Parenting: It’s all about getting advice but it’s also about trusting your instincts. How do you weigh up the pros and cons of both?
Kaz Cooke’s book, Up the Duff, was the only pregnancy-related guide I kept by my bedside while I was expecting. There was something about the book’s mixture of humour and solid medical information that I found appealing. As a former journalist, Kaz was obviously serious about her facts and yet, as a cartoonist, she could easily see and express the funny side of life—a crucial quality to possess when you’re constantly feeling sick, bloated and like your body no longer belongs to you.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Up the Duff, a book that now is touted as “Australia's top-selling, most respected pregnancy book”. It has been translated into Spanish, Italian, Latvian, Czech, Polish and Chinese, and there’s even an Up the Duff on the Go app. To date, I haven’t seen any foreign language copies of Up the Duff, but the English version is practically ubiquitous in the waiting room of any pregnancy-related medical practice in Australia, the bold brush strokes of Hermione the Modern Girl peering out at me from almost every bookcase I’ve studied.
In 2003 (and with other book projects in between), Kaz released Kidwrangling, essentially a sequel to Up the Duff. Testament to her commitment to factual accuracy, Kaz tells me “both those books have been updated at least once a year since. When there were medical changes I made sure I put them in.”
I am on the phone with Kaz, talking to her about her latest book, Babies & Toddlers, officially called “The sequel to Up the Duff”, and which she informs me, replaces Kidwrangling.
“Babies & Toddlers is much better and much more up-to-date,” she says. “I’ve had 16 years to think about Kidwrangling and how to make it better. This book is engineered for parents—a lot of work has gone into the index so that people can find stuff fast. Kidwrangling is only good for kindling on a bonfire now.”
Kaz is friendly and sounds excited on the phone, which may not be much of a surprise considering she is talking to me during a break from “addressing about 40 big packages of advanced copies of Babies & Toddlers to all the beautiful experts who helped me”.
If the number of experts sounds large, it’s only reflective of the some 500-page thick book itself and testament to what she feels contributes to the accuracy and reliability of the information she presents.
“There is so much wrong information on the internet for parents and there’s a lot of ‘What I reckon’ stories. I see stuff on websites which could give women an infection or are very dangerous for children,” she says. “That’s why I wanted to go to GPs and psychologists—and parents themselves—but to always check everything medically. Even though I’m still afraid that there is something wrong in the book, I know that I have checked everything.”
Kaz emphasises the importance of checking the year stamp that will appear on the cover of future editions of both Up the Duff and Babies & Toddlers, to ensure parents are getting the updated and latest information.
There is a fine balance when it comes to parenting: how much do you listen to others and when do you simply trust your instincts? “What hasn't changed [through the years] is that people want the best for the kids; they want to do the best thing,” she says. “They can be very anxious about that and I want to help them feel calmer, more in control and that the information that they need is at their fingertips.”
At the same time, she is careful to point out that when it comes to the decisions we make about our children, “It’s important to realise that mothers can do no right.” We live in a world she terms “Judgeyland” and Kaz is highly dismissive of it in her book, in a bid to give mums that bit of confidence we all need when it comes to parenting.
“All the criticism of mums and the anxiety that mums feel . . . they can be getting advice from in-laws and relatives and so much stuff on the internet that can be wrong,” she says. “There is that ridiculous perfect image of what sort of mother you’re meant to be on Instagram. Our kids are healthier than they have ever been, parents have more time to be with their kids and play with their kids than they do in most other societies, and yet we are more anxious than we have been in the past.
“There’s this ocean of information and often criticism. I joke that when you are a new mum [at a hospital] and when they give you a bag with wet wipes and a few things in it, they should put a packet in there marked ‘Guilt’ because from that moment on some people will try to guilt you into agreeing with them about how things should be done.”
Kaz tells me the story of a show she watched, where a man was selling a product to help babies sleep. Asked what if the product doesn’t work, the man responded that it meant the parent was doing it wrong.
“It just made me furious because that’s not fair and that’s not right.” I can hear the irritation in her voice before she continues. “Different methods work for different babies and that’s what I tried to present in the book. Sometimes, it will work on your first baby and then your second baby comes along and they’re just not interested in your tried-and-true method and it doesn’t work on them.”
True to her views, Babies & Toddlers presents, but doesn’t instruct. From the choice of parenting styles to toddler tips on toilet training and their toys and games, Kaz presents a balanced viewpoint, listing both the pros and cons. She doesn’t tell parents to follow a particular method, leaving them instead to choose their own path.
“Some people can often get into a bubble of their own mothers’ group, they can get isolated in their house and they can even be scared to ask because the people who are going to advise them, they may not trust or fully agree with. What I’ve tried to do in Babies & Toddlers is try to present a lot of options,” she says.
“There are some things I obviously have an opinion on. After 20 years of research I believe that kids need to be immunised but generally, I try to remember that people are looking the book up at three in the morning, feeling a bit sleep-deprived and going a bit bonkers and not necessarily everything will work for every kid.”
And while waking up at three in the morning is mostly a thing of the past for me now, I have this feeling I will be referring to Babies & Toddlers for a little while yet.
Getting life balanced . . .
. . . according to Kaz Cooke, cartoonist and author of the bestseller Up the Duff, and more recently, Babies & Toddlers:
The best thing to have is a supportive partner. Even if one has much more time with the kids, parents need to share and back each other up, and understand what the other one’s life is like. The one who goes off to work should understand that being at home is not a holiday. You’re not sitting there having a drink in a coconut shell with an umbrella in it. Finding a way not to be isolated is really important too. It’s kind of a cliché now but I say to teenage girls and mums, “You have to be your own best friend. Would you say what you are saying to yourself to your best friend, or would you say, ‘All that is harsh, you are going through a hard time and you are doing great.’”
I do think that this perfectionism that is encouraged, that you have to look a certain way or that your food needs to look a certain way, your kids need to be dressed a certain way is wrong. We need room for individuality, letting kids be who they are, letting parents be who they are.
Sometimes, just getting through the day and that everyone has the right amount of meals and a drink is an achievement when your kids are little. Everyone needs to be easier on themselves and one of the reasons I wanted to write Babies & Toddlers is to give people accurate information. Otherwise, you can spend all of your afternoon online finding out the wrong stuff. It’s really hard to do your own research, which is why I’ve got suggestions in the book as to which websites are OK to get certain information.