When I found out that I was expecting Mole, apart from the inner excitement and dawning realisation of the responsibility that lay ahead, I was also preoccupied with baby shopping. This fed into my existing consumer addiction which most people have, but I quickly realised there is a whole baby industry out there, marketing to this whole other sector of society, that I had previously ignored and was shortly to join, namely the parents. With the new baby world, came a new consumer world.
What kind of buggy to get? What kind of car seat to get? Well, we didn’t have a car at the time, but we might need one sometime, so perhaps I had better get a buggy and a car seat in one, just in case?. Nursery furniture, cribs, moses baskets, cots, cot mobiles, baby clothes, breast pumps, maternity bras, maternity jeans, baby baths, breast pads, muslin squares, bottles, bottle sterilizer, baby slings, nappy bags, changing mats, baby activity centre, play mats, baby books, baby toys, the list was endless. And how would I know what I needed or did not need in advance? The muslin squares for example, that everyone said would be essential to protect myself from the tsunami of sick that was heading my way, were never opened and ended up being given away to an expectant friend after a year in the cupboard. I realised one could spend thousands if one wanted to. But how much of this stuff do we actually need?.
Well, as far as baby is concerned, hardly any of it. The main thing that Mole cared about during her first three months were my boobs. Boobs, and a pair of loving arms to hold her, all the time. That was about it. She didn’t care about her cute outfits, in fact she hated getting changed, she didn’t care what make her buggy was, or whether she lay on a playmat or on the floor, or what toys were in her cot. She also didn’t know or care where she was, so long as she was with me. Baby massage classes, baby yoga, baby swimming, library rhyme time, she didn’t know what the hell was going on, just hold onto mummy and stay near the boob, and everything will be okay.
One thing that never even occurred to me was to buy things second hand. It seems so obvious now. The first buggy cost £350 and was used for the first 18 months, until Hedgehog came along. It then became redundant because I needed a double buggy. I found one for £20 on gumtree, which has served us brilliantly for the past year. The first buggy is now in the loft. I’m starting to realise that there is very little relationship between the price of something and how much wear it will get. The fact that Mole spent more time playing with the wrapping paper than the actual presents last Christmas testifies to this too. A wind up penguin from a Christmas cracker is just as popular as the new dolls house.
These days, most of our stuff is second hand, partly because it’s so much better value, but also because you get less precious about it that way. It puts everything into perspective. It also makes you more creative. You can paint it and put your own stamp on it. I get Mole and Hedgehog to do their hand prints on the coffee table and the chest of drawers.
The other thing I’ve learned is what is important to me and what isn’t. You make choices about where to put your money. I’ll invest in holidays for example, and let the annual tidal wave of birthday and Christmas presents from family take care of the clothes and toys. Taking Mole and Hedgehog somewhere new, having a change of scene, is more important somehow than spending out on things that are going to have a shelf life of a year at best.
But what I sometimes came across and resented in my early days of motherhood when I was still struggling to find my feet, were people who bought every gizmo and gadget going for their baby, and showed it off as if to say “I’ve got all this stuff, therefore I’m a better parent”, and the worst thing was I almost believe it.
The baby classes were another thing. Baby yoga, baby massage, baby signing, baby singing, baby dancing, baby gymnastics, baby sensory. I thought these classes were great at the time, they served a purpose, mainly to keep a new mother from going insane at home, and I still think they have their place, but by the time Hedgehog arrived I had found less expensive and less commercial alternatives to these classes.
We had moved out of the city, and what I found were mainly hand knitted playgroup affairs in village halls which were more about community and less about profit. They still served the basic purpose of mum and baby having a change of scene from the living room, with some new people to talk to. Crucially, they were not about one-on-one activities with no room for an older/younger sibling tagging along. They were about parents coming into a room and letting their children play at one end of it, while they drank tea and chatted at the other end. Leave the kids alone and give yourself a lunch break, they seemed to say. This strikes me as the way to go, it’s more in touch with the reality of raising children somehow. Having the confidence to take a step back and let them play without being marshalled.
Now, looking at our bulging toy cupboard, I realise there is only a fraction of stuff in it that they play with every day. Hedgehog doesn’t really mind what she is handed, whether it’s a Russian doll or a wooden spoon, a xylophone or a saucepan, she doesn’t know the difference. Mole is more likely to choose a trip to the swings, ‘helping’ mummy with something in the kitchen, or playing outside with her little neighbour friends. The world is her playground and everything in it is her toy.
This came into its own on a recent holiday we spent caravanning in the New Forest. We pitched on a simple site that was basically a field with some woodland attached to it. Hedgehog was about four months old at the time, so spent most of it sleeping on the camper chair, but Mole spent every spare moment running round the field in a state of wild excitement and escaping into the wood to exclaim “Stick” or “Look, grass”. During that week I had an epiphany that in fact keeping it simple might be better for them. I want to raise children who are creative, resourceful, capable and playful, children who can make their own entertainment. What I don’t want to raise are passive, incapable and bored little consumers, who expect the entertainment to be laid on for them.
Back at home, there are days when they are content to play by themselves, Mole peddling her trike up and down the road while Hedgehog happily inspects her chew toy on the rug. Then there are days when they both cling to me like limpets competing for cuddles. On those days, when they are in my arms, and we sit like an island of love together on the floor, it’s clear as day what they need, and it’s not a fisher price baby bouncer. That feeling is worth a million bucks.