Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Litlove’s Parenting Meme

We have just handed over our three children to some wonderful friends for a Saturday night sleepover, and I am soon to don my Berlin party dress and head to another friend’s birthday party, from which we do not have to return till dawn should we so choose. Thusly childfree, it seems like the perfect moment to attempt Litlove’s Parenting Meme.

(And, since there has been a little, just a very very little, bit of daytime drinking, I cannot be held responsible for some of the things I may or may not say below.)

Litlove’s Parenting Meme:

How do you view your role as a parent? What are you there to do?

To love and protect. To guide and assist. To equip and prepare. To model behaviours and be consistent.

In your social circle, are mothers expected to work or are they encouraged to stay home with the child?

I know very, very few women who do not work in some way or another, but I also know very, very few women who have returned to work full-time. The short school day in Germany and the lack of adequate after-school care means that most women only do part-time or freelance work. The few I do know who work a full 40-hour week have live-in help, who collect the children from school, provide meals if necessary and play the role of parent until Mama or Papa comes home. However, the older children are, and the more independent they are able to be, the longer hours most mothers work.

How do you feel about your children’s education? What’s good about it, and what would you like to see done differently?

I am thrilled with the German kindergarten system with its emphasis on childhood, play and learning by doing. I feel it is a privilege in this highly pressurised world that my children have been allowed this gentle, fun and completely non-academic start. We are two years into the primary school system and I am satisfied thus far, though still horrified that our state requires my child to start high school in Grade Five. The school appears to cater to the lowest common denominator, which is probably the case in all state education systems and I can accept it. However, I am unhappy with the idea of my kids staying in German-only education for the rest of their schooling, so we are starting to scout around for bilingual schooling options. They exist, but at a price.

How do you share the childcare with your partner (if it is shared)? Do you tend towards different activities or different approaches to parenting?

I have been opinionated about how I want my children raised, and have been lucky in that my husband shares my views. He accepted potentially divisive things like sleep-sharing, attachment parenting, long-term breast-feeding without a murmur, and says today that our offspring are better off for it. He is a totally hands-on parent and has been from the start. While he could have chosen career paths that meant he would only see his kids at the weekend, he has always avoided what he calls “the rat-race”, and made choices that give him time with them. This is the reason we do not live in London, Johannesburg or New York. While I am still the primary care-giver, we are aiming in the long run towards a model where I work more and he cares more.

What are the most important virtues to instill in a child?

It sounds cliched, but I do think nothing beats a healthy dose of self-esteem.

What’s the relationship like between mothers at the park and the school gate? Would someone you didn’t know help you out in a stressful moment?

While I am not a fan of baby groups and forced mother-child group activities (in fact, I run screaming), the mothers whom I have met via kindergarten and school have been my life-savers. I am not everyone’s best mate, and I think some find me slightly odd, but I have some very dear friends who have kept me sane, make me laugh and love my kids. If I’m at a playground with my children, I have no trouble chatting with other Mamas if I’m in the mood, but sometimes I just want to zone out and look at the clouds.

What do you fear most for your children?

I try hard not to live in fear, but I suppose I fear something terrible happening to them. I also fear that we are making an inhospitable planet for them to live on.

How do you discipline your child and what are the errors you would put most effort into correcting?

I am one of those boring Mamas who cares about manners, and I probably overdo the repetition on that score. I don’t like violence and that is punished with time-outs on the stairs (a bad, bad thing that makes people cry). I am intolerant of whining and one of my oft-repeated phrases is “Say that to me in your pleasant voice.” Like Litlove, I find that aptly-used praise is more beneficial than lots of negative talk.

Do you think the life of a child has changed much since you were young?

Oddly enough, we are managing to replicate our South African childhood, where we spent a lot of time outdoors, walked to and from places independently of our parents and were expected to be social beings who could converse with adults and children alike here in Germany. Having said that, childhood has become more technological and we are constantly monitoring and assessing how well we are handling that. (For anyone who’s interested, Lia of the Yum Yum Cafe has been writing a fabulous series of posts on children and technology.) My kids also have a greater awareness of the world, and have travelled far more, than I ever had or did as a child.

What is the best compliment your children could pay you for your parenting skills?

My kids are good at frequent, fulsome compliments, so clearly I model praising really well. If they said I helped them to be happy and be their authentic selves, I would rest on my laurels.

Feel free to play too.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a party dress to don …


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Tales from The Web: The Endorphin Edition

It’s been a long time since my last edition of Tales from The Web. Things have got in the way, like writing a novel and developing a gym habit. I have discovered that an endorphin high from 45 minutes on the cross-trainer lasts a whole lot longer than the endorphin high from eating a 100 gram bar of Milka. Gym is my new drug of choice, and like any addict I get really crabby when I don’t get my fix. This week I’ve sick kids and have only been able to go twice, which has made me bad-tempered and irritable. My family have been practically forcing chocolate on me. “Eat this, Mummy! Eat this and smile again!”

As a form of virtual chocolate, I offer you the March edition of Tales from the Web. Consider it endorphins packaged especially for you, as feel-good as spring lambs gambolling in acid-green fields. And if that doesn’t constitute happiness for you, then imagine you’ve just come off the treadmill, all wobbly-legged and trembly, and you’re floating out of the gym on a cloud of hormone. Feels good, doesn’t it?

Let’s start with eye candy. I bookmarked this in December, but these cakes could be Easter cakes too. The blogger African Vanielje is a chef, baker extraordinaire, photographer and writer. Take a look at her Truly Remarkable Once a Year Cakes and wish you were a friend of hers with a birthday just around the corner.

I love the Wallace Stevens quote BlogLily has as her blog tag: “It must give pleasure”. On days when I’ve felt like posting something gloomy, self-reflective and sad, I remember BlogLily’s mantra. I do think it is a good one. I have chosen a classic BL post for your delectation here. It comes from her visit to London earlier this year, where she soaked up a lot of theatre. Apparently in London in January, “it was pouring plays about sex”. Have fun reading Is Eros All?

Now we all know that sex can lead to babies, and babies, though delicious, bring a host of unexpected complications with them. Next up is a post written in response to a desperate plea. I saved it because I was taken with the thoughtfulness and kindness that went into shaping the response, and because I was once that parent, with a co-sleeping, breast-feeding baby who didn’t want to sleep unless using me as a dummy. I know the desperation that went into that original email, and I would have welcomed the same kind of non-judgmental kindness that Bluemilk exhibits here in trying to find a solution. I include this in the March Tales from The Web: The Endorphin Edition because I want to show that the blogosphere can be a good place, not just a snarkfest.

The lovely Anna is trying to work herself out of a job. Her three boys are growing up, and her resolution for this year is to mother them less so that they can learn the life-skills they will need when they leave home. I am a big fan of her blog The End of Motherhood where she is documenting this process with her great sense of humour. The post I’m linking to today is not about parenting teenagers, but is a tip for raising smaller kids. It’s what she calls “a secret sauce for parenting young children” and you can read about it here. Fifteen minutes a day to stop tantrums and reconnect with your child. That’s feel-good isn’t it?

I can always rely on Emily to make me laugh. In this post she talks about how, although she loves writing, she goes through the five stages of grief when she has write a half-page introduction to her company’s maths catalogue. As a procrastinator, I can relate. Read it, then go forth and complete all your admin. You’ll be so glad you did.

Ian is funny. But that’s no surprise since he’s Emily’s brother. Check out his Geekfield’s Guide to English Literature, a hand-drawn compendium of English literature from Beowulf to Dan Brown. Who thought graphic text books could be so much fun?

Helen was considering giving up writing, but then she needed the loo. Read how The Most Inspirational Toilet in Sydney gave her her writing mojo back. Could I have one in Heidelberg please?

For all-around chickeny cuteness, go and check out Mandarine’s new tenants, the Orpingtons. We had bantams as children, and they caused us no end of happiness. Unfortunately, they didn’t last long, because the suburbs of Pietermaritzburg were a cut-throat place even then, and they were taken out by a hardened gang of vervet monkeys. However, that’s not going to happen to Mandarine’s chickens because (a) they live in France, and (b) they have a lovely house. Oh, and if you read French, which I can if I try really, really hard, you can read Mandarine’s new blog where he details his attempt to farm a garden big enough to feed his whole family. (Which means he one day may have to sacrifice an Orpington, but we’re not thinking about that yet.)

That’s the Endorphin Edition for now. If I don’t get to the gym soon, I’m going to have to eat one of these:


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The Feminist Motherhood Meme

This is so much more than a meme. I found this list of questions about motherhood and feminism (which originated with bluemilk) over at Penguin unearthed, and have enjoyed chewing over them. Warning: slight rants ahead.

How would you describe your feminism in one sentence? When did you become a feminist? Was it before or after you became a mother?

My feminism comes from outrage at injustice: I am outraged that fundamentalist religions of all kinds oppress women in the name of their beliefs, I am outraged that women die, are trafficked, raped, abused, have their genitals mutilated, are blamed for the HIV virus that their men pass to them, do not have a voice in their own homes, do not receive an education and must serve men.

My feminism came very young: probably at 11 when my father divorced my mother and left his family for another woman. That was a defining moment for me – I grew up overnight, and took on board the message that I should rely on no-one but myself because other people let you down. As I grew older that began to mean getting into a good university and following the career of my choice: journalism and writing. As I head into my forties, my feminism becomes less about me and more about women in general.

Feminism definitely preceeded motherhood for me. I only began to seriously think about motherhood when I was 28 and started meeting ridiculously cute infants. I thought, “I want one!” but never for one minute thought about how that would change me or my goals. I was after an adorable accessory of my own.

What has surprised you most about motherhood? How has your feminism changed over time? What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?

The intensity of emotions, both positive and negative, surprised and continues to surprise me about motherhood. I cried for days when all my children were born, sad tears, happy tears, confused and anxious ones. I remember thinking, “A baby won’t change MY life! It will have to fit in with whatever I want to do”, but then on Day Six of Life, Lily developed colic and cried for three months, so there was no going to restaurants and whisking her places because she would scream and scream. I was more her accessory than she was mine. I learnt fast to shape my life to hers, and nothing has changed since. My children have taught me flexibility.

My feminism has become far more general and less specific. I no longer rail at any personal glass ceiling I may have encountered (nor the idiot – no gender mentioned – boss who broke the news to me at the last minute that I couldn’t telecommute from London to his team in Germany, thus leaving me without any maternity benefits when I became pregnant working out his company’s insane six-month notice period. No. I won’t mention him.) or any ridiculously paternalistic boyfriends I might have allowed to patronise me as a teenager. I believe I am living out my potential. However, I am enraged that there are so many millions of women who are prevented from doing so. THAT makes me angry.

Motherhood has softened me in that I see my husband’s (different but equal) style of parenting as beneficial and lovely for our children. At first, I wanted him to parent My Way. Now I see that His Way is equally wonderful and that the children love it. Motherhood has been a kind of sacrifice for me, a putting-on-hold of putting-me-first, but has also allowed me to forge intensely close and satisfying relationships with three individuals who wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me. The joy of watching them grow and become themselves far outweighs any superficial strokes I might be receiving now in a work environment. Plus I manage to raise them AND work as a writer, so I feel lucky and honoured to be doing both.

What makes your mothering feminist? How does your approach differ from a non-feminist mother’s? How does feminism impact upon your parenting?

I’m not sure what makes my mothering feminist. My expectations of my children are identical, regardless of their gender. I encourage my children to be true to themselves, regardless of their gender. I encourage them all to show kindness to others, to listen and be polite. I kiss them all equally. I support their choices and always will, though I might disencourage them from becoming lap-dancers or suicide bombers. I like that they see their father perform household tasks, and I like that they see me at my computer working.

Do you ever feel compromised as a feminist mother? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a feminist mother?

Occasionally, I’ve wondered how I, with my feminist principles, have ended up as a work-from-home mother but I believe that’s a choice I’ve made out of love and good fortune. I feel compromised and grumbly if my family have left the house in a mess and since I’m the one at home, I’ve got to make the choice of ignoring it or clearing it up. I certainly don’t feel that I’ve failed as a feminist mother.

Has identifying as a feminist mother ever been difficult? Why?

No, I think at times my feminism has been subdued by the all-consuming task of parenting. But I have no trouble saying I am both a feminist and a mother.

Motherhood involves sacrifice, how do you reconcile that with being a feminist?

I try to accept the sacrifice gracefully. My time in the big, wide world – should I choose it – will come.

If you have a partner, how does your partner feel about your feminist motherhood? What is the impact of your feminism on your partner?

He accepts it as part of me. He doesn’t see it as some weird addendum to my personality. He is also one of the most fair-minded, kind and non-judgmental people I know.

If you’re an attachment parenting mother, what challenges if any does this pose for your feminism and how have you resolved them?

I have used aspects of attachment parenting (sleeping with my babies, fairly long-term breast-feeding, some baby-wearing) but am not an attachment parenting proselytizer. However, there were times when all three of my children were small that I felt “in service” to them. At very tired, over-wrought moments I might have resented that, but I am grateful to the attachment parenting now – and my husband loved all the wearing, carrying and cuddling too – because we have such intensely close bonds. Our children are at home with us, wherever we are in the world.

Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given mothers?

I don’t think feminism has failed mothers, but I do think women fail each other. Women judge each other for ridiculous reasons, usually because someone has made a different choice. Feminism has given women freedom of choice, and we should embrace the fact that some of us can go out and be CEOs, others can be stay-at-home mothers, others can juggle work and kids, others may not want kids, others will breast-feed while some would never consider it. Women need to accept each other’s choices and support each other more. We are so damn lucky to HAVE choices – there are millions of women in the third world who don’t have that luxury. Whether we’re feminists or not, mothers or not, we should stop failing each other, and start loving each other a little more and judging each other a little less.


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How Epidurals Affect Breast-Feeding

I read in the press yesterday about the link an Australian research team has made between women receiving epidural pain relief at birth and their subsequent difficulty with breast-feeding, and a loud click sounded in my brain. According to The Sunday Times’ article,

The research suggests that some of the drugs used in epidurals make their way into babies’ bloodstreams, subtly affecting their brains and development for weeks afterwards — including making them less willing to breast-feed.

The researchers followed 1,280 women, of whom 416 had an epidural. The researchers found that 93% of the full group breast-fed their babies in the first week, but those who had epidurals had more difficulty breast-feeding in the first few days after giving birth. After six months, the women who had epidurals were twice as likely to have given up breast-feeding.

I have done comprehensive research of my own, and can say without a doubt that my two babies who were born at home with no pain relief were both wonderful latchers, ate heartily and – despite the minor complication of my hugely swollen breasts – had no trouble with breast-feeding at all.

However, my first baby did not have it that easy. To start with, she was a back labour, which meant that although she was lying head down, she was facing the wrong way and had to turn around completely before she could come down the birth canal. That process of her turning around was so agonising that I started baying loudly for pain relief. The first shot of epidural had the desired effect of relaxing me – they dimmed the lights, I had a superficial nap, Thomas went home for a shower – but the top-up two hours later meant that my blood pressure suddenly dipped dangerously, labour speeded up, and since I could feel nothing (and so couldn’t push), the doctor had to go in and fetch Lily with a tool that looked like something you’d unblock your loo with. Thomas got to hold our little baby, while the doctor took a needle and thread and repaired the damage she’d done to me. I remember asking her how many stitches there were and her saying, “You don’t need to know.” Actually, I did – I felt like a warhorse who’d survived a bloody battle and I needed to know the extent of my wounds.

After two nights in our busy London hospital – where the full extent of my breast-feeding education was being told “you’re not doing it right” – we were sent home. Things went rapidly downhill. The first night at home I spent alternatively trying and failing to feed my baby, and staring down her throat as she screamed. I think if a nice hospital nurse had come by and muttered comfortingly, “Let me give her a bottle, dearie, and you get some sleep”, I would have willingly surrendered my breast-feeding principles on the spot. We persevered, but it remained difficult for quite a while. At the time, I thought this was because:

  1. She was very tiny, with a minute little mouth
  2. She had a bad headache from being suctioned out of me
  3. We had got ourselves into some bad latching habits (“not doing it right”)

But I now know there is also every chance that she had some fentanyl in her bloodstream, which made her coordination bad, especially in the jaw area. I didn’t stop breast-feeding, and I wasn’t tempted to do so. I was determined, quite hardcore really, that this was the way I was going to feed my baby, and with the help of a committed midwive who staved off mastitis at the eleventh hour, the Le Leche League’s mind-altering advice to lie down and get some sleep while feeding my baby and a small library of baby books, we got through it. But it would be good, as the researchers point out in their report, if women who had epidurals during birth received the education and the support they needed to cope with any problems before leaving hospital. Or, at the very least, the telephone number of their nearest La Leche League support group.


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Musical Beds

About ten seconds after Daisy was born, our lovely doula Hilary said to us, “Welcome to a decade of musical beds.” I didn’t believe her. But this morning, with everyone having gone to bed in their correct bed, this was how things looked in our house: Ollie in own cot, two girls in with Mummy, Daddy in Daisy’s bed. It is so common we don’t even comment on it; there’s no “Oh how did you get here?” or “Anyone know where Daddy is?”. We just get up, get on with our day, safe in the knowledge that the next morning will bring a new and exciting sleep configuration.

Despite an initial three seconds of trying our babies in their lovely little cots, we always co-slept out of necessity (Co-sleep bad? No sleep worse!), and I think our bed has become a refuge for all of them. I am usually aware that someone has joined us: Daisy is not shy of pulling back the duvet and finding the spot that suits her, but once she’s asleep she sleeps like a log. Lily is more subtle – sometimes we find her curled up at the end of our bed like a kitty, but like a cat she can also be restless and shuffle around. Ollie, however, is a bad co-sleeper – if he finds himself with us, he thinks it’s time for a grand play, so he will rampage, plant kisses, bestow furious hugs until both parents have been loved to wakefulness. At least we can still decide if he gets let in or not; the girls just arrive uninvited. However, in a few months time, when he gets out of jail, we’ll be adding Ollie to the nightly mix. Golly gosh, the fun that lies ahead!

I think that separating parents’ and childrens’ sleep is a relatively new and largely Western phenomenon. There are experts both strongly for and strongly against co-sleeping, and those who are proponents do recommend that you take safety precautions, especially when babies are tiny. We were always cautious, though there was the odd occasion when we’d be woken by a loud bump followed by a surprised wail. A quick visit to the boob usually sorted out any hurts, physical or to dignity.

I’m not here to say do or don’t co-sleep, because I believe that parents must do what’s right for their children, themselves and their family unit as a whole. What I really wish was that as parents we didn’t suffer so much angst about something so natural and easy. I wasted hours worrying about when and how I should move child A, B or C from our bed, more hours discussing it with friends on the phone, still more hours making myself feel worse about it by reading the wisdom of various experts and even more hours on co-sleeping message boards. While I loved and accepted co-sleeping, there was a part of me wanting to rush my children on, onward and upwards to the next thing.

We’re still in the thick of musical beds and various kinds of bed-sharing, but now that Lily is nearly seven and starting to look coltish and less babyish, I realise that soon she’ll be far too sophisticated to want to climb into Mummy’s bed. When I carry her back to her own bed, she’s almost too heavy for me. Now I’m looking at co-sleeping from another perspective, thinking that in a short blink they won’t be needing the comfort of our bed, won’t really be needing us at all except to pay their cellphone bills, and they’ll be wanting to stay awake all night and sleep all day. I must relish the bed-sharing while it lasts. They aren’t going to be my babies for ever.