Tag Archives: judging

Stuck in the middle

The other weekend we went blackberry picking on a path near where we live. Like we might be the type of family that lives knee deep in Lego and laundry, watching TV in a super-urban apartment, and goodness knows what Janet Lansbury would make of the way I snap at the kids sometimes, but, whatever. We are also the kind of family that makes foraged jam. So wholesome.

I concentrated on filling up my ice-cream container while my husband helped M, who was very proud of the ten or so berries that ended up in his bucket. We left A buckled in her pram for safety’s sake, and as long as I fed her a berry every now and again she was happy. Until she wasn’t. And just then a family boated past us on the river, having a family sing-along.

Dammit. This isn’t wholesome family fun. Family sing-alongs while you boat is wholesome family fun. I’m doing this wrong. What must they think of the crazy woman standing in the blackberries while a toddler yells in a pram.

The yelling turns into crying.

I try to extract myself from the bush – cursing myself for wearing a skirt. And realise my jacket is snagged in many, many places. Turning to deal with that, my hair gets snagged by more thorns. I remember a recent episode of Peppa Pig, the one where they go blackberry picking and Mummy Pig gets stuck in a blackberry bush.

I have turned into Mummy Pig.

Dammit.

Mummy Pig just wants wholesome family fun. She just wants some fruit. And five minutes to pick berries without having to stop and admire a four year old’s basically empty bucket, or be yelled at. She just wants jam and maybe a crumble or two. Why does she have to be judged for her food choices? Why does she have to have her dignity stripped away by a blackberry bush – let’s all come laugh at the fat pig stuck in the prickly thorns! Why does she have to involve the whole family and share when all she wants is a fucking dessert? It’s not all about you Peppa!

Somehow I ripped myself free.

Or did I?

I came home to see the always excellent Andie Fox (@bluemilk) retweeting an old post because the same old tired arguments about mothers keep happening.

We will know we’re living in a world of equality not when just as many men as women are staying home making jam and looking after babies but when women can talk about their life making jam and looking after babies without everyone freaking the fuck out.

Because maybe the blackberry bush I am actually stuck in is a metaphorical one; a thorny tangle of attacking mothers for the choices they make. It seems in these days of information overload, we can’t just make a decision. We are expected to have thought about it – to have done our research. Then everyone gets to analyse our decision, and journalists write crappy clickbait articles about the mommy wars. But these choices (if we actually get a choice) aren’t about society. They are just the choices that we make for our life. Choosing jam doesn’t mean giving up on gender equality. But it is hard when you are in the thick of it to know if what you are doing is right. So does picking blackberries make me a better mother? Or does being mired in domesticity mean I am a poor role model? Or does it tell you nothing about me other than the fact we have blackberry bushes nearby and I like to cook?

And to eat.

So I made crumble. And I made jam. And my children and I shared licking the spoon and got happy, sticky, jammy faces.

Conclusion: It’s just fucking jam. Stop overthinking things.

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in pain thou shalt bring forth children

Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, and I were pregnant at the same time. My daughter arrived first, and despite my extended hospital stay, I was at home to see the footage of her leaving hospital rosy cheeks glowing, Princess Charlotte bundled in arms, another dress more lovely than anything I own. The plaudits soon rolled in; Kate had achieved the highest prize in motherhood – another natural birth. Oh, and a healthy baby.

Sitting on my couch at home I watched the cameras surrounding her. Glad I was spared the scrutiny of their lenses. That I could keep my dressing gown at midday, my grey-tinged skin, and slow painful walk to myself. I told myself the dress, the make-up, all hid the unglamorous reality of birth. Pain-killers and maternity pads can hide a multitude of sins.

After her first was born Kate was praised for her willingness to expose the truth about post-partum bodies, for her expanded uterus puffing out the custom-made Jenny Packer dress. ‘Hooray for Kate’ the magazine columns and opinion pieces cheered. This time people felt the need to criticize her for looking too good. Nonetheless, Kate had given birth only hours earlier. She did look that good. Those facts are true. But was it The Truth?

It seems hardly a week goes by without another facebook post exposing The Truth About Post-partum Bodies going viral. Many are beautiful stories. Many of the women sharing them are facing down daemons of their own, proudly and rightfully. Who am I to say they should not be celebrated. Mothers are judged this way and that way, no matter what choices they make. Ceasarean births are the easy way out. Women who have vaginal birth don’t understand what caesarean mothers go through -at least vaginal birth is what your body is made for. Get the damn epidural. Epidurals are cheating. Don’t cut the cord too quickly. Don’t cut the cord. Your baby needs you – it’s the fourth trimester! You need to rest to recover. Baby blues are normal. Are you at risk of PND? Your body is amazing. Get back to your pre-baby body quickly. Love your tiger stripes!

The proliferation of messages can be exhausting; made all the more over-whelming by sleep deprivation and hormonal swings. So we love the women who cut through all these headlines to show us something raw and real. The bathroom mirror selfie, newborn in a sling. The caesarean scar, a harsh line across the skin punctuating the rage in the writing. The hilarity of adult-nappies snapped in a maternity ward photo.

But are they the truth?

Perhaps they are only part of it.

Because it is easy to share a photo one day post-partum of yourself in nappies, but much harder to admit that you are still wearing them months down the track. It is easy to get shares of your scar photo, but no-one wants to see the infection you picked up, no-one wants to hear about the smell of your flesh in the doctors rooms. It’s easy to talk about how strong you are for growing and birthing a baby, but much harder to talk about how you have been left too weak to hold the baby, let alone take a selfie. It is easy to talk about how you love your body now, how proud of it you are. But how to talk about a body that has let you down? The one that couldn’t conceive, or couldn’t go unmedicated, that couldn’t labour, that couldn’t stop bleeding, that couldn’t breastfeed, that couldn’t heal. That hasn’t healed and here you are months later still wondering why you have been left like this. Or to talk about your body at all when it was not your body that was broken but your mind.

I’m reminded of Sarah Wilson/Writehanded’s piece – Is your feminism ableist? We place so much emphasis on independence, on self-reliance. We judge before we have any understanding of what individual barriers someone faced. We create ideas of what women should be able to do. We are supposed to feel empowered. And so in the rush to celebrate what many women can and do achieve we sometimes leave out those who need the help the most.

We talk about the old days, when it was our great-great-grandmothers who died. We wring our hands in sorrow, or not, over the 800 women who die daily in faraway countries in childbirth. We are told to feel lucky. Reminded the ideal birthplan is the one where ‘both mother and baby survive’. And that is all. As though, that is all.

We didn’t die. Is that enough? Is that enough for you? Is it enough for me?

Jane Seymour, third wife to Henry VIII; the ideal wife. She produced an heir, and then had the grace to die afterwards. She did not live to incur the wrath of Henry as so many of his wives did. Her purpose in life as a medieval women was fulfilled. But what did Jane want? Not death, surely. Her labour was long, two days, three nights – reportedly because of a malpositioned baby. Centuries later, I feel for Jane. Both of my children were malpositioned too. But she had to labour without the medical support I eventually received. I developed a post-partum infection caused by an excessively long labour, this was the probable cause of her death. The loss of her life was a tragedy for her. Just as it is a tragedy for those 800 women dying every day. So many avoidable deaths. Dead not because they experienced severe complications – dead because, like Jane, they lack access to the basics of sanitation, medication and nutrition. They are individual tragedies, not just statistics to be thrown in the face of any woman who has the temerity to complain about her own lot. We cannot dismiss women’s experiences as first world problems. As anyone who does not have it can tell you, health is not a first world problem. It is a problem.

The line between survival and death in a difficult birth can be paper thin. Walk this line and your view of the world changes. You only have to go back decades to get to a time where no women who experienced complications akin to mine survived. I am a historical anomaly. Childbirth has been made safe. So we want to believe it has been made safe for all women. We want to believe we are now in control. But our bodies and minds are no different from what they have always been. The only change is technology.

Have we forgotten so quickly that it wasn’t just a life and death matter? That even back then women survived with injuries that could not be healed. That women were pushed to the margins of history because the burden of procreation kept us there. What space was there in the public sphere for those left crippled, incontinent? Smelly old ladies. Women unable to conceive more children. Women of ‘delicate constitution’ who nonetheless had produced a number of children already. What would history be like if Jane hadn’t died? The truth is a labour that long without medical support could have left her with many significant health problems. How would the raging tyrant Henry we know from history books have treated an incontinent wife? We’ll never know. Jane will never know. This has been women’s shame for millennia. This is the truth. This is a truth.

We are no longer forced into confinement after birth. Women live their lives in the public sphere. We are expected back at work, back at the school run, back at playgroups. If we are expected to do these things we need to acknowledge the physical barriers some women still face. Without being accused of oversharing, or even being ungrateful for our children’s lives. We only get one body, and we have to live in it for all our life.

Everyone has a horror story we are told. We do all endure, however we birth our child, but to claim we all endure equally is false. What happens to you matters deeply to you. Why do we feel a need to lay a claim to the greatest suffering? Why do people then blithely announce that it ends when you hold your baby. That our bodies heal. Effectively shutting the women who have not healed out of the conversation.

We can’t all walk out of the hospital like Kate. The dress, the hair and make-up are the least of it. For many women childbirth is the beginning of a long journey back to health. We need to talk about that. Not least because poor physical health impacts on poor mental health. So while it is wonderful to praise the women who feel strong, and who feel brave, we also need to embrace the women whose bodies and minds are weak and shattered. The women for whom giving life took everything they had and who now begin a journey back to health. The women whose bodies are still suffering. The women who no longer know their bodies any more. The women who feel shame and keep silent.

This is the truth. This is a truth.

Breast vs Bottle

A mother’s group I am part of has had a few ‘debates’ recently about formula vs breastfeeding. I say ‘debate’ in inverted commas, because I really don’t think it is a debate. Ever.

I think that if you have ever had a hungry baby in front of you, at that point there is no ‘debate’ to be had. It is not a ‘choice’, because the alternative is a slow death from dehydration and starvation. How can we portray that as ‘choice’?

I breastfed both of my children, but not exclusively. Breastfeeding is hard. It takes work, and I’m not saying the solution to every problem is to just throw your hands in the air and say ‘oh well. Here’s a bottle.’ But see how thorny this issue is that I feel the need to clarify myself so much?

What I want to say is this: breastfeeding is like a ladder. It always takes work to climb it. But everyone’s ladder is different. Some are steeper. Some have rungs further apart. Some are slippery. Some have broken rungs. So we all need to think about how someone’s ladder differs from our own.

As part of that ‘debate’ I got a little piece of knowledge shared with me. That you never need to offer formula straight away, because you only know you aren’t producing enough milk once you’ve tried. Here is what my own personal experience tells me that is – it’s bullshit.

When my daughter was born I experienced a uterine inversion. That means my uterus came out with the placenta. It is a very serious medical emergency, for many reasons, one of which is that it is typically accompanied with severe haemorrhaging. I lost 3.7L of blood in a very short space of time. Post-partum haemorrhage is directly linked to delays in producing breastmilk. I faced a number of barriers to starting milk production. I was separated from my daughter immediately following birth, I was anaemic, and my body was so short of fluid following the haemorrhage that it didn’t have any to spare for her. Lastly hormone changes after birth that trigger milk production can’t occur because there literally was not blood flowing through my body.

My daughter was hungry and eager to attempt breastfeeding, in fact she latched perfectly. But when my body could not even produce colostrum until day three (really) it was no surprise. We began supplementing early on, and despite this at her first weigh-in at two days old she had already lost 9% of her bodyweight. We increased the amount of formula, as 10% loss is considered a danger zone. Tell me, what would have been gained by waiting and seeing? With me that sick in a hospital bed, listening to my daughter screaming with hunger, unable to produce milk to feed her, and starving her to the point we risked her health. Why should we have sat there thinking that milk would come eventually, when given the specifics of my case, things were going exactly as medical professionals expected. We can all speak in generalities, and discuss WHO guidelines, but guidelines cannot be written that cover every individual case. And, as Monty Python said, we are all individuals.

For me, there was no debate to be had. No choice. No regrets. I will never regret that my daughter was fed formula for her first meals. I am grateful to the nurses who bought it to her. I am grateful I gave birth in a hospital where formula could be supplied by hospital staff.

So that is why when people say ‘oh I’m sure you made an informed choice’ it comes across as patronising. It literally doesn’t matter whether you have read a million studies comparing benefits of formula vs breastfeeding (which frankly aren’t as one-sided as many people seem to think, because any study like that is inherently fraught with difficulties). And that is why people object when people say ‘it needs to be considered carefully, like any medicine’. Formula is not medicine. It is consumed like food, and metabolised like food – because it is food. Someone might have an allergic reaction or intolerance, but that can happen with breastmilk. It is regulated to make sure it meets nutritional standards, but it is not, and should not be, restricted like a medicine.

I am glad I was able to establish breastfeeding eventually. Not because I think my daughter will be healthier for it, but because bottle-feeding is a pain. Seriously: sterilising, getting the right temperature, and most importantly, you need one hand to hold the baby and one for the bottle, so unless you have three hands you can’t use the TV remote at the same time. Rubbish!

Even at the time ‘resorting’ to formula was the least of my concerns, so I’m pretty thick-skinned about my experiences and what someone else might think of them.  But I’m not writing this to defend or explain myself. I just want people to remember that nothing in life goes as planned. A lot of people are absolutely convinced they will breastfeed and then they can’t. And it is devastating for them. Careless words can really add to that pain. Especially when you are in those first weeks of newborn life and just trying to cope. There are some people who seem to think it is just a matter of trying harder (not just feeding – conception and birth seem to bring this out too), but it is much, much more complicated than that. There is a portion of all of this that is just luck.

So if you won in the biology lottery, remember the ladders. Remember that if the bottom rung is missing, like mine was, no amount of oatmeal or fenugreek or pumping or lactation cookies is going to be the answer. And remember some people can do everything right, and find they just can’t get to the top.

I write a lot about not judging others on their parenting journey. But, I’ll admit this – when I see someone standing on their non-slip safety step-ladder, giving themselves a clap and saying ‘it’s so easy. See how I did it!’ while the rest of us wobble around on rickety splintery wood that stretches into the clouds…

That is when I feel a bit judge-y.

Stop. In the name of love.

I told myself not to write this yesterday.

I knew anything I wrote would be too angry.

I think we can agree that the death of an endangered animal in a zoo was a tragedy.

What I don’t understand, what makes me angry, is how the mother of a four year old boy is now public enemy number one.

I don’t want to argue specifics. Other people have done that. There are plenty of places and articles dissecting the events at Cincinnati Zoo. Some are even managing to do so without hysteria.

And maybe this mother is a shit mum. Maybe she is completely selfish, thinking the world revolves around her and her children. Maybe she is lazy. Maybe she is incompetent. Maybe. But I don’t think we can know this from one moment of inattention. Maybe she is guilty of nothing more than assuming there was no way her child would be able to climb into a gorilla enclosure at a large, well-known zoo.

Since when did one mistake make you criminally negligent?

The fact that seems to have been forgotten is that parents are not in control of their children 100% of the time. Fact. We can’t be. We won’t be. Parents never have been. It’s just that ten, twenty years ago, nobody had camera phones to capture the moment. Children are autonomous beings, with their own desires and impulses, with an ability to move independently.

Yes, it is a parent’s job to teach their children to control some of their impulses, to guide them to act in a way harmonious with their society. But this takes, years. More than four.

When our children are little the potential for disaster is always only a moment away. Just last weekend my son scooted ahead on a crossing, towards the oncoming cars, one of which hadn’t yet stopped. Just last week my daughter shoved a perfectly round stone in her mouth. Just a month ago my daughter crawled off to join her brother in the bedroom while I cooked, I could hear them laughing and thought they were fine, until I looked only a minute, maybe two, to find my son had tied a collar round her neck. One like a choke collar. He was pretending she was his dog.

A few months ago we visited Copenhagen. Standing at a tram station, trying to calculate our ticket purchase, we suddenly looked down to see our son wasn’t there. Just as a tram pulled out of the station. There was a moment of sheer panic, imagining him alone on a tram, watching it drive away from us while we yelled his name, only for him to poke his head perplexedly around a barrier. I hope that all the people saying she should having been holding on, he should have been on a leash, never learn what it feels like to look for your child and not see them. I hope that when they do, it all ends as uneventfully as it did for us.

If things hadn’t ended well, would it make me a bad parent? One awful moment. One catastrophe. A never ending stream of newspaper headlines announcing my failure to the world.

This sort of judgement doesn’t just effect people when something goes badly wrong. It is an extension of the same attitude that judges parents every time their child misbehaves in public. This idea that we should always be in control, able to stop a tantrum with what, firmness? By which people mean, our children should be so frightened of us that they stop a normal expression of frustration and anger with just a look, or a word.

Should parents brains always be on high alert for the potential to misbehave, or have accidents? Should we hover over our child, protecting them from the world, the world from them? Will you then judge us for being helicopter parents? This doesn’t sound healthy for anyone. Sometimes parenting involves giving your child space and hoping the mistakes they make don’t lead to catastrophe.

It isn’t enough to tell parents to avoid the internet, the source of all that is toxic. You should not make the mistake of thinking that this is confined to the internet. Avoiding it means not listening, not making eye contact. And I do not think that is any sort of solution.

The only solution is respect, support, kindness, compassion. No-one wants to live in isolated bubbles. So stop pretending you have the right to one where ever and when ever you choose. Stop pretending you are perfect and never make mistakes.

Stop judging, and grant children the same freedoms and guidance and love you were once granted.

Don’t read the comments…

Dear My Flatpack Life,

I’ve been reading your blog, and I do think you go on a bit. All these young women these days you do make such a fuss over nothing. My Great-Aunt Mabel raised 23 children in a hut, and she did it without complaining once. She just got on with it.

She didn’t have epidurals or a water birth. No, she knew it was her duty as the progeny of Eve to suffer. Obviously she didn’t suffer too much, I mean she didn’t experience pre-eclampsia or obstructed labour, or haemorrhaging, or infections despite the lack of sanitation. Otherwise she would have been too dead to complain. But still, you aren’t allowed to complain about surviving a terrible medical emergency. That’s what I tell people who’ve survived a cardiac arrest or are recovering from a stroke- ‘Well, you’re not dead, so just get on with it’. Only dead people are allowed to complain. Did I say 23 children? Well, they didn’t all survive childbirth, or even childhood, but Mabel never complained.

Her life is exactly comparable to yours in every way except all the ways your life is easier. She didn’t have a dishwasher, or electricity. Nope. Luckily, she did have daughters, not too many though, you wouldn’t want too many of those. Just enough to help out around the house and look after the younger children while the boys did their homework so they could learn to provide for their families in manly, important ways.

Despite all that housework Great Aunt Mabel used to watch her children every minute. Every minute. She never stopped watching them so they didn’t have any of those accidents that happen now-days because the parents should have been watching the kids. She never used a phone to check emails because she didn’t have a job outside the home, or electronic bills, or god-forbid, a social life. But she also knew the exact right moment to look away. Because she wasn’t one of these silly helicopter parents with their namby-pamby kids. You can’t watch them forever you know.

And if you didn’t want to become a taxi service you shouldn’t have let yourself become one. Great Aunt Mabel didn’t have to take the kids everywhere. She was too busy Not Complaining to do that. So they just walked everywhere because they had to. No car. No busy roads to Not Complain about. No social services checking in on parents who allow their children to walk anywhere unaccompanied. You shouldn’t do that, can’t be too careful these days.

Great Aunt Mabel never took the kids out to a café and let them misbehave. She never drank a latte in her life. You’re so spoiled. And your kids. They’re spoiled too. Why, the other day a mother was sitting a café with her children as though it was a public space and they had every right to be there. Totally ruined my cappuccino that did.

She didn’t need to have a job either. Nothing that would selfishly take her away from her children who needed their mother to look after them. It’s no wonder kids have so many problems these days with their mothers so distracted by working. It’s no wonder they are all fat without mothers cooking decent meals for them. It’s no wonder they are out roaming the street in those packs –packs I tell you- without mothers waiting to greet them after school. Great Aunt Mabel knew that was her job, and she dedicated herself to it.

Mind you, mothers these days seem to expect some sort of award for parenting. They seem to think the whole world revolves around it. They should definitely devote every single moment to their children but they shouldn’t think it’s important.

Oh No. We never asked Great Aunt Mabel how she felt. We didn’t discuss feelings. No, we never asked if she cried silently over the cooking. We never wondered about the dark circles under her eyes. We never listened on those occasions she chatted with other women. But they weren’t complaining. I’m sure they lived happy fulfilling lives in which they trampled every emotion that couldn’t be written down in a gratitude journal.

Actually, she didn’t write a journal. Great Aunt Mabel couldn’t read or write. So her voice and the voice of countless women have been lost to posterity. But still, no point complaining about that, eh?

Yours judgementally.

Only the best is good enough

Before my son was born I went to the free breastfeeding class at the hospital. It was terrible. They didn’t spend time discussing common problems women have. No mention of tongue tie, delays, or even mastitis. It was a typical ‘agenda’ class. Breastfeeding is natural. Baby will latch on, your supply will magically match itself to baby’s needs. They did have a mother come in to discuss feeding her infant. She hadn’t had any problems feeding, her baby slept through from six weeks (wtf?), and when she fed her baby in a class full of women there to learn about breastfeeding, she used a cover. I’m not sure what we were meant to learn from this experience.

Feeding a newborn is hard. It is work. It is work when it works out, and work when it doesn’t. New mothers are often so badly supported by the networks who are meant to help them. You can go to a class, and not learn anything, other than they thought they should teach a group of heavily pregnant women who had voluntarily turned up that they should at least try to breastfeed. As though that wasn’t exactly why we were there. And then things go wrong, and people say ‘I didn’t know’.

So in the hope that these words will be read by someone who needs them, I offer up to you my story. My stories that should be. Two very different experiences of feeding newborns.

My first. I was lucky. Oh so lucky. How I hate that word. Not only did my milk come in, I had an abundance of it. A massive oversupply that meant I was so engorged my son couldn’t latch on without me expressing first. That sent huge gushes down his throat that promptly came back up again. And that I was in so much pain I wouldn’t sleep, waiting to get him feeding again to ease the pressure. He vomited and vomited and vomited. But he gained weight. ‘He’s just a happy chucker’ they said, though my son was anything but happy. We were drowning in a sea of milk-covered-washing but he was gaining weight. So we had nothing to worry about. He went from the 10th percentile at birth to just over the 50th. ‘He was born hungry’ they told me, ‘babies don’t overeat’ I was assured again and again and again. So I kept feeding. And he kept screaming.

Our doctor eventually referred us to paediatrician, but we had a long wait; ‘baby screams a lot’ doesn’t exactly get you on the priority list. I spoke to multiple midwifes and health nurses. I gave up dairy. I wept. He wept. Then came the night he refused to try feeding after he got upset. The next morning I managed an appointment with a different doctor. ‘Have you tried medication for reflux?’ No. We were told multiple times a baby gaining weight could not have reflux.

It was silent reflux.

Even though we had to pin him down to syringe the medication down his throat, his mood and then mine improved dramatically. Not quickly enough to keep him growing. He developed a phobia of us putting anything in his mouth. He was well into seven months before he would try solid food. My milk supply finally let me down, I couldn’t keep up. He woke hungry multiple times a night. His weight plummeted down to just below the 5th percentile. But once he started eating, he didn’t look back, and was fully self-weaned at ten months.

My second. A difficult birth, with a severe haemorrhage. Blood loss of that magnitude typically causes delays in milk production. My body barely had enough fluid to keep itself going, of course it couldn’t manage colostrum as well. My daughter was a healthy, hungry baby. She latched on straight away and just kept trying. I’ll say this for my babies, they are suckers. But as we got into the second day, she got angrier. Quite frankly we were relieved when a nurse walked in carrying formula. She fed and fell into a happy sleep. She had a few more top-ups that night, as well as sucking away at me. The next morning she was weighed, she’d already lost nine percent of birth weight. We kept going with breast first, formula for afters. Eventually she began to regain weight. And by a month old we were exclusively breastfeeding.

This is where I know I was lucky. We had a cast iron reason for why my body was not producing what she needed. Did I feel like my body had failed? Yeah. I felt like it failed when my uterus went walkabout and tried to kill me. But I survived, so after that we just had to deal with where it left us. But lying in the hospital bed, watching my husband feed the baby I wasn’t strong enough to actually hold yet, I cried. Of course I cried. I cried many times. I cried once we were home and I couldn’t tell if she was hungry crying, and needed more formula, or crying because she just wanted something to suck to help her sleep. The two of us were a big crying mess a lot. And while she was louder, she was also cuter.

Sometimes I wondered why I was so persistent, considering how much I hated breastfeeding the first time round. Once it was working, mostly it was ok. Sometimes it was frustrating to be stuck when my boy wanted me to play. Sometimes boring. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, when it’s just me and her it can be nice; I’m not pushing her to quit. Sometimes after four years of pregnancies and feeding I really look forward to putting this work behind me and my body being my own again.

When you have a new baby, and you go out and see other women with theirs, it’s easy to feel that they’ve got it all worked out. That you are the only one struggling. But everyone has a story, or will get one eventually. Those Mums might have had a start as difficult as yours, and with just a couple of months under their belt are able to get out and look ok, because things do, and will get better.

We tell each other this, we tell all new Mums this ‘It gets better’. But that doesn’t always help someone now. There are too many judgey people, and too many people unable to look beyond their own problems. I was told so many times to stop complaining about oversupply because it was not a real problem. And that hurt. When I sat in bed crying, trying to convince my son to stop crying, those words hurt. We have to remember it is not a competition and there is no one legitimate problem.

So here is my most important point: how you feel matters.

‘Fed is best’ might be true. But it is also reductive.

It implies that as long as your baby is fed, it doesn’t matter how you feel about it.

There is no job where you are expected to love every aspect of it. People have a moan about loving the work but hating that their colleague is always yelling. The retail worker complaining about not being free to take toilet breaks when they need them. Or, a waiter, who always gets food spilled on them staining clothes and making large quantities of washing. Or the plumber on call 24/7 receiving midnight call outs when they want to sleep. See if it is an actual job, a real job you get to complain.

Newborn babies can spend eight hours in a day feeding. That is a full-time job. A full-time job where at best they fall asleep, or at worst they crap on you.

So, go ahead complain that it hurts and doesn’t work. Complain that you are sore. Complain about being tired. Complain about the mess. Complain that you are heartbroken that it didn’t work out. Complain that people judge you for choosing not to try breastfeeding, because you are still feeding your baby aren’t you? Reach out in the middle of the night when you feel alone and as though you are doing it all wrong. And the rest of you reach back to lift others up when they need.

Feel how you feel. Own it.

But also know this. Eventually you have to let it go.

And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear

It’s true that nowadays people are more accepting of the wide breadth of gender expression that people feel, rather than the strict gender binaries of yore. And while I fit into a fairly conventional gender role myself, I think it is really important that people have these freedoms. But I worry that our kids are being forced to define themselves much more narrowly than us adults. That while we dream about every colour of the rainbow, big business seems determined to tell how children how they should look.

Have you been into a kids clothing store recently? Where is the green? Red? Orange?

It’s pink. It’s blue.

And it isn’t that I think there is anything wrong with blue or pink. Or boys who like trucks, and girls who like ponies. My son has a very healthy obsession with various modes of transport. When M was born I quite happily stocked up on baby clothes from the boy section, mostly in blue, lots of cute puppies and robots. I love blue! I love robots! But as my son has grown I find the clothes are less cute puppies, more Angry Birds. I bought him a Batman t-shirt, but Batman looks quite frowny. My son loves flowers and cooking, and cuddling his little sister; he worries about growing up and being old enough to go for walks on his own because he will be ‘alonely’. It seems crazy to dress him as though his default emotion is rage.

Now I have a daughter, and my eye wanders over to the girl department, and they glaze over. I find myself frightened to enter. I swear those sparkly ponies are waiting for a chance to stampede. I swear if I squeeze through the aisle of pink frilly skirts I’ll get lost and end up in Narnia.

But what about when she is older? I want her to dress to please herself, not other people. I want her to know that she doesn’t have to look a certain way to be accepted. That she doesn’t have to look a certain way to have her bodily autonomy respected. I don’t want her to think she should look like a Disney princess. Or that looking like a Disney princess is somehow a reflection of inner character, and that all the baddies she meets in life will look like Ursula. That looking like Ursula means you are bad. Though tentacles would be unfortunate…

I want my children to know they are loved however they express themselves. I want them to wear a riot of colour, or black from top to toe. They can be as conservative or not as they like. But the messages all around them are so strong. The boys’ side, and the girls’ side of the clothes store. The shoe shop. The toy store.

And it’s hard. It’s hard to swim against the flow of that message.

And before you say, it’s just clothes, don’t you have bigger things to care about? The answer to that is ‘Yes’. I do have bigger things to care about than if dressing my daughter in too many of her older brother’s hand me downs confuses people. I have more important things to do than to shop once for a boy, and then do the same thing three years later when I already bought clothes that size, just because of a double X chromosome. I have more important worries than if a stranger thinks dressing my son in floral t-shirts because he loves flowers is ‘a bit gay’. Because frankly if he decided he was gay that wouldn’t worry me in the least. And also, that’s not how it works.

The wonderful thing about small children is how accepting they are. They are so curious, and can ask awkward questions, but when we show them things are normal, acceptable, they accept it. But they also take small samples to representative of the whole; my son saw one train driver, and since then every duplo train has a female duplo figure driving it. We need to stop dividing our children into dichotomies of girl/boy, beautiful/boisterous, nurturers/adventurers. Because if we teach them that this is how it should be, how can we expect true equality for them when they are adults? If we teach them these rules matter, how can we expect them not to conform?

I could choose to push hard myself against it. Choose to dress them defiantly. But them I’m forcing that. It has to come from them. I think living as immigrants makes it harder. M is the foreign kid at daycare; with foreign parents who, as one child charmingly put it, understand nothing (but I understood that!). He is a foreign language speaker, and although he is pretty fluent, danish is still his second language, and he has a slight accent. He gleefully wears his pink Hello Kitty glasses; even on dark winter mornings because actually they are eyeglasses, and ‘oh-oh everything is blurry.’ He wears t-shirts with dandelions and other flowers on them, because he loves them. How much more do we let him stand out before the wolves start circling?

It’s too early to know who my kids will be when they grow up. A is only eight months and her preferences are pretty limited so far. Three year olds change so quickly too. Every winter I quietly worry over how much my boy will change. So far each spring when the buds break through the soil my little florist returns to me. He wants to pick every flower. We are barely able to go for walks we spend so long collecting dandelions.

And this is how I want to parent. I don’t want to tell my children how to be. I want them to be. I want to nurture the best of them. To embrace and cherish what makes them unique. To keep it safe. Not in a glasshouse. Not dried between pages of a book. But wild, fresh and blooming for all the world to see.

New Zealanders – looking for gender neutral clothes for kids? This online store Freedom Kids is awesome.