Brain-based parenting: The Neuroscience of caregiving for healthy attachment (by Daniel A. Hughes & Jonathan Baylin) tries to do something truly amazing – to explain the chemical and emotional brain mechanisms that interact to create and sustain the loving bond parents feel for our children. That magical bond that makes us love every inch of them, that makes us prioritise our children’s needs over our own and keeps their wellbeing central to our thoughts and fears. And that stops us throwing them out the window when they are at their most annoying and antagonistic. This is magical territory indeed.
This book covers some really crucial topics – like the importance of parents’ emotional self-regulation in parenting effectively and the negative impact of stress on parents’ ability to tune into their children empathetically (and remain the ‘adult in the room’). There are some fascinating insights into the roles of oxytocin and dopamine in building the parent-child relationship and ensuring the parent gets pleasure from it (and therefore wants to engage even more). And a truly wonderful “caregiving formula” comprising playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy to optimise a reciprocal and nurturing parent-child relationship. Continue reading
As mothers, we constantly measure ourselves against our own elusive (and often contradictory) ideals of perfect motherhood. We know those ideals aren’t real but their power over us can be so strong that we are left either feeling like a failure or warping ourselves out of shape in a doomed attempt to conform to those ideals.
The Guilt-Free Guide to Motherhood by Kirsten Toyne is a great antidote to that futile search for perfection. It is also a wonderful exploration of the troubling feelings that can come with adjusting to being a new mother. It is a book grounded in real women’s lived experiences of pregnancy, birth and the baby years that aims to showcase just how diverse and OK our different feelings and experiences of motherhood actually are. Continue reading
The day my mother left us, my father decided to get a dog. It seemed like a straightforward swap to me. We went out to buy a border collie and when we came back my mother was gone. I was ten years old.
Swapping my mother for a puppy had many advantages. In one stroke I was liberated from all the petty restrictions of supervised domestic order. Bedtimes and hygiene went out of the window, replaced by endless summer days topped with coke and crisps in pub gardens. And without a live-in mother our family activities could no longer be divided along gender lines – no more being left behind to dig a stupid fish pond while the men went off to watch the Test Match! My world shifted shape. Continue reading
Give me a baby and I can’t help experimenting on her. Sticking out my tongue to see if she will copy, striking up a ‘making-faces’ conversation, looking at an object to see if she will follow my gaze, playing peekaboo. Now that my children are older, I don’t get much baby time but The Psychology of Babies by Lynne Murray makes a great substitute.
This fabulous book recreates classic developmental psychology experiments in an easy-to-follow photo format specifically designed to support parents and practitioners in decoding babies’ behaviour and understanding why babies do the things they do.
Books are a great tool for preparing toddlers for new babies. There is so much about babies that toddlers can’t anticipate and sustaining a sensible focused conversation with a toddler is never easy. So that precious time when you are snuggling up for a good story is a wonderful opportunity to introduce new ideas and prompt conversations about feelings and upcoming changes (see tips on Preparing your child for a new baby).
Whether you are just about to tell your toddler there is a baby on the way or have already welcomed your new bundle of joy, these are my personal recommendations of books that help young children cope with the arrival of a sibling. But be warned, talking to toddlers about new babies can throw up some probing questions about how the baby got into Mummy’s tummy in the first place – so you might also want to check out these Top 10 Books for talking to children about sex too! Continue reading
How are we going to tell the children? What are we going to tell the children? When are we going to tell the children? Believe me, I wish I had a script I could give you that answered those questions. Helping children through divorce and separation isn’t easy and there are no pain-free solutions. Being strong and calm and rational at a time when emotions are running away from you is a real challenge.
Having been on both sides of that conversation – as both a child and an adult – I do know that in the grand scheme of things there isn’t usually one conversation that makes the difference. Parents often focus on the initial ‘breaking the news’ moment but, in reality, it takes time for news to sink in and questions to rise and helping children through divorce or separation usually involves returning again and again to the same themes and issues and repeating the same messages until a new consistency is gradually established. Continue reading
For me, becoming a mother was like being hit by a bus. I knew there was a baby coming and that babies were full-on and hard work but I was not expecting the complete shift in my identity that I actually experienced. I didn’t see it coming.
I was in my thirties by the time I had my first baby and I had lived a wide and adventurous life. The baby was conceived while I was living in Mongolia, a place where life and death come and go daily in a nomadic life too focused on the basics of food, fuel and water to get introspective about identity. I waddled back to the UK at 34 weeks feeling like a cow about to calve, more concerned about how I would fit all the baby kit into my suitcase to take back to Ulanbaatar than about how becoming a mother might change me.
And then the bus hit me. It turns out, babies aren’t just a practical undertaking after all. Continue reading
A few weeks ago I attended a refresher course on safeguarding children and sexual exploitation. As a professional working in children’s services, I have attended dozens of these courses over the years and dealt with many child protection cases so I have become inevitably a little hardened to the topic. I am no longer the rookie who cried all the way home after her very first child protection workshop.
But, as a parent, I find it impossible to remain unmoved by a whole day thinking and talking about child abuse.
Of course my thoughts fly automatically to my own children. Then fly away again just as quickly. Because thinking about my children coming to harm in that way is just unthinkable… My instinct is to push it all away and seek refuge in denial. Continue reading
Introducing a new partner to your children can be daunting: there are life-changing implications for all involved. But it is a bridge that more and more parents and children (and new partners) have to cross.
It doesn’t help that fairy tales are full of wicked step-mothers and the TV is peppered with abusive step-fathers. Talk to a room full of parents and you will hear a wide range of experiences, from heart-warming accounts of blended families that have brought love and value to every family member’s life, to long-term estrangements, rifts and rejection.
When it comes to introducing a new partner to your children, there is no guaranteed way to ensure a smooth ride. But follow these tips and the chances of it working out will be greatly increased. Continue reading
This Easter I took my two children (aged 12 and 14) on a two-week adventure trip to Nepal. It was meant to be the stuff that childhood memories are made of: a year in the planning, we crammed the trip with mountain trekking, white-water rafting, an elephant safari, jungle walks, crocodile-spotting, cycling, cultural tours and middle-of-nowhere star-gazing. Smiling, wind-swept (and wearing unwise harem trousers) we flew back into Heathrow just before a huge earthquake shook Nepal killing an estimated 8,000 people.
Since the news broke, my feelings about the trip have been very confused. I feel incredibly lucky to have got out in time. I feel privileged and grateful to have seen this amazing and inspiring country before the earthquake destroyed historic sights and devastated the infrastructure. I feel shocked to the core knowing that people we met have lost everything and villages we visited have been levelled. And underneath it all is the horror that my children were there, that it so easily could have been them. Continue reading
Everyone experiences becoming a mother differently. For me, it was a bit like being hit by a bus. Of course, I knew there was a baby coming and that babies were hard work but in terms of the fundamental irreversible impact on my sense of identity, I just didn’t see that coming. For the first two months I sleepwalked in a post-traumatic haze: I was a mother who hadn’t yet become a mother and I was utterly conflicted. I couldn’t let go of the pre-birth me (the person I had invested 30 years into becoming) but I couldn’t see how to be that me in the face of the sheer scale of demands and love that had arrived with my new baby.
Life After Birth by Kate Figes was the catalyst that eased me through the transition to
motherhood. Or, as I melodramatically announced in my sleep-deprived haze, “This book saved my life.” Continue reading
Subconsciously, I equate food with love. As a result, I can take it too personally when my loved ones don’t want the food I provide, and I probably project that guilt onto them. I also sometimes use food for comfort, and I have been known to deny myself food as a form of self-harm. I once tried to set fire to a packet of biscuits to stop myself eating them all.
If you have a positive body image and an easy relationship with food then you are probably thinking that I’m a bit mental…
But in my experience, I’m pretty normal. Most of the mums I know or work with are at least a little bit screwy about food. And, hand on heart, the number of people I meet who are truly comfortable in their own bodies is a lot less than those who would rather their bodies were a bit (or a lot…) different.
Body image issues don’t only affect women and girls. Teenage boys are now under enormous pressure to conform to boy band ideals, and at a time when their bodies are in an awkward transitional phase. One third of men say they would give up a year of their lives to have the perfect body. Continue reading
As a parent, it’s often hard to know what’s important and what isn’t. Does it matter if your child eats their chips with their fingers at the dinner table? Or is it more important that they can sit and have a pleasant conversation with you while they are eating them? Should you push them to keep playing the cello when they want to give it up? Or allow them to make their own choices about how to spend their time? What’s the best balance between structured activities (classes and sports) and unstructured downtime? And does any of it really matter as long as you love them and give them your attention?
Feeling a bit bewildered by so many judgement calls (and in a bid to silence my inner doubting voice) this Mothers’ Day I decided to get back to basics and ask an expert. Continue reading
Becoming a single parent was both the worst and the best thing that has happened to me. At the time, it was devastating: I felt I had screwed up my life and my children’s lives. Fundamentally. Irreversibly. Unforgivably. I had failed at the most basic level of being a parent, I had broken something that could never be fixed or replaced.
It is only now, with over a decade of distance, that I can look back at that first year calmly and understand the stages in my journey towards acceptance and self-forgiveness. This is the story of my transition. Continue reading
The basic premise for Sue Gerhardt’s book Why Love Matters is simple: the way that mothers respond to their babies during infancy influences how their brains develop. On the face of it, it’s a no-brainer. So why did I find it such a deeply uncomfortable and annoying read as both a parent and a professional?
Despite the erudite academic stance, Gerhardt’s argument is utterly reductionist – parents are to blame for all the ills of their children all the way into adulthood (behaviour, mental health and even cancer) and that if we get it wrong in the brief window when our kids are babies then, basically, they are doomed. What’s more, mothers start getting it wrong before their children are even born by providing the wrong in utero environment. The complex interplay of factors that affect the growing child after their first birthday is pretty much dismissed as irrelevant: if we have got it wrong in infancy then their only hope is many years of psychotherapy as adults. Continue reading