Sunday, April 26, 2009

knee jerks, materialism and bad editing

Last weekend The Age nabbed a Guardian columnist’s rant on “dummy mummies” and set the cat amongst the pigeons. The journalist, Rachel Cooke, is 39 and doesn’t want to have children. What is more, she is rather bored by some women who can only talk about their kids.
When people who know me well ask me, as they very occasionally do, why I do not, at this point, want to have children, my instinct is always to give a flip answer. "I'm worried that I won't have enough time to read" is what I usually say, reading being not only one of the things that I like most in the world, but also one of the very few things at which I can honestly say I am quite good. This quip is not dishonest: though I have several friends who have combined novel-reading with motherhood very successfully, in my own head I hold a convoluted equation, one based on the approximate number of hours I have left to live versus the number of good books I have left to read, and it is very anxiety-inducing. But nor does it tell the whole story. I don't fancy having children for all sorts of reasons, some deadly serious (global warming), some practical (Can I really afford to? What if I lose my job?), some historical (I have three much-loved, much younger sisters, so perhaps I've always had outlet enough for my maternal instincts), and some borderline neurotic (where will his or her toys live? Will they all be made of coloured plastic?).

Mainly, though, I might as well be honest and say that, right now (I am 39), my refusal to have children is also connected to the sense of horror and fear that I feel when I encounter a certain kind of mother. What kind of mother is this? She is the kind of mother I talked to at a party the other night, who told me - with no word of prompting from me - about her ante-natal classes, in detail, for approximately eight minutes. At the end of this monologue, I asked, dead-eyed, if this was her first baby. I mean, presumably it was. "Oh, no," she said, cheerily, "it's my second." At which point, she segued into a lengthy account of how excited her small son was at the imminent arrival of his sibling.
Rachel Cooke

The original piece, ”The rise of the dummy mummies” is up on the Guardian site. What appeared in our Sunday magazine was heavily edited to remove UK references and rather strangely, didn’t have any acknowledgment of it first being published elsewhere.

In The Age’s haste to appear to have local product, they snipped some very relevant issues from Cooke’s rant. For example, examining the role of materialism in manipulating women into dummy mummies.
How did it happen, this loony excess of maternal feeling? Because I know, thinking about my own childhood and, a little bit later, the childhoods of my sisters, that it wasn't always like this. Partly, it's yet another product of late 20th-century high materialism (and, perhaps - here's hoping - it will wane just a little as we move deeper into recession). On baby websites such as Mumsnet, Babble (yes, really) and MumsRock (the latter is taglined: "Because there is life after birth", as if anyone ever said there wasn't), you can read endless reviews of baby buggies and strollers.
When my mother had my sister, there were approximately two kinds of buggy, Maclaren and the other sort, whose name I forget, and you bought one or the other, depending on cost. Job done. The status symbol of owning the "right" buggy had yet to be invented (while we're on this subject, I once heard a friend describe a certain buggy as being "too chavvy", a statement that was, and is, wholly baffling to me). Money, and the ugly way it flows, has made us so disgustingly extreme: just as half the world starves while the rest of us stuff our faces until we are ill, so half the world's children are horribly spoilt and the rest shamefully neglected - and the two things have to be connected, somehow, don't they? Can't we find some middle ground? Mostly, though, it is my conviction that such excess is the result of women having their babies far later. Thus they feel grateful, a gratefulness that gives them the zeal of the convert. And it is this zeal, I am assuming, that prevents boredom from setting in as they ponder the pros and cons of the Bugaboo Bee.

The backlash to this article has been predictable, with the usual sanctimonious responses on parenting blogs and in the paper’s letters to the editor

Dummy spit
DEAR Rachel Cooke ("The rise of the dummy mummies", Sunday Life 19/4), I was blown away by your article. Good for you for not wanting kids and, at 39, it's probably a good thing you're clear on what you want.
But why write an article about mothers who love what they do when you're on the other side of the fence with no intention to cross it? If it's your way of telling your mum and dad you're not having kids, maybe you should have called rather than put it in print. It does nothing but insult women.
I would rather that women are interested (or "obsessed" as you put it) in their own flesh and blood, their little beautiful creations, than not care and be happy to put their children aside to continue on their own selfish path through life.
We are now more open with our communication, language and lifestyles and with most aspects of our lives; so if women want to talk about something that you don't like, maybe you need to excuse yourself politely instead of storing it up as ammunition for your writing.
What is wrong with identifying yourself as a mother? Is it less than being a lawyer/doctor/teacher? No, it's the hardest job in the world and bully for someone if they are proud of it. Sunday Life and other Fairfax publications give multi-page spreads to fashion, celebs and other fairly meaningless events, so why are you shunning mothers?
Seems a bit mean and bitter to me and until the shoe is on the other foot you will never get why all these women are banging on.
ANTHEA WARD, Greensborough
Boring and bought
AFTER reading this useless article ("The rise of the dummy mummies"), I was about to write some words to apologise to Rachel Cooke for having to endure so many boring stories from mothers when she could be talking about Michelle Obama, books, movies, TV and her latest trip to Yemen.
But after a Google search I found she is in the UK and you just bought the article. So my question is now for Fairfax: why bother?
Aren't there enough intelligent journos in Oz to write something interesting?

There has been no positive feedback to the local version of the article that I can find, however searching the article under the UK title “The dummy mummy decade” amongst the usual knee jerks, there is the odd, enlightened woman commenting on blogs or forums for parents who got the point that Cooke was making. For example:

I think Cooke's point about how the fetishism of motherhood ties in with our relentless consumerism in other areas of life is really interesting. I've often been baffled by the number of threads both here and elsewhere, dissecting the pros and cons of various branded baby paraphenalia in exhaustive detail. She's bang on about the buggy-as-status-symbol: I see the prices of Quinnies and Bugaboos and the like and wonder if people have succumbed to some sort of collective insanity.

And surely anyone with eyes and ears would agree with her that parenthood frequently is competitive. You can choose to opt out of that whole thing, for sure, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist and doesn't bear commenting on.
Lazyemma on Mumsnet.

The Age article just stirred up some old barren versus mother shit that is of no service to anyone. The way motherhood is sanctimoniously promoted is just a nifty form of viral marketing and it is about time we blew the whistle. Yet again this once quality rag has cut too much off the editing budget, removing context and meaning the original.

Of course, next time they could just commission a local for the job instead.


Meg said...

I followed your public radio comment on loobylu and found this blog. I'm so glad I did. I read The Age online and somehow missed the Dummy Mummy column, so thanks for linking to it and for posting some responses to it.

I am 35 and a stepmother and am constantly being asked if I am going to have any children of my own.

I am a damn good stepmum and I would do anything for my little boy. For me the role of stepmum is already so fraught with insecurities, but to have what I do and how I feel overlooked and overshadowed by the tradition of genetics – that's so goddamn old fashioned.

Lucy said...

Hi Meg - it's an incredibly fulfilling role within itself, step-parenting, one so often over-looked on the the love-in that is Mother's Day.

Likewise, I would (and do) anything for my stepsons (18 and 15) and they've been a constant in my life for 8 years now. I adore them, but I'm never really considered a 'care-giver' simply 'cos I didn't give birth to them. Glad to hear you share similar insecurites - I have no desire to have my own because I do, in fact, have children. It's just not so openly recognised!

Meg said...

Last Friday I called Step Families Australia to ask if the second Sunday in May is also a day to celebrate stepmums. The receptionist had a giggle then went to ask the staff. She came back to the phone and assured me that yes, it is also a day for stepmums. Happy Mother's Day, she sang out to me before hanging up.

I guess I called them for the same reason we care that we aren't really considered care-givers, because we want to have our roles validated in the same way birth mums automatically have theirs.

For a long while I disliked the word 'step', but now I am wondering if it's the word 'mother' that I have a problem with in terms of describing who I am. My stepson already has a mother, he doesn't need two.

Meg said...

Two days ago I received this as a comment on my blog:

Anonymous said...
I don't think it's as simple as being 'compared' to his birth mother. What about the insecurities that you have towards Z [your stepson]? Why is it that you don't just leap out there and have your own offspring? Why is it that you seem to have motherly instincts but not a pursuit to have your own? Are you worried about the impact on your body or the selflessness that it takes to be a parent? I'm not attacking you, but would like to understand more the reason for the obsession with the 'step mother' compared to being the birth mother?

Another Outspoken Female said...

Why is it that you seem to have motherly instincts but not a pursuit to have your own? Are you worried about the impact on your body or the selflessness that it takes to be a parent?Meg - don't you just love the anonymous comment, hiding their agenda under a shady bushel! Those two sentences are so loaded I don't know where to begin.

Kind of takes your breath away really!