Why I won’t be joining the ‘Bad Mothers Club’
There's something creepy in the latest literary genre that celebrates stressful, even bad, motherhood as an identity.
Confessions of a Failed Grown-Up: bad motherhood and beyond, by Stephanie Calman, Macmillan 2006
I stumbled across an extract from Stephanie Calman’s Confessions of a Failed Grown-Up in a national newspaper, where she was taking the piss out of Jamie Oliver’s healthy eating crusade and lamenting her failure to get her kids to eat vegetables:
‘Still, why should we beat ourselves up about it when we’ve got the government to do that for us? How many children do eat enough veg? If we have to negotiate for half an hour to get them to eat two carrot sticks, how the fuck does the government think we’re going to give them five portions a day? Who eats five portions of anything a day? These bastards just issue these guidelines to make people like me feel inadequate.’ (1)
Not bad, huh? In the later, desperate stages of maternity leave, I thought that maybe this was the start of a new sisterhood, made up of ballsy women prepared to stick two fingers up to the orthodoxy on good parenting and tell the authorities to keep their noses out of our lives. I rushed out to buy Calman’s previous book – Confessions of a Bad Mother (2) – and read them in tandem.
That was a mistake. The books are well-written, lively, entertaining and in places really very funny, and they are great to dip into as a source of anecdotes on why we’re not alone in our perceived parenting inadequacies. They are also self-indulgent and frustratingly limited. Over 600 pages in total, and nowhere does Calman even hint about the source of the problem she is describing – such as why a woman who likes drinking wine and swearing and is not too keen on home baking or being nice all the time feels the need to adopt the self-conscious identity of a ‘bad mother’.
There is a place for being funny about why life with small children involves so much crap, and leaving it at that. But having felt strongly enough about it to raise some quite important questions about what it means to be a mother, or even just a grown-up, in today’s world of contradictory signposts and pious non-judgementalism, it would be nice if Calman had gone a little bit beyond herself. After all, what she is trying to do – and what accounts for the apparent success of things like the Bad Mothers Club website – is to key into some commonality of experience amongst mothers of young children today. So why not try to make the connections?
Calman is not the first to attempt to describe the current crisis of maternal identity in popular terms. Most well-known is probably Allison Pearson’s novel I Don’t Know How She Does It, where attempts at comedy and insight break down in the face of the self-defeating bitterness of a woman trying to do it all. The unhappy confessionals of Naomi Wolf and Rachel Cusk try, but fail, to glean broader insights from their authors’ gruelling experience of new motherhood. Even Chick Lit has got in on the act: that fluffy fiction about the plight of the thirty-something single woman has seamlessly graduated to storylines about the life-shock of having one’s first child (see Jane Green’s Babyville and Freya North’s Home Truths, for example).
What these examples (and they are but a few) have in common is that they are all, in their own way, describing a problem that is new: the identity shock experienced by a generation of women accustomed to being equal, having freedom and choices and careers and some semblance of control over their lives and emotions, upon the birth of a child.
By recounting their own experiences, whether directly or through fiction, the generation of women writers who gained their profile before they had their children are all coming out with the same kind of stuff: women plan their children, they adore them, but they also resent them and want to go back to work, and then feel horrendously guilty. Women choose their partners, they adore them, but they also resent them and (in the novels) start thinking about having affairs with unsuitable young men who just happen to notice them. Men scurry around being helpful but hopeless, dissatisfied with their jobs, worried about their partners, very involved with the child but doing bugger all around the house. Domestic life, which once meant cosy takeaway meals in front of the TV, has turned into a neverending chore of washing and wiping and picking things up, and endless rows with their partners over Who Does The Dishwasher – a particular example that has assumed a strangely symbolic presence in the literature.
Women don’t know who they are anymore; men don’t know who their partners want them to be; everyone feels far too young for this parenthood malarkey even if they are in their late 30s; and the killer point: nothing is like they thought it would be. Having reached the stage in their lives when finally, they feel grown-up and wanting to settle down, the birth of a child unsettles everything and everyone. And what can be done about it? In the novels, the women start wearing make-up again, go back to work (something part-time but creative), and decide not to have an affair after all, while the man takes his turn on the dishwasher and the author leaves you with the wildly unrealistic hope that things might get a little bit better. In the non-fiction, the books just end.
For the non-parents out there, this will all sound impossibly banal. If the parenthood thing is all so boring and confusing, why do people want to write about it, read about it – or even do it in the first place? But while we’re not talking about great literature here, there is an insight within it all that is worth taking seriously. Women writers trying to make sense of their experiences today know that they are dealing with something different to their parents’ generation. What they are experiencing seems like a sudden and disorientating removal of the choices they always took for granted – what job to do, what man to commit to, where to socialise, whether to cook and clean or just not bother, and above all whether and when to have children. There is also an awareness that these are choices that previous generations of women simply did not have, so there is a limit to how much can be complained about.
At the same time, the deliberate decision to have a child, with the benefit of a knowledge (albeit abstract and rose-tinted) that they would forego all these various choices, illuminates how shallow the choices were in the first place. The protagonists of today’s Mummy Lit know that they chose to be ‘in here’ with children rather than ‘out there’ in the world, because they’d been out there and it was pretty unsatisfying. The shock comes when they try to channel all their creative energies and ambitions into their next goal in life – raising children – and they realise that children are not a job that can be done well or a hobby that can be simply enjoyed, but unpredictable, often uncontrollable, endlessly demanding and essentially human little sods that make a mockery of one’s ability to control or plan one’s own life in the short term. So having made the big choice, they end up stranded between the identity of the Good Mother, who loves it all, and the Bad Mother, who desperately craves Me-time but doesn’t know what to do with it when she has it. Except for maybe writing a book about her personal experience.
At least in the past there was a problem – women’s inequality – and a solution at the level of society – ending women’s oppression so that they could play an equal role in the world. The post-equality compromise that we have today, by contrast, involves social policy that seeks only to redistribute the domestic burden between men and women – hence the dishwasher motif – and to encourage people to make children their career, by providing endless targets and best practice guidelines about child-rearing.
We don’t have socialised childcare, but privatised angst about nurseries and nannies; we don’t have a critique of the family as an institution, but an ongoing attempt by the authorities to invade family life and tell people what to do while still expecting us to mop up the wee and poo and spend hours on end picking things up off the floor. The public arena is not one to which women aspire to make a difference, but one from which men and women keep trying to escape, so that they can concentrate harder on their personal lives and lifestyles.
The silver lining in all of this, of course, is that people don’t give up hoping and dreaming when they have children and are confronted with all this stuff – that is why they are frustrated. There are many more Bad Mothers out there, who want to live their own lives as well as loving their kids and bringing them up, than there are Good Mothers who want to subsume their entire personality for the sake of the children. But it would be useful to take some of this frustration out of the realm of personal whingeing and fictional wittering, towards an analysis of what we, as women and men and parents, want out of life in general.
Some of this analysis is out there already. Furedi’s Paranoid Parenting, Hays’s The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, Hochschild’s The Second Shift, and Douglas and Michaels’ The Mommy Myth, among others, are serious and excellent books that attempt to theorise people’s experience and give history and context to the modern anxieties about parental identity, the problems of family policy, and the thorny questions of domestic work and household management. But the Parents’ Liberation Movement is a long way away from the populist shelves, and will remain so as long as we keep worrying about whether we love our kids enough and remain caught up in the cycle of complaint about who does the dishwasher.
Jennie Bristow is a writer and mother of two young children. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Confessions of a Failed Grown-Up: Bad Motherhood and Beyond by Stephanie Calman is published by Macmillan (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).
(1) Confessions of a Failed Grown-Up: Bad Motherhood and Beyond, by Stephanie Calman. Macmillan 2006. p70-71
(2) Confessions of a Bad Mother: In the Aisle by the Chill Cabinet No-one Can Hear You Scream, by Stephanie Calman. Macmillan 2005
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