Over-thinking every step of the parenthood journey – from trying to conceive to raising the child – is hard to avoid when you are deluged with well-meaning but often conflicting advice and information.
Healthcare professionals, books, parenting websites, online forums, commercial interests, family and friends all have their own spin on “what’s best for baby”, before and after birth. The information overload can be overwhelming – particularly if you’ve had little or no practical experience of babies in what is an increasingly socially segregated society.
Many women who are getting pregnant in their 30s, or even late 30s, have not spent much time with babies at all, says Niamh Healy, an ante-natal teacher with Cuidiú, the Irish Childbirth Trust, and co-author of Bump2Babe: The Consumer Guide to the Maternity Services in Ireland.
If there was more midwife-led care, expectant parents would have more time and find it easier to ask questions, she argues, rather than being in and out in a couple of minutes, provided there is no problem, for check-ups with doctors.
Pregnancy, labour and birth are not normalised in women’s heads, she suggests, and, what’s worse, they tend to be bombarded with “horror stories” rather than tales of straightforward birth.
According to Healy, “Women are not that confident about their bodies’ ability to give birth safely and hearing all these horror stories undermines their confidence further.”
It’s no wonder they are fixated on what is going to happen in the delivery room, rather than everything that follows.
But once that baby is born, it’s like stepping into a new world, with no way back to your previous life. And no matter how much reading you do beforehand, nothing prepares you for the reality: the emotion, the responsibility, the exhaustion.
Yet the “reality” is different for everybody, which is why the need to be a discerning consumer of advice and information is essential for your sanity.
As a new parent, the art of nodding and smiling at everything that is said to you, while not feeling you have to take it on board, is a skill recommended by breastfeeding counsellor and parenting tutor with Cuidiú, Sue Jameson.
Right way for you
Although advice is nearly always well-intentioned, "it may have worked very well for that person but cause another person a huge amount of grief and pain", she points out. People and the way they parent vary widely and it's a matter of finding the right way for you.
“There are people who will never ever carry their baby in a sling because they think it’s all hippy, dippy crazy stuff; then you have the people who will never take their baby out of the sling until it asks to get down – and every shade in between,” says Jameson. “Neither of those two extremes is actually wrong.”
Nicola Hogg of Ballingarry in Co Limerick thought she would be one type of mother but, after the arrival of her first child, evolved into another. Before she had a baby, she watched TV programmes such as Supernanny and believed in the "training" of children to behave.
But as a new mother, Hogg, a psychotherapist, struggled with her baby’s feeding and sleep. Like most, she went online looking for answers, only to find conflicting advice and, in hindsight, misinformation.
“Eventually I said I am not reading any more and am just going to trust my instinct. Once I did that I was comfortable, I was doing the right thing naturally.”
As a culture, we have lost touch with our maternal instincts, she says, “because we don’t see mothering modelled around us any more. We are all living in our own houses, whereas before we were all together and you would have seen child-rearing before you would have ever had your own. We are so isolated now, we have to read more to find out what others are doing.”
But initially all she could see online was mothers talking about how their babies slept through the night and she thought she was doing something wrong because hers didn’t.
It was only when she ventured out to a local La Leche League support group, that she discovered other mothers with wakeful babies and found out that they aren't meant to sleep through the night in the early stages of life. She also found it helpful to see advice-givers in person and, more importantly, their way of parenting in action.
With two daughters now, aged four and two, Hogg is wary of any advice that sets you up for a “child versus parent” battle. There is a culture in Ireland of believing that children need to be disciplined to fit in with your life, whereas she has developed a way of parenting that is “more about connection rather than training”, and she seeks online information that fits in with that.
“If you just go with the flow, it kind of works out in the end,” Hogg adds.
The best place to start working out what kind of parent you want to be is to sit down and talk with your partner about how you envisage the family life you want to create, suggests Dr Maeve Hurley, a qualified GP and co-founder of the Cork-based Ag Eisteacht, which provides training in family support.
Your own childhood
Look at your own childhood, which will differ from your partner's, and consider what was important, what you would like to repeat and what you would like to do differently. By first looking at your own situation and personalities, your values and attitudes, you're in a better position to weigh up what might work for you among all the suggestions out there.
This empowers a couple, who can then consult other sources with specific queries, rather than wondering where do they start, suggests Hurley, who also warns against allowing a third-party, no matter how well-meaning or closely related, to come into your home and tell you what you should do. “You want people to support you, not dictate to you.”
Becoming parents is a huge transition and it’s interesting, she adds, that research by Jean Twenge and colleagues in the US found that parenthood has a more negative impact among higher socio-economic groups. It suggests that two-career couples may find it more of a struggle to adapt.
Fatherhood changed the life of Daniel Oakes completely. Formerly a construction foreman, he was so affected by the birth of his first child at home in Dundalk, nearly eight years ago, that when he lost his job during the property collapse he decided to train as a midwife.
Now a father of three boys, he was the first male graduate last year of the midwifery degree course at Dundalk Institute of Technology and has since become co-founder and director of Neighbourhood Midwives, which offers personalised, antenatal and postnatal care in your own home, but not a home-birth service.
Fathers need a lot more support to prepare for parenthood than they generally get, he says. "There is a lot of research coming out now about post-natal depression affecting fathers a lot more than we understood before."
Unless they have previous experience with babies, it can be quite overwhelming for them. “It changes everything – you don’t realise until it happens.”
He would encourage men to attend every antenatal class with their partner if possible, be it at the hospital or in the community, not only so they can provide crucial support to the mother but also to prepare themselves for parenthood.
Oakes who, along with Healy and Jameson, is among the speakers lined up for next month’s Babytalk festival (see sidebar) also thinks it would help if men got together for ante-natal chats – over a pint if needs be.
His experience as a midwife in the labour ward is that the man is often more traumatised by events than the woman giving birth.
“Even if everything is normal, they need to be talked through it,” he adds.
“Maybe it is a guy thing, but just knowing the mechanics and practicalities of it all is really good for guys.”
Festival time What's really important is that 'the information
is accurate and it is not advertising in disguise'
Whether you’re just starting to feel a little broody, showing a bump or have a little darling in your arms, the Babytalk festival in UCD next month promises to have something for you.
Rachel Lane and Marie Dunne are, they admit, designing the two-day event to be something they would like to attend.
Both in their early 30s, Lane has one daughter, Juliet, who is about to turn two, and a second baby due in April, while Dunne is just beginning to think about having a family.
“We are our target audience,” says Lane, whose own experience of early motherhood has clearly informed the line-up for what, they stress, is all about information and celebration. And what’s really important, says Dunne, is that “the information is accurate and it is not advertising in disguise”.
They’re keen to outline their ethical approach to choosing speakers, sponsors and exhibitors for the event and a favouring of Irish companies and organisations where possible.
In compliance with the World Health Organisation’s marketing code, they are not accepting sponsorship from manufacturers of breast-milk substitutes, feeding bottles and teats.
Although the mere mention of “breastfeeding” seems to antagonise some women, Dunne stresses that they are “so not into the ‘Mummy wars’. It is about supporting each other and not judging each other’s choices.”
Like most new mothers of her generation, Lane has found online support and advice invaluable, right from the outset.
When she was trying to conceive, it was difficult to discuss what she was going through with people she knew.
“Then when I became a parent and you’re doing a feed at three o’clock in the morning, there is nobody else to talk to except for the other mother who is also lying in the dark feeding a baby. It is fantastic.”
She uses most of the parenting forums, at different times for different things, and is also a fan of Facebook groups.
In recognition of the influence wielded through the internet, one of the talks at the festival is about accessing information online as a parent. Entitled Good Information versus Bad Advice, the panel discussion will look at different resources and how to evaluate material.
However, Lane says she can’t reiterate enough the importance of seeking real-life support too, through voluntary groups and organisations in the community.
A native of Dublin, she lives in Arklow, Co Wicklow, and, although she has friends there, and a grandmother living close by, she “still felt a bit lonely – that is why I reached out, both online and in face-to-face support”. She is a member of both La Leche League and Cuidiú local groups.
“I was so appreciative of the support I got and the difference it made to me on my journey, we decided to dedicate a space in our exhibition hall to support agencies and charities.”
These include Treoir, Cuidiú, Nurture, Parentline, the Milk Bank and the Home Birth Association.
No question will be regarded as “silly” and she hopes the event “will give people the confidence to take the accurate information, think about it, have it in their back pocket and then trust themselves to make decisions”.
Looking back, she says some of the best advice she got was from her mother and her grandmother who both told her to relax and trust herself to know what’s right for her baby.
That didn’t stop her timing each feed and using an app to record the contents and consistency of every nappy . . .
“This time around, I think I will be far more relaxed,” she smiles.
Lane and Dunne met as graphic design students at the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology. Firm friends, they went their separate ways professionally before joining up to form Curious Design, a design service for print, web and events.
Being “design junkies” they have been very selective in the retailers they have invited to participate in the festival.
They had the idea for the festival back in 2011, but started working on what for them is a “passion project” after the birth of Juliet in 2012.
Although Dunne, who lives in Inchicore, Dublin, has no children yet, “we have an ‘Irish mammy’ in the house,” she jokes, being married to Colm O’Regan, comedian and author of the books of Irish Mammies, who will be among the entertainers doing spots at Babytalk.
It took Dunne and Lane months of searching before they settled on a venue – the O’Reilly Hall in UCD – which they believe will be comfortable and easy for young families to attend, with free parking, a spacious, adjoining café, separate room upstairs for the rolling timetable of short talks and nice walks suitable for buggies and small children on the doorstep.
They will be setting up a story-telling area themed as a child’s bedroom (to celebrate their love of illustrated children’s books), quiet, baby-feeding nooks and a nappy-changing area beside the men’s toilets – a facility sadly lacking in many public spaces.
So what will be the key difference about Babytalk from other pregnancy and baby events?
“How you feel coming out,” replies Dunne.
“You don’t feel harried or stressed, you feel relaxed. You’ve had a good time but you have also learnt something.”
Lane adds, "I think, 'festival' says it all."
The Babytalk festival is on at the O'Reilly Hall in UCD, Dublin, on February 22nd and 23rd from 10am to 5pm. A day pass costs €10, weekend pass €15, and grandparents and children go free.