Saturday, 14 October 2017

Changing trains

My journey as a single parent is coming to an end. Just short of four years ago my daughter came into the world, and times they are a changin.... 

Like any parent, the first bit was a blur. I was frightened, confused and sad at the situation I found myself in, as well as besotted by the tiny monkey-like creature that stared up at me with big blue eyes.

In a few days' time we’re starting a whole new chapter in our lives – we’re moving in with Prince Charming. Love is in the air, there are boxes everywhere. I’m thinking about the future, and the past.



My single parent journey


It’s hard for people without kids to understand what life is really like with children (I didn’t have a clue). And it’s equally hard for two-parent families to understand what it’s like being on your own. For a long time I dreaded weekends. The weekdays were hard work, but come the weekends I was pretty much alone. My friends needed some family time together, hanging out as a three or four, they didn’t want an extra adult and child hanging about. Gradually the dread faded, and I had more things to do at the weekends, and started to enjoy the time with the two of us. But I’m not sad that it’s not like that anymore. I’m glad that we, too, get to hang out as a family of three at weekends. And if we choose to go somewhere I won’t feel like a lonely adult with a child. And if my daughter gets overtired, I don’t have to deal with the problems alone, or shoulder her weight to carry her back by myself.

One of my greatest fears (there are a few) is, or was, loneliness. And I have faced up to it. Maybe not the enveloping loneliness of a desert island. But I’ve experienced what it’s like to stay home every night alone. At first I invited people over at every opportunity, to avoid the silence. But gradually, without even noticing, I became used to it. I’m a sociable creature, so long periods of time alone will never suit me.

I came to terms with the most awful heartbreak. And I came to terms with being single, to the point that I can confidently say it’s really not that bad. Loss is awful. Loneliness can be terrible. But singledom is actually OK. It really does give you a chance to sit back and work out who you are and what you want, without the outside influence of another person. I wouldn’t say it’s better than being with someone (for me). I am definitely happier having someone to share my life with. But I found that I could be content without that.

Since I have been single I have learnt to be a mother. I bought a flat, decorated (with lots of help from my amazing friends and a baby who learned to love watching mummy stripping wallpaper) and furnished it, and filled it with owls and books and purple things. I’ve taken my girl on trains, planes, buses and cars, across Europe and up and down the UK. I’ve made a circle of ‘mum friends’ – the most wonderful, beautiful, caring women you could hope to meet, who can talk about everything from lipstick to politics (when we’re not discussing our children). We’ve had a lot of fun, just the two of us, and I’m sure we’ll have a lot more.

My daughter and I became a team of two in a way that, I think, is unique to single parents. The two of us are more portable than my friends/ families of three or four. So we’re adept at packing up our stuff and jumping in the car. With a sleeping bag and a cuddly lion, my daughter will sleep anywhere. She was a little bit sick on a train recently, and together we dealt with it so discretely that even the people sitting opposite us might not have seen what happened. The team of two is going to become a team of three (sometimes), but I hope we don’t lose that sense of teamwork. I’m sure there will be plenty more adventures for us as a twosome.

Single parent solidarity


During my stint as a single parent, I’ve seen several friends with kids become single. And I’ve learnt that there’s no one who isn’t the single parent type, because there is no type. You can be a single parent because you chose it, and never had a partner in the first place, or relationship break-up for all kinds of reasons, or of course death of a partner. You might have been with your ex for two months or 20 years. Maybe you haven't seen him for dust, or maybe he sleeps on your sofa two nights a week. You might be living on benefits or have no qualifications, or you can be affluent and high-flying. You can be fluent in four languages, or have never left the country. Often the only things single parents have in common are their singleness and their children. But there is a solidarity between single parents – a gentleness and supportiveness with each other, an understanding that we are doing something difficult and important, and quite how hard it can sometimes be. 

I learnt that you can and should rely on other people, but at some level you need to be ready to rely on yourself alone, because they can take the rug from under you. Like my friend says, sometimes you have to put on your ‘big girl pants’ and just deal with it.

Sharing parenting 


In a way I’ll always be a single parent – as the resident parent, the buck stops with me and I’m the one that ultimately makes all the decisions. I can ask for opinions and advice, and talk things through, but it always comes down to me and what I think is for the best. This still feels ridiculous – I still feel like the least experienced or knowledgeable person involved.

Shared parenting doesn’t come naturally to me. I learnt to do this thing alone and I expected to continue it alone. But having someone to back me up when my little monster skips over the boundaries, someone who will take turns to get up in the night, and emerging from a bedtime battle to find dinner cooked for me makes a huge difference. And I am very excited that if I run out of milk in the evening, I can go to the shop and get some. Definitely milk. Not wine or chocolate.

I’m excited about this next chapter in mine and my daughter’s lives. It feels like we’re becoming a real family, although of course we’ve always been a family, and it has been real. And if a ‘normal’ family is mum-dad-kids we’ll never be normal, because Prince Charming isn’t her dad, a fact she very carefully points out to any passers-by who might make that assumption: “He is not my daddy. My daddy lives in ___. He is Mummy’s friend.”

Apparently "love lifts you up where you belong", but there's nothing like a three-year-old to bring you back down to earth with a bump.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Women dressed as rabbits

Hugh Hefner died (apparently he was still alive until last week).

I didn’t know much about Hugh Hefner. I don’t usually condone ignorance, but in this case I think it was probably better that way.

My preconception of Hefner was that he was an old rich bloke who founded Playboy in all its forms, paid women to dress as rabbits, and had a lot of sex with nubile young blond women, who presumably slept with him because he had a lot of money. There was a Playboy Mansion, which presumably was a big ole house built on the proceeds of said rabbits, in which Heffner could cavort with his girls in peace and harmony.

Since Hefner passed on to the warren in the sky, the newspapers have been full of bunny tales.

Hugh Hefner in 1966
Photo by ABC Television via Wikimedia Commons

Bunnies then

There was an interview with an ex 1970s Bunny Girl on the Today programme. She’d been working at a petrol station before she became a bunny girl. Then all of a sudden she was earning shedloads of dosh, just for smiling (all you had to do was smile she said, a number of times).

You didn’t have to have a certain type of body, she said. But you did have to have nice hair. And skin. And teeth. Oh, well that’s OK then. It didn’t matter if you didn’t have tits (just so long as you weren’t spotty).

Bunnies now

More recent accounts have painted the Playboy Mansion as more like a "prison" than a palace. Women living there got plenty of money to spend on clothes (you probably don’t get that in prison), but in return they have to observe a 9pm curfew, do Hefner’s bidding in the bedroom and watch 1950s films at his compulsory movie nights (I think I’d quite enjoy that bit). So not actually like a prison. 

I like nice clothes as much as the next girl, but I wouldn’t trade my freedom for them. I don’t really get this. I mean, I wouldn’t sleep with someone for money or power, it just doesn’t float my boat, but if that’s what you want to do, then, OK. But if you’re not really gaining from the whole thing, and you have to live in a ‘mansion’ that, according to some accounts is full of holes and covered in dog poo, then why bother? By all accounts, the women weren’t really imprisoned – they could walk away any time.

Photo by Darkain Multimedia, a member of Cosplay Photographers, via Flickr Creative Commons

Hefner gave women fame and fortune in return for demeaning themselves by dressing up as rabbits. It wasn't what you'd call a dignified outfit. They wore fluffy ears and swimsuits, not forgetting the fluffy little tail on their bottoms. You wouldn't see men demeaning themselves by doing something like that, unless it was a comedy fancy dress stunt. But Hefner's bunny girls were serious. 

A lover and a jailer

Hefner is a controversial figure. On the one hand, he's painted as a hero – lover and liberator of women, giving them sexual and economic freedom. On the other hand, a misogynist who imprisoned pretty girls. But it’s the power relationship that swings it for me. As a rich (white) man, Hefner wielded a huge amount of power. His women chose voluntarily to submit to that power in order to reap rewards. But as women they had to submit if they wanted those things. The Playboy Mansion was the age-old story of a powerful man exerting sexual and economic power over his females.

These women were free to choose, but they their culture taught them that submitting to male power was an acceptable way of getting rewards. And so they did. In return, Hefner got them to cavort about dressed as rabbits, and then he gave them money for pretty clothes. 

Since the beginning of time women have traded their appearances. Sometimes it's called prostitution. Sometimes it's called marrying for money. Sometimes it's called sleeping your way to the top. And other things. It would be nice to imagine a world where women didn't have to trade on their figures and faces, but it's a pipe dream. 

The rot at the heart of the Playboy Mansion wasn’t of Hefner’s making, or his many women, although they all exploited it. It’s from the basic assumption that men can have money and power and women can supply prettiness and sex. But not the other way around. Men just don't dress as bunnies. 

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Sugar and spice and all things nice

My daughter is big on weaponry. She was given her first skipping rope this week - she used it to tie me up. It made me think about gender differences and how my offspring negotiates them. 

My case study of one, whom I cannot regard objectively, is three-and-a-half years old and very vocal.

She's not the princessy type. While some girls rush to dress up as fairies, she's more likely to go down the pirate, Batman or crocodile route. She likes climbing, riding her bike and weapons - particularly guns and swords. But sometimes she plays mothering games and watches My Little Pony.

Long Walk for a Fairy by Charamelody via Flickr Creative Commons
My bundle of joy's favourite colour is blue. She dislikes tights, but loves pretty dresses. Let her loose in a shoe shop and she'll choose something sparkly, or a (blue) boys trainer. Or both (she hedges her bets). Apparently at nursery she plays with boys and girls equally, but she's never mentioned another girl by name. I find that slightly strange.

Tomboys

I don't like to describe my daughter as a 'tomboy'. I don't like the term (and who's Tom anyway?). It suggests a girl who behaves like a boy, which in turn suggests predefined different ways that girls and boys 'should' behave. When I say she's not very 'princessy' but likes dinosaurs people suggest she is a tomboy, but she isn't - her interests aren't restricted to stereotypical male pursuits.

My daughter isn't a tomboy, she's just herself. She's interested in the things that interest her. Currently principle topics include death, weapons, dinosaurs and poo, and particularly combining these. Her theory of dinosaur extinction has the dinosaurs being killed off by a giant poo falling from space.

I think that the things she does and the choices my littlun makes are largely unrelated to any social conditioning about what girls should and shouldn't do. She's not interested in something because she thinks she should be, or because liking fairies will make her more of a girl - at three-and-a-half she's not sophisticated enough for that. She simply likes what she likes, and what a remarkably pure thing that is. How often do we try to convince ourselves and others that we enjoyed something, because we think we should have enjoyed it, that it was in some way improving, or that saying we liked it makes us look cleverer?

The three-year-old sees stuff in the world around her, and some things spark her interest and curiosity. But the things she says are very different. Toddlers have the luxury of guilt-free hypocrisy. They can speak at length about the philosophy of sharing, completely fail to act on their own advice, but see no problem with the disjunct between their actions and words. My daughter acts on instinct, but her words are much more carefully considered (though often nonsensical).

Girls can't do that

We play a game of Octonauts and swap around who plays which character. I've been told repeatedly that I can't be Captain Barnacles because "girls can't be captains". It's in vain that I explain that my grandmother was a captain in the army. It's just met with denial, because "girls can't be captains
It seems that, somehow, after just three years on the planet, my beloved child already has clear ideas of what girls and boys can and cannot do. I think I've finally succeeded in persuading her that boys can be ballet dancers, but she took some convincing. Still no joy on the captain front.

I patiently explain that girls are as good as boys and boys are as good as girls and they can do whatever they choose to do. She patiently listens and seems to agree with me. But girls still can't be captains.

No matter how hard I try to suggest women and girls can do whatever they want to in life, that we're equal to boys and men, somehow my daughter's experience is telling her differently. You can be whatever you want to be - you just can't be in charge.