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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder