The parent trap

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Fire the nanny: Nicola `Superwoman' Horlick dismisses the hired help, and is

taken to a tribunal. Jail the nanny: another British childminder takes the stand in America, and is convicted of murder. Punish the daddy: the Government targets teenage pregnancies, and threatens retribution for errant fathers.

Why is bringing up children now so fraught with difficulty, failure and recrimination?

He is so beautiful. His little spine, with nobbles of vertebrae no bigger than my knuckles, moves beneath his skin when he leans to pick up a toy. "I love the dip in his neck," says his father. "I love the small of his back, dimpled like a cello." It's the greatest joy of summer, letting your toddler go naked, watching his body move around, as he absorbs himself in the serious business of play, always busy, always with something to do.

Children. You feed them, keep them clean, engage with them, and they grow and develop, each day bringing new pleasures, new wonders. How does it happen? Nature does it, with a little help from you. I've been a mother for almost 21 months, and I still can't decide whether parenthood is the most difficult challenge I've ever taken on, or the easiest way of achieving perfect happiness that can possibly be available to humankind. Bringing up children: so easy, so hard. Other mammals just get on with it. But other mammals have so much more simple a world to prepare their offspring to face.

Mummy, daddy, baby, sunshine, love. Idyllic. Mummy, daddy, baby, nanny, babysitter, cleaner, work, money, exhaustion, trust, jealousy, guilt, betrayal. Trickier. Schoolgirl mummy, baby, absent daddy, no money, no work. A sociological nightmare. Mummy, daddy, childcare, shaken babies, murder. Every parent's nightmare. How is it that we have developed into a society in which something as simple and fulfilling as creating and nurturing our children has become so fraught with difficulty, danger, failure and recrimination? While the tribulations of finding appropriate childcare rarely lead to murder trials, blame for the shaky status of child-rearing is being apportioned all the time. Women blame men, men blame women, and sometimes, as in the case of Tim and Nicola Horlick, men and women join together to blame the hard-working and possibly blameless hired help.

Last week at an industrial tribunal, Joan Buckfield, nanny to the Horlicks' five children for 10 years, won nearly pounds 13,000 in compensation for her unfair dismissal. Her vindication in court obviously did not sufficiently quell her feelings of injustice, for she then went on to tell "her side of the story" to the Daily Mail. Her story is one of tireless service and endless love, terminated without warning over a disagreement about whether one evening a 10-year-old should do her homework in the kitchen or the dining-room.

Without waiting to see what Buckfield had said to the Mail, Nicola Horlick launched a counter-offensive, contacting The Daily Telegraph, the newspaper that had serialised her book, Can You Have It All?, which described life as a mother of five and top City fund manager, and heaped lavish praise on Buckfield as the linchpin of her "superwoman" life.

Curiously, though, Horlick's account makes you feel more sympathetic towards Buckfield than her own testimony did. Backed up by the corroboration of a young woman, Bronwyn Broekmann, who was hired as a companion to Horlick's eldest child, Georgie, when she was fighting leukemia at Great Ormond Street Hospital, Horlick tells of an insensitive disciplinarian who had favourites among the children, and attended neither the funeral nor the memorial service to Georgie after she had died.

Unsurprisingly, the favourites of the childless Buckfield were the three children she had looked after for five days and three evenings a week since they were born. She was not as close to the elder two, particularly Georgie, who she described to Broekmann as "rude and spoilt".

The defining moment in the breakdown of the relationship came at the time when the Horlicks had been told that there was no hope for their eldest daughter and that the next day the life support machine would be turned off. When the couple returned home, Buckfield, who did not know they had received this news, allegedly made an outburst about the way she was treated, saying that no one cared about her imminent admission to hospital for a hysterectomy (she was still recovering from the operation during the funeral and service to Georgie).

And there it is: two women, one set of children. One woman grieving over the loss of her child and angry that the woman who had spent far more time with the child than herself, did not love her well enough. The other woman, childless and about to face a hysterectomy, meaning the absolute certainty that she would never have children of her own. Something had to give, and it was, of course, going to be the nanny, not the mother. Buckfield was not allowed contact with the four children after she was fired, while Horlick is carrying a new baby and has hired a new nanny. Buckfield has a new post with a new family and says she "must look forward". Tim Horlick, as absent from this spat as a teenage father might be, apparently never liked Buckfield.

To me, the whole situation seems odd. Dubbed a "superwoman", Nicola Horlick behaves rather like a man. She gives birth to her children, but sees them only in the evenings and at weekends. The day-to-day childcare is left to another woman, who is paid a salary of pounds 20,000 to be a mother substitute, or pounds 4,000 per year per child.

The Horlicks' complaints seem petty when compared to the tragedy of the Smiths, whose son Oliver was shaken to death by Manjit Basuta because the 13-month-old would not come to her to have his nappy changed. Such murders are rare, but there is always some element of risk in leaving your children in the care of others, even if it is just that the nanny lets the child watch far more telly than you would yourself. But the risk is much smaller if you, the parents, remain distinctively the primary carers.

Since the Horlicks' nanny worked for almost 12 hours each weekday, plus three nights a week, it seems clear that the children were under her care most of the time. Why? Neither Nicola Horlick nor her husband work because they need the money. They are tremendously wealthy. Why do they have so many children, then see so little of them? Why is it now such an ideal that all parents should work?

For at the other end of the scale of privilege, down among the teenage mothers and fathers, the emphasis is the same. In the supervised hostels, these young mothers will get not just help in parenting, but also job- related training and a pounds 2m childcare scheme. While the right calls for moral guidance, the Government declares that "moralising won't get us anywhere". While this may or may not be true, there are surely a few things worth noting about the trend in parenting across the social scale.

While women, who have fought so hard for equality in the workplace, turn to other women to look after their children while they do so, men slip further and further off the agenda. Women such as Nicola Horlick advance by exploiting other women, expecting them to sustain their children just as they would themselves if they were not off doing something more important.

At the same time, they help to perpetuate the "having it all" myth, which in turn perpetuates the myth that you can have children without sacrificing anything else. No wonder young girls don't know what they're getting into when they begin sexual relationships, get pregnant and decide to have a baby alone. They are told all the time that you can look after a child fabulously well and be a City high-flyer like Nicola Horlick, or a globe- trotting princess like Diana Spencer. What they're not told is that it isn't their job to have children. Instead, what logic dictates is that young women without much in the way of career prospects should be looking forward to a life spent looking after the children of more successful women, in a weird, two-tier society of women that needs men only for their sperm.

For while the new guidelines from the social exclusion unit do pay lip- service to the idea that young men should take more of a role in parenting, the main line of attack is to pursue them for cash through the Child Support Agency.

What is so shocking in the late-20th-century spectacle of disintegrating parenthood is that money appears to be the only thing that motivates a desire for change. While 90,000 teenage pregnancies a year suggests to me that quite a few things are very, very wrong with our society, what really seems to get people going about it is the cost to the taxpayer of housing these young women and paying their benefits.

Instead, we do need moralising. I know many men who had little idea what their children meant to them until their relationships broke up, and I know many women who thought it would not be hard to have children and work full-time. I do find it curious that there is not a single well-established, functioning nuclear family in any of the nation's soap operas, and I do find it chilling that the dominant discourse between men and women is sexual rather than loving. While the fundamentalism of family campaigners is a turn-off, the truth is that our children really are the most precious thing in the world. And in a society in which each and every adult member is expected ideally to work a 40-hour week, there is just no room for families or children in the lives of women or of men.