Rachel Johnson

Even middle-class children are suffering from neglect

Rachel Johnson says that working mothers, divorce, Polish nannies and an obsession with extra-curricular activities mean that our children are seeingless of their parents than at any time in the last 100 years

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And when did you last see your children? Before you both left at the crack for the office? When they were already in bed? Or do you only see them — let’s be brutally realistic here, given our divorce rate — at alternate weekends?

So we don’t need to ask any more who tucks them up at night, takes them to school, listens to their Homeric summaries of Harry Potter books, buys them Start-rites, takes them to the dentist, finds out they’re upset, do we?

Because it’s not you two, the parents, who gave them life. No, it’s more likely to be Agnieszka from Gdansk, who doesn’t really give a monkey’s.

All this week, the story has been that we have the least nurtured offspring in the world: as Fathers 4 Justice staged a rooftop protest on Harriet Harman’s roof, David Cameron, a father of three, told Relate that families needed support, money, tax-breaks, but above all, time; we are bottom of the UN table for raising children; and the four children’s commissioners this week reported that the UN convention on the rights of the child doesn’t seem to apply in Britain, with one in three children living in poverty, and over a million in poor housing. The dossier documented failures in all areas — asylum, education, learning disability, smacking — but even so, it didn’t say the thing I kept waiting for: that even middle-class families with aspirational graduate parents don’t spend that much time just hanging together, chillaxin’, any more.

I’m not saying that our Jessicas and Bens are swigging alcopops on street corners, in hoodies. Of course they’re not. But there is definitely evidence that the middle classes are producing their own, quasi-feral generation of children (sorry, I simply can’t type kids), only in their own, very different, handwringingly guilt-ridden, overcompensating way.

Let’s look at the economic circumstances first. The reason we don’t participate fully in our children’s upbringing is because we either can’t, or won’t. Back in the old days, 40 years ago or so, or so I am told, a single skilled manual wage could provide for a man, his wife, their family and a roof over their heads. Now, of course, it takes both mother and father in full-time employment to pay the massive mortgage on their rapidly depreciating fixed asset, and meet bills. And it also takes a couple who refuse to take a drop in their living standards and move somewhere more modest (i.e. who don’t want to trade down from the Toast Rack in Battersea to a miner’s cottage in County Durham), parents who both want to self-actualise, realise their potential, pursue careers of course, too, but I don’t want to get into that here.

As Phillip Blond, a don at Cumbria University (whose provocative outpourings can be found on The First Post website) has noticed, ‘Wage earners have coped with this structural shift by taking on unprecedented levels of debt, working more, and asking their partners to join the workforce. Family life has suffered; children see less of their parents than at any time in the last 100 years and since nobody has any free time, civic life has virtually vanished.’

Naturally, I am as in favour of feminism, choice, hairy armpits, equal opportunities, Andrea Dworkin dungarees and so on as the next chick. But I don’t think anyone can imagine that people hark back to the 1950s merely because the kitchens were cutely retro and women all looked like January Jones in Mad Men (i.e. had tiny waists and had the chicken pot pie all ready to go). No, the 1950s causes nostalgia all round because that was the last decade when the family held together, most mothers stayed home, and children had fathers.

Since then, the marriage rate has been in decline, and only around one in ten (according to one new report) is a full-time mother. As Phillip Blond tells me, ‘After the Fifties, the free-thinking free-loving Sixties destroyed social stability, and the middle classes came upon the idea of promiscuity, and pleasure, and self-interest, and passed on that virus to the working classes, and now they’ve all moved into the BBC and occupied positions of power and it’s ruined our country!’

Well, I wouldn’t go so far as that, but Blond has a fair point, which is that in just 40 years, society has gone from bra-lessness to dad-lessness: as a result of family breakdown, lone parenting, selfishness, etc., it is now predicted that very soon, 50 per cent of children will be born out of wedlock. Not good news by any measure, according to the guru of social dissolution, Iain Duncan Smith.

As Duncan Smith sets out in his report, Breakdown Britain, children of married parents spend on average 11 years in continuous contact with Mummy and Daddy, but children of unmarried parents, who are already less advantaged socially, financially, emotionally, and so on, spend on average about a third of that. So it is self-evidently good for children in every conceivable way that their parents stay together, as set out in Dave’s lecture to Relate.

And so now we have a situation, as they say in The West Wing, where single-parent families and families where both parents work are the norm, and this cuts across all socio-economic groups. Ergo, we have many, many households where neither middle-class parent is looking after any of their middle-class children.

‘We’ve outsourced our children to the former Warsaw pact,’ one newly separated father observes. ‘What amazes me is that my children go to play-dates where the children are looked after by five different nannies from five countries speaking five languages, and their carers are simply waiting for the parents to return from their jobs in finance or the media, and the children are subject to no meaningful discipline or social input at all. The children are safe, but they’re not doing anything.’

I thought it couldn’t get any worse than when my fast-breeding programme was at full-throttle, in the 1990s. But my word, it has. I went back to work when my children were five months old, and by the time the oldest was four, I’d already left them in the care (i.e. ‘custody’) of some fine, bosomy ladies but also about a dozen Irish, Polish, Moldovan, Dutch, Czech, Slovak, etc., nannies (i.e. ‘teenagers’). My full-time salary even then — I was employed then by the blue-chip Financial Times and, after that, by the BBC — didn’t stretch to paying the salary of a trained nanny and her tax and NICs out of my taxed income as well as my living expenses and Jigsaw habit.

So, like millions of working mothers out there, I had to plunge headlong into the twilight zone, the unregulated market of grey childcare, of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God moments, where not Mary Poppins but the euphemism rules supreme, the world of the au pair/au pair plus and the ‘mother’s help’.

And as anyone who has penetrated that penumbra will confirm, in this double-speak world, Iveta is ‘part of the family’, she cosily earns ‘pocket money’ and so on, and she attends English classes. Yeah, right. In reality, of course, Iveta is a homesick girl from the former Eastern bloc who sobs in her bedroom and has a long list of daily tasks, including ironing the underwear of the master of the house, but excluding her entitlement to attend language classes.

Anyway, by the time I had my third baby in 1996, even I could see that perhaps it wasn’t such a great idea to completely devolve my mothering duties (as no less than Bill Clinton used to tell us, ‘the hardest job in the world isn’t being president. It’s being a parent’) t o Ivetas and Karolinas. So like many of my peers, I ditched the office and went freelance. I think the final straw was when I managed to sack a Dutch au pair and go into labour with my third child on the same day. It’s a long story, but basically, Inge ran amok with a knife as we were leaving for the hospital, and my recently widowed mother had to come in and hold the fort — you know, the usual thing — just in case my other children were stabbed in their beds.

Having said that, I feel guilty. Most au pairs are kind souls who do a good job for long hours and in lonely circumstances. They feel the weight of responsibility, they try to ‘connect’ with their families, and frankly many should be canonised for their proven ability to get through the day without doing actual injury to their charges.

As one friend of mine who works full-time thanks to the offices of both a nanny and an au pair remarks, ‘I don’t know a single parent who can get through a single weekend without sticking their small kids in front of a video, yet it’s one of the things we expressly forbid our paid help from doing. What’s sauce for the goose in childcare is never sauce for the gander.’

Anyway, to return to the chase. Many other proxy parents have thrown in the towel, as I did, fed up with simply handing over the entire salary for childcare, agonised about never seeing the children, about struggling to putting a face to the name, let alone remembering what class of what school they’re in.

Indeed, the rise of home-working freelance mumpreneurs in telecottages has been one of the few positive outcomes of what economists and thinkers like Larry Elliott, Dan Atkinson, Phillip Blond, etc., are now calling the failure of neoliberalism (i.e. the fact that the Thatcher revolution seems not to have set us free, but turned all but the super-rich into wage slaves servicing sickeningly large mortgages).

But not all parents can resign from their jobs, I understand that. We all understand that.

So what seems to be happening is this. The middle classes have largely kept their jobs, because they have to; they’ve kept their childcare arrangements, because they have to; but they’ve added a special middle-class ingredient to the mix just to make life even better for their little ones: lovely, pushy, extra-curricular activities. Because they can.

So if you have ever wondered why it is that the world seems to be full not of married men, but tiny whey-faced children with huge cellos on their backs, Kumon in their satchels, trudging between music and chess and Tae Kwon Do, now tout s’explique.

What you see is the result of guilt-ridden parents who are overcompensating for the fact that their children spend their waking hours with a foreigner who has no childcare qualification or English, but who is highly skilled in exploiting the huge demand for cheap childcare and undercutting Anglophone nanny rates — with extra pedagogy.

These poor children never have an idle moment. Even their holidays are spent in sailing camp or sports camp, as well as every weekend. ‘As the state sector has become less competitive and the private sector more competitive, children are doing minimum two instruments, pre- and post-school clubs,’ says the editor of a weekly magazine (since you ask, The Spectator). ‘All this extra-curricular stuff, Nobel prize for knitting, brain surgery for beginners, it’s beginning to turn up on CVs.’

So, to sum up. If you add up all the nine-to-five jobs, the extra me-time and us-time and evenings out for the stressed parents trying to keep their marriages alive (two nights’ babysitting is usually thrown into the au pair deal), on top of school and the private extra lessons for the children, well — it becomes all too clear that some children hardly intersect with their parents at all. And the frightening fact is that we won’t really know what effect all this is having until these children are grown up and becoming parents themselves.

So when did they last see their children, these parents? Er, hold on — let me just check the schedule, and get back to you on that.