The Curse of the Mummy: Motherhood and Identity

Or should that be “The Mummy’s Curse”?. As we stumble towards Mother’s Day, one of the many modern festivals that asks us to show how much we care with cash, I find myself thinking about motherhood and identity – both my own and the very ambiguous feeling we have towards mothers in our society. On the one hand, mothers are a valuable commodity to the marketing profession – mum has her hand firmly on the family purse and makes very important decisions about where to buy food and other essentials like children’s clothes, toiletries and cleaning products. Mother is therefore wrapped in a marketing cloak of warmth and homeliness; as epitomized by the Oxo Mum of yore:

I remember recoiling from the ads as a difficult teenage vegetarian and of course, in real-life poor Lynda Bellingham was a victim of domestic violence. But the myth is plain for all to see: mum is good because mum feeds you yummy food (and makes food manufacturers and marketing men lots of lovely money). Win!

Yet, although the concept of “mum” may be worshipped in our culure, being “mumsy” is not.  In 2012, heaven help any woman who refuses to fight against allows the ravages of time or childbearing on her body. The Oxo Mum would be sent to Gok for a makeover and stuffed into a pair of spanx and some skinny jeans. Mummy must be yummy (don’t even get me started); better still, she must be a MILF (yes it does stand for what you think it does). Mum must be a younger, slimmer version of the “domestic goddess” Nigella Lawson.

Someone here’s been rather naughty:

It is extremely rude, but it does make a point; namely that whereas back in the day mum could be mumsy, now she must be a foxy minx. Food is not a metaphor for comfort; it is a metaphor for sex and Nigella can’t get enough of it.

It’s easy to hiss at Nigella for being as fake as one of her TV shows – her kitchen is not her real kitchen and the friends who come round for dinner are just as likely to be members of the production team as real friends. Obviously Nigella is also obscenely rich – any pretence of normality is absurd when we know she is the daughter of former Chancellor Nigel Lawson and married to multi-millionaire Charles Saatchi. I went to her house years ago for some telly thing and it was in Mayfair. But Nigella was great and although what she represents can be seen as dubious, I rather liked her. And she looked  bloody amazing.

Nigella may have about as much in common with most women as a banana, but at least her status as a mother is out there for all to see. In many ways she represents the ultimate wish fulfillment – just live your life, make some cakes, flirt a bit and become incredibly rich. We also know she is well educated and business savvy. She’s a fantasy figure for modern mums. Not a very PC one, but secretly all women of a certain age want to be her.

I’m going to veer off in another direction now and look at the issue of feminism and motherhood, which I think is an interesting one. In a weird way it does sort of connect with Nigella. Bear with me…

A few days ago I read this:

I quite like the F-Word, which I encountered in 2007 whilst making a programme about the Spice Girls, that possibly represents the nadir of my career – or maybe even my entire life. I read about it an article in the Observer making out feminism was the next big thing – whether or not this is true, the F-Word is still there and publishes some interesting pieces.

The article struck a chord, explaining as it does why so few working class women identify as feminists.  I may be an over-educated middle class ponce, but it totally nailed it for me. It reminded me why so many women find it hard to engage in activities like politics – a big problem for all the major parties – and why it is that so many single mums end up on benefits. It’s why lots of women drop out of the workplace or scale down to part time work. It’s because they’re mothers.

Unless women have the money and resources of someone like Nigella, the practicalities of looking after kids and lack of affordable childcare make it hard to do anything other than stay home with the kids. Because being a mother is HARD WORK – unless you have money, a supportive partner or family and friends who can help out and allow you to have a life outside the home. Lots of women I know are f***ed because they have made the terrible mistake of being born poor, getting divorced, having health problems or one of the many things that make it hard to find a job that covers food, bills and childcare. That’s why I’m so committed to defending children’s services like nurseries and play centres – they give ordinary women a chance to make something of themselves. The idea of cutting these services is obscene – they are a basic human right.

I would never have “got” this before I had children; free market feminist that I was, I would doubtless dismissed such notions such as nonsense. I had no idea of the enormous way in which motherhood changes your life – the love, the guilt, the tiredness, the emotions and the toll it takes on you physically. I sneered at women who didn’t work – either they were rich drones or slovenly layabouts. Women who didn’t work – ideally in male dominated, high pressure “careers” – were just a bit rubbish. If that makes me sound like a certain “Iron Lady”, then please forgive me:

Obviously I had a rude awakening after the birth of child one, nearly seven years ago now. My whole identity was so bound up with my career as a TV producer that the thought of giving up work was horrific. I was also used to getting good money (which I squirreled away out of terror that every job would be the last one) and money is as addictive as any drug. I lasted a couple of years and then decided enough is enough. I’ve done freelance TV work and teaching since then and have also passed the PGCE. I’m back working in the college part time and doing the Masters. I’m always busy, but I see my kids and don’t feel like my head is about to explode (well only sometimes).

Although I never would have believed this as a younger person, motherhood is now a major part of my identity and a job or lifestyle that does not accept that aspect of my identity is therefore no longer something I want. As a young girl I hated playing with dolls – I preferred books, or mud – and as a teenager/twenty-something, babies and small children were my idea of hell. My generation of girls were brought up to aspire to work rather than babies; pregnancy was a sign of failure or terminal weakness. I remember thinking I was pregnant when I was about 25 and seeing my whole life flash in front of me. My career would be ruined and I would be trapped forever. And I would have to give up smoking. What a personal disaster!

This all changed when biology took over in my early 30s. Tick tock. I can only compare it to adolescence when you suddenly become interested in boys/girls/whatever your preference. I became interested in babies. I wanted one of my own. Very, very badly. For about a year, I refused to acknowledge these hormonal stirrings. Then I gave in. Fortunately my partner (now my husband) wasn’t too frightened (maybe he should have been, seeing that we now have three of them). I had child no.1 at 34 and fell in love. Despite a horrible birth the rush of joy was something else. I’ve felt that with all of them.

Conceiving the second one was tricky and this made me quite depressed. I felt my body was conspiring against me. But he turned up eventually when I was 38 – that’s him in the photo. Then no.3 child was conceived only days after my 40th birthday – my 40th birthday present, I call him. They are all a pain at times, but I can’t imagine life without them.

Oh dear, I am getting a bit sentimental now. That’s another disturbing aspect of being a mother is that you suddenly get “cute” in a way that would have seemed abhorrent when you were a “cool” and “edgy” girl about town (I speak only from personal experience – please forgive me if this makes no sense whatsoever). Babies especially are very cute. I enjoy looking at catalogues of over-priced children’s clothes just because they have cute babies in.

I’ll stop now before I embarrass myself even further… Night night!



This entry was published on March 17, 2012 at 10:43 pm. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

5 thoughts on “The Curse of the Mummy: Motherhood and Identity

  1. OK I’m going to say this out loud (well, write it down online) – I need to start doing some bloody writing cos I keep thinking about how I want to and the only reasons I have for not doing it is a. not being sure when I’d fit it in, which is really just a guise for reason b. laziness. I’m a longtime reader of the b3ta newsletter and was directed to your post about Adam Curtis, I was about to remark that in a weird coincidence I also watched all his documentaries over the course of a few days last year, then I remembered that I was first introduced to them via that newsletter so I have either you or your husband to thank for that.

    Anyway I’ve just read 3 of your posts and they’re very enjoyable reading. I love the way with blogs you can write something that’s half proper journalistic thinkpiece in the manner of a Polly Toynbee and half domestic anecdote like a Lucy Mangan. I’m totally going to read more of your stuff! Night.

  2. Wow, beautiful post. I believe what you say is true regarding getting pregnant as a sign of weakness in our modern times. I am a young mom but love my little one dearly. Ps. I love your picture!

  3. Natalie on said:

    Lucy – great post. You are so right about the curse. I think I’m still slightly disappointed in myself for having kids and bailing out of my career path. Regularly I dip my toe back in, hate myself for missing the kids, listen to a load of ‘oh they’ll be fine’, then pack it in and start the cycle again. I get SO ranty about childcare/attitudes/expectations etc that I am half tempted to go off on one on my blog. But then I am weak, so thanks to you for having the courage! Keep ranting and I will certainly keep reading 🙂

  4. Ive never identified with Feminism for exactly the reasons on the F word. If your clothes, accent, education status, or housing don’t fit you get sniggered at for making any point. And any point you make, must be backed up with some quote from some sociological text or it just isn’t good enough. I’m older now, so don’t get offended. But if anyone had asked me if I were a Feminist earlier I would have used another F word to respond.

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