Monday, April 04, 2011

Busy, busy, busy

I’m really busy working on my PR campaign and although I keep getting ideas for the blog – e.g. Would Catullus have used Twitter? – I haven’t got time to write these posts. I’m sorry. Please will you make do for now with this old Times piece which I showed (new parent) Isaac at the weekend, and which he enjoyed?

What the Green Paper left out

The Green Paper on parental leave misses the point. Parents don’t need maternity leave or paternity leave. Tired, stressed, burnt-out parents don’t need leave to see their children, they need leave from their children. If only the government would issue parental respite vouchers along with Child Benefit, parents could take short sabbaticals from parenting at those flashpoints when the going gets too tough.

Think of the early infant years when you stumble zombie-like through a chain of frazzled days and sleepless nights, measuring out your life with feeds and nappy changes. Wouldn’t three nights of parental respite put your body and mind back together, remind you who you were, and also why you wanted a baby in the first place ?

Later, when there are two under fives in the house, and you’ve just vicariously suffered two consecutive bouts of chicken pox, closely followed by 48 hour sickness and diarrhoea, you could cash in one of your vouchers. A stimulating city break or a weekend away in unfettered fresh air would give you the strength to carry on.

Once sick children are past the easy stage of being feverish, weak and pathetic, and have reached the downstairs-in-the-sitting-room-playing-with-Lego-phase, it’s wearing. They are well enough to be crabby, but not well enough to have a friend to play. Being cooped up together with no dilution in each other’s company for seven hours every day can make you both feel pretty murderous, no matter how much you love each other. After several weeks of my son’s tonsillitis and quinsy I remember stamping down the cellar steps to fetch coal, saying “I hate him, I hate him, I hate him” and on returning with a full bucket found him behind the door whispering “I hate her, I hate her, I hate her.” If someone had offered me parental respite of just two days we would have both leaped for joy.

Different people have different strengths: a parent may sail through one childhood phase, only to be floored by the next. I find new born babies irresistible, but when they get to four months old I find them boring, and dream of putting them in a time capsule, to get them out again when they are old enough to talk.

There are some parents who do not feel up to making costumes for the nativity play at junior school, or fiddling with all those Blue Peter models. They shrink from the thought of a dozen pairs of greasy hands when it’s their turn on the class cooking rota, and they would rather sign up for a course in lion taming than help on a school trip.

Other parents are a dab hand with all that primary stuff but find it too cold and tedious standing on the touch-line for pubescent hockey and football matches, and too nerve racking watching their sons risk paraplegia by playing in the school rugby team. They also get worn down by a house awash with swirling hormones, a fridge that needs restocking daily, conversations conducted at ten decibels, providing a 24 hour taxi service, and fielding phone calls from teachers pursuing missing coursework.

My personal current blackspot is cooking for a teenage vegetarian who doesn’t like vegetables. I love cooking, but as far as making healthy, balanced meals for someone who only wants junk food is concerned, I’m burnt out. I’m battle weary from arguing with someone who at ten paces can recognise and reject anything containing a shred of fibre or an infinitesimal trace of a vitamin. Fights over meeting GCSE coursework deadlines are bad enough - who needs extra grief ?

I’ve shot through my diligent, dutiful catering phase, and serve up instant junk vegetarian every other day, boosted by synthetic vitamins and minerals. If only my innovative parental respite system had been in operation, I might have been able to sustain the provision of healthy food until he left for University, and worried about his own baked beans.

Look, the system needs fine tuning but it doesn’t have to be too complicated. Each parent would have a set number of vouchers for each year of the child’s life, up to the age of eighteen. These vouchers could then be cashed in with pensioners who became registered providers of parental respite, and they in turn would be reimbursed by the Benefits Agency. The system would thus be doubly beneficial. It would boost pensioners’ income as well as relieving pressure on families.

No doubt the Benefits Agency would want to evaluate how parents used their vouchers. Parents new to the job would probably practise spend-as-they-grow, whereas more experienced parents might save their vouchers and have one long decadent splurge during the most arduous phase of adolescence. During a lengthy happy-families phase an insouciant parent might altruistically donate a few vouchers to the PTA fund raising auction. A desperate parent might organise after dinner poker with vouchers as the stakes.

Those especially blessed people born with huge reserves of patience and deep wellsprings of parental instinct may find that their children leave home before all the vouchers are spent. You can just imagine the classified ad: “For sale: cot, box of assorted Lego, inline skates size 5, Nintendo, and fifty parental respite vouchers. Will separate.

© Sue Hepworth/Times Newspapers 2000

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