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The utter uselessness of parent shaming

Originally published on The Pool

I was on my way to my favourite shop in all the land, Lidl, when a woman in the street started yelling at me about my lack of parenting skills.

You see, I was pushing my baby son in his pram, and I had committed the great sin of crossing the road while the lights were green.

Despite the fact that it was a quiet time of day, and there was no oncoming traffic, this woman – who was waiting at the crossing with her own child – was of the opinion that I was a terrible mother, and moreover was setting an awful example for her own son.

“How could you?” she shouted, long after I’d reached the opposite side of the road, spectacularly un-run over. “What if my son copies you? What sort of mother are you?”

These words rang in my ears as I roamed the hallowed cut-price halls of mighty Lidl, and I began to doubt myself. Should I not have crossed? This woman’s son was older than mine, so clearly she’d been a mother for longer. Had I transgressed some vital unwritten parenting rule? Was she right? Was I a bad mother?

Now, I get nervous every time I approach traffic lights.

It amazes me when some parents jump all over the way other people raise their children. At the risk of sounding naive, shouldn’t we all just get along?

Being a parent is hard. Giving birth is an earth-shattering body-shock and, in the months that follow, you have to recover from this, learn how to look after a child, and look after a child – all at the same time.

And I’ve only been doing this for six months. I haven’t even got to the part where you have to keep multiple children from eating each other, or when they grow into tiny adults and start copying you when you swear at the television.

How all people with children aren’t constantly weeping and patting each other on the back simply for getting through another day is beyond me. But they’re not.

It seems there’s always someone not only bemoaning someone else’s parenting style, but using it to extrapolate all sorts of unsavoury things about that parent’s personality.

Recently, this happened to David and Victoria Beckham. When their four-year-old daughter, Harper, was photographed with a dummy in her mouth (current NHS guidance says to stop using dummies in infanthood), tabloids were quick to wheel in “health experts” who warned of the dangers this posed to Harper’s teeth, her speech, her future mental health. Were the Beckhams allowing prolonged dummy use because Victoria was “clinging on to her last baby”, wondered these experts. Or was it because the Beckhams were just poor role models?

Precisely none of these experts asked, “Is it because an unsettling human wall of paparazzi is forever leering at a small child, and she might need a bit of comfort to deal with it?” or “How is this any of our business?”

And the below-the-line comments were stuffed with almost gleefully cruel judgements from other parents.

In a small way, now, I know how the Beckhams feel.

My husband, Stuart Heritage, writes for the Guardian. Six months ago, panic-stricken and sleep-deprived, he wrote arecord of our son Herbie’s traumatic birth, and has kept a weekly column for the paper ever since, detailing the highs, lows and poo explosions of new fatherhood.

The column explains our parenting set-up (I’m on maternity leave for a year, so doing most of the parenting for now, although Stuart takes over when he’s not working), and records landmark moments, such as our first family excursion to A&E, or the first time I breastfed in public and Stuart used his coat to shield my modesty, “like a Poundland matador”.

His latest instalment, though, has caused an internet ruckus. It concerns a day when I fell ill unexpectedly, and Stuart had to sack off work to look after Herbie.

And the fact that a) it wasn’t a barrel of laughs for him, and b) he’s said so in his inimitable self-deprecating style, has been misinterpreted by vast swathes of parents in the comments section as aggressively perpetuating gender disparity in parenting, and child cruelty bordering on abuse.

The main issues are:

1. He said that babies can be boring after a fashion – which people have taken to mean that he finds *all babies* constantly awful, and as such should have his own baby forcibly removed from his care.

2. He complimented my parenting skills – obviously confirming the gender stereotype that ALL women are more natural at parenting than men, and/or was trying to get into my pants.

3. He marvelled at how I do this all day without going nuts – I have never been so needlessly defended as I was by those who seemed to think he was some cold, distant chauvinist patronising his meek housewife, when really it was a terrified cry from someone who was deprived of his safety net for the first time. Incidentally, I’ve felt this way frequently when Stuart’s been away. It’s just that, if I say so, I’m not being sexist. I’m just being human.

The frenzy even reached US site Jezebel, where this response piece sprang up. It wrongly assumed all sorts of things about both of us, without taking the article in the wider context of the column as a whole, and the site went with a clickbaity OMG-this-guy-finds-babies-boring-WTF headline, which may explain why some of the parents in the comments called for Stuart to “die in a fire”.

To die in a fire. For shame, parents.

I stand by my belief that parents should support each other’s choices, not tear them down. Because what has all this judgement achieved, other than getting everyone all hopped up on adrenaline and finger-pointing?

Is Stuart a better parent because of all this criticism? Is David Beckham? Do they need to be? I mean, Harper seems to be doing well. She looks well and seems very loved by her parents. Herbie’s fine too, in case you were wondering. He’s just spent the day laughing hysterically at his father pointing at a ceiling light.

So, the woman at the crossing, I’d like to say this: it’s not my job to be a role model for your kids; it’s yours.

I think David Beckham summed it up well on Instagram. “Why do people feel they have the right to criticize a parent about their own children without having any facts?” he said, in response to dummygate. “Think twice about what you say about other people’s children because actually you have no right to criticize me as a parent.”

Motherhood and identity

Originally published on The Pool

I go by many names. On Starbucks cups, I’m “Rubato”, because that is the way of Starbucks cups. At work, I’m “Not you, the other one”, because I have a colleague called Robin and he’s far more obliging and debonair than me. And at every doctor’s office I’ve ever visited, I’ve been “Roe-been Wheel-dare” – because apparently doctors’ receptionists the world over are part of a mysterious cabal that rejects normal human pronunciation.

Now, though, I have a new name – “Herbie’s mum” – and, to be honest, I’m still figuring out who that is.

This time last year, you see, I wasn’t anyone’s mum. In fact, I’d reached well into my thirties without remotely wanting to be – I was quite happy living in London, working at BuzzFeed UK, and generally gadding about unencumbered by dirty nappies. And I knew myself pretty well. I was prone to self-doubt. I was fond of hazelnut lattes and the books of Donna Tartt. My dislikes were open-mouthed chewers and, depending on the day, everything in the universe. My weaknesses were sitting and pizza.

But then the maternal urge rolled in all at once, like a storm. I fell pregnant in spring, married in summer, got priced out of my south London postcode by aggressive local upcycling in the autumn, and moved to commutable Kent by Christmas.

One month later, my son was born under the harsh surgical lights of a 4am emergency caesarean, all alarms and hastily put-on scrubs, and too much blood. I spent 72 hours awake on the delivery ward, letting cups of tea go cold while my husband, Stuart, and I marvelled at this tiny new piglet-person squirming around in my cleavage. And then we were sent home, my little instant family; two of us full of needle marks, one of us sawn open, and all of us shell-shocked.

That was 10 weeks ago. In that time, I haven’t had a hazelnut latte or read a Donna Tartt novel. I have eaten piles of pizza, though, during that first week home, when the three of us camped out in the living room, listened to tinkly indie playlists, and just cried and cried and cried (although Stuart would like it to be known that he did not cry, and did press-ups instead).

I thought that when I had the baby I would be essentially unchanged, just me plus a baby, but that’s not the case. At times, I’ve been a mess. My body has been a giant tender bruise, and I’ve been so shaky and uncertain that, for a while, I stuttered when I spoke. I’ve become more sentimental and prone to tears, but at the same time less tolerant of other people’s bullshit, because I have a baby to raise. I have, it turns out, infinite patience for tiny bald men who shout at my boobs all night, provided they are my children.

Eventually, Stuart went back to work. Of course, I knew he would – the plan was for me to take a year’s maternity leave, not him, but still. Watching him leave that first morning, knowing that now, for 12 hours a day, it was just me and this giant responsibility, I felt myself shrink to a dot and disappear, like Sandra Bullock in Gravity, helplessly backflipping off into infinity.

You might have read Stuart’s work, by the way. He’s the Guardian’s X Factor liveblogger and, crucially, he writes a weekly column about what life is like with his new family. You may have read the full story of Herbie’s hairy birth, or about how I have a giant osmium skull now. I treasure these columns. They’re like little postcards from Stuart’s side of things. Marriage can feel fragmented with a new baby in the mix, especially when suddenly one of you is doing most of the parenting and the other most of the working. But, when I’m up with the baby at 4am and I’m so tired that I can’t form thoughts, Stu’s columns precisely describe the joy and terror I’m feeling, and I always enjoy them. Even when he threatens to lift me up by the ankles and wipe my bum in a national newspaper.

Soon I realised that, if I spent every day indoors with my boobs out and Herbie on my lap, I’d just turn into the creepy moon-door lady from Game Of Thrones, so I decided to Get Some Fresh Air. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to Get Some Fresh Air with a breastfed newborn, but it’s a trial. It involves putting him down so you can get dressed, picking him up because he’s crying, pulling on a sock on while jamming your tit in his mouth, changing his nappy, jamming your other tit in his mouth, changing his nappy again, changing your clothes because he’s vomited all over you, noticing four hours have gone past, running outside with the pram, then having a little cry because your baby is so tiny and you never noticed before that the world is so full of spinning knives.

Once I got past the front gate, though, I took an experimental jaunt to Lidl and frankly I’ve never looked back. They should market Lidl as a playground for new mothers – the aisles are wide enough to accommodate even a giant Humvee of a pram like mine, and the shelves are full of treasure, like reasonably priced German gingerbread, and occasionally a wetsuit. Emboldened by daily Lidl excursions, during which no one stabbed me and I didn’t accidentally abandon the pram at the zebra crossing, I took to running errands in town with my son cuddled against me in a fabric wrap. But still, something was missing.

Back in my pre-baby London days, my social life was something that was just there, waiting for me to dip into it. No matter what was going on, a trip to the pub or a dinner round a friend’s was just a text and a Tube ride away. Now friends were trickling down from London at weekends, but it was event socialising; they’d come down and make faces at the baby, we’d all laugh, and then they’d leave. There was no one to just hang out with anymore.

Again, this was always the plan. I’m the one who blithely skipped off into the suburbs, where I don’t know anyone, and started a family. But I didn’t think the lack of company was a problem until a nice old lady in town started cooing over the baby, and I almost fainted from the attention. Soon I was deliberately swerving the baby towards clumps of old ladies whenever I went out, hoping that they’d catch his newborn scent and engage me in conversation. Something needed to be done. I needed to talk to other humans.

The most logical humans for me to meet would be other mothers. Other mothers seem like normal people – many of them also enjoy coffee and sitting – but talking to them involves an entirely new skill set. My initial forays so far haven’t gone brilliantly; at the last mother-and-baby group I attended, I sidled up to a woman and offered a cheery, “Nice baby!”, but she backed away, looking frightened. More recently, I’ve made tentative inroads with a friend of a friend. We don’t like the same things, or work in similar fields, or have anything in common at all, but I’m realising that a) that’s part of being a parent among parents, and b) that’s OK.

It’s fine if you don’t have anything in common, because parenthood is enough. It doesn’t really matter if you don’t like the same music if you’re both going through it – raising a child is terrifying. Raising a child is about love and fear and making tough decisions, and sometimes it’s reassuring just to sit and drink a coffee with someone who gets that.

So, it’s been a steep learning curve, but despite the giant cut in my belly and all these new challenges, I have Herbie. He’s everything. I’ve become baby-mad. Specifically about my own baby. I now understand every Facebook parent who shares photos of their child every five minutes, because as my diminishing follower count will attest, I Instagram my son daily. I’m obsessed. I want to capture him from every angle. The love I feel for him is cellular, and sometimes it feels as though I’ll go berserk with it. When I’m not with him, I miss him – I physically miss him, so I sigh over photos of him, leaking breastmilk everywhere. Even when he’s just in the nextroom. I’ve only known the boy for 10 weeks, for God’s sake. Motherhood has turned me into some terrible, milky-boobed stalker.

With Herbie, my identity is changing day by day. First, I was a home, then I was food. Now his world is opening up and he’s noticing more around him, I am a clown, dancing for his amusement and his comfort when all the new sensations get too much. Soon I’ll be someone new – the person who ignores Herbie’s supermarket tantrums, the fixer of scraped knees, the disciplinarian, the embarrassing, uncool mum. These isolating newborn days will be over, and I’ll miss them, even though I may reclaim some sleep and sanity. I’m looking forward to being all these new people, though, because they’ll mean I managed to be a decent parent. I’d still quite like a hazelnut latte, mind.

The mixed messages around alcohol and pregnancy

Originally published on The Pool

During my pregnancy last year, my doctor and I would meet weekly to laugh about my latest hilarious health misadventure.

We chortled through my gestational diabetes diagnosis, and hooted when a combination of a cracked rib and hyperemesis gravidarum caused me to redecorate her waiting room in projectile vomit. Finally, when I bruised my coccyx going over in a chocolate shop and started to unravel with stress, my doctor unequivocally prescribed a night on the sofa with a glass of wine.

“What?” I responded. “Aren’t pregnant women supposed to avoid alcohol?” “Well, yes and no,” my doctor told me. “You shouldn’t drink in the first three months of pregnancy, and then stick to a couple of units of alcohol a week if you drink at all. But in this case, I’d say, ‘happy mummy, happy baby’.”

So, that night, I took her at at her word and enjoyed a very stress-relieving glass of chilled chablis. I also sipped prosecco at my hen party, champagne at my wedding and a particularly throaty cabernet sauvignon during my honeymoon – happy in the knowledge that, because I was drinking very moderately, I was operating within medical approval.

But now the British Medical Association (BMA) is warning that any alcohol consumption during pregnancy could damage an unborn child.

“Exposure to alcohol before birth affects up to one in every 100 infants,” says Professor Sir Aynsley-Green from the BMA. “It is one of the most significant causes of childhood brain damage, learning disability, poor behaviour and even criminality. There is no ‘safe’ limit for alcohol consumption during pregnancy.”

Even more terrifyingly (at a point when, let’s face it, you’re probably terrified enough already), the effects of alcohol damage may not be initially detectable, according to the BMA’s Professor Sheila Hollins, ranging from “subtle damage that affects intelligence, behaviour and relationships to severe physical and learning disabilities”.

This news has sent me racing upstairs to check my sleeping five-month-old son over for (possibly invisible) signs of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. He seems fine now, if scandalised at being poked awake, but if he goes on to develop some problem linked to my alcohol consumption, will I brush it off with a blithe, “Well, my doctor said ‘happy mummy, happy baby’?” Of course not.

But it seems cruel to penalise pregnant women, especially those of us who indulged before we realised we were pregnant (in fact, that’s probably how a lot of us became pregnant). What with feeling blue, suddenly hating your favourite foods and the very real threat of tipping over in a chocolate shop, most expectant mothers have enough to worry about.

Clare Murphy from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) agrees: “Women are being scared witless by current alcohol messaging.

“If the guidance needs amending in any way, it is to reassure women who have had an episode of binge-drinking before they found out that they were pregnant that they are extremely unlikely to have caused their baby harm.”

BPAS also claim that risks to babies are often exaggerated. So which is it? Are we harming our unborn children by drinking, or not? With my doctor telling me one thing and the Department of Health saying another – not to mention that, during the same hospital visit, one midwife said I should avoid alcohol, and another advised that wine could bring on labour – I was awash with muddled guidance during my pregnancy.

Professor Aynsley-Green has called alcohol messaging “inconsistent, contradictory and confusing”, and I’d have to agree. Conflicting advice is often the way of pregnancy. One minute you’re told to avoid peanuts, and the next peanut butter is back on the menu, and even the birth plan you’re advised to lovingly craft is often flung in the bin the second you hit the delivery suite.

Whatever the outcome of the BMA’s recommendations, however they translate to NHS guidelines for pregnant women, I think doctors and midwives should find a line, and stick to it.

I don’t judge anyone for drinking during pregnancy, and I’d prefer not to be judged myself and, I mean, I really enjoyed drinking during my pregnancy – it made the ride that little bit easier.

But the bottom line is this: had my doctor not told me to go ahead and have that glass of chablis, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to drink it or any alcohol during my pregnancy, and I wouldn’t be hovering by my son’s cot right now, wondering what’s to become of him.

How to love confidently

Originally published in ELLE

Romantic confidence is a rum old business. The very idea that you can gauge how well you’ll rub along with someone a year from now just because they make your stomach feel weird is, as a theory, worthless. If it wasn’t, we’d all already be blissfully wed to unripe apples and too much pizza.

But that’s all most of us get at the start of any relationship: a hunch about a stranger, and absolutely no handbook. No wonder so many of our relationships fail.

I’ve given this matter a lot of thought lately. You see, a few months ago I marched my history of romantic misfires and square-peg-round-hole relationships down the aisle, and said the words “lawfully wedded husband” to someone who has since only kicked me out of bed once (for snoring).

Which is a surprise because, to paraphrase Joey from Friends, I was not likely to take a husband. I never wanted to get married, or have children, plus I had a habit of dating penniless guitarists and, moreover, was a clanging idiot.

For instance, it never occurred to me that I didn’t actually love my first proper boyfriend. When we were 16, we split a Pizza Hut meal deal, then he whispered “I love you”. I really only reciprocated because it was the polite thing to do – but it set a precedent.

‘I must be in love,’ I thought, ‘Because I’ve said so’, and spent the next four years marvelling at how love seemed to involve a lot more privately fancying other people and accusations of neglect than I’d anticipated – then was surprised when it ended bitterly with the sudden arrival of a new, more attentive girlfriend.

After that I resolved to only date people I definitely fancied which, because I am a giant cliché, brought about the aforementioned string of penniless guitarists. You could always tell when a guitarist had entered the room, because I’d stop chatting and start shrugging. “Why have you gone all French suddenly?” My friends would complain. Then they’d clock the leather-jacketed figure lurking in the shadows and roll their eyes, because I was trying to mirror the cool, distant vibe he gave off. Again.

I’d spend entire dates just saying band names and the word “yeah” because I thought it was the thing to do. I felt like Patti Smith (a feat, because my natural demeanour is far more Elmo from Sesame Street). But I’d tire of all the faux-apathy or the guitarist would – gallingly – swan off with a girl as animated as I was pretending not to be.

Soon it was just habit to quietly turn down the volume on aspects of my personality to suit a relationship. I have no idea where I learned to edit myself – I was brought up to be myself. But I’d stifle an opinion here, tell a white lie there, present an “acceptable face” to my partner, and only really take a deep breath when I was among friends.

By the time my last relationship turned serious, I’d applied too much emotional Photoshop to accurately decide whether that was a good idea. Nominally, we got on – cackled at the same TV shows, shared a love of dogs – but something was missing. We’d argue every six months, begging each other to be less as we were, and more like something neither of us could quite define, but desperately needed.

Finally I realised it was at least partly to do with my edited personality, and attempted to reassert my individuality – but it was too late. Suddenly geeing my partner into paying attention to my hobbies or innermost musings when we were each already nursing years of private hurt baffled him and collapsed my self-confidence.

I met my husband when I was raw and vodka-soaked from the breakup. I tried the self-editing shtick, but was too exhausted to put any weight behind it. “I’m quite a cold person,” I told him once. “I’m distant.” “No, you’re not,” he replied incredulously. “You’re bloody Elmo off Sesame Street.”

And I am. I’m goofy and awkward and chatty, and about as romantic as a potato. Affecting a streamlined version of this didn’t work out, so I’ve spent the last few years trying to be myself. It hasn’t been easy – being yourself means facing yourself, and all the things you’d rather avoid about your past and your family.

But, although it can be painful, it’s honest. I am honest, and I am in a warts-and-all relationship, which – in a very practical sense – negates any editing. If I find myself slipping back into bad habits and, say, shrug a lot, my husband will unconsciously start shrugging back at me. Then we’ll just be stuck in a shrugging loop until one of us gets freaked out and asks what’s happening.

And I’m constantly learning about myself. I’d quite like to live overseas again, it turns out, and maybe write children’s fiction. Evidently, given my vintage Etsy ring, giant swollen belly and massive grin every time I feel a kick, I did want to get married and I do want children.

I wouldn’t know any of this if I hadn’t failed so consistently at relationships.

So I think the key to being confident in love is to fail as often as possible. Because it’s less of a case of being confident in love, and more just growing less crap at it. I’m still learning.

8 ways to whinge about your pregnancy when you work at BuzzFeed

I’m a staff writer at BuzzFeed, and I shamelessly mined my pregnancy for source material – so here are all my pregnancy posts. I stand by them all: