Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Sunday 15 January 2023

Now every man (and woman) is an island

Had you been a fly on the wall in a certain library in Southern England some thirty years ago, you might have been startled by a heavily pregnant woman slamming a book down on a table with a most unladylike exclamation.

The book was a then fashionable guide for new parents and I had just reached the chapter on childcare, which suggested that a mother could return to work as early as six weeks after birth; ”You may be concerned”, it said loftily, “that your child’s caregivers do not have your level of education or language skills, but these worries are unfounded; studies have shown that this will have no long-term detrimental effect on your child’s development.”

The book did not, as far as I could see, offer much information about these ‘studies’, or what evidence they provided for their findings, but it was clear in its message that ‘quality time’ at weekends more than made up for a baby being farmed out for the majority of its waking hours (in educational terms, at least). Breathtaking intellectual snobbery aside, there was something disturbing in its complacent assertion that, while the child may repeatedly cry or show distress when left at nursery or with a nanny, this should not prevent the mother from returning to work (the same advice appears on today’s NHS information website).

The Shadow Education Secretary’s recently announced plan to make childcare available for all children from the age of nine months is another manifestation of the belief that children will thrive away from their mothers from a very early age. What concerns me about her arguments are that, while she cites mothers who ‘have to give up jobs they love’ because of a lack of childcare and the need for single mothers to be able to work, she makes no mention of the effect on the child.

Raising a child is - or should be - a huge responsibility. Every experience and every new piece of knowledge will contribute to the adult it will eventually become. I find it hard to understand how a mother would willingly - or even cheerfully - pass her infant over to the influence of relative strangers for almost the entirety of its weekday waking hours rather than be there herself to oversee its development and provide comfort whenever necessary. In any case, children under 3 naturally suffer from separation anxiety; it seems inhumane to override this by making the mother’s interests paramount.

Staying at home with a baby or a young child can be frustrating, boring and lonely at times - we were never meant to rear our children in isolation and some mothers may need support in the form of mother-and-baby groups and help to access the activities on offer - but it also means that the parent is a constant presence and a source of continuous reassurance when the child’s brain and emotional behaviour patterns are developing at their fastest rate. We may have invented smartphones but we still respond to the same pheromones and biological cues as our ape ancestors; for a pre-verbal child, being deprived of its mother’s presence for hours at a time on a daily basis must surely have a detrimental effect.

In fact, that effect may now be making itself evident. The generation born around the time that book was published (and Harriet Harmann was boasting about the number of UK working mothers with children under 5) has turned away from the institution of marriage to a startling extent: in 1976, 90% of men and 80% of women under 30 were married, while by 2019, the figures stand at a third and a quarter respectively with a further decline predicted for the future. Meanwhile, England and Wales last year passed the landmark point of a majority of babies being born out of wedlock.

Admittedly many more people are willing to embark on long-term relationships without marriage but there does appear to be a shift towards serial monogamy and away from commitments surviving long enough to rear children. The knock-on effect of universal childcare policies may turn out to be a solipsistic society composed of individuals whose formative experiences have left them unable to sustain stable relationships in adult life and a resulting manifold increase in state subsidies for single parents.


  1. The Frankfurt school continues its odious teaching . . .

  2. It seems I'm becoming fixated on the Frankfurt school: or is it just that its effects are being seen and felt everywhere.

  3. It does seem to be astonishingly pervasive; the trouble is, I suppose, that jargon-ridden theorising is irresistible to a certain sort of academic and has thus proliferated beyond all reason in universities here and elsewhere.

    The problem is that real life tends to be infinitely messier than proponents of the Frankfurt School would have it. One particularly telling quote from Theodor Adorno sums it up admirably:

    "I established a theoretical model of thought. How could I have expected that people would want to implement it with Molotov cocktails?"


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