Sunday, 29 March 2015
How to: Trust your maternal instincts
No baby will ever behave exactly how the guides say they should, so ignore the pressure to be perfect, take your time and trust your instincts, says Lizzie Catt
My most recent fib slipped out at an NCT meet-up. 'Is she holding toys yet?' asked a friend. 'Uh-huh!' I smiled, before racing home to shove a cloth rabbit in my daughter Eva's tiny hand, anxiously cooing, 'Good girl!' while she dropped the bunny, blew a few bubbles then nodded off.
The week before, it had been tummy time. Alarmed by a Facebook video of my friend's baby doing push-ups like a champ, I watched an online tutorial then planted Eva face down and waited, camera poised. She burst into tears, spluttering furiously into her play mat. 'But you need to develop your upper body strength,' I wailed, scooping her up for a cuddle. 'Baby Dolcie can probably bench press her Moses basket by now.' However, when later asked if Eva had taken to the dreaded tummy time, I plastered another fraudulent smile on my face. 'She's getting the hang of it!' I grinned.
But she wasn't – not that I was going to admit it. It wasn't that I particularly wanted to deceive; I fibbed because I felt terrible. I'd only tried for another ten seconds – I couldn't cope with the heartbreaking sobs. So in a few months, when all my friends' babies start to crawl, mine will probably still be lying on her back kicking her little legs in the air – and it will all be my fault.
No matter how relaxed we think we'll be as mums, it's incredibly difficult not to worry when we watch friends' babies sail through milestones, achieve infant nirvana at baby yoga and return from swimming classes able to pick up coins from the bottom of the pool. And when we turn to books and websites for help, the sheer amount of advice on offer – much of it conflicting – can induce real panic.
Most of us come to motherhood with no experience, but straight from careers where we know exactly what we're doing. Put in charge of unpredictable and complex little humans who develop at a quite terrifying rate, it's no wonder things go pear-shaped every now and then. But, brainwashed by years of performance reviews and can-do attitudes, it can be very hard to admit to anyone – especially ourselves – that we're struggling.
Are we setting ourselves up for failure with this drive for perfection? And how can we learn to let go, trust our instincts and enjoy motherhood – stuff-ups and all?
Surrey GP Dr Charlotte Canniff is one of the voices urging us to be kinder to ourselves and try a little slow parenting. 'In my experience,' she says, 'there's a pressure for women to read all these so-called expert books, then they get worked up about whether or not they're doing parenting skills, Dr Canniff believes investing hours in play can give a happier experience.
'For hundreds of years, we sat with our babies and worked it all out for ourselves with no help from books or parenting experts, just comforting words of encouragement and help from our families and close friends. In the end, I find there is little difference between the babies of mums who haven't read any of the expert advice and of those who have spent hours reading all the latest opinions instead of spending quality time playing with and getting to know their baby. By learning their own baby's signs and cries they'll soon form a bond stronger than any book can develop.'
But going with the flow can feel totally counterintuitive. Midwife and mum Becky Rutherford says this is normal. 'Lots of women having babies now have had careers first and they're used to being in control of everything in their lives,' she explains. 'But now this is something that's completely out of your control – I say this to women all the time. It's a really hard thing to accept.'
And while many of us are too embarrassed to admit that we're all at sea, Becky – who has two girls, Seren, five and Stella, three – says it's important to remember that everyone, even the professionals, flounders when they have children of their own.
'I've seen doctors and midwives totally thrown by the experience of having their first baby,' she says. 'I was the same when I had Seren. Everyone assumed I'd be fine because I was a midwife. But while I knew the practical stuff, I was actually scared to go out in case people realised I didn't know what I was doing. It was isolating and I ended up with quite bad postnatal depression. I still sometimes think I'm the one doing it wrong while everyone else is doing it right – everyone feels like that.'
Social psychologist Dr Sandra Wheatley says it's easy to understand why women feel pressure to be perfect. 'People glibly say, "Being a mum is the most important job in the world!" then in the next breath ask, "How are you doing?" No pressure! It's a biggie. Our children matter to us and we want to do our best,
but sometimes we don't know how.'
However, Dr Wheatley believes we're already more than qualified to make the right decisions. 'You can read as many books as you like but your child is unique and you will have to try to piece together the information,' she says. 'Of course the pressure is there to help ensure the species survives. But if that pressure gets too much and you can't think straight, it becomes an issue.
'My advice is to think of a previous situation you felt was well beyond your capacity. Think about how you approached the problem and how you resolved it. Those skills will almost certainly translate into looking after a baby.'
Not helping us to feel calm and collected is the never-ending array of kit that a baby's supposed to need. A recent Which? report listed the top ten least useful baby products, with the poor old door bouncer bagging the number one spot and the whole lot coming in at £275. Still, just choosing a monitor or thermometer for your precious newborn can feel like a life or death decision – and let's face it, no one wants other mums to snigger at their choice of pram.
But, says Dr Wheatley, nobody gets it completely right and the solution's simple. 'Every mother has pieces of equipment she thought would come in useful but didn't. But they were well organised, which is great. Just give things away or flog them on eBay and buy something you've realised you do need.'
So how can new mums find self-reliance and confidence? It's important to remember that there's no one right way – what has worked for a friend may not work for you.
Karen, mum to three-month-old Harriet, faced opposition from health visitors when she told them she wanted to follow the Gina Ford routine. She says that doing what she knew was right for her baby and taking a relaxed attitude to the method paid dividends. 'I was slightly overwhelmed when I read the routines in the book,' she explains. 'I intended to follow it as closely as I could because I had little confidence in myself, but it's amazing how quickly your intuition kicks in! In the end, I couldn't follow it to a tee because invariably, the baby didn't do everything according to the Gina blueprint baby. But it's definitely allowed me to enjoy my baby more.'
On the other hand Debbi, mum to Sam, three, and Matilda, nine months, had run herself ragged until she learned to follow Sam's lead. 'When I had Sam, I thought everything had to be perfect. I was killing myself rushing to music classes, reading the right books and playing creatively. But when Sam didn't cut his first teeth till he was one, bizarrely it made me relax – there was nothing I could do about it. He was just doing things at his own pace and it made me see that was true for everything.'
As for me, it was another NCT meet-up that helped me realise I wasn't alone. 'Is anyone's baby enjoying tummy time?' asked one of the other mums, prompting a rousing chorus of 'Noooo!' followed by confessions of upset babies bellowing in protest and shared tips on how we could try to get it right next time. Perfection? It really is overrated.