Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The yin and yang of parenting - learning from our parenting mistakes

I recently came upon a post which has caused an awful lot of furore, An open letter to Gina Ford . I left a comment among the many many others, who asked the question of how a woman with no children can be a parenting guru.

It has got me thinking about my own parenting in the raw days of early motherhood. Of how I handled the sleeplessness, the broken nights, the newness, the scariness of it all being first time and some of the mistakes I made back then, that have me cringing now. The different mistakes I made with each child.

When I had my first little boy, I fell so completely in love that I thought my heart would break from the sheer intensity of it. It was love at first sight. In spite of having a more clinical birth than I had planned, in spite of being in hospital, I was as high as a kite, our eyes locked and I knew this little baby already, I recognised him, loved him instantly and completely. Nothing could dampen that afterglow, that sheer joy. 

Bringing him home and getting to know one another was the most beautiful thing I had ever experienced. My man and I were now part of a trio, our days felt so full. I didnt mind being tired. I didn't mind the birth, it was a powerful and new experience that gave me so much food for thought. I was changed now forever and I loved my new calling in life. Without reading any parenting books, I instinctively knew I would breastfeed, that I would not impose any routine on this baby, and we settled into a rhythm which I was perfectly happy with - even though to the outside world, it didn't appear to be very 'sorted'. I fed whenever he wanted to be fed, I fed him for comfort, at random times, sometimes once every hour, sometimes once every two, sometimes with a three hour gap. It totally depended what we were doing, where, who we were with, a whole host of different scenarios. 

I got very mixed messages from friends and family about how I was parenting. My laissez-faire and relaxed approach seemed to rather irk certain family members who were desperate to have us doing Gina Ford style routines. One family member, when our baby was not sleeping very well, proposed to come and 'take over' for the night and 'get them into a routine', so we could get some sleep. I was mortified. However tired we were, we certainly did not want to hand the baby to a completely different caregiver so they 'fix' things for us. My view was that babies just go through phases, and it's no big deal. 

She started to ask me all the time about my routine, the timings of my feeds, which breast I had used last, when they last slept - and this obsession with routine got me in such an uncomfortable space with her that I'd dread get-togethers, having to justify my hotch-potch baby-led philosophy, even if we did make some mistakes along the way - it seemed more natural to let the child lead than to follow any method or style dreamed up by someone who didn't know our baby like we did.

And with one baby, we could be absolutely flexible, we could follow him exclusively, because it was easy. We went through phases of trying different things, as our boy would need different things at different times, but his existence was entirely child-led. He slept with us till he got so wriggly and kicky we took it as our cue to put him in a cot next to our bed, and when he wanted a feed in the night, I'd lift him that short distance and plonk him next to me, where he would suckle and we'd fall back to sleep in our bed all snuggled up together. I never worried about squashing him - he would sleep raised up on a pillow and I would take great care to keep adjusting things throughout the night, as needed.

Whilst I was striking out as an alternative mother, I still did not know anyone at that time who fed much beyond a year - it seemed like something only 'weird' mothers did. Not wanting to be a 'weird' mother, I started to wean my little boy from my breast at about 9 months. At the time I thought this was 'healthy' and 'normal', much longer even, than many friends and acquaintances had fed their babies. 

But then my baby grew into a toddler, and a very wilful toddler at that. I was totally un-prepared for this. My thoughts by this time were that whilst I had pampered him with 'getting his own way' as a baby, now he was growing older, perhaps I had 'spoilt' him with all my baby-led child-rearing so far, that maybe I had made a rod for my own back. We got into a phase of power struggling. If my darling boy didn't eat his dinner, which I had lovingly prepared, we would sit and try and eat it till one of us backed down. If he would deliberately do something repeatedly that we had said no to, many times, he would get a slap on the wrist. (Deep shame - we only did this a handful of times, but even so..:-(... ). He ran about like a loon, full-on, wild, fast, with no regard for danger. Living in a town, this scared the bejeezus out of me. After being carried as a baby, he progressed to a buggy at about six months, (because that's what we thought all 'normal' parents did) and being pregnant again, didn't have the energy or speed to keep up. So we bought some toddler reigns, much like the type I now see in pet stores for dogs. (Deep shame) We had the wrist version too. When I see a toddler on one of these now I actually feel sick. I saw a little boy wearing one the other day and every bit of me cried - NO! HOW AWFUL!

We moved house when I was eight months pregnant, and our darling Herbie was born when Finn was just 15 months, so my babies were very close together, and I was finding my feet in a new town. I decided to really throw myself into getting to know people, and buoyed by Herbie's home birth which had been fairly quick and easy, I felt more and more confident about alternative ways of parenting. I still didn't know anyone who was breastfeeding long-term, still didn't know anyone co-sleeping, generally I was the most alternative perhaps out of my local gang of friends, and became quite involved with Surestart, joining the local centre as a parent board member, which brought some interesting people into my life, and I learnt some valuable lessons from some of them.

But I realised that more and more, my alternative leanings were putting me out of step with a lot of my other friends. I discovered the existence of home education, and upon meeting the people in those spheres, finally felt like I had tapped into a tribe of folks who felt like me, who shared the same ideas and ideals, who seemed free and confident living in a parallel state alongside the 'system', following their own paths. These folks were living the life I envisioned for ourselves. Finally something had clicked.

Little Indie was born a couple of years after Herbie, with a miscarriage inbetween, and in the same month, my husband launched his own business - a big risk but very exciting. His homebirth had been the easiest yet, I was on such a high, and adored him as I had adored the others. Yet quite quickly it became very clear just how hard three children under 5 was! 

Most of my old friends still hadn't had babies yet, so we had to rely on new friends to help us figure out our parenting philosophy, a lot of trial and error, reading some books, and thinking and reflecting alot. Mostly, in truth, we were just plain knackered, all the time. We were so busy living we just coped with things as they arose, sometimes well, sometimes triumphantly, at other times we struggled, muddled through difficult patches, hanging onto our sanity by a thread. After a difficult summer caring for people who were mentally ill, whilst re-decorating our entire house to sell, we moved to East Anglia, and started a new life here.

Here we have expanded our family further, with the addition of lovely little Alfie, whose birth taught us so much. The experience of handling the authorities here to get the birth we wanted was extremely trying and has taken me a long time to get over. Having to travel here there and everywhere with him when he was so tiny, and for no good reason, at the behest of the authorities, is something that I bitterly regret, and which got our breastfeeding relationship off to a shaky start, something which has taken me a long time to make peace with. Having a fourth child and home educating has been the most intense experience of our lives so far. I have done so many things with Alf that I thought I wouldn't - some of them I am not proud of. Leaving him to cry it out is one of them. He went through a very intense period when I absolutely didn't know what to do with him. And I was shattered in the extreme. If he cried at the end of a very very long day, I admit that we sometimes left him to cry. It seemed kinder than smacking or some other exhausted reflex, which by now we had realised was completely pointless and wrong. He would reject cuddles, stroking, stories. That was very hard to take. I nearly went out of my mind with that little chappie, and being my fourth, I thought I ought to know what to do by now. But each baby has their own soul, their own heart, their own mind. They come with their own soul baggage. Learning how to help has been a dance that has required unlearning everything I thought I knew about babies, and re-learning it all over gain. A really humbling and powerful experience. Babies are not robots, no manual can guarantee their happiness. They need to assert their own way in this life - they can't fit the same mould as the babies that came before them - it just doesn't work.

Over these last few years, alongside our old dear friends, we have made some really wonderful friends, met some of the kindest people we have ever known, and found solace and comfort and solidarity with them. To live and learn alongside these lovely families has been such a priviledge. Meeting people who are long term breastfeeders, co-sleepers, and educating myself more and more about the value of such practises, seeing how normal and wonderful they are, I feel sad that we have, over the years, been afraid to relax and trust in these absolutely natural and normal practices. That we were only half brave. That we didn't shake off our doubts earlier. That we didn't learn some of these things sooner.

Reflecting over the ten years I have been a parent, I can see how far we have come, how our faith has grown over the years in trusting in love as the most powerful method of all, in seeing the futility of smacking as any kind of method at all, in following our hearts and our dreams, and seeing the children for what they are - beautiful souls, on loan to us for a while, a precious gift and honour to be able to serve them. They are going to be here much longer than us, they will live in a future we can only dream of.

Life is too short for punishments, for handing your baby over to methods. Love them. Cuddle them. Cry when it gets hard. Talk to friends. Share your hardships with them. 

Kids are pretty resilient and forgiving it turns out, if you continue to talk things over with them. You can get past difficult times, hard patches, mistakes. If you keep the cuddles flowing, if you remember to say sorry, if you commit to learn from your mistakes and keep love at the centre of everything you can weather the stormy stuff. Forgiving yourself for doing things that you thought were normal or ok at the time, is also something that you need to make peace with.

We have learnt some hard lessons about love and friendship, and have found healing by loving one another, forgiving one another, and laughing at ourselves. We all make mistakes, and the children know that when they make mistakes, I have so many in the bank that I can hardly judge them or be mad at them for very long! If we were all perfect and didn't make mistakes I kind of wonder why else we would be put here on this earth - what would there be to learn?

I recently had a very grown up conversation with that first baby of mine. He said to me "Mum, how can we appreciate good things without experiencing the bad ones? There is no light without dark. No happy without sad. No fun times without boring ones" "I love you just the way you are, even if you are not perfect". 

And that is how I see all parents - imperfect, muddling through, making mistakes, utterly human, and on a long learning journey. 

Until you have kids of your own, you cannot know the depths of your soul, the chaos, the healing, the strain, and the sheer joy.

And I wouldn't trade it for the world.


  1. Beautifully honest and reflective story. I too, often reflect back on our parenting journey and like you have made mistakes a plenty along the way. I now feel pretty comfortable in my parenting skin most of the time and am definitely more relaxed as a parent and a human being! Thankfully, our kids are forgiving (as long as there is lots of love) and your boy sounds very wise indeed. It is all part of our human experience and I am filled with gratitude to experience it fully (highs and lows). xx

  2. Thanks for being so honest. Mistakes? I've made them, frequently - but it's true, I can't help returning to loving (them and me.) It's what it's all about I reckon.

  3. This was truly lovely to read for me because I have known you only for a short time. I have to mention reins. We had a double set - obviously. Like walking two dogs except far more challenging and just not doable with a double buggy as well. Didn't like them do think the whole leash thing is a bit odd and possibly wrong but equally the times my heart has been in my mouth when I have seen a toddler run off heading for the road (school runs in towns are an example of this) or trip the kerb because the parent hasn't caught their hand sometimes out of distraction, school bags to carry, multiple children, buggies to push, or sheer not watching and I think why aren't they on a toddler harness! Anyhow, I do believe that most of us are just doing the best we can and learning on the job. Massive learning curve this end, totally life changing. My 4 wear me out, drive me to distraction at times but I love them with all that I am x

  4. Thanks for reading and being part of my life in all your different ways ! We all learn from each other :-)

  5. Lovely post Paula.
    I think that sometimes reins are a good thing. Ella always wanted freedom and independence when we were out - and loved to walk. She didn't want to hold onto anything and reins gave her the freedom she wanted - but kept her safe too.
    I think when I look back on things I would do lots differently - I even followed Gina Fords routine for a while (and admit I found it helpful!). But it is easy to say you would do things differently when you are feeling refreshed from a good nights sleep, don't have demands of a nursing baby, and haven't spent the day watching endless reruns of the Teletubbies!! Lol. So mostly I just work on forgiving myself! And trying to do a little bit better now.
    I think you sharing posts like this is really important. When I first had children I was really clueless. When we moved here I met two families that taught me SOO much about parenting, just by watching them be with their children. I would like to think that if I hadn't had that, I would have found a post just like this to help me.

  6. Thanks so much Julie. I was a little anxious that a post like this might feel too much like professional hare kare, but parenting does involve some murky grey area stuff, and ambiguous feelings about certain neglecting stuff like that I would feel that I was doing a dis-service to myself, and others! Parenting is hard work since no-one has the exact same dynamic as ours. Thank goodness for other mothers - these are really our best parenting aid!!!! :-)

  7. I just finished this, read it over some days. Thank you for taking the time to give us such an historical account. I feel I know you much better now.
    I have a a few dear friends who came to these 'alternative' ideas from the other side, with no role models or any kind of supportive community of like minds. I myself grew up with hippie parents who handed me all this good stuff on a platter. I went to alternative schools and had loads of role models. I am always so in awe of you folks, who struck out on your lonesome, and I don't think you are "half brave" at all. You have had to work and fight ten times harder.
    As always, a thoughtful and generous post. Thanks MF.

  8. Ah CJ you know how to make a gal feel good. I guess I never appreciated before how much harder it is to beat down a path for yourself rather than walk down a well worn track, when I think of it like that actually I feel pretty proud of myself :-)

  9. Thank you for this. I am really glad I just popped in to see what you are up to, as I have had the hardest week in a long time, and made some sad mistakes, just these last days. Having grown up in a completely different way with lots of issues it is sometimes difficult to bypass the reactionary state that I so carefully work on everyday. Thanks Paula for being so honest and such an inspiration, and for making room in the "crunchy field" for an autodidact person like me he he :) Tine from the goddess circle xxx

  10. Hello Tine, some days/weeks/months are a series of blunders and learning things the hard way, clashes and so on.... The only analogy I can think of is that any adventure that is worth it's salt involves some rough rides - think of all the great sailing adventures - calm seas and high storms are all part and parcel, whilst most days pass without much fanfare..... Sending you a very big hug and a cuppa herb tea :-) xxx