Following a fairly atrocious article in the Daily Mail, where I was misquoted and generally misrepresented (I won’t do them the favour of linking to it) I was asked to speak on the Niall Boylan show about raising children as gender neutral. The presenter (Niall) was biased and ill-informed on the subject, so it wasn’t quite the intellectual debate I was hoping for, but I at least got the opportunity to share my unedited views on the matter, as it went out live. If you fancy having a listen, the programme is online here.
‘I thought motherhood would make me weak and passive but it has filled me with fury and passion instead’
I was interviewed by Melanie Wright for The Sunday Times about the ridiculous cost of childcare meaning returning to part time work was (financially) pointless, which is why I started my online culture and lifestyle magazine The Early Hour. In case you haven’t heard about The Early Hour… articles are published daily at 5am, for people who are up early in the morning.
The interview was used for a news piece by Becky Barrow, too – also in The Sunday Times. The second photo of Joni (by photographer Vicki Couchman) was hilarious…
Becoming a mum can be a bit like starting school again. Suddenly, you’re thrown into a playground of new potential friends and have no idea where to look or who to play with. I wrote about this for Selfish Mother.
This morning I was sitting on my bed, naked, after having a shower. The Gypsy Kings were playing through the Spotify app on my phone and Joni was holding it up to her ear saying “ello” repeatedly, while running around the room – occasionally stopping to twerk.
The song came to an end and she looked me in the eyes. She came over and started to point to various parts of my face and body: “eyda” (eyes), “non” (nose), “air” (hair), “booboo” (boobies). She got to my stomach and stopped. She looked a bit confused. Then using both hands, she lifted a piece of flab and found the “tata” (tattoo) she was looking for on my hip bone.
I laughed. And then I thought: shit, we’re a year and a half post-birth – should that flab still be there? And then I thought: yes, it should, because it’s winter and I although I run every morning, I also like (in fact LOVE) drinking white hot chocolate every day, and eating flapjacks and thick slices of sourdough bread with chocolate and almond butter.
In a recent interview (coming soon to The Early Hour), a mum told me that she feels we are all in awe of a pregnant body but disgusted by it post-birth. And I agree with her – pregnancy is buoyant and blooming and rosy, while our postnatal bodies are flabby and sagging and feel as if they’ve been used and are now just getting in the way.
Funnily enough, in the photo above – taken three days after I gave birth – I remember looking down at my stomach with its stretch marks, linea nigra, flaps and indents and bobbles and loose skin and feeling amazed and so in love with my body. Rich caught me taking a photo and asked why I wanted to photograph “that”. He didn’t see the beauty in it, like I did.
But my amazement at what my body had achieved in growing and birthing and feeding Joni ceased after a few months, when I started to feel frustrated that I couldn’t run without getting mastitis, that my back ached and that those rolls of loose skin/fat weren’t shifting from my belly.
So this morning I was imagining a world where a female’s body is considered beautiful throughout childhood, teenagehood, adulthood – through pregnancy, birth, post-birth – into the menopause, out the other side and all the way into old age… Wouldn’t that be so lovely? If us women didn’t have to feel guilty about what we eat, how much we exercise (or don’t), and the state of our frame after growing and pushing out a baby…
And then, after my initial moment of horror/hilarity as Joni shifted my belly fat around while hunting for my tattoo, it dawned on me that there is a world where women’s bodies are revered whatever their size, shape, texture, age. It’s the world through children’s eyes. Joni is fascinated by my body – crevices, rolls of skin and fat, hair (wherever it may be. She excitedly referred to my pubic hair as ‘dogon’ – yes, DOG – in the bath recently).
And her love and fascination of bodies extends beyond just me, her mum. She loves her grandma’s “booboos”, her auntie’s “booboo” (as well as breasts, this means belly – her auntie has a lovely big round one, as she’s six months pregnant). And any other woman she is fond of will undoubtedly have a body Joni thinks is just wonderful.
So for anyone feeling down about their body today, try to shift your perspective. Take yourself back to childhood – when beauty was about kindness and warmth and smiles and playfulness; not skinniness, flawless skin, youth, cool clothes – and keep that outlook firmly in place as you look at your sisters. If we all start loving our own and other women’s bodies just as they are, as children do, the world will be a better place.
Parenthood is riddled with guilt. In fact, it should be renamed guilt-trip-hood, because there seems to be an inordinate amount of it weaved into the journey from conception to birth to childhood. It even continues when your children have grown up into adults, moved out and have their own kids.
It’s rare that I step back and applaud myself for the job i’m doing with Joni. Like most parents, i’m highly self-critical, anxious that i’m doing the wrong thing and am constantly making adjustments in an attempt to provide the safest, happiest, most stimulating environment I can.
However… there’s this little thing that keeps popping up and I thought it was time I addressed it. Since launching The Early Hour (a culture and lifestyle magazine for parents), I’ve spent a large part of my time interviewing mums and dads. One piece of advice I hear time and time again is: when you’re with your children, put your phone away and give them 100% of your attention.
I can’t argue with this: of course you should interact with your kids rather than scrolling through photos on Facebook, but I’m beginning to wonder (read: am desperate to prove) that ignoring your kids, just a little bit, might actually be quite healthy.
When I was young, I distinctly remember my mum, probably aged about 34, hopping onto the kitchen counter and calling her friends from the phone attached to the wall. It was so long ago that you actually had to pull the circular dial around to each number with your index finger. She’d then spend what felt like HOURS chatting away to her pals. We’d have to write notes to get her attention. (Sorry mum).
At the time, I didn’t understand why it was so important for her to communicate with her friends, surely we were SO MUCH MORE FUN AND INTERESTING??? But I now completely understand. When you spend all day with your children, you need a break; you need adult company – and whether that’s in real life, on the phone, or on Facebook messenger doesn’t really matter.
But not just that. When you ignore your children, as long as you know they’re safe, you’re giving them the opportunity to use their imagination – to make up their own games and stories, to play with toys in new ways that they’ve discovered, to get bored and have to creatively find a way to fill the time. (Like writing notes begging their mum – who’s on the phone – to let them have a biscuit).
At the moment, i’m caring for 17-month-old Joni full time while working nearly full time hours during her naps, in the evenings and on the weekend. Perhaps if I went out to work during the day, I’d be more inclined to dedicate the smaller amount of time we had together to fully-focused play. But as it stands, we have eight waking hours together – so if a proportion of that time is spent with me on my phone or computer: replying to emails, editing an article or liaising with advertisers – it shouldn’t be too great a loss.
Writing this article has been somewhat cathartic. I now feel a lot more at ease with the fact that Joni is playing, alone, with her Play-Doh balls in front of me as I tap my thoughts into my iPhone. YEAH RIGHT. I think there’s no escaping the guilt-trap you fall into as soon as you realise you’re pregnant (can I have a ‘drink’? Is a tiny slice of brie ok…), which gets worse after the birth (is she too hot/cold/hungry, should I cuddle her more/less, is she napping enough, should she still be breastfeeding…).
All we can do is make sure the child is happy and loved – and that we feel happy in ourselves too. If that means averting your attention every now and again to check-in with a mum friend or to get a bit of work done, it’s not going to ruin your child’s upbringing. It will help them to become really good at entertaining themselves – honestly, I love my own company. (Thanks mum).
This week saw the launch of my new online magazine The Early Hour – culture, lifestyle and parenting. Articles are published at 5am (‘The Early Hour’) so that parents don’t miss out.
So far, there are interviews with Gorgon City, poet Hollie McNish (Hollie Poetry), Benjamin Zephaniah, Rudimental’s DJ Locksmith, the actor Barry Ward, Working Mums, Working Dads, a Full Time Dad, film reviews and more…
Come and check it out!
I worked on a series of interviews for Motherland, asking women in their 20s through to 90s when they were happiest. It was rather enlightening.
1. Louise, 27, video effects coordinator, talks about topless cycling in France, feminism and her plans for the future. You can read it here.
2. Lauren, 32, designer, discusses being ‘present’ in her teens, bad social media habits and having supportive parents. Read it here.
3. Jane, 46, communications manager, talks greying hair, lip gloss and forgetting her age. See here.
4. Jo, 70, teacher, regales the freedom of growing old and throwing perfection to the wind “With ageing, everyone talks about the bad things – about your tits dropping – but there are things that definitely compensate for getting older…”. Read it here
5. Lastly, 90-year-old Ellen talks growing up one of 15 children, life as a housekeeper on Harley Street, and summers in Cannes. More here.
Skirts were recently banned at a secondary school in Stoke-on-Trent because the head teacher believes they are distracting to male teachers and other pupils when hitched up. This caused an inevitable media furore and the country began debating the issue.
So firstly, what is the issue? Well, one aspect is the suggestion that girls are inherent sexual objects for the male gaze. The idea that dressing in a certain way is ‘provocative’ feeds the outdated notion that men can behave and dress as they like but women must cover up and behave appropriately so as not to titillate men.
And why are male teachers distracted by young girls in short skirts? Perhaps it’s because society tells us that youth and flesh are sexually appealing. Porn plays a part. The film industry plays a part. Ads on billboards, TV and in magazines play a part. A broader choice for what constitutes ‘sexy’ (age, size, colour, dress) would be helpful.
Another issue is the reason the girls want to hitch up their skirts. I questioned this a couple of years ago in this blog post and concluded that women wear mini skirts because they have become the norm; they are welcome at work, weddings – they don’t garner the same response they might have back in the 60s when they first came into fashion.
But what about girls in short skirts? As a 30-year-old woman, I still have vivid memories of my rebellious teenage years, dressing in stupidly short skirts with platform heels. I’d dress like this at school because we didn’t have a uniform and it wasn’t so that male teachers, or male pupils, would find me sexy but because I was simply a teenager pushing the boundaries.
I get the pros of uniform but it does limit young people who are exploring their identity and who don’t necessarily want to conform and look exactly the same as fellow pupils. My school seems very liberal when I look back: we dyed our hair all the colours of the rainbow, a boy in my year had a leopard print pattern dyed onto his nearly-shaved head, we wore whatever we wanted (ripped tights, fishnet, polkadot).
Teenagers will continue to experiment with fashion – uniform or no uniform – and they should be able to do so without being told they’re putting themselves at risk or luring older men. Instead, older men should check themselves – the real concern is that they are viewing young girls as sex objects.
So what’s the solution? Well how about rather than banning girls from wearing certain clothes, which has a worryingly religious resonance, we address the objectification and sexualisation of girls in schools. Boys (and male teachers, apparently) need to be taught that there is more to a girl than the way she looks.
Equally, girls need to be reminded that there is more to life than the way they look. There was certainly huge pressure to look – rather than to think – a certain way when I was growing up (there still is). A less narrow beauty ideal and greater emphasis on intelligence over appearance would be useful – within the wider context of freedom to express yourself however you choose.
As usual, with any feminist issue, education is key. As a society, we need to change the way we view women and girls – and those formative school years are key in determining our general outlook. A class on sexuality, equality, the freedom to choose, liberating not repressing females and identity would be a lot more useful than, once again, blaming girls for the way they are viewed by men.