These aren’t the only things I learned in fifteen years of family life, but they’re what I’d most like to pass on – as suggestions, not advice – to others. I wish that someone had sat down with me, before having children, and talked them through with me.
- What’s good for your children – security, love, creativity – is good for you too.
Helping your children to grow up at their own pace will lead them to thank you for it later on. Protecting them from experiencing too much, too soon, simplifies everything. Having a routine, a rhythm for your days, draws out the good from the muddle that is family life. Being able to give your children unconditional love is a blessing. It’s a sacrifice that gives back more than it takes.
- Make your own traditions, your own routine, your own way of doing things.
Once you have children you’ll spend more time at home than you ever did in the past. Creating a home that expresses what you care about most is your gift to your children. Housekeeper, artist, cook, hiker, gardener – these were some of the strengths that family life unearthed in me. Make friends – not enemies – with housekeeping. Done well, it’s an expression of love. Don’t let others persuade you that caring about the domestic is servility, if it’s something that matters to you.
- Find time for yourself every day.
Guard it like a hawk. Being around your children is a form of emotional work that you’re entitled to have a break from. You’ll be nicer – will like yourself better – for it. Needing time for yourself is not a selfish extravagance – for many parents it’s a basic need. Even ten minutes are better than no minutes – just make sure to close the door and to use them well. Get the help that you need, even if you have to be clever to get it.
- When your child shows a spark of creativity, foster it.
Helping a child to be creative will lead her to take herself seriously, and give her an experience of flow. While her interest in an activity may fade, a capacity to be creative will stay with her. Creating the conditions for creativity can however be testing. When a small child rips up a painting – or, years later, refuses to practise music – the temptation is to give up. Try not to. A child relies on your confidence in them to overcome their resistance to applying themselves. Basically they have to take your word for it that if they push through with it, they’ll be rewarded. Moreover in the time they spend making something, have a go at making something yourself – that way you’ll be too busy to break off and help them, which will make them more resourceful.
- Do things together that you all enjoy.
Being there for your children is devotion enough. Doing things that they like doing, but you don’t, is martyrdom – which unconsciously they’ll pick up on. Equally when you’re all enjoying yourselves, the pleasure doubles. Consider their childhood as an opportunity for you to do all those things that you didn’t quite get enough of when you were young.
- Loose time is more sustaining and restful than entertainment.
Children with nothing to do will eventually find something to do that chimes with a deep part of themselves. Once they find this, you’ll be off the hook. Doing nothing nearly always leads to doing something more interesting than if a child had never been given the chance to do nothing.
- Love your local library and playground.
Let your children know that the library and playground are their spaces. They are full of helpful people who will support their curiosity for life. Making friends with books is just as important as making friends in the playground. Let your children wander out of the children’s section as soon as they show an interest – this way you’ll develop new interests too.
- If possible, and assuming you want to have more than one child, have them close to each other.
That way, assuming everything works out, they’ll be able to play together, which in turn will free you up.
- Rather than asking your children, ‘Shall we go to the park today?’ ask, ‘When shall we go to the park?’
Make going to the park or for a walk a part of your every day. Keep in mind that no child – or mother or father – ever comes home from the park in a bad mood. Fresh air brings fresh thoughts.
10.If you become less intimate with your partner after having a child, don’t panic. Childhood lasts a long time, for parents and for children. Let your relationship bend, and you’ll find new ways to be intimate.When conflict arises between you, try to be kind rather than critical (however testing!). If you let your partner change in ways he needs to change – even letting you down now and again – works both ways. Family life is too complex to get right. Don’t worry about things not being fair, or about missing out. Life isn’t fair, and there is no-one alive who misses out on missing out on something.
11. If you end up doing the traditional thing by putting your children first and your career on hold, be patient.
Expect it to take time to regain your autonomy once your children start growing up. Again, don’t panic. Regaining your confidence will be straightforward as long as your self-esteem is intact,
12. Try not to look to your partner for direction when it comes to your career.
Look to friends and colleagues who know you well, rather than your partner who will inevitably see you through the prism of family life (ie at times when you’re not at your best). Some depression is normal in early motherhood, treat it as you would a cold, and not a chronic illness.
13. Go on adventures with your children.
One of the best parts of having children is being able to do a bit of Enid Blyton with them. Pack sandwiches, grab a map, and don’t come home until you all feel your adventure is over. It’s cheaper and a whole lot less bother than a ‘proper holiday’.
14. Walk out of the room when your children start fighting.
Once they understand that you refuse to come between them, that their relationship is their relationship, their conflict will escalate less than if they expect you to rescue them. If they want to have someone to play with, they’ll learn to look after each other,
15. Know that once equals always.
Monitor screen time from day dot, and avoid technology in bedrooms. If you don’t have devices in your bedroom, then it probably isn’t ideal for your children either. Downloading material avoids many of the pitfalls – and ratty temptations – of commercial television. Childhood passes quickly enough without rapid-editing it.
16. Eat with your children, often and well.
Cooking for your family is up there with cooking for a restaurant – most of the work is prep, the hours are terrible and customers regularly complain. When a meal goes well, pat yourself on the back – it’s just as valuable as a banker closing a deal, or an artist finishing a painting. When your children are young and unruly, it’s not a total cop out to read them a picture book during meals. You’ll be amazed at the quiet that descends – and the conversations that develop. Serving vegetables before the main meal may save you from tearing your hair out at mealtimes – it did me.
17. Growing vegetables is good for your family’s soul. As are days in bed recovering from an illness.
Even when it’s only radishes, spinach and mint, it helps children to be involved in growing things. Encourage your children to believe in their power to grow things, and equally, to make themselves better after illness. This way there’s much less left to fear.
18. If you leave off having children until later, don’t fret when middle age comes into view.
As the saying goes, change the things that you can, and accept with grace those things you can’t. Now that you know your time on earth is finite, don’t waste it being dutiful (Saturday morning sport for kids isn’t mandatory). Start doing the things that you care about most today.