Wednesday, April 22, 2015

My Life as a Parenting Expert - aka Full Review of Parenting Books

Yesterday marked the 5th anniversary of the founding of the Pickled Pear - hoorah!  Well done little blog, you've amassed as many as a dozen readers... (oh dear.)  Meanwhile, I intended to have a new baby by now, but we're still playing the waiting game, so I have taken advantage of the free-time.  With impending-one still in utero, and little-man having been out at day-care all day, my children kindly gave me the opportunity to finish this here project I've been working on.  Which happens to be all about them.

Today I complete my self-imposed literary course in 'parenting'.  I grant myself a Diploma in Parenting Theory, and move on to continue my years as a graduate-apprentice in the art of Parenting Practice.  Ever reluctant to undertake a task without formal training, husband and I have taken what we once termed the 'intellectual approach' to parenting - ie. reading lots of parenting books.

One of the books I read pointed out (rather ironically) that the entire 'parenting book industry' could be seen as something of a scam - just a means of making stay-at-home-parents feel intellectual.  But I remain rather committed to the idea that I should do the very best job I can of nurturing my children's emotional, social and intellectual development with all the resources to hand.  Still, in the name of drawing a line in the sand, and perhaps to spare others some of the trouble, I present this piece: a review, of every parenting book I have read. 

The books to follow obviously represent a personal journey, and not an exhaustive list, but I would note that I checked for any major books that I may want to include, so any glaring absences are likely a deliberate choice.  Given to you in the order in which I read them:

Emile, or on education - Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1763)

I read this during my degree, long before preparing for actual parenthood myself.  Obviously not exactly current, but ground-breaking in its day.  Although written as a political text, it also functions as a parenting guide and was early in advocating the sort of emotionally-enriching childhoods we now take for granted as a child's right.

Recommendation: Required reading if you're interested in the history of modern parenting.

Vindication of the rights of woman - Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)

My poster feminist (well technically a proto-feminist, but her views were amazingly progressive for her era.)  I read Wollstonecraft's response to Rousseau during the same undergraduate unit in which I read Rousseau.  She was impressed by his views, but disappointed with the limited role he outlined for Emile's imagined wife, Sophie.  As an advocate of women's role being largely as pedagogues, Wollstonecraft believed (logically enough), that if women were to be the primary educators of the next generation, then they should be comprehensively educated themselves.  She also recognised that mothers were guilty of part of women's oppression by teaching their daughters to be silly and superficial; a point I find - frighteningly - still true today.

Recommendation: You should definitely read this because we should all read all of Mary Wollstonecraft's writing.

How to be a woman: 'Why you should have children' & 'Why you shouldn't have children' - Caitlin Moran (2012)

This was the last book concerning parenting that I read before actually coming close to doing the thing myself.  This book is what I would class as a feminist work 'of its time' - not a deep philosophy of feminism itself, but a worthwhile take on the current, real-life issues faced by women today.  It's a great read that I highly recommend in general, and the chapters on mothering are the very best in the book; poignant and powerful.

Recommendation: A worthwhile current feminist text that yes, you should read... although perhaps don't read the mothering stuff just before giving birth yourself (Moran does not flinch from being graphic.)

Up the duff - Kaz Cooke (2009 edition)

I used this as my primary pre-birth information source, and it's pretty comprehensive, as well as entertaining.  During my first pregnancy we celebrated our impending arrival with a religious, weekly reading-aloud of the information and semi-fictional diary; during my second pregnancy we have gone through it again, mostly to remind ourselves that we do indeed have another child on the way.  I like that she's included a range of common issues and feelings so that something will resonate with most readers.  Most importantly it made me laugh.

Recommendation: If you like her style, as I do, this can certainly function as your one-stop-shop for pregnancy and birth.

Magical beginnings, enchanted lives - Deepak Chopra (2005)

Tellingly, I don't remember a word, even though I seem to remember liking what I read of it at the time.  This was a re-gifted gift to me, that I have since passed on further, so the message is at least being well shared.

Recommendation: If you're a proper hippy, which I'm clearly not, you'll probably love this.

Baby and child - Penelope Leach (1977 edition)

I have been lovingly lent the original 1977 edition by my own mother, who read this in her early parenting years.  It hasn't changed much since the 1970s version to today, which I like.  I have only read a few sections, most notably the description of birth - from the child's perspective - recommended by my mother.  It's very evocative and beautiful... and probably best appreciated from a 30-year nostalgia point.  But I loved discovering my mother's hippy-earth-mother-side through reading this and discussing it with her; and for me - once I was ready to even think about the reality of birth - it was a lovely way to prepare emotionally.

Recommendation: I have to recommend this just from my experience of it.  If you prefer your hippy-wisdom with a 1970s flavour as I clearly do, then choose this over the Deepak.

Brain rules for baby - Dr John Medina (2011)

This book constitutes pretty much the sum-total of my 'scientific' reading into child psychology.  The idea of the book is to summarise what scientific studies have found about how to raise clever, happy, socially-successful children.  The philosophy comes out that if you want to raise clever children, you need to raise happy children; and it gives real information on how to go about doing that.  I certainly haven't followed all of the advice (not so much because I disagree, but because it turns out parenting is kinda hard work and exhausting - so yes, my child does watch some television, but no, I don't believe it's any good for him), but I like having it as a bit of a yard-stick and evidence for some of my own parenting philosophy.

Recommendation: I recommend this with the caveat that I should check its credentials with my more educated friends.

French children don't throw food - Pamela Druckerman (2012)

Well personally I love this seredipitous find, but there is plenty of reasonable criticism against it, and against the entire 'the French are better than us' genre.  In reality French children may well be subject to emotional oppression and even continued corporal punishment unacceptable to most of the Western world; and their mothers' are certainly behind many of their European neighbours in terms of feminist outcomes and attitudes.  But, well, I just like it.  I also like Mireille Guiliano's French women don't get fat, which I shouldn't.  I find that in both cases the amusing, narrative tone is appealing, the advice is useful yet relaxing, and the French-ness just lends it all a certain frisson.  Both books remain on my bookshelf as pleasant little reference guides.  I noted to an acquaintance: after reading these books, I am still fat, and my child still throws food - but we are doing these things in much more sophisticated ways now.

Recommendation: Read this if you're happy to enjoy some pleasant, French-style advice, which doesn't quite hold-up under scrutiny.  Don't if you're not.

Kidwrangling - Kaz Cooke (2010 edition)

Again this functions as basically my sole resource, at least in book-format, for all the day-to-day, physical, real-life parenting stuff, from bathing-feeding-sleeping to checking development milestones.  It isn't perfect, and my number one criticism is in finding the medical information far too brief; but as that's the most changeable and in need of being up-to-date (and useful to have pictures), I find the internet more useful for that in any case (you know, as well as seeing actual doctors).  I've had times of finding it a bit preachy, which is the opposite of Cooke's intent, but mostly it is clear, helpful and even tear-inducingly comforting.

Recommendation: Yep, this works as intended (except for the above caveat on medical info).  Again, if you like her style, certainly get this as your main textbook.

Motherhood: the second oldest profession & If life is a bowl of cherries, what am I doing in the pits? - Erma Bombeck (1983) & (1978)

Another couple of loans from mother.  Famously necessary books for making it through parenthood, I was surpised by how sentimental and tear-jerking they were as well as funny.  I particularly enjoyed the second oldest profession.  But they are out-dated, and I just read them once then handed them back and that was enough for me.  Having other parenting-based comedy in the house - Reasons my kid is crying and Go the fuck to sleep being very well-chosen gifts - I can personally live without Erma, but am glad I read them.

Recommendation: If you come across them, give them a read.

Free-range kids - Lenore Skenazy (2010)

Amusing, but rather defensive in tone (no wonder after the back-lash she received, but still annoying), and just too American.  Although most of the books I've read have assumed there are similar parenting attitudes throughout the Anglophone world, this book kept making me think "thank goodness I don't live in America!"  I enjoyed reading it and there were some very interesting stats and facts, but overall it wasn't ground-breaking to me.

Recommendation: I'm afraid I wouldn't bother with this one (sorry husband who bought it for me!)

All joy and no fun - Jennifer Senior (2014)

I bought this on kindle sold by the title on a difficult day.  It didn't really offer the particular solace I was seeking, and again was just too American for me.  There was also a surprising amount of cross-over with Free-range kids, so I didn't feel I needed to have read both.  Again some interesting stats and facts and quite an enjoyable read, but was left thinking it would be better to just take the best bits from this and Free-range and others and just make one really decent book... if, that was, the world needed any MORE parenting books!

Recommendation: Again, I'm afraid I wouldn't bother.

Baby and child care -  Benjamin Spock MD (2012 edition)

I downloaded the latest (and first kindle-enabled) version of the American guide to parenting, purely so that I could feel I had completed this project.  I have only read this latest version which is actually updated by Robert Needleman MD, with selected quotes from Dr Spock himself, but Spock is still credited as the author.  It was revolutionary in 1946, and the current version is still quite lovely.  I was surprised by how left-wing the philosophy is, given that this remains the primary parenting text in the US, and it gave me some optimism for the next generation.  Not at all displeased to have read it myself, not least as I can't help myself hearing Leonard Nimoy's voice when reading the Spock quotes (sorry).

Recommendation: Probably unnecessary outside of America these days - in Australia I'd recommend Kidwrangling for the basics.

The second sex: 'Situation: the mother' - Simone de Bouvoir (1949)

So far it has taken me near-on a decade to read less than a quarter of The Second Sex - I find it marvellously but exhaustingly DENSE (or maybe I'm just a bit thick myself).  But today I decided to read the specific section on 'the mother' in order to complete this particular project.  And this section, like the rest of the book, is potent, dark and brilliant.  De Bouvoir gives her customary psycho-analytical, existentialist take on the reasons for women's problems, and ends with the startling conclusion that motherhood can only be fulfilling for the mother, as well as optimal for the child, within a context in which mothers are empowered and fully engaged in society.  Again, it depresses me how much of this work still holds true today, over sixty years after it was written.  Can we start raising our children to be FEMINISTS please?!

Recommendation: Once again, you should absolutely read this simply because we should all read the entire book.

And there we have it!  My take on all you need to know about parenting.

Friday, April 17, 2015

In the eye of the storm

"If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs... you've probably misunderstood the seriousness of the situation."*

I won't divulge any personal information of course, but quite seriously the list of things affecting people around us right now include (but are not strictly limited to): murder, drugs, mental illness, and cancer.  In comparison our little family are living on a somewhat lonely, but rather lovely, island-oasis of joy.

Recently I had an epic dream that my mind keeps returning to for guidance.  I was exploring a vast, high, sandy landscape overlooking the ocean.  Rain began and between solid, red-brown rocks the sand began to shift; at first in trickling rivulets and soon in swathes of falling earth.  I ran with increasing panic from one island of sand to another, escaping just before each gave way; eventually realising - just in time - that the entire cliff was no longer safe.  The dream was infused with fear and remembering it returned the emotion, but the ending and my initial waking were awash with euphoria.  At last I made it to higher ground, to the very pinnacle of the rocky mountain against which the now fallen sand-banks had nestled.  From my final location I sat drenched in the storm, but safe to watch the drama and await calm morning.

This is surely a metaphor for my present situation.  While chaos reigns outside my door, our current narrative is one of imposing deadlines and enclosures.  For the most part these are pleasant in nature and deliberately plotted and planned, but restrictive none-the-less.  When my heavily-pregnant body keeps me up at night, it's the deadlines I'm aware of, a tangible sense of constriction. (One of the few negative side-effects I do suffer during my otherwise easy pregnancies is the phenomenon of being unable to return to sleep when I wake at night.  What a charming gift from mother-nature: you're about to be ludicrously sleep-deprived - here, have some practice.)

My dream spoke to me of escape, of breaking free from the shackles of my suburban life.  Yet it is this very life keeping me safe.  Perhaps instead my family and my home are the mountain, the rocks I need to cherish.

*Love me a cynical take on a classic platitude; no idea the source of this one.