Saturday, 15 June 2013

Consumer parenting

Am I the only person who feels like parenting these days has become just another exercise in capitalist consumption?

It starts in pregnancy, when we download the apps and the podcasts that give us a day by day narrative of material needs necessitated by our newfound condition. First trimester its the anti-sickness remedies and special vitamins. Second trimester begins the maternity wear sale. Then the support pillows, different bras, stretch mark creams and so on before the real orgy of spending begins....nursery furniture, baby clothes, baby grooming sets, infant medical equipment, toys, monitors, I don't need to go on.

How much of this do we actually need? What happened to the days when all you needed was some larger clothes and then a pack of nappies?

Of course its my own fault for reading all this nonsense. In pregnancy i was keen to find ways to engage with my new future, to make the baby as real as possible, so i bought the books, listened to the podcasts and so on. Truth is its immensely reassuring to follow a week by week account of what's happening, what you might be feeling, what's normal, and what you can do about it. This could be delivered without the capitalist spin, of course, without the sponsorship and unashamed promoting. But the other truth is that this, too, is reassuring. It's nice to believe that so long as I buy the right products at the right times then I will be prepared. Once the baby is born and grows, I follow the apps to find out what goods and services are now part of a normal parent's coping strategy. its hard to keep up with the immense pace of a newborn development, and much easier to just assume that first i use this product, then a different product becomes age-appropriate, and so on. First three months in a moses basket, with a swaddle pod and a newborn dummy. Then from 12 months I can move on to a cot, a grobag and an age appropriate teat for his bottles (expressed of course). I can tell myself everything is safe as long as I use my steamer properly, and the recommended milk storage containers, not to mention the baby thermometer, bath thermometer, room thermometer, video monitor......aarrgghhhhhh!

I have never been a big shopper. I'll have the occasional pre-holiday splurge in primark in a moment of sun-starved mania, sure.but i've always been naturally suspicious of the idea that spending can make us happy (blame my mummy who sent us to school in thrift-shop shoes, it rubbed off!) But like the wedding industry, the baby industry is huge and is very good at spreading the message that if we don't buy the right products, if we don't spend enough money, then obviously we don't love our baby enough, and we probably won't look after it safely.

There are some obvious reasons why going along with this crap is problematic. What about people who can't afford the £600 pushchair (and thats midrange!) or the £30 outfits that will fit for about 8 weeks? Do they have to choose between not loving their children enough or spending money that should be set aside for universities and healthy food. If they can't afford video monitors and baby thermometers are they unsafe as parents? should we lock them up?! These are rhetorical questions by the way and the answers are no.

Another reason...capitalism is bad and will ruin us all, blah blah.

But here is another less obvious reason and it is to do with what this race to the shops is doing to our relationship with our babies. I conjecture that this obsession with having the right products is lulling us into a false sense of security. By owning the age-appropriate products we are letting ourselves off the hook of actually paying attention to their particular, idiosyncratic needs. Just as the government's guidelines can't possible suit the huge variety that real children come in, the manufacturers can in no sense know what products are suitable, let alone adequate, for your child to be happy and have its needs met. not only will these products not meet their needs, in fact, but they might well make you less quick to see what those needs really are.

Yes some of these products are amazing, labour  saving and have probably even saved tons of lives. No, we don't want to return to the days of babes on laps in cars or, god forbid, hand washing terry cloth. But we ought not let parenting become just another exercise in consumer choice.
We don't need all the crap. Lets just look after our children and stop trying to buy our way out of the (occasional) drudgery!

Disclaimer: In case this preach sounds like anything other than unbridled hypocrisy, I should point out that I am the enthusiastic owner of every item mentioned above.

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