Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Reclaiming Motherhood: When Staying At Home Means Having It All

As a full time mother I know myself to be distinctly in the minority, and often experience that rather awkward, exposed feeling of realising that everyone else apart from me has left the dance floor. In the twenty first century Western world, the 'norm' for many women is to return to work and choose alternative care for their babies and children, and increasingly, pressure from government, society and the material world dictates that less and less women are making the choice to remain at home with their children. In 1981, only 24% of UK women returned to work within a year of childbirth; by 2001, it was 67%, and the most recent figures from the Department for Work and Pensions says that 76% of mothers now return to work within 12 to 18 months of having a child.

Prior to motherhood, I was a therapist, a profession which has a fairly long history of upsetting feminists and women in general with the news that care by someone other than a primary attachment figure, and in particular nursery care, is not what is best for the child. First under fire was the pioneer of attachment theory, John Bowlby, whose suggestion of the importance of maternal care in the first three years of life clashed badly with the rise of the feminist movement who condemned his theory as 'anatomy as slavery'. In the eighties Jay Belsky caused an massive outcry with his paper, 'Infant Daycare: A Cause for Concern', and more recently, writers like Steve Biddulph, Sue Gerhardt and Oliver James have added their voice to a growing concern for the long term effects on both society and future mental well being. In her most recent book, The Selfish Society, Gerhardt writes:

"...handing over the care of babies to people who have no long term emotional investment in them, at the very time when the foundations of emotional regulation, morality and relationship are being laid, is a very dangerous development. It exposes babies to the risk of being chronically stressed and emotionally underdeveloped. In these circumstances, it would not be surprising if the rates of personality disorder, anti-social behaviour and depression continue to rise. This particular social trend could potentially threaten the spread of empathy and co-operation despite the increased public interest in emotions..."

Many women are aware of these critical voices when they nevertheless return to work and delegate their childcare to others. Rather than heaping more guilt on these mothers, perhaps it's more interesting to examine just why they are making these choices? This week, I spoke to several mothers about the issue. For some, financial circumstances dictate that they simply have to work. "There's no choice for me", Emily told me, "If I don't go back to work in three months, we can't afford to live. I wish it weren't so." Other women I spoke to echoed these words, in particular single mothers, for whom finances can obviously be hard. However, some were more sceptical about the idea that those few women who stay at home are 'lucky'. "I have made sacrifices and changed my lifestyle drastically to stay at home", said Belinda, "I now know that I can live on a shoestring." Michelle added, "Personally, I want to be with my child more than I want a career, and we have no money as a result, but I can live with that as a trade."

Caitlin also addressed the suggestion that full time mothers are simply 'lucky', "Since I've started to out myself as a potential SAHM at playgroups etc, I've been fascinated with the view that I'm 'lucky' to be able to do so. Now, I recognise that some families honestly can't make ends meet if they don't have two incomes. But most of the people who are saying this to me run two cars, have iPhones, iPads, Sky or similar, own a house. When we knew we wanted to have a family, we planned it. We sought out a good job for my husband (hint: it's not so good that he's a higher rate tax payer!), moved to a new city for that job, moved into a house we could afford to rent on one salary (we're saving for a deposit to buy but that's not likely to happen for 10 years or more). What I'm trying to say is, we made it happen. It isn't luck, it's hard work and a couple of years of planning, combined with deciding that if an iPad costs £400 and me working a couple of days a week would take a month to earn that much - well we'll go without then, as I'd rather have that month with my baby thank you very much."

Listening to women's various stories this week, what seems to emerge most often is not that returning to work was financially essential, but that they felt they needed the 'break' from full time childcare, a chance to 'be me again', as one woman put it, and rejoin the grown up world. A happy mother means a happy baby, say the proponents of working mothers, but this begs the question, why is childcare making so many women feel unhappy? Lucy told me, "I went back to work part-time after 9 months. I really wanted to go back as I needed a break. I do feel it would have been better for my son if I hadn't gone back. I'd love to be a full-time mum, but I just don't think I could be and keep my mental health. I feel disappointed in myself that I'm not able to be a full-time mum." Her honesty interested me. I asked her to say a bit more about her feelings of 'needing a break'. "I guess I just find my child all-consuming.", she responded,"I find his constant demands exhausting. He is extremely dependent on me when I'm around and doesn't play alone, wanting my constant 100% attention. I just can't do this 24/7. I feel drained, and need to go away to refuel."

I find this theme of 'needing a break' from children recurs often. In my own life I've started to notice just how often others suggest to me that I want or need to be without my children so that I can have some 'me time'. Whilst I do recognise this feeling, I've begun to ask myself what this cultural notion really means. Why do I long for time to myself? Do I really need it, or have I just been sold the idea that I do? Why do my children have to be elsewhere in order for me to feel relaxed, or to partake in an activity that is meaningful to me? And perhaps more than anything else, how do my children feel when they hear me or other grown ups talk in such positive terms about 'having a break' from them? Since I became conscious of this phenomenon, I've noticed just how much negative publicity exists about time spent with small children. 'I need some Me Time', we sigh, tut, and roll our eyes, and yet it's as if we are all playing along with the theme - small children are difficult, hard work, exasperating, demanding, boring - but is this a case of the Emperor's New Clothes, do we really feel this way?

As mothers we need to be honest with ourselves about the way we feel about time with our children and our reasons for returning to work or not. As a therapist I was lucky enough to learn how to examine my initial reaction to a person or situation and peel away the layers to explore the underlying feelings - but anyone can do this too if they are just willing to admit that nothing is ever simple. For example, if we feel we would rather be at work during time spent with our child, what does this actually mean? Perhaps the scenario reminds us of a difficult time from our own childhood, and we are trying to disengage and emotionally distance ourselves. Perhaps our child is offering us a complex set of emotions which we are struggling to interpret. Perhaps we feel taken for granted by our child, or simply long for more positive feedback. Perhaps our child is asking us to relate to them in a way that we were never related to ourselves in our own childhood. Spending time with children is all about relationship, and is therefore complicated. The world of work offers us a more systemic life - input, output, appraisals, payslips - a predictable world that is time limited, goal oriented and clear in a way that childcare is not.

Mothers have been sold the idea in recent years that they can 'have it all', but in talking to women this week, it seems like this is far from the truth. Most women are sad to return to work, but paradoxically glad to be released from what they see as the drudgery and boredom of childcare. The fundamental importance of the first few years of life is still being underestimated by policy makers who urge women back to work and convince them that looking after children is a job that can be done by someone else, often someone younger, childless, and less educated than the mother herself. Many feminists proclaim this a triumph, the ultimate in freedom of choice, but real women on the frontline seem to tell a different tale, one of loss, confusion, juggling and vast guilt.

No job is boring or drudgery if you feel that it is important work and do it to the best of your abilities. Motherhood is full of challenges and rewards, and there is much to be learnt. One thing that all mothers find out quite quickly is that, with babies and small children, nothing ever stays the same for long. Time whizzes by, and everything is just a phase. So even if we find full time motherhood impossibly boring or hard, can we not comfort ourselves in the the knowledge that, by being there for our children for the first few years of life, at least until they start school, we are helping them to learn about love and relationship in the way that a nursery worker or childminder - for all their skills - can simply never replicate?

As a feminist and a stay at home mother, I feel we need to reclaim motherhood. Motherhood is 'women's work', just like childbirth and breastfeeding, it is something that we are uniquely good at, something beautiful, and at the moment, it is being diminished and demeaned in our eyes so that we feel there are other more important things we could be doing with our time. But psychology tells us this is not the case, and whatsmore, our hearts tell us that this is not the case. Babies and children cry when they are left, and often, so do mothers, usually when they are back in their car and no one is watching. We tilt our rear view mirrors down, and check our eyes for evidence of sadness, then, satisfied we will not betray ourselves, we drive away to work. Is this what we really want?

We must all make our own choices, those that feel comfortable for us. Personally, I have a constant sensation of the shortness of life, of my own mortality, of my insignificance in the vastness of time. I'm also nomadic by nature, and not that bothered by wealth or material things. All of this makes 'not working' and being 'just a mum' an easy choice for me. I'm enjoying hanging out with my girls, and glad I am not missing a moment of their hilarious lunacy, their touching progress or their sweet charms. For me, this is 'having it all'. I expect in a year or two when they are at school, I will reinvent myself again, and a new phase of life will start. I'm aware that this time now, with them at home - annoying me, baffling me, exhausting me, boring me - is as brief as one chirrup of a crickets wing in a lifetime of summer evenings. I plan to be there to hear it.

This is the first of two posts on the subject of reclaiming motherhood. You can read the second by clicking here: Reclaiming Motherhood: What is the Value of a Mother?


Sunday, 18 March 2012

Becoming a Mother: The Wallpaper of Fear

Recently I wrote about the products marketed to girls and what the Bailey Review refers to the increasingly 'sexualised wallpaper' that surrounds our children today. I like the way this idea of 'wallpaper' neatly acknowledges that the imagery that surrounds us can and does have a huge impact on the way we think, feel and live our lives. This got me thinking about other wallpapers, fabrics, and trimmings that decorate our world and the way in which they might be impacting on us, either consciously or unconsciously.

Pregnant with my first child, about five years ago, I was terrified. My whole life I don't think I had ever heard anyone say a single positive thing about the act of giving birth, and to me it seemed an impossible horror. I knew that I absolutely had to do it, and often compared my situation to a person about to parachute jump from a plane, only they - lucky bastards - actually had the option to duck out at the last minute, which I didn't.

I wasn't helped by what seemed to me like a constant insistence by others on asking what my plans for the birth were, which always included the question, 'And what are you going to do about pain relief?'. My suggestion that I was thinking of having an unmedicated birth was met with everything from surprised smiles to outright scoffing, including a man in the pub who told me, 'Once you're in labour you'll soon change your tune and be begging for drugs, luv.'

I ranted and raved to my partner. 'If I said I was going to run the London Marathon, or climb Everest, would they all be giving me these looks of anxiety? Would they be asking me how I would cope with the pain? Would they be telling me how many people die in the process?! No! They'd be telling me how great I was, and how they were sure I could do it!' But in spite of my protestations, and even my bold plans for a birth at home, I was scared, and the negative comments only served to deepen my fear.

At the time, the Channel 4 hit series One Born Every Minute hadn't begun, but I'm pretty sure that if it had, this would only have made things worse for me. Week after week, woman after woman is seen, lying on her back on a bed, with midwives frowning and offering drugs. Often the pushing stage is directed, with several people surrounding the woman and telling her what to do. Admittedly, there is the occasional drug-free birth in a pool or on all fours, but this seems to be so rare that even the midwives themselves are both shocked and mystified by it.

Virginia Howes, an experienced midwife who now works independently, has set up the Facebook page, One Born Every Minute - The Truth, to highlight practices on the program that are not evidence based or woman centred. I asked her to tell me a little about her objections to the program and how she came to set up the page.

"I knew as soon as I heard the title and saw the adverts for the Channel 4 programme what it was going to be like," she told me, "Huge billboards proudly displaying little babies traveling along a conveyor belt….I was quite upset that a maternity unit would take part or pride in using that scene to advertise midwifery. I knew that we would not see empowering, gentle, women friendly births; I knew it would be the medical model in all its gore and train crash mentality. Of course editing makes it seem worse and of course some births are difficult and need medical involvement - but very few- and that is not how it comes across on this programme. The majority of women are lying on beds from the outset, they are all monitored even without epidurals, the midwives appear to encourage epidurals, they use discredited unsafe practice in second stage, and the baby is always separated by cutting the cord straight away - to name but a few things. For sure a lot of editing goes on, but we cannot get away from the things we are seeing and hearing as they are really happening. What I am hearing is the worst thing for me, in particular some of the things that are said to women and explanations about why things are being implemented. Hearing myth and labour ward outdated rituals spoken week after week. I am just at a loss at how it is being allowed. Is the Midwifery governing body the Nursing and Midwifery Council not listening to some of the midwives words? Are they not watching as we witness them in breach of their rules?

I understand that the programme makers want to pull in the audiences but other birth programmes have done just that without all the frightening stuff being shown. Many women are saying they now have a fear of birth due to the programme, but surely it does not need to be like that? I believe it is the couples stories along with the births that make it so emotional and compelling viewing, so normal non-medicalised empowering birth would still be an audience puller, but it would also give the most amazing messages to women that birth can be amazing, empowering and something to embrace rather than to be afraid of."

Pregnant women across the UK are glued to One Born Every Minute, and I'm quite sure there are equivalent shows in the U.S and beyond. And yet they do nothing but perpetuate the myth that birth is a time of fear, horror and agony, which a helpless woman must try to endure with the help of as many drugs as she can lay her hands on. This 'wallpaper of fear' may seem like it is just decoration, but in fact it creates a vivid, time-specific and influential backdrop to our world. Imagery has great influence. Women who have never seen anyone else nursing often struggle to breastfeed. Little girls who are bombarded with high heeled shoes, make-up and motifs of princesses start to believe that these are of great importance to them. And women who watch other women protesting that they 'cannot do it' as they lie on their backs on a bed, numb from the waist down, will most likely give birth in this way when it comes to their turn.

When my first daughter was born, my fear got the better of me, in the end, as my body held on tight to her and my hopes of a home birth ended in a hospital induction and forceps delivery. My fear and negative expectations became, as they do for many, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Two years later, pregnant for the second time, I watched the show One Born Every Minute, and heard a midwife say to her colleagues, 'I really think she should have an epidural. I just don't like seeing her like that'. This comment inspired me - to hire an Independent Midwife, someone who I could be sure would believe in my body's ability to birth naturally and who would understand that to medicate a woman in labour is not always in her best interests, even if it often helps ease the discomfort of those who surround her. Whilst both of my births were incredible experiences ending with a healthy baby in my arms, my second birth at home brought me the empowering and transformational rite of passage I felt I had slightly missed the first time around. 

If you are pregnant right now or plan to have a baby one day, pause for a moment and consider the wallpaper that surrounds you. What messages are you receiving about birth from your family, your partner, your friends, magazines, books, TV and film? What image comes to your mind when you picture a woman in labour or the moment of birth? If this is a negative or frightening image, is it possible that there could be another way, a way that is better for you as the woman, that empowers you, inspires you, and fills you with strength - and STILL delivers a healthy baby?! Allow yourself to consider this option. Switch off One Born Every Minute, and watch some of the births on a resource like instead. Look at some of the images of birth on sites like Bring Birth Home and Birth Without Fear. Try to find imagery that challenges your expectations, rather than conforming to them. Consider that how you personally decide to bring your baby into the world is entirely your choice, and that you can create the birth that feels right and positive for you. Birth is not a rented house, it belongs to you - take ownership - and decorate it with the wallpaper of your own choosing!

Friday, 9 March 2012

While I Nurse You To Sleep...

While I nurse you to sleep...  For the first time today, I am still.  I am not lifting, carrying, holding, bending, reaching, stretching, scrubbing, wiping, hauling, or lugging. Here in this dark room I lie beside you and allow my body and mind to come to stillness after the chaos of our day. You suck, and tug, you fiddle, and fuss...and slowly come to stillness too, until we both are still, and both are resting...I wait, momentarily, and then, I slowly slide away and leave you sleeping.

While I nurse you to sleep...
I...take stock. I turn over in my mind, the contents of the fridge, the washing on the floor, the money in the bank. I count up the years I've had so far and the years I might have left. I work out how old I will be when you are the age I am now - thirty seven - seventy two. I hope I make it. I count the eggs you already have in your body and those I have in mine and I wonder at the people they may become. I think about the person I was before I met you, the life I led, the things I've gained and the things I've lost, I count them all. I plan the contents of my other daughter's lunchbox.

While I nurse you to sleep...
I...make plans. In my mind I blog, facebook, tweet, reply to emails, get in touch with long lost friends. I make a list of all I have to do. I decide to spend less time on facebook. I stare at a blank screen. I write my novel, and receive the first edition in the post, it is wrapped in brown paper and looks crisp and fresh. I get a nomination, and pick out a beautiful dress. I wonder what to cook for dinner. I think of you, when you are old enough to judge, and wonder what you will think of me. How will you describe me to your friends? How will you define me? I plan - to be a better mother, to play less and get more organised, to organise less and play more, to be the same mother I am already, to improve myself, to accept myself.

While I nurse you to sleep...
I...time travel.  I visit long forgotton places and people I have known and loved. I run through school corridors in a kilt and read great authors for the first time and cross bridges on foot over several big city rivers. I spiral forwards into the future, imagining myself in various guises: rich, poor, old, broken, delighted. I spin back again into the past and revisit pivotal moments and say all the right things and make all the right choices. I realise that if I change one dot you might not be here, slowly falling asleep in my arms, and decide that all my choices were the right choices even the wrong ones if only because they led me to this moment, to your existence.

While I nurse you to sleep...
I...feel frustrated. I think of all the other things I could be doing with this hour. I watch every evening of my thirties melting away into a sea of nursing, nursing, nursing to sleep. Tiny teeth grate against my skin and I wish I could be somewhere else, anywhere, but here. I think of friends who tell me that their baby sleeps all night and I decide that I am mad or weird and wish I could be normal and 'put my baby down with a bottle' at seven pm and shut the door...and get dressed up, and go out dancing. You claw at me, and ask for more, and I try to hold my breath, hold my nerve, hold my patience. I hold you.

While I nurse you to sleep...
I...notice. Here, with all the lights switched off, I have time to see. I see how I am, how I was, how I will be, the darkness exposes me. I notice my thoughts, my plans, my dreams, from the trivial to the grand, and all the spaces in between. I notice who I am, with all my brilliant faults, lying beside you, a person fresh, not yet fully formed. I notice you...I feel the softness of your hair against my chest, I place my hand on your belly that distends like a puppy's, I hear your breath, rise and fall, and slow and slow, I struggle to comprehend the hugeness of my importance to you, and feel your sigh of satisfaction, and picture myself, like an oak tree next to an acorn, like an umbrella over a frog, like a leaf with a dangling raindrop, in this moment...while I nurse you to sleep.


Monday, 5 March 2012

Dolled Up: Products that Sexualise Our Children

Stuff matters. Sometimes it's hard to accept, and it can be easier to throw up our hands and declare that it doesn't. But it does. 

As a parent of two small girls I have already said my piece on this blog about today's massive culture of 'Girly Pink'. As the oldest grows bigger - she's now four - I've been looking at the world through her eyes and becoming increasingly concerned by the messages I feel she is being given, not just by the 'Pink' products that tell her to be a 'Passive Princess' - staying at home and brushing her hair while the boys get out there and fight dinosaurs - but by the large number of products that encourage her to dress up as a woman while she is still such a very young girl. Make-up, high heels, tight jeans, and more; all available in her sizes and marketed towards her.

It's easy to dismiss some of these products as 'a bit of fun', allowing our daughters to 'pretend to be like mummy', in the same way that all little girls have surely done throughout history. But there's a difference, I think, between borrowing Mummy's lipstick, and owning your own vanity set. There's a difference between tottering around in Mummy's shoes, and having your own pair of heels in your wardrobe. There's a difference between playing and reality, between 'make-believe' and regularly wearing make up to the park.

Every product that we buy for our children, or that is marketed towards them, is significant, because products, clothes, stuff, carries messages. Stuff matters. Stuff reflects our culture, our economy, our state of mind. Hemlines go up and down with boom and bust. Corsets are loosened as morals are. Shoulder pads show that women can be tough in the workplace too. Land girls dress differently to seventeenth century aristocrats. We have to consider that the way we are dressing our children, and the toys and products we are selling them, says something about how we view the role of women in our world today. We have to question what message our daughters and our sons are receiving about their image, their sexuality, and their role in life. To deny the significance of stuff is naive. Clothes are not just clothes. Toys are not just toys.

David Cameron has long pledged to act on this issue, and never more fervently than when he allegedly overheard his six year old daughter singing along to Lily Allen's hit, 'It's Not Fair', in which Allen protests the age old injustice of a man who 'never makes me scream', even when she's spent, 'ages giving head'. In June 2011, the Bailey Review, an 'Independent Review into the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood', called for protection for children from what it called the 'increasingly sexualised wallpaper that surrounds them', and which pressures them to 'grow up too quickly'. In the same month and year, several UK retailers signed up to the BRC Responsible Retailers Guidelines, which makes detailed recommendations about the clothes that are marketed towards children.

All of these steps and the many media articles and discussions are great, but as I shop with my daughters, it seems like there are many changes still to be made. I've put together a gallery here of some of the products that I have found inappropriate. Please send me details of any other products you would like me to add, either from the UK, or elsewhere in the world. Hopefully this will further highlight this issue and increase pressure on retailers to be more responsible.

These Hannah Montana shoes, for sale at Brantano, start in a Size 9 - and fit my 4 year old daughter.

Also available from a Size 9 up in Brantano, high heeled shoes by Bratz, whose controversial range of sexily dressed dolls have been described by Michele Eliot, of Kidscape, as 'little sexualised creatures that give the wrong message to girls'. 

Matalan has already come under fire for selling padded bras for eight year olds. But will someone from Matalan please explain to me why my four year old daughter needs to wear this cropped vest? Not for warmth, surely?!

The magazine Sparkle World is aimed at primary school girls, and certainly got the four year old's vote. And lucky us, we got a free poster for her bedroom wall:

But hold on a minute, is this Sparkle World, or Spearmint Rhino?!

Toys R Us have a variety of make up sets in stock, including this one, the Dream Dazzlers Light Up Glamour Make Up, recommended for five years and up:

Toys R Us also carry this Dream Dazzler Vanity Make Up Table, for three years and up:

and also from Toys R Us, this Moxie Girlz Boombox Vanity Case, for 6 years and up:

Also from Moxie Girlz, but this time sold by Argos, this scooter with a secret drawer full of make up, for 5 years and up:

Lelli Kelly sell shoes in a variety of styles, but their range of School Shoes, such as these, come with free make up:

These slutty little fairies look familiar...

Yes, they're the same crew from Sparkle World. I now know they are the stars of a 'cartoon' from Nickelodeon's new show, Winx Club, aimed at 5 to 12 year olds. Thanks to Pigtail Pals for pointing this out.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Love Is The Answer: Ten Creative Ways to Strengthen Attachment

Attachment - the invisible threads that connect us to our children - woven from elements no lab could ever replicate: Love, Time, Connection, Closeness, name just a few.

A healthy, strong and positive attachment means happier, calmer children who grow into adults who are better able to cope with life and make happy and healthy attachments with others. Through you they are learning about the joy of 'relationship', about how wonderful life can be when you connect deeply with another person, when your eyes meet in laughter, when you love freely and without constraint.

For some, attachment comes naturally from the moment of birth, but for others, the weaving of the threads can take longer, perhaps because of a traumatic labour, unsuccessful breastfeeding, difficult life circumstances, or even spectres from our own childhood that can suddenly rear up and haunt us when we become mothers and fathers ourselves. Still others miss the first days or even months or years of their child's life - perhaps in the case of severe illness or adoption.

No matter whether we feel our attachment to our children is vibrant and strong or struggling and weak, if it has come easily and naturally, or has been more hard won or complex - everyone can benefit from deepening the parent-child connection. In all relationships, there is always room for improvement, effort, maintenance and repairs. And the effort brings great rewards for all concerned. As John Lennon said, "Love is the answer, and you know that for sure."

The following are ten practical ways to connect or reconnect. It's up to you to decide which will be the most appealing, helpful or age-appropriate for you and your child.

Mirror Mirror
In this activity, one person pretends to be the other's reflection in the mirror, copying as carefully as possible their movements. You might like to ask your child to be the 'reflection' first, so that they can get an idea of how the game works, in particular that slow, steady movements are best. (small children may struggle with this, but don't let that spoil the fun!) Try -

  • setting the game to music
  • keeping constant eye contact
  • not making any eye contact
  • just mirroring each others faces

Why? Connects, tunes you in to each other, recreates the early mirroring that takes place between parent and child.

Playing Baby
Let your child pretend to be 'the baby'. They might want to dress up, or find old baby items such as bibs, blankets, dummies (even if they never used one!), or a favourite teddy. Try to remember the way you used to be towards them when they were tiny, and the things you used to do, for example singing lullabies or rocking them in your arms. If, for whatever reason, you missed your child's babyhood, try to imagine how you would have liked things to have been (and bear in mind that this exercise will be particularly powerful for you both). In all cases, be prepared that your child might want to show you their feelings about the loss of their babyhood through this play. Try -

  • lots of loving eye contact
  • peekaboo games
  • silly faces and sounds
  • swapping roles

Why? Playful, nurturing, regressive, may fill child's need for intense love and attention.

Gather together any slides, bands, combs and hairbrushes you have in the house, and 'pretend' to be hairdressers. Take time to do each other's hair, in front of a mirror, or not, as you prefer. Very soft 'baby' hairbrushes are perfect for this activity. Try -

  • letting your child wet the brush - children love water play!
  • 'getting your nails done too', perhaps with hand cream, or even polish if you are feeling brave!

Why? Sensory, fun, nurturing, attentive, bonding through grooming and touch.

You might have shared a bed with your child when they were smaller, but if you didn't, or don't any more, you might like to have a special night when you invite them to snuggle up in your bed with you. If you don't want to have your child sleeping in your bed on a regular basis, make sure you explain clearly that this is a one-off - a bit like going camping. Remember that offering love and nurture to your child in any situation does NOT create 'bad habits', in fact, quite the opposite; it teaches them how to love and nurture themselves, and to enjoy positive and trusting relationships as they grow to adulthood. Try -

  • torches or safely used candles for story time 
  • a made up story instead of one from a book
  • a special name for the experience, e.g. Snuggle Night, or Magical Dream Bed. 

Why? Brings closeness, bonding, nurturing, makes child feel special.

Bath Fun
Take time to have a special bath with your child, that is all about playfulness and fun (and not really about washing or getting clean!). Add their favourite toys and give yourself permission to forget your adult world and just be present for the experience. Try -

  • Special bubbles, bath confetti, bath bombs or a new soap.
  • Letting them wash your hair
  • Writing words / drawing pictures on each other's backs and trying to guess what they say / are.

Why? Physical contact, sensory play, regression to early babyhood skin to skin contact, fun.

Get Cooking
Even if you don't normally cook or bake, have a go with your child at making something simple that you both can enjoy. Put on your aprons and be prepared to get messy. Let yourselves both get carried away and don't worry too much about the finished product. Try -

  • Making and decorating cupcakes with colours and sprinkles
  • Baking bread - easier than you think! Sprinkle in some seeds too.
  • Cheese sauce - lots of stirring needed!
  • Play-dough - add food colour, glitter and a drop of essential oil for sensory play.

Why? Sensory play, creative, shared experience, learning together, food is nurture.

Activity Rolodex
Create an 'Activity Rolodex' with your child. Take some blank postcards and ask your child to name all their favourite things that they love to do with you. Add some of your own and suggest ideas if you need to. Use images to accompany the words so that they are accessible to non-readers. Keep the cards in a special box to use as a resource - just pick one randomly whenever you are looking for something to do. Try -

  • outdoors and indoor activities
  • activities which are free e.g. skipping or dancing
  • saying 'yes' to ALL your child's suggestions

Why? Gives the message,'I'm listening', learn about your child, bonding, fun, child centred.

Book Den
Build a den, tent or snug corner in your living room or garden, depending on the weather, with the specific purpose of reading story books. Fill it with cushions, blankets, teddies and anything else that feels right or fun. Ask your child to gather together all of their favourite books and spend as much time as you can spare reading aloud together in your literary hideaway! Try -

  • Taking in a special treat snack such a homemade popcorn or even chocolate!
  • Reading a special book from your own childhood
  • Talking about the stories and how they make you both feel

Why? Bonding, nurturing, fun, snuggly, intimate and special.

Build a Monument
Go outside, to your garden, park, or better still, your nearest woods or beach. Using only material that you find on the ground (i.e. no picking flowers or pulling bits off trees!), make a 'monument', or work of art together, that you both feel represents you and your relationship. Young children will usually take this quite literally and will enjoy making people or faces out of twigs and leaves. You might add in elements, large or subtle, to reflect your own experience and feelings. Above all, enjoy the shared experience of mutual creativity in the great outdoors. Try -

  • Making a boundary around the monument to keep feelings and materials contained.
  • Remind yourselves that all ideas are good ideas, and that you can't get this wrong.

Why? Creative, meaningful, memorable, shared experience, that shows you really care what they think and feel.

Join them in Their World
How wonderful does it make you feel when someone takes a genuine and specific interest in something that is meaningful to you? And yet often, when it comes to small children, if they become absorbed in an activity, we breathe a sigh of relief and leave them to it, glad to have a moment to ourselves. It's important that we do this, but it's also important that we connect with our children and take an interest in the things that matter to them. Try -

  • Getting down on the floor and joining in the game
  • Asking questions about a particular game, activity or hobby
  • Watching their favourite film or program with them

Why? Gives a very strong message that you are interested in them and their world. Connection and love can be found in surprising places, even in front of CBeebies!

Do feel free, as usual, to add your own suggestions in the comments below.