It’s four in the morning and I’m tearful and exhausted. We’re living in Brussels so we have no family to help us. Our tiny son, born prematurely, has colic, so over the past three months we’ve taken it in turns to spend half the night holding him in our arms as we pace up and down the bedroom. This scream, however, is not a colic scream. It is the worst scream I have ever heard. I can feel it in my jaw, my kidneys, the soles of my feet. Clearly my son is about to die and it will be my fault. I had never thought that being a mother would be easy but why had nobody told me that it might push me to the brink of insanity? I was furious with myself for being so useless. I had won a scholarship to Oxford and written books. Other women seemed to manage perfectly well. Of course I could look after a baby – except I couldn’t. Weeping, I took my son downstairs to make a hot-water bottle. Putting him in the pram, parked next to the bookcase, my eyes settled on a cheap yellow paperback with scuffed corners and brown pages. It was a book my mother had given me:
by Dr Benjamin Spock.
The sight of it made me angry. Why had she given me a book she’d used thirty years ago? But I pulled it down and it fell open at a well-thumbed page. In the case of an ear infection, I read, ‘a baby may . . . cry piercingly for several hours’. Immediately the situation seemed manageable. I was only two miles from a hospital. I just had to get through the next three hours and then I would get my son to a doctor. I filled the hot-water bottle and then dosed my yelling baby with a dangerous amount of Calpol, took several large swigs myself, and placed him on my chest. Too shaken to sleep, I began to read. And in that dewy dawn, alone in a foreign city, I found myself listening to a voice of kindness, calm and authority: ‘You know more than you think you do.’ As my son recovered from his ear infection, I read more. Baby and Child Care was first published in 1946 (my 1963 copy was a ‘new, extensively revised and enlarged version’) so I expected to find it full of brisk certainty, but Dr Spock makes it clear that he doesn’t have all the answers. ‘The most important thing is that you should not take too literally what is said in this book.’ Instead, you should trust yourself. ‘What good mothers and fathers instinctively feel like doing for their babies is usually best after all,’ he tells us. And, in fact, you don’t even need to know what you instinctively want to do. All will be well ‘as long as the mother acts as though she knows what she is doing’. Dr Spock also tells us repeatedly that a baby cannot be contented if its mother is not happy. Describing a stressed mother (I recognized myself) he does suggest that a psychiatrist is sometimes needed, but first, he recommends, ‘Go to a movie, or a beauty parlour, or get yourself a new hat or dress.’ Clearly, my kind of childcare expert. He also discusses the need to embrace ambivalent parenting, with whole sections on ‘Mixed feelings about pregnancy’ and on how ‘Love for the baby comes gradually’. And he is reassuring about the parent’s right to feel angry. ‘A natural, outspoken good mother whose child has been bedevilling her is able to say to a friend half-jokingly . . . “I’d enjoy giving him a thorough walloping.”’
He tells us that it is entirely acceptable to find your child ‘uncomfortable, baffling and challenging . . . Parents can’t order what they want. They take what they get . . . Parents do the best they know how with the kind of child they receive.’ He warns parents against setting themselves impossibly high standards or becoming confused with new theories. What is important is to stick to your convictions. For Dr Spock a baby is both ‘our creation . . . our visible immortality’ and ‘a reasonable and friendly human being’. However, the cheery little devil is also infinitely cunning and out to prevent you and your husband having any fun. Dr Spock is keen to tell you how to outwit the little devil. I was more than happy to sign up to his plan. As well as being good on the psychology of family life, Dr Spock is also practical. His advice is often wonderfully homespun. You don’t need a crib, ‘a box or bureau drawer will do’, and ‘you can make a mattress by folding up an old blanket’, though he does concede that, ‘Now is the time to get an automatic washer or drier if you can possibly afford one.’ Baby and Child Care
was written in an era when families in some parts of America were many miles from a doctor, and consequently first aid and home remedies are covered extensively. It explains how to build a homemade incubator and how to use a badminton net to stop a child from climbing out of a cot. Croup can be successfully treated by boiling a pan of water and putting an umbrella over your head while holding your baby in your arms near the pan so it can breathe the steam. While my husband and I laughed at these ideas, they also proved strengthening. They reminded me that, since the beginning of time, women have nursed their children through life-threatening illnesses with no outside help at all. Channelling the strength of those pioneer women gave me a new courage and certainty. I was back from the brink. Three months later Dr Spock saved me again. I had breast-fed my son successfully up to that point and then suddenly it all went wrong. He just wouldn’t feed. He’d suck a few times and then begin to cry. This went on for days and then weeks. He cried and I cried. We were both exhausted. I spoke to other mothers and they were either dis- missive or bossy. Breast-feeding is entirely natural, was the message: it works just fine. Maybe you need to relax and get some sleep. The medical profession was also of little help. Again, the implication was that I was not cut out for breast-feeding: all real women, real mothers, would find it natural and easy.
Dr Spock took a different view. In his book I found a detailed description of exactly what was happening. The problem was that my son was teething. Since he was tiny and premature everyone else had assumed that couldn’t be the case, but I knew Dr Spock was right and bought a bottle and formula. The militant, middle-class breast-feeders at the mother and baby groups were appalled. I didn’t care and was angry I’d been misled by their near-religious zeal for breast-feeding. I was learning the value of my instinct. I had got my confidence back. Bottles and formula ensured that I was no longer exhausted and anaemic, and my son was no longer hungry. I had understood Dr Spock’s most essential message: ‘Every time you change him, bathe him, feed him, smile at him, he’s getting a feeling that he belongs to you and that you belong to him. Nobody else in the world, no matter how skilful, can give that to him.’ I was my son’s mother and, therefore, I was the best mother he could have, no matter how inadequate my approach. As a young man Benjamin Spock won a gold medal for rowing at the Paris Olympics. Seven new editions of his book were produced during his lifetime and another two after his death. According to the New York Times
, in its first fifty-two years, it was the bestselling book after the Bible and it is still selling throughout the world. This huge success was bound to cause a backlash at some point and when, in the 1960s, Dr Spock was arrested while protesting against the Vietnam War, conservative America turned against him. He was accused of basing his advice on anecdotal evidence rather than academic research. And inevitably, as scientific knowledge advanced, some of his advice became outdated – for instance that babies should be put to sleep on their tummies rather than on their backs.
He was also held responsible for all the counter-cultural movements of the time. ‘The Spock Generation’ had been ruined by his permissive views. These arguments still persist, despite the fact that Dr Spock never championed permissive parenting. In fact, his views on that subject are as mild and flexible as on nearly every other: ‘Good-hearted parents can get good results with either moderate strictness or moderate permissiveness.’ In our modern age of intolerance and anxiety, his voice continues to sound out with real wisdom and gentleness. You’ll get through, he seems to say. We did get through. Our son has now turned 18 and is an infinitely reasonable and friendly human being. Thank you, Dr Spock, for offering words of encouragement during the dark days. I still think your book is of much more use than its many modern equivalents. It isn’t just about being a parent, it is also about a certain attitude to life. It promotes the value of being open and honest, of accepting life’s vagaries. If you approach things with a certain confidence, admit your failings and do your best, it tells us, then all will be well. And even if that isn’t quite true, sometimes just believing it is enough to carry you through.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 69 © Alice Jolly 2021