Focus: We drink. We smoke. We're not perfect. We're... slummy mummies

A generation of women has decided that just because you've got children doesn't mean having to live up to an ideal. By Katy Guest
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Weeds is the latest must-see drama from the States, starting on Sky One on Tuesday with a glorious double-bill. Nancy, played by the pert Mary-Louise Parker, is a clear descendant of Desperate Housewives' neurotically perfect Bree Van De Camp and the shiny-haired cast of Friends. But Nancy and her co-stars come with a whiff of Chanel-scented revolution. At the family bakery, Nancy sells hash cakes to the mummies and daddies of Agrestic, California.

Her New Best Friend is Celia, who keeps an immaculate house and surreptitiously feeds her daughter laxatives to make her lose weight. The women are revolting. And, according to the mummies of Britain, it hasn't come a minute too soon.

Women have finally had enough of Supernanny. And it looks as if they have also had enough of Superwife and Supermum, too. This year, readers clamoured for The Bad Mother's Handbook by Kate Long and Confessions of a Bad Mother by Stephanie Calman.

"It shows the extent to which women are frustrated and angered by the immense pressure," says Ms Calman. "Not only to be endlessly nurturing but also to be thin, beautiful and sexy and have a fabulous-looking house that you can transform in a makeover that takes a matter of two hours."

The website acts as a confessional for women such as Nancy Botwin. And it takes only the barest of market research to realise that women delight in telling stories of mothers even more despicable than themselves. "Another mother at my child's posh private school was so excited when she was offered a fabulous new job in New York that she left her 15-year-old daughter at home to fend for herself," one told me this week. "You can't entirely imagine a council estate mother getting away with the same spirit of independence."

Another said: "There's a very expensive high-class nanny company that provides last-minute babysitters to your house. A friend of a friend did this one Friday evening and she and her husband had such a wild time that they decided to go away for the weekend. They knew that the babysitter, a young girl, was obliged to stay until they returned. They turned off their mobile phones, and didn't get back till two days later."

Nancy Botwin appears to have many real-life equivalents who smoke dope. A teacher from a well-known private girls' school was "so keen on her green", according to a former pupil, that she couldn't bear to go on holiday without it. "To get past Customs she used to pack her supplies in her daughter's lunchbox."

"With Weeds, I wanted to do a show that focused on grey areas as opposed to the standard black and white, good guys/bad guys stories that we see all the time on television," says the writer, Jenji Kohan. "I grew up in the suburbs of southern California and I remember being at the home of a high-school friend and finding stacks of bagged pot in the vegetable crisper inside the fridge."

Of course, there's a sliding scale of slumminess, from anecdotes like these to the desperation of mothers such as Dawn Annandale, who turned to prostitution to support her family's lifestyle. The grey area that Kohan talks about stretches from selling drugs to make ends meet, and embraces stealing your child's Ritalin to help you through the monthly shop. When Felicity Huffman, who plays Lynette in Desperate Housewives, portrayed her character doing exactly that, she interviewed women about the phenomenon of the Ritalin mum. "I know it's a big problem in the States because Ritalin is widely available," she said. "But in the Fifties, they took other things. They drank." And, of course, it is not all comedy drama. "I have heard about people using drugs, amphetamines in particular, because they give you a lift," says John Henry, a clinical toxicologist.

"Government figures show there are about a million amphetamine users in the UK. After cannabis [3.2 million users], it is the widest-used substance. There is evidence from America about mothers who take speed, drop off their children at school, cook their husbands' dinner, go to work and do their housework in half the time. They are borrowing from nature, really. If you get a high there is always going to be a corresponding low. That's a rule. You pay back with a hangover. Some pay back with their lives."

But some are encouraged by the openness characterised by programmes such as Weeds. "It shows a tendency just to admit the little failures," says Ms Calman. "And just the act of telling someone makes you feel better. My favourite comment on our 'Retell Therapy' board this month was from "bewilderded mum" who took her child back to school after the holidays and a posh mum in the playground said, 'We went to the Dordogne'. The bewildered mum said, 'We went to Wales and it rained and we got nits'.

Another harassed mother I spoke to agreed - in a manner of speaking. "I love all these Supernanny and Little Angels programmes," she said. "They make you realise that other people are even more rubbish parents than you are. It's such a relief." Ms Calman sums it up. "After the book was published I appeared on This Morning, and I think the presenters didn't get the joke," she says. "There was one thing they were horrified by. I told them that I smacked my daughter once and I felt terrible. She threw a welly into a person's lunch at the Royal Horticultural Society's gardens.

"It went down really badly, but in the interval, when we were off air, one of the programme staff said: 'Well, I smacked my child but they were sick in my bed.' I thought, I would never get cross with my children if they were sick. But that's it: different people just have different definitions of what is bad mothering, don't they?"

'The little things cause paroxysms of guilt'

Stephanie Calman

Calman is the author of "Confessions of a Bad Mother", which she wrote after her website was flooded with confessions from mothers (and a few fathers). It is published by Macmillan.

After the book was published in February I appeared on This Morning, and I think the people on the programme didn't get the joke. But despite that - or perhaps because of it - I got lots of supportive messages. I remember one in particular. It said: "Thank God. It is impossible trying to be Mary Poppins crossed with Nigella Lawson and Victoria Bloody Beckham." I thought that summed it up.

This is an interesting era but it is not a great era to be a mother. And it ought to be easier: we have vaccinations, washing machines and disposable nappies. But we have more things to "fail" at.

My book isn't post-natal-depression-I-want-to-jump-out-of-a-tower-block. The point is, it's just normal. It is the piffling little things. It is how most people experience motherhood. Today I missed a Read With Your Child session. And before I had children I would have thought, so what? But the little things like that send you into paroxysms of guilt.

That's why the website has the "Retell Therapy" section. One woman this month said that she spends so much time in the Green Man pub that when her children cross the road at the green man they have started to say, "Green man: get the drinks in!"

Another calling herself "Bewildered Mum" said that when she took her child back to school after the holidays she couldn't find the uniform and forgot the teacher's name, and a posh mother in the playground said, "Where did you go on holiday? We went to the Dordogne." And "Bewildered Mum" replied, "We went to Wales and it rained and we got nits."

I had lots of messages right at the beginning after I set up the website, and then after I went on This Morning and the presenters behaved as if I was trying to promote neglect, I had lots of very supportive messages in spite of that, probably, rather, because of it.

It's an interesting era we're in, but it's not a great era to be a mother. It should be easier but it's not. It's not just the mothering thing it's all the other bloody things, and having to feel guilty because you haven't had sex for a while.

Every kind of mother is on the website. I've learnt the most incredible things.


What do you get up to behind the bouncy castle?

1. Chicken nuggets and chips are:

a) A very special treat that I occasionally prepare for my children when I am sober.

b) A balanced diet.

c) The work of the devil.

2. Why is gin good for getting children to sleep?

a) The same reason it is good for getting mummies to sleep, presumably.

b) A drop taken by a breastfeeding mother is diluted to just the right strength for an infant dose.

c) Remember the acronym: GIVE a soothing lavender bath. INVEST time and emotional energy in an educational story. NIGHT night!

3. Your role model is:

a) Nancy Botwin, the dope-dealing suburban mother from Weeds.

b) Lynette from Desperate Housewives.

c) Mary Poppins.

4. A spoon full of sugar...

a) Is easily confused with a line of coke when you store them both in the cookie jar - as you have learned to your cost.

b) Helps the Ritalin go down well.

c) Causes dental decay and contributes to childhood obesity.

5. Your main contribution to this year's school fete was:

a) To take the other mothers behind the bouncy castle and get them all completely stoned.

b) Giving the vicar indigestion with your "guess the weight of the cake" contribution.

c) You provided the grounds, the caterers and a little performance of "Pie Jesu" that you and the children had prepared beforehand.

6. Mother's little helpers are:

a) Hash, skunk, weed, poppers, Es, speed, knock-off Ritalin... and you can provide them all at the best prices.

b) Sometimes all that gets you through the day.

c) A charming nanny agency that you occasionally use to provide additional childcare for those holidays in the Dordogne.

7. You relax by:

a) Sampling some of your own under-the-counter products.

b) Having one too many at the party after the school nativity play.

c) Helping your children to make mobiles out of sea-shells and organic twine.

8. When was the last time you got so drunk you couldn't remember what happened?:

a) Well, what day is it today?

b) After our youngest child smashed his plate of oven chips on the kitchen floor and called my mother a bitch.

c) Before I got pregnant - OK, during.

9. Having children is...

a) A good way to ensure a lifetime of expensive maintenance from your ex-husband.

b) A struggle, but ultimately rewarding.

c) The best thing that ever happened to me, although the cushion covers have never looked quite the same.

10. Ritalin is:

a) An excellent way to get through a heavy day on Bond Street, followed by an evening of champagne cocktails with the girls. And cheap if you know where to get it.

b) A godsend. The only way to get my hyperactive children into their trainers and out of the door.

c) The evil villain in the stories that my children and I make up together at bed-time.

Mostly As

You are a real slummy mummy. If your children were pets you would be banned from keeping them. Perhaps you should hire them out to childless couples in your area, who would appreciate them rather more than you do. But then, do you even know where your children are at the moment?

Mostly Bs

Well, we all make mistakes, don't we? You are a little slummy, but you try your best and we won't find you artfully distressing shop-bought fairy cakes at 5 o'clock in the morning. You might be best advised to steer clear of class As in future, but don't let the vitamin police get you down.

Mostly Cs

All right, stand up Nigella. Is it really possible to be this perfect? Your little angels are well fed, well scrubbed and always turn up to Montessori nursery on time. But it's all right to chill out occasionally. You don't live in Stepford. Do you?