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When Madonna and Guy Ritchie split up, she reportedly gave him a catalogue of detailed instructions on how to treat their sons Rocco and David. The list covered everything from what the boys should eat (only macrobiotic, vegetarian food) to what they should do in their spare time (no DVDs or TV). While the circumstances of a multimillion-pound celebrity divorce are somewhat unusual, the details are strangely familiar. The Ritchies clearly had very different ideas about the ‘right’ way to raise their children, which, according to Lorraine Thomas, Chief Executive of The Parent Coaching Academy, is incredibly common. ‘Parenthood is a big responsibility,’ she says. ‘It’s the most important job you'll ever do, so it’s natural you’ll have strong opinions.’When Kate James’s daughter Alice was born in August last year, she assumed she and her husband Tom would agree on their parenting strategy. ‘I was in for a shock,’ says Kate, 29. ‘Tom had completely different views on just about everything, from where Alice should sleep (I said in with us, Tom wanted her in a cot) to what age she should eat solids to where she would eventually go to school. We disagreed on virtually everything.’ Parenting coach Judy Reith encounters this scenario repeatedly. ‘When couples set up home together it rarely occurs to them to check their partners’ views on bringing up children,’ she says. ‘Then suddenly they become parents. As these views are mainly inherited from how our parents brought us up themselves, they’re deeply engrained.’For this reason, it’s not surprising new mums and dads tend to dig their heels in over what they consider the ‘right’ way of doing things. So how can you reach some middle ground before toys start flying at midnight?
The conflict: Routines Many new mothers want to put their babies in a routine of some kind. But what if one of you wants to do things strictly by the book while the other prefers to go with the flow? ‘I stayed at home with our son Sam and got him into a great routine, with a 7pm bedtime,’ says Jo, 33. ‘But several nights a week Dan would come slamming through the door at 6.30pm and want to play with his son. This made our little boy so excited he wasn’t able to fall sleep until after 8pm. I thought Dan was so selfish, he felt I was controlling,’ she says. ‘We didn’t speak for days.’
Make it workIf routines start to cause problems in your relationships then it’s almost certainly time to talk and compromise. ‘Sometimes that means letting go a little,’ says Mother & Baby’s sleep expert, Andrea Grace. For while it’s frustrating that your partner’s behaviour upsets your routine, new mothers do occasionally need to see things from their point of view. ‘Dads often feel like a spare part in their child’s upbringing, especially if they are out all day at work,’ says Judy. ‘You may have to give a bit to allow them to feel involved and develop their confidence around the baby.’ Which is how Dan and Jo resolved their differences. ‘We agreed that if Dan came home a bit earlier a few nights a week, he would give Sam his bath then read him a story instead of getting him overtired,’ says Jo. ‘In return, I let slip the occasional late night.’
The conflict: sleepingThree in the morning is rarely the best time to have a civilised discussion. Yet that’s when many new parents decide to talk about their baby’s sleep habits, with predictably disastrous results. ‘When a baby is not sleeping well, inevitably one or both parents’ rest will suffer as a result,’ says Andrea. ‘The outcome can have a dreadful effect on the relationship and can affect your working and social life, too.’Kerry, 29, liked sleeping with eight-month-old baby Grace in bed with them; her partner James hated it. ‘I didn’t mind being woken several times a night,’ says Kerry. ‘But James found it harder to go back to sleep and felt exhausted at work the next day. He wanted to do a controlled crying technique [where the baby isn’t picked up or comforted for periods at night in order to train her to sleep through]. But I couldn’t bear to hear Grace cry. James and I ended up screaming at each other.’
Make it work ‘The key to getting a baby’s sleep right has to start with communication between parents,’ says Andrea. We should point out that this communication should ideally take place when you’re feeling calm and sane – not in the middle of the night when you’re shattered and slightly deranged. When Kerry and James finally talked they managed to thrash out a solution: James agreed it would be too hard on Kerry to expect her to do controlled crying so they agreed James would sleep in the spare room two or three nights a week. But if Grace woke before 6am, he would get up with her and let Kerry sleep in.‘It’s essential that you both have the same plan – and stick to it,’ says Lorraine Thomas. ‘If mum’s doing it one way and dad another, your child won’t know if she’s coming or going. Give yourself at least seven days then re-evaluate if necessary.’
The conflict: feedingIf you insist on organic vegetables while your partner loves a burger, that’s fine. Until babies come along. Then you may find yourself having constant battles about one of you giving your baby ice cream or the odd chip or five. Problems can also arise when only one partner is vegetarian. ‘We’d always compromised at home,’ says Emma, 36. ‘I didn’t cook meat and we were 90% vegetarian, but Michael could make his own bacon sandwiches and eat meat when we were out. But suddenly he wanted to feed the baby meat and was worried that Alex wouldn’t be healthy without it. I was really against it.’
Make it work.The issue of how you feed your children – breast v bottle; jars v homemade – can become an emotive battlefield. ‘Work out what’s really important to you and what you would be prepared to compromise on,’ says Judy. ‘McDonald’s every day isn’t good for anyone but it can can be a life-saver when you’re out shopping,’ she says. And you could insist on fish fingers and fruit rather than just chips.’ But if you have strong views, state them clearly, she suggests. ‘And if your opinion about the baby’s food is based on some new research you’ve read, say so, then calmly share the information with your partner.’ Emma and Michael agreed finally that their baby would be vegetarian until he was old enough to express a preference.
The conflict: disciplineIf there’s one thing we’ve learnt from TV’s Supernanny, it’s how difficult life gets when parents can’t agree on discipline. Take Justine, 36, for example. ‘I will be quite strict with my three year-old, Danny,’ she says. ‘I make it quite clear when he’s done something naughty. But then I find my partner, Dave, will be cuddling him and giving him a biscuit to make up for the fact I’ve told him off. It drives me mad.’ So how can you handle it when one parent is a strict disciplinarian – and the other is a big softie?
Make it work‘The first step is to agree with your partner the limits of what constitues acceptable behaviour,’ says Rachel Waddilove, author of The Toddler Book (£7.99, Lion Hudson). Then you need to decide between you what happens when your child breaks those boundaries. If you don’t agree – or you are inconsistent – your child will pick up on this up and play one of you off against the other.’ Dave and Justine solved their situation by meeting in the middle. ‘I’m learning to ignore a lot of things Danny does, rather than over-react,’ says Justine. ‘And Dave has agreed not to go against me.’ Lorraine also advocates some understanding when it comes to discipline. Both parents need to accept that sometimes there can’t be hard and fast rules. ‘Babies cannot be deliberately naughty,’ she says. ‘You also need to be understanding if your child is tired or ill, and not to expect too much from them. Toddlers also often respond better to having bad behaviour ignored or being distracted than to being punished.’
- Create a family vision. What kind of family do you want your children to grow up in? What is essential and what is secondary?- Aim to have a respectful conversation when you are awake, fed, relaxed and ready to make changes – not when you’re exhausted, hungry, irritable and feeling stubborn.- Listen. Arguments often spiral and cause resentment because someone is not listening. Listen without interruption, then check back to ensure you’ve heard correctly.
DON’T - Stamp and shout in front of the children (make this a habit from day one). Otherwise they’ll think it is acceptable behaviour and do it too.- Accuse your partner if things aren’t going well. Instead, present the issue as a problem you can solve as a team.- Let the sun go down on an argument.
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