Australia

She’s been here for years, and it’s not often she feels lost anymore. Not many times, now, that she takes out the old maps that she learned by heart before she even arrived; or opens the old shoebox of mementoes and sighs, her thumb smoothing the crumpled tickets and the photos clipped from magazines when she first began to hope. 

She remembers the small, dull, jolt of recognition each time she first saw the landmarks for real. Always just the same as the photographs, and yet, nothing like. The light glared or was dim; the figures round the frame of the picture not cropped out but jostling and crowding and jarring. In those early days, feeling as though a layer of skin was missing all over, it was hard to realise that she was there at last. 

It’s no small thing, to emigrate. She wasn’t running from, but to; had dreamed of it for years, her pulse quickening when she saw a headline or heard a passing mention of over there. Watching, furtively, the programmes about those moving their lives to the other side of the world, torn between envy and incredulity. It took a long time for her to realise that she could do it too; could overcome the invisible, almost insurmountable, hurdle of making such a change.

Not that she could go straightaway. There were conversations about practicalities and finance. There were hours of research and planning. She narrowed it down to a city, a suburb; shortlisted estate agents and recruitment consultants and hooked up on internet forums with other new arrivals. She knew it wouldn’t all be about lying on the beach, but the beach would still be there behind it all: warm, golden, waiting at the end of the working day or at the weekend. 

The house was sold. The furniture, mostly, handed on. A few cases of books and belongings sealed up ready to ship and store. The tickets, finally, bought; not cheap, but an investment. She wasn’t emigrating for the chance to fly but flying was the only way she’d get there, though she’d never liked the thought of long-haul. 

The journey took the best part of a day and two seasons. She ate tasteless food, slept fitfully, stared unseeing at a TV screen with the colours all wrong. Sleepless, confused, spaced out, she stepped out of the plane into a summer evening having stepped into it in winter. She’d thought about what to wear, but her clothes were wrong, creased and sweaty, her eyes gritty and blinking behind the glasses she’d bought for this new self. Her throat and nose already swollen and scratchy from the germs in the recycled air onboard, the suitcase she’d packed to see her through the first weeks not there on the carousel in the terminal.

She lay ill, alone, for days in the hotel she’d booked in advance still wearing the clothes from the plane; the beach, when she found the strength to make it from bed to bathroom, a faint, unreal, smudge on the horizon between the roofs and walls around. The money she’d saved to enjoy a honeymoon all of her own before settling into a brand new everyday went on the extra nights and the room service and the endless calls dealing with the insurance company and the airport. 

Even the worst case of flu doesn’t last forever. Two weeks later she’d signed up for a lease on a flat, smaller and meaner than she’d wanted, but practical, and near the shop job she’d found to tide her over. The sun was shining and her colleagues talked about going to the beach but she didn’t like to ask if she could join them, and the people she’d met online had already splintered and shut into groups. She knew she was lucky to be there; she updated her Facebook with pictures of the blue sky and little screenshots from Google maps showing how close she was to the shore, but sat in her flat with the shades down trying to keep the heat out, she hated herself that she didn’t feel it and knew it was something she could never admit to. Within walking distance of the famous bay, under blazing sun, having reached her destination at last, how could she admit to how wrong it – she – felt?

She goes to the beach each morning, now; walks the short stretch to the sand with her dog before work. At weekends, in the evening, it’s second nature to go with the children: the well-rehearsed routine of sunsuits and hats and games a small, secret, part of the glee that she can. Only rarely does she stop to remember the days when the joy of it was further away than it ever was when she lived on the other side of the world. 

Rights and wrongs – birth, guilt and “failure”

This afternoon I saw this tweet, and, in replying, came here to find the piece I was sure I’d written on the subject in the past, only to find I never had- despite spending a huge amount of time talking and thinking about it all over the last few years.Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 16.23.01My first child was born by emergency caesarean. After a straightforward pregnancy, I went into labour spontaneously ten days after my due date and all went as planned till he was found to be presenting ear first. You don’t need to be an obstetrician to realise that that poses a problem, especially when the head to which that ear was attached turned out to be above the top percentile for size. We were lucky in that there was an operating theatre and staff on hand to allow him to exit via what the surgeon referred to as “the sunroof”.

Did I feel I had failed? Yes. Was that an entirely rational response? No, of course not.

Partly it was to do with the fact that I hadn’t altogether understood what was going on at the time. A debrief with the head of midwifery a few months later and a copy of my notes helped with that, and helped me rationalise that I hadn’t done anything “wrong”. I still was bothered enough about it, though, that I remember shaking uncontrollably when telling my birth story to an acquaintance almost 18 months later, shortly before my daughter was born. She was born by VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean), as was No3, three years later (this time at home).

Why did I want to go for a VBAC in each case, rather than an elective section, which would certainly have been an option? Had I been somehow brainwashed by advocates of a particular form of childbirth? Did I still feel that I had somehow messed up the first time round and wanted to make good? 

Quite possibly, yes, in part. The other way of looking at it, though, is that having read the evidence, vaginal birth (and ultimately home birth) in my circumstances seemed like a the best option. Not guaranteed safest. Not guaranteed risk free. But, on a balance of probabilities, likely to result in the optimum outcome for both my baby and myself. It wasn’t a blanket rejection of hospital or medicalised childbirth, or an attack on those who plumped for those options. It was, quite simply, nothing to do with any other birth than those two. 

Perhaps, too, there was a grain of good sense behind my disappointment about the first time. It’s possible to be grateful for the availability of medical intervention while regretting that it was necessary; possible to recognise that sometimes things weren’t as perfect as we would have liked while appreciating that we were fortunate that they weren’t much worse. I don’t think we do women any favours by devaluing their feelings of disappointment or equating them to selfishness or a lack of gratitude. Would so many women feel that they have “failed” to experience a perfect birth if they felt free to express their honest emotions about what happened? Moreover, there are valid reasons for caring how a baby is born: women know that certain outcomes carry risk both for their baby and how they will go on to mother.

Having a baby, especially our first, is definitive in many ways: the end of one era of selfhood and the beginning of another, in which we are no longer responsible for ourselves alone. No wonder that we struggle and feel conflicted if our experience of birth is not what we had hoped or expected, when we are encouraged to prepare, participate and – yes, make choices – beforehand, but are rebuked verbally or otherwise afterwards for caring about anything other than a healthy baby.

There’s another aspect, too. Women now are older when they give birth and, in general, may well be used to a degree of autonomy in their work and home lives denied to previous generations. We choose, by and large, to have our babies. Many women will do antenatal preparation and approach labour not as a patient but, at the very least, as a partner in the process. Does our system of maternity care, under financial pressure and with an eye eternally on the implications of the worst-case scenario, allow for a genuine mother-led partnership? I am not an expert, and perhaps it does – but I would argue that many times women feel, for whatever reason, that events and decisions in labour slip out of their control and that the psychological and emotional aftermath reflects that. 

Do women “choose” (or advocate) a particular form of childbirth as a statement or a status symbol? Here, I think it gets complicated. After my eldest was born, I found it very difficult to hear about “natural” birth. Preparing for a VBAC, reading some of the passionate views online, I did feel that there was a current of criticism of those who, like me, had birthed differently. It was a difficult choice to make, and, for a while, I too was passionate about the arguments. Rather facetiously, thinking about holidays this week, I noted that no-one would feel judged for their choice of a camping trip by someone who was jetting off to a catered villa in the south of France, or feel compelled to justify themselves for a week in Haven rather than a luxury skiing break. Envious, perhaps, but not judged. Of course, these are consumer choices, but they’re choices made by individuals with due regard to their own personal preferences and circumstances, not with a view to criticising those whose position is different. It is telling, I think, that we readily impute bad faith to a woman’s experience or opinion in this, when we would hesitate to do so in other circumstances. 

Could it be that women are conditioned to feel guilty and inadequate in all aspects of our lives, long before we pee on a stick? Could it be that we are so accustomed to anticipate censure of our choices and our decisions that we pre-empt attack when none is intended? That we conflate objective observations with our own subjective narrative, and that we are used to a culture of unspoken competitiveness where we translate another’s “success” as necessarily requiring our own “failure”?

And then, at the same time, as real-life motherhood is devalued in many ways, there is increasing pressure on women to get this, as every other aspect of their lives, (impossibly) perfect. There is extensive coverage of celebrities having babies: their figures, their choice of names, their philosophy of parenting.There is a culture of blame, too, which tips into finger-pointing in the round (including at ourselves) where things happen or decisions are made which don’t deliver the desired outcome. It’s a fairly toxic brew. Added to this is an apparently deliberate approach by mainstream media to take advantage of all of the above, which affects so many women so closely, in order to generate audience attention and engagement by means of forcing allegiance, the taking of sides, where there would ordinarily be no such polarisation. And so, we settle into camps, raise our heckles and our unrealistic expectations, and so the cycle continues.

Why do some women feel that they have failed – in childbirth, when feeding their baby, at motherhood in general? To (horribly) misquote Jane Austen, I am not surprised that any woman feels that she has failed. I rather wonder that any thinks she has succeeded.

Taking a break

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For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)

it’s always ourselves that we find in the sea

                                                        e.e. cummings

It goes without saying that obviously the worst thing about No1 breaking his right arm last week is that he now has a broken arm. Broken in two places, moreover, in what the discharge notes post-surgery called an “angulated fracture of the ulna and radius” and what I, once I’d mastered my gag reflex, called “looking like Mr Tickle”.

Driving three children to hospital, propping the patient up with one hand in the front passenger seat as he tried to faint, finding a space and coins for parking, and visibly freaking out the rest of the folk waiting in A&E weren’t much fun either  (well, the last part was, comparatively). Nor were the wait for him to come out of surgery and the wait to find out if the bones are healing straight, or if more surgery will be needed to pin them.

The holiday we’ve had to cancel is a shame, though. Long on children and short on cash, we camp, and it is just not a realistic option for late October. Since we’re restricted now to school holidays, the chances are that we won’t go away till next summer. We’re still lucky, and better off than a lot of people, in that we can be at home, and that we had already had a few days camping and some day trips before the accident, but It’s taking a little while to get used to the new shape of the summer.

I’ve been consoling myself with virtual vacationing. No1 is meant to keep his arm elevated and very still, which is giving rise to a lot of time where we sit watching TV while I browse the internet, wondering who are all these people who can apparently splash £10k on a family holiday. I’m not among them, but on the web, no-one knows your bank balance (except, perhaps, the Pentagon). So far, I’ve shortlisted a week in Gran Canaria, eyeballed a dozen or more villas in the south of Spain, drooled over an all-inclusive Mauritian paradise and costed a fortnight in DisneyWorld next summer. It’s been great fun. I don’t fully understand cookies, but I worry that somewhere, there’s a cabal of angry travel agents ready to turn up at my door with a print-out of my browsing history and a bill. 

Never knowingly underthought, the whole experience has left me pondering holidays and their purpose: part restorative break from routine, part identify definer. I’ve caught myself thinking “we’re not ‘all-inclusive’ sort of people” and “we don’t really *do* big holidays”, unable to imagine my scruffy crew trying to fit in anywhere more salubrious than a campsite. Would we, if we could afford to? Possibly, although I doubt I’ll ever get the chance to find out. There’s a whole other post, too, in the idea of being any “sort-of” person, and how much we define ourselves and others by our consumer choices.

I’ve realised more, though, how much the promise of two weeks away has shaped my whole year thus far. We’ve had a tough couple of years, and there’s still a lot of stress and uncertainty about where we go from here. Without being quite conscious that I was doing it, I have been building up to an escape from real life, even as I was starting to stress about packing enough pants and wondering whether the destinations we’d chosen would live up to their promise. The time away would have been wonderful (if just for the change), but even in the planning, there was the opportunity to wrest back a sense of control which it sometimes feels is missing in life. Or is that just me?

Choosing where to go, what to take, the things that will fill the days: it’s the promise of a temporary happy-ever-after when reality is more of a series of pragmatism and compromise. For a weekend, or ten days or however long can be wrested away from work, we can cast ourselves into a new role, re-write the script. Come back refreshed and recharged, with the chimerical conviction that we’ll make the changes in our lives we know in our hearts will never come about. I’ve been putting off some decisions that I now have no excuse for avoiding. Time to “find” myself in the cheaper and rather more prosaic setting of home. 

Last Friday Night

My just-turned-seven-year-old daughter has discovered music. Not for her the feverish adoration of One Direction running through her friends like chicken pox. instead, she’s raiding the stack of 600+ CDs hidden in her wardrobe from our days pre-children, but in between bursts of dancing to Nirvana and Scissor Sisters and Beverley Knight (it’s a long story), she’s also begging to go on YouTube and watch more current pop videos.

Katy Perry is a big favourite, largely, I suspect, because of the ever-changing hairstyles. It started with “Roar”, and we had a couple of weeks of hearing it on repeat until all three children were wandering round the house bursting out with “cos I am a CHAMPION” at random.

Then I realised, belatedly, that the soundtrack was changing, and that she was clicking on the other videos suggested in the sidebar. For a while, I didn’t pay much attention to the variously technicoloured pop froth coming from the iPad, but yesterday I tuned in to the fiendishly catchy “Last Friday Night” and was brought up short.

There’s a pounding in my head…

I grew up in Newcastle. My parents neither drank nor didn’t at home, but as soon as I reached my mid-teens, “going out” involved dressing up and heading to Dobsons in the city centre where Happy Hour meant you could buy a treble Bacardi and coke for £1.25. For less than a fiver, by 8pm you could be staggering merrily through the Bigg Market, chancing your luck with the bouncers, before teetering to the bus stop to catch the last bus home. House parties involved Diamond White and cheap lager, together with whatever we though we could get away with filching from the parents’ drink cabinets. Blue Curaçao, anyone?

It’s a blacked-out blur…

The drinking culture was hidden in plain sight. As soon as I got my first Saturday job at sixteen, the hours between fitting customers’ shoes would be filled with veiled competitive tales of the night before. At school, then sixth form, the gossip of who had got most pissed and done the most outrageous things was a particular form of currency which bought admission to the coolest cliques. A hangover was a badge of honour. I went on to University in Scotland, where drinking became even easier, despite licensing laws which kept the booze in shops locked behind gates for most of daylight hours and all of Sunday.

Think we kissed but I forgot…

Who knows why some people drink to excess while others, from the first, dislike the taste and the feeling of being out of control? For me, emerging from a shy and bullied start to teenager hood, partying seemed like a kind of get-into-jail free card. It seemed like the easiest way to change who I was, though I realise now it worked more like a badly-fitting disguise. A lot of the time it was fun, of course. But a lot of the time, it really wasn’t. Trying to remember who I’d kissed was the least of my worries.

Trying to connect the dots…

How to bring up children to have a healthy attitude to alcohol? I’m not so naive as to think I can. I’ll be honest with them about my own experiences, but I know that there’s a low threshold for how much they can learn from my lessons. Their own characters and social groups and peer pressure will have much more effect, in fewer years than I care to count. For a little while, I can keep my children off YouTube; stop them learning the lyrics to songs which make it all a laugh before they’ve even reached double figures. But Katy Perry didn’t invent our binge-drinking culture, though her song is another piece in the changing landscape in which drinking to excess is normalised and glamourised, even as health organisations call for tighter controls on how much alcohol we all consume.

As news comes today of plans to put more explicit warning labels on bottles of wine and other alcoholic drinks, I can’t help but wonder what effect they’ll have – either on those of us who drink (ir)responsibly at home, or those who save it all up for a weekly blow-out. We have a drinking culture, and it’s getting worse.

Am I prey to the moral panic of the ageing parent, or am I right to be worried? Probably both. But if children and young people will always push the boundaries, and of course they will, what is the effect of what was once edgy and semi-taboo becoming mainstream? Even if we know it’s all there, I’d rather the whole sex and drugs (booze) and rock and roll thing was there for them to discover, if they must, when they’re ready to rebel a little – not as the soundtrack to their childhood.

 

The lights are still out

Tomorrow night, at 10pm, lights will be turned out all over the country to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Britain entering World War One. “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime” said Sir Edward Grey, who was foreign minister as war broke out. It is a poignant quote, and the symbolism of an hour’s darkness broken only by single candle flames is beautifully powerful.

Like most of my contemporaries, I learned about the carnage and bloodshed of WWI from a fairly early age. We read the war poets at school by day and watched Blackadder Goes Forth by night. The bleak horror of trench warfare, the crippling human cost of the ultimate, tainted, victory? We know of them, and the knowledge and the memory should never be lost. The pitiful names on memorials large and small, November’s poppied lapels and minute’s silence and tears at the Last Post – it is right and proper to remember and to honour those who died, without choice, without cause.

And yet.

There is something about this commemoration season – and it is a season, at least in terms of media coverage – which sits uneasily with me. What do the meticulously researched documentaries, the lavishly produced dramas, the emotionally charged tableaux and services teach us that we don’t already know? What aid do they lend to men long dead, mothers long bereft, wives long left without husbands? They will make me weep, and yet, there is a sense of resolution and sanitised distance from it all that make me wonder if the tears serve more as catharsis than as any catalyst for good.

I discovered Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth in my mid-teens, and this memoir of the utter devastation which the war wrought on her life, killing her fiancé, brother and two close friends, has always haunted me. I went back to my copy tonight, wanting to find her memories of the day when war was declared, and found that she had written this:

To me and my contemporaries, with our cheerful confidence in the benignity of fate, War was something remote, unimaginable, its monstrous destructions and distresses safely shut up, like the Black Death and the Great Fire, between the covers of history books

War is never safely shut up between the covers of history books and we do no honour to those who died and suffered in the Great War by falling prey to a sepia-tinted complacency that such horrors belong to the past.

Every minute of news broadcast, every hour of evening programming, every page of newsprint filled with coverage of the commemorations and the history will be a chance less for coverage of the deaths and human tragedies happening right now. Every tear shed over a disaster which no longer lives on in any human memory is sorrow and anger diverted from a preventable disaster close at hand.

I don’t want to turn out my lights tomorrow night. I want to walk around my house and switch them on, one by one, ceiling strips and reading lamps and nightlights, and open all my curtains and let them blaze out into the street and the garden beyond. In memory of the sacrifice made by so many, and, in their memory, as a challenge to the obscurity which threatens to swallow the messy, intractable “destructions and distresses” which continue to claim victims while we look elsewhere.

There are too many for whom the lights are still out. Will we remember them?

Sunshine and shadows

We are just returned from three days camping in the most bosky, dappled, dingly dell of a site tucked in a fold of the Yorkshire Moors. Three days of weather more suited to the south of France: glorious, long days of sunshine and light and warmth. Three days of listening to the beck that intersects the campsite, watching butterflies fluttering through the ferns and slipping into that timelessness that good camping always brings, where the hours between waking and sleeping slide into a blur of eating and dawdling. 

The site was filled with children, and provisioned with a playground under the tallest trees which overspilled into tame tracks along the banks of the beck. After the first few hours, our three fell easily into the rhythm of camping life and played for hours with new-found friends; complicated versions of hide and seek among the trees and frantic joyful water fights long into the warm caress of the evening.  Awake hours past their normal bedtimes, we’d eventually prise them away to the showers and hose off the mud before walking them back to the tent, suddenly blinking with the realisation of sleepiness, and tucking them up for the night. 

We have come home tanned (or freckled to the point of human Dalmationhood), with three days’  worth of clothes stand-up-stiff with dust and suncream and sweat, and with memories cast in that particular beautiful light that will last a lifetime.

Hearing the squeals of all the children playing, seeing them run, carefree and confident in the knowledge that even their unwonted freedom was safely contained, was the essence of  the innocence of childhood distilled. I have not the heart for the whys and wherefores that take that innocence away from so many. I just know that my memories of this weekend, glowing as they are, will forever bear the shadow of knowing what else was going on while we were lucky enough to escape. 

And they all lived happily ever after?

My youngest starts a good fifty percent of everything he says with variations of “why?” or “what if?”. At almost four, he’s still at that stage where nothing’s a given; where there’s no clear line between what is real and what he reads in his (older siblings’) books or sees in his (older siblings’) films and TV programmes. A solemn weighing-up of my explanation of clouds or the length of the summer holidays will be followed by a puzzled query as to “how do skeletons kill you?” or “where do dinosaurs go at night?”, both requiring just as sober and extensive an answer.

He knows already, as sadly he must, that there are real dangers out there. I’ve been sketchily but brutally honest about the possible consequences of running into a road or wandering off or trying to play with a socket. He relishes washing his hands as a small battle against bugs (the chance to battle is not to be missed). It’s only to be expected that on a diet of Super Hero Squad and Star Wars – hell, even the good, old fashioned, lethally innocuous fairy tales – he will perceive enemies and threats (and potential battles) round every corner where there is no greater hazard than an overheated imagination. I hold his hand for now, literally and metaphorically, but only he can learn, in time, the phantoms which are real and the lines which he’s not prepared to cross.

I read Frank Furedi’s excellent piece in the Independent today, on paranoid parents and the independence we deny our children. Before I became a mother, I was categoric in my certainty that I would not become one of these namby-pamby types who perceive a bogeyman in every shadow. Like all the best resolutions, it was one I was fated to break. I struggle, now, with giving my children the independence I know that they need to develop into self-reliant teenagers and adults. I am happiest when they are in my full sight; miserably uneasy when I grant them some small measure of freedom to walk ahead or play with friends in the next street.

It isn’t that I think the bogeymen lurk, just that I let them go against a constant backdrop of “what ifs?” not unlike those of my three year old. What if someone drives too fast round the corner? What if they trip and fall into the road? What if they get caught up in the fun of the game with older children and stray too far from home?

To some extent, Furedi’s “Paranoid Parent” has probably always existed. What is more natural than to fear for your child, whether in the face of supernatural demons or all-too-human monsters? What, really, is the difference between reluctantly conceding to the demands for a mobile and murmuring an enchantment to divert the Evil Eye? I do wonder, though, if we are becoming more paranoid because we are not so much losing our perspective as having it distorted.

We gorge on small, everyday tragedies. Magazine covers, the sofas of daytime TV shows, our Facebook and Twitter timelines are filled with battles won against the odds and victims of one-in-a-billion catastrophes. Whether sickness or accident or malevolence, it’s hard to weigh the statistics when the vanishingly-rare likelihood of ill has a name and a winsome photo and a story to be told. It’s difficult truly to believe that something is almost certain not to happen when you feel that you have come to know the person to whom it did; when they, or those who were left behind, recount what went wrong, what they would have done differently, and exhort others not to make the same mistake.

No wonder we try to tidy ourselves into security. No wonder we fret over any loose ends or uncertainty, trained, as we are, to spot the fatal flaw in a story we read over and over from the starting point of unhappily ever after. We feel that the script’s ours to write, ours to navigate safely around all the pitfalls we’ve been warned of.

I can confidently tell my three year old that skeletons aren’t alive and that he doesn’t need to be worried about the giganotasaurus. Convincing myself that the worst isn’t inevitable? That takes more doing.

 

A Measure of Time

It’s a day of endings and possible new beginnings. A day of trying to cram jobs in before a summer of never being alone. A day of sighing over the children who were and trying not to sigh at the children who see nothing but who they will be. September will bring new starts for them all: Year 4, Year 3, Lower Foundation; but nothing much beyond a slightly different timetable for me. They are moving on; I’m, increasingly, watching them as they go.

It is beyond trite to say how fast time goes with children. I see, today, not so much the nearly-four year old who’s desperate for his uniform come September, but the little boy of just-turned-two who clung to my arm as he started nursery. Not the lanky, sun-cream-sticky six year old whose last day in the Infants this is, but the curly-topped moppet who walked through those gates on her first day determined not to let anyone see how scared she was. Not the eight year old who overtops many of those moving on to secondary school in September, but the sturdy little soul who held my hand to the door and caught the hearts of those on the other side. 

They like to hear of how and who they were, but it’s with a laughing incredulity. In the churning rapid flow of childhood, what counts is clinging to the markers that grade and differentiate. There’s little purchase in remembering what you used to be, when you’re surrounded by those who still are. How much more important to stake out your claims of seniority and superiority and identify your next destination in your all-engrossing journey of Growing Up.

Do they feel the tug of the current, or just the terrifying exhilaration of the ride? Are they aware of the relentless current of life, or is it just me, as I gauge my time against theirs, who sees its sweep, on and away? And realise, belatedly, that there is no standing still for me either. 

Yes, Minister

Shortly after I left work, with my eldest in preschool, my daughter a toddler and my youngest a protuberance under my top, I went to Marks and Spencer to buy some furniture. As is the fate of most children when another’s on its way, ours was being ousted from her cot-bed and into a new big girl model, so that the incoming baby would have a place to sleep.

It was all part of a major reorganisation. We had decided to bite the bullet and buy a fair amount of furniture, on interest-free credit, while it was on offer. So I stood, for hours, completing the paperwork, resting No2 and my stomach on the counter, as we filled in form after form after form.

I don’t know if it’s the aching weariness that makes me remember it so vividly, but I can still recall the jolt that came from completing the “status” bit. I wasn’t a solicitor any more. I was, for the purposes of the finance company, unoccupied. Having spent such a long time being unhappy with the ramifications of my job, dreaming of the day when I could “just” concentrate on my family, I was surprised to mind so much that I had to tick the only box which applied to me, though I didn’t recognise myself in it.

A few years on, I still struggle with not knowing what to call myself. “Homemaker” gives a frankly misleading impression of the state of my interior decor, let alone my skirting boards. “Full time mum” is insulting to those who work outside of the home. “Stay at home mum’? I wish I did. Since I can’t decide what I want to be called, I’m not really bothered that no-one else can either. I’ll tick the box left over when all the other options are ruled out, and get back to the reality of my day-to-day. It doesn’t matter much.

In fact, it only matters at all because, for right or wrong, there are times when we need to define people by what they primarily do. If I had a proper career or occupation alongside what I do at home, I’d be happy to be referred to by that. I would expect to be, in fact; the status of “mother” or “housewife” or whichever variant is used is only publicly relevant in that I currently have no other face to present (and, even then, it’s arguable whether it is at all).

When I did, work, though, I would have taken exception to having a footnote against my professional status to the effect that I am a woman and a mother. I would have been outraged to be introduced to a client or colleague, overtly or otherwise, as such. When I was at work, as a solicitor, I was a solicitor, not a bit of everything that makes me who I am. I did not bring another facet to the negotiation of a contract for carriage of goods by virtue of once having carried children. I did not draft more persuasively because I had that morning succeeded in bribing my children out of the house in time for nursery. I did not advise board members on issues which affected the business with an eye to the impact on the female constituents of it.

Regardless of the personalities, I could never not welcome the presence of more women in Government. Not because, as political commentators relating today’s Cabinet reshuffle have implied, they will somehow speak for me, or that they share my concerns as mothers or that  they bring a unique perspective simply by dint of their physical makeup. But because I dream of a day when women are allowed to participate equally, when their political credentials can be examined – and, yes, savaged – as are those of their male counterparts, rather than as a sideline to what should be peripherals: gender, motherhood or otherwise, appearance. When the fact that a woman becomes a minister is not, in itself, worthy of news, and when the reports of her promotion don’t refer to her as a “working mum” or “surrounded by flashbulbs”. Somehow, the fact of whether male politicians have children never seems to be mentioned, nor what they’re wearing when they get the tidings of a new job.

I am not going to write about the merits of all-women shortlists, or the mechanics of how we get more women into positions of power. How to achieve equality of platform is beyond me. Alongside all such developments, though, must be a parity of language and treatment in the media. Continuing to emphasise that women are a background,  added colour, some kind of token human touch does nothing to further their promotion and everything to reinforce the prejudice of those who see support of women as unwonted and unmerited positive discrimination.

Whether I like them or not, the women who have been promoted today are career politicians. And that aspect of them, really, is all we need to hear – and talk – about.

No-one Expects the Dangly Bits Inquisition

Dear reader, do you have small children? Do you have a baby who cries all the time, or a toddler who hangs from your leg by the hour? Do you dream of the day they will discover a little independence? Of a future in which they can – unimaginable luxury – read to themselves their favourite book, rather than ask you to do it for the 71st time that day?

Don’t be afraid, dear reader. I am not going to tell you that it all gets even harder, or that you will look back on these days as the easiest and happiest of your life in comparison with what comes next. Every stage of parenthood comes with its own challenges and joys. And children who can read are, undoubtedly, a joy.

But.

Let me tell you a tale.

Imagine, if you will, that you wake with a cold. A cold which has transformed the inside of your head into a Tolkien-esque landscape of grey and murky green. A cold which scrapes in your throat and crackles in your ears and fills your nose with a smell as of drains.

And this is not just any day. It is a day which you are going to spend with all three of your children, rather than the more usual one, due to a strike by their teachers which you hope you’d support even if it caused you much more serious inconvenience than the unscheduled company of your children.

You know it is going to be a long day. You drag yourself downstairs, eyes barely open, and make your way blearily towards the kettle. Your way is blocked by a sweet-faced boy in convict-striped pyjamas, clutching a book. You drop an absent-minded kiss on his head.

You don’t make it to the kettle.

“Mummy? What is copulation?”

You are suddenly markedly more awake. Your brain, which has up till now has been focused on remembering to breathe through your mouth, begins to whir. Copulation? COPULATION? It’s still in the hour of six. You can’t do this. Can you? Must you? Has he misunderstood? Has he misread? Could he be thinking, perhaps, of the process by which policeman are formed? A Brazilian word for sporting disaster? Then you notice, with a sinking heart, the title of the book which he is holding. The Usborne Illustrated Guide to Human Biology. 50p, apparently, at some garden party or school fair or second hand bookshop you have no memory of visiting but for which you find you have not curses strong enough.

It isn’t that you didn’t think that this day would eventually come. It isn’t that he doesn’t already know the basics of seeds and eggs and a hazy, though sound, understanding of birth which would beat that of several of the fathers on One Born Every Minute. The current Year 6s have just had The Talk, and you knew that you’d have to discuss it at some point before he got there (in three sodding years time, your poor brain screams). It’s just that you had visions of being prepared. You had visions of it happening on a winter’s night, curtains shut, cosy and confidential. You had visions, let’s be honest, of lovingly closing the bedroom door and leaving your husband in there to get on with it.

You look, together, at the pages. They are admirably detailed. More admirably than the Biology textbooks at your convent school from which your teachers had removed the relevant pages. Admirably enough, in fact, that there is no question of falling back on reference to birds, or bees. Or special kisses.

You keep a straight face and you move briskly through the illustrations, elaborating no more than you must, till your youngest, blessedly, comes in to ask for his breakfast. And in between buttering bread and pouring milk, the book makes its way somehow to the very back of the very highest cupboard.

You think you’ve survived.

Then…

A quiet voice, by your elbow, as you make coffee. “Mummy, what is a eunuch?”

A puzzled query, in the garden, as your neighbours enjoy the sun. “Mummy, what is puberty?”

An absorbed murmur from the kitchen table. “Mummy, what are sperm-a-ta-zoa?”

You answer, calmly, biting down the hysteria which is starting to build as you wonder if you’re secretly being filmed. The questions keep coming, though, their target narrowing, till you find yourself talking about castration in more detail than you ever believed likely or, indeed, feasible – certainly as far as conversation with an eight year old is concerned.

You may wonder if I had failed to hide the book well enough. Where else would these words, this fascination, be coming from? Dear reader, you would have – as had I – forgotten that this eight year old’s room is crammed with books. That he has a particular taste for the gorier of Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories. And that he has a large, (perhaps unfortunately so), dictionary within easy reach. Did you know that there were nine possible definitions of “sex”? Well, did you?

I didn’t expect, when I woke this morning, that by bedtime one of my children would be able to give an account of where babies came from. Or that I could talk, lucidly and at length, about gangrene and the multiple options for the chopping off of dangly bits (thanks, TD). Am I still glad that my children are keen readers? Yes, of course. Will I pay a little more attention to the books that make their way into the house. Perhaps.

But I will relish, for as long as I possibly can, the ability to crop and skip when reading to my youngest. And I will no longer complain when asked to reread his favouritest book of all. For the 71st  time that day.

Beware...here be dragons