Friday, 11 December 2015

Girl, you'll be a woman soon.

It is sometimes the little things that completely undo me. Today it was your pony tail; half a metre of ash blonde silk, not a kink to mar its smooth perfection.  And just like that, I can picture gathering soft, fine fuzz into a hair bobble, for the very first time. How this transformed you from generic toddler into a creature that was undeniably a girl. That stumpy, wispy pony tail said so, far more eloquently than the colour pink ever could.

I loved how your pulled back hair accentuated the adorable chub of your pink cheeks, and how I couldn't stop myself from kissing you, over and over again. Do you know that I sometimes close my eyes when we embrace now, just so I can better recall the sweet, baby scent of you? Such salted caramel memories you invoke in me.  Sometimes it makes my chest ache.

Now you are more likely to smell of Impulse and peppermint gum.  The tickle of ‘Very Pink’ in our nostrils every morning heralds your arrival down the stairs.  Your cheeks have all but lost the roundness of childhood, and I see a new bone structure emerging, one I didn't even know was there. You remind me of me, and sometimes, to my shame, this makes me sad.

Your body is changing, and this too dismays me. You are slowly growing taller; legs lengthening, feet almost the same size as my own. Where the softness of childhood is fleeing, and the angles of beauty are being carved out on your face, it is being redistributed in areas that I know you would rather not have it.  Now and then, I catch glimpses of the woman you will become, and I am captivated by your beauty, though it terrifies me.

I take comfort from knowing that you are strong, my darling. Very strong. You have a deep sense of self, and an innate pride in who you are. It will protect you from much of what this world throws at you.  Your moral compass will guide you, and it won't lead you astray. I don't need to tell you to stay true to who you are, because you always have done.  I have been more proud of you than I could ever have dreamed possible. Your goodness radiates from inside you; such a kind, thoughtful, sensitive, human being. Your capacity for empathy astonishes me, and hints at the instinctive wisdom of your soul, a wisdom I never thought to find in one so young. The pain of others hurts you, I know. Nevertheless, I pray it always does.

You don't remember when it was just the two of us, do you? When all we had was each other, and I clung to you like a drowning woman, as I went under and wanted nothing more than oblivion, and to feel no longer.  You kept me afloat; the routine of our days kept me going when I had no choice.  When nappies needed changing, when bottles needed making, when small feet needed new shoes, and boredom needed to be assuaged with yet another trip to the park.  Sometimes, it was grinding monotony but it kept me alive. I've never told you that before, but it did.

Later, you became my friend; my tiny companion, with your constant questions, and your love of the same book, over and over again. We bonded over make-believe and imaginary creatures who shared our world. We played endless games together, for at home I was your only playmate. Later, the little ones would come along to share your life, which meant three more willing playmates. What an inspiration and a role-model you are to them. They are very lucky to have you

As for me, I thank God for the gift of you, every single day. You were my challenge; my test. I have never done anything so bone-crushingly tiring, so frightening, so achingly hard, as becoming your mother. Many, many times I have failed.  I hope you'll forgive me when I continue to do so. I know you think I'm wonderful, and that you want to be like me, but I am just waiting for the day when you discover that I'm not. That really, I'm a scared, anxious, clueless woman, who isn't half as clever as you think I am, and actually, is nowhere near as good as you.

I have led such a tiny life and in all the ways that this world measures success, I have achieved very little. I do not have a high-flying career or a string of letters after my name. There are no accolades for me, nor awards with my name written on them.  I have no fancy possessions nor do I own anything of great material value.

And yet…we have everything we need and much of what we want, because we never actually want all that much anyway.  I have made my choices, and I chose to live a simple life, and to pour what energy I have into raising you. I wouldn't change a thing.

I'm not such a failure, as it turns out. Look at you. Just look at you! You, my darling; my first born; my daughter. I thank you for the privilege of being your mother, and I will love you until I die.

 And before you say it: Yes. I love you more.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The creation of Sisterhood – how can we help our girls to value each other?

I recently wrote about how our society makes it increasingly hard for girls to value and support one another and this got me to thinking about ways that we, as mothers, can help foster good relations amongst our growing daughters. We often take it for granted that girls will automatically want to nurture and support one another, but I think this is na├»ve, especially when we consider that they're growing up within a highly misogynistic world.  Is it any wonder that they naturally seem to distrust, and all too often dislike one another? Sometimes, we have the expectation that if we just allow our daughters to mix with as many different girls as possible, both in and out of school, then they can be trusted to apply the standards of behaviour that we’ve set for them at home. Sadly, this demonstrably isn't always the case.  Even the kindest and most caring girls can be capable of hurting and upsetting others, whether it's done deliberately, or is out of carelessness or a moment of thoughtlessness. How then can we help and support our girls to support one another? Here's some ideas.

Friendship Pact.

Encourage your daughter and her friends to get together and make a binding friendship agreement that they will never, EVER, talk about one another behind each other's backs. This seems to be the single greatest evil amongst friendship groups; the thing that causes the most upset and arguments. It sows distrust between girls, is immensely upsetting for the girl who finds out she's the subject of the gossiping – which she will, because someone always blabs, thereby causing more stress. Let's encourage our girls to make a pact that this kind of behaviour is absolutely forbidden, and it's everyone's responsibility to uphold the pact. For tween girls it might be fun to cement the agreement by making friendship bracelets (which could be as simple as loom band ones), which all the girls wear to remind them of the pact, or it could be written down as a formal agreement, which all the girls sign. However they decide to do it, it's crucial that each girl understands that back-biting and gossiping is absolutely not on, and that the agreement to not do this is sacrosanct.

Watch your words.

So many disputes between girls seem to come about over seemingly nothing at all; someone makes what they think is a harmless remark, and the next thing someone has taken offence, girls take sides and someone inevitably gets sidelined. We might tell our girls to “be nice” and to “not be mean,” but perhaps it might be more helpful to give them a solid framework to help them work out exactly how to do this. Get them to consider whether or not their words are Kind, Truthful, and Necessary, and encourage them to get into the habit of thinking more carefully about what they say. They might think that Maddie really needs to know that her new jeans look like they're too tight for her, but it's certainly not kind to tell her so, and while it may very well be true, it's sure as hell not necessary! Also, sorry is one really powerful word.  If genuinely spoken, it has the ability to diffuse an inflamed situation, add salve to a bruised ego and mend bridges. Acknowledging and taking responsibility for thoughtless or unkind behaviour is also a huge step to becoming a mature young woman, especially if it's done with sincerity with no caveats included. Heck, that's probably good advice for all of us!

Girl Time.

Introduce the idea that girl time is both special and unique.  While it can be argued that there is no definitive shared girlhood experience, there are undeniably some common denominators, the most overriding of which is that only girls know what it's like to not be boys. They've not grown up with the privilege of being born male, and have had to navigate their way through a world that overwhelmingly caters to and for the preferences and needs of males. It is a man’s world, and only girls know what that feels like, even if they're still too young to fully articulate what that means.  Fostering within our girls a sense of pride in their sex and all that comes with it; be it periods, under-wiring or whatever, will also foster a sense of unity. Encourage your daughter and her friends to spend time together regularly that is just girl time, with no boys allowed, even via FaceTime or Instagram or whatever the method of contact usually is. Let her discover that girl only time can be immensely liberating, as it’s time freed from the pressure and potential performative friction that the company of boys can engender.  No one is saying that boys are off limits; just that making space to spend time together to enjoy one another's company without this distraction is a really important and potentially sacred thing.


If they're going to learn to support one another, they need to get into the habit of respecting differences and affirming one another’s individual choices.  During adolescence the pack or herd mentality is strong, and it can be really hard to chart your own course. It's doubly difficult when your friends don't back you up or even mock your choices. Girls need to learn to support one another by encouraging each other, and building each other up rather than doing what we’re  encouraged to do by our nasty and misogynistic media, which is to knock each other down.  Our girls aren't ignorant of celebrity culture; where young women are on the one hand praised for being highly sexualised, and on the other hand mocked for exposing too much flesh, and then admonished if they fail to live up to ridiculously high standards of beauty. They will have seen the covers of well known celebrity magazines where women are chastised and mocked for being too fat/too thin/too old/too pale/too made-up/not made-up enough – etc.  They've absorbed the message that it's open season on women and our bodies, and it's our job to help them unpick this rubbish and not proliferate it with their friends.

Be the change...

Ultimately, we are our daughters’ first and most important influence.  How we respond to other women, whether it's our friends, mothers, sisters, or that woman off the telly, is being absorbed and perhaps copied by our girls. We too have grown up in this sexist world, and thus, we’re sadly not immune to misogyny either.  How we speak about ourselves, and about other women is really important.  If we want our daughters to respect and enjoy the company of other girls, then we really need to practice what we preach, and model some womanly appreciation of our own. This even goes for that one girl in your daughter’s class who has been a thorn in her side ever since Reception year. Don't give in to the urge to verbally rip her to shreds after your daughter has come home from school (yet again) in tears after another barbed comment. Try to criticise the behaviour, rather than the girl herself, however hard this may be. So much of what happens between girls is a temporary glitch, all over and done with and forgotten by the following day. It may seem like the end of the world in the moment, but that's when we need to step in and remind them that these things happen; that friendship is worth fighting for and that they need to stick together. Always try and remember that while you're comforting your daughter (and silently cursing the one who upset her) another girl may well be doing the exact same thing with her mum. Our own child's perception of things isn't always entirely accurate.

With this in mind, it’s also a good idea to try to foster warm, cordial relationships with the mothers of your daughter’s friends. This might require you to be quite proactive if your child is in secondary school, as the parents don't mix as much as during the primary phase. Having a good relationship with other mothers means you can communicate directly if there are any on-going issues between girls, instead of inwardly festering about it, or immediately escalating it to a teacher; a sure-fire way to get someone's back up. Also, it sets a good example to your kids if they can see that their mums present a united front, and behave respectfully to one another.

Ultimately, this is a hard phase of development, both physically and emotionally.  Few girls seem to emerge entirely unscathed from their secondary school experience, and for some, friendship with other girls and true sisterhood continues to elude them beyond school and into adulthood.  What this tells me is that we need sisterhood more than ever, because for every twelve year old girl returning home from school today in tears, there's a doting mum handing over a tissue and worrying herself sick.  We all want the same thing; happy, healthy, thriving girls. Let's work together to achieve this, and encourage our daughters to do the same.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

That's just girls

It seems to be a universally accepted fact that girls will repeatedly fall out with one another throughout their school years and perhaps, beyond. I have two daughters, and in my experience, I can attest to there being much truth in this.  They talk behind each other's backs.  They switch allegiance between best friends at the drop of a hat. They inexplicably blank one another. They take offence continuously. We’re told by wiser mothers (of daughters) and by our own mothers, that this is just girls. It's just how they are. And there's enough anecdotal evidence to more than back this up and so the maxim becomes self-fulfilling. We accept that this is the way things are, and consequently we often don't invest the time and energy required into teaching girls to build supportive, caring relationships with one another.   

Do we live in a world that teaches girls to dislike one another, from the off? We certainly live in a world where girls are raised by women who have absorbed the message that other females are competition, and that this is completely natural.    
As girls grow, they gradually internalise the two-fold message spewed out by the media and by society that decrees girls must be heterosexual and that males are a priority.  Seeking a male partner, being attractive to males, being available to males; all these things are very obvious consequences of living in a world that prioritises the needs and feelings of men above all else.    

Girls also grow up internalising the rampant misogyny that pervades our world, some of it glaringly obvious, some of it subtle but all the more insidious because of it. Let's take a look at the films and stories which are pushed at little girls; the Disney Princesses alone contain enough negative messages about inter-woman relations to be troubling.  Consider who the villain of the piece is in Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Enchanted? Not only is it a woman, but the motive for her antagonism is often jealousy. 

 So we are feeding our little girls the message that not only is it imperative that they be beautiful (because only beautiful princesses get their Prince) but that women (usually older, embittered women) will envy you for this. More modern cinema may have tried to redress the balance with films like Frozen and Maleficent, both depicting love and friendship between women, but this is a very recent phenomenon and not one that’s likely to have a huge impact on ingrained behaviours overnight. Also, in both these movies, the friendship between the women is treated almost as a novelty, precisely because the viewer doesn't expect women to behave like this towards one another.  So, for example in Maleficent we are to be surprised that true love's kiss comes from the embittered Maleficent towards the young and beautiful Aurora, and similarly, it is an unexpected plot-twist that the act of true love in Frozen is between two sisters, and not, as the plot sets up for us, between Ana and Kristof. Thus, the twin expectations of men being a priority and women being unable to get on with one another are reiterated, albeit subliminally.

Boys, on the other hand, are fed a diet of camaraderie and friendship, as depicted by anything from Thomas and his Friends, and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to Spiderman and his buddies, Shrek, and the X-Men.  Heck, even the Minions are all male, and despite the odd fisticuffs (because boys will be boys won't they?!) are a tale of teamwork and group harmony.   

Boys are encouraged to take part in group games and sports, which undeniably helps foster unity and a sense of shared purpose. The vast majority of sports on television are still male dominated, whether it's football, cricket or rugby.  Young boys aren't short of examples of male teamwork and bonding in our culture, yet despite small advances in this area (such as the recently high profile of the women's England football team), girls are massively deprived of such role models.  Indeed, they're encouraged to take part in activities that are overwhelmingly to do with their physical appearance, be it clothes shopping or pamper parties. Even dancing; which is a common and traditional pursuit for little girls, is pervaded by restrictive physical demands.  Ballerinas in particular are expected to be pretty, docile and slim.  By the way, I have girls and boys, and I see little external encouragement for girls to participate in activities which are collaborative and which encourage healthy group dynamics to develop (except with the possible exception of Rainbows, but let's not forget that the male counterpart for this group is Beavers, a word which conjures up busyness and industry, whereas the word Rainbow conjures up colourful prettiness. Language has power, people.)

What of older girls then, in the teen and pre-teen age group? What positive examples of female harmony and friendship do they encounter in the wider world? We see women fighting, both literally and figuratively, on film, TV and in music videos.  I remember this song from 2005; currently being used on the Money Supermarket advert - Don't Cha' (wish 
your girlfriend was hot like me?) by the Pussycat Dolls.  Explicitly spelling out why other women are to be regarded with suspicion, and how being hot is paramount for hooking a man, regardless of how this might affect another woman; it's her own fault for not being hot enough, after all.    

Consider the more recent  examples of Taylor Swift's Bad Blood – laughingly touted as Feminist, despite the fact that this video contains image after image of highly sexualised women and concludes with them beating the crap out of one another. Yay, Sisterhood. Or Rhianna’s latest offering,BBHMM (content warning for sexual violence),which is problematic for many, many reasons, but which is also a violent example of misogyny perpetrated by a woman against another woman. I wouldn't go so far as to say that these artists are causing girls to turn on each other; rather that their existence is symptomatic of the misogynistic world that we live in, where hatred, envy and distrust of each other is normalised. Girls see this, they absorb it and it becomes truth. As parents who grew up in the pre-internet age, I don’t think we've twigged yet just how all pervasive this kind of content is in the lives of our children.  It can - and is - accessed twenty-four hours a day, by phone, by iPad, by laptop.  And if you're keeping an eye on what your child sees on the internet, you can bet that the parents of at least one child in her class aren't.  She'll see things you don’t want her to see; it's utterly unstoppable. We’re feeding our girls a steady diet of misogyny; and it's making them sick.    

Let’s resist. Let’s teach our daughters about collaboration, teamwork and mutual support.  Let’s teach our girls to love one another, and not envy each other.  Let's teach them not to distrust each other, but to value their shared girlhood for the unique, unifying gift that it can be.  Let's teach them that together they are stronger; that they needn't fear each other. That in friendship and sisterhood there is real power and strength, and within each
 of them they have the ability to overcome the things that this world will throw at them. 

This advice goes for us all.  If you're not a feminist already, I strongly urge you to immerse yourself in Feminist theory and thought, for at the heart of this movement is a powerful Sisterhood, comprised of women who know exactly what you've been through and they feel your pain. We are all unwilling contestants in a never ending competition, with men judging and keeping score, and doling out the prizes. It may seem like there are winners, but ultimately, we’re all losers in the end.

(I've written here about the things we can do to help girls to get along with one another.)

Thursday, 9 July 2015


Jesus saying:
"No wound? No scar?
Yes, as the master shall the servant be,
And pierced are the feet that follow Me.
But thine are whole. Can he have followed far
Who has no wound? No scar?"
(By Amy Carmichael.)

This is a post about scars; about how our feelings towards them can be quite complex and not as straight forward as their surface level appearance might suggest.  We can regard them as blemishes upon the landscape of our bodies; unsightly reminders of incidents which have pierced and forever altered the neat, once perfect envelope of skin that we entered this world in. More poetically, they are a visible, physical reminder of the journey that our bodies have taken.  We are a living, breathing scrapbook detailing the incidents of our lives, and our scars can be read as entries.

I have scars. I have many scars. And each one tells a story.

The white patch on my left knee, that conjures up the pain of falling onto sharp gravelly stone, whilst doing endless laps of the school tennis courts; a happenstance that was the whim of a sadistic P.E teacher (is there any other kind?!). The fine white line across the knuckle of my right index finger, which brings to mind the time I was packing to go on holiday and put my hand into my wash-bag, slicing it on the razor that I'd forgotten was in there. The five inch long scar on my hip; a memento from an operation when I was nine, a scar I was particularly proud of as a child because it was especially gory, gaining me extra kudos with my school friends. Ordinary scars, mundane scars.  Some from childhood scrapes and falls, some collected in adulthood from moments of clumsy stupidity or mindlessness, or plain bad luck.

Some scars have far less humble origins, and have greater import because of it.  I have written before about the scar I have on my face, which for me is incidental to how I look. After all, I've never seen what I would look like without the scar. It's always been there and is as much a part of me as my chin or my eyelids.  It is also very visible; scars on ones face can't be hidden, at least not easily.  It might not be the first thing you notice about me when you see me face to face, but notice it you will.

Other scars can be hidden from view beneath clothing and need never see the light of day.  I am blessed (cursed) with paper thin, freckly, white skin, that burns in weak spring sunshine and has historically rebelled against any attempts to stretch it. I've had four babies, so quite a lot of stretching has been required over the years. Hence, I am covered in so many stretch marks that I resemble the road  map of Britain. Happily, these ugly marks; once raspberry red in colour but now faded to silvery white, need never be exposed to the world, unless I decide to wear a bikini in public, and honestly, after you've had four babies, who the heck is going to do that? We can't all be Heidi Klum, after all.

I suppose I could view these marks as symbols of life; the stripes I earned for surviving pregnancy and birth and for bringing four young people into the world. They are war wounds; a visible reminder of the physical pain and toil that the body endures during its gestational battles.
But no. To me they are ugly, unsightly blemishes that I'd really rather not have at all, and I'm grateful that they can easily be hidden from view. I don't really lose much sleep over it, but I don't exactly celebrate them either.

Some people have a far less ambivalent attitude to their scars.  In some cases, they can have a life-changing, detrimental impact upon the people who bear them: the pockmarks which recall teenage years marred by acne. The linear, neat, rows of scars across forearms and thighs, which bear traumatic witness to years of self-harm. The scars which disfigure and conjure up flashbacks of serious accidents or worse, incidents of assault or abuse. Scars have power over us, as they so often come with negative associations.

Scars are so much more than mere imperfections. Often, they are an integral, key player in our story. For good or bad, they have an impact. Let's consider the story of Jesus, specifically of his Resurrection. In Luke 24, we hear the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples after the Resurrection. He tells them:

“Look at my hands. Look at my feet. You can see that it's really me” (Luke 24:39.)

He doesn't say: “look at my face;” he encourages them instead to look upon his hands and feet, scarred, horribly, by the nails that pierced skin, flesh and bone. His scars are an absolutely integral part of the story. Indeed, it only works because of the scars.  Only in the scars does the telling convince people. Like Thomas said,
“I won't believe it until I see the nail wounds in His hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand in the wound in His side.” (John: 20:25)

But Jesus’ scars weren't just proof that He was who He said He was; His scars were a powerful symbol that death had been defeated. And note this: His body; this risen body, was deliberately not resurrected perfectly. Jesus didn't emerge from the tomb all shiny and new, like a brand new penny.  He was physically flawed. He was scarred.  And yet this body was honouring to God, and it was perfect in His eyes.

And so then is mine.  The life I have led is visible through my scars.  They show I was born different, far less than perfect. They show that I've known pain. They show that I'm a mother, that I'm a surviver.  They show that I'm alive. I've earned them, and I'll wear them with pride.

Our scars tell our story. They are our testimony.  They show we have lived.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

NOT a natural mother

A common, recurring response from other women when they hear I have four children; (after they’ve expressed the usual “Goodness, you’re brave!”) is often, “Wow, you must be a complete natural.”
What does this even mean? That I’m a natural mother? Perhaps one who breast feeds until her kids go to school? That kind of natural? Into whole foods and organic produce? Maybe it’s just a way of expressing admiration for someone who is so obviously committed to this mothering malarkey that they wanted to do it multiple times? Maybe all these things. Or maybe it’s just a bullshit notion entirely that has merely grown out of society’s erroneous expectation for mothers.
Women are socialised to be nurturing and this goes hand-in-hand with the idea that we are designed to be mothers. This doesn’t just mean being in possession of a womb; it means that hormonally,  genetically even, we are naturally predisposed to be able to carry out the task of raising a child. Why then do we sometimes find motherhood so hard?
Medical sources estimate that around 10-15% of new mothers will suffer from Post-natal depression, and the charity 4Children has estimated that the figure might actually be closer to 30%. I might be going out on a limb here but I really believe that most mothers suffer post-natal depression to a varying degree, at some point in the first year after their baby is born.  If you were one of the lucky ones who emerged from childbirth relatively unscathed, learned to feed your baby quickly and with no problems and in short, took to motherhood as if you were born to it, well, wonderful. I have a friend whose experience of labour and infant rearing was so lovely to her she described it as an epiphany. It was a wholly positive experience. If you are such a person, then I’m glad for you. I wish it had been like that for me.
I have known both ends of the birth spectrum, having endured a horrendous experience with baby number one, which meant I couldn’t walk for over two weeks; to leaving the hospital after having baby number four and then going to school to pick the other kids up on the way home. It does vary widely.
Perhaps, like me, your induction into motherhood went something like this: you’re weeping in the bathroom every morning at the prospect of peeing onto what is an open wound, your milk has come in and you could rest your chin on your boobs, you lost so much blood in the delivery room that you’re dangerously anaemic, bringing a whole new meaning to the word “tired,” and baby won’t stop crying, and you have no idea what the problem is. Oh, and your partner is a completely useless waste of space.  That.
The thought that your milk coming in actually means your body is being flooded with nurturing, mothering hormones will, I’m sure, provide you with no comfort whatsoever, as you attempt unsuccessfully to latch a child onto a body part that is four times bigger than baby’s head and is ever likely to be sore, crusty and bleeding.  I kid you not, so determined was I to breastfeed (or with hindsight: stubborn to the point of dangerous stupidity) I actually kept a wooden spoon near me to bite down on whenever I fed her, because the pain was so intense.  I can’t recall feeling very nurturing at the time. Funny that.
We’re told that in this aim biology is on our side. Our hormones, namely oxytocin, will gush out along with a maternal outpouring that will bond you to your child in ways that are  utterly unbreakable. If you don’t feel this way there is a real and harmful remove between your expectation (and society’s expectation) of your role as mother, and the bleeding, agonising, leaking, red-eyed reality.
I was terrified of my daughter. Absolutely terrified. I’d never held a newborn, never changed a baby, never fed a baby. I assumed if you put a baby down in her Moses basket, she would just go to sleep (I know, I know, the naivety!) and was flummoxed and rendered powerless by her cries, which only seemed to cease when I fed her, and that was so agonising, it was the last thing I wanted to do.  She pooped continuously, which meant constant nappy changes. She got nappy rash, despite the constant nappy changes, which meant I was checking and changing her every hour, on the hour, round the clock, in a paranoid fluster that it would get worse. I was unprepared for the tiredness, the ever present exhaustion that there was no respite from, because only I could feed her so no one could help me.
The fear of her quickly turned to feelings of inadequacy, as conversations with my friend (who gave
birth the month before me) revealed a very different experience. She went shopping on her way home from the hospital. Shopping! I had to be wheeled to the car.
She’d been out clubbing when her baby was six weeks old. Clubbing! Just the thought of leaving the house to nip to the corner shop made my chest tight and panicky.
I was scared of going out with my baby; what if she cried and I couldn’t stop her? What if she needed feeding? I didn’t want to feed her in front of other people. I didn’t want to handle her in front of other people; I might be doing it wrong. If I ever did, out of necessity, venture out of the house, it would take me the best part of an hour to pack everything I needed. I was paranoid about not having enough nappies with me, or enough changes of clothes. I’d obsessively change her nappy, feed her, check her nappy again, fret and worry over whether she’d need feeding again. She’d sick up, so I’d change her clothes; I was obsessive in keeping her scrupulously clean at all times. Then she’d need changing again, and so leaving the house sometimes didn’t happen at all.  Plenty of times I left, began walking up the street with her in the pram, only to return almost at once because the sound of her high-pitched, implacable wailing brought me out in a cold sweat and made my tummy clench so tightly it hurt.
I avoided other mothers – who were obviously doing it better than me – as their apparent competence and relaxed manner with their babies highlighted my own discomfort. I felt like a fraud; like becoming her mother was a freak accident. I felt like a nanny or a childminder; like she wasn’t actually mine. I was terrified that someone would discover the truth; that I was useless at this mothering thing, and they’d try and take her away from me.
I loved her; this tiny, impossibly beautiful creature. I loved the smell of her; the feel of her soft, downy head with its sparse covering of blonde fluff; her minute and perfectly formed little hands.  In the wee small hours, whilst feeding her, I’d look down and marvel that anything so sublime could have emerged from me.  But loving her didn’t make me enjoy the experience as a whole.  I was battered; mutilated by childbirth, my body distorted to nightmarishly comic proportions, and I was in
a world of pain.
For motherhood comes naturally, doesn’t it my sisters? I am a woman and it is what I am designed to do.  To nurture new life, not just inside my body but on the outside too.  As I struggled to do the one thing that I’d been taught that I was designed to do, I wondered what the point of me was if I couldn’t do this one, crucial thing. What did that say about my worth, not only as a mother, but as a woman? Unsurprisingly, I spiralled downwards into a depression that took a long, long time to recover from.
When I’ve discussed the myth of gender with men, they are sometimes keen to back up their largely essentialist ideas by citing the fact that women give birth as a reason for distinguishing our behaviour to theirs.  This is a problem for several reasons; firstly it erases the experience of women who can’t or choose not to have children by implying that they’re somehow not fulfilling a biological imperative. Secondly, and to my mind, more harmfully, this notion of women as natural nurturers does a disservice to us all by depicting motherhood as something that we ought to be good at.  If you struggle at all, for whatever reason, it can be an isolating and humiliating experience.
The more I think about the idea of women as “carers” the more I see how our biology has been used as a stick to beat us with.  Designating a caring role to women has the potential to let men off the hook (for “biologically” speaking, caring isn’t in their remit) and in practical terms also means that any duty coming under the umbrella of “care” can be foisted onto women, whether it’s taking on the bulk of childcare responsibilities or looking after elderly relatives. As an aside, it’s no coincidence that many jobs involving care, such as nursery workers and auxiliaries in old peoples’s homes, are overwhelmingly done by women. I guess it’s also a coincidence that these jobs tend to be minimum wage too. Mmm…
Girls are socialised from the off to fit into this nurturing mould; it is little girls who are given dolls to cuddle and feed, complete with tiny nappies and pretend bottles. Take a look at the commercial break during a time young children are likely to be watching and witness the blatant gender stereotyping.  We proliferate the “caring” myth by saying things like, “Sons grow up and move on but daughters always stay close.” Which sounds quite touching but actually means “there’s little to no obligation for my son to call or visit, but that’s ok because my daughter will take care of me.” And this is seen by some as normal!
The bitterest irony of all of course; in a society that trots out the nurturing woman stereotype, is that it is totally incompatible with the most dominant female stereotype of all, that of the “woman as sex object.” Indeed, nothing can slay your sexuality more than being pregnant and then feeding/mothering an infant, or indeed older children. In a world where being sexually appealing and appearing available is prized so highly for women, it’s no wonder that a woman’s perceived value in society can diminish sharply when she becomes a mother. The creation of new life and the responsibility of rearing an infant ought to elevate a woman’s status, and yet the experiences of women I know, my own experiences and the high rates of post-natal depression would say otherwise.
So what is my response when another incredulous woman expresses the opinion that I must be a “natural mother,” for choosing to share my life with four little people?
“Sister, there’s no such thing.”

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Mummy, am I beautiful?

Recently I watched my two girls play dress up together, which is not an uncommon sight in our house.  I looked on with amusement and pleasure as my six year old teetered about the house in a long abandoned (pre-motherhood) pair of five inch heels, while my ten year old fashioned herself a dress out of a satin nightie.  They had both helped themselves to a tube of Rimmel in “shocker” and the scarlet grease was smeared around both their mouths.
Playing at being grown-up, at being women. Comic and colourful caricatures of what they will one day become.

For my eldest at least, with puberty just around the corner, the metamorphosis from spindly limbed, unpolished and pink cheeked child into that most exotic of creatures; that of woman, is fast on its way. Her induction is likely to be a painful affair, involving shaving, waxing, plucking, filing, moisturising, exfoliating, squeezing, brushing, curling, straightening, soaking, steaming, sweating and starving. This is of course without even mentioning cramps, underwire and P.M.T; some of the more obvious discomforts of womanhood.

  I describe a particular experience of course; and I should know, because it was my own and my mothers before me.  I don't think my experience is an uncommon one. Indeed, visit any Boots store on any street corner in Britain and you'll see a dizzying array of potions, paints, implements, chemicals and creams, all purporting to do that one thing that is so terribly important if you're a woman: Achieving real and lasting beauty.

For women it is an ambition, nay, a social imperative to be beautiful. It is something to aspire to, to yearn for and to set huge store by, whilst growing up and learning the ways of womanhood. I wonder, how have I, as their mother, contributed to my daughters’ need to be beautiful?

It's because inside me there is a persistent and desperate need to be beautiful too. And its roots are strong and very, very deep.

I was born with a cleft lip, colloquially known as a 'Hare lip,' but I've always detested the pejorative feel to that term and so have never referred to it as that.  Put simply, I was born with a split down one side of my mouth; my upper lip being most affected as well as my nose.  I've had numerous procedures to correct this condition, all of them painful, the last one at age twenty-six, which was a particular joy. The surgeons have done an amazing job; I look what one might call "normal," which pleases me no end but was never actually my goal growing up.

I didn't want to look normal.

I wanted to be beautiful.

Surely this is a pointless and unattainable ambition, for how can one be truly beautiful with a scar down the middle of one's mouth? How can a woman be beautiful with such an imperfection, when we're trained to view beauty as the absence of imperfection and flaws?
If I am ever described as beautiful I always feel that "despite the scar" is being silently uttered, for I could never be considered beautiful because of it.

Ok, pity party over, because actually I think that at times my mother has suffered because of my defect (quirk of birth, condition...whatever) far more than me; after all, I have no memory of the trauma of the first corrective surgeries; nor of the isolation she must have felt when I was born and was less than perfect, and people avoided her out of embarrassment or worse still, disgust. She once
commented that a friend's birth to a baby with a hole in the heart elicited open sympathy, (as you'd expect) whereas my birth, which involved a facial deformity, engendered a less compassionate response. People were undoubtedly uncomfortable about it. Living on a terraced street at the time, within a close-knit community, she remembers watching people walk past with gifts for her friend's baby, whilst never once knocking on to say congratulations to her. She has memories of being out with me in the pram, and having people come over to look and gush over the "new baby" and seeing their faces freeze with horror when they saw me.  She can talk of being in the doctors' surgery amongst a room full of whispering mothers and having the receptionist ask if she'd be "more comfortable in a side room."

I'd like to think we're more enlightened now; more understanding and compassionate. I'd really like to think that. My poor mother's experiences of having a child with a facial deformity in 1979 were anything but. This heavily influenced her attitude towards me, in particular her insistence while I was growing up that I was beautiful, for aren't all little girls beautiful? She has always rushed to reassure me that this is absolutely the case. With every new operation, each new procedure, it inched me a little bit closer to a “normal” face and a touch closer to achieving true beauty.

“Does it look better mummy?”
“Yes, you look beautiful!”
“Is my nose less crooked now?”
“It's lovely!” 
“Are my teeth straighter?”
“Yes, they look great!”
“Is my lip still wonky?”
“No. You are beautiful.”

My mother’s motto when I was growing up, whether she was dragging a brush through my waist
length hair, or pulling it into tight rollers to achieve a true late eighties poodlesque perm, and I was complaining and whining as only a ten year old can, was always, “You have to suffer to be beautiful.”

Looking back, I can honestly say that I have.  We have both suffered for me to be beautiful.

My mum is a warrior of a mother; she would do all in her power for me to be happy, and isn't happiness for women and girls utterly bound together with the notion of being beautiful? We’re taught this from the cradle, through a frothy, frilly preponderance of pink and prettiness.  Girls are beautiful. End of.

The consequences of not matching up to this standard are well known, and well documented. Anorexia and bulimia, appallingly low self-esteem, comfort eating, depression, crippling anxiety, general misery and unhappiness.  I look at my girls and I know I would do anything to spare them from any of these things, of course I would. Any mother would.

Are my girls beautiful? Yes. They are my children; I gave birth to them forty-eight hours apiece in screaming agony, and have marvelled and delighted in every inch of their peachy soft, delicate little bodies ever since.  They are wholly, unutterably beautiful to me, which does of course make me wonder then, would it matter to me at all if anyone else never thought the same thing. In other words, does their value come from how the world perceives their beauty, or from how they themselves perceive it?

I know some incredibly attractive people.  I know some people who are unusual and unconventional looking, and I know some people who would be considered unattractive, and/or possibly ugly – I hate that word! Here's the interesting thing though: If I asked each of these people to rate their “beauty” or to tell me how happy they were with their physical appearance, the answers might surprise me.  People who the world views as beautiful don't always agree with the world, and the more I hear of people who are dissatisfied with their appearance, the more I'm convinced that seeking beauty as a goal in life is totally pointless.  Even if you did manage to eat the right diet, do the right exercise, wear the right clothes, have the right hair, wear the right make-up, be the right age, etc, etc, life and the passage of time have a way of trying to lay you low.

You're going to get older. You're going to get ill from time to time. You might have a baby.  You might have a disfiguring accident.  Life isn't full of many certainties but I know this for sure; nobody is beautiful forever.

Why then do we invest so much time and effort on pinning our happiness to something so fleeting? Something so hard to define anyway? Something which is actually far more subjective than we give it credit for?

No answers on a postcard please because this was, of course, a rhetorical question. I'm well aware of why women need to be beautiful (*cough* patriarchy) but that's a blog post all of its own.

I don't want to push the notion of beauty at my daughters. I want this to be the last word they use to describe themselves.  They are smart.  They are funny.  They are kind and imaginative and spirited and adventurous and thoughtful and loyal and fierce and a thousand other things that they've not even learned to be yet. I will not limit their potential by pinning their future happiness on something as nebulous as beauty, for as soon as you set this as your goal what you're actually striving for is the approval and validation of others. Self worth has to depend on more than what we see in the mirror, but unfortunately it so seldom does.

In my efforts to be more God centred, it is to Him I look when seeking approval and affirmation. Why do I not look to myself? Well, I've proved time and time again that I am no judge of my own behaviour, or of my own esteem; I regularly find myself wanting or paradoxically, I rate my own efforts too highly.  My opinion of me can't be trusted.

How then does God see me? How does He see my daughters?

Psalm 139, verse 14, tells us:

You are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Or, in the NLT version:

Wonderfully complex.

When my daughter’s ask me that dreaded question: Do I look beautiful Mummy? I will think twice before enthusiastically answering with a resounding yes. Instead, I will answer with this:

Darling, you are fearfully and wonderfully made. You are too complex to be merely beautiful. You are unique and you are eternally precious. You are loved. And despite what this world will try to tell you, you are enough.
 Are you beautiful?
You are so much more than that.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

"I'm not sexist, but..." - Some questions for the Men

So, you're not sexist right? Come sit beside me, and we’ll chat for a while. I've got a few questions to ask you. You might not like some of the questions. You probably won't like the answers. I wonder if you'll recognise yourself at all? Ok, let’s go:

 If a woman is strong, opinionated and confident, do you think of her as bossy and argumentative? Would you ever describe a man as such? How easy do you find it to take orders from a woman? Has this even ever happened? How do you feel about women in leadership? Do you think of them as being equal to men in leadership roles or do you consider them outside the norm and unorthodox?
Do you expect your voice to be heard before anyone else's? Do you expect your views to be taken more seriously than other people's? Do you listen seriously and thoughtfully when people criticise you? Do you ever take their comments on board or do you dismiss them out of hand? Consider how your reaction might be different depending on who is saying it, for example, do you value the opinions of men more than women?If you work in a leadership role, is it possible this tendency to be heard more has overlapped into your personal relationships?

Do you ever apologise? Genuinely and sincerely? Do you find this easy? Do you think it's necessary? Have you ever considered the fact that women apologise  continuously, due to the socialisation that demands girls be polite and “nice.” We apologise for standing in someone's way, for sitting down on a bus, for not having our wretched clubcard with us at the checkout, for our baby screaming, for not being in when someone calls, for not replying straight away to a text message, for not having done the vacuuming, for being ill, for not having done our hair that day, etc, etc, sorry, sorry, sorry. Do you??

Look at your relationships with your kids. If you have sons and daughters, do you treat them the same? Do you give your daughter as much freedom as you give your son? Do you have the same expectations for both? Do you allow your son to hit and kick and call it “play fighting?” Do you accept the same behaviour from your daughter? Have you ever excused your son’s behaviour by saying, “that's boys for you?” And have you ever considered how this attitude might be a self-fulfilling prophecy? Have you ever thought about how imposing or restricting your son to a traditional model of “boyhood” which precludes dressing up, dancing, role play with dolls etc, and overemphasises rough, physical play might be damaging? Do you even believe that boys have masculinity foisted upon them or do you think it's innate? If you believe it's innate, what would your reaction be to a child who didn't conform to your ideas of gender? And do you realise that by pushing masculinity as something for your son to aspire to, you're actually guilty of misogyny, since what you actually want is for him to be anything other than feminine? And are you aware that concepts of masculinity and femininity are socially constructed codswallop anyhow? No?

Do you find yourself describing women primarily by their physical characteristics, for example, the blonde, the pretty one, the fat one? Do you automatically value a woman more, in the first instance at least, if she's attractive, young and slim? Are you conversely more likely to dismiss a woman if she's old, fat and unattractive? Do you have a model in your head of how women ought to dress? Do you think that women should have to shave their legs and under their arms? Are you disgusted by women who don't? Are you derisory about such women? If so, have you considered how you are colluding with patriarchal norms?

Do you use pornography? If so, have you considered how this might be damaging to women and girls? Have you thought about the links between pornography and violence towards women? Do you think about the women who are involved in pornography, or do you ignore their personhood while you consume images of them? Do you think that the objectification of women is a bad thing? Can you see how this can't be contained just within the porn industry; that it inevitably spills over into everyday life and attitudes? Are the women you look at real women to you, with families who love them, with real identities, thoughts, hopes, dreams…feelings? Do you dismiss this by telling yourself that they've chosen to do it, so that makes it acceptable? Have you ever considered that choices made within a system of patriarchy, aren't really choices at all?

Do you do your share of the housework? Shopping? Cooking? Do you expect a pat on the back for cooking for your partner every once in a while, or putting a load of washing on? If you've got guests over, do you make the tea or does your partner? Do you claim to be inept at certain tasks, such as cooking dinner or baking, operating the Hoover or iron, sorting laundry into brights, whites and darks, even making a cup of tea, yet claim absolute superiority over driving the car, booking holidays, controlling the finances, general knowledge…most other things that aren't housework or childcare?

If you've got children, are they mainly your partner’s responsibility? Who puts them to bed at night? Who gives them their bath? Who gets up with baby in the night? Do you change your fair share of nappies? Again, do you expect your partner to be grateful if you do these things? Do you feel as if it's inherently her job and you're helping her out? Who liaises with the teachers at your kid’s school? Who washes the P.E kits? Who makes sure the school shoes and uniforms fit and who goes to buy new ones? Who makes the packed lunches? And helps with the homework?

How do you spend your spare time? Do you fit this around the family, or is your time your own? Is watching the football/going to the gym/playing on the Xbox/going to the pub, sacrosanct? And the family must fit around it? Does your partner enjoy the same freedom? Has your career been disrupted or put on hold so that you can have a family? Or does your career come first, and not necessarily for financial reasons? If there are compromises to be made in this area, who makes them; your partner or you?

Do you believe that the fact that women have a womb makes our brains significantly different to men's? Do you think that our ability to create life and nurture it makes us less able to do other things? Have you not considered that our ability to do something that men can't, actually gives us additional skills? Why has this one biological fact been used as an excuse to suppress women rather than celebrate us for the one thing we are capable of doing which men can not? Mentally, do you automatically designate certain tasks as being something that women are naturally good at? Such as caring for small children and the elderly? Have you ever considered why this might be? Have you never noticed how all the jobs involving care tend to be poorly paid, have long hours and inevitably, overwhelmingly are done by women? Do you think this is a coincidence?

Let's take a look at the books on your bookcase. How many were written by women? Would you be happy to read something written by a woman, particularly if it's characterised as “chick lit?” Dig deep now; do you inherently assume that men's literature (note: literature, not bloke lit or some other equally derisory term) is more serious and intelligent? Have you not noticed how women's writing is denigrated by downgrading it with a cheap and fluffy label?
Do you enjoy women's comedy? Consider women to be as funny as men? Ever wondered why comedy panel shows are overwhelmingly filled by men? Have you even noticed there is a male-bias in certain sectors? What about prime time entertainment shows? Have you noticed how often they are presented by young women coupled with an older man? Can you think of an equivalent example where the opposite is the case; a young man paired with an older woman? In fact, have you even noticed the complete dearth of women from the television once they reach a certain age, and yet men’s careers continue to flourish? How the currency of men increases the older they get, but women's value diminishes?

Do you acknowledge that the reason for all these things is because we live in a patriarchy? A world ruled overwhelmingly by men, for men, servicing their needs, wants and desires. A world where men have the power and women are largely excluded. A world where men dominate politics, most leadership roles, exercise overwhelming moral authority through our churches, schools, criminal justice system and the media, and have control over the majority of property and wealth. Do you see how this obviously filters down into our day to day relationships with one another? Our daily interactions? Our familial relationships and how we connect and engage with one another?

Perhaps you don't agree. Perhaps you don't think we live in a patriarchy. Maybe you even want to challenge the very notion of the word. But please, have a moment of inner honesty and ask yourself if the reason you don't want to help overthrow the patriarchal system (denying its existence amounts to the same thing) is because you, as a man, benefit enormously from keeping things just as they are? Do you agree that women are oppressed? And if so, do you see how it's possible to collude with that oppression, in ways you might not even have been aware of?

Are you a sexist?

Yes. You sure as Hell are.

Ps: #NotallMen ; )