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The baby monitors looked mournfully back at me from the bottom of the wheelie bin as I slammed the lid. Then I experienced a series of flashbacks: the crackle of a baby's cry; the whiff of stale vomit on my clothes; pacing the floor at 3 am; the breastfeeding propaganda, and the malign medical insensitivity of the health visitors' “support”—a tick list questionnaire on depression, domestic abuse, and “concerns” about seemingly everything (my wife took to hiding from them in her subsequent pregnancies). Thus we were sucked into the parental collective—mere drones with no free thought or will. Smoking might be dangerous, but becoming a parent seemed to be lethal.
In the past, having children involved two teenagers falling in love, having sex, then being forced to marry at the age of 20. Life was straightforward, with clearly defined roles and a script. The children tumbled out, and parents just muddled through—their reward a ruby or perhaps a diamond wedding celebration attended by nine kids and countless grandchildren. Spent, they were happy to throw off the yoke of life.
But life has changed. We now have children at an age at which in the past we would have been grandparents. There are fewer children and they are more “precious” than the hordes of the past. Cast adrift in a great sea of parental indifference yesterday's children generally taught themselves to swim, but now we have stagnant pools of poisonous introspection in which we are all drowning, cold dark pools fed by television programmes, magazines, and so many expert books: Dr Spock, conscious parenting, attachment parenting, authoritative parenting, and all the rest. All this is cookbook parenting, selling complex recipes with exotic ingredients and glossy pictures of the future, success guaranteed. In reality the ingredients are impossible to find, the recipes are pointlessly time consuming, and the final result has an intensely bitter aftertaste.
So what should we doctors tell patients? Should we tell them to trust and draw on their own childhood experiences and that there are no perfect parents or children, just different ones? And yes, rely on experts, but let these be family and friends with qualifications from the school of life, not childless, fakely tanned Californians with unlikely sounding degrees from unheard-of universities. And tell them that childhood is by its nature conformist, for we must teach social rules, but that this is not repression, as it is the very soil from which individuality grows. And lastly, say that childhood should be seen not as separate from adult life but as part of a continuum. If nothing else, tell parents to throw all the parenting theories into life's wheelie bin, to raise their heads and trust intuition, and even enjoy being parents again.