Sometimes, in between clearing up those small piles of regurgitated rice pudding carefully hidden under the sofa, I brood on the loss of my detailed plans for parenthood.

The natural birth plan was first to go through the shredder. Having spent much of my pregnancy earnestly rehearsing breathing patterns, learning relaxation techniques and taping hours of soothing music, I felt perfectly prepared. Skipping the bits on pain relief, which seemed rather a cop-out, I read and re-read chapters about getting through with the occasional sip of water and a few reassuring words from your partner.

The day I went into labour my views on pain relief changed somewhat. I demanded gas and air, pethidine, an epidural and euthanasia in swift succession. If I could have been rendered unconscious and woken for my child's first day at school it would have been a relief. Months of planning and preparation fell away: the lavender oil made me feel ill; the calming music never saw the light of day and cool flannels dabbed on my forehead provoked a hissed 'For God's sake, leave me alone]'. The only notable effect of those all-important breathing exercises was to help me to yell much - much - louder.

Natural childbirth having gone by the board, I moved on to the great nappy debate. Disposable or terry? Pre- baby, it seemed clear-cut. Could I justify creating my own personal landfill site to avoid washing a few nappies? It was outrageous, and I, unlike other women, would make a stand. My baby was two days old when I weakened. I had always considered myself strong-stomached until I opened the lid on a full nappy bucket. I reached for the standby pack of Pampers and waved goodbye to the greater cause.

Dummies were another dilemma. Having seen mothers ram them in just as a toddler opened its mouth to say that enthralling first word, I was certain I would never stoop to such measures. I often noticed children who seemed to be approaching 11-plus age, sporting proper shoes, ear- rings and a dummy. Such negative feelings persisted until one night when our baby didn't want food, a clean nappy, or a cuddle. Nothing would calm her. As a last resort I gingerly waved a dummy near her screaming mouth. She almost took my hand off in her haste to get at it and fell asleep instantly.

Then there is the question of 'educational' toys. Manufacturers are on to a wonderful scheme; marketing plastic rings, stacking cups and activity centres under an educational toy banner. As a gullible pregnant woman, I invested a lot of money in such playthings. After all, our baby would get a head start by teaching itself counting skills with Ollie Octopus and being visually stimulated by the rather expensive black and white mobile. Only now do I realise that everything is educational to a baby and whatever over-priced article you present it with, a baby will always be more interested in the dead spider under a chair. At the moment I cannot drag my daughter's attention away from my handbag for long enough to engage her in 'constructive' play.

This gradual transition from antenatal optimism to postnatal realism is not disheartening in itself, it's the lingering sense of not doing it properly that gets to me. Undoubtedly I'm largely to blame for any feelings of inadequacy; after all, I was the one who devoured book after book on gentle birth, getting in tune with my body and all the other soft-focus aspects of childbirth.

What I find interesting in retrospect is the fairytale quality of so many self-help guides. Such an emphasis is put on the excitement and euphoria of birth that it seems only a spoilsport would mention the pain and exhaustion that go with it.

Equally, there is an airbrushed feel to the postnatal chapters. Bonding and close body contact are the order of the day, although the possibility that a woman may wonder what an extra-terrestrial is doing in the carrycot is rarely considered.

It's not that I subscribe to The Most Horrific Pain You Can Imagine manifesto of the Ancient Mariner-style experienced mother, who takes pleasure in traumatising women about to give birth for the first time. Nor am I detracting from the rewards of motherhood. All I ask is that those in influential positions introduce a little more realism into the information they provide. Midwives taking antenatal classes and childcare experts churning out books on perfect parenting would do a far better job if they concentrated on what motherhood is and not what they would like it to be.

If health professionals and writers took the middle line between Never-Never Land and Nightmare on Maternity Street perhaps Life After Babies wouldn't be quite such a rude awakening.

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