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Four books to relieve parenting anxiety

Many parenting books have an opposite effect than intended: reading them can create the sensation that we are doing everything ‘wrong’, rather than giving any definitive solutions.

So, in this month’s book-picks we wanted to look at books that affirm, empower and uplift parents – no matter what their parenting style. To get on this list, we looked at books that moved beyond telling parents what to do, or promoting a parenting fad. These authors instead help us to better understand how we think about parenting – shifting us away from an obsession with techniques and ‘getting it right’ and leaving us feeling better off than when we started.

Our babies, ourselves (Meredith Small)

In terms of classics that were parenting game-changers, Our Babies, Ourselves must be a firm contender. Written in 1998, Small traced the way that parenting styles are shaped by culture and, in turn, what happens when these cultural expectations come head-to-head with biological needs that have been hard-wired over 4 million years of human evolution. While there are books that radically address the cultural context of raising babies (The Continuum Concept is one that comes to mind) Small’s book stands out as different from these because she avoids the temptation to idealise or romanticise any particular culture. Although she covers emotive topics such as breastfeeding, sleeping arrangements and responding to crying, she manages to describe the ways in which different cultures care for different babies without any tone of moral superiority. The book does not leave you feeling like you’ve been doing everything wrong (or that you are harming your baby if you don’t move to a remote Hunter-Gatherer society). Instead, Our Babies, Ourselves gives parents (and workers) a sharpened ability to see how culture drives the parenting beliefs and approaches we hold dear, without necessarily having any relationship to what we, or our babies, actually need. The effect of this is to sharpen our ability to separate the different factors that influence our parenting decisions and to hear our own voices more clearly.

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How mothers love, and how relationships are born (Naomi Stadlen)

Many women come to motherhood having being given an ‘idealised’ image of what parenting will be like. A ‘good’ mother is one who loves her baby from the moment of birth, and can meet all her baby’s needs all the time. A ‘good’ mother is one who can do it all – she breastfeeds on demand, carries her clean baby in an organic cotton sling all day with plenty of time and energy to also lose that baby belly, return to work, keep the mortgage going, prepare organic meals, and have time for coffee with the girls and an active and satisfying sex-life with her partner.

But what happens when the reality of motherhood does not match the image? What happens when the baby does not follow the rules? Some women simply adjust their expectations. Many more, however, begin to question themselves: their choices, their abilities, and even their worth and value as a parent. We then search for people, books, experts, anything that can give us solutions for making ourselves and our babies match the image in our minds.  When these ‘solutions’ don’t work, the feelings of inadequacy and failure can re-surface, quickly leading into a downward spiral.

In this context, Stadlen’s book is an absolute masterpiece. A UK-based counsellor and researcher, Stadlen weaves narratives from hundreds of women she has worked with, with her own perceptive and gentle insights about motherhood stripped bare. Stadlen and the women speaking in this book explore experiences of birth, touch, food, breastfeeding, friends and isolation, crying, body image, work, and partner relationships. There are no solutions in this book. No instructions. Just the reassurance that feelings of ambivalence, exhaustion, disconnection and fierce love are all normal experiences of perfectly good mothers and, in fact, may be an integral part of the path many women take in coming to know and love their babies.

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The Carpenter and the Gardener: What the new science of child development tells us about the relationship between parents and children (Alison Gopnik).

The popularity of research about early brain development has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it has helped bring attention to the incredible importance of early parent-baby relationships. But, on the other hand, many parents articulate a growing fear that if they don’t do all the ‘right’ things, brain development will suffer. This anxiety has been fueled by poor interpretations of some authors and policy-makers about what neuroscience is telling us about developing brains.

The Gardener and The Carpenter deals with this dilemma head-on by providing a map or a guide for parents (and workers) to navigate through brain development research (and, indeed, infant development research generally) without fear or anxiety. Gopnik does not give us more lists of what we need to “do”. Instead she discusses, in a practical and friendly way – how we might make sense of the research that is available to us.

Raising a healthy child, according to Gopnik, is easier when parents can see themselves as gardeners, rather than carpenters. The role of the Carpenter, she argues, is to create a product: a tangible thing which is crafted and shaped in a particular form. Carpentry is goal-oriented and mistakes can ruin the product. When neuroscience is viewed through a goal-oriented, ‘carpentry’ approach to parenting, it creates anxiety for both parents and babies because it is based on the (mistaken) idea that good parenting is all about having the ‘right’ techniques, there is only one way to parent, and only one outcome of value.

The Gardener’s approach to parenting in a world of neuroscience, however, takes a different view. The Gardener recognises that each garden has a life and shape of its own, and is different from any other. The child (the garden) and the parent (the Gardener) not only respond to each other, but also to the seasons and other influences that come into play. A Gardener doesn’t have to ‘do’ anything to ‘make’ a plant grow: their task is to understand the needs of the garden and provide the right conditions. In other words, when parents see themselves as a Gardener, they understand parenting in terms of watching and adjusting as their child moves through various stages of development: some pruning here and there, adding of nutrients to the soil, watering. and – importantly – taking time to also enjoy the garden as well as working in it. In this context, the neuroscience of infancy provides ideas for how we can use our interactions with our babies to provide a good enough environment in which learning and growing will take place.

This book is one of the few available that speaks directly to parents who worry about whether they are doing ‘enough’ of the ‘right’ things for their baby’s early brain development, without also mis-representing the science itself.

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The gifts of imperfect parenting (Brene Brown)

OK, technically this not a book, but a CD – (but it is based on Brown’s hugely successful book The Gifts of Imperfection) in which she discusses how our fear of being a failure or unworthy, drives us to spend inordinate amounts of energy and anxiety on pursuing the image of ourselves as a ‘perfect parent’.

Listening to Brown on CD is a little like having a conversation with her in the lounge room. She speaks with the causal, wise mastery of someone who really, really knows her stuff, expertly and gently weaving information from research about shame, guilt, self-worth, creativity, vulnerability and gratitude with anecdotes, stories and explanations that are easy to digest and relate to.  By the end of the CD, you feel like you have made a new BFFE who completely ‘gets you’.

Ultimately, Brown’s message is we can’t give our kids what we don’t have: if we want our kids to develop a sense of self-worth, we need to re-direct our energy into cultivating our own self-worth.   This is not necessarily a ground-breaking idea: most of us do understand (in theory at least!) that there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ parent. Ironically, this idea often leads to more anxiety because we often see our inability to be comfortably imperfect as yet another sign of our failure! But this CD is an absolute corker because Brown gives concrete strategies to make gentle and very simple shifts in our thinking – not only to help let go of the idea of perfection, but to help embrace our imperfections. This allows us to release anxiety about who we are, and have the space to develop a more authentic sense of self-worth both in ourselves and our kids.

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Bonus title: The New Manhood: 20th Anniversary Edition (Steve Biddulph)

If you’re keeping count, you’ll realise that we’ve included five, not four titles in this list. Steve Biddulph’s classic Manhood has been fully revised in this 20th Anniversary book and it is as much of a ground-breaker today as it was when first published. It truly deserves a firm place on this list. This is not only because it is a book dealing specifically with men and fatherhood. The importance of this book was that it was the first (and still remains one of the only) books about masculinity and fathering that does not reduce manhood to a crude set of stereotypes about football and beer.

This is not to say that many men (and women) don’t enjoy football and beer, but Biddulph’s formidable goal over several decades has been to acknowledge that men – and fathers in particular – have just as rich inner emotional lives as women, and to highlight how social, cultural, media and family influences converge to seriously limit manhood and fatherhood in ways that are deeply damaging, not only for men but for children too.

The reason it is included in a list of books that help reduce parent anxiety is that Biddulph gives a respectful and full response to many of the concerns and challenges that many fathers share in common. It is this ‘voicing’ of father’s experiences that plays such an important role not only normalising  many of the challenges that men face as fathers – but for some men it will be the first time they have heard their own inner experiences given form in words with the reassurance that we are, and can be, OK.

What is also interesting about this book, is that women describe being equally as changed as men from reading it. Biddulph has managed accessibly describe issues face by some men and fathers, without any mysoginistic undertones implying that women’s progress is ‘to blame’ for men’s struggles. Rather, Biddulph gives an insight into the hurts and challenges faced by many men, that some women may not have fully heard before.

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Thank you to Book Depository who provide a financial contribution to help support our charity. 

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