We live in an age in which individualism has almost cult-like status. Across all types of conventional and new media we are bombarded with a message which comes down to ‘be yourself’. It is a hugely positive thing that we are no longer constrained by social expectations of what someone of our age/religion/class/background/ethnicity/sexuality/gender can or can’t do, and it has given many square pegs the chance to set forth to seek out a square hole of their own rather than making do with the round one next door.
There is only one snag. As soon as you become a parent, this all changes, and suddenly the weight of societal expectations is full upon you again. It starts even before you get pregnant. You may have been a carefree party girl, but you’re suddenly confronted with warnings on bottles of alcohol exhorting you to avoid while ‘pregnant or trying to conceive’. The positive pregnancy test brings a whole load more restrictions. Since my first pregnancy, seven years ago, I have read articles warning pregnant women against: painkillers, anti-histamines, antibiotics, cigarettes, alcohol, caffeine, shellfish, raw or partially cooked eggs, nuts, soft cheeses, pate, cured meats and fish, cleaning products, stress, jacuzzis, hot baths, strenuous exercise, insufficient exercise, unwashed fruit or vegetables, cat litter, farm animals, gardening, long-haul travel and new furniture. I have probably missed a few out, but you get the gist. Quite how you are to avoid stress while adhering to this list has never been explained.
I mean, obviously you need to be sensible when you’re pregnant, and there are things which could increase the risk of something going wrong with you or the baby, but when did your body suddenly become everyone else’s business, just because you happen to be gestating?
Things only get worse once the baby arrives. Ironically you will still read articles telling you to follow your instincts, and that you know your baby best. However. These tend to be submerged by the healthcare professionals/well-meaning friends and relatives/blogs/magazine articles/parenting books giving very specific and entirely contradictory strictures. Your baby must never get too hot because it increases the risk of cot death, but they must never get too cold as it increases the risk of old ladies berating you in the street for not having them in a hat and 18 blankets. They must be breastfed, exclusively, for six months, but you should express milk and get them used to a bottle to enable your partner to bond with them. And don’t leave it too late to wean them because toddlers breastfeeding well, that’s a bit icky, isn’t it? Your baby must sleep on their back in a crib or cot to avoid cot death, but you should be aware that this is unnatural and means that they will not be able to bond with you or form emotionally sustaining relationships for the rest of their lives. If you do decide to co-sleep then you must not have consumed drugs or alcohol or be too tired. Luckily tiredness is rarely a problem for new parents. You must carry them in a sling for bonding and colic relief but push them in a pram for safety and good spinal development. They must be stimulated, but not over-stimulated. It is important to get them into a good routine early on, but you should also make sure that you are listening to your baby, following their cues and being entirely flexible.
If you practise controlled crying then you are monstrously selfish as you are putting your own need for sleep above your child’s psychological well-being. On the other hand, if you don’t, then you are making a rod for your own back and creating a spoilt child whose brain will be stunted due to lack of proper amounts of sleep.
When it comes to weaning you must wait until they are exactly six months for fear of causing obesity and/or food allergies. However, it is also important to listen to your baby and wean when they seem ready. If they are not sleeping through the night you should give them some baby rice from four months. You can follow Annabel Karmel and spend several hours a day pureeing everything in sight before spoon-feeding your little angel from bowls and spoons that definitely do not contain BPA. Or you could go for the baby-led warning approach which means you wave goodbye to your carpets and serve ‘family food’ to your baby from day one, letting them feed themselves. Be aware, though, that ‘family food’ should not contain salt, sugar, raw or partially cooked eggs, nuts, shellfish, or highly processed ingredients. Please don’t think that you can mix and match; that seems to be the parenting equivalent of saying you’re a bit Christian and a bit Hindu, but go to Mosque with your friend sometimes. It is important that your baby gets vital micro-nutrients as soon as possible so you must ensure a well-balanced diet, but remember that food before one is just for fun. Don’t make mealtimes a battle, but it is essential to maintain boundaries.
Don’t forget, by the way, to follow your instincts.
Babies need a lot of toys which have been specifically designed to stimulate them at their particular stage of development and you must ensure you take them to a range of expensive classes. Except that too many toys and organised classes will stifle their creativity and mean that they will never be able to amuse themselves and so are actually counter-productive as well as being a waste of time and money.
You should go back to work because children thrive inter-acting with their peers in a childcare environment, and you will be setting them a good example of hard work and achievement. As long as you don’t mind missing out on their most important milestones and them calling their key worker ‘mummy’, you selfish career-obsessed bitch.
Your children are only young once, so don’t waste it doing housework, just enjoy playing with them. As long as they are eating three meals and two snacks a day which have been cooked from scratch using a wide range of fresh organic ingredients in a spotlessly clean kitchen. And note that dust mites cause allergies so as a minimum you should wash all soft toys and bedding on a hot wash at least once a week and dust and hoover all rooms where your child spends time daily. The germs which cause nasties like flu and norovirus can survive on hard surfaces for up to seventy-two hours, so make sure you wash all toys and surfaces in the home several times daily with a disinfectant spray, but build up your children’s immune systems by using all-natural cleaning products such as lemon juice and bicarbonate of soda.
Once they’re school age you must help them to do their homework as it consolidates classroom learning, but also ensure that they learn only through unstructured play. If they are going to learn a musical instrument they should start young, but not too young. They should avoid telly while also having a good understanding of popular culture so that they don’t feel left out in the playground. It is essential that they become tech-savvy because that is the future, but too much screen-time will make them obese and might cause ADHD. Obviously they need lots of exercise, but also time for creative pursuits, time with friends, time with family, time to listen to music, time to read, time to follow their own interests, time to help around the house, and time to go to organised classes and groups so that they can make friends, learn new skills and socialise.
You are not allowed to be yourself when you’re raising children. As a society we don’t seem to be able to cope with the concept that parents can do things differently from each other and yet still raise happy, healthy, well-balanced children. Why is it so difficult to accept that a single mum who works full-time and relaxes at the weekend by teaching her son the violin and taking him to local folk music festivals is making choices just as valid as the happily married, tone deaf stay-at-home dad who’s passionate about computer games? Sure, their kids might not turn out exactly the same as each other, but, newsflash: that’s ok. There should be as many different ways of parenting as there are different parents and different children. There are a few basics which pretty much centre around loving and feeding your child, keeping them physically safe, and ensuring they get an education when they’re old enough, but otherwise parents and children will be far happier and more relaxed if you do things in a way which suits you and your child and your family and your circumstances. You can be yourself and a good parent too.