Last night on the ‘reality show’ Masterchef, a contestant decided to forfeit her place in the competition in order to go home to be with her family. The contestant, Sarah, was a thirty year old mother – the youngest of her children was only six months old. I’m not sure what the show’s taping schedule is like or what provisions they have for family visits, but it’s clear that signing up meant that Sarah could be away from her family, the bulk of the time, for up to three months.
Inevitably, her choice to participate in the competition and then to leave it has sparked a lot of commentary. Most seem to be in the ‘what the hell was she doing there in the first place?’ camp. And, sure, it is tempting to judge: at six months, Bean hadn’t been apart from me for more than a few hours and was still frequently breastfeeding. There was no way I would have agreed to leave her for such a considerable length of time.
But that, actually, is completely irrelevant. What I would do, or what any other individual mother would do, does not justify such judgement.
Sarah didn’t leave her baby out on the street or even permanently with qualified, paid strangers: the show featured several shots of him smiling, at home with his father. He was being cared for by a parent. That parent didn’t happen to be his mother but I’m afraid any arguments that he was therefore automatically missing out won’t get far with me. A baby needs constant loving care from a responsible adult. Just because in our culture that adult is usually a mother doesn’t mean in any way that it has to be.*
Going on a reality TV show might seem selfish to some: and hey, perhaps it is. Perhaps pursuing a ‘dream’ when you have young children to care for is self-serving — but if it is, where is the criticism of self-serving men who do this? Reality shows are full of them. Some of them even seem to keep following their dream right up to, during, and after the birth of their offspring, and this is generally seen as cute, brave — even romantic. An Idol song performance dedicated to a brand new babe the father has hardly even held garners many votes, I’d wager.
Sarah attempted to combine motherhood with pursuing a major career goal in an intensive way, and like many women before her, she decided that level of sacrifice wasn’t for her. According to the show, she’s expecting another child and wants to put her business plans on hold until her children are older: a familiar, and reasonable, story. So why the vicious criticism?
In going on television, she has left herself open to attack. We like to put reality show contestants down: that’s part of the purpose of such programmes. And Sarah has committed the dual sins of being emotional and being female. Compounding those is her recent pregnancy – some commentary on twitter went so far as to joke that she needed to get control of her reproductive system before she could work on her career. It was a joke, yes.
But I didn’t laugh.
I don’t find it particularly funny to be reminded that mothers, working outside the home or not, cannot win. Sarah has been ridiculed for crying about missing her children at the same time as being attacked for abandoning them. Her emotional responses at a time of high stress have been taken as evidence that she can’t do her paid work properly, by the same people who have put her down for her fertility.
In (mostly) opting out of the paid workforce, I have avoided having my committment to motherhood questioned. But I have also left myself open to attack from those who think that mothers have little to offer. My work is not seen as valuable: and when I do return to paid work, there will be some who automatically assume that that work is also devalued because of my addled mummy-brain and the likely need to take sick leave at short notice to care for a child.
The predictable and threadbare double-standards trotted out after last night’s Masterchef episode certainly prove one thing: even on TV, a woman can’t escape the reality of patriarchy.
* I do wonder, if Sarah was breastfeeding, whether the producers would have found a way to accommodate that: my hunch is not, which is simply another example of how combining motherhood with work is never easy.