Friday, 9 September 2016

Motherland

Motherland 
(written by Graham Lineman and Sharon Horgan)
OK, I admit it. I flew off the handle about Motherland. Or rather I flew off the handle about a a perky young male reviewer in the Guardian – one of the smug new breed of reconstructed men, who have managed to reconstruct a society around themselves in which they think they are feminists, while never actually doing anything in the family that doesn’t serve their own interests first. 

Mean, I know. Below the belt, yes, literally. Accurate? Almost certainly. I can do hard satire too. I do apologise if I hurt anyone’s feelings.

But to Motherland itself. I actually watched it last night (as opposed to writing about it first). 

On second thoughts (or first thoughts if you’re going to discount my pre-thoughts, which were, for the most part, and though I flatter myself, absolutely accurate), Motherland could be the start of something really interesting.

You see, it’s billed as a hilarious new sitcom about what it’s like for modern mums, but for more than half of its viewers it won’t be comedy, or even drama, it will just be the mumdanity of their every waking minute.

Motherland isn’t a comedy, it’s a documentary.


The Working Mother we see at the beginning, stressed to the point of screaming and crying in her car as she tries to juggle the school run, while fielding calls from work demanding her pointless presenteeism (“I don’t actually need to be there while she prints out a form… yes, two children, yes, five and nine… yes, no, I’ve just got some childcare issues, I’ll definitely be in on Thursday”)? That woman didn’t make me laugh at all. I was just watching myself.

*

Before managing to move our children to a primary school within walking distance of where we lived, I used to have a ‘school run’ that took maybe 45 minutes or an hour, Monday to Friday, in a car, to travel about a mile and a half. Too far to walk with very small children. Even slower by bus. No options. I would sit, stalled in traffic, having been that fraction too late to push the kids out of the front door to have beaten it, tears rolling down my cheeks as I realised that again, despite my best efforts, London was going to defeat me before 8.55am. Oh, and when our son was three, the idea was that, in order for him to attend the school's nursery, I was going to do this run THREE TIMES EACH DAY: 8-9am, 12-1pm, 3.30-4.30pm. Six times. There and back. I'm so sorry if I sound fussy – but that's insanity.

I remember sitting one day, near the end of this nightmarish period, in the playground of the school where I was later to become the chair of governors, after one of these runs. I was catatonic, unable to speak, sobbing… in front of a woman who had herself suffered so appallingly from mental illness that she had had to be sectioned. She was trying to comfort me as Samaritans and psychologists must have tried to help her – her words were those of one attempting to pull another back from suicide. I only wish I were joking.


Don’t worry reader, I did not want to commit suicide. I’d quite like to stick around and make it to old age. I just want society to WAKE UP, and see what it is doing to its women, as it demands that they hold it together for no money, no promotion, no visible source of hope, while being kicked about, put down, and stressed to the point of breakdown. Working Mother, c’est moi.

*

Back to the show. Motherland is a great title – as we watch, we realise that what is at stake is akin to what awaits us all post-Brexit, an island of narrowmindedness defined by what it excludes, that has been invaded and colonised and is now ruled over by Amanda the Queen Bee, and her spagbol-for-the-children hazing rituals.

The Queen Bee (or Alpha Mummy) in Motherland as in every single playground and cafe up and down this fair land at the moment, is the self-appointed arbiter of what constitutes acceptable motherhood, in the same way that Theresa May is the self-appointed arbiter of what constitutes acceptable Britishness. Anyone who won’t comply or doesn’t conform (for which read any mother poor, single, working class, male (they can be 'mothers' too), or just plain working) is brutally excluded:

“It’s wonderful how you can just… switch off from your family, and go to work. [Beat] I just couldn’t do it, I’d suffer too much, I’d die for my children.”

The Queen Bee prowls the boundaries of Motherland, driving mothers who do anything other than mothering to its margins. ‘Good mothering’, in Motherland, means sitting on the big table in a posh cafe while your children play prettily, making plans to go on holiday and talking about home extensions and mani-pedis. 

At the end of the pilot ep, we see the Working Mother, definitively rejected by the Queen, drunkenly linking arms with out-of-work Single Mum, who freezes all her food including cheese and eggs, and who has stoically taken herself to A&E in a taxi after chopping off the top of her finger, trying to make her friend a cheese sandwich – Working Mother having not eaten all day. The final sequence shows Working Mother trying to get Single Mum to take her children on Thursday, so that she herself can go into work.

Working Mother's other arm is linked to that of Stay-at-Home-Dad, utterly emasculated, utterly excluded by the Queen Bee and her servile courtiers. The only other men in (or rather not in) Motherland are: (i) the Working Mother’s husband (calming deciding what kind of coffee he’d like, and putting down the phone on his wife with a breezy “I’m right behind any decision you make, darling”); (ii) the Queen Bee’s husband, phone glued to his head, viciously barking at women and children who enter his home and dare to stray into the living room, as opposed to milling downstairs in the basement kitchen, his trophy wife’s domain.

We dimly begin to realise that the Queen Bee is stranded in the very Motherland she has been forced to create, pushed back into her designer lair by the affluent economic circumstances which allow her to preen in public in the local cafe, and pretend she is looking after her children fulltime, but which really mean she has no purpose in life other than to keep up the appearance of financial success.

The real enemy isn’t Amanda the Queen Bee, and it isn’t even the unpleasant man she married – it’s late capitalism, and its intersection with the English class-based caste system, back in full force after a few hopeful decades of progressive pruning.

A class system with some new layers: those linked arms? The Stay-at-Home-Dad, the Working Mother and the Single Mother? All of these types are outcasts from the new face of the middle class. All three types have been ousted from the class they grew up in, and have been pushed to the margins by the new divisions in our society between rich and poor. All three types thought they were choosing, but were always being chosen for, as Britain has gradually sunk beneath the waves between the Miners’ Strike, and Brexit.

The airbrushed Amanda herself, in this tottering pyramid scheme – the one currently governing our society – can only be sustained on crazy money, the kind of money that can only be earnt in the financial sector itself. Usually by a man.

The whole thing, through the Alice in Wonderland prism of Motherland, can only be sustained on the paradoxical pretence that staying at home to raise children isn’t work. And this is why Amanda and her courtiers are scandalised when Working Mother is discovered eating the children’s spag bol out of the bins, and asks the Queen Bee if she could possibly, like some perverted Oliver Twist… have something to eat.

We can only pretend that ‘looking after children’ isn’t simple unpaid labour if care is dressed up as a perma-party, and exclusively aimed at our little princes and princesses, while the women serving them pretend not to have needs of their own, pretend, essentially, not to exist at all. 

If Amanda has to prepare food for another woman in her own home, then she is no longer the Hostess, but a woman without servants – she is in fact herself the servant. When Working Mother asks for food, she rips a hole in the artifice, and the Real reveals its horrifying head.

The Queen Bee can only maintain the lie that she is in control of her reality and her destiny through intrasexual bullying and hazing. Analogously, and further down the Motherland food chain, Working Mother can only maintain the lie that she is in control when she turns up at her children’s school after the insanity of the school run – and discovers it is half term – by accusing a complete stranger’s child of bullying hers, and then, when this lie is about to be exposed, blaming her own children for manipulation and exaggeration.

All of this social comedy is well observed, as if on some checklist of clichés governing modern women’s lives. Every mother will have had at least one of the experiences documented in Motherland

The wittiest moment in the whole show, however, is when the excluded Single Mother lip synchs the conversation between Queen Bee and Stay-at-Home-Dad – she voices the subtext of their blocked and failed interaction, in which he struggles, manfully, to express solidarity about breastfeeding, and finds himself beaten back by a dominant female primate, all breasts and lips, defending her exclusion zone on the top table in the cafe. 

Single Mum is both Chorus and protagonist in this drama – revealing the workings while pinioned by its structure. I want to see more of her. She might just be the future.

What is, in the end, truly brilliant about Motherland, and gives it the potential to be a new genre of comedy, the Frankenstein offspring of Outnumbered and League of Gentlemen, is the way it veers so crazily between naturalism and the grotesque, the way 'reality' is shown to tip over at any moment from normality into psychodrama in the world of modern mothers. For so many women, that crazy veering is their reality. 

Where British culture salvages something from the wreckage of its own self-destruction is through its comic history – at last, the spirit of Monty Python is coming along to save mothers.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Groundhog Day

Well, once again, it's a delightful day here in Motherloadland. Its early September, Indian Summer, the leaves are on the turn, the tan is fading, the children have skipped off to school in their new uniform and shoes, little faces shining and upturned for new knowledge.

I feel I have been here before. It feels a lot like all the other Septembers I've had in my nearly five decades – I used to be the child skipper, now I am the adult skipper. Wait! Let me reach for an apt, Tim Minchin-flavoured metaphor – my life feels like Groundhog Day.

I myself have just returned from comparing plastic clothes airers in Tescos and John Lewis, paying over good money for the one that looks least likely to break in my hand, and for yet more socks for our son, because he seems to eat them. I've made a coffee (another one!) and I'm just sitting down to finish writing a book.

Only I can't write, because I'm SO BLOODY FURIOUS ALL THE TIME. As I seem to have been since 2003.

Let me give you a cultural flavour of why my inner Furies are off the leash. Again.

Coming soon to a screen near me is the film Captain Fantastic, by all accounts a riveting tale of Swiss Family Robinson meets Bear Grylls meets Frankenstein – a radical libertarian leftist father decides to raise his six children in the woods, to take them close to nature, to teach them to live off-grid, to learn to sustain themselves, and to read Middlemarch by candlelight in the evenings – as we all did in the Good Old Days.

Oddly enough, his muscular eco experiment (one radical step on from muscular Christianity-cum-Thoreau-cum-New World Settler-kumquat) comes a cropper when he has to return to the City, that malign purveyor of all of humanity's ills. Turns out he's forgotten to teach his children how to cooperate with others. He's un-hothoused them.

Qua film, it sounds like a great thought experiment – the perils of extreme parenting! Don't make your kids do maths GCSE aged 10! – but, as usual, the mother, who in most childrearing scenarios, whether woods or suburbs-based, is doing all the work, is silenced.

I sympathise with Viggo Mortensen. I mean, I've tried to raise my kids off-grid from my base in the woodlands of North London for the last thirteen years, but we've only got as far as me yelling at them every day for leaving the TV on standby. My biggest victory is making my son walk to school – obviously when the paedophiles aren't out to get him. Oh – and he can poach an egg.

My husband suggested, lightheartedly, that we watch Motherland on iplayer tomorrow. Poor man. Why does he do it to himself? It sounded Fun – until I read the chatty Guardian review, written, obviously (and so wittily and self-deprecatingly), by a man – a new father! – hilariously terrified by the apocalyptic vision of his wife's future stress.

How marvellous it must be to have a day job in which you review television programmes your wife is too tired to watch, because she is looking after your baby! How deftly ironic that you include this in your review! How hilarious that the 'jokes – punchlines, slapstick, blink-and-you-miss-them visual gags' that apparently feature in Motherland will constitute the actual lived experience of your spouse for the next decade! Because the 'exaggerations' of Motherland sound a lot like my daily reality used to be – until I started to say, hand on heart, and as a loving mother of two, and former management consultant, 'I don't care, do it yourself'. 

Wait until she's whey-faced with it, mate, wait until she's standing screaming on the pavement at her little sweetness, because he is being an arse, and would rather watch television and eat biscuits than walk to a piano lesson. 

Wait until she's crying every evening, wondering why her dutiful and well-executed middle-class education never prepared her to have her career stuffed, her body shafted and shamed, to have complete strangers tut, roll their eyes, or just plain tell her off in the street, to be reduced to endless cooking and tidying and decluttering the family home, frantic with deadlines for endless primary school performances, without a social life, all the while being told she is Having It All, when what it feels like is the unreconstructed 1950s. 

Then come and tell me over a quinoaccino how funny, ironic and post-postmodern Motherland is. 

(Addendum: having now watched Motherland I can vouch for my own hyperbole. Motherload is when hyperbole IS reality in a woman's life. Motherland is supposed to be a comedy, but to me it was a documentary).

Make no mistake – if we have got to the point where our culture is wall-to-wall carpeted with ironic parenting STUFF that is constantly, subtly, hilariously pointing out how hard it is to be a mother, how overlooked, how put down, how competitive, how overworked, what witches and bitches and gossips and sharp-elbows all mothers are – while simultaneously making feeble jokes about how emasculating this is for fathers (Mum on the BBC, Josh Howie's Losing It, Radio 4, How it Works – The Mum, the hilarious faux-Ladybird book lampooning maternal drudgery, Modern Family, Outnumbered)… then we are in trouble

Not to mention – but I've started so I'll finish – today's Woman's Hour offering, the erudite Professor Alison Gopnik, with her new book The Gardener and the Carpenter, informing us (again) that children are Little Scientists, that their play is about hypothesis-testing, about how we need to grow our children like plants in a garden, not put them together like wooden chairs. I know! Bad parents! Beat them with their own woodwork tools. 

Does Alison Gopnik have any idea what it costs to Raise a Child Like a Garden? I understand, exactly, what she is arguing – I used to argue idealistic things like this when I was a researcher in a university writing beautifully-phrased pieces about French literature. Play is marvellous! I still love play! Back then, I imagined myself remaking society as I raised children in a gentle aura of calm nurturing, listening and love.

That was before I became an actual modern mother. Perhaps Professor Alison Gopnik would like to come to my house and help me when I'm trying to make sure my kids play and do the moronic spelling list ready for a test on Wednesday, and focus on extra maths, and that they're off the TV/phone/social BLOODY media and that you've done the weekly shop and that they have clean clothes and enough socks, because they seem to eat them. BECAUSE NO ONE IS HELPING AND EVERYONE IS CRITICISING. Where's my play? Everything in my garden is dying, but nobody's building me any chairs. 

Nothing is changing for women – in fact discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace has actually got worse between 2005 and 2016, and now we're supposed to find it funny, too?

How many feminists does it take to change a society? It doesn't. It take a society to accept that women are female, and not men in dresses or drudges in pinnies. Or stupid.

I think we may have been here before. We're on our second female Prime Minister, first time as tragedy, second time as farce. 

I'm exhausted. I'm furious. I'm experiencing Groundhog Day. Please wake me up when it's all over.