As a mother, I’ve learned many things, one of which is that the phrase “as a mother” is as annoying to mothers as it is to non-mothers. Or at least it is to me. Obviously I don’t speak for all mothers. For instance, Samantha Cameron, who is also a mother, might love the phrase “as a mother”. After all, it seems to come in useful when, as a mother, you’re charged with blurring the edges of whatever political decisions the father of your children is inevitably going to make.
Visiting a Syrian refugee camp with Save the Children, Cameron (Mrs) describes how “as a mother, it is horrifying to hear the harrowing stories of the children I meet today”. I don’t doubt her sincerity — nor do I doubt just how harrowing these stories are — but I do question the effectiveness of playing the mother card in this particular instance. Is Cameron suggesting that mothers have a special sensitivity that non-mothers lack? That the latter would be less horrified? Since when did having children of your own become a shortcut to demonstrating your credentials as a compassionate person?
As a mother — yes, another one — I have to say I find this discomforting. It’s not that I don’t think motherhood can change you, making you more susceptible to particular emotional responses, but this universalising impulse, this “as a mum, you’ll know” shorthand, cuts out the need for real expression and ends up functioning as little more than a marketing slogan.
It’s not just that it’s offensive to those who don’t have children. Motherhood-as-kneejerk-opinion-former reduces mothers, these diverse, thinking individuals, to one indistinct mass, functioning on entirely predictable emotional responses. Such responses can range from the blandly nurturing (“as a mom” Michelle Obama is “so excited that schools will now be offering healthier choices to students”) to the presumptuously overblown (“as a mother of four children” Cherie Blair “share[s] the concerns and hopes of all parents about changing the world in which they live”). Mothers cease to have opinions of their own, instead offering up standard mummy responses to whatever life throws at them (top tip: if you’re not a mum but want to pass as one, just claim to be extra sad about any bad stuff happening to kids, unless they’re kids from “bad” homes [aka any home unlike yours], in which case be sad about all those other kids who have to put up with them. That’ll work).
Of course, when advertisers get hold of all this, it’s laughable. Proctor & Gamble claim to be “proud sponsor of mums”; no, you’re not, says many a mum, still waiting for her P&G contract in the post. Calpol tell us that “if you’ve got kids you’ll understand”, failing to notice that even a person without kids would recognise that pain relief suitable for children is suitable for children in pain. The divisiveness grates (honestly, non-parents, P&G haven’t given us mums so much as a free t-shirt) but what’s really disturbing is the moral posturing in which parents in general, and mothers in particular, are invited to indulge.
If I’m honest, becoming a mother has made me more likely to be upset by images of children in pain. However, this says less about the virtues of motherhood and more about my own moral failings, such as an inability to empathise with others unless their experiences are closely aligned with my own. Moreover, I’m conscious of the way in which my own parental selflessness frequently stops at my own front door. Many of the things I want for my children — and for which I’d make personal sacrifices — come at the expense of other people’s children. As a mother I want every child to have a piece of pie but, should the pieces be limited, as a mother I want my children to be first in the queue.
Last year, following the death of Maeve Binchy, the Telegraph ran a serious piece by the novelist Amanda Craig asking “does a female novelist need to have experienced motherhood to truly understand human emotions?” The short answer? No. Just as you don’t need to have experienced motherhood to be any kind of compassionate, self-sacrificing, emotionally literate human being. Of course, it’s difficult to be any of these things at all, but as a mother, I can say that for me it didn’t become any easier the moment I gave birth.