On 17th March 2016 the Earl of Dundee led a short debate “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to promote ongoing maternal care for children.” The Bishop of Worcester, Rt Revd John Inge, spoke in the debate:
The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, I am also grateful to the noble Earl for securing this debate because I am utterly convinced about the importance of ongoing maternal care for children. I speak as the father of two adopted children. I have learned through experience and study how crucial is the relationship that children have with their mother. It is an essential and defining part of the process of perinatal life that a bond is formed between child and mother, regardless of the latter’s conscious attitude towards her baby.
Research shows that healthy development depends on the quality of attachment from primary carers during the first three years of life when the brain’s structural plasticity is most available to being shaped by interactions with parents. In systemic terms, there is a benign, recursive, interactional loop operating between parent and child such that the baby’s brain responds to parental input—love, care, et cetera—by developing and growing physically and psychologically. This in turn triggers the parent or carer to provide more love and care.
As the noble Earl has said, the Government deserve much credit for their determination to improve the lot of children. I do, however, believe that other measures would help significantly. With this is mind, I applaud the Motion which the noble Earl and others introduced to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in September 2015, advocating, among other things, financial assistance for maternal care in the home for a minimum of three years, ensuring that such a care subsidy is independent of paid work. The organisation CARE, summarising its latest annual review of taxation in this country, said:
“According to our most recent research, a single-earner married couple with two children on the average OECD wage are liable to 35% more tax than the OECD average”.
Of course mothers should be able to go back to work when they wish but CARE boss Nola Leach said, when the report was published:
“Stay-at-home parents are making an important investment in their children and yet at present they end up being discriminated against by our current tax system”.
I should add that I have nothing against single parents or working parents: I am one. However, I would like to see the tax break for couples, which was announced in April 2014, to be extended, along the lines that the noble Earl suggested, to a 100% transferable allowance, which would carry far more significance and would mean that couples could benefit to the tune of £2,000 a year. The campaigning group Mothers at Home Matter argues that it matters for families to have choices in care, so that all are able to choose what works for them in their unique circumstances. That will surely be for the good of all.
Mothers are also presently concerned about conditionality placed on households on the new universal credit. Will family responsibilities at home be properly factored in? How much pressure will there be on second earners to return to work? Preliminary research seems to indicate that more mothers will be “encouraged” to sign up for interviews when children are 12 months old, even when they have significant care responsibilities at home.
As has been intimated, our concern should not just be about the early years: it is important for someone to be there for children in the middle and teenage years as family circumstances and pressures change. The availability of decent, part-time, paid work, particularly during secondary school, is key to achieving balance for some parents with care responsibilities. We need, in sum, a greater recognition of the loving one-to-one care that babies need and of children’s need for family time at all ages. We need to do all we can to facilitate it.
At the same time, while ongoing maternal care is important, so is parenting in general. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, pointed to the importance of family and family learning. Churches are also doing much to provide training on parenting, for which there is an appalling lacuna in our society. The Mothers’ Union runs and trains facilitators for its “passionate about parenting” course. A participant said:
“This parents’ group helped me in so many ways. We talked in small groups and helped each other, my children found my parenting handbook (a resource I was given that I could take away and read through at home) so I thought I had been busted. But it was great, after a few weeks my 18-year-old gave me a hug. The first in years and he wasn’t the teenager I was having problems with!”.
Similarly, Care for the Family runs many positive parenting programmes, and Alpha provides parenting children and parenting teenagers courses.
As the father of adopted children, I know that the separation of children from their mothers is immensely traumatic. It is referred to by adoption specialist Nancy Verrier as “the primal wound”. It takes a great deal of love on the part of adoptive parents to begin to heal this wound. That shows the importance of the maternal bond and maternal care. It can be done, as was done by my wife. Tragically, she died when my children were aged nine and 15. That brought home to me, by tragic means, the importance of ongoing maternal care.
It is, of course, not true to say that healthy adults cannot develop if they have experienced a lack of maternal care. There are alternatives to it; attachment from other loving and caring adults, most especially fathers, can be very nurturing and healing. These are important alternatives, but no substitute for ongoing maternal care.