Sunday, 10 May 2015

When Too Many Tribes Go To War

A friend of mine recently had a baby - and fortunately rediscovered the ability to drink after 12 months enforced sobriety, thus acquiring one of the main parenting skills essential to surviving the coming decades.

Babies unleash a flood of reactions from the insane (google royal birth) to the unexpected. As well as the obvious delight, young Poppy's arrival has left me for one flooded with an overwhelming relief that I gave birth before the Internet became the God of parenting.

When you're a rookie, babies are, frankly, terrifying. I couldn't believe the hospital was actually going to take my first-born home rather than let me live there in safety.

But at least all I had to contend with were the twin peaks of smug horror that were the National Childbirth Trust (my little angel ate the flashcards) and the realisation that each trip to the Early Learning Centre for a bribery dinosaur (call it a reward if you like but we all know the truth) simply highlighted another 6 developmental stages missed while I was trying to work out how the buggy collapsed.

Now I'm not daft, I'm well aware that bringing up baby advice is nothing new and clearly some of the earlier messages to new mums were, let's say misguided - if you think this ad is bad, google the Marlboro Baby. We've been variously warned that a spoilt baby is a socialist baby (damn those over-indulgent working classes), that angry mothers can poison their babies  (as in accidentally, that's not meant to read like permission) and that newborns should be regularly smeared in lard - presumably just before serving with a nice chianti and some fava beans.
In some ways I find it all quite endearing  - none of us have a clue what we're doing but we're going to sound really definite about our madness. No, what's freaked me out is how tribal it's all got.
We've all seen the Mummy Wars video which, for all its horrible sentimentality - I'm hoping for a remake starring the animatronic version at the end - does depict the battle lines beautifully. No longer are the troops aligned simply along the issue of work, the new gradations are more complex than trying to understand the conflict in Palestine. Renegade Mom, Hipster Mom, Boss Mom & Micro-Mummager (Esther Walker of the Evening Standard I worship at your wordsmithing) - all pretty scary but it was Sara Bran who had me in hysterics with her definitions culminating in the one we've all wished unbearable evil on as she looked down her nose at our sand-eating, nose-picking kids: Wanker Mum. Then add in the 5 parenting styles currently on offer, all with supporters as vociferous as the football hooligans whose parents were presumably in the pub throughout the birth and beyond, and you wonder why anyone throws away the condoms in the first place (and we're back to alcohol).

Ladies, life is too short - motherhood should be the one time we really unite and recognise the common enemy. Besides there's really only 5 things you need to remember: always have strong liquor in the house; limit the number of your children to the number of available adults - if they outnumber you, you're dead; anything including the words Gwyneth and Paltrow should not be approached; learn the difference between a children's playground and a coffee shop - the clue is in the volume of hissing - and take a negotiation course, preferably with the UN.

So there's the advice, now to the recast: as I'm harking back to a simpler time, it has to be that staple of a British Sunday night, Call the Midwife.

Oh those dreamy days when babies were always a miracle, a good cup of tea was far more useful than an epidural and there was nothing to worry about other than rats, diptheria and thalidomide. I love this show, even though I have to watch it in secret like some weird social history porn.

So let us start with the dreamily wonderful Sister Julienne - eternally calm in the face of stolen cake, drunken nurses and incestuous couples. One gentle smile and those warring mummies would be like unicorns in her lap. And she had a secret love who died after sharing a chaste ice-lolly with her in a pretend cinema - dear God, these writers have no shame, even I was moved to a tear. So her recast has to be the 12th century French nun Heloise d'Argenteuil, the writer and abbess best remembered for her love affair with Peter Abelard which resulted in a collection of love letters which are not only beautiful in themselves but make fascinating reading from the standpoint of radical ideas on women and their place in society. Grab a box of tissues, stick junior in front of I-Pad mummy and indulge.

At the other end of the scale we have Trixie the brick Franklin - all Sobranie cigarettes, Campari and a little bit 'fast'. Sticking to the 1950s morality of the show, poor Trixie has now been repaid for her unnatural interest in boys with a breathy declaration of alcoholism. I'd hoped for a more radical story-line in which she married poor Tom and went stumbling round the vicarage swigging the communion wine but I fear a slow decline into bitter spinsterhood is more likely. So, in honour of Trixie's insane hair and love of the bottle, I'm going with Veronica Lake the beautiful film noir actress of the 1940s better known for her peek-a-boo hairstyle, disastrous love life and lonely death. Time for a change of habit Trixie?

And finally to the incomparable Chummy - I know I referenced her in my last blog (I was matching Natalie Bennett, it was a given) - but you'll have to forgive me the return. What a character: clumsy, kind, endlessly practical and with that weird attractiveness only certain kinds of British men get (it's a nanny thing). To me Chummy is essentially Victorian, a poster girl for the Empire if you like (which I wouldn't but you get the point). In keeping with her gung-ho attitude, I'm going with intrepid explorer Mary Kingsley whose travels in Africa during the late 1800s helped educate people about African customs and ways of life and stimulated debate over imperialistic agendas. If anyone could get warring tribes to look at each other anew, she could.

It would be interesting to know what our 1950s midwives would have made of mummy wars - I imagine a swift talking to all round and a dose of castor oil might have been prescribed. Or perhaps they would simply think we were all a bit pampered and needed some real problems to deal with...

Good luck with whatever offspring you have and hold this thought - it doesn't actually matter whose advice you take, the rugrats were winning from the second they were born... 



  1. Still laughing hysterically... If I didn't know your kids turned out brilliant (or is that the nature vs nurture thing?) I might really wonder about you.

  2. Hee hee - pretty sure nature had a lot to do with it or they had damn fine survival instincts!

  3. Loved this!! Perfectly encapsulated thoughts I could not articulate - and much more amusingly. Particularly love the comment about the hissing in the playground vs the coffee shop! Have only just 'discovered' Heloise - what an interesting woman!! Will have to read some of the letters - translations at least- and hope to find a good novel about her story - I know a few exist. Love your articles :)

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  4. Thank you! The Heloise story is fascinating and all the letters are online in translation.


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