Today the Guardian reported on a survey conducted by law firm Slater and Gordon which indicated that 40% of employers were wary of employing women of childbearing age, hiring mothers or putting someone they knew was already a mother in a senior role.
No big surprises there for any woman who has ever worked.
The idea that we live in an era of equality when it comes to the workplace is a complete fallacy. Sex discrimination is alive and well, taking many different forms, but one of the most obvious and pervasive of these is almost certainly related to a woman’s decision to have children.
I use the word ‘decision’ deliberately as there are many who argue that women have no right to complain as it is their decision to have children and they should accept the consequences and not expect their employer to ‘foot the bill’ while they laze around on maternity enjoying the fruits of that decision.
To deride the natural impulse to procreate as a ‘decision’ in a manner which implies it is as frivolous and as selfish as bunking off work to go to Glastonbury (which I have known almost as many people to do with none of the derision from co-workers) is overly simplistic, unhelpful and quite frankly stupid.
Firstly, it is not just women involved in the decision to have children – anyone over the age of about 12 knows that. Clearly in a natural birth (i.e. Not adoption or surrogacy) it’s the woman who carries, gives birth to and often feeds the baby so of course she is going to need at least some time to stay home and will often choose to stay at home longer to bond with the baby. But she didn’t start that process on her own and shouldn’t be in some way blamed as if she has ‘decided’ to go through 9 months of pregnancy, hours of excruciating labour and months of sleepless nights purely to have a bit of a break from work and wilfully piss off her employer.
Secondly, if the only way it is acceptable for women to be employed by businesses concerned with the impact of maternity leave and parenthood is to refuse to have children altogether, who do these businesses think they are going to employ in twenty or thirty years time when their current workforce have retired leaving behind no offspring to take over? That people in our communities have children is not selfish. It is not just a nice thing to do. It is not even simply important. It is vital, and we all have a stake in those children being raised well, whether we choose to have them ourselves or not.
As well as the issues faced by employers, the comments on the article are littered with damning anecdotal evidence from other employees, all along the lines of ‘I work with a woman who has kids/went on maternity leave and I ended up having to do all her work, the selfish lazy cow’ or words to that effect.
In my life pre-parenthood I was an incredibly diligent worker and prided myself in never taking time off work. Often this pride was misguided as it probably meant I dragged my germs in and affected other people, or stumbled about my workplace inefficiently for two weeks rather than spending one day in bed and coming back on top form. Regardless, I never missed a day, worked bloody hard and was naively proud of it. At times I would notice that other colleagues seemed to take a fair few days off work and feel aggrieved. When they were off for the third or fourth time with their child, rather than thinking ‘poor kid, that must be a nightmare’ I’d begin to assume they weren’t that unwell and silently tell the mum/dad to toughen up and just send her kid in to school or nursery. Little did I realise then that little kids get sick a lot, and when kids are sick, they are really sick – snot everywhere, projectile vomit down the walls, pus filled pox bursting every time they move. Even if you could bring yourself to abandon the snivelling wretches for the day, there’s no way in the world any childcare or school would take them – they’re trying to protect other children, and therefore other parents and workplaces, from the same fate.
Now I’m a mum I dread illness and the inevitable ‘Whose day at work is more important? How long will it last? Is there anyone else we could call if it lasts? If we wrap him up will the childminder even notice?’ conversations which take place the moment the illness is discovered. Whining colleagues who think parents are skiving off work don’t see the agonising faces pulled while trying to negotiate interim childcare. They don’t see parents running between bottles of Calpol and laptops as we try desperately to keep on top of things while we’re at home. They don’t feel the hideous guilt that comes when you realise that, because of these perceptions of mums not being as good workers, you’re more worried about what you’re missing at work than you are about your own ill child. Perverse but sadly true.
But we have to worry, because there will always be someone you work with who has an ‘I worked with a mum who wasn’t very good at her job therefore I don’t like working with mums’ attitude, which is not only discriminatory and offensive, it is also downright moronic! I have worked with countless men, both fathers and childless, who have been lazy, arrogant, work shy, all-talk-no-action-because-I’m-too-busy-climbing-the-career-ladder, or just no bloody good at their job, but that doesn’t mean I tar all my male colleagues with the same brush. Some people work hard at their job, others take the piss – it doesn’t automatically correlate with gender or whether or not you’ve had children. If you assume it does that’s discrimination, pure and simple.
According to these managers’ perceptions, I’ll be worse at my job now than I was before maternity leave. Ignore the fact that I’m older and wiser. Ignore the fact that trying to get all your housework done in the space of a one hour nap time teaches you how to be a million times more efficient than a day’s time management CPD could ever do. Ignore the fact that I returned to work desperate to throw myself back into it after a year of mental stagnation singing 5 little ducks ten times a day. Ignore the fact that I work bloody harder than most of my childless colleagues because I know that I have to prove myself more than they ever do. Oh, and the fact that they stay until 7pm while I leave at 5 does not mean they work harder or better than me, it means they work longer. It’s not the same thing.
I’m not oblivious to the problems employers and colleagues of working parents face and clearly my viewpoint is extremely biased. I can see that maternity leave is a major financial and logistical challenge for employers and there is always that worry that the mother may not come back at the end of it (though literally everyone I know did go back). I understand it must be frustrating for women who have chosen to focus solely on their career and not have children to know that they are being judged by a set of criteria which doesn’t even apply to them. These are all problems relating to the employment of working mums, and in many ways working dads. But they are not problems caused by working mums and dads.
We all have a right to work. We all have a right to have children. We have a duty to do both of these things to the best of our ability. If you don’t think these things are currently working well together, change the system, lobby the government, do something about it. Don’t just blame, deride and discriminate against women and working mums; nothing good will ever come of that.
Being a grown up is rubbish for many reasons:
– having to work all the time
– paying rent/mortgages
– paying bills
– having to be aware of how much you spend on bills
– curbing your spending on more fun things to make sure you have enough left to pay the bills
– assembling flat pack furniture
– buying flat pack furniture
– spending a whole day of your precious weekend looking at and buying flat pack furniture
The list could go on forever, but in many ways the worst aspect of modern adult life is the relentless obsession with how you look. Some would say this peaks during teenage years, but really that’s just the beginning of a lifelong torturous routine of spending hours of your time and oodles of your cash trying to look a just little bit different than you do naturally, and even more hours being annoyed that it hasn’t quite worked.
Since becoming a parent it has gradually become clear to me how much of my time, money and energy I have wasted on the way I look. When my son walks in to my bedroom and says ‘what mummy doin?’ I give the simple answer: ‘straightening my hair’. This is followed by a puzzled but accepting look. I imagine him thinking ‘That’s weird – why do that when you could be doing jigsaws or running up and down the hallway? Seems like a waste of time to me.’
Numerous instances of this exchange have got me thinking: what am I doing? I spend about 30 minutes every morning getting myself ready: washing hair, drying hair, straightening hair, putting on make up (if hair straighteners confuse him, god knows what he thinks when he sees me drawing lines of concealer across half my face in an attempt to hide my sleep deprivation!). Pre-baby I spent about twice that time. If I spend about an average of 3.5 hours a week just getting ready (almost certainly an underestimation) since I officially became an adult at 18, I have spent 2548 hours just making myself look a little bit better than I did when I woke up. 2548 HOURS!!!! That’s 106 full days of my life.
Just looking at the figure makes me feel sick. Imagine what I could do with an extra 106 days! But I won’t change, I know I won’t. Occasionally I leave the house with my hair tied up instead of straightened and I genuinely believe that’s progress. I’m brainwashed. I really feel I need that 30 minutes of pampering before I can face the world, or rather let the world face me.
That’s why being a grown up is rubbish. Kids don’t think like that. My son won’t accept he can’t keep wearing the same nappy until it’s so full it falls round his ankles and stops him from playing ready, steady, go. Twice I have picked him up from the childminder to find him wearing pyjama tops because they had cars on and he wanted to wear a car that day. He doesn’t care that he looks like no one can be bothered to dress him in the morning, he’s got a car on his top!
How many of us have sat in conversations with friends who are intelligent, sensible and rational in every way, except when they begin checking the calorie content of a snack bar, complaining they need to be healthier then later that evening ordering a large glass of rosé? Or listened to them moan about how skint they are and that they can’t possibly come and met you for a coffee but, oh yes it is a new top. Do you like it? I bought it last week. On sale of course.
In my view, one of the best and simplest things we could do for our children is to protect them from this bullshit. Particularly the girls. Some boys and men may fall prey to these too, but we all know that in our society it’s the women who come under the most pressure to look a certain way and who are constantly objectified and sexualised.
So why, oh why, oh why do I keep seeing children in bikinis? CHILDREN in BIKINIS! They are not a practical choice for charging round paddling pools or jumping off water slides (any grown woman who’s had an embarrassing slip at a holiday water park could testify to that!). They are boring – what child would choose pink leopard print (one of the joys I saw in the park today) over Peppa Pig or multicoloured spots or giant stars? But most of all, they are just too adult. Literally, they are designed to cover up the adult parts of the body which children either don’t have or should not be worrying about yet. I can just about forgive the frilly spotty crop top and shorts I saw last week, striking a balance of just enough frills to be childish and just enough covered not to be garish. But when a child so young they have no curves and still giggle at the word poo is running around in just enough material to cover their nipples, with briefs held up by the flimsiest of ties, I can’t help but cringe. Clearly copied from a design intended for women to highlight their best assets, it masquerades as swimwear but is actually a sign of how little we have come to respect childhood. It might be fun to dress a child up in a suit for a day, to give them a t-shirt which matches their dad’s so they look like a mini-me, but that’s what it should remain. Fun. Dressing up.
Teenage years and adulthood are fraught enough with concerns about out sex and appearance – why the hell introduce your child to all that when you could wrap them up in an all-in-one wetsuit covered with colourful fish? Plus, you’d save a shed load on suncream.
Although my job involves standing in front of and talking to groups of teenagers all day, and despite the fact that in my youth I had dreams of a career in acting, I have never been a fan of public speaking. To start with I think I’m fine, but the longer I speak the more my hands start to shake, the words tumble out faster and faster, and my voice starts to quiver until sympathetic audience members look at me as if they’re worried I’m about to cry.
So imagine my pride when, during a workshop at last weekend’s Women of the World festival, I not only managed to stand up and speak, but received two spontaneous rounds of applause! I was so proud, but am under no illusions that my public speaking skills were being applauded for their own merit. It was just because what I said were the kind of simple, common sense comments on parenting and being a woman that can be all too easily lost in a world of too much information, constant media bombardment and so-called expert advice.
Put simply, I said obvious, not just cliched stuff – and people liked it.
The workshop was entitled ‘Own your own body’ and led the audience through a series of interactive discussions about women’s attitude towards their bodies. This section was entitled ‘Mother-Daughter relationships’ and was initiated with the suggestion that there is too much pressure on mums to ‘snap back into shape’ straight after giving birth (I always like how that phrase implies we were all in shape to start with!). After damning ‘the media’ and ‘celebrities’ for putting all mums under pressure to go on fitness regimes before the cord has even been cut, the workshop leader went on to suggest that this anxiety could be transmitted to children through mother’s milk and this was perhaps why so many girls grow up with eating disorders.
I looked around to see a range of faces nodding wisely and found myself a little lost. I had rocked up at this festival for women expecting myself to agree with everything I heard: whooping, cheering and shouting ‘you go sister!’. Yet somehow, despite my burdening fear of looking a total moron in front a room full of women I respected, I felt my hand creeping up to disagree.
As a microphone was thrust enthusiastically I my direction, I looked to my friend for support. She nodded and I found the strength to speak… ‘Well, first of all. I don’t think we should just demonise all celebrities. They’re people too and whatever pressure we’re feeling, they’ve probably got just as much if not more. I doubt they’re deliberately setting out to make us feel crap.’
Stony silence. Maybe there were one or two nods, but nothing audible. Oh god. What was I doing…
‘And, well…I had a baby 20 months ago and if anything I feel the opposite of what you’re saying. I may be a bit wobbly around the edges, but I have more important things to think about these days than what my stomach looks like in a bikini (not that I have enough money to go anywhere which requires one anymore). Besides, my body grew a person and pushed it out. I think that’s pretty bloody amazing.’
I had them. Cheers, applause, one woman even stood up and waved excitedly at me from across the room. She didn’t quite shout ‘you go sister,’ but her grin implied it.
‘Also…’ I said, emboldened by my new found fan base, ‘I have an issue with the title of your section. Why is it about mother-daughter relationships? Don’t you think that boys have body issues too? And don’t fathers have a role to play in fostering healthy self-esteem? Why are we drawing gender boundaries when we’re talking about tiny babies who have no needs other than food and love?’
I was annoyed. How could you simplify the complex array of issues which lead to low self-esteem, body dysmorphia and disordered eating habits to the fact that a mum was stressed about losing her baby weight in the early weeks. Plus, if there were any new mums in that audience who were stressed about their weight, you’re hardly going to alleviate that stress by telling them they’re inadvertently passing it on to their newborn! To be honest, I found it borderline offensive. And of all the places to start assigning gender stereotypes (little girls will have issues with their weight) to tiny, tiny babies, at a conference which is trying to break down gender boundaries seemed ironic bordering on ridiculous. If you assume it’s going to happen, don’t you risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy? Especially if you imply that the only person in the family who can help overcome this is another female.
By the time I’d finished my moan I had them eating out of my hand – which incidentally was still shaking like it was subject to a very localised earthquake.
Yet a week later, my words still ring in my head. Was I right to disagree? Did I simplify things, or just complicate them further? And if I disagree with their view on tackling body image from an early age, what should we do?
What do you think?
Two and a half years ago I had one of the best weekends of my life in Manchester. Fully done up with fake tan, blonde highlights, ‘disco pink’ nails, a new dress and impossibly high heels I strutted through the city centre on my hen do. Much to my surprise it turned out to be a truly cheesy and tacky affair. Each step of the way I was given a new piece of hen do tat: a garter, a flashing tiara, a hen-to-be sash, a sparkly veil. Even more to my surprise, I absolutely loved it! I couldn’t have asked for a more fun and better organised weekend.
So it was with sadness that last night, after watching Newsnight’s (rather tokenistic) discussion about modern feminism, I found myself remembering the one negative moment of that carefree girls trip.
Walking through the Piccadilly area around 6pm – that time of the weekend when evening revellers mix freely with families on their way home from a busy day shopping – I was chatting and giggling with my best friends. Suddenly, I found myself up in the air and moving swiftly away from them. A man I didn’t know had picked me up and slung me over his shoulder in the style of a Neanderthal carrying home his day’s hunting. He proceeded to run around the street, slapping me hard on my bum and showing off his ‘prize’ to his mates. I kicked and screamed and eventually he put me down, where I was comforted by my friends who had been running around after me.
The whole affair lasted less than a minute, but it was awful. I felt scared, angry and mortified. How dare he? What made him think he had the right? The answer, unfortunately, was obvious. I was a girl on a hen do and clearly therefore , anything goes. Gradually I found myself feeling less angry with him and more annoyed with myself. I worried people would think I was hysterical. Clearly it was a joke, so why had I been shouting so angrily? Shaken up but determined not to let it ruin my day, I carried on towards Pizza Express (I told you it was a classy do!).
Moments later I was approached by a young police officer. He had seen the whole thing and wanted to check I was ok. I was immediately comforted. He explained that the group the man was from were still around and seemed to be watching us so he would follow us to our next destination at a distance to make sure we were all ok.
‘Aaw, wasn’t that lovely.’ We all exclaimed over dinner. ‘Really reassures you to know the police are watching and looking after people.’ With that, we attempted to put the whole business behind us and get on with eating, drinking and dancing the night away.
But was it lovely? If the police officer really thought the man was watching us and posed enough of a threat that we needed an escort, why didn’t he actually DO anything? No one even spoke to that man, never mind took any action to reprimand him for his abhorrent and misogynistic actions. Instead, I was left feeling vulnerable and slightly to blame – I brought attention to myself by dressing up so what did I expect?
On yesterday’s Newsnight, professional controversial opinion-giver Angela Epstein argued there was no need for modern feminism as all the major battles had been won. She bemoaned people whinging about ‘minor’ issues via forums such as @everydaysexism and argued that if people really had been harassed they could always report it to the police to deal with.
With all due respect Angela, you’re missing the point.
Women don’t report these incidents because they don’t feel they can. They either feel it was their own fault in some way or don’t see the point, because these types of sexist actions are so common they’re barely taken seriously and almost certainly nothing will actually happen.
These are not ‘minor’ issues.
As I was carried down the street by a stranger on my hen do, my mind raced back to a year earlier when I was grabbed and carried down a side street two minutes walk from my house. Once there, a stranger held a knife to my throat and proceeded to put his hands on my legs. Were it not for a well placed elbow and an awful lot of kicking and screaming on my part, I dread to think what could have happened. It was the most terrifying experience of my life, and one which hopefully most people will never experience.
But how big a step is it really from what that man presumably though was a ‘joke’ on my hen do to that other terrifying incident which led to a 999 call? On both occasions, a man felt I was fair game. On both occasions, I was robbed of control of my own body, albeit momentarily. In both cases, though the police were involved, no one was ever held to account.
I’m a strong woman and moved on swiftly with my life, but I can’t say that being grabbed off the street by a stranger is something that I could ever put totally behind me. It’s no coincidence that the number of nights out I have without my husband decreased dramatically well before we had a child.
If we continue to accept these insidious incidents of sexism, misogyny and oppression as ‘banter’ and ‘minor’, we can never truly expect to tackle the violence which is so regularly perpetrated against women day in, day out. It is not whinging, or moaning, or attention seeking. It’s simply the right thing to do.
As my last blog post was all about the things I hate, I thought I should redress the balance and show that I have discovered people I love since becoming a mum. (Sorry if that means it’s a bit soppy and boring. I’ll get back to being angry and cynical next time, I promise!)
1. Our Cockney Neighbours
I love London: the lifestyle, the parks, the museums, the markets, the culture, the transport (yes, the transport – I can’t drive so a sprawling tube and bus network really appeals to me, no matter how hot and sweaty), but most of all the diversity. I love that despite being too lazy and disorganised to have actually gone travelling, I have still managed to meet and befriend people from all over the world.
Still, it was always a bit disappointing to move to the East End of London and never meet anyone remotely like the people in Eastenders. Why isn’t there a podgy ginger man selling fruit and veg at the end of my road? Where is the local pub run by Shane Richie and a busty woman in a too-small leopard print corset? And despite all the shouting outside my house throughout the day and night (seriously, shut up occasionally!), why have I never heard anyone scream ‘Rickaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay?!
It’s very disappointing.
Thankfully, our short-sightedness meant we decided that one week after having a baby would be a really good time to move to a new place. On the second floor. With no lift.
Continuing our laissez-faire attitude to organisation, it took us a further two months to discover we actually owned an out-house/shed in which we could leave the pram without having to bump it up the stairs everyday like a scene from the tenements in Call the Midwife.
Now my daily trip down to get the buggy also means a daily catch up with our downstairs neighbours who, you guessed it, are bona fide cockneys! They seem to spend their retirement standing in the garden smoking, waiting for me to come and collect the pram so they can shout “Oooh, ‘ello li-ool Jowjeeee. Ain’t you growwwn?! Jooowje! Joowjiiiie! Aaaaaaah”
They constantly tell me how cute he is, they always take the time to stop and chat, often emerging from their houses as soon as they hear the key in the shed lock far quicker than their walking sticks suggest they should be able to. They buy us chocolate and other completely impractical but lovely presents for a baby and, most importantly, while they don’t get through quite as many fags as Dot Cotton, they are at least real East-enders.
2. The cast of ‘Cold Feet’
Every modern parent knows that a good box set is the key to sanity in the early days: regular Saturday nights down the pub are a thing of the past and prime time reality TV is well past its best.
When our son was born we invested in a huge number of box sets.
We quickly decided that, while brilliant, Breaking Bad is not good, relaxing viewing after a long hard day with a baby. So instead we moved to that 90s classic ‘Cold Feet’. I remembered really enjoying it the first time round: a group of fun, trendy, slightly sarcastic 20-30 somethings muddling through life. It was like a calmer, less canned-laughter based, British version of Friends, right?
Unfortunately, while it’s still great, on second watching you realise it’s actually quite depressing and now a little too close to home. Pete and Jenny going slightly mad from lack of sleep when they have a baby? Yep, that was us. Adam and Rachel arguing about the baby sleeping in their bed? Been there, done that. When Karen moans about spending her afternoons with a bunch of Stepford Mums discussing boobs and breastpumps? I am with you Karen, all the way, I am with you.
Over the months I have come to love the cast of Cold Feet as if they were my own friends. We’ve been through the same dramas and felt the same pain. The only place we differ is on the infidelity front, thankfully.
Unfortunately, where Breaking Bad led to ridiculous, far-fetched dreams about running away from murderers and accidentally finding myself dealing drugs from my classroom, Cold Feet has led to more than one “you dream-cheated on me!” conversation over breakfast.
3. Caitlin Moran
I love Caitlin Moran. Seriously, I love her.
‘How to be a Woman’ is one of the best books I have ever read and it 100% saved my sanity this year.
Have you read it? No? Then stop reading this now and go read that instead. Seriously, it’s much better.
4. The NHS
It’s very fashionable to hate the NHS, and even more fashionable to say how much you love the NHS, and then list everything that is wrong with it.
I however love the NHS. No ifs, no buts. I think it’s brilliant.
When politicians come to power – once they’ve had long meetings with their PR advisors on how to hide their skeletons so far at the back of the closet they’re practically in Narnia – they start to think about how to make their mark. It’s always the same: education and health. These are the two things everyone has a stake in, so these are inevitably the two things they start meddling in.
The problem is, before you can start ‘fixing’ things, you have to figure out what’s broken, and point it out in great depth. So our politicians, supported by the media, have set about persuading us that the NHS is a great big mess!
Waiting times, unreasonable targets, missed targets, infections, infection control, staff shortages, rude and unhelpful staff, not to mention the hundreds of pointless ‘back office’ staff who are clearly paid to do literally nothing but sit around moving sheets of paper back and forth across a desk.
I realise all these things are probably real issues (except the ‘back office’ thing – I have no problem with that, in fact I’d rather have some admin assistants than have someone who spent 10+ years training as a surgeon spending valuable time screaming at a laptop when he can’t quite sort out the mail merge to tell everyone the office address has changed!) but seriously, stop moaning! We have free health care! FREE!
As parents, we should be especially grateful: free scans during pregnancy (including a free photo with which you can annoy all your friends!), regular midwife checkups, free ante-natal classes so you know what to expect, a choice of where to give birth, a choice of how to give birth, a choice of pain relief. Sometimes the worst happens and all these choices are taken out of your hands – as they were for us, but from the moment it was clear things weren’t working out to the moment when my baby boy was placed safely in my arms was less than 30 minutes. 30 minutes when at least 9 different professionals (that’s what I counted in my drug induced haze) provided the best of modern medicine to get that baby out safe. And they did.
You can’t really say fairer than that.
5. My son
I’ve realised I’ve not included my husband in this and, as he generally proof reads my blogs, I should at least give him a mention! There’s a great episode in series 5 of ‘Cold Feet’ (yes, I really am a bit obsessed) where Adam starts to feel he’s been replaced by the baby: it gets all the attention, sleeps in their bed, is always the first one to get a kiss in the morning and gets praise simply for existing. I imagine all partners feel like this at times, and I’ve definitely been guilty of neglect. So just in case he does read this, I should make it clear that I haven’t included my husband because I haven’t learned to love him, I’ve always loved him, and now we’re parents it’s that little bit easier to remember why.