Dear Michael Leunig: 1971 Called. It Wants Its Motherhood Advice Back.
Oh Michael Leunig.
First, you gave us your cartoon. Now you have given us your words… your explanation? Your defence? Your justification? Your patronising opinion (again)?
I am unsure of its exact purpose really, but what I am sure of is that it hasn’t really made your ‘Judgement of the Mother’ cartoon -- or whatever your ‘observation of society’ is called -- any more accurate.
Why not? Well, to quote you, paraphrasing the “marvellous works of Donald Winnicott, the great English paediatrician and psychoanalyst” (who, as a side note, died in 1971):
“The attentive loving eye contact made by mother with the baby is crucial in the child’s developmental process. It is this sustained meeting of eyes between mother and infant which activates the development of the baby’s sense of a secure self. The baby needs to be seen; it needs to be held in the mother’s gaze as well as the mother’s arms. What the father can do best at this point is to protect and nourish the flourishing of this early mother-child connection.”
As a mother, this reads to me as if it were written in a different time, by a man who perhaps doesn’t understand that much about parenting in 2019. But what do you know? It was.
These ideas were written more than half a century ago by a man who never had children of his own. Personally (and this is just my opinion), they seem a bit ludicrous to be used as the basis of what a parent, of what a mother in particular, should be doing today in order to parent effectively.
While yes, giving your baby, your child of any age your full attention, eye contact and physical contact is of course undeniably important, the reality of now, 2019 is that there are other elements to parenting too. And, Leunig, these include screens. No, not only screens (we still on occasion look at our kids as well, and on a rare instance give them a pat on the back) but sometimes, yes, a screen will be used.
Whether it is a phone, a TV, a tablet -- screens in whatever shape or form have become an essential part of our lives and dare I say it, an essential part of parenting. Because it is not the mid-20th century anymore.
While you say that “growing numbers of human mothers seem to be losing or devaluing this primary maternal preoccupation in favour of the banal hypnotic charms of a phone screen,” I say this: most of the time, by most of us capable and amazing mothers, screens can, and are used in productive, positive ways to assist us.
If you ask me that isn’t “negligent”, that is just smart.
Okay, okay, sarcasm aside, the truth is, Leunig, as a mother, I count on TV, I count on screens. They have helped me parent, many a time in many a way. Now, don’t get me wrong -- my children aren’t sitting with square eyes, hypnotised by screens for multiple hours of the day, or left like road kill on the pavement as I abandon them for my iPhone -- but in moderation, they are an effective tool.
And guess what else? I think my children might actually be…fine.
My screen of choice, TV (old-school I know) has been a babysitter in the morning when my children wake up at some ungodly hour and I am not quite ready yet to face the world. With a range of child-friendly and appropriate programming at my lonely children’s fingertips, it keeps them content, me asleep and, an hour later me a much more refreshed person, ready to ‘parent’ and intently gaze into my children’s eyes.
Then there was the odd occasion when I was breastfeeding where I would take out my phone and scroll through social media rather than try to stare into the eyes of my newborn as she suckled at my teat.
When my girls were infants or toddlers not quite toddling, and I needed to dash to the toilet or have a quick shower without wanting the gaze upon me for this moment I would prefer to be un-gazed upon, TV was there distracting them.
And now, after spending a morning bouncing around at the trampoline centre with my five year old, or reading books to her at the library, or encouraging her at swimming lessons (while also intently gazing in HER direction), I come home and for an hour she has ‘quiet time’. And yep, sometimes this also involves the TV or a screen of some description (and no I don’t gaze at her while this is happening, just at Instagram on my phone.)
Then there are the three days each week when this mother neglects her youngest preschooler and goes to work. Grandma steps in to help look after the abandoned child and sometimes, she even puts the TV on. In fact, sometimes Grandma puts it on to a show she thinks helps ‘educate’ and one she foolishly believes that my daughter might actually ‘learn’ from. But she was only a teacher for 30 years, so perhaps she doesn’t know that you can’t learn from screens?
Although, it is interesting to note that my five-year-old neglected, abandoned unimportant child did in fact explain to me how oceans were created when I returned home from looking at yet another screen in the office ALL DAY.
This was a fact that I didn’t even know, and something that came from the… screen.
So tonight, after both my husband and I pop our daughters to bed and come downstairs, Netflix will be switched on and we will use this as a way to unwind after a hard day of child neglect. And as I try not to think of your cartoon which has pissed off me and half of Australia, I will also appreciate my non-judgmental helpers, my screens.
Unlike you, they have helped me survive and thrive as a parent. They have provided accurate information. They have created a wanted distraction. And unlike some things, they can also be turned off.