Should you instinctively know how to be a parent?
What is it about having a baby that’s so hard? And why don’t people ask for help?
Louise Renwick with her children Shay (3) and Bobby (10 months) and members of the “Wine and Whine” Blessington Mums community support group. Photograph: Alan Betson
Members of the Blessington Mums community support group. Photograph: Alan Betson
“So what is it about having a baby that is so hard?” The woman who was three months pregnant with her first baby wasn’t being smart. And she wasn’t referring to what goes on in the labour ward when she posted that query recently on an online parenting forum.
The sleep deprivation and toddler tantrums she was taking as a given but she was seeking enlightenment from fellow users of the UK-based Mumsnet on what else might be ahead of her. The “it’s the hardest but the best thing you’ll ever do” comment with which people greeted the news of her pregnancy had left her wondering.
She signed off with what now seems like the compulsory AIBU (am I being unreasonable to ask?) – but, in this context, certainly striking an unnecessarily apologetic tone that somebody should advise her to lose if she is going to survive in the parent-and-be-judged world she is entering.
But leaving that flip observation aside, it was an interesting question that was met with a torrent of answers ranging from the earnest to the comical.
“Relentless” was one word that cropped up a lot, along with “guilt”, as respondents tried to give her things to think about – although some agreed that nothing or nobody can prepare you for parenthood and you just have to figure it out for yourself when you get there.
However, it is always okay to ask for help – a message that National Parents’ Week will be promoting from September 19th. Run by the confidential helpline Parentline, the week is aimed at all parents and those who work with families, to celebrate and offer support for a job that is often cited as the most important one we will ever do.
There is a reluctance among parents to seek help outside the family because a belief still persists that we are instinctively supposed to know how to do it all perfectly, says Parentline chief executive Rita O’Reilly.
“They think they ought to know – their parents knew, their grandparents knew.” But those were the days of bigger families, when siblings saw younger siblings being reared – or even did the rearing themselves. When their time came to be parents, there was help at hand without asking for it, among relatives who were likely to be living close by.
The need for support can come at any – and many – stages of parenting, right from the moment the baby comes home. Although new parents may be comfortable asking for assistance with practical jobs such as cooking meals while they find their feet in a rocky new world, they can find it difficult to seek emotional support, which they may need even more – especially if the cloud of post-natal depression has settled on a home.
That is one area where it is still very hard to ask for help, after nine months of looking forward to this fantastic time, says O’Reilly.
“The day has come, you have a gorgeous baby and look at the nursery – everything Is wonderful. But mammy isn’t feeling wonderful – and at that point she really does need to ask for help.”
In those first few weeks your public health nurse or GP are the best sources of professional support – and never be afraid to tell them how you’re really feeling. But voluntary organisations such as Parentline and PND Ireland are also at the other end of the phone (see panel).
The early, sleep-deprived months are certainly challenging but it’s always possible that the worst is yet to come – toddlers, tweens and teenagers are all stages to be navigated with care. There’s a reason for the saying: “Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems”.
Indeed, a US study found that depression was most prevalent among mothers when their children were aged 11 to 12.
“As puberty approaches, mothers find less and less positivity in interactions with their children, and the challenges of parenting become far more complex,” comment the study’s authors, Lucia Ciciolla and Suniya Luthar of Arizona State University. “Decisions about what to allow and where to draw the line bring confusion and even fearfulness.”
They also note that the most distressed mothers are those who interpret their eye-rolling tweens’ fluctuating attempts at psychological separation as rudeness and rejection.
The ever-increasing expectations of our children and ourselves as parents doesn’t make life easy either.
“Now everybody has to be perfect and my child has to get 590 points in the Leaving; my child has to be the best footballer; my child has to be the best ballet dancer, or whatever it is. Now I have to give my child ballet chances and I have to take my kid to football,” comments O’Reilly.
Even if you can avoid getting too caught up in the world of competitive parenting, it’s still a case of constant learning. And don’t think you have the whole thing cracked with one child because the next will be completely different.
Many a smug parent-of-one has wondered why others can’t control their children in public places – only to find a tearaway on their hands when number two comes along.
“It’s always your first child – even if it’s your sixth child, because you are different, your circumstances are different, the child is different,” says O’Reilly. “You are learning all the time and you should ask for help – we would take that as a sign that you are a good parent.”
She recalls how Parentline once had a woman in her 80s ringing them looking for advice about her 60-year-old son – “once a parent, always a parent”.
Gradually society is being disabused of the notion that parenting courses are only for those in severe difficulty and there is a wide variety available for those interested in hearing about ideas and strategies to harmonise family life. The children’s charity Barnardos (barnardos.ie) has a county-by-county data base of courses; look out for the well-researched, evidence-based programmes such as Parents Plus, Triple P and Incredible Years.
Some areas of the country are better than others for the network of supports that is offered to families. Take for example Kildare/West Wicklow, where a multi-agency parenting forum was set up in 2009 at the suggestion of an HSE psychology manager. Its aims include providing information to parents, better co-ordination of parenting skills programmes and identifying gaps in services and trying to fill them.
Their parentingsupport.ie website is an excellent information hub, signposting courses, talks and services in the area, as well as being a source of downloadable advice sheets on topics ranging from the benefits of outdoor play, to coping with bullying and bereavement support for dads.
To date, it has only posted talks, courses and programmes delivered by statutory or community/voluntary organisations , as opposed to private businesses, explains Emma Berney, co-ordinator of the Kildare Children and Young People’s Services Committee.
Anecdotal feedback from organisations involved in the forum indicate that the areas of growing concern for parents include support of children with special needs (eg autism, dyspraxia, ADHD); the whole area of youth mental health and wellbeing (building resilience, self-esteem, dealing with self harm, anxiety, drugs and alcohol) and cyber-bullying/online safety.
“The traditional concerns of parents are also still evident, eg sleeping, feeding, dealing with difficult behaviour, peer pressure/friendships and supporting children at school,” she adds.
The job of a parent, it seems, doesn’t get any easier and despite our increasingly individualistic society, we shouldn’t lose sight of the adage “it takes a village to raise a child”. Next week is a chance for any organisation working with parents, such as a crèche, a school or a sports club, to show how much they are appreciated.
Finally, if you have reached the stage where you think the most difficult days of parenting are behind you, beware one contributor’s poignant comment to that expectant woman’s Mumsnet query: “It’s all both wonderful and hard,” she posted, “but I found the hardest bit so far to be when they leave home.”
National Parents’ Week runs September 19th-25th. For more details see parentline.ie
Here are a few of the voluntary organisations offering support to parents:
Parentline, the confidential listening service, is a good first port-of-call for any parenting problem. “If somebody speaks to us and we feel they need a more expert or more specific organisation, we work with a referral data base of 2,000-plus services that can help them,” says chief executive Rita O’Reilly. Face-to-face, individual advice sessions are also available at its Dublin office, free of charge. Tel 1890-927277; parentline.ie
Barnardos, the children’s charity, has a suite of ebooks available to download for free, offering advice and support on a range of topics including, separation, bullying, teen wellbeing, domestic abuse and drug and alcohol misuse. Its website also has a data base of parenting courses throughout the country. A children’s bereavement service, post-adoption programme and homemaker family support service for anybody in the Limerick city area are among the other services offered. Tel 1850-222300; barnardos.ie
Cuidiú, the Irish Childbirth Trust, might be most associated with peer support for breastfeeding mothers but it is much more than that. There are parent-toddler groups, post-natal depression support and an “experience register” through which parents with particular concerns can find others who have coped with something similar, be it colic or club foot, miscarriage or gifted children, to name just a few. cuidiu-ict.ie
La Leche League of Ireland is celebrating 50 years of supporting mothers who want to breastfeed. There are now more than 100 La Leche League leaders in 40 groups across the country. lalecheleagueireland.com
PND Ireland was founded in Cork in 1992 to provide support and friendship to all those suffering post-natal depression. While its monthly meetings are held in Cork, the organisation can put women living elsewhere in touch with others in their locality who have had, or are having, similar experiences. Tel 021-4922083; pnd.ie
One Family supports people who are parenting alone. It offers information and services to all one-parent families, including a helpline, mentoring, parenting courses, workshops and counselling. Tel 1890-622212; onefamily.ie
The Special Needs Parents’ Association is a national parent-run organisation which provides support and information for families who have children with disabilities and special needs regardless of their age or particular diagnosis. 087-7741917; specialneedsparents.ie