Six ways to undermine a resilient mother

You might have noticed I’ve been fairly quiet on here. There are reasons for that, and one of them was rather strongly in my mind as I read a Guardian article, titled Six Ways to Raise a Resilient Childby one Dr Rangan Chatterjee. It currently comes up at number 5 on the Lifestyle section’s ‘most read’ list, two days after publication, so I think we can say other people are interested in the topic too. It’s one of those pieces that are superficially laudable in their aims and their message, but actually get right up my nose.

Chatterjee begins with a self-recriminating anecdote. ‘I have a full-on job, two school-age children, and an elderly mother to care for, so I understand that we’re all busy,’ he begins. ‘But I’ll never forget what my daughter, then four, said one day. We were working on a jigsaw, but I kept nipping to the kitchen to check my phone. When I rejoined her for the third or fourth time, she rightly observed, “Daddy, you’re not really here, are you?”’

Oh, Daddy. From the mouths of babes. Add cliché here.

I mock, because this struck me as a particularly funny kind of obliviousness. Chatterjee’s daughter is, as he specifies, four. My daughter is 21 months, and my mind is fairly boggled at the idea anyone could possibly have their child get to age four before they realised that child could tell when they weren’t paying attention, and didn’t like it. Now, perhaps he is possessed of a saintly patience and attentiveness I, and other mothers I know, lack. Or perhaps, the vast majority of the time, someone else is doing most of the parenting for Chatterjee. I couldn’t possibly speculate.

In this nastily suspicious frame of mind, I continued reading, and halted again on Chatterjee’s discussion of teaching ‘delayed gratification’. It is suggested one might play a board game, or urge a child to listen to a whole album, rather than skipping to a favourite song. It’s clear that ‘delayed gratification’ is, effectively, something to be combined with a leisure activity. Daddy’s switched his phone off, and he’s playing a nice boardgame with the children with some Bowie in the background. Isn’t Daddy good with the kids? Meanwhile, someone else – and I’m guessing it’s Mummy, isn’t it? – is in the kitchen making dinner or upstairs folding the washing, doing the sort of culpable work that takes one’s full attention away from a child and causes them to come out with poignant four-year-old recriminations.

The person who began his article by saying you needn’t sacrifice your busy schedule to make time for a child when you can use spare moments of ‘bathtime, car journeys, meals [and] queues]’ to chat to them, doesn’t seem to imagine the same economy of effort could apply to domestic tasks and parenting. I don’t say it’s impossible to be the parent doing childcare and also to think there’s value in playing a boardgame. But I’d bet quite a lot of money that you can also teach ‘delayed gratification’ by getting a child to help you cook a meal or bake a cake, and those things also have an end result that ticks off one of the tasks that needs doing for the day.

The pattern continues into the penultimate section of the article. Eat the alphabet, it is titled. ‘I like to challenge the whole family to “eat the alphabet” over 30 days. I think it’s a realistic goal to consume 26 different plant foods in a month: A for asparagus, B for banana, C for chickpeas, and so on.’

There’s an interesting defensiveness in that self-boosting phrase ‘I think it’s a realistic goal’. And it’s merited, because there’s quite a bit to provoke dissent here. It takes a particular sort of person to begin that list of alphabetised food with … asparagus. Asparagus is never a cheap vegetable; in January, it’s being flown in from the other side of the world, and this particular January, there’s the added fun of knowing that our beloved government has no feasible plans whatsoever for importing produce post-Brexit, nor for finding someone willing to pick British crops (such as asparagus in season) when Them Pesky Foreigners who generally do it, can’t get here any more. All of this being so, someone who can offer this sort of suggestion is either so obliviously wealthy they don’t think about it – or they haven’t shopped or prepared a meal for an actual child since the last time British asparagus was in season, back in summer 2018.

I notice the tiny details in what Chatterjee is saying – the things that aren’t his main point, the nitpicky bits about asparagus rather than apples and board games rather than cooking – because such an enormous part of my time and mental energy goes on those very ‘details’. There’s no explicit acknowledgement, in this article, that Chatterjee is not talking to, or about, parents like me. Indeed, primed by his all-inclusive references to ‘our’ children and ‘us,’ I initially read this article obediently considering whether I, too, should stop concentrating on my work and pay more attention to my child. After all, I know perfectly well I spend many hours every day giving her a fraction of my attention. She’s with me every morning and all day on Thursdays, and I’m trying to work something vaguely approaching full-time on a book. Often, she doesn’t understand why I won’t pay her more attention, because the outcome of what I’m doing – which is writing – isn’t visible to her.

It is very easy to fall into the trap of feeling guilty. The more so because the pressure from the other side – the work side – pushes the other way. It is very hard to explain why, if you are capable of doing a couple of hours (total) of work one morning, while looking after a toddler, you are not capable of responding to an email for four hours the next day. Or why you can sit and watch an entire film with a small child angelically snuggled up next to you, but you can’t reach for the book that’s open on the table beside you and quickly find that one reference on page 26 whose wording you need to check. The reason, of course, is that while you can sometimes do a great deal of work while not giving full attention to a child, you can never rely on it, and you can never plan your day around it.

What I’m seeing in Chatterjee’s article is the logic of a person whose priorities are shaped around not actually needing to think about a lot of the work that goes into raising a child. There’s nothing wrong with being a parent who doesn’t do this work. As I type, my baby’s at nursery and I’m paying (or, more accurately, my working partner is paying) for someone else to do that work for me. But if you are a parent who doesn’t have to think about this work, for whatever reason, your other advice on parenting may be rather limited.

A repeated theme of the article is the intrusive role of digital technology, which parents are urged to resist. In the anecdote about ignoring his four-year-old daughter, it’s a phone in the kitchen that distracts Chatterjee, drawing him away from her jigsaw puzzle every few minutes. In a section on the importance of good sleep, ‘tech’ and ‘screens’ are the main culprits, this time in the hands of children and parents. In the passage devoted to ‘delayed gratification,’ Amazon Prime, Spotify and Netflix are amongst the modern influences supposedly destroying our healthy capacity to wait. I can’t help noticing that this underlying message of guilt is frequently expressed in articles about parenting. Dr Chatterjee is, in fact, pretty ubiquitous across social media, on twitter, on instagram, in podcasts on youtube. He is, in short, creating the content he urges parents to cut out of their lives. But nowhere in this article is there any suggestion that digital technology might play a positive role in the lives of parents and children.

Instagram – the forum where Chatterjee seems to have the largest number of followers – is a gendered forum; the majority of its users are women. There is a genre entirely dedicated to the domestic routines of mothers of small children, with predictable, endlessly repetitive content. Child walking in woods. Home-baked cake. Snapshot of mum’s nails. New cushions for the sofa. Child holding flower. Child at seaside. Yet this is, to some, a symbol of all that’s wrong with modern, digital-era mothers, so endlessly and shamelessly romanticising the details of what must be a very easy, entitled, and indolent lifestyle, all the while glued to their iphones instead of their children.

It’s possible, of course, that despite his own extensive professional use of instagram, twitter, and so on, Chatterjee is unaware of this culture of blame that surrounds the making visible of mothering on social media. There is nothing in this article to suggest that the digital technology that draws parents away from paying attention to their children is anything but purely work-related (work, in the sense of paid employment outside the home). But I couldn’t help linking the two things in my own mind, seeing how ready this article (and many others like it) is to ignore and overlook the details of parenting that are done by someone else, how ready it is to blame digital technology for bad parenting, for a lack of resilience.

The activities that lie behind instagram mummy-cliché are, on the whole, ephemeral. No one writes professional appraisals of parenting, recording diligently how many times you took your child out to jump in puddles, or how often you let her slide down the slide. The cake is going to be eaten. The flowers are going to wilt. That tidy room with the new cushions is most certainly not going to stay tidy and tranquil. Like resilience itself, the work that goes into making these parts of parenting happen is not always visible; others only miss it when it doesn’t happen. And so a vast network of women are, essentially, making visible the processes – the details – that struck me as being so profoundly and strangely absent from Chatterjee’s own view of parenting, the details that (if they do not make for resilient children), certainly bolster the resilience of their mothers.