Miss Havisham has a lot to answer for. Ever since the 1860s-and probably before-the stereotype of an unmarried woman of a certain age has been one of pity, scorn and the assumption of a certain type of jealous bitterness.
How this relates to my son having a tantrum may at present be unclear. However, as anyone in possession of a toddler will undoubtedly recognise, meltdowns are a familiar part of life; especially when in a public place.
My son had one such meltdown today.
Naturally, this occurred in a public place. The local pub to be exact, where my mother and I had taken him for lunch.
It was nothing out of the ordinary. Piglet has eaten in this pub many times before, and many times before he has decided that he is not interested in sitting in a high chair, eating food or any such trifling matters, but would instead prefer to run like a maniac around the building pointing and yelling at the fruit machines. And every time, the staff and patrons of the pub are remarkably magnanimous towards his infantile foibles, and respond with phrases such as “aww, isn’t he sweet,” and “would you like a crisp?” (I had to rein in my middle class outrage at the latter, but the gesture was well-intentioned).
Therefore, when Piglet decided he would not sit down-either in the high chair or the full-size “big boy chair” that was offered as a tempting alternative and eat his carrots, I expected the response to be similar.
I was not entirely happy myself with his decision to stand in the middle of the pub (at the top of a flight of stairs, all the better for everyone to view his distress) and bawl his eyes out rather than sit placidly in his high chair and eat broccoli like the child I always imagined I’d have, but it appeared, somewhat to my surprise given our previous positive experiences with patient fellow pub-goers, that others were even less impressed.
“People are getting annoyed,” my mother hissed (translation: don’t you even think about sitting down now. Sort your child out and calm him down like a proper mother). I was about to tell her that they couldn’t give a monkey’s, and were happily carrying on eating their Sunday lunches and playing cards the same way they always did, when I spotted a woman a few metres away waving a walking stick angrily, and yelling “shut up!” at my precious offspring in a way which was, frankly, completely ineffective (had she never met a toddler?) before turning to the couple next to her and muttering about how are children even allowed in pubs these days, it’s a disgrace, they should be seen and not heard, or preferably not even seen, but stored away in the East wing with a nanny and a selection of disused furniture.
Fortunately, I recognised the woman as a well known local (these are my mother’s words) “miserable cow,” who always had something negative to say, so I wasn’t too bothered, but it was my mother’s later assessment of the situation that I found interesting.
Half an hour later we were sitting in self-imposed exile in the beer garden, where Piglet had suddenly discovered that he was more amenable to sitting in a high chair if he could get a bit of sun on his face and ice cream in his mouth, and I mentioned the “miserable cow” to my mother.
“Oh well,” was her response. “She’s known for it. She’s always having a go at the staff as well, and don’t get me started on her attitude in Waitrose…….Then again, she is a single woman.”
I pointed out that actually, so was I, and I didn’t go around waving walking sticks at small children and shouting ineffectual curses from some distance away.
However, I knew the comparison was a ridiculous one. To my mother, and probably to everyone else, the agitator with the walking stick and I couldn’t be more different. I had a child, she had none, I was young(ish), or at least still passably in the prime of life, and she was elderly. But that was exactly the point. She had, in the eyes of the world, passed into the realm of Miss Havisham Bitter Old Spinster Territory, whereas I, arguably, can still hold out hope that some man will take pity on me and rescue me from my single state, despite my obvious disadvantages in the marriage market at being both a single mother and rapidly heading towards the end of my childbearing years.
The point of this is not whatever combination of character and life experience caused our friend with the walking stick to behave in such a sociopathic way, but what everyone assumed was her reason for doing so.
She is old, she is unmarried, and she is childless, therefore, ergo, she is lonely, bitter and angry at the world.
Is this what we think of women who don’t marry or have children? Is this what we think of Oprah Winfrey, Coco Chanel and Jane Austen? I certainly hope not.
I don’t know what caused the woman in the pub to be so angry at life. Clearly whatever it is, it’s bigger than me, bigger than my bawling toddler and bigger than the mere fact of not being married, so let’s stop stereotyping women as “bitter old spinsters.”