Maggie Mellon asks why we have children and what makes a parent. Drawing on her own experience of motherhood, she suggests what the national parenting strategy should do.
Just over 22 years ago, at nearly midnight on 21 December 1989, I had my first child by caesarean section in the Whittington Hospital in north London. I was 36 years old, had a full-time job, nearly a year's paid maternity leave to look forward to, a three-bedroom house with a garden and just as, if not more, important, a partner who was as happy as I was to become a parent.
In the next bed to me was an 18-year-old girl, who had also had her child by caesarean section. Let's call her Diane. I was old enough to be her mother. She seemed delighted with her baby but as overwhelmed as I was by the whole experience. Diane was seemingly without family or partner support, and was visited only by the hospital social worker. She was homeless, and needed somewhere to go on discharge on the same day as me - 24 December, Christmas Eve. She was discharged to a 'bed and breakfast' in Harrow, many miles away. I hoped at the time that that meant a friendly, motherly landlady who would help her with the baby. Experience told me that it would be a bare and frightening place shared with people with mental illness, drug and alcohol problems and criminal records, and that breakfast would be a packet of economy cornflakes and a carton of milk in a dingy dining room two floors down from her room.
In the following days, with all the support I could ask for, in a warm house filled with food, I struggled with the emotions and strains of having a tiny baby to care for, while recovering from a major operation. I have often thought about Diane and her baby, now a 22-year-old man like my son, and wondered how she managed. I hope she coped. If she did, in those circumstances, she should be very proud. If she didn't cope, who could blame her?
And so to the present day, and my thoughts about the promised national parenting strategy. Why do we have children? What makes a parent? We may as well ask why we breathe, or eat, or laugh, or fall in love. We have children because we are human. None of us are in charge of our fate when we have children. Their births are as unpredictable as their characters. How we care for and bring up our children is a complicated mix of learned behaviour and experiences, and of our circumstances, abilities, and aspirations. Some of this is within our control and some not. Some of us have far more control of all sorts of resources and situations than others.
One aspiration, which almost every parent shares, is to do as little harm and as much good to our children as we possibly can. To love them well.
Governments are also responsible for doing as little harm and as much good as they can. That is what they promise, and that is why we elect them and pay taxes to enable them to carry out their promises. And our government has promised a national parenting strategy. What's not to like about that? Here are some questions.
What is the strategy for? Is it to make better parents of us? To make better children of our children? Or is it to make better government of government? Is it to ensure that government does as much good and the least harm that it can? Or is it a mixture of all of these?
The Scottish Government website states:
'The National Parenting Strategy will aim to highlight the value and importance of parenting, recognising that parents are the biggest influence on the life chances of our children, the future generation of our society.'
This sounds good. Parents are valued. Parents are important. Influential. But ... wait a minute ... parents are the biggest influence on the life chances of our children... Is that true? Are parents really the biggest influence on their children's life chances?
This claim seems to come from the same place as 'we are all responsible for our own health' or 'anyone can succeed if they have enough confidence and try hard'. But are parents the makers and masters of their own destinies and those of their children? Was Diane, my bed-neighbour in hospital? We know poverty and inequality blight life chances despite the best efforts of good parents.
And what's with that word 'our'? Whose children? I can appreciate the intention, but in reality, governments make bad parents. This transfer of children to public ownership, means that the parent becomes a means to an end. An incubator for future 'society'.
This transfer of ownership might be understood as leaving government with the rights and not the responsibilities - except as an arbiter and encourager of good parenting This seems to put things the wrong way round.
Yes, parents are an enormous influence on their children's characters and behaviour. Yes, not to be loved and nurtured by your parents, to be neglected, abused and abandoned are all terrible experiences that will have a lifelong impact. Yes, children need love and care, and they need to know that they are the loved well, not because they are good, confident, responsible, successful future citizens. Children need to know that they are loved just because they are in the world.
Parents are bringing up their children in damp and unfit housing, unable to afford the fuel to keep their children warm, or the food to keep them well fed. Parents are living in dirty and dangerous areas, where their children have no safe place to play outdoors. Some families have never had a holiday. These parents can provide love. But love is undermined by poverty and hardship, and seeing others race past you and your children to the better things in life.
And for those of us who have the good things, who can pay for music, gym, books, computers, clothes and holidays - is it really our influence that is determining those precious life chances? Or our relative wealth that is securing an unfair advantage?
It is government's job to ensure that the life chances of children are as equal as they can be, that children are helped to reach their full potential, to be loved and to learn to love.
Some Dianes of today are still being discharged with their babies to unsuitable houses with barely enough money for fuel or food and the cold face of official indifference. Even a caring midwife or health visitor won't mitigate the damage done. We don't need governments to tell us why or how to love. A strategy, according to various dictionaries, is a detailed plan for success, the science and art of using all the forces of a nation to execute approved plans as effectively as possible during peace or war, a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.
A good parenting strategy for government would be to commit every effort of every public service to protecting the human. Don't stunt love.
Maggie Mellon was previously director of services for CHILDREN 1ST and head of public policy for Action for Children Scotland and has extensive experience in social work and children and family services. She is currently director of a specialist consultancy, Maggie Mellon Ltd., which provides support to third sector and statutory agencies on strategy, policy and practice. She is a non-executive director on the board of NHS Health Scotland, and is chair of the board of trustees of the Scottish Child Law Centre.