CHILDREN : Normal? I assumed it was
In the final part of our parenting series, Celia Dodd talks to three people brought up outside the conventional family; PART 2: `ABSENT' PARENTS
Sunday 17 November 1996
"I come from a family tradition of nannies - my grandmother had a nanny, and so did my mother. I can remember visiting her when I was a child. So it always seemed perfectly normal. But my mother was different in that she was determined to work. My parents were struggling doctors, they didn't have the sort of money that their parents had had. So all our nannies had a young child. That meant there was always someone to play with.
"The nanny who stayed the longest, Bernadette, came when I was six and left when I was 19. She was in complete control. We certainly weren't kept in the nursery and brought down at teatime in the way that my mother and grandmother had been, but we were dressed, bathed and put to bed by the nannies. Bernadette was very strict. We wouldn't jump to attention for my mother in the way we would for her. But we went wild when she wasn't around.
"In theory Bernadette had Sundays off, but she tended to work seven days a week. She used to come with us when we went down to the country at weekends and for holidays.
"My mother worked from home. I can remember interrupting her when I was small and her telling the nanny to stop me. So I didn't do it again. But we had a big house so we learned to stay away from the places you weren't meant to make a noise.
"My mother would emerge from her study to have tea with us and we would hang around while my parents were having drinks. We saw them quite freely between tea and bedtime, and then we would he shooed off to bed by the nanny promptly at eight. My father was a typical Fifties father; he just wasn't there. I had no expectation of him at all.
"I got a lot of good things out of Bernadette - she taught me things that my mother wasn't interested in, like how to use a sewing machine. And she made me do things - I was quite phobic about the telephone and she used to make me ring through the daily grocery order, which is obviously very useful now. But she never kissed us, ever. She was not exactly warm. The cuddles came from my mother.
"In my peer group it was very unusual to be brought up by nannies. Everyone else had these devoted professional mothers at home. I never longed for that because it was drummed into me that girls should work and be independent. Now I'm a working mother I've been quite struck by how guilty my colleagues and friends feel about leaving their children. I know that if I trust the nanny then there is no reason to have any guilt.
"And other people's mothers seemed incredibly controlling - they would vet their children's friends and so on, whereas my mother was very liberal. As teenagers we were left alone in the house at weekends while Bernadette went down to Sussex with the younger ones. We would have all our friends over, cook up enormous meals, smoke dope and sit on the roof. My friends thought it was great because it was so different from their own houses - there was no control at all.
"Being brought up by nannies probably makes you more detached from people; it certainly made me more independent. I don't regret having been brought up by a nanny. But I wouldn't have a live-in nanny myself. I think the closeness you have with your children comes from everyday things like having breakfast together."
Sally Mitchell never knew who her father was and her mother was a single parent who committed suicide when Sally was seven, and her twin half-brother and sister were three. They were taken into the care of the social services and fostered by a devoutly religious couple with grown up children and young grandchildren.
When Sally was 16 she went to live with her godmother's family, whom she had known since she was young. It was in effect an informal adoption with a huge sense of commitment and affection on both sides. Sally refers to them as her mother and father. Sally, 38, a nurse, is now a single parent herself, with two sons, aged 10 and two years.
"My son said to me yesterday, `I'm not actually related to granny at all am I?' I said, `Only by the fact that she loves you and you're her grandson: there is not blood connection.' I explained that when two people get married they're not related: but having children makes them a family. I think every family is legitimate.
"I refer to my godparents as my parents because it's a currency that makes it easier to function in a society which is very much to do with family units. Families may come in all shapes and sizes, but in day-to- day life people expect you to have something resembling a family.
"My `family' is also linked to my real mother because my godmother and my mother knew each other and my godparents still live in the village where we used to live. I keep in touch with friends of my mother, and I've been back to our cottage, so there is still a connection with that life. That's why it hasn't been a negative experience.
"Those links with the past give me a lot of confidence. I never feel I'm a little country bumpkin brought up by evangelist parents. I always knew I had this legacy - and I think it's got stronger over the years. Having my own children has made me feel more strongly connected to my own mother.
"When I was three my mother and I went off to travel round Africa. When we came back she was pregnant with the twins, and we moved to Suffolk. Although we lived on our own we were part of a local community of artists and musicians. I can remember going to bed and hearing a lot of chat and laughter downstairs. In the morning there would be a load of empty wine bottles and the heavy smell of cigar smoke. It was very free. We spent half our life roaming the countryside. There was a lot of independence and respect for children.
"Life with my foster parents was a complete contrast: they were a bit like something out of Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. They were devoutly religious and we used to have Sunday school in the front room. They were heavy on morals, which is a bit iffy when you're illegitimate.
"When I was about eight I asked my foster mother - who I actually called mum - whether I was like her grown-up daughter, and she said `Oh no, Angela knew her morals.' That's stayed with me all my life, although I don't think it's done any deep-seated damage. In fact I was quite pleased to be bad because it aligned me with my mother. I could always disown my foster mother - inside I did, regularly. I was desperate to grow up and get away.
"Yet I don't remember being dramatically unhappy, I always look for opportunities to be happy. I used to read a lot. I think I spent much of my time living some sort of fantasy life. Although I could see that other people's lives weren't like mine, my life was normal for me. Only occasionally I thought of writing to ask Julie Andrews to adopt me.
"All the fuss recently about encouraging single parents to give up children for adoption has made me think it was tremendously brave and bloody-minded of my mother to keep us. When I was born most illegitimate babies were adopted. I would still rather have gone through everything that's happened to me than to have been given away at birth and been brought up in a `normal' family.
"My godparents are my family now. There is an enormous sense of duty and commitment on both sides, quite apart from any affection. They have been very generous in supporting me financially over the years: I count for an equal share in the family estate. They don't ever say they love me and I never ask. I don't know what happens in normal families. I don't know how different it is."
Ben Coffman, 26, was brought up in a commune in the Buckinghamshire countryside which his father helped to found in the Seventies. He moved there when he was eight with his sister, his stepmother, two step-brothers and a half-sister. There were usually about 30 adults and 15 children living in the large Victorian house, sharing all the chores and eating together.
The underlying philosophy was about getting out of the rat race and living together as a group. There were no nuclear families. Half the adults, including Ben's father, worked on the commune, which was virtually self-sufficient. The rest pursued professions ranging from lecturing and producing pop videos to running projects for Oxfam.
Ben is single and works for the Labour Party.
"My flatmate once said I was the only person he knew with divorced parents who wasn't fucked up. I think a lot of that is to do with being brought up in a commune. In a sense you were living with 30 step- parents. Everyone was a surrogate parent, and that may have made it easier to accept my own step-family.
"My parents were classic children of the Sixties. Their divorce wasn't particularly traumatic for me. I've never felt bad about it, and they've always been very relaxed about everything. It was the logical thing to do. I can't imagine my parents together.
"At the time my mother felt it would be better for me and my sister to grow up in the country than in Hackney where she lived with my stepfather. I saw her about once every three weeks. Did I miss her? Yes and no. I enjoyed visiting her but I had another family and I got on with it. In a sense it wasn't particularly practical to miss somebody all the time.
"At the commune we didn't see each other as a family much at all during the day - we used to get together just before bedtime. Supervision was virtually non-existent unless you were caught doing something. We could do whatever we wanted: there weren't really any rules. There was a danger of it being a bit directionless - you could watch telly all day or do whatever you wanted. But we got used to taking up our own leads. At times we were rowdy and got into dangerous situations - once we were quite seriously chastised for riding an old motorbike up and down the drive at night with no lights or helmets. But basically we were a sensible lot.
"In some ways my independence meant that I wasn't particularly committed academically. I didn't do any work for my A levels because there was always something more interesting going on. I think I often needed a bit of guidance which wasn't always there. I wasn't old enough to judge what was best for me, so I sometimes needed a bit of encouragement, some direction.
"When I failed my A levels my dad just said `you silly sod'. He didn't really want me to go to university, but it was all right for him, he already had a degree. I moved into a housing co-op to retake my A levels and then I went to university.
"I've never felt my upbringing was odd, it's just the way I grew up. Friends' parents and the local villagers were quite suspicious; they swallowed all the myths about sex and drugs.
"A lot of my friends had a more traditional, working-class upbringing. I always found the nuclear set-up quite intense and rather cramped, with everything focused on the children. But I envied their freedom to leave it and go round to their friends, whereas we couldn't leave our environment easily.
"I never challenged the ideals of the commune. "Arguably I'm rebelling now in having a nine-to-five job in London, but it's not conscious. I doubt if a commune will ever be right for me again. Living in a commune as an adult would be too constricting. I want my own space, and to do exactly what I want to - which is the way I've always been brought up, to be independent.
"It's made me very conscious of other people. I tend to be quite possessive about things, partly because in the commune things used to disappear or get destroyed. At the moment I'm considering living alone. I think it would be hard. Although I'm independent I'm not necessarily that brilliant on my own." !
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