Category Archives: Parenting

Fear of showing fear of flying

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink at 35,000 feet. I won’t be able to post it up here, but we’re four and a half hours into a flight that’s barely halfway over so there’s plenty of time to write. So by the time you read this, it will already be done and dusted.

I’m supposed to be watching The BFG but I’m struggling a little with both staying awake and fully appreciating it. I actually love some of the cinematic changes from the book – a livened up exchange with a visiting Fleshlumpeater (was it that one?) is beautifully done; the setting is simply stunning. I’m not sure it’s actually possible to find fault with Mark Rylance in anything, but the modernisation of Sophie is as hard as a snozzcumber to swallow. I mean, she’s officious and self-righteous in the book, too (Dahl was nothing if honest about the foibles of even his own family) but this feels a little like Hermione gone horrid. The corrections to the BFG’s language seem snarky and cruel rather than thoughtlessly self-assured. But we’re only 35 minutes in. I might have judged the little tyke too harshly. Watching a film on a plane is never giving it its best shot, and I’ve already rewatched – and thoroughly enjoyed, again – Captain America: Civil War. So maybe I’m feeling generally combative.

Plane journeys are pretty dull after all – even if the destination is a thoroughly exciting one. But I relish the boredom. The boredom is fantastic. The boredom is my favourite thing. Because the boredom means the crippling anxiety is over.

It’s not technically accurate to say I have a fear of flying. What I have is a fear of take-off. Approximately 2.5 minutes into the flight, I chill the hell out and then it’s plain (ahem) sailing all the way. And no, before you ask, it doesn’t come back for landing. Landing is normal. Landing is natural. Landing is what we’re meant to do. I do get horrible ear pain, but eh. We’re heading down. We’re where we’re supposed to be. There’s nothing weird about an incomprehensibly massive, heavy metal object coming to rest on the ground. Firing it up from the ground, well… this might be the only time you’ll hear me quoting Frankie Boyle, but he did make me laugh on just one occasion when he said there wasn’t anywhere on Earth he liked enough to be fired at it in a tube at 700pmh.

Luckily, there is such a place for me; many places, in fact. It’s what keeps me getting on flights because if there’s one thing I can accept less than take off it’s never visiting exciting places. Perhaps if I had endless time and money I’d go everywhere by train – my most beloved mode of transport – and sea (far less beloved due to my propensity to feel grossly nauseated, but I do love watching the waves. But I am, at this moment, heading to my happiest of happy places, Walt Disney World, and I couldn’t do it any other way that is remotely reasonable.

But the anxiety, the fear – it’s really, really, really real. It starts a few weeks out with the occasional wobble, and the last two days are a painfully blurry countdown of hours until take off, minutes until that moment when the engines go from a dull purr to a roaring throttle, when the pace suddenly picks up and the slowly trundling beast that haltingly bumbled back from the gate becomes a raging lion in full gallop after a gazelle.

(Sophie is now in a rusted car, being thrown down a hill by what appear to be gargantuan Nac Mac Feegle. I love Spielberg, but I might have to give this one up as Not For Me. Still, when it comes to films I’m no quitter, and I recognise that I am, after all, writing a blog post at the same time…)

Anyway. The anxiety.

God.

It’s so unpleasant.

For 48 hours now I’ve had a persistent constriction in my chest. I get quite panicky about heart stuff; a lifelong poor relationship with food, aversion of any exercise that isn’t a bracing stroll and witnessing a close family member suffer a heart attack in their 40s when I was a child… well, I worry about my heart health. Obviously worry is super good for heart health, and so then I start to get anxiety about what the anxiety is doing to me. As vicious circles go, this is the Wandsworth one-way system. Now that the tightness has eased, I’m free to feel a pain in my chest that is caused by the muscles in my neck – bunched up in tension by day and bad sleep by night – slowly trying to work out if they’re okay to relax or not (after all, there is a return flight).

These days, I’m honest about my fears with most of the people I know. The thing is, I don’t want it to mean I don’t get asked to travel; I recently missed out on a flight with work because I was sick, and none of the relief I felt at being spared take off was worth the annoyance I felt at being out of the loop. I will absolutely accept the flights and get on the flights and live through the tremulous wibble in my own head because I desperately want to beat this.

I am a supporter of – believer in? – hypnotherapy, having used it for birth, and I keep meaning to book some sessions in to deal with this. I wonder if some other forms of therapy could also be helpful – CBT for the thought spirals, perhaps. I mean, I need to address why I am so scared, from the fear of dying to the fear of knowing I’m dying, to the existential dread stuff about what comes after. One of my best friends has pointed out that it’s not unnatural to be perturbed about the very, well, unnaturalness of take off. The thing is, I don’t worry once everything is stable; I’ve flown through two (separate) hurricanes and been in a plane that had an emergency unscheduled stop due to a failed engine (one of two) which, once repaired, I had to get back into to fly home. Turbulence doesn’t overly bother me, even though one of my parents suffered lifelong injury after falling and being trapped in a loo when a plane they were in hit an unexpected pocket of it in a cloud, or however it is that works. How is it such a very small part of every journey can cause such disproportionate horror?

But there is one person who has no idea that I feel the slightest frisson. I never, ever mention my fears within my daughter’s earshot. While we’re trundling down the runway I’m reading (the same line fourteen times if necessary), or my eyes are shut in peaceful sleep (prayer) or I’m giving my daughter a gentle snuggle (holding on for dear life). I don’t medicate – if the odd glass of bubbly doesn’t count, and not every time – except with eating too much rubbish. After suffering through endless weeks of viruses followed by worry about the flight I have eaten in the past three weeks all the sugar I haven’t eaten in the last two years (I am actually savouring the thought of a hard reset in the New Year; realistically pancakes and waffles and ice cream – oh my! – will just be too tempting in the Sunshine State). My friend Erin gets anxiety from eating sugar; I’m not sure my attempt to treat mine with it is the wisest move I’ve ever made. But food has always been love in my house. Pretending so that my daughter is spared my agonies is the least I can do.

I travelled fearlessly as a child myself, and this continued until I was in my late teens. God willing she’ll be like her dad, gazing eagerly out of the window and savouring the speed even now he’s in his 40s, without a frisson of fear. I remember once actually reading so intently I didn’t notice the plane had risen off the ground; I just looked out and saw clouds. I must have been about 19 then, because I was reading – or trying to read – James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was my gift for winning the English Prize at school during my A Levels. I chose it out of a sense of duty and pretentiousness and after that all-encompassing attempt to work out what the hell was going on I abandoned it and leant it to my friend Beatie whom I think still has it. She’s always been madly smart and has written a fantastic book you should all read, called Petite Mort. It’s very good, and the scary part is I don’t think it’s anywhere near as good as she’s going to get, say, three novels from now. There’s Angela Carter-level talent just beginning to show. You’ll see.

(I think Sophie has just risked accidental suicide. Hmm. I properly love the rendering of the Nac Mac Giants, though.)

I think blog posts are supposed to have a story to them. This is meant to be like my word of the year piece – a neatly constructed slice of life with something at the end. A moral, a resolution, a conclusion. But I’ve been reading a lot of Shirley Jackson this past week – note: do not read Shirley Jackson to calm your spirit, that is just stupid – and I’ve been hugely enjoying the way her creepy, plotlessly unsettling stories seem to just suddenly end, with either nothing changed or everything moved slightly to the left, inexplicably. The fact is, I was scared, and now I’m not. I’ll be scared again and then I won’t be. And I’ll carry on in the cycle – and carry on hiding it from my favourite person in the world – because… well, because.

So that’s that, then.

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10 New Year wishes for my 5-year-old

Eight out of ten ain’t half bad. As wishes go, failing to watch Ratatouille I can give a pass to (especially since you’ve seen more films in the cinema in one year than ever before) and not letting me brush your hair, well… there are worse things.

So given that the other eight wishes – all of them endless, forever wishes apart from WDW and we had a ROLLICKING time – are going as strong as I could hope for, what else is there left to hope for?

When it comes to you there is always  more.

1. I wish for you to keep surprising me. I mean, it was no surprise to me that you had a spectacular time at Walt Disney World, but every day you managed to do something unexpected – liking a ride I didn’t think you would, bravely agreeing to do something that scared you, playing brilliantly with your cousins. And really it was the trip to Stockholm that was full of little joys; it was great to know that you could get as much pleasure out of a city trip as we could, that you enjoyed exploring and tea shops and the unusual (that, in fact, you’re more like me than I thought, at times).

2. I wish for you to continue fighting your fears. I know that you find the unexpected difficult sometimes; you’re already better at being brave at your age than I was. But there are some times when I know you’re keeping yourself from something you’d love because you’re nervous about what might scare you – even for a second. I was majorly impressed that you kept going on the Nemo ride despite Bruce (even more so that by the fourth ride, you kept your eyes open), but I look forward to a day when you will judge which film you want to watch, book you want to read, place you want to visit and ride you want to go on more by level of interest than by likelihood of not being scared. There’s a world of enjoyment out there for you, and I promise you that sometimes, to slightly redirect the words of the man himself, being scared out of your pants may be the best thing in the world for you.

3. I wish for you to continue being brilliant at making friends. I’m sorry it took so long to have a proper playdate with your bestie. She’s awesome, and there will be many more, I promise.

4. I wish for you to lose that sense of embarrassment! It shocked me when I realised you meant it that you were bashful and embarrassed whenever anyone talked about you. I’ve always considered my overly honed sense of personal humiliation my greatest weakness. I simply do not want you to inherit it. So please – be like your dad. Give not one flying… fart… what anyone says about you. Because you are the best.

5. I wish for you to unleash that creativity more than ever. You come up with the best, maddest, funniest most bonkers stories. I simply insist that you keep them coming. And I shall uphold our deal: when I come up with an idea, I’m free to write it, draw it and play with it any way I like. And when it’s your idea, it’s your intellectual property, no matter how frustrating I find it that you won’t let me develop it. Humph.

6. I wish for you to stop licking our hands and faces. Seriously, kid, it’s revolting. And while we’re at it, could the foot-tickling go on hold? Ta.

7. I wish for you to keep being delightfully affectionate. In line with number 4, I’m dreading the day that cuddles and kisses start to dry up and start being embarrassing. For now, I am taking full advantage of being carpeted with snuggles and I do not wish it to stop. Also, you can keep telling me you love me and you’ll stay with me forever; I mean, in the fullness of time I shall want you to be independent and want to leave me, for your own good, but in the meantime I am very happy to be clung to and generally adored. As you were.

8. I wish for you to keep growing like a weed in the sun. You shot up 10cm betweeen March and December! Your legs are just like your dad’s – long, lean and always tripping over themselves. You are so outrageously strong. I love it, I admire it, I’m a little jealous of it.

9.I wish for us to travel again this year – perhaps nearer and more cheaply, but for us to have some sort of adventure together and you to experience some more new things and discover fresh likes, dislikes and interests. I’m keeping fingers crossed for the trip we talked about in the summer – a new way of travelling for us as a family too, so let’s wait and see!

10. Finally, I wish for you to be ever more you, a simply wonderful person whom I consider myself privileged to know. You constantly make me want to do better for you, and I know you enjoy hearing how proud you make us. In keeping with my theme of finding the value in myself and others, I hope we three continue to constantly inspire each other to show the best of ourselves to each other and to the world. And that we continue to feel safe disclosing and battling the worst of ourselves, too – which might even be the more valuable bit.

Happy new year, Pickleface.

A little friendly competition

At a recent parents’ evening, 5yo Ramona’s teacher told us how seating our daughter with her best friend tended to improve her work. “There’s a bit of healthy competition going on there, which I admit I sometimes use to get the best out of them.”

Although it shouldn’t, hearing of competition between girls in a positive light does sound strange to me.  I don’t think I’m alone in suspecting that women are raised to think that rivalry is negative – that it’s somehow incompatible with having each other’s backs, owning ‘squad goals’ and knowing where the bodies are hidden.

The thing about surrounding oneself with an army of intelligent, wonderful, interesting human beings is that at some point anyone with all but the most cast iron self-confidence will doubt themselves. I pride myself on having a particularly strong group of pals, each of whom fulfils a part of me that it’s more fun to share: working to make dreams and passions a reality, navigating a particularly sticky work situation, sitting in the cinema holding hands and crying. Each one of those women is astonishingly talented and beautiful – and if I’m totally honest I have a history of being the Fat Friend. Frankly, Peggy Carter might know her value but she had to prove it in a room full of men. Trying to blossom in my own right when I’m surrounded by an entire garden centre feels more challenging – and thinking of it in terms of competition makes me feel about as positive as a Japanese knotweed infestation.

As a result it’s easier to just shy away from it all. No one likes to look too keen; it’s even counterproductive, for how could I compete? Yet I can clearly see that in my daughter’s case, still blissfully free of hang ups and damaging mean girl narratives, a little friendly rivalry is proving good for everyone. When you strive to emulate each other’s strengths, you also pay tribute to them.  Comparison can be the thief of joy, yes, but what could be better than being most inspired by the people you choose to be friends with?

In one of my daughter’s favourite films – the subtle and profound My Little Pony Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks – the essential conflict is caused by introducing the idea of competitiveness. A school musical showcase becomes a “battle of the bands” as some slinky sirens literally feed off disharmony. “What’s so wrong with a little competition?” purrs the leader, and the slanging matches begin. But in the end it is a competition that brings down the bad guys – an epic sing-off, in fact – and in order to do it the girls have to include a friend they’ve been inadvertently keeping at arm’s length despite her best efforts to atone for past cruelties. It’s easy to read it as ‘all competition is bad’, but it seems to me that the message is actually that winning is fine  – provided you don’t get there by trampling on anyone, and you consider everyone’s strengths and not just your own (the good guys also have to acknowledge some self-centered and exclusionary behaviour among themselves).

At some point, my daughter will  learn that other people will overtake her, and that she will have to make a decision whether to try, try again or change direction. It’s not easy to know whether you’re giving up too soon or flogging a dead horse; too much comparison can make A look like B, but too little and you end up as one of those people cruelly made a laughing stock on a TV talent show. At some point she’ll have to get used to the idea that other people will look up to her and – this is the tricky bit – accept this as valid. Suffering from imposter syndrome is not at all unusual among women, and I am certainly a veteran. I love that Ramona is getting the opportunity to stretch herself, and see where she can lead and where she can learn. She’s acquiring graciousness and generosity as she helps others with what she finds easy, and since humility is particularly hard to come by in small children I hope she’s learning that too. To genuinely congratulate a friend who has done better than you at something you care about is not easy; envy comes quickly. But it feels so much better and is so much more inspiring and hopeful than the alternative.

When it comes down to it, I want to believe that good things come to good people. And I honestly believe that a little genuinely friendly competition brings the kind of self-awareness and self-confidence that’s needed to act like a good person in the world.

And all I’ve ever wanted to do is raise a good person.

Disney / Pixar’s Sanjay’s Super Team and more animated shorts at the BFI London Film Festival for kids

Some of the most bargainous tickets you'll get at LFF

Some of the most bargainous tickets you’ll get at LFF

When I decided to go for it with the London Film Festival this year, I couldn’t possibly leave out my little future film fan. Ramona actually came quite late to cinema going (she’s spooked by sudden bangs and loud noises sometimes, so it can be a bit overwhelming) though she loves it now; tempting her in through the doors by explaining that it was ‘like watching a bunch of trailers’ meant that we got to experience something a little different from the usual family films – not that there’s anything wrong with those, but opening up horizons is never a bad thing.

One of the stunning screening rooms (NFT1, I believe) that Ramona adored.

One of the stunning screening rooms (NFT1, I believe) that Ramona adored.

While the BFI has really developed its family offering in recent years, Ramona’s age group often leaves her out of proceedings; animation workshops etc are really only going to become of interest in a few years’ time, as she’s only five. However, on the final day of the festival was the ‘Animated Shorts for Younger Audiences’ collection; at a total price of £29 for the three of us it seemed really reasonable for a central London cinema trip during an event for which I’d already dropped a phenomenal amount to attend gala screenings (still paying that off; still worth it).

The first of many step and repeat boards, I'm sure.

The first of many step and repeat boards, I’m sure.

What was actually going to be in the programme was a bit of a mystery; it turned out to be 14 international animated shorts including a UK advance screening of the new Disney / Pixar short, Sanjay’s Super Team which is due to appear before The Good Dinosaur when that’s released next month. The collection was brilliantly varied, in terms of content, technique and storytelling, from a brilliant one-minute one-man whiteboard animation from a second year student to an intricate Latvian stop motion morality tale about littering.

It's not as cute when the adults do it. And yes, my attempt at colourful 'cartoonish' dress was in line with my other 'dressing by theme' attempts...

It’s not as cute when the adults do it. And yes, my attempt at colourful ‘cartoonish’ dress was in line with my other ‘dressing by theme‘ looks…

My personal favourites included a superbly funny Swedish animation about a pair of dice and a couple of ladybirds on an adventure (hereafter, all ladybirds shall be known as ‘Bengt’ to me). I also loved a rather bleak but beautiful Canadian take on environmentalism positioned ironically around the lyrics of Que Sera Sera (pretty sure that whisked straight over Ramona’s head but she liked the cars). She particularly enjoyed a sweet film about a bird that takes a break from its migration pattern to dance with a tortoise on a beach; I thought it was beautiful yet overlong, but it was lovely to compare notes and find we really loved different things for different reasons. I found a charming French tale of a cuddly toy soothing a baby delightful; Ramona thought the battered toy (“that grey thing”) was really scary.

We were all a bit blown away by Sanjay’s Super Team,  which really made me want to see it as a full-length film, combining the visual punch of The Incredibles with  a wide-eyed, Nemo-esque sweetness. The only issue was its positioning in the programme which felt a bit odd; dropping a famous animation heavyweight in near the end but not at the end meant that quite a lot of the kids seemed to check out after that. In fact, my beloved ladybird Bengt was on last, which was another odd choice as it was one of the longest pieces and also the only on to require subtitles. Not generally  a problem for my little reader, but she wasn’t the youngest child there by a long shot and putting the one that requires the most concentration at the end seemed to be a bit of a scheduling no-no (and in fact she wriggled and jiggled and wiggled and finally expressed boredom, which earned her some steely glances and sharp words from her mother).

There were evidently some pains taken to make it feel more like a festival; the films were introduced, there was some Q&A at the beginning, and after each set of two or three we were actually introduced to some of the filmmakers for little interviews. Unfortunately this was mostly lost on the audience; the younger children figeted and checked out and their parents couldn’t listen while trying to keep a lid on things – and I did see some leave before the end.

So do I recommend it? Yes, definitely, though I wouldn’t take the ‘younger audiences’ label to mean – as many of us obviously did – youngest audiences. Ramona loved the setting, wanting to “send a message to those BFI people to tell them how BEAUTIFUL it is in here” and really enjoyed some of the films, and she’s insistent she wants to come back to watch movies at BFI Southbank. However, she’s wavering much more over the shorts programme, because the stop-start nature meant she couldn’t properly engage with what she was seeing.  My personal recommendation would either be to play straight through, allowing time for various Q&As at the end for those families with older kids, or to have more of a quiz type format to the breaks (as she really liked it when asked questions).

Roll on next year!

Five things that make having an only child wonderful

It’s a question that, inevitably, anyone whose first child has reached two or more, will hear: “are you planning another?”

My answer will differ depending on who’s asking, because if it’s someone I know and like – and luckily it usually is – they’ll get a fuller response whereas if it’s not they’ll get a polite shutting down of the conversation (my womb is not public property, which is why you’re also not going to get the answer here). But invariably what follows is a discourse on whether having an only child is ‘fair’. I’m not going to go into all the things I found – shall we say – problematic in this well-meaning but rather weird article, for example but I do think it’s a sterling example of the job lot of assumptions – from ‘selfishness’ to a ‘lack of peers’ – that are very common when people talk about only children. I’m actually not one, but I am married to one, and right now my daughter is one too.

So here, with tongue tucked just a little bit in cheek, are my five best things about having one child.

Money Money Money

Unquestionably, there is more of it to go around. In a household with two working parents, who already have to rely some of the time on very obliging grandparents, budgets are tight and childcare is at a premium. Three afternoons a week of a childminder and a full five-week summer camp – not to mention holiday costs, uniform, school visits and trips, general household bills and the size of the property we live in (and therefore the mortgage we pay) – add up. The added costs of just one more child can radically change your lifestyle, and we really like ours where it is.

Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!

I have no idea where the selfishness thing comes from. As my friend Anna once said, “only a child with a sibling knows the exact mid-point of a Mars bar”. People assume that – a bit like manners, or liking vegetables – sharing has to be practiced or you won’t know how to do it. But sharing is something us social human creatures only seem to object to when we’re forced to do it. Think about it: what feels better, offering your seat to someone on the Tube or being asked for it? Both husband and child are considerably more natural and happy sharers than I am, because they’ve routinely had the security of knowing their stuff is their stuff. Not communal stuff. Not a hand-me-down. Not limited to ten-minute turns. Then again, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a single adult where I could tell if they had siblings or not by how ‘selfish’ they were. I suspect it makes no difference at all, but if I had to argue for more selflessness on one side, it would be in favour of the only child.

The Winner Takes It All

Having said that, I’ll tell you what I’m overwhelmingly glad my daughter doesn’t have to share: a bed. On holiday  (particularly in the US) it’s frequently the case that you’ll encounter hotels that have two double beds per room – and she gets it all to herself. No squabbling, no problem. I don’t have to share with her, as I did with my mum until my sister and I could be trusted to actually sleep and not have a kicking contest, and she never has to wake up freezing cos her sibling has made a burrito out of the bedding (naming no names, sister mine). If there is only one bed, she’ll slip happily into a single roll-out camp bed.

Knowing Me Knowing You

I think the “what about their peers” argument is closely related to the anti-homeschool argument, though I’m not a homeschooler myself. There’s this assumption that if kids don’t have another child at home or don’t spend all day every day with at least 15 other kids of the same age (because in the workplace we’re all segregated by age and ability all the time), that means they’ll never have any friends. There are no cousins, no friends at school / clubs / swimming lessons, no family friends and relatives, no neighbours and absolutely no other opportunities to socialise with other kids. At all. Ever. Right? And we all know that having absolutely no personal space or way to get away from the person who’s driving you round the bend is very conducive to healthy friendships, and siblings never, ever argue. Ahem.

Also, might there not be something to be said – particularly, again, with two working parents who are out of the house a lot – for having a guarantee of your parents’ undivided attention? I can tell you that, for me, spending more time one-to-one (and less time refereeing) is a really precious gift; one I don’t take for granted. No, I don’t get to see those loving sibling moments – though I’ve seen some downright adorable cousin moments – and I only get one amazing small friend rather than two or more; my loss, indeed. But the flipside of that is that jealousy is a rare emotion in this house (except when the cat monopolises my lap for too long) and I only have one set of tantrums to handle.

My Love My Life

The fact is that I breathed a bit of a sigh of a relief when the baby milestones were done. I adored my daughter at all her stages: tiny, scrunched and helpless, snoozing on my chest; chewing her feet and making da-da-da sounds; taking her first wobbly steps. I hated potty training with a vengeance, but I celebrated with her when she nailed it, and I delighted in dispensing with nappies and bedtime pullups. I really, really, really love having an older child now, with whom I can have conversations, properly read books, watch films in the cinema, go to museums, travel and go out and about without the sponge shaped like a teddy bear and the teddy bear shaped like a sponge. I can also let her go for grandparent sleepovers without concerns – albeit not without missing her – and have more date nights, theatre trips and catch ups with friends.

Having one child – unless your first two children are twins – necessarily means reducing the length of time that you are parent of an infant; even if you have them back to back, each time you’re tacking on another year of those moments. And they’re beautiful, and wonderful and you do them willingly and sometimes you marvel in them but – to my mind – they’re not as good as the much more fully rounded person you get a few years down the line. (See? Told you I was the selfish one.)

When all is said and done, there are some serious things to be said about the only child discourse – including how hurtful it must be for people who did not choose to have one child but were forced into it by circumstance. And of course there are some very wonderful things to say about having more than one child, as many of my friends and family do. But just for once I wanted to celebrate the advantages – material, practical and emotional – that come with being a mum of one.

Whether or not I’ll stay that way… well, that’d be telling.

What it’s like to be your mum, now you’re five

I should maybe write about what it is to be five, but how can I? Being

a mum to a five year old I can tell you about. I think that there
might be only one word for it: awesome. Literally. I see that

tomorrow holds so much. I watch the grown up you appearing in the
embers of babyhood you’ve blasted away behind you like a phoenix. I
remember that there was a point when you were basically a genial blob, and I
remember that there was a time when you couldn’t read and were barely
interested in toys or games. I recall there was a period when your nappies were
full and your gums empty. But now we have these lengthy and complex talks –
ideas shower from you like rain – and you ask questions and stretch out
every bit of your vocabulary, testing out words like you’re nibbling bites from
dense loaves of bread. I cling to the moments when you have daft,

babyish ideas, like when you asked me if peas were dead tadpoles. You
understand why it’s funny, and make sly jokes about your mad idea, when
there was a time not too long ago you would have been too embarrassed.

Generally, you’re a brilliantly good-natured soul, making friends easily
or so your teachers tell me – and I see it when we visit other children. I
do envy this; your easy manners and wonderfully engaging nature are things

I have never felt entirely sure of in myself, gregarious as I am. But I

love that I’ll never have to worry about you fitting in, even with your fabulously
odd sense of humour and the way you gravitate towards geekery. I admit I felt
validated when it turned out that your favourites at Walt Disney World were
every bit as edutainmenty and nerdy as mine. Spaceship Earth! You know what

you like and it’s gentle and smart and sparkly, just like you. And
over and above everything, you know that your mama will adore you, will
understand the weird fears and sharp passions, and love you as you. Always.

Consent and conversations with young children (or why I ask permission for cuddles at night)

The other day I ended up staying late at work and heading out for dinner with some colleagues (friends, really and all, for what it’s worth, currently child free). While we were waiting for food I got a text from my husband about how our daughter’s bedtime had gone, and it listed the number of cuddles and kisses I could give her when I got home.

I got some baffled looks at this, so I tried to explain. My daughter knows that the last thing I will do every night before I go to bed will be to stick my head around her door and check in on her. My commute is around an hour and a half long, so I inevitably miss a fair number of bedtimes, and therefore bedtime cuddles. She doesn’t want to miss out on these altogether, but also knows she’ll be asleep when I get in. So she gives me a certain number of cuddles and kisses I can deliver when I arrive. It’s usually hilariously specific yet not – “ten or eleven kisses, and two or three hugs” – and sometimes she’ll be super prescriptive about exact kiss placement on her face, and sometimes not. And I only ever carry out exactly what she says, though I’ll admit if she gives me a choice of numbers of kisses I’ll invariably go for the maximum.

I basically got a ‘but why?’ to all this, and I tried to elaborate. The main message I’m trying to get across to the kid is that her body is her own (as I’ve written about before) and that doesn’t change when she’s asleep. We’ve talked about respecting each other’s boundaries a lot during wakefulness – one of her favourite games is the ‘Stop Go Tickle Game’, where she gets to dictate exactly how much I tickle her tummy and around her neck – but now that she’s left the infant stage where she’s unable to communicate preference, I want to demonstrate to her that this respect continues 24 hours a day. Of course I could just pay lip service to it and then smother her little chubby cheeks in mummy kisses as soon as she’s out – she wouldn’t know I’d broken her trust, but I would. And it would be heartbreaking.

The reaction I mostly got was ‘that’s fascinating’, and I’ve no doubt it sounds a lot like weird, handwringing, liberal overthinking. Even if it is, I’d rather overthink this stuff than not think about it at all. When you’re raising a girl, one of the topics you cannot ignore is personal safety; we live in a world where female autonomy and bodily integrity is not sacrosanct. In the slightest. I was very much taught about the practicalities of navigating a life around this as a youngster and a teen – personal alarms, not walking alone, self-defence classes, holding keys as weapons. And while I think that teaching a few defensive strategies has an element of common sense to it, I also think that focussing entirely on that basically says “this is your responsibility, as a girl” – and it’s blatantly not. I cannot, in raising a girl, control what other people will do around her. But I can help fight a culture that suggests that she can. To me, the best way to do that is to continually reinforce her confidence in her own boundaries.

This makes it sound like we all sit there politely asking each other for cuddles as you might ask to pass the salt, and anyone who has ever seen our family in real life would find this pretty hilarious. We’re a seriously huggy bunch (as anyone who has ever gone drinking with me will know); we just place emphasis on the fact that the word ‘no’ is important. More recently we’ve also talked about non-verbal cues as well; when my daughter told me she sometimes wanted to say ‘stop’ in the tickle game but was laughing too hard, I suggested she use a gesture instead and she decided on holding her hand up like a traffic police officer. It’s a constantly evolving process and negotiation, because the paradox of being a child is being taught that you have agency but told you have to go to school, must have your jabs, should eat your greens and will go to bed by a certain time. Parents exist in the land of I Know What’s Best For You, and to my mind she will trust in me offering up this sometimes bitter medicine (we recently had a belated phase two of the MMR, and it was not fun) if the rest of the time the sweet, sweet sugar is confidence in her own autonomy and ability to make decisions and choices that feel right to her. I position myself as the guardian of her safety and health – my number one job as Mama, part and parcel with loving her more than anyone else in the world – and her as the guardian of her personal space. And it’s a partnership which involves her direction and leadership as well as mine, until she’s old enough to take the reins entirely.

Of course I second-guess myself occasionally. For example, does making an agreement beforehand convey consent when one is asleep? For the moment I go with it because on those occasions where we haven’t spoken for some reason so I just poke my head in and leave it at that, she’s disappointed at ‘missing out’ on cuddles when we speak the next morning. She often proactively announces to her dad, without being asked, how much affection she wants doled out when I get home. But eventually I guess my mad work schedule will differ and she’ll get older and less concerned with missed bedtimes and this will all change.

But what won’t change, ever, is my respect for her. So I will carry on having what might seem like needlessly complex rituals in order to reinforce this for her because I really believe it’s important.

Is this something you ever think or worry about with your children or relatives’ children? Do you have family routines and behaviours which seem baffling to others but underscore an important message from your perspective? I strongly suspect I’m not the only one…