• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

The great myth of me-time

Have you ever felt, as you peel the Play-Doh off the sofa for the fourth time in a day, that what you really need, as a parent, is more time for yourself? A little “me-time”: the chance to relax in a bubble bath; catch up on your book, and open a bottle of pinot noir.

While researching my book Standing up to Supernanny, I talked to dozens of parents bubbling with frustration and exhaustion at trying to live up to the expectations of modern parenting — feeding the children the right things, taking them to the right activities, being the “right kind” of mother or father. All of them felt that they needed more me-time. Charlotte, 33, the mother of five-year-old Annabelle and three-year-old Imogen, was typical. “I feel like I’m on a treadmill,” she told me. “We have this ridiculously regimented plan for weekdays. There is an enormous family organiser in the kitchen and planning our lives is like a military operation.”

What’s wrong with our parenting culture that this need for time out has become all encompassing? Today (Feb 16), the sociologist Professor Frank Furedi and the children’s author Anthony Horowitz will join academics and policy-makers at the British Library in London to unravel this question. Speakers will identify a host of problems with our up-tight, risk-obsessed, parent-blaming culture. The big question, though, is how we might resolve these issues: a tricky task when the plethora of advice on how to deal with the pressures of bringing up children can make things worse.

One consequence is that parents, and particularly mothers, experience a lack of time to be themselves. In response, official literature and the popular media groans with advice about why mothers should carve out space free from the pressures of work and family. The suggestions about how to do that are familiar — have a bubble bath, join the gym, organise a mini-break. As families we are used to being tempted by the ultimate relaxing break, one that keeps children busy and gives exhausted parents time to themselves: a holiday at Center Parcs, for example, might offer activities for the children so that parents can spend a soothing day in the spa. But is more me-time what the modern mother really wants or needs?

It is true that there is a relentlessness to life with young children that, before having children, you can barely imagine. My lovely (demanding, infuriating) daughters are 5 and 3, and I am a huge fan of mini-breaks, long baths and having time when the children are out of sight and out of mind. I am also 100 per cent committed to the idea of having childcare while you work or go out. But there is something disturbing about the way in which family life has become so intensely pressurised that parents feel they need somehow to liberate themselves from its demands — or at least, to be given time off for good behaviour. How has it come to this?

We are continually told that parenting is the most important job in the world, and everyone from Channel 4’s Supernanny to the Government issues a stream of advice about how to do it. We are told what we should feed our children (home-cooked vegetables, not frozen chips), how we should discipline them (naughty step, not smacking or shouting) and how we should spend our time with them (reading stories, not slumping in front of the TV). This plethora of information implies that the “good parent” does not just organise family life according to what seems best for everybody but worries about what is best for the child and works hard to fulfil those needs. And this is done regardless of the effect on the parents’ own time, money or state of mind.

One consequence of this cult of so-called child-centred parenting is a panicky sense of inadequacy. “Much of the time, I feel that I’m just about good enough — a good enough mother and a good enough employee,” says Rachel, 34, a lawyer and mother of Abigail, 4, and Zoe, 1. “Then something happens — one of the children gets sick when I have a deadline to meet at work — and it all falls apart, making me feel like a massive fraud.”

With these competing demands, perhaps it is not surprising that parents are trying to claw back some time and head-space for themselves. Unfortunately, the demand for me-time only fuels the sense that we are at loggerheads with our children. The idea that “I need more time for me” implies a conflict of interest between parents and children: an us and them situation in which time needs to be consciously divided into time “for them” and time “for me”.

Modern parenting culture dislocates us from ourselves and our children, so that we experience parenting as an act put on to live up to a set of expectations that we find increasingly unworkable and bizarre. This has undermined our authority over our children and our confidence in ourselves.

“Our culture infantilises parents, by presenting parenting as a job that is far too difficult and important to be left to mere mums and dads,” says Professor Furedi. “By encouraging parents to try to bring up their children according to expert advice, the notion of adult authority is thrown into question. Adults aren’t trusted to know what is best for their families as a whole — instead they are supposed to second-guess what the rules say they should be doing for the sake of their children.”

In this sense, our tendency to organise our lives around what we think our children want or need seems to be not about the children at all. It’s more about an adult identity crisis, where we have become nervous about saying that, actually, we are the grown-ups in this relationship, and what matters is that we do things that are good for the family as a whole. Or, as Rachel suggests, that we firmly tell our children: “No, we’re not going to the park, we’re going to B&Q, but we’ll try to make it fun.”

Fun or not, DIY, trailing round the supermarket, tidying the house and all those other domestic jobs are things that families need to do to get by; and children need to understand that and take part. But so ingrained has the idea become that we should organise our lives around our children that parents feel guilty about involving their kids in boring chores, or plonking them in front of the TV to give the adults time to clean the bathroom.

Some parenting experts have become alarmed by the excesses of “child-centred parenting”, and are warning that, despite the label, this approach to raising children is no good for the kids themselves.

Concerns about helicopter parents who supervise every activity have added to fears that the risk-averse message of modern parenting culture is creating a generation of cotton-wool kids without the skills needed to manage the physical and emotional challenges of everyday life.

The idea that the best way to bring up children is actively to employ strategies of “benign neglect” is also gaining ground, based on the recognition that some boredom is actually good for children, encouraging them to create their own entertainment and sense of self-sufficiency.

But the big problem with the way that child-centredness is pitched against me-time is its divisiveness. Presenting the interests of children and adults as being in conflict undermines the reality of the family as a unit, in which adults and children have to work together to muddle through life.

Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist, says: “One of the most important things to remember as a parent is that it is from you that children create their picture of what it is like to be an adult. So it becomes about thinking, ‘How do I weave my life into a pattern that is responsible but is also fun, and expresses my individuality?’ Parents need to be able to think not just about, ‘What’s besieging me?’ but, ‘What do I want to do?’ within the bigger picture.”

The trouble is that it is hard to opt out of cultural expectations and practices. When the consensus seems to be that parents should be focusing on doing everything for their children, and doing it on their own, it becomes hard to imagine an alternative. As a result we end up running ourselves ragged, then bursting into tears and hiding in the bath for a paltry hour’s me-time.

Rather than taking everything upon ourselves and then feeling trapped, we could look for ways to share the burdens and the enjoyment of family life. If we are confident that we can and should decide what’s best for our families, there is nothing to stop us from organising our children’s lives around our diaries, rather than our lives around theirs. We should stop feeling guilty about paid-for childcare, and we could be less defensive about sharing our family time with other families and pooling childcare responsibilities.

We do not need to liberate ourselves from our families — we can cope with the practical demands of raising children. What we do need is to free parents and children from the culture of child-centredness and parent-blaming, which sets ridiculous standards for family life and makes it everybody’s business but our own.

We should reclaim the sense of our families as a place where we can be ourselves, warts and all — rather than somewhere that we struggle to be the “perfect parent”, and then have to escape in order to “be me”.

Standing up to Supernanny, by Jennie Bristow (Societas); £8.95. Jennifer Howze, The Times online lifestyle editor, will also be taking part in today’s seminar (Feb 16), Changing Parenting Culture, at the British Library. See: parentingculturestudies.org/ seminar-series and timesonline.co.uk/alphamummy

How to take control

Do Look for opportunities to share time and childcare with friends.

Don’t Obsess about “quality time” with your kids — children love having other adults and children in their lives.

Do Recognise that there are some things that are fun for children and not for adults — and vice versa.

Don’t Feel guilty. Family life is about muddling through — and it’s good for children to know that.

Do Be realistic about the practical demands on parents. If mothers need to work, children need to go to childcare. So what?

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