Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Wife Swap

Spent a relaxing evening at home with M, much of which was spent trying (and failing) to set up my new broadband. Anyway, I happened to watch an episode of Channel 4's series 'Wife Swap'. The programme followed the usual format; two families with opposing ideals trying to impose their way on each other’s lives. I won't go into much background detail, as quite frankly it's too dull, but one particular part of the programme rather took me aback.

Family A's wife was Debbie Doody, a 'full time mum' with 2 boys and a husband married to his computer. Being a ‘full time mum’ transpired that Debbie stayed at home, cooked meals and acted like a skivvy (as no-one else did anything in the house) whilst her idea of spending time with her children was little more than being under the same roof whilst they occupied themselves. She went to live with Family B, where Angie Townsend, billed as a 'part-time mum' (which I found rather unfair, as whatever else one does for employment, it is a full time role) and 'full-time owner of a hair salon' managed a full time job and the household of three girls and a husband. Angie orchestrated household tasks, on which the whole family worked together. Her children may have moaned a little that she was rather busy, but they were also unstinting in their praise and admiration for her as a mother, wife and role model.

After living by the house rules for the first week, the 'wives' are able to impose their own rules for the second. Debbie, who had never had a full-time job in her life and manages on "whatever is left of his wages when all the bills are paid" announced on rule-change day that what the Townsend girls needed was a "proper mum". A what? And then went out and purchased several PSPs, a karaoke machine and a deep-fat fryer. She also banned all housework, cooking, cleaning and general household helpfulness, announcing that she would do all the cooking and cleaning from then on whilst the girls enjoyed themselves. She even went so far as to ban them from the kitchen and threw a tantrum when she realised that one of the girls had made their own bed.

Astounding. Debbie, whose husband couldn’t even afford to repair his car, appeared to think that this was a how ‘proper’ mother behaved; yet she was unable to hold a rational conversation or debate, favouring tantrums, abuse, crying and storming out of the room. Her sons had inherited this trait and during Angie’s first week refused not only conversation but to even leave their beds on several occasions. And for her to even suggest that banning household participation and providing food fried in a deep fat fryer to be consumed watching DVDs was what ‘proper mums’ should do, is quite frankly insulting. And I’m not even a mother.

I’m not suggesting that she didn’t love her sons, or that she didn’t believe that she had their best interests at heart, but extolling the virtues of a ‘proper’ mum in such a fashion suggested to me that she was not acting in a way any mother should. She paraded herself as the model mother, yet rather than listen to Angie’s praise for her children (who after a fashion had been open to activities other than electrical and had albeit grudgingly, actually learnt from the tutor Angie provided) Debbie screeched and wailed, shouting that she hoped her kids had given Angie some “real sh*t” and threatening to take Angie ‘outside’. And her reaction to learning that her seven year old son was unable to carry on a conversation? “He doesn’t know you from Adam…”. He might not, but that doesn’t prevent him from being taught to be polite and respectful. Debbie, on return to her home rubbished all Angie’s rules and suggestions, ripping down the sheets amid shouting and cursing. It is perfectly understandable to disagree with another person’s suggestions to one’s family – but what did it show her children? That tantrum throwing is an acceptable outcome, that there is no point being polite, pursuing learning, taking advice or being open to different opinions? It made me rather sad. Angie on the other hand, returned to her family willing to try and re-arrange her working hours and spend more time with her children on an individual basis. Two very different reactions to the experience and it left me feeling that there is an awful lot more to being a ‘proper mum’ than most people think.

Footnote – I realise that if you watched this programme, you might well be thinking ‘but what about the roles of the husbands’ or indeed, ‘what about the children’? I think that Debbie’s husband had been backed into a corner where he felt that his role as breadwinner but nothing further was, and was therefore expected, to remain. Once it had been suggested to him that perhaps he should take a more leading role within the house, he was willing to give it a go and he ended up changing more about the Doody household than his wife. An interesting development as far as the programme was concerned, but not the point that I was really trying to make about women and their (perceived) roles as mothers. Angie’s husband too was an interesting character; one felt that their family might be less successful if he had a viewpoint or was less willing to be dominated entirely, but that again is a separate issue. The programme also made a point of portraying Angie’s eldest daughter Kelly as rather rebellious, and yes, she did not go out of her way in the second week to make Debbie’s life any easier. But she made some interesting points: Debbie was unable to debate rationally with her, resorting to tantrum throwing and backing down in an angry and blameful fashion. And if you’d been told that you didn’t have a proper mother, banned from helping look after the house and family and been made to eat food from a deep fat fryer, wouldn’t you perhaps come over as a bit unfriendly as well?

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