Today The Conservative Woman finds itself in the shocking position of having to spell out why home nurturing with mother is necessary – shocking because today so many people don’t know or have forgotten. In the past we would have been accused of stating the obvious. Now, the preoccupation with the fruitless quest for “high quality affordable childcare” has all but obliterated awareness of that most critical of inherited skills – mother craft.
Our thanks go to Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, for prompting us to explain the continuing need for it. Her warning that over exposure to childcare had very negative consequences for infants, who risk failing to bond properly with their parents or to develop key skills in their early years, should come as no surprise.
Yesterday Sally Goddard Blythe explained how modern day parenting has been reduced to a series of episodes in a child’s life. This is not enough for happy and healthy child development. However mundane the home environment and home activities may seem to the outsider, the fact is that they are not; they are critical and continuity is key. An infant does not need to be transported from pillar to post. Nor, whatever its quality, does day or nursery care replicate the uniqueness of the mother child bond, one which needs time, and on which the infant’s development depends.
Though our own personal experiences of home mothering are over twenty years apart they share the same features.
“Just put him on the shelf,” I remember my two year old commanding me as I breastfed his newborn younger brother. He had had me to himself for two years and was not used to not getting my attention. For those two years whatever I did he did, whether cooking, cleaning or going shopping. He followed me around with a brush and dustpan. He sat in the shopping trolley in the supermarket. He played with vegetables when I cooked, he sat on the counter as I stirred the cake mix, sticking in his finger. I put him on the floor on towels while I had a bath. We chatted all the while. Sometimes frustrated, occasionally throwing a tantrum, he was never bored. We listened to music and story tapes when I needed him quiet.
The kitchen and living room were his jungle. As fast as I put things away he emptied them out onto the floor. As soon as I prised his hand away from a dangerous object, he was investigating something else. Yes he had toys, but he explored, looked, asked. Why this? Why that? What’s that? Always testing my philosophical powers.
Conversation was continual – I would always tell him what I was doing, planning to do and had to do. When he pushed the boundaries, did dangerous things, then I would say no; explaining if he could understand, and just ‘NO’ if that were a cognitive step too far. We sat at the table and ate together. As infants they learnt to eat their vegetables and to eat up what was on their plates. Yes they were naughty and yes I could get cross with them.
Their early training in negotiation, especially once there were two of them, was second to none; there were endless discussions of what was ‘fair’ until I made clear that enough’s enough.
We all cuddled together with me reading to them before they could barely look at a book. It was my answer to nearly everything!
My overwhelming memory is the intimacy I had with both my little boys. I knew them and they knew me – my expressions and my moods, their expressions and their moods – when they were upset. They learnt that there were things I had to do that they had to fit in with; the household routine and purpose – that daddy would be coming home for dinner, that we had to tidy up; above all they learnt my values, what was right and what was wrong.
Equally they knew I was their respite, the person ‘on call’ for their every need, if their tummy hurt, if they fell over. I was the one person too they could safely vent their anger at. When they fought, or one was too aggressive I tore them apart and tore them off a shred too. Yes I shouted at them when it got too much – a parent is the only person who can – and I don’t regret it. They had to learn there were limits to my patience.
For this is how infants truly learn to co-operate and children to internalize a conscience. In a nursery they are managed and they will learn to comply, but it is not the same.
When that demand, ‘put him on the shelf’, changes to, ‘ mummy he’s crying, he needs feeding’ (which it did in a matter of weeks) you know a tiny miracle has taken place. It’s one that could not have taken place had I put my babies in childcare.
I read yesterday’s news that even teachers are expressing concern at toddlers being placed in lengthy institutional care after a challenging day with the children. It was the first day of half term, it was raining all day, so any full-time mother with two children under four will know what I mean when I say it was challenging.
My son is putting the ‘terrible’ into the terrible twos and of course I do not want to ignore the needs of my daughter when I am dealing with the repeated tantrums. So it did come as some reassurance that even though it was a challenging day, it was a day at home for my children in comfort and security with Mum and with each other.
As my son grows and develops into a (very handsome young) boy it does reinforce how important it is for him to have his mother there for him. I was vaguely aware that boys can be very attached to their Mums and will do on average less well in nursery especially at a young age than girls, and this is certainly true in our family.
Although it can be very trying – I admit – as he suffers yet another meltdown before the clock strikes 9, I know that at least I can give him security and comfort. I can tell him that I love him but he must calm down, and I can try to ‘give him his words’ he needs to tell me what is wrong. Sometimes this works but it is a journey and I want him to know I am there for him and love him no matter what. And of course it is all worth while when he is giggling and smiling only a few moments later.
My daughter is through this stage but can still have her moments. It is joy to see her language develop and to teach her to read. It does not surprise me at all that simple trips to the shops can be an education in itself. Sometimes I get her to ‘pay’ and have started to show her coins and their values which she finds fascinating. Like Kathy, no matter what the activity, the overwhelming feeling is that of intimacy. One can describe a million little moments which may seem mundane to the outsider but they are all little moments of intimacy between our family that I could never put a price on.
Finally, it is my daughter’s compassion and empathy that I admire the most. If she hears me struggling with another toddler tantrum she might say out of the blue how much she loves me. And if I do catch her raiding the chocolate tin, I can never scold too much when I see that as she is wolfing down said chocolate under the table, it is with her brother beside her, sharing the looted spoils without me even having to ask.