Dani Garavelli: Unsure they are doing the right thing, some mothers feel the need to justify their choices

ONE of the worst things about being a mother is that you feel you’re constantly being judged – by politicians, health officials, passers-by sometimes, but mostly by other mothers.

You’d think the all-consuming experience of caring for a helpless bundle of humanity would create a sense of solidarity and sisterhood. But no, a combination of disempowerment and lack of sleep seems to set woman against woman. No sooner have the baby cards been taken down from the mantelpiece than once relaxed frequenters of ante-natal classes are taking up polarised positions: the eco-friendly cloth nappy-users versus the Pampers addicts; the Penelope Leachers versus the Gina Forders; the stay-at-home mums versus the working mums.

There’s something about giving birth that turns mild-mannered, tolerant women into rabid fundamentalists, determined to promulgate their ideas on child-rearing in every coffee shop, clinic and online forum they venture into. Unsure they are doing the right thing, they feel the need to justify their own choices by presenting them as superior to everyone else’s.

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It was tempting to view Cherie Blair’s recent sideswipe at “yummy mummies” in the same light. Here’s a woman with a much sought-after, flexible career, hectoring her counterparts for giving up their jobs to devote themselves to their children. Who does she think she is – with her wealthy husband and first-class degree – telling other people how to behave? Does she understand how difficult it can be to juggle a job you hate with the demands of looking after infants, particularly if you can’t afford a live-in nanny? Alternatively what’s wrong – if finances permit – with wanting to spend time with your kids, with the occasional Pilates class thrown in to liven up your day?

That’s certainly how the Mumsnet brigade read her comments. Never ones to ignore the bait, they took to their online forums in their droves to castigate Cherie, listing the barrister’s manifold faults and suggesting if she’d spent less time in court and more time in the kitchen her own children would have been happier.

And yet, if you read the substance of Cherie’s speech, it isn’t bitchy at all. Speaking at Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women event, she said she was worried about today’s young women whose ambition was to marry a rich man and give up work. Speaking as someone who, at the age of eight, saw her own mother abandoned, she urged young mothers to remain self-sufficient so they could get out of bad marriages if need be, or support their family if something happened to their partner.

Admittedly, she should not have used the term “yummy-mummy” which – with its overtones of pureed food and Boden catalogues – sounds a trifle sneering. But you can see what she means. Being a full-time mum has its attractions – particularly if it’s accompanied by plenty of spending money, but finding yourself a trophy wife in a Fifties time warp might not be as appealing as it sounds, particularly if the relationship starts to sour. Anyway, it’s not as if Cherie was encouraging young women to be as ambitious and driven as her. Far from it. She was quick to admit that in trying to establish her own career she made “foolish” mistakes, such as working too far into her pregnancies.

Nor is she blind to her own advantages; being self-employed, she admits, allowed her to spend time with her children, then work later when they were in bed. But her basic premise – that modern women, freed from the shackles of traditional mothering, should think carefully before they relinquish their independence – seems eminently sensible to me.

As does the similarly contentious statement made recently by Helen Fraser, the chief executive of the Girls Day School Trust. She too caused a rush to judgment when she said female pupils should be taught to make good marriages. Though the quote in isolation made her sound like something out of a Jane Austen novel, she was really just cautioning girls to look for men who would support their aspirations and help them juggle work and children if they wanted to. “It’s not so much about finding a husband who does the hoovering and makes the dinner,” she said. “It’s about finding one who really understands it is important for you to thrive and do well in whatever you choose to do.”

What both women seem to be looking for, then, is more balance. They are advocating neither traditional partnerships which left women at the emotional and financial mercy of their husbands, nor the have-it-all working motherhood that left so many of us Cosmo girls exhausted and disillusioned. Instead they are recommending something truly modern, a union where women are neither entirely dependent nor entirely responsible, but are both cherished as homemakers and supported as breadwinners.

Mothers at a time when no concessions were made for high-fliers (Fraser took only six weeks full maternity leave after the birth of her two children), these women have first-hand experience of the need for financial autonomy and help around the house, so younger mothers would do well to hear them out. Indeed, perhaps the most positive outcome of this skirmish would be if it marked the end of the mummy wars and the beginning of a new era of mutual respect.

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With the world in an economic tailspin it’s time for us to stop bickering about the respective merits of breast and bottle or home pureed food over jars and realise that, whether we choose to stay at home or forge careers, we are all just trying to do the best we can in our own individual circumstances. «