Voices: ‘As a mother’: the worst three words in the English language

If you use that expression, what you are really saying is: ‘As a mother, I have feelings the childless don’t have’  (Getty Images)
If you use that expression, what you are really saying is: ‘As a mother, I have feelings the childless don’t have’ (Getty Images)

I promised myself I wouldn’t write about being childless any more. It’s too upsetting, emotionally exposing myself in this way – and there is always a huge mental price to pay for publicly picking at wounds.

For over 10 years I’ve written about what it’s like not having a baby when you wanted to have a baby, and how society’s attitude towards the childless (ignoring us, othering us, lessening us) is the disgusting icing on an already rotten cake.

Ten years later and nothing has changed. So why put myself through this? No more. From now on, my grieving and fury shall remain private.

And then I saw a tweet from TV presenter Susanna Reid. Her post, about lengthy mental health waiting lists for children and young adults, read: “I cannot understand, as a mother or a journalist, how the government minister responsible can tolerate a situation where young people are waiting THREE YEARS for mental health treatment.”

“As a mother.” Oh my God. If anything is going to make me publicly punch myself in the womb, it’s those three words.

Seriously? She’s “as a mother”-ing mental health? During World Childless Week, no less?

If you use that expression, what you are really saying is: “As a mother, I have feelings the childless don’t have.”

You feel more; you empathise more; you care more; you love more; you’re more emotionally developed; your emotions and reactions mean more; you, basically, are more – and I am less.

“As a mother” sums up pronatalism: worshipping at the altar of motherhood. Mothers are goddesses who know love in a way the childless never will. This rhetoric is especially galling when high-profile women use it. Women who could change conversations. But they don’t. Very sisterly.

Thomasina Miers, founder of the Wahaca chain, said then PM Theresa May had abandoned her fight against childhood obesity because she, May, was not a mother.

Introducing an interview with the aunt of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who drowned in the Mediterranean in 2015, presenter Victoria Derbyshire said: “If you’re a parent you might find this upsetting.” Because, yes, as a non-parent that poor child’s tragic death was the highlight of my week. Even toyed with bunting.

And we all remember Tory MP Andrea Leadsom’s assertion that the no-forward-lineage childless don’t have tangible stakes in this country’s future.

Politicians are the masters and mistresses of this. Responding to that Labour ad claiming Sunak didn’t think paedophiles should be jailed, the PM “as a father”-ed his response. Ooh, “as the father of girls” is a particular favourite among the childless. “As a father of girls… I think rape is bad.” Thanks for clarifying that.

(I could get into “hardworking families” here, but I honestly think you know what I’m going to say — and I honestly think I’ll explode. But I will just mention that Labour’s ‘stronger together for a future where families come first’ has hit me in the polling booth.)

So why do people say “as a mother/father”?

MPs believe it’s vote-catching; broadcasters know it’s emotive; and the others? I don’t know. I do know my friends don’t say it – thank you – and I know many mothers hate it, too. An old pal of mine said: “We don’t see us as apart from women who don’t have children. It’s creating a culture war among women. We cringe when women use it as some sort of qualifier; that we’re more concerned about the world. Ditto ‘As a father’. What about ‘As a human being?’”

Exactly. No one actually says ‘as a human being’ – it would sound ridiculous. The same should be true for those who use parenthood to display their depth of feeling.

You wouldn't say it, would you? For fear of sounding ridiculous.