Tuesday 27 January 2015

How to LET IT GO as a parent...

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© 2015 www.lisamaltby.com

When I reached the final trimester of my first pregnancy (cue fireworks and fanfare), I was well prepared for the impending arrival of a miniature human - or so I thought. Birth plan written up? Check. Hospital bag packed? Check. They told me all the things I needed to prepare for being a parent: the lists of nursery goods and baby clothes. Are you all set? People would ask, as though anyone can be truly prepared for their world getting turned upside down. Yep, all set.

Of course I had no idea how having a child would make me feel and in some respects nothing can ever prepare you for that. When you plan for a baby the emphasis is always on the physical, but no matter how pretty your nursery curtains are, you will not be taking note of the cute elephant pattern on them when you're rocking a screaming baby to sleep at three o'clock in the morning. It's impossible to describe to anyone how somebody so small can make you so incredibly high on life one minute and so ridiculously teary the next. You will most likely wish you'd had something in place to deal with those inevitable, temporary moments of despair. Well, here are the three words that have helped me to really prepare for being a parent. Let. It. Go.

No, don't sing the Frozen soundtrack (though, hey, if it helps go for it). People will tell you what to expect when you're expecting, which is all good and well, but what worked for someone else may not work for you. There is no one size fits all, no rule book to parenting. If you learn to let go of your ideals then you will have more grace to cope if your child doesn't want to follow your minute by minute routine or vomits all over your expensive jacket just before a meeting. Here are some things that have helped in the quest to let it go...

Learn to welcome interruptions.
This isn't easy, especially if, like me, you prefer to focus on just one thing at a time. Children, however, do not. They prefer to multitask, and no, not in the ways that are helpful or productive. They like to do things like poop and puke and eat all at the same time, usually when you were planning on being somewhere in five minutes. They like to do things like eat chocolate spread on toast whilst jumping off your new cream sofa. I used to feel constantly frustrated until I saw it as a way of being creative with my day. Be spontaneous, be care-free. And if your routine gets royally screwed? Let it go.

Learn to receive help.
If you need someone to look after your child while you take a nap, go out for a meal or go bang your head against a wall, ASK. Don't play the martyr. I know your child is the most precious thing in the world to you but that doesn't mean you can't leave him or her in the hands of other trusted people. Get a network of people lined up who can be your support buddies, willing to take a load of washing or bring you a bottle of gin. Learn to be at ease about asking for help. And if they say no today? Ask again tomorrow. And if they don't follow your routine to the dot? Let it go.

Throw out the rule books.
When you have a kid you are immediately subject to a million different parenting methods: co-sleeping vs crying-it-out, bottle vs breast, naughty corner vs reasoning, strict vs laid back... You get the gist. You can get so uptight about trying to do things the 'right' way that you end up missing the point entirely. There's no one size fits all. Do the things that work best for your family and be confident in your own decisions. And the next time someone tries to force a rule book into your hand? Let it go.

Care less what people think of you.
If, like me, you've always been a people-pleaser, parenting will be more of a challenge than it needs to be. You'll be pulled in all directions, trying to make sure you and your child fit in with others expectations of you. Hey, if you want to let your child wear his spiderman outfit to your best friend's wedding then go for it. Do the things that are important to you. You will feel a lot lighter without the voice of everyone else running round your head. Take it easy on yourself. And if your great Aunt Mildred disapproves of your child's choice of wedding attire? Let it go.

Learn to enjoy problem solving.
As a parent you will be faced with a hundred and one tasks, any one of which could go horribly wrong at any given moment. Instead of walking on a tight rope, learn to enjoy the inevitability of problem solving instead. Have fun inventing ways to entertain your children (or inventing ways to get out of it!). Find creative ways of making sure your children eat vegetables or tidy their rooms. And most importantly, allow your children to make their own mistakes and problem solve for themselves. And if they ruin their best shoes jumping in muddy puddles? Let it go.

When your child is all grown up they're not going to remember what time they napped or fed, just the things that made them happy. They're not going to remember whether you followed the parenting rule books, just whether you were thoughtful. They're not going to remember how tidy your house was, just whether you had fun in it. They're not going to worry whether you did your hair today, just whether you gave them time. So let it go. Let it go. 

And I bet you'll have that song in your head all day now. 

Thursday 22 January 2015

Porn stars and page 3: what a generation of fathers has taught its children

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What they don't see won't harm them, we say as we quickly switch the channel to prevent our children from sex and violence. We rate our films in appropriate age categories, deeming some content too severe or explicit for their little eyes. We create different rules for ourselves because we're mature enough to act appropriately after watching porn or horror, exempt from our heads being screwed up.

In 1970 the Sun newspaper started publishing pictures of topless models on their pages. Most women felt uncomfortable about it, some men too, but as long as you didn't buy the paper, or pause at page three, you weren't endorsing the belief that women were mere objects to be ogled at. Live and let live, many would say, if men wanted to look at that stuff they weren't harming anyone, right? 

Since then our exposure to sexualisation of women has gone up a notch; naked ladies are available online, the porn industry is a multi-million pound business, sex shows and strip clubs are the norm for holidaymakers. But they're still not harming anyone, right? If they want to go to Amsterdam and see a lady do funny things with a banana that's up to them, isn't it?

The problem with all this stuff is that there is a shift from merely appreciating a woman's beauty to sexualising it. There is, of course, nothing wrong with finding a woman attractive, but when you stick her naked body on a national newspaper she becomes nothing else. She is an object to be admired, to be aroused by – she is there for men's gratification, and men's gratification alone. What this public display of sexuality has done over the last few decades is create a culture where it is acceptable for a man to wolf whistle at a lady as she walks by because he feels he has a right not only to judge her body but to bring public attention to it. We live in a culture where it is okay to make jokes about women being less intelligent than men, or pay them less, because they are not known for their brains, just their bodies (and how hard is it to stand there and look pretty?). Men who follow this belief system tell women to take it as a compliment, until it comes to another man treating his daughter as a sex object, and then it's a different story.

We can't have different standards for ourselves and for our children. We can't ogle at a page three model one day and tell our daughters to cover up the next. We can't condone the sexualisation of women and then expect our heterosexual sons to enter into relationships without an expectation of sexual gratification. What page three and the likes have done is to allow this attitude to seep into our culture so that it is the norm to be allowed to look at women as objects. 

I, for one, want to raise sons who give women more credit than just having a pretty face. I want them to appreciate that women have a voice, that they are there to be partnered with, not simply admired for their beauty. I want you to raise your daughters to know that they can have ambition, that they don't have to fit into the gender stereotypes we've created. I want you to tell them they are more than the skin they are in so that they do not choose partners who disrespect them, belittle or abuse them. I want the next generation to know that our differences are to be celebrated, but that it doesn't mean we are not equals. 

So the next time you think it's a good thing to ogle at a bare chested stranger in a magazine, or that going to strip clubs is 'a bit of a laugh', just think about how you would justify your actions to a five year old boy or girl. Sure, you don't have to – you would no doubt think it inappropriate to do so, but think about what your actions say about your attitudes, which are being passed down to the next generation. If you think women are there to be looked at please don't think your children won't pick up on you looking a lady up and down in the queue at Tesco. Don't think if you treat your wife as a trophy, that your daughters will have great ambition, or that they won't struggle with self esteem. Your belief systems cannot be hidden, they don't just apply as you privately read the paper, they are reflected in your everyday lives. Let's hope we can raise the next generation to do a better job than we have. 

Wednesday 21 January 2015

Why all mothers are liars

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© 2015 www.lisamaltby.com

I read an interesting post the other day from the perspective of a woman who was tired of hearing negative comments about motherhood while she was pregnant. She wrote in defiance against the doom and gloom bestowed upon expectant ladies, expressing how her experience of motherhood was actually extremely positive. I resonated, in part, with her words. I remember the countless times I would be told to "enjoy my peace and quiet while it lasted" and the looks of amusement as I told them I'd had a lie-in at the weekend. "You won't be getting any more of those!" They would say. It got to the point where I couldn't say anything without my words having connotations about motherhood. Facebook statuses about how I hated the rain led to comments about how I'd soon be at the park in all weathers, and saying I was nipping to the shops led to remarks about how I'd never be able to 'nip' anywhere again. Ever.

Then there were those from the other side of the camp who told me how amazing my life would be. They told me to 'enjoy every minute' and how I would 'love' being a mum. Although initially encouraging, all this talk left me feeling uneasy. Either motherhood is the best thing or the worst thing In life. Well, which is it?

I remember the day I became a mother and how amazing this little person was. I remember feeling incredibly lucky to have this chance, to be a mother. I wondered how anyone could ever dare talk someone out of having such a wonderful gift. I remember thinking that all those mothers had been lying to me when they moaned about being a parent. I remember the challenges and the joys of the months that followed. I remember the sleepless nights, the seemingly endless crying. I remember thinking that all those mothers had been lying when they said that they enjoyed every minute. I realised how parenting was both the best and the worst thing I'd ever done.

The problem with telling new mothers what it will be like for them when they enter into the world of parenting is that you are giving them completely false expectations, whether good or bad. Sure, you can say how much you love being awoken at 4am to cuddle your baby but that does not mean another mother won't feel like a bus has hit her in the early hours. You can say how much you hate the relentless feeding but that doesn't mean another woman won't find it a completely bonding experience. Since becoming a mother it's made me extremely careful about how I speak to expectant mothers or to those who do not have children. It's great to share honest experiences, as long as you're not telling someone how it will be for them because essentially you're feeding them lies.

In my experience of parenting I have experienced the good, the bad, and the downright ugly (especially when I look in the mirror after 3 hours sleep). I still have nights out, albeit rather less frequent. I still have the occasional lie-in if my husband is feeling generous. I am more fulfilled. I still paint my nails. But alongside those things I have struggled with my identity, retaining a work-life balance and keeping sane. I have been overwhelmed with the weight of the responsibility and the capacity my heart has for love. I'm tired. Really tired. But I'm happy. Really happy.

Those things may or may not be true for you if and when you become a parent. Your experience of parenting will be entirely different to me. In fact, parenting a baby for the second time is extremely different again. I used to think I was hard done by the first time around, that I had a difficult baby which led to my misery. I couldn't change his crying and I couldn't make him into someone he wasn't. I would look at all the other mums with their seemingly placid babies and think, "my baby would never do that," and I've noticed that phrase a lot in new mums since, comparing their babies to others and feeling like maybe they got a raw deal when God dished out baby temperament. Whether that's true or not it's not going to help you deal with the baby you got given either. 

I can't tell you how parenting is going to be for you but I can tell you what will give you more of a chance of being a happy parent. It's accepting your current situation and being realistic about what you can and can't achieve. It's seeing the good in the chaos and knowing that it won't last forever. It's giving yourself a pat on the back that you made it through another day. It's being less than perfect and being okay with that. It's being honest that you need help. It's being in the moment – not distracted by tasks and cell phones – but getting high on the feel of your baby's skin against your face. It's not comparing yourself to other mothers and thinking you should be the same. You are unique, no one else will parent how you do and that's all part of the journey. 

So I would tell you that you're going to find parenting a blast, but the truth is, I don't know. What I do know is it has the potential to make you the happiest or the saddest you've ever been. I hope it's the former, but hope is a shallow word where happiness is concerned, as though we can leave deep joy down to the hands of fate. Become a cultivator of contentment. See the wonder in the ordinary. And cut yourself some slack for those down days too. But promise me one thing the next time a childless lady tells you she had a lie-in at the weekend. Smile and nod and keep your trap shut. 

Saturday 17 January 2015

Dinner for two? Exchanging romantic dinners for cold fish fingers

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I sat down at the dinner table with my husband last night after both children were finally sleeping. I say dinner table, but that's a glorified description of a table that is mostly used for unopened post, half broken crayons and little cups with leftover breakfast juice. A dinner table implies that we have dinner, complete with place mats and heated plates, perhaps a candle to illuminate our home cooked masterpieces – a far cry from the reality of last night's leftover takeaway dish, served with now slightly soft prawn crackers. Still, it's better than the half eaten fish finger rejects and cold peas which will probably be on tonight's menu instead.

We used to sit down at our once dinner table, now utility table, and discuss how our days had been. "How are you doing?" My husband would ask, which would provoke a series of tales of how I had to deal with an interesting client at work or how I was thinking of taking up salsa. Last night's dinner conversation went like this:

How are you doing?
How about you?

That was it. That was all we could muster as I gobbled up my sweet and sour chicken and rested my elbow in some half dried play dough. Tired. We're always tired. We're so tired it's now become boring. We're boring each other with our exhaustion.

There comes a point in your relationship when you just seem to coexist. You're no longer investing in quality time, just surviving one day after another. I used to mock couples out for dinner who would sit in silence without an ounce of conversation. How could you ever let that happen? I would think. Now it seems more of a reality than ever before. It's easy to see how years of family life can wear people down, leaving decades of unused place mats and a trail of broken marriages. But it doesn't have to be that way. Okay, so no amount of caffeine is going to restore our zest for relationships on three hours sleep but if we don't start when we're at our lowest then we're headed for disaster. There has to be a way to invest in relationships when we can't even find the energy to speak.

And so I'll tell you what I think it takes...

Instead of affectionately brushing the hair out of my eyes (not that he really ever did that), he is now affectionately wiping the baby sick out of it instead.

Instead of the late nights we spent engrossed in conversation, it's the late nights we tag team settling our children.

It's his brush against my arm as we pass briefly on the stairs.

It's when he overlooks my soft, round belly and he tells me that I'm beautiful.

It's when he hugs my tired bones instead of just walking by.

It's when I thank him for reading bed time stories and making me tea and toast.

It's when I stop my 'urgent' tasks to ask him good questions – not just how he is – but what made him feel good or pissed off today.

It's making choices to be kind instead of reacting out of tiredness, or boredom, or sheer frustration.

It's when we high five that we made it through another day and we'll do it all over again tomorrow because we have each other.

And it will get easier. Before you know it we'll be getting out those placemats again. And maybe we'll learn to relish the crayon marks and the plasticine caked into the wood grain because they make our table more than just a dinner table. It's a place of connection and relationship. It's a place of fun. It's a place of honesty. It's a place where we'll chat and play with our children. And though the crayon marks will fade, I trust that our relationships won't. I hope that amongst the clutter and the unopened post there will always be places set for each of us.

Now excuse me while I serve up some cold fish fingers and peas.

Wednesday 7 January 2015

Motherhood and Mental Health

I'm not going to lie, as the new year starts I'll be glad to see the back of the last. It's not that anything really bad has happened as such, other than a burst appendix, and running out of Nutella on one dark Tuesday morning, but that doesn't mean this year hasn't been tough. I write of course as a mother, but essentially that's just something I have become. Underneath the piles of nappies and the endless games of snakes and ladders I'm the same person I've always been, still full of the same hopes and fears. 

When I made the transition into motherhood I was worried I'd become something I wasn't - that I'd change beyond recognition. I've learnt that such change rarely happens, though onlookers may say otherwise. The truth is that under the extreme pressures of parenting, the intensity of caring for others, the lack of sleep and independence, you become more of yourself than you ever have. There's nothing like the challenge of motherhood to bring out true character, often things you would have preferred to keep hidden away.

For me I've found I am more creative than I've ever been, more empathetic towards the needs of others, more able to laugh in the face of adversity. But along with these things, anxiety, perfectionism and fear have reared their heads too. My insatiable desire for perfection may have left people thinking I had it quite together before I had children. I would try my utmost never to let anyone down, to avoid risk of failure, to remain quiet where I needed to speak. My fear came across as being an amenable person, pandering to what others expected of me or avoiding difficult situations where my anxiety would become apparent. 

When you have children it is impossible to keep these aspects hidden. If you always tried not to offend before you became a parent, your children will have no problems with speaking their mind for you. If you always liked things done in a certain way you can now expect your routine to be shattered, or at least expect to work twice as hard to maintain it. Parenting is the ultimate character workout. 

For me, the good thing about motherhood is that clearly these things needed to be dealt with, I just didn't quite realise it yet. I put a lot of my troubles down to what life had thrown at me, rather than how I chose to see it. The sad thing about motherhood is that women often cope with too much and don't admit that they need help or that they find life hard. In my first year of becoming a parent I was surprised by the number of mothers who secretly admitted they were on Prozak, god forbid they made public that they found parenting difficult. I started writing this blog about my experiences because I often felt I was the only one who struggled as much. Funnily enough I started to get private messages from friends and strangers telling me that they felt the same way. 

As many of you who follow this blog will know, I was daunted at the prospect of having another child after my first experience. During my second pregnancy my problems all came to a head and I felt overwhelmed by depression. Negative feelings during pregnancy are difficult to come to terms with, especially when everyone around expects you to be happy, so I put on a face and generally avoided talking about it. I was diagnosed with post traumatic stress from my first birth and referred for help with a clinical psychologist, who I met with over a period of four months. To be honest I found this diagnosis rather amusing more than anything, of course I don't really have a mental illness, I thought, and so I complied with the sessions almost out of curiosity. It turned out that these appointments not only tackled the issues regarding my previous birth but my whole history of anxiety. I remember sitting in the first session thinking I was having a jolly outing to get a couple of hours out of work, only to leave rather shell shocked. Oh shit. I have a mental illness. 

I still think that sounds a bit dramatic: a mental illness. Really? But let's call a spade a spade, mental illness is not just schizophrenia, mental illness affects one in four people. We accept physical problems all the time but mental ones are harder to understand. We cut ourselves some slack if we have a common cold but not if we're feeling a bit down, as though the cold is just one of those things and the mood is our own fault, even though we can help prevent colds by having a healthier lifestyle. Putting things in place to prevent those down days is equally as important too. But telling people you're just off to see your psychologist is about as easy to confess as treading dog turd into someone's house. Awkward. Mental health still seems to be a slightly difficult thing to talk about.

Now please don't get me wrong, I'm not writing this simply to air my dirty laundry in public or get a little bit of sympathy. Far from it. In fact, I'd rather keep up my somewhat 'together' facade and not make myself so vulnerable to you. The thing is, the stigma surrounding mental health needs to be shattered, especially for mothers who are not only expected to deal with their problems but raise small beings into respectable adult ones while they're at it. There's no option of a sabbatical, no time to have a break down. Life carries on and we are still needed by these beautiful yet demanding creatures. It is essential that we are whole people if not for our own sakes but the wellbeing of our children.

Of course I did have a particularly rough experience when I first became a parent but I would question any mother who has not had an aspect of her mental health challenged throughout her ordeal of childbirth and parenting. That's not to take away any of the joy and fulfilment that comes with parenting too, it's about being real that the ups and downs of life will be more extreme. I've become increasingly aware of the lack of emotional and mental support for new mothers, one that I would argue is as important as the physical. There are mothers that I speak to that are still struggling to come to terms with their birth experiences five or ten years later and there are those that battle with raising children in the midst of depression and other mental illnesses. They are expected just to brush their difficulties under the carpet and move on. It is not fair or realistic to expect new mothers to adapt to such a huge life change so easily.

So this past year has been particularly tough for me, admitting that what I've previously labelled as being a 'bit of a worrier' is actually extreme anxiety that affects every aspect of my life. Admitting that coming home from work most evenings and sobbing for two hours is not normal but, yes, it is okay. Admitting that the deep sadness that I have felt in my gut does not mean I'm a misery to hang out with or that I can't have a laugh. Admitting that mental illness has affected me but that doesn't mean I'm weird or that you have to tip toe around me. Admitting that anti natal depression does not mean that I do not want my baby. Admitting that I do indeed need help, and help it has.

As soon as I gave birth I felt so much lighter, and I do not simply mean that in the physical sense. I felt able to treasure every moment instead of being anxious. Now for the first time in my life I feel able to make mistakes. I am able to be honest without worrying if I will offend people. I am able to say no when I need to. I am able to ask for help when I need it too. I am able to cope with chaos and tears and sleepless nights because of all the bear hugs and giggles and love. I am able to look at my beautiful boys and feel like, wow, how lucky am I? Despite all the pain and scars and exhaustion. I am able to be satisfied with who I am instead of longing to be someone funnier or tidier or more successful.

It's ironic that the very thing that has stirred up the most stress and anxiety has actually been my remedy. I am thankful for my children because they've made me deal with things I would still be trying to avoid. So, although this past year has perhaps been the worst, I wouldn't be without it. Because of it, I am able to be a happier; more content. I am able to be mindful about each day, knowing that my troubles won't last a lifetime. I may always have anxiety, but at least I'm not going to let it stop me doing things in the way that it did before. I now have the keys to deal with it instead of trying to brush it under the carpet or pretend I am someone that I am not. I am thankful I've been able to overcome things I thought I never could. I am thankful that my awkward honesty and tears have paid off. And of course I am thankful for you, for reading my ramblings and journeying with me.