Money for nothing

Yesterday I took my 3 year old to see The Wiggles.  The supporting cast came first, bright and bubbly as always, and then we got to see The Wiggles themselves. First of all Jeff leaped out from behind the curtain, looking for all the world as bouncy and enthusiastic as he was in their first video. He did handstands, leapt about on trapezes, and generally looked as though he was having a good time.

One by one the rest of the Wiggles appeared, all looking equally vigorous and cheerful. What really impressed me, though, was the intense sparkle that flowed from Anthony. From the start it was clear that he was the troublemaker of the bunch. He would announce that Jeff was about to do some crazy thing, like leaping over 8 people at once, which was clearly news to Jeff, and then rev up the crowd until Jeff had no choice but to try it. Jeff, of course, pulled his punch and collapsed (but gently) on top of the people he was supposed to be jumping over, but it was obvious that he was ad libbing furiously to get out of the tricky situation Anthony had landed him in.

This went on throughout the show, with Anthony getting crazier and crazier, until the point where he actually stopped himself: “AND NOW!… er, no, we won’t try that today.” Apparently he does have some sanity filters in there somewhere. What really came through, apart from the fact that his colleagues were clearly enjoying the unexpected predicaments they kept getting landed in, was that every single person on that stage was having an absolute blast. I know they get paid to look as though they are enjoying it, but I don’t believe they were faking it. They love what they do, and Anthony’s tricks and affectionate torments were helping to keep it that way.

It’s money for nothing in the best kind of way. How many of us can say of our jobs, “I love it! I’d do it for free!” Of course, I wouldn’t say that in a forum that my boss might read, or my pay might drop with distressing speed. But it’s an ideal that many of us have given up striving for, which I think is very sad. It was while I was on maternity leave with my oldest child, watching Playschool (another show clearly populated by people who love what they do) that it dawned on me. That’s life! That’s what it’s all about. Love what you do.

I recently resigned from one of my jobs when I realised that it involved too much boring and tedious work, and not enough of the things I enjoy. I wasn’t thrilled with it, or excited by the prospect of a work day. Whereas my other regular job has me all but bouncing out of bed in the morning, excited and enthralled by the challenge and variety of what it involves. It was suddenly clear that there was better work out there for me. It was a risk, stepping out of guaranteed income in order to look for something better, and I am fortunate that it was a risk we are able to take, financially. Looking for a new job while still doing the old one is notoriously difficult, because any effective job search takes a lot of time and energy. But it is SO worth it.

Do you bounce out of bed, eager to get to grips with your working day? Or do you drag yourself there, staring mournfully at the clock as the hours tick by, just waiting for the moment when you can legitimately make a run for it?  Maybe it’s time to aim higher. Maybe there is a job out there that would have you bouncing, rather than dragging your feet. Think about that.

Hoping for the worst

On Monday I hope to get test results that tell me there is something wrong with my daughter, Jane.  That wasn’t a typo. I don’t want to hear that there’s nothing wrong. I want to know what the problem is. Most people who hear she is having a gastroscopy say “Oh you poor things. Don’t worry – I’m sure they won’t find anything!” It is difficult to explain why this is such an appalling prospect, without ranting for hours and beginning to foam at the mouth. (You have been warned.)

You see, I know there is something wrong. It has taken me most of her 3.5 years of life to persuade various members of the medical profession that something needs to be done. She is not underweight, although she’s far from porky. She has fallen from the 90th growth percentile to the 50th, but that’s not particularly alarming (unless you look around at her parents and sister, all of whom tend to make giraffes look a little runty). She is a picky eater, but that can be said of many 3 years olds.

Recently she has developed into a tanty monster of extreme proportions, coinciding with significant sleep problems. Again, this isn’t terribly unusual when you’re 3, and her sleep has always been appalling. She is dairy, citrus, tomato and wheat intolerant, and suffers from silent reflux, but since she is not horribly malnourished, the standard position on that seems to be “she’ll grow out of it”.

Really, there are no obvious, objective signs, like massive green spots on her forehead, that I can point to and say “Look! You can see the problem.” Nonetheless, there is a problem, and I am so tired of tramping from gp to specialist, gp to different specialist, etc ad nauseam, without finding anyone who will take it seriously. It took us until she was 2 to get her reflux diagnosed in the first place. In the end we got desperate, gave her half of an antacid tablet and had the best night’s sleep we’d had since she started on solids. (Never mind the ensuing panic when I realised that those tablets are not for the under 6s!) Then we went back to the gp who put her on reflux medication, and things improved. But they were still very patchy. Better, but still not good.

Apart from the sleep deprivation, the worst part was that Jane’s normally sunny, laid-back personality became ever more clingy and withdrawn. It was heartbreaking to see. In those rare times when the reflux meds were really helping, she was a different child – happy, outgoing and relaxed. When the reflux gets the better of her, which is most of the time, she is miserable, frustrated, distressed, and incredibly shy and clingy.

I am stubborn, highly educated and medically savvy, and I have battled to get answers for our family. How many families are suffering because they can’t get doctors to take them seriously when they say there is something wrong? If I had believed every doctor who said “it’s behavioural” or “there’s not a problem” or “she’ll grow out of it”, I shudder to think what hell we’d be occupying today. Here’s the thing. I know my child. Don’t tell me I am imagining it, or it’s just a phase, or any other patronising platitude.

Recently, we were very lucky. Jane’s reflux got worse. She had a mild gastro, and then suddenly her vomit contained “coffee grounds”. I’ve no idea how I knew that this meant there was blood in her stomach and needed to be taken seriously – presumably I had read it somewhere during my endless researching of reflux.  Regardless of how I knew, it’s very lucky that I did, because although she was diagnosed with gastritis and a short term increase in her reflux medication fixed that problem, it meant that we now had medical proof that something was not right in her digestive system. And we had it in writing, in the form of a report from the hospital emergency department.

Finally people started taking us seriously, culminating in this appointment for a gastroscopy on Monday. There is a long list of things they are looking for, and they are all treatable. I don’t care which one they find, I just want an answer, and a way out of the misery and sleep deprivation of having a chronically ill child. I want her sunny nature to be able to flower unchecked. I want her to be able to sleep peacefully, eat healthily, and have an easier life. Naturally I want all that for the rest of us, too! So I am hoping for the worst. Cross your fingers for us!

How ethical are your clothes?

Most of us are dimly aware that some of the clothes in our shops are made in sweatshops. If we think about sweatshops at all, we think uneasily of poor people in overcrowded, unsafe and probably unsanitary conditions in far off countries. We don’t like to think of ourselves as contributing to that, but it’s hard to know how to avoid it. And most of us are blissfully ignorant that similar scenes are happening in Australia, every day.

So how do we buy ethically? Short of growing our own cotton and making the clothes from it ourselves, how can we buy attractive, fashionable clothes and be sure that we are not exploiting the poor, the marginalised and the disenfranchised in the process?

It’s a difficult business. There are a large number of ethical problems with the clothing available in our shops. There’s the fabric the clothes are made from – if it’s synthetic, is it sustainable, and environmentally sound? If it’s natural, is it fairly traded? Then there’s the manufacture of the clothing. If you buy Australian made, secure in the knowledge that Australia has labour laws, and minimum wages and entitlements, and generally reasonable working conditions, then surely these are ethical clothes? Unfortunately, it turns out that buying Australian made is no guarantee of … well, of anything, actually. The Brotherhood of St Laurence’s ‘Ethical Threads’ report found that Australian clothing workers are routinely getting paid as little as $6 per hour, and some are actually getting as little as $2.50.

The legal minimum wage in Australia is currently $14.31 per hour, so how can this be? These workers get no annual leave, no superannuation, no sick leave, and no work cover. They provide their own workplace and equipment, and frequently their whole families work all hours of the day to scrape together enough work just to survive. Due to poor working conditions and inferior equipment, these workers are 3 times more likely to suffer work related injuries than factory workers.

How is this possible? I’m going to try to explain the problem, but you’ll have to concentrate – it’s like a magician’s sleight of hand, only harder to follow. Company A sells t-shirts. They contract company B to do the “CMT” – cut, make and trim the t-shirts. Company B farms out the work to companies C, D, and E, all three of which often farm out work to each other, depending on how much work there is this week. Company C farms out the work to Company F, which hires outworkers, or homeworkers, to do the actual work. And this is a relatively simple supply chain. They are routinely much more tangled and difficult to trace than this one.

Once the work reaches homeworkers, they are paid a piece rate, rather than an hourly rate. That is, they are paid a certain amount for each garment or task that they finish. There is some room for conjecture about how the piece rate translates to an hourly rate. There are often sham contracting arrangements in place, where the company that employs the homeworkers argues that they are sub-contractors, not employees, and that they are therefore responsible for their own leave, work cover, superannuation etc. Homeworkers are often migrants who don’t know that their rights and entitlements are legally the same as factory workers. The union often doesn’t know who they are or how to find them. And even if the homeworkers become aware of their rights, they are afraid that if they speak up and demand them, they will lose the work.

Out of this quagmire comes the “No Sweatshop” label – a joint union and clothing industry initiative that aims to map the supply chain and encourage clothing companies to sign on to the “HomeWorkers Code of Practice” (HWCP). Complying with the code only requires that companies meet their legal requirements. That doesn’t seem like a lot to ask. Unfortunately not meeting the legal requirements is standard practice in the clothing industry.

Companies that have signed up to the HWCP have mapped their supply chains, and know how many outworkers are being employed to make their garments. They are committed to ensuring that these outworkers are being paid the correct hourly rates, as well as receiving all the standard annual leave, sick leave and superannuation entitlements that most of us take for granted. These companies earn the right to apply the “No Sweatshop” label to the garments for which the supply chain has been fully mapped.

The HomeWorkers Code of Practice ensures that the supply chain is transparent, and that the workers right down at the bottom of the chain receive at least the minimum legal conditions.

Tommy Clarke, National Program Coordinator of the No Sweatshop Label, says “With such complicated supply chains, fashion houses can easily lose sight of who is actually making their garments. Other times, it’s more a case of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ or ‘hear no evil, see no evil’. It’s a convenient ignorance. Whereas with the Code, we’re asking the fashion labels to take responsibility for their entire supply chain.”

Clarke admits that asking companies to meet their legal entitlements is not setting a particularly high benchmark. “Unfortunately the clothing and fashion industry both overseas and here in Australia is so riddled with exploitation, that we are willing to recognise the ethical credentials of companies that are putting in the effort to tackle exploitation by making their supply chains transparent.”

And that’s just the manufacture of the garments. What about the fabric itself? The cotton trade, for example, is notorious for, among other things, the use of forced child labour. Uzbekistan, the third largest cotton exporter in the world, only agreed on September 12 2008 to stop using forced child labour to pick its cotton. It had previously argued that the children “volunteered” to work 11 hour days in the fields picking cotton for less than $2. There is some doubt as to how effectively and honestly the ban is being implemented. As well as slavery, the cotton trade is rife with problems such as unsafe pesticide use (workers are frequently not given any protective gear when they apply the chemicals, many of which are banned in Australia), and subsidised farming in industrialised nations that often leave small farmers in the developing world without a livelihood.

To tackle the concerns about the ethics of cotton, Fairtrade Labelling Australia and New Zealand (FLANZ) released Fairtrade Certified Cotton in Australia in November 2007. Cameron Neil, Australian Operations Manager for FLANZ, explains that Fairtrade certification carries with it a number of conditions. “For any product that carries the Fairtrade Certified Cotton label, the cotton growers are smallholder farmers organised into some sort of cooperative or collective, and they meet the minimum social and environmental standards that are in the generic Fairtrade rules. They have some democratic form of governance so that when they are getting paid the Fairtrade premium they have some way of democratically deciding how it gets spent, and they are accountable for that, and they are inspected on that every year.”

However, it is only the cotton that is certified, not the fabric, or the clothing itself. Neil says that the Fairtrade system internationally has put the problem of fully certified Fairtrade clothing on hold for the moment.

Because Fairtrade certification means that producers are paid a fair price and a fairtrade premium, the question of fairtrade clothing is more complicated than it looks. There are so many steps in the supply chain, from growing the cotton, spinning, ginning, weaving, and dyeing the fabric, to the making of the garment itself, that applying the fairtrade premium at every step risks making the end product economically unviable.

The Fairtrade labelling system is really set up for simple agricultural products, such as coffee, rice, and quinoa, which have a fairly straightforward supply chain. It doesn’t map easily to the sort of complicated supply chain that goes from the cotton seed through to the finished garment.

To begin to address these issues in Australia, FLANZ requires that companies wanting to sell products made from Fairtrade cotton must be signatory to the Homeworkers Code of Practice (HWCP) for all of their Australian manufacturing, not just the products carrying the Fairtrade Cotton label. Neil says, “We’re using the label as a pull factor to get people to clean up their supply chains. Part of our long term vision is that the Fairtrade Certified Cotton label becomes so attractive that more and more businesses are willing to engage with the HWCP because they want to use the Fairtrade Cotton label.” Clothes made from certified Fairtrade cotton outside Australia must have independent evidence that basic International Labour Organisation conventions are being met.

Unfortunately there is not a lot of Fairtrade Cotton clothing available yet, and in the absence of a Fairtrade clothing standard, some manufacturers are creating their own ethical business models. Daron McFarlane, of Ecowear, a Melbourne-based clothing designer, retailer and wholesaler, argues that you don’t have to be Fairtrade certified to be doing the right thing. In business since 1991, McFarlane has gradually evolved a relationship with his suppliers that he describes as a win-win. “If you treat people well, they’ll do a better job and you get a better product. It all comes back in a karma kind of way. I don’t feel like I need to have someone tell me that I’m fair trade, because I know I am. I don’t have anything to prove.”

Ecowear’s clothes are largely manufactured in factories in Nepal and China. McFarlane doesn’t audit the books and check up on how much the workers are paid in his suppliers’ factories. He says it wouldn’t be feasible to check up on all the details. But he is sure of the character of his suppliers. He pays higher prices and encourages his suppliers to treat the workers well. McFarlane argues that he can tell a lot from meeting the workers, seeing the conditions they work in, the way they are dressed and the way they respond to him. He is confident that they are being treated better than most of their compatriots.

As well as requiring his suppliers to pay his workers better, McFarlane has set up a health fund for the workers in one of the Nepal factories, through the owner of the factory. For one of his other suppliers he pays a levy on each piece which is paid to, an organisation that helps street kids in Nepal by setting up cottage industries and giving the families a sustainable livelihood.

McFarlane uses organic cotton where he can, and also produces a lot of hemp and bamboo clothing. He uses more environmentally friendly dyes. Although he admits that not all of his products are sustainably produced, McFarlane says he works hard to find the win-win. “Even for the things that I do that are not necessarily eco-friendly, I try to make sure there’s a strong ethical vein running through everything that I do.”

The trouble with Ecowear’s ethical credentials is that we have no way to verify them. All we have is Daron McFarlane’s word for it, and it could be argued that he plays somewhat fast and loose with the terms “fair trade” and “sustainable”. The other problem is that McFarlane himself can’t be entirely sure that his ethical endeavours are operating precisely the way he believes they are. Some of his clothes are made by outworkers in Nepal, and if we can’t be confident of the conditions for Australian outworkers, how can we be sure of conditions in distant Nepal?

Perhaps McFarlane is naïve, and I am naïve for believing him. Despite the lack of hard evidence, though, I find myself believing that Ecowear is making a difference in a disturbingly unethical industry. Personally, I would rather buy my clothes from a company like Ecowear that seems to be trying to do the right thing, than from a chain store that I can be fairly certain is exploiting people, somewhere along the line.

The range of unquestionably ethical clothing is currently so limited that we have to make these sorts of judgements ourselves. As Cameron Neil puts it, “With the information available to me today I make the best choice I can, knowing full well that I may get information tomorrow that means the choice I made was the wrong one, and I’ll have to do better next time.” According to Neil, the key is to ask questions. “We’re encouraging people to look for independent sources of evidence. There are a lot of people out there who are very genuine about what they’re doing. But it’s so hard to tell the difference between those people and people that are dishonest, who are making claims without any ability to back it up whatsoever, and who have no credibility.”

So how do we buy ethically? Neil’s advice is simple. “Talk to people with credibility – World Vision, Oxfam, Fairtrade, Fairwear – and say ‘give me a list of where I can go.’ and just go to those places. Find places that have some credibility and take your business there, until the system gets better and the information is better.”

Tommy Clarke says that the best thing we can do is to speak up. “Ultimately it will be up to consumers to be the driving force. So I recommend getting vocal and letting clothing companies know that there is a market for ethical garments made in Australia.”

It’s either that or start growing your own cotton.

Move over, Scrooge!

Call me a curmudgeon if you will, but I just have to confess that I loathe mothers’ day. Not, I must make clear, because I have any issues with my own mother, or because I received a traumatic paper cut from a mothers’ day card in utero, or any other deep seated psychological trauma. Indeed, I also loathe Fathers’ day, Christmas, and sometimes even birthdays.

It’s the myth that these “celebrations” are actually about relationships in any way that drives me nuts. Let’s be perfectly honest here: Mothers’ day is not about mothers. It’s about massive consumerism and obscene profits. It’s about selling stuff.

We are bombarded with marketing that makes it quite clear: to express our love for our mums we must SPEND. Because dollars are a measure of love, apparently. Whether you “say it with flowers” (bought, of course – not home grown, unless you are under 5, when you might just get away with it) or “treat mum to a day of pampering” (not by you – paid for by you, but delivered by strangers, because that’s so much more meaningful), buying stuff “shows your mum how much you care”. Your devotion is best measured in dollars.

Even worse are the ads showing Mum receiving a “bad” gift. Here we ramp up the pressure – failing to pick the right gift is a failure of love. Don’t risk it! Spend more.

I hate feeling pressured to buy a gift at a particular moment, whether it’s a hallmark holiday like mothers’ day, a birthday or Christmas. If I find the perfect gift for someone I care about, I love to buy it and bestow it immediately, and then not fuss about arbitrary calendar deadlines. Sadly,  I usually don’t do this, because the pressure to conform is strong, and not everyone thinks this way. So I usually save up the good gifts for birthdays and Christmas, where they get swallowed in the rush, and I bow to the pressure to come up with the goods according to those arbitrary markings on the calendar.

While there are some positive sentiments around events like mothers’ day and Christmas, these too can often become a source of stress for families. If Christmas is a time to spend with family, which family? Many people face the traumatic juggling act of deciding which family to spend it with, or they drive themselves to distraction trying to spend a part of the day with each branch of the family, incorporating those complex sub-branches where Doris and Aunty Beryl can’t be in the same room, but each expects more of your time than the other, as a measure (again) of your devotion.

Regardless of the arbitrary nature of designating one particular date on the calendar as important, the precise day is often treated as fundamentally crucial – businesses market it aggressively, restaurants clamour for your business that day of all days, and the pressure ramps up.

I am all in favour of expressing my love and appreciation for the important people in my life. But I like to do that as a spontaneous reflection of how I am feeling at a particular moment. Not on demand at the ringing of a bell. Woof.

Balancing act

I recently found myself vigorously asserting that it’s crucial to have both male and female friends – and by having friends, I don’t mean friending people on facebook, but actually spending meaningful time interacting with them. It doesn’t necessarily have to be one-on-one, although I tend to believe it’s easier to be emotionally real and connected in that situation, but I firmly believe that it’s important to spend quality time with friends of both genders.

Unfortunately, the friend I was talking to is not one to let a bold assertion passed unchallenged, and when he called me on it I struggled to articulate good reasons for my claim. It has left me profoundly contemplative.

As I have ranted in the past, our society still clings to the remains of an intense gender divide that probably solidified (if not petrified) in the 1950s. Men in one room, women in the other. Some stuff is men’s work, and some is women’s work, and anyone who dares to do the wrong work will be mocked by their chauvinist (if not fossilized) neighbours. You know who you are.

It is true that men and women are physiologically and biochemically different, and that their average skills are not the same. But this, of course, does not say anything at all about the skills of any specific person, and it would be a ludicrous mistake to suggest for example, that because women on average talk more, any particular male/female pair will work that way. Certainly I am the motormouth in my own marriage, but I recently met a delightful couple with the pairing utterly reversed, and I know of many others. Generalizations and stereotypes can be very useful, as long as you don’t try to apply them in individual cases.

So how does this relate to my problem with men only socialising with men, and women only socialising with women? On a society-wide scale, this strict gender divide has a number of unfortunate consequences. It makes life incredibly difficult for those of us who happen to fall on the wrong side of the lines. For the men who are fabulously nurturing childcare workers, or the women who are skilled and talented engineers. It forces those of us who don’t fit the mold into an outsider status that need not apply.

On a personal level, though, I believe it’s even more corrosive to shut the other gender out of your life. You lose access to a whole different perspective and approach to life. Men and women do tend to interact differently, whether through biology or cultural conditioning, and cross-gender friendships are different again. It is often possible to gain far more insight into a relationship problem, for example, by bouncing it off a friend who is similar to your partner, than a friend who has more in common with you.

I may get more support from another woman, but I frequently also find my prejudices and inconsistencies reinforced rather than challenged (because she often shares them, and sees things from my side). If I want my back patted and my point of view ratified, I turn to another woman. But when I want to actually understand what a man is thinking, and I can’t sort it out with him directly (always my preferred approach), or I need a little perspective, then who better than another man, who might actually have felt the same way, or said the same things at some point?

Above all, shutting out the other gender creates an unbalanced, unnatural microcosm of the world. You may feel safer, and less challenged in there, but you won’t be whole. Don’t tell me men and women can’t be friends. If we can’t be friends, how can we ever be real partners? Men and women must be friends. How else can we ever understand each other?

That’s me in a nutshell

Sometimes I look around and feel astounded at how strangely conservative we are. It’s not so much the big stuff that amazes me, but the little things – like how weird our neighbours think we are, simply because we use a hand mower to mow our lawn and own more bikes than cars (ratio 5:1, only counting active bikes), or how people react when I sing in the street.

Walking down the street singing, even softly to yourself, is already rather odd. But really throwing your voice around, reveling in the thrill of a good, strong tune, packed with emotion and meaning – that’s completely crazy. If you try it, you will find (trust me on this) people giving you alarmed looks and edging away from the crazy person. My goodness. Singing. That’s dangerous behaviour, that is. A person who could sing loudly and lustily in the street, why they could be capable of anything.

I can’t help feeling that’s really rather sad. I love to sing. It lifts my mood, gets my blood pumping, and really gets those endorphins flowing. I won’t argue that it’s better than sex – my husband reads this blog – but it’s well up there on the list. It’s bliss. And singing on a bike? Well, that’s heaven right here on earth. There can be few activities better for my physical and mental health than riding along, pumping out songs from Chess (which I have recently rediscovered after a long obsession with it in the early 90s), or Midnight Oil, Crowded House or the Whitlams, Jeff Buckley, or Vivaldi. Some days I need to cleanse my soul of the Wiggles first, and how better to do that than with a rousing chorus of Icehouse’s “The Heartbreak Kid”?

I know that when things get grumpy in my house, one of the best things I can do is put Paul Jamieson on the stereo – aka The Music Man, his funky reggae style kids’ songs are the best possible style of childrens’ music, the kind you are actually happy to have stuck in your head. We all start singing along, and everyone calms down and chills out. Music can even soothe a tired and foul tempered seven year old – there is clearly nothing it cannot do! (I am yet to experiment with teenagers, but I have high hopes.)

Why don’t we sing in the street? Because people don’t do that. People might think we’re odd.  It’s odd to do things that people don’t do – yet trends have to start somewhere.  Sometimes being odd, whether it’s by singing in the street or chatting to strangers, can have an upside, and sometimes the upside can even spread.

By all means, label me crazy and cart me off to a madhouse on the days I spend the whole ride to work singing “Hot Potato” or “Dorothy the Dinosaur”. I will not argue – indeed, I will beg for the tranquilizers. But the good stuff? It’s good enough to share! I am reasonably selective, I don’t belt out the classics on crowded footpaths where it would be invasive. I don’t sing loudly right into people’s faces. But on quiet backstreets, or even loud main roads where no-one can hear me over the traffic, I sing my heart out. My aim is to overcome the embarrassment and keep singing even when people are looking. Who knows? Maybe I will start a trend.

I doubt it

There are few tricks easier than making parents doubt themselves. There is no doubt that guilt and doubt glands get installed and/or enlarged in both parents the minute a baby is conceived. Yesterday I was chatting with a friend who confessed that he and his wife were doing “the wrong thing” and allowing their nearly 4 year old to share their bed. My friend was somewhat startled when I pounced, and shouted “WHO SAYS??” Actually I think the rest of the restaurant may have been a little surprised, too.

The truth is we all do “wrong things” as parents. There are so many rules out there about what you can and can’t do that you can’t help but be doing the wrong thing according to some commentator, book, or newspaper article. It’s wrong to respond to a baby’s cries. It’s wrong to leave them to cry. It’s wrong to co-sleep. It’s wrong to make them sleep on their own. It’s wrong to breastfeed past 12 months. It’s wrong to wean your children before they choose to wean themselves.

What we forget is that most of these “rules” are not evidence based. There is no research to prove them right or wrong. They are theories. You can easily shape a convincing argument to back up your own personal theory, but it’s still just a theory. There are, of course, medical theories that are based on research, like the SIDS recommendations, but they are in the minority.

My own personal theory is that babies don’t cry to manipulate us. They are expressing their needs. Responding to their needs when they express them will give them confidence that their needs will be met, and lead to them being happier, more confident and more independent people later in life. Far from making them dependent on you, it will provide them a secure base from which they can happily fly when they are ready. Babies are physiologically incapable of independence, so pushing them to be independent before they are ready can only do harm.

But I can easily frame the counter argument convincingly, too. If you respond to babies the instant they cry, they will never learn to settle and soothe themselves. They will learn to cry to manipulate you into picking them up, and you will never get a moments’ peace. You are making a rod for your own back, and depriving your baby of the chance to learn to be independent. You will pay for it for the rest of your life.

Note that both arguments are emotive (” can only do harm” “depriving your baby” “manipulate you” “rod for your own back”) and they tap into our deepest fears as parents – we are somehow harming our children, and we are making life much harder for ourselves.

Becoming a parent makes you immensely vulnerable. Your desire to do what’s best for your children is overwhelming, and your fear of doing the wrong thing and inadvertently harming them can be intense. Anyone who comments negatively on your parenting can tap into those fears and create a whirling tornado of self-doubt in your soul.

It’s clear that there is only one thing to do. Listen to yourself. Do what feels right to you, your partner, and your children. If it feels right, your children are happy and healthy, and you’re happy and healthy, then it’s the right thing to do. Now that’s a theory you can bet your life on.