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?
Parenting is tiring and stressful. Sometimes we just need a bit of time to ourselves to rest and recuperate. But with a never ending to do list and hoards of people clawing for your attention, how on earth is a mum supposed to relax?
Here a re a few ideas…
1. A long soak in the tub.
Dig out the Boots Christmas gift sets, run a warm bubble bath, light some candles and maybe even pour yourself a glass of cold, white wine. Mmm. Why not go the whole hog and cue up some new age, hippy dippy, plinky plonky relaxation music on YouTube? No one could fail to wind down in that environment…
Though it is a little disconcerting to be soaking your troubles away under the watchful eye of three rubber ducks and and a wind up fish. Lean the wrong way and you’ll accidentally set off a cacophony of squeaks, tunes and bubbles.
Never mind, you can always distract yourself with a good book, and that new Thomas the Tank Engine potty chair is the perfect height to rest it on while you reach for your wine.
2. Beautify yourself
Beauty is only skin deep, but sometimes a little bit of skin deep pampering is all you need to feel human again. Put the little one to bed, lay out your cosmetics bag and get those claws looking beautiful again.
The problem is doing your nails is no longer a simple absent minded, in front of the telly job. These days it’s more like mission impossible. You don’t have the luxury of choosing a colour – it’s been so long since you used them they’ve all either turned into glue or curdled like last week’s milk. Even when you finally find a colour that works (sparkling gold is suitable for middle aged mums, right?), it’s a race against time to apply it and manically blow it dry as you live in constant fear of an inexplicable roar from upstairs, crashing into your peace and quiet like an explosion: ‘MAMAAAAAAAA,’
3. Time off
Sometimes you just need to book a babysitter and get away from it all. Go the whole hog and head out on a date. Get a bit of some romance in your life.
Of course, between giving the babysitter a monumental list of instructions and saying goodnight, it’ll take you ages to get out the door. Then you’ll probably spend the first half an hour of dinner checking your phone, wondering if bedtime went smoothly without you there: desperately hoping it did, but also secretly hoping it didn’t because that might mean you’re not sufficiently missed. Plus, what’s the point in having a break if that’s the day the little one decides to behave like an angel? Little git – probably does it on purpose!
Eventually you’ll get over the worry and settle into a real grown up night out. You’ll talk about work, about current affairs, about…about…no, wait, you’ve run out of things to talk about. You’ll have to resort to talking about the kids. Ah, well. At least wanting to talk about them reminds you how much you like them, and why you gave up all this going out stuff in the first place, and that’s a good thing to remember in itself. I think.
4. A girls’ night out
Slap on the slap, squeeze on the heels and head out for a night on the town. It might not be ‘relaxing’ so to speak, but it’s a bloody good way to let you hair down. Just ignore the thought of a hangover the next day, and the fact that it’ll be 10 times worse than it used to be because you’re tolerance now is about the same level as a field mouse who’s been taking part in dry January.
Also, try not to be offended when the rest of the girls keep referring to you like you’re their grandmother – suddenly the old and sensible one who they assume will be unable to talk about anything but children, when in fact the whole reason you’ve come out is to escape all that! You can always take comfort when at the end of the night they’re crying into their vodkas about their latest relationship mini-drama or the fact that they couldn’t get the bar man to give them his number (presumably they didn’t notice you’re in a gay bar), safe in the knowledge that while life may be quiet, at least you don’t have all that crap to deal with anymore!
5. Culinary indulgence.
Sod it. Nothing else seems to be working. Stick with what’s simple: crack open the wine and pass me a creme egg.
I love The Apprentice but, to be honest, I had long forgotten who Katie Hopkins was until her, ahem, eccentric views reared their ugly head several weeks ago in a TV interview about how and why she judges children based on their names. I didn’t see it, but I soon knew about it because people were outraged and made it known on every social networking site they could find.
Tempting as it was to jump on the outraged-mums bandwagon and boost my Twitter hits, I resisted. ‘Don’t feed the trolls’ my husband wisely advised me. While at first I thought he was making some obscure reference to The Three Billy Goats Gruff (I’ve still not really go my head round Twitter), I agreed. As said before, I had totally forgotten who Katie Hopkins was (she didn’t even make the final did she?) and it seemed fairly obvious that this vile, judgemental diatribe was a calculated, and sadly successful, ploy to fling herself back into the limelight.
Clearly dismayed by how quickly her views were overshadowed by an infinite number of more interesting and important news stories, she’s bounced back and this time aimed her hate-rifle at family life once again.
This time she’s annoyed that we want to spend time with our children. She’s angry at mums who, rather than sucking their post baby bellies into a power suit and heading straight back to the office within days of giving birth, actually want to spend a few months nurturing and getting to know their newborns: feeding them, playing with them, trying to figure out how on earth to get them to sleep. Bloody hell, Katie’s right, we really are a right load of selfish gits us mums!
I refuse to give in and I’m not going to feed any trolls, figurative or literal. I may however inadvertently shed a few crumbs in their direction as I leave a Hansel and Gretel like trail in the hope that it may lead Ms Hopkins and others with similar opinions to a calmer, more humane and pragmatic view point.
So, here’s my very sensible, measured and unemotional response to her article (seriously, I’m trying not to feed any trolls).
1. Children are not a ‘luxury’.
You can’t equate a person’s right to procreate, the one thing we are all biologically designed to do, to owning a flat screen TV or holidaying in the Canary Islands. By all means people should be responsible when making the decision to start a family and try to ensure they can afford it, but that doesn’t mean if you don’t happen to have been born into a wealthy family with a personal nanny on tap, you should have to forgo your dreams of parenthood in order to have a job, or vice versa. Besides, to imply that all small business’ problems would be solved by abandoning maternity benefits and encouraging women not to have children is ridiculous: What about businesses that cater for babies, children and families? What about the people who own small businesses who want to have children? What about small businesses which succeed only to find they can’t recruit anyone because everyone stopped having children to avoid putting a burden on small businesses? It’s ridiculous. Though it might make a good basis for a modern dystopian novel.
2. Ms Hopkins claims that “women are effectively legislating themselves out of the game.”
This final statement implies that a working woman has only two options: go back to work within weeks of giving birth or give up work altogether to be a stay at home mum.
I love my job and am glad to have made the choice to be a full-time working mum. However, faced with these narrow options I’d have had no choice but to stay at home. Partly because I wanted the chance to bond with my new son, partly because I was his only source of food for six months and partly because I would have been crap at my job! With the pitiful amount of sleep I snatched in those first five months, I dread to think what would have happened had I attempted to teach GCSE classes. At the very least there would have been children screamed at for the most minor mischief, at worst I can fully imagine teaching entirely the wrong set of texts and only discovering on the day of the exam, then hiding in a cupboard wracked with sobs and anguish awaiting the onslaught of parents demanding my sacking. Legislating myself out of the game? If I hadn’t risked that I’d have almost certainly been legislated out of the profession for good!
3. I’m not a businesswoman, but have worked in more than enough different organisations to know that some of the most important things you need for success are stability, experience and motivation.
Certainly, having a colleague go on leave for 6-12 months with a baby will cause disruption, but if you treat that colleague well, she’ll return happy, grateful and willing to put her all into that organisation. Prior to my current job I barely stayed in any job for longer than a year, but 3 years into this job and I’m happy to stick around. There are the practicalities around being near to the childminder and having set working hours which I know fit around my life now, but there’s also the fact that they treated me so well before, during and upon return from maternity leave that I really appreciate my colleagues, work ten times harder as a result and am sure to be a committed worker for some time to come. Yes it’s a short term loss, but for a much longer term gain through staff retention and motivation.
I recognise that there are, unfortunately, a couple of key flaws in my response to Ms Hopkins.
Firstly, she does actually have a point. While I absolutely believe we should fight to preserve the maternity rights we have in this country, I can see it must be so devastating to be setting up or running a business which is so reliant on a few members of staff, only to discover one is leaving for up to a year, you’ll have to find a replacement and to worry that they might fall in love with parenting and not come back at all. Maybe more should be done to help. Perhaps the government could subsidise maternity on a sliding scale, offering more help to those in small businesses while allowing large corporations to manage it more themselves? I don’t know, but I do know the answer isn’t to just turn the clock back and prevent the vast majority of mums being able to work at all. That benefits no one.
Secondly, as I have probably just demonstrated in my suggested solution, I am not a businesswoman.
Thankfully as she’s put so much energy into propelling herself into the media spotlight as a rent-a-gob on anything vaguely related to business and or parenthood, Ms Hopkins isn’t likely to be seen by many as a serious businesswoman either, so I don’t need to fight my corner quite so hard.
Stressed mums cook up to 10 meals a day
So screamed a headline in the Daily Mirror this week. This ‘fact’ was taken from the dubiously entitled ‘Modern Mum Report’ to which, for the record, I can find no other reference from my research (which, ahem, involved typing it into Google).
According to the Mirror, most mums admit to feeling stressed at least five times. Mealtimes are a key cause of this stress as “fusspot tots” dictate the need to prepare a different dish for every family member.
‘What a load of old nonsense!’ I thought smugly. ‘I’m never doing that. Kids should eat what they’re given and be grateful. That’s going to be my strategy.’
Indeed, it already has been. I remember clearly getting dubious looks from my other half when our little one decided he was going to start refusing food at around 9 months.
‘Shouldn’t you give him something else? He’s only a baby’ my husband uttered, typical new-parent concern rife in his voice.
‘No!’ I said confidently, using my practiced teacher-knows-best voice to hide my own fears that I might accidentally starve the baby to death in the course of one mealtime. ‘If he’s really hungry, he’ll eat. He barely even understands the concept that he is a person in his own right. I’m not going to accept that a child who can’t put a spoon in his own mouth is going to dictate that he won’t eat broccoli and will instead survive on a diet of only cheese, toast and apple flavour rice cakes.’ (Seriously, they taste like cardboard. Why do babies love them so much?)
And so I laid down the rules. No ‘fusspot tots’ in my house. I will never be cooking 9 different meals a day like those soft, foolish, namby-pamby mums. I’m in charge here.
There’s only one problem, and it’s the one my mum will be shouting at the screen right now as she reads this…
I was one of those ‘fusspots’. Not as a toddler, but as a pre-teen. Won over by a book on saving the planet somebody had absent-mindedly passed my way, I decided to become vegetarian. So did my brother, but for different reasons and with his own particular set of rules about what he would and wouldn’t eat. Meanwhile my other brother hated vegetables and would only eat meals consisting primarily of chicken.
My poor mother, who loved food of all varieties but had inadvertently given birth to an incredibly stubborn and willful brood when it came to culinary choices, was reduced to two options:
- We would all survive on a diet of only cheese and toast until we finally flew the nest (I don’t think apple flavoured rice cakes had been invented then)
- Accept that we had all thoroughly made our minds up – whether through well-intentioned moral choices or sheer fussiness – and make separate meals.
Fast forward about 20 years and I finally realise what an absolute pain in the backside my decision to become vegetarian must have been.
In my defence, it was not a whim – I am still vegetarian. However, this in many ways is how I now know what a pain it is.
During our ‘courtship’, my other half made it very clear that he loved me unconditionally and wouldn’t change anything about me, except my vegetarianism. For some reason, when he stayed at mine he didn’t think a vegetarian risotto/pasta/chilli/other-form-of-entirely-vegetable-based-meal with a half-burned sausage plonked unceremoniously on the side was the true ideal of the carnivore. I never understood why.
Fortunately for him, and unfortunately for me, once we were married, eating all our meals together and preparing for the arrival of a baby, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps this wasn’t actually the most fair and nutritious of meal plans.
It was at this point in my life that I widened my cookery skills to include the following delights:
– Frying lumps of chicken in a pan and dumping them unceremoniously on top of an otherwise entirely vegetable based meal
– Chopping up bits of chorizo and dumping them unceremoniously on top of an otherwise entirely vegetable based meal
– Frying and chopping up bits of bacon and dumping them unceremoniously on top of an otherwise entirely vegetable based meal
– Stuffing a chicken breast with cream cheese, wrapping it in bacon and putting it in the oven. I consider this a particular treat so it really only comes out when we have visitors, and I am always disappointed when they point out I stole the idea from a Philadelphia advert.
In my eyes, I’m bloody Delia Smith! Except less well put together. Maybe Keith Floyd would be a better comparison – slightly messier and with more wine.
Either way, I consider this a huge step forward, but I’m already dreading the future. At some point, I’ll have to stop relying on the childminder as my son’s main source of iron and protein, and once he’s learned to talk he may even request specific meals. God forbid! It’s not that I’m ‘stressed’, I just can’t be bothered. During pregnancy I genuinely considered abandoning 20 years of vegetarianism just so I could avoid the hassle of cooking different meals once the baby popped out.
In the ‘Modern Mum Report’ I guess they’d class me as an anomaly – causing myself far more culinary hassle than anyone else in the family. Still, just to make things clear, I’d like to finish by passing on a few messages:
- To all the ‘stressed mums’ cooking 9 meals a day: Stop it. Just stop it! It’s ridiculous. Life’s too short. They’ll get hungry eventually. If not, they’re bound to re-commission Supernanny soon.
- To my mum: I’m sorry for being such a pain, but you only have yourself to blame. If you’d just let me grow up to be selfish and with no moral compass, you’d never have had this problem in this first place.
- To my son: Don’t you even think about it!