I had a most compelling conversation the other night with a close girlfriend. A term swam into the discussion that I haven't heard used in years: Bohemian. It cristallized a thought that has been bubbling away at the back of my mind for the past few years: that it has become impossible to raise a family in a creative, bohemian, or eccentric way. There seems to be no alternative, or middle ground, between hyper-commercialized, preternaturally childcentric helicopter parenting, or fundamental neglect amounting to child abuse. I think one of the (many) reasons why I question parenting at the moment is that it is so suffocatingly dull, not because children are dull, but because what's expected of mothers is.
I was in the school playground giving my children their daily snack of nuts the other day, and another mother, usually very friendly, barked at me: "Nuts? Did I hear the word nuts? Don't you know that you are not allowed to bring nuts onto school premises?" I had to admit that I didn't, and had been serving my children nuts pretty much every day for the past year at the school, and for years before that in another school. She snapped, "I'm sorry, but my daughter has a terrible anaphylactic reaction", and then stormed off.
I remember feeling bewildered at being spoken to in this way, in an everyday setting; ashamed and guilty, as if I had broken a law; and at the same time furiously angry: did this mother really think that I set out to transgress rules, and flout common decency? Did she really think I was out to attack her children? I simply hadn't known.
Of course I'd endured all the anxiety about nuts when my children were under one, then under three, but once the all clear had sounded, I used them as a fantastic alternative to crisps, cheese strings, or any of the other processed rubbish most children seem to eat when they leave school.
And there we are: straight back into Mummy War territory. This time not over working or staying-at-home, but within the stay at home category: the Food Wars (apparently working mothers are exempt from this war, being already flighty enough to work). Neither I nor the nuts-mother was right. Yet neither of us was wrong either.
The next day I ran after her to say that I realized she must have had a terrible experience with her daughter, and that I was sorry not to have known the rules. She was immediately apologetic for what she called her "grumpiness", and the incident was closed, honour salvaged. But I cannot recall my own mother enduring this kind of incident. Perhaps I was simply blind and deaf. And no one spoke to me in this way when I was working. What on earth is going on?
The nuts-debate is just the most protuberant part of the iceberg that is conformity when it comes to raising children now. There isn't a range of options, there is a compulsory orthdoxy of anxiety. If you look remotely critical, or questioning of this absurd status quo, which has children marking homework projects essentially carried out by parents (I wonder what I got for the rather pathetic scraps of paper my daughter produced and wandered into class with?), if you dare to suggest that there might be another way, or that children might need to be supported to become independent, for instance by walking across the school playground to their classrooms, having been waved off at the gate by a loving parent… then you are destined for exclusion. The identification of the Alpha mummy is easy: they are the mums dressed the same, buzzing in the same way around their children of a morning, dabbing on sun cream, making sure Genevieve has her violin. Obviously I'm one of them.
But going back to my starting point, ie. my conversation with likeminded mother the other evening, our joint sadness about this suffocating orthodoxy really comes from the sense that it is not possible as a mother, or as a mother now, to embrace eccentricity or bohemianism, and live it authentically.
In part this is because capitalism appropriates versions of bohemianism, since casualness is cool, and cool sells. Eventually cool goes mainstream, and new cool has to move on.
In part it is because the safeguarding agenda has come along in the wake of the terrible Baby P case, to tar us all with pre-emptive suspicion and fear.
In part it is because the sheer mechanics of the early life of an infant, with its regular feeding times, the need for routine, the repetitiousness, and the anxiety of simply keeping such a frail being alive, all collude to enforce conformity and blandness as the ideal framework for family life.
I should know, I tried so hard to live freely and creatively. But all that happened was a crushing mortgage, the end of my pre-children career, excessive stress brought about by lack of work/life balance, domestic disorganization, and ultimately an almost delirious capitulation to the sense rather than the sensibility of family life. I haven't quite been Bodenized, but that's merely because I can't afford the clothes. In every other respect, my dreams have become those of 99% of the middle classes: a beach shack at Southwold, brunches with successful fellow travellers, an expensive holiday every few months, and private education.