Anxious Mothers and Yummy Mummies

I research gender representation in children’s books and its change over time. The huge imbalance of representation in favour of male characters has been discussed extensively but for me personally, one of the most fascinating, though not so surprising, findings was the overwhelming frequency of occurrence of the word ‘mother’ and ‘Mum’ in children’s books. A mother is the most frequent female character type in the 19th century books and remains to be also in contemporary texts for children. While in the 19th century ‘mother’ occurs with similar frequency as ‘father’ and when they are mentioned together the order ‘father and mother’ is the established norm, in books published after the year 2000 it is ‘Mum’ that is more frequent than ‘Dad’ and ‘Mum and Dad’ has become the norm.

However, mothers or mums are hardly ever the story protagonists. Sometimes we don’t even learn their names. Their defining feature, linguistically and otherwise, is that they are somebody’s mother. They perform important background work, both physically and psychologically. They are often physically absent and idealised. The way mothers are constructed textually relies on the generally accepted, as if universal, knowledge what mothers are, or should be, like. If they do not conform to this set of expected beliefs, they become “bad” mothers.  The most frequent adjectives that occur with mothers are dear, poor, old, dead and good. Mothers also seem to be in children’s books more immune – than other female characters – to descriptions and evaluations in terms of beauty.

In the 19th century, mothers were perceived primarily as moral guardians. The “moral superiority” ideology of the Victorian middle-classes guaranteed by the mother figure formed a strong social ideology that maintained the gendered social hierarchy that still survives, even flourishes today. One of the images that embodies the Victorian mother is the ‘anxious mother’. This phrase would typically occur, for example, in the newspaper advertisement sections as the following shot from the 1852 The Times shows.
Another ‘anxious mother’ can be seen in the following beautiful painting by G. W. Joy (1895), The Bayswater Omnibus. Joy himself described the people in the bus as follows:

“In the farthest corner sits a poor anxious mother of children, her foot propped on an untidy bundle; beside her, full of kindly thoughts about her, sits a fashionable young woman; next to her the City man, absorbed in his paper; whilst a little milliner, bandbox in hand, presses past the blue-eyed, wholesome looking nurse in the doorway.”

But in today’s media, the picture of mothers has dramatically changed. The focus has shifted from the mothering roles - being anxious about their children - to mothers being “anxious” about themselves and overwhelmingly about their bodies, see e.g. the ‘celebrity mums’ section of Hello! Magazine.

Mothers are no longer so much anxious – at least not discursively – but they have become ‘yummy’. See the following examples from various sources:
In 2006, the phrase ‘yummy mummy’ even entered the Oxford English Dictionary and is defined as ‘a young attractive mother’. Lynn O’Brien Hallstein in her book ‘Bikini-ready Moms’ (2015) shows how the rhetoric construction of ‘good motherhood’ has changed through celebrity mother profiling. A maternal body – pregnant & post-partum – is constructed as undesirable. It needs to be excessively controlled. The body must, even during the pregnancy and post-partum, conform to the contemporary body ideal imperative. The body must remain slim with only a small and well defined ‘bump’ throughout the whole pregnancy. “Gaining” the body back – implying it was lost or sacrificed for some time - after delivery as quickly as possible is then essential.

Photo by Dakota Corbin on Unsplash
This, of course, speaks to those privileged mothers who can actually afford to devote time and money to the body work required. As O’Brien Hallstein and others stress, this is a substantial “redefinition of motherhood for the nation’s young women”. Young women who are privileged and have been until now used to “having it all” – that is until becoming mothers. The maternal body now becomes the symbolic obstruction to the “über-achieving” female and mother. While some mothers may be able to control their bodies, in fact erasing the maternal body only denies that it is the “unchanged values in the private sphere” that really continue to be the challenge.

There are about 2 billion mothers in the world.In the UK, close to three-quarters of women (4.9 million) with dependent children are now in work. That is lots of women. Most of these women will encounter far more threating issues on their motherhood journey than a few undesirable pounds of their weight. They certainly do not need to add concerns about their body on to their load. The quest for perfect motherhood is much more complicated.

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I would like to thank Prof. Heather Widdows for alerting me to the ‘Bikini-ready Moms’ book and to Rosie White for directing me towards the ‘The Bayswater Omnibus’ painting. 

 Dr Anna Cermakova is a Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham and Charles University, Prague. She is a corpus linguist and her current  research agenda focuses on gender in children’s literature.

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