Photo by Maruna Skoropadska / EyeEm

Bullying your mum isn’t activism

Political purity is another mask for patriarchy

Artillery Row

Perhaps this will come as a shock to purists, but parents — good ones, at least — do not always tell their children the truth. Preparing a person to live in the world as it is, as opposed to the one they might like it to be, does not always involve confronting them with harsh realities. You ease them in, making difficult judgements about what to reveal, what to withhold. This isn’t dishonesty or pandering; I consider it pragmatism.

Whilst my own sons know more than me about what it is like to be young at this moment in history, I know more than them about other subjects, simply because I am older. At the same time, I do not want to dent their enthusiasm, make them feel small, drop unnecessary truth bombs just to boost my own ego. Having grown up in a household where “just being honest” could be wielded as a weapon to make others feel ugly and stupid, I try to take care over what truly needs to be said. There are some truths which I consider important but which I know will not stick, at least not yet. I hold them in reserve.

I am sure this leads to some situations in which Mummy is considered an ignoramus in relation to topics about which I know a great deal and yes, this rankles. Still, I would rather wait it out, picking my battles. My aim as a parent is not to create individuals who echo my own beliefs. I want them to be people who have the confidence to be questioning in their own right. Plus, I have enough confidence in my own politics to think they can withstand said questioning without recourse to forced compliance. 

Threatening to isolate a female relative is a form of coercive control

I know that I am fortunate not to have been tested too harshly on this. I have female friends whose daughters have disidentified from femaleness. In doing so, have seen fit to lecture their mothers on how they — mere older women — could not possibly understand what it is like not to feel at home in one’s female body or to reject the social identities imposed on female people. When my friends initially protested that on the contrary, they knew exactly what it was like — that they, too, had complex inner lives, and had only come to accept their bodies after fighting to reject the meanings imposed on them their children did not believe them. Instead, they saw a bigotry that had to be combated with an even more aggressive form of disidentification. 

A mother who is anything other than a regressive stereotype is a threat to those whose identities are founded on not becoming her. “Easier by far to hate and reject a mother outright than to see beyond her to the forces acting upon her,” wrote Adrienne Rich. “But where a mother is hated to the point of matrophobia there may also be a deep underlying pull toward her, a dread that if one relaxes one’s guard one will identify with her completely.”

My friends have not abandoned their children. Instead, they now walk a tightrope, keeping their mouths shut in instances where they feel it would only entrench their children’s views further. They make compromises, doing what is necessary to ensure their children feel accepted, whilst keeping the option to change course open. They understand there is little point in demanding that their children empathise with them, at least not yet. It is hard for these mothers, not least because what they are enduring from their children is a form of sexism in the name of rejecting gender norms: Mummy, know your place. 

As far as the children are concerned, Mummy has been if not convinced, then cowed. They have won the battle of who gets to control which pronouns are used round the dinner table. It is not a real victory, but a managed truce for which Mummy will — in another backhanded reinforcement of traditional gender norms — receive little appreciation. 

There’s something similar going on, if much more darkly, in a pre-Christmas Novara Media piece on “How I Deradicalised My Terf Mum”. In it, an adult child — in this case, a son — boasts of how he coerced the woman who gave birth to him to deny there is any social or political salience to who gives birth to whom. He pities his mother for undergoing “Mumsnet radicalisation and resolves to cut off all contact unless she pretends to think her own feminism does not matter, telling her, “Look, if you don’t fucking fix up, I’m not really interested in having an endless debate with you, I will just leave.”

He remembers his mum’s anger and devastation. “She thought it was a dirty tactic.” Whether or not it was, it worked: “I think the fear of losing the people closest to her was a strong motivating force.” Broader social pressure may have multiplied the brothers’ impact. Will’s family is part of a small, close-knit group of families in south London, and when their children found out what was happening with Janet, they encouraged their parents to speak to her, too. “There was another community she would have been isolated from that she also valued.” 

The son “Will is obviously proud of himself, even though what he is describing is a form of coercive control. Threatening to isolate a female relative unless she denies her perceptions of reality indicates he does not care that she may not believe what she is saying. All that matters is that she has been forced into line. This is not activism; it is patriarchy. 

I had that chance to browbeat my Catholic mother into submission

It is not that I always think mothers know best, or that I have never been in the position of a young person believing their mother to hold harmful beliefs. My own mother was vehemently anti-abortion. There are many reasons why I think she was wrong, one of them being that prioritising the needs of an embryo — perfect, unsullied potential life — over that of a woman seeking a termination — a messy, complex person, not a flawless blank slate — doesn’t look like real compassion to me. Opposition to abortion, to my mind, is less about saving others than keeping oneself ideologically pure. 

I never once considered forcing my mother to say this, though. I know there are some who will think this makes me complicit in the suffering of women and girls denied abortions. I had that chance to browbeat my Catholic mother into submission — to convert a true sinner — and I never took it. I could perhaps have bullied her into pretending she agreed with me, though I doubt this would have stopped her making regular donations to the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child. 

In the end, I’d have been doing the very thing of which I accuse anti-choicers: prioritising looking pure (my mother’s politics shall not sully me!) over doing good. Forcing my mother to say things she didn’t believe, and distressing her in the process, would have made zero difference to a desperate woman in Poland, Malta or the US. It would not have been a feminist victory.

When one person’s perception of reality (usually, but not always, the eldest male’s) is prioritised over everyone else’s, the family is patriarchal. I do not want my sons to grow up in a household in which everyone else either has to gaslight themselves into going along with one person’s truth, or must pretend to do so out of fear. 

Young adults who boast of “schooling” their “bigoted” mothers are model patriarchs. They might have won the power play, but they have lost the moral argument. Maybe one day they will find a politics that can bear the weight of scrutiny, ceasing to treat others as mirrors reflecting their politics back at them at several times its actual validity. That is what I had to find for myself, and what I want my own children to discover, in their own time. 

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