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

GETTY
Show Hide image

Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue