What is this thing called motherhood?

MP Jess Phillips has written a new book about her experience of motherhood and about her own mother and grandmother.

Portrait of scared baby against crazy mother with pan on head

It’s okay to be a solidly mediocre mother. That’s the message of MP Jess Phillips’ new book, Mother.

The pocket-sized book, published by the pound project, is about Phillips’ grandmother and mother as well as her own experiences of mothering. After a foreword from her Labour colleague Harriet Harman, Phillips begins with a broadside against the idea of mother as saint and of a woman’s worth being only defined by her decision of whether or not to procreate. She writes: “The fact that women are paid less in the UK can largely be put down to attitudes to motherhood.”

That attitude also affects men, she says. “We put limits on women who work and this creates an unnecessary burden of expectation and pressure on fathers, with tragic results: mental health issues and rates of death by suicide among men are soaring. I have sons and I have brothers and I find the statistics terrifying. It is dangerous to suggest women are immune or can resist because they have a magical pot of sensitivity and love that men are missing. We are all vulnerable.”

Phillips goes on to describe her own grandmother and mother’s lives and how her mother campaigned for her nan who had been affected by the drug Eraldin, which was eventually withdrawn in the 1970s due to its side effects. Phillips’ mum took on a big drugs company and attempted to trace everyone affected to ensure they got the compensation they deserved [8.1m pounds in total], travelling up and down the country at the same time as bringing up her young family. Phillips comments: “Not bad when all she had was belief and a cupboard.”

Both her mother and her nan, she says, were “the kind of women who seem like literary inventions”. Her mum was a doer, while her nan was a survivor. Yet on her deathbed, when her mum wrote reams and reams about her life, she barely mentioned her campaigning. “The thing she poured over again and again was how she felt about her mother and how she felt about my dad and her children,” writes Phillips.

Everyday mothering

Phillips writes of how both becoming a mother herself and losing her mother in 2011 galvanised her to work harder and do better. Indeed she became an MP less than four years after her mother died.

She talks about the everyday side of mothering, of losing your rag and hiding in the car listening to the radio, of being like a server box that children can plug into when they need something. It’s not a biopic, she says, but it is what a lot of motherhood is about. And in a shout-out against maternal guilt, she says being what she calls ‘mediocre’ is not so bad. She writes: “Don’t worry moms, mums, mams of the world – if you do a reasonably good job you will be remembered as if you were the bees knees.”

Phillips tackles the dualism many mothers feel. While the feminist in her makes her push away the idea that being a mother shouldn’t be what defines her and that male politicians never get asked about their kids, about sleepless nights or about how they feel about being childless, she says being a mum “saved my life” and that it is what gives her the most satisfaction.

She ends by railing against the idea that being a mother gives her any special insight or makes her a better politician and celebrating wider motherhood, including stepmothers, and makes the point that there is no one way to be a mum. Nevertheless, she says: “No matter how hard I try to expel it, I will always think that motherhood is a marvel.”

*Mother by Jess Phillips is published by the pound project – www.poundproject.co.uk.

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