Parent trap!


Susan Jeffers is a brave woman. One would expect the author of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway to be able to bite the bullet in most circumstances, but she has really taken on a cultural mammoth with her latest declaration: parenting is hell, and children are the demons.

Ms Jeffers, nudging her 60s, has been in Dublin to spread the message. She is trying it out tentatively in Europe before taking on the political correctness of American society, where her new book I'm OK, You're A Brat has not yet been published. It's a strong message, but a liberating one: you can love your kids, but hate bringing them up.

The theory continues that parents, no matter how hard they try and how well they do, are never guaranteed success - they can't be sure their children will emerge as happy, fulfilled adults. The child's own "calling" (a concept distilled from sources including Eastern philosophies) and its Circle of Being (the range of human contacts it has) are more important to his or her formation.

She's taking on the big boys here, in more ways than one. Because this is a foundational blow at the widely-held ideal of fulfilment through motherhood. Although Jeffers is careful to widen her thesis to include men, there is no doubt that the re-evaluation of motherhood as an optional life choice could have the bigger effect on society. Since, if the woman is no longer automatically the main parent, what happens to male hegemony? Indeed, what happens to capitalism?

The post-feminist backlash has relied heavily on blaming the lack of family values for the greater ills in society. The implication is that if children had the stability of earlier centuries, where mum slaved away at home while dad worked in the office/fields, we could all return to those sunlit glades of . . . ah, peasant society? The Industrial Revolution? The Great Depression?

Susan Jeffers claims that division of labour, with women doing the lioness's share of parenting, is a post-Industrial Revolution arrangement. "Even in agricultural societies, both parents worked, in the fields and in the home," she says. "This division is introduced, it is not instinctual. It has been put upon women. For the mother to stay at home is a cheap solution to an expensive problem.

"It is easy to blame Mom for what is going wrong in the world, instead of looking at other problems in society." She sees this as a dangerous trend, because it removes the obligation on governments and social scientists to look more thoroughly at social problems. "Anyone who says they can tell you what makes a healthy child is sadly misinformed," she says. But in terms of what socialises the child, she agrees with Hillary Clinton: "It takes a village".

The germ for the book came when her son, now 41, told her he and his partner were thinking of having children (they haven't, yet). Jeffers thought deeply about what advice to give. She had made a decision not to contest custody of her two children when her first marriage ended. Her son was 14 at the time, and her daughter was 11. She says she has continually been vilified for that choice.

"I got negative feedback, and I still get it today. This is how these collective beliefs of society get so locked in, without choice," she says. "At one meeting we went to, my daughter was asked, `did you think your mother had abandoned you when you went to live with your father?' She said, `why? And why aren't such questions asked of a man?"'

Jeffers is now remarried, to former film producer Mark Shelmerdine. She says that in her first marriage it had always been obvious that her husband - her college sweetheart - was more nurturing than she was. He possessed what she refers to as the "LBP gene" (Loving-Being-a-Parent). It was a gene she didn't have, and after two-and-a-half years of a colicky baby, when she became pregnant again, she began to make her escape plan.

"I had the courage to go out there and go against the trend because I was so depressed," she says. "We were living in an apartment in New York, the baby would cry all the time with colic, and my husband would go off to his job."

Initially, she got another life through going back to school. She studied psychology, getting degree, masters and doctorate in rapid succession. By that time, her husband was making enough money to afford childcare. She doesn't explain how exactly the marriage ended. However, she flourished in her independent career and says her relationship with her children was not harmed. There were ups and downs, but no more, she reports, than those experienced by any stay-home mother with her kids.

One of the scariest passages in Jeffers's book, although not the most lurid, tells of three youths, who, as a prank, removed a series of traffic stop signs around their American town. The joke soured tragically when a car containing another three boys went through one of the denuded intersections and crashed with another vehicle. All three were killed. Jeffers writes of the anguish felt by the parents of the three perpetrators, and the parents of the dead teenagers at the trial - which resulted in the "pranksters" being jailed for 15 years.

It is a spine-chilling story because of the ordinariness of the first three boys, and their thoughtless, dangerous joke. This is what kids do. As somebody said to me when my little daughter "tidied" a rock through the window of a house in a Spanish village, smashing the windscreen of a car outside (fortunately not killing anyone), "Los ninos no piensan" (kids don't think). Somebody has to do their thinking for them, so they are not a danger to the society. This is where parents normally come in.

This, says Jeffers, is wrong. She is adamantly opposed to legislative moves to make parents responsible for children's where abouts and actions. "I'm here to tell you that you can relax!" she writes. Unfortunately, although it is a nice message, it isn't convincing. It's like like what we tell our children: "Go to sleep, and everything will be alright in the morning."

There is a lot in what she writes and says that needs to be said, for the good of men, women, and children. But some of her thinking is woolly, and frankly, too comfortably middle class. What about the single mother on welfare with absolutely no choices in her life? She probably doesn't buy self-help books either, so gets scant attention in I'm OK, You're a Brat.

Her argument clearly derives from the "me" generation, the baby-boomers who grew up to embrace the mantra "if it feels good, do it". When the me generation turned into the me-too generation (i.e. it reproduced), the shock wave could have been compared to a tsunami.

All that free love and dropping out didn't square too well with disrupted sleep, endless nappy changing and argumentative toddlers. The Victorians had the right idea: see the children at teatime when the nanny brings them in, bathed and perfumed, for a lovely hug. Come back, little baby, when you're making big money on Wall Street.

I remember spending time with a young family some years ago. The father worked full-time outside the house, while the mother worked in it. When the mother headed to use the toilet, she was joined immediately by both children - a three-year-old and an 18-month-old. Their father chastised the infants: "At least let Mum go to the toilet on her own!" She looked pityingly at him and said, "Don't you know I haven't been to the toilet alone in two years?"

Go to it, girls - and guys. There's a new millennium dawning. Let's win those lives back.

I'm OK, You're a Brat: Freeing Ourselves from the Guilt-Making Myths of Parenthood, by Susan Jeffers is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £9.99