Neglect in a power-dressed disguise

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The Independent Online
THE DRAWBACK of being a parent is that when you go on holiday you don't actually have a holiday. You just change the scenery. Nature has yet to devise anything so exhausting as a clutch of small children off school for eight weeks.

At our rented holiday house in Cornwall the children bounce from bed, scour the breakfast clean, leap into the swimming pool, start asking for lunch at 11.30am, spend the afternoon hurling themselves around adventure parks or beaches, the evening hunting for crabs, and are still bright- eyed and bushy-tailed at 10pm. Torture, for them, is to be imprisoned by me and my husband in a car en route to something restful, such as a National Trust garden.

Much of the debate about single parents - and whether they can bring up children to useful adulthood - has made me rather cross. Clearly you need adequate financial resources, and as 80 per cent of Britain's single parents are on some form of benefit, poverty is a real problem. But participants in the debate overlook a second, crucial, practical point. A great deal of successful parenting depends on your energy and input. Not money, but time.

Children absorb huge amounts of a parent's emotional and physical effort. And this goes on without a break, year after year. I am not whingeing - you get a lot of fun in return. But you can't take a holiday from being a parent.

The time and energy factor is exacerbated for single parents. But it does not necessarily make them bad parents. There are clearly single mothers and fathers who are bringing up children successfully and with great dedication. It is a tough, lonely way of life and they should be applauded by outsiders, not denigrated. In this respect, yesterday's appeal court decision to release the woman who left her child alone while she went to work was only to be praised.

The great advantage enjoyed by two parents, if they take fair shares, is that they bring more stamina, energy and humour to the task of bringing up children. Two parents can offer each other breathing space. One can have a lie-in at the weekend while the other gets breakfast. They also act as a check on each other. Two people rarely lose their temper at the same point.

The unspoken truth that needs to be faced is that single mothers and fathers do not have a monopoly on bad parenting. Bad parents can be found within conventional nuclear families, too. Some of the most emotionally neglected children I have met are being raised in families in which both mother and father are well-educated, high-flying, full-time achievers. Their children are being brought up by a series of often ill-trained helpers. Many children in these cash-rich but time-poor families don't see their parents much at all during the week. They may be a far smaller group than children brought up by lone parents but they need the same amount of attention as any average child.

What seems to have been happening during the recession is that middle-class occupations - whether in teaching, the media or the City - have become more demanding, at least less secure. Serious jobs, those in which people have to shoulder responsibility, also seem to require a great deal of extracurricular activity - whether it is explaining new school tests to parents or attending partnership dinners. As a result, the time available for parenting - let alone for a satisfactory personal life - is being squeezed just at a time when there is so much concern about the state of the family.

This is not a blast against working mothers. But in my view it is virtually impossible for two high-fliers in demanding jobs to be proper parents. There is simply not enough time in the day or energy left over to focus on the family.

The debate boiling up now over the cost of child care and nursery places is misleading because it assumes the issue of who cares for babies and pre- school toddlers is paramount. The truth is that children as they grow up require more and more input. Working parents are likely to miss parts or all of those precious hours after school but before bedtime when children relax, eat, talk over the day, attempt homework, watch television and generally expect their parents to be around.

Parents and would-be parents need to take a more realistic view of the demands children make. Career breaks, part-time working, etc can all contribute to the quality of family life. But whatever solution you opt for, once you have children, your life cannot go on as before.