Paranoia, or normal parental anxiety?

Paranoid Parenting
April 27, 2001

Aren't all parents paranoid? Doesn't it come with the territory? Even after reading Frank Furedi's book, I am left wondering which parent could feel confident about embarking on something as important as rearing a baby in almost total ignorance. No amount of joy, pride and fulfilment is sufficient to assuage the natural fear of falling short in a role that is impossible to anticipate and for which there is no get-out clause. It is natural for parents to seek information on what is likely to happen during these testing times and to look for a few pointers on how to navigate this unfamiliar territory.

I certainly did. As a doctor of some 13 years' standing, I still rang the health visitor in a panic when my five-day-old son had a few loose stools. She laughed. Why should a medic be so desperate for reassurance and guidance on such a trivial neonatal event? Simply because in the context of being a new parent, I was not a medic - I was a mother with all the insecurities of a mother.

I find information calming. Nothing threatens confidence and performance like fear of the unknown. Good information on childcare is just as likely to turn out well-balanced parents as paranoid ones, and the reason why parents these days turn to books for tips on bringing up baby (and to television, radio, the internet - any source of information, in fact) is because there is no longer any practical training. I probably belong to the last generation of women who grew up learning childcare in the family. As a child of eight or nine, I sat with aunts, cousins and grandparents and watched while a squalling newborn baby was fed, bathed and changed so many times that I could have done it with my eyes closed.

Without the confidence that comes from knowledge, whether learned from example or from books, parents will not feel free to follow their own excellent and reliable instincts. No writer on baby and childcare can assume knowledge of any parent's approach to looking after their child, the onus is on setting out the options. Is one disserving parents by not outlining the alternatives open to them? Do they wish to be aware of pros and cons? I assume they do.

Paranoid Parenting is an indictment of this assumption, arguing that acting on it undermines the confidence and authority of parents to the point where they are too scared to have children. One in five women now opts to remain childless, compared with one in ten in the 1940s. The rising number of women who eschew motherhood may not be due to fear of failing to be a good mother as much as the increasingly prevalent view that women can now choose a lifestyle that excludes children in exactly the same way that they can choose to remain unmarried and not be stigmatised by the spinster label.

The sociologists' view of parental love is a depressing one, given that loving is something parents are really good at. "It is far from evident that loving and giving attention for its own sake provides any real benefit for children." The contention is that children who are loved on demand will never develop the ability to confront problems on their own, explore the world by themselves, learn from experience or play independently.

But children thrive on love. In the first year, love can be seen as an essential vitamin that needs to be replenished daily. As such, it is almost impossible to give too much. Instead of stunting children, love does the opposite, it equips a child to be all the things Furedi says it does not. You can spot well-loved children across the room: they are outgoing, friendly, self-assured, adventurous, generous, curious, displaying the qualities we would all hope to see in our children.

We are encouraged to reject the concept of love on demand because it saddles a parent with the expectation of unconditional love, a sentiment, Furedi says, that has no reference to anything outside itself. My preferred definition describes a love that cannot be arbitrarily withdrawn. So while parents may disapprove of their child's actions, they do not stop loving their child. Whatever mistakes a child makes, a parent can always be relied upon for support - expectations that seem to me reasonable for a child to harbour and for a parent to fulfil.

Parents do fall victim to their own ambition and maladroitness, and I am not the first to say so. "They **** you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do." I always reckoned I was in pole position to **** up my children, and I would not have had to read Larkin's poem to know that. It is this fear that parents respond to, not the pressure from experts, when they strive to be all things to every baby.

Miriam Stoppard, MD, FRCP, is a doctor and writer.

Paranoid Parenting

Author - Frank Furedi
ISBN - 0 713 99488 6
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £9.99
Pages - 214

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