Tuesday, 9 January 2018

The Things I have Learnt About Being a Mother

This evening I shall be attending a meeting at my son's secondary school about options. We'll be finding about the new GCSE format, whether he should do ICT or Computer Science or if he's better with dates or better with maps. 

But in between peering at curriculum and trying to decide if he should do triple science or just two, you'll find me scratching my head and trying to work out how the hell I've been doing this parenting gig for FOURTEEN YEARS. There's nothing like helping your child navigate one of life's first big decisions to make you truly feel the weight of responsibility that comes with being a parent. 

Parent: was there ever a term more loaded with significance, emotion and importance? Was there ever an experience that seems - particularly in the early days of looking after children - to last forever yet pass in a heartbeat? One minute you're taking your baby to get weighed, the next - and it really can feel like just a moment has passed - you're sitting in front of your child's head of year discussing their future career path. 

As my eldest turns 14 next week, I've been thinking about what it means to be a parent in the 21st century and the things I've learnt on my own personal journey through parenthood. I know lots of people just starting out on the parenting experience and I see how much has changed since I brought my son into the world, while some things remain the same. 

Parenting will always be a crazy, terrifying, hilarious, heartbreaking, unique experience. It's different for everyone and I truly believe we should all carve out our own paths; but these are some of the things that have characterised my journey so far... 

One challenge replaces another 

In a world overflowing with mummy bloggers, I've often wondered where all the mums of tweens and teenagers hang out, because the parenting challenges don't stop when your kids get to school age. In fact, I would say that the challenging part of parenting only truly begins when they step foot through the school gates. 

Sure, teething, potty training and stopping curious toddlers from killing themselves isn't exactly a bundle of laughs, but for the most part, the challenges you face as a mum to a baby or toddler are practical, not emotional. And believe me, emotional challenges are much more tricky to navigate.

Essentially, there will always be a new challenge to blindside you when you're a parent; it doesn't stop when they can dress themselves and make their own breakfast. When they get to school, all manner of external forces come into play, and these only get more impactful as they get older. Enjoy those years when you're in your own little bubble and can do things your way and to your routine - when school kicks in you'll find so many more external issues to contend with: homework, SATs, competitive parents, secondary school applications, cliques, social media...the list goes on. 

I wished so many phases of my child's development away with the fanciful notion that once we'd got through breastfeeding/teething/potty training etc everything would be easier. But parenting doesn't work that way - embrace the moment and remember: this too shall pass.

You can't be friends with everyone

True of both your offspring and yourself. It's a natural impulse for a parent to want their child to be liked and to have lots of friends, but you certainly can't manufacture friendships. This can be highly inconvenient of course; it's really annoying when you and a parent get on like a house on fire but your respective offspring just do not gel. Friendships simply have to flow naturally. 

I really worried about my son not having many friends when he was younger, particularly as he was in a cliquey class where a big gang of boys dominated and my son wasn't part of the gang. 

I instigated play dates that were never reciprocated, I invited the whole class to birthday parties and tried desperately to strike up friendships with the mums. But the truth of the matter was that my son wasn't really bothered - he was quite happy with his small handful of friends. And I was never going to be part of the school gates clique. I used to believe that all mothers shared some sort of bond but then I realised that lots of mums can be dicks - just because you share an experience of pushing a baby out of your nether regions doesn't mean you'll be natural bedfellows.

I also realised that my son is - quelle surprise - just very like me and his father; better in small groups, more of a one-to-one person, not fussed about being popular. Now he is in his teens I'm really happy that he has this character - I'm hoping his ability to choose friends with integrity and honesty will make him wise to the 'like' and popularity contest culture that permeates social media.

You'll never sleep properly again

Oh, don't worry - you'll get the odd night of good sleep every few years but something changes to your sleep pattern the moment you have children and you never quite go back to sleeping the way you used to - deeply, solidly, uninterrupted - ever again. 

Things obviously progress from those interminable nights when your baby is feeding, teething or unwell. But those unsettled years seem to have a long term impact, even years later. And lie-ins just don't become a thing once the kids get older - there's always somewhere someone's got to be. 

I know this sounds hugely depressing and I'm sure there are some lucky people without a disposition to worry that do rest a lot more easily in their beds at night. But for me personally - someone with a tendency to anxiety - the hours of darkness provide fertile ground for my imagination to run wild. The parenting experience can be filled with worry and I've been kept awake thinking about everything from affording university fees to the possibility of asbestos in the children's bedroom ceiling. 

I can't really offer any practical advice on this one, other than the usual stuff; an early night, digital detox and cup of valerian tea usually paves the way to a better night's kip if I'm feeling sleep deprived.

Boys are weird

I remember reading a book when my boys were little by Steve Biddolph and thinking I was now armed with all the essential knowledge to raise my boys. I guess this is true of any parenting manual, whatever the gender of your child, but there continues to be rarely a day that goes by where some aspect of my sons' behaviour doesn't completely bewilder me. 

There's all the usual stuff, of course (inability to eat anything green, inability to flush a toilet, inability to dress appropriately for weather conditions, etc.) but then there's lots of other stuff that they do that just makes me think, "Why?"

In my experience boys can be equally as fussy about clothing as girls...but just in a weirder way. One son can only wear jeans in a certain denim wash while the other won't wear anything that is remotely baggy. We have argued over the nuances between a slim and standard fit school trouser for hours and my eldest point-blank refuses to wear wellies or walking boots, preferring to struggle across mud-filled fields wearing a pair of too small Converse (and yes, I've definitely uttered those immortal words known to every parent faced with a similar situation: "It's not a bloody fashion show, you know!")

Over the years I've had to explain why my children only eat dry cereal and can't abide the concept of butter in sandwiches. One child recently told me he was scared of cotton wool (to be fair this is a recognised phobia but it's just typical that of of all the phobias available, my child would be phobic of something as commonplace as cotton wool) 

But of course, I adore their individual quirks and weirdness. Because aren't we all a bit weird? Who wants to be normal? It's so easy to want our kids to 'fit in' when they're small and to worry about every small habit we perceive to be different from the norm. 

I remember someone saying to me that 'all boys are on the spectrum' but as I get older I realise that we're all on 'the spectrum' and so we should be as individuals with completely unique genes, life experiences and circumstances. So let them wear that too-small coat if it makes them happy - it's really not worth having an argument over. 

Social media can be distracting...for parents

When I had my first son, there was no Facebook or Instagram. We announced our baby's birth in what was the normal method back then - via text message, email and word of mouth. We may have attached a photo to the email, though I can't really remember. 

And after that we just sort of disappeared and got on with the business of looking after our baby, looking for a new house and - in my husband's case - working to keep us in nappies and M&S ready meals. I look back on that time now with real fondness for what I now see as a more innocent, less competitive time. Without smart phones by our side, we couldn't document every waking moment of our baby's existence or turn to google every time he sneezed or coughed. 

Having worked at Netmums for 7 years, I know there are certainly benefits to being part of a connected world during what can feel a very lonely and isolating time. Parenting networks can be vital in helping women suffering from PND or other emotional difficulties. 

But I do think social media can be a huge distraction from the here and now of raising a family. When I see parent bloggers overshare on platforms like Instagram, I can't help but feel they're missing out on the essence of parenting - being truly present in that little person's life at a specific moment in time. 

Fourteen years on from my son's birth, I now work in social media and know it's not going anywhere anytime soon. But at the risk of sounding a bit patronising and a bit of an old fart, I really would urge you to put down the phone every now and again. Childhoods are blink-and-you-miss-it short so savour the moment without getting the phone out.

Your kids don't think you're cool (when they get older)

Being a parent of a teenager signals the beginning of an existential crisis. You may not feel any older than you did when they were born, but truth be told you are now an 'old parent' - compare yourself with all those newbies at the school gates if you want evidence of this fact. 

While this might give you some gravitas with parents just starting out on the journey, it can be hard facing up to the reality that a world of Bugaboos and Duplo is long in the past and now you must now consider the harsh reality of wondering if you'll need to remortgage to send them to Uni.

You may know the meaning of 'lit' and still wear Stan Smiths, but the truth of the matter is that once your kids reach the age about 12 you are most certainly not cool in their eyes. If I had a pound for every time my choice of clothing has been met with one of the kids saying "you look weird, Mum" then I'd be rich. 

Of course, no one should lose their identity when they become a parent but in my experience, kids of a certain age don't like parents to be too 'fashion forward' - I think my kids would prefer it if I wondered round in bootcut jeans and a fleece.

It can be hard realising that you're no longer cool in your child's eyes. It can be heartbreaking when you realise they don't want a hug anymore, or that being with their friends is more important than being with you. When your opinion isn't sought or heeded because you're suddenly not their go-to 'oracle' anymore.

Which brings me back to the first point - one challenge always replaces another. I can live without being cool in my son's eyes. But the next chapter of my parenting journey - let's call it 'Letting Go" - will perhaps be the hardest challenge yet...


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