Pram Face heroine

There was a very good documentary on Channel 4 last night, called Pram Face, which had a reporter following the lives of two young single mothers in Exeter for six months. One of the women, in particular, called Ala, made a very big impression, because she was obviously trying so hard to be a good mother in very difficult circumstances. Her story was not only sad, but made me feel vaguely uneasy, because it was undermining two of the basic tenets of the middle class. One is that middle class children do better than working-class children primarily because of their parents’ attitudes rather than because of money. And the more general version of that: that the reason we in the middle classes have a better life is because we deserve it.

It’s often a temptation to blame young working class mothers for their difficult situations: they spend their money rashly, or they drink too much or they have chaotic personal lives. This was a rather different story. Ala didn’t come across as simply a victim: she was trying to make something of her life, but it was an uphill struggle. Her mother was an alcoholic and she’d never known her father. She was in her early twenties, had two small children in a damp council flat and was trying to survive on social security. Her main support was her friend, also a single mum. Ala had to borrow money because one of her children had been hospitalised and that had caused her extra expense. She didn’t want to get involved with social services because she’d been in care herself as a child and was concerned her children might be taken away if she admitted she needed help.

Maybe Ala shouldn’t have chosen to continue with her pregnancies, but as she said herself, all she’d really wanted to do in life was be a mother. She didn’t have any other particular career ambitions. Other than that, it’s difficult to see where she’s gone wrong. And yet she’s ended up in a situation where it’s very hard for her to give her children the kind of upbringing she wants for them. She and her friend talked about how they’d like to take the children for trips somewhere different, just to get on the train and go somewhere, but they can’t afford it. She saved up for most of the year so that her children could have nice presents for Christmas, the sort of toys that many children would take for granted.

I’ve tended to feel sometimes that money isn’t really important, that it’s perfectly possible to give children a stimulating environment on not much money. Seeing this documentary makes clear the limits of that theory. There are a lot of choices you can’t make when your budget is so low. And I knew that I would not be doing as well in that situation as Ala is; I would not cope in the way that she does at the moment. Ala is, almost certainly, a better mother in many ways than I am, and yet L is probably going to have a better, easier, more fulfilling life than Ala’s children are. Not because of my personal virtues (or indeed L’s), but because L (and myself before her) has been lucky in her socio-economic background.

I am left hoping that Ala can cope and her children will thrive, but aware of how fragile her advance is. Perhaps if Ala can give her children the good parenting she never had, they will be able to have a happier, less difficult life than she has, but the odds will still be stacked against them. Meanwhile L’s path has been smoothed for her in ways that she might find hard to appreciate when she grows up. I’ll just have to try and remind her (and myself) periodically.

2 thoughts on “Pram Face heroine

  1. please tell me you didnt realise that choice was only for those who could afford to chose before you watched pram face?
    Our govts favourite mantra at one time was like thatchers before choice choice choice – schools you the parent can choose! Oh not you single parent/Income support/ JSA family. Your child will go where we place them because you cannot afford the bus fares for your child to attend a school elsewhere, the best school is in the next town but little charlemagne and Jose cant go there because its 5 miles away. Hahahaha only the chelsea tractor brigade get a real choice when it comes to education because only they can afford to choose. They can choose private school or govt run school or perhaps a private tutor – or even school abroad or one of those new centres of excellence or how about a school where you can learn a practical trade. ( waits till all the fur coat no knickers brigade recover with their smelling salts before I continue). Oh the new middle classes and there are more than one middle class and this is the collective lot dont think that little Jacob or Eugenie should ever do something as yucky as a manual trade no matter how bad their marks ( thats grades to americans), there will be a choice of kinds for their children. I am afraid not though – that massive buffer zone between the ‘have it alls’ and the ‘have the left overs if you’re luckys’ will eventually encorporate the entire middle classes who saddle themselves with the burdens of slavery daily – mortgages, loans, credit cards to acquire what exactly? peace of mind? ( i think not)aaah yes the illusive choice, but as this choice becomes more expensive the middle classes wont be able to keep up with those they try so hard to emulate and their children will end up in the trade schools competing for low paid work and why? because eventually there will be no middle class and therefore the have it alls will want to create a massive divide between a massive class who tried to buy choice only to find out there was no such thing for sale, just the illusion of it and for that we sell our time?


  2. It wasn’t the first time I realised those at the bottom don’t have many choices, it just brought it home again. Though Ala was particularly unlucky in having so few choices. A lot of young mothers in her situation, for example, have at least someone supportive in their family to provide childcare, which means they can look for part-time work, go back to college etc or at least have more time for themselves.

    As for your complaints about the middle classes, what makes you think that all of us would spurn manual trades? One of my brothers is working as a forester, the other is teaching maths at university: I don’t think either job is intrisically superior to one another, just because one is blue collar and one white collar. If my daughter wants to learn a trade when she grows up I’d support her doing that. (In fact she’d probably have better prospects as a electrician than a medievalist – I’m not sure I wouldn’t actively discourage her from an academic career).

    On the other hand if she (or any other child) happens to have an ability for abstract problem solving and the manual dexterity of a blind St Bernard, then I would want her to be in a school where academic prowess is supported and encouraged or at least not one where she will be bullied for enjoying studying.

    I’m not enamoured of Tony Blair’s ideas of ‘choice’ either: what I want is a good school for my child and for other people’s children as well.


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