News Analysis

Thursday 18 September 2014

Mary Kenny: The old-fashioned mammy becoming extinct as society demands equality

Published 25/02/2013 | 04:00

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Mrs Brown might be a truthful template of how we feel about mammies

Mother's Day is coming up in a few weeks – I know this because the shops are full of sentimental merchandise they're hoping to flog off to sons and daughters feeling vaguely guilty about not paying enough attention to their mothers.

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But with a question mark continually hovering over child benefit and the coming change in the Constitution which deletes the mother's special place in the home, perhaps our cultural attitudes to mothers are rather more ambivalent than the soppy Mother's Day consumerist stuff would suggest.

The runaway success of Brendan O'Carroll's 'Mrs Brown' might be a more truthful template of how we feel about mammies: comic, coarse, and domineering of everyone around them. Ha. Ha.

The problem with a written Constitution is that it will seem out of date 30 or 40, let alone 76, years after it is written: how canny of the British to have an unwritten Constitution so that evolutionary cultural shifts can take place almost without anyone noticing. For what seems up-to-the-minute in one generation will seem old hat to another: the allusion in the Irish Constitution to the Holy Trinity was thought progressively ecumenical in 1937 – now some consider it offensive to secularists or non-Christians.

Article 41, Clause 2, which stipulates that "in particular the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved" would have appeared protective and enlightened to a largely agricultural people, where a woman's presence and industry in the home added immeasurable value to the family enterprise (and the only women who objected in 1937 were an elite band of urban-dwellers), but today, it's interpreted as an offence to the principle of equality.

Why should a woman be "recognised" within the home? Doesn't it seem to confine a woman to the home, as though failing to acknowledge her capacity or potential outside of the home? Thus it must be abolished.

Child benefit, too, was first conceived, in Britain, by a group of high-minded Fabians who felt that the mother in the home, being a dependent with no income of her own, should be awarded children's allowance money (the subtext being that a selfish or feckless husband could not drink it away). This, too, was a kindly and protective idea, but it doesn't chime with modern ideas of equality, where we aspire to the notion that both men and women are earning their own incomes, so it is patronising to assume that women need state support more.

Thus, all governments, all over Europe, are edging towards challenging the now archaic concept of a children's allowance, or child benefit, being paid to the mother.

There is even a – to my mind, rather mean-spirited – lobby which calls for the withdrawal of child benefit if mothers are themselves "irresponsible" or "over-breeding": there are current demands to deprive a mother of 11 children in Gloucestershire, Heather Frost, of her child benefit because of her "irresponsible" breeding habits.

The 'Dragons' Den' panelist and multi-millionairess Deborah Meaden denounced Mrs Frost as "totally irresponsible" on the BBC at the weekend for having such a large family – and received an enthusiastic round of applause.

Motherhood does not sit easily with modern ideas of "equality" for the simple reason that it is difficult for mothers to be equal, especially in the marketplace, when they have the care of children. And yet that is what we aspire to, now: Sweden has just introduced a regulation that the phrase "pregnant women" be replaced, in all official language, with "pregnant people", as though men and women had equal access to biological pregnancy – a goal no doubt cherished by the advocates of equality.

Indeed, "pregnant people" already appears on notices in the London Underground, where travellers are urged to cede seats to "people who are pregnant". No agricultural society, so habituated to the matching of the cow with the bull, the filly with the stallion, would ever use such unisex language. But urban societies move away from nature's imperatives, and come to imagine that everything is under human control.

Motherhood is now seen much more as a "choice" than a natural outcome of the union of male and female; this has given it some of the livery of a lifestyle choice, and there is anger and frustration where the "choice" is not easily achieved – thus the lobbies to make IVF a "right" for women over 40 and for same-sex couples alike. And with the "lifestyle choice" option of motherhood, will go the eventual withdrawal of those old-style benefits, which assumed that mothers were disadvantaged in the workplace, and the deletion from any constitutions or charters which suggest that the woman in the home has a special place which deserves honouring.

So we get the rise of the merchandised Mother's Day instead. I will, of course, appreciate any card that comes my way for the occasion; yet I wouldn't entirely object to a little public recognition that all the skivvying performed in my home contributes to the common good.

Irish Independent

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