By Joanna Roughton.
Which emotion most characterises modern parenthood? Joy? Fulfilment? If only. I’m putting my money on guilt. It’s rarely justified, but boy oh boy, it’s increasingly the way mums and dads are encouraged to relate to their role as child-rearers.
Take a story in the Daily Mail at the weekend. Just remember. The Mail is the most read news website in the world. So this is a media outlet with serious reach.
This article, which attracted more than a few clicks, opened with the following words: “Parents spend more time taking care of housework than they do playing with their children, a study has found.”
It went on: “Humdrum admin tasks and cleaning jobs mean parents are struggling to get quality time with their children, but many admit that ignoring the chores isn’t an option as it leaves them feeling too stressed.
“The study found the average parent spends almost four hours a day completing household chores, which amounts to over two months every year. In comparison, just three hours and 28 minutes a week is spent enjoying time with their children.
“Long working hours, busy diaries, social calendars and children preferring to watch TV were also blamed for getting in the way of family time.”
Wow. Mea maxima culpa guys. Fancy putting all that ironing ahead of finger painting with the kids.
What balderdash. And what tosh on several levels.
First, a good parent has to prioritise, and putting a functional home near the top of that list of priorities is sound – not slapdash – parenting. Edible food, clean work surfaces, school uniforms which are fit to wear. These are not optional “humdrum” extras. Unless you are rich enough to contract out these jobs to a housekeeper or nanny – and only a tiny minority can – then these things are vital.
If you don’t believe me ask a child whether they’d rather spend “quality time” with parents, or go to school wearing a smelly shirt.
Second, the notion that mothers and fathers should consider a central role of parenting to be the entertainment of their offspring is a modern idea with unproven repercussions. It is rooted in the blurring of roles, a narrowing of the distance between those bringing up and those being brought up. Fashionable parenting doctrine urges parents to see themselves as friends to their young, and relegates the pedagogical. As I have heard myself say to my children before: “I am your parent first, and your friend second, I am not here to win you approval.”
Third, let us parse that last quote in the article above. Having blasted housework as the villain of the piece, we then hear that “long working hours, busy diaries, social calendars and children preferring to watch TV were also blamed for getting in the way of family time.”
Now, it’s obviously inconvenient to so much as hint at the outdated fancy that “long working hours” might play a role in diminishing the amount of ‘quality time’ parents spend with their kids, but it does rather all seem to be of a piece with the conventional wisdom – for women mainly – that working is natural, a right, a necessity – and not a choice.
In reality the biggest threat to ‘quality time’ with children is not housework, it’s work. And this brings me to my fourth point.
Why are the authors of the report not exploring or acknowledging the possibility that it is the explosion in the number of households where no parent is at home that lies at the root of any diminution in the amount of time adults and children spend together.
I would submit it might be because that, where stories about family life are concerned, there’s usually an angle. Academic work is mostly trustworthy, reports from campaign groups less so, and the output of company press offices least reliable of all. The survey on which this Daily Mail story was based came from – you guessed it – a business which makes, er…, beds. It would be a brave corporate press officer indeed who produced a press release which noted the pretty obvious verity that a child can expect to see less of mum if she’s at work. But then a mum who works and has disposable income is more likely to buy a bed, right?
Fifth and final point. What is the effect of making parents feel guilty? The impact is to raise the bar of parenting. My husband says the rising expectations of parenting have created a gold standard of child-rearing which can only be met by the parents of one or two children – small families – or by those rich enough to get others to do the heavy lifting of parenting. So the consequence of all those – seemingly innocuous – stories, is to make having children less attractive and, therefore, smaller or ‘childless families’, more appealing.