Julie Burchill

In praise of bad mothers

In praise of bad mothers
Mothers of famous personalities who were guests of honour at a Mother's Day lunch in London, held by the Greeting Card and Calendar Association. Picture credit: Getty
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It’s Mother’s Day and, once again, I muse on how little some friends really know one. I never expect anything in a friendship that I can’t return – hence I do not look for loyalty or kindness – but the only area in which I am ceaselessly short-changed is in the business of being seen as one truly is. Michel Polac may have opined that ‘To be loved is to accept to be mistaken for who you are not’, but I like someone who sees me clearly. You can slander my reputation and I won’t turn a hair (I’ll probably put you on the payroll), but if you dare insinuate at this time of year that I must be feeling mis because of my dismal record on that front, I will immediately dismiss you as a sentimental half-wit with the perception of a pit-pony.

Because I’m keen on philanthropy and volunteering, some friends insist on telling me I am caring – ‘No, I was a coke fiend for thirty years and I need some way to make my hippocampus light up!’ I retort. I used to think my lack of soppiness meant that I had a little something missing, but increasingly I think I’ve got a little something extra. Recently finding a Tweet from some seat-sniffer who objected to my admiration for Israel, ‘I hope your stressed about your dead son’, I couldn’t resist pinging back just the one word: ‘you’re’. But Mother’s Day brings all the sympathy ghouls out, searching for the only sort of revelry they’re capable of – the Pity Party. These will be the weirdos who take the trouble to send one of the vast array of empathetic cards expressing sympathy for – deep breath – mothers who have lost children, those who have lost mothers, those who have strained mother relationships, those who have strained children relationships and those yearning to be mothers. (I bet they’d all prefer a lovely bottle of Mother’s Ruin, you ambulance-chasing cheapskates.) With my maternal track record – one abandoned son, three abortions, one suicide – I daresay I’d be the target market for quite a few of these mopey missives. But the only feeling I get on this day is a great feeling of relief that motherhood can never happen to me again.

No doubt empaths (cry-babies high on their own supply) would love to trace my coldness back to some childhood trauma. But I had lovely parents – and I can track my blasé disaster for motherhood right back to my adolescence, when I decided to be mindlessly cruel to my mum just for fun. ‘Father, has it occurred to you that Mother may have lesbian tendencies?’ I would smirk, fending off her attempts to show me physical affection. In later years we made friends and would carouse like teenage girls, but we were once on a train from her home in Bristol to my home on the coast when she saw someone reading a copy of the Daily Mail, the front page of which bore a photograph of me above the screaming headline ‘IS JULIE BURCHILL BRITAIN’S WORST MOTHER?’. Her little face – she turned to me like a hurt child, and at last I embraced her.

It’s a vale of tears and a thankless task – there’s a reason rich people send their children away to school as soon as they can crawl. Such is the impotent fury of parental drudges who can’t afford to do so at the wasteland of teddy bears they find themselves in that they will go for the jugular of any brave soul who breaks ranks. When Rachel Cusk published her book ‘A Life’s Work: On Becoming A Mother’, she received such a reception from respectable reviewers that you’d have thought she was Rose West. As Cusk pointed out to The Guardian: 'Again and again people judged the book not as readers but as mothers, and it was judgment of a sanctimoniousness whose like I had never experienced… it was part of what I had found intolerable in the public culture of motherhood, the childcare manuals and the toddler groups, the discourse of domestic life, even the politics of birth itself. In motherhood the communal was permitted to prevail over the individual, and the result, to my mind, was a great deal of dishonesty…it used to be incomprehensible to me that women of the time attacked early feminists so violently, that they loudly objected to their own sex being given the vote. It isn't any more.'

There is a modern way out of maternal misery and that is to monetise motherhood. The Yummy Mummy has given birth to the Reality Milf – Sam Faeirs and Ferne McCann from TOWIE – who make far more cash from breastfeeding tips than they would have ever done from getting ‘em out. Reading the grim stats on the effects of lockdown homeschooling on the mental health of mothers, how must they feel looking at photos of these golden creatures romping with their cherubic offspring – and getting paid mightily for it! Still, if they feel like failures, they can always look at me. I’m a great writer, an amusing wife (three times) and a very fun friend. But as a parent, I’ve veered wildly between Medea and Mother Christmas – surely not a good way to raise a child. But then, nobody's perfect. Happy Mother’s Day, suckers!