Keep calm, it's only a baby. . . why parenting shouldn't be a contest
We're child-obsessed and suffering from 'baby madness', according to a new book. By Chrissie Russell
'I wish people would stop asking me if my daughter can swim, and if so, can she put her head under the water," a friend has just lamented to me. "I mean jeez, she's only at nursery, when did the stampede start to get them doing lengths before school?"
The conversation came hot on the heels of a chat with another friend bemoaning the social status of her baby's buggy.
"My husband has no idea, he's happily pushing it along," she confessed in a lowered voice. "But I know that even though it's a great buggy, it's just not in the same league as the others."
Welcome to the world of baby madness. It's no longer enough to keep your child fed and sheltered any more. If you're not feeding them organic food and toting around nappies in a quilted Storksak changing bag, you may feel like you're failing.
The phenomenon is such that it's formed the basis of a new book, Keep Calm: The New Mum's Manual by Dr Ellie Cannon that tries to rein in the endless pressure many mothers find themselves under trying to be 'super mum'.
According to Cannon, a GP and mum-of-two, everything about motherhood is overly thought about and micromanaged. She says: "There's so much conflicting advice. I want to tell them it's actually so simple."
We've become accustomed to competitive parenting at an older age, helicopter mums and tiger parents signing their kids up to fencing lessons and Mandarin from the age of seven, but the competitive care-giving now kicks in even earlier, sometimes even pre-conception.
"I know of one couple who were finding it difficult to conceive and went along the lines of positive visualisation," says Joanna Fortune from Solamh Parent-Child Relationship Clinic (solamh.com). "They did up a nursery, decorated it and put together a scrap book of all the baby's milestones and life achievements before the baby had actually been conceived." It feels like suddenly babies have become an industry requiring a new level of total dedication and lots and lots of spending.
Joanna believes part of the 'baby madness' phenomenon is down to the fact that we're leaving babies until later in life, and delay – either through fertility difficulties or design – is putting more pressure on the new arrival.
"Many couples have waited longer to start their families and as such, many have felt the pressure to conceive," explains Joanna. "People. . . can sometimes approach their pregnancies and babies with the same competitive and driven outlook."
But we've also been victims of marketing. Ever since the €1,000 Bugaboo first appeared in an episode of Sex and the City in 2002, it's been a symbol of aspirational baby garb, paraded by everyone from Victoria Beckham to Kate Middleton.
It's anticipated that this year the global luxury baby market will grow by 4.3pc rising to a whopping $10.6bn (€7.7bn).
"Sadly very few marketers are pushing a 'good enough is good enough' message. It's all about being better and the best, when what children really need is the physical proximity of loving, available parents to hold, touch, kiss, love and play with them."
Interestingly, there appears to be a generational gap when it comes to baby madness. Mum-of-three (with another one on the way) Mandy O'Rorke from Dublin runs weekly markets for second-hand baby merchandise (babybaymarket.ie) and Ireland's only baby classifieds website, BabyBay.ie. "I often notice when I take a stand at baby and pregnancy fairs that it's the mums who make a beeline for the high-cost stalls and the grannies who stop at me," she laughs.
"I think grandparents know the value of second hand and know it's just as good."
Mandy's seen first hand the aftermath of baby madness spending, with unused travel systems and designer prams crossing her path. "I picked up a gorgeous Mamas and Papas cot for €100 that normally would have been over €500 – never used. The baby had ended up sleeping in bed with the parents and the only one who'd ever been in the crib was Teddy."
She continues: "It's difficult, because when you're pregnant, you don't necessarily know what you're going to need. But you can save a fortune and get great stuff by going second-hand."
Mandy's not convinced that competitive 'mommy wars' over choices in products and parenting styles actually exist.
"I've never met anyone who would openly judge anyone over what they do or don't do," she says. "I think it's more likely to come from the pressure we put on ourselves to do our 'best'. You're very prone to guilt as a mother."
Joanna agrees: "Parents must accept neither they nor their babies are in competition with anyone else, it is a pressure of their own making and they can reject the call of the marketing companies. Babies are just as likely to throw up on Dior as Dunnes!"
Happily the tide might be turning. "Things were different during the Celtic Tiger, but now there's a lot of pride to be had from getting a bargain," says Mandy. "People are realising that second-hand doesn't mean second-best."
Laura Haugh, mum-in-residence for online parenting community, MummyPages.ie agrees: "Since the recession, monetary based competitive parenting has really improved as most people have become more realistic in how they provide for their children in terms of clothing, birthday parties, toys and gifts."
"However, competitive parenting still exists, from mum and baby groups to the school gate and I'm not sure it will ever go away. It's innate in every parent to be proud of their child's achievements."
At least tiny shoots of sanity are springing from unexpected celebrity quarters.
Kim Kardashian recently revealed that she'd no interest in decking her baby daughter, North, in designer clobber just yet, preferring to use hand-me-downs from her sister Kourtney.
"Kids get dirty," she said in a interview with People magazine. "She moves around so much. I saw this one cute dress that was $500 and I was like 'Absolutely not!'"
Even Suri Cruise is reported to be giving up a wardrobe with an estimated value of €2m after mum Katie Holmes wanted her to live a 'normal' life. News that no doubt will have a lot of mums hoping she'll put the designer togs up for sale online – then the baby madness buying can really begin.
Banish those baby cost blues for good
She says: "You don't know anything about what's ahead, so if you see a car seat or a buggy that says 'this is the safest', you want it – hang the cost.
"I think an element of working parent guilt can also come into it.
"You spend money on buying them 'the best' because you're worried about not being there all the time."
The internet has also played its part.
Dublin mum-of-two Isabelle Charmant says: "If all the advice says you have to buy a brand-new mattress for every baby you're not willing to go against that. The more knowledge we've access to, the more we doubt and second guess."
But both mums agree it's hard not to be taken in by the wealth of beautiful baby products now available, especially when pregnant.
"You've spent three months not being able to tell anyone while secretly looking at baby clothes in shop windows; you're dying to go mad!" says Gillian.
Gillian and Isabelle have set up a website, Jasper & Jane (jasperandjane.com) last December to help parents copy the designer looks.