The Nanny State: Monstering of the modern mother

Parenting? It's a minefield. It seems that everything a woman does these days comes in for criticism from an army of child-rearing gurus, government campaigners and healthcare experts who are all only too ready to wag the finger and dish out blame. Sophie Goodchild reports
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The Independent Online

You are wrong. Whatever you do as a new mother, there is an expert ready to call it a disaster. Use disposable nappies? That's ruining the planet your baby will inherit. Let her see the television for a few moments? You're scrambling her brain. Put her to bed half an hour later than usual? You're obviously a slummy mummy who really doesn't care and shouldn't even be trusted with a doll.

The role of pointing out all these failings used to be played by the mother-in-law. Now it is the nanny state turning mums into victims with an army of parenting gurus, healthcare experts and government campaigners poised to pounce. As a result many British mothers are feeling anxious, demoralised and unable to trust their own natural instincts, according to sociologists.

"Parents are treated as bumbling amateurs," says Professor Frank Furedi of the University of Kent. "We are disempowering them. It's a form of mind control."

This week the university will challenge "the policing of parenthood" with a major conference. Academics will warn that the way mothers interact with their children has been turned into a laboratory, where politicians and childcare gurus experiment with new theories about an expanding range of real or imagined problems.

Breastfeeding is a prime example. "Breast is best" is the assumption of NHS policies, practice on the wards and the theme of numerous campaigns. Celebrities such as the television presenter Donna Air, who breastfed her baby Freya, are praised. But still fewer than one in 100 women follow the official advice to avoid formula milk for the first six months. Are they all disastrous mothers? They are certainly made to feel that way, some describing feeling "dehabilitated" by the attitudes of nurses and healthcare professionals to their decision to use the bottle.

Sociologist and author Dr Ellie Lee was inspired to organise the conference, called "Childrearing in the age of intensive parenting", because of the research she has carried out into women's experience of feeding their babies. She blames official interference for the fact that mothers are becoming "demoralised".

"Women feel intensely watched and monitored," says Dr Lee, a senior lecturer at the University of Kent's school of social policy. "Mothers have always been judged but I do feel there is an intensification of this. There is very much a sense of us and them - and we don't want a stand-off between mothers and health visitors."

Historically, it was mothers who took on the role of instructing daughters on the best way to "bring up baby", along with perhaps an imparting of wisdom from neighbours and friends. Today, it is government tsars who are doling out advice on how to be a good mother, along with childcare gurus such as Gina Ford. Her book From Contented Baby to Confident Child, which dictates a rigid timetable of sleeping and eating times based on the tough love principle, has sold more than 50,000 copies.

Policy-makers have latched on to good parenting as the solution to virtually every social problem from poor education to crime and obesity. Your child is overweight? You have clearly been feeding them too many ready-made meals instead of rushing home every night to prepare them food from scratch. Little Johnny is disruptive at school? Then you must have been letting him watch too many cartoons. Now officials even issue guidance on how mothers should smile at their children to ensure they do not grow up as loners.

The National Childbirth Trust says that breastfeeding protects the gut and provides natural antibodies against disease. New findings to be published later this year, based on research carried out by Dr Lee, will show that women who used formula milk do it as a way of exercising control over their lives and being able to go out and to work. It also reveals that women experience "debilitating feelings" about their wishes to formula-feed.

There is also evidence that the dictatorial approach to mothers is not having the desired impact. Although 76 per cent now do start out breastfeeding, a 7 per cent increase since 2000, the figures show that most soon give up.

It would be difficult for any parent not to feel anxious when they are confronted by the worrying and mixed messages over how to bring up their children. On one hand they are told that sending their children to a nursery will effectively turn them into morons. On the other, women are made to believe that being a stay-at-home mother will mean their offspring turn out needy and clingy.

Last year, this newspaper revealed how children are to be assigned supernannies at birth to steer them away from the risk of violence or criminality. But experts say this politicising of child-rearing is having a destructive impact on family life.

Professor Furedi, who will also be speaking at the Kent conference, says he has identified a worrying shift over the past five years in how parents are treated by the state. "I thought things were bad enough in terms of pressures but these trends have really intensified," said the sociologist and author of Paranoid Parenting. "Even your most intimate gestures become subject to someone else's expertise. This leads to anxiety and disorientation. You need a PhD in developmental psychology to be a parent these days."

What parents want, he says, is not moral and ideological support but instead properly resourced and practical help such as subsidised childcare and flexible working so that women are not the only ones literally left holding the baby.

"What we really should be doing is giving them some space to learn from their experiences. All dictating does is to estrange mothers from their role as child- rearers. What they really need is better-resourced childcare and more flexible working."

Additional reporting by Sadie Gary

'It's a wonder any of us feel confident enough to have children at all'

Writer Emma Burstall had three children in 15 years - Georgia, 20, Harry, 15, and Freddie, five. She lives in south-west London...

One Sunday I was chatting to a first-time father at a child's birthday party. His Martha and my third child, Freddie, were two-and-a-half. I said I'd recently taken Freddie to the seaside.

"Martha would love it," the father sighed, "but my wife won't do day trips."

Why? Because Martha's mum is an advocate of childcare guru Gina Ford's rigid sleeping and feeding regime.

Martha had to have her afternoon nap in her bed with the blackout blinds down. Otherwise the whole, carefully constructed routine might fall apart. It struck me as a touch draconian: no routine would stop me heading for the beach on a sunny day.

My three have all been experts at taking naps when they need them: in the car, under an umbrella on the beach, beneath a restaurant table.

Martha's mum's approach isn't unusual, though. It seems to me to represent a general shift in mothering over the past decade or so.

Out has gone Penelope Leach, my babycare expert of choice, and her relaxed, child-centred style. Now it's Gina Ford, structure, pressure, rules for everything.

Take food. I was once ticked off by another mother for giving Freddie a sip of Diet Coke. She made me feel as if I'd stuck a lighted cigarette in his mouth.

When he was invited to tea with a friend after school, the mother stressed the sausages she'd be serving were organic, in case I was worried.

Fifteen years ago, Georgia regularly ate fish fingers, peas and oven chips. Chicken nuggets were on the menu occasionally and - shock, horror! - we even took her to McDonald's. I wouldn't dream of it now.

It's good we're far more conscious of what we feed our children. But it does make life complicated. I feel sorry for working mothers who feel pressured into producing made-from-scratch meals for their brood every night. Or who are riddled with guilt for ordering in pizza.

TV's another minefield. Fifteen years ago, Georgia adored the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Ten years ago, Harry was into Power Rangers. Freddie loves them, too.

But some mothers I know won't let their children watch programmes with fighting. They wouldn't dream of taking the family to anything other than a U-certificate film. Perhaps I'm negligent. There again, I look at my two older children and I reckon they've turned out OK.

One of the problems, I suspect, is that parents today are bombarded with studies. If you don't breastfeed your child, he'll become fat and allergic. If you let him watch too much TV, he'll have a lower IQ.

If you feed him additives, you'll make him hyperactive. If you send him to nursery, he'll grow up anti-social and anxious. Then again, he may not.

Sometimes it's a wonder any of us feel confident enough to have children at all.

The changing face of childhood

FOOD

1960s

Free milk. Children got vitamin C from vegetables. Bottle feeding more popular than breastfeeding.

1980s

McDonald's appears. Parents pay for school milk orders. 65 per cent of mothers breastfeed at birth.

2000s

1 million 11- to 16-year-olds are obese, eating more sugar and salt than is wise. Breastfeeding at birth hits 75 per cent.

TV

1960s

Not many families have a set, and those who do have only three channels, so there is no serious problem.

1980s

Children's programming in full swing and 'EastEnders' and 'Neighbours' keep up the viewing figures.

2000s

TVs have become standard in bedrooms, and adolescents spend more than seven hours a day in front of the telly.

BED

1960s

Childcare experts advocate leaving crying babies alone to cry themselves out if they fail to settle down to sleep.

1980s

Reading in bed gives way to children watching TV.

2000s

Gangs of children hanging around the streets late at night becomes a major social problem.

NURSERY

1960s

The wages of working mothers play a vital part in the finances of many families, but nursery provision is not widespread.

1980s

Britain was one of four EC countries with the lowest level of nursery provision.

2000s

Three-year-olds have 15 hours' free nursery provision a week.The number of places has risen 90 per cent since 1997.

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