Lent and chocolate

Lent has begun.

I know because my Facebook feed and my inbox are both studded with ideas on how to keep Lent this year.

Do a kind deed every day. Give up sugar.

Call me a cynic but I’m feeling frustrated.

Lent has been relaunched recently in the Protestant church. I actually love the idea, and have really enjoyed using it over the last few years to prepare my heart and mind for Easter.

But I can’t help feeling that the general approach to lent is a bit wide of the mark.

Lent is not found in the Bible anywhere. Nor is Easter or Christmas for that matter. I love these celebrations, and find them key anchors for my faith through the year, times when I particularly focus my thoughts and prayers on Jesus and his immense love for us. Yet the Protestant in me always remembers that these things are man made, and while they may be beneficial they are not mandatory. Let them serve our faith, not enslave us.

08-0412My second, and bigger bugbear, is the question of how we keep Lent.

Traditionally it was a period of fasting, when rich foods were rejected, and Christians took time to consider their mortality, and the cost of their sins. It was a time to remember the sufferings of Christ, and join him in them by giving up luxuries and spending additional time in prayer.

Perhaps the problem is that the Western church has let go of fasting as a habit, and doesn’t really understand what it means.

For a long time I thought of fasting as pretty much raising my voice in prayer. Holy shouting. It was like me saying, “God, look how much I care about this. Now you have to listen to me.”

I was wrong. Fasting is not a spiritual loudhailer, a holy lever to put added pressure on God to act. God will act in his own time and in his own way. Our prayers are means to his ends.

So what is fasting for then?

Fasting is for us. It is a servant. When we fast, we are meant to give up things that distract us from pursuing God. Historically, preparing food was time consuming. It would take up most of the housewife’s time, to grind grain, sift flour, knead bread, set it to rise, and then bake it. To take a day off from preparing food would free up a great deal of time for her to kneel and meet with God.

Fasting reminds us of our dependence on God. I’ve tried once or twice to go a day without food, and by 10 a.m. I’m regretting my decision. I’m hungry, I’m irritable, and craving something, anything to take away the hunger.

I’ve often been baffled by the story of the temptation of Jesus, and how he survived for forty days in wilderness. A similar story exists about Elijah, who travelled for miles at a great pace, for forty days. God’s Spirit sustained him. And Jesus tells Satan, “Man shall not live by bread alone”.

Our lives are a gift from God. He can sustain us without food, if it pleases him. Food, in the end, is a signpost of our real need, our true hunger. Am I hungry for God in the way that I am hungry for food? If I miss my morning prayer time, do I feel it? Do I miss God when I go hours or days without prayer?

Fasting encourages us to ask these questions.

 

I am considering how I will prepare for Easter this year. I love Lent. I love the period of forty days to prepare my soul to celebrate it’s liberation.

But I will not give up chocolate. This seems to completely miss the point of lent, of fasting. Giving up chocolate is a pretty self-centred thing to do. It almost always springs from a desire to cut calories and conform myself to the idols of this age. The whole purpose of fasting is to take our eyes off ourselves and fix them more firmly on Jesus. It is to give something up, something necessary, something precious, to free up space in my life for Jesus.

Maybe I will give up social media. Or TV. Or one of the multitudinous outlets for entertainment that clutter up our lives.

How will my soul be by Easter if I spent an hour with God instead of watching TV every night?

How will my soul feel by Easter if I spent my morning lie-in reading the Gospel of John and praying, instead of sleeping?

One final point, which I completely attribute to Edith Schaeffer. However you spent lent, whatever you choose to fast, do not let it be a slave. Edith writes in her book, ‘The Life of Prayer’, that when they held a fast day in L’Abri, she always ensured there was a light meal laid out in the dining hall so that those who were distracted by hunger could be refreshed and then return to prayer. The point is not to starve ourselves abstractly, but to give up the distraction of preparing food and eating to give the time more fully to Jesus. This is pointless if all we can think about is burgers. Better to eat simply, perhaps just on toast or soup, and pray with a clear head, than to complete a religious exercise only to give yourself mental brownie points.

Whatever you do this Lent, whether you keep it at all, I pray that your soul will feast on Jesus, and be refreshed.

I have been posting a few photos on my facebook page recently. We’ve been doing some fun stuff as the boys are off school, and I like to post cheerful shots of the children. It cheers others up, and it cheers me up too, especially looking back over old pictures.

But it bothered me a bit today. If anyone looked at my facebook page they would have no real idea of how my day went. It was a day of crushing anxiety, unhappiness, and frustration. A day when nothing when the way I desired.

It was my daughter’s first birthday. And I feel that anxiety has robbed me of so much joy today. I have done a special first birthday celebration for each of my children, but I was so anxious this week that I couldn’t face cooking for the whole family as I’ve done before. I planned to make a cake, but had to compromise with a Victoria sponge with ready-made icing because I was too exhausted and stressed to make the cake I have made for each of my children in the past.

Then my husband was late home so we ate tea without him and rushed through the birthday cake to get to bedtime. The boys were annoying most of the day and I ended up losing my temper with them at tea time.

Husband had to rush out to unlock the church for prayer meeting and despite being exhausted I was left to put the older child to bed who kicked up a fuss about everything and then coughed until 9 p.m. requiring medicine and gentleness when all I felt like doing was screaming.

I feel dissatisfied with myself, above all, for allowing my feelings to take over and drag the whole day down; and for how I took it out on the children.

So not a very special day.

 

I’m sitting here trying to piece the day together and find some solace, some peace, some shred of joy. My daughter’s face as she tried chocolate for the first time (a treat we have always saved for their first birthdays). And her excitement when we brought out the cake. “Mmmm!” she said, trying to grab the wafer flowers that decorated the top. She clapped when we sang happy birthday. She loved the wooden bead necklace I bought her. She enjoyed the slide in the park.

I have fresh lilies in a vase which are filling the house with fragrance.

My sons played together in the park without fighting for a full fifteen minutes.

I have a comfortable sofa to sit on. A safe, warm house, a glass of clean water that flowed from a tap. I will lie in a soft bed tonight, and not be afraid of gunfire or famine or disease. I am using a laptop, I have a mobile phone at my side, and more modern conveniences than I can count on two hands.

I am loved by God himself. And while some days it might not feel like it, it is still true. His love is not like my love; rather it is constant, utterly self-giving. It holds nothing back.

And he wants to make me like him. He is slowly chipping away at the flint that surrounds my heart, and is breathing life into the corners, making it beat so that my words are softer, my feelings richer and deeper, my compassion stronger.

He is giving me a love that is strong, that does what is best for the other person even when it costs and hurts.

He is teaching me joy in the hard days.

If your day was like mine – we all get them – breathe in deeply for a moment and pause to look for the blessings that are buried in it, like diamonds in the dark. Give thanks. And hold on – this is not eternity but merely shadows, and God is making you Real so that you can bear the full light of his gaze.

Love is a Person

I’ve been thinking about love recently. What is love? What does it look like? What does it mean for me to love my husband and children?

I know of no better definition of love than 1 Corinthians 13. Even if you are not a Christian you will almost certainly have come across this passage of the Bible. It has been read at almost every wedding I’ve been to.

From a literary point of view, it is poetry. From a philosophical point of view, it is truth. Anyone, from any religious background or none, will read this and affirm its validity.

Yet from a spiritual point of view … it is condemnation.

*

 

I have a love/hate relationship with 1 Corinthians 13. I love its lyrical beauty. I love its truth. But I find it painful reading.

Love is patient.

Love is kind.

Love does not envy, does not boast, is not proud.

It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Excuse me while I crawl deeper under my quilt and cover my head in shame.

The more I read the deeper my spirits sink. Because even on my best days I fall far short of this description. Even at my most loving I am, at best, inconsistent and unable to sustain a loving attitude for long. In fact, most of the time, I am actively impatient, selfish and self-seeking, and this is before I begin to delve into the deeper motives of my heart. When I do that, I am utterly undone because I discover that, almost always, the moments when I am being loving are always undermined by at least one layer of self-seeking. I am not sure I have ever done something for someone without seeking some benefit for myself.

So what am I to do?22 St David's

Many people will say, “try harder”. Make more effort to be that better person. Push down the selfishness and strive for better motives. This is religion’s answer.

 

And to a point this is true. But ultimately I will always fail. I will always end in despair because I know my own heart and it is selfish to the very core.

Here’s the thing. The incredible, wonderful thing that, for me, raises Christianity above all other religions and makes it shine.

Backtrack a bit to 1 Corinthians 12. Paul is talking about spiritual gifts – abilities and qualities that Jesus gives people so they can serve his church. Paul encourages his readers to ‘desire the greater gifts’. And then he talks about love.

So here it is: love is a gift. Patience is a gift. Kindness is a gift. Being content and humble and thinking of others first is a gift. This is not something I can muster within myself. Trying harder is not the answer.

All I have to do is ask and hold out my hands. God will do the rest.

51 Sunset Nolton Haven cliff (Tue)

And here is one more thing about 1 Corinthians 13 that blew me away.

Love, in this passage, is not some abstract entity floating around, a religious ideal for us to aim for.

Paul is describing a person.

You could replace ‘love’ with ‘Jesus’ and every statement would be just as true.

Love is a person. A person who walked this earth and lived among people as grumpy and irritable and selfish as me … and who loved them anyway.

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.

Guilt-free Parenting (4) – what does it look like?

This blog entry has been written and reworked about ten times this week. I’m really struggling to expand on what I mean by ‘what is the most loving thing?’

You’d think it would be obvious, but in my personal experience, and in observing other parents first hand (and on forums and other blogs) I have come to see that our motives as parents are often veiled, even to ourselves. We can think we are loving our children, when we are not.

I think the best way I can do this is to offer examples from my own parenting experience to illustrate what I mean. What I don’t want is for anyone to feel I am judging them for their parenting decisions – I recognise that for most of us, parenting is done in survival mode, and often our decisions are born out of sheer desperation!

When I first became a parent I was determined to be the best parent I could be. This, I think, is probably what most of us aim for. No one cradles their first child and thinks, “Well, now my life has changed. I’m going to be a safely average parent.”

However, speaking personally at least, my motive included a hefty dose of pride. I didn’t see this at the time. I thought I just wanted what was best for my baby (and I did, but this was at least equally matched by pride). The pride was first in my belief in my ability to be the perfect parent (I had no idea that tiredness and the nature of children would reveal a new level of impatience and selfishness in myself); and secondly in my desire to be the perfect parent. I wanted to be admired and looked up to as a good mum. I wanted my children to be glad they had me; my husband to see what a great mother I was; and I wanted other people to ask me for advice because I had such lovely, well-behaved, securely attached children.

Oh I’m blushing now. Such honesty has come through years of falling again and again to my quick temper, my impatience, and just basic selfishness that doesn’t want to play cars or talk about lego spaceships, but wants to check facebook for the tenth time this morning (or just finish a cup of coffee without having to get up to wipe someone’s backside, for pete’s sake!)

Looking back, many of my choices were a mixture of pride and love. I did genuinely want the best for my babies, and still do, but mixed in with that is that pride at being a ‘good parent’, and also a desire for my own fulfilment.

What I mean is that I believed having children would bring me fulfilment, and make my life complete. (If you read a bit of my blog you’ll understand that a strong driving force in my life has been a desire for ‘life to the full’). What I believed would fulfil me was being the best parent ever. This led to a skewed decision making process, where I put the interests of my baby above my husband, and my own physical and mental health. That’s what a good mother does, I thought, and I was determined to be a good mother. It also led to a great deal of disillusionment as my children, far from fulfilling me, drained me of all energy and happiness and left me an exhausted, gibbering shell.

One way I thought I was being loving was because I couldn’t bear to leave my sons to cry. I had read all the blogs and books which labelled ‘crying it out’ as cruel. How could I leave my helpless baby to cry alone in the dark? All he wanted was his mummy. But I was exhausted and unable to function because of sleep-deprivation.

Now, there is a huge difference between a baby under three months of age, who is still learning to trust his caregiver and who is still disorganised in their sleep rhythm, and a baby of six months and older, who usually is getting enough nutrition during the day to no longer need milk at night, but who also now is securely attached to their parents and knows their needs will be met. There is also a huge difference between the child who is very anxious and needs a great deal of reassurance and close contact with his parents, and the baby who has just become used to a habit of falling asleep that is now disruptive to the family.

Let me explain – my two sons were bad at falling to sleep. Neither of them would willingly just lie there, close their eyes and drop off. Those cute pictures of babies who have fallen asleep in their high chairs are a mystery to me. My boys fought sleep. The only time they fell asleep without protest was in the pram or car. (And yes, we tried swaddling, dummies, patting, picking up and putting them down. In fact we could probably write a book of ideas to try to get your baby to sleep.)

With my eldest we got into the habit of rocking him to sleep. We had read the books and knew it was a rod for our backs in the making, but there was no other way he’d sleep when he was tiny. It’s time together, I tried to tell myself, bouncing around in a darkened room at 8 p.m. … though all I really wanted was to sit down on the sofa and not move for two hours. However, when he got to nine months old and woke every night at 2, 3 and 5 a.m. to be rocked back to sleep, and when he got too heavy for me to do it (we had been taking shifts) my husband put his foot down. (Did I mention that the rocking had to be done standing up? If we sat down our son would scream blue murder).

Basically, we were held hostage by a nine month old baby.

Again, looking back, my motives were mixed, but had a great deal of selfishness in them. I couldn’t bear to leave my baby to cry – the reason was partly because I feared we were refusing a need for comfort, but also a great deal of it was because I was protecting myself. I didn’t want to feel upset because he was crying.

Again, I want to stress that there is a huge difference between the crying of a four-month old baby, for example, and a nine-month old. My son was waking because he wanted to be rocked, not because he needed us. We realised this because he would quite happily settle if we rocked him in his car seat and not in our arms. It was the motion he wanted, not reassurance or physical comfort.

And his want (not need) was making us exhausted, irritable, and resentful.

Having left him to cry himself to sleep for a few nights, I realised that this had been a good decision. We all needed a good night’s sleep, our son included. He just needed to realise that it was possible to fall asleep without being rocked. His cries (which lasted 40 minutes the first night, 30 the second, and then gradually tailed off until he would moan for about ten minutes each night) were an angry protest, not distress. I should also add that my husband would go in to check him every ten minutes or so, until we realised that this was actually upsetting our boy more. He settled more quickly and with less crying if we just left him to it (listening out for that hysterical, I need you cry).

The joy of the ‘loving’ principle is that it will look differently with each family. The key is knowing your child, and knowing yourself. If my child is anxious and needy (some babies just are) then it would not be loving to leave them to cry at any age. If my child is demanding and whiny then it is loving to teach them that they are not the centre of the universe. Asking ‘what is the most loving thing’ balances the needs of each family member, and allows parents to decide for themselves which ‘wants’ of their child they are able to allow, and which they must lovingly decline.

To give another example (if you’ve read enough please just skip to my summary at the end), a child may want to sleep in their parents’ bed, but it is not always loving to give in.

I had planned on allowing our children into our bed, but once I realised this involved being repeatedly elbowed and kneed in the back, not to mention having my pillow stolen and being forced right to the edge of my bed because my son hates feeling ‘squashed’ (by which he means having any part of his body in contact with another human body) we quickly returned him to his own bed. We were all much happier that way, and occasionally, if he can lie still and enjoy being close to us, he is allowed to cuddle in bed in the mornings (if his parents are already about half awake and it is nearly time to get up).

Lastly, asking ‘what is the most loving thing’ has really helped me as my children grew older. A small baby has very basic (albeit very intense) needs – food, sleep, and security. In the long run, many of the decisions we agonise over actually make very little difference to their developing into healthy, happy adults. However, as the child develops and grows, how we relate to them and the choices we make have increasing weight in their lives. I realised recently with my two boys that their ‘love’ needs are very different. My second son, age four, is very easy for me to love. His primary need seems to be for cuddles, and as long as I am available for a quick hug and kiss at frequent intervals, he is very happy to play by himself. I love giving hugs and kisses, so our personalities meet very well.

My older son … he is another kettle of fish altogether. He has never been cuddly, pushing me away from a very young age when I tried to offer physical affection. Cuddles are asked for always on his terms, and they are usually very intense, brief, and sometimes silly. What he loves is when I play with him, talk to him, and just generally do stuff with him. I find this form of love very hard to give. I am an introvert – I love my own headspace, and my oldest son loves to invade. He will ask a thousand questions in an hour. He will tell me all about the picture he drew, the lego model he built, and while I try to be affirming and positive, some days my heart sinks. Some days, I can barely talk by the time my husband comes home, my resources have been so drained.

I am very slowly learning how to work out the most loving thing in each situation. Usually, the most loving thing is for me to set aside whatever I am engrossed in, and give my son at least half my attention. I am very bad at doing this, especially when I am tired. But, I have learned, sometimes the most loving thing is to explain to my son, kindly but firmly, that mummy is tired now and needs to stop talking, and that he must think of mummy and go and play quietly in another room (or find his brother and talk to him).

 * * * * *

A quick summary, because I being concise is not one of my strong points and you may have got lost in my ramblings:

This question, ‘what is the most loving thing?’ does three key things for us as parents.

  • It clarifies my motives. Had I asked this question when my son was waking us through the night, I would have made the same decision as a young parent to leave my son to cry, but it would have been for very different reasons. As a result, I would have had far more confidence in the decision. It would still have been hard to hear my son crying the first few nights, but I would not have been wracked by guilt for months afterwards. In fact, we probably would not have got to that point of extreme exhaustion in the first place.
  • It reduces the issues involved to one basic question – the question I asked in the first blog entry of this series – is my child loved and feeling secure today? If I can say ‘yes’, then I am making good decisions. If I am not sure, then perhaps I need to reassess and ask again, ‘what is the most loving thing’?
  • It keeps us from swinging to the extremes of parenting – either making myself the centre of all decisions and putting my child’s needs second; or putting my child at the centre of all decisions, and thus making everyone else’s needs secondary, including my own. Neither is healthy for the parents or the child. Instead, a balance is needed, where parents make sacrifices so that their child grows up loved and nurtured, but also where a child learns that the universe does not revolve around them, and that they exist to serve as well as be served.

Ultimately, going back to the whole point of this series, this question releases us from the guilt we so often feel as parents.

It frees me from the need to judge others who have decided differently from me (so I am not sitting in disapproval when my friends choose to return to work and employ a child-minder – I trust them to make loving decisions about their own family, knowing themselves and their own children).

And when, as happened recently, someone declares to my face that my choice to stay at home full time is the ‘lazy’ option, I may laugh (and then blush as I realise they are serious), and I may feel bewildered and a little angry (really? You think this is the easy option?), but ultimately I am not bothered. Because I know they are wrong. I have not made this decision out of laziness. Perhaps, as I’ve said above, my original motivations were not purely selfless or loving, but now, knowing the daily grind and exhaustion of being a full-time mum, I am still choosing it. My husband and I have looked at the options and concluded together that this is the most loving thing for our boys at the moment. And quite honestly, the longer I do it the more I realise it is the right option for me too.

My life is lived to the full as I learn to love.

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.

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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.