There seems to be a residual myth in the Australian political establishment that the real Malcolm Turnbull stills exists. You see this myth cropping up alongside all kinds of sideways excuses for why Turnbull is missing. For instance, Katharine Murphy implies the centrist-Malcolm is being held captive by the far right of his party: ‘If Turnbull moved decisively in the direction of centrist cooperation, various charges would be levelled against him in predictable quarters. He’d be thumbing his nose at the base. He’d be provoking Ray Hadley. He’d be emboldening Tony Abbott’. Michelle Grattan says he needs some more runs on the board, and to better define his narrative. I think it’s time we all grew up and come to terms with the sad reality. Santa Claus isn’t real. Never was real. Never will be. And he’s not coming over to your house to bring an iPad, a credible renewable energy policy or to make gay marriage a reality. The truth is, old Malcolm doesn’t exist. It was all just a con to make him palatable enough for first the seat of Wentworth, and then the job of Prime Minister. The fact is, the real Malcolm is exactly the Malcolm you see in front of you. The Abbott pig wearing lipstick. Malcolm’s narrative is just the same as Abbott’s. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I’ll give you a moment to let this sad reality sink in before I make you truly depressed with a description of the Prime Minister we’ve all ended up with, while being played and teased with the idea he was something different. You see, the thing is, when we desperately want to believe something, us humans are very good at ignoring all evidence against it. That’s why people didn’t hear Malcolm when he said, in his first speech as Prime Minister, that he would lead a ‘thoroughly Liberal Government committed to freedom, the individual and the market’. A free-market. This stood out to me because I can see the neoliberal-wolf wearing the social-progressive-sheep’s clothing. But after the harrowing experience of Abbott, it’s no wonder the hopeful souls of Australia wanted so badly to follow the Pied-Point-Piper of Vaucluse over the edge of the neoliberal cliff. The fact is, ideologically, Abbott is a social-conservative who also happens to enjoy the support of neoliberal donors. Turnbull is a neoliberal warrior who doesn’t think social is a thing unless there’s profit in it for his Panama tax havens.
The one-seat majority, and the herd of angry Abbott-supporting backbenchers has actually been a gift to Turnbull. He’s using the slimy creeps, the George Christensens, the Eric Abetzs, the Cory Bernardis, as an alibi to say ‘I’m only doing stuff most people don’t agree with because I’m hamstrung by the right-wing of my party’. This idea works so nicely with the ‘it’s not my fault and I can’t help it’ fairy tale that it’s no wonder the myth of the old-Malcolm-will-return is still alive. But the thing is, in order to believe this myth, you would have to also believe that Malcolm cares more about hanging onto his job as Prime Minister than he does about doing the things he apparently believes in, such as addressing climate change and promoting marriage equality. But if this is true, this behaviour is a complete contradiction to the theory that Turnbull is an honourable man who has been side-tracked by the politics of his situation. Think of it this way; if the real Malcolm is siding with Bernardi to keep his job, doesn’t that make the real-Malcolm a real-bastard anyway? The whole point of Santa is that people want him to turn up. Who wants the bastard-Malcolm? Nobody.
But no, there really are myths within myths. The truth is, Malcolm talks about agility and innovation, while walking Abbott’s school and higher education policy which makes user-pays education less accessible, and the nation less agile and innovative. Malcolm talks about the moral challenge of climate change, when the real Malcolm wants the State’s to stop with their silly-renewable energy targets and to go back to coal like the good old miners-said-so-days. Malcolm could have scrapped Abbott’s 2014 budget welfare ‘reforms’, which aim to make it harder for young people to use the social safety net they need to stop themselves sliding into possibly-lifelong-poverty, but he has chosen to make this first order of business for his government. As it slowly dawns on everyone that Malcolm is neoliberal to the core, that he would sell off Parliament House to the highest bidder and rent it back to the government if he could get away with it, who would rather walk on hot coals than have a banking Royal Commission, who, if the apparently dead-buried-and-cremated WorkChoices could be reincarnated, would sew the ashes back together with his bare hands, he starts to look not just weak, but actually just as scary, if not scarier, than Abbott. A $20 billion tax cut to his big business mates at the same time as moralising a budget disaster? Of course he would. That’s Malcolm through and through!
In order to defeat an enemy, you must know the enemy. It’s time to stop falling for the ‘old Malcolm will return’ trick, and wake up to who he really is. He’s not spineless. He’s not being forced into a situation he doesn’t approve of. He’s not weakly refusing to answer questions about the behaviour of his right-wing colleagues because he’s scared to offend them. He’s not scared of them. He agrees with them. They’re talking on his behalf. Wake up Australia. The leather jacket was a prop. The public transport riding was public relations. There’s not a nicer version inside Malcolm waiting patiently to appear. This is him. This is all you get. Our Prime Minister is not the man you thought he was. Santa’s not coming because Santa doesn’t exist. Get used to it.
What I’ve witnessed in the last 28 hours, as South Australian has been experiencing the most severe weather event the Bureau of Meteorology says we have ever had, is the perfect case study of the absolute incompetency of the mainstream media and their desperation to turn absolutely every news story into a political contest, no matter the facts, logic, science and you know, reality.
South Australia’s weather event might be once in a lifetime. But the reporting is run of the mill, every day, and as pathetic as it always has been. I could write all night about the problems with the media’s framing of the unexpected state-wide blackout, but really it all boils down to this: the media jumps to conclusions based on politicised, populist statements from political players, without checking facts, without checking the validity of those statements, without questioning the likelihood of those statements representing truth, and then makes it the job of the people doing real journalism to contest the truth, after giving the anti-fact agenda a massive head start.
Here is an example:
Channel 9 tweets a headline quoting Nick Xenophon linking the power outage to SA’s reliance on renewable energy. Apparently, if you’re a politician, especially a ‘maverick’, ‘king maker’, stunt-man like Xenophon, you can literally say whatever you like, no matter how ridiculous, how outlandish, how not-true and the media jump on it, repeating it verbatim and thereby making it ‘true’.
Xenophon’s quote set the media agenda in reporting the South Australian storms. This agenda was unquestioned as fact before any expert analysis was provided until many hours later. Now, the story is not about the storm or the blackout, but low and behold it’s an anti-renewable energy story. The renewable energy story is what the 24 hour news cycle dedicated itself to today. While the wind is still blowing, and the power is still off across many suburbs, reality (the wind blowing over crucial energy infrastructure and causing a blackout, which would have happened regardless of how that energy got into that infrastructure), now has to compete with political fear mongering. And whacko, the media have found themselves a political narrative which has all the ingredients to fit their lazy template: politicians are disagreeing, someone is blaming someone else, climate change policy gets a kick and there is lots of daily-occurance-whinging from SA Liberal leader, Steven-whinging-Marshall to provide all the sound bites needed to bash the Labor government with. Like a dog eating a bone, or a train on the tracks, the media literally can’t pull themselves away from this narrative, even when experts are telling them that of course renewable energy did not play a part.
If the journalists stopped for even a moment to think about it, they would probably laugh and agree that, yes, it is a little ridiculous to even mention renewable energy in this situation when it so obviously had nothing to do with the blackout. But that’s not the point. The point is the narrative. Xenophon set it and they ran with it and all of them, lemmings, follow suit, unquestioning, and apparently unable to even laugh at themselves while they do it. I’ve just finished watching a special segment on ABC Adelaide news where Sabra Lane explained that the political mess from this storm will carry on, now that questions have been raised about renewable energy’s impact on the blackout. With a straight face.
And the worst part of this whole sorry affair? The worst part is not just that the media is shit at their jobs and the public are let down and the real story is lost in a shit media storm. No, the worst part is the impact this style of reporting has on politics. Let’s take, for instance, Trump. Trump loves being able to say whatever outlandish thing he likes. He loves watching the media put it in big letters on the TV screen, or a sound bite on the radio, or a headline in a newspaper. He loves that it takes the experts a few hours to fact-check what he’s said, and by then he’s embroiled the media in a ‘political contest’ which automatically provides him with political credibility, even though the statement he made epitomises incredible. The media can deny it all they like, but their template-political-contest created Trump. They are the Frankenstein to the Trump monster. It might just be one big storm in South Australia, but the shit storm the media is really causing is a problem for the entire planet.
Shame on these so-called journalists. Shame on them for playing the game and turning everything into a contest, when the audience deserves better. Shame on them for failing in their responsibility to uphold the values of truth and objectivity in news reporting. Shame on them for undermining their profession and neglecting to do their job. Shame, shame, shame.
Ever since Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic Party nomination, I’ve been waiting for her political narrative to emerge. Just like when you’re waiting for a bus and it’s taking an age to appear, I was starting to feel a bit anxious about whether this narrative would turn up at all. In the meantime, the Trump narrative has been spiralling into unchartered depths of hate with a mix of lunacy and apocalypse. It became obvious a while ago that the overarching theme of Clinton’s narrative would have to be a message of hope, to juxtaposition against Trump’s narrative of despair. But the question I’m sure Clinton’s team have been working on, and finding quite difficult to answer, is how to use hope to argue against the message of despair, when the media, like magpies collecting shiny trinkets for their 24-hour-news-cycle-nest, give Trump all their attention. Even those journalists who don’t agree with Trump, and don’t seem to like him, still play his game and give him a free advertising campaign, which takes up all their time, leaving less time, and sometimes no time, to cover Hillary’s message, and policies, of hope. But the good news is, it would appear that Clinton’s campaign has found a way around this problem. Now let’s just hope it works!
So what is Clinton’s narrative? Here is a link to three of her Trump attack ads which have been running over the past few months. The most recent video shows young girls looking at themselves in the mirror, with the misogynistic words of Trump overlaid, denigrating the appearance of women and treating them as objects. Another uses the same style of message, but this time with injured war heroes and families of American soldiers killed in war, alongside Trump’s comments denigrating war heroes. The third ad similarly shows children watching TV as some of Trump’s worst calls-to-violence and hateful statements are made. The overarching narrative in this campaign is ‘the President is the ultimate role model; so what type of role model is Donald Trump? And if he’s not a good role model, he’s not a good leader’.
This narrative is clever for three reasons. The first is it’s almost impossible to argue with this framing of Trump as a bad role model. I’m sure he will try, as will his supporters, but it’s a pretty tough argument to make in both an emotional and rational sense, because of its link with children, bad behaviour, and values. Put simply, everyone knows that children should be brought up to be good people, and that positive role models help them to aspire to be good. Trump can’t exactly turn around and say ‘I hope your children swear and curse just like I do’. Well, he can, but I’m not sure it will go down that well. The best political narratives present arguments which are difficult to argue against. In my study of Labor’s mining tax narrative, my results suggested that from the naming of the mining tax policy ‘Resources Super Profits Tax’, to the entire narrative of ‘a fair share’, Labor missed the opportunity to frame the policy in a way that would have made it much more difficult for the Liberals and the mining industry to counter-argue. For instance, if the policy had been called ‘Mining Dividends for Australian Shareholders’ and had been justified as ‘a future wealth fund for all Australians’, it would have been much harder for the big miners to claim the policy was an assault on Australia’s way of life and was going to ruin us all.
The second reason the narrative is clever is again through its link to children, and in turn, a focus on a more positive future. David Penberthy recently, and surprisingly in a News Ltd paper, contrasted Pauline Hanson’s much-reported maiden speech, which he described as vane, insecure and racist with the the hardly-noticed-by-the-media maiden speech from Labor’s Northern Territory Senator, Malarndirri McCarthy, which he says showed humility, pride, intellect, decency and effort. The two speeches boil down to exactly the Trump and Clinton narratives I’m describing as fear and loathing versus hope and renewal. Everyone is acknowledging that things are exactly great right now, but they are also offering very different reasons for why things aren’t great, and arguments about what we need to do to fix them. Clinton’s focus on children, which echoes Michelle Obama’s brilliant convention speech, reminds Americans that children represent hope for a brighter future, but only if those children are good people. This contrasts with Trump, who is doing a lot of complaining, but it failing to offer anything good for children to aspire to, representing his lack of positive solutions to fix the problems he complains about.
The last reason why Clinton’s narrative is crafty is because it’s an attack ad, framed in a positive way. Although political strategists seem to ignore all the research that says negative advertising puts voters off, and although the election of Tony Abbott on the most negative agenda Australia has ever seen would seem to disprove this research anyway, the fact is, you can’t have a consistent narrative of hope cloaked in negativity and fear. Fear belongs to Trump. So Clinton has to do something different. By dressing her message of hope in not only a positive narrative, but also a counter-narrative against Trump, using Trump’s own words no less, her narrative kills two birds with one stone and helps to finally give her campaign the overarching thread that it needs to rise above the nasty-noise of the Trump circus.
So there you have it. The narrative is there. The next question is, will the campaign stick to this message? And of course, the $64 million dollar question that comes next is; will the message work? The November poll will be around soon enough to give us the answer.
I am writing in response to your allegation that the mining industry has been ‘treated shabbily’ by Australia. Apparently you don’t think they’ve had a fair deal, what with the billions of dollars of profit they’ve sucked out of the earth, from the dirt owned by Australian citizens. What would you like? For us all to give the mining executives a big hug, or a pat on the back, to say ‘thanks for royally screwing us over?’ Perhaps you would like us to cook them each a cake? A mud cake perhaps? Sorry. It never occurred to me to do this.
But hang on. You’ve said what you want. You want there to be a section in the Australian curriculum where school students are taught to bow down to the rich miners and kiss their toes, begging them to hire them to drive trucks for big bucks, and to spend weeks away from their family at a time, to live the Australian dream of helping mining executives get rich? What should this part of the curriculum be called Peter? Perhaps it could be a whole subject? Kissing Gina’s arse? How about, how-to-rip-off-battlers-to-line-the-pockets-of-shareholders? How about a practical-lesson-in-sending-Australia’s-wealth-overseas so none of us get any benefit from it unless we’re wealthy enough to have huge superannuation accounts? Wealth inequality for dummies perhaps?
But you really do have a point, in your funny old way of being wrong while still somehow managing to make sense. A bit like how you claim to be a really great ex-Treasurer, and to be oh so worried about debt and deficit, while also conveniently ignoring that little problem of your actual legacy which, low and behold, screwed all of us. I see a pattern of incompetence forming here. Richard Denniss puts your yearly cost to Australia at $56 billion dollars per year. Ouch Peter! What is it you like to say about inter-generational theft? Maybe everyone should learn all about your incompetence at school? Maybe we should have a Royal Commission into Peter Costello’s Incompetence to get to the bottom of how you managed to leave such economic destruction in your wake?
But really Peter, you’ve got a point about the mining industry deserving a place in the school curriculum. In fact, I applaud your call to give our children a chance to learn how they missed out on a once in a generation mining boom because the mining industry, with the help of your Liberals, crushed Labor’s super-profit tax in order to protect their unfair rort of taking all the wealth for themselves. I definitely think it’s a great idea to educate children about the ills of wealth inequality, so that they understand that life doesn’t have to be this way. They have a right to be told by their teachers that people like you shouldn’t be making decisions on their behalf. Because you don’t have their best interests at heart. And nor do the mining executives who you like to exalt as the mythical heroes of the Australian economy. I’m sure Australian children will be very interested to learn how your Liberals cancelled their chance to get their fair share of mining’s benefits, from the soil they all collectively own. They’ll no doubt be howling about this when they find out how much superannuation they’ve missed out on, money they needed in retirement. They’ll be pissed when they find out you preferred to let the mining executives live it up on their dime, stealing from their bank accounts so they’ll have to retire the day before they die. Good on you Peter. It’s definitely a good idea to tell all the kiddies about this con. Education is, after all, the key to a better future.
Speaking of education, I wonder if you have the figures at hand of how much education funding we could have enjoyed had your government, the one where you controlled the money, thought about taxing the mining industry properly and putting that revenue somewhere useful, such as into the education budget? Actually, let’s not get you to do the sums because we know how hopeless you are with accounting. Remember the time you sold all the gold at rock bottom price. When I say ‘the gold’, just to be clear, it wasn’t your gold Peter, it was ours. Remember when you lost billions of dollars of Australian money, money that belonged to those school children who never heard anything about it?
Now I come to think of it, you really should be ashamed of yourself Peter. You’ve screwed over the Australian people time and time again. I have no idea why anyone thinks it would be a good idea to listen to your opinion about anything. What are you doing these days anyway? When you retired you said it was to spend more time with your family. But then I recall, you’ve been appointed to, hang on, what the actual… Australia’s independent sovereign wealth fund. That’s really taking the piss Peter. You’re the last person I would let even think about walking anywhere near Australia’s Future Fund, let alone giving you the keys and letting you drain it all away, sell the farm and watch the proceeds melt to nothing, until the future is free of any funds. But of course you still get paid. What a joke Peter. What an absolute joke. Who on earth would give you such a responsible position, when you’re so clearly ideologically inappropriate and incompetently reckless with money to boot? I think I can guess.
I think it’s time you did the whole country a favour and just go away. And in particular, stay away from the young people Peter. You’ve done enough damage. You’ve treated us all very shabbily. It’s time we had a chance to fix your mistakes for the benefit of all our futures.
If your doctor misdiagnoses your disease, you’re probably not going to get any better. The same problem will arise for people in the UK who voted to leave the EU because of assurances from Brexit campaigners that they could ‘solve’ globalisation. Similarly for Australian voters who chose the Hanson or Xenophon treatment, attracted to the anti-free-trade-deal rhetoric, which promises to reverse the ill effects of globalisation. And of course, Trump’s supporters could find they have opted for the wrong prescription if he wins the US election.
The patients in this metaphor share similar symptoms of wealth inequality: they’ve seen their stable employment disappear in the industries their families relied on for generations – like automotive, whitegoods, steel production and fabrication, coal mining, clothing and footwear manufacture. They feel resentful that the ‘establishment’ political process has left them to fend for themselves. They never wanted to be reliant on government help, which makes them even more resentful of needing it. They’re not educated in the professions which would allow them to take advantage of a changing global work landscape. They feel priced out of their local job market and often blame unions for pricing them out. They’ve seen full time, ongoing positions degrade into casual, unstable working environments, leaving them constantly anxious about the future. Their fear of change is sometimes scapegoated to a fear of people who don’t look like them, the immigrants who they see as living-next-door representatives of the new world order that has caused all their problems. They are told by right-wing politicians it is their fault they are poor, and they are ‘leaning’ on society, when all they really want is to be contributing like they used to. It’s no wonder they’re visiting the doctor.
But the problem is, they’ve all accepted the misdiagnosis of globalisation. The Brexit campaign, the Hansons, Xenophons and Trumps have made a villain of globalisation, and have promised a treatment to fix this disease which won’t do anything to cure it because it’s not the disease they are suffering from. What’s really making them sick are the ill-effects of neoliberalism. They’re suffering from neoliberalism playing out on a globalised scale. So what they really need is treatment to fix the down-side of neoliberalism, not a fix for globalisation.
Once people come to terms with what they are really suffering from, it becomes much easier to talk to them about positive steps to solve the problem. The first thing we need to do is to stop voting for political leaders who think neoliberalism is the right answer. Malcolm Turnbull, for instance. Taking out the ‘lisation’ and ‘lism’ words from this complex situation, you could describe globalisation as a world market, and neoliberalism as a way of removing government mediation from regulating this market. Therefore, the only way to treat the disease is to change the rules by which the market operates, in order to share its spoils more evenly amongst all citizens.
I can already feel people flinching as they read the words ‘government regulation’, but that’s what we’re really talking about here. The treatment for the disease is government policy that aims to reduce wealth inequality which is caused by neoliberal agendas massively advantaging those who already have a foothold in the market over those who don’t. That means a legislated minimum wage and working conditions. That means supporting industries which are really important to the country, which employ lots of people, which in turn stimulates the economy and is therefore worth the investment – such as steel manufacturing, car manufacturing (it’s working for America!) and defence industries. It means investing government funds in high quality school, vocational and tertiary education so it is available to people who can’t afford to pay for it, in order to give them the resources they need to compete in a new market for jobs. It means healthcare available to everyone, no matter their income. It means guaranteeing those who are unemployed have enough government assistance to live in dignity, and be in a position to better their circumstances. It is providing infrastructure and government services which level out the playing field to make the opportunities of globalisation more evenly distributed amongst the whole society.
There are many advantages to globalisation which are hard to embrace when you’re suffering from neoliberalism. For instance, the availability of world markets for those engaged in high-paid, interesting and challenging work, such as in technology, engineering, professional services, design, science, academic, arts and entertainment fields. If you don’t have an education that makes you eligible for such positions (because you haven’t had your government-funded treatment for neoliberalism), it makes it hard to see these benefits. But once you feel better, globalisation doesn’t seem so bad.
The paradox is, the people offering the treatment to solve globalisation refuse to acknowledge that neoliberalism is the real villain here. Like Voldermort in Harry Potter, neoliberalism has become he who shall not be named and therefore it who shall not be blamed. It might sound like a story too good to be true: that you can have your globalisation cake and eat your more equally distributed economic growth too. But, all it takes is for voters to trust a government who is prepared to mediate the world market to make sure economic benefits of globalisation flow more evenly, not just to the privileged few.
Neoliberal governments, instead of offering the treatment people need, have been cutting back, stripping, undermining and hollowing out government’s role in every policy area imaginable. In doing so, they’re hurting economic growth, hurting the wealth of their country, and hurting the wealth of the individuals in these countries. We can all be better off by making all of us better off. We just need to identify the right treatment for the right disease.
Today is Equal Pay Day. This event was celebrated yesterday by former Liberal PM John Howard’s observation that women won’t ever achieve equal representation in parliament because women stay at home with children. Thanks Johnny!
The fact is, modern mothers (as opposed to Howard’s 1950’s view of the world) are stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place when it comes to navigating the daily compromise between motherhood and paid employment. The problem is, there is no right answer in our society, because society doesn’t know what on earth they want us to do.
There is so much pressure on women to uphold the ideals of feminism, where our education, our careers, our professional achievements are equally important to us (and the family income!) as our male counterparts. But, when motherhood comes along, as it did for me a year ago, there is just as much pressure, if not more from some quarters, for mothers to put our own needs and wants aside and to focus solely on caregiving to children.
The problem is, this predicament ignores the fundamental realities of the constant tug-of-war between what a mother wants for herself and what society expects of her. An obvious one is that each mother wants different things. Take, for instance, that I would prefer to work than stay home with my child. Even writing that sentence, I can feel the hot eyes of judgement from the keyboard warriors yelling at me ‘YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE HAD CHILDREN IF YOU DON’T WANT TO STAY HOME TO LOOK AFTER THEM!!!’ My daughter loves childcare and I couldn’t be happier with the level of care she receives. Thanks for asking.
For many people, wants are beside the point. Sometimes, financially, there is no decision because mother has to work to pay the mortgage, the rent, to put food on the table and to give the family the standard of living she chooses. So we’re stuck between judgements from society about what makes a ‘good mother’ and what makes a ‘good worker’ or ‘good provider’. It is no wonder this situation puts so much pressure on mothers, right at a time in our lives when we’re vulnerable, tired and frankly just don’t need any more crap.
The four big picture decisions in the motherhood and career game, which each family must make work for their circumstances are: 1) mother* leaves or stays out of paid employment while raising children, 2) mother works in paid employment even though she would prefer to stay home because her family needs her income, 3) mother works in paid employment even though she can afford to stay home; she chooses to work because she enjoys it 4) mother works in paid employment because she has to and because she wants to (the category, by the way, I fall into). *The vast majority of parents who stay home to care for children are mothers.
Let’s just get one thing straight and confirm that all four categories of woman are full time mothers and all four are working. Mothers who stay home work incredibly hard. On the flipside, just because a woman is in paid employment, doesn’t mean she isn’t a mother when her child is being cared for by someone else; whether at childcare, kindergarten, or in that messy 90 minute period between the end of the school day and the end of an eight hour work day.
A friend of a friend toured their local primary school and asked about after-school care facilities. The tour-guiding-principal responded ‘we offer after-school care, but we don’t recommend it for the little kids in reception and year one – they’re a bit young to be at school for so long’. Well-meaning or not, this comment is eye-roll-inducing judgemental. What the women on the tour in categories 2, 3 and 4 heard, who low-and-behold probably don’t have the flexibility to leave work in the middle of the afternoon, who already leave work earlier than they would like to, who race to pick up their children so they can get home in a reasonable time for dinner, is that they are bad mothers for expecting their children to be stuck in after-school-care while they selfishly work until 5pm.
So here we have a perfect example of how women can’t win and how the guilt-police get us either way. We are expected to live up to society’s expectation that we work just as hard as men at earning a living, contributing to the economy, being productive members of society in both a paid and unpaid capacity, and living up to our own measures of career success, while also being available as mothers. There is an expectation, a judgement made, that good mothers pick their children up directly after school, help with reading in the classroom and volunteer at the tuck-shop. In the case of working mothers like me with younger children, we are told by psychologists like Steve Biddulph that child care is bad for children or scientists tell us childcare causes respiratory illness, obesity, aggression and hyperactivity. Thanks for the helpful advice! Then there’s the everyday garden variety of unhelpful labels such as ‘full time mother’ to describe stay at home mothers, as if mothers in paid employment are only part-time parents. And of course stay at home mothers get judged for not ‘working’, when every mother knows how hard work it is looking after children at home.
So back to my idea about there being no single best-fit for every family. All the mothers of small children want and need something slightly different in their tailored career and motherhood mix. We all build a patchwork of support and compromise to make our choices happen. That often means putting careers on hold for a period, or paying a huge amount for childcare or a nanny, or calling on the help of grandparents, finding a more flexible or part time job and sometimes fathers making career sacrifices too. But society seems hell-bent on making us guilty for whatever choice we make. So we should ignore judgey mc-judgey society. The phrase ‘happy wife, happy life’ might seem trite, but instead we can extend it to ‘happy mother, happy family’. It’s hard enough being stuck between the rock of motherhood and the hard place of a career, but it’s even harder when you’re being judged for it. Whatever choice you make, bringing up small children is hard work; there is constant compromise, exhaustion and stress on both parents, along with a lot of joy which thankfully makes it all worthwhile. So we should be proud of our choices, and then get on with our lives, without looking back over our shoulder to check what everyone else judges as ok.
I won’t leave it there. Because it’s also up to all of us to stop judging other people’s parenting choices. We all know the judgers are just reaffirming their own decisions. It’s unnecessary. Be secure in your own choice, and accept that everything else is none of your business.
And one last comment to society as a whole; please work out what you want mothers to do and then make it a little easier to do that. If you want mothers to work, deliver childcare which is accessible, affordable and high quality. And schools have to stop expecting us to down-tools to pick up children at 3:30pm. Surely a highly productive, smart, innovative and agile society can sort this stuff out for everyone’s benefit.
My favourite feminist, Clementine Ford, wrote this week about her experiences giving birth to her first child. I’m sorry to have to admit I was deeply disappointed with the way she framed her birthing decisions, and the sanctimonious judgement and culture of expert-doctor-mistrust which makes these decisions for all women, more difficult.
It’s worth describing my own experiences in this area. I am a twin and was born via caesarean, which is the safest way to deliver twins. When I gave birth to my daughter just over a year ago, I went into labour two and a half weeks early and, with the help of the blessed relief of an epidural, delivered my daughter after 16 hours of labour. My twin sister had her first baby 10 weeks before I gave birth. She was induced two days after her due date, and after 12 hours in labour, her obstetrician judged that the labour wasn’t progressing because her son’s head was too big to pass through her birth canal. So she was rushed into the operating suite and had an emergency caesarean. It did occur to us all that my sister and her baby would likely have contributed to the huge statistics of maternal and infant mortality had they been in the same circumstances 100 years ago. But of course, my twin sister and I might not have been alive ourselves had we not been born via caesarean 35 years ago. So all in all, the wonders of modern medicine get a big round of applause in our family.
What really upset me about Clementine’s description of her decision to reject an obstetrician’s advice to be induced soon after her due date, and instead to go into hospital on her own terms 36 hours after her water broke at 43 weeks, is that she is upholding a cultural expectation through her public telling of this story, that there is something wrong with ‘giving in’ to the advice of doctors. And that anything other than a natural birth is a failure.
To put it frankly, it is incredibly dangerous to have a child at 43 weeks. As an obstetrician commented below Clementine’s post, much more calmly than I feel able, the statistics, the science, is clear about this risk. One in 300 babies born at 43 weeks (3 weeks after their due date) are stillborn. So when a doctor advises that a woman who has seen her due date come and go consider an induction, it’s not because the doctor is trying to take away the woman’s right to choose the circumstances of her birth, it’s not because the doctor is trying to dictate the terms of the birth in order to advantage the doctor in some way, it’s not because they want to bully the woman by using words like ‘stillborn’ or force the woman to not have the natural birth experience they dreamed of having. The doctor advises an induction to minimise the risk of the baby not surviving. The doctor is doing their job to deliver a baby safely. This job, to again be blunt, is far more important than looking after the feelings of the mother. Full stop.
I find it hard to believe women in modern society, where we have so much scientific advantage over previous generations, who played Russian roulette during childbirth, aren’t more grateful for the advice and assistance they get from doctors. In fact, rather than be grateful, many women seem to instead mistrust the doctor’s advice and claim they, as the intuitive mother, know best. The anti-vax movement is caused by this exact same phenomena. Mother knows best. Intuition and ‘feels’, and an obsession with exerting full control over every medical decision, ahead of expert provided medical fact.
So back to cultural expectations. Why did Clementine choose not to be induced? Is it because she judges a natural birth as superior? Is it because she judges a woman who gives birth naturally to have done a better job of the birthing process? I find it hard to see anything else in her words, which are imbued with a sense of self-righteous post-justification of her decisions, and martyrdom in claiming to have waited for things to occur naturally, even if that made her difficult wait longer and harder.
The thing is, I’ve seen this attitude so many times before. I’ve seen the way society looks disappointed when mothers tell the story of ‘giving in’ to an emergency caesarean, or being embarrassed to admit they elected to have a caesarean because it was the safest way for them to give birth. I’ve heard about the birth plans that women make, to do it all naturally, to be at home, in water, and to not take drugs, which, whether they mean to or not, are automatic judgements of ‘weak’ women who have gone before them and had every drug the hospital offered to get rid of that god-damn-pain thank you very much. I remember the women in my pregnancy aqua-aerobics class who proudly announced they’d achieved their goal of a VBAC – a vaginal birth after caesarean. So they had to ‘give in’ the first time, but the second time, they did it naturally, and that apparently earns them even more bragging points than a natural attempt first time round.
This behaviour by mothers is the Mobius-loop of society judging mothers. Clementine’s piece surely wasn’t meant to judge, but it backs up the judgement, a judgement which in turn makes it hard for women to make smart, expert-informed decisions about the safest way to deliver their child.
The thing is, this judgement around childbirth is just the start of a judging journey for mothers which continues into every facet of parenthood. This judgement, the expectations of perfection in all things parenting, the ‘right’ way to do things, has a negative impact on a new mother’s confidence, security, faith in her own decisions, and her overall mental health at a time in her life when she is particularly vulnerable. From the breast-is-best breastfeeding brigade, to the organic foods only army, to cloth nappies versus disposable, to unpasteurized milk, to whether you choose childcare and a job over mother-of-earth stay-at-home sanctimonious ‘mamma bear’. Choose the wrong decision and the judgers’ judge you to have failed.
There is already enough judgement out there thanks Clementine, and I’m so disappointed you’ve added to it from your privileged position of popular feminist commentator. I wish you the best of luck with motherhood, which, as I’m finding after a year is so much more than the challenges of labour. All I ask of society is to celebrate childbirth, however it happens, and to minimise the risk of things going horribly wrong. I don’t think that’s too much to ask, is it?