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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?



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  • sustainablemum 20/01/2016 at 9:15 am

    I think that the mother stereotypes do have a root. They do exist but in such a tiny minority that they can never be representative of us all. I do know a working mum who works very long hours, who put her children in nursery full time from four months, whose children now have all manner of labels for learning difficulties at school, but who is to know if they would have had them anyway. But more importantly she is the only mother I know who does that and I would never judge her either her circumstances are her own.

    I think there are so many groups who are labelled in this way. There was a tragedy in Birmingham about six years ago which led to the government hounding home educators for months and trying to bring in legislation to ‘bring us under control’ somehow after this one case we were all labelled as being the same.

    I must admit I tend to ignore these sorts of comments about motherhood now. It takes a lot of confidence to do so, but the proof is in your children and whether they are thriving if they are then comments are rarely made. It those people who are looking for the ‘holes’ that worry me, not because I am worried about what they say but why they feel the need to do so in the first place.

  • Mary 20/01/2016 at 12:14 pm

    I find people are desperate to assign me a stereotype – except I really don’t fit any! I have a husband… but he can’t form an essential part of our routines, because of his variable work situation (one day he’s working 9-5 half an hour away, the next he’s up at 4am and in Scotland or Wales for the next 48 hours). I have to develop all routines to work when it’s only me and Jamie. Oh, so it’s like being a single parent? Well, no, because I have the privilege of enough money to live comfortably while being an at home parent, the luxury of being on good terms with jamie’s daddy so no emotional turbulence to try and cope with, and also the challenge of having to always work around said variable schedule, deal with those early morning alarms, and do my best to leave space in the routines for daddy to fit into them as often as he can whether that’s mornings, evenings or weekends.

    Then they find out I have a PA helping me and words like “nanny” “au pair” and “babysitter” get used, with a side order of the “why have kids if someone else is going to raise them” that you mention. Then I explain that the PA is only to help me do things, wrangle the wheelchair ramps and so on, she’s specifically barred from doing anything that could be construed as childcare, and then I get cast as Overprotective Mummy who won’t let anyone else cuddle the baby, until I explain that it’s a condition of my funding…

    Ultimately I’m just doing what everyone does, being the best parent I can be in my particular circumstances. Some things I can’t do as well as I’d like (baking for instance, I’m sure you recall my chocolate cornflake cakes disaster), some things I can’t afford, some things I know I’ve already screwed up, but I’m doing my best and not doing badly. Sadly, “doing my best and not doing badly” doesn’t seem to be on the stereotype list of options!

  • Sally 20/01/2016 at 9:37 pm

    Yep, we can’t win, and just have to be secure in our own hearts with what we’re doing. I count myself as a feminist, and for me feminism is all about women having choices. But it is tough, I do feel secure with what we’re doing but then when having conversations with the girls about what they want to do when they grow up it’s a little disconcerting to hear Maria say that she won’t need to get a job because she’s a girl!

  • Claire @ Clarina's Comtemplations 21/01/2016 at 12:16 am

    You are so right about those stereotypes, Carie! Perhaps we need to stop judging each other and actually realise that everyone is doing what is best for their situation… I think us women can be the worst culprits at putting others down who have made different choices, simply to justify our own! Oh dear! A helpful post and food for thought!

  • Mandycharlie 21/01/2016 at 1:33 pm

    I think the worse thing about stereotypical demands on mothers is that when your children start to become independent, the teenage years a woman is then expected to join the workforce again. Which would be great if it weren’t for the thirteen weeks of holiday and that the teenagers do not want to go to into some sort of child care situation, much prefering to lie in bed. Fortunately I was able to work evenings and weekends for much of our boys young life, so was around during holidays, after school and at lunchtime when they were in sixth form. It was with horror that I watched quite a few boys, from otherwise good families go off the rails, some came back on line, some really haven’t. I think it is underestimated just how much children need you at that stage in life, I think it is probably the most important, but the scorn you get from other women is a force to be reckoned with.

  • Winwick Mum 23/01/2016 at 8:49 am

    For some reason, people feel comfortable putting others in boxes with a label on them. It’s what helps them to work out their own place in society and settle their own anxieties and insecurities. Unfortunately for them, many of us don’t fit neatly into a box. Many of us have so many roles that we can’t be defined by one or two words, and the words that we might use are outside of the scope and experience of many people’s home and working lives so they don’t understand. In the end, I have decided that I don’t care about other people and their labels. What’s important is that our lives are as we want them to be, that my girls grow up to be strong, independent women who are above all happy with themselves and their choices. It’s not always an easy choice not to fit the box and the label, but what’s more important – someone else’s opinion or being a role model for your children?