I invite you to go on a journey with me, to Queen’s Park, the heart of yummy mummy well-heeled West London. This is where the stylish mothers of Xanthe and Horatio meet over cappuccinos, while the little darlings play on the well-maintained equipment or frolic in the giant sandpit. Last week Ted and I went there, parking our cheap Argos pushchair among the £700 Bugaboos and iCandi Apple perambulators. We chose a bench to have our snacks, beside two mummies, one of whom was breastfeeding a small baby.
These women weren’t as polished as many of the Queen’s Park brigade, but they had that determinedly organic look about them. Anyway, Doris and Hilda, as we will call them were setting the world to rights with a good old-fashioned bitching session. “She should be forced to have an implant,” Doris opined. I shamelessly eavesdropped for a bit longer, and worked out that they weren’t talking about silicone, they meant a contraceptive implant. Someone whose parenting they disapproved of, should in their opinion, be compulsorily prevented from breeding again. Nothing like a little whiff of eugenics on a sunny Wednesday afternoon to put you right off your sandwiches, let me tell you.
Then Hilda’s two daughters, blonde girls of about four and six, came running over from the sandpit.
“Mum,” said the younger of the two, “A lady just shouted at us.”
“Why?” said Hilda sharply.
Between them, the two girls spilled out a garbled story, the essence of which was that they had “by mistake” thrown sand at someone’s baby and the mother had told them off. Now I’m no psychologist, and they weren’t my children, but I would bet money that the “by mistake” bit was probably not true. It sounded to me like they’d been caught out being a bit naughty by an adult. They weren’t unduly upset, just telling the story of what had happened.
“Well,” said Hilda huffily. “You tell me if you see her again. Remember girls, nobody but your mummy is allowed to get cross with you.” And with that, she and Doris gathered up their organic bags and baggage and children and tottered off, leaving me gasping. The little girls, I am sure, felt smug as hell.
I was devastated that they were gone. I mean, I know it would have been frightfully rude to interrupt their conversation, but I had SO many questions. “What, nobody? NOBODY but mummy can get cross with them? Not a policeman, stopping them running out into the road? Not a childminder, teacher or classroom assistant? Not Granny? Not, god forbid, Daddy?”
Also, she’d said “No one is allowed to GET cross,” not “act cross”, or “shout”. How did she plan to enforce that? I can see that you might ask people to speak to your children with respect, but how do you tell people what they can feel? I also wanted to ask, as she had let the two girls play in the sandpit area, out of her sight, how she knew for sure the woman was in the wrong, and her two precious angels were not at fault.
A friend who is a teacher, says that whenever she has to call parents in to discuss a disciplinary issue, they invariably say, “Well, he never does that at home,” the implication being that either (a) she is lying about their child’s behaviour, or (b) any poor behaviour must in some way be the fault of the school. It seems to me that there’s something terribly dangerous about believing that your children can do no wrong, and that you are the only authority in their lives.
Now, I know that the party line is that parenthood, and especially motherhood, is all about selfless unconditional love and nurturing a precious small person, etcetera ad nauseam. But the real truth, if we’re honest enough to admit it, is that when we have a tiny creature that needs us absolutely, whose very survival depends on our benevolence, vigilance and care, it’s a massive ego boost. Suddenly, to someone, albeit a very small, goggle-eyed someone, we are God. Like all power, it feels fantastic.
But, as some blokes in the Middle East with a taste for braided epaulettes will tell you, absolute power seldom lasts forever. With every day, with every tiny skill they gain, our children need us less. From learning to focus their eyes and control their hands, to learning to speak, read, and drive a car, they claim their freedom and we become less important. Mums everywhere know the pain of smiling through a first day at school, of waving cheerily as they leave on a first holiday without you, of seeing them fall in love for the first time with someone that isn’t you. It is the natural order of things, and our job is to raise whole, competent human beings who can go into the world without us, but it hurts like anything.
We like to think that mothers are perfect, saintly and selfless. But maybe we don’t want to admit that the reason it’s so hard to let go is that we don’t want to give up being right all the time. For a very short time, our own small children are the only people in the world who will accept “because I said so,” as a valid reason.
If we hang onto our absolute power in their lives, I believe our children can grow up lacking skills. Some of those, like never teaching them to hoover, iron or make a meal, because you like doing all the housework and cooking to perfection, might not be too serious, and they will learn eventually, or starve. But neglecting to teach them courtesy, or how to take responsibility for their actions, or how to respect other authority figures, could make them unhappy, unsuccessful, and downright unpleasant to be around.