I’m not a parenting expert. In fact, I’m not sure that I even believe in the idea of ‘parenting experts.’ I’m an engaged, imperfect parent and a passionate researcher. I’m an experienced mapmaker and a stumbling traveler. Like many of you, parenting is by far my boldest and most daring adventure.
Like many families September signaled the end of a very busy summer holidays, and back for the final year of school for my eldest son. That for me was a big moment emotionally. Being aware that we are entering a new final phase of this stage of his education and having to make decisions together about the next steps.
But this September also signaled a new routine for me and our younger son on several levels. We have started a couple of new activities in our weekly diary. We have moved to a new swimming class and we both love going for both the social time and the skills it is giving him. Just spending time with him enjoying the water and knowing that he is unlikely to have any reactions while we are there is a huge relief and so I relax. We have also started a Sing and Sign class, which looks at baby signing while doing lots of singing – which he loves. I am really wary about joining classes as it is so hard to find an environment where he is safe and away from his many allergens. But I was so encouraged to go to a space that was clear of allergens and in a place where they understand the potential implications of him coming in to contact with an allergen.
Finally I am now back working part-time. This was a big step for me to take, as I knew it would mean leaving the baby with someone else for part of the week. I know for most parents this is a big thing, and for us it was coupled with finding child care that could cope with our son’s health needs. He has multiple allergies. Currently he only has 17 foods he can eat safely after 4.5 months of introducing foods! I was lucky enough to know a lovely friend who also child minds, and she had space for 1 day a week. With support from my in-laws for another afternoon, most of my hours are covered, and the rest work round my life. The job is the perfect option for me, my husband and our sons. It gives me the flexibility needed for the many hospital appointments I have to go to with the baby, and it gives me the input and stimulation I need for me as a woman who has always loved her career in fundraising.
But leaving my baby for 18 hours in a week is a big thing for me, after 3 weeks it still is. I constantly wonder if what I am doing is the right thing. Is being at work the best thing for me? for my sons? for my relationship? I know it is the right thing. It has given me back a different perspective on life I was missing. It has given me space to breathe and be me. Just me. Not wife or mum. Just me. It has also helped me value my time at home even more. Some days are hard. I am terrified that my baby will reach a milestone while not at home with me. I am worried that my teenager will need my support with school difficulties while I am at the office. I worry, cos part of that is who I am. I know socially it is doing amazing things for my son, and both my in laws and friend who is a childminder totally have his best interests at heart and give him the best care possible, but I am still am mum and will worry. It’s ok to worry. It’s normal.
This image says a lot. It says how it feels to be the mum of a 5 month old baby with 6 known allergens, without even starting on food. The outline at the end highlights how I feel about introducing food to my baby. It honestly terrifies me!
But what this image doesn’t show is some of the isolation that comes as part of the allergies. Picnics in the park are only going to be possible on days when the pollen count is low, and even then I will be armed with antihistamine plus other bits we use to help keep the pollen at bay. If I don’t, then I will have a very uncomfortable little boy, with scratch marks all over his face as he scratches in response to the pollen irritating his skin, his eyes and his head. Even sitting in our own garden, which soon will have no plants or real grass in it, can cause reactions and we don’t know what to. It’s isolating as it is hard for us to leave him to go out. At the moment the allergens are so unknown leaving him with someone else is hard.
The isolation from conversations I can’t join in because “weaning” is going to be a very different process for us. All foods have to be introduced for a skin reaction and then an internal reaction before a spoonful can be tried.
Having to avoid key ingredients in food for the foreseeable future adds the problem of where we can go and eat. Using jars and pouches of preprepared baby food are not an option. Everything will have to be homemade until we have established what foods are also allergens.
Some people have made comments where you can see they don’t understand the implications. Yes a small amount of dairy can make my baby really ill. His contact reactions to some products like fabric conditioner are so severe the GP did an urgent allergy clinic referral. If he doesn’t have regular antihistamine when the pollen count is high then he struggles to breathe at night.
I’ve been told that his allergies are “inconvenient”. Yes they are….for him! They will be as he grows older too if he doesn’t outgrow them. Being allergic to sorbitol is probably one of the most “inconvenient”. Having to read the back of everything you buy to check the ingredients. It’s not a key allergen so it isn’t in bold like dairy or gluten products. It also occurs in things you wouldn’t realise, including toothpaste and shower gel!
It’s inconvenient that I can’t just pick things up from the shelves like every other parent. It’s inconvenient that I have to pay 2 to 3 times as much for products I have to buy – £5 for a tube of toothpaste! It’s inconvenient that I will spend an extra half hour or so on each shopping trip reading ingredients. It’s inconvenient that I have no quick wins on the first stages of eating. It’s inconvenient to have to go to various clinic appointments at the hospital as we try to understand all of the allergies and how best to treat them. So yes it is inconvenient for my baby and for me. Am I going to apologise if he is going to react to what someone else has on their clothes, or if I “over react” to him coming in to contact with a new substance or a known allergen…? No, I’m not. I will keep protecting him because I also see the consequences.
So yes it can be isolating. It is incredibly hard work to juggle at times. But it is who my baby is and I just have to deal with it daily.
Yup that’s me. An outgoing introvert mum. And I’ve discovered it has its upsides and its downsides. It’s a tough balance to get right, especially when juggling the normal small baby tiredness that comes with having a 3 month old, plus the needs of a 15 year old and still trying to spend time with your husband. And on top of all of this I need to find some me time.
Going to mother and baby groups where I know few or no other mum’s is exhausting for me. I know that it’s good got my little boy though. I have to decide which groups I invest time and energy in, and which I say no to. I also now know to make sure in every week I have at least 1 day where I can just chill at home and do nothing if I need to. It’s not that I’m not committed to groups but sometimes I’ve learnt that I just need to be selfish.
Some weeks even chatting online with my mummy friends can be exhausting. They are often my lifeline too. I feel guilty sometimes because maybe I’m not always my true self when I’m with them. I put on my “be confident and ready to share and participate” face before starting antenatal classes but it’s hard, and at times tiring, trying to carry on being that person now.
Yes at times my confidence level is low. I can doubt myself. I can, and do, doubt my parenting skills. I worry about fitting in. I stress about being accepted for being me with every new situation. And all of this then exhausts me.
I’m struggling to get the balance right in my life. I need to be mum to a teenager, mummy to a baby, friend to my friends, and wife to my husband. I also need to be me.
I think the next year or so and beyond will be me continuing to battle to get the balance right. I’ll struggle some days. I won’t always get it right. Sometimes I talk to much cos I’m nervous. Sometimes I put my foot in it. And then I go home and beat myself up over it! But I keep learning.
I wouldn’t be without my family for anything. I just need to keep finding me in the chaos.