A mother's place is in the wrong

MADONNA AND CHILD: Towards a New Politics of Motherhood by Melissa Benn, Cape pounds 12.99

"GOD COULD not be everywhere and so he made mothers," runs a Jewish proverb. True enough a hundred years ago, still more so now that the majority of mothers have some kind of paid work as well as their unpaid work for mothering. Sure, most of those working mothers are low-paid and work part- time, but it's the effort to be everywhere that counts, and is so frequently overlooked, minimised and misread.

In Madonna and Child, Melissa Benn shines an unwavering spotlight on the efforts of modern mothers, revealing the myriad ways in which they - we - are trying to do our best, for our children, for ourselves. As Benn makes abundantly clear, the public face of motherhood, about which we hear and see and read so much, is wholly insufficient. The much-publicised concerns and dilemmas of career-orientated middle-class mothers, for example, are so unrepresentative as to be virtually irrelevant in sociological terms. Meanwhile, the private lives of the majority of women become less and less visible. Ordinary women are the disappeared of modern Britain.

Stepping into these relatively unchartered territories, Benn faithfully catalogues the accounts of the women who have decided not to work outside the home, of women who want to, but don't; of women who do, but don't want to. (I manage to be most of these in the course of a routine week.) She shows us that somewhere between the powerful, but fundamentally misleading images of artful benefit scroungers on the one hand, high-flying professionals on the other, lies the reality of modern motherhood. A reality that is complex and diverse, full of ambivalence and uncertainty, a reality that matters.

In the mid to late Eighties, Benn argues, "the burden of proof shifted from the working to the non-working mother". This seems to me one of the most significant changes to affect contemporary women, with or without children. The pressure on women to work is now intense (especially, it seems, if they are lone mothers with not enough to do merely bringing up children single-handed). Far from "having it all", Benn's analysis shows the extent to which mothers today simply cannot win either way.

Women's dogged (and often dog-eared) attempts to be omnipresent have been the saving of politicians and the despair of feminists, and Benn is at her best when she tackles head on the massive failure of politicians and feminists alike to acknowledge the range of experiences that constitute modern motherhood. She takes politicians to task for their reliance on women's devotion to motherhood, while (gently) chiding feminism for its reluctance to bestow a proper respect on that devotion.

In the closing pages of Madonna and Child, Benn urges us to espouse a new "moral ecology". This would involve, amongst other things, rejecting the work culture in favour of a "creative, part-time culture"; elevating the role of caring, even remunerating it financially; introducing paternity leave and parental leave. She advocates that as a matter of some urgency, for our individual and collective well-being, we must replace "globalisation and greed" with "locality, modesty, equality".

In the best tradition of compassionate socialism (rather than the travesty of it we are currently seeing from New Labour), Madonna and Child takes us a little closer to that elusive but crucial goal. It does so with an admirable lightness of touch, intellectual acuity and an unshakeable decency.

Ultimately, though, Melissa Benn asks questions more often, and more effectively, than she supplies answers. Her vision of a new "moral ecology" is as deliciously tempting as it is remote. The word "ecology" means literally "house study", and this is what Benn does: she studied the house we modern mothers live in. If she doesn't actually set it to rights, this is less an indication of her failure than a measure of the fine mess we're now in.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own