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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
election 2015
Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates his goal for Real Madrid against Juventus
Ed Miliband and David Cameron are neck and neck in the polls
voicesArmando Iannucci: on how British politics is broken
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)
Life and Style
Great minds like Einstein don't think alike
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Fans take a selfie with Ed Miliband in Kempston, near Bedford, on Tuesday
election 2015
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Accountant - London - £48,000 - 12 month FTC

    £40000 - £48000 per annum + bonus + benefits: Ashdown Group: International Acc...

    Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds

    £22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds This i...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Bristol

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power