Three days ago, I finished reading “How Not to F*** Them Up,” by Oliver James, and I have been fuming ever since. I didn’t want to write this post, as a friend had recommended the book to me and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. But I can’t rid myself of that book until I write something about it. I feel it is my duty to warn other mums: DO NOT READ THIS BOOK!
Former Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett once described Pauline Hanson to be “so simplistic as to be irresponsible.” That sums up my reaction to “How Not to F*** Them Up.” The book is presented as based on research. I love a good, popular, non-fiction book. But what I absolutely cannot abide is when someone writes a book, purportedly based on the latest evidence, and then picks and chooses scientific articles to back up their existing opinion. I know that is what we all do, every day in conversation, in written pieces, even in research theses. But it is utterly irresponsible to do so in a book targeted at one of the most vulnerable groups to judgment and advice in the Western world – mothers.
The author makes it fairly clear that his own background has informed his decision to write the book. But what he doesn’t seem to realise is that his views are totally coloured by his own experience of growing up. His mother suffered from depression and he attributes many of his own social, developmental issues to this. His No.1 goal is to tell mothers, do what you need to do to avoid getting depressed, because that is the worst thing you can be for your child. Fair enough. But then he proceeds to pretend he is objectively presenting three different types of mothers: Organisers, Huggers and Fleximums, whilst implicit in the text is his favouring the Huggers and second, the Fleximums. He tells the Organisers to hire a nanny who is a Hugger because she will do a better job than the mother. He tells any mother thinking of going back to work before their child is 3 years old (3 years! Who has the luxury to wait that long!) to hire a nanny and avoid day care at all costs, citing research which shows raised cortisol levels in day care kids. He says that “women these days” have a Bridget Jones Diary idea of themselves, and find it hard to shake off that selfishness in order to take proper care of their children.
Grrrah! What Mr James does not tell you: the research he refers to is all about correlation and not causation. Higher cortisol levels reflect higher stress, yes. But stress is both good and bad – it represents is arousal, whether that is expressed as fear or excitement. A child in day care may have higher cortisol because they are under stress – but is that stress good or bad? is it exciting, or scary – or maybe both? And is it the role of the parent to avoid all arousing situations for their children, or is it the parent’s job to teach their child how to wind down after being aroused, how to cope with stress? Not that I want to do a Mr James here, and interpret scientific ideas for my own ends – but I just want to point out that scientific opinion should not be quoted as scientific fact.
Like everyone else, Mr James also talks about the benefits of breastfeeding without probably looking at the primary research himself. I refer Mr James to “Is Breast Best?” for a more accurate account of the research, which finds only that breastmilk can conclusively be shown to benefit against GI infections, but all the rest, from better bonding to higher IQs, is simply unproven.
Mr James also acts as if every upper middle class mother can afford the choice to work or not, or hire a nanny. It is nothing to do with materialistic goals and everything to do with making ends meet that many supposedly middle class women have to choose day care over nannies. There are all SORTS of structural issues still in the workplace and the provision of daycare which Mr James pays absolutely no mind to. Instead his advice to stay at home and be less selfish, or get a job and hire a nanny if staying at home will make you depressed, is practically designed to make mums like me feel bad about themselves. I need a job to pay the bills, and keep my mind active, and model positive behaviours for my daughter. I can’t afford a nanny. Reading books like “How Not To F*** Them Up” just triggers my PND/anxiety and for no good reason that I can see, with the research Mr James quotes chosen purely to support his own opinion. What was that about No.1 rule, don’t make mothers depressed, Mr James?
What bugs me the most about this book is that Mr James could read my review and decide that I was just being resistant, wanting to support my own rationalisation of my position. Who in this world is forced to be more honest about themselves than mothers, in those dark hours before dawn What does Mr James know about this constant struggle to be good enough as a mother, responsible for a human life? And how does he support us? By judging, ranting and worse, presenting his own, subjective experience as scientific fact.
Not helpful, Mr James. Not helpful at all.