Category Archives: Class and Community

Did they wee in the olden days?

I think the Victorians in this picture would seriously get the vapours if they heard my 4 year old daughter’s question. They wouldn’t realise how alien they look; how they don’t look like they do anything as mundane as wee!

I suppose the past is so easy to romanticise; we do it, but our children maybe do it even more. And the more I think about it, the more I think we construct a false idea of history and then learn from it.

I read an article recently where someone was passionately asserting, as if there could be no contradiction, that things are so much harder for children today than ever before.  Terrorism and the “media” were the main reasons given. And I don’t minimise either the fear and threat of Terrorism, nor the terrifying power of the internet: something I feel very strongly about.

But, I do think we have both romanticised our view of history and perhaps even ‘romanticised’ our current reality: are we really living like we’re people on the brink of an apocalypse?

What about the day-in-day-out terrorism of class prejudice which, while still a major and under-recognised issue today, was acutely relevant to daily economics, politics and social pressures not even a hundred years ago. In London slums  in Victorian times more than half of the babies died before their first birthday.  It could be more like 75% in areas where epidemics were taking hold (Museum of London/British Library). Tuberculosis, small pox, cholera and death in childbirth dominated daily life.

Is it the idea of strong family units that makes us “nostalgic” for life back then? The idea that there was an extended family that helped with mugs of bovril and a raging fire on the range? It is a lovely image, but it doesn’t bear too much scrutiny. What exactly would your life be like as a Mum aged 13 sharing the cramped family home with your Mum/Aunt/Grandma bringing up your own child with a secrecy born of shame?

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And this is the model we judge our own society against? Strong family values, helping people against all the odds, grinning and bearing it, coping, putting family first? Sure, but what would you write about if you were blogging around the turn of the century? I’m not saying everything’s better now – it obviously isn’t and there are huge pressures on our children today, not least through an increasingly bullying social media and a potentially threatening world wide web inevitably escaping control.

The idea that we learn from history is parroted ad absurdum. If we do, it’s not clear what we’re learning from and therefore what we’re learning. I don’t think we were innocent then and I don’t think we are now. We construct history, put it out there and then use it to judge ourselves pretty unfairly in the process.

So the next time you feel you don’t come up to scratch as an earth mother, resorting to a DVD or a can of baked beans…or you look at your not very 2.4 family and think you’re grandmother would be turning in her grave, just remember the Mothers who weren’t allowed to love their own children, the fathers who weren’t allowed to marry the mothers of their children, and the children who weren’t allowed to know the love…or even the names of their own parents.

And the next time you meet someone who – like me – had a medically prescribed C-section, not being too posh to push, too lazy, too….pick your adjective because non C section Mums have had a whole store chucked at them…. remember the Mums who died or were left incontinent for the rest of their insanitary lives, and be proud you live in a world which is, on many levels, so much safer than it was.

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I’d love to wear those ethereal ’20s dresses sported at the Ritz by Lady Mary in Downton Abbey. I’d love to have a good old fashioned Knees up Mother Brown and pint of stout at a good old East End boozer in Call the Midwife.

 

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But even aside from the tragic disadvantages of a less medically advanced society, the people in those stories are not inoculated against emotional pain. They fall out of love, they cheat on each other, they fight with their parents and siblings and they see their dreams fade – this is what it means to be human. But for every one that falls out of love, someone falls in….someone is faithful, someone is a good friend through it all and someone sees dreams come true.

If our children pick up from us the “good old days” mantra, they’ll carry it on their shoulders just as I reckon we do. We shouldn’t be judged by another era, but neither should we judge those other eras more favourably than we judge our own. Humans mess up and humans do wonderful things. It’s important our children realise the similarities as much as the differences across the generations. History today seems to focus far more on the differences, as if electricity changed the running of the human heart.

What do you think? Do we give our children a romanticised view of history? How does our view of history affect how we live our lives? What impact might that have on our children? Please share.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What are you going to do when you grow up?

I am not joking…that was my 6 year old son’s question to me. It was a general chat between us on the way to school, with him saying he’d be a policeman and my 4 year old daughter that she’d still be a princess. My son was disgusted:”You can’t be a princess!” followed quickly by, “What do you want to be Mama?”

It was a moment before my son’s double take. I could see the cogs turning “Oh yes!” he thought, “She’s not going to properly grow up!” What do they think about me I wondered?

This particular can of worms fascinates me. Firstly, how do children measure maturity? I know they struggle with the idea that I had any sort of life prior to their birth. (My daughter who loves a good wedding, asked me indignantly once “When you got married, didn’t you have I (sic)?”) So one thing at the heart of this question has to be their sense of history being totally confused, seeing you only in relation to them. A policeman is a policeman in relation to them. I am a mummy in relation to them.

Secondly, how do they value different jobs and roles. They only conceive of doing jobs whose status is evident to them. They see policemen/women, fire-fighters, teachers, nurses and doctors – interestingly the people pivotal to a community are the jobs most visible to them as children. And those are the jobs they naturally consider. 3

Thirdly, I wonder how their ideas about the value of different jobs affects how they view their community. I believe we remain a class-obsessed society.  Maybe less cap-doffing and curtsying, but there is still a rich seam of prejudice in how we view people based upon their working day.

At the moment, our children see front-line services as synonymous with “grown-up jobs”. They don’t knowingly interact with hedge fund managers or traders. When and why will they start to value those jobs more? That’s where we come in.

At least twice now I’ve had a conversation with other mums where I say I’d be very happy for my son to follow whatever is his latest rescue worker vocation. And on those occasions, my comments have been met by utter disbelief. The thinking was that as both my husband and I have degrees and a profession, it would surely be a body blow for us to see our children in less professional roles.

But I don’t see it quite that way. A fire down the road needs a fireman and an elderly lady with no family needs the comfort of a care assistant looking after her. Yes, being a journalist, a politician or a lawyer may definitely challenge and protect society in fundamental ways (As you’ll see  in last week’s blog I feel very strongly about encouraging our children to engage politically. And there are so many other professions which give meaning and focus to communities of course.). What I’m saying is that front-line care should never be relegated to a different class of work: it’s literally “vital” and I expect my conscience would sit more quietly knowing I’d saved lives.4

Shouldn’t we be proud our children want to help others? We teach them how central it is as they’re growing up but when we start to actually talk about what they might end up doing, we perhaps show other values pre-eminent in our minds – status, wealth, class? Or simply an important and fruitful frustration with the established systems around us; as long as those frustrations are channelled, then that can indeed be of vital significance for the community.

But when my children ask me what I’m going to do when I grow up, they perhaps think there’s a wider role I should be fulfilling. As a Home-based Mum, I can say we’ve made the choice that I stay at home and explain why we believe that’s an important role.

Since my two children have both been at school I’ve taken on various bits of work, journalistic and teaching, and I wondered how they’d respond to that. My son was very encouraging in an hilariously patronising way. I told him I was a bit nervous about teaching these toddlers some music. He said, “Don’t worry Mama, I think they’ll love it”.  Cue I sing him a song about autumn leaves and he says “That’s good Mama!” nodding too seriously!! My daughter said she wanted to come and help and suggested various props I could use. Predictably, she then got really cross when she realised it meant I couldn’t come to the whole of assembly! Interesting. Fine my having another role until it impinges on my role as a Mum.2

What am I getting at? I think growing up for the children means having a role; having a clear and respected place in society (preferably with a cap and uniform to prove it). But society so devalues the role of a parent who doesn’t work outside the home. It also devalues front-line services, because of how it pays them and because of how people view those jobs given that they don’t come after a competitive graduate scheme,  with a healthy pay cheque and plenty of kudos.

I want my children to value some of the jobs society doesn’t appear to. I want them to value the people in those roles for what they do. I don’t want them to cheapen them because of how society cheapens them.

If my children grow up wanting to challenge the systems that cheapen them, then that’s a bonus. But…challenging them shouldn’t be seen as a superior role to providing day-to-day care which comes at such a cost.

What do you think? In forming our aspirations for our children, to what extent do we a) resist, b) succumb to society’s pressures and expectations?