Archive for parenthood

Father’s Day Feminism

It’s Father’s Day this weekend. It may be a manufactured holiday but I celebrate it anyway, so I’m in a shop trying to find a card for my dad in the three minutes before the toddler starts wanting to get out the buggy and start destroying things.* I scan the shelves, sigh, and give up.

In all the years that I’ve been buying Father’s Day cards for my father, I don’t think I have ever bought one from the Father’s Day section. My father is not into football, beer, fast cars or jokes about bodily functions, so that cuts out 90% of the options. And if I bought him a card with a message – or worse, a poem – about what a great father he is, that would feel weird. Not because he isn’t a great father, but because it doesn’t need saying. Or at least it doesn’t need saying in rhyme.

It’s all very blue.

It’s odd really. In some ways – perhaps as a response to the waning of the industry – there’s now more choice in cards than ever. You can buy serious cards, funny cards, sentimental cards, cards with badges, 3D cards, addressed to Dad, Daddy, Father, Stepdad, Grandad or Great-Grandad. But in other ways, the choice is tellingly limited. Colours, for example. If you can find me a Father’s Day card that’s pink, I’ll buy you a pint of raspberry beer. And if you can find one that references opera or painting, which are my dad’s two major interests, I’ll buy you an entire yard of it, if raspberry beer comes in yards, which I doubt. A card that features musicals or Dickens novels would be even better, since those are interests we have in common. I’ll be over here, holding my breath.

So what do Father’s Day cards tell us about the current perception of masculine parenting, as filtered through the imagination of the card industry?  Well, there’s not much about the parenting part. What fathers do, in this version of fatherhood, is play sports with their sons, address their daughters as ‘princess’, and earn the money. It’s a depressing vision. And what are children’s images of their dads? Apparently they’re unshaven, overweight lumps in string vests and boxer shorts. Nothing wrong with being any of those things, but again, it’s a bit limiting. Is the assumption that Father’s Day cards only appeal to an extremely specific and stereotypical working-class market? Why?

And yes, this is a feminist issue, of course it is. The perception of fathers and the perception of mothers are all tied in together, and so are the wider perceptions of What Men Are Like and What Women Are Like. Fix one and you start to fix the other**. In the meantime, I’ve bought my dad a card from the general section, with a picture of a giant rubber duck sailing up the Thames. At least it’s interesting.


*I am unfairly maligning her here, by the way. I let her wander around Boots the other day and she began tidying up the shelves. I should start charging shops to let her in.

**I could also write an entire post about how many of my daughter’s birthday cards I buy from the boys’ section. Because while she likes princesses and fairies, she especially likes football and computer games and Dr Who. This should not be weird to anyone.


Things to which I have been up

I think building her a snow throne may have given her ideas above her station.

I haven’t been making blog posts as often this year as I did last year. Partly because last year I had a baby who slept a lot, whereas this year I have a toddler with very firm beliefs about how often Mummy is allowed to sit at the computer before she gets to have a go too. Resulting in the very real possibility that anything I write will accidentally end up with ‘dfjgoehodnvlos!!!!’ in the middle of a sentence. Soon she will learn to type and I’ll probably have to implant a virtual iPad in her head or something, but for the moment, she’s mainly of use as an agent of chaos.

And partly because I’ve kept half-writing posts, then having a crisis of confidence about whether they’re too dull, controversial, niche, obvious, or all of the above. (All of the above would be quite a feat, admittedly.)

However, I have done a few things that you wouldn’t immediately be aware of from this page, so here they are:

- My eight-year-old has written some more stories for her bit of this site. I’m pleased I set this up for her, because it’s motivating her to finish stories rather than getting halfway through and then wandering off to kick trees. (Don’t ask.) I particularly like ‘Friday‘, which features grape-eating cutlery.

- I wrote some ebook reviews, and am in the middle of writing some more (but it’s taking a while – the good books are hard to write about and the bad ones are hard to read).

- I did a guest blogging stint for The F-Word and wrote three posts for them about musicals, porn genies and why I can, in fact, take a joke.

- I wrote a guest post for Choler speculating on whether David Cameron saw himself as a plucky maverick or as a Bond villain.

- I wrote a post on Sherlock Holmes and genderswitching for Bookshelf Bombshells, as part of their blog bonanza for the start of Sherlock series 2 in the US.

- I had my novel reviewed by The Future Fire!

- I created a Pinterest board of all the things you’d have had to own in the 1980s to equal one smartphone.

-  I started using tumblr, which turns out to be fun, although I may be reaching my social media threshold soon.

- I created The Almost Art Project: photos of found-around-the-house art accidentally designed by my children.

I’m trying to write a second novel in theory, but – well, see my first paragraph: it’s hard to find the time. So while I wait for my children to get older and less needy*, I’m working on a couple more genderswitching projects – an illustrated ebook of genderswitched Grimms fairy tales, and an ebook anthology of genderswitched extracts from classics including James Eyre, June the Obscure and The Picture of Daria Grey. To be continued…


*Sometimes people take things I say very literally. I would like to clarify that I am not spending my time resenting my children and waiting for them to get older. Well, not all of my time. Sometimes I sleep.  


The Dilemma Habit

[This was the original, and totally different, version of my Huffington Post Halloween article, Eight Legs No Soul.]

I love working out the answer to imaginary dilemmas. I know you only really get them in thrillers, but you can never be sure when life will imitate art. So it’s best to be prepared for the day when a masked man will break into your home and demand you choose between undergoing a bizarre torture and sacrificing the lives of your family. Otherwise you might be taken unawares and just stare at him going “What? Why? What’s in this for you? Don’t you just want to steal my TV?”

So, in a spirit of mental preparation, I have spent some time pondering the issue of whether I would I spend a day trapped in a coffin with spiders in order to save my children from being murdered. Well, yes, I would. (Parental love has a lot to answer for.)

But would I do it in order to save my partner from being murdered? Sure, although I’d need absolute proof, in writing, that he would definitely die if I didn’t do it and definitely wouldn’t if I did.

Down one notch: would I do it in order to save my partner from being beaten up? Well.. maybe. How severe would the beating be, exactly? He’s robust, he’d probably recover from most things. And anyway, maybe he’d volunteer to be beaten up in order to save me from being trapped in a coffin, in which case I think I’d accept his sacrifice (reluctantly but definitely). I’d stock up on Savlon and bandages, of course, and be prepared for a lifetime of guilt, but I’d probably cope.

Would I do it to save a friend from being murdered? Not a close friend, a friendly acquaintance, one of the people I see once a year or so and follow on Facebook but I probably couldn’t tell you the names of their children and/or pets, or what they do for a living. Um… well, I suppose so. I wouldn’t want it on my conscience that I’d got someone killed because I wouldn’t spend a day doing something that wasn’t actually going to cause me damage. But I might suggest some form of financial compensation at that point, because while saving people from death is obviously very motivating, so is money. And I’d probably need some therapy to recover from that cosy spider-infested darkness.

I think the above may potentially be the basis for some kind of reality game show, by the way. Not one I’d willingly take part in, but then there aren’t any reality TV shows I’d willingly take part in.

Now I’ve thought about reality TV shows, I find myself wondering if I’d take part in a reality TV show in order to save my children from being mildly inconvenienced in some way. Maybe… Oh, damn it, I’ve fallen into the Dilemma Habit. This happens when you start turning every situation into a moral exercise. Would you drink gone-off milk in order to avoid a day of data entry at work? (No, for the record. Old milk makes me feel sick and I quite like data entry.) Would you walk a mile in uncomfortable shoes if it meant a stranger in Australia recovered from her kidney stone? (Sure.) Would you strip to your underwear in a tube train so that your sister-in-law would pass her accountancy exams? (Um…) Would you dye your hair an unflattering colour if it ensured that a colleague’s dad’s cat didn’t go blind? (What?)

After a while, you start to regret spending all this time and energy on decisions you’ll probably never have to make. You begin to yearn for some strange and interesting circumstances to arise that will force you to use your now finely calibrated sense of ethics. Perhaps what we need is a Dilemmas Agency. You pay them a retainer, and every now and then, they turn up on your doorstep or desk and make you choose between things. Not things involving death, obviously. Just small choices. And then, after you’ve opted for your next-door-neighbour to be shouted at by religious fundamentalists so you don’t have to hold a spider for three minutes, you realise that it’s the small choices that show you who you really are. But at least you didn’t have to hold a spider. God, I hate spiders.


The Stormageddon Effect, and Other Parenting Emotions

(First published at the Huffington Post)

When you tell people that becoming a parent has introduced you to a whole new range of emotions, they probably expect you to start going on about loving your child in a way you’d never loved anyone before, that kind of thing. But that’s not what I mean – to be honest, no love can ever compare with the way I felt about the sharp glittery cheekbones of David Bowie when I was 15. Everything since has been downhill.

However, it’s certainly true that being a new mum introduced me to new emotions. If I had to name them I would call them:

1. The Responsibility Brick.
It’s such a sensible word, “responsibility” – calm, down-to-earth. But for me it conjures up vivid memories of the first day I was left alone with my baby. She was a month old. There was a small and virtually helpless human being in my flat, and nobody else. Just her, and me, in sole charge of her. I was 29 but I felt 14. Who on earth had thought this was a good idea? (Answer: me, about a year earlier. But what did I know?)

2. The Doormat Syndrome.
The parent-baby relationship wasn’t a give-and-take relationship, I realised: it was a give-and-give one. At a month old, you don’t even get a smile as a reward. The best reaction you can hope for is Not Crying. My reward for sleep deprivation, endless anxiety, and the attempt to make my body feed another person when it really didn’t want to (breastfeeding was not a success) was that a baby just stared blankly at me as opposed to screaming? It didn’t feel like enough. In a partner, this level of being taken for granted would have been a dealbreaker. In a baby, I discovered, there wasn’t really anything I could do about it except wait till she was old enough to lisp the sentence, “Thank you, Mummy, for everything you’ve ever done for me. I’m so sorry I didn’t mention this before.”

(She’s seven. I’m still waiting. But at least I get smiles now.)

3. The Can’t-Can.
As the (endless, fleeting, endless) time went on, I discovered another emotion, or rather a specific fusion of two emotions: the feeling that you absolutely can’t do something, coupled with the certain knowledge that you are going to do it. It’s the Can’t-Can: a dance in which you drag yourself out of bed and breastfeed at 3am, or don’t eat for hours because you can’t put the baby down for long enough, or pack a changing bag and put the buggy together and get on the bus and go out, and all the time you’re doing these things your entire being is demanding that you stop, please please just stop and go and lie down far away from the baby where it’s peaceful and you can clear your head. But you don’t. You know exactly what you need and what’s best you for you, for your mental health, for your physical health, and you do something different, because you have to.

It was a new experience for me. It was character-building, and I don’t think that part of my character would have got built if I hadn’t become a parent, so that’s a good thing. But I can’t say I really appreciated that at the time. I didn’t want to have my character built. I wanted to sleep, preferably in a hotel in a different country with no children within a designated 100-mile radius.

4. The Stormageddon Effect
This one is named after a recent episode of Dr Who in which the Doctor claims to speak Baby (and apparently the baby in question liked to be called Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All, which is totally believable.)

The books I read when I was pregnant claimed that you’d know what your baby needed, you’d learn to recognise the different types of cries. It worked with my second child, but not with my first; I had no intuition. I’d pace up and down for hours trying to work out if the baby was crying because she wanted sleep, food or medicine – or something else more complicated that I hadn’t thought of yet and she couldn’t articulate. The keys to my car, maybe? A doctorate in particle physics? A pot of bacon-flavoured jam? By the time she was old enough to tell me what it was she needed, she’d be too old to remember. In the meantime, like most parents, I’d just try things until something worked.

Luckily I never needed to get as far as the bacon-flavoured jam, so things can’t have gone too badly. But I remember that feeling, that attempt to understand someone who was clearly trying to communicate something, but couldn’t because the language barrier was too high. If anyone ever does learn to speak Baby, I swear I will change the names of both my daughters to Stormageddon in gratitude.

It Gets Better
There’s a video project called It Gets Better, for LBGT teenagers. It’s admirable, and someone should do one for new parents. It did get better. It got better enough that eventually I did it all over again, and it turned out the second time was brilliant, because I’d been broken in by the first time. I had been comprehensively taken apart and put back together by my unwitting engineer of a baby, and the resulting construction was still me, but a me who could parent.

(Of course, there’s still a part of me that just wants not to be responsible for anyone. But then, in seventeen years’ time both the kids will have left home (probably) and my partner and I can spend my time lying around the house drinking cocktails, or whatever it is people without children do with their time. I don’t remember. But it will be fun to find out.)

Of course, you do get to dress your babies up however you like. That's a plus.


Five Obvious But Essential Pre-Baby Discussions

OBEDs, or Obvious But Essential Discussions, are the ones that you think you don’t need to have, and then some time later it turns out that actually, you really did need to have them. Potential examples include “So what, to you, constitutes infidelity?” and “Is checking Facebook a sacking offence in this company?”

When deciding to have a baby, people sometimes seem to omit the pre-baby OBEDs, and thus I have made a few suggestions below. A few of many. Many.

1. Do you change nappies?

If the answer to this is anything but “Yes, of course!”, have a serious think about whether this baby thing is a good idea. Not because avoidance of nappy changing is evil – lots of perfectly nice people don’t want to change nappies – but firstly because it shows a worrying desire to avoid engaging with the messy realities of baby care, and secondly because someone’s going to have to do it, and it leaves the nappy-changing partner stuck. Want to go out somewhere on your own? Well, make sure you stay within a ten minute radius of your baby in case you get summoned home to change a nappy your squeamish partner won’t touch. See how quickly that could get annoying?

I am not speaking from direct personal experience, by the way, but I have encountered this. I ran into a local mum at the dentist recently, and she said she mustn’t be too long because she’d left the kids with her husband and he “didn’t do nappies”. I nearly told her that in that case she shouldn’t do her husband, but instead I just fumed silently.

2. If you’re working the next day and I’m looking after the baby the next day, which one of us gets up at 3am when the baby’s crying?

There is more than one right answer to this, but you need to ask so you can gauge the level of response. Many people with full-time jobs are used to the idea that they need a full night’s sleep before they can give of their best. They have a point. But it’s a point they’re going to have to give up, because if you’re looking after the baby all day, you’re probably going to want to take turns at getting up in the night.

Breastfeeding can complicate matters, in that usually only one of you can provide that. If that means you’re always the one getting up at night, I suggest you spend as much weekend time in bed as possible. And don’t do housework, unless unavoidable. Just sleep whenever you can, pausing only to eat enormous bars of chocolate.

3. How do you feel about arriving late for everything?

I hate being late. But ever since my first child was born, it’s been more likely than not that we’ll arrive at any given event at least half an hour after it starts, probably more. Children are the Time Lords of lateness. They play with time. They roll it up in a ball and merrily throw it away. It is an inexhaustible resource as far as they’re concerned. Until it turns out that they’ve missed out on going to the park because they refused to get ready, and then suddenly it’s all your fault because you can’t make time stop till they want it to start again. In brief: your relationship with time is going to get complicated.

4. How much mess can you cope with?

I have been to houses that have young children in them, and they have been spotlessly clean and tidy save for a clearly delineated area for toys, which are tidied away every night. I am in awe of this and also completely unable to achieve it. If I walk across our living room and don’t trip over at least one pen, plastic brick, chess piece shaped like Eeyore or discarded apple core, then I assume I must have come home to the wrong house. You may be one of the tidy parents. But don’t rely on it.

A tip: getting a cleaner is helpful not just because of the cleaning, but because it forces you to tidy the house sufficiently to make it possible for someone to vacuum it once a week. If a cleaner is impractical, try to persuade someone to come round regularly, stand in your living room, and tut loudly. Elderly judgmental relatives are good for this – anyone who can induce the requisite cocktail of shame and panic.

5. How long can you play with a baby for, before your brains start running out of your ears?

Follow up questions:
- How many nursery rhymes do you know all the words to?
- How do you react when someone hits you in the stomach with a plastic hammer and runs away, giggling?
- How many of your treasured possessions will stand up to repeated shaking and/or attempts to consume them whole?
- Will the sight of an adorable toothless grin reconcile you to getting mashed banana spread across your work trousers?

Again, there are multiple right answers, but it’s worth picturing these scenarios in advance. See also: how much Teletubbies and In the Night Garden can you watch before you lose all control and begin to sing obscene songs about Ninky-Nonks?

Of course, in the future we will entertain our babies by plugging them into the computer. Mine's started already.



What are babies, exactly?

Interacting with babies is weird, especially if you are the person they used to live inside. Obviously what they are, technically, is very small people. But at various different times, and stages, I have seen my babies as the following:

Tiny intelligent human beings who are temporarily unable to express themselves in a clear and articulate fashion.

Alien creatures from the planet Fetus who may have come to save us or to kill us all. We won’t know which until it’s too late.

Basically kittens with hands.

Diabolical creatures sent to torment me and taking delight in doing so, like those medieval paintings where pointy demons with pointy swords poke hapless humans whose only sin was thinking that parenthood might be fun.

A bit of me spun off and allowed to grow separately, like a cross between a human cucumber and a live severed head.

Small friendly people speaking an elaborate and largely incomprehensible-to-me language which involves a lot of gesturing. Failure to understand the nuances of said language can lead to crying. On both sides.

Supurb physical comedians with the comic timing of Charlie Chaplin. And the ability to do pratfalls and come up smiling. Some of the time.

So I guess if you put all those together and average them out, I think of babies as miming alien kittens or the demonic severed head of Charlie Chaplin. I should probably hand in my parenting card now.


cat and baby

My cat, on the other hand, just thinks babies are a threat who must be destroyed.


In praise of the happily childless

So imagine you have a couple of friends. They’re both fond of you and you’re very fond of them, but you find hanging out with them a bit tiring because one of them wants to be looked after all the time and the other one is emotionally manipulative: she spends half her time telling you how great you are and the other half shouting at you because you won’t buy her ice cream. And then she wants to play a game with you, for three hours, except she’s making up the rules as she goes along and you don’t get to choose what they are. While you’re trying to play the game, the first friend keeps hitting you in the face and giggling. Also, neither of them pay their way and they both want to be with you all the time. In fact, they’re both living with you and expecting you to feed and keep them.

To put the above paragraph another way: if you’re used to dealing with adults and with situations you can walk away from, having children is something of a culture shock. There are parents who think everyone else should be parents too. Go on, they urge, you won’t regret it, it gives life meaning, have two! Have three! Have a dozen, why not? You can stop any time you like. Everyone else is doing it. Do you want to be left out, alone in your old age, with nobody to look after you? It’s a BIOLOGICAL IMPERATIVE.

Well, of course it’s worth it – at least most people find it’s worth it, and I certainly do. But while children are great, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them as a thing to do with one’s life. In fact, studies suggest that non-parents are generally happier. Apparently being richer, less tired, less tied down by responsibilities and more in charge of one’s own life turns out to promote well-being: who could have seen that coming?

I’m not promoting childlessness either, particularly. It’s just that I’ve read posts by parents who think everyone should have children, by non-parents who think parents should have to justify their parenting, by parents who regret having children, and by non-parents who regret not having children. And I fall into none of these categories. Yet the category I’m in is surely not a rare one: I’m a parent who’s happy to have children and also happy for other people not to.

I love having happily childless friends for purely selfish reasons. They’re available to go to the pub, they’ll come over for dinner, sometimes they’ll even babysit. I can go for an outing with them and they’ll enjoy the novelty of playing with my daughters while I lie around eating chocolate. Friends who don’t have children, but do like other people’s children, are brilliant for parents.

So I would urge all my friends who don’t want kids to continue resisting any social pressures they may encounter, and instead to devote their energies to entertaining my children. And in return for their helpfulness now, I shall encourage my children to visit them in their old age and bring them fruit baskets. Or enormous bottles of gin. Whatever will seem appropriate to the 2050 pensioner.

An average baby frequently captures adults, but usually has no idea what to do with them.


How I Stopped Thinking Goblin Kings Made Good Parents

Pregnancy is a perfectly normal experience which is also just about the weirdest thing that can happen to you. What other life experience involves your eyeballs changing shape? Not to mention the part where a live human being is inside you. Inside you.

(I remember lying in the bath watching my skin ripple with hiccups that weren’t my hiccups. Something in my body had hiccups but it wasn’t me. It was as though my liver had suddenly started whistling showtunes.)

And then there’s the effect on the rest of you. Not just your body but practically everything that identifies you as you gets shaken out and restructured, like Lego, to whatever best suits your little parasite.


Children. They make you weird.

Now, you must understand that I have loved David Bowie since the age of fifteen, with a love purer and more intense than anyone else has ever felt. No, seriously, we are soulmates. This soulmatiness began in 1990 when I first saw the film Labyrinth. If you haven’t seen it, Bowie plays a shaggy-haired, tight-trousered Goblin King called Jareth who steals the baby brother (Toby) of a teenage girl (Sarah) with the help of his many goblin minions, and thereby forces her to go on a Dorothy-like quest to retrieve him*.

Obviously, for me, Labyrinth was essentially a film about David Bowie and his amazingness, with some plot and stuff. And so it remained every time I saw it. Until 2003, when I had a baby.

Of course I knew that being a parent was going to change me, but I didn’t fully understand that so many of the little corners and pointy bits of my personality were going to get redesigned, rubbed out, and ruthlessly realigned. When I watched Labyrinth after becoming a mother, I suddenly discovered one of the aspects of the new me.

It had become an entirely different film. When I saw the scene in which Bowie performs Dance Magic to the baby he has acquired while his goblins play around him, every bone in my body screamed at me: “OH MY GOD, THAT MAN HAS KIDNAPPED A CHILD! WHY IS HE LETTING GOBLINS BE IN CHARGE OF A BABY? THEY’RE THROWING HIM TO EACH OTHER! PUT HIM DOWN! GIVE HIM BACK!”

What had once been a straightforward tribute to Bowie’s godlike talent and trousers had now become a terrifying story about a child who is taken away from his parents and held hostage by creatures with no trained childcare skills led by a king who tossed children around like tennis balls. I could barely watch, even though I knew perfectly well that Toby would be fine (and in fact appeared to be enjoying himself hugely whenever he was on screen). It took years before the balance shifted again, and it’s still only gone halfway back (and I haven’t yet tried watching it since having my second child).

And that was only the most striking example. I became unable to watch or read any narrative that featured children in peril – no matter how slight or unrealistic the peril, no matter how much I loved the film or book, and no matter that nothing bad had actually happened to my own child. On the worst days, I couldn’t cope with fictional children of any kind, even if they spent all their time merrily skipping through fields of rainbow-shaped kittens. The world in my head tilted, and everything slid to one side, and I lost all sense of perspective for a while, and it’s never come back completely and probably never will. (I may never be able to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved again. I love that book.)

And of course that kind of thing goes on all the time, with everyone. There are far more trivial examples. You might take against a fictional character because they like tuna and it makes you feel sick, or because they look a bit like the doctor who was dismissive of your ankle rash. Or, of course, you might be unable to judge the merit of a book or film because it features a dying father or a traitorous girlfriend and that’s just too close to home.

Basically, and I apologise if this sounds obvious but it’s taken me years to realise: a writer/creator doesn’t have a lot of control over how their audience reacts to their work. There’s too much context going on. They can do their best to inspire amusement, terror, anger, awe, but their painstakingly crafted prose or script might easily be derailed by a sudden realisation of where a lost Oystercard is, or a moment of inattention during which a vital sentence is missed, or a phone call, or an itch, or your audience being slightly the wrong age, sexuality or background to appreciate what they’re trying to get across.

I guess all you can do – if you’re trying to be a writer/creator – is try to look at your work from an audience perspective as much as possible, try to make it as compelling as possible, and hope. And make sure nothing bad happens to children.

*I originally wrote ‘Alice-like quest’ and then it occurred to me that Alice isn’t actually on a quest, just wandering aimlessly through a random dreamscape. I prefer quest stories.