Wednesday 26 September 2018

Liz Kearney: Bringing up babies is easier if you take a leaf out of my book - and throw away the manual

Liz Kearney
Liz Kearney

Liz Kearney

Some studies seem so obvious you wonder why anyone needed to research them in the first place. Academics at Swansea University have found the more baby manuals mums read in the first year of their newborn’s life, the more anxious they become, and the more likely they are to end up depressed.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever read a baby manual. I’m intimately acquainted with the corrosive feelings of ineptitude and failure sparked by even a brief dalliance with the oeuvre. No matter how well-intentioned they might be, they have an uncanny knack of making you feel utterly incapable and unfit to mind a puppy, let alone a baby. Yet still we buy them by the bucketload.

The mammy of them all is Gina Ford’s iconic ‘The Contented Little Baby Book’, which somehow seems to find its way onto the bookshelf of every new parent. It contains a series of strict timetables for the baby’s first months, outlining when it should sleep, when it should wake, how much milk it should take at each feed, how much water you should be drinking to keep your supply up, what you should eat... you get the picture. Anyway, the less said about this book, the better, but I will say that I read it a month before my first baby was born and cried myself to sleep for days afterwards.

The thought of all that military-style planning filled me with dread. I already knew I wouldn’t be able to do it, and I hadn’t even given birth.

After the baby arrived, a well-intentioned friend loaned me ‘What To Expect: The First Year’, which is another classic of the genre. It’s an intimidating doorstopper of a book with a handy checklist of all the developmental milestones your baby should be reaching, week by week.

Needless to say, I spent all of the baby’s first year book-in-hand, frantically monitoring his every waking moment (and most of his sleeping ones too).

Was he smiling, or did he just have wind? Was it because I kept forgetting to give him ‘tummy time’ that he couldn’t hold his head up at six weeks? Why wasn’t he crawling yet? Was it because his legs didn’t work, or was it because he was just lazy – like his useless failure of a mother?

The whole thing was exhausting, stressful, and ultimately pointless. All those books did, for me at any rate, was fuel a growing sense of inadequacy at a time when I should have been enjoying my gorgeous new son.

By the time I got round to having a second baby, I’d got wise. All the books had been dispatched to the local charity shop, and I did that old-fashioned thing of actually following  my instincts, letting the baby eat and sleep whenever he felt like it and trusting that if there was anything wrong with his development, that my GP or public health nurse would spot it. Guess what? It was far less stressful.

So why are we mums hell-bent on buying these books? The market is chock-a-block with new titles on everything from breastfeeding to playtime to sleep routines.

I suspect it’s because women are having fewer babies and families live further apart, so it’s easy to feel a bit isolated and tempting to seek out ‘expert’ views in the absence of having a chat with your sister or a friend. But plainly, it’s not doing us any good.

Caught cold...

Embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May has delivered a fresh reminder of why many of us are more afraid of public speaking than we are of dying.  Her keynote speech to the Tory party conference was half horror-show, half ‘Carry-on’ sketch. Coughing and spluttering her way through her script – she’d earlier Tweeted a picture of a rake of cold and flu meds alongside her notes – Theresa gallantly battled on only to be disturbed onstage by a protester who handed her a P45.

As if that wasn’t enough, the letters on the sign behind her which read, with unending irony, ‘Building A Country That Works For Everyone’,  slowly dropped one by one to the ground. Boris Johnson had to be reluctantly pulled to his feet to give his boss a standing ovation he clearly felt she didn’t deserve, and maybe he was right, but it was hard not to feel for her, dying on her feet like that in the full glare of the cameras. When the professionals can get it so wrong, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Social etiquette

It’s peak Christmas party planning season, and WhatsApp is really coming into its own. I have several thousand messages in multiple groups with assorted suggested dates, times, locations, and venues. Keeping up requires a tactical approach. Do you read and respond to each message the second it arrives, as though you’re having a conversation in real time? That’s distracting and exhausting. Do you wait a few hours until all group members have had their say, then read the thread, which by then is longer than an 18th-century novel, then add your two cents at the end? Like all forms of social media, WhatsApp is simultaneously a joy – everyone’s in touch with you all the time, and a curse – everyone’s in touch with you all the time. Like with baby books, sometimes it’s better just to opt out.

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