Modern mothers? You slum it and I’ll play it

PUBLISHED: 10:54 09 February 2007 | UPDATED: 14:27 07 September 2010

Bridget Galton meets the creator of a new heroine for today s disorganised, stressed, disaster-prone mums SEXY domesticated dads, yummy mummies and slummy mummies are among the characters who populate Fiona Neill s successful column in The Times. Ficti

Bridget Galton meets the creator of a new heroine for today's disorganised, stressed, disaster-prone mums

SEXY domesticated dads, yummy mummies and slummy mummies are among the characters who populate Fiona Neill's successful column in

The Times.

Fictional Hampstead housewife Lucy Sweeney is the kind of stay-at-home mum Bridget Jones would perhaps be if she and Mark Darcy settled down in the suburbs.

The reassuringly disorganised Lucy bakes discus-flat cakes for the school fete, stuffs parking fines to the back of the drawer, and harbours a crush on a

fellow parent.

Just as Bridget's creator Helen Fielding caught the zeitgeist of self-doubting single urban women more than a decade ago, so Neill comically articulates the dismay among Jones's generation confronting the have-it-all myth of motherhood and career as they pound the domestic treadmill.

Unable to combine 12-hour days producing Newsnight with mothering three sons, Lucy has swapped cajoling cabinet ministers into facing Jeremy Paxman for the school run and a mountainous laundry pile.

Her hilarious daily domestic disasters, struggles with her new identity, and marital strife are underpinned by Neill's perceptive social commentary and a humane philosophy that sets her above most post-natal fiction writers.

Neill, who lives in Hampstead with her husband and three children, has developed Lucy's character in a book, The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy.

She invented the term as an antidote to the pressure on modern mums to be perfect.

"All the images portrayed in newspapers of yummy mummies with washboard stomachs and well-turned-out children looking beautiful can only be maintained with an army of domestic help. The truth is, whether you are a working mum or a stay-at-home mum, it's a muddle and a juggle," says Neill, who gave up assistant editing The Times magazine to work freelance from home.

Lucy is Neill's plea for tolerance and solidarity among mothers in an age where motherhood has become professionalised by a generation of career women poring over books by parenting gurus, setting absurdly high standards on everything from organic food to environmentally friendly nappies.

"Mothers are very hard on themselves and on each other. Throughout history there is a dominant culture about how people are expected to bring up children. At the moment we are in a pretty anxious time and it's very easy to become neurotic. But I have learned never to judge people by appearances because you never know the undercarriage of people's lives. You should be sympathetic towards people even if they have a very, very flat stomach and weigh less than they did when they were 20."

The idea for her column came from discussing surreally comic domestic mishaps with her friends - and the way everything can go pear shaped in a moment.

Neill, who believes the best antidote for neuroses is laughter, said one friend set light to her tot's car seat with a discarded crafty cigarette, and another sent her child to school with a mould-infested lunchbox.

"Those experiences typify the life of parents - there is a lot of humour in family life that is never really portrayed and a commonality of experience. As you get older you realise you are spending a lot of time imposing order on something that has underlying chaos."

Neill is articulate and passionate about these changing attitudes to parenting and domesticity. She criticises the conflicting tomes of parenting advice and believes it "devalues the experience of mothers when people who have no experience of bringing up children think it can be reduced to some strategy you can adopt. Parenting is not a science. We are all doing largely a good job within our limitations and should listen to our instincts."

She thinks everyone needs to "find your inner relaxed parent" and relinquish the idea that "you can mould your children."

"I feel sorry for the Alpha mums who reduce it to such a serious profession. It takes the joy out of it. People of a nervous disposition can get almost ill with the worry about having their children in a very tight schedule and doing endless after-school activities as if you can inoculate your child against failure later in life. It's a curse to be so preoccupied by your children that you learn Latin to help with their homework. What happens if those children grow up to say they want to be a landscape gardener rather than managing a hedge fund?"

And she sighs that we "still live in a world where men are regarded as heroic for things that women do day in day out".

Neill says domesticity was reviled by 70s and 80s feminism, and figures such as Nigella Lawson reclaimed it so that women no longer felt ashamed for enjoying staying at home with their children.

"That needed to happen. She celebrated a lot of domestic life that had been in the shadows since the 70s.

"The problem is that feminism stopped at the point where women went to work and tried to get equal rights. It said domestic life was something that was beneath women and there was implicit criticism of anyone who didn't want to spend their life smashing glass ceilings.

"But actually part-time work that allows a balance between home and career is what most women want. We all need to find a level at which we are happy and if we don't want to be on the board of Goldman Sachs before we are 40 it's not a crime."

Neill says that instead of competing with each other, women should pressure for more choice in the domestic and work arenas. "There are these schisms between women when we would be much better off getting together to ask for things we have a mutual interest in - pressuring for the right to work flexible hours and access to good childcare - all the things they have managed to achieve in Scandinavia."

She has found a community atmosphere in Hampstead where a network of parents share pick-ups and drop-offs for swimming lessons and school.

Between the twice-daily school run, she works in the Chamomile Café in England's Lane and is writing a second novel that is not about Lucy.

"There is a lot of mutual support. Women are naturally communal and prone to helping each other. Playgroups and schools allow you to create networks and meet people, otherwise it can be an isolating experience if you live in urban centres away from your parents."

Although she is pleased that slummy mummy has entered popular vernacular, Neill is wary that it could become another stick to beat mothers with. Britney Spears was recently voted top slummy mummy for holding her baby on her lap while driving.

"I don't want slummy mummy to become another thing women beat themselves up about or another hurdle for them to clear.

"Most of us are doing a really good job in quite hostile environments. It should be a comforting thing that most of us are slummy mummies, not over perfect, not over permissive, just normal. I am for people doing what they feel good about and if Lucy makes women feel a little less self-reproachful then that's a good thing."

The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy is published today by Century, price £10.


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