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The patter of tiny feet

The Secret World of the Working Mother
Fiona Millar
Vermilion, 288pp, £12.99, and,
The Idle Paren

Fiona Millar’s book about the challenges awaiting the busy mum belongs to a literary tradition of which I was unaware until I, too, began writing about the pleasures and pitfalls of bringing up baby. Typically taking the testimonials of parents and grouping them thematically (with varying degrees of accuracy), The Secret World of the Working Mother is a cross between Julia Hobsbawm’s The See-Saw – a good, punchy, self-help tome about the work-life balance – and Naomi Stadlen’s What Mothers Do – a more atmospheric account of motherhood as seen through collected, though not linked, perspectives.

But The Secret World of the Working Mother has not really decided what it wants to be – whether it wants to serve as a practical advice manual or as the record of a more personal journey. This indecision permeates the work; what sometimes functions well as a loose collection of voices at other times feels random, and I often found myself checking the chapter headings to see what the author thought the section I was reading was supposed to be about.

And at the risk of sounding like His Girl Friday, I can spot when a news journalist has been bludgeoned into writing something more “features-y” and, in adding the requisite detail, the “colour”, only makes the piece lack conviction. Millar prefaces every testimony with a comment about the woman’s appearance: so-and-so is “tall and striking” or “tall and energetic” or “tall [and] elegant”. I was holding out for a “tall and stately” – in vain, it turns out, though there are a few “petites”. This is estate agent-ese, the colour lacking the hammer thwack of authenticity. Plus, I disagree with almost all of it.

Millar recounts how she once let her child cut through his sweatshirt with a pair of sharp scissors because she was on the phone to the office, and did not want to admit that she was looking after the tot at the same time. She concludes: “The fact that mothers lack the confidence to affirm that parenthood has equal status with work is depressing.” Which has to be bollocks, doesn’t it? I mean, nobody, from Mary Whitehouse to Germaine Greer, would assert that childcare and work are two things you should be able to do simultaneously.

There’s quite a bit of this – sly asides about how “amazing” it is when women in the workplace aren’t supportive of other women and comments about inadequate nannies – all of which make a lefty’s skin creep. Yes, Millar is a person, in the world, and she has opinions, but the tone is wrong. She puts herself forward not as a polemicist, throwing up controversies to interrogate, but rather as a neutral author presenting self-evident truths.

The voices she does present are varied: some are interesting, others a bit moany, and some really give mothers a bad name. There are enlightening sections about the law as it relates to maternity and how legislation consolidates itself only in being tested, and how, therefore, it is vital for women who experience discrimination to seek recompense. Putting aside that the legal route for the individual is so painful and swingeing that, realistically speaking, if you don’t have union representation, you shouldn’t go near it, this is a pretty rare example of the cogent, objective,goal-based analysis that I suspect Millar would far rather be doing. Instead, she presents a compendium of warbling: here is a person who is just about making it work, with her two little girls of six and four; here’s someone who had a really bad time last year but now feels OK; here and there is a touch of the parenting guru Penelope Leach or Donald Winnicott, but just in sketchy summary, a breezy “some people think x about attachment theory, other people think y”. There’s no politics, no argument, nothing but kindly understanding of how it can be very hard, and often people don’t realise how hard it is, and here are others who’ve found it hard, too . . .

The stated intention is to normalise the problems of working motherhood, vent them in their rich variety, and solicit frankness from readers about their own situation with the book’s tone of acceptance. Quite possibly there are mothers out there who, feeling isolated, will find all of this useful. But I wanted more passion, more judgement, more personality, more agenda. Instead, The Secret World feels like a really long National Childbirth Trust meeting, without the biscuits.

Any comparison with Tom Hodgkinson’s Idle Parent would be unfair, really; his ends could not be more different. He is not after anything as tedious as acceptance and concord. He’s not feeling his way through the swamp of emotionality that is motherhood; he is planting his colourful flag on the ground of fatherhood. And he is never boring; at times he is intensely readable. His extensive use of quotations, from Rousseau, D H Lawrence, P J O’Rourke and sundry other luminaries, would flatten a lesser writer; it is to Hodgkinson’s tremendous credit that you can happily settle back into his boisterous, unfussy prose, after Rousseau’s masterclass in measured wisdom when describing a spoilt child: “In vain everybody strove to please them; as their desires were stimulated by the ease with which they got their own way, they set their hearts on impossibilities . . .”

The form is, again, a familiar one: an intensely personal rumination (to call it a narrative would be to suggest too much structure) is interspersed with lessons from science, or the sages, or friends. Although, actually, there is no science here, and few observations from friends. But you get the idea. I persist anyway in disputing the wisdom of adding the thoughts of random friends to such works. For sure, draft in the giants of the Thinking genre to an extended, personality-driven think-piece, but resist the urge to include: “My friend Heather has two young kids and this is her view: ‘I personally think there should be much more effort put into training children to mix Martinis and do the housework.’” After all, the writer isn’t making a documentary, they’re having a rant. To which end, Hodgkinson starts with a 21-point manifesto – “We reject the idea that parenting requires hard work”, “We drink alcohol without guilt”, “Time is more important than money” – with which I agree almost entirely.

It will help my thesis if we can recap the author’s history for a moment. He started life as a creator of the Idler, a magazine-turned-book that was really everything you could possibly ask for from the modern pamphleteer: it was funny, original, unorthodox, cool in an effervescent, unstudied way, intellectual without the angst and defensiveness. You can sense all of that spirit and more in his approach to parenting, but it is a territory governed by a much sterner and more humourless orthodoxy than Hodgkinson is used to. There is so much cant in the parenthood business, so much ludicrous, rule-bound frenzy, so much nutrition this and developmental-toy that, that it would take a lifetime to knock it all down. And the trouble is that, generally, the people who are relaxed, who do drink alcohol without guilt, who do extol the lie-in and allow their under-fives to make their own breakfast, can’t be bothered with the conversation. You would be amazed how rare it is to encounter a parent preaching the hands-off approach, unless they are joking. The genuinely hands-off can’t be arsed to enter the savage fray.

So, even before you’re past page one, this book has done you a tremendous service (I’m assuming you are of an idle disposition, with young children, or perhaps you just wish people with young children would lighten up a bit). That said, Hodgkinson doesn’t trouble himself overmuch with consistency. He is doggedly anti-capitalist one minute and preaching private education the next, with apparently not a thought for how one might feed into the other. And I suspect that if you aren’t already well disposed towards the author, you might feel irked by the “Look at my marvellous life and the tremendous way I do things” top-note to everything. But overall, the book is funny, meaningful, likeable and sometimes effortlessly wise: “Whining in children results from their sense that they are seen as encumbrances and have nothing to offer. Only the powerless whine. So make them useful!”

The “idle” brand is a bit of red herring, I think. There is a serious, pioneering spirit underneath this velvet smoking jacket, and it greatly enriches the Big Parenting Conversation.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue