March of the Lawnmower Mums: Meet the mothers of grown up children who will mow down any obstacle in their path – but isn’t it time the little darlings fended for themselves?
Cherith Hateley is the sort of personal assistant anyone would want at their beck and call.
Whether it’s filling out forms, keeping the fridge stocked or helping to source soft furnishings for a new flat, she always has it covered.
But Cherith is not the right-hand woman to a high-flying CEO or a celebrity.
Instead she has ploughed her executive skills into making sure the university lives of her three twentysomething children, Connie, Edward and Thomas, have run as smoothly as possible, even if that meant overseeing the defrosting of their freezers or sorting out the wi-fi at their student digs.
Lawnmower mother: Smoothing the way: Cherith Hateley, from Dulwich, south London, with her 23-year-old son Edward
Cherith, 54, the director of a tech-tutorial company, happily admits to being one of a new breed of parents.
We’ve had Tigers who pushed and Helicopters who hovered.
But by her own admission, Cherith is a ‘lawnmower’ parent who aims to mow down even the most trivial day-to-day inconveniences, in order to smooth the path ahead for her offspring.
Of course, every loving parent feels it is their duty to make life easier for their child.
But the term is gaining currency with teachers who are noticing the extreme lengths today’s parents go to spare their children the most minor inconvenience.
For Cherith, her self-sacrifice has been worth it so that her children could concentrate on their courses without worrying about petty tasks, such as defrosting an ice-packed fridge or not having enough cutlery in the kitchen drawer.
Other mothers busy themselves with checking the fire extinguishers at university halls to ensure their child’s safety, driving five-hour round trips to sort out contracts for their rental accommodation and even applying for jobs on their children’s behalf.
Cherith believes the mounting stress facing today’s young, from increased academic pressure to student loans, means parents are duty-bound to help out for longer, rather than let them work it out for themselves.
Mowing down obstacles: Nicola Maasdam with her son, first-year football-management student Dan
‘Life’s a jungle out there’, says Cherith from Dulwich, South London. ‘So of course we need to be lawnmowers.’
The trend has recently come to light after a teacher described how she was called out of her classroom to collect something from a pupil’s father.
At reception, she found the dad with a fashionable, insulated water bottle.
He sheepishly explained he was delivering it because his teenage daughter had texted him to say she needed it, even though there were drinking water fountains at the school.
Cherith takes being a dutiful parent one step further. ‘I’m my children’s personal assistant when they need me to be,’ she says.
It means that, when her daughter Connie, now 24, turned up to find the rented student house for her second-year accommodation at Bristol University was a squalid tip, Cherith filmed the conditions and took to YouTube to expose the conditions on her behalf.
Cherith then spent two days helping Connie redecorate and get the dishwasher working.
When, a few years ago, her son Edward, now 23, encountered difficulties filling in visa forms to get a job as a tennis coach with Camp America, Cherith gave up a day of work to complete it for him.
And when her youngest son Tom, 20, a maths student at Manchester University, was short of cookware and chairs at his student flat, she spent several hundred pounds at Ikea to fix the problem.
One mother spent two days helping her daughter redecorate her flat and fix the dishwasher. File photo
Cherith says: ‘I won’t go for two hours on the first day of term and just dump all their stuff. I will go for two nights and three days, stay in a hotel and work like a dog to get them settled and comfortable.’
So why didn’t her children already know how to deal with the practicalities of life?
Cherith says: ‘We were lucky enough to be able to afford a cleaner, so there would have been no point me helping to get the equivalent of their Girl Guide badge in toilet cleaning, as we had someone to do that.’
Instead she says she wanted to devote her time to make sure her children were emotionally happy.
‘I don’t think it would have been fair to cut them off at 18 and say, ‘Good Luck. See you later.” ’
Cherith’s children are certainly not alone in dodging some of life’s more mundane tasks.
Two weeks ago, 18-year-old, 6ft 5in Dan Maasdam moved into his first student house in Manchester where he is studying for a degree in football management.
Despite his achievements, Dan’s mother Nicola felt she had to step in to organise his day-to-day life.
Two weeks before he moved, Nicola, 48, made a five-hour round trip from her home in Grimsby to visit his lettings agents and check the contract.
On the day he moved in, Nicola did everything from making her son’s bed, to filling his fridge.
She also showed him how to use the washing machine and checked the safety expiration dates on the fire extinguishers.
Before she left, Nicola renewed his bus and train passes and gave him strict instructions not to accept lifts from anyone with less than a year’s experience behind the wheel.
‘I don’t want Dan to hit obstacles if they’re silly little things I can move out of the way for him,’ she says. ‘My attitude is, “Let’s just sort it” and save stress for him and me.’
It’s one of the paradoxes of parenting that the more we try to think ahead for our offspring to guarantee their success, the less able they are to stand on their own two feet.
One mother devoted her time to filling her son’s fridge with food and making his bed when he moved into a student house. File photo
Last week it was reported that parent-teacher email and the rise of group messaging apps such as WhatsApp have opened the door for an avalanche of fussing and fretting from parents.
According to one London-based headteacher, these include requests for children only to drink bottled rather than tap water, or to stay indoors at break-time if it’s too cold outside.
Universities report that, by the time these children reach 18, they arrive on degree courses academically over-qualified yet under-equipped to deal with practicalities: while they may understand particle physics in the lecture theatre, they don’t know how to apply it when boiling eggs in their kitchens.
Mother Emma Bradley has also gone to great lengths to make sure her 18-year-old daughter Chloe’s time at Plymouth University is bump-free.
Before Chloe left home last month to study criminology, Emma, from Gloucester, set up a student bank account for her daughter and signed her up to a range of money-saving apps.
Emma, 42, was surprised to see fairy lights on the list of ‘essentials’ sent out by the university to Chloe.
But she duly obliged, taking her daughter on shopping trips to kit her student room out with soft furnishings and fluffy cushions in her favourite colours of black, grey and white.
Emma says: ‘Once we were at Chloe’s halls, we got her wi-fi, printer and new smoothie-maker up and running and stocked up the fridge. It was like an episode of Changing Rooms.’
Looking back, Emma says it’s a far cry from her own student experience, in which she lived in Young Ones-style accommodation with no central heating.
‘In those days, you’d take a couple of old towels out of the airing cupboard and a few odd plates to university and that was it.’
Chloe FaceTimes her mum for help up to five times a week, even getting cooking instructions in real time as she makes dinner.
Chloe says: ‘If I didn’t I’d have had to work it out myself. It’s easier to ask my mum.’
Worryingly, lawnmower parenting is even carrying on into the work place.
Corporations such as Google and LinkedIn have held ‘Take your parents to work’ days in an attempt to keep nosey parents from making regular visits.
Other employers report getting tweets from aggrieved parents after their children didn’t get the job they applied for.
So why are we keeping our sons and daughters in a state of suspended childhood?
Delaying the age we expect teenagers to take responsibility for their lives could be to blame.
A generation ago, you could leave full-time education at 16 and were expected to find work.
By 2015, youngsters in England had to stay in education until the age of 18. Not only were more of them encouraged to then go to university, but parents were also expected to pay. They also stayed involved to check their investment was paying off.
Catherine Halsall is another parent frustrated by her 15-year-old daughter Sofi’s reluctance to make her own way, so finds herself mowing obstacles out of the way to make her life easier.
Catherine 50, a beauty marketer from Peterborough, says: ‘Sofi has no idea what she wants to do when she leaves school.
Smothered: Fifteen-year-old Sofi Halsall with her mother Catherine Halsall, 50, a beauty marketer from Peterborough
‘So I bought a website address in her name so she could set up a blog and give make-up tutorials as she is so good at make-up. But she does nothing about it.’
Last year, Catherine secured Sofi a waitressing job in a cafe to help her get use to earning money.
After a few months, Sofi felt it was interfering with her lie-ins and social life and stopped going.
Catherine says: ‘Like this generation of parents, I’ve probably sheltered her too much. I worry what’s out there, whether she’s going to be abducted or have her drink spiked at a party.
‘I know she has got to make mistakes but I am scared of them being too costly emotionally.’
Janey Downshire, counsellor and co-author of support website Teenagers Translated, believes we need an urgent sea-change to produce the next generation of responsible, resilient adults.
She says: ‘As parents, we have to learn to start tying our hands behind our backs.
‘Parents tell me they feel they are being unsympathetic if they don’t make it all better for their children, but they can still be available.
‘It’s possible to say, “This isn’t my problem. This is yours. What do you think you should do?”
‘Leave them to get on with it and after a week ask, “How did it go?” ’
More than ever, it seems, the time has come to put the lawnmower back into our children’s hands.
But Janey says: ‘The first thing they would do is complain they don’t know how to switch it on in the first place.’