2005-10-13

Intolerance: Gender Differences Post-Birth

Article by Fiona Mccade Anybody walking down George St in Edinburgh last weekend could have been treated to a rather unusual sight: two mature adults poking and prodding their small, sleeping baby. Eventually, the relentless torment became too much and the baby woke up and started screaming. It was then transformed from a comatose cherub into a shrieking demon. The adults sighed happily, smiled at each other and walked on. It was my fault that 'Beloved' and I were harassing 'Junior' in broad daylight... 'Beloved' had been carrying 'Junior' in a sling, with the baby cuddled into his chest, when he mentioned that 'Junior's' face had been nuzzled into his woollen jumper for ages and how amazing it was that he could breathe at all. 'Beloved' saw no problem with this, but I was instantly startled into action. Some deep primeval terror overwhelmed me and I had to make absolutely sure my child was still respiring. Which is how we came to be standing in the street, desperately trying to provoke a tiny boy into showing some signs of life. I was beside myself with blind panic that while we'd been innocently ambling along 'Junior' had been suffocating silently. Only after we'd woken him from his blissful slumber, and upset him terribly, could I relax. Most mothers will immediately sympathise with me but, interestingly, silent children don't seem to unduly frighten fathers. 'Beloved' didn't really believe anything was wrong and certainly hadn't banked on my fevered reaction. Whereas I feel the need to constantly check on 'Junior' and spend ages tiptoeing around, listening for the reassuring sound of his breathing, 'Beloved' won't put his head around the nursery door unless he hears a scream or two. You see, although men rarely feel moved to put a mirror over their baby's mouth to see if it steams up, they really, really can't stand to hear the baby cry. When it comes to parenting, I think this is one fundamental difference between the genders. Daddy tears his hair out when baby makes a noise. Mummy tears her hair out when it doesn't. Now I've been to quite a few postnatal classes and newparent get-togethers, I'm starting to notice how dissimilar the sexes are in their attitudes to child-rearing. For instance, because it's not so long since we gave birth, the women in such groups still tend to talk about how their labours went. Men, on the other hand, couldn't give a 'flying forceps' about this, preferring to forget the whole excruciating episode and concentrate on how they're coping (or not coping) with fatherhood. Both conversational topics can degenerate into embarrassing examples of one-upmanship. I'm a particularly bad offender, because I deliberately wait until every woman in the room has revealed how long her labour took, then I put on my most pained expression, pull out my trump card ('34 hours!') and sit back smugly as shocked people invariably offer me more tea and biscuits. Only people who had triplets, '12-pounders', or who ended up on crutches get more tea and biscuits than I do. Men do much the same thing, but although they also use suffering as currency, they're usually trying to outdo each other in the sleeplessness stakes. Happy is the father who proves himself an 'alpha male' by boasting to his peers how he can live -- nay, thrive -- on 30 seconds of sleep a night for six months and still win 'The Queen's Award for Industry'. For a dad, coping with 'Junior's' incessant wakefulness is a badge of heroism, worthy of applause. Oddly enough, this same strategy doesn't work for mothers; any woman who admits that her babe is having sleeping problems will instantly get full-on pity from the sisterhood, plus copious advice on how to get her beauty sleep. Modern society works hard at blurring some of the differences between the sexes, but once you have a baby they start to look very stark indeed. At least 'Beloved' and I both agree on one thing -- parenting is already ten times more difficult than we'd ever imagined. And we've only got 18 years left to learn how to do it. 'Why no noise is good noise for only Daddy', Fiona Mccade, 2005-10-13, Th

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