Through The Lens of Motherhood

In Ireland, we’re still talking about the Prime Time Special Investigative Report into child care and that’s a good thing. Childcare is an issue that needs examining. The sad thing is that it’s taken a crisis like this for the Irish public to take a look at where and how our children are treated when we’re away from them.

 

Dialogue is always good: People expressing their opinions and sharing their experiences, making suggestions and offering support is helpful. I am delighted that the conversation here has not resulted in women who work outside the home being pitted against women who don’t.

 

It’s disheartening, though, to note that this debate is happening now – when the damage has already been done to a number of children. As I have mentioned before, Ireland is a nation of reactionaries. We, as a nation, don’t sit down and plan things. We lurch from crisis to crisis and try to cobble remedies together instead of methodically looking at solutions to possible problems in the planning stages. Look, for example, at the current baby boom. Where are the babies born now  going to go to school in 4 or 5 years’ time?

 

One of the reactions to abuse in childcare is people asking for cameras to be installed to keep staff under surveillance. I have a few problems with this. Cameras don’t always work. They can be switched on and off with ease. Then there are issues around child protection – all parents would have to consent to all other parents having access to images of all the children. I might not want your husband watching my daughters. I might not want your wife commenting on our child’s speech to your wife.

 

My biggest concern with cameras is the message they sent to care-givers. If I put you under surveillance it means I don’t trust you. It means that I will allow you to do something but I won’t really trust you to do it or to do it properly. People who are constantly being watched are not necessarily going to do their jobs better. Certainly, care-givers aren’t going to express a more loving attitude because they know they are being filmed.

 

When I needed childcare, I was lucky enough to have a wonderful live-in nanny. Part of the reason that things worked so well for us was that Nishanthi knew she was a respected member of our household. When she’d only been with us a few days, she came to me to hand up her passport. Initially,  I thought she needed me to take it for safe keeping, but it transpired that Nishanthi assumed that (like her previous employers) I’d want to hang on to it so she couldn’t run away.   I told her I’d happily put it in the safe in my room for her, but that I certainly wasn’t demanding she surrender it.

“Nishanthi,” I told her. “I trust you with my baby. If I thought you were going to run away, then I have no business leaving my child with you.”

 

I think that basic premise applies no matter who you leave your children with. If you have an inkling that all is not as it should be, then act on that instinct. In Ireland, we defer too much to perceived authority figures. “Why” is largely academic at this moment. Whether it’s part of our colonial hangover or not is irrelevant.  What matters is that we fix it and think for ourselves.  I’m a great proponent of personal responsibility and recognise that, as a parent, my child’s welfare ultimately rests with me.

 

Baby zoos are impractical and not the best solution at all. Industrial solutions are fine for bags of cement or packets of biscuits, but for our babies? Definitely not the way to go. People say they like the idea of their children socialising with their peers. But how many other children do they think they need to ‘socialise’ with? If the were at home with Mammy, they’d only have one or two other kids to play with. So 30 or more children is not ideal. At a time when we are beginning to realise that large class sizes in schools are not conducive to either the social or academic excellence, why can’t we make the same realisation with regard to our babies.

 

There are many different solutions to the childcare issue. Each family needs to make the choice that is best for them, based on solid information and their own preferences. It is right that we are reeling. But when we’ve finished reeling, we need to do something real.

Time For a Culture Change With Regard to Abuse

Last night, RTE’s Prime Time broadcast an investigative piece on the state of childcare in a number of crèches in the greater Dublin area. I can’t link to the programme because (rightly, in my opinion) RTE has chosen not to make the piece available on iPlayer.

 

We were exposed to children who were yelled at, sworn at, pulled around, held down on mattresses with blankets over their heads to “make them sleep”, left in high-chairs for up to two hours with nothing to do (i.e. after mealtimes and when there were no table-top activities happening), left sitting in soiled clothes because the care worker in her own words “didn’t care” and was punishing the child. Crying babies were left on their own away from adults and other children. There was a basic lack of care or concern for the individual children, as well as a basic lack of any understanding of child development.

 

I completely accept that there are excellent childcare facilities in Ireland. I completely accept, also – that even in the crèches exposed – the fact that these incidences took place does not mean that every child was so treated all of the time. Or that all the women working in these crèches are careless.

 

Those of us who saw the programme, and those who heard about it, were outraged, upset, distressed and angry. I, for one, was not surprised. This, after all, is the culture in Ireland. Time and again we have seen that there is a terrible abuse of power in institutions in Ireland: The Industrial “Schools”; The Magdalene Laundries; Old People’s Homes;  Psychiatric Institutions;  Maternity Hospitals; Schools. Wherever there are vulnerable people, there are people ‘in charge’ to abuse their power.

 

We might not like to face or admit it, but Irish culture seems to be a culture of bullying and abuse. Those in a position of power abuse it. Of course, I don’t mean that every person in a position of power abuses it, but I do mean that it is not a surprising situation any more.

 

We can express all the outrage we like, we can make all the speeches we like, we can write all the laws we like, we can commission all the reports we like – but unless and until there is a cultural shift, nothing will change.

 

 

Mythbuster#1: The Irish Don’t Love Children

There is  a rumour being promulgated that Irish people love children. It irks me because, like many myths, it simply isn’t true. So let me take this opportunity to set the record straight; as a nation, Irish people do not love children.

I think this myth springs from the fact that Irish people had so many children – due, primarily, to the lack of availability of reliable contraception. Until years after I was born (conveniently) the rhythm method was the only method legally available to generations of Irish mammies and daddies. Let’s face it, using ‘natural’ contraception is a bit like saying that playing Russian roulette with a machine gun is safe once you know what you’re doing.  So Irish mammies and daddies had loads of children that they never touched – except to hurt; and rarely spoke to – except to give them orders, give out to them and give them an idea that they were, generally, worthless.

Irish people don’t love children, they tolerate them. If Irish people truly loved children, then the abuses that were visited upon this nation’s babies by members of the Catholic Church would not have been tolerated and condoned the way they were.

If Irish people loved children, they would not have allowed the Catholic Church to have sold their ‘illegitimate’ babies – which they did until the 1970s.

If Irish people loved children, we would not have heard Michael Murphy on the Late Late Show telling Ryan Tubridy very matter-of-factly and with great dignity about the abuse he suffered as a child.

What made Michael’s story worse was his acceptance and understanding that there was nothing at all unusual in an Irish child being abused physically and sexually by an adult within the home or close by it. It happened. It still happens – and it will continue to happen until we learn to love our children.

Of course, most individual mothers and fathers love their individual children, but our national identity cannot include a love of children because it doesn’t exist. It will not exist until our government does more to uphold the rights of children instead of merely paying lip service to them. It will not exist until children who are being abused are removed from abusive situations and properly cared for – which doesn’t happen. That cannot happen while our social workers struggle under huge caseloads. It will not exist until every child receives a decent education, which cannot happen where there are more than 22 children in the class. It will not exist until we accept that, as a nation, we have been getting it very wrong for a very long time – and we learn how to do it better.

My friend Noelle Harrison, wrote in her new novel (The Adulteress) that to be loved is to be treasured. How many Irish children went to sleep last night feeling treasured? I’ll tell you – not enough. Not nearly enough.