Saturday, 21 March 2015

Thoughts on overthinking

I have a tendency to overthink things; a useful attribute as a blog writer, less so as a wife and mother. Today was definitely an overthinking day, and I spent most of the morning in an infuriating loop of disappointment, guilt and resentment. I'm not sure if anyone else ever experiences this (Drake certainly doesn't seem to) but it drives me bananas when it happens.

As I was turning left out of our estate (with Drake in the passenger seat), a car came towards us. It was quite far over on my side of the road, a fact Drake underlined with a sharp intake of breath and a 'watch out', so I pulled in further to the left to avoid it and in doing so, I clipped the kerb. Nothing major, but on checking later I noticed I had scuffed the alloy. Obviously this is annoying from an expense point of view, but I also tend to throw myself into a tailspin of self-flagellation whenever I do daft stuff like this. Which is quite often - I am rather clumsy, prone to day dreaming and get easily distracted. All that said, I am generally a pretty good driver, and have never had an accident that was my fault (touch wood and all that). The second Drake gets in the car with me though, I turn into a learner all over again, unable to execute even the most straightforward of manoeuvres without flapping. I don't like my abilities being scrutinised at the best of times, but he is a hopeless passenger, and spends most journeys where I drive sat bolt upright like a wary meerkat, checking junctions and warning me of approaching obstacles he thinks I haven't seen. I honestly don't know why he ever suggests I drive, or why I agree. I suspect he's trying to prove that he's not a backseat driver, while I'm tying to prove that I don't always drive like a total pillock. Usually we fail on both fronts - my incompetence makes his wariness greater, which in turn makes my driving crappier.

Anyway, after clipping the kerb, I primarily felt angry at myself for not being more careful. However, I was also peeved at Drake - his reaction on spotting the car had prompted me to move closer to the kerb than was really necessary. So, once I'd noticed the damage, I blamed him for making me overcompensate. He protested and then made me feel guilty because, as he reminded me, I'm the one in control of the car and the decisions I make should be based on my own judgement, not his. Plus I knew I was unfairly taking some of my frustration at myself out on him. I apologised, but as usual, because I was still annoyed, I overdid it ("You'd never have hit the kerb, I'm such an idiot, etc. etc.") Then I became really resentful because a) I know deep down these things happen to us all so I shouldn't be beating myself up (though they do seem to happen to Drake far less...) and b) Drake had assumed no responsibility and was now laughing at me and my overreaction. So I went back to blaming him, then feeling guilty, and so the cycle continued.

I was raised (in a roundabout way) to always think about my actions and admit where some of the blame for things going wrong might lie with me. I like to think this is a sensible and mature attitude, and that the world would be a nicer place if everyone did this. However, the downside is that it can leave you feeling guilty much of the time, and resentful when others don't meet you half way. I have lost count of the times I've said "I'm sorry, all my fault" to Drake in the hope that he'll say "No, not entirely, I could have done ABC better", but it never happens. Instead I get the line "Never mind, these things happen" or "You worry too much" or "Oh well, you'll know for next time". If I do take the less self-deprecating route and point out how he made the situation worse or could have helped to avoid it, he'll either just laugh, as though the possibility that he's in any way accountable is hilarious, or he'll get annoyed and imply I'm being unreasonable.

The point here is not that Drake is a git - far from it, he's generally a very lovely guy. It's just that he's quite normal in his reactions, while I massively overthink everything. He hates being wrong, but if it's very clear that he is, he'll usually admit it and apologise. He then has a healthy enough ego to just shrug it off as "something that happens to the best of us" and get on with things. I on the other hand, feel intensely disappointed at myself for the initial faux pas, then doubly disappointed at my overreaction to it, then dwell on my failures for the rest of the day. And write a blog post about it. Clearly I expect perfection in everything I do, including my reaction to imperfection.

This leaves me with a dilemma in terms of how we raise Duckling. I want him to always think about his actions and how they affect other people, and behave accordingly. What I don’t want him to do is overthink his actions, then beat himself up over them. Guilt and self-admonishment are useful as behaviour regulators – we don’t like feeling bad about what we’ve done, so we try not to do bad things. Too much guilt however is unhealthy and can actually piss off others more than the original indiscretion. I think being a boy will help. For both social and biological reasons, women definitely seem to be more predisposed to feeling guilt than men. Beyond this, I suppose the best thing I can do is try to set a good example – apologise where appropriate but try not to overreact or heap blame on myself where it’s not warranted. I also need to avoid giving him the impression that other people upset or offend me whenever they do the slightest thing wrong. I think this is why I’m prone to feeling so bad - in my family, other people's behaviour was always under scrutiny and regularly criticised, which has probably subconsciously given me the impression that everyone gets so easily put out. By contrast, Drake’s parents (and Drake himself) don't analyse people much and are offended by very little, so he assumes everyone else is as easy going, and doesn’t sweat the small stuff. This is just a theory though. Chances are I’m overthinking it...   

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Toilet trips, stain tips and the silliness of modern advertising

As I was refilling our loo roll holder for the tenth time this week (Duckling is going through the obligatory toilet paper unravelling phase) I noticed that the back of the Andrex packet featured a five-step pictorial guide on use of the product contained therein. Seriously. Thought that wiping your bum involved a few sheets of scrunched up bog roll and a quick swoosh round your nether regions? Think again! To do it properly, you first select 3-4 sheets of paper for an initial wipe. You then repeat, wiping front to back until the paper comes away clean. Next, you use 1-2 moist Andrex Washlets for a truly thorough cleanse before you "pat dry" with further sheets of regular paper. Finally, in a public spirited step five, you are encouraged to Wash Your Hands. I'm surprised there isn't a step six suggesting you then dry them with loo roll as well, before eating a few sheets for elevenses.
Many people get incensed by corporate attempts to infiltrate every aspect of our lives in the pursuit of profit. This is entirely understandable; one only need look at tobacco and alcohol advertising to realise the dangers of giving companies free rein to promote their products in any manner they see fit.  However, I would wager that for the most part, advertising executives have less power than they believe they do.  For Andrex, the dream I'm sure is to persuade the entire nation that they've been improperly wiping their bottoms up until now (the unsanitary troglodytes) and that they must start using an extra ten sheets plus a moist towelette at every toilet trip.  Putting aside the fact that the majority of toilet paper is used by women who don't actually wipe their bum at most visits (or indeed ever, for all you men out there who don't believe that ladies poop), this dream I suspect is of the pipe variety. Yes, mentioning the moist version of their toilet tissue on the back of the pack is going to inform people that it exists, and may even prompt them to buy some.  But we no longer live in the 1950s - most people are pretty wise to marketing ploys and I can't imagine many who will decide to totally overhaul their lavatorial routine just because the Andrex gurus tell them they should.  Although I am a very thorough wiper already so there isn't much room for improvement at my end...
The silliness continues in brands' attempts to cash in on current trends in online communication and social media.  John Oliver recently did an excellent piece on Last Week Tonight regarding the cringe-worthiness of big name companies tweeting about public events which have no relevance to their brands.  The Build a Bear workshop tweet which appears to inappropriately commercialise 9-11 is a particularly awkward example.  Then you have things like the Vanish Tip Exchange. For the uninitiated (you poor souls), the 'VTE' ostensibly offers worried washers the chance to share suggestions on the best way to get stains out of things.  A noble aim were it not for the fact that the answer to every single question in their tip section appears to be "put some Vanish on it".  Got a chocolate stain? Here are forty marginally different ways you can use a Vanish branded product to get it out. Or you could just use a regular detergent, because, you know, chocolate doesn't actually stain that much (unlike baby poo which no amount of Vanishing, Shouting or Stain Devilling will get out. Maybe I should use Andrex Washlets on it...).

In the spirit of investigative journalism, I signed up to the VTE to gauge whether the many "use some Vanish" tips had been written by the ad execs themselves or left by real people (in which case why?  I mean what would possess you to go on a site not just sponsored by a product but actually set up and run by it, just to promote that product further?  I can only imagine they're all married to / siblings of / being blackmailed by a Vanish employee).  The site is a bit of a shambles but eventually I managed to find a page where I could leave a tip. It seemed to offer a genuine opportunity to share my wealth of stain removal knowledge, and looking at the tips left by others, the poor spelling and dodgy photos implied the posters were real people.  However, a week after posting, my suggestion that you could get grass stains out with a lawnmower has not appeared, presumably because it didn't overtly sing the praises of the titular white powder in the neon pink tub. You might say my contribution has suspiciously Vanished.  Ahem
This example of transparent band-wagoning is not to say that corporate attempts to tap into popular culture can't be successful - indeed some even manage to create it.  The Baby Oleg toy in Duckling's room is testament to the fact that with the right formula, advertising campaigns can take on a life of their own. The recent craze for all things meerkat, the upsurge in animal-fronted adverts (think Virgin's sofa bear, Muller Rice's bear, the Sofa Works sloth, the Music Magpie, the McVities kittens / puppies / owls...) and a general penchant for whimsy might all be attributed to Compare The Market's wildly popular campaign.  I actually shed a tear recently when little Baby Oleg decided to remain in Africa to live out his days with the stripy pyjama horses (I am SUCH a sap these days!).  The adverts are perfectly pitched - funny, sweet and slightly nuts - but I'm sure even the ad execs who came up with them never dreamed they would still be running six years later, or that Alexsandr Orlov would have over sixty-seven thousand Twitter followers. Such success is always hoped for, but rarely achieved.  The companies keep trying though, and as a result, amongst the market comparison sites alone we have a whole gamut of 'lovable' characters and catchphrases: think's mildly annoying Brian the Robot, the utterly nauseating Gogogo Compare ads (I honestly preferred the opera singer) and You're SO Money Supermarket.  With Snoop Dogg. Natch.
So, while I slightly despair of the painfully obvious desperation of much modern marketing, there is also certain delight to be taken from the forced silliness of it all; of being able to rise above and recognise the clunkiness of trying to commercialise popular culture and everyday life in ways that simply don't work.  Provided of course we can recognise its silliness, because as ever, there is a flip side.  I think I'll save my post on the vulnerability of women and girls to sinister and pervasive 'body perfect' advertising for another, less flippant day however, because right now, the Andrex (toilet) and the Vanish (washing) are calling...

Monday, 9 March 2015

Fear of the tiger

In my last post, I posed the question "why is mothering not easier, more evolutionarily refined?". I asked because I so often overwhelmed with the intensity of motherhood in the early days.  I wondered why I didn't naturally have greater internal resources - mental, emotional, intellectual and physical - to deal with everything my baby threw at me, and indeed why my baby didn't naturally sense my exhaustion and do something to help!

Evolution - or more specifically natural selection - has of course done much to ensure successful mother and child pairings.  It's just that it selects for traits important for survival, rather than those that guarantee an easy life. For example, babies almost certainly want to be held a lot in the early months (and cry loudly when put down) because in the days of cave dwelling, it simply wasn't safe to pop a baby down and leave it.  'Good' babies who didn't make a fuss would most likely end up freezing to death, or being munched by a peckish sabre toothed tiger, thus extinguishing their particular genetic line.   Looking at the other side of the partnership, as a mother, your baby's cries cuts through you because to ignore them might once have mean death for your baby, or indeed for you if the predator your baby attracted with its cries was hungry enough.

So, evolution has given us the drive to nurture and protect.  Where it's not so helpful is providing the energy and practical day to day techniques needed to keep both baby and mother happy and comfortable in the prevailing environment. We are not born knowing how to wrestle our baby into a babygro, deal with tantrums or get our baby to sleep in a cot - this is where family, community and society (and Google) step in.  Their role is to ensure we raise physically healthy kids, but also informed, well adjusted and useful members of our community.

Arguably, the problems arise when society somehow falls out of sync with our natural biological programming. Though human social groupings are a product of evolution themselves - survival is far more likely when people live and work together - societies change far more rapidly than inherited individual traits do. As explained above, because neglected children are less likely to survive into adulthood, a propensity to care for our children has been engrained in our behaviour as humans over many millennia.  Unfortunately our power of reasoning, another great triumph of evolution, can subvert this natural instinct if the ideas it produces are socially embedded to any significant degree.
Consider the generations of parents who were told to leave their babies to cry to avoid 'spoiling' them.  The idea came from a combination of the Victorian obsession with germs (which led doctors to recommend touching babies as little as possible) and Behaviourism - an influential paradigm in psychology during the early 20th century which represented all human behaviour as conditioned responses to external stimuli. So, an ignored baby would eventually stop crying (the desired outcome) as they learned that it did not result in attention from a parent. A true enough hypothesis, but one that failed to recognise that this short term gain for the parents could have major long term psychological and physiological implications for the child.  Numerous studies have demonstrated that ignoring a baby raises the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in its brain and over the long term, this can actually alter the way the baby's brain functions.  Children who are not adequately comforted (or are actively abused) by their parents grow up with a much lower tolerance for stress, and as such are more likely to react disproportionately or impulsively in stressful situations, or abuse substances to help them to cope with life. 

The reason for this is no doubt itself evolutionary - as Margot Sunderland's book "What Every Parent Needs To Know" explains, the human brain is highly malleable at birth, enabling it to be 'wired up' according to the environment the child finds itself in.  The brain of child with bullying parents will therefore develop chemistry and synaptic connections that promote hypervigilance, a strong sense of fear and / or aggression and rapid attack / defence reactions.  This will probably help that child to survive, but will be at the expense of their 'higher' reasoning and self-soothing abilities, and in all likelihood their long-term happiness.  Furthermore, their adult behaviour is likely to be disturbing to others in their family and community and detrimental to overall social cohesion, particularly as a child who has not been shown love in their infancy will find it much harder to express love towards their own children, thus passing down their 'toxic' stress through the generations.
Poor care as a result of parents who have been damaged by poor care themselves is a more intractable problem than poor care due to the unhelpful advice of pseudoscientific experts (and the 'helpful' relatives who have been influenced by their thinking). Social institutions can however act to remedy both situations.  Counselling has been shown to help adults resolve some the issues arising from a lack of love in childhood, and institutions such as the NHS can do a lot to supply good quality, evidence-based childrearing practices (at least until the next set of scientific studies show us we have it all wrong!). Many now do so, and though some unhelpful ideas certainly persist, a degree of circularity is now observable in the way that attitudes towards childrearing have changed over the past few centuries. "Instinctive" parenting, once the norm for lack of any other methodology, was for a time replaced by advice that essentially denigrated parental, particularly maternal, attachment as weak minded, inconvenient and in more recent years, a bit 'hippy dippy'. Today's more rigorous scientific methods and brain imaging techniques (plus, arguably, greater female involvement in the public sphere) are however changing this hippy dippy label, and we are once again returning to an emphasis on more natural, nurturing behaviours. 
Returning to my original question, I think, on reflection, that actually I am quite lucky - not only do I have the basic mothering instincts bestowed on me by the countless generations that have come before me, but I also had parents who were loving and, thank goodness, a mother who had studied child development as part of her training to be a Nursery Nurse, and therefore managed not repeat some of the mistakes she admits her mother probably made with her.  Evolution has actually refined my skills far more than I realised - it's trying to fight against what feels most instinctively comfortable (because sometimes, unavoidably, we do have to get dressed and leave the house) that makes life hard!  My resolution for this month therefore twofold.  Firsly, I am going to try to trust my mothering instincts more, rather than berating myself for not 'getting it right' (see my last post for more on that!).  Secondly, I'm going to try to bear in mind that everything Duckling does also has some basis in his ancient genetic programming.  While I know that my baby is not going to be eaten by a tiger at 2am when he wakes up alone in his cot, he does not.  So, however aggravating it may be, the best thing I can do is respond, comfort and dream of the day when he's old enough to understand that suburbia is a tiger-free zone.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Happy 1st Birthday Duckling

This weekend, my little boy, Duckling, turned one.  As landmark birthdays go, it's probably the biggest, although sadly its the one he'll remember least. It's been a bittersweet event for me.  It's wonderful that he's growing up and becoming more aware and communicative.  However, I also feel a certain sense of loss that his baby days are now nearly behind him.  Most parents experience this I'm sure, but for me it seems odd to feel quite so nostalgic, as Duckling was (and still is on occasion) what Dr Sears politely calls a "High Need" baby, and my rather more straight talking childminder calls "difficult".  For the first few months he couldn't be parted from my nipple for more than a few seconds before he let it be known that his world was officially ending.  He rarely slept more than five minutes at a time (unless tucked up in bed with me, again, glued to the breast), and trips out in the pushchair almost always ended in me crying as much as he did.  Even as I write this, he's asleep across my lap as he refused point blank to lie down in his cot to nap.

My sadness is therefore not about missing what was, but never having experienced what could have been.  I never really got the squidgy, sleepy newborn days, or breezy summer outings with a sleeping baby in a pram (though this is undoubtedly a very idealised image of motherhood!).  Rather, my memories primarily consist of multiple traumatic trips out conducted at high speed with my pulse racing and teeth gritted throughout.  That's not to say there haven't been good parts - I love Duckling fiercely, and he is endlessly entertaining when he's in a good mood, so it's not that every day is a chore, or that my baby gives nothing back. I also know I'm a good Mum, and I think I've done a decent job in the circumstances.  Yet I still, even now, go to bed most nights feeling utterly drained and a bit deflated (though thankfully, apart from a few days here and there, not depressed).  I quite sure I'm not alone in this, and that Duckling's tenacious personality would be enough to exhaust anyone, but I still can't help wonder why it has been so hard?  Procreation is after all both the fundamental purpose to all life and the process by which we continue to exist and evolve as a species.  Everybody has (or had) a mother, so why is mothering not easier, more evolutionarily refined?  Why do mothers everywhere still find themselves kneeling on the floor of their children's bedrooms at 3am, faces pressed up against the bars of a cot, pleading pathetically and ineffectually for their wailing offspring to "just <insert swearword> go to <insert swearword> sleep"?

Obviously the difficulties of being a Mum are strongly linked to a lack of sleep and being 'on call' 24/7 with little respite - that's a given.  On a psychological level, I think lack of control and lack of recognition also contribute.  Whatever your personality type, after nine months in the womb as part of you, accepting that your child is an independent entity that (at least initially) you cannot reason with, who won't thank you for what you do, and over whom you have very little sway can be hard, particularly if you've not got much experience with babies, or have previously been in a work role or relationship where you command some kind of respect and have some kind of order.  In the early days, you also don't know your child well enough (and they don't know you) to interpret their cries and moods accurately. Traditional female support networks once helped a woman to learn all about childrearing before having children of her own, and helped a new mother to share the burden of her new baby once it arrived.  They also helped her to feel valued.  As Naomi Stadlen says in her excellent book "What Mothers Do", once upon a time, "Women saw each other being mothers.  The importance and value of what they were doing was obvious.  A new mother today, struggling alone with her baby in her flat, is no longer of this traditional world."  It is easy to be sentimental about 'traditional ways', but it is not hard to see the benefit in placing a more positive emphasis on mothering and its importance to society as a whole, if only to help a mother feel that the daily grind has some kind of positive purpose. 

False expectations don't help either.  I didn't read too many parenting books before I had Duckling because I didn't want to make assumptions about him or the best way to raise him. However, as open minded as I thought this made me, I had actually subconsciously created a 'perfect' personality for my child.  The reality came as a total shock.  All I could think was "But Drake and I are so laid back.  Why isn't he?! Do I have the right baby? Can this amount of feeding / protesting / wakefulness really be NORMAL?".  The answer is of course yes, for Duckling it was, and deep down, intuitively, I knew this.  My bright little baby was just sitting at one end of a sliding scale of quite normal fussiness (although a tongue tie did make things worse).  Nevertheless, it took me a while to reconcile the baby I had expected with the one I got.  After holding back on the expert advice while pregnant, I started Googling obsessively, trying to figure out what I could do about this remarkably vocal child.  While some information was useful, much left me with the impression that I had given birth to an "exception to a rule", or that my problems were simply a result of having deviated from best practice (whatever that was).

This is another reason I think modern motherhood is hard - we are swimming in so much 'expert' advice, it threatens to drown us.  Much of it is well-meaning, but it isn't tailored to our child.  We feel we ought to follow it anyway because the experts have done 'research' and surely must know better than us.  A good example is sleep training.  Duckling doesn't like sleep, never has, and will usually only fall asleep while feeding.  In desperation, at six months I did some 'Pick Up Put Down' (note to anyone thinking of trying - it's a bit less heartbreaking than Controlled Crying by way more backbreaking).  "Pick up and hold until calm before placing back down" the instructions say.  I picked up, I held, but the calmness never came.  Duckling screamed and screamed.  I walked about, he screamed.  I rocked him, he screamed. I jiggled, he screamed.  I didn't know what to do.  Ninety minutes in and I hadn't even got to the 'put down' part. 

With perseverance, I did eventually have some limited success but it wasn't the miraculous key to a full night's sleep I'd been hoping for, so I felt I must be doing it wrong.  I wasn't being consistent enough by resorting to feeding to sleep on the forth wake up of the night. I was holding him too long before putting him down, or maybe I wasn't holding him long enough?  My confidence as a competent parent crumbled, while my resentment of my baby grew.  I was giving it my all, so why wasn't he playing ball?  What was wrong with this idiotic child?  What was wrong with me?

Eventually it was my mother who put me back on the path to sanity.  After months of repeated sleep training attempts, she told me to relax and just do what made Duckling and I happiest and gave us the most rest.  So back to feeding to sleep when he woke in the night, and bringing him into bed when I was too tired to stay upright in the rocking chair.  Not long afterwards, he slept through the night for the first time (well, to 5am).

So, as Duckling turns one, I feel sad both because the tough memories rather outweigh the happy ones, but also because I've probably spent too much time worrying about this fact and seeking 'fixes' to my baby's apparent flaws, rather than accepting his quirks and sticking with what made us both happiest.  Ironically, my midwife praised me right at the very start for not trying to fight against what my baby was telling me he wanted.  I wish I had remembered that praise more as he grew!  "Trust your instincts" is certainly the best piece of advice any new mother can receive, but also "trust your child".  Hopefully the lessons learned will stand me in good stead for year two, but I'll keep you posted!