Being a Mum: good fortune, not an achievement

A ‘Mothergate’ row has unfolded after Andrea Leadsom suggested that being a mother would make her a better Prime Minister than Theresa May. This, according to the website Business Insider, is what Prime Ministerial candidate Andrea Leadsom said to The Times Journalist Rachel Sylvester:

RS: “Do you feel like a mum in politics?”

AL: “Yes. So…

RS: “Why and how?”

AL: “So really carefully because I am sure, I don’t really know Theresa very well but I am sure she will be really really sad she doesn’t have children so I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t’ because I think that would be really horrible.

“But genuinely I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.

“She possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people, but I have children, who are going to have children, who will directly be a part of what happens next.

“So it really keeps you focused on ‘what are you really saying?’. Because what it means is you don’t want a downturn but ‘never mind, let’s look ahead to the ten years’, hence it will all be fine. My children will be starting their lives in that next ten years so I have a real stake in the next year, the next two.”

Elsewhere in the interview Leadsom suggests that the process of raising children would naturally increase a woman’s capacity for empathy. Could this be true? No – The Times’ article demonstrates it is entirely possible to combine motherhood and insensitivity.

I may not know that much about politics but I do know about the pain of childlessness.

  • I know how it feels to fend off those nudge-nudge, wink-wink comments of colleagues as you approach your thirtieth birthday. Next year you might be pushing a pram, eh? Might we be hearing the patter of tiny feet? Knitting? Does that mean…?  When all the time you know it doesn’t mean… and can never mean… Devon aunt used to meet all references to the non-existence of offspring with a lofty “Our union has not been blessed.” I could never quite equal that.
  • I know how it feels to suddenly lose status in the family when your youngest sister produces the longed-for first grandchild. I know how it feels to become invisible whenever baby and fortunately fertile sister enter the room.
  • I know how it feels to see a toddler snatched up when it misguidedly starts toddling towards you – just in case your rampant/frustrated maternal instincts should compel you to snatch the precious bundle and make off with it to South America. This, despite the fact that other people’s babies are of no great interest to a childless woman: it isn’t other people’s babies she wants.
  • I know how it feels to be condescended to, pitied and sympathised with by almost all other women because nature singled you out for the duff set of family genes. Devon aunt knew it too. My Canadian sister knows it. And going back into our family tree an array of other inexplicably childless female relatives probably knew it too.


  • I know how it feels to be excluded from a whole range of possible female friendships because I lack the social currency – no child to deliver to the school gates, no stories of night-time feeds and Terrible Twos tantrums to swap.
  • I know how it feels to question my very worth – not just as a member of a society but as a biological entity. What else was I put here for, but to reproduce? If I can’t do this, why was I even born? I have become some kind of drone, a hanger-on. I am broken, I am incomplete. Why am I even walking around, causing problems, requiring air and food, taking up space? Even flowers and chimpanzees can do this simple thing and yet I cannot.

When this leadership contest first started my only (and admittedly faint) hope was that all this messy campaigning would result in a strong Prime Minister to take us forward through what are likely to be, as the ancient Chinese put it, ‘interesting times’. I wasn’t bothered whether they had been ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ Brexit, whether man or woman or even which man or which woman just as long as they were competent and had the ‘presence’ to transact with powerful heads of state in Europe and the rest of the world. Now I’m keeping fingers crossed for Teresa May, if only to preserve us from her rival.

Thought Number One:

You don’t need to be that magical and prestigious thing a ‘Mum’ or even a ‘Dad’ to be able to run a country. To invoke parenthood as a political weapon is to dishonour children and to insult, by implication, the whole electorate. A Prime Minister is not appointed to be ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’ to a ‘family’ of infantile plebs. Even the least educated of us is capable of thinking things through and formulating an opinion. Or at any rate, any individual incapable of thinking for themselves should not be exercising their right to vote, and probably won’t be interested in voting anyway. A Prime Minister’s job is to lead the country and represent it with the help, advice, and concurrence of his or her cabinet of ministers, not to patronise and spoon-feed it.

Thought Number Two:

When Leadsom made the above comments about her childless rival, those who said  ‘It was just naïveté or inexperience – she couldn’t really have intended to be cruel to Teresa’ were overlooking the deadliest of all the weapons in the female armoury – bitchery. Women compete, and compete as fiercely as men, but on the whole not in the same way as men. Rather than throwing punches or shouting each other down, they bitch.

This is how a bitch operates. She says something vicious and undermining but phrases it in such a subtle and delicate way, or subsequently qualifies it in such a naïve and innocent way that the ‘bitched’ female cannot react without appearing neurotic and paranoid.

Alternatively she phrases the barb in such a way that she sounds for all the world as if she really cares about you. Her attack leaves you feeling confused and disorientated. Did she really say that? Could she really have meant what it felt as if she meant? Why am I so hurt when there is such an empathetic smile on her face? And why can’t anybody else see what she has just done?

My guess is that she absolutely did intend to be cruel, but only to her rival. It has been suggested that she was dog-whistling to a particular segment of the conservative electorate, i.e.:

employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup’. 

What she failed to anticipate was the ripple-out and trickle-down effect: huge offence unintentionally given to childless men and women; and to gay or lesbian couples who are less likely to have biological offspring and therefore, by her reckoning, also have no ‘tangible stake in the future of our country’; and to women who have been thus bitched far too many times before – which, when it comes down to it, is most women.

Thought Number Three:

It is a woman’s good fortune and her delight to be able conceive and give birth to children but it is not an achievement. Enduring the ghastly pain of childbirth does not of itself transform you into some kind of heroine. Having got yourself pregnant, what else were you going to do?

(Well, I’m going to put my tin hat on now and retire to a safe distance.)