Category Archives: motherhood

OK Parenting, OK?

I don’t try and manipulate my kids. No, not at all.

I really need to explain the piano metaphor of that last post, don’t I?

Contrary to how it appears, I’m not actually advocating hitting your kids over the head with a piano (although if you can lift a piano, kudos).

So here is a post I was convinced I’d posted yonks ago which would explain it nicely. Only I apparently left it in draft.

Belatedly, here it is. So do not blame piano-hitting-kids phenomenon on moi.

For all my blathering about parenting, I don’t write much about how I parent my kids, y’know, what kind of parent I am.

I’m not a very good one.

Which is to say, I’m OK, but far from fantastic.

And I’m OK with that.  Because I’m with Matt Ridley on this one.  And, ye gods, I hope Matt Ridley will forgive me for this mangling of his words, but in his book Nature via Nurture, he talks of studies done which suggest that whilst neglectful or abusive parenting may well alter gene expression (and personality) in your children, OK-ish parenting won’t.  There is no difference in terms of gene expression (and therefore personality) between OK parenting and super-dooper parenting.

Which is to say, whilst your child may not find out she’s a musical genius until adulthood because you didn’t give her private piano lessons from the age of three, unless you actively beat the kid over the head with a piano, she will still be a musical genius eventually.  That, naturally, is my own little example; can’t blame Ridley for that one.  Ridley actually says:

…truly terrible parenting can still warp somebody’s personality.  But it seems likely that…parenting is like vitamin C; as long as it is adequate, a little bit more or less has no discernible long-term effect.

Ridley’s book was published in 2003, so things may well have moved on.  But I am capable of nothing if not clinging to an idea when it suits me.

And it does suit me.  By letting myself off the hook of having to be ‘a perfect mother’, I can just get on with being the best mother I can be given all the circumstances.  Which is not to let abusive parents off the hook because underlying all those circumstances is an obligation not to be horrendous, of course.  But it does become a self-fulfilling prophesy; by allowing myself to relax and get on with it, mistakes and all, I am a much better mother than I would be if I spent my days chasing motherly perfection.

And the older my children grow, the more it suits me.  Because I realise more and more the limits – and the amazing power – of my influence on my children.  I am but one cog in the machinery of their lives, an important one for sure, but as long as I connect with all other cogs and don’t fuck up the whole machine by breaking down (or mis-cogging, or whatever the hell cogs do in a metaphor like this), I’m playing my part entirely satisfactorily.

Which is to say, OK parenting is actually OK.

So, seriously, you can stop beating yourself up about whatever you beat yourself up about doing wrong, OK? It’s not just me telling you this revolutionary stuff; it’s science. Not the kind of science that gets popular play in the Daily Male, of course. Not the ‘girls really do like to pick up dirty laundry more than boys – it’s genetic!’ type science.

But science nonetheless, and that’s good enough for me.

But then that’s the kind of person I am.


However You Do It, It’s Wrong*

Motherhood, that is.

There are still some countries where you’re considered a success as a mother if you manage to keep a majority of your babies alive till their fifth birthday. Success in less dangerous countries is considered to be a slightly more complex affair. So complex in fact, that’s it’s virtually impossible to succeed at it.

As far as I can figure it, you have to be really, really rich – but only by virtue of having a really, really rich husband (and yes, he has to be a ‘husband’) because otherwise you’re obviously a ‘career’ woman (points deducted for that). You then have to devote yourself to your children’s lives sufficiently that you’re not considered remote, but not so much so that you can’t organise fund raising ‘galas’ for worthwhile charities. So, yes, you can have a nanny, but must still gush to OK magazine that you ‘do everything’ for your children.

That seems to be about the only way to ‘succeed’. The really important fact, of course, is the really, really rich part. You have to be rich enough to not give a fuck what anyone says.

But, oh, for the rest of us!

Well, the rest of you anyways. I’m not that rich but I still don’t give a fuck what anybody says about how I raise my kids. Honestly. I’ve tried and tried and I just don’t.

I think it has something to do with being completely outside any ‘mainstream’ philosophy of mothering. Being a feminist mother can do that to you, you see. Nobody bothers writing polemics attacking us specifically because, statistically-speaking, we’re a blip of no significance. Sheesh, most people have never even heard of us, never mind figured out ways to make us feel bad. Sure, I get attacked as a feminist and I get attacked as a mother, but as a marriage of the two? Nope.

I can talk mothering with anybody from a corporate-cruching career mother to a bonded-on-with-superglue attachment mother and find enough uncommon ground around raising kids that if I wasn’t already perfectly happy being the-weirdo-in-the-corner, I’d take it personally. But I am, so I don’t.

And as ‘feminist mothering’ is my over-riding thing about mothering, all the rest – breast or bottle, disposable or cloth, sling or pram, SAHM or working – is just so much background noise to me. I just don’t care that much because I don’t think it matters that much, at least not in terms of whether they make me a ‘bad mother’. Kids will grow regardless and will be, more or less, OK. It’s a cliche, but as long as you make your kids feel loved – and there are many different ways to achieve that – the rest is just gravy.

And I know that some will argue that all those ‘versus’ debates are as much a part of a feminist mothering philosophy as any other mothering philosophy, and I’d say that’s true. In a way. What, for example, could be more feminist than the debate around SAHM v. working mother? But I’m less concerned about the fact of whether I – or others – stay at home or work, and more concerned that my kids grow up with an understanding of why we have that debate – and why we don’t have a similar one about ‘working dads’ – and why it shouldn’t even be a debate.

My feminist mothering is more centred on a state of mind than anything else. You may say I’m wrong but – as you may guess – I don’t really care.

In short, I’m way more concerned about what goes on in their heads than what goes in their mouths or on their bottoms. And about how they understand why I do what I do, rather than what I actually do.

And I know that attachment mothers will tell me that their parenting is about their kids’ minds, too, fostering, they argue, emotional security. To which I say, yes, you might be right. And I know that critics of attachment parenting will tell me that such parenting is about creating over-dependent kids who can’t grow up. To which I say, yes, you might be right.

See how that works? Because I don’t really care, I can be that bloody blasé, but more importantly, I don’t know who’s right. Do you? Is it even possible to measure ‘right’ in such a way? For every person telling us they were kept in a sling till they were 12 and they’re perfectly fine, I’ll find you another telling us they never had a conversation with their career-mad mother till they were 17 and they’re perfectly fine, too. And vice versa, of course because people love to blame their parents for stuff, don’t they? That’s how Oprah made her millions, after all.

Seems to me it’s all a crapshoot, so you may as well just pay yer money and take yer choice. Because one thing’s for sure: we’re all making choices we think are right. And to me, that’s the best we can do. And, on a personal level, choices are ‘right’ if they for work for you and your family, even though politically such choices may have undesired ramifications.

Now before you think I’m getting all up myself without a stick, I don’t know if my feminist mothering will turn out to be right, either. Who knows, maybe Boogie will grow up to be a Page 3 ‘girl’ and L’il Boo will grow up to be Jeremy Clarkson. And then, oh, how we’ll all laugh!

But I do it because I think it’s right and I don’t give a flying fuck what anybody else thinks because they’re not going to be sitting beside me on the Jeremy Kyle show in 15 years time while my daughter tearfully recounts her Barbie-free childhood and the audience throws rotten tomatoes at me. Nope, that be just me in the single seat of shame watching L’il Boo hold his sister’s hand as he nods sagely before telling the story of the day he wanted to wear a dress and I let him.

*My apologies for this post which seems to swerve off in multiple directions in a distinctly direction-less fashion. It started out as a piece on attachment parenting and the current debate about it following the publication of Badinter’s ‘The Conflict’ and Pollitt’s piece about it on Alternet. But sometimes I just can’t stop myself from rambling streams of consciousness. You know how it is. I’ll focus eventually. Probably. Oh, and you should know that I’m not particularly happy with this post because it kinda says what I mean, but it kinda doesn’t. Live with it.

Interesting random fact about attachment parenting: the first time I ever heard of it was years ago when I caught a documentary on TV about it. The longest segment of the programme featured a group of attachment parents sitting around while their offspring gathered around tables in the middle of them undertaking an activity which seemed fairly untypical for toddlers. Had you asked me afterwards what attachment parenting seemed to be about, I would have replied, ‘Apparently, it’s about teaching small children to play with sharp knives.’ Because that’s what they were doing; cutting fruit and veg with kitchen knives. Actually, I understood even then that this was a fairly small part of the philosophy, but from the length of the segment – and the astonished-but-concerned tone of the commentary – you’d have thought it was the mainstay of the movement. Clearly, we were supposed to laugh at these weirdo parents with their zany and child-harming ways. I did laugh, but only at the producers for being such a bunch of morons.


The Motherhood Penalty

Via Sociological Images.

[In the labour market] one thing we know is that, if you compare mothers to child-less women who are otherwise equal, mothers are on lower wages than child-less women. And this has become an increasingly important component of gender inequality.

‘The pay gap between mothers and child-less women is now larger than the…gender gap, the gap between men and women.’

And this:

Women make about 69% of what men make (not controlling for type of occupation), but most of this disadvantage is related to parental status, not sex.

‘Women without children make 90% of what men make, while mothers make 66%.’

Now. You tell me again that feminism doesn’t need to fight for mothers?

Front and fucking centre.


Shattered

I have been offline for almost three weeks and I wish I could say it was because I took a conscious decision to free myself from the chains of the constant stream of Internet information, but I didn’t. My period offline was forced on me by the total and utter ineptitude of a certain other (who shall not be named) and I still haven’t got over the shock.

But I’m back (I know! wow, how much you’ve missed my rancid pearls of ranty wisdom). And having been suffering severe information-deprivation, I’m now suffering from information-overload as my news feed flashes manically before melting under the weight of 3 trillion unread items.

Ah, I love the Internet.

One of the nice things about being cut off from the Internet is you remember that some pieces of information come in things called books. These pieces tend to be quite long, but often, the effort of reading to the end is well rewarded. Not something that can often be said for the Internet.

I’ve just finished reading Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality, by Rebecca Asher.

Before I go any further, I’ll just say this: Rebecca, when you step into someone’s head and steal their exact thoughts then write them down and sell them, at least give a credit, eh?

This woman has clearly been living in my head for long enough to acquire matching towel sets and a bowl of pot pourri.

Then I’ll say this: if you’re a mother, read it. If you’re nearly a mother, read it. If you’re ever thinking of becoming a mother, read it. If you’re a fully-paid up bride of christ, read it. Oh, and if you’re a man, read it.

Got that? Yes, that does mean you. Well, actually, that means you if you’re heterosexual and (generally) partnered. Though I’d suggest gay parents peruse it as well, just to make sure they don’t fall for the same shit we do. As for single mothers, if you’ve managed to actually carve out enough time to read a book for pleasure, you’re more incredible than I thought, so you can do what you please. If you share the care of your children in any way with the father, I’d still suggest you read it, but hey, if you’d prefer to spend a couple of hours reclining with a cat licking your toes instead, feel free.

I’m not suggesting it’s a ground-breaking book. Actually, it seems to me it was a doddle to write. The bulk of the book is made up of quotes from mothers, all saying, essentially, ‘I love my kids, but “motherhood” sure sucks like a big sucky lollipop.’ And how hard could they have been to find? And then Asher finishes off by saying motherhood shouldn’t suck and here’s how we make that happen.

It’s genius in its simplicity and yes, I certainly do wish I’d thought of writing it first.

The real genius of the book, of course, is that it takes what you’re thinking and makes it universal. These mothers’ words – all of them – could quite happily have come straight from my own lips.

And it all just reminded me of a conversation I had a while ago with a friend of mine – a designer who has always worked independently from home – who was talking about how fortunate it was that she’d chosen a career which was compatible with having children. She then added something to the effect of: and girls need to be told that they also need to choose a career which is compatible with having children. Somewhat shocked, I replied that what we needed to do was change the fact that so many careers were incompatible in the first place, not lock out girls from such jobs.

Fortunately, I have nice, intelligent friends.

‘Of course we do,’ she said, but the situation isn’t going to change anytime soon. Meanwhile, we tell girls to aim high, enter into all these high-flying, intensive careers without bothering to tell them that they’ll be totally fucked over if they have kids. We’re lying to them and it should stop.’

After reading Shattered, I can only agree more than I did at the time. Asher talks at length about the cost to society as a whole (and yes, child-less people, that includes you) of highly educated women dropping out of the workforce only to re-enter it, if they do so at all, in jobs for which they are entirely over-qualified but which have become attractive to them simply because they’re compatible with their child care responsibilities. Society apart, the loss to these women of what they thought was equality with their male partners, is profound and tragic.

This is the problem when we pay lip service to female equality without backing it up with anything meaningful. It would be a brave person indeed who suggested that all careers advice to girls at school include a segment on which careers to avoid if they intend on having children (which could be a bullet point list or, more simply, consist of the statement ‘Any job which carries both prestige and a hefty wage packet’). That, we’d all agree would be regressive in the extreme, wouldn’t it?

But by not giving this advice to our daughters, we are lying to them. We are ignoring the great big trumpeting elephant in the room of their lives. They won’t realise it until they do actually have children; until that point, they will believe themselves to be – give or take the odd 13% or so – equal to the menfolk in their lives.

Then the baby will come along and they will drop out of their careers to care for it and they will understand from the moment they even think about going back to work – even if they go back to exactly the same job – that equality is a joke. They, not the baby’s father, will be asking for flexible working, will be going part-time, will be pushed off the promotion track, will suffer ‘working mother’ guilt, will be discriminated at work by disgruntled colleagues, will be taking days off to care for sick children, will be leaving early to do the school run, will be spending work time organising child care, dental appointments and other ‘home and child’ activities, will, in short, be taking on the whole burden of having children.

The father, meanwhile, as far as his working life goes, will barely notice he has kids.

I generalise somewhat of course. Fathers do sometimes share the care of their children. Families throughout the country cobble arrangements together which include fathers providing primary childcare. But as Asher’s interviewees make clear, even then, the division is never equal: overall responsibility for the fact of children remains with the mother. Hands up who’s ever heard of a (heterosexual, partnered) father noticing, without prompting, that his son needs new underpants and then, without prompting, actually taking time out of his day to buy some? And if such a creature exists, has he done all of that without expecting brownie points for doing so?

Currently, when she grows up, in addition to her desire to have babies, Boogie’s dream is to play football for a living. For Barcelona (what can I say? the girl aims high). And, yes, I have gently pointed out that the team she loves so much (‘it is absolutely the best team in the whole world’) is made up entirely of men. Whilst I have no wish to destroy a small child’s dreams, I felt that basic fact needed saying.

Where I haven’t gone, however, is what that really means for her. Barcelona probably has a women’s team; let’s assume for the minute it has. So she could play for Barcelona, in theory. But gone are the stadiums full of people, gone is the worldwide adulation of athletes at the top of their game; gone, more importantly, is the money. The career. As things stand, she will have to get a ‘proper’ job and one which allows her sufficient time to fit in enough training to be good enough in the first place to make the team. So no high-paying, long-hour job then. A ‘good enough’ job, so she can play football for love.

And the non-paying football will, my dear Boogie, be the first casualty of you having children, which you profess to want to do. Free time, especially for you, the mother, will become short to non-existent. The hours of dedicated training required to keep you at the top will disappear.

I’m not going to lie to her. But how do you tell a six year old that her future, on some very fundamental level, is going to suck?

I have this fucking problem all the time.


Mummy Wars

The mummy wars – or mommy wars – are, yawn, big news again lately I notice.  This shit is running all over my internet like a naked toddler with diarrhoea. And, like the aforementioned offensively leaky child, I regard it with a look of disgust and irritation in equal measure.

There’s this piece in Salon which is particularly interesting.  Sub-headed, ‘Behind sound bites and media hype, there’s the real conflict real mothers face every day‘ the article details the author’s journey from believing the mummy wars to be media hype to the sad realisation that they are – in fact – real.

Take this:

We as women spend our whole lives being judged, and never more so than for our roles as mothers. We suffer for it, and frankly, we dish it out in spades. We park ourselves in separate camps, casting suspicious glances across the schoolyard. And it sucks because the judgment is there and it’s real and it stems so often from our own deepest fears and insecurities. We pay lip service to each other’s “choices” – and talk smack behind each other’s backs.’

Who in god’s name is this woman hanging out with? And, seriously, why doesn’t she hang out with someone else?

Now, I’ve been a SAHM and a working mum so, like the author, I’ve had a foot in both ‘camps’ and I have never, not once, heard a mother ‘talk smack’ about the other group.  Oh, sure, I’ve heard mothers time aplenty diss other mothers’ style of child-rearing – that mother never disciplines her child, that mother feeds her child crap, that mother pushes her child too much – and that sucks as it is because of the emphasis on mothers being the sole ones responsible for that kind of crap despite everything; even if the mother works full-time and the dad stays at home, somehow deficiencies in a child fall to the mother. Yes, sucky.

But I have never, not once, heard that followed through to a conclusion of: that’s because she works so much, or that’s because she stays at home.

Now I’m willing to accept that, nowadays at least, the kind of mothers I interact with are privileged ones. They are, to a large extent, women whose family income allows them an actual choice as to whether to work or not. If they don’t work, their partner brings in more than enough to cover costs and if they do work, the kind of work they do will more than cover the (exorbitant) costs of childcare.  [Let's ignore for now the very real effects on that 'choice' by things such as societal expectations that if either parent quits work, it will be the mother, that expectation in itself being reinforced by the fact that, being generally paid less than their male equivalents, it will make 'sense' for it to be her because she's not earning as much as a male partner by the time they have children.]

I have to acknowledge this privilege because it makes a huge difference in terms of ‘mummy wars’.

Firstly, it makes a difference because this ‘working v. SAHM’ thing is, by and large, a dilemma of privileged women. You can bet your life, for example, that the debate isn’t taking rural India by storm. You can equally bet that it isn’t much of a hot topic even among working class mothers in the UK.  For the vast majority of mothers worldwide, their ‘choices’ are by and large so manifestly not choices at all that the whole issue doesn’t merit attention. It’s fair to say, therefore, that as well as straddling both camps, I am surrounded by the actual ‘mummy warriors’.

Secondly, it makes a difference because I have heard, on many occasions, mothers express their own personal preferences. I have heard mothers say, ‘I need to work, otherwise I’d go crazy being at home with the kids all day’, and I have heard mothers say, ‘I want to stay at home with my kids, I think it’s important in their early years.’  As far as I can gather, these sorts of statements are largely held to be evidence of THE MUMMY WARS! which strikes me as a bit odd.  I hear mothers express opinions all the frickin’ time that I think are completely loopy juice, but I don’t put on a breastplate and start running them through with a sword.  I take them for what they are – personal opinions that I don’t happen to share, but ho hum, tomayto, tomahto and all that.

Because statements such as those above will only be considered to be affronts to the listener if the listener has some issue with their own personal choices in that area.

If I work and a mother says ‘I think it’s important to stay at home’ that opinion per se isn’t offensive to me. If I simply happen to believe that a happy mother is more important than constant physical presence and working makes me happy, then I just chalk her opinion down to the fact that we all have, well, different opinions and go about my (working) day. If I’m a happy SAHM and another mother wonders how I can be with the kids all day and manage not to foam at the mouth, I can only reply, ‘Well, we’re all different, aren’t we?’  Simples, as that annoying rat says.

However.

If I’m not happy with my choice – if my choice, whilst appearing more ‘choice-like’ than most mothers’, isn’t really a choice at all, if in other words, my privilege isn’t quite enough to fully insulate me from those limited choices (and what mother’s is, really?) - then my response will be a loud Fuck you! followed by the breastplate donning and a healthy dose of righteous indignation and a bit of Braveheart yodelling.

If I work because financially I have to but do in fact believe that by doing so I am actually damaging my children, or if I stay at home and am in fact starting to foam at the mouth on a daily basis but can’t find a job which covers the cost of childcare, then I will find that mother offensive in the extreme. And she will become my enemy and I will hate her frickin’ guts.

And this, of course, is the real key to the mummy wars. The fact that real choice is so very limited for mothers and the societal trope that, whichever choice we make, it will be wrong. The author of the Salon article gets to this conclusion, too, but then, for me, falls down by exhorting mothers to be the ones to reset the rules of engagement:

…damn near all of us are fiercely, ferociously devoted to our families. When we can get past being scared somebody’s going to call us out as whopping female failures, we can see that, though our days are structured differently, most of us are working our guts out. That we love our children. That we are not enemies. When we remember that, when we talk to each other instead of merely about each other, we can reach across the playground to raise a generation of future men and women who respect each other as workers and parents. More than that — we can, finally, be comrades.’

As if we don’t have enough to do already what with the carping and the suspicious glances, now we’re supposed to solve problems rooted in the gross inequality inherent in a patriarchal capitalist system.  I could maybe pencil that in for Friday afternoon, if L’il Boo naps that day.

It is not mothers who limit their own choices. And it is not mothers who can expand those choices by just being a bit nicer to each other.

The real battle lies not between working or SAH mothers. It lies between mothers of all stripes and a patriarchal system that stabs us in the back as it raises us up for admiration. Motherhood, they tell us, is the most important job in the world, but you lot, being women and all, are invariably fucking it up NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO! HA HA! Which presumably is why, in a society that judges unpaid labour to be economically worthless, we don’t get paid for this most important job.  Because we’re shit at it, remember?

[And if you want a deeper and way more amusing exploration of the unavoidable insanity that this shit causes, take a look at this sublime article from Katha Pollitt, via blue milk]

Real actual mothers may not fully appreciate the real forces at work against them and they may indeed look with envy at a mother sitting on the opposite side of the no-choice fence. But real, actual mothers don’t, in my experience at least, have the energy to judge other mothers’ choices; they are too busy trying not to judge their own. They are – even the privileged ones, especially the privileged ones – too busy trying to navigate a path between their children’s care and happiness, their own personal needs and society’s expectations to have time to judge others.

So if you want ammunition to wage this particular war, you won’t find it here. Here in Boogieville, we respect and support all kinds of mothers, from the SAHM to the part-timer to the full-blown careerist. We respect all mothers, from those who are truly happy to define their motherhood as merely a small part of who they are to those who define themselves entirely as mothers.

Because here in Boogieville we understand, a la Andrea Dworkin, that until we are all free, none of us are free.


Food, Glorious Food?

I’ve been thinking a lot about food lately.  Or rather, I’ve been thinking about our relationship to food, a sentence which in and of itself is completely weird when you think about it.  A relationship with Food?  This can never end well.  Food will never write, never call and will make you fat just by looking at you.  Bastard.

But it seems that increasingly we just cannot accept that Food is just not that into us.  We insist, despite Food’s complete inability to watch movies without hogging the popcorn or give good head, on pursuing this relationship and weeping when it makes us sick.

And we are getting sick.  Over a million people in the UK suffer from some kind of eating disorder.  Those most at risk are young people between the ages of 14-25, although this may well be changing.  Statistics from the NHS show that that 14 figure may well have to start being revised downwards to say, oh, 10.

Oh, hang on, Ms Optimism!  Statistics from last year were open-mouthed shocking: Almost 600 children below the age of 13 were treated in hospital for eating disorders in the three years previous.  That figure included 197 children between the ages of five and nine.

Five and nine?  Are you frickin’ kidding me?  You’re kidding me, right?  No, you’re not kidding me.

Do not even get me started on childhood obesity.

Boogie is six.  To say that I find this piece of information troubling doesn’t really hit it.  This piece of information makes me want to weep.  And then kill somebody, or at the very least kick a three-legged kitten.  In other words it makes me sad and mad and mean all at the same time.

Course, the old, ‘it’s the celebrities’ thing was trotted out, with Susan Ringwood of eating disorders charity B-eat telling the Telegraph that ‘the figures reflected alarming trends in society, with young children “internalising” messages from celebrity magazines, which idealised the thinnest figures.’

And yes, I’ve no doubt that’s a factor, but the thinness of celebrities is only an effect in itself.  Why are the celebrities so thin in the first place?  Is there simply a genetic connection between a hunger for fame and a preference for lettuce and brittle bone disease?  I haven’t read the literature, but I’m suspecting not.

We’re just emerging from National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, but I’ve been thinking about food for longer than that.  In honesty, I started thinking about food when I had a girl-child but it’s only recently that I started thinking beyond the obvious about it: beyond not wanting her to be fat; not because I’m fattist (which the more enlightened among you will recognise as a comfort-blanket of a fib), but because I wanted her to be healthy.  You know, like, thin.

Not really thin, of course, because that would be as wrong as wanting her to be fat.  So I wanted her to be not too fat, not too thin…what exactly did I want?  Where was the fucking line?  How wide or narrow was this weight spectrum that would be found acceptable by me?  Was it only a few pounds wide or did a stone more or less make no difference?  Would a heavier weight be acceptable if she were taller and could ‘carry’ it better?  Was it OK if she was generally thin but had a bulging belly?  Was a bulging belly deemed OK at 4 but unacceptable by 8?  Could she have a large bottom?  Was whether a large bottom was acceptable at least partially dependent on whether they were ‘in fashion’?

Now, I ain’t stupid.  I could see that something was off with my thinking; it was so…prescriptive.  And so open to failure.  Keeping Boogie within ‘acceptable’ weight limits – no matter how narrow or wide – was going to take micromanagement to a new zenith.  I could see where it would end and I am fucked if I’m going to start weighing out my daughter’s food and have her doing one-armed press-ups in between episodes of Scooby Doo.  But where else could it go?

What was off?  I knew the facts.  Too fat or too thin was unhealthy.  Either led to all kinds of increased medical risk.  It’s true, all the doctors say so, right?  Right?

It was only when I understood why too fat or too thin was unhealthy that everything fell into place.  And I could only make sense of that when I understood that ‘too fat’ is, to paraphrase Caitlin Moran, when you no longer resemble a human being and ‘too thin’ is when the weight of your very skin is too heavy to bear.

When I understood that what was ‘unhealthy’ was not a body shape but a state of mind.

Not many doctors tell you that.  Oh, they tell you that when you’re 14 and you’re hospitalised with anorexia, or 46 and unable to heave your bulk out of a specially-made bed.  Sure, they tell you then, when it’s too fucking late.  Before then, when you really needed to know it, your obsession with your body size, your desire to get it ‘right’ whether ‘right’ was thinner or fatter, was lauded, you were praised for ‘taking control’ of yourself.  Right?

Yep.  It’s that relationship with Food thing again.

Reading Bodies by Susie Orbach really helped clarify my thinking.  As I’ve said before:

In a nutshell, Bodies basically explores how, in the last thirty or some years, our whole concept of what a ‘body’ is has changed from being merely the physical structure housing a person, to being the sum of what a person is, and as such, something that we must now ‘perfect’ in order to ‘perfect’ ourselves as people.

‘Or bodies must be tamed, made to conform to ever decreasing notions of of what is physically acceptable, or we will be found wanting as people.’

When the cage that houses you becomes who you are, interior decorating takes on a whole new importance.  And when that cage is something as fucking unreliable as a body, prone to leakage, stinky emissions, unsightly diseases and other unfortunate social habits, you can see that changing the wallpaper every 10 years just ain’t gonna cut it.

How could we not have a relationship with Food?  Food is the most immediate, most obvious way we can change and mould our bodies.  Food is the thing that can now define us: as fat slobs, as over-achieving control freaks; as people who have control or who have no control at all.  No wonder the whole ‘relationship’ is so fucked up.  But just because having one is becoming seemingly inevitable, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

What are we missing?  We’re missing that food has no fucking bearing on who we are.  Just being genetically programmed to retain fat or just being really, really over-fond of cheesecake or being able to exist on an apple a day, doesn’t actually define who we are as people.  It just means we have genes, or we just really, really like cheesecake, or we have (quite unfathomable to me) self-control.

We are missing the fact that’s it’s impossible to have a ‘relationship’ with food, however healthy we may like to boast that relationship is.  Food is fuel, nothing more, nothing less.  If we choose more good fuel, our bodies will perform sufficiently well so that we don’t have to think about them and we’ll probably lower our chances of becoming unwell.  If we choose more bad fuel, fuel that works against our bodies, our bodies will probably start to falter sooner or later, to a greater or lesser extent.

That’s it.  There is no ‘relationship’.  This is not a two-way street.  You can treat your cheesecake to dinner and a movie then serenade it with love songs before giving it oral sex for three days straight and it still won’t change into having the nutritional value of a floret of broccoli.

But still, something is missing.  We may understand the idiocy of having a relationship with Food, but we still need to eat, right?  Jesus, if we have no relationship with Food, how do we know when to eat, what to eat?

The thing that’s missing is called hunger.  The relationship you need to have is with your stomach.  And it’s the same relationship whether your stomach is convex or concave.

Your stomach will tell you when you’re hungry.  So eat when it tells you to and stop when it tells you it’s full.  And the more I think about it, the more I realise that what you feed it with is largely irrelevant.  Whether you chow down on cheesecake or broccoli, as long as you listen when it waves at you shouting ‘Full!’, most of the rest of all the shit is gravy.

So yes, I tell Boogie about ‘good fuel’ and ‘bad fuel’ and I try to give her some idea of the difference between the two (salmon helps your brain work, pasta gives you energy, brownies give you sugar lift), but that information has become, over time, background noise.

My nightmare micromanagement scenario has segued into an idea of breathtaking simplicity.

Eat, I tell her.  If you’re hungry, eat.  When you stop being hungry, stop eating.

It sounds like a revolution when I write it down like that.  How can that be possible?

It will be a long time before I know whether I gave her the ‘right’ message.  But one thing’s for sure however it turns out: it won’t be any worse than any of the other messages she’s getting.

And it at least has the advantage of simplicity.  How bad can it be, right?


Motherhood and Going Feminist

I spent yesterday at the Go Feminist conference.  The conference was, obviously, about feminism, but it was more specifically about attempting to connect the dots between the different forms feminist activism can take; thus, the conference blurb:

Go Feminist recognises that we live in a world of interlocking hierarchies and oppressions. It is part of our feminist mission to dismantle this.’

I don’t think we’d argue with that, would we?  Over in Boogieville, we’re all about dismantling interlocking hierarchies and oppressions.  It’s what we idly dream of whilst dunking marshmallows in hot chocolate and watching Thelma & Louise.

And the programme for the conference reflected its aim.  Amongst others dealing with black feminism, and faith and feminism, and women and economics, there was the centrepiece of the conference, a session on how to connect movements (with a particularly interesting bit by Rahila Gupta) and an accompanying workshop, and a further workshop addressing intersectionality and how to deal with oppression when it comes from multiple directions all at once.

And, you know me, I hate to criticise.  Well, I don’t, but I do hate to criticise people like the people who organise stuff like this: big, conference-thingies, with loads of people, all talking about feminism.  Really, what sort of shit criticises women who do that?  Well, as Rahila Gupta would no doubt point out, the sort of shit who feels that her area of marginalisation hasn’t been addressed at all.  And who doesn’t feel that just because she has privilege in other areas, she should be silenced.

Now I’m privileged in many ways and I have no problem with feminism addressing racism, anti-capitalism, and the inequalities of the legal system, and what all of these things mean for women.

But.

Now, I should preface this by saying obviously I didn’t go to every workshop so I may have missed something, but nothing in the title of any of the workshops lead me to believe I did.

It really came to me during the Sexism in Popular Culture plenary session, when the question was repeatedly being asked ‘what can we do?  What can we do to change the way people think; about feminism, about equality, about the way the world works?  How does this shit change?’  And I just wanted to jump up and get all Whitney Houston on their arses.

Y’know, all ‘I believe that children are the future (warble, warble etc etc)!

In all that intersectionality, in all that ‘connecting movements’, there was not a whiff of the word ‘motherhood.’  And what connects women if not the concept of motherhood?

And I mean all women, not just those who become mothers.  Because whether you like it or not, whether you have children or not has very little to do with whether this issue will impact you as a woman.  Just ask any childless woman how often she has to fend off intrusive questions about why she’s childless.  Just ask any woman who can’t have children how often she has to lie to people just to keep her sanity.  Just ask any woman, on becoming a mother, how many assumptions she had to fend off to find her own way as a mother.  Just ask any woman of child-bearing age who’s career is, surreptitiously, stalled because of an assumption that she’ll ‘get up the duff’ any minute now (from my own experience in the legal world, women did routinely get pregnant the minute they made partner – because that was the only way to do it; it was universally acknowledged that getting pregnant before being made a partner meant you didn’t get made partner).

You don’t need to be a mother to be affected by motherhood because, childless, the patriarchal myth of motherhood will still come and get you.  You just need to be a woman.

Oh, I know, I know.  Feminist parenting is my ‘thing’, of course I’d notice its absence.  And of course before I became a mother and had no intention of ever being one, the absence wouldn’t have occurred to me either.  But isn’t it glaring?  When you think about it?  Even for a minute?

So much of what feminism is about intersects with motherhood at really, really fucking direct points.  And mothers are marginalised in all kinds of ways that intersect with feminism, and huge swathes of mothers worldwide are marginalised more than I could even shake a fucking stick at and a huge part of that marginalisation arises directly from the fact of their motherhood. And even white, middle class feminist mothers are marginalised because other mothers don’t get what the fuck you’re on about and feminism tends, it seems, to ignore the elephant in the room.  Whilst providing a creche and offering workshops for children…

Oh, I don’t want to whine.  A hearty congratulations to all the organisers for all the many things they got right (which was basically everything else – not least actually getting up and doing the whole thing in the first place).  I enjoyed the day, I really did.  It just spoiled it for me is all.


Really, Stop It with the Breasts

formula: evil, evil, EVIL!

Ah, the breastfeeding debate!  No, not that one, which for the record, ends thus: yes, you can whip out a lactating boob anywhere and feed your baby with it; kill anyone who tries to stop you.

I mean the other breastfeeding debate, the humdinger of ‘breast versus bottle’.  The most divisive battle since Oliver Cromwell decided royalty wasn’t all that.  The new ‘civil war’ amongst mothers and others who stick their oars in for fun and/or profit. (Really, it’s a good comparison: Cromwell wasn’t content to just pummel Charlie into the ground militarily and leave it at that; no, he had to chop his head off as well.  Nothing says ‘I think you’re worthless and have no redeeming qualities whatsoever’ like decapitating somebody.)

Here at Boogieville, we have already signed off on all interest in ‘scientific’ studies about the relatives benefits of breast v. bottle unless, and I quote:

…they suddenly discover that breast milk is actually poisonous, or formula makes people vote Tory...’

Because failing such momentous impact:

…these studies are only useful for one thing: being rolled up and used to beat mothers around the head.’

No, ma’am, we do not like breast v. bottle ‘studies’.  Just put them down and back away.

Possibly something we don’t like even more however (though we allow love into our hearts while we’re not liking it), is the way women allow themselves to be sucked into this whole bag of crap that making a single choice about a single aspect of raising a child can somehow define you not only as a mother but as an evil she-whore hell-bag.  Or not.

The Guardian has a small piece every Saturday called ‘What I’m Really Thinking’, featuring a different ‘type’ person every week – you know, ‘the house cleaner’ (I don’t mind cleaning shit-filled toilets but I hate ironing), ‘the dinner party host’ (I have in the past shot guests who cut the nose off the brie), the ‘shy person’ (I’d really like to be less shy but, well, I’m not, really).  That type of thing.  Clearly, you can see it’s a ‘fluff’ piece at best.

This week’s is What I’m Really Thinking: the bottle feeding mother.  I knew I’d regret reading it, but a Saturday bath means The Guardian magazine cover-to-cover (especially after early dinner family Yo! Sushi, when I’m lying in the water so replete with raw fish the ‘beached whale’ analogy is entirely apt), so I read it.  It’s short, so you can read it, too:

I see the breastfeeding mothers watching me as I rummage in my changing bag for the ready-made carton of formula. Those looks speak a thousand words, most of which boil down to, “How could you? We’re doing the best for our baby, why aren’t you?”

I feel as if they’re judging me, looking at me as a lesser mother than they are just because I’m giving my baby formula. Do they feel superior to me? Certainly I feel that I have to defend my decision to bottle-feed, justify my choices so they’ll accept me.

They sit…with their beady eyes peeking over their breastfeeding aprons as my son gulps down his 5fl oz. But I can’t help noticing how their looks change – a bit of envy maybe? – when I start to bottle-feed. My guess is they’re thinking,”That looks a lot more efficient than breastfeeding.” You’re right, I want to tell them.

I can almost hear the deafening mental processing in those staid church halls: “She won’t have cracked nipples, mastitis, thrush or leaking milk. And her partner probably helps with the night feeds.”

But I don’t want to fall into the trap of judging them too harshly, either. I’d like to have tried breastfeeding, but medical complications took the choice out of my hands. Now that I bottle-feed, I see the advantages. I’d even choose it again next time. It’s really not so bad, I want to tell them, you should try it some time.’

Now, first off, I’m inclined to be sceptical of the piece because it seems simply to be an example of a person’s own feelings of inadequacy being transferred onto others.  The other mothers are firstly looking saying “How could you? We’re doing the best for our baby, why aren’t you?”, then miraculously, they look envious?  Really?  Wow, these women can really work a look or two, can’t they?  Transference, much?  Not that I judge her for that: what mother is unaware – in this country at least – of the pressure now put on women to breast-feed?  And if you can’t, it can make you feel like shit.

But christ alive, if I had a pound for every time, in those early baby days, when I heard a bottle-feeding mother explain to me or to an assembled throng of breast feeders  (at least half of whom at any given time would have a baby on the boob – I live in middle class North London* where breast feeding is positively viral) why she was bottle feeding I would be in for free flat whites for life.  And I have a serious coffee habit. Anonymous does it here; despite attesting to a high level of satisfaction with bottle feeding, she still feels the need to tell you why she didn’t breast feed.

And to every, single mother who explained to often virtual strangers why she was picking up a bottle rather than exposing a breast I just wanted to say: stop it.  Stop explaining to me why.  You have no obligation to tell me that your milk didn’t come in, that you got mastitis so bad you considered chopping your breast off, that your baby couldn’t latch on, that your boobs were too small, or too big, or too lop-sided, or that you suffer from tubular breasts, that you’re taking medication for mental illness, or your cat died and you were too sad to produce milk.

You do not owe me an explanation.

I’m of the view that, all things being equal, breast milk is probably superior to formula.  Knowing what I know (and trust me, I know more than I’d like to), that’s where I stand on the dividing line.  But when the fuck are all things equal?  When are any of our choices made in a vacuum? This is feminism 101, people, so it shouldn’t really need explaining, but it seems as if it does.

We make all kinds of choices as mothers that represent compromises between what we view as ‘perfect’ and what we recognise as ‘achievable’ and trust me when I say that you will make far more compromised decisions about your children as they grow than whether to feed breast or formula.

Fortunately for the confused amongst you, I can settle the whole Bottle-feeding: does it make you evil? debate with a few simple questions:

1. Do you love your baby?

2. Do you provide your baby with enough nutrition so that the scale needle goes up with time instead of down?

3. Is your feeding method of choice – discounting any feelings of inadequacy you may feel coerced into having – working for you?

If you answer yes to all three, then you have Bingo.  Collect your prize money and go out and celebrate.  Which of course, you can do in far more style if you’re not breast feeding.

Personally?  I breast fed both mine for two equally simple reasons: 1. neither of the little bastards would take a bottle, and 2. breast feeding – which I hadn’t seriously considered doing but was willing to give it a go – really worked for me; being naturally haphazard and a bit forgetful, I found it a real bonus that I could never go out and forget to take my breasts.  Rest assured, however, that if it hadn’t worked for me – for any reason whatsoever – I’d have dropped it like a hot one. I know, I have no shame.

And, so we arrive back at ‘scientific studies’.  Yes, they’ll try and guilt trip a bottle feeder.  They’ll tell you useless stuff like your child will have one less ear infection a year which, sure, is good, but is in no way better for your baby than having a happy mother.  Or they’ll tell you a breast fed baby will perform marginally better on IQ tests than bottlers, which will sound important until you score yourself some Stephen J. Gould, and realise IQ tests are for shit anyway.

And to round it all off (thank christ I hear you mutter), this came along sometime after I’d weaned L’il Boo:

Six months of breastmilk alone is too long and could harm babies, scientists now say

Six months was the recommended time when L’il Boo was a babba.  I had the what were then new-ish guidelines in mind when I was thinking about weaning him.  Did I worry when the new study came out?  Of course not: I said I had them in mind; I didn’t follow them slavishly.  I responded to my baby according to his needs.  As long as breast milk seemed to satisfy him, I didn’t introduce solids.  When it started to look like he needed something more, I gave him more.

In the event, he actually went 5.5 months before gnashing down on broccoli florets (we followed baby-led weaning principles).  And is he showing signs of food allergies or iron deficiency (both cited by the study as possible effects of delayed introduction of solids)?  Nope, not so far but you know if he does?  I will be satisfied that I did the best I could given what I knew at the time.

What more can you ask for?

*I don’t really, but near enough.


Simplicity

Sometimes a thing can just be over-thought.  Y’know, like feminist mothering for example.  Yes, guilty as charged.  Oh, hush up.

But sometimes, there is simply a beautiful act of doing, of just getting on with it.

Like this from Made for Mums.

Just women who happen to be mothers doing the whole working thing, the whole life thing.

Like Katie Hislop, 32, from Wiltshire, a Major in the army;

‘I’ve seen active service in Iraq, and I may again. Even though I can’t deny it will be difficult leaving Sophie, I totally accept that responsibility.’

Like Sarah Hill, 38, from Wales;

‘I’ve volunteered for my local lifeboat since I was 23 years old, and I’ve never considered stepping down now just because I’m a mum.’

Like Sarah Solheim, 31, from Essex;

‘[Working with the Fire Service] I’ve dealt with house fires, road accidents and flooding. It’s hugely rewarding, and [my son] is especially proud of me!

As somebody who can get shoe-throwingly frustrated by ‘The Juggling’, I find these statements fall like drops of pure crystal triple-distilled-by-nature mountain stream water into the murky cesspool of my life.

And while I’m feeling cleansed by simplicity, I’m going to take a bath in this stunningly simple piece of sagesse from Musings of an Inappropriate Woman:

‘But most of the time, getting what you want – especially if “what you want” is something really juicy – means pulling out all stops. And for most people (for me, at least) pulling out all stops requires being honest about what you want.

‘It means standing up and acknowledging – at least to yourself, if not to other people – “hey, I really want that juicy thing and I’m not ashamed to admit it.”’

What do you really want?  I mean really, really want?

Me?  I don’t think ‘rule the fucking world’ really counts, so I’m taking some time out to think about it.


The Pressure, The Pressure!

Boogie had a play date the other day at our house.  The datee in question seems perfectly nice, or at least as nice as I can find 5 year olds (did I mention kids generally scare me?  Well, they do – they can be so…emphatic).

Well, if this kid queried Boogie’s and L’il Boo’s toys once…well, she did it a lot.  Talk about the gender police!  Who’s was the helicopter?  Why was it Boogie’s when it was a boy’s toy?  Why was L’il Boo playing with a doll?  Was it at least a boy doll?  Why did L’il Boo want to put the fairy wings on?  Fairies are girls!  Why did Boogie have a pirate ship?  Pirates are boys!  And on.  And on.

I was finding this fairly trying and was starting to well, get a bit annoyed.  Admittedly, I haven’t put a sign on the door saying ‘No Gender Police!’ but given the choice, I wouldn’t invite them in.

And then I faced facts.  I do invite them in.  About once a week on average, which is how often Boogie has a play date.  Once a week, we invite a series of Gender Detectives in to peruse our little piece of earth.  And, generally, they find something wanting.  And I let go of my anger towards this small child because I know it isn’t her fault, either that she’s been invited in or that’s she’s obsessed with gender.  They all are and they’re taught to be obsessed by everything and everyone around them (‘Good morning boys and girls’ anyone?).

This really hit me when I considered the look on her face when she was conducting her gender interview.  When each question came out of her mouth she was puzzled.  When she got my answer, puzzlement turned to real, genuine confusion, with a side order of fear.  She genuinely just didn’t understand what she saw as the gender discrepancies in my kids’ toys and, when I didn’t help her out of her confusion with some explanation as to why the discrepancies had arisen, instead saying (effectively) there were no discrepancies, she was all at sea.  I’m guessing that my answer to her first ‘gender’ question helped propel the others to come forward – in a ‘What do you mean, there’s no discrepancy, that all toys can be for either gender?  You’re kidding, right?  I’m just gonna check by asking you about another toy..’ kind of thing.

The other thing I had to face was Boogie’s reaction.  She said nothing to the first couple of queries, but looked squarely at me while I answered them.  Eventually, when the helicopter status as a boy’s toy was mentioned, she nonchalantly answered ‘It’s just a toy and toys are for anybody who likes them.’  Attagirl!  Unfortunately, this didn’t come until after, in response to the lead-in question of ‘Who’s toy is this?’ Boogie, aware no doubt of what was coming, had squarely disowned the helicopter by saying it was her brother’s.  Which was news to me.  ‘But it’s yours, isn’t it?’ I asked.  ‘Yeah, it was,’ she replied (in an oh-too-casual manner), ‘but I gave it to him because I don’t play with it anymore.’  Which again, was news to me.  I didn’t press her, though.  Tellingly, when asserting that ‘toys are for anybody’, Boogie’s eyes were firmly on mine; when she was busy disowning the toy, she resolutely refused to look at me when answering my query.  It doesn’t take a psychologist to see that in the former she was looking to check for my approval; in the latter, she wouldn’t look at me because she suspected I wouldn’t approve of what were, essentially, big, fat fibs.

Bless her, I could see her dilemma.  Oh, could I ever.  The poor kid was trying to tread the fine line between pleasing me and staying on-side with her friend’s clearly expressed ideas of gender.  A tricky line for a five year old.

I’m currently reading Cinderella Ate My Daughter, by Peggy Orenstein (which is being reviewed chapter by chapter over at maternalselves, if you’re interested) and the problem that keeps leaping out of the book (and attempting to kill me through brain fatigue), is: how do you raise a girl to be outside the girly-girl, appearance and consumerist-driven culture they’re being spoon-fed from every angle without making her an outsider to her own sex?  Ah, a classic double-think problem!  I did think I’d posted before about the endless double-think you have to do when raising a girl, but I probably dreamt it cos I can’t find anything.  Essentially (for present purposes only), it can be boiled down to: how can you teach a girl to not relate to the hyper ‘girly-girl’ model and yet still enable her to relate to, and fit in with, girls who do?

Because whilst I fervently want Boogie to step outside the increasingly limited model of femininity she’s presented with, I don’t want her to be, well, weird.  Are you feeling me here?  I’m trying to teach her to denigrate a model that the vast majority of her peers will believe in whole-heartedly, but I don’t want her to be the sad, lonely kid in the corner, amusing herself by putting her bogies on a passing ant.

And, sure, I can explain why her peers (and my peers) fall for all the gender shit that comes their way, but the fact remains that, on some level, the message must contain some implication that her peers are a bit stoopid.  I mean, essentially, it boils down to: they may fall for it, Boogie, but we won’t because we know better.

And then she has to go to school and relate to these stupid people that mummy has told her about.

Talk about fine fucking lines.


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