How to be a ‘dudelike’ mum
Zoe Williams’ witty and insightful Bring It On, Baby joins a tiny handful of new books calling for solidarity between parents and a war of resistance against patronising parenting propaganda.
I am going to buy several copies of Zoe Williams’ Bring It On, Baby: How to Have a Dudelike Pregnancy and liberally distribute it to pregnant women I meet. And here’s why…
First of all, it’s the funniest book I have read for a long time. As I was reading it on Tube trains and buses I would shake with laughter, much to the consternation of fellow travellers. It’s good to laugh. But more importantly, the tone of the book implies that, in the end, having a child (or two) is a joyous thing. And I defy you to find any other contemporary book on parenting which gives that message.
Also, it’s a book which bears some, and in some parts a great, resemblance to what I felt and thought and experienced during pregnancy. When I read books by journalists or writers on their experiences of pregnancy and having children, I usually end up shouting at the book: ‘Get over yourself, you self-indulgent, self-obsessed woman!’
The book gives voice to some of the anxieties of pregnancy, but it always puts them into the context of being only a fleeting moment in time, because then you have your child and love it and the world changes. The egotism of pregnancy, and your misconceptions of what having children is like, are just pinpricks in the very big adventure of your family’s whole life.
I particularly liked Williams’ insight that ‘society en masse does not understand the first pregnancy – it only understands the second one’. By this she means that in the first pregnancy you are totally concerned about yourself because you don’t come at it ‘from the perspective of knowing how wondrous and awe-inspiring it [the baby] is when it comes’. So you are thinking about how it will affect your free time, your career, make you look fat – when, as Williams points out, it isn’t such a big deal in the end.
Williams is also spot on about how people think about the second child, before it is actually born, particularly in one child’s relationship to another: ‘You’re really thinking of it [the second child] as a large, animated toy for the first one: a toy, on the one hand; relief, on the other, from the relentless company of just you, its parents; and on the third hand, a personality corrective because it is already a little bit spoilt. It’s not quite as iffy as having a second child to harvest its kidney, but it’s in that ballpark.’
Of course, when the second child is born you love it as the unique child it is. And when your 10-year-old and eight-year-old behave as if each of them has just left a Romanian orphanage as they fight for meagre scraps of affection and scant resources, you cannot believe how you ever thought it was a good idea to have a second child so that the children would be companions.
But on top of being a funny book about pregnancy, Bring It On, Baby debunks some really serious pregnancy myths. In 2010, being a pregnant woman is no fun at all. Instead of pregnancy being viewed as something normal and healthy, it has become a time of gloom and anxiety for many women. In an era beset by mistrust and self-doubt, a pregnant woman has become a key target for moralism and behaviour management. And as pregnant women quite naturally want to do what is best for the babies they are carrying, they are susceptible to various interfering schemes and messages.
Williams takes a kick at all of these myths. She shines a harsh light on the facts behind drinking during pregnancy, the idea that women should avoid certain foods, the anti-epidural consensus, the breast-is-best lobby, the competition between parenting styles, the obsession with what you feed your kids. She takes all of these things apart.
She gives us hard facts in place of medical myths, challenging, for example, the mantra ‘breast is best’. In our age of uncertain values, some new, and rather strange, moral absolutes are emerging to fill a gap – and one of these is that breastfeeding is the only truly decent thing a new mother can do. Outside of any rational framework, the medical establishment and middle-class campaigning groups have promoted breastfeeding as the epitome of good mothering.
As any writer who has dared to suggest that formula feeding is not the end of the world will know, breastfeeding provokes highly irrational responses. But having researched the scientific claims, Williams argues that ‘the case for breastfeeding is not that strong’. The pro-breastfeeding arguments are that it increases the child’s IQ, produces less obese children, and improves against some childhood infections. But social class and environment have such an impact that the case for breastfeeding ‘boils down to, “Middle-class babies do better; middle-class babies tend to be breastfed”’, says Williams.
Williams really lays into the sacred myths propagated by self-righteous parents. Because many of us have taken to heart the idea that how we raise our child will make the difference between whether it becomes professor of nuclear physics at Cambridge or a homeless person, parents (and by that I generally mean mothers) can take very harsh and judgemental lines on how a child should be brought up. Instead of taking the humane, and correct, view that there is no right or wrong way to bring up a child, so long as it is loved, we spend our time clucking about others in order to make ourselves feel less battered by our feelings of inadequacy in the face of the official line on brilliant motherhood – which none of us can meet.
Williams explores these myths and demonstrates that what really matters is that we love our children – not that we get involved in controlled crying or hold them to our bosom 24 hours a day. Her chapter on breastfeeding has inevitably caused the biggest furore, as she makes the point that the advocates of breastfeeding and its benefits make no distinction between the developing world and the developed world. Williams herself breastfed in the first few months but, as she says, ‘I’ll tell you what: when I look at mothers who didn’t breastfeed their children, it never strikes me that they love them any less.’
Of course, Williams does have some prejudices of her own. She doesn’t agree with smacking children, and insists it should be called ‘hitting’. It seems that her dislike of smacking stems from the fact that it usually happens when a child has, say, stepped into the road and the adult, ‘hysterical with anxiety and shock’, behaves ‘according to their atavistic instincts’. But this atavistic instinct she criticises is born of a parent’s love and fear that something might have happened to their child. Yes, it isn’t the most rational action in the world – but as she argues at other points in the book, there is a lot about how you feel towards your children that isn’t rational, and that’s part of the joy and pain of the whole childrearing experience.
For all Williams’ criticisms of the self-righteousness of some parents – those who are into exclusive breastfeeding, natural childbirth, swearing off alcohol during pregnancy – it seems she cannot resist throwing in some moral absolutes of her own. This just goes to show that even in a book that encourages us to be ‘dudelike’ during pregnancy and early motherhood, we all have our own un-dudelike prejudices. However, the good thing is that there is now a handful of books out there calling for unity and a sense of solidarity between parents and imploring us to challenge parenting propaganda – and this is very definitely one of them.
Jane Sandeman is convenor of the Institute of Ideas Parents’ Forum.
Bring it on, Baby: How to Have a Dudelike Pregnancy, by Zoe Williams, is published by Guardian Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
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