LEADER: Should mothers climb mountains?

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After the shock comes the anger. Now that it is certain that Alison Hargreaves is dead, many people are angry with her for leaving two very young children grieving for their mother. They feel that it would have been better for Tom and Katie had their mother been prepared to confine herself to a life of quiet domesticity rather than risk death on a mountain top.

This is not just chauvinism. The same thing could be said about the fathers who also died last week on K2. It seems impossible, at the same time, to be both relatively careless of your own fate and yet careful of the well-being of those you brought into the world and who depend upon you. Though adults may comfort themselves with notions of the resilience of children, the reality is that kids have little option but to survive what their parents dish out to them.

It may seem to follow from this that mountaineers, racing-car drivers and soldiers ought to give up their professions before having children. They should choose between the all-consuming ambition, and the desire for kids of their own. Isn't that what a good parent would do?

But this is too narrow a view of what being a father or mother is about. Good parenting could be defined as being when parents put their child's interests and needs on the same level as their own. But this should not mean enduring intolerable unhappiness, or abandoning the most fundamental ambitions "for the sake of the children". If this were the case, only the most easily satisfied or lucky people would become parents. But it does mean taking seriously the notion that children are profoundly affected by what we as parents do.

This lesson is not for those who want to conquer mountains. This is also about the man who boasts of his 90-hour working week, and never sees his children awake. It is about the woman who stays at home all day, but doesn't find the time to play with the children, talk to them or answer their questions. It is about the divorced couple whose egotistical bitterness makes their children casualties in an emotional war. A journey by train, or lunch at a resort hotel, will remind anybody of the extraordinary neglect that often passes for parenting in Britain.

So let's not examine the mote in Alison Hargreaves's eye. After all, her children are in the care of a loving and honest father, who in turn can call upon a supportive family. Of course they will, now or later, be profoundly sad. But their memories of their mother will be of her strength and happiness, not of sourness and lack of fulfilment. That is a lot more than many children can say.

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