We're just not doing right by our children

14th February 1997 at 00:00
It's been a bad few weeks for parents. Or, to be more precise, for mothers since it's still mainly mothers who take the rap over child-rearing.

It seems we're damned if we do, and damned if we don't. If we put in long hours at our jobs, our children don't do well at school. If we stay at home and take a keen interest in their education we become mothers from hell - living manifestations of that parent power which so irritates teachers, at least according to last month's TES survey of teachers' attitudes.

Yet maybe it's not so bad. Maybe any publicity that helps to move forward the complicated debate on how to care for children and to set a higher value on the hard work it involves, is worth having.

Because every school knows which are the lost boys and girls in its charge - those that exude that distinctive miasma of uncared-for-ness that results not from physical neglect but from a lack of emotional support. Children need not only food and warmth to thrive, but time and attention and homes with loving adults in them. And it's not hard to see that the grain of present society runs counter to this.

We work the longest hours in Europe, and many mothers either have to work full-time, or are caught up in a culture which says that careers and children can be combined at no cost, except perhaps to the overworked mother herself.

They can't. Every choice is an exclusion, and for most of us, work and home live in perpetual uneasy compromise. We do what we can, or what we must, but the conflicting demands of jobs and children grind every family member through the mill.

My abiding memory of being a full-time working mother is of rushing home late and distracted, screeching to a halt like some character in a Tom Jerry cartoon, and standing on the doorstep trying to calm down to the right domestic pace for bathtime. It was a huge physical and mental effort, and if the result was quality time, then the quality was often questionable. When you've spent all day in a busy office, you're simply out of tune with the pottering home life of pre-schoolers.

We usually shared our nanny with another family, and over the years a succession of different mothers arrived at the door in the evening to pick up a succession of different offspring. A good half the time children who had been playing perfectly happily lit up for a second as they saw their mother's face, then almost immediately began to fuss and scream. They could have been different children from the happy ones of a moment earlier, and it wasn't hard to see why. They were remembering that their mother had abandoned them that morning, and that they were angry with her and wanted her to know it, remembering, too, that they now had to leave this nice, familiar place and the person who'd been caring for them all day, and go out into the night to somewhere else.

The bad moments always passed, with all of us adults standing around in the narrow hallway stroking little heads and muttering "tired" and "that time of day" to each other like mantras, but it left me uneasy about what sort of long-term toll such a daily roller-coaster took on both parent and child.

It was promptings like these, and a million others, that led me, like so many other mothers, to scale back my working life bit by bit to make room for the growing family.

It isn't a particularly fulfilling road to choose, you can easily end up with the worst of all worlds, but for many of us choice doesn't come into it. If we're free to make the adjustment, it somehow seems the only thing to do.

Perhaps not surprisingly the commonest UK family working pattern is now one partner working full-time and one working part-time.

Because even older children still need huge amounts of time and attention. Teenagers don't talk to order, nor do they eat a healthy, balanced diet when left alone with the fridge and the microwave. And it's astonishing how quickly an air of neglect can seep into a home when everyone's time and attention is elsewhere.

Yet if working mothers feel guilty about leaving their children, those on the full-time "mommy track" feel just as guilty, because there is little in our society which honours their choice. They earn nothing, enjoy no status, and are often kept at arm's length by the one institution they have regular dealings with - their children's school.

Perhaps, though, something will change. To me, it's clear that Jack Straw's bedtimes, and Tony Blair's homework, and John Major's cadet corps are all fumbling political responses to a much wider dawning awareness that there is something awry with the way our culture deals with children.

Alas, as ways forward they're hardly worth the paper they are written on. Putting teenagers into army boots won't conjure up self-discipline; any more than decreeing an official bedtime will banish yawning children from morning assembly.

Effective change can't be imposed from the outside in. It has to grow from the heart, and what is needed for that to happen is for us all to realise that bringing up children is both more onerous and more honourable than we thought.

When that happens; when the complexities of parenting are better understood and more widely disseminated and supported; when teachers and parents can work in closer partnership towards shared goals; when fiscal policies support families, and jobs are structured to allow for family life, then we might at last begin to create the kind of culture in which children are given their proper place.

It won't happen. The structural and psychological upheavals would be too profound to contemplate.

But maybe we're at least beginning to understand that we need to try.

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