When I first read about Claire Barnett, sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for child cruelty, my immediate thought was “there but for the grace of God…” Barnett’s two-year-old son Joshua drowned while his mother was checking Facebook on her phone. While I have no desire to excuse her actions, I find it hard not to sympathise. I cannot, hand on heart, say that I’ve never been distracted by social media when I should have been paying attention to my children. It is hard to be focused all the time, particularly when sleep deprivation and boredom are making you feel like you’ll pass out without something else to occupy your mind.
The Barnett case, however, seems to have been about more than just one moment of inattention. The court found a consistent pattern of neglect, with neighbours reporting seeing Joshua left to play out in the road in just his nappy. Judge Jeremy Richards told Barnett that “for a parent to behave as you did, repeatedly, amounts to consistently bad parenting”. Whereas most of us make mistakes every now and then – when we are particularly tired or forgetful – it seems Claire Barnett was making them all the time. Stand down, fellow mums; she’s not one of us after all. But still there’s that lingering doubt: how close does she come?
If Claire Barnett meets some official standard for bad parenting, what does that say about the rest of us? There are, I think, few of us who would admit to being brilliant parents; such arrogance would, in and of itself, knock you down a category or two. But when it comes to discussions of bad parenting, it seems that we are dealing with a number of different, sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradictory categories.
For instance, there’s the badness that is harmful, about which everyone shakes their head and expresses dismay. Then there’s the badness that is practically aspirational, the kind of slapdash behaviour that only serves to demonstrate that you’re a real person, not just a Mummy, after all. Spending too long on Facebook can fall into either of these categories; where it ends up can depend not just on luck, consistency or even morality, but on where you find yourself located within our current social hierarchies.
Among parents like me – white, middle-class, straight, in a relationship – it can be almost fashionable to boast about how bad a parent one is. We can afford to do this because however judged we feel (and we do feel judged, particularly if we’re mothers), we rarely feel at risk of being personally chastised or having our children taken away from us. For us, “playing the bad parent” can serve as a way of gaining reassurance that actually, we’re not that bad after all. We share anecdotes of failure as a way of testing the water and making sure that everyone else is failing, too. If we’re careful, we can even make our “bad parenting” into form of humblebrag (if “distressing” shop-bought cakes, à la Kate Reddy, really is the worst we’ve ever done, then deep down we know we’re doing pretty well).
In the anthology Things I Wish I’d Known: Women tell the truth about motherhood, Emma Freud admits that “the most comforting part of having a crap day as a mum, when you feel you are single-handedly prepping your child for the psychiatrist’s couch, is when you ring a friend and they tell you they are also still in their pyjamas at 3pm, having fed their two-year-old Haribo for breakfast AND lunch.” This is the kind of confession we can look upon with benevolence (ha! It’s Emma Freud! She’s not so perfect, either!). Still, how would this be received were it coming from someone less affluent, that is, someone who is implicitly seen as less “entitled” to have children in the first place? How does their right to be a “bad parent” rank alongside Freud’s?
Performative bad parenting is clearly a privilege not everyone can afford. Amid all the morality tales we construct around raising children, one thing we rarely admit is that the parent whom we deem most successful isn’t the one who raises the child who is happiest, or cleverest, or kindest. It’s the parent whose child best represents the values of the dominant group. Since members of the dominant group are best at raising such children, they can tell themselves that their dominance is a result of superior parenting skills rather than privilege itself. Conversely, as Dorothy Roberts has shown with regard to race, the parenting skills of members of marginalised groups are deemed inferior because their children grow up sharing the values of the marginalised. This supposed inferiority then becomes the justification for a continued low status. “Bad parenting” is judged not by action but by social location. I give my child Quavers for breakfast and it’s anecdote fodder; another mother does the same and she’s set her child up for a lifetime of obesity and academic failure.
We’ve reached a point where “bad parenting” can mean almost anything, from giving your child an apple that isn’t organic to engaging in physical or mental abuse. The broadness of the term, together with the variability in moral import, turns it into a tool for attacking those whom we think shouldn’t be parents at all. What is lost is not just a sense of justice, but any sense of perspective. Hence it can be hard to tell the really bad stuff from those everyday transgressions which most of us cannot avoid. Do many of us really find ourselves one misstep away from being the next Claire Barnett? I don’t think so. There are, however, some parents who are forced to live far closer to being judged than others.
Perhaps for that reason, the rest of us ought to rein in our performances of parental incompetence. Beneath the show of humility and self-deprecation can be found the smugness of those who know, deep down, that their kids will be alright. By and large, “bad” parents aren’t that bad and “good” parents aren’t that good. It just so happens that some of us got lucky.