The modern mum's guide to worrying
A new book pokes fun at today's over-anxious parents. Chrissie Russell can sympathise
Published 23/03/2016 | 02:30
Melting ice-caps, dwindling global supplies of chocolate, Trump… there are plenty of things to worry about in the world today. But lately I've been fretting about killing my toddler with rice cakes.
Apparently some rice products contain arsenic, raising the somewhat terrifying scenario that I may have been poisoning my only child with packets of puffed rice snacks.
I've googled for tasty arsenic-free alternatives and the answer seems to be corncakes, but the only corncakes I can find contain quinoa, which brings with it a whole raft of new worries about the digestibility of south American grains.
Welcome to modern day motherhood. The left side of my brain knows these musings are probably daft - let's face it, humanity has evolved thousands of years without women googling 'can babies have quinoa?' - and yet still I can't help doing it. There's something gratifying knowing I'm not the only one.
A new book by writer and mum-of-one (soon to be two) Francesca Hornak, Worry With Mother: 101 Neuroses For The Modern Mama, exposes some hilarious examples of how parents like me have taken stressing to a new level.
From mothers who insist their husbands refer to bubble guns as 'bubble hairdyers' "so as not to promote violence" and others who drop plastic mobiles on their faces to check whether it'll hurt if it falls on their baby, the anecdotes are undoubtedly entertaining, but also shine an interesting light on how we're raising our children today.
"I grew up in 1980s north London when 'helicopter parenting' was just emerging," says Francesca, whose son Finlay is one. "Now it's standard behaviour for middle class mums. I think when you become a mum, that voice in your head can get slightly mad as you're so desperate to 'get it right'. Often the things you're telling or asking yourself are so ridiculous they're actually quite funny - I wanted to bring that into the open."
'Getting it right.' Ah yes, the mantra fuelling so many aspects of parenting today. In the past, it might have been acceptable to celebrate making it to the end of the day with all children present and ideally (though not necessarily) in one piece. Now, thanks to a billion dollar industry of mummy manuals, products and internet access, we're all striving to rear the perfect 100pc safe, sugar-free, low salt, appropriately stimulated little person.
"Oh God, I worry about rice too," says mum-of-three Andrea Mara. "Then I forget until I serve it and my eldest says 'mum you said rice was poisonous'. Basically, I read something, panic about it but don't bother doing my own research to see if there really is a problem, then end up buying it again."
Andrea, a parenting blogger who writes at officemum.ie, reckons a lot of our 'am I getting it right?' neuroses come down to an increased access to useful and useless information.
"We've availability of news on anything and everything," she explains. "There's always that one-in-a-million story about a child hurt by its cot bars or something to make you panic. There are a lot of positives to the internet and how it can support you as a parent - I'm part of a breastfeeding support group that has changed my life - but there was probably an element of 'ignorance is bliss' for previous generations of parents.
"There's also a huge market now that feeds on the fears of anxious parents, telling you to buy a bath thermometer rather than just sticking an elbow in."
The web can certainly fuel the crazy cycle of mummy neuroses: read something on a forum, find it in your cupboard, return to forum to ask other panicking mums if you're in trouble (meanwhile the child could be eating the offending item or anything - you're too busy with your smartphone to notice).
We also tend to have a strangely schizophrenic attitude to items affecting our child's well-being versus our own. "I changed all our toothpastes, shampoos, suncreams and so on to non-carcinogenic brands when I became a mammy," says Siobhán O'Neill-White, director of parenting website mumstown.ie. "I'd also read that plug-in air fresheners were bad for breathing so we stopped using them and any kind of spray cleaning products. I remember sterilising bottles one day when my baby was about seven months old and when I looked over at her, she had a lump of soil from a plant in her mouth. I was sterilising her bottles and she was eating dirt - I laughed at the madness of it."
Now a mum of four, she reckons the madness eases off after the first. "I think we learn from our mistakes on the first and relax. You realise kids need a bit of freedom to get dirty and play and build up their immune systems," she says.
Joanna Fortune, founder of Solamh Parent Child Relationship Clinic in Dublin, is a clinical psychotherapist with over 12 years' experience working with children and families. She wonders if rushing online with our rational and irrational fears might cause more problems than it solves.
"Our smartphones are on us 24/7 and it means we don't sit with a question or try to work out a solution for ourselves or even see if, given time and space, does this matter resolve itself?" she says. "We're losing our problem-solving skills and critical thinking capacities."
Manuals that tell us what sort of mum to be have helped erode mums' confidence in just being themselves. "Modern parenting literature, social media and mass 'sharenting' are all contributing factors to more neurotic parents," says Joanna. "There are pro-social benefits to these platforms once you dip in and out with specific questions, but don't measure your 'success' as a parent against what you read or see there. You are the expert on your own child, trust yourself."
Other cultural factors play into our mounting parenting fears. We don't tend to live near family as much and communities have fractured with apartment living. Fifty years ago, worries about an infant's poo colour might have been addressed by your mum, the woman next door or an auntie down the road - now it's someone you've never met on the internet.
"We're also a generation who have waited longer to start our families, often have done well in education and career before starting our families and, as such, we want to 'excel' at raising the best child we can," adds Joanna. "It's utterly natural and healthy to want the best for your child but we can't be perfect no matter how hard we strive."
Renowned child psychotherapist Donald Winnicott has spoken of the 'good enough mother' and how perfection actually isn't good enough. It's important to make mistakes and let children learn that its ok to get it wrong.
There's also the fear that in trying to shield our children from things - be it sad adverts or slides we deem too high - we're not helping them at all. "Children who experience 'over-parenting' are often less resilient, less confident, more anxious and more dependent for longer upon their parents," warns Joanna.
But there may be a turning tide. A trend for 'free-range parenting' is emerging in America with parents allowing their children to take the subway unaided and walk home from school alone.
"I love the idea of free-range parenting but I'm not brave enough to fully embrace it," says blogger Andrea. "The other day I parked round the corner from school and let my six-year-old walk the short distance to collect the eight-year-old and she was so happy to do it. If you only listen to your fears you'll never let your children do anything."
And in endlessly comparing our children to some 'perfect' prototype - wondering if they're the 'right' weight, walking at the 'right' time, etc - we risk missing out on appreciating their individuality.
I've stressed about my son being in the 99th percentile for height, weight… everything really, and worried he might get a stoop towering over his peers at school. Silly mummy, it's wonderful you've a big, healthy boy.
"Writing the book made me more aware of not turning positives into negatives as a kind of reflex," says Francesca. "My son was a very early talker so I used to worry he wouldn't relate to his peers! That's classic neurotic thinking, actively searching for something to fret about when everything's fine - or better than fine."
Worry With Mother: 101 Neuroses For The Modern Mama by Francesca Hornak, published by Portico, is available now, €14.99.