Category Archives: Politics

Putting things in perspective: the refugee crisis

I am due to give birth to my second child any day now.

I officially only started maternity leave today, but as a teacher I’ve been lucky enough to have the summer holidays to prepare for our new arrival. If anything, it’s been too long. I have become obsessed with making every little detail perfect, both for the baby and our 3 year old boy.

After weeks of sorting, washing, buying and organising, this week I reached fever pitch. I worried that not all the old baby clothes had been washed and ironed; I stressed about the fact that our new bouncy chair didn’t fit together properly; I was close to screaming over the failed delivery of our new oven. How could I possibly be expected to cope with all this when I should be practising my breathing and preparing for birth?

Then, last night, something stopped me in my tracks.

That photo. The photo we’ve all seen and will be haunted by for years. The photo of a young refugee washed up on the shore. The photo of an innocent little boy killed by his and his family’s desperation to find a better life, killed by hideous situations beyond their control. After days of worrying and stressing about nothing, this was the thing that finally made me burst into tears.

Suddenly, none of my worries seemed that important.

The truth is that being able to bring two healthy children into a stable home environment makes me one of the luckiest women in the world. That’s not hyperbole, it’s not hormonal sentimentality: it’s a fact. We don’t need perfectly white baby grows or matching nursery furniture, and I’m ashamed to admit that I’d forgotten that. We just need our home, our family and love.

Like so many people, it took that photo to remind me what matters. Even though I’ve written about it before, I’d lost all perspective. In another time and place, that little boy could easily have been my little boy. There but for the grace of God…

It’s not just me who should be ashamed: in years to come, I’m sure we’ll look back as a nation and be ashamed of ourselves. Of how concerns over our own lives and comfort made us forget that everyone deserves somewhere safe to bring up their family. Children are children, regardless of where they come from.

In the meantime, I’m giving up on my obsessive preparations to think about what really matters. I’ll hug my son a little tighter and cuddle my bump a little more. If anyone I know is reading this and was thinking of buying us a baby present, give the money to Save the Children or send the presents to the migrants in Calais. We’ve got everything we need.

Let’s not let that poor little boy’s death be in vain. Let it give us all the perspective to see what’s important and have a little more mercy and humanity.

#refugee crisis

#refugeeswelcome

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Final thoughts before Election Day.

Last week I wrote a rather serious and emotional post about the deaths of migrant children at sea, and had planned to go for something rather more light hearted for the next post. However, with the general election only a couple of days away, it seemed churlish not to address it in some form or another, and, given I am not quite blessed with Armando Iannucci’s political wit and satirical skills (though even he would struggle to satirise some of the ridiculous antics of this campaign – cenotaph of pledges anyone?), I’ll have to go serious for just one more post. Apologies if you were looking for a scathing satire on picture books or a gigantic whinge about the crapness of buggies – check back next week.

With two days to go the politicians are out all guns blazing, and us ‘Hardworking families’ are one of their primary targets. 
It makes sense to target parents. I’ve heard so many people say that having a child has made them realise what’s important and put life into perspective (including me!). Yet I fear that perspective is somewhat skewed when we only consider our priorities in terms of our own pre and post parenthood life, rather than the true bigger picture that bringing a person into this world should give us.
If you are a fairly well off person (I.e. You always put food on the table, don’t generally have to worry about paying rent/mortgage and can afford the odd luxury), who has managed to put together a family in a way you chose (I.e. Not by accident, not in a way where life suddenly shifts and you find yourself without a support network), it’s incredibly easy to lose all perspective and find your vision blurred by your comfortable parenting bubble. All you know is your world and the very similar, comfortable worlds of so many other parents like you, and so gradually that’s the way you begin to view the world – that everyone is as lucky as you; that your problems are the problems everyone has, that spending two hours discussing the merits of a Bugaboo versus a City Mini really is a good use of your life.
That could so easily be me. Yet as a friend pointed out to me, I am lucky enough to see another perspective.
As a teacher and former youth worker in the inner city, I know that so many children and parents don’t live in that bubble and no matter how wrapped up I am in my own child, I can’t forget that. Every time a child arrives alone for a parents’ evening, or another tells me they’ve lost their book because they haven’t been home for weeks, or sheepishly explains they’re too tired to complete the work because they share a room with two siblings, one of whom is a toddler who still wakes up in the night, I remember how privileged I am, and that my problems are no real problems at all. These are the children who really need the state’s support, and yet sadly are so often ignored and neglected, because their parents are probably less likely to vote.
There is a widely reported statistic that the closer you are to deprivation yourself, the more proportionally you will give to charity. I often feel it’s the same with political views. The more comfortable you are, the more selfish you become in your choices, forgetting that the government isn’t a personal service to you, but a system to provide support to make our society better as a whole.
So back to the election and us, the ‘hardworking families’. Politicians will target us for the inherently selfish, inward looking people we naturally are, wooing us with offers of free childcare to help us work and education hours which support the parents. That’s no bad thing; many working parents truly struggle. But ask yourself before you choose a policy to support: are you supporting it because it’s best for you? Or best for everyone? Personally, I’d love to have 30 hours of free childcare next year – woohoo! But do I need it? Possibly not. We earn enough that we can get by on the 15 we are currently offered and make up the rest. And I don’t mind. If I can pay my way, I will. Personally, though it wouldn’t now benefit me in the slightest, I’d veer towards the Lib Dems and offer more hours to younger children, ensuring that those who may not get the kind of interaction which fosters the brain development needed at home, are not left behind when they start school. But that’s just me. You need to make up your own mind.
Still, before you do, remember that parenthood does put the world into perspective. But that perspective should be focussed on making the world your child grows up in a better place overall. Life for many of us might involve finding time to blow dry your hair or playing Hungry Hippos, but there’s a bigger picture facing us in that voting booth tomorrow.

5 things we can learn from the Jack Monroe and Sarah Vine spat

Yet another ugly row has erupted via twitter, and yet again the tabloid press has jumped on the band wagon to add an extra layer of hate mongering.

Yesterday, poverty campaigner and food blogger Jack Monroe became the centre of controversy after tweeting her views that David Cameron deliberately used the memory of his dead son to push forward his own political agenda, to change and ultimately privatise the NHS. A shocking accusation in anyone’s eyes, whether you focus on Cameron’s potential actions, or Monroe’s gall in suggesting any parent would misuse their own grief in such a way. Twitter erupted, but of course it wasn’t to stop there. Before long, the Daily Mail had waded in, with Sarah Vine remonstrating Monroe for her callousness, but not before adding her own homophobic twist to the tale.

It’s tempting to do what always happens here: tweet our outrage, defend our preferred party, talk animatedly about the issue for 5 minutes…then return to the monotony of our lives – changing nappies, filling in spreadsheets, filing reports – before the next hasty opinionated celebrity gives us something to gossip about. But maybe it’s worth taking a few moments to reflect on what we can really learn from this latest debacle:

1. Social Media does NOT encourage ‘debate’, it encourages nothing more than virtual shouting.

As a result of one 140 character comment, Monroe has been subjected to the predictable online backlash: anger, abuse, threats. It’s a daily tale on Twitter; express an unpopular opinion and someone will immediately and graphically explain how they plan to kill you.

Proponents of social media will say the benefits outweigh the detrimental effects of trollers – I want to agree – but if you’re trying to voice a genuine concern, and the response is only anger, have you achieved in raising that issue? Or should we be looking for a better platform?

2. Using children is a step too far, even in politics.

Let me be clear, I in no way want Mr Cameron to continue as my Prime Minister after the next general election. I am not a fan, of him or his policies. But I cannot believe Ms Monroe’s accusation. I cannot allow myself to believe it. As a parent, the love you feel for your child is indescribable. Whatever your intentions in life, whatever your goals, whatever you need to achieve, you will always put your child first in whatever way you can. That is a simple, natural instinct. We may not always see it in others, we may not be able to do it ourselves every second of the day, but we always try. To assume that a father could deliberately and calculatingly abuse the memory of his child for political point scoring may be totally believable for some, but for the sake of my own sanity and faith in humanity I have to refute it.

3. Someone needs to be the bigger person.

Based on my previous comments, I cannot help passing some judgement on Ms Monroe, a person for whom I have genuine admiration and respect. Even if you think it, don’t say it. If you truly believe a person has such scant regard and respect for the memory of their own child that they would use it for political gain, show that you are better. By publishing such a statement, aren’t you laying yourself open to be guilty of an equally heinous offence? You are also ‘using’ the memory of that child for your own political gain.

Some trollers have sadly and predictably sent messages hoping for ‘karma’ to be inflicted upon Ms Monroe via her own child, proving again the inability to enter into any real debate via social media, where all humanity seems to lose it’s head. Where people develop this logic – mYou said something I think is mean about a defenceless child. That’s awful, so I’m going to say something horrible about your defenceless child’ – is beyond me. Until children ask to be part of our political debate, leave them out of it. Where children have no voice to speak either way, it is not our place to drag them in.

4. Society is nowhere near as tolerant as we believe or hope it to be.

I take everything to come out of the Daily Mail with a giant handful of salt. Yet, unfortunately, its hyperbolic and often ill-intentioned views do seem to influence, and perhaps represent, many in society today. So it is that the most frightening thing of all to arise from this debacle is the irrefutable proof that homophobia still has a prominent and accepted face within our society.

Sarah Vine, providing the inevitable knee-jerk tabloid reaction to Monroe’s comment and the subsequent drama, felt the inexplicable need to focus on her sexuality – an aspect which has nothing to do with her political beliefs, certainly not in this context.

Perhaps the one thing I can praise about the coalition is the introduction of gay marriage; a sign, surely, that our we are becoming the tolerant and inclusive society we should be. So how can a mainstream newspaper be allowed to publish such ignorant views? Is Sarah Vine really so ignorant she’s confused about how a gay woman could have a child? Is she really suggesting Jack should have thought twice before having a child just because of her sexuality? And again, if Vine is so outraged by Monroe bringing Cameron’s son into the political debate, has she considered how Monroe’s children will be affected? And all those other children raised by gay couples? I guess not. Political and personal mud slinging is clearly more important than considering the actual children who are being discussed.

5. The tabloid press would still rather cry anger than work towards the better society it proclaims to want, and the sooner we stop paying attention to it the better!

Many people on social media and in the papers would claim they are bringing serious issues to our attention, and often this may be the case, but far more insidious and noticeable are the instances or hatred, anger and deliberate trouble-making. Vine’s piece in the Daily Mail was nothing more than click hunting; spewing out deliberately vile and controversial views so that angered people will go ‘how awful! Look what this woman wrote!’ And we all fell for it. So now, far from discussing concerns about the NHS and the coalition government – the issue Monroe wanted to raise – or debating where we draw the lines when criticising politicians – what Vine surely should have been addressing – we’ve fallen into a virtual shouting match. A match which no one will win and from which nothing positive will come. After a few days of angry spouting, we’ll all return to our normal lives and nothing will have been achieved.

Ultimately, we need to accept that social media and the tabloid press are in many ways broken, and not fit for purpose when it comes to debating serious issues. The sooner we realise it and stop paying them so much attention, the better. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to find some real people and have a proper conversation.

DISCLAIMER: I have to admit I did not actually read the Sarah Vine article. I couldn’t bring myself to give her the hits. I realise it’s not particularly good writing practice but I don’t care!

Has the meaning of Remembrance Day been lost?

It is Remembrance Sunday. In an hour’s time, the country will descend into silence as we collectively remember people who have died in conflict.

I have always and will always respect this aspect of our culture. People who have lost their lives, or been injured, trying to protect others or following orders from their country deserve not to be forgotten. Similarly, civilians who have been killed in conflict deserve the same respect.

Yet I am increasingly disconcerted by the way this simple yet important tradition is being twisted into something much less meaningful.

The wearing of a poppy in November is a simple, unassuming and unintrusive way to demonstrate your respect for those who have died, and to raise money for the Royal British Legion to support those who are still affected by the consequences of serving in the armed forces. Yet these days the simple poppy seems to have been hijacked by the perils of politics, celebrity and social media to the point that it’s losing its meaning.

Every programme in the run up to Remembrance Day must shoehorn in some reference to soldiers, however strange and meaningless it may seem. A case in point was the introduction of last night’s Strictly Come Dancing, where the presenters briefly lowered their tone to give deference to the service personnel invited to sit on the front row, pausing for a millisecond before switching back to jolly mode and returning to the glitz and sparkle of the show. You cannot blame them for focussing on the glitter and dancing – that’s the point of the show – but it made me wonder what the point of referencing the armed services was if there wasn’t really time to focus on it? And this is a pattern that has repeated itself across all things media over the past few weeks.

While these half hearted references seem to demean the message slightly, other references I’ve seen on social media have felt downright inappropriate and verging on offensive.

This weekend Twitter has been full of comments on Remembrance Day, as you may expect. While I’m unsure of how much emotion you can ever invest in a 140 character tweet, I was amazed at the unashamed brazenness of people posting ‘Poppy Selfies’, with their inane grinning faces blocking out the view of the Poppy installation at the Tower of London. Is that really the best way to show your respect? Though I guess it is somewhat more appropriate than the picture I saw posted yesterday afternoon of a glass of wine with the poppy resting on the bottom: ‘having a toast to those who have fallen’ read the caption. Is this the best way up can think of doing that? Tweeting a picture from a fancy wine bar? Or are you just filling time while your friend is in the loo?

Perhaps I’m being old fashioned. Media has changed the way we view things and perhaps Remembrance Day is just changing to reflect that. Some may even find me hypocritical for criticising others while myself spending the morning of Remembrance Day writing a blog – perhaps a fair accusation. Yet I still feel sad that the true meaning of Remembrance Day has been forgotten.

‘Lest we forget’

Surely the message was that we must never forget, partly because to forget would be to risk it happening again. 100 years on from the start of ‘The war to end all wars’ we still live in a world plagued by conflict. As I type, people across the world are living in fear as conflict destroys lives and livelihoods, and families sit at home worrying about the people they love stationed abroad within these conflicts.

I am fortunate enough not to know anyone who has died in conflict, so I cannot truly spend the 2 minutes silence remembering individuals lost to war. I will leave that important and meaningful experience to their families. I, instead, will think about the scale of the lives lost to conflict, in the past and the present, and that to truly remember and honour those people we need to find a way to stop it happening again. I don’t want to see ‘hero soldiers’ on my TV because I want to live in a world where we don’t need them, where peace treaties, negotiations and ongoing global relations make conflict unnecessary and genuinely a thing of the past. I want my children to live in a world where no one has to fear a phone call or a letter informing them of a loss of a loved one in conflict. I hope that my children and grandchildren will find Remembrance Day a strange and obscure concept, because they will be ‘remembering’ people who died a long time ago, not where people are still dying in conflict even on the day of remembrance.

I realise that this seems a hopelessly ideological aim, but it’s still worth aiming for and surely a key part of what Remembrance Day is for: commemorating those who have died and aiming to ensure it doesn’t happen again. That will only happen through genuine reflection and meaningful thought and discussion – not tokenistic media references or ‘poppy selfies’.

Don’t discriminate against working mums

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.

Body image, motherhood and Women of the World

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?

 

The Politics of Motherhood

Every Wednesday at about 11pm I think ‘Damn, I missed 10 O’Clock live’. In fact, it happens with such regularity I’m starting to wonder if I actually like the show or if I’ve been subtly brainwashed by subliminal messages hidden in the swirling patterns of Lauren Laverne’s outfits.

This week some combination of Lemsip and lack of sleep meant I didn’t even have my 11pm revelation, but was reminded of my forgetfulness by legions of outspoken women tweeting angrily about the controversial ramblings of Angela Epstein during a discussion on feminism chaired by the very lovely David Mitchell (that’s not relevant, I just love Peep Show).

You are an absolute disgrace to your gender – @LouHaigh

Angela Epstein is talking rubbish – @meg_wump

A human being exists who actually believes this crap and she actually gets to go on TV – @DavidBrewis (a man, incidentally, just to prove it isn’t only angry women)

These were just some of the comments cluttering my timeline. It was like a car crash; I knew I shouldn’t but I just had to watch.

It was a bit of a let down. There was no real drama. I didn’t feel the need to throw things at my TV. Angela Epstein was not, as I had been led to believe, the devil incarnate intent on bringing ruin to womankind. Instead, it was just a disappointingly predictable, unhelpful and superficial ‘discussion’ on modern day feminism in which a woman who is essentially a caricature of herself and an unknown young ‘feminist journalist’ argued with a woman intent on making every other woman watching feel bad about herself while claiming to represent them – but then, she does write for the Daily Mail.

Ground breaking it was not, but it did provoke debate.

Epstein claimed that ‘feminists had ruined feminism’ and that ‘feminism had scared a generation of women into childlessness’ as they worried too much about their careers to dare to take a break to procreate. She also infuriated members of the twittersphere by suggesting that we don’t need feminism because women these days don’t have it that bad.

I’m reluctant to fan the flames of Britain’s biggest hate machine by commenting on anything emanating from a Mail journalist, but Epstein’s seemingly thoughtless yet deliberately provocative diatribe raises two important issues:

1. Why are modern women so reluctant to identify themselves as feminists?

2. Does motherhood fundamentally change women and their priorities so that they no longer want top pursue their careers as Epstein suggests?

I’m amazed by how many of my friends respond to my attempts to discuss anything relating to politics and women by saying ‘Oh no, I’m not really a feminist’ with the same dismissal and befuddlement they might say ‘Oh no, I’m not really a fan of Justin Bieber’ or ‘Oh no, I’ve read 50 Shades but I don’t think I fancy all those whips and chains myself”.

I’d never have actively said I wasn’t a feminist, but a year or two ago I’d probably have been with them in thinking it didn’t really matter. Maybe I’d been affected by this pervading view that feminists are short haired, braless,  dungaree-wearing angry man-haters and nothing to do with me. After all, women have the vote and we can go out to work these days. What more is there?

According to Ms Epstein, becoming a mother changes you completely. It floors you and shakes you to your core. The things that were important to you before are suddenly not priorities. Women who have fought hard for years to forge their way to the top of the patriarchal business world are suddenly more concerned with CBeebies than spreadsheets, more skilled at making cupcakes than conference calls.

Undoubtedly, there is some truth in this. I’ve blogged before about my surprise at how few mums I knew were eager to return to work after maternity leave.

But to put the lack of female advancement in the workplace down to a desire to do housework is offensive and unhelpful.

For some, having a child narrows their world. Suddenly all that matters is that bundle of joy in their arms; the rest if the world fades into the background. But for others like me, that bundle of joy brings the rest of the world into much sharper focus around you. Suddenly it matters so much more what kind of world you live in. Terrible things aren’t just happening to nameless, faceless people across the world; they’re happening to someone else’s son or daughter. Injustices aren’t things to be mildly concerned about before you switch off the news to watch The Voice; they’re issues which need sorting now so your children don’t have to deal with them later.

David Mitchell joked at the start of the 10 o’clock live discussion that there were no men in the debate but he’d decide the outcome so it was just like society. Sadly, there is more truth in this than we’d like to admit. Equality has come a long way, but we’re not there yet. Feminism isn’t about moaning that even though you work you still have to do the housework (though that is annoying!), nor is it about how hard life is juggling work, home and your volunteer job on the PTA. It’s about tackling the view that we still have to fit into set stereotypes. It’s about challenging the disturbing acceptance of ‘jokes’ about violence against women (as done so brilliantly by the #FBrape campaign) which make it so hard to free women from domestic violence. It’s not about man hating, because real equality would free men as much as it frees women – free them to  achieve a true work/life balance with their families so that they too can attempt to ‘have it all’.

Epstein has it wrong. Women aren’t all content to define themselves as mother purely by the act of being around their children, and feminists aren’t defined by the act of abandoning their bras and hating men.

If she doesn’t believe me, she can see the proof in 20 years time when my son will be old enough to proclaim himself a feminist in his own right.

Why Mr Gove and I will never agree

Just completed my first day back at work in school. My thoughts to Mr Gove seem more relevant than ever!

Sceptical Mum

On the whole, I would rather scratch out my own eyes than ever agree with anything that emanates from the vicinity of Michael Gove. I was therefore horrified to discover that, when reading his speech from earlier this week, I actually agreed with two key issues he raised:

  1. Many children don’t read enough
  2. Many children don’t really understand the basics of grammar

Just as I was picking up the phone to pre-book an appointment at Moorfields Eye Hospital, I continued reading only to discover that, while he’d finally picked up on something relevant he had, as always, completely missed the point.

Like most people, my key issue with Mr Gove (I use the formal name out of respect, not because I am in anyway incorporating a Mr Men analogy into my very serious piece on education) is that he seems to have based the education policy for an entire nation…

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Why Mr Gove and I will never agree

On the whole, I would rather scratch out my own eyes than ever agree with anything that emanates from the vicinity of Michael Gove. I was therefore horrified to discover that, when reading his speech from earlier this week, I actually agreed with two key issues he raised:

  1. Many children don’t read enough
  2. Many children don’t really understand the basics of grammar

Just as I was picking up the phone to pre-book an appointment at Moorfields Eye Hospital, I continued reading only to discover that, while he’d finally picked up on something relevant he had, as always, completely missed the point.

Like most people, my key issue with Mr Gove (I use the formal name out of respect, not because I am in anyway incorporating a Mr Men analogy into my very serious piece on education) is that he seems to have based the education policy for an entire nation on ‘Well, I liked school and I turned out ok, so everyone should do what I did!’ He, of course, would have articulated it much better than I just have, and probably thrown in some reference to classical mythology  just to prove how well educated he is.

Mr Gove believes our education system has fallen prey to a “culture of excuses and low aspirations”. There is no doubt that there are times when this is true: working in a disadvantaged area it can be easy to fall into the trap of just being pleased when certain challenging students manage to turn up and get through a whole school day. That clearly isn’t enough. However, there are issues with certain students which are complex and require more thought than Mr Gove implies.

If I attempt to engage a disaffected student with a chaotic home life and no academic aspirations by sticking them in a private school style blazer and making them read only 19th Century classics, am I really raising their aspirations? Or am I just reinforcing the idea that privately educated people are generally ‘better’ and the only way to get on in the world is to pretend to be more like them?

At the risk of ruining my eyesight forever, let’s return to the key points where Mr Gove and I do have something in common.

*brief pause while I shudder after writing that sentence*

One of his key issues is that of children’s reading. Rather than being concerned about the number of children who don’t read at all, Mr Gove is concerned that “there are all too many children and young people only too happy to lose themselves in Stephanie Meyer”. He is concerned that children are actively turning away from classics such as George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ in favour of teen fiction like the Twilight series. What Mr Gove seems not to understand is that it is not an either/or choice. The beauty of the advent of modern fiction, like The Twilight Series, is it engages a whole audience who may never before have considered reading for pleasure. They may not be of the same literary calibre, but if children are actively ‘losing themselves’ in a book, surely that can only be a good thing. If a child has discovered a love of reading, don’t ruin it for them by forcing them to read books they don’t like or aren’t yet ready for. Support them and let them discover it in our own time. Just because Mr Gove loved George Eliot as a teenager, doesn’t mean there’s something wrong anyone who doesn’t.

While he seems to dislike any books not written prior to the 19th Century (since when did age alone become a marker of good literature?), Mr Gove does attempt to make himself more culturally relevant by referencing popular children’s author Jacqueline Wilson to support his assertion that levels of grammar among school children are not good enough. Again, I agree. (I may have to take a shower after I finish writing this to wash off the shame!)

As a secondary school teacher, I am seriously concerned about the number of students who arrive in my class unable to properly punctuate even simple sentences.  When asked what the purpose of a comma is they invariably reply ‘it’s where you take a breath’. I must therefore assume there is an uncharacteristically large problem with respiratory diseases in my classroom, as commas are thrown around in sentences like confetti at a wedding.

Part of the problem is that there was a clear hiatus in the explicit teaching of grammar, meaning we now have a whole generation of teachers who don’t really know how to teach grammar. I should know – I’m one of them! I know how to use grammar correctly, but explaining its intricacies to other people is something I have to work on constantly. I also face the challenge that, by the time students reach secondary school, many of these bad habits are so ingrained it’s practically impossible to train them out of them.

If I, as a specialist English teacher, struggle to know how best to teach grammar, I can’t imagine how primary school teachers feel. The primary school teacher is the ‘jack of all trades’ of the education field; expected to teach every subject under the sun to children ranging from those who have only recently mastered potty training to those on the cusp of full-blown puberty. Can you really expect them to be able to practically demonstrate the process of photosynthesis one minute and move on to explaining the varying uses of subordinate clauses the next with equal skill and enthusiasm?

So how does our inimitable educational leader plan to tackle the problems of reading and writing? With “a screening check at the age of 6”. Hurray! A test! Another test! Because we all know the best way to fatten a pig is to weigh it more often. Constantly, in fact. Never let the pig off the scales! Stand there, staring at it constantly, telling it to gain more weight by reading out the numbers on the scales and setting it clearly defined targets of how many pounds you want it to gain by tomorrow!

And if it doesn’t work? Well, it’s clearly the fault of all those teachers and teaching unions who don’t care. They, allegedly “have objected to our desire to ensure that children are properly literate at the end of primary school”. Yeah that’s right. We all hate kids! We don’t want them to learn. That’s why we choose to work with them day in, day out, despite being constantly criticised by the government. Because we hate them and want them to fail.

So, it seems that Mr Gove and I don’t actually agree on that much after all. Thank God for that. I thought I was about to lose all sense of who I was!

But before I throw a party in celebration of realising my true political leanings, I have to admit it makes me a bit sad. I wish I did agree with Mr Gove. I genuinely want him to succeed because, despite the massive risk to my ocular function, I really do want education to work for every child and for every child to reach secondary school fully literate.

So, on the off chance that any of you readers know Mr Gove (you never know!) and can convince him to take the opinions of someone who, sadly hasn’t been to Eton, but who has worked with primary school children struggling with literacy and young offenders who had often been excluded from school, has taught in inner London for several years, who is a godmother and aunt to primary school children and pre-schoolers, and now mother to an almost-toddler (well, he might be toddling if he wasn’t so busy sitting on his backside reading Dear Zoo for the 1000th time!) here are a few ideas for fixing the problems we both agree on:

– Reinstate funding for public libraries. You can’t encourage a love of reading in children if they don’t have access to books so they can read.

– Don’t cut funding to children’s centres and similar services. Our local children’s centre recently announced it was cutting a number of vital services because it had lost 20% of its funding. It’s ok for people like me who know about education and already read with their children, but what about parents who didn’t have a good education themselves? Where are their children going to learn good social skills and be read stories? There’s no point waiting until they’re 6 then screening them to discover they don’t even know which way the pages of a book turn. You need to intervene when they are babies and toddlers, get them reading and talking before they even walk through the school gates.

– Stop moaning about teachers’ inability to teach grammar and do something about it. Provide some training (not a boring information pack, actual training) so teachers know how to teach grammar properly and confidently. There will be plenty of people who say you shouldn’t have to provide this, and maybe you shouldn’t, but if you don’t think the teaching’s good enough, stop moaning and do something about it.

– Don’t just assess: intervene. If children are really struggling with reading and writing, they don’t need a standardised test. They need help! This takes time and resources, but it works. Look to charities like Springboard for Children and Reading Recovery. They may not have gone to Eton, and they may not even all have read Middlemarch, but they do know what they’re doing.

Michael Gove’s speech in full

http://www.springboard.org.uk/  @springboard4

http://readingrecovery.ioe.ac.uk/about.html

Five people I hate since becoming a mum

Having a child changes your outlook on the world completely. That first moment you hold your little one, you are transformed. You feel you could almost explode with love. It courses through your veins and beams out through every pore like lava oozing from a volcano before a sudden violent eruption (I’m worried that may read more like a horrific metaphor for the physical act of giving birth rather than a lovely warm metaphor for a mother’s love, but it’s nearly 11pm, I’m tired and can’t think of anything else so it’s staying in!).

Sadly, that feeling isn’t quite as all encompassing as it first seems. While my capacity for love has increased incredibly, so has my capacity to hate. Since the day I found out I was pregnant I have discovered whole swathes of people and organizations of whom I was previously unaware but who I would now cheerfully throw down to the bottom of a volcano with barely a second thought.

Here are just a few…

  1. Bounty

…and anyone else who tried to congratulate me on procreating by giving me ‘free’ stuff. From the moment I stared in disbelief at a stick with some lines on it, organisations were climbing over each other to shower me with gifts. How lovely! Except it isn’t. Excuse me if I sound ungrateful, but I’m not sure a couple of free nappies and a sample of fabric softener really prepared me for the realities of motherhood, and it certainly wasn’t worth the months of being bombarded by emails, mail shots and very persistent cold callers trying to make me change energy suppliers. Nor the rather brazen woman who wandered into my miserably lonely cubicle on the post-natal ward when I was desperately trying to soothe a crying baby and asked if I wanted to sign up for a professional photography session. No I bloody well do not, I’m busy trying to cram a sensitive part of my sore, sewn up, sleep deprived body into the mouth of a tiny, screaming monster. Now bugger off!

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you may find this recent Guardian article interesting: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2013/apr/28/alice-roberts-pregnancy-bounty-nhs

 2People who take lifts when they don’t need to

The Olympics and Paralympics were amazing. They showcased some amazing sporting talents, they inspired ordinary people to try new things and they brought our nation together. On a more selfish note, they also meant that the area near the Olympic Park (where I happen to live) was made much more accessible with lifts everywhere. It was the best legacy it could give me as a new mum: not having to constantly lug a buggy up and down stairs just to get around. Make no mistake though, as soon as my son is walking, we will be back to using the stairs. Lifts are useful, but annoying: slow, clunky and claustrophobic. I will never understand – when I am hanging around waiting for the lift to come down and collect me, while I stare longingly at the stairs and escalators which taunt me with their simple speed and availability, while I watch other people easily run up and jump on the train which I will probably now miss by the narrowest of margins – why there is always someone who insists on taking the lift when they don’t need to. I know you can’t always tell who can and can’t use stairs, but if you can run to the lift, athletically shove out your hand to heave open the closing doors and then squeeze your way in between two buggies, I reckon you could have at least managed to stand on the escalators.

 3.  People who stand in the wheelchair/buggy area of the bus when there are seats available

Seriously, I would love to sit down. LOVE it! There are loads of seats available so why have you chosen to stand in the only place I can possibly go? And why do you look so annoyed when I ask you to move? Enough said.

 4. People who compare your child to their cat

I had far too many variations on the following conversation during the first few months of being a mum.

 

THEM: So how are you and the little one?

ME: Good thanks (I don’t know. I’m not sure I can remember my own name. Do I know you?)

THEM: That’s good. You’re not too tired?

ME: Well, I am pretty knackered. He’s been waking up every two hours the past couple of nights. Plus I have to rock him back to sleep so my back’s really sore.  (I’m so tired and I’m in agony. Please kill me.)

THEM: That must be hard.

ME: Yeah, it’s so tiring, but I’m sure it’s just a phase (Seriously, kill me now. It’s the kindest thing to do)

THEM: Yeah. I know just how you feel. My cat is wearing me out. He woke me up at 5.30 this morning jumping on my bed. I’m so exhausted!

ME: Really? (Actually, maybe I’ll just kill you instead)

 5. Strangers who ask if you’re breastfeeding/if baby is sleeping through the night.

One of the best things about becoming a mum was it made me part of a community. For years, as a Northerner in London, I’d been laboring under the common assumption that Southerners were just not that friendly. It was all heads down, power through, never look anyone in the eye and never, ever talk to a stranger on the tube.

All that changes when you have a baby. Suddenly everyone is your friend:  the receptionist at the doctor’s surgery knows your name, you get to know half your neighbours through the children’s centres, and complete strangers stop you in the street to tell you how cute your baby is. It’s genuinely lovely.

What’s not lovely is that social norms flip so much that people feel they can ask you incredibly personal questions like “So are you breastfeeding? Is it going well?” – erm, yes strange old man in the street, would you like a rundown of exactly how many times a day I have to get my boobs out? – or “is he sleeping through the night yet?” – no of course he’s bloody not, he’s 8 weeks old, but thanks for making me feel like a completely inadequate parent by implying that he should be and getting my hopes up that maybe he will when in fact I have many more sleep deprived months to go. Seriously, I don’t know you. Mind your own business!