Earlier tonight I had the urge to break with my self-imposed tradition of posts on here and write a recipe instead. I was thrilling with smuggery at my favourite Lazy Soup, and wanted to share what I think is a thoroughly sensible way of making something out of not very much.
Because that’s what we parents do, isn’t it? We find ways to do three things in the time it should really take to do two, or even just one. If we’re mothers, we’re told that we should be proud of our ability to “multitask”, even that it is rooted in our ancestral habits of keeping cave babies alive in a hostile environment. I think the truth is probably more prosaic: when you have to get on with something, you generally do, especially when you know that there isn’t likely to be an indulgent smile and pair of hands to pick up if you fall.
So, Lazy Soup. I do this when the oven is on anyway, preferably to roast a chicken. If I have time, I’ll even make some buns too, though whether that earns me points for fuel efficiency or loses me them for feeding my children cake, I’m not sure. I’ll put whatever veg I have to hand, peeled, but whole (unless it’s butternut squash, in which case it’s unpeeled, but halved) in to a tray, cover with oil, and let it roast for as long as it can.
It’s the perfect example of multitasking (or an effective use of time, whichever expression you prefer). The energy’s being spent anyway; the chicken and the veg (and the buns, if I’ve made them) don’t interfere with each other at all. They can co-exist quite happily. Of course, if I’m making Yorkshires, then the oven is overfull and the Lazy Soup doesn’t happen. Even the very best efficiency can only carry you to the bounds of the possible.
When I’m indulging in a little mama-drama, I like to say that I sometimes have to be in three places at once, but of course I never am – though, on occasion, it feels like it. Today, though, I learn that even there I might just not be trying hard enough. Michael Gove and Sir Michael Wilshaw have both, separately, indicated a strong desire to see financial penalties imposed on “bad” parents: “bad”, in this context, meaning those who don’t ensure that their children do their homework, fail to read with their children or miss parents’ evenings. Liz Truss, meanwhile, in her tireless support for the working parent, exhorts them to demand of their children’s schools that they “work better with modern life”: by which she apparently means providing ten hours of childcare daily and accepting two year olds.
Giving all three the credit of having children’s best interests at heart, I still have qualms about the practicality of their proposals. How does one unpick the delicate knot of determining shan’t from can’t, don’t from won’t? How ensure that the lazy parent of a diligent, compliant or, frankly, unfairly bright child doesn’t receive plaudits while the exhausted mother or father battling in vain against a myriad of difficult circumstances to engage their offspring is penalised? The sheer mechanics of fining are, surely, unworkable – unless you assume, as plenty of other people have done, that this is an income-based problem (how else to make sense of the suggestion that the fine be deducted at source from the now means-tested Child Benefit?) What, really, would be the ultimate advantage to a child of depriving the household of a part of its budget which, no matter how much you claim to believe the contrary, is unlikely to have been sufficient in the first place?
Worst of all, though, is the assumption that there is an enormous group of unmotivated feckless parents, prioritising Foxy Bingo and a can of Strongbow (because, again, I can’t help assume that those of us glued to Twitter and with a penchant for cold white wine aren’t seen as being a policy-worthy problem) over spending quality time with their children. The blanket report of “lazy”, rather than an acknowledgement of the tremendous, and often unbearable, problems which many parents are expected to absorb as if they don’t have an impact on every bit of daily life. Lazy? Or just trodden down with worry, financial pressure and a punitive employment market?
As for the school-as-childcare proposal: it would undoubtedly help working parents if proper wraparound provision was available on school sites. But this should not be in the form of an extended school day. It should not be made up exclusively of added-value activities, although the prospect of the new two and three year old pupils enthusiastically joining in the suggested debating clubs or orchestras is appealing. Of course these have a place (minus the toddlers), but so too does the chance to do homework and – especially for younger children – to be quiet, to relax, to have time with an adult. How refreshing, how radical, how truly family-friendly it would have been if Liz Truss had encouraged parents instead to feel confident in demanding more understanding and flexibility from their employers, rather than confirming that the demands of the workplace should prevail.
The real problem with today’s proposals, though, is that they are mutually exclusive. Parents can’t, or rather, shouldn’t be expected to, work the hours which a ten-hour school day requires, and travel to and from their work, and take and collect their children and then still be able to sit down and supervise homework or read a half-dozen pages of Biff and Chip. Let alone be able to do the really important bit of parenting: the talking; the listening; the playing; the inconsequential, vital nonsense. Helping working parents shouldn’t be seen exclusively as a matter of removing their children from the equation. Families deserve better than that.
The beauty of Lazy Soup is that you can adapt it to your own timescale. Once the vegetables have cooled down, I leave them in the fridge till we’ve finished the chicken and I’ve boiled the bones for stock. Then, feeling like a small town domestic goddess, I pile the lot into the slow cooker and leave it turn into something delicious for dinner. My favourite bit is that the butternut squash, so fiddly and time-consuming to prepare when raw, falls obediently and effortlessly out of its skin in seconds.
Some things, after all, don’t need a huge amount of input or expensive ingredients.
They just need time and space.