I seem to have caught a bug that both my husband and son have had, and have been obliged to take a day off of my writing schedule. I really dislike doing this when I’m smack bang in the middle of something, but my wits are notably dulled. Anyhow, the lovely Emily reminded me that my understanding of motherhood was very UK-based and that the situation across the globe is marked by significant differences. So I thought I would put together a little meme and tag my international blogging friends in the hope of getting a better picture of the cultural differences at stake.
How do you view your role as a parent? What are you there to do?
I’ve always felt it was my place to be a good role model, not in terms of anything fancy, like achievement, but just to show him how to love, and that it was okay to be sad or to make mistakes, and that a sense of humour is the most useful resource in life. I came to this conclusion after realizing that my beautifully expressed explanations about how and why we did things caused my son’s eyes to glaze over after at most a sentence and a half. So it has to be show rather than tell. Now that he is thirteen, I think the most useful thing I can do is sort of fade into the background while still being there for him should he need me. I just have to look stable and unchanging, so that he feels safe to do the dramatic work of growing up.
In your social circle, are mothers expected to work or are they encouraged to stay home with the child?
This was a tricky one for me. I was surprised when my son was little how few mothers seemed to have full time jobs, and at any baby groups I went to I was treated like a real pariah for doing something so peculiar and un-mummyish. But it just so happened that after my PhD came a research fellowship and then a job and I knew this was not a career trajectory I could exit and re-enter. At that time, hardly anyone I worked with had young children, or indeed any children at all and so for years I never mentioned my son. The general feeling was that motherhood did not mix with academia. Just recently there has been a baby boom in my department and so the culture has changed a lot, too late for me, but good for others.
How do you feel about your child’s education? What’s good about it, and what do you wish could be done differently?
I wish I could say otherwise, but the move from the state sector to a fee-paying school has been the making of my son. Before he was bored and completely switched off education. Now he is really stretching his intelligence and gaining in confidence. I just wish that there wasn’t so much testing and so much pressure to get good marks. It’s completely counterproductive with children.
How do you share the childcare with your partner (if it is shared)? Do you tend towards different activities or different approaches to parenting?
Up until my son was about five, I did everything, which was not a good idea at any level. We came from radically different parenting cultures; my husband was one of a pack of four and the children were pretty much left to their own devices, apart from television which was strictly limited and extra curricular activities like playing musical instruments which their mother was, um, keen they should practice. My brother and I were seven years apart and so we both had a lot of quality individual time spent with our parents but we were very much encouraged to find our own passions, and it must be said that we were naturally inclined to do so from an early age. So to begin with my husband and I disagreed on every possible parental intervention. Thankfully we have found ways to make our different approaches into virtues and to recognize how to divide up the chores according to our strengths and weaknesses. Anything that involves disengagement from emotion, obligation or stoicism goes to my husband, anything that involves communication, rapid emotional climate change and direct intervention comes my way.
What are the most important virtues to instill in a child?
It’s a bit of a cheat, but I think it depends on the child. I’ve tried to encourage my son to be able to see the other person’s point of view, which hasn’t come naturally to him, and to be flexible and ready to negotiate for what he wants rather than fixated on one immutable desire. I haven’t done so well with the latter! But what pleases me is that he has a good, generous heart and is very kind to those younger and more vulnerable or those suffering. Those are important virtues to my mind.
What’s the relationship like between mothers at the park and the school gate? Would someone you didn’t know help you out in a stressful moment?
I found that school gate thing horribly cliquey and never hung out much with other mothers. It seemed to me that you had to be like them to be in with them, and I’m not good at that club stuff. I’ve always found other mothers to be very helpful, however, in a crisis, and more than willing to pitch in. One thing you do note in England is that no one would ever dream of telling off someone else’s child. It would be considered a highly impertinent thing to do. If a child were causing trouble in the playground, the correct procedure would be to identify the child’s mother and alert her. Intervention would only be suffered if the child’s behaviour was dangerous, and even so, yelling or scolding would be poorly viewed.
What do you fear most for your child?
I fear accidents and illness most. But I also fear damaging encounters with girlfriends, disappointments in work, loss of direction and impetus (although he is an unusually directed sort of child) and peer pressure towards alcohol and drugs. My son is at present very proud of his powers of refusal and his unwillingness to conform to anything anyone says he should do that doesn’t appeal. Long may it last.
How do you discipline your child and what are the errors you would put most effort into correcting?
I like to think that if you are hardly ever cross with a child, he pays more attention when you do tick him off. I prefer the carrot to the stick, myself, and tended to give lots of praise and love to good behaviour. Inevitably there have to be disciplinary moments and I would always try to be short and firm and never, ever, do any u-turns after I’d said no. I tended to leave my child in his cot or bed to think things over when he was very little, and as he got older so he would naturally go there at the times he felt the world was against him. Now he’s a teenager I need a whole new game plan. At the moment I’m tending to be tolerant of most things (I always thought it wisest to pick my battles) because it’s a bad idea to insist a 13-year-old boy should be compliant. Just escalates the situation. In any case, he’s perfectly well aware if he’s done the wrong thing, even if he doesn’t want to admit it. I did voice a protest on the weekend, though, when I found the empty sweet packets he’d got through with one of his best friends. Thankfully I can’t think of a worse crime than that of late.
Do you think the life of a child has changed much since you were young?
Fundamentally, probably no, not much. But education has altered beyond recognition. School was a holding zone you were obliged to be in, and everyone knew that. Now it’s a huge machinery with all kinds of pressures and opportunities. I do think the internet and new technology has changed children’s lives, though. Mobile phones support them in their tentative independence, and the internet provides a whole new network of games, skills and relationships. I’m as sure as I can be, however, that if I were a child in this age, I would still spend all my time reading books.
What’s the best compliment your child could pay you for your parenting skills?
That I could always make him laugh.