Interview: Charlotte Philby
Illustration: Fleur Beech

Before you have kids you look at mothers and think: you people are nuts. They seem very neurotic and very self-righteous, which in itself is a weird combination. Neurosis normally implies some kind of vulnerability and letting people help you, but self-righteousness is telling other people what is best for them. So it is very difficult to get close to mothers who are projecting this intense anxiety about everything that happens to their kids while at the same time projecting this very fierce know-it-all attitude to everything. You see them and you think, what has got into them? It can’t be that hard to have a baby, why are they making such a fuss about it?

Then you get pregnant yourself. Then you have a baby. Then you realise that it’s not something you’re projecting, it’s something that the world is projecting onto you.

The desire to control mothers is elemental, it goes back for centuries. Now we’ve found a new way of expressing it with a set of rule-based, quasi-scientific criteria. That busy-body tendency has really been enshrined in a series of instructions. While the rhetoric is all “your baby didn’t come with an instruction manual…”, actually it does now. Your baby comes with a really strict instruction manual. Then there’s the pretence at sympathy: “Oh it’s confusing for mothers when they’re given two different sets of advice.” But I find that really enraging because it’s not that we’re confused – the portrayal of mothers as confused by advice only serves to reinforce the portrayal of us as this intellectually depleted, spent force; but we’re not confused: we want them to stick it up their arse.

On one hand there’s a lot of schmaltzy sentimentalism around motherhood. On the other, a lot of rules

When you have a baby all you’re trying to do is love your baby. But suddenly there isn’t a decision you make that that doesn’t reverberate throughout your child’s entire life. There is no personal choice you can make that doesn’t have a kind of social implication in which society is allowed to intervene. Everything from the minute baby is born is governed: breastfeeding vs bottle-feeding; Gina Ford vs hug hug hug. On one hand there’s a lot of schmaltzy sentimentalism around motherhood. They say: no experience is necessary, when a baby is born a mother is born, too… But there are also an awful lot of rules in which the stakes could not be higher. It is never just “do you do controlled crying or do you do hugging?” It’s always “people who do controlled crying are damaging their babies forever and the people do hugging are setting back the progress of women’s lib by 200 years”.

As soon as baby is six months old there is the whole thing about going back to work and nursery, and that conversation is very very sour. It is very much “you don’t you realise by leaving them in nursery you’re making them really stressed, they’re going to have attachment issues, they’re going to be really insecure.” Versus “you don’t realise, I don’t have any other choice, I need to work and if I don’t actually find a way to make this work then my whole family is going to suffer and babies don’t like that either”. So there’s this very embattled space, and there’s no space for a mother to say “well I actually want to work because I like my work”.

That whole idea of the mother having a preference in the world is being erased by very binary position-taking between one option that’s the best for baby and the other option that’s the best for baby. The idea of this relationship as being two people who both need to be happy is completely gone. That’s something that comes across really loud and clear on breastfeeding as well. You have really stringent rules about how breastfeeding is the only nutrimental ideal; it’s the only way to nutritionally provide for your baby and if you say “but I don’t want to do it and it’s making me really unhappy” then the response is that you need more support. The idea that you might have a preference one way or another and that your preference might mean something is being completely ditched.

You’re repeatedly told: you need to protect your baby from the modern world, and if you don’t then you’re a rubbish mother

This external pressure that subsumes motherhood starts in pregnancy but only really makes sense when you’ve got the baby; when you have this really intense love for your baby and you don’t want to do anything that would make society think you love your baby anything less than a trillion per cent. As soon as you have a baby you are incredibly vulnerable to other people’s judgements but you kind of resent them at the same time because their instructions don’t really seem to be founded in fact. Indeed very few of them are grounded in fact. The fact that the advice keeps changing is because the advice is issued before they check whether the advice is right.

The underlying politics beneath all the neurosis is that you’re repeatedly told: this is your responsibility now, it’s your baby, you need to protect it from the modern world and if you don’t protect it then you’re a rubbish mother. Now, some things obviously you protect your baby from. You don’t leave it on its own, you don’t feed it sugar until it can ask for it. But the idea that every toxin in the world – indeed the toxicity of human nature – has to be kept away from your baby is abdicating the responsibility of all of us in favour of the responsibility of you as the mum.

I think actually more and more that when people do respond badly to mothers and call them self-righteous, what they’re responding badly to is the fact that mothers are framing themselves as the protectors of the species. But actually that’s what all of the rhetoric tells us, that the only person who can look after our baby and protect it from the chemicals and the air quality and from other people, is us – and so we get a bit anxious about it. And of course the stakes become incredibly big and the problem is the model, which is adversarial: it’s mothers on one side and the world on the other side. Whereas actually we’re on the same team.

‘The Madness of Modern Parenting’ by Zoe Williams is published on 27 November, £10

@zoesqwilliams

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