• Baby books offer words of wisdom I can do without

    This is my weekly column published today in The National

    When it comes to all those bossy baby books, mothers should throw them out with the bath water.

    Motherhood is a lucrative industry, especially for “baby experts” who sell millions of books each year to new mums looking for guidance. Their philosophies vary wildly, even contradict each other. But they have this in common: they are all equally convinced of their righteousness.

    courtesy of

    I admit to having spent money on such books, believing I’d be a better mother for reading them. Like drugs, they offer a temporary high of advice and information with one hand, but take away a new mother’s instinct, peace of mind and self-confidence with the other.

    There are numerous baby gurus around the world. Among them is Gina Ford, who advocates extremely strict and controversial routines, outlining a minute by minute timetable for the day. When I read her book the first time during my second trimester, I wept. Having a baby sounded like going to boot camp. If your baby doesn’t get with the programme, then you make her cry till she does.

    Tracey Hogg known as the “Baby Whisperer” lays out an “E-A-S-Y” routine, where the baby Eats (or drinks), you do an Activity, then it’s Sleep time, and finally Mummy gets some “You” time.

    Sears and Sears propound “attachment parenting” where baby is with you at all times, constantly bonding and sleeping in your bed till she is four years old. Mummy needs to make the sacrifice for the long term.

    Gina Ford has just published her latest book, The Contented Mother’s Guide. She advises mothers to reignite intimate relations within four weeks, and leave baby with a babysitter for “date nights” forbidding any talk about baby, the centre of our world. No pressure on mothers, eh? Ask most mums and at four weeks the most attractive thing a man can do for his wife is to let her sleep in peace.

    Every time I bought a new baby manual, my husband would hang his head in despair knowing the self-confidence they were sapping from me. Each day I would come up with a new theory on how to burp, nappy change or feed the baby. “Didn’t you say the opposite yesterday?” he would ask gently. “I did, but then I read this book…” and he would bite his lip and agree, knowing this was the best response to a sleep-deprived, postnatal mum.

    A report published this week by the University of Warwick looked at 50 years of parenting self-help books, through interviews with 160 mothers. It concludes that instead of helping mothers, such books leave us feeling dispirited and inadequate. Whatever the advice, it was given as an order, with a threat of dire consequences if mother or child failed to behave as expected.

    Baby books usually offer advice on how to deal with family and friends who want to “help”, their code wordfor”interfere”. The irony is that it is exactly these friends and family who once were the guides, support and sources of wisdom.

    The first few months for me were an intense learning experience about caring for a newborn and reassessing who I was as a woman. It was a period of transition from which I emerged entirely changed. I didn’t need dictators to make the transition even more difficult.

    I admit the books had snippets of useful information, but it was my friends, peers and older women from my family who taught me what I needed to know. Books have an expensive price, on the pocket and on self-esteem. Family and friends offer wisdom that is priceless.

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  • There’s something about Mary: The Mary Initiative, peace, conflict resolution and motherhood

    This is my weekly newspaper column published in The National (UAE)

    Earlier this week I was invited to a late-night soirée. The evening was held at the invitation of an organisation called “The Mary Initiative” that uses Mary – or Maryam in Islamic terms – the mother of Jesus, as a springboard for peacemaking and conflict resolution. What better way to come together than by connecting through the most famous mother in history, asks the organisation. No matter how different we all are, even people in the mafia (so the adage tells us) love their mum.

    Why had no one thought of this idea before? It’s genius.

    Image from 'The Mary Initiative', by artist Husein Nuri

    This initiative is designed for Muslims and Christians to come together and connect: not by comparing theology or doctrine but by connecting hearts. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is central to both religions. But this discussion was not about Jesus, but entirely about the role of Mary, her meaning and her status.

    “It’s incredible to hear these men talking about how important Mary is,” exclaimed our facilitator. The magic of the conversation is that the point of departure is a shared person. And what makes it more powerful is that it is a woman, something deeply unusual in a time when dialogue and peacemaking is usually conducted by men who dominate the positions of power, whether it be in politics or religion.

    Nearly all of us had tiny babies, and so the conversation inevitably turned towards Mary as a model of motherhood. The Quranic description of the excruciating pain she experienced at childbirth, the gossip at her predicament and her fortitude in the face of social disgrace were subjects that brought us closer to Mary and her humanity. One of the women had named her daughter Maryam. Surprisingly, Maryam is now in the top 100 names for baby girls in the UK.

    Our conversation was filmed, and would be shown to Christian women so they could hear our views first hand. But after a while, the departure point for our discussion was quickly forgotten.

    With tea and cheesecake to fuel the conversation, we debated late into the night, like carefree students. Who are we? What does womanhood mean today? What is our place in the universe? It was liberating. I realised that in the daily grind, I had little time or impetus to debate, explore and test out ideas.

    The night’s conversation was much more raw than activities such as reflection or evaluation, both of which are very measured and task-orientated. This was about looking afresh, from a different vantage point, to see whether the truths we hold about the world were still valid.

    The discussion around Mary would still have held potency even if it had involved women of other or no faiths. That’s because despite the reduction in value of motherhood in today’s consumerist world – where a person’s value is measured by their financial contribution – we all know that motherhood is not a commodity.

    Every activity, policy decision, or initiative today is measured by politicians in terms of economic loss or gain. But if you ask people who was the most influential person in their lives, their mother often tops the list.

    The Mary Initiative has hit on something more powerful than it realises. It opens the doors to dialogue with others. At the same time, it opens an inner door to realising the soft power and influence of women, and the way that their voices continue to guide us throughout our lives. There’s no way you can put a price on that. With these thoughts, I left the evening thinking there is definitely something about Mary.

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  • Happy half birthday, baby!

    This was first broadcast on BBC Radio 2‘s “Pause for Thought”. It’s available for you to listen to until July 26th.

    Today, my newborn baby is 6 months old. Even though I always loved children and babies, I was never a particularly maternal woman, never felt broody.

    In my twenties, I travelled voraciously around the world, seeing as many places and people as I could afford on my graduate’s salary.

    The world is full of such wonders that I found it addictive – from the eerie Jordanian deserts, to the ancient history of Beijing, to the icy mystery of the glaciers of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. I was always on the lookout for love, for that special someone. But babies? No Thanks!

    I did get married, and experienced the fulfillment of having a partner, a new experience after having lived an independent life till then. Yet I found myself reflecting more and more that what I hadn’t yet experienced was the parent-child relationship. I felt a particular longing to do that not because I was broody for a baby, but because of the relationship I have with my own mother – something we’ve both worked hard to cultivate. I didn’t want to miss out on that kind of intimate relationship.

    In these first few months, my love for the little one has grown – I’ve experienced that fashionable thing called ‘bonding’. But watching her first smile, her legs that wiggle in excitement, even the constant wake-ups in the middle of the night haven’t just made me love her more, they’ve made me feel more compassionate and loving to my own parents. After all, they will have experienced the same sleepless nights, the same adoration of me as a baby, the same abandonment of their own priorities in order to cuddle, bathe and play with me.

    The Qur’an tells us that “Wealth and children are the adornments of the life of this world” and it’s true. The baby has certainly brought beauty and wonder to my life. I had travelled to far flung places to experience and explore the wonders of the universe. But – at the risk of sounding cheesy, it was not until the moment that I first held my baby that I realised that ‘out there’ – wherever that is – isn’t the only place to find wonders. The intimate relationships which give love and definition to our lives are a wonder to be found much closer to home.

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  • All that new mothers need is just one hour…

    This was my weekly newspaper column published in The National last week.

    Knowingly or unknowingly, we live our lives according to certain ratios. Our work-life balance is five to two: five days of work, and two of living at the weekend. Our sleep to awake ratio is around one in three. And, if you go to work, your daily productivity is around the same – eight working hours out of 24.

    Except when you have a new baby. My tiny five-month-old infant has taught me some new ratios. Once in every three hours she needs to be fed. She needs a nap in about the same measure.

    My newest ratio is four in 24. I’ve worked out that as a new mum, I can only manage four hours of non-baby-related activity in any one day. Some of this is used up for work, as I work from home. Some of it is used up in household chores like cooking, cleaning, laundry and admin. And some for the necessary fabric of life, like phone calls to family and friends to see how they are doing.

    The rest is all baby, baby, baby. Baby needs feeding, nappy changing, entertaining, stimulating, comforting. When she’s cute (and she is) it is hard to work and not play with her instead. When she’s grumbling (and she does), her complaints – which sound like the hard drive on your computer when it’s about to crash, but at 10 times the volume – grind my inner core to the point where I cannot bear it for more than a few seconds. It’s a God-given talent of babies to be able to make a noise that can instantaneously command your attention.

    The four hours of productivity are hard won, cobbled out of minutes extracted here and there. On a good day, I can benefit from a few minutes of her watching her mobile turning above her, although she likes to attack the flying toys now that she can reach. Or she might happily sit up and turn the pages of her books, which in her mind are not just for reading, but also for eating. And blessed are the days when she lies on her playmat and quietly observes the details of her surroundings.

    There is one thing I look forward to more than anything else now, but it is rare. All I want is an hour of time entirely to myself, no baby, no crying, no feeding, nothing. Just me.

    Unless you’ve been a new mum (or are a very supportive new dad), I think it’s hard to appreciate the sheer joy of an hour of quiet mummy-time. On an unexpectedly good day, baby’s daytime nap stretches to this amount of time. Or, if a kindly relative is present to play with baby, that too gives mummy some time on her own.

    Sometimes I use the hour for my own nap. Sometimes it is surprisingly enjoyable to have an uninterrupted hour to clean the house. And sometimes, it is incredibly stimulating to be able to find the woman that you once were – and to lose yourself in your work. That time becomes one of intense pleasure and sheer happiness, an hour in which you are no longer “mummy” (even my husband calls me that now). It is an hour to do something that makes you who you are. If you know a new mum, the best possible gift you can give her is an hour of time to be herself.

    My time is up: I can hear baby crying as she wakes up from her nap. Now it’s back to being a mummy …

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  • The Story of Mum

    Now that I’ve entered the club that is MummyHood, I’ve started to notice more and more of the resources available to mums. The internet of course is a wonderful thing – I can search out others who have similar worries to me (somebody somewhere has gone through what I’m facing with my own baby!), I can read about how to help my baby’s development, and I can do my weekly shopping online (an amazing achievement, and saves the arduous task of carting baby around in the shopping trolley and trying to pack/load bags in the car at the same time). Oh, MummyHood, what hast thou done to me!

    It all feels a bit seriously mummy-ish out there, so it was refreshing this week to see the launch of a site called “The story of mum” whose strapline is “Inspiring mums of all ages to connect, create and celebrate.” It is all about the mum and rejuvenating that creative streak that we all had before baby and which still exists, but sometimes takes a back seat to feeding/nappies/cuddling/laundry etc etc.

    Take a look, it seems quite fun. I particularly liked “Photograph your chaos” because it’s good to know that you’re not the only one whose house can suddenly explode into mess. One minute pristine, and then suddenly…  And what’s not to love about “Buntify your life” by hanging bunting in random places round the house, when it’s framed with the truism – “because being a mum can sometimes be a bit boring.” (you know it’s true when all you’ve done is cuddle the crying little one, feed her and change her nappy, and the highlight of the day is a walk in the buggy because that’s the only way to stop the grumbling.)

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