Supernanny not required?

I’ve just finished watching the whole series of Jo Frost: Extreme Parental Guidance on Sky+ (It clashed with Holby. Nuff said). (The first time I wrote that sentence, it said ‘extreme parenting’. What would that look like? Mums and dads jumping out of planes with tantrumming kids strapped to their backs? The naughty step replaced by a Naughty Piranha Pool in a James Bond stylee?)

Before I had children and when DD was very tiny, I used to occasionally watch Supernanny (v glad Jo’s now lost the severe specs and suits) with a sort of ghoulish fascination. It felt voyeuristic looking at these mums and dads who were at their wits end with some appalling behaviour when I was barely a mum myself. And very easy to judge. After all, it’s bloomin’ obvious isn’t it? Kids LIKE boundaries, so why haven’t you set any? Kids NEED a proper bedtime routine, so why are you allowing them to bounce off the walls at 11pm?

Some of her advice must have penetrated, because we’ve had good bedtime routines since ours were a few weeks old and I still think it’s crucial. Not least because much as I adore my munchkins, 7pm onwards is grown-up time in our house, time to cook, watch telly, have a conversation, drink wine, get on with chores or work, or lie in a bath with Grazia. It is not time for dealing with progressively more overtired and tricksy kiddiwinks.

From the look of this latest series, the same old issues of boundaries, discipline, bedtime, following through, mealtime battles and not working as a team are still the biggies for parents. Obviously the examples on the show are at the extreme end of the spectrum – hence the name of the series – but my goodness there were some shockers in there.

A mum who ‘had’ to force feed a four year old, a bored little boy who spent all day every day playing computer games, a spoiled little pageant queen and a six year old who had never spent a night in her own bed. Her single mum had never had an evening to herself on the sofa, and never had her bed to herself. Now that’s sleep deprivation, not to mention a killer when you’re trying to find a boyfriend.

The one that really shocked me, though, was a little girl who pulled her own hair out and was addicted to dummies and was always on her mum’s hip. I missed the bit where they said how old she was and assumed she was a bit older than DS, maybe twoish. But she was three and a half! The same age as DD! And still having a bottle of milk in the night! And was never, ever separated physically from her mum, who just carried her round and referred to her as ‘the baby’.

I found this story particularly sad because it became quite obvious that it wasn’t just the little girl driving all these habits – although she kicked up a stink when things started to change – but also her mum. Her mum was desperately worried about the hair pulling (I mean, the little girl was almost bald), then noticed the connection with the dummy and found when dummies were banned during the day it stopped, but still couldn’t bring herself to get rid of the dummies completely. She started to understand that her insistence on babying her little girl was seriously stunting her normal emotional and behavioural development, yet took some time to ‘let go’.

I’ve never, touch wood/yet, needed to use any of Jo Frost’s techniques (and I know naughty steps/discipline is a whole other controversial conversation) but they clearly work for parents who are desperate. And I think the reason they work is that she supports parents and encourages them to become more confident in their own ability to raise their children. She also reminds us – sometimes not that gently – that our children are just children, manipulative and persistent as they can be, and unless we work at changing our behaviour and habits, whatever situation we are in will not change, and will not get better. And at the extreme end of the spectrum, we may actually be seriously damaging our kids.

Being a parent is such an immense challenge, and sometimes, to me at least, it can feel like you’re the only one getting it wrong. I enjoyed the series – not just because it made me realise that even on my kiddies’ dodgy days, things really aren’t that bad – but also because just watching it was a reminder than I’m not alone. We all have to deal with the same crap, the same conflicts, the same guilt, the same self-scuppering behaviour in ourselves. Thank goodness it’s rarely that extreme. Though I’m sure someone on eBay could supply the piranhas if things round here do deteriorate…

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Snow White and the seven ‘warves’…

Don’t you just love those old Ladybird books? One of DD’s grandmas lent her the original Ladybird version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves last week. I was really looking forward to reading it to her as I remembered it so clearly from my own childhood. Or thought I did. As I sat my three and a half year old little treasure on my capacious lap and started to read, I became more and more uncomfortable with the story and the language.

After all, imagine a budding children’s author today pitching an idea for a story for pre-schoolers: ‘Yeah, it’s about this young girl who lives with seven short middle aged men and it includes multiple mentions of death, evil, attempted murder, poison and Poe-esque coffin entrapment’. Imagine publisher booting writer out of plush Bloomsbury offices and calling The Authorities.

Needless to say, DD survived the reading of Snow White and the seven ‘warves’, as she calls them. (No, I don’t know what a warf is). I asked two trusty mummy friends what they thought, and they were unfazed: didn’t do us any harm, it’s parents rather than kids who get all uptight about scary tales, small children take things at face value rather than attach emotion to them, look at how much kids have always loved the Brothers Grimm and Roald Dahl. And let’s not even talk about the backstories of children’s writers/books like Alice Through the Looking Glass and the Narnia stories.

OK, I get this, but I still wondered if there were any modern books telling the story of Snow White that are a little less graphic and a little more humorous, that might fit better into a household addicted to all things Julia Donaldson (who features her fair share of ‘mild peril’, it has to be said). 

A longish chat and look round with the lovely girl in Waterstones confirmed that all three or four recently published versions essentially tell the same story with just as many mentions of death, poison, evil etc etc. (DD set eyes on the Disney version in book form so we had to leave pronto before I sold another piece of my pink princess’s soul to Walt), and I have concluded that we may as well keep on reading the classic Ladybird book.

No nightmares so far, unlike after every reading of Zagazoo (when he turns into the hairy creature, Quentin Blake’s pictures terrify even me, reminding me of the cloud men in the early editions of James and the Giant Peach).

So what do you think? Have any children’s books made you squirm a bit? Have your little ones ever been upset by a story? Or does it all just wash over them?

The wisdom of Ferris Bueller…

There’s a lot to be said for finding some couple time when you have smalls running around. When did you last have an actual conversation with your other half which wasn’t about the kids, various logistical arrangements, work, or the latest round of the ‘I’m tireder than you’ competition?

DH and I spent Saturday night at Pennyhill Park hotel and spa. It was a birthday pressie last August from my M&D and this was the first chance we’d had to take it at a time when they were available to have the kiddies for the weekend instead of cruising or something.

I want to go back! Now!

We got there at midday on Saturday. I hit the amazing spa immediately and did not shift for the next seven and a half hours. After a solo nine holes on the golf course, DH joined me. I’d booked a back massage for us both in a double treatment room, and later a facial for us both. (DH said this was the gayest thing he’d ever done but he looked ten years younger and rather more handsome afterwards). It was bliss. I can’t remember the last time a) I felt so relaxed and b) was being so with DH. We swam, tried out all the thermal rooms (from rubbing crushed ice all over to sweating in a steam room full of mosaics, twinkly lights and soothing music), read, enjoyed the silence as well as the iPod, dozed off on a gel bed in the sensory room, and got wrinkly in the outdoor bubble pool. The best bit was not feeling any pressure to leave, since we had a room for the night.

I have to confess I managed to take the edge off the romance by enjoying the cocktails and wine at dinner a little too much and insisting on having a heated conversation about a fictional 10th wedding anniversary party this summer, which it transpires DH is dead against. But hey, the comfiest bed in the world put things right again, especially with no unplanned wakeup call from the little ones. (The England Rugby squad were staying there after the Twickenham game so there was a fair amount of late night carousing in the distance. DH was VERY excited about having brekkie next to Martin Johnson and his brood.)

We headed home on mothering Sunday after another quick golf/spa hour , and I felt refreshed enough to cook a roastie for eight of us. Two days later, I still feel very chilled, and it was lovely for once to share such a relaxing experience with DH rather than with a girlfriend or just myself.

Needless to say, we’ve gone back to bare minimum communication already and I don’t think DH is going to be getting more excited about spa days than golf any time soon. But it was nice to press the pause button for 24hours. As Ferris Bueller wisely said: ‘Life moves pretty fast. You don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it’.

Am I turning into a ‘difficult mother’?

Happy Mother Day for yesterday! How was yours? As ever, the weekend supplements (hopefully delivered to your bed yesterday along with a hot cup of something, flowers and cards!) were full of features on various aspects of motherhood to mark the day.

These ranged from celebrations of motherhood and birth, to vignettes from celebs talking about their relationship with their mum (I am still smiling about Max Hastings’ summary of his mum: ‘Until the day of her death, she perceived herself as a mild, gentle, much-put-upon little creature of the forest. I, by contrast, saw her as possessing many of the characteristics of a Sherman tank.’)

There was also a fair smattering of features looking at more controversial aspects of mothering, including a feature in the Indie on Saturday called ‘Mummy dearest? The pitfalls of life with a difficult mother’, by psychologist Dr Terri Apter. She scared the living daylights out of me. I didn’t recognise any of the definitions of a ‘difficult’ mother from my own childhood – my mum was and is a fantastic mummy – but I had a knot in my tummy as I realised that one of the pictures painted could be me. Not ‘Inflexibility and Rigid Expectations’, or ‘Need, Seduction and Resentment’, nor ‘Envy’, but ‘Unpredictable and Ferocious Anger’.

Illustration by Paul Blow

They say ‘all mums shout’. But I didn’t, not when I just had DD. She and I rubbed along very nicely, thankyou – she was an angel, I was endlessly patient and kind, and once I’d got quite nasty PND under control, all was well. But somehow the arrival of DS two years later turned me into the shouty mummy I never wanted to be and certainly never saw myself as (the subtitle of this blog hints that I do secretly still want to be Mary Poppins).

I remember this time last year when DS was only seven months old and just starting to eat proper meals, screaming at them both at breakfast time to eat up. I shouted so loudly, and quickly, that I shocked myself. And the year since has been pretty much a rollercoaster of me alternating between calm, smiley, patient, in-the-moment, funny, cuddly mummy and a ferocious dragon who shouts/barks at the click of a finger when a line is crossed and for an unthinking second I react rather than respond to the situation.

My babies must be utterly confused, not to mention terrified on occasion. There is a volume, tone and depth to my fleeting but vocal anger that I don’t even recognise as my own voice sometimes . DD, now three and a half and pretty emotionally intelligent, occasionally checks in with me, asking if I am ‘happy’ – by this she means are you going to have a go at us about something in a minute. She also tells me she hates me shouting. I always apologise and we all have a cuddle, but I know this isn’t good enough.

I don’t know where it comes from, this rage at inconsequential things (how could this be about anything but tiny things, they are very small children!). It’s like I see red and snap. And I don’t like it, I don’t like myself doing it, it achieves nothing and may well already have sown some very damaging seeds in my darling children.

When I manage to pause, count to ten, tell myself ‘this too shall pass’, take a deep breath, smile, turn the moment into one of humour rather than anger, walk away or however I consciously choose to respond to whatever heinous crime my two smalls have committed, it is diffused and all is well. But all too often there is no consciousness to it – I simply react, and roar. I am an unconscious parent and this is not how it was meant to be!

Blaming long-term lack of sleep since DS arrived or hormones goes a tiny way towards an explanation some of the time – I’m certainly worse before and during my period – but is still no excuse. I love my children with every ounce of my heart and soul and if anyone else ever spoke to them in the way I do, including their daddy, they too would feel my considerable wrath.

Maybe recognising that this is unacceptable behaviour now is the first step to sorting it out and instead of my children being fearful of my ‘unpredictable and ferocious anger’ for the rest of their lives, finding a way to teach them that we all feel and are overwhelmed by anger and other difficult, negative emotions sometimes and there are ways of expressing it without anyone else being on the receiving end.

It is still bloody annoying when they won’t get a move on in the mornings on nursery days, though…

Toleration busting!

I had an amazing day last Thursday. It was the first of the Action Accelerator Days as part of the FaB coaching mums programme I’m doing with Amanda Alexander.

Basically, the idea is that you list all your ‘tolerations’ – ie things that you are putting up with, whether an unstarted or unfinished task, filing, phone calls, admin, dealing with a situation etc.

The eight of us on the course were invited to phone Amanda on the hour every hour from 9am to 5pm, telling her what we were going to deal with in the next hour and reporting on progress.

Each call was no more than a minute or two but I was amazed how motivating it was to break the day down into chunks, state my intention for the next hour, and tick so many things off my ongoing and ever-growing to do list.

During the day, this is what I achieved:

 By 11am:

Ordering ink for printer (plus got refund for sending back dodgy one!) (Ink Cycle)

All the filing

Order a swimsuit that fits before weekend away (Landsend) (nb I have to say wouldn’t buy anything else other than magic swimsuits from these guys)

 By 12pm

 Finish filing

 Declutter and clean desk

 By 2pm

 Finish desk tidying and hoover office

 Tidy up/organise kids’ art box

 Recharge camcorder and fit new battery

 List 2 ebay items for sale

 By 3pm

 Post ebay parcels, meter reading, thankyou card etc and cancel papers

 Order new front and back door mats

 Initial thoughts on new besparkle product for PR agencies

 Arrange night out with old friend and book family lunch

 Book oven cleaner

 Plan for bottom of garden

 By 4pm

 Wash make-up brushes and clean out make-up tidy

 Edit feature for client 

By 5pm

Quick trip into town to buy birthday presents for godchildren before picking kiddies up from nursery at 5.

Phew! It was a Very Busy Day. Full of energy all day, though towards the end I was flagging and starting to run on adrenaline so I slowed down and made sure I had a break from the house and office before seeing the babies. It just goes to show what I can achieve during the day if I put my mind to it – no more excuses for procrastinating! And this week the payoff has been working on a clean, ordered desk in a tidy, spacious office that is no longer a dumping ground. I’ve been finding it tricky to be creative with piles of crap all around me, so investing a day in spring cleaning/clearing the decks has blown all the cobwebs out of my brain too.

We didn’t get any of our school choices…

I can’t be the only parent in this position this morning. Heard on Saturday (logging in to online admissions service at 7am on the dot)  that Surrey CC have offered DD a place at a primary school that wasn’t any of our three choices.

It’s technically our nearest school but because of lots of stuff like it not feeling right when we went round, not warming to the head, huge focus on special needs, behavioural difficulties and poor language skills (great for parents who need support in those areas, obv, but so far we don’t), bad reputation, well below average maths and English results and dodgy Ofsted, I abandoned my liberal pre-child pontificating about going to one’s local school in favour of panicking about precious DD like some Boden-wearing Surrey yummy mummy Mumsnetter or something equally ghastly (and largely fictitious…).

I know we don’t have any grounds for appeal and we’re on the waiting list for all three, so you never know. Anyone else out there in the same position? Anyone got in to a primary of their choice through a waiting list? A friend suggested ‘pulling the home schooling card’ as the council will probably find us a place somewhere more preferable sharpish, but that doesn’t feel very authentic as I have a business to run and I really don’t think I’m up to the job.

I’ve had lots of reassurance from family, friends and the team at nursery that my bright, funny, friendly, generally well-behaved and eager-to-learn DD will be fine wherever she goes, particularly with our support. I just want her to be happy. She’s already so excited about going to school this Sept as they are starting to step up letter and number work at pre-school, and I certainly don’t want to take the edge off that with any negative vibes from the grown-ups. Whatever school she goes to, seeing her in new uniform having only celebrated her fourth birthday at the start of August will be a Big Day and hopefully the start of an exciting, fun adventure for us all.

I just wish it felt like the ‘choice’  it’s supposedly meant to be, especially after taking all that time and care to look round all the local schools to make that choice last September.