. What of “happiness”: my preferred measure of success? In psychiatry you have the rare position of seeing the psychological mess behind the veneer of many successful people, and you quickly realise that “happiness” is a much better yardstick for success. In my clinical practice I have asked many a tiger parent that has taken things to the extreme: “What’s the point of your child going to Oxbridge if they commit suicide there?” (it does happen). Of course, achievement and money contribute to “happiness”, which is why I continue to maintain these are important, but self-esteem, integrity and robust personality take precedent in my book. None of this “inferiority” coupled with “superiority” package that Amy Chua is now marketing (this by the way, sounds like the professional description of a personality disorder not the secret to success). What I advocate is pure and solid (and highly unmarketable): self-esteem, self-respect, respect for others, positivity and humour.
How can this be engendered?
To a large degree by parents.
Parents that spend time with you, and enjoy spending time with you. Parents that prioritise you and make you feel special. Parents that care enough about you to tell you when you are out of line. Parent’s that give you a reality check when you need it. Parents that listen to you when you speak, or speak for you when you can’t. Parents that make time for you even when they have no time. Parents that pick you up when you are down. Parent’s that are always there for you. Parents that cheer for you even when you are actually pretty rubbish. Parents that include you. Parents that know you and try to understand you. Above all, parents that make you live, laugh and enjoy life.
Alongside my workbooks and volcano making kits, I hope to practice this ethos too. To this end, I would like to be a Tigger mother. A tiger none-the-less, but one that is soft, cuddly, laughs, and is full of fun.
And probably quite a bit annoying.
Mansell, W. (2011) Hidden Tigers: Why do Chinese children do so well at school? The Guardian, Monday 7 February 2011.
Amy Chua (2011), Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Penguin Group; ISBN: 978-1-59420-284-1.