“I have a dilemma, and I need your advice” my friend Jennifer confides. We are at her house for a social arrangement that back in London would have been pitched as “come over and we’ll ignore the children,” but over here is known as a “playdate.” The kids are jacked up on organic figs and running round in maniacal circles, screeching. In California this is called ‘self-directed play’.

“What’s up?” I ask.
“I think my daughter’s been breastfed by another woman.”

This is mind bogglingly weird, even for California. Jennifer tells me that she left her daughter Alice for an hour with a local mother while she ran an errand, and came back to find the woman doing up her nursing bra and remarking how different it felt when Alice latched on in comparison with her own son. I can’t begin to wrap my mind around this. For a start, Alice is two and a half. By British standards, it’s kinda weird that even her own mother is still breastfeeding her, although living in California I’m getting used to that kind of thing. But breastfeeding someone else’s child? A starving newborn trapped in a snowstorm, maybe. But a pre-schooler whose mum has popped to the bank? I look over at Alice, so deceptively cute with her pigtails and pink sandals.  “Adulterer,” I think to myself.

“What’s up?” I ask.
“I think my daughter’s been breastfed by another woman”

Although the whole thing sounds like an ill-advised collaboration between the scriptwriters for Sex and the City and Social Services, in some ways it almost doesn’t surprise me. Here in California, no one subscribes to the ‘stumbling-through-the-day-as-best-you-can-until-a-socially-acceptable-hour-to-open-the-wine’ parenting style favoured by my friends back in London. Middle class parenthood in coastal America requires the adoption of a parenting philosophy, a quotable governing masterplan to be taken Very Seriously.

For Jennifer’s promiscuous breastfeeding friend it’s “attachment parenting” a theory which has taken the loosely metaphorical use of the word ‘attachment,’ as in “I am very attached to my new kitchen blender” or “it is important that a child is well attached to its caregiver” and unfathomably decided it is best applied totally literally, advocating that a child should spend as much of its early years as possible actually physically fettered to its parent (although for parent, read mother.)

The theory is hugely popular here, and as a result, our local parks are full of exhausted looking women shackled to thirty-five pound toddlers like a hyper-parenting chain gang, and women breastfeed not just for the few months typical in the UK, but for as many years as they can humanly withstand.

I recently overheard a woman in the playground announcing: “I AM A FANTASTIC MOM!!” She was met with a chorus of high-fiving “you go girl!!”s and “me too!!”s

Attachment parenting is just the beginning. The Californian parent can choose from a vast array of parenting philosophies including natural parenting, mindful parenting, positive parenting, ‘educaring’ and even something with a vaguely Clockwork Orange ring to it called ‘unparenting.’ These theories leave little room for self-doubt. I recently overheard a woman in the playground announcing to her friends: “I AM A FANTASTIC MOM!!” and far from facing eye rolls she was met with a chorus of high-fiving “you go girl!!”s and “me too!!”s.

It was nearly three years ago when we first announced that my husband had been offered a job with a software start up in Silicon Valley, and we were moving to California with our baby son. The most common response at the time was envy. In many ways this makes sense. Our life here can often seem breathtakingly idyllic. Away from surly commuters and planned engineering works on the Northern Line, we have cook-outs and swim in the lake after preschool. The weather is reliably sensational and our three year old sports a distinctly un-British healthy glow. We’ve met some wonderful people and made some great friends. But I often feel as though I’ve somehow wandered into someone else’s Instagram feed. It still doesn’t quite feel like home.

When people ask me what I miss about the UK, it’s hard to pin it down without sounding ridiculously spoilt and churlish. I think in part, it’s the cynicism, the constant undercurrent of humour in British life, especially when it comes to parenthood. I miss the tone of sardonic one-downmanship. (“I’m a terrible mother.” No, no I’m  a terrible mother.” “But I left her in the pub!” “But I let him eat his own faeces!”) and the defiant refusal of the British to take themselves too seriously.

But I think it was the experience of giving birth in the US that really made it hit home to just how lucky we had been back in the UK without even realising it.

When our first son was born, in a run down NHS hospital in North London, I moaned about the inedible food and Victorian plumbing, but barely gave a thought to the fact that both of us were receiving world-class unlimited medical care without paying a penny. I just saw free universal healthcare as an unremarkable basic expectation.

In comparison, when I had his younger brother here in the States, the brand new private hospital seemed like a five star hotel, with on tap wi-fi, cable TV and all day coffee refills. But when I was discharged with a $55,000 bill and no idea how much of it, if any, our insurance would cover, I was suddenly hit by the profound fault-line of injustice at the heart of American society. In the end, our insurance paid the majority of our costs, but many here aren’t so lucky, bankrupted or plunged into poverty by the simple fact of having a child. It’s a dark undercurrent beneath the sunshine and positive thinking that’s hard to ignore. I realised the other day that I have now spent the majority of my years as a parent here in America. Bit by bit, California is starting to feel more like home. I drive an outlandishly large car worthy of a hardened soccer mom. The words ‘trash’ and ‘diaper’ and ‘elevator’ trip lightly off my son’s newly minted American tongue. Against my better judgement, I’ve even worn shorts. I know when we eventually do return to London I’ll deeply miss our Charlie Brown idyll and the fantastic people we’ve met here. But at least I’ll be reasonably confident that I will be the only person to ever breastfeed my children.

I often feel as though I’ve somehow wandered into someone else’s Instagram feed. It still doesn’t quite feel like home


But I think it was the experience of giving birth in the US that really made it hit home to just how lucky we had been back in the UK without even realising it.

When our first son was born, in a run down NHS hospital in North London, I moaned about the inedible food and Victorian plumbing, but barely gave a thought to the fact that both of us were receiving world- class unlimited medical care without paying a penny. I just saw free universal healthcare as an unremarkable basic expectation.

In comparison, when I had his younger brother here in the States, the brand new private hospital seemed like a five star hotel, with on tap wi-fi, cable TV and all day coffee refills.  But when I was discharged with a $55,000 bill and no idea how much of it, if any, our insurance would cover, I was suddenly hit by the profound fault-line of injustice at the heart of American society.  In the end, our insurance paid the majority of our costs, but many here aren’t so lucky, bankrupted or plunged into poverty by the simple fact of having a child.  It’s a dark undercurrent beneath the sunshine and positive thinking that’s hard to ignore.I realised the other day that I have now spent the majority of my years as a parent here in America.   Bit by bit, California is starting to feel more like home.   I drive an outlandishly large car worthy of a hardened soccer mom.  The words ‘trash’ and ‘diaper’ and ‘elevator’ trip lightly off my son’s newly minted American tongue.  Against my better judgement, I’ve even worn shorts.   I know when we eventually do return to London I’ll deeply miss our Charlie Brown idyll and the fantastic people we’ve met here.  But at least I’ll be reasonably confident that I will be the only person to ever breastfeed my children.

@ruthwhippman

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