Parenting: What You Should and Shouldn't Worry About
By Jodi Bartle
The art of worrying is something that most parents learn to perfect - it seems as essential to the job description of ’new parent’ as a sack of muslin cloths and 20 white babygros.
Just as soon as you pee on the stick and find out that mysteriously and magically (or accidentally, or on purpose after infertility, or through a surrogate, via adoption, etc etc) a baby is coming and you will be entirely responsible for it, well, the worry sets in.
Sadly, according to my mother it never actually leaves you either, but morphs into different themes: less about whether or not to force a hat onto a recalcitrant toddler because your weather app suggests a mild temperature drop and more about whether your kids will ever be able afford a mortgage in their lifetime. Hey ho.
So here it is - a little guide to pinpoint the things that really are worth getting worried about, and that things that really shouldn't twist your knickers up. My disclaimer: I am so relaxed a parent that I nearly missed one kid getting viral meningitis, so obviously always trust your gut because you know your kid better than anyone else ever will. But remember - a ‘softly, softly’ approach to the freaking out is always a good start.
Some Amount of Worry Recommended
Pregnancy is a time for natural worriers to settle into a pattern of deep anxiety about everything. For your first pregnancy, this is to be expected because it is a little bit exciting and a lot daunting, and with the NHS estimating that one in six pregnancies end in miscarriage, you have every right to be cautious.
But (presuming you are healthy and your pregnancy looks set to be a straightforward one) other than reading the current advice, attending your appointments, eating well, sleeping well, staying off the booze, smoking and drugs, you can’t really do much else. You are on a biological train that won’t stop until it gets to the Labour Station - you have to learn to trust in your body and let it do its work, just as it has always done. Relax, educate yourself, don’t listen to too many terrible birth stories, and enjoy it. You won’t remember it well once it is over, I promise.
Kids will hurt themselves a lot, especially when they are drunk-acting little toddlers with clumsy motor skills and massive head-to-body ratios. They will do awful things to their teeth, fingernails, skulls and skin: bang and bruise and cut and bleed and break.
Some of this will be ok and won’t require you to run off to your local overcrowded A&E department, but some of it will. Use your common sense, arm yourself with basic first aid knowledge, call the NHS urgent care line (111), have a full kit of painkillers/plasters/ice packs and do not panic, because that makes everything a whole lot worse.
You will probably, at some point, get a call or an email from your kid’s teacher or their school wanting to discuss an area of concern. Do not dismiss this, but equally do not overreact. We have a largely wonderful school system in London, private or state, and most people who teach your kids are well-qualified and experienced enough to be able to identify an area of concern.
It is a good rule of thumb to give credence to the experts here - unless you are homeschooling your kids, you are not the education specialist. You only see your own kid (or kids) and not a whole picture. It is a good thing for your kids to see you respect an institution, so take the feedback seriously, even if you think they have got it wrong.
‘It Could Go Either Way’ Worry
See ‘accidents’ above. Keep an eye on them, make sure you know the signs of terrible things like meningitis, and always follow NHS advice. If your kid has a temperature (and they will, many many times) keep them cool, invest in an electric thermometer, keep them hydrated. Remember that kids are constantly being exposed to new bugs and it is important for their immune system that they learn to fight things off.
Don’t get too precious about them mixing with other kids with the sniffles or a cough, except if they are newborn babies. For everyone who is not a newborn, don't cancel their playdate because you saw little Penelope sport a trickle of greenish snot. It is rude and a bit paranoid. Equally, if your kid isn't getting better, get them to the GP and DON’T LET IT TURN INTO MENINGITIS.
The Importance Of The Firsts
If you have one child, by all means, document the firsts with a determined rigour. Book an appointment for a first haircut at Trotters where your son or daughter will be entertained by an aquarium and will receive a Certificate of Bravery when it is all done. Take photos and send them to grandparents.
The same goes for a first shoe-fitting - if you have the time and inclination, go to Clarks for a proper width and length fitting, and get a natty new leather pair. But if you don’t do any of this, your child will not care, because they will not even know. You can most certainly cut a fringe with your own kitchen scissors or do as I do and go to the local barber, and as for shoes, we just rifle around our local charity shop or gratefully accept hand-me-downs.
So far, my kids’ feet all look entirely normal and undamaged. If not doing The Firsts right will gnaw at you at 3 am, then, by all means, do them properly, but don’t worry if you can’t quite manage it.
We know the research says that all kids should really be doing is reading often and widely, but obviously, there is pressure on teachers and schools to get them up to speed and ploughing through the curriculum. Do as much as you can to teach your children to be independent and responsible for their own work - bring it back onto them, and allow them to experience consequences if they don’t get their homework done.
Support the school and encourage your kids to read, read, read - get them reading anything. Give them a clean, quiet space to do their work (we have carved out a few little spaces in our very overcrowded flat, so it can be done regardless of floorspace) and insist on it them doing it legibly and properly before any screen time. Don’t do it for them though, because it isn't yours.
‘Nothing to Worry About At All’ Worry
Most kids don’t choke on grapes. I know there have been instances, but really, the chances are very slim. You really don’t want to fixate on all the things that could happen to your kid because if you open that particular Pandora’s Box, you won’t ever exit the house. As for the choking thing, have a look at the idea of baby-led weaning, where babies handle food and mouth it like little gummy puppies, learning to explore the taste and texture of foods by themselves.
Remember - pureeing food and spooning it in for your baby is quite a recent idea over the evolution of humankind. Put down down that frozen cube of minty peas and hand that baby a piece of cucumber. Hang around, keep an eye on things, and relax. Gag reflexes are inbuilt and usually work just fine.
Leaving Kids For The First Time
If you are really worried about this, your child will also feel anxious, and then everyone becomes utterly miserable. Leaving your baby needs to happen at some point, and people other than you will do a marvellous (or good enough) job. Granted, don't read Leila Slimani’s Lullaby before you leave your child for the first time, but rest assured babies and small children are robust and perfectly capable of feeling sad for a bit and then getting on with it.
Whether it is the first night with a new sitter, the first day at nursery or school, the first time you leave a toddler with a friend - just go. Put on a brave face, kiss them goodbye and leave swiftly.
Worms and Nits
These are horrible. They will be recurrent unwelcome visitors for all of the family for years to come. Don't make your peace with them as such, but deal with both in a thorough, timely manner. Tell your friends if your kids have either, so they can make informed decisions about the proximity of heads and can insist upon an ever-more rigorous hand-washing hygiene. But don't blow it all out of proportion, because everyone with kids will become infested by threadworm and head lice at some point, regardless of how conscientious you think you are.
At least you know you're alive, right?