Small bundles of convenience

February 17, 1995

Carole Ulanowsky is outraged at the way we package children to fit in with our lives. Increasingly, from careers to cross-channel ferries, children are slotted into arrangements put together for adults. We are a product-orientated society, and now, as with meals and holidays, we have packages of pregnancy and packages of care alongside the other product choices of our lives. Thus we are in danger of making commodities of our children too. This has much to do with parents' role perceptions.

It was in the 1970s when the notion of parenthood as a life-defining activity was challenged and mothers in particular were reminded that, even as parents, when less of women's time is spent in the home, and men have not made up the deficit, many babies and preschool children are left in the care of paid others.

What self-perceptions will some of them have if, for as long as they can remember, they have been slotted into their parents' career preferences? Thirty years ago, mothers, with an eye to the future, focused on their children's needs - as Plato would have it, to be "part of posterity'' - now it seems that posterity must take care of itself as parents' lifestyle choices root them firmly in the now. We accept, without question, adults' rights and choices to become parents when the time and commitment to care for children will not be forthcoming.

In today's individualistic society, the old commitments to shared enterprise, and the deferment of personal needs and preferences are not much in evidence; for now, service within the home is likely to be interpreted as servility. How is the younger generation to learn to deal with the pressures for instant gratification if parents do not show them by example? Surely it is in the home where children first witness the moral exchange.

Unskilled and unemployed young mothers have been given a hard time of late. While it is reasonable to argue that parenthood should be an option when people can afford it, it is also the case that these young women are choosing to be parents as primary role. And the spotlight on their deprived and disaffected youngsters masks a need to look elsewhere, at the middle-classes, at professionals as parents and at the children they have. The most talented and well-endowed members of society are failing to commit themselves to caring for their own children in their most critically formative years.

Today's young middle-class mum understands the penalties for taking time out from work. She knows that scant recognition will be paid to experience achieved unpaid, at home, managing children. With some justification, she feels that women have waited too long for change to catch up with their needs, so, no longer prepared to lose out while her thirtysomething partner makes the grade, she is hanging in there for a part of the action, even when the babies do come along. Put simply, many women have rejected the option of taking more time off to care for children than the minimum pregnancy leave allows. Not to do so can mean that when eventually a woman does return to the workplace, an uncertain climb up the career path will face her and maybe just at that time when teenagers, elderly parents and the menopause are all in the frame. Her frustration will be complete if she is then required to work under some incompetent, grey-suited male who has reached the top just by being there, while she has been homebound, juggling the needs of her youngsters, a partner, and the local playgroup at the same time as achieving her Open University degree.

How we define ourselves depends a good deal on what we spend the larger part of our time doing: role definition depends a good deal on time definition. The development of parenting skills requires time and energy over and above the demands of career. Confident parenting will help to nurture contented and confident children. And the knowledge accrued in these early years will stand parents in good stead when they are required to cope with their children in the tricky teenage period, for it is certain that no childminder, however well paid, will be interested in fulfilling this task.

"But how do they know where to come? How do they know the best place?'' asked the interviewer on a recent radio broadcast watching a flight of swans settling on the Solway Estuary. "Their parents show them,'' replied the naturalist. "They train them in the early years and the young never forget." So many parents in western society appear to operate on a belief that home is an unattractive place to be and caring for their babies is an unattractive thing to do. Women have spoken out and opted out and, in the absence of men making up the deficit they have found "packages of care and nurture" for their children.

Surely some sanity is needed. Perhaps a traveller on the Clapham omnibus or the swans on the Solway might tell these parents that the greatest gift they can give to their children is themselves.

Carole Ulanowsky is regional education and training manager for the East Midlands region of the Open University.

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