Long before birth, while Ariella was still kicking away inside a little bump and I was ignorant of what awaited me; I prepared myself for what I thought that narrative would be with research. Books on parenting, blog posts, second-hand experience from other mothers who had babies that frankly seemed quite foreign to me.
Once she was here I thought I’d read emails on development, read about weaning and potty training, behaviour and beyond the terrible twos. But instead I was invested in medical journals, specialist groups, therapy books – I unregistered from the developmental emails and let go of any vision I had of the future to accept what appears in front of me. Children do not come with a manual but when things get rough or you hit a difficult spot usually you can find somewhere to reflect on the “phase” of life that you and your child are going through. Whether that be a blog, a social media group, a collection of friends with shared timelines like NCT – there is always somewhere you can go to ask for help. Is this normal? Did your child do this? Why is mine doing it? Will this stage end? How do I navigate around this? One way or another these people be it online or face to face become your tribe. Your backup for reflection when faced with challenge, these things do not correlate with a child who has no diagnosis.
We have specialist areas of tribes, we have epilepsy, we have the coeliac crowd, we even have global developmental delay. We have social media groups of children born the same month, we have the families and children we met on the way but the questions never quite line up because overall things are not the same because the overall picture is different. It doesn’t mean you don’t continue to try to bring advice and concepts in but they don’t always quite fit, for example I really admire the gentle parenting approach. I feel like had things been different this approach would be much more successful and harmonious, simple the general principles being respecting your child – not forcing their hand and giving them choice. Trying to be empathetic with your child, listening and modelling empathetic behaviours to encourage them to achieve them later in life. Giving choice and respecting the child’s opinions, giving them attention and accepting their limitations.
Now trying to apply this to the day-to-day for Ariella, every week we have appointments and today was no exception. Ariella dislikes certain textures, cold wet jelly on the skin certainly being one of them but today she had an echocardiogram. I explained in advance what would happen, that there might be sticky pads and there would definitely be cold jelly on her chest. That the doctors would be looking at her heart and we would be going to the hospital. But when it came to the procedure how do you approach that gently? I try as much as possible to offer choice but for her best interests she needed the procedure done, she did not want to be there and was restrained while screaming and crying. How do you approach this gently? Who do you ask, where is the tribe?
With Sebastian getting older deciding on an approach that will work across both, be fair and consistent is going to be a challenge. Already I am able to ask for him, is this normal? And I’m able to look at a variety of resources to know it is. Already I feel more confident in my choices with him, but as he grows and learns their will be more complexity and working out a method that fits both children may require understanding on his part. Although there is a lot of calm there is also a lot of strongly felt emotions as Ariella works her way through toddlerhood and that can manifest itself in aggression, screaming, meltdowns and repetitive phrases. The household rhythm is chaotic and unpredictable, I try to apply good routine but how can you do so when the next seizure can clear your weekly schedule and mean another extended stay in hospital? It is really mentally exhausting.
I should clarify that when I talk about the tribe I don’t mean friends of which we have many very supportive friends instead it’s about having a group of people going through the same situation as you at that moment in time. Being able to relate, support and empathise, with each other and solidarity – it’s why we sign up to due date groups, pay for NCT friends, go to mother and baby classes. There is an element of safety in numbers, entering always the unknown together it doesn’t seem quite as difficult to navigate when you always have tribes people.
I think when you are put in a position of uniqueness, you can only really put your sail up and go your own way. Sometimes your child’s health and mental wellbeing dictate their way, weaning for example requires mobility and all the developmental and structural normality to swallow. We were fortunate that we could try baby led weaning, Ariella had the mobility to do so – but what if she had not? Well then we would have sacked off my vision of how I wanted to wean her and accepted spoon-feeding puree, a completely acceptable weaning method but not the choice I had made for my child. This one tiny element would have excluded us from participating in baby led weaning but what happens when your child’s development is completely out of line from their chronological age? What if they have a medical condition that lands them living in hospital for months? I think you do the best you can to parenting how you choose to. I think that you just have to accept solidarity and find comfort in the pieces of guidance that you can apply, ignore any self-doubt and know that you are doing the very best for your child.
It is a challenge, when you consider well covered areas in terms of available guidance material like potty training. Yet potty training requires developmentally a child to be in the right place, to understand what is being asked of them (or for you to understand their cues) and those things are not always in line together with children whom are delayed in development. One area might be delayed while the other is not, suddenly all the guides and books don’t apply to your child and both of you may be frustrated. How do you overcome this? With Ariella I try my best to go at her pace and adapt whatever activity for her, we tried potty training back when Ariella was chronologically 2.5 years old yet she wasn’t mentally ready for it. Now she is mentally 2/2.5 we will try again soon, but she may still not be mobile enough for it (she cannot squat or pull to standing from the potty yet). Recognising these limitations and adjusting my expectations has really helped me to appreciate that while part of our “tribe”, that’s to say the group of parents with children born the same month as Ariella are mostly potty trained and discussing other more developed issues I am not at all surprised that we are not there yet. I no longer expect to be there and instead I look at Ariella as her unique self and consider what her needs are rather than what society expects her to be doing. This is particularly relevant during the run up to attending preschool after Summer in which there will be no hiding from the current, Ariella at the moment has not moved onto the next room at her nursery so is with children who are around her developmental age.
It’s nice in many ways to be removed from the pressure and competition between parents and their various parenting styles, I really have not had to deal with this and it’s lovely to be removed from it. In many ways I am very glad to have had the experience I have, it’s really taught me that we are unique as individuals and actually perhaps our educational system and the early years can be far too rigid. Ariella is a wonderful creative, happy, non compliant little girl and I expect absolutely nothing from her other than for her to be happy. I couldn’t possibly tell you what she should be doing at 3 and a bit years old and it’s wonderful.