Trying not to get tarred with the mummy smugness brush

I have never read a Maeve Binchy novel. They have always struck me as a tad “mumsy”, which is ironic since today, three days after her death, I found myself reading an article which argued that while Binchy “didn’t need the experience of motherhood to write about love and friendship in a way that charmed millions” (i.e. in a way that a cultural snob like me would dismiss as “mumsy”), had she actually been a mum “she might have dug deeper, charming less but enlightening more”.  Hmm. Allow me to put on my literary analysis hat. Now, I realise this is all hypothetical and that we’re still saying “might”, but even so, what a great big steaming pile of crap.

In a piece entitled “If Maeve Binchy had been a mother…”, less successful but more fertile novelist Amanda Craig poses the utterly pointless question “does a female novelist need to have experienced motherhood to truly understand human emotions?” Er, no, Amanda. I think the answer you’re looking for is “no”. Really, it’s not even that hard; after all, we all start life without having experienced motherhood, whether we go on to or not. Do some mothers really forget that they knew how to empathise before their babies arrived? Should we even be considering the alternative?

Craig grandly describes the “pain, rage and misery” that all mothers go through:

It starts with your own, for even with pain relief, the shock of giving birth changes you for ever. The feelings of intense vulnerability (your own and, more importantly, your child’s), passionate love, joy, bewilderment and exhaustion are unlike anything else. Had Austen, for instance, had a child I wonder whether her focus on romantic love would have survived; childless Anne Elliot’s saintliness as an aunt in Persuasion would certainly have been mitigated by very different feelings.

Is this for real? Okay, Amanda, I can see you’re the author of Hearts and Minds (Abacus, £8.99), but does this really put you in a position to make “if my auntie had balls she’d be my uncle”-style arguments about Jane Austen? And besides, I can’t help feeling that the pressure to feel all these intense emotions – passionate love, joy, bewilderment, blah blah blah – could be what pushes many women into depression following the birth of a child. You feel lacking if you don’t feel extraordinary. And meanwhile, others are out there boasting of your extra-ordinariness to those who haven’t bred, all the better for them to resent you (and as for mothers who’ve adopted – well, they can just stay in no-man’s land as far as this paradigm’s concerned).

To be fair, Craig goes on to admit that “women without children can see and feel human life just as acutely and can imagine the feelings of parents convincingly”. This is big of her; I’m sure all child-free women are grateful not to be seen as inhuman robots. Even so, for the life of me, I can’t see the purpose of constantly dividing women into those who’ve been through the transformation that is motherhood, and those who haven’t. We’re far more complex and varied than that. What’s more, we don’t do this with men (the male writer who was the subject of my PhD only had one child, who died in infancy. However sad this is, biographers tend to brush past this as something which can’t really have affected him. After all, he had his Art, which is obviously the main thing if you’re a proper writer).

Craig argues that for women, motherhood “does change you and bring about a deeper understanding of human nature”. Seriously, this makes me cringe. Craig’s piece exemplifies a particularly insidious type of mummy smugness, and it’s one which I despise. It’s worse than the P&G “sponsor of mums” marketing tripe. It alienates women who don’t have children and it makes those who do look like self-satisfied idiots, despite the fact most of us don’t share in this smugness. Like it or not, we still get tarred with the smugness brush (comments that follow the article refer to “mommyjackers” and “momtyrs”, terms I’d never encountered before, but you instantly know what they mean).

To summarise, Amanda, you’ve not just let yourself down; you’ve let down all of us. To be honest, I worry about your empathy skills. Are you sure those children are yours?

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4 thoughts on “Trying not to get tarred with the mummy smugness brush

  1. > for the life of me, I can’t see the purpose of constantly dividing women into those who’ve been through the transformation that is motherhood, and those who haven’t.

    I can see why. Some people think women are only good for making babies. Those that don’t make babies are clearly inferiour, selfish people who don’t care about anyone and go off doing unnatural things.

    Good ol’ fashioned sexism.

  2. Thank you for challenging (and so effectively demolishing) this example of the “mothers are inherently superior to everyone else” trope.

    I am a childless man (not by choice) and I find that some people who have had the good fortune to become parents can be quite staggeringly thoughtless and insensitive in the things they say about parenthood and non-parenthood.

    1. I didn’t use to notice this but before I had children I suffered a miscarriage and suddenly the way in which motherhood is viewed as some great moral achievement became really obvious to me. And it’s really illogical, and really painful. I am sorry you are still bearing the brunt of this.

  3. If we were relying on writers to only base their work on their life experiences and “charming less but enlightening more” reading fiction would be an exceptionally dull pastime. I am a mother but not an international jettsetting billionaire playboy who hops from Carribean island to island spending his dosh on champagne, class A drugs and former Miss World contestants but I’m fairly sure I could take a stab at empathising and maybe jotting down a few paragraphs.

    Incidentally, I used to fill with rage when those sodding P&G ads would catch me at a weak moment of exhaustion/hunger during the Olympics and I’d find myself involuntarily choking up while also shouting “Eff you, P&G and your sophisticated, manipulative advertising ways, I know what you’re doing”. I’m sure plenty of people – parents or not – were caught off guard with those ads. They’re pretty sentimental, particularly after half a bottle of wine. Advertising works, the bastards.

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