New mum of a little girl, Charlene Stubbs, details the modern day parenting trends that have her, and many other parents, tearing their hair out... Can you relate?
Social media is well and truly a part of our lives, there’s no denying it. I use Facebook, have an Instagram account and am addicted to Pinterest. And in the first months of motherhood I turned to these devices for help and guidance. You see, with a growing army of tech-savvy Insta- and blog-happy mums out there, I had been promised a wealth of in-the-know advice, an endless supply of virtual shoulders to cry on and an instant membership to the sisterhood.
But I’m sad to say seven months in and I’m unfollowing and defriending. I’ve got nothing against the posters personally, I just find the sites are something else in a long list of things that make me feel guilty, pressured and, quite frankly, a little bit rubbish.
I get it, I do. I understand that for many mums blogging started as a creative outlet to share their experiences, offer advice and inspire other mums. But just google “mummy blogs” and it’s overwhelming how many are out there. There are mummy blogs about everything from cooking and arts and crafts, to fashion and beauty and general lifestyle.
You know the ones; the mummies who manage to pull off that eclectic-meets-high-fashion-street style, whose children are dressed head to toe in equally cool outfits and eat organic homemade everything, whose Scandi-style home is crying out to be featured on the pages of a glossy interiors magazine, and as a family they enjoy endless whimsical days out, usually in a field of lavender with blue skies and magical rays of sunshine.
Is it really inspiring to see? Even though, yes, you have managed to get some kind of ensemble together, chances are within five minutes you’ll be reaching for your already-been-puked-on go-to jumper and trying to dodge yet another carrot purée bullet. It’s no wonder so many of us feel like we fail epically on a daily basis:
“If they can manage it, why can’t I?”
Admittedly, at first I tried to keep up with the Joneses.
I was Pinterest happy and creating the ultimate moodboard for my daughter Peggy’s nursery. It was white walls with dashes of muted colours, a collection of woodland prints in white frames, a few choice pieces of vintage furniture, but, above all, not pink and not girlie. Truth is, our apartment isn’t bathed in dreamy light with high ceilings and Peggy’s ‘nursery’ consists of her cot squeezed into our room. I went to the extent of painting one wall and hung a few pictures. And, honestly, every time I look at it, it makes me feel like I have failed her yet again.
Worse still, are the bloggers who seem to cause a tidal wave of virtual altercations by giving the impression they know best in all matters of parenting – from what, when and how to feed your child, to having a routine or not, whether to vaccinate or not, and just why being a working mum or stay-at-home mum will be the make or break of your child. The problem with blogs is the sheer volume.
There are hundreds of thousands of them, which is a whole lot of differing opinions at your fingertips. And for first-time mums, wading through those opinions can be a lonely and daunting place. Whatever happened to “Mum knows best”? As parents you know your child. You know what’s right for your situation. No two families are the same. What works for one might not work for the other, so why consider the opinion of a stranger who just makes you feel bad about yourself?
However, not all blogs and social media are terrible. There are some genuinely honest and funny blogs out there and two close friends, who are also happy to be mums, are avid Pinterest users. Both are creative types who like to be inspired by recipes for their young ones and actually follow through on craft projects for their homes. The important thing to remember is to read between the social media lines.
We know pictures posted on Instagram are just a snapshot of someone else’s life. There’s no doubt a whole lot of craziness going on behind the scenes and, to be honest, fair play to the mums who manage to create these fanciful worlds where everything appears perfect. They work hard at it and deserve their five minutes of Insta-glory.
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From the minute Peggy was born all I ever seemed to hear was “Get out to a group, it will be good for you”, or “Once you get to a group you’ll feel so much better”. They were, of course, talking about baby groups. That inevitable place all new mother’s flock to in the hope of finding friendship and support. And why not? For most of us we don’t have family close at hand to prop us up through those early days of motherhood and the friends who help keep us sane are often at work, so it’s only natural that we want to reach out and find comfort in people who are going through the same thing.
And so, by week 12, I had finally had enough of the sofa and using Peggy as the reason I was still in my pyjamas at 4pm, so off we ventured to face a whole new world together. At three months, Peggy wasn’t really up for the job of being my wingman, she was pretty much a blob who lay about on the floor while I thrust toys at her in the name of stimulation, but everyone had told me what great friends I would make, so I brushed my hair and slapped on some mascara. Obviously I didn’t want to appear as a complete slob.
Even with a baby to get out the door, I somehow managed to arrive at 10am sharp, signed in and waited. Suddenly I was all sweaty palms and anxiety. It was starting to feel like those first days at school again.
Don’t be silly, I told myself, I’m a grown woman of 35 meeting other grown women who are mothers, no one is going to pick on me. Slowly, the mums started to arrive with their little bundles of joy in tow. Pleasantries were exchanged, babies were sprawled out and coffee and biscuits appeared. So far, so good.
For the next two hours, each new mum took it in turns to raise topics, all baby related of course, and we each sat nodding and offering up our own baby’s sleep, feeding and winding routines, and then we left. I had met some new women in the area and I was looking forward to next week when we could move past the baby chat and start to get to know each other better.
Except that never happened. All that happened for the next five weeks was me getting slowly manoeuvred out of the group. Silly me had thought that, like me, these other women might relish the chance to get out of the house and have conversations that didn’t revolve around our babies. That’s all anyone ever asked me about. Even if it’s for just a few hours a week, I’d like to feel like the real me, not just the mum me.
I had a career, I had interests, I cracked good jokes – honestly, my real friends will tell you. But nobody in my baby group seemed interested. Any time I tried to steer the conversation away from the babies, like asking what they did, where they had travelled, what restaurants they would recommend, it felt like I was met with a wall of silence. Within minutes they were back to weaning, sling styles and competing over who had the fewest hours of sleep.
Maybe it was me? Maybe it was because Peggy is bottle-fed, or because she has a dummy, but it was clear I didn’t fit in. With my confidence truly knocked, I hotfooted it out of there never to return.
I know it’s not always like that; lots of mums I know have had very positive experiences in joining a baby group. They found support and friendships that have lasted since those dark, early days. And I want that, I really do. But I’m not going to put myself through the pressure of trying to fit in to do it. I’ve been there and done that in the school playground. I may look for another mum and baby group, but it'll have to be the right one for me.
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Like me, many of my friends grew up in a time when our parents let us get on with it a little bit. Of course they were there to pick us up when we fell down, but we were left to our own devices. I wasn’t breastfed as a baby, my dad wasn’t at my birth (he was working). As I grew older, I used to disappear for hours to play, I watched far too much TV, my staple diet consisted of bowls of Frosties, jam sandwiches, a warm plate of meat and two veg and, on occasion, oven chips and a tin of beans. I got the odd smack when I had been naughty and loved nothing better than fighting with my younger sister over pretty much everything.
By today’s standards I was destined to fail my exams and spend the rest of my life eking out a penniless existence on a minimum wage. Surprisingly, I excelled at school, left university with a 2.1 degree, enjoyed a challenging career in publishing, owned a business, travelled the world and feel like a well-rounded human being. Which makes me wonder, why do we want to raise our children so differently from how our own parents raised us?
Nowadays women work and men rule the kitchen (thanks Jamie Oliver) – our marriages are a far cry from those of our parents. We have successful careers, two incomes, bigger homes, more friends (to compete with) and much healthier lifestyles.
We rely much more on experts and the internet for advice instead of our families when it comes to pretty much every aspect of our lives. And parenting is no exception. With books and gurus for everything from birthing and feeding, to sleeping and routines, behaviour and developmental milestones, is it any wonder the pressure to get it right leaves us at boiling point?
The stress we put ourselves under to make sure our children have round-the-clock attention, solid routines, the right kind of discipline, hit all the right development stages and, most importantly, eat a healthy (sugar-less and not frozen), balanced diet of exotic-sounding foods, well for one is tiring and, two, not achievable. And believe me, I’ve tried!
As a mostly stay-at-home mum getting to hang out with Peggy all day has many ups and downs. Even though we have some fun times – dare I say it? Sometimes I just want to be doing something else. Which then makes me feel guilty that I don’t spend enough time with her. I got so fed up with stressing out over the newsfeeds coming through to my phone informing me of what she should and shouldn’t be doing from week to week, that I switched them off. Which makes me feel guilty because with her nearly eight months old, I don’t actually have a clue what she should be doing.
As you read earlier, I haven’t been too social on the baby group front so Peggy’s entire circle of friends consists of two other babies who live hundreds of miles away. Guilt. And when I spent a week cooking up a smorgasbord of ‘meals perfect for weaning’ for Peggy to then throw at the wall, we went back to our good old staple of porridge and banana. Guilt.
When I think about my own childhood and remember my parents sending us off to school with a jam sandwich (on white bread, not organic sourdough), or missing sports day because they had to work or losing their temper with us – again – because we had been driving them crazy, I’m sure they felt guilty. But I know they love me very much and did the best they could. Which is the important thing to remember.
Because at the end of the day, parenting isn’t a job anyone or any book can prepare you for. It’s a learn-as-you-go-along kind of thing. And sometimes you’re going to get it wrong. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re not going to be perfect. But that’s OK, because to your child, you will be a super parent and the best you can do will be good enough. That’s what I’m hoping anyway...