Protecting children from their depressed, working-class parents

In the post about the dangers of baby blogging, I alluded to a child protection conference that had thrown up several essay-worthy subjects, then lapsed back into silence. Now, over a month later, I’m finally organised enough to tackle some of those subjects.

The child allegedly being protected by the conference was, in case there was any doubt, my daughter. By all measures health professionals have devised, she’s thriving, but I’ve struggled to cope with single parenting on top of my long-standing depression and my rocky financial situation. There are days when I feel overwhelmed with guilt and say that my daughter would be better off in someone else’s care, or even that my fragile mental state will do some concrete harm to her; these comments have been interpreted by people with responsibility for child protection as evidence that my daughter is in danger.

At first, I was happy for social services to be involved. I knew I was coping badly on my own, and I thought they could help me cope better, especially as everyone I spoke to insisted they only wanted to give me the support I needed to look after my daughter on my own. But as they called meeting after meeting and produced reams of paperwork, that objective seemed to get lost in the noise.

One report mentions the chaotic half-decorated and unfurnished state of my flat and states that “it will be quite a hazard for Andrea when she starts to crawl”.1 What it fails to mention is the reason for this – very little time to finish the decorating and very little money to buy furniture – giving the impression that I’m wilfully leaving my flat in an unsuitable condition.

Support in the form of subsidised childcare gave me the time I needed to decorate all but one room. Money is still tight, which doesn’t stop the representatives of a couple of agencies from insisting it’s essential I get a carpet and start storing my possessions in a cupboard instead of cardboard boxes. When time allows, which isn’t often, I check out discount carpet and secondhand furniture shops. So far, I’ve seen nothing suitable that I can afford. Still they tell me I need to co-operate and get a carpet, as if I was refusing just to irritate them.

At some unminuted part of a meeting, it was decided that I need help with child development to prevent me having “unrealistic expectations” of my daughter. Because I get frustrated when she cries in the middle of the night or throws her food around instead of eating, someone has assumed I don’t know what behaviour is normal for her age. The possibility that I fully understand what’s normal and just resent having my sleep interrupted or another cleaning job added to the already overflowing pile never occurred to them, so they arranged for a representative of the local family centre to teach me what I already know.

(Another of their reports flatly contradicts them on this score. Desperately over-analysing my anxieties about whether I was doing it right, my former health visitor states that “she was constantly checking with Professionals and other Mothers, she would meet as to the process of baby care, suggesting to myself that it was a mechanical procedure at this point for Nick”. You can believe I mechanically set out to discover everything I can about baby care, or you can believe I need remedial child development lessons, but entertaining both beliefs simultaneously suggests that not everyone involved has studied the reports they took the trouble to request.)

When the family centre representative began her teaching, things drifted even further from the initial objective. Instead of discussing the areas where problems had been identified, she gave me the benefit of her opinions on every topic that came up in conversation. She insisted I needed to give more thought to my decision to let my daughter drink water from a cup rather than a beaker – not only something that hadn’t bothered any of the other professionals, but something so minor that most people leave it up to the parent to decide.

By wasting my time like that, they can sometimes make the situation worse. Since I live on the edge of town and don’t run a car, shopping for anything more complicated than milk and bread can take up half a day. The various people involved usually come to talk to me in the middle of the afternoon, which means I can’t get to the shops and back before it’s time to give my daughter her tea. A few weeks ago I nearly broke down because I had no clothes to put on my daughter – she had outgrown most of what I’d bought, and I’d had no chance to buy replacements. The family support worker’s response? She came round and told me how important it is to prioritise.

What started as a justified worry that I would snap under pressure and hurt my daughter seems to have become an exercise in making me just like the helpful professionals dealing with my case. Whether I have a carpet on my living room floor and whether I give my daughter spicy food or bland are not major factors in deciding whether my daughter is safe in my care. Whether I get enough sleep at night, which is a much better indicator, has remained untouched by their action plans.

My family have suggested I’m being slightly paranoid, but I’m sure I smell a whiff of classism. Why are they concentrating on moulding my lifestyle into a more middle-class shape unless they believe, on some level, that it’s only those dirty poor people who hurt their children? Or unless they think the lack of a carpet really is a problem on a par with feeling I’m going to snap at any moment? Why do they question every parenting choice I make when my daughter is clearly thriving? Why, if they sincerely believe my daughter is better off with me as they keep saying, do they never give me the time to explain fully what’s driving me?.

  1. Luckily for us, Andrea seems to prefer channelling all her energy into preparing to walk, but even if she was crawling, that’s why playpens exist. That’s why stair gates and door locks exist. Childproofing everything in sight is not the only way to make a child’s environment safe. []
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21 Responses to Protecting children from their depressed, working-class parents

  1. Pingback: :Ben Metcalfe Blog

  2. 2
    Sage says:

    Wow. I think there’s more than just a whiff of classism. I’m in a middle-class neighbourhood with a middle-class job. While my kids were small and their dad didn’t pay child support, though, I hardly lived a middle-class existence. My house was a mess, and I have strange ideas about raising kids. I let them stay up later than most, and let them explore with buckets of water in the kitchen, etc.

    At that time, I always though that if Family and Children’s Services walked in to my place, they’d take my kids in a minute, if they could find them in the mess. But I lived with the security that F&CS would never be by because of my neighbourhood and my profession. And they weren’t. And things got much better after everyone started school. But those were some crazy years!

    And I have NO carpets because they’re a haven for bacteria, moulds, and little bugs. Gross.

  3. 3
    LauraJMixon says:

    I agree about the carpets.

    People project all kinds of crap onto parents, and offer tons of useless advice. I’ve noticed this before. It sounds as if your depression is at the heart of things, and that there are some good reasons in your life for that depression.
    Single parenting is f*ing hard–especially with a baby. I watched my sister struggle for years, and it broke my heart, how hard she had to work, how exhausted she always was, with a job that paid crap and no one to help her shoulder the burden of her children’s constant needs. That would mess with anybody. You took the responsibility to reach out to get help for the sake your child. I honor that act of courage. It doesn’t sound as if the “help” you are getting is helping at all.

    From your description, it seems to me the main thing you need is support. Do you have access to affordable counselling services? Do you have friends who or family you trust, who might be able to give you more support in caring for your daughter?

    Regardless, please know that you are not alone; we’re out here and we understand. Raising a child is a huge effort, and doing it alone is a tough gig. If I could I would take you out for a cup of coffee, or watch Andrea for you while you went on a date, or got a massage or work out, or whatever brings you comfort. On the internet, all I have to offer is words, but they’re heartfelt.

    Is there any way we can help?


  4. 4
    inge says:

    You have my sympathies. My parents got divorced when I was very small, back in the dark ages, and child services were hassling my mother about the most idiotic things, like whether we had running water in our flat, how many square metres our bathroom was, and how many cubic decimetres of garbage we produced in an average week. And they never were content with any answer that wasn’t sent in triplicate and signed by all and sundry they could think of: landlord, employer, you name it. One of my earliest memories is my mother getting a temper tantrum over it.

    If these people would only learn to *listen*, instead of just working through a mental list of “what things in this household are not as I expect them to be”. I can only assume that they are completely helpless, clueless and have no idea how to do their jobs, so they use bad heuristics.

    And carpets, what the heck? No one I know who has pets or small children wants carpets. They are as useful as lace on a pig.

    Good luck, don’t panic, and I hope you find some useful help (like someone with a car to help with shopping) soon!

  5. 5
    Sailorman says:

    CPS is every parent’s nightmare, including mine. It seems that they are guilty of the worst kind of selective perception.

    I mean, if CPS were to look into ANYONE’S life at the level of detail with which them seem to be scrutinizing yours, it’s likely they’d find quite a few things wrong. I’ve got a happy (for us) carefree (for us) wonderful (for us) life….. but OMG I can only imagine what CPS would say if they tried to fit us into the “GOOD families look like ____” mold.

    I cannot fucking believe–sorry to be so annoyed but this really threw me off kilter–that they would comment about the sippy cup issue. That is like some sort of sick joke. Or about the carpet issue. What: now children who live in uncarpeted houses are abused? Better not tell my kids (or my mom).

    It seems they are merely injoying “teaching you to obey” by assigning ridiculous tasks. And perhaps for SOME people this might actually be necessary–bot for most, it’s demeaning, opintless, and insulting. God, I think I’d have a fight with them and probably lose my kids in about 2 hours if one came to my house for an investigation.

    But as you say it would never be an issue. They’d never come to me, because i’m White and Rich and Educated and might have Connections (I actually don’t) and would–like you–want to raise a huge fucking stink if I were ever treated with sich idiocy as you seem to be being treated. CPS doesn’t think about “people like me”…. though they probably should.

    Are you considering escalation? One thing I’ve heard is that there SOMETIMES is an intelligent competent person (at some level) who will be able to restore some degree of sanity. But of course it’s a gamble because if it doesn’ work you’ve pissed off your local contacts andd they have an inordinate amount of power in relation to their pettiness and lack of understanding. There is also the tactic of trying to find a sympathetic newspaper writer. Sunshine can do wonders for mold.

  6. 6
    Skanky Jane says:

    This is an excellent blog _ I will recommend it to a friend as I think she wil love it. Phew! You really play hard ball with the emotive topics! I’m not knocking you – 10 for bravery.

    On this issue, run a mile from welfare. I’m sorry but I just don’t think these institutions, no9 matter how well meaning really know how to help without pathologising. I am not going into it because it’s late but I have a story too. You are going to make mistakes but your daughter is better off with you than anyone else. Find support in other ways. I once found a great woman from the women’s community to come and take my daughter out on a weekend. I ached for that kind of support and needed it desperately – with my son I made other choices. When your daughter is older – you will be so glad you stuck it out with her – just do your best and love her. You need to do this successfully just as much as she needs it.

    SJ xx

  7. 7
    Barbara says:

    Ditto about the carpets. For anyone with children prone to respiratory infections, the first thing you do is remove the carpets. I really don’t understand that one. It’s always amazing to hear of CPS’s intervention in situations like yours, and the amount of sheer trivia that is analyzed for no good reason other than the social worker’s own preferences, and then to learn of horrible situations that were barely noticed (Nixzmary, for instance).

    So breathe deep, and really try to think of other adaptations that you can make that will improve your outlook. Whether it’s a sharing arrangement with a steadier schedule or something else, it does sound like you need a break. I hope you can get it.

  8. 8
    Broce says:

    Nick, I’ve single parented for a long time. It isn’t easy. My personal suspicion is that the worst of your problems is the depression. Depression makes dealing with anything else like trying to walk through life with a 200 pound sack tied to your foot.

    I’ve been there, though my child was much older when I hit that depression wall. I believe that CPS *means* well, but they don’t have a flipping clue what they are doing. What you need first is treatment for depression, which would include a way to get adequate sleep (iffy in the first year of a child’s life in the best of times). Depression makes sleep harder to come by, lack of sleep makes depression worse. If you had more rest, you’d have more energy to deal with the myriad tasks that come with life and a child.

    Your child would not be better with someone else, she’d be better with YOU feeling better.

    Depression sucks. So does single parenting. When I was at the worst of the depression, everyone else focused on my not eating. My doctor, who was a smart, smart man, said “I don’t care if you don’t eat. You can function on little food. You CANNOT, however, function without adequate sleep – without that you cannot deal with the depression or anything else.” He was right, and a course of sleeping pills helped enormously to get me back on track enough to start to function again.

    Something to think about, anyway

  9. 9
    r@d@r says:

    adding to the chorus of support here. parenting thru depression is hard. try to find other parents who share your circumstances and hang out with them. it is the number one greatest survival tool we have had.

    can’t type any more, squirmy 9 month old :)

  10. 10
    RonF says:

    The problem with asking help from the government is that it often results in the government deciding what’s best for you, instead of their enabling you in your own decisions about what help you need. As you have found out. They tend to try to fit your problems to the solutions they are practised in giving, rather than fit their solutions to what your problems are. Trying to get them to see you as an individual with unique needs that they need to conform to (as opposed to you conforming to them) is going to be a very difficult proposition.

    Overall, I’d second Skanky Jane’s suggestions. Try looking for non-governmental sources of help. I’d bet there’s some kind of women’s group in the area. You might try calling the local religious institutions; they tend to serve this kind of need, and they generally DON’T insist that you get involved in their denomination, or indeed in any religion at all. I’d imagine that there are non-religious organizations as well, but I don’t know what area of the country you live in (or what type – urban, suburban, rural, etc.) and can’t give specific advice.

    Finally; you are the best thing for your daughter, and will continue to be. Despite what the government types say, I seriously doubt that you’ll do anything either through neglect or otherwise to harm her. Don’t be reluctant to assert yourself with the government folks. If the sand gets too deep with them, I’d second Sailorman’s advice regarding a newspaper columnist.

  11. 11
    The Devil's Advocate says:

    What’s on your living room floor made of, that they find it so offensive?

  12. 12
    Nick Kiddle says:

    What’s on your living room floor made of, that they find it so offensive?

    It’s concrete, covered with a thin layer of what looks like black rubber sealant of some sort. I know it’s far from ideal, but I have no idea why it’s the issue they’ve built it up into.

  13. 13
    emjaybee says:

    Oh Nick I’m so sorry. That depression and despair when you’re out of money and the baby doesn’t have all it needs….that happens when you’re not single parenting too. I don’t know how you’re doing it, but be kind to yourself and respect your own strength, that has gotten you so far. And the strength of your love for your little one.

    You know who else you might contact…local doulas or midwives. They tend to know people who help mamas with similar issues such as PPD, and in general, they deal with the underground culture of poor parents trying to get by a lot. Many of them offer women’s health services anyway, like birth control etc. If anyone knows resources, they do, and they won’t care that your baby is already born. Local groups (under parenting, single parenting, “hip mama” etc) also have forums, where you can ask about services and programs, and find babysitting co-ops possibly also.

    Best of luck and screw CPS, they couldn’t find their asses with both hands and a flashlight.

  14. 14
    Maia says:

    I have friends who are very clearly poor middle-class people. When a plunket nurse was doing a home visit she was trying to persuade them to baby proof the place a bit more and she said: “All it takes is one bad fall, then you’ve got CYPS (child protection) on your back and you don’t want that.”

    They were showing exactly the same paternalistic attitude as towards you, but with a ‘wink, wink, nudge, nudge, you’re too middle class to actually hut a child’ subtext.

  15. 15
    RonF says:

    It’s probably some kind of epoxy paint and sealant. Paint in the can is not good stuff, but once it’s painted onto a surface and has hardened it’s pretty chemically inert, so there’s no problem with your child contacting it, even if she puts her mouth on it. They are probably figuring that it’s so hard that your child might be harmed if she falls.

  16. 16
    Kate L. says:

    I only wanted to log on with empathy and support. because I am married, no one is breathing down our necks yet – but it also has to do with the fact that we are white and middle class… I don’t know what to tell you about dealing with CPS, but I wanted to offer a few suggestions I hope will be helpful for you…

    As far as a floor covering – what about one of those alphabet floor mat things? I found one online for about $20 free S&H, it’s only 3ftX3ft, but if you also got one of those play yard gate things to put around it, that should satisfy them – I have no idea what your budget is – but I think the grand total would be around $80 (60 for the playyard and $20 for the foam mat), and then the living room is baby proofed, giving the child a decent amount of space to play and a soft enough floor to play on. The other option is to buy the foam interlocking pieces as a floor covering for the whole floor – it means you have to take your shoes off in the living room (and I don’t know if you have physical restrictions with that or not), but it’s something to consider. I know it doesn’t solve the larger problem of CPS being invasive, dumb and creating more stress and work, but hopefully they are suggestions that might get them off your back, at least with the floor. Also, I am a firm believer in playpens – Maya was in one from about 6 months to 11 months (until she was unwilling to be penned up anymore) and LOVED it. She had a great time, learned to play independently by looking at her books or whatever else we had in there with her, learned to pull herself up to stand and cruise around by holding on to the sides – all while I was free to do other things and knew she was safe. Our house is NOT fully babyproofed – in fact the bathroom cupboard that DOES have a baby latch on it (because the cleaners are down there) she has figured out how to get around and you know what? We’ve told her no so many times and successfully redirected her that she doesn’t play there even though she CAN. The babyproofing craze makes me a little crazy – yes it is helpful and reduces injury and risk of injury, but people can take it too far… kids also need to learn limits of no, not just can’t.
    I know you aren’t in the US, but there must be british equivilents – here are the links to what I am talking about:
    and I know this is pricey – but I bet you can find one on ebay for much cheaper…

    Good Luck again, and I am so sorry you have to deal with this…

  17. 17
    Sailorman says:

    Well if I were you I’d be digging in my heels on the carpet thing as well.

    However, if you want to toss them a bone and get them off your back:

    Call a carpet installer. Explain your situation. They can probably provide you with a (used and possibly stained, but functional) carpet that they are replacing, and they should probably do so for free. It wouldn’t be “installed” but they can work like a rug.

  18. 18
    Barbara says:

    A couple of ideas: I don’t know what kind of cabinet handles you have, but my husband made “locks” for our cabinets by folding a piece of coat hanger wire in half and making a latch at the end of one of prongs, which hooks over the other. This slides through two cabinet handles and keeps both cabinets closed. He did this after the ones we paid $5 for kept breaking. The best and cheapest kind of commercial protectors are like these:

    Fancier ones just break.

    You can get some carpet squares instead of a rug. “Flor” has carpet squares that, at their cheapest, are in the $3-$4 per square foot range, but I bet a DIY store will have even cheaper alternatives. You don’t need to cover the whole floor, just a reasonably sized area where baby can play. But you have to make sure they will adhere to the surface of your floor. I think that you could get by with “cast-offs” if you only know where to look or who to ask (maybe someone in your family has a rolled up rug in the attic they’re not using right now, or recently bought carpet and had excess they don’t need?). If you go to a remnant store you might find that a small remnant is pretty cheap.

    I found playpens to be a waste of time, and if you are going to gate your baby in you need more than 9 square feet (JMHO), however, there should always be some safe place to put your baby when you need to do something. But this can be a crib or a stroller. Never forget that many things can do double duty.

  19. 19
    SamChevre says:

    CPS sucks.

    I wish I lived in the same town, since I’m good with babies–and what you probably need most is some uninterrupted sleep.

    On the floor-covering issue–I don’t know what CPS is worried about. IF it’s just that concrete is hard and the baby is in the pull up/fall down/pull up/fall down stage, the covering can be pretty cheap. Two options that come to mind:
    1) Cheap particle-board underlayment–it’s thin particleboard of plywood intended to go under linoleum–but with a couple coats of polyurethane, it’s the floor I grew up on. About $0.30 a square foot, but requires a bit of time to install and would have to be glued down.
    2) Carpet underlayment–dense foam about 1/2 inch thick. Just lie it on the floor–it’s not that slippery. About $0.50 a square foot, and you’ll have to vacuum it frequently, and to roll it up and sweep/vacuum under it occasionally.

  20. 20
    Sage says:

    Like Kate L. said, I just remembered when I did daycare I covered my living room floor with a winnie the pooh foam puzzle pieces (each piece was 1′ x 1′). I found it at a used toy shop for about $25. It covered most of the floor infront of the couch. But, of course, the kids never walked or crawled over the soft cushy mat, they walked/crawled around it! But at least it looked like I cared about their little knees (which are considerably tougher than mine I must say).

  21. 21
    mookrit says:

    Re: “Protecting children from their depressed, working-class parents”: The working class is not a class by itself. It does not represent a unique category of human being. All human beings are workers. By providing services, in whatever form, all of us contribute in a manner that is appropriately rewarded. All of us are part of labour. Each of us does or tries to do what one can do best. By labouring as a writer, Karl Marx also laboured. Writers, poets, artists, managers, bankers, and airplane pilots, are all labour.