The kids are alright

Annabel Harrison speaks to parenting expert and cofounder of The Bump Class Marina Fogle about one of the longest relationships of our lives – the one with our children

Parenting is all about communication, and the conversations are often difficult,’ says Marina Fogle when we meet to discuss her hit podcast The Parent Hood, which she runs with her sister Dr Chiara Hunt. ‘Half the time, being responsible for a young person can feel intuitive, but the rest is a minefield of worrying about their health and happiness.’ Nail meet head. Because what parent in today’s world isn’t navigating that minefield? We are busier than ever and our children are growing up under more pressure than any generation in history, in a world that is entirely different to the one we had when we were their age.

‘Our podcast is a series of conversations about all things parenting,’ explains Fogle. ‘We talk about everything from conception to difficulties with teenagers, and the key is that we get professionals to give their perspective.’

One hundred and sixty or so episodes in and it’s clear their advice is resonating. ‘I get a lot of feedback from people saying, “This has been the voice of my journey as a parent,”’ she says. Recent topics have included teaching children about anxiety, diversity and communication, featuring a wide range of clinical psychologists, authors, teachers and activists providing an expert opinion.

Fogle and Hunt both have their own children so are, reassuringly, on the same path as many of their listeners. Fogle is mother to Ludo, 10, Iona, 9, and Willem, who was stillborn in 2014 after Fogle suffered an acute placental abruption. She and husband Ben have spoken publicly about this private tragedy to help others tackle the biggest loss a family can face, and the most difficult of conversations that follow.

Fogle strongly believes that, when it comes to conversations of every type, fostering healthy relationships within the family starts with honest and open communication, right from babyhood. ‘If you can communicate well with your children and try to understand them as individuals, you’re more likely to meet their needs. You’re also teaching them to communicate with other people. I think this is the key to a happy and fulfilled life.’

An important part of our role as parents is accepting that our children are individuals. All of us are will have been on the receiving end of unsolicited comments along the lines of, ‘She’s already taller than her sister,’ or, ‘He’s always been the sporty one.’ Fogle advises: ‘So often, just sitting down and thinking, “What’s right for me?” is the best thing we can do.’ Comparing our children to others – which, thanks to social media, is easy to do and hard to escape – is rarely helpful.

Technology, as has been said so many times, is a double-edged sword. During the pandemic, it provided a lifeline to our former lives, preventing the world from grinding to a halt as it might have done a few years earlier. And in non-pandemic times, I’d be amazed if you can find a parent who hasn’t panic-ordered something online during the night or sent a WhatsApp SOS about a common childhood ailment.

However, as Fogle points out, technology also has significant downsides. Being present with our children and ‘actually listening to them’ is crucial, but ‘one of the greatest difficulties we have in this generation is the biggest distraction that was ever invented – the mobile phone – is at our side the whole time’.

Fogle knows firsthand that parenting can be difficult and exhausting but urges us to resist the temptation to engage with our phone instead of our child. ‘How rude would it be if we cooked dinner for a partner or friend and they just sat there on their phone? Try to carve out good quality time with no distractions.’

She gives the example of an afternoon when she was looking after her sister’s children as well as her own. The ‘easy option’ would have been to catch up on emails while they all played in the garden. Instead she went outside too, phone-free, and made up a game to play with them. ‘It was such a rewarding way to spend an hour – I’m really glad I did it.’

This face-to-face interaction is vital. Fogle is concerned that relationships that exist only or chiefly online can affect children’s ability to interpret facial expressions and nuances of voice. ‘I hear of teenagers sitting in the same room WhatsApping each other. It’s so much easier, I find, having a difficult conversation in person because you’re aware of how they’re interpreting it – through facial expressions, breathing etc. We’re living in a hypersensitive society – it’s so easy to offend people and feel judged. It’s also much easier to be unkind when not face-to-face. Teaching our children digital manners is really important.’

We can also use the internet to initiate conversations. ‘They’re going to see things online that are upsetting and inappropriate. We need to teach them to deal with that situation when it happens because it will happen. The same goes in life. They will be subject of inappropriate behaviour or witness to it. It’s not about saying, “How can we prevent this happening?” It’s about saying, “How will we deal with it, and when should we call it out”?’

And our reliance on tech during the pandemic wasn’t all bad. ‘Mine got into touch-typing. They are also more tech-literate. When the computer freezes, they know all the things to try to get it to work again.’

I’m heartened to hear that using a screen as a ‘digital babysitter’ is not the end of the world, as long we take time in the day to engage with them too. ‘There’s a difference between letting your child play Fortnite 16 hours a day and letting them watch TV while you take a work call,’ says Fogle. Agreed – if you can prepare a child’s meal when they’re declaring how hungry they are without resorting to CBeebies I applaud you.

‘[During] the pandemic,’ Fogle notes, ‘many families have eaten more meals together. This is potentially a real benefit because children have to be taught the art of conversation.’ Another pandemic-related reality has impacted family dynamics: ‘Chiara sees dads bringing children into the practice for checkups and vaccines way more than they used to. That’s one of the benefits of having fathers at home: they are much more engaged in their children’s day-to-day lives.’

Over the years, Fogle’s guests have taught her about appreciating every stage of your relationship with your child as much as possible. One of these stays with me long after we end our call. Deborah James – @bowelbabe – gave up her career after being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer to focus on treatment and spending time with her children. ‘There’s such joy in her parenting,’ Fogle says. ‘It is difficult for every moment to be joyful but, when you can, insert a little bit of joy into every day. Have fun with your children. You will look back with nostalgia.’