Yer man said something interesting the other day. You know the chap, the pope, they call him, isn’t it. Innit, I’m getting all London n all.
Well, that fella said that people are not having enough children these days for his liking. He said this is a great shame. He said this is a sign of cultural degradation in our world, that we’re weakening, that we can only handle relationships with puppies, but not little humans. Interesting stuff!
I can’t say that I’m privy to his particular spreadsheets. I don’t know what numbers exactly he is referring to when he’s expressing this concern. I can only presume that he’s speaking about what’s happening in the Christian world, wherever that is. So what is happening in the western world that could be behind this shift in proliferation?
In 1970 Germaine Greer wrote about the impossibility of being a mother in a society of nuclear family shaped households. She had a point. At that moment in time, in the western world, we had firmly settled into a way of living that meant that families, in the sense of parents and children, would live in defined spaces separated unto ourselves. Very much, you’ll observe, the way we still live today – young families live, for the most part, and by ideal, in their own home.
In 1970, as Ms. Greer all too well highlighted, women had a lot of problems. Once married, women were absolutely and definitively expected to play a particular role. In Ireland, at that time, women who married had to leave their jobs. By law, you see. So to marry at that time, which of course implied becoming a devoted mother, was to pin women right down to their domestic role.
But not anymore, you say. “All that has surely changed now!”, my own mother not so long ago commented to me. I grant you, Mam, that a lot has changed. In the western world, women have access to every opportunity that men do. There are real problems with harassment, with bias, with violence. But there are no longer any lawful barriers, and in theory it is all there for the taking. Great stuff!
Now that that’s solved, and women can have all the jobs, just remind me again of who exactly is doing the parenting of these proposed children? Speaking as a person that spent six years and unsurmounted effort to have children, and for whom it has really meant the world to do so, it is most certainly a choice that I wouldn’t recommend for anyone to take on lightly!
But you know what, forgive me, I must have missed something. While women were being “invited” into the world of work, clearly an eye was taken on all that they were managing before. Aha, clever legislation was put in place to support the shift of that work. Surely. I mean, otherwise it would make no sense, make no sense at all.
The states in the Christian world will have thought about good support for childcare. They will have thought about good facilitation, for bright and constructive people to be able to contribute, while raising physically and mentally well families. Surely.
Who’s taking care of these children you want us to have? With what time and what means?
Gender equality in parenting is only the start of it. It’s the part that a lot of us can play a part in. From there, a lot a lot a lot of legislation needs to change.
I’m someone who longed to have children, I fought really hard to make it happen and I fucking love it. But I have days, you know. Look, I can see how hard it can be. How much it can be. When I think about doing this alone?
Not all women are born mums. To the same extent that not all men are born dads. Well, now women have some of the same stature as men do, with our current system, it’s not a great wonder to me that fewer of us would choose to have babies.
The joke is that we have one each. Two babies born at the same time, and Andrew and I raising one of them each. It’s not quite the truth, (we are a team of four). But it is true enough that certain bonds have been formed through the way things panned out in those early weeks and months. One of our daughters calls out more often for her dada, and one more often for her mama.
What’s really more interesting to me is the want that (feck it) Andrew’s daughter apparently experiences. This is something very foreign to me. It probably says a lot about me as a person, but I never experienced a great want for anything or for anyone that I can really recall. While Andrew’s girl forms attachments filled with such earnest desire, that it’s really something.
She found a bottle of vanilla essence once and my goodness did she love that bottle. She held on to it in her little tight fist from first thing that morning right through to bringing it to bed that night. She LOVED it. More recently, she has formed attachments with passing dogs, who’s owners have been kind enough to stop to let the kids admire them. “Dog-geeee” she has wailed, when the time has come to split ways, full blown tears coursing from her eyes.
I think about this a lot at the moment. How is this desire for things and animals and people going to develop as she grows, becomes a bigger kid, and a teenager. I have no idea, but I want to continue to work on how I can best help her to deal with the strength of these feelings she has. I imagine it will be a life’s work.
Our other daughter – my girl, if you like – doesn’t exhibit the same sorts of feelings. She often grabs things from her sister’s hands, seemingly mainly because her sister has been so intent on them more than out of a want of her own, and soon tosses them aside forgotten. (Oh look, the fun never stops round our house.)
Over the last three weeks we have been staying at my in-laws with the girls sleeping in a strange room, they’ve had hand foot & mouth disease, been growing canine teeth, and discovering the power of the word “no!”. Which is all just to say that they haven’t been settling as well as they usually do at night. Even my one, normally such an independent sleeper, has been insistent on some company while she drifts off.
She does ask for mama often, but when it comes to it I think I’m pretty interchangeable with dad for the purpose. It’s not quite the same for our other girl. When she is just about asleep she sometimes gets the notion that she needs to be with her dada, and I simply will not do. “Da-daaaa”, she wails, and there’s those tears again.
“Ah, she wants her mama”. People say it all the time. When baby makes strange or fusses we like to believe that they need to be with mum. It’s a damaging assumption, not just in the moment itself, where mum can’t catch a break before baby is lumped back into her arms. But also in the broader context and the standard of a state of being that this sets.
Mothers would be lead to believe that they’re completely abnormal if their baby doesn’t yearn for them. And so, they see what they want to see. They believe it to be the case, even when it might not be. Or, worse again, they make it be the case when it needn’t have been. When these societal pressures are created and reinforced so frequently, the cycle continues to perpetuate accordingly.
From what I see, not every baby yearns. Some can be quite content in themselves for the most part. Of course they need their parents, but it might not transpire as a longing for them. And those that do yearn, might be just as likely to yearn for dad as for mum.
Like many couples that I know, Andrew and I headed towards parenthood with ideas and intentions of equality fairly well assumed. We have been equal in our relationship in every way up until now. Why would anything be different?
The first major challenge, of course, that we and many others faced is parental leave. I got some, Andrew did not. And so, naturally, being with the babies all day while he was not, I learned more about how to care for them and kept up with their changing needs.
The other challenge to equality in parenting that we faced is one that each and every one of us can influence in our daily lives. It is the pervading use, instead of the word parent, or carer, of the word mum.
I have come to hate the overuse of the term so much that I sometimes forget that I actually am this thing, a mum. When someone makes a comment about being a mum, and my scorpion brain reacts expecting them to be making a statement that could just be made about parents, I sometimes have to remind myself that it is true that I am a mum. Even if I might often prefer the word parent.
It’s about more than just a word. Groups are set up, often through WhatsApp or facebook. It might be that these groups get set up for a group of women that are on maternity leave. Or it might be that these groups are set up as general support for parents. Sticking the word mum on it, as so often is what happens, has an impact.
Stick the word mum on a group, and you are telling female parents that it is their responsibility to take on the bulk of the parenting work. Stick the word mum on it and you tell dads that they are not welcome.
Parenting, while of course wonderful and gratifying and awesome, is also really hard work. Made much much harder if living with a partner who is unable, somehow, to contribute to that work.
Loads of groups are set up, beautiful, creative, well intended groups, to help with just that – to help with the hardship that comes with parenting. And here again, so often, it is “mums”. Can’t we see that this is perpetuating the problem?
A lot of shops and businesses get set up with “mums” in the name. It is because, I’ve heard some say, that is what makes up 95% of their customers – it’s the simple fact. That may well be. But if they want to expand their business to a new and broadening group of involved dads, perhaps they should think about a rebrand!
In a heterosexual relationship, dads have their female partners to lean on. “I didn’t manage to pick up that thing today” they might say, “because that shop is just for mums”. Maybe said with a lazy shrug. Maybe said with genuine embarrassment. Either way, seeing the guy go into mumsworld would be much easier if it was called parentsworld.
If you think about a family with two dads, it becomes even clearer how overuse of the word mum is not only perpetuating gender inequality in parenting, but is also creating an exclusive culture. Are gay dads only supposed to talk to other gay dads about parenting? Or are they supposed to act as honourary women to get into the women’s group? Yikes.
No one should have to declare their sexuality in the context of expressing an interest in parenting. Any parent or carer that expresses an interest should be welcomed with open arms to get involved. Wouldn’t that be made all the easier if these spaces and places were named in a more gender neutral way.
It goes further again than those groups, networks and businesses. It is in everyday usage too. “We mums”, someone said to me in a work context recently, “we tend to take on everything.” (I’ve learned to tidy up my reactions quite quickly these days, over zoom barely perceptible at all.)
It’s true that we don’t ever hear about the plight of working dads. It’s all baked into our common assumptions that they are simply not as burdened with the child care as a working mum would be. These may be assumptions that, yes, we see played out before us very often. But when we continue to speak only about that visible majority, the minority is stifled and when it’s a minority that would benefit us all to see grow, then let’s give it a little air.
There are some things that truly do only pertain to women. Bodily stuff, of course. And the reality of being in relationships in the reality of today’s world – yes, that all needs its place.
Very often people say something to me about mums, and I reply just gently replacing the word with parents instead. Shops that sell baby clothes and paraphernalia being called Mothercare – why? These are the things that I’m taking about, the instances where the word could easily be replaced by parents.
So as we head towards 2022, and wave 2021 bye bye, if you’re looking for the easiest New Years resolution ever, simply challenge yourself to stop saying “mums” if you could say “parents” instead. It’s a small thing, but it’s important. Parenting is a huge part of our world, and it’s one where gender inequality is at its most palpable. We can all change that a little bit. #takeithome
Ok in reality I see men in the playground all the time. In fact, on Saturday and Sundays, I often see so many dads in the playground with their little ones that I wonder if my work here is done – what am I even writing about this stuff for? We’ve done it!
That is until I remember alllll of the other things. All the rest of what I see around me. Women overburdened by childcare responsibilities combined with their paying jobs. Women overburdened with the running of their households. And the fact that what I see at the weekends may actually be the piece of relief that they are given, rather than the norm. It may present quite an illusory image to the outside world of the usual running of that family.
Anyway, today, all joking aside, a man came into the playground on his own. As in, all on his own. He walked confidently into the playground. I thought maybe he was taking a shortcut through, until he hopped up onto a broad sort of see-saw thing, and while facing towards my girl, commented on the weather.
I felt my brain leaping to associations. A man in the playground. At the moment he had come in, so too had a woman with a little kid, through a different gate. It was possible that they were together, I told myself. How foolish of me to become quickly fearful of this guy when he’s probably a dad with his partner and kid. How ridiculous, in the context of someone who wants to fight for gender equality in parenting, to see a man here and to jump to silly conclusions.
I looked around to clock where Andrew was. He was outside the playground, in the park with the child who likes to go for long wanders, while I was with the child who’s keen to master all of the playground equipment. Sadly, this dude did not appear to be here with that other family either.
We have a choice of playgrounds around us. A wonderful, city park one. A fantastic one in a rather affluent area, where the toddler fashion at the weekend is out of this world. Today, due to our mornings plans, we were in the small playground in the rougher park near us.
It’s a park in which I regularly see people likely dealing drugs, and the odd few people drinking on park benches. But that doesn’t matter when you’re there for the play. In the playground, while the fashion may not be to die for, the people there are just good folks caring for their kids.
I was now getting worried about this guy. Clear now that he was not with any child, bouncing stood up on the see-saw, just hanging out in the playground by himself. My little compartmentalist brain moved things into the “officially not happy about this” box. He didn’t look like he was drunk or coming up or coming down or manic or any of those things. He seemed quite calm. But whatever this guy’s deal was, hanging out as an adult alone in a playground is something that it’s ok to not be ok with.
So I bristled and started to look at this chap in a way that I felt did not mask my displeasure at his idle presence. I felt myself, again, looking to identify Andrew’s location. I started to imagine, as you do, now that I had initiated alert and protect mode, what I would do if this dude was to make one wrong move.
A first idea that I had was that I could call Andrew over swiftly. Andrew is a big man, and in an utterly superficial way, that can have a quick impact. If this guy, to hyperbolise the situation entirely, was here to prey upon a child alone with only her mother, the appearance of a great big dad would likely draw short shrift to the power that he imagined himself likely to have.
Then I thought better of that idea. I felt it in myself that that was a lazy option, made available today because Andrew happened to be here, which is not always the case. It wasn’t good enough. I may not have the superficial advantages of Andrew’s gender and size, but I am perfectly capable of getting this guy to fuck right off should I need to. I refocused in on what I would do, if this guy took one step out of turn.
It might be a controversial opinion. It’s a tricky one, because of course women are often victimised. The power of oppression should never be underestimated. But I am not oppressed and I have never felt oppressed for being female. When it is the case that there is no oppressing force I believe that it is possible for women to shake off an illusion of weakness and step into their strength.
I listened to a podcast not so long ago debating the issue of transgender people participating in sports and the gender categorisation. It’s an interesting and challenging topic. On the one hand, transgender women are women. On the other hand is the idea that women’s sport, at a moment when it is only beginning to rise, would suffer when transgender women were allowed to participate.
It’s not an easy one to answer and the experts involved have spent years analysing the various factors. In the summary that I heard the one thing that I felt was not explored enough was the psychological impact on an expression of strength that growing up as female could have.
Could it be that growing up as female, and constantly told that we are the weaker sex, puts limits on the strength that we then reach? When I think of some female athletes specifically it is hard to imagine that this could be the case. It would probably be heinously insulting to them to suggest it. I just wonder what that lifetime of being told of certain limits really does.
Back in the playground and imagining scenarios playing out. I would stress that this was not the same as being all alone in a dark place. This was the daytime and with some other families around. If this guy had said something sinister, and I had reacted by calling Andrew over, I would have been the victim. In the new turn of events, having beckoned a man, I would now have been waiting for a number of moments for him to arrive while I what? Although with some upper hand, I would have been weakened in status while I waited for him to arrive. And god forbid he should not hear or should misunderstand me!
And what about the next time? No, I knew that in the moment I had to strap that mantel on and be the one to protect my children. I didn’t know what I was going to say or how I was going to say it, but I knew that I would make it very clear that I was not someone to fuck with. Because that’s who I would have to be for my girls.
There’s a lot of talk these days about the phenomenon, experienced by many women, of losing their identity after having a baby. Women lose their sense of who they are.
We understand this because, of course, having a baby brings massive changes to our lives. But what do we really mean by this thing of losing identity? What actually causes this to happen, and should we be so acceptant of it as par for course of becoming a mother?
When I was three years old and went to playschool for the first time, the school were surprised to report that I was pretty familiar with my numbers already. My family wracked their brains as to where I could have got this from? Until they realised that, oh, it must be from my exposure to their poker games.
What I’m trying to say is that I’m a bit of a gambler. And when I was approaching my maternity leave, I took the risky decision to completely separate myself from work. There are a lot of specifics that put me in a position to be able to do so. That said, all in, I knew that it was a bit of a risk and a bit of a gamble.
I wanted, after 15 years of dedicated full time working, to see who I would be when I did take that step away. I was very aware of the vital role to my self esteem that work plays for me. But it happened to be a good time for me, mentally, to take that bit of a gamble. In other words, I approached maternity leave like a sabbatical. Which is really, by the way, not what it is meant for.
Being a bit older, I had a good understanding of myself, and was able to plan some mitigations against the risk. I committed to doing some charity related work, which I thought would give me some mental focus. And I dusted off some old creative hobbies.
Sod the washing up or, heaven forfend, the hoovering! If two babies were miraculously asleep at once, I was going to snatch that twenty minutes to work on something of my own. So I contributed to the bit of work, I painted, I wrote, and to be honest when the girls were awake I read if I could with some of those projects still in mind.
These things helped to preserve my mental health. It didn’t require a huge amount. I might be caring for my babies for 11 hours of the day without a break at times. But the time snatched in the evening, and being able to think about that project throughout the day, even while my hands were full, meant the world to me.
I managed to get out for a meal with a friend one evening, when the girls were maybe 7 months old, and lockdown restrictions were eased. The waiter complimented my ordering skills and I cried. One thing I hadn’t banked on through this entire experience was my need for positive reinforcement!
Generally speaking it is often the case that a woman goes from working full time in her productive job to nothing. Busy, of course, with her new baby, but nothing wanted of her outside of that. A void of space presented to her, apparently to help her to adjust to her new life. Of being a mum, and completely unseen. Is it any wonder that this change can hit hard.
Post-partum depression does not effect the same numbers of women or men equally from country to country. There are discernible trends to be observed that see higher proportions of people suffering with post-partum mental health issues in some countries over others. This is not a necessary biproduct of having a baby. This is societal and it is cultural.
May I have a drum roll please for one of the countries that has the lowest recorded rates of post-partum depression among new mothers and it is… badumdumdumdumdumdum…. The Netherlands!
What I read about the Netherlands is that there is often more involvement from grandparents in the daily lives of new parents. And, moreover in my opinion, more involvement of dads. It seems that there, the expectancy is not for women to drop entirely out of the workforce in her maternity, but for her to work reduced hours, perhaps, while her baby’s father does the same.
It doesn’t have to be for everyone. I know, I hear you, women who are much more sensible than I am and who don’t hinge their well-being on these external outputs. Some women can and of course should remain perfectly happy to take to the full time parenting role. As might many men.
What might it look like in our society to say, when little ones come into the world, that we expect and prepare for any parent to switch to a reduced hour working week for a time. That when a woman or a man, equally, when a baby is born, will work less hours in order to care for their infant.
When a woman has a baby we tell her that it’s ok for her to be gone. Essentially, that we really don’t need her. We’ll get on just fine. It’s all well meaning, in the main.
Well, why not say that the same applies for all? For all, we will expect a reduced presence at work. If we are willing to so easily accept that 100% of a woman’s time can be let off unmissed, can’t we by the same token say that 50% of each a woman and a mans time could be thought of in the same way? It doesn’t sound so radical to me.
I’ve been thinking a lot about introversion. This week I’ve been thinking about introversion in the context of work. I’ve been going through some performance review stuff, and been realising a lot about how being an introvert as a professional can contribute to how your work is understood.
Introversion might mean different things to different people. To me, the defining thing about being an introvert is that I don’t need to share. When I’m going through something, good or bad, I don’t need to communicate about it. In fact, I rather not. I am incentivised to communicate when I want to teach, to share a learning. In the moment, I’d rather work things through in a quiet way.
The default expectation in work, I guess in many places, is to be extroverted. Coming across a problem, then communicating it and working it through with your boss, will give them visibility of the challenge that you’re overcoming, and also get them more invested in your success. While if you quietly deal with a problem independently, and even take it in your stride, your boss may never know the quality of your work at all.
Does this impact women more than men? I don’t know. But I would say that your position in the company makes a big difference. Lets take a personal example. Imagine I am dealing with something, say, the psychological and physical toll of a miscarried pregnancy. My preference may be to continue to work, enjoying the satisfaction of being productive, while getting through a tough patch.
Another person might need to take some time off. This will disrupt their work. And that will create further turmoil for them, but they have to take that time to heal. Then they’re returning to work with a pile of catch up to do on top of their continued recovery.
Different people need different things and everybody should be entitled to do what’s needed to look after their well-being. In the second scenario, the boss is being informed, the boss is feeling every ounce of sympathy, and supporting and celebrating the persons return, catch up efforts and recovery.
In the first, they are not. Maybe because they didn’t know that anything was going on at all. But here’s the thing. Even if they did, even if I did tell them what I’d been dealing with, how seriously would they take it? Coming from the CEO, it would get some credit. Speaking to a large and hushed audience, the power that she took to get through her turmoil would resonate and impress. You may not expect to see such power in the ranks below you. When someone deals with something in an introverted way, you may not recognise the strength that it took to do so or give due respect to the weight of the challenge that they had.
Every day in work brings challenges, of a bigger and smaller scale. The power and the quality that it takes to navigate them may be completely underestimated in an introvert.
I think a lot about what it means to be an introvert as a mum. Firstly and mainly because it hit me quite abruptly, when I first became a parent, that the assumption is that mums should be extroverted.
Because there is still so much that is unknown about women’s bodies, pregnancy, birth, post natal hormones, and baby care, the best source of information for new mothers is often other women. Great for the extrovert who anyway wants to work through their challenges out loud, in company of others, and is eager to line up those networks. Much tougher for the introvert.
Looking after babies, with the way things are these days, can be terribly lonely. On the flip side, it can also be a lot. It is a lot of person to person care and attention. How the baby (or babies) sleep can be the difference between little and no alone time.
What is the most commonly tossed about piece of advice for women who are in the thick of it with parenting and are in need of some reprieve? That’s right, “why not go and meet some other mums.” For an introvert that might as well read “you’re exhausted, why not get out there and stretch yourself even further”. Introverts can be power houses. If what they need is 3 hours to themselves, to read, to rest, to meditate or to work, then please let’s let them have it.
Looking after children in itself would seem to be an extroverted occupation. But why? Look, certainly I know that when interviewing for a nanny for their kids that I am the last person anyone would expect to meet. I also wouldn’t say that childcare is my vocation. So vocationally, maybe working with babies and kids is more something for the extroverts? I don’t know, probably not. But I am certainly sure that being an introvert as a parent is no bad thing.
When my babies were first born, I was often hit by the question of what on earth was I supposed to be doing with them? A common feeling, I believe, for many first time parents. The trouble is, once you start asking that question to the world, to the internet, to other parents, you can quickly come to the conclusion that what you should be doing with them is EVERYTHING. You should be singing, and dancing, you should be reading to them, and taking them out for experiences. You care so much for these little ones, and any sign that you might not be doing what’s best for them – another baby has learned something they haven’t, for example – and panic can set in. You should be doing more.
I’ll use an analogy of travel. We all know that friend who, when on holiday, has a big long list of sites and attractions that they want to see til the entire trip is nothing but stressfully dashing from one location to another. The greatest holiday companion I’ve ever had, yes, planned the trip out to the minute, but where the planning involving a lot of time. Time to sit, to drink coffee and people-watch, to take in and absorb the area. Half a day in the Lower East End, taking in one museum. Half a day in the Village, taking in a gig. Time, most importantly, to enjoy the atmosphere of this incredible city.
An introvert, and every person, needs to find the natural rhythm that gives them strength. Singing and dancing all day long is wonderful when that’s your natural energy and meets your need to communicate. There is also value in quiet. In fact, while an extrovert sings and dances they might do so absent mindedly, which leaves room for other thoughts, both for them and their companion. An introvert’s song could be so thoughtful it would simply take up too much space if it continued longer than it should. The worst thing anyone can do, any parent can do, is set themselves up trying to be something they are not.
Being an introvert is by no means better, but it is equally wonderful and should be celebrated in it’s way, and for it’s own quality. You may be assuming a lot about your child if you think they would do better, or would prefer, you to be an extroverted parent. Sing when you want to sing. Dance when you want to dance. Listen when you want to listen. Work when you need to work.
Introverts at work shouldn’t need to change their style. They should be met half way by a company that becomes better at recognising them. And introverts that are parents shouldn’t feel the need to be anything other than themselves either.
As a teenager I used to have tremendous moods. Fuelled by who knew what biological currents and changes, I would always rationalise them. There could have been nothing worse, nothing more insulting to me then, than while deep in misery about the futility of human effort, to be told that I was “just hormonal”. I would succumb to dwelling on the idea that death would come to us all, and would rancour at any trite appeasements. One day, in such a mood, I distinctly remember a friend pointing out that that I was grumpy. I didn’t really care for that description either.
This contrasts somewhat with the middle aged self that I find myself today. The hormones of fertility continue to swosh away in a woman’s body, and never more so, I suspect, then after having a child. Throughout my thirties I’ve dealt with infertility and hormone treatments, or even been in the extraordinary situation that I find myself in today… For all of this, with lots going on on a psychological and emotional level, things that could even be considered matters of life and death, I would now often describe myself as feeling a bit grumpy. Maybe I’ve gone too far the other way.
The experience of having children made me realise just how out of touch with my physical body I am. I only have to look at breastfeeding as an example. Attending pre-natal courses, it was a genuine revelation to suddenly think about the functionality of these boobs that had been a part of my body for decades already. What did I think they were for til now – honestly, had I really been seeing them, part of my own body, for their sexual attractiveness?! Had objectification of myself taken that deep a hold on my own psyche? Well, it would appear so.
It was in the immediate post partum stage that it hit me for the first time in my life, beyond any possible doubt, just how powerful hormones can be. Of course it was difficult to separate out all of the factors of what was happening. I didn’t sleep for three days while we coaxed the girls to be born, after which I never resumed any previous sleeping pattern. I had the unbelievably profound experience of expecting to meet two little babies who would become my daughters only to discover that I would meet two actual people, fully already my daughters and in immediate need of functioning parents.
I loved them beyond belief. Looking at them, peaceful and content, filled my heart to bursting to the point that I could cry for the fleetingness of the moment. Seeing them crying or distressed would stress me to the core til whatever it was could be resolved. I had no small doubt that hormones were playing a substantial role in making me feel those ways – that was, after all, exactly how you would want me to feel in the interest of keeping those children alive. So what if it was hormones that were helping me to feel this way? If it was, I realised, it didn’t matter, it didn’t make my feelings any less real. Those hormones that were making me feel happy were not separate to me any more than what my eyes can see or my brain can process. It was all a part of the whole that makes up me.
Remembering growing up, as a teenager in Ireland in the 90’s, it seems that we were taught very little indeed about our hormones. Testosterone was the main one that we knew about. That was the boy hormone, the one that made boys do stupid things, in essence, like fight or be a bit sexually aggressive. An excuse for the boys, “the poor things sure they can’t help themselves”, and a warning to the girls, “watch what you do, ‘cos they can’t be trusted to control themselves”. And yes, I am still talking about the 90s.
The nuns didn’t tell us girls much about ourselves having any sexual appetite at all. Nor, for that matter, did the American tv shows that we absorbed so religiously. Even while we thought we were seeing depictions of young women taking control of their own sex lives, it was still one of two things. Either you gave away your sex to the boys freely, in which case you were a slut, or you gave away your sex to boys after they had dutifully passed a number of tests and proven their worthiness as a boyfriend.
The latter was concerning to a cynic like me, when those tests could so easily be manipulated by a fellow who had a notion to. And sure wasn’t that what we saw in these shows time and time again, girls who were tricked into thinking they had a well meaning fella, when in fact he was “only after one thing”. Missing were the girls who had their own sexual appetites and desires to tend to, who’s actions were driven by their own wants, rather than a complex decision making process to determine a boy’s worthiness to be granted access. Nope, even when a girl was shown to be taking ownership of her sex life, it was as the custodian of a coveted thing, the object of her sex, rather than out of managing her own desires.
Teenage hormones were certainly spoken about, but it was largely as a thing to be blamed or to be feared. An enemy of some kind to ourselves. These hormones would take over our beings and make us crazy. They would make us irrational, make us say things we didn’t mean, do things we didn’t really want to. We didn’t understand what they were, or how to manage them. But just knew that they were a looming threat to ourselves.
It’s no wonder, I don’t think, independent and defensive as I’ve always been, that I quickly wanted to distance myself from any notion of hormonal influence. Throughout my adolescence I was keen to assert myself as a rational and intelligent person, not someone who was privy to the whims and irrationalities of hormonal fluctuations. Some women have been much better at being in touch with their hormonal cycles, much more aware of how their moods are impacted over the course of a month. It’s always baffled me, and to some extent annoyed me.
Annoyed me, as it still would today, when a woman would blithely refer to some mistake she made and try to brush it away, she was just “PMSing”. How dare she bring discredit to all other women in that way. Her PMS hormones may have impacted her in some ways, but they mustn’t be an excuse, just as testosterone is no excuse for a man to commit sexual assault.
Use hormones as a way to wash away past blunders, and you discredit anyone else who might be imagined to be impacted by those hormones too. When I was pregnant, I was glad that most of my professional interactions were held over video. Close colleagues were not aware that I was expecting until close to the time that I went out on leave. I was glad because I wouldn’t be dismissed based on the fact that I was going to be taking leave soon, and glad that there could be no notion that I was somehow underperforming, somehow rendered unreliable, because of some bullshit notion of “baby brain”.
The startling realisation that I had with having my daughters, is that there is no state of being sober, as I had somehow always imagined, in relation to hormones. Hormones are constantly coarsing through our bodies, guiding us, together with our knowledge and experience, on when to eat, when to be scared, when to be affectionate. The balance of those hormones fluctuates, and will make us feel differently. But there is no sober, neutral state.
I have been trying to get to know my physical self a bit better. I’ve become a fan of Maisie Hill. I’ve started reading Period Power, and love the concept of empowerment through self knowledge. Friends of mine have been terrified to stop breastfeeding, afraid of the hormonal crash that can arrive once you do. It’s good that they know about it, that is at least something, since no medical professional ever mentioned it to me, but not good to be so scared about the impact that your own body will have on you. Knowledge is power, and the more we understand our own bodies the more we can work with them.
So I’ve been tracking my moods, building up some data, to be able to gain some insights into how changing hormones impact me. Until around July, when I realised, through busyness with work and life I suppose, that I had completely lost track. Ashamed and egged on to do better, I bought myself a little calendar, that now sits to the right of my computer, to be filled in daily with my moods so that I build a better knowledge and understanding of my cycle. I have yet to start filling in the days.
Before becoming pregnant with my girls we had six years of infertility. Starting out trying naturally, and being crushingly disappointed every time a cycle came full circle, no baby conceived, once again. To moving on to having fertility treatments, and all the effort of weeks and months of regimented drug intake – put into my body in every way imaginable – and the devastation at a failed round of IVF.
With this history behind us, you cannot begin to imagine the surprise we felt, when the girls were 17 months old, to discover that we had spontaneously conceived for the first time in our lives. We got excited, if a little bit scared. How wonderful it would be to have three children. Imagine them telling us about their lives when visiting us on a Sunday in 25 years time. How great for each of the girls to have another person to bounce off and share their childhoods with. The family band would really come together!
We would have two two year olds, and a little baby. It would be hard, and not something we were planning for. But it would be lovely to get to have a little baby once again. And (assuming it was just one) I would get to do some of the things I couldn’t before – I could wear the baby about in a sling, move from one room to the next with it on me, without it being a big operational undertaking. Maybe I would breastfeed more successfully. We have, after all, already done the hard work of establishing a family routine.
Other emotions quickly set in too. Namely worry and guilt. We are in the particular position to know that our embryos generally don’t make it longer than three days, so how was this little foetus even surviving. The reality struck that it likely wasn’t going to survive. Or what if it did and it was sick? Better for it to end sooner than later, better not to draw out any pain.
There was also the tiredness. When I was eventually pregnant with the girls nothing about that pregnancy was a problem. I greeted every pain and inconvenience with utter glee, I was so thrilled to finally be starting my family. With this surprise pregnancy I was feeling exhausted and it bothered me. Was this starting how it would go on? Would this child always be an inconvenience?
I booked an early scan – there was one egg sac (just one!) and it was in the right place. I booked another early scan, and unsurprisingly, the foetus was not developing well, and it’s heart beat did not look good. A third scan confirmed that the foetus had stopped growing, and there was no longer a heart beat. They call this a missed miscarriage, but in this case it feels like a misnomer – it wasn’t missed by me, as due to the circumstances (and realising that you can pay for extra scans when you have the finance), I had been checking in. I had seen it as it had played out.
Finding out that the baby you’re pregnant with is no longer alive is not nice whatever the circumstances. I’ve had some moments to cry and to grieve for the loss of what might have been. But I know that my circumstances are a million miles from the worst. We are so, so happy with the children that we have, and were not asking for any more right now, exciting as it might have been. Because we now know about our fertility situation, the fact that this baby didn’t grow is not a surprise, and there is no part of me that feels guilty about it’s not surviving. That is a unique situation. When we were longing to start our family, failed rounds of IVF were far more devastating than this situation has been.
I know that I am dealing alright with the facts of this situation. It’s a disappointment, but I know how to get past it. I’m able to plan. To picture my life in 6 months time – I won’t be taking leave from work, our family will consist of two parents and two wonderful, growing two year old daughters. What might we do?
What I’m finding much more challenging is the physical side of things. As much as miscarriage is a taboo in our society, which we are slowly but surely breaking down, I have rarely heard tell of the physical impact that miscarriage can have on a woman. This is probably, as in parenting itself, because we are so little aware of our bodies, and so little able to differentiate the physical impacts from the psychological.
I’ve started to learn that there are certain days in my cycle that I need to be aware of. Like day 11, 18 and 27 (I think, I’m really still only learning). These are days where it seems to be that either everyone that I come into contact with is utterly idiotic, or I have a particular balance of hormones that increases my stress levels. It’s good to be aware of this. Even if I’ve lost track of the days, by the time the second stupidest person on earth somehow happens to cross my path that morning, I might take a little pause and check – is it possible this is one of those days? Ok, so maybe I’m bringing something to the table here and I can look to master myself a bit better.
The last 6 weeks have felt like a non stop series of these days for me right now. My stress levels have been through the roof, I’ve been tired, had pain, been nauseous, unable to eat and drink as normal. Doing things feels like an effort, when normally I’d be glad to. There are certain days that I notice a “poor me” mentality in myself, a self pitying that’s accompanied by a tingling at the top of my eye balls, and I hate it. I love to detect it, so I can reign it right back in. That is not who I want to be.
The thing is, I know that I’m at peace with the facts of the situation. So I believe that the stress that I’m feeling is really coming from my physical state. I wish I’d started paying attention sooner, and wish I was stronger at working with myself. While the loss of a baby that could have been impacts both me and my husband equally, the physical phase of seeing this thing through to the end is for only me to deal with.
I feel that I am very lucky, in this situation, to be able to have some clarity over my feelings. If this had happened years ago, when I was longing for a baby and knew nothing about our fertility situation, it would have been a whole hell of a lot more complex and hard to come to terms with. When we don’t know anything about what’s happening with our physical selves, have no understanding of what emotions our physical bodies and hormones might be fuelling, it is impossible to isolate and deal well with those things.
When it comes to the practice of parenting, for those of us lucky enough to experience it, it is the same. Then we are also fuelled with emotions, though many of them wonderful and joyous, and we don’t know what’s our bodies and what’s not. So many assumptions may be made about the role of women in these situations. Women, or people with uteruses to be more precise, may have a different physical role to play when they are the ones who gestate the baby. But how much of that is what makes women so often become the primary carer? I would imagine that in truth it is very little.
Men and women alike can be rushed by oxytocin, the bonding hormone, when spending time with newborn little ones. Our lives today are not completely natural, they are massively full of culture. The homes we live in, the food we eat and prepare, the baby equipment that we choose to buy and bring into our homes, and the expectations that we have of ourselves and each other. All of this is cultural, and has nothing to do with the biology of being male or female. The trouble is that we know so little of how our own bodies work, that it all becomes so blurred and hard to understand.
When I was seven, eight years old, I spent my Saturday afternoons in the pub with my dad and his friends. My dad was well known, with a business that supported lots of others, and quite a distinctive personality and appearance. While these pubs were strictly child free, we were the exception. I was the single, only child allowed to be there.
I suppose it was an arrangement that worked for everyone. I can’t imagine the men would have wanted to deal with a high energy, talkative sort of child. That might have been a bit much of a disruption to their relaxing Saturday’s off. But I wasn’t that kind of child. I was most myself and happy when watchful and quiet. So it probably suited all of us just fine. I’ve always thought really fondly on those many afternoons, spent in the company of middle aged men.
As I remember them, we would sit around a table in the bar for hours and hours on end. The men would have pint after pint of Guinness, and I would be given coke after coke after sickly sweet coke, amused that they imagined that I needed to match them drink for drink. I suppose it goes to show that no amount of sugar was going to turn me in to a hyper kind of child.
The atmosphere was always quick and full of fun. The point of any conversation was to entertain. And I wasn’t left out from all of that. Maybe I presented an additional challenge of trying to keep the language clean, who knows. I recall scenes from children’s tv being enacted on my behalf, which must have been hilarious for everyone. I soon realised that their expectations of me, as a young girl, were so low that a little witticism well timed would gain a hearty and outsized reaction.
Hanging out in Dublin’s pubs is a joy that’s never left me. When I became an adult myself, or close enough, I could start to go with my own girl friends, and there the craic and the banter was still to be had. And now that I am approaching middle age myself, I again often find myself enjoying hanging out in the pub with a bunch of middle aged men. Long after the other women have had the better sense to head home, I’m often still hanging on, enjoying the pointless stories and jokes.
Throughout my life, I haven’t been completely oblivious to the expectations of what a girl or a woman is supposed to be like. I went along with my friends and took ballet and played with stickers, I enjoyed those things. At other times, the expectations haven’t felt like they related to me. It hasn’t concerned me. I generally just haven’t gotten involved, and found that that’s mostly been ok.
I suppose I grew up, influenced of course by my parents and older siblings, to believe that rules were there to be questioned. Never ones to instantly jump at what society suggested, but to hold the notion critically for a while, and consider what the choices really were. What will happen if I follow this rule, and what will happen if I don’t. I felt little pressure from them to conform majorly to any female stereotypes either. So this is the attitude that I’ve had about doing certain “girl” things. If I wasn’t interested, and it looked like nothing bad would happen if I didn’t get involved, I simply wouldn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, my choices have not always been sensible or at all protective of my well being. There was the time, for example, when my working in one of the seediest nightclubs around overlapped with the decision to go without a bra. I went weeks, becoming more and more uncomfortable, aware of people’s looks and reactions, while a sort of dumb defiance built up in me, before I eventually gave in.
Years later, in my late twenties I was happily working in a busy and fulfilling job. I would hit the road and meet with hotel managers and owners to consult and negotiate. Here I was, wouldn’t you know it, in the company of middle aged men once again. I soon realised that their expectations of me, as a young woman, were so low that a bit of well timed level talking and good business sense would gain an outsized response. I did well.
And now it’s time for me to make a sad admission. Instead of being annoyed that they would be so ready to dismiss young women, I think I prided myself on being a bit different. Not from other specific young women, because I knew lots of really great ones. But, from the generality of young women, as I too perceived them to be. I have fallen foul of that greatest of errors. I’ve been pleased with the responses I’ve gotten, I’ve been bolstered by the sense, that I’m not like other women.
So I guess this means, feminist that I’ve always considered myself to be, that I might be a bit sexist. The thing is, women are treated as a minority. And as such, any woman is somehow meant to represent all other women. Which puts us all in an impossible situation. How can I establish myself, in a way that will be best for my success, and support another woman while needing to be clear that she does not represent who I am?
I’ve always believed that women can do anything that men can do. I just may have failed sometimes, to be sensitive and respectful of the expectations that many women carry with them and all that they have to do in order to get to where they are, as they are. So you’re damn sure I’m celebrating all the good ones from now on (even those, yes, even those that are younger and more successful and better looking than me).
I lived my life up to my mid thirties certainly aware of the pressures of what it means to be a girl and a woman. There are times that I look back on with disbelief at what I thought was normal, like the conflict of wanting to be one of the boys while also wanting to be a sexual object to the boys, in my teens. But a lot of the time, and certainly as an adult, I’ve been able to step back and disassociate myself from them when I’ve wanted. Nothing bad has happened.
And then I became a mum. As a new parent, you look for advice on how to keep your little one healthy and happy. And you are greeted by a torrent of pressure, as a woman, to do so many things, and overall to behave in certain ways. Not all women are the same, so surely there are infinite individual ways for this parenting thing to be done. To read the advice out there, you wouldn’t think so. It’s a tough one to shrug off.
Now I find myself in lots of female only groups and communities. And I’m not different to these women after all. None of us are magic, we don’t have any mysterious parenting knowledge that shows us how to do things. We’re just here, somehow because of our gender, somehow the ones that are taking things on, and trying to figure it out.
The gender inequality in parenting is blatantly obvious. To be honest, how shocked I’ve been to discover it, only on becoming a parent myself, has caused me to have a good hard look at myself. How have I been so blind? Where has my head been at!
It’s also taken me down another avenue of questioning. Why aren’t more women speaking out and fighting about this? Why are more men and women not pushing for equality? It’s 2021. The push for gender equality is active and visible in every other arena. So why are we letting the inequality pervading parenting continue as it is?
The answer is definitely very complex. One aspect may be that while being really hard, parenting is also really great. Seeing a new little human coming into the world, arriving with their entire personhood, whole and intact, and housed in this little infant body, is incredible. Seeing them grow and learn and feel out the world around them is amazing. It teaches us in a whole new way about what it is to be human. And it brings to life the importance, for each of us, to look after each other.
Parenting is really hard. Parenting in isolation can be horrendously hard. But when the conditions are right, for some people, it can be a wonderful motivator. What more of a reminder that life is short can you ask for, then seeing your little ones change and grow before your very eyes. What more reason to become the person you want to be, then to do it for them, to be their role model. Then there’s the value of your time, which becomes so much more meaningful when you have so little of it to yourself. So, what are you going to do with it?
I’ve started to notice examples everywhere of amazing women, who shortly after having their child or children, do something epic. Like single handedly set up a new business, build it from the ground, and make it a success. Like dedicating their time to campaign for justice for a cause, and making a difference. Or solving a problem, creating a community or providing a service, to help others around them. The common theme? They’re generally fuelled by goodness, by the want to help people, to protect our earth’s resources, to make things better. That’s the power of what parenting can do. The work of caring for another teaches and constantly reminds you of the importance to care.
That is not to say that you have to be a parent to know how to care. There are lots and lots of people who are not parents and who do care. Amazing individuals who are motivated and driven to do incredible work in the world, and to make their slice of it better. Of course it is not at all necessary to be a parent to care and to act in the world with care. However, it is the gender division in parenting that is really harmful.
Parenting is largely seen as being part of the world of women. That world, despite being populated by half of all people, is pushed to the margins of society. While so many people are parents, incredibly, parenting is pushed to the margins right along with it.
We are now seeing more and more women taking positions of influence – in politics, in business, in the arts – hurray! Often with their ascension comes the expectation that they will do some good for women. With parenting generally considered a part of that world of women, they are often expected to do some good for parents and children. When a female politician moves up the ranks, we expect her to represent the concerns of parenting, childcare, maybe even education. To be fair that is often the thing that has motivated her to get to her position.
Historically these positions have all been held by men, many of whom are also parents. These men, though, have not been expected to bring the concerns of parenting to work with them. They’ve probably felt it unwelcome. The world of work and politics has been supposed to be separate from all that. Leave the wife at home to deal with the children, while we get together here to figure out the serious business of making money. Quite a separate thing altogether.
That’s the division that we are living with. Women are supposed to be primarily concerned with the home and the family, while men are supposed to be primarily concerned with providing for them. The more that dad is pushed to provide for the family, the less he may even know them. The less he may be connected to actually caring for them. The less he is thinking about caring as a fundamental necessity to the way we do business and run our countries.
Wouldn’t it be great to see all that goodness that I’m noticing around become part of the mainstream? Wouldn’t it be great to see women and men who care being the ones that drive us forwards.
But this all sounds like ancient history. Come on Liz, get real, it’s 2021, surely we’ve moved on from all that. Yes, it is 2021, and I live here in London, one of the biggest cities in the western world, in one of the most influential countries in the world. Can you even imagine a country like this being built on those sorts of foundations? Can you imagine what a leader of a country like this could look like, in a world where men are taught not to care in order to succeed – not to care about the people they lead, not even to care about whatever children they might happen to have fathered? What would that even look like?