When I see an ad telling me that if I don't by this particular product my children will end up vitamin deficient/illiterate/emotionally stunted/overweight/underweight/whatever, I know that there's a very good chance it's bullshit. And yet I can't help myself getting sucked into the vortex of parental guilt. It's not just a reaction to advertising, either - people's half-baked theories about effective parenting are just as likely to suck me into unhappy retrospection about every bit of parenting I should have done better.
The other day, I stumbled onto this sorry article - it claims that toddlers are 'damaged' by group childcare. It's clearly an uncritical bit of journalism amounting to nothing more than a PORSE informercial. Highlights include:
"We have to challenge the people who are making the decisions in early-childhood education because it's a huge movement ... It was very much that feminist movement because they didn't want women tied to the home.
"But it's really missed the point of what about the babies? The home is best, and if the home isn't coping, let's put the resources into the homes."
By mentioning feminism, this quote makes it pretty clear who is the source of preschoolers' supposed problems: mothers. There's no research quoted which backs up this yawn-incuding, decades old claim - but then no research is needed to activate maternal guilt.
The article made me think about the kind of parenting I do, and how it differs from what my mum did. My mum took care of the five of us. She didn't do the intensive one-on-one parenting that is expected of us today, because there wasn't time. She had to wash cloth nappies in an old-style manual washing machine. There wasn't enough money for convenience food, so everything had to be prepared from scratch. There were multiple sets of homework to supervise. She had no extended family she could call on for help. It wasn't possible to spend lots of time with each kid, developing our preschool numeracy and literacy or attending to our emotional and social growth (which isn't to say these things didn't happen - they just weren't done systematically). Although she was a stay-at-homer, what my mum did probably doesn't meet today's expectations around the 'quality' time we ought to spend with our kids.
I've always worked. For the first seven years of my eldest child's life, both her parents worked. Now she and her brother have their dad at home. I'm away for most of the day, but the time I spend with my kids tends to be 'quality' (in the sense that this seems to be commonly understood - I have huge reservations about assuming that the time spent in the 'mundane' tasks of feeding, clothing and bathing kids isn't 'quality'). Despite having had my kids in care, I've never felt my relationship with them has been compromised. If you take the dubious 'quality time' standard, you might conclude that the working mum parents better than her own stay-at-home mum (although you might change your mind if you saw my sorry housekeeping efforts!).
I'm not saying that whatever parenting practices are culturally sanctioned at a particular time are OK. I believe that some practices are better than others - for example, I'll never support smacking, even if 99% of the referendum results give it the thumbs up.
I know my own kids, and I know that they're happy. The choice to put them in childcare was a good one. Still, a dumb PORSE informercial, based less on 'research' than invoking parents' fears for commercial gain, managed to completely destabilise me for the best part of 24 guilty hours. And I'm guessing I'm not the only one who's prone to bouts of parental angst!