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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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.