Be calm, don’t beat yourself up, and enjoy the happy chaos!
Where have the last thirty years gone? A generation ago I was shackled to a small gang of energetic young boys, frantically busy, always short of sleep, often anxious, usually over-scheduled and in a rush and very unlikely to sit down to dinner without jumping up at least ten times.
Now those boys are adults so am I heaving a sigh of relief?
No, I find myself missing the wild early years, wondering how I could have relaxed more into my role as a young mother – and I still have a definite urge to pull any small boy towards me, tuck in his shirt, pull up his waistband, smooth down his jumper and then pat him as he walks tidily away!
So how would I advise my younger self if I could speak to her now?
Tip one: Perspective
Despite the crippling fatigue of broken nights (I don’t recall an unbroken night for me between 1979 and 1985, followed by another bout from 1991 to 1993), the early years are more simple than what comes later.
When I finally collapsed into bed all that time ago, I could have reminded myself that all the people I cared most about in the world were sleeping safely and peacefully in the same house as me.
They were not catching a midnight train, agonising over vital exams, suffering from a broken heart, walking the streets of dangerous cities or sky-diving out of planes. Nowadays that would be a quiet week!
As I have no right to control now I must simply hold on to my hat as the great rollercoaster of their lives thunders on.
If I had only had the long perspective I have now looking back, I could have told the 30-year-old me to just roll over and sleep serenely until the first little muppet wandered in for his Coco Pops.
Tip two: Be calm
Relax and take heart from the undisputed fact that your children only need you to be around and to care for them.
To be fair to myself, I did work this one out and after a few nervous breakdowns with my older boys over weight gain, feeding, sleeping, bedtimes and so on, I did settle into a reasonably informal routine.
Some of the health professionals around me did worry about the minuscule appetite of one of my sons, but as he is now six foot three with a health food habit, that too proved to be unnecessary stress.
In fact, I can confirm that living mainly on peanut butter sandwiches and Ribena does not stunt your growth longer term.
By the time my household grew to include two stepdaughters plus my fourth and youngest son, we had morphed into a loud, chaotic, undisciplined but generally happy rabble – certainly not problem-free but high-functioning enough to propel every one of the six into college, university and professional careers.
So relax and chuck out the naughty steps, reward charts, controlled crying, total banning of sugar and all that stuff – your kids will all flourish in a loving household.
Tip three: Give yourself an easier ride by lowering housework standards a bit
If you try to keep everything perfect you will go barking mad.
I am not advocating sinking downwards into abject squalor, but frankly nobody minds the general melee of a busy house.
Avoid complete degradation by tackling the sink area and kitchen counters and by getting the beds made.
If you have time, deal with any wet towels in the bathroom and empty the kitchen bin.
That should be sufficient – I wouldn’t have a problem with biscuit tins up in the bedrooms, jamjars full of crayons or caterpillars or the cat asleep in the laundry basket.
Thirty years down the line I still don’t have the slimline pink Aga that I covet but I do have total control of the tidiness or otherwise of my home.
So my younger self needs to know that she is not necessarily condemned to a lifetime of muddle.
She can enjoy the gluey pictures, the wormeries and the dens built out of furniture without worrying.
Tip four: Enjoy your children’s creativity without boundaries
Young children are so anarchic, brilliantly funny, creative and unrestrained.
I think I could have relished that more, even when presented with school art the size of the Mona Lisa and dripping with wet paint!
I do have 11 folders and two storage boxes crammed with my kids’ poems, paintings, models and songs. Plus millions of photographs of course.
But I’ve met people who have kept not one single thing – what a shame.
Because all my birth children are boys I favoured so-called boyish things like construction toys, car games and den building – all fun but now I’d get them to enjoy cooking and painting and gardening and maybe more music than we did.
Ironically, between them they now do all these things as well as hands-on care for their own children, quite rightly no longer regarded as a matter of gender.
Tip five: Don’t compare yourself to other people
My young self does not need too much of a heads up on this one, as lack of money made any kind of one-upmanship difficult.
My sons now tell me that this did them a favour in the longer term and kept them away from competing with others at school over things like clothes and possessions.
I still feel now that listening to young children talking with reverence or envy about branded clothes, posh cars or wildly expensive holidays is a bit gruesome – and deeply unenjoyable for mothers too.
So don’t boast and don’t compete.
Enjoy motherhood and set a brilliant example by letting your kids see you being really good to the people around you.
Not an original idea of mine by any means – I heard the founder of the Scout movement Lord Baden Powell quoted as saying that the best thing for children was quite simply to observe the actions of kind adults!
Tip six: Enjoy the simple pleasures
Having rejected materialism and unenjoyable comparisons with others, you are free to embrace all the things you can do best with kids around.
Most people go out in sunny weather, but exiting the house in bad weather is fab too in a different way.
A cold wind or a shower of rain blows away all the grumpiness and cobwebs of a dull day and changes boredom and low mood into a sense of virtue.
By the time you have trudged across the beach or gone round the park you will all be grateful to return home to a bath and television and you will feel less tired as well.
Also, I slightly admire my 30-year-old self for allowing an absolute army of pets.
Over the years we have had dogs, cats, rabbits, lovebirds, zebra finches, hamsters and rats (yes, rats).
They increased my workload about 1,000-fold but pet ownership is a great lesson in looking after something other than yourself and after a rubbish day at school your little hamster is always waiting for you.
Tip seven: Ditch guilt
Do not feel guilty about mistakes you think you have made.
Guilt seems to be hard-wired into parenthood but, as I have observed before, your children only need to know you really care about them, not that you are a model of perfection at all times.
Don’t worry too much about specific stages such as exhausting babyhood or irascible teenagerhood.
There is no known retirement date from parenthood but there is a long spectrum of change which gradually solves most problems (and certainly the two mentioned above).
All you need to do is stay with it and find satisfaction and enjoyment in the long journey of caring for other people.