Mothers are being hunted out of house and home


SURELY NOW is the time to assess what we’ve done to domestic life in the past 40 years. We’ve lost a lot of common sense, in everything from our food to the way we site our houses. In our rush to get out of the house, we were driven straight into the maw of consumerism. We turned to professionals for the smallest personal skills. We stopped valuing unquantifiable things.

Last year, at the University of Minnesota, the Dalai Lama spoke about compassion and warm-heartedness, altruism being one of the cornerstones of Buddhism. “My warm-heartedness originally came from my mother,” he said. “She was undoubtedly one of the kindest people I have ever known.”

Why should this surprise us, that the Dalai Lama learned kindness first and foremost not from glamorous and mysterious monks, but from his mammy? Diki Tsering was a poor peasant farmer who had 16 children, of whom seven survived.

Goodness, that Cherie Blair is brave. Last week she launched herself into the war of working mother versus stay-at-home mother which, like a bog fire, smoulders eternally beneath the surface of everyday life.

Cherie Blair criticised young women whose ambition it is, she said, “To marry a rich husband and retire.” She said, “You hear these yummy mummies talk about being the best possible mother and they put all their effort into their children. I also want to be the best possible mother, but I know that my job as a mother includes bringing my children up so actually they can live without me.”

Cherie Blair made these remarks at Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women event. Speaking at the Lidl magazine Least Powerful Women event – which is held daily on my telephone – the Least Powerful Women were not impressed. First of all, they wanted to know, what is it with lawyers? In November 2005 our former president Mary Robinson made a similar statement – in this case about American women holding master’s degrees “copping out”, as she saw it, by staying at home.

Part of Robinson’s worry about these young women was that, she said, “They are not seeking to have society adjust to let them continue to fulfil their potential.” In other words, in the face of their battle to have the iron-clad routines and prejudices of the workplace altered to suit women with domestic lives, these women with master’s degrees simply folded the old career tent and slipped away from the working world, like a paid babysitter in the night.

For Robinson and Blair this represents a shameful waste of an Ivy League education and some very impressive brains. For the rest of us it represents . . . life. The Least Powerful Women would like to point out that not everyone, male or female, is a laser-focused lawyer. And the point should also be made that Blair demonstrates a touching belief in the working world and the good that is routinely done there. Is it really more valuable to spend your daylight hours pushing paper on commercial cases for clients who already have enough money, or to be there when your children get home from school? This is a live and agonising question for a lot of people, most of whom are female.

But most parents, like most people, work at jobs simply because they need the money. It’s necessity, not a lifestyle choice, that drives them out the door, particularly in the later years of their career, as family expenses and individual disillusion with the working world mount, side by side. If you gave most of these men and women a chance, they’d be at home all day like a shot, making brownies.

Blair’s belief that the working world is where we all belong, all our lives, is downright amazing, seeing as how people who gave their lives to this way of living have now been roundly dumped as the money and the tax breaks and the jobs dried up. There are an awful lot of people not fulfilling their potential at the moment; an awful lot of people who are at home every single day. And they’re not yummy mummies either. Cherie seems a bit confused over the term “yummy mummy”. Isn’t it meant to denote a mother who is sexually attractive, rather than a stay-at-home mother? Surely the label was invented, like most labels, in order to sell people more stuff.

But what Cherie’s remarks demonstrate most clearly is our collective contempt for domestic life. First of all feminism says liberation is all about choices, and then it ignores domestic work and domestic happiness altogether. Presumably Cherie’s answer to the domestic work problem was to hire more help – although that didn’t work out too well with Carole Caplin. Interestingly it was Cherie’s mother, Joyce, who kept the home fires burning, and the children reasonable, in Downing Street. Is Cherie going to do the same for her grandchildren?

It’s not that anyone wants to return to the drudgery and misogyny of de Valera’s cosy homesteads. It’s not that Tibet was Shangri-La before the Chinese invaded: Diki Tsering spoke of the unequal system she grew up under – girls were never educated, for example, and even as a small child she minded that very much.

But instead of shouting at each other maybe we should be talking about the best way to care for each other. It’s time to stop pretending that anyone has all the answers, and start pooling our resources.

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