Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is being hotly debated in the wake of her death. Some people are singing her praises, others are singing Ding dong the witch is dead.
We’ll be talking for some time about how she transformed the UK. Part of that analysis already is not political but personal: How successful was she as a mother?
It’s said she occasionally called her daughter by her assistants’ names. Her children slept in the nanny’s room and went to boarding school. She never attended a single sports day.
Perhaps that’s a function of the changing times (flash to those news stories about Cameron and Clegg as involved dads). We tend to look back with our current set of values and judge the past (missing a child’s sporting event? Impossible!). It’s standard to examine “the real person” behind the controversial public figure. Yet criticizing Thatcher the Mother is, when you think about it, a strange way for critics to stick the knife in. Not only was she a divisive political figure, they seem to be saying, but she failed at home as well!
How different Thatcher was from the vision we have today of the highflying working woman or politician. We’ve all read the profiles of these high-powered women: they rise before dawn, exercise and email before breakfast, work like demons all day but always make it home for dinner or bedtime stories. Then it’s back to the computer until bedtime. It’s agreed and accepted that children are a top priority, shoehorned in between work, work and more work.
When I read these stories I think “I could keep that up for a week or two, but I couldn’t live that way permanently”. When is the time for thoughtful repose? Time to spend with husband or lover? Time to call your mother or watch Mad Men?
In that way, I actually take comfort in the stories about Thatcher’s aloof parenting and shortcomings at home. It acknowledges a truth that we don’t like to admit to ourselves: there is only so much of us to go around. Of course women and mothers can get to the “top”, whether that’s in the political, corporate or creative world, all other things being equal. Of course all other things aren’t equal, but that’s a whole other story. But something’s got to give. You can’t be everywhere at once. You can’t create more hours in the day.
She was a remarkable prime minister, and remade the UK at a pivotal time in its history. Despite the divisions she caused in the UK – many of which are still abundantly apparent almost a quarter of a century after her resignation – she was widely respected overseas. In the UK, the mother stick is still used to beat her.
Perhaps Thatcher was just pragmatic enough to recognize that if you’re busting the unions, engaging in a war in the Falklands, and dismantling the welfare state, it doesn’t leave much time for reading bedtime stories every night. Perhaps she was simply a product of her generation, when leaving all the childrearing to nannies and boarding schools was perfectly acceptable.
Women and men both make sacrifices for fulfilling high profile, responsibility-laden roles. We’re in the process of examining how our institutions should accommodate family life. But let’s stop pretending that all you need to be the perfect politician, CEO, innovator, spouse and parent is a bit of grit and an alarm clock set to go off at 4am.
By all means, let’s debate the effect of Thatcher’s leadership. But I’d rather talk about what she did as a prime minister than as a mother.