Cutting

A couple of days ago I’m walking the kids home from school when I find myself stopping dead in front of the small, 60s-built, council-owned block of flats next door, staring at a youngish woman balanced on a brick wall going at a tree trunk with a fairly flimsy saw.

‘What do you want?’ she reminds me of the girls who used to scare me back in my Swansea comprehensive schooldays, minus the Townhill accent.

‘I… what… you’re cutting the tree…’ I manage, realizing I’ve been staring rudely while feeling quite proud that my yoga training is helping me stand my ground.

‘Why’s it any business of yours?’ The saw is leaving a long scratch around the tree trunk which is around 20cm in diameter and pretty tall. If it falls it will easily take out the car parked at the kerb-side.

‘I live next door.’ I nod towards my Victorian maisonette, busy accruing ludicrous
value just because it’s situated in our particular corner of leafy north London.

‘Since when?’ Some saw-flexing. ‘I haven’t seen you before.’

The kids, sensing conflict, have already run to our front door. I am without back-up.

‘For the last three years. I’m Alison. I put the note through about the scaffolders?’

The block is currently cased in what must be north London’s entire supply of scaffolding. I’m told it’s badly in need of maintenance. Two ceilings have apparently come down inside. The scaffolders, a talented and innovative bunch, had managed to scaffold open the gate which usually secures the flats’ back garden and around 70 others adjoining it at – when else – 4.30pm on a Friday. I’d phoned the council, the scaffold company and the police just about continuously over a 90 minute period and had dropped a note into the flats updating the neighbours on my (extremely slow) progress.

‘Oh it was you.’

I maintain eye contact and my upright yogic stance. She nods at me. We’re ok.

‘You like it then?’ This is one of a couple of women standing on the steps leading to the shared entrance, watching the action. I know the other to say hello to – she says ‘alright love?’ to me – a bright-eyed, lively-looking woman whose very old dog walks her very slowly each morning and evening.

‘Well, I like trees…’ I say.

‘It blocks all our light,’ she says, at the exact moment I look up and see how the long, leafy north London branches are pushing close to the first floor windows (currently hidden behind scaffolding and heavy green gauze and apparently to stay that way for the next six (spring and summer) months. ‘We’ve asked and asked the council to do something but they never do.’

I look back at the woman and the saw. It is now clearly blunt. She has another go anyway.

‘Perhaps you could just take out the branches nearest the windows?’ I suggest.

But her face says she isn’t interested in taking out a few branches. She’s had enough of waiting to get her home maintained while the houses round about are Farrow and Balled into property magazine heaven.

The conversation doesn’t really end; it sort of fades. I shuffle away, mumbling sympathies about the light. The woman slides down off the wall, saying she’d probably better return the saw, get something better.

I walk past a day later with the kids, on our way home from voting in the local and European elections. The mark on the tree trunk is clearly visible, the kind of thing we’d have called a scram at school, raking the skin enough to leave a mark but not enough to draw blood.

I’ve taken my kids with me to vote since they were babies; told them how people died for this right, this equality; how women in this country have had the vote for less than a century. Their school held a great election this week engaging them in the process, trying to prove to them that it’s relevant, encouraging them to encourage their families. And our ward has re-elected a great, hard-working trio.

But as the results filter through and the radio and press are full of snatched interviews with people leaving polling stations, one particular brief radio interview sticks with me. A tired-sounding, older man who had voted UKIP without enthusiasm sighs: ‘Labour used to be the party of the working class, but not any more.’

We’re told that London is different in a way that for today’s purposes (not voting UKIP) is a Good Thing. Tolerant. Multi-ethnic. Outward-looking. And it is, and wonderfully so. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not also eating itself.

I think about how it is when you can’t spend an hour and a half arguing on the phone to make sure your home is left safe; when your next door neighbour’s place is putting on absurd value day by day while your ceiling falls in; when you’re told you have to go out and exercise your right to vote but no-one seems to represent you; when in a fast, expensive city your local services, libraries, pensioners’ lunch clubs – the little things that make life properly richer and cost relatively little to run – are being closed by councils squeezed breathless by Westminster while the guy in the four storey house across the road still commutes to ‘manage risk’ in the City; when, increasingly, your light is blocked out.

In the end you’d want to take a saw to the situation, wouldn’t you? And much as I love my trees, I couldn’t blame her.

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Another umbrella in the Gatsby/Luhrmann cocktail

Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 Gatsby is a car crash.

And maybe that’s exactly what it should be.

I watched in 2D.

You need to see the first half in 3D. Hey ho.

The second half, it doesn’t matter.

Original Gatsby jacket 1925

First edition jacket 1925

Because the second half is pinned to the narrative rather than the spectacle, and pinned so hard that it’s Fitzgerald’s story and plotting that keep you watching. It’s too long, but by this point Luhrmann’s in there and committed. The audience doesn’t have a choice but to go relentlessly with him.

At this stage the cartoon Luhrmann creates in the first half has been eroded by all that acid champagne and we’re left with something more fundamental and almost medieval in its representation of greed, power, envy and vanity.

The turning point – when the film moves from the purely visual to the emotional – is the scene in which Gatsby gets Nick to arrange tea with Daisy so he can ‘drop by’. DiCaprio owns this. He is awkward, over-confident, desperate, hopeful, idiotic and powerful just about simultaneously. Mesmerising. Convincing. You swallow a lot after that.

The other scene that walks out of the cinema with you is at the Plaza, New York, in the heat-wave. Daisy, brute husband Tom, Jordan Baker, the inevitable Nick and Gatsby are holed up together. Gatsby wants Daisy to tell Tom she loves him – Gatsby. Which is ok. But he also insists she tells Tom she never loved him. And this Daisy can’t do. She did love Tom. She married Tom when Gatsby wasn’t around and didn’t look like he was coming back. This feels like such a timelessly truthful moment. Two things, both separate, both true. It’s cataclysmic.

And from then on, it’s downhill into the car crash; the carefully set up car swap; the inexorable roll of tragic dice towards Gatsby, undone by his American dream as Daisy unknowingly drives his car into her own husband’s lover. Sorry. Plot doesn’t get much better than that.

There’s more, though, to this second half.

There’s a film-maker with a signature style that’s gone off the boil. That’s less fresh, less relevant. And there’s an audience that either wants a repeat of previous experiences, or wants to vilify him for not being surprising with the same tricks.

I’d like to suggest that here’s a film-maker who knows he’s on a hiding to nothing. Someone who’s saying look, I don’t know what to do with these ‘sacred’ words. I’m going to throw them around, have Carraway speak them while we’re enacting the very same scene, I’m going to show and tell, I’m going to give Carraway a story too; and whenever something sacred pops up – the flapping curtains, for example, when we first meet Daisy and Jordan – I’m going to make them preposterous to show just how hard it is to deal with sacred cows, while also showing exactly what it is that should be done with them.

Mark Kermode has said this film is ‘a fragment’ of Gatsby, and that that’s ok, in the same way that there will always be diverse interpretations of Shakespeare and others.

I’d go further and say Luhrmann’s film is about this exact subject – the beautiful and damned problem of interpreting great stories.

It’s messy to mess with myths. But still we need to mess with them.

And we’ll go on doing it, chasing their truths, fixating like Gatsby on the green light across the water, borne back – like all humanity – ceaselessly into the past.

 More on messiness 

And I have something to expiate

For KS.

September 2010. My little one’s first day at school. Such a big deal. And in two months’ time an even bigger deal. I will have to move him out of our home, the home I dreamed of my boys growing up in, putting down roots in, coming back to visit with tales of college, of girlfriends, of their stage of the journey.

But just now I’m feeling relieved. I have made it through the summer holidays, taking care of a four year old and a seven year old by myself. I have survived waving them off on holiday with their father and grandparents for a whole week. So very small. Another agony to pile on top of the others, now so tightly packed they don’t so much cut as compress to suffocation.

Just now, though, the little one’s in Reception with one of the world’s loveliest infant teachers, effortlessly both tomboy and mother substitute. The oldest is having his first day in the Juniors. These are rites of passage which have been prepared for and are now in motion. I head to the coffee shop on the corner, feeling spare. For the past two years I have spent most weekday mornings between 9am and 9.30am in here, watching the little one learn to read via the second hand Thomas The Tank Engine books kindly abandoned by someone who knows. Now… there’s just me, a coffee and maybe a brief try at being an individual again.

And then, in front of me, is a woman I know slightly from the coffee shop mornings. She is clear-skinned and vivacious, American; she once stopped me on the street to ask where I got my hair cut; she has a gorgeous blond son in a buggy.

‘I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer,’ she says, holding my gaze. ‘I am so scared.’

And we talk, for a while, caught awkwardly in front of the counter, and I thank her for sharing, and I am not sure what to do but we have a good conversation and at the end I give her a hug.

‘I just want ten years,’ she tells me.

And a bit of me is anxious, almost annoyed, that my relief at getting to the end of summer intact has been ruptured, that it isn’t heralding the start of a more stable time but pointing up that there is no such thing as stability, that life is an ever-opening succession of black holes.

We rarely come across each other directly after that. I don’t go to the café so much. Our children aren’t in the same class. I know she has a fantastic support group of wonderful friends. I think of another woman I knew, with breast cancer, who’d had to say good bye to her three children and the thought is too awful to hold.

My children grow. We move out, and then back into the area when our new, fiercely downsized place is ready. We cope. We stabilize. The boys do karate, art club, start swimming lessons at the local pool.  And I see the woman, from time to time, in a series of beautiful headscarves, and once, sunning her elegant scalp outside the café.

‘Doctor’s orders,’ she smiles.

And then last year, at a mutual friend’s birthday drinks, the woman comes along, her exquisite bones striking through her skin, wearing an expensive jacket she jokes about not being able to afford, but bought anyway. And she goes on joking through the evening, about her increasingly strange behaviour since the cancer has spread to her brain. She has us in fits of laughter at the farce around the family portrait she organized, and the absurd argument she had on the bus home. She sets the tone and we follow. The laughing is good, a release, but at the same time it feels like breaking glass in my fist.

I am coping a little better each day, but every now and then something trivial throws me. The swimming lessons are going wonderfully well, both boys are progressing. But then the oldest starts swimming with school too, and it’s a bit too much so we riskily suspend his private lesson for a term and rather inevitably lose his regular Thursday slot. I moan at his wonderful swimming teacher. I really can’t find the energy to take the two boys to the pool on different nights, which is now what’s on offer.

And then it’s Christmas, and the woman is in front of me at the school show with her video camera, cruelly short curls clinging to her dainty head. We smile. I feel pathetically inadequate. I can offer nothing. The mutual friend from the birthday drinks is there. They hug.

And then we are in the café, other friends and I, and the woman comes in, and sits alone. We invite her to join us, but she smiles and says no, she has one or two things to take care of on her laptop. And so she sits separately, in the room but apart.

I have failed to meet her openness that first day in this same place – ‘I am so scared’ – because I am so scared too.

The wonderful swimming teacher rings and says she has solved the timetable issue. The family who come at 4pm on Thursday have said it’s no problem for them to come at 4.30pm. So I have minimized the degree to which I am inconvenienced. We will come straight from school, past the old house – ‘I miss my old bedroom, Mummy, and the garden’ – to the pool, no hanging around, both boys will have their lesson at the same time and we’ll be home by five. By seven the three of us will be on the sofa together, eating fruit, watching TV, their healthy bodies resting on my knackered one.

The woman died last Friday, peacefully, at home. She had everything prepared. No doubt she was doing some organizing that afternoon in the café, on her laptop. And probably in the evenings too, after her children had gone to bed, as she came to terms with knowing she would shortly have to stop tucking them in.

And I feel like all I did was stare in helpless horror at her loss, and her children’s loss, and the random brutality of it all.

This week, taking the little one swimming, the delightful instructor is talking to my oldest about welcoming him back after Easter. She turns to me and says again how lovely the family is, the one that agreed to move their lessons because I was so keen to have the two 4pm slots for my boys.

And then she says ‘but it’s so sad, because the mother, she died last Friday’. And my son says, ‘oh, that must be the same person you were telling us about, Mum’.

And I nod and I think of her, in the midst of her plans for her death, saying ‘yes, no problem, we’ll move our lesson time to suit someone else’.

I hadn’t known what to say to her. But I do now.

Thank you.

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords Of life.

And I have something to expiate: A pettiness.

From ‘Snake’ by DH Lawrence

NW5, the world

For me it has to be 9.45am on a weekday. Other times, I’m sure, would work as well but… it’s like the first sip of your favourite wine. What’s important isn’t that there are others just as good. What’s important is that you are drinking this one, right now.

So at 9.45am I leave my flat, turn left down my NW5 street and – grateful for sufficient height and laziness to have long since given up on heels – speed-walk the greasy pavement layered with gold and ruby tree confetti to Kentish Town Station. Which is where it all truly begins.

I swipe my Oyster card. I take a moment to pause and grin, Jack Nicholsonesque, at the wind tunnel escalator descending to the bottle trap that is the Northern Line and I

Turn Left.

Oh yes. oh Yes.

Because left delivers you to The Train.

The 10am Train.

The One That Goes To Wimbledon. (Eventually. Don’t worry, that’s not relevant.)

The One That Stops At Blackfriars. (This is. Hugely.)

The One That Takes Just 16 Minutes. (I know.)

ASIDE:

Have you seen what they’re doing to Blackfriars? The entire bridge is becoming the station. It’s an absolute wonder. Or it will be. At the moment it’s covered in scaffolding that from a distance looks like the whole thing’s held together with matchsticks, along with mesh and swaying canvas making you feel you are on a boat whose owner misbelieves it’s motion sickness you’re after, not a view.

But the good thing about the fact that it isn’t finished is

There’s No-One There.

Certainly not at 10.16am.

So while you can feel that thousands on thousands are anticipated, are being catered for with jumbo platforms and banks of ticket barriers, at present the barriers all stand open.

The other absolutely brilliant thing is that

You Can Get Off At Either Side Of The River.

And while obviously there’s no contest about whether you would choose to exit into the heart of the City with gazillions of pounds worth of misery on its conscience or onto the arts-championing, iconoclastic, Shakespeare-hugging South Bank – where the gazillions earned in the City are partly spent on buying (sorry, sponsoring) culture – I want to know how many other cities give you that option.

Exactly.

RESUMING:

I’m off the train at Blackfriars. I turn right towards the south exit, walk swiftly down the steps and at the turn I stop to regain my breath because what I’m looking at has just taken it away. The Thames. Our River. The reason our city exists, the reason our lives exist here. Wide but not stupidly (have you seen the Mississippi?), a silver-grey ribbon sewn with such a random selection of buildings that they are held together only by the colour palette of tidely regurgitation – the bone white of old clay pipes; the pale green of salt-polished bottle-glass; the steel pearl of everything else that has made the journey from city to estuary and endlessly back again.

At the bottom of the stairs I can either walk east to Tate Modern (a few minutes’ stroll) or west towards the National Theatre, the BFI and the book market, past the skate park, cheered on by a blast of bright music from the Wahaca Restaurant Experiment.

Then it’s a quick hop up onto the terrace and into the elegance that is the Festival Hall, wandering its communal spaces, catching a drift of jazz piano. I pick up a coffee, find a table and a chair, angle myself at the view and when I’ve done gazing at history from the Romans onward playing out in transparent layers over the water in front of me, I take out my pen and I write about our mutual friend, this city, this river, just sixteen minutes away.

This is not fiction

Yesterday yet another friend told me she had been abused. It happened when she was in her teens and the abuser was a doctor who was ‘examining’ her in a way that was screamingly inappropriate, while she was seriously injured.

This brings the total to seven.

Seven of my precious friends were sexually abused when young and vulnerable and have had to struggle with the consequences. These include loss of confidence, difficulties with relationships and with sex, constant physical pain, distrust of men in general (in all the cases I know about, the abusers were men though the victims were men and women) and a warped sense of themselves as somehow at fault. Guilty. Bad. Only one ever told an adult at the time. She was told to shut up.

The BBC has serious questions to answer over its continued employment of Jimmy Saville. And over its Newsnight reporting on the North Wales care homes story. But the focus is swiftly and conveniently being shifted from those whose lives have been wrecked by secret abuse – facilitated in many cases by powerful people – and onto George Entwhistle’s pay-off and the potential sacrifice of all that is good about the BBC.

This is exactly what the abusers want to happen.

If I had been abused, how would I feel just now? I might have been on the verge of speaking up. Not any more. Watching witnesses exposed, discredited and then overlooked – why would you?

But this issue must not be allowed to slide out of view. The abusers I know about are (or were) a grandfather; a father; a brother; two doctors; two public school teachers. It’s so awful I wish I had made it up. But it is true.

For the victims’ sake we can’t just switch channels. It’s easier to be opinionated about the BBC. To moan about the licence fee. About someone else’s salary. Of course we should question these things. But as well as. Not instead of.

These are other people’s stories, not mine. And there are obvious issues of privacy. But the very least we can do is shout the numbers out loud.

Seven friends. S E V E N.

How many of yours?

I’M ON THE EFFING TRAIN!!

I came back to London from Swansea First Class on Sunday.

It was a nightmare.

Not because there was anything wrong with the train service – we were on time, the train manager was courteous with a sense of humour (nice combination) and handled things well when we paused at Severn Junction, neatly persuading anyone who might have fancied jumping out at the back of beyond into the driving drizzle to stay in their seats… No. The extra money I had spent to indulge myself in a comfortable seat, a table and a window large enough to see out of (remember the good old days when this was a description of any train carriage? Before the sardine and blindfold treatment?) danced before my eyes as I listened, from before Bristol till after Reading, to a man talking loudly into his mobile phone.

And I don’t really mean just talking.

I mean ranting. Effing a lot.

I eff quite a lot. But not into a phone in a reasonably full carriage on a train for more than an hour.

At first I thought I could handle it. Especially as within twenty minutes of leaving Swansea I had asked a man in his early 60s if he would mind turning down the mobile phone on which he was loudly playing a game – you know, the blip beep whistle clang, blip beep whistle clang bang! variety that my six year old son enjoys. The ‘man’ pretended not to hear my ‘excuse me’ four times before eventually turning it off and muttering loudly ‘You are NOT welcome’. I didn’t check, but it’s more than possible he stamped his foot and stuck out his tongue as I went back to my seat.

After this episode I didn’t want to be seen as the carriage kill-joy. So when Motor Eff Mouth began, three seats behind, I ignored him. I ignored the stuff about the woman at home spending all her money on fags and how she won’t effing be told. The stuff about his bonuses, how he’s scammed extra, what the tricks are.

While he berated the person – man, surely – at the other end of the line for their appalling choice of car, I doggedly amended my novel synopsis. I plugged in my headphones and tried to listen to Gil Scott Heron as Mr Effing Eff discussed how big someone had grown – Child? Dog? – and how effing MASSIVE he was going to get, this being a good, exciting thing. I turned up my music, tried to read the Sunday paper.

Still he effed on.

A hammer wrapped in cling film is still a hammer.

I know this situation lasted over an hour because I remember thinking hurrah, Severn Tunnel, he’ll get cut off. And he did. For five minutes. Before he started again. Without a pause. Till we got to Reading.

At which point, all sentimental thoughts of an old-school train journey full of space, sunsets and inspiration effed into a pulp, I stood up. I looked round the carriage. The man I’d asked to turn down his mobile had coughed irritably a couple of times. But that was the only protest from a compartment of at least a dozen people, 11 out of 12 of them men. I looked round again, trying to catch the eye of an ally. Nothing.

Of course this should have been my Nora Ephron moment. This should have been the instant I cleared my throat, shook out my hair and hollered, ‘Hey, could you say that again? A little louder please? I didn’t quite get the really important effing bit about how small your effing penis is?’ to resounding laughter and applause, and a shamefaced nod from the culprit.

But it wasn’t. Instead I stroppily put my computer away, thinking desperately how best to salvage the last half hour of my shattered idyll. I had it. I would – wait for it – walk into the next carriage. But not repeat NOT without making my point.

I dragged my bags together, picked up my jacket and as I passed his table – taking in the can of Stella and the fact that he was still wearing his coat – slapped down my paper and said loudly but not too loudly – wouldn’t want to disturb anyone ‘– d’you want a newspaper… bit of peace and quiet… terrific!’ in what was intended to be a tone bathed in sarcasm. I kept on walking. There was definitely no applause.

I then spent the final half hour of the journey shaking in The Quiet Carriage –  which though in no way silent was like a nunnery compared to the Bedlam I’d just endured – waiting for him to rampage through the automatic doors and knife me.

People. Fellow passengers! Why? Why!

Why do we put up with this? It HAS to be fear, surely? You can’t be human and not have felt irritation, mounting, sweating, scratching, exploding irritation. Or were all your first class tickets paid for? Do you do it all the time? Is it always this way? Don’t you want quiet, a comfy seat that doesn’t cut off your circulation, and a view? Were you secretly craving a dose of something akin to five vodkas, four expressos and an enjoyable journey spent scraping out your own eyeballs with a pointy cheese grater?

I only buy First Class if it’s no more than £10 above the Second Class ticket price. It’s a naughty treat in a life that’s been a bit lacking recently. I don’t want free refreshments, newspapers, obsequiousness, classical music, whatever. I just want a bit of peace, a view and space to breathe.

How I craved the yodeling baby, the good humoured, unfeasibly be-rucksacked Duke of Edinburgh’s students and the disturbed Labrador I traveled to Swansea with in Second on Saturday morning. I can handle my always quietly lurking and occasionally terrifying claustrophobia better than I could handle this man and the silently pathetic shower who put up with him.

Lost for words in the face of an effing torrent?

I’m sorry, Nora.

The price of mother-work

As well as being a writer who cares passionately about writing, I am a mother who cares passionately about my kids. I see it as my full-time, round the clock job to care for them and be there for them. I don’t know if you remember but children don’t get worried, confused, scared, funny, excited or in need of a heart to heart only after office hours.

As the childcare debate goes on, and the government seems to be seriously suggesting schools stay open till 8pm to accommodate working parents, I have become borderline obsessed with the way we position the work of childcare as a necessary evil to be escaped by intelligent people at all costs. (And recruiting nursery staff with A levels is not the answer…)

I have been a higher education junkie in my time and love sharing my accumulated knowledge both with my children and my creative writing students. But whatever the IQ, mothers who stay at home through choice pay a status price. And that price is often extracted by other women who elect to or have to work in different ways.

Issues of class and gender abound, and taboos around payment for the work of bringing up the next generation of workers to feed the system (how hard it is to escape!) are entrenched. Much to write and think about. In the meantime here’s an article I wrote for the excellent TPPSG (Tufnell Park Parents Support Group) magazine last year. More to come.

Childcare. What’s the real cost to women?

Being at home and working freelance around two young boys constantly teaches me new skills and daily increases my job satisfaction (though of course some days it is a complete and utter nightmare and I want to write mindless blurbs in a funky office from dawn till dusk instead….)

One of things my experience has given me is MASSIVE respect for childcare and child-carers. Whether that’s the girl next door conscientiously babysitting so I can have the odd night out, or those who run fabulously stimulating nurseries. Plus every fun au pair and reassuring nanny in between.

However, there is currently a hum of disquiet around childcare. The cost, so the papers tell us, is keeping people (almost invariably women) from going back to work.

What seems to be overlooked is that it is working women who provide the childcare. They are doing a job. And they are usually dedicated to it, qualified to do it, and good at doing it. Just like the women who go back to banking, or marketing, or teaching.

 How to ‘win’ at childcare

Yet somehow childcare is presented as a difficult and devious contest that women who work in professions other than childcare have to ‘win’ at. Take this, from The Telegraph’s Family section, 8th July 2010, where Sally Richards*, who is a teacher, finds a solution to the rising cost of nursery care:

On a friend’s recommendation, Sally made enquiries with < a nanny agency > and was put in touch with Martha*, a professional nanny who charges a flat rate of £8 an hour who was happy to fit in with Sally’s part-time hours. The Richards now spend £450 a month on childcare, roughly the same amount as they paid when Henry* was in nursery. “We get the flexibility, since Martha is happy to come to our home and fit in around my work, and Henry gets the one-to-one care – it’s fantastic. And now I’m pregnant with our second child we’re even more pleased we made the swap. We could never have afforded nursery fees for two, while the price for Martha remains the same.”

So Martha is expected (perhaps she herself expects) to look after two children for the price of one.

In what other working environment would an employee be expected to double their workload for the same money? Here’s hoping their union would immediately gallop to the rescue. And yet a woman has been encouraged to believe that it’s ok to do this to another woman.

What I fear is that the concern over the cost of child-care is a red herring which is doing a very effective job of pitting women against women.

The most important job in the world?

And perhaps we go along with this because of the way society encourages us to think about the work of childcare – as a necessary evil to relieve us of the drudgery of parenthood and allow us to work in a more fulfilling way for ourselves; something to be resented because it is too expensive to allow us to do the above; something that should be extendable at whim depending on whether one of our own clients or bosses fancies having us work outside our contracted hours at no notice….

Child carers feed our children, wash our children, amuse our children, work with our children, manage their moods, their sadnesses and happinesses; make them feel secure and keep them safe. In a thousand tiny ways each week, they keep them alive for us – they help them cross roads, patch their skinned knees, steer them around a hundred invisible hazards, make sure they don’t choke. There aren’t many jobs that carry such real responsibility.

So why don’t we respect the work we do?

If we don’t enjoy – or even respect – the work that is required to take care of children, we will resent paying for others to do so when we return to work.

If we had more respect for ourselves, and the extraordinarily versatile job we do as mothers, at-home carers and custodians of the next generation – with all its practical qualifications based on experience – we would have more respect for the other women we pay to help us with this job.

Is it perhaps because we do the work for free that we expect others to do it for as little as possible?

Pay at-home parents? Why not!

Perhaps we should seriously consider paying at-home parents. Not as a bribe to persuade them to stay at home – that has been a hard-won choice for women and must remain a choice – but to acknowledge the work that is done in the interest of society as a whole.

In a society where absolutely everything else has a price, this shouldn’t be too much of a shock. The only logical argument against is that there is no short-term economic return…

The real meaning of investment

…but that didn’t stop banks asking us for our money to ‘invest wisely for the long-term’. And I suggest that the likelihood of parental investment (time not money) in a child for 18 years – given a following wind – has more chance of a flourishing return than an 18 year financial investment is showing up just now.

It’s a taboo. Even the most politically-interested women I know are horrified at the idea that they wouldn’t do the work of a mother for free. ‘For love.’ But where did this social narrative come from? And in whose interests is it, really?

When it means that we devalue the work of women whose profession is child-care; when it means that we don’t value our own daily triumphs and the massive life skills being a decent parent delivers; when it means employers don’t have to adapt their working hours to recognize the value of parenting…

I think we just need to think about it.

What do we believe is really worth paying for?

And perhaps the current economic turmoil is the perfect time to decide what is of value to us. What we really want to pay for. What will really give us a return on investment.

Whatever we do, let’s not be tricked into a situation where women blame women – or take advantage of women – for a story whose script is so seldom written by women and just about never by mothers.

We can do better.

* I have changed the names. Full article can be found at

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/family/7879932/Childcare-Living-in-a-nanny-state.html