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?.
- 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. [↩]