Saturday, 12 January 2013

I agree....but it's not just the NCT.

This post is written in response to a current 'debate' accidentally instigated by the mother and television personality Kirstie Allsop about the information and attitudes imparted by National Childbirth Trust antenatal classes. Having attended NCT classes, my experience of them was positive but they did contribute to my perception that there was a 'best' way to do pregnancy, birth and care for a newborn, and if I did less than that, I wouldn't be a good enough mother. In the post below I explain this in more detail, but also suggest that NHS (National Health Service) classes and other health professionals; celebrity and mother & baby magazines; more experienced mothers and new mothers; indeed, our entire social attitude towards how we look after our babies, has led to and reinforced this perception. It's not just the NCT! As Kirstie says, "Failure?! The only failure is not having a baby delivered safely into your arms."

I should have seen it coming.

Newly pregnant for the first time, equipped only with an Oxford degree, a good Masters degree in Social Anthropology, a PhD and a whole other raft of research skills, my quest to find the 'best' way to look after myself and my baby during pregnancy and beyond, began.

Reading around the subject, not only academically but perusing websites, well-meaning mother & baby magazines, 'advice' from celebrity mothers and attending 3 types of antenatal class, I came to a conclusion ~ there WAS indeed a best way to mother. It was the ONLY way. And if I didn't subscribe to it, my baby would suffer.

I would have a 'natural' birth, with no pain relief and CERTAINLY no Caesarean section - the thought of it! I would breastfeed, co-sleep (with a special cot that joined at the mattress, for safety), use washable nappies, purée organic food which never came from a jar, wear my baby in a sling and never let her cry herself to sleep.

These methods, you see, were demonstrated by various tomes of the literature and other cultures, to work wonderfully, whereas other ways of doing things - Gina Ford, formula feeding, disposable nappies, 'abandoning' baby in a cot to cry, putting baby in a buggy where she couldn't see you - were, quite literally, demonised. Dismissed as propaganda and heresy by many opinionated writers, bloggers and other newly pregnant mums (especially those attending NCT classes) who were shocked that such things could happen,  I felt actively discouraged by them. Attachment parenting material, by contrast, and literature and classes promoting breastfeeding and vaginal delivery as not just best for baby but the right way to do things (and I'm including my NHS antenatal classes here as well as NCT), also had their own agenda, of course (is it true that the NHS has a target quota of women it can get to breastfeed?*) but to me this was well-hidden amongst what is probably a whole host of well-meaning and kind intentions, but just set a person  like myself up for failure.

What nobody managed to convinced me then, as a first time mother, an overachiever who thought she could apply acquired rather than experiential knowledge to having a baby, was that age-old wisdom that the best way to look after yourself and baby is to find what works best for you both.

Funnily enough, having made a superhuman effort in all of the above areas, and ending up with (definitively) postnatal depression with acute anxiety and (possibly although never officially diagnosed) Post Traumatic Stress Disorder including flashbacks from a traumatic birth, I eventually gave in and worked out what worked for my baby and me by learning about my baby and me, not about what other people said to do about what worked most effectively for them. (Obviously it's useful to have an array of others' experiences to draw from and be inspired by, but not if they're going to induce perpetual feelings of guilt and deficiency.)

There's still a part of me that feels a failure. I was comforted, for example, by delivering 3rdSister vaginally even though 1st and 2ndSister had been caesarean sections ~ it felt a bit like I COULD actually do it, and that I hadn't actually been a 'proper' mother until that point, despite the fact that I was medically recommended not to, and the birth nearly went to another emergency C-section. And how is that a good place to be in?! Similarly, breastfeeding - I was so focused on doing it, and doing it 'right', that by the time my daughter was 6 weeks old, coupled with a couple of other factors, every time I went to feed her both of us ended up in tears. Feeding 'on-demand', letting her suckle whenever she seemed to need it, meant that I barely slept, and when she slept, I was awake hyperventilating, waiting for her to wake up. She didn't like her sling, I struggled to wash her nappies, and the underlying feeling beneath all of this was that if women had done this for thousands of years without a whole host of information and equipment, why was I such a failure at motherhood?

In retrospect, a lot of this was my mindset and attitude which has thankfully largely changed for the better (there's nothing better than a large dose of children and God to make you realise you need to relinquish control over things.) But a lot of it is the way that things are presented by both the media (including pregnancy and baby magazines) and antenatal classes and other advisory content (NHS as well as NCT here.) They (I assume unintentionally) set mothers up for potential feelings of failure and guilt, as well as helping perpetuate (and possibly instigate) the horrendous competitive culture evident amongst parents ("You're not bottle feeding, are you?" "Well, MY daughter cut her first tooth at 2 months!" "Oh yes, she's been sleeping through the night since 6 weeks") which can make anyone feel insecure, so wide and varied are its topics of contention.

We fetishise babyhood in UK society. Celebrity and mother & baby magazines alike largely present 'having a baby' as a cute, lovely, fluffy experience with a lot less emphasis on realities and a whole lot more on matching accessories. Meanwhile mothers are needlessly suffering. Presenting ways of doing things as 'right', 'normal' or 'best' is understandable, but when these things may be unattainable for a variety of reasons, if they don't happen there can be at least mild psychological consequences for mothers, and possibly worse. No, I don't think caeaseareans should be available through choice and I suspect that hospitals may err too far on the side of caution when opting to take a woman down to surgery not only because of concern for mother and baby, but out of fear of our increasingly litigious culture. But I still speak to women today who delivered vaginally and look upon a caesarean section as the worst thing in the world...women who breastfed easily and in the long-term and who are insensitive to the problems others may have faced, and can't comprehend how anyone would try formula...women who used reusable nappies for all of their children, and see my failure to rinse, wash and dry buckets of them in the newborn days as exactly that. Mothers criticise, judge and undermine each other not only through the choices that they make, but because of situations that are out of their control. On the one hand, it's the human condition, but on the other hand, I feel it has a lot to do with the presentation of information by antenatal classes given by both the NCT and NHS and available literature ranging from academic analysis to baby magazines.

I've delivered by caesarean and vaginally, breastfed and formula fed, fed on-demand and used a routine, embraced Dr Sears but found a routine à la Gina Ford actually beneficial, feed my children largely organic food but don't frown on processed, regret my inability to 'cloth diaper' but try and help the environment in other ways, tried slings but found they didn't work for me, decided not to go down the route of baby-led weaning or elimination communication even though I am aware there are benefits to both ~ above all, I have been educated about, exposed to and experienced a variety of ways to raise my babies. And you know what? Over time I've 'settled' on what seems to work for me AND my babies. I try not to let the critique of others, wherever it may be found, influence what I'm doing. I expect this method could be widely applied and work well to other parents, too :-)

Assembling and assimilating information from a wide variety of sources is helpful in today's world. However, most of these sources will have an agenda. This may not be visible, and it may be well-intentioned, but it can have problematic ramifications for new mothers. I wish both the NHS and NCT would be more transparent about why they teach what they teach. I wish there was more honesty in the various media about how difficult the reality of parenthood is (although of course I wouldn't want to dissuade people from getting pregnant in the first place!). I wish other mothers supported each others' decisions and it is recognised when we are all trying to do our best, working out what is best for our babies, rather than tearing each other down over points of principle that may be extremely important to us, when what we need to be doing is helping each other out as humans.

* Don't get me wrong, I would actually be all for the NHS helping more mothers breastfeed if a) they didn't market it as something you must do or things will go terribly wrong, and b) they provided complete and effective breastfeeding assistance post-birth from sympathetic midwives with a continuity of care imperative.

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