When an old family-run tea shop closed in an affluent part of London as a result of rent increases, its owner knew precisely who to blame. Not the freeholder, but the mothers of pre-school children who congregated in local cafes over a coffee and a babyccino. The Evening Standardsummed up the besieged tea-shop owners’ feelings in the headline, “Yummy mummies ‘are ruining Primrose Hill’”.
In reality, this is a snapshot of an evolving community high street, reflecting changes that are taking place in the throttled streets of many desirable suburbs across the UK. They are the lucky ones, of course; cafe owners in Bridgend or Birkenhead would, presumably, like nothing more than to be able to moan about an excess of affluent custom. Underneath the class tension and the snapping and reforming of community bonds, though, you find a tangled resentment focused on mothers and their children. I say “tangled”, because surely only the most toweringly irrational proprietor would actually get cross with women for drinking coffee in a coffee shop.
This may partly be a result of visibility. Moneyed young couples spy an area on the up, and move in; if they go on to have children, women on career breaks and their pre-schoolers throng the daytime streets. Unlike their more established neighbours, they have no particular loyalty to local businesses, and they go where their fancy takes them. They congregate in groups to breastfeed. They have often made the elementary mistake of buying a pram the size of a Citroen C5. If these things did not make them conspicuous enough, their children tend to be dressed in delirious combinations of spots and stripes.
And it is almost certainly related to wealth (although surely this is not such a great factor in Primrose Hill, which has been solidly affluent since before Ralph Miliband started to wonder where it had all gone wrong). Bringing up children is an expensive business; living in London is more expensive still. If you’re sitting in a coffee shop on a Wednesday morning, it’s probably because you didn’t have to scurry back to work the moment your enhanced-rate maternity pay ended; you are unlikely to be struggling along on a median household income. And while taking responsibility for the safety, health, development, happiness and unpredictable bowel movements of a small child never felt like leisure to me, I realise that it might look like leisure to those who have never actually had to do it for any length of time.
But none of this is a good enough explanation for the stinging resentment that is so often directed at these women. They are no more likely to be selfish or unfriendly than any other newcomer, and – tellingly – their male partners, including those who stay at home with younger children, have not acquired a pejorative shorthand description. The very phrase “yummy mummy” leaks bile, marking mothers on their fuckability and almost always sneeringly deployed; it judges and dismisses women while expecting them to be grateful. Milf seems refreshingly direct in comparison.
Perhaps, though, for all the contempt it conveys, it captures a real social phenomenon that some find genuinely threatening. Mothers, in ever-greater numbers, are demanding more space, in all senses. The age-old choice between domestic and professional is being rejected; maybe it’s time we were allowed to do both. Maybe we can take the cash that we earned in a well-paid job and spend it on lattes during our maternity leave. Maybe we can have loud conversations about childbirth in public places. Maybe we can express opinions about politics, technology or art while wiping someone’s nose, and expect to be taken seriously. Maybe we don’t care as much as our grandmothers did about the good opinion of passersby, because we are much less dependent on our neighbours’ approval; we have sources of power and influence that are entirely our own. Maybe none of these things should bother people half as much as they do. And maybe, if you judge us more harshly than you would a father doing exactly the same thing, we will call you on it.