Tag Archives: mothers


14 Mar
The Three Graces. Raphael

The Three Graces. Raphael


I have two sisters, well, half-sisters to be accurate: we share a mother and I have a different father.

There’s a considerable age difference between us: I’m fourteen years older than one, and ten years older than the other. Which means our mother was in different stages of her life when she birthed me from when she birthed them. Which means that the three of us have different mothers, and while two of us more or less agree on some of her characteristics, one of us describes her as significantly different from the mother two of us knew.

Interestingly, it is the middle daughter who denies the mother the eldest and the youngest describe.

This is one of the more intriguing aspects of family histories: how can people grow up with the same mother and have wildly conflicting stories? And whose narrative rules?

My youngest sister (who is also a writer ) and I have lately been exchanging emails on this topic of who *owns* family information. Everyone owns her subjective experience, we decided, and if a family member doesn’t agree they are at liberty to write or speak their subjective experience, but one thing that cannot be argued with is subjective experience.

Our mother died ten years ago, but still the disagreements about her character divide us. I live my daily life without much concern for matters about which I can do nothing, but now and again our differences erupt and I’m forced to acknowledge these family sorrows are far from settled.

My initial reaction to an eruption is to lose my temper with everyone because I don’t know how to not care about my sisters and it would be so much easier if I didn’t, and that makes me feel cornered.

But I changed their nappies. I was there when one tipped the other out of her pram and the baby was nearly strangled by the straps that held her in place. I took one on my first holiday with my first boyfriend. I don’t to this day understand how that happened.

One lived with me and my husband when living with our mother got too tricky. During that period, unknown to us, she nurtured weed in many pots hidden behind our garden shed.

I came home one day, eight and a half months pregnant with my second child, and found the house had been burgled. I rang the police who during their robbery investigation found the weed. I had no idea what to do, so while they sat in my kitchen questioning me I perched unsteadily on a stool, sneaking looks at the weed they’d brought in and making chocolate chip cookies.  Standing up was hard. The baby was ten pounds. It was a lot to lug around and at that point in my life I baked things to relieve stress.

We’ll wait till your husband gets here, the detectives said, obviously of the opinion that I was recklessly endangering my unborn child by smoking weed, and I suppose unused to pregnant suspects baking cookies during questioning but obliged by my girth to be tolerant.

Both sisters were present at the birth of this child, and one crouched between my legs and took the photos that are the most powerful images I own.

One of the sisters was then in a separatist feminist phase, and commiserated with me for having brought another male into the world while congratulating me on having eschewed the patriarchal domination of childbirth by giving birth at home.

The history. The love. The distance and the difference. Our subjective experiences with a mother who never wanted to be a mother. I don’t know how much our mothers’ lives determine our own, either in sympathy with or in reaction against. I can see both forces manifesting in our three lives, and I see that whether we fulfil our mothers’ dreams or react fiercely against them, in neither case are we free.







One of the things Thatcher’s death made me think about

15 Apr

A comment made by Russell Brand in his article in The Guardian on the death of Margaret Thatcher provoked feminist outrage, and cries of “nobody ever says that about male politicians.” Or male anythings, really.

You could never call Margaret Mother by mistake, Brand writes. For a national matriarch she is oddly unmaternal. I always felt a bit sorry for her biological children Mark and Carol, wondering from whom they would get their cuddles. “Thatcher as mother” seemed, to my tiddly mind, anathema.

Of course it’s rare for male achievers to be considered from this perspective, and of course that can be a source of outrage to us women, seeming, as it does, to privilege our mothering abilities above and beyond anything else we can do, and do well. So we read obituaries of female scientists, for example, that begin with a tribute to their role as mothers, implying that no matter what else they might have done, their finest accomplishment was, well, mothering.

This feminist refrain has become so familiar to me over the years it’s become reified. I hear it and think, oh yes, that’s right isn’t it, and move on.

This morning I found myself thinking about my sons. They have done well in their chosen fields. I’m enormously proud of them. I’m delighted when they achieve another goal. I’m proud of how they love their female partners, and I don’t hesitate to tell them if they aren’t being fair. They may not listen, but I tell them anyway.

One son  seems quite proud of having been brought up by a feminist. Another claims it probably trashed him. This one bore the brunt, as an adolescent, of me going back to university, and then me and his Dad parting company. I will never forget one screaming, tearful encounter between us when he was having difficulties with his stepmother that were, of course, all my fault. “If you hadn’t gone back to university and got political,” he yelled at me, “none of this would ever have happened and we’d still all be living in the same house!”

In a way, he was quite right.

But what I realised this morning is that while I’m proud of them for just about everything, the thing that really makes me go weak at the knees is watching my sons with their children. As dads, they are, to my mind, amazing. I know they learned a lot from their own Dad, who was an excellent and very loving Dad. But they surpass him, and I’m sure, me.

For example, when the newest baby arrived last week, his dad stripped off his shirt in the delivery room, said he didn’t need them to clean the infant up, and took him in his arms for skin to skin contact while the baby’s mother was temporarily unavailable.

I would make this the first line in anyone’s obit.

Is it demeaning them, for me to think of and treasure these young men first as brilliant, loving Dads, and second as successful young men in all their other roles? If it’s offensive to think of women in that way, surely it must be equally offensive to transfer that thinking to men?

No, I don’t think it is demeaning to honour a man’s dadness. What’s wrong is that we hardly ever do it.

We should acknowledge a man’s role in his family life, just as we do a woman’s. I don’t think it’s sexist and demeaning to honour a woman’s role as mother.  We are throwing the baby out with the bath water in demanding that women are not first spoken of in terms of our love for our children and our role as mothers. We need to keep doing that and we need to start speaking in these same terms about men a whole lot more than we do.


Mothers who say F**ck

30 Dec

I recently engaged in a robust exchange of views with one of my sons. This particular adult child has long-held a reputation for forgetting to tell anybody things, unless we happen to be in the same room as him when something that might need to be told to us occurs.

On this most recent occasion, the stuff he forgot to tell me was totes important, and my lack of knowledge caused me untold aggravation, and the rest. So I rang him up and let him know where he currently stood with me. As he’s always thought of himself as “the good child,” this came a something of a shock.

First we had to deal with the “oh, it was just a misunderstanding” meme. No it wasn’t, I told him, I didn’t misunderstand anything how could I when you didn’t tell me anything I could misunderstand?

Then we negotiated the “Mum you’re losing control” meme. I’m not losing control, I told him, are you? And by the way, you really need to learn the difference between expressing emotion and losing control. The two are not necessarily the same thing, I told him.

I was also thinking of his wife when I said this. I thought, I bet he says this to her when there’s a disagreement, so I better bring him up to speed about women expressing ourselves. This “you’re losing control” thing is an attempt to shut us up, a projection, and a put down. In my experience it is usually said by males who fear they are losing an argument, though it’s not necessarily gender-based.

Finally, I was reduced by his wilful obduracy to foul language. Fucking hell, I said. “Don’t swear at me down the phone, Mum,” he demanded. Oh my! I cackled, in capital sarcasm font, so in your moral universe me swearing is a bigger offence than you not telling me stuff I really needed to know?

“We’re going round in circles,” he bleated. Indeed we are, I replied, taking pity. Let’s sleep on it and talk again in a couple of days.

My sons taught me foul language. Since becoming husbands and fathers they’ve turned on me. I can’t swear, and I’m reprimanded every time I do something they consider the least bit edgy and that is quite a lot of stuff I do and say. Last time I took Archie out and stopped for coffee, his father asked me if I’d left the baby in the car while I went into the cafe. I looked long at him, and shook my head in a WTF kind of way.  Archie’s mother then stepped in and reminded her husband that he’d survived my mothering quite well, and he should perhaps pull his head in.

I am extremely fond of Archie’s mum. I see a lot of me in her. Archie is also showing signs of a possibly anarchic personality. On his recent first plane trip, and though only fourteen months old, he stood up on his seat and hurled peanuts at the passengers sitting behind him till his dad grabbed him by the nappies and hauled him off to the toilet where he gave him a stern talking-to and probably told him he was losing control.

I’m considering forming a group called “Mothers Who Say Fuck.”  I’m sure I’m not the only mother who overnight finds herself dealing with a role reversal initiated by her adult children who for some reason, and without consultation, have cast her as the irresponsible adolescent and themselves as long-suffering adults who are burdened with keeping an eye on her and monitoring her language. I can’t quite get my head around this phenomenon. All things considered, they have some nerve.

This attitude does, however, make for a special bond between grandmothers and grandchildren. We share a common cause – defying their parents. We will both be instructed to mind our mouths. We will both be exhorted to act responsibly, and to act our age. On the positive side, we can sit at tables and roll our eyes at one another when their parents issue yet another fucking edict. We can slink off and comfort one another when we’ve been reprimanded and given time outs. We will always know we have each other, when everyone else is pissed off at us because we’ve thrown the metaphorical peanuts. Oh, yeah. I see only good times ahead for Archie and me.

Me and Archie




Don’t mention the mothers

14 Apr

First posted on ABC’s The Drum

Tiara Kid

Peter Garrett, Federal Minister for Early Childhood and Youth, is about to receive a petition requesting his support for a plan to boycott the introduction of American style child beauty pageants into Australia, organised by the “anti-sexploitation” group Collective Shout

Averse as I am to censorship and banning as methods of effecting cultural change, in this case I’m in partial agreement with the zealots.

Watch the video here and you’ll be left in little doubt that subjecting young girls to the intensive and brutal grooming demanded by the organisers of these affairs is abusive of the little child’s body, mind and spirit. Think hot eyebrow wax ripping off a screaming three-year-old’s tender skin, as well as indiscriminate amounts of chemicals from fake tans, bleached teeth and hair; Botox injections, and after that the make up.

Together with the sexy moves the little girls are taught to use and the glittering costumes they are required to wear, reminiscent in their extravagance of Las Vegas showgirls, you’re looking at a violating form of child abuse that is normalised in certain sections of wealthy Western democracies as highly profitable entertainment for adults.

Some mothers argue that it’s nothing more than a game of dress ups, a disingenuous justification that allows them to convince themselves that their little girls are having fun. But dress ups in your mother’s bedroom don’t entail painful beauty treatments or have as their goal the attainment of physical perfection, and the adults you parade before accept you no matter how you look.

Little girls tarted up like caricatures of adult beauty queens put one in mind of the excesses of drag queens, and indeed the little ones look just like infant drag queens, sans the irony, humour and agency the adults bring to their displays. If an infant beauty queen is a tragic sight, an infant drag queen is even more so, especially if she’s scared, forgets what she’s supposed to do, or falls over her own little feet when she’s parading across the stage while her momma shrieks “Shake it like I told ya, baby!” from the front row.

It’s the patriarchy again

On the website to which I’ve linked there’s some comments criticising the mothers who get themselves and their little girls into this Mardi Gras and Sleeze Ball for tiny tots pageant scene. The disapproving commentary is critiqued by others who claim that it isn’t the mothers’ fault, we must be careful not to start a false good mother/bad mother dichotomy in this debate, and that the mothers are themselves products of a culture in which how a woman looks is all that matters.

While I agree that starting a bad mother/good mother binary oppositional is less than useless, I take issue with the justification that the mothers involved are victims of a sexist hegemony promoting the belief that “…women and girls aren’t human – we are all apparently male’s disposable sexual service stations,” to quote one of the comments.

How then, do we account for the millions of women just as subjected to cultural pressures (the majority, I venture to claim) who are appalled by the pageant scene and wouldn’t dream of letting their little ones anywhere near it?

We can’t account for their escape, but what the victim justification does do is allow those mothers who exploit their little ones in pageants to be relieved of responsibility for their choices.

That’s responsibility, not blame, the difference between the two is a big one, and perhaps the failure to understand this difference is what is preventing some of us from fully acknowledging the mother’s pivotal role in child pageantry.

This victim justification inevitably leaves faceless corporations primarily responsible for the “porno-sexuality” allegedly propagated by the beauty industry, and apparently wholly and indiscriminately internalised by pageant mothers. Women and girls, this argument goes, are nothing but “fodder” for “sexist, classist and racist corporate machinery.”

Where have I heard this disavowal of agency and individual responsibility before? Oh yes, the KanYe West and Brian McFadden sagas; the Victoria’s Secret knickers saga, and most recently in the games rating debate article on the Drum.

Wherever you find those who seek to censor you will find the corresponding denial of agency and individual responsibility. According to the censor and ban brigade, a majority of people but especially women, are bereft of all ability to discriminate, soak up cultural influences as if we have Wettex in our craniums rather than brains, and have to be protected from ourselves because we are undoubtedly our own worst enemies.

In other words, women are even less capable of discrimination and choice than children, and women are a priori patriarchy’s victims.

Never underestimate the power of the mother

My argument for having a close look at these pageants isn’t because the mothers are victims. It’s because their children are, and children don’t have a lot of agency in any situation that is controlled, driven and dominated by the mother’s extreme desires. However much a child protests and some of them do, she is bullied, manipulated and cajoled into accepting the cosmetic violation of her body, and into dressing and performing as her mother demands.

The pageant mother’s perception that her child is inadequate and requires physical enhancements is a damaging one, and we should not be accepting it as part of the “normal” range of maternal attitudes. The completely normal little girl is taught by her mother that she is physically lacking, that this is a handicap, and that if she works hard to perfect herself she will receive love, affection and admiration from her mother, and her wider audience.

This is a message the child will carry with her into adult life, introjected as parental messages frequently are so that we come to think they’re our own beliefs, and it’s a big task to free ourselves of the more negative of them.

The intense maternal focus on perfecting the child’s body should alert anyone to the real possibility of creating an obsessive preoccupation in the little girl that will likely be carried into her adolescence and adulthood.

Never underestimate the emotional power of a mother over her little child, even if that mother is herself a victim.

The Twinkie defence

If mothers are relieved of responsibility in the matter of child beauty pageants, the myth that all that is required to protect children is for us to prevent through censorship and boycotts the patriarchal cultural brainwashing of women, is once more perpetuated.

Faceless corporations will be held solely responsible, and the consumer’s Twinkie defence of diminished capacity on account of having been unwittingly appropriated as fodder for the beauty industry, will serve to deny personal agency and responsibility.

I can think of little that is more unrealistic than ignoring or glossing over (so to speak) the mother’s role in beauty pageants, as is advocated by those who are protesting these events. Their undertaking to instead focus on pageant culture (minus the mother’s agency in it) and what it represents sounds doomed to failure, in terms of productively deconstructing these abusive events.

The “woman as victim” ideology

As are all efforts to control through censorship and prohibition alone, this one is at best superficial. We might succeed in preventing the pageant culture taking hold in Australia to the extent that it has in the US, but we won’t have done anything to ascertain what drives a woman to subject her infant to these ordeals, or what she may be doing instead if they aren’t available as an outlet.

Yet again we baulk at acknowledging women’s capacity for violence whatever form it takes, and instead seek to place responsibility elsewhere.

Yet again we are proffered the view of women as without agency, victims of a patriarchal consumer culture that blinds us to our own and our children’s best interests.

Once again some of us are denying women an opportunity to claim agency and own responsibility for our actions, and in so doing become proactive participants, rather than the perceived passive victim recipients of the culture in which we live.

And, as is all too often the case, the biggest losers are the little girls denied the ordinary enjoyment and acceptance of their normal children’s bodies, paraded instead in grotesque finery in front of adults like primped, beribboned and ruffled toy dogs in a very bad circus.

And again, the question must be asked: what is it with some women that makes them apparently incapable of acknowledging and addressing blatant maternal abuse, even “for the sake of the children?”

The “adultification” of childhood: the questions some feminists will not ask

3 Feb

Slow Down, Children. By Steve Voght via flickr

Being a Disney princess doesn’t cut it anymore for some little girls and their mothers. Being “hot” does. This means mini adult clothes, high-heeled slippers, the raunchy swing of the infant bum, bras long before there’s the least need for them, lip gloss and worse, and the emulation of adult sexual behaviour in the pursuit of being “cute.”

All of this is currently known as the “adultification” of children.

It’s horrible. Anybody who’s seen footage of the two year old girl toddling down the catwalk in full make-up and wearing a mini sized version of Madonna’s iconic cone shaped bra, can judge for themselves how horrible it really is.

You’ll find this and other nasty images on Melinda Tankard Reist’s website, where there are examples of “adultification” that make wet hair stand on end.

I do have serious disagreements with some of MTR’s positions, but there’s no denying she is certainly doing a thorough job of raising awareness of this particular cultural development, and somebody must. I acknowledge her vigilance in this.

The weaknesses in the arguments.

I don’t agree with her analysis, however. Reist and other feminist commentators hold the media, and the apparently perverted sexual appetites of adult men, responsible for this situation.

They take a swipe at men in general in the mistaken belief that “the patriarchy” is a term applicable to anyone with a penis, plus their collaborators, that is, women with a pr*ck in their heads. Or “pro male women,” as the Reist people prefer to put it.

As sociology Professor Raewyn Connell described it in her book, Masculinities, (1995, Allen & Unwin) hegemonic patriarchal masculinity is but one expression of the masculine in Western culture. Men who do not identify with that dominant expression are frequently vilified or ignored by the mainstream group. Connell’s work exposes the weakness of any argument that depends on male stereotypes.

Tarring all men with one brush is as offensive as stereotyping women. I wish the feminists engaged in this process would stop it, because it isn’t helping anyone and it doesn’t add anything to the debate. Indeed, it puts so many people off side the debate is at risk of losing what would otherwise be a sympathetic audience.

Let’s go deeper than claiming all men are the same. We’re capable of that.

Capitalism, the market and the media

Hegemonic masculinity is a category generally well represented in the pursuit of profit. Captains of industry, masters of the universe, dominant alpha males, and their female cohorts, tend to set the tone in popular culture when they perceive that there is money to be made from it.

I would go so far as to argue that the entire “adultification of childhood” process is driven by a market in search of more and more ways to increase profits, as fashions and fads quickly fall by the wayside and offer less returns.

Then there’s the media. The media has a complex role to play in the game. They simultaneously promote and critique cultural trends, sometimes in the same couple of pages. The media bears its fair share of responsibility for the creation of our desires, and the fact that those desires are so frequently deliberately contradictory and unattainable.

Even MTR throws up unacceptable contradictions. How many more people have seen the appalling French Vogue photo shoot featuring five and six year olds in adult clothes, and blatantly sexually posed, since she put those very same photos up on her website, complete with sharing facilities?

Not, however, with a link to French Vogue so we could dash off a condemnatory email.

I’ll never understand that move. Protest, by all means but perpetuate the children’s abuse? Non, merci.

The elephant in the room

In the frantic outpouring of blame for the sexualization and adultification of little children, and the tortuous self-questioning about “how did this happen?” one thing seems to be consistently overlooked. Perhaps the most important thing of all, and that is the market.

The market is mothers. It is overwhelmingly mothers who buy this merchandise for their little girls. It is mothers who dress their little girls in these inappropriate ways. It is mothers who train these little girls to pout, and strut, and wiggle. It is mothers who paint the little faces, highlight the infant hair, and whiten the baby teeth.

Mothers are the market. If they weren’t interested, if they didn’t buy the merchandise, if no mothers thought it was good for their little ones to look “hot,” there would be no market. Last time I looked infants weren’t out there in droves buying make up and tiny sexy clothes. And neither were blokes, patriarchal or not.

Some women, an increasing number it would seem from the unease that’s around, are acting out their own fantasies and desires through their little girls. The market has sussed out this development and pounced, because that’s its job. Once making kids look like little big girls was confined to those crazy American moms and their children’s beauty pageants. Now, apparently, it’s pre-schoolers all over the place.

The sexualization of children is becoming normalised at an earlier and earlier age. Little boys come home from kindergarten and tell their sisters they’ve got “sexy butts.”  Where does that come from?

The mother in that instance explained that “sexy” wasn’t an appropriate descriptor for a little girl, or for a little boy to use about a little girl. It was adult language, she said.

Children start to apply pressure as more of their peers show up to school in inappropriate clothes, and nobody wants to stand out as different. The market rubs its hands, and sees only profit. It’s a vicious cycle.

Almost everyone thought French Vogue went way too far. But it can’t be denied that the magazine operates within a general climate in which it is increasingly acceptable for little girls to be sexualised.

Don’t blame the mothers

Because that won’t help anyone. Rather, we need to look at what is driving more women to sexualise and “adultify” their very young daughters.

How has the concept of “beautiful little girl” become transmogrified into “hot little girl” in some women’s minds?

Who do they believe these tarted-up little girls really appeal to?

Without any evidence to substantiate my gut feeling, I strongly suspect it is the mothers themselves. I have enough faith left in humanity in general to recoil from the notion that these women are actually thinking of their little ones as sexual fodder and sexual eye candy for adult males.

I suspect there is considerable dissonance between how some feminists perceive this tragic form of theatre, and how the women involved perceive it.

The exploitation of these little girls, intentional or otherwise, is perpetrated primarily by the mothers. The market both caters to, and promotes this exploitation.

And I’m really at a loss to see how railing against the stereotyped and supposedly perverted sexual appetites of adult males, and railing against the media, will on its own do anything much to address the situation.

As long as there is a profit to be made from it, all forms of the commodification of childhood, including the sexualisation and “adultification” of young children will continue, and the media will not take a stand against it. If there is no market, interest will very quickly fade away.

Mothers are the key. Go to the source. Don’t blame, but do hold responsible.

Adult women can be held responsible for our choices, and we should be. Nothing will deeply change for us until we accept that.

One of my lasting memories of my grandmother is her scolding me for turning cartwheels without my knickers on. I don’t know what she would make of the way some of the little girls I’ve seen out and about lately are dressed.

There are so many years when we have to be grown up, and so few years to be a happily grotty kid.

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