Motherhood … a privilege?

There is a trend at the moment to be really ‘honest’ as a parent. What this means is, we talk about how hard and horrible it is to be a parent and how annoying children can be, and call it being candid or brave.

There is a tendancy to view children as an interruption, their demanding baby stage as something ‘to be got through’, and we make every effort to minimise the disruption children bring to adult life by using nurseries, nannies, and doing everything we can to get our babies to sleep so that we can go back to ‘normal life’ as quickly as possible.

'Helping'
‘Helping’

While I find it helpful sometimes to talk with other parents and realise that I am not the only one who struggles with my temper, whose kids won’t put their shoes on when asked and interrupt conversations … I feel we are looking at only one side of the coin.

I talked to my mum about this the other day. She had a really good career in the civil service before I came along. She was gradually being promoted up the ranks, and when she fell pregnant actually had the higher wage out of my parents. In modern terms, it made no sense for her to give up work and stay home.

But that’s what she did. She gave up her career, a comfortable wage, and her independence, and stayed at home full time. I asked her if she ever regretted it, or missed working. I expected some wistfulness perhaps, or some words about being glad to give it up because she knew it was the right thing.

“Not at all,” she said. “I loved being at home.”

That’s all very well, a modern mum might argue. If someone loves being at home then great, that’s lovely for her and for her children. But not for me – I need to work, I need more than just caring for children.

But my mum didn’t stop there. She explained why she loved giving up a good career and staying at home full time with disobedient, frustrating kids (and believe me, I could be frustrating – I refused to go to sleep alone until I was well over three, and I would not wear wrinkled socks – my shoes had to be taken off and on until there were no wrinkles at all).

“Being a mother is an honour,” she exclaimed with passion. “These children have been entrusted to you. It’s a great blessing to be there to raise them and teach them.”

Wow. I don’t think anyone has ever said that to me in almost seven years of parenting. People have said how hard it is, how demanding, how it sucks the life out of you and leaves you with stretch-marks, bags under your eyes, and nothing resembling a life.

No one ever called it an honour. A privilege. A blessing.

My mum did a great deal that day to restore my sense of mission in motherhood. Before I had kids I wanted to be a good parent. I saw children as a blessing. But somehow over the years, the lack of sleep and our children’s resistance to love and discipline, not to mention the negative comments in the media and from other people, all ground me down until I wearily resigned myself to another fifteen years or so of not doing the things I loved, and perhaps working at a low-grade job for a few hours a week so that we could afford to pay for a holiday abroad, or university fees.

Amazing what a few words can do. I fully acknowledge that motherhood can feel like drudgery. It is hard work. It demands more than I feel I can give most days.

But I remind myself that I am honoured to bring new life into this world. I feel that more than ever right now as my little girl moves within me. Yes, pregnancy comes with pain and nausea and discomfort but also incredible blessing. I get to give life to someone. To three Someones, with souls and personality and potential to bring great joy into this world.

I remind myself that I am privileged to be one of the most significant people in the life of three human beings. It is my words that will guide my children to success or failure, to good character or weakness. It is my hands that will teach them kindness and love. It is my arms that will embrace them, my belief that will inspire them, my faith that will encourage them.

I remind myself that children are a blessing. They are a gift, not a right. There are thousands of women who would give anything to be woken tonight by the cries of a newborn, but who will sleep soundly because their womb remains empty, or because their baby never came home.

The needs and demands of my children, their mess, their disorganisation, their interruptions – these are blessings too. They have taught me more love and patience than I would ever have otherwise learned. I am so far from perfect but my children have also taught me about forgiveness. I can scream at them in the morning because they have not put their shoes on despite being asked seven times … yet at three o’ clock my son runs out to hug me as if I was the best person in the whole world.

And to him, for now, I am. To him I am the most beautiful woman, the best cook, the best mummy in the world. I’ll take that award.

46 Bute Park Zach took this

So although I think it is helpful to acknowledge that motherhood is hard (in fact, soul-achingly painful at times) … let’s also remember that we are honoured, privileged, blessed. Yes, immense self-sacrifice is involved, but that is our gift to give. Our love, our advice, our support will make a world of difference to the next generation. Let us rise to the challenge and not be afraid.

Good for all the wrong reasons

Last night we ate TV in front of a film. We don’t often do this as a family, but it was late and I’d had an exhausting day. Bedtime came, the film wasn’t finished, but Daddy turned it off anyway as it was bathtime.

“NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

This is not my four-year-old. This is my oldest son, soon to be seven.

He wants to finish the film (though we’d warned him it wasn’t likely to happen at the start).

He wants more to eat.

He doesn’t want a bath.

His angry protests used to shock me, baffle me, send me running to my parenting books full of anxiety about spectrums and syndromes. I’d dredge google for the one article which would explain how to stop my son from rebelling against every single directive we gave him (from ‘brush your teeth now’ to ‘don’t hit mummy’).

Now my husband and I just exchange weary glances. Whose turn is it to field this new ten minute battle to get our son to comply?

Then son#2 pipes up.

“Ok, Daddy,” he says, as virtuously as a four-year-old covered in ice cream and sprinkles can.

At one level, I hear trumpets and angels singing.

Obedience! Compliance! Eagerness to please! This is what I expected in a small child (with pockets of rebellion). Not one long war since the age of 2.

So why does son#2’s response fill me with unease?

I think it’s because, about thirty seconds later (punctuated with machine-gun fired ‘no’s from son#1) he said, “I’m not shouting, Mummy. I said ‘ok’.”

My son is being good. I should be pleased. I am pleased.

But he is being good for all the wrong reasons.

 * * * * *

We have sneaky, deceitful hearts. Those of us who cling to the notion that there is good in everyone just waiting to be tickled delightfully to life need a reality check.

I know just from looking at myself that my heart is like a giant pit. Light falls into the top and it looks ok. A bit dusty, a bit cluttered, but nothing too nasty. When I dare to delve deeper I find corners as black as pitch, and like tangled necklaces I find, with my love of helping people, other desires, like wanting to look good, a craving for praise and adulation, and just basic selfishness. Our motives are so mixed it can be hard to separate the good from the bad.

It was the Pharisees, who did all the right things, that Jesus opposed far more than the prostitutes and swindlers who came to him for help.

if I give my body to be burned, but have not love, I am nothing

Son#1’s sin is obvious. It is in-your-face, bare-faced rebellion.

Son#2 is outwardly a fairly good child. He is mischievous sometimes but his worst faults, at the moment, are mostly passive – forgetfulness, carelessness, impulsiveness. But self-righteousness?

These are big words. Hard to use on a four-year-old. In truth, his sins are seedlings, in their infancy. If I am able to train him conscientiously, many will not grow to a great height and he may learn to do good instead of evil.

But I want him to do good for the right reasons. I want him to seek to please God, not people, not even me and my husband. I want him to do good for love of goodness itself, not for selfish reasons.

* * * * *

This cultivating of little souls leaves me often overwhelmed, often out of my depth, often clutching for those certainties I thought I had before the reality of life with children swept all my parenting ideals out to sea.

But it also reveals much deeper truth and joy than I ever imagined. It reveals my own soul to me. I am both my children in my relationship to my Father.

I rebel. I scream ‘no!’ in the heavenly face. I pummel with my puny fists against the everlasting arms and I tantrum when the will of God dares to go against mine.

But I also have days when I manage, somehow, to do something good and then immediately I am tugging on my Father’s sleeve. “See? Look what I did!”

And more often than not it is like the time my children called me out into the garden to see their ‘work’. With beaming faces they showed me a pit of sodden mud, grass and stones which they had created.

They had forgotten that stones are not to be mixed in the flower bed, and that they must not play with the outside tap. They conveniently overlooked the black mud caked on their shoes, streaking their clothes, oozing between their fingers and smeared all over their faces. They honestly expected me to be overflowing with admiration.

We all walk this tightrope between willfulness and self-righteousness.

It is the cross which keeps us balanced. I look at Jesus and find forgiveness for all my rebellion, hope that I might learn submission like his which says ‘not my will but yours’.

I look at Jesus and cannot possibly hold onto pride. However much good I do it will always be mud-smeared and mixed with selfishness compared to his pure, burning love and utter self-sacrifice.

So I try, on my best days, to stop picking at my children’s outward behaviour. I try to take their gaze off themselves, and turn them to him. I try to do the same myself.

Pregnancy after trauma

Today some wall stickers arrived that I ordered for our baby girl’s nursery. I also ordered some furniture paint online so that I can freshen up our baby furniture (which is looking decidedly tired after serving two little boys).

Anyone who has not known the trauma of a high risk pregnancy and delivery can have little understanding of the faith required to do these small, perfectly normal things.

My first pregnancy almost ended in tragedy, for myself and my baby. I developed aggressive pre-eclampsia early in the pregnancy. My son had to be delivered at 30 weeks by emergency caesarean section. Both our lives were put at risk, and the decision to have another natural baby (rather than adopting) has been very difficult. My second pregnancy ended with a natural, full-term delivery. I had hoped this third pregnancy would be different. That I’d be able to relax and enjoy it (as far as pregnancies can be ‘enjoyed’!)

So far I’ve been as anxious as ever. After wading through weeks of severe sickness, I’m now, according to the pregnancy websites, meant to be enjoying the second trimester ‘bloom’. Instead I feel as though my body has decided to skip over those happy middle weeks when women are pictured jogging on the beach, playing football with their children, and generally enjoying a burst of energy, and go straight to the third trimester.

My stomach has expanded to the point that I feel ready to burst, and I am heavy and uncomfortable whatever I do. I have anaemia, and literally could sleep at any point in the day, even after an hour’s nap. I still get waves of nausea, and seem to have no immune system whatsoever.

But hard and jagged under all this is a bedrock of fear that I cannot seem to shake. It makes the niggles of pregnancy seem minor. I tell myself that I have successfully carried one baby to term, and this reduces my risk of pre-eclampsia. I tell myself that the chest pain is just heartburn, that the palpitations are anaemia, that the exhaustion is perfectly normal for a woman in her early thirties with Crohn’s disease.

I am not convinced. Instead, I am not expecting to go full term. I am waiting for something to go wrong. Sometimes I feel my daughter kicking and feel that she is struggling for life. I imagine her wrestling for oxygen as the placenta reluctantly surrenders what she needs. I feel like my body is a hostile environment for her; who knows whether my immune system might start reacting again and prevent her from growing.

So I bought stickers for her nursery and paint for her cot, but with a lacing of fear about the decision. I wonder if these things will one day bring me pain.

I am aware that today I have let go of my ‘life to the full’ motto. I am allowing myself to listen to the whispers of the demon Fear. I am finding it hard to listen to the voice of Christ, which says, ‘do not be afraid’.

So I remind myself that I am here on his business, not mine. I am here today, and today my job is not to worry but to let Jesus live in me. I am here to be his hands and his feet.

And I pray that my little girl will live and grow and become his servant also.

My Breastfeeding Story

This follows on from this post. It was meant to be my next post but Easter got in the way!

 

When I fell pregnant with my first son, I planned to breastfeed. I looked forward to it. My mother had breastfed all three of her daughters without any fuss, and I expected to just take to it. It was natural, after all, and none of the pregnancy books/magazines/websites suggested that it would be anything other than a natural and easy experience.

My son’s birth was designed to shake me from my determination to control and be the best at everything. I developed pre-eclampsia and he had to be born ten weeks early by emergency caesarean (instead of full-term in water, as I’d planned).

All my expectations were shattered, including the joy of breastfeeding. I didn’t even get to see him for twenty-four hours, and after that my physical contact with him was severely limited. My milk supply dwindled, despite hours spent with my ‘mean green milking machine’ (as my sisters dubbed the hospital’s breast pump), and after three months I gave up in tears.

I quickly realised that formula was the best option for me and my son, and managed to let go of the guilt.

Then two years later I was pregnant again. After we clocked up more than thirty weeks of pregnancy and began to grasp with relief that this baby would not arrive prematurely, I was ready to breastfeed again. This time, I assumed, all would be straightforward.

However, this was no picnic either. My milk came in late, and we spent one night trying to console a screaming baby who could only get dribbles of colostrum from me. We gave him formula in the end, using a sterilised spoon to avoid the horrors of ‘nipple confusion’.

Eventually my milk came in, but our son was still struggling to latch properly. We spent the first three or four weeks of his life visiting different breastfeeding support groups, when really I needed to be resting. Eventually one lactation consultant realised that our son had a tongue-tie (when the connection between the tongue and the floor of the mouth is too tight). Another trip out to the hospital to get his tongue clipped, and finally we made some improvement.

It was still another few weeks before we really got the hang of it. Those were long, exhausting months. Feeds could last as long as an hour.

So to spare other mothers the agony of struggling to feed for weeks, and finally giving up (I was literally hours away from throwing in the towel) here are my tips for breastfeeding:

Recognise early on that this may not be easy. Some mums and babies take to it like ducks to water, but for many it is a painful learning experience!

Get skin-to-skin contact and establish breastfeeding as early as possible, ideally in the moments after birth. Make sure your partner and midwife know that you want this, or your baby will be plonked on top of your nightie, and everyone will forget about trying him on the nipple once the post-labour nausea and exhaustion kick in. It was several hours before I tried my son on the nipple, and I’m sure that affected how he took to it.

Get support. Ask other women who have breastfed for their tips and support. Have your partner, your mother or a good friend with you when you are shown how your baby should latch on – it is very difficult to see yourself whether your baby has a good latch. It was my husband who would tell me the latch was not correct, and insist I disengage our son and try again. Without his support, I would not have been able to feed correctly, I would probably have developed mastitis, and been forced to give up.

Mastitis is an infection of the milk ducts. Basically, if your breast is not properly drained during feeds then your milk ducts can become blocked and infected. The way to prevent this is firstly to ensure your baby is latching correctly. Secondly, if you notice hard, sore lumps developing in your breast apply a warm flannel to the area and gently massage them to loosen them and push the milk down to the nipple. Express (by hand or machine) to ensure the milk flows again.

If your breasts are cracked, bleeding and sore you can buy nipple shields for a few pounds to give your nipples a break for a few days. This can also help with a poor latch. If you are in serious pain, I honestly do not think it will hurt to give your baby expressed milk or formula for a day or two, from a bottle, in order to give your body a chance to heal. Don’t give up expressing though (you may find hand expressing less painful) or you risk developing mastitis.

If your baby is frantic and cannot latch on because he or she is too hungry, don’t be afraid to give them a small drink of expressed breastmilk or formula from a bottle that they can calm down enough to take the nipple. I know all the midwives are screaming out ‘nipple confusion’ but in my opinion the risk of this is overstated. If you gave your baby a bottle every feed for a couple of days you might find a problem, but the odd bottle here or there isn’t going to make much difference.

Babies are forgetful. You will have one amazing feed when they latch on perfectly and take a full feed without a fuss. Then the next time you feed they will gape and suck half-heartedly, fall of the breast, and generally go back to being newborn and having no idea how to latch on. Until they are at least six weeks old they aren’t aware of patterns, and so expect them to be erratic in just about everything.

Some mums I know have found their baby loses weight on breastmilk. This may be because the mother produces poor quality milk, in which case formula is the best option. However, I suspect sometimes this is because of the general advice offered about breastfeeding which is the worst advice ever: “Ten minutes on each side”.  I know of no newborn who can drain a breast in ten minutes, leaving mum at risk of mastitis; and also this completely ignores the way milk is produced. The first milk the baby takes is quite thin, almost watery. As the baby drinks the milk becomes richer and thicker, contains more calories, and is more filling for baby. It is very important to give your baby one breast and let them drink until it is empty. Then offer the second breast to top them up and let them drink until they stop. This may take as much as forty minutes with a newborn as they are weak and fall asleep often (keep waking them!) As baby gets more efficient then you may find ten minutes is enough. However, in the early weeks that is not nearly long enough. Ensure you alternate which breast you offer first between feeds so that each side is drained every other feed.

Rest. Mothers today seem to feel they must get back to normal as quickly as possible. For some women this seems to be perfectly fine – a couple of my friends seem quite capable of going grocery shopping within days of giving birth, and if this is you then enjoy it and be thankful! For most mums I know, pregnancy and birth strips them of strength, vitamins and energy. Feeding a baby requires all those things, and rest is essential. If you are using up all your energy on housework, chores and visiting friends then your body will be slower to repair and will be trying to preserve calories instead of giving them to your baby. Rest. Rest and rest. Take naps with your baby (be rude to visitors if necessary). Hang a sign on your door asking visitors to call during hours convenient to you. Eat takeaway and ready meals for as long as you need to. Take long baths. Catch up on TV shows while you breastfeed. Listen to the Bible or sermons. Sit. You and your body have earned it. For the first few weeks I noticed a huge difference in my milk supply on the days when we were busy and I was rushing around.

Eat. Now is not the time to worry about losing your baby weight. There will be plenty of time to do that later, and establishing breastfeeding will help more than counting calories now. Breastfeeding takes an enormous amount of energy – 2,500 calories is your recommended intake. I lost 1lb a week while feeding my son and I enjoyed cake, ice cream and chocolate daily. It was the best diet I have ever been on! Mothers make a mistake eating low fat food during these early weeks. Right now your body and your baby need good amounts of healthy fat (cheese, lean meat, butter, whole milk). Enjoy guilt-free eating for the first three to six months!

 

Drink. Have a glass of water to hand when you sit down to feed your baby. You will find thirst hits you often in the early weeks.

 

Take your time and relax. Breastfeeding is God’s way of giving new mothers regular forty minute rests through the day when your body needs it! Don’t feel guilty about the laundry, dishes and hoovering. Those can wait. After a few weeks your baby will be much more efficient and feeding will take less time. Right now, you and your baby are in the best place on the sofa or in bed. Enjoy the intimacy and a valid excuse to put your feet up. Within a few weeks you will be longing for that excuse!

 

Be determined. Breastfeeding, especially early on, can feel endless and a waste of time, but I promise you that if you persevere it is far easier and less time consuming than formula feeding. I remember feeling so disheartened after putting my first son to bed each evening, and then facing a mound of bottles to be washed and sterilised, when all I wanted to do was sit down and rest. With breastfeeding I could put my son to bed and enjoy my evening. When he woke in the night I could pick him up before he began properly crying, pop him onto the breast and fall asleep while he fed in bed next to me, then stir to put him back in his cot (once he was about three months old and we had established feeding). With my first son night feeds were desperate. I’d scramble to find my dressing gown, stagger downstairs and find a safe place to put him while I warmed the bottle and his cries escalated to hysteria. Sometimes I’d overheat the bottle and stand in a panic running it under a cold tap while he screamed. By the time he’d fed, I’d be more awake than asleep and would often lie awake until his next feed. What I’m trying to say is, if you persevere through the early weeks, breastfeeding becomes easier than formula.

 

I just want to end by returning to the theme of this blog – life to the full. Neither breast nor formula feeding feels like ‘life to the full’. Either way baby wakes you through the night, and sometimes wants to feed all day. Either way you are exhausted and pushed to your limits, physically and emotionally. Parenting is an exercise in self-sacrifice. But, to quote my favourite person, “Whoever would hold onto his life will lose it; whoever gives up his life for me will save it”. By raising a child in love, for Jesus, you are spending your life in a worthwhile way, and you will find it full of joy.

 * * * * *

My favourite feeds with my second son were the night feeds. I had terrible post-natal depression, and the first six months of his life are mostly a black hole in my memory. Apart from the night feeds when we would sit, just him and me, enclosed from the darkness in lamplight, and I would pray.

Here is love

Our culture has many false assumptions about love.

Very often what we mean by ‘love’ is warm feelings towards another person.

Being ‘in love’ means that a person makes us feel excited, happy, tingly, aroused.

Both these definitions are very self-centred. They focus on Me and My Feelings.

 * * * *

Love in the Bible is an action. To quote Massive Attack, ‘love, love is a verb, love is a doing word’.

To quote a slightly more famous person,

‘Greater love has no one than this: that he lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13).

This means that love, real love, involves sacrifice. It involves putting Me and My Feelings aside, and putting the interests of others ahead of my own.

It also means that those we do this for are our friends, not those we especially like, or enjoy the company of most.

 * * * * *

More astoundingly, it means that the Person who said this considers us friends, because he laid down his life for us.

This is the essence of Easter. Jesus did not consider his own comfort, his own happiness, even his own life to be more important than our need. He did not rationalise, or draw a line in the sand, ‘this far and no further’. His love is radical, the right kind of extremism.

He held back nothing.

 * * * * *

We are meant to be moved by this. We are meant to consider his strength, his determination, his courage, his selflessness … and worship.

 * * * * *

We are also meant to reflect on ourselves. How often do I love like this? Even my own husband? Even my own children?

How often am I drawing lines in the sand, hoarding my reserves, trying desperately to cling onto my own life and happiness and comfort, instead of pouring it all out for the good and happiness of others?

Whoever wants to save their life will lose it.

But whoever gives their life for me will find it.

(Luke 9:24)

Guilt-free parenting (3) The Principle!

What I wish to offer in this blog is a single principle which will simplify our parenting choices.

I have explored our history and concluded that much of our modern guilt in parenting springs from our culture not having fixed ‘rules’ about how women and children fit into this new ‘information age’. We have so many different voices telling us how to parent our children that we are confused, and can be left feeling guilty for almost any decision we make.

The problem we seem to be wrestling with most of all is what to do with the very small and most needy in our society – babies and toddlers.

Unlike previous generations, the mother who stays home is alone for most of the day – she has no servants, extended family are often remote (or working), and few neighbours who are also at home. Toddler groups are her uncertain refuge, where she can sometimes meet with judgement and unfriendliness, and which actually offer no escape from the demands of parenting. In no other society has a ‘housewife’s’ role been so limited, and a mother’s role so rigorous and isolated (if you see my previous blog you will realise that previous generations of mothers have been supported by extended family, servants, and neighbours).

It is no wonder that mothers are looking for more. Long ago, a housewife was a vital cog in the machinery of society. Now, full-time mothers are labelled as economically redundant, and their role is little valued by society. Also, mothers are left ‘holding the baby’ all alone for nine hours a day, a situation which is guaranteed to leave them exhausted and desperate for a break.

What is the answer? How can we, as a society, answer the needs of mothers and children? We need to work out new ‘rules’ for society that protect the mother’s need for validation and significance, without trampling over the needs of small children.

DSCN2350

I want to suggest a principle that we can use to make these bigger decisions, but also the smaller decisions we face as parents. Should I breastfeed or bottle feed? Should I leave my child to cry to sleep or let them into my bed? Should I return to work full or part time, or stay at home?

I want to explore this principle further tomorrow, but for now I just want to outline it. I think, if we ask one simple question, we can clarify the issues that we are wrestling with and make decisions as parents with confidence. We can withstand the aggression of people who think we have made a wrong choice.

This is the question: What is the most loving thing to do?

That’s it.

The reason I believe this question will resolve the guilt we feel as parents is that it is a secure base from which to choose and move forward. If I am confident that I have chosen what is most loving for my husband and children, and if my husband is looking out for my needs and the children then together we will be sure that the whole family’s needs are being served.

If we face criticism or judgement, we can feel secure that this is unjust; we have done what was most loving, not what was most expedient, or what was ‘best for me’. Love is never a bad motive.

I am convinced that a great deal of the guilt we feel is because, somewhere deep down, I think I have put myself first, not my children. That is what has lain behind all my guilt as a parent – I felt I should have done more or could have done more, or should have done something differently. I should have put up with the baby’s need for cuddles at 2 a.m., 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. Looking back, I realise that the most loving thing for all of us was the choice we made in the end – to leave our son to cry until he fell asleep. None of us were getting a good night’s sleep, our son included. Unfortunately, we made the decision really based on expediency and sheer desperation, and only afterwards realised that it happened to be the right choice. If we had thought it through and concluded together that the most loving thing for all of us was to have a good night’s sleep I would still have found it hard to leave my boy to cry, but I would have had peace that it was the best thing.

I had not learned to ask the right question, but since I understood its simplicity it has saved me from a great deal of anxiety.

Asking ‘what is the most loving thing’ cuts through the crap. I can’t hide behind ‘what’s best for me is best for baby’ any more. I am forced to look at the situation through objective eyes and think through the consequences for me, for my husband, and for the children. I have a standard by which to measure my choices – am I being loving here, or selfish?

(And before you panic and think I am going to tell you to be a doormat, sometimes the most loving thing is to dump the kids on your husband and go out for a coffee before you completely lose your sanity. Sometimes the most loving thing is to insist on a strict bedtime, so that you and your husband can have a glass of wine in peace, and so that you can read a book, or write a blog, or whatever. It is not loving to always give a child their way.)

Tomorrow I want to look into this principle in a bit more depth and explore it. I hope you’ll find it frees you from much of the self-doubt and guilt that plagues us today.

Guilt-free Parenting (2)

This is my second entry in a series I have bravely titled ‘guilt-free parenting’. I’m writing in response to the enormous amount of guilt I hear expressed every day by other parents, and which I have experienced myself.

* * * * *

History is a wonderful subject. It reminds us that things have not always been done the way we do them. The basic assumptions of our society have not always been accepted; in fact, our culture even a generation ago had very different beliefs about family life and society.

One of the reasons I believe we are struggling so much as parents today is because we are on the beginnings of a wave of change in our society. We are trying to work out how to live in this new ‘age of information’. We don’t know yet know how the family unit fits into it. We haven’t worked out how best to fit small children into this new structure. And so we are full of guilt because our society has not yet established ‘the rules’.

Let me explain.

02 St Fagans

For centuries we had an ‘agricultural’ society. This means that society depended on farming for survival, and our values and choices were shaped by this. So the average family owned or rented a large field, and used it to grow their food. They would produce almost all of their food and clothing themselves; if they had any extra produce they sold it to boost the family’s resources.

The family unit was vital to this society. The man was needed to work the field – the sheer physical strength required to farm all day and manage livestock meant a man was ideally suited to this job. The wife was needed to process the produce and bear children to help with the work, and her ability to multi-task and breastfeed meant she was ideally suited to this job. This all sounds very pragmatic, but I am putting it simplistically. Gravestones and historical documents demonstrate that there was a lot of love involved!

The woman’s role was not considered secondary or menial. It was vital and highly honoured. To become a ‘housewife’ and to bear children improved your status in society. If the wife did not do her job well then the man could not do his job (and vice versa), and the whole family and community suffered. When I studied history I used to be shocked at how quickly many people remarried after their husband or wife died – love clearly wasn’t as important then as it is now, I thought. What I have realised since is that actually, the roles of men and women were interdependent. A household without a wife and mother simply could not function well (and the same could be said of the husband/father).

The role of housewife in this type of society involved a great many valuable skills. She had to manage staff – even poorer households would have at least one servant; most households had several. She had charge over the family budget. She had the keys (and therefore responsibility) for the most valuable commodities of the time – spices, salt, and (after the 15th Century) sugar. She was also in charge of manufacturing, either the spinning and weaving of the cloth itself, or at least sewing clothes for her household; not to mention the daily task of feeding everybody, which involved a far greater degree of home-processing than now (e.g. sugar entered the home as a hard block and had to be processed before it could be added to cooking).

What I am trying to get at is that the role of ‘stay at home mother’ was once a highly responsible and valuable position. It was not demeaning, or restrictive to women (though other attitudes of the time may have been). In fact, it honoured her unique abilities as a woman and gave her value in society. (If you are still doubting me, read Little House on the Prairie, and ask if Ma was in a demeaning or valueless role).

In this society, children ranked very low on the scale of importance, since they had no economic value. They were dependents, but as soon as they were old enough they were gradually introduced to employment – starting around the age of five or six they would be expected to help in the home, the field, or the workshop (if their father was a tradesman). Parents would be responsible for their education. The mother would pass to her daughter skills such as how to mix medicines for common ailments, recipes, and how to manage a budget. The father would teach his son how to work the land, or pass on his trade. The family spent a great deal of time together, and there was a lot of overlap – medieval pictures, for example, show women working at the harvest. Babies were transportable – they could be carried on the back, or laid in a basket under a tree, or (apparently) tightly swaddled and hung on a peg out of the reach of rats (!), while the mother got on with her work.

Mothers were never isolated; in fact time alone was rare in this kind of society. You had at least one servant you could call on to hold the baby if you needed to get on with your work; in all likelihood your mother or mother-in-law either lived with you or very close by, as well as your extended family. And if you couldn’t afford a servant you had an entire neighbourhood community of other women and older children who would gladly help you on a difficult day.

The only people who paid for child-care were the nobility, who employed wet-nurses to breastfeed their babies so that the mother’s fertility would not be compromised, and she could bear the next heir sooner.

 * * * * *

Fast forward a few centuries to the industrial revolution. We call it a revolution. In reality, between the 17th and 18th centuries agriculture gradually took a back seat, and industry became the main place of employment, and the basis of our economy. The majority of the workforce moved from the land to the factory. This led to a change in the family dynamic.

The family stopped spending so much time together. The father left the home and his family and went out to work. Women worked in the factories too, but could not continue in this form of employment once they had a baby, so they were forced to stay home and become dependents themselves. Their task-load at home was reduced – managing a household became less valuable as clothes and food were increasingly processed and produced outside the home. Bearing children prevented the woman from working, and created more mouths to feed, while her workload had become more menial, and less valuable to society.

When the state took charge of education, children over six began to spend longer hours away from home and family as well. The family unit was being forced apart.

 * * * * *

It was no wonder that women began to feel their secondary status in this society. Unfortunately, the early feminists made a mistake. Instead of seeking to restore honour and value to a woman’s role, they reasoned that women could regain value by becoming like men. They should be allowed to work outside the home, like men, and be ‘set free’ from the demeaning and menial task of being a baby-maker and a housewife.

This is rapidly turning into an article on women’s lib instead of parenting, but this background is important. We need to recognise that it was not really society’s values that turned a woman’s role into something secondary, but rather the way society was structured after the industrial revolution. Instead of women and men both being vital cogs in the machine of society, mothers were forced into becoming dependents, while their men went out and got on with the business of making money and providing for their families.

Society’s values came to reflect this over time – by the Victorian era women were meant to be dependent. They were considered weak and incapable of responsibility.

By the 1950s an ideal had arisen of a cardboard woman who loved nothing better than to keep house and raise babies, existing effectively as a servant to her husband’s wishes.

(Except, I do not think this stereotype reflects reality, apart from in a few middle class suburbs. Both my grandmothers worked once their children were of school age and neither had a particularly servile attitude towards their husbands!)

We can see that shifts in societal structure brought about a shift in cultural values. In an agricultural age the emphasis has to be on collaboration, on the collective. We needed each other to survive and for society to function, and men and women’s respective roles were equally valuable. The industrial revolution meant that we were no longer interdependent; instead the man was responsible for supporting his family, the wife joined the children as a financial dependent, leading to a society which devalued the woman’s role.

Towards the end of the last century there was another shift. We now live in an ‘information age’. It is possible for a person to live entirely independently of others. The roles of men and women are not so clearly defined. Apart from a few jobs which require our gender-based strengths (like building and labouring, or breastfeeding) most roles can be fulfilled equally by men and women. Brute strength is not required to grow the family’s food, household management is no longer so time-consuming. We have replaced servants with machines (think washing machine, dishwasher; there are even robots which will vacuum and mop your floors – yes really! Put it on your Christmas list!) The traditional role for a woman, as housewife, is not as valuable or fulfilling as it was five hundred years ago.

 * * * * *

I hope you have found this roundup of our past interesting and thought-provoking. What I have been trying to work towards is that the current trend of guilty parenting exists partly because we still have not worked out how small children fit into this new society, where male and female roles are less obvious, where work takes place outside the home, and where the family is spending more and more time apart. We still have not worked out ‘the rules’.

Instead, we are developing values in a reactionary way. We have recognised that a woman’s role at home is limited and less productive (in an economic sense) than it has been in the past. But instead of thinking about it carefully we have reacted by simply saying, “Well then, mothers must be allowed to work like men”.

We need to consider the needs of everyone involved. What does a baby or pre-school child need? What does a mother need? What does society as a whole need? What can we do to make sure that everyone’s needs are met, and the family unit is served and not lost as our society changes?

I’m sorry if you read this hoping for an answer to your guilt as a parent. I will try to answer that in the next part of this series; but at least now you understand why you feel guilty … it is because you are struggling to meet the needs and desires of your child, yourself and your family in a ‘brave new world’. We may not have crossed oceans but we are living in a new kind of society. As far as I know, no society has lived like this before, with both parents working away from home, and children educated outside the home, and so we don’t really know how best to fit child-care into this new world. We receive conflicting advice from traditionalists, who want to maintain the old family model inherited from an agricultural era; from feminists who argue that the woman’s rights are preeminent; from politicians who want to boost the economy; from blogs and forums, our parents; and ultimately from our own instincts and desires.

I am working towards suggesting a single principle which will help you make these difficult decisions as a parent, without guilt. Stay posted!

Guilt-free Parenting

I can’t help noticing that we modern parents seem to flail in a muddy pond of guilt most of the time. We are either expressing doubt over our own decisions, or firing down others who have made the opposite decision to us.

I have been wondering lately why that is. As far as I can tell, this is a new phenomenon.

My Gran never expressed guilt for popping her babies in a pram and leaving them outside the back door while she got on with her housework. She also never expressed guilt about letting her children play in the woods near their home unsupervised for hours on end, even though my mum was once invited to go and see a stranger’s rabbit (thankfully her friend stopped her!)

My parents never expressed guilt at letting us eat non-organic food or processed sugars. Mum didn’t agonise over giving up her career to stay at home when I was born. Their decisions were confident, assured.

(They have acknowledged some guilt, like the time my mother got so frustrated with my repeatedly getting out of bed at night that she shut my bedroom door so I couldn’t get out (not locked – apparently handles were beyond me as a three-year-old) … and in the morning she couldn’t open the door because I’d fallen asleep on the floor, blocking the door, waiting pathetically for her to come back).

DSCN2350Why is our parenting experience so riddled with guilt? I’ve thought about this over the last few days, and I want to explore it in the next few blogs. Tomorrow I want to look at the history of parenting, and see if we can learn anything from our past about where we are today. (That may sound boring, but trust me for now – it’s fascinating!)

For now, I want to suggest that one of the reasons we experience so much guilt is because of the internet. We have access to an unprecedented level of advice, help and opinion on every aspect of parenting. If I choose, I can research any decision I have made as a mother and be made to feel guilty about staying home, going to work, breastfeeding, formula feeding, leaving baby to cry, co-sleeping, weaning, baby-wearing, and having a forward facing pram.

Shops guilt-trip us into buying the all-singing-all-dancing bottle warmers and food warmers (what happened to a good, old-fashioned bowl of hot water?), beeping swings and cot accessories. Blogs abound which can make us question every single decision I ever made as a mother, including the decision to become a parent at all. Forums are bursting with people ready to accuse you of everything from neglect to being a bad parent.

We also are made to feel like we are constantly falling behind those wonderful mothers who share soft-toned images of the sensory trays they made for their children, and picture of little kids making cup cakes with an adorable smudge of chocolate on one cheek (one of my ambitions is to set up
a ‘reality pinterest’ site, where parents can share pictures of their houses after they tried these idealistic projects … we were finding pinto beans in increasingly weird places for months after our one sensory tray experience.)

'Reality Pinterest' Image 1: how children express their creativity independently
‘Reality Pinterest’ Image 1: how children express their creativity independently

My mother never made us a sensory tray. She did bake cakes with me – once – and there is a photo to prove it. I have to wonder if any of the cakes were edible as the flour that was clearly meant to go in the bowl is all over the kitchen cupboard, the chair I am standing on, the floor, and me.

'Reality Pinterest Image 2' - A three-year old's attempt at feeding the cat.
‘Reality Pinterest Image 2’ – A three-year old’s attempt at feeding the cat.

What my mother did do was be there for me when I was happy, sad, hurt or angry. She told me when I was wrong, and (because it was the eighties and Dr Sears wasn’t around to advise her to praise me) she maintained an approving silence on the occasions I did something good. She fed me and my two sisters, tried to limit the amount of sweets and junk food we consumed, kept a supply of clean (glaringly eighties) clothes in our cupboard, chose wholesome toys for us, taught us right from wrong, and, above all, loved us. I was happy and secure.

So if you don’t bother reading the next few instalments to my ambitiously titled ‘guilt-free parenting’ series, take this with you: if your kids are currently tucked up in bed, feeling loved and secure, then you won today.

'Helping'
‘Helping’

Even if you did lose it with Johnnie when he ‘helped’ by cleaning the toilet floor and sink with a bar of soap and the toilet brush. Even if you served McDonalds for tea. Even if your kids have no idea what a sensory tray is, or sing ‘What’s on your plate?’ when you tell them it’s lunchtime, or think the right place to put still clean(ish) clothes is in a pile at the bottom of the bed … if they feel loved and secure then you deserve a mental high five. In fact, you deserve a glass of wine or a cold beer (or a cup of tea) and a sit down. You did a great job today.

‘I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full’

Well, you’ve read my catalogue of personal problems and you’re still with me!

Since this blog is boldly titled ‘living life to the full’ I suppose I ought to explain what I mean by it.

If you’ve read my previous posts (all three of them!) then you’ll know that my life has not exactly been a bed of roses. In addition to the poor health I described, I’ve also known personal betrayal, pain in various relationships, as well as depression.

God blessed me with a kind and loving husband, but the early years of our marriage came with illness, financial strain, and the usual adjustments that come from throwing two young and inexperienced sinners together in a small space! Add two children into the mix, along with a hefty dose of ill-health and anxiety and we find me, sitting on the side of my bed in tears, holding open the gospel of John.

I had just read the promise of Jesus, “I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full.”

I believed those words were meant for me, for anyone who called Jesus ‘Saviour’. So how come my life was anything but ‘full’? How come I sat here with a gaping emptiness in my heart? How come all the things I’d thought would make it full were actually draining me dry? A husband, a house, children … instead of joy all I felt was exhaustion and misery, and a cloying sense of walls closing about me.

“Jesus,” I sobbed. “I want that full life! I want it so much! Why hasn’t this promise been fulfilled in my life?”

* * * * *

Perhaps right now this is you. Perhaps you wake in the morning with a desperate sense of claustrophobia. Perhaps you face illness, pain and exhaustion, or perhaps you are just struggling to adjust to the mundane life of a mother.

Perhaps you are considering walking away from it all.

God takes his time in answering our questions. He does it thoroughly, building up layers of understanding until we deeply grasp his intentions. He doesn’t offer light, blithe solutions.

I had to struggle for several years before I fully understood what Jesus was promising.

* * * * *

Our society holds self-fulfilment as the ideal. We pursue comfort and personal happiness above all things. What we mean by ‘life to the full’ is the freedom to pursue our desires and feel personal satisfaction in achieving them, whatever those desires might be (a good career, a happy family life, a comfortable home …)

We find ourselves feeling depressed and anxious either when those desires are frustrated (we do not meet Mr Right, or we are unable to have children, or our career ambitions are thwarted); or when those desires do not meet up to our expectations (our partner does not fully meet our desire for companionship, or our children in fact drain us and leave us exhausted instead of giving us a reason to live, or our career fails or ends up not satisfying us as we’d hoped).

This was what happened to me. I believed that ‘life to the full’ for me was having a husband and children to care for. I believed that staying at home and raising children and keeping house would satisfy me (and there was some altruism in there also – I believed this would bless my husband and children).

I was very quickly put out of my delusion. My husband, instead of being always attentive to my needs and ready to listen to my thoughts, proved distant and detached. He was resistant to the idea of children for a while (not forever, but for longer than I wanted).

[In fairness to him, I should say that at this point he was recovering from a mysterious and painful illness picked up on a mission trip; he was out of work and depressed, and still reeling from the big changes of getting married and finding himself responsible for another human being.]

When we agreed to expand our little family, I was hit with ill health, and the children proved to be a drain on my resources, rather than the little sources of joy and fulfilment I’d anticipated. Far from fulfilling me, they emptied me, leaving me exhausted and disillusioned.

Again, I’m back to me sitting on the bed, asking Jesus what had happened to his promise.

 * * * * *

God began to answer my longing for ‘life to the full’. My friend lent me a book by a new Canadian author, ‘A Thousand Gifts’ by Ann Voskamp. I wept through the first few chapters as she described feelings of aloneness and despair. She was mother to six, and woke every morning with dread and depression. At last, another mother who felt as miserable and isolated as me! Another mother who had been let down in her longing for ‘life to the full’.

Astonishingly, this was one of the verses Ann quoted in her quest for peace and joy. She had walked the path that I was now on.

In beautiful language, Ann describes our condition as being ‘closed to grace’. We become blind to the gifts that God is showering all around us, and see only the lack, the hole, the absence.

She began to list God’s gifts to her, writing down any incidence of beauty or joy that she perceived, from rainbows in the washing up bubbles (they’re there – look next time you’re elbow deep in greasy water!) to sunshine falling on daffodils, to the laugher of her children.

She learned to count even difficult things as blessings, and I began to see that my piles of laundry and dishes were actually the result of God’s blessing. How many women in third world countries would love to have more than one set of clothes to wash; how many women would love to have more than one floor to clean; how many women around the world would give anything to be woken in the night by the cries of a child, but their baby either sleeps in a cold grave, or their womb and their arms remain empty.

Thankfulness was the key to my escape from depression. Instead of listing the things I considered burdensome and tiresome, I tried, instead, to notice the gifts. It was astonishing. The more I looked, the more I saw. I can’t say my heart sings at the thought of washing a pile of dishes now, but I have trained my heart (and it is a discipline) to look for joy. I might not enjoy washing the dishes, but I enjoy the time it gives me to think (my favourite activity!) or sing and pray; and I thank God while I do them that I have been able to feed my family, not just what they need, but delicious and healthy food.

It may sound unrealistic; and from my starting point it did. How can I thank God when I am in pain, and depressed? What is there to be thankful for?

I started with a ring of crocuses on the grass, lit by spring sunshine. With a cup of good coffee. With a hug from my son. It grew from there. The more I opened my heart and willed myself into thankfulness the more natural and obvious it became.

* * * * *

There is another aspect to the full life, however.

Through the writing of C. S. Lewis, John Piper, and Tim Keller, as well as the preaching in our church, I began to see that often we do not receive the promise of Jesus because we are looking in the wrong place. We assume that ‘life to the full’ means my own personal fulfilment. And when our desires are not met, or the things we desire prove insubstantial, we are left empty and hopeless. Or we look somewhere else. So if our marriage lets us down, we reason that we married the wrong person. He is not the right man to fulfil me; I must marry another. Or my job is not satisfying me; I must have children as well, and a second car, and a bigger house, and a holiday, new clothes … we stuff our lives with things trying to fill that empty chasm which only gets bigger as fewer and fewer things satisfy.

 * * * * *

65 Sunset Nolton Haven cliff

The book of Ecclesiastes puts it this way: God has ‘put eternity into the hearts of men’.

I think what the writer is trying to convey is that sense of emptiness we all live with. That sense that this world is not enough. Even the best of human relationships cannot possibly fully meet our every desire and need.

What is the answer?

 * * * * *

There is only one Being I know of who is infinite. Who is Love and goodness and justice and kindness, and who will love and give himself utterly for my joy.

There is eternity in our hearts, and it follows that eternity must fill it. We were made for God himself.

The thing is, Jesus will accept no rival. He is a jealous God – and this is not a negative thing. Would you be happy if your husband or wife thought nothing of admiring other men or women? Jealousy in a lover (as long as it is not possessive or selfish) is a wonderful thing. God is jealous of our hearts – he wants us to be utterly his.

And we love to fill our hands with things. I was grasping after marriage, housekeeping, children, health … anything other than Jesus to fill that gaping hole in my heart. As long as my hands were full, there was no way I could take his hand.

He was standing there, holding out his hands, waiting to offer me ‘life to the full’, himself … but I was too busy trying to hold onto the many other things I thought I could keep and be happy.

C. S. Lewis likens it to children refusing to come when called because they want to play in the mud; when their parent is offering them a day at the seaside.

Keller calls it ‘idolatry’ – worshiping lesser, created things, offering ourselves to them, when we should be offered utterly to God.

Whatever you call it, it makes us miserable.

* * * * *

“Whoever wants to save their life will lose it; but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

This is how we receive ‘the full life’ that Jesus promised. We cannot receive it if our hands are already full of things, full of marriage, or children, or work, or ambition, or Self.

We must give these things up, let them go, so that we can receive all of Jesus.

What does this look like?

It means I make time to pray and listen to God through his word. It means through the day I speak to him, thanking him, praising him, looking for ways to serve him. I let go of the time I want to call mine, and take God instead.

It means I ask God what he wants me to do in any situation, not deciding for myself what I should do. I let go of the controls, and take God instead.

It means I look out for the interests of others as much as my own, even preferring other people to myself – so I ask my husband what will make him happy and try to do it; I ask myself what is best for my children and do that (even if it means I have to give up my one sit-down of the afternoon in order to teach them how to share nicely); it means that I make sure I have my heart and soul in order, and get enough rest so that I am ready to serve my family again in the morning. It means, sometimes, that I ask my husband if I can go and get a coffee by myself to recharge my batteries, because I’m starting to feel irritable and stir-crazy! I let go of myself, and take God instead.

It can be painful. It feels like loss, at times. I no longer have a tight, curvy body – well, the curves are there, but in all the wrong places! But I remember that someone once gave his body for me, and that gives me courage to smile in the mirror and give thanks. I have very little time to pursue my own interests any more. I have learned to tidy regularly (though I despise the chore), because my husband feels easily stressed by clutter. Clutter doesn’t bother me, but I’ve learned I’m learning to put his interests first.

Some things are harder to give up than others. I’ve begun to see that the fulfilment of parenting is less about the joy children bring (though that is undeniable, and heart-achingly sweet), but more in the practice of daily self-sacrifice, and daily opportunity to serve the good of someone other than myself. I fail often. I frequently forget, and find myself snapping over spilled drinks and mess and broken objects; but God is so patient with me, and so forgiving.

I am still often tired, and sometimes have pain, but the more I take time to notice God’s gifts, and the less I cling to trinkets and instead seek the real treasure of loving God and being loved by him, the more joy I know, and the lighter my burdens have become.

* * * * *

‘Look for Christ and you will find him. And with him, everything else’ (C. S. Lewis).63 Sunset Nolton Haven cliff

My first blog entry

Wow. This is a little scary. I’ve thought about writing a blog for a long time. I’ve planned it in my head. I’ve written dozens of entries already (in my head).

But it’s one thing to think about writing a blog, and another thing altogether to actually put my thoughts and feelings and beliefs out there for anyone to read. As if I have any authority on the matter at all. As if what I think is worth consideration. As if I am ready and prepared for anyone to criticise me and my life.

Well, I suppose I do believe I have some authority on some things. I know quite a bit about being a Christian woman in 21st Century Britain. I have almost ten years’ experience as a wife, over six as a mother, and during my lifespan I have experienced depression, bereavement, friendship, rejection, work, buying and keeping a home (twice), emetophobia (fear of vomiting), planning a wedding, childbirth, pre-eclampsia, Crohn’s Disease, a caesarean, buying a car, potty training (twice), breastfeeding and bottle feeding, sleep-training, camping, air-travel, disappointment, hope, marriage, church life, and a whole lot of joy.

Things I enjoy doing are cooking, sewing, reading, writing, painting and taking photos (not especially good ones).

So any of these things, and more, might appear on this blog at any time. It doesn’t make for a good strapline does it? So I just summarised this blog as ‘living life to the full’ because that is what I want to do.

I don’t usually manage it, just so you know. I’m an idealist, so I sit around and think a lot about how things should be, and then go and mess it up.

But Jesus came so that I might have ‘life, and have it to the full’ and that is what I aim at.

So, in the coming days, if you come back (and I won’t blame you if you don’t) you will most likely find articles on being a wife and mother (since that is what I spend most of my time doing at the moment), a few on surviving Crohns and emetophobia (which I hope will make you laugh if nothing else), and some on craft and cooking. But running through it all will be this thread (I hope) of seeking joy and fulness and God in all of life, which is for everyone.

I hope this blog encourages you. I hope it makes you think. I welcome respectful disagreement – I love to be challenged in my views. My favourite people know how to do this without making me feel either stupid or inferior.

Above all I hope these humble pages lift you from the shadowlands to see the Reality we all desire.