Sunday, 19 July 2015

That's just girls

It seems to be a universally accepted fact that girls will repeatedly fall out with one another throughout their school years and perhaps, beyond. I have two daughters, and in my experience, I can attest to there being much truth in this.  They talk behind each other's backs.  They switch allegiance between best friends at the drop of a hat. They inexplicably blank one another. They take offence continuously. We’re told by wiser mothers (of daughters) and by our own mothers, that this is just girls. It's just how they are. And there's enough anecdotal evidence to more than back this up and so the maxim becomes self-fulfilling. We accept that this is the way things are, and consequently we often don't invest the time and energy required into teaching girls to build supportive, caring relationships with one another.   

Do we live in a world that teaches girls to dislike one another, from the off? We certainly live in a world where girls are raised by women who have absorbed the message that other females are competition, and that this is completely natural.    
As girls grow, they gradually internalise the two-fold message spewed out by the media and by society that decrees girls must be heterosexual and that males are a priority.  Seeking a male partner, being attractive to males, being available to males; all these things are very obvious consequences of living in a world that prioritises the needs and feelings of men above all else.    

Girls also grow up internalising the rampant misogyny that pervades our world, some of it glaringly obvious, some of it subtle but all the more insidious because of it. Let's take a look at the films and stories which are pushed at little girls; the Disney Princesses alone contain enough negative messages about inter-woman relations to be troubling.  Consider who the villain of the piece is in Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Enchanted? Not only is it a woman, but the motive for her antagonism is often jealousy. 

 So we are feeding our little girls the message that not only is it imperative that they be beautiful (because only beautiful princesses get their Prince) but that women (usually older, embittered women) will envy you for this. More modern cinema may have tried to redress the balance with films like Frozen and Maleficent, both depicting love and friendship between women, but this is a very recent phenomenon and not one that’s likely to have a huge impact on ingrained behaviours overnight. Also, in both these movies, the friendship between the women is treated almost as a novelty, precisely because the viewer doesn't expect women to behave like this towards one another.  So, for example in Maleficent we are to be surprised that true love's kiss comes from the embittered Maleficent towards the young and beautiful Aurora, and similarly, it is an unexpected plot-twist that the act of true love in Frozen is between two sisters, and not, as the plot sets up for us, between Ana and Kristof. Thus, the twin expectations of men being a priority and women being unable to get on with one another are reiterated, albeit subliminally.

Boys, on the other hand, are fed a diet of camaraderie and friendship, as depicted by anything from Thomas and his Friends, and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to Spiderman and his buddies, Shrek, and the X-Men.  Heck, even the Minions are all male, and despite the odd fisticuffs (because boys will be boys won't they?!) are a tale of teamwork and group harmony.   

Boys are encouraged to take part in group games and sports, which undeniably helps foster unity and a sense of shared purpose. The vast majority of sports on television are still male dominated, whether it's football, cricket or rugby.  Young boys aren't short of examples of male teamwork and bonding in our culture, yet despite small advances in this area (such as the recently high profile of the women's England football team), girls are massively deprived of such role models.  Indeed, they're encouraged to take part in activities that are overwhelmingly to do with their physical appearance, be it clothes shopping or pamper parties. Even dancing; which is a common and traditional pursuit for little girls, is pervaded by restrictive physical demands.  Ballerinas in particular are expected to be pretty, docile and slim.  By the way, I have girls and boys, and I see little external encouragement for girls to participate in activities which are collaborative and which encourage healthy group dynamics to develop (except with the possible exception of Rainbows, but let's not forget that the male counterpart for this group is Beavers, a word which conjures up busyness and industry, whereas the word Rainbow conjures up colourful prettiness. Language has power, people.)

What of older girls then, in the teen and pre-teen age group? What positive examples of female harmony and friendship do they encounter in the wider world? We see women fighting, both literally and figuratively, on film, TV and in music videos.  I remember this song from 2005; currently being used on the Money Supermarket advert - Don't Cha' (wish 
your girlfriend was hot like me?) by the Pussycat Dolls.  Explicitly spelling out why other women are to be regarded with suspicion, and how being hot is paramount for hooking a man, regardless of how this might affect another woman; it's her own fault for not being hot enough, after all.    

Consider the more recent  examples of Taylor Swift's Bad Blood – laughingly touted as Feminist, despite the fact that this video contains image after image of highly sexualised women and concludes with them beating the crap out of one another. Yay, Sisterhood. Or Rhianna’s latest offering,BBHMM (content warning for sexual violence),which is problematic for many, many reasons, but which is also a violent example of misogyny perpetrated by a woman against another woman. I wouldn't go so far as to say that these artists are causing girls to turn on each other; rather that their existence is symptomatic of the misogynistic world that we live in, where hatred, envy and distrust of each other is normalised. Girls see this, they absorb it and it becomes truth. As parents who grew up in the pre-internet age, I don’t think we've twigged yet just how all pervasive this kind of content is in the lives of our children.  It can - and is - accessed twenty-four hours a day, by phone, by iPad, by laptop.  And if you're keeping an eye on what your child sees on the internet, you can bet that the parents of at least one child in her class aren't.  She'll see things you don’t want her to see; it's utterly unstoppable. We’re feeding our girls a steady diet of misogyny; and it's making them sick.    

Let’s resist. Let’s teach our daughters about collaboration, teamwork and mutual support.  Let’s teach our girls to love one another, and not envy each other.  Let's teach them not to distrust each other, but to value their shared girlhood for the unique, unifying gift that it can be.  Let's teach them that together they are stronger; that they needn't fear each other. That in friendship and sisterhood there is real power and strength, and within each
 of them they have the ability to overcome the things that this world will throw at them. 

This advice goes for us all.  If you're not a feminist already, I strongly urge you to immerse yourself in Feminist theory and thought, for at the heart of this movement is a powerful Sisterhood, comprised of women who know exactly what you've been through and they feel your pain. We are all unwilling contestants in a never ending competition, with men judging and keeping score, and doling out the prizes. It may seem like there are winners, but ultimately, we’re all losers in the end.

(I've written here about the things we can do to help girls to get along with one another.)

Thursday, 9 July 2015


Jesus saying:
"No wound? No scar?
Yes, as the master shall the servant be,
And pierced are the feet that follow Me.
But thine are whole. Can he have followed far
Who has no wound? No scar?"
(By Amy Carmichael.)

This is a post about scars; about how our feelings towards them can be quite complex and not as straight forward as their surface level appearance might suggest.  We can regard them as blemishes upon the landscape of our bodies; unsightly reminders of incidents which have pierced and forever altered the neat, once perfect envelope of skin that we entered this world in. More poetically, they are a visible, physical reminder of the journey that our bodies have taken.  We are a living, breathing scrapbook detailing the incidents of our lives, and our scars can be read as entries.

I have scars. I have many scars. And each one tells a story.

The white patch on my left knee, that conjures up the pain of falling onto sharp gravelly stone, whilst doing endless laps of the school tennis courts; a happenstance that was the whim of a sadistic P.E teacher (is there any other kind?!). The fine white line across the knuckle of my right index finger, which brings to mind the time I was packing to go on holiday and put my hand into my wash-bag, slicing it on the razor that I'd forgotten was in there. The five inch long scar on my hip; a memento from an operation when I was nine, a scar I was particularly proud of as a child because it was especially gory, gaining me extra kudos with my school friends. Ordinary scars, mundane scars.  Some from childhood scrapes and falls, some collected in adulthood from moments of clumsy stupidity or mindlessness, or plain bad luck.

Some scars have far less humble origins, and have greater import because of it.  I have written before about the scar I have on my face, which for me is incidental to how I look. After all, I've never seen what I would look like without the scar. It's always been there and is as much a part of me as my chin or my eyelids.  It is also very visible; scars on ones face can't be hidden, at least not easily.  It might not be the first thing you notice about me when you see me face to face, but notice it you will.

Other scars can be hidden from view beneath clothing and need never see the light of day.  I am blessed (cursed) with paper thin, freckly, white skin, that burns in weak spring sunshine and has historically rebelled against any attempts to stretch it. I've had four babies, so quite a lot of stretching has been required over the years. Hence, I am covered in so many stretch marks that I resemble the road  map of Britain. Happily, these ugly marks; once raspberry red in colour but now faded to silvery white, need never be exposed to the world, unless I decide to wear a bikini in public, and honestly, after you've had four babies, who the heck is going to do that? We can't all be Heidi Klum, after all.

I suppose I could view these marks as symbols of life; the stripes I earned for surviving pregnancy and birth and for bringing four young people into the world. They are war wounds; a visible reminder of the physical pain and toil that the body endures during its gestational battles.
But no. To me they are ugly, unsightly blemishes that I'd really rather not have at all, and I'm grateful that they can easily be hidden from view. I don't really lose much sleep over it, but I don't exactly celebrate them either.

Some people have a far less ambivalent attitude to their scars.  In some cases, they can have a life-changing, detrimental impact upon the people who bear them: the pockmarks which recall teenage years marred by acne. The linear, neat, rows of scars across forearms and thighs, which bear traumatic witness to years of self-harm. The scars which disfigure and conjure up flashbacks of serious accidents or worse, incidents of assault or abuse. Scars have power over us, as they so often come with negative associations.

Scars are so much more than mere imperfections. Often, they are an integral, key player in our story. For good or bad, they have an impact. Let's consider the story of Jesus, specifically of his Resurrection. In Luke 24, we hear the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples after the Resurrection. He tells them:

“Look at my hands. Look at my feet. You can see that it's really me” (Luke 24:39.)

He doesn't say: “look at my face;” he encourages them instead to look upon his hands and feet, scarred, horribly, by the nails that pierced skin, flesh and bone. His scars are an absolutely integral part of the story. Indeed, it only works because of the scars.  Only in the scars does the telling convince people. Like Thomas said,
“I won't believe it until I see the nail wounds in His hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand in the wound in His side.” (John: 20:25)

But Jesus’ scars weren't just proof that He was who He said He was; His scars were a powerful symbol that death had been defeated. And note this: His body; this risen body, was deliberately not resurrected perfectly. Jesus didn't emerge from the tomb all shiny and new, like a brand new penny.  He was physically flawed. He was scarred.  And yet this body was honouring to God, and it was perfect in His eyes.

And so then is mine.  The life I have led is visible through my scars.  They show I was born different, far less than perfect. They show that I've known pain. They show that I'm a mother, that I'm a surviver.  They show that I'm alive. I've earned them, and I'll wear them with pride.

Our scars tell our story. They are our testimony.  They show we have lived.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

NOT a natural mother

A common, recurring response from other women when they hear I have four children; (after they’ve expressed the usual “Goodness, you’re brave!”) is often, “Wow, you must be a complete natural.”
What does this even mean? That I’m a natural mother? Perhaps one who breast feeds until her kids go to school? That kind of natural? Into whole foods and organic produce? Maybe it’s just a way of expressing admiration for someone who is so obviously committed to this mothering malarkey that they wanted to do it multiple times? Maybe all these things. Or maybe it’s just a bullshit notion entirely that has merely grown out of society’s erroneous expectation for mothers.
Women are socialised to be nurturing and this goes hand-in-hand with the idea that we are designed to be mothers. This doesn’t just mean being in possession of a womb; it means that hormonally,  genetically even, we are naturally predisposed to be able to carry out the task of raising a child. Why then do we sometimes find motherhood so hard?
Medical sources estimate that around 10-15% of new mothers will suffer from Post-natal depression, and the charity 4Children has estimated that the figure might actually be closer to 30%. I might be going out on a limb here but I really believe that most mothers suffer post-natal depression to a varying degree, at some point in the first year after their baby is born.  If you were one of the lucky ones who emerged from childbirth relatively unscathed, learned to feed your baby quickly and with no problems and in short, took to motherhood as if you were born to it, well, wonderful. I have a friend whose experience of labour and infant rearing was so lovely to her she described it as an epiphany. It was a wholly positive experience. If you are such a person, then I’m glad for you. I wish it had been like that for me.
I have known both ends of the birth spectrum, having endured a horrendous experience with baby number one, which meant I couldn’t walk for over two weeks; to leaving the hospital after having baby number four and then going to school to pick the other kids up on the way home. It does vary widely.
Perhaps, like me, your induction into motherhood went something like this: you’re weeping in the bathroom every morning at the prospect of peeing onto what is an open wound, your milk has come in and you could rest your chin on your boobs, you lost so much blood in the delivery room that you’re dangerously anaemic, bringing a whole new meaning to the word “tired,” and baby won’t stop crying, and you have no idea what the problem is. Oh, and your partner is a completely useless waste of space.  That.
The thought that your milk coming in actually means your body is being flooded with nurturing, mothering hormones will, I’m sure, provide you with no comfort whatsoever, as you attempt unsuccessfully to latch a child onto a body part that is four times bigger than baby’s head and is ever likely to be sore, crusty and bleeding.  I kid you not, so determined was I to breastfeed (or with hindsight: stubborn to the point of dangerous stupidity) I actually kept a wooden spoon near me to bite down on whenever I fed her, because the pain was so intense.  I can’t recall feeling very nurturing at the time. Funny that.
We’re told that in this aim biology is on our side. Our hormones, namely oxytocin, will gush out along with a maternal outpouring that will bond you to your child in ways that are  utterly unbreakable. If you don’t feel this way there is a real and harmful remove between your expectation (and society’s expectation) of your role as mother, and the bleeding, agonising, leaking, red-eyed reality.
I was terrified of my daughter. Absolutely terrified. I’d never held a newborn, never changed a baby, never fed a baby. I assumed if you put a baby down in her Moses basket, she would just go to sleep (I know, I know, the naivety!) and was flummoxed and rendered powerless by her cries, which only seemed to cease when I fed her, and that was so agonising, it was the last thing I wanted to do.  She pooped continuously, which meant constant nappy changes. She got nappy rash, despite the constant nappy changes, which meant I was checking and changing her every hour, on the hour, round the clock, in a paranoid fluster that it would get worse. I was unprepared for the tiredness, the ever present exhaustion that there was no respite from, because only I could feed her so no one could help me.
The fear of her quickly turned to feelings of inadequacy, as conversations with my friend (who gave
birth the month before me) revealed a very different experience. She went shopping on her way home from the hospital. Shopping! I had to be wheeled to the car.
She’d been out clubbing when her baby was six weeks old. Clubbing! Just the thought of leaving the house to nip to the corner shop made my chest tight and panicky.
I was scared of going out with my baby; what if she cried and I couldn’t stop her? What if she needed feeding? I didn’t want to feed her in front of other people. I didn’t want to handle her in front of other people; I might be doing it wrong. If I ever did, out of necessity, venture out of the house, it would take me the best part of an hour to pack everything I needed. I was paranoid about not having enough nappies with me, or enough changes of clothes. I’d obsessively change her nappy, feed her, check her nappy again, fret and worry over whether she’d need feeding again. She’d sick up, so I’d change her clothes; I was obsessive in keeping her scrupulously clean at all times. Then she’d need changing again, and so leaving the house sometimes didn’t happen at all.  Plenty of times I left, began walking up the street with her in the pram, only to return almost at once because the sound of her high-pitched, implacable wailing brought me out in a cold sweat and made my tummy clench so tightly it hurt.
I avoided other mothers – who were obviously doing it better than me – as their apparent competence and relaxed manner with their babies highlighted my own discomfort. I felt like a fraud; like becoming her mother was a freak accident. I felt like a nanny or a childminder; like she wasn’t actually mine. I was terrified that someone would discover the truth; that I was useless at this mothering thing, and they’d try and take her away from me.
I loved her; this tiny, impossibly beautiful creature. I loved the smell of her; the feel of her soft, downy head with its sparse covering of blonde fluff; her minute and perfectly formed little hands.  In the wee small hours, whilst feeding her, I’d look down and marvel that anything so sublime could have emerged from me.  But loving her didn’t make me enjoy the experience as a whole.  I was battered; mutilated by childbirth, my body distorted to nightmarishly comic proportions, and I was in
a world of pain.
For motherhood comes naturally, doesn’t it my sisters? I am a woman and it is what I am designed to do.  To nurture new life, not just inside my body but on the outside too.  As I struggled to do the one thing that I’d been taught that I was designed to do, I wondered what the point of me was if I couldn’t do this one, crucial thing. What did that say about my worth, not only as a mother, but as a woman? Unsurprisingly, I spiralled downwards into a depression that took a long, long time to recover from.
When I’ve discussed the myth of gender with men, they are sometimes keen to back up their largely essentialist ideas by citing the fact that women give birth as a reason for distinguishing our behaviour to theirs.  This is a problem for several reasons; firstly it erases the experience of women who can’t or choose not to have children by implying that they’re somehow not fulfilling a biological imperative. Secondly, and to my mind, more harmfully, this notion of women as natural nurturers does a disservice to us all by depicting motherhood as something that we ought to be good at.  If you struggle at all, for whatever reason, it can be an isolating and humiliating experience.
The more I think about the idea of women as “carers” the more I see how our biology has been used as a stick to beat us with.  Designating a caring role to women has the potential to let men off the hook (for “biologically” speaking, caring isn’t in their remit) and in practical terms also means that any duty coming under the umbrella of “care” can be foisted onto women, whether it’s taking on the bulk of childcare responsibilities or looking after elderly relatives. As an aside, it’s no coincidence that many jobs involving care, such as nursery workers and auxiliaries in old peoples’s homes, are overwhelmingly done by women. I guess it’s also a coincidence that these jobs tend to be minimum wage too. Mmm…
Girls are socialised from the off to fit into this nurturing mould; it is little girls who are given dolls to cuddle and feed, complete with tiny nappies and pretend bottles. Take a look at the commercial break during a time young children are likely to be watching and witness the blatant gender stereotyping.  We proliferate the “caring” myth by saying things like, “Sons grow up and move on but daughters always stay close.” Which sounds quite touching but actually means “there’s little to no obligation for my son to call or visit, but that’s ok because my daughter will take care of me.” And this is seen by some as normal!
The bitterest irony of all of course; in a society that trots out the nurturing woman stereotype, is that it is totally incompatible with the most dominant female stereotype of all, that of the “woman as sex object.” Indeed, nothing can slay your sexuality more than being pregnant and then feeding/mothering an infant, or indeed older children. In a world where being sexually appealing and appearing available is prized so highly for women, it’s no wonder that a woman’s perceived value in society can diminish sharply when she becomes a mother. The creation of new life and the responsibility of rearing an infant ought to elevate a woman’s status, and yet the experiences of women I know, my own experiences and the high rates of post-natal depression would say otherwise.
So what is my response when another incredulous woman expresses the opinion that I must be a “natural mother,” for choosing to share my life with four little people?
“Sister, there’s no such thing.”