In which the author attempts to write about the show and sound a bit more intellectual and a bit less sweary.
We’ve watched the four episodes, we’ve read the blog posts, googled for British reviews and background info, talked to relatives and listened to Jon Faine and Debi Enker on the ABC talkback, and there’s one point people never seem to get to. Certainly the program itself didn’t explicitly get to it: parenting happens within a society. Individual parents make choices, but their choices are limited by social pressure and support. The scheduley Truby King supporters want a baby who fits in with society as it is by making themselves invisible. The Continuum Concept gang want to change society to fit in with what they see as essential for babies and mothers. The Spock crew wanted a baby that was cuddled and kissed when it was convenient but learned to sleep and stay outta the way the rest of the time.
This show could have brought up all kinds of interesting issues, but they stuck to the mainstream (Truby King inspired) assumption that baby un-friendly societies are normal and sensible. Discussing which theory will “make” your baby sleep is pointless. Babies don’t sleep well by adult Western standards. If you become a parent your sleep will be interrupted. The question shouldn’t be “how can we make babies sleep like adults?”, but “given that interrupted sleep is a normal part of life, how can we support parents when they’re dealing with extended periods of sleeplessness?”. The show wasn’t bad because it publicised a mad scheduler, it was hopeless because it didn’t question her basic assumption: babies shouldn’t get in the way of adult lives. The narrator was harping on about the parents “getting back their lives”, as if the newborn phase wasn’t a normal part of life, as if life with children is an aberration, and then they celebrated the end of filming at three months as if that was a reasonable time for the parents to reflect on their chosen book and declare it a success. Three month old babies aren’t finished projects, and their parents can expect to have many more challenges to their parenting strategies ahead. Three months is a period of time most people could stick to a behavioural program but, much like dieting, strict rulebooks (whatever the rules are) don’t last the longterm for most people. At three months you probably feel tired, but that your strategy is good and worth sticking too. At six months you may well feel it’s time to throw the book out the window and try something else.
This show didn’t question two of the mentor’s anti-breastfreeding statements, or highlight how seriously they undermined the prevalence of breastfeeding in the UK. They were also pretty choosy (like most religious people) about the rules they enforced and the ones they ignored. They didn’t mention that Dr Truby King and Dr Spock both recommend sleeping a baby on their belly, all of these babies were slept on their backs (so they conformed with modern SIDS guidelines). Dr Spock recommends both routine circumcision, and homebirth, but neither rated a mention on the show. Neither did ridiculously early toileting, boiling cloth nappies in a copper, or the DIY formulas doctors suggested before commercial formulas became available.* If those things can get out dated and be scrapped, why can’t the other stuff?
The dads in this series were all involved in birth and babycare (except in the single mother lead family), so the whole “lets test this historical babycare theory” idea was broken from the start. One of the problems with the Truby King and Spock style routines (and yeah, they didn’t really mention it in the show, but Spock assumes you’ll be gettin’ the kid in a routine and moving them into their own room when they’re a few months old) is that mothers were incredibly isolated and restricted by them. Mothers came home from hospital with a baby they’d hardly seen while they were in hospital, and they were left on their own to figure them out because their husbands were at work. If they were lucky they lived near their extended family, but in the mid-twentieth century social and town planning changed significantly as cars became more affordable, and young couples moved to the outer suburbs away from their parents and friends in the inner city. Still, those young mums in the burbs had each other, in the 5os and 60s they had a reasonable expectation that the mother next door or down the street was also at home fulltime and available for the occasional coffee. So did the show replicate that? Nope. There was no mention of social interraction for the Spock families, it was banned outright for the Truby King babies but their parents were expected to perform the success of the schedule by going out for dinner and hosting a party, the Continuum Concept parents had friends over and took their babies out with them. They were also encouraged to actively create the supportive community they would need to make the program work. The Truby King families managed to have a social life (and they seemed happy enough about it) so long as they were prepared to deal with a fair bit of crying and commit to a rigid schedule. The Continuum Concept parents were able to go anywhere baby friendly (certainly a more practical option if you don’t have babysitters on tap) and the Spockians took a bet each way and found themselves exhausted by paying attention to their babies and isolated by feeling unable to include the baby in adult activities. Being told they should breastfeed, but only in private, can’t have helped. The single mother, who chose the Spock method, also chose to bottle feed her baby from the start. Spock told her to trust her instincts, and her instinct said “bottle”. There was no discussion of how “instinct” is socially constructed. She’d wanted to bottle feed because it would be easier to get someone else to do sometimes, but very soon she was discovering that there was no one to hand the baby to. My instinct was to go round and cook her dinner, which is what my friends did when I was breastfeeding round the clock. The difference between us, and our instincts, is probably that I was raised surrounded by breastfeeding mothers and she wasn’t. She came across as a woman who could really have benefitted from an organised community who were committed to looking out for each other (although she may have gone screaming la la crazy if she’d been expected to carry the baby non-stop for six months).
So what could the show have been? Well we’ve been watching quite a bit of telly lately so I can tell you. Isn’t that handy? If this show had been produced and directed by the folks behind the (also British) Eataholics (which was available on ABC iView) it would have been far more civilised. Eataholics manages to talk to and about subjects who have freaky eating issues without calling the subjects freaky. They treat the subjects with dignity, they talk to them about the intensely personal circumstances that created the eating problem and prevent the subject from changing it without help. They encourage, inform and support subjects, but they don’t bully them into changing their diet. They ask subjects to set their own goals and help them to acheive it. Yesterday on ABC radio TV reviewer Debi Enker was suggesting the problems with Bringing Up Baby were the thing that made it fascinating television. Frankly, it was less fascinating than Survivor. It could have been fascinating. I kept waiting for it to be fascinating. But they spent so much time repeating themselves they didn’t have time to put the fascinating in. The closest they got to fascinating was in leaving out two of the families in the final episode and failing to explain what had happened to them. Did they just not fit in with the conclusion the director wanted? Eataholics is fascinating television, it’s real people with real problems, and it doesn’t leave you wondering how “those poor people got on later”. To which I can only repsond “more please!”
* Yeah you caught me. I got myself a 1959 edition of Dr Spock for entertainment purposes at the local CWA secondhand book sale.