Oliver James: It's all about you

The ultimate question of parenting: how to ensure your baby has a happy childhood. And the answer the flamboyant psychologist Oliver James has come up with? Selfishly enough, it's working out what you want to get out of the experience...

Jake Wallis Simons
Sunday 30 May 2010 00:00 BST
(John Angerson)

On my way out of the bathroom of a café in South Kensington, I collide with an unusual-looking man. There is something of the artist about him. He is wearing a flamboyant silk scarf and a capacious greatcoat, and peers through his spectacles like a character from a wartime spy novel. We make our apologies and I find my way to the corner of the café to wait for Oliver James, the esteemed clinical psychologist and broadcaster, author of such iconic books as They F*** You Up, Britain on the Couch and Affluenza. After a couple of minutes, I realise I have just met him.

James removes his flamboyant scarf and coat and sits down opposite me, taking a nicotine tablet. "I've just had the photoshoot," he says, "I wonder if they've made me look horrible." I make reassuring noises to the effect that they've not. "Do you have children yourself?" he asks. I tell him I have three: a two-year-old and nine-month-old twins. He looks at me in surprise. "Fuck," exclaims the clinical psychologist.

James' new book, How Not to F*** Them Up – the follow-on to his cult classic They F*** You Up – is a psychological guide to parenting. Unlike other books of this sort, How Not to F*** Them Up focuses on the wellbeing of the parent as a starting point for meeting the needs of the child. In reality, James argues, the happiness of the parent is "what will ultimately decide whether your child has a fruitful, sane life". And sorting out your own wellbeing is not always easy. As he puts it, "The real challenge of parenthood is you, not your child."

The centrepiece of the book is a method for identifying the type of parent you are, and thus what your needs may be. "Solid scientific research," writes James in the introduction, "reveals that mothers of small children tend to fall into three groups, in terms of their approach to mothering and the basic feeling they have about under-threes." These groups are: Organisers, Huggers, and Fleximums ("Flexis"). As one might imagine, each group has its own qualities, challenges and requirements. The idea is that understanding which group you fall into can allow you to ensure not only that your children get what they need, but that you get what you need, too.

Before I have a chance to open the interview, James asks how I've been coping with my three young children. It is immediately evident that he is a sensitive listener, showing no sign of judgement or impatience. For a few minutes, I almost forget who is interviewing whom. I find myself revealing that my other half, Isobel, breastfed all of our children exclusively ' until they were six months old. I explain that we've never put our children into a routine or sent them to nurseries. Rather, Isobel looks after them at home and finds it hugely rewarding. Moreover, I work from home myself and take on as much of the childcare as possible. When my first child was born, I took six weeks of paternity leave. It didn't feel like nearly enough.

"You're Huggers," says James conclusively, picking up a lettuce leaf with his fingers, "no doubt about it. A pretty classic case. Around 25 per cent of the UK population are Huggers, so you're not alone." So what is a Hugger? And how does it help me to know I can count myself among them?

According to How Not to F*** Them Up, the defining principle of the Hugger is to "place the needs of the baby ahead of everything". The baby may sleep in the Huggers' bed, be fed on demand, and made into the centre of their world. The Hugger mother "luxuriates in motherhood, happy to put her life on hold for at least three years. She adores being with her under-threes." The idea of placing the kid in a nursery and going back to work is – to the Hugger – completely anathema.

"Hugger mothers give their children a wonderful start in life," says James, gesturing with his bunched-up lettuce leaf. "Under-threes need constant, sensitive, one-to-one care, and Huggers certainly provide that. However, I was serious when I wrote in the book that Hugging can sometimes be unhealthy. Some Huggers have major problems with letting go of their baby and allowing it to become an independent toddler. I've known Huggers who won't leave their one-year-old to be fed by a grandparent, worried they might choke. Those Huggers would certainly benefit from therapy."

One of the most useful features of How Not to F*** Them Up are the Practical Top Tips, provided separately for each of the three parenting archetypes. Top tips for Huggers include advice on housekeeping (the classic Hugger is a messy bugger), disciplining toddlers (Huggers may find it difficult to "create clear rules and limits"), and – most importantly – "dealing with other mothers who disapprove".

"When I was writing the book, my aim was to help parents accept themselves and their parenting style," explains James. "The evidence shows that most mothers are liable to feel that wider society disapproves of their approach. And, in some ways, they're right. Organisers tend to find the ways of the Hugger horrifying, and vice versa. I hope that through reading this book, parents will become more comfortable in their own skin, more confident to do what's right for them, and less critical of the way that other parents do things."

But James' diagnosis of my parenting style is not 100 per cent accurate. For one thing, so far neither Isobel nor I have had difficulties with allowing our children independence. For another, we've never been keen on bed-sharing. And our house isn't any messier than the next man's, give or take a nappy or three. Furthermore, Isobel has been sporadically running her own business in parallel with caring for the children. None of these are characteristics of the Hugger. Isn't James reducing complexity and nuance into easy-to-swallow chunks?

"You're right," says the psychologist, still gesturing with the lettuce. "Very few people fall squarely into one category or another. These are guidelines, not laws. You might be basically a Hugger, but with Organiser tendencies. And it is wholly possible to switch from one group to another with different children, or even, later on, with the same child."

Notwithstanding my non-Hugger tendencies, I have to admit that when I read the section on Organisers, I had the classic Hugger reaction: I was appalled. "That's pretty predictable," says James. "Organisers exist on an entirely different wavelength, and Huggers just don't understand where they're coming from. Like I said: you're a Hugger." He smiles wryly and – at last – eats his lettuce leaf.

The Organiser is, in many ways, the Hugger's nemesis. The Organiser believes the baby should fit around the parents, not the other way round. Retaining the sort of adult lifestyle that was enjoyed prior to the birth is of vital importance to the Organiser mother: her greatest fear, deep down, is of "falling in love with the baby" and, as a result, letting her sophisticated lifestyle slide. The Organiser has a long-term view of her family, understanding that getting her figure back and earning regular money are vital if the family unit is going to be a stable one. She is a creature of routine, returning to work sooner rather than later, and delegating the task of looking after the baby. "Unlike the Hugger," writes James, "spending hours on end with the baby in your arms is not [the Organiser's] idea of heaven. Nor is breastfeeding." Not surprisingly, the Organiser would be horrified at the notion of bed- sharing, and intolerant of a chaotic house. From her point of view, the Hugger mother who wishes to look after the baby all day for years on end, rather than work, is "slacking".

"Many Organisers find it difficult to relate to the needs of an infant," James explains. "Often, an Organiser mother and her baby are like two walkie-talkies tuned to different channels. As a result, Organisers find looking after small children boring or unfulfilling. But this doesn't mean they love the baby any less, nor that they are unhealthy. It's worth remembering that 25 per cent of the population are Organisers – the same proportion as Huggers. It's just what some people are like."

According to James, it is perfectly possible for Organisers to meet the needs of their under-threes through the judicious use of delegation. But they need to pay close attention to the sort of substitute care they choose. "The wrong kind of early care," he says, "a daycare nursery, for example, or an inadequate child minder, can be immensely damaging for a young child. On the other hand, a father or grandmother, or a competent nanny, can do an equally good job as a mother. Indeed, in China it is the norm for infants to be cared for by their grandmothers. In the book, I paid special attention to the research that has been done into the best and worst types of childcare. Hopefully, this information will help Organisers arrange a substitute in a way that will be best for the child."

The third type of parent, the "Flexi" – who accounts for the remaining 50 per cent of the UK population – is a hybrid, and may call upon elements of both the Hugger and Organiser as the situation arises. This eminently practical breed sees no wisdom in basing their parenting on a restrictive central principle. They simply make the arrangements that best suit their circumstances, whether that involves going back to work and delegating childcare, or staying at home with the children. The Flexi, James writes, is "the supreme pragmatist. Above all, unlike the other kinds, she is less likely to be plagued by guilt or fear of getting it wrong, because she neither blames herself or the baby for how things go, she accepts things as they are." Flexis have the ability to set up an Organiser-style routine, then switch into Hugger mode if the child falls sick. "Ducking and diving if partners let them down or jobs disappear, their lack of unrealistic idealism helps them cope in the face of severe adversity," writes James. "They are down to earth and do not see themselves as victims and, on the whole, they enable their under-threes as well as themselves to more or less flourish."

So could it be, I ask the psychologist, that in the Flexi we have the consummate Opti-mum? James acknowledges the pun with an impish smile. "Not at all," he says, "there can be downsides to being a Flexi. Primarily, this takes the form of what I call mental gymnastics, in which a Flexi fools herself that she is balancing the needs of the whole family, when in reality, although her own needs are being met, the child is suffering. On other occasions, the Flexi may chop and change as a sort of evasion tactic, to avoid facing up to the difficult issues."

James, it seems, is making a rather liberating point: any type of parent can be an Opti-mum. "The goal – sensitive, dedicated care for an under-three – is paramount and non-negotiable," he says. "But you could provide that in a variety of ways, depending on the sort of parent you are."

Although the theoretical content of How Not to F*** Them Up is complex, James has made his book easily readable by weaving the theory into a range of real-life case studies. My favourite is Pam, a 30-year-old Hugger from Manchester who looks like "a model or a footballer's wife". When her baby is born, however, she shuns her glamorous lifestyle and exchanges it for a life of babycare. Her partner is outraged and coerces her to visit a counsellor, thinking there must be something wrong with such unyielding devotion to a baby. Yet the counsellor provides some unexpected advice: he advises Pam to dump her partner! James uses Pam's case to illustrate the difficulties involved when a Hugger and an Organiser clash.

"I wanted to make reading the book feel like chatting with friends at an NCT [National Childbirth Trust] group," says James, "but with the addition of an analysis based on thoroughgoing evidence." It is this evidence that sets How Not to F*** Them Up apart, and prevents it from lapsing into empty postulation. Every statement that James puts forward is rigorously supported by the facts, all of which are either included in an appendix or referenced. In addition, a section entitled "Mothering: The Evidence" analyses a host of statistics to provide a theoretical framework for best parenting practice.

"Since my aim was to help people feel confident in their parenting choices," James explains, "I knew I needed to provide evidence to support what I was saying. Otherwise it would have come across as if I were laying down the law."

Strangely enough, the book is lent an added sense of trustworthiness by the chequered persona of James himself. This is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, and is not afraid to admit his own frailties. As a result, his theories come across not as condescension, but as advice from one fucked-up person to another. "Basically I was fucked up by my mother," he explains. "She had four children under the age of five and found it difficult to cope. Often, I was left crying in my pram at the bottom of the garden." According to the psychologist, this gave him an aggression problem. "By the time I arrived at Eton at the age of 13, I was quite feral. Not long after I arrived I assaulted a boy who mistakenly flicked me with a key ring. I was saved by my house master, who took me under his wing and helped me get into Cambridge. Although I went on to take far too much LSD, I gradually learnt to channel my inner rage in a more productive direction – that of my work."

Indeed, at times, the book verges on confessional. At one point James reveals, "If I have achieved anything much in my professional life, at root it has been powered by a nuclear rage, that of the three-month-old screaming in his pram." He doesn't flinch when I bring this up. "I'm much better these days," he says, "though I'm terminally addicted to nicotine."

Reminded of his addiction, he takes the packet from his pocket and ingests another dose. The interview concluded, we bid each other goodbye and go our separate ways. In my bag nestles my proof copy of How Not to F*** Them Up: a book, I feel, that you can trust with your children.

'How Not to F*** Them Up' by Oliver James (Vermilion, £17.99) is out on Thursday

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