Qualified to advise?

Looking at Twitter yesterday between marking essays, I happened to look over at the UK ‘Trending Topics’ (something to which I usually pay little attention) to find that ‘Gina Ford’ was trending. Gina Ford, for those who don’t know, is the author of a number of parenting books, the most famous of which is ‘The Contented Little Baby’. Her methods are controversial and contested, and with my health visitor hat on I have to say that I am absolutely and resolutely not a fan. There are a couple of newspaper articles here and here which discuss her methods, and I think this post on the Every Child Matters blog sums up very neatly my own concerns and more besides about her particular proposed methods of establishing an early routine with young babies and children. Gina Ford herself rebuts some of the criticisms of her methods here. She was trending on Twitter yesterday as she had been on a morning TV show promoting her latest book (called ‘The Contented Mother’s Guide’), and also was the subject of an article (apologies, it’s a Daily Mail link) in which she is reported to be suggesting that women have sex with their partner within 4-6 weeks of giving birth, regardless of whether or not they feel ready for it. [Update 8.3.12: see end of post]

What I want to discuss here though isn’t Gina Ford and her particular methods and views, as these articles show there are plenty of other places on the internet discussing these at great length. What struck me yesterday when I was looking at the comments on Twitter about this, and also the comments on the articles I linked to, was the large number who are focusing on the fact that Gina Ford does not herself have children, and using this as a reason to dismiss her views. I need to give a disclaimer here: I am a qualified health visitor so have been in regular contact with her target audience, and I do not have children. So I am aware that this is pushing some personal buttons. However, that aside, there is something I think quite troubling about comments such as ‘bah, it makes me sick that someone who hasn’t even had children can spout all this nonsense!’ (the first comment on the Every Child Matters blog post linked to above) or ‘”The divorcee, who has never had children..” says it all. Not been there, have no right to offer advice.’ (one of the comments on the Daily Mail article). I tweeted in response the following:

“shouldn’t have clicked on Gina Ford trending topic. Grrrr – Daily Mail *and* GF (but also troubled by ‘if not had baby don’t advise’ trope).”

and one person (@Superleelee80) tweeted back:

“why troubled? I could research climbing mountains and spout advice but why would anyone listen when I’ve never climbed one?”

It is of course a good question, an obvious one even, and to be honest I was surprised she was the only one who questioned my discomfort. My two part reply was this:

“Worked with some great HVs who’ve never had kids (some who can’t), and terrible ones who have. Person more imp than life exp.”

“my probs with GF about rubbish she says/claims and damage it does, rather than if she does/doesn’t have kids.”

On one level I think this is about the old mantra “attack the issue not the person”. There is enough to criticise in what Gina Ford is saying without having to resort to personal attack (as well as criticising her lack of children, there were a lot of comments making very personal remarks about Gina Ford’s appearance), and I think that by focusing on personal details the argument against the aspects of her methods people are troubled by is weakened.

I also though think (and this bit still requires some thinking on my part, but I will throw the hunch ‘out there’ so I have something to come back to later and flesh out) that there is something here about the elevation of mother/parenthood which is particularly illustrated by the ‘Not been there, have no right to offer advice’ comment. I remember when I was first qualified as a health visitor, I was chatting with a friend online when she asked me pretty much the same thing – how could I possibly help a struggling breastfeeding mother when I have never breastfed myself? To which I was happy to give the example of the client who had told me that if it hadn’t been for me taking the time to watch her feed and help her with positioning and attachment then she would have given up. I have come across similar arguments about male health visitors (and male midwives, an even rarer breed), yet one of the best health visitors I ever worked with was a guy, and my mentor when I was training (still the best health visitor I have ever worked with) was childless. I have worked with great people, several of whom would have loved to have children but sadly it didn’t/couldn’t happen for them, and I have also worked with people who were parents but who in my opinion had terrible skills when it came to relating to the people they were meant to be helping. I maintain that it is not motherhood which primarily qualifies someone to give parenting advice – of course it might help, but it is not inevitable (if an advisor themselves had a perfect parenting experience they may not necessarily be able to advise or relate to someone who is struggling, after all), and I cannot be more categoric that mothers/parents do not have the monopoly on empathy. The talk about ‘right to advise’ particularly troubled me, not just on the personal level, but also that elevation of motherhood reminded me of (small c) conservative debates around family being the basal cell of society (a trope which appeared often in my PhD media review of coverage of issues relating to sexuality and reproduction). Families come in all shapes and sizes and makeups, with or without children or partners – elevating one type above others is dangerous and exclusionary and does nothing to promote healthy, happy children and well supported parents.

Update, 8th March 2012: this morning via Twitter a representative from Gina Ford’s publishers sent me this announcement, refuting the reported claim that she was suggesting parents should have sex within a few weeks of birth. I would like to make it absolutely clear that nowhere in this post did I make any comment on this particular claim (much as I was tempted to), other than that it was reported and had therefore made Gina Ford trend on Twitter, and the substance of this post was my concern about the oft-repeated claim that as Gina Ford does not have children she is not qualified to advise about parenting.

2 responses to “Qualified to advise?

  1. Hi Jackie,
    Realised I hadn’t looked at your blog lately. This one struck a chord with me: I teach about working with children and have led parenting courses without having my own kids and I think it is a lot about your attitude and willingness to listen and understand that everyone’s experience is different. I did get questions about whether I had kids from the parents, but being able to answer that I’d worked in a children’s home with some very troubled teenagers helped to reassure them that I did have some relevant knowledge – perhaps even with kids who were more difficult than their own! I also remember what my sister said about being a midwife before she had her own boys – that it may be easier to judge less when you’re not (even subconsciously) expecting others to have the same experience you have had. 🙂

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