Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is often hotly debated. But in addition to concerns about how she handled national and international issues is another intriguing question: Was she a good mother?
The actions of a good mother?
It’s said Thatcher occasionally called her daughter Carol by her assistants’ names. Carol and her twin brother Mark slept in the nanny’s room and went to boarding school from very young ages. Their mother never attended a single sports day. Mark heated up his own frozen dinners from age 7. According to some sources, Thatcher even had a favourite child (Mark). For some people this alone could be considered a mark of bad parenting. I can’t think of a single parent who would even entertain the notion.
How good of a parent does a PM need to be?
Of course, a PM has a lot of things on their mind — you could say ensuring a future for the entire country’s children — so it’s understandable and even selfless for them to focus on their job.
Our attitudes about how good a parent that our Prime Minster needs to be is a function of the changing times. David Cameron was lauded for being an involved dad as was Nick Clegg, while some newspapers have joked that Boris Johnson doesn’t even know how many children he has.
We naturally tend to look back and judge the parents of the past with our current set of values (missing a child’s sporting event? How callous!). With important figures, we are often desperate to examine and unearth ‘the real person’ behind the public image.
Yet criticising 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! Amid all the other issues that people have with her, it appears there’s something particularly reprehensible about a cold mother or one who plays favourites.
The modern version vs the Thatcher mother
How different Thatcher was from the highflying working women or female politicians of today (or at least our image of them). We’ve all read 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. They love their children equally. 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?
How to appreciate Thatcher the bad mother
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. (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.
Should we care if Margaret Thatcher was a ‘bad parent’?
A mother who sends her children away to school and has them get their own suppers while she runs the country: Are these the actions of a mother who doesn’t care or a mother who recognises her own boundaries?
Admitting that she has a favourite child — whether that occurred simply in the fictional world of The Crown or in real life — is highly controversial. But does simply feeling that way mark Thatcher out as a terrible mother?
If it were true, is it brutal honesty, simply articulating something that was evident to Thatcher…and to her children? Could we call it — even — bold?
Margaret Thatcher’s legacy
She was a remarkable prime minister who remade the UK at a pivotal time in its history. She caused deep divisions in the UK – many of which are still abundantly apparent almost a quarter of a century after her resignation – yet she was widely respected overseas.
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. 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 being the perfect working parent is easy or even achievable. That all they need is a bit of grit and an alarm clock set to go off at 4am, right?