Thursday, 16 November 2017

Shutting Children's Centres

When you've just had a baby the world can be a scary, lonely place. You have the most responsibility you've ever had in your life, with the least experience. 

For new mums with the most supportive husbands in the world, they are often still faced with nine hours a day, five days a week of being alone with a baby. Having somewhere you can go, for just half an hour a week is a godsend. So I am sad to hear that one of those lifelines where I live is to close: Warwickshire is closing its Children's Centres.

Children's Centres are small organisations that run a whole range of services to help parents with young children in their local areas. They were set up to 'improve outcomes for young children'. From breastfeeding support to first aid courses, to play sessions for babies and toddlers, and helping parents get back into work, they offer a huge range of services to their communities.

My Children's Centre and me

My new infant and I went to courses on infant first aid, introducing solid food and some play sessions. We also went to baby massage, which sounds like the most bourgeois of pastimes. But actually, when you've never had a baby before sometimes a bit of help on how to touch your baby is helpful. Personally, my baby wasn't really into it - she liked watching the other babies getting massages but didn't really want to be messed with. But for less opinionated infants, massage can help sleep, help their digestion, improve circulation and ease teething pain. It's a great tool to equip their parents to look after them.

Photo by Katherine via Flickr Creative Commons

The best thing my children's centre did for me was counselling. I was struggling to come to terms with the end of my marriage, being single and being a lone parent. It was a tough time and post-natal depression was pretty inevitable. On maternity pay with no second income, I didn't have the money to pay for counselling. But the Children's Centre ran a scheme of offering a set number of counselling sessions to people who they assessed as needing it. My counsellor was really wonderful. And it made a huge difference to me to have window of time every week when I stopped being weighed down by my situation and preoccupied by my baby and could talk through my feelings about the situation head-on with someone who was detached from me and my life. She made me better able to cope with everything that was happening, and as a result I was a better mum, which is what children's centres were set up to do.

Having a baby is wonderful, amazing and exciting, but it can also be an isolating and lonely experience, particularly if you don't know other people in your position. Other things are available, outside children's centres, but a lot of those are paid activities which are less available to single parents or families on lower incomes. Sessions run at children's centres were generally free.

Losing children's centres

It's not just about taking away massage classes for yummy mummies. It's about providing a community hub for parents and young children, giving them services they will benefit from, providing information they need about the kinds of issues that affect young families, and bringing them into contact with each other.

Without Children's Centres, routine queries about babies' wellbeing will be pushed back to the NHS, which will not be without cost. Parents have lost a major avenue to help them become better parents, by assisting with the all-important feeding issues, and monitoring infant weight gain. I don't know, but suspect that the staff working at Children's Centres are adept at spotting children who might have issues and therefore needed a bit of support. Are these children more like to fall through the cracks now?

It doesn't affect me. I had my baby. She did well and I haven't been near a Children's Centre since I went back to work. But my local centres made a big difference to me and I'm shocked that new parents will no longer have this.

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.


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.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The Great Weight Debate

So they say size doesn't matter...

I like food. Eating is one of my favourite things to do. But I really hate what happens to me when I have too much of it. It's a problem. I am very much not alone.

Women are so very concerned about how heavy we are. Who hasn't wanted to punch someone when they heard the hateful adage 'A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips'? But then put the cake down all the same.

It's a cruel twist of fate that as women get older they find it harder to keep off the pounds. Having children doesn't help - both the biological changes, but also the exhaustion of chasing and placating energetic little people, which makes us comfort eat, or polish off the remainder of their fish fingers on top of our own.

Tired, angry and hungry

I basically want the body of Britney Spears, circa 2000. She was 19. She's had no children. She could spend her days training to look fabulous while I spend mine at a computer. It's insane. But look how lovely she is. Who wouldn't want abs like that?

Britney Spears at the NFL Kickoff Live 2003 Concert.
Photo by Chief Warrant Officer Seth Rossman for US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons

It makes me shudder now to think of the tiny amounts I allowed myself to eat, at one stage of my life. People offered me biscuits and cake and I self-righteously refused even the smallest slice. I did get thin. But I also often felt exhausted, angry and hungry. And I doubt I'm unusual. I would bet that the majority of women, by the time they reach 40, have been through something like this at some point in their lives, had these feelings. How many of us have 'fat clothes' and 'thin clothes'?

My personal obsession with weight has ebbed and flowed for well over a decade now. When people say 'you look well' I translate that as a little bit chubbier (and I should take steps). When I lose weight people tell me. And I love it. I show a couple of extra pounds very easily, so people notice the difference, and comment on it, very quickly. I love it a little bit too much, and I know it fuels the problem, but I don't want it to stop.

Health warning: if this has never happened to you, I totally accept that you think I'm a few chocolates short of the full box. I would have thought that once too. But it's pretty normal (except the bit about Britney Spears, I think that's just me).

My friend at work and I have a weird calorie pact - if someone brings something tasty in for us all to share then either she or I will try it and determine whether it's nice enough to be worth the calories. She recently mentioned the weight loss benefits of getting a sickness bug. Obviously I looked at her like she was a lunatic, but I secretly thought she had a point. I mean, you wouldn't choose to be struck down by a horrible disease, but there's no harm in enjoying the benefits, is there?

Time waisting

The thing that annoys me most about my personal weight obsession is the time I have wasted worrying about how I wish I to be smaller and feeling sad or angry that the numbers on the scales are higher than I want them to be. And the time thinking about eating things I'd decided I 'shouldn't eat'. I wish I could think about something else, but I do really like cake. And cheese. And other food. Particularly cheesecake. I like cooking it and I like eating it. And I like it when other people cook it so that I can eat it.
Photo by Alan Cleaver, via Flickr Creative Commons

If you're not overweight, and you turn down a piece of cake, someone will look at you and say 'you don't need to worry' about all that. And you have to hold your tongue, or explain patiently that you do need to worry about all that. Because if you hadn't spent the past decade worrying about all that - going to the gym and running away from biscuits, you would be at least twice the size you are now. Fact.

Men, too can be concerned about their weight. But not in the epidemic proportions that women are. And I suspect (based on nothing whatsoever) that their worries about the issue are often less deep-routed than ours are.

Apparently, it's easier for men to lose weight than women. So if a man and a woman both start to diet, the weight will fall off him, while it will trickle, or dribble off her. I'm sure there are exceptions to this, on both sides. But our bodies are designed with an additional layer of fat to men's and it clings on to us, resisting attempts to remove it or convert it to muscle.

And of course we all know that women are judged on their appearance so much more than men - female politicians are singled out for comments on their clothes, shoes and general attractiveness, while for men it is an afterthought, usually only mentioned if a significant man is especially handsome or hideous.

Don't be greedy

I'm not advocating chucking out the quinoa and getting down to Mackie Dees. We shouldn't eat too much, or all the wrong things. We should eat well and exercise well. But we should be happy. We should love our bodies for what they are and not aspire to be something else (Britney). Yadda yadda yadda. We all know this.

Feminist, columnist and celeb-arse-licker Caitlin Moran (who annoys me as much as I admire her) was once upon a time much larger than she is now. She wrote something very sensible about the great weight debate: really all you need to do is be 'person-shaped'. We all know what that means, and if you're not too thin or too fat then you're OK and leave it at that. And think about something else.

I'm going to think about something else now.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Fear and feminism

I haven't been writing. Have you noticed?

My proverbial pen has been paralysed by fear. And feminism seemed about as much of a defence against it as it does against the spider in the bathroom. I'm a strong independent woman, but you're still massive and hairy and moving very fast in my direction and I don't know what the fuck I'm going to do about that.

So there didn't seem much point in writing about feminism. When people are dying, and running for their lives, and being maimed, and losing everything they have. Why talk about feminism? Why talk about anything, really, except how to save ourselves and stop it happening quite so much.

A year of tragedies

Lately I've felt weighed down by all the bad things that are happening around us,

A year ago today a hardworking MP, Jo Cox, was stabbed and left bleeding to death on the street. She left behind a husband and young children.

There are terrorist attacks in London and Manchester. People target concerts that eight-year-old girls go to see. My girl will be doing that in a few years. And I am scared. People I know have been just metres from bombs going off in European cities. I am worrying about my loved ones.

Feminism, and what it stands for, is one of the many mixed up things that our current crop of terrorists are upset about. Women being free to wander about freely with their faces uncovered and arms on show having jobs and driving and generally having their own business to go about. Democracy. Liberalism. The possibility of actually being happy. All bad things, apparently.

I sent my boyfriend across the world on a business trip with warnings to be careful, but it soon became clear that we were the ones who had to be careful. Our country is becoming one of those places that foreign governments and news outlets label as 'too dangerous' to visit. People are not sure they should come.

I grew up in London in the 1980s. Terrorist attacks were a fact of life, but no less terrifying. And now they're here again. This time with no warnings, and with everyday vehicles turned into dangerous weapons.

Then this week another tragedy, nothing to do with terrorism. Awful stories. It seems so disjointed that amid all these terrorism attacks another unrelated tragedy should occur. We were expecting people to try and blow us up, drive into us, not for something to just catch fire. I'm turning off the radio and looking away from the television news, but painfully tragic stories seep through in social media. I'm haunted by the small boy who lost hold of his mum's hand escaping from the tower block. She lived and he died and what parent doesn't feel for that poor woman who will never stop wondering what she should have done differently. It could have been any of us.

A sinking ship

And it's not just the tragedies. There's politics too.

A year ago we voted to leave Europe, pull up the drawbridge and fortify our little island against foreigners. We'll no longer be European citizens, but little Englanders. And we'll probably sink as a result. We're already too dangerous for people to visit. Will we become poor too?

With our legacy of the British Empire, the island that ruled the rest of the world, we forget that we are really very small now - just a little speck of dust in Donald Trump's eye. We may have an indomitable British spirit, but we are eminently squashable.

Working together with our neighbours, we can bring businesses and skills to the table. But out on our own we really are just a bunch of insurance salesmen and drug pushers (our biggest exports).

We had an election which seemed it would be a foregone conclusion to the Tories, who are steadily dismantling the National Health Service. A week is a long time in politics. In a week there was a sea-change. The left pulled their finger out and hey presto, a hung parliament. But the delight was short-lived, to get a majority the Tories teamed up with some ultra right wingers, anti-abortionists etc. Can this end well?

Exploiting a tragedy

I resent that the media and social media seems to want to use the Grenfell Tower tragedy as a chance to have a pop at our Prime Minister, Teresa May. I'm no fan of May, I'd quite like her gone. But not because she's rubbish at hugging people.

Jeremy Corbyn met the victims and the Queen did, but May didn't. Corbyn is brilliant at empathising with people. He throws his big, cuddly arms around them, he listens to what they say and knows what to say back. And the Queen is our figurehead. It's her job to visit her subjects when they're in trouble.

May's job is different. She's clearly no good at this public compassion stuff. But I don't care that May's not cuddly. I'd far rather my Prime Minister locked herself in a room with some clever people and worked out what to do about this disaster and how to prevent it from happening again, It comes on the heels of a lot of other things, but it leaves a nasty taste to use the tragedy in this manner.

And now

We're in the midst of a lot of sadness, and there's no knowing if or when it will end. This is not new. Things like these happened every day, all over the world, but it's close now.

Stay safe, tell your loved ones you love them, hug your children and enjoy the flowers.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Guilty mums and memes

There's an epidemic of guilt among mothers, and it's spreading. By sharing ideas we misguidedly think are inspiring, we're just making each other feel crap. Stop this right now, people. 

Where the sisterhood should be about support and compassion, all too often we're telling other mothers about our choices, in misguided attempts to help them do the right thing. But really, we're not helping them do the right thing, because they either had the same choice as us and deliberately chose a different route, or their life is different ours and they couldn't choose what we did. 

And the form this unhelpful advice so often takes? Memes. Soppy looking pictures with badly chosen fonts overlaid, employing questionable grammar to express patronising sentiment. Here's one that makes me want to vomit up my Pinot after a hard evening's mothering.

It's typical. On top of the usual responsibilities to feed, clothe, educate and keep our children safe, we're supposed to infuse their every moment with joy. Screw that.

Here's another delight for you. It made me so angry I almost missed the absent apostrophe in the first line. AND THAT'S PRETTY ANGRY. But that's typical, You can't even write a fucking sentence and you're trying to tell me how to bring up my child. I can't even write about this without including an expletive in every sentence. I'm sorry about that, I really am, but they make my blood boil. My child may have a leaky self-esteem bucket, but at least she will be able to take pride in her excellent grammar.

Rules from the other mothers

Here are the messages (paraphrased) that I've have come across, usually on Facebook via other mothers:
  • Co-sleeping makes children cleverer
  • Breastfeeding makes them stronger
  • Nursery makes them more immune to illness in later life
  • Nursery makes them grow up too fast
  • Things you’re supposed to tell your child to build their self esteem
  • Be there for your child when they’re small
  • Be a good role model – go out to work
  • Don’t rush your child – enjoy every moment with them
All of these things can be wonderful. But you can’t do everything. Some of them contradict each other. I get a better night’s sleep if I don’t share a bed with my daughter, and I’m definitely a better mum when I’m firing on all cylinders from a decent night’s sleep. My daughter wasn’t able to breastfeed. We tried, really hard. I was sad about it. I got over it. I wish the internet would.

The perfect way to bring up a child

Sometimes you have to hurry your toddler, because otherwise you'll be late for work and will lose your job and won't be able to pay the bills and buy food. Life isn't an unadulterated explosion of joy. They should probably learn that from an early age.

There’s one meme on the internet that I didn't scream at. It says the important thing is not how you feed you kids and where they sleep, but that you do feed them, and they have somewhere safe to sleep. I mean, I still hate it, because it's a fucking meme. I'm not going soft. See how they make me swear? Those things are evil. 

Because surely the point is to do our best. Even those of us that think we’re the best mums in the world will have days when we’re rubbish. And even those who think we’re the worst mums will have moments when we think, ‘yeah, I’m great at this.’ There is no perfect way to bring up a child, just many, many imperfect ways.

Most of the mums I know love their children to distraction, and would do anything for them. But won’t hesitate to admit that looking after them is hard work and half the time they just want to get through the day, put the kids to bed, check Facebook and have a glass of wine.

My advice: think before you share. Reach for the wine, not the mouse. 

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Leaving women out of history (or Wikipedia)

It's not new to say that women have been left out of history. We were often too busy holding the baby to go out and do any top-class conquering, so our fathers, husbands, sons and brothers got all the glory while we had to made do with bringing up the next generation of conquerors, or whatever.

It has been noticed that the very word 'history' is about men - it's 'his story' not her story.

Women are also being left out of Wikipedia. In December last year the world's largest encyclopedia reported that just 17% of its biographies were of women. It shows how important our half of the population is considered to be.

Part of the problem is simply that far fewer women than men have left traces in the history books. But Wikipedia isn't just about history - a lot of its biographies are of living people

A US Soldier is decorated for his service, accompanied by his wife.
Photo by Herald Post via Flickr Creative Commons. 

I'm going to massively over-simplify and say that there are two main reasons why women are underrepresented in Wikipedia

  1. Women are underrepresented in the history books. History remembers the man who fought in battle, not the woman who stayed at home bringing up his children.
  2. Most of the Wikipedia's editors are men (90% according to a 2011 survey), and we are naturally drawn towards writing about our own kind, men write about other men, and women get left out.
Wikipedia is massively influential. It can at times be inaccurate, and students are constantly told to be wary of its claims, and check their facts. But surely it must almost always be the first port of call of anyone trying to find out anything, from who discovered to DNA to how you make yoghurt.

Why are most of Wikipedia's editors men?

Anyone can edit Wikipedia - I have done. Sue Gardner - Journalist and former Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director - explained on her blog why women don't edit Wikipedia. Reasons include:
  • They don't like the unfriendly interface
  • They have less free time than men
  • They lack confidence in their own knowledge
  • They think it will bring them into situations of conflict which they don't like
  • The information women add to Wikipedia is more likely to be edited or deleted
  • They prefer volunteering on more social websites, with more opportunity for interaction
You can find a much better explanation of these, and the other reasons in Nine Reasons Why Women Don't Edit Wikipedia (in their own words).

The suggestion about lacking confidence is telling. It's a big deal to make a contribution to an encyclopedia. I mean, it's easy - anyone can make an edit in 30 seconds. But you have to be confident in your knowledge and believe that you are equipped to make a meaningful contribution, to tell the world something it doesn't already know. And my experience of women (myself included) is that we generally have less confidence in our abilities than men do. It's the 'if I know it, then probably everyone else does too' view.

What is the answer to the Wikipedia question?

Women aren't contributing to Wikipedia, and so they're not appearing in it. Wikipedia could make their interface more friendly (although the point of a wiki is that it's just nuts-and-bolts). Maybe they could try harder to make women feel welcome, actively recruit us, and show that they value our contribution. But they can't give women more free time, or self-confidence.

Sometimes there isn't an answer. But that doesn't mean we should stop asking the question.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Women marching for women

This weekend thousands of women in cities across the world marched in support of women’s rights, the day after the inauguration of a US president who has shown he really doesn’t think very much of women or their rights.

The largest march was in Washington DC, with half a million women, men and children. But in London there were estimated to be more than 100,000.
Photo by Jane Dunton

Marching again Trump

They were marching because the most powerful country in the world, that considers itself the most progressive (although no one else does) has elected a President who believes it’s OK to sexually assault women. He openly said he thought they were fair game. If you want some of the detail on what President Trump thinks about women, there’s a nice roundup Trump-on-women piece in the Independent.

While so many of us around the world are rightly devastated by Friday’s inauguration, it is heartening to see people fighting back. Too often, feminism can seem like a niche concern – something that doesn’t affect half the world’s population (men) and that many women feel might make them seem more shouty and less feminine. On Saturday, thousands of women around the world made it a bit more mainstream. And that’s not to mention many men who marched with them, because  equality affects everyone.

Let’s hope that our worst fears of Trump presidency don’t come true, and that if they do men and women in the US and the rest of the world will unite against them, as they did this weekend. 

Photo by Jane Dunton

Marching and me

I didn’t march. I’m sad that I couldn’t be there. But my main reason is one that has affected women forever, and will probably continue to do so: I had to look after my child. Because like all women, with the exception of a few, like Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins, my daughter comes first, feminism second. I hope that I manage to combine parenting and feminism in her upbringing (and no, I couldn’t have taken her with me).

I have reflected that my reason for not marching is one of the main reasons we got into this pickle in the first place – why we always come second to men. Because we have to put children first. It’s at the heart of so much of what it means to be a woman. Even if we don’t ever want to have children, society expects that we probably will end up doing this, do we are inevitably tarred with the brush of biological determinism.

I wish I'd been there...
Photo by Jane Dunton

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The grocer's daughter

You know who I'm writing about, don't you?

I half hope you don't. But there's only one woman, a towering force from politics in the past 40 years who gets that appellation. So now you know who I'm talking about. Margaret Thatcher. The Grocer's Daughter.

And now we have 'The Vicar's Daughter' - Teresa May.

I don't defend either of these women. They don't need that and I'm no fan of Tory politicians,

But I think it's sad, maybe even shameful, that we have to cut these women down to size by reducing them to the sum of their father's occupations. I can't think of a single man we do that to. We don't call Jeremy Hunt 'the Naval Commander's Son' or Philip Hammond 'the Civil Engineer's Son'. You didn't even know that was who they were, did you? But you knew that May's father was a vicar and Thatcher's a grocer. We almost always refer to men by what they are now, and what they have achieved. Not so with women.

Thatcher: By Chris Collins of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation via Wikimedia Commons
May: Home Office via Wikimedia Commons
I am deeply concerned about some of thing things that the Tory government, led by May is doing. I think it's bad news for our society in a lot of ways. And we should feel free to criticise her and her cronies. But let's criticise them for who they are and what they have done. Don't bring their father's jobs into it.

You could argue that it shows how far they have come: 'she was only the grocer's daughter, but...'. And yet the implication here is that being the daughter of a grocer or vicar is somehow limiting. Surely by 2017 we've figured out that we don't have to be restricted by our origins - those of us with access to free education at least.

Whether or not you like Teresa May, she is the UK's second female Prime Minister, and this is an impressive feat, both for she and us. The United States hasn't yet had a single female President. And were apparently so horrified by the thought that they elected Donald Trump. Hardly an icon of feminism.

If we're going to break down the patriarchy, we need to stop invoking it at every turn.