The pitfalls of trying to give mothers parenting advice

Dear Megan,

I find mothers, and it is particularly mothers, get quite snippy if you dare make a suggestion regarding child rearing. Do you have to have pushed a baby out your private parts to have any input or valuable advice? So many times I hear, "You've never had kids so you have no idea". Well I do have an idea. When my sister, who had screwed up her life with booze and drugs, had a baby, I knew this tiny little baby was going to need someone stable in his life. I made the decision NOT to have kids in order that I could focus on him, which I did, dealing with all those eating, sleeping, behaviour issues off and on over many years.

Just the other day a friend was complaining about her daughter refusing to turn off the TV (which is in her room!) to come and eat dinner, and I was like, "It's easy. Take the TV out of her room." And she was like, "Easy for you to say, you don't have to deal with the tantrums and screaming." It's quite hurtful when people say you are so lucky to be able to do what you want because you don't have kids.

I chose not to. But what if I hadn't been able to?


Ah, Sally, what icy, dicey terrain you would have us gaze upon. Is any subject more loaded, more fraught, than how best to parent? I'm not sure anything could have prepared me for parenthood. Having worked as a nanny for several years, I thought I knew what there was to know: the rhythms of a toddler's day, the tricks to getting a fussy five-year-old to eat. But when it came to my own children, to the very relentlessness of them, to the sheer viscerality of my love, all that blood and milk, the sh*t and the wind, the physicality of it all, well it knocked me for six.

So, while I understand how some women feel motherhood gives them a lifetime membership to an exclusive club, I don't believe not having had children should preclude you from having an opinion. I say this with confidence. As the daughter of a lesbian I had three parents - my mother, my father, my other mother. My upbringing was a combined effort. And as a friend of both adopted children and adoptive parents, I know their familial bonds to be undeniable. To suggest you are a parent only if you have yourself sown the seed or personally carried the child is wrong. It would imply we we even can compare loves. That one love is more pure than another.

What bothers me is not so much the advice of those who have not, themselves, borne children, but the freeness with which so many make pronouncements on parenting. When I chose to feed/rock/sing my babies to sleep, there were those who told me with a terrible sort of glee in their eye that I was, "making a rod for my own back", and when I chose to leave my baby to cry to sleep, there were those who told me that they didn't want to worry me "but it can be harmful". Sometimes I've used sticker charts with my children. Sometimes I've screamed at them. Once I sought cranial osteopathy. Sometimes something works and then it doesn't. The only consistency has been that no behaviour, neither good, nor bad, has lasted. I made a decision early on that I would offer parenting advice only when it was sought.

In your words
In the past four months Maureen has lost her husband, retired and been badly injured. "Planned and unplanned 'pockets of joy'," she writes, "are what have kept me sane. From an unexpected invitation to the movies, to the anticipation of my first granddaughter in a couple of months, these are what keep me from completely falling into the abyss of grief and sadness." As for Tony, he reckons the best recipe for happiness he's ever heard is, "Someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to."

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