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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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage