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Rachael Whiteread’s Embankment at Tate Modern

Box-Fresh Minimalism
The Unilever Series at Tate Modern: Rachel Whiteread’s Embankment

[This article first appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]

No one who keeps an eye on the British contemporary art scene will need a much of an introduction to Rachel Whiteread, the 42-year old artist whose massive installation, Embankment, currently occupies the east end of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Whiteread’s name has long loomed large in BritArt circles. Her work — mostly casts of ordinary, every-day objects — has already found a place in the text-books. As major figure in Freeze who soon attracted the notice of uber-gallerist Karsten Schubert, she was an early recruit to the senior ranks of the Young British Artists (or YBAs, to give them their marginally catchier, Saatchi-generated brand name) and if she seemed to stand aloof from some of her coevals’ more outrageous antics, she certainly received her fair share of the hype that now seems, in retrospect, to have been that group’s outstanding positive achievement.

Not least, as every proper YBA apparently was required to do, Whiteread achieved her very own success de scandal. In 1993 House (a cast of a demolished house, later itself demolished) in London’s East End, made headlines of the sort that at the time were de rigeur for anyone angling for central placement in the BritArt pantheon. Frankly, though — and it’s a point with some relevance to the rest of this review — it’s quite a challenge these days to remember quite what all the fuss was about, so grossly did Sensation inflate the shock-horror currency soon thereafter. In the same year Whiteread won a Turner Prize for her casts, whilst concurrently managing to emerge with dignity from a laboured Situationist prank on the part of the K Foundation, which might almost be seen as a tribute in itself.

In 1997 she represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale (various casts of things, deployed tastefully around the British pavilion) — the first woman to receive this distinction. Her work Plinth (a cast of a plinth) has occupied the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Unlike the bulk of her fellow YBAs, she’s even made some impact beyond the limits of central London, having been commissioned, for instance, to create a Holocaust memorial in Vienna (casts of shelves filled with books, their spines turned inward). She is represented by Gagosian. Her work (casts, generally, but also drawings of past casts and plans for future casts) is held in all sorts of collections, public and private, here and abroad. She’s been profiled everywhere. In other words, when it comes to glittering prizes conferred by the international arts establishment, she has had pretty much all the ones going — the real things, too, not just casts this time.

Yet despite the terribly dated YBA label (sooo early 1997, darling) and the detumescence of the Saatchi bubble, Whiteread has somehow managed to retain a reputation for seriousness, sensitivity, hard work and formal rigour. She is eminently capable of securing praise, even genuine admiration, from quarters that other YBAs just don’t reach. Part of this is, I think, the fruit of circumspection. Whiteread comes across in interviews as a down-to-earth, practical, agreeably mumsy figure — far more at home in her studio, wearing jeans and covered with plaster dust, than in the glare of gala private views or at Shoreditch club openings. We know less of her extra-curricular hobbies, for instance, than we do about those of Damien Hirst; we are less familiar with her décolletage than that of Tracy Emin, and certainly less bored of hearing about her glamorous pals (assuming she possesses such things) than those of Sam Taylor-Wood. Whiteread’s work, in other words, is very public — the artist herself far less so. Which is appropriate, in that much of the meaning of her work is to be found in the interplay of surface versus content, inside versus out, what we see every day as opposed to all the many empty spaces that we discount, overlook or forget.

Casting doubts
Well, that’s the theory, anyway. But how much substance is there behind claims for Whiteread’s status as one of the greatest artists of her generation? Whiteread has evidently learned most of the obvious things which can be learned from Eva Hesse, minus Hesse’s pervasive air of creepy bleakness, as well as from the canonical 1960s minimalists such as Carl Andre and Donald Judd. She has mapped out a particular territory of concerns — the domestic sphere, including rooms and the things these contain — and turned it inside out through this persistent business of making casts. She has cast in a variety of media (wax, resin, plaster, rubber) and has a strong feeling for the sensual qualities of her materials. She also possesses a far better eye for colour than one might expect, achieved through the medium itself or through the play of light on a textured surface, and she’s not squeamish about using colour to achieve emotive, expressive ends. So it’s easy enough to see why she’s received the accolades she has. She does something that makes a sort of conceptual sense, and she’s learned to do it well.

But if one were setting out to make a case against Whiteread’s pre-eminent place in the contemporary art world, the materials would not be difficult to find. The main complaint would, surely, revolve around the somewhat repetitive nature of her work. When does the ‘persistent exploration of a theme’, or ‘refinement of a highly personalised technique’, shade into, well, laziness? Over at The Jackdaw, the reliably grumpy David Lee labels Whiteread a ‘one trick pony’, and while doubtless her admirers could enthuse for days on end about her merits, writing essays about them in all the most credible arts magazines, it has to be said that even her staunchest defenders might have a hard time identifying tricks number two, three and beyond. Meanwhile the sort of critic who gets worked up about issues of skill and facture might question the extent to which artistic ability per se — rather than one good idea plus a Filofax full of the telephone numbers for competent fabricators — underpins Whiteread’s work. (To be fair, though, many of the smaller works are actually executed by the artist herself, as well as designed by her.) Finally, there’s bound to be a hard core of doubters somewhere out there who would presumably raise the usual ‘what is art?’ questions with reference to Whiteread’s oeuvre, suspicious that making cast of things might not really have much to do with art at all.

Those, at least, are straightforward objections. All of them raise issues far outside the scope of a review. More to the point, though, none of them, to be honest, bothers me enormously. My own concern about Whiteread’s work is a rather different, more personal one. Here, strangely, doubts seem to flow from exactly those points where Whiteread’s work appears most successful. Compared with most of her YBA contemporaries, in whose work some notional flash of irony again and again fails to disguise a tediously predictable literal-mindedness, the evasive, non-literal qualities of Whiteread’s sculpture can easily be made to look enticingly deep — but in that company, what wouldn’t? Similarly, compared with the wilful ugliness of so much contemporary art, Whiteread’s casts are, whatever else one might say about them, sometimes very attractive — but does this mean that her qualities are purely relative ones? Or to reduce the charge to its most basic level — is Whiteread only any good because her BritArt contemporaries’ work is mostly so shockingly, culpably bad?

Absences, presences
We are all, I suppose, hapless victims of the circumstances in which we first encounter an artist’s work. Hence it probably means something that my strongest memories of the fabled Sensation involve Whiteread’s Untitled (One Hundred Spaces), a series of one hundred resin casts of the empty space under a variety of chairs and stools, set out, rank and file, in a room of their own.

The work generated a lot of comment at the time — not least from critics absolutely panting to discuss anything other than Hirst’s virtines, Harvey’s Myra, Ofili’s elephant turds and the Chapman brothers’ apparently inexhaustible bad taste. By contrast, in front of Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) there was much to be said about making the intangible tangible, about the ghostly and forgotten, about materialism and Thatcher’s Britain — and plenty of people ready to say it, too. Minimalism can be lovely that way, creating a vacuum into which oceans of prose are always attempting to flow. Art that doesn’t attempt to say everything immediately, that doesn’t wear its heart on its patinated surface, is so much more fun to write about than the other sort. Given the choice between Richard Billingham’s family snaps, Michael Landy’s creaking jokes and a mysterious mattress cast in rubber that looked like marble, who wouldn’t opt for the mattress?

But at the time I wasn’t thinking about writing. I was simply — insofar as there’s ever anything simple about it — experiencing the work. And yet what sticks in my mind from Sensation is, perhaps oddly, the sheer beauty of this particular example of Whiteread’s efforts — the slightly murky translucence of the resin, the delicately rhythmic variation of size and shape and surface, the purples and greens and ambers, so deliciously reminiscent of antique gemstones, old glass or, even more oddly, old-fashioned boiled sweets. For it has to be said that Whiteread’s minimalism is, unlike the minimalism of the 1960s from which it is in part descended, anything but cold and intellectual. Instead it can look sensuous, luxurious — romantic, even, with its appeals to a recent or perhaps ancient past. In any event, compared with most of what surrounded it in Sensation — all things lurid and lame, the porn, the gore, the tawdry unpleasantness, the desperate and febrile attention-seeking superficiality — it really did seem almost unbelievably effective. From that point on, then, despite all these reservations, I’ve had a lot of time for Whiteread’s work.

Doubtless, Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) was benefiting here from the company it kept. As sculpture goes, it’s not just that these casts didn’t add up to the wrecked magnificence of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, or the robust perfection of Donatello’s Gattamelata, or the Bernini confection of your choice — most obscure English parish churches probably contain handmade works of sculpture that could easily compete with Whiteread’s best efforts in terms of formal persuasiveness, technical skill and gut-level impact. But that’s hardly the point. No one was setting up those sorts of comparisons, and anyway, what one feels about those works inevitably has a lot to do with their context, too. Instead, at the time, standing there in the Royal Academy, surrounded by so much pointless rubbish making great claims for itself in terms of ‘art’, I was struck by the way in which Whiteread had created a tiny island in which a few older cultural values — a hint of detachment, a whisper of beauty, a shimmer of mystery if not quite revelation — seemed at very least not to have been entirely forgotten. It was easy to linger there, drifting back and forth amongst the candy-coloured resin cubes. Not just easy, either — it was pleasant as well. The experience was a powerful one. And so probably that way of viewing Whiteread’s work has never entirely left me.

Thinking outside of the box
I was reminded of all this last week, when Whiteread’s Embankment was finally unveiled at Tate Modern. The work, which is enormous, has a typically small-scale, almost cosy creation story. Apparently Whiteread, engaged in the sad business of clearing her late mother’s house, found an old cardboard box. The box had once contained Whiteread’s toys, and then was used to store Christmas decorations. All this happened at a time in her life when Whiteread was moving house, moving studio — when much of her life was in boxes.

Let’s allow the unshakeable authority of the Tate Modern press release to take over at this point:

The box had an emotional resonance for [Whiteread]. It prompted consideration of the associations with the box in our daily lives. She began to explore the universal quality of the box in its widespread use as she came upon them squashed in the street, stacked in the back of a lorry or used more inventively such as for solar ovens or children’s play houses. The box also has links to memory and loss, as well as having a latent familiarity. Massed together, the boxes invite parallels with the museum as a keeper of collective memory.

Hence Whiteread’s Unilever scheme, which involved casting ten ordinary cardboard boxes of varying sizes and shapes, then having some 14,000 of these commercially fabricated in semi-opaque white resin. Whiteread spent about five weeks stacking and gluing together the resulting resin forms at one end of the Turbine Hall. The building-sized stacks themselves vary in scale, shape and orderliness. Some are tidy, encouraging the viewer to appreciate the repetitive pattern made by their surfaces. Others are chaotic, random, precarious. Visitors are able to wander amongst the stacks, the tallest of which must be many dozens of feet high, or to observe the installation from the floors above. Special new lighting beams down upon the casts, creating strong shadows and producing an eerie silvery glow as the light reflects off the many slightly textured resin surfaces.

What to make of it all? In my book the only truly unforgiveable fault in a critic is to lie about his genuine reactions in the face of the actual work. Here, then, is the simple truth. I thought Embankment was perfectly delightful.

Preconceptions, lack of preconceptions, mood, surroundings, companions present and absent, incidental train of thought, the weather outside — they all play their part in the personal success or failure of a particular work. I first saw Embankment at the press view on a warm, sunny, suspiciously summery day last week. As sometimes happens at press views and on warm autumn mornings, there was something of a holiday feel to the whole enterprise. Coming down the big ramp from the West entrance to Tate Modern, it was just possible to glimpse something white just behind the central gallery. By the time I’d been handed my press pack I was sufficiently determined to see more that I quickly tucked the folder under my arm, unopened and unread, and set off to explore the installation. And so, because I didn’t yet know the story behind Embankment’s creation, I was under no pressure to unpack (as it were) the metaphor of boxes, their emotional resonances and symbolic freight. In fact, since I didn’t know that cardboard boxes were in any way associated with the work, boxes weren’t, oddly enough, on my mind at all.

Instead, I was thinking of archaeology. I have already mentioned that Whiteread’s Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) reminded me, with its murky lustre and faded colours, of old glass or ancient gems, but it’s also the case that Untitled (Yellow Bath), her rubber and polystyrene cast of a bathtub, resembled nothing more than an incredibly old sarcophagus cleansed of its bones and dust. Actually, the more one thinks about it, there turn out to be abundant references to archaeology in Whiteread’s work. The whole business of casting, for instance, has been associated with archaeology for a very long time, perhaps reaching its zenith in those terrible casts taken, from 1861 onwards, from the gaps left by the bodies of the men, women and children killed in the explosion of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD — some of the most upsetting things I’ve ever seen, by the way, if only because it is so tempting to read the indistinct, contorted, writhing forms as ‘art’ until one stops to realise what they actually are instead. (So you see, I’m no more immune to ‘what is art?’ quandaries than anyone else — they just strike us all at different moments.)

But casts are also what conveyed, in the main, knowledge of the high art of classical antiquity to much of the Western world; the Greek government’s refusal to display, at the Acropolis museum, casts of the Elgin Marbles reminds one of the issues casts are still capable of raising, even now, regarding absence and presence, loss and memory, simulacrum and real thing. All of which is a long way of explaining how, as I walked through the labyrinthine structures of Embankment, amongst what looked like outraged tombs or piles of broken stones, I felt that I was somehow wandering through some roofed-over portion of an archaeological site, in which some of the structures were still quite well-preserved and others a bit of a mess, such as one sees at Delphi, or Cumae, or indeed many dozens of other such places. Only of course the site wasn’t real, the heaped-up stones weren’t stones, and the feelings one always has amongst ruins were, obviously, completely spurious. In other words, ‘art’ managed to intrude, in the good old fashioned sense of something that’s a man-made thing, the result of human skill and enterprise — in this case, a sort of happy deception. The conceptual issues raised here were gentle, non-insistent, faintly romantic ones. Rather than being harangued by Embankment, as so often happens with contemporary art, I felt I was — to use another good, old-fashioned word — being diverted by it.

Meanwhile, others were reading the installation in their own ‘incorrect’ ways. Some, the reviews would tell us later, were reminded of blocks of ice, which is quite neat, as Whiteread recently undertook a journey into the Arctic Circle for some vague purpose associated with global warming. Many saw it as landscape, replete with peaks and ravines and non-insistent references to the Sublime. Best of all, a charming member of Tate Modern’s catering staff, while offering me a cup of coffee, opined that the structures, which she much admired, reminded her of piles and piles of sugar-cubes. The implied tribute to the Tate Gallery’s founder would have been a particularly apt one. But the main point here is that people — real people too, not just the air-kissing, back-stabbing press view crowd — seemed genuinely to enjoy the act of exploring the work. This turns out to be a markedly sociable experience, with visitors sharing smiles, and sometimes even comments, as they encounter each other round the back of some of the taller, more vertical structures. As I left the Turbine Hall a little while after the press view had finished, there were already children chasing each other around the stacked-up cubes, and couples strolling hand-in-hand around the outskirts, looking up at the towering forms — all illuminated by that strange, uncanny, milky white light. Whatever doubts I may still harbour about the genuine quality of Whiteread’s achievement, I felt happier for having experienced Embankment, and I think these other people did, too.

White cubed
Unilever’s Turbine Hall commissions are, famously, something of a poisoned chalice. Not every artist has what it takes to function on that enormous, industrial scale, so much in the public eye and so open to comparison with all that precedes and follows. Louise Bourgeois’s staircases and spider didn’t make much impact, whereas Anish Kapoor’s big ear-trumpet, or calla-lily, or whatever it was, succeeded mostly because the red he selected was such a ravishingly rich one, so saturated that it seemed almost to throb and pulse around the edges of one’s field of vision; having few expectations about Olafur Eliasson’s quirky Weather Project, most visitors ended up loving it, whilst the wretched Bruce Nauman, surely not even one of the better artists Fort Wayne, Indiana has ever produced, should have been made to give his payment back, so lame, lazy and annoying was his ‘sound installation’ offering.

Whiteread’s Embankment has, for its part, received mixed reviews. Most critics, of course, loved it — at least in the docile, sporting, uncritical way in which their species invariably falls in love when confronted with the combination of A-list artist and A-list arts institution. A few, though, voiced doubts — and not just the excellent Brian Sewell, either, although his accusations of ‘meritless gigantism’ must have delighted arts editors everywhere, if only for making it possible to claim that this entirely inoffensive work was somehow ‘controversial’.

Where there was dissatisfaction, it seemed to spring as much from the press release, or at any rate claims made for Embankment, as it did from the installation itself. One critic, for instance, wrote at some length about the whole notion of boxes, and the interpretation of the work as an enormous storehouse, alluding perhaps to the museum as a receptacle for our collective memory — or words to that effect. (I am paraphrasing, and not providing a link, because the actual article isn’t available online.) This critic felt — and it’s a reasonable point — that this didn’t quite work, because the polythene casts are so very clearly solid things, not boxes. They don’t open, and they are empty casts, so the viewer is perfectly aware that there’s nothing, not even ‘collective memory’, stored inside them. So the concept, and its apparent failure, got in the way of the actual experience of the work. Others simply weren’t impressed. Maybe they came with different expectations, or in a different mood, or with different requirements. Whatever worked for me, in any event, wandering in and out of the weird white-out ambience of Embankment, didn’t work for them. It’s as simple, and as difficult, as that.

So once again, my response to Whiteread remains ambivalent, and where it’s most positive, more than slightly guilty. Oh, I enjoyed Embankment, but I can’t help thinking that I did so more at the level of an entertainment of some sort — a variation in the routine of daily life, a brief and cost-free holiday from my everyday world — rather than in the way I’d normally expect to enjoy ‘art’. On the one hand, this may signal a defect in my understanding of what installations are meant to do. On the other, it may signal a defect in the boundary-fence that separates contemporary art and life.

As ever, my enthusiasm for the work may have something to do with all that it is not. Unlike some of the efforts elsewhere in Tate Modern, Embankment didn’t seem to have any very obvious didactic or polemical point. It didn’t even seem to call much attention to its own nature as a work of art. It isn’t transgressive, or disturbing, or even particularly disorienting. It’s pleasant enough to look at — certainly better than the ‘deranged Argos warehouse’ some papers have suggested — but hardly in a way that proclaims from the rooftops either the formal brilliance or the theoretical savvy of its creator.

Instead, whatever she may have intended, Whiteread seems to have produced a highly functional, fun, slightly dreamy space in which children can run round in circles, playing hide-and-seek, whilst adults wander here and there, radiating benign unconcern, or amusement, or occasionally something marginally more dynamic, eyeing each other up. Some of us have long suspected that Tate Modern’s true role, given its terminally flawed collection and odd acquisitions strategy, is in fact not as a museum at all, but rather as a nexus for ‘see and be seen’ activity — a kind of indoor ramblas or boulevard for a rainy, chilly nation. To the extent this is in any way the case, Whiteread has responded to the suggestion admirably, by dressing up the Turbine Hall with a sort of indoor pleasure-garden, a Winter Wonderland fantasia, bathed in bright light as if in defiance of the dark winter days that lie ahead of us. Thinking of Whiteread’s stature, it’s hard not to warm to the sheer practicality of the work. For despite its scale, it somehow comes across as modest and generous, where so many lesser artists might have been proudly, aggressively self-indulgent.

Is Embankment art? Is it any good? And insofar as it’s any good, is its goodness just the inverse of so much contemporary art badness? Embarrassingly, I’m still not sure. However much I enjoy some of Whiteread’s work in practice, many of the claims that others make for it strike me as silly and inflated. Perhaps, ultimately, it’s no more than a reflection of the aesthetically unambitious, dumbed-down age in which we live this is so. All I do know, however, is that I’m due to return to Tate Modern in a fortnight’s time — and I’m genuinely looking forward to experiencing this likeable, memorable creation once again.


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Babies by the book: a personal journey through the literature of parenting

This article first appeared on 31 October 2005 on the website of the Social Affairs Unit

As with most things in life that ought by rights to come naturally, yet somehow don’t — radiant health, sustaining relationships, happiness, the speedy creation of sophisticated yet effortless-looking dinners for eight and so forth — there are lots of books out there on the subject of birth and motherhood. I had reason to discover this last year, when the subject began to develop an ever-expanding degree of personal relevance. Because, let’s face it, for some of us the printed word will always stand as the first line of defence against a reality that’s just that little bit too big to grasp all at once. It would be exaggerating, just, to say that I actually ran directly from that first positive pregnancy test to the basement section of Foyles’ — I am pretty sure I thought to ring my husband first — but in those first few months, the urge to research was still right up there with all those new hormonal urges that kept counselling me to eat ice-cream for breakfast, to feel drawn to anything acid-green and to sleep almost constantly. Also, buying books was something I knew how to do, unlike having a baby. So, snuggling back into the safety of my academic background, I began to ‘read round the subject’, conferred with experts — well, chatted with friends in possession of at least superficially acceptable children — Googled my way purposefully around the internet, and eventually built up quite a little library on this new research topic of mine. It felt for all the world as if what I hoped to deliver in nine months’ time was a conference paper.

Taking sides
The first surprise was the factionalism. Having cut my teeth on reformation history before graduating to the scarcely more appetising margins of Tory politics, I was nonetheless unprepared for the sheer degree of rancour, vitriol and pure sectarian bigotry that exists within the literature of motherhood. ‘You must buy Gina Ford’s Contented Little Baby,’ insisted one friend, running a sleekly-manicured hand over her couture-class lapel as we spoke after a business meeting — because as well as giving birth she had managed to make a success of her own company while at the same time coordinating a sprawling step-family, conducting a social-life of eye-watering rigour and working out with a personal trainer every morning. ‘And you must have a maternity nurse. Ours was wonderful.’ Her big dark eyes misted over at the memory. ‘It’s so reassuring. She knows just what to do. She takes your baby away from you and gives him a routine.’

Not having had a baby yet, I was unsure whether I wanted him taken away from me — let alone ‘given a routine’ by a salaried, live-in, dictatorial-sounding stranger. But I wasn’t allowed to contemplate this for long. ‘Don’t pay any attention,’ hissed another friend, as soon as we were out of earshot. ‘That Contented Little Nazi stuff is appalling! Do what they did when we were in Nepal — just wrap your baby up next to you in a cloth sling and get on with your life.’ This, in contrast, sounded too good to be true — surely one needed a bit more nursery kit than a lone pashmina, even in Nepal? Also, this other friend, while glamorous, was a spontaneous, bohemian wild-child who had never been seen without a cigarette in one hand and a strong coffee in the other and who was famous for emails beginning ‘Sorry, just back from two months in Sri Lanka …’. Come to think of it, she didn’t have children, either. Innocently, I resolved to read widely, consider carefully and make up my mind for myself.

The battle of the baby books
As the weeks went by, the literature began to resolve itself into a pattern. Just as once, in an allusion to ‘the Tudor reformations’ that single extra consonant would have signalled to me a world of historiographical alignment, or just as an eyebrow raised at the name of some minor Tory frontbencher would have been a gesture ripe with tribal significance, now a whole new universe of factional nuance began to open out ahead of me.

At one end stood the forbidding figure of Gina Ford — a nanny (famously, she’s never had children herself) who champions the rigid scheduling of naps, feeds, baths, lullabies, play, eye-contact, encouraging slices of toast for the breastfeeding mother and indeed pretty much everything, full stop. And at the other end stood — well, reclined, barefoot, probably on a beanbag chair while listening to an old Grateful Dead bootleg cassette tape — the laid-back ‘Attachment Parenting’ school. The respectable end of the movement was personified by Dr William Sears, with the wilder fringes well represented — where else? — on the internet, garnished with references to home schooling, slightly muddled libertarian effusions and the odd sprig of New Age mysticism. While the Fordists spoke of ‘routines’ and ‘training’, the Attachment types retaliated with a strange, sometimes alienating language of ‘demand feeding’, ‘sleep sharing’ and ‘baby wearing’. In between the two, there was every shade of variation and compromise, as well as special obsessions. Did I want a smart baby, an organic baby, a confident baby, a baby that was good at sleeping or feeding or possibly sums, yoga and water gymnastics as well? Apparently I could have each and every one of these desirable little creatures, if only I shelled out my £12.99 in the relevant direction, watched the right DVD and signed up to the right sort of ideological programme.

This was the practical end of the spectrum. Beyond it, dispensing with any pretence of practicality, lurked the penumbra of books that simply commented on the whole business of motherhood itself — usually along the lines of, ‘here I am, a middle-class, mature, university-educated woman, and I’ve just had a baby — let me explain to you the unique significance of this experience, which no one in human history has hitherto understood.’ Naomi Woolf and Rachel Cusk were, in this department, only the prime offenders. Truth told, though, I mostly skipped these books — less out of principled disapproval, or even distrust of patently ropey prose-styles, than something more basic. Being a middle-class, mature, university-educated woman myself, there were limits to how much I wanted to know about what I was getting myself into. Surely, motherhood couldn’t be so ghastly that the only way to cope was to leave the baby with a nanny and write a book about it?

Does this baby come with an instruction manual?
Old habits die hard. Having endured a fair bit of ‘social history’ at university, I was also acutely aware — in those days before my mind deteriorated into a brightly disorientating kaleidoscope of cots, prams and nappies, full or otherwise — of the oddness of the times in which we live. For while there have always been books offering expert advice about the peaks and troughs of human experience — one thinks of those Tudor manuals explaining how to die a good death, or the seventeenth century memoirs of charismatic religious conversions, or that other historical oddity of more recent times, books explaining how not to eat too much — and while everyone from philosophers to theologians has had something to say about education, the explosion of books intended to teach women how to be mothers is largely a peculiarity of the past seventy years or less.

There are, after all, lots of aspects of culture that are perhaps most characteristically transmitted, not by formal training, let alone the written word, but rather through a thousand less formal and conscious channels. In most times and most places, motherhood has been one of these. It was women’s work, and although it was seen as important, generally men, with their impulses towards pointless systemisation, kept out of it. Within this female sphere, motherhood was taught by imitation, observation, shared experience, a bit of advice from grandma or a helping hand from a sister-in-law, an accumulated wealth of information, injunction and prejudice disseminated throughout a lifetime. This isn’t to say that fear, uncertainty and incompetence didn’t exist. On the contrary, they are basic to the experience of motherhood. It’s just that the means of dispelling them lay not in literature, but in life. Motherhood wasn’t book learning — it was just good sense and good luck, stiffened up with nonstop informal socialisation.

Times, however, change. Now that families are so often fragmentary, physically or psychologically distant, and now that the politics of informal intervention in neighbours’ lives have been complicated by a dozen other societal changes, the stream of information available through these informal conduits has slowed to an uncertain little trickle, and is poisoned by increasing amounts of social and stylistic variation. Those huge extended families, with their sloppy overlap of generations, are decreasingly likely to ensure that there are always babies around, somewhere, instilling a bit of parenting information into even the most unwilling friend or relation. And now that parenting choices are as much an expression of consumer choice as they are of cultural identity, there is little scope for assuming at a neighbour’s choices will have any congruence with one’s own. All of which is why, I suppose — along with increased literacy levels, increased spending power and the need to pass the long months of pregnancy doing something other than shopping for ever-larger brassieres and ever-stranger foodstuffs — there is an ever-increasing demand amongst women for published material about motherhood, its mysteries and magic. How else are we to find our way through the whole strange, daunting business of giving birth and bringing up our young?

In my need for more and better reference works, though, it must be said that my age and background were probably playing against me. For some mothers — the more docile sort of teenager still ensconced in the parental home, or those from ethnic communities still in possession of a bit of social and familial cohesion — the old rules may still hold. Some people may have been more fortunate than others when it comes to fitting in with the child-bearing patterns of their near and dear. And no matter how pleasant those fantasies about life amongst the aboriginal peoples of whatever-land may be, obviously no one who knows anything about comparative historical mortality rates would want to give birth at any time other than the present, or anywhere other than the First World. Thus it was that as the months passed, with what was left of the rational part of my hormone-bombarded mind, I could see that in all sorts of ways I was in an enviably fortunate position. Heaven knows, I didn’t want to become one of those middle-class, university-educated women who makes a living out of stylised self-consciousness and a spurious sense of victimhood. People have babies every day — surely there wasn’t as much to it as all that?

And yet this wouldn’t be an accurate account of the strengths and weaknesses of parenting books if I didn’t point out how little, ultimately, these books were able to do for me as those first months of my pregnancy passed, slowly but ineluctably, and the moment of truth drew ever nearer. I read the books’ advice, I poured over their soothing photos and I pondered their relative merits. Would I be a well-organised, clock-watching Fordist, I wondered, or a sling-wearing, co-sleeping Sears sister? Was baby massage worth the bother? And what, when it came to that, was ‘topping and tailing’? But what I really wanted to know was something that no book could tell me: What would it be like to become a mother, and could I handle it? For although I was scared, as every sane woman must be, of giving birth, much worse was the challenge posed by the 20-plus years that would, God willing, follow. Yet somehow it seemed impossible to discuss this central question with my super-competent friends, or with the harried NHS medical staff, or anyone else. Admitting to confusion and uncertainty seemed too dangerous, as if spelling out my fears could only make them come true. So back to the books I went, hoping that somewhere there, between idyllic photos of perfect newborns and challenging post-partum exercise regimes, was the scrap of information I needed to ensure that it was all going to be all right.

The answer, though, eluded me. And so it was that, pregnant, aged 38, surrounded by all the material comforts and physical security I could want, benefiting from a supportive husband and friends, and with some of the best medical care in the world on my doorstep, I had never felt so incompetent, unconfident or so lonely in all my life.

You mean there’s supposed to be a third trimester?
In the end, of course, nothing went by the book at all. So much for What to Expect …! For instead of the 38-week gestation promised by literature and hallowed by convention, my first son was born after a grand total of 28 weeks and one day. Nor, at about 3 lbs, did he look much like the babies in those glossy illustrations. With hindsight, I could have wished for sisterly advice identifying those ‘weird cramps’ in week 27 as the early stages of labour, or putting forth the terribly outmoded view that ‘taking it easy’ should not include, for instance, carrying cups of tea up several flights of stairs to the carpenters building new bookshelves for my study. Neither of these contingencies was, however, addressed in any of my various books. Well, we live and learn, don’t we?

But in the hours after giving birth, none of this mattered. I was simply ecstatic, overwhelmed, terrified, delighted and exhausted as I stared at that odd-looking little creature, covered in monitors and bits of wire and tubing, in the plastic incubator that dwarfed him so completely. Less than two months later I was allowed to take him home from the hospital’s Special Care Baby Unit. In the meantime, what happened during those two months wasn’t covered by any of the books I had read. Since when did ‘establishing breastfeeding’ mean hooking myself up to an industrial-looking milking machine every four hours, day and night, in order to express milk to be fed, via a naso-gastric tube, to my firstborn? Since when did ‘bonding’ mean the carefully-supervised, all-too-brief cuddle I was allowed once a day? And surely, by ‘developing a routine’, the books didn’t mean that whole sorry business of learning how to avoid the ward rounds, when all the mothers were kicked out of the Special Care Baby Unit in order to insulate them from the full details of what was wrong with everyone else’s baby, or how to schedule my brief lunch at Planet Organic so as to be back at cot-side while most of the other mothers were still out, so as to snatch a moment or two alone — except for the doctors, nurses and cleaning staff, obviously — with my little one?

Thus it was that necessity rescued me, at a stroke, from the various bland orthodoxies of book-learning. Arriving home with my son after those two months in hospital, my vision of motherhood was in retrospect a remarkably strange one. At first it seemed wrong and probably dangerous, for instance, to handle this child of mine without first scrubbing my hands with disinfectant, or — in keeping with another hospital routine — to change his nappy without first taking his temperature and afterwards conveying a list of nappy-related ‘observations’ to the duty nurse. Was it really safe to bring up a baby without a consultant neonatologist in the next room? Was it really permissible not to weigh him every day? It also took me a while to learn to look at my baby to see how he was doing, rather than turning to the monitors which were no longer attached to his increasingly large, healthy, authentically baby-type body. What would happen if something went wrong? There were times when the responsibility seemed unbearable. How could I possibly do, single-handedly, what it had taken a whole unit to do only a few days before?

And since, during those hospital visits, specialist knowledge had once again proved both a reassurance and a distraction from the occasionally bleak realities of the situation, I also came home speaking the secret language of prematurity: a lexicon encompassing CPAP and low-flow, PDAs and ROP, apneas and ‘bradys’. Like most parents in this situation, I ended up fretting not about wind or a touch of colic, but about ‘desaturations’ and a tendency to ‘recess’. Alone amongst my friends, I was not only able to guess my baby’s blood oxygen level based on his skin colour, liveliness and so on — doing so seemed the most ‘natural’ thing on earth. Motherhood? Was this what it was meant to be like? Sometimes it seemed as if my health visitor, GP and even my friends were talking about a completely different experience. And there was something strangely exhausting, not just about having a new baby at home — which, obviously, is pretty exhausting for anyone — but about the well-intentioned incomprehension of most normal people when it comes to premature babies. On one hand, I was super-defensive about my little boy: ‘What do you mean, he’s small? Don’t you realise that 3 lbs is absolutely huge for 28 weeks?’ But then on the other hand, their glibness — ‘he’s fine, now, isn’t he?’ — upset me too, even though in truth he does seem to be fine, if only because it seemed to downplay his amazing achievement in having done so well, having been born so very early. Sane parents, I suppose, never take their children’s lives for granted, but anyone who has been able to bring their baby home after months in Special Care has more to be thankful for than most.

Occasionally, though, now and then, I stumbled across someone who spoke my new language. For instance, while my son was still in hospital I discovered, quite by accident, that an acquaintance — a woman whose career achievements, flawless grooming, well-burnished social skills, high energy levels and general air of perfection had previously struck me as ever so slightly alienating — had herself had two premature babies who had each spent months in Special Care. Although both were now fine, big, healthy girls, her memories of that time were still raw. There was nothing, here, of the glib tones other friends had used when discussing their favourite baby books. The look on her face could only have been imposed by real life. ‘It was the hardest thing I have ever done,’ she said simply. And her words, in turn, gave me more reassurance than any book could have done.

A season in the NHS
What was toughest, in retrospect, was the brutal way in which prematurity removed even the possibility of doing what comes naturally. In my darkest moments, it sometimes seemed not only as if my son wasn’t really mine, but worse still, that whereas modern medical science was there to help him, my own interventions were so inept that they could only do harm. After all, I hadn’t even been competent enough to carry him for the full nine months, had I? The books that made great play of ‘bonding’ whispered reproachfully to the mother of a very premature baby. Although I visited my son for hours every day, I couldn’t be there at the hospital all the time — not at night, not at 3 or 4 am when I’d get up to express milk for him in his cold, quiet, empty nursery. And I had never really understood the meaning of jealousy until I came into the unit one day and saw a student nurse cuddling my baby. Was I a bad mother because I wasn’t cuddling him myself? Or was I an even worse mother because I resented the fact that this stranger was doing what I so desperately wanted to do in her stead, even though my little boy was obviously enjoying the cuddle?

All of which bathetic, faintly embarrassing stuff runs the danger of sounding like an offcut from one of those books denounced, quite rightly, above. Don’t worry, the Naomi Woolf pastiche stops here. The point is simply this. Banished from the world of pregnancy and birth advice books by my own fast-track approach to childbearing, I found myself a freakish outcast in the world of parenting books, too. Suddenly, despite my own lack of conventional childcare experience, I felt incredibly reluctant to take these authors’ advice about anything. What did they know? For on one hand, the slyly Darwinian world of the present-day NHS had, at least, allowed me to channel my thwarted maternal energies into pursuing my son’s best interests as best I could — scrutinising his records when I could get my hands on them, spotting mistakes in his treatment, gently encouraging higher standards of care and attention at every opportunity. (So, were you wondering why they let a three-month-premature baby go home after only two months?) This business of becoming a mother did, in all seriousness, excavate more hard-edged, decisive, ruthless side of my character than I, at least, had ever suspected existed. Also, those two months had given me the chance to discover something else — namely, my son’s innate strength, resilience, charm, determination and good humour. No matter how bad I might be at being a mother, he was clearly excellent at being a baby. And with all that going for us, and with the written word’s abject failure to be any use whatsoever during the first key moments of his life, who needed purpose-made parenting books?

A little learning
Still, in the months since my son’s been home it has proved almost impossible to avoid those advice books. They get everywhere. Cross-question a friend or ex-colleague who articulates a bland belief in ‘doing what works’ about what he or she means, and out comes a stream of steel-reinforced, generally book-taught doctrine attempting to pass itself off as the cuddliest sort of home-baked empiricism.

Here’s an example. ‘Is your baby good?’ When someone asks this, nine out of ten times she is not providing an incitement to sub-Augustinian chat on the nature of original sin, but rather — sadly — asking whether your little flawed mortal darling sleeps through the night, since these are the terms in which Gina Ford and her ilk have re-defined the metaphysics of morals. The ideal baby would, apparently, be one who drops off at 7 pm sharp and bothers no one for at least twelve clear hours, before resuming his dreary little hell, whoops, ‘routine’ of scheduled feeds, washes, changes, naps and the occasional moment of grudging yet necessary human interaction. Conversely, if another sort of person hears that a baby has been fed on breast-milk for nine months or more, she may claim that this, instead, is good, for all the world as if moral worth were a sort of enzyme or antibody, or for that matter as if every mother were able to spout forth an unfailing stream of nourishment, simply at will, for months or years on end. The idea that virtue might reside in some sphere beyond the minutiae of feeding strategies or sleep patterns is an exotic and possibly dangerous one, the province of zealots or scary people only. Yet baby-rearing, its language of good and evil notwithstanding, is at the same time treated as a science best conducted passionlessly, on some consensual middle ground of shared assumptions. And given how relatively narrow the market for such books is, the books may well have a point about this.

So if we’re all setting out our own belief-systems for snap inspection the very moment we set our little ones down for a nap or proffer a bit of raw, organic, British-grown apple rather than a tasty crisp, I might as well go ahead and make what I, at any rate, take to be a rather Tory point. Ultimately, as far as I can see, parenting hinges more on temperament and history than on anything more conscious or rational. The parenting books we latch onto persuade us, not because of what they say, but rather, because of the way in which their arguments and assertions resonate with what we already believe to be true. We seek in them a community of people like us, to give us the reassurance and sense of cosy inclusion so often unavailable elsewhere in this rather atomised contemporary world — the atomisation of which becomes all the more uncomfortable, the more we realise how little that world tolerates the powerful urges, hormonal and inescapable, that suddenly reorient a new mother’s life towards the needs of her young.

’So, are you working, or are you just a mother now?’
Thus it is that over the past year or so, I’ve noticed that my most hardcore Fordist friends are women who, even days prior to giving birth, enjoyed — and ‘enjoyed’ really is the mot juste here — high-powered professional careers. Having previously flourished in a world of computerised diaries, billable time, refereed articles, specialised expertise, highly regimented workplace relationships and evident peer-group respect, they now find themselves wrestling with seas of vomit, smelly nappies, a little person who feels that his needs should come first and a society where mothers are, generally, treated with a mixture of flippancy and condescension that becomes rancid faster than a bottle of expressed breastmilk.

Maybe it’s different elsewhere, in those parts of British society where women pass the time by scraping their hair back, perusing daytime television and balancing benefit cheques with the acquisition of fags, alcopops, tattoos and yet more out-on-remand boyfriends — or, alternatively, in some sort of sub-Scrutonian fantasia, where the daughters of baronets waft around their Agas in hand-me-down 1930s frocks, concocting nourishing purees from of their latest hand-reared Gloucester Spot while listening to choral evensong on Radio 3. Sadly, though, for the rest of us who live somewhere in the middle, the truth is all too obvious. The best kind of mother, apparently, is the woman who manages to provide offspring without allowing the whole messy, woefully biological business to impinge on her lifestyle in any way. Like becoming ill or ageing or dying, the physical imperatives of pregnancy and motherhood are regarded as a source of voiceless regret, if not outright failure.

Thus we live in a world where praise is lavished on women who contrive to work and play as if they weren’t pregnant even when they are, who recapture their pre-pregnancy (or, better still, pre-pubescent) figures within weeks of giving birth, who carry on with demanding careers whilst still bringing up a young family, and who make sure it’s the claims of the adults in their lives, rather than the babies, that come first. For while it’s unfashionable to say that children should be seen, not heard, in fact, many people are happier when not seeing or hearing much about them. So a new mother of vaguely professional background faces, along with the after-pains of labour and her strangely altered body, a stark choice. She can either sink to the bottom of society, dragged down by the weight of her responsibilities, increasingly urgent preoccupations and terminal sleeplessness — or she can, in the encouraging words of at least one of these parenting books, ‘do something about it’.

How, then, to render maternity acceptable? Gina Ford’s dogmas, like those of many of her followers, provide a superficially compelling solution. Professionalise motherhood. Rationalise it. Wrap it up in the grander trappings of medicine and psychology. Replace intuition with science, experience with theory, good sense with a made-up melange of timetables, menus and crude Skinnerian behavioural tricks that frankly for most of us went out with the Cold War — or better still, if you have the right sort of income, get a 24-hour nanny to do these things for you. Create a race of children willing to live within the boundaries placed by conference calls, meetings, someone else’s agenda. ‘Train’ them to moderate all their most basic bodily functions so that they won’t keep anyone awake, or spoil anyone’s dinner, or take up any time that might otherwise be spent on something more important. Dress all of this up in a modern version of ‘it’s for their own good’ — as if the ability to lie quietly for twelve hours in a silent, darkened room, alone, was of any use to anyone, except perhaps a specialised subgroup of depressives who, I can promise you, are perfectly capable of developing this skill for themselves in due course. Control, though, has somehow become the great desideratum of contemporary parenthood. Well, at least it enables mothers to go back to work, to achieve ever better consumer durables and to live up to the dictates of a particularly austere brand of feminist teaching while still keeping their boyfriends interested. This is called ‘getting your old self back’, and is highly encouraged.

What grates, here, is less some putative authoritarianism, though, no prettier on the left than it is on the right, than the stark sense of fear that underlies these expedients. They suggest not a generation of adults easily able to cope with their own young, but rather — and surely, more alarmingly — a generation of ageing would-be ‘yoof’ quaking in terror at the twin prospects of full-blown adulthood and permanent commitment. By packaging these two together, it is as if children constitute a threat so baleful that it can only be contained or neutralised under expert guidance. For the language of fear is everywhere in Gina Ford’s books, and in those of the marginally less strident Baby Whisperer and a dozen other clones, all full of narratives along the lines of ‘X and Y were a lovely couple, an arts director and a graphic designer, but darling little Z was making their lives hell until I intervened …’ — and indeed I suspect this is the fantasy of victimhood and rescue that underpins the Super Nanny television series, too. Quick, bring in the rules, the routines, the emergency exit to professional assistance! The idea that adults and infants might, between themselves, have the wit to evolve some functional, if not flawless modus vivendi is treated as outlandish. That, after all, might involve treating parenthood as if it were interesting, important, even fun in itself — which might suggest that there was something to life beyond youth, freedom from responsibility or a particularly arid notion of individuality. And it might also suggest that raising her own young is a subject to which an intelligent woman might wish to commit at least a few years, to some beneficial effect. But that wouldn’t do, would it, because even the stupid and poor and ordinary have children, and who would want to be like them?

Nobody’s perfect — unless they’ve bought the DVD
In case that putative ‘intelligent woman’ wants to rear her little ones her own way, though, back come the experts. Self-doubt, after all, sells books and videos and television advertising. So the experts start work as early as possible, before conception, with their worrying counsels to perfection — their detox programmes, their nutrient cocktails and their blood-curdling cautionary tales. It’s as the bump starts to grow, though, and once the disconcerting hormonal all-change is underway, that the injunctions really kick in. Positive pregnancy test? Congratulations — and by the way, you’d better have given up smoking, smoky environments, alcohol, caffeine, diet drinks, nuts, shellfish, raw fish, raw eggs, soft cheese, honey, loud music, fake tan, hair colouring, effective cleaning products and anything else you might wish to eat, drink, experience or smear onto nearby surfaces. Consume enough oily fish but not too much — exercise enough but not too much, and only in the right ways — and remember, don’t feel stressed — it’s bad for the baby! Once the little one turns up, the advice is just as forbidding, if increasingly contradictory as the weeks and months go by. Go organic! Breast-feed forever! Do baby yoga! Teach your baby to swim! Sing songs! Do indescribably creepy exercises! Talk in a weirdly mannered way in order to boost your baby’s language skills! Go to classes! Take lessons! Buy non-embarrassing — for which read ‘expensive’ — brands! Soothe your natural parental anxieties by spending lots and lots of money!

Failure to do any of these things will, of course, result in a less-than-ideal child who will doubtless go on to blame you for all the terrible disadvantages under which he or she will have to labour for a lifetime. (The fact that fashions in these matters change almost weekly is best ignored at this point. Science always knows best, and will know even better in a fortnight.) The notion that none of us is perfect — like the concomitant observation that most interesting people are actually quite alarmingly flawed — never gets a look in. Nor does the fact that human life is God-given and precious in its own right, however unlike our arbitrary and ever-changing models of ‘perfection’ it might be. Given all these discouragements, then, some more subtle than others but all cumulatively quite effective, is it any wonder that women increasingly wait for decades before getting up the nerve to take on the rather unappealing challenges of motherhood — and then are so often left feeling like failures once they do?

For it’s hard, faced with all this, to remember that conception, pregnancy, birth and parenthood are both some of the most natural activities in the world, and also some of the most universal. This doesn’t mean that these activities aren’t deeply inflected with culture, because their very centrality more or less ensures that they must be. What it does mean, however, is that there are issues of style, taste, status and clannishness operating that probably ought to be distinguished from the more urgent claims of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. And this is where real human advice, transmitted amongst friends and neighbours and kinsfolk, probably had the edge on advice books. For all their bigotry and superstition, old wives’ tales about the mechanics of parenthood, because they were based in a recognisable world of highly localised norms and values — and because at the margins they were, necessarily, negotiable — almost certainly presented a picture of childrearing that was at once more anecdotal, more recognisable and more achievable. By contrast, today’s parenting books — with their heavy burden of tacit assumptions about class, income and morality always threatening to break through the glossy coating of objective scientific veracity — conjure up a world that is idealised, a bit abstract yet often dauntingly at variance with real experience. For while parenting books are full of absolutes, parenting itself is, first and foremost, a non-stop progression of increasingly complicated, imperfect, inescapable compromises.

Of Mill and babyhood
Like all how-to books, parenting books are necessarily thick with the tidy stuff of generalisation. Yet to the novice mother, one of the most remarkable things about babies is their individuality. Even in the womb, babies find ways of expressing themselves with kicks, rolls and the odd unprovoked punch to the maternal rib-cage. And that’s only the beginning. Certainly, for me, the two months my son spent in Special Care were an education in the apparently infinite variousness of the newborn. The personalities of the tiny people who shared a room with my firstborn are as real to me — and, frankly, just as lavishly eccentric — as the personalities of my friends from university, publishing or politics. Which is to say, the young are no more similar than their parents, siblings or the domestic setups in which they’ll grow up. Once home, babies have to slot themselves into an established yet labile web of relationships, practical circumstances, styles of living. Parenting books occasionally make tokenistic nods towards non-standard situations — one-parent families, multiple births, infants who are disabled, premature or otherwise non-mainstream — but then go back to imposing their own preconceptions onto a million different complicated, messy, divergent situations. What happens, though, when the preconceptions simply can’t be made to fit?

Everyone’s different. Some babies, for instance, take to routines — some don’t — while some practically organise signed petitions and media campaigns requesting the wretched things. Much to my embarrassment, my son was one of the latter, his firm demand for a 7 pm bedtime at six months every bit as unmistakeable as my child-of-the-sixties disinclination to impose such burdensome, authoritarian strictures on him. And that, too, was an education for me — not because it proved that Gina Ford was somehow ‘right’, but conversely, because it brought home to me truth that parenting is very much a two-way conversation, and that just because one half of the conversation is mostly conducted at the level of gurgles and shrieks doesn’t mean that it ought to be disregarded. On the contrary, it really is worth parents’ time to become a bit more attuned to the gurgles and shrieks. Looking at a book, rather than a baby, to find out what that baby needs can be — as I learned — every bit as dysfunctional as getting hysterical over what the Special Care Unit’s heart monitor says when the infant in front of you is palpably pink, lively and fine. Books are fine as far as they go — but at best, that’s a limited distance. Ultimately, though, solutions marketed as ‘one size fits all’ end up wearing less comfortably, and less attractively, than the bespoke alternative. Looking at books is no good if you don’t also have the courage to face up to real life in its full, disconcerting untidiness and variety, before doing your best to deal with it.

Pace Tolstoy, even the happiest families are all happy in their own different ways. Each has its own rituals and conventions, its own set of hearth deities to propitiate. Here I can’t help recalling a libertarian couple I used to know many years ago now. Active advocates of home schooling and much else in that optimistically alternative vein, I once visited their house for some sort of worthy talk which I’ve now entirely forgotten. Their domestic arrangements, though, I remember vividly. Their toddler children (called, according to legend, Liberty and Lunacy, although I don’t think that can really be true) were lively, pretty, engaging — but more than a little wild, since their parents didn’t believe in curtailing their freedoms in any way — hence much ostentatious trampling over the sofas in dirty trainers, treading crisps and cake into the carpets, high-spirited shouting and so forth. It looked like fun, but was also, truth be told, loud and distracting — a bit red in tooth and claw for the childless amongst us, certainly, and not conducive to learned conversation. Strangely, however, once the speaker was due to begin his remarks, Liberty and her little sibling were encouraged to explore their freedoms in the garden, rather than the house, in the company of their father, whose freedom seemed to lead him, at exactly the same time, in the same direction. Or as my friend Brian sagely put it, all families have rules — they’re just different sets of rules, expressing different priorities. But then if Brian ever gets around to writing a book about parenting, it will, unlike most, be very much worth reading — even for those who aren’t parents.

The point, though, is this. What would have been dysfunctional chaos in other households more or less worked amongst my libertarian friends, if only because they had the wit, self-assurance and stubbornness necessary to create, maintain and periodically revise a style of parenting that was consonant both with their children’s personalities, and with the realities of how they, as a family, lived their lives. There was book-learning there — but the books weren’t parenting books, at least in any conventional sense, and the result was cross-checked frequently with real life. Perfect? No, but the result was workable, which is pretty much all one can ask of the science of parenting.

This isn’t to say, however, that all lifestyles are created equal. Clearly, ‘chaos’ founded on much mature reflection, carefully monitored and underpinned by carefully-chosen if wrong-headed quotations from John Stuart Mill, as well as lots of affection, is not exactly the same thing as the chaos that arises, say, from a bad smack habit, criminality and untreated mental illness. And here, a different set of memories come into play. Our hospital’s Special Care Baby Unit, as well as looking after small, early and sickly babies, cared for those whose mothers were addicted to crack, heroin and so forth. The result was like living in a Theodore Dalrymple article that just wouldn’t come to an end. I shall never forget the chain-smoking teenage traveller who told me, striking a distinct note of self-congratulation, that during her pregnancy she’d given up ‘everything except the methadone, ‘cause the baby has to come first, you know what I’m saying?’ There were always a lot of nurses on duty when she and the father of her child came in for a visit, as the couple used to help themselves, in a rare fit of enterprise, to painkillers and clean syringes. So while I’m not generally a great fan of the Social Services, I — like most of the Special Care nurses who saw fit to pronounce on the matter — was, if anything, relieved when I heard that the couple’s little girl had been taken into care. My own youthful libertarianism notwithstanding, there are some sets of rules and priorities which don’t really deserve to be handed on to the next generation.

All of which takes us some way, thankfully, from most parents’ experience. Both my libertarian friends and my Special Care contemporaries represent extremes of the child-rearing spectrum. Most of us, in contrast, exist somewhere in between, making our own accommodations with convention and necessity. And some of these accommodations, obviously, will be more successful than others, just as some people are just basically better at all sorts of things — keeping relationships going, say, or surviving on very little sleep — than other people are. There are issues of effort involved here, but also of aptitude and opportunity. Some people make parenthood look easy, while some people don’t. And sadly, past a point, no glossy hardback, complete with illustrations, useful tables and the obligatory celebrity endorsement, is going to be able to do anything about that.

Language and its limits
For in that sense, parenthood is simply a mirror of life itself, which perhaps is why middle-aged, under-employed, over-reflective types tend to fear it. Whether you’re an icy-veined control-freak who lives to make lists, or, alternatively, a warm-hearted if disorganised free spirit, having a baby shines a merciless spotlight on areas of your psychopathology which might otherwise have gone happily under-exposed. And while the parenting books you end up liking will certainly reflect whatever’s wrong with you, they are absolutely certain not to be able to change it.

Becoming a parent also brings to the surface childhood memories that had long been buried, and while for some this will be like greeting old friends, for others it’s more like excavating the scene of a particularly egregious and messy war-crime. To invoke, once more, the language of those tiresome Naomi Woolf-style professional victims, the layers of self exposed at moments like this can feel very raw indeed. And here lies the reason why certain parenting styles which, while they may work perfectly well for our friends and neighbours, will always be anathema. Whether it’s some quirk regarding breastfeeding, live-in nannies, raised voices, dressing little girls in pink, denying babies refined sugars or slathering on the high-factor sun-screen for every journey out to the corner post-box, it’s less a question of absolute right and wrong — because honestly, how much can most of this stuff really matter? — than an issue of horses for courses. And for most of us, like it or not, there’s always going to be a particular fence or brook, apparently innocuous to anyone else, that for our own good reasons, however inarticulable and mysterious, we cannot possibly cross.

And this, if nothing else, is reason enough never to be too censorious about other people’s child-rearing strategies, as long as they don’t seem to do any real harm. If parents sometimes seem at once insanely dogmatic and oddly inarticulate when it comes to their child-rearing decisions, this may arise less out of the arrogance it resembles, than out of a consciousness that they have never had to make such important decisions ever before, coupled with a guilty lack of certainty that what they are doing is right or even sensible. And the gravity of this situation is exactly what makes it hard to discuss. The issues involved in fostering a new life can seem too deep, too bound up in past and future, too all-encompassing to speak about directly. No wonder so many people resort to the shorthand of ‘Gina’ or ‘Dr Sears’ in order to explain and justify the decisions they make.

And anyway, even if they wanted to try, what is there to say? The solvents of reason, analysis and even humour fail to make much of a dent when they come up against the momentous facts of human reproduction. Words fail to meet the challenge, even when it comes to the most basic practicalities of parenting. What is there to say, for instance, about those nights, early on, where two consecutive hours of sleep seem at once the most sublime and improbable of all debauched, exotic, surreptitious fantasies? What is there to say about a life that has suddenly degenerated into an apparently endless process of feeding, watering, dressing and scraping the layers of accumulated rusk off another human being? What is there to say about suddenly having no time that’s your own, because when you’re not looking after your baby you just can’t stop thinking about him, even when you are far too tired to think properly about anything at all? Worst of all, though, is the impossibility of describing why, rather than being awful, this whole strange business is so clearly one of the most wonderful, rewarding experiences on earth.

But then it’s always the fate of love — any real love — to collapse into clichés the moment it touches language. And thus we fall back upon stock images — that little hand grasping a finger, the sleepy little sigh, that first-thing-in-the-morning smile that illuminates the universe — knowing that they will turn to sentimental stodge the moment they hit the paper. Does anyone else understand? Is it like this for anyone else? Does it matter?

In truth, though, there’s very little point even in attempting to talk about these things. If you try, you’ll find that experienced parents nod sympathetically, although actually their minds are probably elsewhere, worrying about what they are going to feed their little ones for dinner or whether they remembered to put the stair-gates in place. Your child, for all his various merits, certainly seems less interesting to them than their own. Meanwhile, your childless pals may pretend to listen, but are really secretly feeling nothing but rising contempt for your self-pity, laziness, deteriorating standards of grooming, lack of sparkle and the faint air of baby-vomit and desperation that accompanies you wherever you go. They resent the fact that you don’t have time for them any more, while finding they have less and less time for you. (And don’t pretend that’s not what the childless are feeling — I know, I used to feel it myself.) None of them, in any event, will be there to help you at 2 am with a baby who, despite having absolutely nothing visibly wrong with him, won’t stop expressing his discontents in the most pointed fashion — any more than they will fully share your delight at that first little tooth or garbled and slobbery phrase, more magical than all the greatest poetry ever written.

No, there may once have been a golden age of extended families, overlapping generations, large supportive communities and respect for the realities of procreation in which things were otherwise, but — well, not now. What, then, ought you, in the words of that famous book title, to expect when you are expecting? For what it’s worth, here’s my conclusion: that parenthood will be about a billion times harder than you ever imagined, but also a billion times more worthwhile. And what does it take to be a passable parent? Not much — just a combination of complete self-confidence and total, boundless humility. No wonder it’s so simple. No wonder so many people make such a great success of it.

Books and beyond
Finally, though, what about the books? The parenting guides I purchased over the last eighteen months have, as time has passed, met chequered fates. An elite few remain on the nursery shelf, there to provide an explanation whenever my son ingests or excretes something particularly unlikely, or to provide new ideas for things to puree, or to allow me a guilty peek, now and then, at those lists of ‘developmental milestones’ to see how he’s shaping up in relation to his various little peers. (The answer to this latter point is that he’s doing very well, thanks, although he does tend to develop in the patchy way beloved of babies, at least a few of whom probably parse good classical Greek and learn to dance Highland reels before they bother with anything as dreary as crawling, say, or playing peek-a-boo.) Most of those parenting books, though, are hidden away at the back of the nursery cupboard, behind the arcane paraphernalia of that long-retired hospital-grade milking machine and, last time I looked, a few ancient John Updike novels I meant to clear away during that lost third trimester. They lie there disregarded, unimportant additions to a house full of thousands of volumes on hundreds of subjects, their contents variously welcome and internalised, shunned or simply forgotten. Having validated my instinctive prejudices, while at the same time giving my own highly personalised experiences something to react against, their work is done. But then that hardly distinguishes them from most books, really, does it?

Faced with real life, parenting books are at best of limited use. Their worst flaw is one implicit in literature, which is a tendency to encourage readers to seek refuge in a parallel world that is neatly schematic, regulated to ensure the correct ratio of levity to gravity, securely under the control of some reassuringly persuasive, all-powerful authorial voice. Not least, in a society where too many have traded faith and tradition for the ever-inflating currency of unthinking liberalism, literature is a world that can feel very safe indeed. In writing this, I don’t mean to sound superior. Most of us end up seeking sanctuary there from time to time. Who hasn’t? It’s the world to which I retreated during those early days of pregnancy, when nothing in this world seemed very safe or certain at all, and yet where there was nothing I craved — not even avocados or ice-cream, or possibly both together — as much as safety and security.

Nor, it must be said, even in those days did I look exclusively to the likes of Gina Ford, Dr Sears and the Baby Whisperer. The parenting books were, in fact, little more than a hormonally-driven, short-term supplement to my normal diet of history, art criticism, biography, unpopular modernist poetry, the odd ghost story and much else. Books have seen me through plenty in my life. I couldn’t easily manage without them. Hence it’s no surprise that my son is growing up in a house that overflows with books. Already he enjoys them, chewing their covers and reducing dust-jackets to expensive confetti. But I doubt it will end there. Presumably in due course he’ll inherit, along with so much other worrying genetic baggage — right-of-centre politics, a weakness for neo-romantic painting, a fondness for cats — his parents’ more than slightly incontinent enthusiasm for the printed page, the wrongly forgotten author, the apparently infinite promise of the obscure provincial old bookshop and the dusty riches that lie within.

Yet the charm of books is exactly their problem, which is that ultimately they offer only an escape-hatch from life, rather than a route of access into it. The illusion of control they provide is spurious. The intimation of choice they imply is fictive. The neat dichotomies they construct won’t withstand the faintest breeze wafting in from the real world. The truth is that history, character, culture, instinct and accident govern our lives to a far greater extent than most of us might wish to believe. Books may throw up a layer of whitewash over these things, smartening up our prospects for the moment, imposing a sense of coherence on the scene, but the day always comes when experience — a love, a loss, a birth — washes the surfaces clean again. And it’s at moments like that when one remembers most intensely how important it is to have something more than books on which to rely.
Dr Bunny Smedley lives in London with her husband and their son, who will soon be one year old.

Bunny Smedley, October 31, 2005 07:41 PM

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