Barrister Francesca Conn ponders motherhood v work and that divisive phrase much loved by family courts ‘good enough parenting’
I’m “another one of those” who assumed that by the end of maternity leave I’d have the first draft of a novel completed, and/or a mumpreneur business up and running…But alas, alongside raising my (now toothy and mobile) son, to date, I’ve failed to forge a lucrative exit-plan from the legal aid Bar.
Over a year into my “break” and now living in another country, I’m only just emerging from the perma-fog of broken nights with a clear enough head to begin to take stock. Switching on the computer, without its wire being immediately pulled out of the socket by my son, is a luxury reserved for the evening. And so, here I find myself with a few minutes to reflect on the experience so far.
Certainly becoming a mum has given me a new perspective on my job as a childcare barrister. I feel I’ve lost my old sense of detachment. If I had a care case tomorrow I’d be liable to imagine the subject children in a real way. “Secure attachment” is no longer just a stock phrase to pepper my legal submissions with, because I now know what that looks and feels like.
Figuring out and implementing my baby’s nap schedule has taken a lot of thought, and patience. Pureeing, mashing and batch-freezing food for weaning is another labour of love. Neither of these tasks can I imagine (m)any care-system parents turning their minds to, so I’ll add “sleep deprived” and “likely malnourished” to a mental list of concerns for babies being raised in neglectful or “good enough” homes.
The legal standard of “good enough parenting” is a central tenet of the family justice system; there is huge chasm between that standard and what I would accept for my son, or indeed any child I knew personally and cared about.
Feeling that way doesn’t mean that returning to my job seems impossible or untenable. I Would be able to reassume the role: to carry out my professional duty of doing my utmost, putting forward a forceful case that the parent should be allowed to keep the child at home, buoyed by the exhilaration of picking holes in the counter arguments, challenging hostile witnesses, feeding on the adrenalin of the court battle, wanting to win…
But I do now have heightened sympathy for the social workers who have to give the court their opinion as to how much better or worse a childhood in care could be than the so-called “good enough” parenting at home. And ultimately it’s the Judge, the decision-maker, not me the barrister, who must lie awake at night wondering whether what he/she deemed “good enough” was in fact woefully inadequate, or worse still, seriously harmful.
What about swapping briefs and bundles for the nappy bag, and court hearings for Monkey Music classes – has it been mentally stultifying?, am I itching to get back on the 07:58 train to Chatham, the hotbed of juicy care cases?
Well I’ll spare you the mush about how rewarding it’s been to witness, and play my part in the astonishing journey of baby’s life so far. But I will say that I’ve also been having a jolly nice time.
I’ve walked my Bugaboo, miles and miles, up and down hills, across the Heath, day in day out and it’s been lovely. I’ve really enjoyed the company of a fantastic and fantastically supportive, group of women, none of whom I knew this time last year. We’re all first-time mums but that hasn’t subsumed our former identities; we don’t just talk about sleep, lack of sleep and poo. Thanks to the inordinate delay in payment for cases from the Legal Aid Board, I’m still enjoying a daily coffee and cake out.
Over all, it’s the slow pace of life and absence of conflict that has made my break from the frantic, adversarial job as a barrister, so refreshing.