There’s no instruction manual


I lost count of how many times I heard those four words after my daughter was born.

And it’s true. There’s no specific instruction manual for this precious make and model of human. No specific guidelines to help settle, feed, change and love this particular baby.

But there is a glut of general information about parenting out there and available across so many channels – flyers, the radio, Facebook, TV, old-school books.

Given my precarious mental state post-partum, I often felt bombarded.

But knowledge is power, right? So, why then did I feel so powerless? My mind became so full of ‘shoulds’ and ‘must-dos’ it was spilling – backing up and backing up until it was a veritable brain reflux.

And behind all that information lies the ideologies of our time. A cultural, social and economic set of ideas and values that can be confused as the Only Way to parent.

Six-months into my parenting adventure, I read a beautiful book called How Eskimos Keep their Babies Warm: Parenting Wisdom from Around the World by Mei-Ling Hopgood. This refreshing read helped me feel validated and reassured that, like most things in life, there’s not just one way to bring up a tiny human.

And herein lies the problem with expert advice, however well-meaning. Delivered in an authoritative voice, the danger is, instead of empowering parents, it can make them feel as vulnerable as a newborn, as they struggle to meet a generic, imposed (high) standard.

As a result of my unwellness, my thinking became increasingly rigid. I fixated on words like “exclusively breastfeed for six months”. For a host of reasons, this wasn’t possible for me.

There’s an ideal. And there’s reality. And sometimes new parents need help talking about and navigating that divide in a gentle and non-judgemental way.

Knowledge can be particularly disempowering when it neglects the parent’s instincts. I’ll find it hard to forget a radio interview of a baby expert, when she said a mum told her, “My baby doesn’t like to be swaddled.” The expert said her reply was, “Have you asked your baby?”

Excuse me, expert, have you asked all babies, everywhere and throughout all history, epochs and revolutions if they enjoy being swaddled?

Some babies do; my baby didn’t. From very early on, I knew she wanted to be hands-free – much to my husband’s disappointment, as he enjoyed reliving his Subway days making her into a cute little burrito. But I know of family and friend’s babies who adored being cocooned, and for as long as possible.

Babies are individuals too.

Sometimes patterns, rhythms, trends and generalisations are helpful. But they need to be tempered with nuances and not accepted as the Only Way.

Another book that I recommend to new mums, or those looking to buy an alternative baby shower gift, is Dear Mummy, You’re Important too by Tui Fleming. It taught me that guilt is normal, heavy expectations are common, and that I needed to look after and invest in my health so I could have the energy and belief to parent in a way that worked for me, my baby and my family.

And, as is true of any meaningful relationship, when you think you’ve got it all sussed, something inevitably changes. You often question yourself and wonder if you’re doing the right thing.

You may find solace in information. Hope in statistics. Or you may realise that you are on the right track and you’ve just got to keep going.

Where you find answers is up to you.

But, I encourage you – even when you want to read all the books that you can get your hands on – to ultimately listen to your instinct and back yourself, whatever you decide to do.