Nicola Skinner offers her own personal guide to spending time with your children.
My daughter was born in the early hours of Valentine’s Day, two years ago. After lots of shouting and screaming – mostly at my husband – a solemn naked baby was placed in my arms.
I looked down at her, and she looked up at me, and there was an immediate, almost telepathic bond. I knew what she was thinking as clearly as if she’d said it. And so our first serious chat went like this:
“Mum – we’ll be spending a lot of time with each other over the next few years. Can we have one rule?”
“I’m not even sure what my name is anymore, but I’ll promise you anything, beautiful child.”
“Promise me that we’ll never, ever, go to a darkened, windowless warehouse that calls itself a soft play installation. We’re better than that.”
It took two years for me to realise she was right.
Why? I loved her, but the day-to-day grind of early motherhood was hard. Fortunately, I didn’t have post-natal depression, but I did have post-natal crapness which basically involves feeling a bit crap.
That meant I didn’t place much value on my companionship. I didn’t think I was ‘enough’ for my child. I thought she’d be bored with me. ‘SHE NEEDS MORE STIMULATION THAN I CAN EVER GIVE HER,’ was the cry that ran through the sleep-deprived sponge in my skull, which had formerly been a perfectly adequate brain.
So to compensate for my perceived failings, I took her out. A lot. There wasn’t a playgroup, coffee morning, baby group, music session, swim class or library rhyme time we didn’t go to. If there had been lessons for baking gluten-free cupcakes while flying around the Himalayans in a helicopter singing ‘If you’re happy and you know it,’ we’d have been first in line.
And yes – I broke my promise. I took her to darkened warehouses calling themselves soft play centres and watched her look in confusion at a broken toy and then at me, as if to say: ‘Erm – I know you were on gas and air, but technically you were of sound mind when we had that chat, Mum.’
Luckily, things changed. Around the time of her first birthday, I became more confident. Confidence is a wonderful liberator and, in my case, helped me make my own decisions about how we’d spend time together.
We made loaves of bread that looked like huge brains. We made cakes that looked more appetising. We ate the cakes and gave the bread to our neighbours.
We made houses out of Lego, while I did some subtle feminist coaching. “Let’s put the man in the kitchen, while the woman goes out for a ride on her zebra.”
We went to the garden centre, bought some cheap daffodils and my daughter proudly soaked them with her yellow watering can. We bought some sunflower seeds and chucked them haphazardly at our frozen mud, and called it gardening.
We played a game I invented, called ‘hungry legs’, which basically involves trapping your child between your knees and shouting ‘HUNGRY LEGS’ repeatedly, while pretending your legs are eating your child. (You kind of have to be there.)
We spent time with good friends. We limited the number of playgroups we went to, and learnt which were good.
We also made a lot of mistakes. We had painting sessions which ended in tears (mostly mine). We’d have afternoons where she spent hours wrestling toys from the other children I’d invited over.
But all of these experiences, the good and bad, helped me develop my own guidelines about how to spend time with a child.
1) Spending time with children is different to spending on children.
2) Therefore, being with kids should not be expensive. Be a skinflint.
3) As a rule of thumb, time with children is best when it involves food, drink, mud, muck, and some sort of sing-a-long. This rule can also be applied to time spent with adults, or time spent in the world.
4) Spending time with children is brilliant when done with other people, but can be life-changing when done by yourself.
5) There will be days when it all goes a bit wrong and you find yourself counting down the hours to bedtime. These are essential as they make the good days even better.
6) Spending time with children doesn’t mean you have to ‘entertain’ them all the time. Just being out in the real world is good enough. Let them make their own entertainment. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: ‘Give them the tools and let them do some bloody work for a change.’
7) If it comes wrapped in plastic, it’s not time. If it’s got the word ‘Adventure’ in the title, it probably isn’t one. My daughter has often got more enjoyment from pretending a tea-towel is a hat.
8) Rewarding yourself for time well-spent is essential. You have done an excellent job. No-one else may have seen it happen, but you have made a child happy. You are a legend. Treat yourself accordingly.
9) Most importantly – make up your own rules. Only you know what makes you both happy. Just don’t be afraid to try.
10) The more time you spend together, the easier it will be to decide what to do. (Or not do. Not doing is also important.)
And that’s my model of parenthood. Just ‘be’ with your kids, don’t worry about getting it wrong, and make it as uncommercial as possible. You’ll experience glorious moments of love for them, like secret fireworks going off in your chest.
As for me, my post-natal crapness disappeared. Kids may occasionally be snotty rat bags, but they’re also sweet and generous, and they know how to make one of the most important things in life happen. Because, as most of you will have discovered, spending time with your children teaches you to love yourself.
So here’s to the seconds, minutes, hours, months, years and decades ahead. Here’s to time and the wonderful harvest it brings. I wish you all plenty of it.
Nicola Skinner is a freelance copywriter and journalist. She blogs over at Worn out and Wonderful and tweets occasionally under @quickfixes. She is in talks with a toy manufacturer to turn Hungry Legs into a multi-million franchise. Not really.