Style Magazine – Women and Guilt

styleWhat a sight at Madonna’s 52nd birthday party at Shoreditch House last week. The ultra-disciplined, ‘no TV in my house’, macrobiotic superstar and mother was snapped drink in one hand, cigarette in other. Did she care? Apparently not.

Skip back a few weeks and Denise Van Outen admits she gave up breastfeeding her new baby after less than a month ? as so many women do. “I probably should have persevered a bit longer than three weeks,” she said in her first interview since her daughter’s arrival in May. “But I can’t be sitting in Starbucks and breastfeeding”. And then there’s Cameron Diaz, who refuses to apologise for embracing life in her late thirties as an independent free spirit. Instead of giving tearful interviews about feeling incomplete ? without husband or baby ? she has etched the names of some of Hollywood’s hottest men onto her bedpost. “I knew all along that if I had a child, I wouldn’t be having all the other things I wanted in my life, so I didn’t have a child and I got those things,” she explained simply. It’s not all that sex we’re envying ? well, maybe a bit: it’s the absence of guilt. What do all these women have in common? They’ve given up feeling bad. We should all be doing likewise, but sadly most of us can only look on in envy.

Recently I appeared as a guest on Vanessa Feltz’s radio show. We were meant to be talking about my new book, but the conversation drifted onto mothers. One thing she and I have in common is a tendency not to apologise for the choices we make – or so I thought. Vanessa said, “My mother was so wonderful. She did beautiful needlework, she baked, she kept a perfectly tidy house…” and so on, listing her many accomplishments as compared with her own supposedly meagre CV. “Hmm,” I said. “Did she get a First from Cambridge? Did she ever present a live three hour daily radio show?” Oddly enough, no. “But I feel I should at least make the effort to bake,” added Vanessa.

I went home amazed that a woman so manifestly good at what she does could be so preoccupied with what she doesn’t do. Several high profile writers, among them journalist Allison Pearson and novelist Marian Keyes, recently announced they had been struggling with depression, brought about by aiming for unrealistically high standards in their lives. Honestly, have we not moved forward at all?

My friend Talia, a publisher and divorced mother of one, e-mailed me this week: “I’m feeling guilty for starting work at 9.45 today, after a heavenly walk through the park after the school run. But I was on the phone to New York till 7pm last night, so why do I need to do this absurd balancing act? The ‘good girl’ disease is truly hideous.” At least she recognizes the insidious nature of the thing. Maybe that’s progress in itself.

Sophie Laurimore, 39, has two small children and runs a TV talent agency with just one assistant. She has lately decided to ‘switch off the guilt.’ How? “You just have to. If you let it impact on what you’ve chosen to do, you completely undermine your sense of self-worth and with it, all the good you’re doing for yourself and your family.” A depressed, guilty mother is far worse for families: we are all agreed on that, right? Motherhood should be like the safety procedure on planes; we need to put on our own oxygen masks before helping others. Martyrs may look good on altars but they make rubbish parents. Do you really want your daughter to be born with Original Guilt?

I take the advice of my father, the cartoonist Mel Calman, late of this newspaper, who never compared himself with others. “In an ideal world I’d be able to paint like Degas,” he used to say, ‘but I think it’s unlikely, so I’ll just do the best I can with what I’ve got.” He did, too. My mother helped me as well, by working part-time through my childhood and leaving the housework to the nanny. She only ever made a cake once ? in 1975, and it didn’t rise.

When I had Lawrence, now 13, and Lydia, 11, I discovered that (a) children can’t be raised perfectly, and (b) perfection makes no-one happy. I also realized that everyone is different, and therefore comparisons of the ‘work v home’ sort are pointless. In 2003 I founded badmothersclub.com as a rebuttal to the idealized vision of motherhood as personified by the thin, impeccably clad celebrities who claimed to be ‘totally fulfilled’ by it in the way that only people with nannies and assistants can be. An early posting on our forum – ‘Will the Health Visitor criticize my dirty kitchen floor?’ was one of many that revealed ‘bad’ parenting was just like abortion had once been – millions of women, each believing they alone had once failed to brush their child’s teeth or put fruit in their packed lunch.

But women find it hard to give up this nonsense. Katherine Whitehorn said it back in the sixties, and she wasn’t even the first. Did Elizabeth the First pause on the way to Tilbury, worried that she hadn’t put a deer on the spit before going to fight the Armada? Did Queen Victoria miss the opening of The Great Exhibition because she’d been out twice that week already and it wouldn’t be fair?

And yet, here we are, still berating ourselves for not Having it All, or Doing It All, and then berating ourselves yet further for not being happy. No wonder men think we’re mad.

Men don’t do this to themselves. They know that if they’re at work they can’t be at home, and vice versa. They do not lie awake at night because it’s the school fete tomorrow and they haven’t made a sponge. I have never met one, not one, who thought he could Do It All, or even wanted to. We used to want them to be less selfish, and more like us. Maybe we’ve been getting this the wrong way round.

Stephanie Calman is the founder of the Bad Mothers Club. Her latest book How (Not) to Murder Your Husband is out now in Pan Paperbacks.

Guilt Free short cuts to housewifely perfection
*Spray polish on the radiators for that ‘just cleaned’ smell
*White wine on red wine stains is a waste. Buy a new carpet instead.
* To clean laminate floors, put all your children in old socks, spray bottoms of socks with cleaning fluid, get children to skid up and down floor. Works a treat to clean floor and no effort to amuse kids. Small risk of bumps and bruises.
* Keep toothbrushes, paste, soap and flannel in the kitchen. Then when you are late for school you can forcibly clean the children as they eat.
* To keep toddlers out of your bedroom on early weekend mornings, put Vaseline on the door handles ? the outside.
* HOW TO CLEAN THE HOUSE: 1. Open a new file in your PC. 2. Name it “Housework.” 3. Send it to the RECYCLE BIN. 4. Empty the RECYCLE BIN. 5. Your PC will ask you, “Are you sure you want to delete Housework permanently?” 6. Calmly answer, “Yes,” and press mouse button firmly. Feel better.

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