Saturday, 30 May 2015

Minimalist parenting - losing the toys

Here's something my husband and I have been discussing lately. In a bid to simplify how about should we got rid of all the toys?

Any parent out there knows that living with kids can be messy and, well, just full of stuff! D and I, despite appearances, try to practise minimalism in our lives: conscious buying, frequent decluttering and we make a special effort to avoid plastic. (Here is a post on mindful buying and here and here two posts on how I struggled with getting rid of some of our books.)

Since becoming parents we have found that our house has filled with toys, most of them plastic, most of them hardly being used. Sitting down one evening to discuss the toy situation, which had got quite dire, we realised that the number of toys that we have bought for him is precisely... zero. 

We have accumulated a great number of toys through presents, but mostly through the generous donations of old toys from friends. 

The toys have filled a lot more space than we ever wanted to give them. The question is, however, does J use them? Does he play with them? Or are they just filling up his cupboards (and our living room floor, and the bath...)? 

I've spent the last week watching him. Trying to see what he does use and what he doesn't. And here's the verdict (though, I'm sure any experienced mum could have told me): he hardly ever uses any of them! 

J, like any toddler worth his salt, spends the whole day playing, both out in the garden and inside.
Playing with dirt and old plant pots in the garden
But what does he play with? Real things are overwhelmingly preferred over any kind of toy: pots and pans, his dad's tools (we allow him to use most things under supervision), plants and dirt, real bricks and tiles.
Emptying the washing machine
He loves taking washing out of the machine, putting pegs into their box and playing with old packaging. His toys fail to keep his attention the way my head torch does, or the old egg carton. In fact, the recycling bin is an endless source of inspiration for him. 
Hours of fun trying to work out how the buckles work (I'm sure I will regret this soon...)
Yet still, I hesitate to throw away all of the toys. Much like the painted wall of his nursery and the dinosaurs on his pyjamas they are the trappings of childhood. What do you think? How do you deal with all the toys? Do you have toy-free zones or a regular cull? Or do you simply find clever storage solutions? 

Friday, 29 May 2015

Wedding Season - How we met

We are celebrating this weekend: it is 6 years since we tied the knot, and 8 years to the day since we met. You see what we did here: we kept the date of meeting and getting married the same, hoping that it would aid us in remembering. It does. Sometimes. And when we forget (and start arguing about the dates) we check our wedding rings. Which, by the way, have a whole different date inscribed on the inside... That's a story for a different post.

So, this is us, eight years ago today, having dinner at a restaurant in a village outside of Zurich. 
We had both travelled from London to take part in a triathlon race- I had spent much of my week wondering whether I should go or not, as I had just raced a similar race the weekend before and I had some knee pain. Glad I went: on my first day at the hostel I bumped into D and his team. They were kind enough to take me in for the weekend and invited me to dinner that night. 

I seem to remember that I somehow engineered sitting next to him. When he ordered wine with his meal, the night before a race, I was shocked. Let's just say that D has taught me a lot about moderation since. 

I don't believe in love at first sight, but I was certainly very attracted to him. He was (and still is) handsome, polite and funny, athletic and friendly, shy and yet sociable. In many ways he was the yin to my yang - he still is a major balancing force in my life. 

The next day I made sure I sat next to him at breakfast too! I had to find a way to meet him again, but was too shy to ask for his number. It was clear that he wasn't going to either... 

I decided that the way to go was to borrow something of his and not give it back, so that I would have an excuse to meet again when we got back to Lobdon. So I did - I borrowed his race belt. Let's just say that even after eight years together it still lives in my race drawer. 
Photo from the less fun part of the weekend. Offending race belt can be seen in action. 

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Super Mum or Super Slob?

Before I became a mum, I wrote this and this about finding and making time in the day for all the things that mattered.

I have now been a mum of two for almost five months. I know, I know, it will get harder, I will soon have two walking toddlers etc etc. I know all this. But I also know that so far, even with a baby who nurses every two hours and a toddler who wants constant attention every waking minute(I guess toddlers are synonymous with constant attention) I have still managed to do most of the things that are important to me.

I have help. I get help, because I ask for it (a huge lesson for me)! It doesn't always work, but most of the time it does. But since becoming a mum of two, I have managed to:

1. Train for a triathlon relay
It wasn't easy, especially in the haze of those first few newborn weeks, where the shock and realisation that I will not be sleeping for more than two hour intervals hit me... But I made it, mostly with the help of my husband and an obliging toddler who slept religiously for two hours every day.

2. Race a triathlon relay (and come second)!
On top of it all, it was fun. Couldn't have done it without my darling husband looking after the kids, while I cycled round Spetses island.

3. Finished my first book
Yes, this is how I worked. Sometimes while babies slept, sometimes while someone else looked after J, sometimes in the middle of the night after O had woken up and would not go back to sleep. A lot of it, in the early days of motherhood, happened with the baby strapped to me - he seemed to be happiest close to me and enjoyed the typing rhythm.

4. Sent off (what feels like) hundreds of queries for another writing project
This one has been the 'boring' part of writing - the quering tons of agents and publishers. It also looks like it might have paid off... Fingers crossed.

And just so that you don't think this is a brag-fest, here is a list of the things that I have not done:

1. Cleaned my house very well...

2. Ironed any baby clothes

3. Kept in touch with friends (shame on me)

4. Been to any playgroups

What I mean to say is simple: we make time for the things that are important to us. At the moment being with my kids, staying healthy through exercise and writing, for pleasure and professionally, have been top of my list. Other things have naturally slipped. I'm OK with that. I make peace with the fact that I don't iron my kids' clothes (ahem... or anything else for that matter) and that my kitchen occasionally resembles a bomb site. I don't go to playgroups, mainly because they are at inconvenient times that overlap with my kids' naptime and naptimes are sacred. I also work well on the fly - ten minutes here, four minutes there... which is why a lot of my writing happens on my phone (I know...)

At the end of the day my kids are clean, well-rested and happy. They have a mum who is also fulfilled and keeps engaging with the world in roles others than just as a mother, and a dad who is hands-on and involved in all aspects of child rearing. Isn't that all that matters?

Friday, 22 May 2015

Is there such a thing as "adoptive parenting"?

We were out at a fair the other day as a family. It was a school fair and we knew most of the people there and so we had a great time catching up with everyone and showing off the newest member of our family, who spent most of his time asleep.

J was having a lovely time too. He is a very social little guy and he enjoys playing and dancing with older children, and so he was up on stage busting some moves with some of my ex-pupils when I was approached by one of their parents.

This dad urged me to go away, go sit down and rest, or get a drink. I told him I was OK, plus I wanted to keep an eye on J. He insisted that J was fine where he was, dancing with the girls and that they would look after him. I explained to him that he was still little and I wanted to be close where he could see me. What followed caught me a little by surprise...

It was a whole tirade on overprotective Greek mothers, on helicopter parenting and many things besides. He was almsot angry at me for not leaving my son to play on his own. I was very taken aback and to be honest would not have had the courage to reply, even if I'd had the opportunity, but at that point J tripped a little while dancing. He fell onto his knees and his reaction surprised the dad and stopped him in his tracks.

Within seconds J had gone from laughing toddler to a wailing mess. Tears streamed down his face and he struggled to catch his breath. The dad was further surprised by my response, and had he been given the chance, I have no doubt that he would have given me another piece of his mind. I scooped my little boy up and cuddled him close. I dabbed his tears as he wailed 'Mama' and clung onto me. I held him and rocked him and held him some more. 

I know my response was over the top, especially as J had not really hurt himself. But with J, who grew up in an orphanage, a lot of my parenting IS over the top. That's because we are still at the stage where he learns what mum and dad are there for. And sometimes it requires explicit teaching.

For example, I am sure the dad lecturing me on being overprotective didn't have to teach his daughter to call for him in the night when she woke up. In fact, my guess is he had to do the opposite. I'm sure he didn't have to teach his kid, like I had to, to look for him when he gets hurt and that comfort can be found in mummy's hugs, not only by sucking your thumb and rocking all by yourself.

J is a fantastically clever boy who has been learning very quickly all these family skills. He now looks for me when he gets hurt and he calls for me or D when he wakes up at night. He asks for his nappy to be changed and he is finally figuring out that it's ok to not want to eat right now - there will be more food later.

Kids who have not grown up in families exhibit a lot of behaviours that need to be left behind once a loving family is there. But these family skills that take their place need to be practised a lot! And so, in a way, we parent them slightly differently. We play more, we hug more, we encourage dependence before we move towards independence. 

With my biological son my job will be to "cut the umbilical cord" bit by bit. For J we first need to create an umbilical cord- he needs to feel safe, connected and to know that we've got his back, no matter what. Once that happens, we can start moving towards independence.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

The Oxygen Mask - and an offer of help

I know it's a cliche, but it's a cliche because it is true. You cannot be an effective parent (or in fact an effective anything) if you are struggling. And so it is very true what they say: You have to put on your own oxygen mask first, then help others. 
Which is why this post is all about asking for help, one way or another. Here's another truth I'm only starting to realise now: There are no prizes for going it alone. 

I know I am a much better mum when I am well rested. When I have had some time to myself, whether to shower, to write, to exercise or just to chat to a friend on the phone. These things cannot find their time and place with two kids, unless someone actively helps out. Often that someone has to be my husband, who, I'm lucky in that way, is eager and happy to take the kids for an hour.

At the other end of the spectrum are my friends, the ones I call upon when I need to vent, ask for advice, go for a walk. I feel it is one of my successes as an adult that over the years I have got better and better at asking for their help when I need it.

However, sometimes, asking for help from friends is not enough. Sometimes you need a professional, someone with a dedicated skill set to listen without judgement and give targeted advice. Today I have partnered up with Dr Tzotzoli, an HCPC Registered Clinical Psychologist based in London. She is offering a free 20 minute session, through Skype, to anyone who feels they could benefit from a professional's help (subject to availability).

Monday, 18 May 2015

Adoption myths - The Miracle Pregnancy Part 1

Those of you who are fellow adoptive parents must have heard it. Those of you who are not, might have thought it or even said it. The "You are sure to get pregnant after you adopt" comment. It actually comes in many different versions but the essence is always the same: Once you adopt, you will also get pregnant.

Now, I know that it happens. It, sort of, happened to us (but not quite - read on). I don't want to talk about our case specifics so much as I want to tackle some of the thinking behind the phrase. So, if you are one who has uttered it, please think of the implications. If you are one who hears it (don't all adoptive parents - maybe not, maybe it's just Greece) you can thoughtfully direct the person who comments here.

There are several assumptions behind the phrase.  

First, that you, as a couple have not been able to get pregnant. When people say "you will get pregnant after you adopt" they automatically assume that you have not been able to. Although that is certainly true of some adopters, not all adoptions come at the end of a long road of infertility (and if/when they do that's also fine).

Second and linked to the above is the assumption that adoption was your plan B. Again, for many people it is (or even plan C or D, and again that's also fine) but for some people it is plan A. Or it is a plan B that comes before plan A has been shelved. Or many other variations on that theme.

When someone utters the phrase "you wait, now you've adopted you'll have one of your own" there are a few implicit messages there too. Maybe people don't mean it that way, maybe they don't even think about it much, but there is a message that an adoptive child is somehow less yours, and that your ultimate aim is "one of your own".  I know many adopters and I can say that that's certainly not the case: our adopted kids are every bit ours, as our biological kids.

A favourite of anyone who's ever struggled with infertility is the phrase: "Just relax and it will happen". Sometimes the "miracle pregnancy" is a substitute for it; in fact, if I had a euro for each time someone has implied that my pregnancy was a result of "relaxation" after our adopted son arrived, I could probably buy that new pair of running shoes I've been lusting after... 
I have to gently remind people that I was 4 months pregnant when J joined our family! In fact, this particular phrase might warrant its very own follow-up post.

There is sometimes also another implicit message (and in fact in my case it has been said explicitly at least half a dozen times): "Now that you have done your good deed, God will reward you with one of your own". Where do I even begin with that one? This  post here is a good start. Just don't say it in front of my kids, or you may get to see this mama get very angry!

Finally and let me say this here once and for all: Our adopted son was not our last-ditch attempt at infertility treatment! 

There, I've said it. Have a good week all!

to be continued (with some numbers, next time)...

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Rookie mum: Tantrums in Paradise

I have really been enjoying my little boys lately. Yet something happened this week that really shocked me. Not just surprised me or caught me unprepared, but really shocked me deep down to my core: J had his first tantrum!

It was afternoon and we had been playing outside. We came in to get ready to go and pick daddy up from school (?!) so I had to clean him, put some clothes on him, some shoes and, of course, do the same with baby too. Make sure everyone had clean nappies on and some kind of reasonably clean clothes - no perfectionism here, just the basics. Then, the tricky part, I had to take J down to the car, strap him in, then come up and get baby and put him in the car too. 

Only J decided otherwise. And for the first time as a mum (but surely not the last) I experienced The Tantrum! At 22 months I got a preview of what the terrible twos might be like: he was screaming so hard his veins were popping on his neck, he was on the floor and was thrashing like a fish out of water. What he wanted was to go to the 'tar'=car and pretend to drive. What I wanted was that he stopped screaming...  

What shocked me most was not J, but my reaction. I froze. My heart was pounding. This rookie mum was so close to tears. And I know I probably should have left him to ride it out, just there in the hallway, but we needed to leave... And so I scooped him up and, somehow took him to the car, though not to "drive" like he wanted, but strapped him into his seat. Somehow. I got the baby strapped in too and started to drive, J still screaming!  

Thankfully he didn't take long to calm down. I, however, took much longer than he did. My heart kept pounding all the way through the drive. I found it so incredibly upsetting - I don't know why. Later, dissecting my son's first tantrum with my husband I realised that it had been a perfect storm: he was hungry, it was hot, I was paying attention to his brother and... bam! 

It has not happened since, but I know it will again. I am practicing my response, in my head. What I'm most scared of is the strength of my reaction... 

So, help me out: non-rookie mums, how do you cope with tantrums? 

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Am I still me? Part 2

I've been thinking more and more about this since I first posted about this, mainly between nappy changes (and with two under two there are plenty of those) and breastfeeding sessions. It all hangs on how you define yourself: the more narrowly you define yourself, the more likely that as you "lose" a role and gain another you also lose yourself.

I have been through that, in what now feels like another life time. You see I was once an athlete, not professional (as I was making no money from it) but it was my sole identity. I had finished university and had no obvious career goals ahead, it wa a preolympic year and I fancied my chances getting on the national team. I decided to devote my whole year to rowing and so it started. In that one year my whole identity, mental and physical efforts, eating, sleeping and breathing, social life, family life and intellectual capacity was tied up with that one thing. I became an athlete: nothing more, nothing less. One role that fully defined me, as everything else became secondary. The year came to an end and, after an agonising decision making process so did my rowing career. 

What happened next surprised me and those around me: I felt like a part of me had died. I had to properly grieve for my role as athlete, before I could move on with the rest of my life. In a few short weeks I lost my friends, my routine, my goals. 

In order to survive I enrolled on a new university course, I moved countries, I got in touch with old friends, I started making new ones. I reinvented myself. Can't say it wasn't painful.

Ten years have passed. My roles have changed and they are a lot more balanced. I now seem to define myself not only by what I am (daughter, sister, mother, wife, friend, writer, athlete etc) but by who I am, what I think and feel, what I believe in. These tend to stay a lot more constant in my life, my values and beliefs are an anchor in all te changes of life.

This time last year I was mainly a teacher. That identity in many ways dominated my life, mostly because teaching really is all consuming. Then I became a mother. And a lecturer. And a writer. I was also no longer an athlete and as my belly grew and my new future dawned I stopped being a lecturer too. In late January, a few short weeks after O's early arrival I finished my first book. I became a fully-fledged writer, something I have always dreamt of, ever since I was in primary school.

My roles change, but it is I who chooses. I am lucky to be able to drive myself in all this. And I am still very much me! 

Friday, 8 May 2015

Am I still me? (Mother's Day special)

As I'm preparing myself for my first ever Mother's Day as a mum te question keeps popping into my head. Am I still me? How has motherhood changed me? And, if I've changed, where does the old "me" fit in? 

The answer for me seems to be quite complex. For years I have felt like a mum without babies. For these past five years I have felt like I should have been celebrating Mother's Day, but couldn't. In fact, Mother's Day was another as occasion reminding me what I was missing. 

In many ways I feel the difficulties in becoming a mother have changed me so much more than the actual role ever could. They have scarred me and they have made me stronger. They have also changed the way I look at motherhood. 

Do I feel different? The answer is yes and no. I feel like a more fulfilled me. And nt just in my role as mother, but in everything I do. I have a newly-found confidence in all aspects of my life. My professional life, especially, has received a great boost of creative energy. 

Did I lose myself? The answer here is not yet. But I know that motherhood is not a sprint but a marathon. Maybe ten years in I will look back and wonder where the "real" A is. But for now I am the happiest I have ever been, and my role as a mother has only enhanced all my other roles. 

So this is for J, who made me a mum, 

And for O, who completed our family.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

On breastfeeding and Choice

I chose to breadtfeed my second son. It was a natural decision for me, after a stressful pregnancy but a (relatively) easy and quick birth. He was placed in my arms and I held him close. A little later he latched on and fed for the first time.

I had an uncomplicated delivery and so the days that followed the birth, while in hospital I could focus all my energies on the two of us learning how to do this whole breastfeeding thing. He was quick to learn and I definitely attribute our success to baby O more than anyone else.

I have since fed him exclusively. Objectively it hasn't been a walk in the park: pain at first, engorgement for more than a week (lovely midwife prescribed cabbage leaves in my bra and it worked!) and still at almost four months feeding every two hours like clockwork. But subjectively it has been lovely! 

I know I will probably be judged for saying this, but part of the attraction of breastfeeding, aside from all the benefits to my little one, has been the ease of it. Going out for a while? No need for bottles, powder and hot water. Just unbutton my shirt and everyone is happy. No need for sterilisers, no need for boiling parts, no running out of powder or having to try different ones to see which one is best. The ease of it is liberating. 

I have also found that Greece is ok with breastfeeding. It's not the political issues that it is in the UK. I have breadtfed pretty much everywhere I have needed to, including the start line of my last race this weekend. 

I have received sideways looks at times, and definitely some double takes. But no one has ever asked me to refrain from feeding my son and I'm pleased with that. Imagine, then my surprise, when a fellow mum came and commented, albeit positively, on my choice to breastfeed my son. 

It continues to amaze me that people make a value judgement on who I am as a mother, on how good a mother I am, based on how I choose to feed my son! It surprised me even more when I caught myself judging another mother on her choice to not breastfeed her baby... 

When I was pregnant people kept asking me whether I would bf or ff. I always answered that I would try to bf but failing that I knew that formula was not rat poison. I got a few laughs, most uncomfortable and many blank stares. 

I know now- 4 months into bf my boy, that I am so extremely lucky to be here. Bf has added a lot to my experience of motherhood and I am grateful to have been able to experience it. However, just like with pregnancy and birth I am acutely aware that it's a fluke, in many ways. No more value judgement, please. Let's just enjoy the fact that we can even have the bf vs ff discussion. Many women, my past self included, would give anything to be here! 

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Random Acts of Romamce

I was sharing with a friend a few days ago how having kids presents wonderful opportunities for a couple to show their love for one another. She was puzzled by my claim but I truly believe that. 
Before kids our life was all our own. We could come and go as we pleased and chose how to spend our time. Since becoming a family of four that is no longer the case: our actions and schedules are largely dictated by the needs of the kids first, then our needs. The 'wants' have definitely taken a backseat. 

In that way small acts of kindness towards each other are amplified. Looking after the kids so the other half can do 30 mins of exercise. Bringing him a cup of coffee. Cooking her favourite dish. Buying his favourite biscuits. Taking over the fort so that she can have a bath. Letting him have a lie in. These things count! They mean a lot more than they ever did before, as long as they are seen for what they are: Random Acts of Romance! 

(I type this as I have been given a few minutes alone from the kids, while D vacuums the living room- big thanks to the husband!) 


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