They spring out of nowhere like ninjas, ready to pounce on unsuspecting mums who leave the house for a walk or treat themselves to a coffee.
For the variety of advice they impart they are remarkably true to type.
They are the matronly, recently retired women who have dedicated their twilight years to telling new mums how to care for their babies.
They are the self-appointed guardians of newborns everywhere. The merry meddlers who know infinitely more than you do – and will ever know – about your child’s digestion, temperature and mood.
They are the passersby, who, with one swift verbal roundhouse, can knock out your confidence and bruise your self-esteem.
I’ve owned a stout Labrador for a few years and have become used to strangers’ unwelcome observations: “She could lose a few kilos…oooh,she’s looking a bit limpy.” But I soon discovered having a newborn ups the ante considerably.
I encountered my first meddler on a street in Yarraville while waiting for my husband to order a couple of takeaway coffees. With our son only about six weeks old and still feeling like complete novices, we planned our trip meticulously. Our baby was clean, fed, burped, rested – the works. Naturally, with such careful planning, Joseph started to scream the moment we got out of the car.
As I pushed the pram back and forth I tried my best to maintain a neutral expression. “He’ll sense your anxiety, so stay composed,” I said to myself.
However a more sinister inner-monologue was in complete overdrive.
“Oh shit, oh shit, shit, shit.” “Is he too hot? Is he too cold” “It sounds like he’s choking on his scream?” “Is he suffocating? “Oh shit,he’s going to suffocate here on the street, isn’t he?”
My husband had clocked her eyeing me off from inside the cafe and she wasted no time in darting outside to offer assistance.
Without acknowledging me, she pulled back the shade cover on my son’s pram to reveal his contorted, crimson face.
In an instruction disguised as a question, she turned to me and said “pick him up?”.
I know it’s not right to hold grudges against people less than a year old, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever forgive Joseph for falling silent the moment I lifted him out of the pram.
Buoyed by a winning strategy for soothing my son, and a passive and compliant mother, she then went ahead to feel my son’s cheeks and neck.
Her diagnosis was quick.
“He’s had a fright,” she declared.
I guess that’s another line to add to my pre-going out checklist – Fed? Burped? Check. Hasn’t had a ‘fright’? Check.
My second meddler was in a cafe in Footscray. Determined not to let our new role as parents turn us into hermits, we ventured out for lunch.
We figured It may not be the long, lazy, ‘have-a-coffee-at-the-start-and-a-coffee-at-the-end’ lunches we were used to, but it would be an hour out of the house nonetheless.
She too came out of nowhere, as though ascending from a trap door underneath my table. All that was missing was a puff of smoke.
“You better keep your baby away from the door. It’s cold outside.”
“Yes, it is cold today,” I replied.
She retreated to her table and for a moment I felt guilty that my response came off frostier than the weather. That was, until I noticed her mouthing something to me from across the cafe.
It was an exaggerated whisper, like when a racist describes why they don’t like their neighbour or workmate and adds incidentally, hand up to the side of their mouth, “…and they’re Asian…”
“He’s got wind,” she silent-shouted at me. “W.I.N.D!” ‘WIND!”
“He’s got wind,” I said blankly to my husband, who was oblivious to what was happening as our son gurgled contentedly in his arms.
It was time to go, but I could already notice myself over performing in her gaze. I wrapped my son more snuggly than I ever had before and shielded him from any breeze that may have drifted in his direction.
Uh huh. I am a competent parent. No way is my son falling victim to wind – of any kind.
My son will soon be 10 weeks old and as he grows, so too does my resilience and confidence in my intuition as a mum.
Because, after all, this is Melbourne’s west, so for every snide sexagenarian there are at least five sympathetic strangers who offer a warm smile or the right words of assurance, at the right time.
To the man at Altona Gate who stopped to tell me that this year was going to be a great Christmas spent with my newborn, thank you!
To the amazing lady who offered to rock my pram while I got my eyebrows threaded, you made those 10 minutes so less stressful!
To the nanas who speak gently to my son and share stories about your own grandchildren, you make my day.
The occasional run-in with a busybody is a small price to pay for these happy encounters.
These are the moments when any doubt I have in myself – and in the decency of others – evapourates and I realise we’re all not doing such a bad job after all.
Perhaps we need to tell each other that a little more often.
With thanks to the team at Bubba West magazine who first printed this article in December 2015.