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

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.

 

Waiting for you in the sun

Here are the things you have missed:

The first moment of grief. You weren’t there. And suddenly the whole future without you was there. And we had to face it. And it was hard. And I had to say goodbye without you to give me a comforting hug afterwards.

You weren’t there to tell when I got pregnant again. Or to tell you it was a girl.

You didn’t visit me in hospital. You didn’t squeeze my hand and tell me it would be ok.

You didn’t get to see my son meet his little sister. You didn’t get to see those first little cuddles and kisses.

You weren’t there to call when I was still sick and the baby was crying and her brother got angry because she was sucking up all my time and energy. Oh, there were so many other people to call, I know. But I wanted you.

You were holding my eldest when he smiled the first time. But you’ve never seen my daughter smile, never seen the way she wrinkles her nose in glee. Or heard the way she laughs when she knows she is being cheeky.

You haven’t seen my son ride a bike. You didn’t get to visit a castle with him and his Grandad, and watch them fire cannons and shoot arrows at imaginary baddies. It would have made you smile.

You didn’t get to bake a cake and give my daughter a beater to lick and see how happy it made her. I remember you giving my son one for the first time, and you took a photo of him all grubby and happy. And it is a precious memory and always was, because even then we knew the memories were running out.

You miss so much, you miss every day. You miss the tears, and the laughter. You miss the falling over and kissing scraped hands and knees. You miss scolding kids who won’t brush their teeth, or put on shoes. You miss sibling fights, and afternoons cuddling on the couch watching TV. You miss first steps, and counting to ten, and learning to write his name, and favourite books, and drawing, and nursery rhymes, and skype, and building duplo, and having tea parties, and wiping runny noses, and doing the same puzzle over and over, and the piles of washing, and 829 family dinners. You miss all the minutiae of life. Because, of course, you are not alive.

Life goes on. It is full and rich and full of wonderful moments. But if I were to write it in a book every page would have one letter erased, the space where you are missing.

By missing you I keep you with me, safe in my heart. In that way my children will know you.

I hold my daughter and sing her the same songs you sang to me.

I stroke my son’s hair as he lies in bed.

I tidy up, and clean, and cook dinners, and wash clothes, and when I feel like my children take me for granted I think of you and know that that is ok. Children should be able to take their parents for granted.

I get out your old cookbook and we bake. I feel the words you wrote underneath my fingers. And it tastes like my childhood home and you are there.

Stuck in the middle

The other weekend we went blackberry picking on a path near where we live. Like we might be the type of family that lives knee deep in Lego and laundry, watching TV in a super-urban apartment, and goodness knows what Janet Lansbury would make of the way I snap at the kids sometimes, but, whatever. We are also the kind of family that makes foraged jam. So wholesome.

I concentrated on filling up my ice-cream container while my husband helped M, who was very proud of the ten or so berries that ended up in his bucket. We left A buckled in her pram for safety’s sake, and as long as I fed her a berry every now and again she was happy. Until she wasn’t. And just then a family boated past us on the river, having a family sing-along.

Dammit. This isn’t wholesome family fun. Family sing-alongs while you boat is wholesome family fun. I’m doing this wrong. What must they think of the crazy woman standing in the blackberries while a toddler yells in a pram.

The yelling turns into crying.

I try to extract myself from the bush – cursing myself for wearing a skirt. And realise my jacket is snagged in many, many places. Turning to deal with that, my hair gets snagged by more thorns. I remember a recent episode of Peppa Pig, the one where they go blackberry picking and Mummy Pig gets stuck in a blackberry bush.

I have turned into Mummy Pig.

Dammit.

Mummy Pig just wants wholesome family fun. She just wants some fruit. And five minutes to pick berries without having to stop and admire a four year old’s basically empty bucket, or be yelled at. She just wants jam and maybe a crumble or two. Why does she have to be judged for her food choices? Why does she have to have her dignity stripped away by a blackberry bush – let’s all come laugh at the fat pig stuck in the prickly thorns! Why does she have to involve the whole family and share when all she wants is a fucking dessert? It’s not all about you Peppa!

Somehow I ripped myself free.

Or did I?

I came home to see the always excellent Andie Fox (@bluemilk) retweeting an old post because the same old tired arguments about mothers keep happening.

We will know we’re living in a world of equality not when just as many men as women are staying home making jam and looking after babies but when women can talk about their life making jam and looking after babies without everyone freaking the fuck out.

Because maybe the blackberry bush I am actually stuck in is a metaphorical one; a thorny tangle of attacking mothers for the choices they make. It seems in these days of information overload, we can’t just make a decision. We are expected to have thought about it – to have done our research. Then everyone gets to analyse our decision, and journalists write crappy clickbait articles about the mommy wars. But these choices (if we actually get a choice) aren’t about society. They are just the choices that we make for our life. Choosing jam doesn’t mean giving up on gender equality. But it is hard when you are in the thick of it to know if what you are doing is right. So does picking blackberries make me a better mother? Or does being mired in domesticity mean I am a poor role model? Or does it tell you nothing about me other than the fact we have blackberry bushes nearby and I like to cook?

And to eat.

So I made crumble. And I made jam. And my children and I shared licking the spoon and got happy, sticky, jammy faces.

Conclusion: It’s just fucking jam. Stop overthinking things.

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