2/5 This much I know.

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So, parenting.

I don’t know, I’m sure some people manage it, but in my experience it is impossible to have a baby, and then not let said baby take well and truly over your life. Pregnancy, birth, feeding and raising tiny humans has utterly dominated my every waking moment for the past 4 years and has made up the fabric of my day, every day. Which has been both wonderful and totally bonkers, inspiring and, well, intense.

Right now though, I feel like some of the fog is lifting. I can sustain my attention for more than 60 seconds on topics other than cloth nappies and the best strategy for getting your toddler into their car seat without giving yourself an aneurysm. I am beginning to prioritise myself more, and my need to get fit and use my brain in different ways, rather than always feeling at the bottom of the pecking order. There is, oh my God imagine, space in my life for more than just babies. A dog! Why will no one let me get a dog?

Part of the reason for saying farewell to this blog is that the impetus to write incessantly about parenting has waned. But while I am still here, not quite clear of those all encompassing toddler years, I thought I would write down the most important stuff that I have learned. The pearls that I want to pass on, to other people still very much beneath the mist, trying to figure it out, with only 4 hours sleep and a strong coffee to their name.

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The very most important thing I know: We all fuck up. Like, you can read all of the Janet Lansbury you like, rehearse all the right things to say in the midst of an epic toddler tantrum, be the most zen and empathetic earth mother to your three year old who has very specific cup preferences, but at some point, you will lose your shit. Not in a ‘I’m strategically raising my voice to get you to listen’ way, but in a ‘Dude, I am exhausted, my patience is in the gutter, you are pushing me to my goddamn limits and I am just yelling because I am full blown ANGRY with this TOTAL LACK OF COOPERATION YOU ARE TAKING THE PISS MY GOD!’. This is not a thing that any parent is planning on, and shit, when it happens on the way into Sainsburys with a thousand judgey old people staring at you, know that it will be one of the low moments of your life. But guys, we are human, and while I LOVE positive parenting sites like Janet’s, I think we need to be honest that sometimes a situation will just push a button and we will yell and it will be ugly. It’s okay, our children will not be emotionally broken as a result of this, and it absolutely does not undo all the other good stuff that we do. On behalf of mothers everywhere, I am officially cutting us some slack.

Parenting though, it’s a judgey game. Actually I think it begins way before we are even parents and we are in a restaurant and there is a family on the table next to us. Ipads are on, pasta is being thrown and the parents are just benignly drinking wine and pretending not to notice the breadsticks that are being crushed and then liberally sprinkled about the floor. And we sit there and we think, ‘That will never be me, I will never be that parent, I will do so much better than that’. It carries on when we have had our baby, and you see an eighteen month old in the pushchair chowing down on a packet of Quavers and you act all aghast, because suspiciously cheese flavoured reconstituted corn shall NEVER pass the lips of YOUR preshus angel. And then again when you’ve got a toddler and you see those big kids dominating the bouncy castle, bumping yours right out of the way and onto their faces, while their parents drink beer and literally could not give less of a shit, and you vow to never let your children be such obnoxious little brats that leap all over babies without a care in the world. We all judge, of course we do. Judgement is useful! When you are thrust into the oblivion, I think it is good to look around at what others are doing and syphon off the things that you like, and want to emulate, and the paths that you swear you’ll never go down. This is all a healthy way to work out the parent we want to be. But also, shit happens. The afore mentioned shit in the last paragraph for example. And it helps precisely no one if you are there, looking on, at parents having a hard time or wilfully ignoring their children, because they’ve had ENOUGH that day, and passing judgey judgement. I am trying my best to remember that, and to not be a dick.

So if we have ascertained that we are all going to have bad times, and that we will refrain from being too harsh on others who are having bad times, what about the rest? Repeat after me: there is no right way. I know amazing parents who put a ton of effort into their interactions with their children, set up wonderful Montessori style activities, and are mindful of everything they do. I also know amazing parents who work full time and drop their kids of at child care every day and let them watch a ton of TV in the evenings because they are all freaking tired. I have written a lot about the guilt that suddenly descends when you have kids and makes you feel like whatever you’re doing? Not good enough. NOT. GOOD. ENOUGH. But the conclusion that I have drawn is that if it is working out for you and you’re family? Probably good enough. I am definitely the geekiest parent on the block and if there is stuff in our family that is bothering me (my kid has started waking up in the night again, my kid hasn’t eaten any vegetables in a month, my kid has an all consuming obsession with sharks at the expense of any human interaction, let’s say, just as an example), then you can bet I will be up all night scouring the internet for ways to improve the situation. But I do try and separate out the stuff that bothers me, because it bothers me, and the stuff that is driven by what I think I should be doing, because a Mormon lady in New York is doing it.

A word on parenting blogs: There are some amazing women out there who write inspirationally and honestly about their time with children (shout outs to Renegade Mothering, Parenting Illustrated with Crappy Pictures and Recipe Rifle for keeping it so real). For the most part though, once a blog has paid sponsorship, they have to maintain their brand, and their brand is usually them, being a completely perfect parent. Of course they are dealing with the same crap as the rest of us, OF COURSE THEY ARE, but they are photographing and writing about fun trips to the pumpkin patch, or how they just weaved their own yurt out of felt. Which is cool, I love those blogs! I love felt yurts! But the phrase ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’, has never been so apt.

Here are some other things I know:

Never tell the mother of a new born to ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’, ‘savour every moment’ or that is all ‘goes so fast’. It does go so fast but a day when you’re up at 5am and your partner is away and it’s raining and the internet has broken also lasts a thousand years, so that kind of makes up for it.

Instead, take the mother of a newborn food: cake, coffee and meals she can reheat. Literally the only gifts worth giving.

This too shall pass, this too shall pass, this too shall pass. They will stop doing that annoying thing that they do eventually. Sure, they’ll start doing some other annoying thing instead, but a change is as good as a rest right?

And seriously, if I was to pass on one piece of actual advice to the parent of small children it would be this: Ignore them sometimes. I am cultivating a style of parenting I like to call ‘conscious neglect’ (admittedly i might need to work on my branding), because honestly, it’s okay for kids to fend for themselves for a good chunk of the day. I think a lot about my Grandma, who raised three children in the North of England during the 1950s. She had a job and did all of the domestic chores without even a goddamn vacuum cleaner or washing machine, while her husband worked away a lot. Seriously, how was this even possible? Well she sure as shit wasn’t putting together colour match wheels and busy bags and making toast that looked like a little bear (although that bear toast? OMG). And yet she was still an amazing mother. So I think about her when I tell my kids that they have to entertain themselves for a while so I can cook, or get dinner ready or mess around on my iphone and feel thankful that I don’t have a mangle and that it’s no longer an expectation that I scrub my front steps every day. They’ll be okay on their own for a while, and it makes me appreciate the times when I sit down to do something nice with them all the more.

I’m sure I’m forgetting things. How to do a one handed nappy change on the parcel shelf of your car for a start, but that’s okay, you’ll figure it out. I need to go and do some other stuff: Plant some cabbages, swoon over yellow kitchen tiles, read a BOOK, Snap Chat a friend, secretly buy a dog. Stuff that still exists, waiting for you, when you emerge from the fog.

1/5 It’s always better on holiday.

What is it about the way in which our capacity for guilt increases exponentially the minute we set eyes on our first child?

It strikes me that this is not something that women in the past (and when I say past I’m obviously referring to some vague, romanticised bygone era, as opposed to a concrete period of time), would have felt as acutely. Back then, before women’s liberation is I suppose what I’m talking about, being a mother and a home maker was a given for the half of the population with the ability to give birth. The division of labour was simple: Men go out and make the money, women stay home and deal with the domestics. I’m not naive enough to think that these were equally valued roles, because read any advertising copy from pre1960s and it is immediately obvious that they weren’t (‘The Kenwood Chef does everything apart from cook – that’s what wives are for!), BUT, there was no stigma attached to staying at home. There was no judgement from other women, because communities were full of them, in the home, in and out of each other’s kitchens, providing support and gossip and cups of tea.

Now, post liberation, we have choices. There are still enormous issues around managing a career and a family (maternity leave, the cost of childcare and the attitudes of some employers towards women of child bearing age to name a few), but there is no longer a culture of women being resigned to life as a housewife. And thank God right? But what about those of us to choose to stay at home? How do we manage the dual expectations of being career woman on the one hand, and domestic goddess on the other? What if we choose to opt out of one of them?

My eldest child is three and a half and it is only recently that I am becoming comfortable with my choice to be a stay at home parent. I no longer feel compelled to follow up a question about what I do now, with a statement about what I plan to do in the future. I no longer feel that I have to remind others (and myself), that I did have a career and that I am an educated young woman, who just happens not to work. I no longer feel obligated to validate my existence to strangers at parties. Mainly because I don’t go to any parties.

Enough is enough! I am at home, because I choose to be! My husband values my contribution to our family as highly as he does his own. We both work, but only one of us gets paid.

There are days, Lord knows, when it feels like bedtime will never come. As soon as one stops whinging the other starts crying, I gave someone water in the wrong cup, they both need to play with the exact same dinosaur toy NOW, the baby’s nappy explodes and blah, blah, blah, I can bore myself with the minutiae of my day, let alone anyone else. Mostly though? I have a pretty nice life. We wake up and often have nowhere in particular to get to, so we stay in our pyjamas until we have reason not to. The boys are increasingly self sufficient and play together happily, while I potter about (who am I kidding, dash about frantically), doing the things I need to do, before getting roped into some game or another. If the weather is nice we get to go to all the good places when everyone else is at work or school and I catch myself, on a Wednesday afternoon, throwing pebbles into the sea, and I cannot believe that this is my life. That things can be this good.

But then the guilt.

Where did this puritanical idea that we are supposed to grind ourselves to the bone come from? That it is normal to be constantly tired and stressed and over worked? Maybe it’s because I was, all of those things, for as a long as I was a teacher, that I found it so hard to get used to being free of all of that. And felt so guilty for not being on my knees at the end of every day. Surely I was doing something wrong, I should work harder! Life should be harder!

I’m writing this in the evening. The last of the sun is shining through the trees and into my bedroom. The kids have had a good day, mostly free of cup related drama, and are now sleeping, more than likely until a (reasonably) civilised hour tomorrow morning. It is easy to think about life in soft focus, maybe with a nice vintage Instagram filter over the top of it, and to gloss over how incredibly difficult I found the first year after my second baby was born. About the feeling of utter exhaustion when attempting the heady combo of parenting a nearly two year old while heavily pregnant. The dark, dark days of waking six times in the night and then getting up and attempting to get a tiny baby and toddler out of the house, so that I didn’t go completely insane. I have done my fair share of hard work these past years and I do the work of being a parent relentlessly, day in and day out, and damn it, I put a lot of effort in. I have been a shark with a bad New York accent for the past WEEK to get my child to get dressed y’all. And yet, there is still a voice in my head that says I don’t do enough, because I don’t go out to work. Even though I don’t want to go to work! What special brand of crazy is this that we mothers inflict upon ourselves? IT MAKES NO SENSE!

So I have stopped. I have always loved the line from Jacqueline by Franz Ferdinand that goes, “It’s always better on holiday, so much better on holiday, that’s why we only work when we need the money”. I listened to it a lot after I finished my degree and was dossing around New Zealand for a year, but I am beginning to apply it to this phase of my life too. Being a stay at home parent is not what I would call a holiday (hahahaNO), but I love it. I choose it. I am in a position of immense privilege to be able to choose it, and I refuse to waste a second more of it by feeling guilty for doing so.

These photos were taken on an actual holiday. Where we swam every day, and walked in the countryside and let the kids watch too much TV and drank more beer than I have in the last year. It was brilliant and at the end of it I just felt so incredibly thankful not to be going back to work, and that my days at home, don’t look that dissimilar to my days on holiday.

This post was not actually supposed to be some braggy brag fest about how wonderful my life is, so sorry about that tangent, I will now return the original subject of my inner turmoil about letting down my feminist foresisters. Because I do feel like I’m maybe letting down my feminist foresisters, with the not working and the distinct lack of smashing through glass ceilings. But guys, it’s okay, I’m not here, repressed in my home, crying over the mangle and mourning my inability to vote. I’m HERE, liberated, making choices and raising my family and contributing to society and all that good stuff. I just don’t have a job, but it’s cool.

Bottom line: I know that in ten, twenty years, when retirement still seems a million years away and I am back at the daily grind, that I will look back at this time as so golden. I will have forgotten how many times a day I had to say, ‘please use your normal voice’, about the times I lost my patience and had to shut myself in the bathroom, and how I once sobbed at a toddler group with a baby crying in my arms and a toddler crying on the floor because ohmygod this shit is real and hard and exhausting, (no wait, I will NEVER forget that one). But I will forget the relentlessness of it, and the guilt and the worrying, and I will remember the cuddles, the stories, the trips out in the afternoon, the buzz of my children’s first words, first steps, first I love yous. It will be so, so golden. And I will not waste it feeling guilty.

Don’t waste it feeling guilty.

The problem with Princesses.

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^^What the Disney Princesses would look like with realistic hair. Via Buzzfeed.

Oh those bloody Disney Princesses, I knew they’d catch up with me one day.

Before having children I viewed them as the axiom of everything that was wrong with childhood in a supposedly post feminist world. In the name of shifting films, books and an awful lot of merchandise, little girls are bombarded with images of these supposedly perfect examples of womanhood, with their nipped in waists and doe eyes, swirling dresses and no notable qualities other than the ability to sing, dance and make their man happy. I swore up and down that if I ever had a daughter, the Princesses, along with Barbie, would be categorically unwelcome in our house.

And then I found myself in a situation where today I sent my eldest son to preschool dressed as Cinderella, asking me, ‘Does my hair look pretty?’, not having read him a bedtime story other than a rotation of fairy tales for weeks.

My main problem with fairy tales, and in turn the highly branded line up of Disney Princesses that they have spawned, is that they tend to depict women as one of two tropes: the kind, sweet, animal loving protagonist, who enjoys singing with blue birds and baking pies, but who has no discernible problem solving skills nor desire for anything beyond being rescued by a handsome prince (see: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Jasmine etc etc); and the evil antagonist, who is driven mad by her jealousy of anyone younger and more beautiful than her, to the point where murder is inevitable (Malificent, Ursula et al). The message is clear: these are your choices girls, a simpering beauty or a total bitch. It is limiting to say the least.

In their defence Disney have made advances of late, most notably with Brave, which features Merida, a much more robust, independent, smart as a whip kind of a Princess, who provides an antidote to the irksome saps who rely on their Princes to get them out of trouble. Frozen also focuses on the love between two sisters, as opposed to winning the approval of a man, yet falls short for me, because it’s still inexplicably done whilst dancing around in sexy dresses, when clearly an anorak and boots would have been much more appropriate attire for a snow covered mountain.

However, the classic ‘Princess’ range remains predictably dull. I was convinced, in desperate times (ahead of a three hour flight and vaccinations), into buying two issues of the Dinsey Princess magazine (BEST SELLING MAGAZINE FOR GIRLS!). Honestly, this stuff is just mind numbing. In the latest issue readers are invited to play a game whereby the winner gets to be Princess Aurora’s bridesmaid (OMG! Squee!), while the stories focus on the characters’ ability to pick flowers, bake cupcakes and, I kid you not, prepare a romantic picnic for their prince. Is anyone else sensing a rather tiresome theme emerging here?

Is this really all little girls, and more pertinently the parents of little girls, want (I say girls because I assume that’s who Disney look to for feedback)? Or is this just what they are being spoon fed? Why couldn’t Disney take those original characters, and put them into new situations that highlight more aspirational qualities: Cinderella’s picnic gets hijacked by the Stepsisters, so she single handedly forages for a new one, before building an escape route for her and the Prince in the process, (as opposed to the actual solution which was… She got rescued by some swans. I mean, really?). It just feels like there is no appetite to update these characters into strong, smart women with attributes to aspire to. Disney, and I can only assume vast swathes of parents, are happy to stick with this bizarre 1950s idea of women as something to look good and be rescued. Nothing more. It’s depressing.

As the parent of a boy who is currently Princess mad, I obviously have a slightly different take on it. It is not so much what he aspires to be that I worry about (I can only assume that his desire to be a Princess will be relatively short lived), but with how he is seeing women being portrayed.

I remember hearing an interview with Caitlin Moran, talking about whether or not she lets her young daughters watch pop videos. Another woman on the show revealed that she doesn’t let her daughter watch Rhianna’s music videos, because she considers them too sexualised, while Caitlin countered that she lets her daughters watch them, but also has a frank conversation about their content: ‘Poor Rhianna, how do you think she feels dressed like that? What if she has a cold? Or is on her period? I bet she’d rather be wearing a nice cardie.’ Instead of censoring, she uses those portrayals of women as a means to discussing how they are problematic and offering up alternatives.

I’ve taken my lead from this I suppose. I haven’t banned fairytales (although the versions we read are the classic stories, rather than the Disney adaptations), and he has been allowed to watch some of the Disney Princess films and listen to the soundtracks. But we talk about the endings, at an age appropriate level, and within our play I try and subvert the roles, at least a little, to make sure he knows that Princesses can be strong, capable, brave and intelligent, as well as pretty and kind.

I also ensure that the Princesses aren’t by any means the only depiction of women and girls he is exposed to. Zog by Julia Donaldson and The Paper Bag Princesses by Robert Munsch both offer direct alternatives to the traditional fairy tale ending (one princess shuns royalty in order to be a Doctor, the other declines her Prince’s offer of marriage when he criticises her appearance), and there are plenty of examples of other strong, feisty girls on our bookshelves from Lola of Charlie and Lola to Pippi Longstocking and Matlida. Films, I admit, are harder to come by, and I would love recommendations of U rated films that feature a strong female lead that aren’t even necessarily subverting the traditional female stereotype but are just… girls, doing their thing (Despicable Me, Brave and Annie are my favourite examples, but it’s hard to find others).

Ultimately, I know that it is the women and girls around him, who serve as his most important role models. I am grateful that both of his Grandmothers are as happy digging for minibeasts in the garden as they are baking cakes in the kitchen, and that his best friend is a girl who can outrun him as much as he can outprincess her. He also has a whole range of other interests and I am currently indebted to the Octonauts who feature both a female engineer and pilot, for some much needed balance in our house.

The Disney Princesses might be getting the better of me at the moment (especially with renewed requests for a Cinderealla doll), but I’m in this for the long haul, and I know I’ll win out in the end.

Hair.

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I like long hair on men. Some of my favourite men (my husband included), wear their hair past their shoulders, so I was never going to be in a rush to cut my son’s hair into a classic ‘boy crop’. It has never struck me as particularly feminine either. I know in reality women are far more likely to have long hair, but I dunno, Axl Rose? That’s some serious testosterone going on there, no?

As a result, I just kind of let the Mancub’s hair do it’s own thing, growing frustratingly slowly for my liking actually, but finally making it past the nape of his neck in soft little baby wisps. I think it looks cute, and he loves it long (I have in fact asked him several times if he would like his hair cut shorter, always to be met with a very decisive ‘no’), and he even lets me drag a brush through it occasionally these days.

I have already written extensively about how I have no problem whatsoever with my boys choosing to do or wear things that are typically deemed ‘girly’. They can play with whatever toys they like and pick out their shoes from whichever side of the shop they are drawn to, wear that dress if they so choose. In other words, I am fully prepared to support them in their girliness. Which is why I guess this has caught me off guard a little, because I don’t really associate long hair with being girly (my husband is 6’6 and typically pairs his long hair with a beard and a biker jacket, so effeminate is not a word I would ever use to describe him), and so it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that long hair on a boy would cause such utter confusion.

To be clear, he is, since his hair grew past his neckline, mistaken for a girl almost 100% of the time by strangers. Admittedly it’s an easy mistake to make when he’s in his princess dress, or his pink leggings. But he can also be wearing his most boyish clothes (black trousers, oatmeal jumper, blue and silver jacket, carrying a toy dinosaur), and people will still tell me, ‘Oh, isn’t she cute!’.

I get it. I once, mortifyingly, mistook a boy for a girl when I was a supply teacher, and referred to him as such in front of the whole class (cue many giggles and very red cheeks on both of us). When meeting new children, especially those in school uniform, hair and names can be the quickest signifiers of gender, and when the child has a unisex name (as he did, as mine does), it can be easy to jump to the wrong conclusion. Most people are profusely embarrassed, and so I rarely correct them and instead leave them to work it out for themselves if they’re around long enough to do so.

I have discussed this with the Mancub. Occasionally I will say, ‘Oh, he thought you were a girl, that’s nice isn’t it?’, to which he always seems very blasé. When we have talked about hair cuts I have explained that sometimes people will think he’s a girl if he keeps his long hair (without attaching any negative connotations), and he’s still excited to grow it long like his (female) cousin. In short: it doesn’t bother him. Hurrah! I win feminism! My boy is happy to be mistaken for a girl!

But does it bother me?

Sometimes, yes. Dammit.

The frequency, the relentlessness of it bothers me a little. That people don’t take the time to check, or to ask his name before telling me something cute they overheard my ‘daughter’ saying. That he is dismissed so quickly as something he’s not, even if it’s not necessarily offensive, but because it’s incorrect.

But these are strangers, not people with a vested interested in my children. Just strangers making an off hand comment, and a fair assumption, based on appearance and their best guess at the time.

So I don’t let it bother me often, because life is too short. Unlike his hair.

Best of 2014: According To An Easy World.

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BEST ALBUM LISTENED TO: Guys, this year, I actually listened to some music that was… released this year! I know! Go me! I still fall hard and predictably for girls singing folk songs, and my favourite of 2014 was Burn Your Fire For No Witness by Angel Olsen. If I had any control at over what gets played on the stereo here that’s what would be playing a lot. But I don’t. So I should probably give a shout out to Futurology by The Manics, because like Rewind The Film before it, it provides a continuous and ubiquitous soundtrack to our family’s life.

BEST SINGLE DOWNLOADED: Is it wrong to find it funny that my three year old pretends to feed his toy Anaconda sticky buns, because, ‘his Anaconda don’t want none unless he gets buns Hun’? The watching of Nicki Minaj’s video for Anaconda can only be described as a truly life enriching experience. Apart from for you Dad.

BEST GIG: The. Holy. Bible. 20. I think you know that you are officially old when you pull a muscle in your neck whilst dancing at a Manics gig. But my husband and I ran around the pubs of Camden like giddy teenagers, because WE’RE OUT! WE’RE OUT IN LONDON!

BEST FILM SEEN: I loved going to see The Grand Budapest Hotel at the cinema, because it is just one of those films where every single shot is perfectly choreographed and beautiful and I might have whooped out loud a little when Bill Murray finally shows up.

BEST TV SHOW WATCHED: This year we watched all five seasons of Breaking Bad. TV will always seem a little bit shitter in comparison from now on.

BEST THING BOUGHT: This was the year of frugality. We tried so hard to really think about the things we were buying and to make fewer impulse purchases. Maybe next year will be the year of mindless conspicuous consumption. Or at the very least I’ll buy a phone that actually works.

BEST WEBSITE VISITED: I still love all of my old favourites: Amalah, Advice Smackdown on AlphaMom, Janet Lansbury, How We Montessori, Small Things, Sweet Madeleine and Love Taza to name a few of the websites that I check in on most days. But my favourite new blog this year has been Renegade Mothering, which I love so much I have to work hard not to just reblog every single thing Janelle writes, so much does she speak the truth. If you are a mother, or a decent human being, you should read this blog and emote.

BEST TUMBLR HEARTED: My friend recently sent me a meme that read something like, ‘Tumblr: insulting you for things you never even knew you could be insulted for’. Which is funny, because yes, Tumblr is the most right on space in the Internet, but also, I am not ashamed to say that I have learned so much from the incredible right on women that I follow, who post about gender and intersectionality and race and trans* rights and make me think about feminism and stuff generally in ways that I had never even considered before. Tuning into mainstream media after being on Tumblr is always a shock, because you’re like, woah, why is no one talking about this? Why is no one else this angry? There are literally a ton of women writing intelligently and thought provokingly about the sorts of issues I’ve just mentioned, but my top favourite this year has been the wonderful Stone Fruit Juices.

BEST THING THAT HAPPENED IN 2014: The first part of this year was heavy. I had a two year old and a baby and achieving anything else apart from the absolute bare minimum seemed like a huge stretch (including, but not limited to, staying up past 8pm). The last few months I have finally started getting some sleep again and thanks to my parents being able to babysit for us, we have had some good nights out as a couple and with friends. Because, yes I love my children more than I thought was humanly possible, but also, my husband is pretty rad too and it feels good to be able to spend time doing stuff together other than looking at each other in blind panic and crying.

WHAT I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO IN 2015: Seeing The Decemberists and Josie Long in February and The Manics again in June. Getting some sun in Portugal towards the end of Winter and hopefully some camping in the Summer. And maybe, just maybe, our first weekend away without the kids. IMAGINE!

Like a girl.

‘I’m Sleeping Beauty’, he says. ‘I’m a pirate, I’m a fisherman, I’m a Princess, I’m The Queen’.

He doesn’t know yet. That there is intrinsic status (or lack thereof), attached to these roles. That some of them are strong, masculine, affirming. That some of them are weak, subordinate, female. And who would want to be female? He must be strange. Or gay. I have no idea if he’s either. I don’t really care, I just play along.

A while ago I wrote about how important it is to raise my boys to be okay with being ‘like a girl‘. The above video might be hawking santirary products, but it makes a good point. When did ‘like a girl‘ become an insult? It is, it was, it has been since forever ago. Our entire society is founded on that construct, it’s called the patriachy, now go buy some tampons, disgusting.

Much of modern feminism focuses on creating equality by elevating women to the same status as men: getting more (primarily white, middle class, but that’s a different post), women into senior roles, accepting and celebrating masculine traits in women (‘I’m not bossy, I’m the boss’), breaking down the glass ceiling. Obviously all of this is important, and really, really crucial for those women who aspire to be doctors or CEOs or presidents or Beyonce. But it is only half the picture.

The ascension of women only truly creates equality if society also gives status to what are traditionally considered to be feminine traits: being nurturing, gentle, emotionally literate. When men can, without shame, aspire to be a care giver, or a stay at home parent. (There is an excellent article about this in relation to how motherhood is so undervalued on Ask Moxie, which is well worth reading).

The bottom line is, should be, that we must accept that while some girls aspire to grow up to be an engineer or scientist, that they may choose to get there wearing a pink sparkly dress and high heels. Some women might choose to stay home with their children/get their nails done/bake a pie/go for cocktails with the girls, and that doesn’t mean that they are letting down the sisterhood. Wearing makeup doesn’t in itself make me oppressed, just like earning the same as my husband doesn’t mean I #dontneedfeminism.

So you see I’d got it all figured out.

Then my three year old son asked me for a princess dress.

And my instinctive reaction was: this is too much. Pink snowflake leggings are one thing, purple snow boots, long hair, Star Wars t shirts, pink eye shadow occasionally (but usually while wielding a sword and an eyepatch), a silver ‘space suit’ coat, a dinosaur jumper, penguin leggings. These are all things, which when combined, say, at most: androgyny. They leave a question mark hanging over his head, a gender mystery, which is no closer to being solved on hearing his unisex name. They do not, in my humble opinion, scream GIRL.

A dress screams girl. I don’t think I want him to get a dress.

But he is Princess Aurora, Briar Rose, Sleeping Beauty, he needs a sparkly blue dress and a yellow crown like in the book Mama. To be honest, he never really asks for much, so I agree to give it some consideration. I tell him we’ll go to the shops and just have a look.

In the changing room of TK Maxx I reflect that I have possibly never seen my son so happy. Are those tears of joy pricking his eyes? ‘I must go and show Daddy!’, he declares, and off he goes in a rustle of tulle and sequins, out onto the department store floor, to proudly show his father, who mercifully, is about as right on as they come and who nods approvingly, ‘You look lovely’.

‘Hopefully the sales assistant will assume he’s a girl’, I hear myself think and I’m horrified with myself. It’s not that I’m ashamed of him, certainly not, but it’s protection I suppose. I don’t want people to look at him and write him off as flawed, as one of ‘those‘ kids: the ones who get beaten up at school. I have no desire for him to be one of those kids either, but this is bigger than him, and I also don’t want him to be just another boy (100% BOY!), for who being ‘like a girl’ is basically a byword for being a right twat. Pun intended.

But he’s not just another boy. This is who he is, this is who we have raised him to be, twirling around with a paintbrush as a magic wand. I buy the dress. I determine to see through what I have started, to be proud of him, so he can be proud of himself. Like a girl, or not.

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When I was half way through writing this post, they had a short but very interesting discussion on this exact topic on Woman’s Hour, which you can listen to by clicking the link.

Raising boys.

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These photos are so horribly out of focus, I’m sorry. But they were the only ones I took and are too freaking cute not to post just because of a bit of blur.

***

Before I became a parent I thought a lot about how I would handle raising a girl. I had a lot of opinions on pink and princesses and positive body image and Rhianna videos and how I would raise a kick ass feminist. Then I had two boys.

Sure, being a young boy is not exactly a walk in the park. There is a veritable truck load of pressure to conform to a masculine stereotype, and while girls can get away with being tom boys, it is much harder for boys to subvert gender roles. A boy in a dress is very different from a girl in dungarees. A boy who likes ballet is not the same as a girl playing football.

Why? Why is the whole notion of masculinity so important to young men? Because the alternative is to be ‘girly’, and girly is inevitably equated with being weak. Inferior. Subordinate. Not exactly something to aspire to, even for a girl. How’s that for irony?

With this in mind I set out to raise two boys who would be content to live outside of traditional gender expectations. No pressure to be ‘such a boy’, no shame in having long hair, or in wearing eye shadow, or in dressing as a mermaid on your third birthday if that’s what you randomly want to do. Being ‘like a girl’ is not an insult, at least not yet. Not from me.

Don’t get me wrong, The Mancub likes plenty of things that are generally considered to be at the ‘boy’ end of the toy spectrum: dinosaurs and Star Wars to name two of his all time favourites. But he is also happy to pretend to be Pocahontas on a boat, or Handa carrying a basket of fruit on her head. He builds dens in the park, he gets a dab of lipstick when I put on mine. He thinks nothing of any of these things.

Last week he found this baby doll that we bought for him when I first got pregnant with #2. He was excited to find it again and immediately cuddled up to it and announced, ‘I’m giving him some milk’. Oh, I said, are you his Mama or his Daddy? ‘His Mama’, and then he kissed the doll and tucked him up in bed and promptly climbed in too. That day the doll (name: Bragzilla for reasons unknown), came with us to the park, where he was pushed on the swing and given a second breastfeed in a bush (because sometimes needs must).

Usually children play at roles they find exciting: astronauts, adventurers, pirates. That day he played at being a Mama. With no shame or embarrassment at being a little boy, carrying a baby doll around the park, breastfeeding him in a bush, because that’s what Mamas do sometimes, right? Well I guess some do.

Here is the thing: it’s not really about him and what he likes and dislikes. Pretty soon his peers will get their claws into him and I’m sure it will be all Moshi Monsters and Ben Ten and whatever the hell else kids are into these days, and that’s fine. At some point he’ll ask me to get his hair cut short, and that’s fine too. I don’t care what he’s into, what he likes, what games he plays. What I want to preserve is a sense that the ‘girly’ stuff is okay too. The girls at his school that like pink and play with princesses? They’re okay too. They can be his friends and are his equals and the stuff that they’re into shouldn’t be rejected just because it’s feminine or covered in sparkles.

There is nothing wrong with sparkles. For boys or girls.

There is nothing wrong with being girly. For boys or girls.

Sigh, no more.

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A few weeks ago I was in a rut. I wasn’t sure I could keep doing this whole Stay At Home Mum thing because guys, here’s the thing: being at home, full time, with two small children, is really, really hard. Maybe I should change the name of my blog to areallyhardandsometimeskindofsuckyworld.com. I’m pretty sure the domain isn’t taken yet.

So in light of this revelation, I kept wondering if maybe it was time for me to go back to work. Would going back to work be easier? A break? Maybe?

The rather inconvenient truth though, is that even if I did get a job, I would still have to get up at 5.30am to feed the baby. I would still have to run around getting myself and everybody else ready fed and dressed for the day and into childcare or whatever. And then, crucially, after 3 hours of chaos, I’D HAVE TO GO TO WORK. FOR THE WHOLE DAY. And then! Ugh, I’d have to come home and make dinner and do the bedtime routine and tidy up and do laundry and cleaning and Oh My God working Moms how do you do it?

Oh, and here’s the real kicker, I would do all that, but after I’d paid for childcare for my two children, I would make basically nothing. Like, maybe a few pounds each month. HAHAHAHAHAH! I repeat: even if I wanted to add work into the heady mix of my day, I couldn’t even afford to work. I couldn’t. Afford. To. Work. Suck on that you ladies who ‘don’t need feminism’.

What I concluded from all this introspection was that, no, I did not need to go back to work. I needed a holiday. I needed a few days, without my children and their continuing insistence that I listen to them and cook for them and do the voices of an octopus or a manta ray and put them to bed and wash their clothes. I just needed a few days off you know? I believe in the real world it’s called ‘annual leave’. Imagine.

Now, I don’t believe in God, but if I did believe in God I’d be so angry with God right now because God, when I said a few days off without my children I did not mean AT THE HOSPITAL, you hear me? But the (fictional) Lord works in mysterious ways and that is exactly what I got. A couple of Saturdays ago I drove myself to the hospital with some abdominal pain and ended up staying there for four days and left minus some bits of my reproductive system. I didn’t even get to eat for three of those days and spend roughly six hours in pain that I described as ‘the equivalent of crowning’. I crowned for six hours. Yeah.

Anyway, they finally worked out what was wrong (stuff had basically tangled itself up and died inside of me. I saw photos, it looked like dead flowers), administered large amounts of intravenous morphine and then cut me open and took out the bad bits. I was better within a few days and there are no listing affects aside from wonky scar right next to my stretch marks, which I guess means that my dreams of being a bikini model will never be realised.

The weird thing was that because it was so unexpected I left both of my children with their Grandma and barely gave it a second thought. I assumed I’d be back within hours. When my husband came to visit me half way through the first day I tentatively advised him to buy some formula ‘just in case’, but at that point I was more concerned that I felt like I’d been stabbed, so y’know, priorities.

Over the course of my four day hospital stay I tried to pump once, but nothing came. I’m only feeding twice a day now and I had been severely dehydrated when my drip was left empty for a long stretch of the afternoon (and I was nil by mouth), so I figured that my body would just not want to put any energy into making milk. I just tried not to think about it and focused on getting better, safe in the knowledge that my baby was at home, being looked after by his Dad and doting grandparents, eating plenty of food and taking sips of formula here and there. He was doing fine.

Then I came home.

I tried to pump once more, but still nothing came and the reality that I would never breastfeed again hit me like a truck. This was not my plan, I was supposed to feed him until his birthday, this was not supposed to happen.

And also, just, the saddest feeling in the world.

My baby.

It was on the second day that I was home, and a full five days since his last feed, that I was taking a shower and felt some engorgment. I don’t have a super high supply, have never leaked and rarely get engorged, so this was a surprise. Was there milk there?

I suddenly had an overwhelming desire to try and feed #2, but he was in bed for the night, so I just had to rein it in and try not to get too excited. I knew that it was highly unlikely he would even latch after five days and two attempts at pumping had yielded nothing, so the odds were well and truly piled up against me.

The next morning my husband brought him up for a cuddle. I was still pretty immobile at this point, but I sat him next to me on the bed and stroked his soft little cheeks. After a while my husband had to pop downstairs to get something and I just seized my chance. What’s the worst that could happen? I curled him up in my arms and just tried.

The photo above was taken by my husband when he came back up. Can you see how tired and emotional and just so quietly, serenely happy I am? He had a full feed. He’s had a full feed twice a day, every day since. I don’t know how that works, but it worked.

***

So that was my holiday. My annual leave without the kids. Lying writhing around in agony for two days, then unable to walk for two more. Worrying about what was happening at home, worrying about my husband, worrying about my stupid boobs and my not so tiny baby eating formula in mashed banana like a champ.

A far as holidays go, I’ve gotta tell you, it sucked. But somehow it was just what I needed. My days aren’t so bad, they’re not so hard most of the time. We lie in bed together in the mornings with nowhere in particular to get to, we get dressed when we feel like it and we spend our days at the park and at the farm and in the garden and playing dinosaurs. It’s relentless. And I wish there was a magic fairy who would clean my highchair for me (maybe God, because he owes me one you know?), but it’s okay. I am okay.

And I get to feed him and hold him like a baby. For a little bit longer at least.

What Women Blog.

Apparently there are now in excess of 40 million active blogs on this place we call the Internet, and I’d hazard a guess a sizeable chunk of those are parenting blogs. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now: putting my life (or small increments of it at least) into the public domain, and I’m still not sure… why?

Mainly it’s as a record. Of the things we do, the things they say, the things that rile me and that make me happy. I like to think that we will look back on it when we’re old and it will help us to remember. Plus I like the connections that I have made online. Other parents who think similarly and parent similarly, even though they might be the opposite side of the world, sharing information and details of our days. Liking and commenting and reblogging, so that we know we’re not alone. It’s weird, but it’s nice.

I read a bunch of blogs myself and for all different reasons. There are those that are cynical and self deprecating and make me laugh with tales of disarray and misadventure, those which are brutally honest, almost uncomfortably so, and those which paint a picture of life so perfect it can barely be believed. Those are the ones I really love.

Of course no one’s life is like that really. Behind all the dappled evening sunlight and trailers adorned with home crocheted bunting and cronuts in Central Park are just, people. People who go through the same shit we all do, but choose which bits to share. Which bits not to share. Because the Internet is not your friend who you meet for coffee and cry on. It’s the fucking Internet, so you hold some of that shit back. And post the photo of your kids running in the flowers instead.

I’m saying this because I heard, through a blogging friend no less, that there are whole message boards dedicated to the character assassinations of so called ‘Mommy Bloggers’. Which is just absurd right? To get kicks out out of hating on women who love their kids so much they make a hobby out of taking photos of them and writing goofy stories. Not women who abuse their kids, or neglect them, or do anything bad, just women who get a little too excited about cloth nappies and playdough recipes. A strange subject for anybody’s vitriol.

I can only imagine that there must be a whole lot of low self esteem going on if you actively seek out these blogs, these spaces that women have created to portray their lives, so that you can take pleasure in pulling them apart, call them out for being too smug, too fake, too perfect.

Of course they’re not perfect.

***

The end of last year was just about as shit as it could be for my family. We suffered a terrible, terrible bereavement and in the midst of it we had a baby and I can barely even remember that time because it was so riddled with grief and darkness. I felt acute guilt that instead of basking in the glow of my beautiful newborn, I was shackled by the loss of his Grandfather.

I didn’t blog about that.

I blogged about his first smile and the first time I took him to the park.

Because life isn’t perfect, but neither are our memories. When I look back, when my children look back, I want a record of the good shit, the funny stuff they said, how sometimes they sat giggling together in the bath, how sometimes I baked them bread. And how a lot of the time, most of the time, we were happy.

Does that make me dishonest? Does it make me smug?

I think it just makes me the same as most other people who chronicle their lives in diaries and scrap books and blogs. Selective I guess.

And if you don’t like it, or if it makes you feel bad? Well there’s always the option to stop reading. Fancy that.

Say what you like about Lily Allen…

…but to my knowledge there’s no one else out there singing about life as a stay at home Mum or life as a working Mum or glass ceilings and miscarriages and baby weight and objectification. So there’s that.

***

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When the day’s over and I have a second to myself
I lie on the sofa watching TV
Get on the computer and start checking up on everyone else
On everyone else

Looking at all the pictures
Up to all sorts of mischief
Some of them are ridiculous
Everything’s there to see

Everyone looks so wasted
Totally off their faces
I feel so isolated
Everyone there but me

Why does it feel like I’m missing something?
“Been there and done that” was good for nothing
Everything’s perfect, yeah I’m as content as can be
This is the life for me (This is the life for me, yeah)

Tell me I’m normal for feeling like this
It’s a bit early for a midlife crisis
Everything’s perfect, yeah I’m as content as can be
This is the life for me (This is the life for me, yeah)

I’m not complaining but last night I hardly slept at all
But actually yes I am complaining
No energy left in me, the baby might have taken it all
Cause I’ve hit the wall

Please don’t think that I’m being rude
Honey I’m just not in the mood
I’m head to toe in baby food
So please will you give it a rest

It’s not that I don’t love you
And it’s not that I don’t want to
Honestly baby to tell you the truth
I feel like a bit of a mess

I could never get bored of it
And most of the time I love this
But sometimes I get nostalgic
When actually I’m complete

Everything’s perfect, yeah I’m as content as can be
This is the life for me (this is the life for me, yeah)