When I gave birth nearly 15 years ago, I diligently read the lists of what essentials I needed in my hospital bag in my Emma’s Diary booklet. I’m not sure the booklet still exists – it’s probably all online because people’s eyes shrivel from the printed word. Allegedly.
Feeling a little nostalgic for all those years ago (not broody, there’s a difference) I thought I’d have a gander at what the current advice is and looked up the NCT’s website. To add further complexity to a pregnancy-worn brain, it seems you now need a labour bag, a hospital bag, a newborn bag and a birth partner’s bag. Well the birth partner can jog right on. They can nip out to the local Tesco/Asda/Sainsburys/Aldi (no favourites here) and get some supplies surely.
No, I jest. It’s important to feel prepared. The thing I remember most about those last weeks, other than the discomfort, was the waiting – flurries of anxiety meaning I couldn’t settle to doing anything and not really being able to go out anywhere in case it all kicked off. And of course, fielding the endless ‘when’s it due?’ enquiries. So, some time getting things together might help.
What I remember particularly well from the labour was my partner’s insistence on getting the music I had said I wanted, to be played in the room (this was pre-iPods remember). It’s tricky for the partner – they are definitely the bridesmaid in this scenario - but by the time we’d been in the delivery room for some hours and he felt he needed distraction, necessitating someone bringing some batteries for the machine he’d brought, I couldn’t give a tinker’s arse about what music was playing. Hard to hear anyway over the screaming. Unless you set it to some nice bass rhythm.
There’s a funny scene in the book ‘The Best A Man Can Get’ where the slightly feckless main character completely takes over the birthing class with questions about what type of sandwiches he should get for the labour. That’s another thing not mentioned in the whole ‘bring a selection of snacks’ scenario. It’s quite hard to take a bite of anything, chew and swallow WHILE SCREAMING. I ordered some food when in the hospital but had to abandon it because I had to spit out whatever was in my mouth when a contraction came. Glucose sweets are probably the only option, although another thing they don’t mention is that if you’ve had any drugs at all, you may well find yourself both nauseous and ravenous after the baby is out. I had to speak out extremely forcefully to get something to settle my stomach so I could shovel in anything edible straight after, having not eaten for about 24 hours.
Maternity OR sanitary towels are mentioned as being necessary afterwards. Do NOT get sanitary towels, unless you want to start smelling less than fragrant in the lady garden department. I called the health visitor team in a panic after I’d been home a few days, convinced I had some sort of infection. I’d run out of maternity towels and had switched to sanitary towels, thinking it wouldn’t make any difference. Ner-huh. You need loads of maternity towels, btw. LOADS.
Also, it mentions a comfy outfit to wear home. Just one outfit? I was in hospital for three days, including the remainder of the night I gave birth – admittedly people may well be out sooner, but believe me, there are a lot of ‘substances’ coming out of you/the baby. I needed about four outfits a day. Nothing fancy mind, but a bumper pack of cheap t-shirts (preferably something that is patterned to look like ‘substances’) and tracksuit bottoms aplenty will not go amiss. Do not bring anything fancy. Some of those substances would take a pickaxe to shift.
And slippers OR flipflops. You’ve all been in a public swimming pool changing room, I take it? Would you wear your slippers in there? No. If you want a shower, take slippers AND flipflops. Unless you intend to walk around in soggy slippers.
One last thing. Unless you’ve got the cash for a private room, the post-natal word isn’t much fun. At no time is it completely dark and quiet, meaning privacy and sleep are in short supply. However, your baby will probably sleep better there, than at any point for the ensuing weeks, so if you can stick it out for any length of time, it might help you recover slightly. I remember naively thinking what a piece of pissh this baby lark was, once I got over putting the nappy on the wrong way round. He slept ALL THE TIME. Except when I was desperately trying to get him to latch on. As soon as we got home though, the lungs opened.
It's a beautiful balmy evening, the height of late summer. Not a breath of wind. I sat outside just now as it grew darker. It's always slightly bittersweet these last days of August, as you know that the weather will turn in a few weeks time. My bedroom is in the attic, which can be overwhelmingly stifling and lead you to just lie down and not do anything else.
Is this so bad though? My boys are old enough now to not need to be taken to the park or the beach. Indeed they snort in derision at the mere thought of it. I've told myself that it doesn't have to stop me going, so I've taken myself off to swim a couple of times and gone for walks early before the heat of the day.
Being self employed, I can take time off in the summer holidays, which is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I can lie down and unwind - indeed, for good mental health it is a necessity, not a luxury - because I juggle a lot of plates workwise and personally, being a single parent. However, it's hard to rid myself of the nagging sense of things that should be done, need to be done. I'm well aware of encroaching events, documents and workshops that need my attention. The buck mostly stops with me as a company director.
I've done some bits of admin in the last couple of weeks, but find it hard to concentrate. Even though the boys remain sequestered in their rooms on screens a lot of the time, their body clocks out of whack with daylight hours, it's hard to settle. Certainly my idea that I'll 'write a bit more of my novel without the regular appointments I have in term time eating up the day' remains an elusive pipedream. The thought that one of them might pop up at any moment shrivels my intent. (I KNOW JK Rowling managed it in a busy cafe, I'm clearly just not as disciplined!)
Then there's the guilt that I should get them off their screens. However, I pat myself on the back a little here because these summer holidays we've been away to visit Scandinavia (including staying with a friend of mine in Sweden), to see my Dad in the West Country and are shortly off to Ibiza. On these trips, they are 'forced' to sightsee and converse, as well as lounge on screens and swim in pools or the sea. It's a hard life, eh...?! I've decided I won't feel guilty about having holidays. For many years when they were small I didn't have the money to do so and also had both parents living in France so it made sense to go there. Some catching up is in order, especially as they'll be fleeing the nest in a few years.
There’s nowt so queer as folk, so they say. And it would seem that those who get themselves vexed about climate change protests/protestors are the queerest of the lot.
With a number of the problems in the world, some people can distance themselves, by dint of: ‘It’s happening somewhere else/to someone else…’ With this problem, there is no escape. Or indeed, ‘No Planet B’ (I see a usage of this excellent term from Ecowatch as early as 2013, it may well have been around before that). And yet some, frankly deluded, souls get incredibly bogged down in matters such as; ‘the roads are blocked’, ‘rich celebrities are getting involved’ and ‘all the climate change protestors are white and middle class’ [NEWSFLASH! : Probably the white middle classes will be the last to suffer when the Earth reaches the point of no return. So they might, in fact, NOT be acting out of their own best interests].
All of this crystallises in some of the responses to Greta Thunberg. They don’t like the way she sounds, or looks, or doesn’t smile. They don’t like the fact that she comes from a well-to-do background. They don’t like the fact that her mum represented Sweden in the Eurovision. (Her mum wasn’t in Abba though. Which is about as far as most people get when asked to name famous Swedish popstars). They don't like that MORE than they don't like the fact that her mother is a famous opera singer. They don’t like the fact that her mum wrote a book, the publication of which coincided with Greta’s first school strike, which they suspect makes it a publicity stunt (a very long stunt by Greta, I have to say. Several months long). There's also a reference to an article somewhere about the deliberate construct of a ‘cultural icon.’
Greta is, they declare, a PUPPET. A mere mouthpiece for dark forces behind her, who are manipulating her for their own ends. (I read one intriguing piece that described Greta’s meteoric rise as Acts I to VI imbued with tones of Machiavellian dread. As if she were a Shakespearean tragedy.) Having seen her speeches, I think it is unlikely. She may have received assistance in writing them, but so have many public figures. A lot of 16 year olds, thrust into prominence in the public eye, would have their own chat show by now. In which they appear with dazzling teeth and new hairstyle, a la X Factor contestants, who look NOTHING like their original selves come the live shows. Greta remains true to herself. And that is what irks a lot of people.
Even if she were 'a puppet', we shouldn’t give a flying &*%”! Concentrate on the message, why don't we?!! Frankly, I’d be happy if you wheeled out Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy to deliver the message, as long as the brattish children in charge of our countries were as grown up as the younger generation who are trying to make a difference.
On a small sidenote, I noticed this week that the ‘too posh’ to be relevant has also been applied to Fleabag. We can’t empathise with her because she’s rich, apparently. (As is the creator) And she invites that empathy by looking at the camera. I don’t remember that objection with Peep Show or The Office, which both did that. Oh yes, silly me, those had male leads. So that was probably alright. Nor do I see much anguish about how to relate to Eastenders (pumped into our homes for hours every week), if you're not from that social demographic. If you don’t like Fleabag, fine. But don’t make it a massive class issue. (Yes, I’m posh, so I should shut up). For the record, I liked Fleabag because it was inventive, had some very funny bits and also some spot on observations about women (whatever background they are from).
Next week is International Women’s Day. To honour my maternal grandmother, I’d like to share with you a story from her life. To fill in some background, Audrey Muriel Rudolf (24 Dec 1911- 8 Jan 2005) was born in Jamaica. She came to Oxford University on a scholarship and met my grandfather, Patrick Gordon-Walker, who subsequently became a Labour MP (at a time when Labour seemed less troubled than now), serving briefly as Foreign Secretary in Harold Wilson’s Cabinet. He is chiefly remembered for being ousted in the racist election the Tories ran in Smethwick in 1964. To be honest, his cards were probably marked when he opposed the introduction of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act, which sought to restrict the entry into Britain of black migrants from Commonwealth countries. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/15/britains-most-racist-election-smethwick-50-years-on
Wind back to the start of World War II: Patrick was employed by BBC radio to broadcast to the German people, telling them the truth of what was happening, which apparently didn’t endear him to Hitler. So much so, in fact, that my mother Caroline (2) and her elder sister Judy (4) were evacuated to their grandparents in Jamaica (the feeling being that they would not be safe anywhere in the UK if Hitler invaded). It was only meant to be for a few months. Their safety was paramount, which is what I imagine Audrey told herself, when suffering this unbelievable wrench at being parted from her children.
However, boats were being torpedoed and it was not safe to travel. They were there for five years. FIVE YEARS of not seeing your parents. When they came back, Audrey did not recognise her children and walked past them on the railway platform. This memory has stayed with my mother for life. She says she remembers sitting in a café thinking, ‘What shall I say to this woman who is my mother?’
During the war Patrick was one of the first non-military to enter the concentration camps after they had been liberated. He wrote a short book, ‘The Lid Lifts’, about his observations and the interviews he had conducted with the survivors of the Holocaust. Like many who saw these unspeakable horrors, he wanted to blot out the memories. My mother says she never heard him talk of it. She happened upon a copy of the book in his study when she was about 12 and was horrified. http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/holocaust/5135.shtml
So now we finally come to Audrey’s story. In the mid-30s, as fascism was on the rise, my grandparents lived in Oxford. They travelled to Germany several times to try and help people escape before it was too late. They both spoke good German, Patrick having studied there. She told me this story several times when I was a teenager, but I only recall the general sense of it and frustratingly I don’t have all the full facts. I assumed she had told everyone else in the family too, so I recently asked my mother, aunt and uncle about it, but none of them remember much more than me. My uncle Alan was told by her that they were trying to get trade unionists, then considered a threat to a totalitarian regime, out of Germany and to Oxford where they put them up. The trade unionists were being watched by the special police, so Audrey was sent out the front door to adjust her stocking to distract the soldiers (!), while Patrick and the trade unionists escaped out the back.
The story she told me was that she and Patrick were in a hotel room somewhere near the border (with Poland we think). They had train tickets for the two people they were with. My mother thinks Audrey hid the tickets under her pregnancy bump, so this would be 1935 when she was pregnant with Judy. Audrey had been told to check the coast was clear, so opened the door of the room and saw two SS guards standing further down the passageway. The natural instinct would have been to slam the door shut, which would have given the game away. Instead, she came out into the passageway, walked to the bathroom, smiling sweetly at the men. She was a very beautiful woman, so I’m sure they were delighted. She went into the bathroom, closed the door, waited a minute or two, flushed the toilet, ran the taps, then came back out and to the room. Closing the door behind her calmly, she reported the presence of the guards, whereby the men escaped by the window, to freedom, we hope.
It is only a small story, but demonstrates nerves of steel and an incredible presence of mind for a 23 year old pregnant woman. If the guards had suspected anything, no doubt all four of them would have been shot on the spot. And I wouldn’t be alive to tell this story…..
Get lots of sleep before you go. Just like when you’re pregnant and people tell you to sleep then and you think, yeah yeah whatever. They’re right.
The weather is variable. Summer 2018 is proving a bit of a blinder, but it can TURN! There was one year when I wished I’d brought gloves.
Lots of layers, a waterproof and sturdy shoes for negotiating the cobbled steep streets.
You’ll probably end up walking most places.
You’ll spend more than you think. Arrange a loan or overdraft now.
You can drink 24/7 and the majority do. Take painkillers and vitamins to make up for the fruit and veg you won’t eat.
If you spent every minute watching a show, you’d only see a tiny amount of what there is on offer. That can be overwhelming. I’d suggest Googling anyone you would like to see perform, for they will undoubtedly be up there and make a note of the details. The big names will sell out. The unknowns will not.
Shows can be very pricey and not always worth it. There is an Edinburgh ennui feeling of having wasted time and money when there were literally thousands of other things you could have done. There’s now quite an established ‘Free Fringe’ of comedy shows in pubs.
The Pleasance courtyard is a good place to hang out and people spot. A lot of big names do their shows there. The Assembly Rooms or Traverse are more civilised and cultured places to hang out.
The Royal Mile – where the bulk of the flyering takes place – is like a bazaar in Marrakech. Packed to the gunnels with desperate performers doing bits of their shows, flyers literally everywhere. It makes the Brighton Fringe City look like Playschool.
However, like Brighton, there are quite a few areas in the city that don’t give a monkey’s fart about the Fringe. Princes St, one of the main shopping areas, is blessedly Fringe free. The main art gallery is great. If you fancy a bracing walk, go up Arthur’s Seat. Don’t go when pissed or hungover – parts are quite steep and you might fall off! The other 'Arthur's "seat"'* is always available however.
The atmosphere is hard to sum up, but the closest thing I can think of is Freshers Week. Imagine thousands of performers, released from the manacles of home and boy/girlfriends – OFF THE LEASH! There’s also large troupes of American students doing musicals, who tend to dominate the streets with costumes and unwelcome warbling.
It is bold, bruising, hilarious. I laughed and cried more there than anywhere else. Dreams are made and shattered. Famous people are everywhere, which means a frenzied excitement all the time.
What happens in Edinburgh, stays in Edinburgh.
* insider joke from this particular veteran
I watched Another Woman last night. A lesser known Woody Allen film from 1988. The central character, played brilliantly by Gena Rowlands, is a cerebral, somewhat aloof writer, who comes to realise she has always been emotionally stultified. This is not like me (I didn’t dare go down and watch the marathon runners this morning, knowing I’d probably blub all over the place), but I empathised with the notion of being caught in one mindset before being painfully shown another. Right at the end, after she has reassessed her previous actions and memories and is pondering the new path she must take, she muses, ‘I wonder if a memory is something you have or something you’ve lost.’
This was particularly pertinent to me, as my boys are inching closer to adulthood. Facebook often pops up a photo from earlier times (because they ‘care about your memories.’ Hollow laugh and insertion of comment about them not caring about protecting our data). Invariably this will be a picture of a sun dappled moment in the park or on the beach, where your cherubs grinned gappily at the camera. No matter that the moments before and after the shot would no doubt have been a grizzly meltdown, banged knee or spat, leading to your losing your rag and wishing you were far away on a sun lounger with a margarita. In THAT moment, all looked well. That was the best of times.
Except of course, it wasn’t. Or rather, no more, no less than the time right now is. Memory is indeed a fickle thing. Yes, my boys are not cute blonde cherubs any more. But they can pop to the corner shop for me, carry bags and watch telly with more emotional depth and range than CBeebies. They also sleep through the night, manage their own toileting and can be exceptional company, once attention has been winkled away from electronic devices. I have lost, and have many things. It is truly difficult to remain engaged in the here and now, being mindful in the true sense. Parents know all too well that the days are long, but the years are short. One day the longing for the glass-of-wine-post-kids’-bedtime will be easy because they are about to leave home forever and you wish, more than anything, that they weren’t.
Recently, son Number One (13½ ) had an INSET day. (Or Insect as he used to say when he was small and cute. Stop it!) We decided to pay a visit to Hove Museum, which had been a veritable Mecca when he was about four. He would spend ages looking at the mini train, toy soldiers and ghost mirror in the toy room, pointing them out to other visitors. Meanwhile his baby brother and I would doze nearby. It was an excellent way to while away a cold winter weekend, spent mostly on my own because my partner was nearly always away.
This time we were the only visitors. (It’s a mystery how that place continues. They’ve removed the café and it seems increasingly in the last stages of decrepitude). Son wandered about the rooms, slightly aimlessly. I knew what he was thinking. ‘It’s so small. There’s hardly anything here. Why did I like this so much?’ For old times sake, he squeezed through the tunnel that he had once scuttled up and down with such merriment. We walked round the perimeter of the building and I told him he used to scooter round and round outside while his little brother ran alongside. We left after quite a short time and walked up the road to have a quick lunch. A text from his mate had come in and he wanted to get back so they could do band practice.
Was the memory something he had or something he lost…?
When the midwife places your newborn in your arms, you will feel a mixture of exhaustion and ecstasy. ‘This is the beginning of the rest of my life. Everything’s going to be wonderful’, not, ‘Where’s the exit? This is all too much.’ You may get the baby blues for a few days or even weeks, but that’s just normal and will go away in time. This is the received wisdom, trotted out to first-time mothers. However, the reality for most women is somewhat different.
When I gave birth to Robin in 2004, I was staggered as to how extraordinarily isolated I felt. I remember the sensation of being marooned in a big tunnel straight after his birth, cocooned from reality by the effects of the epidural. I wanted to get cleaned up, to eat, to sleep. The midwife said, ‘Let’s get Mum up to the ward’ and I thought, ‘my Mum’s not here, is she?’ I couldn’t get my head round the fact that I was ‘Mum’.
In the fog of the first few weeks, I kept thinking how hard everything was – I was conscious of being at odds with myself, although I’d give the impression that everything was fine. Like many other women living in a big city, without a family network around them, I struggled to find my way. I did find activities and playgroups to go to, but the focus was always on the babies and all the conversation related to that.
I remember filling out that peculiar little form at my six-week check at the doctor that included questions such as, ‘Have you ever felt like harming yourself or your baby?’ I didn’t feel that, but who would want to tick ‘yes’ to this and have herself branded as an unfit mother? To admit that you are finding so difficult what many thousands, including your own mother, have done before you. That this longed-for bundle of joy should be so daunting. Add to this the stigma that still exists around mental health issues and it’s no wonder the feeling of panic sets in.
When you are exhausted and tearful and all the mothers around you seem to be coping better, you don’t want to sit in a busy surgery and define your state of mind. The very phrase ‘post-natal depression’ is depressing! It is more correctly known as post-natal illness and The Association for Post Natal Illness estimates that it affects between 70,000 and 100,000 women and their babies in the UK every year. It is rightly called 'the silent epidemic'.
We live in an increasingly fast-paced society, where you can leave hospital as quickly as a few hours after giving birth and are expected to get on with it. A sense of neighbourhood is fast being eroded. Excepting perhaps small villages, gone are the days when the whole street would rally round to help the new family, while the mother rested and adjusted. Families these days are small, not extended, often you have moved away from where you grew up; women delay having children while they pursue careers and travel, so to be suddenly thrust into the role of housebound new mum without a support network can be terrifying.
Occasionally there is a high-profile case, such as that of Danielle Wails in 2006, where the general public can gasp at the horror of a woman who has killed her own child. There is far less coverage for a mother who has taken her own life. Few will know that, according to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), more than ten per cent of maternal deaths - that's deaths within one year of giving birth - are caused by suicide. This doesn't even include suicides which come later, in some cases much later. There was a mother from Cheshire who lay down in front of a train in 2000 because she had never recovered from the depression that started with the birth of her 24-year-old son. Relatively few women take their own lives, but at least twenty per cent of all new mothers are likely to suffer depression, and for between a third and a half of these, it will be severe.
The media is full of opinions about motherhood, little jibes about the categories of mother: ‘career bitches, ‘yummy mummies’, ‘hippies breast-feeding their children into adulthood.’ Then of course those celebrity mothers who lose their baby weight within a week or two. There is an assumption that a mother’s day is filled by checking out the latest gossip on Mumsnet Towers and a spot of lunch, with a few nappy changes here and there. Very little is written by mothers detailing their life in that first year. It is recorded retrospectively, if at all. This is mostly because it can get to 2.00pm before a new mother can find the time to brush her teeth.
Of the various articles written, nothing is more damning than pieces from women who have not been able to have children, castigating mothers as ‘moaning’. Yes, we’ve been having babies for centuries, so why all this fuss now? Nobody expected bringing up children to be a breeze, but there is something about a mother’s state of mind in the months following the birth, hit by the juggernaut of responsibility, that sets it apart from the challenges faced later on in parenthood. It’s not even as if mothers want very much.
My group Mothers Uncovered runs various events, performances and exhibitions. The mainstay is a five week facilitated discussion group with the same group of up to twelve women who meet for two hours once a week. They talk about their babies, of course they do – one wouldn’t expect them to be discussing Schrödinger’s Cat theory on two hours sleep – but it is in context of the whole person, because behind every mother is the woman she has always been. The participants, who are not all middle-class WASPs, are delighted and grateful to be mothers, but they need an outlet to process the mammoth event they’ve been through. They record their experiences in diaries, in interviews and through art and photography.
People might say there are church halls up and down the country packed with Mum & Baby groups, which is true. These are usually informal drop-ins however, not suitable for discussing issues that might be difficult and painful. The last thing a vulnerable new mother needs is to walk into a large room of chattering women who all seem to know each other. All is needed for groups like Mothers Uncovered is a room and someone to lead the session, the best person being a mother who has been through the same stage herself. And perhaps some tea and biscuits. It’s not exactly the moon on a stick, is it?
Peer support is a wonderful thing. It enables women to feel that they are not mad or bad mothers, just going through an enormous life change. But hang on, I hear you say, what about those post-natal depression groups? There are groups yes, but many women feel that this is a sign of failure, of ‘not coping’. Common wisdom reports that most women just have ‘baby blues’, only a few have something more serious. These women are kept apart, in ‘closed groups’ at health clinics. I know this, because I have had a devil of a job infiltrating these groups to see if any of the women would like to come to Mothers Uncovered. It’s as if there’s a fear that they might ‘infect’ the other mothers.
I’m not disputing the fact that post-natal depression does exist and sufferers of it may well need medication and counselling. However, every single mother I have spoken to in the last few years has felt they couldn’t find an adequate outlet for their feelings at the beginning. Were they all suffering from depression? Additionally, on some days they wanted to celebrate how much they loved being a mother and share that with others. They didn’t want to describe themselves as depressed then. It seems that both the terminology and the attitude to this period of motherhood is wrong. It is summed up perfectly in Naomi Stadlen’s book ‘What Mothers Do’: “Mothers may be given a “running-in’” period of a couple of weeks. After that, they are usually expected to be calm and capable. Would it not be much more realistic to expect new mothers to be unprepared, anxious, confused and very emotional for at least the first six months? If we could accept that this beginning is the norm for most new mothers, we would be in a better position to be supportive and respectful.”
What I would like to see is equal weight being given to the post-natal period as to the pre-natal, with regular appointments allocated at baby clinics for new mothers, in addition to more support groups. They wouldn’t be obligatory of course, but it needs to be realised that the mental health of a mother following a birth is as important as her physical health beforehand. There is a cost implication, but a mother who feels supported will surely relate better to her baby, which would benefit society in the long-term.
I felt so strongly about the issue I wrote to then Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt in 2006. I received a letter back from her office saying the Department of Health was proposing to extend the current duration of postnatal care. ‘The Department has recommended that midwifery-led services should be provided for the mother and baby for at least a month after birth or discharge from hospital and up to three months longer depending on individual need.’ With the NHS resources being ever stretched, this seems an elusive goal.
In my case, like for so many women, I gradually realised that rather than being a strange freak, I was just a normal mother trying to cope with the enormity of the responsibility with inadequate preparation. That in turn put the feelings in proportion. I had a relatively mild case of depression (I suppose – I was never diagnosed), which lifted in time, as my child and I grew together. For most women, they do just ‘get on with it’ and the memories of that turbulent time fade. By the time they re-enter the fray, they may find it hard to even remember that time clearly and may well not wish to, feeling thankful that they seem to have survived relatively intact.
This is why the problem still continues. Just because women do ‘get on with it’ and seem to be managing later on, doesn’t mean they should have to. Doesn’t it behove us as a society to offer more than that, especially when the support is easily achievable? And for the women whose lives are permanently blighted by their experiences of becoming a mother the situation must change.
© Maggie Gordon-Walker
There was an article recently in the Family section of the Guardian entitled 'I'm not a mother but I'm still a person...' I'd had the paper about a week before I read it, but hey, that's because I'm a mum and ALL mums rush round in a frazzled state, right, because all mums are the same. Er...? No actually. Some are frazzled, others frighteningly efficient. They are all varied. Just like women who aren't mothers.
This article, which was poignant and sensitively written, was not slating mothers. The writer was regretful she'd been unable to conceive. However it still makes the 'Us and Them' mistake of assuming all mothers are the same. Yes, we've all given birth (except those who've adopted and are, just as much, mothers). We all have a baby (or more) and that is common ground. But we are vastly different from each other. The writer relates a party she was at, where the mothers couldn't concentrate on what she was saying, 'I saw panic in their eyes, as if they didn't know how to have a conversation that wasn't about their offspring.'
Perhaps some new friends are in order. A significant number of the mums I know are delighted to go out, get rat-arsed and gabble on any number of topics.
The other misconception is that it's the mothers who have withdrawn from the 'freakish' barren woman. 'They bear me no ill will – I have simply dropped out of their world.'
Becoming a mother can be incredibly isolating and many feel it is they who have been sidelined. In a workshop I ran, a participant recalled looking at pictures on Facebook of events she'd not been invited to. She felt 'conveniently cropped.'
I have a 'childfree' friend I've known since childhood who has consistently ignored suggestions to meet in the last few years. Perhaps she feels I will only talk about the kids, perhaps it is too painful for her, but it ain't all beer and skittles being a mum either.
I run Mothers Uncovered, a creative support network for (mostly new) mothers. I set it up because I felt that at all the Mum and Baby groups, the emphasis was completely on the baby. Yes the participants talk about their babies, of course they do, this is their world when their baby is a few months old, but it is in context of the whole person, because behind every mother is the woman she has always been. The participants are from all walks of life, backgrounds, cultures. A lot of them would never choose to be in each others' company, yet they listen respectively to each other recognising their similarities and differences, as mothers and as women.
I am in the classroom, twelve years old, cheeks burning. ‘Haven’t you started yours yet? I’ve had mine for ages.’ She laughs scornfully at my unwomanly state. My tormenter is resentful of the fact that I’ve made friends with ‘her’ best friend. Any opportunity to make me feel insignificant or immature she seizes on, with a daily barrage of snide remarks. With hindsight, I see she was the immature one, but it didn’t help at the time. Girls are apparently made of sugar and spice and all things nice, so why is it that they often form into bitchy cliques, behaving incredibly cruelly to their peers?
Is there something in the make-up of girls that makes them more prone to this behaviour? Developmental psychology reasons that at an early age girls absorb from their parents, peers, and media images that they are supposed to be "nice" and "sweet." They are not encouraged to resolve their differences through fights—as boys often are, they must hide them and not rock the boat. Girls are more likely to taunt, stare at, or exclude the offending girl from the group, tell lies about her, or threaten to withdraw friendship. This is not attention-grabbing behaviour, so it often goes unnoticed.
Ironically, because girls tend to put more store in close friendships than boys (who have more of a pack mentality), their aggression towards other girls (but not boys) often involves threatening to and actually destroying relationships. The high value they place on friendship and having another girl as their bosom buddy leads them to shut out the best friend who displeases them, even though they will fiercely protect her from being taken by intruders.
Another trait is to temporarily include a third person into their pair so both can score points off each other only to reject the third later. This happened to me twice, which Oscar Wilde might have observed looks more like carelessness than misfortune, but one of the times was at university, when you hope everyone’s gone past that stage. Sadly these patterns of behaviour last into adulthood for many girls. Perhaps they are mirroring events that they have encountered at home. Their controlling trait masks their own insecurity, because bullies are ultimately cowards.
Nowhere are the mores of society more blatant than when reflected on a programme like Big Brother. Often the rival camps in the group will be centred around one strong female who will gather a small circle of acolytes. They will victimise one of the other girls for being tarty or sluttish, while at the same time batting their eyelashes at the boys themselves. The others join in, mostly for fear of being the target. The ‘racism row’ surrounding Shilpa Shetty on this year’s ‘Celebrity’ version overshadowed the fact that this was ordinary mean girl behaviour with an added veneer. Shetty herself didn’t pick out the specific racist slant, it was their rude unpleasantness in general she objected to. On the main programme in the summer the producers seemed to make an inspired choice to go for an all-girl house, although within a week they were factoring the boys in, relentlessly pursuing any whiff of sexual activity. If it had stayed an all-girl house it would have been a unique social experiment.The previous year Jodie Marsh, self-promoter extraordinaire, had appeared on the ‘Celebrity’ version. She was voted out first and cried during her post-eviction interview describing the experience as "horrific" and her housemates as "vile jealous bullies". A few months later, Liberal Democrat Education Spokesman Phil Willis questioned Schools Minister Jacqui Smith as to whether Marsh should be permitted access to schools in promoting her BeatBullying work, branding her blog as "the language of an
appalling bully". Smith responded that it was a decision in the hands of individual headteachers, but the BeatBullying website no longer lists Jodie Marsh as a supporter. Clearly not learning from her mistakes, in May 2007, Marsh was interviewed by journalist Jody Thompson. Disagreeing with Thompson, Marsh said of her on camera, "I actually wanted to punch her in the face. Lesbian, blatantly! That short hair! And butch, looks like a man . . . She was a bitch from hell, she was a complete cow", much to the fury of gay right groups. The clip was broadcast on MTV.
Is it getting worse due to the media increasingly putting airbrushed visions of ‘loveliness’ everywhere, thus setting girls against each other? Or has it always been this bad? Pretty girls are rarely as unpopular as ugly ones. Girls seem to have a greater need to fit in - knowing that their looks are what attract men, at least that’s the view perpetuated from everyone from the media to retailers - they can focus mainly on external, more shallow qualities. In any group of girls, there seems to be a jostling to determine who is the most desirable. Even if there are no men around, they need to establish themselves as the top dog, the most attractive prize should a male become available.
Channel 4 screened a pair of documentaries four years ago, ‘Boys Alone’ and ‘Girls Alone’ about two groups of eleven year olds left in a house without parental supervision. The boys ran wild, inviting comparisons to Lord of the Flies, yet they trashed the house rather than each other. The girls were less messy, ate better meals and even created some activities such as fashion shows, but they still formed rival camps, ostracising certain girls for ‘unacceptable’ behaviour. One locked herself in the bathroom, having been voted the most unpopular by the others, two left the house early. Educational psychologist Dr Jack Boyle, writing about the programmes in The Scotsman observed that the difference between boys and girls on their own is emphasised by their treatment of the cat and the use of the trampoline. The stray cat was petted, fed and left alone by the girls. The trampoline was only used occasionally, often by a child looking for some solitary relief. With boys, both the trampoline and the cat would have been the centre of action. He noted that while the girls were prone to attacking others through ‘gossip and grudges, they also offer comfort and intimate reassurance, interpret and anticipate others’ feelings, seek the group good and play constructively. Girls alone in adult life cope pretty well because they benefit from the reassurances of intimacy. Men on their own do badly because watching football is a distraction, not consolation. The absorption with fashion may be a small price to pay.’ Perhaps it’s naïve to say it, but he might have a more romanticised view of girls than they do themselves. Any female who has been on the receiving end of ‘gossip and grudges’ knows that they can cause irrevocable damage to self-esteem.
Most people don’t have the Big Brother style experience of being put in an unreal, intense situation for a limited period of time. Going to college or university but can create the same feelings but is a watered down version. I did have something akin to it, working with a group who hadn’t known each other previously at the Edinburgh Festival. One of the other two girls in the cast ‘bagsied’ the other girl as her friend, ensuring they were always together and I was an unwelcome addition to be sniggered at. It was an awful situation, especially as we had to share a room; I developed a skin allergy because of the stress and was more miserable than I’ve been almost at any other part of my life. While I’ve remembered it vividly ten years on, I’m sure she was barely aware of her behaviour. The inability of bullies to see the effect their behaviour causes is one of its most distressing aspects.
Most incidents of physical violence between groups of young people happen with males although there was an incident in a suburb of Washington D.C. about five years ago where three teenage girls pulled another girl out of her car at a red light punching and stamping her to death, ending a fight that had started earlier at school. This is quite clearly distressing, headline-making behaviour, but what about the long-term effects of the cruel words and taunts that generally tend to be the preserve of women and carry on into adult life? Girls who have been taunted and bullied throughout their school years can experience serious depression and social anxiety for many years subsequently.
When boys’ physical aggression becomes violent, parents, teachers, and even the law can intervene. At least boys learn when they are going too far. But girls’ aggression—what psychologists refer to as relational aggression—is insidious. Rarely do outsiders step in. And sadly, the female victims who do confide in their families or teachers beg them not to intervene, worrying that it will be even worse for them if an adult approaches the bully. Dawn-Marie Wesley, 14, took her own life in British Columbia, Canada in 2000 leaving behind a note to her family that referred to the bullying to which she had been subjected: "If I try to get help, it will get worse. They are always looking for a new person to beat up and they are the toughest girls. If I ratted, they would get suspended and there would be no stopping them."
Rachel Simmons wrote Odd Girl Out in 2002 after visiting thirty schools in the States and interviewing three hundred girls aged nine to fifteen in focus groups and individually to find out more about relational aggression. It revealed that girls as young as four were bullying, threatening, and shutting out other girls from play groups. Simmons addresses the issue from both sides—the "queen bee" taunters and the dejected outcasts. She urged that girls be taught to recognise their anger and not to hide it under the pretence of nothing being wrong or being superficially nice. Next, girls should be taught how to communicate their feelings to the perceived offender in non-threatening, assertive language, much as most boys seem to do naturally. "I don’t like that" or "That really hurt my feelings" can open the door so that the other girl can apologise and make amends. Also, girls need to know the long-term harm their behaviour can cause.
In principle, this sounds fantastic, but it’s a very long term strategy. Many women in the workplace, for example, bully younger women because they were bullied in their turn. And so the cycle goes on. The problem needs to be addressed in the media and in all the reality shows that clog our screens. Although just this past week, the youngest competitor on the X Factor talent show and former favourite to win Emily Nakanda, 15, has been removed from the show. She’d been portrayed as a serious, sweet girl miraculously recovered from major surgery until mobile phone footage came to light showing her attacking and taunting another girl in a ‘happy slapping’ incident. Perhaps it is inherent in girls’ natures to bitch and snipe, but if it is shown to be as unacceptable as using a racist word, it might diminish.
especially relating to motherhood.