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On the origins of a stereotypical mum


Space for the Butterflies - on the original of the mummy stereotype

Wherever you look and whatever you’re doing as a mother, there’s a stereotype and a preconception to tell you that you’re doing it wrong.  It’s literally impossible to find a conclusion that “they” approve of isn’t it; if you’re a…

  • working mum – you’re selfish and you neglect your children. Why have children in the first place if you’re going to farm them out to someone else to look after, you should put them first, not your career.
  • stay at home mum – you’re a sell out. Our mothers and grandmothers fought for equality and instead of breaking glass ceilings and heading all of the Fortune 500 companies at once you’re sat at home like a good little housewife in a pinny, what a terrible example to your daughters.
  • work at home mum – you’re letting your children be raised by the television so that you can get your precious work done, they’re going to grow up to be disfunctional and short-sighted.
  • part time working mum – you’re on the Mummy track at work so you’ll never achieve anything and barely there at home, you’re neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring.

Doomed aren’t we!

So where have they come from, these little vignettes that bear no relation to reality? Who started them?

Usually a stereotype is rooted in some sort of fact, the legend taken from the real life hero, an amalgamation of a lot of personality traits and physical characteristics that might appear across a wider group, but don’t actually represent one individual. For example, the classic Scottish stereotype is a redhead in a kilt eating a deep fried Mars bar and bellowing “och aye the noo!”. There are plenty of people in Scotland wearing a kilt, a good number of redheads, I’ve been in at least two chippies with deep fried Mars bar on the menu (and deep fried pizza!) and I’ve heard “och” dropped into conversation as often as someone else might say “um” but I’ve never seen it all come together in one real life person.

But it isn’t the same for the stereotypes of mothers.  I absolutely love being a mother and I’m not neglecting my children and any more than my sister has given up on feminism and is setting a bad example to her son because she’s a stay at home Mum, having previously been extremely successful in her career. None of it is true.  And it’s the same across all the families of my experience.  Every family has made the decision that makes sense for them, works for their finances and gives their children the best that they can offer. Reality and the stereotype just don’t match up.

So where did they come from? Who started them? And who perpetuates them?

It’s very easy to claim “the media” as the bogeyman, but media isn’t some faceless computer churning out random words until they come out in some sort of sentence (although I swear there are occasions when you’d be forgiven for believing that); it’s people. Real people who may be mothers or fathers or not, but who interact with the real world and must know that the “city mum” they cartoon is really trying to check she has clean shoulders post snotty cuddle at the front door, to remember whether she sent in the money for the school trip and what time she’ll have to have left work to make sure that she’s home in time to take her eldest to his gym class, not waltzing off in a “children, what children?” bubble.

The ‘why’ the media presentation of mothers is divorced from reality is, on the face of it, quite easy to see. Sensationalism and inflammatory headlines sell newspapers and get people clicking on articles.  The way Kirstie Allsop’s comments on family were ‘repackaged for sale’ last year is a classic example.

But I think there might be a little more to it than that, I wonder whether in fact we collude.  Because the problem with all these stereotypes is that regardless of which category we fall into, they play to our deepest fears. My deepest fear is that my children, especially Pip, will look back on their early days and think “well I had a fabulous childhood and so much fun with Daddy, but I don’t really remember Mummy being there, she was always working.” And when we thought I was going to be the stay at home parent I worried, not that I’d be letting my girls down in choosing the more traditional role, but that my father would be disappointed that he’d invested so much into my education, and I would be wasting it staying at home.

I’ve never been a fully work at home mum, but to complete my set I also know that when I worked part time my big fear was that I was doing two jobs badly.

It sounds rather familiar doesn’t it; “the media” aren’t so much randomly inventing nonsense, as tapping into our fears. And because they play on our fear, it’s all too easy to take refuge behind the stereotypes that criticise every decision that isn’t the route we chose, as ‘evidence’ that actually we’re OK and doing a good job.

But fear I can do something about.  It’s very trite to say “there’s nothing to fear but fear itself” and for the record it’s wrong, there are plenty of things to be justifiably afraid of, that’s called self preservation. But when it comes to fear of our abilities and choices as parents, the saying has a point.

If I name my fear, and acknowledge that actually it serves a purpose in reminding me to be fully present and engaged with my children as much as I can, then it becomes less of a fear and more of a useful character trait.

That’s not scary. More than that, it makes the stereotypes laughable, just too far from the truth to have any impact.  And without that power, maybe, just maybe, they’ll stop.

What do you think?