Why I tell my children they’re beautiful

Contrary to popular parenting wisdom, I tell my kids they’re beautiful – often. I admire their beautiful eyes, silky hair and strong legs. I’m envious of the gorgeous glow they get when they spend some time in the sun. When they were babies, they would lie in the crook of my arm and I would marvel – just marvel – at the beauty of these tiny beings.

I get why we are told as parents – especially parents of little girls – not to ever, ever comment on the appearance of our children. I’m not blind to the horrors of pre-teen anorexia and bulimia; beauty pageants for the under-5’s and a media-driven focus on looks over character. But here are a few reasons why I won’t stop telling my children they’re beautiful:

They are God’s creations

I am a lover of nature and of beauty. Together with my children, I admire fiery African sunrises and sunsets, full moons, pretty butterflies and delicate flowers. My children’s perfect pearly toenails and peachy skin are no less perfect or beautiful than these creations and to pretend not to see that, would be to deny the Creator himself/herself.

We are mind, body and spirit

We are not just bodies – that is true. We are also not just minds. We are a glorious triad of mind, body and spirit and all of us should we working towards greater harmony between the three. To teach children that they are just minds or that their bodies are only important for what they do , is I think a very sad reflection on our productivity obsessed culture. Our bodies are where we (our souls, our spirits) live. I love it when friends admire aspects of my home. They gracefully overlook the pile of laundry in the corner of the bedroom and the unwashed dishes and compliment me on my new paint colours or the freshly upholstered couches. My house is not who I am – of course – but it is a reflection of our family and what we deem valuable in life and I appreciate my friends noticing what is beautiful and honest about it. Why would our bodies, our earthly homes, be any different?

I am giving them ammunition

It it true that what we tell our children about themselves is what they internalize, and the way in which we talk to them becomes their inner voice. I am under no illusions that the world will choose not to ever criticize their bodies or how they look. None of us ever go through life without being told we are fat or have funny teeth or knobbly knees. Children are cruel – but so are adults. By telling my kids they are beautiful, and what exactly I mean by that (“I love the way your eyes sparkle when you tell me stories!”) I am giving them ammunition to throw at the feet of their future detractors. (“Knobbly knees? That might be so…but my mom told me over and over again how beautiful my eyes are.”)

I am teaching them how to talk to others

I have a sweet friend who finds something to compliment about my appearance every time she sees me. No matter how disheveled I feel (and am sure, appear) she mentions my pretty earrings, or how much she likes my new hairstyle or asks me where I got my shoes. These are little, little things, but in my busy day as a mother where I often feel less than glamorous, it gives me a lovely boost that carries me through the day. I was raised to value intellect and the power of thought (which is not a bad thing) but if my children can learn how to be bearers of words of affirmation of all kinds – what a blessing to this critical, hard world!

Let me be very clear. I don’t only focus on how my children look, which would very obviously be detrimental to their psyches. I admire all of their gifts and talents and often tell them how much I love them just because they are themselves. They don’t need to look a certain way, or be a certain way or do anything at all to be loved. They just are. I also tell them when they’re being complete pains and need to sort themselves out PRONTO BEFORE I HAVE TO COME DOWN THERE (!). But I won’t stop telling them they’re beautiful.

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A word of advice

I have a friend – let’s call her Caroline. As long as I’ve known her, she hasn’t driven a car. I have no idea if she can’t drive, or if she just doesn’t like to, but I have got used to her husband, friends or family lifting her to functions and get-togethers. As second nature as driving is to me, I assume that there is a real and valid reason why she doesn’t drive. I have never offered her advice on how to drive or how I managed to learn to drive, or told her a story about another friend who learnt to drive at the age of 40. It’s none of my business really, and besides, we have more interesting things to talk about.

One thing I’ve learnt as a parent and birth worker, though, is that people (actually it’s mainly women) love to tell other women how to birth, feed and parent their babies. They assume that because something was easy for them, it should be easy for everyone, and indeed that everyone should make the same choices for their children because there is only one right choice.

I think I might have been the same once upon a time, until I worked with so many different families and realised that actually most people don’t want your advice. They have likely made the decision they made because it was the best decision at the time for their particular family, in their particular circumstances, given all that they knew and had learnt at that point.

Does that mean I never give advice? Well, of course not – I’m paid to guide families through pregnancy, labour, birth and the postpartum period. So sometimes I give a mother some ideas but never before asking her what she actually wants to achieve. Pushing breastfeeding or unmedicated birth on someone who has no interest in these things is selfish and would be more to do with my ego and the validation of my own worldview than a genuine attempt to reach another human being.

Do you know what’s more valuable than advice? Acts of service and gestures of kindness. Without ever asking, I have been assisted by more men than I can count (it’s always been men in my experience) with my children. Helping me to steer a trolley into a bay while I juggle a sleeping toddler in my arms and another child beside me. Opening the car door a little wider when I am battling to plug a child in. Letting me go first in the queue when they see my child is tired and near hysteria and I need to be as quick as I can. They haven’t told me a story about their own family, or moralised about my parenting; they have literally just stepped in to help, and brushed away my thanks.

So unless you are paying me for my advice,the way in which you birth, feed and parent your child is none of my business, and besides, we have more interesting things to talk about.

The boy who wouldn’t

There is nothing more humbling than becoming a parent for the second time. You might, quite reasonably, assume that you know something about this parenting gig. Perhaps you have, in a confident tone, given new mothers and fathers in your circle some sage advice. Best way to change a nappy without collateral damage? How to handle a fever? Breastfeeding troubleshooting? You more than likely have a few words to say on the topic to anyone who will listen.

And then the second little bundle of joy arrives. And you are silenced.

My little guy turned 5 on New Year’s Day and so I’ve been reflecting on his rather eventful life so far. He was and is the boy who wouldn’t. His first year was spent not sleeping. I don’t mean that he woke up quite often; I mean that he actually seemed unable to sleep in any kind of meaningful way and woke up every twenty minutes day and night for 12 months. “Oh dear!” said the doctors and paeds and homeopaths and chiros, “you have one of those.” Yes I did. I also had a boy who defied all the rules of breastfeeding and never fed less than twice an hour for his first 6 months. Refused to take a bottle – ever. Started crawling and climbing at 5 months old.

Five years on, I can laugh about this time, but it wasn’t so funny back then. We had to relearn everything we thought we knew about babies. We had to accept there were things we battled with that we couldn’t change. We had to learn how to parent two children side by side in completely different styles.

Your second (or third) might not be such a game changer as ours was, but they will almost certainly challenge your thinking on everything you think you know about parenting. Relax. Accept the challenge to grow and learn. Have fun. Our first year with our boy wasn’t easy but I wouldn’t change it for the world. He will always be a rule breaker and a convention defier and that will be his greatest strength. We love you, beautiful boy!

Things I’d Sacrifice For

I don’t consider myself particularly materialistic. Fancy cars, big houses and flashy brands are not my thing. But the truth is, there are some things that money can buy, that are incredibly important to me as a mother with small children. Here’s my list of things I would sacrifice a great deal for in order to provide them for my family:

  • Working from home – leaving behind a well-paid job has come with financial sacrifice, but the rewards it has brought to our family have been priceless. As my children get older, I am convinced that they need me more and not less. I don’t have the luxury of not working at all, but my work mostly fits around my kids, and I have the time and emotional capacity now to put them first, in a way that just wasn’t possible when I was working full-time.
  • A holistic education – the state of the education system in the Western world worries me – a lot. The hyper-focus on achievement and performance to the detriment of our children’s emotional and spiritual development is ludicrous. That’s why I am willing to pay a rather a lot for a school that sees my children as individuals, that doesn’t put pressure on them, try to drug them or send them home with piles of meaningless homework.
  • Access to nature – my kids are happiest when they are outside, it’s as simple as that. We are lucky to have a big garden, with a climbing tree, and lots of rocks and sticks to do things with. Our family holidays are generally simple and local, but they always involve a river or a dam (kids + water = happiness) and a good dose of nature.
  • Organic meat – to eat completely organic in Durban, South Africa, is almost completely impossible, unless you are a millionaire, own your own farm, or are prepared to eat an incredibly narrow range of fruit and veggies. That being said, we don’t use chemicals in our home, or on our bodies, and we eat organic whenever we can. I will not compromise on the meat we eat, however. The thought of hormone and antibiotic-laden meat from an animal who has had a horrible life distresses me, and I would rather eat less, good quality meat and more veggies.
  • A holistic family doctor – our lovely family homeopath has been such an amazing resource for our family; I don’t know how we would cope without him. Homeopathic medicine is more expensive than antibiotics; good natural supplements when needed are pricier than cheap synthetic vitamins crammed with fillers. But I consider holistic health an investment in my kids’ futures, and worth paying for.
  • A cleaner – this last one on my list is last because it would be first to go if finances were tight…but I consider our housekeeper an absolute boon to my sanity and the calm in my household. Having a messy house freaks me out, it makes me mad, and it doesn’t help me to be a very good mother.

I’m aware that we live a very privileged life and that for many people, none of the things on my list would be at all possible. Nevertheless, I believe that all mothers make sacrifices for their children so that they can have a good life. What would be on your list?

Maiden, Mother, Crone

As I approach that big 4-0 milestone, I find myself more and more drawn to older women as mentors and role models. Over the past few years, I’ve been spending time with women in their 60’s and 70’s and have loved learning at their feet as it were. Our culture glorifies youth and beauty but working in the world of birth, it has become clear to me that there is so much to learn from those who are older and wiser. It might take just four or five years to scale the corporate ladder and become a “manager”, but a good midwife or doula is literally in training her entire life as she learns from colleagues, clients and the babies in her care.

I was thinking about the transition from maiden to mother to crone/wise woman and I realised that all of the older women that I admire, while very different, have some interesting things in common:

They are all physically active and present in their bodies

My yoga teacher is almost 80, and has such an incredible body. Some of my mentors swim, some hike, some dance, but all of them honour their bodies with movement.

They laugh – often

Let’s face it, getting older can bring with it a fair share of aches and pains, and other less physical issues such as loneliness, but these wonderful women never harp on and on about their blood pressure or medication. They joke and moan, and move on.

They have suffered

Once, I went to see a perky counselor, fresh out of university. I took one look at her perfect skin and bouncing ponytail and knew that we were done. It is very difficult to have much empathy and wisdom to share when you yourself have no life experience. Life scars us all, and when I hear the stories that older women tell, I value the knowledge that it is possible to suffer, and to survive; to weep, and then one day, to laugh again.

They help others 

Each of my role models is, in their own way, a healer and a helper. I know for sure that this is where I want to be at their age. Helping others, touching lives, being kind.

They enjoy life

Passion is so beautiful in someone of any age, but especially in older people. There is nothing sadder than a retiree whose whole life was dedicated to their company, to the exclusion of any other hobbies or interests. My mentors are all passionate about something – their gardens, their horses, their art. Oh, and all of them enjoy their food. They eat beautifully but certainly enjoy their red wine, chocolate and coffee from time to time.

I am still finding my way (aren’t we all) but I so value my circle of wise women who have shown me that life can still be full and rich, beyond this busy season of intense motherhood.

If you’re interested in the archetypes I’ve mentioned, there is a lot more information on the internet. There is a third female archetype – wild woman/enchantress – which is also fascinating to read about.

Sacred

Kids and Family 3 _ The Photo Forest

Do you feel it? The mother feels it, for sure, her gaze on mine holds a wisdom beyond her years. The baby senses it too – they always do. Caught between two worlds, cradled in the capable hands of the doctor, he is silent. Not yet crying, but alert, eyes open in wonder. The father – he’s busy fiddling with his phone, something’s wrong with the camera; I don’t think he felt it. The theatre staff are chatting amongst themselves. They’re oblivious. But I feel it in every muscle and in every pore; this time, this place, right here; it’s sacred. Just for a second, god is near, and the veil between the seen and the unseen is very thin.

As a childbirth educator, I sometimes feel that everything we teach, and nothing we teach, matters. The rational, degreed, researcher in me loves facts and evidence and science. And the facts are clear – natural, vaginal birth at full term, without interventions, is best in almost every case for mother and baby. Delayed cord clamping, skin to skin contact, and full term breastfeeding results in the best outcomes for the baby. And the effects are not short-term, they last for life.

But that, that is the physical world. There is something else, something that seems to transcend the type or place of birth, that is even more important. Birth is a spiritual and emotional event; it carries cosmic energy that is hard to explain unless you’ve felt it yourself. And so it saddens me when mothers and birthkeepers treat birth as a list to be ticked: unmedicated, tick; waterbirth, tick; no forced pushing, tick; optimal cord clamping, tick! And yet, that mother, the one who ticked all the boxes, comes to me with feelings of loss and grief over her birth. Because the physical is just the tip of the iceberg.

I’m still learning from birthworkers much more experienced and wise than myself, observing, and refining my own birth values and philosophies but it is becoming clearer and clearer to me that those who do not see the sacredness of birth, see nothing at all.

Photo Credit: The Photo Forest

The things we say

with-love-2-_-the-photo-forest

The word is the most powerful tool you have as a human; it is the tool of magic. But like a sword with two edges, your word can create the most beautiful dream, or your word can destroy everything around you. One edge is the misuse of the word, which creates a living hell…Your word is pure magic, and misuse of your word is black magic.

The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz

– Gosh, you’re huge, are you carrying triplets??

– All the girls in our family have difficult labours, I honestly don’t know why you’re even going for a natural birth.

– Hmm, you’re only 2cm, you’ve got a very long way to go, Mommy!

– There’s no need to be a hero you know, why don’t I call the anesthetist and get you set up with an epidural?

– I don’t like my moms to be in labour for more than 12 hours I’m afraid, so I’m calling a c-section.

– Look at this hungry baby, it’s a pity but some moms just don’t have enough milk.¬†

– All MY babies slept through the night from six weeks old; it’s all about being relaxed, they pick up on your tension you see.

Or:

– Ah you’re just glowing. How are you doing?

– You’re strong and determined, and I can’t see any reason why you can’t have the birth you want.

– Wow, you are doing so well! I’ll leave you in peace to relax and enjoy your labour.

– I know you’re tired, but you have made such progress. You’ll have your baby in your arms soon enough.

– You are giving your baby the best possible nourishment, well done! Can I suggest some things that may help you to produce even more milk?

– I’m so sorry that you’ve been up all night – you must be so tired. What can I do to help?

Words have more power than we can imagine. Surround yourself with people who will encourage you and lift you up in your days, weeks and years of motherhood, and be that person for others.

(Photo credit: The Photo Forest)