Rule 2: It’s not All About You

Jennie Bristow's guide to subversive parenting tackles the proliferation of mummy identities.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

In her monthly column, Jennie Bristow sends today’s parenting fads and panics to the naughty step. This month she takes on self-regarding mummy identities, from the Alpha Mum to the Yummy Mummy to the Bad Mother (Only Joking).

What kind of a mother are you? An aggressively ambitious Alpha Mum, hell-bent on being the perfect parent to perfect children? A Yummy Mummy who has more money than sense and spends more time with her personal trainer than with her children?

A Slummy Mummy, who meanders through domestic chaos and is pathologically incapable of packing the right PE kit or baking cakes that rise? A Bad Mother (Only Joking), who wants to stick two fingers up at the perfect parenting police while simultaneously conforming to their standards? Or are you waiting for another journalist / novelist / market research company to come up with a label that better suits your particular brand of mothering? Just give it a couple of months.

It has become fashionable to bemoan the extent to which parenthood has become swallowed up by consumer society. Survey after survey tells us the ‘cost’ of children, detailing in painstaking fashion the amount that new parents can expect to spend on clothes, equipment, food, childcare, toys, car seats and so on. The spiralling costs of the competitive children’s party circuit, the way that certain brands of buggy have gained the same cachet as makes of cars, and the branding of children’s clothes, shoes and other gubbins all provide great fodder for those studiously lively debates on the radio or at dinner parties.

But what is any of this compared to the cultural pick’n’mix counter that seeks to flog you a particular maternal identity? Forget the kids – motherhood itself has become a consumer experience.

Whether through confessional books like Stephanie Calman’s Confessions of a Bad Mother, which I reviewed for spiked last year, newspaper-columns-turned-books such as Fiona Neill’s The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy, or the wealth of popular fiction providing a ‘humorous’ paperback take on the trials and tribulations of life with small children, it’s hard to escape the idea that being a mother today requires some conscientious Identity Work. Gone are the days when ‘mother’ was a title you received by virtue of having children – now, you are under constant pressure to work out what kind of mother you want to be, and to make that decision before your child is even a twinkle in your eye.

So. Do you want to be the kind of mother who has a natural birth, breastfeeds for as long as possible, purees your own organic food and is suspicious of vaccinations? Do you want to be the kind of mother who puts pressure on your kids to succeed in everything, in order to give them the best possible start in life? Do you want to be the kind of mother like Kerry Katona in the Iceland adverts, who wouldn’t even think about baking her own cookies but consequently has the time to be Loads Of Fun? Do you want to be the kind of mother who has a career and a ‘life of her own’, but can channel the leftovers into quality time with the kids?

There is a wide choice of maternal identities out there on the shelf; but they all have one striking thing in common. Whatever identity you choose, it is All About You – what you want for yourself, your life, your kids. In today’s mummy culture, the ebb and flow of family life doesn’t really figure. Motherhood is transformed into an individual consumer experience, where you decide what you think it should all be about and hone your personality, friendship circle and nursery equipment accordingly. It’s like having a birth plan that begins with conception and lasts forever. And, as with birth plans, even the most painstaking Identity Work tends to get messed up by real life.

One of the most frustrating things about parenthood is the lack of a clear continuum between decisions that you make, and the outcome. Because children are people and parenting is a relationship, subject to moods and tantrums and off-days and bad luck, in reality you can’t decide to be a certain kind of mother – just as you can’t decide that your child will turn out to be a wizard at maths and prefer salad to chocolate. This whole identity construction business is, fundamentally, fake, in the sense that nobody mothers as a consistent ‘type’. But at the same time, it is very real – because mothers feel obliged to play a particular part, and then feel bad when they don’t live up to the exacting standards set by that kind of mother. And so we end up in this ridiculous scenario where people are so fraught about the kind of parent they are or want to be that the relationship with the child barely figures.

Perhaps the most vivid recent example of maternal-identity-as-consumer-experience is the debate over home versus hospital birth, which has been reignited by the UK government’s pledge to give mothers a choice over where they have their children. This has led to a few scathing (if rather good) newspaper columns criticising the pressure women are under to have a ‘natural birth’ (1), and an outpouring of personal stories from women who, for one reason or another, were disappointed with their birth experience (2).

I don’t have any problem with women choosing to give birth without drugs, or in their own home – though I do object to women being pressurised into making such a choice (see I want my epidural, by Jennie Bristow ). And like any aspect of healthcare, I am sure there are improvements that could be made to the maternity service. But what is striking about today’s version of this old debate about natural versus hospitalised childbirth is the consensus that, whatever way you do it, childbirth should be like a mini-break on a health farm, or one of those off-the-peg ‘experiences’ that you can buy like hang-gliding or bungee jumping. The childbirth experience, it is assumed, should be pleasant, exciting and gratifying; and those who don’t get that experience have been somehow cheated. What, I wonder, has any of this got to do with having a baby?

When I was pregnant with my daughters, it never occurred to me that the ‘birth experience’ was something I would want to control, enjoy or even photograph. Birth, like pregnancy, was a means to an end – the end being coming out of the whole business still intact, and with a healthy baby. I don’t think I’m alone in this – many women, I’m sure, would be quite happy to skip the whole birth bit if they possibly could, and save their energies and emotions for welcoming the new addition to their family. In the early twentieth century, women’s organisations actively campaigned for anaesthesia, pain relief and obstetric intervention in labour, on the grounds that women wanted, above all, to have their children as quickly, safely and painlessly as possible.

But for the protagonists in the childbirth debate today, right up to UK health secretary Patricia Hewitt, the most important thing is that childbirth is the right kind of experience, chosen and controlled by women. Having the right kind of birth is seen as a crucial aspect of your maternal identity – and not getting the right kind of birth is perceived as a blow from which the new mother will never recover. As the feminist writer Naomi Wolf confesses in her 2001 book Misconceptions:

‘When I was having my first baby, I had wanted the comfortable birthing room of the Alternative Birthing Center that I had been shown, with an emotionally supportive staff around me and patient-pacing to help me. I had also wanted the latest medical care if I needed it. I had wanted beauty and support and safety, as well as help with pain.’ (3)

In fact, Wolf had an emergency C-section under epidural anaesthesia. ‘What I had wanted, when I gave birth, I did not find’, she says wistfully – and she was consequently inspired to write a book about the whole thing.

The fetishisation of the ‘birth experience’ is frankly bizarre. For a start, it has absolutely nothing to do with the baby: being, again, All About You, your choices, your birth plans. And it sets many women – particularly first-time mothers – up to fail, as they end up with long, difficult, painful, complicated labours that require hospitals and anaesthesia and obstetrical intervention. Through the fetishisation of birth, women are encouraged to construct their individualistic identities, egged on by the illusion of choice and control, only to have their first lesson in the messy, unpredictable reality of parenthood before they even get out of the delivery room.

It might be nice if you really could choose a positive birth experience, and get some kind of refund if it didn’t all work out. But you can’t, and the illusion that you can is more than just silly. Motherhood isn’t a lifestyle choice that you buy into, but a fact of life with children. Your sense of self can no more be constructed around how you parent than it can be based on how you gave birth. Parents, like children, are people, too – and there is a whole lot more to life than birth.

Jennie Bristow is former commissioning editor of spiked, and has two young daughters. She is a freelance writer and researcher, and editor of the bpas journal Abortion Review. Email her at {encode=”jennie@bristow.com” title=”jennie@bristow.com”}.

Read on:

A Guide to Subversive Parenting

(1) Natural birth! Hello? This is the 21st century, Alice Miles, The Times (London), 4 April 2007; While women in the developing world are dying in childbirth, why are we fetishising doing it at home?, Catherine Bennett, Guardian, 5 April 2007

(2) See for example: The TimesAlphamummy blog; Home vs Hospital: The Big Debate, Daily Mail, 4 April 2007

(3) Misconceptions: Truth, Lies and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood, Naomi Wolf, Chatto and Windus, 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics