Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The cost of not having babies

Home Front
Catholic Herald
2 December 2005

“Ten great things about having a baby” according to a current pregnancy magazine includes this one: “You can spend lots of money – without feeling guilty!”

This must be true, because last week the Liverpool Victoria Friendly Society, which has made the collecting of gloomy statistics into an art-form, informed us that “the cost of having a child” is now up to an average of £166,000, the value of a medium-sized family home, over a family’s life time.

The rate at which this total rises outstrips rises in prices and wages. Well, you hardly expected it to rise more slowly than prices and wages, did you? And does it mean that if I had not had children, I would now be the proud landlord of a row of medium-sized family homes? Would I get one every time I did not have a baby? Somehow, I think not.

But here’s the chirpy author of the “ten great things about having a baby” again: Reason Four – “Talking shop - it’s great fun planning what to buy for your new arrival”.

The remainder of the “ten great things” raise some doubt regarding exactly who is the baby in this relationship. Check out Thing Number One: “As soon as you announce you’re pregnant you are the centre of attention”.

It’s all “me, me, me”: “Pregnancy is a great excuse for putting your feet up and watching endless episodes of Friends” (Thing Three). “Just think how great it will be being able to act like a kid again” (Thing Seven)

Towards the end, it dawned on the compiler that a mum’s needs might not be entirely fulfilled by shopping so she added: “Having a baby can bring you closer to your own mum” and “You make new friends who will completely understand your hopes and fears”.

As far as I can see, a “Great Thing” is defined as anything which makes you, the pregnant mum, feel cheerful, skittish or adored. Does bringing a new human being into the world not rate as a bigger deal than a shopping opportunity?

The compiler ends, rather vaguely, with: “having your own family is a wonderful feeling” and “nothing can beat having a cuddle with your baby”. I feel she was aware that something in this set of “great things about having a baby” was terribly missing – she just couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

Having a baby is regarded as an indulgence like having a weakness for expensive shoes. Those parents who rush out and get themselves these luxury pets just because they want a cuddle have to be warned by the sober aldermen of Liverpool Victoria Friendly society: it’ll cost you! That money could be spent on a medium sized family home!

Demographic changes are spoken of in circuitous and hushed tones. So, in view of the fact that twenty years ago there were ten working people for every retired person and that this has slipped to four, soon to be down to two, I suggest that we rename the whole pensions debate: “Ten Awful Things about Not Having Enough Children.”

I think I have found the answer to juvenile crime. My father in law has just received an unusual gift from his Catholic boarding school – the same one where, he always claims, he suffered anti-redhead prejudice from his very first day when an older boy punched him for being a carrot-top, and a monk dragged them apart with the words, “Ah, Johnson! Fighting already!” – has presented him with a piece of his old desk. The tradition in his day was to allocate a boy with a desk with his name on it when he arrived. As the boy moved up through the school, so did the desk, a chunk of which is now sitting in my father-in-law’s study.
What a wonderful solution to school graffiti. Give the kids their own property and they will look after it.
In fact, by a simple act of loving generosity we could end mobile phone thefts overnight. Why don’t we extend the Stonyhurst Principle and give every 14-year-old in the land his or her very own 3 generation mobile phone?

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Your cheating parents

Home Front by Sarah Johnson
Catholic Herald 25 November 2005

I don’t do my children’s homework for them. It’s not for want of trying. The trouble is, most nights I can’t even find it. One of the benefits, if it can be called that, of having given birth to slightly more children than you are entirely competent to handle is that the poor things have to do things for themselves. I keep meaning to do their homework for them but dinner and other events intervene.

It is also quite hard to do one’s teenager’s GCSE coursework when he shouts “Go away, leave me alone” every time I come into the room. The 63% of parents who – says the Schools Qualifications and Curriculum Authority – are over-enthusiastically helping their children with their GCSE coursework make me feel terribly angry, but I am rather in awe of their resourcefulness.

How do these cheating parents find the work at all, among the mass of saved files with near-identical titles that clogs up the hard drive on most family computers? And when they have located it, how do they understand it (especially if it is maths)?

And how do they persuade adolescent boys to regard the words “write no less than 200 words” as anything other than a strict injunction to write absolutely no more than 200 words? How do they persuade adolescent girls that the same instruction does not mean “write a medium length history book”?

And why have the exam boards, not yet hit on the simple method of thwarting cheating parents by insisting that all coursework be hand-written by the student, instead of typed on a computer?

Coursework is the curse of modern youth. It was clearly invented by keen teachers, probably mostly female, who love reading round a subject, and fondly imagined that coursework would automatically transfer this enthusiasm. Coursework favours girls – who happily produce reams of elegant trivia – over boys, who rise more effectively to the adrenaline surge of traditional exams.

Coursework discourages actual learning: no teenager, especially if male, ever allows a fact to clutter up his precious brain space if it is not strictly essential for passing the exam. Any aspect of any curriculum where, to the question “do I have to learn this for the exam, Sir?” the answer is “No”, is literally worthless.

There is no doubt where the top cheaters are: in the private sector. The definition of a “good” school in this country is one which gets good exam results. If good exam results are all that matter, a school firstly will choose whom it teaches.

So an independent school such as St Paul’s Girls’ School, whose pupils are all female, brilliant and from highly ambitious families, is “top school” year after year. I have known many Paulinas in my time and believe me; you barely need to be a teacher to teach these girls. You just turn up and take their names, and they teach themselves. For politicians to attack faith schools for selecting children who go to church when such tremendous selection exists in private schools is ludicrous.

Secondly, to ensure good results, a school will offer all the coursework help it can get away with. Exactly how much is limited not by any scruple, or highfalutin’ belief in education for education’s sake, but only by the financial resources of the school and the parents – the posher the school, the more difficult will it be to detect the “extra” little nudges and pushes given to GCSE students.

Cheating parents never know they are cheating, at the time. Being a parent renders most people blind to their actions. Very sensible, very nice, otherwise totally trustworthy people suddenly become savages when it comes to furthering the interests of their children.

And in so doing they are merely following the most mendacious, hypocritical, divided school system in the West. When Labour back-benchers wail that the Government’s Education White Paper will create a “two tier system”, one has to ask – what country do they think they have been living in all these years?


Friday, November 18, 2005

Abigail Witchalls

Homefront Catholic Herald
London 2005-11-15

The fortitude of Abigail Witchalls, the devout young Catholic mother paralysed by stabbing six months ago, has amazed the nation. The media, however, don’t quite know what to make of her.

First of all she let it be known that she forgave her attacker. This stymied the tabloids, who expect to be able to whip the victims of random violence into vengeful frenzies at the drop of a cheque.

Then she astonished her doctors by the speed of her recovery. There is general agreement in the secular press that her positive attitude is helping her as much as the great skill of her carers; the idea that the constant prayers said for her by family and friends might have something to do with it does not, of course, get a mention.

Meanwhile Abigail, now able to speak and feed herself, continues to describe herself as “blessed” – again, language which the average tabloid journalist just can’t figure out at all.

Now she has really knocked them sideways. She has given birth to her second baby. One or two of the papers jumped the gun and reported this birth as being by caesarean section. Presumably the reporters simply could not imagine that Abigail, paralysed from the neck down, could give birth in any other way.

It later became confirmed that Abigail had given birth naturally, “with very little assistance”. He came a bit early, and he’s on the small side, but he’s working on that, because Abigail is breastfeeding as well.

“What a woman,” said a friend of mine in astonishment.

The surprise, however, is misplaced. The oddity is rather that anyone should think a caesarean section would be necessary. Nowadays, most women choose to put themselves into Abigail’s condition during childbirth, by having an epidural. Most of these births end normally (though honest midwives admit that the epidural does increase your chances of going under the knife). By birthing normally, Abigail was simply taking advantage of the only physical benefit her terrible paralysis has to offer her.

The question which is bothering me, though, is this - why do so many women choose this state of paralysis? And what, I can hear the Editor muttering, does this have to do with the rest of us?

OK, I am getting to it.

The doctrine concerning Our Lady’s perpetual virginity which, when I first read about it before I became a Catholic, enraged me beyond words, is the doctrine that she gave birth without pain.

As St Thomas Aquinas put it: “Painlessly, and without change in Mary's virgin body, her Son emerged from the tabernacle of her spotless womb.” This still seems to me to be an insult to the fortitude and patience of women who do suffer pain, and furthermore are willing to suffer it again and again.

However, recently I have been learning about hypnotherapy in childbirth. The main aim of the technique is to eliminate the one emotion which, its practitioners maintain, is the biggest cause of pain: fear. The theory goes like this: if women are taught not to fear, then they will have almost pain-free births. At first I thought this was sheer hokum.

But wait - what was the first thing the angel said to Mary? “Be not afraid.” Perfect freedom from sin means being able to obey God without second thoughts or hindrance. So, if an angel tells Mary not to be afraid, then she is not afraid, and that’s that.

Then I watched some films of women giving birth without so much as a squeak, and not an epidural in sight. These were not cranks, but ordinary women who, not having the grace of perfect freedom from sin, had used hypnosis to free themselves from fear.

With shock, I realised that what I had hitherto only been able to accept as a doctrine in a “symbolic”, Vatican 2 sort of way, rather than one of fact, was actually perfectly believable and obvious.

Now Abigail Witchalls adds a new layer to this mystery by showing that even when your life is riven by a horrible tragedy, there is no reason to be afraid. And what’s more, she, too, has a baby to show for it.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Bad for children

Home Front
By Sarah Johnson
10 Nov 2005
Catholic Herald

“Why are you hunting behind the sofa cushions, darling?” I asked the eight year old.
“Blue Peter, of course,” she said in her most crushing you’re-so-stupid voice, emerging with a fistful of lost pennies.
Music to my ears. I am the world’s biggest fan of Blue Peter: this famous children’s magazine shines as a beacon of integrity in the sordid world of children’s programming. Or it would shine, if TV executives allowed it to, instead of merely using the words “Blue Peter” as a spell to ward off accusations of dumbing-down.
“And what are they collecting money for now?”
“Childline.” Immediately, I felt vaguely betrayed. Blue Peter? Raising money for Childline? Blue Peter appeals are usually about helping children in less developed countries (or LEDCs as we say now). It is depressing to find this powerful fund-raising force being mobilised to subsidise Esther Rantzen’s phone-in service, whose most obvious success has been to give children the belief that denouncing one’s parents to complete strangers is a perfectly normal thing to do.
I am being a little too harsh. Childline may have genuinely comforted, even saved some children. But underlying it is the belief that unless they can prove otherwise, parents are essentially bad for children, and must be kept out of the information loop.
On this hypothesis, Sue Axon must be very bad for her children. She is the single mum who is challenging the Department of Health in the High Court this week, by fighting for the right to be informed if her teenage daughter has an abortion.
As Sue says, “If she needs a plaster on her finger at her youth club, one of the youth workers has to phone me for permission – but a doctor can perform an abortion without my knowledge.”
The law is a muddle. You do not need to be a pro-life activist to see that. We have a right to be told if our children are at risk, and only the most fanatic pro-abortionists pretend that abortion is an entirely risk-free procedure: it is not the same as sticking a plaster on a cut finger.
In fact this is not even a particularly pro-life cause. The change in the law which Sue Axon is seeking won’t reduce abortions – at least not at first. For once the prospect of My Little Princess morphing into Someone’s Little Mummy looms, most parents instantly discard any scruples and are driving their daughters off to the abortion clinics with the horn blaring and lights flashing.
But at least we would see some of these parents issued with a much-needed wake-up call concerning their daughter’s sexual activity. I am constantly amazed by the insouciance of pro-abortionists such as Ann Furedi of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service at the facts of under-age sex: underage sex is medically risky, emotionally harmful and illegal, needing urgently to be discovered and stopped: yet according to Furedi and her ilk, it “just happens anyway”.
And, chorus the Furedis, what about girls who are being abused? What about Muslim girls who could even be murdered by jealous relatives if their misfortune were discovered?
Well, in the first case, a secret abortion won’t end the abuse. And in the second case, how easy do you think it is anyway, for a girl in a strict Muslim family to conceal the post-operative effects of abortion from her mother?
There should be no difficulty in reframing these mad guidelines so that in special cases doctors could seek permission from the family courts to keep the abortion secret, but would normally be required to inform parents.
But my fear is that the pro-abortion lobby will turn the fact that Sue Axton once had an abortion herself, and regretted it, against her - by accusing her of being a front for the pro-life movement.
Because the pro-life movement has been so successfully (and unscrupulously) discredited in the media (largely thanks to a few idiotic fanatics in the USA), this alone will be enough to influence the minds of the law courts against Sue.
Yet the truth is that this issue is not about abortion. It is about whether we believe parents are essentially good or essentially bad for their children – and in this we have to take a stand.


Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Family Fun

Home Front
Catholic Herald 04/11/05

Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, we are told by lifestyle gurus. And we do try to! We try to keep a straight face, and think about the positive, but every now and then the negative breaks in, and before we know it we are rolling around on the floor hooting with laughter. For while the positive may be all very well, it’s the negative experiences which, so often, actually bring us closer together.
This was the problem the other day when I sat down round an episcopal conference table with a group of Catholic luminaries, and a vast pot of episcopal coffee, to hammer out ideas for “family friendliness” in churches.
Of course the question immediately reared – what is a family friendly church, anyway? Should not a church be welcoming to people of all shapes and sizes, whether they come in family packages or not?
It’s almost a false question, as there need be no principle of mutual exclusivity at work here. Of course we want to make separated and single parents, childless couples, and single folk welcome. But welcoming one lot of people should never mean ignoring another lot.
There is no other institution which takes the cornerstone of family life, namely the sacrament of marriage, more seriously than the Catholic Church. So if married couples do not feel valued here, they will feel valued almost nowhere.
There is no other institution which accepts the concept of having a large family as passionately as the Catholic Church. So if larger families do not feel welcome here, they feel welcome nowhere.
But back to practicalities. I and my fellow committee members have been asked by the Bishops Conference of England and Wales to look at good ideas for family-friendliness, and spread them about a bit. There are many churches whose priests and parishioners are brilliant at making families feel welcome, and it seems well worth doing a bit of information sharing.
Some ideas which flowed around faster than the episcopal coffee: “Lads and dads” weekends; golden wedding celebrations organised by the parish; welcome packs for new parishioners, pre-Mass meeter-and-greeter rotas – all manner of solid practical ideas which, when combined with warm smiles and a genuine interest in other people, go towards building a whole new universe of human contact and support.
You see, having a meeter-and-greeter rota pinned up in the back of the church won’t necessarily save the world on its own. But it does show parishioners how they can put their natural kindness to work. Kindness is a much under-rated energy source outside the Church. But within the Church, we have an abundance of it, and we have the means to channel it, too.
But as the episcopal coffee pot emptied, the conversation, as conversations do, veered off into the negative. Nearly all of us had funny stories to tell about spectacularly unfriendly churches, and the ghastly experiences we have had there.
There was the priest who barked at a red-faced young mum clutching her howling infant, “It’s either him or me!”
There was the church where a young family were greeted sadly with the doom-laden words, “Oh, you won’t want to come here. People with young children usually go to St Michael’s.”
We joyously toyed with the idea of a hunt for Britain’s Unruliest Catholic Family, Britain’s Most Surly Priest and Britain’s Most Miserable Church until Elizabeth Davies, who is the “marriage and family life project officer” at the bishops’ offices, had to rap the table sharply with her ruler and bring us into line.
“We want people to think of the positive, not the negative,” she said. “Can we appeal for POSITIVE stories about churches where people felt welcomed?”
So here I am, appealing for positive stories about churches, parishes and occasions where you felt genuinely welcome. Now, now, I said positive stories. You are NOT to send your favourite horror stories about hair-raisingly unfriendly churches to Elizabeth (c/o Department for Christian Responsibility & Citizenship, Catholic Bishops' Conference of England & Wales, 39 Eccleston Square, London SW1V 1BX). Positive examples only, please!
But if you slip the odd funny story in, it will at least give us another good laugh at the next meeting.