Books: Mother's little helper

Can women have it all? Christina Hardyment on Maureen Freely

What About Us? An Open Letter to the Mothers Feminism Forgot by Maureen Freely Bloomsbury, pounds 15.99

I started on this witty, iconoclastic, intensely personal book with high hopes. Mothers have long been in need of an articulate, presentable champion, and I remember Freely's first novel, Mother's Helper, as quite simply brilliant: a wickedly funny account of a liberated feminist mother who was enlightened, empowered, in control - and a monster. It was written, she now tells us, from personal experience of baby-sitting for such a woman while she was a student at Radcliffe in the early Seventies.

Now the tables are turned. With four children of her own aged between one and 17, and two step-children, she has returned to the subject of motherhood in an attempt to define why, despite her supportive partner and a busy career as a writer, she is not happy. Cash is short. Editors are unpredictable. From day to day her life as mother is a chaotic, roller- coaster ride. She has no clear idea of what she is doing or why; just this uneasy feeling that she isn't doing any of her jobs well.

Who to blame? Other women in her position have blamed men, childrearing experts, governments too mean to provide free day-care for all and, very occasionally, selfish children. Freely turns instead to bite the ideological hand that fed her: the "altermaters" of feminist folklore whose siren songs made her believe she could have it all.

The bulk of the book is devoted to a hatchet job on the entire pantheon of feminist theorists, which is made the funnier by such incidents as Freely's own experiences of being - er - matronised through Russian cigarette smoke by Marilyn French in the lounge of Claridges. Never in the history of feminist writing have so many been rubbished so fast. Friedan, Greer, Millett, Wolf, Dworkin, Paglia are all roundly lambasted for their appalling neglect of the egg-spattered, nappy-drenched realities of motherhood.

Freely is also spot on as she isolates - much embellished by her own distinctly eccentric experiences - the successive stages of the innocent young feminist's raised maternal consciousness; obsession with childbirth; frantic bonding sessions; the small tyrannies of the PTA. Her conclusion is that in face of the daily realities of the endless guerrilla war of domesticity, the second wave of feminism has pathetically little application. It has been merely "a daughter's revolution", defining itself as a rejection of the mother's influence, and therefore doomed to be unhelpful to mothers.

But ... but ... but. Freely has certainly caught a tiger by the tail, but she doesn't manage to do more than drag it to first base. An aggressive editor ought to have pointed out to her that she spends nearly 200 pages enumerating feminist sins of omission in increasingly fantastical metaphors, but offers only two pages of solutions: a list of directives that amount to no more than a synopsis for the book that I was hoping to find, that looked "at the larger picture, at what children need from their parents, and what parents need for themselves and for their children, at patterns of paid work and unpaid work, as they exist now and as they could be".

Moreover, the book may be called What About Us?; but it reads rather like What About Me? Autobiographical flashbacks are fine in a long work, but there are far too many here for a book of 215 pages. As one hilariously outrageous revelation follows the next, it becomes less and less likely that the average reader will identify with Freely. Would you hide your husband's wallet so he couldn't go out? Or blame everyone except yourself for the baby you had because you decided on impulse to fling your diaphragm across the bathroom floor? If this is making the personal political, it is, frankly, ridiculous.

Come on, Maureen. Let it go. Parenthood, like puppies, is for life, not just for Christmas. Leave those "childfree" feminists you feel betrayed you to ride their own hobby-horses into the sunset of a lonely old age, and get real: join the rest of the country's more or less philosophical mums galloping away on the Grand National of nurturing new lives. And next time, apply your unique talents to offering us something much more positive in the way of solutions.

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