A few months ago, I received a call from an old college friend with an unusual story to share. She was visiting home and bumped into an ex-schoolmate’s mum who congratulated her on the recent birth of her son. And then the lady went on to say, “I’m so proud of this generation of mums! You girls are so much more informed and thorough than we were ever thought to be.”
For both her, a few months into being a mother, and for me, a couple of years down that road, this was unusual. Actually, it was a damn near miracle, because we really couldn’t remember the last time anyone had said we were doing it right.
What we do normally hear is, ‘you parents nowadays!’ and it’s seldom congratulatory. It seems that you have to be the kind of parent that fits into a category — helicopter, tiger, drone, elephant, free range, funky chicken — and there’s something not great about all of them.
The ‘parents nowadays’ refrain usually implies that we overdo and overthink everything. We actually probably do. Is that always a bad thing though? The implied answer is affirmative. ‘Parents nowadays’ is also often tinged with an understandable envy/appreciation for all the wonderful aids we have. Sterilizers, diapers, breasts pumps, baby carriers — the arsenal of parenthood that seems standard to us would have been a complete luxury for our parents.
But ‘parents nowadays’ is also accompanied by tales of how we were thrown into sandpits and swimming pools, how we learnt to play with more imagination and less toys, how we were taught to embrace strangers and give them the benefit of the doubt; in short, how we had a childhood. In parallel, how parents enjoyed their lives outside being parents with a healthy outlook and balanced approach between self, spouses and offspring. It is equally about not questioning the source and the outcome, and the grand game of ‘just letting things be.’
It sounds like they had it all under control. Except really, I have to question if they did. This isn’t to diss the generation that raised us. We aren’t setting out to right their wrongs. They did the best they could; just as we’re driven to do the best we can. But I have heard more stories of postnatal anxiousness, accidents and abuse than there should be and if nothing else, there is more awareness and conversation around it than ever before.
From casual conversations at the park to online communities, we hear frequently that we should just be thankful for the things we have and we can’t imagine the hardships of parents before; that those were the real problems, and how it’s best to march on. While I don’t deny the gumption of the generations of our parents (and frankly – thank god for it!), I’ve got to say, parenting will always, always be difficult. Different times bring different difficulties, but being the creator, protector or nurturer can’t ever get easy. Which brings to me the next point worth raising – while we have these objects of convenience, just how did they come to be?
Here’s probably what happened: a dad or mum, frazzled by an infant scream that can only be described as piercing, took a bottle of just warmed milk and gave it to the baby as soon as a desperate parent can. That’s the best regular human speed raised to Olympian multiplied by sheer panic. They knew they should test a drop on the back of their hand; they saw the videos, they read the blogs, they’ve done the same thing a hundred times earlier including in the dead of night, amidst darkness and ongoing sleep deprivation. But this cry felt particularly upset, and the milk was hot. Too hot? Not sure. Oh god, what if it was too hot? It seems okay now actually. The baby’s settling, if a bit taken aback by this new thing called temperature. And the parent thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a visual reminder that the bottle was too hot? Not as a primary method of checking for milk just the way your bub likes it, but as a second set of eyes or a second pair of hands would. And wouldn’t it help babies and parents everywhere, to have this simple innovation built into the bottle? In fact, how come all bottles don’t come with this sweet little bit of help?
And wouldn’t it make cuts and scrapes better if the plaster had puppies and ponies on it?
And wouldn’t it make naps easier if something could swing the cot other than your arm?
This isn’t to say that any of this is a necessity. But it’s not unnecessary either. At best, it’s a choice because only you know what keeps you up at night. And the comforting truth is, so many of us are united by our worst imagination.
As the co-founder & co-owner of the world’s first restaurant for grown-ups with integrated childproofing, I have been asked (less often than I have been thanked!), why did we need to round the edges and cushion the underside of tables? Is that being extra? But it’s quite clear to me — if we can prevent accidents, shouldn’t we? We have a mountain of data in front of us; of what constitutes unsafety, of what makes it so difficult for new mums to get dressed and step out, of the toll a new child brings to an increasingly nuclear style of family. For my partners and me, it was obvious that there was a need to do something about it, at least in the context of being able to eat proper good food suited to grown-ups. In fact, we can’t think of a good reason that childproofing in commercial places isn’t the norm!
This is, by no means, a justification for a 7-layer unicorn cake made with hand plucked and home ground flour straight from the field or making your own laundry detergent. We concede, it’s gotten too much and we’re not saying the strain of it should overtake life. But the good news it, we now know so many things that weren’t known before and it’s a beautiful thing to have the choice to make of it what you want and, in the process, take some fellow parents along on your ride. So if there is an option to use milk in my home from cows fed on grain on farms that use minimal pesticides (you know, the kind our grandparents probably used for their kids!), well, yes I’ll take some of that, thank you very much.
Parenting is hard enough as it is, but what would make it infinitely harder is if we thought this was as good as it was ever going to get. Doing better is part of the human experience. We are made to move forward, to perpetuate not just the species but also thinking. Constant improvement and possible inspiration are what make us look forward to another day and another phase. There is probably no singular field or product that can claim utter and perfect completion. Your mum’s chicken curry couldn’t get any better until someone tried something different with it, and now that’s the new recipe. The iPhone will always have another, a slimmer, a better model coming. Heck, there will always be upgrades to make the existing one better. We didn’t think fire needed improvement until we started noticing the carbon emissions. Roger Bannister ran the mile in under 4 minutes; and then someone did it in 3. If we were to throw our hands up and say our work here was done, then really, what would we do? Practically everything under the sun can be done differently. And parenting, with our mistakes and flaws and trying to be better and promising to at least try, doesn’t have to be the exception.