The pre-bedtime talk once again turns to burglars and my son Zevi’s chocolate brown eyes fill with fear. For a second, I forget and get ready to roll out my well-worn response. ‘Don’t be silly. There are no burglars. You’re safe here. Now go to sleep and don’t worry.’ And then I remember.
Taking a deep, calm breath, I tenderly stroke his forehead and ask my scared 5 year-old what he would do if a burglar broke in. ‘I’d punch him in the tummy hard,’ he says. ‘Then I’d shout at him and tell him to go away.’ ‘And then what would happen?’
‘Then the police would come and take him away.’
The fear in his eyes melt away as he thinks the scenario through and is bolstered by his ability to do something about it. It is a remarkable development. As he settles happily into sleep, I feel grateful for the invaluable advice that had led us to this less angst-ridden place; advice not passed down from my own mum or any of my friends but given to me by a parenting expert after being paid for and actively sought out.
It isn’t the first time I’ve asked for outside help and it certainly won’t be the last. As a mother of three spirited, curious children – Rafael, 8; Zevi, 5; and Zeabella, 3; – hiring an expert has helped with many of our parenting issues over the years, and given my husband Phillip and I new tools and ideas to sort them out. It is why I am so supportive of David Cameron’s recent push for parents to have lessons to help them with discipline and behaviour around their children. Phillip and I have always had this mindset and even went to a weekend parenting workshop when I was six months pregnant with our first so we could discuss our ideas about parenting and iron out any difficulties before we dived in.
Luckily, we discovered we were on the same page; we wanted to be caring, nurturing, hands-on parents sharing a loving home built on routine and no shouting. It all sounded wonderful in principle, but then Rafael was born. I don’t agree with people who say parenting is something that is necessarily instinctive and natural. For some, maybe it’s true. But when I had Rafael, at 33, I didn’t have a clue how to care for a newborn baby. Phillip, a business consultant, returned to work straight after the birth, my mum and his parents only stayed a few days before going back to Manchester, a three-hour drive away from our home in North London, and I found myself with an unsettled, crying newborn in a fog of sleep-deprivation and floundering. I needed help!
I made enquiries about a night nurse and almost fell on her with relief when she arrived two weeks later, my eyes now black holes due to sleep deprivation. With over 15 years of experience Eden was my very own Mother Theresa, a much-needed voice of calm cutting through the chaos of new motherhood. She taught me how to breastfeed properly, how to swaddle the baby so he felt secure, how to wind him effectively and bring up those elusive burps. Even more importantly, she helped me to understand Rafael, giving me the confidence to interpret his cries so I could work out what he needed. When she left two weeks later, Rafael was in a routine and I was feeling almost human again and confident to parent him alone.
Calling in an expert when you’re desperate for help is nothing to be ashamed of. We are taught at school how to work a computer; a driving instructor teaches us how to operate a car. And is it really better to spend hours attempting to fix a blocked sink and risk flooding the house instead of calling in a plumber?
Exactly. I didn’t hesitate to seek expert advice when Rafael and Zevi grew into feisty, warring siblings, often snatching toys out of each other’s hands and coming to blows with flying fists and elbows. Pregnant with my third child, I was at my wit’s end, exhausted from constantly having to play referee. A friend mentioned a weekly parenting course entitled ‘Everyday Parenting for Everyday Parents’ at a nearby community hall and Phillip and I jumped at the opportunity to find out where we were going wrong.
Every Tuesday night for eight weeks we learnt about the benefits of positive reinforcement and praise for boosting children’s self-esteem, the importance of showing empathy and not always trying to fix their problems and, crucially for us, gained a unique perspective on sibling rivalry.
‘Just imagine if your husband came home with a new wife one day and asked you to share your bedroom and lovely home with her as it was someone else he loved,’ said the parenting teacher. ‘How would that make you feel?’ Suddenly my frustration with Rafael’s occasional thump of his younger brother began to make sense. It helped me to feel more empathetic towards him and not always view him as the aggressor.
Aside from picking up great tips, the course was also vital in making us feel less alone. Hearing other couples talk about their issues with their children reassured us that we weren’t the worst parents in the world, nor were our children’s issues particularly abnormal.
Living in a world saturated with squeaky-clean images of perfect parents with perfect children on social media, it was refreshing to see parenting for what it really was: a constant uphill struggle.
You’d think Phillip and I would have had all our parenting issues nailed by the time our daughter, Zeabella, came along, but when she was one and still insisting on being cuddled to sleep with a dummy, we knew it was time, once again, to call in a professional.
With three small children and both of us working, our evenings together were precious and we didn’t want to spend hours holed up in our daughter’s room rocking her to sleep.
We called up a recommended child sleep expert, receiving much-needed counselling in three sessions over the phone.
We explained what Zeabella did every day – eating, naps and activities – before she sent us a week-long programme detailing a new bedtime routine that would, if we followed it, break her dependence on us and the dummy. Phillip and I read it and trembled. It involved controlled crying – leaving the room and letting her cry for gradually increasing amounts of time – as well as removing the dummy from her mouth just before she fell asleep. It felt so cruel. And yet, we were out of ideas.
Phillip and I agreed to take each night in turn, neither of us having the strength or the heart to take on the challenge single-handedly. We tried it for a week, hands clamped over our ears, our faces contorted in pain as our wilful daughter screamed her dismay at this change in her bedtime routine – until she fell ill with a cold and we gave up.
But then, that’s the thing with expert advice. It’s not a cure-all and it doesn’t always work.
What it does is make you more mindful as a parent and gives you helpful tools that you can use as and when you need them.
Some people feel seeking outside help is over the top and perhaps even an admission of poor parenting. I couldn’t disagree more. Recenlty, a mum of Rafael’s friend confessed her eight year-old son was still waking up every night and coming into their room. I was gob smacked. Why are we all just prepared to put up with this? I don’t think people realize that help is out there and there’s not many of us who don’t need it. Being a parent is, without doubt, the single hardest and most important job we will ever do. And yet so few of us are willing to admit we need advice or support.
We are made to feel that parenting should be instinctive and if it doesn’t all come naturally then we have failed. But if we’re honest- apart from the primal need to feed, clothe and keep our children safe – little about parenting really is all that instinctive. It is something that can and should be learnt, without any shame!
I have a pile of parenting books by my bed on subjects ranging from sibling behaviour to making children listen and I leaf through them regularly. And recently Phill and I have called in an expert again, this time, Rosalie Ajzensztejn (Rosalie@parentcounselling.co.uk) , a wonderful parenting practitioner who– in three sessions so far – has helped us deal with Zevi’s growing fears about burglars and questions about death.
His anxieties seemed to come out of nowhere and yet they were making him deeply upset and stressed. While my instinct may have been to quickly soothe and dismiss his fears, Rosalie has taught us to let him express them by asking him questions so he can think them through and decide how to tackle them himself.
So far, it is working wonders. Zevi is happier and I am thrilled I was able to help. After all, I owe it to my children to be the best mother I can be. Whatever is thrown my way in the future, whether it be teenage tantrums, the stress of taking GCSEs or issues with friends, I intend to be fully equipped with the right tools, taking advice as and when I need it from those who know best.