Foreword to The Mumsnet Rules
So what are these rules anyway?
Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes:
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.
Chorus: Wow! wow! wow!
- Lewis Carroll, The Duchess's Lullaby from Alice in Wonderland
When my first baby was about six weeks old, I panicked about the fact that we seemed to be oozing along formlessly in our life together. He was mostly feeding or sleeping in my lap, the feeding being almost constant and the sleeping occurring in frequent but very short bursts. Neither of us had any sense of night and day.
I panicked in particular because I had just purchased a book that looked friendly but which seemed to be telling me I had already messed it all up, that my baby should be eating and sleeping in a certain way and in certain places, and the fact that he was not doing so was a very bad thing - it was hindering his development and my happiness. I am not even sure that the book actually said any of this or at least said it with anything like the firmness I thought it did. I make no claims at all for my intellectual faculties at that time.
So I found myself, after six weeks of very little postnatal sleep bolted on to quite a lot of previous prenatal insomnia, doing a mad and awful thing. I put my baby in his cot at what the book seemed to say should be one of his naptimes and I went away and left him there whilst he screamed miserably and continuously, wide awake and understandably outraged. I think I went away for 20 minutes; I fear it may have been longer. I have erased the details. When I went back his face was glazed with tears and set in horizontal lines of woe like the Duchess's baby in Alice in Wonderland. I held him tight and wept whilst he continued to sob convulsively. He was inconsolable; I could not console him.
The book didn't actually tell me to do what I did. I just lost it. I thought I was damaging him and myself by allowing us to carry on in the way we were (and funnily enough we weren't unhappy that way - he was just a tiny baby and I was just a bit strange). I subsequently read another book about abandonment and stress hormones and psychological development and convinced myself that this one incident had psychologically scarred him. Forever. Neither of the books I read helped me to be a better parent or him to be a happier baby.
I think many people, like me, found Mumsnet in the early days of our parenting in bewildered retreat from one book or another we had snatched from the shelves, too tired to read it properly, too tired to apply it, too tired to exercise our critical faculties about what it was telling us. Too tired not to feel like we were failing miserably at times.
So we found a website. Where other folk told us it was OK to be exhausted, to feel at times like you had the wrong emotions for your baby, to fail to have a routine, to impose a routine if it was right for you and your baby, to make mistakes, as long as you tried to do better next time: that they had made mistakes and life had carried on and their children were fine.
And a couple of years down the line, when we couldn't get a three-year-old out of nappies, we found some ideas for bribes, and a little later some reassurance about the baffling testosterone-fuelled rage of four-year-old boys. And when we had seven-year-olds who went upstairs to get their clothes on for school and were discovered twenty minutes later reading the Beano in their pants, there were other people's stories to laugh at and their tips to try.
Because, at each stage of your child's development you tend to realise there is a whole lot of stuff you fretted about at the previous stage which you probably didn't need to.
"God, I did it all though. But it's like having a wedding and then realising you should have just eloped or had your immediate family. Once you KNOW you KNOW." codjane
Which perhaps makes this rules thing seem rather paradoxical. Why rules? If we are in retreat from gurus and experts, if we are saying that there is a broad spectrum of good-enough ways to parent, why do we need rules? And where do they come from? After all, on controversial issues - sleep, feeding, vaccinations, schooling choices - Mumsnet posters often shout in the internet language of capital letters. They occasionally insult one another, they sometimes flounce from the site altogether. So what is the wisdom of crowds, how can there be any rules when everyone is sitting at their computers disagreeing with everyone else?
The answer, we think, is this - that by reading a hundred different people's views on controlled crying, on the contents of party bags, on how to help a child who has no friends, you find that there is usually a commonsense consensus around the important things. But there are also boundaries to what works and what is OK, and sometimes we need a (virtual) village to help us find those boundaries. The Mumsnet Rules maps out both the areas of consensus and the boundaries.
And the goal of the Rules is to make you into the person you would be if you had had two or three children to practise on before the ones you actually have. So that when you hear your toddler singing (from the back of the bike on which you are ferrying him to nursery), plaintively and to the tune of 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star': 'Mummy, Mummy, Mummy, Mum. Mummy, Mummy don't go to work . . .', you can laugh a little rather than falling off your bike.
Of course the truth is, looking at Justine's four children and my three, that we miserably fail to apply most of these rules most of the time. A fact that rather came home to us when we were bouncing the rules off Justine's 12-year-old daughter, who variously laughed uproariously and suggested that in respect of most of the rules, the opposite rule would be more appropriate. Or when we had plonked all of the children in front of YouTube in order to get the book finished on time. Or when one of Justine's children suggested that were he to win the Lottery he'd buy his dad a boat, his siblings the contents of the Arsenal shop and his mother a new computer, because that's what she likes to do. Writing these rules has, to an extent, been like a daily mortification of the parental flesh for us as we confronted our own deficiencies.
But what it has not been is a pointless wallowing in guilt of the kind that newspapers and experts sometimes seem to invite. Because what we hope you will find in this book is reassurance: a buoyancy aid to help you keep your head above water. These rules are about finding your bearings, doing things in ways which make your life a little better and easier, forgiving yourself for being barely adequate at times but recognising when you are heading towards genuine awfulness and learning to put the brakes on.
And there is a metarule here, which came to me when my four-year-old, during a complicated conversation about single-sex unions, asked, 'But if there are two ladies, who will do the driving?' And that rule is: when you can, try to take things lightly. Have a cackle at yourself and at all the other parents muddling along beside you, and remember to laugh with - and about - your own children. Because one of the best things of all about being a parent, about living with children, is that it is really very funny. Part of the time.
Although not so much when eavesdropping on a crowd of four-year-olds telling poo jokes.
(Co-author with Justine Roberts of The Mumsnet Rules)