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Sunday, April 21, 2024
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HomeCulture WarMy lonely years with a mum out at work

My lonely years with a mum out at work

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AS Laura Perrins pointed out in TCW last week, today it’s the child with a full-time mother who is the anomaly. When I was growing up, it was the child whose mother was in full-time paid employment who was unusual.

I was an only child, born two years before the end of the war and six months after my father, a gunner escorting the convoys, was lost at sea off the coast of Africa.

My mother had left her school in Bethnal Green at the age of 14 to work in a factory making badges and paper flags for flag days. The boss thought she was a bright girl, and she was soon promoted to the office.  By the time she married my father, at the advanced age of 34, she was earning more than most men, and had bought a house in Walthamstow, where she was living with her parents and two unmarried sisters. She went on working until a month before I was born, and left with a silver tea-set to mark 20 years of faithful service. Fifteen months later, the company welcomed her back as a widow, and she continued to work there, eventually becoming a director, until she was close on 70.

The result was that in infancy I found myself at nursery all day long. My grandmother had offered to look after me, but my mother felt that I was a little too much for her to cope with. So to nursery I went. I don’t think I was particularly unhappy there, but I certainly didn’t ‘love it’. There was no special nurse that I attached myself to, nobody whose face lit up to see me. When it came to treats – half an hour in the Wendy House; a turn at sinking your fingers into the gloriously squishy clay – I always seemed to be one of the last to be picked. In the event of inadvertent misbehaviour, too, the reactions of carers who lacked the mitigating quality of unconditional love plunged me into anxious uncertainty. I remember clearly the angry remonstrances on the day when, bored with lying down for what seemed an eternity during the statutory post-prandial nap, I entertained myself by knotting the laces of both my shoes to their full extent, in the hope that, if you made enough knots, they would somehow transform themselves into a bow. Yes, my mother would probably have responded with equal irritation, but I would have known that she still loved me. As it was, I lived a schizophrenic kind of existence: at home, surrounded by aunts and grandparents, the centre of attention and a joy to all; at nursery, a pushy nuisance, and an also-ran in the bid for notice among more attractive or endearing competitors. 

By the time I was nine, when we were living on the borders of Stratford and Leytonstone, our family consisted only of my mother, her elder sister and myself.  My aunt would leave for the factory where she worked before I was up in the morning, and my mother would have me breakfasted and off on my solitary walk to school by a quarter past eight, in time for her to reach the office by nine.

I envied my best friend, who lived opposite the school and went home for lunch. School meals were a particular ordeal for me because I refused to eat meat at a time when this was regarded as an inconvenient eccentricity, on no account to be humoured. As a consequence, I spent many hours staring despondently at ragged strips of fat and gristle served up amongst a mess of cabbage stalks and lumpy potatoes in a pool of evil-smelling gravy. Eventually, the supervising dinner lady would throw in the towel and allow me to progress to the next test of endurance, which usually involved some kind of a milk pudding: semolina, with a blob of jam in the middle which, to pass the weary hour, could be stirred into swirls of colour, resolving themselves finally into a universal pink; or, on a really bad day, a slippery ladleful of tapioca, defamed contemptuously by the school-going population as ‘frogspawn’. I frequently spent almost the entire break obstinately refusing to let these offerings pass my lips.

By now I had my own front-door key, and would return at four o’clock to an empty house and the snack my mother had left to tide me over until the evening meal. Sometimes she would also leave me a short shopping list, and I would run errands to the greengrocer’s or the baker’s or the oil-shop, just round the corner. In the winter I would light the fire that she had carefully laid in the morning. She herself would be home shortly after half past five, and my aunt by six o’clock, when the house became a home again. 

It was the holidays, particularly the long summer holidays, that were the real problem. Occasionally there would be days out with my father’s sisters; there was Christmas, when my mother and aunt had two days off, and there was the odd Bank Holiday Monday; there were a couple of weeks at the seaside in August: but for the most part I was on my own. Friends were strictly forbidden: my mother felt that, though she could trust me in isolation, it would be tempting providence if I brought in any company, and I was not allowed to play in the street. As for meals, I took a bus along Leytonstone High Road to Lyons, where I dined off tomato soup and a crusty roll, followed by a small, paper-wrapped drum of vanilla ice-cream. Occasionally I would go to the restaurant in the basement at Bearman’s, the local department store, where I would feast on plaice and chips. This would have been my preferred option, except that a contingent of old ladies who ate there regularly would beckon me over to be seated at their table, and make conversation. Though kindly meant, I found these overtures decidedly uncomfortable, but felt it would be impolite to refuse. 

Nowadays, of course, it would be illegal to leave a nine-year-old alone in the house, and as for taking buses and tubes around London, or even walking a few blocks to school – out of the question. At the time, I accepted our peculiar domestic arrangements as a matter of course. However, as I grew older, the kind of home life which was normal among my contemporaries became an idealised aspiration more important than any career. 

It was not what my mother would have chosen for me. She had expected me, with a university degree, to secure a far better job than the one from which she, with little education beyond the three Rs, had improbably spun a rewarding career. Contrariwise, nothing seemed as attractive to me as having a home and a family. I was lucky enough not only to marry and settle down before the calamitous decision to base mortgages on more than one income drove house prices up and millions of nearly-new mothers out into the taxable ‘workplace’, but to have a husband who could afford to let me centre my energies on keeping house and bringing up the children, even though this meant that we couldn’t indulge in the perks offered by two pay packets.

Setting aside the emotional needs of growing children, the practical logistics and convenience to the rest of the family of having one parent focused primarily on the home is obvious, but the advantages of being that parent are also considerable. First and foremost, you are your own boss, free to decide your priorities within the limitations imposed by the more rigorous timetables of other family members. It’s true that when the children are young those limitations are many, but even in the early days opportunities for learning and creativity abound, with all the traditional home-making skills to explore and master, and the delight of being on hand to teach your children and share their triumph as they achieve each new step in their development. As time passes, there is ever greater freedom to take up new hobbies or voluntary work for anyone who does not need, and does not wish, to enter the paid ‘workplace’. 

I saw for myself, as I was growing up, the hard slog involved in simultaneously running a house and holding down a job. My aunt and mother would be up at 5.30 to do the housework before leaving for work, and that was in a household comprising only two extremely tidy women and one obedient little girl. Heaven knows what it must be like when husbands and less biddable children are involved. The upshot of my own experience was that I questioned just how desirable it really is for a woman to ‘have it all’, even without considering the proliferation of latchkey children. 

It is one thing to enjoy a lucrative career, paying others to look after your children in your absence and provide a comfortable home to return to at the end of the day, or even to have a more modestly remunerative job that is interesting and fulfilling, quite another to be forced to sacrifice hours of your life performing boring, repetitive tasks just to make ends meet, especially when a pile-up of household chores awaits you. 

I have a great respect for today’s mothers who are obliged to work just to put a roof over the family’s heads, yet still manage to create a secure and loving home for their children. I am sure that many of them would be only too glad to have the luxury of being ‘nothing but a housewife’, at least until those children reach secondary school age. Unfortunately there is not equal respect for those who make their contribution in the domestic workplace. After all, work is work, wherever it is performed, and it doesn’t have to be acknowledged by a pay packet to be either valuable or fulfilling.

This picture must have been taken just before the end of the war, when I was getting on for two years old – I’m the small fair girl leaning towards the little boy (he was called Eric Good, I remember) just left of centre.

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Gillian Dymond
Gillian Dymond
Gillian Dymond is 78, a mother and grandmother living in the north-east of England.

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