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.
Since returning to work from maternity leave I’ve been taking Fridays off. This generally means that I work pretty intensely from Monday through to Thursday. By the time Friday comes around, I’m ready to switch into a different mode. I’m ready to press pause on the many demands of my work, and focus my attention entirely on my little girls.
On Saturdays and Sundays Andrew and I will be parenting together. We’ll each be able to pop in and out, do some bits and bobs around the house, head out to meet with friends even, all while sharing the parenting between us. But Friday is my day, and after a busy week of work I lean into being nothing but a parent for a day. It wasn’t quite the same when I went from working in a full time job to all at once becoming a full time parent.
One thing that I never really grasped about babies was… just how much they need to be held! Having children for me has never been about having babies. It’s been about having kids, little people with their joys and sorrows, who’ll grow into adults as time goes by. But certainly, while I was pregnant, I dreamt of holding them. I imagined the pure bliss of the cuddles and snuggles and the realness of their little bodies in my arms. I just never realised how excruciating it could sometimes be.
It turns out that babies don’t want to be held in accordance with their parents’ schedules. In fact, sometimes, it seems it’s quite the opposite. I have never truly known the experience of being interrupted, continually, until my bundles of joy were in this world. I have never felt such desire to do the most mundane tasks. Bottles left abandoned, partially washed, would bob in agonising circles in my mind, when my excitement at completing just one task, any task, was dashed once again.
Pasted to the couch with a baby in my arms, thoughts would run through my mind of every other thing I could be doing at that time. I could be reading my book, and I could do that now, but I’ve left it on the other side of the room, just there, and out of reach. The TV remote is only just ever so tantalisingly out of reach of my hand. My phone might just, if I just reach over that way, but no – she makes it clear that I will not get away with moving that way. I’d hear something coming through the letter box and I’d know exactly what it was – something for them, of course, something I’m excited to set up for them. It falls to the ground, where it remains.
I’d see snippets of a whatsapp chat scrolling on my distant phone and catch the gist of the conversation. I’d think of a response which would turn out to be the wittiest thing I’ve ever come up with in my life. But the moment’s passing. Other comments are coming through. It won’t make sense any more by the time I’ve got my phone back in my hand. The moment will have gone.
To anyone looking in it would look the perfect picture of bliss. A happy mother holding her beautiful, healthy newborn. From the inside, it’s incredible what captivity can do to the mind. With arms full and decommissioned, thoughts of every other thing I could possibly be doing would invade me and fill me with urgency. Once released, once finally free to do whatever I should choose, the ridiculous thing is that I could easily have sat right back down in that very spot again.
When I was pregnant I was told, time and time again, “you’ll be busy!”. This didn’t concern me. I like to be busy. In the run up to their arrival, I was running at double speed, polishing and handing over things at work, and getting everything at home ready and organised. There was still plenty of organising to be doing with the girls now here. Yet I was going nowhere. Stuck to the couch, I was stopped in my tracks. It was not the sort of busy I’d been expecting.
I gained some important life skills in that time. I got better at stopping, remembering that what I was in the middle of doing or about to start, could wait. Remembering that I don’t get to choose to have a lovely snuggle in 15 minutes time, that that’s not how life works. Lovely snuggle is happening now, and I’d be fool not to soak it in. That she’ll never again be smaller than she is right now. And how unbelievable her little fingers, just so teeny tiny small, and so to just breath in this moment.
This is what you have to do, I’ve come to realise, when you’re in the role of carer. You need to put your own shit aside, and get right into the moment to be there with the person that you’re caring for. The only trouble with this is that having got yourself into that zone, a passing other, like say, a husband figure, will see your blissful calm and smile sweetly at you, and to himself, as he walks on by to go about his business. “Noooooooooo!!!” you might want to call, as you watch him get away. “I’m happy, but I could use a break!” “A wee would be nice!”. But you can’t raise your voice and your whispers will go unheard.
My urgency, in those moments, did become about little things, like looking at my phone, and sharing a joke with my friends. Larger than that, the change from being productive in a busy and fulfilling job, being self sufficient and in control of my life, my actions and the space I live in, was quite a drastic thing. Having a baby is challenging whatever way you look at it. But it’s when all the caring expectations fall to one person that it can become devastatingly hard. If the load was shared, if each person could have balance, the ability to split their time between caring for the baby and doing other important things, things could be very different.
I reflect a lot on why we don’t see more women speaking out for gender equality in parenting. One theory that I have is that we don’t want to be ungrateful, for what is, after all, the most wonderful gift. Becoming a parent is hard, and should not be taken on lightly. I waited 6 years for my family to start, and have been so incredibly grateful since that day when I finally learned I was going to have children. Having them in the world has been the greatest challenge and the most amazing, life affirming, fantastic thing I could ever imagine.
There is a separation though, between the wonderful thing of having children, and the broken system in which we are supposed to have them. Maybe there is a way that we can better enjoy the wonderful thing for all of its joy. Maybe having a baby doesn’t have to be torturous at all.
When I get an idea in my head I do tend to get a bit carried away with it. There’s a thing called confirmation bias, if you’ve heard of it, where you get a first idea in your head, and while researching to see if it is correct, you let everything reaffirm your original assumption. “I knew it, I knew it, I knew it!” I’m a wee bit prone.
If I was to allow myself to get a bit carried away, I could start to think that the gender inequality in parenting is at the route of all of the trouble with gender inequality that we have. I wouldn’t let myself get that carried away. But if I did, I can see how I might start connecting dots all over the place.
If I was to get a bit carried away, I could easily connect the gender pay gap, and the shortage of women in senior positions, to gender inequality in parenting. Well that one’s probably not that much of a stretch, to be honest. Clearly historically it is exactly the fact that women had their place, to raise the family and be at home, that has resulted in men ruling the world of work, the arts and politics.
Yet we don’t hear about it all that very much when we talk about gender inequality in work these days. Yes, often there is mention of how work needs to be more accommodating to the needs of those who are carers, therefore affording women who are (most often) carers the same chances as men who are (most often) not. But shouldn’t we talk about the fact that women are most often carers, more then men, in that very same discussion?
If I was to get a bit carried away, I might connect the objectification of women to gender inequality in parenting. When women have a role thrust upon them, I might think, which pins them to their home, they are effectively extracted from society more broadly. I really would never be carried away enough to believe that this was a deliberate consequence of the patriarchy as I don’t think “the patriarchy” could be all that intelligent.
Nevertheless, I could, if I was to get a wee bit carried away, see how the extraction of women from society, and even just a portion of women, could add to a general sense of their otherness. The otherness of women, which miraculously converts them to a minority, and some sort of outside thing. Not being present, the idea of what “they are” is allowed to become abstracted and warped to the point of vulgarity. “They are boobs.” “They are curves.” “They are sex.”
If I was to get a bit carried away, I could carry that thought through to the unsafety of women on the streets at night. Objectified, and made a rarity, they become something that can be preyed upon. By the few, of course, but the idea would still remain, that those few have a legitimate place in the night, while those women cannot.
If I was to get a bit carried away, I would connect the horrifying reality of domestic violence that so many women experience to gender inequality in parenting. Looking after a child or children, with no support from a partner also living in the home, could be depleting. If that partner also expected something for himself, and that something was to become no longer available, you can see how trouble could arise.
I’m getting carried away. I’m oversimplifying to the extreme. The reality is much, much more complex than this. But the thing is, I don’t know what to do about the fact that there is a community called incel. And I don’t know what to do about the fact of the atrocities happening to women’s rights in Afghanistan right now. I don’t know what to do about any of the awful impacts that gender inequality in our society have.
I’m privileged. I haven’t experienced a lot of discrimination or hardship in my life. But I recognise inequality when I do see it. And I think that by trying to impact this inequality, that I, in my privileged world, even though it might seem like it doesn’t really matter, like it’s only little small things, has an impact to the wider world. It’s together that we set the standard, so if only to shake that up a bit, it’s worth it for every family to give it a bit of a go.
That’s what I think. But I do tend to get a bit carried away.
But wait, sure how can you even talk about gender equality in parenting when… breastfeeding? Breastfeeding Liz! Ok, ok. It’s a spikey one, but let’s do it. Let’s talk about breastfeeding. (Deep breath).
First of all, isn’t it absolutely insane how little women are informed and educated about their own bodies? Andrew and I went to a group class about breastfeeding. There, the lot of us, all well educated, professional, well off adults in our 30s (or there about), were amazed by what we learned. There were diagrams and scientific explanations and it was incredible. Incredible to really think about the fact that a woman’s body can do this thing, can create food for her infant. Absolutely amazing.
But hang about because I studied biology at school, I learned about the human body and the basic things that it does. The production of food for an infant feels like a pretty basic and foundational bodily function, when you think about it, so why has that been left off any school curriculum?
While it was great to learn about the science, having been able to afford to go on the course, it was a bit startling to think about how little we knew otherwise. It’s the same of course with pregnancy, birth, and even just our hormonal cycles. Women are very poorly informed.
For all that we learned on the course, and through the subsequent reading and research that I did, nothing could have prepared me for how difficult learning to breastfeed was going to be. In my naivety, before having my babies, I still imagined that on some level breastfeeding would come naturally. It’s a natural bodily process, I imagined that something would click and I’d get it. Like taking a wee. It would just happen.
Breastfeeding is natural, but I have become so far removed from the nature of my physical body that it did not come naturally to me. The babies had a slightly better idea of what was going on, but trying to understand what I needed to do, what the babies meant with their movements and noises, what they needed me to do was totally maddening. I felt like a complete oaf, now responsible for the most precious things I’d ever seen in my life, and fumbling.
We were in the hospital with the girls for 5 days, the longest 5 days of my life. Over that time, the team of midwifes, nurses and doctors would be continually doing their rounds. I couldn’t keep track of who was who during this highly charged and crazed time. So for me it was different people popping in in a constant stream, doing their poking and their prodding, and asking their questions.
They would give me advice, of course, on breastfeeding. One after another of these busy professionals would pass on a piece of their wisdom. Hold her this way, or that way. Her mouth should look like this, my boob should look like that. I just couldn’t make sense of all these piecemeal bits of advice. I was trying to do this crucial, life providing task, in order, I felt, to keep my babies alive, and I was so confused and frustrated.
If it was learning to drive a car, it felt like being put behind the wheel on day one and out onto a busy motorway, with only the hollered advice of drivers in passing cars for support. “Hold the wheel like this!”. “Tap the breaks gently – that’s it!!”. I needed an instructor by my side.
There are supports available. You can hire a lactation consultant who will be that guide and coach and help you to learn this new mechanical skill, and help you with what to eat and drink to prepare your body better. It hadn’t occurred to me to hire one. Women are having babies all the time, I reasoned. In my naivety I imagined that the system, surely by now, would be in place to help us to succeed.
Our babies were tiny and we started using formula very early on. It’s difficult to refuse, when you’re advised that it is needed in order to sustain them. Especially difficult when you’re so brand new to everything, and the medics so much experienced. And anyway, why not?
While pregnant I had decided to give breastfeeding a go. I was sold on the benefits. They say that a woman’s breastmilk has nutrients that are not matched by anything else. Once you’re up and running, it can be easier in a practical way. Environmentally thinking it is definitely better than processed milk, packaged and shipped across the world. But I was prepared for it to fail, and to use formula should I need to, as I knew so many do.
But in the moment? Man oh man. It was a different thing. We quickly established a routine of combination feeding. I would directly breastfeed one baby, express for the other, and we would top up their feeds with formula. It all sounds perfectly fine. But in the moment, I felt like such a failure. I was embarrassed to be seen with bottles by other new parents. One time I overslept and woke up to find the girls had been brought downstairs by their daddy who was feeding them with formula. So great of him to take charge and to let me have the rest that I probably was in need of. I bawled in, crying, screaming and raging at him that I needed to keep up my milk supply.
I tried to increase my milk, to solely breastfeed for an entire weekend, to see if we could shift the balance. I gave the good latcher full access to my boobs, for feeding, for comfort, for whatever, in order to try to build it up. I learned in doing so that this was not the way for me.
Having twins your time is a bit more compromised. You can’t really give one baby full anything, as you need constantly to look after the other, too. So you have to, by rote, quickly learn when she is feeding and when she is comforting. It’s something I was very glad to have learned. A lot of the time people don’t know the difference, and it can mean that the boob becomes a pacifier to the child. Fine, of course, for anyone who that works for. Not so great for someone like me, someone who’s generally a bit less tactile and a bit more introverted, who might take umbrage to feeling like a human chew toy.
Breastfeeding is wonderful. Rates in the UK and Ireland are some of the lowest in the world and it would be great to see that improve, and with better knowledge and better support that could certainly happen. Formula is also great. It’s been developed by scientists to be the next best thing, and I feel very glad to be alive in a time when it is readily available.
Deciding to exclusively breastfeed is a big deal. When making the decision to do so, or finding themselves somehow on that path, there is so much to be considered. It means that the job of feeding, and sometimes comforting too, falls entirely to one person (unless both parents are in the lucky position to be able to do it). What would that mean for their mental health? How important is a full night’s sleep to that person, and their ability to function positively? And what might it mean for the dynamics of that family?
I didn’t exactly choose the method that we landed on of feeding. For one thing I had never even heard of combination feeding, no health professionals or breastfeeding advocates ever mentioned it to me. It’s one of those things that women just get to know about, and somehow I never had before. One thing that I was really glad of in the end was that Andrew was able to partake in feeding his babies. We had the option of him taking charge, while I got some sleep. And we benefitted from the bonding time that he managed to have.
If I had managed to exclusively breastfeed we would have needed to think about ways to mitigate for that family dynamic. We would have wanted to think about how we could get good balance, ensure that Andrew had good bonding time, when I would look after every feed. In our naivety we had never thought to do that either.
Someone who knows how to manage a blog would have likely shared this post during #worldbreastfeedingweek. As that’s clearly not me, it’s good that it’s still #nationalbreastfeedingmonth in the US, so that’s something, right? If you enjoyed this little read, please remember to like, share and follow!
I was lucky, growing up. School and that came pretty easy to me. Across the different subjects I could understand what was expected and how to achieve good results. Outside school I took on loads of extra curricular activities too, there was no stopping me. There too (barring some pronounced limitations of physical ability) I was able to do well. Music and art, maths and science, I got them.
I didn’t realise at the time, of course, that I was benefiting from a system that was essentially built for me. While I wasn’t quite a middle class white male living in a first world country, well, I was pretty much most of those things. I wasn’t simply good at things, as I might have felt at the time. I wasn’t especially talented or competent. I was good at the things that I was preconditioned and prepositioned to be good at. And I grew up within a system and structure that rewarded those things. I was very lucky indeed.
At school there were some choices to make. Like most Irish teenagers, I went to a single sex secondary school; all girls. There, there was the option of taking home-ec, or domestic science, through which I might have learned something about cooking and maintaining a home. I had absolutely no interest in that. I couldn’t see how those skills related to a successful life in the world that I could see around me. A world, in hindsight, populated primarily by men. But not to worry – “girls could do anything”, we were already being told in the 90’s. In Ireland we had a female president! As a woman, I could be successful in that world too.
Socially, I wasn’t quite so successful. I was never much of a talker, for starters. The best thing that could have happened to me was starting to work in jobs where talking to people was a requirement for success. Now, through talking, there was a clear objective to obtain – a sale to make or service to provide, a customer to make happy. It turned out that it wasn’t talking itself that was the problem, so much as knowing what I wanted to say. Outside of work though, I was still brutal at a party.
Moving from school to work the same sort of good luck gave me the ability to succeed. When you start out in a new job or a new company, you just have to figure out the system and the rules. There are usually some guidelines to follow. If you’re able to take it all in you can do well. Learning to drive, the same principals applied. If you got the right teacher, for example the outqualified Swedish teacher that got all your male mates through passing first time, you could do it too. And what do you know, you’re making your way in the world!
It’s probably this relative ease that I’d had the luck of experiencing through my life that made me arrogant at the idea of becoming a parent. Some of the jobs that I’ve had have been really hard! And I know that for certain because they’ve paid quite well. (I mean, surely in this fair old world we live in, pay is directly correlated to the difficulty of the job, right?)
Being a parent, on the other hand, couldn’t be all that hard. People from all walks of life have been doing it forever. I had to think that it was all pretty well worked out by now. And for someone who’d been getting on so well as I had, surely it would be a piece of cake. Oh what a surprise it has been to learn that I’ve been making the wrong choices all my life, for when it comes to being a successful mum.
In the first place, there has been a notable lack of guidelines in this induction process. I’m good at taking in rules and getting up to speed on expectations, but where are they? People have been doing this forever, surely there are some things that one simply should or shouldn’t do. I’m not an avid rule follower, but I like to know the rules, to understand the best way round them. So where are they? Where’s the bloody manual?
No such luck. No indeed, in fact it turns out that the best way to get any sort of decent information in all this is through, wouldn’t you know it, socialising. Through talking, through making friends, through finding the one’s that you can trust and building allieships. This is not what I’ve been training for.
Communities are strongest when they are not provided for by their governments. That’s when people need to come together, to unite, and provide support for one another. As a middle classed white person, it’s not something that I’d experienced before. How had I suddenly fallen into a category of the unsupported, of a minority? I was still the same person I’d been before. So what had changed? All of a sudden, I was categorically a woman.
In the first few months of parenting this came as quite the shock. Luckily for me, I found some resources to fall back on. In the face of the utter onslaught of impossible and contradictory advice that the internet provided, and that circulated through the mouths of friends and peers, I found that critical thinking skills, (probably accrued through years of successful education) became incredibly helpful.
Lucky as I am, I’ve been able to get through that initial period of shock. I didn’t realise that another big blow was still to come. But it did. Right around the time that my girls turned six months, I was served another shocker. I was going to have to cook.
When I was a young kid my dad shared with me his trusted method for cooking an egg, his one and only cooking ability. Now, in this very blog post, I am going to share this treasured family recipe with you, dear reader, so do, please, pay attention to this gift:
Crack an egg into a mug
Cover the mug with a small plate or saucer (this is an important technical detail)
Place in the microwave and heat for 50 seconds
Tip onto a piece of bread, Season to taste (cooking term), and Enjoy
It’s a great technique. And for the last 30 years, when I find myself on my own and peckish, I will turn to it. Simple and effective. However, the task of introducing my girls to a well rounded and nutritious diet was quite another thing. That egg recipe was not going to get me through this.
Ok, in truth, there are a lot of products easily available to help with weaning. But, I’d chosen a method of feeding that I wanted to go with, and it meant providing the babies with food of different shapes and textures. And this made it hard. All of the advice for this method of feeding recommends home cooking. From scratch. And there aren’t any products on the shelves that are suitable for feeding babies in this way. Or are there?
As far as I can tell, it all comes down to salt. Babies can try pretty much anything, but you have to be careful about salt. So why the hell is there so much salt in everything, I wanted to know. I never asked for my food to be so heavily salted, what is this all about?
I imagine there is an element of preservative in there, that salt keeps food for longer, making it possible to run a profitable line of perishable goods. But hang about. There is a health food revolution happening, and in a big population like London, it makes it possible to have those fresh and healthy foods available. I looked, I studied the meaning of the nutrition information, the ingredients. These healthy food ranges seemed fine, perfect, in fact, for a baby. And better, indeed, than the cooking of a complete novice who was likely to put her children off their food through bad cooking.
So why was no one referencing these types of food for healthy family feeding? Everywhere I looked, “ready meals” were deemed a no no. I asked some professional nutritionists about it, bravely, I thought, venturing the idea that these meals might be ok. With a degree of wariness, I was given advice about salt and sugar content, but advised for the most part to stick with cooking myself.
I do realise at this point that this post has now descended into a rant about cooking. It’s just that, it really doesn’t need to be this hard. With some clearer information about ingredients, some clearer guidelines on what’s suitable, you might not need to be both a mathematician and a scientist, on the go in the grocery shop, all while caring for needy infants. Things could be a lot more straight forward.
It’s just an example. An example of how parenting is somehow, despite being how the human race exists, treated as a minority situation. Pushed to the margins along with the women who are pushed there to manage it all. While the world continues to provide for the middle classed white man, who apparently shouldn’t be concerned with matters of the home.
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. Not at all, but it is the division that is 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?
You know yourself. Having two babies during a global pandemic, sure we’ve all been there.
Everybody is very kind to one another, considering each others’ experiences of this whole pandemic yoke. And rightly so. But when I am on the receiving end, “Oh it must have been tough for you – having the babies under those conditions” well, I can’t even pretend to have had it rough.
Don’t get me wrong. The circumstances have definitely been weird, and they’ve definitely made it really tough for others in similar situations. But for me, well, to be honest, those conditions have kind of suited me.
I’m an introvert (loud and proud) and having the pressures to socialise removed, during the intense and demanding period of caring for two young babies, has been a bit of a relief, to tell the truth. Gone was the pressure to go anywhere, the pressure to see anyone. No asks from anyone to visit the house were even made, which might have put me in a fluster. While I’ve missed seeing family, and more-so having family see my little girls as they’ve been changing every day, in truth it’s made things somewhat easier. For someone like me.
The other, fascinating, thing has been that all of the mixing that would normally have happened in person, over coffees, during baby and parent classes, has moved online. That means that for someone like me, introverted and also nosey, all of those conversations have become suddenly that much more accessible.
While I can imagine, had I been going along to different groups, that I might have hot tailed it back home rather than having to make after-class small talk, the chats have all been happening online. In a gargantuan effort to replace some of the much desired socialising and support that would normally be provided through these groups, (for someone less like me, that is), some amazing people have worked hard to replace these support networks on facebook and whatsapp and youtube and all sorts.
For a little bug-eyed lurker like me, it’s a bit of a dream come true. Without having to make the actual effort of joining in on conversations, I can have an auld read through them when I catch a moment. Oh – lovely! But wait now, how did such an antisocial cynic like me even get into these spaces, you ask. Well, to trace it back, it would have begun with the NCT group that we went to.
For anyone not in the UK, and more-so London, the NCT is the antenatal course that any middle classed couple sign up to attend. To learn about childcare and the birthing process, yessssss… but also, because since you’ve moved to London you’ve only made friends with work colleagues and unless you can convince them to both move to your borough and have a baby at the same time as you, it’s the best chance you have of making friends at the same stage living close by. (All this in the hope, of course – vain as it turns out – that they don’t all realise that their place is too small and decide to move to Walthomstow.) Duly, we signed up.
This is London. One of the biggest cities in the Western World. Metropolitan, cultured, progressive, international. The group did not let us down. The women and men that we met were from all around the world. They had fascinating careers, they were experienced, they had wonderful perspectives and ideologies. Most were entering this unknown parenting journey with an aim to parent equally.
When the instructor advised us to set up a mums only whatsapp group, in addition to the everybody one, we accepted her advice. She was our guide, we could only trust in her recommendation – after all, that was what we were there to do. (Partially). The women in the group were the ones that were pregnant. We were the ones that would give birth. It seemed to make some sense that we might need a separate platform to talk. “You’ll need it”, she said.
A few weeks later, birth announcements started to pop through in the main whatsapp group. Gorgeous, wonderful and so exciting. Everyone was involved. The announcements often came from the dads – over the moon, awestruck & completely smitten. Those who didn’t yet have theirs, shared in awe and wonder at the arrival of a new little person. Those who had, offered little snippets of wisdom. As a collective, we welcomed the little ones into the world.
And then….. nothing. Total silence.
But just in the everybody group, that is. Meanwhile the mums group struck into gear. Questions and requests for advice came flooding through. Some were about feeding, yes including breastfeeding, but when we’d had the class on breastfeeding the men were told to be really involved in all that too. And others were about sleeping, clothing, bedding, rashes, noises, gestures. All. Sorts.
Of course I was exactly the same as everyone else. The chat had moved over here, and here was where I went when I needed advice or reassurance. This was where the conversation was happening. I didn’t challenge it. I didn’t change it. Somehow, this was the way that it just happened. What I want to know is what was happening with all the dads during all this. No, genuinely, I want to know. Have you seen them? Because I haven’t heard a peep!
I can’t believe they weren’t involved in any of that stuff too; the sleeping, the clothing for the weather, the noises and gurgles and burbles. But somehow, for some reason, under the influence of some external force, the women picked up the mantel to be the ones to reach out and talk about it.
Let me confide in you that I have never been a “phone person”. I’ve never liked talking on the phone at all, and even texting doesn’t happen all that much. Luckily for me I have a group of friends from school who are somewhat similar. On occasion I have had moments of panic, thinking that I’m letting my friends down, that I’m not keeping in touch enough. Only to be reassured. They are just the same. We are simply not frequent communicators.
In fact, I used to say that we were quite “like boys” this way. Growing up, it seemed to be a girl thing, to be talking on the phone a lot, constantly sharing, confiding, updating. It just wasn’t something I was ever drawn to. And luckily, like, really very lucky on this one, I found some friends who were similar. By the grand age of 36, becoming a parent for the first time, I had accepted my proclivities without too much remorse. So it is clear to me that this picking up of texting, asking for advice and reassurance, was not coming from any innate femininity of mine. Nope. This was the following of a social order.
We’d been advised to set up a women’s only group, believing and accepting that we might need it to talk about things (embarrassing bodily things I guess?) that we wouldn’t want to discuss in front of the men. When it came to needing some advice, it was an easier space to turn to. It was a smaller group. Because of maternity leave for most, it was the group of people that would be bearing the majority of the caring responsibilities. Probably repeating the pattern of things that we were seeing outside of this group, talking amongst women seemed like the right thing to do.
From this group, I was introduced to more. Women kindly and generously added me to more groups. I went on and followed some breadcrumb trails of my own and added myself to others. I am interested, after all, in learning about what people do within this whole, mad, parenting thing. I want to get some insights. I want to do a good job. But on reflection, it is mums, mums, mummmmmmms.
Andrew hasn’t experienced the same pull. He is in some dad groups, yes, he is. Some of his friends have set up sub-groups, just for the dads among them, to have some special dad related chats. From what I gather they talk about tips on major purchases. Sometimes, at crisis point, they bring up a major problem. Overall, it is by no means the same sort of daily support that I find in these mums groups.
Seeing the continual questions, outside of your own, has an effect on you. When you see new topics and thoughts being raised, things that you mightn’t have thought of yourself, you take them on board too. Your own scope of concern broadens as you see these concerns being raised by your counterparts. I’ll say it again – I want to do a good job at this! So when I see something raised up, I think about it too. Aha, yes, maybe I should be thinking about what way baby’s teeth are going to grow based on the cup that they’re drinking from – why, of course I should!
At home, I can try to get Andrew as interested in all of this as I am now becoming. But I am just one person. I can’t equal the weight, regardless of my importance to him, of what he sees in the culture around him. I can try to tell him that lots of people care about the way a child’s teeth will grow and how it can be influenced, but if he’s not seeing anybody that cares about that in his world, then I really am just one voice. One voice that’s going against the current of what he’s seeing with his own eyes and ears.
And this, I might add, is coming from an environment of a good and healthy relationship. Honestly, when it comes to Andrew and I, I would assuredly say that we have a great relationship… we have a great relationship most of the time….. we have a great relationship a good bit of the time……. I feel confident that our relationship will stand up once we get through the madness of co-parenting our very young children. I can only imagine what things would be like within a relationship where things weren’t so amicable.
Surely we need to expect men to be as involved from the beginning as women are. We need to expect them to be a part of the conversation. Because funnily enough, when we cut them out, they get cut out. And when we cut them out, women get cut off, onto their own strange world of daily caring concerns, that men just don’t get a part of. Maybe we could worry less about exposing stories of cracked nipples, or better yet find some dedicated space to talk about just those things, while bringing men right back in to the parenting conversation.
Isn’t the internet great? It’s amazing, a wonder, we live in a revolution of communication that defines this time in history. We can share information and ideas with each other from anywhere across the world in an instant. As a race, we now have so much information at our fingertips. With all this combined wisdom and experience, just think how quickly we can progress.
Before I became a parent, I didn’t read much about parenting on the internet. Since becoming a parent, I’ve turned to the internet for information, desperate for quick answers and insights, like never before. We waited a long time to become parents, but that doesn’t mean that we spent that time doing our research. No, better for our mental health to focus on things that we already had in our lives. And after all, how hard could it be?
It’s really hard. I know, what a major break through statement. It’s really a wonder that no parent has ever mentioned it before come to think of it, but parenting is really hard! In those early weeks and months, we found ourselves, like all parents, in charge of these little humans that we loved more than anything we could imagine and at the same time that were more vulnerable than anything we’ve ever had responsibility for in our lives. On top of that, it turned out they were complicated and we had no idea what we were supposed to be doing. Immensely important, fragile, complex and clueless – it can be a bit of a stressful combination.
So I have turned, often, to the internet for advice. And I found it. I found all of it. All of the advice, mostly earnest and well meaning, mostly eager to share valuable learnings, and each piece completely contradictory to the next.
We have access to wisdom and knowledge from around the world, but the trouble is that that can add up and create this pressure to do it all. To be everything. To be more than perfect, embodying every bit of good thing that is meant to be best for your child. It’s impossible. Yet it exists, this phantom monster of a perfect mum – because of course, all of this is on mum – that nobody is but everybody strives for. And it’s crippling.
As parents we care so much and want so badly to do the best for our children. So when somebody says that something is definitely the best and the right thing to do, it’s not so easy to dismiss it out of hand. Women, together in their all female cohorts because of their mutual maternity leaves, may meet and talk. When they do, and when one shares some brilliant thing that she has done, that she has achieved with her little one, it’s hard not to feel a pang of worry, when you haven’t been doing this thing yourself. You hadn’t seen that piece of advice. Dear lord, you’ve been neglecting your child for months! Damn it, how could you have allowed yourself that one relaxed cup of tea three weeks ago – that was probably when you should have been on it.
Or maybe you’re a bit more cynical. A bit more arrogant, critical, and well… a little bit more like me. You still don’t want to say to your friend that the thing that she’s been investing her time into is worthless. That she’s been fooling herself. She is caring for a tiny infant with all of the intensity that that involves – let her have her moment of pride. So you congratulate her, while simultaneously panicking over your own potential neglect, and sourcing a good news story to share of your own. You find one, let’s keep the chat positive, and you share your snippet. (So then it’s her turn to panic).
I’ve often thought how lucky I’ve been not to have been a teenager during this hyper-perfectionist time. In the 90s and 00s the pressure that we experienced, to look and behave in certain ways, came from tv and magazines. As someone who never bought those magazines, (already too cynical), that pressure was plenty enough. Teenagers now seem to have so much more skill and self awareness, they manage their appearance and behaviour like we sloppies never did.
There is a phenomenon of people getting plastic surgery to look more like the instagram filtered versions of themselves. This feels worlds away from my reality. The phenomenon of women cutting themselves up to be the instagram filtered version of the mum they think they have to be feels a lot closer to home.
It is common to come across rhetoric about how every baby is different. This is often offered as an antidote to the onslaught of advice that pervades. Things that worked for one baby don’t necessarily work for another. Having two very different babies at once has given me my own insights into this and while I am most certainly not here to give parenting advice, with absolutely no desire nor qualifications to do so, I like this train of thinking.
I just wonder, at what point does being an individual with your own nuances and differences stop mattering? Every baby is different, and different approaches will work for different babies. Is there a point at which that baby is supposed to stop having their nuances respected? Is there a point when they’re supposed to row in with the rest and adapt to a world where there is a singular way of being? Maybe it’s when they become a mum.
You don’t hear a lot about how every parent is different. Exceptions, like Philippa Perry’s “The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read: (And Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did” stand out in glorious relief. She writes about, within parenting, recognising your own limitations. Aha! As a parent, you have limitations, and they need to be respected too. As parents we have to work, to do our best, with what we’ve got. A big part of what we’ve got is being the flawed and human people that we ourselves are. We should surely make the most of ourselves.
Trying to live up to the Monster Ideal Mum, that impossible phantom, can only be crippling. You might be capable of coming close, of taking on a hell of a lot, and trying to do it all. But how good can that be for a child if you’re making yourself uncomfortable? Surely the best thing for a child is seeing their wonderful, individual parent, being the best version of themselves that they can be. Or you might feel that the Monster Ideal Mum, that others seem to be capable of being, is so beyond you that you give up, decide that you can never even try to be a good parent at all. Sorry kid, what a shame.
There is no one type of woman. There is no one type of mum. There are no things that mum has to do instead of dad. It’s time for us to celebrate every type of parent for all their flawed, human individuality. If anyone wants to join me I’m off to start a joyful parade in which we’ll burn an effigy of Monster Ideal Mum down in flames for all to see. She’s impossible and the idea of her should no longer have a hold on parents in this world. See you there. #takeithome