A Good Enough Parent

Do you ever worry if your parenting is good enough?

I do. I think we all do. It would be strange not to question ourselves when the stakes are so high, when it is the most important thing we are doing. I reassure myself that other people aren’t judging me as harshly as I judge myself. Which is why I was so shocked last week, when a stranger criticised my parenting, yelling at me, and frightening my daughter, while we were walking home.

I didn’t for a second feel her behaviour was appropriate. I was, and still am, appalled. But in the face of such criticism it is hard not to question yourself, when really the only person we should be judging is the person who felt they had the right to judge me.

We don’t have a car. To move our children around this city we rely on our feet, our youngest, AJ, in a pram, although she often gets out to walk now. She is 20 months old, confident and fast, but with no ability to judge hazards. When she walks we need to walk close so we can grab her if she wanders towards the edge of a footpath. She’s little, but she’s learning.

When I collect my son from his kindy we walk along three streets, in a U shape, ending almost directly behind his kindy at our bus stop. We don’t cross any roads on this walk. Sometimes my son walks with us, chatting about his day. Sometimes he dawdles behind us, picking up sticks, or tracing letters on the signs we walk past trying to unlock their secrets. Sometimes he races ahead, a burst of energy that sees him running all the way to the bus shelter, where he sits and waits. I don’t, indeed can’t, expect him to walk with me all the time. His sister’s needs and pace varies. It is a balancing act.

He wasn’t that far ahead the other day when I saw a woman gesturing wildly at me. She was waiting at a bus shelter we walk past. She frowned as he walked past her, gesturing at me, as I trailed behind with our younger child. My son walked on, oblivious, in his own world.

As I got closer she started yelling at me, I couldn’t catch everything she was saying. Danish is my second language and I am far from fluent. I know my son is small for his age, so I told her ‘he is nearly five, and won’t walk out on the road.’

child hiding at bus stop

My daughter chose this moment to duck behind the glass shelter, making faces at me through the glass, a game I am usually happy to indulge. I went to collect her, as I wanted to move away from this woman and the brood of middle aged women hovering around her, beady eyes fixed on me. My daughter laughed and ran to the other end. As I made my way to collect her this woman stepped in front of me, bent down and scooped up my daughter.

This moment hangs in my memory. A breath caught in my throat. The woman, clutching her prize. My daughter, limp and shocked in her hands. Feet dangling in the air, staring at this unknown person who held her.

“No” I cried, as I snatched my daughter away “You can’t, that is my child” My daughter’s arms circled around my neck clutching me tight, “Mama” a frightened whisper in my ear.

Then this woman says these words

“You must look after your children.”

I was turning to collect my pram, I was stunned, I was angry and I stumbled into a linguistic trap of confusing whether I was telling her that I do, or I will, or I want to. All of which are true, by the way.

She screams in reply “So do it then.”

At which point I fell back on the time honoured tradition of swearing at someone as you walk away. Further confrontation would help no one. Least of all the child I held in my arms.

I’m still, days later, stunned and angry. Now, though, I’ve had time to pick apart her actions, my actions, my children’s actions. I have no regrets about the decisions I made as a parent leading up to that instance.

My daughter was at the back of a wide footpath. I was only a couple of paces behind her. There was no immediate danger. No one should pick up children without consent from the child and parent. My daughter has some stranger anxiety, which is developmentally normal for a child her age. It took weeks before she would be picked up by her Grandad when he visited. AJ would not have allowed this woman to pick her up if she had asked. I would not have allowed it if I had been asked. Therefore this woman should not have touched my child.

If we put that troubling aspect of the incident aside we are left with one of the more hotly contested topics of modern parenting: how much freedom to give your children, and how much of a right others have to interfere with that. There are some parents labelled as helicopters and others as free-range parents. The latter make the news when they are prosecuted for letting their child take a walk, or play in a playground, unattended. I don’t really agree with labelling parenting, but my own values are most closely aligned with the free-range movement. I believe children learn how to manage risk by experiencing risk.

MJ is headstrong and independent. Everything could be a battle if we let it be. He is also, in a way, fairly risk averse. He is thoughtful.  So I am happy if he is relaxed, and enjoying his walk, to let him make his own decisions about how fast he walks, and whether he wants company or would rather enjoy some mental downtime.

I’m not sure, at four, how I could make him walk with me if I wanted to. Am I supposed to collar him? Am I supposed to be strong enough to hold onto him and wheel a pram? I suppose I could try. Forcing him to walk beside me, clutching his arm as he pulled and frothed at the mouth to get away. Each tug tearing at our relationship, until either it or he were broken.

Would he learn more from walking next to me? How can we teach our children to be independent if we never let them make independent choices? Would he be any safer? Or would you just perceive him to be safer?

If I make MJ stay with me, stopping when I stop, walking when I walk, he won’t have better road safety skills than he does now, when he is allowed to decide for himself when to stop and when to walk, within scenarios that are both familiar and safe.

I believe this woman reacted so harshly not because she felt my son was in any real danger, but because she felt if something did happen it would be my fault for not being closer. This is ludicrous. If a car spun out of control and mounted the pavement I cannot protect my child be being there. I am no more or less at fault if I am 50m away or 50cm.

I cannot protect my child in this world. All I can do is arm my child with the right tools to protect themselves.

I’m not parenting anyone’s idea of a child. I’m not parenting the children this woman may have raised. I’m parenting the son I have, in the best way I see how. Our relationship is a two way street. Would other parents make different decisions than us? Of course. There is no correct way to raise a child. There is an infinite array of possibilities. A complex web of events that is spun every day. Every interaction a building block that has led my son and me to the path we are on now.

This woman, she doesn’t know me, or my son. She hasn’t sat stroking his hair while he tumbles into sleep. She hasn’t listened to the funny stories he tells. She hasn’t watched him draw, tongue sticking out of his mouth with deep concentration. She’s never pretended to be interested in his lists of dinosaurs and how big they are and how many claws they have. She hasn’t lain in his bed next to him, listening as he shared his innermost fears and troubles. She hasn’t watched him carefully, pedantically, slicing cucumber to eat (yes we let him use a knife). She hasn’t watched, a smile playing at her lips, as he runs and runs and runs, arms thrown wide with joy.

She has no idea of all the wonderful, amazing things he is capable of.

I do. My husband does. We aren’t perfect, but nobody is in a better position than us to decide how much freedom and responsibility to give our children.

It is too easy to criticise people who make different choices. Too easy to see things in black and white. But trying to parent a child is a million shades of grey. So if I could go back, and muster linguistic control I would say this: I want to look after my children the best I can. I will look after my children, as I see fit. I do look after my children. You just might not agree with every decision that I make.

That’s fine. I don’t need approval. I know I’m not perfect, but I am a good enough parent.

So I won’t call my son back to me. Instead I’ll tell him to run. Throw those arms wide and run.

child playing independently

A wish for the New Year

Janus.
The two headed god. The Roman god of transition.

The god of doorways, and boundaries. The god of births, marriages and deaths, who guarded the entrance to the heavens. The god who opened his temple gates at the outbreak of war, and closed them when peace returned. The god of beginnings and endings, in both space and time.

The god invoked on Kalendae Ianuariae. The first of January; the passage from the old year to the new. Romans made offerings of spelt cake and salt to Janus. To everyone else, they gave cheerful greetings of good will, an omen of hope for a New Year.

Head of Janus

I imagine this ancient deity looking back, and looking forwards. I wonder what he sees.

For so many people 2016 has been a tragic year. Around the world people are fearful of what 2017 will bring.

We’ve seen a demagogue voted into power in arguably the most powerful country in the world. We’ve seen a Middle Eastern city torn to shreds, live on our television screens. We’ve wrung our hands, many of us have donated money, we’ve asked our politicians to speak, and to what avail? We’ve watched migrants drown in record numbers in the Mediterranean seas. Arctic temperatures have climbed. My old home town has been rocked by earthquakes – the destabilisation of the world made physical. Meanwhile political alliances have been torn apart by words and ink ticks on paper.

The world feels on the brink of something. But what?

Janus. The carved pillar, a head facing forward, a head facing back. Immovable he stands and watches. The world so different from the one he ruled over. Millennia of change and yet the image – the idea – he invokes still carries its power. We understand his meaning, even if we no longer understand the Latin prayers offered in his name.

We pass under his threshold. A New Year.

Here in the north the days will grow longer. Winter still has its grip on us. Cold winds blow. The real snow has yet to hit. It will come, we are confident in the predictability of this. One day soon I will look outside and see the white ground, grey sky. The world will be cold and still, but for the ice blowing through the air.

Change is the only constant in the universe. It creates the ancient rhythms of the world. From ice, to water. From winter, to spring. From dark, to light.

Here in Denmark we will begin the year surrounded by fireworks. Each New Year a cacophony of light and noise. Fireworks that last from early evening to long after midnight, as each party will have their own. The crackle of fire, then the boom and the light that will rend the dark. Colours spread through the night, ephemera in the sky. The following day will smell of smoke. But that too will pass.

Last year we huddled inside as the old year was blasted away. Our children were terrified by the noise, the unpredictable but constant explosions. We soothed them, confident these blasts brought no danger, our walls would remain intact. A luxury not everyone in this world shares.

I was not sorry to see the end of 2015; it had been a difficult year. I looked back, and I looked forward, holding onto a hope that the next year would be better. And for all the destruction 2016 has wrought worldwide, it has been a better year for us, for my own small family. Sometimes with the dark, there comes the light.

This Christmas Eve we wandered through the quiet streets to a playground. My son ran ahead to the swings with my husband. The sun hung low in the sky. As I followed up the hill he swung back and forth, eclipsing the light as he passed through it. I felt my breath catch in my throat as my children laughed.

By the time we walked home Danes were on their way to their traditional evening gatherings. At the traffic lights I could see men in ties, and women with jewellery burning brightly in their ears and around their throat. Faces lit with joy, smiling at us as we passed in front of them. The usual social barriers have been broken down; we are reminded of our commonalities. The desire to mark the passage of time, the ritual celebrations, is the human constant.

Small children change daily. Milestones passed as they march towards that great transition: from childhood to adulthood. Each achievement incremental, sometimes hardly noticeable. We need the rhythms of the year, the seasons to remind us of where we once were – last birthday, last Christmas, last Year.

Many of us feel that bit more fearful for the world our children will grow up in than we did last year. Yet still we celebrate. We mark the change from the Old Year to the New. Because that is all we can do. Because this time, however fragile it might be, is all we have.

The world will swing through space, from light to dark, from winter to spring to summer. As it always has and as it always will. We carry on, and sometimes we hold our breath, unable to see what lies before us. As we all swing our children laugh; even in the darkest winter there is light.

Sometimes I think that all we can do in this world is nurture that light at home. Love and laugh and hope. There will always be suffering in this world, but we have faith in our children, that in small ways or perhaps even big ways, they will make the world a better place.

This is my non-religious prayer to a god no-one believes in anymore.

This is my wish for you in the New Year.

May our children be the starburst of colour that lights the dark.

New Year Fireworks

 

Image Credit: Head of Janus by Loudon dodd licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0

 

There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing

How to dress your children for a Danish winter.

Undies
Singlet
Trousers
Long-sleeved t-shirt
Socks
Jersey
Snowsuit
Snow boots
Mittens
Hat

There is your list.

Dressed for winter snow
Dressed for winter snow

Oh, I’m sorry, you meant how do you get your kids dressed in all those layers and layers of clothing? My mistake.

How to dress your children for a Danish winter.

“Come hither my darlings. Let’s go exploring. Let’s go out and play.  Here let me help you.”

Your children come scampering over, eager to co-operate, knowing what fun is ahead. They already have clothes on. They get dressed promptly after breakfast. You lay their snowsuits on the floor, ready for them to step into. You know where all their mittens are. Everything is always kept in its proper place.

children-playing-snowsuits-autumn
Not just winter – we dress like this in autumn too.

You help AJ while MJ (being four years old) dresses himself. Their excitement does the get better of them briefly. MJ begins to spin in circles instead of getting his shoes on. AJ copies him.
“Ah ha ha” you say, sounding like the narrator from Maisy “What Fun!”
They fall over laughing, and remember that they are supposed to be putting shoes on. Little rascals! On go the shoes, hat, then mittens and, voila! You are ready to go out.

Sorry, sorry, that’s not right either.

How to dress your children for a Danish winter.

Oh shit. You meant to get ready ten minutes ago.

MJ is playing with Duplo. AJ has migrated from drawing on paper, to drawing on the drawing table. She’s wearing a nappy and t-shirt. You grab trousers for your daughter. She sees you coming and runs away yelling
“Chee-chi, chee-chi” Cheeky. It is adorable. Except obviously not right now.

Once you catch her and start wrestling, you ask MJ to also get ready.
“Do you need the toilet?”
“No”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.”
“Really sure?”
“Ye-es.”
“Really, really, really sure?”
“YES!”

Oh well. You’ll just have to accept the consequences of this decision later.

AJ is wearing trousers now, and you begin on her socks.
“MJ, you need to get some socks on.”

He doesn’t go and get socks. You go and get socks. Choosing a pair from the carefully curated sock drawer. Socks in one style, two colours: navy blue and grey. The only socks he will wear. Since they are sold in mix-packs, this is an improvement on the stage where he would only wear the blue ones.  Other socks are too scruffly. I can’t tell you what scruffly means. I can only tell you what scruffly is:

Scruffly is unbearable. Scruffly is something you feel at the depths of your soul. Scruffly cannot merely be said. It must be bayed at the lightbulb, head thrown back, like a wolf howling at a moon. Scruffly must ring out for all the world to hear. And while it echoes through your house, carrying its waves of despair with it, best practice is to throw yourself prostate on the floor and kick your bare feet.

(You have considered bulk buying these socks in enough sizes to last for years as a precautionary measure in case they are discontinued. Or the apocalypse happens and you survive but can only find scruffly socks whilst looting.)

The non-scruffly socks start to go on. There is a further complication. For some unknown reason the store decided to stitch the size in the bottom of the sock. This means tense moments where MJ arranges the sock with the numbers exactly in the middle of his sole. Thanks design geniuses. We definitely needed another hurdle in our routine.

Time for snowsuits. The best way to start is sitting down on the snowsuit laid out on the floor. Helpfully that is exactly where they got dropped yesterday afternoon. Legs go in, kids stand up – sleeves next. MJ can, and usually will, get his arms and legs in. AJ’s legs go in alright, but she needs you to do her sleeves. At this point, for some inexplicable reason her arm goes floppy. She is smiling at you sweetly, but honestly, now is not the time. You insert your fingers at the opposite end, groping up the sleeve until you find her fingers and then you pull.

She’s not smiling now.

You start on the second sleeve while AJ throws herself on the floor, legs flailing. She spins around, while you tug. Congratulations! You are now the epicentre of a toddler break dancing routine. Meanwhile MJ has got his suit on and is struggling with his zip and you can feel the despair building behind you, but you almost… have… the… second… hand… Done!

You offer to help MJ and narrowly avoid a disaster of scruffly-type proportions. Never touch the snowsuit without being asked. Touching it to help without being asked will result in removal of said snowsuit and a repeat of the procedure. You restrain yourself just in time, and look on while he tugs ineffectually at the zip. You hope he doesn’t break it.
“I could just hold the bottom while you pull?”
“Ooh. Yes.” He is pleased at your bright idea. As though this isn’t the same bright idea you use every day.

MJ starts on his boots, and even though you did shake out the boots, the minute he rips the velcro a puddle of sand appears on your minimalist Danish floor. AJ obligingly balances against you while you help her foot into her shoe. She’s relaxed again. Which is a shame as you need her to step down into the boot.
“AJ can you put your foot in the boot, please?”
The foot dangles resolutely at the top.

You try pushing the boot up onto the foot. The angle isn’t exactly right and she protests. You huff and puff, until finally she puts some weight on that foot and the boot goes on. One down. One to go. The process will work exactly the same because your children never learn, and neither, apparently, do you.

You turn to MJ to help him with the boot straps. The essential bit making sure the boot and snowsuit don’t separate and let cold air, or water, in. More sand and grit flakes off onto your floor as you run your fingers along the straps, tucking them under the boots. It is a delicate process. The trick here is to remember that it is impossible to walk with boot straps that are twisted. Impossible. MJ checks them suspiciously once you are done.
“Sådan” he declares, expressing satisfaction with your job.

Well, thank fuck for that.

You throw your jacket and boots on – that’s me done. Then their hats go on. Mercifully easily. Apart from the yelling, of course. As soon as they have their mittens on you can go.

Mittens… Where are the mittens?

Ten sweaty minutes later, you have found the mittens and operation Michelin-children is complete.

You open the door. It is like releasing a cork from a bottle. All the tension dissipates, your children fizz outside.

You are no longer a harassed mother and two young kids. You are no longer contained. Now you are explorers, adventurers, treasure hunters. You can see the possibilities.

walk-cold-appropriate-clothing
Ready to explore

The air crackles with ice-crystals. As the three of you roar, you melt it with your hot breath.

Here be dragons.

 

 

 

 

(Boys and) Girls Can Do Anything

Gender Stereotyping.

It is impossible to avoid.

It starts as soon as the hospital staff hand you the pink hat, or the blue boots.  The message is clear: this defines your child.

baby-shoes-1796582_640

Should we brush it off as harmless? Or should we fight it?

I fight it. I fight it because I believe this is the beginning of the same forces that trap boys in displays of toxic masculinity, bottling up emotion, at best leaving them unhappy, at worst leaving them prey to mental illness, or alt-right chat boards. Our daughters fare worse, at best trapped under glass ceilings or, at worst, victims of gender-based violence.

It creeps in though, it’s unavoidable.

The girl at my son’s kindergarten, who asks why his sister in dressed in a skirt with pirates on it? Pirates are for boys.

Or the books we love despite their depressingly dated sexism. Richard Scarry is a repeat offender. I give radical feminist interpretations of classic books like Dear Zoo, making half the animals ‘she’ instead of ‘he’. Even new books fall into this trap, like the current favourite about a boy and a dragon- a male dragon, of course. I call the dragon ‘she’ and ‘her’ and guess what? The book still makes sense.

MJ whispers, he wants to wear his ‘dancing skirt’, a pink tutu we were handed down. He spins and pirouettes on our bed, dancing even when the radio is between songs. Once wearing the skirt he loses any inhibitions but I wonder, where did he learn that we might not like him dressing in it? I cheer him enthusiastically, trying to chase any doubts away.

Yesterday MJ made a bracelet at kindergarten. Silver and white and brown and pink plastic beads on a piece of elastic. He was so pleased with it. Silver is my new favourite colour. He runs his finger over the beads, leans against me, tells me something his best friend said
“He didn’t like it, but then he said he didn’t mean it.”
Head bowed, I can hear the hurt in his voice.
“Even if he didn’t mean it, it wasn’t a kind thing to say, was it?”
He sighs, wounded. I kiss his cheek. He leans in further
“Vank you for my lovely kiss.”
I breathe him in, my boy who can roll out a danish ‘soft d’ like a native speaker but can’t always manage ‘th’. He might be my big boy, but he is small and needs me still.
“Would you like another kiss?”
I ask hopefully.
“No.”
I am disappointed, but I respect his boundaries, and don’t kiss him. And there you have it, teaching consent to 4 year olds is really not that hard.

Buy boys dolls they say. MJ likes to play knights with his sword and shield. Not just knights, his interests are diverse, he likes to play vikings too. He doesn’t have a doll. Have I failed? Am I inadvertently entrenching the idea that nurturing is a female occupation? I take AJ into a toy shop and she reaches for all the dolls, grabs at the soft toys. This is something MJ never did. He has a monkey he loves, and he adores his cuski, a flannel baby comforter with a squishy ball shaped head. Cuski baby, he calls it.  It is cuski he cuddles at night, and cuski who sits on cushions next to the table at breakfast, and cuski he pretended to feed while I fed AJ. He might not have a doll but his devotion to cuski shows his nurturing capabilities are intact.

I think back to when he was his sister’s age. He liked Maisy, and running to the window whenever he heard a plane, which was often because we lived under the flight path, and picking flowers. AJ likes Maisy, and running to the window whenever we hear sirens, which is often because we live near the fire station, and doing whatever her brother is doing. Their interests seem to have more to do with environment than any in-built gender differences. But what do I know, I’m a parent, not in marketing for toy companies.

I want the world to be a better place for both my children. I want their futures to be open, not confined by arbitrary roles. Gender stereotyping affects boys and girls. I want my son to imagine being a stay at home Dad, and my daughter to imagine working in STEM.

We’ve come a long way since my mother was told she could be a teacher or a nurse. Times change. Feminism has won, they say, you can do anything. At my intermediate school there was an extension math group, for ‘students’ who were good at maths. There were no girls in this group. I was sat next to a boy who was struggling in math class, expected to help. When I was asked why, they said because you are good at maths. Feminism has won, they say.

“Lets play Frozen” MJ says “I’ll be…” He leans in close, whispers “Elsa.” As though there is something transgressive about this idea. I marvel at him pretending to blast out ice. I usually play the ice monster. Roaring and chasing two giggling kids around the house. Why does he think I would mind?

My last conversation at the hospital with my mother, I don’t know how we got there, but I remember her saying girls can do anything.
“Yes” I replied “I’ll make sure I teach MJ that.”
She smiled, coughed, raised her index finger in agreement, “make sure you do.”
It is a promise I intend to keep.

There is just one thing wrong with that, I realise now. To teach him this, I need to teach him something else too. Boys can do anything.

 

Richer Than Trump

All the ways I am richer than Trump.

Dear Trump,

The morning you were elected we in Denmark woke to snow. My children laughed and pressed their faces up against our glass back door. I wonder, are you capable of such simple pleasures. These pleasures add a rich tapestry to our lives. Finer than any that hang in a museum. Do you know these riches?

We might not be able to afford a bedroom for each of our children, but I live in a house with insulated walls.  We have food in our cupboards. We may not have long term job security, or own property, but on a global scale we are fortunate. I am grateful for this fortune. I know myself to be rich.

Trump and his gilded chair. Regine Mahaux, Getty Images.

You live in a house with gilded chairs. Are they any more comfortable than my Ikea armchair? Is your table as precious to you as my coffee table? The one given to my mother for her 21st birthday. Stained and battered with the memories of all our childhoods? Is there anything in all your towers that you truly love, Trump?

I have a marriage based on the principles of equality and respect and love. Is your marriage as rich as mine? I should not presume to judge you. Yet, I see little to envy. Perhaps you think others respect you. I can tell you respect that is bought with money, respect that is sometimes a masquerade for intimidation and fear, is no respect worth having.

I am so fortunate to be a woman living in a time and place where I have a right to an education. For centuries women’s lives were dominated by the the burden of reproduction and now I have choice. I have two children I love and chose to have. Now I can choose to not have any more. My life is so rich for these choices. Rich in ways I do not think you can begin to comprehend. So I will continue to speak out for the right of all women around the world to control their fertility. You and your establishment friends seem to see this as something to be controlled and feared. How sad for you, to be so afraid of our wealth.

I am rich because I see science as a contribution, as mankind’s greatest gift to itself. I do not fear it, or try to deny it, even when it tells me things I would not like to hear. I heed its warnings and believe we will continue to progress. I am rich because I believe in our ability to work together. The world has done this before and with our collective weight we will not let you stand in our way.

I am rich because I choose to use my privileges to speak for those in need. Instead of shouting the loudest, I have learnt to listen. There is so much to learn in this world. I do not think I have all the solutions, but I can work with people and together we achieve great things. Things that are truly great. Not just great for some.

I am rich because where you promise walls, I would build bridges.

Have you heard the story of King Midas? He was so greedy he wished to turn everything he touched into gold. But when he could no longer eat and drink he regretted his wish, and once he had turned his daughter to gold he loathed it. Have you been careful what you wish for Trump?

Your name will go down in the history books. I will be forgotten long before you. My legacy will be small. Confined to the corner of the world I inhabit. I look at my children and I see so much potential. I see the real treasures of this world. If I can raise my children to be kind, to act selflessly, to listen and learn and respect all people, regardless of their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, their abilities, then I will consider my life a life well lived.

You might think you have it all: money, power, prestige. I look at your life, Trump, and I see nothing that I want.

I am far, far richer than you.