Magazine article The Spectator

The Mother Myth

Magazine article The Spectator

The Mother Myth

Article excerpt

There is no such thing as a full-time mum, and never has been

Here she comes again. Back at the top of the news, draped in the robes of the righteous, embraced by those who sanctify all things traditional: the 'fulltime mother'. As usual, she is the undeserved victim of something or other; in this instance, it's the incoherent shake-up of the child benefit system, leading to headlines declaring that 'full-time mothers are being penalised', followed by an implacable wistfulness that war is once again waged against the finer values of a finer past, when women dedicated their whole lives to their children.

The trouble with this lament, much as I hate to spoil the Hovis commercial, is that they did nothing of the kind; nostalgia is a notoriously unreliable witness and in this matter she surpasses herself. There never was such a thing as a full-time mother; she is a recently constructed, absurdly quixotic myth.

The full-time mother has never existed for the simple reason that, exempting only the fleeting years of infancy, mothering is not and has never been a full-time job.

Students of social history, together with older persons of fair memory, know this.

Long ago, the rich farmed out the job altogether and the poor fitted childcare around the labour in factory or field, frequently conscripting older siblings to mop the bottoms and staunch the runny noses. More recently - here I hark to my own childhood of the Fifties and Sixties - my mother, like most, did not work outside the home. But a full-time mother? She should have been so lucky.

Women like her, in the days for which we affect nostalgia, might properly have been called full-time housekeepers; it was more than anybody's idea of a full-time job and I tip my hat to those who completed what was routinely expected of them. Washing took an entire day; the house steamed and stank and although our middle-class income allowed - eventually - for a hideous top-loading washing machine, there were still the mangle and the clothes pegs to navigate. And then the rain, so you had to start again. . . all in time for an evening's sweat over the spit and hiss of an iron; no poly-fibres then, everything needed a press.

Hoovers? Not them, either; carpets were dragged, by slight and tired women, flung somehow over the washing line and beaten till the dust flew and the women dripped.

Freezers? What do you think? And since it was rare indeed for a woman to drive, that meant a daily walk with the string bag to collect each day's supplies. The ingredients, perhaps, for a cake to be home-baked; shopbought was rare - and suspiciously poncy, anyway.

We might complain today that men do not do 'their fair share'; in my mother's time, men did nothing. They did not cook, clean, iron or make a bed and the delineation between he who brought home the bacon and she who cooked it was absolute. Her working hours were far longer than his and the tasks, usually, far dirtier. Among the - many - things my own daughter finds inconceivable is that binbags had not yet been invented. Bins were daily emptied, washed, and lined with newspaper. And so the list goes on.

But 'mothering'? Educational toys, bonding exercises, improving visits to museums?

Don't be ridiculous. I thank the gods that my mother never heard phrases like 'quality time'; certainly we devoutly adhered to the 15 minutes of Watch With Mother - but most days, I swear, those were the only 15 minutes she sat down at all. …

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