In defence of the Highgate Mum

Posh mummies: aren’t they just awful? Hogging the pavement with their designer prams, clamouring to get their precious offspring into the most prestigious schools, hyperventilating the moment their little cherub comes into contact with a non-organic edamame bean. Thank God they have some comedy value, otherwise there’d be no point to them at all.

This, at least, is the view of the twitter account @Highgatemums, described by the Poke as “comedy gold.” @Highgatemums tweets the idiotic (and not so idiotic) musings overheard from the “posh mums of North London.” And some of it is very funny, if stretching the bounds of plausibility (“He gets annoyed that no one realises ‘Jack’ is short for ‘Jacobean’”). It’s hard to read the timeline and not to think how much you’d hate to be one of those mummies (apart from the being rich thing, obviously). They’re so superficial! So dumb! So why would I want to defend them?

To be clear, I’m a mum, but I’m not from Highgate, or indeed London. My children do not attend a much sought-after school (phew – does that mean I’m safe?). Nonetheless, there’s something about the gleeful mockery of these mummies that I find unsettling. Yes, there’s snobbery and foolishness, but there’s also something to be said about the Catch-22 nature of womanhood and mothering. No one sets out to become “that woman” but how else are things supposed to pan out?

Highgate Mum is not a monster; she’s merely following the rules. Feed your child organic food, don’t let them watch TV, send them to an expensive school, teach them Mandarin, offer positive reinforcement, watch out for those allergies blah blah blah. So she’s listened to all of this crappy advice – because you can’t be a mother and not be bombarded with it – and guess what? She has the time and money to follow it, so that’s what she does. Most of us don’t. Most of us think “fuck it” but only, if we’re honest, because we’re neither rich nor leisured enough to do what she does. It’s not because we’re selfless altruists, desperate to ensure our children don’t have advantages over anyone else’s, nor is it because we’re the parenting golden mean when it comes to privilege versus restraint. We’re all of us drifting in our little bubbles. It’s just that some bubbles are bigger than others.

Every day, women are mocked for following the rules they’ve been conditioned to obey since the moment they were born. Femininity is a construct – we know this – but it still demands that we create the perfect illusion. We mustn’t be fat, ugly, old or sad, but we mustn’t ever reveal the effort that goes into staying thin, pretty, young and happy. It’s the cool girl scenario described so well in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl: “I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.” Like the rules for cool girldom, the rules for perfect mothering are stupid, elitist and inconsistent, but Highgate Mum didn’t write them. She’d be a bad mum if she didn’t care, and she’s a bad mum because she does.

Having children makes us fierce in the defence of whatever unfair advantages we have. Alone, we can shrug them off, try to hide them, do our best to share, but when children come along, our selflessness in relation to them becomes selfishness in relation to everyone else. Parents care about their own children more than they care about other people’s (otherwise we might as well make life interesting by picking up a different batch from the school gates every day). The behaviour of Highgate Mum makes this all too obvious. It’s embarrassing to those of us who want to pretend we’d happily abandon our own privileges if only we had the chance. We’d much rather decide she’s an elitist bitch rather than someone responding logically to the gendered and class-based context of her life.

Gender is, I think, important here. Highgate mum mockery reminds me of that form of social justice activism which revolves around identifying the women at whom it’s still okay to hurl misogynist abuse: radical feminists, mummy bloggers, right-wing female politicians. Mocking the way a woman parents – singling her out because she’s anxious about all the crap women like her are told to be anxious about – is cruel. It’s easier for dads, even Highgate ones, not to give a shit about quinoa and piano lessons. As Rachel Cusk notes, fathers can approach parenthood “full of revolutionary zeal, of disgust and despair at what they see, and their expostulations, their cries for reform, vibrate with unspoken criticism of those who have lived unprotesting under its regime for so long: the lifers, the long-term residents, the women.”

Some of the Highgate Mums tweets seem to me to reflect the privilege of the tweeter. For instance, “School hours are designed for the convenience of the teachers and pupils and nobody else. Nobody else AT ALL.” This may seem laughable and obvious, but perhaps only if you assume mothers never need to earn money themselves. We do have a working culture that is out of sync with school hours. Perhaps there isn’t an easy way of improving this, but the assumption that there is always someone – aka Mummy – on hand at 3:15 every weekday afternoon is a real issue. The person who fails to notice this is the privileged one.

Women can laugh at the Highgate Mums account, but perhaps this is a reflection of our own insecurities. We’re constantly being made to feel inadequate, so what better way to boost our confidence than to tell ourselves that those other mummies, the ones who can afford to send their children to private schools, are total bitches? Then we can pitch ourselves against them as scummy/slummy mummies, which functions as a kind of humblebrag in reverse, since we’re every bit as embarrassed as we pretend not to be.

It’s not as though I haven’t had my fair share of Highgate Mum moments. Sometimes I’ve even tweeted about them (and been retweeted by Highgate Mums, shamefully enough). Aged four, my eldest threw a tantrum about being made to shop at Tesco rather than Waitrose. He and his brother once set up a table with books and announced they were playing “Cheltenham Literary Festival.” Their dad made them cut short a re-enactment of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader’s showdown because he was worried it would break a cafetiere. But there’s a difference between making fun of middle-class pretensions, thrown into stark relief the moment a child picks up on them, and mocking a woman who isn’t in on the joke, presenting her words without any broader context, simply in order to feel superior.

Obviously I’d fight tooth and nail for my children to have more privileges than Highgate Mummy’s. But for that very reason, why should I feel superior to her?