A mouse (not the one from the author's kitchen). Picture: Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1899
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Quite what Mousey wants with the recycling I do not know

I saw the recycling bag shuddering with Mousey’s orgiastic delight and started to reflect on animal cruelty.

I go into the kitchen one evening. Mousey is there: ambling across from the chopping board to where the teapot is.

“Please, Mousey,” I say, “give me a break.” It is late, and I am tired, so tired. Tired of being alone, of being a failure, of being tired. Recently some moron called me a “patronising git” and a “wealthy media lefty” for the column I wrote here in which I said I was very sad that the Tories were knocking down Shepherd’s Bush council housing and replacing it with luxury apartments. There are few things more tiring, in terms of the fruitless exasperation it causes, than being insulted by a moron. (The “wealthy” was especially fatuous.)

Mousey’s normal routine, when I come into the kitchen and he is having a snack, or a stroll, is to turn and scurry away as fast as his little paws can move him, which is pretty damned fast. But this time he doesn’t bother. He just stays there and looks at me for a bit, and then carries on, slightly slower than before, as if in mockery, pausing to sniff at the tea caddy (perhaps his way of saying, “Any danger of a cup of tea next time?”) before he disappears behind the cupboard next to the fridge.

Enough is enough. I have always, since I first read it, been impressed by Shandy’s Uncle Toby’s address to the fly that had been tormenting him all through dinner: “I’ll not hurt a hair of thy head . . .—go poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee?—This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.” I did once hurt Mousey, very badly, when I found him gorging himself, oblivious, in an ecstasy of gluttony, inside a bag containing what earlier that evening had been a sliced loaf of bread, now reduced entirely to crumbs, and I had twisted the top of it shut and brought my heel down on it very hard and quickly. When I wrote about that, someone on Twitter said I was inhuman, but that person had not seen the bag, shuddering with Mousey’s orgiastic delight, from which I had been hoping to extract a slice for a snack.

My murderous impulses were not there this evening. I was too tired. Also, it is nice when an animal does not flee or attack a human being. And Mousey had not, this time, come to ravish my dinner.

Still, there is the question of infestation. That runs up against some deep-rooted human feelings. We may like cats because they do not flee or attack when we come near (for the most part), but the reason we liked them in the first place was that they killed the mice and rats in our barns, and scared the bejesus out of the ones that escaped. I cannot have a cat here, which is one of the reasons I am going mad, but I had heard that Mousey cannot abide the smell of peppermint oil – and that only costs a fiver from Holland & Barrett and, unlike with a cat, you don’t have to arrange for the oil to be fed if you go on holiday.

So I get a wee bottle of this oil and sprinkle it liberally behind the counters and cooker, which seems to be Mousey’s main thoroughfare. In fact, having no idea as to how much peppermint oil smells, I slosh it about very liberally indeed, and for the next few days I feel like I am living inside a Bendicks Bittermint. I also get some on my hands, and I discover that the sensation that occurs when you accidentally rub some on the sensitive skin at the corners of your nostrils is the closest sensation you can have to burning without it actually hurting. Still, at least the smell of peppermint is nicer than the smell of cigarettes and regret that is the Hovel’s current atmosphere. And Mousey will move on and there will have been no cruelty involved.

Well, you can guess how that turned out. The daughter, who had popped down for a brief weekend visit, came back from the kitchen to say she’d just said hello to Mousey; and a day or so later, I heard a rustling coming from the recycling bag kept next to the bin. Quite what Mousey wants with the recycling I do not know. Maybe he thinks there will still be some Curiously Cinnamon in the empty Curiously Cinnamon box he discerned through the blue plastic. Stupid Mousey.

I leave him. He can do what he wants there. But then next night I come into the kitchen and I see another Mousey standing by the bag, as if trying to give some message of solace and hope to the Mousey who is trapped. This is not anthropomorphism, or pathetic fallacy. I know that posture when I see it, and I am unmanned. Does that mean, then: that I am moused?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta

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Meet the hot, funny, carefree Cool Mums – the maternal version of the Cool Girl

As new film Bad Moms reveals, what the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy.

I suppose we should all be thankful. Time was when “mum’s night off” came in the form of a KFC value bucket. Now, with the advent of films such as Bad Moms – “from the gratefully married writers of The Hangover” – it looks as though mums are finally getting permission to cut loose and party hard.

This revelation could not come a moment too soon. Fellow mums, you know all those stupid rules we’ve been following? The ones where we think “god, I must do this, or it will ruin my precious child’s life”? Turns out we can say “sod it” and get pissed instead. Jon Lucas and Scott Moore said so.

I saw the trailer for Bad Moms in the cinema with my sons, waiting for Ghostbusters to start. Much as I appreciate a female-led comedy, particularly one that suggests there is virtue in shirking one’s maternal responsibilities, I have to say there was something about it that instantly made me uneasy. It seems the media is still set on making the Mommy Wars happen, pitching what one male reviewer describes as “the condescending harpies that run the PTA” against the nice, sexy mummies who just want to have fun (while also happening to look like Mila Kunis). It’s a set up we’ve seen before and will no doubt see again, and while I’m happy some attention is being paid to the pressures modern mothers are under, I sense that another is being created: the pressure to be a cool mum.

When I say “cool mum” I’m thinking of a maternal version of the cool girl, so brilliantly described in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl:

“Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.”

The cool girl isn’t like all the others. She isn’t weighed down by the pressures of femininity. She isn’t bothered about the rules because she knows how stupid they are (or at least, how stupid men think they are). She does what she likes, or at least gives the impression of doing so. No one has to feel guilty around the cool girl. She puts all other women, those uptight little princesses, to shame.

What the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy. The cool mum doesn’t bore everyone by banging on about organic food, sleeping habits or potty training. Neither hyper-controlling nor obsessively off-grid, she’s managed to combine reproducing with remaining a well-balanced person, with interests extending far beyond CBeebies and vaccination pros and cons. She laughs in the face of those anxious mummies ferrying their kids to and from a multitude of different clubs, in between making  cupcakes for the latest bake sale and sitting on the school board. The cool mum doesn’t give a damn about dirty clothes or additives. After all, isn’t the key to happy children a happy mum? Perfection is for narcissists.

It’s great spending time with the cool mum. She doesn’t make you feel guilty about all the unpaid drudgery about which other mothers complain. She’s not one to indulge in passive aggression, expecting gratitude for all those sacrifices that no one even asked her to make. She’s entertaining and funny. Instead of fretting about getting up in time to do the school run, she’ll stay up all night, drinking you under the table. Unlike the molly-coddled offspring of the helicopter mum or the stressed-out kids of the tiger mother, her children are perfectly content and well behaved, precisely because they’ve learned that the world doesn’t revolve around them. Mummy’s a person, too.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, just how well this works out. Just as the cool girl manages to meet all the standards for patriarchal fuckability without ever getting neurotic about diets, the cool mum raises healthy, happy children without ever appearing to be doing any actual motherwork. Because motherwork, like dieting, is dull. The only reason any woman would bother with either of them is out of some misplaced sense of having to compete with other women. But what women don’t realise – despite the best efforts of men such as the Bad Moms writers to educate us on this score – is that the kind of woman who openly obsesses over her children or her looks isn’t worth emulating. On the contrary, she’s a selfish bitch.

For what could be more selfish than revealing to the world that the performance of femininity doesn’t come for free? That our female bodies are not naturally hairless, odourless, fat-free playgrounds? That the love and devotion we give our children – the very care work that keeps them alive – is not something that just happens regardless of whether or not we’ve had to reimagine our entire selves to meet their needs? No one wants to know about the efforts women make to perform the roles which men have decided come naturally to us. It’s not that we’re not still expected to be perfect partners and mothers. It’s not as though someone else is on hand to pick up the slack if we go on strike. It’s just that we’re also required to pretend that our ideals of physical and maternal perfection are not imposed on us by our position in a social hierarchy. On the contrary, they’re meant to be things we’ve dreamed up amongst ourselves, wilfully, if only because each of us is a hyper-competitive, self-centred mean girl at heart.

Don’t get me wrong. It would be great if the biggest pressures mothers faced really did come from other mothers. Alas, this really isn’t true. Let’s look, for instance, at the situation in the US, where Bad Moms is set. I have to say, if I were living in a place where a woman could be locked up for drinking alcohol while pregnant, where she could be sentenced to decades behind bars for failing to prevent an abusive partner from harming her child, where she could be penalised in a custody case on account of being a working mother – if I were living there, I’d be more than a little paranoid about fucking up, too. It’s all very well to say “give yourself a break, it’s not as though the motherhood police are out to get you”. Actually, you might find that they are, especially if, unlike Kunis’s character in Bad Moms, you happen to be poor and/or a woman of colour.

Even when the stakes are not so high, there is another reason why mothers are stressed that has nothing to do with pressures of our own making. We are not in need of mindfulness, bubble baths nor even booze (although the latter would be gratefully received). We are stressed because we are raising children in a culture which strictly compartmentalises work, home and leisure. When one “infects” the other – when we miss work due to a child’s illness, or have to absent ourselves to express breastmilk at social gatherings, or end up bringing a toddler along to work events – this is seen as a failure on our part. We have taken on too much. Work is work and life is life, and the two should never meet.

No one ever says “the separation between these different spheres – indeed, the whole notion of work/life balance – is an arbitrary construct. It shouldn’t be down to mothers to maintain these boundaries on behalf of everyone else.” Throughout human history different cultures have combined work and childcare. Yet ours has decreed that when women do so they are foolishly trying to “have it all”, ignoring the fact that no one is offering mothers any other way of raising children while maintaining some degree of financial autonomy. These different spheres ought to be bleeding into one another.  If we are genuinely interested in destroying hierarchies by making boundaries more fluid, these are the kind of boundaries we should be looking at. The problem lies not with identities – good mother, bad mother, yummy mummy, MILF – but with the way in which we understand and carry out our day-to-day tasks.

But work is boring. Far easier to think that nice mothers are held back, not by actual exploitation, but by meanie alpha mummies making up arbitrary, pointless rules. And yes, I’d love to be a bad mummy, one who stands up and says no to all that. Wouldn’t we all? I’d be all for smashing the matriarchy, if that were the actual problem here, but it’s not.

It’s not that mummies aren’t allowing each other to get down and party. God knows, we need it. It’s just that it’s a lot less fun when you know the world will still be counting on you to clear up afterwards.  

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