(Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

December 15, 2023   6 mins

Life as a mum is rarely dull. Yesterday I begged my daughter to go back to sleep and my sons to get up; watched Moana with one child and Succession with another; poured Calpol for the youngest and wine for the eldest. Once upon a time, there lived two giant teenage boys and a small toddler in the very same family — and I’d love to tell you what I’ve learned by being a parent to all three of them.

I’d love to tell you, except that a lack of sleep during significant periods of the past 18 years seems to have prevented the laying down of long-term memories. What I can do, however, is compare having a young child now to what I vaguely remember of my time in the trenches in the 2000s. Some things are the same — the joy of first smiles, the food embedded into the cracks of the highchair, the assault on your fragile, sleep-deprived immune system as a walking germ bomb coughs delightedly in your face — but others are very different.

One thing that’s obviously changed is the tech. There’s an app for everything: meeting other mums; tracking sleeping, feeding, defecating (theirs) and alcohol consumption (yours); enticing you to buy products out of FOBMO (Fear Of Baby Missing Out), and then helping you to sell them on to other poor saps in an environmentally conscious manner once you’ve realised that they’re pointless.

There’s an app that monitors “tummy time”, an apparent obsession of modern new mothers which I swear did not even come up once 18 years ago. There’s another that tells you about developmental “leaps” and what unusual behaviour to expect when one happens (cue lots of anxious reassurance-seeking between parents: “do you think she might be leaping at the moment? I definitely think she must be leaping…”). And you can also use your phone to complain to your mum mates and make playdates, construct lullaby playlists, connect a night light to the WiFi, doomscroll childhood diseases, and replicate hairdryer white noise in order to mimic womb sounds. I have no idea how I managed to bring my first two kids up without a smartphone, though I do have dim memories of standing in a daze over a cot holding an actual hairdryer.

The kit has been updated too. New purchasing trends ripple round the motherworld faster than you can open up Instagram. Baby monitors have nightvision as well as sound; bath toy ducks have thermometers built in; crawling can even be enhanced with anti-slip kneepads. A recent addition to our house has been a “travel carry potty”: roughly, a suitcase decorated in the shape of a friendly penguin for a toddler to carry about, then open up and sit upon whenever nature calls. As a suitably environmentally conscious citizen, I could not have predicted that encouraging kids to quite literally take a shit on an endangered icon of the natural world would become so widely sanctioned —but it seems that here, yet again, the zeitgeist is moving way too fast for me.

The cast of experts is also impermanent, along with their advice. When I first had my babies, someone called Gina Ford was the authority of the moment, insisting on an exactly timed rotation of sleeping and feeding throughout the day, and advocating reduced cuddling and “controlled crying” in the evenings.  Though I personally didn’t have the inner steel to see this through, one mother I knew used to take her naked sleeping baby out into the garden to wake him if he passed the time allotted for a daytime nap. For older kids, back then the behavioural expert du jour was the equally strict Supernanny, a very watchable TV expert called Jo Frost who was fond of boundaries, princess reward charts and naughty steps, and famously prone to telling both children and their shamefaced parents that their behaviour was “unasseptable”.

If Ford and Frost sound like Victorian throwbacks, they are in fact pushovers compared to the guru my grandmother followed in the Thirties — a terrifying figure from New Zealand called Dr Truby King who advocated leaving a young baby alone all night, unfed and uncomforted, and held that cuddling should not exceed 10 minutes per day. These days — thank God — parents are encouraged to be much softer and more intuitive, with “gentle” being a big buzzword. The Gentle Sleep Solution is a popular book and “gentle parenting” has been on people’s lips for a while, described on one website as “a parenting approach that encourages a partnership between you and your child to make choices based on an internal willingness instead of external pressures”.

Basically: you remain endlessly patient; talk over every emotion of theirs and every decision of yours; give them lots of choices so they feel in control; and eventually produce neurotic mini-despots with huge emotional vocabularies, tailor-made for success in the modern world. Being a big fan of the “because I say so” method, I find this degree of parental pusillanimity incomprehensible — but in any case, there are signs that it too might be on the way out. The New Yorker, no less, has expressed doubts; and this week a confessional article appeared in The Cut, relating how gentle parenting was — surprise, surprise — in fact leaving parents resentful and depleted.

There’s a school of thought, increasing in popularity, which says that parents have become too anxious about their children, and about how to parent generally, and that it’s harming children psychologically. Most prominently, Jonathan Haidt has made a connection between overanxious, perpetually hovering parents and rising problems with mental health in young people. I’m certainly sympathetic to the argument recently offered by Ashley Frawley that if such a link is established, it’s the fault of the experts not the parents, who have been positively encouraging the latter to think of themselves as de-skilled in the upbringing of their offspring for decades. But still, I also don’t think there is any going back now.

Over generations, know-how in parenting — in the sense of relatively intuitive skills, passed on by direct observation and emulation of others around you plus a lot of practice — has been replaced with “knowing-that”: technical, relatively abstract rules that we first read or hear about and only then try to put into practice, more or less imperfectly, until the next set of instructions comes along. As conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott might have said if he were talking about parenting not politics, practical skill has been hollowed out by rationalist technique. So now, even if a parent deliberately tries hard to be less anxious, and to hover less, she is still in the realm of self-consciously adopted technique not skill. At most, “not listening to experts” is now becoming a conscious technique too, only as secure as its endorsement by whoever the new experts-about-experts are deemed to be.

Partly, this situation is a product of an overload of information via the internet, distance between generations, reduced family sizes, and the fact that many of us don’t know anyone who has children until around the time we ourselves start to procreate. But I also think that the natural facts around motherhood don’t help. (Indeed, it seems significant that the most prominent voices urging parents to be less anxious are men).

For honestly, why wouldn’t a mother be somewhat nervous, risk-averse, and second-guess herself at the slightest insinuation of her own lack of reliable knowledge? Typically, you have carried a child for nine months, invested huge amounts of physical resources in the process relative to the father, and are now centrally implicated in the child’s future prospects for surviving and thriving for years and years to come. You have, almost literally, put your egg in one precious basket. And maternal hypervigilance is arguably in a young child’s interests, adaptively speaking.

Some scientists even speculate that, despite its chilled reputation, increased oxytocin pre and post-partum — otherwise known as the “love hormone” — can make anxiety disorders and OCD in mothers more likely. There’s also research suggesting that listening to your baby’s cry can activate neural networks associated with OCD. When it comes to motherly love and motherly anxiety, then, it can be really quite hard to tell the difference.

Yes, we might hearken back to a supposedly glorious past where mums would let their offspring roam around the woods all day, only calling them in for tea at dusk. But perhaps this is not because these women were particularly relaxed and self-assured about parenting, but rather because family sizes were on average bigger, and because there’s a psychological limit to how much laser-like attention you can focus simultaneously on lots of children before your mind just gives up. Now that family sizes are reducing, maybe the maternal psyche is understandably freed up for (yet) more worrying.

In conjunction with capitalism, modern therapeutic discourse simultaneously pathologises anxiety in mothers and passive-aggressively feeds the thing it criticises: are you protecting your child sufficiently from preventable illnesses, or from the wrong school, the wrong friends, the wrong experiences, the wrong products? Are you, indeed, sufficiently protecting her from your problems, including from your own anxiety? One reasonable response to the pressure is indeed to try to ignore it all as best you can, and just do your thing — assuming you have any independent sense of what that thing is.

But another, perhaps more achievable goal is to stop positively trying to get rid of anxiety altogether, and to just accept its permanent presence in your life now; to admit to yourself that, in motherhood, worrying that you are doing the wrong thing has always gone with the territory, and always will. Yes, it’s absolute hell at times — a relentless personal torment, and particularly during crises  — but that’s partly a recognition of your babies’ intense vulnerability and need for you, and of your deep and loving investment in them. Yes, your propensity for anxiety means that you are now perpetually vulnerable to the prompts of other interested parties about what might be going wrong, or what you could be doing better; but it also means you really, really care.

Or at least, that’s what I’ll be saying to myself, the next time my teenager is on a road trip with his mates and my daughter has the croup.

Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.