Neurotic mothers, anxious fathers, competitive parenting: when did we become a child-obsessed nation? Polly Vernon meets the GP who believes having children is making us stressed and unhappy – and thinks we all need to relax
Can you remember a time before the cult of motherhood? A time when parenting wasn’t viewed as a cross between competitive sport, a money-spinning cash-in opportunity and the root cause of 95 per cent of contemporary neuroses?
A time before Yummy Mummies and Milfs, Tiger Moms and SAHMs (stay-at-home mums), mummy bloggers, mumpreneurs, £1,000 buggies and the school-gate fashion scene; before women posted videos of their developing home pregnancy tests on YouTube, threw baby showers of such epic proportions they’re renamed Power Showers, and declared the sex of their unborn child to interested parties by cutting into a custom-baked cake, the sponge interior of which had been food-dyed either blue or pink, by way of a formal announcement? A time, really, before Baby Madness engulfed our society wholesale?
Me neither. General consensus suggests that Baby Madness has held us in its thrall for little more than 15 years. My friend Jane R – mother of three, all born since 2004, self-identifying “baby mental case” – believes ground zero for the Baby Madness movement was the birth of David and Victoria Beckham’s eldest son, Brooklyn, in March 1999, and it’s reasonable to say that parenthood reimagined as a consumer opportunity has evolved in pace with that child’s life.
Which would be fine, I suppose – everyone needs a hobby. Except great swaths of research suggest modern parenting is not making us at all happy. Various extensive studies produced over the course of the past decade repeatedly demonstrate that parents experience more stress and lower happiness levels than their childless equivalents. In 2004, the Nobel Prize-winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman published a survey of 909 working Texas women, who ranked childcare at No 16 on a list of 19 pleasurable activities (the activities they preferred included washing clothes, for heaven’s sake).
In 2010, having studied tens of thousands of British families, social economist Professor Andrew Oswald announced: “It’s not that children make you less happy; it’s just that children don’t make you more happy.” Unless, he added, you have more than one child, at which point “the studies show a negative impact”. American sociologist Robin Simon maintains: “Having kids doesn’t make you happy. Sociologists find that as a group, parents… experience depression and emotional distress more often than their childless adult counterparts. Parents of young children report far more depression, emotional distress and other negative emotions than non-parents.”
The journalist Jennifer Senior’s new book, All Joy and No Fun: the Paradox of Modern Parenthood, considers these statistics in depth and contemplates parenthood from a perspective of how children affect their parents’ lives and happiness – rather than the other way round. It is inevitably causing controversy, outrage and also… recognition.
Because while we struggle with these sorts of findings – which fly in the face of the human imperative to procreate, never mind the deep-rooted cultural assumptions that a fulfilled life must by definition involve children – we also know, from anecdote and experience, that there is at least some truth in them, don’t we? We know that modern motherhood is defined by guilt, judgment and anxiety, by shifting rules and shifting goalposts, by fads and trends that conflict horribly with each other, by debate and antagonism drummed up in the media and disseminated via the toxic tendrils of the competitive motherhood movement. We know our decision to breastfeed in public or not breastfeed at all, to go back to work too soon or stay at home too long, to name our child Xavier and hothouse him through primary school and keep him away from all sugar/touchscreen devices/non-organic substances until he’s eight years old, will be challenged endlessly by our friends, family, NCT groups, daytime TV discussion segments and the State… How, given these circumstances, could parenthood lead to anything other than anxiety, neuroticism, poleaxed indecision and misery?
What’s going on, I ask Dr Ellie Cannon, a GP, newspaper columnist, broadcaster and mother of a nine-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy. “Basically, we’ve gone a bit mad,” she says. “Which is why I wrote the book.” Cannon’s Keep Calm: The New Mum’s Manual was written and published with the express intention of undoing some of the damage wrought by a decade and a half of contradictory advice, of hard sells from politicians hoping to appear mummy-friendly and companies hoping to cash in on the mummy pound, and of the judgment and/or approbation of everyone else. “It’s not a baby book,” Cannon says. “It’s a mission. A mission to take back motherhood, give it back to women and mothers, so that people stop telling us what to do all the time. I want mothers to take the power back.”
Cannon believes that much of our obsessive, anxious and obnoxiously competitive mothering issues stem from “too many rules! Too much information. And guidelines and encyclopedias and parenting ‘pseudo-experts’ and government and politicians and everyone! And some of those rules, a tiny, tiny minority, are really important, such as vaccinate your babies. But it’s a tiny percentage. There’s this whole other wave of bombardment! When we’re allowed to go back to work! When we’re allowed to have sex with our husband! When we’re allowed to do this, when we’re allowed to do that! Women for generations have been coping fine with their instincts, we now think we’re terribly empowered, yet – are we? If at every juncture someone’s telling us what to do? You can’t buy a toy in this country without this long list of all the things this toy is going to do for your child. I just want toys to say on them: “This is a red piece of plastic; might be fun.” I don’t want it to say: “This is going to help socialisation…”
She breaks off. “Sorry,” she says. “I’m ranting.”
Cannon is sitting in a café in the BFI complex on London’s South Bank, and yes, ranting just a little, perhaps. She’s in her mid-thirties, attractive, perfectly groomed: “But only because it’s a Tuesday, and I’ve just done Sky; I always look lovely on a Tuesday because someone has made me look lovely. I’ll go to the school gates looking lovely; then Wednesday, I turn up practically in my pyjamas. Which keeps them [the competitive mother crowd] on their toes. I like keeping them on their toes.”
Keep Calm is, Cannon hopes, the “last baby book anyone will ever need to buy. I’ve written a baby book to tell people not to buy baby books.” It’s certainly a straightforward number, which extols the virtues of a few very basic principles on child rearing (vaccinate them, put them to sleep on their backs, “Um… Feed them! Ha! That’s it!”) while otherwise encouraging women to re-engage with their instincts, to trust themselves and be honest about their experiences of motherhood, rather than indulging a filtered Twitter and Facebook-friendly fantasy of how it’s playing out.
“And ignore the internet. The internet is a massive issue. Anybody can be an expert, anyone can set themselves up as an expert. There are a lot of people who like dishing out rules. A lot of people who like being experts.”
“Power? Narcissism? Because women are still such easy targets and everyone enjoys having a go at us, even other women? Especially other women! Then there are the healthcare professionals. There’s a lot of box ticking, a lot of targets, a lot of We Must Be Doing Something To Help Women Breastfeed, TICK; We’ll Stop Anyone Buying A Bottle Anywhere, TICK. Tesco doesn’t give you Clubcard points for formula milk. Nor do other supermarkets. And I understand that we’re trying to promote breastfeeding, but how does that help? Is there any proof withholding Clubcard points does anything at all, apart from stigmatise those women who aren’t breastfeeding, not because they’re lazy and feckless and can’t be bothered, but for so many reasons, reasons you only know if you’ve sat for weeks and years hearing different mums talk about all the reasons some women just can’t breastfeed – which, as a GP, I have.”
On top of this fundamental urge to judge women, whenever and however, Cannon condemns the unregulated gold rush on the spoils of the parenting economy. “Which is a billion-pound economy, and a lot of people are trying to cash in by offering solutions to things such as colic, for which there aren’t any solutions, or by encouraging neurosis, when there needn’t be any. Which makes me so angry, because so much of it is snake oil.”
“OK, for example: head shape. Because of the life-saving campaign to put babies to sleep on their backs, which came from the Nineties where research showed it was much less likely to cause cot deaths, now we always advise putting babies to sleep on their backs. As a result, before they’re rolling, they’re spending a good four or five months on their backs. Their skull bones still aren’t moulded, so they get a very flat back of the head. And that’s OK! When they start sitting up, that’ll correct itself. Or they’ll grow hair and it doesn’t really matter. I have no idea what my head shape is like! But now there is a huge amount of neuroses around baby head shapes. And there are companies and there are therapists, who will do treatments for your baby’s head shape, who will sell you helmets to correct your baby’s head shape, and it’s snake oil.”
In addition to buying her book, Cannon says she thinks we could counteract a lot of our parenting neuroses by “being less middle class about it all. We think we’re so empowered. Working, educated, all the rest of it. But I’m wondering if this over-education is doing us a disservice. I work in a very deprived area, the top end of Abbey Road [in the northwest of London]. There’s a massive council estate. And – without making some terrible socio-economic stereotype – the mums I look after, who are seemingly less empowered, and younger, and less educated, and less socially privileged, are also less neurotic. They have their instinct, and they get on with it. There’s one mum I see who was very young when she got pregnant, nothing was planned, all a bit higgledy-piggledy and all over the place, and she breastfed her baby, and realised he was quite irritable in the evening. So she gives him a bottle in the evening. And he calms down. And that’s it. There’s no big discussion, no big guilt about it, she sits in with her friends, having a coffee, breastfeeding her baby; in the evening, she’s bottle-feeding him. And that works for her. Nobody told her to do that. She doesn’t have 5,000 parenting books, she doesn’t have an antenatal crowd, she just did it. And it worked.”
I do not have children. I felt – strongly, and from a really very young age, 7 or so – that I didn’t want them. Despite being told that I’d change my mind as soon as my friends and contemporaries started having kids, or when I met the right man, or when my biological clock kicked in, I haven’t.
As a result, I’ve had a ringside view of the evolving Baby Madness scene. I’ve watched formerly hard-bitten, wry friends, colleagues and contemporaries form very strong opinions about the importance of baby massage and the right kind of muslin. I’ve seen some lose their minds over imagined issues with their baby’s weight, others come to believe it’s acceptable to show me videos of their C-section on their smartphones. These days, my former friends with newborns are now, largely, friends with a couple of kids over the age of 5 – and an increasingly irreverent attitude towards the whole business. (It’s fair to say that the ones who remained reverent, who subscribed more completely to Baby Madness and all it entailed, have dropped from my radar.) I tap them for stories of the neurotic and absurd mothering they’ve witnessed, which they give up joyfully, because (as Ellie Cannon suggests) no one enjoys sending up mothers quite as much as other mothers do.
“OK,” says a colleague. “There was this one woman in my NCT group who told me, solemnly, that she’d had to take her daughter away from the au pair because she didn’t think ‘she was stimulating her enough’. So now the daughter’s in nursery, which is great apparently, because she’s ‘finger-painting and so on’… She is eight months old.”
“So this friend of a friend who got pregnant a couple of years after I had my first one,” says another colleague, “she’s asking about buggies. I said, ‘Oh, just get a Maclaren.’ But no! She had to spend £900 on some vast buggy because it meant the baby faced her At All Times. She’d read you need to have eye contact At All Times. Only it turned out the thing was so bloody big, she couldn’t get it out of the house, so they were stuck in all the time, and obviously she got completely depressed, big surprise.”
Another tells me she was somewhat alarmed when her seven-year-old turned to her in Waitrose and said: ‘”It’s a nightmare! I can’t see the organic!” “I thought, ‘What have I created?’ ” And a dad of two tells me about “Rhyme Time” at his local library, “where you go and sit on the filthy floor, maybe twice, when the baby is very young and you’re still very vulnerable, and then you give up because it’s awful. Only the Rhyme Time at [the more upmarket] Primrose Hill Library is fun, because it’s filled with Russian nannies and no mums.” Another mother rages to me, via e-mail, about “this woman who just cancelled a ‘play date’ (God, I hate that term!) because E [my friend’s child] had a cold. Not Ebola! A cold! And when I ‘confessed’ to another mum that I sometimes enjoy a fag when E has gone to bed – outside, mind you – I got a stern lecture on ‘third-hand smoke’. What, THROUGH WALLS?”
Next, I turn to my newest guilty obsession: a brilliant Twitter feed called @Highgatemums, which documents extreme incidents of middle-class mothering witnessed or overheard in Highgate, another upmarket and prohibitively expensive area of London. Its description reads: “Overheard screams of consciousness from the ladies who brunch.” Among my favourite postings are:
“Who WE are is who our CHILDREN are. You see?”
“A mother has just shouted: ‘Sebastian! You know what kind of people eat crisps!’ ”
“To think of them as school fees is crazy. They’re an investment in making the sort of people worthy of employment.”
“Overheard in café. Bearded father: ‘Sorry, I asked for a “soya” babycino.’ ”