Tag Archives: Gina Ford

tea-and-crumpets parenting

There are not many contexts in which I can make the claim, but when it comes to parenting I am pretty sure I want to be French. Everything I read about this classy, balanced mode of motherhood makes me feel like a Parisian trapped inside the body of a neurotic New Yorker. Well, that’s how I like to imagine myself, anyway, feeding the kids brie and just saying non.

And yet, both my nationality and my country of residence seem to be working against me in this quest for a little childcare oh là là. Not only am I American, but I have been living in the UK for 14 years now. All of my children were born on this small island: I have only ever been a mother within its borders. Britain is separated from the US by the enormity of the Atlantic Ocean and from France by a Channel small enough that it can be swum. In terms of how they parent, however, the Brits are much more like the people who actively sought independence from them than the ones they can see from the cliffs of Dover. Sadly for me.

The idea of a parenting ‘culture’ has come to the fore recently. And, with it, the growing awareness that differences between cultures can illuminate how practices we take for granted as quasi-universal are actually idiosyncratic products of a particular time and place. The importance of this ethnographic reality for philosophy, and for life in general, can be traced back to the eighteenth century. But its application to parenting is relatively new.

The more I learn about the qualities that define other countries’ dominant strains of childrearing - the French so cool and measured, for example, the Americans so extreme and kid-centric - the more it occurs to me that I don’t actually know what modern British parenting is. What are the catchwords for our unique variant of parenthood, I wonder, suspended as we are between the old world and the new, between the majesty of empire and the edginess of Cool Britannia?

I can certainly conjure up a stereotype, a mixture of cliches I like to call ‘tea-and-crumpets’ parenting, an outgrowth of the great Victorian principle that children should be seen and not heard. You’d recognize it from the movies in an instant: the two children impeccably dressed, beaming bright like cricket whites, not a strand of hair loose from its plait. They politely nibble crustless cucumber sandwiches before being presented to their parents for a short evening visit, only to be whisked away an hour later by Mary Poppins and settled for the night in another wing of the house. And when they are too old for the nursery, that’s when it’s time for boarding school. The Dowager Countess of Grantham captures the feeling of it well:

Violet Crawley: One forgets about parenthood. The on-and-on-ness of it.

Isobel Crawley: Were you a very involved mother with Robert and Rosamund?

Violet Crawley: Does it surprise you?

Isobel Crawley: A bit. I’d imagined them surrounded by nannies and governesses, being starched and ironed to spend an hour with you after tea.

Violet Crawley: Yes, but it was an hour every day.

This conception of British parenting though, like Downton Abbey itself, is a relic and it is one that is firmly associated with the ruling class. It doesn’t speak to modernity. Nor it does it speak to the rest of us on this island, who don’t live in manors and who can’t afford the luxuries that come with them. We aren’t all prim to a fault, repressed and starched to the eyeballs, and we aren’t all raising our kids to be like that either. Even so, the stereotype hasn’t quite been replaced by anything else.

The past half-century, in other words, has not seen the rise of any influential British cultural artifacts or points of reference in this respect, especially when compared to America.We have no Dr. Spock, no William Sears, no massive media platform dedicated to dissecting every detail about how we deal with our children. The closest we have to a local parenting guru is Gina Ford and if you are a non-British person reading this, have you even heard of her? From somebody other than me?

Britain’s default position in areas where it doesn’t have a long-established - and workable - indigenous tradition is to look not to Europe, but to the United States. It is ironic given the history, but true nonetheless. In this way, it seems that ‘British’ parenting is not much more than a watered-down version of how the Americans do it, an American Lite, if you will. Most of us would have to plead guilty to the same catalogue of shortcomings that Americans are charged with on a regular basis - the hovering and the hothousing and the lack of discipline and the constant snacking - but we do it with slightly less calories, metaphorically speaking. Nothing over here is ever as big as it is over there.

I suppose this means we won’t be dining on escargot en famille tonight after all and that I’ll have to console myself with a cup of Earl Grey instead. And perhaps a biscuit or two. While the nanny puts the kids to bed.



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what time is it?

This is a question I find myself asking a lot these days. My babies are on a ‘schedule’ and it is the clock more than anything else that dictates what falls next on the maternal agenda. There are certain times of day that they eat, certain times of day that they sleep, and certain times of day that they are awake and playing. There is a degree of flexibility here, but I won’t lie to you: they don’t get to ‘demand’ much of anything.

We follow the ‘Contented Little Baby’ routines, created and written up ad nauseum by the British super-nanny sensation Gina Ford. There are many experts out there who will guide you through the murky waters of parenting a young baby, but Ford is sui generis in that this woman literally tells you when to wake your baby, when to ‘cream his creases’, and when to get yourself a piece of toast. The amount of detail woven into her routines is astounding in this way and leaves little doubt, to continue the metaphor, as to who exactly is captain of the ship. And she runs a damn tight one indeed.

Ford is a controversial figure not least because, childless herself, her program is not for the weak at heart. Allowing a baby to fall into a pattern of feed times and nap times is an entirely different beast from the legitimately austere sounding activity of putting your baby on a schedule. The first is a rather passive and happy affair, the second almost always involves tears. And Ford is not afraid of tears. She advocates a method of allowing a baby to ‘cry down’ that is wholly sound in theory, but let me tell you: I have had more than one baby on her schedule cry up and up and up.

The point of a schedule is to make the unpredictable less so. It is about control or, at any rate, solving problems. Parents turn to a schedule for a variety of practical reasons: to get their baby to sleep through the night, to make feeding sessions easier and more successful, to minimize periods of fussiness. Or they embrace the idea in a more general sense because they are uncomfortable with the reality that babyhood is a mercurial thing.

I first came across Ford, or rather I first turned to her in desperation, when my second son revealed himself to be a very uncontented little baby. The issue, so far as I understood it, was that he was feeding too often and this was wreaking havoc on his stomach. The reason he was feeding too often, I later discovered, was that I was essentially feeding him every time he would cry. I was feeding him ‘on demand’, or so I thought.

The idea behind demand parenting is that it is the baby who leads the way. He eats when he is hungry - or when you interpret him to be hungry; and he sleeps when he is tired - or you interpret him to be tired. The immediately apparent difficulty with this arrangement, however, is that babies cannot actually tell us when they are either of these things. Sure, there are the ‘cues’ we are told, time and time again, to keep our eyes peeled for, but it is masterful parent who can interpret these often elusive signs perfectly.

It turned out that my son wasn’t actually hungry. He was tired and he couldn’t put himself to sleep (more on this phenomenon later). He would cry and I would shove a boob in his mouth in the hope that this would quell whatever it was that was bothering him. It didn’t. Breastfeeding mothers try this a lot and with good reason: for some babies, a boob is a panacea and who, operating from a base of hormones and sleep-deprivation, wouldn’t call on such a magical resource if available. This trick worked wonders for me with my first son. The only reason I began to question it was when it stopped working. And, believe you me, it definitely stopped working.

This is where Gina Ford is at her most interesting and useful. Her gift, if you will, is that she has formulated a schedule specifically designed for breastfeeding mothers. Timed feedings are often linked with formula - a more quantifiable and uniform substance - but Ford undercuts this association, while at the same time dismissing the four-hourly feedings so popular with our parents’ generation. Her routines allow, and compensate, for the qualities of breastmilk that make eking out longer stretches between feedings such a notorious challenge.

The upshot of her effort is hugely important because it does away with the myth, so detrimental to the breastfeeding cause, that if you go this route you will inevitably become a slave to your baby’s whim (‘He was up seven times last night!’). ‘Demand’ feeding warps when the breast becomes as much about sleep as it is about food. While some babies can deal with this blurring of what milk is for and the sort of sleep association or crutch it can often engender (i.e. they can feed to sleep but then put themselves back to sleep when they wake later on), a lot of babies cannot, and thus the cycle begins. What Ford does so brilliantly is to reaffirm, and remind us, that while breastfeeding can be a wonderful comfort it is first and foremost a source of nutrition. To forget this basic fact is to put yourself at risk for many a sleepless night.

Love her or hate her, it is undeniable that Gina Ford gets results: people who visit my house cannot help but be impressed by the order that reigns within. And yet, for me this enforced calm is sort of sad: I think I am essentially a demand parent trapped in the body of a woman who got stuck with twins. Or, if I am really soul searching, it’s probably fairer to say that I am a demand parent only when I approve of the baby’s demands. Perhaps in this way the greatest irony of the schedule versus demand debate is that the choice between these two philosophies of parenting is usually not determined by the parent at all.


Filed under parenting