Ditch the parenting books

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Ditching the Parenting Books by Hannah Shuckburgh

Mere moments after two thin red lines appeared on my positive pregnancy test, I was browsing on Amazon, one clicking. What to Expect When You’re Expecting. This was just the start: the basics, the bare fundamentals. I wanted Miriam Stoppard’s version, too, just in case there were areas the former had left uncovered. I bought Dr Ellie Cannon’s Keep Calm: The New Mum’s Manual too because she’s a doctor, and the one by Anne Deans because it had the word ‘Bible’.

And then I spotted What to Eat When You’re Pregnant. What DO you eat when you’re pregnant, I wondered. Not just food? Cripes. I must read it and find out. Unsurprisingly, childcare advice books are a multi-billion pound Ditching the Parenting Books industry. They all compete for credibility, promising answers and guidance to women (and men) on everything from how to get pregnant to how to get your toddler to eat vegetables. Except are there really answers in any of them?

As I got near to my due date, there were only more questions. There was birth to prepare for, for starters. First, I would need an hypnobirthing guide; Active Birth sounded positive and encouraging. But just as soon as I had bought one book, another would promise more. I was also highly impressionable. “Oh, I literally couldn’t have given birth without Juju Sundin’s Birth Skills,” said my friend Annie, handing me her copy. “No, Ina May is the goddess of birth,” corrected my neighbour, Beth. My daily commute was dedicated to revision. I would spend my evenings speed-reading a new purchase, post-it notes and highlighter pen at hand. And then, gosh, baby names. There might be The One hiding anywhere, so, to be safe, I bought the Penguin one, the big American one and the one that listed only Hipster Names. By the time our son was born, the room that was destined to be his looked more like a library.

Stacks of books flled his cot, crowded his changing table, more still in the chest of drawers where his little babygrows should have been. And then, I realized on day one of being a new mum, this was only the beginning. “I’ll just get the essentials,” I reassured by husband, as I typed into the search box. What to Expect in the First Year was a no-brainer. Friends told me The Wonder Weeks was their salvation. Penelope Leach had loads of positive reviews. Lots of my NCT group were doing the Gina Ford technique, so I bought her book even in the full knowledge I wouldn’t follow it. And then with every new stage – smiling, sitting, crawling, weaning – and with every new challenge – night-waking, nap-fghting – I felt sure the answer would lie in a book.

Except here was the problem: the answers were never there.

When I was struggling with breastfeeding, I tearfully – and increasingly frantically – tore through my library, desperate to find a description that felt familiar, something that I could do, now, so he wouldn’t starve. But none could help me. There were pages and pages telling me how many feeds he should be having. “But he’s not having any!” I screamed into an abyss.

My husband, calmly, prised the books away from me, and called a real person. Sarah, my NCT councillor, came to my house, sat at my kitchen table with a cup of tea, looked at me and my baby, and quietly gave me some simple advice that enabled me to breastfeed him happily and comfortably from that day on. When my son had rashes, was vomiting or his nappies looked weird, the books suggested it was meningitis. It was my lovely GP, Dr Gallagher, who saw us and told me it would all be ok. When my baby started waking every hour though the night and I thought I would go quite mad, it wasn’t the books that helped – although I bought and read them all – it was Vanessa, a real live person that a friend recommended, who came to my house and met my son, and kindly and lovingly gave me the confidence to settle him. When he wouldn’t eat, or didn’t start speaking on cue, and I wasn’t sure what to do, the relevant chapters just made me more anxious. It would be a quick chat with Antoinette, my beloved health visitor, that would offer me perspective. Because the truth is, however many books you buy, there is no definitive recipe to raising a child. There is no absolute fail-safe way to get a six-month-old to sleep through the night, or to make a fussy eater love carrots, or make a child walk or talk earlier than he’s ready to. We must all bumble along as best we can, learn to trust our instincts and take our cues from our babies.

Really, all we want to hear is this: “You’re normal”, and I’ve learnt you don’t need an Amazon Prime account for that.

But I understand the appeal of parenting books. We no longer live in the kind of communities that nurture new mothers and teach them confidence. We look to books because we don’t feel there are places to go, people to ask; we don’t want to harass our GP with silly questions or endlessly bother our families. Also, we are a generation used to instant rewards. I was 32 when I became a mum for the first time, after a decade working in an office where problems always have solutions, where questions need urgent answers. It took me some time to accept that having a baby might not be so straight-forward, that there might not be a simple resolution to every challenge. The growth of parenting books is worrisome because most of them, in one way or another, undermined my confidence as a mum, reducing everything to a series of tasks. Every time I would read a chapter, a part of it would stay ringing in my ears for weeks. “At four-and-a-half months old your baby is probably on four feeds a day,” Penelope Leach told me. (Oh, god, he’s on about 15. I’m a total failure.) “By 18 months, your baby should be able to string two words together,” said another expert. Recent research by Dr Angela Davis at the University of Warwick has proved my hunch that, for many mums, parenting books do more harm than good. Dr Davis found that over the past 50 years the advice in motherhood manuals has set unattainably high standards, leaving many mums feeling like failures. “Levels of behaviour these childcare manuals promote are often unattainably high,” she says. “Experts still cannot agree on the best way to approach motherhood, and all this conflicting advice just leaves women feeling confused and disillusioned.” I am expecting my second baby in a few weeks and my pregnancy books have been gathering dust in a box underneath my bed. I haven’t looked at them once. Last week, my husband and I boxed all the books up – the birth ones, the sleep ones, the weaning and development ones – and took them to the charity shop. I hope no one buys them and they eventually get pulped. This time around, I am going to wing it. And when I’m feeling disoriented, confused and uncertain, as I’m certain I will, I will not use Google or try and look whatever it is up in a reference book. Instead, I will do what I should have done the first time around: I’ll call on the wealth of experience of all the wise woman I know. I’ll ask my best girlfriends, my NCT group, my granny, my mum and my sister. I’ll ask Dr Gallagher, I’ll call Sarah and Antoinette: I’ll reach out, as we all should, not to the strange author of a book that’s sold two million but to the people who love me and who know me best.