Thursday, 5 May 2011

In Defence of Competitive Mothers.

There's nowt as queer as folk, is there?

From time to time, usually at the point where I ease into a different activity group with Miss B or become accustomed to a play park or grounds in Edinburgh, I encounter weirdos. I am a magnet, I always have been. Oh Daddy thinks that this is hilarious, that out of a group of people, I always end up befriending the one who turns out to be a loon or nasty and a bit twisted. Recently, having grown tired of adopting these weirdos and dealing with the trouble that they bring, I decided not to befriend anyone new. This sounds odd but I thought that I'd leave my friendships to destiny (is it me or them who is the real weirdo?). If it is meant to be, then it will be.

Or will it? All faith I had in the Gods of Olympos sending me new acquaintances was quickly dispelled. According to the Guardian, that bastion of middle class parenting directions and opinions, mothers gather in tribes, seek self definition through judging others and criticising them. Now I know that this is true, I've seen it in action and so when like me, you cannot be pigeon-holed into any one particular tribe, what hope do you have?

I came across this article in the Guardian this week where one writer laments how suffocating the culture of competitive parenting has become. This is no revelation at all, I've been exposed to it in varying degrees and it is something that has always fascinated me. So her's my observations based on that article. Having had A whilst living in Edinburgh's city centre, I've been exposed to this culture for a long time. I've always parented with enthusiasm but I am excluded from the game of parental one-upmanship due to A's disability and Miss B is still to young for it to encroach into her social circle.

One side effect of this competitive culture is the very visible and often voiced judgemental opinions mothers adopt of other peoples child rearing methods. I've experienced people who operate at both ends of the scale, from those who amble along not really thinking at all about how to raise their kids to those who intensively scrutinise every single decision, implementing parenting policies and educating their spouses on new policies. I'm the first to admit that I lean towards the latter end of the scale. I can be judgemental regarding other peoples methods, flitting between annoyance at lackadaisical parenting, sheer awe of those who can pop out a few kids and not really give much thought to the whole process afterwards and intensive eye-rolling at the spelt eating, real nappy wearing rich MC Montessori hippies. The journalist in the articles vows that she is stopping being judgemental of others. That really, we should all live and let live, as one big harmonious society. As if!

I can still be a bit sensitive when people comment on my kids but I've had it to a greater extent than most so have formed a thicker skin. A's ASD means that he becomes frustrated easily. This could manifest itself in a giant temper tantrum when he was pre-school or now shouting when he either can't articulate what he wants, when people annoy him he expresses this in a rather loud voice ("that man just cut in front of me in the cue!!!" "Can't you see there's a buggy behind you, move!!!"). I'm no stranger to disapproving looks, tuts and outright abuse and meddling. I spent years cringeing and apologising for something that he can't help. I can relate to what she says in that judging other people, we are essentially looking for self definition for our own style of parenting. Even with extensive experience of being unfairly judged and criticised by other parents, I still pass judgement on the methods of others because these criticisms reflect how hard I work to raise my kids, the care and attention I put into their wellbeing.

I've always been driven and this manifests itself in the way that I raise my kids. I am not alone in this, as I've experienced in the world of blogging. I put considerable energy into raising my kids and thinking about how I raise my kids. The ensuing comments on the Guardian website are simply a testament to how ferocious the debate over child rearing is. About what and what not to do. I come from a village where the consensus of parents mainly keep the children, in school, fed and clean and that's it. Not much thought is given to the kids long term future, considering things like university, to afterschool activities, to what the kids eat, what age they're weaned at, to how much TV they watch. Sausage, chips and red sauce is considered an adequate dinner and it seems to work. It's a much simpler, old fashioned working class version of parenting and sometimes I wish I could be so relaxed. But I know that being this relaxed, not foisting goals and a vision of the world beyond your street breed children who will never reach beyond what their parents had. For me, I've spent enough (too much?) time studying arts and humanities, a discipline that is based on considered weighing of evidence and sources to arrive at a conclusion (there are no right answers just properly researched ones!) and I take the same approach with my kids. While it is true that my mother smoked whilst pregnant with me, eat un-pasteurised foods, peanuts and drank stout and she insists that it never did me any harm (I have asthma, eczema, food allergies and terrible eyesight...make of that what you will, I have!), this titbit of sage advice is given now in hindsight. At the time my mother was pregnant with me, bottle feeding was the way forward, Guinness were still running a press campaign insisting it was good for you, Dr Spock hadn't made it over the pond to our village and health professionals hadn't laid it on thick about the potential dangers of this behaviour whilst pregnant. While people may have been ignorant then about the associated risks and while it may be the case even now that only a very small proportion of kids are ever affected by these environmental factors, is pleading ignorance a justifiable case for half-arsed parenting?

Now the information is there. And it still surprises me that people choose to ignore it. Oh Daddy had a silly programme on the TV tonight where young (they were all kids themselves) mothers to be were smoking, drinking and eating take aways constantly. Despite being told specifically and using medical testing about the impact of their behaviour, they couldn't really give a shit. I was horrified and judged the girls accordingly. Well, none of them were educated to a high degree, most of them were orange, with fake nails and dodgy hair extensions. Whether or not we really believe in the dangers of listeria and passive smoking, simply observing them is an act of care. It is where parenting begins. It shows your partner, your baby, your existing kids that life is precious and any due care and attention that can be taken should be taken. But I say this with the spectre of my experiences hovering in the background. I did everything by the book and A turned out to have ASD. Despite doing everything in my abilities to carry a healthy baby, he is disabled. It leaves you with a sense of powerlessness. One of the hardest things about becoming a parent for me was the realisation that I cannot control everything. It seems to me that these women who judge others realise the same thing. By having policies on the tiniest childrearing matter, they seek to control everything to approach the hardest, most frightening job in the world with care and caution. But this stress makes the women unhappy and this is where the need to judge comes in, to soothe that unhappinesss. Watching others not bother about the details, rearing perfectly happy children maddens them. When these women have children they want them to shoot for the stars, they want the world to be their oyster and to gaze out onto the horizon with as much hope and determination as they do. The fact that kids can grow up in an isolated working class council estate and see nothing of the world, know nothing of higher education, never mix with other socio-economic groups, ethnicities, religions and STILL be deliriously happy pisses these women off. It pisses me off to a certain extent too, like it did in the illustrative example given in the Guardian:

So I'm going to give up being judgmental. Except …
Yesterday in Toys R Us (where I went, most unwillingly, to buy the three-year-old the purple ZhuZhu Pet she craves for her birthday) there was a little girl – no older than three – in high heels. In fact, in a complete copy of her mother's outfit. My teeth clamped together. I was within an inch of saying, "Excuse me, do you realize you're crippling your child because you're a narcissist?" Only the awareness that it would lead to a strained silence at best, a trashy catfight in the aisles at worst, kept my mouth shut. I talked myself down: she's not beating the little girl's soles with a thorny branch. Probably the kid spends most of the day in trainers and this is just a special dress-up moment. But I was judging, all right. And what annoyed me most was that the little girl looked as happy as Larry.


Again, another Guardian article that states a truth but hides something sinister. Her real opinion. As an educated woman she would aim higher for her children than being a trashy vacuous clone, desiring pink nails and clicky heels. Her bid to prove that she is above all of this can't be easy. She can sleep soundly at night knowing that she is middle class, that her childhood, her education in a private school affords her a place in society where no one will ever seriously question her intentions as a parent. No one will ever look down of her, her choices unless it is over something incredibly insignificant. I might just be an incredibly jaded individual but how I read the article is thus: the journalist in question does not long for a utopian parenting existence, she is simply stating that she is above it all in a bid to join another tribe of MCM (middle class mothers) and is securely letting us know here her real opinion. Oh, if she had an opinion that is.

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