22 Apr

Modern Living and Mucky Kids

My reading material lately has been exhorting me to switch off my screens, talk to my child, and get out into the garden a bit more, to get my hands muddy. According to both Mama, and The Microbiome Effect, we are becoming physiologically and psychologically damaged by modern life.

According to Antonella Gambotto-Burke, mothers are damaging their children by existing in a society that doesn’t value motherhood. She longs for a time when children were healthier and happier, but doesn’t pinpoint exactly when that might have been. Recalling my own childhood in the 1970s and 80s, it’s true that I spent more time outdoors, but that might be because we lived in a Cumbrian village, not a Berkshire commuter town. I can also remember my mother working full time as well as running the home, and my father being far less hands-on and involved than my partner is in the home and in co-parenting our child. AGB claims that modern fathers are vanishing from their children’s lives, and an epidemic of divorce is ripping society apart. Again, my parents’ divorce when I was 15 was tough at the time, but the real tragedy would have been the misery of them staying together, especially if they had stayed together for the sake of my brother and me. I am certain that prioritising the children does not necessarily mean preserving the marriage.

Call me a hard-nosed bitch, but I can’t think of a time when children have been a higher priority both socially and within families. Look at the lengths some parents go to, to acquire them. We also have a wealth of knowledge about attachment and brain development, as well as a supportive network of health and social care professionals to help us use this knowledge. I’m not saying it’s adequate; the rate of closure of Children’s Centres is appalling; and there are countering social and financial pressures that keep parents at work more than most of them would probably like. But it is a lot more than my mum had. I wouldn’t say that society is failing mothers more now than at any time in the past; I would say that motherhood has never been a valued role, but to romanticise earlier times seems unhelpful.

Meanwhile in The Microbiome, Toni Harman tells me that now she knows what she does about the human microbiome, she aims to live a microbial life, getting a dog and doing the gardening, and eschewing the anti-bacterial in all its forms, because of the potential long-term effects on our health of a too-clean lifestyle. I discussed this with her for episode 13 of Sprogcast, and again it seems like modern technology is damaging babies, in this case by not seeding the gut with good bacteria at birth. Too many caesarean births and not enough breastfeeding means that the human race is gradually losing its ability to protect itself from disease. Scientists supporting this viewpoint make some strong theoretical arguments, but as yet the evidence simply does not exist. My fear is that a focus on speculation about damage to the microbiome distracts from the big issues around birth and breastfeeding, where we do have plenty of evidence about long term health consequences.

Having said that these books challenged me, I did find some points to agree with, and have tried to cut down on screen time at home. My partner and child indulge me but are less than thrilled about no-screen Sundays. The kid has disappeared off to play outside; I really must get him digitally tagged in some way…