Last night I was lying in bed, watching mindless television when an advert passed before my sleepy eyes. An unexpected current of terrible guilt passed through me as the message unfolded. The advert was part of a sensitive new NSPCC campaign which aims to protect small babies from the anger that can be unleashed against them by those who love them best, their mums and dads.
These parents are not mad, bad or dangerous. They are you and me, ordinary folk who lose control because they are exhausted, stressed out by the relentless pressures of looking after a baby in the first months after birth. According to one survey, three-quarters of parents smack their babies in the first year of life. Nobody warns you how hard it is going to be and most of us fall for the media images of Gap parenthood. Yes, there is much talk about the birth and post-natal depression, but hardly anything at all about how all parents can turn, when something takes over and you feel you will do anything to stop those infant cries which are drilling into your head.
And how efficiently we edit these occasions from the constructed stories we later tell our children about their babyhood. These mutually terrifying moments tend not to appear on snaps or home videos. Those shaky, "honest" recordings of family life do include funny, embarrassing and disastrous incidents, all very ha ha ha, but somehow the camera is not there just when your baby needs it, to record you shrieking at or shaking and hitting someone so much smaller than you.
I have done this myself with both my children, but until last night I don't think I had allowed myself to be too troubled by these memories. Both times, over the first few months, I shouted at them dreadfully and at times hit out. I remember throwing cold water on my baby son's contorted face as he screamed, and then smashing the glass on the floor. I was so far gone that I didn't even notice the glass cutting my feet.
My little daughter, who is now seven, refused to stay still when I was changing her in the middle of the night and I hit her plump little thigh and then watched with horror as a red streak appeared. She was only three months old and I remember bursting into tears as her gurgles turned into this awful cry of real pain. You have no idea how awful I feel writing this and I am sure that there is worse stuff which I have simply suppressed. The point is not whether she was irreparably damaged or actually disciplined by this chastisement. It was a gross betrayal of her trust in and dependence on me. In surrendering to impatience I was not being wicked, but dangerously weak.
When she was a little older, my husband told me that we needed to have a no-smacking rule in the house. Would you, he asked, shake and punch the neighbours upstairs because they are keeping you up (which they have been doing for 20 years) or because you are tired? So why hit the smallest citizens in our land? We have never touched Leila since and she is one of the best behaved and contented children in the neighbourhood.
The NSPCC strategy is based not on making people feel guilty (though I always say that a little guilt is no bad thing for anyone) but on supporting them so that they find ways to resist the impulse to hurt their babies. We must listen because although in most cases the babies do not suffer long-term harm, a large number do. Infants under 12 months are four times more likely to be homicide victims than the rest of the population. Babies are 2.5 times more likely to be put on to child protection registers than other children. Of the 4,000 new cases on the register each year in this country, 41 per cent have suffered physical abuse. Babies suffering from convulsions and serious injuries are seen in increasing numbers at hospital accident and emergency units. In the last 12 moths, 92 such babies suffered serious brain damage caused by parental shaking.
Confronted by such figures you begin to see the insanity of the panic society gets into when a nanny is accused of harming a child. For every Louise Woodward there are hundreds of birth parents who hardly get a mention. Between last April and this March the NSPCC received 808 calls about the abuse of under-one-year-olds. A large number of these babies die. Their parents never meant to kill them and God alone knows how any parent survives such a tragedy. I am no Keith Joseph, but it is time the left faced up to the fact that many of these battered babies have parents who are not only much too young and inept themselves, but also likely to have children with different partners, adding the ingredients of jealousy and power into an already combustible situation.
What can we do to support parents long before they get to this point? A new survey shows that 52 per cent of new parents feel they have nowhere to turn for help when they cannot cope, and that only 15 per cent of pregnant women attend ante-natal classes. Extended families would be an obvious answer but this is now a feature of mainly black, Asian and Jewish families; and here too the nuclear family is fast becoming the norm. My mother lived with me when I had my son and she frequently protected him against my bad times by just quietly taking him away into her room. Perhaps we need to find ways of reintegrating families.
Lord Michael Young has long advocated this "kinship care" and I have just received an innovative report written by 72-year-old Jean Stogdon for the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust on how the state could link up with grandparents to provide additional care for young children. Lord Young is setting up a new organisation to promote these ideas, which could provide real solutions to the problems being highlighted by the timely NSPCC campaign.