It is perhaps not a coincidence that as becoming a mother has become an unattainable option for many women and couples, the trappings of motherhood have become fetishized.
From the designer buggies (a Range Rover buggy anyone?) to the cult of the yummy mummy and her yoga-flat tummy (what a ridiculous pressure to put on a woman who’s just given birth to a new human being!) to the mini-me designer clothes ranges and babyccinos (cappuccino without coffee, if you were wondering), children are treated like precious and breakable artefacts and motherhood has become a competitive and rarified sport. This is tough on mothers, tough on their partners and tough on all women. I hope it’s good for the kids.
There are parts of London, and in every middle-class district of every town in the UK, that have become, in a sense, ghettos for middle-class mothers and their highly prized offspring. In the UK, these districts usually get the nickname of ‘Nappy Valley’ by the locals because of the sheer number of young families that move into a usually run-down part of town (often near a park or within proximity to good state schools), transforming the culture, demographic and economics of the area.
If a volcanic eruption were to freeze one of these areas in time like Pompeii, future anthropologists might conclude that it was a society dominated by a fertility cult, one in which men over the age of forty were either banished or sacrificed.
In reality, a great many of the men over forty are out of these areas during in the day working in financial services or the media to bring in the income to pay for the fetishized offerings to the child deity. Any men left under forty work in the local service industries like coffee bars, organic food stores, delivery services and building renovation projects. However, the rising cost of living has meant that the what would have been a fairly normal middle-class upbringing for these parents when they were kids is now a luxury that has to be strived for. It’s a prize out of the reach of most young professionals as it requires a dual-income, or one stonking income and an early lucky investment in a rising property market (which is in itself become something that young professionals cannot afford to do unless they have financial help with their deposit).
And the mothers? Well, many of them were professional working women and a good deal of them would have had their own property before they married, the equity in which, combined with that of their partner, has enabled them together to be able to buy one of the down-at-heel ‘family homes’ in the area to ‘do it up’. And most of them, unless their partner is exceptionally ‘high-status’ (ie: an investment banker or very successful entrepreneur) will return to work when their children are safely launched into their school career, or maybe a bit earlier. This is considered to be an undesirable outcome, which may come as a surprise to many of their mothers who longed to train for a ‘serious’ profession and work outside the home.
But what kind of work will they return to? Well, unless they can afford the usurously high-cost of childcare (and cope with endless Daily Mail style brickbats on how they are ‘ruining’ their children’s life by doing so), they’ll try to work from home, perhaps by starting an online or local family-oriented business such as an organic clothing line, a music lesson agency or artisan-made products such as soap or cupcakes. These businesses are bankrolled by rising property values and underwritten by their partner’s salaries and rarely contribute back to society in ways that these highly educated and experienced professional woman are capable of, or perhaps might prefer to ‘choose’ if there were other options available. In Britain, we call them the Mumpreneurs.
But their ‘choices’, like many of women’s ‘choices’ around having children or raising them are severely limited by our current social and economic set up. Until we have high-quality state-subsidised childcare for all as they do in Sweden, women’s choices will remain curtailed. The ‘social norm’ is now that being a ‘stay at home Mum’ is ‘fun’… yet surely there must be many highly trained professional women who long to stretch their intellectual and economic muscles again and get back out into the professional world but who have to ‘fake’ their reluctance to do so, less the furies of the Daily Mail descend upon them?
It is not the actual choices women make that I am trying to illuminate here, but the reality that many of those ‘choices’ are in fact constrained by an economic, social and political reality which many people barely realise is there. It’s like asking a fish whether they like the water: “What’s water?” says the fish.
And don’t even get me started on cupcakes… a cultural fetish par-excellence containing so many mixed messages I’m surprised the ovens don’t explode with the effort of combining them!
As a celebratory icon of the repressed, housebound and economically dependent 1950s woman (did you learn nothing from MadMen?) cupcakes have become a fetish accessory of the new ‘stay at home’ mother, or those women that yearn to be her. Who’d have thought that for all the advances we’ve made as women since the 60s, competitive baking would ever come back into fashion!
The doyenne of 1950’s domestic style (and with an MBE from the Queen to prove it) and an icon for the wannabe stay at home mother is Cath Kidston, whose floral accessories and Enid Blyton throwback designs hark to an pre-feminist era when mothering was all women were really ‘allowed’ to do unless they were infertile or radically counter-cultural. It would seem that Kidston herself is childless by circumstance, but like most women who are in the public eye and don’t have children, she doesn’t explain exactly why. Fair enough – such things are a private matter. I did hear her interviewed on Desert Island Discs on 24 April 2011, and she was a little more forthcoming on the matter, but I can find nothing in print.
Knowing the pain of involuntary childlessness myself, I can quite understand why Kidston’s considerable talent as a designer and businesswoman found its niche with a nostalgic look inspired by the ‘glory days’ of fifties childhood and motherhood (Kidston herself was born in 1958 and speaks often of her very happy childhood). In the latter years of my own marriage, desperately unhappy (yet quite unaware of how much), and after almost a decade of trying to conceive, I nested neurotically, developing a major fixation on bed linen from The White Company (another home lifestyle brand that presents an ideal image of a life where everyone seems to ‘have it together’). Recently, unpacking some stuff from storage ten-years on from my divorce, I was astonished to find neatly-ironed and razor-sharp folded bedlinen ‘sets’ tied together with ribbon and labelled with hand-written brown parcel labels. These days I can count on one hand the number of times a year I get the ironing board out, and it certainly isn’t for bedlinen. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I smiled wryly instead. And I still love the bedlinen.
Reading interviews with Kidston, her life story contains factors that many circumstantial childlessness women can sympathise and identify with: the death of her much-loved father when she was a teenager, a job that turned into a career (perhaps partly because she didn’t have children and therefore was able to put in the insane hours that it takes to get a business off the ground, although she is also a step-mother to her partner Hugh’s daughter), watching her own mother die of breast cancer at 62 and then being diagnosed with the same at 36. The kinds of events that make ‘choice’ a little more complicated when it comes to becoming a mother.
Similar motherhood-fetish stores and brands also exist in the US and the reason I wanted to bring them to your attention is not to rub motherhood in your face (although that can be how it feels if you live, or stray into, a district with ‘Nappy Valley’ qualities and are feeling in a vulnerable place about your childlessness) but to make a point. One of the dictionary definitions of fetish is ‘an object of unreasonably excessive attention or reverence’, and also ‘an object that is believed to have magical or spiritual powers’.
Motherhood, children and the trappings of both have become a fetish.
And this is very odd, very telling and a sign of our times.
I send my love to all the mothers in all the ‘Nappy Valley’s’ of the world, and wish them, their partners and their offspring happy and fulfilling lives. I just wish that the opportunity to mother wasn’t denied to so many women I meet because, perhaps like Kidson, too many unlucky breaks got in the way.
And cupcakes? Well they’re just children’s cakes in Sweden. It’s the only European country that reversed its declining birth rates through the introduction of state subsidised childcare with a result that 50% of the workforce are women, it has the highest proportion of women on the boards of top companies and men and women share domestic and childrearing duties in and out of the home. The personal still is, political.
Booking is still open for two new Gateway Women Groups starting this September in London. Still Hopeful (Wednesdays from 5th September) is for women who are still able to have a child and are being gripped by the silent misery and toxic shame of thwarted motherhood; Reignite! (Mondays from 10th September) is for post-fertile women who are ready to create their Plan B for a meaningful and happy life without children. Both groups last 12 weeks and follow a structured series of steps to arrive at a new way of dealing with your situation.
Jody Day is the Founder of Gateway Women(UK): an organization she founded to support, inspire and empower childless-by-circumstance women to live fertile, passionate, meaningful lives. A qualified counsellor and trainee integrative psychotherapist, Jody runs groups & workshops for Gateway Women, and also offers one-to-ones for women looking to explore issues around identity, maternity & fertility. She speaks regularly at events and is always looking to share her empowering message with new audiences. If you would like Jody to speak at one of your events, or to write for your blog or magazine, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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