Working late, nights out, holidays deux: How time away from your child could leave them insecure for life
00:57 GMT, 13 July 2012
There is one incident that never fails to prick my conscience. It was many years ago, when my husband, Olly, and I decided to attend my brother’s wedding in New York, leaving behind our two sons, then aged seven and three .
We had decided to make a holiday of it, staying for ten days. So we left our younger son with the childminder he happily went to during the week, while the elder stayed with the family of his good friend.
At the time, we pushed aside niggling worries about the fact our youngest had never known us go away from home for so much as a night.
Children who come to feel that their parents don't care about their feelings and don't want to spend time with them are more susceptible to a number of mental health problems, including depression, later in life
We didn’t consider how it might be for him to have his parents disappear for what we later realised was an inexplicably long time.
When we phoned, the childminder said he was fine and we didn’t doubt that she was being her usual immensely warm and caring self.
But when we went to collect our boy, he was very different from the spontaneous, rumbustious chap who would normally leap up for a hug, amid hoots of laughter, when we collected him at the end of the day.
Instead, he was restrained, distantly polite and, once we were home, eerily quiet. And he stayed this way however much we cuddled him and told him we had missed him.
In fact, Olly and I were so concerned — and racked with guilt — that we took days off work to be with him. Slowly he returned to his former self.
This incident remains vividly with me. Although it was not until recently when I was interviewing a psychologist for my new book, A Home For The Heart, that I fully understood the damage we had done.
Professor Janet Reibstein of Exeter University explained that before children are old enough to properly understand, they truly believe they have been abandoned when their parents disappear for longer than usual.
And their coping mechanism is to shut down feelings, withdraw and lose trust.
This, she felt sure, was what our boy had done. I remain grateful that it was a one-off, that we never left him for so long again.
Regrets: Singer Lulu said she wished she had been a better mother to her son while presenter Chris Tarrant said he lamented the fact he had worked too hard and hadn’t seen enough of his children
Children who come to feel that their parents don’t care about their feelings and don’t want to spend time with them are more susceptible to a number of mental health problems, including depression, later in life.
I thought of this when reading recently about a host of celebrities who say they now regretted putting their careers before child-rearing.
First there was singer Lulu, 63, declaring that she wished she had been a better mother to her son, Jordan. Then Chris Tarrant, 65, lamented the fact he had worked too hard and hadn’t seen enough of his children.
Before their separation, Katie Holmes, 33, had also let it be known she was unhappy that Tom Cruise always put his career before time with their young daughter, Suri.
Such regrets are deeply poignant. It is sad for parents who see only with hindsight how career ambition, wealth and fame seduced them into pushing their children into second place.
There’s no doubt that in recent years altruistic, empathetic values have been crushed underfoot in the rush to become rich, achieve even minor celebrity or become important in some way in the eyes of the outside world.
It saddens me to think about how children’s emotional lives have all too often become hostages to this modern phenomenon.
I am not, however, suggesting women should not work. As a feminist who has been much involved with the battles for equality, I understand that some have no choice and others, quite reasonably, share with men the desire for work that is stimulating and rewarding.
I am merely saying that we need to pause and consider what the meaning of our choices may be for children who also have needs, and that this may involve sacrificing some of what we want for ourselves.
And, as I say, I am certainly not free from blame. I had wanted to be a journalist for as long as I can remember. So after A-levels, I went straight into this profession and worked steadily upwards to feature-writing on national newspapers.
It was this determination that propelled me to return to my coveted job at The Guardian only four months after my elder son was born in 1975.
There was a strong sense back then that women had to prove they could combine work and children seamlessly, and that good childcare was all that mattered.
I found a wonderful childcarer. My husband, who worked freelance in the film industry, shared my feeling that this was a good solution, although he looked after our son at home when his schedule went quiet.
Back in the office, I was painfully aware of missing this tiny person whom I loved passionately. Even so, I sacrificed the early evening hours I could have spent with him to put in extra hours at work because it was beneficial to my career. ]
Before their separation, Katie Holmes, 33, had let it be known she was unhappy that Tom Cruise always put his career before time with their young daughter, Suri
I accepted drinks with colleagues and contacts after work because this was the way valuable relationships were built
I did not stop to wonder how it felt for my son to have to realise that my career, my desire for adult sociability and networking, was more important than having time at home with him, even though he was often fretful and clingy when I left him, and he seemed almost inconsolable when he cried.
It was only chance that saved my children from the possibility of deeper damage caused by my vaulting ambition. When I failed to get the promotion I wanted, I left my job and started freelancing, spending far more time at home.
My boy was two-and-a-half then, and the effects of me spending more time with him were startling. He became more cheerily independent, less inclined to be upset any time I was not able to give him my attention.
In turn, I got to know him in a way that had simply not been possible in the days when I had arrived home exhausted after a day at the office.
I was lucky enough to get regular commissions, and sometimes that meant working before my son awoke and after he had gone to bed.
But at least I could organise my work schedule around making peanut-butter sandwiches with him after playgroup, going swimming, trips to the playground or just orbiting around each other at home.
I was rewarded by him opening up to me, telling me about the important things in his little life.
As he got older, his confidences became more intricate; I was able to understand when he was upset, but knew to keep quiet until the moment came when he felt like talking.
I learned which things made him feel happy and secure, and which upset him.
It took this change of career to make me realise how much we lose when we neglect our home life. It also helped me understand that home is never more important than it is for children — it’s the place where they are likely to spend the formative part of their growing years.
Over time it becomes a root, a vital source of stability; a place where there is time to build family relationships and negotiate conflicts. It is at home that children learn how to be social and moral people and how to love.
American psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, would agree. He says these are hard times for children: ‘There has been a sea change in the nature of childhood over the past decade or two, one that makes it harder for children to learn the basic lessons of the human heart.’
He refers to the fact that these days we are seeing one in four children with mental health problems, spiralling drug and alcohol abuse, breakdowns and suicide attempts.
Of course, these are not all the result of benign neglect, but, increasingly, mental health experts worry about how much these problems may be linked to modern parents focusing on their own needs at the expense of their children’s.
Indeed, Goleman says parents who are too physically and emotionally absent lose the ability to empathise with their children. And when this skill is lost to parents, it means they cannot pass it on to their children.
Equally, when we are not tuned in to our children’s emotional needs, casual neglect comes easily. This was shockingly illustrated for me some years ago when I attended the launch of a new glossy magazine.
There, I bumped into a couple who ran a fashion business. While we were chatting, the man, glimpsing his watch which showed 7.15pm, turned to his wife and said: ‘We really should go home and hear how George’s first day went.’
He explained that their son had started that day at a smart London secondary school, and had phoned at 4pm to ask if his parents would soon be home so he could tell them about his day.
At 8.45pm, I spotted the same couple refilling their glasses and heard them saying to each other, giggling a bit, that they really must leave. At 10pm, they were still refilling their glasses and working the room.
The following day, I found myself thinking about George, wondering how he valued himself as he realised that his parents felt being at the party was more important than hearing about his first day at ‘big’ school. How had it felt as the hours passed and he was given supper and put to bed by the nanny
It may be hard to gain sympathy for this at a time when children are so often talked of as over-indulged, spoilt, holding parents in their thrall.
But Penny Mansfield, director of the One Plus One family research organisation, points out that there is considerable research showing how children who have a great many material privileges may be getting them as compensation for lack of their parents’ time and mindful attention.
As I write this, my two grown-up sons, now 36 and 32, are in the house — one lives here with his wife and baby, the other visits often. We have a close, sparring, humorous relationship — which only confirms my feeling that my stepping off the career ladder all those years ago was serendipitous indeed.
Angela Neustatter is the author of A Home For The Heart: Home As The Key To Happiness (Gibson Square). To order a copy for 9.99 (inc P&P), tel 0845 155 0720.