What matters maternally

I’d like to figure something out and eventually a page on this blog will be the right place to put it.

I spend a lot of time talking to other parents (mainly, to mothers) about matters related to being parents. We’re talking while the children are there, in repeatedly interrupted exchanges and sleep-deprived half-sentences while pretending we might eventually finish our cups of tea. We’re talking about stuff that matters to us, like nappies and weaning and toys and sibling relationships and homes and localities. It’s all very small and very close to home, like the children. And I join in because these things matter to me too, but then I often come away feeling frustrated and alienated. It’s not something about work-life balance; I still get the occasional academic conversation, and that also can occasionally seem unreal and frustrating (because it’s not about small children, because the world I work in, not to mention the material I read, often seems to need to pretend that everyone’s an adult and only relates to adults). It’s more about the narrow spectrum of supposed parental concern, what we’re allowed to talk about, what assumptions we are meant to share.

Perhaps it’s about the fact that becoming a parent appears, in this bit of the world right now, to turn one even more into a consumer. Choices of lifestyle – what can I get for my baby and where can I get it? My politics is reduced to my purchase of nappies. I don’t know how to talk to anyone about how parenting makes me look at the world differently, or about the bigger social forces that are making a difference to our lives as parents; and especially I don’t know how to do this without sounding as if I’m passing judgment on other parents. We have enough people telling us what to do and what we’re doing wrong, because we’re the paranoid middle classes and we listen to The Them; we have to support each other. And we have to support all the others, all the ones whose ways of doing things we implicitly condemn when we shop around for organic baby foods.

Later I worked something else out, reading a book unrelated to parenting: I am cross, I think, about “ethics” (and actually politics) becoming, to some extent, a luxury consumer item. I’m cross about being stuck with the choice between buying fair-trade /organic/ low carbon/ whatever and thereby pushing myself further into the middle-class ghetto (and exploiting my huge economic advantages), or going right on with the cheap exploitation. I suppose I’m at least mildly irritated that we’re not, it seems, supposed to talk about wealth distribution any more, even if wealth distribution also starts to mean “ethics” distribution, “green” distribution, etc. (Who’s got time and space to cook their own and grow their own? Who’s got space to dry the nappies?) And a little more disturbed by the real challenges of social solidarity, and how parenting makes them more acute, and how The Them (dividing us, despite everyone’s best efforts, into good parents and bad parents) can make it worse.

And of course this is not the whole story and there’s lots of good stuff going on, so maybe I am going down the wrong track and need to get out more. When I find my group of activists who aren’t just buying their own brand or spouting their own cliches, and who have a sporting chance of getting things done, and who bring their kids, I’ll get back to you. Meanwhile I’ll take as a starting point the challenge of giving children an education in faith that will make them more, not less, able to see beyond the horizons of the particular group they hang out with.