Wednesday, 14 April 2010

That Article in the Observer

Over the past few weeks I have been astonished at the number of people who have referred me to an article by journalist and writer Lucy Cavendish, which appeared at the end of March 2010 in the Observer.

I read it with interest the first time it was mentioned, but felt that it was all old news, that we all know the story of the 'Mummy Wars', the stay-at-homes v. the working mums, the power of Mumsnet, and the playground antagonism. I wasn't sure what the article contributed to the debate, or how it took the debate forward, other than to re-present the normalizing perspective of the self-confessed 'Slacker Mum', speaking from the position of non-hothouser, non-combatant, mild-mannered raiser of kids. This, it seemed to me, was a very appealing position to take (supine), which was bound to solicit a lot of empathy, sympathy, and further first-person accounts of unwarranted sniping by mothers on mothers.

Except that it didn't: the comments at the foot of Cavendish's article were just as astonishing as the number of people who told me about it. The 109 comments she has received for her 'Mummy Wars' piece are, in the main, vitriolic. Most of them occupy the "get a life" terrain, in which the very existence of the 'Mummy Wars' is dismissed as further middle class/media self-indulgence. Others berate her for suggesting that women still do not earn as much as men. Very few sympathize with her or extend the argument.

The sheer number of comments made me think again. Clearly the article touched a nerve or it would have sunk without trace. So many people recommended it to me, in part because they know I'm writing a book about motherhood, but mainly because it touched a nerve for them too. In fact these are the same people who say, laying a hand on my arm, "what a timely book you're doing! I really want to read it!"

But what do they want me to say? All Lucy Cavendish does is point once again at the persistence of tensions between groups of mothers, and she ends with the entirely reasonable notion that what matters is loving our children. She cites a number of experts — sociologists and psychologists — who talk about the lowered self-esteem of mothers, and about how extended family support for parenting has withered. But she doesn't conclude about any of them — really we are left thinking that the only option is to muddle through, and wonder what on earth it was all about.

It seems to me that there is no external frame to the discussion. We have millions of mothers and fathers bobbing about in the sea of society, with their self-help books or their accounts with the Early Learning Centre, wondering whether the childless Gina Ford can really have much to tell them about 4am sobbing. We have vitriol, and playground bullying -- between mothers. We have Mumsnet with its "Am I Being Unreasonable…?" (well, yes you probably are if you start a sentence this way… it's the same as saying "With all due respect").

But we have no limit to the discussion, no framework within which to understand it. The only thing that most people cling to is the grossly misleading idea of 'stay-at-home v. working mothers'. This is a polarizing opposition which denies the enormous spectrum of choices that real people actually make, and reduces that set of choices to two, regardless of the age of the children, the family's needs, the woman's needs, and the children's characters.

The opposition 'stay at home v. working' is just another version of the Victorian opposition imposed on women, between the angel and the whore: in Victorian England women were expected to be either one or the other, but simultaneously, and impossibly, they were also expected to be both: the tart with a heart and the temptress in the middle class boudoir. How confusing is that? We still idealize and denigrate femininity and motherhood at one and the same time, with a similar paradox. Of course women cannot be all things to all people all of the time, but it's incredibly convenient to send them the message that they ought to be.

And there is also the question of fathers. There is a whole generation of men trying very, very hard to overcome their own upbringing, to be better fathers than their own were, while continuing to forge careers. The guilt that many men feel is at least as great as the guilt most women feel. But we continue to gender guilt as though it were somehow inherently a feminine emotion.

But having argued that there is no external frame to the 'Mummy Wars' debate, it is equally hard to construct one. Is this an ideological impasse? Is this the way things are, have ever been, from Clytemnestra and Medea onwards? Is the frame really the stand-off between feminism and capitalism? If you read a novelist like Houellebecq, he will assert that the existentialists of the postwar period are the rich capitalist babyboomers of the current age. Perhaps it is the same with feminism: the legacy of yesteryear's idealism is a generation of totally overworked and underpaid women trying to 'have it all' between shifting goalposts?

'-Isms', however, are made up of people and their choices. We do not solve, only reify, problems when we pack them up as neat '-isms'. No one is exempt from the workings of ideology, but we do all experience it differently. Even if it's true to say that motherhood today is an over-egged pudding, we will still go on raising children, somehow.

Which brings me back to Lucy Cavendish: she seems to have poked a stick into the ants' nest and stirred it all up again. Motherhood is political, it's official: just look at the Conservatives' ad campaign, with its images of women who say they have never voted Tory before now (while looking extraordinarily Middle England). But let's remind ourselves that 'motherhood' is as much a construction serving other people's interests as it is a natural, biological, essential drive in the human female.

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