Leaving the house with a new baby for the first time can be a terrifying ordeal. A mere few days ago you were a novice at holding your baby (it took three midwives to convince me, hours after my son’s birth, that I wasn’t going to suffocate him while breastfeeding). Now, suddenly, you are responsible for this little life in an unpredictable world full of noise and traffic and sharp things.
One of the first times I took my son out, he was cuddled against my bosom in a baby carrier. For once I had showered, painted over most of my haunted, tired expression with makeup, and was actually feeling good about myself. Until a woman turned to me in M&S, her face a picture of horror, and proclaimed, “I wouldn’t hold the baby like that if I were you, my dear, I would be terrified I would trip over and fall on him, AND HE’D DIE.”
In the scheme of things, it was such a tiny interaction; only a couple of seconds long - but it made me doubt almost every parenting decision I made, for days. And alas it wasn’t the last piece of unsettling unsolicited advice I’d receive as a new mother.
There was the health visitor who scolded me for staying up with my colicky baby at nights, instead of servicing my husband (“If you don’t put your marriage first, it might break down”), and another who guilted me with “if you’re not enjoying every moment with your baby, you’re doing it wrong.” One childminder audibly tsked upon learning that my son breastfed, and said “naughty naughty”, when I told her we co-slept. And, of course, there was the stranger telling me to be more modest on Instagram, because “a paedophile has probably already "jacked off to" a photo of my newborn son in his nappy.
Recently, C. S. Mott’s Children’s Hospital in the USA polled 475 mothers for a childhood behaviour study, and found that almost two-thirds of those with young children had been criticised about their parenting styles – the most frequent topics being discipline, then nutrition, and finally sleep. The research concluded that these comments came from all quarters – strangers, social media, and friends – but most commonly, and devastatingly, from family members.
One childminder audibly tsked upon learning that my son breastfed, and said ‘naughty naughty’, when I told her we co-slept
Sometimes it can be easier to deal with strangers. Personally, I deal with them by (depending on the day) smiling, nodding, and moving on; or outright telling them to fuck off. Social media comments I either delete or relish tearing their arguments apart with logic. When the Daily Mail laid into beloved tongue-in-cheek social media parents The Scummy Mummies and Hurrah for Gin for glamorising “slummy”, “slap-dash” and “foul-mouthed” parenting – affronted in particular by the prospect of giving kids frozen fishfingers – angry parents furiously posted photos of fishfingers on Instagram in support. It was a middle-finger to those who would judge parents. And it was glorious.
But as tempting as it might seem, you can’t stick a fishfinger up at busybody family members without creating some sort of stressful, EastEnders-style feud. Around 50 per cent of the conversations in my mums’ WhatsApp group are about how to circumnavigate the unwelcome opinions of those close to us in the most politic way possible.
Without naming names, we mothers are all dealing with parents who nag about potty training and haircuts; siblings who classify on-demand feeding as “spoiling” or “for the mother”; in-laws who think breastfeeding is “gross”; or partners who – it turns out – are suddenly in favour of spanking. And we don’t really want to alienate any of them. But at the same time we do sort of want them to fuck off, because we’re the parents, and we’re sick of being patronised.
Some of this criticism must come from a well-meaning place. Perhaps not the time when my friend’s mother-in-law said “in 20 years you’ll look back and realise you were completely wrong about your entire parenting philosophy”, but it must be hard to see someone struggle with something you found a solution to, once. Unfortunately it lands at a point when we are at our most vulnerable. I mean, your in-laws don’t offer performance commentary on your first day at a new job, but they may well do while you’re figuring out the intricacies of parenthood.
So, what’s the solution to interfering loved ones? I think the only one is to grow a thick skin – which takes time. A lot of new parenthood is being a sponge for information from all sorts of sources, which you then parse for strategies that work for you. Once you have a handful of these in place, it’s much easier to do the smiling and nodding. But until you have that thick skin in place, here are couple of phrases to trot out. Firstly, “That’s really helpful, but we’re going to try this for now.” And if that doesn’t work, try “This is what the doctor has recommended.” (Regardless of whether that’s true.) And finally, if all else fails, may I suggest a well-aimed fishfinger.