Earlier this autumn, I explained about some research that I’ve been doing around sling use. Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll be sharing some of the research here on the MBS blog, as well as writing it up for academic articles in the hope that it will be interesting and helpful for some of you. As always, huge thanks to the participants, Morecambe Bay Slings and Dr Rosie Knowles of the Sheffield Sling Surgery for making this possible.
I’d also love your input. I’ll be really interested to hear if what I write on these pages resonates with your own experiences of getting out and about with your children, or if you’ve noticed other, different things. There’s so much that I could write about and my ideas are still very much developing so please let me know if there are topics that I touch on that you’d like me to discuss in more depth. My aim is for this to be as much of a two-way conversation as I can make it…
Right, enough of the background. I thought I could start with a two-part post on a simple theme: today, we’ll look at what it is like getting out and about as a new parent. Next time, we’ll look at the impact that slings can have on this.
Mobility has been a hot topic for social scientists for many years now but, when I looked into the published research some more, I was surprised how little there was about the experiences of mobility with very young children (there’s lots on slightly older children in relation to the school run, but very little that I could see on infants/preschoolers). The exception to this is a lovely article by Kate Boyer and Justin Spinney which looks at the experiences of new parents in London. This picks up really well on the challenges faced by new parents and does mention slings a little. However, because sling use was quite peripheral to the study (and because London is obviously, in some ways, a very different kind of environment to the Morecambe Bay and Sheffield areas), I also found that my sling using interviewees had quite different stories. If I were to characterise these differences very crudely, I’d say that, on the whole, the parents I spoke to tended to have more positive experiences of getting out and about than the London parents in the Boyer and Spinney study.
So what did the parents in my study say about the experiences of getting out and about with a new baby? If you’re soon to become a parent, this may make interesting reading…
Clearly one of the common perceptions circulating about new parenthood is that it can be difficult to get out of the house for a variety of reasons and, many (though not all) of the parents I spoke to did experience difficulties here. Let’s look in more detail at why it may be challenging to get out and about with a new baby:
1. Physical and emotional challenges
Particularly (although by no means exclusively) for the mother, the physical and emotional changes associated with giving birth and being a new parent can pose a range of challenges. For example, a difficult birth or C-Section can leave you feeling stiff and sore. This may perhaps be coupled with worries about how your body looks and behaves – particularly if you are new to breastfeeding and concerned about how to manage feeding in public3. In short, the body that you may have taken for granted pre-pregnancy now looks, behaves and feels very different now that you’re a mum. This can be hard to get used to, especially when negotiating public areas like shops and cafes. And of course you also have a new body – your baby’s – to take care of, which may feel like a massive responsibility. New babies can seem very fragile and dependent and several of the parents I interviewed found themselves worrying about their babies quite a lot: are they too warm? Too cold? Breathing? Hungry or thirsty? This may be particularly problematic if your baby was premature or unwell in any way after the birth.
In addition to the physical transition, new parenthood can also be an emotional roller coaster. Some of my interviewees reacted with joy and felt able to get out and introduce the new baby to friends and family almost immediately. However, others experienced a period of low mood or depression – often combined with an unsettled baby – which also made it difficult to get out of the house.
2. New stuff.
Again, it’s well-known that babies can come with a lot of kit. Of course, over time, many parents learn to travel lighter (I didn’t end up using some of the stuff that I bought before my son was born and that’s by no means uncommon) but, at least in the early days, we may need – or are persuaded that we need – lots of new things to take with us such as clothes, nappies, muslins, changing bag, wipes, bottles and of course the pram itself. So one of the baptisms of fire faced by new parents is how to use and transport all this stuff, and this is something that lots of my interviewees struggled with in the early days:
“Packing the car up with a pram was… like a military operation to fit it in the boot” (Hannah)
For many interviewees, this troubled experience of getting out contrasted to pre-baby days when they would go out of the door without a second thought and with minimal preparation and packing.
3. New timings.
As if the new stuff wasn’t complicated enough, there are new timings to contend with. New babies feed, poo and sleep a lot. And, particularly in the early days when you may not be confident with feeding or changing while out and about, you may find it hard to find a window of opportunity for when you can go:
“I’m just used to picking up stuff and going, you know getting in the car and going and then suddenly you realise that you know, you’ve got another person to put in a car seat… and they always do a poo like five minutes before you leave the house. So… that tended to slow you down (Nivedita)
It can also be tricky when you realise that your baby’s experience of time is very different to yours. As someone who was used to being punctual, I remember feeling quite stressed in the early days about how I was ever going to keep appointments – for example, at the registrar’s office and with the health visitor – when his feeding and nappy changing needs were so unpredictable.
4. The physical environment
While this wasn’t something that I considered much at the time, I realised that my interviews were great for giving me a sense of the varied kinds of physical environments that new families have to contend with, as my interviewees varied in scope from those living in city centres to those in very rural locations. However, either way, it was clear that the world out there isn’t necessary that friendly to babies and the stuff that comes with them. Take Lancaster, for example: full of steps, narrow doorways and cobbles, it is not an easy environment to negotiate with a pram.
“I’ll never forget… we had the big bassinette thing on it [the pram], parked up at the Castle, walked into town, walked back up town and going up the cobbles he [son] bounced to the bottom and it’s like “Where’s he gone?” (Andrew)
Public transport – either bus or tram – with a pram was also experienced as extremely difficult by a number of interviewees, partly because of the steps but more usually because of a lack of space for prams, particularly at busy times and with rules giving priority to wheelchair users. This was particularly important for those who didn’t drive or have access to a car.
Equally, those living in more rural areas encountered a host of obstacles from stiles, to mud, slurry and extremely narrow pavements.
Either way, sooner or later, most new parents find that the architecture of their local environment isn’t especially friendly to the needs of parents and children (instead, as academics have argued, the architecture of the city is geared towards the needs of maximising economic productivity and anything – or anyone – that doesn’t fit that rhetoric, can find their needs overlooked4). However, even on a very micro scale, the design of your home (a big step up to the door, for example) can make getting out very challenging.
What is the experience of this like for parents? Crucially, my interviews showed that these kinds of experiences are not just annoying and difficult – in some cases, they can provoke strong feelings of embarrassment and challenge your basic sense of self as capable and confident. This is a great example from Hannah of how an apparently simple daily activity turned into something much bigger:
“I was trying to use this buggy when my husband had just gone back to work and I was by myself and I thought, ‘I want to get out of the house, I don’t want to feel trapped’. So I got out of the house and I went to get a coffee and I realised I couldn’t get the buggy through the door of the shops and I was sitting there like trying to get it through the ramps and things and I didn’t want to wake up the baby, it was so embarrassing people having to help me. And I just looked like a mess…” (Hannah)
5. The need to multitask.
As a new parent, you have more things to think about. You’re no longer simply going somewhere. Instead, you are responsible for another (tiny) person’s needs, which can sometimes be intense and unpredictable. However, the research showed that it isn’t only the newborn phase which is difficult in this respect. Indeed, very interestingly, for some of the parents I interviewed, the real challenge to mobility came later, with the arrival of a second child – particularly if the age gap between the children was relatively small so that a second child came along before the first was reliably walking long distances independently. In many of these cases, the parents really struggled – not just with the physical task of having to transport two children but also finding ways to accommodate their very different needs and interests. This was often a key reason for these parents turning to slings, as we’ll discuss next time.
6. Where to go? Who to meet? What to do?
Aside from the additional practical aspects of being mobile with a baby, another factor mentioned by the parents in my study was a concern about where to go. This was particularly the case for those who had worked full-time previously and who were not used to being around during the daytime on weekdays. For example, Wendy and Dawn were keen to meet other new mums but didn’t know where to go or how to find those social networks that can be so important to new parents. Here, again, the experience of new parenthood can be quite disorienting, since the previous places where you would hang out (your workplace, your favourite café) may now no longer seem so baby friendly and, as a result, you need to find new places and people that are accepting of your changed circumstances.
7. How are you and your baby feeling?
When we think about people out and about, we tend to think in terms of individual people being able to negotiate particular spaces successfully. But let’s look a bit more at what is actually going on here… As many researchers have pointed out, mobility isn’t necessarily something that we do in isolation – instead, it can be an extremely sociable thing: put crudely, we maintain – and form – relationships while we are out and about with others. Particularly as parents, we care for our children emotionally and physically on the move and, crucially, how our children are doing from moment to moment also has dramatic effects on us and how we feel about things which, in turn, impacts upon everyone’s mobility.
Let’s think about this a little more: In the run up to new parenthood, we are often encouraged to think about the practical aspects of how we will transport our child (and this leads to a lot of car seat and travel system sales, right?). However, it is perhaps rare that anyone encourages you to consider how you and your baby might feel about those journeys, and how important that is to both of your experiences. Yet when you become a parent, even apparently ‘simple’ journeys become about relationships – not only in a physical sense (meeting your baby’s needs) but also emotionally. And this is where the expectations and realities of parenting sometimes differ dramatically. For example, Kate found that she couldn’t enjoy a relaxing walk out with other mums with her baby in the pram, because the baby would just scream in it. As Boyer and Spinney’s article points out, one of the hardest aspects of being a new parent while out and about can be managing a baby’s distress – both in terms of your own feelings about this, your concern for them and also worries about how others may react or judge you as a parent. As Clare said:
“I would find myself getting back home because she was upset, I couldn’t calm her and I didn’t know what was wrong”
I’m aware that these examples run the risk of painting a very negative picture of mobility in new parenthood. However, it is important to point out that this is by no means the case for everyone. Indeed, some of the parents I spoke to experienced no problems whatsoever with getting out, while others were fine until a second or subsequent child arrived. Equally, I want to emphasise that, just because I’m highlighting the potential problems here does not mean that you will be stuck with them (many of them are deeply resolvable, particularly when slings enter the picture, as we will see next time!)
In the meantime, I’d love to know your thoughts on this: what were your early experience of getting out and about with your baby? Do any of the points here resonate with you or were your experiences different or contradictory? Let me know!