A great PM, but an "awful" mother?

Apr 21, 2013, 05:04 IST | Alice Thomson

Last year, my son was at football practice when an old woman came to sit on the bench in the sun and watch them.

Last year, my son was at football practice when an old woman came to sit on the bench in the sun and watch them. “At first I thought she was Meryl Streep from the film,” he told me when he came home from school that day, “but then I realised it was the real Margaret Thatcher.’’ At half time, he had gone up to her to say hello and to explain that she should be watching the A team “not our D team as we’re all terrible”. Thatcher had smiled and said to him, “I never came to watch you enough, dear”.

Margaret Thatcher with her husband Denis (1915-2003) and their children Carol and Mark on the occasion of her Silver Wedding anniversary on December 13, 1976. PIC/Central Press/Getty Images

Bad mother—that’s the one epitaph everyone agrees on when talking about Margaret Thatcher. She may have been the first British female Prime Minister, poached an egg for her husband every day for breakfast and had Mitterand, Gorbachev and Reagan for lunch, but she wasn’t there for tea or her children’s football matches.

As soon as they were born in 1953 they slept in the nanny’s room. From the age of 6, when their mother became an MP, the twins had to fit into her hectic schedule and they went to boarding school aged 8 and 9—Carol says that neither parent came to watch her win a prize on sports day. No wonder she ended up on I’m A Celebrity... and Mark allegedly became involved in a coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea. Both of them were abroad when their mother died, alone, in her suite at the Ritz. That’s understandable. Carol says that she talked to the Downing Street secretaries more often than her mother. Mark was unthawing his own frozen suppers when he was 7.

Thatcher once told an interviewer: “Home is where you go when you have nowhere else to go.” That’s pretty tough for a child to hear their mother say. Jonathan Aitken, who went out with Carol, agrees that the Thatcher home was not a particularly cosy environment, despite the pictures of Margaret pruning the roses or playing the piano and Denis mowing the lawn. “Hugs, cuddles and kisses never seemed to be on the agenda,” he says. “They just weren’t tactile.” According to Aitken, Carol once shouted at her mother: “Lady Thatcher, you were a great prime minister but you are an awful mother.”

But Thatcher was no heartless witch who snatched bairns’ milk and went out of her way to ruin the twins’ lives. She actually had a great deal of time for children. She stopped wearing a hat partly because she thought it frightened toddlers when she bent down to talk to them. As a guest at the press gallery children’s Christmas party one year, she was the first to notice a small boy crying into his pudding. “They’ve given me blancmange and I don’t like blancmange,” he sobbed. “That is what parties are all about, eating food you don’t like,” she said, before kindly whisking it away and replacing it.

Aitken admits she once changed a vote as Opposition leader to ensure that he—as an MP—could go on a skiing holiday with her daughter. After Mark was lost in the desert during the Paris-Dakar rally in 1982, she “fell apart”, according to her press secretary, Sir Bernard Ingham. She not only paid £1,800 towards his rescue fee, but also his bar bill in Algeria for the celebrations, rather than telling him off. She could be too indulgent, particularly to her son; she obviously felt the same guilt as every other mother, only hers was compounded by the knowledge that it was hard to live in her Spitting Image shadow.

In many ways, the twins were lucky. In their early twenties they had free accommodation at Downing Street and Chequers, with its indoor swimming pool. Thatcher didn’t even have an inside toilet growing up. Mark used his mother’s connections to become a multimillionaire businessman, Carol became a TV personality and wrote books about her parents before retiring to Klosters in Switzerland.

What they lacked was time with their mother. Princess Anne once summed it up, saying: “Certainly as far as we were concerned, we were definitely not the lead item in the establishment.” It’s painful to understand this even when you are an heir to the throne, but it’s right. In the 1950s, in particular, when both women were beginning to make their mark, they had to prove themselves as leaders of men as well as mothers to the nation.

Thatcher admired stay-at-home mums. “To be a mother and housewife is a vocation of a very high kind,” she said. “But I simply felt it was not the whole of my vocation. I knew that I also wanted a career.” To be taken seriously, she told Shirley Williams in the 1960s, you had to work twice as hard as your male colleagues. So she sat ramrod straight on the green baize benches past midnight and knew everything there was to know about pension policies.

Now mothers can often balance their jobs to have flexibility, go to sports days, nativity plays and help with homework—and they should. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, talks about “leaning in” so you can both push on at work and relax with your children after school. But as the prime minister or monarch, you’re still different. Everyone is leaning on you, you can’t keep disappearing or everything could topple over. Both women realised this. It’s the same for men. Clementine Churchill once told her husband that he had to reach the top now that he had given up so much of his family life. But she understood that leading the country was more important than being involved in her domestic routine.

Thatcher tried to make it up in her final years when as Charles Moore, her biographer, suggests, she became gentler. But when Carol was asked why Mark’s children didn’t see their grandmother more often, and she rarely visited for Christmas, she replied tersely: “A mother cannot reasonably expect her grown-up children to boomerang back, gushing cosiness, and make up for lost time. Absentee mum, then gran in overdrive, is not an equation that balances.”  

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