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the National Childbirth Trust and the class system

Books + Ideas, , , — June 2013

The National Childbirth Trust runs ante-natal classes for prospective parents, which midwives and friends all recommended to us, and we dutifully signed up for one. The classes themselves were vaguely useful, though I only made it to two of the five since Helen arrived early, but the big attraction is not the formal instruction but the chance to get to know a group of new parents with babies of the same age, living in the same area.

Random facts: Our group consists of nine women and their partners (all men) and with three sets of twins we have twelve children: two Dylans, Gabriel, Helen, Imogen, Leila, Lorian, Matilda, Maximilian, Rachel, Raphael, and Thomas. Three of the nine women had changed their names, at least formally, five of the other six couples used the mother's surname in their children's names, either hyphenated or as the last middle name. Twelve of us are actively on Facebook. There were a variety of medical problems with the births - Helen's wasn't the most complicated - but the result was twelve healthy infants.

Only one of the couples took advantage of the Additional Paternity Leave option of having the father take paternity leave in lieu of some of the mother's maternity leave.

All of us have professional jobs, maybe half of us with one or another university (Reading and Westminster feature as well as Oxford) and the others in medicine, publishing, programming and so forth. And it's a fairly international group, with another Australian couple as well as us and people with Portuguese and German backgrounds. But there are no Punjabis, no single mothers, no teenagers, and no blue-collar workers.

Our GP surgery had a notice about separate Asian mothers' groups, which may explain the segregation there, and the hospital runs free ante-natal classes (though so adroitly did the midwives direct us to the NCT classes that I missed the mention of these). Possibly what the £165 we paid for the course really provides is a filter to keep out undesirables... (At the other end, the parents who paid £500/night for private rooms in the hospital probably know each other already — see "Chipping Norton set".)

Our group is a great bunch of people and it certainly makes it easier that we all have similar kinds of backgrounds. But are we looking at the English class system replicating itself, with the NCT as an institutionalised structural component? Not all of us will establish longer-term relationships, obviously, but if we stay in Oxford it's likely that some of Helen's friends - and ours - will come from this group. (While most of the group are British, I don't think any of us are local to Oxford; with a sister a block away, I probably have the closest relatives of any of us.)

There's been some discussion about this in the media, but focused more on the Trust's emphasis on breast-feeding and natural birth (the NCT began life as the Natural Childbirth Trust) and role in the general performance pressure placed on parents, and especially mothers. The sociology seems just as interesting to me: obviously individuals are capable of producing segregation without channeling - even when it's unwanted, as the Schelling segregation model shows - but the social landscape they find themselves in makes some paths a lot easier to follow than others. It seems likely that if the NCT didn't exist and most people went to ante-natal classes run by the NHS or local authorities then there would be greater social mixing.

Note: I wrote a follow up to this post, two years later.


  1. I remember that Rory gleefully described NCT at the time when he and Emily joined something like this, "Everyone knows it's a way to pay a reasonable amount of money to meet other nice middle-class parents." He was only partly joking, and it certainly didn't dissuade them from joining -- but he was proably right. (BTW, we did the free antenatal class on a single Saturday, it was OK but certainly no replacement for the classes we had with the midwife). We never did NCT and it definitely meant feeling a bit left out in the early months of maternity leave, as everyone seemed to have their NCT group to hang out with -- but from the point of view of the information supplied, I think the individual classes we had were miles better (...and actually cheaper).

    Comment by Tanya — July 2013
  2. Yes, and it continues. When you are have no kids you get to choose your own friends but as your kids grow up you find that a lot of the friends that you spend time with are parents of your kids friends: family compatibility.

    There's also the whole school and sport thing driving this along. Just choosing a place to live pushes you into a demographic group, but when your kids go to school, you really are more or less forced to interact with that group.

    Our four girls have gone to state primary school then a private Quaker school here in Hobart. Having never had much to do with private schooling I probably didn't recognise this clearly initially, but it turns out that, in addition to purchasing a (mostly) higher quality education, it is actually also a way of purchasing a (mostly) higher quality peer group for your kids, and ipso facto, for yourself. The kids friends are less likely to have social problems, drug problems, etc, and more likely to be high achievers, get into better courses, end up in better occupations, are happier, smarter, and so on. One fundamental driver of the class system is the tendency of people to hang out with people they like and who are like them.

    Comment by Jim Birch — July 2013
  3. Tanya, pedagogically I'm sure you did much better with the personal lessons. The NCT classes - at least the ones I made it too - were just talking with no practical component, which is not really my approach to learning. (But then I look through e.g. Continuing Education course lists and think "why would I pay all that money to listen to someone talk about X for ten hours when using the same time and a quarter the amount of money I could buy two really nice books on the subject and read them?")

    Comment by danny — July 2013
  4. In Newcastle, where we lived on the extreme fringe of an area in the process of gentrification, we attended free ante-natal classes in the notorious Byker suburb. No one suggested fee-paying NCT classes. There were separate ante-natal classes for teenage mothers, to encourage bonding in age bands, no doubt. The local midwife who did check-ups with me was so rough I used to dread them, so it was fortunate that very few were on offer. I can't say that the process led to any particular social integration on my part.

    Comment by Jenny — July 2013
  5. At least you made it to two classes. I only made it to one before Ali arrived early via section.

    After the one class I was left only this vague notion that natural childbirth has something to do with beanbags.

    Looking ahead, yes, you will probably find that you end up knowing a lot of other parents from nursery and primary school. Secondary school tends to be more anonymous, since the kids are making their own way there. Keep watching the sociology.

    Comment by Jim Hague — July 2013
  6. Maybe we can imagine having a couple of single teenage mums in our NCT group, but would they enjoy the experience any more than we'd enjoy being the token middle-class parents in a group of poor working class parents? We really do have all the requirements for Schelling segregation (where everyone prefers mixed groups to unmixed ones, but is averse to being in a minority).

    Comment by danny — July 2013
  7. Hi Danny,

    You write "Three of the nine women had changed their names, at least formally, five of the other six couples used the mother's surname in their children's names, either hyphenated or as the last middle name." I'm surprised, quite pleasantly, to read this. I thought this was just a Scandinavian trend, here in Sweden the "given names" are all entered in the same field, so what we would generally call middle names go in there, and "middle name" is actually reerved for the mother's name, should they choose. Otherwise, the assumption is that the child has the mother's surname, where she has not changed her name. In spain it is culturally normal for women to keep their names and the two last names for the children is very common as I understand.

    Very nice to have a peer group before the birth ... we were allocated a group by the Child-care centre (where you go for checkups) and that has been great, but that did not start till a couple of months in at least. By the nature of demographic accessibility of the area I live in, we are a less than mixed group - all white, just myself and a spanish/swedish mother for any ethnic frisson ;-) and solidly middle class. It has been a fabulous support though, and it's really fun to know a people in the area at last. I have to admit that I m glad of the demographic bias, for shared experience and not feeling so appallingly aged by comparison with too many young mothers....

    Oh dear! I followed one of your links and very nearly got lost in dailytelegraphland ...

    Comment by Jarnot — August 2013
  8. Ah, yes, the links to the DT should probably come with a health warning, sorry. But, compared to the tendentious drivel in the Australian, the DT and the Times seem positively intelligent, even-handed and sane.

    Update: in the eight years following this, the DT has lost the plot completely and given up any pretence to be a serious newspaper.

    Comment by danny — August 2013

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