Sunday, June 14, 2015

Goodbye, toys. Hello, gadgets?

The lovely locally-owned toy shop in my suburb is closing. It's such a shame; over the years I have spent many a happy hour browsing its shelves. When pregnant with my first, it was where I bought the sort of cute-but-impractical toys that only someone without children would buy, and when he was a newborn, it was where I obsessively analysed every baby toy trying to decide what a 6-week old needed to reach his full potential. Over the past four years I've bought bikes, toy cars, gifts for family, board games and even a tin with a photo of a cat on it. The owners recognised me, and I them, making the toy shop feel like an essential part of our community. 

I visited this morning to see what stock was left and to say goodbye, and while there had a long talk to the owner about the shop's closure. Was people buying toys online the problem? I wondered. Was it the ability to buy cheap goods elsewhere?

No, she replied. Apparently, even some online toy stores are going under, unable to sell enough toys to stay afloat. The problem is that children are playing with toys less than they used to. The problem, she said, is that as soon as children hit school age (if not earlier), they are more likely to get gadgets for gifts instead, and more likely to entertain themselves in front of a screen than with a toy.

I could wax lyrical about how terrible that is on a number of levels, but what I would say isn't new. Most people already know, on an abstract level at least, how much children who are too connected to screens are missing out on in terms of fine motor skills, cognitive development and attention span. I know that the amount my kids watch tv isn't ideal, but all of that knowledge doesn't stop me reaching for the remote when the dinner needs cooking, I'm tired or the kids won't stop fighting. 

Instead, all I will say is that the idea that children are playing with fewer toys is sad, and has made me resolve to limit my children's screen time a little more. Starting today! 

In my day ...

I was talking to my son recently about telephones and the fact mobile phones weren't commonly used until I was in my late teens, and started a sentence with "in my day ... "

I then realised: it's official. I'm getting older. In my day, the only people who started sentences with 'in my day' were old people who grew up in what we called 'the olden days'. 

Surely it's a slippery slope from 'in my day we didn't have mobile phones' to 'in my day we walked to school for 2,321 miles a day through snow, with naught but cow pats to warm our hands'? I'll be reminiscing about floppy disks, video rental stores and Walk-mans while rocking back and forth on my super-sonic-futuristic rocking chairs before you can say 'shake your stick angrily at the neighbourhood children while muttering about the yoof having no respect these days'. Sigh. 

All I can say to make myself feel better is that I hope that rocking chair can hover in mid-air. Because in my days, chairs weren't half as cool as that. 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

When history feels more historical than before

While writing this blog, I have thought a lot about how things have changed since 1945. The answer: so much has changed, especially regarding parenting advice, that I have been thinking about it for over a year and still only written about a third of the blog entries I have in mind about the topic. Shame I keep letting life, work, children, and reading trashy magazines get in the way, eh? 

1945 was 60 years ago; 35 years before I was born. It was 8 years before my mum was born, and ever since my last remaining grandparent died in 2006, I have to think really hard about whether or not I even know anyone who remembers 1945 anymore. I used to know a number of people who were around then: my granddad, my great Aunt, lovely Betty who I used to tutor Italian to every Friday morning for three years. My grandmother's brother, who died recently, the last of that generation to go.  Other old people, and people who didn't even seem so old but were still born before 1945. 

Time moves on though, and now all of those people are gone. When I was a teenager first learning about World War Two, it was something that I was only one step removed from: my Grandfather had fought, my grandmothers had lived through it. I knew plenty people who remembered the War, talked about it, and were deeply affected by it. I once met four Auschwitz survivors, and when studying World War Two for my postgraduate degree, I found six people to interview about their first-hand experiences. 

I was talking to my son about war and soldiers recently; the 100 year anniversary of the ANZAC landings brought the issue of war to the fore. In a very sanitized way, I told him about my Grandfather who fought, and when the war was. I then realised that, for him, World War Two will be what the Boer War was for me: something from a far distant time, not something my grandparents lived through, an event which also stamped its mark on the Baby Boomer generation - my parents - in a myriad of ways. And for many of my age, the Boer War is lumped with the Napoleonic Wars, the 100 Years War and the War of the Roses: conflicts that simply happened long ago in some indeterminate point in the past. Nothing that is even moderately relevant to them.

Suddenly, the original publication of Modern Mothercraft in 1945 felt even further ago than it used to. I suppose that's what motivates me to keep blogging - to keep the past alive, and to think about and reflect on what life was like then. So, now I've resolved to put down the trashy magazines and get back to it. After all, that time is only going to feel more distant and alien with every day that passes, and I hate the idea of all of those people that I knew that lived in 1945 being consigned to the distant past as well. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Working Mum, Stay Home Mum? I'm still me

Two months ago, I went back to work after 18 months at home with my lovely children. It's been an interesting experience, to say the least. It's also reminded me why the stay-at-home parent/working parent divide is silly:

I get different reactions when asked the "what do you do? " question, although these reactions seem to come with the same amount of judgement. I feel just as frustrated when people seem interested in my job but not my children as I do when people seem more interested in my children than my job. After all, the different parts of my "self" aren't that disconnected. Regardless of whether I'm inside a play-house playing lions and tigers, or wearing a suit and writing a report, I'm still me. 

I have moments when I feel like I'm good at what I do, and moments when I feel like I'm rubbish, just like when I was a stay at home mum. I also have moments when I am exhilarated by my work, and moments when I'd give a limb to be somewhere else, just like before. I also care about/worry about/think about my children just as much as I did before. After all, I'm still me.

I still hate doing the dishes, and still wish I could hire a team of magic pixies to clean the house while I slept. After all, I've never been a lover of housework, and I'm still me. 

I miss being at home, just like when I was at home I had moments when I wished I was at work. I crave intellectual stimulation just as much as before, and still struggle to find time for my hobbies and interests. While I have less time for myself now I work, I do have more adult conversation which probably just balances the two things out. But, working hasn't changed me, it's just changed how I spend my days. I'm still me. 

I still try hard to feed my children healthy meals, while secretly eating far to many marshmallows myself. After all, I'm still me. 

I still feel guilty about my choices at times, just as much as I did when I made different choices and was at home. I still feel defensive when I hear someone criticize whatever side of the fence I'm currently on, and affirmed when I meet other mothers who have made the same choices I have. But, I have to remember that those other mothers are still them regardless of whether they're home with kids or not, just as I'm still me. 

Most of all, I love my kids just as much as I did before. After all, they're still them, and I'm still me.

Monday, January 12, 2015

How to get more free time

I don't get much free time, not really. I imagine most of you are the same: after all of the minutiae of every day life has been and gone, there isn't much time at the end of it to do something purely for leisure. 

This year, though, my resolution was to change that, inspired by an excellent article [pay wall] I read over the Christmas break. It's only been 13 days so far, but already I'm seeing a difference. What is this magic machine have I used to create free-time from nothing? I hear you ask. What strange manner of alchemy is this? And where can I get it? Here's the thing, though. I don't actually have more free time, I've just figured out how to make it feel like more free time. And it's awesome. Here's how:

1. Stop multi-tasking. I'm sure you know the feeling: you want to watch something on the telly, surf the internet, and chat to your mum online. So, given you're so busy, you decide to do it all at once. Problem is, I've realised that when I do that, I don't end up really enjoying any of those things as I'm not really paying attention to any of them. And afterward, I'm not any happier or more relaxed: if anything, frantic multi-tasking in your leisure time can leave you feeling even more stressed. Leisure time is for leisure, not ticking 'to-do' boxes. I've found that when I only do one thing at I time, I really do enjoy myself much more. 

2. Beware of online FOMO. I get terrible FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) sometimes. I think the main reason I check Facebook as often as I do is due to a fear of missing out on some really important bit of news if I don't. But then, I remembered that checking Facebook all of the time still didn't stop me from missing the news that a friend had died. And while Facebook and other social media is a great way of keeping in touch, when used too often it's just a giant black hole into which free time is thrown, never to be seen again. Restricting my use of social media really has left me feeling like I have more free time. 

3. Stop doing thing for "fun" that aren't fun. I'm never going to be a musical maestro on the ukelele I bought last year and don't get much joy from learning, so have decided to let it slide. I've also had a think about all of the other things I do in my free time, and tried to be honest with myself about how much joy I actually get from them. When you get so little free time, it's a no-brainer that spending that time doing things we feel we ought to do rather than want to do is a poor choice. Yet why do we continue to do it? We need to stop putting pressure on ourselves to do things that are worthy, unless we truly enjoy them. If lying in front of trashy television in my PJs eating ice-cream leaves me feeling more energized for my kids and for my job, then it is a worthy use of time in my book. 

4. When you're somewhere, be there. As in, be there in body and in mind. This in many ways has been the hardest thing for me to implement, especially as it means putting down my phone. But, it really does make interpersonal interactions infinitely more pleasant when you pay attention to the people that you're with. Especially my kids. And I know that many people may beg to differ, but surely taking the time out of something to post online about what you're doing (Having a great time at a party right now! Out at dinner with my honey-bunny man friend, so much fun!) detracts from the experience? If a tree falls in a forest and no-one posts on Facebook about it, it's still fallen. Not sharing something with hundreds of people doesn't mean that whatever you're doing doesn't have any importance to you or isn't worthy. And being somewhere in body and mind makes it so much more rewarding, not to mention is much more respectful to whoever you are with. 

5. Daydream. Now I am slowly training myself not to check my phone or email every time I have a spare few minutes I'm reminded of how restful a good old daydream is every now and then. It's much nicer than spending that two minutes while waiting for the bus logging into Facebook to see what the person I sat beside in science class and not seen since is eating for dinner.

6. Reassess your goals. This one is hard, but something I found I had to do to reclaim my free time.  I was simply trying to achieve too much: I don't have time to pen the great unwritten novel, blog, train for a run, sew some dresses, and watch all seven seasons of Mad Men. Something had to give, and I had to decide which of those things I really wanted to do. If you have too many hobbies, they just start to feel like extra chores, and who needs more of those?

For me, doing these things really has made me feel like I have more free time. Of course it won't work for everyone, but I've been surprised by how a few little tweaks here and there have left me feeling like I have more time to myself. After all, free time is such a treat when we're busy. It seems such a shame to spend it on things that don't leave us feeling better in the end.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Why the Stay-Home-Mum vs Working Mum argument is silly

I'm sure I'm not alone in being completely sick of the stay-at-home vs working-mum debate. Although, in this context, "debate" makes the whole argument sound far more civilized than it actually is. Perhaps I should call it a mud-slinging match instead? Or, a version of fisty-cuffs in which parents throw figurative filthy nappies at one another? 

Whatever you call it, though, the whole argument's silly. Here's why:

1. We all love our kids. We all want what's best for them. We're all making the best decisions we can, with the resources we have, and taking into consideration the support, job options, and children we have. And, whether we work or not doesn't change how much we love our kids. It's not like parents sit around and decide on a course of action after detailed analysis indicates they only love their children 75% of the time, or only on Mondays. And in the sad cases where parents don't love their children and don't make what they consider to be the best decisions for them, whether or not these children have working or stay-at-home parents is the least of their problems.

2. We all have different pre-children selves. Again, this isn't rocket science, but it's remarkable how many people seem to approach this issue like we're all robot clones. Someone who loved their job and career path pre-children is much more likely to find going back to work rewarding than someone who wasn't in a career path or profession they enjoyed in the first place. Someone who loved being a domesticated goddess even before having children is more likely to enjoy staying at home once they're born. We also have different partners, and earn differing amounts of money, so the decision to be a working or at-home parent is - you guessed it - different for each woman, and has different implications for each child.

3. In this case studies can prove anything, and say all sorts of things. Not only that, but selection bias will mean that we'll gravitate toward the deep corners of the internet to find those that justify our own life choices. There are also many mitigating factors to be taken into consideration in studies looking into this issue, such as the quality of care outside the home, the quality of parenting inside the home, and who's being studied. Nor is anecdote fact or representative. I wore a blue t-shirt today and it rained. That doesn't mean that everyone who wears a blue t-shirt will always get rained on. Just like one example of a child's experience at home/in care doesn't make it representative of all children. 

4. There are 2,134,983 different factors that will influence the adults that our children will become. Genetics, parental income, parents' temperaments, children's temperaments, experiences, birth order, number of siblings, and so on and so on. It doesn't make sense to hinge so much on just one of so many factors. 

5. We'll probably be both at some stage anyway. I've worked full-time with my husband as the at home parent, worked part time, been on parental leave, and been a bona-fide no-end-in-sight stay at home mother. Between now and when my children fly the coop, I imagine that between my husband and I we'll have any number of arrangements to make things work out for our kids. It's not like you are in one tribe or the other, and have taken a blood-oath that you will sit in one camp until you die. Most women will be both working and at-home mothers at some stage of their children's lives, and often their husbands will be too. Before chucking those figurative nappies into the other camp of the working/at home divide, it's worth remembering that you might be just criticizing yourself of the future. 

6. It's not all or nothing. It's really not. I know working mothers who are with their children over half the week, and women who call themselves stay-at-home mothers yet work casually, on the weekends, or work from home. It's not black or white, especially given how many women earn a living doing something other than the corporate 9-5.

There is also a difference between time spent with your children, and quality time spent with them.  I spend much more time with my kids now I am at home with them, but they also watch much more telly and eat more junk food. Having done both I honestly believe that the quality of my parenting is the same either way.

7. What about the fathers?  It's as if, in the course of all this bickering, everyone seems to forget that it takes two people to make a baby. And, whatever the mum ends up doing, the father is probably part of the decision making process as well, so if you're going throw nappies at each other, you need to at least be even-handed and throw some at the man as well.

8. Judging other people's parenting is mean. Especially when you are judging decisions they've made with their family in mind, and giving yourself a smug pat on the back in the process. Or taking snapshots of their lives (He watched too much TV that one day a month we spent together! She hit another child at nursery once!) and assuming it's representative of everything.

At the end of the day, what we should really be doing is celebrating that, unlike the women Modern Mothercraft was written for in 1945, we have a choice at all. Wouldn't that be much more fun than looking at each other with scorn and judgement? At the very least, it will be much more pleasant for us all, irrespective of what our own decisions may be.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Parenting: what's surprised me the most

When you're pregnant, you are constantly told what to expect once your delightful progeny arrives. Some things are repeated ad-nauseum: the tiredness, gross incidents with bodily fluids, the pain of labour, the fact you may not sleep through the night again until 2033 when your youngest child leaves home.

Due to all of this well-meaning advice (and not so well-meaning advice), "Oh! I thought that once I had a baby I would be able to sleep like I did before!" said no parent of a baby ever. While pregnant, I also read parenting books, talked to people, watched mothers, and spent hours on parenting forums. But, in spite of all of this, there are still some things about this parenting gig that have completely taken me by surprise:

1. Beady all-seeing eyes. One thing I didn't expect to find as difficult as I do is being constantly observed by my toddler's beady all-seeing eyes, First, it makes surreptitious junk-food guzzling much trickier, especially if it's food that I don't want to rot his teeth with. Then, there's the casual comments ("Mummy. You love Coke [Zero], don't you?") that make it hard to maintain a state of denial about my own bad habits. Now my son is three, it's also impossible to have certain conversations with other adults in his presence. He might not seem like he's listening, but it turns out that only a few centimetres from his all-seeing eyes are ears that are expertly tuned to pick up any hint of the salacious, scandalous or secret. 

2. Being constantly attuned to danger. I'd been told about this beforehand, but hadn't listened. It wasn't until I moved a hot cup of tea away from the edge of the table in a cafe where no-one under the age of 18 was present that I realised just how deeply this was entrenched into my sub-conscious behaviour. At least in this case, unlike my desire to continue to guzzle Coke Zero without judgement from a three-year old, I can probably blame biology and evolution. 

3. Just how much I would hate looking at poo. Again, I was warned, but didn't listen. There have been days when I've changed multiple nappies, and had to clean poo off the floor and scrape it off clothes.  And, in the case of one particularly traumatic incident, my forehead and fringe.

4. That I wouldn't miss things from my child-free days that I thought I would... The movies, going out for a dance, adult parties, backpacking around the developing world. Sure, these things would still be fun to do, but I don't really miss them either.

5. ... And that some things, I'd miss terribly. Going for a long walk, alone, with no-where I have to be. Sleeping in. Reading a book in the sun without interruption. Leaving the house without a bag. Being able to drive a long distance without having to have at least one stop at a McDonalds. Not having to think twice about wearing clothes that are dry-clean only.

6. How some things are so much more exciting now. Like Christmas. Now I have a toddler, I haven't enjoyed Christmas so much since I was a child myself. The decorations! The tree! Wrapping presents! When we paid Father Christmas a visit the other week, I suspect I was even more excited than my son was. There are also other things that I'd barely notice before having children that are exciting when seen through a child's eyes: a car carrier truck, a giant yellow concrete mixer, a big, fluffy dog. I love how children make you look through the world with new eyes, and remind you that there is beauty and excitement all over the place if you pay attention.

7. The pride. You know the type, the pride you sometimes feel for your children that makes you feel like you're about to burst. The pride that also makes you forget that any other child in the history of time has ever crawled, rolled, sat, done a pee on the potty or finished a difficult puzzle. And even if they had, they clearly didn't do it with as much finesse and poise as my lovely offspring.

8. The mortification. Sadly, children lack filters between their brains and mouths. Including mine, as is evidenced by a number of recent incidents of telling strangers he doesn't like them, telling people to stop looking at him, and calling a woman with unfortunate facial-hair that she was a man. As I stand in the corner and wish my hardest that I could disappear from these mortifying scenarios, I tell myself that this is the universe's way of keeping the pride in check.

9. How much they'd teach me. My children have taught me so much, in particular the importance of  enjoying the delightful little moments with them as much as I can, as they grow and change so quickly. My son, being a little know-it-all, has also taught me other, more concrete things. Did you know that chimpanzees didn't have tails, or the difference between a gibbon and a monkey? Neither did I until recently. Nor did I know I'd resort to Google to win an argument with a three-year old.

10. That I could change so much ... like, become a person that would not only not miss the movies and parties too much, but would even write about it on a blog. A PARENTING blog! Gasp! On the surface, having children has changed me more than I thought it would: how I spend my free time, how I dress, how I chose to spend my holidays, and what I make small-talk with other people about.

11 ... yet still be the same underneath. But, for all those changes, when I'm at work, or with childless friends, it's as if time hasn't passed at all. My values are much the same, as are my goals. It surprises me sometimes when I realise that I'm still me, just me with two delightful children.

12. And lastly ... that try as I might, I can't stop bragging about them. Point nine above is case in point, albeit boasting by stealth in this instance. I know that it's annoying and know that it's a bad habit, but I just can't help it. Maybe I don't have a filter between my brain and mouth either?

What has surprised you the most about parenting?