Monthly Archives: March 2017

Happy Mothers’ Day?

I was about halfway through writing Hush Little Baby when I realised I was writing a book about mothers. It’s about lots of other things – family dynamics, secrets, societal pressure on today’s teens – but in its pages, mothers – flawed mothers – abound. Not just the main character, Sally, fighting to win back her baby from social services, but also her own mother, hypercritical and distant; her mother-in-law, judgmental and controlling; and the ‘first wife’ Zoe, too inconsistent and self-absorbed to properly parent her troubled daughter.

I hadn’t realised how much I had to say on the subject, but I had long been aware of the strange dichotomy in society’s attitude towards mothers, even before I became one myself. Mums are simultaneously fetishized and demonized. The gender gap, while it might be narrowing in some places, is alive and well in parenting. A ‘bad’ mother is extra vilified precisely because she’s a woman, while men get brownie points for even basic parenting. How many times have you heard ‘He’s so good with the kids,’ offered out as a kind of awestruck gong when a dad has taken his offspring to the park, or changed a nappy, or helped with the homework? My response has always been ‘Well he should be, right? They’re his kids.’ And yet nobody ever says it about a mum, because, well, she just ought to be good at it; and if she isn’t, she’s a freak. Similarly, I have lost count of the number of (otherwise seemingly well-adjusted) men I have heard refer to looking after their own children as ‘babysitting’. My stock reply is ‘The word you’re looking for is parenting,’ and they laugh, but I don’t. Because I’ve never heard a mother say, ‘I can’t come out tonight, I’m babysitting.’

Oh, I know, it stems from the days when men went out to work and women ran the household, and children were to be washed and presented to their daddies at the end of the day, along with his slippers, a large scotch and a perfectly coiffed wife. But come on, we’ve moved on, and the parent narrative needs to, too.

But if the misogynist message is insidious, it’s nothing to the pressure we women put on each other. It starts even before your baby is born; you join the NCT and competitive mothering begins (so subtly that you hardly notice it – you’re mainly there to make friends, after all, because you’re pretty sure your workmates won’t want to know you when you can’t drink Sambuca and dance on tables any more and all you can talk about is sleep and poo). You’re sold the ideas of a perfect birth – one that you can actually write a plan for, ho ho ho – and blissful breastfeeding, and these are served up to you by other women, mainly (alongside my other personal favourites ‘You’ll love your baby as soon as you see him’ and ‘Oh, you’ll just know what to do when it’s your own’). And when these things don’t happen in actual real life, it begins: you start to get tipsy on the heady cocktail of guilt, anxiety and, if not exactly failure, then not-quite-good-enough-itis. Fast forward a few years, and it’s bake sales and bloody Easter bonnets, and offspring who demand to know ‘why there isn’t a Child’s Day’, to which you smile even though you are screaming inside: ‘BECAUSE EVERY DAY IS CHILD’S DAY, YOU UNGRATEFUL LITTLE SH*T!’

Oh dear – just me? At any rate, this leads me to acknowledge what I see as a backlash against the ‘perfect mom’ fetish: the comedy parenting blogs / books. Pages like ‘The Unmumsy Mum’ and ‘Hurrah for Gin’ lampoon the ‘perfect’ mother with her ruddy-faced, outdoorsy children and expertly constructed craft projects, and gleefully admit the hitherto unspoken facts, that sometimes our kids piss us off, and more often than not our partners are thoughtless and, well, a bit useless, and sometimes we are just TOO DAMN TIRED.

The trouble is (and I hesitate to say this, because I really, really love Hurrah for Gin), even these books / blogs are a teeny bit of a smug club and however horrendous the tale (one involving a small child being sick in their parent’s mouth made me feel considerably better about my own day – large helping of schadenfreude, anyone?), in the background there is usually, actually, a hapless but ultimately supportive partner. There are usually understanding friends to laugh / cry into the prosecco with at the end of the week.

Now, this is all as it should be, of course, because it’s comedy, but we should keep in mind that there are some women for whom it’s not funny; women who are properly sinking, not just sinking into the sofa on a Sunday night with a large glass in hand and Call the Midwife on the telly.

Mother’s Day is probably not that welcome today for a whole load of people: those who’ve lost beloved mums, or maybe had shitty relationships with them that they’d rather forget; those who can’t have children, and those who maybe could but choose not to and would rather not see the relentless portrayal of the mum as a kind of goddess, which won’t be helped today by social media streams clogged with pictures of breakfasts in bed and teary blessing-countings for idyllic relationships with mums and children that, well, aren’t really. Maybe for those of us who are mums, it’s a bit annoying if we congratulate ourselves just for the fact that, by accident of biology, our ovaries worked ok while someone else’s didn’t. And for those of us who are sons and daughters (ok that’s all of us), at the risk of sounding like one of those rubbish husbands who uses it as an excuse for forgetting Valentine’s Day or an anniversary, maybe we should appreciate our mums every day, not just once a year. And that doesn’t mean idolize them, it means value them – for all their faults and flaws as well as the qualities that make them brilliant. It’s time to get real, and reject the dichotomy: mothers aren’t angels or demons, they’re human beings. They make mistakes, and they kick ass. Sometimes they even do both on the same day. Just like everyone else.

Happy Mothers’ Day to all of us.

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The cure for selfishness

You were first told you were selfish when you were five years old. You had crept into the kitchen and eaten the last of the fairy cakes, the one that was meant for your sister when she got home from ballet. You scrunched up the waxy paper, not before tipping the last of the crumbs into your mouth, and hid it in the bottom of the bin, but as you turned around your mother was standing at the door.

 

You were also called greedy and lazy, and these labels took a little while to peel off, but left no lasting marks. ‘Selfish’ on the other hand was like one of those cartoon rain clouds, hovering stubbornly over your head, following you around even on days lit by sunshine.

 

As you grew to take up more space in the world, you decided to try being unselfish by being undemanding. Against all the impulses and wants of your body and mind, you tried not to make noise, or be noticed, once not speaking for an entire week. You wore all black and ate only crackers broken into tiny pieces. You tried to dissolve, into the background, into the air, but your very attempts at disappearing were called ‘attention seeking’ and you reeled from this, confused, as though from a slap.

 

Some part of you must have been strong, though, because you got out and got away, fueled by the idea that there was somewhere else, a place you could be better than you had been. If you moved, you could change.

 

‘There is no such thing as altruism.’ The staple debate of undergraduates around kitchen tables, late at night, up and down the country. ‘There are no selfless good deeds.’ At one of these tables you found the man who would become your husband, and while outside you agreed with what was being said, inside you nurtured the fervent wish that you, you would be different. You would try.

 

You tried charity. Giving money, belongings, time. Walking a mile in another man’s moccasins. You ladled soup for the homeless, bagged up clothes for refugees, ran miles in t-shirts emblazoned with the names of diseases that would never be cured, not in your lifetime. Sponsorship, bake sales, and driving old people to Sunday lunches in draughty village halls.

 

You tried having children. Lots of people said this was the cure. But it’s the ultimate act of narcissism, of course: create something in your own image, then worship it. Defend it to the death, your selfish gene, with your lioness heart.

 

You tried caring for your parents, eventually going back there, drawn by stories of weight loss and sight loss and memory loss, a litany of absent things that nonetheless weighed down your heart like so many stones.

 

You tried, after they died, to lose all self-absorption once and for all, by becoming utterly unconcerned with self-care. You took down all the mirrors. You stopped washing your hair. But of course this was its own form of selfishness, because the children you raised and worshipped had themselves grown up and your behaviour brought them to your door, which was after all the thing you most wanted.

 

There isn’t much time left now, and you’re tired and running out of ideas. Downstairs the two boys who grew into fine men are saying to their father that they will stay, just for tonight, one of them will have the pull-out bed, and the other says he’ll go out and get chips for everyone. And you smile, even though the spectre of all those less fortunate than you, the dispossessed and the sick and the starving, still hovers at the edge of your thoughts.

 

It might be time to draw the curtain on a life’s effort that opened out with the telltale dusting of icing sugar on your upper lip, and narrows to its end now with more comfort and attention than you could ever have hoped to deserve.

 

You close your eyes and think maybe you’ve figured out the cure. Here’s what you could do: you could forgive yourself. Maybe.

One day.

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Proof that Writing is Therapy

“So many books, so little time.” This Frank Zappa quote rang true for all of us on World Book Day. The ladies had all gathered at The Art House Café on Thursday, by eleven o’clock in the morn…

Source: Proof that Writing is Therapy

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