Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Good Enough Parent?

I have a very good and wise friend who when I frequently fret about my inadequacies as a mother, says to me, but are you a good enough parent?

I think the answer is, as it is for most of us, probably, yes. We all probably fall down in some areas of parenting, but in general most parents are benign and doing the best for their offspring. That we don't always get it right is part of human nature.

I mention this, because, like I guess the rest of the country I have been transfixed by the Madeleine McCann story this week. I was going to blog about it anyway, when I came back from holiday, but now more then ever, it seems pertinent to do so.

One of the most troubling aspects of this case is the decision the McCanns and their friends took to dine 100m away from their apartment while their children slept.

On balance, I think - I say I think, I don't know as we never took a holiday like that when our lot were that young - I wouldn't have done what they did. But I sure as hell can understand why they did it.

Being a parent means that sometimes, particularly when you have very small children, you need some childfree time, with your partner. We still find that, and nowadays get it less and less as the children stay up later. Being on holiday can add to the frustration you feel about not getting enough adult time (which incidentally has no bearing at all on how much you love your children. To keep a marriage going through the difficult times of coping with small children it is vital you do find time to spend together). I can really see the appeal of a holiday which allows you family time, plus some time away from the kids.

I presume it is those considerations which led the McCanns to make their fateful decision. I also presume that it was something that others did at the resort, which perhaps led them to feel more relaxed about it then they may have been at home. Being abroad can have that effect. When holidaying in paradise no one expects to encounter the snake.

I have no idea why they decided not to go for the babysitting option offered by Mark Warner, but if it is anything like situations we have been in where the babysitting option actually means someone sitting in a room listening to a monitor but never actually checking on the children, I can understand why they might have thought that they'd make a better fist of it. After all, they were the parents. They would know if their children were likely to wake up or not. The worst they can have imagined was that one of the kids might have woken up crying - and hell we've been at home and not heard a child cry and realised they've been yelling for ages.

In the circumstances as they've been described I think they took a reasonable risk. All of us in our daily lives assess situations to see if they are risky or not. I know I am a particularly risk averse individual, but even so, letting my eleven year old walk to and fro from school on her own is a risk. She may get kidnapped/knocked over by a car. She probably won't. But she may.

The trouble with risk of course, is that it is a two way street. How many hundreds of others have passed through that apartment and taken the same risk, and nothing happened to their child? The tragedy for the McCanns is that they were the unlucky ones, so instead of coming back from a happy holiday in May, they have been embroiled in a nightmare ever since.

I find it very hard to blame them for that decision. It probably wasn't one I would have made, but they are going to pay for it for the rest of their lives. What right do I or anyone else for that matter, have to condemn? I can think of at least two situations I know of where a parent has taken a reasonable risk like that and an unforseeable situation occurred that if it had gone the other way could have been catastrophic. Even last night, as I bathed the younger two children, the older two were downstairs playing. I got downstairs to discover the back door was unlocked. A reasonable risk, perhaps. We aren't prone to having strangers wander into our gardens here, but it could happen. And if it did, what kind of incompetent parent might I appear?

What has happened in the last few days to the McCanns beggars belief. I don't think for a minute they are guilty of anything more then inaccurately assessing a situation, and it has cost them dear. To look at the pain in Kate McCann's face, and the deadness in Gerry McCann's eyes is to see two parents who are utterly bereft. I will put my hands up if I am wrong about this, but really, is it credible that two people who up until now have led hitherto blameless lives, would suddenly throw it all away in an act of such wanton madness? Even if Kate McCann, as alleged, accidentally killed her daughter, why bring attention to what has happened by this sustained media campaign? Surely the sensible thing to do in the circumstances would have been to keep your head down and get the hell out of there. It seems clear as mud that the Portugese police haven't had a clue from day one as to who could possibly have taken that poor child.

While I appreciate that in the majority of cases like this it usually is the family who are responsible, I just find it hard to credit a mother who has struggled to have children through IVF (surely that would make them more precious then ever?) could do such a thing, let alone a mother who appears to be such a devout Catholic. Anyone who knows anything about catholicism will know that guilt goes hand in hand with the religion. And if Kate and Gerry McCann did kill their daughter they would be hard pushed not to show their guilt. Perhaps they are incredibly good actors, but is it really likely they killed their daughter and then went out to dinner as normal? I find that hard to believe.

When we were in Menorca, we found ourselves watching Sky News alot. I use the word news advisedly. 24 hours rolling news actually brings you very little that is new. Instead the same stories are repeated over and over again. Inevitably we found ourselves watching the McCanns story unfolding. I had of course been aware of the story before we went on holiday, but found the over sentimentalisation of it in our press rather uncomfortable, and hadn't been paying much attention.

Somehow, being in a quiet resort very similar to Praia de Luz, on holiday with our family, the story became charged with so much more resonance. And every time that picture of Madeleine came up I would look at no 4, who bears a passing resemblance, and is only a year older, and think, what on earth would I do if something similar happened to her?

I think I would have probably done very much what the McCanns have done. In a global age, we have the ability to use the media and internet to reach out to the world. When faced with such a desperate situation, I think I would have been inclined to do anything to find my child. The fear must be that eventually the world will move on, stop looking, and the search will stall. I can completely see why the need to keep Madeleine's story in the news has been paramount.

But of course, if you sup with devil you need a very long spoon, as the McCanns are now finding to their cost. Back then, in August, it was clear that the Portugese press were making some very wild allegations about the couple (perhaps fired by an irritation that the McCanns had granted exclusives to the British press?), which were not being reported by our media. We watched an interview the couple gave to Sky News in which they refuted utterly the (as then unknown) claims being made against them. It was one of the most harrowing things I have ever witnessed. Neither of them appear to me to be the wear your heart on your sleeve sort, but their distress was palpable. Their emotion seemed genuine. Is it really likely that a professional couple who have had no involvement with the media hitherto could manage to put it on like that? I find that hard to believe too.

Now thanks to the events of the last few days, the McCanns are discovering to their cost the consequences of supping on that long spoon. The media from having regarded them as saints (would a working class couple have got away with not being castigated for leaving the children? I don't think so), now seems on the verge of casting them down as sinners. There is an equivocal tone entering into a great deal of the reporting. People are beginning to put caveats in place, and if any more damaging material comes out, no doubt, those who have held them up as tragic figures will be the first to cast them out in the wilderness.

Indeed, on the internet where fierce debate rages as to the guilt or otherwise of this poor benighted couple, in some quarters you'd think their guilt was established as fact. I have never read such pernicious and vile slurs on anyone as I have read about the McCanns in the last couple of days. They are often accused of being unemotional (in these post Diana days of course that is the biggest crime - to me they seem very dignified) and bizarrely, as with Diana, complete strangers somehow feel they have more rights to "Maddy" (not a name her parents call her incidentally) then the McCanns do. Because the McCanns don't act in what is deemed to be an appropriate way - namely tearing their hair out and acting hysterically - they are castigated for it. It's beginning to turn into a witch hunt, with people accusing them of all sorts of terrible things.

And yet, what exactly do we know? Thanks to the secrecy of the Portugese investigation (a good thing in theory - if the press weren't being fed wild tidbits from somewhere), we actually know very little. In fact, all we can say with certainty is that on May 3 Madeleine McCann disappeared from her holiday apartment. No one knows if she is dead or alive, though I have to say, gloomily I tend to lean towards the former. And yet the whole world knows what has happened to her, and according to a lot of the nasty stuff going around half the world appears to know her parents killed her.

It reminds me of a short story I once read (whose name I forget, though I have been bashing my brains trying to remember it), about a man who found his neighbour dead in the bathroom. She is a former actress, and he climbs a ladder to break into her house when it is feared she has met with an accident. Initially his account is believed. He is a good neighbour, worried about the woman he hasn't seen for a few days. She has committed suicide in the bathroom. But then the press start looking for more salacious details and the gossip starts. By the end of the story the neighbour is alleged to have been involved of a love triangle with the actress, and has possibly murdered her. His wife ends up having a nervous breakdown and the couple move away. The last line of the story goes something like this. "They all knew the truth about the actress. But no one knew the truth about me."

I think something of the sort is happening here. None of us knows what happened that night, and I suspect we will never know. But in the meantime Kate and Gerry McCann are innocent until proved guilty. I personally don't think they have done anything wrong. And despite what the press would have us believe, they are neither saints nor sinners, just a normal couple trying to deal with the most horrific of situations. And tragically at a time when they need all the support they can get, they are being villified in some corners.

They are good enough parents.

Just like the rest of us.


granny p said...

You take the words out of my mouth - or, more accurately out of my mind/laptop. I cannot believe those two guilty of anything (except losing their child in Portugal). As for the risk they took, leaving them. I think they had tried the baby-sitting service - all the group had and didn't like it; hence this arrangement.

If any of us had words/deeds/activities as parents held up to the world like this we could seem guilty of anything. I could list the ones supposed to make the McCanns - and particularly the mother, isn't it always the mother - guilty. But I won't. We've all read them and can list them for ourselves.

Jane Henry said...

As you say Granny P, it is always the mum at fault. We're a bad lot, don't you know?

I do think it is interesting that Mark Warner haven't come in for any stick, for a) having an unsuitable babysitting service and b) barring their restaurant from children in the evening ensuring that families either do what the McCanns did or stay in. Hardly family friendly is it?