The consensus that it is feckless and irresponsible for couples who rely on state benefits to reproduce clearly does not extend to the monarchy. For weeks before the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s first child, news teams from across the globe camped outside the luxury hospital where the sprog was set to make its entrance. As the due date soared by, hacks of every stripe filed and refiled speculative copy that managed to combine sycophantry with prying in that uniquely British manner; amongst the realms of opportunistic merchandise produced for the occasion were “Royal Morning Sickness” bags in pink and blue, printed up with the legend “shake rattle and rule!”. The punnery was presumably designed to ensure that the sick bags will be used for their intended purpose, if only by common wenches like me who are incubating a sense of impending national collapse into crypto-fascist kitschery where our blue-blooded fetuses should be.
It is sourly ironic that in a week when the whole nation is mandated to celebrate the birth at lavish state expense of Baby Cambridge, the hard right of the conservative party is set to launch a new attack on “teenage single mothers”. Of all future subjects of our new infant overlord, none are more scapegoated than teenage single mums. They have always been targeted by the more purse-lipped guardians of the nation’s purse strings, in part because they lack the resources to fight back, and in part because we live in a sexist, post-feudal society where contempt for sexually independent women and for poor people is expertly stage-managed.
Not only have teenage single mums broken the moral codes laid down on their behalf, they dare to ask for our help in order that they and their children might not have to go hungry. Because that’s what we’re really talking about when we talk about taking away benefits from single mums, as the Tories are right now: making women pay for sexual transgression by forcing them into poverty. As policy proposals go, it’s as retro as royal-baby bunting. The fact that the line of monarchial succession now passes to whatever comes out of the royal vagina, be it boy, girl or timorous beastie, is supposed to be the ultimate victory for modern feminism, but the spectre of a future queen ruling over a society where single mothers have to choose between sexual bargaining and starvation is no such thing.
Let’s step back for a second and talk about numbers. Teenage pregnancy has, in fact, been steadily decreasing since 2008, and public perceptions of the phenomenon tend to be wildly overestimated – this month, an Ipsos MORI poll showed that on average, British people think teenage pregnancy is 25 times higher than it is, with just 0.6 per cent of girls under 16 falling pregnant each year. This is still hundreds every year, but the figures are small enough to disprove the longstanding notion that waves of school-age strumpets are slutting it up to get on the public housing lists. We do have a housing crisis in this country, but it’s more to do with soaring property prices and lack of council building. By contrast, 100 per cent of royal mothers are housed at public expense, and the Daily Mail has so far failed to rifle through their bins for anything except mementoes.
Some might argue that this is the wrong moment to raise the stubborn issue of children born in poverty to single and teenage parents. Let the people have their bread and circuses, just for a week or two; let them live the vicarious fairytale. There will be time enough, after the tornado of media hyperventilation about nappy rash, couture booties and lines of succession has died down, to talk about the 700 other babies who will have been born into poverty in Britain on the day the notice of a new heir of Windsor was nailed to a slab in front of the palace. There will be time, surely, to talk about those other babies, perhaps on a day when mentioning them won’t sour the celebration punch.
Except that, somehow, that time never seems to come. We never do seem to talk about those babies and their mothers, or allow them to tell their stories, and this is precisely the week when we should. Because single mums and pregnant teenagers are the other side of the story we’re being told, endlessly, about the royal family and their perfect lives, the divorces, disputes and deaths of the 1990s seemingly entirely forgotten. It gives the lie to the aspirational fairytale of Kate, William and their as-yet-unnamed offspring, by showing that for some women, the handsome prince just doesn’t show up. Some women have children in poverty and raise them alone, and this government is doing everything in its power to make life more difficult for those women. Pass the royal sick-bag.
Baby Cambridge does, in fact, have a few things in common with the children being born to teenage single mothers this week, apart from its star sign (Leo on the cusp of Cancer: a sign that loves to be the centre of attention, which is probably a mercy). They will both be born to mothers whose bodies are treated as public property, scrutinised, shamed and judge even more than other pregnant women who fall somewhere in the middle of the social spectrum. They are both being discussed as symbols, rather than as real children who will grow up to become real people. The royal baby may not be a subject, but it’s still an object: an emblem of everything ordinary little girls and boys are meant to aspire to be, rich and cosseted, born to a loving, stable heterosexual couple whose story is a fairytale of privilege and patriarchy pushed at us in every paper, wrapped up in the sort of twee, creepy retro-Britannalia that has overwhelmed public discourse in past three years of royal pageantry, all cupcakes and co-opted war propaganda, like a nationalist hymn sung in the voice of a child.
The children of teenage single mothers are symbols, too, of everything that women aren’t supposed to do: have sex, live independently from men, and dare to rely on state assistance without already being the heir to the Duchy of Lancaster. The royal baby, being a baby, is not an appropriate target for contempt – but nor are the children of the poor, and I would like to live in a world where every child’s arrival is an occasion for happiness and hope, where every mother is respected, whatever her life choices. Give me a chance at that future, and even I might crack out the bunting.