Elliot was born at 9:42pm weighing 7lb6oz on 24th September 2007. Today, he is a strapping ten year old who loves football and is a kind and caring boy who astounds me daily with his thirst for knowledge, his passion for fair play and justice and his empathy for others.
I can vividly remember that first night I spent with him lying next to me in the hospital. He slept peacefully and I lay awake staring at this wondrous being. I was completely overawed at the fact that I was now a mum who was responsible for bringing up this tiny person. I lay there drinking in his tiny features and wondering how he might turn out and what he might become.
Today, I am proud of who he is. We're still learning daily, but we're loving the journey so far, although I'm sure the turbulent teenage years will bring many new challenges for us to navigate on the road to adulthood.
So what have I learnt in my first ten years of being a mum?
- There is no 'right' way of doing things. When Elliot was tiny I devoured parenting books. I was petrified of breaking him or of scarring him for life and leaving him with long-term psychological issues by doing something 'wrong'. The problem was that all the parenting books contradicted each other and I quickly came to the conclusion that there is no 'one size fits all' approach to bringing up a baby. Every child is unique. Every mum is different. You do what fits best for your child and your family circumstance based on the information you have at the time and that's not necessarily the same for everyone. Once I got my head round the fact that doing my best was the best for my child, I started to relax and settle into motherhood rather than constantly worrying that if he didn't learn to self-soothe he'd be a lifelong insomniac (for the record, he slept through a lot earlier than the other three, but I'm pretty sure that's more the luck of the draw than anything I did or didn't do when he was a baby).
- Don't compare and never judge. Social media was still in its infancy when Elliot was born. We still took photos on an actual camera and then had to upload them onto the computer when we got home before we could post them on Facebook. I'm pretty glad I was able to navigate my early motherhood journey before life got so competitive on Facebook. The thing is, you never know what's going on behind closed doors. Those picture perfect moments posted to your friend's instagram wall might just be an illusion - a big, brave front to hide from a crippling anxiety or an abusive relationship. You just don't know. So before you panic about the mess in the corner of the photo you posted to Facebook that morning after you see the immaculate image of a healthy tea time on a blogger's timeline, think about how many hours sleep she might have missed out on by polishing that gleaming floor - maybe she has OCD, maybe she is frightened her husband will hit her if the place is a mess. And before you judge that random mum because her kid is bouncing off the walls at soft play - remember that you don't know what else is going on in her life - she may be struggling with PND, her child might be autistic. And as for the ongoing spats between breastfeeding mums and bottle feeding mums - you have no idea what struggles that poor woman may have been through. So before you bitch and moan, pause for a moment and think about how you might be able to help another mum rather than criticise and spread negativity.
- You can't just talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. I've been caught out a few too many times on this one. Things like telling them they can't eat a biscuit because it's nearly dinner time. And then, two minutes later they walk into the kitchen and catch me stuffing a chocolate digestive into my mouth. Whoops! But it's frightening how much of your behaviour your kids copy. It's all very well telling them to say please and thank-you, but for it to really hit home, they need to hear you saying please and thank-you. I sometimes get frustrated that the children seem to constantly shout from room to room if they want something. And then I realised, that's because I shout from one room to the next - especially in the mornings when I'm yelling "Get your shoes on." If I want to see a certain behaviour from my kids, I have to model it too.
- Always make time. I find this one really difficult. Time is in massive short supply, what with juggling four children, trying to keep the house looking vaguely tidy, keeping on top of the never-ending laundry, trying to make a living etc. But I think it's vital to make time to connect properly with each child. It might be five minutes as you tuck them into bed where you talk about their day, their hopes, their dreams and their fears but it matters so, so much. I try and arrange individual activities with each child once every month or so. It doesn't always happen, but those trips to the cinema or going to watch a football match without any of the other siblings are such special moments.
- You're always learning something new. Just when you think you're nailing this parenting lark on the head something always happens to make you doubt yourself. I love the fact that parenting is an ongoing learning journey. And while I've learnt a lot about dinosaurs, football, Star Wars and Minecraft, I've also learnt about managing expectations, being consistent and listening properly. Having children has taught me so much more than how to change a nappy and survive on less than 2 hours of sleep. It's taught me about myself and made me examine how I react to different situations and helped me improve who I am.
- Respect your child. If you want to be respected as a parent, you've got to respect your child. They might be little and their brains still developing, but their ideas and opinions are valid and really do matter. The more you respect your child, the more they'll respect those around them. You don't have to agree on everything (or very much at all on some days); I think that would actually be pretty unhealthy. But if you listen and give them the space to make their feelings known, you are showing them that they really do matter and you'll be arming them with the strength to stand up for themselves while understanding that other people may hold different views and that none of us are necessarily wrong or right. Maybe if there was more respect for others in the world, we'd all get along a bit better (and yes, I know I'm sounding like a Miss World contestant wishing for World Peace!)
- Inspire and be inspired. Young children are incredibly curious, they want to explore and find out why and how things happen. But somewhere along the line that can sometimes get sucked out of them. But I want my kids to retain that spark that can lead to so many creative ideas. It's not always easy, when I'm trying to make the tea and fielding questions about why rice is brown or white. And I have to kick myself when I nearly say "because it is". Instead, I try and look stuff up with them. We now have Alexa in the house, which is a big help! Anyway, whatever we're doing and wherever we're going, I try to make a point to learn something new with them. In the past ten years I have discovered all sorts of interesting stuff. I now know why a helicopter is called a helicopter and why tomatoes are red. Together we're inspiring each other and that's not just helping them develop, it's helping me become a better person too.
- It's not always a walk in the park. Being a mum is without doubt one of the most challenging things I've done. There have been times when I'm up for the 5th time that night and it's not even 1am where I have seriously considered throwing in the towel. But it's also one of the most rewarding. When I hear an unprompted "I love you", when I see the joy in my son's eyes when he comes home from school and tells me he has been elected to the school council, when I see my daughter giggling hysterically with her friends, when they excitedly tell me about a school trip they are going on. Those moments are pure magic.
- Delight in the small things. When I got married, the best piece of advice I received was that I was to take a pause during the day just to observe and soak in the atmosphere and really take in who was there and what was happening because the day would fly by and I'd remember that moment of pause forever. The same thing applies to parenting. The last ten years have whizzed by in something of a blur. So I try and take a pause every now and then and take in the normal stuff. Pushing them on the swings. Picking them up for school and hearing them ask "what's for tea?" A cuddle on the sofa. Doing a jigsaw together. Those are small, normal memories that will stay with me forever as well as the big milestone memories like first steps, first day at school, first sleepover.
- Trust yourself. There's a lot of room for doubt in parenting. You're worried you're doing it all wrong and you're going to mess up your kids. But trust yourself to know your child better than anyone else. Trust yourself to know what's best for your family. Trust yourself that you'll inevitably make mistakes along the way - we're all making it up as we go along - but as long as we pick ourselves back up, acknowledge that it's a learning process and then learn from our mistakes, then we're actually nailing this parenting business after all.
And one extra little thing. Take a moment to be proud of what you've achieved. Even if it's just the fact that you managed to get the kids to school on time today. Acknowledge that you are rocking this mum business and that little (or not so little anymore) person is what they are today because of YOU!
What has motherhood taught you?