Wednesday, February 28, 2007

On Turning 4

Last week my little boy turned 4.
He is no longer a baby. He is a confident, funny, smart, tall, growing up boy. And next year he will be going to school.

The concept of my baby boy going to school is a little disconcerting for me. Have 4 years really passed since his birth? Could he possibly be growing up this quickly? Is he ready for school? Am I ready for school.

Sending my child off to school feels a little like I’m cheating him of his childhood – stripping him of his innocence and demanding that he grow up and become world savvy quickly. I see before him the years of learning, tests, exams, pressure, stress and expectation to do well. I see his path of life of cramming, competition and constant scrutiny to perform.

I wonder, amongst this, are we doing enough for him to achieve his goals within this system, have we given him the skills and the encouragement, have we given him the strength and the confidence to become whatever his heart desires. I truly hope the answer is yes, but does any parent really know till the last University exam is done.

I am being hard on myself with what I have written so far. I can hear you screaming that it doesn’t need to be that way, and I thoroughly agree. I think education can be a wonderful source of adventure and the learning process one of exhilaration and passion. I loved learning, was passionate about so many areas and I hope beyond everything that Max has that same passion. I will do whatever I can to foster his experiences positively. I have no real doubt that Max will do well in whatever he sets his sights on – he has an intensity for detail, perseverance, a yearning to learn how things work and how to put information together. He loves numbers and letters, appreciates colour theory, understands the concept of components and building upon things to create wholes and enjoys his quests to understand. I believe in the school system he will go into, the power of community nurturing, and the emerging curriculum he is already a part of at his daycare. He follows the Reggio Emilia model of learning which I think provides an important building block of establishing ability to think, question, answer and understand within a democratic environment.

What I feel is the quiet slipping away of his childhood – to better things one hopes - but that sense that time is rapidly gaining momentum and suddenly I will wake up and have a teenager in my house complaining of acne. Soon the small bikes he is learning to ride on will be gathering dust, the paddling pools will be put away. His screaming in delight and his delightful monologues in the sandpit will be gone. His tears over stubbed toes will disappear, and mummies kiss will no longer heal all wounds. Soon his cherished naivety about life will be replaced with some harsh realities, which I want desperately to shield him from, but which I know he needs to feel, see and experience to become the person he needs to be and to live the life he was destined to live.

I worry about his future as any mother does, wanting to know an outcome in 50 years and that he will be ok so I can relax in the here and now. Perhaps that would in some way take away from the glory of watching him grow and develop, find interests and learn sometimes by default or the hard way. I will be with him every step of the way, encouraging, supporting, smiling, and guiding. And I still have 11 months to prepare myself for his momentous step into the world when I say goodbye at the school gate. My little boy is growing up.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

the parent trap

If you are in Oz, you might have read this article in Saturday's paper. Jane Cadzow reporting on parental guilt and the burden of raising children in today's world. Like all articles on parenting and children, I devoured it immediately. And like all of these articles I read, I was left feeling really ambivalent about what it meant to me.

Cadzow points to a number of things about how the role of children and parenting have changed throughout history to argue that children have gone from being smaller version of adults (with adult responsibilities and one assumes almost no parenting needs), through the removed from the adult world phase (via wet nurses, nannies and boarding schools, outsourced parenting) to come to occupy centre stage in today's world and in the lives of parents.

Now there's hyper pressure to get it right, to raise geniuses, to attend to a child's every need. For adults to sacrifice themselves and their time to maximise their children's happiness, growth and development and to become experts who will be held fully accountable for a child's every flaw. To surrender personal leisure time, sleep and goals to facilitate maximum exposure, to take children into worlds previously reserved for adults alone.

She argues that this is bad for parents and for kids. Parents are run ragged, guilt ridden and doomed to failure - since kids are indeed humans and not capable of perfection. They are tired and missing out on their own lives. Their children are growing into unhappy hot house flowers, whose every passing emotion is analysed and adjusted and who are increasingly incapable of living their own lives unassisted. "Whiny, passive, self-centred and cheerless", says one journalist quoted by Cadzow.

Part of me agrees with all this. I see the extent of angst so many parents (particularly mothers) go through about the millions of day to day issues they have to make a call on and it seems like so much wasted energy. I see the guilt that wracks otherwise rational intelligent adults over the smallest of problems or judgements from others and it seems so disproportionately self-punishing. I see the way parents feel shamed when their child behaves badly or displays poor judgement - even when such things are rare occurences - the way they become defensive or punishing or embarassed over the learning experiences each child must surely go through.

And I recall, as well as reflect on, the tremendous power of independence as a child. The way in which I learned from the mistakes I made, the way in which I was left to take responsibility for the world I created for myself. I also suspect, from expereince and observation, that in many ways children develop despite parenting rather than because of it. I sometimes wonder what lurks beneith the desire of parents for perfect children, for approval as perfect parents. I wonder why parents let this happen to them, why they take the pressure and guilt on instead of being OK with life's imperfection.

But then there's the other part of me. The part that feels the regular confusion and frustration of reading articles/having conversations/being told about society's fascination with how we parent. About the explosion of (often conflicting) knowledge about what is and is not good for children and what parents should and should not do. If parents have come to over think parenting, then so have social commentators and non-parents alike. Hardly a day goes by when we aren't being told about the crimes of the (all too recent) past, breast vs formula, solids too early or late, toilet training at what age and in what way, co-sleeping or controlled crying. Every choice studied, scrutinised and no doubt to be demonised at some later point.

Women's magazines carry headlines about how Brittany Spears' nights on the town make her subject to visits from child welfare - as though the choice to leave children with a nanny or five whilst enjoying oneself out of the home (underpants or not) make her a mother so unfit to parent that her children should forcibly be removed from her care. Other celebrity mothers have been similarly slammed for losing or gaining weight, for having nannies or not, for carting children with them whilst going out to work, or leaving them behind, or not working at all, for posing nude whilst pregnant or being ashamed of their pregnant bodies, for staying in a bad relationship or leaving one.

In the context of broader social change the the pressure on parenting is not entirely surprising, and there are a few points in Cadzow's article I would take issue on.

For a start the changing nature of work and workplace commitment places pressures on families that didn't used to be there. Cadzow claims working hours haven't fundamentally changed in 40 years, but even if this is true (which I think is not the real picture), those hours are now spread across a greater span of time, are less predictable and more likely to involve travel and home absence than ever before (we may not be clocked on whilst sleepign ina hotel room in another city but we sure aren't being active parents either). More jobs are casual, contract, short term and part-time, many more people cobble a working life together through managing a number of employment situations than sticking on one job for many years - a job more likely than not where your boss knew your kids by name and maybe even let them hang around if they were off school or a bit off colour.

40 years ago very few people worked on weekends, and Sundays in particular were absolutely family time. In the retail sector alone we now have 7 day a week 24 hour a day trading. Sunday quite possibly involves working - if not in the paid workforce then in the domestic sphere via a trip to Bunnings to get the new guttering or the supermarket to do the weekly shop. There can be no doubt that for families, time (even if not reduced in quantum) is most certainly more fractured. And this means parents feel the pressure to be more 'present' for children when they are together.

But I also think that while parenting has becoming an obsession in some respects, children have become far more marginalised beings than they used to be, rather than the centre of the universe as Cadzow asserts. Certainly we now see children in places they used not to be (like expensive restaurants and fancy resorts) and we do see parenting talked about and debated in forums that would once have seen such discussion as entirely beneith them (like daily newspapers). But many of the places in which children were once welcome, indeed quite central, have diminished over time. The vacant land and wild places of the suburban fringe, the parklands that offered more than fenced in uber safe playgrounds, the streets that hosted billy cart races and ball games, the community recreation parks and pools that were cheap and friendly, the local footy oval where the locals practiced their games.

Society is no longer prepared to bear the costs of these resources and it is perhaps inevitable that as the world outside has diminished for kids the world inside has had to grow in compensation. Where once children may have expected to live in the same suburb all their lives, cheek by jowl with extended family and other kids they went to kinder and school with, owning their streets if you like, they are now just as likely to live in a different city or even country to anyone they have known from their childhood. They are more often strangers out of the home and with this comes a greater reliance on parents to mediate the world outside and better furnish the one inside.

Few would argue against the proposition that the world has fundamentally changed too, that even as adults we experience a hyper reality we couldn't have imagined as children. Our parents raised us in an age before computers, mobile phones, accessible international travel, even universal exposure to TV. Before anyone had to remember a PIN, let alone dozens of them. Before we ever heard the term productivity in relation to our performance in the workplace. It is not surprising then that raising children in an age where many of us struggle to stay abreast of the contemporary world creates fears about what will happen to our children if we do not adequately prepare and skill them. A more intensive world may well require more intensive parenting.

Family size is also a building block of parenting, and as those (increasingly rare beasts) who elect to have more than two children will attest, much changes as the number of heads multiply. A significant part of this is necessity - there being only so many hours in a day to attend to children's needs - but a different kind of dynamic opens up when parents no longer constitute the majority. Authority works differently when you are outnumbered, the politics of acceptance dictate that siblings play ever greater roles and economies of scale come into full flight. Statistics on domestic labour support this - parents actually do less work when they have three children then two, and yet less when they have four. That more families have two than four children would seem to suggest that more families would be parenting more intensively.

But all of these tunnels in the rabbit warren connect up for me at some point around judging the present by the past. The world moves on, we as individuals move on. We all like progress. No one would choose to go back to the time before we discovered antibiotics, or before we could turn on a tap and drink safely. Most of us would refelct on our childhoods and find space for improvement. The drive to get parenting right, get it more right, is connected in with all the other things we try and improve. Progress is about change and change brings with it anxiety. Trying to do it better involves criticising the past, moving out of our comfort zone and standing in conflict with others. There's tension and hurt feelings and disagreement about what the future holds and how best to get there.

But it is inevitable too, and in the end surpasses each of us as individuals and our own individual anxieties and blindspots. So yeah, I think we could lighten up a little. I think parents could take themselves and each other less seriously and do more to maintain their perspective. But I don't think we should or can give up on the project of moving forward and becoming better parents.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

this time in 11 days

I'll be having my first post birth nap. Assuming all goes according to the most likely case scenario, which of course it may not.

I've been thinking rather a lot about birthing recently - as you do when it's headed towards you like a freight train. A few people have asked me about the kind of birth I'm expecting and why I have this timeframe so clear in my mind.

I approached Amy's birth with only the haziest of expectations. Perhaps it had to do with my family and their various involvements with the medical world, but I never made assumptions about how things would go. I understood birthing (like reproduction) to be full of unknowns and random occurrences. Probabilities and possibilities. Sure something straightforward would be nice. I hoped for as little pain and intervention as possible because I'm not, you know, like an idiot.

But I was totally realistic that it might not go like that, that there might be times where I'd need to make choices and I probably would not have enough information or functioning brain cells to do that well. I spent a lot of time choosing my obstetrician because I wanted someone I trusted to help me make those choices. Someone with values like mine, who knew what she was doing and had a basis for making good judgements. And - I'll go out on a limb here - someone who had done this trip herslef.

So while the birth didn't go quite like I might have liked, I never felt agrieved about it. I did what seemed like the best thing at the time and I don't know that I would change anything with the benefit of hindsight. I certainly felt like my obstetrician helped me at every step to feel like I owned my choices.

But having been down the endless unproductive labour road I knew that having another baby would present me with different choices than I had the first time around. For a start I knew my chances of ending up with another c-section were very high. I also knew what it was like to give birth in the worst possible way - after days of pain and confusion and uncertainty. To start life with a new infant at your lowest physical ebb.

I also really understood about the 'cascade of interventions' which meant that once you started down the road of trying to make labour happen, or happen faster, your chances increased all the time of needing another intervention and another.

So faced with the conventional wisdom about post c-section births I could choose to plan a c-section on or before my due date, or I could hope to avoid this by going into labour 'naturally' (ie with no medical interventions to induce or hasten) anytime before my due date or perhaps slightly after if I was closely monitored. Of course the two options are not mutually exclusive - a booked date for theatre will not stop labour occurring if that's the way things go, and not going into labour would (at some point) lead to the slice and dice.

So Monday 12th is when it will be happening, if it doesn't happen before. It's a fraction before my due date, less than a week. It's not likely I'll be going past this date (unless the theatre gets overun, or I go into labour but it takes a long time or something else kinks things up). Now don't get me wrong here - I am talking statistics, averages, probabilities. I am not talking absolutes. I can't know what will happen for sure until it happens. And if I felt strongly that I wanted to avoid a c-section, I'd know there are chances to beat the odds.

But the truth is, I don't feel that strongly about it.

Forgive me if this shocks some of you, and don't think it means I don't think others should feel strongly about it. I cried tears of joy for Alison when Pia was born in just the way she wanted it, just like I felt tremendous grief for her and many others who have experienced the birth of their nightmares. If things had been different for me at various junctures I am sure I'd feel differently, but I don't. When it comes to babies and mothering and the whole box and dice there are a lot of things I feel very strongly about, but this isn't one of them.

So the bottom line is, I'll be going with the flow. Amy and I are counting the days off on the calendar and planning her sleep overs and hospital visits, and I think she's liking having a sense of what she's in for. In 11 days time she'll be at kinder having met her new sibling, and anticipating coming back in for another visit before dinner. I might be contemplating my first walk around and perhaps a snack. I might be breastfeeding. I'm not really sure.

But I'm pretty sure I'm going to be feeling a surreal elation. There will be tears. For sure. And some humbling and a lot of joy. And already the getting out bit will be receding into the back of my mind because I'll be looking forward to all that's yet to come.