Mama asks: how did candidly writing about parenthood lose its honesty?
Words Nancy Alsop
Illustration Phil Couzens
Parents who watched Motherland, the raved-about new series by Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) and Graham Linehan (Father Ted), will doubtless have nodded along in mirthful recognition – even solidarity – at the unflinching representation of what it is to be both middle class and to have children in the 21st century. Surprise! No one is having it all. And shock! Everyone is mad in their own special way – whether, at one end of the spectrum, they’re going to extreme lengths to cadge free childcare so that they can just get to bloody work on time or, at the other, presenting a breezy Ralph Lauren-style model family face to the world while busily having secret threesomes with people from the Internet. And this non-dressed up, not immediately obviously Insta-friendly account of parenthood rides the crest of a very specific parenting zeitgeist, in all its manic, wild-eyed, crazy and at-times near-psychotic desperation: the rise of the slummy/scummy mummy.
It all began with the Alphas, of course, those so-called “yummy mummies” who managed to magically produce perfect offspring; balanced organic lunchboxes; immaculate-though-twee homes awash with Cath Kidston (Cabbages & Roses for the more discerning); and imaginative outfits for every endless World Book Day or party requiring fancy dress unobtainable to the more basic mum with her trusty glitter, scissors and glue. They did all this casually while also ensuring their kids were high-achieving and did things like going to bed on time without alarming nightly meltdowns. These people were, of course, either self-created myths (cross reference: threesomes with people from the Internet) or eye-bulgingly wealthy and thus able to delegate with abandon. But these fictitious uber parents did more than to just leave us with a sense of inadequacy; they bequeathed in their wake the rise of the anti-yummy mummy, as pioneered by Fiona Neill, the Times’ original Slummy Mummy whose laundry pile is rarely less than a metre high and, in consequence, whose every confessional book has teetered at the top of the bestseller’s charts. She – along with the swelling tide of social media – has in turn spawned a litany of colossally popular bloggers, from Selfish Mother, to the Unmumsy Mum to Hurrah for Gin, whose sweary stickman-illustrated blogs fondly yet honestly recount what life with toddlers – or miniature dictators – can be like.
So far, so refreshing. But as the bloggers practically triple daily in number, all clamouring to proclaim their ineptitude louder than the last, the near-compulsive candour has also filtered down to every playground and school pick-up in the land. Your child has fallen head-first off the climbing frame because you were distracted with gossip about that weirdly attractive teacher? “Ach, don’t stress, my child broke every bone in his/her body last summer – we still don’t know how – at that boozy picnic that no-one can remember getting home from!” “You think that’s bad? I blot out their whingeing every day by downing gin with my morning coffee!” “I feed my kids ready meals every night!” “I don’t feed mine at all, except the occasional Haribo!” “I don’t remember my kids’ names!” “I haven’t seen my kids in weeks!” “Occasionally I get so off my head I forget I even have kids!” “My youngest is a twat!” “My middle child is the spawn of Katie Hopkins and Jeremy Hunt!” And so on, each ‘self-deprecating’ declaration of failure more extreme than the last.
Something that was born of a commendable desire to deflate the impossibly high standards set by the saccharine yummy mummies has descended into a different sort of one-upmanship. It is important to remember that these are, invariably, middle class parents deafeningly proclaiming their ineffectiveness; if a working class parent dared to shout, in jest, that they cracked open their first bottle of wine as they poured their kids’ cornflakes, social services would doubtless be summoned. And therein lies the rub.
It is, after all, human nature to delight in a candid chat and the realisation that our shortcomings are not only recognisable to but also shared by our peers. But when those failings are plastered relentlessly across a host of social platforms – Instagram, Facebook and Twitter – it becomes less of an in-it-together candour, and takes on a smugness all of its own that says, “here I am being hopeless – and yet, by some miracle cocktail of good fortune and spectacular genes, aren’t my children still beautiful in spite of bohemian old me getting sozzled in the corner? And come to that, aren’t I remarkably artfully dishevelled in my small label designer clothes that make me look like I’ve wandered off the Moors as some sort of Brontean fantasy – minus the tuberculosis.”
The compulsion to be honest smacks of studied affectation and competition. Rather than sitting in friends’ homes swapping comic stories of the disasters (and triumphs) of family life, the compulsion to publish every move to a mind-boggling number of followers doesn’t scream ‘supportive sisterhood’ so much as “look at me and how unbelievably authentic I am!” Particularly since, even as the snapshots and videos of toy explosions in the sitting room/ children head-to-toe in cake mixture/ toddlers swearing loudly go up, there is one hard-to-ignore constant: an exemplarily dusky Farrow and Ball interior in the background; a picture-perfect shabby dog lolling by a log burner, firmly ticking the middle class signifier of taste box; and the ‘slummy’ mummy herself, caught ‘unawares’ – despite this being a selfie – in an Anthropologie maxi dress with a Barbour thrown over, some Toast knits, hair unkempt in a manner that can only be achieved with much zealous back-combing and a pair of Hunters paired with thick handmade socks, looking like a stylist’s dream reworking of 1940s make-do-and-mend ration fashion.
In truth, the mums vying to out-inept one another are almost invariably – and entirely laudably – highly devoted, hard-working non-binging non-day drinkers who also happen to have one eye on the entrepreneurial prize of being a much followed social media slummy mummy. All of which is entirely commendable, if only we could wind down the competition and be neither yummy, nor slummy but just fine. We’re fine with just being fine.