The Happy Baby Project

A happy baby needs a happy mum


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The Decline of the Housewife

I felt I had to write to address the comments recently made by Esther Rantzen in the Telegraph and Sarah Vine in the Mail, which commented on the Childline Report which stated that there had been a 15% increase in children suffering suicidal thoughts. The children also referred to issues such as sexual abuse, eating disorders and homophobia.

The link they point to is a correlating increase in working mums. Now 73.7% of women work (that’s an increase from 62% in 1996).

The easy conclusion Rantzen and Vine appear to come to is that women are now too busy and too hectic to talk to their children. That their children are contemplating suicide while their mums happily traipse out the door to work.

The first thing I felt when I read the article was guilt, a not unknown feeling for a working mum.

But the second thing I felt was anger. Not one shred of evidence was given (apart from anecdotal) to link the rise in working mums to the rise in suicidal feelings in kids.

And not only was no evidence given, the articles ignored the other obvious changes in the last 20 years. Social media and the perils of cyber bullying, the increased pressure on children at school which can make many de-rail, and the economic austerity which forces families to work hard for a pittance, just to name a few.

But mainly, I am angry that they lump all working mums, all mums, together in one bracket. I refuse to buy those sweatshirts that say “Mother” because I don’t want to be defined by a single part of me. Just as men are, women are all unique and individual, as are our children. I am a mother, but I am also a friend and a wife, and a professional, and a bit of a tit for much of the time.

But I am also very very good at empathising and talking to my children, and this is what they need, is it not?

While in the 70s when I grew up, most of my friends mums didn’t work (mine eventually did after 9 years and was happier for it), I wouldn’t say these stay at home mums were there stroking their kids hair and asking them to talk through their worries. It was the era of the stiff upper lip was it not? I certainly can’t remember any time spent sitting discussing my feelings with my parents, that was the remit of friends and siblings.

I had a long maternity leave with my second child, and while I had wonderful days where I felt like the best mum in the world, bonding with my glorious children, there was a lot of boredom, a lot of repetition. The incessant unloading of the bloody dishwasher, the washing, and the constant tidying of toys and spilled porridge. What I really lacked was time just to sit, and to be, with the kids on the floor, without my phone for company. I have to admit at times I was a bit bored, a bit shouty and I’m pretty sure they picked up on it.

Because I think ALL women are different. Some are brilliant with kids, coming up with craft ideas and games (my nanny for example!), and others aren’t so good at that stuff but might be brilliant in other ways – in organising school bags and play dates for example, or leading the PTA. And I do believe kids need your undivided attention sometimes, but for me its about quality, not quantity. My childhood memories are snippets of time – sitting on my mums lap playing with her necklaces, riding a donkey in Blackpool, pulling my dad into the bath in his work suit. It is for us to create these moments of love and joy for our children that they will remember forever, but it doesn’t mean they have to be the centre of our world all the time.

Fast forward a few months and I’m back at work. Yes sometimes the balance goes a bit wrong and I feel I’m missing out on seeing the kids. Almost daily my heart breaks as they shriek when I come home that I’ve missed them for that day. But do you know what? When I see them, I sit down on the floor, I put my phone away, I listen and I play. I extract every ounce of love out of every evening and weekend. I’m fully theirs when I see them now and I think they know that. They can see I’m happy and they in turn seem happy.

Who I really feel sorry for are the mums who have no choice. The mums who want to go back to work but don’t have a career to go back to. The mums who want to stay at home but have no choice financially so have to work. Its them who I fear for because they are in a position which can’t make them happy. It’s them as a society we should support.

Attacking all working mums for endangering their kids mental health is naïve at best and offensive too. It’s too easy to label women into categories, but lets remember we’re all unique and its up to us to make it work.

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Back to work – settling baby into childcare – week 1

So Mr S is almost 11 months and it’s time for me to go back to work, which has meant settling him into childcare.

And I have to be honest and say it is just about the hardest thing I have ever done. There have been tears – from me, from Schmoo, from The Chef. My first week at work involved 2 full, long days of childcare, where I know S didn’t sleep very well, was unsettled and confused and tearful. But my god, babies are resilient, adaptable little things, and I’m writing this feeling such an overwhelming surge of relief, just one week in, because I want to report (as support for other working mums out there) that he suddenly seems really, deliriously, happy.

After meeting nannies, visiting nurseries, and checking out childminders, we decided on a childminder at home with up to 6 other under 3s (with an assistant). This is because we liked the home setting – with a cot in a bedroom for S, lovely home-cooked meals and a familiar, home-from-home atmosphere. We also thought 4 or 5 other little buddies would be perfect for S as he’s a confident, sociable little boy who loves interacting with others, especially with elder children.

But you never know, do you. And last week I felt racked with misery and guilt, as he bawled with tears as I left him and did the same when I picked him up. Other mums and even the childminder said he’d stop as soon as I left, and I tried to hide my upset, but I couldn’t stop my own tears from falling. How could I do this to him? Was I RUINING him? He’d done so well so far, was it all going to gowrong? How could I be so selfish, picking my financial and professional life over this little boy, so so very little?

So I did what every guilt-ridden working mum would do. I googled “psychological effects on 1 year olds of childcare” and spent my next day off stuck to my iPhone, bursting into regular tears. I read studies – Norwegian, British and American – I even read studies of those studies. I read about increased levels of stress and cortisol, of insecure maternal attachments and increased aggression. To be honest, unless the studies had shown that children under 3 who entered childcare were positively affected in EVERY way, I would have found something to feel bad about. But there were mitigating factors of any downsides – positive family support that could ease any stress that unfamiliarity could cause, benefits of high quality childcare which I knew we’d carefully chosen, and the likelihood of increased sociability and cognitive development. So there was stuff we could do to help, and positives too.

The childminder was wonderful – reassuring, caring, texting me photos and updates, sending me his daily reports and being sympathetic to my worries. She also has the most incredible activity list and meal plans, and I think in my heart of hearts, while I was crippled by his tears at being left, I also knew one day soon he was likely to start loving being with the other little kids, doing finger puppets and hand paintings and reading stories. I just didn’t know if that day would be days, weeks or even months away.

So I thought about cortisol – about the stress that S might feel at being left in an unfamiliar environment after so long at home with mummy. And so, like the organised working mummy I am, and after reading every single blog post and forum I could find, I came up with the following Project Settle Baby In plan:

1. Lessen S’s stress by not being stressed or upset ourselves. Not doing too much on days at home or weekends, letting him sleep and relax. Not hugging him to death (too much). Being super positive about  this new situation to him.

2. Making drop offs short, affectionate, happy and sweet.

3. Talking to S regularly about “Auntie L” his childminder, walking him to her house to get him used to the journey, talking about what a nice time he would have there with her and his new friends.

4. Giving the childminder one of his favourite toys (sunglasses – go figure), and a bunny rabbit that I’d slept with for a week to cover in my scent. Adding that to his own sleeping bag and comforter in his cot for naps.

5. Asking the childminder for photos of her and his new buddies to keep at home to show him that they are part of our life now.

So after being utterly miserable for a week, when he seemed unsettled and upset and teary, we started this week positive and hopeful. And I don’t know if it was Project Settle In, or that babies are just incredibly adaptable and that they settle in quickly, or maybe he was just ill or teething or going through a developmental clingy phase last week, but today – only day 3 of full day childcare – things started brilliantly with the fact that apparently he only cried very briefly on drop-off, and then a friend of mine texted to say she’d seen him in the park with his new buddies looking happy, and then when The Chef picked S up, he was told he’d been laughing his head off, had been charming and sweet. The childminder has since said he was relaxed and chirpy all day, and that the other kids love him.

I cannot tell you how happy, how relieved I am. As another mum told me, babies can’t hide how they feel – if they are sad, you’d know about it. And my goodness what a happy baby boy I came home to today – laughing and cuddly and affectionate. My mum said this would make him love me even more and, having worried last week that he might hate me for deserting him, I actually think we both love our time together even more than we did before.

Obviously he might get tired and unsettled and ill again, and it might take him longer to deal with more days away from mummy, but I can now trust my initial instinct – which was that this is his new stage of development, and that he will love the new interaction and stimulation of organised games and buddies to play with. And looking at the childminder’s activity list – the trips and creativity and planned games, and I compare it to me at home, stacking the dishwasher and trudging round the park on a particularly unimaginative day, and I’m so excited to see how he develops and grows. On my day off, we will do our music class and then have a chilled out afternoon on the swings or in the park, our quality time in this brave new world.

But we shall see in the weeks ahead. Watch this space….