Sunday, November 27, 2011 , by
The parent trap
Recently at a seminar about how working parents could achieve a better work-life balance, a working mother took to the podium to tell us about how “family-friendly” businesses existed in Malta, and how they made it easier for Maltese parents to go out to work and raise little Johnny and Emma at the same time.
She gave a very animated account of the challenges she had to overcome in order to attain her current level of efficiency. The convenience of teleworking and flexiwork was praised and then Mrs Efficiency gave us a few personal anecdotes about how she went about things.
In order not to waste precious time picking up her son from school, she made arrangements to have him dropped off at her place of work. Once deposited, he would be ushered into the Kids Boardroom (“We have two boardrooms – one for clients and one for children”) where he could play on the laptops provided for by the company – presumably until mummy could leave the Big Boardroom and take him home.
There were words of wisdom about changing the male mindset too, and how to “train” prospective husbands about the ways of emancipated women. In the speaker’s case, she would tell her partner that if he swept the floor, they’d be able to watch a DVD together.
Well, Mrs Efficiency’s no-nonsense approach and ‘one up for the girls’ team, went down a treat with most of the audience, who clapped as she clicked down smartly from the podium.
My reaction was not as enthusiastic. I felt embarrassed for the husband who wasn’t present to dispel the image of him as a human version of Pavlov’s dog, scrubbing the silver and brandishing a feather duster, so he could earn his reward in the form of DVD-watching time. Maybe his wife was well-meaning and the enticing DVD reward was simply an effort to reverse centuries of male domination.
But I felt rather more sorry for the primary-school-age son of Mrs Two-Board-Rooms and the many other children like him. Blame it on the state of the economy, the pressing financial need of families to have two wage-earners, the need for women to find career fulfilment and not to let their brain rot by temporarily withdrawing from the world of work during their children’s early years.
Blame it on any of these reasons (all of which are pretty well-founded, and some even necessary), blame it on what you will, but the end result is the same – mainly the out-sourcing and commercialisation of childcare.
It’s become increasingly common to find that children’s primary carers are no longer their parents, but their grandparents or aunts or nannies who often double us as housekeepers, cooks and general dogsbodies. Then the parents come in and enjoy that horrendous misnomer ‘quality time’ with their children (as if children’s good moods can be switched on during the couple of hours the parents appear on the scene).
It’s the modern parents’ equivalent of Jerry Hall’s advice about how to keep Mick Jagger from straying. She had said, “My mother said it was simple to keep a man: You must be a maid in the living room, a cook in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom. I said I’d hire the other two and take care of the bedroom bit.”
Well that little nugget of wisdom didn’t work very well in stopping Jagger from taking up with anything that moved, but modern parents seem to have taken it to heart as a modern-day child-rearing instruction.
Farm out all the non-vital components of bringing up children to the hired help and simply enjoy the good bits. So all the ferrying to and fro various destinations, supervision of homework, baths, and simple down time, is entrusted to others. That’s it in theory, anyway. And if financial realities are such that both parents are constrained to work long hours, then there’s no way round it.
However, I can’t help feeling that the increasing number of children who are being shunted off to nannies by their parents is not solely due to economic hardship, but more of a reflection of modern society’s changed priorities.
It’s pretty obvious that bounding up the career ladder and being successful in the working world now enjoys top billing on most people’s list of priorities. Governments (of either hue) may pretend to be keen on family-friendly measures, but what they are really after is pushing women into the working world minutes after giving birth to ratchet up their tax and social security contributions.
Looking at it from a purely economic point of view, I suppose it makes sense to have high wage earners contributing to the tax kitty if they are able to find reasonably-priced childcare. But if people had to silence their inner accountant, they’d realise that if their work obsession means that there is less time to spend with their children, they are missing out on certain intangible benefits.
The possibility of spending time with young children, of being there to hear the things they say, to simply enjoy their company and let them know it, is priceless. It’s a pity that we’re too busy to realise it.