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Tick Box Surveillance of Mothers


I run a weekly drop-in session for mothers at the library in the city where I work. It is always a joy. I have entitled my sessions ‘All About One Year Olds ‘and this means that mothers arrive with young people in tow who then proceed to demonstrate most of the behaviours I am talking about – crying, separation anxiety, running to Mom for a quick oxytocin fix, exploring (there are ceiling to floor glass walls in the room I use – ideal for toddlers driven to find out as much as possible about how the world works), playing alongside each other……


There was a lovely incident last week where a bright-as-a-button 14 months little boy accidentally knocked over a very placid 12 months baby girl. As the little girl started to cry (signalling to her Mom  to protect her from further harm), the little boy gently rubbed her head and gave her a kiss. On the powerpoint presentation, there was a slide on modelling – parents modelling, for example, eating foods that are new to the baby; parents modelling to their infants that it is possible to be calm when disaster (being deprived of a toy that doesn’t belong to you) strikes. The little boy clearly already had what psychologists call an ‘internal working model’ of what it is to be kind. And we’d all agree that, as my own mother used to say, ‘if you can’t be clever or beautiful or successful, at least be kind’.

I always start my session by saying that I’m not offering a ‘Parenting Masterclass’ in the manner of ‘Supernanny’ but simply sharing with the mothers, and occasional father, what research from neuroscience and developmental psychology is telling us about the influences that operate to mould our tiniest citizens into the adults they will become.

Last week, I read a very good article by Libby Purves on the difficulties of mothering in the 21st century. I agreed with every word she had written, and loved her recommendation to readers about how to cope with a ‘bossily judgmental’ world where parents are criticised if they do and criticised if they don’t. On the subject of going back to work, Purves wrote, ‘If you need to work to survive, economically or personally, don’t feel guilty about it. Keep smiling, mainly at the children’.

The ‘bossily judgmental’ nature of maternity care was forcibly brought home to me recently when a midwife told me that she was now obliged to fill in an A3 form on mother/infant sleeping behaviour. She first had to ask each mother she visited where her baby had slept the night before. And then – she had to ask to SEE where the baby had slept (there was a box to tick to say that she had done this). Ok – think back to when you had a new baby. What sort of state was your bedroom in? Would you have been happy to have it scrutinised by someone with a clipboard? I was amazed that most of the women the midwife visited complied with her request, and was interested in what happened to the mothers who instead told her where to get off – were these mothers placed on an ‘at risk’ register? extra visits scheduled for further surveillance???? If the bedroom was untidy (dirty coffee cups on the bedside table; clothes strewn across the floor…) was the mother given advice on maintaining a clean and hygienic home?

Motherhood has probably always been a guilt trip, but that’s because women have always and will always set themselves impossibly high standards in relation to their mothering. I met a young woman recently who was on the verge of being made homeless; she was a heavy smoker; she drank too much; she didn’t look after herself – but she looked after her daughter with a 1000% commitment. She asked me tearfully if I thought she was a good mother. I thought she was amazing.

So no matter what our involvement with mothers and fathers in the very early years is, I’m sure it’s not about surveillance and advice giving. Whatever the mother with the loving little boy at my group was doing, and whatever the desperate one with the glowingly healthy two year old daughter was doing, they had both got the mothering completely right.

I am not therefore in favour of A3 tick-box forms to make women feel guilty about where their baby slept last night.

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