Yes! The kids are finally back at school and the extracurricular circus is almost organised. For those sensible enough to avoid enrolling children into a hundred and one activities, I salute you – because really, the logistics are too much! Having been rather gung-ho on the extra-curricular clubs when Big Sis and Lil Bro were little, I am now paying the price. The plan had been to shove them into as many classes as possible during the 3 days that I work and grandma looks after them. This was a vain attempt to stop said grandma allowing them to veg on her couch watching Power Rangers Dino Charge and feeding them chocolate and hand peeled grapes like mini Romans for 3 hours each day. Instead, they were taken to some life-skill enhancing activity: ballet/ street-dance/ swimming/ tennis/ football/ chess before 2 hours of grandma allowing them to veg on her couch watching Power Rangers Dino Charge and feeding them chocolate and hand peeled grapes like mini Romans. Don’t ask me how come my beloved mother who locked me in my room until I could recite my times-tables at the age of 5 years, and who I had been counting on to knock some discipline into my kids has transformed into dobby the house elf.
Anyhoo, the unforseen pig of it all is that as the kids get older, the darn things get better at their life-enhancing skills and progress to different classes which are now OUTSIDE my 3 working days and the kids are back watching Power Rangers Dino Charge and being fed chocolate and hand peeled grapes like mini Romans on my work days, while I am left slogging them to ballet/ street-dance/ swimming/ tennis/ football/ chess on days when I am in charge. Don’t even ask about the crazy timetabling because Big Sis’s swimming now clashes with Lil Bro’s street dance, and I have to fathom if logistically I can get from the piano teacher to the swimming pool in 10 minutes…(I’m thinking potentially possible if Big Sis plays piano in her swimming costume). Man it sucks.
The good news is that not only has daily life returned after the chaos of the holidays because the kids are back in their school routine again, but my blogging life has returned – (Yay!). I’m hoping that some of you may have missed me (yes – I am talking to you dear sister) and will pick back up where we left off for the fortnightly Friday blogs.
In explanation of my long absence, I am pleased to say that much fun was had the last 6 months indulging the fantastic and unreal opportunity to pen a parenting book. Bluebird, the life-style imprint behind the lovely Joe Wicks and his midget trees have backed and bought my story. Thank You! I am so looking forward to this crazy new journey which is a world away from cutting NHS waiting times.
They say that there is a book in all of us and many people harbour a dream of writing a book. Many of us have half written manuscripts in our dusty drawers or notebooks and hard drives of half-formed ideas. For decades I was one of them. My aged computer still contains very early drafts of a parenting book that I had the audacity to pen before even having children. Needless to say, these naïve and sentimental ponderings were a pile of crap and if the me of today had encountered the me of then, I’d have spared no hesitation in giving myself a tight slap and saying: “Have you ever met a child you twat?” Although I don’t think that you need to be a parent to give advice on parenting, an ounce of realism helps.
And so it turns out that although having children was the nail in the coffin of my treadmill professional career, being chucked off the treadmill gave me time and opportunity to explore other areas of myself and take a chance on an old and buried dream. It was the beginning of this new journey. What has been a heartening realisation is that while my having children was seen by my traditional profession as a weakness, for my writing it has been my greatest strength. I can only encourage others that if ever you fail because of a “weakness”, just change the story and it may turn out that your “weakness” is your greatest strength.
And if you have a dusty notebook or neglected files on your hard drive, maybe it’s time to have another look…
I love Sport England’s “This Girl Can” campaign to get girls into sport with glossy ads showing ordinary girls and women of all shapes, sizes and colours enjoying sport. Set to high octane music it oozes adrenaline, power, energy and confidence. It’s about sport, but also ultimately about self-esteem. Its underlying message is that women should be confident about themselves and their bodies, which is a great message which is why the campaign has been so acclaimed. There have been a number of other positive Ad Campaigns empowering women to achieve, study maths and science, aim high, aspire and be ambitious. GREAT! Despite all that women have achieved in the last 100 years, I can attest that women still underestimate their ability in the workplace and this media encouragement is totally welcome.
However, it doesn’t work on its own.
How do I know this? Because I, and all girls that were fed through an ambitious, high expectation girls’ school in the nineties already heard this message and were already ambitious and aiming high. We flew the flag, but like the generations before us were cut down to size when we reached the higher echelons of our organisations, or the minute we fell pregnant. Many of us even felt bitter towards the encouragement that we received as young women because we were fed a dream that society could not yet deliver.
The bottom-line is that there is only so much women can change and society’s current solution of “encouraging women to change” (codified in encouraging women to become “more” confident/ ambitious/ this-that-and-the-other) in order to fit into pre-existing male oriented organisations and structures has not worked. Not only has it not worked, but it continues to perpetuate the myth that the reason that inequality has not yet been achieved is because women have not put in enough effort into changing “they do not put themselves forward”, “they shy away from leadership positions”, “they choose to opt out”. The implication is still “Women are not good enough”.
This perspective turns a blind eye to the fact that it is also institutions and their cultures that need changing. Women are being put off by bullying and macho cultures exemplified but not limited to the goings-on in British politics (men are driven to suicide by it, so why would women want to engage?).
And, if society wishes there to be a next generation, SOMEONE needs to look after the children. For many of us, we believe this strongly and fundamentally should be parents. If we continue to one-sidedly empower girls and women to take on rewarding and powerful careers, what is society’s solution to “parenting” and “family-life”?
What is the solution?
It may not seem attractive at first (but isn’t it the job of slick Madmen to make it so?), but I believe that for every “This Girl Can” ad that goes out; there should also be a “This Boy Can” ad. Footage of boys crying, talking about their emotions, helping another child, reading, drawing, dancing, dressing up as a Princess. Footage of men sticking on plasters, listening to the ideas of their female colleagues, talking to their daughters, nursing their elderly parents, helping children with their homework, picking up children from school, doing the laundry, cleaning the house, cooking the family dinner. These latter activities are the really important things that keep Britain going. The Engine of Britain is not just the boardroom, but the living room, dining room and kitchens across the country. Without the domestic engines, no one could get to work. As long as these activities, pivotal to family life, are undervalued and represented as “female” or lower order tasks, there can be no escape for women from the home and no “respect” for women overall.
Many boys and men already do these things and they need to know that their efforts are appreciated and the ones that are not doing these things need to be empowered and enabled to do so, else any women’s empowerment program will be futile. As long as we continue to view ambition, aspiration, hard-work, determination and ruthlessness as the only virtues worth rewarding and publicising, we are devaluing and undermining the equally valuable virtues of compassion, loyalty, understanding and sensitivity. As such we marginalise the fantastic people who possess these traits and create future generations with warped and unbalanced ideals. Much as I applaud campaigns to improve body confidence, body image problems in women will continue to be problematic as long as there are men who objectify women. While empowering girls is good, we must also focus on educating boys, and I feel that this part is lacking.
Whilst many may feel that traits are gender specific (typically masculine: ambition, determination etc.; and feminine: compassion, empathy etc.). I don’t believe this to be the case but that from a young age children are taught to emphasize these traits within themselves and suppress other traits to conform to gender expectations. While great Ad Campaigns like “This Girl Can” try to address this imbalance for girls, what we desperately need in concert is a “This Boy Can” campaign to empower boys to truly be themselves.
I really hope that someone steps up to the mantel and does it.
When I started blogging 18 months ago, it was my escape from becoming a desperate housewife. I never expected still to be writing 18 months down the line, yet here I am. Not only am I still at it, but last week I was signed by a literary agent for my parenting book proposal! How cool is that? OK, it is not a book deal yet, but it is a foot on the first rung of the ladder.
Some of you may have noticed that my posts are now fortnightly rather than weekly, and this is down to the explosion of work that has suddenly appeared from nowhere. It would seem that life works in mysterious ways and after a very low two years of feeling pointless and rejected by my chosen profession I am somehow now back in the game. Don’t ask me how that happened. One minute I am being told that “No London teaching hospital will employ you for less than 4 days a week” and “You have a negative reputation for being forthright and assertive and reputations are hard to shift”, so I have been sat at home in my pyjamas twiddling my thumbs and watching “Loose Women”; and the next minute I’ve got sessions at 3 London teaching hospitals (including Great Ormond Street) that still fit around me being able to pick up the kids from school twice a week, medical students to supervise, private patients backed up a month and now a book to write. Phew!
So I hope you will forgive the erratic postings, and I am ever so grateful for all the regular readers of my blog for helping make the book opportunity happen. Without your support I would never have had the confidence to put a book proposal out there. All comments, follows, likes and shares are greatly appreciated.
For those new to this site, here’s what I mainly write about:
Last week I was pleased to hear about the Sense about Science report on children’s food allergies which stated the scientific misconceptions regarding food allergies and their prevalence. It would seem from the school playground that every other child has some form of food allergy or intolerance and from the hysterical behaviour of some parents that their darling offspring are at constant threat of anaphylactic death. One study in the Sense about Science report stated that whilst 34% of parents said their child had an allergy, only 5% actually did. Worryingly, the report suggests that many children are suffering from malnutrition due to exclusion diets, often initiated on whims and estimates rather than on hard evidence.
You can take it as read that I am a non-believer in food allergy and intolerance being the harbinger of learning difficulties, inattention, anxiety, bad behaviour and the other ills that some people believe. In fact, aside from coeliac disease which is a bona fide gut condition where gluten should be excluded from the diet, I don’t really buy into intolerance at all. You could say that I have an intolerance for intolerance. I’m sure that it does exist in some people in severe and debilitating form, but I am also sure that for most people who claim to be intolerant of something that a bit of bloating and flatulence do not a disorder make.
Typical then that Lil Bro should have a list of allergies as long as my arm.
It started with a spot of eczema on his forehead when he was 3 months old. Despite plenty of emollient creams, by 4 months it had spread to his cheeks and become wet and weepy eczema. I was concerned about infection and he was treated with antibiotics. It didn’t go away. The GP suggested that I cut out dairy, eggs and nuts from my diet as I was breastfeeding. I duly did this albeit reluctantly as I am an avid consumer of milky teas and cake and get quite grumpy when both are denied.
Nothing much happened even on this exclusion diet. Lil Bro’s eczema got worse. He was prescribed a second course of anti-biotics. On Valentine’s day evening, Banker and I abandoned our romantic dinner plans to spend the evening in A&E as Lil Bro was covered in raw-red wet and weepy rash from scalp to toe. Was it an allergic reaction to the anti-biotics I had wondered?
His scalp to toe eczema continued despite applications of weak steroid creams. My beautiful baby boy had skin that was painful to look at, the facial eczema being the worst. Despite twice daily emollient applications and infrequent oily baths, it didn’t get better. At night time, despite short nails and gloves on his hands, he would scratch himself till he bled, and I could hear his wriggling and itching movements in his cot constantly. Often I lay awake tearful holding him in my arms to sleep so that I could prevent his scratching. The final straw was when one time I was driving and I could hear him crying in the baby seat behind. By the time I had pulled over, his face was covered in blood as he had scratched himself across the face where the eczema had been red and raw.
I took him to see Dr Atherton at Great Ormond Street Hospital. A friend who worked at GOSH as a Consultant advised me that he was the best dermatologist in the country. Lil Bro was prescribed wet wraps and Protopic cream. The small print on Protopic mentions a risk of cancer, but Dr Atherton assured me that this was small print and quoted the statistical risks. I was happy to go with the medication, I was desperate. It helped stabilise the eczema, but it by no means got rid of it. Lil Bro was wet wrapped for a total of 6 weeks. Dr Atherton had mentioned that most parents gave up by 3 weeks and was surprised when at 6 weeks, Lil Bro was still in full body wet wrap. I confessed though that I was at breaking point, but at least Lil Bro’s eczema was under some control. Skin was red, but no longer wet and weepy. The wet wrapping, as well as soothing the itch also prevented any skin damage from scratching. The twice daily wet wrapping though was getting me down. Lil Bro was basically bandaged like a mummy all day. I refused to let wet wrapping ruin Lil Bro’s life. I looked into his beautiful, brown eyes that poked out from the bandages with all my love, and often, being the sweet darling baby that he was, he beamed back. Despite his troubles, he was the sweetest, happiest child. We went to mother and baby groups, and it didn’t bother me if children asked me why he was wearing a mask (which was like a balaclava made of dressing material), they just seemed curious. Big Sis had no problem with the mask at all, but it sometimes got a bit much when other parents came up to me with their little ones saying that they wanted their child to play with him so that they could be “accepting of children who were different”. Other people asked me if I put the mask on him because it was cold. I really didn’t understand these people – did they think that I thought bandages were a substitute for a hat and scarf…?
Dr Atherton recommended an allergist Professor Gideon Lack. I asked around my medical colleagues and confirmation came that Professor Gideon Lack was the best allergy specialist in the country. His prodigy Dr Adam Fox is now often in the media as the go-to allergy specialist, but why go to the doctor when you can see the Professor? By the time we saw Gideon Lack, I was pretty sure that Lil Bro had food allergies. Having breast fed for 6 months, I tried to wean him onto formula. After several desperate attempts that resulted in wholesale visceral rejection of formula (cow’s milk and soya) our food allergy fears were confirmed in skin prick tests and blood tests. Along with allergies to milk, eggs, all nuts, all seeds and soya, he was also testing allergic to wheat, beans, peas, pulses, lentils, banana and kiwi. Professor Lack was sceptical about the wheat allergy as this is very rare. He advised us to try him on wheat pasta at home. We did, and wheals appeared almost immediately on ingestion confirming a positive allergy to wheat. Lil Bro was prescribed Neocate formula, a disgusting tasting blend of amino acids that only the truly allergic could stand. Once Lil Bro started on this formula, his skin came under control without wet wrapping.
The funny thing about being told that Lil Bro had allergies was that my first concern was not about his health and diet, but about his psychological outcome. Maybe this is not so strange, but a consequence of my profession and prejudice. My first thoughts were: I don’t want him to be the skinny, snivelling, wimpy kid that has to sit out of football games puffing on an inhaler or sit in the corner of birthday parties telling people how he can’t eat things while eating his own carrot sticks from a paper bag brought from home. I wanted him to be a participater, a life-enjoyer. I want his allergies to have no bearing on his life at all.
Thankfully, as we saw a leading expert in the field, we were given expert advice, which I fear is not given to the majority of parents. Whilst we were given Epipens, we were explicitly told that the likelihood that he would have an anaphylactic reaction was only to peanuts and that this risk amounted to the risk of being run over by a car (i.e. not very likely). We were explicitly told that the majority of children outgrow all their food allergies by adulthood, save for peanut allergy which only resolves in 20%. We were told that the skin prick tests and blood tests are grossly unreliable and are mere rough markers for what may or may not be an allergy and that if a child was able to eat the food without a reaction within 2 hours; then they were probably not allergic to it at all. Lil Bro tested positive on blood and skin prick tests for many other things such as corn, but we knew that he had had no allergic reaction on physically eating this and so could not be allergic to it. We were encouraged to continue to allow him to eat all the things he could eat without a reaction. We were told that the jury was out on exclusion as being the best course of practice and that clinical trials for exposure and desensitization were ongoing. That there was a possibility that exposure could actually help not hinder overcoming allergies.
It is amazing how little one can eat, if you have to exclude the list of food that Lil Bro was allergic to. The majority of dairy-free products substitute milk with soya, which was no good for Lil Bro either. Who would have known that meat pastes and pates usually contain soya? At home it was possible to concoct a meat and two veg type meal and we joked about his Chinese and Irish heritage as rice and potatoes were his main starch staple given bread and pasta were out of the window. It was travelling that was tough. But as I mentioned we were not going to let allergies hold him back, and we travelled widely with our suitcases stuffed full of oat cakes, tins of tuna and sweet corn; staples that we knew he could eat, if push came to shove and we couldn’t find anything for him. For his first birthday, as I couldn’t fathom how a cake could be made without flour, eggs, butter or milk, we bought a hefty joint of beef and wrapped it in a cake frill and stuck a candle on top. It was important to me that he was going to enjoy his birthday cake! Later, I found a decent recipe for a wheat, egg and dairy free chocolate cake that involved pureed prunes and his second and third birthday cakes were sorted.
As was foretold, Lil Bro outgrew many of his allergies. On an annual basis, we tested his allergies and if ever we were told there might be a possibility that he had outgrown an allergy, we billed our insurance company for a food challenge. The elation of overcoming the soya allergy at 2 years was only off-set by failing to outgrow his wheat allergy, but, slowly by slowly, the list of contraband food grew slimmer and slimmer. I watched carefully at the conduct of food challenges that took place in hospitals, and for a few items on Lil Bro’s list; I conducted food challenges at home. The sooner Lil Bro could eat a normal diet the better, and the annual NHS appointments that we had were not soon enough for me. If he could eat something, I wanted him to be eating it. Lil Bro still has an allergy to cow’s milk. This shows on skin prick and blood test, but from home food challenges, we know for a fact that he is able to eat milk that has been thoroughly cooked, although he still reacts to a few sips of a glass of milk. Home food challenges were not advised by the hospital, and I am not advising other parents do this (I am after all a doctor). In fact, I am frequently chastised by the hospital nursing staff “Why did I want to take the risk with a home food challenge?”, but the sight of Lil Bro tucking into a crème brulee, which is his favourite food, is enough justification for me. Why should he miss out? Lil Bro’s current allergies are now only peanuts, cashew nuts, pistachios, raw egg and uncooked milk. He enjoys a varied diet including all the nuts that he was previously allergic to: almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts and brazils. He has not a spot of eczema on him and only rarely uses an inhaler.
What has puzzled me is the attitude of some parents. Coming from a standpoint of having a child who could eat virtually nothing, and the immense strain on family life that this caused, I found it difficult to understand why anyone would want to inflict this on their families without strong evidence that it was indicated by allergic reaction. Yet many parents seem to be rushing to exclude vital food groups from their children’s and entire family’s diet. In the allergy clinic waiting room, there is almost a frenzied competitive element to the number of allergies your child has, whereas for me, I’d give anything to be the loser in that competition and have Lil Bro be able to eat anything he wanted. I can only imagine that some people don’t enjoy food as much as I do. For me food is life. People that enjoy food tend to enjoy life, and I intend for Lil Bro to enjoy his.
I am not an allergy specialist, I am just writing about my experience, but please check out the Sense about Science website for sensible allergy advice.
Looking back over the last few years, tumultuous and unhappy times for my career, I think about the advice that I would have given my former self with hindsight and the knowledge that it’s all worked OK. Hindsight, as they say is 20:20 and created hindsight in the form of imaginary letters from your future self, is a therapeutic technique used in Motivational Enhancement Therapy, a treatment for addiction and eating disorders. Guess what? It turns out that YOU are the best person to give yourself advice as no-one knows you, your motivations and foibles as well as yourself. If only we could all have a future self to guide us. Having not had this advantage, here’s a letter to me of 5 years ago, when I was working full-time with a 2 year old and a <1 year old – in case there are others who feel desperate like I did then and are in need of a “future-self” to advise them and put things in perspective.
Dear Me 2010,
I understand where you are. Sometimes you look in the mirror and you don’t recognise yourself. You go through the motions of the day feeling detached and dissociated from life. On dark days you believe this will be the rest of your life, your education was for nought, your identity to be forsaken for drudgery, your ambitions to be sacrificed at the alter of society’s expectation of “motherhood”. Sometimes you contemplate if life is worth living.
I understand; I have been there.
The unrelenting sleepless nights.
The flabby belly and sagging boobs.
The “comfy” clothes and orthopaedic shoes.
The eau de puke.
The no time alone to think. Who would have thought that going to the toilet alone would become a privilege?
The chores, the routines and the day-to-day responsibilities. Anything the children need or want. Anything the children do/ don’t do/ say/ don’t say/ eat/ don’t eat; any harm/ potential harm/ possibility of harm that might befall them, anywhere they need to be/ not be – it’s down to you. You always thought you’d be a great mother, but now you are not so sure. Now you have to listen obediently to snide remarks and “well-intentioned” advice on motherhood like a chastened schoolgirl.
The up-keep of a gruelling work-load that you try to squeeze into a shorter day, lest colleagues and superiors arch an eye-brow or make a comment about the decline in your performance and insinuate that you are not “pulling your weight”. The anxiety that you will be next in the redundancy line; despite all your qualifications and achievements. Unemployment has never even been on your radar. How could it have been? You were great at your job. But now you hear the whisperings. It is a possibility.
The tension in your relationship. That lovely man that promised to support you is now on another planet. Working the same hours you both used to work, wining and dining clients late at night because “Some-one has to continue their career trajectory to put bread on the table” and “Why should both careers suffer?”, “We talked about this, you wanted to be the main parent” and “Well if you can’t manage then why don’t we just hire a nanny?”. The seething resentment inside “Why does he get to carry on as if nothing has happened?”, “Why doesn’t he understand?” Maybe he doesn’t care anymore. Maybe we have “grown apart”?
And above all the resounding clang of self-doubt.
Maybe you weren’t so good at your job after all. How arrogant of you to believe that you were capable of achieving your ambitions – going forward, it’s about leadership and personality and do you really think that you have it in you? Maybe you deserve to be unemployed. Maybe you should resign and preserve your dignity. No one would judge you for it, you are a “mother” after all; this is what respectable women do, leave work to raise their children. Besides your salary is going straight to the childcare provider; your bank account a mere conduit. Financially you’d be better off taking that redundancy package. And children need their mothers. You can’t have everything. You have to compromise: work or motherhood.
Or maybe you are just not cut out for parenting? What a fool you were to believe that you could be the guardian and inspiration for anybody. You can barely look after yourself! What pathetic fool retreats into tears over a baby and acquiesces to the demands of a toddler? Spare the children this incompetence and get a 24/7 nanny for heaven’s sake – they’ll be better off. You can’t have everything. You have to compromise: work or motherhood.
Maybe your partner just doesn’t love you anymore? Why else would he not understand? Why else would he not help you? How can he love you anymore with your track-suit pants and stretch marks when there are younger women at his work who still wear high-heeled shoes, make-up and have actually combed their hair? Why else would he work long hours and not come home? Did he ever love you? You’ve let yourself go. You’ve neglected your duty as a wife.
Dear Me (2010), my advice is this:
- Believe in yourself as a parent. Your children need YOU, and you are the best parent that they will get. Everyone has wobbles now and then, nobody is perfect. If you are having a bad day, it’s a bad day – not a bad person. All good parenting starts with wondering if you are doing it right, only bad parents never question their actions and don’t seek to improve.
- Believe in your abilities at work. Don’t listen to the voices telling you to quit. They mean well, but they have got it wrong. Your employers are behaving in their own short-term interests, not in your interests or the long term interests of society. Only you know what is good for you and your family. Working full-time with full-time childcare or being a stay-at-home mother is an honest choice for many but there should be another way for people that want it. Work is more than a payslip. It is an identity, a social network, a status. It is power in a relationship. It is independence. Men understand this well, which is why they are much less keen to let it go. Don’t let the difficulties of 5 to 10 years stall a potential career of another 30 years (let’s not forget we will all be working into our late 60s!). Push for employers and society to change. Parental responsibility should be gender neutral. If all parents (male and female) pushed together for better work-life balance, employers would change. If you don’t push for change, who will?
- Make your partner your ally. He loves you. If he doesn’t understand then make him understand. Make him put himself in your shoes. Tell him how you feel. Make him pull his weight at home. They are his children too. Children need their fathers as well as their mothers. Never be taken for granted, and always expect respect. Make him support your career. It will be tough. There will be confrontation and arguments. It is worth it. It may be the saving of a woman, a marriage, a family.
- Don’t give up on “having it all”. A fulfilling work role with pro-rata pay AND being there for the children. Proper part-time work. Not full-time work for part-time pay, not a demotion to back office tasks or a move to a less prestigious organization, but the proper work that you are qualified to do for three days a week. I know that you will be told a million times that it is not possible. You will be pressurised to make a choice. You will want to give up. You will have to at times take that full-time work for part-time pay, take that demotion, move to a less prestigious organisation. But never give up on your ambition. Keep pressing, keep spreading the word about what you want, about what is right, keep vigilant and above all do not give up. Stay in the game. The “impossible” is only impossible until one person does it. Don’t go changing, make society change.
Along the way, you will meet some great people; some in similar situations and others in unexpected places. Two things they say will help you:
“If no one has done it before, it doesn’t mean it’s not possible; it means you have to do it.”
“Carry on doing what you enjoy doing”
Dear Me 2010, it works out well for you.
In 2015 you are still happily married. You have two great kids who KNOW their mother and KNOW their mother is always there for them. You eventually get offered a 3-day-a-week Consultant post at the best organisation for Child Psychiatry in Europe and sessions at the best Children’s Hospital in the UK.
It can work out.
Just hold on.
Just keep going.
Don’t give up.
Love from Me 2015.
It is ironic that for many of us one of the first major choices we have when we become a parent is about who else is going to “parent” our baby. If you are going down the nursery route, this decision often has to be made prenatally depending on the length of time you wish to take for maternity leave and the waiting list time on your local nurseries.
When I first went about looking for a nursery for Big Sis, I didn’t have a clue what I should be looking for. Inevitably, I made a wrong decision and I was unhappy with the nursery (Nursery A) that I initially chose for Big Sis. The problem being that when you are required to make this decision, you are still in the mind-set of someone without children, someone whose priority is themselves and their work. Not yet a parent, whose priority is their child. With this hat on, decisions regarding childcare are made with the priorities of cost, convenience and ease of getting to and from work, not necessarily the priority that you have once you actually ARE a parent.
I had chosen Nursery A as it was close to the tube station, was located in a beautiful Victorian house, was brand new and had designer furniture for children, a computer room, a sensory room, a music room and offered baby yoga and science lessons. I was given my own electronic fob to get in and out of the nursery building and on-line access to the nursery’s CCTV cameras allowing me to see what Big Sis was up-to from the comfort of my computer at work. Formula milk, nappies, sun screen etc. were all included in the fees meaning all I had to do was drop off my baby in the morning, and the nursery operating hours were long (early drop off and late pick-up) so I could meet my work commitments. Staff advertised themselves for evening babysitting sessions. Oh, and there was an organic kitchen on-site. Why wouldn’t any working parent choose this nursery?
It was only when I realised my mistake (that I had been woo-ed by aesthetics and meeting my own needs) and moved Big Sis along with Lil Bro to a different nursery (Nursery B) that I realised what a nursery was supposed to be about. The child.
Nursery B was further from the tube station, had more modest grounds, smaller and more old-fashioned classrooms, no designated music room or computer room, no electronic fobs or CCTV, late drop-off and early pick-ups (making getting to work on time pretty hard) and the requirement to provide your own milk, nappies, and sun screen (such that there were regular rebukes from staff when you forgot one thing or another). Yet it had a waiting list a mile long. Both nurseries had a similar fee. I realised that none of the “extras” were relevant. The management and staff at Nursery B were excellent. That is all that matters. Nursery B’s operation was aimed at the children, not designed to suit and woo parents. But how can you tell this when you visit?
Here are my tips for what to look for so you can get it right first time:
“What is the atmosphere like?”
“Do the children there enjoy going to the nursery?”
“What is the food like? Is it cooked on site?”
“What activities do the children do?”
“What are the facilities like?”
“Where do the children sleep?”
“Are the premises clean, safe, inviting and child friendly?”
“What is the policy for children with special needs/ allergies/ medical conditions?”
“What are the policies for if your child is sick?”
“What are the nursery opening and closing times and how many days of the year is the nursery open?”
“Do the staff appear warm, competent and knowledgeable?”
“Is there any outdoor space?”
“What are the fees?” – I don’t think you’ll forget this one. Remember to bring a hanky as the response will be eye-watering.
Check the Ofsted Report
I cannot stress the importance of checking out a nursery’s Ofsted report and rating. Ofsted is the government agency that inspects all schools and childcare provisions in the UK. They report on all manner of things from the built environment, health and safety procedures and management. This might all seem extremely mundane and irrelevant when all you want is lovely, bubbly, staff that are going to welcome and cuddle your baby, but for anyone that has worked for any type of institution or business before, the competence of management matters. Within the NHS, it is evident that competent managers can instil high service standards, efficient service and good employee morale. The reverse is also true, and this is as true for nurseries as the NHS. If you can, go for an Ofsted Outstanding nursery. Big Sis’s first nursery had newly opened and had not been inspected at the time Big Sis started, but when it was inspected, it achieved a “satisfactory” ranking (two levels below “Outstanding”) which confirmed my doubts about it and precipitated my moving her to Outstanding nursery B, which lived up to its Ofsted rating. Prior to experiencing first hand the difference between “satisfactory” and “outstanding”, I thought – it can’t make much difference – “good” is “good” right? Well orange squash also tastes pretty good until you try Champagne. As most people choose a nursery and stick to it, they never usually get to know just what a difference a nursery can make. If you feel you have made a wrong choice like I did, it is ALWAYS worth changing.
Experience the management
As well as checking out the objective management ratings on the Ofsted report, check it out for yourself. A well-managed nursery would ensure that the phones were answered promptly and that if they say they will get back to you, they do. How well organised and managed is the viewing that they give you of the nursery? How senior are the staff that are showing you around? If you do not think that these administrative things matter, then think about how much they would matter if your child were at that nursery. What if no one answered the phone when you were ringing the nursery to convey an important message about your child? What if staff tell you they will do something for your child, but they don’t? If senior staff are not there to show you around, are they ever there? The best functioning services are ones where administration and front line staff are both working efficiently under effective and accessible senior management. At nursery B the senior manager was on site every day and knew the name of every child.
Ask about staff turnover
In my mind, effectively looking after young children is not something that can easily be done if you are not happy (if you don’t believe me you can extrapolate this from lots of post natal depression literature). If a nursery has high staff turnover then I cannot imagine that the staff can be very happy working there. During Big Sis’s 18 month time at nursery A, her “mentor” or “Key worker” changed 3 times because of staff resignations. The nursery manager also changed 3 times. This discontinuity of staff cannot make for stable attachments and relationships with the children and indicate that there is something unsatisfactory systemically that is preventing people from wanting to remain employed there. If staff are unhappy in their jobs, how can they provide the highest standard of care for your child? The average time that the key staff had been in place at nursery B was 9 years. As the fees for both nurseries were the same, it was clear that where one had chosen to spend the fee on aesthetics and extras to woo parents, the other had chosen to spend on training, valuing and retaining key and experienced staff. I know which matters more to me.
Ask about incident forms and how they manage difficult children
Big Sis was bitten or scratched by other children in her class at least 10 to 15 times in her 18 month career at nursery A. Other children in her class were also being bitten and scratched and we parents almost had to form a line to sign the incident forms when we collected our children. We would be told that a new toddler had been admitted to the class who had not yet been “socialised” by the nursery but that they would get the child under control soon. Only then, they would admit another “unsocialised” child. Eventually I had to sign an incident form saying that Big Sis had bitten another child (although she never bit anyone at home), and to tell the truth, I was rather glad that Big Sis was retaliating rather than being a teething ring for the other children. After Big Sis transferred to the nursery B she was bitten once and scratched once in a period of 28 months. She didn’t bite anyone. Lil Bro, who has only known the outstanding nursery has never been bitten or scratched and has never bitten another child at nursery. He has bitten his sister at home so it is not as if he is a particularly placid non-biting child. In my experience, biting is a very normal aggressive reaction in children and most children in the 0-3 year age group will do it at some point. Initially when Big Sis was being bitten at nursery, I was sympathetic to the nursery as I am aware that “all children bite”, however, on witnessing how much less this type of behaviour was occurring at a well- run nursery I am pretty sure that the level of biting was related to the nursery’s care (or lack of).
The nursery may not tell you, but it is worth asking about the level of incident reports as this is data that they are obliged to collect, so they should have it (although of course bear in mind that the very worst nurseries will have the lowest levels of incident reports, as they will be negligent on keeping up their reporting).
Examine how well the staff know the children
It is difficult to assess this. All nurseries will put forward their best people to do viewings with prospective parents. It is important to view as many staff as possible and be able to quiz them, and ask them questions, rather than limit questions to the member of staff showing you around, who will have been selected as knowledgeable. In real life, this person will likely have little to do with looking after your child as they are too busy showing other prospective parents around. Try and ask a random member of staff questions like:
“Do you like working here?”
“How long have you worked here?”
“How many children are in your class?”
“How many children are you directly responsible for?”
“How many children in your class have got food allergies, who are they and what exactly are they allergic to?”
Point at a random child and ask: “What’s this child’s favourite activity?”, “Who are his friends?”, “What makes him upset?”
If you have a child with food allergies like I have, it is absolutely paramount that all members of staff know who your child is and their allergies. I have heard of nurseries where children have been given foods that they are allergic to. Nursery B went the extra mile. Not only did all staff know Lil Bro and his exceptional dietary requirements, rather than excluding Lil Bro from cooking activities on account of his dairy, wheat and egg allergies, they bought him his own mixing bowl, and baking utensils. It’s this attention to detail that makes a nursery “outstanding”.
Interrogate parents of children that already attend
As well as confirming the standard information, find out how well the staff know the parents. At nursery A, the majority of staff, aside from the staff in Big Sis’s room had no idea who I was even though I dropped off and picked up Big Sis almost every day. I would have to say “I’m Big Sis’s mum” daily. At nursery B, everyone from manager, kitchen staff, to receptionist to teachers in other classes knew whose mother I was on sight. This is really good, and a credit to the management. You might think this is irrelevant, but it shows stability of staff and how aware staff are of the children in their care. Knowing who mothers and fathers are is important as it shows that they are interested in the children they are looking after and their families. Your child is not just “a child” that they are paid to look after.
Another difference that I found between the two nurseries was that many parents were coming from a very long way to drop their children at the nursery B, whilst most at the convenient nursery A by the tube station lived in close proximity. This makes sense, as if a nursery is very good, then people are willing to travel long distances to go there. If a nursery has many parents travelling a long way to attend, you can take it that this nursery is good.
Ask about the Early Years Foundation Stage
All childminders and nurseries are required to provide “early education” in line with the Early Years Foundation Stage document. If you want to be very mean and test the nursery’s knowledge, you can read the document and test them on it. I personally wouldn’t, but I might just want to check that staff don’t look at me blankly if I mention it .
These are just a few suggestions. In the end, you will have to make up your own mind, but bear in mind that early childcare is an important decision. Many parents spend much time and many sleepless nights researching and visiting a child’s secondary or primary school options, but just put their babies into the nearest nursery to allow them to get to work. I know; I did this. In addition, the research, visits and crucially the decision is often one made single-handed by a heavily pregnant woman who really would rather a sit down and a nap.
Yet if you work full time, like I did, your children will be spending more hours per year at nursery than at any future school in their life. Further, brain development is at its maximal in the preschool years, meaning the child’s learning potential from its environment is maximal at this age and may have long lasting impact on brain development. Time and time again, research has shown that it is not the “type” of childcare (childminder, nanny, nursery) that matters, it is the QUALITY (see my paper: Liang, 2013).
Shouldn’t choosing a nursery be a serious consideration for both parents rather than a quick decision made by a brain addled, third-trimester mum? Hopefully my tips will help.
Liang, H., Pickles, A., Wood, N. & Simonoff, E., (2012) Early Adolescent Emotional and Behavioural Outcomes of Non-parental Preschool Childcare. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology , 47, 399-407.
(Apologies to subscribers who have seen this post before, I posted it by mistake in December when I only meant to schedule it ….doh!)
New year’s is a time for reflection on the past and the future. My new year’s resolution this time last year was to get around to putting down my thoughts on motherhood and spreading some of the fascinating stuff that I experience and learn about in my unique job. I thought maybe I would run out of things to write about, but on the contrary great research is coming out all the time and it’s more a lack of time to tell you about it that is a hindrance, what with work (albeit part-time) and the children keeping me busy!
Like Professor Lumby who came to tell my department about her research into childhood depression and how predictive factors were present at age 3 years (yes, I did not miss a “1” in front of the “3”, I do actually mean 3 years), like the whole raft of work that Professor Plomin (who works in the same building as me and with whom I co-authored a paper a while back) has done on intelligence, the current thinking behind the “explosion” in numbers of autistic children – from the mouth of Professor Michael Rutter (credited as being the founding father of Child Psychiatry and still to be found knocking around my department despite being an octogenarian), and the tranche of work of particular interest to me, the feminist, by my colleague at Imperial College Dr Ramanchandri on the important role of Fathers. All this as well as the tales and funny things that happen with or come out of the mouths of my babes!
If you found me over the last year, I’m so grateful for your visits. If you like what you read, please tell others about it as I really hope to be able to continue! You can also help by “Liking” and/or following my site and/or my Facebook page at Shrinkgrowskids.
Here are some of the most widely read posts from the last year. Hope you will carry on visiting in 2015!
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…
Shrinkgrowskids has reached it’s half year anniversary and 6000 hits! So a great big:
To all the readers and subscribers as I wouldn’t have the confidence to carry on without you!
If you read my site regularly, please follow by email – I am aiming for 100 followers at 1 year ( I am at 80 at present so your subscription can get me there soon!).
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Please tell your friends about my site!
Here is what people have been saying about Shrinkgrowskids:
“I must say I am an avid reader of your blog. I read it religiously each week, it’s a highlight of my Fridays. So thanks very much and congratulations on its success”
“This article so accurately reflects my life now and it’s such a comfort that other women actually admit to feeling this way.”
“This is such a wonderful piece of writing…. It may be the hormones but it really moved me”
“This is the most articulate, intelligent summary of the issues presenting to parents in the UK today that I have read in two and half years of being a parent (and reading more than my fair share of such pieces).”
“Well this started some interesting playground conversations today!!”
“I love your blog….so much sense!!”
“This helped me understand ADHD better than I have in the last ten years of working with kids!”
Shrinkgrowskids has been read in over 75 countries from Russia to Guatemala, Jamaica to New Zealand. It’s being read in Israel and Syria, by parents in countries of NATO and the BRICS. Parenting endeavour unites us all!
I will be with Big Sis and Lil Bro over the holidays so may not be regular with posts over the Summer, but will still be posting so please do check in to find out what my rascals and I have been up to. Alternatively subscribe and you won’t miss a thing!
HERE’S WISHING YOU HAPPY SUMMER HOLIDAYS !
Here are some highlights from the last 6 months in case you missed them:
Yes He Can. (Astronauts use Velcro to strap things down. They are mainly men. Sewage workers deal with excrement. They are mainly men.)
Can a man puree vegetables?
Yes He Can. (I have seen many men do this on Masterchef)
Can a man bottle feed expressed milk/ formula?
Yes He Can. (Vets and farmers bottle feed lambs all the time. They are mainly men.)
Can a man sterilise bottles?
Yes He Can. (Chemists and pharmaceutical scientists sterilise their equipment all the time. They are mainly men.)
Can a man do the laundry?
Yes He Can. (Commercial launderers (think army, hotels) are mainly men)
Can a man cook the dinner?
Yes He Can. (Most professional chefs are male – particularly the highly paid ones)
Can a man sing nursery rhymes?
Yes He Can. (Justin, Andy and all those other men on CBeebies)
Can a man take a child to the doctors?
Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)
Can a man drop-off and pick-up at a nursery?
Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)
Can a man wipe a child’s bottom?
Yes He Can. (I hope so at least, as it is easier to wipe some one else’s bottom than your own)
Can a man read the letters that come back from school?
Yes He Can. (Any literate person can do this)
Can a man buy a fancy-dress costume?
Yes He Can. (Many shop buyers and traders are men)
Can a man book a ballet class?
Yes He Can. (Many events organisers are men)
Can a man check a child’s homework?
Yes He Can. (If he has the intellect to be able to do the homework, he is qualified to check it)
Can a man book a dentist appointment?
Yes He Can. (If he can book his own appointments for work/ leisure, he can do this)
Can a man pick up an unwell child from school?
Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)
Can a man iron on name labels on to clothes?
Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)
Can a man sign a permission slip?
Yes He Can. (I presume he can write his own name)
Can a man test a child’s ability to spell?
Yes He Can. (I presume he can spell)
Can a man make an Easter hat?
Yes He Can. (Mister Maker is a man)
Can a man read with a child?
Yes He Can. (Any literate person can do this)
Can a man arrange a playdate?
Yes He Can. (If he can arrange his own leisure activities, no reason he cannot arrange someone else’s)
Can a man interview a nanny/ au pair/ babysitter?
Yes He Can. (Many men interview staff for jobs)
Can a man go to parent’s evening?
Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)
Can a man watch a school play?
Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)
Can a man give a cuddle?
Yes He Can.
There you have it. Confirmation, with observational evidence from a medically qualified doctor, trained in medicine, genetics, psychiatry and psychology. There is no medical, genetic, psychiatric or psychological reason why men cannot do any of the above.
Where men are not doing these things, there are only 2 reasons:
- Men don’t want to.
- Women don’t want them to (they don’t want to nag or fight with their partner/ they want control over parenting and the household).
Men are a highly skilled and under-utilised resource within the home. Their involvement should be encouraged.
It strikes me that if all men and women worked together to enact equality in their own homes, equality in society would follow.