Do you suffer from 'Precious First-born Syndrome'?
Published 19/08/2014 | 00:00
It's the mysterious scourge that can turn even the most sensible first-time parent into a comical obsessive.
There is a group of people living among us who must be unmasked. They can be spotted pushing a technologically advanced pram along pavements (it's too big to enter a shop door) and inside is a baby, swathed in a new organic cotton babygro that has been hand-washed in chemical-free detergent. Any exposed skin will be protected in fragrance-free SPF50 and inside the designer nappy bag will be vacuum-packed sterilised bottles and a flask of warm water for washing a cherished bottom.
They may look like normal parents, but their tense jaws indicate that they are suffering from "Precious First-born Syndrome" (PFB). Given that more babies are born globally in August than in any other month, this is peak season for temporary insanity.
We can thank a parenting website for bringing the PFB phenomenon to our attention in a frankly unbelievable series of posts from mothers who have subsequently borne more children, but reflect on their first with a mixture of astonishment and embarrassment. The thread reads like a confessional for women who have been abducted by benign aliens and harbour their secrets until one of them raises a hand. There is the mum who warms cucumber sticks in the microwave as they are too chilled for young gums straight from the fridge; confessions of mums making babysitters rehearse a PFB's favourite lullaby so the child's sleep-time feels "familiar".
There are tales of urgent calls to A&E because a newborn vomits a little milk and parents don't know that this is normal. You can only conclude that first-time parents are a unique form of the human species.
But perhaps it was ever thus: maybe our mothers and grandmothers also laminated instructions for babysitters. Did they, like one of my favourite posts, walk backwards with a pram for two miles because of an absence of sun-cream in the English "mild afternoon sun"? Of course they didn't!
We are the first generation of mothers who can claim credit for this particular form of lunacy. It is partly because we no longer live next door to our own mothers, and even if we do, they're probably away on a cruise. On maternity wards, kitchen-paper salespeople should be replaced by mystical soothsayers chanting, "It takes a village to raise a child" - the wisest words ever uttered, and yet it's a concept that we have entirely lost. Instead, isolated new mums, bereft of others to observe and no longer believing in themselves, turn to unfiltered information on the web.
We used to joke that parents should be passed a handbook with their new baby. Now, we have too many handbooks, and good intentions are tipping over into anxiously washing nipples before each breast-feed.
When teaching antenatal classes at the Blooming Bunch - a business I established to help couples navigate the minefield of birth and beyond - the midwives and I try to impress on expectant parents the idea that new babies are actually pretty difficult to break.
Parenting is a tough job. But babies' needs are, in fact, simple: feed, change, cuddle, entertain, repeat. And although buying lots of new stuff can be an exciting way of preparing for your first baby, they actually need very little. Once you're on the treadmill of sleep deprivation and hourly loads of washing, the cashmere babygros will get re-gifted and you'll soon be online ordering a foldable buggy because that e950 "travel system" won't fit in the boot of your car.
You'll see nothing but media images of blemish-free infants in the arms of beatific mothers who haven't just poured orange juice in their coffee. It's no wonder PFB Syndrome exists: wherever we look, we fail by comparison. One PFB sufferer confessed to weighing her baby on the kitchen scales every day: have they eaten enough? How much is enough? How can we possibly tell?
With these words ringing in our ears, we agonise over breast versus formula. That children survive in countries without microwave sterilising kits is forgotten as bottle, teat and lid are handled with plastic tweezers by parents who could transfer their new-found skills to keyhole surgery. Second-time mums can be spotted simply by the way they handle a bottle: sucking the teat after it falls on the floor while telling the mother-in-law: "Of course the dishwasher sterilises. It gets really hot, doesn't it?"
Tap water does not pass a PFB's lips for at least a year, and one woman even relayed hand-expressing breast milk for half-an-hour onto her toddler's cornflakes so that he wasn't exposed to the horror of dairy. Unlike his sisters, my PFB never knew the taste of mineral water bought from a garage and mixed with formula in a panic. (On that occasion, I'd decanted the powder but forgotten the spoon - an old business card can make a surprisingly good scoop).
There are other horrors that never pass a PFB's lips. Take sugar, for example. I knew a woman (who had a PFB at the same time as me), whose daughter had not digested sugar before the age of two. She moved to the country and had a son. The next time I saw them, the 10-month-old's crawling was powered mainly by Haribo.
She'd given up the fight and couldn't remember why she had been quite so obsessed.
It's the same in our house: ketchup, chocolate, fizzy drinks, crisps - all of these were fiercely rationed for the PFB.
The second learned to give her finished chewing gum to me by the age of three, and the youngest was merrily washing down bags of Wotsits with cans of soft drink by six months. I'm kidding - but she could have been for all I remember of her diet.
PFBs are the only ones who benefit/suffer from the last remnants of a parental brain that has not yet been colonised by more babies.
In an attempt to stimulate him intellectually (ie buy myself 20 minutes' peace), my PFB was only ever allowed to watch Baby Einstein on television - Disney-made DVDs with tinny classical music playing over hypnotically simple moving toys and hallucinogenic light patterns. Even today, inadvertently hearing Mozart brings me out in a nervous rash. Obviously, the second two have never seen it. They're too busy watching adverts for personal-injury lawyers on Boomerang.
We jest - but is this a problem that should be more widely recognised? Dr Karen Wynter from the Jean Hailes Research Unit at Monash University thinks so. She interviewed 172 Australian couples from different socioeconomic backgrounds four weeks and six months after the birth of their first baby. Her findings, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, found anxiety and "adjustment" disorders are more common than postnatal depression in new parents.
Speaking from her home in Melbourne, she said: "Most people think of postnatal depression as the main issue for new parents, but we found depression is not nearly as prevalent as anxiety. Around a third of women and almost a fifth of men reported enough anxiety symptoms to interfere with daily life."
Part of the problem is that the scales used to assess depression include, but don't distinguish, feelings of anxiety: irritability, fitful sleeping, muscle aches, jitteriness and feeling panicky or "on edge".
"Some anxiety is really important," says Wynter, "otherwise we wouldn't get up and look after our babies. But when it interferes with your ability to carry out your daily tasks or run a home safely, you should seek support. Luckily this generation doesn't suffer the same stigma about postnatal difficulties as previous ones."
In 2004, I remember developing what I described as a "rage for order" and would mop our kitchen floor twice a day in an effort to exert some control over my suddenly chaotic existence.
"Women are having babies later in life, they have control over their choices, and paid jobs are often predictable and manageable," says Wynter. "Parenting is not like that. You come home with a baby you have to keep alive, receive lots of conflicting advice and may not actually feel any instinct about what is best. Plus, there is no 'off' switch. Parents may feel less confident about this role than they do about managing tasks at work."
But the good news - empirically and anecdotally - is that confidence trounces anxiety. Good pre-baby preparation courses help, although new mums will always take wonderfully self-sacrificing steps to protect their newborns, like the mother who poured shampoo in her own eyes to check its "no tears" claim. "As a mother of two girls," says Wynter, "my personal feeling is that with our first we want to be a 'perfect parent' but by the time you get to two or three, you know you just have to be good enough."
Perhaps we should thank our eldest offspring for letting us act out our paranoia on them. I asked mine if he wanted to be in the photos for this article. "What's it about?" he shrugged.
"Precious Firstborn Syndrome."
He threw down his pen knife and sharpened stick: "You're saying I've got a syndrome?"
"Not you, me!" I said, watching the youngest run barefoot across a public park, wiping a muddy hand across her nose. "But don't worry - I'm over it now."