As a rule, I am woefully incapable of listening to advice: it’s why I have an apartment that is still in negative equity, a ton of decommissioned electric toothbrushes, no pension plan and, at the moment, a pelvic floor barely worth talking about. Needless to say, getting to grips with the concrete mixer of unbidden advice that has parked on the driveway recently has been a culture shock.
Sometimes the advice comes from people who are mothers already; sometimes from people who aren’t (one taxi driver asked: “Do you smoke? Good girl. Don’t start now.”) The soundtrack to this pregnancy has been refrains of “I know everyone’s giving you advice, but here’s one really good bit of advice”, (they mean five), or “don’t listen to anyone’s advice”, on a constant loop. I’m thinking of getting a recording of it made for those white noise teddies everyone is telling me about.
I’d not really been privy to the parenting bush telegraph before, and it’s heartening, in a way, to know it exists. I’d never have known about NIPT testing, free physio, sleep suits or what colostrum is, without the wisdom of friends who’d already braved the plains. There is so, so much new stuff to know in a relatively short amount of time, even if your only plan is keeping a baby alive. I get it; mothers are only too aware how overwhelming a task this can be. It’s coming from a place of generosity and well-meaning.
It never fails to amaze me how much "interest" people take in the bodies and choices of pregnant women
But being smothered in advice is like being a naughty schoolgirl all over again, and I’d had enough of the experience the first time around. It never fails to amaze me how much “interest” people take in the bodies and choices of pregnant women. It can be insidious, from someone “reminding” you what you can’t have on a menu to downright hectoring. My default reaction to receiving advice has always been to rebuff it, so I’ve oscillated between a few choice phrases of my own: “listeria risk me a**e”, “I’ll hardly get an infection in the bath”, or the ultimate kiss-off: “I’ll remember that for next time [chomps into massive wheel of Brie].”
But more often than not, the unsolicited advice is less about someone considering what might work for you, and more about validating their own personal decisions. It’s like Twitter times 20.
There are a few hot potato issues: (a) how you are going to get the baby out from your body, (b) how you are going to feed it and (c) how much time you’re going to take out from your life to do this.
A new father who doesn't roll over on his baby in bed is hailed a hero
Of the former, I tend to joke that I’m going to do the Full Queen Victoria on childbirth. “Put me under until this kid has their own paper round,” I declare, more out of terror than complacency. Or, if the mood takes me, I tell people that in childbirth, I plan on going for all of the good drugs, and maybe even some of the average ones.
This is sometimes met with a lecture about passing on vital flora during a vaginal birth or somesuch. See also: the effects of a C-section on a child’s immunity, epidural risks, catheters, stitches, as if the internet isn’t doing a decent enough job of scaring the bejaysus out of you. (“Take all of the drugs,” is the advice dispensed in a conspiratorial, hushed whisper). Long story short: an unmedicated labour is “good”. Shortcuts are “bad”. If there’s not an element of sacrifice involved, or you’re not suffering in some way, well then you’re just not putting your back into this whole mothering thing, are you? (Don’t even get me started on how low the bar is for fathers, by the way. A new father who doesn’t roll over on his baby in bed is hailed a hero.)
Breast v bottle
Advice on the breast v bottle debate has been even more forcibly discussed. Again, you can seemingly forget being a “good” mother if you haven’t at least tried to breastfeed; nay, broken your body and spirit on the sheer effort of it.
I’m undecided on what to do yet on that front, but mention the advantages of formula feeding – a modicum of bodily freedom, care-giving parity with the other parent, and so on – and you might as well tell people that you are planning to feed your newborn baby with liquidised kebabs. One friend, to her credit, made a sensible point: night feeds are much easier when you’re not grappling in the dark with a steriliser and other bits of paraphernalia. But it’s interesting: no parent has told me to plough ahead with bottle-feeding, and sod everyone else.
I was never the boss of the house; never dictated the schedule, never got baby massages
When I realised I was about to be a parent, my first instinct was to go full ’70s mum (well, minus the chain smoking of Rothmans in the Ford Cortina). Keeping the kid alive is the big thing, isn’t it? I was bottle-fed, wore cloth nappies and was kept awake all day so I’d sleep through the night. I was never the boss of the house; never dictated the schedule, never got baby massages, certainly was never exposed to baby Latin or kiddie opera or whatever else constitutes the “best possible start in life” these days. Being a parent didn’t subsume my parent’s lives or identities. It may not have been “right” according to today’s parenting standards, but it certainly worked for them. But when faced with the sheer force of others’ foam-flecked “commentary”, my ’70s mum resolve is slipping.
We’d all do well to remember this, not just in relation to pregnancy, but in wider life: in whatever choices I make, I’m not making a judgment call on what anyone else decides to do. If I do things one way, I don’t believe the other way to be “wrong”. They’re just choices. Back. The. Hell. Off, in other words.
I wish someone had advised me on one thing, though: learning to put a bra on the right way. I’ve long been a fasten-on-the-waist, twist-and-hoick girl, as opposed to fastening it on the back, the correct way (see what I mean about ignoring advice?). In any case, try doing the former with a huge baby bump and then get back to me about suffering.
Tanya Sweeney is writing a weekly column about her pregnancy.
Part 1: More chance of Bosco getting pregnant
Part 2: First came the shock, then the advice
Part 3: I'm pregnant and have the odd glass of wine
Part 4: People have never seen me like this before
Part 5: Having a baby bump makes a woman so visible
Part 6: Please, no more well-meaning advice