Sunday, 23 March 2014

Thoughts on Fathering and Mothering

Walking through the parks and playing fields in yesterday's fine but windily cold sunshine it was striking to see so many fathers with their children. Well, I assumed they were fathers. I suppose they might have been uncles, mother's boyfriends, or strangers just about to achieve an abduction, but I reckon my hunch was right. They were an interesting mix. Some clearly just doing their duty, time-serving, bored, and watching the clock, until they were allowed back home again, or out to the pub, or somewhere else they'd rather be. Others, animatedly engaged in what was going on, playing the games, shouting the rules (fathers do seem to be rather shouty about rules), trying to restrain their need to win. One chap was even fully kitted out as a goalkeeper for his small children, a girl and a boy. I should add, in a spirit of gender justice, that unlike the small lady tennis player the other week, this girl was well-co-ordinated, and had some pretty nifty footwork. It got me wondering, given the divorce rates, whether the value of the park is that it's neutral ground if the parents no longer find one another congenial company. For fathers and children to stay in touch at all, they must go outside and play games, whether they want to or not.

A couple of nights before, I'd been sitting in our nearest park in Barton, in the twilight, after a long walk through this end of town, through Old Headington, and the Quarry, to Risinghurst and the C S Lewis reserve (noisy children about, no kingfishers), and my quiet time before going home to cook dinner was disrupted by loud yelling and screaming. The distance, and the fading light, made it hard to see at first, but it seemed that a woman and some small children with an equally small dog, were shouting about another even smaller dog, that was making a beeline for theirs, and was in turn being furiously yelled at by another woman, out of sight, who I imagined was its owner. I don't think there was any real set-to, but the noise set my teeth on edge. The smaller dog was reclaimed, the mother and the three children kept walking, and with their dog, passed my bench. Well, it's everyone's bench really, but I was feeling really grouchy. "What's that bloody woman doing dragging her children round in the dark on a chilly night?" I was thinking. That was an unkind thought. It occurred to me that, this being a modern world for women as well as men, she might be the only adult at home, and none of the children was big enough to stay home alone. Perhaps she had been at work all day, and just fed them after coming home. Perhaps the dog couldn't be walked until afterwards, because hungry children are more infuriating than walkless dogs. And to get a walk at all, the dog had to go out with the whole posse, and endure all the thrills and spills of shouting and shrieking (which it's possible dogs enjoy quite as much as most children and some adults).

Thinking back to childhood,I can't remember much "quality time" with either of my parents. We didn't have to endure ballgames in the park with Dad, thank goodness, and by the time we got a dog, we could walk him ourselves (just as well as neither of the parents wanted to). It's not a gripe, I'm not a great fan of quality time. It looks rather stressful. I preferred my own time, plus dinner, and occasional journeys to Whipsnade Zoo, activities at which I permitted both parents, in turn, to shine. But we always knew where our parents were. Dad was at work, Mum was at home, sometimes they were both at home. I think that's better than being in the park. And in those days, you could go to the park on your own.

But if called on to choose - playing some daft ballgame with Dad, or going out for a twilight stroll and screaming with Mum, I think I'd go for the screaming. And maybe that's the reason why, whatever the game, Mother always wins.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
March 2014


  1. My Dad was 50 when I was born so he did not take naturally to playing games with us - two younger sisters and one younger brother.

  2. Mine was 23, so he had no excuses!

  3. By the time I was ball-playing-age I, like you, could make my own way to the park. Children played with one another, or alone. It would have been thought very odd to be accompanied by a parent. I don't recall ever seeing one there.
    We also made our own way to the public library, to the children's matinee at the cinema, to 'the baths' ( called 'swimming pool' in Oxford ) and to the shops to spend our pocket-money.
    If my father ever took me anywhere without my mother or one of his parents it was to his work, to buy me shoes,or to school. I made my own way to the latter too, as soon as I was old enough to remember to hand over my dinner money ( eightpence-ha'penny 1953 ) to the teacher myself. We all did.
    Dads ferried friends to and from birthday parties,moved the chairs for musical chairs and put up the drawing of the donkey to pin the tail on,built the rabbit hutch and put up the Christmas tree. That was what they were for,not for playing games in public.

  4. Sadly, I didn't have a mother at home to share anything with! She let when I was four, my elder sister was 5 and my younger sister was 2. We ended up in care until I was 10 years old, and we returned home to a grumpy father, who if he wasn't at work, leaving us alone at home, would be shouting at us for the least offence or none at all. No wonder our Mother left, I believe that she just couldn't put up with the bullying any more.

    She left three young children locked in one room in the house we as a family shared with three other families while Dad was on a night shift driving buses. He came home to an empty house and three hungry, upset, frightened children and promptly had a breakdown. Hence us being in care.

    Care was OKish, but anyone who has been in care will tell you that sharing dormitories with upto 30 other boys or girls, owning nothing of your own and being bullied and subjected to the lack of thought and cruelty and punishment that was a mark of being in care in the 1950's in any Catholic institution isn't something to be recommended.

    I'm pretty sure that my childhood contributed to some problems that I experienced in relationships in adult life, particularly an idealised view of what a perfect mother and father should be, and than not being able to live up to them, and repeating the mistakes of my own absent parents.

    We were one among thousands of children in that type of care in those days, the automatic reaction to a family breakdown being to stick the children into an institution, not explaining why and than denying access to parents or home for years at a time. At least these days it's a bit more civilized and attempts are made to keep families together or to keep children with foster carers close to home. But, from what I know of modern care facilities they can be even more like prisons than the ones of my day - run by well meaning social workers, but institutionalising those in care, than throwing them out onto the street when they reach 17. No wonder so many end up in prison, on drugs or in broken relationships, not having had the benefit of a loving, caring family from the outset.

    I've heard 'Looked After Children' (the new PC nomenclature) described as having complex needs and behavior issues, when the reality is that they've been deprived of the love and nurture of two parents present in a stable relationship in their lives. (And I'm not talking about marriage here).

    So, when you see those children running around and playing think of the frightening statistic that at least 91,000 children are in some form of permanent care away from their home and family at any one time and that over 51,000 of them are there due to neglect, abuse or cruelty. A shocking condemnation of our society and the total lack of support available to keep families together. These stats are from the NSPCC and date from 2012 the last year that figures are available.

  5. It is indeed a shocking statistic,UKV, considering the millions spent on trying to keep families together,not to mention the human emotional cost.
    When I was training from 1968 to 1972 to be a teacher, this sort of thing was something I took an interest in, having previously worked in local government Welfare Services. My Long Essay ( I was told it would be placed in The Bodleian but I've never been to check ) was called 'Who Cares' and involved researching the lives of adults whose role it was to look after children who were not with their parents. The word for these children was 'deprived' which was un-PC but honest. Everybody was supposed to be looked after then.
    The trend for keeping families together was getting underway. Some social workers had misgivings that it was being done in some cases 'at all costs', they told me, and feared that literally fatal results could ensue - which they did,sadly.
    I was given access to records of some Staffordshire Parishes (as in Poor Law, not C of E) going back to the early 19th century. The fostering system they ran was called Boarding Out. Children too young for work or the workhouse lived with families or with couples or widows whose children had grown up. Plus ca change. Those children who were without parents, or whose parents weren't available, had to seek permission in advance in writing from the committee to go to sleepovers or to tea with schoolfriends or to visit siblings. The letters and other documents in the files revealed how little had changed in a hundred and fifty years. Families, if they'd existed in the first place, broke up for all sorts of reasons, not just for the expected one of poverty severe enough to drive them to the Parish.
    During those years at college I used to listen at night to Today In Parliament
    and I particularly remember a Lords' Bill which made the contraceptive pill free of charge throughout the UK. My thought at the time was that from then onwards there would be few if any unwanted children and that what I had learned to call 'the cycle of deprivation' might at last be broken. Some hopes ! Forty years later there seem to be even fewer children born into intact homes with more and more of them never seeing a model of a proper family in real life.