Monday 24 February 2014

A Modern Parenting Problem...

For those of my readers who aren’t parents I’m sorry for this parent-focussed rant – I’m sure everyone with or without children can relate however, and I’d truly love to hear any feedback and your points of view.

I am a new mummy to Bert who is now 6 months old – the last 6 months have been absolutely amazing – the best months of my life – but also incredibly hard – as anyone whose ever been responsible most of the time for a baby will tell you: parenting is hard work.

I’m incredibly lucky that I have a strong network of support around me – my wonderful husband, parents, in laws and lots of fellow mummy friends who all live reasonably locally. I know I can call on them for help and advice, and I regularly do. Without that network of support I would have found being a new mum completely over-whelming, and would no doubt be cowering in a dark room right now. They have all individually given me really useful advice, taken Bert off my hands for an hour so I can get things done, or go out for some ‘me’ time, and have offered a listening ear when I’ve been over-whelmed or concerned about a parenting-related issue. They haven’t judged me for asking for help, they haven’t laughed at my questions, or pointed any accusing fingers – they have just quietly supported and encouraged me. And six months into this parenting malarkey I feel happy, confident and content in my role as Mum, largely because of them.

What has shocked me in this new journey I’m on is the flip side of all the support I’ve been given: unfortunately I have also played witness to some incredibly harsh and unsupportive behaviour.

The first strand in this bow is what I like to call Comparative Parenting – those parents who just LOVE to compare their friend’s child to their own. “Oh your baby isn’t sitting up yet? Mine did that MONTHS ago!” Those sorts of comparisons are largely unhelpful and only fuel a parent’s angst and paranoia – is my baby abnormal? Am I doing something wrong? I am lucky that my career history is in childcare and teaching – I am confident enough to know when I should or shouldn’t worry about my son’s development – but there are lots of parents out there without that experience who will largely base their knowledge on what their friends and acquaintances tell them. In my opinion pointing that “my baby is better than your baby” finger is just damaging and petty – trust me when I say that EVERY SINGLE baby is different and will develop at its own rate. Some will walk really early, some won’t say a word until they’re 2, others will sleep through from day one, and some might not sleep through until their first birthday or beyond. Children are so vastly different that there is really little point in comparing them – if you ask any parent with more than one child they’ll tell you how remarkably different each baby has been compared to the other.

The Comparative Parenting doesn’t just stop at a baby’s development though – oh no – it spans into equipment and toys too! I have a friend who has recently experienced this first hand while shopping in a well-known department store. Happily pushing her newborn son out of a lift in his pushchair she was faced with another mother and pram waiting to enter the lift – the mother looks her pushchair up and down and says “oh, you have that buggy: that was our budget option” cue wide open mouth from my friend in shock, as the woman wheels her buggy away into the lift. Strike me down – I was so appalled at this rude woman’s audacity – who was she to comment on what pushchair my friend did or did not choose to buy for her baby? Let alone to make a sniping comment about the cost! Why must it be a competition? Are some mother’s so insecure that they think good parenting is all about how much money you spend on a pushchair?

My gripe with some fellow parents doesn’t end there unfortunately. My next complaint stems from my online experience through my blog and social media profiles; and the reactions I have encountered from some parents. Unlike the real everyday world where people interact face to face and (hopefully!) think before they speak, I have found that the internet/blogging world can be entirely different. Let me say now that this rant is not about the majority of people I have encountered through the blogging/internet world, but a small minority who are ruining it for the rest of us. People are braver on the internet, without that face-to-face interaction I have found some parents to be rude, harsh, and incredibly judgmental about my parenting choices.

I recently wrote a post on my blog in association with Pampers about using reliable nappies so that your baby has a comfortable night’s sleep without needing a nappy change. The post aimed to give parents some gentle advice on how to encourage your baby to sleep well and settle at night. I conveyed some general advice from a baby sleep expert called Jo Tantum, who has worked in the field for many years and has lots of great common-sensical tips for new parents. The advice wasn’t radical; it was your run-of-the-mill kind of stuff – make sure they’re well fed, bathed, and not over-stimulated before you try to put them to bed, ensure the room is dark, the right temperature and Jo explained how you shouldn’t jump up to your child as soon as they wake, that you should “give them a moment” to settle themselves back to sleep. Upon posting this article on the blog I was met with a barrage of unhelpful and highly judgmental comments from other mums.

These parents told me that I should be worried about my child as he sleeps so well, that there is clearly something ‘wrong’ with him, they have suggested I should be co-sleeping, they have accused me of practicing controlled crying (which, I haven’t – not that there would be a problem even if I had) – all of these judgments are based purely on this one article, most of which was written by Jo Tantum, not myself. What was most apparent to me after witnessing this response is how quick these parents are to attack instead of support their fellow parents.

Whatever happened to female solidarity? Whatever happened to compassion, open mindedness, and accepting that your own opinion and views aren’t the only opinions and views out there? If there is one message I am desperate to scream from the rooftops it is that parenting is hard, tiring, challenging and amazing all at the same time: and if we can give each other a break, as fellow parents, we should. Any way you deem best to bring up your children be it co-sleeping, puree weaning, baby led weaning, attachment parenting, or ‘this is just the way I do it’ parenting – who am I to say if it is wrong or right? All I can say is ‘this is what works for me/my family’. I don’t want to judge anyone else because everybody’s children, lifestyles, needs and priorities are different. What works for me might not work for you and vice versa.

I am a strong woman and I am confident in my own abilities as a parent, and as a functioning adult in the world. I am hugely proud of my baby son, and also proud of my mummy friends who are each doing their absolute best to bring up their children to be decent, polite and intelligent members of society. What worries me about parents ‘out there’ on the internet judging and accusing, is what happens if their hate is aimed at someone not quite as confident as me? Someone who is doubting their own abilities, who is feeling low and vulnerable, someone who is highly impressionable and might be hugely affected by these nasty comments telling them that they’re doing a bad job? Parenting forums are full of such comments, attacking parents for their choices, and telling them the ‘right’ way to do it. It shouldn’t be a case of ‘my way or the highway’…aren’t we courageous enough to say ‘wow, it’s cool that you’re doing that and it is working for you’ or ‘congratulations on having a baby that sleeps through the night’ – do we really have to be bitter and accusatory? Is it jealousy? Are these parents happy and confident in their parenting abilities? If you ask me, anyone spouting that much bitterness and anger can’t possibly feel balanced and in control of their situations.

If you co-sleep, practice controlled crying, advocate baby led weaning, or attachment parenting – whatever works for you, I’m truly happy for you, and glad you’ve found a system that works. If you use no specific system or guideline (like me) and that works then that’s equally cool. If you breast feed then I’m really happy for you that you’ve managed it, and if you don’t breast feed then I won’t judge you for that. I didn’t breast feed Bert – he was severely tongue-tied as a newborn and we just couldn’t get the hang of it. My son was hungry and I was exhausted from three days of no sleep and a horrendous labour; so we embraced formula feeding and put the breast debacle behind us. We moved on confidently knowing that we made the right choice for our situation. I have been judged since that decision, and will confidently say “I did the best thing I could manage for my son” I did also what was best for me, for my own mental wellbeing and ultimately my happiness.

Why is my happiness important you may ask? Well, it is my firm belief that happy parents equal a happy baby. If a child is bought into a happy home, full of love, with parents who are relaxed, confident in their abilities and surrounded by supportive and non-judgmental family and friends, then I’m pretty sure the baby will feed off of that environment and so to be a relaxed and happy individual. If for the sake of your own happiness it means that you decide to switch to formula feeding instead of breast because breast-feeding is making you miserable then do it. If making up powdered formula is stressing you out, use the ready made, and be happy that you’ve found a way to eradicate that stress. If the thought of giving your child finger food from six months (baby led weaning) frightens you, then use purees – and don’t apologise for that choice – be confident that you’ve made the choice that is best for your day-to-day happiness as a family.

Friends of mine have also been on the receiving end of judgments based on their career choices in relation to parenting. For me it is simple. If you choose to and can afford to be a stay-at-home mum then that is so cool, I support your choice and am sure your kids will enjoy having you at home. If you decide to go back to work because you love your career, good for you, I’m happy that you have a job you love, and I know that you won’t have made that decision lightly. It’s a big deal to leave your kids and go back to work. If you have had to return to work for financial reasons, then I sympathise, and I can only imagine how hard it is to go to work every day when you’d rather be at home with your kids. Don’t worry, your kids will be fine, and you’re doing a grand job! If you are a part time stay-at-home-mum and part time worker I have ultimate respect for you, it must be hectic, but good for you for being able to get a balance. Can you see my point? Every choice is the right choice for each individual.

I don’t think it’s hard to support each other, to show understanding, compassion, and to listen to alternative points of view. I may not ultimately agree with your methods of parenting, but I’m not you, I’m me, and our situations might be completely different. Then again, they might not be, but either way - good on you for being a parent and giving it your best shot!

When talking all of this over with my husband who is also a blogger ( he explained how his experience as a new Dad in the blogging/internet realm has been vastly different to mine. The dads he has spoken to and been in contact with via his blog, Facebook, Twitter and parenting forums have been ultimately supportive, good humoured, and relaxed in their responses. They have shared their experiences, laughed at their failures, and offered useful advice to each other without the rude and judgmental undertones. So is this hostility just a mum-thing? Have the dads got it right, and is it female competition that’s causing this negativity I’ve encountered? I wish I had the answers. All I do know is we could do with taking a leaf out of the dads’ book – if we can support and encourage each other without constant comparison, if we can listen without judgment, share ideas, and explore a variety of methods when it comes to parenting then surely we would all be better off?

Did our grandmothers suffer this same pressure to conform, to join a ‘trend’ in parenting and see no other methods of bringing up a child as acceptable? Did they feel pressured to go to baby yoga, baby massage, swimming for babies, signing for babies, do the housework, cook the tea, hold down a job and be a good wife simultaneously? I don’t think they did.

They confidently bought up their children, cooked, made their clothes and ‘kept house’ without the added pressure of all of those other things. Yes, the world just isn’t like that any more, I hear you. But I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that women of today have a pretty raw deal – we can’t have our cake and eat it, I know, and maybe we are eating humble pie after fighting for our freedom and choice for so many years. But cutting each other a little slack while we carve our way through the difficult task of being all things to everyone wouldn’t do any harm, surely?

In the words of the recent SMA Baby milk advert – to all mothers, whatever your choices: “You’re doing great!”

Mrs Bishop