Too clever to be a mum?

On Sunday night my mum rang just after I’d got the kids to sleep, right at the start of CSI. She was telling me about some man she’d met somewhere for some reason (look, you can’t miss the beginning of the show, mum or otherwise, else it’s all shot to shit). Anyhow, we made it to the beginning of whoooooooo are you,* at which point I was able to zone back into the conversation, just in time to hear my mother come out with the following:

So I told him about your degrees, and he said “ooh, she must be very clever, your daughter”, so I said “oh no, it’s fine, she’s got two children”.

Hmm. Thanks for that, Mum. I think?

So, okay, I missed the start of all this and I may have got it all wrong, but what do you think my mum was trying to suggest? Here are a few possibilities to get us started:

  1. women who have children are not clever
  2. if you’re clever you are unlikely to have children
  3. if you are clever and do have children, you become less clever
  4. all of the above (assuming that works – I’m not clever enough to be certain)
  5. none of the above (because my mum is a mum and therefore not clever enough to say anything that makes sense)

Which is it, folks? I’ve never used the “Poll” function in WordPress, but maybe I should give it a go. Mind you, most of the women whose votes I’d be counting are mums, so what would be the point?

My mum’s intriguing comment coincides with the TV historian Lucy Worsley causing a bit of a kerfuffle by apparently claiming that she’s not a mother because she’s just too clever. Here is what Lucy actually said:

I have become the poster girl for opting out of reproduction. I am happy to stand up and be counted. I have been educated out of the natural reproductive function. I get to spend my time doing things I enjoy.

As a mother myself, I have to say I don’t find that particularly annoying. I think she’s being tongue-in-cheek. I think she’s telling people to piss off and mind their own business. I think she’s poking holes in the “barren intellectual” stereotype, and parodying the ongoing fear that too much education makes a woman biologically useless. To be honest, if I didn’t have children, it’s the kind of succinct, sarcastic comment I’d dream of coming out with, too, although I’d also pepper it with lots of good swear words.

Of course, the Daily Mail doesn’t see it that way. “How stupid to claim you’re too clever for motherhood” screams the headline, followed by an article listing all the “many women just as well educated as Lucy Worsley who’ve managed to have both children and a fulfilling career” (because here, having “a fulfilling career” is the direct equivalent to being clever, rather than precisely the thing the Mail normally tells any woman who’s had babies not to bother with). The article’s author, Sandra Parsons, is particularly upset about Worsley’s “tone”:

… which implies she’s too superior for the messy business of raising children. Your ability to be a mother has nothing to do with your educational attainment and everything to do with the universal qualities of selflessness, generosity, compassion and patience.

I think there’s some truth in this, but I also don’t think Lucy Worsley contradicts it. She admits she’s just doing what she likes. If anything, I like Worsley the more for saying what she did (up till now she just used to really irritate me, for no particular reason. Alas, some people are just like that and Lucy, I’m afraid you’re one of them).

Over at the Guardian, Barbara Ellen is bored, bored, bored with Lucy’s pronouncement and the fuss it’s caused:

Increasingly, there seems to be a culture of over-justification around procreation and non-procreation, leading to the sort of polarised, high-emotion debates where all parties are as dogmatic, self-obsessed and unpleasant as each other.

To be honest, I’ve never noticed such a heavily polarised debate beyond the pages of newspapers such as the Mail and the Guardian. But Barbara goes on and on about how everyone else should stop going on and on about it all, rehashing the whole sorry debate just in case none of us realised quite how boring it is. I mean, yes, I’m also rehashing it here. But I haven’t said it’s boring so I’m allowed. Plus I don’t think the wider issue – the real issue of how those with and without children approach one another – is very boring at all.

I am conscious that having children marks me out as not being like “those women” – the clever women my mother doesn’t want me to be – career-obsessed, harsh, unfeeling. On the contrary, it marks me out as one of “those other women” – a mummy – a breeder, a bit of a drop-out, could’ve been a contender but fell victim to her uterus and its pathetic earthy needs. It’s all rather depressing, in an abstract sense, but it’s also not particularly connected to real life. I’m not sure whether anyone actually believes the stereotypes but they have become part of how we market ourselves as women, both to others and to ourselves. Look! I have the mummy badge! I’m not scary, me! A bit of me even thought that when I put the Mumsnet badge itself on this blog (ha! Anyone who finds this blog will be nicer to me because they’ll assume I’m softer, weaker, not a childless bitch).

Of course I don’t always want to play the mummy card. When I’m with friends who don’t have children I aim to be as non-mumsy as I possibly can, namely by going on about my job as though it is the only thing that exists for me. Alas, the mask always slips. Someone mentions a cute thing their niece or nephew says and it’s like an alarm bell goes off: Alert! Alert! It’s cute toddler anecdote time! and there I am, babbling on and on about my two like the most boring person ever because, hey, I’ve had to hold it in all this time. Now I’ve started I just can’t stop.

Still, I do still get on with my child-free/childless/barren friends, and they still manage to put up with mummy/breeder/total moron me. If you believed everything the papers say (both left and right), we’d be too busy judging and hating each other to exchange the merest pleasantries. I think some journalists don’t realise how insecure and self-focused a lot of us are – we’re too busy judging ourselves to judge others. Plus we, you know, like our friends, so we’re not about to decide they’re crap on the basis of what their reproductive organs have or haven’t done.

Perhaps the journalists just need to get an article out of something, and Lucy Worsley’s comments provided them with all the ammunition they needed. But still, I salute you, Lucy. I’m not offended by what you said. And even if you meant it, it’s not like I’ve never heard it before. In some ways, you’re just like my mother.

* oo-oo oo-oo aaah really wanna know… can someone tell me who are you you you you yoooooooooooouu!!!!


2 thoughts on “Too clever to be a mum?

  1. Had a right giggle at this, very well written! I too don’t find it particularly offensive. My education only goes as far as A Levels but I had a child by choice and not because I had nothing else going for me in life. It’s definitely a tongue in cheek statement, there are plenty of well educated Mums out there like yourself, and to judge someone as ‘stupid’ because they’re career stems towards nappies and softplay rather than being a lawyer does not make someone less clever.
    In fact, I’d love to see a 40yo childless lawyer take care of my toddler for the day. We’d see who was wiser then!

    1. Thank you for your nice comments! My sons are two and four and already getting into arguing with me. My dad was a lawyer but I don’t think he’d be any match for them. Some days I find it’s a huge mental strain not to be yelling my head off (but I am unsure whether this is to do with intellect or me being a grumpy cow, tbh!).

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