Thursday, 24 November 2016

When the drugs work

There’s an epidemic of women taking drugs. They're not illegal and it's not addiction. It's the routine medicalisation of women, as we are prescribed courses of pills that last for decades.

There are two types of drugs that are routinely prescribed to women - the contraceptive pill and antidepressants. And it wouldn’t surprise me if, in a generation or two, research shows that the second is often a direct result of the first.

By Diana Mehrez via Flickr Creative Commons

Taking antidepressants
Huge numbers of women suffer from mental health problems - depression is about twice as common in women than men. 

Doctors are quick to prescribe antidepressants to patients. It’s far easier to get pills than therapy, unless you have plenty of money to pay for it yourself. And I’m not against antidepressants, I’m sure they can have a hugely positive impact, for people that want and need them,.

Counselling and other therapies are available on the NHS, but the wait until you even get a call to find out what you need can be long, and the process of referral can be confusing. Patients with mental health problems literally can’t cope with this kind of thing, which is one of the reasons the pills go down so well. And drugs are a lot cheaper than counseling and talking therapies.

I’ve heard stories about women who go to their doctor to try and get some counselling to deal with a problem in their lives coming out with pills. And women who want to reduce and eventually stop taking antidepressants being steered away from doing so.

Pills are overwhelmingly seen as the cure for mental health problems. And whilst they may be the answer in many cases, they aren't right for every situation. We are medicalising the mentally ill, and as far more women come forward with mental health problems than men, it is we that are popping most of the Prozac (other drugs available).

The contraceptive pill
And so onto the other drug that so many women are taking: the pill. Contraception is a brilliant invention. The pill revolutionised women’s lives, meaning we do not have to be victims of our biological destiny. We can choose if and when we have children. Many of the freedoms we enjoy today can be traced back to the contraceptive pill.

The pill was first introduced in the UK in 1961 (for married women). It’s now 2016 and 3.5 million UK women are on some form of hormonal contraception. They’ve tweaked the combinations of chemicals a bit. And you can have an implant in your arm so that you don’t have to worry about forgetting to take it. But the principal is the same: give the woman hormones to stop her ovulating so she can’t get pregnant. Every couple of years there's a story about a male contraceptive pill that's on its way, but so far this hasn't materialised.

My story
I was on the pill from age 19 to 34. Non stop. Same pill. No break. Fifteen years. Every six months I had a check up and picked up my new prescription. At no point did anyone suggest that there might be a problem with taking something that suspended my natural biology for 15 years.

When I did finally stop taking it (to have a baby), my reproductive functions had switched themselves off. My body had no idea what it was supposed to do - it had got so used to not doing it.

It took a year. Then, just days before I was about to start popping yet more pills - fertility enhancing drugs in this case - my body figured out what it was supposed to be doing, and nine months later, out my baby daughter bounced. The irony of this stuff is that we spend years trying not to get pregnant, as we build a career, earn some money and find a nice bloke; and then years trying equally hard to get up the duff.

From where I’m sitting now, it seems little crazy that the medical professionals at no point thought, or mentioned, that taking a pill continuously for all that time when you’re not sick, maybe isn’t a great idea.

From pill to pill

So huge numbers of women are taking hormonal contraceptives. And huge numbers of us are taking antidepressants. The impact of hormonal contraceptives on mental health has been hugely under-reported, and I suspect under-researched. But there may well be a link - with the pill making women depressed, so one long-term drug leads to another.

But even if they are not, it worries me that by far the majority of women of child-bearing age are taking drugs that have a major impact on their body chemistry, and they’re not even ill.

I'm not taking a pop at the pill or at antidepressants. Really. Sometimes taking the pills is the right thing to do. But it worries me that there seems to be a reluctance to explore other options. Perhaps both doctors and patients should think twice before prescribing pills for decades. And if there is a link between the pill and antidepressants, we really need to know about it. And to do something about it.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Sex on TV

I never intended to be the kind of parent who uses TV as a babysitting service. But then I had a child.

My daughter watches relatively little TV (I think). I save it for the evenings, when she’s tired and grumpy, and I need to distract her while I cook.

One reason I haven’t been too unhappy about my parenting compromise is the high quality of some toddler TV. The artwork is beautiful (Abney and Teal), the characters are well-drawn (Charlie and Lola) and they range from educational (Andy's Prehistoric Adventures) to just plain crazy (Sarah and Duck).

Until someone pointed it out to me, I hadn’t noticed a shocking, striking fact about the gender of the characters that have become a part of our daily lives - nearly all of them are male. Ra Ra. Bing, Boj. Peter Rabbit. All boys.

Photo by Sagesolar via Flickr Creative Commons

So I did a little bit of research. I counted the number of male characters in the titles of TV programmes for toddlers. And then I counted the number of female title characters. The schedules for toddlers' TV is the same every day, so whichever day I picked was entirely representative of that particular season.

Male v female characters on toddler TV

In a single day of CBeebies TV programmes:
  • 14 programmes have just male characters in the title 
  • 2 programmes have just female characters in the title 
  • 2 programmes have both male and female title characters 
I had a look at another TV channel, Tiny Pop. There were:
  • 8 programmes with male title characters 
  • 5 programmes with female title characters 
The proportion is still far from equal, but it is a lot better. 

BBC could do better

I haven’t introduced my daughter to channels other than CBeebies (the dedicated BBC channel for this age group) because I don’t want to expose her (or me) to adverts, but also because I judged, based on nothing but prejudice (I hadn’t actually seen any of the programmes) that the quality of programmes on the BBC was better. I mean, it’s the BBC. It’s there to inform, educate and entertain. Information and education come before entertainment. Surely that’s not going to rot my child’s brain?

And the quality of programming is high, so no, it won’t rot her brain. But what it will do is from the tiniest age, gently communicate a sense of patriarchy - that males, men, boys come ahead of females. We rarely have more than a supporting role on screen. 

Believing what you see

“Mummy, are you a mermaid?” As my daughter once asked me, very seriously, out of the blue. It was a strange question, but it illustrates that so much of what she understands of the world comes from fiction - from stories and games and books and TV. She hears about mermaids and she hears about hedgehogs - how does she know which is true and which is fantasy?

The characters children see on TV make up a huge part of how their reality is constructed. By ensuring that male characters dominate tots' TV we are sending a clear message about the primacy of masculinity to our youngest, most impressionable and vulnerable audience. We are telling them that girls and women are life's cheerleaders, sitting on the sidelines watching the boys and men do great things.

If we want an equal society by the next generation, this is not going to help. I dearly hope CBeebies and other children's TV providers get their act together soon and start to show girls at the centre of their programming, not just the sidelines.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

You’re sexy when you’re angry

Are you looking sad? It’s probably your inner angst. It can’t possibly be that something bad just happened to you. Unless you're a man of course...

Some new research has shown that people interpret men and women’s facial expressions differently. We are more likely to see a man’s facial expression as his response to a situation, whilst we see women as being emotional.

A study, published in the journal, Emotion, showed photos of male and female faces with different facial expressions to people, and asked them why each face looked as it did, and whether the person was being emotional or just responding to a situation. It found that people were more likely to say that the women in the photos were being emotional and the men were responding to a situation.

Writing about Hillary Clinton's 'angry face' in the New York Times, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Psychology Professor at Northeastern University explained: 
“We found that our subjects were more likely to choose emotion for the photos of women — that is, they believed a woman’s expression was more likely caused by something internal to her — whereas for the photos of men, they were more likely to choose a situation.”

Hillary Clinton looking a bit stern. 
US Embassy via Flickr Creative Commons.

To summarise: 

☹ + ♂ = Something sad happened
☹ + ♀ = Life is wonderful and yet she looks strangely morose, probably due to her inner fragility, the phases of the moon or the fact that she possesses a vagina.

"Cheer up love, it might never happen"

These are words that every young woman has heard at least once in her life. Probably when she was in the middle of something serious. 

Someone once said those words to me, when I was working as a newspaper reporter. The local coroner’s office had decided to tackle the backlog of inquests by holding 12 in one day. I was the lucky reporter who drew the short straw to go and cover them all. So when I was told to cheer up, I’d just spent a day sitting in a room hearing about people dying, and surrounded by their grieving relatives. If I’d danced into the office whistling Bring Me Sunshine after sitting through 12 inquests, wouldn’t that suggest a bit of an empathy bypass? Sometimes it’s right to feel a bit miserable - it’s an appropriate response to the events we experience.

It isn’t just men who interpret emotions in this way. The study showed that we all jump to similar conclusions in the way we interpret male and female expressions. Maybe it is a natural instinct for us to do this. 

History shows a legacy of women being treated as overwrought, hysterical creatures. But in the 21st century, when women are competing for and winning some of the biggest jobs in the world (Clinton, Merkel, May), we need to retrain ourselves to take women more seriously, and not just assume that they (and we) are victims of uncontrollable female emotion.

The alternative is too awful to contemplate - do we really want our world leaders grinning like idiots as they make world-changing decisions that affect people lives?

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Prince Charming and the single mother

“Internet dating is fun,” my friend said. “You meet new people, go out to new places, and it’s exciting getting ready for a date - you have a glass of wine, listen to music.” 

This is internet dating for people without children. It is not my experience. For me, the soundtrack is Ceebeebies. The drink is a cup of tea that I probably won’t manage to actually drink. The excitement of going out and meeting someone new is overshadowed by the huge challenge of actually managing to leave the house.

Challenge #1 - set the date

“Come out tonight, I know a bar that does great cocktails.” Oh how I laughed.

I don’t want to lie about having a child, but if I show how difficult it is to arrange to get out of the house, that’s not going to make me look like fun girlfriend material. I mean, if I were a bloke, that would put me off. So Prince Charming and I send  messages back and forth trying to arrange a time we can both meet and I can get a babysitter, without mentioning babysitters.

My daughter is going through a clingy stage and Prince Charming is asking me where we should meet. It will take approximately 20 seconds to send this text message, but small fingers are grabbing at the screen. I lock myself in the toilet to reply.

Challenge #2 - Leave the house

In two hours I’m due to leave the house for my dinner date with Prince Charming. I need to feed, bath and put my child to bed, and make myself presentable. 

Hardcore multitasking is the only possible way to achieve this. I carried out retrospective risk assessments on these steps:
  • Step 1: Cook fishfingers whilst showering (risks: electrocution, house fire, cremated fishfingers)
  • Step: 2: Apply moisturiser and dry hair in the kitchen while toddler is eating (risks: tripping, slipping)
  • Step 3: Apply make-up whilst toddler is in the bath (risks: major mascara incident, flooding)
7.15pm: 15 minutes to go. Story time. I’m still wearing jeans and a T-shirt with finger-shaped yogurt stains - I don’t want my date clothes to get covered in bathwater. Where is my lipstick? Where is the Peppa Pig book? What’s more important? Must remember not to take baby wipes to the restaurant. And where the hell is the babysitter? 

7.30pm: the child is in bed and I’m supposed to leave the house now. There’s only one problem - I’m still not dressed. Jeans and T shirt off and skirt and top go on. Is this skirt too slutty? SHOES! I don’t know which shoes to wear. The babysitter is here. OK, just leave now. Is my lipstick smudged? Leave. NOW!

Challenge #3 Make the house look grown-up

Prince Charming arrives to welcome me back from holiday with take away curry. I just about manage to throw the toys into (and around) the toy box and brush my hair to look presentable when his car pulls up. I kick the Cheerios under the sofa.

He’s dishing out curry in the kitchen when the child makes herself known. We’re potty training and there’s a toilet-related incident. I usher her into the bathroom. One minute I’m wiping poo from my child’s bum. Five minutes later I’m breezing back into the kitchen demurely, for second helpings of rogan josh, hoping he didn’t hear any of that. Unlikely. I cross my fingers that the child doesn’t decide to pull an allnighter, and won’t ask me to sing her a song as I’m not yet ready to subject Prince Charming to my vocal abilities.

It's going well. I'm clearly a Goddess. Albeit one with yogurt in my hair, as befits a latterday Cinderella.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The joy of online dating

As a single woman in the 21st century it was inevitable that eventually I would experience internet dating. This is Part 1 of my experiences. Names have been changed to protect the guilty...

A few years ago there was a huge stigma attached to dating agencies. Newspaper dating pages were referred to as ‘lonely hearts’ conjuring up images of sad and wistful singletons, the last resort for those left on the shelf. There had to be a reason why they hadn’t managed to meet anyone in the normal way, right?
Skip forward to 2016, and not only is online dating completely acceptable, but it's becoming the most common way for people to meet their lovers, partners and spouses. Even my parents told me that I should head online to meet a man.

Circe Surfs the Web, after John William Waterhouse.
By Mike Licht, via Flickr Creative Commons

Boyfriend shopping

So after some of the divorce dust had settled, I decided it was time to find out what this online dating thing was all about, and find myself a nice boyfriend. Surely it couldn’t be that hard?

The way you hear people talk about internet dating, and the way it’s advertised, it’s just like a catalogue of available people. You pick the selection of characteristics you want - which as well as things like interests can include income, height, weight, and eye colour. Are there really people out there who only want to date people with a certain eye colour?

How do you do flirting?

If you've never been on a date in your life, what do you expect? Where do you go? What do you wear? How did you keep yourself safe? How long should you chat to someone online before agreeing to meet. And what on earth do you talk about? Do you have to do flirting (how do you do that?) or could we have a nice conversation about films and books?

I decided to approach Project Boyfriend like I would anything else - with lots of research. I signed up to a couple of dating sites pretending to be a man as that was the only way I could see other women’s profiles and try and work out what kind of thing I should write about myself. I sent my profile to a friend to check I didn’t sound like a total loser. And I asked any of my friends who have been single in the past few years for their experience. Advice was contradictory:

Friend 1: “You’re the woman - you should never contact them first.”

Friend 2: “There’s no chivalry in online dating. You have to make approaches.”
OK, that’s clear then.

Getting online

So I wrote some stuff about myself, collected a few photos (not easy when you’ve just had a baby, as all the pictures either feature you heavily pregnant or brandishing an infant - not really the look I was going for). And then I waited for the invites to flood in. Nothing happened.

Two months later I managed my first date, with a nice man, who decided after meeting me that he decided that he shouldn’t date any more women. Ever (and I don’t think he was gay). This didn’t do a lot to boost my confidence. Here are some highlights:

  • Kris turned up an hour late (yes, I know, I should have gone), then lectured me about the marketing strategy for the company he worked for. I hadn’t asked.  
  • Rob told me that he shouldn’t have to put up with so much from his small female boss, in fact he should probably just headbutt her out of the way. He demonstrated with a gesture. I made my excuses...
  • Sam turned up with a huge Twits-style beard - his internet photos had shown him bald and clean shaven. He spent the evening complaining about women he’d dated who turned up looking completely different to their profile pictures. Pot. Kettle. Black.

But actually, none of them were nutters, just nice men who were probably even more nervous than me and saying the first stupid thing that came into their heads. Here are some things I learnt:

  1. The world doesn’t owe you a living. Or a husband. Or a boyfriend. Or even a nice meal out. He’s not going to fall into your lap. You have to work at online dating and put in some serious hours, refining your profile, getting nice pictures, surfing the site and sending well-crafted messages (preferably about films and books).
  2. You can’t judge a book by its cover - or tell what someone will be like from their photos. You can chat online for months and think you may be the perfect match, but within 3 seconds of meeting, you know that you are not right for each other.
  3. I have a ‘type’ (who knew?): slight, dark and a bit arty, or ‘slamatic’ as my friend is calling it (slim and dramatic). If you know any of these, then send them my way (they’re not to everyone’s taste).
  4. Get busy: the online dating sites prioritise the profiles of people who are online at the time, or very active. If you don’t log on for a week, don’t expect to find a ton of messages - you’ve fallen so far down the search rankings that none of the eligible lovelies you want to be chasing you have even seen you.
  5. You don’t know what’s going on in these people’s lives: if you think they’re perfect for you and you never hear back from them, don’t be sad. It might not be deliberate. You can’t take it personally.

Coming soon - Prince Charming and the single mother

Sunday, 10 July 2016

When you're a parent...

Does having children make you better equipped to run a country? Does parenthood (or specifically motherhood) necessarily make you care more about the future?

There's a bit of a furore since The Times has quoted Conservative leadership candidate Andrea Leadsom as saying that having children meant she had "a very real stake" in Britain's future. Leadsom has three children. Her rival for the leadership, Theresa May, has none.

It's been translated and proliferated as 'I'm a mum, you're  not, so I'm better equipped to do this than you are.'

Is it just having children? Or does it follow that the more children you have, the better you would be at running the country? Is that why Queen Victoria was so good? If that's the case, I only have one, so I'm out of the running,

Does this apply to men? Do you need to be a father to be a good world leader? Or is there something inherent in motherhood or the act of giving birth that means women need to procreate if we want to be in charge?

Quenn Victoria, Albert and their nine children. She must have been ace at running the country.
By Caldesi and Montecchi (fl.1857-67) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Does having children make you better at running a country?

Bringing up children is difficult. You learn things you never expect to learn. And the post-child you is undoubtedly different to the pre-child you. Although the same can be said for any profound life experience. 

As a direct result of having a child, I possess a whole new set of skills. This week I added how to remove dairy products from a range of soft furnishings to my knowledge base. Don't underestimate how useful this is. But it's unlikely to qualify me to be Prime Minister, 

Being a parent teaches you just how far you can function without sleep (useful for those high level all night political negotiations), but then so does going to Glastonbury. Remember that time John Prescott had eggs thrown at him? If he'd been my Deputy Prime Minister I'd have been right there with the baby wipes before you could say 'omelette'. And I expect that controlling a gaggle of unruly five-year-olds would equip one with skills that could come in useful when bringing a rowdy cabinet meeting to order, 

Being a parent is difficult. being Prime Minister is difficult. The similarity pretty much ends there.

Does having children make you more interested in the future?

I agonised for years whether or not to bring a child into the world. One of my main reasons for not having children was my concern over the state of the world into I would be bringing them to. 

I'm glad I overcame my scruples, but I still think they were valid. As our own country is in political, economic and ideological turmoil, when terrorism strikes at our neighbours, and people are killed for being gay, black, white, I wonder about the world I have brought my beautiful, innocent daughter into.

Caring about the future, for ourselves, our country, our planet can be a reason not to have children. But caring about these things is certainly not the exclusive domain of  parents. Whether Leadsom's comments were intended, or were distorted, they've been taken as a version of the hackneyed patronising phrase 'when you're a parent...' which assumes that once people become parents they magically gain a wider, clearer view of whatever is up for discussion at the time. It's just not true.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Not so great Britain

Like a lot of people I woke up this morning feeling that our country, the UK, was a little less good. A bleaker, more unjust and dangerous place.

Last week there were 192 female Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. Now there are 191. Only 29% of MPs are female, and now we've lost one - a hardworking one who spent her life campaigning for humanitarian causes.

There are lots of reasons why women are so under-represented in Westminster. And it can't be an easy journey for those women who do go down this route and become MPs. The struggles of having a family and meeting the demands of the job are one, and Jo Cox rose to this challenge.

By Garry Knight ("Jo Cox Memorial - 02" on Flickr) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

What happens to women who stand up for us 

I'd never heard of Jo Cox until her attack was reported in the news, although it turns out that someone I know is friends with her mother-in-law. And maybe it's trite, but as I cooked my little girl tea last night I though of the two little kids, waiting for their mum to come home and cook their tea, and imagined how that family will cope with the loss of their mother, sister, daughter, wife.

Cox campaigned against slavery, called for the lifting of the blockade of the Gaza strip and supported Syrian refugees, and worked with disadvantaged groups in Darfur and Afghanistan. She stood up for women, working on a campaign to prevent deaths in pregnancy and childbirth, and chairing the Labour Women's Network. Her death means there's one less person to stand up for all these groups.

It still would have been tragic, of course, if  Jo Cox had been Joe Cox (a man), if she didn't have two small children waiting for her at home, if she hadn't been quite so photogenic, hadn't spend years dedicating herself to fighting for humanitarian causes. The act of slaughter was horrific in itself. The other things just add to our feelings of sadness and outrage.

The effects of Jo Cox's death

The answers about exactly why and how this happened haven't come out yet. Even when they do, I doubt they will ever make much sense. The suggestions are that it was a planned attack from with an extreme right wing agenda, that Cox was killed because she believed in equality and freedom.

One of the effects could be that our MPs feel less safe around us, their constituents, get a bit more security, become a bit less easy for us to access. I hope not.

Whatever the intentions of the attack, it seems pretty likely that it will have the opposite effect to that which was intended. Cox campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU. If anything, her death and the outpouring of sadness and sympathy it has generated will bring about more votes to her side of the campaign, not less.

What can we do?

When we hear shocking news, we wonder what we can do. Humanitarian disasters spark appeals that we can give our money to, easing our guilty consciences about what is not happening to us. We can't undo wrongs that have been done. We can't bring back people who shouldn't have died. But we can listen to their voices, by supporting the causes they championed, we can appreciate our own lives a little more, maybe try a little harder to make the world a better place. And for Cox, who died in the cause of democracy, we can exercise our right to vote, wherever we decide to put our cross.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Lipstick to success

The real reason women spend so much time and effort getting ready is that we are more likely to succeed if we look attractive, whilst for men it makes little difference. So says an article in the Washington Post this week.

It's not what you've got...

The article is based on a research paper. It showed that:
  • Pretty people (men and women) earn more money (no surprise) than not so pretty people
  • Grooming has a bigger affect on women's salaries than men's
  • Less attractive but more well-groomed women earned significantly more, on average, than attractive or very attractive women who weren’t considered well-groomed.

So it's not just what you've got - it's what you do with it. So long as what you do with it is expensive clothes and mascara. It's a sad finding. But it probably doesn't come as much of a surprise to most of us.
Bad Hair Day by Shena Tschofen via Flickr Creative Commons
I'm not the kind of girl who can't answer the door without three coats of mascara and a full manicure, but I do wear makeup, every day. I want to feel I go out of the door looking my best. As I put on my eyeliner before heading out to Tesco, I joke (to myself) that you never know who you're going to run into in the frozen veg aisle. Prince Charming could just be waiting for me to pick up my peas, and I want to look my best, as our eyes lock over the Mexican beanburgers, and our finger brush across the Quorn. But enough of my supermarket fantasies.

Creative self expression?

I think there probably are women whose main aim in life is to be beautiful and stylish, who love nothing more than shopping for new clothes and beauty products, and piling them all on. And there are some women who feel happiest in jeans and a fleece, with no interest in makeup, who don't want to be bothered with worrying about what to wear every day. Like most of my sisters, I'm somewhere between the two.

This research into the links between personal grooming and success poses the question, is the greater effort, in time and money, that women spend on their appearance a form of 'creative self expression' or is it something more sinister - that women work at looking attractive if they want to succeed, while men can just focus their efforts on the work?

A lot of women, myself included, really enjoy the act of getting ready for a night out, putting together an outfit and painting our faces to project a particular image of ourselves. Are we doing it because we want to feel good about ourselves, to look younger, to compete with other women, to look alluring to men, to look pretty, sexy, rich, smart, successful, or even a bit dumb?

Behind the lipstick

I've heard all sorts of theories about makeup, including that putting on lipstick makes our mouths look vulva-like and put men in mind of sex (as if men need reminding of sex). And I've written before about beauty product manufacturers blinding us with bad science, telling us we need more "particles" (seriously).

I think the truth our compunction to beautify ourselves is vastly more complicated, incorporating a range of social, cultural, personal and genetic factors. And what's true for one woman isn't necessarily true for all of us. The motivations behind these acts of personal grooming are complex. And wearing more or less make-up isn't the key to shattering the glass ceiling.

What would happen if we all threw away our lipstick and went to work with full facial nudity? For years I went to work slap-free so the thought doesn't bother me, but it's unthinkable that women as a group would do this, makeup is such a central part of feminine culture.

There's no panacea, and wearing more mascara certainly isn't the answer, as it's only likely to perpetuate the problem. Our challenge is to wear as much or as little as we want, and still succeed at whatever we want to succeed at. It would be good for female success to be about success, and not just looking pretty.

Read The real reason that so many women have to spend so much time getting ready.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Accepting single mums (and Madonna)

"Papa don't preach, I'm in trouble deep... I'm gonna keep my baby" sang Madonna, in 1986. A defiant song of a young woman who got pregnant and decided to keep the baby and become a single mum, standing up to pressure from her family, friends and community.

It's really hard being a single mum, but now that we accept them, our society is in a much better place than it was 30 years ago.

Broke, lonely, tired and a bit crazy

Being a single mum is pretty shit in a lot of ways:
  • We are likely to have less money than our loved-up buddies
  • We can be lonely because there's no one to talk to once the kids are in bed, and it's harder for us to go out than mums in two-parent families (partly because we have less money)
  • We constantly have to make tough decisions on our own
  • We're probably even more tired than the other tired mums, because we're one person doing a two-person job
All this means that we're also more likely to experience mental health problems. Broke, lonely, stressed, knackered and a bit crazy - that sums it up.

Madonna By Olavtenbroek (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons

Where did the single mums come from?

These are problems shared by a lot of people - there are around 1.8 million single mums in the UK.

Not very long ago there weren't many single mums (the numbers crept up steadily from the 1970s to the 1990s). That wasn't because people were holding off having sex until they were married. Nor was it because couples were better at staying together through thick and thin. It was for the chilling reason that they weren't allowed to keep their babies. They were pressurised on all sides, by family and society, to give up their children. Because being a single mum was seen as a really bad thing. If you wanted to adopt a child, it was much easier to get a baby then that it is now, because of all these would-be-single-mothers. We know now that it's better for children to stay with their mothers if they can.* And now they can.

Papa Don't Preach has less resonance today than it did in 1986. It's still a tough choice for any young woman who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant and alone. But it's a choice they're allowed to make, because being a single mum is acceptable. It's not an easy road - it can be pretty shit. But we're not outcasts (even if the Daily Mail want us to be). The fact that so many of us exist means our society is better, in one way, than it was 30 years ago. It has become so acceptable, that some women, who don't have a partner, choose to embark on parenthood alone.

Impact on children

All parents worry, I know they do. But as a single mum (and Grade A worrier) I constantly worry about the impact of our living situation. How will it affect my daughter, living with a parent who is constantly broke, lonely, tired and a bit crazy? What will happen when she gets older and I can't afford to give her everything her friends have? Will she be lonely, just living with me? Do I make the wrong decisions about her upbringing because I don't have anyone to help me decide? And my worst fear - what if I die in the night and she wakes up and there's no one there?

It's not helped by the fact that if the child of a single mother does anything remarkable then the media will depict them as struggling from a deprived background against the odds. The implication is that if you just live with your mum, then it's remarkable if you ever get anywhere. And if you do stray from the path of virtue, well that's just to be expected of a child from a broken home. No wonder Madonna's dad wasn't impressed.

The fact is that children of single parents don't grow horns - they look the same as everyone else. Some of them do great things and some of them don't. Maybe it is a little harder for them, but a lot of people have some adversity in their lives. I'm just crossing my fingers, doing my best, and hoping it will be alright.

As far as I know, Madonna didn't follow her anthem to impending single motherhood with any ditties about how the baby turned out, and he/she would be turning 30 about now. Hopefully they're not a total psycho.

* Actually I wrote a PhD thesis showing that we've known for at least 200 years that it was better for babies to stay with their mothers. But it was only recently that we started to act on it.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Working mums

The word 'juggling' is associated with working mothers a lot - juggling childcare and juggling work. It's also about juggling feelings - guilt, worry, inadequacy (at parenting and work). And fear that my childcare plans will come crashing down so that one day in October I will have to phone my boss and say, 'I can't come to work this week because there's no one to look after my daughter. Oh and I've run out of annual leave. Sorry 'bout that.'

Dedication to your job 

I like my job. I enjoy the things I do and I like my colleagues. Since I brought a child into the world, my attitude to my job hasn't really changed.

Recently a colleague asked me to do something five minutes after I should have left the office. It wasn't a big job. In pre-child-land I would have done it. Because if you're dedicated to your job, you're happy to stay a few minutes extra to make sure something gets done right.

But now it's not an option. I can't leave the office more than five minutes after my official finishing time. Not just this once, not ever. Not because we have a deadline or I'm giving a presentation in the morning. Not ever.

I have to get home to feed my child. She's hungry and tired and waiting for me. I have to go right now. She doesn't give a crap about doing a good job on my presentation. She just wants her mum to come home and do a good job at cooking her some fish fingers so she can do a good job of throwing them on the floor.

Guilt and worry

To the colleague who asks me to stay just a little late for something important, I say lots of sorries and a no, and leave, feeling guilty that I didn't do the job and guilty that I'm a few minutes late. It's non-stop guilt, this working mother thing. Guilt that sometimes I'm too tired from work to be a good mum, or guilt that I've been up half the night mothering so I'm too tired to do my job properly.

And I worry that I am away from my toddler for so many hours each day, that I won't be there for her when she falls over and hurts herself or when she's overtired, that when she tells her grandparents or the nursery staff "I want my mummy", that they will have to gently tell her that I will be back later. I worry that I don't play a big enough part in her development, that her care is too fragmented between her relatives and nursery. I worry that she will miss me, or worse, that I will be away so much that she will stop missing me.

I worry that my colleagues won't think I'm committed to my job because when it comes to these moments I choose child over work. But it's not even a choice. Come 5.30 there's no one else to look after her so I have to be there.

Being late

Often I'm late for work. But more often I'm surprised we get there at all. Toddlers don't have a concept of time. Explaining that they really have to put their boots on now because Mummy is going to be late for work and get in trouble with her boss is really ineffective (I do it at least once a week). Walking from the house to the car must be unassisted, stopping to look at twigs and feathers along the way. It's both beautiful and infuriating.

A child rushing to get to nursery on time. Photo by Casch52 via Flickr Creative Commons
Last week when my bundle of joy dragged her feet I hit on the brilliant idea of a race to the car, She sped off, tripped over her own feet and bled all over the pavement. Back to the house for cuddles, antiseptic, plasters and chocolate. Major punctuality and child safety fail.

People tell you to enjoy every moment, to treasure the times when they look amazed at a feather and watch it float to the ground. These people are not looking after a toddler and trying to hold a job down.

Forgetting work

I don't check my work emails from home anymore. If someone asks me to do something for work on a weekend, I'm very likely to forget.

It's not that I don't care. It's not even that I feel differently about my job since my daughter was born. But I'm on child-watch now, and toddlers constantly demand attention. I can't work from home when she's there, If I switch on my laptop and try to do an online grocery shop she'll be clambering on my lap within five minutes, trying to "help". Attempting work is useless.

Before I became a parent my friend, a solicitor, told me that the minute she walks out of the office door she switches into "mummy mode" forgetting all about case files and judges and checking that she has the baby wipes and knows what she's going to cook the kids for tea. I thought I'd never be like that - I could never switch off from my very interesting job so easily and think about such mundane things, but I'm exactly the same. I have to be, because I have to be there on time and the minute I'm there I need to make sure that my daughter is fed, cleaned and watered as she needs to be.

Sorry, but I have to go...

I'm making this working mother thing sound like a nightmare. It's not, it's pretty amazing in lots of ways: having independence, supporting your family financially, doing something rewarding that isn't changing nappies, not having to be 'mummy' all the time, and just having a career. There was never any question that I would go back to work when my daughter was born. I'm not cut out for stay at home parenting (I admire those who are), and I am committed to my job. But I'm more committed to the little girl who is waiting for me to get home.

Being a working mum is really hard, We are contributing to society, paying our taxes, carrying out a service to whichever industry we work in, and we are bringing up the next generation. Perhaps we should shout a little louder about this - to ourselves and our society. And stop apologising.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Gemma Arterton on 'stampy and shouty' feminism

Gemma Arterton says she doesn't like 'stampy and shouty feminism'. When I first heard this, I wanted to stamp and shout at her, in my rude and nasty way.

A soft and gentle approach to feminism - if only someone had thought of that before! The Suffragettes could have saved themselves a whole of of bother if they'd politely asked for the voter rather than chaining themselves to railings and making all that trouble.

Gemma Arterton, looking wistfully up at something or other.
Photo by Danny Harrison via Flickr Creative Commons
The actor, who's currently playing the original feisty bit on the side, Nell Gwynn, was interviewed about her current role in the Telegraph.

If you just read the headline, you'd think that Arterton is speaking out against feminism. She's not. She identifies herself as a feminist and has spoken out about increasing opportunities and pay for women in her industry. She told the Guardian, in 2011, "I don't know why it's still a taboo to be a feminist. I think people think you're going to have a big old hairy muff and be mouthy and spit on men."

A feminine approach to feminism

Fair enough, she want a gentler, maybe more feminine approach to equality. I get that, and there is something to be said for her approach. Arterton is a successful actor, at the top of her game. Women like her, in positions of power, can slowly and gently improve the situation for other women. My problem isn't her approach to feminsim, but her attitude towards people with a different approach, and the language she uses to describe it.

Feminism is a movement and an ideology with wide arms, It has room for all kinds of attitudes and approaches. There is room for Gemma Arterton and there is room for more militant and radical ideas.

But  the words 'stampy' and 'shouty' are reminscent of the ways people who are against women and women's equality have portrayed us for centuries. They recall historically negative portrayals of women as 'shrill'. 'gossiping', 'scolding', 'nagging' and 'hysterical'.

Forgetting where you came from...

Gemma Arterton is a successful actor and she'll be earning a decent amount of money. It's thanks to feminism that her earnings go straight to her, that she doesn't have to hand them over to her male relatives. She can make decisions about what acting jobs she wants to take - nobody else makes those decisions for her.

Arterton and lots of other women don't want to be seen to be rude and nasty girls. But we owe it to our rude and nasty forbears to, just sometimes, stand up and be a little bit stampy and a little bit shouty.

You can read the full Telegraph interview with Gemma Arterton here.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Do we need International Women's Day?

International Women's Day happened this week. This is how I marked the occasion:
  • Woke up in the house that I own (just me)
  • Dressed in the clothes that I wanted to wear (and a bit of make-up)
  • Drove my own car
  • Went to work
  • Paid for stuff, using a debit card for the bank account in my name and the money I earned through my job
These are really basic, boring things (sorry if this is a bit dull). But many women can't own their own homes, wear what they want, drive a car, have their own bank account and money, go out alone or make decisions about their own lives.
Photo by Kris Keslak via Flickr Creative Commons
I'm not trying to be smug, honest. I'm just trying to make the point that one reason we still need an International Women's Day is that for millions of women around the world, including some in the UK, the kind of things I did on Tuesday would be unthinkable. 

For women who don't think they are feminists (who are unlikely to be reading my blog, let's face it) or that we need a special Day for women that isn't Mother's Day, I just want to know, did you drive your car today? did you buy something without getting your husband's permission? Because without feminism, and days like these, that wouldn't be happening. 

When you can do all these things, it's easy to think that we've made it, that women have equality, because I feel pretty equal, doing as I please, driving my car and paying for my stuff. But even if you think that we've made it in the UK (and I don't), there's still some way to go. Here are some more reasons why we still need International Women's Day.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Do you think you might be pregnant?

There comes a time in every woman's life, especially if she is equipped with a boyfriend/husband that this question seems to be on everyone's lips. Well, let's be honest, other women's lips.

You only have to look a bit pale, report feeling queasy, or come over a little faint, you will be asked "do you think you might be pregnant?"

Obviously the reason you're feeling ill is not because of the dodgy curry you ate last night, or even the fact that everyone else in the office is coming down with the flu. No. They can have the flu, but you, my 30-something friend, must be up the duff.

Photo by Arjan Richter via Flickr Creative Commons
Unless you're a medical professional, there is almost no situation where asking someone if they are pregnant is a good idea. Here's why:
  1. Yes, she's actually pregnant, but if she wanted to tell you, she would. There may be lots of reasons why she doesn't want to discuss it. Shut up and wait until she's ready to tell you. 
  2. She's not pregnant. She doesn't want to be pregnant. Can't people leave her alone and stop telling her she's supposed to be reproducing, just because she's over 30? Mind your own business.
  3. She's not pregnant. She wants to be pregnant, but isn't. There are lots of reasons why this may be the case. Your question is an unnecessary reminder. 
  4. If she was pregnant, it probably would have occurred to her before it occurred to you, making your question pointless. Since she's successfully reached her 30s without having children, she probably knows a thing or two about contraception (and is in a far better position than you are to know if she's had unprotected sex recently).
  5. Congratulations, you just made a bad day worse. She was already feeling shit, and now she's feeling pissed off at your stupid questions too. 
Women over 30 also catch colds, and drink alcohol, and stay up late, and forget to eat breakfast. All of these can be confused with the symptoms of pregnancy. That doesn't mean they are.

The assumption that you might be pregnant, spoken or unspoken, gets to the point that some of my friends regularly state "I'm not pregnant" during normal conversation, to keep the speculation at bay. They feel they have to explain themselves. "I have to be up early tomorrow so I thought I'd drive to the pub." It is absurd.

"When you have children"

Is there a more irritating statement? As above, there are lots of reasons why you might never have children, mainly that you don't want to, or can't. It is never good for people to assume that you are going to.

Those of us that have children do like to assume that everyone who sees them instantly falls in love with our little angels and are inspired to reproduce (because why wouldn't they want one like mine?).

But no one is fooled by your son's angelic appearance. They know that sometimes he screams at you for no reason, throws food across the kitchen, that he broke your favourite ornament, and that his very presence in your life means you have said good bye to wild Saturday nights and lazy Sunday mornings. Maybe she is not pregnant and isn't going to have children, because she doesn't want to be like you.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Beat discrimination - use your boyfriends' razor

If you always suspected that women were paying more for stuff than men, then it turns out you were right. Research for the Times newspaper has revealed that women are charged more money than men for products that are practically identical. Men pay almost half the price that we do on jeans, toiletries, and even stationery.

Identical razors that differed only in colour are sold at 31p each to men and 19p to women. The difference is that one is orange and one is pink. Pink - especially for girls, see? We wouldn't want to put anything to harshly-coloured next to our skin when we are alone in the bathroom.

This is 'price discrimination' - where identical or largely similar items are sold at different prices by the same provider in different markets.
Photo by Edward Conde via Flickr Creative Commons

Price discrimination for children

The most sinister of these findings was the gender price difference for children's toys. A pink girls' scooter was found to be £5 more expensive in pink than in blue.

Discriminating against children is horrible. As a parent you may choose to buy the cheaper and perfectly scootable blue scooter for your little one. But children can put their parents under immense pressure. If she wants the pink scooter her friends have got, then giving her a blue one just won't cut it.

In the past it was more expensive to have daughters than sons, because when the girls grew up you had to pack them off with a dowry to get married, while the boys could earn their keep. Now we can all pay our way, but again girls are more expensive because their stuff comes with a higher price tag. It's another step backwards in gender equality.

What can we do?

Retailers exist to make money by selling products. They want to make as much money as they can, so they calculate their prices based on:

  1. What it costs them to make the product
  2. How much the average customer is willing to pay for the product

The price generally will fall somewhere between 1 and 2, preferably as close to 2 as possible, so the retailer makes more money. So the reason that women are charged higher prices is simply that we are apparently prepared to pay more for stuff than men are.

Retailers are discriminating against our gender, by charging us more money for basically the same products. But what makes it worse, is that we are prepared to pay the extra. If we weren't, then no one would ever buy the pink razors. So the shops would either make them the same price as the other ones, or stop selling them altogether.

Stop discrimination one razor at a time

MPs are challenging retailers about price discrimination, and hopefully this will lead to some changes. But as female consumers, we have a responsibility too.

Stop buying the pink razors. They're exactly the same as the orange ones, but by agreeing to pay more for them you are supporting the retailers in price discrimination. STOP BUYING THE PINK RAZORS.

We can't be expected to buy men's clothes and perfumes - our bodies are different. But by borrowing your boyfriend's razor you are single handedly making a stand against price discrimination, And he'll never know.
Photo by Billie via Flickr Creative Commons

Friday, 8 January 2016

It's murder on the dancefloor

I don't spend much time on crowded dance floors these days. What with being really old and having a toddler to look after.

Most of my friends have children too, so the chances of finding someone willing and able to stay out late on a day when I have a babysitter are pretty slim. If I really want to spend time in a writhing sweat-box then it's most likely to be soft play.

Photo by Derek Raugh via Flickr Creative Commons
One evening lately the planets aligned and my friend and I went out to find out if it was true what we had heard - that people do indeed go forth in the hours after the CBeebies shutdown and have fun.

And nothing much has changed. There we were strutting our stuff in a tight corner of the dance-pit, when a young man steps past me, and decides that it will assist his passage if he brings his hand into contact with the side of my body.

The passing grope

I remember this well. and another old favourite - brushing up against you at the bar. Or worse.

Wandering male hands is a hazard of crowded bars and nightclubs. These small, unremarkable but uninvited touches that men do to women when they think they can get away with it. And mostly they do. Sometimes when you turn around you can't be certain which one it was. You keep quiet or risk accusing the wrong man. If I do reprimand some bloke for touching me on his way past, he'll probably either laugh at me, or ignore me. or reproach me for being touchy about being touched. Either way, I always feel like I'll come off worst, so I never say anything,

It was a tight fit in the dance floor, but it wasn't that tight. He didn't need to move me out of the way. Neither did he look so unsteady on his feet that he needed to grab a passing girl to prevent himself from stumbling.

It's not subtle

This is the peril of going out and having fun. Probably this man/boy wouldn't dream of laying hands on me in the supermarket or at the bus stop, no matter how busy it got. But as soon as I'm on a dance floor, I'm fair game (It's a big sweatbox of inebriation and iniquity, and she probably won't notice anyway).

Well here's the thing, we do notice. It's actually quite hard not to notice some idiot momentarily resting his hand on your hip - I mean, it's your hip. You'd have to be pretty drunk to not notice and I wasn't. You don't have to be drunk (or single) to be on a dance floor. You just have to be someone who likes dancing.

And OK so maybe there's a little bit of me that's quite pleased that at 37-years-old, on a dance floor of 19 and 25-year-olds (I know because the DJ did their birthdays), some random still feels the need to grope me on his way past. But mainly I'm immensely pissed off that me and all those other girls, and eventually my daughter, are considered fair game for grabbing and groping, just because we wanted to go for a dance.