I have nothing against a light summer novel. In fact, I like a light summer novel. I certainly don’t want to be the dangerous and humorless individual who attacks a light summer novel on ideological grounds. Still, I can’t help but think that Slummy Mummy by Fiona Neill—based on a popular column in the London Times and anointed by Anna Wintour with an excerpt in Vogue—articulates some of the more inane and pernicious attitudes about motherhood currently floating around the culture.
Perhaps if this book were more fun, one would be less alert to its messages. But as it stands, one feels the effort behind the sentences, the creaking, belabored mechanism of the humor. Worse, one feels the lunch with an agent in which somebody said over nicoise salads: It’s Bridget Jones meets I Don’t Know How She Does It!Slummy Mummy, however,lacks the energy and originality of its predecessors, both of which had a fresh voice, an exuberance, that Slummy Mummy often seems to be imitating. The premise of the book is simple: Lucy Sweeney, ex-news producer, now a stay-at-home mom with three boys in a wealthy London suburb, is having trouble getting through her day.
The storyline of Slummy Mummy is so cartoonish, one gets the impression that cartoons were on all the time in the house in which this book was written. How else to explain some of the plot? There is a scene in which Lucy has yesterday’s underwear bunched up in her jeans, and everyone sees it! There is a scene in which she gets stuck in a window because her “bum” can’t fit through! There is a scene in which she accidentally sends out an e-mail to the entire class list about her sex life with her husband! Lucy Sweeney is meant to be charmingly harried, disarmingly normal, deliberately unglamorous: a woman, we are supposed to think, just like us.
And yet there is in this celebration of the ordinary, messy, overweight mom a kind of smugness, a vanity about the most banal aspects of motherhood, that is slightly off-putting. All the “flaws” that make Lucy so endearing—She finds laundry overwhelming! She comes to school drop-off in her pajamas!—are meant to read as virtues. The ostensible self-deprecation of the novel is in fact a form of self-congratulation. This book is supposed to extol the family, to be a celebration of the humble, of hearth and home, and yet what it does is something else: It is the literature of compromise, of mediocrity, of accepting as a heroine a kind of lumpish, unambitious, barely competent mom. The by-now-familiar point is that it is hard to take care of small children and organize a family: This ex-producer of a national news show can barely manage it. But ladies, let’s be honest, is it that hard? Aren’t there some things on earth that are harder?
Who does the celebrity dad, the American movie star with a child in Lucy’s son’s class, become enchanted with? The Slummy Mummy, of course! In fact, his fleeting contact with her ordinariness, her down-to-earth qualities, causes him to change his life. As he puts it: “I think I need a period somewhere remote with my wife and children, to try and find the ground again.”
To anyone who reads middlebrow women’s fiction with any regularity, these themes have become deadeningly common: the trials of domestic life, the humdrum nature of marriage, and the secret joy of its greatness. As “chick lit” shifts to “mommy lit,” fantasies of single life give way to romanticizations of domesticity. Life, we are being told, is the coming together of mundane routine and perfect, incongruous moments of love. (For a more artful and elegant version of this point, see anything by Helen Simpson.) And yet, there is also in such writing a settling, a compromise, a deeply conservative strain: It valorizes Lucy Sweeney’s view that any attempt at life outside of the family is somehow selfish or misguided. Her single or divorced friends, we see, are involved in unsavory situations: one sleeping with a married man with four children, the other involved in a threesome. At one point the babysitter dares to presume she might find a way to balance both work and kids. Lucy marvels at her folly: “There is no point in trying to explain the incompatibility of motherhood with all that has preceded it.”
This same babysitter is—ah the wild liberties and freedom of youth!—reading a book. This causes Lucy to reflect:
“I think about Polly doing her essay. Where has all the information gone that I retained during that intensive period from school to university, I wonder. Is it lost forever? For sure the decline began in the child-bearing years, when whole new areas of specialist interest opened up. Strollers, for example. A few years ago, I could have written a long essay on strollers. Securing our first took longer than buying a car. It required more viewings than buying our house…we sat down in a meeting room with various catalogs, hoping that between us we had collated and analyzed enough information to come to some conclusions. But after half an hour, we were still involved in hefty debate over the issues such as weight, forward-folding designs versus collapsible options, sporty or rural.”
And here perhaps is the problem with this mommy literature, and perhaps at certain times with this way of life: Why is the overintelligent woman applying herself to strollers? Anyone who has had a small child knows this feeling of training her intellect on very minor material choices, and yet isn’t it something to fight against? Isn’t it something to worry about, rather than a cute or endearing anecdote about family love? What is being celebrated here is the mindlessness of a certain type of child-rearing, a mindlessness we as a culture are currently infatuated with. Because this is a book in which everything is spelled out. Lucy puts it this way: “Feminism might have come a long way, but women are still the ones who make the difficult decisions.” But in fact one comes out of deep immersion in Lucy’s daily life thinking this: It’s not actually so hard to be her, and it is certainly not that interesting.
We as a culture have a tendency to romanticize the stay-at-home mother, to simultaneously ignore and revere her, and it seems to me that books like this are complicit in this tendency. Of course the intimate decision to stay at home with one’s children is a fine and honorable one; but the moralism surrounding this choice, the secret, enveloping narcissism, the inability to imagine anything outside, is what is unsettling here.
One emerges from this book wondering: Would it be so bad if the slummy mummies put on some lipstick, or better yet took out a battered old paperback copy of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystiqueand started to read?