There are two topics of conversation in the world which are fascinating to the speaker but deathly boring to everyone else: 1) What happened in your dream last night, and 2) Your baby. Yep, mentioning your kids to a stranger in a bar-type scenario makes people assume you are devoid of personality. Just another mum bore, heading home to catch up on Mumsnet. In fact, the word has almost become an insult: "This haircut makes me look like a mum"; "That jacket is very mum"; "It's okay if you are tired/ look like sh*t /are boring, because you're a mum!"
But is it warranted? And do fathers get the same flack? "You do lose your cool a bit,” admits Phoebe Jones, a 35-year-old mother of one. "Even though I work and still see my friends, I've definitely lost a bit of status and a bit of excitement about me. Mums are inevitably removed from their social life, withdrawn into the home and not as up to date."
Despite the Instamums who seem to have the whole package – they have their kids but also go out and work – many mums are tied to the home, partly because childcare and babysitting are so expensive. Daycare costs for 1-year-olds in England have risen up to seven times faster than wages over the last decade. Even though the government provides working parents of 3- and 4-year-olds with 30 free hours of childcare, during term time, getting a job that fits with nursery pick-up times can be a struggle.
Okay, so unless you're loaded, maybe there is some truth in it. It's not easy to attend a hype fashion event, Insta from the afterparty and still be up at 6am with your baby. So is being a 'cool' mum partly down to wealth and status? Quite possibly.
According to Charlotte Faircloth, lecturer in the department of social science at UCL, there’s a lot of ambivalence around motherhood. “On the one hand we really hold it up very high on a pedestal, and on the other, it gets denigrated very easily,” she says. “Being ‘just’ a mum when someone asks what you do is still seen as a bit of a conversation killer.” Sharon Hays, author of The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, links this ambivalence to the fact that parenting is held up as the key area of social life that isn’t governed by the relentless pursuit of profit in an otherwise pretty harsh capitalist system.
Tony Thorne, language consultant at King's College London, agrees. “We're now in a hyper competitive, materialist society whose 'values' are subscribed to by nearly all age groups, so being considered dull, square, unfashionable or undynamic are crimes against aspirationalism," he says.
Thorne also thinks it could be a generational thing, with the different generations prone to snarking at each other. He points out that the old-fashioned term 'mumsy' to describe a frumpy, dowdy item of clothing or someone mired in domesticity has long had negative connotations. "Doing down on mums is about dissing the middle-aged, not only as boring, but as unglamorous and overprotective."
Although terms such as 'centrist dad', 'dad-bod' and 'man-shed' are used to label middle-aged men, out of touch with the rest of the world, stay-at-home dads often become the centre of attention for doing something that is considered mundane when women do it. "Fathers who engage in the day-to-day care of infant children are highly valued in wider society," says Caroline Gatrell, a senior lecturer at the University of Lancaster. In fact, it's almost seen as heroic. According to Katherine Twamley from UCL's department of social science, research shows that most men who take a greater childcare role are even quite ‘evangelical’ about it, and therefore very vocal about their experiences around others.
“Because men taking a greater or more equal role in parenting is unusual, they get quite a bit of positive attention around it,” she says. "Women are under pressure to be present at work and present at home. There is not much respect in contemporary society for the full-time mother role, but there is not respect either for a full-time working mother, nor for a part-time working mother."
Mark Green, a 35-year-old dad of one, admits that, unlike women, when men take on the childcare it is often seen as progressive and interesting. "I know one guy who is a stay-at-home dad and local councillor and brings his child to meetings. It makes him seem quite heroic, but for a woman to get that kind of praise she'd have to be combining childcare with something extreme, such as running a company or giving a TED talk."
Perhaps it's time to rethink this generalisation of mothers. It shouldn't be that when you become a mum you are expected to lose your personality. Isn't it time we stopped labelling parents altogether? Bad mum, good mum, young mum, 'just' a mum? No, simply a person who is a parent as well.