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.
Its 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 didnt 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 shed 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 didnt want to get involved with social services because shed been in care herself as a child and was concerned her children might be taken away if she admitted she needed help.
Maybe Ala shouldnt have chosen to continue with her pregnancies, but as she said herself, all shed really wanted to do in life was be a mother. She didnt have any other particular career ambitions. Other than that, its difficult to see where shes gone wrong. And yet shes ended up in a situation where its very hard for her to give her children the kind of upbringing she wants for them. She and her friend talked about how theyd like to take the children for trips somewhere different, just to get on the train and go somewhere, but they cant 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.
Ive tended to feel sometimes that money isnt really important, that its 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 cant 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 Alas 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 Ls path has been smoothed for her in ways that she might find hard to appreciate when she grows up. Ill just have to try and remind her (and myself) periodically.