‘Aw isn’t he lovely? He is a he isn’t he? Are you thinking about the next one yet? It’s about time, isn’t it? Bet you’d like a girl. Your husband would like a girl wouldn’t he?’
Normal is a word that gets bandied about a lot when you become a parent. In fact, it starts the minute you get knocked up. Is your blood sugar normal? How far from normal is your fundal height? This dark line, these strange hairs, the constant anxiety – is it all normal? Then the baby arrives and normality develops into more of an obsession. Which centile is he? When will he crawl? When will he speak? How does that compare to normal? Everything from how many hours shut-eye you’re getting, to how often he needs Sudocreme smothered on his ass is rated on a scale vs. normal. But it’s not just the baby who is subject to these normative standards. It’s also you who have become normal, or in the eyes of people – both those you know and those you don’t – a stereotype at least.
Assumption number one: You have to be married to have a child
Currently I’m an unmarried divorcée with a toy boy baby daddy. Before I got pregnant, everyone was cool with calling my other half what he is: my boyfriend. Now I’ve procreated, there is an assumption that I must be married. Having a baby is like wearing the flashiest, ritziest engagement ring (we’re talking 5, 6 carats minimum) in terms of sending a message to the world that you’re hitched. Except that parenthood and marriage are not synonymous. While it’s hardly a catastrophe being referred to as Mrs Gaynor (and tbf he gets Mr Ormerod too), it does grate and sometimes it feels strange to be called someone’s wife. Because, you know, he hasn’t proposed. And I haven’t said yes. And there wasn’t a wedding. Equally, going through the rigmarole of explaining, ‘yes I’m still with Grey’s father, we’ve been together for five years and live together, but we are not married, or engaged or planning to be,’ is toe-curling and often followed by a, ‘but if he asked you’d say yes, wouldn’t you?,’ response, which if I’m honest, makes me want to eat my own ring finger. It’s not just me – my boyfriend has often been asked if I get on with his son’s mother – the supposition being that we would be married if he were our kid. I’ve come to realise that we think we live in a world which is far more liberal about familial makeup than it actually is. We preach love is love, but when it comes to heterosexual parenthood, we still think love must mean being man and wife.
Assumption number two: That one is never enough…
Next up: baby number two! You’d think the fact that pregnancy is a physical and biological firefight would give you a fair window of time before anyone presumes you’d like to do it again. But no. Now obviously some couples choose to have, or are else happily surprised, by a pregnancy mere months post birth. But for many others, not so much. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the conjecture, judgement and gender-biased comments coming your way though. Nearly a quarter of UK children live without siblings. It’s not a small minority and due to the increasing age of mothers and the crippling cost of raising children, it’s a minority on the rise. But when I’ve mooted the idea of keeping ours as a family of three (anyone who has actually met my adorable but fierce son, understands exactly why this would seem appealing), I’ve been hit with a barrage of – as far as I can research – unsubstantiated negative prejudice. ‘It’s cruel to have an only child,’ or ‘you have to give him a friend,’ and even one child ‘isn’t a real family,’ are just some of the opinions that have been cast my way. These phrases come out, pre-formed, even from sharp minds in my circle, because culturally we’ve been deeply conditioned to see only children as ‘other’, aberrations of the natural order and we make presumptions of mothers (and fathers) based on these apparently universal truths. Today you will still regularly hear only children characterised as only lonely, spoiled and strange, despite research paper after research paper proving that they are none of the above. Being a singleton can often mean a better education, more parental attention and a more manageable home life for both the child and parents. Is it any wonder the birth rate in this country has plummeted to 1.6 – far below the rate of replacement at 2.1? While there are obviously issues with lone children – like the burden of caring for two elderly parents, for example – much of what is regurgitated is unsubstantiated.
Assumption number three: That everyone wants and can have another child
One-shaming is implicit in the, ‘when are you thinking of number two?’ question, which is so loaded, as well as intrusive. It presumes you can afford another, it presumes you can cope psychologically and physically with another. At a time that can be fraught with emotional challenges, the pressure it puts on couples to ‘get on with it,’ is outrageous. And worse is the pain it can unintentionally cause those who are trying but failing to get pregnant.
I’ve been ill this year and my periods have stopped, so whenever anyone asks me about baby number two I just hit them with TMI and watch the light fade from their eyes. Just because I had one baby doesn’t mean I want or can have another, so stop presuming the announcement is coming, because you may be holding your breath forever. Obviously, there are many positives to bigger families too, but it just isn’t black and white in the way that so many people seem to believe. There is no such thing as an ideal family size –all formations have their pros and cons –so it’s high time we started to shift attitudes in line with reality.
Assumption number four: That gender matters
To round off the top-down narratives, the final assumption that gets my blood pumping, is the idea that because I have a boy I’d like a little girl. Aside from not being convinced we should run the gauntlet again, I can hand on heart say that if we did, I wouldn’t care about the gender. I tell you what I would like though. A calm baby. Before I fell pregnant, I wanted a girl because I wanted a child with ‘feminine’ behaviours – one that would sit and play and not cry furiously or run around creating a ballyhoo all the livelong day. Now I know actual children, what I’ve learnt is that the gender-based conduct we attribute to kids of either sex is often misplaced. I have met some wildly, wild girls and some seriously, sedate boys. Female sexual organs do not guarantee a child will quietly colour between the lines. In the same manner, boys won’t always be tearaways (from my extensive soft play experience it’s actually often the lads clinging for dear life to their caregiver’s neck). Even if I could choose, I wouldn’t bother, because while there may be certain gender tendencies, the hope is that our children’s world has spun far enough for them to have the chance to be ‘boyish’ girls and ‘girly’ boys in whichever way they see fit.
The presumptions we make about what makes a family hugely impact the way we feel about the relative success or failure of our parenthood experience. While we all know there is no normal in the abstract, the constant reiterations of normative expectations cannot help but make us question our choices and by deviating from the standards that everyone else seems so keen for you to uphold, you can feel like you’re constantly swimming upstream. Sometimes it can seem easier to just tick all the boxes. But taking a step back and deciding if you do indeed want all these things you’re supposed to, is one of the most empowering and liberating things any parent, or indeed human, can do. Even more importantly, these innocuous preconceived notions can really affect the way children feel about their families. Having grown up without my dad around at a time when divorce was definitely not the norm, I know well the feeling of being ‘other’ in comparison to the rest of my class. The way we speak to each other about how we create our families – many or one, whether parents are married or not, whether it’s one or two parents or caregivers, whether we want boys or girls – all have an impact on how comfortable they feel in their own skin. It’s our job to make all families normal and we can only do that by ditching the normative presumptions once and for all.