So says

Mood

Yer man said something interesting the other day. You know the chap, the pope, they call him, isn’t it. Innit, I’m getting all London n all.

Well, that fella said that people are not having enough children these days for his liking. He said this is a great shame. He said this is a sign of cultural degradation in our world, that we’re weakening, that we can only handle relationships with puppies, but not little humans. Interesting stuff!

I can’t say that I’m privy to his particular spreadsheets. I don’t know what numbers exactly he is referring to when he’s expressing this concern. I can only presume that he’s speaking about what’s happening in the Christian world, wherever that is. So what is happening in the western world that could be behind this shift in proliferation?

In 1970 Germaine Greer wrote about the impossibility of being a mother in a society of nuclear family shaped households. She had a point. At that moment in time, in the western world, we had firmly settled into a way of living that meant that families, in the sense of parents and children, would live in defined spaces separated unto ourselves. Very much, you’ll observe, the way we still live today – young families live, for the most part, and by ideal, in their own home.

In 1970, as Ms. Greer all too well highlighted, women had a lot of problems. Once married, women were absolutely and definitively expected to play a particular role. In Ireland, at that time, women who married had to leave their jobs. By law, you see. So to marry at that time, which of course implied becoming a devoted mother, was to pin women right down to their domestic role.

But not anymore, you say. “All that has surely changed now!”, my own mother not so long ago commented to me. I grant you, Mam, that a lot has changed. In the western world, women have access to every opportunity that men do. There are real problems with harassment, with bias, with violence. But there are no longer any lawful barriers, and in theory it is all there for the taking. Great stuff!

Now that that’s solved, and women can have all the jobs, just remind me again of who exactly is doing the parenting of these proposed children? Speaking as a person that spent six years and unsurmounted effort to have children, and for whom it has really meant the world to do so, it is most certainly a choice that I wouldn’t recommend for anyone to take on lightly!

But you know what, forgive me, I must have missed something. While women were being “invited” into the world of work, clearly an eye was taken on all that they were managing before. Aha, clever legislation was put in place to support the shift of that work. Surely. I mean, otherwise it would make no sense, make no sense at all.

The states in the Christian world will have thought about good support for childcare. They will have thought about good facilitation, for bright and constructive people to be able to contribute, while raising physically and mentally well families. Surely.

Who’s taking care of these children you want us to have? With what time and what means?

Gender equality in parenting is only the start of it. It’s the part that a lot of us can play a part in. From there, a lot a lot a lot of legislation needs to change.

I’m someone who longed to have children, I fought really hard to make it happen and I fucking love it. But I have days, you know. Look, I can see how hard it can be. How much it can be. When I think about doing this alone?

Not all women are born mums. To the same extent that not all men are born dads. Well, now women have some of the same stature as men do, with our current system, it’s not a great wonder to me that fewer of us would choose to have babies.

#takeithome

Mum’s the word… that we need to stop bloody using

Like many couples that I know, Andrew and I headed towards parenthood with ideas and intentions of equality fairly well assumed. We have been equal in our relationship in every way up until now. Why would anything be different?

The first major challenge, of course, that we and many others faced is parental leave. I got some, Andrew did not. And so, naturally, being with the babies all day while he was not, I learned more about how to care for them and kept up with their changing needs.

The other challenge to equality in parenting that we faced is one that each and every one of us can influence in our daily lives. It is the pervading use, instead of the word parent, or carer, of the word mum.

I have come to hate the overuse of the term so much that I sometimes forget that I actually am this thing, a mum. When someone makes a comment about being a mum, and my scorpion brain reacts expecting them to be making a statement that could just be made about parents, I sometimes have to remind myself that it is true that I am a mum. Even if I might often prefer the word parent.

It’s about more than just a word. Groups are set up, often through WhatsApp or facebook. It might be that these groups get set up for a group of women that are on maternity leave. Or it might be that these groups are set up as general support for parents. Sticking the word mum on it, as so often is what happens, has an impact.

Stick the word mum on a group, and you are telling female parents that it is their responsibility to take on the bulk of the parenting work. Stick the word mum on it and you tell dads that they are not welcome.

Parenting, while of course wonderful and gratifying and awesome, is also really hard work. Made much much harder if living with a partner who is unable, somehow, to contribute to that work.

Loads of groups are set up, beautiful, creative, well intended groups, to help with just that – to help with the hardship that comes with parenting. And here again, so often, it is “mums”. Can’t we see that this is perpetuating the problem?

A lot of shops and businesses get set up with “mums” in the name. It is because, I’ve heard some say, that is what makes up 95% of their customers – it’s the simple fact. That may well be. But if they want to expand their business to a new and broadening group of involved dads, perhaps they should think about a rebrand!

In a heterosexual relationship, dads have their female partners to lean on. “I didn’t manage to pick up that thing today” they might say, “because that shop is just for mums”. Maybe said with a lazy shrug. Maybe said with genuine embarrassment. Either way, seeing the guy go into mumsworld would be much easier if it was called parentsworld.

If you think about a family with two dads, it becomes even clearer how overuse of the word mum is not only perpetuating gender inequality in parenting, but is also creating an exclusive culture. Are gay dads only supposed to talk to other gay dads about parenting? Or are they supposed to act as honourary women to get into the women’s group? Yikes.

No one should have to declare their sexuality in the context of expressing an interest in parenting. Any parent or carer that expresses an interest should be welcomed with open arms to get involved. Wouldn’t that be made all the easier if these spaces and places were named in a more gender neutral way.

It goes further again than those groups, networks and businesses. It is in everyday usage too. “We mums”, someone said to me in a work context recently, “we tend to take on everything.” (I’ve learned to tidy up my reactions quite quickly these days, over zoom barely perceptible at all.)

It’s true that we don’t ever hear about the plight of working dads. It’s all baked into our common assumptions that they are simply not as burdened with the child care as a working mum would be. These may be assumptions that, yes, we see played out before us very often. But when we continue to speak only about that visible majority, the minority is stifled and when it’s a minority that would benefit us all to see grow, then let’s give it a little air.

There are some things that truly do only pertain to women. Bodily stuff, of course. And the reality of being in relationships in the reality of today’s world – yes, that all needs its place.

Very often people say something to me about mums, and I reply just gently replacing the word with parents instead. Shops that sell baby clothes and paraphernalia being called Mothercare – why? These are the things that I’m taking about, the instances where the word could easily be replaced by parents.

So as we head towards 2022, and wave 2021 bye bye, if you’re looking for the easiest New Years resolution ever, simply challenge yourself to stop saying “mums” if you could say “parents” instead. It’s a small thing, but it’s important. Parenting is a huge part of our world, and it’s one where gender inequality is at its most palpable. We can all change that a little bit. #takeithome

There’s a man in the playground – oh, help!

Ok in reality I see men in the playground all the time. In fact, on Saturday and Sundays, I often see so many dads in the playground with their little ones that I wonder if my work here is done – what am I even writing about this stuff for? We’ve done it!

That is until I remember alllll of the other things. All the rest of what I see around me. Women overburdened by childcare responsibilities combined with their paying jobs. Women overburdened with the running of their households. And the fact that what I see at the weekends may actually be the piece of relief that they are given, rather than the norm. It may present quite an illusory image to the outside world of the usual running of that family.

Anyway, today, all joking aside, a man came into the playground on his own. As in, all on his own. He walked confidently into the playground. I thought maybe he was taking a shortcut through, until he hopped up onto a broad sort of see-saw thing, and while facing towards my girl, commented on the weather.

I felt my brain leaping to associations. A man in the playground. At the moment he had come in, so too had a woman with a little kid, through a different gate. It was possible that they were together, I told myself. How foolish of me to become quickly fearful of this guy when he’s probably a dad with his partner and kid. How ridiculous, in the context of someone who wants to fight for gender equality in parenting, to see a man here and to jump to silly conclusions.

I looked around to clock where Andrew was. He was outside the playground, in the park with the child who likes to go for long wanders, while I was with the child who’s keen to master all of the playground equipment. Sadly, this dude did not appear to be here with that other family either.

We have a choice of playgrounds around us. A wonderful, city park one. A fantastic one in a rather affluent area, where the toddler fashion at the weekend is out of this world. Today, due to our mornings plans, we were in the small playground in the rougher park near us.

It’s a park in which I regularly see people likely dealing drugs, and the odd few people drinking on park benches. But that doesn’t matter when you’re there for the play. In the playground, while the fashion may not be to die for, the people there are just good folks caring for their kids.

I was now getting worried about this guy. Clear now that he was not with any child, bouncing stood up on the see-saw, just hanging out in the playground by himself. My little compartmentalist brain moved things into the “officially not happy about this” box. He didn’t look like he was drunk or coming up or coming down or manic or any of those things. He seemed quite calm. But whatever this guy’s deal was, hanging out as an adult alone in a playground is something that it’s ok to not be ok with.

So I bristled and started to look at this chap in a way that I felt did not mask my displeasure at his idle presence. I felt myself, again, looking to identify Andrew’s location. I started to imagine, as you do, now that I had initiated alert and protect mode, what I would do if this dude was to make one wrong move.

A first idea that I had was that I could call Andrew over swiftly. Andrew is a big man, and in an utterly superficial way, that can have a quick impact. If this guy, to hyperbolise the situation entirely, was here to prey upon a child alone with only her mother, the appearance of a great big dad would likely draw short shrift to the power that he imagined himself likely to have.

Then I thought better of that idea. I felt it in myself that that was a lazy option, made available today because Andrew happened to be here, which is not always the case. It wasn’t good enough. I may not have the superficial advantages of Andrew’s gender and size, but I am perfectly capable of getting this guy to fuck right off should I need to. I refocused in on what I would do, if this guy took one step out of turn.

It might be a controversial opinion. It’s a tricky one, because of course women are often victimised. The power of oppression should never be underestimated. But I am not oppressed and I have never felt oppressed for being female. When it is the case that there is no oppressing force I believe that it is possible for women to shake off an illusion of weakness and step into their strength.

I listened to a podcast not so long ago debating the issue of transgender people participating in sports and the gender categorisation. It’s an interesting and challenging topic. On the one hand, transgender women are women. On the other hand is the idea that women’s sport, at a moment when it is only beginning to rise, would suffer when transgender women were allowed to participate.

It’s not an easy one to answer and the experts involved have spent years analysing the various factors. In the summary that I heard the one thing that I felt was not explored enough was the psychological impact on an expression of strength that growing up as female could have.

Could it be that growing up as female, and constantly told that we are the weaker sex, puts limits on the strength that we then reach? When I think of some female athletes specifically it is hard to imagine that this could be the case. It would probably be heinously insulting to them to suggest it. I just wonder what that lifetime of being told of certain limits really does.

Back in the playground and imagining scenarios playing out. I would stress that this was not the same as being all alone in a dark place. This was the daytime and with some other families around. If this guy had said something sinister, and I had reacted by calling Andrew over, I would have been the victim. In the new turn of events, having beckoned a man, I would now have been waiting for a number of moments for him to arrive while I what? Although with some upper hand, I would have been weakened in status while I waited for him to arrive. And god forbid he should not hear or should misunderstand me!

And what about the next time? No, I knew that in the moment I had to strap that mantel on and be the one to protect my children. I didn’t know what I was going to say or how I was going to say it, but I knew that I would make it very clear that I was not someone to fuck with. Because that’s who I would have to be for my girls.

Selfish

I often write here about how different our two little girls are and have been from day dot. It’s been such an incredible joy and a gift to pay witness to.

One of the best examples is in how they sleep. Oh, babies and sleep. How babies sleep or don’t sleep can be the crux of the pain of early parenting. And we have been treated to two very different little types of sleepers.

One of our girls has pretty much always put herself down for naps and bedtime all by herself. At some point, early on, she decided that 7pm was bedtime. A belted cry and we were told, it’s time to put her to bed. And once we did, provided she had her bunny, she would settle herself down for the night. I know, right.

The other has been quite a different story. The only way she has ever slept, for a nap or for the night, has either been in motion in the buggy or in her parent’s arms. At 19 months and counting, this is still the way it is.

A small note here that sleep, and sleep routines, is an area where advice is very often sought and very often doled out. This blog is absolutely not about giving any parenting advice, as I am absolutely no expert, and I realise that I expose myself to judgement in sharing how we do, but hey ho. Judge away if you like.

This is just the state of play as we have found it. We have one fantastic sleeper, and one child who simply loves company so much that she can’t bear to drift off to the land of nod without generous accompaniment.

I have asked myself whether it is wrong to treat them differently, and have concluded that since I very much want them to be their own individuals that it is not. So we are now in a phase where we gently steer the one towards bed, while the other stays up a for a bit longer. It works pretty well for us.

Then tonight, oh betrayal of betrayals, the sleeper wouldn’t sleep. Normally quick to get into the idea and settle herself down, she most unusually wasn’t having it. She was a bit wired, she wanted to play, she insisted on company.

It’s moments like these that serve as a good reminder of just how much we take her easy behaviour for granted. We’ve come to terms with one bad sleeper, but two at once and we’re thrown right out. She’s due a couple of needy nights, no doubt.

So I spent about three hours this evening basically standing by her cot. Rubbing her back. Giving her the odd giggle. Trying to let her fizz her energy while not getting any more excited – tricky that.

It’s difficult when you have other stuff to do, to give your time over like this to another. When you have work to do, deadlines to meet. Or work that you’d really like to do, creatively, for yourself or others.

It’s difficult especially when this caring is not shared. I have no complaints tonight, my husband was busy all the while with the usual non sleeper. I was thankful we were one on one, which is a common phrase in our family that equals some relief.

All that said, I looked at my daughter and realised that if this was what she needed all the time, if she just needed me to be there constantly, then that is what I would do. I would make the decision to pack in all my other interests and employments to be a constant carer to either of my daughters should that be what they needed.

Knowing that, doesn’t that make all of my this here vitrionics about equality in parenting seem a little bit, well, selfish? Shouldn’t I just shut my gob and get on with the privilege of doing the job that I have been gifted to do?

Maybe. Those thousands of heroic individuals who do devote their lives entirely to others could obviously speak better to what it is and what it means than I. If they had the time.

All I think is that it shouldn’t always be women. Because that default whips a whole big bunch of people out from other sectors of life where we could really benefit from a bit more balance.

#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, keeping mental note of 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