Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Forget Perfection, Celebrate Mistakes, Apologise Loudly

Parenting books - I've always been a fan - at least of the ones that challenge my assumptions, expose my weaknesses, and most importantly, give me new and creative ideas on how to deal with life at the pointy end of parenting. I'm pretty sure there are times when we can all make use of the advice of those who've read more, thought more, researched more, or just parented more than we have.  I know there are some people who say they don't need them, but to me, that's a bit like saying you don't need therapy - it means you probably do.

At the moment, with a one year old and a three year old tantruming, throwing stuff at me and bashing each other intermittently, I'm hungry for any information I can find about gentle parenting.  I totally get the principle - as parents we should not use aggressive, threatening or violent behaviour in order to tame or shame our kids into compliance.  If the toddler gets angry and hits the baby, we mustn't punish them by smacking, scary yelling, or sending them away to another room. We need to use these difficult moments as opportunities to help them understand their emotions, and learn how to deal with their feelings.  We need to show them that it's ok to be angry, but not ok to hit.  We need to help them feel accepted in their emotional turmoil, and to find ways through it and out of it. Rather than joining them in their state of shouting-hitting-out-of-controlness, we need to stay calm, and 'model' for them qualities of kindness, gentleness and forgiveness that they can then adopt for themselves.  In short, instead of telling our children how to behave, we need to show them how to behave.

That's the plan, anyway, but like all the best laid plans, it doesn't always come together, at least not in my house anyway.  In spite of the fact that I am a trained therapist, have read a whole heap of psychology books, another few dozen parenting manuals, had some therapy, thought a lot, and subscribe totally to the gentle parenting approach, I still found myself in my kitchen, only just this afternoon, yelling, "Be Gentle To Your Sister Or You Won't Get An Ice Cream!", at the top of my lungs as the dog ran for cover.

Don't get me wrong, most of the time, I manage to model to my children some degree of emotional intelligence. I try to help them with their feelings. I try to be kind and patient. I don't use time out, I don't shout, I don't threaten. I stay uber calm. Most of the time. But once in a while, if you drop by unexpectedly, you might just find me red-faced, hair awry, grumpily stamping around shouting, 'Pick all your stuff up off the floor!', or 'If you don't like it don't flipping well eat it then!'. And that's just to my partner. Later on I read another parenting article or two, and their stories of mothers who always seem to say things like, 'Hmm, you seem to have left a lot of toys around, do you have some emotions you need to talk through with me?', leave me feeling simultaneously inspired and guilty.

Several years ago, I was given an unusual birthday gift from an old friend, a set of 'Devil Sticks'.  This set of two batons and a decorated 'flower stick' is a circus juggling act, and the aim is to bat the flower stick from side to side with the batons, and then learn to spin and toss the flower stick as you get more and more advanced. As soon as I opened the present, my friend started to try to teach me the basics of how to use the sticks.  Of course, I was hopeless, and again and again, the sticks, so impressive in his hands, fell to the floor in mine. 'It's no good', I said to him, 'I'm afraid I'm totally useless as things like this. I'm completely mal-coordinated. I'll never be able to do it. Right gift. Wrong Person. Sorry'.  'Wait a minute wait a minute!', he urged me, 'You're missing the point. Every time you drop the sticks, every time you get it wrong, that's a brilliant thing! Because every time you make a mistake, you learn something. You get a little bit better. You might go on to make a new mistake, but you won't make that mistake again. So when you drop the sticks, you shouldn't feel disheartened! You should celebrate!'

This advice was a revelation to me. As an easily frustrated perfectionist, I felt liberated by the idea that mistakes were not a sign of weakness but of strength, not a sign of inability but of progress. I think of it often, not least at times when my parenting isn't as perfect as I'd like it to be. A moment of sleep-deprived short temper provides not only an opportunity for me to learn and improve, but also to model something else to my daughters - how to be imperfect, how to be authentic, and how to apologise. I can show them that sometimes it's ok to be angry, as long as you don't hit or intimidate, and that after you get angry, it's really good to say sorry if you have shouted, used harsh words or been unkind to anyone. I can show them that in our house, it's safe to express yourself passionately and it's safe to show all your feelings, even the 'bad' ones. I can show them that it's good to try, but that it's also ok to fail sometimes. I can show them that being human is complicated, and that the aim is to learn from our mistakes, rather than feel we should never make any. When the sticks fall to the ground, great things happen. As Leonard Cohen put it:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything,
That's how the light gets in.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Health Visitors: Will New Government Plans Provide Solutions?

In April I wrote a post about Health Visitors, setting out some of my concerns and asking you to get in touch with me with yours. Your feedback was invaluable, and helped me to build up a picture of what is being got wrong, and right, nationwide in the UK.  Everyone was agreed, Health Visitors are a powerful influence on new mothers. Sometimes this power is used to great effect and they are an invaluable help at what can be a difficult time of transition and change.  However, you also told many stories of negative experiences and advice given that appeared to be anything but 'evidence based'. Problems seemed to be centred in three main areas:
  • Advice given could undermine breastfeeding, for example being told to top up with formula.
  • Advice given could undermine attachment, for example being discouraged from picking up baby every time she cried.
  • Advice given was not evidence based; rather it seemed to be rooted in outdated parenting approaches, some speculated from the Health Visitors personal experience of motherhood.       
I took the step of contacting my MP, David Heath, with these concerns.  Due to some technical difficulties in getting in touch with him via his website, it has taken a while for him to respond to me, and therefore for me to write this follow up post. However, I'm pleased to say I have now had a reply from him, and there is some good news - it seems that the Government are trying to address current problems in the health visiting service with their Health Visitor Implementation Plan 2011-15.  And there's more good news - I've read it so you don't have to!  

Essentially the plan, which describes itself as 'a call to action to expand and strengthen health visiting services',  will increase the numbers of Health Visitors - the Government has made a commitment to an extra 4200 of them by 2015. Most of the plan is focused on how this increase in the workforce will be achieved, and there is plenty of civil service lingo in there to baffle and anaesthetise you. However I did perk up considerably when I read this paragraph:
The start of life is especially important in laying the foundations of good health and well being in later years.  The period from prenatal development to age 3 is associated with rapid cognitive language, social, emotional and motor development. A child’s early experience and environment influence their brain development during these early years, when warm, positive parenting helps create a strong foundation for the future. New evidence about neurological development and child development highlights just how important prenatal development and the first months and years of life are for every child’s future.
It was really heartening to see these words in a government document, as so often it has seemed to me that policy makers do fail to see that the solution for so many current social issues lies in giving focus to the first few years of life. The Implementation Plan makes it clear from the outset that the current government realises the power of the Health Visitor in supporting parents to give their children the best possible start, and the important long term impact, on both individuals and society, that this can have.

According to the Plan, the new health visiting service will help families via four main elements:

  • Your Community: a range of services including some Sure Start services and the services families and communities provide for themselves. Health visitors will be responsible for developing these and making sure you know about them.
  • Universal Services: providing the Healthy Child Programme, offering support for parents and services such as info about immunisations, health and development checks.
  • Universal Plus: a rapid response from your HV team when you need specific expert help.
  • Universal Partnership: ongoing support from your HV team plus a range of local services working together and with you, to deal with more complex issues over a period of time. 
The fact that the Government have come up with this plan is encouraging, and seems a direct acknowledgement that the current system is not helping new mothers as well as it could or should.  However, it did leave me with two main questions:
  • The main focus of the plan seems to be on Quantity as opposed to Quality.  Although there is some mention of extra training for existing HV's, there is no specific detail about this.  What is going to be done to ensure that existing and new HV's are offering up-to-the-minute, evidence based advice on subjects such as breastfeeding, weaning and infant sleep?
  • Health Visitors have to first be trained as nurses or midwives. But given that the NHS is already suffering from nurse and midwife shortages, isn't it going to be difficult to recruit new HV's without worsening the current shortages?
My MP has told me to get back to him, if, after reading the Implementation Plan, there is anything further I wish him to raise directly with the Department of Health. So, it's over to you again.  Please get in touch with me with your comments and thoughts, either via my facebook page, by sending me an email, or by leaving a comment on this post.  I look forward to hearing your views.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Just Being There

It's a scenario familiar to parents the world over, and it goes something like this: "Ah, I see my child / children are playing happily, perhaps I will _______" (insert meaningful activity).  Yep, it doesn't matter whether you decide to read a book, write a book, or just paint your goddam toenails, you can be certain that as soon as you turn yourself away from your children, they will suddenly and without warning decide to stop whatever game they were only moments ago utterly absorbed in, and demand your full attention.  Small children are not manipulative; they do not deliberately set out to thwart our daily attempts at progress; their wants and their needs are so closely aligned as to be virtually indistinguishable. So this can only mean one thing. As hard as it is to deal with the constant frustration of putting most of our own desires aside, and 'not getting anything done', it seems that our babies and toddlers actually need something crucial from us - our attentive presence.

Psychotherapist Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) ought to be known to mums everywhere if only because he coined a phrase that we should all get printed on our t-shirts in mirror writing: Good Enough Mother.  His innovative theories all focused on the influence of a parent on the development of the psyche - more specifically, the 'mother'.  He described how her attentive presence, which he named the 'primary maternal preoccupation', played a crucial role; how, "...the foundations of health are laid down by the ordinary devoted mother in her ordinary loving care of her own baby."  And he famously said, "There is no such thing as a baby - only a baby and someone." It seems, according to Winnicott, that we just have to be, not good, but good enough, and that, perhaps most crucially, we just have to be there, intensively at first, then tailing off gradually as our children get bigger: "The good-enough mother...starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant's needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant's growing ability to deal with her failure."

Winnicott also originated the idea of 'holding'; put simply the unique way of 'being there' performed by a mother.  His thinking about this is still well known among psychotherapists even today, who, some sixty years later, talk often about the concept of 'holding the therapeutic space'.  I'm not going make your tired parent brain ache - or mine - by trying to explain this in too much depth, but I will try and tell you what it meant to me,  in my own work as a therapist prior to becoming a 'full time good enough mother'.  For me, holding the therapeutic space involved:
  • creating an environment in which a person could feel physically and emotionally safe
  • staying with a person, physically and emotionally, and accepting them
  • conducting myself in a way that was calm, supportive, non-judgemental, and predictable
  • being fully present for the person; listening deeply, witnessing openly, reflecting back honestly
  • being strong, steady and unfazed no matter how distressed, emotional or 'out of control' a person in therapy was
So, short of chopping cheese into cubes and rationing CBeebies, not that different to the task of mothering then.  Of course, Winnicott knew this - all of his ideas about therapy were simply versions of the mother / child relationship.  His suggestions concerned therapists mimicking these ways of being and behaving in their attempts to heal people, for whom this sort of 'good enough' early parenting had been lacking.  For our own purposes, as parents of babies and small children, we are hopefully in the business of prevention rather than cure.  But what we can take from Winnicott is a reminder of just how crucial the role of mothering is, especially in the early years, and how, whilst we may feel that there is 'other stuff we should be getting on with', that just by 'being with' our children, we are actually doing something of fundamental importance.

Babies and todders demand our attentive presence because they need it.  When we allow ourselves to really be there for them, and to make this our main activity, we are doing something truly miraculous.  We might call it 'primary maternal preoccupation', 'holding the space' or, put more simply - 'just being there'. Whatever we name it, through this loving presence in which we are their compass and their anchor, our child is building a brain and a personality that is set up for an optimum chance at good mental health and enjoyable relationships with others for the rest of their life.  This is a great gift not just to them, but to our society and the world.  Children don't care if the carpet needs hoovering, or if they are wearing yesterday's t-shirt; nor do they care what car we drive or if we live in a big fancy house.  They just want to be with us. There is nothing more important that we can do with our time.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Blackberry Messengers

September brings return; of children to school, of darker evenings and log fires, of leaves to kick, puddles to jump in, and if, like me, you’re a parent of under four’s, the welcome comeback of the Toddler Group after the Summer break. When my first daughter was born, I was a bit sniffy about my local meet-up, wondering why I was supposed to enjoy drinking cheap instant coffee with a bunch of tired-eyed women I barely knew, until it slowly dawned on me that in this drafty hall was found the last available vestige of a social life, and I began to cling to the chance for weekly grown-up interaction like Leonardo to Kate’s raft in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

September offers further compensation for the loss of Summer in the form of the humble blackberry. The three year old was enchanted, this time last year, by the sudden appearance of these sweet and abundant treats on the hedges, and our daily dog walks around the spidery network of lanes near our cottage became a feast of picking and eating that saw us coming home with over-flowing tupperwares and purple chins. Such was the impression it left, that she has mentioned it from time to time ever since, and the anticipation and excitement has been building to a frenzy since we began to notice the flowers turning to little green bobbles in early August.

And now the feast can begin, accompanied by an equally greedy one year old, who this time last year could only watch in puzzlement from the comfort of her sling as I reached and stretched for the best fruit and hoped her face was spared the scratch of brambles. Now they both eat, and I am Chief Picker, handing down berry after berry to eager hands, and wondering if any will actually make it home in our collecting pots, and if it really matters anyway, amidst all this joyful gluttony and giggling stained faces.

As they eat I spin a story about the birds who eat the berries we can’t reach and how they grow strong from the fruit but poo out the seeds and where the poo lands – splat (they like that bit) – another plant grows. They don’t seem to be really listening to most of it, but the three year old pauses and looks me in the eye as I say, “…and you came from a seed in my tummy, and I came from a seed in Grandma’s tummy, so you are my baby bramble and I am hers!”. Yeah yeah, I know it’s not A Level Biology, but I love the chance that playing in nature affords us to teach our children about life and death, birth and decay. From these hazy days in the lanes of Somerset, there comes a connectedness with our place in the bigger picture, a sort of ‘hedgerow spirituality’, and a knowledge of the cycle of life in which everything changes, and everything stays the same. Blackberries, toddler groups, and even lost social lives: they all come back around, eventually. Round here, this kind of information grows on trees.