: a weak or imaginary argument or opponent that is set up to be easily defeated
(from Marriam-Webster online)
I’ve found myself linking a couple of times in the past few days on Twitter to an old post I wrote last year about the concept of the Yummy Mummy. It’s been playing on my mind a lot over the last week, as I’ve read lots of debate about the term “mummy”: what does it mean, what does it stand for, who owns it? Today, it’s because I have read Catherine Deveny’s article in the Guardian: Sorry, but being a mother is not the most important job in the world, which does raise some valid points, but which fundamentally slips back into the same tired old trope of trying to definitively reach the “right” way to be a mother…while leaving very little quarter for the “wrong” way.
This isn’t a post rehashing the questions of motherhood in our society, fascinating though they are. Why did I, problems of childcare and practical issues notwithstanding, feel such a tug to be at home with my children when they were little? Have I been socialised or brainwashed into it? Am I buying into a myth which “financially and socially hobbles” me and disrespects every other significant relationship my children have? Am I enabling a patriarchal system which exploits my labour and imprints damaging preconceptions on my children’s brains. Yes. No. I don’t know. Most of the time I’m just getting on with it.
I think this is a debate that needs to be had. I don’t know the answer, but I know that discussing these things out loud, examining the causes and effects and consequences of our actions can’t possibly be a bad thing. Never knowingly underthought, I agonised for years before leaving paid employment outside of the home, trying to find anyone who would understand the feeling of guilt that I was somehow betraying the generations who had fought for my right to education and career I was now about to put into (possibly permanent) storage. It took a wise friend to point out that continuing to make myself miserable wasn’t necessarily honouring their work either.
It’s a debate which is ongoing and important. To take each side of the argument to its logical, reductive conclusion would result in conflicting but equally nightmarish outcomes. Why educate women, if their most important role is to bear and rear children? Why support a child’s homelife at all, if its parents’ most important role is, conversely, to work and contribute financially? Neither makes sense. We are feeling our way, painfully, towards a different approach, pulled all the time by economic and other constraints which make the notion of choice for most a laughable notion.
And yet this debate, so vital, is conducted primarily in an atmosphere of bad temper, resentment and ill-will. We all know our own circumstances and those of the women around us, but still we seek to defend our decisions and pre-empt expected judgement from the crude caricatures of the two opposing types of mother who slug out the mummy wars over our heads.
HeartlessCareerMum: childcare 24/7, expensive shopping habit, vast expenditure on life’s little luxuries for her…life’s little luxury. And her equally evil, equally fictional, SmugUberMum: devoted to being there 24/7, secure in her own superiority, scathingly dismissive of any choice other than her own. And it’s the same with breastfeeding, and, to a lesser extent, weaning, sleep and education.
(I’ve never, by the way, met any real woman who fits 100% into either camp.)
There seems to be no room for nuance. No acknowledgement of the fact that we are adults who live our lives as best we can, not squabbling tribal children, signing up to one gang or another to the exclusion of anyone who doesn’t know the secret password into our den.
Why is it, then, that everything I read about motherhood and choice seems to start from the premise that we all choose one unappealing option or the other and then defend our choice by trying to bludgeon to death its opposite? Why do we fall for lazy, badly drawn stereotypes and worse, start to attribute all of their supposed characteristics to anyone we meet, so that we think we know what someone is going to say even before we listen to them?
There isn’t a right or a wrong way to raise a family, but there’s surely a better way of debating those ways than tilting at straw men…or straw mums. Rather than arguing with the substance of lazily divisive articles and posts, we should challenge the style of them which seeks to drive women into every more entrenched opposing positions. We should push for a different, more challenging, debate, which stops making it all about women at all.