Keeping mum: MSPs talk about their role as parents
How did having children change your life?
Alex Cole-Hamilton (Lib Dem): Utterly, but mostly in good ways. Apart from sleep deprivation and not being able to go out as much, [it] brought more joy to life than I thought possible.
Gail Ross (SNP): Having children undoubtedly changes your life massively. I was never an overly selfish person but I was used to only having to think about myself and suddenly every decision I made, every choice, wasn’t about me anymore. I breastfed Max for six months so everything had to be planned in advance, invites to weddings, even just days out. I remember once I left the house without the changing bag when I went out to visit a friend. Believe me, you don’t realise how much you need it until you don’t have it!
Mark Griffin (Labour): I think having children changed our lives in every way possible – sleep, diet, work lives, social life, family life – everything changes. I think the biggest difference is that you go from being focused on yourself and your partner, doing things for yourself and each other, to being totally in love, obsessed and spending all your free time, money and energy on things for your children.
Jeremy Balfour (Conservative): Having children, especially twins, as in my case, has changed every aspect of my life. From the day-to-day challenges of getting out of the house on time, remembering who likes what on their sandwiches (and dealing with tantrums when you cut their sandwiches into squares instead of triangles) through to the big decisions that a parent faces in terms of education, health and wellbeing of their children, whilst trying to manage it on a budget and around work commitments. Each day is a new challenge to make sure we are all in the right place, at the right time and with the right sandwiches.
Did having children alter your perspective on policies that you might not have considered previously?
ACH: I was already the convener for the Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights, so not really.
GR: Max was a week short of his first birthday when I was elected to The Highland Council. I had just finished a course in child psychology with the Open University and I certainly found myself concentrating more on things that affected children and young people.
I was made vice-chair of the Education Committee and I am the patron of Home-Start Caithness and a board member of North Highland College. Now in parliament, being on the Equalities and Human Rights Committee means we can make a difference in areas such as school bullying.
I have also just set up a Cross-Party Group on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and we hope to work closely with the Scottish Government to try and reduce childhood trauma.
MG: Our second daughter, Rosa, was born very prematurely and spent the first five months of her life in hospital. The costs of travelling to the hospital every day to visit, along with food costs, were huge and that’s without accommodation or childcare costs that some others had. There were mothers leaving the hospital in tears because they couldn’t afford a taxi to the hospital the next day and that has always stayed with me. That’s why I campaigned for a neonatal expenses fund to support families when I returned to parliament and was delighted that it started on Rosa’s first birthday.
JB: I can’t think of any specific policies, but having children makes you strongly aware of the need to put robust policies in place to ensure the future safety and wellbeing of future generations. Sitting on the Social Security Committee and having direct input into shaping Scotland’s new social security system, I have been acutely aware that these new devolved powers and policies will have a major impact for people growing up in Scotland, including my own children.
Do you think parents can be too hard on themselves in terms of trying to do the right thing?
ACH: There’s a lot of pressure, and coupled with exhaustion, it can be very stressful to get it absolutely right.
GR: I don’t think that parents can ever be too hard on themselves. This is the most important job in the world and it’s essential to get it right because you have the power to shape that person for the rest of his or her life. In terms of ACEs, there is an internationally recognised checklist that assesses levels of trauma and the higher you score, the higher your chance of suffering in later life. If we love our children, tell them often, make sure they are safe and secure and happy then we will go a long way to reducing adult health and social issues.
MG: I think parents can be too hard on themselves and there are always other people passing judgement, particularly on young mothers. People comment on how great a dad I am if I’m changing or feeding our girls when I’m just doing my fair share – and I love doing it anyway – but nobody says the same things to my wife because she’s just expected to do most of it and that’s not right.
JB: It is too easy in this day and age to look at happy, smiling photos of parents and new borns on social media and feel you are failing if you don’t fit that ‘picture perfect’ image. But the truth is that most of our lives are not flawless and we don’t post updates and pictures when we are having a bad day and can barely get out of the house. I think parents can be overly critical of themselves and need to be reminded that parenthood is a tough job and you can’t get it right 100 per cent of the time.
Many people say that children don’t come with an instruction booklet. What guided your style of parenting?
ACH: Total capitulation. Not really. Instinct and advice from friends and family and some TV shows, like Super Nanny.
GR: I wouldn’t say I have a particular ‘style’ of parenting. It’s very instinctive and that instinct is to love. It’s a challenge trying to find the balance between giving Max the freedom to express himself and find his own path and being that guide and mentor.
MG: I think most people will be guided by their own childhood experiences and that was the same for my wife and I. An instruction booklet would certainly have helped, but only if it was customised to the baby because our two are completely different!
JB: I think we learn a lot of our parenting skills from our own parents – the way we were brought up and the values and beliefs instilled in us. Having identical twin girls, we were conscious we wanted them to be able to develop their own distinct personalities and thrive as individuals. We were guided by their interests and we listened to their voices, whilst ensuring they learned and understood basic ground rules and the consequences of their actions.
The Holyrood baby, Kirsty, is two-years old, did you find the ‘terrible twos’ to be true to life and how did you cope?
ACH: The ‘terrible twos’ are real, but they start around the third birthday. How did I cope? Total capitulation. And applying house rules consistently, standing your ground, picking your battles, and sometimes using a bit of bribery and misdirection.
MG: Our oldest daughter is two and a half just now and we’re having to cope with the ‘terrible twos’ while her one-year-old sister is demanding our attention at the same time. She’s just testing her boundaries and developing her own personality and it’s great to see, though maybe just not in the middle of the supermarket.
JB: Having twin ‘terrible-twos’ was definitely a rollercoaster ride! We were given good advice by fellow twin parents to ‘pick your battles’ – it wasn’t worth getting stressed about putting their coats on if it was raining, as they would soon change their mind once they got wet! And it gave me some comfort to think that the ‘terrible twos’ is a natural stage of a child’s life when they are finding their voice, challenging decisions and working out where and how they fit in the world and is, therefore, a perfectly normal (if challenging!) stage in their development. Roll on the teenage years!
What have you learnt about yourself becoming a parent?
ACH: I can function on considerably less sleep than I thought I needed over a period of years.
GR: Since having Max, I have learnt about the protective role of a parent and our massive capacity to love. I never finish a conversation with him, whether it’s on the phone, Skype or in person without telling him I love him. He’s nearly eight and he’s fine with it just now but I know there will come a time when that will embarrass him! I will still do it, though, because no matter how old we are, we all need to know that we are loved.
MG: I’ve learnt not to stress about the small things that might have been important before becoming a parent, they’re just not worth the time or the energy anymore. If you’re worrying about the small things then you just might miss a first word, a first step or a perfect smile.
JB: I have learnt to take time out of a busy day to listen and play with my children and to make the most of family time together.
Children grow up so quickly, and it is all too easy to get caught up in daily life, but it is vital to take some time to understand what is going on in their world and to share in their achievements and to be there when the tears fall.
What do you wish for your own children’s future?
ACH: That they make their own choices, follow their hearts, love and laugh as much as possible.
GR: I firmly believe that Max will go on to do whatever he wants to do. When children feel loved, they feel confident. I will never hold him back from anything. When he was three years old, he was in the local pipe band hall, banging away on a drum when a woman walked past and said, “Oh, I know what you’re going to be when you grow up!” He shouted back, “Yes, a palaeontologist!” As long as he’s happy then so am I.
MG: I think all parents just wish that their children will be healthy and happy in life. I think every generation of parents hope that their children have a better life than they had, and for the most part that has been true in this country. I think this generation of children might be the first for a while where that isn’t as much of a certainty anymore.
JB: I wish them all the health, happiness and success that they can find in the world.
Do you have an abiding memory of being a new mum or dad?
ACH: Learning to catch a disco nap in, literally, any location or circumstance.
MG: It seemed like we were trying for a baby for a long time, and my wife also had two miscarriages before our first daughter arrived. We just worried and feared the worst throughout the pregnancy, and didn’t quite believe it would happen, so when Eva actually arrived, I think we were in shock.
The abiding memory was a bit of not ever expecting to actually be parents and wondering what to do next.
JB: My two abiding memories, are firstly, the tiredness that is always there and secondly, the joy of going into their room and watching them sleep and seeing how beautiful and innocent they looked.
Any advice for Kirsty’s mum?
ACH: Hang in there. You’re doing grand.
GR: Support her, guide her and be proud of her. Make sure she is loved and secure and she will grow up to be happy and confident.
MG: My advice for Kirsty’s mum right now would be to enjoy yourself. Enjoy the first words and the talking, enjoy watching your baby turning into a little person with her own personality, enjoy watching the bonds developing with siblings, cousins, friends and even pets, enjoy all of the first-time experiences she’s going to have this year and enjoy a little bit of time for a social life again now that you’re just about ready to trust someone else to look after the most important thing in your life.
JB: Kirsty’s mum should try to enjoy the rollercoaster ride of parenting and be conscious that being a parent is a tough job and she shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help.