25.04.1996

PRICE WE ALL PAY WHEN WOMEN SHIRK PARENTAL RESPONSIBILITY

PRICE WE ALL PAY WHEN WOMEN SHIRK PARENTAL RESPONSIBILITY
 
What kind of mother farms out her baby?
 
by LYNETTE BURROWS
 
IT IS an axiom of modern life that children spend ever-decreasing amounts of time in the company of their parents. Despite every report pointing up the importance of our earliest years, more and more parents — for reasons of convenience or eco­nomic necessity — seek to farm out their babies to others.
 
A new report this week highlights that many are sending their two-year-old children, sometimes still in nappies, to their local preparatory school. These are not always nurs­ery schools, which are small and unthreatening, but schools which have pupils up to the age of 12.
 
What on earth can they be thinking of? I can remember many things from my infants school, but not one of my memo­ries ever involves feeling at home.
 
The most difficult thing for a four or five-year-old to adjust to is fear. It is a feeling that surely all our instincts tell us is bad for children; which is why we try to protect them from it except in a strictly controlled form, as with stories or films.
 
But "big school" is a frightening place even for the four or five-year-old. The size, the noise, the thundering feet, the bewildering array of faces, sizes and dangers are a nightmare even when a child can no longer be called an infant; what it must be like for a two-year-old, we can only shudder to imagine.
 
Schools, or indeed any institution, are totally unsuitable places in which to raise a little child. Good God, how much evidence do we need to demonstrate that infants suffer without the security of adequate mothering?
 
Report after report has stressed the importance of a close parental relationship in enabling a young person to withstand the temptations of drugs, crime and even suicide and depression.
 
Yet still there seems to be no consensus prepared to say out­right that women who do not put in the time with their infants are shirking their responsibilities.
 
Paddy Holmes, chairman of the Independent Schools Association Incorporated, commented yester­day on their report which high­lighted the 27 per cent increase in two-year-olds being sent to pri­vate school.
 
Explaining her belief that, if infants were supposed to be reared in groups of eight, we should all be born in litters rather than individually, she added that parents would probably "reap the dividends" later.
 
Since she obviously meant that the effects would be negative, she should perhaps have said that as these parents "sow the wind, they would reap the whirlwind" in their children's later life. She referred to the fact that both parents and children lose out on the bonding which naturally takes place in these years of infancy.
 
What she did not mention was there is ample evidence from numerous studies around the world that this bonding is irre­placeable in the infant's personal­ity and, when it has been missed, no amount of later attention can compensate.
 
It is bad enough that the kind of people who live in the muesli-belt suburbs of big cities have for years thought it a good idea to recruit a teenager from a foreign country to look after their little children.
 
THE "au pair" has been a status-symbol for nitwits for many years now, despite the fact that prob­ably the most unsuitable person you could find to look after an infant in its formative years is an inexperienced foreigner of unknown background, who does not even share the language the child is struggling to acquire.
 
Next to that, the humble child-minder does an absolutely Rolls-Royce job.
 
At least they can be expected to stay around for more than the time it takes to pass an examina­tion in English and they are usu­ally experienced mothers them­selves. However, a school — even a fee-paying one with a pupil- teacher ratio of 11-1 and an annual investment programme of £550 per child per annum — means nothing to a little child who wants its mother and cannot understand why she has left them.
 
Everyone accepts that children need the security of feeling they are loved.
 
What is less widely acknowl­edged is that very little children can only know that they are loved if their mothers give them their time and attention.
 
They have no other way of judging it and their misery and resentment at each and every parting becomes a part of their personality too.
 
There is no way that a mother, however much she loves her baby, can ade­quately explain why leaving them is more important than being with them. As, indeed, they could not adequately explain it to anyone.
 
If you buy a couple of goats, society expects you to look after them properly and the RSPCA would soon be on your doorstep if you tried to keep them in the basement.
Every creature needs a natural habitat and it is greatly to the credit of Mrs Holmes that she should have pointed out that the school environment is not natural or right for a child of two. Too many professionals try to blind us with science when it comes to recommending their own ser­vices and we should be grateful to a headmistress who tells us the truth, based on her own experi­ence, and stands to lose rather than to gain.
 
ONE thing is certain: there are very, very few jobs where anyone, man or woman, is irreplace­able. Even a doctor or a teacher can drop dead at work and they will be replaced within 24 hours, more or less satisfactorily.
 
Only a mother is irreplaceable to her children, and her loss would mark them for the rest of their lives.
 
This should tell us, if nothing else does, that we are not talking about inconsequential work and, indeed, that any other work is inconsequential in comparison.
 
Our culture at present may refer to a woman being "only a housewife" but no one in their right minds is ever heard to say that she is "only a mother" to her children.
 
It is one of the few love rela­tionships in our lives which sel­dom go wrong.
 
We are born to it and it bears fruit or it sours, depending on how it is nurtured.
 
Fortunately for most of us, all it really needs is love and time. How ironic that the most affluent women in our society can give the one — but cannot afford the other.
 
• The author is a journalist and a mother of six who used to run a nursery school