Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Working mothers need to get real


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On Saturday we drove our daughter up to university where, for the next four years, she'll be studying for a degree in engineering. There were long jams on the motorway and the journey left us exhausted. She rushed off as soon as we reached her hall of residence. Our baby is up and away. The hugs were short and sobs held in.

Many other parents were looking grey and sad and putting on jolly faces. Oh how hard we all try not to embarrass our kids or impair their "cool" ratings. Back in the car, instead of tears (which came later) a shaft of golden joy filled my heart. Just look how far we have come, I thought. There she goes, a young woman who doesn't even consciously think it is her "right" to study a male-dominated course. She chose a subject and went for it. She has had to cope with nerves and health problems over many years. But by Jove she did it, as did millions of other young women across the country flocking to uni this week.

Within just two generations, my family has gone from barely any educated females to this. My brother did everything to stop me going to university and my father was no support either. Only my mother, an orphan who left school at 15, was behind me. I got a scholarship without which it would not have happened. Maybe this is why I am so grateful for the gains made by feminism – and also aware of its occasional drift into banality or hideous egocentricity.

One tires of middle-class, professional women prating on and on about how hard it all is – from "inconsiderate" nannies to husbands who don't sympathise enough with juggler mums in stilettos trying to keep all those plates spinning. These are but the gripes of small things. I have been guilty of them too – self-pity is the easy, fallback position for most of us on bad-mum days when careful arrangements fall apart and you feel you are letting down everyone, most of all yourself. But such frustrations, though understandable, sound vain and flighty in these hard times, when various catastrophic national and international crises are gathering, affecting the life chances of millions of women and their children. Context is everything.

And that brings me to the newly released film I Don't Know How She Does It, starring Sarah Jessica Parker about the many trials and tribulations of Kate Reddy, an ambitious and successful businesswoman, and also a mum with a loving husband. The film is based on a best-seller penned eight years ago by the talented Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson. The book was delightful, funny, poignant and meaningful for many go-getters who were inspired by superwomen such as Nicola Horlick – mother of six and an investment magician.

Pearson's readable novel was followed by a spate of other books, indeed a whole new genre, including Rachel Cusk's searching A Life's Work, and Mums, edited by Gordon Brown's wife, Sarah. Hollywood took up the theme of the harassed mom, notably with Motherhood starring Uma Thurman. But the zeitgeist then was not what it is now.

It's telling to observe that the Thurman film made only £88 in its opening weekend in the UK last year, and while Sarah Jessica Parker is drawing in the crowds for I Don't Know How She Does It, many reviewers are letting rip. The venerated critic Phillip French describes the film as a "whinge and a prayer". Mike Wilmington in Movie City News is cutting too: "Talk about an impossible life. Talk about the trials of a Job! Whew! I just don't know how she does it, or how any financial analyst or executive manager manages to get through the day without having a nervous breakdown." Not many these days feel sympathy for financial gamblers.

Fewer still have any spare compassion for have-it-alls such as the Kate Reddy character played by Parker or her mortification over not being able to make her own mince pies for a school Christmas fair. Besides, most of us know that big businesses are now catering better for the needs of high achieving women.

Journalist Anne McElvoy, who shared stories of her own work-life imbalance with Pearson on the radio last week, accepts that "life is better for working women because more men are prepared to acknowledge that family life makes demands that have to be met, not denied or sneered at". For feminists such as myself the film irks not only because now Reddy seems selfish and greedy but because the highly dramatised domestic irritations of the privileged have been taken up by today's self-obsessed mumsy websites at a time when we have the global recession, wars, famines, undiminished male violence against women and evidence of increasing childhood trauma, even in rich countries.

Look at the immensely powerful Mumsnet website and some other copycat ones and there is barely any mention of (or fundraising for) the famines in East Africa where mothers push dry breasts into the limp mouths of babies as they die. Jeremy Clarkson wrote an abominable column last week on these starving children. Where is the famous Mumsnet battalion to slap him down? Not much about domestic violence either, or any serious take on the policies of the Coalition Government which are leading to unprecedented numbers of female redundancies. They are low-paid and therefore, I suppose, not part of the cosy circle, a Starbucks for the right kind of mummies. But if you want to know about skiing with babies, its all there, plus very efficient guilt cleaning for working ladies and buckets of advice for SAHMs (stay-at-home mums).

Am I being mean? Yes. And that's not fair. I accept that some of the tips on child rearing are very useful while some sites empower parents trying to understand the terrible psychological afflictions spreading across the affluent world – such as anorexia and self-harming. Some political issue occasionally slips in. Not nearly enough. In truth, the new film and online chattering lasses are disturbingly apolitical and indifferent to class inequality between women and real gender parity. I really don't give a damn about who does the washing or makes the mince pies. What matters is that females get to live, to dream, to thrive and get to places, with good men by their side. Reddy had all that, so what the hell was she complaining about?