When I hear stories from friends who work in primary schools about ‘Nurture Groups’, it makes my heart weep. I’m not referring to groups that support specific learning needs but groups for young children who need to be taught to smile and how to be affectionate, or show emotion, not because they’ve experienced a life changing event and are traumatised, but because they haven’t been shown affection at home, or have been made to grow up too quickly, thanks to our society’s obsession with ‘preparing them for the ‘real’ world’. Modelling is so important to infants – it’s how they learn. Try teaching them to be independent without letting them depend on you for as long as they need to first and you’ll have the opposite effect. Often, insecure attachments are so deep rooted, it’s impossible to heal the damage.
I often think other nations must look at ours and wonder how the hell everything became so skewed with regards to the way we raise our young. I can’t even lump us in with the rest of the Western World, because countries not so far away from our own (hello, Scandinavia) seem much more in tune with their children than we are. We seem to be living in a perpetual hangover of the Victorian era – children should be ‘seen and not heard’; they should not be picked up because of the danger of transferring germs; they should slot into our lives rather than us – the adults – bending and swaying to accommodate them in our lives.
So much of what we’re faced with as mothers flies in the face of our natural maternal instincts. Almost as soon as baby arrives, questions about returning to work and getting ‘back to normal’ come from everywhere, as discussed by Lauren in this post on identity. Women are made to feel like embracing the role of ‘mother’ is not in keeping with 21st Century life. Simultaneously, they are bombarded with ‘advice’ from so many sources, about ways to make their babies – these (usually) desperately wanted and long awaited arrivals – to fit into their lives with minimum impact on their ‘normal’…
I remember, when pregnant, being told by one father I know that ‘the best thing they did’ with their babies was to ‘leave them to cry’ right from the word go. Initially, I thought it was a joke but, nope – telling me not to nurture or respond to this tiny being not yet born was, apparently, perfectly acceptable. We’ve moved on from the Victorian concern that germs will be transferred if we pick babies up too much yet the notion of not handling them is, sadly, alive and kicking! Surely, SURELY the instinct to comfort a crying child is more powerful than needing to ‘teach’ them to not need you? Apparently not…
Next up was an acquaintance telling me that she’d ‘really recommend’ Gina Ford’s books. I commented that she ‘isn’t really my cup of tea’ when, actually, I think the woman is to children what Donald Trump is to America. Her reasoning? Getting into a routine early on was the *most* important thing. Everyone else at the mother and baby groups had their hair washed and make up on, and she felt lacking somehow because of this, so it was ‘The Contented Baby Book’ to the rescue. I get it. I get that having a baby is really bloody hard – anyone who has read this blog from the beginning will be aware of that. I get that it’s nigh on impossible not to compare yourself to other mums and, if they seem to have it ‘together’, even if that just means their hair is brushed, it’s hard not to feel like you don’t quite match up. But forcing a baby who doesn’t know where the bloody hell it is (and would actually just like to go back to the warmth and security of your uterus) to adopt some imposed routine out of a book by a woman who doesn’t know them, or you, or (it seems) very much to do with what babies actually need just seems cruel.
It continues. I met with a Health Visitor a month or so before Primrose was born. Somehow, the topic of sleep arose and, despite not having read ‘The Gentle Sleep Book’ back then, I commented that I would never allow my baby to ‘cry it out’. I’m not going to mince my words here: any technique used in orphanages, or that involved our child thinking we were not there for her, or that is frequently talked of in terms of ‘battle’ and ‘torment’, or that could cause lasting damage to the secure attachment we wanted to ensure for her, or that would raise her cortisol levels just seemed BONKERS! Her response? A look of ‘you’ll learn’ and the comment, “Oh but you have to.” Well no, actually, I don’t. And I won’t. Sleepless nights and weird nap patterns are part and parcel of parenthood. Allowing parents to believe otherwise is another sad indictment of our screwed up society. And to people who say ‘it worked for me and my baby’… brilliant. Except what you actually mean is that it worked for you. Your baby gave up crying for you and slept eventually because they thought that you weren’t coming for them, so it didn’t ‘work’ for them at all; their cortisol levels were through the roof and their sobs continued long after their eyes closed. You’ve simply taught them that you’ll respond sometimes – during the day, when they fall down, when somebody says something mean, when they’re poorly – but when it comes to learning how to sleep and needing the comfort that goes with it? Forget it. But what are mothers to do when they’re given this shitty advice from people in positions of trust: HVs? Children’s Centres? Websites that should be trustworthy? ‘Specialists’ and ‘Experts’?
Next came the helpful comments from family. At three months, when Primrose was asleep in my arms, for a cat nap, my dear Nana told me I was ‘making a rod for my own back’. Fortunately, armed with research about secure attachments and the fourth trimester, I was able to set her straight. Had I not researched it, her comments may have stuck – I might have started to worry that I was cuddling my baby *too much*. It saddens me that the society we live in has reached a point where we need articles like this to tell us that it’s OK to hold and connect with our babies.
And so it goes on. It seems like:
It’s OK for ‘experts’ to tell parents to leave a tantruming toddler to their own devices; to ignore the ‘bad behaviour’ but using empathy to help your child through their big emotions, reassuring them that you’re there for them and holding them until they have calmed down is seen as just a bit ‘new age’. Read this if you don’t believe me!
It’s OK to ask a nursing mama of a three month old when she plans to stop nursing. But it’s not OK to reply with the physical and emotional benefits of breastfeeding – for mother and baby – just in case you offend someone who didn’t breastfeed.
It’s OK to expect children to understand discipline techniques that are completely age inappropriate. But explain why ‘time outs’ and ‘naughty steps’ won’t work with one so young and you’ll be met with comments about how brilliant Supernanny is.
It’s OK to make an infant say ‘sorry’ and ‘thank you’ when you deem it appropriate. But mention that they have no concept of what these words mean and that modelling their use is much more effective in the long run and people think you’re some kind of radical.
It’s OK to tell a nursing mama to ‘cover up’. But explaining that it’s actually illegal to do so, and that you’re just doing what’s biologically normal? You might as well bang your head against a brick wall.
It’s OK to ignore advice about keeping baby in your room for the first six months ‘because they’re too noisy’. But bedsharing with your child? ARE YOU NUTS?
It’s OK to give your child cow’s milk in a bottle until they start school. But let them wean off the breast naturally and expect accusations of long term psychological damage.
It’s OK to tell someone to wean their baby onto solids at four months. But try to explain why it isn’t recommended for babies under six months and you’re told that, ‘mine turned out OK’.
It’s OK to ask someone when they’re going back to work. But say that you plan to stay at home with your baby and hear, “Oh God, I don’t want to be *just* a mum.” I actually heard this from a friend and it stuck with me for far longer than it should have done.
That fact is, we’re obsessed with making our babies into tiny adults because it makes our lives easier and we can ‘get back to normal’, rather than feeling confident enough to embrace our new normal; the normal that involves children. Generally speaking, our society is geared towards making sure parents are happy. And by ‘happy’ I mean that they have unrealistic expectations, thanks to decades of parent-centric ‘advice’ from people like Gina Ford and Jo Frost which, sadly, has filtered down to our very own Health Visitors and other ‘professionals’. Sleep and behaviour consultants make an absolute fortune out of parents who have fallen for this advice and are then left wondering why it doesn’t work, or works for a while and then stops working because babies are constantly evolving little beings. The phrase ‘Happy Mum, Happy Baby’ irks me a little – sure, if you’re feeling positive and like you can tackle the word, that will undoubtedly help your baby feel relaxed and calm. But if your ‘happy’ means letting your baby cry and cry and cry, just to ‘teach it’ to sleep on its own, or ignoring hunger cues just to get it into a feeding pattern, it’s highly unlikely that your baby is happy too.
All this advice that flies in the face of our maternal instincts – often from people who we are supposed to trust – coupled with the devaluation of mothers, the weird desire to make children grow up from the moment their cord is cut and the fact that the ‘Village’ it takes to raise a child is no longer in existence for most families… can our ‘messed up society’ ever recover?
Even if you’re not a parent yourself, you can help to unpick the sorry state of things…
- Rather than putting your baby down because some stupid book told you to, or because you’re envisaging this bloody great big rod poking out of your jumper, cuddle them. It won’t last forever and you’ll miss it when it stops.
- Thinking of asking a mum when she’s going back to work? Stop right there! Ask her if she’s enjoying spending time with her baby.
- Rather than asking when a mother plans to ‘get baby off the boob so she can get her body back?’, ask her how breastfeeding is going for her and her baby/toddler.
- Instead of freaking out upon hearing that your friend is bedsharing or, god forbid, quoting some Daily Mail article on the perils of doing so, read up on it a bit and talk to her about why it works for them.
- Rather than making a child repeat ‘thank you’ like some kind of parrot, say thank you yourself each time they give you a stick or a stone or a feather. They’ll pick up good manners in their own time rather than having it forced upon them.
- Rather than expecting your baby to sleep for 12 hours from a certain number of weeks or months, research attachment and baby sleep – they are not adults! Babies wake for so many reasons: hunger, thirst, pain, teething, fear, anxiety, genetics, wanting comfort from your arms, developmental leaps and because they cannot ‘self soothe’ until they are MUCH older (I’m talking roughly four years old). And guess what? They’re all normal.
- If a mum tells you her baby wakes in the night – regardless of their age – offer an ear and tell her it’s normal – all babies are different. Don’t tell her to ignore it/that it really should be sleeping through by now/to stop breastfeeding and switch to formula/ to give it solid food before six months/any of the other ‘advice’ that either isn’t healthy for baby or that will make her feel like she’s doing things wrong.
- Have a friend who is attachment parenting? For Christ’s Sake read up on it and understand that she’s allowing her baby to depend on her for as long as they need before trying to make them ‘independent’. Do not tell her it’s her fault she’s exhausted and that she should stop babywearing/cosleeping/breastfeeding for an ‘easier life’, otherwise you’re undermining everything she has done for her baby so far, as well as demonstrating your lack of awareness about what infants actually need. It’s a lose/lose scenario!
Helpful resources linked to the above:
- Facebook Group ‘Mothers at Home Matter Too’: Focuses on the importance of investing time into family life. Actively challenge Government policies that are detrimental to mothers, families and children.
- Facebook Group ‘Hand in Hand Parenting’: A brilliant US resource for helping parents understand what children need in terms of attachment, learning and connection, in order to thrive. They regularly share outstanding resources on child behaviours and how we, as parents, can help. There is also a UK page – much smaller but worth joining.
- Almost anything by Sarah Ockwell-Smith. Her ‘Gentle Sleep’ and ‘Gentle Parenting’ books (and FB pages) are fantastic for helping parents understand the psychological needs of children, the sleep patterns of infants and the fact that our management of child behaviour is crucial to helping they grow healthily. This article on ‘The Devaluation of Motherhood’ is particularly good, especially if you’re feeling undervalued.
- We’ve mentioned it before but Vanessa Olorenshaw’s Liberating Motherhood is a must read if you’re feeling the pressure to ‘have it all’, even if you don’t’ really want it.
- The Wonder Weeks, as recommended here, is a useful tool in understanding infant development. We love it, and are eternally grateful to it for stopping us going completely bonkers on many occasions.
Jo, The Mother Side x