As a mother, I've learned that the phrase "as a mother" is divisive and indulgent

Motherhood-as-kneejerk-opinion-former reduces mothers, these diverse, thinking individuals, to one indistinct mass, functioning on entirely predictable emotional responses.

As a mother, I've learned many things, one of which is that the phrase “as a mother” is as annoying to mothers as it is to non-mothers. Or at least it is to me. Obviously I don’t speak for all mothers. For instance, Samantha Cameron, who is also a mother, might love the phrase “as a mother”. After all, it seems to come in useful when, as a mother, you’re charged with blurring the edges of whatever political decisions the father of your children is inevitably going to make.

Visiting a Syrian refugee camp with Save the Children, Cameron (Mrs) describes how “as a mother, it is horrifying to hear the harrowing stories of the children I meet today”. I don’t doubt her sincerity — nor do I doubt just how harrowing these stories are — but I do question the effectiveness of playing the mother card in this particular instance. Is Cameron suggesting that mothers have a special sensitivity that non-mothers lack? That the latter would be less horrified? Since when did having children of your own become a shortcut to demonstrating your credentials as a compassionate person?

As a mother — yes, another one — I have to say I find this discomforting. It’s not that I don’t think motherhood can change you, making you more susceptible to particular emotional responses, but this universalising impulse, this “as a mum, you’ll know” shorthand, cuts out the need for real expression and ends up functioning as little more than a marketing slogan.

It’s not just that it’s offensive to those who don’t have children. Motherhood-as-kneejerk-opinion-former reduces mothers, these diverse, thinking individuals, to one indistinct mass, functioning on entirely predictable emotional responses. Such responses can range from the blandly nurturing (“as a mom” Michelle Obama is “so excited that schools will now be offering healthier choices to students”) to the presumptuously overblown (“as a mother of four children” Cherie Blair “share[s] the concerns and hopes of all parents about changing the world in which they live”). Mothers cease to have opinions of their own, instead offering up standard mummy responses to whatever life throws at them (top tip: if you’re not a mum but want to pass as one, just claim to be extra sad about any bad stuff happening to kids, unless they’re kids from “bad” homes [aka any home unlike yours], in which case be sad about all those other kids who have to put up with them. That’ll work).

Of course, when advertisers get hold of all this, it’s laughable. Proctor & Gamble claim to be “proud sponsor of mums”; no, you’re not, says many a mum, still waiting for her P&G contract in the post. Calpol tell us that “if you’ve got kids you’ll understand”, failing to notice that even a person without kids would recognise that pain relief suitable for children is suitable for children in pain. The divisiveness grates (honestly, non-parents, P&G haven’t given us mums so much as a free t-shirt) but what’s really disturbing is the moral posturing in which parents in general, and mothers in particular, are invited to indulge.

If I’m honest, becoming a mother has made me more likely to be upset by images of children in pain. However, this says less about the virtues of motherhood and more about my own moral failings, such as an inability to empathise with others unless their experiences are closely aligned with my own. Moreover, I’m conscious of the way in which my own parental selflessness frequently stops at my own front door. Many of the things I want for my children — and for which I’d make personal sacrifices — come at the expense of other people’s children. As a mother I want every child to have a piece of pie but, should the pieces be limited, as a mother I want my children to be first in the queue.

Last year, following the death of Maeve Binchy, the Telegraph ran a serious piece by the novelist Amanda Craig asking “does a female novelist need to have experienced motherhood to truly understand human emotions?” The short answer? No. Just as you don’t need to have experienced motherhood to be any kind of compassionate, self-sacrificing, emotionally literate human being. Of course, it’s difficult to be any of these things at all, but as a mother, I can say that for me it didn’t become any easier the moment I gave birth. 

Both Michelle Obama and Samantha Cameron have fallen into the "as a mother" trap. Photograph: Getty Images

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