My nanna was a smart woman. She raised seven children. And had 18 (or probably more – it’s hard to keep up) grandchildren.
I adored her.
She died before she could meet my children, which is heartbreaking in its own quiet way but sadly not an unusual story for many of us. But her voice is often in my head when I feel challenged in parenting. I wish I’d spoken to her more about what it means to be a mother. When she died I was footloose and fancy-free. I hoped we would one day have children, but to bring it up felt like tempting fate.
If I could turn back the clock I would have sat at her feet with a notebook. But as it stands, I have the one bit of advice she gave my sister near the birth of her first child.
My nanna said – always go to a crying baby. You can’t ever give too many cuddles. You can’t spoil a baby.
I have inherited my grandmother’s (and my mother’s) obsession with babies. I absolutely adore them. So that bit of advice rang true well before I had my own little one. But now, more than ever, it has guided me. And while I’m not one to buy into parenting philosophies – if I had one it would be something like this:
You’re not being indulgent when you support your children through tough times.
You’re not coddling them by being there for them when they need you.
You’re not spoiling them by listening to them when they communicate with you the only way they know how.
It’s such a tired old refrain that parents these days are too soft. As if you need to be hard to raise children. Unfeeling and cold to turn them out right. As if they’re not children but dogs that need training so they don’t chew your slippers or pee on the rug.
Children, even babies, need tough love they say. They’re manipulative apparently. There’s so much emphasis on discipline and punishment of children, so little room for them to be human let alone celebrated for being delightful.
It’s not: maybe they’re having a bad day, or maybe they’re tired or overwhelmed – it’s: they need to be controlled, the parents need to reign them in, shut them up, they’re “feral”.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether these serial whiners are talking about children or animals. And there’s the problem: of course you’re never going to get that children are complex and just roll with it when a child’s presence is confronting for you, you don’t even see them as human….
We have all seen or heard the rants about how children these days are running wild. There’s no discipline. It’s EASY to get them to sleep at night, just turn off the light, shut the door, leave them. If they cry, they’ll eventually stop.
To do any different is to “overthink” parenting.
As if parenting is a thing that you should just not invest too much thought or time into. As if it’s not your life’s work but some kind of side hobby that requires little brain power.
And I have no doubt for some of the people who make comments like that – parenting doesn’t take much brain power. With so little to begin with, I wouldn’t want them to expend it all in one go anyway….
These comments all suggest the same thing: by doing anything other than enforcing rules by ignoring children or by churning out seen and never heard and (actually we would rather not even see them) little adults, you’re being indulgent, you’re coddling, you’re spoiling.
And the by-product is that the kids are in charge, because lord knows we have all heard or seen the “You’re the adult!” lecture haven’t we?
What these parenting legends (in their own lunchtimes) don’t realise in their race to their soapbox is that actually, many of us are choosing to parent this way FOR A REASON.
We are teaching lessons every time we make the choices we do – the choices they have decided are indulgent.
When my son cries out for me in the night and I come to him, and he is hot and sweaty, and his little heart is beating fast – when I come to him I am teaching him that he can always call on me, that I will always be there for him. If someone hurts him – he can tell me. If someone makes him feel unsafe, he knows he needs to call me. If he’s scared, I’m here. Into his adult years I want him to know that unconditionally I will be there.
If growing up, he finds himself in an unsafe place, if he’s scared, I hope I am teaching him that he can always call on me.
When I tell him mama is here, and he takes my hand and puts it to his chest and I feel his heart beat slow and his chest begins to rise and fall with deep sleep. I am proud. I’m proud that I’ve taught him to seek help when he needs it, and to communicate that with the people around him who can help him.
If growing up, he ever feels lost or hopeless, unstable or in pain, I hope I am teaching him that he can tell me, and no matter what, I’ll help him in whatever way I can, to get back on track.
When he breaks something precious, and I tell him off, and he cries and cries and I pull him on to my lap and we cuddle, and I kiss his tears and we talk about feelings, I’m not coddling him. I’m teaching him that he must be careful with precious things, but he will always be precious. And we can get upset with each other, but it never changes how much we love each other. I know that it takes him time to really understand what he’s done. That he won’t get comfort if he’s hurt is not the lesson I want to teach.
If growing up, he is told boys don’t cry, or that he has to be man, or any of that toxic masculine bullshit, or that the way we teach each other to treat precious things gently is to hurt each other, I hope he will say – no, that’s not what I was taught.
And when I don’t feel like the adult, and I lose my cool, or I fuck up, or I cry – and I say to him “I’m sorry, mama is tired” or “Mama didn’t mean to do that, I’m sorry” or “Mama just feels really fucking stressed out right now” I am teaching him that I’m human too, and I’m doing the best I can for this family, because we all love each other even when we aren’t our best selves.
If growing up, he falls short of his ideals, or he doesn’t meet the expectations he has set for himself, I hope I have taught him that it’s not the end of the world. That there’s always tomorrow and that it takes more than a bad day to make a bad life.
I am teaching him to respect himself – that he is deserving of being treated fairly by others, including (in fact especially) by his parents. I hope I’m teaching him to respect me and his father because we’re human. We’re not robots. We fuck up, but we try really hard not to.
I am teaching him honesty, that he doesn’t need to hide his faults, or lie when something doesn’t work out as he wanted it to.
I hope I’m teaching him that our love for him doesn’t hinge on his ability to keep his shit together every second of every day.
And yes, he is three right now. But we’ve been doing this, the best that we can, since he was six pounds, seven ounces. And that started with doing the things that so upset the anti-coddle brigade.
Like not leaving him to cry, like not ignoring him when he wants us, like not disciplining him for crying…
Nobody likes to hear a baby cry, not least of all when it’s 3am. But babies cry to communicate their needs in the only way they know how. I will not punish my child for asking me to meet their needs when that is my job.
It’s not indulgent to do any of those things. It’s a choice. A choice to teach.
And a choice to follow in the footsteps of others who we trust. Thanks nanny.