An upset-but-trying-her-best mum writes …

I read lots of things on the internet which make me feel angry, or amused, or sad, or shocked. I rarely read things which make me feel personally attacked and upset. But this did.

It’s a piece written in response to Nick Clegg, who has recommended a massive expansion in nursery places, and done so in a manner which is offensive to mothers who stay at home to take care of their children, by suggesting that such mothers necessarily conform to a “sepia-tinted 1950s” view that women should not work. Such a suggestion is of course bollocks. Most of us know it’s bollocks. The author of the piece I’ve linked to says (somewhat more politely) that it’s bollocks. Unfortunately, that’s not all that she says. As one of those parents who, as she puts it, “delegate[s] the care of [her] children to paid strangers”, I’m deeply hurt that she failed to attack Nick Clegg’s position and then simply leave it at that.

In her opening paragraph she makes the assertion that “decades of psychology and neuroscience […] show quite clearly that the loving and nurturing environment and secure attachment experience provided by a mother cannot be replicated by a childcare worker of any quality”. I’m sure that’s true; I’m not so sure it’s a question of right and wrong in every case. A significant amount of research into childcare has been conducted at times when significant social pressures and prejudices regarding gender roles influenced the questions asked and the answers sought (actually, I’ve no idea why I’m using the past tense here; these pressures still exist today). Yes, different models are not the same. But this doesn’t mean that one is preferable for all (and yes, Nick Clegg may be suggesting precisely that; but why not tell him he’s wrong instead of just telling him he’s attacking the wrong model?)

I am aware that by suggesting one childcare model is in not intrinsically superior to another I might just sound wussy, unwilling to make hard choices or perhaps even just a victim of extreme wishful thinking. But I’d say that on the contrary, a failure to recognize this absence of superiority is a failure to recognize the integrity and value of different family constellations and their needs. A one-size-fits-all model is unforgiving and will always privilege some children over others. And yes, life itself privileges some children over others; but shouldn’t we be allowing families to make their own adaptations to offer each of their children the best chance?

The author’s tone is patronizing at best:

Every choice we make, big and small, accidental or with firm purpose, makes an impact on our children’s rapidly developing psychology. We might like to tell ourselves that small children don’t remember much, and that therefore what happens to them doesn’t really matter, as long as they are fed and warm. This is not the case. Babies are not pot plants, just sitting there growing as long as they get milk and a bit of sunlight. They are subtle and complex human beings, whose brains are developing at an alarming rate.

Well duh! Silly old career mum me sure wishes she hadn’t read that bit. Seriously, I preferred it when I was telling myself my sons were just like pot plants. I mean, come on. You don’t need to make pompous statements about “our children’s rapidly developing psychology”. Most parents recognize this in their children, what with them being human and observant, and possessing natural empathy and lots and lots of love. Those of us who send our children to nursery don’t ever think “what happens to them doesn’t really matter”. But that’s not the point. You make compromises. You make different decisions based on different situations. You make sure your child knows he or she is loved. That’s surely the best any of us can do.

I suppose you could say I’m “lucky” in that I don’t have to be tortured by guilt about “choosing” to work. I don’t have a choice. I’m the only person in our household with a permanent job and I’m sure as hell trying to cling on to it. And it’s not fun being the only woman in my workplace who has small children and also works full-time. Would I make a different decision if I had more money? I don’t know. But while choice is shitty, so is not having a choice at all. I don’t need to be made to feel worse than I already do.

The author of this piece seems confident in her own decisions and actions:

As a mother now, my daily activity with my children is not so far removed from my former working life. I play, I witness, I create safe boundaries, I hold the space, and I help other people make sense of difficult emotions. My work as a therapist taught me first hand the enormous value of ‘just being there’.

Well, good for her! As for me, like many others, I have doubts. I’d have doubts whatever I did. I don’t need them to be reinforced. It’s self-indulgent of me to be sitting with my sons and, instead of paying attention to their play and their stories, be worrying about whether I’m being “good enough”. But that’s what I’ve been doing this evening.

And so, I’ve got very upset. And then I left a stupid snappy comment after the article. And the author got back to me with a non-stupid non-snappy response, in which she argues that “this kind of post is bound to push buttons and make some people feel attacked in their choices”. She may well believe it, but I think it is wrong. I don’t think the feelings and indeed confidence of women such as myself should be collateral damage in her battle to maintain her own self-esteem and status in the face of wankers like Nick Clegg.

Well, perhaps I’ve pushed some buttons, I don’t know. But I have tried not to. I find the “mummy” communities online hugely supportive and don’t want it to look like I’m taking sides. But then when I get up tomorrow and drive to nursery and then to work, will I already have done too much? Is that already “taking sides”? I hope not. What more can any of us do but our best?


6 thoughts on “An upset-but-trying-her-best mum writes …

  1. I agree wholeheartedly that we are all just trying to do our best! For some that may mean staying home. For others that might mean going to work – especially if NOT working means not being able to provide for basic necessities. For my best friend it meant going to work and letting her husband stay home since her son had health issues and her job provided better health insurance. I’m sure they exist, but I have never met a mother who made the “choice” to work or not lightly. Interestingly, it seems every mom I know doubts her choice, at least some of the time. I bet men don’t have that problem!

    1. I think my partner (who doesn’t have a job yet but is retraining as a teacher) has worries about nursery. And then I’m totally unsympathetic (“Oh, don’t you bloody start, it’s bad enough me having the guilt trip!”). I think my boys are okay, but I worry. Sometimes I go to work after my youngest has said he doesn’t want to go to nursery and I feel awful. But then using emotive words like “strangers” to describe nursery staff is unfair (unless they’re keeping the same bodies but switching staff like in some bizarre sci-fi film). And it’s horrible to suggest that people are unaware of the complexities and need it pointing out to them, because that suggests to some degree that these people don’t care enough. I’m probably overthinking it all, but this has really got to me!

  2. See I’m the opposite as I fecking LOVE nursery. There my little Oddler has developed so much more than she ever would at home with me- her language is streets ahead and she absolutely loves going. In fact I’d be a shit mum if I deprived her of the experience (sort of because I can’t be fucked to do a million toddler friendly activities a day where by the time you have got the paints out created a huge mess they have lost interest and you have to tidy it all away) So yeah nursery is probably a better mum than me- so in the interests of wanting the best for my child I send her there. 😀

    1. I know I would be nothing like the woman in the original post so deep down I’m with you on that too. I also think it’s possible to be around too much and smother children, but this is really specific to individual personalities and not at all true for most SAHMs (I think that’s my main point, really – people and families are so different!). One other thing is, far from being “strangers”, the staff at our nursery are quite well known to us now and we obviously have our favourites (there is one whom me and partner don’t like much. She’s surly and we always call her “THAT [her name]”. But Youngest adores her and that’s the main thing, I suppose. That or maybe I need to be even more of a surly cow too!).

  3. I just think that the “target” of the piece is wrong. Nick Clegg is wrong in so many ways, but that smug little piece really got my hackles so far up that i had to post a comment.

    For me it is simple: everyone is dong their best to struggle through their lives. Some to a greater or lesser degree. But: it is not about mummies. Stay-at-home or otherwise. It is about Parents and Children in the first instance, and it is about wider society in the second. Sure, I liked a lot of being at home with my children (complicated: it was NEVER my idea to be home with babies, my husband was supposed to be doing that) and by the time I’d struggled (even living in a country with equality in parental leave rules is a double edged sword for women of child bearning age).
    Er… where was I? anyway. You put it so much better. Thank you.

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