Mothers were the real victims of a cartoon that shamed a demographic


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Kids were casualties here in art (where phone-mum’s baby lay unnoticed on the ground) and in life. But the greatest victims of attack were those in the demographic of mothers of 2019, young women doing their level best to occupy the role of mother in a time when it has never been more publicly and enthusiastically policed. That cartoon being Exhibit A.

The coincidence of its release with the National Women’s Health Survey’s finding that women in the primary child-bearing years of 35 and under were reporting “alarmingly high levels of anxiety, stress and sleep-deprivation” was stark and jarring.

On the one hand the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, launched research raising concern about the extreme pressure many contemporary young women feel to achieve unattainable standards in “years when the competing pressures of work, relationships and having children could be most intense”. On the other, Michael Leunig issued mothers with what was justifiably perceived as a slap across the face by the distant ghost of fathers past.

Leunig stated the piece sprang from his life-long interest in the mother-baby bond, but that picture was a grenade. It blew apart the image of diligent millennial motherhood and it will have smashed the confidence of many women doing each day of parenthood to 110 per cent (as we know we must for as long as our kids live with us, lest we end up as mocking-stock).

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Mothers already knew they were under surveillance; that cartoon revealed the viewpoint from which their/our every move is being observed.

Given the depressingly familiar narrative of failure around the mothers of now, of which this picture was only the latest instalment, neither its appearance nor the reaction was surprising.

Maybe it was a flashpoint because more people are (finally) acknowledging that, insofar as being able to meet the exponentially expanded definition of “good mother”, women are on a hiding to nothing. And they and their advocates are sick of you watching and weighing up their worth – and to an extent their whole identity, as we know motherhood is still what that is supposed to be – from the position of not having actually been, you know, a mother.

Why mother-baiting borders on a national sport in Australian public life, other than to generate attention, is difficult to understand given every generation of mothers since the explosion of the “parenting advice” industry that coincided with Gen X becoming parents has been more over-informed than the last about what we could possibly be stuffing up.

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Leunig’s go at mums he sees on their phones allegedly while pushing (forward-facing) prams – apparently guilty of breaking the intense eye-contact necessary for healthy development of the child’s identity – is part of a cultural landscape increasingly hostile to mothers.

Some of the other pot-shots at mothers dealt by people who have not experienced being one (or whose definition of motherhood is rooted in economically rosy history) have been shrouded in words about “parents” doing wrong by their kids – but we all know that “parents” is still code for mothers, as social research continues to reinforce community expectations that the mother is the main caregiver for young children.

John Marsden took a spectacular swipe with his recent comments about the “pandemic” of “emotional damage” being done, not by under-involvement, but by over-involvement. He went so far in his new book as to say: “Men who feel rage as the result of the failure of their mothers to effectively manage the inevitable eventual separation between mothers and their sons – the transition from what is arguably the most intimate relationship known to males to a relationship that must perforce be of a very different nature – are highly likely to project that rage onto future intimate partners, and often all women.”

Miranda Devine wrote a column titled: “Don’t let your career make you a bad mother.” David Koch told mothers on prime time TV to be “more discreet” about breastfeeding (after a mother was asked to move away from a public pool while feeding) and “be a bit classy about it”.

Cafe owners hit the news regularly with complaints about mothers with children or prams cluttering up the joint; some public pools tell them they can’t come in if they have more than two small children with them, presumably lest their own incompetence lead to a fatality; shopping centre patrons have hit headlines complaining about the noise from purpose-built children’s play areas in shopping centres. Mothers are selfish if they work, lazy “Pilates” parents if they don’t.

Mark Latham famously even accused “feminist” mothers of not loving their children after a journalist-turned medical student wrote candidly about the stress of the juggle being so great that she needed the support of anti-depressants.

No wonder then that Leunig’s offering was felt as a killer punch – one from which mothers and those who can see how much love, care and effort and, yes, how much of their whole identity they are investing into children rightfully fought back.

The artist is still considered by many to be a living treasure and giant on the cultural landscape. No one argues against his right to pick his targets freely. You’d just hope from now on that it’s someone his own size.

Wendy Tuohy is a senior writer.

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