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8 September 2016

Wise up, the “as a mother” brigade: parenthood doesn’t make you a better citizen

"As a mother", I know Calpol dosages and revision guidelines. That doesn't mean I have a bigger stake in our society's future.

By Tracey Thorn

Remember that week recently when Andrea Leadsom, whom we’d never heard of before, was suddenly going to be prime minister, and then she went and spoiled it all by saying something stupid like “being a mother makes me a better candidate for PM”? Or at least, that’s what she was taken to have said, even if she claimed to have been misunderstood. It hadn’t helped that during the EU referendum debate she started sentences with the words “as a mother”. As a mother I understand this; as a mother I feel this more deeply; as a mother I share your concerns. It sounded like, “As a mother, I’m better better better.”

I agreed with everyone else that it was an awful thing to say. And then I thought, with a guilty start, “But hang on a minute: I’ve said that, too.” Not that I’d make a better PM – to be honest, that’s never come up. But I have done that thing of talking about my parental status when describing a reaction to a film, or a book, or an item on the news. I’ve said, “As a mother, I think that really spoke to me.” “As a mother, I saw so much of myself in that story.” “As a mother, I found that news story unbearable.” I even wrote a lyric along those lines in a song called “Nowhere Near” – “I’m no good with sad news any more./Gets me running upstairs/To count heads in tangled beds . . .”

I think dads do it, too, though perhaps they don’t get so much grief for it. On Twitter the other day I saw a man tweet about Alistair and Jonny Brownlee embracing after winning gold and silver in the Olympic triathlon, and he wrote: “As the father of two boys I love this.” Later the same day, another man wrote that, as the father of a five-year-old boy himself, he was heartbroken at the Syrian footage of a dazed and bloodied little Omran Daqneesh. So, is referring to your parental status a dreadful thing to do, or dreadful only if you’re a woman?

I’m sure I find the news harder to bear now, but whether that’s to do with being a mother, or just being older, I’m not sure. I know that my feelings are different, but I’m not so much comparing myself to those who aren’t parents, I’m comparing myself to me before I was a mother. I am different now.

I do feel different. Thing is, I’m not so sure that it’s a change for the better, and I want to make sure from now on that I don’t imply it is.

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The fierce protectiveness you feel towards your children means you would fight for them above anyone else. Parents are tigers, though only mothers get described as such. You’d rescue your own kids first; you sacrifice things for their advantage; you put hours of effort into trying to make their lives better, easier. But I’m not sure why anyone would think that makes parents more civic-minded. In that sense, the childless win, don’t they, as they don’t have a small, select group (their own children) that they’d prioritise.

So, in the future, if I use the phrase “as a mother”, I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting it makes me a better citizen, or someone with a greater stake in our society and our future. I’m going to try to avoid the implication that I feel things more deeply than non-parents. Yes, I wept at the photo of Aylan Kurdi drowned on the beach in Turkey partly because I saw the image of my own youngest when he’d been that age, dressed in the same little calf-length toddler trousers, the same soft-soled, round-toed shoes, which someone had carefully put on him that very morning.

So I might have wept “as a mother”, but I think everyone wept. Tears are tears. Mine aren’t wetter.

“As a mother”, I have stretch marks and a scar where there didn’t use to be a scar. “As a mother”, I know about Calpol dosages and revision guidelines and the symptoms of tonsillitis. But on the other hand, half the maternal things I learned I have forgotten somewhere along the way. So don’t ask me at what age babies are allowed bananas, or when they have a tetanus jab, or how to teach kids their times tables. My skillset is random, my knowledge unpredictable. Anything useful came and went in a flash. Like their childhoods.

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This article appears in the 31 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war