The problem with parenting ‘experts’
Everyone knows that parenting is hard; its one of the first things many experienced parents will tell you when you’re expecting, some with a hint of relish as it leaves their lips. What many of those people do not tell you however, is that there is a lot of useless or missing information that will make the journey into the unknown that much harder.
As soon as you know a baby is on the horizon you will be faced with a number of decisions, and these will quickly increase in number once the baby arrives. The choices you make are, to some degree, trial and error but in many cases they are made harder by the rise of the parent ‘expert’ and the plethora of books, websites and online forums now available.
Central to much of this is the problem-solution approach to parenting, that is literature that identifies a ‘problem’ with your baby such as their inability to sleep through the night, and then provides a ‘solution’ to help you to fix it. This can be a very attractive approach to new parents who are struggling to make sense of the new world in which they find themselves. When you’re exhausted and anxious you will be willing to grasp at any alternative that is offered in order to help to you to feel more in control. I think this is especially true if, like me, you were used to being quite efficient at things you set your mind to before you became a parent.
It is also a path that many can take comfort in because it is learned behaviour; our parents and their parents lived in the age of the parenting manual and each generation had its own fashion in this way. As a result, making comments such as ‘you’re making a rod for your own back by holding her too much’ seem to have become a social norm; be it in your family home, on a crowded bus or while you’re frantically trying to get your baby to sleep in a cafe. These kind of interactions can make you feel like there is an issue that you need to correct, and this seems to be supported by the amount of help that is available in books and consultants that cover everything from feeding your baby, to controlling your toddler’s tantrums.
What this kind of literature does not encourage is an honest discussion based on current research that supports the needs of your baby. This is unhelpful, but it also takes the onus away from parents understanding their own child. The problem-solution approach can lead to you not trusting your instincts and this can strip new parents of their confidence, precisely the currency that such experts promise to deliver. Sleep deprivation and the loss of control makes you the target market for such manuals, and the self-proclaimed experts know this. If your 3am googling leads you to trying out such a solution and after trying your best you do not get the desired results, it’s likely that you will end up feeling like you are a failure. One of the benefits of being part of the no sleep club is that I have only hazy memories of doing this, but when everything is at the tip of our fingers it is easy to consider guidance from a shiny website that promises that your child can be ‘fixed’.
If a so-called expert can sell you a book then they are also getting you to buy into a set of values that they can continue to tap in the future. This can be very hard to see when you’re in the middle of a crap week or a stressful few months. Of course, many parents like this approach and it works for them and their baby. I sought help to try to improve some of the unsettled periods after experiencing the dreaded 4 month sleep regression (who even knew sleep regression was a thing before having a kid?), and this certainly made a difference overall. My decision to do so was based on the type of support that I was being provided with, and the biological understanding that bolstered that advice. In many cases parents are being hampered from making informed choices by literature that is simply not backed up by any research. Knowledge is power, as they say, and I believe that having a deeper understanding of a baby’s development can only aid these decisions.
Like many other expectant parents, this kind of information would have been incredibly helpful to me had it been covered in any of the antenatal classes that my partner and I attended. Alongside this, I was surprised at how little attention maternal and paternal health received during my pregnancy. Like all other areas of mental health, there is so much more to do in terms of normalising this discussion and making parents prepared for what might happen. Most of us have heard of the horrendously named ‘baby blues’ and postnatal (postpartum) depression, but having a child can affect your mental health anywhere along a very broad spectrum.
Many of us new parents find ourselves sitting on this spectrum somewhere; with hindsight I can see that I had a form of post-traumatic stress about my birthing experience alongside many periods of anxiety and distress reacting to what I found out later were symptoms of a dairy allergy. Had there been a discussion beforehand surrounding how you may find adjusting to your new role, I’m confident that I wouldn’t have suffered to the degree I did. That’s not to say that I would have been fine, but at the very least I would have been aware that I may have had to face certain issues and that I could seek help in given environments.
Information, misinformation and a lack of information all have a role to play in mental health issues. It’s fair to say that no one quite knows the impact that being a new parent will have on your life and how you view yourself. I had no idea of the extent to which I would struggle with my identity after having my son. Who I was before was based on my background, my social circle, travel, hobbies and my career. During pregnancy many of those pillars became shorter and shorter and many of them disappeared entirely when I became a parent, leaving me feeling lost and lonely. I think that many people assume that this identity struggle may only affect the person that carries the baby, but it can affect partners too and this is just another element of parenthood that was not touched upon in any of our antenatal classes.
Of course no book, or person or workshop can fully prepare you for what’s to come and nobody can promise that they will do this. What I am seeking to do is to provide an opportunity for expectant parents to be involved in an honest and open discussion; about how babies develop, what they need from their parents and, crucially, how this may make you feel. No two babies are the same, the same goes for parents, and the most important job on the planet deserves a lot more credit than a parenting ‘expert’ telling you what the ‘average’ baby needs.
For more information and to find out what I’m doing to support new parents, take a look at www.holdingthebaby.co.uk