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Let’s say it as it is! Parenting without the Insta filter - a Q&A

Alex O'Donoghue

Written by Alex O'Donoghue

9 min read

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Meet Sophie and Rachel!

They’re the inspiration hit we all need this Autumn, giving us a dose of perspective, humour and wisdom on both early years development and the realities of parenting. On what it means to be a working mum, a tired mum and, above all, why they don’t believe in the idea of the ‘perfect’ mum.

Sophie is a former early years teacher and mum of two, while Rachel is an occupational therapist and parent of two. Both Sophie and Rachel have done incredible work supporting and coaching parents in different ways through the pandemic. We spoke to them in our October podcast and decided to turn some of the conversation into a Q&A.

For the full conversation, head on over to the EasyPeasy podcast.

EasyPeasy Podcast mumpreneurs

Sophie, tell us a little about your work as an early years teacher. 

"Well, I had a wonderful mentor who was the Early Years Head at the first school I worked in. She really took me under her wing and taught me everything that she knew. She really trusted me to go with my gut, which gave me the confidence to make a big change when I later took over from her.

I went to the Headteacher and said: "We're going to have to be brave and you're going to have to trust me, but this is the right thing to do."

And what we then did was completely transform the way that early years setting worked. We did away with all formal learning and turned it into a child-led environment. 

And the change in the children was miraculous. They became more confident with much higher levels of wellbeing. Their overall development improved and when we were inspected the results were astounding.

And so I just never stopped really following that path and following. And that's what I do now with my own children as well. Just follow their interests. The approach I have also feeds into how I talk to parents about how to play and interact with their own children."

Rachel, tell us about your career path after becoming a parent?

Well, I have two children. My oldest son, Joey, is five and my younger one, Benji, is three. Joey had a genetic immune deficiency, so he was very sick in his early years. After having him, I went back to work, which at the time was my clinical occupational therapy work.

But it was just really difficult because he was sick so often, I didn’t have childcare and of course he couldn’t go to school. And so I got into the teacher training space, which I really loved. Unfortunately, I was working for a company which had to let their teacher trainers go when the pandemic hit, and overnight I found myself at home, not working, and with my boys, who weren't at school. 

In the beginning of lockdown I found myself being asked the same question by so many parents: "What do I do with my children?!" And that's how my online journey inspiring and coaching parents began. And I've loved it. I love the feedback I get from parents. I love the questions I get from them.

And I found actually this was quite a learning for me as well. Because I'm an occupational therapist, I often feel like I always have to be doing something with my children which is developmentally good. I've moved definitely more to understanding the principles behind things and that play isn't just about a certain activity - it is also found through everyday life!"

And Rachel, could you tell us a bit more about your thinking on parenting, especially in a pandemic?

"Well, I think parents really just want to do what's best for their children but sometimes it's so overwhelming not knowing where to start or what to do. So I think if you just have a bit of guidance around that and about why you are doing things, it really goes a long way.  

I think the toll on parents being with their children all day, every day, while trying to get work and chores done, is huge.  So if you can teach parents to be more playful in how they do everyday life and also help them understand why that actually is helping their child to develop and grow and become a well-regulated person - well, that’s what I think makes life better for everyone.  

I've got something called a ‘making station’ which is basically where a lot of my recycling goes. And when my children make things with what’s here, using scissors and so on, I know they’re getting the development they need, without me planning an entire activity for them.

Otherwise, what happens is you plan an amazing activity and they spend three seconds doing it, whereas it took twenty minutes for you to set it up! And we get irritated as parents and we get frustrated because we can't keep coming up with ideas! It’s about incorporating play into daily routines."

Sophie, what's it like being a working mom? 

I'll be honest, it's really hard. It's challenging. Sometimes it makes me feel frustrated and anxious. And I think that it's important to be honest about those things because otherwise people could look at me and think 'wow, you have young boys and you manage to work - you must have some kind of secret recipe'.

But I don't. I work evenings, I work weekends. Most weekends I'm working. And that's kind of how I manage to juggle being at home with the boys. I do have some childcare for them. But a lot of the time they are at home. 

I feel like it's harder sometimes than having a nine to five job, these kinds of flexible working from home arrangements, because I feel like I'm never off. I'm always on. I've always got work to do.

When you go to a nine to five job, you turn up at nine, you leave at five or when you get your work done, and then you can turn your mind to childcare.

And I think that's the case for a lot of people at the moment working from home right now. You've got all these balls in the air constantly and sometimes you drop a couple. But that’s life, isn’t it?   

So yes, it's hard. And yes, I also work evenings and weekends and I juggle constantly, but I wouldn't go back to working full time for anything, because the flexibility of my working life gives me the time to spend with my boys, which is so precious."

Rachel how has it been for you?

"As Sophie says, you just work evenings when they're asleep. Wherever you can fit it in, really. And my husband works quite long hours as well and is often away from home, which can be challenging. So you just try and juggle it as best you can.

I've had to learn to be firm with boundaries: with my children, with myself and then with my friends around me. So that's been a big challenge.

I consider myself so fortunate that I'm able to do this, though, and I wouldn't do it any other way. I'm trained and experienced in early childhood development. So to have my children somewhere else, with someone else, so that I can work on other  children's early childhood development didn't make sense!"

Sophie, what's your view on the Insta parent activities culture?

"I think that we have so much guilt as parents if we aren't doing an activity with the children and we haven't set something up specifically for them, we feel like we're failing in some way - especially in this culture of Instagram and Pinterest. 

And you see these perfect posts, these play accounts that have got hundreds of thousands of followers. And I sometimes look at the activities that they've set up and I think: “that has not been touched by a child's hand”. As Rachel says, you can spend half an hour making a perfect activity tray for your children. And then they don't play with it because frankly, they're not interested. 

But if you pull out some cardboard boxes from your latest delivery, they're probably going to spend ages playing with them. And that's because that is what children are truly interested in. They are much more imaginative than we often give them credit for, and they want to be able to do their own thing. 

And in fact, you know, rather than setting up amazing place play activities for your children like you see on Instagram, I would say that probably one of the most important things that you could do for your child is to create a space where they know that they are free to access not everything in this space, but to be able to access a wide variety of things in that space and use them for however they want to be able to play."

Rachel you're also a huge advocate for child-led play! Could you tell us a bit more? 

When I was working in the UK as a clinician we were involved in a huge project and study to encourage parents to take part in ten minutes of child-directed play a day.

And what we saw is that even a little window of time like this led to significant motor and cognitive motor skills growth in children. And so I often tell parents that playing with your child doesn't have to be in huge quantities, but it does need to be ten minutes of real quality.

And it's hard, especially with more than one child! I'm certainly guilty of not doing it every day. But as I said, the implications are so big and not only cognitive skills development, but also a child's social emotional growth, so key to regulating behaviour.  It's really incredible!

What has worked for me is having a little toolkit of things that help grow my children's play and which can be worked into almost any game the children come up with. I've got some ropes, lots of different tape, like masking and duct tape, and I've got a box of some cardboard things. And I know that we can work that into any game.

It's a lot of pressure on yourself to always be planning activities. So if you find things that you know your children will love and are great to play with, go for it. I know it's actually a lot easier than planning things that your children don't necessarily want to do or which you have an outcome in mind for, and it doesn't turn out that way.

If you give children a rich and wonderful environment - and I'm not talking about rich in terms of wealth and toys - an environment which has things for them to explore and build with, to make with, to ideate with, then actually you've set the stage. And you can just let the player run. It's the most amazing thing."

About Rachel Carey

Photo of Occupational Therapist Rachel Carey and her two children playing together

Rachel Carey is our very favourite parent, and incidentally also a  children's occupational therapist. She is the mum of her two little boys - Benji and Joey.

Rachel is passionate about early child development and what is happening in the brain in those early years of life. She's also loads of fun and makes parenting look easy, while telling us all it isn't (phew!). 

Follow Rachel on Instagram @rachie_ot_mom for daily developmental play ideas to boost your little one's imagination, play skills, learning and development.

About Sophie Pickles

Photo of Sophie Pickles and Son smiling together

Sophie Pickles works as a Youtuber, parent coach and freelance writer and consultant, providing early years advice to educational companies. She supports parents on a range of issues from sleep problems to education, developmental issues and play support. She is also a mum to her two small sons. 

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