Stop the conflicting advice over childbirth – leave the black-and-white thinking to pandas

Like dying, birth is something we can all relate to.

There are many things you notice when you’re pregnant: the panicked look people give you when they’re not sure if you’re carrying a child or pronounced excess fat around your belly; the pointed glances from mothers with wailing toddlers that seem to say, “Just you wait!”; the almost competitive kindness of strangers to accommodate your new girth on the Tube (I’ve had whole rows urgently offering me their seats). Sometimes the attention is welcome – I’ll take the seat – but sometimes it’s excessive and wearying (the automatic download of unasked-for advice from veteran parents).

And then there’s the news. Stories directly relevant to my biological state cover the pages. In the past couple of weeks alone there was the furore around household chemicals that pregnant women were supposed to avoid: moisturisers, sun creams, food packaging, non-stick pans, shower gels, make-up. The authors evidently lived in a Henry David Thoreau-like wilderness, subsisting on a diet of home-grown turnips and forsaking all personal hygiene, such was the realism of their warnings.

Then there was the Drinking During Pregnancy Debate part 23, this time suggesting that the odd glass of wine was probably fine. To summarise all preceding 22 parts of the debate: it’s OK to drink, it’s not OK to drink; your child will probably be fine if you drink, you’re going to harm your unborn baby if you drink; your child will be a creative genius if you drink, your child will most likely initiate a school shooting if you drink – and so on. Most recently there was an anguished bellow about breastfeeding: apparently the number of children being breastfed has fallen for the first time in a decade.

On it goes: endless theorising, judging, arguing and counter-arguing about the best way people can do the thing they’ve been quietly getting on with for thousands of years. I don’t know if it’s worse now than it ever was: I’ve never been pregnant before. But quite quickly, as this small human grows inside you, you develop an awareness of the pious circus around reproduction, the apparently limitless opportunity for humourless hectoring, the persistent blast of moralising opinion.

At least I’m not Kate. Or Kim. Both the Duchess of Cambridge and the reality television star and mother of Kanye West’s child (I spent a long time trying to think of another, more succinct way of describing Kim Kardashian but there’s no way round it) have come under the kind of scrutiny during their pregnancies that might send any mortal mad. But then these women, by their own choice, exist for public performance. That is what they do. Even so, you can’t believe Kate enjoyed the bank of cameras outside the hospital where she was treated for copious puking; nor does it seem possible that Kardashian, the first lady of self-publicity, relished her ultrasound pictures being leaked to the press. Though she was happy to find out the sex of her baby on her television show, suggesting that her privacy barriers are somewhat porous.

Like dying, birth is something we can all relate to. Perhaps that’s why the appetite for such stories will never dim. Everyone can apply it to themselves even if they have no desire for children of their own: they were once born, they had mothers, they played their unrequested part in the life cycle. The closer I get to the big drop, as the father of a friend put it, the less I want to read and hear and talk about it. Or at least, the less I want to read and hear and talk about all the layers of stuff around it: the various methods and theories and speculations, which all seem to contradict each other, escalating into that high and agonising hum that calls itself, hilariously, a parenting philosophy.

I’m now firmly of the belief that childrearing should be approached in the manner I’ve found most reliable in other parts of life: chaotically muddling through.

Saying that, there has been one parenting story that has caught my eye in recent weeks, a story that I obsessively tracked around the internet for an evening. It’s the story of Haizi, a female giant panda in the Sichuan province of China who on 22 June, at around 5pm, gave birth to twin cubs. They came out ten minutes apart, both apparently healthy, and are the first giant panda cubs to be born in the world this year. Their conception alone is a sort of miracle – not quite immaculate but not far off.

Giant pandas are endangered (there are as few as 1,600 in the wild) and in captivity, they unhelpfully tend to lose their mojo, shall we say, and go off the idea of mating. Not only that, the females’ period of fertility is brief – only two or three days a year. Haizi hit the sweet spot in March when she mated with two males, Bai Yang and Yi Bao, and began to exhibit, the Xinhua state news agency delicately declared, prenatal behaviour in May. There’s some footage, and it’s an amazing thing to see: a hulking bear with her miniature offspring, skinny and pink. Panda cubs turn grey after a few weeks and only eventually black and white, and they start life a nine-hundredth of the size of their mother, one of the smallest ratios between child and parent among mammals. (I think of this fact, enviously, quite often.)

There was a particular line in the Xinhua story that stayed with me. The mother, wrote the reporter, has yet to release the first cub from her embrace. The conservationists think the cub is healthy from its size and the noises it is making, but they haven’t got their hands on it yet. Haizi is clinging on. I’m loathe to anthropomorphise, but I like the idea that Haizi is, perhaps, just for a few days, trying to protect her cub from the glare of the world; trying, also, to maintain a quietness around something intimate and private (the anti-Kim approach). She has done something simple, but also special, and ultimately it doesn’t concern anyone else at all.

One of the Giant Panda twins borned to a panda named Haizi in China. Photograph: Getty Images

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.