PARENTS ARE deluged with advice and demands. They are supposed to read with their child, make sure they are not on the streets, surround them with a 'stimulating environment', and lavish them with time, energy and smiles. Yet at the same time the government and the 'experts' bombard parents with demands for 'flexibility' and 'making yourself available for employment'.
There is a greater crime than neglecting your child. It is to fail in the contest to fit in with the demands of work. The result is easy to imagine. It's five o'clock in the evening. You're watching the clock because you want to get out to pick up your child from the nursery or the childminder. This is hard enough, but you're used to it. Today you're out at five and if it's summer you can fit in a trip to the park before it's dark.
Even in winter you can spend a few relaxed hours with your child without always having to rush them. Normally you have to impose a ruthless timetable because the boss imposes a timetable on you. So, to get to work on time, you tell your child to get in the bath, get dressed, get in the buggy, get in the car, come on, come on. But now you can get out of work at five and share some time together. Maybe you can read a book or do a picture or cook a meal together. You can be the parent you want to be.
Then you hear the dread words: 'Sorry, we've got a new order. We're all going to have to pull together and stay a bit late tonight.' You can't refuse, not in Blair's flexible Britain, not when Britain's economic performance is in the balance, not when the shareholders' dividend is on the line. So, instead of picking up your child, it's ten minutes of frenzied phone calls trying to find someone else to do the job. Then it's two or three hours more work with your teeth clenched in fury - and perhaps not even extra money for doing it. Then a rush home either for a glimpse of your child before bed or to find them already sleeping.
What Blair and the bosses mean by 'flexibility' is the most extreme rigidity for the workers involved. It means our lives are geared to the rhythm of the factory or the office. It means that some smiling line manager just out of business school can lecture women and men of 30 or 40 or 50 about 'getting their life together'. And don't be missing from the end of the phone when the boss needs you. Get a mobile, get a pager, get e-mail.
Mothers worked 27 hours a week in 1988. Now they work 33 hours on average. Around 7 percent of women with children work more than 50 hours a week. Evening working has risen by a third in the past decade. All of us should be free to work. Nobody wants to be imprisoned in the home. But it is a mockery to focus on parents' shortcomings when flexibility is king, when there is no paid parental leave, when wages are so low that you have to grasp every minute of work to make ends meet.
The tyranny of the factory and the office not only threatens to crush us as individuals, it also means more cramped, cornered, devalued lives for our children. There are plenty of horrors that squirm from the mouths of the jumped up Blairites. I feel particularly ready to stuff a blunt instrument down their throats when these champions of flexibility tell me I need to spend more time with my child.