Thoughts on Imprints of Maternal Love


There’s a part in Emma Donoghue’s book, Room, where the boy, Jack, wonders whether his mother’s tooth (which he’d been sucking in her absence and which he suspects he has swallowed in his sleep) will stay hidden forever in a corner inside him.

If you’ve read the book you will know what Tooth meant to him, its symbolism in his physical separation from his mother in a traumatic story, and the part it plays in his weaning from the breast.

Reading it today, something happened when I read that line. I cried. Of course I did! It’s a very moving book. Perhaps not the best choice for the ‘back to school’ fever, but it’s been on my to-read list for so long.

Maybe my emotional response was down to the fact that separation is imminent with my youngest starting Reception. Certainly it’s on the back of regularly processing the fact that I have an ‘empty lap’ breastfeeding-wise (an occupational hazard of being a breastfeeding counsellor is that breastfeeding remains a large part of my life, even if it’s not my own children). Like other parents, I’m an avid collector of my children’s teeth (I draw the line at sucking them, like chewing tobacco, though).

Mothers can be the whole world to their young children – something Room depicts so movingly. They can often be the whole world to us, too.

So, thinking about why that passage brought me so strongly to tears. It comes down to how, like many mothers, I often think about how I can leave a positive imprint on my children. One that forms a core of strength or comfort. I’d like to think that they will carry something of me within them throughout their lives. Not necessarily a rotten tooth, like Jack’s mum’s tooth in Room. But nuggets of unending maternal love, safe somewhere in a cranny of their beings.

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Summertime, and the Motherin’s Easy. It’s the Letting Go that’s Hard.


… Or so the song didn’t go.

You might have noticed that I’ve been pretty quiet recently. No shares of interesting articles. No posts of my own.

Reader, I confess: I had lost motivation and any pleasure or desire to engage in the online world. Blog? Pah. Facebook? Bleurgh. Laptop stayed shut for months. Smartphone avoided as much as possible as though it harboured a vague strain of plague.

I’ve cried.

I’ve buried my head in fiction.

I’ve been playing the piano for hours on end. Mostly sad songs. And a little bit of blues, poorly executed.

I have spent hours – hours – with my children, doing stuff. End of term joys at school. End of pre-school picnic. Fun times. School holidays! Going places. Going nowhere. Smelling the kids’ heads. Touching my son’s dimples. Stroking my daughter’s curls. Fearing I’m going to turn into the woman who goes up to mothers in the street and presses 50p coins into the palms of newborns lying innocently in their prams.

Online though, I confess that I have frozen, like a 2005 Windows server on a 2GB personal computer with box screen and tower (remember those?). It’s like I’m yearning for 1997 when it had taken me days to find out that a popular singer had died: I had no newspaper, no telly, no radio and (obv) no internet or smartphone. I spent days in the law library surrounded by books or in a union coffee shop drinking builders’ tea at 10p a cup and listening to Pearl Jam on the jukebox. I spent nights in clubs. I spent mornings in bed. Looking back, it was bliss. Being off-grid.

Anyway. Turns out I have been in real need of my mini sabbatical from social media and campaigning, politics and feminism, videos with cats doing cute stuff and quizzes to find out if you are a genius because you know the name of 500 books from just one sentence from each on page 122.

But I also suspect it was the start of a need to scale back to my preferred mode: sleep. Or at least, minimal interfacing. Reading: predominantly objects made from paper. Socialising: principally in person. Communicating: verbally. Mainly: spending time with the children, family and friends, and doing the real life stuff I love.


First I thought it was activist-burn out/authorial post-publication fatigue.

Then I remembered the General Election (let’s not go there for the moment) and wondered whether it was a political malaise. Real Tory-Blues. Cure? Don’t even know if a red pill will work, to be frank.

On the motherhood thing, I couldn’t face reading another article or engaging in another debate. The same one. Different day. This week’s breastfeeding merry-go-round and glut of articles about the miserableness of motherhood and school holidays when (banging head on desk) they are missing the point! The devaluation of care work! The failure to recognise mothers as individuals with our own needs and communities and support! The need for skilled breastfeeding support and maternity care! The need for realism about how  hard it is! The injustice of mother blame! The economic and political blindspot that is family-based care! We shouldn’t do motherhood alone, unsupported and undervauled – but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it! We must support mothers! We must remove discrimination against mothers in all its forms – in public, private, the workplace, pensions, and all the rest! Liberate Motherhood! Put on the Purplestockings! Honestly, I fear I become a parody of myself. “Step away from the internet” I hear, daily, loudly, in my head.

Feminism, too, has many battles on its hands. On certain issues, I feel despair at the way things are, and helplessness to do anything about it. I struggle with the atmosphere online sometimes.

All that was part of it, for sure, this paralysis.

But it was when I was crying in the shower recently that I got it.

Here goes: This summer I am preparing for my youngest child to go to school.

No. That’s not quite it.

How about: For the past few months I’ve been wallowing in a tiny, woman-made pit of despair and sadness that my baby is no longer a baby and that the pre-school years are over. That I’m about to walk through another door that will shape me into another form, just as I had walked into motherhood from a room that said ‘career’. Only this time, I’ve no idea what form the new phase is going to take. I’m shedding a skin, and worried there’s something scaly and miserable and lonely and lost underneath it. I signed up for caring for my children until school age. I have always wanted to be there before and after school and in the holidays. But I’m facing the raw and gooey fact that I am going to miss my children terribly during school hours.

We talk about baby blues. The challenges of the first year and adjusting to motherhood.

But I’ve been blindsided by this ‘last-child is soon going into Reception’ low.

But it’s right there: the end of an era. The early years in this household are almost over. And it’s come too quickly. I want it back. I want to start again and do it all over – with some changes here and there. Perhaps that’s behind the nagging itch for a third child: this time you wont hemorrhage after labour; this time you won’t struggle with breastfeeding; this time you will hire a mother’s help for those witching hours where everyone seemed to cry in unison (if only that shriveled shrub in the garden became that money-type of tree). This time you will know with certainty that it is the last birth, the last newborn phase, the last first-smile, the last first-step, the last first-word. You can relish it and treasure it and make no apology.

I’m never going to get that time back. I know I’ve got to let go.

I know, too, that the school days are short; that the holidays are long.

But it’s hard letting go.

It’s very hard.

Thank you for being patient. I’ll be back in September when I no longer have the metaphorical pram in the hall, and will have the time and freedom to write during the day without stopping to wipe a bottom other than my own. To continue to do my work with mothers locally. I suspect I will continue to try to impose boundaries with online stuff but I’d love to check in and catch up on a quiet, low-key, basis. Softly softly.

Let’s see how it goes, shall we?


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An Open Letter To Labour: Support Family-Based Care Too And You’ve Got My Vote

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I love an election. Ever since I voted Labour in 1997 as a newly enfranchised young woman, I have stayed up to watch election night live. Incidentally, 2015 was the first marathon where I had to care for young children the next day. It broke me.

This 2017 snap election? In terms of its wider politics, the choice ahead is simple. We either vote Tory or we vote for a hope of better things for future generations. If we could build the Welfare State from the ashes of the Second World War, we can build a better future from the grime of Conservative austerity.

So (and this is likely to be obvious to those who know me and who know my work on Liberating Motherhood) I’m with you, Jeremy. People are waking up to the decency of the Labour manifesto and your personal qualities and tenacity – a breath of fresh Westminster air, for many. ‘Persistent and patient’ beats ‘weak and wobbly’, hands down.

Like others, I want to see a departure from an uber-individualist society in which we compete for the scraps while our collective wellbeing resembles a perverse political game of whack-a-mole.

But forgive me a pregnant pause.

I also want to see a caring society. One which nurtures a humane view of what constitutes worthwhile and important labour.

First, some personal stuff. Recent care responsibilities have hit me like ten-tonne election bus. The joys of caring for children 24-hours a day through childhood sickness and viruses and vomiting and fevers. All in a day’s unwaged work. I’ve been unable to be as politically active as I would have liked. But things are looking up.

Now to policy. In short, I see there is (yet again) a juicy carrot, daubed ‘childcare’ dangled within a manifesto or two. The ‘carrots’ family – those who want to delegate care to enable or support them to work in the paid economy – will be rightly empowered.

But you know what they say: peas and carrots. Was about the ‘peas’? Those families who do, or would ideally want to, care for their young children themselves?

Those who are forced out to paid work against their wishes may well be reluctantly grateful for a childcare policy to reduce the burden on their wallets. However, they will nevertheless grate at the lack of opportunity to decline the very childcare they would forgo if only they had the option.

And those who struggle financially to provide family care? They are either neglected in a discarded pod in the political allotment of perceived anachronisms or beaten with an economic stick which says ‘GDP’.

So, I say: Give peas a chance. We are many. Not few.

Puns aside. Our problem is that at one end of the political spectrum subsidised childcare remains a centrepiece of progressive politics: free women from the drudgery and burden of caring for our young children so that we can do the productive stuff of paid work in the public sphere and economy. At the other end, childcare remains the sucker punch from the right: compel us to engage in low-paid, insecure, work with threats of benefits sanctions, but with the bitter salve that is subsidised childcare. To add insult to political injury, promises on childcare increasingly become bestowed with a rosette insidiously reading ‘Others Can Do it Better than Mothers’ in, say, child development.

So, I will say to you: if I vote Labour, it will not be with an endorsement of policies which fail to see the wider family portrait.

It will be with the following, polite, invitation: please include family-based care within your economic and tax plans.

It will be with a friendly invitation to consider a homecare allowance such as seen in Finland: parents are entitled either to state payment for care of their under-threes, or state payment to nurseries should they prefer. That is equality. No particular form of childcare should receive preferential treatment in policy, yet that is precisely what occurs under our current system. Any policy touted as supporting families should require a gold standard that all families have the right to choose family-based care if that is right for them, free from penalty in tax and allowances, and entitled to the equal investment on a per-child basis as would attach to a professional childcare provider.

It will be with a knowing wink to basic income trials.

It will be with a question: why should family-based carers of young children, the sick, the elderly, be deprived of a living wage?

It will be with an invitation to restore and increase one of the earliest Parliamentary feminist victories: Eleanor Rathbone’s Family Allowance.

It will be with utter disdain towards the family tax penalty. Tax. A hot potato for Labour, always, I know. But our current system is fundamentally flawed. It hits average incomes by thousands of pounds a year simply for the trespass of providing care to children within the family. Those who make significant financial sacrifice to care for their young children at home have redundant personal allowances that may as well be shrivelled umbilical cords. Forget happy families, no family is alike yet we are all taxed in the same way. As individuals. It’s failing us. We need to see families as units rather than collections of disconnected housemates. We need the tax system to take into account any caring responsibilities, interdependences, and the number of dependants. In effect, in assessing income or wealth, look beyond the paycheck recipient: see the mouths it is required to feed.

Our entitlement to state support for caring has been under sustained attack under austerity and we remain assessed as a family unit for our entitlement to state support. Yet, our families are treated as a collection of individuals to maximise what the state takes in tax from those even on average incomes. To adopt the language of trade unions, the state freeloads upon and exploits our caring labour.

We need to recognise caring as crucial to the wellbeing of our societies. Without a shift in our thinking, we will continue down the road of increased commodification or outsourcing of care for the young, the sick and the elderly and continue to marginalise carers.

To put into current context. The dementia tax is a symptom of a sickness in our infrastructure: a failure to recognise the need for care and the needs of carers themselves. Another beauty: the Tories suggest that we should all have the right to take a year away from our jobs to care for someone, unwaged. What is this but a gift that punches us in the face with a fist full of fake compassion and literally leaving us with an empty pocket for our cares?


What we need is a systemic rethink of how we support care work and carers: to recognise that we are already equal; just exploited and unwaged. We need to recognise the politics of childcare and the tax penalty on family-based care.

Pretty peas.


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Mother’s Day: Remembering Our Mothers, Remembering Ourselves

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I’ve been feeling quite emotional recently. When my youngest child starts school in September, the ‘early years’ will be behind us. I have to be honest: I wasn’t prepared for experiencing a feeling of loss at the prospect.

Friends and women in my family are having babies – and I am overjoyed for them. Some are becoming first-time mothers at the age when I am finishing up on pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding.

Naturally, we look back to the baby stage and how nothing prepares you for the reality of it all – not when we live our lives as ostensibly equal beings in a man’s world. Educated in all things and competing in all things as unencumbered, economically independent women.

A baby does have a habit of bringing that all back down to earth. We realise that birth is a feminist issue. That women’s power to nourish their babies on their bodies alone throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding has been veiled. That work done (reproduction, birth – labour, anyone? – breastfeeding) when it is exclusively female, and care work which is predominantly done by women, simply does not count and is not valued.

Motherhood is apt to leading to financial penalty throughout our lives and a higher risk of poverty in old age. We are forced to be dependent on men or the state if we want to care for our young children – or forced out to work to do our duty to the economic god in order to put food on the table. If we return to the workplace, we face a very clear and persistent penalty in pay, conditions and prospects of promotion. None of this is acceptable. It is the reason I started the Purplestockings movement and wrote Liberating Motherhood. It is why I support Mothers at Home Matter and All Mothers Work.

The least we could do for the women who reproduce the human race and nurture children in their vulnerability is to ensure that they are not hung out to dry alongside the muslins and babygros. We could recognise our interdependence and see that having children is not a lifestyle choice up there with keeping puppies. Our children are everyone’s children: the future of the human race. And caring for them? Someone has to (and many of us want to) do this valuable and essential work. Until we recognise the validity of mothers being free to do so without penalty, but with proper support, we will never achieve equality.

It starts with ourselves. Often from the very beginning. We might criticise ourselves for being tired in the first trimester and from that moment on, we might think we are failing in all matters of motherhood – ‘how hard can it be?’ Well, that’s a well kept secret. One which prevents us from demanding that women be treated better: to value what we bring to society and our children. It is not good enough to demand that men do more of the care work without also seeing a shift in how we value care and support it as a society through financial and community measures. Abolition of the family tax penalty is a start. A homecare allowance is another, as seen in Finland. A stop to tax and benefits measures which are compelling women to separate from their young children against their wishes is a must. We have to challenge patriarchal and capitalist values that freeload upon the work of mothers.

As I write this, I’m thinking how I would have done certain things differently had I known then what I know now: most importantly, to allow myself to stop, slow down and enjoy those days of ‘doing nothing’. When ‘doing nothing’ was growing my baby on my milk alone, caring for my baby night and day, holding my baby and nurturing new life. It took a while to shed the cultural skin that women should aspire to more than that, that we must be seen to be doing ‘something’ – whether it be cleaning while the baby sleeps (I should have slept), or shopping for food (I should have slept), or cooking (I should have slept), or going to the gym (I never did that). We are under increasing financial or social pressure to be returning to ‘work’ as though the work of raising children is not essential and demanding work of itself. When we care for our children we have not been handed a pretty wooden spoon, we are holding a fine china in our hands.

Right now, I am preparing for the next chapter in my life and I am returning to ‘owning’ a period of time during the day where it is me. Just me. No baby at the breast. No toddler tugging on my arm. No pre-schooler asking ten thousand questions a minute. Me. I’ve asked myself recently: ‘remember her?’ Of course I do. I’m right here.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mum.


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On 8th of March, Go on Strike in Purplestockings for International Women’s Day


So International Women’s Day is on Wednesday next week 8 March.

There are a number of International actions taking place. It is a day where our protests and our demands could be heard, in a supportive sisterhood and day of action.

I’ll be going on strike. I’ll be wearing Purple Stockings. I’ll be posting online.

I will be going to Parliament Square from about 10.30.

At 12 I will be going to a speakout in Old Palace Yard (

If anyone wants to join me, let me know.

If you can’t make it to London, then find something however big or small that you can do and make a noise in public or at home.

If you can’t completely down tools, find a window of time in the day where you can. Whatever you can decline, decline. Big or small, make a noise in public and online. The time is now.


#MothersOfTheWorldUnite #Purplestockings #LiberatingMotherhood #ValueCare

Mothers and Pregnant People

The British Medical Association is following the Midwives Alliance of North America’s step (criticised in this open letter) last year in suggesting that pregnant women – expectant mothers – should be called ‘pregnant people’. See here for the BMA literature.
I addressed this issue in Liberating Motherhood in my chapter on birth. I wrote this: “are losing our village of wisdom and womanly experience about birthing. Are we starting to lose our language of birth? Are we as women losing something: a right to name ourselves, our condition or our needs? For what? For whom? Why? What are the implications? How do we feel? Do these things matter? Of course they do. And we have the right to say so.” 
In response to this BMA policy, it has to be said: It is extremely rare – vastly statistically insignificant – for transmen to become pregnant. In the extremely rare case of transmen becoming pregnant, it is directly because of their biological and physiologically female capability to bear children. It goes without saying that no transwoman has ever become pregnant: because they are biologically male.
*One born every minute, as they say. To women. To mothers.
*One born once in a blue moon to a transman, yet, according to the BMA, this somehow justifies fundamental change in the language of birth and maternity to ‘pregnant people’ so as not to offend those who do not identify as women or mothers.
This is not OK.
By all means refer to individuals with language that is respectful and courteous in their individual circumstances. The importance of compassionate and humane care in pregnancy and birth is at the cornerstone of maternal feminism. A transman is no less deserving of this compassionate care.
However, that does not justify the change in language to describe the near total majority historically and presently of pregnant and birthing mothers as ‘pregnant people’. Many women fight hard to become mothers. Not pregnant ‘patients’ (we are not ill). Not pregnant *people*. We are *mothers*.
The day it is deemed bigoted, hateful or exclusionary to say so, we will have lost more than simply the right to speak. In the political climate, our reproductive rights are precarious indeed.
For myself, I had never feel fully at ease with my body, nor fully reconciled with the power and beauty of the female body, until I became pregnant and gave birth. Becoming a mother has been of life-changing importance to me. I will not apologise for that and I am sad to think that many women will feel under pressure not to claim the word which they deserve and which is their right. A word which somehow links us with our maternal ancestors and our maternal sisters: ‘mother’.
It is also disrespectful not to acknowledge the woman at the heart of something so sex-specific (maternity) and it fails women not to wholly celebrate the power of women in pregnancy and birth. Whilst we are expected to be fully considerate of the feelings of individuals who do not identify as women, one has to wonder at what point did the BMA stop to consider the feelings of those women to whom the word ‘mother’ is unspeakably important.
Importantly, too, language matters in wider issues of policy. In policy, if women are not named, if mothers are not named, we can easily lose sight that policies are affecting women, potentially disproportionately. Maternal mortality, for example, is something which directly involves mothers. Not people. Not men. Not males. It is a peculiarly female risk: injury or death through childbirth. To suggest that pregnancy and birth is something which somehow affects people -not females – is double-think, anti-women, anti-feminist and highly suspect.
See here Julie Bindel’s excellent commentary on this:

In particular, she wrote, “…women are angry and upset about the erasure of their identities to the point where they are being told it is transphobic to even use the correct language to describe our reproductive systems.

Accusing us of bigotry for telling the truth is a new way of attacking the advancement of women – only this time those doing the attacking are being supported by the very organisations that should know better.” 

Amen to that.

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