Parenting: Outwit, Outlast, Outplay

As a Mother every so often I get all deep and philosophical and wonder.. What IS Parenting? What does it MEAN to be a mother? What is that sticky thing on my jumper?!

I’ll never know how things stay so constantly sticky (although I’ve learned to accept it), but I think I have figured out what it is to be a parent. The meaning of Motherhood. What I strive to achieve each day of their glorious little lives.

I have come to the realisation that most of my parenting day is trying to find ways of outwitting mini humans. Two little people, one who thinks if he covers his eyes I can’t see him, and the other who thinks farting in the bath is the funniest thing since time began . . yes, I spend my day trying to outwit them.

And what’s worse, is that I feel smug about it when I pull it off. I’m 37 years old! Rian is almost FOUR! I think things like ‘Bahahahahahahaha HA you lose!’ when I successfully manage to distract one from something I didn’t want him to do. Or when I manage to eat a biscuit in the same building as them without them noticing. I’m surprised nobody has taken either of them off to some lab somewhere for extensive research into their supersonic hearing capabilites – these two can hear a wrapper opening from 100 paces. Not only that, but their supersonic travel capabilities upon hearing said wrapper, appearing at your side at alarming speed DEMANDING to know what is it? What’s in your mouth? What’s in your hand?  ‘What you have, Mama?’

Nothing sweetheart it’s nothing, just a bit of…. broccoli! For ages I thought I deserved the honour of becoming Outwitting Champ of the World when I told Rian that all of the things I didn’t want him eating were spicy, because he doesn’t like spicy food. So for a while it was so liberating – I could eat whatever I wanted and look at him regretfully and tell him it was spicy. No questions asked – he looked at me through squinted eyes now and then, as if suspicious that his loving trusting mother would lie to him, but he moved on and went about his daily business making things generally sticky around the house. However, sometime over the last couple of months, something has changed. I don’t know where he’s getting his information from, maybe we have a mole living in our midst, but now he has started to question me. ‘Oh no no Rian you wouldn’t like this horrible Jaffa Cake. It’s very very spicy’. Squinty eyes. ‘It’s spicy eh? LET ME TRY SOME AND SEE MAMA’. Game over.

The problem is, I’ve now met my best match, twice. It’s basically me, trying to outwit smaller versions of me! They’ve inherited all my best moves, I’ve passed on all my shiniest pearls of wisdom. They know what I’m up to, sometimes before I even know myself! Arguing with Rian one day in some restaurant about something I can’t remember now, but 5 full minutes into intense negotiations with him and I suddenly couldn’t help laughing as it dawned on me, I’m negotiating with a mini male version of myself. What hope have I got?!

So the Outwit, Outlast war rages on. Like any good stealth combat type soldier I will always try and stay one step ahead, always stay focused, don’t let them see my weaknesses! Always remembering though, you win some, you lose some. And I have to admit, on the days I lose, at least I can look myself in the eye and say to myself, I taught them well.

michal-parzuchowski-227671-unsplash

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

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Let’s Talk About Emotions

{Also published on The M Word }

I’ll be clear from the start: Most of the time, I’ve NO IDEA how to handle this situation.

But now that we’ve established our three-year-olds are essentially walking bundles of emotional confusion, what can we do to help them – and ourselves – get through it? Well, here’s what I’ve discovered on my quest to find out.

Last summer, when Rian was two and that all important half, I started seeing that he was randomly slapping other kids, for no apparent reason other than, ‘they’re toddlers, sometimes they just do that’, as people explained when I asked about it, and what I could do about it. It was quite stressful, if he did it to kids we knew, or kids we didn’t know, all I could do was apologise and try and make it clear to Rian in that moment that we do not slap people..however, during some research into it and how to handle it properly, I came across a recommendation for a book called The Colour Monster. Sold.

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Sniffy & The Colour Monster

The Colour Monster by Anna Llenas is a book about identifying emotions for children.

Any research I did about the slapping incidents, or major meltdowns in general which were starting to become more frequent, all told me what we already know – they don’t call them the Terrible Twos or Threenagers etc for nothing. Toddlers don’t know what the emotions they’re feeling are, or how to manage them.

To be fair, and perfectly honest, a lot of the time I find it hard to control MY emotions (specifically, impatience and temper), so how can I expect a two or three year old to be able to do it?

My research also explained how emotional intelligence is something that ideally should be taught from a very young age so that we can learn to control and understand how we feel in lots of situations, not just as kids, but as adults too. So I figured it was worth a shot.

When the book arrived, we started reading it for our bedtime stories. It’s a quick book, a line or two per page with really lovely illustrations. It takes you through five emotions: Happiness, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Calm. It assigns a colour to each emotion and explains that sometimes you can feel lots of things at once, when all your ‘colours’ feel all mixed up.

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After a few reads, Rian knew all the words. The slapping continued every now and then, and all I could really do was intervene each time and firmly explain why we don’t slap other people. Of course it was still stressful and I went through all the usual worry of, am I doing this wrong?

Tantrums are par for the course and so they continued, and still happen – in fact we just had one about an hour ago (side note, he’ll be four soon enough… they stop at four, right??!!). But what started to change was that he was identifying how he felt… and I’m no expert, but I think this is the important bit.

For example, just the other night, Alex merely sat on my lap to read a book, so naturally by his three-year-old logic, this was deemed as a valid reason for Rian to have a big meltdown. At the height of a tantrum, (on the days I manage to keep myself calm too – let’s be completely honest; it’s not easy), I just weather the storm and wait for it to pass. Once it does, I ask does he want to cuddle for a minute. Sometimes he does, and other times, its as if nothing had ever happened… like a switch flicking from complete chaos to complete calm..!

But on the days where he takes up my offer of a cuddle, I talk to him about it. This is where The Colour Monster comes into it and where I’ve found it an amazing help.

I started noticing that he’d tell me he was feeling like ‘The Red Colour Monster’ when he was angry. Another day he came over to me, and out of nowhere just asked for a cuddle because he felt ‘like the Blue Colour Monster’. Another time he asked me if I was happy ‘like the Yellow Colour Monster?’… and so I knew that he was at least learning to identify each emotion with a label, to recognise each one and differentiate between them.

Now I’m no expert, maybe this would have happened anyway as he got over each stage of development, I don’t know. But the book most certainly helped us talk about it in a way he could easily understand and picture in his mind. So back to the other night when he had a tantrum over Alex sitting on my lap, without me even asking him he walked over, got the book, opened it on the Red page and told me ‘This is how I feel Mama!’

Thankfully, the slapping phase is over, can’t say I’m looking forward too much to Alex getting to this stage, with any luck he’ll skip it altogether… yeah I won’t hold my breath! But if you’re reading this and are nodding along knowingly, in the same boat, then I can’t recommend this book enough. There’s a similar one too by Dr Seuss called My Many Coloured Days – we came across this one a while after The Colour Monster, and I really liked it too but we had already gotten to know The Colour Monster so I just stuck with that one.

I don’t think there’s a ‘too early’ stage, Rian was two and a half when I bought it – if they’re sitting long enough to look at books for any length of time, then give it a go. Go forth and unravel that little bundle of confusion!

Anyway, don’t forget, the very second you happen to figure out one confusing phase, they’ll leave you behind,  move on to the next one and you can start all over again…

The Guilt Factor

Each morning, Monday to Friday, for the last 10 minutes of my commute to work just before I walk into the office building, I try and FaceTime the boys for a chat, especially on mornings where they are asleep when I’m leaving the house and I haven’t seen them yet. Alex usually blows me kisses and babbles very important things at me. Rian, more often than not doesn’t want to talk. This morning though, when I was having chats with Alex, in the background he said: ‘ I don’t want to talk to Mama on the phone, I want to talk to her here!’.

For a moment I considered turning around and going straight back home again, giving him a hug and telling him I’ll never leave him. But I can’t, because I have to go to work – and I want to go to work too – and at the end of the day, the bills need to get paid. So I felt the usual pang of guilt that I usually feel a few times a day, except a bit worse than usual because he had said that, and finished my gurgley chat with Alex and headed towards my desk, feeling pretty crap about myself as a mother.

If I had the freedom to choose, I don’t think I would choose to be a full time stay at home mother, I just know it wouldn’t be for me. Part time would be my ideal option, because at same time, I want to be with them all the time too. It’s that very tricky, ever elusive, perfect balance.

Guilt is something I became familiar with very early on, in fact, since the start of my first pregnancy. We are IVF parents, very very lucky ones at that, our treatment worked. So it was a bit of a surprise to me that I didn’t particularly enjoy being pregnant – extremely grateful yes, of course, but pregnancy for me was months of nausea, vomiting, swollen feet, extreme heartburn… ok my hair got a bit thicker and softer and my skin looked nice and almost glowy (possibly from the hot flushes!) for a while but even that catches up with you after the baby is born and your hair falls out and you’re left with these mad sticky outy bits all over your head while it grows back to normal again…!! Aaand breathe…! So no, if I’m honest, I didn’t enjoy being pregnant for the most part. Appreciative, yes, and lots of it I did love and cherish – the feeling of Bump moving around or kicking, but not really any of the rest of it.

Anyway back to the point… so I didn’t enjoy pregnancy, it was tough. I felt guilty about that because of our IVF and I thought of all the women who would swap places with me in a heartbeat because I used to be that woman too. And of course the moment they’re born you’re guilty all the time, am I doing this right, did I do that wrong?

When I went back to work after Rian’s maternity leave, the guilt was immense. How could I leave him every day, why was I working for a major chunk of my wages to pay someone else to see all of his ‘firsts’? And it only got worse, after I had Alex I thought I would be prepared for how it would feel to go back to work, but in fact it was worse again because what I wasn’t prepared for was Rian being old enough now to ask me, after a year of being home, ‘Mama, where are you going? Why won’t you stay here with me?’

It was very hard. I questioned myself a lot at the return to work last year. Why am I doing this?? Oh yes, then I remembered, I just don’t have the choice.

So why do we do this to ourselves? Is there a way to come to terms with this guilt or are we just destined to never be happy whatever the situation is – whether we give up work and stay at home, or if we choose not to stay at home?

I thought a lot last year about whether I wanted to give up work, assuming we could afford it and I could stay at home. It would be tight, but I think if we cut back enough we could probably get by on one wage. And is it even fair to assume that it would be me who stays home, what if their Dad wanted to stay home? I admit that thought didn’t even occur to me at the start. But even if I did stay home, I think the guilt would still find me anyway, and make me think about other things – can we afford to save for their college fund? Can we afford to give them all the things we want to?

And the other thought is – really the main reason I don’t want to give up my job – what will I do when they’re older and not as dependent on me? What if I want to go back to work then, when they’re off to school, and I have a five or six year gap on my CV – it’s hard enough going back after maternity leave,  your confidence is shaken a lot, or at least mine was. So a big gap, for me, would be very intimidating. So is it selfish of me to not want to be in that situation, to not want to sacrifice my career? Does that mean I’m a bad mother? And the guilt factor starts again.

Being a working mother, it sneaks up on you on a regular basis. When a work commitment clashes with an event at their creche or playschool, and we’re faced with missing it. Guilt. At Rian’s playschool Sport’s Day back in June, I took the day off work. Within the first ten minutes, three other mothers had mentioned to me that they hadn’t realised that our childminder, who they see every day dropping off and collecting Rian, wasn’t in fact his mother. Ouch.

Recently, our childcare situation  changed, and I was forced again to consider all of these points. I really struggle to come to some sense of peace with the fact that I’m gone all day from them. Today was their first day in a creche – Alex in particular has never been minded outside his own home until today – and I wasn’t there to drop them off. Guilty. They’re fine of course – the staff are amazing and sent me little updates and photos of them happily playing away, but my guilty mind goes into overdrive and I wonder what will they think of these decisions I’m making now when they’re all grown up? Will they think I’m selfish? Will they resent the fact that I ‘chose’ to leave them with someone other than me while I ‘chose’ not to give up my career? Ultimately, I suppose I’m thinking – how will they judge me? Am I ruining their childhood?!

I don’t know how to make the guilt go away, but I have decided to make some rules for myself.

  • I am not a bad mother. I am doing my best, along with everyone else. Yes, I go to work for myself because I enjoy it, but also of course so that I can give them everything I possibly can not just now but later in life too. I’m doing my best, and I have to tell myself that my best IS good enough.
  • Don’t focus on the negatives – instead I will focus on the times I am there. Their little faces when they see me coming through the door each evening, and the fun we can have all weekend. It makes me more grateful and appreciative of those times.
  • Most importantly of all: I make it my mission that they know they are loved. I know they know. And once they know that, I know I’m not failing completely.

Whatever way I look at it, mother guilt is here to stay, no matter what type of mother you are. There’s no point in questioning why we beat ourselves up over it, but in the end all I can suggest is that we get off our own backs, get off our own cases, and make the most of whatever situation we’re in. Guilt is not a choice, but how we deal with it certainly is.

Kids Menus… WHY?

{Also published on The M Word }

Right. Ask anyone who knows me, I’m not one for giving out about anything really. I’m actually renowned for not giving out, ever. They’ll probably put it on my gravestone – Here Lies Jen (The Legend); She Never Gave Out Once.

Another trait I am partial to now and then, is sarcasm.

So yes, I’m about to start giving out about something that has irritated me since they day Rian was old enough to eat actual food in any establishment that sells food. Kids Menus.

WHAT is the STORY with children’s menus?! In a time where childhood obesity levels are at a crisis point, why are kids only ever given the choice of – Yes you’ve already guessed it – chicken goujons, burgers, fish goujons (sorry how do you spell Goujon? Gougon? Neither look right and both give me a red line typo alert….ok I just googled it and it’s goujon. Right-click, Add To Dictionary.)

While Googling how to spell Goujon, I saw some lovely looking ones appear in the search which obviously now makes me want some, cos to be fair to them they are very nice, but also it provided me with the nutritional value of what you’re eating in a 100g serving of them. That’s about 6 pieces it says. Anyway, it says that it’s 27% of recommended fat intake, 31% of daily salt intake (sodium) – and then there’s the accompanying chips which google tells me, a medium serving provides another 26% of the recommended fat intake –  so just this meal alone and your kid is over half the daily recommended levels. I’m no nutritionist but I imagine I’m not even accounting for half of the other bad stuff involved – sugars, carbohydrates, etc. I only found out that much specifically because I couldn’t remember how to spell goujon.

SO anyway, here’s a little story of what usually happens to set off this regular irritation. To celebrate a family birthday a few months back, we booked ourselves for a nice meal in a very nice local Italian restaurant. It’s the sort of place where families are welcome, yet you would still want to be controlling the noise level of your mini humans if you get me. So I had the boys with me, at the time Alex was just gone one and Rian was just gone three. Alex will happily eat whatever he’s given and Rian is old enough now to choose what he wants himself. They produce the kids menu and here we go again, it’s the same old same old. Rian sees someone at the next table with a pizza so naturally he wants one too.

Meanwhile over on the adult menu I see their roast of the day is Beef. Bingo. It’s my turn to order. ‘Hi, the three year old wants a pizza with everything on it but actually if you bring the smallest size you have, or even half the smallest size, with peppers, ham and a tiny amount of cheese, with LITERALLY five chips please, that would be great. Now I mean literally FIVE CHIPS please.’ ‘No problem, Ma’am, five chips.’ He seems to have received the message, because from experience of highlighting my need of only five chips, never ONCE has that been the result. ‘For the one year old, I see there is roast beef today, can I just get a slice or two of that with– ‘ ‘I’m sorry, Ma’am, we can only serve full size portions of the main meals’. ‘………?!…………….Ok… give me a full size one then and I’ll just give him some of mine’.

Now firstly, why they cannot just slice a couple of slices off  the roast and cut it into smaller pieces is beyond me. Surely it is less effort anyway than frying up more chicken goujons? Secondly, when the dinners are brought to the table, low and behold Rian is delivered of a pizza twice the size of his head, smothered in cheese and oil, with considerably more than five chips. He must have misheard me and thought I ordered five hundred and five. Rian is delighted with life and hoovers them all before I can try and distract him and remove half of them, and Alex happily munches away on my beef and veg, because there was nothing at all suitable for him on his own menu, oblivious to my irritation. Why do I never get what I actually ask for?

I just do not understand why kids menus can’t simply be a smaller portion size of the adult menus. Apart from health related reasons, wouldn’t it be more cost effective? And if you still wanted to give them the odd treat, they could still have the chips and burger from the adult menu anyway?

I suggest we get rid of Kids Menus and just have Menus. Order what you like but at least give parents and kids a chance at healthier options being seen as the normal option for kids. Kids don’t know they’re not supposed to like vegetables until we more or less tell them this by providing them with these kids menus. We are actually teaching them that they shouldn’t like these foods by separating their choices into goujons and chips and burgers so they think that’s all they should be eating. It’s just so bizarre to me.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

I’m not a health fanatic, I am constantly in a state of trying to lose about 5 stone myself, but it’s because I have spent years losing and gaining back weight and really learning about what I’m putting into my own body that I feel even more strongly about what we teach our kids from a very early age. I want them to understand their choices, not to simply say don’t eat this or do eat that, just know what it is. If you want a treat, that’s fine, everything in moderation as long as your overall efforts are the right ones.

I don’t want to come across as a killjoy either, I think my kids eat a good standard of wholesome food, at least we try our best anyway. We don’t use jars or processed foods as much as possible, but of course every so often they have ‘treat’ food as well. I absolutely do not want to appear as if I’m judging anyone here, but I just find it very irritating and extremely surprising that there simply isn’t a choice for kids. Its our responsibility to do our best for them, and to teach them to make the best choices for themselves in the future, but with no options at all, what hope have we got?

 

 

 

 

The Making of Memories

{Featured on MummyPages.ie}

Someone asked me recently what my earliest memory was…the very first thing I ever remember happening. It is a memory from when I was around 3 years old, and I only know I was that age because I remember being in the kitchen of the house we lived in at the time, which we moved from when I was 4 . There were blue walls I think, and I was sitting at the table eating breakfast. The sun was coming in through the window and I can see my Mam at the kitchen sink, I remember she was wearing a long skirt and she’s singing a song. I want to say it’s ‘You Are My Sunshine’, but honestly I’m not sure if it was that, or if I just think it was because that’s what I sing to my two boys. Maybe that’s why I started singing it to them… that bit has got mixed up in my mind but anyway, that’s the memory.

And now that Rian is almost three, it dawned on me that any of these days might turn into his earliest first memory that will stick with him. So I suppose it’s kind of like when you know there’s a speed check up ahead, and you want to be on your best behaviour in case you get caught. What if his memory decides to pick the day I’m cross with him, or the very moment I crack under the pressure, lose my patience, and shout?! So I’m trying extra hard to keep it calm and channel my inner Mary Poppins (although, side note, I adore that film, but I’m not sure why we hold Mary Poppins in such high childcare esteem when you think what she actually did with those kids. Jumped into paintings, entered them into a horse race without even a helmet in sight, floated to the ceiling in some random old man’s house, managed to get them lost in the middle of London on their own chasing after a homeless woman feeding pigeons, dancing on roofs and leaping up and down chimneys…but who am I to judge!)

So it’s kind of a big responsibility. Not just the first memory, but all the core memories. We’re responsible for the childhood of two people…that’s a serious responsibility. You don’t really think of these things on a day to day basis, most of the time it’s just getting dinners cooked and kids washed and hoping we all get a night of uninterrupted sleep and things like that. We make an effort do do things with them, things that involve investing time. Playing games with them, making things with them, involving them in the cooking and baking things, going for walks and all those sorts of activities, nothing unusual there.

As a full-time working mother, or as I prefer to say, an outside-the-home working mother, I’m plagued with constant guilt and always questioning myself about whether I should be leaving them. Missing little day to day things, the things that  inevitably add up to big parts of who they are. It’s not easy, but it’s something I just have to deal with. So I ask myself, how can I make it work? How can I make sure that the memories they have that will stand out won’t be of the days when I’m at work?

All I can come up with is to make sure that the time we do have together is full of fun and happy things. Of course there’ll be the day to day things, but I want them to grow up and remember things like us all baking something together. Or reading books together, or painting pictures. Going for walks to hunt for the Gruffalo (in our house, this seems to be the most fun an almost three year old can have!) The more I think about it, the more I realise that I’m no different in wanting these things just because I leave the house to go to work. Does every mother have the same guilt regardless of whether they work outside or if they stay at home and work there every day? Probably. We all just want those core memories to light up yellow (ever since I saw Inside Out this is how I picture it!), and stay stored in a cosy little corner of their minds and hearts forever.

And some days, I know it’s working. Recently my heart almost exploded when I saw Rian playing with ‘Sniffy’, his favourite can’t-sleep-without-him soft toy. Sniffy got flung to the other side of the room, presumably trying to fly, but he landed kind of awkwardly. Rian went over, picked him up and asked, ‘You ok Sniffy?’ Then tucked him into his neck as if Sniffy was a tiny baby, stood there and sang to him ‘You Are My Sunshine’….

I get it wrong a lot of the time, I know I do. But when these little moments appear that show me that sometimes I’m also getting it right, at least getting it the way I’ve chosen, well, there’s just nothing better. Maybe it is possible to work away from the home and not see them all day every day, and still create those all important core pieces of comfort, happiness, security, home…love.

 

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