"You mean, there's another Dr Spock?"
Although I have managed to have nine children and am now the hands-on grandmother of three, I have never read a baby book. In fact, I used to wonder why my American friends with grumpy babies kept mentioning Dr Spock. Were they propping themselves up late at night in front of old episodes of Star Trek? Personally I went for the gripe water -- for the baby, that is. So the huge fuss over a programme called Bringing up Baby and shown on Australian television left me somewhat nonplussed. I wondered why so many parents watched the show and were so personally affronted. They should have gone out and got a decent DVD, a bottle of plonk and got themselves in the mood for an entertaining evening of the type my colleague Bettina Arndt would approve of.
But, no, they tortured themselves with this bad programme. Unfortunately we live in a world of “experts”, although I always thought that when it comes to bringing up one’s children parents are the experts. The reaction to this programme indicated just how appallingly lacking in confidence most Australian parents are.
My own exhaustive research has uncovered 926 book titles currently available in Australia under the heading of parenting and childcare, and that does not include the magazines and associated DVDs. The size of the market is astonishing when one compares it to the popular self help categories of diet and weight loss -- of which there are only 79 and 33 titles respectively currently in print. Are women used to control over their working lives incapable of listening to their instincts when they have a baby, making what should be a normal and natural part of life a huge upheaval? Instead of listening and learning from our own mothers, do we formularise infant care and think we can learn it as we learnt our maths times table? We can’t.
So, what help is there for the well meaning modern parent? And what about the methods displayed in the television programme?
I have to confess that the only method I knew of was Truby King’s, the method supposedly used by the Bringing Up Baby horror nanny, Verity. However, both in the programme itself and the reaction to it the Plunkett founder’s methods were badly misrepresented and his enormous positive legacy totally ignored. So, for example, in a popular parenting blog I read this: “Apparently the Truby King method arises from King’s vet days where he noticed regular feeding times and plenty of fresh air resulted in happy healthy calves. Yes, calves. Baby cows. Hmmm…”
The blogger describes herself as a Brisbane mother of three who “divides her time between looking for her sanity and looking for her waistline. She hopes parenthood doesn't send her to an early grave.” Very droll. But what a pity she knows nothing about one of the greatest figures in the history of maternal and child health, credited for almost single-handedly cutting the perinatal death rate in New Zealand from 88 per thousand in 1907 to 32 per thousand over the next thirty years. Sir Frederic Truby King pioneered the post-natal home nurse system which we have almost abandoned, and are only beginning to rediscover. And he was never a vet.
Truby King’s methods were exported to Australia and Canada via the Karitane movement, which runs post-natal hospitals and outreach centres in Sydney and other large cities and forms the basis for all modern post natal mothercraft institutions. Contrary to the delusions of bloggers, Truby King’s was not a “fifties” method -- “the fifties” being shorthand for “stone age”. In fact, he formulated his ideas around the turn of last century, but some methods were still used in the 50s. Yes, he was adamant that babies need routine in the form of regular feeds and sleep, and mothers needed rest. Part of that routine was strict hygiene, and in the time before routine immunisation it was truly vital, as was daily exposure to sunlight. He had been a doctor in Glasgow and he had seen rickets. He was not against breast feeding; quite radically for the time, he insisted that the protein content of artificial feeds should mimic breast milk.
Mary Kirk, director of nursing and executive officer of the Queen Elizabeth II family centre in Canberra, is quite happy to give Truby King his due, while pointing out that modern methods of infant care have evolved and are now much more responsive to babies’ development. Nor has she anything against Dr. Spock, the one who sold 50 million copies of his book, although he himself acknowledged that judging by the selfish products of Gen X and Y, his child centred methods did not always work. But Kirk, a hands-on nurse with a long career in child and maternal health who sees 1600 families a year, has no doubt about what is plaguing modern parenting. It goes way beyond which technique of infant management is used. It is FEAR. She writes:
Today’s parents’ instincts are paralysed by fear. They cannot read infants cues and don’t know whether to respond or not. So they become hyper-vigilant, responding to everything, resulting in the modern phenomenon of ‘helicopter’ parenting. And because so many parents cannot identify the difference between wants and needs themselves, they fail to identify that in their infants and then older children. Parents really need to look at their own values and distinguish between wants and needs, to be secure in those and then set boundaries for the child. It is actually very stressful for children not to have developmentally appropriate boundaries.
The mothering instinct can be smothered and parents are simply not prepared for the change in their controlled life, particularly if they have spent years childless and focused on themselves, investing their identity in a career. It is when we have children that we find out who we are, not what we do.
So much of the problem with modern “parenting” is modern families. Aside from the increasing number of pathologies, like alcoholism and drug taking, even relatively healthy families are fragmented. The extended family is scattered, families are small and grandmothers are almost too old by the time they have grandchildren to advise, help and do all the other grandmotherly things. In the future, as first time mothering is pushed further and further back, there is a distinct possibility that some children will grow up without any grandparents.
Besides taking steps to correct that trend, it might also help to realise that once we didn’t have conveniently gender neutral “parents”, we had mothers and fathers. How odd that we make a fuss about infant management techniques, but are willing to subject our children to bizarre social experiments like same sex parenting and serial step parents or “father figures” -- things that can do much more harm than any infant management technique. Men and women are different but complementary. Fathers are life-long learners, but it is the mother who has the guiding instinct. So having children as early as possible, with a loving father who is a willing learner, makes for better mothering, and better fathering -- and you don’t need a baby book for that.
Angela Shanahan is an Australian newspaper columnist.