Precious Firstborn Syndrome is totally a thing
Firstborn syndrome

This column originally appeared in Sunday Style. By Beverley Turner.

There is a group of people living among us who must be unmasked.

They can be spotted pushing a technologically advanced pram (too big to enter a shop door) whose occupant is swathed in an organic cotton onesie that’s handwashed in chemical-free detergent. Any exposed skin is coated in fragrance-free SPF 50 and inside the designer nappy bag are vacuum-packed, sterilised bottles and a flask of warm water for cleansing a cherished bottom.

They may look like normal parents, but their tense jaws indicate they’re suffering ‘Precious Firstborn Syndrome’.

What is ‘Precious Firstborn Syndrome’?

We can thank the Mumsnet parenting website for first bringing the PFS phenomenon to our attention in a series of posts from mothers who have subsequently borne more children, but reflect on their first with a mixture of astonishment and embarrassment.

The thread reads like a confessional for women who have been abducted by benign aliens and harbour their secrets until one of them raises a hand.

There’s the mum who warms cucumber sticks in the microwave, as she believes they’re too chilled for young gums straight from the fridge, and the mum who makes babysitters rehearse a PF’s favourite lullaby so bedtime feels “familiar”. There are tales of urgent calls to emergency departments from parents who don’t know that newborns vomiting a little milk is normal.

You can only conclude that some first-time parents are a unique form of humans.

But perhaps it was ever thus: maybe our mothers and grandmothers also laminated instructions for babysitters and walked backwards with a pram for three kilometres because of an absence of sunscreen in the mild afternoon sun … Of course they didn’t! We are the first generation who can claim credit for this form of lunacy.

What happened to the village raising the child?

Partly it’s because we no longer live next door to our own mothers and, even if we do, they’re probably away on a cruise. Maternity wards should employ soothsayers chanting, “It takes a village to raise a child” – the wisest words ever uttered, and yet a concept we’ve entirely lost. Instead, isolated new mums turn to the net.

Parenting is a tough job. But babies’ needs are, in fact, simple: feed, change, cuddle, entertain, repeat. And although buying lots of new stuff can be an exciting way of preparing for your first baby, they actually need very little.

Once you’re on the treadmill of sleep deprivation and hourly loads of washing, the cashmere onesies will get re-gifted and you’ll be online ordering a foldable buggy because that $2,000 ‘travel system’ won’t fit in the boot of your car. You’ll see nothing but media images of blemish-free infants in the arms of beautiful mothers who haven’t just poured orange juice in their coffee.

It’s no wonder PFS exists: wherever we look, we fail by comparison

Even your baby’s Personal Health Record book taunts with its percentile charts of length and weight. One PFS sufferer confessed to weighing her baby on the kitchen scales every day: have they eaten enough? How much is enough? How can we possibly tell?

We agonise over breast versus formula. That children survive in countries without microwave sterilising kits is forgot as bottle, teat and lid are handled with plastic tweezers by parents who could transfer their new-found skills to keyhole surgery. Second-time mums can be spotted simply by the way they handle a bottle: sucking the teat after it falls on the floor while telling the mother-in-law: “Of course the dishwasher sterilises. It gets really hot, doesn’t it?” Tap water does not pass a PF’s lips for at least a year and one woman even admitted to hand-expressing breast milk for half an hour onto her toddler’s cornflakes so that he wasn’t exposed to the horror of dairy.

Unlike his sisters, my PF never knew the taste of mineral water bought from a garage and mixed with formula in a panic. (On that occasion, I’d decanted the powder but forgot the spoon – an old business card can make a surprisingly good scoop.)

There are other horrors that never pass a PF’s lips. I knew a woman whose PF had not digested sugar before the age of two. She then had a second child. The next time I saw them, the 10-month old’s crawling was powered by Haribo. She’d given up the fight – and couldn’t remember why she’d been quite so obsessed in the first place.

It’s the same in our house: ketchup, chocolate, fizzy drinks – all these were rationed for the PF. The second learnt to give her finished chewing gum to me by the age of three, and the youngest was washing down Cheezels with cans of soft drink by six months. I’m joking – but she could have been, for all I remember of her diet.

In an attempt to stimulate my PF intellectually (i.e. buy myself 20 minutes’ peace), he was only ever sat before the television to watch Baby Einstein – Disney-made DVDs with tinny classical music playing over hypnotically simple moving toys and hallucinogenic light patterns. Even today, hearing Mozart brings me out in a nervous rash.

We jest – but is this a problem that should be more widely recognised?

Dr Karen Wynter from the Jean Hailes Research Unit at Monash University thinks so. She interviewed 172 Australian couples from different socio-economic backgrounds at four weeks and six months after the birth of their first baby and found that anxiety and “adjustment” disorders are more common than postnatal depression in new parents.

“Most people think of postnatal depression as the main issue for new parents, but we found depression is not nearly as prevalent as anxiety. Around a third of women and almost a fifth of men reported enough anxiety symptoms to interfere with their daily life,” she says.

Part of the problem is that the scales used to assess depression include but don’t distinguish feelings of anxiety: irritability, fitful sleeping, muscle aches, jitteriness and feeling panicky or “on edge”.

“Some anxiety is really important,” says Wynter, “otherwise we wouldn’t get up and look after our babies. But when it interferes with your ability to carry out your daily tasks or run a home safely, you should seek support. Luckily this generation doesn’t suffer the same stigma about post-natal difficulties as previous ones.”

In 2004, I remember developing what I described as a “rage for order” and would mop our kitchen floor twice a day in an effort to exert some control over my suddenly chaotic existence.

“Women are having babies later in life; they have control over their choices, and paid jobs are often predictable and manageable,” says Wynter.

“Parenting is not like that. You come home with a baby you have to keep alive, receive lots of conflicting advice and may not actually feel any instinct about what is best. Plus, there is no ‘off’ switch. Parents may feel less confident about this role than they do about managing tasks at work,” she adds.

Parents don’t have to be perfect – just good enough

But the good news – empirically and anecdotally – is that confidence trounces anxiety. Good pre-baby preparation courses help, although new mums will always take wonderfully self-sacrificing steps to protect their newborns, like the mother who poured shampoo in her own eyes to check its “no tears” claim.

“As a mother of two girls,” says Wynter, “my personal feeling is that with our first we want to be a ‘perfect parent’ but by the time you get to two or three, you know you just have to be good enough.”

Are you, or someone you know, guilty of Precious Firstborn Syndrome?

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