The recent Michael Leunig cartoon "Mummy Was Busy" has prompted a lot of angry responses from women claiming he is being unfair and unkind to mothers. Even Leunig’s sister, Mary, criticised him for being "mean" and deliberately "feminist baiting". If you haven’t seen the cartoon, depicting a mother on Instagram who hasn’t realised her baby has fallen from its pram, you can see it here (and also the rather amusing graphic response from Mary Leunig).
I have to admit, my immediate response to the cartoon was anger tinged with disappointment. Anger that he targeted a mother in a snapshot of time having a moment to herself, when she had probably spent much of her day tending to her baby. Disappointment because I have a fondness for many of Leunig’s whimsical cartoons. A number of people have defended Leunig, arguing he is making a statement about the explosion of social media use and obsession with our “devices” to the detriment of the things that really matter in life. So, does he have a point?
A 2018 Roy Morgan poll revealed some pretty concerning statistics on social media use in Australia. Young women aged 14-24 were the highest users of social media, spending almost 2 hours a day on various social media sites. When they looked at people of common child-bearing age (25-34 years) rates were not quite so high, but women used social media more (1.3 hours a day) compared with men of the same age (just under an hour a day). We know social media can be addictive and it has been blamed for various social problems and increases in depression... but is it all bad?
I know I can be as guilty as the next person of "wasting" time on social media. Sometimes it is just a chance to have some time out. But I also use social media for work - both to communicate messages to my own clients, and as a member of several online specialist Women’s Health groups, who regularly post debates, articles and other information relevant to my field. It’s possible that "Mummy" was one of the 21% of working mothers who work from home and was on social media or just on her phone for work purposes, squeezing in the chance whilst her baby (finally) slept.
I have also heard several psychologists argue that social media is not all bad. It can be a chance for people to connect, ask questions, find out information or get support. It’s entirely possible that "Mummy" was on one of the many parenting groups on social media. Perhaps she was reading tips on how to get rid of cradle cap or nappy rash. Perhaps she was posting for support on a postnatal depression group. Maybe she was texting her Mum or best friend telling them how exhausted she is because "beautiful bubby" had kept her up all night and now won’t sleep unless she walks, and walks... and walks.
Or maybe "Mummy" was just having time out – because for parents, that can be a pretty scarce thing to come by. A recent survey of parents in America found parents get only 30 minutes of time to themselves daily. My guess is that for parents of young babies or toddlers, it would be even less than that. The benefits of having time for your own self-care (and I don’t mean just being able to go to the bathroom uninterrupted!) have been well documented. Millenial parents seem to be more hands-on than ever, yet the busy-ness of life can also leave us all feeling more stressed than ever. The Sydney Morning Herald published data this year revealing that working mothers in particular are 18 per cent more stressed than other people. Even if she’s not working and has spent all day at home with her baby, there’s a good chance "Mummy" has not had any time to herself until now. Check out the great cartoon I shared which depicts all the other things "Mummy" was quite likely doing in her day. We are only seeing one snapshot in time for this woman and have no idea what the rest of her day has involved. Who can blame her for having a moment to herself?
Well, apparently a lot of people. It seems from the moment you become pregnant, random strangers feel they have the right to comment, or give completely unsolicited advice. I recall being told (in the same day) that I was small or large for dates when I was pregnant. I remember the stares and tut-tutting from other shoppers when one, or both, of my children threw a monumental tantrum at the checkout because I wouldn’t buy them one of the chocolates deliberately placed at their eye level by the supermarkets. One of my biggest regrets was not telling another mother how well she was doing when she calmly dealt with her completely hysterical toddler at the shops – I wish I had told her she was great. It seems I am not alone in feeling the criticism levelled at mothers. This kind of parent-shaming is apparently rife in Australia, as an ABC article from 2017 outlines. As if parenting isn’t hard enough without strangers laying on the guilt.
We should be commending "Mummy" for getting out there and doing some exercise. Another recent ABC article highlighted that around half of parents reduced their exercise levels once they have children. For many women guilt can be a major reason for not doing regular exercise after having children. Yet we get judged if we gain weight and get unfit too. Yes, some of that guilt will be self-inflicted, but some will be societal too. Mums just can’t seem to win either way.
On balance I remain angry and disappointed in Michael Leunig for his cartoon. It’s just another example of an older, white male telling mothers how to parent their children and live their lives. Because, geez, we don’t get enough of that, do we?