Two years ago my partner and I were expecting our first baby.
A few months before my due date, we joined a parenting group. It was recommended by my midwife and we figured that whatever prepares us for life with a child is essential. I was just about to move to my partner’s town and I thought this would be a great opportunity for us to meet other expecting couples.
There were six couples, including us, in our parenting group. They were all very lovely and my partner and I felt like we could easily get on with them. We were asked to write our names on stickers and put them on our sweaters. My partner, being silly about 80% of the time, wrote “Cletus” and “Brandine” after the hillbillies in the Simpsons on our stickers. I gave him a look and he crossed it out to write our names instead. I didn’t feel quite as relaxed myself.
I was fairly silent during this first session.
As always I felt a need to assess the couples and the environment I was in. It’s an anxiety thing. I was in my late 20s and was somehow the youngest person there. From the introductions, it seemed like everyone else was married, had careers, big cars and big houses. How had they had time for all of this, I thought to myself. I also felt incredibly guilty when another couple told the group that they had been trying for a baby for several years. Having dodged the “was it planned” question for several months in order to avoid my pregnancy being referred to as “an accident” by professionals, this made us feel fortunate and also sympathetic to the struggles some couples have conceiving.
To be honest, I felt a bit intimidated by them. My partner and I lived completely different lives from these couples with both of us working unsociable hours supporting international students. They all seemed so prepared and so put together. I think this is the point where I started comparing myself to these couples and I felt as if I wasn’t good enough. I had a job, but not a career, we had a one bedroom flat and most of our baby’s things were hand-me-downs. We drove to our parenting group meetups in a car that wasn’t exactly ideal for when we would have our baby.
I don’t usually put this much emphasis on how other people perceive me, but somehow I felt pressured to make an effort to try to belong to this group. They were all lovely people and I could easily see us all becoming friends in another context than that of having a baby around the same time.
The next couple of sessions, our otherwise passive leader, began every session by asking us all a question that haunts me to this day:
“What have you done for your baby this week?”
To me this was a terrifying question, followed by equally terrifying answers from the other couples. We went around in a circle as usual and the other couples said that they had redecorated the nursery or bought a new car to fit their new pushchair and other things my partner and I could only dream of doing. The answers always made me re-evaluate how we were doing. As far as I was concerned we were doing pretty well. We had literally accumulated everything needed for the next three years, but we both felt really put on the spot by this question. The answers weren’t exactly equal to each other.
In hindsight I get that the group leader probably just wanted to ask us for an update on what we’ve been up to this last week, and how we’ve all progressed. But that said, I think we could have all done with some examples of simpler things, such as packing a hospital bag or buying nappies for the first time. To hear this question several weeks in a row made both my partner and I feel quite pressured. It was always my partner who broke the silence when it was our turn to answer.
“I bought Findus a bath mat so she doesn’t slip in the bathtub”.
“With ducks on it”, I added.
After the last session, one of the other mums created a WhatsApp group for us all to be able to stay in touch. We all met up for coffee a couple of times before the first baby was due.
One by one all the babies were born. Some complicated births, some very easy.
Both having the baby and adapting to a life with a baby was a shock to us. But it was reassuring to know that no matter what time of the day or night it was, someone else from the parenting group would show up as online on WhatsApp too. We would talk about our experiences all through the nights and ask each other for advice on everything from feeding to sleeping patterns or just share pictures with each other. This is something I will always cherish, no matter what.
The other mums and I went on eons of baby activities together and met up at least once a week, whether it was for baby sensory classes, library rhyme time or for a nice picnic outdoors.
I still had a bit of mixed feelings, though. My body felt broken and my hormones were all over the place. Even though I got more and more comfortable, physically and mentally, every month, nothing bothered me more than hearing how well all the other parents were doing:
“My son slept through the night”. “I have to wake up my daughter for feeds!”. “She just LOVES to sleep!”.
I would love to say that I was happy for them, but when you’ve been up all night with a screaming baby, for whatever reason, this is the last thing you want to hear about. And with that I was back to comparing myself to them, and now also comparing the babies!
Was there something wrong with mine?
This might seem like a small thing to get hung up on. But every time I saw that another couple and their baby was doing well, I drew the conclusion that we were doing poorly in comparison. My daughter was always the last to be able to sit up, to crawl and to walk and was fussy about trying new foods. I thought I had done something wrong as a parent. Did I not do enough exercises with her? Was I not encouraging enough?
Even in such an accepting and open-minded group like mine, where I have never once received unsolicited advice or judgement on how I raise my daughter, I still felt bad. Because I was comparing myself and my baby to them and their babies.
I know people who stopped seeing their parenting groups altogether because they felt judged or were told what to do by someone who has a completely different baby. This is of course a shame. Parenting groups should be used for support, reassurance and friendships and for asking each other for advice and sharing ideas.
Babies are little individuals after all.
Just like there isn’t a shoe that fits all feet, there are no universal tips that will work for every single person. Yet, so many people will say what worked for their child as a fact for how every child should be brought up. I was once stopped by a man in the city centre, telling me how good I was doing for not resorting to giving my child a dummy. Just because he saw me and my daughter that one time, he assumed I was sharing his attitude that dummies are the invention of the devil. I have no bad feelings towards them. I tried giving one to our daughter, but she wasn’t interested and immediately spat it out, so we didn’t try again.
This is another example of comparison in parenthood where someone doing this or that is deemed right or wrong. And sometimes limiting that kind of input was what I needed in order to get on with my day without worrying too much about my daughter doing this or that, and just enjoy motherhood. As much as I love my parenting group, my best parenting moments were always without them.
When you love someone so much that you smell their teddy when they are at the nursery or stay up late at night watching pictures of them because you miss them when they’re sleeping in the next room, most things regarding them are going to get sensitive pretty quickly.
And I suppose everything is relative.
When my daughter plays without tantrums, has a good dinner and sleeps an entire night without waking up, I feel confident in my parenthood.
And if someone at that very moment would ask me for advice, I probably wouldn’t hesitate to tell them all about my tactics and my regiment schedule. As far as I’m concerned, someone asked, and I simply answered.
You who are reading this might have mixed feelings towards your parenting group. And that’s OK. All I can say is to not let your differences come in between what you have in common. You are all doing your best to prepare for, and to figure out these tiny humans, whether it means buying a new car or reading every single baby book ever published. Or buying a bath mat.
With ducks on it!
Social psychologist and analyst
Findus is a social psychologist and analyst working with NISAD on a number of our projects – in particular, currently, with the development of ELK-Health’s #CertainAbout Uncertainty programme.
If you would like to be one of the first to use this programme, please contact us. The programme is completely free and designed to support people who feel that things, currently, are causing them stress, anxiety or depression