Friday, 30 April 2010

Is it really worth the bother?

Dear Early Learning Centre

I've been browsing your website looking for a gift for my youngest child's birthday, and was shocked to discover that you have a function that filters searches by gender. Perhaps this is considered a useful marketing tactic in a sexist world, but it is most definitely contrary to any message you may be hoping to convey about education through play. Why, precisely, are you suggesting that boys can’t play with the Rosie’s World Summer and her Camper van? Why isn’t Dino Mountain “suitable” for girls? Why are “Phantom Pirates” okay for girls, when “Ghostly galleon” isn't? (The only way I can interpret the latter and similar examples seems to be that it’s okay to spend a little bit on “male” toys for girls, but not worth getting them the expensive stuff, which is strictly boys only…). Like so many people of my generation, I grew up in a home where beliefs in strict gender roles were rampant, and it’s limiting and restricts horizons for no reason whatsoever. You might say parents can choose to buy whatever they like – they can and will anyhow – but to legitimise the idea that certain toys are “gendered” is damaging nonetheless. Everyone brings their own prejudices to parenting – it’s not your place to reinforce them.

I am old enough to remember early TV adverts for ELC in the eighties, which involved a Barbie and Action Man-type couple trying to break into a shop but not being deemed acceptable (the ads ended with Barbie then demanding to see her lawyer). How times change – I take it you think you’ve “done” anti-sexism now and can get back to being a “proper” toy shop (albeit one which is now actually more dated and sexist than all the rest)? I hope this marketing policy changes. In the meantime, I won’t be buying my children anything from ELC and will make sure all my friends who go in your shops are at least informed about this website search function.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Birth choices?

Lots of debate on the F-Word about Labour’s plans to give women more choice about home births and having partners to stay the night after a baby’s birth. The whole thing really irritates me and at first I couldn’t work out why. But finally, I think it’s because in all this no one seems to remember that a experiencing a successful live birth is not testimony to the power of womankind, but basically a massive privilege. I don’t mean this in the sense of “so think yourselves lucky and stop questioning the conditions of such births” (on the contrary, we should continue to do so). What I mean is that if you start presenting labour as an area in which women know their own bodies and can make choices from a position of authority, you have to consider how this might resonate with women who’ve experienced miscarriage and stillbirth. Since being fortunate enough to have my two sons, these things don’t get to me any more, but after a disastrous first pregnancy I would have found exactly this type of debate deeply upsetting. How can women who are having successful pregnancies lay claim to such knowledge and capability, just because they are more able than others to physically reproduce? It strikes me as a little similar to when people talk about positive attitude with reference to cancer and describe survivors as having “won their battle”. Those who don’t seem to be able to harness this apparently innate physical ability and instead experience their bodies as doing something beyond their control and desire are made to experience a personal tragedy as a personal failure as well.

Giving birth is such an extreme physical and emotional experience, yet most women only experience it a few times at the most. Birth experiences are so variable, yet the intensity of your own can lead you to see it as representative of something deeper, applicable to other women and what could or couldn’t be the “right” birth. To be honest, I think we should be more cautious and if anything, place less import on experiencing in a way which gives you the appropriate narrative at the end. No one should be using women’s bodies as a battleground for their own ideals (and I think some, but far from all, midwives and doctors do this, as though we’re pieces of meat to be fought over in a quest for professional status). At the same time, I wonder how helpful it is for us to shackle ourselves with birth plans and ideals which don’t respect our own physical responses and desires once the contractions kick in. We don’t have the breadth of experience to say in advance what should happen, not just to others, but even perhaps to us, since births are so unique and we’ll never go through the same birth twice for comparison’s sake. And really, I wonder how feminist it actually is to make experiencing a good labour an issue of empowerment and choice. I can’t see this doing much more that making women who’ve had good labours without intervention fail to appreciate how randomly lucky they’ve been, and women who for reasons beyond anyone’s control have horrendous experiences feel they have somehow let themselves and their bodies down.

Can’t we just aim for an okay birth experience, one which treats all women with respect as autonomous human beings, whether it’s in an NHS hospital or at home? I found the former, while not exactly a luxurious experience, absolutely fine, but would hope to have the latter, were I to get pregnant again, as simply the safest bet, as I have a history of very fast labours. My second son, in his eagerness to arrive, was born via an unorthodox “compromise” option, between our house and the hospital, delivered by my partner on the ground next to a portakabin. I still think of those moments just after he arrived, when there was just the three of us in the world, as perhaps the most magical I will ever experience. Still, I’m not about to recommend open-air freebirthing for all (if, as had been the case with my first son, the umbilical cord had been wrapped around my second son’s neck, a minor hiccup could have turned into a tragedy due to the absence of a midwife, however bossy and overly-officious [and the midwife I had with the first one was just that…]).

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that while I’d also have liked to have had my partner there on the night after our first child was born (I too was very scared) and may have liked a home birth with our second (however special, it was not as safe as I'd have liked) I don’t think we should allow labour, birth and the time immediately afterwards to gain too much import in terms of perceptions of our own power. Whether or not a partner is or isn’t there for one night or you are or you aren’t at home is simply scratching at the surface, beneath which lies such a vast number of things you can’t control, however organised and forceful you are. We should fight for control over any decisions made regarding our own bodies, but we should not confuse this with believing that our bodies will thereby always be controllable.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Charlotte Raven tells us all how to be feminists

Really annoying, offensive article on The Guardian Review today, telling us how the 'new feminism' went wrong. Apparently, according to Charlotte Raven, it's all down to women of her generation selling out to marketing somewhere in the nineties.
I was at university in the nineties. I once dressed as Geri Halliwell for a student party and I'll admit it wasn't my finest hour. Nevertheless, it wasn't because I was strangely oblivious to the fact that "the girlpower we were all getting "into" was in fact a bit of marketing aimed at getting tweens to buy records". Nor was it, as stupid and anti-feminist actions go, anything like as bad as writing an article for a mainstream newspaper in 2010 in which you assert that we women "only have ourselves to blame" for the hyper-sexist and hyper-sexualised culture that confronts us.
I really, really hate this kind of thing. Someone, somewhere, realises they were completely wrong in their beliefs and actions many years ago, yet, in a fit of sheer arrogance and self-aggrandisement, decides that it can't just have been them - it must have been the whole damn generation. Well, no, Charlotte, no. It was just you. Or at the very least, I can think of very few people whose experience of the nineties was as follows:
In my Dolce & Gabanna number, I believed I was free to be what I really really wanted. Like Tony Blair, I felt I was a person of destiny.
Honestly, it was not like that for the rest of us. And perhaps the reason no one challenged you in your delusions wasn't because we were all too busy "dancing around in bra tops". We were just doing our best with the same old sexist crap we confront every day, the same as now, with the daily frustrations compounded whenever someone claiming to have our best interests at heart wrote another self-serving article of the kind you've just produced.
The Geri Halliwell thing was one evening of my life. I still have my leopard print Spice Girls top, but can only see a problem with that if you're unimaginative enough to read into it an ideology that was never there. Yes, you can say it's treating things that may have misled and distorted with frivolity and carelessness. But that's not beyond redemption, at least not in the way that getting paid to kick women, all women, in the teeth in the national press might be.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Selling my soul to the pink/blue orthodoxy

Another post at the F-Word on what Philippa Willitts calls "the widening chasm between girls and boys' things", as exemplified in particular by the dominance of blue for boys and pink for girls. No matter how trivial this seems to some, I find this incredibly worrying, not least because the orthodoxy is so powerful even those who don't believe in it feel they have to promote it.

I work in education. A few years ago I was at a conference during which technology for girls was being pushed - pink websites, online activities based on shopping and make-up, that kind of thing. I commented to a colleague that I found it sad that the very stereotypes which limit girls' aspirations are being perpetuated in supposed attempts to counteract them. She looked at me like I'd said something utterly insane. I haven't said anything like that since.

Several years on, I've sat in meetings where people have raved about educational materials which are "really motivational for boys because they use logic", and taken the suggestion that boys can't necessarily respect female teachers as an immutable fact. I offer no dissent. I've never said this kind of thing myself yet but perhaps, one day, if I feel it necessary, I will. Lots of teachers don't believe its true, lots of educational resource providers don't believe its true, but we all play along with it because we're not sure when and where we're allowed to disagree, and we're told, from the Government downwards, that it's the latest "research" and who are we to question it, anyhow (only women and men and boys and girls who aren't what you say we are). So it's only a matter of time, providing I play the game well enough, before I present the latest pink website to the latest set of victims. Oh well. At least I can spend my earnings on Barbies for my sons.

Expressing milk: the hidden dangers!

Two days back at work and I am called into HR to discuss the "health and safety issues" arising from me keeping a steriliser, breastpump and expressed milk in the company kitchen. Now, if you are a Daily-Mail-type, you may hear the words "health and safety" and immediately think of "political correctness gone mad", a world in which the insane lefties won't let us do anything, dammit. I am not a Daily-Mail-type (and am quite unsure of my use of hyphens here, but that's another matter). I think, rather more boringly, that "health and safety issues" are sometimes valid concerns, and, more rarely, concerns invented to promote a particular agenda, which could be left-wing, right-wing or neither. Even more boringly, I think in this case it's a mixture of the valid and invalid which I won't ever be able to disentangle forcefully enough to make anyone change their mind. And so, on to the issues:
  • The bottle steriliser could get hot and people could burn themselves. Fine, I will put a label on it saying it might be hot.
  • The steriliser takes up space on the worktop. Fine, I will put it in the cupboard when it's not in use. I only later discover it is too big for the cupboard, meaning I need to dismantle it each time and hence stop it being in any sense sterile. But I say nothing. God forbid I disturb the wide expanse of space for cooking ready meals and making instant coffee with the Hadron Collider that is an Avent steam steriliser.
  • People open and shut the fridge, so it might not stay cold enough for the milk. Fine, is there anywhere else I could put it? No? Well, I'll put it at the bottom in the back. You want me to put it in a coolbag too? I say yes and only work out later that this doesn't actually make any sense, given that the milk will be body temperature when I put it in said insulated bag (physics not being my strong point). But I do nothing, put extra cool blocks in the coolbag itself to make it more like the fridge I was keeping things in in the first place.
  • Older people in the company are not as "baby-orientated" and don't know what these things are. Okay... It's at this point I'm not so sure what to say. I don't feel particularly "baby-orientated" at work either. I'm just ensuring my son doesn't have to have formula milk. I make some totally irrelevant reference to the fact that I got "into" expressing (like it's some kind of wacky craze) when my son was seriously ill as a small baby, and just thought I'd carry on. Random emotional blackmail, which I shouldn't have to use, somehow seems to work.

For the rest of the day, I don't think anything about this. Then the next day I find myself feeling increasingly uncomfortable about something I felt fine about before. It gradually comes back to me, in bits and bobs of conversation, that the equipment's appearance in the kitchen has been discussed at meetings, along with certain complaints that this place "isn't a crĂȘche" (the man who tells me this also tells me that his wife breastfeeds, which he thinks is "good, I suppose, I won't stop her, it's her choice" - I suppose this is a good thing to say, overall...). It seems to me that while some of the health and safety "advice" is fine - I don't want anyone to get burnt - much of it seems less about safety and more about decreasing visibility, more about ensuring that, in a company of hundreds, where most employees are women, where many women return to work before their babies turn one, we keep it as well-hidden as possible that only one of their number has a child who's still fully breastfed.

It makes me want to get to work pumping at the desk, there and then. But I don't. The colleague across from me asks what the meeting yesterday was about. "Health and safety", I say. "It's political correctness gone mad."

Thursday, 11 February 2010

From the pages of "Reveal"...

An government advert on page 70 of this week's "Reveal" is promoting the benefits of breastfeeding. Fair enough, you might think. And while I find all the references to "mum's milk" a tad overfamiliar and prim (what's wrong with "breastmilk"?), it all seems fine, until you get to the claim that breastfeeding "also helps mum to bond with her baby, as well has giving her the chance to sit down and relax". Because yeah, I don't know where I'd be without my extra-special "breastfeeding breaks", given that it's apparently not acceptable for mothers to just sit down and relax anyhow. Although I have to say, quite how your baby needing a feed suddenly creates the space and time for you to sit down and relax isn't exactly made clear - it's not like my toddler suddenly stops needing exactly the same amount of attention as before, something which ultimately makes the physical restriction of breast- as opposed to bottle-feeding less of a relaxation-excuse/opportunity and more of a pain in the arse. Sigh. Yet another example of breastfeeding being "promoted" through the sanitised representation of something which isn't anything like breastfeeding at all. Oh, and the photo's great, too - not a bit of breast in sight, let alone the dreaded nipple...

Friday, 5 February 2010

White, middle-class, heterosexual ... so I would say this, wouldn't I?

I've just read a review of Natasha Walter's Living Dolls. I am not a huge Natasha Walter fan - her feminism has always struck me as rather over-polite and toothless, a plea for equality as long as it doesn't upset any sexists out there - but for once, I find myself feeling rather more annoyed at the reviewer than at Walter herself.

Syma Tariq attacks Walter for writing a book which has an appeal restricted to British, middle-class, heterosexual readers. Which may be fair enough; I've not read the book yet and would resent any claims made for a universal feminism which in practice excludes most women. Yet this part of Tariq's review infuriates me:
Some of Walter's ideas about what feminism is and does - complaining to Marks & Spencer about sexist advertising, finding gender-neutral toys for her children, having a good career - are disappointing, and irrelevant to many people.
It is odd, to say the least, to find glib dismissals of the concerns of others as "disappointing" and "irrelevant to many people" within a piece entitled "Feminism shouldn't be exclusive". Tariq seems to suggest that on the contrary, it should, only in this case, she should be the one to decide what gets left out.

Several years ago Barbara Gunnell wrote a great article for the New Statesman on how middle-class women have become the acceptable target for left-wing sexism. I won't go into this in detail, as the piece itself says it all, but I can't help feeling that within Tariq's own language, there's an internalised misogyny, a suggestion that sexism is not a valid focus for concern unless it's sexism + Something More Important, a personal distancing from the concerns of those who are "just" women and don't have a more legitimate label or cause for complaint. Tariq plays into the hands of those who dismiss feminism as a white, middle-class and hence trivial movement, and she does so precisely because she trivialises the concerns of white, middle-class women. What is "disappointing" and "irrelevant" about not wanting your own environment to be steeped in gender bigotry? Nothing, as far as I can see. This doesn't have to be an endorsement of everything else to do with the environment itself, but an acknowledgement that no one should be considered inferior on the basis of their sex. Which seems heartbreakingly basic to me.

I am aware that Syma Tariq's view has some currency amongst many feminists, including white, middle-class, heterosexual feminists such as myself, but personally, I am tired the self-imposed paralysis of others like me, the fear of demanding anything which may be of restricted value and hence considered a mark of privilege, the reluctance to ask for circumscribed equality as long as there is no such thing as absolute equality. If something is worth asking for, however small, it's worth asking for, without apologies, even if it's a complaint which sounds a bit old hat (sexist advertising), a bit mumsy (gender-neutral toys), a bit eighties-retro (a good career). Yeah, it's not the worst that can happen, but that's not the point, either. It's a shame Tariq just doesn't get it.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Some mothers actually like bacon sandwiches

My maternity leave ends in two weeks' time. I really can't wait, the little ones are driving me insane. Or so I say, because I'm meant to say it, and everyone thinks I'm joking. I mean it, though, but then I wouldn't chance it if I thought anyone would believe me. Instead, I let people pity me because I "have to" go back. I know they think I'm losing out on something I'll never have again.

They're only young once. I'm never quite sure what that's meant to say. My baby, sleeping in the cot at my feet, will never again be as tiny and fragile as he is tonight, or so I hope. Every day is something lost but also something gained. And the truth is, baby- and toddlerhood is wasted on the person doing the actual caring, just as youth is wasted on the young and wealth is wasted on the old. Little ones are exhausting, frustrating, maddening. They're wonderful, too, but I'm always mistrustful of those who go overboard in their adoration of infancy. As one comedian put it (I've forgotten who) all it means is, you love the whole human race, but only very temporarily.

If I describe how I feel when faced with another day of bright smiles, love and fury just below my skin, a fury I don't notice until a cry reaches a certain tone, and I realise it's there, but still I hold it down, just - if I describe it, I know I will sound like one of the following:

  • a pathetic, reactionary mummy martyr, revelling in self-adoration masquerading as self-abnegation.
  • an over-educated loser who thinks she's too clever for dirty nappies and CBeebies but really just doesn't know her place yet, and implicitly looks down on any mother who does.
  • a naive middle-class idiot who should have known motherhood was hard and needs to stop crying into her cappuccino.

But I really don't feel like any of these. How women feel about motherhood has become weighed down with clichés, crushing any impression of authenticity. And yet underneath, it's always so real and raw.

I will go back to work full time and once again, just as happened last time, everyone will be amazed, assume I won't last, since all mothers of small children go part-time or drop out. And they'll then decide I haven't lasted, regardless of my very presence. Several times a week the people I interact with every day will say "So which days aren't you in?" and I'll reply, like a corny end-of-pier comedian, "hey, I'm here all week!". I'll get defensive, slip it into the conversation that my partner has flexible hours so the children aren't in nursery every day, forgetting that he's male so it doesn't really count (he's just "babysitting", that's what they call it at the children's centre he visits). I'll get paranoid, wonder whether everyone's asking themselves how a career-mad monster such as myself could be so spectacularly bad at actually progressing up the career ladder.

Each evening, I will be surprised that I have not become totally rubbish at parenting, have brief moments of feeling like Superwoman, living the dream as I totter around in work shoes after my gorgeous little brood. Then something utterly normal will happen - my eldest doesn't like his dinner, my youngest hates being undressed - and I'll be wishing I was back in the office. Or my eldest will hug me and tell me he loves me, my youngest will start to giggle at nothing at all, and I'll be wishing I could be with them all the time. Childish, grass-is-greener nonsense. and I'll half-spoil the most beautiful moments by over-analysing them - is this what motherhood is meant to be?

A few weeks into work, I will forget the physical impossibilities of caring for more than one child, the misery of wanting so badly to make if not both, then at least one of them happy, yet failing whenever I am most loved and needed. I will forget afternoons of dragging despair in the bedroom of one child, a room crammed with toys which the other cannot touch so all I can do is limit the damage, talk about sharing while no one listens and start to hate the sound of my own voice. I will forget that on maternity leave I become obsessed with Facebook, with selling my worldly goods on ebay, becoming pointlessly thin, volunteering for projects I don't believe in or have time for, anything to make me feel as though I have a speed other than painfully slow, up the stairs a minute at a time while my baby cries and my toddler tries to reread his book on each step and I try not to shout at him because he's doing nothing wrong. He gets angry with me if I attempt to speed him up, take his book from him, Mummy no touch! And why shouldn't he be angry? We want the same thing, control of our own environments. I'm bigger and stronger, but at least this keeps me in check.

I will work, the weekend will come and I will not be able to visit the children's centres, which only open for dads' days, dads who work in the week and need "special time" with their children come Saturday. Rough play encouraged, male role models celebrated, bacon sandwiches offered to all, so different from the soggy toddler-munched malted milks "non-working" mothers make do with during the week. I can't join in because I am an abberation - I like bacon sandwiches, I work full-time, I'm a mother who loves her children without having to say how or why because it's unsayable. And I am not filled with regret, or rather, I know the compromises I make and I am tired of all the questions, tired of defending love and feelings, defending structures of living and caring which aren't deemed good enough, tired of allowing myself to cross over into anger, an anger which stops me just accepting this life as it really is.

And someone will read this and think it's up to them to decide whether I mean any of it at all.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

What does Trust Women mean to you?

I value choice, and I value the work of its defenders. And yet the slogan "Trust Women" encapsulates for me so much that pro-choice rhetoric should not be. It is well-meant, I know, but I resent its implications. When it comes to abortion, I neither want nor need anyone's "trust".

Why should I be trusted? My right to define what is beneath my own skin as my own should not be contingent on me being "trustworthy". My right to choose should not be contingent on me making the right choices. Equality is not conditional or one-sided; the moment conditions are set, it ceases to exist.

Who is doing the trusting? Who takes it upon themselves to magnanimously grant me the right to decide whether I or not I reproduce? Those who can't get pregnant? Bodily autonomy is not something to be earned. It is something to be defended, regardless of the ways in which it is expressed.

I want equality to be real. I don't want crumbs from the table of the privileged. I am a woman and I don't want to be "trusted". I just want to live in my own body, freely. Shouldn't we all?

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Baby group, the highs and lows

High: My eldest son and another toddler are playing in the home corner. Eldest is making pretend tea, other toddler (another boy) is ironing. A children's centre worked comes over and, for no apparent reason, hands them a toy DIY toolkit and encourages them to play with fake drills and spanners. Both look at said kit in bemusement, then get back to the more serious business of mopping the ironing board and loading plastic cakes into the washing machine.

Low: Little boy with his mother and sister wears a T-shirt which says, in military-style writing, "After dad, I'm 2nd in command". Ah, male dominance from birth, what a jape! Not sure why his mother thinks that, by virtue of being born without a penis, she is subordinate to a toddler, but can't say I care. I just wonder how his sister feels about all this, or perhaps she's just learning to know her place pretty fast. Still, what I want to know is, why aren't my blue "Misogynist in training" T-shirts selling as well?

Monday, 11 January 2010

Career women: still (arguably) bad mothers

Last week, it was reported that an advert stating "career women make bad mothers" had been pulled following complaints from working mothers. While not exactly cracking open the champagne (hey, I'm breastfeeding), I still found this rather good news. So imagine my surprise when, earlier today, I saw said statement still emblazened on a billboard close to my eldest child's nursery.

Now, although I don't suppose it's in my "bad mother" remit, I'm currently teaching my eldest to read, so I felt particularly uneasy about being confronted with this. Thankfully, though, I don't think he was quite up to understanding terms like "career women", so we have a bit more time before he can indulge in some classic musings on how mummy is ruining his life (nice to know that when he gets there, he'll not be alone in his conclusions... ).

Of course, I'm being sarcastic. While I may not be the world's greatest mother, one thing I know I'm definitely not is a career woman. I'm not successful enough, I don't earn enough, I don't have big enough shoulder pads or red enough lipstick. Essentially, I don't live in the eighties and / or have the type of salary that is considered unseemly unless one is in possession of a penis. I'm not a threat. I'd be merely a "job woman", if such a term existed, except no one ever bothers to label the countless mothers whose paid work is absolutely expected, taken for granted, never resented. Work without which we'd be scroungers (if single) or parasites (if attached). Work which, so long as it pays below the national average, will have no negative impact on our parenting whatsoever. Apparently.

I'm not saying that there aren't other ways in which we "job women" can fail. As I type this, my toddler sleeps on the couch, tantrumed out, while my baby dozes my lap, inches from the computer keyboard. I ought to be making dinner, they ought to be having dinner, but I'm just relieved they're both peaceful for a while. I bribed my way through the afternoon with TV and chocolate. One of those days, a series of mundane compromises, just enough to keep the constant, low-level feelings of inadequacy going. But still, I don't believe I'm a bad mother, or rather, I find the phrase so personal, so loaded, so utterly vague yet utterly hateful, that I don't see the value in contemplating it.

Parenthood makes one hugely, underservedly powerful, and this is especially true of motherhood, at least as it is currently constructed. Parents have the capacity to completely ruin lives, and most of us know it, too. To play with this fact simply to score points is unforgivable, regardless of whether the motivation is pure antifeminism or a self-serving desire to "provoke public reaction" (roughly on a par with the classic "it's ironic" defence for sexism). It is very easy to make parents feel rubbish even when they're not. This doesn't make them even better parents. It makes them human beings who start to lack confidence in perhaps the most important areas of their lives, the area where they need it most.