Every day on various Facebook support groups, or when I speak to parents, on television and everywhere you go I hear variations of the same phrase when it comes to parenting, particularly young babies;
"They say you should have them in their own room at 6 months",
"They say you shouldn't have them in your bed",
"They say you shouldn't hold them all the time or they'll always want holding",
"They say you should set up a feeding schedule and stick to it",
"They say you should jump off a cliff..."..?!
Now, if you'd told me this 18 months ago I would have laughed, or more likely cried; ugly, hormonal, post birth, trying to work out a 3 week old baby, sleep deprived, crazy lady, cried, in your face and said I don't have a clue what I'm doing with my baby. The thing is I did, I just didn't know it because people kept shoulding and shouldn'ting all over me all the time, including myself.
After consciously or subconsciously soaking up all this culture about what we should and shouldn't do with our babies, I found my own inner voice was repeating these things so loudly at me, fuelled by anxiety, hormones and some postnatal depression thrown in for good measure. So much so that my natural instincts, whispering quietly inside, were drowned out by all the noise and I found myself in a complete nightmare situation where I had no faith in anything I was doing and was constantly plagued by guilt. Guilt for having baby in bed with me, or not following a feeding schedule and not getting up and going out to groups, or spending too long in bed with baby, or eating too many family sized boxes of biscuits! Everything I did became a struggle and reading books and researching online just threw me out even more as I just got more "They say you should's" thrown at me, and who the bloody hell are 'they' anyway and why do they have all the answers and I don’t?!
Then one day soon after B was born, I couldn't tell you when, as amongst the sleepless nights, tears, nappy changes, hours spent lying in bed or on the sofa cuddling a sleeping baby and constantly breastfeeding with sore nipples that "they" said are perfectly normal, the days were all a bit of a blur; but one day the health visitor came round. I remember dreading her visit and had no idea what to expect. Just the fact I had to wash my armpits and get out my pyjamas for her already made me resent her coming over and invading my house. I was half expecting a terrifying matronly woman like Miss Trunchball to come in and shout at me for being a rubbish mother, but was secretly hoping it would be a Miss Honey instead who would just hug me and tell me everything is wonderful. (Kudos if you got the Matilda reference!). In actual fact I got neither of these fictitious characters. I got a friendly, down to earth, lady who was kind, understanding, considerate and realistic. I was so lucky to have this wonderful lady as my health visitor and I know that she saved me! I dread to think where I'd be now if I hadn’t been one of the lucky ones.
She asked the usual questions about baby, but she was more interested in me; in how I was feeling, my mental health, how I was sleeping and who was looking after me. Other than my close family, I think she was the first person I'd spoken too who was actually asking how I was and really meant it, and she didn’t once ask to hold my baby like so many other times where I'd reluctantly handed her over, when in reality I didn't want anyone else to hold her and having my arms empty made me feel a bit lost and useless.
I'd had an emergency C-Section so I wasn't very mobile and had a lot of problems healing as well as some birth trauma to work through so I wasn't in a great place mentally or physically, but I remember when that amazing health visitor came over, I immediately starting feeling better and I felt listened to and cared for. I remember telling her how I was having so much trouble getting Belle to sleep in her Moses basket and that she would only sleep on my chest or fall asleep feeding on the breast, so I ended up sitting up all night holding her terrified of falling asleep thinking she "should" be in her Moses basket because "they" said so and if I don’t put her in it now she will never learn to sleep in it. And I remember her just simply asking if we'd tried bed sharing. I felt shocked to hear it suggested by a professional as surely bedsharing was "bad" and "unsafe" and "shouldn't be done" and "will cause issues in the future" and all the other bollocks I believed at the time. She gave me safe bedsharing guidelines and all the information on how to do it safely and more importantly she told me not to worry anymore and to follow my instincts! She said all my worries about her feeding too much or not getting out enough or holding her too much were all perfectly natural and normal things and that I just needed to do what felt right to me and for B and our family, not what we felt we "should" or "shouldn’t" be doing because some warped society had made us feel that way!
Freedom. Empowerment. Confidence. Relief. These are the gifts she gave me that day. When I asked other mums about what they liked and remembered most about their health visitor, people told me they liked the free Bookstart books she gave out. For me it was so much more. She gave me back the ability to listen to my natural, biological, mothering instincts that were there all along telling me what to do. They were already telling me how to be the best parent I could possibly be. All I needed was someone to tell me to forget what everyone else says or does and just feel and listen and trust myself. This is what society needs! Every new mother needs to be given this kind of support, not that she should or shouldn't be doing things and the “expert" says this, that and the other, and “Barbara down the road bedshared and her son is still in her bed now at 37”. It's all nonsense and, more importantly, irrelevant. There is no perfect single way to parent. All babies are different and all parents are different and we all need different things. For me I found following my own instincts brought me to find a whole new world of alternative parenting skills, with a wealth of information about attachment parenting and carrying and bedsharing and breastsleeping and all the cuddles I wanted. I found out gentle parenting was a thing and found books upon books with evidence based, factual information, which I read and finally could relate to the pages as they told me everything I was already doing was perfectly fine as long as it felt right for us; unlike some of the previous books which I felt belittled me and tried to mould me to be a certain mother society felt I should be, which I have since come to realise is very much warped and miles from where I believe we should be and are naturally, but that's another blog for another day!
The main point I'm trying to make here, is that if you're a parent and you feel unsure of your decisions or don’t know what to do for your baby, then of course feel free to ask for advice and support from others and do read up on things if you need to, but make sure your reading is evidence based and factual rather than written by someone who calls themselves an expert and has never had children and would probably be better off writing a military attack plan. And most importantly, don't feel you have to do anything you don't feel is right. If someone suggests putting baby down drowsy but awake, for example, and you try it and baby screams at you and gives you that look as if to say, "Really Mum? You honestly thought I was going to fall for that?" and the whole thing just feels wrong and doesn't work then don't do it. Try something else. 9 times out of 10 baby is going to want to be close to you and on you 24/7 and that's ok and that's normal, not always easy, but normal! But it's a hell of a lot easier when you can stick two fingers up to the world, stay in your pyjamas all day, lie on the sofa with your boob out because baby is cluster feeding again and eat as many packets of biscuits as you like and not feel one ounce of guilt because you know you're doing what's right for you and your baby and you're listening to that little whisper inside that is your motherly, or fatherly, instincts and knowing that's the most important voice to listen to and none of the should’s and shouldn't’s matter! There are no should’s in parenthood, and anyone who should’s you can should off! But don’t feel you have to listen to me, I’m no expert!