Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Laverne Antrobus and Oliver James, on Between Ourselves, R4

I've just listened, twice, to Between Ourselves, which asked the question: "How Should We Raise Our Children?". A subject close to my heart.

It was structured thusly: first, a spiel about the psychologists' own childhoods (James's was rather lacking in nurture, he told us, while Antrobus's was blessed with a very present mother). Secondly, an excursion into what children need (love, from one continuous source, a parent or another, until they are 3, then love and more love, with a few more people thrown in for good measure). Thirdly, a critique of the Supernanny style of intervention ('thinking step' only good in extreme situations according to James; 'thinking step' good for irate mummies who need to calm down, for Antrobus). Finally, an answer to what needs to change in society for us to be better parents. For James, it's simple: we need to be Scandinavian. We need to move to a society in which everything is set up for the wellbeing of its citizens, rather than maximum profit for the few. For Antrobus, it's all about the teaching of respect and empathy for others.

This all sounds very wonderful -- the conclusions are those reached in most childcare books, and in the A Good Childhood report brought out by the Children's Society. It is fine to be a good enough parent (WHAT'S THAT? HOW MANY WEEKLY ACTIVITIES DOES THAT MEAN? IS IT OK TO SERVE CHIPS?)

One waits to hear how to carry out this marvellous parenting. And lo and behold, James inadvertently reveals all. Mothers, he opined, need to reflect on whether they want to continue to have the status they had before children, or to acquire a status "lower than a street sweeper". What is never addressed in programmes like these, which delight in telling us that we are both somehow wrong and good enough, is the great problem of the status of maternity.

Women are caught up in capitalism at every level, and it is fundamentally incompatible with the nurture of children. Whether women are out earning their own money, then giving most of it to a childcare provider, or relying on their husband being a breadwinner, or living on benefits, they must spend, spend, spend to raise their children, because every area of our lives is so thoroughly commercialized. You can't go to a park and breathe in the fresh air without spending money. If you take a picnic, you'll need to have shopped beforehand for the constituent parts, braving the barrage of kiddy-oriented nonsense on sale at knee height in all shops. If you want to avoid pester power, you'll need a breadwinning partner so that you can afford to leave the children with someone while you weave round the supermarket. The recessive trail of avoiding accidental or pressure purchases while out with your children is exhausting even to consider. Easier to buy a bun en route. I digress.

To return to my point, James feels the need to tell women they will have zero status as mothers. I realize he was being 'ironic'. But, of course, he also wasn't, since he speaks a fundamental truth. I have to live with the paradox that I am somehow simultaneously doing the most important job in the world, which I shouldn't be leaving to anyone else, AND that I have absolutely zero status, despite my educational background and achievements prior to having children. Extraordinary. And on top of that, I'm to be subjected to bus drivers calling the police if I refuse to take my child out of her buggy when the bus is half empty; or have to listen as young men tell me my children's toes must be cold; or need to put up with women walking into my home and quite openly telling me what is wrong with my domestic set-up.

Am I ranting? I'm so sorry, I forgot, I'm supposed to be the fount of all empathy, in order to model good behaviour for my children. And as for smacking, which both psychologists agreed fervently must never, ever, ever take place.... well, I was soundly beaten as a child. Ah! I hear you cry, this explains everything. I swore I would never smack my children. And then I went through some of the most stressful times I have ever lived through, and I did smack them. I felt crippled with guilt, I fell into a state of depression, I sought counselling. I have striven to overcome my temper, I have reflected deeply on my past, my impatience, on the needs of my children. I take more time, I have learnt to step away from trigger situations. Most of the time.

That's the short version of events. Smacking happens. And, Mr James, and Ms Antrobus, although it shouldn't happen, if it does, it is not the worst thing that could ever happen to a child, as long as the parent learns from it, and as long as unthinking judgement is not aimed indiscriminately at mothers by all sectors of society, including child psychologists.

James loftily tells us that we need to change British society completely. Helpful. Millions of women agree, millions of women try every day to change society by teaching their children to share, to show respect, simply by loving them. Primary schools do nothing else. But women do so largely unsupported, by each other, by their families, by their partners, by their employers, by stupid government policies that aren't based on the needs of mothers, by extortionate childcare costs. So stop telling us what to do, and give mothers two things. The respect they deserve, and cheap, excellent childcare.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

That Article in the Observer

Over the past few weeks I have been astonished at the number of people who have referred me to an article by journalist and writer Lucy Cavendish, which appeared at the end of March 2010 in the Observer.

I read it with interest the first time it was mentioned, but felt that it was all old news, that we all know the story of the 'Mummy Wars', the stay-at-homes v. the working mums, the power of Mumsnet, and the playground antagonism. I wasn't sure what the article contributed to the debate, or how it took the debate forward, other than to re-present the normalizing perspective of the self-confessed 'Slacker Mum', speaking from the position of non-hothouser, non-combatant, mild-mannered raiser of kids. This, it seemed to me, was a very appealing position to take (supine), which was bound to solicit a lot of empathy, sympathy, and further first-person accounts of unwarranted sniping by mothers on mothers.

Except that it didn't: the comments at the foot of Cavendish's article were just as astonishing as the number of people who told me about it. The 109 comments she has received for her 'Mummy Wars' piece are, in the main, vitriolic. Most of them occupy the "get a life" terrain, in which the very existence of the 'Mummy Wars' is dismissed as further middle class/media self-indulgence. Others berate her for suggesting that women still do not earn as much as men. Very few sympathize with her or extend the argument.

The sheer number of comments made me think again. Clearly the article touched a nerve or it would have sunk without trace. So many people recommended it to me, in part because they know I'm writing a book about motherhood, but mainly because it touched a nerve for them too. In fact these are the same people who say, laying a hand on my arm, "what a timely book you're doing! I really want to read it!"

But what do they want me to say? All Lucy Cavendish does is point once again at the persistence of tensions between groups of mothers, and she ends with the entirely reasonable notion that what matters is loving our children. She cites a number of experts — sociologists and psychologists — who talk about the lowered self-esteem of mothers, and about how extended family support for parenting has withered. But she doesn't conclude about any of them — really we are left thinking that the only option is to muddle through, and wonder what on earth it was all about.

It seems to me that there is no external frame to the discussion. We have millions of mothers and fathers bobbing about in the sea of society, with their self-help books or their accounts with the Early Learning Centre, wondering whether the childless Gina Ford can really have much to tell them about 4am sobbing. We have vitriol, and playground bullying -- between mothers. We have Mumsnet with its "Am I Being Unreasonable…?" (well, yes you probably are if you start a sentence this way… it's the same as saying "With all due respect").

But we have no limit to the discussion, no framework within which to understand it. The only thing that most people cling to is the grossly misleading idea of 'stay-at-home v. working mothers'. This is a polarizing opposition which denies the enormous spectrum of choices that real people actually make, and reduces that set of choices to two, regardless of the age of the children, the family's needs, the woman's needs, and the children's characters.

The opposition 'stay at home v. working' is just another version of the Victorian opposition imposed on women, between the angel and the whore: in Victorian England women were expected to be either one or the other, but simultaneously, and impossibly, they were also expected to be both: the tart with a heart and the temptress in the middle class boudoir. How confusing is that? We still idealize and denigrate femininity and motherhood at one and the same time, with a similar paradox. Of course women cannot be all things to all people all of the time, but it's incredibly convenient to send them the message that they ought to be.

And there is also the question of fathers. There is a whole generation of men trying very, very hard to overcome their own upbringing, to be better fathers than their own were, while continuing to forge careers. The guilt that many men feel is at least as great as the guilt most women feel. But we continue to gender guilt as though it were somehow inherently a feminine emotion.

But having argued that there is no external frame to the 'Mummy Wars' debate, it is equally hard to construct one. Is this an ideological impasse? Is this the way things are, have ever been, from Clytemnestra and Medea onwards? Is the frame really the stand-off between feminism and capitalism? If you read a novelist like Houellebecq, he will assert that the existentialists of the postwar period are the rich capitalist babyboomers of the current age. Perhaps it is the same with feminism: the legacy of yesteryear's idealism is a generation of totally overworked and underpaid women trying to 'have it all' between shifting goalposts?

'-Isms', however, are made up of people and their choices. We do not solve, only reify, problems when we pack them up as neat '-isms'. No one is exempt from the workings of ideology, but we do all experience it differently. Even if it's true to say that motherhood today is an over-egged pudding, we will still go on raising children, somehow.

Which brings me back to Lucy Cavendish: she seems to have poked a stick into the ants' nest and stirred it all up again. Motherhood is political, it's official: just look at the Conservatives' ad campaign, with its images of women who say they have never voted Tory before now (while looking extraordinarily Middle England). But let's remind ourselves that 'motherhood' is as much a construction serving other people's interests as it is a natural, biological, essential drive in the human female.