Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 29 November 2014

Society should still be keeping mum in a special place

Mother's Day is coming up – I know this because the shops are full of sentimental merchandise they're hoping to flog off to sons and daughters feeling vaguely guilty about not paying enough attention to their mothers.

But with a question mark continually hovering over child benefit, perhaps our attitudes to mothers are rather more ambivalent than the soppy Mother's Day consumerist stuff would suggest.

The runaway success of Brendan O'Carroll's Mrs Brown might be a more truthful template of how we feel about mammies: comic, coarse and domineering of everyone around them. Ha. Ha.

Child benefit, which seems constantly under challenge, is another example of this ambivalence. It was first conceived by a group of high-minded Fabians, who felt that the mother in the home, being a dependent, should be awarded children's allowance money (the subtext being that a selfish, or feckless, husband could not drink it away).

This was a kindly idea, but it doesn't chime with modern ideas where we aspire to the notion that both men and women are earning their own incomes, so it is patronising to assume that women need state support more.

Thus, all governments, all over Europe, are edging towards challenging the now-archaic concept of a children's allowance, or child benefit, being paid to the mother.

There is even a lobby which calls for the withdrawal of child benefit if mothers are themselves 'irresponsible', or 'over-breeding'.

There are currently, for example, demands to deprive a mother of 11 children in Gloucestershire, Heather Frost, of her child benefit because of her 'irresponsible' breeding habits.

The Dragons' Den panelist and multi-millionairess Deborah Meaden denounced Mrs Frost as "totally irresponsible" on the BBC at the weekend for having such a large family – and received an enthusiastic round of applause.

Motherhood does not sit easily with modern ideas of 'equality', for the simple reason that it is difficult for mothers to be equal when they have the care of children.

And yet that is what we aspire to, now: Sweden has introduced a regulation that the phrase 'pregnant women' be officially replaced with 'pregnant people', as though men and women had equal access to biological pregnancy.

Indeed, 'pregnant people' already appears on notices in the London Underground, where travellers are urged to cede seats to 'people who are pregnant'.

No agricultural society, so habituated to the matching of the cow with the bull, the filly with the stallion, would ever use such unisex language. But urban societies move away from nature's imperatives and come to imagine that everything is under human control.

Motherhood is now seen much more as a 'choice' than a natural outcome of the union of male and female; this has given it some of the livery of a lifestyle choice and there is anger and frustration where the 'choice' is not easily achieved. Thus the lobbies to make IVF a 'right' for women over 40 and for same-sex couples alike.

And with the 'lifestyle choice' option of motherhood will go the eventual withdrawal of those old-style benefits, which assumed that mothers were disadvantaged in the workplace and, ultimately, the retirement of the idea that the woman in the home has a special place which deserves honouring.

So we get the rise of the merchandised Mother's Day instead. I will, of course, appreciate any card that comes my way.

Yet I wouldn't entirely object to a little public recognition that all the skivvying performed in my home contributes to the common good, too.

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