I was interested but not surprised to read this week about new research from the University of Warwick that shows that in spite of their differences, most parenting advice from the past 50 years sets unattainably high standards for mothers. The author of the report, Dr Angela Davis, reviewed the advice given by six childcare ‘experts’ and concluded:
Despite all the differences in advice advocated by these childcare ‘bibles’ over the years, it is interesting that they all have striking similarities in terms of how the experts presented their advice. Whatever the message, the advice was given in the form of an order and the authors highlighted extreme consequences if mothers did not follow the methods of childrearing that they advocated.
In the past I have shouted myself hoarse on this blog about the way some people, often well-meaning people, instil fear into mothers by giving coercive advice. Their advice normally fits into a neat geometric if/then equation: if you do/don’t do X, then y will happen. We fear the consequence, so we follow the advice, even if it goes against what we feel to be right or what our instincts are saying.
When my first baby was very new, well-meaning friends told me that if I held her all the time she would get used to being held and begin to expect it all the time. Then I would never be able to put her down. So whenever she seemed calm or fell asleep in my arms I’d try to put her down in her bouncy chair or her cot. She would instantly wake up and cry. I’d pick her up, rock her, pace the floor, sing, or sit down and nurse her. All of my time and energy was taken up with trying to get my baby used to being put down. Instead of working with each other, I felt we were constantly set against one another. Hence I became trapped in a cycle of calming a hysterical baby, who one minute was happily dozing in my arms and the next minute wondered where I had gone. My fear of never having a moment to myself, of doing it wrong, of being found out as an incompetent was so strong that I sometimes ignored my own instincts. I believed that my sweating, irritability and frustration were all the result of my baby’s increasing dependence on being held. Instead of seeing them for what they were– my body and mind crying out to just pick up the baby– I saw them as a clearer sign that I needed space, to get away, and that this baby just needed to be put down. Paradoxically, my efforts to get more space for myself resulted in my being even more necessary to my baby with less time to do anything other than soothe her. Listening to the scaremongerers meant that my fears came true.
Human beings are a diverse bunch. Were life as simple as an if/then statement, if life could be boiled down to a mathematical proof, it would be a lot easier to say what the definitive rules of parenting are. However, every human being is unique. The unfortunate thing about these gurus’ warnings and their method of giving advice is that they back parents into a corner. By saying that parents must do one thing in order to avoid horrendous consequences, they deprive parents of the variety of choices we have in parenting our children. People say, “there is no one right way to be a parent” but our society doesn’t actually support this: many people think that yes, actually there is a right way: my way!
Parents need be listened to and supported in deciding what is right for their own children. Instead of offering if/then advice, it can be helpful to be shown a number of options: then I can make a decision for myself. This is true empowerment. Haranguing parents by telling them that if they don’t follow the advice of the moment deprives them of the freedom they need to make decisions that feel right, not just ones that are based on what might happen in the future.
So insidious are our fears of doing the ‘wrong’ thing by our children that the advice of these gurus has become mainstream. Generations hand down this fear-based advice until it comes to be considered as ‘truth.’ When our experiences fall outside of this truth we internalise a sense of guilt or abnormality: “my baby would never be put down,” “he’s a clingy baby,” “he’s very demanding,” “I just gave in to him because I’m soft.” Instead of accepting that babies are needful, instead of acknowledging our links to other primates who carry their young, instead of believing that our children are simply being authentic to who they are, we identify pathology in our experience.
The sad thing is that when parents turn to books for advice they are often in a position of desperation. They have been awake for much of the night, may feel emotional about their baby’s constant needs and are very often confused conflicting advice. It can feel safe to cling to the advice of a guru because s/he seems so confident and makes such strident promises. After all, those words are written on a page in a professionally-published book. It’s in a book so it must be true. But to use fear as a way to sell a particular method is simply unethical. We as parents must stand up and refuse to be coerced. It is time to shut the book on coercive parenting ‘experts’ and reclaim our power as parents.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.