Since 2015 the Twitter account Mumsnet Madness has been documenting notable discussions from the site’s message boards. My recent favourites include the woman who “scalded her vagina with her own gas”, the one who, having organised a party for her nine-year-old DS (darling son) at Pizza Express, heard from another mother that her DD would only come if they changed the venue, as the girl “deeply opposes large corporate chains and prefers to support locally owned eateries”. And of course I look back with fond nostalgia at the famous “penis beaker” thread.
While I do enjoy its handy edit of the nuttier scrapings of the female mind, I sometimes read with one eye closed. The phrase “guilty pleasure” is one I’m loath to use, seeing as today it usually refers to “liking Abba” or “reading Marian Keyes” or something that feels so pure and joyful the user suspects they must be doing it wrong or else requires penance for such sweet jollity. But here it feels apt. Though I love a bitchy chuckle (also available for purchase as a regional drag name), my guilt comes from the knowledge that these women, with their baked-in passive aggression and fascination with semen, were posting on the Mumsnet message boards under the assumption their secrets would be read only by people in their own online community, rather than sneering onlookers like me, horrified mainly by the abbreviations.
It was with this in mind that I paused on last week’s thoughts from Catriona Jones, a researcher at the University of Hull, who claimed that the “tsunami” of detailed accounts of labour can be so traumatising that it’s leading to a rise in tokophobia – an extreme fear of childbirth. “If you go into Mumsnet forums, women are telling stories about childbirth – ‘It’s terrible, it’s a bloodbath’. I think that can be difficult to deal with,” she said. And, yes, fine, but what can be even more difficult to deal with is, hearing either flowery platitudes about the wonder of childbirth or, upon asking friends what it’s like, receiving only dark-eyed tuts from women who themselves have been warned off sharing details.
Then, one morning somewhere close to dawn, going on to push an entire human through the creaking architecture of your body, and afterwards, being told to shut up and swallow it. In a time when talking about one’s trauma is largely accepted to be a positive and necessary thing, when we are bombarded with messaging that urges us to open up about mental health, even, post-#MeToo, about the value for others of “speaking our truth”, this suggestion that women should keep quiet about childbirth feels woefully outdated.
The similarity between the trivia of Mumsnet Madness and Jones’s research is that both involve mining the message boards, the quiet coffee mornings of Mumsnet users, where they talk to each other in a seemingly safe space about their specialist subject – the secret lives of women. Married sex, the limits of hygiene, their fears and neuroses, the private names they have for genitals – I find something terribly icky about exploiting these conversations, about their appropriation as a sprawling database about womankind. And then, turning the chatter back on them, feels particularly alarming.
It reminds me of an afternoon in 1990, when my teacher took my diary. I was 10, and he took my diary, and then read sections out to the class. That afternoon he called my mum and told her I’d sworn (in my diary) and been disrespectful about him (in my diary). Looking back now, I can chart the way that experience scarred the rest of my life, changing its course as if a character in a Jonathan Coe novel. The things I wrote in there were particular to the place they sat – the stories that Mumsnet users share online are the same. Few would contemplate broadcasting details of their partner’s post-coital bedside dunking cup if they knew the story would be used by a columnist in a national newspaper to bolster her opinions about childbirth. Oh.
As girls, we grow up with the knowledge that childbirth will be excruciating and bloody, but also that it ends. We children were walking proof of that. To suggest that those clicking on Mumsnet would be surprised to learn that labour hurts, or that it can be traumatic, is patronising and foolish. And for the women sharing their bad experiences, this is one of few places where their stories are welcomed – not only does the NHS have little time to spend listening to outpatients, but also families have a cut-off point, when it’s considered appropriate instead to focus on the positives. While a disturbing number of women do have traumatic births, for most the experience is not simply one thing, pain or pleasure. A multitude of stories are required, not just to help those telling them to work out their own narratives, or to help those looking for information, but to challenge tokophobia by enriching and complicating our cultural understanding of childbirth. Because, like Mumsnet Madness, there’s some magic, in among the horror.
One more thing…
Don’t do as I did and listen to the podcast Dr Death when eating. Before his conviction last year, neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch maimed 32 victims in Texas. Grisly details about the intentional mistakes he made, including (oh God) a screw drilled into a spinal cavity, do not make for happy lunches. He’s now serving a life sentence.
The White House defence of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sniffs at accusations of sexual assault, suggesting that ‘every man’ at some point may have pinned a girl down, turned the music up to drown out her cries and covered her mouth as he assaulted her. Which, to me, seems a fairly bleak view of ‘every man’.
Last week I went to the 15th annual Art Car Boot Fair in King’s Cross, London. It’s always a complete joy, like returning to art school but fatter and more cynical, and with a four-year-old child who wants to dance next to the rave speakers. I love it.