Mothering: A Spiritual and Practical Approach

by Anna Melchior
St Pauls | 189 pages | £8. 95

That grand old war-horse, Sir Winston Churchill, once said, “There is no doubt that it is around the family and the home that all the greatest virtues, the most dominating virtues of human society, are created, strengthened and maintained.” Despite these wise words of an elder statesman, it has been the aim of the Labour government in the UK during the ten years of Tony Blair’s premiership to get as many mothers as possible into full-time paid work, lured by promises of crèches for babies, nursery places for toddlers and ‘wrap-around care’ for schoolchildren.

It is early days under his successor, Gordon Brown, but as yet there seems to be no discernible difference from his predecessor in this policy. When Frank Field, Labour MP for Birkenhead, a deprived area near Liverpool, remarked not long ago that the growing problem of unruly children was a direct result of their mothers not being at home to bring them up, he was attacked on all sides.

So when will government ministers grasp the obvious, and recognise that society benefits from healthy, stable families and that families benefit when mothers raise their own children, especially when they are young? Anna Melchior’s thoughtful book is not a political programme, though it has huge political implications; it is a well-argued defence of the most important work that mothers engage in: raising happy, well-balanced children on whose adult emotional maturity society depends. As the author remarks: motherhood is “awesome”.

Challenging feminists with their own terminology, she describes as “radical feminism” the decision to spend unhurried time (rather than carefully structured “quality” time) with the children you love. To those women who have been led to believe that staying at home is boring and does not stretch them, she replies that motherhood is not wasting one’s genius, it is about “using your genius” in “loving, educating and managing” your children and household. It is mothers, not child-minders or state nannies, that transmit the consistent security and love without which children cannot develop into well-adjusted adults.

Melchior, a mother of four with a doctorate from Oxford, is convinced that the best childcare settings cannot achieve what mothering in the average family achieves as a matter of course. In support of this contention, she quotes well-known childcare experts such as Penelope Leach and Steve Biddulph, who have publicly admitted that even good state nurseries do not provide their charges with the attention, care and stimulus that they need. For Melchior it is self-evident that “the job of transmitting values to our children cannot be left to strangers.” Like a latter-day Joan of Arc, the author swings into battle on behalf of mothers and children, arguing that “you must be there for your baby” if a close and nurturing (and therefore rewarding) bond is to be achieved.

She suggests that mothers should not be left in isolation to carry out this demanding vocation; they need support from husbands, relations, neighbours and friends – and society at large. What politicians should be doing is providing the economic wherewithal for mothers to be at home rather than pressured back to the workplace, which is often, she points out, a dull and uninspiring milieu.

Mothers who choose to stay at home can feel isolated in lonely suburbs where all the other mothers, seemingly, are in employment. My sister, married to a Swede and who lived for many years in Sweden, found that all the Swedish mothers in her vicinity had put their babies into day care so that, in choosing not to do so, she had many lonely hours on her hands in the company of two very demanding toddlers. To avoid this, Melchior wants mothers properly “reintegrated” into society, a society that respects their worth and which supplements their mothering rather than supplanting it. She advocates a restructuring of the tax system so that a married couple are not, in effect, penalised if only one of them works, and greater flexibility in part-time work for mothers.

In case readers feel a tone of self-righteousness to all this, Melchior readily admits her own failings – “unfortunately I rather like harbouring resentment”; she also agrees she is bossy, over-controlling and always right. Coming from atheistic and divorced parents and having watched her mother struggle as a single parent, she herself has floundered with problems in her marriage. Apart from cases of actual abuse, she believes it is always better to work through marital difficulties than opt for divorce, which couples choose often “because they cannot bear to confront their own shortcomings.” Now a Catholic her marriage and mothering are underpinned by her faith. Her marriage survived to grow stronger when “a holy priest told me to be kind to my husband and to pray for him.”

Though she and her husband had “five and a half university degrees between us”, they were ignorant of the reality of caring for a baby. Seven days after her first child was born, worn out by sleeplessness and overwhelmed by the task of mothering, she ran away for a few hours. Gradually she began to experience the joy and freedom of creating an environment where her family could flourish. She loves cooking and dislikes prams. This is a humorous, passionate story, written to share the author’s own journey of faith and motherhood with other mothers who are short-changed by political propaganda which persuades them that their task can readily be undertaken by others.

Francis Philips writes from Bucks in the UK.