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.

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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories