Yummies and Slummies

I’ve always thought it interesting that no genre of literature exists in which men chart their everyday life. Their callous youth, their struggles for recognition with other co-workers, their ambivalence about fatherhood are rarely seen as worthy of fictional treatment. By contrast, women’s daily lives are fundamental to all forms of women’s writing. The old argument used to be that domesticity was all women were allowed to experience and therefore all they had to write about, but that’s no longer true in the post-feminism era. What happened to women’s fiction after the dust of liberation had settled was Bridget Jones, a little overweight, a little over-thirty, whose career was a comedy and whose love life was a tragedy. Bridget Jones with her weak will and her good heart, her romantic fantasies and her Greek chorus of gossip-hungry friends became the icon of chick-lit, a genre in which working life became a source of ambivalent material for dates. Women responded to Bridget with enthusiasm for the way she took her very best shot at life, and then rapidly drowned her failures in Chardonnay, her Calamity Jane capacity for disaster offering a soothing balm to the many female egos bruised from bumping into glass ceilings and the usual dispiriting tussles with men. Women – and men – loved her precisely because she was a bit of a disaster. But the tremendous response to a fictional heroine whose charm lies in her incompetence has to drop a few worrying hints about the cultural pressures women find themselves under. Feminism provided women with the kind of choices our grandmothers would have considered extravagant gifts: the choice to enter the workplace and pursue a meaningful career, both before and after maternity, and the choice to express and enjoy sexuality, both before and after maternity. It took little more than a decade for those thrilling choices to become crippling imperatives, for women to begin to feel they were obliged to be visibly successful on all fronts. And novels and newspapers, society’s pressure valves, have steadily charted the strange, contorted knots that contemporary culture has twisted women into in order to encourage them to succeed and to watch them fail. Oddly enough it seems to be this most ancient of plotlines that keeps us all fascinated.

Bridget Jones represented women of a certain social group in a certain generation. With every possible advantage in life, a stable middle-class background, a good education, a world full of unlimited opportunity at her disposal, she was supposed to carve out an envious pathway through life, ticking boxes and achieving new goals. She was supposed to get it right, in a way that generations of women before her had been unable to do. No siren song ever sang so seductively in the ears of women as the one whose chorus suggests that now is the moment to Finally Get Things Right. Alas, like all siren songs it thinly disguises the presence of murderous obstacles, in this case in the form of excessive expectations, bitter disappointments, and harsh inner critics. Bridget Jones dutifully ran aground on most of them. The very distance between what she was supposed to achieve and what she could in reality manage provided the source of her entertaining reassurance to the women who identified with her. When those women ended up getting married and having babies, the same problem between aspiration and reality reared its head again, this time in the new millennium war between the Yummy Mummy and the Slummy Mummy. War is not too strong a word, although it has tended to be fought on the bloodless battlegrounds of Sunday newspaper supplements.

The Yummy Mummy is a term that was initially coined to denote the tabloid’s fascination with celebrities who have had babies and which now encompasses any woman who has a domestic income sufficient to provide her with staff and who maintains her looks and stylishness despite having young children. A woman, in other words, who enjoys the kind of lifestyle that has represented the epitome of female aspiration across time, and who continues to account for the tiniest fraction of the female population. Which poses all kinds of intriguing questions as to why this latest media image should have provoked so much vicious, rageful ire. The newspapers, in particular, have reacted against their own creation with stunning violence, rather depressingly akin to the way that the nineteenth century courtesan, a prostitute who was attractive and clever enough to choose her wealthy lovers, lit a raging bonfire beneath the gentlemen of the press in Paris. They responded back then with a curious mixture of outrage and displaced lust, insisting that the end of civilization was nigh even though studies now suggest that no more than a dozen such courtesans ever really existed. But the combination of sexuality and perceived power in a woman has always had a disastrous effect on male logic. How else to account for articles such as the one written by Nirpal Dhaliwal in the Sunday Times that describe these ‘idle heifers’ or ‘bourgeois charlatans’ who make parenting ‘a parlour game of competing vanities and one-upmanship’. On what seems to be the basis of sitting in a coffee shop and fantasizing about his prey, Dhaliwal decides that ‘Whenever a yummy mummy prattles on about the plethora of after-school activities her little ones are engaged in, she is merely hinting at how much she hates the brats and cannot stand being near them.’ He chillingly declares that ‘I see straight through them’ and predicts that their children will grow up into ‘obviously neglected and maladjusted freaks’. He’s seeing straight through the women before him, that much is clear, but the vision he records has little to do with their reality. Dhaliwal is an intriguing character, a man who was regularly maligned by his older, more successful wife in her newspaper column for being an idle parasite on their marriage, a faithless, loveless husband and a nuisance about the house. Dhaliwal’s term of endearment for her was ‘my old mum’. Apparently the couple is now seeking a divorce and using its messy details to fill further column inches.  Like Oedipus before him, Dhaliwal must have realized that being married to his mother, even if she is ostensibly yummy, is a seriously bad move.

What continues to astound me is that the kind of article that ought to provoke a gentle suggestion to the author to seek therapy is instead published in the pages of a national paper, as if this were somehow a reasonable point of view to maintain. Just imagine how Dhaliwal’s words would sound if they were aimed towards an ethnic minority. But Dhaliwal is far from alone in reacting with horror to the image of the sexy mother. On the grounds that the yummy mummy encourages feelings of inadequacy and jealousy in mothers who are further down the social scale, spurring them on to potentially disastrous spending, Angela McRobbie, a professor at Goldsmiths College wrote in The Guardian that ‘Without a disposable budget for the accessories that are deemed essential, young women judge themselves more harshly than ever before. Being poor within this new moral economy incurs the additional stigma of failed femininity.’ The article makes many sensible points about the difficulties that face women who want to become mothers but it’s curious that the good looks of the Yummy Mummy bear the brunt of the blame. The emphasis on the glamorous pictures in celebrity magazines seems to emerge from a world where readers skip all the other pages, in which the same celebrities are shown spotty and unkempt dragging recalcitrant children around the supermarket. Just recently, Barbara Ellen in The Observer listed an impressive string of disincentives to motherhood and suggested that, despite the recognition of how difficult it is to embark on maternity these days ‘the Yummy Mummy, that buff, smug, fragrant, superhuman… monster – is stronger than ever. And somehow worse, this monster is an all-female creation. Women can’t blame men for this one.’ If it’s depressing to witness how quickly men will tip vitriol over women, it’s even more so to watch how fast women will agree with them.

So perhaps it’s time to get a few things straight. The Yummy Mummy as such does not exist; she is nothing more than a fantasy, a magazine concept, a studio shoot, a brief glimpse of a woman about whose life we know nothing. There is no flesh and blood woman behind the image, and certainly no conspiracy of women banding together to make others feel bad. What’s more, she is an expedient fantasy conjured up solely by the media whose editors and art directors know that pretty faces attract the customers and encourage them to spend money. The British Yummy has an American counterpart in the MILF (Mother I’d Like to Fuck), a term made popular by the teen movie American Pie and now to be found gracing hundreds of internet porn sites, which indicates some of the baser, exploitative desires that go into the creation of the image of attractive motherhood. Even if a woman did manage to approximate Yummy Mummydom, we would have no business judging her, condemning her maternal skills as a matter of course, or making her a scapegoat for society’s ills; no matter how she looks, she still has to deal with the underside of motherhood that no one escapes, the guilt, the worries, the fears and frustrations. If in actual fact a mother works hard (and it is hard work requiring discipline and persistence) to make and keep herself presentable in public despite having children, then she deserves praise rather than censure. Why set up an aspirational ideal only to spend the entire time desperately undermining it? But that is the paradox of the Yummy Mummy: she represents something that we are supposed to want but which inspires a potent mix of horror, rage and captivation.

Let’s consider that the Yummy Mummy might not be a cause of the general dissatisfaction currently surrounding motherhood, but instead a symptom of a much darker, pervasive undercurrent in the developed world. Let’s consider instead the conspicuous materialism she is supposed to represent, as well as the daunting image-driven ideal. In a series of brilliant books published over the past decade or so, psychologist Oliver James has been digging ever deeper into the disquieting recesses of the contemporary culture. The culmination of his research has been his identification of what he terms the afflueza virus, a kind of capitalist sickness that has infected every English-speaking country in the world and is insinuating itself across the globe. Affluenza is all about social competitiveness, the old keeping-up-with-the-Jones’s gone out of control. It describes a society in which value is placed primarily on wealth and its trappings, which we are all encouraged to covet. Its premise is that if others have such things, we should have them too, and in accordance with the emphasis placed on the visibility of success, we know we are making it only by the amount of approval, or indeed, envy, we arouse in others. It’s a life philosophy which flips the individual inside out, making them crave the recognition of others, basing their sense of self in the acquisition of material goods or career advancement, and debasing the quiet qualities of compassion, charity and community, along with the value of keeping one’s own counsel and taking one’s time. Affluenza is the inevitable by-product of a culture that over the past four decades has become increasingly enslaved by the glossy image. The rise of television, the internet and commercial advertising has transformed the way we perceive the world around us, and installed images of a ‘normality’ that does not exist, and against which we can only compare ourselves unfavourably. We are so used to watching television programs containing unusually attractive and talented people, and advertising promotions selling us the beautiful life, that we completely forget that these pictures have no place in reality, but are only media creations. We are encouraged to forget nowadays that the news scenes of war zones, the lab-rat experiments of so-called ‘reality tv’ shows, and even the speeches of politicians, are all extensively and carefully edited, producing a kind of reality that is in fact far closer to fiction. So it is unsurprising that people get fed up with the messiness of their lives, the imperfections and failures of their bodies, the slowness with which change occurs in real situations and the uncompromising awfulness of some of our experiences. It is remarkably unlike the great commercial for life that we are repeatedly sold from our brilliant, hypnotic screens.

As one of the messiest and most alarmingly unmanageable of experiences, new motherhood is bound to set up a daunting challenge to women nurtured in a climate of impossible standards for self-achievement. Oliver James suggests that the reason a twenty-five year old woman is at least three times more likely to suffer from depression than fifty years ago is the ‘Virus’s devaluation of the state of mothering.’ He argues that ‘It encourages them to regard only paid work as a source of self-esteem. It leads them to hate their post-natal appearance’ and in his studies across the globe ‘the role of the mother has a status somewhat lower than that of a street-sweeper.’ An interesting commentary on this proposition is to be found in Polly Williams’ best-selling novel, The Rise and Fall of a Yummy Mummy. Just as Bridget Jones provided a much-needed outlet for the newly-fledged career women of the nineties to lament the difficulty of finding romance, so the latest breed of popular fiction for women shoulders the burden of unpicking the discontent and depression that lurks at the heart of the traditionally fulfilling experience of motherhood. In the novel, Amy Crane, once successful PR person, succumbs to a crippling self-loathing that binds together her post-natal exhaustion, her shameful sense of having let herself go and her suspicions of her husband’s infidelity. This miserable combination sends her reeling into the arms of that great staple of fiction, the False Friend. Alice, and her coven of Yummy Mummies, intimidate Amy into an extreme makeover project that begins with leg waxing, passes through extravagant shopping and ends in the ambivalent experiences of Botox and a sexual pass from her pilates instructor. Inevitably the consequence of this Faustian pact is a painful split from her partner. Amy must go through the proper incubation of change, with its uncomfortable soul-searching, and dreary but necessary passage of time, before reaching her happy ending, restored to a proper sense of self and a more reasonable set of values.

What’s acutely painful in this novel is the harshness of women’s judgements, against themselves and against other women. Awful as the troop of superficial and screwed-up yummies may be, they at least have their beauty to protect them. The real viciousness of the narrative is reserved for the women at Amy’s NCT class. One mother, ‘Michelle, who is in her early forties and still looks nine months pregnant, scoops what can only be described as an udder out of the neckline of her burgundy ethnic blouse and starts feeding, looking around proudly, daring you, the repressed, to look away.’ Or there’s the leader of the group, overweight Sue who walks away to the toilet ‘square bovine bottom shuddering with every step, too-tight knickers cheese-wiring her cheeks.’ You can practically hear the whip crack of the harsh inner critic. The emphasis on lost looks simply crystallizes the myriad losses that attend maternity. Never again will a woman have the freedom to pursue her career unhandicapped, condemned by one of the yummy mummies as ‘That old “having it all” bollocks… I’ve seen too many women feeling guilty and frazzled with miserable kids and a pissed-off husband who knocks off his twenty-three-year-old secretary, the one whose breasts haven’t been sucked dry by his little darlings’. And poor bewildered Amy remembers the traumatic shock of early motherhood ‘in that lonely twilight zone of leaking breasts and bladder problems and anxious exhaustion, certain my life was over.’ In this brave new world of visible achievement, where other people are the arbiters of our lives, it’s easy to see how new motherhood seems to represent the end of life as we know it. Motherhood exacts a horribly expensive toll on a woman’s body and on her personal aspirations. The suddenness with which a baby’s arrival alters the landscape of a woman’s life is literally incredible, not to be believed unless you have lived through it. In the wake of the earthquake, the hardest thing for a women to figure out is who to be now. Brought up to align herself with admirable images, a new mother gets caught in the crossfire of a number of competing and unreasonable demands on her person. Her mother, her main lifeline, all too often wants her to reproduce her own mothering patterns, despite the rapid changes that childcare has undergone in recent times; her husband wants her to be competent and loving and to reassure him of his own value through her regained sexuality, and her new baby is nothing but relentless, troubling needs whose decoding takes every scrap of her confused and sleep-deprived concentration. If the woman is also surrounded by a group of competitive, sharp-eyed women, silently but stealthily criticizing her every move, then it is quite possible she will become one of the quarter of women who develop a full blown depression by the end of the first year of motherhood. Under such circumstances, who wouldn’t?

The contemporary situation is not kind to women, that much is undeniable. But it is also clear that contemporary women are not kind to themselves. Polly Williams’ novel knows that the lure of the yummy mummy is simply one amongst a number of responses to the appalling loss of self-esteem which some women suffer after their entry to motherhood. It seems clear that the affluenza virus is one major source of low self-esteem, affecting all those who suffer from it, male or female, young or old. Outsourcing one’s sense of worth to a set of virtually unattainable cultural aspirations surrounding wealth and beauty is only ever going to make a person feel inadequate, as will endless comparisons with friends, colleagues and media images. Women, traditionally brought up to be compliant to other’s requirements and to want to please, may well be more susceptible to its insidious demands. But it is, I think, the combination of the values we look for in life and the trauma of new motherhood that affects a proportion of women so adversely. New motherhood forces women into a reinterpretation of the beliefs they have held dear, it casts their memories on which they have built a sense of self in a whole new light. Where once they were free to achieve for themselves, now they are trapped in an enforced self-denial, tending to the never-ending, capricious and confusing demands of a baby. They are obliged to move from one cultural ideal – the restless, rootless pursuit of advancement – to another, the selfless, nurturing, intensive relationship with a newborn child. It is the sheer gap in ideologies that is so patently ungraspable, and yet somehow, women have to make sense of this contradiction that befalls them literally overnight. Their routines become regimented, they are forced to learn large quantities of new information despite stress, anxiety and lack of sleep. In other words, the experience they go through is akin to brainwashing, or to the incarceration of political prisoners. This form of captivity is known to produce Stockholm Syndrome, in which the hostage’s shattered self-esteem is abandoned and they lose all confidence in themselves, turn to others for approval, love and hate their powerful captor, stop believing in their own capabilities and enter a sort of passive hibernation, surviving from day to day, feeling alienated and alone. Many women will adapt extraordinarily well to the challenges of a new born and a new life, but the more a woman has relished her competence in the work place and the more her sense of self has been dependent on achievement, visible competence and perfectionism, the more at risk she is of a paralyzing loss of self-esteem.

The ideal of contemporary motherhood hovers uncomfortably between looking like a response to the loss of a meaningful career and a way to compound the problem of the overnight erasure of a woman’s sense of self. In the New York Times bestseller, Perfect Madness, Judith Warner describes the dominant trend in American parenting towards a form of such intensive maternal attention that ‘The icon of ideal motherhood at the dawn of the twenty-first century was a woman so bound up in her child, so tightly bonded and fused, that she herself – soul, mind and body – all but disappeared.’ The new mother has ‘no boundaries’, descending to the child’s level to engage with it continuously (one expert, Stanley Greenspan suggesting that fifteen minutes was the maximum amount of time a pre-school child should be left alone to play), breastfeeding until the child is at least a year old, working tirelessly to awaken the child’s mental faculties and encourage the earliest forms of early learning, and worst of all, believing wholeheartedly that ‘none of this – none of the gooing and cooing and crawling and bonding and talking and singing and lolly-stick gluing – would work, would mean a thing, if it was not done with absolute joy, with “great delight and pleasure”, at each and every moment of the day.’ This may be the ideal but it is one that few mothers can in reality attain without going completely mental. However, it is undoubtedly the case that mothers are anxiously aware of the ‘right’ developmental care for their child and will work hard to achieve their best approximation of it, willingly placing to one side their own needs and desires in order to provide the highest possible levels of child care. The modern mother’s urge to deny her self and foster every nascent quality of physical and mental health in the child may well be some kind of ideal in pre-school development, but it is far from sensible in many ways, encouraging mothers to over-protect and over-identify with their children and to run into all kinds of difficulties allowing them the space they need to grow up. It also places an intolerable burden on the mother who is after all, just human. The level of self-denial required to nurture to today’s ‘acceptable’ limits carries with it a potentially dangerous backlash of rage and resentment for all the basic needs that get overlooked and abandoned along the way. And it’s here that we find our way back to the reviled image of the Yummy Mummy. The time she takes out of motherhood to care for herself is seen as unforgivably selfish and an indication of poor mothering, and at the same time it seems to offer an intolerably desirable image of a woman who has somehow managed to hold onto herself despite motherhood. Yummy mummies are media creations that mess with the fantasies and the frustrations in the head of the average mother, inviting her to evacuate her negativity about all she has to do, and the impossible contradictions of all she is supposed to be, onto the image of someone she doesn’t know. We have to ask ourselves: what kind of a culture creates such a situation in which the unpaid anchorwomen of society are mercilessly overburdened with unattainable goals and repeatedly made to feel bad about themselves? Welcome to the developed, educated, English-speaking world.

Thankfully we might begin to wonder whether the situation has reached its peak and is perhaps groping towards some sort of balance with the arrival on the scene of the media’s latest creation, the Slummy Mummy. Beginning life as a newpaper column, Fiona Neill’s 2008 bestseller, The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy recounts the adventures in imperfection of Lucy Sweeney, mother of three boys who certainly has it all: a mountainous laundry basket, a messy house, a sliding sense of control, a slightly less than helpful husband and a ticking time bomb of credit card debt. Her most important possession, however, is the confidence that she will muddle through somehow, even though she has been caught yet again wearing her pyjamas on the school run. Lucy finds herself in any manner of scrapes well known to the middle class mother, faking her son’s school art homework (recreating pictures by Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock and Matisse), and repeatedly having to break into her house having misplaced her keys. Essential to Lucy’s survival is a surreptitious support network that includes a reasonable relationship with her own mother, a helpful psychologist for a brother and a strong, loving bond with her girlfriends. One of the most insidious problems with contemporary motherhood is the isolation young mothers can suffer from and the perceived competitiveness of other women. What feminism so usefully gave women all those years ago was the security and support of the sisterhood. Once women bonded together to share their anxieties and distress they were able to feel insulated from unreasonable or excessive cultural demands of bodily perfection or social servitude. In more recent times, affluenza and image consciousness have worked to loosen the bonds that made women mentally strong in the face of the usual onslaught of cultural imperatives, but they still remain implicit. Lucy’s story is as much about the trials and tribulations of her unmarried girlfriends as it is about her crises of motherhood, and the unimpeded view over this particular dividing fence helps all three women to see how the grass is never truly greener.

Furthermore, Lucy has one other trump card, and that’s her ability to keep secrets. What is so particularly exhausting about modern motherhood is that it rarely allows women to be congruent with themselves, to be dull or unimaginative or angry or vain or jealous or even to be sexy and intelligent and interested in world events beyond the scope of the nursery. More than ever before, women are expected to be paragons of virtue in relation to their children, and this is extremely wearing. Lucy’s harmless flirtation with a house husband becomes a secret place where she can put unexpressed hopes for continued desirability, for the adult delights of being recognized as an individual. She also has her hidden credit card debt to represent all that she is owed in terms of material reward for what she does, as well as the enormous amount of her self that she has paid out with insufficient return. In both cases her secrets contain the possibilities she cannot permit herself for indulging in all that is selfish, transgressive, flawed and wrong. Secrets are the place where we bury the parts of ourselves that are treasured and essential but have no outlet in public life, and if mothers are confined to ever more prescriptive ways of being in the world, then they start to look increasingly vital to her wellbeing.

The Slummy Mummy is by no means a creation of the new millennium. She has been around in various guises since the beginning of the twentieth century. In the seventies, Jilly Cooper delighted women with a series of lovely, ditzy housewives whose compassion made up for their cooking and who were often astounded and grateful to be swept into bed by dashing heroes. In the more restrained inter-war period, E. M. Delafield gave us the entertaining diaries of the Provincial Lady, who withstood her thankless husband, Robert, and the social tyranny of the vicar’s wife to quietly work her way towards a writing career that was loudly despised by her nearest and dearest. And at the turn of the century, Elizabeth von Arnim evoked the blissful, stolen pleasure of being alone with her children in a new house in the country in Elizabeth and Her German Garden. In a book that offers balm to the most troubled soul, Elizabeth takes it all right back to basics. ‘What a happy woman I am living in a garden, with books, babies, birds, and flowers, and plenty of leisure to enjoy them! Yet my town acquaintances look upin it as imprisonment, and burying, and I don’t know what besides, and would rend the air with their shrieks if condemned to such a life…. And what can life in town offer in the way of pleasure to equal the delight of any one of the calm evenings I have had this month, sitting alone at the foot of the verandah steps, with the perfume of young larches all about, and the May moon hanging low over the beeches, and the beautiful silence made only more profound in its peace by the croaking of distant frogs and the hooting of owls?’ Elizabeth clings hard to the pleasure she finds in watching her young children roam free and safe about her, and working to restore her garden to vibrant new life. This may sound perfectly reasonable to our modern ears, but Elizabeth was breaking all the rules of her time and her rigid German society. She scandalized her housekeeper, not to mention the decorators, by having her meals brought out to her on trays in the garden rather than abiding by the Teutonic convention of long and elaborate mealtimes, and she was considered alarmingly eccentric by her neighbours for her lack of interest in such activities as making sausages, cheese and butter, slaughtering pigs, spring cleaning and local gossip. Her unconventional behaviour endangered her marriage and her reputation, but Elizabeth had a hold on her own satisfactions and refused to let them go. When we look back at the expectations placed on her conduct, they seem somewhat risible, so it is worthwhile acknowledging that today’s essential elements of civilized life will look equally ridiculous in a hundred years’ time, and that the kudos will eventually go to those who had the good sense to treat them lightly.

So the slummy mummy is not exactly a wildly criminal type. Her eccentricities are endearing rather than threatening and amount to little more than a loosening of the corset stays of society. Nor do slummy mummies, despite the name, have anything to say to the mothers suffocating in the depths of depression or debt, or who struggle to pay the bills and find just enough childcare to get out to work. There are too many women who still suffer that way and whose plight demands proper help, well beyond the capacities of the pages of a popular novel. But the slummy mummy is a reminder to the middle classes that perfectionism is a problem, not a solution, that mothers are human too, and that children rather like it when they put the flash cards away and dance, just because they want to. The divide between the Yummy Mummy and the Slummy Mummy poses a number of pertinent questions about the society that we have created for ourselves and its uncomfortable polarities. We really have to ask ourselves why it seems so imperative that motherhood should become a ring-fenced zone of perfect self-negation, why it should be so pure, so untainted by a single selfish desire, so flawlessly tender and compassionate? The answer lies in the impossible leap women are forced to make between their lives before and after birth. The more society becomes competitive and capitalistic, based on self-centred acquisition and self-regarding advancement, the more it requires as counterbalance a place of idealized harmony, generosity and tolerance, and where better to locate this than mother’s nurturing lap? The contemporary mother is obliged to live that divide, finding some kind of transition from one extreme to the other and opening herself to all kinds of mental and emotional problems in the process. And yet it is not at all surprising to find women taking up the social slack once again and making impossible dreams come true. All the popular novels I have read containing mummies of all categories, yummy, slummy or otherwise, have an unshakeable faith in women’s capacity for love, generosity, compassion and humour. The worse the situation these women encounter, the wittier and the more resourceful they become. Rather than berating themselves for their imperfections, women need to take a good long look at everything they do right. In this light the Slummy Mummy is a woman with a more realistic ordering of her priorities, and the real question is why women allow such denigrating labels to be applied to their admirable mothering skills. Instead it’s time for women to dare to turn their gaze away from the baby and outwards to the society that undervalues maternal achievements and is all too ready and willing to criticize.

The way forward is not so very complicated, but it seems to ask more than society is prepared to give back. The role of motherhood needs to be acknowledged for the impossibly challenging, miraculous, extraordinary hard work it is; children need to be acknowledged for the gorgeous but tyrannical and tiring individuals they are (no lawyer’s client could be more demanding or exacting) and husbands need to be much more involved in the day to day hands-on care of children. Not simply because it is a reasonable and fair request to make of them, but because they too deserve to share in the daily triumphs and disasters of raising children that exercise all the finest qualities of humanity, qualities which we risk squeezing out of affluenza-ridden public life. What contemporary society really needs are the boundaries it seems so intent to remove from mothers: boundaries around its own selfish, exploitative tendencies and boundaries around the women it seeks to exhaust with demands of impossible perfection. Then we might be able to assure the developmental health of the majority of the English-speaking world’s members, rather than just its newest recruits.


20 thoughts on “Yummies and Slummies

  1. Pingback: Finally, Some Reviews « Tales from the Reading Room

  2. Wow, Litlove, this is an amazing piece. Since becoming a mother 3 years ago, I have struggled with ALL these things – how much time do my kids really need? Is it right to keep little secrets? where is the fine line between healthy self-maintenance and obsessive weight-watching? How clean do the floors have to be, now that I’m home all day? How guilty should I feel about having two degrees yet working full-time as a diaper-changer, cook, toy-finder, etc?

    Your piece has a great point: mothers these days have a whole host of serious problems, despite living in wealthy, enlightened societies. And I loved, loved, loved the final paragraph, I might have to tape it to my forehead as a reminder.

  3. Lots of food for thought!
    My first thought was that we still, or even increasingly, live in a world that offers very few options for women’s behaviour and identity. It’s still or increasingly polarised into “the slut” and “the angel” – I guess this translates into the “yummy” and the “slummy” – the slummy is the angel in the kitchen, but she loses because she’s probably doesn’t have a perfect body. Yes, in our media dominated culture, women are viewed through the “male gaze”, they are either sex objects to be used or fantasized about, or else older, frumpier mother-figures. But there’s little identity apart from that.

    In the dichotomy you present – the “yummy” versus the “slummy”, what dominates is still the idea of woman = mummy, i.e. the only choice a woman can make is regarding children – this is the central dilemma to figure in her life – does she “give it all up” for babies or does she try to “have it all” and juggle a career and a baby (and a husband, because they don’t seem to be expected to have an equal share in childrearing). The dominant view of women is within the traditional, heterosexual and hence male-dominated world, in which they are either compliant or deviant (they become unattractive to men, they are less than good mothers and wives etc).

    I think that’s what turns me off “chick lit” novels – they all tell the same story about women, and it’s the same story that’s told in the media. There are so many articles these days about how women in their thirties are no longer attractive to men who want “younger models”, and about how men are getting “revenge” on the women who rejected them earlier, by rejecting them in favour of younger women, whilst the thirty-plus women suffer as they can’t find a man to have babies with. If they do have babies, the women are suddenly unattractive. These are the themes that dominate the chick-lit genre (either that, or successful women who are depressed because they can’t find the right man, whose lives are dominated by shopping).

    It seems like we can’t escape from the same old story of the “ideal woman” – who is entirely man-made, for male consumption and rejection.

  4. Ella – thank you SO much. That means a lot to me as I know how I experienced it (and that’s to say I had exactly those questions you put so well) but I feel a little unsure whenever I want to talk about a collective experience. Really, thank you.

    Yaeli – what an interesting comment! You’re right that motherhood still seems to mean putting the identity of a woman to one side, despite all the forward steps that feminism has taken. I think it’s something to do with the extreme position of nurturing that any mother finds herself in. No matter what her previous life was like she is obliged to become a servant and a carer, and the quality that will be most useful to her practically is empathy. It’s no wonder that mothers struggle then with conservative gender images! Literature is wonderful at offering alternatives to the mainstream, but I guess genre fiction is intriguing in a cultural way as it speaks to the general audience with a certain fantasy on offer of how to make daily life palatable. I think it all means that we need some new fantasies of how motherhood could be lived. Well, look how you’ve got me thinking! Thank you – I should certainly include more discussion on the gender issues.

  5. Litlove, I loved “Yummies and Slummies” and I found it funny, interesting, thought-provoking, searching and enjoyable. If you want some constructive criticism then here are some thoughts (hopefully not too confusing or jumbled).

    I love the way you deconstruct the various texts and I guess from a discourse point of view there is so much to say. From a psychological point of view, I am particularly interested in how such texts construct gendered subjectivities in ways which open up or close down opportunities for action. Foucauldian discourse analysis (as set out by Carla Willig) can be helpful here. I won’t go into that but I find it fascinating to see the way discourses shape subjectivites, providing subject positions for individuals to take up and construct themselves. Applying this to “Yummies and Slummies” I would say that the Yummy subject position is more constricting for women (dependent as it is on an obsever (male or female) who labels her beautiful or desirable). The Slummy on the other hand is less concerned with what others think of her and is “just being herself” which gives her greater freedom to wear PJs on the school-run and eat her meals in the garden.

    Perhaps I would have set out the contrast between the Yummy and the Slummy earlier on to help the reader with what is to come. I found myself trying to get my head around the Yummy part and growing increasingly uncomfortable with the construction, so it was relief when the Slummy arrived, bringing in much-needed balance and common-sense.

    You have a great turn of phrase – the wars waged on the “bloodless battlegrounds of Sunday newspaper supplements” was just one of many apt desriptions which had me chuckling.

    I like the way you criticise Dhaliwal and I thought you could have perhaps made more of the projections that commentators like him throw out. I was thinking of Motherhood as a blank screen on to which people project all their own fantasies, fears, hopes and hates. From a psychodynamic point of view, motherhood is an extraordinarily powerful concept which makes the at-times lowly status of mothers quite surprising.

    Anyway those are some (rather rushed) thoughts. Hope they’re helpful.

  6. Pete – these are immensely helpful comments – thank you so very much! I see exactly what you mean about the Yummy mentality being disquietingly crazy and can easily support the reader through that and signal the Slummy’s approach. I also love what you say about the projections thrust onto motherhood. I think that the power bound up with the iconic Mother is also a reason for the lowly status. Feminist thought (notably Julia Kristeva in feminist mode) aligned mothers to the drone workers who are so essential to the community that they must be kept in complete ignorance of their worth or else they could easily upset the balance of power. I rather think that’s so important that I may have to deal with it in more depth in another chapter (I like to think of the book as twenty essays on diverse aspects of motherhood). And thank you also for the encouraging comments – I’m just quietly cherishing all of those right now. I am so grateful to have your informed viewpoint and insightful help – thank you so very, very much!

  7. Litlove, I think you’re right about dealing with the power (and lack thereof) of mothers in another chapter. That’s such an interesting topic. Thanks again for sharing your brilliant ideas – basking in the applause is definitely in order!

  8. Pingback: I wish someone had handed me a copy of this article three years ago. « Box of Books

  9. I liked your chapter. What I enjoyed was your casual yet professional voice. You didn’t toss out lots of jargon to make it nearly incomprehensible for the average person. The piece is also very thoughtful and thought-provoking and has a nice logical progression in argument. Plus it was fun having read your blog posts on the books you mention to see how you used them in the piece. I think you did a fine job at using the texts without requiring the reader to know anything about them. I also like how you place motherhood into a larger context, not just in terms of mothering or family but in comparing certain aspects to captivity and being a prisoner. It takes the trials of motherhood out of the personal “well that’s your problem to deal with” context and puts it into a broader realm of understanding and importance that it deserves.

  10. Stefanie – oh thank you so much for this immensely kind and encouraging comment! I think you probably read the most non-fiction of all the bloggers I visit so I was very interested indeed to know what you thought. I’ll happily change anything that doesn’t work, but it’s like being stroked the right way to know that there are elements of it that are fine!

  11. Thanks for writing this article. I had my daughter 20 months ago and have been struggling with not being able to do it all. I look terrible, my house is a mess, I have no time for myself, and my husband is little help. 🙂 This post made me feel like I am not alone. And makes me realize what Yummy Mommy’s really have to give up to be Yummy. I am happy being Slummy with a great relationship with my daughter. 🙂

  12. Believe me, I really know how you feel. Writing this brought it all back, very vividly! But I’ll bet that to your daughter, you are the most beautiful thing she has ever, ever seen. And to your husband, the two of you together are everything he treasures. Nothing else matters that much.

  13. Pingback: That Cold-Hearted Tyrant, the Yummy Mummy. « The Observations of a Confused Young Woman

  14. Wonderful piece. If it were to be reproduced a million times over, perhaps the tide might turn.
    And now, about that strange lack of novels focused on the day-to-day lives of men….

  15. I really enjoyed reading your essay about motherhood. Bang on the money. Are the two chapters you uploaded part of a book you’re writing on Motherhood? Would love to see more if so!

    I read ‘The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy’ in 2007, I think, I seem to remember buying it as a way to punish myself for failing to get anything right. But to me it just seemed like Bridget Jones all over again: women hoist by their own petard, their desire to please coupled with their fear of standing out by being Too Good at anything. I found very little comfort in the character of Lucy, because her ‘bad mummying’ just seemed like a replay of all the anxiety I hear going on between women desperate for approval from somewhere, even if it takes the form of self-mockery.

    Isn’t this the territory of the female stand-up whose repertoire may only include self-hatred, a recessive defiance and insecurity that pings back and forth between the comic and the audience, never sure whether she is abject or right.

    What obsesses me in the domain of mothering is that it isn’t possible to get it right, not because women, mothers, or parents in general are rubbish, but because there literally isn’t a right answer. But until I became a mother this had been a comforting truth about the world’s flux, one I was proficient at teaching to students.

    Once I’d given birth, and turned myself inside out to enter the dominant ideology, flux turned out to be MY FAULT. Go figure! And there was me thinking it might have been neo-conservatism. When I was pregnant and had my first taste of becoming public property, I could still have no inkling of the blame that lay in wait, and the pleasure than so many people derive in letting mothers know that they have got it wrong. It’s taken me 6.5 years to learn to stop deprecating myself, and to understand that irony can backfire.

    Bravo for your trenchant, articulate, wise thoughts. I agree with you 100%.

  16. An excellent and thought provoking essay litlove which had me nodding with pained recognition.

    In particular this quote: “Affluenza is all about social competitiveness, the old keeping-up-with-the-Jones’s gone out of control.” captured in a nutshell the reason we moved from the UK to Norway. As the mother of two daughters, I was desperate to raise my girls in a place away from the toxic atmosphere of competitiveness and materialism which now infects the country I grew up in. There are many things I love about Britain, but not those two.

  17. What a wonderful piece. I wept buckets over Polly Williams’ book – as though someone finally understood how I’d been feeling. This is the stuff I try to write about, too. The theme of the anxiety that goes alongside motherhood is the main thread in my book, though issues of self-esteem and identity come into it too.

    It is great to read proper analysis of these books which are often dismissed as ‘chick-lit’ but are so important in airing these issues.

    And your words “gorgeous but tyrannical and tiring individuals” – this made me smile. You are SO right!

  18. “the combination of sexuality and perceived power in a woman has always had a disastrous effect on male logic.” May I quote you? just kidding – but you are a fun read

    I like your work, I really do

  19. Another absolutely excellent piece of writing. You are just so good !!! Personally, and although it might warp my “logic”, I’m baffled as to how any man would not respond positively to a combination of power and sexuality in a woman (and I’m absolutely not saying here that those should be the primary defining merits of any person) It certainly does not make me want to react like C19 Parisian newspapers or indeed like Dhaliwal.

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