TERRY PRONE: It’s time we banished the phrase ‘as a mum’ from public discourse

Terry Prone says Andrea Leadsom ‘has provided a neat case study in mumhood self-delusion, claiming an accretion of extra wisdom as a result of giving birth, which was provably absent’.

IT’S FAIR to guess that UK prime minister Theresa May’s new environment secretary, Andrea Leadsom, is unlikely to make speeches that include the phrase “as a mum”, because, courtesy of the London Times, that phrase has bitten the new member of the cabinet and left teeth marks that won’t fade any time soon.

Leadsom is the most prominent of a cohort which holds that motherhood (sorry, mumhood) has developed in them a range of stunning insights which allow them to return to work or seek a prime ministership, confident that nobody can touch them. Bit like those people who come back from the Camino. You wouldn’t mind if they just claimed to have better calf muscles, but no. The walk has changed their lives, raised them up in spiritual terms, and endowed them with new antennae positively shivering with sensitivity.

It’s not the done thing to say to a Camino convert: “Look, no offence, but you’re exactly the same as you were before you headed off.” Meaning “you were always a bore and now you just have new pictures to support that status”. Or meaning “you were smart and insightful before you bought the walking shoes, so why’re you now attributing your smart insights to having an overseas stroll?”

Theresa May
Theresa May

In similar vein, it’s not considered acceptable to query someone who proudly claims mumship before they describe any other aspect of their function or competence. When I do career development interviews with clients and ask them to describe themselves, no man ever starts with his dadship. They may, and frequently do, reveal themselves as fathers, but it usually takes the form of a comment like: “We have three children. Ten, eight, and four. Two boys and a girl — the last one’s the girl.” It’s not that they don’t adore their kids. Nudge them and they’ll happily talk about their offspring. It’s that they don’t see themselves as having been put through a crucible out of which they have come, in career terms, bigger and stronger and better.

Before we were even sure how to pronounce her surname, that’s what Andrea Leadsom did. Lost in the controversial wash was the reason she was, as she claimed, repeatedly asked by the London Times journalist about being a mum. She was asked because, in the lead-up to the Brexit self-harming episode, Leadsom had constantly referred to herself as a mum. The journalist logically assumed that someone who was so self-defined would impute some value to being a mum. So she asked. She got a great and lengthy answer which took on the general shape and flight plan of a boomerang.

The advantages bestowed on Leadsom by mumhood were not immediately clear. Capacity to anticipate disaster? Not in evidence, as she and her mumhood marched fearlessly into dissing the woman who is now prime minister. Understanding of how media works? Not in evidence, as she pontificated to the journalist, Rachel Sylvester, about how she, Leadsom, didn’t want this to be presented as her and her mumhood agin the childless Theresa May. Judgement? Least in evidence as she rushed to attack the journalist — “How could you?” she tweeted — for printing what she herself had said. The journalist promptly produced the transcript and the recording of the interview, which suggests Ms Leadsom’s attention to detail had also been in deficit all along.

Bottom line is that she provided a neat case study in mumhood self-delusion, claiming an accretion of extra wisdom as a result of giving birth, which was provably absent.

It’s time we banished the phrase ‘as a mum’ from public discourse

This particular form of delusion may derive from the experience of childbirth and maternity leave. Both can be tough. Both can be fun. Either way, the parents are never the same afterwards, and in the nature of things, the life of the mother tends to be more transformed than the life of the father. My life was transformed in many ways by mumhood. One of the ways was learning that trying to sneak mushrooms into a year-old baby who doesn’t like them is bad for the wallpaper.

Mumhood delivers a myriad of such little lessons, none of which have the smallest application in any workplace. Face it, no matter how we might like to force-feed mushrooms to particular colleagues, employment law prevents it.

The other end of this crazy notion that mumhood confers a new value on anyone is the widely held conviction that full humanity is achieved by women only when they get to the mumhood part of their lives. This permits the most outrageous constant harassment of the childless (or child-free). In theory, this should have died out 50 years ago, with the move away from the pattern of men as the wage-earner and women as the homemakers. It didn’t. It just took different forms.

Couples who live together don’t get that much of it, but once a couple marries, the same tedious old invasive cliched questions start, right down to and including the patter of tiny feet query. It’s a multi-generational invasion of privacy.

Parents of married couples are asked how soon they will be grandparents, the question carrying the same implication: The prospective mother of those grandchildren will have fulfilled her function in life and the grandparents will be on their ear with delight. The first is an insult and the second is part of a coercive assumption. Some grandparents love being grandparents. Some don’t. One way or the other, they shouldn’t be asked about their children’s procreation. Some people want to be parents. Some don’t. They shouldn’t be asked about it and judgments should not be made based on their not having children.

It may seem like harmless small talk, expressive of interest, but it isn’t. It skews the perception of a woman into her being less complete if she hasn’t reproduced. It feeds into the tabloid coverage recently condemned by Jennifer Aniston as dehumanising females because it is “focused solely on one’s physical appearance, which tabloids turn into a sporting event of speculation. Is she pregnant? Is she eating too much? Has she let herself go?”

Jennifer Aniston
Jennifer Aniston

That’s how it affects a film star. What I’m concerned about is the woman who is not famous. She has a career and a partner. She is childless. Not child-free. Childless. This woman wants to have a baby. Desperately. Her husband or partner, likewise. They’ve been trying for years. They’ve gone through the misery of testing and of IVF. In the middle of their working day, they may have had to find time and privacy to inject themselves with fertility-related drugs. They have gone through the monthly disappointments.

They need the questions that imply they should be getting on with it before their biological clock dies on them, like a hole in the head. Nor do they need the watercooler judgments that “she’s so career-driven, she’s never going to tie herself down with a child”.

It’s time we banished the phrase ‘mum’ from public discourse. A woman is a mother or she’s not. And if she’s not, leave her the hell alone about it.


Fearless is a slick new documentary airing next Monday on RTÉ 1 which follows Cork native and editor-in-chief of US Glamour, Samantha Barry, in the run up to the 29th Glamour Women of the Year Awards. Ruth O’Connor speaks to Barry about her editorship of one of Condé Nast's most important media outlets.The fearless Samantha Barry: From Ballincollig in Cork to editor of Glamour

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