Mapped Out

I turned 40 in the summer, a time for taking stock and giving thanks for the many great gifts I have in my life.

Also, less inspirationally,  a time for making my peace with  the ones I never will have.

I would love to be able to sing, but I have a voice which my (singer) father likens to a bucket full of broken bricks. I would love to be able to draw, but I’ve never really got beyond the highlight of my junior school days and learning to make a house look 3D. Ish. And I would love to be able to find somewhere on the first attempt without getting hopelessly, tearfully lost.

It’s a shameful thing to admit to, being an independent woman of a certain age who can’t reliably follow a route she’s driven dozens of times without taking a wrong turning. Or to be the one who, even with the benefit of a SatNav, drives round and round the periphery of a destination while her children chirp merrily from the backseat “are we lost again, Mummy?”

It’s such a pathetically, stereotypically GIRLY affliction to suffer from, even though I know it’s less to do with the contents of my pants than the propensity of my brain to wander off at a tangent when presented with anything other than the written word. It is so much a part of me that I would say it was my calling card, on those rare occasions when I arrive where I’m aiming for without a sweaty, unplanned diversion on the way.

I can read maps, sort of, in the abstract. But give me a streetplan and ask me to relate it to what I can see before me, and it may as well be the sort of masterpiece I used to get home from nursery: random strands of spaghetti, held together with poster paint and glue. Worse, in a kind of cringing shame that I am not better at this stuff, I refuse to ask for directions and plough on, willing myself to develop a beagle-like instinct for sniffing out my destination.

Newspaper reports last week suggested that the risk of developing dementia is higher for those with a dark sense of humour and those who struggle to follow directions. I may not be able to find my way to the local garage, but at least I can see my future: laughing my head off, as I forget where I’m heading even as I fail to get there.

In the meantime? I’ll just have to stop swearing at my SatNav in the hope that she one day will tell me where to go without my ending up marooned in a bus lane or faced with a No Entry. Or get my daughter to do it for me.




No Title

This weekend was a strange time to spend hours on social media promoting something as apparently light-hearted as a charity ball. Each time I logged on to Facebook to check for updates and queries, it became harder to distinguish who was “liking” and commenting as profile pictures morphed en masse to the red, white and blue of the French flag. This morning I had time to look more closely, and amidst the tricolors and photographs of the Eiffel tower there were other comments, querying why the victims of this attack were being mourned when those of others don’t even make the news.

I would like to write something pious to the effect that we don’t value some human lives more than others, but it wouldn’t be true. I would like to be able to write something learned about how we are programmed to ascribe a greater value to the faces that look like ours, the crowds we could imagine ourselves within, the streets that we know we could walk unnoticed, but I don’t have the wisdom. We may not be proud of the fact, but I don’t know how we learn to override that something deep within ourselves that feels a visceral tug of fear beyond human sympathy when we can substitute ourselves for the victims of a particular horror.

I was thinking today, though, about this failure to protest carnage equally. About the sad but resigned acceptance of some brutal outrage in a country distant from ours, while the same – or less, if tragedy can be measured like rain – closer to home provokes an apparently spontaneous outpouring of grief and solidarity. That we take it as for granted that bad things will happen in certain parts of the world is no less shameful for being true. Our ignorance and prejudice and a colonial kind of assumption of superiority doubtless play a large part in this, but for some of us so too, perhaps, do the events of the past few decades in Europe.

Growing up I felt, may God forgive me, a sense of living in an era post-history. Each November brought the carefully instructed memorials of the war to end all wars (and of the one after that). We learned about the Holocaust as a one-off, a lesson scored in blood and human agony into the DNA of our continent and never to be repeated. The Berlin Wall fell, apartheid ended, and the prospect of nuclear annihilation seemed to shrink away, as news bulletins reported regularly on the progress of peace processes.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest that what we had, for that brief period of time, was anything like utopia; nor that it would have been even if the stubborn, ugly existence of deprivation, discrimination and injustice, had not continued to provide plentiful material for those seeking to make the world better.  But I think that there was a sense, for most people, that we were at least getting there. That we were on the path to something worth having. That in a world where so many problems seemed to have been solved, there was a hope that others were solvable.

Perhaps when we focus on horror closer to home and ignore reports of it further afield (and we do, often, ignore it) there is something more at play than a chauvinistic disregard for the Other. Perhaps we sense that our simplistic, subconscious understanding of the world is being challenged; that maybe we’re not engaged in a linear pattern of development and improvement after all.

Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret’s mother.

You will remember better than I do, God, whether the conversations or the book came first. At a distance of three decades, it’s no longer clear to me quite when I started to think about the holy trinity of faith, identity and periods in any detail, but I do remember that the last of them was for some years the most important thing in my life.

It was all such a big deal, though it seems hard to believe it now. As we all gradually absorbed the Facts of Life, in more or less detail, the outward signs of growing up became our main currency of social interaction. And periods were the first, and for a long time the biggest, denomination.

We knew who had “started”, because they were party to a mysterious monthly ritutal of “coming on”: hurriedly being excused from classrooms and suddenly becoming umbilically attached to their schoolbag. To those of us who hadn’t, It felt like a club to which only the elect were admitted (though the glamour wore off pretty damn quickly once we were  members). We passed around a few, dog-eared, books, which felt like the only things ever written to capture this terrifying, perennial adventure we had all embarked on.

From the perspective of forty, it all seems achingly innocent, somehow. Growing up seems like no biggie. Every adult has done it, after all. I know the worries and the fears, in a theoretical kind of way, but I can’t feel them any more, knowing how most of them resolved themselves in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I can laugh, now, at those conversations so many years ago.

But, God, I have to do it all over again. I have to help my daughter grow up, and although I know that my mother and her mother before her back into the misty Irish bogs of our ancestry have all been doing it, I feel as lost as I did when I started doing it for myself.

I read, perhaps, too much about the helping-to-grow-up thing. Perhaps my foremothers had it easier, after all, when they had a hidden code of womanhood to pass on in a semi-shamedway. There were accepted standards of behaviour; unchangeable ways of Doing Things Right, that I can look at now with horror, but with a small degree of envy at the sheer certainty.

It isn’t that I don’t know what I want my daughter to learn, just that it seems, in many ways, an impossible task.

I want to teach her how her body works, while helping her learn not to feel limited by her biology.

I want to teach her to cope with the way her body changes, while making it clear to her that it is hers alone.

I want to find a way to convey to her that her body is for her to live in, not for others to enjoy.

It is my job, it seems, to show my daughter how to be ambitious and how to identify what she truly wants from life.

To enjoy food but not to be be governed by thinking about its effects.

To accept herself entirely as she is and to expect the same from those she chooses to surround her.

To say yes, and mean it, but to know when to say no, and to mean that too.

Don’t get me wrong, God. I think these are good things to aim for for my daughter. But they aren’t things I have managed to achieve yet for myself, and I am, if not over the hill, pretty much cresting the bump.

I have grown out of worrying about my own body, at least in terms of how it looks. I seem, thankfully, to be beyond the stage of delusion that I can mould it into something it was never going to be. I just wonder if, perhaps, that pressure has now transferred itself onto another target. I can love my daughter, and I can do my best to show her by example the things I want her to be, to have, to do. It isn’t in my gift, though, to ensure that all I wish for her comes to pass.

Perhaps there are too many successors to July Blume, all clamouring to tell me how to do this. They are helpful, to a point, in suggesting ambitions and techniques. In my grumpier moments, though, I wonder if they aren’t just new versions of the “drop a dress size” diets, the instant tips to success or love or a brighter complexion that I’ve been absorbing in magazines and adverts since about the same time I started reading about how to navigate leaving childhood behind.

I am not aware of anything similar, or at least not in anything like the same volume, aimed at men raising sons. It’s almost as if, after all, it’s another way for women to spend their lives feeling that they’re failing to achieve something they’re told they could manage if only they did it right. It’s almost as if we’re projects, rather than people. And maybe countering that is the hardest thing I need to teach.


Working in a predominantly male environment isn’t a problem. After years at the school-gate, I enjoy it more than I thought I would.

I don’t even mind being on the ‘cc’ list for emails where we’re all addressed as Gents. Really, I don’t. What’s the alternative, after all?

Folks? Sounds like what follows is to be delivered with a Clinton-esque drawl.

Colleagues? Likewise, only German.

All? Probably best of a bad bunch, though it lacks a certain something.

If we were predominantly women, would we go for “Ladies”? I doubt it. Gents may suggest a sort of chummy inclusivity (ironically enough), but Ladies has delicate floral overtones of something else entirely. If there were a bloke or two among us, it would just seem altogether wrong. I wonder why,

So no, being a relatively lone woman in the office isn’t a problem. I like my colleagues. We get on well. We’re all just doing our jobs, after all. We’re all gents. More or less.

It’s just that I’m jealous.

They’re tired at work? They can scrub their fists into their eyes without fear of spending the rest of the day like a panda.

They’ve got desk ache? No worries! They can stretch their arms over their heads; link their hands behind their back and release shoulders without the inadvertent engagement of a bosom.

Itchy ear/nose/crotch/armpit? That’s why God gave you the ability to scratch, damn it. Why interrupt your important work to do it somewhere a little more private.

Stressed? Hot? Tell me spreading dark rings under the arms are as acceptable on a woman. Go on, I dare you.

Time of the month? Oh, of course, the gauntlet of getting those strange little man-supplies to the office, or breaking out of interminable meetings to use the damn things doesn’t apply, does it?

And yes, gents, I know, you have to shave. But the looks you get if you don’t are probably akin to the ones I get when I’m running so late that getting ready amounts to little more than a once-over with a brush and a wave of my make-up back in the general direction of my face.

It’s not their fault, any more than it’s mine. No-one writes these rules, after all.

I’m here, after all.

It’s a level playing field, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?


I am, by most measures, busy.

I have a full time job, with an hour commute at either end.

I have three young children, a home, a husband, a family and friends I’d like to see more than I do.

I chair two committees, sit on several more, run social media for a handful of organisations and do children’s church more Sundays than not. 

I write a blog, and dreams of writing something more.

I am busy. Maybe even too busy.

Tonight, putting away laundry while replying to emails, I chided myself for not organising my time better. I feel like I am doing nothing well. Perhaps I should stay up that bit later, get up that bit earlier, spend that bit less time with my children just being in each other’s company, so that I can fulfil all my responsibilities, action all my actions.

The answer must be out there. We women are always being told how to get better at time management, after all. Just as the latest miracle cream shaves years off our faces and the latest miracle diet shaves millimetres from our waists, so the latest app, the latest trick, the latest (loathsome word) hack promise to help us shave minutes from our day so that we can pack even more, Tetris-like, into our waking hours.

It struck me, shirt in one hand, work phone in the other, that I don’t want to whittle my time still further.

Time is all I have. Time is who I am.

It’s not time I’m nipping and tucking to fit around this impractically shaped life.

It’s me.

The things that I don’t know

It is the autumn equinox today. I would like to say that I know this from the cast of the leaves or the call of the birds but, actually, I learned it from Twitter.

Driving back from work earlier I was thinking about this, as the road came over the high fields between motorway and home. The sky is so big on those roads; the panorama wide open from east to west and straight ahead all the way down onto the Cleveland Hills. When I’m not dodging tractors and cyclists and those other car users who, in Bill Bryson’s inimitable words, drive along country roads as if they’ve always longed to lead a procession, I can see the weather roil its way right across the country.

Tonight, there was sunshine to one side and squalls of rain to the other. The clouds were livid and bruised over the coast; scant wisps in the blue towards the Pennines; but those overhead were strange, spreading things, a grasp of white and pink and grey. 

The radio this morning talked of the 400 Scots words for snow, but I had only one for this: cloud. I know there are others. I have vague memories of geography lessons and cumulus, nimbus and something else probably ending in -us, but they aren’t words I know; not concepts I could talk of with any degree of confidence.

I always thought I’d know these things when I grew up.

I always thought that, somehow, I’d know the stars in the sky. I’d take my children by the hand and introduce them to the trees, and the flowers, and the birds by name. I thought that somehow, by the magic of becoming an adult, I would turn into the experts of my own childhood, who seemed to know everything when we went for a walk through the woods or along the beach.

It isn’t just nature stuff either, before you diagnose a severe case of suburban malaise. It’s all the other stuff too. I thought that I’d know a composer’s work by hearing the first bar of a piece, that I’d be able to talk knowledgeably about poetry, or literature or art.  I’d know how to gut a fish and approach self-assessment with confidence. I’d know how to tip without floundering into becoming wildly over-generous or sweatily, self-consciously mean.

I think I thought I would know how to be a grown-up.

The thing is that I am fairly confident that, individually, none of these things would be beyond me to learn, if they mattered to me that much. I could buy a book on the constellations and study it of a night. I could download apps that would train me, Pavlov-like, to twitch with pleased recognition at a leaf shape or the precise colour of an egg. I could do research and evening classes, subscribe to podcasts and TED talks, write copious notes in a small book I would keep always about me and shrug myself into some kind of expertise.

I don’t think, somehow, that it would make much of a difference.

I turned 40 earlier this year. and I think that, amidst the half-laughing angst about wrinkles, the occasional white hair, and something which I’m doing my damnedest to pretend isn’t the beginning of the menopause, I am realising that I haven’t really grown up. That I might, in fact, never really become a grown up. That, just perhaps, nobody ever really does.

Working v Occupation

I’m not a violent person, but there are times I’d love to unleash my inner Ally McBeal. No, not the needy, neurotic lawyer (quiet at the back there), but the one who combined cartoon and karma to deliver instant comeuppance to anyone who crossed her.

Recently, I’ve been channelling Ally when faced with stupid comments about going back to work. Primarily those delivered with a chortle, and some allusion to the fact that I won’t know what has hit me when I’m faced with a real day’s work. It’s satisfying to imagine a cartoon boxing glove bopping them on the nose, even as I smile sweetly and roll my eyes so hard the minute my back is turned that I get a diagnostic image of my brain.

I am in the perfect position to deliver final judgement (did you see what I did there?) in the hoary old case of SAHM v Working Mother, and I’m pleased to confirm that, in fact, both are harder than the other.

Only kidding.

The answer of course, if you’re interested, is that neither is “harder”. Why? Because, in large part, neither SAHM or “working mother” actually means anything much. It’s like asking “Which has more colour? Blue or red?” (If there is a scientific answer to that one, I don’t want to know it).

That notwithstanding, the last couple of months have verified what I have long suspected: not necessarily that many people think being a parent who doesn’t work outside the home is easy, but that lots and lots and lots of people think it just has no value at all. It is perceived as a kind of vacuum, an occupation of time which is neutral at best, a lily-livered, latte-fuelled skive at worst.

Around the same time as I was starting work (I’d like to say it was as I was filling in the forms for childcare, but that would be a lie for artistic effect) an email job alert pinged into my inbox. Someone not far from me was looking for a nanny; someone to look after three children before and after school. It was good money, and there was a formidable list of qualifications and qualities that the right person would need. If I’d been unfortunate enough to be being hounded by a Job Centre to find work at the time, I could unquestionably have taken that one and moved instantly from scrounger to hard-working taxpayer simply by changing the identity of the children I cared for.

Why, I wonder, does the lack of familial connection turn the self-same activities from a cop-out into a worthwhile position of employment? Why is doing it as a job perfectly valid, while doing it for any other reasons (cost of childcare, lack of availability or quality, family circumstances, child’s needs…) generally accepted to be an extended holiday from real life?

No3 has only just started full time school, so I didn’t have full “child-free” days before I went back to work, but even if I had, they would have only amounted to five and a half hours, not every waking weekday moment. Don’t get me wrong, I weep at the thought of that time now…but the point is that stay at home parents, even the ones with school-age children, don’t have whole days at their disposal. That, and the fact that when the children are around, they are an occupation in themselves.

I could talk about all the things that occupied me when I wasn’t working outside the home and the children were at school, but the truth is, I still do most of it  now in the bits of time that are available to me around an extended 9-5 and the best part of two hours’ commute. 

Maybe I’m doing something wrong, though, because I am not noticeably more tired. Maybe I wasn’t idle after all when I didn’t have a job. Maybe, just maybe, being a parent is hard work full stop. And doing that parenting, however long or short you spend doing it, is not an absence of occupation.
I worked a compressed day from home today to accommodate my youngest’s first day of school, and althoughI was really lucky to be able to do it, it’s reminded me of the wearying aspects of my old life that from the outside apparently seemed like such a doddle.

Now that they are back at school, the children are in wraparound care for four hours each day before and after classes. That’s four hours when I miss their company, but it’s also four hours when I don’t have to be available to play with them, feed them, or listen to them; four hours when I  don’t need to nag them to pick up their toys and step in to break up their fights. It’s four hours that don’t require my involvement in the ludicrously ill-named “school-run” (“life sapping school-drag in the invariably pouring rain” not quite having the same ring to it).

It’s four hours when I don’t have to tacitly accept in social situations that I am less entitled to be tired, less entitled to be stressed, less entitled to be too busy to take things on than the person I’m talking to who happens to be paid a salary in exchange for a portion of their time and effort.

And the holidays? Being able to have spent so many long weeks with my children and few other demands on my time has been a total privilege, but it also, at times, brought me to my knees. Admitting that, though, never felt like it was an option: after all, I was lucky enough to be doing what I chose, and whingeing about it was the utmost bad faith when others had to use precious annual leave. 

It’s time for my closing arguments, but I don’t really have any. I don’t have a neat conclusion that ties up all my thoughts on this into a simple, snappy summary; don’t have the will to win a jury to one particular way of thinking. I don’t even have a Dancing Baby to entertain you.

Instead, I have a pile of ironing, three children to put to bed and some stuff to get ready for tomorrow. That will do for now.

Terminal fret

Half of France was on the road, it seemed. Our own route from the west was choked with holidaymakers returning to the heart of the country, and for every ten French cars, there were three or four Brits, and a German or Dutch or two. The problems only really hit when the autoroutes petered out around towns, or when we all converged on the toll stations. Our four spare hours to reach Calais melted away in bursts of minutes sitting in long lines of people like us, sealed in our air-conditioned bubbles, squeezed around the accoutrements of our temporary homes from home as the temperature needle ticked up towards 40 degrees. The traffic alerts on the radio grew increasingly apocalyptic. By the time we were clear of the worst of the pressure, the message was not even to try to get near Paris. “Find a services” the weary voice told us. “Let the children play, have something to eat, relax yourselves un peu. You’re not getting into the capital any time soon”.

The real fear that we wouldn’t make our train had receded by then, but I continued to worry, as is my wont; picking at the loose threads of a potential problem, teasing and fretting at them till things threaten to unravel, in the luxury of knowing that the worst will never be that bad. As we finally pulled off the motorway into the snaking network of roads that surround the Eurotunnel departures, I was jittery and anxious, mistrusting my ability to read the signs lest we take a wrong turning and lose a precious few moments. My husband was torn between laughing at me and, plainly, trying to hide the temptation to leave me by the side of the road. “There you go” he said, pointing at the signs leading the freight traffic off to the right. “That’s where you belong”. And “Terminal Fret” became a new shorthand for my penchant for catastrophising.

Before we’d set off on holiday, people had reacted to the news that we were going through the tunnel with approximately the same horror as if we’d said we were planning a sunny break down a mineshaft. There was much sucking of teeth and shaking of heads. There was no point in arguing that air controllers strike, Britain rains and that, in any event, we were talking about nothing more than the potential slight disruption to a holiday we were lucky enough to be having. There was still the fear, though. Not at the risk of delay, nor of any threat to us, but – if I’m honest – at the uncomfortable juxtaposition of our own fortune with the misery of others.

It is one thing to rail against dehumanising headlines and support humanitarian campaigns; another to drive past desperate people, comfortable car laden with the equipment we keep in our garage year-round so that we can spend two weeks having fun. Equipment which is a thousand times more luxurious than the conditions in which so many have no choice but to dwell. There was the grubby guiltiness of not wanting to have to explain the situation to our young children, while knowing that others much younger live – and die – in it. It’s easy to feel compassionate at a distance. Harder by far to take pride in that compassion or see it as anything more than a fig leaf when its object is on the other side of your car door as you glide past en route from nice to nicer.

Half of Syria really is on the road, and we can’t imagine it. How can we? We, I, can read stories and see photos and try to compel my mind to how it must feel to take your children’s hands in yours and turn your back on your home, your family, your job; running from the dangers you already know to the ones you can only dread. To turn everything you own or can lay claim to into the wherewithal to place your fate into the control of those you know you can’t trust – but have to. To ignore every instinct and clamour of reason to climb into a swaying, listing boat in the dark of night, or hear yourself locked into a black lorry hold. Dreaming, perhaps of better things, but surely just praying that nothing worse awaits than what you’ve already survived.

We watch and we pity, but the human mind is treacherous in its attempts at self-preservation. Despite all efforts at empathy, a small voice whispers that those who suffer war and famine and a crippling, chronic, insecurity must somehow be better equipped by that suffering to face it. 

The talk of migrants and swarms is abhorrent, but the mind that rejects it tries its hardest at othering nonetheless. How to respond to the needs of those affected by human-made tragedy without reducing them to simply its by-products? Though the sheer numbers in plight require a mass response, I’m wary too of an approach which lumps people together as one suffering mass. It’s easier to encompass the fact that “millions of people” feel compelled to embark on difficult, dangerous and uncertain journeys in flight or search than it is to grasp the fact that each one of them is the same complicated and unique individual we take as given that we ourselves are.

In the event, we only saw one person on the outside of the security fence at Calais. A young man, long and lean, in a thin green jacket and jeans, walking with purpose along the perimeter as we queued safely on the other side, protected by the magic little red books we have through no virtue but birth. 

I will never know his name. Even if told it, I could never know his nicknames, his foibles, the little shortcuts worn by love and life, the terms of endearment (and endurance) that make him irreplaceable to those he may never see again. 

And when I turn off my computer, and decide to stop worrying about things I assure myself I have limited control to change, and turn to those who are irreplaceable to me, he’ll still be walking.

I hope.

Hell, yes, I’m judging.

We live in the age of the open letter, especially those from a parent to the woman in the cinema, the couple across the airplane aisle, the elderly man on the pavement. 

I’m sorry, these letters say. I’m sorry my child kicked the back of your seat, I’m sorry my daughter screamed without cease, I’m sorry my preschooler rammed your ankles with his scooter. 

I’m sorry, but you see…  He was bored. She was hungry. He and I were having a bad day and the shopping still had to be done. 

I’ve not written an open letter as such here on my blog, but I’ve written plenty in my head. The words have come unbidden as I raged at the glances, real or perceived, I’ve felt when out there in the world in sole charge of my own small tyrants. I count on my fingers the reasons and excuses I have for it all going so horribly wrong: the weeks and months of not enough sleep, the hours and days of worry and wailing and whys. 

Please don’t judge me, the letters say. You don’t know what goes on behind the scenes. You don’t know the day I’ve had to this point, you don’t know the effort it’s taken to get these small, annoying people to this place where neither of us want to be, and where you would patently rather we weren’t. 

And because I’ve read, and mentally written, so many, I really do try not to judge someone else’s parenting on a snapshot. I know the tantrum in the supermarket could well have its roots in a well warranted “no” or causes light-years removed from anything in the parent’s control. I know that what looks like naughtiness may well be anything but. I try to be the one with the rueful smile of mutual sympathy, not the frown or tut that could make someone’s day even harder than it already was. 

But, do you know what? Sometimes, yes, I judge. When I see a determined blind eye turned to the preteens dive-bombing every younger child and adult out of the swimming pool. When I see a big kid zooming at speed, unchecked, on her bike around parked cars and causing pedestrians to skittle out of her way. When I hear a gaggle of old-enough-to-know-betters keeping a half a hundred households awake with a nightly racket apparently inaudible to their parents. 

You’re right, I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. Sometimes, though, it’s going to be not a lot. And what we never seem to read are the open letters from those who struggle with the end results of what boils down to little more than lazy selfishness. Not on the part of those who really can’t do much about it, but on the part of those who choose not to. Those who are affected in ways far more serious than simply being annoyed or mildly inconvenienced. 

Culturally, it is unquestionably A Good Thing that we are becoming more tolerant and less judgmental. It still should matter though what others think of us. It doesn’t matter more than anything else, it shouldn’t be a stick to beat those who are already doing what they can. But it matters because our actions impact on people around us, and they matter as much as we do. 

So yes, I’ll hiss at my kids in public and fidget and flush over their bad behaviour when they’re being a pain. And I’ll retain the right to be pissed off when other people’s kids make my life a pain in turn. 

And jf you think I’m wrong for being so judgemental? Judge away.  

The C Word

I read a post yesterday written by a mother who was explaining why she wouldn’t let her young daughter watch The Little Mermaid, because she found the central theme of the story – that of a girl giving up the gift of her voice to follow the man she loved – to be too disturbing.

She has a point. There are disturbing messages in many of the old fairy stories and classic children’s books that my kids read, whether or not they have been Disneyfied. What Katy Did? A girl’s rebellious spirit is tamed out of her through injury and illness. Beauty and the Beast? I’d like it more if it was a prince who had to demonstrate how he learned to value inner beauty by marrying some hideously mutlitated crone who was rendered back to gorgeousness by his true love’s kiss. 

Our children’s minds are so malleable, so precious, that it is natural for us to want to shield them from what we see as harmful beneath the sugary gloss of fantasy.

The trouble is, where to stop? How to prevent external influences shaping or misshaping growing young consciousness into the warped understandings we may see in ourselves and perceive even more in those around us (and them)? We can’t, of course.

When my children were younger, I tried too. I limited television to CBeebies, just as “treats” were restricted to the occasional mini box of raisins. It didn’t last.  Partly it was due to fatigue or laziness, partly due to the recognition that, try as I might, I couldn’t keep the world out. As I type this, my newly-turned-8 year old daughter is listening to the radio on her brand new CD player. It’s a cheap and fairly crappy piece of pink plastic, and the tuning isn’t great, but through the static and the whinging of her four year old brother who wants her new Nerf gun, I can hear the words of that damnably catchy “Cheerleader”.  She’s singing along, just as she was a few minutes ago to “Worth It” which (and forgive me while I hoick my bosom and purse my lips) seems to be a sweetly romantic love song between a man and a woman begging him to do her the honour of pleasuring her.

I don’t think my daughter really processes the lyrics that she sings, but I hate hearing the sounds from her mouth, even knowing that she’s unaware of what they mean. What to do, though? I could insist that she listens only to pre approved CDs, I could restrict her time at friends’ houses where she may rifle through YouTube clips, ask their parents to switch off the car radio when they’re giving her a lift here or there. But even if I could do it, even if it wouldn’t brand both her and me as utter freaks and resolve quite quickly the problem of what might happen at friends’ houses since she would no longer have any, what would happen when she heard music in a shopping centre, or saw a clip on a TV in a doctor’s waiting room or a magazine at the supermarket checkout?

The truth is that, much as I may want to control what my children are exposed to, I can’t. It isn’t in my power to protect them by trying to ensure that they don’t see or hear things I don’t like until they’re no longer under my control. I hate aspects of our culture, where sex, and being both available and desirable for it are prized above many things I value more. I hate that women’s bodies are so much wallpaper, their appearance so much public property, their fuckability so much currency, and that this attitude is crystal clear in much of the music my children hear and the images they see on television, magazines and online. I hate this for my sons as much as I do for my daughter.

I can campaign, certainly, but even if the tide is for turning, it will be long after my children are grown and gone. I can’t shut my children safe in some harbour, out of the reach of the messages I don’t want them to hear or figure out for themselves. But I can help them do that in some kind of context. I can talk about things we see with them, and I can, by my words and my example, give them a different understanding of how life and love and relationships work.

I don’t have to spoil the magic of a happy ever after as the credits roll and the bride waltzes in the arms of her hero in a beautiful dress, but I can make sure they all know that wedding days aren’t really the culmination of a woman’s life.I don’t have to talk over a video of women in their smalls (if that) gyrating around, but I can sure as hell point out when they’re missing, together with the fact that no-one seemed to die thereof. I don’t have to scorn my daughter’s love of clothes and pretty hairstyles to praise her for her strength and draw attention to the muscles or the achievements of women in the public eye, rather than  how they look on camera.

I can’t change what they see, but I can do my hardest to try to change the way they see it.