Sally Jesse and the Baying Masses

I used to watch TV instead of going to school when I was in my teens. Now, now, don’t leap down my throat. You think just because you’ve read one sentence, that gives you the basic idea so now you can spew bile on the comments section. No, no. I was sick okay? Also, that’s a bad way to behave.

I learned a lot about good and bad ways to behave, stuck at home with the TV remote. Daytime TV is super educational, in a brain rotting sort of way. First infomercials (home gym equipment, Suzanne Clip), then between Oprah (book club, touchy-feely, car giveaways) and MASH (honestly it was a welcome relief), was Sally Jesse Raphael. The queen of trash talk TV.

Families would drag their teenage daughters on to the show. Tearfully, angrily, they would divulge their disgust in how they dressed and who they spent their time with, because there is no better parenting than slut-shaming your child on internationally broadcast television. Concerns would be brushed aside, brazenly, brashly, by these abrasive girls.

Sally Jesse, in her power suits and oversize red glasses would look suitably disgusted and appalled at all this carry on. Revolted by the choices these girls were making. How they chose to dress. Dragging it all out for the drama, and then offering platitudes in the guise of helping these families. We were all with her, weren’t we? It was a learning experience. A chance to clear the air, between loving family members and a declining audience share.

Looking back I do not for a second think that these girls (and they were girls) were exemplars of feminine empowerment. I think many of them were making very unhealthy choices. How easy it is to blame them. To blame their families. Perhaps even to blame the television executives who used their poverty of choices as fodder for entertainment. Millions bounced around by corporations, creating growth, profit, jobs for the hardworking, and here was the bread for the masses. Keep the crowds happy with the cut and thrust of a domestic spectacle. A drama where the only people hurt were those already on the bottom of the heap.

Years later I lived in the UK with my husband. Cambridge, a town full of elites and drowning in its own beauty. My husband was completing his PhD, while I worked a low wage job. Looking for a flat for our last year was stressful, we looked at many shitty flats in many dodgy locations before finding a reasonably good option. A one-bedroom terrace flat in a block of council flats. The type of flat with pre-pay electric meters, and neighbours who stocked up on extra large cans of lager at the corner store in the morning. The type of flat whose previous tenant had decided to disappear after the mounting debts got too much. The houses across the street had nice gardens, but the occupants never said hello, unlike the guy who thought I should be grateful for the aggressively friendly attention of him and his two large pitbulls as they wandered the neighbourhood.

We shared an entrance with a boy in his late teens (and he was a boy), who moved in not long after us. Let’s call him Mark. I don’t know why Mark ended up in a council flat on his own at such a young age, though I can make a few guesses. It’s clear Mark had been badly let down, first by the family who should have looked after him, and then by the social structures that should have been supporting him when his family failed. But, he wasn’t a bad guy. He didn’t set off the alarm bells that some of our other neighbours did, or that some of his friends did.

The flat had been noticeably quiet for some days before we were woken, early, by banging on the doors, “Mark!” The police had turned up. We opened the lower door, let them up, said we hadn’t seen him for a few days, and then minded our own business like good neighbours should. A few days later he came home, but he stopped going out at night.

Mark was under a curfew.

I don’t know what Mark had done. I only know that by the time we left Cambridge, Mark was in prison and his girlfriend was pregnant. I only know that social services worked in such a way that, though money was thrown at housing him, we never once saw someone checking if Mark, this barely literate teen, was okay. The only officials we saw in our time next door were police and debt collectors. He was dumped in a flat without the emotional skills to cope on his own, the maturity to keep him out of trouble, and without a clue how to manage basic tasks like putting out rubbish and recycling until we took the time to show him how.

All these years later, I still feel angry for Mark, for all the Marks. For the waste that was once a child with promise. I liked what I saw of his girlfriend. I’ve always thought she’s probably doing a good job of raising that child in a society full of hurdles. One where we set up single teen mums to fail and then wonder why it happens, if they do. But Mark? I’ve never thought a stint in prison would see him come out a better man. I wonder, how safe I would feel now, opening my door onto a quiet corridor and seeing him there.

And that curfew? It didn’t solve anyone’s problems. It didn’t stop Mark from having his mates over. It didn’t stop the noise, the drinking. It didn’t stop his mates from hooning off in a hurry in their cars late at night and probably drunk. It didn’t stop him from collecting a sawn-off length of pipe and running a lap of the block the night that bricks got thrown through our second floor windows. It didn’t stop Mark from trashing his apartment in a rage one night. I don’t know, but I think I’d feel like punching holes in walls if my life felt that hopeless too.

All it meant was his problem was contained. Away from the rest of Cambridge. The nice Cambridge.

Away from the successful middle class who tut-tut at these messy people with their messy lives as though somehow our societies are completely separate. As though the choices we make about how we share, and with who, are fair. As though it is these kids’ damn fault for the mess they find themselves in. As though we solve their problems by forcing them to be home, even if home is where they don’t feel safe.

Do you think Mark ended up where he was without the people who work on those front lines supporting kids thinking, ‘we are failing this kid’? Without someone wishing they had the resources to offer him something more. We listen to the mainstream media asking their tough questions. But when people tell us what they need, we peer into our bank vaults, count our change, and shake our heads sadly. Tell them to find ways to manage. Pour scorn on these wayward youths in a Sally Jesse style trial by media, and yet we refuse, refuse, to listen to the evidence for how to prevent Marks from becoming Marks in the first place.

We pretend we live in better, fairer societies than the Victorians, or the Romans before us. These days I get to sit in my nice flat, in my nice neighbourhood, and listen, as our politicians punch down. We all nod our heads, as though we too know what these kids need. Fool ourselves that we are not complicit.

Then we take our ring side seats, switch on our TV sets.

Grab your popcorn folks. Real life. It’s the best damn show in town.

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The world I would give my daughter

My daughter is asleep in her bed.

She lives a safe, secure life. I’m a stay-at-home-parent. She has never been left in the care of anyone other than her parents.

She cannot live all her life this way. I do not want her to.

One day I want her to venture out in this world. I want her to have freedoms. I want her to have choice.

I want her to be able to acknowledge that so many blessings and privileges she enjoys are due to the hard work of women before her. The right to her own money. The right to work, to own property. The right to an education. The right to control her own fertility. The right to marry and divorce, when and if she chooses.

I want her to understand that these blessings and privileges are not extended to all women around the world. I want her to believe in the right for all women to enjoy them. I want her to be unafraid to speak when necessary for those who can’t, and to listen and support those women who can.

I want her to live in a world where her right to exist in public is never questioned, where it will not make her a target for abuse. A world where women can be leaders without being called bossy, argumentative without being called shrill, annoyed without being called hormonal. A world where she can be a mother without being called slummy or yummy. A world where women are not judged by what bathroom they choose, or what size they wear. A world where women are not shamed for the natural functions of their bodies. A world where women are not asking for it. A world where women never have to be told to smile, or brushed off because it was just a joke.

She is too young to ask for things herself. She knows nothing of these troubles. So, while she sleeps, safe in her bed I will be her voice.

This is the world I would give my daughter. Tell me, is this too much to ask?

Stuck in the middle

The other weekend we went blackberry picking on a path near where we live. Like we might be the type of family that lives knee deep in Lego and laundry, watching TV in a super-urban apartment, and goodness knows what Janet Lansbury would make of the way I snap at the kids sometimes, but, whatever. We are also the kind of family that makes foraged jam. So wholesome.

I concentrated on filling up my ice-cream container while my husband helped M, who was very proud of the ten or so berries that ended up in his bucket. We left A buckled in her pram for safety’s sake, and as long as I fed her a berry every now and again she was happy. Until she wasn’t. And just then a family boated past us on the river, having a family sing-along.

Dammit. This isn’t wholesome family fun. Family sing-alongs while you boat is wholesome family fun. I’m doing this wrong. What must they think of the crazy woman standing in the blackberries while a toddler yells in a pram.

The yelling turns into crying.

I try to extract myself from the bush – cursing myself for wearing a skirt. And realise my jacket is snagged in many, many places. Turning to deal with that, my hair gets snagged by more thorns. I remember a recent episode of Peppa Pig, the one where they go blackberry picking and Mummy Pig gets stuck in a blackberry bush.

I have turned into Mummy Pig.

Dammit.

Mummy Pig just wants wholesome family fun. She just wants some fruit. And five minutes to pick berries without having to stop and admire a four year old’s basically empty bucket, or be yelled at. She just wants jam and maybe a crumble or two. Why does she have to be judged for her food choices? Why does she have to have her dignity stripped away by a blackberry bush – let’s all come laugh at the fat pig stuck in the prickly thorns! Why does she have to involve the whole family and share when all she wants is a fucking dessert? It’s not all about you Peppa!

Somehow I ripped myself free.

Or did I?

I came home to see the always excellent Andie Fox (@bluemilk) retweeting an old post because the same old tired arguments about mothers keep happening.

We will know we’re living in a world of equality not when just as many men as women are staying home making jam and looking after babies but when women can talk about their life making jam and looking after babies without everyone freaking the fuck out.

Because maybe the blackberry bush I am actually stuck in is a metaphorical one; a thorny tangle of attacking mothers for the choices they make. It seems in these days of information overload, we can’t just make a decision. We are expected to have thought about it – to have done our research. Then everyone gets to analyse our decision, and journalists write crappy clickbait articles about the mommy wars. But these choices (if we actually get a choice) aren’t about society. They are just the choices that we make for our life. Choosing jam doesn’t mean giving up on gender equality. But it is hard when you are in the thick of it to know if what you are doing is right. So does picking blackberries make me a better mother? Or does being mired in domesticity mean I am a poor role model? Or does it tell you nothing about me other than the fact we have blackberry bushes nearby and I like to cook?

And to eat.

So I made crumble. And I made jam. And my children and I shared licking the spoon and got happy, sticky, jammy faces.

Conclusion: It’s just fucking jam. Stop overthinking things.

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in pain thou shalt bring forth children

Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, and I were pregnant at the same time. My daughter arrived first, and despite my extended hospital stay, I was at home to see the footage of her leaving hospital rosy cheeks glowing, Princess Charlotte bundled in arms, another dress more lovely than anything I own. The plaudits soon rolled in; Kate had achieved the highest prize in motherhood – another natural birth. Oh, and a healthy baby.

Sitting on my couch at home I watched the cameras surrounding her. Glad I was spared the scrutiny of their lenses. That I could keep my dressing gown at midday, my grey-tinged skin, and slow painful walk to myself. I told myself the dress, the make-up, all hid the unglamorous reality of birth. Pain-killers and maternity pads can hide a multitude of sins.

After her first was born Kate was praised for her willingness to expose the truth about post-partum bodies, for her expanded uterus puffing out the custom-made Jenny Packer dress. ‘Hooray for Kate’ the magazine columns and opinion pieces cheered. This time people felt the need to criticize her for looking too good. Nonetheless, Kate had given birth only hours earlier. She did look that good. Those facts are true. But was it The Truth?

It seems hardly a week goes by without another facebook post exposing The Truth About Post-partum Bodies going viral. Many are beautiful stories. Many of the women sharing them are facing down daemons of their own, proudly and rightfully. Who am I to say they should not be celebrated. Mothers are judged this way and that way, no matter what choices they make. Ceasarean births are the easy way out. Women who have vaginal birth don’t understand what caesarean mothers go through -at least vaginal birth is what your body is made for. Get the damn epidural. Epidurals are cheating. Don’t cut the cord too quickly. Don’t cut the cord. Your baby needs you – it’s the fourth trimester! You need to rest to recover. Baby blues are normal. Are you at risk of PND? Your body is amazing. Get back to your pre-baby body quickly. Love your tiger stripes!

The proliferation of messages can be exhausting; made all the more over-whelming by sleep deprivation and hormonal swings. So we love the women who cut through all these headlines to show us something raw and real. The bathroom mirror selfie, newborn in a sling. The caesarean scar, a harsh line across the skin punctuating the rage in the writing. The hilarity of adult-nappies snapped in a maternity ward photo.

But are they the truth?

Perhaps they are only part of it.

Because it is easy to share a photo one day post-partum of yourself in nappies, but much harder to admit that you are still wearing them months down the track. It is easy to get shares of your scar photo, but no-one wants to see the infection you picked up, no-one wants to hear about the smell of your flesh in the doctors rooms. It’s easy to talk about how strong you are for growing and birthing a baby, but much harder to talk about how you have been left too weak to hold the baby, let alone take a selfie. It is easy to talk about how you love your body now, how proud of it you are. But how to talk about a body that has let you down? The one that couldn’t conceive, or couldn’t go unmedicated, that couldn’t labour, that couldn’t stop bleeding, that couldn’t breastfeed, that couldn’t heal. That hasn’t healed and here you are months later still wondering why you have been left like this. Or to talk about your body at all when it was not your body that was broken but your mind.

I’m reminded of Sarah Wilson/Writehanded’s piece – Is your feminism ableist? We place so much emphasis on independence, on self-reliance. We judge before we have any understanding of what individual barriers someone faced. We create ideas of what women should be able to do. We are supposed to feel empowered. And so in the rush to celebrate what many women can and do achieve we sometimes leave out those who need the help the most.

We talk about the old days, when it was our great-great-grandmothers who died. We wring our hands in sorrow, or not, over the 800 women who die daily in faraway countries in childbirth. We are told to feel lucky. Reminded the ideal birthplan is the one where ‘both mother and baby survive’. And that is all. As though, that is all.

We didn’t die. Is that enough? Is that enough for you? Is it enough for me?

Jane Seymour, third wife to Henry VIII; the ideal wife. She produced an heir, and then had the grace to die afterwards. She did not live to incur the wrath of Henry as so many of his wives did. Her purpose in life as a medieval women was fulfilled. But what did Jane want? Not death, surely. Her labour was long, two days, three nights – reportedly because of a malpositioned baby. Centuries later, I feel for Jane. Both of my children were malpositioned too. But she had to labour without the medical support I eventually received. I developed a post-partum infection caused by an excessively long labour, this was the probable cause of her death. The loss of her life was a tragedy for her. Just as it is a tragedy for those 800 women dying every day. So many avoidable deaths. Dead not because they experienced severe complications – dead because, like Jane, they lack access to the basics of sanitation, medication and nutrition. They are individual tragedies, not just statistics to be thrown in the face of any woman who has the temerity to complain about her own lot. We cannot dismiss women’s experiences as first world problems. As anyone who does not have it can tell you, health is not a first world problem. It is a problem.

The line between survival and death in a difficult birth can be paper thin. Walk this line and your view of the world changes. You only have to go back decades to get to a time where no women who experienced complications akin to mine survived. I am a historical anomaly. Childbirth has been made safe. So we want to believe it has been made safe for all women. We want to believe we are now in control. But our bodies and minds are no different from what they have always been. The only change is technology.

Have we forgotten so quickly that it wasn’t just a life and death matter? That even back then women survived with injuries that could not be healed. That women were pushed to the margins of history because the burden of procreation kept us there. What space was there in the public sphere for those left crippled, incontinent? Smelly old ladies. Women unable to conceive more children. Women of ‘delicate constitution’ who nonetheless had produced a number of children already. What would history be like if Jane hadn’t died? The truth is a labour that long without medical support could have left her with many significant health problems. How would the raging tyrant Henry we know from history books have treated an incontinent wife? We’ll never know. Jane will never know. This has been women’s shame for millennia. This is the truth. This is a truth.

We are no longer forced into confinement after birth. Women live their lives in the public sphere. We are expected back at work, back at the school run, back at playgroups. If we are expected to do these things we need to acknowledge the physical barriers some women still face. Without being accused of oversharing, or even being ungrateful for our children’s lives. We only get one body, and we have to live in it for all our life.

Everyone has a horror story we are told. We do all endure, however we birth our child, but to claim we all endure equally is false. What happens to you matters deeply to you. Why do we feel a need to lay a claim to the greatest suffering? Why do people then blithely announce that it ends when you hold your baby. That our bodies heal. Effectively shutting the women who have not healed out of the conversation.

We can’t all walk out of the hospital like Kate. The dress, the hair and make-up are the least of it. For many women childbirth is the beginning of a long journey back to health. We need to talk about that. Not least because poor physical health impacts on poor mental health. So while it is wonderful to praise the women who feel strong, and who feel brave, we also need to embrace the women whose bodies and minds are weak and shattered. The women for whom giving life took everything they had and who now begin a journey back to health. The women whose bodies are still suffering. The women who no longer know their bodies any more. The women who feel shame and keep silent.

This is the truth. This is a truth.

No More

I don’t want to have another child.

It just isn’t a possibility I can even consider.

I can’t face the thought of another pregnancy; nine long months. And then what at the end?

Oh I’m sure everyone will tell me – a beautiful baby!

But there is another hurdle to face first. Another birth. And what should I do then. Push the baby out and try not to panic that I’m going to deliver my womb as well? A cesarean? Find myself tied down under those lights again? I know a planned surgical procedure would be different. But heck, I’m nervous about how I would cope at a dentists now. So.

So I don’t want another child.

So my heart is heavy for the young mother in Queensland who is asking to be sterilised and is being refused.

My heart is heavy because since when can women who have carried three children not be trusted to make this decision for themselves. Since forever.

And my heart is heavy because the Royal Aust and NZ College of Obstetricians & Gynocologists think it is too risky, because she might change her mind, when she is older. Because ‘less permanent options should be explored’.

Contraception has already failed these parents three times. What happens if it fails again? What sort of decisions are we forcing them into then?

This woman has reportedly had pregnancies complicated by Gestational Diabetes, and difficult deliveries. Getting through a first pregnancy can be tough for some women. Getting through a second pregnancy while caring for a small child can be really tough. I imagine getting through a third difficult pregnancy with two young children would be really, really tough. I can understand she can’t face the thought of a fourth pregnancy with three children to care for. So what exactly is supposed to happen to make this woman change her mind?

It is sometimes suggested to women that if one child dies, you might want another. Contrary to what some fogeys think, the current generation of young parents don’t view their children as replaceable accessories. I know for generations this is one reason why families were large, the heir and a spare. But the world has changed and now we invest in the children we do have.

Perhaps as their children grow older they will miss the baby stage so much they’ll wish they could go back and have another. I’m not going to pretend I expect never to gush over newborns again, to have a moment of imagining. But I know the second the implications of what that would entail occurred to me the wishing would stop. And sometimes we just have to make our peace with the facts. And the facts are four children is very expensive these days. A car big enough for all those car seats. A house big enough. The food bill. Most people can’t afford four children. And let’s not forget the slating large families get in the media if they need tax-payer help to make ends meet. Easier to slate them, than to help them control their fertility. So I can understand wondering and wishing, but I think many women are rational enough to let the facts win.

Or perhaps she should just be grateful for her fertility, when so many women struggle? But other women’s fertility should have no bearing on her individual case.

The real reason my heart is heavy is this. I think this family love their children. The children they already have, the one that is on the way. I think like all parents they want the best for the children they have, and they should not be denied this for the sake of the children they could possibly have. Sterilisation would remove stress from their lives.

Life with young children can be stressful. It is hard for parents to find time for themselves. This can in turn put stress on relationships. And yes, these parents are young, so let’s support them in having a strong relationship by recognising their joint decision that their childbearing days are done.  A sex life, intimacy is an important part of a relationship. If they are constantly worrying about conceiving a child how is that supposed to happen?

There is another option, if they do conceive a child through failed contraception again. But I thought we were supposed to be against abortion as contraception? Remember too that in Queensland abortion is only legal if performed for the mother’s physical or mental health.

So because this woman cannot be trusted to be rational enough to decide at 22 she doesn’t want her fourth child she may instead find herself asking her doctors to sign paperwork saying she is not physically or mentally capable of continuing with another pregnancy, after a fetus has been conceived.

And they say feminism is dead.

Holly Maitland’s online petition to Malcom Turnball to allow women control of their own fertility is here