Silly old mum
Confessions of a Bad Mother
Stephanie Calman Macmillan, 307pp, £12.99
In her excellent book Torn In Two: the experience of maternal ambivalence, Rozsika Parker identifies what she calls the "humorous confessional" mode of maternal colloquy, where-by women are uniquely permitted, or permit themselves, to admit to negative feelings about motherhood.
The self-mocking confessional diffuses the threatening representation of maternal rage . . . [It] is becoming increasingly popular as a means of airing parental feelings. Ambivalence is acknowledged but reassuringly softened so that the "Bad Mother" becomes simply "Silly Old Mum". Silly Old Mum does not disturb the maternal ideal: she is more hopeless than hateful or hate full. She is a feminine stereotype; a way of categorising everything women are and everything we do as entirely, essentially and eternally feminine, denying differences between women according to economic and social position, geographical and historical place, and specific reality.
The title of Stephanie Calman's book, along with its cover - a photograph of a cocktail glass with a baby's dummy propped, devil-may-care, against the rim - signals eager conformity to this genre. Moreover, it advertises, or rather brackets, its version of motherly "badness". We are given to understand that we need fear nothing more here, on or off the job, than the use of humour and alco-hol; that the "confessions" of the author will bear only the most guarded relationship to the truth; and that, far from convincing us of her "badness", they will provide the proof of her superiority.
Those mothers for whom candour is a terrifying prospect will admire the adventurer who can get so close to it and still not admit to anything worse than failing to sterilise her babies' feeding bottles. And don't think that even in this humble controversy Calman has actually exposed herself to the allegation that she is "bad": she is careful to mention that she and her husband have been advised by a health professional that sterilising is pointless and unnecessary. Her admission that she drank liberally during pregnancy is accompanied by a skit on foetal alcohol syndrome. ("You can tell the ones who've got it . . . their heads are sort of oval. And in fact I have seen one quite recently, walking past Somerfield. She was really weird looking. Her face was sort of pointy; eyes almost round the side instead of the front . . . Yep, I thought: that's a bit more than four pina coladas.")
Here, as elsewhere, the appearance of honesty, the willingness to "own up" to certain unorthodoxies, merely conceals a deeper strain of social competitiveness. The "good" mother, with her fixed smile, her rigidity, her goody-goody outlook, her obsession with unnecessary hygiene, is in fact a fool. It is the "bad" mother, unafraid of a joke and a glass of wine, richly self-expressive, scornful of suburban values, who is in reality good.
The book takes the by now established form of the maternal memoir to describe Calman's journey through two pregnancies and births, and her first years as the mother of small children. It is standard practice in such accounts for the author to show herself pitted against a creepily conformist world of motherhood, shot through with instances of breathtaking cruelty and kindness, in which she alone retains a sense of propriety. Her child, who in private is her tormen-tor, in public is her mouthpiece and the admirable agent of her righteous outrage:
A friend with a daughter the same age invites us to one of those groups I hate, called Tick-Tock or Humpty-Dumpty. As I am still hoping to turn into the sort of person who likes - or can at least tolerate - sitting on a cold church-hall floor chanting, "Hickory-dickory-dock," we go along. Lawrence [her child] isn't interested. He only wants to crawl across the middle of the neat baby circle and snatch the others' maracas.
Naturally, the life of a new mother is highly regulated compared with that of a single woman. I have noticed that people often write about illness in a similar way, though generally they play it less for laughs. Intelligent people tend to feel violated when their bodies deliver them to the public domain. The problem is that where illness might reveal the soul, motherhood, as Tolstoy observed, obscures it. Even if they knew the truth of their own feelings, most mothers would be socially and emotionally incapable of revealing it. It is easy, by challenging orthodoxies, merely to create new ones: Stephanie Calman appears to have done something of the sort by founding the Bad Mothers Club, a website where mothers are invited to confess all. She did so, she says here, because she began to suspect that she was not the only one whose version of motherhood was imperfect:
I go home and tell Peter [her husband]: "We're not the only ones."
"The only ones what?"
"You know, who don't heat bottles, and drink while breastfeeding and - generally do it 'wrong'."
Just as Calman's occasional glass of wine could only deepen the self-hatred of an alcoholic pregnant woman, so her willingness to talk about doing things "wrong" yet again defers the day when a true sense of the power and perils of motherhood might become available to women of all social classes. I would hate to suggest that her book isn't funny, because it is. But anyone thinking that they really are embarking on the confessions of a bad mother - whether in jest or in earnest - should, as I think Calman would put it, get out more.
Rachel's Cusk latest novel is In the Fold (Faber & Faber)