Knowing our Hormones

Two young children wearing raincoats play on a colourful playground slide. Woman, front right, taking the selfie, smiling, wears a black fedora. Behind her a man with long hair and beard has hands on waist while looking over the children. It is a rainy day.
the weather turned to winter, so i bought a hat to embrace it (plus the girls are so sweet in their rain coats)

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.

Getting Carried Away

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.

#takeithome

The one about Breastfeeding

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!

Being a Female

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.

Burn the Monster

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

We Can’t Leave it Up to the Lesbians

I was born on the 15th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. They happened 52 years ago today, on the 28th of June 1969, following the funeral of Judy Garland in New York City, and the LGBTQIA community experienced a watershed movement towards activism.

We have had 52 years over which pride celebrations have been evolving into the rainbow festivals of colour that we know them as today. It is in this same time that feminist communities and activists have also been speaking out and taking a stand. Many of those feminists have also been gay and part of the LGBTQIA world to boot.

In writing about gender equality in parenting I generally refer to cis-gender, heterosexual parents. I write, mostly, about mums and dads. I am very much aware of all of the parents and families that this leaves out. But I do it on purpose.

Most families across the world include parents made up of one woman and one man. As the majority, it is us who are then responsible for setting the standards. As the majority, we can choose to continue doing things the way they have always been done, regardless of how absurd that may be. Or we can choose to call bullshit and to make things change.

Actually, being a member of the majority is a type of privilege. And I would say that it is the duty of those that count themselves a part of the majority, of those that are privileged, to speak out and challenge the status quo.

Nobody should have to explain their sexuality or their gender in the context of being a parent. When we carry forward the notions that women have to do mum things, and men have to do dad things, we are making things less inclusive.

The more we challenge things, the more we subvert the norms, the more we can normalise dads doing things that they may not have historically done. We can make dads be more present in the parenting scene. And by doing this, we are laying the ground for any parent, regardless of their sexuality or their gender to be as involved in parenting as they want, no explanation needed.

There’s another reason that I write about mums and dads. And that is this: when it comes to achieving this equality, we are talking about a delicate and a tender negotiation that has to happen between loved ones. These are discussions that need to happen between men and women in their homes. When it comes to getting over this part of the feminist struggle, we straight women can’t leave it up to the lesbians to fight for us anymore.

We have to #takeithome.

I Took Maternity Leave But At Least There Was Lockdown

Our daughters are now nearly 15 months old. They were born right as the UK was going into lockdown for the first time. Some time in mid March 2020, I left the office thinking I’d be going back in the next day. Then the message came through that women who were pregnant should stay at home. And when the girls were born, I started my year of maternity leave.

I was expecting to have this time away from the office and from work. Having two newborn babies, I was expecting that it would be challenging to get out of the house at all for the first three months. Then suddenly everybody in the world had to stay at home too. Concerts were cancelled, restaurants were closed. I wasn’t going anywhere, and neither was anybody else. In the whole world.

Taking the babies home in the uber and seeing how London had changed since lockdown had begun was a memorable experience

I should mention at some point here that I am not the easiest person. Some might say that I’m pedantic, persnickety, fastidious. I would probably quibble over the accuracy of those descriptions. I am a bit particular, and for that reason among others, when we’ve talked about having children, we’ve often imagined that Andrew, my other half, would take on more of the parenting responsibility.

Not so when it came to parental leave. I would take maternity leave, because that’s what women do. Andrew took the time that he could to be with us in the first few weeks, particularly as I was likely to be recovering from a c-section. After that he would return to work and I would take leave to care for the babies for the first year of their lives. It wasn’t up for discussion. I could get a maternity package, he could not. It was a done deal.

Introducing the babies to friends over zoom

I wasn’t complaining. A year away from work, being so privileged to be able to take a year away, seemed a great once in a life time opportunity. I expected it would be challenging. Work means a lot to me, a lot of my self esteem is wrapped up in my professional productivity, so I planned a bit around that and had a bit of charity work lined up. I tried to prepare myself a bit for the abrupt change that was about to turn my life inside out.

I understood that it was important to take some time to bond with the babies. And if I wanted to breastfeed, which I did, it would be important to be off work to do that too, at least at the beginning. I was aware of the professional impact that maternity leave can have. Stepping out for a year in your mid thirties is not the best way to climb the corporate ladder. What I hadn’t understood was what happens in that time at home.

Let me say that I loved my time away, falling deeply in love with my two little girls, and learning more things, both practical and profound, than I can ever remember learning in any single year before. I was keenly aware that while others struggled to stay in their homes, I lived in a perfect terraced house with it’s own small yard. While others were lonely and at a loss for things to do, I had my two new favourite people with me all of the time and I was busier than ever. I have counted myself very fortunate indeed.

Two sleeping babies was always cause for a smile

It helped, of course, that Andrew was never far away. Once he wrapped up his few weeks off, he was back to work but working from home. So he was with me and the babies right up until 9 and immediately from 5:30. And during the day between he could join us, give me a break when I needed one. Some people talk about this as a silver lining of the lockdown but I think it is much, much more than that. Him being more present than he otherwise would has helped to shape the foundations of our family dynamics.

While he was in the house, I was still the one caring for the babies throughout the day every day. Through this invested time I got to know my girls. What I hadn’t understood before, though, was how I would also get to know how to run the house around their care. I wore a watch at all times, and would refer to the time constantly, referring to their last feed, sleep and nappy change. I would know when it was crucial for clean bottles to be ready for an upcoming feed. I would constantly be thinking about where the various bits of kit were, to be ready for when needed next. And I got to know the girls’ sounds and signals, to be ready to respond. (This description omits mention of the daily mistakes that were made – you may assume that there were many of those too).

Even though he was in the house, it wasn’t possible for Andrew to learn everything at the same pace that I did. Not to mention that things would change so often, so that once he did learn something it would soon become outdated. Even I would struggle to listen to my droning voice as I gave him frequent updates on the changing nuances of their care. Blended with the constant chatter aimed at the girls, he would have been superhuman to keep track of the regular reports.

As I went back to work three months ago, Andrew dropped his hours to a three day working week, to spend two days caring for his daughters. In the run up to that we had what can only be considered a handover. I told him he had to wear a watch. And we spent a lot of time talking about laundry. After the first couple of training in days, he was absolutely exhausted.

When women are by default the ones taking leave to care for their babies, the work that they end up gaining the responsibility for is the work of domestic duty and the running of the home as well as for the care of the children. There is no reason for this work to belong to women rather than men. But once it does, and once that becomes the dynamic in the home, it is incredibly hard to change.

If men and women had equal parental leave, then this wouldn’t happen. And if it wasn’t possible for both parents to take leave together, wouldn’t it at least be wonderful to have some options? To have some discussion about who would be best suited to do what in the family and to plan the time accordingly?

Andrew and his two girls

Now I find I’m thinking a lot about two things. One is if I was returning to work without Andrew changing his work week and taking on more caring responsibilities, how would I ever be able to shift the balance? Now, finally, I understand how difficult it is for many mothers to return to work and balance all of that responsibility that they carry at home. Even though there is no good reason that it’s them that are the ones to carry it.

The second thing is how much worse would it have been if Andrew had not been working from home over that time. If he had been leaving the house at 7am and returning at 7 in the evening, like I know many front line workers have been even throughout the pandemic. In other words, if he had been absent through the girls’ entire waking day. I find it unimaginable and yet this is the norm that thousands of women have experienced for decades.

Now offices are starting to reopen and people are planning to start going back in for at least part of the working week. Meanwhile babies will continue to be born. I’m a bit frightened.

#takeithome