Friday, 9 March 2012

Willen Lake (Circular Walk)

In which I find Willen Park in Milton Keynes to be filled with interesting things, enjoy a wander round a pagoda, and conclude that all parenting gurus are best avoided.

Distance: 2.5 miles
Time: 1 hour
Map: None required - just follow the edge of the lake! 

Rating: Easy Walk

Every now and again, someone hands me an essay to mark that makes my heart sink. The students are always pleasant, well meaning, perfectly nice people; they are attentive in class, and have tried hard. Unfortunately, they hand in total bilge. I find myself desperately trying to find something nice to say about their work. You've structured this very well, I might attempt, even though I gave them a piece of paper saying what they should write in each paragraph. You've used a variety of short and long sentences to create interest. Sadly, Milton Keynes brings to mind these sorts of essays. I really like your planning. I find myself wanting to say. You've really tried to do something different here. They've tried, they really have, but the whole place always feels to me as if it is one step away from falling into a J.G. Ballard novel.

This week's walk was in Willen Park. It is based around a lake that has been divided into two sections - the South Lake, for the noisy, excitable youth where you can do things like wakeboarding, outdoor adventuring and submit yourself to some sort of horror that is known as the Willen Park Trim Trail, where you are invited to jauntily do some exercises on brightly coloured outdoor gym equipment. The North Lake is aimed towards the more tranquil  visitor, with a Buddhist temple, Peace Pagoda, labyrinth and bird sanctuary. My plan was to walk all the way around the two parts and to see what I could see from the edge of the lake.

Starting at the South Lake car park (£1.20 for 2 hours, and with the ever important baby change), I made my way to the path at the edge of the lake and turned left, following signs when they cropped up towards North Lake and the Peace Pagoda.

After Wednesday's post about the Daily Mail's contradictory reporting of Gina Ford, I've had some interesting conversations. The one I've found most thought-provoking was a friend who said:

"The very fact that some new mums are so vulnerable and desperate for a manual is why they should be protected from some of the tripe that these baby help books spout forth, especially ones by the dangerous ill informed divorced former nursery nurse who has never had children. Its irony heaped on irony that women who have fought so hard to reclaim maternity back from male doctors who have never experienced childbirth are willing to accept the same one size fits all advice from someone who has never had children! So I'm not going to leave that awful woman alone!"

I've been thinking about this. I knew I wasn't going to follow Gina Ford when a friend read out one of her schedules that dictated that you and your child should be dressed by 8.45, after a feeding session that outlined a strict 10 minutes of left breast followed by 10 minutes of right. Seeing as  we have generally held a 'be dressed by Woman's Hour' policy in our house, I could see following dear Gina would be unfeasible, and I didn't pursue her books further. I didn't even get them out of the library to give them a proper critique as I didn't want her to get the library fees...

But then people started recommending I read Dr Sears' books. After all, there I was, a homebirthing babywearer attempting to breastfeed. But again, the advice makes me feel uncomfortable. The whole focus on the word 'natural', as if to suggest other ways of parenting are unnatural. The urge for you to be 'instinctive' and 'follow your baby's needs' while producing books and websites on how how to follow those instincts...

Both the gentleman who made the comment above and I agreed that most parents, if they are going to use a parenting guru, choose one that agrees with them. I think why I've never followed one (apart from my refusal to read the books) is that I don't seem to fit. I had a homebirth, I enjoy baby wearing, but turfed the child out of our bedroom at 5 months when he started squawking in the night. I tried to breastfeed, but by the end of my second pint I can be heard expounding that formula milk has been one of the greatest liberators of women, along with the washing machine and the contraceptive pill. I thought the ability for my husband to also share in the closeness of feeding a baby was a fantastic thing, and it also meant I could go to sleep. I could follow Dr Sears, but I wouldn't be doing it 'right'. I like a routine, and I like things to be convenient and set by me, but I also don't want my life to be dictated by the routines I set. I want my child to sleep, my God I want him to sleep, but I can't face the controlled crying route. I'm still unnerved by the dark, so the thought of waking up alone and crying out for someone and no-one answering fills me with a cold dread. So Baby-Whisperer stuff, or Gina Ford, again, I wouldn't be doing it 'right'.

But come on, I hear you people cry. No-one is asking you to be a martyr to the gurus. You fillet them for the advice you find works for you, and carry on.

Once you have passed under the road and headed towards North Lake, follow a sign bearing left that leads you towards the Buddhist temple. I went to a few when we lived in China (although this is a Japanese style affair), and was keen to compare. Sadly, however, the door to the shrine was locked, so we enjoyed the Japanese style garden and went on our way.

Upon leaving the Temple grounds, turn left and the white marshmallow of the Peace Pagoda soon hoves into view. Follow the path around and the steps up to the pagoda, flanked by lions and - at this time of year - a row of daffodils soon comes into sight. If you have a pram, there is a pram & wheelchair route up to the pagoda available a little further on.

The pagoda was the highlight of the park for me. I was sorry I couldn't get into the Temple, but there is a real tranquility to the whole area. Decorated with a large golden statue and scenes from the life of Siddhartha, the place had the sort of atmosphere that used to exist around the temples and shrines in China. I don't know how it would feel on a hot Bank Holiday weekend with people all over the place, but with me and a napping Chap, it felt lovely.
Next to the pagoda is the Labyrinth. I was eager as ever to idly bump into the Goblin King and see I was in a position to help him out with those jodhpurs, but sadly there are no walls, men with birds on their heads or Bogs of Eternal Stench - just some lines on the floor and a tree in the middle. It's probably fantastic to send a small child running around on a hot day.

Once you've enjoyed these sights, there's nothing more really to do at North lake beyond walking around the perimeter of the lake and head back towards South Lake, so I did just this.

The Pagoda across North Willen Lake
There are some nice views as you walk, dependent upon you looking in the right direction. If you ignore the noise from the M1 and the roads running alongside the park and concentrate on the Peace Pagoda across the lake, it's very pleasant.

Regardless of the sense of peace and tranquility you may have fostered at the pagoda and temple, it can be easily shattered by some new Government issued declaration on how we're rubbish. Or if it's not the government, it's some other body funding research that shows how we're making a hash of it. Once you have a baby, there's feeding, washing, weaning, nappies, teething, transporting, clothes, pain relief, sleeping, entertainment and education - whatever you choose to do with your baby, I can guarantee someone will post an article on Facebook which will tell you how what you're doing is damaging your child on a fundamental level. Whatever you do, someone has produced a piece of research to tell you that you're doing it wrong.

The path along the top edge of South Lake.
I was coming home on the bus this week, and I was a couple of seats away from a lady who I used to teach who is now in full time care of her grand-daughter. There was I with my organic fruit smoothies and my selection of picture books to entertain my son for the hour's journey. About twenty minutes in, after some wriggling from the granddaughter, I saw the lady reach into her bag, remove a chicken nugget and hand it to the 18 month old. She then followed this by tipping some of her coke into a sippy cup and proffering it to the child, who began gluggling greedily.

I will confess, I was wearing my Judgey Hat when I saw this. I had some Opinions. I pondered socio-economic dynamics and so forth. Anyway, we both got off the bus at our destination, and I helped my former student with her pram. And as we did so, she said to me "God, I couldn't believe I gave her a chicken nugget and the Coke. But I knew we've run out of food cos she's been really hungry, and I didn't want to her to kick off on the bus, and I thought, if anyone says anything, I'll just say, sod you.". I had been sat halfway across the bus when she'd got out the chicken nugget, I hadn't said anything to her about it, but here she was, justifying herself unbidden. And I felt a bit of a swine about my Judgey Hat. If I'd been in the same situation, 20 minutes in to an hour long bus journey and when all I'd had had been chicken nuggets and Coke, I would have handed them over to the Chap too.

Returning along the shore of South Lake
And this is the crux - we are terrified of other people's judgement, but we do it all the time. It's taken me a long time to just be able to say 'We're on formula. We tried to breastfeed but it didn't work." rather than give them the whole industrial-milking-machine, nipples shields, up for an hour and a half each feed speech to prove to them how hard I tried to breastfeed. What the speech was saying wasn't about how breastfeeding didn't work - it was five minutes of me trying to give the message "Don't judge me! I really tried!". I have seen people wince (really, wince. Like I'd poked them with a pin.) when I've said we sometimes watch TV together. I don't mean we're cracking out the Tarantino, I'm not asking my child if he thinks Marcellus Wallace is a bitch, I'm talking In The Night Garden maybe once or twice a week. One of my friends commented the other day that although she, like me, does the whole babywearing, non-controlled crying, mostly let your baby set their own routine thing, that she's worried 'when I talk to naturally-minded baby rearing friends [that] it's only a matter of time before they find out that I'm not longer breastfeeding and I don't use cloth nappies....'.

And this is why we like parenting gurus, because when we do feel judged, we get to outsource our guilt. Don't blame me, we say, blame The Baby Whisperer! From before the child is conceived we are told we are not good enough, and so it is not surprising that these gurus are so popular; they exist not only to shore up our faith in our own parenting, but also to give someone to point to when the rest of the world tells us we're doing it wrong.

Enthusiastic Noodle Boy!
Oddly enough, this whole Doing It Wrong thing was confirmed by a woman looking absolutely horrified as (having left the park and gone to the shopping centre for baby foot-measuring and a spot of lunch) I fed the Chap yaki soba and duck gyoza from my plate in Wagamama. I like this walking baby. He eats with a gusto I have not previously seen, and hoovered up soba like there was no tomorrow. Experiments at dinner later on also suggest that while he rejects many foods proffered on a spoon, he will accept them when offered on chopsticks. Thank goodness for chopstick skills!

Things I Learnt

  • Regardless of how cute you think your child may be, nobody looks good eating noodles.
  • Milton Keynes has Buddhists.
  • I would go to Willen Park again. It's a bit spoilt by the noise of the roads and the views of the cars hurtling past, but they've really tried, and there's lots to see and do. It can't help the fact it's in a city.


  1. I only realised the other day that when the subject of bottle/breast feeding comes up and I have to "admit" that her ladyship has been bottle-fed, I shunt the blame onto her. "She's bottle-fed," I say. "I couldn't breastfeed," I continue. "Well, she couldn't, anyway" I conclude and there we are - it's all her fault if it's done her any harm, not mine, guv. I have resolved that I shall not do this again. After all, *I* know I could do no more, R knows I could do no more and, if her ladyship ever feels the need to ask, *she* will know that I could do no more and who else's business is it anyway?

    As for child-rearing gurus, I think you have hit the nail on the head. I soon realised that whatever I do, there will be at least one aspect of the way we raise her ladyship that will seem odd/wrong/bad to everyone, though what that aspect is will vary from person to person. I wish I had the confidence to be totally open about everything we do and not feel I need to justify things. Instead, I just keep quiet most of the time to avoid the whole judgement/justification mess. Indeed, justifying stuff is often tricky as a lot of what we do has just happened, usually because it suits her ladyship and it suits us, and there is no particular justification for doing it this way rather than that way or the other way. At least, if we were following someone's instructions I would have a nice neat explanation as to why we do X.

  2. Exactly. I really annoyed myself just this morning actually when someone at the Good Friday baby/child craft thing we'd gone to said "OOo! I saw your husband out with the pram the other day instead of the sling!" and I went off on the whole "But this is why we usually use the sling, it settles him a lot better and we live at the top of some steps anyway, blah-di-blah-blah-blah" justification speech. I even caught myself doing it, but the words had escaped. What I need to do is work on a thing where I catch myself in the middle of doing it and stop myself, politely say "Excuse me, I'm being a cock. I understand that you just made that comment as a polite way to make coversation, and I'm giving you a justification speech. I'm very sorry about that. So, shall we talk about something esle? What's annoyed you in the Daily Mail recently?" and get over it. It's a work in progress! :D