BOOK REVIEW / Bawling babies and those biscuit binges: The year after childbirth - Sheila Kitzinger: OUP, pounds 9.99

Justine Picardie
Wednesday 22 June 1994 23:02

SHEILA Kitzinger, in case you didn't know, is practically God when it comes to telling people about the right way to have a baby. She wrote the middle-class bible Pregnancy and Childbirth, which has sold one million copies. That means at least one million women, including me, have read all about the benefits of natural childbirth and how very wonderful it should be. (According to Mrs Kitzinger, you must approach each contraction by thinking, 'Splendid] Here's another one]')

Sadly, giving birth doesn't always work out the way you expected; nor does looking after a baby, especially when you've never done it before. After nine months of going to antenatal classes and reading Sheila Kitzinger and building up for the Big Moment, you finally go into labour and it hurts a lot and then it's all over . . . except there's a new baby that wakes up all night, just when you're so tired that you want to sleep for a week.

Luckily, Sheila Kitzinger has written another book, which is full of sensible advice. Most people who write books for new parents concentrate on the baby - and quite often make the whole business of motherhood sound rather straightforward; but Kitzinger acknowledges that it can be depressing, exhausting, and very, very stressful. Unlike Penelope Leach, with her insistence on putting the baby first, Kitzinger shifts the emphasis towards the mother's needs. As she observes, we expect our babies to coo and gurgle and look sweet, not scream the house down for apparently inexplicable reasons. 'You have read books about childcare, but somehow the baby is not playing by the rules. Remember that, though you are trying your best, your baby has not read the same books.'

Kitzinger also advises against trying to compete with other mothers 'as to who manages to achieve a more regularly sleeping or longer sleeping baby'. Instead, she points out that it's often the mother who has the biggest sleep problem. 'This means that they are on a short fuse emotionally. Sleep deprivation is a form of torture.'

Depressing as all this may seem, it is a comfort to be told that other women suffer in the same way. Sometimes, though, Sheila Kitzinger's book seems too bleak to be true. I read it, on and off, in the first couple of months after having my second baby, and some of the chapters were enough to induce postnatal depression. Pain after childbirth, bad sex, emerging memories of sexual abuse - Sheila Kitzinger covers them all. And despite her emphasis on being supportive to mothers, the occasional disapproving note creeps in.

Mastitis, apparently, 'is always the result of poor breastfeeding technique', and woe betide the woman who gives up the struggle at this point. 'If at this stage you wean your baby,' she says sternly, 'you are much more likely to develop a breast abscess. This is a pocket of pus in the breast. The treatment is to make an incision and drain it.'

Nevertheless, Kitzinger's realistic approach to motherhood has much to recommend it. She gives practical advice on exercise and diet, whilst accepting that most breastfeeding women find it easier to guzzle a packet of biscuits instead of virtuously preparing a spinach salad. She does not reinforce the prevailing myth that the modern mother should be able to do everything effortlessly. Forget the idea that you can keep your baby, your house and yourself clean, bright and cheerful at all times: only very spooky women know that trick, just like the Stepford Wives.

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