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.