Madonna and mobile: an impossible modern image

An eloquent new book cuts though the hype to the hard reality of modern motherhood. Kate Figes talks to its author, Melissa Benn

Women produce babies from their own bodies; ipso facto they love being mothers and immediately know what's best for their baby from day one. In fact, most women have not got a clue what to do with a new-born baby (why should they know when they've never had one before?). They can find the physical, psychological and emotional upheaval after childbirth distressing and disorientating. They can feel shocked by their feelings of indifference towards their new small baby, for that deep mother love often only grows once women adjust to the demands of motherhood and feel confident of their abilities. Life goes upside down for months, sometimes years, as mothers struggle to put their house in order and cope with conflicting demands from work, family and the father of the child as well as the baby.

The fact of the matter is that women often change radically when they have children. They change physically for good and their priorities alter as the massive responsibilities of caring and raising their children take hold. But feminism and modern culture have made it increasingly difficult for women to admit that this change has taken place. We pretend that we can do exactly the same things pregnant as we used to do, that we can bounce back soon after childbirth and lead a normal life, even though the physical drain of producing a child is immense and often debilitating. We pretend that life will go on exactly as it has always done, except that there will be this child alongside us. And, as educated, working women with personal ambitions, we pretend that we will continue working as well as mothering. Except that the perennial question of who will look after the children crops up again and again?

It is this contradiction between the public world of work and the private world of motherhood that Melissa Benn focuses on in her eloquent new book Madonna and Child - Towards a New Politics of Motherhood. (Jonathan Cape, pounds 12.99). "The increasingly ferocious spotlight on working women and top women has distorted, even erased, a truer and much more interesting picture of modern mothers today," she writes, and feminism hasn't helped. "While feminism's boldest and best story - and certainly its most publicised one - has always been the tale of the one who got away, it has always had a slight difficulty with the one who stayed behind, and liked it."

Benn gives voice to the millions of mothers who give up work and compromise their career and economic prospects to be with their children. She cuts through the gloss to the reality and truth, which is that most women want to be with their children once they have them. She shows, through statistics and case stories, how mothers are channelled into lower-paid, part-time work to fulfil their primary function of mothering. She shows how women occupy a murky, unseen world of twilight feeds, where there is never enough time for oneself, where new man does not exist and superwoman is, in fact, "hyperwoman" heading for a nervous breakdown as she manages the double responsibility of home and work.

"I wanted to write this book because I felt that there were a whole lot of things not being said about motherhood," Benn says, "that we were failing to look at the iceberg below the surface of what was really going on." Then, when Benn became a mother at the age of 39 (she has two daughters, aged three and one), "everything fell into place. I had this theoretical respect for mothers, but now I really know it matters. I'm not saying I'm putting my ambitions aside but I rediscovered the importance of private life and children.

"What most mothers are denied is choice. The right to earn a decent wage and motherhood is only afforded to those with a good enough job in the first place to be able to afford children. Single mothers were once pitied as women who had fallen from grace. Now, with the crusade against lone parents on benefits, initiated by the Tories and picked up enthusiastically by New Labour, they are seen as parasites who could have avoided motherhood. Many lone parents will want to opt for the childcare Labour promises and return to work. But, once again, choice is being limited; single mothers can't now choose to give their children their time instead of financial gain."

Benn went to Cardiff to meet some of the single mothers that John Redwood and the Panorama programme, "Babies on benefit", were so keen to expose. She found a very different story - great poverty and lonely nights from being abandoned by the father of their children and utter self denial for the benefit of their children. Benn has inherited the political passion and charm of her father, Tony Benn. She is "the daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of members of Parliament and sister of a local councillor" and her urge to improve the lot of mothers sings out of every page. "These things are in your blood, but writers can tell the truth more than politicians. You can stand on the sidelines and tell the truth."

Like her father, she is the rebel, prepared to attack political correctness, feminism and New Labour where she believes they are wrong. "One of the bad effects of the Eighties has been that the emphasis on success means women are afraid to show their more caring side. The point of what I term as Bourgeois Feminist Triumphalism is women being strong, but it's all so selfish. I lament the fact that we have lost the will to fight for larger causes."

And New Labour? "Women have been leading the revolt against the conditions of work for a number of years, but only women talk about these things. It will only be powered forward if men and political parties pick it up. But I don't hear New Labour men talking about the role of fathers. New Labour doesn't analyse the roles men and women play in the family." As she says in her book, behind the facade of the gender parity in the Blair/Booth household, is a mother who manages her job and her home and a father who isn't intimate with their washing machine, even if he knows where it is. Not much of an improvement.

Benn believes the political solutions are obvious and simple. She calls for "Domestic Democracy", a carer's benefit, for doing something valuable rather than being unemployed, childcare and a new work ethic, where people who work long hours are seen as inefficient by their bosses rather than hardworking. In these days of cost cutting and "hard economic choices", I hear you say, dream on. But why shouldn't we, and why should it always be mothers who take the rap?

Kate Figes's book `Life After Birth: What Even Your Friends Won't Tell You About Motherhood' (Viking, 12.99) is published in March.

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