Pity the Queen, she was a working mum too

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The Independent Online
ONE of the oddest things about the latest royal confessional outpourings is the assumption that the Queen has been a poor mother, having spent so little time with her children. The Prince of Wales's hang-ups apparently derive, in part, from the fact that he saw her for only half an hour during the morning and an hour and a half later in the day.

There are reports that a footman would bring her a gilded chair, so she could sit and watch him being bathed; that she never ran during games of rounders because Queens don't run; and that he was left for long stretches of a time in the care of his nanny, while she toured abroad with the Duke of Edinburgh.

The upper classes have always been held in scorn by the rest of us for their apparent neglect of children, for bringing them down from their nurseries to tea, then sending them off to the horrors of prep school and Eton, Harrow, or Gordonstoun as soon as they were old enough.

Yet it strikes me that many working mothers in demanding jobs probably see their own children for about the same time each day as the Queen and many Victorian aristocrats once did.

For sure, her routine is far grander, the Commonwealth tours far longer than, say, a business trip to New York. And she may well be peculiarly detached, even cold. But the essentials are broadly similar: working mothers are not at home and caring for their children for long periods of time, and the home is not their sole focus of attention.

Whether high-flying working mothers are doing right by their children is causing ructions in the US, where Sharon Prost, a high- powered legal counsel for the Republicans, has lost a custody battle for her two young children to their estranged, less ambitious father.

The battle illustrates, in frank and unlovely detail, the compromises high-achieving mothers make. She rose at dawn to play with her children before racing out to Capitol Hill.

How long does today's British professional or office-bound mother spend with her baby or child each morning before rushing off? Not very long. I spend a breakfast period of 7.30am to 8am with my nine-year- old while she throws down cereal and toast and rushes to catch the school coach.

I don't wake at dawn to play with the baby: he wakes me and has a bottle. It would be wonderful if I was regal enough to have someone bring him to me bathed, dressed and breakfasted so we could spend a concentrated half hour playing together, but then footmen don't position my tattered Lloyd Loom chair by his bath for my convenience either.

And I'd estimate there are two hours maximum of parental exposure in the often fraught evening period between supper and bedtime. Nor is it 'quality time': the notion of a carefree portion of the day when parent and child freely communicate, babies are taught new sounds or play routines, and five-year-olds helped with their first reading efforts, belongs in a modern fairy-tale.

Going home after work is one of the toughest bits of the day, negotiating with the different demands from competing children in a state of weariness.

I'd like to report that I sit down and play an educational game such as Scrabble while tackling maths homework with enthusiasm. But it is terribly easy to let them turn on the television or a computer game while you reach for a drink.

I avidly read accounts of how working mothers manage their days, and I watch my contemporaries, and I know many children are short- changed and have poorer quality lives because their mothers are working so hard.

I also doubt whether a working mother forms the close bonds with her young children that most people think desirable. I don't know if my 18-month-old baby sees me, or his nanny, as the centre of his universe. Whether this will lead to trauma and recrimination in his forties, as he works off his disappointments like Prince Charles, I can't say. But clearly I shall have to brace myself for anything.

In The Executive Tart by Ginny Dougary, a recent book examining the slow advance of women in the media, one top male executive remarked that no one asked the children what they thought of having high-achieving working mothers. Well, he's wrong: as soon as they can talk, children tell you exactly what they think. My daughter once said that when she grows up she intends to be a proper mother, and won't work. Their frequent plea, especially in the holidays, is 'please don't go to work'.

But we all have to get by as best we can. So let's be fair to the Queen - she is a working woman with duties to perform that she cannot duck. Where her family and Prince Charles should have gained is that she largely operates from home and that her great wealth frees her from most of the boring duties that eat into a typical working mother's time. If she couldn't devote quality time to her children, who can?

There are clearly many very odd things about being brought up royal. But before we rush to judge, we might ponder the very obvious signs of middle-class neglect all around us. It's not only those born with golden spoons in their mouths who are kept at a distance from their parents.

(Photograph omitted)