“There’s an army of mums out there, [and] they’re mad as hell,” MP Stella Creasy recently told parliament. Damn straight. If motherhood made me political, this year took my rage, put it in a rocket and fired it into the stratosphere. I am hopping mad.
I’m not going to pretend I gaily skipped through life before motherhood thinking everything was rosy. Having worked in the charity sector for over a decade, I was well aware of inequality and suffering.
But motherhood made me realise everything is political, and this year has felt particularly grinding. It feels like we’re in a permacrisis.
Coming after the entrées of Brexit and Covid, you must forgive us if we’re a little sick to our stomachs. As one shitstorm moves on, another follows; a merciless onslaught of faeces (NB. I’m talking about politics, but I’m aware I could just as easily be talking about motherhood).
Our latest nadir is this cost of living crisis. When a term like this is constantly bandied about, it becomes abstract and meaningless – but this crisis is actually a sliding scale from a niggling slip in living standards to terrifying scenes of hunger, unemployment, debt, homelessness, destitution and despair.
And the awful reality is that many of us are just a few unstable Jenga pieces away from collapse.
Reports of the mum who was hospitalised twice for malnutrition as she couldn’t afford to feed herself as well as her kids, and of children so hungry they are eating rubbers at school chill me to the bone.
The failings at maternity units which have left families grieving for babies who died ‘unnecessarily’; children dying in mould-ridden homes; nurses and midwives working in unsafe and traumatising environments; food bank use soaring.
On and on it goes. The sectors stretched to life-threatening breaking point are predominantly female: nursing, social care, teaching, childcare – in fact, caregiving in all its forms.
As we lurch from one heartbreaking story to the next, it is hard not to become overwhelmed. But if there were ever a time to stand up and be counted, it’s now. Motherhood can be the catalyst that enables you to leave your comfort zone and do things you never thought possible.
“Motherhood radicalises women,” says Joeli Brearley, founder of the campaign organisation Pregnant then Screwed. I’m with her. I remember how it happened for me: alone on the postnatal ward, bloody, bruised and shell-shocked. I had the sudden realisation that I didn’t matter.
The casual disregard for women post-birth lit a fire in my belly that ultimately led me to postnatal care campaigning. I’d love to say I helped move the needle, but since the pandemic, the maternal mortality rate has gone up and there remains a huge gap in postnatal care which leaves women feeling abandoned.
The champions in this area are Tinuke Awe and Clotilde Rebecca Abe of Five x More, who in 2020 launched a campaign to draw attention to the shocking statistics on black maternal health outcomes: at the moment, the risk of Black women dying is almost four times higher than white women when giving birth.
“Motherhood gives you extra strength to get stuff done.”
Awe and Abe are clear that when they see a problem, they seek a solution: they turned their shock and disappointment about the disparities in maternal outcomes between Black and white women into action.
Because of them, there is much broader coverage of the issue, an active All Party Parliamentary Group, debates in parliament and scores of women reporting better experiences after using their resources.
“Motherhood gives you extra strength to get stuff done,” Abe tells me, and Awe agrees. “We want to make things better for our children and, by default, we make it better for everyone else too,” she says.
Abe and Awe, who also create and distribute diverse educational resources, were at the forefront of the March of the Mummies protest in London this October. They were marching with tens of thousands of women (and men!) who are tired of the inability of the government to fix our childcare crisis.
Abe, who worked as a teacher, says it took her a while to realise it was the system, not her, making it impossible to pay for childcare: “I thought it was me. I thought I was choosing the wrong jobs.” It turns out she was not alone in this – the march highlighted how the poorly-funded childcare sector has resulted in record of numbers of women leaving the workforce.
Brearley, who organised the march, says: “Mothers are livid, they have had enough of institutions and policies that consistently neglect them or put them in dangerous situations.
“We have seen a rise in women engaged in our activities... we had a huge turnout at the March of the Mummies, and 67% of those attending said they had never been to a protest before, or even considered themselves ‘the protesting type’.”
“You’re not a feminist are you?” laments my own mum as I bang on at her again about women’s health issues. Oh,mum, to borrow from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “We should all be feminists.”
Where would we be without women like Creasy, reminding us recently (under the long shadow of the overturning of Roe vs Wade in the US) that MP Jacob Rees Mogg does not believe a woman should have access to an abortion, even if she has been raped or the victim of incest. We cannot be complacent.
It’s time to get political. From the March of the Mummies to the March with Midwives, women are taking to the streets to ensure their voices are heard. Mothers Rise Up, who are calling for faster, bolder action on climate change, took their protest to Downing Street in November to highlight the small matter of saving the planet. They are taking the nurturing of the next generation to the next level.
There are glimmers of light ahead. “We can be angry and hopeful,” says Brearley. “With elections coming up there will be a new childcare offering.”
Abe and Awe mention that there has been talk in parliament for the first time about target-setting to reduce maternal deaths. I have heard whispers of more progress on postnatal health checks.
And of course most recently it was announced childcare is finally going to be treated as “national infrastructure”, meaning councils will be able to access funds for local childcare services and facilities.
But it’s no time to be complacent. We need to keep up the pressure, on everything from healthcare to a liveable planet.
Let’s channel our anger and despair with these words from writer and campaigner Sophie Walker: “You know how to do this, you have had the best possible training. Motherhood shapes the best activists. Together we can build the world that we want to see.”
See you on the streets – and at the ballot box.
How to channel your rage
If you’re angry – and you should be – you are not powerless. There are things you can do right now:
- Register to vote – with voter ID coming into play, make sure you and those in your community have it to hand
- Write to your MP (always put your address on the correspondence)
- Sign petitions (any with 100k+ signatures are debated in parliament)
- Join a political party, a union, a march
- Join or donate to organisations effecting change, from those listed above to Elect Her, Mums for Lungs, Make Birth Better, and your local food banks.
Lyanne Nicholl is the author of Your Postnatal Body – a top to toe guide to caring for yourself after pregnancy and birth