Maree Todd: It takes a whole village to raise a child

Written by Maree Todd on 10 May 2018 in Comment

As the Holyrood baby turns two, Scotland's children's minister reflects on bringing up toddlers and the so-called 'terrible twos'

Maree Todd - Scottish Government

Kirsty, the Holyrood baby, is turning two this month, which means it’s two years since I was elected as an MSP for the Highlands and Islands in the Scottish Parliament. Time really does fly when you are having fun.

Birthdays and anniversaries are a good opportunity to pause and reflect on life. For me, this is a nice chance to think back to what life was like when my now teenage children were younger. As a mum of three, I was well schooled in juggling priorities and negotiating compromise long before I entered politics. 

Our three children were each born a couple of years apart – so yes, I did have three under five and yes, it was pretty full on. Non-stop busyness, never-ending laundry and what felt like years of pregnancy and breastfeeding but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I know just how lucky I am to have been able to have babies so easily each time we wanted to, and I’m very thankful for it. I have plenty of friends and family who found it tougher.

Instead of the ‘terrible twos’, I think we should talk about the ‘terrific twos’.

I really enjoyed my babies growing up and asserting their independence. Sure, routine tasks, like eating and getting coats and shoes on, might not be completed to perfection and could take forever – it would have been quicker and easier to do it myself. But for me, the great joy was that language develops apace at around two.

My children all had plenty to say – surprise, surprise. I really loved it when we could chat – it’s so much easier to understand what your child wants when they can tell you. I also enjoyed the running commentary and the delight in simple things you get with toddlers. They notice and comment on all sorts of wee things and pretty soon, you do too. I still sometimes exclaim in wonder at a train going by.

Another simple thing which brought great delight when my kids were little was the sheer pleasure they took in getting stronger and faster. No sooner had they got the hang of walking than they started to climb, run, jump and balance. They had a lot of exuberance for the simple things in life. We had some lovely low walls to walk along on our route to school which provided great opportunities to balance holding hands – and a big swing up and down and a hug at either end. Perhaps it was a little less joyful if we were in a rush!

I worked part time when my children were little, and by the time I had my third, I was studying again.

Thankfully, I was never very house proud – good enough was good enough on the housekeeping front but eating healthily was a high priority for us. I enjoy cooking but thinking of daily family meals that would nourish and please everyone was definitely a challenge – especially when time was tight. 

When my children were toddlers, they were adventurous eaters with big appetites. They all got pickier as they got older, but now as teenagers, eating is mostly a pleasure for us again. Perhaps because I work away from home a lot, and even when I’m home at weekends, they go out with friends.

It can feel like a special occasion when we all sit down together to home-cooked food. 

One of the defining things about being a parent to small children is the tiredness. I once remember actually falling asleep while reading aloud. It’s nothing short of astonishing how tired parents can be and still function! That’s probably also been a handy transferable skill for politics – the ability to work long hours with not much sleep. 

I’m an avid reader, so I loved reading with my children. Toddlers love repetition, so you read the same stories, night after night – that’s why it’s vital that you enjoy them too. Some of our huge family favourites at that age were: Guess How Much I Love You, Hairy Maclary, and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? 

I loved it when my children would anticipate the story, turning the pages themselves, and completing the punchlines.  

A few months ago, I joined some children in a nursery in Inverclyde and we all went on a bear hunt. Much to everyone’s astonishment, I remembered every word of the Michael Rosen story. We had read We’re Going on a Bear Hunt so often, I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.

I was working and studying and my husband worked too, so like many parents, we juggled a patchwork of childcare with the help of family, friends, childminders, nannies, and nursery. And despite earning a professional wage, once childcare was paid for, I barely broke even by working. I know what a difference the expansion in early learning and childcare will make to hard-pressed families, saving them a cost of around £4,500 per child. That’s a big difference.

Before I had my own children, I thought they were like untouched clay, to be moulded and shaped into adults. I very quickly learned that they all have their own personalities. Our three were all very different so we needed a variety of skills to help them flourish and grow.

The good news is that the skills you learn when they are toddlers, stand you in very good stead for life with teenagers.

I often think of that saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. I was lucky to grow up in Ullapool – an amazing wee west Highland village. I was surrounded by people who knew me and looked out for me. I think one of the most important things we can do as parents is build a strong village for our children. 

I was very lucky to have my grandparents living nearby and I could see them often. Having experienced that close bond as I was growing up, it’s been a real pleasure to see my own children enjoying a strong relationship with their grandparents.

I hope Kirsty has ‘a strong village’ around her as she grows up.

All parents want the best for their children, and for many people, this means planning ahead but if there is one lesson we all learn in life, it’s that “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley”. 

We learned that lesson in the year our second daughter turned two and my husband John was made redundant. 

I was expecting another baby, and despite two perfectly healthy pregnancies, complications arose. Thankfully, we soon had a healthy baby boy.

After a short period of unemployment, John found another job but more distress was to come with the sudden death of a much-loved friend, also a dad to two young children. 

We learned that year just how precious and precarious life is. If you lose your job, your health or your partner, you will definitely need your ‘village’ to rally round you, and you might just need some help from the state.

This is why I am fundamentally opposed to the UK Government’s two child cap policy which limits support to your first two children.

All children have the right to support from the state if they need it, no matter how many brothers and sisters they have.

I’ve had a few months to settle into my new role as Minister for Childcare and Early Years, and so far, I’ve loved every minute. Having worked with new mums in my professional life for many years, it’s no exaggeration to say it is my dream job.

Every child deserves the best possible start in life – no matter their background – and I’m absolutely determined to use my time in office to the full.

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