Ah, at last, a subject for a mothering blog to really sink your teeth into. Maternal negligence.
So, I took the two children to the supermarket with me. I had only managed this by virtue of agreeing to let my son go to the toy section. He knows this particular supermarket stocks a brand of some unspeakable tut, which appears to be a 'trash monster'. Delightful. We now give our children replica waste disposal units, presumably to prepare them for a lifetime of cleaning up the environmental disaster we've caused.
Anyway, I delivered both the children to the toys, and instructed my oldest, who is about to turn 9, to keep the youngest in sight at all times, and then walk up the central aisle and look down the side aisles for me when they'd had enough of window shopping.
I peacefully got on with my shop, congratulating myself that we had at last got to a point where I could let my daughter be responsible, give her a little independence, and not have them trail after me, whining for what they knew I wouldn't purchase for them. A brilliant solution.
Time ticked by.
I realised that I was pretty near the end of the shop, and felt in my bones that something was awry, but then thought, I'm sure they're fine, I'll just get the eggs and go and look for them.
At that precise moment, I heard "Would Ingrid Wassinaw please go to the scrumupfflyephondobu –". I did not need to be told twice. I whipped the laden trolley round, and fretted my way behind various meanderthals to Customer Service.
There they both were, abandoned orphan waifs, blonde heads peeking pitifully over the counter, while a large red-faced lady with her back to me frowned loudly into a phone, "we've still got them, we'll have to call the police".
Meanwhile, yours truly was unrepentently asking the children what had happened, and whether they had come looking for me.
They had. They had looked all over the toy section first, then looked along every side aisle (carefully avoiding the central aisle, it seems). Then the staff had used the shop cameras to look for me, and identify my car (to reassure the children I hadn't just driven off, they said), and then the staff were about to call the police. They had apparently called out my name, and the car numberplate, 4 times. I'd heard none of it.
Redface was standing over me, hands on hips, glaring down at my clearly negligent head, as I crouched by the children. I wasn't sure whether to point out to her that the shop's reaction was completely out of proportion, illogical, poorly thought-through, and seemingly designed to cause the children maximum distress.
I decided against it.
But I consciously decided not to apologise, or thank them on bended knee for saving my children's lives from the band of child abductors who usually go to that branch of Tescos for their Saturday shopping.
Instead, here is what I did. I took the children round the corner, and told my daughter that next time she should listen to what I'd said, go down the wretched central aisle, and use that vantage point to scan down the sides. I told her to use her Godgiven logic, to which she pointed out that I didn't believe in God. I agreed, and told her to use my brain, which I'd very kindly put in her head. It seems to me that if you have a child who can engage in theological argumentation, she can probably find you in a supermarket.
Then I suggested we play a couple of rounds of hide and seek, in which the children, like two babes in the wood, should count to 20, then come looking for me. They were delighted by this. No, I didn't leave a trail of breadcrumbs (although I did wonder if I was being filmed by the security camera). Once we'd done this a couple of times, the children felt very happy, and I think next time we'll all manage the experiment just fine.
What do I think now? The same as I thought when the redfaced woman bore furiously down on me: what kind of society do we live in, that reacts as though I would abandon my children to their grisly fate, because I let them look at the toy section and then assumed they had the sense to come and find me? In a supermarket they've had the misfortune to mooch around behind me since they were toddlers? I've done the "could you go and look for broccoli for me, darling?" routine ad nauseam. No, give them some independence!
To me, this epitomises what I am up against as a mother. It was so clear to me that I was supposed to kowtow to the staff with their hysterical 'protocols', and not an ounce of common sense – I knew I was being judged for negligence. A few years ago I would have dissolved into tears after an incident of this kind.
Now I just feel completely cold. I no longer have an emotional reaction appropriate to this degree of mass stupidity. I no longer blame myself, and think that others must be right, that others must know more than I do about safety, caution, stranger danger and basic cognition.
How are my children supposed to grow up into independent people who can think for themselves, negotiate the outside world, use their logic, develop their self-confidence and forge lives, in a culture that thinks a supermarket is as dangerous as a trek to the Himalayas?
Basically I trust my children, I knew that they were safe, and wanted to give my daughter some freedom. On one level I feel she used this independence well: when she wasn't sure, she went for help. On another, ever the Victorian mother, I did tell her off for not following simple instructions, or asking me to explain if she felt unclear.
Yet I feel in a tiny minority. I'm using as a benchmark the degree of independence I had by my daughter's age – and I was mollycoddled by comparison with children around me at the time. I would like her to feel able to walk to the local shops or the library, and use the pedestrian crossing, or even walk to school. I get her to cross over quiet roads constantly. We've just managed to persuade her to cycle, on the pavements. Nevertheless she still clings to me, unable to believe that she has it in her to BE any more independent of me. Thanks, Tescos, for reinforcing that belief in my child.
This is the legacy of little Madeleine McCann's disappearance. Because of her terrible loss, because her loss gave form to our deepest fears, and because it is unresolved, we are all living under an imperative to wrap our children in suffocating cotton wool. We are all supposed to keep our little ones zipped to our sides at all times – and if we do not, we are judged negligent for it. But we are breeding trouble for ourselves.
Do people trust themselves so little?