Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Trick or Treating in Phnom Penh

There are certain days in the year when I wake up in Phnom Penh and wish I was back home in England. Birthdays, bonfire night, you know what I mean. Today it is Halloween. It should be cold and crisp. I want to put on jeans and a jumper and crunch among fallen leaves in the woods. But, as Srey Mait remarked this morning as she arrived at the door: “Oh! It’s so hot today!” (It’s not true that only the British obsess about the weather. At least we actually have different kinds of weather to comment on. We can boast a hundred different kinds of rain alone. Here it is either dry or wet. Oh, and there’s the cool season of course, where you turn the fan down from high to medium.)

All Hallows is not an English tradition, I know. But my mother is American, so there. I was always proudest of this heritage on Halloween, because it meant we were the only family who really knew what we were doing. Every year my mother would get out the old tin pumpkin lamp and put it in the window. We would dig out our own pumpkins too, of course, and make sweet pumpkin pie with the discarded flesh.

My oldest sister - we are four girls in total, a witch, a ghost, a demon and a ghoul - transformed me into a little red devil. She used to pull my scarlet tights up so high over my rib cage that she lifted me off the ground with them. Another pair would be tucked in the back for a tail. We drank hot chocolate with marshmallows and bobbed for apples. Spilt candle wax burned inside the pumpkin skin as we fought over who would carry the lantern. Huddled outside the neighbours’ houses, we shivered with anticipation as we knocked on the door.


There was something about those words that would have us squealing with excitement. It was so much fun! They would not be afraid to shout back “Trick!” A couple of colourful autumn leaves through the door was about as daring as we would get. And if they gave us a treat, we would thank them enthusiastically, however small and disappointing it may actually have been.

It is so sad that today the same innocent words incite terror in many of us as we hear about gangs of teenagers whose tricks are so obscene that old women hide behind their curtains in fear, or fumble desperately in their purses for something that might be considered enough of a treat.

I could never have imagined this, back then, anymore than I could have imagined that one day I would be taking my own daughters trick or treating in Cambodia!

Really, you should have been here on Saturday. If you had, you could have joined the large groups of Cambodians flocking about certain houses. ‘Halloween houses’ as decorative signs on the gates announced. You would have seen their jaws drop to the ground as Tuk Tuks filled with whole families of monsters, witches, ghouls, princesses and fairies drew up outside the gates, examining a map, and crying, “This is one!”.

This was seriously organised Trick or Treating! How could it be otherwise? They could hardly turn up at houses randomly and expect their Khmer hosts to have a clue what to do. Actually it struck me as a great idea that could revive a safe and fun way to Trick or Treat back home. The only problem is, of course, that this way, there are no tricks. And judging by the number of sweets given out at just one of these houses, bedtime in expatriate homes on Saturday night can not have been pretty.

We managed to avoid the sugar high because we didn’t get any further than our first house. I blame myself. For some reason I forgot to warn Jemima that the costumes might be scary. I had underestimated the imagination of some of the older kids. When we arrived at my friend Tone’s house we were greeted, to the tune of Mediaeval Baebes’ Dance Of The Trolls, by her monster-masked son, with his ‘ghost of the Christmas future’ friend. They jumped out at us just as we had entered a darkened den covered with spooky, staring, cut-out eyes. Jemima has slept in our bed ever since.

It was brilliant and ingenious and I’m sure next year she’ll appreciate it. But as I took my exhausted child for a peaceful ride home in a cyclo at sunset, and passed a silent, stray Tuk-Tuk carrying four giant eyeballs, I could not help wishing we were back home with her cousins in England for some good old family tradition.

The next day we made pumpkin pie and drank hot chocolate with marshmallows.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Helping Run and his friends

Run came to see us again today. He hasn’t come round for months, ever since he started going to school again. Before that, for about a year, he used to turn up at the gates every day at noon. Seeing him waiting outside our gate this afternoon, with his scruffy hair and uncertain grin, reminded me of the very first day he came to the house.

We had been living in Cambodia for nearly two months. I had seen him pulling his cart of recyclable rubbish around our streets many times before, of course, but I had been paying heed to people’s advice: “If you let them in once, they’ll come back with all their friends the next day.”

But for some reason, when Jemima and I arrived home on my bike that boiling hot lunchtime to find Run standing at our gate, I invited him in. It had always seemed a despicable thing to turn away a hungry, exhausted young boy from my comfortable home when I knew I could feed him, wash him and show him simple kindness with little effort on my part.

For me one of the hardest things about being a mother in Cambodia has been the daily reminder of the disparity between our own daughters’ quality of life and that of so many Cambodian children. There are 20,000 street children in Phnom Penh - .unloved, sick, malnourished and easy prey to sex-tourism and trafficking. At the supermarket they flock around us, begging or selling newspapers, waiting for us to come out with apples. Thank goodness they can’t read – the till screens, showing the total sum of our week’s worth of groceries, (usually double the minimum monthly wage), face the window and are easily visible from the outside. Coming back from a meal out in the evening, knowing our own children are loved and cared for, tucked up safely in a soft bed, with a full stomach, we see young girls and boys bedding down for the night in the park, or a corner of hard pavement. On one particularly busy main road I often see the same three brothers, always completely naked. The oldest one carries the baby and holds the middle one by the hand as they wander in and out of the six lanes of traffic – mainly motorbikes and SUVs. Their image is indelibly stamped in my heart, yet I pass them by. Helpless, except I am not. Hopeless perhaps.

We are not supposed to give these children money or food because it simply perpetuates the begging industry. So I am grateful when someone like Run comes into our lives and gives us the chance to connect on some level with this unfortunate community. I often wonder if he simply serves as one more easy way for me to salve my conscience, as I grapple with my incongruous expatriate existence. After all, as I ushered him inside the front yard that day, I felt a tremendous sense of relief. I was finally being true to myself. I was being human again. How sad that it had taken me that long.

He stayed all afternoon that day. I gave him and Jemima a bowl of soup and some bread which they ate together on the bench swing. It was sweet to watch them sit together in such comfortable silence, from time to time exchanging a shy smile and a giggle. After lunch I gave him a bar of soap and encouraged him and Jemima to wash and play under the hose. I tried to make it seem like a game but he must have known that my motives were driven mainly by the nauseating stench of rotten rubbish that lingered even after he had left the place. I knew that if I were going to let him sleep on the cushions outside or play with Jemima’s toys, I would have to make the shower a ritual on arrival whenever he came to the house. I suppose after a morning’s work in the sun it would be welcome refreshment anyway.

Of course it was only when I noticed he didn’t take his shorts off that it occurred to me that he was probably much older than I had originally supposed. He looked about six so I followed the general rule and guessed at 12. He was 13. From the next visit on I gave him soap and a towel and showed him to the outside bathroom at the back, for a traditional bucket bath. He has also tried a hot shower and a cool bath in our spare bathroom, though I’m not sure what he made of them.

Of course this was in the good old days when Jemima napped for a deliriously peaceful three hours most afternoons, time I would take to write my book. So I let Run play outside while I worked and watched him from my window. People warn you that street kids will abuse your trust. All I could think of was how easily it could have been to abuse his. I tried to tell him, in my pigeon Khmer, not to trust strangers just because they were white. But if they offered him food, I knew he probably would.

He looked so vulnerable and lost inside James’s huge t-shirt and shorts tied with string, while he stood and stared at the washing machine, churning away at the back of the house, his clothes inside. At least twice I had to retrieve them dripping with soap from the washing line and explain that the wash had not yet finished. He was obviously relieved when they finally dried in the sun, looking and smelling much as they had before. I soon became more organised and had a spare set of clothes from the market waiting for him so that I could wash his without causing him discomfort or embarrassment, or keeping him so long from his work. Though he seemed more than happy to while away the hours dozing and swinging and riding my bike, I was worried that he would get into trouble with his ‘master’ for going home with an empty cart.

From then on Run came to our house everyday, always alone, contrary to the doomed predictions that he would come back with fifty more urchins in tow. He was cleverer than that and understood that while one small boy eating, sleeping and playing in my yard was no problem, a whole crowd would be less convenient.

I didn’t always invite him in. Sometimes I just gave him some water and some food and told him that I needed to work. He never complained. He just accepted what I gave him with a smile and a thank you. But I think what we all enjoyed most about his visits, was that he had the chance just to be a child for a while. He was so sweet with Jemima, playing with her generously when she was in that (western) toddler phase of wanting everything for herself. He’d push her around on her bike for an hour if she asked.

I wasn’t naïve. I am well aware that Phnom Penh’s street kids are dangerous prey to physical and sexual abuse. And I am well aware that many abused boys go on to abuse. I kept a close eye on them as they played, but he was only ever gentle and kind.

Over the following months I learnt a little about Run‘s life. He used to live in the city, but his was one of the families who had been forcibly evicted from their homes a year before. It was a huge scandal at the time. Hundreds of families driven out of their city and ‘resettled’ in an area entirely unfit for habitation. Not only were they now a long and unaffordable moto-taxi ride away from their schools and places of work, but there was no clean water or electricity. Now it’s old news. I doubt the last brick had had the chance to set in the expensive new housing complex occupied mainly by Asian and western foreigners, before everyone had forgotten that this was once Run’s home. Evictions are common, after all, in a country where entirely unregulated development of luxury accommodation and exclusive tourist resorts is unfolding right before our eyes. Phnom Penh’s skyline looks different after just a couple of weeks spent out of town.

Since the evictions Run has not lived with his mother and siblings. He was sent to stay in the city centre, with a man who, in return for his food and board, puts him to work on the streets where he earns less than a dollar each day collecting tins, card and plastic bottles for recycling. I asked if the man was kind to him. He nodded and I just had to hope it was true.

During that year Run always looked tired and dirty and hungry when he arrived at the house. He was often in some sort of pain, though nothing he ever showed me was more serious than infected splinters or recurring eye infections. He would smile easily, but he was quiet and subdued. So you can imagine my joy when he turned up one day, after a couple of weeks of absence, looking and smelling clean, and with a definite glint of happiness in his eye.

“I’m studying!” he told me. “I came top in my class!”

It was the first thing he had ever said to me unprompted, other than he was hungry, sick or needed money. We celebrated by taking a tuk-tuk to the bike shop to get him (and his friend – I was easily persuaded) a second hand bike for school. That was the last we saw of him until today. He still looks well, but he didn’t stay long. He had better things to do.


Run still collects rubbish in the mornings, but at noon every day he goes to Mith Samlanh, a famous Cambodian street kids programme founded by the American NGO Friends International, eats a hot meal and studies all afternoon. He has been lucky and at last I feel hopeful for his future. All over Phnom Penh there are young men and women in steady employment waiting on tables, working in salons, making clothes. Many of them will tell you they were rescued from a life on the streets and trained by Mith Samlanh.

But Mith Samlanh is in trouble for the same reasons that Run was evicted from his home - the increasing value of land in Phnom Penh. In 2006, the owner of the building that it has operated from since 2000 decided to sell the property. Faced with the difficult decision of moving all its services for street children, Mith Samlanh decided, with the help of some longer term financing, to purchase the centre itself, so that it could continue to provide services to street children in the heart of Phnom Penh, right where they live and work. This was a massive investment and they have been able to cover the interest payments with proceeds from their own businesses such as Friends the Restaurant and sales in their shops. However, they are facing a real hurdle to meet their first major repayment of $500,000 by December 5th.

You can support them by:
• Purchasing a painted brick on their wall for $50. They’ll write your name on it and even send you a photo!
• Donating a square meter for $1000
• Donating a classroom or training area.
• Making a donation of any amount.
• Organising your own fundraising event!

Please visit to find out more or to make a donation.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Just posting to explain why not posting

Please accept my apologies for the absence of posts this week and take it as evidence that I really am a mother (in case you thought my children were actually fabricated to provide me with a cunning excuse for a blog.)

I have been coughing since last Wednesday. My husband has been in Indonesia since Monday. Jemima has an eye infection and runs away from me three times daily, when her eye drops are due, before proceeding to have a full-scale tantrum when I catch her.

Bella sits and watches it all. It's quite intriguing I am sure. Ever tried to hold down a child, her arms, her legs, her head and prize open her eyes single-handedly? Sounds very un-pc, unnatural and un-attachment I know, but I ran out of negotiating skills after the first hour. My heart goes out to single mothers. I feel a poem coming on...

I'm not complaining. Just explaining why all that has changed on this blog is the colour of the fonts. Actually that's not true. I have finally given in to peer-pressure and added some real photos. (Again, evidence that I do actually have children. And that I am not dog.)

Meanwhile scroll down and enjoy the abundance of posts from last week and come back tomorrow. Or maybe Monday...

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Friday, October 19, 2007

It’s time to talk about co-sleeping

As if Bringing up baby hadn’t got me riled enough, I have just come across an NHS leaflet published by the Mid-Hampshire Primary Care Trust entitled ‘Let’s get some sleep!’ in amongst Arabella’s birth files. You would not believe the pictures on the front. There are two. The top one depicts a double bed with a screaming child lying in the middle of two grumpy parents turned away from both the child and each other. The bottom one shows a peacefully sleeping child with a big grin on his face, cuddling a teddy, in his own bed.

Talk about brainwashing! Nearly every parent I know would agree, whether they choose to co-sleep or not, that the screaming baby is to be found in the cot and the happy one, in the bed. Few people choose not to co-sleep because it is bad for the baby, let’s face it. I am well aware that, when I tell people (in the western world) Bella sleeps with us, the question most are dying to ask is, “What about your sex life?” To me this shows very little imagination. Firstly, I have a new born baby – what sex life? Secondly, our baby is not glued to the bed. Thirdly, we have a whole house (in case you thought we were in the unfortunate predicament of only living in a bed parked out on the street). Anyway having Bella in our bed has brought us closer, just as it did with Jemima first time round. Instead of falling into bed exhausted at the end of the day with barely a ‘good night’, we can’t help but share a few moments of mutual joy and adoration of this tiny bundle in our bed. Sometimes she is in the middle and sometimes she is on my side so James and I can still cuddle. Though, did I mention that it pushes 35ºc and 90% humidity some nights in Cambodia? Cuddling is actually something we associate more with our former and future lives in England, and the long summer holidays there in between. Quite honestly I think we did bloody well to even conceive a child in this clime.

Anyway, I digress. The point is that co-sleeping is bound to be better for most babies, if the parents enjoy it. I am not saying it is the only answer but for health professionals to argue that the cot is the only appropriate place for a child to sleep makes no sense. It flies in the face of research and what most of the world are actually practicing in the privacy of their own homes. If it is safety they are concerned about, then simple guidelines for safe co-sleeping would suffice, just as there are guidelines for practices which entail real danger such as driving with children.

If you are looking for a balanced, evidenced-based article with facts and figures, one that addresses SIDS and smothering, see the post below Three in a bed , an article I wrote for the Independent two years back. If you are looking for a passionate rant in defense of co-sleeping from someone who has tried cots & controlled crying too, then read on.

First let me refer back to this leaflet I was telling you about.

“Sleep problems are common. 40% of under fives have them at sometime or other.” Hmmm… funny that so many under fives suffer sleep problems and yet we continue to believe that the cot is the right answer. Funny that no one ever cites the copious research, that shows that children in countries where co-sleeping is the norm do not have sleep problems. I have seen this for myself, having lived in South America and Asia and worked in Africa.

“Babies should learn “sleep cues” as part of their bed-time routine… e.g. sucking thumb, listening to music etc.” Most babies I know have a different type of sleep cue. Crying, bottle of milk, parent’s rocking them or falling asleep with them or endless threats and negotiations at the bedroom door are a few that come to mind. I’ve tried them all.

“Usually by six months babies eat three meals a day and receive enough food not to need milk or other food at night”. Try telling that to my three year old, and anyway, WHO recommends babies wait until at least six months before starting solids.

“Work towards not being in your baby’s bedroom as he/she goes to sleep”. Why? How sad that this has become an official recommendation. It’s a bit Big Brother isn’t it? Who says we can’t be there to comfort and soothe our baby if we choose? And anyway, when are we going to admit that this is what babies want and need?

How long do we plan to ignore the research and uphold this myth that it is right to force independence on our small babies, let alone that it is possible? I cannot wait for someone with power and influence to stand up and admit that there is a link between the increasing numbers of stressed and depressed children, unhappy, badly behaved teenagers and adults with sleep problems or in therapy for ‘unmet needs’, and conventional Western parenting methods. This person would have to be very brave though because this leaflet simply reinforces what new parents want to hear. It cannot be a coincidence that parents are more likely to co-sleep with the second or subsequent child. They know from experience that the goal we are all told to aspire to, a happy baby who goes to sleep on his/her own without fuss is so unusual. The latter may be achievable through leaving to cry, but I said a ‘happy’ baby.

Recommended books in this leaflet put me off just by their very names, let alone their content. “Toddler Taming”, “The Baby and Toddler Sleep Programme”… they make our children sound like animals in a zoo. Which is how we end up treating them.

Perhaps I sound judgmental but I am not just talking about other parents. We ‘sleep trained’ Jemima at about six months and, although regretting it and experimenting with co-sleeping soon afterwards, we have been more or less making up for it ever since. These days she likes me to curl up with her while she falls asleep. I am happy to oblige but, given what an independent soul she is, one who frequently loses herself in her own games in her room by day, I do wonder from where she gets her negative associations with sleep. I am pretty sure things would have turned out very differently had we co-slept from the start. Bella, on the other hand, has never slept anywhere at night but in bed with us, and by day, wherever she happens to be. We can put her down awake on our bed and she will fall asleep on her own. She is a laid-back baby but from the beginning she has been a sensitive babe who likes to be held a lot. I am 100% certain that in her case she has no issue with sleep because she knows we are around and that we will be joining her soon. Had we used a moses basket I am sure she would not be such a secure sleeper.

Anyway, enough ranting. There is another point to all this. Sleeping with your baby and child is just so lovely! It makes me sad that having a baby has become all about disaster prevention, training, preparation for the difficult times ahead. I could have stayed in the NGO business for that! Motherhood should be animal, instinctive, sensual. I want to saturate myself and my children with love, physical touch and affection. I can’t stop smelling their cheeks, kissing their lips, deeply breathing them in. The time is flying by and I never want to regret not having truly lived every moment of it. It may not be long before they no longer want me to love them this way and before they no longer love me back this way. It won’t be long before they are teenagers shrugging off my desperate hugs at the school gate!

Sleep, sex, privacy, we’ll have that for the rest of our lives. I’ll always be a wife (well, that’s the plan anyway), I’ll always work, write etc. But I won’t always have two small, adorable, always-lovable children to hold in my arms, day or night. ‘Experts’ who advise us to love our children less (Too strong? Love is surely all about giving, making them happy, fulfilling needs, not making them cry) ought to reflect a little before interfering in something so entirely unique and intimate as the relationship between parent and child.

This is too long, sorry. I’ve said enough for now. But I’ll be back…

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Three in a bed

You may want to read this article below, which I wrote for the Independent two years ago, before you read my post on co-sleeping. It contains facts and figures as well as describing our experience first time round.

There’s one subject of conversation that unites all new parents: sleep. Who’s been driving round and round the block at 5am to lull the baby with engine noise; who is cowering by the baby monitor as the baby cries it out in the name of “controlled crying”.

With our baby, Jemima, we were relatively lucky. Once asleep, she appeared to have a miraculous talent for staying that way. But it was getting her to sleep that was the problem. My husband and I would take turns rocking her to sleep each night, thinking the hours of peace that followed was a reward well worth the effort. At four months, however, our lost evenings began to get us down, so we followed the advice of countless friends and baby books and taught her to fall asleep on her own – otherwise known as crying herself to sleep, though we never left her alone.

It worked, but I hated every minute of it. And just when we thought we had cracked it and she was going to sleep happily on her own, she began to wake twice a night and was unable to get back to sleep for hours. Exhausted after yet another night of playing musical rooms, and failing dismally with the usual tips of controlled crying or kiss and retreat, we decided to try co-sleeping – as the simple art of sleeping alongside your child is known.

The biologically and culturally evolved practice of co-sleeping dates back to pre-historic life, and remains common in most traditional cultures. It is only in the last 200 years, and mainly in the West, that it has become regarded as normal for a baby to sleep alone. A recent survey carried out by the University of Durham’s Parent-Infant Sleep Lab found that, even today, 46 per cent of British parents co-sleep at some stage of their children’s lives. Yet as I begin to research it, I soon learn that in industrialised societies such as ours it is the cause of much controversy. There are certainly benefits – longer and easier breastfeeding, closer bonds between mother and baby, even if bottle feeding, and secure and independent children.

But what about the pitfalls? Earlier this year, a five-week-old baby died from suffocation after sharing a bed with her mother. Last month [sept] the coroner on the case urged the Government to issue clear warnings against co-sleeping.

The Department of Health and The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (FSID) advise against bed-sharing on the grounds that it can increase the risk of cot deaths and smothering. However, organisations such as UNICEF, Attachment Parenting International, The National Childbirth Trust and the Royal College of Midwives support parents who choose to co-sleep, arguing the benefits of responsible co-sleeping far outweigh the risks. In 2004 UNICEF UK’s Baby Friendly Initiative called upon the UK Government‘s Department of Health to rewrite its leaflet, ‘Reduce the Risk of Cot Death’, recognising “that bed sharing does not increase the risk of cot death in the absence of known risk factors (smoking, alcohol consumption, use of drugs which increase sleepiness, extreme tiredness).”

According to CESDI (Confidential Enquiry into Stillbirths and Deaths in Infancy) 25 per cent of cot deaths occur in adult beds. Nearly all of these involve adults who smoke or were drinking alcohol. The remaining 75 per cent occur in cots, sofas, and other places where the baby was put down to sleep.

What all professionals do agree on is that babies should sleep close to their parents during their first six months at least, when they are most vulnerable to SIDS. This has been proven by a 70 per cent drop in cot deaths in the UK, since this advice was first given in 1991. Tragically, it has also been proven by the development of SIDS, often the first cases of a previously unknown concept, in societies that have replaced their traditional culture of co-sleeping, with the western ideal of cots and nurseries. This is even the case with migrant societies living in the heart of white British communities. A study of Pakistani families in Yorkshire showed that lone sleeping white babies were three times more likely to suffer a cot death than the Pakistani babies, who traditionally share their parents’ bed.

While there continues to be no medical explanation for SIDS, US sleep expert James McKenna and others in his field say we cannot ignore the evidence that where babies sleep close to their mothers as nature intended, they rarely dies of SIDS. McKenna’s ongoing research at his sleep-laboratory shows that bed-sharing babies are more able to self-regulate their temperature, so are unlikely to overheat. They sleep less deeply than solitary sleeping babies, making them less prone to arousal deficiencies that may lead to cot deaths.

Mckenna’s research also looks at the risks of smothering while bed-sharing. He argues that both mother and child are designed to respond to each other’s presence, even when sleeping. “During my many years of studying infant/parent co-sleeping/bed-sharing I am unaware of even one instance in which under safe social and physical conditions, a mother ever suffocated her infant.” A spokesperson from FSID told me that the same is true of the UK. “It is so rare. And when it does happen it is often due to other dangerous factors rather than the act of co-sleeping alone”.

Faced with a tragedy such as the recent one, one can see why the Government and FSID have a blanket policy against co-sleeping. But then it would follow that we also advise against driving with children, rather than using a car seat and driving safely. There is something about co-sleeping that does not seem to fit comfortably in our culture.

Even I, nearly a convert, have another pressing concern. If we invite her into our bed, will she ever leave? This was not helped when, at my local Tots and Tinies, my guiltily confessed plans to co-sleep were greeted by a barrage of “tut, tut” and shaking heads: “You want to knock that on the head right away! You’re making a rod for your own back!” Most contemporary parenting manuals talk of teaching your child to become independent by helping them sleep alone. Dr Christopher Green is so adamant to keep the children out of his bed that he admits, in Taming Toddlers, to having put rope across his own child’s bedroom door. Unconvinced that this is an ideal recipe for healthy independence, yet worried that Jemima will still be in our bed at 16, I turn to the co-sleeping guru, Deborah Jackson, author of “Three in a Bed”, every co-sleepers bible, for advice. Jackson, who continues to research and write extensively on the subject, told me how her three co-sleeping children did not cry in the night, nor rely on transitional objects such as blankets or dummies. They all went on to sleep in their own rooms and their ability to sleep anywhere without waking meant they were asking for sleepovers at the age of three.

“The more security you give a baby, the more secure the child,” Jackson says. She argues the attachment theory: if the child is allowed to decide when they are ready to leave babyhood behind, they will grow to be happy, independent children. Her research shows that they will usually be asking for their own room by the time they are two, or respond well to a gentle weaning process if the parents are able to display trust in their child’s ability to cope with this.

Children who have slept with their parents are also less likely to experience regressive behaviour such as coming into the parents’ bed when they are older. But Jackson recommends you do not turn them away if they do: “Bedtime is when the anxieties of the day resurface. Say your child is having trouble at school or suffering from the arrival of a new baby, inviting them back into bed for a few nights could help. The invitation is often enough to reassure some children, who might prefer to say in their own bed.” It can also help siblings who are not getting on well to spend a few nights together cuddling up close when their defences are down.

If it is all this is true I am beginning to wonder why there is so much negative press on the subject. At my three local bookstores I cannot find any books advocating co-sleeping, or any other kind of attachment parenting manuals. Even Deborah Jackson’s books need to be ordered – there is apparently no call for them in this part of Hampshire. An internet search however brings up a wealth of research proclaiming the benefits of co-sleeping. P.Heron from the University of Bristol’s cross-sectional study of middle class English children, showed that those who did not co-sleep are “harder to control, less happy and exhibit a greater number of tantrums”. Mosenki’s US study of five ethnic groups from Chicago and New York, found that: “co-sleepers exhibited a feeling of satisfaction with life”.

I have read enough to accept that Jemima should benefit from co-sleeping and will eventually return to her own bed. But what about me? What I really need to know right now is will I get any more sleep? Jackson confides: “Though I would never have believed it before, we all had a fantastic night’s sleep! There were no nightmares or night waking. And babies who do wake in a bed with their parents can send themselves easily back to sleep without disturbing anyone”. She reminds me that we are all born with the ability to sleep easily and well, yet by the time we are able to speak our dreams often turn into nightmares. She argues that our obsession with routines and sleep training only results in an increasing percentage of children and adults with sleep problems in the Industrialised world. In countries where co-sleeping is the norm, babies and children sleep well and doctors say sleep disorders among adults are a rare complaint.

When I put Jackson’s theory to Dr Helen Rodwell, from the British Psychological Society, she says it makes sense. “I certainly use sleep as a barometer of one’s emotional well-being. All psychological problems manifest themselves in sleep disorders. Nightmares are a classic symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder”. For children that trauma can be waking alone in a dark room.

With Jackson’s words tantalisingly ringing in my ears, I decide to consult my friend Nicky, who has slept with her baby since birth. “We only planned to have Izobella in bed with us for a few weeks. But a year has passed now and I have not once had to get up at night. If she wakes for a feed I hardly stir and she sleeps so restfully we can’t imagine having her anywhere else but in bed with us. We sometimes consider getting her to sleep alone, like all our friends’ babies, but soon abandon that thought as we love co-sleeping so much.”

I am amazed that despite having what sounds like a perfect, sleeping baby, Nicky would consider changing anything, but I also recognise how hard it can be to go against cultural norms and maintain one’s faith in one’s instincts. Among my wide circle of friends with children, Nicky would be considered quite mad by most, who would echo the words of Sam, mother of two: “I could not think of anything worse than sleeping with the kids. When they come into bed we march them straight back again. Bedtime is our time together as a couple.”

Which brings us to the question on everybody’s minds. What about our sex-life? This is where nearly all advocates of co-sleeping agree on two points. If parents are running about all night trying to get their baby to sleep they won’t have much energy for sex anyway. And if one partner is not comfortable with the idea of sharing the bed with the baby and it is going to cause marital problems, don’t do it. Both Mckenna and Jackson believe that bed-sharing should unite the support network a child needs to depend upon, not tear it apart. Recognising that we live in a culture where marriage and the couple are often valued more than the family unit, co-sleeping is bound to be a cause for concern. I certainly received more warnings about not letting Jemima rule my life or interfere with our marriage than I did realistic advice on accepting and coping with the changes that a new baby will inevitably bring to a relationship. Reviving the practice in the West would require a huge cultural shift. As Jackson puts it, parents need to be ready and mature enough to allow and embrace these changes. “Only then are they likely to experience the wonderful closeness and deepening bond that sleeping with one’s children can bring to a relationship. “

While I understand the concerns that many modern parents have about personal space, independence and preserving their marital relationship, Jackson puts forward a convincing argument. And we have the rest of the house for romance, which helps. How did we get on? The first night that Jemima came into our bed we did not get a wink of sleep – she thought Christmas had come early. But a month on I can report that we are no longer exhausted and James appreciates the extra time he has with his daughter. It is not, however, as peaceful as Nicky and Deborah Jackson describe. Jemima is certainly happier – we know this because she sits up and laughs in the middle of the night, before rolling on top of us for a cuddle. Not everyone’s idea of a perfect night, but it make us happy. She has not quite learnt the adult bedtime etiquette that babies apparently acquire if they co-sleep from birth. Maybe we will have the chance to perfect the art with baby number two. If we can squeeze in one more…

Further info

UNICEF and FSID advice for parents who sleep with their babes
• the mattress should be firm, flat and clean
• avoid overheating – 16-18°C is the best room temperature
• sleep facing the baby

You should not share a bed with a baby if you (or any other person in the bed):
• are a smoker (no matter where or when you smoke)
• have drunk alcohol
• have taken any drug or medication
• are unusually tired
• never sleep with your baby on a sofa or waterbed, bean bag or a sagging mattress.

Useful links for more information about UNICEF’s baby-friendly guidelines for parents and professionals for more information about cot death and baby safety Attachment Parenting International is a non-profit organization that helps found local support groups, and publishes educational and research materials for parents and professionals. to find out more about James McKenna’s research on sleep and SIDS in the US the University of Durham’s Parent-Infant Sleep Lab is the home for a team of researchers examining various aspects of infant sleep and night-time parenting.

Further reading
Deborah Jackson Three in a Bed the benefits of sleeping with your baby Bloomsbury
Jean Liedloff The Continuum Concept Penguin

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

We're living next door to millionaires... my misplaced guilt

This story is for all the other ex-pats out there who struggle daily with feelings of guilt and unease about their comfortable existence amidst poverty and injustice. It may seem black and white (literally) at times, but all is not what it seems.

For 20 months I have been feeling uncomfortable about our elderly land lady who lives next door with her family. While we are renting their family home, a 1960s three bedroom bungalow with a pretty, shady front yard full of mango and coconut trees, they live in a dark, windowless corridor of a house and cook outside on charcoal. Their son has tantrums twice a day because he does not like cold water baths - of course they have no water boiler. I have tried to make friends with the daughter who is my age, speaks English, works at the Ministry of Education and has two young kids. But she has only recently stopped calling me ‘madame’ and has yet to accept a cup of tea or a glass of water. She comes over and puts up with me practicing my Khmer but still behaves more like a nanny, nervously following the children around, than my friend.

I used to thump on the gate most days to invite her kids over to play but I’ve given up recently. Partly because it is such hard work – I’m pretty sure they are just humouring me - but mostly because I feel embarrassed about the way we live, especially when I see them looking at some piece of furniture or the presents that Jemima was given for her birthday. I have wondered if the daughter wishes she were living in this house, with space for her kids to play and enough rooms for her to have some privacy with her husband, away from her mother and brother. Of course this is merely an assumption, based on what I value in life. She appears to be very happy.

They are lovely people and have mostly been model landlords. Of course whenever anything goes wrong in the house, (every week), if her son can’t fix it, we have to pay. How could we argue with that given how little they appear to have and the fact that they see us spending money on ourselves. And they did recently change the contract so that when white goods break – we have an ancient washing machine and oven - we have to pay. Now I think of it they also seem rather less committed to mending the holes in the roof where the rain comes in than they were at the beginning. It has been a few weeks now since I asked them, despite the fact that we have had huge electric storms and thundering rain more or less every night for a month.

If I am really honest I have begun to find their outdoor cooking antics less romantic and rather irritating. The hour-long dawn chorus of plinking pestle and mortar, the smell of fish sauce wafting over the fence, the smoke that fills our garden at every meal – it all seemed attractive at first, somehow connecting us to ‘the real Cambodia’! Now, particularly after three months of broken nights feeding Bella, it strikes me as downright unsocial and hazardous to both the environment and our health. But how could we possibly complain about this, when we are so obviously better off than they are. They depend upon our income after all.

Except it turns out they don’t. At least not just our income – that is peanuts compared to what they rake in from their four other properties the son-in-law proudly told James about last night, when they met on the street. Four massive buildings in the smartest part of Phnom Penh – rented at roughly $2000 a month to NGOs and businesses. Oh yes! We have just discovered that we are living next to millionaires.

All these months I have tried to appease my guilt by dropping my volunteer work into the conversation, explaining the principles behind our decision not to have a car, hinting at the sheer expense of life back home where NGO salaries don’t stretch too far. On the night that the ceiling caved in and rain gushed down the walls into the fitted cupboards packed to the roof with a four year supply of organic tampons and biodegradable disposable nappies (both are very absorbent) and filthy black water drenched our brand new, cream sofa, I was sure that God was punishing us for spending so much money on a sofa in such a poor country. Turns out the roof just needed fixing and we chose the wrong colour.

At one point we even considered paying for a new kitchen which would have dramatically increased the value of this house. “Your future ex-pat tenants will pay a lot more for an open-plan kitchen. Think how much lighter the house will be!” I told them over and over again, as we tried to get them to agree to our plan. In the end I gave up on the idea of my dream kitchen (I spend a lot of time in the kitchen) because it seemed so utterly indulgent and the money would be much better spent on one of the children’s NGOs in town.

It is not that I begrudge their good fortune in the least and I do admire them for living modestly despite their riches. They are probably saving for an overseas education for the children which is far better than building an ostentatious four storey villa and driving about in an unregistered bullet-proof Lexus as many of their peers choose to do. It just makes me realise that my guilt, that has been, at best, self-indulgent and, at worst, self-destructive, is actually entirely unfounded and based on my own, very limited understanding of real life in Cambodia. In a country deeply scarred from 30 years of war and genocide nothing is quite as it seems. If anything, I should simply be thankful that they are happy and safe and comfortably off.

In 1975 my landlady was a young mother living in this house with her husband and two small children, just as I am now. But one day she, along with the rest of Phnom Penh, was forced to leave her home and her city by the notorious Khmer Rouge. All Cambodians were put to work in the fields, in a fanatical Maoist attempt to return Cambodia to ‘Year Zero’. There would be no rich or poor, just happy peasants enjoying abundant rice harvests. What actually happened of course was that the country fell into such desperate poverty that those who were not killed starved to death (an inevitable result if you kill all the people who know anything about agriculture and irrigation and put children – separated from and indoctrinated against their families – in charge). My landlady’s husband was among the thousands of educated people who had to be ‘removed’ because he posed a threat to this delusional rural idyll.

Widowed, she returned to Phnom Penh with her children, and thousands of other refugees at the fall of the Khmer Rouge four murderous years later, and was one of the few lucky ones able to return to their former homes. She also claimed four deserted plots of land as hers for $50 each, and used them to grow vegetables. This land once belonged to someone else, but they were presumably dead or living in a refugee camp somewhere. Now it was a free for all. Rich became poor, poor became rich, some poor stayed poor and some richer just got richer. The building on just one of those plots of land is now worth $600,000.

How my neighbours acquired their wealth is in itself a perfect, if tragic, illustration of how precarious material fortune is in a country such as Cambodia. How they spend it may simply reflect a family who has suffered enough to understand what is truly valuable in life.

Still, I can’t help wishing that they would buy themselves an oven.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Baby is on board

I am in the middle of writing about my various ex-pat angsts and thought, given that it is going to take me a while to get it all down (!), that I may as well post an article I wrote shortly after I arrived here, which was published in the Telegraph about 14 months ago. This way you have something to read and I can reflect on whether I have got any more used to this life since I wrote this!

Baby is on board
When my husband James announced he had been offered a four-year contract with Oxfam in Cambodia I should have been thrilled. He had spent the past year commuting three hours a day only to be stuck behind a desk in London too far away from the action to do his job properly. He was struggling to make ends meet so that I could enjoy domestic bliss with our 16-month old daughter Jemima and realise my dream of becoming a writer. This was the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to make a difference in a country in desperate need, not to mention the exotic travel and guaranteed sunshine. What was I waiting for? Why, having talked about this for years, was I suddenly so terrified to leave our family and friends? On becoming a mother, my adventurous spirit appears to have got lost deep within my comfort zone – somewhere between our vegetable patch and Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. While friends who had grown up overseas reminisced about carefree childhoods, mango trees and bilingual barefooted bliss, I imagined every possible worse scenario.

Jemima would get malaria. The trauma of having no less than ten vaccinations would give her a life-long pathological terror of the doctor’s surgery. The humidity and mosquitoes would make her life a misery. How could she ever play outside? If she didn’t get skin cancer she would certainly be bitten by a poisonous snake, get knocked down by crazy drivers or tread on a landmine. She hates rice!

Jemima didn’t see what the fuss was about. Bubble wrap and parcel tape make great toys. She actually enjoyed her weekly visits to the travel clinic, appearing to thrive on the potent cocktail of viruses swimming around her body. She performed only one silent act of protest. Exhausted after a miserable week of flu, packing and emotional farewells, we woke up late on our last morning to find our daughter was already up and busy. She had decorated herself, the cream curtains, the white doors and the beige carpet with permanent black marker. Was she leaving her scent? We still have no tenants for the house.

Four months have passed since we said goodbye on that freezing day in January and stepped off the plane into the blinding sunshine of steamy Phnom Penh. My friends were right. My daughter is having the time of her life. From the moment she wakes (at dawn with the rest of Phnom Penh and their dogs, cats, and security guards’ morning ablutions) her boundless energy astonishes me. She does not seem to notice the stifling humidity, unlike her increasingly irritable mother. In fact, everything I struggle with here either doesn’t bother her, or worse, positively excites her. Take the cockroach party in the bath on our first night (you could have made a Disney film about them). I screamed; she pushed me aside in her attempt to clamber into the tub.

While I fear for our lives every time we try to dodge the four lanes of meandering traffic (here they drive in both directions up both sides of the street and pavement), Jemima squeals with delight at the motorbikes carrying five children sandwiched between dad at the front and a breastfeeding mum at the back. I feel embarrassingly expat as we travel around in the touristy Tuk Tuk - a sort of carriage towed by a motorbike - Jemima waves, like the Queen, to delighted onlookers.

Does she even notice the poverty? Although we live simply by western standards, in a modest bungalow, without a car, our lives here hardly resemble those of ordinary Cambodians. We can ignore or embrace the real Cambodia as we choose. Some days we help at the orphanage or feed the children at our gates, others we visit the pool, the International playgroup, or stay home under the mango trees.

I wonder when it will dawn on her that she lives a privileged life in a poor and traumatized country, where thousands of children her age live on the streets, vulnerable to unspeakable abuse. She plays with these children, still blissfully unaware of their misfortune (or my desire to bring them all home with us!) When she will start to ask where are their mothers are, or their clothes for that matter? Or why the AIDS orphans she sees every week are older than her but cannot yet walk or talk?

There is one passion Jemima and I both share. Her name is Srey Mach, nanny/cook/cleaner extraordinaire. My refusal to employ household staff (it stank of the worst elements of colonialism) lasted for one long sweaty week of battling with ants, rotting food, ants, dust, ants… I gave in and everybody wins. We can offer someone employment and help with studies and I have more time for Jemima and my work. We get to eat Cambodian fare - Jemima does eat rice after all, though only with hot curry - and the opportunity to practice our spoken Khmer. We also employed Srey Mach’s brother as a night-guard because James travels a lot. Visnar is half my size and sleeps like a log. I hope we never need him! Most importantly, they help us recreate a sense of family that I thought we had lost when we left England.

While to me this all feels like a strange fitful dream that will end any minute, it is Jemima’s home and she is happy. Let’s face it, life here is a lot more interesting than Hampshire, however much I long for some good old English grey sky.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

The incredible rocking horse stable cupboard thing

I am sitting around biting my nails waiting for my sister to call. I am pretty sure she is delivering her second child right about now. To kill some time I thought I would write down the dream I had last night.Yes I do realise that it is very boring to recount one’s dreams but this one is just so full of maternal anxiety that I have decided it is highly relevant to my blog. Anyway I think mothers will enjoy it, if just to make them feel good about themselves.

James and I were at a house with a lot of expatriate women who I have never met before. I had an overwhelming urge to sleep so I lay down on the lawn (with proper grass so it can’t have been Cambodia). As I did I heard a strange voice saying:

“Why are you sleeping lazy lady? Oh have you got small children? Is that why you are sleeping?”

Then a very young, very pregnant girl with a strangely mobile bump sat down next to me and bounced up and down (in dreams you can sit and bounce at the same time). I was alarmed and told her to stop and asked her when she was due. She replied that she did not know – at least I think that’s what she said as she couldn’t get her words out in the right order. Another equally verbally challenged woman, who I assumed was the one chiding me for wanting to sleep, explained happily that they were cousins and her father was the one who bit her when they all lived together. No, I am not sure whose father bit who, either, and I don’t suppose it matters. Although in my dream I was extremely upset to hear this.

So upset that I wandered up the road to join in another party at a nearby bar. I was chatting to someone for a long time before I realised I had left my toddler and baby at the party unaccompanied. I rushed back to find them and was told, on arrival, that they were last seen with an older girl getting into a black London taxi with my address book, with the intention of visiting all my friends.

Ugh. I can feel the panic rising in my throat just writing about that. As I opened my mouth to scream (or throw up, didn’t get to find out which) the taxi drew up with my babies inside. Sellotaped to the outside was a clear, plastic folder full of pages and pages of printed emails from all my friends saying ‘how sweet the messengers were.’

I felt this was probably time to leave. The hostess evidently agreed, for - while riding her daughter’s rocking horse through mid-air into a cupboard-cum-stable with a cunning automatic roof-lifting device - she hinted to me that she really did need to get the house ready for Christmas. I packed my things.

It was not until I got to the top of the road, where I was searching for a tuk-tuk (you are unlikely to find one in London. I see that now), that I noticed Jemima standing looking up at me with a did you forget something? expression on her face. I had left my children behind again.

What I am wondering is, will I be able reproduce the design of that incredible rocking horse stable-cupboard, patent it and make my fortune?

Oh! NEWS FLASH NEWS FLASH my sister just called to say she’s had a boy! Henry Alexander! Hurrah! Congratulations! At home in the birth pool! Wow! I’d better sign off before I feel tempted to write another post entitled something like “what the hell am I doing a million miles from my sister and her brand new baby?”

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Attachment parenting for keeping everybody happy!

Yesterday, after a long while of looking very thoughtful, Jemima asked me:

“Mummy? When did we not have Bella?”

I braced myself for the same question my big sister asked about me, when I was two weeks old: Can we take her back to the shop now? It didn’t come, but I am not one for bottling up, so I coaxed her a little.

“Which is better? Having Bella or not having Bella?” I inquired. Without hesitation she responded, in her funny head-nodding way: “It’s better having her, isn’t it mum?”

Phew! But it got me thinking.

One of the things I have found the hardest about having my second child is the constant feeling that I am unable to meet both their needs at once. Having one baby was easy. We did everything together. I rarely had to prioritise anything or anyone over her. Because I carried her everywhere in the sling, I felt free. Knowing she was safe and happy, strapped to me, meant that I was able to take time for myself, to walk, write, cook or settle down in a café with my book. After nearly three years of having me all to herself and vice versa (Sorry James! I mean during working hours), I expected us both to have difficulty adjusting to the new addition to the family. Nature took care of that for me, and so far Jemima appears to have had no real issues with her new little sister either. She has always been sweet with her and often tells me to pick her up when she wakes or cries. I have even heard her tell her: “I love you so much Bella boos.” But I’m half-expecting things to change any day, as I struggle to keep them both happy.

I remember being told by a friend that second time round things have to be different. That sometimes the baby has to cry while we see to the older child’s needs. I didn’t agree at the time and I still don’t. I know that Jemima is old enough to wait without feeling abandoned, whereas Bella is not. But how do I assure Jemima that she is still as loved and as special as always, if I am constantly having to stop what we are doing every time Bella needs something? How can I put Jemima first, and keep Bella happy? Maintaining the balance is hard and I don’t think I could do it without parenting the ‘attachment’ way. I’ll try to explain why – though I am still figuring it out in my head so forgive me if this is a little muddled.

Most days I feel that Bella is like a small animal. She is my sweet little shrew curled up in her pouch, her arms folded and her long fingers curled like claws. Her needs are carnal. I hold her close, feed her, burp her, wash her, change her, love her - all roughly on demand. (As I write this I realise that of course babies rarely demand to be washed. Hmmm she must be due a bath this month). By doing all this instinctively, barely consciously, I know that her emotional brain will develop, and that she is leaving her feral world behind. Her coos, smiles and the fact that she cries when I get cross with her sister, are all testimony to this. Meanwhile I am free to focus on Jemima’s more complicated emotional and psychological needs, influenced, now she goes to pre-school, by so much more than her mother’s care and response. How simple baby Bella seems, in comparison to my walking, talking, dancing, creating, emotionally articulate and disarmingly expressive toddler. And how different it is from the first-time round when I obsessed over every detail of Jemima’s babyhood, counting the minutes that she slept, the nappies that she filled and the number of daily feeds. These days I can’t remember if I fed Bella in the night, let alone how many times. If asked, I take a guess based upon how tired I feel.

But none of this would be possible if I could not plop Bella in a sling, if I had to sterilize bottles and mix formula, or if I had to have her sleep in a cot during the day rather than wherever Jemima and I want to be at a given time. ‘Wearing’ Bella every time we leave the house frees my arms to hold her sister’s hand, steer her bike or root around inside my bag for my wallet. Wearing her about the house, when she needs to be held, allows me to finish Jemima’s bedtime story, get dinner ready or send some emails.

Before you think I am super-mum I must explain that I am not an attachment parent in the purest sense. At home I am often to be found running to the loo/front door/burning smell in kitchen, while at the same time cooing and assuring the complaining baby on the floor that ‘mummy is coming’. I take every opportunity to put Bella down when she has fallen asleep in my arms (it’s so damned hot here!). As I write this she is lying on the bed next to me. And, I confess, every morning I have someone to help me. Srey Mach is her name and her main job is to assist me in my daily battle with the ants. But she can also stand the heat better than I can and wears Bella for me when she goes to the market. I call it attachment parenting by proxy and yes, I know it’s cheating but wouldn’t you if you had the chance?

Or perhaps you wouldn’t. I know a woman who has a nanny who always picked up the baby when he cried. She asked her nanny to stop doing this because then she would have to do the same when the nanny was not there. She called it ‘spoiling him’. I don’t buy the whole ‘rod for your own back’ theory. My experience is that if you don’t put the baby down very often they feel more secure and don’t mind so much when you do. And there are times when you just have to! Like today for instance, when the balance tipped in Jemima’s favour. She and I had a great afternoon at the swimming pool, but Bella received no attention or physical contact for over two hours, apart from a quick feed. She slept in the buggy (I never put her in the buggy!) and when she woke, lay by the side of the pool watching us. I kept wondering if, every time we waved at her and called her name, she could read the guilt in my face.

Will I ever get to a stage where I can enjoy being able to devote myself to one child without feeling I have abandoned the other? And will they appreciate it anyway? I asked Jemima if she remembered me teaching her to swim every afternoon when I was pregnant. She didn’t. It makes me sad to think that she is unlikely to remember much about her life before Bella, when she had me all to herself, whereas I, while adoring having both my girls together, will always remember those other special, simple and care-free years with Jemima, before Bella was born.

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Thursday, October 4, 2007

Ants in my pants

It is bucketing again in Phnom Penh. I can hardly hear myself think above the drumming of rain drops on the roof, water is seeping through the walls and I despair of anything ever drying out in this house. All our clothes smell of mildew and the beds and sofa feel damp and sticky. But! At least it means that I can leave the washing up ‘til tomorrow for a change. The ants won’t be coming in tonight.

At 2am this morning, as I was in the kitchen getting water for Jemima, (yes it does happen often. There is always something. A mosquito biting her; the fan making her cold; the monsters are out in force again, or a ‘sweet bunny’ is licking her toes), I noticed a dying cockroach, on the floor. It was being pulled this way and that by two opposing armies of ants. I was enjoying the spectacle actually, and my own calm air of disdain. For once I had the upper hand. It is a rare thing for me to be able to watch a cockroach suffer. Normally they have me screaming for James and jumping onto the nearest chair.

It was then that I had my brainwave: I will post a blog with a hot tip for protecting one’s children from ants. Yes. Believe it or not there are many places in the world where this piece of advice will be considered very useful to mothers. I have a friend who found ants hurrying into her baby’s mouth as he slept – they love the sweet smell of breast milk.

In our house we have five different kinds of ants. There are the tiny ‘crazy’ ants that wander aimlessly across the walls and floors, in a surprisingly disorganised fashion given that they are ants. More orderly are the big, fat, black ants that form perfect circles around dried up drops of juice on the floor. (Picture a child’s drawing of a very small sun, but with many more rays.) The smaller, thinner ants may look harmless but their bite can hurt for days, whereas the red ant’s sting only hurts for half an hour or so. But most painful of all is the bite of the huge, black, flying ants nesting in Jemima’s mosquito net. Now do you appreciate my obsession? Even as I have been writing this blog James has asked me: "Do you want the apricots sitting out in the kitchen because the ants do?".

I have to say I’m actually learning to live with the little buggers (excuse the pun) – the non-biting ones at least. It is amazing to watch their determined little bodies at work, and their cunning never ceases to amaze me. They have even found a way of getting into the sugar that lives in the shelf of the freezer door, without dying of hyperthermia in the process. They march up the outside wall when it rains, carrying their huge, white eggs away from their flooded, under-ground nests. I’ve given up trying to keep them out of the house. I’ve even got used to them running up and down my arm whenever I am anywhere near food. But when they bite one of my children? Well, that really makes me mad.

So here’s my tip. I have recently learned, thanks to the Phnom Penh playgroup, that ants cannot cross talcum powder or cayenne pepper. On the walls it doesn’t work as they just go higher and higher to avoid it, but on the floor it does the trick nicely. So now, when Bella sits in her bouncy chair, watching me cook, she is safe inside a circle of talcum powder. Jemima and I pour it all over our feet on entering the kitchen.

Be careful though. After letting rip at Jemima last night for scraping it off the floor and putting it inside her sister’s mouth, she responded, confused: “But you do it all the time, Mummy”. It was then that I realised that children do not know the difference between talcum powder and teething powder. But ants do, and that’s what matters.

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Wednesday, October 3, 2007

They call it child-led

I am not a poet. Haven't written a poem since school in fact, and that was under duress. But this morning I had a poem in my head that conjured up perfectly how it feels right now to have two small children. So what the heck. Here it is, have a laugh at my expense...

Welcome to my motherland, (I like to think I still have another land), where,
last seen somewhere on the sofa, amidst toys and breast pads,
still tangled in the sling from which she was unloaded,
a baby lies sleeping.
So peaceful.
Yet never for long.
‘I was just stroking her, Mummy. She needs me you see’, I hear, against a back drop of cries.

My home is strewn with half-written lists, blowing about in the fan.
Cold cups of tea, only one sip taken, sit on every surface.
Reminders bleep at ten minute intervals on my phone.
‘Brush teeth!’ ‘Wash hair!’
I press the ‘Postpone’ option over and over, ever optimistic.
Little shiny stars twinkle at me from strategic places: the fridge, the mirror, the fridge.
I wish I could remember what they are supposed to be reminding me to do.

My head is strewn with half-finished thoughts;
that come back to me during night-time feeds.
My husband groans at the scratching of my pen at 3am.
‘I’m sorry’ I whisper ‘I just need to write down a thought.’
If I don’t I am afraid I will lose it forever.

My bra is permanently unclipped, my baby almost permanently latched on.
My toddler always wants to help.

My brain needs sleep. My body needs exercise (and a shower now and then wouldn’t go amiss, I’m sure my husband would agree). Oh yes, my husband!
My husband needs? My husband needs? What does he need?
It’s been so long since I asked him. We must talk abou… oh where is he anyway, damn it?

No doubt delaying the inevitable homecoming to the chaos; the hormones; the exhaustion; the unbelievable mess of my motherland.

They call it child-led.

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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Bringing up baby… without even looking

A pregnant friend, back home in England has just texted me to say she is watching a programme, on Channel 4, that compares childcare methods. It’s called Bringing up Baby. One woman, not a mother herself, receives £1000 a day in exchange for helping parents with their new-born babies. She advocates no eye contact and four-hourly feeds only. She believes that one-day old babies are trying to manipulate their parents. So she advises mothers and fathers to be strong and not to give in to their baby’s cries. At one point the couple are sitting on the sofa while their hours-old baby screams in a cot next door. The parents are trying to enjoy a glass of wine "as it should be". Except that they are crying too. It is the saddest thing I have heard in weeks.

Perhaps it is because I am living in a country where thousands of children are receiving this same treatment in orphanages, or perhaps it is because I have a tiny baby of my own right now, but I cannot get this out of my head. Every time I look at her (in our bed at night where she sleeps, or during one of the 10 or so feeds she currently gets in 24 hours), I think of the baby who came out of the womb and straight onto an experimental TV programme, to be subjected to entirely unnatural and cruel parental neglect. Treating a child in this way is tantamount to abuse. They may as well be in an orphanage. It would be cheaper too.

I also feel for the parents – one day they will surely regret the choice they have made. Maybe tomorrow, if they decided to read up on the wealth of scientific evidence that shows how damaging this ‘parenting’ method actually is. Research, easily and clearly explained in Sue Gerdhart’s Why Love Matters; Margot Sunderland’s The Science of Parenting, and others, shows how the stress of prolonged abandonment can cause babies to suffer permanent damage to the brain cells. Neglecting to meet a baby’s emotional needs (e.g. eye contact and constant touch), and physiological needs (e.g. feeding and sleeping on demand), causes distress and trauma. This results in emotional and behavioural disorders, such as stress, lack of confidence, depression, addiction and anorexia, in both childhood and adult life. Given all this, and bearing in mind that half of Britain lives in fear of a whole generation of dysfunctional teenagers, I question why this sort of TV is allowed and whether this kind of advice should be sanctioned.

The thing that worries me the most, is that, if this baby does start to fall asleep on its own and sleep through the night, people will mistake this for a happy child responding to successful parenting (though given that they're only filming until 3 months we'll never really know anyway). The reality, however, is that babies who are deprived of love and whose needs are ignored, often become compliant and submissive. What’s the point of expressing their needs if no one is listening?

I find myself almost hoping that this child will respond in another way, also common. Children who never learn to express their needs appropriately can be unreasonably demanding and have frequent tantrums. This might put viewers off. Then again, tantrums, if not handled correctly (give lots of love and holding to help the child deal with their overwhelming emotions), can cause further trauma. So I must not wish for this either, as the poor child is even less likely to ever receive the small thing it is asking for: that its parents actively love him. So my last hope is with the other mentors on the programme, who advocate attachment and child-led parenting. Though I can’t help feeling that they are likely to be portrayed as fluffy hippies who breastfeed their school-age children. It all makes good TV right?

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