The writer, Vanessa Olorenshaw, worked as a lawyer before having children. Her experiences of being marginalised for not returning straight to ‘work’ led her to write this book. She argues passionately and eloquently for the rights of mothers which are continually crushed by a capitalist patriarchal society. Many mothers would like to spend the early years of their children’s lives with them, yet are penalised by a system that insists they gain paid employment. Consequently many are forced into work too soon and their children are then cared for, usually by other women in nurseries, whose own children are possibly also being cared for elsewhere, in a Russian doll style set-up. The patient, caring nurturing that a mother does IS work and should be respected as such. Care of child often becomes conflated with upkeep of house. This is often perpetuated in the home itself, when other members of the household describe their chores as being ‘for Mum’. Olorenshaw is an advocate of the Basic Income system that some campaign groups are pushing for – a living wage available to all which would give women the freedom to choose.
If anyone thinks mothers don’t get a raw deal, then they have never been one. As she notes, the moment you announce your pregnancy, you become public property, until you have your baby, when you are seen as a nuisance. I well remember having to get off a crowded bus because I wasn’t able to fold my pushchair one handed (the other holding my screaming baby) while the tutting passengers collectively looked away. If you are ‘just a mum’ that’s seen as being lesser, when it is hugely important. But any mother who dares to ask for more support and recognition gets shut down as ‘moaning’. Since the writing of this book we’ve witnessed the mauling of Andrea Leadsom for having the temerity to suggest that being a mother made her a better choice for PM. In fact, she said ‘I feel that being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country,’ but that’s not nearly so sound-bitey.
The book’s sections detail a mother’s Mind, Body, Labour and Heart. It is impressively researched and informative. I learned that ‘oikonomia’, the Greek word for ‘economics’, in fact means ‘household management.’ It looks at how mothers are continually sidelined: Eleanor Rathbone championed the Family Allowance for mothers in 1946 in the UK, which has morphed into the Child Benefit for families in recent years. It gives weight to Olorenshaw’s lament that ‘mothering’ is being erased from our language. That also provided one of the funniest footnotes; the observation that ‘fathering’ is a completely different concept to ‘mothering’. Some of the footnotes are a little irritating however, tending to be of the ‘ooh, I’m being ironic here.’ When a piece is as well researched and written as this, it doesn’t sit entirely well.
There is an excellent section on breastfeeding, the rates of which are pitiably low in the UK, detailing the fixation on the content of milk, rather than the act of feeding itself. However, I was surprised there was no mention that those most likely to breastfeed are professional, middle class women. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/24/class-baby-breastfed-life-chances-inequality . All the specialist counsellors and time at home in the world will not remove the unpalatable and no doubt politically incorrect fact that many working-class women regard breastfeeding as disgusting or unnatural. It is an extremely contentious, judgement-laden topic and there is a whole load of work to do in desexualising women’s breasts, starting with removing them from mainstream media.
Olorenshaw believes a mother has the right to choose, but she is so fervent about their right to spend as much time with their children as she did, it feels a little prescriptive. Looking after children is described as hard and frustrating, but not (whisper it) – boring - and maybe some women reading it will feel guilty if they do find it so. In my experience of running groups with new mothers, they often confess to the cardinal sin of being bored when they are with their babies, with feelings of remorse and shame, but they are relieved they are able to say this and not be condemned to the status of ‘bad mother’ for their honesty.
She is harsh on liberal and social feminists, old-school ground-breaking feminists such as De Beauvoir and Friedan. If feminists do not champion the rights of mothers they are ‘patriarchy’s mouthpiece’ [pg 44]. The Women’s Equality Party, which was founded in 2015, comes in for a right pasting. Olorenshaw had sat on the policy working group when the party first came into being and had got frustrated at their inability to be more proactive in the matter of mothers’ rights and their insistence on seeing ‘mothers as a problem to be solved’ [pg 253]. She decided not to continue her involvement which is understandable, but surely she should be making allies with these people? They have potentially a higher profile than some of the organisations listed at the back of the book. Professional women too are dismissed, ‘the unwillingness of a privileged class of women to challenge the system that had given them power’ [pg 201], but seeing as the bulk of her readers will be in this category, it might be seen as a risky move. She advocates for ‘maternal feminism’, with the concept of a Purplestockings movement – combining the Bluestockings (intellectual educated women from the eighteenth century) and Redstockings (Radical Feminists of the 1960s).
Olorenshaw wrote a pamphlet for the UK 2015 election, which maybe has coloured the tone here. While each chapter works as a stand-alone piece, it reads as quite polemical and repetitive – the words ‘patriarchy’ and ‘feminist/m’ occur a fearsome amount of times. I found the most interesting chapter to be ‘The Politics of Mothering’ – I think the original piece – containing many interesting facts about fiscal policy and stats about mothers and families. However it is near the end and I felt quite worn out by then like I’d been repeatedly kicked in the shins by a ‘purple-stockinged foot’ that read ‘message.’
I felt a variety of things while reading – pride and tenderness for my children (good – it was lovely to be reminded of the importance and sweetness of my work as a mother), rage against the system (understandable – I experienced similar after reading Greer et al as a student), but also some dissatisfaction against my personal setup – three males in the house – one big, two small. Raging at a system created by men, then looking at your own men, is a bit unsettling. As Olorenshaw explains, patriarchy has been around as long as Plato. While there is a brief mention of the Goddess culture, it is not really expounded, so it is hard not to feel a bit hopeless at a situation that has always been so.
However, small gripes aside, this is a fluid, punchy, beautifully written piece with some poetic, memorable quotes, such as ‘becoming a mother is like learning to drive the day after being run over by a bus’, [pg65] or how mothers are ‘society’s paradoxical scapegoat sat on a pedestal.’ [pg125]