Make Believe

Yesterday morning, Duncan and I watched in amazement as Owen engaged in his very first game of make-believe. He took the closed bubble bath bottle over to the empty bathtub, and tipped it over, making a “psssshhh” sound. As we watched, he put it back in the cupboard and then went back to the bath to “pour” it in several more times (evidently enjoying our enjoyment and cheers).

I had no idea that a child Owen’s age could pretend to do something. He pretends to sweep the floor, but it’s more because he’s not a very good sweeper that it’s not real. He plays with toy trains, but since he has had hardly any exposure to real trains, there’s no reality he can compare it to. He’s more interested in the magnets that hold the trains together than in making them go around the track.

Owen’s foray into the world of the imaginary made me think about Daniel Keyes’s short story (and later novel and play) “Flowers for Algernon.” The short work of speculative fiction is told through a series of progress reports through the voice of an initially mentally challenged man, Charlie Gordon, who has an operation that triples his IQ. After the operation, what is more remarkable than Charlie’s improved spelling and vocabulary  is his ability to understand figurative, rather than literal language, and his ability to imagine. I hadn’t really considered (before reading that story) how important the imaginary is to intelligence.

Don’t worry – I’m not getting all carried away thinking my son’s a genius. (Brief digression: At the Children’s Museum in London in the “doctor’s office” exhibit, there were posters up about how if your child hadn’t spoken 20 words by 18 months, you should consult your doctor. That kind of incendiary provocation infuriates me – so much like all those baby books that tell you that everything you are doing is wrong. Of course, it also worried me. Owen will be 18 months old on December 21 and has MAYBE 5 words. If you count “uh oh.” He communicated with language for the first time yesterday, asking his dad for his “sus” (pacifier). So he’s not a genius but he’s also not cause for alarm, you irritating poster people).

Imagination, though, is to my mind a more impressive development that language (which will come in its own time, I’m sure). One of my favourite books as a child was Josephine’s ‘Magination, in which a very resourceful child makes dolls out of her mother’s broom scraps (her mother makes brooms for a living). Her imagination allows her to transcend and transform her everyday life. As he develops his imagination, Owen will gain another entire world, layers of worlds, and the capacity to transform his surroundings. He will also develop his own inner life, one that I cannot access, taking another small step away from me (as I cheer him on).

The Art of Accidental Parenting

The Baby Whisperer does not approve of what she terms “Accidental Parenting.” I do not approve of the Baby Whisperer.

I think there is a kind of beauty in the accidents of parenting. I became a parent on purpose, but it could just as easily have been a happy accident. I certainly make use of whatever works in parenting Owen. To get him to sleep, I’ve gone through phases of nursing him, of walking him up and down, of lulling him in the swing, of giving him a bottle, of reading him a story or three, of letting him cry, of going back to lay him down, or of picking him again up to calm him down. And I change what I am doing when it’s no longer working. (I am sad to report that the bedtime story routine that I was so proud of – Owen likes stories! Stories put him to sleep! – has failed for the past 3 days. He’s become squirmy, possibly because he’s figured out that storytime means bedtime. I am fighting this particular accident).

I think it’s natural to do what works – BECAUSE IT WORKS! – and just as natural to phase something out when it’s no longer right.

I had a horrific beginning to breastfeeding. I’m sure it was not as bad as some people’s, but it was bad enough that I winced in pain at the thought of Owen’s approaching mouth and once worried that I would squeeze his head too hard. I was that tense. But after the first 2 weeks, it got better (it only hurt a little!), and after the first couple of months, it was not painful at all, and after more months, it had become pleasant and convenient. My plan was to nurse Owen until he was one. I pumped once a day until he was nine months old so he could have breastmilk at daycare. At some point, though, this arrangement wasn’t working for me anymore. So I stopped. Then Owen got 2 ear infections and the second doctor we took him to suggested that it might be because I wasn’t breastfeeding. I had just stopped pumping the week before and was nursing him in the morning and at night. I was, after all, working full-time. I thought I was doing pretty well. But inevitably, guilt kicked in, and I eliminated formula on weekends, trying to make up for daycare. I lasted about 3 days. I couldn’t do it anymore. We were past that point, ear infections notwithstanding.

One day last week, at eleven months old, Owen refused the breast for the very first time. He pushed it away, grinning. He bit me. Twice. I put him to bed and I cried a little. I hadn’t decided whether or not that meant the end. The next day, he seemed to want it. So I fed him. And two more days after that. But my heart wasn’t in it anymore. So we stopped, and it felt right.

It was accidental, but mutual, like so much of our developing relationship. If it’s good for him, and good for me (and good for Duncan), then we proceed. If it’s not working, we try something else, until another accident becomes the solution. Individually and as a family, we’re trying things on to see if they fit. Sometimes they’re too big, sometimes they’re too small, but sometimes, they’re just right. At least until you outgrow them.

Watching the Wor(l)d Go By

Here’s a little baby

One, two, three

Stands in his cot

What does he see?


So begins PEEPO! by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, a board book that gave me more hope and perspective on parenting than all the parenting books I read combined. The lesson? Your baby doesn’t have to be entertained every minute. It will get to a point where you will be able to put your baby down and he will watch you as you go about your daily business!

The book is rich with detail. In the first scene, you can just glimpse the dress that the mother will wear throughout the day, and spot the rubber ducky that will appear in the evening bath scene. The clutter is encouraging (other people have messy houses too!) but also really fun to look at. It’s interesting historically, too, since it’s set in 1940s England (there’s a barrage balloon!).

PEEPO! was a gift from my brother Luke, who arrived at our house within a few days of Owen’s birth with four books that he had selected because he thought they might make Owen smarter. Each was wonderful in its way, but PEEPO! was the one that gave me some perspective. When Owen was very little, he would very infrequently lie calmly. He wanted always to be breastfeeding or asleep (or very entertained). But when I read PEEPO! I saw a little baby (older than Owen was then, of course), who could watch his mother iron shirts, his grandma hang laundry, his sisters fish in the pond…

And then once Owen could finally sit on his own, oh my goodness! it happened! He could play by himself! And then he learned to crawl and stand and it was all over. Well, not entirely – outside is still OK. Inside seems like a minefield, though. Today he fell and hit the side of his head on the coffee table (we padded the corners, but not the sides – gah).

But it’s coming, and I do have a little boy who stands in his cot and waits for me to come and get him in the morning, and when I peek around the side of the door (PEEPO!) I see the biggest grin every single day.

Screaming at the Baby Whisperer

Warning: This may turn into a rant.

There is a whole lot of desperation in the early days of motherhood, when owning a book with “secrets” and “baby” in the title sounds like exactly what you need. But Tracy Hogg’s Secrets of the Baby Whisperer is an evil book because it tells you to trust your instincts, as long as your instincts follow a predictable pattern that she has set out for you: the (in)famous E.A.S.Y. (Eat, Activity, Sleep, You). Because there should be time for massages and pedicures in the life of every mother of every newborn.

There are some lovely ideas in The Baby Whisperer. I loved Hogg’s insistence on communicating with your baby from the first moment, giving your baby a tour of the house, explaining what you are doing when you’re changing a diaper or putting the baby down for a nap. I think she’s right that as awkward as it seems to talk to a newborn, you never know what the baby will understand and when. Also, your baby won’t really be talking back for at least a year, so you might as well get used to chatting with your alternately silent, cooing, and whining child.

I won’t even get into the fact that the book’s co-writer decided on a conversational style in which the Yorkshire-born Hogg addresses the reader as “ducky.” How alternately tacky and condescending. But I said I wouldn’t get into that.

My real issue with Hogg is that she makes you feel guilty for feeding your baby.

My son Owen was born hungry. He emerged from the womb ravenous, as though I had been starving him for 9 months, though his birth weight was a healthy 7 pounds, 15 ounces. Within hours of his birth my nipples were black and blue. Within days of his birth they were cracked and bleeding. I half-joked that my son could survive in the wild – that he would latch on to the teat of a she-wolf and find sustenance somehow. At the hospital, I asked one of the nurses how it was possible that I was supposed to feed him every three hours when he ate for 2 hours in a row. When we got home, my husband’s finger stood in for me as I tried to sleep between feeds:

And while I was feeding Owen, with my one free hand (the other was supporting the “latch”), I would hold The Baby Whisperer and read about the secrets of raising an E.A.S.Y. baby. And I realized that what I was doing was all wrong. Feeding your baby to sleep will teach him bad habits and prevent him from being able to fall asleep on his own! Only one kind of cry meant that he was hungry, and good, attentive parents learned to interpret their babies’ cries! If I didn’t learn to interpret Owen’s cries quickly, he would stop differentiating between his staccato cries with hiccups and his long wailing cries and soon there would be no pattern to follow and I would be lost! After several weeks of this, I actually threw the book across the room, walked downstairs, and said to my wide-eyed husband “The baby whisperer is full of s***.” I eventually talked myself into putting the book away and following my instincts (without the pattern). And yet … though I haven’t opened it in months … it still beckons.

I do believe that in time, you will develop a routine with your baby. I do believe that by the time your baby is 6 months old (maybe), you can tell if he’s crying because he’s tired or because he’s hungry. But when he’s 2 weeks? 2 months? Crying is crying. Even when your baby isn’t crying you hear echoes of the last cries. Out for a walk without the baby I heard him crying. Alone in the house I heard him crying. I still do and he’s over ten months old. It took me months to get over the guilt that Tracy Hogg instilled in me. And I don’t think any new mother needs any more guilt than she is already feeling.

For a satirical send-up of Hogg, check out: :

P.S. I am sure the baby whisperer has worked for some people. I am not one of those people.

A Womb Welcome

A couple of days ago, I was using google as a calculator. You can do anything on google. I typed in 26 and the search engine supplied “26 weeks pregnant.” Immediately, I had a flashback to myself, a little over a year ago, as I looked up the stage of my pregnancy week by week … by week. I really did google every week of my pregnancy, and I often skipped ahead, marvelling at the inner and outer diagrams of my and my baby’s growing bodies. I was curious about the mystery growing inside of me – an actual person who would emerge and develop his own perspective on the world – but I was also nervous about my own transformation into a mother.

I read books (lots of books) to try to prepare myself for this momentous change. What I noticed right away was how very certain about their own messages (yet how contradictory!) these books were. Everyone agrees what a fetus looks like at 26 weeks gestation, but no one agrees on how to get a baby to sleep through the night. This certainty, while it might sell books, can be really demoralising for a newly-minted, bleary-eyed mother. So I sought out some specific narratives of pregnancy and parenting from friends and from a couple of blogs. I have found their variety of experience infinitely more reassuring than any published prescriptions for happy babies.

My son Owen is now (already!) 10 1/2 months old, and I have been feeling more and more like I have things to say about my experience of parenting (and about babies, who I actually gush over now). Not that I claim to know what I’m doing, because I still have all kinds of doubts and am really just muddling through, but because I want to share my ideas and hopefully, eventually, get feedback. Parenting can be a very lonely state full of self doubt, especially in our current social environments, where an ideal model often seems to involve a mother alone in the house with a baby. I think that the internet can actually function as a kind of community where we can share our ideas and feel a little less isolated. So I’m adding my thoughts to the fray, and if you’d like to read along, welcome.