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….


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An introduction to The Happy Baby Project

I write the blog The Happiness Project London and here’s the last post I wrote which may explain why we’re now here:

I’ve been quiet over the last few weeks because life has changed somewhat, and it has something to do with the little wriggly person that’s been growing inside me. Yes, the HPL is having a baby!

And while I’m wildly happy about it now, there were times in first 12 weeks when I really struggled to remind myself of all I’ve learnt about being positive. Of course I appreciate how lucky I am, and what an exciting thing is about to happen to us, but my body’s reaction to the news wasn’t exactly pleasant. And it took this wonderful blog post by Caroline No to give me the strength to say IT’S BEEN BLOODY SHIT! I’ve been a bit rubbish at this pregnancy stuff! And finally – who cares!

My skin decided it didn’t like the preggie hormone or the preggie hormone didn’t like certain foods anymore and broke out in giant red itchy spots all over my chest, neck and face, which might or might not have been hives. I got teenage acne. I developed an agonising pain in my right buttock which turned out to be my pelvic girdle pinging out of place, making walking nigh on impossible. I found myself sobbing like a heartbroken teenager for hours on end, once hysterically laughing and sobbing at once, not knowing why. I felt nauseous and fat and bloated and frumpy, unable to squeeze into my old clothes but not big enough for maternity gear. I ate three burgers in a week. I missed wine and hangovers, still do. And don’t get me started on itchy boobs and cracked nipples and giant wire-less maternity bras which make cycling to work an interesting exercise in pot-hole avoidance and agonising bouncing droopy pendulous bosoms….

A cumulative force of utter exhaustion, the need to cry repeatedly and teenage acne-like skin meant I lived as a hermit for weeks – not even wanting to go for a walk and covering my face when I saw anyone including a man reading our meter: “Don’t Look at Meeeee!”.

There were sudden periods of anger, an unbearable urge to snap. The Poor Chef got the brunt of it, being the only person in my vicinity for much of the time. You put a wine glass in the dishwasher the wrong way – YOU IDIOT!!! You didn’t put the plant pot in the right place – YOU RUINED MY BIRTHDAY!!! And how could he understand the raging hormones that were filling my body with negativity and fury and sadness, when he was just really really happy?

But on the cusp of 12 weeks things got better. I got my energy back, which built up to something like hysteria when I realised I could finally socialise and actually see my friends again (lunches and walks along the Thames best – drunken dinners not to the most fun when you’re sipping on Schloer all night and wondering why everyone’s laughing at an unfunny joke). My skin cleared up and my hair went from greasy to full. I contacted friends, I felt positive, I started thinking about the future. And The Poor Chef came out of hiding.

And then this week we had the scan. I was a bag of nerves, wondering if it was there at all, or alive or deformed, or multiple. But then we saw him (for we call him “he” after the scan but we don’t know if he is a she yet of course). What a gorgeous wee wriggler. He was tiny, of course. But with a round little belly and a lovely face with big lips. And beautiful frogs legs and two feet, which he kicked in the air before turning his little bottom towards us. I can’t feel him yet but my tummy is getting more solid and I love the little reminder that he’s there, wriggling and waiting.

So now it’s different. I’ve told people which really helps. I’ve bought a few bigger clothes and am enjoying better skin and shaking off the indignity of the last few weeks. I’m loving my new body – the round curves, the bigger breasts, the hardening belly. I’m so proud of my body, so impressed at its strength and the way it seems to know exactly what to do. I can see why women who’ve given birth often want to do marathons  afterwards – and I feel the same – because I love my body in a way I never have before and I’m amazed at what it is capable of and I want to get fit, not just work out at the gym to lose weight, but get stronger and faster and show myself what my body can actually do. I feel womanly and dare I say a bit beautiful.

I am already aware of competitive mum syndrome and what lies ahead. There are the I’m-still-a-party-girl mums (I stayed up til 2am and wasn’t tired at all! Yes the baby is two weeks old lets book that girls’ holiday to Ibiza!). There are the body-beautiful mums (I’ve not put on ANY weight! In fact I’ve LOST weight! Who’s the first for botox?!). There are the capitalist mums (I’ve just bought the most fabulous baby papoose to match my bugaboo pram travel system in a neutral colour to match my tastefully decorated nursery!). And there are the this-is-totally-natural-to-me mums (vitamins? I didn’t bother with those. Epidurals? I’m just going to power breathe with my doula).

So what sort of mum will I be? Well who knows. But I’m not pining my party days any more. In fact I’m loving getting to bed at 10pm and being cosy under a woollen blanket on the sofa. My favourite recent purchase is a great pair of sheepskin slippers.  I’m looking forward to my body getting big and round because I have a feeling it’s exactly what it’s supposed to be doing and I really want to take care of it from now on. And I believe what my child really needs is our unconditional love, and a favourite cuddly toy which is soft and old and worn, and being read to all the time, and its grannies and granddads and aunty and uncle teaching it about life and the world and where it came from.

I know one thing for sure. This is the biggest adventure of our lives and its one that I’m finally ready for. And sometimes it will take all I’ve learned about happiness and positivity to keep me going when times are tough, but the joy this little thing will bring will teach me more about life and love than I ever imagined possible.

So wriggle away wee man, we love you very much, and we can’t wait to meet you in March!