Saturday, 28 February 2015

Porn, Sex, A* grades, Body Image, Selfies, Self-Harm, Sexting, Popularity Contests, Self-Worth, oh and Feminism

Apparently the heading tells you everything you need to be frightened of, and talking about, with your daughters.

This was a two-page listicle in The Times, in the Body + Soul section, written by parenting expert Tanith Carey, who has just written and is promoting a book called Girls Uninterrupted.

Actually, Ms Carey is not an expert in parenting, and, to her credit, does not call herself one on her own site. She is a journalist, with a degree in English and French, who has carved out a career in health, wellbeing, and the parenting markets. That does not constitute expertise, it constitutes being a journalist for a living. Writing a book does not make you an expert in a subject (I know, because I've done it, and know how much I don't know about my area of expertise).

My mother sent me this article, because she regularly sends me clippings of the dire things that are going to happen to me and my children if I don't (a) save more, (b) worry more, (c) enjoy life even less than I do now. I don't mind. It's because of my loving mum's repeated warnings that I have eventually managed to start my own SIPP, and have a will.

I read the article with horror, and felt shattered for several days afterwards, unable to collect my thoughts. I felt powerless, grief-stricken. That my child is going to be unable to sidestep the degradation of women, unwanted rough sex, low selfie-esteem, online pageants, cutting clubs, the bullying of the cool crowd, or feminism, filled me with hopelessness.

It seems I have accomplished nothing in my life. I have not been able, singlehandedly, to get rid of these scourges, around me, inside me, and will not be able to see them off for my beautiful child (obviously she's not just pretty, she's, like, really clever too!).

It's not that Carey's list or her advice is not sensible. She advocates conversation with your girls, not as a way to prevent things going wrong, but as a way to transmit tools to daughters that might help them prepare for the Sex Tsunami you know is coming their way. And as a way to build a bridge back if your daughter starts going the wrong way. What price jeunes filles en fleurs? Budding, blossoming, non — our girls are getting ready for the meat market.

Obviously, you should be having the same conversations with your sons, right? It's not in Carey's piece, but I fervently hope it's what she believes.

Because boys, too, should know that pornography doesn't reflect what happens in most people's bedrooms, and is made by an exploitative industry.

Boys should know that they will be unable to resist passing on saucy pics they have asked their girlfriends to send them, since boys, it seems, have no self-control and are just animals without hair.

Boys should probably know about the self-harm their female friends are inflicting on themselves. And that boys do it too.

Because otherwise, what you are doing, when you talk to your daughter about sex, is telling her that she alone is responsible for the penetrating male gaze, desire and actions. And it was ever thus.

He cannot, apparently, help himself.

Back in 1813, the same kind of parental horror was reserved for Lydia Bennett, who elopes with George Wickham and shows no remorse. How could a girl sully herself so, and throw away her chances of a good marriage, and hence, salvation? Today women are 'allowed', under the New Puritanism, to have relationships with men before marriage, but the anxiety about where women must draw the line has moved to scour their very flesh. The discourse is still all about patrolling what you look like and what you do with your sexual organs. Nothing in Carey's article mentions that young women might have desires of their own.

I was surprised not to see anorexia or bulimia (or indeed suicide, oh, and drugs) on the list. Hmmm. Perhaps these have had their journalistic day, now that Much More Sensational ideas of self-harm can pop up, like Teen Horror flicks, to bewilder parents.

It's funny, because when I was in my mid-teens, and developing an eating disorder as a response to the extreme pressure I put myself under to be perfect, to be the best, to come first, while remaining gracious at all times (yeah, right), I was surrounded by, shot through with, scare stories about the 'hidden scourge' of anorexia, the disorder that was invisibly plaguing our young girls. We hadn't heard of self-harm then.

The way anorexia was talked about (secret horror! Right under our noses!) made it much more attractive as a possible misery pathway to girls like me — over-achieving, anxious girls who thought they were ugly because they were nerds. Who thought they should be thin, even though they knew it was all rubbish. There was no internet, but if I wanted to see the degradation of women, all I needed to do was head into a newsagent, and look up at the top shelf. What's changed?

When I was an undergraduate, back in the late 1980s, still battling to overcome bulimia (I used to think of myself as a failed anorexic, because basically I liked food too much to starve myself), I once heard Susie Orbach talking about Fat is a Feminist Issue, and asked her whether she thought that eating disorders were romanticised by the media. She looked at me as if I'd pooped on the floor. She assumed I was making light of the situation. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

So-called 'parenting experts', who are essentially making a living out of frightening parents, are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Carey is not absolutely wrong to name ten issues in pubescent girls' lives. And her solution — to be open about the unpleasant parts of modern British and Western society — is not completely wrong either. I think it might have helped had I been able to talk to my mother more openly about sex. I think.

What is wrong is that newspapers think it's ok to package these issues up as a handy takeaway list, as though these ten items actually constitute reality for our girls, as if girls are responsible for male desire, as if girls will have no desires of their own, and as if there is literally nothing else in the female universe but a preoccupation with bodies, hardcore porn and self-worth.

What saved me in the end was falling in love with a kind boy at university, and learning to enjoy sex. There it is. Thank you, that boy.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

A mother's work is never done

In the wake of the Mumsnet and Woman's Hour investigation of who does what in the home, I went on thinking about such matters, and ended up giving a short talk about housework at the wonderful Feast of Reason, a simultaneously laid-back and high octane Supper Club in South London.

The Chore Wars investigations, which took place in October 2014, strongly recalled Vanessa Engle's 2010 three-part documentary on the impact of feminism on women's lives — one episode of which was devoted to the division of labour in the home.

Engle revealed the not very surprising fact that little had actually changed for women, especially married working mothers, despite their apparent 'liberation' since the 1960s (whoopee! Such a long history!).

Women, according to Engle, had essentially won the choice of working outside the home, but not won the war of getting their menfolk to step up and do more in the home. Engle's documentary came out in March 2010 — I remember ranting about it at the time, because I had just started trying to write Motherload. Little did I know that five years later I would still be struggling to write that book, in the main because I was suffering FROM Motherload, when not actively fighting it.

For the talk on Housework at the Feast, I just put together the astonishing statistics that the 2014 Mumsnet survey came out with. These boiled down to two salient ones:
1. Mothers, whether they go out to work or stay at home with their children, do on average TEN HOURS of chores a week. And that is twice as many hours as their partners do. 
2. 66% of those surveyed — a full two thirds — said they didn't want their partner to do more around the house.
The latter notion was not something that had emerged from Engle's documentary — the absolutely incredible idea that most mothers do not want the status quo to change in their favour. Mumsnet concluded that either mothers are "comfortable with the current balance, because it suits them to do the chores themselves, or […] they believe that their partner would not perform them to the requisite standard".

This conclusion blew my mind as much as the survey finding itself. The requisite what was that? I felt like the Suffragettes must have felt when they realised that not every woman was on their side. Or like the middle class feminists constantly accused of not speaking for all women, and trying to impose their agenda on everyone. Requisite standard be blowed — it's ideology toying with our heads, is what it is. The ideology that whispers, "it's your job really you know, women, we're just making nice. Go on, of course you can have it all… as long as you do it all. Put the kettle on, love".

When I gave the talk at the Feast of Reason, I tried to draw people's attention to the historical facts: women's work used to have clear social status, back in the seventeenth century. If you go to the Geffrye Museum, you can see it for yourself, in its very own mausoleum. In the seventeenth century, the emerging 'middling' classes lived over their shops, and while the men were merchants, the women were vital business partners upstairs in the Hall — entertaining clients, and managing the accounts. OK, they weren't downstairs fronting the business, but they absolutely had status for the work they did.

It was only as the industrial revolution took hold that middle class women were pushed right out of the workplace, and end up locked in the drawing room playing cards and fretting about politesse — after all, working class women have always worked. It's just that they were working doing jobs that richer women didn't want to do.

When I was at university, wringing my hands about the plight of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ladies, with nothing to do but worry about marriage, the genteel daughters of vicars only able to be governesses, I entirely overlooked the class lens through which I viewed everything. Class, in the 1980s and 1990s, was so passé. Terry Eagleton was seen as past his prime, the hoary old Marxist.

During the questions after my talk, I began to feel distinctly depressed. One person asked what the 'demographic' of Mumsnet is. I don't really know, it's hard to gauge. Another said that women wanted to do a lot of housework 'to have some status'. Another questioned why I was doing so much washing, and whether it was really necessary. I don't think she can have read my blog… A fourth was incredulous at the Chores list itself — "does anyone actually do all this?" Yuh-huh, they do. They have to. There isn't anyone else to do it. All these people were women. After the talk, another woman came up to me privately, especially to tell me that she had chosen to stay at home with her children. My depression grew. Talking about housework, I think, is extremely personal, and makes people feel vulnerable and exposed (I certainly felt as if I was washing my dirty laundry in public).

I know very well that I derive exactly no sense of status from cleaning the house, or running our finances, or engineering all the chores which come with having two children. I do it because if I don't do it, it doesn't get done. That's not because I married some oblivious git of a man, I didn't, and he pulls his weight — I wouldn't have married a pig, I'm not stupid. He's lovely, and I love him. He works hard, and so do I. We share a lot. He thinks I'm always telling him he's not doing enough. I'm not.

It's just that there is so much to do, and I'm the de facto CEO.

I have looked for short cuts all the way through — I will happily clean the bath as I'm having a shower in it — but I draw the line at ready meals. I have ended up rearranging my entire working life so as to to be able to work from home, precisely to grab back that insane commuter time, which sucks two hours a day from our lives — two hours a day that I need just to keep our lives going, without keeling over with stress and exhaustion.

I was depressed all weekend after the talk, at the triviality of the fight I was trying to name — who the hell cares who puts the bins out? — and at the same time at the massive, passive impact 'housework' has had on my life since becoming a wife and mother. What's so difficult to get across to people who aren't in this position is the sheer relentlessness of tasks flying at you from the second you get up, as if you were on a trading room floor. But just not earning anything. In Pat Barker's novel, Regeneration, the psychotherapist Rivers finally works out what causes breakdowns in the trenches of the First World War. It isn't the shelling or spectacle of death per se, terrible though those things are, it is the utter relentlessness of it, and the fact that the men are as helpless and trapped as women in the home.

But this isn't news — women have been writing and talking about this for years now.

So why isn't it changing? Why aren't men stepping up? Why are women apparently happy to maintain the unfair status quo?

It certainly isn't because it makes them happy. It makes me extremely unhappy. I have a first class degree from Cambridge and a doctorate from Oxford, two children and no career or status. Dusting doesn't make me happy. I can feel a momentary satisfaction from a clean house and a fridge full of food. But that's not happiness. I don't care what other people think of me, but I know I'm supposed to care, and not caring doesn't stop the sneaky asides and comparisons. I find it depressing, on a daily basis, that the people I love most create the most work for me, however much I urge and train them to pick up after themselves. The residue is always there, and the underlying assumption is definitely that it is really my job.

I have to keep my emotions under permanent control, because giving way to them causes disasters — rows, upset, tears. It feels, every day, like cutting off half of myself. Obviously I realise self-control is a good thing. But amputating half of my affective life? In order to facilitate the needs of others? How is that caring?

In the end I was depressed after the talk because I'm sad that it's still an issue of any kind. Female drudgery was something I dreaded succumbing to all the time I was growing up, and yet I haven't been able to stave it off or change things, in becoming an adult. The difference between mine and my mother's life is that she had more money, and didn't have to work outside the home, and my father had already retired, and helped around the house a lot, so she actually had a lot less to do. It meant she was a better mother in absolute terms, than I am or can be.

Before I married and had children, I was an academic, and had a set of rooms in a Cambridge college. A bedder came and cleaned my rooms — she became a good friend in troubled times, and I still have the champagne glasses she gave me when I left the college. I was always hugely embarrassed when she came, but very grateful. She and I were both over the moon when I was pregnant. She was definitely a mother figure to me.

Now I am a mother and she is far away. I don't regret leaving academia or having my beautiful children. I just regret the fact that I am not a man.

Thursday, 19 February 2015


My daughter and I have agreed to give something up for Lent.

I'm giving up extra sugar, she's giving up excessive time online, and limiting it to half an hour (not including schoolwork time (for terms and conditions read the small print)).

It's as impossible to give up sugar completely as it is to stay off the internet now. Some form of sugar is in most everything we eat, whether it's processed or not, and since my girl was given an iPad by her school, there is literally no way she will be able to remain internet-free from now on. The techno tsunami has washed into our house.

In the run up to Lent I was eating more and more sugary nonsense, in a bid to cope with stress, and my lack of time to write. Meanwhile she was always creeping off to her room to message friends, and spend extraordinary amounts of her time on apps entitled things like, 'Tropical Fish Bundle', 'Hollywood U: Rising Stars', 'Kim Kardashian: Hollywood' etc. She has also started to spend her own pocket money on things called 'Life Point Lotus'. The thin end of the wedge is upon me!

Perhaps I'm wrong, but watching this change in her, from child-who-is-always-reading-and-drawing to child-locked-in-room-with-gizmo, which has been extraordinarily rapid, a matter of a couple of months, saturates me with dread.

When I was her age, I used to sit in a brown-painted hallway every Wednesday, waiting for my piano lesson. Each week without fail, I bought a Twix and a copy of Jackie magazine. I ate the chocolate, and stared at the teen mag, filled with photostories of girls with boyfriends, girls at discos, girls putting on makeup. I used that half hour, every week, to fill myself with loathing of myself. The whole ritual symbolised eloquently that I was fat, spotty and ugly, a nerd incapable of meeting a boy who would like me, doomed to isolation, perfectionism, eternal ugliness and work, just work. That Wednesday moment was the epicentre of my puberty, founding a malfunction that eventually nearly pulled me under altogether.

The fear that this will happen to my child is what washes through me whenever I see her door closed. I imagine her torturing herself with images of bodily 'perfection' that simply do not exist, worrying about whether she will ever attract a boy, beating herself up for not being pretty enough, slowly ebbing away from her true identity — my beautiful, beautiful girl.

I cannot help myself. I see her iPad, her iPhone, her Kindle, all of which she now possesses, for different reasons, with our ambivalent blessing, as akin to handing her a packet of fags or a free pass to Soho. I know, rationally, that she must be conversant with apps, know how to research online, needs to be able to socialise with friends as they do, may find whole new creative outlets that people of my generation don't yet know about.

But the time, the precious time wastedthe exposure to bitching and its normalisation, the alienation of staring into fragments of other people's lives — it still happens to me when I watch TV for too long, or sit on Facebook: that feeling of emptiness, uselessness, failure of passively witnessing other people's apparent success. I don't want her exposed to those pernicious conductors of post-capitalist ideology. I can't stop it happening, but I feel utterly invaded, in my own home.

Listen to the Luddite.

So, after weeks of stand-off, I went to her with a proposal. We would each give something up for Lent — Technical Specification: 40 days of self-denial and atonement, and temptation by the Devil — and we would keep a log to see what happened. To my surprise she agreed, liking the idea of sticking to a framework, having some rules.

In the first couple of days she strayed — she sneaked onto the Kindle when my back was turned. Then she lied about it on the log.

And then she went back and corrected the log.

She told me she had felt bad for not telling the truth. And said she felt better after she had.

We are on half term at the moment, and I am noticing my own tendency to want to sneak off online while the children clamour for my attention. I am having to make myself play games with them. But when I do make the effort, new worlds open up (not permanently, I'm not a saint). I have written more in the past few days than in the previous five months. My daughter says half term has been good, although we have done very little except spend hours together.

Today she has begged me to do a Spa Day with her. At first I was utterly unwilling. Now I'm quite excited. Perhaps the ghost of Jackie past can be washed out of my feet.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The Daughterhood

I wish I'd thought of The Daughterhood. This is going to be huge.

So, this book asks a very simple question — how are you going to feel at your mother's funeral? 

It's so obvious, but it winds you.

This book names something unbearable, and holds us to the deepest meaning of it. To ask about our mothers is to ask about the nature of love, and our capacity to understand love, whether it was given in our earliest years, or withheld.

The Daughterhood tells the story of what the authors went through, from Natasha Fennell's own realisation that her mother was not immortal, through convening a group of women connected solely through their wish to improve their relationship with their mothers before it was too late, then the Motherwork that each daughter tried to undertake, and finally to epilogues from the authors' wonderful, articulate mothers themselves.

The Daughterhood is unashamedly a self-help group, but is really giving a name to what is already happening out there — daughters who worry about their mothers as they age.

Like the authors, Natasha Fennell and Róisín Ingle, I have found that every time I get together with good girlfriends, talk will, at some stage, turn towards our mothers. This turn in the conversation has been happening regularly, for many of us at least from the time of becoming mothers ourselves, probably before. The ratio of complaint to concern in these conversations has also been shifting for many years.

My friends and I know that we are all representatives of the 'squeezed middle' — middle aged, middle class, middle income, mid-career, usually (but not always) caught painfully between young children and ageing parents. Our conversations have certainly been as much about self-pity as about our mothers. We fret, rant, and talk about ourselves. The actual mother tends to be secondary. Until I read The Daughterhood, I could pretend these were still indulgent moans about bossy mums trying to rule our lives. Now I can't.

Now, in our mid-forties, it is undeniable that our mothers are turning seventy-five or eighty, perhaps starting to suffer from cancer or dementia, losing husbands, their own friends, becoming lonely or fragile. Some of my friends are actually losing mothers. Some of my friends are facing life-threatening illness themselves. Of course. It's life. You can't stop it, can you?

The difference is that it is our lives, our mothers' lives at stake. No more rehearsals, no more luxury of time. This is as real as it gets. Our mothers are going to die. And so, by extension, are we.

What gets trampled in this crazy slide towards an ending is the heart of the relationship. In the practicalities of pills, rushed phone calls and frustration, we lose the opportunity either to have or to mend our Motherbonds. This book allows all that chatter of daily life to fall away, and gives women permission to anchor themselves, by concentrating on their mothers — whatever the state of the relationship.

By giving it a name, the authors of The Daughterhood are also creating rules and boundaries which actively support a project with an aim, rather than wading about in amorphous, rather hopeless feelings. You are given the space to reflect on what you might do yourself. While you read the book, you can think about your mother in a completely new way — with love, without guilt. As the authors tell you how they brought together the Daughterhood, what they set out to do, and what actually happened, you feel part of the group by proxy. You are listening in on all kinds of daughters, and all kinds of maternal relationships, some of them unbearably painful. Not all relationships with mothers can be redeemed, some are dysfunctional and dangerous. They are the saddest of all.

One of the most helpful elements in the book is the creation of a daughterly typology: the Busy Daughter, the Daughter of Madness, the Daughter of Narcissism, the Becoming-My-Mother Daughter, the Grieving-Her-As-She-Lives Daughter, the Dependent Daughter, the Dedicated Daughter, the Reluctant and the Disappointing Daughter. I defy readers not to identify with at least one of those categories, more likely several. Probably there are other categories of daughter, and the book doesn't try to cover everything, just to pinpoint what was driving each of the relationships in the small group which composed this particular Daughterhood.

The point is not that this Motherwork can somehow be finished — a mother's work is never done — but that bringing one's attention to the relationship between daughter and mother itself takes that relationship forward towards an irrevocable turning point, and helps both parties cope with it. Whether this is about practical things like spending more time with one's mother, actually listening to her, or making a decision to cut off from an abusive mother entirely, there is Motherwork that every kind of daughter can do.

The Daughterhood actively and directly shifts the spotlight from us, the daughters, to them, the mothers. It felt like being cradled and urged out of the cradle at one and the same time. This active shift, miraculously, seems to allow both parties to become truly who they are. Who are our mothers in the last years of their lives? What is it like to get older? What would they really like (as opposed to what we think is good for them)? Asking these questions, it turns out, is certainly about honouring our mothers, but underneath it is also about honouring ourselves, we who will be next.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

The no-swearing chat

My daughter has just blown my mind.

After we came home just now, she called down the stairs, "I had 310 new WhatsApp messages!" I was duly horrified. What could I possibly do, the helpless middle-aged woman, against this new scourge? Just how much time was my child going to waste on pointless online activity?

A few minutes later, I was pouring out a cup of tea (Fifty Shades of Earl Grey as a well-known stationery shop puts it), and she came down to collect it, nonchalantly telling me, "The messages didn't take that long to read. Most of them were on the new non-swearing chat I set up."

The what now?

My child, my eleven-year-old child, my child who is only a term into secondary school, had taken it upon herself to start a chat with her friends, saying, "You don't have to join in, but on this chat we're just not going to swear. The chat's not about 'not swearing', it can be like the other chats, except, we just don't swear."

Apparently the young moderator, who should clearly be running the UN, went on, "Yeah, I said it was because my mum found out about other chats with swearing, and she didn't like it, so I decided because I still want to catch up with my friends, but I don't want them to swear, because I'm clean, so I just thought, that's what I'll do."

I was open-mouthed, and gave her a high five.

What had actually happened was that, while she was upstairs one evening, with her (grudgingly bestowed) smartphone on the table beside me, a string of sweary messages had popped up on the screen from fellow year 7s, including one bitching, frankly, about another child.

I had been shocked, and summoned my daughter down for the third degree. She had burst into tears and told me, "Mum, I've been dealing with this stuff for years now. I don't do it, I just change the subject, I don't join in, and I don't like it, but you can't protect me from it, it just happens."

I'm speechless with pride.