Crib sheet: Handbooks for yummy mummies and MILFs

In which Glosswitch reads parenting books so you don't have to.

There are lots of things to worry about when you’re a new mum. Is your baby healthy? Will the two of you bond? How much sleep deprivation is required before the hallucinations start? And then there’s the question of whether or not you’re still sexy, or indeed sexy at all (since some of us were not exactly foxy ladies before the ravages of motherhood set in).

You might think you have other things to focus on now but seriously, this matters. You may not have thought of it in these terms before, but right now, to put it crudely: are you a mother whom I – by which I mean an impersonal, global “I” – would like to fuck? And if so, doesn’t that make you feel empowered?

According to Jessica Porter, author of The Milf Diet, there’s “something almost magical” about the term “MILF”:

“I’ve seen it in the eyes of every woman whom I’ve told about The Milf Diet. First the teensiest bit of shock and then a wonderful expression of joy. “I love it!”, they said, time and time again. Nine out of ten women surveyed had good feelings about the term ‘MILF.’”

This is because mummies, bless ‘em, are used to thinking of themselves as sexless mingers, whereas “’MILF’ acknowledges that women can – and do – stay sexy and vital, and that mothers can turn heads as well. Hooray! Things are looking up for us mummies. Not only do we get our own rubbish porn, now there’s a sexist term which suggests there may be people willing to shag us in real life! That’s right, us! Providing, that is, that we’re not total porkers. We’re all MILFs at heart, but if we eat too many Creme Eggs all this fuckability will slip through our pudgy fingers. Thankfully Porter’s on hand to lead us back to our true MILF state:

“One of the quickest routes to natural MILFiness is through food; by eating whole, natural foods and letting go of the processed, crappy “food,”, the female body finds its peaceful home again. Extra pounds simply fall away. Inner hardness softens. The plumbing works much better.”

To be honest, I think Porter could have stopped at “pounds fall away” (let’s not discuss “the plumbing,” thank you). Still, you get the idea. The real you, the sexy you, is kind of like you are now, only she’s bankrupt due to shopping at Holland and Barratt and Whole Foods rather than Asda.  

I do, sort of, get the thinking behind the yummy mummy / MILF / sexy mama etc. guidebook. It’s about self-esteem, albeit in that knock ‘em down, pretend to build ‘em up sort of way perfected by the women’s glossy mags. Porter suggests that “we MILFs” - using “MILFs” rather loosely, since she doesn’t have kids, just a book to sell – “have been waiting for the last two thousand years to get our sexuality back”.

That’s right, since the birth of Jesus Christ we mummies have been sexual zombies (something to do with the Virgin Mary setting standards too high, apparently). In The Yummy Mummy’s Survival Guide Liz Fraser offers a slightly more considered view, arguing that it’s not that we are sexless, it’s just that the image of motherhood is: “the dreary, mumsy parenting books available to me left me, without exception, feeling like a highly unattractive, undesirable, lardy has-been, condemned to a life of grime, grudge and goo”. Compared to Porter’s linguistic restraint (she even uses “fornicate” to explain her much-loved acronym), I like Fraser’s style, but not necessarily her suggested solution to the problem of mummy drudgery:

“Real Yummy Mummies dedicate huge amounts of their time and emotional energy to loving and caring for their children – but always reserve some time to make themselves feel special too, which generally involves bottles of sweet-smelling lotions and gorgeous things to hang in their wardrobes.”

As an option I prefer this to Porter’s proposal that we avoid all “processed” food (hands off my Pot Noodles!), but … Well, I’ve nothing against nice stuff. If there are nice things to be hung in wardrobes, I’ll have them. But does this become your identity as a mother? Is it what makes you “feel special”?

It’s odd, isn’t it, that before you have kids it’s acceptable to admit to having a love-hate relationship with the diet and beauty industry. You might cleanse, tone and moisturise, but it’s not exactly what you’d call “a treat”. Feeling guilty about eating a Mars bar is a drag, not a sign of self-respect. Then suddenly, once you’re a mum, shaving your underarm hair counts as “pampering”. If you’re lucky, “me-time” might involve preparing a separate low-cal  – sorry, wholefood - meal for yourself while your toddler has a nap. Get back into your skinny jeans and – kazzam! – you’ve got your life back! Yay! It’s like feminism, only not remotely.

I’m not surprised many women feel they “lose themselves” when they become mothers. We still idealise the notion of self-sacrifice in mothers (so much so that self-interested mums like me can feel as though we’re fakes; if we were doing it for real, our own desires wouldn’t be there at all). Even if that wasn’t the case, it is difficult to feel like yourself when your body and your role has changed so dramatically. When you’ve got children to care for, it’s not really the done thing to indulge in a teenage “who AM I?” identity crisis. By contrast, spending lots of “you-time” paring away “excess” flesh and painting your face can feel like a way of re-asserting your own identity (at least, it felt like that for self-obsessed me).

I don’t, however, think it’s enough, or rather, I think it’s too much. The yummy mummy/MILF ideal seems to suggest that motherhood – your new identity – is offering you a second chance at being slim, beautiful, confident etc., just like the women in the glossies you couldn’t emulate the first time you tried it. Guess what? It’s unlikely to work this time, either. If you think you’ve lost yourself, it’s not because the real you is hiding under layers of “baby weight” (a term I despise, with its implication that even after you’ve given birth some parts of your body aren’t really your own).

I don’t believe wearing lipstick or losing weight makes you a worse mother. The slummy mummy ideal – whereby that fridge magnet that says “only dull women have clean homes” is taken at face value – seems to me just another way of dividing women by trite stereotype. All the same, I’m not so sure that as a mother all you need to redefine yourself is a kohl pencil. That, some whole grains and a copy of Fifty Shades. It’s all very well accessorising - but it’s not as though you weren’t a real, live person before you had kids.

Cupcakes, from Flickr/tenderisthebridge, used under Creative Commons.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle