Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images


The weird and wonderful world of mum books

The world of parenting books can be frustrating to navigate through, says Alexandra Heminsley. She takes us through the Insta-guides, memoirs and old-fashioned classics that have bookmarked her own experience of motherhood, so far

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By Alexandra Heminsley on

We all know that, in any circumstances, if you google hard enough you can find someone on the internet to validate you, your wildest dreams or your darkest fears. Nowhere is this more true than in the world of pregnancy and parenting. I thought IVF had toughened me up enough to avoid hunting online for reassurance – but then came parenthood.

This was why I decided that books would be the answer. Good old books. The constancy of the printed word, the solidity of the paper in my hand – surely these would be more reliable? How wrong I was. On the one hand, I was shocked by the casual assumptions and old-fashioned attitudes in some of the child-rearing classics: references to “lazy” baby boys and “feisty” baby girls, casual descriptions of babies' skin as “pink” and deeply unhelpful chapters for, or even about, “the dads”. And, on the other hand, I was confronted by a new crop of titles – the work of the social-media superstars.

The last year or so has brought a flood of new titles from those who have turned parenting into an online art form, with several even in the last week, and they are selling by the wagonload. Are they any more useful than the classics? Are they qualified to be sharing the same space? Or are they merely the Zoella’s Expensive Advent Calendar of the parenting world?

Until now, the advice market had been divided into what Oliver Burkeman brilliantly described as the Baby Trainers and the Natural Parents. There was no shortage of recommendations on either side of the aisle, almost all of them promising the earth for both your baby and your sleep patterns, just as long as you followed them exactly. From Gina Ford’s Contented Little Baby Book to Williams Sears’ Attachment Parenting Book, the advice is plentiful, if often conflicting. Now, the guidance has turned more towards the anecdotal, less “Do this” than “Don’t worry, we made this mistake, too”.

If anything, they are collectively admitting that none of us know what we are doing, and there is huge value in this as you pick the snot from your hair and count how many hours’ sleep you’ve had in the last 36

The strength of the Insta-parent books, such as Parenting the Sh*t Out of Life, The Unmumsy Mum and, more recently, Mum Face, is their tone of voice. They aim to talk to the reader like an equal – they are not patronising you with promises that simply can’t be kept, or bombarding you with developmental goals that will make you feel wretched if your baby doesn’t meet them. If anything, they are collectively admitting that none of us know what we are doing, and there is huge value in this as you pick the snot from your hair and count how many hours’ sleep you’ve had in the last 36. They also deal well with the identity crisis that can come with early motherhood and apply it to a more modern setting than many of the classics. Freelance working, gender stereotyping and same-sex parenting were all well overdue some proper attention.

On the other hand, I sometimes found memoir writing about motherhood, often decades old, incredibly soothing. Titles such as the anthology Gas And Air, or even 1970s parenting icon Sheila Kitzinger’s fascinating autobiography, A Passion For Birth, proved very consoling on days when I simply could not face the more modern chirpiness that occasionally left me feeling awash in a sea of well-dressed, aspirational parenting advice (even if it was telling me funny stories about vomit or nappies).

And then, there was the small problem of me wanting some actual facts from time to time. While I’m thrilled that we’ve moved away from the rigid, hyper-medicalised, male obstetrician-led approach to childbirth and then parenting that dominated women's experiences until about 30 years ago, I do still love a bit of data. And, yet, how hard facts are to come by. I was a devotee of The Wonder Weeks until I discovered that one of the author’s PhD students had found no evidence for any of the claims in the book, leading him to eventually leave academia. Oh.  

It was at this point that I drew up a few simple rules for my reading and am happy to pass them on to you: bin anything that doesn’t explain the data it’s providing – where was the research done, how and by whom? Bin anything that blithely assumes all babies are white or that all men respond the same to parenthood. And bin anything that presents opinion as fact, rather than an accumulation of the author’s experiences. And don’t panic if what you actually want to wallow in is memoir about feeling utterly dislocated and adrift, while also wildly in love. But the main thing I learnt was that very, very few books actually fit these criteria, so mostly... just read work by authors you could face having a coffee with after two hours' sleep. Below are the very few that I would recommend without hesitation.

Mum Face by Grace Timothy

Low on data but high on empathy, this is the memoir on the overwhelming identity crisis that becoming a mother can be.

Expecting Better by Emily Oster

An economist by trade, Oster takes a sort of Freakonomics approach to pregnancy, looking at the specifics of the data and research, and analysing what that actually means for the myriad decisions you have to make at that point. Luckily, she is good at spinning a yarn as well and happily admits to her own neuroses while pregnant.

Your Baby Week By Week by Simone Cave & Dr Caroline Fertleman

Thrillingly specific about what is actually needed in terms of sleep, food and nappies, this takes the first six months step by step and is an invaluable guide to those first weeks of white-knuckling through every hour.

The New Mum’s Notebook by Amy Ransom

One of the few regrets I have is that I didn’t record more. I was too tired to write, but did manage to scrawl some notes in this lovely book, which was a gorgeous item to pick up from time to time when even three weeks felt like forever ago.

Nobody Told Me by Holly McNish

Winner of the Ted Hughes Award poetry prize, this is all memoir, no fact, but what beautiful writing it is. Elevating the worst of the worst to actual poetry is no mean feat and to do it with such humour is a gift indeed.


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