Honey, I forgot the kids

Chuck out the childcare books. The new parenting backlash means that guilt and self-sacrifice are out, hedonism is in, says AMINATTA FORNA
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Indy Lifestyle Online
People without children know that there are two types of parents. There are the friends who decline all invitations "because of the children" and, when you finally get to see them (in their own space), they abandon you for the first half of the evening while they undergo the rigours of bathtime and bedtime, before serving you food from M&S and willing you away by 9.30pm. And there are the other kind, who accept invitations precipitously and arrive with their arms full of pyjama-clad bundles and bottles of wine. The former they put upstairs in your bed only to collect them many, many hours later, staggering alarmingly down the stairs. Your bed is left warm and full of the alien smell of little children, there are stray toys and you are missing a blanket.

I have always rather admired the second sort of parent and hoped that, if I ever had children, I would be more like them. Of course the first group disapprove of and rather envy the others, privately hoping beyond hope that the peripatetic lifestyle of the children of such hedonistic parents will result in an adolescence full of discipline issues, and probably emotional and psychological problems as well. The fact is that it is quite often the reverse which turns out to be true.

Parents have had it hard for decades. Blamed by popular psychology for young adults' problems, caught between the demands of employers and the needs of children, offered little in the way of help (after all they "chose" to have children), modern parents find themselves constantly criticised by childcare gurus and politicians. Guilt is expected. And if you don't feel guilty, you must be a bad parent. I once walked up the street behind two young teenage girls and overheard them complaining about their mothers. After a series of gripes about the restrictions on their social lives, lack of extra pocket money and party clothes, one turned to the other and said, "Well at least you've got the guilt thing, mine doesn't even feel guilty." Hurrah for her, I thought.

Parenthood has become so fraught, it's no wonder that one in five women now say they'll never have children. It's the unattainable expectations that we now place on parents that are the real reasons why people are giving up kids. Compared to the off-putting horror of witnessing the unenviable lot of the average parent, careers and changing gender roles are secondary considerations.

Well, now it seems that the era of perfect parenting could be coming to an end. Parents are finally in revolt against impossible standards. Forbidden from complaining by accusations of selfishness, the guilt has reached saturation point and parents are beginning to fight back.

The recently released film Mad Cows, starring Anna Friel, "takes the sacred cow of motherhood and whacks it on the barbie," says Kathy Lette, author of the original novel and mother of two. Soon to open is another film, Anywhere but Here, with Susan Sarandon as a kooky, inept mother dragging her daughter on her search for success in Beverley Hills. Lette gives a standing ovation to the revolution she helped to start. She has no time for "Stepford Mums", and quips that for her "a balanced meal is whatever stays on the spoon en route to baby's mouth". The only response to a baby monitor, she says, is to talk say into it, "I'm sorry, the mother you are trying to reach is temporarily disconnected. Please try again later."

Working mothers, first in the line of attack on parents, no longer turn a hair, despite the enduring efforts of various parts of the print media to push the guilt button. Recent weeks have seen the publication of two more (conflicting) reports on mothers who work and the impact on their children. Not one mother I know, working or otherwise, paid any of it any attention. "You're damned if you do and damned if you don't," observed one. "So you may as well do what suits you."

Steve and Vanessa McKinley always took their first baby to parties and dinners. Now with two, it's harder, but "we'll do it rather than cancel because the babysitter has let us down," says Vanessa. "If they're used to it they don't mind." Earlier this year they took both children, now aged 18 months and four, on a snowboarding and trekking holiday in the Alps along with a group of friends, none of whom had children. Vanessa and Steve have conciously tried to avoid the trap of only socialising with other people with kids. Vanessa says that if she has a philosophy it is "not to make rules that you are going to be constrained not to break. You have to make a compromise with children," she says, "give them what they want so that you get what you want." Their children, she insists, are better for it, even if her methods sometimes contradict the child- centered, routine-obsessed advice from the childcare manuals.

Every month, every year, dozens of new magazines and books tell parents how to do their job better. Most new parents at some point ceremonially burn their copy of Penelope Leach or Miriam Stoppard. "They're like cook books in which no one tested the recipes," commented the mother of a one- year-old. "They tell you what to do but when it doesn't work, it's your fault." Each chapter of Mad Cows begins with a quote from a childcare manual and then cuts to the reality. Now it looks like the gurus are getting their come-uppance.

December in Britain will see the launch of a new magazine aimed at parents called WiPE. The brainchild of two full-time mothers, Jane Cobb and Penny Wilson, it is the antidote to that particularly sanctimonious, pastel- coloured brand of parenting magazine on sale at supermarket checkouts. While the sales of other parenting titles have fallen year on year, with two titles M and Parents closing altogether, WiPE, which promises "parenting with attitude" look set to become quite a success.

What started six months ago as an alternative, semi-underground newsletter for "real" parents, with only 200 copies of the first edition, is now set to launch in December with a distribution deal with COMAG and a print run of 100,000.

"Everything on the market told parents how to make their children happier, healthier and more PC. There was nothing for parents but more guilt," says Penny Wilson, a 32 year-old single mother, whose four year old son was born with a serious brain disorder. "Ours tells it how it is - for real parents rather than someone's idea of how a parent should be."

The first edition sports Ruby Wax on the cover, with coverlines such as "Entertain your child from the sofa" and "Porsche Parenting". With the exception of the latter (test driving a Porsche on the school run and weekly shop), the magazine is definitely "non-aspirational," says Jane Cobb. "There are no pounds 400 kiddies cardies or organic meals they won't eat. That's what people love about it."

And finally, WiPE will also include articles by and for men - yes, men, those forgotten parents. When Jane Cobb and Penny Wilson appeared on Carlton TV, 50 per cent of the e-mails and letters they received were from men. Penny Wilson says she started the project to keep herself sane through her son's illness. With any luck, WiPE will keep the rest of Britain's parents sane as well.

Vive la revolution.

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