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

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.