Stephen Mangan in Sky Arts' Birthday. Photo: Sky Arts
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The Mumsnet bloggers left me queasy – but Birthday is still excellent television

I loved Birthday, but the bloggers were mostly unable to see beyond personal experience in the matter of art.

Birthday
Sky Arts

The people at Sky Arts, now one channel instead of two, invited me to a preview of Birthday (began 9 June), an adaptation by Joe Penhall of his 2012 stage play of the same name. It was held at a smart hotel, with drinks, and the screening was followed by a panel discussion with Penhall and the film’s star, Stephen Mangan. There was, however, a catch. The publicist had warned me that the Mumsnet bloggers would be out in force: the film is about childbirth, but with a twist, as it is Mangan’s character who’s in the delivery room groaning like a hippopotamus on heat. And so it proved. There they all were, eager to share their own thoughts on NHS midwives and husbandly trauma. Crikey, but my palms were sweaty. Having once been on the receiving end of a particularly vile Mumsnet thread, I am somewhat sceptical of the idea that the website is all about supporting women. Basically, it plays the Death Star to my Princess Leia.

I loved the film, but was mildly depressed by the discussion afterwards, during which the bloggers – and even the chair of the panel, Fi Glover – were mostly unable to see beyond personal experience in the matter of art. In essence, it was their view that Birthday could only really mean anything if one could “relate” to it; which, luckily, they all could, in their capacity as mothers. It seemed not to occur to them that one of the functions of art is to take us elsewhere. And what about empathy and imagination? No one mentioned those, either, which seemed particularly dumb in the case of Birthday, a drama that set out to convince its audience that a man was having a baby. Apparently, they had no trouble at all “relating” to this bit of scientific craziness, perhaps because they just shot conveniently past his testicles to the birth itself, which they very much could, you know, connect with, etc etc.

If they’d glanced in my direction, they would have noticed that the conceit had certainly worked on me, in spite of the outrageous fact that – whisper it – I’ve never given birth. Eew. By the end, I felt distinctly shaky. OK, I wasn’t mad on the dialogue, which began by being funny and quite subtle but then descended into a pretty trite meditation on the loveliness of being a parent and of, well, love in general. But I relished the expert direction (by Roger Michell) and the performances, which were so deliciously well judged, each character (the play is basically a three-hander) contriving to rub the others up in just the right wrong way. Anna Maxwell Martin put in a marvellously understated turn as the mostly unsympathetic wife who, having given birth to their first child, was determined to be unimpressed by her husband’s querulous demands for raspberry leaf tea and a Tens machine, and Llewella Gideon was a hoot as the incompetent and borderline-sadist midwife. As for Mangan, he was properly, outrageously brilliant, moving from petulant and slightly blustering to exhausted and finally to frightened without ever losing sight of the essence of his character, who is just a little bit of a chump.

Although his prostheses – a belly as tight as a drum and a neat little pair of heavy breasts that he fondled somewhat forlornly at one point – were amazing, I feel certain he would have been just as convincing without them. Physical pain and indignity are difficult things to portray; the danger is always that, in the effort to convey them to the audience, hamminess will set in. But not in the case of Mangan. I believed in his discomfort and humiliation –“I’ve been fingered more times than an unripe avocado!” he shouted as yet another hand was shoved up his backside – to the point where I was rather surprised to see him ambling casually from the back of the screening room and plonking himself down on a chair on the stage. Hadn’t we just seen him begging for a doughnut-shaped cushion on which to rest his sore behind? For a second, I thought of rolling up my coat and rushing to his aid. But then the Mumsnet crowd began talking, and reality – or at any rate, their epidurals – set in, and I came to my senses, imagination swiftly departing the room, and with it all of my queasiness. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser