Sunday, February 8, 2009

Rachel Cooke and Polly Vernon: bitter and bored

This week's Observer includes a couple of vitriolic articles against mothers. Rachel Cooke and Polly Vernon write about their own feelings as child-free women. This is interesting enough - you can read plenty of good stuff on that via this blog, but Rachel and Polly's articles go on the offensive against women who are essentially happy with the choices they've made.

How pointless is that? It's like shouting 'I'm happy with my life, honest. Don't come near me with your stories of how you are happy with your life too'.

Rachel Cooke is furious that she sometimes has to suffer conversations with women who want to talk about their life and their experience of having children. She seems to be filled with dismay that some of her friends have had children and da, da, daaa... talk about it.

At least her friends are forewarned. They have no excuse for not keeping Rachel completely entertained in future.

She should just accept that some of her friends are boring. It's just that in the world before children, Rachel's friends only wanted to talk about handbags and manicures (which would bore me to pieces), now they have family (hey look - Rachel's friends are now MY friends).

I've got friends who enjoy talking about themselves and their own interests. They aren't bad people, just a little self-centred. I've endured deadly monologues when a friend has gossiped about people I don't know. I stick around because she's infinitely kind and tells great stories about work - a reflection on my own interests and not because work is innately worthy.

And don't forget, men can be boring too. Whether it's about babies, cars, wine, gadgets... Only this week I suffered a colleague's in-depth description of how his 17 month old was learning to walk. Did I shut him up? No, of course not. It would have been rude of me to begrudge him a minute or two of paternal pride. I don't think being a snob about what people choose to talk about is the best way to 'win friends and influence people'.

Most of her articles are more balanced, though her tone is frequently bitter. You can read here how she managed to knife Peaches Geldof in the back, even if she didn't manage to puncture PG's inflated ego during the interview itself.

Rachel refers to the way 'websites' (I'm not sure if she means blogs or chatrooms) condemned Rachida Dati. I dispute her take on this. I have blogged about Dati - here and here- but I don't think I was unreasonably critical and I posted about it because I wasn't finding any sensible coverage of the story in the press. The nastier stuff was found in newspapers like The Daily Mail where apparently Dati 'and her kind' are responsible for shattering "the bedrock of a stable and contented society". Mothers are an impressive group of people, but I don't think we can do all that on our ownsome.

I'm increasingly finding that print and broadcast coverage of parenting is subject to a filter of banal stereotypes;
  • earnest breastfeeding earth mothers (selfish)
  • superwomen career mothers with nannies (selfish)
  • ambitious mothers living vicariously through their children (selfish)
  • skinny minnies - surgically or otherwise - with ultra-fashionable kiddies (selfish)
The exception that appears, to me, to prove the rule is Zoe Williams. Her columns about early years parenting are convincingly written. The use of her personal experience makes it like.... reading a blog.

Rachel's piece was followed by a defensive, why I'll never have children piece by Polly Vernon. I like it more when Polly demonstrates the upside of a childfree life. Usually Polly writes about cocktail bars, international travel and her ability to wear skinny fit jeans. Previous to this article, I've imagined that if life had gone in a different direction, I might have lived a slightly less glam version of her life. Swap the skinny fit for straight leg and the NY cocktail bars for Canterbury and you might not have been able to tell us apart.

Amusingly, Polly dismisses some parents as mumsnet-botherers. Over the past couple of months, mumsnet has been The Guardian's first port of call for every voxpop on motherhood. I suspect this is another dig at the blogosphere. It's not a direct hit though, since mumsnet is more about chatrooms instead of creative blogging.

I wonder if she really even wanted to write the article in the first place. Her life should be hunkdory enough for her to shrug off the occassional comment about children.

I'm starting to wonder why I read the paper after all. Which is annoying, because I've just subscribed to its voucher system...


IN OTHER NEWS: my other blog has 1 follower. Which is so encouraging.


Mothership said...

Yes, my sentiments exactly, thanks for pointing me to your post. I also found Polly Vernon's list (so very yawningly lazy) to be unconvincing. I actually don't give a monkey's one way or the other what people choose - it's absolutely fine either way, but what possible benefit is there in creating a false war between the mummies and the non-mummies? Are we seriously being competitive about whose life is more valid and important or full of fun and laughter?
I feel like this is one more way that women are undermining one another instead of just getting on with the important business of enjoying their lives and remembering that there is ROOM FOR EVERYONE'S JOY

New Mum, Same Old Me said...

I have met Polly a few times through a close friend, and I am not surprised by the overall tone of the article. I am surprised how one could write such a hypocritical article... I don't like babies but I like my goddaughter. I don't like parents except my friends. I support my friends with problems, but think they should get over it.

You get over yourself.

Lucy Diamond said...

Well put. I found both articles absolutely infuriating and incredibly patronising. Whose great idea was it to have two sneering Mum-Bashing pieces in Observer Women's magazine? Give me strength.

Sue Clark said...

So pleased to discover your blog this evening, after writing a two side letter to Rachel Cooke this afternoon expressing my annoyance. A lot of what I've written is the same as you. I actually felt depressed by the article last week; I wondered if I'd become dull, selfish etc. Then mulled it over and just felt irritated by it. So many ridiculous strands in it its difficult to know where to start.

Thanks! said...

I've been ticking and ticking away since I read both those pieces last weekend. I've been mostly enormously disappointed by the articles and hugely irritated, and I've been trying to compose a measured response (in my head) to send off in an 'irritated of Leith' kind of way. Now I don't need to - cos you have! Yay (and thank you).

What really infuriated me, for lack of a better phrase, was the utter lack of 'sisterhood' from these two. As if being a mum, at some level, was a dull waste and simply reinforced women's image of obsessed, above all else, with babies. Grrrrrr. Thus doing those career minded women a huge disservice (apparently). Y'know, you can be a mum & have a career, but the odds are pretty stacked against you doing well once you've had a baby.

It was horribly middle class. Horribly individualistic and just darn rubbish and ill-informed. Both Rachel and Polly should, frankly, know better.

So there.

Anonymous said...

I have not had the chance to read the entire article by Polly Vernon. So I will not comment on it. However,I will simply state that as a woman who has chosen not to have children, I have been on the receiving end of some horrible comments and judgements. One such comment was that I could not be a real woman if I didn't want children. Some people choose to have children. Some people choose to not have children. I have made my choice after much deep soul-searching and I also choose to be happy. To all you mothers out there, I salute you, for it is a difficult yet rewarding job which I have chosen not to undertake.

Anonymous said...

I read your article on not wanting kids Polly, and it made me feel better. I keep thinking whats wrong with me and confused. My bf wants kids he said. I don't. Him talking about it makes me twitch and shake haha. It just is gross I think. I said sure Id adopt. He of course wouldnt want that. But guys can't even understand. I said I dont want a parasite in my body. Like a maggot. The thought gives me the biggest creeps ever. But in the back of my head I think well (Im only 18!!) maybe Ill change my mind..but if I feel this way right now I dont know how I can change. My bf actually said its not normal..lots of girls say they want kids and to get married and all that and here I am never put any thought into that kinda junk. I just never had interest. But he also says if i chose not to that'd be fine. I feel bad though. Like I am letting him down. How could I take something like that away from him? But we are staying together no matter what. Seriously it's weird that the guy is more obsessed with getting married and having kids then you haha.

Anonymous said...

I agree that mothers shouldn't be judged for their decision to have children but I think they need to realise they are the majority. I don't want to have children and I regularily have to face questions about why and told that I am missing out on something that is really no ones business but my own. As a minority it is difficult to constantly put up with the barrage of baby preaching.

Another thing I would like to point out it that people who don't want children are unfairly characterized as selfish. One of the primary reasons I don't want to have children is because I want to volunteer a lot of my time and money to causes I am passionate about which would disappear if I were to procreate.

I count myself very lucky to have a man that agrees with me and that our life purpose is something other than offspring (and it is not cocktails and manicures either :-))