Squeezed Middle: Stay-at-homes v the Boden-clad Spartans

Would life be easier if I gave up work and signed on?

New Statesman
Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

I smile and wave at Zeynab, my neighbour, as she hauls her double buggy down the street. Her two boys are huge, surely big enough to be walking. I imagine her in 20 years: aged, weary, still pushing around two big, beardy men. The older one is sucking one of those boiled sugar lollipops that bring dentists out in hives.

I always stop and chat to Zeynab, partly because she is not one of the squeezed-middle mums. Why should we stick together so anxiously, like Boden-clad Spartans under attack from all sides? One of the good things about our area is that there is a real social mix; many of the flats in our street are still social housing. We should all make the effort to reach out, across the barriers of class.

Besides, all the property-price chat and Danish-design baby clothing stresses me out. Spending time with more down-to-earth mums such as Zeynab might help me to appreciate my lot in life – even if her English isn’t great and there are some cultural differences in our approaches to child-rearing.

“Hey! You had a new baby!” she says. I am on my way to pick up Larry, my two-year old, from nursery, carrying Moe asleep in his sling. She peeks in and coos. “How old is he?” Moe is three months. “Wow, he’s tiny for three months. You’re breastfeeding him?”

Immediately, she has my back up. Never, ever tell a breastfeeding mother that her new-born baby looks small. It’s like pointing, laughing and wiggling a little finger at a naked man. It’s just not nice.

But she has only just begun: “Did you mean to have a second? Or was it a mistake?” I am so gobsmacked that I fail to tell her to sod right off and instead blurt out something polite about how I’d always wanted two.

“It must be very hard. I mean, you have a mortgage, right? You have to pay for the nursery. You have to go back to work. Very hard.”

I feel like I have stepped through the looking glass. There was I, feeling all socially superior. I was not expecting Zeynab’s pity, let alone her suggestion that if I had any sense I would have chosen not to breed.

For a moment, I wonder if she’s right: would life be easier if I gave up work and signed on? I’d have to cut back on the lattes but at least I’d get my rent paid and get to stay at home watching CBeebies full-time. It doesn’t sound so bad . . .

No, no, no! I banish the thought from my mind and immediately feel dirty, like some kind of flasher with a copy of the Daily Mail hidden under her tasteful John Lewis trench coat. I value my independence, economic and professional. And anyway, who am I kidding? I’ve only been on maternity leave for three months and I already wish Bob the Builder would die in a horrible workplace accident.

Nevertheless, it is with some relief that I bid Zeynab goodbye. Sometimes this reaching out business doesn’t quite go the way you expect.