Naming is claiming. This was the parting idea for my short story, The Favour, which was published in The Irish Times on Saturday as part of the Hennessy New Irish Writing competition. I was interested in the statement of freedom and ownership first expressed by parents when they choose a name for their child.
It is the first decision an outsider (and everyone is an outsider to new parents) may object to, though usually not openly. Many more life-shaping decisions will follow. But what if the parentage of the child was unconventional? How much more complex and fraught the situation could be if someone else was involved in bringing the child into the world.
Please be my guest and read the story here before I reveal too much.
In this story Maeve does a large favour for her sister that turns out to have unexpected dimensions. Maeve came to me as a fully-formed character. She sees herself as strong and free-spirited, capable of great things. And yet she finds her life slipping by with no sign of the great things. When the opportunity comes along to do something noble and momentous, she grabs it. Her grand gesture is a means of securing life tenure of the good sister role. But can she impress her emotionally unavailable mother?
It’s important to say that my story is just an imagined set of circumstances, which are not meant to make a definitive statement about the reality of surrogacy. However, if you are interested in the subject, this fascinating radio documentary, first broadcast in July 2015 on Irish public radio is worth a listen. Seven Years and Nine Months is an unvarnished account of a couple’s quest to have the family of their dreams through surrogacy.
I wrote The Favour a year ago and the story spent many months languishing on various submission piles. I hope this will encourage other writers who believe they are on the right track to keep polishing their work and searching for the right home.
While on the subject of the short story, I have to recommend a wonderful new anthology of Irish women writers. The Long Gaze Back, edited by Sinéad Gleeson and published by New Island, is a collection of 30 stories spanning four centuries, that showcases all the amazing possibilities of the form (review to follow on the blog).
Finally, a word of thanks to Niall McArdle (fellow Hennessy New Irish Writing finalist) and Cathy Brown for suggesting I include this blogpost in their annual celebration of Irish culture, The Begorrathon.
(Image courtesy of tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
I am eighteen years old and living alone in Paris. It is my first time away from home. The cash I brought with me covered one month’s rent but only a fortnight of living expenses. Pay day is two weeks away and my first credit card is eight years in the future.
For now, the Irish pub that promised to hire me full time is only able to give me three shifts per week – working from 5pm to 2am. My French is not good enough to look for another job. No, that’s just an excuse. I could work as a chambermaid but I am not brave enough to go knocking on hotel doors. Next year I will have the courage, but I don’t know that yet.
There is an older man who comes to the bar every night and has taken a rather unsettling interest in me. He wears a loose-fitting white linen shirt and his beard is patchy. One afternoon, walking through Les Halles on my way to work, he appears from nowhere, hands me a poem written on white card, and scurries away. The handwritten poem mentions swans and breasts. I am mortified but I sense that he is harmless. In this instance my judgment is right.
The bar manager gives me money for a taxi at the end of each shift. Grubby and tired, I walk out of the side street and turn right towards the rue de Rivoli. Later I will adopt the habit of stopping for a blackcurrant sorbet in one of the late-night cafes, but for now I need the money for proper food. So I walk home through the streets of Paris in the small hours, still amazed at the fact that it can be warm at night.
This flash memoir is inspired by Áine Greaney, a transatlantic Irish author living on Boston’s North Shore. Last week I came across an extract from Greaney’s compelling memoir, where she describes her experience as a young emigrant leaving Ireland for the United States in the 1980s. That’s what got me thinking about my first shaky steps towards (short-lived) independence in a foreign land. Greaney’s account, published in the online journal Numéro Cinq and taken from her book What Brought You Here?, takes us to Dublin in 1986 on the day when the young Mayo woman is on her way to the American embassy for her visa interview. After thirty years in the United States, the homepage image on the author’s website is an airport departure lounge.
Pass the lawnmower
I have read numerous articles about helicopter parenting, but I was surprised to discover that there is a new mutation of this syndrome – lawnmower parenting. These are the parents who clear all obstacles from their children’s path, the ones who drive university admissions teams to drink.
It’s easy to laugh but the more I think about it, the more I understand how difficult it must be let young people stand on their own two feet. When you could save them so much trouble! I was singularly unprepared for my stay in Paris and I can’t imagine ever letting a daughter of mine take off like that into the unknown.
When I was young it was normal for our generation to conceal our private lives from our parents, fill out our own forms and make our own plans. We neither expected nor wanted them to be involved in everything we did, let alone make decisions for us. The time for being close could come later. This independence meant facing risks and problems, and it was how we learned resourcefulness.
But in the new family, bound together by open communication and the sharing of feelings, we now have parents who cultivate a close and equal relationship with their kids. This has to be a good thing, until it becomes too much of a good thing. Like good servants, parents anticipate their children’s needs, helping them to negotiate their way through puberty (now celebrated, when it used to be dreaded), providing practical support and advice when the youngsters become sexually active (as opposed to never EVER mentioning the word sex), and taking on the project of finding the best studies and career path. There is no divide between your world and their world; everyone is on the same team. But where in this osmosis-type relationship is there an opportunity to cut the apron strings?
I’ve interviewed people who were sent away from their family home, or children’s institution, at the age of twelve to work. This was not uncommon in Switzerland and Ireland in the bad old days, when fostering, especially in rural communities, was based on paying your way with hard work.
Young Swiss people between 16 and 18 years of age are now likely to be sent away on all-expenses-paid language-learning trips, staying with host families. From the moment they set foot on foreign soil they are in the care of parents just like their own.
I was talking to a cousin of mine about this recently. After completing a one-year secretarial course in Dublin (we’re back in the 1980s), she moved to London with a friend to start her working life at the age of 18. She told her parents she had somewhere to stay but the two girls had no fixed plans and just enough money to pay for a few weeks of cheap accommodation. Proper preparation would have meant more time saving and making arrangements but they were young and impatient for a new life to begin. Luckily they found jobs quickly, overcame the challenges of the new city, and their parents were never the wiser about what a precarious start they’d had. The whole adventure would never have happened if the parents hadn’t trusted in the girls’ abilities in the first place.
I’m off to see Brooklyn tomorrow. I enjoyed the book, although I found it a little quiet. Academy Street, another story of Irish female emigration in the 1950s, had a much more powerful current to it. So many novels, for both children and adults, deal with the arrival of a young person in a new place. I don’t think that story ever gets old. When was the first time you had to manage alone away from home? Was it ultimately a positive experience? I hope so.
Fact: I am beginning 2016 four centimetres taller than I was last year. It turns out that I have been selling myself short for a very long time. All because I never thought of measuring my height again since I filled out my first passport application form at the age of fifteen.
What else has changed over the past year? One big thing is that I have made the transition to being self-employed. It’s been a positive move in terms of the variety and quantity of work I’ve done. Most of the time I relish the freedom of working for myself. My work pattern alternates between semi-idle periods and Stakhanovite bursts of productivity. This is easier to manage alone at home.
The more challenging aspect of not being away at the office is the pressure of family duties intruding on work time. Housework I can ignore, but the children’s various appointments eat into my time, not to mention the fact that the children return home during the two-hour school lunch break. It is an ongoing challenge to fence off the time.
2015 was the year that I secured a book deal, finally signing the contract in November, five months after I first made contact with the publisher, Bergli Books. Because non-fiction books are sold on proposal, I have landed myself with a huge writing task that will dominate the beginning of this year. The deadline to deliver the manuscript is April but there will be more detailed edits to do after that. I expect to have the final word on the title soon.
Last January in my first blogpost of 2015, I mentioned a few New Year’s resolutions, and shared some photographs from the previous year. It’s time to revisit the wishlist:
Spend more time in Ireland: This I managed to do, making a six-week trip to Ireland in the summer. It was the first time I had made the journey by car and ferry and I can report that France goes on forever. Crossing that central plain, I really started to lose hope that I would ever reach the sea. One holiday highlight: cycling around the island of Inishbofin off the coast of Galway, stopping for dip in the Atlantic five minutes from where this photograph was taken.
Become a Swiss citizen: My approval came through in May, after a six-month procedure and I now have a Swiss ID card and the right to vote. Although the experience wasn’t completely positive, I’m glad to have done it at last. That story is for another day. Here’s a post I wrote about taking the decision to apply for naturalisation.
Find inspiration for writing, write more and write better! My first novel was longlisted for the Exeter Novel Prize on January 1st last year but, apart from one longlisting for a short story, there are no accolades to show for the fiction I wrote in 2015. Despite the lack of results, I had a productive and satisfying writing year and learned a lot about submitting. I am happy to say that I will have a small but notable success to announce soon. Although it is a natural progression from journalism, I wasn’t expecting to have a breakthrough in non-fiction and I am thrilled to have this opportunity to develop and showcase my writing skills.
Finish the first draft of my second novel: Not quite there. Can you believe it? I set myself the challenge in October to finish the first draft of this novel, got as far as the second-last chapter and stopped dead. No more excuses, I know how the story ends, I just have to turn it into words.
Stop and smell the roses (or whatever nature has on special offer): I’m lucky to live on the edge of beautiful countryside and having a dog means I have to go out in all weathers. Highlights of the year were the deer I saw one morning and the cross-country hike I did in May.
As for my 2016 writing goals, I’m looking forward to a successful launch of the Swiss book, and hoping to learn a lot about book marketing along the way. Ideally, I’d like to find an agent and a home for my novels, and keep writing short stories, which has been one of the great writing pleasures of the past year.
What about you? Has the year got off to a good start? Do you believe in making New Year’s resolutions?
As the year draws to a close, all the talk in Ireland is of storms and fatal traffic accidents. Every time tragedy strikes, as it has this week and every other week of the year, a family’s story is rewritten. They stop being the family with the trampoline in their garden, or whose mother who jogs every morning, and become the family that have experienced a terrible loss. And all the awful irreversible steps that led to the moment of the accident remain engraved in memory to torment them.
You get a glimpse of this in the feelings of shock and wonder that come after a near miss. Tragedy has been averted but it has shown its colours, its capacity to devastate. These are potentially life-changing moments, when the ground opens up beneath your feet and suddenly you are teetering on the edge of a deep ravine of grief and regret from which there is no escape. Most of the time, the gap closes as quickly as it has opened and you take your next step on firm blessed ground.
I had one such day this year, where a tortured alternative future revealed itself to me so sharply and clearly that I almost lived it.
Going anywhere with young children means having your accident radar switched on at all times. You have to anticipate, warn, and take precautions – constantly. But unfamiliar places, travel stress and too many distractions can interfere with this vigilance.
This particular morning we were in the middle of France, on our way back to Switzerland after taking the ferry from Ireland. To break the journey we had stayed the night in a depressed-looking village off the motorway near Orléans. To get to the hotel car park, we needed to wait on the narrow path in front of the hotel and cross a busy road where the cars were completely ignoring the speed limit.
I nearly lost my five-year-old daughter on that road. And I know for certain that I would have blamed myself for the accident forever. Why? Because of the dog. Because of the canal at the end of the lane. Because I was carrying too many things. Because of the choice of hotel. Because for just this once I did not anticipate, did not warn and did not take the right precautions.
Around the corner from the hotel, as I had discovered earlier that morning while walking the dog, was a lane that ran alongside the ruins of an old castle. I walked along that lane, not realising that I was setting in motion a chain of events that might leave my own life in ruins.
At the end of the lane I came across an old canal dock and overgrown waterway. Curious, I thought. The village, with its grand old indoor market hall, many derelict buildings and shuttered businesses, must have seen better days. Maybe the canal once brought life and trade to this place.
An hour later when we were crowded into the small lobby with our too many bags, dog on a lead and three children, the canal was on my mind. When I should have been warning the children about the road and seeking out the hand of my youngest child, I was foolishly asking the owner about the canal she seemed to know nothing about.
End the pointless conversation, say goodbye, transfer the dog’s lead to the other hand, gather up the last stray plastic bags, walk out the door, and see my little girl step straight out onto the road. I shout. She turns, looks at me and says oops, and I believe that is the last time I will hear her voice, that I have already lost her and she is now not six feet away from me on a provincial French street but on the other side where I can never reach her again.
But there was no car, and I got her back, and we are still just the family with the Irish mother and the dog. It is frightening to think how destiny can turn on the slightest sliver of detail. The best book I read in 2015 takes the concept of alternative destinies and uses it to build a fascinating story of the many possible lives of one person. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, highly recommended. This is my first ever blog post written and posted on my phone. Excuse any formatting errors. I wanted to write a round-up of the books I read this year but that’s not really possible away from base. I’ve had a lovely Christmas here in stormy, rainy Ireland, counting my blessings.
Wishing everyone a peaceful, pleasant and safe New Year.
At the moment I am writing about women in Switzerland for the book, and trying very hard to be fair. I almost think this chapter needs a disclaimer: I am a woman but the word may not mean the same thing to you as it does to me.
We are all products of our culture and family circumstances, and I have to hold my hands up and say that my background makes it very difficult for me to approach the Swiss situation in a non-judgmental way. I believe that the subjugation of women is the biggest swindle in human history. Nothing in my experience has taught me that women are in any way less important or less capable than men, therefore I cannot and will not accept any arrangement based on this idea.
My family is full of inspiring women, going back more than a century. I grew up in a three-generation household where both my mother and grandmother worked full-time as teachers. My maternal grandmother worked as a cook before she married, and later farmed a smallholding, while bringing up nine children. Her sisters emigrated to America to work. A great-grandmother on the other side was a ‘deserted wife’ who trained as a nurse in England in the 1910s and went on to work as matron of an old people’s home. There’s another great-grandmother who had her own toy shop in Dublin in the 1890s. One thing all these women had in common was that, somewhere along the line, the men in their lives could not be financially relied upon, mostly through no fault of their own. The women learned through experience that having children and doing paid work did not have to be mutually exclusive (disclaimer within a disclaimer: I think looking after children without doing paid work is equally admirable, as long as it’s a choice).
I come from an all-girl family, which meant I never experienced the division of chores on gender lines that happens in some households. I was just as often asked to wash the floor as cut the grass or bring in the coal. The secondary school I attended was also all-girls with a long tradition of fostering female achievement. A woman became president of my country when I was eighteen, not to mention that women got the vote in Ireland at the foundation of the state in 1922 (in Switzerland it was 1971).
By the time I noticed that my version of what it meant to be a woman was not the norm, it was too late. The meaning of the word had set in my mind forever. Forget about ‘Frailty thy name is woman’, I will always believe that women are strong, capable decision-makers. That is why I don’t like the ‘Irish Mammy’ cliché, which portrays Irish mothers as simple-minded old biddies. Funnily enough there is no popular incarnation of the Swiss mother, like the Italian or Jewish mamma or the Irish Mammy. One saving grace at least.
Have you ever thought about what the word woman means to you? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.
Every new generation knows better than the one that came before. This is a natural law. According to this law, modern dads are doing a much better job than their own fathers who lived in the bad old days and did everything wrong. I’m all for praising today’s dads but isn’t it time to stop dismissing the merits of the older generation?
When I hear how fathers of 40+ years ago are characterised, I do not recognise my father or the fathers of my friends and extended family growing up. Distant, authoritarian, unwilling to push the pram or lift a finger at home – well they weren’t all like that.
There have always been dads who sang lullabies, gave bottles and played with their young children. Dads who cleared the table and did the washing up. Dads who did the grocery shopping and took the children to swimming classes. Dads who appreciated their children and understood them, were openly proud of them and affectionate. Dads like mine.
And even if they weren’t hands-on with the children and the household, think of all the fathers who gladly let the kids shadow them around the farm, teaching them important skills, or the ones who did all the driving and photographing on family holidays, or worked in jobs they didn’t enjoy or spent lonely months away as migrant workers to provide for their families.
Sure, we can judge the fathers of the past and find them wanting. Some were selfish and unkind, human traits that have not disappeared with black and white television. But mostly they were good men who made sacrifices and loved their children above all. There is more to fatherhood than proudly parading your cute baby in the park. It’s a job for life and the dads who’ve been around the longest have done the most, taught us through the good times and the bad times to be better people.
I hope you agree with me that good fathers are nothing new.
On the subject of fatherly love, here’s a William Wordsworth poem you probably all know but is well worth reading again. The sonnet was written two hundred years ago in the aftermath of the death of his three-year-old daughter and “heart’s best treasure”, Catherine.
Surprised by joy – impatient as the wind
Surprised by joy – impatient as the wind
I turned to share the transport – Oh! With whom
But thee, long buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind –
But how could I forget thee? – Through what power,
I’m wary of making too much of a public fuss of mothers on Mother’s Day. At the hairdressers on Saturday they were giving out red roses to the mothers who came in to have their hair done. They do the same thing in restaurants in Switzerland. Even the woman on the Scientology stand ran after me in the street to give me a rose.
Ten years ago, when I was feeling very low after a miscarriage and the only non-mother at a family gathering, I was handed a flower in a restaurant on Mother’s Day and it nearly killed me. I didn’t know that I would be the mother of twins within a year. All I knew was that the whole country had chosen that day to lean on my pain and that carrying that flower home was a torment.
I know mothers do an important job and should be appreciated for that but, for all the drudgery involved, it is a job with substantial built-in rewards; let’s not forget we are looking after our own children, hardly the most selfless task in the world.
Why not make next Sunday University Graduate Day? A day when graduates can feel special and be rewarded for their, ahem, years of hard work. When I was a child, I sometimes complained that children were short changed. Why was there no such thing as Children’s Day? I would protest. My mother, annoyingly but quite rightly, just laughed and told me that every day was Children’s Day.
I’m not giving back the beautiful homemade cards and presents my children surprised me with on Sunday. Their excitement and pride in doing something thoughtful for me is also mine to cherish. But I don’t need public praise and congratulations on top of that. Besides, the significance of motherhood has nothing to do with a mass-produced flower.
Instead of trying to write something meaningful and original about motherhood, I’m going to leave you with this passage from The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell, set in the 1960s and written in the voice of Lexie, journalist and mother of baby Theo.
To distract herself, as ever, she worked. The women we become after children, she typed, then stopped to adjust the angle of the paper. She glanced at the paintings, almost without seeing them, the cocked her head to listen for Theo. Nothing. Silence, the freighted silence of sleep. She turned back to the typewriter, to the sentence she had written.
We change shape, she continued, we buy low-heeled shoes, we cut off our long hair. We begin to carry in our bags half-eaten rusks, a small tractor, a shred of beloved fabric, a plastic doll. We lose muscle tone, sleep, reason, perspective. Our hearts begin to live outside our bodies. They breathe, they eat, they crawl and – look! – they walk, they begin to speak to us. We learn that we must sometimes walk an inch at a time, to stop and examine every stick, every stone, every squashed tin along the way. We get used to not getting where we were going. We learn to darn, perhaps to cook, to patch the knees of dungarees. We get used to living with a love that suffuses us, suffocates us, blinds us, controls us. We live. We contemplate our bodies, our stretched skin, those threads of silver around our brows, our strangely enlarged feet. We learn to look less in the mirror. We put our dry-clean only clothes to the back of the wardrobe. Eventually, we throw them away. We school ourselves to stop saying ‘shit’ and ‘damn’ and learn to say ‘my goodness’ and ‘heavens above’. We give up smoking, we colour our hair, we search the vistas of parks, swimming pools, libraries, cafés, for others of our kind. We know each other by our pushchairs, our sleepless gazes, the beakers we carry. We learn how to cool a fever, ease a cough, the four indicators of meningitis, that one must sometimes push a swing for two hours. We buy biscuit cutters, washable paints, aprons, plastic bowls. We no longer tolerate delayed buses, fighting in the street, smoking in restaurants, sex after midnight, inconsistency, laziness, being cold. We contemplate younger women as they pass us in the street, with their cigarettes, their make-up, their tight-seamed dresses, their tiny handbags, their smooth, washed hair, and we turn away, we put down our heads, we keep on pushing the pram up the hill.
The baby was astonishing. He had little cloth ears, floppy as cats. The warmth of his round stomach could heat the world. His head smelled like a sacred flower. And his fists held mysterious, tiny balls of fluff from which he could not bear to be parted.
Meet baby Raqib, the adorable son of Nazneen in Brick Lane by Monica Ali. I read and loved this book when it came out in 2003 and particularly remember being enchanted by this baby. It seemed that he was the first convincing baby character I had come across in a novel.
Babies are given birth to, carried around, fed, loved and admired in books, but it’s rare for a baby’s personality to emerge on the page. And babies are brimming with personality. They’re fun to be around, for their expressions and gestures alone. Back to Raqib.
Nazneen curled around him on the bed. He raised an arm, which reached only halfway up his head. He put it back down. The futility of this exercise appeared to anger him.
In the same scene, Nazneen’s husband Chanu is droning on about setting up a business. He asks: “What can you do without capital?”
Raqib tried to lift his head from Nazneen’s shoulder as if he knew the answer to this difficult question. Overcome with his burden of knowledge, he collapsed instantly into sleep. Squinting down, Nazneen looked at his month-old nose, the sumptuous curve of his cheek, his tight-shut, age-old eyes.
There is more of Raqib and every appearance he makes is so beautifully written you want to reach out and stroke that little cheek.
Often, the fictional baby’s role is to channel the thoughts of the parent or caregiver. Baby Jonah in The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell is that kind of baby. This scene takes place with his mother Elina out in the garden.
She moves the rattle from side to side and the coloured beads ricochet around inside their clear globes. The effect on the baby is instantaneous and remarkable. His limbs stiffen, his eyes spring wide; his lips part in a perfect round O. It’s as if he’s been studying a manual on how to be a human being, with particular attention to the chapter, ‘Demonstrating Surprise’. She shakes it again and again and the baby’s limbs move like pistons, up, down, in, out. She thinks: this is what mothers do.
There’s another ‘as if’. There is a tendancy to ascribe thoughts and emotions to babies that they aren’t capable of having. Also the idea that they have some ancient knowledge – I’m sure I’ve read that more than once but can’t find any references now.
But in real life as in fiction, babies are interesting in what they reveal about the people who love them. Take baby Matt in What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, whose parents tracked his development “with the precision and attentiveness of Enlightenment scientists”:
For a baby he seemed weirdly compassionate. One evening when Matt was about nine months old, Erica was getting him ready for bed. She was carrying him around with her and opened the refrigerator to retrieve his bottle. By accident two glass containers of mustard and jam came with it and smashed on the floor. Erica had gone back to work by then, and her exhaustion got the better of her. She looked at the broken glass and burst into tears. She stopped crying when she felt Matt’s small hand gently patting her arm in sympathy. Our son also liked to feed us – half chewed bits of banana or pureed spinach or mashed carrots. He would come at me with his sticky first and push the unsavoury contents into my mouth. We read this as a sign of his generosity.
The examples I found are all boy babies. I wonder if this is a coincidence or do we consider the archetypal baby to be a boy?
We’ve had childbirth on this blog, now babies. My next blogpost will look at new mothers or motherhood in fiction – and then I’ll leave the subject alone for a while. Promise.
Has anyone else come across any good babies in fiction? I can think of one obvious bad baby, also a boy, but I’m more interested in the sweet ones. I think it’s difficult to write a convincing baby. Nicki Chen, a fellow blogger and author, does it in her novel Tiger Tail Soup. I’ll dig that excerpt out as soon as I get my copy back.
We know what children need – love, protection, guidance, understanding – and we know what a travesty it is when they are deprived of those basic needs. But is this a recent discovery? Looking back at the treatment of children in the care system in the middle of the last century, you might think so.
The 1990s was the decade of revelations about failings and injustice the Irish system. More recently Switzerland has been going through its decade of revelations of historical abuse. It’s a process that is being repeated all around the world and it’s heart-breaking because there is nothing you can do to help those children. It’s too late.
Did the authorities and caregivers in those times have no concept of children’s welfare and emotional needs? I would argue that they did, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on their own experience of home life. But there were limits to their ability or willingness to provide for those needs. And these factors have to be taken into account when writing about this period. If we turn those involved into evil caricatures, we are incapable of gaining any insight into our own failings as a society today.
So why was it that some children mattered less? What was stopping the authorities and religious orders from doing right by the children in their care? Some of the limits stemmed from prejudice – in particular the prevailing prejudice against ‘illegitimacy’ and against the ‘bad poor’.
The stigma attached to children born outside marriage was so strong, so well enforced by the church and its followers, that people could hardly see the child behind the stigma, if at all. The shame and secrecy let the fathers of these children off the hook and also made it possible for families to reject their ‘sinning’ daughters, even to the point of having them locked up for years.
As for poverty, widespread to an extent that we have so quickly forgotten, there were prejudices at work here too. On the one hand you had the ‘good poor’, hard-working, honest people, scraping by somehow, tipping their caps and not making any trouble. And then there were the ‘bad poor’, parents overwhelmed by the daily struggle to feed and clothe their children, families whose mothers lived on the verge of a nervous breakdown, whose fathers turned to drink or crime, whose children appeared neglected. Sympathy for these families was not forthcoming.
That’s to speak of the willingness to care for children who were unwanted or rejected by society in one way or another. I also mentioned the ability to care for these children.
A well-run children’s home should have enough money to provide a good diet for the children, as well as clothes and play materials. In a cold climate it should be well heated. The staff should be well trained and recruited for their aptitude to provide loving care to children. There should be a compassionate discipline policy in place, with good oversight so that there is no room for abuse of any kind. But what if none of these requirements is met?
Let’s put the cruel sadists aside. They are in a category of their own and nothing excuses their actions. What about the ordinary inadequate carers? Two years ago I attended the presentation of a report into allegations of historical abuse at children’s institutions run by the Swiss Ingenbohl Sisters of Mercy. The worst allegations could not be verified but the authors of the report did find “excessive punishment” doled out by some sisters.
It also described the systemic misery for both adults and children living in the homes – long working hours without free time or holidays, large groups of children to look after with insufficient financial means in crowded living conditions and with insufficient infrastructure.
But the ill-treatment didn’t end at the gates. For my story I spoke to a remarkable man, Roland Begert, the son of a Swiss gypsy (Jenisch) woman who was deserted by her husband. He was given up by his mother as a baby and grew up in the system, first with the nuns and afterwards living with a farming family as an unofficial child labourer.
Roland Begert is forgiving of the tough discipline and lack of affection shown by the nuns in the children’s home where he spend the first twelve years of his life. What hurts him most, looking back, was the attitude of the people in the town to the ‘home children’.
The townspeople warned their children not to have anything to do with the ‘home children’ and the local children obliged by throwing stones at them. Roland’s excitement at being sent out to the town school quickly ended when the teacher started bullying him mercilessly.
So while the townspeople loved and protected their own children and did their best to give them a good start in life, they participated in a horrible double standard. Society was complicit in banishing the ‘home children’ from the mainstream in the first place and the community actively kept that exclusion in place.
Writing about failings in a system that happened fifty years ago does not serve any purpose if it stays in the realm of storytelling, with a cast of wicked witches. We have to try to understand the broader mechanisms of society that caused so much suffering if we have any chance of avoiding the same mistakes.
I think a lot of lessons have been learned. One huge problem was that, until recently, society did not allow for children to be raised by one parent, whether for practical or moral reasons. Marriage breakdown or the death of one parent left children in a precarious position. No access to contraception also made it impossible for parents to limit their family size to a level they could manage.
But there are still children behind the gates in society, for example the children of asylum seekers living in direct provision. Few countries today can claim that they have a best-practice care system in place that guarantees the wellbeing and protection of their most vulnerable children. Even Switzerland, which prides itself on ‘Swiss quality’, still does not have an exemplary system, as I discovered recently when researching an article about foster care.
The stories from the past are important and they have to be told. But they have to be told in a fair way and they should never be used to make us feel complacent about our own problems.
I’m not saying there is a conspiracy in Switzerland to make life difficult for working mothers of primary school children, but if there were a conspiracy it might account for my experiences over the past four years, and look something like this:
Strategy 1: Mix it up
Have children start school (kindergarten) at the age of four but give them an erratic timetable. For fun, have the children come in three mornings a week, obviously not consecutive mornings, and throw in an afternoon just to keep it interesting.
I’m not making this up. My four year old has school on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings and Thursday afternoon for two hours. That’s it. Every night she asks, do I have school tomorrow? And every morning, do I have school today? Keep ‘em guessing.
Strategy 2: Complications
In the first few years, give different classes different afternoons and mornings off each week. That way, families with more than one child will be kept on their toes with multiple childcare gaps and a different timetable for each child.
Strategy 3: The lunch trap
Close down the school for two hours in the middle of the day so that the timetable looks like this: Morning: 7.45a.m. to 11.30a.m.; Afternoon: 1.40p.m. to 3:30p.m.
Let the parents worry about where the children will eat and who will look after them. Provide a minimum number of places in an after-school programme nearby. Sit back and watch the parents scramble for these places, at their own expense.
Strategy 4: Rise and shine
Start school at an ungodly hour of the morning, so children are too sleepy to eat breakfast and parents are grateful for the children having random mornings off during the week to recover.
Ok, the early start is part and parcel of Swiss society. It’s the norm for people to start work before eight so we all have to go to bed early and get up early.
But the rest? I hear the argument sometimes that these timetables are geared towards children, based on the notion that starting school is a big change for children so they should be eased in gradually.
But I find it hard to believe such a lack of routine is good for children. What about the body clock? And I know it is not good for parents trying to organise childcare.
For stay-at-home mothers who are attached to their role, these timetables have one advantage. It makes them indispensable. They can rightly point out that they hardly have time to turn around, do the shopping and start cooking before the children are home again.
But what if this is a gilded cage? I want stay-at-home mothers to be valued, not shackled to the home. Is it good that mothers who have already put in a huge effort in the baby and pre-school years are so restricted they cannot think of taking on another activity during the 20 to 30 hours their school-gong children are away during the week?
Is there any other country clinging to this home-for-lunch model? In Ireland the four and five year olds attend school from 9a.m. to 1p.m., Monday to Friday. They eat a packed lunch at the 11a.m. break. From the age of six or seven (first class), the school day runs from 9a.m. to 2.30p.m.
This is not about treating schools as a babysitting service for selfish career-mongering parents (a view I’ve heard expressed), it is just a simple plea to stop pretending that the two worlds – home and school – have nothing to do with each other.
I should point out that my children like coming home at lunch on the days I am here but I wouldn’t consider it a hardship for them if things were different. They were just as happy doing five-and-a-half-hour days when they attended school in Dublin for a term.
More and more Swiss schools are adapting, and have begun to provide supervision and hot meals at lunchtime but it is still a minority. Maybe mothers will be able to ‘lean in’ a bit more when this becomes the norm.
Like most mothers of young children in Switzerland, I work part-time, and accept the trade-off that my career will stall for the time being, in return for spending more time with my children.
But to “escape” into the earning world even for 20 hours a week without live-in childcare requires some creative solutions. Last year I traded childcare with a neighbour, both of us taking on each other’s children for a 10-hour day. Luckily my husband also leans in to childcare duty and we have great support from family living nearby.
To repeat what I said earlier, it’s not that there’s a conspiracy to make life difficult for working mothers. It is just that the system evolved to complement a traditional situation which is no longer the reality for many families – and in some regions the winds of change have not yet arrived.
It’s complicated enough for two-parent families. Last week I heard a Swiss parliamentarian say that the majority of social welfare recipients are households headed by one parent. How many more of them would be able to hold down a job if their children weren’t coming and going every few hours?
So what do you think? Am I being unfair to the Swiss way of life? Would you swap your system for ours?