Much Ado About Nothing…or is it?

October 2nd 2011

Last week I went to the Globe to see my favourite Shakespearean comedy; Much Ado About NothingIt was a sterling performance and the wit and banter between Beatrice and Benedict was much appreciated by the very diverse audience.
Still buzzing from the experience, I boarded the train home and, as I began to read the evening papers, fell off the high left by Much Ado into the dark, guilt-ridden space more often occupied by Irish playwrights. The Irish can do guilt big time.  Combine our history and Catholicism and we have set the stage for a guilt fest. But we may be outdone nowadays by the current guilt trip that modern research is placing on parents; and in particular mothers.

It does not take much to make a woman feel guilty. We feel guilty about something from the minute we get up to last thing at night. But nothing can compare to the quality of guilt that wraps around us when we become a parent. So we are suckers for those who can confuse and confound with snippets of research which suggests we are doing some level of damage, especially those parents who choose childcare. Woe betide them!

In the past becoming a parent – and motherhood especially – was seen as a fundamental part of life.  Most people had children, some chose not to and others were tragically not afforded the choice.  The typically central role undertaken by a mother came with varying levels of support from husbands, partners, boyfriends, family, friends and neighbours.  It was also accepted that having children was generally a good thing for everyone, not least because we would have people working to pay our retirement pensions.

These days, with the help of modern science, we are trying to turn parenting into an art form; a qualification, a set of behaviours, skills and attitudes that will ensure our children don’t just thrive and grow up reasonably stable and happy, but will be propelled onto the milky way of success by highly engaged and confident mothers who always know and do the right thing.

In September, UNICEF told British parents that we were hopeless. In her article in the Evening Standard last month, Xbox children? Don’t just blame the parents, Rachel Johnson commented that after coping over the long summer…

instead of someone patting us on the back and saying ‘well done’ for holding it together (I keep waiting for that to happen), we are told by Unicef that British parents have lost the plot. We are locked in a “compulsive consumption cycle”, working all hours to buy our children “gadgets and branded clothes” as compensation for all the time we’re not spending with them.”

She continued..

How I wish that Unicef had used its funding instead to come up with a sensible, layered report that explained why households with two working parents have resorted to consumer goods as a substitute for spending time with each other. But that would involve an examination of the growth-led, unchecked credit bubble that gave us overpriced houses, trapped buyers in unaffordable mortgages, created a childcare market where fees outpaced Eton College’s, and led the British to work among the longest hours in Europe. Almost all the parents I know do their best but they are a bit tired.”

October produced more research which led Viv Groksop in the Observer to suggest Why parents should stop feeling guilty if they can’t devote time to their toddlers. She was referring to the debate among academics about findings from neuro-scientists on the biological development of children’s brains which was leading to a confused state for parents; mothers especially did not know what to do for the best.  As a consequence, they were being subjected to ridiculous levels of pressure to get things right, leading to unwarranted anxiety and guilt.  In her article, Groksop challenged the interpretation of some of this research which demonstrates the impact on the brain of poor attachment and stimulation at an early age.

The premise of the neuro scientific argument is that poor nurturing of babies, especially continual failure to comfort children in stressful situations, leads to high levels of the stress hormone Cortisol remaining in the child’s body.  This in turn can do sufficient damage to the child’s neuro-endocrine networks to affect their mental and physical health in adulthood.  Dr Aric Sigman added to the debate with a more explanatory article, Mother Superior? The Biological Effects of Daycare (The Biologist, Vol 58 No 3). He recognised the contextual sensitivities of examining the biological impact of childcare, which he believes has been challenged so far within the prism of adult sexual politics and women’s rights that the impact on the child has been squashed.

At this point, I have to declare an interest as someone who has worked with children for over 30 years in a whole range of settings, and now CEO of LEYF. I therefore must try and be even-handed. Of course, I want to say that childcare can do no wrong, but realise that being with other children all day is bound to affect children’s stress.

Dr Sigman goes on to argue that poor attachment, insensitive adults, lack of biological fathers and the age of the child are all factors in stressing children.  But what Dr Sigman has yet to show conclusively – and he accepts there are counter arguments, especially those questioning the transient nature of raised Cortisol levels – is whether stress levels caused by increased Cortisol in partiular has long-term, negative biological implications on the fast growing brain. (80% of the brain is formed by the time the child is 3 years old.) In the meantime, parents continue to feel guilty about the way they are parenting their children, and childcare continues to support those half of all British mothers who go out to work before their child is 12 months old (OECD 2011).

Groksop quotes sociologist Ellie Lee from the University of Kent, who says…

It’s making motherhood into a miserable enterprise when it should be fun and life-enhancing. Also, there is no culture of supporting parents, so they end up thinking, ‘If I don’t do this for my child, no one will’.”

So while academics continue to research the impact of childcare on children, and the Government tries to sort out an economic climate that is squeezing working parents, we might do well to assume this is not Much Ado about Nothing. So let’s use what we know to do the best for parents and children; improve our adult levels of engagement and sensitivities, keep the high ratio we need to ensure this happens, review the environment and start thinking seriously about whether three year olds should be in school.  In fact, only last week I heard that some schools would now be taking two years olds.

Let’s support parents to become part of the debate and get them to back childcare; encourage them to value their own judgement, the same judgement which led them to confidently place their children in a nursery to begin with, and go public with their support for childcare.  Our job is ultimately to help parents follow their own natural instincts: to love their children, converse with them, sing to them and have a little fun by just watching them be children.  The final debate is then less a matter of money, politics or propaganda and more one of time, energy and inspiration for all parents (with guilt finally seen to exit stage left).