When a mum-of-boys has a baby girl.

“For girls, becoming women was inevitability; for boys, becoming men was ambition.” Kamila Shamsie in ‘Home Fire’.

Obviously, the most important thing is that the baby arrives safely. I have never believed that I had a preference for sons or daughters. But, when I found out that, after three boys, I was expecting a baby girl, I was surprised, and a little bit nervous.

I also discovered that actually, I do think that being a girl is inherently different from being a boy. In many ways, they’re the same of course, both play, learn, mess about and grow. But, from the very beginning, girls’ bodies are scrutinized in a way that boys’ bodies aren’t. Girls are targeted by different advertising and social attitudes. While my boys have been assumed to be loud, dirty and slow to talk, girls are assumed to be quiet, pretty and interested in sparkles. Having a baby girl has made me confront my own fears about childhood and my own prejudices about gender.

I picked up a book about parenting girls from the library. I spent a bit of time panicking about body dysmorphia and online grooming. Eldest had a look and said that he thinks the book is ‘deliberately exaggerating to sell more copies’. My husband reminded me that we have a few years before our newborn is a teenage girl and I can probably worry about it then.

But, I do want to try and equip this teeny girl for the world she’s going to grow inside. I suppose that the biggest difference, for me, between raising boys and raising a girl, is that I was a girl. So, when I think about my daughter’s childhood, I am reminded more strongly of my own. I want to steer her away from my past struggles and mistakes. (I want this for the boys too, of course, but somehow the risk seems greater for my daughter that she might imitate my failures.)

The boys and I talked about what the baby might need. Eldest offered to help her learn about makeup. I never wear makeup and he suspects that I won’t be very good at helping the baby with her’s. Middly said he’d learn how to plait hair. Youngest began making a list of girl superheroes for her to be.

I worried that we don’t talk much about women’s or girls’ bodies. Hubby and I sat up one night trying to decide what words we would use. We’ve always used clear language with the boys, told them that they have penises and testicles. But, what’s the equivalent for girls? ‘Vagina’ isn’t really accurate for the part you can see. ‘Labia’ sounds strangely alien. I suddenly realised that, though I think of myself as very open about sex, I have unconsciously fallen into the habit of talking about men as the norm and women as strange.

Since I’ve only had sons so far, periods have been a pretty private thing. But, if we’re going to be bringing a daughter into the house, I wanted to create a more open and relaxed environment for her. It seems weird to suddenly start talking menstruation (particularly during my pregnancy, when it’s not actually happening at all). But, our local library has set up a Period Poverty donation box. So, we decided to get into the habit of donating sanitary supplies on our way in. It’ll be an easy way to familiarise the boys with pads, tampons, and how necessary they are, which shouldn’t seem too forced. My theory is that, if we started before the baby arrived, by the time she’s approaching puberty we’ll all be used to picking up sanitary products and her big brothers won’t feel awkward.

Preparing for our first daughter has been interesting. We’ve found ourselves confronting our own gender biases in a way that we hadn’t really bothered with before.

Baby Girl is quite a relaxed baby, and she naps a lot during the day. I’ve been surprised by how many people assure me that she’s ‘easy because she’s a girl’. Admittedly, having a calm baby is much easier than having a fretful baby, but I worry about the impact these comments are going to have on the boys.

At the moment it feels like an effort to talk about our baby girl as ‘strong’ and ‘clever’. I have been slightly shocked by how frequently I’ve called her ‘pretty’ without really thinking.

Once, in the library, I picked up a book with very few words (Hug). It’s a story about a monkey looking for it’s carer. I immediately described the monkey as ‘he’, even though nothing in the text suggests a gender at all. I felt really embarrassed. Not treating male as normal is clearly a work in progress for me.

I’m sure as our new baby gets bigger, there will be more questions and puzzles to tackle. I expect that I will make loads of mistakes and have to confront my own assumptions about gender more and more frequently. But, mainly we’re delighted to have Baby in the family and looking forward to watching her grow.

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Who are the experts?

I am a keen reader and I like researching things. It was inevitable that I would be drawn to reading blogs, books, twitter accounts and articles about parenting. I do read an awful lot.

The ones that I really like, I review on my blog. The others I stay quiet about, I don’t think there’s anything gained by writing negative reviews.

Sometimes, though, it feels like there’s a clamour for attention and a lot of competing claims to be The Experts.

Some of my children are adopted. Some of my children are autistic. Some have other diagnoses. All are home educated. Three are boys. One is a girl.

So, who are the experts on my children?

Adopted people? Autistic people? Home educated people? Men? Women? People who’ve brought up autistic children? People who are bringing up autistic children? Adopters? Home educators? People who’ve been on courses about trauma? Psychologists? Psychiatrists? People with PhDs in autism?

There are a lot of people out there offering me advice. And – especially when I am finding it hard to ready children and work out how best to support them – I can get sucked into reading everything they have to say.

Last night, I found myself in one of those internet rabbit holes, reading and reading about other people’s ideas and experiences and trying to apply them to my family.

Then Middly called downstairs with a question about the book he was reading. I took Baby Girl with me and sat on Middly’s bed for a while, just cuddling the baby and chatting. We didn’t talk about Middly exactly, we talked about the book, and the baby.

Rather than looking at Middly, trying to figure him out, I looked with Middly and shared his perspective for a bit.

That reminded me of one more candidate for expert: the children themselves.

Even if they can’t get their feelings into words, even if they can’t talk at all yet, when I sit with them, follow the direction of their eyes and spend a bit of time seeing what they’re looking at, I can learn a lot about them.

I am going to try and spend less time reading about my children and looking at them and more time sitting by them and looking with them. Because, at the end of the day, parenting is mainly a relationship, not a study, and I don’t want to forget that.

Home Educating with a Baby in Tow

When I was expecting Baby Girl, I wondered if it was going to make home educating the boys a lot harder.

Having a baby whilst home educating the three boys, is quite busy. But, it is possible, so I thought I’d share a bit of what it looks like, hopefully it’ll reassure anyone who is heading towards this.

While I recover from the birth and get my head around having four children, I have been cutting us all a bit of slack with schoolwork. But, we are trying to get into a new routine.

Monday

I fed Baby Girl at one and she settled for a long sleep, waking at six for a change and another long feed.

When I woke again at eight, my husband had gone downstairs and Youngling had climbed into our bed. I fed Baby Girl and hugged Youngling until they were both asleep. Then I got myself dressed.

Baby Girl woke up. So I changed her and brought her downstairs.

Middly was already downstairs, having a row with Husband about his Physics. He went back to his room to calm down.

I had breakfast while Baby Girl played on her play mat and cuddled for a while. I managed to talk about work with Husband, while we both drank coffee – an oasis of adult conversation.

Baby Girl needed another change and feed. Then she settled down for her morning nap.

I checked on Middly, but he wasn’t ready to return. I unstacked the dishwasher, then loaded it with last night’s dishes and put it back on.

Baby Girl woke for a change and a feed. I put her down for a bit of tummy time. I mediated a row between Middly and Youngling – who had both surfaced at once – then picked up Baby Girl, who wasn’t keen on tummy time and needed changing again.

I found clothes for Youngling and helped Middly with Physics, while Baby Girl watched from her bouncy chair.

Then I got book post!

I looked at Middly’s Physics again. Then I handed Baby Girl to Eldest, who held her while I made Youngling’s breakfast.

I took Baby Girl back and fed her while I talked to Eldest about his maths. She fell asleep. I reminded Youngling to get dressed and talked Middly through a maths problem.

Husband took Baby Girl upstairs to change her. I sat with Youngling while he did his History and Maths.

Nobody else was ready for lunch yet. But I was hungry, so I ate some more toast and helped Eldest with his maths. It was a bit tricky – he finds it very hard to listen to me explain things, and would rather know everything without any help.

I got a toy down for Youngling. Baby Girl fell asleep again, so Husband put her in her downstairs cot (she has a downstairs cot and an upstairs cot – I highly recommend this system, it means that you always have somewhere to put the baby wherever you are).

I took the boys climbing. We go with other home ed families once a fortnight. I watched the boys climb, whilst I fed Baby Girl and chatted to friends. Middly managed a climb that he hadn’t managed when Husband brought the boys climbing on Saturday, so I took a photo. Then Youngling wanted me to take a picture of him climbing as well.

I’d brought the latest issue of First News with me. When Youngling had enough climbing, he read that for a while. Once Middly had enough climbing as well, I changed Baby Girl and we came home again.

Husband made a late lunch of pasta. Then I suggested Middly look through a cookery book, choose a recipe, and make a list of what he’d need. I fed Youngling his sweetcorn – he’s wanted me to do that a few times since Baby Girl came along, I’m hoping that getting a bit of extra nurture is helping him adjust to no longer being the baby.

I managed to read the first chapter of ‘Keep Your Love On’.

Then I changed Baby Girl and fed her and put her in her bouncy chair to watch Youngling play.

Husband left then, he’s been doing a bit of lecturing on Monday evenings.

I helped Eldest with some maths.

The boys weren’t ready for tea, so I made bread and butter as a snack. I helped Youngling get his uniform on and finish off a drawing. Then, Baby Girl, Middly and I took Youngling to Beavers.

While Youngling stayed at Beavers, Middly, Baby Girl and I went to the supermarket. We picked up everything Middly needed to make a black forest gateaux.

We arrived back at Beavers in time to change Baby Girl and feed her again before collecting Youngling. I did that in the car so as not to distract Youngling.

Baby Girl fell asleep on the way home. I’m very grateful that she sleeps in the car. It makes it much easier to drive everyone around.

Back home, I sorted out tea. I ate with the boys. Then I made bread rolls for tomorrow’s lunch, while the boys watched TV and Baby Girl dozed.

Husband came home and put Youngling to bed. He took Baby Girl with him so I could put away laundry and put on a nappy wash.

Then I fed Baby Girl to sleep. Once she was settled down, I got the boys’ schoolwork ready for tomorrow.

Tuesday

Another pretty good night with Baby Girl, who woke up three times, though I didn’t make a note of when.

Youngling, Baby Girl, Husband and I were all awake at quarter to eight, so we got up then. Middly heard us and for up too.

I ate breakfast whilst feeding Baby Girl, then helped Youngling get dressed whilst talking to Middly about his English.

I sat with Youngling as he did Maths, then got him started on Handwriting and went off to change Baby Girl.

I checked in with Middly, and looked at his Chemistry. Then I put Baby Girl down for Tummy Time. Youngling came over to encourage Baby Girl in her head-lifting.

I put Baby Girl in her bouncy chair, and she watched me make a picnic. I carried her in her chair to look at Youngling’s Handwriting.

I changed Baby Girl again and woke up Eldest. Then we went to a roller skating meet up with friends.

Eldest helped Youngling to get his skates, while I fed Baby Girl. Baby Girl had a nap in her carrier. I chatted with some friends and had a cup of tea, half-watching the boys skating with their friends.

At the end of the session, we went to a local park with a few other families. We ate our picnic.

I realised that I’d left a bag behind at the skating rink, but – since it wasn’t the bag with my purse or phone in – figured I’d sort that later.

The older boys played table tennis and badminton with their friends. Youngling played on the park and in the ball pit with his friends. I had more tea and some cake. My friends held Baby Girl for me when I needed to settle a couple of minor rows with the boys. The boys’ friends had a cuddle with her too. Baby Girl is very easy going and happy to gurgle at anyone who hugs her.

A few useful conversations happened – we made some plans for Science Club and one of my friends asked Eldest to make her a nest box, as woodwork is the skill he’s working on for his Duke of Edinburgh Award.

Back home, I set Eldest up with Maths and Middly making a black forest gateaux. Husband took Baby Girl so I could get some work done. Youngling sat next to me, while I worked, reading and then playing the Happy Studio app on my phone.

He brought her back when she needed feeding. Then I put her in her bouncy chair and she watched me make daal for tea.

Husband and Eldest went back to the skate rink to retrieve my bag.

Middly helped me make naan bread. I changed Baby Girl, fed her and she settled down for a nap.

Wednesday

Baby Girl and I got up and dressed. We came downstairs and I ate breakfast and helped Eldest with his Maths.

I fed Baby Girl and helped Middly with his History.

Youngling came downstairs, so I made him breakfast and helped him get dressed. I read Each Peach Pear Plum to Baby Girl, and Youngling snuggled up to listen too.

I took Baby Girl up for a change, sorted the laundry and put a wash on.

I checked on Eldest’s Maths, which did not go well; then looked at Middly’s Biology, which went better.

I helped Youngling with his Science – making instruments.

Baby Girl had a nap, so I took the opportunity to review some documents for work. I made lunch and unstacked the dishwasher. Baby Girl woke before I finished, so Middly finished off unloading the dishwasher for me. Youngling laid the table and we ate lunch.

After lunch, Eldest got a bit worked up. So I took the rest of the children to the library and left Eldest at home to cool off.

When we’re out, I carry Baby Girl in a carrier, which leaves both my hands free. Fortunately, she likes her carrier – as long as I don’t stand still.

At the library, I helped Middly choose a recipe he wanted to make (a beetroot and goat’s cheese tart) and make a list of ingredients. I helped Youngling choose books, changed Baby Girl twice, and picked up a couple of books for myself.

We went into the supermarket – Youngling was very pleased to get a free clementine – and bought the ingredients for Middly’s tart.

I drove home and Baby Girl fell asleep in the car. When we got home, I moved her to her cot, helped Middly cook and did some laundry.

Unless I eat something in the afternoon, I get angry and stressed. So I ate a bowl of peanuts and drank a cup of tea.

Baby Girl woke for a feed. I took her with me to have a chat with Eldest. Often, the boys are more receptive when Baby Girl is around. She brings out their softer sides. Eldest was much calmer and we were able to put Maths aside for the day. He went out to play with his rabbit.

Middly finished making his tart, and we all ate together. Since we were all in one place and it’s Ash Wednesday today, I found our Lent Bible study and we did the first session of that, while I fed Baby Girl.

Baby Girl went back to sleep, Husband drove Eldest to Cubs. Middly, Youngling and I all read library books.

Thursday

I had breakfast and fed Baby Girl. I helped Eldest with his Maths, and helped Middly with his.

I changed Baby Girl and got Youngling dressed. I put some laundry on, and looked at Middly’s Geography. I helped Youngling do his Science and Maths.

My mum came to visit, she held Baby Girl while I looked at Eldest’s Maths and Middly’s English.

I got Husband out of his office and we all went out for lunch.

I dropped everyone else home and took Baby Girl for her vaccinations.

When we got home, Baby Girl was a bit sad. I held her while I chatted to Middly and my Mum and admired Youngling’s comics.

We all had some cake. After a couple of changes and short feeds didn’t seem to cheer her up, I walked Baby Girl around a bit to settle her. She went to sleep, but wasn’t happy about going into her cot.

I helped Middly make biscuits while my mum held Baby Girl.

Husband took Eldest to Scouts. Baby Girl went to sleep. I made macaroni cheese, with a bit of help from Youngling.

Friday

Friday was a bit chaotic. Baby Girl wasn’t well. We had a home ed sports club, plus catching up on school work. There was also baking. But I forgot to take any notes or photos.

I considered trying again another week, but then I figured that this was a pretty good representation of how things go. Sometimes I have time to make notes, write blogs, even read a book. Other days are a bit of a blur.

Reflections

While Baby Girl is so tiny, she doesn’t really need a lot of stimulation, but she does provide a non-judgemental source of hugs for the boys. Though she definitely takes up a lot of my time, I think on the whole she’s brought more peace to the atmosphere and not much more chaos. I’m looking forward to seeing how she fits in and what interests she brings into the household, as she gets older!

How my children helped me recover from a traumatic birth.

Last year we had a baby girl. She’s doing well and I’m doing well and most of me thinks that that’s the end of the story.

I bought this for Baby to wear when she met her brothers for the first time.

But, there’s another part of me that’s still struggling to get past her birth. We’d hoped to have a home birth, but we ended up being rushed to hospital in an ambulance, taken into an operating theatre and having a forceps delivery. I know plenty of people who have had far more terrifying birth experiences, but my experience scared me.

A couple of weeks after the birth, Middly accompanied me to a midwife appointment and he heard the midwife mention that I’d had a ‘traumatic birth’.

In the car, on the way home, Middly said, “the midwife said you had a traumatic birth. Do you have PTSD now?”

We talk about trauma in our family. The boys have been through some tricky stuff, so talking about trauma wasn’t new for them. Talking about trauma from an outsider’s perspective was different, though.

They asked me if I ever had flashbacks. Eldest advised me to breathe through flashbacks, and to keep my eyes open so I could see what was really there.

They assured me that it would get easier. When I got embarrassed and talked about how many women had it worse, Middly reminded me that’s not the point. There will always be people with sadder stories, it doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to be sad too.

I have found it hard to recover from my experience. But, I have been enormously helped by the empathy shown by my boys.

The whole thing had given me an extra insight into how they see the world. I felt so vulnerable and out of control during the birth that I desperately wanted control afterwards. The first few days after my baby was born, I had a strong urge to control everything, almost as if that could cancel out the memory of losing control and being afraid. I recognised that desire. I have lived with people who are experiencing it. It was interesting to feel it for myself.

And, I think that it’s helped them too. They’ve been able to use their experiences to support someone else (though, they have both claimed that they got all their knowledge from the TV, and I should probably let them watch it more). It’s given them confidence in themselves. It’s allowed them the priceless experience of coming alongside someone else and helping them through a difficult time.

I am not quite ready to be glad things happened the way they did. But, I can see that there have been more than a few upsides.

Most of all, I am proud of the boys and of their ability to turn difficult experiences into a strength.

Review of Build Your Own Robots

I found this book (Build your own robots by Rob Ives) in the library and thought it would appeal to Youngest.

Our first attempt was the Crawlbot. I admit that we made it hard on ourselves. We didn’t have a pager motor, so we just used a small motor that we had lying around. Our motor needed two AAA batteries, which were harder to fit together than a single button battery would have been, so it got rather fiddly. Also, being a normal motor rather than a pager motor, I had to add an off-centre weight, I used a blob of blu tac.

Our robot ran fairly well, but it definitely would have been an easier project if I’d bothered to source the right motor.

Youngest particularly enjoyed using pliers to bend the paperclips, and we had a good talk about levers. There’s not a lot of explanation in this book, but I don’t think that bothered Youngest.

Our next project was a paperclip robot. We found this really fiddly. I struggled to bend paperclips into precise shapes and Youngest couldn’t manage at all.

Youngest decided that our final attempt looked like a freaky robot.

Our final project from this book (there are quite a few that we didn’t attempt) was a model hand.

We did manage this one with reasonable ease. Youngest was able to do quite a few bits himself.

All in all, we enjoyed this book. But, I think it’s aimed at older children. All the projects we tried had quite fiddly parts.

I don’t think of us as novices when it comes to craft or engineering projects. But, I did find these rather tricky. Definitely a good choice for a pre-teen who is interested in engineering.

Ring-Fencing

I’ve blogged about consequences before, but I can’t seem to escape the theme. It plays on my mind a lot.

In the past, I’ve explained how I try to parent my boys. I think that I talk a lot about my ideal parenting style. But, the reality is that I have my own stuff to deal with. So, this time I’m going to talk a bit about one of the ways that I try to mitigate my own stress and hang-ups.

I adore my boys, and I admire the amazing things that they’ve achieved. But, there are days when I get upset about things they do. And there are times – more than there should be – when I find myself seething and thinking along the lines of ‘they shouldn’t get away with that’.

When I get frustrated and angry, I am very prone to slipping into a parenting style that I recognise from my own childhood. I am quick to reach for a consequence. It feels like the right parenty thing to do, even if (in my calmer moments) I am certain that it’s not going to help anyone.

Eldest refers to it as a ‘banning tantrum’, which is a pretty fair description, really. I get angry and decide to ban things in a misguided attempt to convince the boys to make different choices. It’s definitely not one of my better traits, but, in the heat of the moment, I go straight for familiar patterns.

I think that I find banning tantrums difficult to stop because they’re very close to sensible boundary setting. So close that I often believe I am doing the latter, when I have actually slipped into the former.

Children do need to know where the lines are. And, often, removing temptation is the best way of moving forward. If we’re having trouble with electronic toys, taking a break from them can help a lot. If a particular toy is causing fights or being used as a weapon, banning that toy for a short time gives us a cooling off period and allows us to enjoy the toy again later. Banning things can be exactly the right call.

Equally, though it’s obvious that I should only discuss things when I am in full control of myself (strike when the iron is cold), it’s easy for me to believe that I am calm when I am actually quite wound up. It’s all too easy to believe that something is an emergency that must be dealt with instantly, when really it could stand to wait.

So, my husband and I have developed a system to help us cope with those moments when banning things gets too tempting. We have ‘ring-fenced’ precious things. When I am stressed and get tempted to start banning all fun and joy, I always leave the ring-fenced stuff alone.

When the boys were little, we ring-fenced bedtime stories and TV time. (I really needed to keep TV time, as it was the easiest way to give me a chance to make tea! Whenever I forgot my sanity and banned TV time, cooking turned into a drawn out disaster.)

Currently, the boys’ clubs are ring-fenced, Middly’s bedtime story is ring-fenced, Eldest’s special oldest child staying up late is ring-fenced.

Reading through, I realise that a lot of the carefully preserved good things have been about trying to end the day well. Maybe that’s because it’s easiest to have a good moment just before we all go to sleep and get a break!

We ring-fence one-offs too. Christmas and birthdays, special trips with friends – regardless of behaviour, there are always good things in life which are definitely going to happen.

I think that ring-fencing important things helps me to remember my better self, when I get ranty. It’s also one of the ways we show that we respect the boys’ boundaries. Any close relationship is going to have rough moments, and keeping certain things off-limits helps us not to go so far that it’s hard to get back.

In a lot of ways, ring-fencing pairs up with my thoughts on boundaries. It’s important to acknowledge that we all have boundaries, particular limits that are very important to us.

When we first met our big boys, they needed to be reassured that hitting was off-limits, no matter how cross I am, no matter what they do, I don’t hit the children. These days, I think they’re pretty secure in that belief and I am establishing my own boundaries around unwanted touching in return.

We have moved on from needing to prove that we won’t hurt them physically, but they still need our assurance that we won’t abuse our power in other ways. Our big boys are very aware of the power imbalance between parents and children. So we ring-fence the things that really matter to them.

It’s possible that, in time, I will get better at keeping calm and making sensible parenting decisions, even when I feel overwhelmed. In the meantime, I have my fences in place, and I endeavour to keep the stress relatively contained.

Review of ‘How to be an Engineer’ by Carol Vordeman

Youngest found ‘How to be an Engineer’ in the library.

The first activity he tried was a rollercoaster for ping pong balls, made out of straws, blu tac, and a lot of sellotape.

This was quite fiddly, but very forgiving. Youngest got a lot of tape all over the place, and the rollercoaster still worked.

His next experiment was a pong ball catapult. That was very easy. He could set it up himself and enjoyed playing with it completely independently. Naturally, he had a go at launching a variety of toys around the room.

A few days later (after I’d bought more straws), he had a go at building a suspension bridge.

He needed a bit of help, again, partly because we didn’t have enough kitchen paper tubes and used toilet roll tubes stuck together, they were weaker and prone to bending when Youngest tried to poke holes in them.

Knot-tying proved too tricky for Youngest too. Though it’s quite possible that another child would have less trouble there. Youngest doesn’t wear lace-up shoes yet and has little practice tying knots.

When he laid the lolly sticks down to complete the bridge, he kept knocking them down by accident. He thought about the problem and decided to try sellotaping the lolly sticks in batches and laying those down. This was easier for him, and I was quite pleased that he’d solved the problem himself.

Overall, I suspect that this book would be more popular with a slightly older child. The explanations are aimed at older children, I think.

The activities are well thought through and do appear to have all been tested well. An older child – especially one slightly less fond of sellotaping everything – could make more substantial creations than we managed.