The Quest for Identity: Overthinking ‘Stick Man’


One of the joys of parenthood is coming back into contact with children’s books, and we are slowly building a collection of stories by Julia Donaldson. Having now devoured the Gruffalo (upon which I have already written a post, viewable here) umpteen times, we are just now in a ‘Stick Man’ phase. And it’s got me thinking about something which really does concern everyone: our pursuit of our own identity.

Of course, the quest for identity – and, often, for adulthood – is one of the chief concerns of children’s stories in every medium. But what is interesting about Stick Man is that it presents us with what is arguably the flip-side of this quest: the trouble to maintain that identity in the face of a world which looks at us through a million different lenses.

If you’re not familiar with the story, it is actually very simple: Stick Man lives with his wife and children in a tree. On going for a jog one day, he is separated from his family and drawn progressively further and further from home by a variety of obstacles, ranging from dogs to children, to swans, the ocean, and even a distressingly close encounter with a fireplace.

At the opening to the story, Stick Man is clearly established as settled and at one with himself and his family; the ‘family tree’ is a powerful emblem of his rootedness in himself, his family and, by inference, his history. He has safely made the rocky transition into adulthood and emerged with a clear sense of himself: ‘I’m Stick Man, I’m Stick Man, I’m Stick Man – that’s me!’. The last thing he is expecting on his morning jog is peril to his physical self and identity.

At each escalating encounter, Donaldson’s verse employs the refrain: ‘Stick Man, oh Stick Man, beware of the…!’. The repetition – strengthened by the tight verse of the poem – highlights something that adolescents and adults know only too well – the world attacks who we are, sometimes indiscriminately, and often from many different angles. Stick Man disentangles himself from each situation with the defiant proclamation ‘I’m Stick Man’. It is his self-assertion that allows him to remove himself from the obstacles that threaten him and continue on his quest for home – a space which is arguably the symbolic location of his identity.

Perhaps the most evident example of the barrage of life against identity in this story is the couple of stanzas focused entirely on Stick Man’s negating of the labels that others have placed on him: ‘I’m not a bat, or a bow, or a boomerang… No, I’m Stick Man… And I long to get back to the family tree.’ In each case, others are attempting to force him into a role that, while he may externally look suited to it, it reduces him to the level of a tool or implement and does not respect his intrinsic self. He has to fight – and fight hard – to reject those labels, and to remind himself that he is right to do so. But, as the listing of roles in this section shows, the sheer number of attacks on identity can wear you down.

Stranded and lost in the snow, Donaldson’s paints a heartbreaking picture of near defeat partway through the poem, where we read: ‘Stick Man is lonely. Stick Man is lost… Stick Man is woozy. His eyes start to close…’. Note how the syllables here are short, and the sentences, too, to convey the withering of the hero’s resolve to preserve his true self against a world that has caged him in (a feeling built, again, by the closeness of those short sentences). It is a sense compounded by the gathering of open vowel sounds of ‘lonely’, ‘lost’ and ‘woozy’ which, in a verse-trick reminiscent of Milton’s Paradise Lost, conveys the yawning emptiness occassioned by loss of self. It is no accident that it is at this point that Stick Man falls unconscious and nearly becomes firewood. Surrender in this quest will result in the complete destruction of the self.

Look closely at what it is that saves him: the sound of Father Christmas, stuck in the chimney, which wakes him before he is reduced to kindling. Despite his own near-hopeless situation, Stick Man still has enough of himself left to show compassion to a ‘stuck man’, and it is this act of kindness which will ultimately reunite him with his family.

There is a subtle message, here; if we take Father Christmas as powerfully emblematic of our own childhood selves, then Donaldson seems to suggest that it is through compassion on that self that we are reconnected to the fullness of our our adult selves. In short, we have to re-embrace our inner child – with care and compassion – to find again the capacity to actualise our identity. It is only when he has done this by helping Father Christmas that Stick Man is once again able to joyfully proclaim: ‘I’m Stick Man – that’s me.’

The rewards of being at peace and joyfully proclamative of our identities are not merely selfish – being restored to himself also allows Stick Man to be restored to his proper place in his home and family. Donaldson shows us that knowing ourselves also allows us to know and be known in a fulfilling way by those around us.

Enjoyed this post? Check out ‘The Deep, Dark Wood: Overthinking ‘The Gruffalo‘.

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A Note to the New Nurser

Next week, my baby girl turns a year old. I’m still breastfeeding her – just as I did my son, until he was almost 2. As a nursing mum, I’ve learnt a lot over the last couple of years – about my children and myself, but also about the attitude of others towards a fundamental parenting choice that I’ve made. In the post, I want to encourage you – especially if you are mum to a new infant – with some of what I’ve learnt.

Just to be clear – I know not everyone can or wants to nurse. I don’t judge that. So if that’s you… Then please don’t feel judged! You are just as much a woman and mother as those using their breasts to nurse their babies because you can still nurse through your responsiveness to your child’s needs.

In the rest of this post, I will use ‘nursing’ to mean feeding baby with breast milk… But I absolutely know that there’s no reason that a bottle-fed baby can’t be ‘nursed’ in the broader sense every bit as much as a breastfed one.

1: Breastfeeding or Nursing?

Let’s start with a distinction. In British English, most people talk about breastfeeding rather than nursing. I’ve got no problem with either term but I do sometimes feel that when we talk about just breastfeeding some infer that feeding your baby is all the breasts of a new mother are for. It’s clear that, for an infant, your milk provides nutrition and hydration. But it also provides comfort and stability at a time of enormous upheaval. The sound and smell and touch of you makes up so much of what your baby needs in its first months, and there’s no place they would rather get it than nuzzling at your breast. It is an amazing gift of creation that your body is designed to be everything that is needed in these opening months. This is why I far prefer the term nursing to breastfeeding; but, whatever we call it, we need to remember that, as mothers, we are nursers – of body, mind and spirit – of our babies. And we should not be ashamed of that.

A lot of women feel that they don’t make enough milk and therefore choose not to nurse. You need to remember that the milk you produce increases over time to match the needs of your baby. A breastfed baby nurses little and often, especially at first – their tummies are tiny and breast milk is digested more quickly than formula. Unless they are losing more weight than anticipated for a newborn and your midwife has concerns, you are doing just fine.

2: Exclusivity

When we are nursers, and we respond to our babies day and night as they need, we can sometimes find that partners, parents and others struggle with the exclusive nature or our relationship with our babies. Don’t get me wrong – it is vital that you include your partner and carve out time for both of you together, and that you accept offers of help from friends and family. But you should never feel guilty that your baby needs you more than others. Grandparents, aunts and uncles will have years to forge relationships with baby – but baby needs you now; ‘in a minute’ is not a concept that infants can, or should have to, understand. That one’s for the grown ups.

3: Intensity

Caring for an infant is unbelievably intense; nursing one is a whole other level of intense. You need to stay fed and – crucially – hydrated. You may spend days on the sofa at a time. This is normal. It is okay. You are not weird and your baby is not weird. (And, believe me, you’ll miss those hours of tv catch up when you’re nursing number two with number one on the loose!).

4: Four Hours between Feeds is a Myth

Some babies can and will feed every four hours. A nursing baby probably won’t – my son fed about every 90 minutes for months, even after I started solids with him. At a year, my daughter still takes milk or food every two to three hours, including at night. Each baby is different, their needs are different, and a nursing mum needs to go at their pace. There is nothing wrong with you or your baby if you cannot reach the four-hour target (which seems to me to be a falsified ideal that succeeds only in stressing new mums).

5: The First 8 Weeks are the Hardest

When I was nursing my son, I struggled with latching, bleeding and repeated mastitis. I was in excruciating agony every time I nursed, and I was ready to give up. Then my mother-in-law – who had nursed five children – shared some crucial wisdom with me: if you can get through the first 8 weeks, you’re through the worst of it. And she was right. Once I broke through the 8 week barrier something just clicked – and I actually started enjoying my special time with my baby boy.

6: After 6 Months…

Statistics show that the number of women who nurse their babies drop significantly at 6 weeks and 6 months after birth. Those of us who continue to nurse after 6 months face a raft of new pressures; in my experience, this can manifest itself in pressure, as you start solids, to swap the breast for the bottle – and a lack of understanding from many when you choose not to. Why would you? Nursing is exhausting, time consuming… But it is your choice. It is rewarding. You might even enjoy it! If you and your baby are both happy to continue, then you should – guilt free. Your milk is still the best thing for your baby, even when you start to complement it.

7: Nursing and Sleeping

I have always nursed my babies to sleep, have co-slept with both, and didn’t start night weaning my son until he was 15 months old. I will probably do the same with my daughter because she is not yet ready to give up those feeds. My son woke every couple of hours every night until he was 2 – and then suddenly the penny dropped, and he slept. I had stopped nursing him to sleep just a few weeks before. We were both ready – and the slow decline in milk supply meant that, when we stopped, I didn’t suffer the mastitis that I had feared. This was just one of the bonuses of going at the pace that suited both myself and my baby; the other was an enormous sense of peace.

8: Back to Work

I have returned to work as a nursing mother twice, and both times have worried about milk supply and the transition back to proper bras (a two-edged sword!). Your body is clever, and knows what you need when you need it – even when you’re at home some days and don’t see baby for hours on others. The real struggle for a nursing mum in the workforce is childcare when baby is ill. Employers may not know – or may simply forget – that an ill baby reverts to newborn and rejects everything except milk, sometimes for days. You need to make nursing that baby your top priority especially if, like both of mine, they categorically refuse formula milk. Not every HR department is sympathetic to this, and it is important that you are transparent with your needs and familiar with your work place’s policies for working mums. If necessary, get your doctor’s endorsement.

9: This too shall Pass

Some days, you can’t bear the thought of another feed. But even if, like me, you nurse until your babe is a full-fledged toddler, you nurse for such a short time. Remember that.

10: A Lesson in Love

Nurse for as long as you and your baby are happy to keep doing so. You are not only responding to their needs but investing in your future relationship with your baby. When you nurse on demand, you practice a level of self sacrifice that much of our society doesn’t understand, but the dividends are worth it: a toddler who knows that you will respond to him. Practice at the kind of selflessness that you will need to navigate the years ahead. Your responsiveness and self sacrifice will give your son or daughter confidence, and a vital message about what it is to be in relationship with others.

In short? New-Nurser, you’re doing one of the hardest things in the world. You’re doing it with no sleep. You’re learning a whole new kind of love, maybe even coming to a whole new understanding of God’s love for you – love marked by devoted sacrifice and piercing joy. But when it all seems too much, think on this: when your nursing days come to a close, you will miss that intimacy with your baby -and you’ll be glad that you stuck with it.

Parent and Child Space…

Dear owners of vehicles who park in parent and child spaces when they do not have children: please reconsider.

It takes you a matter of moments to put on shoes and coat, pick up your keys, and leave home. On a good day, it takes me twenty.

You can visit the supermarket relatively flexibly. I must plan my visit with the cunning of a military strike, poised precariously between meals, nappies, naps, and general willingness to cooperate.

You can slide out of the gap between your vehicle and that parked next to you like a ninja. Even when I have a wide berth, getting myself and my offspring in and out of the car is like maneuvering a severely pregnant heifer – even when I’m not pregnant.

You lock the car behind you with the slickness of John Travolta’s sexiest dance move. I am lucky if my Michelin-man hands – which clutch between their fingers the contents of Mary Poppins’ entire bag – can find the car keys before my toddler bolts.

You can stroll across the car park at your leisure, come rain or shine, and have a hand free for an umbrella. I cannot haul my toddler, infant, changing bag and shopping bags from one end of a busy car park to the other, dodging traffic.

You can choose a trolley from any trolley station. You can even choose the skinny-latte of carts, the slim one that has a turning radius. My choice is limited to the bloated metal beasts that you can’t see around, let alone steer – especially when there are two screaming children inside. These exquisite models are only available at the parent and child bays – where you have parked.

It might seem like a decision of no importance when you pull into those bays, knowing you have no children and seeing that there is a frazzled mother behind you in need of parking. But when you take those spaces – especially at this time of year – know that a mother like me then has no choice but to go home without shopping. When you take those spaces when you do not need them you epitomise a conceitedness and individualism that is damaging to society.

When you take a parent and child bay, the person who then spends the journey home enraged beyond reason, and quite possibly in hormone-induced tears, is not my tiny passengers – it is me.

Like my writing? Check out my sister site www.annathayer.wordpress.com to learn about my award-winning fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran‘, and my work on Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, you got me: I’m a geek.

The Most Wonder-full Time of the Year

This week, in preparation for that Cambrian Explosion of the toy box that is Christmas, I did a bunch of wrapping, and I shared a really special time with my family decorating our tree. I feel smugly prepared, but something gnaws at me:

Everywhere I go, images of Santa abound, and he’s to be visited/assisted/rescued in every festive episode of every children’s programme that my son grazes at.

As a mother to young children, I am in the thick of what I’m dubbing my ‘Santa Quandry’: Santa isn’t real. And, at age three, what mummy and daddy tell toddler about the origins of his presents this year will stick. Do I really want to tell him that they came from a fat man who would find himself blocked at the bottom of our fireplace by a large, draft-excluding piece of cardboard?

Let’s examine this Quandry. Of course, there’s real wonder and excitement at Christmas time, especially if there is something a little bit mysterious about the gifts. The mystery opens the door to traditions that can be tenderly kept down the generations. One that captures all the magic and wonder for me is listening outside the living room door for the sound of the angel chimes that would signify that Father Christmas had been. I now have my own chimes, and want them to be part of the fabric of Christmas with my children. But, to put it bluntly, I don’t want to lie to them. Does that kill the magic? Worse, does it put my children in a position where they kill the magic for someone else’s children?

It seems to me that by being honest with my children from the outset, I can shield them from that awful mark of passage – discovering that Santa isn’t real, perhaps at the hands of peers who will not be kind or generous about it. Will that rob them of the season’s wonder?

No, because the real wonder of the season is the nativity story that we remember. Baby Jesus is all to easily relegated to some quiet suburb of the heart, crowded out by the lights and gifts, the overpowering ‘Santa’, the pressures of wanting family and friends to really feel how much you love them, the crush of preparing the perfect festive treat, the bite to the wallet as the day approaches.

Silently, so silently, the wondrous gift is taken – even in Christian homes, like mine. How often do I really stop to think about what we are celebrating?

I am, of course, au fait with Saturnalia and all its winter festival associates, and that arguing for a return to ‘the real meaning of Christmas’ is repeatedly attacked by those who -quite correctly – say that other feasts came first. That’s not the point. If Christmas is, for me, the time to think on the infant  who was given to us as the most costly gift of all, then isn’t that the story that should take centre stage with my children? It’s much more serious than “Where did my presents come from?”; it’s “Why do we give presents?” In fact, it’s much more important than the presents I’ve bought and wrapped, the tree I’ve decorated, the social calendar I’ve filled or the meal I’ve planned.

Perhaps, then, the answer to the Santa Quandry is simple: don’t lie. The gifts under the tree are from family and friends. Giving them – as you discover as parents – is a blessing, a token of love in a world so desperate for it. That is, in itself, wonder-full, and needs no further wrapping to make it so. But it is also in receiving gifts and returning to the hearts of our families at Christmas time that we remember the unspeakable vulnerability, tenderness, and grace of a God who lay, that first Christmas, in his mother’s arms as warm and as close as my 7-month old daughter does to me now. That is the true wonder – and it is a story worth telling.

Like my writing? Check out my sister site www.annathayer.wordpress.com to learn about my award-winning fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran‘, and my work on Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, you got me: I’m a geek.

The Deep Dark Wood: Overthinking ‘The Gruffalo’

Despite being Italian, my family has always, thanks to one Tanta Johanna, celebrated the day of Saint Nicolas on the 6th of December as done in Germany. When I was young, this was the day that advent calendars, Christmas decorations and chocolate were delivered, a kind of pre-Christmas warmup for the big day itself.

This is a tradition I am maintaining now that I have children of my own, but they are so young that I didn’t want edible treats to be the focus. Instead, I bought them a new book each and, while my seven-month old has been slapping her way through ‘That’s Not My Fox’, for my nearly three-year-old son, I bought a copy of Julia Donaldson’s ‘The Gruffalo’.

I don’t think there can be many people in the UK who haven’t heard of the Gruffalo but, I confess, I had never read the story and knew nothing about it. So it was with real interest that I sat with my children to listen to my husband reading it for the first time. And, as a literature student, there were a number of things about it that really struck me.

The story follows a mouse through a wood, where he encounters three animals – a fox, an owl and a snake. In western folklore and fairytale, each of these creatures has traditional significances: in its size and demeanour, the mouse represents a kind of innocence and weakness which also, in the story, allows it to become a kind of Everyman. Young readers identify with a creature that is little and might encounter danger, which this mouse does.

Mouse’s foes here are traditional figures of the cunning and ruthless (embodied by fox), the otherworldly (in the owl, long an emblem of omen as well as wisdom) and the duplicitous (in the snake). Indeed, the ‘deep, dark wood’ itself has Dantean resonance, recalling the poet’s wandering in despair, and migh also, if we put on the hat of Freudian theory, be emblematic of the dark world of the subconscious and unconscious. In which case, could fox, owl and snake be allegorical symbols for sins or unspoken desires?

You might think this is getting a bit heavy, but don’t worry; Donaldson’s remedy to what could actually be quite frightening is inventive rhyming that skilfully mixes the key ingredients of balladic, oral, tradition – repetition, a strong rhyme scheme, alliteration, especially in emphatic positions, such as ‘scrambled snake’ – with vocabulary that undercuts frightening elements by contrasting the fairytale set up with quotidian elements like ‘ice cream’. These tangible, everyday items, named by the mouse, help a child feel like the protagonist is safe and in control, and make any threat in the story manageable.

Mouse himself showcases a very western virtue; in the same vein as Homer’s wily Odysseus, Mouse averts becoming dinner for any of the larger, threatening creatures through use of his wit. Readers delight in this, and the wit is compounded by Donaldson’s verse, which always gives the metrical and linguistic punchlines to Mouse, while the villains are contained by repetition. Mouse frightens the creatures away with talk of a Gruffalo, which he knows does not exist.

Except, of course, that it does – exactly as he has described it. So Mouse uses his wit again, explaining to the hungry Gruffalo that as he (Mouse) is the most frightening thing in the forest (as evidenced when fox, snake and owl flee from him), Gruffalo should leave him alone. Gruffalo duly does so, leaving mouse to enjoy his nut in peace.

As well as the oral elements that I mentioned earlier, Donaldson employs a triadic structure in the three encounters, conforming to rhetorical and narrative traditions, and frames the poem in a kind of ‘there and back’ frame, which not only heightens predictability and enjoyability for children but also allows for a strong resolution when Mouse escapes the cycle and gets his reward. Indeed, the final page uses a fraction of the lines used in every other verse, giving us a powerful sense of Mouse’s victory.

Overthinking it? Totally. But there is no reason why children’s literature should not be analysed in as much detail as any other. Good storytelling, after all, begins in the nursery; it is there that our imaginations are awakened.

‘The Gruffalo’ is just such storytelling: it allows little ones to approach some genuinely frightening ideas in a controlled situation, making it safe enough to explore intellectually, and thus perhaps better arming them for some of the trials of real life. Very Bettelheim. At the same time, Donaldson’s verse is skilfully wrought to introduce some of the most cherished tools in a literary workbench. And, of course, ‘The Gruffalo’ is gorgeously illustrated, too.

Hats off to Donaldson and Scheffler; this story genuinely deserves its accolades!

Like my writing? Check out my sister site www.annathayer.wordpress.com to learn about my award-winning fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran‘, and my work on Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, you got me: I’m a geek.

A Worthwhile Verse

Having a 7 month old and a nearly 3 year old is an adventure.

When the first thing I hear at 06:04 is the crash of the lego box being tipped all over the living room floor when I was just dropping off to sleep, this verse flits through my head: children are a blessing from the Lord.

When my daughter’s in her third change of clothes in two hours and then she and her brother coordinate poopocalyptic nappies but still can’t nap at the same time, I remember: children are a blessing from the Lord.

When the washing machine has been running non stop and I’m still behind on the laundry… when they get into a fight over a piece of track that’s identical to 27 others (but only that one will do)… when they’re colouring the kitchen floor (and each other)… when they’re hungry and supper is being prepared in 3 second intervals… when my car journeys are judged by how many times I can listen to their current favourite song (and nails on a blackboard would be exquisitely better)… when I finally get a shower but all I can think of to sing is the theme to ‘Peppa Pig’ or ‘Team Umizoomi’ (“La la la la la… they are a tiny team!”)… when I look at myself in the mirror and think “Just begone,  bump!”or mournfully walk past the nice bras in M&S because no such thing as a sexy,  supportive nursing bra exists… I say to myself,  perhaps through clenched teeth: children. Are. A blessing. Not a trial, a blessing. From the Lord.

And when they’re sick, or fall, or are sad, I hold them close. When I feel their pain like my own, and pray they should never know more of it, I remember it: a blessing.

And when they’re lying on the bed in just their nappies tickling each other,  covering me in kisses, applauding me for ‘a good job, Mummy!’, telling me it’s the best supper EVER (when it’s just fish fingers again), or racing to the door to greet daddy, or being wondrously and spontaneously caring,  gracious, or tidy… they’re a blessing.

And when, God willing, my son phones me (probably via skype on something smarter than I am) with the news, or my daughter smiles at me over a coffee and lays one hand on her belly, then I’ll share this worthwhile verse with them: Children are a blessing from the Lord. And I shall pray that they – and I – never forget it.

Like my writing? Check out my sister site www.annathayer.wordpress.com to learn about my award-winning fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran‘, and my work on Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, you got me: I’m a geek.