Let’s stand up to ‘supernanny’

Jennie Bristow’s new book is as engaging and witty as those rebellious ‘bad mum’ memoirs. But it’s far more important, both explaining and critiquing the tsunami of state meddling in family affairs.

Ann Furedi

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‘[W]e are adults, not children to be bossed around. We should and must take responsibility for our own families and stand in solidarity with other parents.’

Jane Sandeman’s foreword to Jennie Bristow’s witty, incisive and eminently readable book sums it up succinctly. The book is a clarion call for parents to resist the experts’ persuasion that ‘there is a recipe to be assiduously followed’ that will produce the perfect child.

The tsunami of child-raising advice crashing down on new parents was bound to cause a reaction, and as Bristow points out: ‘Some mothers-turned-writers, or writers-turned-mothers, have reacted to the parenting pressure cooker through advocating sheer rebellion.’ Sure, Supernanny remains must-watch TV for millions, bookshop shelves are cluttered with child-raising manuals and newspapers continue to report a constant stream of advice from the government and official bodies on how to raise children and run family life. It remains true that it’s a rare mum or dad who doesn’t obsess about their child’s safety, diet, educational attainment, social skills and general wellbeing. But it was inevitable that the current level of scrutiny given to private family life, and the social expectation that not only does ‘every child matter’ but that we should always be ‘putting children first’, would rustle up resentment.

And so it has – particularly among many middle-class mums who, while often believing that other people need advice and intervention, resent being addressed themselves in the patronising tones of expert advice. Having been sold a philosophy that the general troublesomeness of children is the product of dysfunctional parenting, they struggle to explain and accept their own battles at bed times, meal times, bath times and more or less any time when something needs to be done. Having been sold a promise that parenting ‘when done properly’ is stimulating, engaging and rewarding, they are bemused and frustrated with the stultifying tedium that comprises so much of domestic life. A domestic crisis becomes a personal crisis of being; it wasn’t meant to be this way.

This mother-malcontent has been reflected in an ever-growing genre of mummy-lit that sticks up two fingers at the orthodoxy of perfect parenting, pokes it in the eye and celebrates the dysfunctional chaos that is normal family life. But while we take to our hearts the fictional mothers who distress shop-bought mince pies to make them look home-made for the school cake sale, and we smile at tales of ‘cocktail playgroups’ serving martinis to mums, we put the books down unsatisfied. However entertaining they might be, they seem shallow; as raucous as a cheap laugh. This is because the reaction is just a reaction, and as full of insight as a toddler’s tantrum. Just as a two-year-old refuses to behave and tears the ribbon out of her hair, so the self-styled slummy mummy refuses to behave and reaches for the Chablis.

For many of these books, motherhood seems a matter of lifestyle choice. There’s the lifestyle choice of whether to be a mother at all, and then the lifestyle choice of what kind of a mother to be. They seem to miss the point that the pressure to ‘do parenting well’ is about more than opting for a style, and that the consequences of allowing all manner of incursions into our lives by the authorities, and failing to challenge professional/expert dictates about our behaviour (all purportedly for the good of our children), have serious implications for parents, children and society at large.

The current social obsession with parenting makes us introspective. It turns us in on ourselves. It sets parents against non-parents by assuming that our values must be so different, and sets individual mothers and fathers apart from their families by exaggerating and fetishising both the tensions and compromises that inevitably come when we incorporate children into our lives. As Bristow examines, it is not surprising that one of the most widely heard appeals from modern mums is for ‘me time’ – a time for fulfilling one’s own needs and desires, separate to the demands on us as partners, mothers and housekeepers. But the sense that we can only be our genuine selves when we are alone and away from our parental responsibilities seems only to endorse a sense that I am only really ‘me’ when I am away from my social roles. ‘Being me’ becomes an escape from parenthood, rather than understanding and embracing parenthood as part of ‘being me’.

Standing up to Supernanny is as engaging as those advocating the ‘fuck it’ philosophy of the Bad Mothers’ Club, but it takes us further, too. It doesn’t just hold up a mirror to reflect the contemporary portrayal of parents as villains or victims (or villainous victims) needing expert advice and intervention to keep the family together. Nor does it celebrate our failure (or refusal) to conform. Rather, it evaluates critically how the parenting culture and its backlash have set parents apart from their children, apart from non-parents and even fellow-parents, and contributed both to the isolation of families and a fragmentation of family life.

Bristow draws on a host of examples from public policy to popular culture to explore just how family life has been transformed from something that was a sphere that was ‘other’ than public life, and where dynamics between parents and children were taken for granted, to something that is assumed to require intervention and deliberate social engineering to make it work.

Child-rearing needs to be reclaimed from those who seek to ‘professionalise parenting’, and re-established as ‘a relationship based on spontaneous affection and authority’, says Bristow. The key to this, she argues, is to insist on the privacy of family life – and to push back against the state’s attempts to insinuate itself into family life in order to facilitate better parenting. Parents are not mere partners of the state in the project of childrearing; rather, our families are our own and need us to ‘live’ in them, to build them around us and ourselves around them.

But parenting, acknowledges Bristow, is a generational, and not simply an individual, responsibility. This requires a breaking down of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ divides between parents and non-parents. It needs us to acknowledge that beyond parental responsibility is a responsibility that all of us have as a community to be interested in the welfare and development of the next generation. The relationship of trust that needs to be developed is between each other.

Bristow observes that the assumption at the heart of policymaking and much media commentary is that most families are dysfunctional: that ‘parents lack the right attitude, they can’t cope, they need advice and monitoring in relation to every little thing they do with their children’. But, she concludes that, while parenting culture treats us like children, we don’t have to act like children, and we can strive to shape family life to nurture the next generation as we see fit, with the values we hold dear.

It’s not so much that as mothers we need ‘me time’ in order to be our pre-parent selves; rather, we need ‘we-time’ with those whom we trust to draw on for support, advice and affirmation.

Ann Furedi is chief executive of BPAS.

Standing up to Supernanny, by Jennie Bristow, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Jennie Bristow will be speaking at the session Standing up to Supernanny: why we need a Parents’ Liberation Movement at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 1 November 2009.

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