My problem with Virginia Ironside’s parenting advice

One of the perks of being a mother is being able to tell a woman expecting her first baby any old crap you like. After all, what’s she going to do about it? Facing the unknown,  she’s hardly going to contradict you. You’re a mum. You know stuff. As for her? Let’s face it, she hasn’t got a clue.

Of course, this is a mean thing to do and you should, ideally, refrain from it (unless said expectant mother is especially annoying). If you already know how much uncertainty and self-doubt motherhood can bring, it’s just vindictive to set about stoking it up in someone else before she’s even got started. That’s why I can’t see any excuse whatsoever for Virginia Ironside’s current “advice” column in the Independent.

First of all, allow me to present the dilemma:

I’m about to have my first baby, but I’ve just been head-hunted by a firm that wants me to start work as soon as possible. Friends say I should wait and see how I feel before I commit to a new job but my husband has said he’s keen to look after the baby and become a house-husband  – he works freelance and he’s going through a time when he doesn’t have very much work. Can you or any of your readers offer advice on what I should do? I’m at a loss and can’t make  a decision.

What should this woman do? Well, here’s my suggestion: don’t write to Virginia Ironside. She’s not interested in your life. She just wants to use it as a springboard for promoting her vision of Perfect Motherhood.

I know it’s not a great suggestion. Truth is, I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this dilemma. There is, after all, so much to consider: personal aptitude, gender stereotypes and pressures, family finances, long-term security, relationship expectations, adjustments to parenthood etc. etc. It’s a problem I faced several years ago, pregnant and in the second round of interviews for a job I really wanted. My partner was coming to the end of one-year contract, with nothing to replace it, and the job I was doing at the time had a three-month notice period (hence I would have been heavily pregnant by the time I took up any new position). In the end my body found a solution for me: I miscarried in the week between having the interview and receiving the job offer. Sad, but you can’t say it wasn’t convenient. Otherwise, I’m still not sure what I’d have done.

For Ironside, however, the answer is always easy: this is not about complex lives and compromises, it’s about cardboard cutout Career Women vs Mummies. End of. Take the job? “It would be madness” asserts Virginia.

At birth, your baby will have been living inside you for nine months and will be incredibly upset and disturbed to leave the comfort of your cosy womb to be delivered into a bewildering outside world. The least you can do is be around for six months, with all your familiar smell, sound, body temperature and everything, gradually to ease him or her into a brand new life.

Got that? That’s “the least”. The absolute least, now that you’ve cruelly expelled your little one from his or her rightful place inside your body (by the way, if you’re an adoptive parent, don’t bother reading any further. You and your child are basically fucked).

But what about the father, you may ask.

The father? Though it might have heard his voice, your baby’s never even met him, let alone lived inside his body. Remember that research has shown that at birth, a mother usually says: “Hello!” to the baby, while a father introduces himself with the words: “Hello! I’m your dad!”

There is no actual link to this “research” but never mind. “Hello! I’m your dad!” – that’s pretty damning in itself, wouldn’t you agree? To be fair, that’s not what I recall my partner saying to either of our sons (to the second, whom he delivered in a car park, we both remember it being “thank you for crying” as it meant our little one was okay). But anyhow, that research Ironside quotes – if it’s true for most dads then blimey! Let’s keep them well away.

But the job, though. What about the job, Virginia? Turns out you might as well forget it.

Anyway, having a baby is a job. You’ve already been headhunted – by your child.

Wow. Motherhood as career metaphor. Gets me every time. Just call me CEO of the nappy bin and I’m in there, up to my arms in poo. There seems to be an assumption here that silly little women – nature’s natural carers – have had their heads turned so much by careerist second-wave feminist rhetoric that we now need to use it to sell their “true” role back to them. What’s more, said silly little women aren’t even meant to notice. A baby is a job? Cool – I love jobs, me! So liberated and empowering! Do I get my own name tag and everything?

If at this point you’re concerned that Virginia Ironside hasn’t been downright rude enough to the expectant mother who’s asked for her help, fear not.

You clearly have no idea about what a huge responsibility it is to bring a baby into the world

No, clearly not. Any woman even considering working while her husband looks after a newborn baby has NO IDEA what a huge responsibility parenthood is. She might as well be shoving her baby in her desk drawer while she answers emails and nips off for coffee breaks. Because it’s not enough to ensure a baby is cared for. Unless the baby is cared for by the person whose womb it popped out of it’s all a waste of time. Because “childbirth really is something different”:

It’s like taking drugs. A mother changes chemically after giving birth. You simply can’t predict how you’ll feel.

No, you most certainly can’t. But Virginia Ironside can. It’s not as though millions of women torture themselves for not feeling the transformation they’re supposed to feel. It’s not as though postnatal depression exists. Oh no. Giving birth: it’s like taking drugs (I’m wondering how much entonox Ironside had been inhaling when she wrote that).

Should you still be wondering whether fathers can be all that bad when it comes to caring for infants (I’d be surprised – isn’t “Hello! I’m your dad!” terrifying enough?) take note of this cautionary tale:

A househusband recently spoke of his experiences with his baby daughter. What he found, to his distress, was that the child was incredibly backward in her speech as she grew older. That was because fathers don’t automatically spout the kind of maternal drivel that is so important in a child’s learning development. “Oh, how are you, what lovely little toes you have, look at this picture there’s a cow, moo moo, you can say moo too, moo moo, yes, aren’t you a clever one, yes aren’t you a clever one, you are, you are”  – on an on ad infinitum. Men are a lot more reticent.

Again, I’m not sure where this anecdote comes from. Probably my mother-in-law. My eldest child had delayed speech development – “incredibly backward” wasn’t the term we used – and she felt that it may have been down to my partner, who cared for him full-time for a while, using “big, academic words” (curiously, the impact of said big words was reversed not by me babbling at him in a frighteningly agitated manner, but by an ear operation).

But what about the future? If daddy won’t do – what with his failure to produce a sufficient amount of drivel – how long does mummy have to stay joined at the hip to her little one?

There’s no reason, of course, that once the baby’s old enough to feel just as secure with its dad as with you, you shouldn’t then go back to work – that is, if you can bear to do so. Most mums feel a real tug to stay with their children for longer than a year. Indeed, many can’t bear to give up the job until they’re made redundant when the child actually leaves home.

Most mums. … Many … The reality is more complex than that. At the end of 2010 29% of UK mothers were working full-time, 37.5% working part-time. For most – earning or not – I doubt that the decision was wholly ideologically motivated. Then again, I doubt that for most people the decision to turn up for work is solely down to biological impulses or ideological drives. Reality is messier than that, as is caring for children.

Guilt-tripping mothers and fathers for things they’ve not yet done, decisions they’ve not yet made, and outcomes they can’t necessarily control seems to me unacceptable. It’s not helpful. It’s bullying people for not sticking to your preferred cultural norms, however inappropriate this is for their own families. Having children doesn’t make anyone an expert in how others should raise theirs. If new mothers need to know anything, surely it’s that compromise doesn’t make you a failure. There is no “right” answer, just the one you’ve found for you and your child.


12 thoughts on “My problem with Virginia Ironside’s parenting advice

  1. Read the Ironside piece and was likewise shocked that such a load of rubbish was published by the Indie.

  2. I usually get the opposite advice in Holland where I live, the insistance that I should be at work and preferably full-time because children are doing just fine at daycare – so says the government, who only give women 16 weeks maternity and men just 2 days paternity! A government minister here recently said that women were not ‘honoring’ the investment the state has made in their education if they ‘depend’ on the income of a male partner. Scape-goat women for the inequalties they face as usual. All advice to mothers and expectant mothers is so loaded with people’s own agendas it’s designed to immobilise us.

  3. I hope the new mum takes the job and let’s hubby look after the baby. If she struggles with the separation and THEY can afford to manage without her salary she can renegotiate her hours or give up the job.

  4. Over 70% of mothers in the U.S. are employed. Most families couldn’t possibly survive without two incomes (not to mention that for many women working is also a matter of mental health and personal satisfaction!!), and I’m guessing it’s not so very different in the UK. I guess Ms Ironside lives in a very different world from the one in which I toil.

    Oh, and while both of my parents worked I’ve known kids whose fathers stayed home with them. They talked just fine. 😉

  5. Work saved me. I have postnatal depression. I had planned to take 9 months off but as it was I could have happily returned at 3. My maternity leave cover didn’t work out and so I was able to start keep in touch days at 4 months and a phased return to work at 6 months. 3 weeks back, he loves nursery, doesn’t give me a backwards glance (but I do get a smile at home time). I’m loving work; loving doing something that I know I am good at. My boy is happy and so am I (if quite tired and still taking the Prozac to be sure). My husband has said that if we have another he would like to take some of the maternity leave after c. 3 months.

  6. ‘Advice’ is such a funny thing. At the end of the day, it’s somebodys opinion that we’re listening to. Their advice may be backed up with evidence, or not.

    I decided to stay at home for many years, because I wanted to. Some friends went back to work, some didn’t. My decision was influenced by many things, but mainly it was because I was happy to do it. If I wasn’t happy, or, financially I needed to work, I would have done so.
    I would always see my time with the kids as a job. O.K they were ‘my’ kids, but it was still a job. A job that I did, rather than my husband, or a nanny, child-minder etc. Thinking about it that way, aloud ‘me’ to have respect for the role I was doing. I can honestly say, I never really cared about what other people thought, regarding the decision I made.

    I have never judged any other woman on working or not, breastfeeding or not. Its a personal choice. Know your own mind, trust your instinct, talk to your partner if you have one – then you won’t need advice.

  7. A good friend of mine, who now lives in New Zealand, faced an almost identical dilemma some years ago when their daughter was born. I’m happy to report she went back to work, he was a stay-at-home house husband for the first year of the baby’s life and… guess what? Everything was great! Happy family, happy mum, happy dad, happy baby, and now, happy little girl. Virginia Ironside. What a crock of ****!

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