Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Dear Nick Clegg, Do You Know the Implications of Childcare?

I'm really excited that the Huffington Post has featured my first article for them on the front page of their UK edition today!

Click here to take a look, or read on below...

Dear Nick Clegg

Like most parents, I’m sure you love your child fervently, and want only the best for them. Like most parents, you like to think that the decisions you make are in your child’s best interests, now and in the future. And like most parents who delegate the care of their children to paid strangers, you choose to ignore several decades of psychology and neuroscience, which show quite clearly that the loving and nurturing environment and secure attachment experience provided by a mother cannot be replicated by a childcare worker of any quality.
Of course, like most parents, you’re quite sure your choice is the right one, and this wouldn’t necessarily matter quite so much, if you were ‘like most parents’. But you’re not: you’re the Deputy Prime Minister.

You recently announced your plans for childcare to be made the coalition government’s highest priority social policy, with a massive expansion in nursery places and the recruitment of 65000 new childcare workers. You shared your vision for ‘teaching’ children as young as two and preparing them for educational success, and, while you were at it, you pledged to take on those with the “sepia tinted 1950’s” view that mothers should not work.

I’m one of those women. I look after my children full time, and don’t plan to return to work until the youngest has started school. Far from being a 1950’s housewife (to me this implies little skill or ambition beyond bakery), I’ve studied at post-graduate level, and prior to becoming a mother, I practiced as a therapist, working with both adults and children who had experienced abuse. This gave me a lot of ‘hands on’ experience of the devastating impact this can have; a lifetime of difficulties such as addiction, self harm, the inability to sustain any meaningful relationships, and unbearable emotional pain.

Of course, this is the extreme end of a very long spectrum. Towards the other end, I met many of those people we might call the ‘Walking Wounded’, who live their lives fairly successfully, and don’t suffer any major mental health problems. But placed in a situation like therapy, in which they are invited to explore their deepest feelings, they will reveal all manner of childhood experiences that they wish had unfolded differently. A Walking Wounded person might cry a river of tears over the fact that their father went away for three days without explanation when they were six, or that their mother’s hugs were always slightly brittle and reluctant.

Every choice we make, big and small, accidental or with firm purpose, makes an impact on our children’s rapidly developing psychology. We might like to tell ourselves that small children don’t remember much, and that therefore what happens to them doesn’t really matter, as long as they are fed and warm. This is not the case. Babies are not pot plants, just sitting there growing as long as they get milk and a bit of sunlight. They are subtle and complex human beings, whose brains are developing at an alarming rate. Their experiences are forming the bedrock of their entire future emotional existence. Perhaps most crucially of all, they are learning about the meaning of relationship from the people who care for them; how to love, and be loved.

Mothers today often do not feel valued in their role, and a world which takes your view that they can be easily replaced by relatively low waged nursery workers only serves to reinforce this. Interestingly, I don’t feel particularly undervalued, and I put this down to my former job. As a therapist, I spent a lot of time playing, painting, reading stories, or just sitting quietly and attentively watching another person create. Of course it never occurred to me to worry that my work was not of value - I was being paid! As a mother now, my daily activity with my children is not so far removed from my former working life. I play, I witness, I create safe boundaries, I hold the space, and I help other people make sense of difficult emotions. My work as a therapist taught me first hand the enormous value of ‘just being there’.

Your policy plans imply that a child will develop in much the same way whether they spend their days with a mother or a paid worker, and that perhaps a child might even be better off in a nursery, where they can be ‘educated’. To see child development in this way is utterly ill-informed, and cannot be forgiven in a leading policy maker. Get your team of advisors to put you together a folder Nick. You are powerful. You may not remember the first years of your life, but I can assure you, they shape who you are every second of every day. Please help to create policy that acknowledges the vital importance of this early experience, and that puts love and nurture for small children – not ‘education’ - at its centre. And that values the work of a mother, not as faded and sepia tinted, but vibrant, sharp and fresh; a modern and newly informed reworking of an old classic.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Human Pacifier

"If you nurse them every time they cry", she said, "You just become a human dummy".

A dummy - as if I were...lifeless, still, inanimate, unresponsive, and easily and cheaply replaced.

Worse still, perhaps, an idiot, a stooge, a fool.

I know that Fools have a long history of being wiser than they seem...

Nevertheless I prefer to think of myself as...

A Human Pacifier.

pac·i·fi·er   [pas-uh-fahy-er] 
1. a person or thing that pacifies.
2. a rubber or plastic device, often shaped into a nipple, for a baby to suck or bite on.

OK. I'll take definition 1.

I am 'a person or thing that pacifies.'

pac·i·fy   [pas-uh-fahy]
verb (used with object), pac·i·fied, pac·i·fy·ing.
1. to bring or restore to a state of peace or tranquillity; quiet; calm: to pacify an angry man.
2. to appease: to pacify one's appetite.
3. to reduce to a state of submission, especially by military force; subdue.

Yes... I 'bring or restore a state of peace'. I can see that, most days, when the boob presses 'pause', and the screams or the fights or the tears subside, and the calm or the love or the contentedness return. Suddenly...peace. She rolls her eyes upwards to me, and a little crease of a smile appears at the corner, to show - this is quite funny now, although it wasn't then. It's amazing how quickly she is 'appeased' - bumps, losses, appetites - you name it, I can pacify it.

I don't use military force, but I can very easily reduce to a state of submission a person who thought they needed to wear pyjamas over their coat but who just wouldn't fit in their car seat that way. Who wanted the doll but lost it in the heat of battle. Who got scared of the man with the beard. Who woke up tired. Consider yourself soothed, comforted, appeased, subdued, pacified.

No, I'm no dummy, but I am a bringer of peace, and this takes some doing, most days. Some focus, some effort, and just a little bit of love. It's worth it though. She can't 'self soothe' - since she doesn't really know what 'self' means, and I think - without wishing to rant - that my arms, breath, smell, thoughts, words, body, feelings, presence, love - add up to more than could ever be bought in a box. 

So yes, I am a Human Pacifier. I'm happy to be the restorer of peace, tranquility, quiet, calm; a warm haven to bathe in at leisure and learn about comfort and love. As I hold her I feel her return to her centre; a human - just one - is pacified. Stillness. Contentment. A whisper of breath reaches my face, and I wonder, could this peace spread slowly outwards, like a sigh, like a trickle of milk?


Wednesday, 11 April 2012

A Chorus of Approval: How To Help Your Child Build A Whole Tribe of Positive Inner Voices

In the Babemba tribe of South Africa, when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he is placed in the center of the village, alone and unfettered. All work ceases, and every man, woman, and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, each recalling the good things the person in the center of the circle has done in his lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy, is recounted. All his positive attributes, good deeds, strengths, and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length.

This tribal ceremony often lasts for several days. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically and literally welcomed back into the tribe... as the Buddha said: 'Hatred will never cease by hatred. By love alone is it healed.' 

From 'Sent by Earth: A Message from the Grandmother Spirit' by Alice Walker
Like all good stories, this one is greater than the sum of its parts. It's about a real tribe in South Africa, but like the best fiction it surprises us by playing with our expectations and giving us a tale of love when we thought we were getting brutality. And, like every fairy tale, myth and literary classic, it's also a story about the inner human world, the dimensions of the psyche, and the processes that take place inside all of us as we go about our daily activities, from the sacred to the profane. Let me explain.

Within every human mind there dwells a whole cast of characters, a tribe of people, each with a voice. Some loom large and loud, whilst others play smaller parts or even lurk in the wings. They comment on the decisions we make and the course of our actions, and often debate amongst themselves about the wisdom of our choices, our qualities or even our worth. If, for example, we do wrong, like the tribe in the story they too gather in a circle around us and have their say. There may be among them some positive voices. 'She meant well', says our Inner Defender. 'Yes, you can see she is sorry', adds our Inner Protector, whilst our Inner Champion might chime in, 'Look at all the things she has got RIGHT today!'. But for many of us, these voices are often competing with darker, more negative characters, who can be especially strong at the times when we have made mistakes. 'Typical!', our Inner Detractor will sigh, joined by our Inner Critic who will roll their eyes and often recall, at length, all of the bad things the person in the centre of the circle has done in their lifetime.

Who created this cast of characters, this tribe of voices that all of us have within? Where do they originate, who gave them their energy, who decided which would be loud and which soft, which would dominate and which would struggle to be heard? Of course, they are always in development, but the original script-writing and casting was done by...our parents. Looking after small children and babies often gets a bad press - surely it is just boring? drudgery and bum wiping? - but in fact the task is immensely creative and powerful. The mother or parent or carer is not just directing the external action, and choosing park or painting, fish fingers or sausages (although this can be creative in itself if they choose to make it so.) They are also responsible for the development of their child's inner world, and the characters with which it is populated - an influence that, good or bad, will last a lifetime.

Right now my personal challenge is that my youngest daughter, nearly two, can be aggressive, hitting or even biting when she is upset, tired or just carried away. I never experienced this with my eldest daughter, who, now 4, is and has always been consistently gentle with every other living creature she meets. I'm shocked when the youngest hits out, and it triggers a whole chorus of inner voices for me. 'You see, I told you this Attachment Parenting was a load of baloney', says my Inner Scoffer. 'It's not the AP that's the problem', argues the Inner Put Downer, 'I blame the mother. She got bored of parenting by the time the second one came along. She just couldn't be bothered to do as good a job with her'...and so they continue. Sometimes I tune in, and the anger rises, and I direct it out, towards my fighty little girl. 'NO!', I yell, 'DON"T be so UNKIND!'

This doesn't work. She fights more. The reason? Because I am not looking beneath her behaviour to see the underlying simple need - to be loved as much as her beautiful, perfect sister, the apple of mummy's eye. She hits out, I shout, she feels rejected, she hits again. We get stuck in a loop. What works? What works is to see her need to be loved, and to fulfil it. To scoop her up, even in the midst of her rage, and soothe her with kind words, loving looks, and soft kisses. To pour positivity and unconditional gentleness on the hot fire of her jealousy and anger. To be a chorus of voices, each one telling her that she is good, kind, and of value. To notice her - really notice her - to surround her and ritually chant her praises.

Consider - what sort of voices dwell within you? How do they respond when you transgress, when you fail? How would you like them to respond? How were these voices created, given form, given strength, in your childhood? Remember (even if, as a child, this was not remembered for you): the person behaving badly is the person who needs us the most. When we punish, shame or criticise, we do not help our children, now or in the future. We simply begin to create for them the inner critics and demons with which so many of us adults are all too familiar. But by giving our children love in their hardest moments, by pouring on unconditional kindness and reminding them, even as they are being extremely difficult, of their extreme brilliance, we can help to create for them a whole tribe of inner voices of positivity. These voices will encircle them and speak words of reassurance in every hour of darkness, their whole life, even long after we are gone. 'Hatred will never cease by hatred. By love alone is it healed.' 

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Reclaiming Motherhood: What is the Value of a Mother?

In our society, everything has a price. A quick google of the question, 'What is the value of a mother?', brings up a whole host of articles, all of which suggest just how much money it would take to employ someone to complete the tasks that a mother does for free. This UK article puts the price at £37000 per annum for a mother's 71 hour week, while a US article gives the figure at $117,856 for a stay at home mum.

Women often have to think in these terms of profit and loss when deciding whether to return to work. How much will I earn from my job? What will the cost of the nursery / childminder be? What will I actually end up with? Talking with one stay at home mother today, she told me that after many calculations she realised that if she returned to work and placed her children in childcare, in financial terms she would 'break even'. Many women face a similar scenario, but some return to work nevertheless, feeling that there is a gain for them in continuing with their career path, or a value in the chance to return to their pre-motherhood roles and escape the non-stop struggle of childcare.

As women make these calculations, there are some societal assumptions that often go unquestioned. One is that a happy mother equals a happy child. Mothers are urged to consider their own needs first in order to be able to be better placed to care for their children, and rarely, if ever, is this equation offered the other way around: a happy child equals a happy mother. The second assumption is that a baby or child's time spent at a childminder or nursery is of equal value to time spent with a mother. In some cases, there is even a suggestion that time at nursery has a greater value than time at home, since at nursery a child is cared for by 'professionals' - experts who will offer a complete program of activities and stimulation that a mother could never compete with.

Is this the case? Or is care by a mother different, and in some way special? What does a mother offer - if anything - that cannot be reproduced, replicated, or simulated? Of course, there is a whole spectrum of ways in which children can - and are - being cared for. From full time nursery at an early age, to being looked after by family friends, to stay-at-home dads, each of these and many other options offer something unique to a child's development. Each has value, and it is not perhaps fashionable to make comparisons between them, for fear of political incorrectness or causing offence. But if we wish to reclaim motherhood, and restore self esteem and a sense of worth to mothers, perhaps we need to ask - can anyone nurture a child and raise them with similar effect, or is there something special about a mother, something better, something, perhaps, that even money cannot buy?

Our society that looks for value and price also looks for evidence. The rapidly advancing field of neuropsychology is offering more and more information about the impact that love and nurture can make on the developing brain. It's wonderful stuff, but is it always helpful? The current debate about the practice of 'sleep training' or 'crying it out' is filled with people referring to research regarding the effect of the stress hormone cortisol on a baby's neurological development and claiming that leaving a baby to cry herself to sleep causes - or does not cause - brain damage. But getting caught up in the cortisol argument is a red herring, because the real point about 'crying it out' is that it is highly likely to be damaging in ways that we cannot measure, and that we might never be able to measure. It damages trust, it damages mother-infant attachment, it damages an adult's hazy but important sense of always having been lovingly responded to as a baby. Some aspects of the human experience are unquantifiable. Whilst science is great, and is currently offering us reassurance that much of what we all knew instinctively may well actually be true, it cannot, as Coleridge put it, 'unweave a rainbow': there will always be unanswered questions, gut feelings and mystery.

When we ask, 'What is the value of a mother?', it is automatically assumed that we mean her monetary value. If we dare to assert that her care for her children is better than anyone else can offer, that she is 'worth' more than a childminder, nursery worker or even a father, we must explain why this is, and whatsmore, our theory and explanation must be evidence based. But what if the value of a mother is something that also cannot be measured? Maybe it's just not possible to even put into words the softness, nurture, responsiveness and unconditional love that she provides, let alone quantify this with any hard scientific evidence. Perhaps one day each soothed bump, each night-time nursing session, each absent minded kiss to the top of the head will be broken down and measured for it's minutely detailed positive impact on the developing brain. Perhaps a generation of children who have spent less time with their mothers than any other people who have ever lived on the planet will grow up and tell us or show us what they missed. For now, we must try to reclaim motherhood as a prized state whilst at the same time knowing that it cannot be given a value by an economist, a psychologist - indeed anyone at all - except perhaps our children.

This is the second of two posts on the subject of reclaiming motherhood. You can read the first by clicking here: Reclaiming Motherhood: When Staying At Home Means Having It All


Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Fantastic, Helpful, Insightful, Practical, Gentle Parenting Book Giveaway!

At first glance I thought the book Raise Happy Children looked a bit 'gimmicky', but I could not have been more wrong. This is by far and away the most practical and helpful parenting book I have come across, and if you don't win the free signed copy I am giving away this week, I highly recommend that you buy it anyway!

The book, originally published as Teach Yourself Bringing Up Happy Children, first got my attention when I read this rave review from Sue Gerhardt, psychotherapist and author of the brilliant Why Love Matters:

"This is a parenting book which stands out from the crowd: easy to read without being superficial, lots of useable advice on recognisable situations, and gives a sense of being safely guided by very experienced and wise experts. It's a book which can range from practical advice to raise blood sugar with a snack after school to a spiritual dimension. Much of its advice is based on very solid research and understanding too. I liked this book very much."

Raise Happy Children is written by Glenda Weil and Doro Marden, two parenting experts at the UK charity Family Lives (formerly ParentLine), who are also mothers of seven children between them. Their work as experienced listeners, helpers and in Doro's case, a psychotherapist, shines through every page of the book as they offer practical and helpful advice with the focus on the emotional life of both adult and child.

A core principle of the book is to ACT not REACT in stressful family situations. The authors offer a formula based on traffic lights to remind parents to stop and think before jumping in with a gut reaction.

A (adult) - is the red light that tells you to STOP and THINK.
Ask yourself: 'What's going on here for me?' 'How do I feel about this?' 'What do I need to happen?'
C (child) - is the amber light reminding you to WAIT and think of what is going on for your child.
Ask yourself; 'How does she feel about this?' 'What does she need to happen?'
T (tools) - is the green light that indicates you can GO ahead and use your tools.
Ask yourself: 'What skills and ideas can I use here?' 'What can I say or do that will help us get what we need?'

This book is jam packed with creative ideas and practical suggestions such as this one. On every page they offer parents a fantastic array of 'tools' to use in a whole spectrum of parenting situations, from anger, tantrums and fights to listening and talking about feelings. Throughout the book the emphasis is placed on understanding yourself as a parent, your own emotional motivations and the experience of your own childhood. There are practical exercises in each chapter to help you do this, either alone or with a friend or your partner. In many ways, this is a 'self help' book, offering a huge amount of insight into your own identity as a parent and challenging you to consider your personal experience of being valued, heard or even hugged as a child yourself, in order to be better placed to create happiness in your own family home.

This is a real crash course in many of the skills that therapists learn. The book offers guidance in dealing with your child's feelings in a way that makes them feel heard, acknowledged and validated. Other chapters cover topics such as Skilled Listening, Problem Solving, Talking about Difficult Issues, and Boundaries and Freedom. In the final section, the authors explore the meaning of Happiness, looking at ways in which parents can help their children find real joy in life through connectedness, humour, nature, creativity - to name just a few.

A short review simply cannot do justice to the wealth of information, insight and practical help offered by Raise Happy Children. This is not a book to read in one sitting, rather, it will sit on a prominent shelf and be plucked down often, perhaps when you are tearing your hair out, or maybe in those quieter moments when you find yourself thinking: I wonder how I could have handled that better. The real strength of the book is that the authors maintain towards their reader the 'positive unconditional regard' of a warm and understanding therapist, or better still a mother at her best. They remind their readers:

You as the adult can start to make changes in the way you relate to your children which will lay down pathways for happiness in their brain and affect how they feel and behave...Whatever age your children are, it is never too late to make a difference. And don't worry if you sometimes forget to use your new skills. Your children will give you plenty more opportunities to practice them!

The winner has now been picked using a random number generator from
Comment Number 24: Elaine Johnson

I was not paid to write this post and all views expressed are entirely my own.

If you wish to buy a copy, you can do so in the UK from Waterstones or in the US from Barnes and Noble, or other good retailers.