Reading up

I have recently worked with a woman who, for the first time ever, had more amazing books up her sleeve than I did. Thankfully I’ve found the source: her friend and reading guru Jessica Stanley. Jessica’s curated a brilliant reading list for new parents (or indeed those of us who’ve been round the block a bit). From birth stories, to working out what kind of parent you want to be, understanding your baby and what’s it’s actually like to become a parent these are real gems. Read on and then read up!

I’ve always read books to prepare me for alternative lives, and when I got pregnant it was no different. Pregnancy and birth are full of so many unknowns that reading about them voraciously seemed like the best and most responsible way to use my last nine months of purely discretionary and adult free time. Was that the right course of action? New me looks back at old me and thinks she should have seen more movies at Hackney Picturehouse. But in many ways, the swotting up was helpful.

In the beginning I played the long game, reading about parenthood rather than the details of parenting. The brilliant All Joy and No Fun and Harriet Lerner’s The Mother Dance: How Children Change Your Life.

Then I turned to writers’ thoughts on motherhood: A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother by Rachel Cusk. Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood by Anne Enright. Operating Instructions: A Journal Of My Son’s First Year by Anne Lamott. All these authors give an insight into the despair, hard work and banality of looking after very young children, but they also beautifully capture the joy.

Then I got a bit theoretical, and surveyed some non-fiction on attachment. Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love by Robert Karen and They F*** You Up: How to survive family life by Oliver James put the absolute fear of god into you about the utmost importance of your role as mother for the first few years of your tiny baby’s life. Breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and one-to-one care are all ways in which you can assist your baby to become attached, but these scholarly and humane books focus on the big picture rather than prescriptive bullet points. (Read these to feel confident in your overall approach to love and attachment, rather than beating yourself up about bottles, moses baskets and day care. And to balance out the importance of attachment with the importance of you as a mother living her own life: the slightly silly but very readable Bringing up Bebe!)

Finally, when I felt a nice mixture of faux-prepared for and massively daunted by parenthood, it was time to focus on the birth. This was the part I knew least about and was most scared of. Like most people, I turned to Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin: a source of birth stories that are a good combination of honest about the pain and uplifting about surviving it. Many or indeed most women’s experience of childbirth will not be as calm or as “natural” as in Ina May’s book. The women in Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers had almost all read Ina May, then found themselves having to deal with birth scenarios they never expected. I wish I knew of more books that I could recommend in this vein, and especially some that weren’t American. But the internet seems to be the main source of birth stories. (Both the best birth stories and the absolute worst.)

The key is to only open yourself up to hearing birth stories that are told in a spirit of honesty (for one thing, you don’t want to hear ridiculous white lies about “not even realising it was labour” and it “hardly even hurting”). But brutal honesty must be balanced with kindness and understanding. If someone is making you feel scared, you can cut them off with a firm “no thank you.” You can shut the book or click away from the blog post. Leading up to birth your confidence soars and plummets so easily, you have to do everything you can to protect it.

After you have the baby, or when you are creaking round the house too enormous to do anything but read, your mind turns to more practical concerns. I loved Baby Love: Everything You Need to Know About Your New Baby by Robin Barker. She’s Australian, like me, so you’ll have to skim all the bits where she talks about policies or links to resources, but it’s so worth it to have her relaxed and knowledgeable viewpoint on the first few months. About almost every problem she says “don’t worry about it” or “totally normal” or “it will be over in three months, max.”

Once you bring the baby home you lose the ability to read long screeds and just want the bit that can help right now, so Dr Caroline Fertleman’s Your Baby Week By Week: The ultimate guide to caring for your new baby is perfect. The Wonder Weeks is classic Forer effect in action but if your baby is being fussy it really helps to be able to mentally reframe it as he or she “making a huge mental and developmental leap.”

Once the shock of having a newborn subsided (it really does!) I wanted books that helped me understand my perfect and remarkable and sometimes slightly annoying new companion. I most enjoyed The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik, The Joyful Child by Susan Mayclin Stephenson, Elevating Childcare: A guide to respectful parenting by Janet Lansbury, and Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne.

Now that I’m pregnant with my second baby, the book I’m reading most is Meg and Mog. I miss the time I spent cramming for something I had to experience to even begin to learn; it seems like a different life. If you are preparing for your birth and entry into parenthood, and reading even this blog post was a challenge, I can summarise all these books in four words and save you a lot of time: everything will be okay.

Jessica Stanley (@dailydoseofjess) is a writer and freelance brand strategist in Hackney.

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