Sunday, 7 April 2013

On motherhood and class...

Apparently the British class system is on the wane, dying out as we all enjoy a more united and uniform society, barriers are broken down and snobbery is something last seen in the 70s as Margot patrols Tom and Barbara's fence with disdain in the The Good Life. According to the latest class calculator, the typical upper, middle and working class distinctions are no longer accurate representations of society and now 7 classes are required to describe our social groupings, based on things such as an interest in opera versus social media.

However, as Mark Steel pointed out in The Independent this week, it is not a coincidence that the Prime Minister, Chancellor and Mayor of London are all millionaires who went to elite private schools. Class is not just about what you like and who you socialise with. It is about power and control. In the realm of motherhood, it is evident in stereotypes and expectations of how women mother, depending on the class they appear to belong to. It is not just posh snobs who judge people according to class, I know from firsthand experience that workers in health, education and social care categorise parents according to class stereotypes.

Here are the stereotypes that I have encountered:

Working class mums left school at 16. They have kids young and have more of them. They bottle-feed their babies. They smoke and feed their kids white bread and McDonalds. They may be on benefits or in poorly paid jobs. They fritter away money on designer clothes for their kids and electronic gadgets.

Middle class mums have gone to college or university. They have 2.4 kids in their 30s and breastfeed all of them. They are neurotic about feeding, sleeping and stimulating their child's intellect and creativity. They are fussy about their children's education to the point of considering home schooling or private day schools. They have established careers but can afford to take a career break to have children.

Upper class mums have maternity nurses and night nannies. They may have high flying jobs or be financially dependent on their wealthy spouse. They send their children to elite boarding schools. They have expensive wardrobes and enjoy exotic holidays. They will never be "mum", always "mummy".

These stereotypes are, of course, up for debate but they may be familiar. I have heard health workers describe families as "chavs" or certain children as being "at the bottom of the gene pool". Middle class mothers are often seen as neurotic and difficult. Judging mothers by expectations relating to class is commonplace and we probably all do it subconsciously. First impressions count. While we may not recognise ourselves as any particular class, we do decide whether someone is like us or not.

In the world of young children, class distinctions are stark. The rise of child activity franchises is encouraging more and more middle class mothers to dip into their pockets to stimulate their children from a very young age. Swimming lessons from 4 months old, £15 a pop. Tots music classes, £10 per 30 minute session. Even in a small coastal town, there are waiting lists of up to a year for two of the church playgroups - surely this exclusivity is a cloak and dagger way of ensuring that only the "nicest" families are ever likely to be allowed in? So even as tiny infants, middle class kids only hang out with middle class kids. Working class kids hang out with working class kids. No one ever really sees upper class kids - perhaps they are trotting around their country estate on Toffee the Shetland pony or being whisked off to ballet in mummy's Chelsea tractor.

Children's centres are the exception, the lighthouse in the storm. Children's centres offer universal services for families. Families from all backgrounds can access the postnatal depression support group, the baby group, the gardening club, messy play. Services relevant to all bring parents and children together. This opportunity in the early years is vital to social cohesion and the breaking down of barriers between the haves and the have nots.

But of course, in this age of budget cuts, these centres are under threat. Their remit is fast becoming less about "children" but more about getting parents back to work and paying tax. Children's services are being replaced by adult employment and volunteering courses. As important as these are as part of the mix of services designed to support families, they are not for children and they target specific social groups rather than embracing the philosophy of universal services. Upper class people in power are cutting services for everyone else's children.

Phrases often heard in conjunction with feminism are "sisterhood" and "solidarity". I would argue that fighting for universal services is at the heart of being a feminist mum. We need to fight for each other and all our children, be it through saving children's centres, the NHS or decent local schools. As mums we have the same hopes, worries and fears and we can and should hang out with people not just like us.

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