Sonja Morgenstern valued the support she got in person and online from fellow mothers. But she felt frozen out when she started talking politics
As a single parent I’ve come to rely on the support of other mums. From NCT and playgroup buddies to Facebook groups, they’re always there to share in my challenges and achievements in parenting. And yet while we’ve shared everything from labour stories to sleepless nights, one subject seems to be completely off limits: politics.
And I don’t just mean talking about what you think of Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. Take as an example the time when I asked friends to sign a petition against cuts to a local family café. The venue, situated in a SureStart children’s centre, was offering vital support to isolated parents. A few people signed the petition, but most ignored it.
When a protest about it got coverage in two local newspapers, I posted the pictures on a Facebook group and also a WhatsApp group for local parents. Those communities offer comments to what car seat to buy, which potty to use, how best to navigate the latest conflict with the husband or in-laws, or where to go on holiday. There are regular meetups and general chats. Yet hardly anyone seemed to have anything to say about the café protest.
On another occasion in the run-up to the election I posted about the cuts to school meals planned by the Tories in a fertility support group and got instant criticism on the relevance of that article to the group. One woman said: “If posts on this group aren’t about supporting women on their way to motherhood, it’s not relevant and we may as well be posting about dancing kittens.”
That one hurt. I was of course aware that some ladies in the group aren’t yet mothers, but I simply wanted more mums-to-be to see this very relevant information. Before I had my son I’d paid no attention whatsoever to any party’s family politics, and I quickly found out that government policies can make a huge difference to family life.
I saw a chance to point this out, but realised my mistake and deleted the post after the “dancing kittens” comment. But I was still upset and retreated to the safety of my own timeline, where I posted a disappointed rant about the political apathy I was seeing. However this new post also attracted a series of accusations from another mum I know.
She told me that “voting is a private matter” and I had no right to share information that may be aimed at changing people’s minds about who to vote for, likening my expression of impotent despair to a “vague whinge”. She went on to unfriend me after telling me I knew “nothing about her life than the fact she has two children”, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
We had supported each other online for more than three years, and I’m grateful for the support I’ve had from her and other mums since I first started trying to get pregnant.
It is depressing, though, to feel that my opinions are only valued when I commiserate about potty training or tantrums. As a parent I don’t think you should dedicate more headspace to choosing a car seat, than choosing the government that will affect all our kids’ futures.
Of course car seats and potties are important, but neither of those will still be in use in four years’ time, while the next government almost always will. Your child really won’t care whether they came to be through a short or a long IVF protocol, or what father’s day card their daddy got, but government cuts to school meals have much further-reaching consequences.
So why can’t mothers be more supportive of those who speak out about issues affecting nearly all families? After all, when we do, everyone stands to benefit. The group protesting the cafe closure has now succeeded in getting it reopened two afternoons a week, ensuring that parents who need a place to go, somewhere to get a cheap coffee, some support, adult conversation, a safe haven away from an abusive partner, a place to connect to other family services can now continue to do this with the help of some volunteers.
I recently attended a feminist festival at the old Holloway Prison, which held many suffragettes during the time when they were fighting for women’s right to vote. Needless to say, I wasn’t accompanied by any of my old baby group friends. But it was inspiring to think about the suffragettes’ relentless and brave campaigning, against so many more obstacles than we face today.
It would be nice to honour them by at least giving the odd ‘like’ to a friend’s political post, and using our right to vote at every opportunity.
Sonja Morgenstern is a freelance journalist living in London