Thursday, 19 February 2015

Why reading books is bad for your health

No! Not those books. Not real books, that you actually enjoy reading. You only need to see my house to know I can't possibly mean real books. The room I'm writing this in has floor-to-ceiling shelving either side of the chimney, plus I've re-interpreted the concept of the occasional table to be more of an occasional bookcase. I mean, what's the point of having a piece of furniture that's just for putting a drink on if you can't also store books in it? The room next door? Two bookcases and another wall of built in shelving. The bedrooms? More bookcases. No, I lie, our bedroom has a bookcase deficit and therefore merely has random piles of books on top of every surface. So, rest assured, I don't mean that real books are bad for your health.

Actually, those ones might be bad for your health now I come to think about it, or maybe just my health. I've been known to spend entire holidays in the Lake District, holed up in a cottage reading Dick Francis books rather than doing something improving like Going For A Nice Long Walk. I could try and claim that that was because it was raining and I'm a fair weather walker. But it wasn't always raining. Even in the Lake District it doesn't always rain. Just mostly. And it doesn't explain going out for a nice long walk, with a book, that somehow turns into two short walks punctuated by sitting on a sunny rock reading a book for a few hours. So, I'll admit, even the right kind of books can perhaps have a detrimental effect on the amount of exercise I get. Not to mention the evenings I sort of forget to cook dinner because I'm reading and end up having toast and chocolate biscuits because I can't be bothered to cook anything else. Doesn't happen so much now I'm married to BigBear and have a LittleBear around the house too. They're much less tolerant of meals not appearing.

No, the books that I'm talking about are the ones that tell you how to raise your child. Oh yes, those ones. The ones that are always, always wrong. How do I know they're always wrong? Because unless you wrote it yourself, it's not about your child. It's either about the author's child, or about some mythical ideal child who the author believes should exist or is actually delusional enough to believe does exist. And those other children are not your child. Yes, they might have some things in common. Like having two ears, a nose and a mouth. Or having a predisposition for commenting loudly on the appearance of complete strangers. But once you get down to the detail, they might as well be about an alien. LittleBear, when being put to bed, currently insists that he must point a finger towards his bed as I'm holding him, and that as I lower him towards the mattress, the pointing finger must touch down first. You're not going to find that in any parenting manual on how to have a smooth and hassle-free bedtime now are you? And I wouldn't dream of suggesting anyone else should do it, because it's LittleBear's foible, and it will indubitably vanish as mysteriously as it appeared. It merely highlights the futility of attempting to produce any kind of one-size-fits-all instructions for a child.

Hold on though, that's just pointing out the woeful inadequacies of parenting manuals, and not actually explaining how they can possibly do you any harm isn't it? Perhaps that's true for the secure and confident parents out there, but let's be honest, how many sleep-deprived first-time parents are that secure and confident in knowing what on earth they're doing. (And if you are, please feel free not to tell me so. Really, I don't want to know how splendid you are and how pathetic and useless I am. I've already mastered that one thanks.)

So, picture yourself, unsure about basically every aspect of keeping this new creature alive. How often, how much, what, when, how and where should it be feeding. How often, how much, what, when, how and where it should be sleeping. So, off you go looking for answers, and you read one of these books. And it's so beguiling... simple instructions for a peaceful baby... guaranteed ways of being sure they're feeding enough... sure-fire solutions for sleeping through the night. So you start to follow the instructions, and your child just doesn't respond the way Book Child does. Your child doesn't find a warm bath a soothing wind down before bed. Your child finds being naked the greatest affront to dignity and contentment since the year dot. Your child doesn't want to have a lovely quiet feed in a darkened room before bed. Your child actually wants to feed about half an hour after you've finally fallen asleep, just as you're sliding into blissful deep sleep. And as your addled brain desperately tries to work out where it's all going wrong, you draw the only conclusion that makes any kind of sense: It's all my fault. My baby is perfect, and the book is so calm and sensible and right, so it must be me. I must be a failure.

And so begins the self-doubt, the ego-flagellation, the insecurity and the complete confidence that you still don't have the faintest idea what you're doing. And what is more the entire future happiness of this infant is being built upon the foundations of your own ineptitude. Without these books you might have chatted to your friends, to your own mother, your aunts, cousins, siblings, people you met on the bus, and found that each and every baby was different. You might have found that for every ten people you asked, there were at least twelve different answers. You might have found some helpful tips and tricks that you were prepared to try and happily shrug off if they didn't work. But instead you looked to an "expert" and now all you can hear in your own brain is "failure, failure, failure, failure...." And that's seriously bad for your health. Believe me.

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