I, like the rest of the country have been left dumbfounded by the cruelty of a terror attack targeting children and their parents. Of course, this is no more tragic than the bombs being dropped on hospitals and schools in Syria or elderly window cleaners being mown down on Westminster bridge, but it is a natural and human tendency to feel more empathy when the people involved are “just like you and your family”. The eight-year old girl that died, could have been Big Sis, the mum’s chatting outside waiting to pick up their children could have been me and my friends. Maybe it’s this that makes me feel it more this time around.
I asked Big Sis and Lil Bro if their teachers had mentioned the recent news at school. They had not. I wondered for a while if I should talk to the children about it. They were blissfully unaware that anything out of the ordinary had happened and I could have left it that way. Why let the world intrude on a “safe and idyllic” childhood living in a fortunate part of London?
Yet I decided not to stay quiet and here’s why:
- Children do not live in a bubble and sooner or later the outside world beyond a loving home and sheltered school will impinge on them. As much as we parents want to shelter our children from hurt; hurt is an inevitable part of life. Children who are shielded from hurt never learn to manage their negative emotions so that when inevitably, they get hurt, they are less well equipped to cope. Better to gently expose children to reality and teach children to manage their emotions.
- Children will become adults sooner than we think and need to have socio-political views of their own. There is talk of extending voting age to include 16 year olds: de facto: children. Whilst the children are young and I have an influence on my children’s opinions, I would like to pass on my ideals of openness, fairness and love so that they are entrenched before the likes of unknown peers and uncensored media get a hold of them. I felt that this terrorist attack was a marker event, so significant that they needed to know about and understand it, to shape their opinions for later life.
But what could I say? No medical degree or child psychiatry training teaches you this. In this, like so many other aspects of parenting, I am like any other parent: a novice. Here’s how I tried my best:
I told them that something terrible had happened in Manchester and we found the BBC Newsround clip together on iPlayer. We watched it together. A good quality children’s news program can convey facts in a way that children will understand and also be counted upon not to shock or overly upset the average child, so this is a good place to start.
I asked the children what they thought about it and I answered their questions.
Big Sis: What is a terrorist?
Me: It’s a person that does things to frighten other people so that the frightened people will do what they tell them to do.
Big Sis: Is it like a bully?
Me: Yes, I suppose so. They frighten people to get their own way or to make other people angry to start a war.
Big Sis: Why would anyone want to start a war?
Me: Well there are already lots of wars going on around the world. We are just lucky that we live in a country that’s safe right now.
Big Sis: Why can’t people just stop fighting?
Me: It’s easier said than done! Why can’t you and your brother stop fighting?
Big Sis [Hmm – recognising this is a tricky]: Well, we should just kill all the terrorists.
Me: It’s more complicated than that. Killing people just upsets more people and often leads to more death. I don’t have all the right answers, but it usually doesn’t involve more death.
Big Sis: What should we do then?
Me: I think we must just help the people that got hurt, remember the people that died and carry on with our lives. We can’t let bullies scare us into giving in or feeling anger and hate, because this is what they would want. Maybe it can help us all feel grateful to be alive and for what we have.
Lil Bro: Will a terrorist come and bomb us?
Me: I hope not, but we live in London so I can’t say for sure. What I can say is that I have lived for over 40 years and haven’t been hurt by a terrorist yet, so the chances are really low. It’s natural to feel a little bit upset and worried, everyone does – even me, but if we let it stop us doing what we enjoy doing then the terrorists have won. So we need to be strong and ignore them.
This was getting rather depressing and I was running out of things to say, so I was really surprised but pleased that out of the mouths of babes can come heart-warming positivity:
Lil Bro: At least they died happy.
Lil Bro: They went to see an Arianna Grande concert and had a good time. The last thing that the people that died felt: was happy.
- Don’t be afraid to tell the truth to children
- Use language children will understand
- Avoid unnecessary graphic and frightening details
- Acknowledge that fear is normal
- Encourage talking about fear rather than suppressing it
- Model a good sense of the risks: don’t get overly worried yourself
- Offer realistic reassurance
- Model a “carry on” attitude
- Continue to spread love not hate
And, if you can, find a glimmer of hope.
If you are lucky like me, your children may find the positive for you.
Sorry for the radio silence, but life has been pretty hectic the last few months to say the least. I have been interviewed by The Times, Country Walking and writing articles for The Telegraph and Daily Mail on-line sites. Crazy. Today a long-held dream has become reality and my little book, which came about from this blog, has hit the bookshops. When I paid my £60 to register this blog domain, little did I imagine that all this would be possible.
This morning after dropping off the children at school, I made a solitary trip to the local bookstore and headed to the parenting section where I have hung out quite a lot in the last few years. My only previous publication was a Chapter in a textbook so specialised that you had to order it on-line, so it was a very strange idea that I could go into a bookshop and see my book on the shelf. I didn’t really believe that I would find it, but there it was….
Thank you so much to all the lovely people that have followed or read my blog. I do hope that now the hard work is done on the book that I will be back on the blog site again! I have missed Big Sis, Lil Bro and Banker, not least because they are transformed into Molly, D and Andrew in the book. Since writing the book, so much has happened and the children are no longer little anymore! I’m really looking forward to sharing the next adventures in parenting with you : Lil Bro is sitting his KS1 SATS and I am forming an excel spreadsheet of secondary schools for Big Sis – where did the time go?
If you have liked my site, please look out for my book: it may be tucked away somewhere next to books on potty training! – (I confess to having spent half an hour rearranging the shelves at my local Waterstones to get that photo above – at least I was decent enough not to sneak it widthways over Giovanna Fletcher).
Thank you again for supporting my blog. I could have not done this without you!
Around this time 2 years ago I ventured into the public library. The library has always seemed to me a calm and comforting place where natural introverts like me can hide without need for social interaction. I have fond memories of public libraries from my childhood.
- My parents did not have much money for books when I was young and so it became a Saturday ritual to take us to the local library. My sisters and I delighted in the weekly routine of 4 books in and 4 books out. The sitting with a pile of books on the library floor to make the book selection was as much fun as the devouring at bed time. Decisions were critical of course as it could never be guaranteed that a book cast away could ever be found again in the bowels of the public library system. I conjured up images of the child that never returned the book that I had set aside for next week. I remember tittering as my precocious sister stole into the forbidden adult library to feed on the minds of Austen, Bronte and yes, Mills & Boon.
- As I grew older, the library routine became an independent journey. There was a Mobile Library that parked on the next road from my house. Come rain or shine, the humble little van would open it’s doors to a wonderful and shifting collection of books rammed onto wooden shelves that seemed to be hewn from the very carcass of the van. It’s purpose? To open my mind. Here I discovered childhood favourites from Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton to Paula Danziger, Judy Blume (who can forget Ralph?), Robert Cormier and S.E. Hinton. From books I spent a childhood learning and yearning to be British and the teenage years aspiring to be American. 2016 has made both youthful aspirations rather less enticing, but I think the core of what I mean still stands: books shape opinions, identities and lives.
- As an adult, sadly the enjoyable public library routines of old fell away to being buried in book stacks of University Libraries. The “downstairs” of the Institute of Psychiatry (IOP) library was in my day a pleasure. Hidden away, accessed by spiral staircase is a room with more books than space where one had to churn a handle to move whole bookcases in order to squeeze between the shelves to retrieve the required tome. It’s fortunate that it was almost always devoid of people, because the one occasion where the bookcase started to move while I was trapped in between stacks brought back Star Wars style nightmares of being crushed by advancing walls. It always impressed me that amongst those books were the first clumsy descriptions of Down’s Syndrome, Schizophrenia and Autism. The pleasantly eerie bolt-hole had an atmosphere that’s hard to recreate. Sadly, it’s all gone now, and the IOP library – like most things – has “gone digital” and now resembles an Apple Store.
A return to the public library was heralded by having children of my own. Although not quite up to the organisation of weekly visits, the public library is a space that my children know and enjoy. Helped by lack of overdue fees on children’s books and Drop-Back boxes for books, sporadic and opportunistic visits to the library are possible. My children, like me before them enjoy the rummage and many of their favourite picture books were bent and battered copies of random and obscure books (for instance one about a girl called Tina and an alligator that trips on soap while doing the Tango and falls down the toilet) bought for 20p from the Library rejects sell-off bins. While the children explored and tried to hack into the library computers, I would wander to the parenting section.
During this particular library visit 2 years ago though, I wasn’t exploring the parenting shelves, I was asking the man behind the desk for the little red book – “The Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2014“. The Writers and Artist’s Yearbook is an agency listing for budding writers and artists.
I had decided to take the plunge. I scoured the book for agencies interested in non-fiction and parenting. I took down the emails. I went home and I sent out my story.
I had been here 2 years earlier for the same reason. I had written the beginnings of a manuscript about my childhood and it’s influence on my parenting. I had pored through the agency listings and sent off my manuscript to 5 agencies. I was rejected by all of them, although one had nice things to say. It wasn’t easy to think about going through this process of rejection again, but since the first round of submission, I had started the blog and was warmed by the people that had responded to my writing. Friends and acquaintances would stop me and say “I liked your last blog” or “my wife reads your blog” which was a real encouragement. Also, as I had nothing better to do at the time (as high flying work-places dislike women with young children), there was nothing to lose. Sometimes it takes having no easy option available to force us to take a risk.
And so it came that a lovely young mother connected with my story and agreed to become my agent, followed a year later by another lovely mother offering to be my publisher.
And that’s how I got to meet proper writers: Russell Brand, Joe Wicks, Jack Monroe, Leah Garwood-Gowers, Daisy Kristiansen, Laura James and Eleanor Morgan and pitch with them to media and retailers our books that will be released by Bluebird Books (Pan Macmillan) in 2017.
For those that harbour manuscripts (I know at least one-friend) – please send them out – it really does happen! And if you can, pop in to your local library. Without us they have been closing up and down the country and with their closure the door and mind-opening opportunities for many children.
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!