01 Dec

Book Review: How Not To F*** Them Up, by Oliver James

I read They F*** You Up: How to Survive Family Life about five years ago, enjoyed it very much, and widely recommended it. The follow-up, How Not To F*** Them Up, was sitting on my shelf for nearly a year, and eventually I picked it up and started to read.

Half way through the introduction, I started to skip bits; and then I began to flick through using the ‘Practical Top Tips’ Index; and then I just leafed through the rest. I will not be widely recommending this book.

James claims that ‘solid scientific research’ (p5) divides mothers into three types, and goes on to write unpleasant caricatures of each type. I know which type he would consider me to be, but that does not make me find his descriptions of the other two types any less offensive. We have the selfish, stressed-out Organiser, the martyred earth-mother Hugger, and the dithering, overstretched Fleximum.

James exhorts the reader not to skip to ‘her’ section but to read the whole book exactly as presented, in order to gain a full understanding of herself through reading about the others. This overbearing paternalistic tone persists throughout the book, and may be one of the reasons why I did precisely the opposite.

When James writes about under-threes, I find that he is spot on. His section on the needs of (and myths about) toddlers is clearly evidence-based, and he is relatively open about the harm caused by controlled crying, as well as the pointlessness of the naughty step at that age. However almost every statement he makes about mothers is a patronising generalisation. The case studies are written in a deeply judgmental tone, giving the impression that, whichever camp we are in, we mothers haven’t got a hope of getting it right.

Of course the first section I skipped to was the three pages on breastfeeding, in which James repeats a lot of over-technical information about positioning, attributing it to respected midwife Chloe Fisher. He dismisses Health Visitors as breastfeeding supporters, and then falls into the well-established pitfall of the untrained breastfeeding supporter himself, by basing his advice entirely on his own experience. He repeatedly states that colic is caused by not draining the breast properly. There is no research that conclusively establishes the cause of colic, and advice to ‘drain’ the breast can be very confusing.

This book lacks empathy with the subjects of the case studies and with mothers in general. The useful and accurate information about the needs of babies and toddlers can be found in They F*** You Up. As far as mothers are concerned, though, I would recommend that we all stop reading at page 5, where he states that ‘mothers rarely find anything as helpful as talking with each other;’ and go out and find a Bumps & Babies group or an NCT Early Days course instead.