The Blog

Death By Cupcake: The Fetishization of Motherhood

Children are treated like precious and breakable artefacts and motherhood has become a competitive and rarified sport.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that as having a child has become an unattainable option for many women and couples, the trappings of motherhood have become fetishised.

From the designer buggies (a Range Rover buggy anyone?) to the cult of the yummy mummy and her yoga-flat tummy (what a ridiculous pressure to put on a woman who's just given birth to a new human being!) to the mini-me designer clothing ranges and babyccinos (cappuccino without coffee, if you were wondering), children are treated like precious and breakable artefacts and motherhood has become a competitive and rarified sport. This is tough on mothers, tough on their partners and tough on all women. I hope it's good for the kids...

There are parts of London, and in every middle-class district of every town in the UK, that have become, in a sense, ghettos for middle-class mothers and their highly prized offspring. These districts often get given the nickname 'Nappy Valley' by the locals because of the sheer number of young families that move into a usually run-down part of town (often near a park or within proximity to good state schools), transforming the culture, demographics and economics of the area.

If a volcanic eruption were to freeze one of these areas in time like Pompeii, future anthropologists might conclude that it was a society dominated by a fertility cult, one in which men over the age of forty were either banished or sacrificed.

In reality, a great many of the men over forty are out of these areas during in the day working in financial services or the media to bring in the income to pay for the fetishized offerings to the child deity. Any other men under forty in the area work in local service industries like coffee bars, organic food stores, delivery services and building renovation projects.

The reality is that the rising cost of living has meant that what would have been a fairly 'standard' middle-class upbringing for these parents when they were kids is now a luxury that has to be strived for. It's a prize quite out of the reach of most young professionals as it requires a dual-income, or one stonking income and an early lucky investment in a rising property market (which is in itself become something that young professionals cannot afford to do unless they have significant financial help with their deposit). And it's a fantasy for the fashionably unshaven young men working in the coffee shops, living hand-to-mouth and hoping that their music career will take off one day soon. Or for the single women teachers in the local schools who have to supplement their full-time job with tutoring to even attempt to stay in the same social circle as their property-owning married girlfriends. Thirty-five, forty, their eggs going stale, exhausted from overwork, waiting for a middle-class prince to come and rescue them from... well, a lifetime of making ends meet and watching others have the family life that they always thought would be their future too.

And the mothers? Well, many of them will have been professional women and a good deal of them will have had their own property before they married, the equity in which, combined with that of their partner, has enabled them together to be able to buy one of the down-at-heel 'family homes' in the area to 'do it up'. And many of them, unless their partner is exceptionally 'high-status' (ie: an investment banker or very successful media executive or entrepreneur) will return to work when their children are safely launched into their school career, or perhaps a little earlier. This is considered to be an undesirable outcome, which may come as quite a surprise to some of their own mothers, who longed to train for a 'serious' profession and work outside the home and passed that aspiration onto their daughters.

But what kind of work will the Mothers return to? Well, unless they can afford the usurously high-cost of childcare (and cope with the endless Daily Mail style brickbats on how they are 'ruining' their children's life by doing so), they'll try to work from home, perhaps by starting an online or local family-oriented business such as an organic clothing line, a music lesson agency or selling artisan-made products such as soap or cupcakes by mail order. These businesses, bankrolled by rising property values and underwritten by their partner's salaries, rarely contribute back to society in ways that these highly educated and experienced professional woman are capable of, or perhaps might 'choose' if there were other options available. In Britain, we call them the Mumpreneurs.

But these 'choices', like many of women's 'choices' around having children or raising them are severely limited by our current social and economic set up. Until we have high-quality state-subsidised childcare for all as they do in Sweden, women's (and parents) choices will remain curtailed. Being a 'stay at home Mum' is touted as 'fun', yet surely there must be many highly trained professional women who long to stretch their intellectual and economic muscles again and get back out into the professional world but who have to 'fake' their reluctance to do so, less the furies of the Daily Mail descend upon them?

It is not the actual choices women make that I am trying to focus on here, but the reality that many of those 'choices' are in fact constrained by an economic, social and political reality which many people barely realise is there. It's like asking a fish whether they like the water: "What's water?" says the fish.

And don't even get me started on cupcakes... a cultural fetish par-excellence containing so many mixed messages I'm surprised the ovens don't explode with the effort of combining them!

As a celebratory icon of the repressed, housebound and economically dependent 1950s woman (did you learn nothing from MadMen?) cupcakes have become a fetish accessory of the new 'stay at home' mother, or those women that yearn to be her. Who'd have thought that for all the advances we've made as women since the 60s, competitive baking would ever come back into fashion!

The doyenne of 1950's domestic style (and with an MBE from the Queen to prove it) and an icon for the wannabe stay at home mother is Cath Kidston, whose floral accessories and Enid Blyton throwback designs hark to an pre-feminist era when mothering was all women were really 'allowed' to do unless they were infertile or radically counter-cultural. It would seem that Kidston herself is childless by circumstance, but like most women who are in the public eye and don't have children, she doesn't explain exactly why. Fair enough - such things are a private matter. I did hear her interviewed on Desert Island Discs on 24 April 2011, and she was a little more forthcoming on the matter, but I can find nothing in print.

Knowing the pain of involuntary childlessness myself, I can quite understand why Kidston's considerable talent as a designer and businesswoman found its niche with a nostalgic look inspired by the 'glory days' of fifties childhood and motherhood (Kidston herself was born in 1958 and speaks often of her very happy childhood). In the latter years of my own marriage, desperately unhappy (yet quite unaware of how much), and after almost a decade of trying to conceive, I nested neurotically, developing a major fixation on bed linen from The White Company (another home lifestyle brand that presents an ideal image of a life where everyone seems to 'have it together'). Recently, unpacking some stuff from storage ten-years on from my divorce, I was astonished to find neatly-ironed and razor-sharp folded bedlinen 'sets' tied together with ribbon and labelled with hand-written brown parcel labels. These days I can count on one hand the number of times a year I get the ironing board out, and it certainly isn't for bedlinen. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so I smiled wryly instead. These days my head is more together than my bedlinen, which has got to be a good thing. Nice bedlinen though.

Reading press interviews with Kidston, her life story contains factors that many circumstantial childlessness women can sympathise and identify with: the death of her much-loved father when she was a teenager; a job that turned into a career (perhaps partly because she didn't have children and therefore was able to put in the insane hours that it takes to get a business off the ground); a partner with children already. Kidston also heartbreakingly lost her own mother to breast cancer at 62 only to be diagnosed with the same at 36. These are the kinds of life 'circumstances' that makes 'choice' far from straightforward when it comes to becoming a mother.

One of the dictionary definitions of fetish is 'an object of unreasonably excessive attention or reverence', and also 'an object that is believed to have magical or spiritual powers'.

Motherhood, children and the trappings of both have become a fetish. And this is very odd, very telling and a sign of our times.

I send my love to all the mothers in all the 'Nappy Valley's' of the world, and wish them, their partners and their offspring happy and fulfilling lives. I just wish that the opportunity to mother wasn't denied to so many women I meet because, perhaps like Kidson, too many unlucky breaks got in the way.

And cupcakes? Well they're just children's cakes in Sweden.

It's the only European country that reversed its declining birth rates through the introduction of state subsidised childcare with the result that 50% of the workforce are women, it is the country with the highest proportion of women on the boards of top companies, and parenting culture is one where both men and women share domestic and childrearing duties equally.

It was February 1969 when Carol Hamish presented a paper which became known as The Personal is Political and which became a key text within the feminist movement. And here we are, almost half a century later, fetishizing cupcakes.

The personal still is, political.