Last week, before a prenatal pilates class, I got chatting to one of the other mums-to-be. ”How many weeks are you?” I asked, because, well, it’s the easiest starting point. “I’m 25” she replied. And without thinking I exclaimed “Oh wow! Your bump is so neat!”, which then haunted me through the next hour as we contorted on the reformer, worried that I had worried her. Afterwards I apologised for my clumsiness, and she sweetly said that everyone has told her that she’s carrying small and not to fear.
Here’s the thing about motherhood; as soon as you announce you’re pregnant, everyone has an opinion about your body. You’re too big, too small, should go to this doctor, should definitely do hypnobirthing, have an epidural, go drug-free, and did you know that Al Zahra Hospital do water births now? It’s exhausting, and a potential cause of further stress during what is one of the most fraught times in a woman’s life.
Yes, we’re supposed to be wafting about all glowing and excited, cooing over impossibly tiny clothes and squealing over miniature Converse, but in reality many of us are hunched over our iPhones, trawling forums for answers to the endless questions pinging around our brains, on everything from weight gain to what to take to the hospital. And that’s just pregnancy.
Once the baby is born, it’s open season on the opinions. SleepyHeads, swaddling, baby yoga, co-sleeping, working mums, stay-at-home mums, nannies vs nurseries, breastfeeding vs formula, which experts you have consulted, and have you tried craniosacral therapy with that lovely man on Beach Road, because it worked wonders for us? Then later on, the screen time, the school assessments, the lunch boxes and birthday parties. It’s never-ending.
And guess what happens to new mums in their delicate, vulnerable and hormonal state? They start spinning out, doubting their decisions and instincts, becoming (even more) sleepless over a casual, clunky comment from a total stranger.
I once cried in the car after a woman (a fellow patient, not a paediatrician, I should point out) in a doctor’s waiting room said my six-week-old daughter looked ‘too small for her age’, even though she had been weighed minutes before and was bang on the chart where she should be. But the heavy-handed remark went to the heart of my deepest insecurities about having a low milk supply and my baby being hungry. And so I cried – her comment striking fear in me without her even knowing it.
That’s what we need to think about before we open our mouths. How would I feel if someone said that to me, when I’m at my most self-doubting? Could something meant in kindness be misinterpreted? Will what I say make someone feel more, or less, worried? Could I cause hurt, or guilt, without meaning to?
We’re all just bumbling through parenthood, no matter how many books we read, or classes we go to, or money we spend on experts. We’re just feeling our way, and one day we might feel like we’ve cracked it and then, guess what? The next day our child regresses, or changes, and we lose our footing again.
And here’s what you need to know. The majority of the time, whether she realises it or not, when another mum asks you about your birth plan, or sleep routine, or potty-training timing, all she’s trying to do is validate her own decision. If you both have the same doctor, or stroller, or read the same book, then you’re legitimising their choice and making it ‘correct’. When you reply with what they want you to say, all they really hear is a voice in their head going “Phew. You were right. It’s going to be OK.” It soothes their own insecurities.
Remember, even when intentions are good, everyone is going to judge your choices – so you might as well be happy with your decisions. Stand by your convictions. Stay strong.
It’s one thing to share worries and woes with your friends, and ask for help, but it’s quite another to have your beliefs shaken by the words of a stranger in your antenatal class.
So how can we deflect these uninvited words of advice? I find a firm but polite “I’ll keep that in mind”, or “Thank you, that’s really interesting. I’ll definitely let you know if I need more information,” works well.
As for the constant quizzing and comparisons, it’s tougher. Especially for first-time mums, who feel like every aspect of motherhood is a code to be cracked, or a mystery where everyone else has been given the clues.
Do your research. Make your own decisions. Go with your gut. I’m hoping when my second baby arrives early next year I’ll have more confidence than I did the first time around. The confidence to tell, rather than ask, a midwife that I want to switch to combination feeding, that I’m ready for my baby to be in her own room, that we’ll use a dummy because it gives me some peace and quiet. My body, my business. My baby, definitely my business.
Be kind with your words, mums, because we’re all just trying to do our best. And we are all simply figuring it out as we go along.
Mums tell it like it is
Every mum can regale you with times they have been hurt by another mum’s comments. Here are some classics that we can all relate to...
Kirsty, mum of three, says other parents talking about big beds can make her doubt herself:
“Big beds. We haven’t done the transition from cots into big beds yet for lots of reasons – they are happy and safe, they have no interest in climbing out, they sleep through the night and, with a newborn, it’s just not something we are ready for yet. I think sometimes we doubt ourselves when a comment is made – often by a parent who is pleased about their achievement. They don’t intend to upset you, but it’s hard to remember that every child and family set-up is different. Sometimes I feel like we are running a race and it’s all about ticking off milestones and achievements quickly. This time round I’m going to jog and enjoy the scenery along the way!”
Tess, mum of two, says she was made to feel silly about labour pain and guilty about having an epidural:
“After I had my first son, I was sending messages back and forth with a friend who was about to go through it for the first time. She asked me if contractions hurt, honestly. So I said, ‘Yes, honestly they hurt.’ “She responded, ‘Well you always have been a bit of a wimp.’ I was crushed. I felt like I was being judged and then was wondering, ‘Did they really hurt so much? Did I imagine it, or make them worse?’ “It hasn’t been any different since I had my second son – I am still regularly knocked down by other mums. The other day I had, ‘Are you still breastfeeding?’ I said I wasn’t – that Finley hadn’t been getting enough from me so I combo-fed from about six weeks and now he’s exclusively on formula. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘but you had an epidural so that was bound to happen.’ ‘I don’t think so,’ I said, ‘I was breastfeeding fine for the first six weeks.’ ‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘but you had the epidural, trust me that’s why.’”