Being a parent very often feels like being on trial. One of those televised American trials where the defendant appears, hair unwashed, wearing a drab ill-fitting suit, to find the eyes of the media are upon them, probably having given them some hideous nickname, like “Foxy Knoxy” or something a lot less flattering. I sometimes imagine myself in one of these courtrooms, make-up free and wearing leggings smeared with food thrown by a toddler. And the case for the prosecution would go something like this.
Accused of being not middle class enough in my parenting, I plead Not Guilty. I desperately remind the courtroom of my university credentials, my professional job and my relatively neutral accent. The prosecution is not so sure…
“Is it true that you do not own a car?”
“Well yes, but…”
“And you have to travel everywhere…” (the lawyer splutters in disgust at the mere thought) “…by bus?”
“Well, not exactly. We get the train sometimes. Or we walk.”
“WALK? You aren’t middle class enough to live sufficiently near the city centre to walk anywhere worth visiting. Is it true that there’s not even a Costa in your local area, let alone an artisan bakery staffed by men with nineteenth century beards?”
“Yes, but there is a cafe.”
“Man cannot live on bread alone, as they say, but taking swimming lessons with your toddler will help to alleviate the damage caused to the child by not growing up with frequent access to a nearby Waitrose. Is it true you take your son to swimming lessons?”
“Yes.” Things are suddenly looking up.
“How do you get there?”
“BY BUS? Have you no car?”
“No, no car.”
At this point, the lawyer for the prosecution turns to the jury triumphantly. “No car, you see.”
The jury are taking notes.
“How can one be a true middle class parent WITHOUT A CAR?”
It’s true. I am a disgrace to the middle classes. After ten years living in London, within easy reach of public transport and in a flat which not only had no parking space, but which stipulated in the terms of the lease that I was not even allowed to apply for a resident’s permit, I was used to not only not needing a car, but seeing cars as an active hindrance to my life. My brother paid so many parking fines when he came to visit, he practically single-handedly funded the building of the borough’s new civic centre. Cars were just a pain in the backside and anyway, you would only get caught in traffic for hours on end or stung by the congestion charge if you tried to drive one.
A year later, I am in The Provinces and everyone has a car. Especially, it seems, people with children. Some of them have never even been on a bus. And then there is me. Me with my pushchair parked outside the swimming pool, come rain or shine, taking nearly an hour to get to the pool by bus when Google Maps claims it’s only an eleven minute drive, and relying on the kindness of friends and family to drive us anywhere that isn’t on the bus route. And I have an even more terrible confession to make; one that will certainly have me convicted in the Trial of Middle Class Parenting.
Piglet still has his newborn car seat, over a year past the recommended age limit. Kill me now, people, for I am a monster. But forking our hundreds for a car seat with no car to put it in feels like profligate ridiculousness, especially as surely I need to save my pennies for the time when I finally learn to drive and have to endure the fateful moment I have long been putting off: the moment I actually have to drive a car, on my own, with the precious cargo of my child in that car. Then I will need the world’s most expensive car seat; super-safe, bolted on to the chassis of the car with flameproof diamond bolts, to protect my firstborn from my own inexperienced and inevitably terrible driving.
And the places where children go, these places are always designed with the middle class car-driving public in mind. Nowhere do I see in the promotional material of any soft play-providing establishment anywhere a mini map, explaining how it’s not at the end of a motorway down a tiny country lane in the middle of an industrial estate, but on the high street, close to all the local amenities and on several major bus routes. Instead they are always in some godforsaken place surrounded by a bleak but vast expanse of car park and nothingness. Perhaps people don’t like living near soft play, in the same way that they don’t like living near wind farms, electricity sub stations or the proposed third runway at Heathrow. I’m not sure I would want to either, if I didn’t have a two year old who enjoys the pleasures of a set of rollers and a crash mat.
And so I continue to load the pushchair onto the bus for yet another journey into the unknown, or play hide and seek in a car park with a small child as we wait for our lift, and he attempts to fill his nappy in peace behind a nearby car, and watch all the other parents, the real middle class parents with husbands and 4x4s, return to their suburban semis with their age-appropriate car seats. And I hope that driving is not an essential qualification for the middle class parent, for if it is, I have failed the test.