When my mother had children, she had no-one to give her advice except my grandmothers and possibly the odd health professional. She has often told me how difficult this was, leading to a sense of isolation and an overwhelming fear as she was left to care for a new life with no-one to guide her through it. It is meant to be different now. New mothers these days have a vast wealth of advice right at our fingertips. There are countless books (a search for “parenting” on Amazon has 84,691 results), all sorts of different concepts (co-sleeping, baby-wearing, baby-led weaning), Sure Start centres, the list goes on.
Judging by newspaper headlines, every day there is a new study containing precious information about almost any aspect of parenting you can imagine. Many of these studies apparently contradict each other: earlier this year, one study told us that British children need parental time and not material goods, another study weeks later claims that children need material goods for happiness. Breastfeeding and weaning is one topic that seems to attract attention. Foods chop and change off the approved list regularly and while guidelines have remained static for some time now, it never feels like it (especially with elderly relatives muttering about oats and whisky in the baby bottle). Working mothers come under fire, as do stay at home mothers, older mothers, younger mothers. It seems that whichever way you do things, you will be damaging your children.
It’s not just news reports, the internet is probably the biggest change in parenting over the last decade or so. There are countless parenting forums, blogs and feeds all offering advice. A lot of these are incredibly supportive, and of course it’s fantastic to have these resources. Where else can you get 16 cures for nappy rash at 3am? It’s so easy to put a question out there and have responses within seconds, which is extremely useful and can also be very reassuring. The early days of motherhood can be some of the most isolating of your life and the new ability to connect with other mothers so easily cannot be underestimated. That said, as I stay up late poring over research into rear-facing car seats, I often feel rather jealous of my mother parenting at a time when most mothers just muddled through and hoped for the best. Having access to such incredible amounts of information can make life even harder – now there is no excuse to make a mistake and yet it’s easy to feel that I’m making mistakes at every turn.
It is human nature to be protective of your parenting; it’s such a huge responsibility and we all want to be the best parents we can be. Combine that with sleep deprivation, hormones and the stresses of parenting, and it can be a powerful cocktail of self doubt and judgement. Put that on the internet and the results can be intimidating. In real life most mothers I’ve met are fairly similar to me, we all have our own ways of doing things but we’re largely supportive of each other and dismissive of our differences. Online however, I’ve encountered some very passionate people, often defending some fairly niche parenting ideas. It’s common to stumble across another crucial thing that you have failed to do, or something that you do which your children should be pitied for. It can be easy to feel like you’re drowning in the constant stream of parenting advice, strongly held beliefs and research. Over the 3 and a half years I’ve been a mother, I’ve begun to realise that I will make mistakes and that there will always be someone watching, ready to suck through their teeth at my failure. And is it worth expending energy worrying about what others think of you and your parenting? Does seeking the validation of others ultimately count for much? Maybe it’s better to just love your kids and muddle through the best you can?