Sunday, 28 February 2010

A Good Childhood: who knew?

A Good Childhood is a report for the Children's Society. I'd never heard of it, but my husband got it for work. I think he was in part inspired to buy it by the terrible UN report back in around 2006, which put the UK at the bottom of the heap for good places to raise kids.

The report's been put together by Richard Layard and Judy Dunn, although they are really only the final adjusters, synthesizing an absolutely huge amount of research, that has been done on the state of childhood and all that contributes to it (ie the whole of British society, saturated in consumerist capitalist ideology).

Richard Layard is the economist who wrote Happiness, and the report is written in a delightful avuncular style, which just makes my heart melt. It's very tough: we hear about the dreadful state of the UK education system, about mental ill-health in children and young people, and the terrible impact of consumerism, substance abuse, violent games, and overworked parents. Yet because the report approaches this toxic state of affairs through language which implies that we could all reach an ideal if we changed the way we do things just slightly, the book is immensely empowering to read.

It is so painfully rare to read a diagnosis of damage and trouble which isn't written in a sensational style that feeds on what it is diagnosing. Many people's everyday comments to each other take this form, unaware that they are not 'outing' problems, but participating in them and perpetuating them. I think we can all remember moments when we opened up to a friend, and found ourselves on the receiving end of a debilitating confirmation of our worst fears. Competitive fearfulness is itself a reflection of a cripplingly competitive culture.

I think that Layard is absolutely right when he pinpoints competition as the thing that could be killing childhood. He finds it everywhere, in consumerist social attitudes, in over-testing, and in the discrimination which both engenders mental health problems, but then turns those problems into labels and traps people still further. Perhaps it is true that we all read books which justify our choices and views, but I have rarely read a book in which I recognized my dilemma and the sources of its solution so clearly.

This is a book that can't really address the problem of whether or not women should work once they have children, but it does take up the point that continuity of care, and avoidance of materialism for its own sake, are general goods. And it recognizes that people must be allowed to find fulfillment for themselves. Failing to avoid avoidable damage is what causes problems for children: if a happy mother is a working mother, then that's good for the children, whether she's physically there at the end of the day or not.

It never occurred to me that a report for the Children's Society could be unputdownable. There is an overt strand of Christian rhetoric which threatens ever so slightly to tip the book over into the conservative camp. But it is hard to assert that Christian values are intrinsically bad ones. Secular society still needs the same — or very similar — values, with or without the faith part. This book should be handed out with the free nappies in hospitals, and every teacher in the land should be given a copy. Certainly every Government minister should be playing it on her ipod.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Mommy Wars

Mommy Wars (edited by Leslie Morgan Steiner (Random House, 2006)) is billed as a ‘face-off’ between ‘career’ and ‘stay-at-home moms’.

My heart began to sink immediately. Another attack on women, another simplistic polarization of the choices women make and the choices that are open to them once they have children.

In fact, however, this collection of essays isn’t nearly as bad as its own cover makes it sound. It’s not a ‘face-off’ at all, but a collection of essays about motherhood written by highly literate women, many of them already well-established writers and journalists. I really enjoyed the experience of reading about so many women’s lives (even though I had a guilty twinge at the realization that pretty much all of them exactly shared my profile, so that all that was really going on was a huge moan-fest).

Some essays have clearly been taken from other sources and re-published for the purposes of this book. In that sense there is an element of professional performance here: many of these women are very conscious of the politics and processes of writing and publication: they know, as it were, what they are doing when they write (if not when they mother). This is very pleasurable: you feel in safe hands. But there is a considerable degree of manipulation going on: these are not altogether ‘authentic’ experiences, and this is not a fly on the wall, in medias res capture of the experience of mothering. There is bound to be a lot that goes unsaid, and a lot that gets edited out, airbrushed.

There are some first-time writers here, and there are also a couple of accounts of truly awful parenting involving abuse and violence — but not first-person accounts. What we read are mediated accounts, written through the anxieties of mothers who want never to fall into the trap of abuse, who fear it in themselves, and need to abject that fear by displacing it onto another mother.

What is missing, too, is much synthesis that would bring together and differentiate between the huge and rich range of experiences voiced by the individual writers. I find this pretty lazy, and feel that the editor could have done more than simply marshal her extensive team. What was she trying to say? What was she trying to prove? That experience is relative, that anything goes, that all our choices are OK, as long as the children are (relatively) happy?

Having read Mommy Wars, pretty avidly I confess, I find it impossible to look back and remember any one essay – apart from one comment in a piece by Anna Fels, a full-time career psychiatrist and mother.

Her essay is ostensibly about many women’s experience of being haunted by an ‘other’, a figure representing the mother they might have been, had they made different choices (this haunting by an ‘other’ is echoed in the fear of being or becoming an abuser). Julia, the eponymous other to Anna Fels, was a stay-at-home mother, and they were each other’s greatest fear personified. Julia represented Anna’s guilt at being a working mother, Anna brought Julia’s suppressed feelings of inadequacy and failure to life. Perhaps needless to say, their friendship didn’t survive this crushing opposition. However the apparent central tenet of Anna Fels’s essay isn’t what most struck me. What has remained with me is a simple economic truth she mentions as an aside:

The irony is that for most of the twentieth century, […] employers subsidized the most expensive, full-time, individualized child care that exists—namely, the stay-at-home wives of their male employees. Now the same companies employ vast numbers of women in pink-collar and lower-management positions while making no accommodation for child care. At the same time, real wages were lowered so that two earners are now required to maintain the middle-class standard of living that required only one income in the 1970s. In effect, employers passed the full cost of child care on to individual families and significantly increased the hours of labor per family. Businesses, for the most part, still act as if there’s a full-time housewife at home taking care of the kids. [my italics]

I might add that schools also still act in this way, expecting mothers to soak up the extra administration they generate, and be available to pick up their children at a moment’s notice. As do GPs, whose surgery hours are completely inconvenient to working parents. But no matter.

What Anna Fels so painfully reminds me is that most women nowadays don’t have the choice not to work. It’s actually a hugely expensive luxury to stay at home with your children. The women so reviled as ‘yummy mummies’, who don’t work, although their children are at school and who seem to spend their time with personal trainers and meeting other ‘yummies’ for coffee, are yesterday’s housewives. They aren’t the equivalent of the Edwardian upper class women who employed a nanny and a housekeeper (although most ‘yummies’ would probably have a cleaner and possibly a nanny). Yummy mummies form the newly emerged upper-middle-class category that is based on money earnt and not inherited. Many of them will have had a good education, and probably a good career up to the point of having children. They are hated simply because they have jumped clear of the juggle that so many other women face just to have a normal standard of living. But good for them! They are the economic winners in a deeply unequal society. To the winner the Costa coffee.

Mommy Wars has emerged from the US, but the same economic model is at work in the UK. The paradox is that you go to work mainly to earn the money to pay for someone else to look after your children — but if you don’t go to work, and stay at home, your family loses out financially another way.

I look back at my own family set up: my mother did not work throughout my childhood, and in fact my father was also at home, being an older dad who took early retirement. We lived on his pension. My parents never had a mortgage. This is absolutely unthinkable now without significant private means. Relative earnings have gone down, when compared with the cost of living. We have a large mortgage, and one income because I have chosen to stay at home until at least our second child is in school. Ideally I want to write books and be available for my children when they come out of school, but this is probably a fantasy. The way in which we are living is completely unsustainable in the long term. There is almost no buffer if something goes wrong.

When I compare our situation to what I grew up with, it sounds as though I came from distinctly upper-middle-class origins, but nothing could be further from the truth: both my parents came from middle to lower middle class roots, and were given their break in life through education. They were determined that we should have the same chances if not better. They struggled to maintain the lifestyle my brother and I enjoyed, and I was very aware of penny-pinching — I knew better than to take our privileges for granted.

But in today's Britain, with all the advantages I enjoyed as a child, and all the qualifications I earned, I am nevertheless unable to provide half what my parents did for my own two children. The only way I could do this is to work full-time. This may still come, and once both children are at school, the costs of childcare would be much reduced. But the impact on the children of long hours out of the house is very great. It is obvious that they need the comfort of being able to potter about at home, and the freedom to share any troubles with a parent. This is an intrinsic part of their emotional and psychological development. In an economic equation in which one has two incomes and two children, what would be squeezed out is my relationship with my children, and in part their natural development. I’m not sure what the point of having children was, if I don’t have a relationship with them, and if I knowingly make choices that are damaging to them. I'm not even bothering to mention the situation for fathers.

The bottom line has been for me that the choices I have been left with as a working mother are non-choices. I have had to carve out an existence without status, without sufficient income to do what I want to do, and against the grain of contemporary consumerist society in order to be a happy mother.

In part this is what I want (or have come to want, or have been left gleaning). I like growing tomatoes and baking my own bread, and I do prefer working from home, and writing. Perhaps I didn’t know what I wanted before. Perhaps the stress and antagonism of most workplaces just isn’t for me anyway, regardless of children. Perhaps I just get bored quickly.