Mother and daughter go for a walk. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

“Mummies at war”: stop pitting mothers against each other in order to sell formula milk

The representation of mothers as shrill Mumzillas is hardly something new. Sadly, neither is exploiting these stereotypes to sell things.

It has been reported that formula milk manufacturer Similac has scored “a big hit with one of the most honest ads ever about parenting”. Honest, that is, if you see parenting as “an activity primarily performed by scowling women who all hate each other”. Called the Mother ‘Hood (in what seems to be a rip-off of a slightly more amusing advert for the Fiat 500L), it is, according to the company, all about “encouragement, not judgement”.  Personally, I would adore an advert that took on the petty, sexist stigma surrounding formula feeding. I just don’t want one that resorts to Daily Mail-esque caricatures of warring mummies, each one more repulsive than the one that came before.

The representation of mothers as gruesome, shrill Mumzillas is hardly something new. Even so, every time we encounter it we are expected to coo over how refreshing, ground-breaking and honest the whole thing all is. Oh look! Someone making an advert has helpfully pointed out that we’re all too busy judging one another to remember “the sisterhood of motherhood”! Here that, girls? Deep down, we’re all the same! Thank god for that. I for one am so relieved that “Abbott brand Similac has enlisted Publicis Kaplan Thaler and its Publicis Groupe PR sibling MSLGroup to create a digital video campaign that's trying to bring peace to the playground.” Phew! Without these companies on hand to serve up 2 minutes 39 seconds worth of “calm down, dears!” we mummies would surely end up eating one another alive.  

The Similac advert certainly doesn’t skimp on the sexist stereotypes: 1980s-style career mummies on their mobile phones; middle-class mummies with their pool births and posh buggies; yoga mummies with their ridiculous Krypton Factor-style slings; stay-at-home mummies making digs about “part-time mummies”; boastful breast feeders and passive-aggressive attachment mummies (and yes, there are token dads too, but the main point seems to be that they’re all a bit emasculated by the whole thing). What unifies all the mothers in the advert is not “the sisterhood of motherhood”; it’s the fact that they all look unbearably smug and say stupid, spiteful things to one another. It seems to have been written by someone who got all their information on “how mothers behave” from Misogynists R Us. And yes, we might get the schmaltzy “no matter what our beliefs, we are parents first” message at the end – right after everyone rushes to stop a runaway buggy – but by that point, any parent with a degree of self-respect will have lost the will to live.

To be clear, I am in no way denying that mothers are placed in competition with one another over every single thing we do. We are and it is awful. But where does this come from? From ourselves alone or from the media constantly telling us that this is what we are and how we must feel? For instance, I once breast fed sitting next to a bottle-feeding mother who then apologised to me for “not having tried harder” to avoid formula. Of course, I then apologised in return for having made her feel uncomfortable before proceeding to babble on about having “just been lucky” (I may even have thought of, but thankfully discarded, the term “tit privilege”). Deep down, I’m sure neither of us really gave a toss about how the other chose to feed her infant. The trouble was, we’d already been given roles to play, I the Arrogant Earth Mother and she the Defensive SMA Purchaser. Without making a clumsy show of rejecting such roles, we’d have had to let this manufactured resentment simmer forever.

As Susan Faludi pointed out in Backlash – written a whole quarter century ago – the so-called “Mommy Wars” are primarily a media construct. They perform a particular function. Mothers have to appear to hate each other – and to genuinely believe that such hatred exists – because it makes us vulnerable and easy to manipulate. A 2007 Washington Post article, The Mommy War Machine, noted that “the Mommy Wars sell newspapers, magazines, TV shows and radio broadcasts”, and now there’s formula milk to add to the list. Unfortunately, the one thing these wars never sell is genuine support for all mothers, whatever their situation (and as Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels point out in Ms., one key impact of positioning motherhood as a war based on “individual will, choice and responsibility” is that the needs of poor mothers – those who cannot simply select their faction at will – need never be considered at all). 

The “mummies at war” trope is clever insofar as it simultaneously exploits and ridicules women’s insecurities about parenting. It is not dissimilar to the way in which the Dove’s “Real Woman” campaign exploits and ridicules women’s “irrational” relationship with the diet and beauty industries (use our products in order to look like this! But don’t dare care about looking like this! That would just be vain and silly!). Women’s insecurity isn’t just taken for granted; it’s waved in their faces as a source of shame. It’s your fault you’re so hung up on being the beautiful, perfect mother, you utter narcissist! Forget the fact that mothers are told what to do every minute of every single day – and that since the instructions are so contradictory, you end up having to decide which way to jump and then justify it to all the voices telling your decision is WRONG – we are meant to think this battle is taking place within some privileged mummy bubble, away from all the enormous cultural, social and economic pressures that surround us every day.

Clearly, not all mothers get along. Giving birth does not reduce us to one indistinguishable mass of mum-ness (indeed, it’s almost as though we remain individuals, with likes, dislikes and everything!). It seems to me that messages such as “mummies are at war” – along with “teenage girls are mean,” “female celebrities are vain” and “brides-to-be are too demanding” – function as a form of social control. It’s a way of keeping the femininity in traditionally female roles. Since we have an idea of what a mother should be – modest, self-effacing, compliant – we persuade her that she, more so than other women, has a ferocious inner bitch that must be kept in check. We no longer need puffed-up Victorian men churning out tracts on the correct behaviour of ladies; we just need to show women a few screechy working mummies slugging it out with a bunch of smug, condescending stay-at-home mums. See? Is THAT what you want to end up like? The message to women – “don’t be so judgmental of one another!” – is entirely inappropriate. We are not the judges; we are the ones on trial. When we are told not to judge – and when our decision making is portrayed in the form of misogynistic caricature – what we’re really being told is “don’t be political / don’t have an opinion / never express dislike for anyone / don’t be anything other than sweetness and light.” Sod that. Sometimes our decisions and judgements are arbitrary – as are everyone’s – but believe it or not, we know this. Beyond this, our most strongly held opinions are not slights against other women; they are expressions of our selves.

One final point: the end of the Similac advert. Is it just me or is anyone else thinking “why do all the parents have to run after that one pram? And more to the point, what have the other ones with prams done with their own babies while they’re doing this? What if their babies have set off on another path to danger, albeit in the opposite direction?” Frankly I disapprove of parents who leave their own babies alone in the middle of parks just so that they can join in with some peace-making pram pursuit, all the whole knowing that they’re probably not going to be the ones to save the day. I consider such glory hunting irresponsible. Indeed, you could say I look down on such people. But I’d hardly call it a declaration of war.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.