Saturday, 15 December 2012

'Childism' - As Utterly Unacceptable as Sexism and Racism

In the past few decades, mankind has had to shake up their attitudes about a number of things. It is no longer considered to be 'ok' to degrade, humiliate, taunt or insult another human being on the grounds of their sex, race or sexuality. It still happens of course, but it is not considered acceptable. Make a sexist or racist joke down your local pub and you might get away with it. But post an image on Facebook that derides another human being, and you're likely to be reported or even prosecuted. That is, unless that image is of a child. Then it's ok.

These images have been doing the rounds this week. Most commenters seem to agree that they are 'hilarious':
"Comedy Gold'
"Gave me a smile - thanks"
"A bit of humour"
"I just love this!"

I beg to differ. The children in these pictures look sad, and humiliated. At a time when they clearly need help to sort out their sibling rivalries and calm their emotional storm, the grown ups responsible for their care have instead chosen to ridicule them. They are powerless to refuse this treatment, nor can they consent or otherwise to the photo being taken and shared on Facebook for the world to see.

It's hard to imagine any other group in society being treated in this way. But if we were to take a similarly degrading image of a woman, for example, there would be an outcry!

A few months ago I was inspired to write a post about tantrums when I saw this image on Facebook, and read the comments beneath it:

"Who needs a mop when you have a pre-schooler?!"
"I laughed so hard at this photo!"
"Good on the mum for carrying on!"

But is it really funny to see another human being in complete distress, and whatsmore, to take a picture of them and post it online?

These images are considered acceptable because they belong to a world in which we are prejudiced against children, seeing behaviour such as fighting with siblings or throwing tantrums in a shop as clear signs of their inability to control themselves, the burden they place on their carers, and their 'badness' or 'naughtiness'.

This is a world in which it is considered perfectly normal and justified to turn our backs on the distress of another human being, so long as they are a child. So normal, in fact, that you can learn exactly how to do it on prime time television. Note in this clip from Supernanny that the mother is twice offered comfort, whilst the emotional needs of the child are completely disregarded:

This attitude has been described as 'Childist' by Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, psychoanalyst and a leading expert on the nature of prejudice. Her book on the subject - Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children - is excellent, describing in complex detail how our childist attitudes - in just the same way as racism or sexism - create a world in which it becomes acceptable to dislike children or even harm and abuse them.

"CHILDIST beliefts - that children are burdensome and absorb more than their share of resources, that they should serve adults, that they are property, that they lack reason, that they are rebellious and must be broken through harsh discipline - do not reflect current scientific knowledge about children's development, capabilities, and needs. It is CHILDISM when adults interpret children's dependence as inferiority, and thus deny children's rights. We are CHILDIST when we transform the adult responsibility to care for children into an excuse to exercise unchecked power."
(Childism - extract from the Press Release)

It is time for us to stop finding it acceptable or even funny when we see evidence of childism, in real life or online. We need to take this prejudice seriously, and to stand up for children, who are often not given a voice in our current society and therefore unable to stand up for themselves. Once we recognise and acknowledge our childist attitudes, we take the first step towards much needed change.

Related Post: Let's Challenge Our Anti-Child Attitudes

Friday, 7 December 2012

Should We Be So Very Scared of Giving Birth?

This article has now been published in the Huffington Post.

Tapping into the twenty first century zeitgeist is easy, and a bit fun - you just have to tap into Google. For example, enter ‘very scared of’ … and you’ll see the top four things that people are very scared of, right now, like this:

Many women are scared, afraid, terrified of giving birth. Some – as many as one in ten – suffer from Tocophobia, a morbid fear of giving birth that leads them to seek elective caesarians if they can. Others, while they may not have a diagnosable psychological disorder, are still extremely anxious and fearful about the task of bringing their baby into the world.

It’s not really surprising that so many women feel this way. The media portrayal of birth ranges from the rather ridiculous soap opera version – 'woman looking terrified and sweaty delivers baby in pub drama' – to programs like One Born Every Minute – 'woman looking terrified and sweaty begs for drugs in hospital drama'. Birth education in schools is woefully lacking and standard ante-natal input is often focused on what your options are if you cannot cope. Is it any wonder we’re all 'very scared'?

Ironically, going into labour feeling extremely afraid can actually increase your chances of having a difficult or even traumatic experience. Not only can fear increase tension which in turn makes birth more painful, but approaching birth with negative expectations can lead to a more ready acceptance of medical interventions, which usually serve to increase rather than remove any discomfort or trauma. All these frightened women (and I was one of them once) end up getting the experience they both expected and dreaded – the  prophecy is fulfilled, fear becomes fact:

Is there any real justification for fear of giving birth? As well as the current negative media portrayal, there is an accompanying widely held belief that childbirth is dangerous, and that we should all be grateful for modern obstetrics, because, before it was invented, ‘women used to die’. But this is an oversimplification of a complex historical issue – many women used to (and in many parts of the world, still do) die in childbirth, not because of their bodies are poorly designed for birthing, but due to poor maternal health, poor diet and most of all poor hygiene. In the 19th century, over half of all deaths in childbirth were caused by Child-Bed Fever, a direct result of doctors simply not washing their hands.

The statistics we have on Western maternal mortality show a sharp increase in the early 1900’s, peaking in the 1930’s, in direct correlation to increased medical intervention such as botched caesarians and badly administered drugs. But the largest killer was always infection, often caused by doctors going from woman to woman and even from mortuary to birthing room, and this only subsided with the invention of drugs to fight it. Turning to the modern day, the country with the most medicalised model of childbirth, the USA, has seen rates of maternal morbidity double in the past 25 years.

In some cases, modern obstetrics saves lives, there is no doubt about that. The difficulty, for Western birthing women and no doubt their doctors too, is achieving some clarity about which cases are in actual need of medical help, and which would be best left alone. This, along with the conundrum of whether fear itself, and birthing in an environment not suited to our mammalian selves, is actually causing some of the hold-ups and struggles in modern labours, is a difficult and confusing tangle for us all to unpick, especially when you are nine months pregnant, or worse still, nine centimetres dilated.

In this complex environment, women are coming together to try to improve and inform their birth choices, and maximise their chances of a positive birth experience. In many ways, there has never been a better time to be pregnant - antenatal education has moved on from panting and plastic pelvises, and there now exists a whole host of vibrant groups offering everything from the latest information about evidence based care, to campaigns for birthing rights, for example The Birth I Want, One World Birth, One Born Every Minute - The Truth, and Tell Me A Good Birth Story.

I recently founded The Positive Birth Movement, a grass roots organisation aiming to spread positivity about childbirth via a network of free to access antenatal groups, linked up by social media. Within six weeks of launching we have over 30 UK groups and another 15 as far afield as New Zealand, Turkey, Germany, South Africa and the States. We believe that every woman deserves a positive birth – and that this doesn’t always have to be 'natural', but rather that:

The enemy of fear has always been information and communication. If you are worried about giving birth, you are not alone. Join The Positive Birth Movement on Facebook or visit our website for more information.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Mule Yule - A Great Big Motherhood Giveaway!

This giveaway is now closed. Well done to the winners, announced below.

I've put together this wonderful prize package as a little festive thank you to all of you who read and follow my blog. To the winner, FIVE lovely books on parenting and motherhood, a fantastic FILM about early parenting, a BabyCalm white noise CD, and a bundle of Creatures Natural Baby Toiletries (toiletries UK only).

To five lucky runners-up, a copy of the ebook, Memoirs of a Singing Birth, by Elena Skoko.

The top prize is just perfect for anyone interested in birth, babies, motherhood and parenting. You might be an expectant or new mother yourself, or perhaps a birth worker or early childhood specialist. The prize could easily be divided up as Christmas presents to those you know and love, or you could just hog the lot yourself, whatever you prefer!

To enter, just leave your name in the comments at the bottom of this post. The winners will be picked randomly using the random number generator at, and announced at 8.30pm on 1st December. If you want to enter, but have difficulties leaving a comment, get in touch with me via my Facebook page or by email, and I will be able to help.

Here is more detail about the prizes. If you don't win, they may give you some gift ideas!

BabyCalm: A Guide for Calmer Babies and Happier Parents by Sarah Ockwell-Smith was published in October 2012 and has since received rave reviews, beating some of the old stalwarts like Gina Ford and Supernanny in the Amazon charts. In fact, it doesn't even seem right to mention the names of the 'baby-trainers' of yesteryear in the same paragraph as this fresh, informative and compassionate guide for new mothers. The book is entirely and unashamedly baby-centred and grounded in the facts about early child development: rather than trying to sell you any lies about the restoration of normality, it encourages you to slowly adapt to parenthood by trusting your instinct and informing yourself about the true value of your input and the difference your actions will make to your baby's developing brain. Packed with information and advice for new mothers, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Available from Amazon and the BabyCalm website.

Also from BabyCalm, this White Noise CD is designed to replicate the constant reassuring sound heard by baby in utero, to calm babies, and help them sleep for longer.

Available from the BabyCalm website.

A bundle of Creatures new baby goodies, including a 300ml Creatures Baby Shampoo, a 420ml Creatures Baby Wash and a 220ml Creatures Baby Balm Butter. (This part of the prize is only available if the winner is UK based.)

Available from the BabyCalm website.

Musings on Mothering edited by Teika Bellamy reminds me of mothers everywhere, in that it has an understated cover and a tendency to play itself down and sell itself short. Look within, however, and it is filled with richness; an explosion of beautiful art, touching words and poems, warmth, humour, pathos and sorrow. An absolutely perfect book for all mums, a wonderful gift for Christmas, a completely lovely book. If you do not win it, please buy it and give it the ego boost it deserves. All royalties from the book go to La Leche League GB. Buy via Mothers Milk Books, priced £13.99. 

A copy of Babyhood - The Film - an absolutely fantastic explanation and defence of child-centred, responsive parenting (which ought not to need explaining or defending of course, but...!) A stellar cast of leading experts - Camila Batmanghelidjh (Director of Kids Company), Lesley Page (Former Head of Midwifery and women's health at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust), Sue Palmer (Writer, presenter and consultant on modern childhood, author of Toxic Childhood & 21st Century Boys.) Helena Kennedy QC (Member of House of Lords. For her work for women she received the Times Newspaper's Lifetime Achievement award in 1999.), Sue Gerhardt (Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist and author of Why Love Matters), Carrie Longton (Co-Founder of Mumsnet), Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk (Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology, University of Dundee) - tell us in clear terms the vital importance of the first months and years of life, and there is the occasional poem by Holly McNish, which lifts an already excellent documentary into the realms of creative art. A great educational film for all new parents, go to the website to buy copies, watch using Distrify, or organise screenings. Watch the trailer here:

Catching Babies by Sheena Byrom is the memoir of a midwife from her first day as a student nurse through her thirty five year career in the NHS. Those who have heard of Sheena Byrom will know that she is a passionate campaigner and advocate of positive birth and woman centred care, and this shines through in her story - from the moment she drops into the conversation that she spearheaded a move away from midwives wearing such formal uniform as nurses, since pregnant women are not sick and uniforms create an imbalance in the power dynamic, you know that you are reading the work of a subtle revolutionary! The book is gentle and readable - Call the Midwife meets the late 20th century - with a sprinkle of midwifery politics thrown in.
Available from Amazon.

Home Births: Stories to Inspire and Inform is one of a great series of books published by Lonely Scribe. I've already reviewed the lovely Breastfeeding: Stories to Inspire and Inform; Twin Birth is coming out soon, and as some of you know, I am thrilled and a bit anxious to find myself editing their forthcoming book on Water Birth. The Home Birth book is an excellent read for anyone interested in home or 'natural' birth, filled with beautiful birth stories written by both mothers and their partners. Highly recommended for both pregnant women, dads to be and birth workers everywhere.

Available from Amazon.

Baby Shiatsu by Karin Kalbantner-Wernicke and Tina Haase is another great book for new and expectant mothers. The book explains some of the basic principles of Shiatsu and then offers well explained exercises for parent and baby, illustrated with hundreds of clear and attractive photographs. There are some workouts just for mum or dad as well and lots of encouraging tips and info on the emotional and physical world of both baby and grown up. Anything that encourages parents to spend time connecting with their baby gets my vote, so this book gets my vote.

Available from Amazon

So...leave a comment to be in with a chance of winning this fantastic haul of prizes, and if you are not the lucky winner, you might still win one of five copies of the ebook Memoirs of a Singing Birth, for the runners up.

This truly is a beautiful book for anyone with a passion for childbirth, and would make a particularly lovely gift for a pregnant woman. Elena Skoko writes with insight, wisdom and wit about her journey into motherhood, weaving into her birth story a wealth of information about birthing practices, the politics and history of childbirth, and the actual reality of her own birth experience, giving birth in Bali with guerrilla midwife Ibu Robin Lim.

Part of the proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to Yayasan Bumi Sehat, a non-profit natural birth center in Bali.

Available in paperback at Lulu and Amazon US &UK, and also published as ebook on Smashwords.

Good luck!

The giveaway has now been drawn, the lucky winner is:


And the 5 runners up are

Well done and thanks to all for entering and making it fun. Please get in touch with me if you have won a prize, and have a wonderful Yule, from the Mule! x

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Sometimes I Pass the Place Where We Once Lived - A Sonnet

Sometimes I pass the place where we once lived
And glimpse three ghosts arriving at the door
A woman - me, a man, a newborn child,
Alighting, in the darkness, shocked and sore.
I watch them cross the threshold, disappear,
They don't exist now - all of them are gone,
For brand new parents barely last a day,
And babies only live 'til they are one.
In twenty years I'll show you our old haunts:
"We used to come here once when you were small"
You'll shrug, but I'll see flashes everywhere -
Each gate you climbed, each park, each village hall.
       Our lives move on, we change, evolve, adjust, 
       Leaving our trace, our imprints in the dust.

If you are partial to sonnets about parenting you might also like: 
I Lie With You Until You Are Asleep

Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Positive Birth Movement: What It Is and How to Get Involved

Too many women are not having a positive birth experience. A positive birth experience does not always have to be a natural, blissful, drug free birth. But it does have to be a birth in which a woman feels she has had freedom of choice, access to accurate information, and that she is in control, powerful and respected. And it should also be a birth that she approaches with some trepidation, yes, but without fear or dread, and a birth that she then goes on to enjoy, and later remember with warmth and pride.

Currently, we are stuck in a loop that is hard to break. It goes something like this:

The 'Fear Becomes Fact' Cycle of Negativity

Often, when as birth activists we try to address this loop, we focus, quite rightly, on what happens in the hospital. We wish there was less intervention, we question how much of it is necessary, and we shake our fists at the doctors who anaesthetise, yank and cut away women's hopes of a natural or positive experience. But what if we let that be, and tried to break the cycle at a different point? What if we challenged the information, feelings and negative expectations that are held in women's minds and hearts as they feel the first tightenings of labour? What if women walked towards the hospital reception with an entirely different mind-set?

This week I launched The Positive Birth Movement. The Movement aims to break the Fear Becomes Fact Cycle by spreading positive messages about childbirth. We aim to tackle the current negativity about labour and birth in the following ways:

1. By building a network of peer to peer Positive Birth discussion groups, which will be free for all women to access.
2. By ensuring that all pregnant women are made aware of this network and can gain easy access to a local group.
3. By using social media to build an umbrella Positive Birth group, to which all smaller groups can feed back.
4. By encouraging the sharing of expertise, information and positivity in the umbrella group.
5. By sharing and challenging 'human rights in childbirth' issues via the umbrella group.
6. By promoting positive messages about childbirth.

This is a movement in its very first days of life! So it will certainly change, evolve and grow with time. But for now, our main focus is the building of a network of groups to Meet Up, Link Up and Shake Up Birth! Here's how:

Meet Up - organise a regular gathering, discussion group or meeting to talk about themes related to Positive Birth.

Link Up - use social media to link up these groups to build a global network of support and positivity. Take advantage of the expertise, solidarity, power and clout of the network. Gain advice and support on anything from niggling birth questions to human rights issues. Or just spread some positivity!

Shake Up - Challenge the culture of fear and negativity that surrounds birth, and the negative messages that women and girls receive. Support and empower pregnant women and help them to approach birth with a completely different mind-set.

Want to set up a Positive Birth group? 

If you would like to set up a Positive Birth group, here's how to get started:

Who can Facilitate?
Anyone can create a Positive Birth group. You might be a doula, midwife or birth worker, or just have a passion for positive birth. You are not required to be an 'expert', the idea is simply to 'facilitate' (the definition of which is 'to make easy'). You can 'make it easy' for women to gather, communicate, support each other and share information quite easily. All you need to do is set a date for a meeting, either in your house, or a local cafe, hall or other venue, as you prefer. Let The Positive Birth Movement know about your group and we will add you to the network.

Who should attend?
Pregnant women, birth workers, and anyone interested in positive birth. However, if your group is entirely made up of birth workers, you might use the opportunity to brainstorm how you can reach more pregnant women, or other ways you could make a difference.

How often should we meet?
This is up to you, but it would be helpful if it could be at least monthly, and regular, for example, the first Monday of each month. This would make it easier for pregnant women to access.

How should we structure our meetings?
This is up to you. If we are going to 'trust birth', we need to trust women to follow their intuition when it comes to running these groups! You might like to start by introducing a topic for discussion and stating the purpose of the group. You might also like to decide whether the group will be confidential. At the end of the group you might like to summarise what you have discussed and make sure that any questions or issues that are outstanding have been noted so that they can be fed back to the online umbrella group.

Can I charge for a group?
No. All Positive Birth groups must be free and not for profit. However, if you are hiring a hall for your meeting you may like to share the cost between you.

Any other Do's or Don'ts?
Not really. I don't really want The Positive Birth Movement to become just another bureaucratic and controlling establishment! All I would say is to remember that the main aim is positivity and that this should mean respect for women and their choices. Remember to listen and facilitate, rather than try to teach or preach. This is not about evangelising home birth or drug free birth. This is about empowering women to approach birth differently and to expect and enjoy a positive birth - whatever that means to them.

If you would like to facilitate a group, please get in touch with me with the details. 

A suggested topic for November is 'Planning a Positive Birth' - more info and suggestions to follow, and to be found on the Facebook group.

Even if you cannot facilitate or attend a group, please join us on Facebook and Twitter and help us to grow this idea, and transform the Fear Becomes Fact cycle into... Positivity Becomes Fact! 

If you have any thoughts, ideas, questions or suggestions please email me 

Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Positive Birth Movement: Meet Up, Link Up and Shake Up Birth!

In September I had two wonderful and life enhancing experiences, firstly I began my Doula training, and attended an excellent week-long course with Kate Woods of Conscious Birthing, and secondly, I took a rare evening off nursing my daughter to sleep and went to a screening of Freedom for Birth. Both - coincidentally - took place in Glastonbury, a Somerset town dominated by the mystical Tor and filled with a sense of creativity and transformation that never fails to inspire.

For a long time on this blog I have tried to cover the subject of a woman's right to a positive birth. One of my first ever posts was an attempt to address the politics of power in the birth room: "They Let Me" Go Overdue. Later, I wrote about how Every Woman Deserves a Positive Birth, the impact of what I called The Wallpaper of Fear on the birthing woman, the importance of giving our daughters positive messages about birth, and most recently, the global Birth Revolution and the Freedom for Birth screenings.

The thread between all of these posts has been, I think, the desire to question the status quo, to spread a message of positivity about childbirth, and to empower women to reclaim birth and make truly informed decisions. One of the many subjects we were asked to consider in our Doula training was our own personal 'blueprint' for birth - something that particularly interests me given my background in the world of therapy. What messages have we been given throughout our lives about childbirth? What images have we seen, what sentences have we heard that have stuck in our minds? For many of us, the messages have been mostly negative. Our expectations of birth are pretty low, and we approach it with fear.

Thinking about my own personal blueprint, I was reminded initially of how my mother always told me that, "when you give birth, you lose all your dignity", and get used to, "everybody and their uncle," looking at you, "down there". Of course, I now realise that although this was her experience, it didn't have to be mine, but so often, especially when we are given this information from a young age, we simply do not think to challenge it. However, if we don't challenge it, it becomes increasingly likely that it will happen to us, and that we will be telling the same story to our own daughters. Self-fulfilling prophecy becomes self-perpetuating myth: misinformation becomes reality, rumour evolves into fact.

Even if we are well-armed and determined to read a few books and break a few cycles, the negative messages can still drip into our mind and take hold when we are least expecting it. When planning a home birth, I so clearly remember the Health Visitor's comment, who had come to visit and look around our narrow three-story house. When I told her I was planning to give birth in the top floor bedroom, she said, "I'm sure it will be fine, the only concern they sometimes have is whether they can get a stretcher down the stairs." Immediately I got an image of myself, strapped to a white board like a casualty from the trenches, moaning and blood-stained, whilst two paramedics strained in a staircase corner under my full-term weight.

How does a birthing woman wriggle free from such imagery and a life-time of negative input? In many cases, including my own, she doesn't - it's an almost impossible task. She might have a well informed neo-cortex, but there are so many layers of crappy misinformation in between this and the ancient mammalian limbic system she needs to engage to give birth easily, that she simply doesn't stand a chance. Add to this the fact that she's giving birth in a system that has it's own hugely negative 'blueprint' and is often stretched to it's limits, and it's even clearer to see why so many natural birth plans end up on the cutting room floor.

I don't think that women can expect 'the system' to change - I think that we need to change how we are when we enter the system and that in this way the system will have no option but to change to accommodate us. Reading and informing ourselves in an intellectual way is an excellent start, but I think we also need to go deeper, and explore and challenge the very roots of our feelings and fears about childbirth. We need to 'redecorate': to gleefully tear down the wallpaper of fear and replace it with much more positive surroundings. And to do all this, we need to communicate.

To this end, I've decided to play my own small part by setting up a The Positive Birth Movement, and I've organised our first discussion group with an open invitation to pregnant women, fellow Doula's, birth workers and anyone with an interest in positive birth. Our first meeting is on November 6th - HERE is the Facebook event page for it -  and what I've been wondering is - would you like to join us?! If you are local to me in Somerset UK you would be most welcome, but of course, many of you are further afield, and anyway, my house is not quite big enough all of you! But could we possibly set up a system whereby women all came together in small groups on a regular basis to share information, ideas, experiences, thoughts and feelings about birth, and then fed back to each other on a larger scale using social media?

The advantages to this would be both the solidarity and extended expertise provided by a wider group than it would be possible to gather in 'real life'. For example, one group may have a question that they are unable to answer that they could put to a wider audience, or they may even encounter a human rights issue that they feel should be raised and discussed amongst a larger group. There would be power and 'clout' in our numbers. I would hope that it would also simply create a 'buzz', a feeling of warmth and shared purpose, and a sense that, in the face of dark times for birthing women, we are 'doing something'.

If you would like to join up with the meeting on November 6th, here's what to do:

  • Organise a discussion group yourself, or hold a meeting of an existing group, on or as near to November 6th as possible.
  • Let me know about it, by email, or my Facebook page for The Mule, or twitter
  • Join up with The Positive Birth Movement on Facebook.
  • Follow loosely this month's theme: Planning a Positive Birth
  • Tweet about it with the hashtag #positivebirth
  • Share your stories, questions, issues or positivity with me via email, Facebook or twitter.
  • Blog about it and let me know.
  • Watch this space for news!

You don't have to be a midwife, doula or birth professional to take part. The Positive Birth Movement is about ALL women coming together to share their experiences and help each other. For example, three pregnant women could all get together and brain storm their birth plans. Think how much they might learn from each other's choices! This is a chance, not to teach each other, not to judge each other, but just to listen to each other.

If the first Positive Birth link up is successful, I will try to arrange another meeting in the first week of December.

As always, let me know your thoughts!

For more information on Doula Training with Conscious Birthing please visit

For more information about my own work as a Dramatherapist and trainee Doula please visit

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Responsive Parenting: Moving Towards Parenting Without Punishment

Responsive Parenting begins in utero, as we start, however tentatively, to recognise a life at once within and beyond ourselves, and to consider their needs alongside our own. It is this deep and strengthening connection with another person, and the resulting desire to respond to their needs rapidly and with love, that forms the bedrock of Responsive Parenting. Responsive Parenting is not about how we feed our babies, how we transport them from a to b, or where we lay them to sleep. It is deeper, and much much more important than that.

Maternal responsiveness - the way mother (or other main caregiver) watches, understands and meets their child's needs - has been shown in study after study to be fundamentally important to everything from language acquisition, to social competence, to long term emotional well being. Here is my definition of Responsive Parenting:

Responsive Parents:
  • Observe their children, notice and interpret their cues, and take prompt action.
  • Respond to their child with love, consistency, empathy, kindness and humanity.
  • Question and seek to understand their own responses to their children and the familial and cultural background that informs them.
  • Help their children to learn more about their responses to their own emotions, and to other people.
  • Acknowledge that all children are individual unique human beings who need to be responded to in individual unique ways.

It is difficult to see any way in which Punitive Parenting could sit happily alongside Responsive Parenting. By Punitive Parenting, I mean using some, or all, of the following techniques, as part of your parenting approach:

  • Shouting, shaming, name calling, intimidating or humiliating.
  • Withdrawal, or threatened withdrawal, of objects, privileges or love.
  • Isolating, eg 'naughty step', 'time out'.
  • Smacking or threatening to smack.

They sound pretty awful in a list like that, but many of us use some or all of them from time to time, often because it's the only way we know, and we get a bit lost, especially when the heat is on. Notice I called this post 'Moving Towards Parenting Without Punishment' - as I really want to stress that making this change and parenting in a more child-centred and gentle way is something that all of us, both as individuals, and as a society, are still learning about. And as my eldest daughter, then three, so brilliantly put it: "Learning is Falling". 

Here are ten techniques and tips that I find helpful in my own personal move towards parenting without punishment. Please do add your own in the comments section below. 

1. Keep the Physical Tank Topped Up
Children's behaviour almost always takes a nose dive with tiredness or their blood sugar. It's of course not fair to then punish them for their actions which are caused simply by needing to eat or sleep. Avoid feeding or sleeping routines if these come at the expense of your child's behaviour and your subsequent sanity. Offer regular healthy snacks and let your child off the hook if they lose their grip at the end of a busy day.

2. Keep the Emotional Tank Topped Up
Make sure you are giving your child bags of love and attention before they have to ask for it. Children don't always ask for you to notice them directly - sometimes they just draw on the coffee table or throw a spoon at their sister. Our lives are busy, but try this: set aside two or three minutes before you begin packing the car / cleaning the house / leaving for work or whatever it is you have to do. Take just those few minutes, and before you start anything else - hug, kiss, cuddle, dance, laugh, talk, listen, notice. Tell your child how utterly brilliant you think they are, and then, and only then, get on with the boring grown-up stuff.

3. Shift Your Thinking
We all need to change not just our expectations of children, but the whole way we view them. The punitive model of parenting that most of us grew up with assumes the worst of children, and pits offspring against parent in a never ending battle that can last an entire childhood. Once we start down this road of:
  • despairing of our children, rolling our eyes, complaining about them
  • telling them off for not behaving like fully formed adults
  • getting cross, frustrated, and shouting at them
we can get trapped in a battle situation that is not enjoyable for either party and, if left unchecked, can spiral quickly downwards to become a miserable habit. We need to soften, to try to see things from their perspective, and assume the absolute best of them at all times. Hopefully then we will begin to feel as a family that we are all on the same side, supporting each other.

4. Model Kindness and Empathy
Children learn quickly about how to behave from what they observe, not from what we tell them. If we always try to be kind, forgiving and gentle with them, they cannot fail to become kind, forgiving and gentle with themselves and others as they grow. Likewise, if our child behaves unkindly to another person, this is a chance to show them a better way - by focusing our energy on saying sorry and showing concern to the upset person, in full view of our child. Some parents prefer never to tell their child to apologise - my personal view is that this is age dependent, and that once a child reaches around two, it is ok to gently explain how and why we say sorry, although fairly pointless to enforce it. Again, if we assume the best of our children, we would conclude that they do regret their actions, but are too overwhelmed / upset / developmentally unready to express this in a formal way.

5. Hold Realistic Expectations for your Child's Age
This can be difficult, as we are not all developmental psychologists, and even they don't completely understand the developing brain or have all the answers. Suffice to say that many of the behaviours that children, particularly younger children and toddlers, get punished for, are actually just normal phases of their development - in other words, things that they simply don't understand or cannot help. For example, my two year old drew with a biro across our vinyl tablecloth, and it won't come off. I don't punish her though, because I know she doesn't understand how much tablecloths cost, what money is, what sentimental value is, what the past is, or what the future is. She just wanted to make her mark. 
There are lots of online resources on child development, for example, The Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development, and Zero to Three.

6. Reframe Negative Behaviours as Positives
If we truly try to see the best in our children, then we might even find ourselves admiring some of the behaviours that in another light, we might be tempted to punish. Perhaps they are not 'bad' or 'naughty' after all, but just strong-willed, determined, feisty, passionate, creative, exciting, or humorous? Picture them in twenty years time, once the natural refinement of adulthood has smoothed the rough edges off their current rather crude approach. With a bit of work, these could be just the qualities to take them to the top of their field! Reframing their behaviours in this way allows us to soften towards them, and even feel proud of their stubborn or wilful ways.

7. Set Clear Boundaries with a Clear Head
Parenting without punishment is NOT parenting without guidance. Children need strong boundaries to enable them to feel safe and loved. Set boundaries for your children and discuss them at times when everything is going well, rather than when it's all hitting the fan. Allow your children to have some input into limit setting and consider having some 'rules' that apply to the grown ups too. For example, 'in our family, we do not hit, we respect each other, we are kind etc'. There is no reason why this should all just apply to the children! If a child crosses one of your decided boundaries, don't 'do nothing' - as a Responsive Parent, you need to respond, without resorting to punishment. 

8. 'Time In'
Many parents use 'Time Out' - getting their child to sit alone in an allocated place for an allocated time - as a standard punishment. But often, this is simply isolating a child right at the moment they need you the most, when their emotions are raging out of control, and they need your help as the adult to help them calm down, regulate, and make sense of what just happened. A much better response is 'Time In' - bringing a child in close, holding them on your lap, listening to them, talking calmly with them about what is happening. As soon as you see difficult behaviour approaching or escalating, give your child some 'time in'. The sooner the better. An early time in will often also 'fill the emotional tank' (see 2) and prevent challenging behaviour from happening. (More on time outs / time ins here from psychologists Laura Markham, and David Coleman.)

9. Try for 'Oxytocin Led' Responses!
Oxytocin, dubbed the 'Love Hormone' by birth pioneer Michel Odent, is the hormone that helps us to give birth, breastfeed, orgasm, fall in love, bond with others and empathise, to name just a few. Oxytocin is secreted by the pituitary gland when we look at or hold in our arms the person we love, and produces a feeling of warmth, relaxation, gentleness and well-being, a feeling of being in love! But often, in difficult parenting situations, when we are on the cusp of resorting to punishment, we are flooded, not with the hormone of love, but with the hormone of fight or flight - adrenaline. We are upset, angry, our buttons are being pushed, our pulse is rising. Adrenaline is a hormone of action - it makes us want to 'do something' - hence something like the naughty step might seem a good idea. Stop. Breathe out. Take some time out for yourself if needs be. Better still, have some 'time in' with your child, hold them, kiss them, remember how much you admire and adore them, and raise your oxytocin levels! Then respond from that place of love.

10. Always Approve of Feelings, Don't Always Approve of Behaviours
It's really important to help our children to understand their emotional life and to give them words to describe what is happening inside of them. It's also important to give our approval of all their emotions, even anger or other so called 'negative' emotions. This can be difficult as so many of us were told as children not to have certain feelings or were disapproved of when we displayed them. But approving of and accepting our children unconditionally can be a powerful gift and can help them to grow into adults who are able to cope emotionally. The misunderstanding about peaceful or non-punitive parenting is that if we don't punish, we therefore have to approve of our child's every action, and this is simply not the case. For example, if, at a parent and child group, our child hits another child, we might say, quite simply: "It seems like you are feeling very angry. It's ok to be angry, but it is absolutely not ok to hit someone." Use 'time in' or take your child out of the situation and help them to understand their feelings. Reiterate often your approval of the feelings, but not the behaviour. (It's ok to feel x, but not ok to do y). A great book about this is Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman.

Other posts on Responsive Parenting:

Babies Don't Need Attachment Parenting, But They Do Need Responsive Parenting

Responsive Parenting: Why Tantrums Matter

Please do leave your own suggestions and thoughts in the comments below.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

On Jimmy Savile, and Why We Should Listen To Our Hunches About Child Abuse

The UK news this week has been dominated by the story of Jimmy Savile, the television presenter and media personality currently under investigation for a string of sex offences. It's emerging that Savile, who died in October 2011, abused a series of young people - the exact number is yet to be established - over a showbiz career that spanned several decades. Our reaction: shock, horror, sadness even, but surprise? Not really, because, we sort of knew, didn't we?

We sort of know. We have uneasy feelings, gut reactions, hunches, intuitions, sixth senses. The hairs stand up, very slightly, on the backs of our necks. We don't know how we know. But we do. No one could capture this better than poet Simon Armitage, a former social worker, in his poem, The Guilty:

They look us dead in the eye
and deny it. They turn out their pockets -
nothing but biscuits and shreds of a tissue.
They will undress their children this very minute.

Suggest their names, they are astonished.
Push them further, they remember date and places. Push them
further, they come up with blood groups, postcodes,
distinguishing features. Their curtains twitch

when we call round in the car, or we hear them
leaving like rabbits through the back door.

They take on habits, the guilty; throw us
from the scent. Analogue watches worn to the inside,
the buttering of bread before the slicing.
They let out their belts, one notch,

before eating; salt their supper before they taste it
and flush it twice if they flush the toilet.
Shake their hands, their hands are like putty.
Their children agree with them, absolutely.

So when shall we birch these people?
And how do we know these things?

When I worked as a therapist with adults and children who had experienced abuse, often feelings of anger would be directed, not so much towards the abusers themselves, but to to those around them who seemed not to notice what was happening. Right now, this is being acted out in the UK on a national scale, as the Press and others try to point the finger of blame at everyone from the BBC to hospitals to individuals. How could nobody have noticed? Worse still, did somebody notice, and turn a blind eye?

This calling into question the actions of everyone but the abuser himself is partly a symptom of our individual, or in this case, collective denial. It diverts attention away from the real horror of the situation, and allows us to express our feelings in a more manageable and safe area. It's easier for us to discuss the role that Newsnight played in all of this, than to contemplate the full extent of Savile's actions. All of us - whether we have personally been abused or not - wishes that child sexual abuse didn't happen, and that we did not have to think about it. 

But it's also quite a genuine question: how could we not have noticed? Why did we not look more carefully at the situation and protect those who were most vulnerable? Often, for a survivor of child abuse, these questions are directed to one person in particular: the mother. Did she really have no idea what was going on? Or was it so hard for her to confront - and in doing so, break every aspect of her life into pieces - that she kept it a secret, even from herself?

Of course, child abusers themselves play a big part in the cover up. They make it their business not to be discovered, and often go to great lengths to make sure that they are liked and respected in their community. They do not just 'groom' their victims, they groom everyone around them, so that, should a hunch or a doubt or suspicion flash briefly across someones mind, it is quickly dismissed. "Oh no, not him - only last week he put away all the chairs after the parents evening / gave me a lift to the doctors / donated money to our charity" etc. Savile's case was somewhat unusual in that he was quite openly 'weird', and seems to have created a sort of elaborate double bluff, as if his strangeness was all 'just showbiz', and he was really just a charitable eccentric. Many many other abusers present themselves as quite 'normal', and even as pillars of their community. But still, we sort of know.

We sort of know, but often, we still look away, preferring to think of child sexual abuse as something that happens to other people, not us. Here are some denial busting statistics from the NSPCC commissioned research:

Experience of some form of sexual abuse:
  • Nearly a quarter of young adults (24.1%) experienced sexual abuse (including contact and non-contact), by an adult or by a peer during childhood.
  • One in six children aged 11-17 (16.5%) have experienced sexual abuse.
  • Almost one in 10 children aged 11-17 (9.4%) have experienced sexual abuse in the past year. Teenage girls aged between 15 and 17 years reported the highest past year rates of sexual abuse.
Experience of contact sexual abuse:
  • One in nine young adults (11.3%) experienced contact sexual abuse during childhood.
  • One in 20 children aged 11-17 (4.8%) have experienced contact sexual abuse.
  • Two thirds (65.9%) of contact sexual abuse experienced by children aged 0-17 was perpetrated by someone aged under 18.

We often have concerns about 'stranger danger', but unfortunately, it is those we know and trust and who have daily access to our children, who we most need to 'listen to our hunches' about. According to the NSPCC, seven out of ten cases of child sexual abuse involve a relative, friend, or someone else close to the child.

As parents, we need to wake up to reality now, even if we have chosen to remain ignorant in the past. This is not to suggest that we should live in paranoia and fear, or indeed, pass these concerns on to our children and taint the wonderful innocence of their childhood. We should, however, be realistic, and be vigilant. We should make it our business to protect our children, even if this means an uncomfortable loss of denial. And we should follow our hunches, our intuitions, our uneasy feelings, that tell us - something is not quite right. Because sometimes, you just sort of know.

If you are concerned about the safety or welfare of a child, please contact the police or, in the UK, you can speak to an NSPCC counsellor - more details on their website.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Creating a Ritual for Weaning at Four

I'm aware that the title of this post makes me sound a bit whacky, and, to be honest, I quite like that. I'm hoping you've already got a mental picture of me, hair matted, eyes rolling, dancing naked around a ceremonial fire with my tits swinging in the breeze. Or perhaps, worse still, you've got me eyeing the camera sexily as my daughter stands on a chair for a bit of 'extreme nursing'. Of course, none of it was really like that.

Let me tell you the actual story.

Like most mothers who breastfeed beyond one, or two, or three, I didn't set out with that plan, it just happened. My daughter loved nursing, and so did I, well, most of the time, and when I didn't, I loved her, and could see that she loved it, so kept going anyway. In many ways, nursing a child who no longer needs you as their main source of nutrition is easy, compared to the frantic dependency of babyhood. It becomes more flexible, more negotiable: a mutual loving experience that is almost entirely about comfort, which can only be a good thing.

And so we went on. Through her first year, her second, through my next pregnancy, and then 'tandem' nursing with her baby sister for another year and a half. Like many other aspects of motherhood, nursing two children together contained some of the most exquisitely lovely and darkly terrible moments imaginable. At times, I wished I had weaned her before she even knew of her sister's existence. Having two such dependent creatures felt stressful, fraught, tearful, claustrophobic, irritating, draining. And then they would nurse together, and silently lock eyes, finding each others hands and holding them across my body without breaking for a second their deep sisterly gaze.

In the year she was three the nursing sessions began to diminish and just one feed a day became a comforting part of the bedtime routine. Some days it would feel like a chore for me, already tired from nursing her sister to sleep, and I would be secretly glad on the nights she fell asleep with her dad and we skipped our 'boobie'. As we moved towards her fourth birthday, we were only nursing about three times a week. And then something funny happened, that I hadn't anticipated. She stopped being able to do it. She told me, 'Mummy, I can't - I can't get the milk to come out!'.

Unusually, I couldn't seem to find any information online, so I posted in a forum. 'Yes! This happens', came the response. Apparently (and this is anecdotal evidence so I can't give you a reference!), a combination of a growing jaw and less frequent nursing sessions can mean that a child loses their ability to latch on, and can no longer get you to 'let down'. I was surprised to hear this, and also slightly relieved, as I felt ready to stop, and this seemed like a bit of a 'deus ex machina', an intervention by fate that took the onus off either of us to decide it was time to wean.

My daughter, of course, was less impressed by the news, but we had already talked a lot about weaning, so she was not completely unprepared. In her sadness, she suddenly had an idea. She remembered that 'babies who can't have boobie have a bottle instead', and asked if I would get some of my milk out and give it to her in a bottle instead! I agreed to try, if only to give her the message that I cared about how sad she was feeling. We sat by the fire with an old breast pump I had lurking in the cupboard, and I gave it my best shot, but I was just as useless at expressing as I had been when she was a baby, and only got out about half a teaspoon. At this point it was my turn to cry, holding her and repeating how sorry I was that we couldn't nurse any more.

Typically, my partner read the situation at a more practical level, and got busy in the kitchen with a baby bottle, which he filled with cows milk, sugar and horlicks, telling her it was 'formula'. She was thrilled to bits with this, and still asks for it now sometimes. I, on the other hand, wasn't so easily comforted, and suddenly felt nostalgic for her lost babyhood and reluctant to move forward into the next phase of life. It was then that I remembered Ritual.

Across cultures and throughout recorded time, humans have created and participated in ritual to mark and celebrate pivotal moments in life. In today's world, many of us are no longer religious, taking part in hardly any rituals apart from the odd wedding or funeral, and I think we feel it's absence, a sort of 'ritual shaped hole' existing deep in our psyches. Ritual brings meaning to times of transition and change, it is a way of pausing to decorate the threshold between one phase of life and the next, rather than simply rushing forwards and paying no attention or respect to past, present or future. Like roses around a doorway, ritual is at once utterly pointless and fundamentally significant, a beautiful and life enhancing waste of time.

So I made one for our daughter. We set off on a wintry day to a field where we had planted a tree when she was born. I carried a little bag containing two beautiful bracelets, sent to me along with a candle and a little sachet of dried herbs by a wonderful blogger and artist in America called Susan Betke. My partner carried a bluebell and a big spade. We invited my daughter's best friend and her parents to what became known as a 'Weaning Party'. Oh, and there were chocolate eggs.

In the cold field we planted the bluebell under her tree and I noted that it had four flowers, one for each year of her nursing. I gave her a bracelet and put on a matching one myself. We stood around the tree and the children ate chocolate. After the planting, I gave them some ribbons to decorate the tree and the children spontaneously declared this a 'May Pole', twisting the ribbons in patterns as they danced around. We lit a little camp fire and my daughter thoughtfully went back to her tree alone and sprinkled it with herbs. The whole affair was understated but everyone in their own way seemed to enjoy filling their 'ritual shaped hole'. Then we went to the pub.

That was over six months ago. In the past few weeks my little nurseling has started school, and it's not insignificant that I've chosen this particular moment to finally take the time to write about our weaning. As she disappears each day into her new world, I find myself on another threshold, and am often consumed with the usual human reluctance to cross over to the next phase of life. In purely selfish moments, I want my baby back, and long to run into the school and scoop her up and take her home. But of course, she is not 'my' baby; she does not, and never has, 'belonged' to me, and my task now is to make the transition with grace and celebration; to decorate the doorway rather than keep banging my head on it. Perhaps a return visit to our tree is needed, or at very least, a trip to the pub.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Reflections on Freedom for Birth

Freedom for Birth, a new documentary film about human rights in childbirth, was screened in over a thousand locations across the world last Thursday, and I was there, keen to take part in a 'Mother's Revolution' supported by leading lights from the field - Ina May Gaskin, Sheila Kitzinger, Michel Odent - all calling for women to 'take back birth'.

The film took as its focus the plight of Agnes Gereb, the Hungarian midwife currently under house arrest for attending women in illegal home births, and the related case of Ternovszky vs. Hungary, in which the European Court of Human Rights ruled that every woman has the right to choose where and how she gives birth.

Quite clearly, there are some circumstances in which the compromise of freedom and the violation of human rights are tangible, for example when imprisonment is involved, or, as in another case touched on in the film, a woman's baby was taken away on the grounds of negligence because she has refused medical intervention at birth. In such instances, outrage and revolution are needed.

In the USA, the film clearly highlights, soaring rates of intervention and poor rates of maternal morbidity are a wake-up call for change. In a land where most birthing women have very little choice about where and how they give birth, and where the majority of obstetricians have never seen an unmedicalised delivery, I felt quite excited by the prospect of an American Ternovszky, taking her case all the way to the Supreme Court, explained in the film by Hermine Hayes -Klein, a Lawyer & Research Director of Bynkershoek Institute's Centre for Reproductive Rights:

With any case, you only have to go to the next court if the lower court doesn't honour the right. Anna Ternovzsky turned to Hungary and said: "Hey, don't I have the right to choose the circumstances in which I give birth?" And they said: "No you don't!" If they had said "Yes" that would have been the end of it. She wouldn't have had to go to the European Court of Human Rights. She only had to go to Strasbourg because Hungary was failing her. Similarly, within the United States, if a birthing woman turned to the state of Indiana and said: "I have a problem with the fact that my midwife might go to jail if she supports me giving birth at home" and Indiana said, "Well sorry, the doctors of Indiana think that home birth is child endangering you and you don't have the right to endanger your child's life" then she could bring an action all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Then the Supreme Court would have this question before it, a first question, just like the European Court of Human Rights faced this for the first time. This question of "Well geez, what are the rights of birthing women?"... Does a woman have the choice of how she brings a baby into the world?" And I would like to think that the United States Supreme Court would acknowledge, as Strasbourg did, that American women have the right to choose the circumstances in which they give birth.

But if it didn't, then that too I think would spark a revolution in American women because it would really bring home for them the problem with birthing in the United States. So either way, the holding has the capacity to generate a revolution whether from the top or from the bottom.

So - America is on the cusp of much needed change. But what about women in the UK, like me? The general feeling in the after film discussion was that we are 'lucky' in the UK that we do not have midwives being imprisoned, nor do we have the hugely medicalised, obstetrician led system of the US. Perhaps, then, we are alright as we are, and don't really need, or even want, a birth revolution? As a hospital midwife sitting next to me put it, "This is great, but it's preaching to the converted. The majority of women I meet aren't interested in changing the system. They're quite happy to just have their epidural and get it over with as soon as possible." 

Whether or not this is true or simply patronising to women is up for debate, but certainly, it does raise the question of whether it is equally a human right to choose to be numb for birth or even bypass it altogether with an elective section. But if a woman makes such choices simply because she's terrified and lacking accurate information - is she truly free?

At the other end of the spectrum, some women choose to 'free birth' without any midwives to attend them, because they have felt violated by a previous hospital birth experience, or decide, in spite of being higher risk, to have a home birth because they feel that in hospital they are likely to be victims of unnecessary intervention. I repeat - if a woman makes choices simply because she is terrified and lacking accurate information - is she truly free?

What all of these women have in common is that they are birthing in a climate of fear - be it fear of childbirth or fear of intervention. Freedom for Birth calls on women themselves to take responsibility for the birth revolution, to 'take back birth'. But in reality, this is not as simple as it sounds. For as much as a woman may understand the politics of birth, her human rights, and that she is giving birth in a world in which far too much unnecessary intervention is taking place, how can she be sure that the intervention she is being offered is unnecessary?

Nine months pregnant, or even nine centimetres dilated, and told that she or her baby are at risk, she is faced with an impossible choice: to stick with the books she has read telling her to trust her body, or to accept intervention being offered by experts into whose hands she has placed her safety and that of her unborn baby. You are too far past your due date, she is told, you have been in labour for too long, you are getting tired, you are not progressing, your baby is too big, your baby is too small, your waters have been broken for too long, you are too old: the risk is increasing. 

"Increased risk" is a term pregnant and birthing women hear all the time, and it is often almost impossible to get to the bottom of. Research, if you can find it, is limited, or old, or contradictory. You may feel you want to challenge the powers-that-be, but struggle to find any concrete evidence that contradicts their view. Rightly or wrongly, the impression is given that lives could be in danger, and, rightly or wrongly, most women unsurprisingly choose to forgo their hopes of a natural birth, and accept intervention.

Again, I repeat: if a woman makes choices simply because she's terrified and lacking accurate information - is she truly free? Across the board, it seems, birth choices are being made for negative instead of positive reasons, a sure sign of oppression. Birth freedom is being eroded throughout the Western world, sometimes in ways that are glaringly obvious, at other times in ways that are complex and hard to unpick. One thing seems certain: this may be a 'Mother's Revolution', but if women, midwives and obstetricians do not work together to address the climate of fear and the unavailability of truly accurate information, then there will never be true freedom for birth.

Take Action:
Free Agnes Gereb
Petition Amnesty to Support Persecuted Midwives in Europe
Petition the European Parliament to investigate human rights in childbirth
Support threatened UK Independent Midwives
The Birth I Want - campaign for continuity of care and birth choice in the UK
AIMS - write to Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health
Freedom for Birth
Human Rights in Childbirth (HRiC)

Please let me know of other resources to add to this list.