Wednesday, 27 November 2013

I know why she bothers

I Don't Know Why She Bothers has just been published by Daisy Waugh, to join the Mummybook pile. I read it at a couple of sittings, like a bag of sweets in front of Strictly Come Dancing. Nice to gobble, but not particularly nourishing.

I Don't Know Why She Bothers, to be fair, wasn't intended to be a heavy read — its whole raisin d'être is that time is precious, and shouldn't be wasted agonising about one's children. Loving them, yes, but not agonising pointlessly about them.

It's meant as an antidote — the cure of laughing at one's self — to killjoys, health and safety mongers, self-appointed experts, meddlers and misogynists. It's a joy manifesto.

So far so good, I applaud mightily the motivation to write this book. It's important — so important, in fact, that I have been thinking about the same issues for a decade. It's not that Daisy Waugh is wrong — it's that she doesn't go nearly far enough.

The book purports to be motivated by a lunch she attended with a bunch of pompous men, who talked contemptuously about single mothers and how terrible they are, and how they need to be punished. Waugh quite rightly called them out — which among them had ever done more than change a bit of a nappy, she asked them. They simply didn't know what they were talking about.

So she set out to put them right, and to celebrate motherhood in all its messy, hardworking glory. Wonderful, and much-needed.

Except… that isn't the book she's written. The main wellspring of her book is not to celebrate motherhood (or to out the pomposity of men), but to mount a dance of the veiled attack on stay-at-home mothers. The grit in her pearl of maternal happiness is that "they" (all of them?) make it harder for working mothers, by coming up with fatuous child-related activities and then making them insidiously compulsory, through school playground competitiveness, idiotically expensive parties, the importation of American ideas on 'playdates' and 'sleepovers', Motherloaded bitchy comments, and round robin emails that exclude as many as they include.

The author mounts this accusation despite the fact that, as a writer, she must herself be a stay-at-home mother. Or at least a work-from-home mother, for whom the availability boundaries get blurred, a well-known hazard for female writers of childbearing age who aren't Virginia Woolf.

So isn't her attack basically a result of feeling guilty herself? But why would she feel guilty if her defence of joyful working motherhood is true? I wish her book had analysed this incredible form of recessive guilt, which really does afflict women, who are culturally programmed to turn anxiety inwards upon themselves. The lady doth protest too much.

Let me make clear that I am not launching a counterattack of my own on the author — that would be too facile. Mainly because I'm in exactly the same position as she is and so she has my sympathy. I'm just asking a question that her argument begs:

why do women struggle so much with self-imposed guilt? 

In part Daisy Waugh is simply punching a hole into the smug, class-ridden, holier-than-thou views of the affluent, and this definitely needs to be done. However, she is also biting the hand that feeds her — she clearly moves among such people herself, and could choose to live otherwise, and otherwhere.

What's missing for me is that, in her bid to scribble a witty rant, she overlooks the really serious question of the nature of care — what does it mean to care for others, in a competitive, capitalist society? What is the best model of self to mobilise to remain open and empathetic, without being exploited, downtrodden, controlling, suffocating, narrowminded or resentful? Are carers equipped with such a model of self?

The answer, of course, is a resounding NO. Girls and young women (society's future carers, let's not beat about the bush) are, if they are academic, consistently educated away from nurturing, towards 'aspiration', and for very good reasons — they live in a world in which they MUST be economically self-sufficient, precisely because marriage is no longer the only option open to them, and precisely because the caring professions are so poorly remunerated, mothers being paid "child benefit", and that's it, for all the work they do. I wouldn't want that hideous patriarchal world back, not in its Jane Austen form — I'd be in a workhouse by now.

But we should acknowledge that we are currently living with the broken remains of this terrible social model — now women, so the received wisdom goes, have to work AND get married (still apparently preferable to shacking up) in order to have successful lives.

So, not only are the females in our so-called emancipated society trained to crush all maternal feeling throughout childhood and puberty, they are then expected to work as hard as men, for less money, in order to have any hope at all of entering the rigged housing market, and then bear children, provide 80-100% of the care for those children, fund any paid childcare out of taxed income, continue to pay for the crippling mortgage (which is effectively the repository of the UK inflation problem) and be at the beck and call of all of society's institutions, notably the education and health industries.

That's leaving aside the question of sex and shopping.

That's what I Don't Know Why She Bothers should have argued.

There is such a massive publishing glut of Motherpublishing, that it is tempting just to shove I Don't Know Why She Bothers back into its box as facile pap. This, however, would be wrong. Daisy Waugh's book has done women a favour, by brokering a debate, and in that sense it's a trailblazer, an avant-garde vision. Others need to follow, though, and break through this appalling partition of women's estate. 

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