The Fifty Ridiculous Things I Did Postpartum

On this, my second voyage into motherhood, what I’ve learned so far is that I haven’t learned very much. This blog comprises my dispatches on the mistakes I’ve made, this time and last, in this strange and sleepless world: one a day for each of the first six sleep-deprived weeks.

Here’s the master list, like a little advent calendar of my own ridiculousness.  Know me? Know some other ridiculous thing I did? Submissions for inclusion are welcome!

  1. Mistaking myself for Mary Berry
  2. Attempting to walk home from the maternity hospital
  3. Bantering with reporters
  4. Getting experimental with multi-storey car parking
  5. Eluding the baby transportation police
  6. Not eluding the baby transportation police
  7. Using a tree as a breastfeeding aid
  8. Committing fraud by forgetting my own name
  9. Alarming the 111 operator
  10. Dieting
  11. Selling all my clothes…
  12. … and hating on my neighbour
  13. Mistaking myself for Neil Gaiman
  14. Laundry
  15. Practicing car seat exceptionalism
  16. Wreaking havoc among the Quakers
  17. “Stimulating activities”
  18. Wearing eyeliner/not wearing eyeliner
  19. Alarming other parents at baby groups
  20. Mistaking myself for my daughter’s mother
  21. – 40. The Next 20 Fails

Continue reading “The Fifty Ridiculous Things I Did Postpartum”

The Fifty Ridiculous Things I Did Postpartum

Ridiculous Thing #48: This blog

 

This week The Bird took in her first visit to the cinema, and I made an exciting discovery. I found the line where parenthood stops being ridiculous. I don’t know how to put across how enormous this is for me. The whole purpose of this blog is to document parenthood as what I’ve generally found it to be: a dignity-destroying, self-esteem-defying, pretension-puncturing jet-ski ride through an ocean of emotion (and, frankly, of bodily fluids). But this week that wild ride skidded to a halt. I found the outer limit. The point where parenthood stops being ridiculous. The point where I stop being ridiculous.

Here’s how it happened.

I wanted to take The Bird to see Zootropolis for a few reasons. The trailers look great, for sure, but I had the ulterior motive of wanting to introduce some non-princess-based entertainment into our increasingly pink and sparkly lives. I hadn’t been to the cinema myself since 2012, when I had seen The Dark Knight Rises ten days after my due date and sat through the whole thing in a hormonal rage at the failure of the booming soundtrack to burst my waters. Anyhow, since she’d never been and can be pretty reticent about new experiences, I devoted ample time and energy to talking up the experience of cinema attendance. It worked like a charm, and by the day itself she was hopping from foot to foot in excitement. We were in. We were committed. And we had not booked tickets. All of which teed off the perfect first piece of ridiculousness for the day, which was of course our arrival at the cinema of a Wednesday lunchtime to find the screening sold out. The next one, an hour later, was sold out too. The prospect of a three-hour wait for the one after that made more than one of us suffer a lower-lip wobble. Then, the attendant said that actually there was one seat left in the screening that had just started, and would I like to just pay for one ticket and have The Bird sit on my lap? The fact that The Bird would probably have paid a premium for a special sit-on-someone’s-lap ticket made this an agreeable deal for us all.

So we went on in to Screen 6, where the trailers were already rolling, as was the ridiculousness. The reason for a Wednesday-lunchtime screening being sold out proved to be that in those nearly four years since my last night at the movies, cinemas have changed. The seats in this theatre had all been replaced with giant airline-style recliners bigger than our front room, meaning the entire audience for the film as we crept down the aisle was therefore lying semi-prostrate in front of the huge screen, like celebrants at some kind of weird Roman rite. But even as I thought this, another thread of my brain was observing: except it isn’t weird now, is it? This whole reclining seat thing presumably happened years ago. Would’ve been all over Twitter, except you were eyeball deep in nappies and missed it. Totally standard cinema practice nowadays. No one else bats an eyelid at the fact that films are now to be watched totally supine, with intravenous Diet Coke, as if everyone’s in some kind of surprisingly convivial Matrix incubation tank. Not that anyone else in this room is old enough to have seen The Matrix. Everyone else has got with the sprawl-before-Disney program, and you’re just on some kind of parenthood-induced Rip Van Winkle trip. Or, to put it another way, bloody hell you’re old.  And that was, you know, kind of ridiculous.

Our one seat was at the wall end of an row near the front. The seats nearer the aisle were occupied by a clutch of tween girls, all lying in state in their reclining chairs. As I reached the end of the row, I stage-whispered apologetically “Sorry, we’ve got the end seat”, and pointed to our empty spot.

The tween girls stared at me.

“Sorry, that’s us,” I repeated, pointing to the end seat, and then gesturing toward their knees that I’d have to climb over to reach it.

The tween girls stared at me some more.

I squinted a bit in the dark, and abruptly realised that the new-style seats, even when fully reclined, still left a generous gap of about half a mile between rows. The days of trampling your neighbour’s toes to reach your seat are lost to history. I hadn’t needed to interrupt the tweens’ popcorn inhalation at all. “Oh,” I said, and steered The Bird through the ample gap beyond their upturned Converses to our seat. Feeling time’s winged chariot hurrying near, and all that.

We sat down. Our seat was the only one still upright in the house. At the left were two buttons. I suppose one was to recline our seat, the other controlling the seat to our left. It should have been very obvious which was which. But there’s always the possibility that I’ve missed a cultural memo and that one of them was to set off a deafening alarm and the other was an Eject button. I side-eyed the nearest tween. I decided very studiously to pretend that the buttons did not exist.

The trailers were amping up to hyperventilatory pitch. Animated space cadets doing something crass. The Jungle Book, but simultaneously both gritty and sassy. Something about it all felt very slightly … off. In the last four years, the visual vernacular’s shifted a bit, and I haven’t. Or possibly I just didn’t used to go to children’s movies. Beside us, the tweens crunched their way through a bag of Skittles. A trailer for the film we were about to watch showed a series of talking rodents exiting a bank named Lemming Brothers. I laughed, and no one else in the cinema did. Because 2007 was as remote to them as The Good Dinosaur. And then an advert for Sky came on. The Bird perked right up, because this featured The Octonauts, every preschooler’s favourite non-governmental marine conservation agency. It was a sweet and friendly advert, wherein characters from a clutch of toddler-pleasing shows gathered together into one place, explaining how the Sky interface now groups kids’ programmes altogether for ease of access. It was a system so simple, the jovial voiceover explained, that even parents can understand it.

And that was it. That’s where the jet-ski stopped. That’s where the brakes came on. That’s the outer limit of the ridiculousness.

As a parent, I get to call myself ridiculous. Sky doesn’t.

Because oh, the nappy leaks and the spit-up, the supermarket histrionics and the eye-bags, the leftover smiley faces for tea and the dystopian soft-play afternoons: these are battle tales. These are hard won. These are my choices, and my reality, and what the world turned upside down looks like for me. The last time I was in a cinema, I was in on it. I was sophisticated and urban and twentysomething and a key market segment. I was who the adverts talked to. I was who the cinema wanted to attract. And now I’m not, now I’m not the person whose eye the world wants to catch, now I’m a walking bankroll not even for my own tastes but for my child’s. Now I’m out of step with a world I used to inhabit. But I am not ready to have that painted as a capitulation, not ready to be a hapless stereotyped clueless parent type. This time, these years, when I fell through a gap in the world and jerked upright to find four years had passed, when everything has been primary-coloured and VTech-soundtracked and rendered in BPA-free plastic, when acronyms that once meant nothing to me — BLW, EBF, CIO — have mapped out the monoliths of my moral landscape, when I’ve measured out my life in spoonfuls of someone else’s fruit-flavoured fromage frais: this time has been immense. It has been transfiguring. It has been the horizon turned inside out and the future evaporated, with a totally different one behind it revealed. It has been bittersweet, and it has been funny, and it has been crushingly mundane, and yes it has been ridiculous — but I have not been ridiculous. Parenthood is ridiculous. Parents — we are not.

So back down, Sky. I do not consent to be your figure of fun. I am not a kindly but slow TV mum, too preoccupied with PE kit to really have a brain. No one is. I am old. I’ve missed four years. I’ll miss more. But in that absent time, life is happening. My life is happening. In that absence, here I am.

Ridiculous Thing #48: This blog

Ridiculous Thing #47: Logging everything

I can tell you exactly how many times The Bird fed on the fifth day of her life. It was twenty-one times. I know because that day I logged every time she fed, every time I changed her nappy, every time she slept. With twenty-one feeds to put through her system, the other events were correspondingly numerous. The newborn days are like this: there are no long stretches of anything, just little shards of time, constant switches, constant hand-washing til your skin cracks, needs and impulses that go off at random and cannot be postponed but also can’t be fully satisfied. Often the baby was half dressed. I was never more than a quarter dressed myself. Meals were mouthfuls, dishes piled up, showering was unimaginable. In college, I read Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do Itin which he offers this perfect description of the experience of living through a nervous breakdown:

 I had, in fact, gone to pieces. I mean that as literally as possible. Everything had become scattered, fragmented. I couldn’t concentrate. Each day was scattered into a million pieces. A day was not made up of twenty-four hours but of 86,400 seconds, and these did not flow into one another – did not build, as letters do, into words and sentences – so that, as a consequence, there was not enough time to get anything done. My days were made up of impulses that could never become acts.

Little wonder, then, that even under the best of circumstances the newborn days bring you to the bleeding edge of your sanity.

Logging everything the baby did was my attempt to exert order over the fragments. It’s hardly novel to point out that trying to subject such a small person to a routine is a thankless task, but in case you doubt the pressure on new parents to do so, let me share one of the comments I encountered when wondering (because I really wanted the answer to be yes) if there were any circumstances in which I could expect a six-week-old baby to sleep through the night. The answer was yes, one commenter on Facebook insisted, as long as you had got them into a routine in utero.

This person wasn’t being sarcastic. She just illustrates rather well the existence of one camp in parenting that is all about order. Routine, regimen, Gina Ford, get your life on a schedule. And, having visited the teetering precipice that comes of living a totally fragmented life, I understand that camp’s battle-cry. Routine might save you. If you can achieve it. If you can’t, pursuing it might wreck you twice as fast. When the Bee was born, I’d given up on any idea of seeking a routine. I was committed to doing whatever it took to keep him content, rather than agonizing over my failure to shoehorn him into something predictable. Let it go, let it go. He’s fourteen months now and still wakes frequently through the night. I’ve never tried to get him not to. And yes, that’s starting to feel a little ridiculous now. All you get to pick, when you choose your parenting camps, is which form of madness you think will be slowest-acting.

 

 

Ridiculous Thing #47: Logging everything

Ridiculous Thing #46: Wanting what I didn’t get

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During my pregnancies we didn’t find out what sex the babies were. Because we wanted the surprise, we told people. I mean, you know. The occasion of childbirth can be a bit of a yawnfest otherwise, right? We also didn’t tell anyone our prospective names for our little frogspawn. That was partly because The Bloke and I couldn’t agree on what they should be. We got stuck trying to calibrate a position between my family’s naming tradition (my brother and I each have the most popular name for boys and girls respectively in the years we were born) and his (he and his two brothers have names so offbeat that their parents also gave them each a “normal” middle name that they could choose to go by if their given names proved bigger than their personalities). But we didn’t even tell anyone the leading contenders in our name contests. I really wanted to sometimes. They sat on the tip of my tongue, ready to be said, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to say them. Part of it was that we didn’t quite make up our minds ourselves exactly which names would “win”. I didn’t have a single favourite that I was determined to push. In fact, though I daydreamed sometimes about motherhood, I never formed much of a picture of my babies before they were born. As the days they would be born came nearer, I imagined them somewhere in that inner darkness, dreaming themselves into being. And I loved that. I couldn’t quite bear to bring them yet into the world of language.

As soon as we give them their names, we give them labels, handles. We start subordinating them to the world of language. They begin to mean something to people, something that’s actually got very little to do with them: Oh, I had a teacher called that; I hated her. Oh, that was my uncle’s name! Ooh, it’s a bit posh, isn’t it? Wow, very “out there”. And really, that’s only the first of the ways in which we use language to start shaping them before they even arrive. We talk about what they’ll do, what they’ll be like, whether they’ll take after you or me. When we imagine futures for them, in fact we shut down the truly infinite possibilities that their existences really represent. There aren’t enough words in the world to account for all the boundless possibilities of a life that’s yet to begin. Instead, we read baby books, and they talk in authoritative tones about “how Baby will sleep”. That capital B shapes them. Baby is already determined. Baby is an entity, a being — but one who will do as we predict, as we forecast. Baby is a name. The first way in which they exist in the world, in our harsh and bright outside world, is as something spoken. We speak them into being. Inside, or so it appears, they dream. But they dream without language, because they don’t understand any. They dream without images of the world, because they’ve never seen it. They come into life free from words, unbounded by words, and I love the idea of letting that last for as long as it can. Letting them stay in the limitless, wordless dream.

It’s autumn here now and the night air is cold and smells of bonfires. I’m no more immune to the preppy, pumpkin-spiced-latte stereotype of the season than is anyone else in my demographic, and my toes tingle with nostalgia for childhood walks scrunching through fallen leaves and excitement about the winter festivities to come. I try to create scenes culled from memory, hope, and yes probably the John Lewis advert. I bake jacket potatoes and serve them up steaming with the curtains drawn against the dark, warding off the night and promising to fill everyone with warm contentment. And my daughter, the selective eater, cries because she can’t bear even the thought of one of these awful jacketed things on her plate. My autumn mirage falls apart. It’s one of the biggest wrenches in parenting, these moments where how it really is trips over how I expected it to be. I am not the patient parent that I supposed I’d be. I am not a natural at this, and things that I assumed, inasmuch as I ever thought about them, would “just come to me” in fact do not. I shout a lot, and I go wrong a lot; I get ashamed, and I feel disappointment in my children, and orders of magnitude more disappointment in myself.  I notice that phases and stages of my children’s development are over, and that there were things we never did. That never-worn dress we bought too big and put away until it was too late. That class we meant to attend but didn’t quite fit in. That friend we should’ve seen more who moved away.

The existential philosopher Kierkegaard argued that anguish was one of the foremost conditions of humanity. Anguish, he said, comes from possibility — from that moment when we come slamming up against the truth that we have absolute freedom. That we can do anything. That the moments of our lives are composed of an endless string of choices we are free to make, but obliged to make. Anything is possible. Isn’t that terrifying? It’s agonising. Anguish, for Kierkegaard, was a condition of our innocence, because so is possibility. For that unborn baby dreaming wordlessly inside, possibility is at its greatest imaginable height, and therefore so is anguish. And we can’t really forestall it by cutting down, with our talk, the kaleidoscoping avenues of possibility that lie before our children. As Jacques Lacan, the psychoanalyst, observed, the moment a baby begins to make its own demands — and goodness knows they don’t hang about with that one — it starts to escape from the subjection of others’ language, from the reality we try to impose on the child from without. The child’s demands show up as clear as day the fact that there’s more to her than what we might say about her, than what we imagine she’ll be. So naming them, talking about them, really does them little harm on that count (albeit, from Kierkegaard’s perspective, no favours either). And yet, besides Kierkegaard’s anguish of possibility — the anguish of what might be — there’s a bittersweet anguish you notice only in the passing, the anguish of what was not.

A list I made ten days after The Bee was born says these things:

I’m sad about his name. I want my Alex*.

I’m sad about the little girl I didn’t have. I want my Anna.*

I’m sad about the homebirth I didn’t have. I want my newborn cuddles in my own bed.

I’m sad about the Christmas I didn’t have. I want my toddler’s eyes lighting up as she opens her first ever stocking.

It’s ungrateful to dwell on the things that didn’t come about, when what did come about was so wonderful. But this dark twin to the anguish of possibility, the anguish of possibility unrealised, walks silently beside all parents as these small slivers of the ever-expanding, ever-collapsing future unfurl before our eyes.

*Those aren’t the actual names I wanted or wrote. The real names, I can’t somehow bring myself to put into words…

Ridiculous Thing #46: Wanting what I didn’t get

Ridiculous Thing #45: Dropping the baby

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The newborn wails.

The front door opens and a December chill blasts in, a skirl of rain-pocked wind and a skitter of dead leaves.

The toddler goes rigid. She doesn’t want to go to the childminder. Her new brother is six days old, it’s New Year’s Eve, and  we are intent on her going to the childminder. Adamant. To keep her in her normal routine, we tell each other. To catch our breath for five minutes, if the baby naps, if the stars align, we plead inwardly. The week of sleepless nights is telling on us. The wreckage of Christmas decorations is crunching underfoot.

The toddler won’t put on her shoes.

She won’t put on her coat.

Even after I fight them onto her, she won’t get in the buggy.

Fine, I say. She has to go. I’m desperate. We’re late. I’ll carry her there under my arm, then, less-than-a-week-postpartum or otherwise. I bend down to scoop up her starfished self under one arm. The baby is tied to my front in his stretchy wrap.

As I bend, he falls out. Straight out of the top, head first, toward the ground.

I catch him.

We make it to the childminder’s in a haze of quickly-souring adrenaline. We drop off the crying two-year-old and hit the supermarket opposite, to let our hearts stop hammering, to let me retie the damn wrap and settle the baby. I’ve held him wrapped in a limpet grasp against me all the way.

Inside the supermarket it is hot and neon bright. I’m wearing my horrendous Kim Jong Il coat, the only one that fits over me and the stretchy-wrapped baby. I start sweating. I can’t get the wrap tied right. The baby cries and cries. Prickly heat breaks out all over my face. A sympathetic face materializes. It’s one of the supermarket staff. “Are you all right, dear?” My fingers are all thumbs. I hold the crying baby in one useless hand, the stretchy in the other. My voice comes out in a wail. “He-he-he’s not eeeeven my fiiiiiiiiiiiirst.”

The supermarket lady steers us to the cafe, sits us both down, and sends over free cups of tea. The baby latches on for a cathartic feed. Sip by sip, inch by inch I feel my shoulders unhunch. Adrenaline settles and slowly dispels. Over the stereo, The Proclaimers proclaim. They’re going to dream about the time when they’re with us.

I dropped the baby.

“You didn’t drop him”, my partner says.

I did. I dropped him. But I caught him too.

Ridiculous Thing #45: Dropping the baby

Ridiculous Thing #44: Getting blasé

Trigger warning on this one for baby loss (not mine).

If first-born children tend to get the full cotton-wool treatment, cosseted and bundled by novice parents in a state of reverent awe, second babies… they learn a little more from the school of hard knocks. It’s healthy that my two-year-old’s favourite way to interact with her brother is to lie on top of him, I think. He’ll grow up resilient and, um, fond of warm hugs. Sure, he’s taken rather more faceplants since learning to sit than his big sis ever did, because I used to hover behind her with a phalanx of pillows while I tend to, you know, forget he’s there until I hear the “waaaaaaa!” But that’s not complacency. It’s a hearty rejection of helicopter parenting. Right?

I got a good dose of reality when a friend came to visit The Bee at about six weeks old. I was chucking him around in a rather cavalier manner considering he didn’t yet have the whole head-control thing nailed, and she took him for a cuddle with the utmost gentleness and care. “Oh, he’s okay,” I said. “Second babies, right?” She smiled very kindly, and told me about a friend of hers whose second child had died while napping.  She had checked on him three times. The first two times, he had been fine. On the third, he had gone.

That night I bought a baby monitor with a motion detection mat. It’s supposed to sound if it doesn’t detect any movement, including breathing, for ten seconds. It works, as I discover to my cost every time I pick up the baby in the night and forget to turn it off. I never mind all that much. Goodness knows whether it would have made any difference in that heart-breaking case. Horribly, I’m sure that very often, these are tragedies that nothing could have prevented. But the story did the job of knocking some of the complacency out of me. Having kept one child alive to this age doesn’t mean I can confer invulnerability on another, any more than parents are at fault who have been through such an unspeakable tragedy. That’s just how tragedy is.

Anyhow. I can’t claim to have shed every vestige of complacency, which explains my recent radio silence. I decided to have a quick jog downstairs while simultaneously checking my phone and carrying The Bee, missed my footing, and fell down the entire flight of stairs. The Bee was absolutely fine. I broke my elbow. That, if you have two children under three to care for, turns out to be a pretty ridiculous thing to do.

Ridiculous Thing #44: Getting blasé

Ridiculous Thing #43: Vacillating about vaccinating

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Here’s a scene for you. When you’re reading, I want you to think about risk. What risks you notice; which ones seem more and less acceptable.

In a kitchen, a man is wondering what to have for dinner. He opens the fridge and has a look inside: there’s a takeaway carton full of two-day-old king prawn bhuna and rice. He has a sniff, doesn’t fancy it, and because he is exactly like my other half puts it back into the fridge instead of just binning it. Toasted sandwich it is, then: he grabs some bread and cheese, and plugs the sandwich toaster into the socket. The kitchen lights go out. A faulty wire in the sandwich toaster plug has blown the fuse and tripped the circuit breaker. He unplugs the toaster, then fumbles about in the understairs cupboard to throw the switch and put the lights back on. Abandoning his plans for haute cuisine he grabs a bag of crisps out of the cupboard and feasts on those while watching TV. After fifteen minutes he realizes that the parent unit of the baby monitor went off when the circuit went, and switches it back on again. The phone rings. It’s his wife, out for girlie drinks. She’s had one too many and wants a lift home. He goes out, locks the door, gets in the car and drives the one-mile trip to fetch his wife, then drives back home with her. Their one-year-old son remains asleep at home in his cot throughout.

Feel like you’ve watched the first five minutes of Casualty yet?

This scenario, or at least the last few sentences of it, played out in a mum group I’m in on Facebook, when they happened to a friend of one of the members. The condemnation for the parents’ choice at the end was universal: leaving your child home alone, everyone felt, was unacceptable. But at the time it made me think, and I’ve often wondered since whether our perceptions of the risks to which we subject our children are realistic. I sometimes used to discover we were out of milk and had guests on the way while my daughter was having a long lunchtime nap. I live opposite a corner shop; it’s nearer to my house than the end of the back garden is. The chances of anything untoward happening if I had popped out and picked up a pinta were so small, it was almost tempting. Yes, I could have been hit by a car crossing the road. Better, then, to wait til the baby woke and pop out with her, giving us both that chance to be hit by a car? It made me wonder. When we try, as parents, to process risk, are we thinking rationally, statistically? Or are we subject to fears of monsters and moral panics that steer our reactions much more strongly?

Navigating risk is one of the central frustrations of becoming a parent. If you’ve been previously in pretty good health yourself, having a baby is perhaps the first time since childhood that you’ve noticed that you’re on the receiving end of a public health initiative. I think this is part of the root of that feeling that on becoming a parent you become public property, subject to some kind of baby police and a charge sheet of things you are supposed, or not allowed, to do. And the feeling that these measures are often rather blunt instruments reflects the reality that, in many aspects of parenting, there are just no really good evidence-based guides as to what you should do. It starts in pregnancy: in 2012 the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists published new advice that identified a whole laundry list of substances as potential risks to developing foetuses. This paraphrase comes from Mumsnet:

“The RCOG says pregnant women should ‘play safe’ and avoid products and foods that may contain chemicals, such as bisphenol A and phthalates, that could harm their unborn baby.

To do so, it recommends you avoid:

• Food in plastic containers and cans
• New cars
• Non-stick frying pans
• New furniture
• Air fresheners
• Paint fumes
• Pesticides and insect sprays

And you should minimise your exposure to toiletries, such as shower gel and sunscreen, which could theoretically pose a chemical risk. In short, assume there may be a risk, even if it may be minimal or eventually unfounded.”

So what would it look like, avoiding those things? It would probably look a fair bit like abandoning civilisation to live in a log cabin. Only once there you would of course be subject to a whole new set of risks, being remote from modern healthcare facilities not the least of them.

Lists like this are, I think, the first manifestation of the weird way in which we are taught, as parents, to think about risk. Many people when told they should avoid things even though the danger may be slight or even nonexistent make the logical move to thinking that “no amount of risk is acceptable “. That, of course, isn’t how risk works. We simply cannot ever put our children into a context where we can absolutely guarantee their safety. But we do have a constant, gnawing sense that we ought to try. And this was the line that some of my friends took in condemning the couple who left their sleeping baby at home: an accident was terrifically unlikely, but unlikely was not good enough. People want certainty, whether or not it can be found. And in weighing up risk, as parents we habitually take part in a morbid sort of crystal-ball exercise where we try to see the future, and, critically, imagine the kind of judgement we would invite: “I could never forgive myself if something happened.” When we do this, we are moving from a statistical realm — numerically, what is the likelihood of a bad outcome — into a social realm: what would people think of me if something went wrong; what would I (with my own standards, formed in part by the society around me) think of myself?

To see this in action, look at the way people think about putting their children into cars. It’s a horrible thought, but if you have a child aged 5 to 14 they are likelier to be killed in a road traffic accident than in any other type of accident — indeed, more likely than in all other types of accident combined. Yet parents rarely agonise over whether to put their children into the car. We rarely even give it a second thought. Conversely, leaving our children alone gives us a greater fear than the statistics perhaps warrant. While staying away recently, I had put both children to bed in the hotel room before realising I needed something essential from the car. I thought for a second of popping out to fetch it. The children were asleep; it was a reputable hotel; there were regularly-checked fire alarms, a locked door, and plenty of staff around. I would have been out of sight of the room for less than a minute. Of course, I didn’t do it. The spectre that loomed in my mind’s eye was that of Madeleine McCann. The newspaper headlines. Some kinds of risk invite a degree of judgement out of proportion with their statistical magnitude.

I think that as parents we are vulnerable to the same kind of non-stats-based assessment of risk when it comes to vaccination. The fears that anti-vax figurehead Andrew Wakefield invoked live on, despite the comprehensive debunking of his claims. And sins of commission feel bigger than sins of omission: “if my child was hurt by the vaccine, I couldn’t forgive myself.” Getting a jab requires active participation, and the associated active acceptance that it’s the right thing to do; simply never taking your child along for an appointment does not. Inaction is the preferred course for waverers. Some of us, perhaps, are sticking on a post hoc rationalisation to dress up a visceral dislike for the momentary pain we inflict on our children when a needle punctures their sweet little thighs. That immediate discomfort feels far more real to us than the remote imaginings of the terrible diseases from which the vaccine will protect our children. Of course, there’s no story to ever hear from the tens of thousands of parents whose children don’t get blinded by measles, don’t lose pregnancies to rubella infection, don’t spend weeks in intensive care with diphtheria because they had the vaccinations that prevented those things from happening. The reality of those risks muted by those missing stories, we can be overwhelmed by the anecdotal stories of people who believe, rightly or wrongly, that vaccination has harmed their children.

But if this is (sometimes) about perceived risk, why are people not reassured by the clear public declarations that vaccination is safe? I think it’s partly because guidelines change. In a world full of conflicting advice, or guidelines that change, serves not to convince parents that public health is a dynamic field where better knowledge yields improved practice, but that the experts don’t really know what they are talking about and that official advice can be disregarded. Advice from other parents can feel more dependable. I’ve often seen parents online asking for health advice from peers, when my default reaction would have been to either Google it or see a doctor. Even in a Facebook group notionally devoted to ‘science – informed natural parenting’, anecdata prevails: “should we get the flu jab?” “Well I did and it was fine.”. I understand this now more than I once did: the experience of parenting, of taking on responsibility for another life and of having to make constant calculations about risk in the absence of complete (or even good) data predisposes you to turn first to others who are “in the trenches” with you. Bad experiences with out-of-touch healthcare professionals make this worse. One friend was told by a GP who was treating her postnatal depression that under the circumstances she ought to reduce pressure on herself: “You know, you can even left yourself off for not ironing the bedsheets.” So when some parents encounter an online community of fellow mums and dads who give them scientific-sounding arguments that chime with their visceral reluctance to get a jab, that echo their sense that official advice is not gospel, it does not surprise me that many take it seriously.

What could change? I think we need a sea change in the whole way in which we present official advice. Health educators in all capacities should position themselves not as Moses handing down stone-carven laws, but as scientists presenting the best possible interpretations of the best possible data. Acknowledging that even current knowledge isn’t infallible should curb the worrying phenomenon whereby any hint that official advice is (or has been) wrong makes some of the public throw up their hands in distrust of official advice in general. If public health doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not — flawless, totally objective, incontrovertible — then it’ll garner less backlash.

Image credit: Adrian Clark on Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/adrianclarkmbbs/495559551/

Ridiculous Thing #43: Vacillating about vaccinating

Ridiculous Thing #42: Crashing my relationship into a wall.

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When the baby was approaching eight weeks old, my other half asked a question that floored me. “Would you like,” he said, “to go out for Valentine’s Day?”

It wasn’t that I was dumbstruck because it was a rare romantic gesture, or a concession to a Hallmark holiday, or anything like that. I was astonished because the thought had never even crossed my mind. And oh yes, I had known that Valentine’s Day was coming. Not only had I known, I had browsed Pinterest boards and Facebook groups packed with ideas for cute crafts to do with your toddler to mark the occasion. (Something else you learn when you become a parent, at least to a toddler or nursery-aged child: there are wayyyy more holidays out there than you ever realized, and adorable pain-in-the-arse craft activities for every one of them. Footprint Christmas reindeer give way to inexpertly-collaged Valentines, which yield in turn to St Patrick’s Day green-dyed cupcakes and Easter chicks made from cotton wool balls, and so on and so on. It is actually difficult to generate enough recycling to satisfy the raw materials demand.) So Valentine’s Day was well and truly happening in our house; it was happening with heart-shaped jam tarts and some finger painting. What had simply never entered my head was the prospect of celebrating it with a date with my partner of eleven years’ standing.

Yes, at first, you can’t leave the house at night because the baby needs feeding every forty minutes. You don’t fit into any of your nice clothes and you are so tired that any time no children are physically attached to you, you want nothing more than to sleep. All your friends have babies too so nobody can babysit. But at length you make the heroic efforts necessary to spend some time alone together, and what a triumph it is.

THE BLOKE: Can I get you a drink?

THE BROAD: Better not. I’m breastfeeding. And co-sleeping. And so tired that a single sip of Sangiovese will be enough to tee off the weepy-drunk-falls-asleep-in-the-toilet-cubicle stage of the evening.

THE BLOKE: Ha, sleep … Do you think the kids are sleeping?

THE BROAD: When we left, The Bird was playing nicely with her teddies. And by “playing”, I mean “yelling”. And by “nicely”, I mean “loudly”. And by “her teddies”, I mean “zero justification”. Anyway, let’s not talk shop. We never get away from them; let’s use this time to, you know, be adults.

THE BLOKE: You’re right. Had a look at the menu? It’s a fancy place. Look, Beluga caviar!

BOTH, WISTFULLY: Belugas….

BOTH: The Bird’s favourite cephalopod!

I did make it out for a “mum date” with three really good friends last week, and we secured an entire room of the pub all to ourselves by the simple expedient of talking in great detail and at probably rising volume about potty training our daughters. But it’s now almost June, and The Bloke and I still haven’t been for our Valentine’s date. Isn’t that Ridiculous?

Image credit: Kristin “Shoe” Shoemaker on Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/linuxlibrarian/5404460164/

Ridiculous Thing #42: Crashing my relationship into a wall.