Democracy and despair. Again. 

I chose my seat on the tube today on the basis of skin colour. I stared at the young Asian lad opposite me, trying to work out what a terrorist would look like. Would he look so relaxed as he browsed on his smartphone? Would a dangerous bag look so new and trendy? 
I feel such a wave of sympathy for this young man. I feel such a wave of fear for me, for my family. And I’m angry. Angry with myself for becoming a small part of the problem. How many obvious stares, coupled with hateful headlines, inflammatory news, rabid social media, does it take to make a happy young man wonder whether he’s really welcome here? Angry with the press, as it knowingly uses fear and disillusionment to breed hatred for cash. And then, above it all, angry with these appalling men who have destroyed so many lives, so quickly.
I am on my way to work on Election Day. We did not need a referendum last year. We do not need an election today. Political games: democracy shouldn’t feel like it’s taking away choices. My son won’t be able to study, travel, work in Europe as I could. As all those who voted could. Our country will be that bit smaller when this is over. That bit poorer. That bit less diverse. Those who voted to leave will be hit hardest; we will all mourn this period in our politics for decades to come. 
I left the little man at nursery this morning as I make my way to a workplace surrounded by guns and police cars and ambulances, just in case. I’m pleased he doesn’t travel with me. I’m pleased he is too young to stay up with us tonight as we grieve the inevitable results. 

All the small things


The little man got the latest Julia Donaldson book for his birthday, Zog and the Flying Doctors, about the latest escapades of Zog the dragon and our heroine, Princess Pearl. 

He loves it. But it makes me fume, and makes me worry about feminism and empowerment. How we bring up our boys to believe they should be equal partners with the girls; how we bring up our girls with an easy sense of entitlement to equality, rather than preparing them for a fight. Why are we teaching our kids that the brave princess needs to fight to justify her skills before she’s given the freedom of her male counterpart? Why do we insist on reinforcing the idea that girls have to try that much harder than boys before we’ll stop controlling them?

As I get older, I’m starting to believe that everything of importance starts with the dull stuff. The logistics. Looking after the pennies.

I want to teach my boy about the boring stuff. We all know about the importance of dreaming big; but I want him to know that a functioning, happy life relies on an enormous amount of admin. Happy memories start with tedious tasks. The perfect family holiday started with hours of internet research, calls to booking agents to get the best deal, car hire, hotel booking, holiday shopping and the hell on earth that is holiday packing. The Christmas Day where his aunt laughed so hard that wine flew out of her nose? That started with 4 hours (yes, 4 hours) of peeling, chopping, roasting. And 2 hours of washing up, picking up the wrapping paper. It took a day to put the house back to rights. 

We are good at teaching our girls this. We show them what it looks like: at big occasions, the women gather in the kitchen while the men watch TV. The better men take the kids out to wear them out before the meal. This is a mass generalisation; it is changing; is is still, in 2017, true. 

I want my boy to know how to organise the memories. To share the burden, and the relief and joy when you pull it off. 

And I want to show the girls in my life to have more fun. My husband is better at having fun than I am. He has real hobbies. He carves out time for himself. He throws himself into entertainment. I organise, plan, watch, step back. My best friends do the same. 

There will be no daughters in our house; we are stopping at the one, beautiful, boy. It is so tempting to leave the big man to take him swimming, to sports clubs, to bring him along to his hobbies. But then I get left with teaching him how to cook, how to clean, how to organise. He needs to learn these things – but why shouldn’t I also teach him how to run, how to laugh? 

When we first moved in together, the big man could not comprehend the housework involved in keeping a small flat semi-presentable and sort of clean. He couldn’t accept how much of your life is spent picking your own crap up off the floor. I won the battle, but the fight to get him to pull his weight was harrowing. And unexpected, and absolutely fucking unfair. And I know far, far too many women who never, ever, win it. Or never feel they have the right to fight it in the first place.

It might be that my little man is destined for big, important things. He might have a lot of ordinariness ahead of him. He might have a little bit of both. I want my contribution to feminism to mean that if he moves in with the person he loves, he understands how to be an equal partner in making their joint life work. And understands it in a casual, fundamental way. “Thanks for cooking dinner. I’m washing up now, and I’ve started the shopping list for next week”. I hope shared parental leave is endemic if he has children; I hope he remembers his dad doing half of the nursery runs. 

So I’m going to get the big man to cook while I build the train track. I will not sit and sunbathe while they play football in the park. 

I can teach the little man, and lecture him in equality all I like. But unless he sees both the big man and I sharing the nuts and bolts of an everyday, boring, sometimes ridiculously happy life, he will never understand how they apply to him. 

Things I’ve learned: the angry edit

Advice for managers:

  1. It’s perfectly acceptable to roll your eyes at a member of staff as they leave on a Thursday if they turn down your Friday morning meeting request. If they remind you that they aren’t being paid for a Friday, that by the end of Wednesday they had already worked their hours so it’s a bloody miracle they’ve been arsed to come in on Thursday at all, talk with pride about your son’s Saturday swimming competition that you missed. Or how much your wife resents your working hours. That’ll incentivise your “girls” to work harder. 
  2. “It’s going to be such hard work, balancing your home life and the office. Why even bother?” This is fine, as long as it’s followed by a laugh to show that it’s totally, totally, obviously a joke. The more senior you are giving these jokes, the better.
  3. The glass ceiling does not exist. Glass implies subtle and invisible. The ceiling is made of concrete. Ugly, prefab, concrete. Your job, as a pale, male, stale manager, is to reinforce it. 
  4. Obviously accept any requests for flexible working. This is a modern, inclusive workplace after all: remember your vision statement. But also remember that any adjustment to workload to reflect reduced wages can only be agreed by the unicorns (no, no, not the unions. Unicorns. Only the unicorns). 
  5. You must tell any woman returning from maternity leave that she’s looking well. Preferably while looking her up and down to make it 100 per cent clear that “well” means she’s lost a socially acceptable amount of her baby weight.  
  6. The average length of time between children is almost 4 years. Make sure you talk about this loudly to any mothers of toddlers. If you’re not sure whether they’ve got the point, see point above about how to properly look them up and down.
  7. Mothers working for you are, no doubt, having a hard time. There’s childcare to deal with, sleepless nights, husbands to look after. Look after them by making sure you don’t give them any work that’s too demanding. They’ll thank you in the long term. 

Happy International Women’s Day people. Keep fighting the good fight. 

Early Days (and reasons to be grateful)

I’ve been writing notes on my phone for years now. They read like a strange sort of diary, interspersed with to-do lists and shopping lists and passwords (hopefully cunningly disguised amongst the other junk). Today, I found the one below. I remember writing it: I was sitting alone a on bench, overlooking a beautiful sunset. I was crying. At home, my husband was playing computer games and shaking while the little man screamed. Controlled crying: the worst and best parenting decision we made in that first year.

Reading this again made me sob for my former self, for that confused, lonely girl, too cold to be out but too scared to go home. It’s no secret that I’ve been having a tough few months, but reading this also made me feel grateful. Work’s a bit shitty; me and the little man are emerging from a dark time; but being a mother feels pretty amazing. I have four days in a row with the little man every week, and on those four days I’m absolutely smashing it.

Early Days

I have no skin. My nerve endings are on fire, and every last tiny one of them is exposed and pawed at and used. 

I want not to be touched. I want some space and time, for cooling air to wrap itself around me and smooth these raw endings. 

I want nothing but to touch, to stroke his hair and skin, to marvel in this warm, floppy, light and yet heavy weight breathing on my chest. 

Anxiety has replaced my blood, it pumps through my veins like adrenalin; I watch for tiny chest movements, I panic at every splutter.
 

I did not know it was possible to exist on so little sleep. I did not know it was possible to feel this much love. 


In the darkest hours I yearn for the time before my family description defined me; it is still recent enough that I can remember the taste of that utter freedom. In those hours I simultaneously pray for this never to be taken away from me. This way of existing is so new, and yet I would already be hollow without it. 

I am an all powerful giver of life. It took two to create; but I alone have grown, carried, protected and nourished this life. It was torn from me and me alone. My body is amazing. My body is strong.

My body is not my own. It is battered and bruised. It does not support the weight of my stretched and distorted bones, the weight of my worries and my expectations. For nine  months I did not recognise myself in the mirror. I do not recognise myself still. 

I am giver of life. I am still all this new being needs to survive. I hold him and create food. Every ounce of growth, every inch, is mine. My breasts have purpose. They are beautiful. 

My breasts are chains, shackling me to this chair, to this pump, to this crying and always awake glorious lump of life. I must not break them, but in the early hours of the morning they are so heavy I think they are drowning me. 

My sister turned to me years ago and told me I shouldn’t have children. That we had a lovely little life without them. How could she not have told me that my life would get so small? 

Instructions. Please. 

I am good at following instructions. It’s a pretty boring skill, but it helps navigate through this complicated life. I can negotiate opaque beurocracy, fill in forms, pass exams with ease.

But sometimes it lets me down. I’m not great at cooking or baking. I can follow recipes to the letter; but they need a bit more, a bit of inspiration to know how much beating is too much, what “season according to taste” should feel like. Back in my clubbing days I always wished for more choreography, less freedom of expression.

And now, in building this life, I cannot find any instructions. The big man and I don’t have a template for a working couple with a young child to follow. Neither of our mums worked. Mine had particularly strong views about mothers who work: I know, in retrospect, that these were a line of defence for a situation she felt she had little control over. But at a tearful drop off it’s hard not to hear your mum shouting at women on daytime television that if they wanted to work, they shouldn’t have had children. That the balancing act is selfish. That I am selfish, an unforgivably awful mother.

So I try to talk about it. But I can’t find anybody who is, or admits to being, as torn in two. The mums I know who are progressing work harder than me; see their children less; have no hobbies or free time, just work and children. They don’t seem to be weighed down by self doubt and suffocating guilt for every hour their child is with somebody else. Or, they work less hard than me, but throw themselves into home life with a contentment I cannot copy.

Maybe this is the point where I accept that I’m just not willing to work hard enough. That the sacrifices you need to take are a step too far for me. I’ve done well so far; I could just settle here, with my lovely little man and reasonable career and happy husband. I am lucky. I know I am lucky. But I cannot get this life to feel as though it belongs to me. I don’t want to battle to define what my happy is: I am tired and I want somebody to tell me what to do.

Flexible lives 

I’m generally against men joining in the “What about me?” whining brigade. Particularly middle class white men, the least discriminated against groups in the history of time claiming that false allegations of rape are as the same problem as piss-poor prosecution of sexual offences (yes, they are immensely damaging, but the scale of the issue is so different as to be utterly and completely incomparable). Or positive discrimination somehow pushing men into a second class citizen at work: as if board quotas don’t mean that a woman has to work twice as hard to prove she got the job on merit rather than statistics. Or any other whining complaint; as though they can’t bear being left out of any club, even one which offers nothing but frustration and disadvantage.

I’ve written before though about how our language towards working parents needs to change. My husband works a 4.5 day week, and we are doing the sums to see if that can become 4. He wants to do this: it’s how he gets to know the little man better. He will never get this time back. It supports me in my career. We’d both like to handover the little man a little bit less to the wilds of nursery. The advice he gives to his friends who are about to become dads is to work out seriously think about positioning themselves so their career is such that they can take a break. Or downshift a little bit.

And the response from these dads, or dads-to-be, is a pretty consistent no. Not across the board; but close. A lot of it is financial. For various reasons, the men in our group tend to be the main breadwinners. But a lot of it is cultural. We expect mothers to need flexibility at work; more and more companies are doing their best to meet that expectation. The same doesn’t apply to fathers. At all. Nobody asked the bigger man whether he would be returning to work full time after his (brief) paternity leave. There aren’t part-time roles or workers around him, or job share fairs in his very male dominated industry.

This isn’t fair. It isn’t fair for mothers, who have to shoulder the majority of the childcare burden. But it also isn’t fair to fathers. Why shouldn’t they be able to flex work around their life? We cannot consistently break the glass ceiling for women unless we make it possible for our men to support us at home.

Proper part time

brokenness-1-1420924It’s 6pm on a Wednesday and I’ve just finished work for the week. I don’t have the TFI Thursday or TFI Friday feeling that I’m used to. This is my new working pattern: but I’m a bit disorientated and feeling strangely neglectful.

Maybe it’ll be easier next week, when the bank holidays have worn off and Wednesday is the end of three days instead of two. Maybe it’ll be harder next week when the Christmas malaise has worn off and three days are as long as four.

I will now be at home for more of the week than I’m at work. I am lucky to be able to do this. I should be delighted: but I will not be able to call myself a career woman any more. I will be a mother and a wife who entertains herself with a bit of a job for pin money.

I’m melodramatic. It’s cold and dark and I’m suffering from withdrawal from constant chocolate eating. This is an opportunity for me to define myself as something other than an office monkey. I can’t bear the little man spending more time with strangers than with me any more; I get four days in a row now with my little buddy.

I mustn’t stop being melodramatic. I want to hate this month: I need something to kick me out of this inertia. My job wasn’t working at four days; my life will be better, but the job will be immeasurably worse, at three. And everybody arounds me knows I need a change. So in my three days next week I have coffees set up with promising women who could be jobshare partners. I have long overdue mentor meetings set up. I even sent a tentative email to a recruiter.

So welcome, 2017. January may look bleak; but I have the start of a plan. And I can teach the little man that Thursday is now also baby and mummy day; he will giggle and I will melt. The emails will wait until Monday.