Earlier this year my partner, kids and I stopped for tea in a Little Chef.* For reasons I cannot explain, my boys were being exceptionally well-behaved, so much so that one of the waitresses came over to compliment us, the parents, on this. For further reasons I cannot explain, my youngest then decided to hold his chicken nugget aloft and pronounce “I’m like a dog eating poo off the floor”. I can totally see him as a future Sunday Times restaurant critic. He has that way with words. Back then, however, it was less than impressive. Thankfully the waitress took the feedback in far better grace than it deserved.

There are times when my kids have been total sods in cafés. Real little fuckers annoyances. I mean, they’re ace and everything – this morning I even over-egged the positive parenting pudding by calling them “the best little people in the world” – but now and then they turn to the Dark Side. And when that happens, there’s no reasoning with them at all (okay, I tell a lie – there sort of is. But it’s the kind of reasoning that ends with someone going “waaaaaahhhhh!” and it’s not always me).

I try to avoid going in cafés if I’m alone with my children for a number of reasons:

  • they’ll demand something expensive, take one bite then leave it
  • they’ll be too impatient to wait for the hot food to cool, burn their mouths then refuse to touch it again
  • they’ll disappear under the table while I’m faffing about with ordering and whatnot
  • my youngest will get bored and decide he needs to “work the room” – and yeah, he’s really cute, but this still tends to have mixed results

In spite of all this, I still frequently find myself seated opposite the younglings, cappuccino in hand, while they fight over who gets to unwrap the Starbucks gold coin. Cafés are good for a number of things: sitting down, breastfeeding, nipping to the loo, having something to eat and drink while it’s pissing it down outside. Moreover, I sometimes manage to keep them  under control with a couple of toy cars from my bag (does that count as a lame Top Tip? Perhaps I should give the Brainwaves Roadshow a try with that one).

In the latest round of the Guardian Yummy Mummies debate, the attention has turned very specifically to the behaviour of children in cafés, with Rowan Davies’ piece being followed up by one by Clare Kathleen Bogen, entitled Yummy mummies are rude and too demanding. Take it from a waitress. When I first saw that, my reaction was “pah! I’ve been a waitress, too, so less of that, matey!” Then I thought “oh, but I was a waitress while I was a student, so that doesn’t really count”. Then I read Bogen’s Guardian profile. Her waitressing is no different to mine. So yeah, I’ve been a waitress, too, for longer than you have, Bogen. And let me tell you, there are a million and one ways in which customers can be annoying, but it strikes me as odd that only “yummy mummies” seem to be fair game for this level of attack.

I’ve been a waitress and I’ve been an annoying mummy in a café with a massive buggy and badly behaved children in tow. I’m not going to start debating which experience is worst (although I’d like to note that when Bogen writes – somewhat self-pityingly, I feel – “after a certain amount of screaming, I’ve seen other customers pack up and leave. Here’s the thing: I don’t get to”, she should remember that the mummies don’t get to, either. Those little bastards you can’t wait to see the back of? Crappy, selfish, uncaring mummy has to take them home with her. While it might be her responsibility, let’s not pretend it’s fun).

Bogen is keen to distinguish “nice” parents visiting cafés from the yummy mummies, whom she claims “are not subjects of contempt because they have children and dare to occupy the same public space as others, as Davies suggests, but because they actively make problems, not just for the other customers, but for the staff”. Quite how this fits in alongside as derogatory, gender-specific term such as “yummy mummy” is unclear to me, but then Bogen doesn’t seem to have it in for daddies quite so much. She writes approvingly of one café in which “we put our pastries at half price: croissant for child, cappuccino for dad. I love this”. Greasy spoon meets Athena poster, it would appear. Meanwhile the mummies are banding together to spoil it for everyone:

[…] a group of mums, babies in tow, loses us customers. I have seen customers peek in, then walk on by if they see more than a couple of mothers and babies.

The sooner we get equal parental leave sorted and replace these harpies with bare-chested new men, the better for the economy, I say.

I read Bogen’s piece and think, largely, “well, I don’t care what you say. I know I do my best to be considerate, but you don’t seem as fair-minded or child-friendly as you think you are” (btw, by “child-friendly” I don’t mean you literally have to be friendly to my kids. Just not actively dislike them because they’re there). There is however one section which upsets me and it’s this:

This leads us to behaviour. As a child, if I had even dared to scream in public, I would have been told off severely. Every time we entered a shop, my siblings and I dutifully held our hands behind our backs so as not to touch anything. Yummy mummies apparently are big fans of letting their children “find themselves”, which includes allowing them to scream at loud volume and touching everything in sight (especially cakes and pastries).

As a child, I witnessed a lot of screaming in public – not from me, mainly from my brother, who had (and still has) several physical and mental conditions which limit his ability to respond as others do. His problems are not instantly obvious. My parents tried discipline, a lot – too much, I fear. The knowledge that others, who don’t know your background or the challenges you face, might take it upon themselves to judge you and your child via one snapshot of their behaviour disturbs me. Moreover, this sense of being judged increases the pressure on parents. It makes it clear they and their children are “on show”, yet not all children are able to perform. Not all children can be controlled through Supernanny tactics. Should the parents of such children hide away, to the detriment of their own well-being and that of their other, more “normal” café-appropriate offspring? Should every single outing be cut short, followed by endless apologies? Or should others learn to be more accommodating to people who are different – including the very young? I know the response to this might be “yes, but she doesn’t mean those children”. But you don’t know who those children are. We haven’t yet started forcing them to walk round bearing a special sign.

I am concerned that declaring open season on yummy mummies isn’t just sexist – it’s also allowing ablism in through the back door, by insisting on one model of “normal” social behaviour for children and their parents. It’s never that easy. You can have perfect little angels and it’s just luck. Or you can have the child who’s screaming and kicking on the floor and it’s not because you’ve failed or you’re not bothered. You’re trying your best and the least – the very least – you want is to be able to down your espresso before the angry glares shoo you out of yet another establishment. Or you can have the child who’s a superstar until he announces that his chicken nuggets are like poo. Personally, for the time being, I feel fortunate to have the latter, but know things could change. It’s all a bit of a joke – bash the mummies and their silly, selfish indulgences – but there is a real risk of it descending into children-bashing. And when that happens I just can’t reason with people. It’s the point at which I go “waaaaaahhh!”

* Yes, Little Chefs do still exist. Although they still refuse to allow you to keep the empty plate if you don’t want the lollipop. “Kindly swap”, my arse.