Crib Sheet: The motherhood-as-misery exposé

In the first of a new regular series looking at parenting books, Glosswitch takes on Jessica Valenti's "Why have kids?" and other miserable-mummy manuals.

Expecting your first baby? Then allow me to patronize the living daylights out of you! I already have kids, you see, which makes me wise and all-knowing, whereas you don’t have a single clue about what awaits you. You might think you do, but you don’t. It’s not all gurgles, cuddles and fluffy bootees. Here, for instance, are some of the cold, hard facts about kids:

  • Newborns are, basically, rubbish at everything
     
  • Toddlers are marginally more interesting than newborns, but make crap conversationalists
     
  • As soon as your children can communicate fluently, you will embark on a lifetime of exchanging knowing glances with other parents before noting sagely that it was so much better “before they could answer back”

It’s not that I don’t love my children; they just don’t fulfill and complete me as a person. However, admitting to this involves breaking a massive taboo. So look at me, everyone! I’ve just gone and said the unsayable! What’s that you say? Betty Friedan and Marilyn French got there first, followed up in more recent times by Rachel Cusk? Gah! Is there nothing sacred for the likes of me to piss all over?

The motherhood-as-misery exposé should, of course, be essential reading for any woman planning to reproduce. Unfortunately, you’re unlikely to find the motivation to read such a book unless you’re already pregnant, at which point you find yourself in some terrible no man’s land, having already taken the plunge but unable, as yet, to confirm whether or not motherhood is as bad as they say. You half suspect that it can’t be all that terrible, otherwise no one would ever have more than one child. But then again, perhaps by the time you’ve had one you’ve ruined your life to such a degree that there’s nothing left to do but plunge headlong into further misery. Who knows? I do, obviously, for I have bred. But so too has Jessica Valenti.

In the somewhat plaintively titled Why have kids? Valenti seeks to explore, yet again, “the truth about parenting and happiness”. Unfortunately this truth is based on the assumption that before she actually experiences motherhood, every single broody woman is a complete idiot:

Women expect to get pregnant relatively easily […]; they expect to have a healthy baby, to breastfeed without complications, that their significant others will pick up half the slack, and that their children will fill them with happiness so pure that they’ll be content staring at their wee faces for hours without regard for life, limb or bathroom breaks.

I read this and can’t help feeling grateful – albeit briefly – that I’m one of life’s pessimists. I sure as hell didn’t think that. My feelings were more “well, I really, really want a baby, but I don’t know why, since they’re dead tiring and expensive. Oh well. Probably hormones or something”. Then I spent most of my first pregnancy panicking that I’d made a terrible mistake, usually because colleagues who were parents already seemed to take a huge amount of pleasure in sauntering up to my desk just to let me know how terrible their lives were and how I’d got “all this to come”. And it’s true, many things about the day-to-day practicalities of parenting are rather rubbish. Valenti writes of “the ennui, the feeling that this could not possibly be it, all that parenthood is cracked up to be”, and while it’s a step up from the “shit and string beans” depicted by French in The Women’s Room, life as a parent is far from perfect. It’s nothing like in the adverts, but then nothing ever is.

Valenti traces her own dissatisfaction as a parent to the traumatic premature birth of her daughter and her early fears that her daughter would die. I can identify with this; one of my children was very ill in the first few weeks of his life, and it did make the initial bonding far more tentative and fearful. All the same, the most miserable parenting memory I have is far more mundane than that. It involves sitting in a room with two children, one two, one seven months old. The two-year-old is obsessed with playing with wooden trains but continually tearful and frustrated at not being able to make incredibly long trains turn corners without coming off the tracks. The seven-month-old wants to stand up, all the time, but obviously he is unable to do so, so he insists that Mummy holds him up with both hands. He screams whenever she puts him down to do something else (such as put some wooden trains back on the track). Mummy is sleep-deprived, bored out of her mind and spends hours, days in fact, in the two-year-old’s bedroom with the wooden trains and the screaming baby. It is Hell, and it’s not even exciting Hell. It’s other people, sure, but Sartre never mentioned that said others would be your own kids.

And yet, it’s not all that bad, really. I’ve done equally boring things at other times, in other places. I used to do voluntary work for Oxfam, standing behind a till listening to the muzak equivalent of African tribal drums played on a loop for hours on end. Like looking after children, it was worthy and unpaid, but I hated it. That, surely, is more of a taboo than saying that childcare is boring. Working in Oxfam is boring (but worth doing, too, obviously. Not least because you get first dibs on all the second-hand clothes). I suppose none of this matters as long as you don’t feel the pressure to be “fulfilled”. Perhaps that’s the real difference between Valenti and me.

Valenti wants to change perceptions of motherhood (and on that I’m with her 100 per cent)  but she also wants us to be HAPPY, dammit, in a way I find quite terrifying:

But just because parental joy isn’t necessarily a given – or because it can be a dangerous expectation – doesn’t mean we can’t strive for it. Or that we can’t put an end to all of the things that are making us miserable. The truth is, we should try to get happy for our sake and for the sake of our children’s sake. Kids who have depressed parents are interacted with less than their counterparts with happy, non-depressed parents; kids of dads with depression have smaller vocabularies at two years old than kids of non-depressed dads. We owe it to our kids – and to the kids who aren’t ours – to ask questions about why parenthood is so hard, what we can do to make it an easier, happier endeavour, and what we’re lacking to ensure that happiness.

Bloody hell. I now feel horrendously guilty and unhappy about having been slightly guilty and unhappy to begin with. Can’t we just focus on valuing parents and children and understanding their needs, without this desperation to banish common-or-garden Weltschmerz? I might be a mummy, but I’m still not ready to throw out my Joy Division cassettes (moreover, I’m not all that keen on suggesting to parents with clinical depression that they’re harming their children simply by being sad).  

The truth is, I have more empathy with Rachel Cusk. When A Life’s Work was published in 2001, I didn’t have children, but the extreme reactions it provoked suggested to me that Cusk might have a point. Having re-read it since becoming a mother myself, I have a lot of time for the view that motherhood is devalued precisely because it is so laborious, so repetitive, and yet so central to our very existence. All the same, there is a part of me who looks at Cusk’s prose and thinks “crikey, aren’t you over-thinking things a bit, love?” Then I feel that I am too stupid, or at least not quite thoughtful enough, to grasp the magnitude of what I am doing, and that I am too selfish to have allowed motherhood to change me in more fundamental ways. For instance, here’s Cusk describing shopping for clothes in Oxford Street without her daughter:

I want to buy clothes, to make up for two years in which I have been as far from fashion as an anthropologist on a long field trip; but the rack of things looks incomprehensible and unrelated to me, like costumes for a drama in which I no longer have a part. I lack the desire for myself that would teach me what to choose; I lack the sense of stardom in my own life that would urge me to adorn myself. I am backstage, attendant. I have the curious feeling that I no longer exist in synchronicity with time, but at a certain delay, like someone on the end of a transatlantic phone call. This, I think, is what it is to be a mother.

Cripes! Looking at my bank account, I really wish I had that problem. Since having children, I have had no problem at all in wandering off on my own to over-spend on garments just for me. In fact, since breastfeeding has left me a bit smaller “on top” and thus a more average size than I used to be, a whole new world of clothing over-spend has opened up to me (wish I’d had that in the Oxfam days). That’s something they never mention in the books.

Don’t get me wrong; I do think it’s important to view parenthood in an honest light, and it frustrates me when mothers in particular are merely patted on the head and told that they’re doing “the most important job in the world”, as though such praise compensates for no one listening to their concerns. Even so, it worries me that parenthood is taken quite so seriously by some. Yes, it’s a huge undertaking, but providing you don’t get too wrapped up in metaphors of transience and loss, it doesn’t have to destroy you. Sure, there will be times when you regret having kids, but you know that if you hadn’t, there’d have been times when you regretted not having kids. It’s just one of many lives that got away.

And anyhow, once they’re there, they’re there. Certainly, I have moments of feeling overwhelmed by it all. My children will be tearing each other apart and I’ll say to myself “okay, it’ll all get easier when - *runs through childhood, fraught teenage years, exams, relationships, experimentation with drugs and alcohol, expensive higher ed and/or unemployment* - oh, actually, I forgot, it never gets easier”. But with moments like that, you just have to push it all to the back of your mind.

It’s rather like being vaguely aware of your own mortality, coping with the knowledge of what having kids really entails. You don’t need a book to help you through it, just as long as you don’t think too far ahead and don’t ever ask yourself what it’s all for.
 

Shopping, mummy-style. Photograph: Getty Images

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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.