Tag Archives: feminism

The invisible children

Luckily, I’m past the stage of needing to use the Parent & Child parking spaces at the supermarket. I still play the game of “spot the invisible child”, though: eyes peeled for that strange phenomenon afflicting people who nab a convenient place presumably on the basis of owning a parent, or having once been a child.

There are ripe pickings for “spot the invisible child” in politics, too. On a more serious level which I’m not qualified to discuss, there are severely disadvantaged youngsters, whether through poverty, neglect or unmet special needs, whose plight too often goes unmentioned. On a level that affects me personally, though, along with millions and millions of others, are the children in the current hot topic of “childcare”.

To listen to politicians and most media coverage, you’d be justified in thinking that it’s an issue which applies only to tots. There are endless reams of thinkpieces on the harm or otherwise of paid care for babies and toddlers; endless (and fiendishly complex) policy wrangles around entitlement to free childcare (or is it early years education?) for the 3s-and-unders.

And then, once those same tots hit school age, any suggestion that their wheareabouts outside lesson time might be problematic becomes harder to spot than a babyseat in the back of a souped-up Fiesta  (whose driver couldn’t possibly be expected to walk across the car park to the cashpoint).

Childcare, it seems, is only really something which the powers that be (and the powers that want to be) can conceive as being of concern to parents until their offspring toddle into Reception.

There are occasional salvoes about Breakfast Clubs! and After School! and Holiday Sessions! all with costings and logistical underpinnings which make Labour’s current manifesto woes come across like an excerpt from A Beautiful Mind and which combine to convey the impression that it’s not really that big a problem; that such things are nice-to-haves, rather than vitally necessary for the majority of us needing or wanting to combine work with parenthood.

It goes without saying that childcare costs are prohibitive for many families with very young children, and that this is a significant barrier to many women returning to work after maternity leave. Solving, or at least easing, this, however, is of limited value if the same woman then feels compelled to leave work a few years later when someone needs to be at the school gate at 8.55 and 3.20 each day, or the only holiday clubs are between 9 and 3 and she works 8.30-5, an hour away.

Subsidising her preschooler’s childcare is great, but it’s of little help when she’s then faced with 6 weeks of summer holidays and an eleven year old (thinking of no-one in particular) who can’t be relied upon to find a matching pair of socks, let alone be home by himself for ten hours a day.

Living away from family, I’ve experienced first hand the difference that affordable on-site wraparound care can make. In my case, it has literally been the difference between being able to return to work or not. Being fortunate enough to have an employer who takes the question of work-life balance and family commitments seriously, I’ve likewise learned how flexibility during holidays and illness can make combining work and care responsibilities possible. Even with these advantages, reaching the end of primary school with my eldest feels a bit like falling off a cliff; talking to other parents, I know I’m not alone in this, and yet it never even seems to warrant a mention.

I’ve yet to hear a single politician outline seriously how they’d strive to ensure the advantages of childcare and flexibility I’ve been able to access thus far would be made available to all parents, not just a lucky few.

As for any acknowledgement we’d care at all how things will work at eleven and over? It’s empty space, as far as I can see.

The fact that so many families muddle through due to grandparents on hand, or mothers (and it is almost always mothers) being forced out of work and/or into low paid or local roles shouldn’t be taken as evidence of a system that’s working. Achieving equality in the workplace and assessing the needs of those who need to balance earning and caring responsibilities needs to go well beyond the nappy years.

I remain passionately in favour of families choosing how best to structure their finances and employment to meet their own changing needs, but restricting employment options can’t be a good thing when so many of us will work for 30 or 40 years after our children start school, both on a personal level and in terms of maximising tax and NI intake.

There are not as many opportunities for cute photo ops with winsome toddlers, sure. But there’s definitely a bigger picture to see here.

 

 

 

 

 

Let it go

One of the things about being a stay at home mother that has annoyed me the most has been the insinuations (from others) and the nigglings of guilt (from myself) that I was setting a poor example to my children, and my daughter in particular.

The insinuations weren’t just over-sensitivity on my part, either. When research about the apparent benefits to children of working mothers was rehashed in the press a couple of weeks ago, one commentator stated:

“In some ways [the study’s findings are]  a signal to women who don’t [work] that they have to think hard about how the role they have within the household is going to impact their children’s perceptions of what it means to be a woman and to be a mother,”

I did think hard about it, before I even made the choice to leave work. How could I claim to be a feminist, how could I teach my daughter that her destiny was in her own hands, while the model I presented was one of absolute domesticity? She knew I worked from home, but that was an abstract, unseen concept. What she saw was someone who cooked and cleaned and fetched and carried: always at the school gate, when I wasn’t at the hob or forlornly harvesting socks out of the airing cupboard.

There’s no way of knowing how badly I have harmed her life chances (or otherwise). What could possibly be the control anyway? I would argue pretty strongly, though, that having always explained to her and her brothers that I chose to be at home with them while they were very little because the nursery they were at was going down the pan and because we had no-one on hand to help out with the inevitable, incessant lurgies of small childhood, that I was giving them a fairly good idea of what it means to be a woman and a mother. It wasn’t ideal – or certainly not idyllic – but it was a choice, a means to an end. It was being a grown-up (albeit one lucky enough to be able to make a choice).

It’s now that I am on the brink of going back to full time work, however, that I am really having to think about what my actions say and do. Not the working itself, but all the other stuff around the edges. The plan is that I will drop the children off at wraparound for breakfast, and that their dad will collect them and bring them home for an evening meal at about 6. And despite the fact that he is a fantastic father, a perfectly competent cook, and a thoroughly functional adult, he is having to chip my fingers off the meal planning to get me to relinquish control. My instincts are to write out what we are going to eat each night, to shop for it all and to plan the preparation necessary in order to ensure we eat a decent meal every (or almost every) night. But I won’t be here. This isn’t my role any more.

The same thing goes for laundry, for shopping for presents, for planning parties and filling in school slips and all the time-consuming minutiae of family life. While we divided our labour so that he earned the money and I ran the home, it made perfect sense for me to do all that stuff. I could explain to my children that I wasn’t doing it because I was a woman or a mother, I was doing it because that was how we had agreed to function as a family for a while. Children are very practical. That made absolute sense to them.

When I am working as many hours as their father, though, what kind of message will I be sending then about what it means to be a mother and a woman if I insist on hanging on to all the domestic stuff? If I cling to “wife-work” as somehow my domain, despite the fact that I also work outside the home? Surely they would, unavoidably, absorb the message that women are just inherently more capable of running round with a hoover or writing an RSVP and that men shouldn’t be troubled even to try.

I hate saying that my husband is brilliant around the house, though he is, because it makes him sound like a well-trained puppy.  He has always been hands-on with the children, right from the nights when he would carry a screaming colicky No1 to the back of the house to try and let me get some sleep. Now is the time that I have to let him step in to do what he is more than willing to do to keep our little crew of five afloat and show our children, not that women can have it all, but that there is absolutely no reason why they should have to do it all. That’s definitely a perception worth impacting.

The (Other) Mothers

Until very recently, if you’d asked me to tell you three facts about myself, I might have answered the following: I have bright red hair. I am incurably clumsy. I used to have a career.

To my (continuing) astonishment, if you asked me the same question today, those facts would have changed. I still have hair next to which carrots look insipid. I still trip over invisible obstacles. But, somehow, the career has moved from being a thing very firmly in my past to being, quite possibly, a thing in my future too.

Being at home with my children for the past few years has been my choice, albeit one forced slightly by circumstances. It has been that most grown-up of things; a compromise, neither principled nor perfect, but good enough. Now that there is a chance of going back into work that I loved, though, I’ve been slightly taken aback by the sense of freedom I feel at the prospect of being something other than a mother and housewife again.

My feelings about returning to work are one thing. The varying reactions of other mothers in my circle, both online and in real life, however, have really struck me as worthy of writing about.

This is a post which has lurked behind everything I’ve ever written on working and childcare. The fact that I am now on the brink of working five days a week again, instead of being the loathed figure of the smug middle class stay at home mum, means that I feel free to write what I have always thought about the debates we have about working motherhood without being considered to have an agenda of defending or justifying my own situation.

Voices like mine, stories like mine, families like mine, with education and privilege and some degree of autonomy over our choices; voices that dominate the whole public topic of combining employment and parenthood, are precisely the voices that we don’t need to be hearing. With the best motivations in the world, with all our legitimate angst over the effects of our life decisions on our children, we skew the issues and contribute to narrowing the options for others who don’t have our advantages. It isn’t that our voices aren’t invalid or don’t matter; more that they set a narrative which just doesn’t match the reality which many women live.

I mentioned above the reactions of others to my proposed change of direction. Lots of people have been supportive, lots have said how much I will enjoy work again, notwithstanding the logistical challenges and the tug of changing my children’s lives so dramatically. But lots, too, have told me quite plainly that they think I am mad; those, by and large, who work because they have no choice but to do so, in jobs and at hours that they wouldn’t choose, with no discernible reward in achievement or pay, and with a complicated and costly structure of childcare keeping the whole thing together. These are women who feel like they are letting their children down by working too, just as I think most of us do (logically or otherwise) at some point, but who will never have the chance to opt-out or downshift or start their own business to work flexibly around the school day.

I chose to leave work, because I felt pulled in two and because our only viable option for childcare was naff at best. But I was able to make that choice because I had a husband with a decent income, and an education behind me which I knew would allow me to re-enter the world of work when I wanted to, even if in a different sphere to that I left. I choose, now, to return, with the benefits of being able to negotiate a degree of flexibility, with a salary which will smooth the way and with access to decent wraparound childcare which might not be exactly where my children would choose to be day in, day out, but which is more than fine. It’s not representative of most people’s circumstances, and it shouldn’t be used as a means to illustrate that working motherhood is attainable for all on the same terms.

Every time a politician or a journalist (or, let’s be honest, a blogger like me) writes about the importance and benefits of working to them personally and to their family, it reinforces the presumption that working per se is always without negative effects in all circumstances, and I just don’t believe that to be the case. Women across society may well have legitimate reason or need to prioritise being available to their children over paid work from time to time without it being deemed an excuse to skive.

I don’t believe that its parents working harms a child, nor that a mother’s place is at home. I do, however, believe that very many women quite reasonably want to be able to make that choice, particularly when their children are very small. I do believe that forcing women to take up low-paid work supported by poor-quality childcare is not in their best interests, or those of their children, and I believe also that we don’t hear nearly enough in support of these women, or recognition that this is not what they would choose.

In an era of low wages and job insecurity, it is simply not fair to insist that parenting is an indulgence only available to those who have saved up enough beforehand. Many, many people will never be in a position to do that. Do we really want babies to be an luxury for the rich alone?

I’m not proposing a solution here, Nor am I criticising women who take any of the routes outlined above – increasing flexibility in the workplace can only ever be a good thing – or those (like me) who write about their own experiences. It is disingenuous, however, to translate this into meaning that all mothers can and should work in all circumstances without reference to the fact that they are mothers. I wish, without it being in my power to make it so, that we could hear from and accept the words of mothers from all parts of society, not just a small, comparatively fortunate one.

An overhaul of the social security system to allow ALL women to decide how to spend their children’s early years is never going to happen. We’re going in the opposite direction. Some honesty, though, that many, many mothers have no choice at all would, at least, acknowledge their situation rather than sugar coat it with the language of us who do – limited as it may be.

The issue with women’s issues

Poor old Labour are getting a lot of stick today for the launch of their pink bus to tour marginal constituencies ahead of the General Election, targeting female voters with a focus on the five areas the party has determined as being key to women: childcare, social care, domestic violence, equal pay and political representation

Quite apart from the discussions of the damn thing’s colour (am I alone in imagining some poor intern, listening to the earnest discussions about the hidden messages in magenta, desperate to shout IT’s PINK, DON’T DO IT!), it is wearying to see childcare and social care among the items highlighted as being of most concern to women. Not because I think that they aren’t, but because I can’t help feel that identifying them as such is in danger of perpetuating a dangerous myth.

I’ve written before about why the assumption that childcare is relevant to all woman is lazy and potentially offensive. Beyond that, though, each time childcare is called a woman’s issue, surely an employer, or a father, or anyone else who has an effect on or power over a mother’s life is reinforced – consciously or otherwise – in the belief that it’s the mother’s problem alone. The more we reiterate that it’s women who care (for children, and for other family members), the more we are saying that fundamentally only women care about caring. The messy, complicated, wonderful business of dependents becomes a niche issue, one which women somehow choose to adopt and therefore have to be primarily responsible for sorting out. It remains an optional add-on, not something which is integral to the daily lives of so very many working age people.

This isn’t a go at Labour. All political parties fall into the same trap. But look at that list of issues again. These may be things which matter to women, sometimes to the extent of life or death, but they all have one thing in common. They are problems caused to women by the action, or deliberate inaction, of others. These are issues which affect and arise from employers, fathers, sons; perpetrators of domestic violence; employers (again) and the whole structure of the society in which we live. Talking to women about the effects on them seems a backwards way of addressing the problems. Those who are suffering the most are not those who have the power to change the situation. Talk about these things, by all means, but talk to those who make the decisions that cause them in the first place.

Labour should be applauded for raising these issues and recognising the pivotal role that they play in disempowering women on a daily basis from realising their full potential. It is because they are so vital that they deserve a better platform than a bus – pink or otherwise – on the fringes.

Miss-leading headlines: Andrea Leadsom, The Telegraph and Postnatal Depression

Imagine a successful young chap in his thirties. He’s flying up the ranks at work, and he and his partner are starting a family. Then he’s diagnosed with a serious illness.

It’s a happy ending. He makes a full recovery. He fulfils his childhood ambition of becoming an MP, and, with his previous professional expertise behind him, rises quickly to Ministerial status, with a particular responsibility for libraries.

He’s speaking, one day, to a national newspaper, about his departmental brief; in particular, the challenges posed to traditional book lending by new technologies. The conversation strays to his well-known work with charities supporting those affected by the same illness which struck him. He talks about his own experiences, how he personally had struggled, and about the wider ways in which families and society are affected by the financial, emotional and physical problems it brings, especially where there are young children involved.

The piece is printed and shared on social media.

“Minister blames violent crime and homelessness on illness among fathers”.

He protests that he was deliberately misrepresented, that he never made such a claim. The headline stands.

So far, so whimsical, except that the story actually ran in yesterday’s Telegraph.

When I first clicked on the link, courtesy of @drlangtrygirl, I was ready to fume against Andrea Leadsom, Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who, according to the paper, blamed postnatal depression for violent crime and homelessness, for a crass and dangerous attack with no basis in evidence.

When I read the piece, though, it didn’t stack up. It was apparently contradictory, true (she inferred that her PND may have been contributed to by her employer’s refusal to countenance part time work, while going on to say that work had “sorted her out”), but at the same time she spoke with a deep understanding both of the gravity of postnatal mental health issues, and the importance of decent support and early intervention to help women  – and families – affected. She spoke, too, of the wide range of circumstances which can negatively impact on a child’s start in life.

What she didn’t do was blame women for society’s ills by virtue of the simple crime of illness. She didn’t say it, and, reading more about her, it sounds as though she never would.

Miss Leadsom has herself, on Twitter, stated that the article misrepresented what she said. I am angry on her behalf, and I trust that she will receive an apology.

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 12.50.10

But there will be no apology for the deliberately cynical headline which will have deeply hurt many women, already struggling with ante-, peri- and/or postnatal health issues. There will be no counterweight to the terror they already feel and which has now been increased, that by suffering from an illness, they are somehow doing harm to their child. There will be no reassurance, from the Telegraph, at least, as they lie awake haunted by dread and groundless guilt.

I am not, it goes without saying, a Minister in Her Majesty’s Government. I am not suffering postnatal depression. Perhaps, you will say, it is therefore none of my business. By twisting the words of one woman, though, and by using them to attack many others, ensuring that as many as possible will see it by putting it within the “Women” section, the Telegraph has made it my business.

Moreover, it’s nothing new. Papers and TV programmes refer daily to other interviews, research, think pieces – usually balanced, reasoned and nuanced, but presented every time through the prism of the ways in which it’s all our fault. Mothers’ age. Mothers’ health. Mothers’ financial status. Mothers’ work or lack of it.

I don’t think we’d see a story like the one above about testicular cancer. We shouldn’t see it when it’s a “woman’s” issue, either. The Telegraph chose not to use the interview to highlight and support the cause of support for maternal mental health, and instead to take a prominent woman’s cause of a serious issue and twist it into lazy clickbait. We need to ask ourselves why.

 

On bras and other burning questions

My six year old daughter wants a bra.

It goes without question that she doesn’t need a bra, but still, she wants one.

I can’t remember how old I was when my mum took me to Fenwick in Newcastle for my first small, largely pointless, soft white cotton bra (no cutesy crop-tops in those days) but I was considerably older than six. I was also disappointed, I remember, that I didn’t warrant one of the mysteriously glamorous garments I’d watched her wear for years: all satin and wiring and lace.

I want to say to my daughter: don’t hurry. The glamour and the mystery soon wear off. The grown up ritual of slipping arms through straps, adjusting cups, pulling hooks and eyes tight across the back and giving the whole thing a practised, unthinking shrug is also the nightly sigh of relief as it comes off. The ghost-bra that stays long afterwards: welts along ribcage, grooves dug into shoulders. The little roughnesses that build up over the years so that you can see where fabric rubs skin, day after day after day.

I want to say: enjoy your freedom to choose your clothes and wear them without thought for how they look or what they require. Time enough to scour shops for the elusive bra that won’t show under a pretty dress without reducing your bosom to the shape of a draught excluder. Time enough to wear something remarkably like two dinner plates wired together so that something which is just a part of you doesn’t manifest itself as someone else’s “inappropriate cleavage”. Time enough to sigh and wince at the need for the postnatal over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder (if boulders were alive with milk and hurt).

Of course, wearing a bra at all is a choice. No-one makes us do it. It’s a choice largely enforced by necessity and convention, though, and one which is restricted to what is affordable and readily accessible.

I have no doubt that there are women who, of a morning, slip into a bra which all at once enhances, supports and relieves, while instantly rendering itself unnoticeable to wearer and beholder alike. Women who see no issue in bra-wearing, since for them it involves choosing to wear something which occasions little, if any, discomfort and which has a price-tag that doesn’t place it out of reach.

Most of us, though, run along with we can find in our local M&S.  Whether or not it’s really what we want; whether it’s comfortable or suitable or even plain attractive, we shop on cost and the sizes in store. We plump, by default, for one of the various mammarific Spice Girls types on offer: Sporty Breasts; Baby Breasts; even, in the case of those frankly alarming contraptions involving plunge and purple lace, Scary Breasts. We’ll probably end up with something reasonably close to what we want, but we’re still fitting into what’s available rather than the other way round.

And yet, of course, we’re fortunate even in this limited choice. So many women have to do without, or have recourse only to the methods used to defy gravity since time immemorial. Charities collect our old bras (sporty, baby, scary…) and ship them to others who are unlikely to be matched up courtesy of a tape-measure around the ribs and a calculation on the fingers. Is it better than nothing, having someone else’s discarded bra, with the elastic worn and the colour washed out? Possibly, but it’s still a long way from ideal, when it’s such a very bad fit.

Sooner or later, I’ll give in and get my daughter what she wants, though not yet. I’ll resist for as long as I can the allure of the “training” bra. I don’t want to train her into wearing a bra, full stop. She’ll have to work out for herself where the satin and lace stops and the rest of being a woman begins, when the glamour and choice suddenly seem like anything but.

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater

Life is full of surprises. This morning I found myself tweeting: “I think Kirstie Allsopp has a point” which, had you asked me, I would have thought about as likely ever to happen as “I fancy Nigel Farage”. But I do (think she has a point, that is, not fancy him). She’s touched on something I’ve been thinking for a while, though. In an interview in today’s Telegraph, as well as talking movingly about the recent death of her mother (inexplicably, largely ignored in reactions), she says:

“Women are being let down by the system. We should speak honestly and frankly about fertility and the fact it falls off a cliff when you’re 35. We should talk openly about university and whether going when you’re young, when we live so much longer, is really the way forward. At the moment, women have 15 years to go to university, get their career on track, try and buy a home and have a baby. That is a hell of a lot to ask someone.”

So let’s get the obvious arguments out of the way. No, I don’t think that it’s a waste of time to educate women post-16. No, I don’t think that women should dash into having babies with their first partner. No, I don’t think that having babies should be all that women aim for in life. And no, answering points later in the interview, I don’t think that settling one’s daughter into a bricks-and-mortar venus fly trap  and hoping for a handsome sperm donor to come along and fill her cradle by the time she’s thirty is necessarily my parenting model of choice (even assuming that I were ever to have the finances available to try it). All of this notwithstanding, and the cartoon politics of personalities aside, Kirstie has picked up on a real issue here that deserves consideration. It is a hell of a lot to ask someone. It’s only going to get worse now that graduates are leaving university with increasingly large debts due to tuition fees, property prices in the cities where the majority of new graduates will find their initial post-University jobs are climbing ever higher, and those jobs themselves are paying (if at all) barely above minimum wage.

What’s the point of University for anyone? That’s a different question. For the purposes of this post, though, in the absence of a parent to help bridge the gap, its hard not to think that starting a family in the 15 years after graduating will slide ever further out of reach. All of that,  without considering the uncomfortable fact that female fertility does decline as we age (even if it doesn’t exactly “fall off a cliff”).

Meanwhile, also in the news today, but less decoratively and therefore less deserving of headlines, is the story that women are cutting short their maternity leave due to concerns over job security and financial constraints. Child Benefit has been restricted and is shrinking in real terms, while changes to employment tribunals mean that women who are illegally discriminated against in the workplace during pregnancy or maternity leave are left unable to take action or claim redress. Government ministers talk about the “burden” that working mothers place on their employers, while members of Ukip happily suggest scrapping maternity leave altogether, and pressure on wages and changes to the benefit system create a vicious trap for many at the lower end of the income bracket. “Family-friendly”, in the mouths of politicians, seems to equate more to an empty rhetoric on lowering the cost of childcare and an unquestioning drive to extend its availability, rather than considering children’s needs or listening to what parents say they actually want.

Against this backdrop, in the knowledge that we’ll be living and working for longer than any previous generation, perhaps there is an argument that we should get the inevitably awkward years of child-rearing out of the way young.  Stay at home, under the care of a securely earning man, churn out the babies and inconvenience no-one with demands to leave the office for Nativity plays or chicken pox. We could see a cadre of sleek cougar undergraduates, achieving dual honours in our subject of choice while Mrs Robison-ing our younger male counterparts on the side. We could continue in the commodification of motherhood; treating it as just another kind of consumerism. We could keep talking about the whole thing in the language of personal fulfilment and personal choice, while determinedly ignoring the real factors at play. Or, and of course this is the realm of pure fantasy, we could normalise motherhood.

We could accept that many women will have babies during their twenties and thirties, not persist in considering it some wilfully obstructive anomaly. We could look at ways of absorbing the impact that this has on workplaces, we could address young families’ needs, we could try to spread the load of the early years, both financial and emotional, across our society with the aim of securing the long-term engagement of skilled, educated and committed women and a focus on improving children’s chances.

Imagine if having a child wasn’t considered potentially so toxic to a woman’s career that the timing of it had to dominate everything else she does in her life? Imagine if there was a will to make it all just work, rather than blaming women for their own predicament because they took a supposedly wrong route when no other was realistically open to them?

Or we could scoff at the words of a TV presenter who’s inadvertently highlighted the Catch-22 so many women, graduates or not, find themselves in and carry on as before.

Bare Faced Selfies

Over the past 48 hours, my Facebook feed has been filled with close-up images of women’s faces. Some are friends, some are acquaintances, some are just friends of friends all over the world who’ve been tagged into my timeline. None are wearing any makeup.

I’m not good with makeup. It isn’t that I think I don’t need it; more that my colouring and (lack of) skills always make it look weird. It masks my freckles, it clashes with my hair, it (increasingly) sinks into wrinkles and clings to little hairs and generally exaggerates what it’s supposed to conceal. I do wear a bit, but it’s applied more as a tribute to the god of grownupness than in any hope of looking better.

I know there’s debate and disagreement about the value of the bare faced selfie as an awareness raising stunt; less so about the money which it’s undoubtedly raising for cancer research. That’s not what will stay with me though, long after the photos and their male counterparts (far more disturbing!) have gone from my page.

Instead, I’ll remember women looking softer, younger, more vulnerable. I’ll remember natural skin with its flaws and imperfections, tired eyes, pale lips and creased cheeks. I’ll remember the expressions: nervous, proud, happy, reluctant. Smiles at a camera turned to a self portrait or smiles at a loved one behind the phone. Intimate. Exposed. Honest.

Everyone looked different, but everyone looked beautiful. We lacquer ourselves so much when we go out in the world that it is touching to be forced to realise and remember that there’s a real person behind the veneer. What strikes me is how many women post an apology alongside their picture: humorous or heartfelt, there is an almost universal self-deprecation, a disclaimer that they are only showing themselves for a good cause and that normal service will be resumed soon.

I suppose it just makes me sad that all these women, in all the myriad roles they fill which keep our world turning, are fairly unanimously agreed that they’re only acceptable when they spend their precious time, money and effort on looking different. That their natural state is unacceptable, ugly, even frightening. Why is it taboo to be ourselves?

I don’t have anything against makeup. Who doesn’t want to be more beautiful; who doesn’t want to take what they’ve been given and improve on it? I just want to tell all those gorgeous, pallid, lashless women that they don’t need it and they don’t owe it to the rest of the world to cover up. To show them the beauty they have. To tell them that they’re worthy of occupying their space just as they are. Because they’re worth it.

Breastfeeding on demand

Every so often, I come across something on Twitter which makes me rub my eyes and check the date. 

Today’s laugh-with-nervous-incredulity comes courtesy of a Huffington Post article on a recent new law introduced in the United Arab Emirates. 

As part of their Child Rights Law (who could object to any piece of legislation with that title?), it is now a legal requirement for mothers to breastfeed for the first two years of their child’s lives. A woman who fails to do so can be sued by her husband, although presumably other penalties will be involved – how else to protect the rights of a fatherless child against its…mother?

I’m generally in favour of any measures which promote and encourage breastfeeding, from the availability of properly trained supporters to a pushback against a culture which sees it increasingly as a bolshy, narcissistic, unnecessary act. I think the proper promotion and support of breastfeeding is a women’s rights issue, too, in that it apparently takes uncommon sophistry to accept that a woman may retain all her personal, professional and educational attributes, while wishing also to capitalise on the relatively short period of life in which a child may be dependent on her. 

All other things being equal, there is little doubt that breastfeeding is the best start in life for a baby. Of course, however, all other things rarely are equal, and breastmilk substitutes (and parent substitutes) are an everyday part of life, without significant detriment. Breastfeeding doesn’t trump all other pieces in the jigsaw of parenting; we have to credit women with the ability to make choices in this as in all other aspects of their lives, based on their physical, mental, emotional and financial circumstances.

Which is why this legislation is so worrying. It has, surely, little really to do with giving a child the best possible start in life. For reasons which are almost too obvious to state, it is unenforceable on any practical or equitable level. Women who are ‘unable’ to breastfeed will be provided with a wet nurse, but the mechanics of doing so are unclear. In any event, how could ‘unable’ ever be determined? As with abortion, presumably those who have the money to do so will have the choice anyway, regardless of statute. What about babies who self-wean, as two of mine did, before the age of two? There is the ludicrous, but not remotely amusing, scenario of mothers desperately trying to continue breastfeeding against a backdrop of disapproving family or relatives who might relish the opportunity to cause trouble with law enforcement. 

Tellingly, although this proposal was ultimately deemed worthy of a place in law, measures which would protect and facilitate the rights of breastfeeding mothers in the workplace were not. It’s hard enough to continue breastfeeding after maternity leave even with the most supportive of employers and an appropriate workplace – breasts (and babies) unfortunately can struggle to understand the stress of a pumping schedule. Where there is a duty in law for any woman with a child under the age of two to be available around the clock for feeding, why employ her? Why educate her at all, since her ultimate place in life is so clearly and publicly defined? Why treat your wife as an equal partner, when the official message is that she is subservient to the perceived needs of your child? Why respect any woman, if she’s little more than a means to an end? I don’t mean to suggest that the new law would change women’s position overnight – but how can the message it sends fail to do so over time?

Writing this feels weird. I am no expert on women’s rights in the UAE; I have no more than general knowledge about the UAE at all. Nor do I think it is anything which could ever remotely be implemented here. But on a day when my Twitter and Facebook timelines talk of 100+ million girls and women worldwide affected by FGM; in a week when there is discussion – however abstract – as to whether a woman can be held criminally liable for harm caused to her unborn child; it is a deeply troubling thing to read of women being consigned in law to a status which effectively deprives them of agency for the purposes of one subjective, selective advantage to their children. There are countless better ways to further the rights of a child than seeking to criminalise its mother. If you really want to support children, you take the rights and welfare of women seriously.

 

Joining the (polka) dots

I have matching puncture wounds on my inner elbows, a pinprick on my thumb and a few more lines on my forehead. That’s right; today I gave blood with a toddler in tow. Actually, it went very well. Certainly much better than last time, when I was left racing away to make school pick up as though Dracula himself were after me. Most of the credit goes to the Blood Service, who had streamlined operations considerably, but part must also go to Twitter, which helped me by raising my blood pressure to such a degree that my donation was collected in record time.

I’d come across an article in from the Jersey Evening Post in which Anne McIntosh, MP for Thirsk and Malton (placing her, funnily enough, just a few miles and a hundred years away from me) made these comments in a parliamentary debate:

“It’s a controversial thing to say, but perhaps I as a woman can say this — 70  per cent of medical students currently are women and they are very well educated and very well qualified,” she said.

“When they go into practice and then in the normal course of events will marry and have children, they often want to go part-time and it is obviously a tremendous burden training what effectively might be two GPs working part-time where they are ladies. And I think that is something that is going to put a huge burden on the health service.”

I hate to break it to Miss McIntosh, but perhaps I, as a woman, can. The “huge burden” facing the NHS may have rather more to do with the drop in real-term spend than those pesky “lady” doctors, training for years at enormous expense, then having babies for the hell of it and demanding that their skills be kept up to date even when swanning off for part of the week to look after them spend taxpayer’s cash on lattes. I have to admit that I don’t actually understand the argument either (perhaps its a woman thing again). Is it just the additional training needs of two part time doctors which is the burden? I’d be curious to know quite how much that accounts for in the budget of the NHS as a whole. How, for example, does is compare to the discredited claims that immigrants are overwhelming it?

The Health Minister, Anna Soubry, has been forced to issue a clarification (she “fully supports” women doctors apparently, so that’s ok) after initially appearing to concur with the comments in the debate:

”Could I just say very quickly you make a very important point when you talk about, rightly, the good number of women who are training to be doctors but the unintended consequences.”

As I write this, I see small, piscine versions of Messrs (I don’t think there is a plural of Ms, so I’ll cheat) McIntosh & Soubry swimming in a barrel at my feet, and a metaphorical (honestly, Constable, the closest we come to weapons in this house is National Trust replica swords) rifle in my hand. It would be too easy, though to train my sights on two individuals and gun (still a metaphor, Constable) for them. It seems unsporting, even if I can bring myself to ignore the fact that they are two out of only 369 women who have been Members of Parliament since 1918 (there are 503 men currently in Parliament, by the way).

The appalling thing is that they are, of course, right in what they say and they issues they raise. People have an annoying habit of reproducing, and as yet I don’t think there is any exception to the general rule that it is the woman who tends to hog the whole self-centred pregnancy/birth/newborn thing. In facing up fearlessly to the (rather uncontroversial) fact that Women Have Babies, they’re asking the inevitable question: So What Does That Mean? The question, of course, is like pulling at a loose thread on a jumper; why educate girls if they are going to throw it all away by starting families? (You could, of course, go further and ask; why educate anyone, since they will ultimately die and waste it all, which is equally true, but I’ve yet to hear that one aired). Where do you stop, once you start to unravel the idea that people should have equal access to training and careers, regardless of sex?

I’d like to think that in 2013 the answer would not involve querying whether women should be there in the first place, but rather thinking seriously about how to address issues of parenting and work, so that we can make it as easy as possible for families of whatever shape to combine both to their best advantage. To not see childbearing and raising as a woman’s choices, or women’s issues, or women’s problems. While there are antediluvian rumblings from UKIP about women in the workplace, I’d like to think it would be inconceivable for relatively senior members of any governing party, whether female or not (as if that makes any difference whatsoever) to see something as fundamental as reproducing as a kind of “unintended consequence”, a technical error disrupting an otherwise blameless life of work and paying tax; burdening employers with all sorts of trouble and expense.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the looking glass, the government is making noises about addressing the issue of inequality in the workplace, with Maria Miller’s department bankrolling information packs to parents of daughters so that we can “broaden their aspirations and job choices before the start of their working lives” – as if, ironically enough, poverty of aspiration, rather than attitudes and circumstances, is solely to blame for women’s lagging status in boardrooms. David Cameron himself recently called on mothers to work outside of the home in order to boost the economy (conveniently, omitting to identify where this patriotic Mums’ Army would find jobs in a climate where most applications outstrip vacancies several-fold). There’s an increasingly frenzied hokey-cokey around plans to “help” working parents which seem more about a mating dance of being seen to be doing something than actually improving anything.

It’s anything but a coherent message. What, exactly,are we supposed to hear? Aspiration = good. Entrepreneurship = good. Earning = good. Inconveniencing anyone else with facts of life = bad. Women, and children, and families deserve so much more than this half hearted patchwork which reveals far more of the deep inequality which still exists than it manages to cover.