Posts Tagged ‘parenting’

More Firsts

We had a couple of firsts on Sunday. The more children you have, the more ‘first times’ you get.  That much is obvious.  What surprised me is that they’re all just as special. Continue reading

He’s healthy, he’s happy, and he likes me

How do you measure your parenting skills?

Because, let’s face it. Most of us feel guilty about, well, everything. I think most of us feel inadequate as parents sometimes.

Or maybe it’s just me.

But, either way, I’ve come up with what I think is the best yardstick by which to measure my ability as a parent: I mentally tick off these three boxes:

  • He’s healthy.
  • He’s happy.
  • He likes me.

I figure if I can tick off two out of three of those boxes at any given point in time, I’m doing okay. And usually I get 100% on this test – I have a perfectly normal, healthy little two year old, who’s generally a happy camper (waking up grumpy from naps doesn’t count, nor does the occasional meltdown because I won’t give him Promite sandwiches for the fourth time in a day). And he likes me. “Mummy, hug!”

Now these three things aren’t necessarily key performance indicators of good parenting for everyone. Particularly the health thing. Kids get sick, and there’s not a lot we can do about that – hey, my child had swine flu recently (and wasn’t that the most cabin-fevered fortnight of my life?). And sometimes you have to shift the bar – if your child has something serious or chronic, chances are pretty good it is something outside your control. But, like a lot of mothers, I worry about a lot of things – does he eat enough? is he getting enough vegetables? oh no, he didn’t have any fruit today, but he ate biscuits three times… I look at him, and I see a perfectly normal little boy who’s lean and tall and who seems to have boundless energy, and I think, well, whatever he ate today/yesterday/over the course of the last week, he seems pretty healthy to me – I must be doing okay on that front.

I think my point is that I’ve found a little set of quick checkboxes that reassure me at any point in time. If I can say to myself, “he’s healthy, he’s happy, and he likes me,” then I can easily and rapidly remind myself of the bigger picture – which is that as a parent, I do just fine.

Have you ever thought about a quick checklist like this? Day to day, what is it that you want for your child – things that are within your control, that is? What is it that you look for in your child to reassure you that you’re doing okay at this parenting thing?

FAQS

I thought I’d kick off with something light hearted and general for my first ever blog post! Thanks to the Mums and Dad of Fusion for welcoming me on board.  

The other night I was catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen in over a year. We were chatting away and the topic of children came up, as can often happen when you’re a mother. My friend casually asked, “So when’s the next one coming along?” I paused and said, “I really need to put that on my page of FAQs!” We both laughed, and continued talking. Hence  the idea for this post, which I know will ring a bell with most parents out there. Before I became a mother, the most common question I got was “When will you be having children?” And before marriage, it was “When are you going to get married?” Since having my daughter, the questions I get cover a wide range of very important topics. So here we go:

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions):

1.    When’s the next one coming along?

Now that I’ve had one child, the automatic assumption seems to be that I want to have as many as I can in as short a space of time as possible. I think the first time someone asked me this question, my daughter was 2 hours old. You can imagine the horrified look on my face!

Now she’s much older, and I love the thought of having more, but who knows what the future holds?

2.    Is she a good girl?

What does that mean? She is a child, and she behaves in an age-appropriate manner. She doesn’t intentionally try to push my buttons to get a reaction, nor does she cry just to be annoying, but because that is her way of communicating to me that she needs something.

3.    Does she still wake up at night?

Yes, and so do I. Sometimes I need to get a drink or go to the bathroom, so how can I expect her to sleep through when I don’t?

4.    When are you going to move her into her own room?

When she says to me, “Momi, I don’t want to sleep next to you and Baba anymore. I want to sleep all by myself while you two sleep together.”

5.    Are you still breastfeeding?!

Yes! We’ll think about weaning when we’re ready.

6.    a) Why do you carry her around all the time?

Because I couldn’t afford to buy that really expensive swing/hammock/rocker that is supposed to be a replacement for my arms, so instead I have to lug her around. No, actually, it’s because I’m her mother, she asked me to pick her up, and I enjoy cuddling her.

        b) Didn’t you know that if you pick her up whenever she cries, she’ll start to expect that?

That’s fantastic! You mean she’ll start to depend on me, and understand that as her mother, I will meet her needs?

7.    What do you do all day?

This question bothers me. The asker seems to have the preconceived notion that being a SAHM is a piece of cake, and that there’s really not much to do in a given day, as opposed to being in the  workforce, or a student, where I would actually be busy! No one would dream of asking a childcare worker that same question!

8.    When are you going to have another one?

Please refer back to 2.

On Breastfeeding and Formula

Warning and disclaimer: This post discusses breastfeeding and formula.  It does not discuss mothers who use formula, mothers who need formula, babies who need formula, breastfeeding in public or any other variations.  If you feel it is putting you down, please read all of it carefully.  Please comment, but it needs to contribute to the discussion, not sidetrack it.  If I feel it is sidetracking, I won’t post it but will let you know.  Any comparisons to genocidal regimes will be ignored.

On breastfeeding:

There have been a few incidents recently to bring breastfeeding up again, especially feeding older children.  And girls, I have to say – we need to stop playing the formula companies’ game.

Formula is a very good nutritional substitute for breastfeeding.  I mean that sincerely – if I couldn’t breastfeed I would be thankful for formula, it is far, far better than the options that used to be available (without getting into wet nursing).  But it is only a nutritional substitute.  It cannot provide the immunological benefits, it cannot promote sleep for both mother and baby, it cannot calm a distressed child, it cannot act as a contraceptive, it cannot promote bonding through hormones, it cannot regulate the digestive system, it cannot help jaw muscle development for speech, it cannot do any of the myriad other things that breastfeeding does.  If I couldn’t breastfeed I would be thankful for formula, but I would need to parent completely differently to fill the other gaps.

So when someone starts to compare formula and breastfeeding, why on earth do we even mention nutrition?  Formula does it pretty well, let’s accept and admit that.  It doesn’t do it perfectly, it doesn’t do it the best.  It isn’t responsive, and we don’t even know all the things that are in breastmilk so we don’t know how close it is.  But it does a good job of helping human babies to grow and develop, especially when there is no better alternative.  So when we are trying to explain that breastmilk really is better, why do we fight on our weakest ground?

We do it because we are allowing the formula companies to control the debate.  It’s that simple.  They have a product that can compete nutritionally but not anywhere else, so they talk about nutrition.  And we let them do it.  The very term ‘breastfeeding’ lets them do it, because it implies that it’s all about feeding, which it isn’t.  Unfortunately my Mum’s a nurse, so I personally can’t use nursing, and I don’t know what else to use.  We need to find or invent some term that includes all the things breastfeeding does that have nothing to do with nutrition.

And it’s very hard to argue with someone who’s agreeing with you.  So when faced with all the reasons that formula isn’t that bad … nutritionally … smile and nod.  Agree.  “You’re right, it’s ok nutritionally.  So how do you …?”  or “It’s a pity you have to find another way to …” or even be blunt and say “Unfortunately, it can’t ever provide …”

And the World Health Organisation recommendations DO apply to us – most of us don’t feed ourselves or our older children properly, what makes people think we can feed our babies appropriately?  But even so, what does breastfeeding an older baby or toddler have to do with nutrition?  Why bother arguing nutrition, when Karleen Gribble’s study showed mothers don’t feed older babies for that reason anyway.  They feed for comfort, for bonding, for sleeping, because the children enjoy it.  These are the things we should be arguing, these are the things that formula can never, ever provide.

Now it may sound like I’m saying mothers who use formula don’t comfort their babies, or put them to sleep, or whatever.  I’m not, in fact believe it or not I’m admiring.  You see, you have to find other ways of doing the things that I can do easily through breastfeeding.  And I think that you should be getting the credit for that, not some multinational company.  Because that’s the other half of this post.

On formula:

We need to stop calling a spade a manual earth arranging implement.

I don’t mean debates about whether it’s ‘formula’ or ‘artificial baby milk.’ I mean it is a commercial product sold by companies that are trying to make a profit, and doing very well out of it.  They are continually studying and trying to improve it – because they have competitors who are trying to make money too.  And they are continually marketing, marketing, marketing, and cleverly focusing on the bits they do well.  Of course they are, we all do.  Focus on the positives and hope no-one notices the negatives.  But the really clever bit is that they have managed to co-opt their consumers into doing the marketing for them for free.

Let me show you what I mean.  Most of the readers of this blog are Australian, and grew up eating vegemite.  People in other countries eat marmite, or promite, or some other type of yeast spread.  They are all fairly similar nutritionally, all do the same job, have fairly minor taste variations.  Yet Australians will ship vegemite around the world and have stand-up fights trying to prove its superiority.  This is not because it genuinely is superior in any way, but because of its emotional status as an Australian icon.  It is unAustralian to not defend vegemite.  We eat it and defend it because in a symbolic way we are defending Australia and what it means to be Australian.

Formula is a commercial product.  It is produced purely to make a profit, not out of the goodness of anyone’s heart.  Yet it has come to represent, for many women, motherhood.  This is completely understandable.  There are so many emotions tied up with such a basic thing as feeding our babies.  On a primitive level I’m sure we’ve all asked ourselves – if I can’t do this, then can I really be a mother at all?  So in defending formula, women are defending their own status as mothers.  And so they make wonderful unpaid advertisers.

It can be hilarious in a painful way to read some of the discussions about baby feeding.  The question was asked – what would happen if formula were $100 a tin?  And there were all sorts of answers about ‘the government.’ But what on earth has the government to do with the price of formula?  It’s set by the companies that make it, and you can bet they’re doing more than just covering costs.   In fact, they should be setting it as high as they possibly can before they lose customers – that’s how supply and demand works.  They’re not giving it to you cheaply because they’re worried about your baby.

And statements about breastfeeding mothers not drinking, or smoking, or taking medications, or having to eat perfectly!  You don’t need to be pure to breastfeed – have a look at what’s given to the cows!  And the factories certainly aren’t pure, they aren’t even sterile, which is why you have to use hot water to make it up.

I’m not trying to make mothers who use formula feel bad, I’m trying to tell you not to be conned.  Because all the formula is replacing is the nutrition.  You are still the one getting your baby to sleep, comforting them, helping their speech develop, taking care of them when they have a tummy ache.  In other words, you are the ones doing the mothering.  You don’t have to defend yourself, your defense is your happy, healthy, amazing children.  You don’t have to work as a marketer for formula companies.  Any other product in your pantry (especially one you are feeding your children) you wouldn’t defend to the bitter end.  As parents we question, we hold companies responsible for their claims, force them to make better products, and generally try to make them accountable (except Vegemite, that would be unAustralian).

A spade is a spade, and formula is a very expensive commercial nutritional substitute that makes a great profit for its makers and leaves you to do all the work.

On mothering:

So in the end, we’re all pretty similar.  We all need to do the same things for our children, and that includes so much more than nutrition.  So let’s give nutrition a rest for a bit, hey?  I’ll agree that formula does a reasonable job of it, if you’ll agree that breastfeeding does all sorts of other things as well.

psst –> weak

Sing Along!

I thought I would do a bit of a light-hearted thing this week and it turned into an emotional roller coaster!  Being a ‘music person’ I was thinking earlier this week, “what is the soundtrack to my parenting?”.  So I made a small play list of songs that talk about parenting and had a little think about them…  This happened to come to me when I was analysing an Alanis Morissette song called Perfect. It’s about how some parents hand out love like a reward instead of giving it unconditionally. It is also about parents living vicariously though their children by shaping them into miniature versions of themselves… That was the first of the emotional swings that had me crying in the car and singing like a freak at the traffic lights (note to self : don’t listen to Alanis when you are pre-menstrual). This bit is what got me:

I’ll make you what I never was,

If you’re the best,

then maybe so am I,

Compared to him compared to her,

I’m doing this for your own damn good,

You’ll make up for what I blew,

What’s the problem … why are you crying?

By the end of that bit she is screaming “WHY ARE YOU CRYING?”. It reminds me of when I was teaching and I had a child in my class who wouldn’t respond to any kind of negative behaviour management because what he received at home was so much worse. So obviously this song shapes my parenting in a “I’ll never do that” sort of way.

Then I was listening to Little Green by Joni Mitchel (I should have known right then and there that it was a bad idea). It’s a song Joni wrote about having to give her child up for adoption when she was young. Another heartbreaking song that makes me a bit teary. Especially this bit:

Child with a child pretending

Weary of lies you are sending home

So you sign all the papers in the family name

You’re sad and you’re sorry, but you’re not ashamed

Little green, have a happy ending

That one just makes me really grateful for any time I have with my daughter. But it also makes me sort of aware that people see us as semi-young parents and there will always be a generalisation and sometimes judgement attached to that. I can’t help but try and break through any generalisations people form. So even though I am actually not as young as Joni was I’m still aware that I am the only person in my social circle my age that has a child – it can be quite isolating especially when friends seemed to drop off the planet once I was pregnant!

I thought I might have to try and find some positive parenting songs and Jeannie C Riley comes through with Harper Valley PTA. It’s about a single mother who is being judged by the PTA (Parents and Teachers Association) and she walks right into the meeting and calls them all hypocrites who have no right to judge her on her parenting. I love it because I remember my mother coming in to school and being a real advocate for us and for our way of life. Then I realised good ol’ Tammy Wynette was on that play list with D.I.V.O.R.C.E

watch him smile he thinks it’s Christmas

or his fifth birthday

and he thinks C.U.S.T.O.D.Y spells ‘fun’ or ‘play’.

I spell out all the hurting words

and I turn my head when I speak

‘cause I can‘t spell away this hurt that’s drippin‘ down my cheek

You just can’t go past those lyrics… It would be quite sad if it wasn’t sort of funny (it probably isn’t funny for people who have experienced divorce but I just love the song!). Country and western lyrics always crack me up! For me it really does explore the fine line between censorship and protection (but mostly it just makes me sing at the top of my lungs). So these are my random picks … you would usually think of cats in the cradle or father and son when it comes to songs about parenting but I think these are pure gold.

First Impressions

G’day Everyone. Before I start I’d like to thank the mums from Fusion Parenting for honouring me with the invitation to join them on the soapbox.

I thought for my first post, I’d start at the beginning and talk about an impression that I got when I became a dad. It was over nine years ago now, so I have to cast my mind back a bit, but it’s the kind of thing that leaves a lasting impression. It’s not about fathers though, it’s about mothers.

In our mid 20’s my wife and I decided to have a baby. It was a mutual decision that we came to from different directions. I was thinking and reading and came to the conclusion that it would be better to have kids first, then go do stuff when the kids grew up and left home. Meanwhile, my wife’s biological clock was apparently an alarm clock and it was going off. Not having ovaries, I’m not sure what it feels like to have them ‘twanging’, but it doesn’t sound comfortable. Heading through a local market one day, we heard a newborn baby cry and my wife says her uterus twitched.

It was Time To Have a Baby. We were pretty lucky, in that we could have a baby when the time was right for us. I can only imagine how hard it must be want to have a baby, but be unable to have one. For us though, it was a great time, we were young, financial, and fertile (like the Nile valley is fertile). Hello Baby!

It was challenging looking after my wife through the appalling morning, noon and night sickness. It was fascinating watching her belly grow and really cool feeling the baby kick. I did the supportive partner thing because, well, I’m a supportive partner. I even attended a Breastfeeding Education Class run by the local Australian Breastfeeding Association group.

It was a long, hard labour. I supported my wife through it, physically, emotionally and sometimes literally. I can understand now why sometimes the midwives don’t want the fathers around – it’s a terribly hard thing to watch the woman you love going through labour. A man who wasn’t paying attention at the birth class might try to be helpful in unhelpful ways. After 36 hours the most amazing thing happened. I saw the bulge of a head, and then a tiny patch of dark hair through an impossibly small hole.

Sometimes there’s a difference between knowing something and really getting it. As my wife’s belly grew through the pregnancy, I knew that we were having a baby, but only when I saw my not-yet-born son with my own eyes did I get it. It hit me like a bolt of lightning (that and the thought that there was no way that baby was going to fit through. I was wrong about that). My wife had had 40 weeks feeling our baby grow, getting to know him. It seems I needed to see him myself to understand that we had made a baby. I was a father.

I was proud of my wife, proud of my son and happy that we got the birth experience we wanted. I was profoundly in awe of what my wife had done. I had never seen anything like it. The phrase “the weaker sex” could only have been used by men who had never seen what I saw. There is a terrible, primal beauty in a birthing woman. The task itself it torturous and nearly impossible, and yet she does it.

Having seen my wife give birth ‘naturally’ four times, I can see why some women want to birth that way. It must surely be one of the most powerfully feminine things a woman can do. However, I can also see why birth classes spend a lot of time telling you about the painkilling options, and I can see the potential it has for going wrong.

Not long after we got home, still birth-shocked like first-time parents are, I had to leave the house and do some shopping. I still remember going into the local shopping mall, tired and dazed, and everywhere I looked were mothers with their children. Mothers … everyone one of whom, I could probably assume, had done that amazing thing I just saw, or something like it. Every one of those mothers had birthed a baby, more than one in many cases. My mother had done that thing. I’m sorry I took you for granted all those years Mum, I had no idea.

So that’s what I learnt when I became a father – fatherhood is awesome, and motherhood is awe-inspiring … and that was just the start.

Respect My Rights!

Some of you may realise what triggered this post, but it’s something I’ve been mulling over for a while.  So although it was triggered, it’s not pointed at anything in particular but more food for thought.  It’s good something gave me the push to put it out there.

 We are sometimes told we should respect others’ decisions.  I don’t think it takes long to realise that this is wrong.  Respect is about esteem and admiration and there are some decisions that should not be admired, such as the decision to have that third piece of cake.  Then there are some decisions some will admire and others won’t, which is why we have controversial issues.

 A trickier one is when we are told we should respect other’s rights.  And of course we should.  So long as they actually have that right in the first place.  The appeal to tolerance is almost guaranteed to shut people up, because being intolerant is such a terrible thing in our society, the modern heretic.  But before proving our tolerance we need to question why they want to silence us.  Sometimes it is just because they’re tired of the argument, and then it’s probably a good idea to let it rest.  Sometimes it’s a shorthand way of saying “I don’t care what you say, you’re not going to change my mind so respect my rights.”  And in a face to face conversation it’s probably a good idea to shut up, because no-one likes talking to a wall.  But the internet is a special case, a conversation in a darkened room.  You never know who is listening, and who might still be willing to change their mind.  So sometimes it might be worth it to keep going.  In that case, it is important to work out if people really do have the right they are asking you to respect.

 In ”Crimes Against Logic” Jamie Whyte points out that rights are defined by duties.  In other words, if you have a right, others have a duty to uphold that right.  If you have a right to life, others have a duty not to kill you, and the laws will punish them if they breach that duty.  If there are no duties, then there is no right. 

The right I’m going to talk about here is the right to parent as I see fit.  The duty that would seem to go with this is that everyone else has to support your parenting decisions.  But hang on a minute, what about those unrespectable decisions?  What about the controversial ones?  What about the rights of the child?  Ah.  The right to parent as you see fit runs into the right of the child to the opportunity to reach their full potential.

 Now it seems to be pretty obvious that a parent should be making decisions that respect their child’s rights.  But do they?  For the vast majority of us for the vast majority of the time I’m sure they do.  But we all know examples of when they don’t.  And in those cases, whose right does the law uphold?  The child’s.  So in reality, in our society, we do NOT have a right to parent as we see fit.  We have a duty to uphold our child’s right to the opportunity to reach their full potential.

 So we come back to those controversial issues.  I mean aren’t I just playing with words here?  This is Australia, we don’t take kids away unless it’s really bad, so isn’t this just rambling?  And don’t parents make those controversial decisions because they know the situation better than you do and believe they are fulfilling their duty?  Well, yes.  To a certain extent I am.  But I think there are two very important consequences of looking at things this way.

 The first is psychological.  Rights are personal.  They are about property.  They are mine.  In fact one of the definitions of rights is “a claim to property.”  Is that how you perceive your children?  I’m not making a way out of left-field argument here, there are people who treat children as property, and if they have the right to parent as they see fit, then they have that right.  Stepping back from the extreme, people become defensive and even combative when they feel their rights have been breached.  In a discussion about ‘those issues’ it means they will shut down and stop listening because they are barricaded in, prepared to defend their rights.  This is where the appeal to tolerance comes in – I’m feeling threatened and I want to end this.  You’d better be careful, because you’re stepping on MY RIGHTS. 

 No-one feels that way about their duties.  It’s not as common for people to get possessive about them (leaving aside status issues), because generally we perceive them as work and are happy if someone helps us with them.  And they make us careful – we can be cavalier about our own things, but we are much more careful about things we do for others.  While rights tend to be static (you always have the same right to life), our responsibilities change over time.  So if we truly want to have an open exchange of ideas, it’s much more likely to happen in the realm of duty and responsibility.  If we want to improve our own and support others to improve their parenting, that’s where it’s going to happen.  Notice that nowhere am I saying that I’m right and people should agree with my solutions to the controversial issues.  What I’m talking about is listening to other positions and being prepared to accept the possibility that the others have a point, and that goes for me as much as anyone else.  Of course, that assumes people’s minds are open and they want to improve how they fulfil their duties.

 But that’s ok, because the second consequence of redefining this right is to protect children.  Because while rights are personal, we all have the duty.  If you have a right to life it is the entire society that has the duty to fulfil that.  If children have the right to the opportunity to reach their full potential then it isn’t just the parents who have a duty, it is all of us.  We all have the duty to look out for children.  To protect children.  To support and nurture them.  And perhaps if we stop thinking about parents’ rights and start thinking about our collective duties, we might start to take action, even if it’s only speaking up to be counted.

 So if your mind isn’t open and you don’t want to improve how you fulfil your duties, you can use the appeal to tolerance as a signal to shut me up.  And I may choose to stop if the venue isn’t right, I may choose to stop if it would be downright rude, I may choose to stop if I don’t think anyone (including you) is listening.  But not because I’m being tolerant, because please understand,

YOU DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT TO PARENT AS YOU SEE FIT,

so I don’t have to respect it.  But I have a duty to look out for your children, and as far as I can, I will.

The Invisible Parent

A bit of a good news story this week, or at least upbeat.

I know a lot of us Mums just seem to think differently to Dads.  Even if two of you are there, the responsibility seems to fall on Mum.  She packs the change bag for family outings, she remembers how long it is since everyone has eaten, she notices and changes the dirty nappy.  So get a group of Mums together and you’ll hear it – moan bonding.  (But you know we love you really, Coran.) 

I first heard of moan bonding from an educational guru talking about teachers and we laughed, because it’s so true.  Partners hate socialising with a group of teachers because we sit there and talk about our kids and our classes and what the little *ahem* so and sos did to us today.  A problem shared may not be halved but it certainly encourages solidarity.  And when I stopped teaching and started socialising with mothers there it was – moan bonding.  Except you can’t really moan about your children, because everyone knows that anything bad about your children is all your fault.  So we moan about our partners.

I try to be very good during bonding sessions, because I have to say I’m blessed with a wonderful husband.  He cooks most nights and does almost all the cleaning; he does all the bills and works very hard so I can stay at home.  So I’m on a pretty good wicket and I’m aware of it.  But still.  There are those little things that drive you mad, because how can he not see them?!  (I’m sure I drive him mad too, but this is my blog.)

His main problem is that he’s too responsible (see, that’s positive isn’t it?).  He’s the sort of person who’ll decide to do an extra set of training during his leave, or be involved with other people in developing a new system.  Which is wonderful, but we live in the middle of nowhere so it often requires travelling.  And then I’m home by myself with the girls. 

And we really, really miss him.

He was away last week and every morning I had to go through it with our eldest. 

“Where’s Daddy?”

“When is he coming back?”

“Will he be back tonight?” 

“When he comes back I’m telling him he’s not allowed to go away again.”  Awwwww.

As for the little one, her face almost split when she heard his voice on the phone.  Skype is a wonderful tool, I recommend it to anyone who has anyone away from them – it’s basically videophone and it’s free!

Since he’s been back they’ve been beside themselves trying to spend time with him, because he’s a great parent.  Maybe he leaves the nappy on longer than I would, but he also plays with them and gets them ready for bed.

So this post is a tribute to the Invisible Parents.  The fathers (and possibly grandparents, aunties and friends) who are travelling this scary and wonderful journey called parenting with us, and who make our lives so much richer in so many ways we don’t notice until they’re not there.

And then we really, really miss them.

Children copy their mothers

Another breastfeeding post, I know most of our audience will appreciate them and feeding (of any sort) seems to be a major part of my day.  And it ties in nicely with “The Octopus Myth,” seeing it is a toddler who has indirectly caused this flap.

Apparently in the UK it is National Breastfeeding Week.  So to celebrate someone in a hospital made up a little poster to put on the notice board.  A fairly innocuous poster I would have thought, with a picture of a little girl breastfeeding her doll under the heading “It’s Normal.  Children copy their mothers.”  Apparently this is “distasteful, inappropriate and crude.”

Let’s take them one at a time.

Distasteful: unpleasant, provoking dislike, disapproval, or mild disgust

This actually says a lot about the people who are making the complaint, doesn’t it?  If a picture provokes disgust, then it means they find breastfeeding disgusting.  Or at least a child pretending to breastfeed is disgusting.  So I wonder which it is – do they find the sight of breasts disgusting?  Do they find the thought of a baby sucking at them makes them sick?  Or do they see it as disgusting for little girls to play with dolls?  I wonder what they think of dolls with nappies?  Is that disgusting too? 

Inappropriate:  not fitting, timely, or suitable

Well it was definitely timely, if you can’t put up a poster about breastfeeding in National Breastfeeding Week then when can you.  Obviously some people would prefer never.  As for fitting, hospitals have a public health responsibility.  That’s sort of their reason for being.  And the WHO describes their infant feeding guidelines as a “global public health recommendation.”  Their recommendation is for exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months, then the introduction of suitable complementary foods while breastfeeding continues until 2 years or beyond.  So a hospital would actually be obliged to promote breastfeeding, and particularly to normalise it.  So then we consider suitable, and this is obviously the one that has people upset.  It’s not the time, it’s not the breastfeeding, it’s the toddler.  We’re back with her being caught doing something not quite right.

Crude:  vulgar or obscene.

And here we have it.  The upsetting thing.  The reason that toddler is being disgusting and unsuitable.  It’s all about sex.  They might as well have put up a photo of her masturbating, I mean we all know that some unfortunate toddlers who haven’t been well brought up do that.  Not mine of course.  But it’s certainly not something you promote.

So breastfeeding is really all about sex, and not something that little girls should be indulging in.  In fact “it isn’t normal. Children copy their parents but I don’t think any little girls should be breastfeeding their dolls.”  So what should they be doing with them?  Using a good old bottle?  Starving them? 

Without sarcasm, I think this quote actually sums up the problem neatly.  Children copy their parents.  That little girl was almost certainly breastfed and it’s a pretty good bet she’ll go on to breastfeed her children, because she already knows that that’s how you feed a baby.  We don’t object to them learning how to sweep or wash the dishes.  We don’t object to them learning how to shop, or garden, or drive a car.  Surely caring for a baby is an important skill they’re going to need in the future?  Selfishly, I think most of us want grandkids one day. 

My toddler can change a nappy.  She can wrap her baby up and cuddle her, she feeds her solids (and doesn’t quite get why the real yoghurt isn’t a good idea) baths her, and comforts her when she falls over.  She’s also taught her to fly off the slide, so maybe she isn’t quite ready for motherhood.  But she breastfeeds quite regularly.  She will also offer me a feed, and I know this is ringing alarm bells for the sex obsessed among us.  Incest!  How terrible!  Save those children!  But do unto others as you would be done by.  Breastfeeding is a minor part of her life timewise, but it is incredibly important to her emotionally.  It is her comfort, her reconnection with Mummy, her good start to the day.  And that is what she is offering me, in her own toddler way she is trying to make me feel better.

And it’s not just me, a year ago any baby who cried at playgroup was fair game.  Up went the shirt and she would offer them a feed.  And that’s really what is meant to happen, our critic is quite correct.  Toddlers shouldn’t be breastfeeding dolls, because there aren’t any out on the savannah.  They should be practicing their skills on little brothers, sisters and cousins.

Let’s drag our minds out of the gutter and think about what they are practicing.  The least important thing they are learning is the mechanics of breastfeeding.  Anyone who’s watched a toddler knows that they do a lousy job of attaching and quite often miss the breast completely.  Their poor little dolls would starve, if their nipples weren’t horribly cracked.  Rather they are learning the emotions of breastfeeding and the place of breastfeeding.  They are learning that breastfeeding is about comfort as well as food.  They are learning that it is about closeness.  They are learning that it is about sitting down and spending time with your baby.  And most importantly, they are learning that that is how babies are fed.

And if they don’t learn that, they are way behind when they have their own children.  Quite simply, they won’t know how babies are fed.  They might think babies feed out of a bottle.  They might think it is a choice.  There is a fundamental core of support they are missing, because they don’t have the surety that ‘I will breastfeed my children.’  Of course things get in the way, of course plans can change, of course some people will breastfeed successfully without it.  But starting out with the assumption that you will breastfeed is a big step towards being successful.  And starting out with the idea that it is disgusting, inappropriate and crude is only going to make it harder.

That’s the attitude that’s easy to argue against or ridicule, but there is another argument in the article that is more insidious.  We don’t want to upset new Mums who can’t breastfeed for medical reasons.  How could we be so mean.  New Mums are so vulnerable, so hormonal, so fragile.  And they are.  The baby blues are horrible.  And I was one of the lucky ones with problems that were relatively easy to fix, 24 hours of expressing let the grazes heal and it only took a few weeks to sort out the oversupply and fast letdown.  So we should definitely be gentle with new Mums.  But I really question how many of them can’t breastfeed for medical reasons. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying everyone can breastfeed.  There are definitely mother/baby pairs for whom it doesn’t work, there are women who need medications that would be dangerous, there are babies with tongue tie or who don’t have the muscle tone to suck, there are women with insufficient glandular tissue and ones with hormonal problems that mean their milk does not come in properly.  But that is incredibly rare.  Breastfeeding in the form of mammals has been around for well over two hundred million years, and depending on your definition humans have been doing it for a couple of million years.  Any species that couldn’t feed half their babies would have died out by now.  And if you believe in creation by an omnipotent God it’s even worse – are you really saying the Creator only got it right half the time?  So not being able to breastfeed for medical reasons is extremely rare, and even rarer to find out while you are still in the maternity hospital rather than when you are home and have tried desperately.

Then why do we have such a high failure rate?  There are a lot of women out there convinced they couldn’t breastfeed.  This is obviously too complex to go into in this blog, which is already too long, but a part of it is the support women receive and their own attitude to breastfeeding.  And a big part of that comes from their mothers and starts when they are toddlers playing with dolls.  By stopping people seeing that, we are stopping them seeing that breastfeeding is just a normal part of the things that toddlers learn, about what grownups do.

And while that may upset the very small number of women who cannot breastfeed for medical reasons, isn’t it far worse to convince large numbers of women that their bodies don’t work?

Whatever Works

I went to a mothers group meeting once. I was quite new to the group, and I felt a bit nervous. I can’t remember how the subject came up, but one of the other mothers asked me how the Dumpling, then four months old, napped during the day. I explained that we’d moved a mattress into the lounge, so I could lay down with him and feed him to sleep there; and the moment he stirred I’d lay back down beside him quickly to feed him fully to sleep again. I was a little bit apologetic I think as I said, “It’s just easier that way.”

She just smiled at me and said, “Hey, whatever works.”

I remember feeling very relieved at her attitude. It’s something which has stuck in my mind, though, and I refer back to it often. You see, I frequently find myself in a position where I need to go with the “whatever works” option, rather than doing what I think I “should” do as a mother.

You see, I have a mental illness. I have bipolar disorder – Type II Bipolar Affective Disorder, if we want to get fancy about it. Actually, like Stephen Fry, I prefer the term ‘manic depression’, but that name has largely fallen out of use and it seems a bit pedantic to swim against the tide.

People don’t often talk frankly about mental illness, particularly not as it relates to parenting, so I thought I’d share some thoughts from my perspective. Heck, I don’t even talk about it much, mainly because mental illness is largely stigmatised still. If you watch a soap opera and a character has a mental illness, almost without fail they’re dangerous to other characters in some way. Schizophrenia is a convenient excuse for criminal insanity on television and in books. Actually, criminal insanity is a convenient excuse for just about anything, or so it seems sometimes on the 6 o’clock news. It’s not hard to see why people are often uncomfortable with the concept of mental illness.

Even setting aside the all pervasive media for a moment, in reality mental illness carries with it a number of slightly unsettling ramifications. There are several professions which are basically off-limits to people with certain mental illnesses – positions of critical responsibility, like the police, or ambulance service. There are some good reasons for this, and I don’t dispute that even if I sometimes think these policies could be a little more flexible. But the message we receive from these kinds of limits are that people with mental illness can’t be responsible people – they could go nuts at any time.

And have you spent much time with a person who’s having a psychotic episode? It’s disturbing, to say the least. By definition, a mental illness screws with the way a person thinks and behaves. This is way outside many people’s comfort zone.

So if societal attitudes carry an undercurrent (and sometimes a tidal wave) of fear: that people with mental illness are dangerous, crazy, incapable of shouldering responsibility, and just plain weird; it’s no wonder we don’t talk much about people with mental illness becoming parents. Parents are supposed to be stable, and responsible, and people to emulate.

According to SANE Australia, approximately 20% of adults are affected by some sort of mental disorder every year. (SANE factsheet: “Facts and Figures”) Twenty percent. That’s one in five. It stands to reason that there are awful lot of parents out there who suffer some kind of mental illness. I assume most of them are doing a relatively good job, given that civilisation isn’t crumbling around us.

Basically, people with mental illnesses are just like everyone else. Well, as similar to everyone else as everyone else is, anyway. We’ve all got our idiosyncrasies, we’ve all got our peculiar set of problems, and we’ve all got interesting families. Mental illness presents its own particular set of problems, especially where parenting is involved.

It’s not always simple. I have a particular responsibility to balance my health needs with my child’s. I need to pay close attention to my mental health and be compliant with treatment plans, because my son’s wellbeing is directly affected by my own. But there’s room for flexibility, which is good because even when my condition is well managed, episodes are still inevitable.

This is why I return, time and time again, to that mother’s words: “Whatever works.” The truth is that I can’t always be the parent I want to be. When I’m having a depressive episode, my toddler watches a lot more TV than I’d like. I read fewer books to him. We don’t walk to the park, because it’s too hard to get off the couch.

So what do I do? I call in my in laws, and he spends some more time than usual with Grandma and Grandpa. I leave the dishes in the sink, and I remember that he doesn’t care if he eats baked beans on toast for dinner. To be honest, he kind of likes it. Even if he has it three days in a row.

On the flip side, if I’m hypomanic, we have a great time. We dance a lot, and we run around in the playground together. I’m sure that other parents watching us in the park think I’m a little strange: my toddler just thinks I’m awesome. We draw and paint and cut and paste and make cars out of boxes and I run with him in the shopping trolley through the supermarket making “broom, broom!” noises. We sing and dance in public and I don’t care. So I suppose it all balances out.

I worry, frequently, that I’m not a good enough parent. I’m not stable enough, I’m not consistent enough. But the thing is, if I put aside my worries and just look at my child, I see a happy, healthy, confident child who’s developmentally well on track. So my ‘up’ days and ‘down’ days don’t seem to be having a negative effect on him.

Hey, whatever works, right?

Further info and some useful resources:
SANE Australia
COPMI – Children Of Parents with Mental Illness
Beyond Blue
Black Dog Institute