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.


lulu's missives said...

Hi I,
Brilliant post.
We share some of the same guilt.
But very well written.

litlove said...

I completely agree with your conclusion - what's missing is good quality, affordable (so in some cases free) childcare. I remember struggling with just the one child to get him to the early stages of pre-school and school - a few hours here and there in the day, with me driving backwards and forwards between work and childminder and home. It was madness. One of the reasons mothering is hard is because there is no time to think about it, no distance from which to reflect on it. To do a good job, you need time away from the kids - otherwise claustrophobia and frustration and loss of control result. We've all been there! But attachment theory, busy husbands, disjointed communities and few childcare options make this almost impossible.

Good on you, my friend, for continuing to tackle these essential topics.

Josh Lacey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrea Bluett said...

I agree with post. As a mum of an 11 and 13 year old I leanrt a long time ago - you can only do your best - nothing more nothing less - and no guilt trips. Hardest job ever, most rewarding job ever!!!