Why does the user never pay?

Suzi Clark

Hello. Remember me, Suzi? I'm Jackie UserIyou remember, from Mothers and Toddlers at the church?" "Jackie!" I squeal gamely. "How's things?"

"Actually, I understand you are happy to run children into St Jude's?" "Yee-ees, butI" "That's t'rific," she says, "because my son, Jonathan, is having a terrible time having to get two buses into school every morning, so could he grab a ride with you?" "What, tomorrow?" "Well, whenever, really. "

"Well, if he's having a real problem I don't mind helping out, Jackie, " I say, "but there are times when I have to perform a bit of juggling act with my own kids, in order to get to early meetings."

"No problemo!" she says in comforting tones. "I can run him in, when you aren't able to."

"So you drive into town then?" "Well, yes, actually," she admits, adding hurriedly, "because I have to drop my little one at Fern Lea Primary and then dash to work."

Fern Lea is two minutes' drive from St Mary's, where my own eight-year old goes to primary school, and less than five minutes from St Jude's.

"All right, then," I agree feebly, "We'll see how it goesI" The next morning is a disaster. The eight-year-old has a nosebleed over her clean dress, the 13-year-old doesn't get a letter from her holiday romance pen-pal and the 15-year-old is in a foul mood because she has a zit on the end of her nose.

Jonathan, a quiet and pleasant boy, sits on the sofa awaiting departure. "Where's the stupid boy that woman has off-loaded on you, then?" snarls Eldest Daughter. "and who has stolen my Tampax from my pencil box, I'd like to know?" The Monday morning run is much the same as any other morning. Nose-to-tail traffic, much inhalation of fumes and sucking of Ventolin inhalers. Jonathan is as quiet as a church-mouse. No problemo, one might think. Until mid-week when my own St Judean goes away on a school trip so I ask Jonathan to get his mother to call me. She doesn't bother, and I end up having to call her.

I find the courage to say "No. I will not take over your responsibility for your child, sorry."

The next day she writes me a cool little note, apologising for having been misinformed about me "being happy to run children into school". She was only trying to avoid an additional journey in an already hectic morning, after all.

Perhaps she has assumed I am not a "working mother" like herself, and that makes me fair game. But I am only a part-time worker out of choice. By sacrificing income, I gain time. Time to combine a return to a career with postgraduate study; raising and transporting a family; writing articles and academic papers; practising active citizenship as a school governor; undertaking charity work in fundraising and, when required, being "happy" to run friend's children into school.

Parents who make incompatible choices about employment and childcare, or who select a school that's difficult to get to, have no right to expect other parents, working or "unemployed", to carry the responsibility on their behalf.

There is a growing tension in communities, as more mothers return to work and more affluent, independent grandparents refuse to accept the role of "childminder".

Informal suburban networks of frantic parents are proliferating. "Right, you take Ned I'll take Fred, we'll swap them in McDonald's, Samantha will go to Brownies with Louise, and Jade can go into the office with RoyI" and so on.

Until affordable, accessible and stimulating "out of school" provision is made available and parents who choose "active parenting" over full-time work are applauded rather than scorned and penalised financially, equal opportunities will have the hollow ring of a slogan, rather than any connection to the reality of parenting in Britain today.

Suzi Clark is a parent governor in north London

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