Another article in today’s Guardian about modern parenting. Zoe Williams again on the impossibility of being a good parent and a good employee, given the standards prescribed for good parenting nowadays. Read, play, feed, stimulate your child, impose routines, rewards, discipline – all on a one-to-one basis. Or better still, two-to-one – two parents to one child that is. Despite the article’s intention, which is to reassure working mothers – these targets are impossible, so get real, advising classes – I read any “parenting” article and immediately start totting up my parental inadequacies. Nursery before 3; guilty. Absence of extended family: guilty. Child doesn’t eat veg: Guilty. And I don’t even have a job. Guilty, obscurely, as well.
It’s true, though, Zoe is right, I don’t feel as guilty about joblessness as I should, or might have, twenty years ago. Fact is I would have fallen even shorter as a new parent if I’d been working. But as a middle-class workless, or a stay-at-home mother in the metropolis, I am isolated. All the other aspirational mums of young children around here are all, in their 1990s New Labour way, “career” women, still working, still making a good show of “having it all”.
At our (solidly middleclass) NTC pre and postnatal group, every other new mum was agonising about choice of nurseries/nannies and giving up breastfeeding from about four months after the birth. Clueless then myself (new mothers are constantly playing catch-up) I jumped on the bandwagon and opted for a nursery I could barely afford, recommended by one of them, for two days a week, from my son’s first birthday. He seemed to settle well enough, but since I read about elevated cortisol levels nurseries allegedly produce (see Oliver James et al) especially on young boys, I am prone to berate myself for my selfishness – couldn’t I have waited a year or two? But the fact is I absolutely relished the two whole days to myself; and having pretty much sole responsibility for my toddler otherwise, I think I needed them.
My isolation is partly a generation thing. Almost 50 when I gave birth to my first and only, I am fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years older than most new-ish mothers. Add to which, I was reared in the 1960s by conservative parents in a conservative part of the country; round our way married women didn’t work, and grammar-school girls did Domestic Science and Needlework, while the boys were busy in wood- and metal workshops, or studied Technical Drawing. I have always been fiercely independent – that was my idea of rebellion – but I gave up work ten years ago because I didn’t much like it and could just about afford to, at least for a while. I was 42, unmarried and childless, with ambitions to become a writer. Guess what, I ended up a mother instead.
I’ve had a few regrets, when I remember my decent salary, and consider the generous maternity packet I could have claimed – but not really. Fact is if I’d carried on working I’d never have got round to getting pregnant, which (another story) was a product of a different kind of post-office loneliness. I’m a completely unsuccessful writer (so far!) but in my two-ish days off a week I wrote three plays, revised two old novel drafts and had plenty of new ideas. The rest of the time I did “parenting.”
I was by myself with my son mostly. I found much of it rewarding; the parks and playgrounds, the one-o-clock clubs, the overland train journeys to Kew Gardens and Mudchute Farm . . . There’s a whole new city out there to explore with an under-5. I shall miss it. I shall miss the closeness that he and I had. I always knew I would.
Now my baby has started primary school, a new phase is upon us. I’ve started this blog to commemorate it. I’ve been dying to for ages and have masses to say. There will be loads of reminiscing, some reflection on current policy, a lot about local schools and the options. As an inner city parent with little cash, a brown-skinned kid, and profound antipathy to the politics of private education, we are on the cusp of the arguments about free schools, academies and genuine comprehensives. Right now I’m reading Melissa Benn’s book School Wars. I am so gripped by this subject that it almost hurts. More later.