Monday, 5 December 2011

Crying It Out - The Damage We Can Measure, The Damage We Can't

'Crying it out'...'controlled crying'...'sleep training'....when I had my first baby nearly four years ago, I was told that I needed to do it by everyone from my hair-dresser to my Baby Massage teacher, who handed out badly baked cakes and half baked parenting advice and told me my baby would never sleep through the night. The practice of leaving a baby to cry alone in a cot in order to encourage them to learn to be less dependent on their parents at night is so common and widespread in our culture that it is considered an absolutely normal if not essential part of a baby's first year. The number one best selling author of childcare books in the UK, Gina Ford, recommends it in several of her books, and even the NHS endorses it: on their website and in the book 'Birth to Five', handed out to all new mothers in England, they state:

By the time your child is six months old, it’s reasonable to expect them to sleep through most nights. If there’s no obvious cause, and your child continues to wake up, cry or demand company...teach your child to get back to sleep by themselves. First check that everything is alright. If it is, settle your child down without talking to them too much. If they want a drink, give them water but don’t give them anything to eat. For this approach to work, you need to leave them in their cot or bed. Don't take them downstairs or into your bed. Let them cry for around 5-10 minutes before you check on them. Over the next few nights, gradually increase the amount of time you leave them before checking. It might take a week or two but if you keep the routine going, your child should start falling asleep on their own.

This approach is understandably controversial; CIO is probably the most hotly debated topic in parenting forums and facebook groups. Those who are opposed to it denounce it as 'dangerous', sometimes even stating that it 'causes brain damage' and is tantamount to child abuse. On the other side of the fence, those who have used such methods on their own children claim that it is entirely harmless, and that a happy and well rested mother equals a happy baby. So who is right? 

In such instances it's helpful to look for actual concrete evidence, but, I'm sorry to say, there isn't any. That is, if you're looking for a study that says, 'We took twenty babies, left half of them to cry alone for prolonged periods, while we cuddled the other half, and the ones we left crying grew up to be miserable, whilst the ten we hugged are all happy well adjusted adults.', well, you're just not going to find it, for obvious reasons. Not only can we not treat babies this way in the name of scientific research, but it would also be impossible to separate out the night time sleep training from the myriad of other factors that contribute to the development of a person, successful or otherwise.

What we do know is that stress produces the hormone cortisol, and that this can and does have an effect on the brain, particularly a tiny and rapidly growing one. One study has shown that too much cortisol can affect  the development of the orbitofrontal part of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain thought to be most concerned with our social and emotional interactions. Another study suggests that the hippocampus may also be affected, with its numbers of cortisol receptors being reduced by early stress, leading to a reduction in the growth of the hippocampus itself and thus a reduced ability to cope with stress in adulthood. And from studying Romanian orphans, who were left in their cots and entirely deprived of love and affection, we can see just how much of the brain's development is dependent on responsive human interaction - many areas of their brains being visibly less active and 'a virtual black hole where their orbitofrontal cortex should be' (Gerhardt, 2004). 

All of this evidence, (and there is much more available), is telling us something: stressful experiences have a negative effect on our babies, and love, responsiveness, cuddles and touch have a positive effect. But how much stress does just a week or two of 'controlled crying' actually cause? Can we be sure that this is going to cause real lasting damage? Or will it just be a negligible 'blip', and worth it in the long run for the sake of a good night's sleep? Maybe we just need to switch off our baby monitors and get it over with? Right?

For me, crying it out is about more than cortisol, as valid and concrete as that evidence might be. For when we switch off our baby monitors, we switch off another connection - the two way radio we share with our babies from their very first moments of life, the delicate dance of the mother child dyad, the vital and vibrant message of unconditional love and care. When we shut the bedroom door and walk away, we are required to turn off our emotions and our instincts in a manner that, unlike cortisol, cannot be measured, but may damage our attachment, our essential link to our small child, in subtle and far reaching ways.

And what of our babies experience? Like much of their first two or three years, they will almost certainly have no real memory of being left to cry. For some people, this alone makes the practice acceptable. But I can tell you from my own work with adults who have experienced severe trauma as babies, that, whilst they cannot actually recall the painful events themselves, they nevertheless remain affected by them for the rest of their lives. Often the fact that the trauma occured at this 'pre-verbal' time can make it even harder for them to process and overcome their difficult feelings, by which they remain constantly haunted but which they are unable to name or articulate.

A baby left crying will not, as a relative once assured me, 'soon learn that it's not going to get them anywhere'. In fact, a baby or small child has great difficulty 'learning' anything of this nature, as their understanding of concepts like cause and effect / time / reward and punishment are extremely limited (as anyone who has ever tried the 'If you don't put your socks on we are not going to the park' approach to parenting will testify!) What they do learn if they are left crying is that nobody is responding to them, in that present moment, and that it feels awful. They will learn that they are 'helpless', and some babies, although not all, will eventually give up crying for this reason. Often it is said that CIO teaches a baby to 'self soothe', but how can you learn to 'self soothe' if you don't yet have a full concept of 'self'? A small baby doesn't yet understand themselves as a separate person - this happens gradually, and it's not until around 18 months that a child can even look in a mirror and understand that they are seeing their own reflection.

Rather than learning to self soothe, a baby left crying may instead be learning how to 'split off' or dissociate. This is one way of coping with trauma or distressing events that threaten to overwhelm us - to go somewhere else. If we can't escape in our body, we can in our mind. As a parent, we can help a baby or child to learn how to cope with distress by the way that we ourselves respond. If we take our child in our arms, hold them, say soft words, and offer calmness and love, they will begin to learn how to make this a part of themselves, and how to respond in this way to difficult situations without our presence or help. But if our child is in distress, and no one is there to hold them? They may learn that the only way to deal with such intolerable feelings is to escape. Later in life, this desire to drift away from the pain instead of facing it may manifest itself in the form of addictions, eating disorders, and other serious mental health problems.

Of course, not all babies left to cry will end up with major difficulties in later life. Like everything else, there are degrees of damage, some obvious and clear, some subtle and barely noticeable. We all deal differently with distress, and perhaps it's worth pausing for a moment to consider what you personally do when your emotions are rising and churning. Do you reach for a drink, a cigarette, a sleeping pill? Do you eat more or less than you need? Do you write, do you run, do you paint pictures, do you drive your car too fast? Do you think you cope well with distress, or is this a difficult area for you? And now that you've thought about this, here's another one - how do you deal with the distress of others? When your baby is crying, what happens to you? How do you respond, in your body, in your breath, in your mind, in your heart? What do you find easier to contemplate - leaving your baby to cry alone, or holding your crying baby? If we find if hard to cope with distress, CIO might seem a better alternative than nights spent giving comfort, and so the cycle continues.

Distress is complicated, and we are all of us damaged in some way. As parents, we are in the game of damage limitation. In our material world, a baby who sleeps through the night is highly prized, they are a 'good baby', they are likely to have less negative impact on our youthful looks and our earning capacity than a baby who wakes up often and renders us tired and inarticulate. But if the good baby comes at the price of CIO, is it worth it? I think not. This might feel like bad news if you are sleep deprived and desperate. But I can tell you from personal experience, that your child will eventually sleep more deeply, more independently and for longer stretches, no matter what you decide to do. Suddenly, rather like childbirth, the pain is over, and you are in a new phase, with its own new challenges. And both you and your child will be intensely glad that you didn't risk causing damage, not just to the orbitofrontal cortex or the hippocampus, but to your relationship of love, trust, kindness and comfort, through which your child is learning so much about how to find this comfort in themselves.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Amazon Petition - Look Who's Signing!


Currently, I'm trying to attract press attention to my petition to ask Amazon not to stock books which advocate the physical abuse of children. I'm compiling and circulating the following list of 'notable signatories'. Of course, every one of the ten thousand seven hundred and ten people who have signed the petition so far are immensely notable and significant to me. But with Amazon refusing to respond, I want to try and attract attention, both to the petition itself, and to Amazon's silence.

I have therefore been in contact with the following signatories and gained their permission to make public their support of my campaign. I am immensely grateful to them, not just for this support, but also for their individual contributions to the awareness of child protection.

  • Prof George.W.Holden, Professor of Psychology, SMU, Chair of the Global Summit on Ending Corporal Punishment and Promoting Positive Discipline, 2011, Dallas, TX. Prof Holden's research at the Holden Lab focuses on understanding the determinants and significance of the parent-child relationship in development.
  • Robert Fathman Ph.D, Clinical Psychologist, Co-Founder of the Center for Effective Discipline and the National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in Schools. Co-Chair EPOCH-USA (End Physical Punishment of Children, part of an international federation of organizations seeking to end corporal punishment of children)


  • Peter Newell, Coordinator of the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, and long term advocate for children's rights in the UK and internationally. In England he chaired the NGO Children’s Rights Alliance from 1992 to 2002 and is Coordinator of the Children are Unbeatable! Alliance, campaigning for abolition of all corporal punishment. Together with his partner, Rachel Hodgkin, he prepared UNICEF’s Implementation Handbook for the Convention on the Rights of the Child. He has worked frequently as a consultant for UNICEF, in particular advising on general measures for implementation of the Convention and on establishment of independent human rights institutions for children. He is also Adviser to the European Network of Ombudspeople for Children. 
  • Margaret Sims, Professor of Early Childhood, University of New England, NSW, Australia, author of numerous books, book chapters, journal articles, and reports, all with focus on the importance of early childhood. Of particular note to this campaign is Policy Brief no.20 on Physical Punishment.






As you can see, this list just keeps growing! If you have signed the petition, are an author, campaigner, psychologist, expert or scholar, or think your signature adds to the campaign in any way, please get in touch with me.

In the meantime I'm sure the list as it stands - creaking under the weight of so many great minds - will gain press attention and increase the pressure on Amazon to respond.

Fingers crossed, and thank you ALL for your wonderful support!

Friday, 4 November 2011

Birth Special: Small Comforts

This week I've been running a special series of posts on one of my favourite subjects, Birth. On Monday, Michelle told the story of her empowering VBAC, and on Tuesday we heard Anna's story of her adoption experience, with a very surprising twist. On Wednesday Maddie from Developing Doulas shared some passionate thoughts about motherhood and pointed us in the direction of the fantastic website, One World Birth. On Thursday, Awen Clement wrote about the Red Tent Project, which hopes to create a travelling space in the UK for women and their many rites of passage. 

During the week an artist friend of mine has also been busy making a beautiful painting inspired by women's words about their 'post baby' bodies, especially for this blog. Late last night I shared images of her art work, and took the rather bold (or foolish?!) step of including a photo I took of my own tummy button, in the post Acceptance Nude.

I'm so thrilled to introduce the final guest post in this series, from my personal favourite blogger, when you ARE that woman. Her blog is not particularly high profile. Unlike many bloggers, she doesn't do give-aways, or sponsored posts. Unlike me, she rarely gets political, she doesn't rant or jump from soap box to soap box. She just writes. She writes beautiful, lyrical, touching and funny posts about her life as a mother. Here she writes with characteristic honesty about post-natal depression. Her lovely words deserve to be read. 

Small Comforts

I'm not surprised Churchill referred to his depression as his 'black dog', because in my experience depression is the worst kind of bitch. Even when you are classed as 'over it', you can hear and smell it somewhere nearby, panting in the shadows, snuffling around and threatening to shit in your path.

Earlier this week I felt a little overwhelmed by what I think (and hope) are the stuff of normal, common all gardening parental anxiety. They spiralled and wormed their way into my mind like the worst kind of dizzy headache. Where will Spider-boy go to school? Will we ever have any money? Have I destroyed my career by having kids? Have I destroyed my children by working? Am I any good at parenting? Are my relaxed days good for everyone or evidence that deep down I'm still feckless and lazy? Do I have expectations that are too high or not high enough? What happens if I never sleep again? Can you get so tired you forget what love is? And on, and on, and on.

With my first child, these were the symptoms of a disease. I spiralled and stumbled and became undone each thought cascading into another until I lost myself and was happy to drown. At the moment, I suspect I'm just wallowing in these waters (albeit with the trepidation of someone who's already been out of their depth). As I said, depression is a bitch, and I suspect I'll always be able to hear her if I listen carefully, roaming somewhere near my house, howling in the dark.

But this is a post about love and comfort. Slightly shaken I took two mornings *off* this week wondering if I was stricken or just, you know, tired and a bit emotional (and frankly, not drunk enough). I went back to bed 'til midday, just newborn and I, and we snuggled and cuddled, he in his nappy and nothing else.

One of the days he was snuffly and cross and not in good sorts himself. Still beautiful you understand, proud ballooning belly, wide wide smile, the only crooked thing on his gloriously symmetrical face, but also grizzling and crying and fussing while he fed. I tried all my tricks, placating and soothing, rocking and rubbing, playing, shhhing, kissing and almost gave up. I lay down next to him with a sigh and he looked over and grabbed at my face, pulling it towards him with his tiny insistent arms. His hands on my cheeks and hair, his too sharp nails digging in. I went with the move and he pulled me close, like a clumsy lover, my face into his, until his lips rested on mine. He gazed up at my eyes and breathing back at me fell asleep. He wanted our breath close and hot, needed it to feel safe. As he started to snore it dawned on me, the light of the sunny day we had been missing streaming from the edge of the blinds, that perhaps he was holding me because he wanted me to feel safer too.

It may be wishful thinking; children have every right to be selfish (parenthood has confirmed to me the absolute truth of that teenage cliche I didn't ask to be born, because however annoying that may be in 11 years time, it is a true accusation and one I don't have an answer for). But it whizzed me back to 2007 so fast my stomach lurched. I remembered another bright day, light hitting my face from the crackleglaze of the institutionalised windows in a horrible, dirty side room where Spider-boy and I had been placed. He was 15 days or so old, and we'd been readmitted in a bloodsoaked frenzy to the sticky, hot postnatal ward which smelled of rust and powdered tea and fear and bliss all churned together.

There he was, as too fat for his goldfish bowl crib as I was too small for the pregno shaped nightie. His presence was partly pragmatic, because I was breastfeeding him, but also a legal requirement. As he hadn't been registered we were told he didn't exist as a separate entity from me. He was still 'Baby thatwoman', nothing without me and our matching tags. It was between visiting hours, scary and the height of Summer. There were things I wanted to do but I was pinned to the bed by some nasty needles in my hand. Mr Thatwoman was firefighting his new job and sorting the house hoping we'd be back soon. I started crying, and a little hand reached up to touch my chest. It rested there as Spider-boy snuggled in, and I felt better.

A fundamental truth of parenting knocked my imagined future apart. I realised that he could comfort me even at this very young age; the relationship was two-way and being offered. It had never occurred to me that right from the start this was possible, yet here I was, something tiny and fragile and legally non-existent holding me and caring for me when I felt broken.

I know that it is no certainty and no right of mine to expect it, but even knowing that my boys have held me and cuddled me back, whether on purpose or as an accident of motor skills, makes me feel better and more optimistic. Seriously, how fucking lucky am I? To have had a two-way love from the start? To have had been able to grasp and find love even in moments of potential blankness? It certainly gives me hope, even if it was depression barking at the supermoon...

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Birth Special: Acceptance Nude

Before I had my two children, I really liked my body. I know girls are notorious for having bits of themselves they despise, but I liked all of me. I never really worked out, I never really watched what I ate, but I just had a great body, that looked good in clothes, and even better naked. Before you really start to hate me, here is a picture I just took of my tummy button:

This is what it looks like when I bend over. So if I'm naked, and reaching down to pull the plug out of the bath or pick up a discarded toy, this is what I see. As the three year old so beautifully put it, 'Mummy, when you bend over, your tummy goes all sort of melty-down.'

And I dislike it. I dislike it intensely. I realise this may make me seem shallow and superficial. But I'm afraid that I cannot quite accept the rather dramatic fall from grace my body has experienced; transformed, almost over-night, from something I willingly and happily flaunted, to something I'm keen to keep hidden from view.

You can imagine why the following image caught my eye.

Doing the rounds on facebook, Cassie's Fox's photo of her own tummy when her baby was six months old has been shared thousands of times over. Her image and accompanying words have sparked everything from cathartic release, to spiteful bitchiness. For me, they raised mostly guilt. My tummy looks a bit like this, and yet I have never really so far been able to integrate the way it looks with the gratitude I feel for my children's existence.

I shared her image via the facebook page for my blog, and although some who commented, like me, felt negatively, I was inspired by how many women echoed Cassie's feelings of pride and acceptance in their changed forms.

An artist friend and follower of my blog, Anna Appleby, offered to take these women's words and transform them into a piece of art to be shared here. I am so grateful to her for taking time out from caring for her two small children to create the beautiful image that follows.

The next images are close-ups of the main picture, with some of the words transcribed beneath.

doughy, squashy, home, mature, mummy's like a zebra, love handles, cuddle

womanly, curvy, proud, strong, feminine


scarred, striped, complete, someone's left a cake out in the rain

stretched, stitched, lucky, powerful

powerful, lucky, torn, stitched, stretched, scarred, now empty, complete, stripes

nourishing, finally have a purpose, disconnected

For me, these images, and the little chain of events that led to their creation, has been a welcome challenge to my entirely negative feelings about my melty-down tum. I don't love it yet, and perhaps I never will, but I have certainly nudged a little bit further along the long spectrum of feelings, a small step away from repulsion and disgust, and a tiny tiptoe towards pride and acceptance.

Please feel free to share your own feelings and responses in the comments below.

If you would like to find out more about Anna's art, or would like a print of Acceptance Nude, please contact me, and I will put you in touch!

You might also like What's Good About This? Re-Framing Our Post Baby Bodies

Birth Special: The Red Tent Project

Today's post for the week long Birth Special comes from Awen Clement, a mother and trainee midwife, whose love of the book The Red Tent was one of the many reasons she felt called to become involved in this wonderful project. If you feel equally inspired, they would be thrilled to hear from you!

The Red Tent Project

"We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust.

This is not your fault, or mine. The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing...

..And now you come to come hungry for the story that was lost. You crave words to fill the great silence that swallowed me, and my mothers, and my grandmothers before them."

( Prologue, 'The Red Tent', Anita Diamant)

Have you read Anita’s book? Did it speak to you? Did you feel a tugging of your soul, a tingle of ancestral memory that you couldn’t quite place? Even if you haven’t, do you have a little voice inside that wonders if there is something missing in this slightly crazy modern world? Read on…..

In a small corner of the South West of the UK, a woman by the name of Kate Woods (Doula and Doula Educator, Conscious Birthing) came to the conclusion that what she needed, what all women need, is a real life Red Tent like the one in Anita’s book. She posted the seed of her idea on Facebook and the response was a resounding YES!

So the dream was born. The plan is to raise funds for the building and furnishing of 20’ red yurt, a space for women to come together, to bleed, to birth, to create, to cry, to heal, to be women. The seasons of women’s lives will be celebrated and the sharing of wisdom honoured.

The yurt will travel to festivals and events around the country, offering workshops and celebrations. As Kate puts it ‘The elders can support and educate the new young women and the Mothers can empower the pregnant women, and so on, like a set of Russian dolls, each sharing her power and being nurtured in her own.’

When not on tour the yurt will reside in Somerset as a birthing and celebration space. There are negotiations happening regarding a piece of land, giving the yurt a home in which there can be a wood burning stove and birthing tub.

Since the project was first conceived in the Spring of 2011, many women have joined the circle. Nearly a £1000 has already been raised through individual contributions and circle hosted events such as pamper evenings. A circle member is even running a marathon to raise funds for the project.

More is needed, the project needs £5000 to build the yurt, another £1500 to furnish it and then on-going funds to support it as a space in which we can all nurture ourselves.

We would welcome you to join us, does this project call to you? We need volunteers, we need fundraisers, we need your voices to spread the word.

We are offering you a place to be safe, to honour your body, to connect with women, to connect with yourself. Come inside, who knows what you may find.

You can keep up with the Red Tent Project on facebook by clicking here. Please get in touch with them if you would like to help or be involved in any way, however great or small. Follow on twitter @Redtent_uk. More info can also be found at or

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Birth Special: Mothers Matter

This week I'm running a Birth Special. On Monday Michelle told her moving tale of achieving the VBAC of her dreams, and yesterday, Anna shared a wonderful story with a truly unexpected twist about her experience of adoption. Today’s guest post comes from Doula Maddie McMahon. She writes with passion of the wonderful power of mothers and motherhood, and calls for a better world for those who bear and raise children. Maddie writes posts about birth and motherhood at, and offers Doula services and training in Cambridge UK. You can also follow her on facebook.

Mothers Matter…

Mothers nurture a growing child in their wombs, fiercely protecting that future human despite having perhaps been rejected by the child’s father, despite rape, poverty, despite extreme emotional and physical suffering.

Mothers give birth. Some hunker down and roar their babies out; lioness mamas ecstatic with earth-shattering power. Some dream their babies into the world – flowing, spiralling, floating in the warm, wet other world of birth transformation.

Others have their children ‘untimely ripped’ from their wombs by induction, c-section, instruments – sometimes necessarily, but all too often at the instigation of an ‘all powerful, all knowing’ paternalistic figure.

But they all keep their dignity, their strength, their abiding love. Frequently, around the world, mothers sacrifice their babies, or even their own lives on the altar of poverty and ignorance.

Some mothers feel that overflow of piercing, painful love the minute they feel their child’s hot, wet body at her breast. Others, many who have been separated from their babies, find the love blossoms slowly over days and weeks. Some revel in the warm,  liquid, primal, sensual experience of the babymoon but many suffer pain, social isolation, lack of skilled support, physical complications or the black hole of postnatal depression or post-traumatic stress.

Whatever our journey, all of us mothers fight for their children, even to the extent of killing themselves in the belief their children will be better off without them. Really? Overly dramatic? Suicide is the leading cause of maternal death but we don’t hear these stories. Society is rightly, too ashamed to air these herstories, too scared to examine what it reveals of a world that allows such tragedy.

Without exception, we all bear guilt. Motherhood, especially in the West, has become a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ competitive battlefield. In our anxiety to get it right, we turn to the marketplace – to the legions of ‘experts’ and childcare manual authors who grow fat on our insecurites and doubt.

30% of UK mothers now work full time at the same time as still doing the majority of the childcare and domestic tasks. Around the world, the economic contribution of women means the difference between full stomachs and starvation for the majority of families. Most female work is drudging, badly paid, back-breaking, illegal and often downright dangerous.

Mothers around the world ‘bring forth in suffering’, not through God’s Will but because mothers must be submerged, disempowered, forgotten. What is the alternative? What trouble would we cause if we were all strong enough to stand up to a world that disenfranchises our daughters, sends our sons off to war, drags our children into drugs, violence and poverty and celebrates the machismo of our husbands when they leave us.

What would happen if our bodies were celebrated for the effortless way we can bear children and feed them, instead of using our curves and breasts to sell products?

What if Mothers had a voice. What if we all took back what is ours by right – our birthright – to labour and give birth safely with skilled loving attendants, in the place of our choice; to be supported with patience and loving care through the transition to parenthood; to be supported with affordable childcare, equal pay, financial support to stay at home with the children (after all, isn’t this a JOB, even if it doesn’t register in the GDP of a country?). To live without fear of starvation, rape, slavery, or domestic abuse.

What if we had the time and energy to actually get a say in the way the world was run?

Some facts and figures to consider:
According to the WHO: Every day, approximately 1000 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.

Amnesty International’s report Deadly Delivery: The Maternal Health Care Crisis in the USA, urges action to tackle a crisis that sees between two and three women die every day during pregnancy and childbirth in the USA….With a lifetime risk of maternal deaths that is greater than in 40 other countries, including virtually all industrialized nations, the USA has failed to reverse the two-decade upward trend in preventable maternal deaths, despite pledges to do so.

Unlike the US, Britain has an independent body that records all maternal and perinatal deaths so that clinicians can learn and be held accountable. The Centre for Maternal and Child Enquiries is crucial but its continued existence seems uncertain.

In the UK, PM David Cameron admitted pre-election that the NHS was short of 3000 midwives and promised to recruit that number. That promise has been forgotten. Midwives and mothers are worried maternity services are being pared down to dangerous levels. Meanwhile, in many developing countries, millions of pregnant women have no access to antenatal care or skilled intrapartum support at all.

If you want to find our more or join the movement to take back motherhood, visit

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Birth Special: Adoption - A Beautiful Story with a Beautiful Twist!

Becoming a mother doesn't always mean giving birth. Some take a different, but equally transformative, empowering and arduous journey into parenthood. This week is National Adoption Week in the UK. Having worked extensively as a therapist with children in foster care I'm happy to do anything I can to promote this cause. I really hope the following story encourages those of you for whom the circumstances are right to explore the idea of fostering or adoption.

Anna's Story

Paul and I met in 1997, at the church we both attended. He was the youth leader and I was the youth! OK, so that’s not entirely true and sounds a bit sinister...he had been the youth leader and at 17 I was the youth! The usual comments about the 12 year age gap followed but we ignored them and married in 1999. We were both keen to have a family and started ‘trying’ for a baby shortly after our wedding. I had never been particularly ambitious and my only goal in life was to be a Mum so we thought we would get on with it...although ‘it’ didn’t happen and after a year we both went to see our doctors and were referred on to the Assisted Conception Clinic. I was found to have Polycystic Ovaries and Paul a low sperm count and we were told, in no uncertain terms, that our chances of having children together was a big fat zero (although the consultant did point out that we would probably be fine if we were both with different partners!!).

So that was that. A relief, in some ways, to know one way or the other and time to focus on something new. We decided against IVF or other things we could have tried as we both agreed that having a ‘birth child’ wasn’t what was important for us, being parents was. We applied to adopt through an agency and after our training courses, medicals, references and assessment we were set before a panel of 13 people to be told whether we were fit to be parents or not-defiantly the most terrifying hour of my life to date! Anyway, we were successful so then started the search for ‘the one’! I found this bit of the process really hard. I fell in love with every child I looked at and would then be presented with a file, some of which were HUGE, with every detail the child’s Social Worker had on them and their families. Some of them were harrowing to read to begin with but as we read more and more we managed to close off a bit, I think it’s the only way to be able to make an informed choice about the child you choose. After about 6 months of looking we found O. He was 4 at the time and the first picture we saw of him he was sitting on a swing, with a face like thunder and his wellies on the wrong feet! After meeting with his S.W and foster carer we were ready to meet him! I will NEVER forget that day for as long as I live and still feel emotional now when I think about it! We were sitting downstairs in his Foster carers split level house and she had popped to get him from nursery. We both felt sick with nerves...what if he didn’t like us? What if we didn’t like him? What if, what if, what if...suddenly the front door banged above us and this gorgeous little voice shouted out ‘where’s my new Daddy?’ and he stomped down the stairs! The rest of the two weeks of introductions went by in a blur and before we knew it we were on our way back with him!

O is, and always has been, a lovely, kind hearted child. He has global developmental delay and is currently working at a level 7 years below where his peers are. He has a little bit of lots of things going on really (dyslexia, ASD, Attachment disorder, PTSD) which has made it hard to get him help in school. His main issues are, and always have been, his lack of confidence and massive anxiety, both of which he has due to hideous early experiences. *just had a little break to refill my wine glass and tell O to get in the shower...he came in and asked what I was writing about so I told him briefly...he has told me to write that he is good on his scooter, that he has a tortoise called Raff and that he is quite good looking :o)*. He has had fairly extensive therapy and has just changed schools. He now has 70% of his lessons in a nurture group and is coming out of school with a smile on his face for the first time in what feels like forever!

O’s sister and brother were both placed for adoption around the same time as him and we have maintained contact with them twice yearly since. It was during one of these contacts with his sister (and their second newly adopted daughter) that her Mum mentioned in conversation that their new daughter’s birth mum had had another baby that was also going to be placed for adoption. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could have her? It would make contact very easy! We didn’t even know if it was the right time for us to do it again. We had discussed it at various times during the last 6 years (since we had had O). Well, don’t ask, don’t get so we fired off a letter to the head of Social Services, praying that she would remember us from when we had O, and then kind of forgot about it! All seemed a bit too good (and easy) to be true. We had a phone call two days after posting the letter to say that they thought it was a fab idea and wanted to come and see us with more info! After a very quick assessment, panel (no where near as scary the second time round) and meeting with her foster carer we were introduced to our little pocket rocket, (A) then 13 months. She arrived two years ago and has turned our lives upside down, but in a good way! Whether she will have any future issues remains to be seen. She is doing everything she should be at the moment although she was subjected to massive substance misuse before she was born and we were told she ‘would not come out of this unscathed’...we don’t really care to be honest, we will deal with whatever life throws at us.

A came to us in the October and by January I was exhausted! She was (and is) a full on toddler and I assumed my lethargy and extreme tiredness were down to parenting her...I was wrong! After chatting with a friend about my ridiculously itchy boobs she convinced me to do a pregnancy test. I have done literally hundreds in my lifetime, all of which were obviously negative and I should point out, not that I expect you will really want to know, but since we found out 12 years ago that we were infertile as a couple we have never used any form of contraception. Anyway, I did the test, put it on the sink and started sorting the washing! I totally forgot about it, I was so sure there would be nothing to see. Wrong again...there was the word ‘pregnant’ (I got the expensive ones rather than the blue line ones!). I collapsed and hyperventilated (not exaggerating) and Paul swore about 30 times in a row when I told him! We were shell shocked and if I am honest it took some time to sink in! Why was it happening now when I already felt like I was struggling to adjust to having a two year old? How would O cope, going from being an only child to having two siblings in less than a year? Could we afford it? Did we need a bigger car? The week after we found out I went to the doctors, then to the midwife who found the heart beat (we both and the midwife!), then for a scan which revealed I was 21 weeks by this point! By the end of that week life was great, sod the money and the car, we were growing a baby :o)

Ez was born in September 2010 and is beautiful, cheeky and a little bit stroppy! We feel so so blessed to have experienced the joy of having a birth child but are eternally grateful that he didn’t come first as then we wouldn’t have had O and A. Adoption is an amazing way to become a parent. Of course there are hard times and uncertainties but our children bring us so much happiness that the hard times are still hard and the uncertainties become irrelevant.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Birth Special: From Emergency Caesarian to Blissful VBAC!

Today is Halloween, and it's also Samhain, the Celtic equivalent of New Year's Eve. This ancient festival looks towards nature for its symbolism, and celebrates endings and beginnings; taking seeds of hope for the future, spiralling deep into the dark of winter, facing our fears, waiting and enduring, and emerging anew when spring finally returns. What better time to bring you the first of a week long series of posts on the subject of birth!

Back in July I ran another Birth Special, and the most popular post by far was Michelle's story of how her planned home birth ended in an emergency c-section. Perhaps one of the reasons it spoke to so many people is because the tale is, sadly, all too familiar; of a birth in which hopes and dreams of a natural and positive experience slip slowly and painfully away and are replaced with trauma and disappointment.  I'm delighted to say that for Michelle, healing has come in the form of an incredibly empowering second birth, and here she shares her inspiring story, accompanied by the most beautiful images.

Michelle's Second Birth Story: Doula Assisted VBAC in Hospital

When I fell pregnant with my second child I was determined to have a different experience compared to my last labour and birth, preferably one that didn't result in a c-section. So I did everything I could to maximise my chances of achieving such a dream. I read huge amounts of research and VBAC birth stories, I watched VBAC birth videos, I hired a doula and also enlisted the help of a friend who was training to be a doula and I held a Blessingway. I also did a lot of soul-searching and talking about my previous birth experience, fears and expectations in an attempt to find some healing and to let go of certain worries.

I wholeheartedly believe that all of these things - being informed, supported and most of all trusting my body - played a huge part in achieving my empowered VBAC.

I would like to add here that I originally intended to have a home birth (or HBAC) but one of my worries was about the less than 1% chance of having a uterine rupture during labour. So after changing to a consultant I was more comfortable with, I made the decision to have my VBAC in hospital, as I personally felt safer to be there rather than 30 minutes drive away if anything did happen.

Here is the story of Genevieve's birth...

On the morning of my due date some mild contractions started while I was getting my other daughter's (Mathilda) breakfast. I didn't think much of it at first because two nights previously I had felt the same and they died off. But within half an hour they ramped up in intensity and frequency making me take notice of them.

This turned out to be very stressful because my husband, Rob, was still in bed suffering from a corneal abrasion (he has a form of Recurrent Corneal Erosion) which was looking like HE may have to go into hospital to have his eye scraped (you don't want to know) and my daughter was having a tantrum over me giving her the 'wrong juice' which ended up purposefully chucked all over the carpet. Suffice to say, I wasn't in a very good mood at that point!

Among all the chaos I somehow got in contact with both my friend/trainee doula (Jenn) and my doula. We arranged for Jenn to come over ASAP to help and for my doula to await another call if things really look like I'm in actual, full-blown labour.

By this point Rob was trying to get through to the hospital to arrange to see his eye specialist and also call relatives who offered to look after Mathilda.
I was having some good strong contractions while leaning on my birth ball with all this going on and Rob swearing at the phone in the background. I just buried my head in the ball and moaned through them, while Mathilda, bless her heart, hugged me from behind. Eventually Jenn arrived and things started to fall into place.

My contractions continued while hubby got his eye appointment and arranged for my sister to take Mathilda out and give Rob a lift to hospital. Some time after that he and Mathilda both left the house when my sister arrived to pick them up.

It was quite a weird moment, because I knew deep down that it was going to be the last time I saw Mathilda as my only child.

So it was just Jenn and I in the house now and we chatted in between contractions.
She asked me to tell her all about how Rob and I met, so I started telling her. This really seemed to bring on the contractions, to which Jenn explained that there must be a lot of love there to help trigger my body into putting more effort towards having the baby!

Soon Rob arrived home from his appointment with some new eye meds to keep him going and I was getting quite uncomfortable with the contractions now. So we all decided it was a good idea to run a bath for me. It was a bit of an experiment too, to see if it slowed down my contractions. If it didn't, then we we're full steam ahead!

Getting into the water felt gorgeous and really took the edge off the contractions. So I asked to be left alone for a while so that I could really focus in on myself and get in the 'zone'. I have no idea how long I was in there alone, but I managed to cope very well with a lot of the contractions. I discovered that talking to the baby and telling her I loved her worked a treat and I also kept repeating 'moving doooooowwwnnnn' during a contraction to help with the visualisation of the baby's head descending through my pelvis.
Then things started to get a little negative. I managed to trigger a nasty contraction out of nowhere by trying to check my cervix myself (I had been doing this occasionally throughout the last couple of weeks of pregnancy). It knocked me for six and I obviously made a lot of noise because I heard feet running up over the stairs and it was Rob and Jenn coming in to check if I was alright.
They offered me food and drink (I think I managed a spoonful of yogurt and a sip of water) and they stayed around to help me through. It was getting quite hard to integrate the pain now and I started getting nervous and doubting my strength to carry on. Next thing I know I'm thinking about packing it all in and getting a c-section! It really was as if I had two voices in my head. One was cheering me on, being all positive and the other was like a black cloud of fear, negativity and self-loathing. It was saying 'you can't do this! Who are you kidding? You failed last time and you'll fail again, so just cut to the chase and demand a c-section. It'll save a lot of grief on everyone's part.'

I tried desperately to push this voice out of my head but it remained lingering in the background as the contractions got worse.

Jenn suggested I try to get out of the bath and snuggle up in the 'nest' I had made downstairs to try and gain some control back and then decide what to do from there.It took a huge amount of effort and will-power to get out of the bath but I managed it and had a contraction or two down over the stairs. During one of these I decided to tell Jenn (as I clung on to her for dear life!) about the bad thoughts I had been having. She of course reassured me I was doing fantastically and was coping really well. It felt good to hear that I wasn't making a 'scene' and that everything so far was looking pretty normal for a woman in labour. I guess my previous experience was so 'abnormal' that I didn't really know what 'normal' felt like.

So I carried on labouring in the front room again, knees on the cushioned floor and upper body draped over pillows on the sofa. It was very snuggley and warm but not offering much relief from the contractions. Rob called my doula to let her know that things were really progressing and that she needed to come over ASAP. At this point it wasn't decided if Jenn would stay or leave once my doula arrived. Within minutes things seemed to progress even more. My contractions were coming thick and fast and I was off in 'la-la-labourland'. I think Rob then rang the hospital to let them know we were coming in and before I knew it we were leaving the house and piling into Jenn's car.
The journey to the hospital was not fun. Every tiny little bump triggered nasty contractions that didn't seem to have a build-up, so there was no way to prepare for them. I remember Jenn talking me through them as she was driving, telling me to imagine walking up a steep hill, then as the contraction would peak (top of the hill) it was time to walk down and breathe it out. I found this really worked for me. Sometimes it's easy to forget that contractions don't last forever and that you always come out of the other side.

When we arrived at the hospital I started to feel very teary and low. It was difficult to walk and hobbling down the corridors brought back a lot of memories from my previous labour. Rob and I checked in while Jenn parked her car (my doula had been informed to bypass our house and come straight to the hospital by this point). We were met by two midwives and they showed us to my room, which had just been cleaned out and the floor was still wet. It was stark and bright and cold (the windows had been flung open to release the smell of floor cleaner - lovely).

I instantly hit a wall. I bent over the bed, face down onto the mattress and struggled through intense contractions while the midwives nagged at me about VBAC patient protocols, to which they were informed that I didnt want to have continuous fetal monitoring.
They then had a bit of a to-do over the lack of birth plan in my notes (ok, my fault. It was on my list of things to do, ok?!) but luckily Rob and Jenn handled it very well for me while I spiralled into a very dark place.I started demanding a c-section under general anaesthetic. I said that I had been lying to myself and everyone else. There was no way I could handle any more pain and I didn't want to go through all the same as my previous labour again to end up with an emergency c-section. So let's cut to the chase and get it done. At some point my doula arrived, and between her, Jenn and the midwives I was told that I could not have a c-section because I didn't need one.

Oooh I was grumpy after that! I started whimpering and crying and felt totally crushed.

But then Jenn and my doula set about sorting things with the midwives (as in explaining what I wanted), drawing the curtains, closing the windows, wrapping me up warm, giving me food and water, rubbing my back and just generally working their magic.

I asked Jenn to stay for the time being as I felt I needed her there (the original plan was for her to keep me company at home during early labour and then for my doula to take over at the hospital).
The midwives wanted to do a quick check of the baby's heartbeat and rigged me up to a monitor. I wasn't too happy about this as it involved getting onto the bed, which was painful and difficult. My doula gave me a foot massage and talked me through contractions. Luckily all sounded well with the heart rate and I must've got off the bed soon afterwards (even though I don't remember doing it). I ended up on a birthing ball with Jenn and my doula on either side of me.
I can't remember much of what happened but I know it was tough. Some very intense contractions occurred and I can remember standing up and holding onto my doula while shuddering and nearly biting down on her wrist. Next thing I know the midwives appear and suggest checking my dilation progress. I did actually want to know what was going on as I had been labouring for a good while but I also knew it was going to hurt so with reluctance, I agreed.

I couldnt get up onto the bed again so one of the midwives checked me on the floor, on my side. I felt like a feral animal being examined by a vet. It was not one of my most elegant moments, to say the least! Fortunately, and to my surprise she was very quick and declared I was at 5cm but during a contraction I was going to 7cm. Which was really good news! I then started to feel much better and most negative thoughts left my head. I was going to have this baby! In hindsight, my doulas and I believe I must've hit transition when I got into hospital. Hence all the whining and c-section demanding on my part. I also believe that the drive and arriving at the place where it all went wrong last time had a HUGE psychological impact on me. Thank goodness I had my doulas to see me through it.

So I carried on labouring for a bit more on the birth ball, spirits lifted and managing to eat some melon my doula had brought in. It was still very intense through contractions and I felt like I was lagging. So there was a brief talk about pain relief (admittedly initiated my me), where the midwife almost excitedly told me all about the wonders of diamorphine. But in the end we all agreed to try a bath first and see where that lead us.

While the bath was being drawn I had to pee in a commode. Again, not one of my most elegant moments! After that, we all set off down the corridor to the bathroom (which was handily right at the other end). I held onto Rob and hobbled along like an old lady, my hips felt like they were popping and cracking with every step. At one point I actually found the strength from somewhere to walk through a contraction. This actually quite impressed me and made me realise I wasn't such a wimp after all!

The bathroom was very 'functional' but I didn't care, I just wanted to get into the lovely hot, enticing bath in front of me. My doula put some lavender essential oil in the water for me while I undressed and then climbed in.

Two words; utter bliss! Water really does take the edge off things when you're in labour. For me, it's not so much about relieving pain but more to do with supporting my weight and making it easier to move around. I tried all sorts of positions in that tub and could easily rest in between contractions.

Things were going nicely, so we sent Rob off to our room to rest his eyes. I continued to labour with Jenn and my doula mothering me with one of the midwives every now and again checking the heart rate of the baby with a Doppler.

I was well and truly in a hypnotic state by now. I can only remember snippets of events such as Jenn and my doula stroking my hair, singing to me, reminding me to keep my shoulders relaxed, feeding me honey and sips of fruit smoothies and pouring water over my bump. I remember also having what some might consider an outer body experience. While resting between contractions I saw myself lying in the tub with golden light radiating from me. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't all blissed-out, endorphin fuelled hallucinations while I was in the tub. I did have the odd 'bad' contraction that would take every ounce of self control not to writhe around screaming like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. I found that these would happen if the ambience of the room was broken by a siren outside or someone knocking on the door.

Eventually I felt the urge to push out of nowhere. Well it wasn't an urge, it was more like my body just started pushing. The feeling of pushing is indescribable. But I'll try anyway. It's not painful, but just incredibly intense and it hit me like a freight train. There's nothing I could do to control it, my body just did the work and all I could do was make the most crazy and primal noises to get through it.

It was a welcome relief to the intense burning ache of the relentless contractions and I remember just feeling in awe of my body and the sensations I was feeling. I often ended a push by repeating 'woah!' and 'oh my god!' over and over in sheer disbelief I was actually pushing my baby down. A completely different experience to last time where I pushed for 3 hours, on my back, paralysed from an epidural but still able to feel everything because it hadn't worked properly with midwives counting to 10 as I bore down to no avail.

The midwife asked to check me, to make sure I was fully dilated and within seconds she was finished and telling me the baby's head was about an inch and a half away from my vaginal opening, so she was coming either way! I then checked myself and yes, I could definitely feel a head there, along with the caul that was ballooning slightly - my waters still hadn't broken. I carried on pushing in the tub, trying various positions. The energy in the room was very positive. So we decided to let Rob know what was happening and within minutes he was in the room with us.
He looked so happy and proud, despite the fact I was making noises I never thought were possible for a human being to make. I was fully expecting him to take one step into the room and then high tail it out again! I guess he could see in my face that I was, dare I say it, actually enjoying pushing.
After a while, things were going well, but not actually progressing. Baby's heart rate was fine, I was fine, but her head was not moving. The midwives were itching to rupture my membranes but instead it was suggested by my doulas that I got out of the bath and move to the room next door - which had now been specially prepared for the delivery. I felt so lucky to be in an NHS hospital, with essentially 2 rooms and a bathroom all to myself. Must've been a quiet day on the ward!

The delivery room did look very nice from the bathroom. It was cosier than the last one and the early evening autumnal sun was pouring in through the blinds (it was about 6pm at this point). It still took some effort to get out of the bath, as I knew things were going to get REALLY intense once I was out of the water. I tried to pee on the toilet before I ventured into the delivery room. I remember having a good strong contraction while sat on there but I honestly cannot remember if I pee'd or not! I then 'John Wayned' it out of the bathroom and into the delivery room, completely naked. I think it's safe to say I had long ago let go of any modesty issues by then. I was covered up by teeny NHS towels and led by someone to the side of the bed where some mats and sheets had been laid. The room was very busy. There was me, Rob, Jenn, my doula and both of the midwives. I quite liked it this way.

I did at least one push sort of stood up/semi squatting with my elbows on the bed. My doula was behind me, working my lower back with some shiatsu.

It was then suggested that I squat properly during the next contraction. My doula gave me some massage oil to perform some nipple stimulation on myself to bring on some good contractions. This totally works by the way.

When I felt the next contraction approaching I squatted right down and pushed. I could feel the most intense pressure in my bottom area. It was slightly scary because in any other circumstance you'd be convinced you were suffering a prolapse or something. But I pushed with all my might and felt the baby moving down.

Afterwards I think I mentioned not being able to feel my legs. So the next thing I know, I'm being sat on a plastic birthing stool. I didn't even realise they still used them and remember thinking 'how retro!'. I have to admit, I thought the stool was wonderful. It saves your legs from going numb and it holds you in the optimum position for pushing out a baby.

I was handed a mirror to see what was happening down below but it was too dark to see properly. So a wind-up torch was found from somewhere. I had another good strong contraction and afterwards I became aware of a loud whirring noise. I looked up to see Rob feverishly winding up the torch and making some joke about finally finding something he's of some use for. We all had a chuckle about that and it crossed my mind how casual and laid back birth can be, as long as you allow it.

Another contraction came and I could feel burning. This was one of my fears. Due to having a c-section last time, crowning was unknown territory for me and I was worried about the pain and, of course, tearing.
But to my surprise, it really wasn't that bad. I was too busy being in awe of the fact that now armed with a very thoroughly wound up torch, I could see my baby's head approaching (complete with pearly white membranes still intact) in the mirror.

Another contraction came, and I felt a bit more burning, along with more incredible pressure in my bottom. I clutched onto Rob's hands and started seeing stars behind my clamped shut eyelids. I then heard from someone (maybe the midwife on my left) that the head was out. I just couldn't believe it, how could I push out a baby's head and not even know?!

So I reached down and felt it. It was still in the caul so all a could feel was a slick ball shape, kind of like a water balloon but with more goo.

I was euphoric. I was in disbelief. This was it, I'm actually birthing my baby. NATURALLY, with no pain relief, no interventions. How kick ass was I?!

There was a flurry of action from the midwives and they removed the stool and positioned me on my knees so that they could catch the baby when I did the final push. They were worried that she'd be very slippery due to remaining in the caul and didnt want to risk dropping her on the floor.
The final contraction came and my body pushed out her body. I felt something give (I later found out it was my perineum to a second degree tear) and then literally felt her shoulders, torso, legs and feet come flying out of me. That was a very bizarre sensation.

Her caul finally broke as she came earth side and spilled amniotic fluid all over the floor, it was quite dramatically impressive. She was then scooted through my legs by someone and I SAW her. I saw her take her first breath. I even found out her sex and announced it to the room. I saw how she looked just like her sister. And I named her, Genevieve Autumn, born 6.58pm on 07/10/11, 9lbs 6oz.

The next few minutes were like some sort of surreal dream. I was helped across the floor to a pile of pillows and I cuddled Genevieve with Rob beside me taking photos. She was very quiet and alert and started nursing not long after we settled into our little floor nest while the midwives cleared up the carnage. I birthed my placenta naturally and Jenn and my doula cut the cord. All while I gazed upon my second beautiful daughter.

Over 3 weeks on and I'm still on a high from the birth. It was the most liberating and empowering experience of my life. I'm also still in awe of my body and what it achieved.
I think that going through labour and birth without interventions was such a personal journey for me. Even though it was only 12 hours out of my life, I feel like I transformed and grew into a different person during that time. I had to let go of fears, self-doubt, control and vanity and embraced trust in my self and my body.

VBAC is most definitely something any woman can try to achieve and I'm happy to report that my hospital VBAC experience was wonderful. I have to say however, that having my doulas around was a huge help. They not only mothered me through my labour, but also shielded me from a lot of pointless hospital aggro that happened and also made sure my wishes were heard and accepted by the midwives. So if you're put off having a HBAC due to the tiny risk associated with VBAC and would rather be in a hospital environment 'just in case' (like me) then definitely look into your choices. Just don't forget your birth plan (like me!).

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Pre-School 2: Finding New Mirrors

One of the side effects of having Group Therapy is that in can make you a bit disinhibited when it comes to sharing your feelings in public. It's the emotional equivalent to a fortnight sunbathing topless on the Med: suddenly, you just don't care who you bare all in front of any more.  In Group Therapy, you share your deepest darkest thoughts, brace yourself for the diagnosis of 'utter nutter', and instead find a whole circle of folk nodding kindly and muttering 'that's just how it is for me' to their folded hands. You start to realise how normal it is to be a neurotic emotional wreck, and to feel not just comfortable, but positively evangelical about sharing your hopeless fragility with others for the good of all mankind. Often, being really honest about our feelings in public can provide a real release for others, giving them permission to share their own frailty more comfortably, but sometimes, it just makes people think you're nuts. For example, when I wrote about my daughter's first foray into the world of Pre-School in the post Pre-School: Demons and Ghosts, I received a real outpouring of emotion from other mothers who could relate to what I had to say and were grateful to me for voicing my - and their - difficult feelings of loss, sadness and doubt. But at the same time my cathartic words made some people feel a bit concerned: was I sure I was alright? and more importantly, was the three-year-old alright, was this little girl who had never been apart from her mummy ready for such a big step forwards?

We needn't have worried. Picking her up from her last session before half term, it was clear that she had not just 'settled in', but was now feeling comfortable enough to expose the full extent of her totally loveable lunacy to her teachers and peers. 'She's quite a character', the staff inform me, 'She never stops making up jokes', they add, 'We wanted to write you a list of her favourite activities, but actually, she just likes everything'. I know this, of course. I know her. She's like a sort of nutty professor, tripping gaily along the line between bonkers and genius and infecting everyone around her with her utter enthusiasm for absolutely everything she comes across. Today as I collect her she pulls me excitedly down the classroom to show me something she has discovered, a 'child friendly' mirror is slightly bent at the top end, and if you stand in just the right spot in front of it, to use her words, 'It makes your head go all wibbly'.  She hoots with laughter as she sees herself in this new and funny way, and the staff are laughing too, we are all laughing, because it's impossible not to.

Psychotherapist Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) would have liked this moment. Winnicott understood so well the importance of the early attachment between mother and infant, and wrote about the role of the mother as 'first mirror' to her child. Initially, a baby has no sense of separateness from her mother, and therefore when she looks into her mother's face, what she finds there is understood by her as a kind of 'reflection'. If we are managing to be what Winnicott so reassuringly refers to as a 'Good Enough Mother', then we are able to reflect back to our baby feelings of approval, love and delight which she then integrates as feelings about her own self. A Good Enough Mother does this naturally and without thinking, mirroring her babies facial expressions and echoing her sounds in ways that say, 'I see you, I hear you, I understand you'. The baby feels, at a deep, pre-verbal level, 'I am seen, I am heard, I am understood'. This becomes a vital building block for the babies sense of self, greatly affecting her future sense of her own value and her emotional stability.

But as the baby grows, she begins to understand herself as a separate person in her own right. The 'mother-mirror' is still vitally important, reflecting back approval and unconditional love. But the baby starts to meet new mirrors. These mirrors might say, 'You are beautiful / interesting / hilarious', but they might equally well say, 'You are annoying / boring / not funny'. Part of the experience of becoming an individual involves experiencing our different reflections in the many mirrors we encounter, and through this coming to know more about who we are, and to learn, change and adapt ourselves accordingly. Being 'just with mummy', is a bit like 'one to one' therapy - there is a peacefulness and a security, knowing that the therapist is holding you safely and will reflect back only empathy and kindness. Out there at Pre-School, out there in the world, it's a bit more like group therapy, where the reflections back are many and varied, and this can sometimes feel both risky and enlightening.

From a secure attachment, a strong sense of self develops, and we become ready to jump towards independence rather than be pushed. The early 'good-enough-mother-mirror' makes us strong enough to take our chances with the Hall of Mirrors that is the 'group'. At Pre-School, I see my daughter beginning to find new reflections in new mirrors; sometimes joyful and funny, and sometimes more challenging, and I think it's a positive experience for her. It's pretty disappointing really, because we are attachment parents who do things like co-sleeping, extended nursing, and babywearing, and it wouldn't have taken much of a leap for us to go down the home-schooling route. Things may change of course, but for now, it looks like we are going to be rather irritatingly conventional on this one. I keep reminding her that if she doesn't like it, she can call me and I'll come and get her, but unfortunately, the phone never rings.

Not that there's much they can teach her of course. Last Sunday, out for a family walk, I was buried in thoughts about the petition to Amazon and thinking about what a jerk I had been to tell the world there was going to be an article about it in the Sunday Times before I actually had a copy in my hand. The article hadn't made the final edition, and I was reeling not just from disappointment but from the fear that I had made myself look rather stupid. Whilst I was busy musing and fuming to myself, my partner was trying to help the three-year-old over a stile. 'No! Don't help me!', I heard her telling him, 'I want to do it all by my own self, falling'.  'Learning is Falling'. Let me repeat that. Learning is Falling. Not falling is learning. That would mean something different. Think about it. Learning is Falling. It takes some people a lifetime of meditation to reach that kind of enlightenment. I'm convinced, she's amazing, brilliant, gifted, brighter than bright. But then I would think that. I'm her mother. To me, she will always be the fairest of them all.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Guest Post: Spanking, Regret, and Parenting in Technicolor

This story has been sent to me by a U.S based signatory of my petition to Amazon. It is so powerful, moving and eloquent, I feel it needs barely any introduction, except to say that it is written by a mother who, like all of us, has made mistakes, mistakes which she cannot now contemplate without feeling a painful amount of shame and regret. She could have chosen never to speak of these feelings, or to tell this story, but instead she shares it with us in the hopes of helping to bring about positive change.  I find this choice immensely brave, and hope that you as readers can extend to her the warmth and support that she surely deserves. 

In January 2008 a friend of mine asked me a question about something she thought was not right which she figured I would know about. As I began to answer her, it led me to answers I had never considered before and ended up thrusting my family into a year of "transition" and really changing the future of my family tree. What did she ask me?

"What do you think about spanking?"

My friend had three small children who were entering toddlerhood and so she thought for sure that I was the one to ask. In January 2008 my oldest was 21, and my youngest of 8 children was yet to be born. With all that experience for sure I'd know the right answer.

And, I thought I did. I was confident I did!

I grew up in a family of two kids and although I was very angry, and depressed, I was well behaved. I knew that if I did something naughty I was getting "a lickin''" as it was called in our house. The wooden paddle hung on the wall and just passing it by made me afraid. I didn't get too many lickin's. I was a smart kid. Fast learner. I learned how to get away with things without getting caught and how to mind my own business at home.

I had my 1st baby at age 18 after a very depressed and love-seeking teenagehood (I just made that word up). I had held a baby maybe once that I could remember, and the day I brought home my baby thoughts of how to "raise" her hadn’t really entered my mind.

Once she was old enough to do irritating things I simply did to her what had been done with me and smacked her. I smacked her hands. I smacked her butt. And, then, once she got a will of her own, when she made me mad enough, I "spanked" her.

Her father had had a similar childhood experience with spanking and so it was nothing we ever thought to question or discuss. It's just "what you do with kids". It's how it was in our families and in all the families around us. If a kid is "acting up" anyone around you will say that that kid needs "takin' over a knee!" It's just how it's done.

After 8 years of a relationship that would have made a Reality TV producer drool…my boyfriend became my husband and by 1995 we had 3 children. And, we also had a new motivation in life: Jesus. We became Christians. The results in our life were very good because we began to respect one another and treat each other with more patience and kindness. Church life really did us good.

So, along comes a Sunday School class about child training in the same place where we were learning how to love and respect one another. The same place where we were learning that God is love and that He is not behind all the bad and painful stuff in the world. This should be the best place to learn about how to care for the world's most precious and innocent beings: our own children! Right?

In class we were taught the, “who, what, when, where, and why,” of spanking. We were taught that it was ordained by God as evidenced by a handful of Old Testament verses speaking of "the rod", and that if we didn't do it the Bible said we hated our children. We were taught that if we didn't to it our children could end up in rebellion and ultimately in hell.

The people teaching the class were actually our best friends who had entered our lives and had really brought out the best in us. They weren't freaks or religious nuts. They were teaching us to do the same thing that they did in their own homes with their own children out of the sincerity of their hearts to do what they felt was right, even though they felt it was hard to do. What was there to question?

In the classes we were taught that whenever the child did anything "naughty" we were to determine whether the child was behaving “irresponsibly” or “rebelliously” before deciding punishment. Everything was analyzed in this way.

But, then on February 5th, 1998, 12 ½ yrs after we’d met and 7 months after the birth of our 4th child…my husband was given an early retirement. I got the call around 10 that morning to come to the local trauma center because my husband was there. On his way to work a tractor-trailer jackknifed and struck his work truck. He had died instantly. I was now a widow with 4 children.

About 6 months after my husband…aka my kids' Daddy…just didn't come home…my 2 year old son started to "act up". Suddenly he couldn't walk up the stairs anymore. His "socks would slip" on the steps and he'd dramatically flop and flop on the steps and need me to "help him". Then, one night he was told to go brush his teeth. I could hear him in the bathroom, "Flop! Flop! Flop!" I went in and peeked at him and he was (I don't know how he did this physically!) lifting his feet up and just landing on his cloth-diapered butt repeatedly. "Flop! Flop! Flop!"

I put on my "stern mom face" and told him to stop it and brush his teeth. I went back out of the room. And, I could hear him in there doing it again, "Flop! Flop!"

The teaching I'd learned about rebellion vs. childish irresponsibility came into my mind and I knew what I had to do. This was clearly a rebellion issue. So…I put on my "stern mom face" again, marched into the bathroom, and told him to get his tiny 2-yr old hiney into the office (where all the spankings happened).

I looked at his tiny little face and asked him, "Why were you doing that? I told you to brush your teeth!"

He looked at me with his big brown eyes and said, "My socks were slipping."

I had to turn my face and stifle a giggle. His socks were slipping?! I composed myself to deal with the serious issue at hand. My 2-year old was rebelling against my command to brush his teeth and to stop flopping on the floor and now he'd just lied! No matter how cute he was I had to do what I had to do!

And, so…he was paddled.

Eventually, I got his flopping, and sock slipping behaviors to stop. I had squelched that rebellion before it got ugly and he took over the household. I had done my job.

You know, I tell that story now and it makes me wanna scream and cry.

In 1999 I ended up at a new church and made lots of new friends. And, all these friends too were quite normal average Christian people. And, they all spanked more than I did and also pinched their kids when in public (because you could do it subtly and quietly). I learned from my friends to keep an "extra" paddle (wooden spoon or spatula) in the car for when we were not home. And, sometimes when I was out with my friends, I had to wait outside their cars while their toddler got a spanking for not listening in the store we were shopping in.

For two and a half years "disciplining" was my lone responsibility because my husband was gone. In late 2000 I married a good and decent man who was raised on the mission field and served as the emergency medical pilot for his parents' medical clinic in the jungle in Guatemala. He'd been raised by an ex-Amish father. He never disobeyed his parents! He told me that in church just "a look" from his parents told him he'd crossed the line and there was no mercy; when he got home he always got a spanking. He often commented that we were too lenient with the kids because when he was little he was not even allowed to argue with his mom or even say that he didn't like a meal that was served or he'd get "the belt". But, because he loved his parents who were truly awesome people and felt they loved him, why would he have questioned spanking?

So, in 2008 when my friend asked me about "spanking" I went right to it. I tried to look up the Sunday School materials I'd gone through so many years ago. I did searches on the internet as I prepared to tell her who, what, when, where, and why to spank as I had been taught it.

That is when it happened.

I happened upon a website that shattered the illusion I'd been living in for over 20 years. It was a simple website talking about ancient shepherding practices and it explained that the "rod" that the ancient shepherds had used was actually…a weapon. It was a club with spikes on the end used for killing predators. It was the equivalent of a modern gun. The rod…was not…for…the…sheep! That is why David could say that God’s rod and staff comforted him…not scared him…

If you coulda' heard the brakes screeching inside my head…I was horrified. How could this HUGE HUGE important detail have slipped our notice? "The Rod" of the ancient shepherds was what all the teaching I'd received on spanking was based on! But, it wasn't a wooden spoon or a spatula used for whacking wayward sheep! NO! The rod was a "gun" used to protect the sheep...and I had been using that on my children?

I sat back in my chair and my whole head was spinning. I ran to my husband and told him. Now what?

I started to become aware of the biggest problem with spanking that first year that we stopped. That first year was not fun. It left me sitting holding my head with screaming kids in the background often. I realized once that "parenting tool" was taken from me that I had no idea how to handle any stress between my children without being able to either hit them (spank them) or threaten them with doing it. It hadn't been a tool to "guide" them and "discipline" them and lead their hearts toward God. In reality, it had been a weapon to control my kids' behavior and nothing more.

So, there I was at age 39 with seven children of all ages and a newborn completely at a loss how to relate to my children. I had to learn a whole new way of thinking about my children and their behavior. And, this new way of seeing the children was as dramatic as Dorothy coming out of the plain black and white farmhouse into the full Technicolor of Oz. Now, instead of looking at all of the children's behaviors and analyzing it to look for hidden rebellion to punish I saw behavior as attempts at communication. I began to realize that their behavior’s cause was what I needed to look at. What are they trying to say? What is their motivation? What is bugging them? What’s wrong? And, fixing what is wrong is what will make the behavior go away. Making the behavior go away leaves what’s wrong still wrong.

Spanking was taught to me as a way to make sure the child's heart was right with God, yet when I spanked them, I never addressed their motivations and touched their hearts, I only addressed behavior and touched their behinds…with pain.

I look back now and it is as clear as day. My little boy…had lost his Daddy. Daddy used to lie in his bedroom every night and sing to him as he fell asleep while I read with the other 3 in the oldest child's bedroom. Nighttime was an awesome fun precious time. And, his Daddy disappeared. His Daddy was just gone and Mommy was acting funny and often distracted and unavailable and he didn't understand why. Why didn’t I think about it then? Why didn’t I ask him then? Why wasn’t it the first thing I thought of when his socks were slipping? Why didn’t I see it from his perspective when he “couldn’t walk up the stairs” and wanted me to help him? Why…did I not consider the troubled thoughts that could be in that sweet tiny person’s mind as he toddled toward the office to get whacked by Mommy? What was in his tiny little heart that night and what did I do to him when I punished him for trying to express it?

It makes me sick to think of it and I can’t tell ya how many times I look at him now and feel sorry for having done it. I’ve asked his forgiveness and he’s given it to me, but, the damage was done.

Do you know…that little boy is now 16 and…given a little stress he clams up and withdraws. Sometimes I can see that he is upset and I can see that he pushes it away and just moves on and tries to ignore it. And, I’ve often thought over the years that he has “sad eyes”.


Now that the world is in full color I could tell you story after story of why this is wrong. Stories from within my own family which when I think of them I post them on my blog. I at times feel like a fanatic about this subject, but, this practice is so damaging to people and I can now see its effects on not just my own kids, but, on others. This is such an unpopular topic because everyone is doing it or has had it done to them and feels the need to either defend themselves or their parents because admitting a mistake like this is a difficult thing to do. But, I wish I could stand on top of a building and shout it out to everyone.

The petition that has been started to get Amazon to stop selling books that promote violence against children, in my opinion, is a great step toward getting this practice stopped. It is not just the act of getting those books removed from easy sale; it is the “why”. It is the fact that everyone who looks for those books will have to ask “why” are they not available on Amazon, and then, they will be made aware that spanking is not the universal only and best way to raise kids. Their searches on this topic will lead them to blog sites like this one, and they will see that there is a problem with spanking and it may open that door into the Technicolor world of parenting for many.

For me all it took was one friend to challenge me on it and for one piece of truth to be shown to me. What I wouldn't give to go back in time and find just one friend who would have stood up and told me it was wrong. Thanks to Facebook and the world-wide-web now, we can be that friend to people we've never even met before. I encourage all of you to share and repost things you find about this subject whenever it comes along your path. Sign and post the petition on your own walls and blogs. You never know what friend-of-a-friend is going to see your post and realize that there is another way to raise kids…before they march their tiny son into the office to punish him for missing his dead Daddy…

If you have been moved by this post, I urge you to take a few moments of your time to sign the petition asking Amazon not to stock books that advocate the physical abuse of children by clicking here. Please also share the link. Thank you. 
To read more about the campaign click here.
Follow on Facebook here.
Or on Twitter @amazonpetition