I have a confession to make: I’m one of those bloody mothers who takes her bloody children to cafes.
And my maternal transgressions are not insignificant.
My crimes against civilised dining include: wedging my pram between tables; ruining the tasteful minimalist decor with my maximalist nappy bag and allowing my daughter to deface the paper serviettes with crayon. I’ve even had the audacity to waste the time of the barista by ordering a babycino.
The worst of it is that on occasion my children act like, well, children. When my daughter was two — and I kid you not — she had the table manners of a two year old.
I don’t know whether to laugh hysterically or sob in despair at the current proclamations — triggered late last week by a Facebook post from the owner of a café in Newcastle — that only well-behaved children should be allowed in cafes.
Some hardliners are even suggesting that misbehaving children should be restricted to public spaces designed specifically for children. According to some commentators, it’s about compensating for middle class mother guilt and the fact that Australians don’t know how to raise civilised children.
We’re told that in other countries — notably France — children don’t have tantrums in public. No, not a one. Apparently they’re born with impulse control and Michelin star table manners.
But despite the focus on children, the debate is actually about mothers — she who is too incompetent, indulgent or inconsiderate to control her child’s behaviour.
Unfortunately for those wishing that children be neither seen nor heard, children are not toys with off switches. As such, there’s only one way to guarantee that children don’t misbehave in public space: to not allow them to use it in the first place.
And because children require constant care and supervision — mostly by women — if children are unwelcome in public space, then women are unwelcome also.
Never mind that mothers are among the most socially isolated group in our society and that over half of new mothers report feeling lonely and isolated.
Let’s not trouble ourselves with the small fact that mothers go to cafes and other public places because they need to feel like they are still part of society and don’t wish to spend an entire decade confined to McDonald’s.
(No doubt, the same people tut-tutting about children in cafes would also condemn irresponsible parents who cart their kids off to fast food joints for promoting childhood obesity and inculcating them with the ideologies of multinational corporations. Seriously, you can’t win.)
When you consider that mothers’ self-esteems are already battered by sleep deprivation, loss of social status from not earning an income, and the loss of control over their time and their bodies, derogatory comments about mothers and their children is almost too much to bear.
Women give up a lot when they become mothers; giving up their right to occupy public space is a step too far.
In doing so, it reinforces the deep-seated cultural assumption that public space is, by default, male — preferably a rational middle class man who consumes in the appropriate way and with the appropriate frequency.
I’ve seen drunk and raucous businessmen behave far worse in cafes and restaurants than my kids ever have. Similarly, having the misfortune to share a flight with the end of season footy trip can be far more disruptive than a child crying on takeoff and landing because its ears hurt. But there’s no campaign to ban badly behaved men from cafes, air travel or any other such venue.
And before I’m attacked with anecdotes about the brat who spoiled your Sunday brunch, let me make it clear that I’m not oblivious or unaffected by the impact of my children on those around me.
I’m mortified when my daughter lets fly with a tantrum and I try to hush her while beating a hasty retreat, but by then the damage has been done. I have violated everyone’s basic human right of consuming poached eggs with cured salmon and basil pesto and a soy latte without the disturbance of children.
I also don’t doubt that some cafes are less appropriate than others to accommodate children. But that doesn’t mean that we should exclude whole categories of people from these places. It’s the viciousness of the attacks on mothers and children, more than the debate itself, that’s particularly offensive.
Yes, it’s the responsibility of parents to teach children how to behave and be respectful and courteous to other people. But socialisation, as the word suggests, is a process. It doesn’t just happen, but is practiced over time.
Simply excluding children from public life until they are fully formed adults is as unreasonable as it is anti-social and anti-women.