Approaches to parenting

Parenting was an important topic for most mothers and fathers we talked to. Some had contemplated parenting approaches during or before pregnancy (or parenthood via surrogacy or adoption). Influential sources of advice for new parents included their own parents, mothers’ groups or playgroups, friends who already had children, information available in print or online, and health professionals. Some mothers worried when their babies did not behave ‘by the book’ or like other babies, and it took them a while to find their own way of caring for their babies. Most new parents agreed that there was no ‘golden rule’ of good parenting and finding a way that suited them, their babies, and their lifestyle took time.

Some people spoke about their thoughts about what kind of parents they would like to be, before they had children. Loretta and her ex-husband had planned to co-parent and share the role of primary carer, but this did not eventuate (they divorced soon after their second child’s birth). Loretta said: ‘He talked about being the most involved, engaged, loving dad when we first got together and we would each do a part-time job and manage it so that we wouldn’t have to have nannies and we would read to our children. And he would from very early on just watch sport … or he would put our son in a stroller and just walk him around. He would never to talk to him. He didn’t engage’.

French and her husband discussed their approach to parenting their three adopted children, before they met them in India.

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A few mothers and fathers said the way they themselves were brought up influenced their style of parenting. Some wanted to do things differently from their own parents, while others tried to replicate aspects of how they had been raised.

Rumer followed her parents’ approach in believing children should be loved but not overprotected, as there was no ‘red carpet’ awaiting them in later life.

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Daniel and his partner decided not to be ‘helicopter parents’ but also to be affectionate with their twins, not having experienced this with their own parents. As Daniel explained: ‘physical intimacy has been very important to us, as parents, perhaps because we both had parents ourselves who weren’t very good physically and our fathers weren’t very good at that and so we realised how important it would be for children’.

Sarah M initially thought she would follow her mother’s parenting approach of focussing her life on her children, but eventually realised both she and her children needed ‘space’.

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Maree was critical of aspects of her own upbringing and wanted to raise her children differently. She also described how her experience of depression positively influenced her parenting.

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A few parents felt it was important to instil the ‘right values’ into their children from a young age. Some believed the best way to do this was by example. Sila, a father of three, said: ‘I think of my own children. I think of how I can instil in them good values about who they are and what’s their purpose in life. And what they can achieve. And the only way they can see that is through my love and my experience. And that always will be there’.

Josie wanted her baby daughter to grow up to appreciate nature: ‘to be a little bit more grounded in what life is about – be the happy child chasing goats and butterflies around our house and not the one that will throw tantrums in electronic shops’.

Alice, a young mother, always did ‘the right thing’ by her son but said the ‘bad example’ set by some other young mothers sometimes made things hard for her when others assumed she was the same.

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Chandrika, a migrant mother from Sri Lanka, was concerned about how she would pass on the values she was raised with to her own children growing up in Australia.

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Many parents, mothers in particular, spoke about different parenting ideologies they had learned about from other parents or from what they had read. A few parents who practised attachment parenting said finding information about this or meeting other ‘like-minded’ parents was validating, as they were often ‘questioned’ for taking this approach.

Beth talked about her experiences using cloth nappies and co-sleeping, and feeling accepted at a ‘natural parenting’ playgroup she attended.

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Fred and his wife researched different parenting practices before deciding on the approach they would take. As a result, they adopted some ‘not very standard’ practices which they ‘kept quiet’ about*.

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A few mothers, particularly first-time mothers, sometimes felt inadequate if they were not able to follow in the footsteps of their friends or mothers’ group members, or what they read about. It took some a while to accept that they had to find their own way of parenting that suited them and their baby’s needs.

Kirsty was influenced by her friend to follow ‘attachment style’ parenting, and said if she had her time again she would have read more ‘diverse information’ about parenting.

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New mothers were particularly concerned about breastfeeding versus bottle feeding, sleeping patterns (including co-sleeping), ‘managing’ babies’ crying, choice of nappies, and for partnered parents, balancing caring and income earning roles (see also Negotiating housework and caring for children in early parenthood).

In many families, both parents were ‘hands-on’, which mothers usually found very helpful. A few mothers wanted more or less help from their partners. Some missed their partners’ support after they returned to work, while Beth felt her partner’s close involvement with their first child undermined her confidence. She said about her second child: ‘I was in a lot more control with [her]. Because my partner was very occupied with our other daughter. So I was changing her nappy from day one. I was like, “Back off”. And that was nice, that was really nice’.

A few mothers described feeling confused about the best approach to caring for their babies. Other than friends with babies or mothers’ groups, in many cases, health professionals (midwives, hospital nurses, and maternal and child nurses) were an important source of information (see Experiences of health services in early parenthood). A few mothers were critical of health professionals’ advice or opinions about baby care or parenting.

It took Deb a while to learn to trust her own ‘instincts’, and to ‘stand up’ for herself when health professionals’ advice conflicted with her parenting approach.

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A few other mothers also realised their initial thoughts on how they would parent might need to change to accommodate not only their babies’ needs but also their own.

Kate had relaxed some of her ‘high standards’, but still wished she was more of an ‘ideal mother’.

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Susanne said realising she was not an ‘earth mother’ had been a ‘shock’, and that working out her and her same-sex partner’s parenting roles had taken time.

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Some parents talked about differences in parenting styles between their partners and themselves. Sara L, whose husband had migrated from an Asian country, said he was much less strict and more ‘sheltering’ of their children than she was. Having lived in her husband’s home country for several years, Sara L thought this difference was ‘definitely a cultural issue’.