Friday, 30 August 2013

Dealing with Princesses

A month or so ago, my daughter did something I've been dreading since before my children were even conceived: she discovered the Disney Princess aisle in Target.

Why 'Princess' is a Dirty Word

I don't want to be disingenuous here. I adore the Disney movies. When I was three, Snow White was my favourite fictional character, and I distinctly recall telling my grandmother once that I wanted to be a princess when I grew up. I was in my early teens for the 90s Disney Renaissance, and was fascinated by the Disney heroines throughout high school.

However, somewhere between my childhood and the present day, the meaning of princess went from 'fairy tale adventure' to 'pink and fluffy rhinestone tiaras'.  I know I loved the beautiful dresses the princesses wore in my storybooks, but I also loved the adventures--playing princess with my friends in the school playground meant one of us had to play the witch that captured her!  Probably modern day childhood games aren't so different.  At a recent barbeque, my son played pirates with his friend and got into a rousing battle with the (equally enthusiastic) girls playing princesses.

But that's not what the modern Princess franchise (Disney or those emulating it) is about. The roleplay has been lost in favour of dress-up, and yet again women are being marketed based on their cosmetic value--to pre-school girls.

There was a recent internet brouhaha about Merida's entry into the lineup, resulting in a petition to make sure Disney Princess Merida lost some of her glamour and regained Brave Merida's bow. Yet Merida was hardly the first Disney heroine intended as a better role model for young girls than Snow "Someday my prince will come" White. She's certainly not the first to be stripped of those nods to feminism and personality for the sake of marketing.  When was the last time you saw Belle drawn with a book in hand? Even Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty had more personality than their sweetly coy promotional counterparts.

My Noble Intentions

Clearly, as a parent, it's easy for me to boycott the make-up sets and high-heeled shoes--I rarely wear either myself and I certainly don't believe pre-teens should. But I don't want to ban the merchandise outright either.  I knew this day was likely to come, and my intent was always to focus on the movies and original fairy tales... but there's one problem.  At two and a half, my daughter is in the target demographic for the Disney Princess Franchise, but she's too young to sit through the films nor do fairy tales hold her interest.

My son, aged four, does enjoy fairy tales.  I started telling them to him from my own memory when he went through a phase of requesting scary stories, and after reading a picture book version of Disney's Sleeping Beauty, he was excited to watch the film (mostly for the climactic swordfight with the dragon).  I can rest assured that my attempts to associate princesses with adventure is working like a charm on him.

But my toddler daughter? After weeks of study, I have been forced to conclude that to her a princess is a girl wearing a long dress, and it's the attractiveness of the characters, the smiling faces that appeal to her. Disney's marketing department knows exactly what they're doing. In fact, what she really likes doing best with her princesses is naming them, learning each one as carefully and conscientiously as she learned her numbers and shapes.


That fateful day in the toy aisle, my daughter picked out a magiclip Tiana, with three dresses (all of them ballgowns) and a stand to hang them on. I wasn't thrilled with the theme of the toy, but I liked that Tiana was at least on a similar scale to all our other playsets (Imaginext etc), meaning that there was crossover potential with their other toys.

Despite having a girl and a boy, it's my intention that my children should be able to play together as much as possible, and when we got home I browsed the magiclip line of princesses on Amazon and was gratified to find a selection of actual story-themed playsets as well as the changes of clothing and parties. For our trip around the UK, we got her Snow White with the Seven Dwarf's cottage (now hideously pink-thatched and tending to sparkle) as a portable playset. Come Christmas, I might well buy a non-franchise castle play-set that both children can use as a setting for grander adventures. In the shorter term, I'm eyeing up this cardboard box castle craft.

Amy Mebberson's fabulous yet tragically unofficial Pocket Princesses have proven that there is room for character and story in an absurd little universe where the Disney princesses all hang out with each other. From these I got the inspiration to focus not on story but personality where our princesses were concerned: "Snow White is a princess on the run. Tiana dreams of owning her own restaurant. Together they fight crime!" Or something. Some personality tag to append to the names my daughter is learning.

It's still all a little over my daughter's head, but it's working to keep my son's interest in the princesses, and he's her biggest role model when it comes to playing. I've shown them a few of the Pocket Princess cartoons and they enjoy them (their personal favourite). For the next few years, it looks like we'll be following Pocket Princess canon, and that's just fine with me.

Life Beyond The Animated Throne

Fortunately, Disney Princess remains an appeal rather than an obsession for my daughter, and I'm delighted that she would rather read Charlie and Lola than Sleeping Beauty, would rather watch Lilo and Stitch than Cinderella.  She does like to dress up in her princess outfit--we have the Imaginarium princess dress up trunk, which is thankfully low on pink and high on variety--but she also likes to wear her witch's hat, or a pirate outfit--and she's always game for playing swords with her brother. It seems that I don't need to fear the pink and fluffy rhinestone tiaras just yet...

Dragons make for a better accessory anyway

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Decorating the School-bag (Or the things I can do if I put my mind to it)

All this week, my son has been going to orientation at his new school. This has been kind of a pain for me, because he's been going for a couple of hours a day, a.k.a. half the morning, which has made it very awkward to plan activities for myself and my daughter.  On the other hand, I'm pleased the staff are so careful to settle the incoming children before the returners get back.

My son has, to all appearances, really enjoyed it.  I attended a parent Q & A / meet your fellow parents event on Monday, during which my daughter sat on my lap and entertained herself by asking me: "Where are your nipples?" (Currently, nipples are her favourite part of the human anatomy--possibly just because of the sound of the word.) Thank-you, beloved child, for helping me face my fear of embarrassment in social situations.

However the real disaster came earlier on Monday morning, when my son's teacher handed him a brand new schoolbag, told him he could decorate it however he wanted--and then pointed to a little girl's bag by way of example.  Said girl's bag had caterpillars and flowers painted on with glitter and was completely adorable.  My son was captivated at the thought of transforming his bag similarly; I was horrified.

I am not really artistic in any practical way. I'm always nervous of art projects more complicated than 'give child materials and leave them to it.' It's probably no coincidence that my son is rather behind in art himself.  At age four, he's been writing his letters for over a year, but he only recently started actually drawing things, and colouring in our household means scribbling an abstract mass of colour through which the line-art underneath shows through. At any rate, I knew that the visions my son had were beyond us. Besides, we were all out of paint and our glitter glue stock was low.

So when we got home, I got out the markers (felt tips) for my son and told him to draw whatever he wanted, hoping he might surprise me. He let his two year old sister in on the action, and the result was a colourful scribble all over the back of the bag. I told myself that at least this was his creation, not mine, but the truth was that this was a bag he was going to be using for years to come, and it would be distinguished from everybody else's by being... a messy scribble.

I fretted over this for the rest of the week, and eventually came up with a plan.

The Plan

Today, I gave my son a spray bottle of water and a scrubbing brush. We squirted the bag thoroughly and then he scrubbed over the markers, blurring the washable inks across the canvas to create a watercolour effect.

Once that was dry, he picked out a simple picture of a rocket ship from a colouring book and I copied that onto the bag in first pencil, then Sharpie. Then he painted it (I'd restocked on paints)--and for the first time in his life (and without me mentioning it!) he carefully painted each element of the picture a different colour. I helped a little, but mostly filling in the main body of the ship when he got bored and moved onto the wings. I also painted in the flames at the back when he was unsure how to do it.

When that was dry (huzzah for a sunny day!), I broke out our glitter glue.  This was the only time I over-rode his wishes in design, since he just wanted to scribble any colour anywhere, and I insisted that we had to match the colours already on the ship. I was afraid that if I let him have his way, we would end up with the same messy scribble we started with. Besides, I wanted the glitter glue to act as a sealant, since the paint was washable and this bag is going to get rained on at some point.

I'm not entirely sure how you're meant to use glitter glue, but we found that we got the best result by squirting a line and then spreading it with our fingers.

The final result:
It's flying past a nebula or something...

It's not Monet, and I still worry about what's going to happen when it rains, but this is, I feel, a bag he can be proud of for the next few years (and an artwork that we can gladly keep in the memory box once he's done with the bag). I am tremendously proud of him for putting so much care into it--and have resolved to be less scared of doing art with the children going forward.

I am, however, already worrying about what we can put on my daughter's bag when she joins the school next year...

Friday, 23 August 2013

For the Father-to-be from the Mother-that's-been

Although this is addressed to fathers to be in general, this is written for a guy I know online expecting his first child—because I’m sure that by this point of his wife’s pregnancy, there is nothing he wants more than more advice.

There is a lot of advice out there on babies and new parenthood, yet most of it flows between members of the same gender. Fathers counsel fathers and mothers counsel each other—often with a surprising lack of sympathy for their partners. So here is a mother’s take on what the new father should be prepared for. (Based on the entirely anecdotal evidence of five years of conversations with male friends—which makes it definitive!)

The Baby
I’m going to assume that you’ve done your research here and have a good idea of what to expect from your newborn. You’ve also probably heard numerous times that you can’t really know what it’s like until you experience it for yourself. It’s not that anything’s going to happen that you don’t expect (maybe), it’s more that you can’t know how you will deal with it 24/7.

To put it another way, before the birth you’re saying: “OK, so babies cry and they make a mess.” After the birth, you’re saying: “OH MY GOD! BABIES CRY AND THEY MAKE A MESS!” The good news is that you do go back to: “OK, so babies cry and they make a mess.” It just might take a couple of months.

The biggest transition here is adjusting from being a couple to being a family—knowing that your priorities will have to change doesn’t make the shift easy. However, the best encouragement I ever received came from a father friend: “It just keeps getting better.” From the first smile around eight weeks to the first time you successfully soothe their tears away to their first light sabre battle… Babies bloom into pure awesome.

The Emotions

May I refer you to a phrase coined by Glumbunny’s sister-in-law? You will be FUCKING DEPRESSED.

It’s not necessarily postpartum depression, which is its own animal, but wild bouts of despair are a normal state for a new parent. Mothers do have it worse, what with the hormones, physical recovery, lactation and body-image issues, but that doesn’t mean that Dads don’t get totally miserable too. Both parents are sleep deprived, stressed and suffering from a lack of confidence.

Perhaps the least expected parental emotion is guilt. Guilt over not filling your baby’s every waking hour with stimulation during this vital infancy stage. Guilt that you are doing the things you swore you would never do before having the child. Guilt that you never even thought of doing all the cool kid-friendly activities that appear in photographs on your Facebook feed. Guilt that you are neglecting your career, hobbies and loved ones for the baby. (Get ready for that self-loathing moment when your faithful pet nudges you for attention, and you push it away because you can’t cater to the demands of yet another living thing.)

Fathers feel an added layer of helplessness since the baby is more likely to calm down for Mum—if nothing else men lack naturally occurring pacifiers on their chests. Also, when it comes down to it, it’s Dad who’s got to suck it up and support the mother as she deals with those extra elements. And that extra responsibility means extra stress, which might just be the final straw on some days. In other words, have a backup support system ready.

I’m not trying to give you prepartum depression, but I don’t want to sugarcoat this either. This is the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to you—and it’s going to be agonisingly difficult. People will remind you to enjoy every moment because it goes by so fast, but it’s both normal and OK to have days where you just can’t.

On the plus side, this is what’s going to make you into the man you’ll be a year from now.

That was my attempt at inspiration. Moving on...

There will also be days where you get this fatherhood thing down.

The Relationship

I remember before the birth of my first child, I swore to myself that I would not be the kind of woman who neglects her husband for her child. After the birth, my husband and I both had a bitter laugh over that one.

The view of mothers neglecting fathers once the baby comes along is a male-driven one. From the maternal perspective, I deeply resented the fact that I never came first: I felt like I was spending all my time caring for the baby, cats, husband, and nobody took the time to care for me. This perception may have been mildly influenced by sleep deprivation...

Meanwhile, my husband had to deal with my hormonal urges—not the good (sexy) kind, but the kind where if the baby cried, I had to be the in the same room. It didn’t matter if I knew my husband was taking him in order to give me a break, it didn’t matter that I believed my husband was perfectly capable, it didn’t even matter that I wanted to stay in bed. All that mattered was that, as the mother, I felt morally obliged to be present for my child’s misery. You can imagine how this helped my husband's paternal self-esteem.

Chances are, you and the mother have talked about how you will balance the workload (for both baby and house) after the birth. Try and revisit that every couple of weeks, maybe even more frequently, with both of you being completely honest about what's hitting you hardest. There isn’t going to be a perfect balance, but you will improve. (Pro-tip: if I was doing the first baby over again, I’d ask my husband to make sure I ate breakfast every day—I often found that it was lunchtime and I still hadn’t eaten anything.)

The general consensus seems to be that having a baby is a huge strain on the relationship, with the trite assurance that you’ll come out stronger for it. I can't swear to that, but when it comes down to it, remember you’re both on the same side here, comrades in the trenches. The real enemy is the little sod screaming from the crib at 3am.

The Mother

So how will your beloved partner change physically after the birth? It depends on a lot of variables: scars, size and continence are all going to vary hugely from woman to woman and birth to birth.

The most immediate mystery is the post-partum belly which is round and soft: it deflates with the uterus over the course of a week or so, but the added flesh and stretch marks remain—and wrinkles of loose skin may join them. Those wrinkles, which appeared after my second birth, are the feature of my maternal body that most bothers me, and it took me a long time to look at them in the mirror without wincing.

There’s a lot of fuss about getting back into shape after the birth, and clearly it’s the healthy thing to do, but conventional mother wisdom says that it took nine months for the body to get that way—allow at least nine months to get it back (really a year, since she can’t do much about it straight after the birth). And some elements of her body will never be the same. (That might be breasts, tummy, ribcage, genitals… it’s life’s least savoury roulette wheel.)

Part of the adjustment for both you and your partner will be in accepting the flaws of the maternal body. Check out Jade Beall's Beautiful Body Project, which seeks to demystify the postpartum body.  Different women place different priorities on regaining their old figures, but at least in the short term, they’re going to be very changed from pre-pregnancy.

Her new body really shouldn’t bother you, but if it does, bear in mind she’s probably more upset about it than you are. Relax and embrace it… literally. Getting back in shape is good, but rediscovering her sexiness is vital, and that's something you can definitely help her with.

From A Beautiful Body Project

The Sex

It might strike you as a clich├ęd stereotype that a guide for fathers should talk about sex, but as with the postpartum body, I feel that this is something that needs to be talked about more openly. There is not enough information on what sex is like after childbirth out there—all I had was a few private warnings from a friend who was a month ahead of me in postpartum recovery.

Current American medical advice for vaginal deliveries is no intercourse for six weeks after the birth to allow time for everything to heal. This does not mean that after six weeks, everything is going to be back to normal down there. The area around the vagina is still tender and (especially if your partner is breastfeeding) very dry. Use lubricant, go gently and be aware that she’ll be sore afterwards.

The bad news is that this will be the status quo for months. Breast-feeding hormones are not conducive to good sex—but do not be that guy who encourages his wife to quit breastfeeding to better his sex life. Even after the tenderness goes away, there are still going to be sore points wherever she has stitches—fortunately, this isn’t likely to be enough pain to detract from the sexual experience and this should also disappear within a year.

Will you feel any changes? OK… I’m not really in a position to debunk the theory that after popping out a baby, a woman’s vagina is somehow ‘loose’. Funnily enough, this isn’t something the men of my acquaintance talk about (to me). However, from the limited discussion I have heard on this topic, it seems you needn’t worry. It’s not like you can do a direct before and after comparison anyway, but chances are you won’t notice a difference. (And of course, that kind of thing doesn’t really matter to you, does it?)

The big elephant in the room is the frequency of the sex… and that’s where I don’t have good news. Your average new mother is not feeling a lot of interest in sex in the first place—and not particularly enjoying it when she has it. It does, I am sorry to say, become just another thing on an overwhelming To Do List, and that leaves you at the mercy of her priorities.

I’ve known several women who just stopped having sex after the birth of their child, with this state of affairs lasting for a year or more. I was always of the school of thought that my husband and I needed that intimate bonding moment, that it was worth finding time for… yet my lack of enthusiasm for the actual act caused its own strain between us.

It’s tough on the father, not just because your hormones are still focused on conception, but because it’s tough to see that your sexual partner has effectively lost interest in you. That’s a crisis of self-confidence to rival the mother’s body-image struggles. And like that, it’s something that both partners are going to have to understand and work through together. It will improve, but it’s definitely a long-term project.

Oh, and one last thing… Have you ever felt that the beauty of a long-term relationship is that you have memorised the map of your partner’s particular turn-ons? Yeah, those might change after the birth too. Think of it as Mother Nature’s unnecessarily vicious little joke.

Don't forget all the obstacles between the two of you and alone-time.

So that is the cold hard truth of new fatherhood. That is what you need to brace yourself for. Now relax, because there is also plenty of exultation ahead and incredible amounts of love, but I’ll let you discover that for yourself. (We're going spoiler-free on the good stuff!) Good luck to you for the next few months and congratulations for the rest of your life… This is, hands down, the best thing you’ve ever done.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Home from travels and holiday retrospect

Long silence owing to a three week trip around the UK.  It was exhausting, as it has been ever since we went from one child to two, but it was also tremendous fun.  We expected that our daughter, a notoriously bad sleeper, would be the problem, but in fact it was our son who struggled with the new surroundings and unfamiliar food.  Even though he'd been looking forward to the trip for weeks, the first night I sat at the top of my mother-in-law's stairs, cuddling him as he whimpered that he wanted to go home.

But it got better!  I'm still waiting to get to the point where I can actually recover from the jet-lag sleep deficit during the trip, but it could have been worse.  Despite some pre-trip phobia of public toilets, my daughter was an absolute star in maintaining her toilet training through all the travelling and different houses that we stayed in.  Both children watched far too much television, but we told ourselves was almost exclusively CBeebies and thus part of their cultural identity--and felt this rationale was validated when they took a shine to Postman Pat.

And, partly thanks to the best weather we've had for one of these trips, we had so much honest-to-goodness fun.

Anyway, our summer holiday is over, and next week my son does his orientation for his new school, with term for both children starting the following week.  It's been almost three months off school for the children, and this is the first time that I've worried about the academic lapse for my son.  Here in the States, it's an acknowledged problem that pupils forget a lot over the summer holidays, meaning a good proportion of the fall term is bringing them back up to speed.  Previously, that hasn't been an issue for us--not because I've had my son in summer school, but because he wasn't doing anything at school that we weren't practicing in daily life.

Now though, I look at where he is/was in his reading and writing and think that if he hadn't had that break, he would probably be really and truly reading by now.  I've been a bit hit and miss in practising that with him, because I don't want to push it and because he generally doesn't settle with me--preferring to mess around.  But late in the holiday I discovered that if I do push for some sit down and write time (we've actually been using a workbook--not at all Montessori, but it was at exactly the right level for him), he'll get his focus and surprise me with what he can do. 

During our trip, we had a tendency to go out in the morning and chill out in the afternoon.  When we were staying with friends with children, that wasn't a problem, but at the grandparents' houses the children would grow restless in the afternoon and become too chaotic.  We started doing sit-down activities with them: play doh, colouring--and the work-book (I also had an addition activity mat for my son and a counting one for my daughter, along with some beads for the maths side of things, though I never quite got these working smoothly).  This worked a treat, even though sitting down and arranging an activity for the children was frequently the last thing either of us wanted to do!

Next summer, I'll have to try and incorporate this into our daily routine: a 4pm work cycle, of sorts.  As it is, I'm at least satisfied that he hasn't slipped backwards from where his new school expects him to be--though I'm sure they expect a summer regression anyway!