Scapegoat for us all
Today's mother has never had it so bad. Where once she provided food and warmth, now she must build character and nurture soul. No wonder women are opting out
Sunday 02 February 1997
Today's mother is in a double bind. Only an unhappy child is a bad child, and whose fault is it if a child is unhappy? Mother's. She has failed in love. So the worse her child gets the more she must love. Heal all by hugs and kisses. Little children riot, flailing, breaking, abusing, marvelling at the idiocy of the adult world.
I'm not saying good or bad, merely remarking.
Childcare fashions change with the decades. Yesterday's mother saw babies born out of original sin, into sin. Imperfect as she too was, she did her best, no more could be expected of her. Today's baby is seen as a tabula rasa, bursting into the world bright, perfect, sinless, evolution's triumph and finishing point. Upon this slate the mother writes her child's future, and all manner of good and evil. If the baby cries it is mother's fault: she must allow it not a minute's distress: any misstep can spell both cognitive and psychological mischief, as mistakes in an earlier age could result in severe physical illness. If baby cries at night don't roll over and forget it. Up, up!
Today's mother can't rest: she must talk to her baby incessantly, develop its tactile, spacial and communicative abilities. (Next door's baby can read at two. What have you been doing, mother?) Yesterday's mother thought spacial and tactile whatnots grew by themselves, like teeth, and got more rest. Yesterday's mothers swaddled babies and bored them to sleep, occasionally sang to them to soothe them, rarely read to them. Yesterday's children learned to read fast, by themselves. How else were they to find out what went on in the world? Some of these children grew up to have Firsts in Philosophy, some didn't. Today's mothers don't dare leave a thing to Fate: they'll be blamed if they do. Today's mothers are trained to be interventionist.
Mothers forever have been sensitive to reproach, passionate to get things right.
They believe what they're told. Now they're told their brain shrinks by 10 per cent while they're pregnant. This may well be true.
On the subject of singing, if the baby gets croup in the night, call the doctor, take the baby, go to the bathroom, run the hottest steamiest bath possible, and sit there with the baby, singing to it. The baby's so astonished the choking stops. It may just be the steam, of course. But it works.
Childcare fashions change with the decades, sometimes suddenly and drastically. The educated classes, those who read childcare books, are the most sensitive to the obsessive notions of those who write them. In the Thirties the advice was to rear babies at a distance, not to pick them up, to avoid physical contact whenever possible, to feed at four-hourly intervals (three hourly for the first month, lucky baby), and to ignore their crying. These babies became the isolated young mothers of the Fifties, who took to tranquillisers and alcohol, who kept their babies in prams at the bottom of the garden; part of a generation of guilty stoics. Forties babies, reared without theory, with bombs dropping and a state doling out goodies, turned into Sixties radicals, flower-powery, drug-taking and disingenuous. Those Fifties mothers, tranquillised, produced a grunge Seventies generation of blackly glowering, pale-faced youth. Sixties mothers, their bible Benjamin Spock, were responsible for the Yuppie Eighties; Seventies Penelope Leachites produced today's solipsistic, mumbling sharers and carers. It's the childcare Book of Fashion that determines the character of the decade 20 years on. And all Mother's fault.
Well, it's a theory. I'm working on it.
Today's mother must put up with the pain of childbirth; swinging back to yesteryear, in pain and sorrow, et cetera, must she bring forth issue. Today's mother is brainwashed into believing that childbirth, being a natural process, must be painless if only she could get it right. Today's mother goes into labour. She pants, she relaxes, her husband has the video camera out - keep smiling, mother, stop screaming, or be a failure.
Today's mother must "bond", a concept which only came into existence 20 years ago. Ordinary affection and responsibility for a child will not do: something more primitive must cut in: a fiercely protective instinct which has very little to do with common sense. Here comes Nurse, marching down the maternity ward! "Has your milk come in, mother, have you passed water, have you bonded yet?" Bonding is a life sentence of love and irrational anxiety mixed. The bonded mother can only have a quiet mind when the child is sleeping at her breast, and god knows what the trauma of the dream can be. How can she save it from that?
Better the sabre-toothed tiger outside the cave, if you ask me, than the current ad on TV. See there, pictures of blighted mites! Did you know, your child, happy and healthy today, can be blind, deaf, dead within the week? Childhood diseases! Immunise now before disaster strikes. Measles, meningitis, whooping cough! Yet don't these jabs cause brain damage, asks the double-binded, bonded mother. When the State says "safe" mother knows it means "acceptable risk". Acceptable to whom, exactly?
Today's mother has to trust nature to know best. Here comes the Breast Milk Lady, marching down the ward. Away with those bottles you thought would set you free! Breastfeed! (Here's a fine way to keep the fathers out.) Statistics are flung at the sore-nippled, swollen-breasted mother. Do this or damage your baby for life. You can't go home until suckling's established. Yesterday's mother thought breast milk was nature's minimum for a baby's survival, not the best that could be done.
As I say, I'm not saying good or bad, I'm only remarking.
Today's bonded double-binded mother is out at work anyway. One income is not enough to support today's family. Come rain come shine she must daily hand over her baby to another woman who earns less than she does: who has lower status. Mother can no longer guard her child from physical, cognitive, emotional and moral harm. She has to trust where no trust should be. Today's mother is exhausted. Forty-seven per cent of women with children under four work part-time or full-time.
Today's mother, bonded or not, can keep her child only for the first four years and then must send it to school under penalty of law, into classes of 30, 40, to the care of state-appointed strangers, where it will catch colds and infections, brush up against other religions, other customs, be perpetually "examined", "learn about sex" from strangers, be bossed, bullied and humiliated. Public humiliation being the only sanction left to the unfortunate teacher. But that's another story.
Yesterday's State assumed it took care of the child from the moment it left the parental door to the moment it returned: the State undertook to keep it warm, safe, fed and clothed in the interval. Today's State remembers only its rights, not its obligations. Today's mother must escort the child to school, for fear of maniacs, serial killers and the car, cut sandwiches, buy uniforms; she'll soon have to supervise homework on penalty of fine, the better for this child to pass exams. (What exactly for? So the best at exams can get the jobs? But if your child's "best", what about your neighbour's child? Where exactly does this competition lead?)
If the recent overall figure of 12 per cent of women expected to get to 45 without having a baby has gone up to 20 per cent over the last decade and is rising, who can be surprised? The figure is higher still for the professional middle classes, those most susceptible to childcare theories. They give up. Understandably.
In "today's mother" I include "today's father". (In legal contracts the word "he" is seen to include the lesser "she"; in terms of parenting, the father, like it or not, is always seen as the lesser.) Today's bonded father, and there are many of them, has an even more complicated, more distressing time of it than the bonded mother, and that's saying something. Society is punitive towards both; the pattern of that punishment changes with the decades, but remains both ingenious and harsh. The executive 60-hour week hardly helps. The world of work runs as if the human race did not have children.
I was speaking on a platform the other day with Ken Livingstone, Melvyn Bragg and Peter Stothard, editor of the Times. All the men happily acknowledged and constructively addressed "the problem of the working mother". No one, nevertheless, mentioned the working father, though for every mother there's a father too.
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