Prisms and Peace

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“The more you approve of your own decisions in life, the less you feel the need to have them approved or accepted by others” – Unknown

I shared this quote on my Facebook page last week and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

One thing I strongly believe is that if we truly have peace with and faith in our own actions and choices, both as parents and human beings, we can take the sting out of almost any criticism and in doing so help to diffuse negative self-talk at the same time.

My breast-feeding story was an example of this. After having my daughter I spent the best part of two years berating myself for being unable to breast-feed her. As a result I was highly attuned to any conversation on the topic and would often find judgement where perhaps there was none intended. I really didn’t have peace with my inability to breast-feed and this clouded not only my interpretation of events but also my opinion of myself as a mother. I viewed every conversation and article on the subject through the prism of my own experiences so was extremely sensitive and self-critical.

Theodore Roosevelt once said “Comparison is the thief of joy”.
There will usually be someone who you perceive to have or be a better x, y or z than you. Perception is the key word here. I’ve said before that we never really know the struggles others are enduring behind the scenes and anyway, no-one else can lessen what you already are, even if they’re cleverer/richer/thinner/happier than you.
No one has the monopoly on any feeling or any characteristic and comparing our lives with others’, whether to make ourselves feel better or worse is never the healthiest of pastimes.

I belong to several Facebook mums’ groups and I never cease to be surprised (and often disappointed) at the fervency with which opinions are often communicated. I’ve witnesses many openly scathing online attacks on those with different viewpoints, and even more quietly judgemental and passive-aggressive debates turning into conflicts. Each one makes me feel both anxiety and despair at the sometimes seemingly non-existent sisterhood or solidarity amongst certain mothers online.

“What other people think of you is none of your business. If you start to make it your business, you’ll be offended for the rest of your life.”
Deepak Chopra

I genuinely believe that most of what people say is not about me or you, it’s a reflection of them, viewing life through the prism of their own experiences and often their self-doubts, too.

I spend a lot of time observing people’s behaviours. Watching a storm descend online I often pontificate on why people are conducting themselves in such a way…. What drives them? I wonder if sometimes, without even realising, criticism of others is a strategy for boosting a flailing self esteem. I suspect that much of the more embittered denigration of other mother’s methods comes from a place of buried inadequacy. Proving superiority. Knocking others down in order to build yourself up, as it were.

Having faith in our own choices could go such a long way in removing the need to be validated by the approval of others and the subsequent tendency to see an “us and them” pattern with other mothers who may do things differently.

Some choices are easier than others to reconcile and there will always be mistakes. But our mistakes don’t define us, they’re just learning opportunities.

I’m working on giving myself some grace and remembering that setbacks or minor-catastrophes can also be viewed as chances to practice self-kindness and cut myself some slack. Parenting seems to be one huge learning curve and every time you think you’ve sussed it, the goal posts seem to move again.

Rather than always elaborating on the most negative interpretation of events I need to remember that I’m human. Sometimes I shout and sometimes I cry and that’s OK. Because the decisions I make, whether right or wrong, are always made in love and with the best interests of my family heart. I truly believe that the vast majority of mothers out there are the same as me. We’re trying our best. Sometimes our best will be better than other days and sometimes “good enough” will have to suffice, but there is always love.

When looking back on why I reacted in a particular way to a situation, Often, on reflection, I realise that I’ve been looking to others to help me feel good enough about my decisions or choices.

I’ve said before that we can’t control what others say to us, but we can try our hardest to control our reactions. If, for example, your mother-in-law comments that your child isn’t dressed warmly enough for the cold weather you have a choice as to how you react. You can assume she thinks you’re a dreadful parent who doesn’t have a clue what’s best for your child and spend the rest of the day admonishing yourself. Or, you can remind yourself that you know your child better than anyone. You know your little one will get cranky and cross if she gets too hot. You can move on from the conversation and get on with your day by having faith in the choices you make.

The same goes for almost any decision you make for your children; feeding, weaning, co-sleeping, schooling… you’ve made your decisions with love and care. Others are entitled to do the same and it’s no reflection on you or me if their choices are different. Your instincts are usually right for your children and the same applies to other parents, too.

Now, I don’t think I’m ever likely to become to type of person who genuinely doesn’t care what other people think. However, it is becoming more and more apparent to me that by recognising my own strengths I can work towards nurturing a mindset of not needing everyone else’s approval or acknowledgement that I am a good enough person or parent.

Because, I’ll let you in on a little secret; I am a good enough person and parent. And so are you.

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The Same, Differently

This morning I tuned in to a radio debate and for the first time was compelled to call in and join in. Sadly I didn’t have enough time before the school run to partake, so I’m going to share my views here.

The debate concerned parenting books; the suggestion being that parenting books are responsible for stifling the natural instinct and intuition of parents. Callers of all ages made their points, with some arguing that allowing babies to “cry it out” is the only way to get a baby to sleep through the night. Others argued that Gina Ford’s ‘Contented Little Baby’ routine was both the work of the devil and equally the only possible option for raising a happy child. Several parents from older generations pointed out that none of these books and regimes were available “in their day” and their children turned out alright (even though, when pressed, at least one admitted that her children didn’t sleep through the night until the age of five).

Few topics polarise people as much as parenting. There are so many factors and variables along the rocky road that is parenthood and it’s such an important job. Nothing magnifies irrational thought as much as sleep deprivation and this is where parenting books come in. They can feel like a life-line when your instinct and intuition seem to be failing you.

The one thing all callers had in common was their passion. They all felt so strongly that they were right.

Had I been put on-air this morning, my point would have been this:
“Why does your way have to be the only way?”

Nobody on this particular radio show was able to appreciate that what works for them may not for someone else; all children are different and what works for your first child may not have the same effect on your subsequent offspring. Others may do things differently from you, and that’s fine. It doesn’t mean that they’re wrong or that you are, either.

The main topic of this phone-in was intuition, which I think is a really interesting point. The suggestion was that anyone following a routine from a parenting book was ignoring their own common-sense and instinct. The reason I felt compelled to join this debate was that this view is so incredibly black and white.

What if your intuition is telling you that you need help? Why ignore the wealth of information in books and online? What if you are seriously questioning whether you were over-looked on the day that maternal instinct and common sense were handed out? What’s so wrong with using a crutch?

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I admit that I’m somewhat of a parenting-book-junkie. Especially when Madam was born, in the early days and during the onset of what turned out to be severe post-natal depression, I was desperate for help. I bought book after book, determined to shoe-horn my little baby in to a routine that would get her through the night. Looking back, what I really needed was to feel in control. Anyone who’s ever had a newborn will know that control, hormones and little babies don’t usually go hand-in-hand.

The start of my darkest days coincided with trying to fit Madam in to Gina Ford’s routine. I just couldn’t seem to get her to “obey’ the timings that Ms. Ford insisted upon. I felt like an utter failure. Several of my peers had successfully implemented Gina, yet I simply couldn’t make her routine work. I think my baby was four weeks old. Had I been thinking rationally at the time, I’d have realised that either this routine wasn’t for us, or that we’d have to try later when the baby was a bit older. Perhaps I’d have taken some tips or ideas and found my own way. But I wasn’t thinking rationally. I was desperate. I bought several other books, determined to fit my tiny little baby in to some sort of schedule: to make me feel back in control of the situation and in hindsight, my life.

My fixation on routine was in all likelihood something for me to focus on. Of course I now realise that putting so much emphasis on getting little Madam in to a routine was causing me to miss out on so many joyful moments. I even felt resentful of her at times. Of course, much of this is closely tied in to PND. Also, thinking back, the control issue was also probably magnified by my inability to breastfeed her (more on this topic soon). I looked to parenting books to help me regain control as I felt completely unprepared for the spiral that my life had seemingly become.

With this in mind you’d think I’d be firmly in the anti-parenting book camp. But this is not the case. Not at all. My situation was extreme and I am in no way suggesting that any book was responsible for my depression. I did find a routine that worked for us (from Tracey Hogg’s ‘The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems’), and Madam did sleep through the night from eight weeks. I say this not to brag, but to show that with perseverance I found something that worked. For me, the stress of implementing a routine was negated by the rewards. Getting the baby to sleep through the night as soon as she was ready helped me to feel more in control and made me more capable of seeking help for myself. I genuinely don’t believe that she’d have slept as early as she did without the routine.

I’m occasionally asked my views on Gina Ford and her routines. I would never dream of saying “Oh my God, Gina and I don’t get on at all, she nearly sent me insane. Steer well clear if you’d like to avoid taking up residence in a padded cell!”. I realise and accept that all children and all families are different. The reason there are so many books, ideas and baby products on the market is that there is something to suit everyone. I can only offer my own experiences and share what did and didn’t work for us. I try very hard to stick to point number five in my Mummy Kindness Manifesto:

I will only offer advice when it’s asked for. I will do so with love and without judgement.

When it comes to receiving parenting advice, experience has taught me to filter advice and to keep an open mind. It is perfectly acceptable to glean useful nuggets of information from an assortment of media and to disregard what doesn’t speak to or work for you.

There is no reason why reading parenting books should stifle our parental instincts or intuitions. If we have peace with and faith in our own choices as parents, there’s no reason why we should feel threatened by someone else’s different approach. I think this goes for all aspects of life, really, not only parenting. We all simply want to do our best for our families. Hopefully we can all continue to listen to our own instincts and at the same time respect and accept that others are doing the same, differently, and that’s fine too.

Expectant Expectations

I recently asked an online group of mums what advice they would give if they could send a letter back in time to their first-time pregnant selves;

“I’d tell myself to ignore the midwife who told me I’d be unable to breastfeed my baby because I’d had a caesarean. I bitterly regret listening to her advice, which I now know was totally inaccurate.”

“Please don’t bother with the colour-coded, detailed birth plan. What a waste of time. I felt such a sense of failure when I eventually had an epidural. I so wanted to have a natural birth and ended up with an emergency c-section. I still blame myself for not being able to do it without drugs”.

“I wish I’d had the confidence to ignore the pressure to breastfeed. I had so many strangers hands all over my poor boobs in those early days. The health visitor put so much pressure on me to breastfeed that I literally felt like I was being ‘milked’. It really affected how I bonded with my baby as I felt so resentful. I’d tell myself to listen to my instincts and trust my gut”.

How different our expectations are from the reality of pregnancy, birth and the early years.

What saddens me is that the feelings of disappointment and failure by these women (and myself) could have been diminished, if not avoided, if only we were more realistic in our expectations.

Of course I’m not suggesting that every birth is difficult and horrible, but let’s face it, very few births play out exactly as expected. Friends who planned beautiful drug-free water births had emergency c-sections, and a dear friend of mine who had planned on taking every drug available to her ended up suddenly delivering her daughter on the floor at home.

Ante-natal advice on breastfeeding is plentiful, but far less support is available for mums who bottle feed. Those unable to breastfeed can be left feeling inferior and inadequate against their lactating counterparts. Many women expect breastfeeding to be a beautiful and nurturing experience but sadly find the reality very different indeed.

Dr. K is a new mum who has kindly shared her story with me.

“I did not enjoy my pregnancy at all. Far from the blossoming, glowing, Mother Earth person I expected to be, I had significant health problems throughout, high blood pressure, a number of pre eclampsia scares, carpal tunnel syndrome and feet that became so oedematous I had to wear special shoes for the last 3 months of pregnancy. Then there was the weight gain. Society places huge pressure on women to look slim. I felt I should resemble a waif with an egg attached to my abdomen, not the whale I became.
I accept that it was my own expectations of myself to breastfeed that caused me to get incredibly emotional in those early days. I felt like a failure. Being unable to breastfeed made me feel utterly ashamed until a senior midwife pointed out that whether breast or bottle-fed my baby would gain weight and grow”.

It’s not just over-thinkers like me who feel like failures if things don’t go to plan. (Watch this space for my own breastfeeding story). Dr. K had a very difficult pregnancy, birth and feeding experience. Even extensive knowledge and medical training didn’t align her expectations with what eventually came to pass. Even doctors feel frightened and often disappointed with themselves in their first days as mothers.

Another doctor, Dr M also shared her experiences with me;
” Those first few months of having a newborn baby were the most difficult of my life, but at the same time, you adore this new baby and all you want to give it is the best. If someone had told me how hard it would be, I’m sure I’d never have done it.”

I don’t think I know one mother who could honestly say the newborn days were what she expected and I think we underestimate how formative the early days are on how we view ourselves as mummies.

My theory is that even from as early on as pregnancy, we set expectations that are altogether too high. Detailed birth plans, for example, are setting us up to feel like failures from the moment we give birth. Perhaps strong pressure to breastfeed when it simply may not work for us only serves to make us feel inadequate from the off.

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My view is that if we were all a bit more realistic with our expectations from the very beginning, we may realise and believe that our worth as a parent is not determined or measured by whether we managed to deliver a baby naturally or breastfeed exclusively for the first year (or countless other factors).

I think that there is definitely room for improvement when it comes to ante-natal care. Women need more information on what to expect in those tough early days as a new mum. Some organisations are fantastic and some aren’t. Similarly it can be a bit of a lottery as to whether you get a supportive Midwife or Health Visitor who will look at your situation in isolation and not just tow the party-line.

Dr. M further illustrates this point; “NCT and antenatal classes are partly to blame because they don’t tell you how hard the reality of having a newborn baby is. They focus on the delivery but what we really need to hear is ‘what do I do with this baby once I get it home?!’ Maybe they don’t want to scare us but I definitely believe there should be much more realistic ante-natal advice.”

There are also some fantastic postnatal groups out there, and I truly believe that they are equally important as ante-natal classes. I think so many of us could benefit from postnatal groups in which mums are encouraged to be really truthful with one another and where competition is actively discouraged. Two groups who have contacted me can be found here and here. If you run a postnatal group and you’d like to tell us about it, please feel free to leave a comment below with a link to your website.

A bit more honestly with our fellow new mums can go so very far. Admitting that those early days are tough, that breastfeeding can be both beautiful and excrutiating, that sometimes you wonder what-on-earth you’ve got yourself in to goes such a long way.

Now I’m not for a second suggesting that we accost every pregnant woman we see, terrify her with birth horror stories and bombard her with unsolicited advice. I don’t think this will help anyone.

However, sharing our experiences with truthful sensitivity can help new mums feel less like failures and more like true, authentic women who can only only do their best each day.

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My letter to my thirty year old, newly pregnant self four years ago would say something like this:

Dear You

Mazeltov on your wonderful news!
You won’t enjoy pregnancy very much, but that’s OK. Lots of women feel like this too.
Several people will say you’re the biggest pregnant woman they’ve ever seen. Try not to be offended. It’s true.
Please do try to rest. You can’t stock-pile sleep as easily as you can lay down fat stores (sadly), but it will be several years before you feel properly rested again.
Keep an open mind about your birth. I don’t want to scare you, but when the midwife tries to send your husband home on the night that they induce you. Please don’t let him go.
Also, don’t bother buying any newborn clothes, there’s a very big boy in there.
Another thing… disposable knickers come up really small. Buy the biggest size you can find and avoid a very embarrassing shopping trip to Mothercare for your father-in-law.
It’s OK to sometimes feel a bit envious of friends who don’t have children yet and how they will sleep uninterrupted tonight. Everyone feels like this sometimes, but no-one talks about it.
If the house is too full of people sometimes, please politely ask them to leave. Allow your new family some private bonding time.
Oh, and you don’t know this, but there is such a thing as an over-stimulated baby. This is why he will sometimes scream for no obvious reason when there have been too many visitors.
Keep an open mind when it comes to feeding your baby boy and hold on to that for the next few years. The most important thing is that he and you are happy.
Please don’t compare yourself with other new mums. Do what works for you and let them do the same.
You will be the best mummy for your children and you will know them better than anyone else. Please remember this and have faith in yourself.
Love
You

I’ll leave you with these fabulous words from Dr M:
“What I’ve learnt having had two children is that it doesn’t matter how they are born, only that they are healthy. It doesn’t matter how they are fed, only that they are loved and looked after to the best of our abilities. Our worth as a parent is determined by how much we love and nurture our children, however we may do that”.

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All images are credited to the Brave Girls Club
An enormous thank you to the two brave and fabulous doctors who told their honest truths to a total stranger for the benefit of others.