For our children, for us all – making more noise on gendering

“Is your husband a sports fan?” my phone provider’s rep asks nonchalantly. Distracted, I reply, “Yes he is but he doesn’t need his phone to…” The penny drops. “Hang on,” I flounder, “Isn’t that kind of sexist? Shouldn’t you ask if I’m a sports fan?” They sound amused, “Well, are you?” I’m flustered. That kind of isn’t the point and I tell them so. I tell them they should not be asking that question, that it reflects badly on their company.

Then I move the conversation along quickly because I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable, even though I feel uncomfortable. I want to challenge, not shame. In any case, my discomfort isn’t really with them but with a culture that isn’t evolving fast enough. They casually make this gendered assumption and speak it out loud because it’s not only deemed acceptable but it’s profitable. Get me talking about my husband and sports and maybe I’ll sign up to the deal. But we move on and I forget. I’ve mentioned it. Perhaps that’s enough.

It’s more than I would have done in times past. It’s more than I did on Monday when the theme park employee smiled at my four year old and told her that the next show was “the girls’ show”. Should I fill in the blank and assume that the pirate show was “the boys’ show”? But I don’t react. I return their smile and thank them because they’re just being friendly, even though they’re reinforcing a message I consider harmful to my child. My four year old chimes, “I’m a girl!” Then I really don’t feel like I can say anything. Except I do once the worker is gone. “We know boys and girls can like the same things,” I say. We smile and shrug at each other. And we do go to the show. Because my children love to dance and they recognise the Lego Friends from Heart Lake City.

But as I put my seven year old daughter’s World Cup chart to one side, I wonder if the captions I give the things they hear and see are enough. I wonder if asking questions is enough to prompt them to think critically and ask their own. I explain my concern about the gender stereotyping in an Asterix comic book and worry that I’ve appeared to judge my child for liking Asterix. I am frustrated with myself for not kindly but firmly challenging everyday stereotyping. Even if talking about it in the privacy of our home goes some way to helping my kids ask the big questions about gender and identity, we have to have these conversations with people outside of our echo chamber if we want things to change.

I hope my exchange on the phone gives the rep that called me pause. They’re calling me again tomorrow. I wonder whether I raise it again either with them or in a letter of complaint and gently articulate what’s on my heart with this, that though I may not follow sports myself, I’m raising three girls who may well do. The world around them does not get to decide their interests for them.

Rediscovering intuition, wildness and sisterhood

I’ve experienced culture shock twice. The first time I was nineteen. I’d just moved to Brighton from Trinidad to study English Lit at university. There wasn’t a language barrier (much – there still managed to be a lot I didn’t understand or couldn’t make understood easily) but just about everything else was unfamiliar, from the sense of humour to the cultural markers to the public transport. But I was fortunate to fall into a lot of fast friendships that sustained me through those years and many of those people remain close friends today.

In a way, the second culture shock was harder to get past. It put more cracks in my confidence. My imagination struggled to be regained. Becoming a mother seems to shake a lot of us.

This time I didn’t have the safety net of university around me. I wasn’t in a place where everyone was young and away from home for the first time, eager to make new friends and start the new chapter of their lives together. Having moved to Bristol a sneeze before falling pregnant with my first baby, I lacked pre-existing friendships and the energy to initiate new ones in a new city. I struggled to breastfeed, Talitha did not sleep and I didn’t drive or know the area we lived in particularly well. I found new motherhood baffling and depressing, more so because I was so isolated.

Eventually, friendship did happen. That’s kind of the way it had always been for me up until that point with others mostly initiating and friendship mostly happening to me. I’m grateful for the people I met in those six years in Bristol, for the hopefully lifelong connections we made.

Yet I always struggled to go deeper a lot of the time. I held a part of myself back for safety, fearing judgement and feeling worse for motherhood opening up deep pre-existing wounds while waking up an awareness in me that this could all be different.

Without realising it, I was longing for the place Lucy Aitkenread describes in her new book Moon Circle: rediscover intuition, wildness and sisterhood where I could know and be known, to belong and to heal. Lucy’s book was released the week that a friend here in Cornwall was gathering a few women together to form our own circle. Reading it in the light of stepping out into this new, potentially revelatory thing was powerful.

In the video below, I’ve talked about where I think moon circles fit resetting our life intentions over the lunar new year.

It’s been year and a day since we moved from Bristol to Cornwall, which was another destabilising experience. I felt so responsible for the happiness of everyone in the family. We were starting life all over again, this time with three children and I was ill-prepared for the onslaught of grief which came with leaving a place where we’d built a life together.

But there was excitement too. Here was this opportunity to launch into new things. I googled red tents because I knew by then that I needed to connect with women on a much deeper level to navigate this next chapter but I didn’t get any further than that. In the meantime, I just got a lot more proactive about meeting people and building those friendships I knew we all needed. Then my friend asked late last year if I’d be interested in joining something she was starting and the timing of meeting in the new year just felt meant to be. Reading Moon Circle sparked excitement about all that gathering like this could be.

The book takes us through how a moon circle functions as a non-hierarchical gathering where women can deeply listen and deeply speak. The idea of ritual safekeeping runs strong as a theme throughout with practical suggestions for how we might create a space where vulnerability becomes possible, where we talk without fear of judgement or unsolicited advice and empathically listen without engaging our analytical brain. Lucy writes: “the net of women sitting together is a refusal to believe the myths we are told about how women relate to each other.” When I think about how fear of others discovering the worst parts of me kept me back from really sharing with anyone, I realise I’d bought into those myths.

There is something innately spiritual about meeting with others this way and indeed the book talks a lot about creating our own rituals to mark the circle as separate from the everyday but Lucy notes “these Circles are strong enough to hold the beliefs of all the women present – they are so encompassing and so expansive that a Circle can bind us all in healing.”

Some of the activities suggested include connecting through silence, singing for wellbeing, hand massage and creating small ceremonies that help us transition into new stages of our lives, whether that’s moving into cronehood or retroactively honouring our menarche. There’s an emphasis on finding what works for your specific circle, being mindful that some activities will be uncomfortable or unsuitable for some circles.

Moon Circle, naturally, encourages creating rituals around cycles, both of the moon and its phases and of how the menstrual cycle can mirror this movement. For instance, Lucy suggests that meeting on the New Moon might help us to share our “dark side” or that women might order themselves in the circle according to where they are in their menstrual cycle, while recognising that not all women menstruate.

She also discusses how hosts might act as “guardians of the circle”, from practical ideas like lighting a fire or introducing a talking piece to guiding principles like reminding the group to avoid chatter and advice.

All in all, I think it’s a read that would do a lot of us a lot of good. It’s pretty short and you might just find it transformative. Better yet, read it with a friend and start a circle together.

You can get all the info to buy Moon Circle here.

How do we smash gender stereotypes for our girl family?

“Three girls! Poor dad!” Thanks, you’ve just told my children their dad wishes at least one of them were a boy. He doesn’t.
“You have your hands full. Are they all…?” My eldest has started answering this one, “Yes, we’re all girls.”
“Are you going to keep trying for a boy?” I guess the assumption here is that that’s what we were doing the second or third time. I’m always tempted to respond asking for advice on how to do that. I mean, is there a specific position for conceiving boys?

Truly, I know that this is meant as friendly conversation. I almost said “polite” but it isn’t that. Certainly not to my children. It’s the usual everyday childism that casually ignores children’s feelings while speaking about them, in front of them. It’s not unique to being “a girl family” as Talitha has dubbed us. Mothers of boys are familiar with it too.

But yes, it is meant to be friendly. So I respond with this in mind, telling my daughters when the stranger has passed that people are just surprised we have so many girls in our family.

Then I wonder how to inoculate them against the underpinning message that their gender is their most defining characteristic since it’s so often the first or only thing people choose to comment on.

By aggressively gendering children, we’ve created a society where we pay lip service to the idea that children can be anything they want to be while showing them something quite different. By and large, boys are expected to be tough, adventurous, capable and boisterous whereas girls are expected to be emotive, cautious, sociable and gentle. None of these characteristics are innately problematic. However, they’re also not innately gendered.

BBC Two recently aired the documentary “No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?” which convincingly ties the way we treat our children to the gender inequality they experience as adults. The show continually returns to brain scans of boys and girls which debunk the myth that we are neurologically different. Gender is socially constructed. It’s a good starting point if you’ve not given the issue much thought before. And it’s still interesting if it’s long been a concern.

As a parent of a six year old, I was shocked at the gendered views the programme’s seven year olds held about men and women, the opposite sex and themselves. Perhaps home educating has sheltered us from some of the gender stereotyping pervasive in institutions?

Our children see Laurence as involved in caring for the home as I am. He is as likely to change a nappy as I am when he’s around. They may have “girly” toys but most of their toys are gender neutral or even toys stereotypically considered “for boys”. Their dressing up box houses princess dresses alongside costumes for a builder, doctor, police officer and pirate amongst others. We aren’t precious about their clothes and spend most of our time outdoors, giving them lots of opportunity to get messy and encouraging them to take risks.

Yet we have still imparted clear, at times unhelpful, ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman. In their minds, fathers go out to work and mothers stay at home to look after the children or at least work part time or from home. We try to communicate that this is a choice we’ve taken together for this period of family life but that it isn’t the way everyone does it.

Actually, we don’t consider it ideal ourselves. Laurence wants more time with the children. I’m hungry for more time to work as our kids get older. While a major life change where we both work and care for the children part time isn’t possible in the immediate future, we want to work at striking more of a balance in the present and to think about how we could change things more radically in the years to come.

I’ve also felt challenged recently to counter my learned helplessness. From hanging picture frames to mowing the lawn to figuring out what’s up with the dishwasher, I routinely leave DIY and maintenance jobs to Laurence. He is better at them (more practice, perhaps?) but what does my constant refrain “We’ll ask Daddy to do that later” say to our girls.

I hope that his involving them in these tasks helps to undo the effect of my shying away from attempting them. Talitha wielded a power drill to put our furniture together when we moved in. I’m not sure I’ve ever touched one. She knows how to put our tent up though I still don’t. They both love helping him build fires. But when things go wrong, they’re still quick to say, “Don’t worry. Daddy will do that.” My words in their mouths.

So I’m taking little steps. I learned to light the wood burner when we moved in. We take turns driving when going somewhere. This weekend I rowed our dinghy to the boat for the first time. I was terrible at it but I hope that they’ll see something in me working at difficult jobs rather than always leaving them to the person who’s more practised. I bought a wetsuit so that I can be the one to take them into the sea instead of making that a daddy thing.

We’ve been questioning what we’d do differently if they were boys. Would we be more inclined to take them out with a ball? Would Laurence involve them more in looking at rugby and cricket? Would we have the same standards in terms of grooming and manners? Would we value the same things? Would we talk to them the same way or talk about the same things? The conversation is ongoing.

From the positive pregnancy test, we start imagining the new baby, their gender a part of that. We’ve opted each time to know the sex at the twenty week scan. We even did a “gender reveal” video with Delilah (total heart melt looking back at that – how little they were!).

Yet, throughout my pregnancy with her, I felt uncomfortable about how important we made the fact that she was a girl. It doesn’t decide who she’s going to be. Being a “girl family” doesn’t decide who any of them are going to be.

More of this feminism, please – Katniss and The Hunger Games

I’m late to the party blogging about The Hunger Games but it’s such a luxury getting out to the cinema at all post-baby that I can’t help but mark the event.

We ended up seeing it by accident. We’d actually bought tickets for the wrong viewing of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which was disappointing when we eventually saw it.

We sat for a full 20 minutes towards the film’s end, thinking it must be avant garde, before realising the error. The mix up turned out to be serendipitous.

(Warning: This post contains spoilers)

Assuming The Hunger Games would be gratuitously violent and character-thin, I wasn’t keen to see it. How wrong I was.

Katniss Everdeen, the film’s protagonist played by the talented Jennifer Lawrence is a feminist triumph and a sign to Hollywood that blockbusters led by women do sell. We left the theatre physically aching from the tension of the film but unpacking her character was, for me, the most exciting bit.

That’s saying a lot in a plot-line involving a dystopian future in which twenty-four children are forced to fight to the death for a worldwide television reality show.
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That bad word, “homemaker”

I’ve instinctively struggled with the idea of gendered roles in marriage since we got engaged two years and two months ago. I’d like to think I’m closer to settling the matter in my mind by now but every time I turn a corner I find myself pausing, uncertain of where to go.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently since I’m about to enter a long stretch where the home, in a very real way, will be my domain. I’m not saying that having a baby will confine me staying home but I won’t be working, at least not for money, for a spell and I imagine that I’ll not be able to ignore the dishes quite as well as I’ve done in the past. So, by default, I will probably become a “homemaker”.

That word is hot and cold in my mouth, even though the transition’s already been happening. For the past few months I’ve worked primarily from home. The flexibility of my work has meant that we finally have a laundry day, our meals are generally planned and for the first time since we’ve been married, everything (save one mini suitcase) is unpacked. Furthermore, and this will make those who knew me even three years ago gasp, the house gets tidied and cleaned at some point every week.

I find myself taking pride in it, not in the sense that I’m fulfilling some feminine role (though there’s a bit of that too, if I’m completely honest) because competence is enjoyable. It’s like how I felt learning to play the guitar. There’s some creative fulfillment in it as well, as if acquiring new ways to be thrifty and changing the look of a room bore resemblance to writing a song. I also like the hospitality it allows. I usually don’t have to mentally check whether the house looks too much like a farmyard’s come and had its fun in it before inviting someone to spend time with us, spur of the moment.

I guess I feel a bit like it’s a “spousonomics” type of exchange between Laurence and I. For one thing, he works much longer hours than I do and earns a great deal more so I feel a bit like taking care of things domestic is my contribution to the “business” of our marriage. If the roles were reversed, I expect he’d be the one making sure things are spic and span.

But it’s a relational thing too. Something we discovered when taking a marriage preparation course (let me tell you, this was one of the hardest things I’ve done, one of the crappest times in my life but made our first year so much easier because all our personal rubbish was out in the open) was that he experiences love most strongly through acts of service and I through quality time. He really makes the effort to give me what I need and it would be more than a little selfish for me not to do the same.

So, it sounds like I’m down with this homemaking thing, no “issues” attached. But I’m not. I’m overly sensitive to any time I feel like I’m doing all of it (I never am) though I’m happy, time allowing, to do the lion’s share of it. When things do become messy because I’m too busy, tired or ill, I find myself making defensive jokes about being “a defective domestic goddess” or if I’m really trying to elicit a reaction, “a bad wife” – not that I actually think vacuuming has the slightest thing to do with being a woman or married.

These barbs protect the woman inside who’s scared of being taken for granted the way a lot of the women I grew up amongst were. Beneath their harsh tone, they’re quietly saying to him: “I know you’re not oppressive or distracted. I know you’re involved, happy to muck in with these silly domestic things. But I’m scared that eventually you’ll stop seeing me.” And that’s not fair to him. He’s done nothing for me to expect the worst.

Image: sflovestory

Choosing childlessness

As a younger teen I often bragged that I would never get married and certainly never have children. Mostly, I got a kick out of making controversial statements. I also considered myself a feminist (still do) and naively felt that this was at odds with pursuing family life. But mainly, I saw marriages suffering all around me, with children caught in the middle, and it scared the hell out of me.

It was safer to make the joke and scandalise friends and family than to admit that wanted to be a wife and mother – as well as a writer, speaker and advocate, in whatever forms those roles would take.

But while my assertion was a more of a joke that ended up falling on me when I got engaged at 22, I know a number of women who actually do not want children. One told me that she’s sure she’d mess things up, having had a traumatic relationship with her own mother. Others have simply decided that it’s not what they want for their lives. Whether that’s because they doesn’t want to lose independence or freedom or for some other reason, I don’t know.

I’ve always had a certain admiration for women who choose childlessness. Even if they don’t stick with it further down the line, it’s a decision to be honest with themselves and the world about their lives.

And I think it’s a bit unfair to dismiss their views with: “You’re young. You’ll change your mind.” Surely this goes both ways – except that women who choose to have children can’t change their minds.

Still, I found myself saying exactly this to a friend who admitted again the other day that she didn’t want children. I said it off-hand, without much thought, as we passed the cake around. In fact, I’ve found myself saying it in a few conversations with friends who view things this way. It’s surprised me even as I’ve said it.

It’s almost as if I’ve developed some pregnant woman syndrome that makes me want to see others join me. It’s like a Jane Austen thing where married women are compelled to match-make others.

I realise it could just mean that I am happy and want to see my friends happy. But when did my idea of happiness shrink? To say that motherhood is what truly fulfils a woman is insulting not only to women who choose childlessness but to those who cannot have children. It’s also a pitiably small view of what “woman” is.

I’ve wondered too if I’ve said “You’ll change your mind” just because I want company. At 24, I’m the first in my circle of friends to be pregnant. I’m stepping out into the unknown and maybe I just want someone else to step out with me.

But even so, I know I’ll meet other women in my situation and I’m confident enough in my current friendships to believe that my friends see my having a baby as an experience they’re participating in too.

What I don’t think is going on is me suddenly imposing some ill-defined sense of morality on the situation. I don’t think that women “should” or “should not” have children. I don’t think maternal instinct is innate. I’m not even sure what it is.

Image: Joseph Francis

Hello, masses, here’s my pregnant body

My father has a habit of saying, “Fat is a feminist issue,” whenever I mention weight, mine or anyone else’s.

I’m convinced that he’s quoting the title of a book he’s not read because he never goes on to explain what he means.

He probably just likes how it sounds.

Or maybe he’s been vaguely trying to help me see that my body isn’t valued based on what others think of it.

It’s even possible that he’s arguing that women talk about “fat” far more than is necessary or interesting. I have no idea. I must ask him some day.

Last night I went swimming with a friend at a public indoor swimming pool. It was my first swim in almost a year, which also made it the first time I’d displayed my pregnant body in all its glory to the masses.

Now, even when I had significantly less body fat as a teenager, I felt uncomfortable stripping to go swimming in public. My breasts were new and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them and I felt like everyone was watching me.

I never wore a bikini even though I had an enviably flat stomach. This was partly because I felt self-conscious and didn’t want to draw more ‘attention’ to myself and partly because the Christian community I grew up in wasn’t too keen on women not wearing one-pieces (at least that was the message I got quite early on).

I had a pretty nervous take on my body.

It wasn’t until university, when I cut off all my hair (the hair on my head) and occasionally shaved it, that I came to be at relative peace with my body.

I’d chopped it all off myself while plunged in what I later recognised as a bout of depression but the outcome of having little hair was quite useful.

I stopped trying so hard.

Since I realised my hair didn’t matter in terms of building relationships, because it wasn’t such an essential part of my identity – that I was, in fact, the same person – I felt freedom to recognise that my body’s size and shape also existed outside of my innate value.

Of course, I still had insecurities but they didn’t predominate quite as much.

Actually, I didn’t start interrogating my body again until pregnancy began to make itself apparent.
My breasts, already uncomfortably large decided to multiply in size overnight and, almost as suddenly, my waist disappeared. My clothes, suited to an hourglass, didn’t fit well any more.

I felt frumpy. But I didn’t talk about it because I didn’t want to appear shallow or ungrateful for the baby.

From the day my bump flopped out one weekend, I began to look at my naked body in the mirror with fascination, awe and horror. I obsessed over the possibility of stretch marks and my rapidly expanding thighs.

I also wondered if I’d be able to lose the weight quickly after giving birth.

I was shocked at my own sexualised response to my pregnant body. I had inwardly criticised other women for their vanity, for buying so deeply into celebrity culture that they began to view their own bodies as objects to be manipulated for the observer’s pleasure rather than fully claiming them as their own.

It was difficult to reconcile myself to a body that no longer obeyed me but instead did whatever was necessary to nurture the creature, with caring about side effects.

I won’t pretend that these thoughts and feelings have magically disappeared as if I’m somehow immune to the trappings of western culture. But feeling the creature kick, noticing the hardness of her home and seeing her on screen are going a long way in transforming some of my horror to wonder.

I marvel at my body’s ability to do this, to do this beautiful thing; to provide for someone else in such a complete way.

When I was getting ready for swimming last night, I discovered that I’d already outgrown the modest maternity one-piece I’d bought so would have to wear a bikini I’d accidentally bought years go two sizes too big. Looking at all my bulges in the mirror, I wasn’t sure whether I’d feel self-conscious when out in public or not.

To my surprise, heavy breasts, extended belly, meaty thighs and all, it was the first time in my life that I didn’t care whether anyone was watching me or what they thought of the state of my body.

I casually slipped into the water and enjoyed the feeling of weightlessness, of freedom.

Image: Mary Thompson