And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear

It’s true that nowadays people are more accepting of the wide breadth of gender expression that people feel, rather than the strict gender binaries of yore. And while I fit into a fairly conventional gender role myself, I think it is really important that people have these freedoms. But I worry that our kids are being forced to define themselves much more narrowly than us adults. That while we dream about every colour of the rainbow, big business seems determined to tell how children how they should look.

Have you been into a kids clothing store recently? Where is the green? Red? Orange?

It’s pink. It’s blue.

And it isn’t that I think there is anything wrong with blue or pink. Or boys who like trucks, and girls who like ponies. My son has a very healthy obsession with various modes of transport. When M was born I quite happily stocked up on baby clothes from the boy section, mostly in blue, lots of cute puppies and robots. I love blue! I love robots! But as my son has grown I find the clothes are less cute puppies, more Angry Birds. I bought him a Batman t-shirt, but Batman looks quite frowny. My son loves flowers and cooking, and cuddling his little sister; he worries about growing up and being old enough to go for walks on his own because he will be ‘alonely’. It seems crazy to dress him as though his default emotion is rage.

Now I have a daughter, and my eye wanders over to the girl department, and they glaze over. I find myself frightened to enter. I swear those sparkly ponies are waiting for a chance to stampede. I swear if I squeeze through the aisle of pink frilly skirts I’ll get lost and end up in Narnia.

But what about when she is older? I want her to dress to please herself, not other people. I want her to know that she doesn’t have to look a certain way to be accepted. That she doesn’t have to look a certain way to have her bodily autonomy respected. I don’t want her to think she should look like a Disney princess. Or that looking like a Disney princess is somehow a reflection of inner character, and that all the baddies she meets in life will look like Ursula. That looking like Ursula means you are bad. Though tentacles would be unfortunate…

I want my children to know they are loved however they express themselves. I want them to wear a riot of colour, or black from top to toe. They can be as conservative or not as they like. But the messages all around them are so strong. The boys’ side, and the girls’ side of the clothes store. The shoe shop. The toy store.

And it’s hard. It’s hard to swim against the flow of that message.

And before you say, it’s just clothes, don’t you have bigger things to care about? The answer to that is ‘Yes’. I do have bigger things to care about than if dressing my daughter in too many of her older brother’s hand me downs confuses people. I have more important things to do than to shop once for a boy, and then do the same thing three years later when I already bought clothes that size, just because of a double X chromosome. I have more important worries than if a stranger thinks dressing my son in floral t-shirts because he loves flowers is ‘a bit gay’. Because frankly if he decided he was gay that wouldn’t worry me in the least. And also, that’s not how it works.

The wonderful thing about small children is how accepting they are. They are so curious, and can ask awkward questions, but when we show them things are normal, acceptable, they accept it. But they also take small samples to representative of the whole; my son saw one train driver, and since then every duplo train has a female duplo figure driving it. We need to stop dividing our children into dichotomies of girl/boy, beautiful/boisterous, nurturers/adventurers. Because if we teach them that this is how it should be, how can we expect true equality for them when they are adults? If we teach them these rules matter, how can we expect them not to conform?

I could choose to push hard myself against it. Choose to dress them defiantly. But them I’m forcing that. It has to come from them. I think living as immigrants makes it harder. M is the foreign kid at daycare; with foreign parents who, as one child charmingly put it, understand nothing (but I understood that!). He is a foreign language speaker, and although he is pretty fluent, danish is still his second language, and he has a slight accent. He gleefully wears his pink Hello Kitty glasses; even on dark winter mornings because actually they are eyeglasses, and ‘oh-oh everything is blurry.’ He wears t-shirts with dandelions and other flowers on them, because he loves them. How much more do we let him stand out before the wolves start circling?

It’s too early to know who my kids will be when they grow up. A is only eight months and her preferences are pretty limited so far. Three year olds change so quickly too. Every winter I quietly worry over how much my boy will change. So far each spring when the buds break through the soil my little florist returns to me. He wants to pick every flower. We are barely able to go for walks we spend so long collecting dandelions.

And this is how I want to parent. I don’t want to tell my children how to be. I want them to be. I want to nurture the best of them. To embrace and cherish what makes them unique. To keep it safe. Not in a glasshouse. Not dried between pages of a book. But wild, fresh and blooming for all the world to see.

New Zealanders – looking for gender neutral clothes for kids? This online store Freedom Kids is awesome.

Forgive me for my sinny sin sins

The night after my mother’s funeral my son discovered potato chips with dip. He stood at the coffee table absolutely devouring them. He was so full of junk food, he barely touched a more nutritious dinner later, and I could not have cared less. Quite frankly after the week we’d had, certainly the most stressful week of his life, if not mine as well, I thought the fact that he wouldn’t go to bed hungry was good enough. My extended family were still around; if any of them thought I should find the energy to instil good eating habits in my nearly-two-year-old they knew better to say anything. They joked about it with me, while playing games to keep him entertained.

How lucky I was that in a difficult time, experiencing a ‘parent fail’, I was surrounded by kindness.

Sometimes I wonder why kindness is hard to come by.

Online can be this amazing place where we share or get support, and I love it. Except for when it goes wrong, and then I hate it. Someone makes a joke, or has a bit of a whinge, and so often someone has to come along and throw in their expert ‘advice’, and all of a sudden people are made to feel shit about perfectly normal things that happen.

Here’s a test. A friend posts: So tired, the baby cries for hours and I just want it to sleep. Do you comment:

 A) That sucks. Hugs.
B) Feel for you. Bob used to do that. We ended up using a white noise machine. Do you want me to drop ours off for you to try?
C)We had a good bedtime routine and never had any problems getting Bob to sleep. He learnt it was bedtime, and always slept fine. You should read all the baby books.
D)I knew someone whose baby cried. It had this really awful disease, and they had to pay a doctor a million dollars to rub coconut oil on them and wave crystals around.

Congrats if you chose A or B. If you chose C or D, you actually get a big fat F for Fail. Generic advice that is actually criticism, or diagnoses for perfectly normal baby behaviour are never, ever helpful. Why is this so hard?

And then you get offline, and out in public. Oh boy. That’s when the real evil-eye, sledge hammer judging comes along. Obviously it is all our fault – can’t we all just control our children?! People look askance at the parents of the tantruming toddler, forgetting that tantrums are completely age-appropriate behaviour and not a sign of poor parenting. If we give in to get out of a humiliating situation then it’s our fault, because we are teaching them ‘to get their way’. Or people think we should be prepared to pack up and go home. But once I have dressed two kids in snowsuits, mittens, hats & boots and gone out, maybe, just maybe, I would prefer to arrive home with the food I wanted to cook for dinner tonight. And if we ride it out it can be terribly embarrassing. Like the time M had a meltdown over wanting to ‘choose’ the bottle of coke, and I’m standing there like ‘I swear he doesn’t know what it is!’ but everyone is watching…I felt slightly better when the next time it was a 2kg pack of birdseed. Slightly.

The other day I found myself in town, with A asleep in the pram and a bit of time to spare before I needed to collect M from daycare. I decided to try clothes shopping. And of course I manage one shop before A wakes up; while I’m trying on a t-shirt. And you can’t pick up a baby while wearing a top you aren’t going to buy, so I have to change quickly, while she cries in the pram and everyone is staring, and I’m pretty sure the guy talking to his girlfriend in the changing rooms copped an eyeful of my stretchmarks and feeding-bra while I scrabbled to get clothes on and comfort A in her pram parked outside the inadequate curtain. And of course A doesn’t stop crying even when I pick her up. But I did like a cardigan, so I push the pram one-handed over to the counter and wait, and everyone is staring and going ‘aww’ at the poor baby. Because of course I am just a shopping obsessed woman who cares more about clothes than making sure her child’s basic needs are met. And this is why my wardrobe is entirely made-up of maternity clothes or clothes that don’t quite fit. Apart from one nice new cardigan. And how often do you see or hear snarky jokes about how Mums with babies don’t dress nicely?

Then people judge the parent who over-reacts at naughty behaviour. Without asking if that was the first or the millionth infringement of the day or week. Children are experts at winding their parents up, and sometimes even the best parent loses their cool. That doesn’t make them bad. Or their kids bad.

Or we judge them for ignoring something that we think should be stopped. I know I ignore some behaviour that other parents wouldn’t. But there are only so many boundaries I can enforce each day; and only so many times I can tell him off before we get into a negative spiral, that leaves me feeling like a nag, and my son feeling picked on. So sometimes, when it doesn’t matter, we turn a blind eye. Less ‘No jumping on furniture’, more ‘No jumping on the furniture near the full length glass windows please’. We’re not the only parents who do this. It’s not ill-discipline. It’s just that we expect our three year old to get carried away, to forget himself, to be over-exuberant, and we save our energy for the times we think discipline really matters.

And then, oh god, feeding a baby in public. Breastfeeding = bad. Bottlefeeding = bad. Solids = messy and gross to watch. Then you have a small child, and if you give them a treat then the wrath of god falls upon you. Don’t you realise you are setting them up for modern ‘lifestyle’ diseases? Because people can make an accurate judgement of your child’s actual diet based on one that one time (ok, more than once) you bought them a cake.

We spend our lives around people we don’t know. We don’t know. We don’t know who’s sick. Who’s grieving. Who has just lost a job. Who is celebrating a new one. Whose kids have genuine behavioural disorders and special needs. Who was up consoling and comforting a loved one when they desperately needed a sleep.

And it can be hard to take a step back and ask ourselves what’s really going on. It can be hard to know the right thing to say, or how to help. And sometimes we say or do the wrong thing. I know I’ve done it.

Try not to judge me too harshly for it, please?

The smell of baking got stronger and warmer and browner.

Maybe it’s a rainy day, maybe there’s rugby on we want to watch in the background, maybe I’m just too tired to leave the house but I need to find a way to keep M busy. Often my solution is to go to the kitchen and start baking. And in M’s own words he is turning into quite a good cooker.

M’s absolute favourite kitchen activity is to whip out the cookie cutters. I often do a double batch of dough and have some in the freezer ready for another day (see, sometimes I am organised!). He still needs a bit of help, and the cookies can get a bit ripped or squished; the teddy bear biscuits in particular tend to lose limbs during the process.

He can, under guidance, tip measured ingredients into bowls for mixing. He’s learning how to crack eggs, how to grate cheese and carrots, and we even let him do some chopping with a knife. I’ve been meaning to buy him one of these knives for kids but my to-do-list is quite…long.

I love having him help me in the kitchen; I used to love helping my Mum. She was an amazing cook. Because my sister has a long list of food intolerances (way before they became fashionable) bought biscuits were a ‘treat’. Mum somehow found the time to bake goods for our lunchboxes. If Mum made pastry there was always enough left over for us to play with, and maybe even a few raisins to stud it with before baking our creations. We learnt how to avoid overmixing muffins, test a cake was done, and whip up the perfect kiwi pavlova.

It is only now that I have M helping me that I see everything that my mother was teaching us.

‘And now we roll the dough into a rectangle. That means two long sides, and two short sides.’
Click. My mother was a high school maths teacher.
Geometry, measurements and ratios. Baking is basically maths.

Teaching our children shouldn’t be about being perfect. It’s not about instruction, or testing. It should be something we just do. Because children just learn. They absorb everything. They’ll do it whether we consciously teach them or not. Every day, every minute they spend with us they are learning. It’s a scary thought. Then I console myself with the thought that I am not trying to teach my son to be perfect. I’m trying to teach him to be human. That it is ok to make mistakes. That sometimes people get grumpy. That we can apologise afterwards. That we love each other, even though he doesn’t nap, and it’s getting late, and I’m tired, and can he just go into the bathroom and brush his fucking teeth?

After I started writing this (yeah, it takes me a looong time to type one-handed with a feeding baby), I saw an article about how to cook with your kids. I clicked. I’m a good blogger I thought. I’m doing ‘research’. I kid you not, the first three or four bullet-points were all about ensuring your kitchen was safe. Make sure any electrical cords are coiled tidely. Make sure anything sharp is out of reach. Make sure you’ve got everything out and ready, and a clear space for utensils once they are dirty. What are the kids doing while you spend half an hour fretting about what to do with your kettle cord? Playing nicely? My kitchen bench is half-pantry overflow, half dirty dishes, half crumbs (wait, that’s too many halves, what would my mother say?) I’d never get anything done if I had to organise a perfect cooking space first. Besides if I don’t teach my son that knives exist and you really shouldn’t touch the pointy metal bit, who will? So for now, I’m just going to leave it dangerously within reach.

My baking certainly isn’t pinterest-perfect. I don’t buy into the ‘clean eating’ that has become so popular. Our cakes are #loadedwithgluten #fullofrefinedsugar. Partly because sugar, is sugar, is sugar. And partly because while we do OK, it’s just way too expensive to use only ground almonds and maple syrup instead. Who knows what the future will be like for my children; what food security they will have. I imagine they will have years that are ‘leaner’ than others. It’s more important to me that they learn the basics of cooking, so they are able to make a cake for a special occasion or cook a nice dinner to impress a date, than feeding them some ideal diet now.

Sometimes we have spills, and mess. Sometimes it takes M ages to individually place every potato wedge I’ve chopped on to the tray, while I fret because I know he’ll be complaining he’s hungry before they’ve cooked. Sometimes he eats way too much biscuit dough. Sometimes I get exasperated at his insistence he can do everything himself, because he can’t, because he’s three. But we keep getting the measuring cups out, and going back to the kitchen; it’s hard not to enjoy his enthusiasm.

So, I’m grateful my mother took the time to include us in the kitchen. Because even though I don’t remember the cake crumbs and fingerprints all through the icing, or the half cup worth of flour I inevitably left my mother to sweep off the floor, I remember the time, the love, the life skills. Gifts that are worth passing on to her grandchildren.

#nailedit
#nailedit

Here’s an easy game to play/ Here’s an easy thing to say

Independent play. The holy grail of parenthood. That sometimes feels so near, and yet can never quite be attained. I’ve got drawn into a few debates over it recently. Obviously it is a heated issue in the internet mummy-sphere.

For a child his age M actually has a reasonable concentration span. He loves being read to. Though we don’t necessarily think he has to sit still for this. Or even sit. He’s enjoyed more than a few books while doing downward facing dog on his bed, or jumping on the couch. And he is paying attention, because if you get tongue-tied by Dr Seuss he will helpfully point it out.

Since adding to the family his ability to play more or less independently, more or less supervised, has become more, not less, of an issue. Something that will be familiar to many families. As I’ve seen happen on internet forums, if you dare admit that you are struggling to keep your older child entertained while you indulge in the frivolous activities of caring for your newborn, there are plenty of parents willing to judge you for it.

You let them watch TV? Their eyes will literally go square, and their brain is rotting.

Read to them. Holding a book whilst simultaneously breastfeeding a newborn is easy.

Just tell them ‘No. I’m busy’. They won’t mind at all that this new person in the house suddenly takes up all your time. I’m sure they’ll understand and happily play quietly on their own. The seething resentment they feel is normal, and I’m sure they’ll find an age appropriate outlet for this emotion, such as hitting or biting. Oh no wait. Hitting and biting are bad. Um. Maybe just tell them you understand, and you’ll have time for them later. Like when the baby is sleeping. Or as the baby never sleeps, when it’s ten. You’ll probably have some time then. If they’re lucky.

M hasn’t been overly resentful, and never violent to his sister. We’re lucky, that’s pretty normal behaviour actually. Mostly I’ve been the target of his resentment (lucky me!). But the reality is, there is only so much I can expect from him in terms of entertaining himself. Even when he does, he ends up doing stupid annoying shit. All The Time.

Twice recently I’ve let him have unsupervised water play while I feed A. I sit on the couch, while he splashes in the bathroom sink; I can’t see him, but I can hear. Both times we started well. Then I heard quite a lot of water running.

‘What are doing?’
No response
‘Stop running water!’
No response.
Frantically interrupts A’s feed, gets to feet, into bathroom, just in time to see the water lap over the edge of the sink onto the bathroom floor.

Or the second time, I heard a lot of suspicious splatting noises. Again I yelled out. M happily replied
‘I’m throwing the dirty water in the toilet.’
Yup, he was using a cup to throw water from the sink, in the general direction of the toilet so he could flush it later.

Not much had made it into the toilet.

On neither of these occasions was he being naughty. They were just interesting ideas he got and decided to explore. At three he genuinely is not able to foresee the messy outcomes, and doesn’t really care much about the cleaning up. Yes I got him to help wiping up with a cloth, but that’s sort of fun too, and he is ineffective so I have to do it after him anyway. I wasn’t mad, bud it adds to the generally harassed sense of never ending cleaning-washing-nagging-exhaustion-not-sure-I’m-doing-this-quite-right.

The internet is full of helpful suggestions for play; awesome ideas to keep your littlies entertained for hours. I don’t think I’m the only parent to find many of the suggestions intimidating, and the ‘play’ rather stressful. Coloured rice, paint, glue. It all gets everywhere. M would love it. He’ll spend an hour at børnehave playing with these beads. But it isn’t something I can cope with at home. It’s messy enough as is, add those beads and I’m in trouble. That’s now, just imagine what it’d be like in a couple of months when A will have approximately two skills: crawling, and putting things in her mouth.

Maybe other kids are different. Maybe their playing never results in unintended mess. Or parents yelling at their kids when they really didn’t plan too. Maybe they are a better parent than me.

Maybe their kids are dull…

Truth is, three year olds have plenty of energy, but little experience of the world. Their job at this age is to experiment, and to learn how to regulate their emotions. God knows, enough adults struggle with that. Learning to play independently takes time. Some kids take longer than others. Add in any additional stresses to the mix, family illness, moving house or daycare, new siblings or whatever, only makes it harder. So let’s stop judging parents whose kids don’t play independently ‘enough’

…a little child, born yesterday, A thing on mother’s milk and kisses fed…

It finally happened. I always knew it would, it was only a matter of time before I got my first breastfeeding-in-public disapproving look.

I was thinking my morning was going well. I’d already achieved a) a shower b) getting dressed c) leaving the house and d) finishing my shopping. Which is, by the way, four more things than I’ve achieved so far today. So when my daughter began to stir I decided not to tempt fate and sit down and feed her before my bus ride home. So I went into a cafe.

First mistake. You don’t really need a coffee. Are you kidding – I have two children, of course I need coffee!

If you do you should drink in solitude at home. <sobs> But I only have instant.

So I ordered my coffee and sat down and began to do the worst thing some people can ever imagine anyone doing ever. I began to unbutton my shirt. And then I saw it. That middle aged man at the table next to mine. The wide-eyed stare as he realises what I’m about to do. I’m going to sit in proximity to him while I feed my baby. And while he’s thinking something like I need to stop staring, at least that’s what I’m thinking he should be thinking. I’m thinking, that’s right, that’s exactly what we’re doing.

And I’m doing it here, because this is the only damn place nearby that isn’t full of bar stools. And have you ever seen anyone feed on a bar stool? No. Because no women has ever been fool enough to try. Unless she’s really desperate, in which case you gotta do what you gotta do. But we all know sitting on the floor is a better option.

I’m all nonchalant now, but at the time I was a little worried he’d say something. And then I’d have the whole awkward can-you-repeat-that-in-english conversation. But then I realised, while I might not be able to get myself understood, I can understand what other people are saying. Because he turned away from me, and instead starts to complain to his wife (?) about how old and uncomfortable the chairs are. And then their morning tea arrives, and she starts complaining about the lack of butter with her roll. And if you have ever eaten a roll in Denmark you will know that’s not true. Because they always give you like, three of those little packets, and then say ‘let me know if that’s not enough butter’. And really, that should be enough butter for one roll.

So while I prefer not to be evil-eyed while I feed my baby, it was a reminder that the kind of people who have a problem just aren’t worth worrying about. They’re the kind of people that would disapprove if I ended up with a screaming baby for the whole bus ride. And they’d disapprove if I whipped out a bottle. Or a dummy. Because they know I just procreated to inconvenience them. Sorry. (Not sorry).

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter, what they do. Being a parent is hard. Feeding your child is hard. Which ever way you end up doing it. It was hard when M had silent reflux and screamed his way through every feed. And it has been hard to get back up on my feet after surviving a seriously life-threatening hemorrhage. And after that, it took hard work (and some luck) that I was even able to build up a supply so I could be sitting here, feeding my baby. Hell, I’m glad I’m sitting here.

So when my daughter is quietly, contentedly feeding, and looks up at me, with her happy little eyes, and I just want to enjoy that quiet moment, don’t put your disapproval on me. I’m not interested. Life’s too short.