Tribal Motherhood: The Day I Realised I am a Wanker Mum

Campervan

Organic Camper Van Mum Tribe: Fully Paid Member

The playground is the most tribal place I have ever been, and I’m not talking about the children. The first time you enter a school yard as an adult, you may feel naked and small all over again just like you did as a child. Perhaps, like me, you will come over all foetal and experience flashbacks,  huddling up on a bench, hiding and snotting yourself into the nylon sleeve of a kindly dinner lady while Goliath-sized boys play football two inches from your face.

The thing we don’t anticipate about school when we become parents is that we have to learn, all over again, how to navigate the disorienting waters of playground politics, staffroom statesmanship and results-oriented hysteria. But here’s the thing; it is all much easier if you are part of a clique team. Therefore, all parents are advised to find a playground tribe. These are parents paddling the same kind of canoe in roughly the same direction on vaguely the same river as you.

After a few weeks in the playground, you will start to notice other parents who clearly drink the same amount of caffeine and who are in a similar state of disarray/grooming as you. This is the first sign that they may be a kindred soul. An affinity will develop. You will start to chat and find that you share the same thoughts on what time it is ok to have a V&T (7pm if you must know) and you will begin to rely on each other for support and practical help. Others will join and you will feel that you have found a kind of tribe bonded by shared experience, this journey with your children that lasts for years. It is only in retrospect you will learn that it is more akin to being on a submarine with a bunch of people who, like you, are ever-so-slightly doomed to never resurface. Nevertheless, if you find a parental tribe, however small, cling to them, cling to them like badly flipped pancakes on a suburban kitchen ceiling.

There is an assumed ‘tribe of motherhood’, but actually, there are so many variations, interpretations and individual experiences of bringing children into and up in the world, that giving birth in itself is not a unifying experience. Perhaps the huge disparity between mothering styles and expectations is one of the reasons we still command so little political power. Nowhere are the differences between us more apparent than the playground, the first place you see a lot of mothers in one place after the labour ward if, like me, you studiously avoided hell ‘mother/toddler’ groups.

Hovering near the limescale-ridden playground drinks fountain which acts as an equivalent of the water-cooler at work, you can get a sense of the extraordinary scope of mum tribes. Like a binocularless playground twitcher, you’ll catch sightings of No Stains Mums (aka. OCD mums), Rock n‘ Roll Mums (who miraculously still seem to go out in the evenings), Overly-Attached Mums (child wrapped around each leg, usually on the verge of tears), No Boundaries Mums (their children wrapped around other people’s legs, other people in tears), Organic Camper Van Mums  (weirdly calm – possibly on valium), Perpetually More Exhausted Than Anyone Else Mums (husbands do even less than yours),  On the Verge Mums (their volcanic anger festers like an abscess) and the scariest of all, The Four Mothers of the Apocalypse aka Judgmental Mums (these are the ones you bump into just as you give your child a blue ice cream as a bribe to stop them shouting “cock” at everyone).  You won’t even catch a glimpse of the Mysterious Mums except at the Christmas fair. Sighting of these mothers is rare; they’re like endangered and magnificent snow leopards. They not only work full-time, but are statistically likely to still be doing more housework than their partners.  The list of parent tribes is endless and this doesn’t even include the religious, gender-based and cultural subsets such as Freelance Meedyah Dads, Vicar Flirts and The Women of the Sad Eyes whose  private histories are hidden beneath their many skirts.

I thought I vacillated between the Camper Van and On the Verge tribes until one day,  I realised I am part of a whole other mummy tribe…

It was a beautiful autumn morning; a gorgeous low sun filtered through the trees of my local park where I was walking. The occasional horse chestnut descended into the leaves with a thud, cobwebs glistened, busy London squirrels made winter plans. A pregnant friend called me on my mobile. She was having a serious wobble about the huge life-change ahead of her. “I mean…” she sobbed down the phone. “I mean, I just can’t bear to become one of those middle-class wanker mums pushing their baby around the park in a Bugaboo wearing Birkenstocks, sipping lattes and spending all day pureeing organic vegetables. I mean… I just can’t bear it.”

“Er…no… that won’t happen to you, you’ll be fine,” I said reassuringly, looking down at my powder-blue Birkenstocks. I dropped my mobile back into my handbag which dangled off the handles of an orange Bugaboo, a monstrous four-wheel-drive type of pram that cost more than our car (it was a gift I might add).  I decided not to pop into Gail’s for a latte after all. Instead, I pulled an organic apple from my ‘I Love Kensal Rise’ reusable shopping bag and crunched into it ruefully. So that’s it, I thought, I am a Wanker Mum.

The Empress’s Old Clothes: On Why Every Ageing Woman Needs Patti Smith

Sara Bran

Patti SmithCall me reckless and foolhardy, but I thought de-cluttering the attic would be a constructive way to spend a drizzly London Sunday. Fast-forward three hours however, and I was sitting on my bed in emotional turmoil, weeping over ‘old stuff’.

It all started innocently enough. The initial few feet of clutter comprised a series of dusty suitcases, lined up like dutiful soldiers. The first couple I opened were harmless containing as they did ‘Our Summer Things’. Sandals bent out of shape by last year’s sweat; beach dresses stiffened by seawater; t-shirts smelling of sun lotion from our holiday in Spain. I jumped when a couple of unspent Euros dropped onto the floor and noisily spun themselves into stillness. The next suitcases were more emotional, ‘The Ones With The Baby Clothes’. However, my nostalgia for the newborn days of my daughters was held in check by equally potent memories of how…

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Reward Stickers for Adults: Gummy Little Redeemers

The Averys

The Averys

It is time my friends. Time to pay homage to the couple who made the task of modern parenting/teaching/damage limitation possible. The inventor of the self-adhesive sticker, Mr. R Stanton Avery and his wife, Dorothy Durfee.

The Reward Sticker. Oh, how I have come to love these gummy little redeemers. These precious paper wafers, tools of compliance, delicate as gold leaf, and more loaded with meaning than a communion biscuit. Stickers are dispensed to our children like angel’s kisses by teachers, doctors, and parents alike.  Within our children’s adhesive universe, there is a hierarchy of reward, ranging from the simple gold star to the ultimate, much coveted gummy prize; the large, glittery, puffy sticker, enhanced with foam.

My own relationship with self-adhesives runs thus:

1970-1977 ~ Boundless enthusiasm for ‘sticker collections’ equating, over a lifetime, to roughly £2500 worth 0f bubble gum in order to find 100 stickers.

1980-1984 ~ an odd flirtation with Sticky-Back-Plastic (Every. Single. School. Exercise Book.)

1996-1997 ~ a brief, rave-related bindi wearing phase.

2001- yesterday ~ a Post-It-Note based stationary fetish.

Which brings me to now. It was only yesterday, when the Biscuit Thief came home proudly displaying an “I ate all my lunch today” sticker AND a huge, red, glittery, puffy butterfly one for ‘sitting nicely’, that I thought, I want stickers. I bloody want bloody reward stickers.  I want them plastered on my torso each time I complete a yoga class, I want them daubed across my face when I achieve edible meal provision, I want them glued to my weary eyelids when I have, yet again, kept calm and carried on. I want to be agglutinated, affixed, pasted to within a papery inch of my wretched domestic life with stickers that say “WELL DONE!”

In fact, why stop there: I could give my husband stickers too, ones that say things like, “Today, I have been amazing at not mentioning my wife’s ‘tache.” The Teenage Songbird could have ones that say, “I am not on drugs or pregnant. RESULT!”

It was in 1935 that ‘Stan Avery’  invented the machine that made self-sticking labels. His creation saw the light of day thanks to a $50 investment from a woman called Dorothy Durfee, a school teacher, who became Stan’s wife. Together, Stan and Dorothy ran Kum-Kleen Adhesive Products as equal partners. Today, nearly eighty years on,  I shall construct a small altar to them made out of Avery mini labels and give thanks. Won’t you join me? You’ll get a reward sticker if you do.

15 Things I Want My 7 Year Old Daughter To Know

I still haven’t managed to teach her these things…

Sara Bran

The Biscuit Thief is turning 7 on… wait for it… 12.12.12. YES she is my magic, alien, mystical baby. In preparation for this milestone, I have been thinking about all the things she is now ready to know:

1. It is awesome that you get yourself dressed for school now, but it’s always good to include pants on the inside of your leggings.

2. An apple is a kind of fruit and a mac is a kind of lightweight coat that keeps the rain off.

3. It is not funny to say “cock” in front of granny even though it appears to make daddy laugh.

4. Barbie is not representative of women. Anywhere. In any way. And the cat was right. (See photo)

5. No, it is not acceptable that, as a woman, you are likely to be paid less than your male counterparts doing the same work. The fight…

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The Secret Map of Motherhood

Sara Bran

Map of EuropeSome days I am not big enough for this. This unexpected battleground of “Please will you…” and “Eat this…” and “Where is my?” and “Don’t forget to…” and all before 8am.

Some mornings, I plan the whole route in my head; the Overland train to West Hampstead, West Hampstead to St Pancras, then the Eurostar to the solar plexus of Europe, Paris. From there, anywhere. Within hours I could be curled up in the boot of Italy or reading by a fire in a log cabin that overlooks a freshwater lake or dipping my white toes in the Black Sea, salt on my lips. Because some days, that is where motherhood sends me; to a hidden corner of an imaginary map of freedom I hold in my head like the teenage heart holds a kiss.

Some mornings, I plot my escape all the way back from school to my front…

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Top 10 Vegetarian Cookbooks or Why I’m Back on the (Cashew Nut) Sauce

veggiesHere are some things I don’t want to put in my mouth; Blue Peter pets, Bambi, trotters, Shergar. Which is why, after a seven year break, I decided to return to a predominantly vegetarian diet at the beginning of this year. My New Year’s Resolution was of the ‘lets pencil that in’ variety until the whole ‘there’s a pony in your pie’ story exploded and I thought I was going to gag up an equine kidney. Literally.

I first became a veggie in my late teens on the grounds that  I didn’t approve (in the way that only a 15-year-old can ‘not approve’) of the Diet of Diminished Responsibility as I called it. I had the idea that I would only eat what I could kill. Having experienced gut-spewing hours on the water, both lake and and sea, with just my dad, a fishing rod and a thunderous sky for company, fish were totally on my menu. Dad taught me how to reel in the thrashing creatures, unhooking their bloodied mouths before stopping, in a moment of bizarre reverence, to admire the rainbow-beauty of their silvery scales. Dad would gaze at the gasping fish, his eyes moistening, reading the scales like tea leaves before administering a merciful clout to the fishes head. Queasily, I’d watch the perfect silver ring of the fishes eyes retract making way for the wide black pupils of stillness. It felt raw, but somehow natural and oddly ok to skin, gut and cook ‘em up with garlic later that night. But maybe I’d just  read too much Hemmingway.  But so it was that my diet was veggie/pescatarian for some twenty years until the traumatic birth of my second daughter, the Biscuit Thief.

Within hours of the emergency C-section I had undergone, I became desperately anaemic and needed a blood transfusion. I still remember the sensation of a stranger’s blood seeping into my architecture like tar through a straw. It crept into me like a burgundy, life-saving syrup, carrying with it so much heat that I could trace its path around my broken body. Over the next few days, as the anaemia ebbed away, a gnawing started in my belly. My husband came to visit me in hospital and I looked at him like a shark looks at tiddlers.

“I think I…I…I think I need…I need a fucking steak!” I said, horrified.

I was like Alex the Lion in the Madagascar films when he imagines the lemurs and zebras turning into little sirloins such is the intensity of his meat-lust. Since that moment seven years ago, there has been nothing I wouldn’t do for a sausage until recently, the smell of meat, let alone the taste of it, started to make me feel unbelievably squeamish.  Thank fuck I’m not French.

And so I am back;  back to the demanding cooking, back to the endless peeling of root vegetables, back to the exotic adventures with cheese, back to endless reconfigurements of falafels and humous. Unfortunately for a vegetarian/pescatarian, I am not on speaking terms with eggs after a salmonella incident on top of a mountain in Spain where I puked and also pooed in front of a pop star and my new born baby had to sleep in a suitcase ~ but that’s another story. So without eggs, I have to work hard to get my protein.

Having been out of the quinoa-loving lifestyle for some years, I asked Twitter and Facebook for some vegetarian cookbook suggestions and these ones came out top. Enjoy!

TOP 10 VEGETARIAN COOKBOOKS

The Mystic Cookfire by Veronika Robinson

River Cottage Veg Every Day Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Sundays At Moosewood Restaurant Moosewood Collective

Plenty Yotam Ottolenghi

Gaia’s Kitchen Julia Ponsonby

Rose Elliot’s Vegetarian Cookery Rose Elliot

River Cafe Cookbook Green Rose Grey

The Vegetarian Pantry  Chloe Choker & Jane Montgomery

Paradiso Seasons Denis Cotter

The Accidental Vegetarian Simon Rimmer

Letting Men into the Cult of Motherhood

HiResI’m having a dilemma.

Am I a parent, or am I a mother?

Am I a uterus, or am I a person?

It sounds funny, but actually, it’s quite serious.  From the age of eleven, I have been reminded every few weeks of my ‘reproductive potential’. Now, in my mid-forties, the odd sweat emanating from my left armpit as I embark on an apparently one-sided menopause, reminds me of that potential coming to an end. Now more than ever, I am consciously unpicking what it means to be a woman. What it is that really constitutes the ‘feminine’ and the ‘masculine’ beyond body parts and hormones?  What are the scientific facts about ‘gender’ and how many of my assumptions are the result of nothing more than cultural mythology and social conditioning?*

I have always bought into the idea of ‘the feminine’ as a universal principle. I absorbed the western interpretation of Taoist yin/yang thinking from childhood and have never really questioned it until now.  This idea of the feminine representing the creative dark, the yin, the nurturing principles of community and communication has much appeal, but I am beginning to understand the ways in which this concept as a subtle cultural principle polarizes men and women. It narrows the economic, social and human potential of both sexes.  I have been thinking a lot about whether it would be helpful for women’s equality if I played down what I feel is my ‘difference’ from men; the fact that I birth and breastfeed, the fact that I bleed.

The problem, as I see it, is that if we stick with the feminine and masculine principles as cultural rather than something housed within each individual, how can men ever meet us in the domestic sphere so that we ‘parent’ our children together? If we assume that women are innately better at nurturing, we tie ourselves to the kitchen sink and limit our possibilities, at the same time sentencing men to a life outside the home, chasing some intangible goal that takes them away from their families and the hard work of bringing up children. Men too can be nurturing, intuitive, loving, and caring; these qualities are not somehow innately bound up in motherhood are they? Before you say it, men get a hit of the love hormone oxytocin when they hug their children too!

Does it empower mothers and increase their status in society of we say they are nature’s homemakers and innately nurturing?  I am beginning to see how this helps to keep mothers in a place of cultural servitude, maintaining nothing but status quo. Equally, does it really ‘empower’ men to have a social script that says they should be ‘out there’ earning money, locking them into a lifetime of ladder-climbing and provider-stress that keeps them away from their offspring?

Yet, I am left with a glaring issue if I deny the glory, power and mystical wonder of my uterus!  HEAR ME ROOAAAR! The issue is where to put the fact that mothering my daughters has been the best, most enlightening and empowering experience of my life. Of all the ‘careers’ I have had (and there have been many) mothering my children has been the most natural fit for my personal strengths and weaknesses.

But I have begun to question whether I am ‘mothering’ my children or actually just ‘parenting’ them? What, when we go beyond birth and breastfeeding, am I giving them that my husband does not, other than some experience-based empathy about periods? If I’m honest, my husband is a better shoulder to cry on. He is the ‘nurturing force’ of calm in our home. I am not innately better at laundry and finding lost homework folders. I am far more the outwardly-focussed forager-spirit traditionally associated with masculinity. My partner and I have found ourselves in different (and I would claim, the wrong) spheres as a result of our own social/cultural expectations, education and upbringing.

I despair when gentle fathers who are great with their children, get derided for ‘being in touch with their feminine side’ as if it’s a bad thing. Surely these men are simply evolved human beings. If I hear one more excuse for friend’s sons being allowed to hit me with sticks because, “Oh! They’re just being a boy,” I might choke on my yin/yang necklace. How limiting, how sad. LET’S SHAKE IT UP!

If you take the gender-based social conditioning out of parenting (as in the case of many single sex couples) things get really interesting. It becomes a question of individual temperament, laying the groundwork for a more equal distribution of the task of bringing up children. Plus, a whole load of women can unburden themselves of the guilt they carry about the fact that motherhood, for them, is not enough.

I have found motherhood to be very tribal and divided, with no unified or unifying political voice. Part of the problem is that we see ‘the other’ woman’s choice as the thing that holds us back. Stay-at-home mothers view full-time working mums and nanny-culture as part of the reason motherhood is not valued, and working mums see the stay-at-homers as upholding cultural stereotypes that maintain inequality in pay and rubbish parental leave legislation. We are at a paralysing impasse.

Can and should ‘motherhood’ be absorbed into the word ‘parenthood’, or is it more important to raise the status of motherhood as a ‘career choice’? Can we ever go beyond gender and simply be humans, together, doing this thing called life? Do we need to let men into the cult of motherhood and bridge the divide, one dirty nappy at a time?

I’d love to know what you think and especially hear about any good books on the subject; I’ll compile them into a reading list and share.

*Gender Delusions by Cordelia Fine is a good starting point on all this.