Thursday, 17 September 2015

Travels with my Toddler Part 1: Glasgow to Colchester via London by public transport.

This trip origionally started life as a visit to see my parents in Colchester. But I soon realised that given the very long train jouneys involved, it would make sense to break the jouney in London. Which then meant catching up with London friends, which in turn meant extending the trip by a few days to fit it all in. Leaving us with this ludicrously ambitious 7 day itinary:

Day 1: Travel to London by Virgin Pendalino- stay the night at my sisters place
Day 2: Natural History Museum with Dad Sis and London Pals. Take the train back to parents place in Colchester with Dad
Day 3: Chill out at Mum and Dads place
Day 4: Colchester Zoo
Day 5: Travel back into London, chill at sisters place
Day 6: Olympic Park with my sister and London pals
Day 7: Pendalino  back to Glasgow

My travelling companions were a 2 and a half year Jimmy and a five week old Kirsty.
Just so you know, I had intended to write some observations on the galloping pace of gentrification in London and the excelloration of working class dispossession since I last vsited several years ago.
Once I got to the keyboard, it turned into a post about how to get children safely on and off trains. Parenthood is a bit like that. All wider interests get subsumed under the immidiate practicalities of the situation. So, embracing my inner Mummy Blogger. Here is the Eccentric Seal guide to train travel with small children. 


⦁    One Pushchair. A tatty early 90's model similar to this one, the one big advantage that both the head and leg ends adjust forward and back, allowing it to be adjusted easily to accomodate either a baby or toddler.
⦁    One sling- The NCT Caboo, since you asked. 

Hand Luggage:

⦁    5 baby sized nappies
⦁    3 toddler nappies
⦁    Change of clothes for the baby- one babygrow and one vest
⦁    wipes and cream
⦁    Pad of paper
⦁    felt pens
⦁    Happyland figures
⦁    Plastic animals
⦁    3 story books
⦁    1 sticker book
⦁    Tablet PC with games loaded
⦁    keys, wallet, phone, train tickets. 

Rucksack containing:
⦁    5 babygrows
⦁    5 baby vests
⦁    2 baby cardigans
⦁    5 pairs toddler trousers
⦁    5 toddler t.shirts
⦁    2 toddler jumpers
⦁    5 toddler socks
⦁    5 adult sized t.shirts
⦁    5 pairs knickers
⦁    one spare adult sized jumper
⦁    5 pairs adult sized socks
⦁    more nappies (baby and toddler sizes)
⦁    Baby bath, shampoo, toothbrushes, toothpaste

And of course the clothes we left the house in- jumpers coats, shoes and hats. 

Packing was a two stage process: first a list of things needed, next the packing. Everything needed to fit into one rucksack and a handbag and there obviously wasn't going to be enough space for all the clothes needed. I did a few loads of washing at Mums place. This mostly provided us with enough clean clothes. On the last day, I had run out of clean baby clothes and had to send my sister to Primark for a packet of three more vests and three babygrows to cover us for the jouney back.

Walking Around:

Our basic walking around configuration was:
⦁     Baby in the pram,
⦁    handbag over the pram handles,
⦁    rucksack on my back and
⦁    toddler under orders to walk by the side, holding onto the pram. 

His childminder taught him to do this. Whenever I hear someone saying that noone can look after their baby as well as they can, I remember Jimmy, on our first trip out of the house with Kirsty, automatically reaching for the pram handle and I laugh at them. Proffessional childcare is great. 

When Jimmy was too tired to walk or too naughtey to be trusted- I was able to quickly convert the pram to buggy mode and pop him in. This meant carrying the baby in a sling on my chest,  the rucksack on my back and pushing a pram at the same time. 

Getting onto trains

On the Pendalino especially, it was very busy with limited luggage space, so everyone has to move quickly.  I normally asked somone else to lift the pram (with baby) on for me, while I got on with rucksack and toddler, found a seat for the toddler and sat him down. Next put the rucksack away somewhere, pick up the baby and return to the toddler in the seat. 

Its helpful to have something to occupy the toddler with while all this is going on and this needs to be actually in your hand as you get on the train. I used a MacDonanlds Happy Meal (Or its inferior Burger King Equivilent) purchased from the station immidiately before departure. 

Its also  good if you can get a seat close to the luggage rack so you can keep the toddler in sight at all times. You can specify a preference for this when you reserve seats.
Space on the Pendalino is really limited and unfolded prams are only permitted in the wheelchair space  if not already booked by a disabled person. I was lucky enough to be able to use this space on the outward and homeward journey. I probably would have needed a second person to help fold the pram, otherwise. In general, getting on and off trains felt like a two person job. I was lucky enough to have family members drop me off and pick me up from the stations and also help out with the bags. When on my own- fellow passengers usually volunteered to help without being asked.
Since its impossible to keep hold of all the bags and children at once, I would probably use a money belt for valuables if I were to do this again. 

Being on a train

On short journeys around London, just being on a train was entertainment enough. Especially the Docklands light railway. Sitting at the very front, pulling out of Tower Gateway with the whole urban panorama opening up around us, Jimmy was transfixed.
Journeys between London and Colchester were short and managable. The long journey between Glasgow and London was the one I dreaded.
As already mentioned- I fed the toddler immidiately on getting on board. This was enough to keep him absorbed for the first half an hour. After that,I introduced distractions one by one, in acending order of attractiveness so there was something fresh and interesting each time he started to flag. So looking out of the window first and talking about what we can see, followed by happyland figures and animals, then felt tips and books. Tablet PC last, as an extra special treat, once he was bored of everything else.
If all else fails, going for a walk to the buffet car and back is a good distraction, although I did need to ask other passengers to hold the baby while we did this. If you start making friendly conversation early in the journey- it doesn't feel so awkward when you have to ask this favour later on.
on the way back we had a tub of dinosaur figures from the Natural History Museum and those kept us occupied for a good few hours. Obviously, table seats are needed for this sort of thing.
The baby was in my arms the whole time, which was a bit tiring but otherwise ok. We breastfed a few times and i don't think anyone noticed. On the outward journey we had to change a nappy in a very cramped toilet, with all three of us jammed in together. That was unpleasent. On the return journey, I changed Kirsty on the flat suface of an empty luggage rack by our table in order to avoid having to do this again. I was a bit concerned other passengers would find this antisocial but, in all honesty, not concerned enough not to do it. Noone said anything and i was extremely quick about it. Later on Jimmy needed a nappy change and I had to leave Kirsty crying alone in the pram while I wreastled his clothes off him in the tiny cubical. Not ideal but needs must. 

Getting Off of Trains

Connections needed to be managed like military operations. I found it useful to write down the approximate times of arrival and start preparing 10 minutes before that time. Packing down toys and books, dressing both kids ready to go in jumpers and coats undone. Slinging up the baby if necessary. Then unfolding the buggy (if needed) and placing the appropriate child inside. That generally leaves a few minutes to spare- which I spent sitting on the rucksack by the door amusing the toddler with action songs and jiggling the baby. The very last task as the train pulls into the station is to zip up coats, put hats on heads and swing the rucksack onto my back. 
Someone pretty much always offers to help with the buggy. If the toddler was loose- I would ask my good samaritan to take the pram off first then follow behind, lifting the toddler over the gap last of all. Then its easy enough to lead the toddler to the pram and instruct him to hold on. And off we go, in familier formation!
Moving around between plarforms is a special kind of hell on the London Underground, especially with a buggy. I think it was Euston station that required us to evict Jimmy from the buggy so that it could be carried up and down a whole bunch of steps, with help enlisted from other passengers. It was crappy- but we got through it. 

Do it again?

Definately! People think I was crazy to do this 5 weeks after giving birth. But it actually turned out really well and marked a sea change in my attitude to the responsibility of two kids. Before we left I'd very much been in "new mum" mode- worried about how to cope with them. After all, theres two of them and only one of me! On our return, we were a tight little crew- that knew how to look out for each other on the move, have fun in different places and bed down together at night. It was like a team building exercise.
I got to feel super smug at the 6 week check up when my midwife asked if i'd been "managing to get out much", but the truth is that the hardest thing about being out and about with kids is organising yourself to leave the front door. After that- everything is easier. This is the trip I can credit with teaching me that lesson. 

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Wounded Leaders

Way back in 2013 I wrote this piece about the feminist concept of male privilege and how it plays out for economically underprivileged men.

Now I'm wondering what happens at the other side of the class divide. How does male privilege work out there? This is something I can only observe from the outside. Sometimes through the pain of others. The particular difficulties posher friends seem to have with their fathers. Their strangely rigid and studied performance of femininity that seems somehow linked. There's a distinct "flavour" to upper and upper-middle class gender relations. One that is difficult for me to put my finger on.

When the subject came up on a gender discussion forum I speculated on historic differences in gender roles. Going back a century- working class women were expected to do hard physical work at home, while their men did hard physical work outside. Meanwhile upper class men were running industry and empire while their women were expected to do nothing at all, beyond being pleasant and looking decorative. Its a perfect recipe for misunderstanding and contempt.

Since then, I have read the excellent Wounded Leaders by Nick Duffell, an expert on the "psychology of entitlement" who works with survivors of elite boarding schools and has written about the effect on personality and mental health. You can get a flavour from this documentary. Wounded Leaders builds on this work and brings it into the realm of "psychohistory", examining the reasons why the boarding school system developed and the effect it has had on British culture.

It turns out that, far from being the accidental result of material conditions (as I generally assume all cultural phenomena to be!) upper class misogyny was deliberately cultivated. It was achieved through a traumatic breaking of the bond between mother and son. The explicit intention of this was to remove any "soft" female influences from the male personality.

Although Duffell's work concentrates on the practice of sending young children away to boarding school, the process could begin even earlier. At birth even. Today, Norland College trains nannies in modern, child centred techniques. At its inception, it was intended to train out the softness and compassion with which working class servants would otherwise contaminate their charges. Wealthy mothers were under great social pressure to give their children over to these coldly professional carers, so that their children could become "great men" like their husbands. A brutalised personality is a great asset in those destined to subjugate others.

My grandmother remembers, standing with other housemaids outside the nursery door or a "great house" crying at the way the little aristocrats were treated. She was a child as well of course, and had also been removed from her mother.

Duffell's discipline of "Psychohistory" has been criticised as "the idea that child rearing methods can effect foreign policy." The irony is that upper class child rearing was actually intended to further foreign policy. Specifically, it was intended to produce administrators for the British Empire- the largest and most brutal empire the world has ever known.

The cultural implications continue to this day and Duffell has plenty of interest to say about them. In particular about the brand of virulent misogyny that so many of our "wounded leaders" exhibit.

The only problem is that Duffell universalises his observations. He believes that because British society is "top down," cultural attitudes "trickle down" and become generally held. He seems oblivious to any autonomous working class culture that might interfere with this process. Or to that ideas might have a different impact if removed from their original material context. Perhaps he overstates his case in order to underline the damage done by the boarding school system.

As a class- we have never set out to deliberately break the attachment between mother and child. That is a huge thing that has never happened to us. Our men have never systematically stolen motherhood from us. Or mothering from our children.

Middle class interventions sometimes attempt to devalue our authority as mothers but that's a subject for another blog post. I will only note in passing that while upper class mothers once turned to the Norland school to guard against the tendency of working class women to form attachments, the modern professional anxiety is that working class women may not form attachments readily enough. Zoe Williams is good on this point.

As a creature of the third wave, I've recently been trying to broaden my analysis with some good old fashioned Radical Feminism and I keep across something that feels both alien and familiar. Not so much the intellectual ideas which are rigorous and basically sound. More the emotional content.

The descriptions of how men feel about us and what it is to be subjected to that. The sense that men do not view us as fully human, and hate us for it. The exasperation in finding such feelings to be almost universal in men. With a few unfortunate exceptions, this is not something I have noticed about the men I know. Its a pretty good description of Nick Duffell's wounded leaders, though.

I'm left wondering about that common criticism of 2nd wave feminism. That it was essentially a movement of the privileged, blind to the experiences of working class and black women. It is a criticism levelled, in various forms, by modern 3rd wave feminists, by contemporary black and working class feminists and, of course, by class reductionist lefty men.

What I always understood by this is that all women are taking similar crap from men, but that some women have additional pressures and need to prioritise other issues and that privileged women don't understand this.

I'm now wondering about those privileged women, in their privileged movement. Perhaps they weren't experiencing the same kind of crap at all.

Perhaps they were experiencing something else. Something born of extreme entitlement and class privilege as well as masculinity. Something to do with this deliberate corruption of human relationships, that the ruling class has inflicted on itself.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Returning to Blogging and Being a Housewife

Shockingly, it has been over a year since I last wrote anything for this blog. Since then a few things have happened.
Firstly, I am pregnant again. Secondly the middle class job I was humble-bragging about in my last post (never underestimate the element of humble-bragging in any left wing acknowledgement of privilege) has gone completely tits up.
With the result, that I am now, once more, a housewife. And, true to stereotype, I am returning to Mummy-Blogging.

So far today, I have got up with my 2 and a half year old, gone to toddler group, come home again and put him down for a nap. Now I am pissing about on some feminist facebook pages and writing a blog post. This is my life now. It is the kind of gentle existence that is just perfect for someone still licking her wounds after failing disastrously to hold down a job. I fully expect it to be stultifying boring in about 6 months’ time.

So, just to break the blogging inertia, here are some observations on my current situation.

Firstly I get to call myself a housewife, or a Stay at Home Mum or a Full Time Parent instead of just a plain old unemployed person; which is a handy way to distance myself from the failure of unemployment. 

Being able to do this is a function of both privilege and oppression. Middle class women are pretty much the only group in society who have both the means and the social sanction to have any kind of work-life balance. This is not insignificant. Everyone should have the opportunity to have both satisfying work and a loving family life. The opportunity to take a couple of months or years out of the workplace, with the expectation of being able to return to employment later- is defiantly something I value. 

On the other hand- it’s also something of a trap. It is offered up on the assumption that we are not properly serious about having a place in the world (outside of the home) and it comes with the risk of long term loss of financial opportunity.
A couple of people have attempted to cheer me up about the horrible tits up work situation by suggesting that it shouldn’t matter to me as I’m “having a baby soon.” This is not comforting.  It feels like being sentenced to something.

Secondly- our of all the nicer sounding job titles that aren't "unemployed" and describe someone doing what Marxists call the "social reproduction of capital", I prefer "housewife." In fact I am going to reclaim "housewife." I realise "Stay at Home Parent" is the more fashionable term and might seem to give the role more dignity and importance- but I see this as a mental trap and here's why.

In 1950's America there was a consumer boom and a lot of new products became available. Things like washing machines, fridges, vacuum cleaners and so on. For families able to afford these things- housework became less time consuming and labour intensive. There ought to have been less reason for middle class women to be housewives.

Instead of sheer pressure of workload however, middle class women were kept in the home by the social ideal of being a "homemaker." Someone who would not only do housework but would do it to a high standard, whose home would be immaculate, who would sew, bake, jam-make, mix cocktails, throw fantastic dinner parties and look great. 

The idea of being a "homemaker" was superficially attractive, because it appeared to place a value on women's work. There was even an idea of "domestic science" or "home economics" which made housework seem like an important technical specialism. With the benefit of hindsight- we can see that it was a way of moving the goal posts. The effort needed to achieve a basic level of comfort and hygiene might have been drastically reduced- but a social expectation of ever higher standards emerged to keep women busy in the home.

Its fashionable now, to look back at those social values and have a laugh. Although "traditional" homemaking skills are making a comeback- we are not short of voices ready to critique the likes of Kath Kidson and Kirstie Allsop as kitchy purveyors of throw back anti feminism.

"Stay at Home Parenting" is just the same thing in different packaging. Superficially, it looks like an attractive label- one you could embrace: "Here I am- caring for my children- the most important job in the world." One thing I find endlessly fascinating on Mumsnet, is the wide variety of opinions on who should do what around the house. It was on Mumsnet that  first came across the idea that the "stay at home parent" is responsible for parenting only. Housework should be shared equally. I was surprised by this and remember thinking what a progressive idea it was.

Except that, like "homemaking," caring for children has expanded to fill all the time and space available.  Those same progressive "Stay at Home Parents" who only do half the housework (1) now think it is necessary to troll around a dozen toddler "activities," supervise improving craft projects on the kitchen table and puree their own bloody parsnips.

This is a genuine quote from Mumsnet, regarding a three year old child: "But everyone teaches their children the letters and numbers.That's just normal good parenting surely."
I love that comment because theres so much in it. It speaks to the narrowness of the posters hoizons ("everyone" certainly does not teach their three year old's letters and numbers) but also to the high expectations that middle class women place on themselves (what constitutes "normal good parenting") and even hints at the labour involved in living up to that ideal. I can just imagine her saying: "oh look darling, some leaves- shall we count them?"

All this is a completely new invention. One little factoid that's always stuck with me: The amount of time spent by a modern working mother and a 1950's housewife, on focused one to one attention to their children has been shown to be exactly the same.

Zoe Williams is one commentator who has always seen through the prescriptiveness of the modern middle class parenting ideal. Her new book, The Madness of Modern Parenting, is firmly on my Christmas list and I look forward to devouring it on boxing day with a hot chocolate and a dozen mince pies.

I particularly love her recent article in the Guardian, which touches on the implications for working class mothers, who find this questionable ideal imposed upon them by well meaning professionals.

Zoe is absolutely right to question the complete failure in public health to separate out causation from correlation. So much of a child's life chances are explained by structural class inequalities. Trying to make working class mums parent more like middle class mums does nothing but transfer responsibility for inequality onto working class women.

It also risks undervaluing the working class approach, where there are differences in parenting style between classes. 
At the very working class playgroup I attend- I get compliments from the other mums about how well my son "plays away." At the more middle class soft play centre I get evils for "not supervising" him. Common sense tells me that the working class mums are right on this one. Self sufficiency is a life skill, of course my son should learn it. At present, acquisition of this skill is undervalued. There are courses at the YWCA to teach mothers how to do interactive play with their children. There are no courses that teach helicopter parents how to back the fuck off.

This is why I will never describe myself as a "Stay at Home Parent." It is a label that implies the absolute centrality of the child, reduces what should be a relationship with another human being into a prescriptive and labour intensive profession and is reflective of an ideal which is detrimental to women. And possibly to children as well.

Being a housewife is a problematic social role. It is sub ideal in many ways. But its not going to get any less problematic by dressing it up in language that appears to validate but in fact obscures.
At least "housewife" encompasses the entirety of the job. It is what it is- cooking, cleaning, emptying the washing machine and all.

And, for all that I denigrate the "homemaker" ideal- some level of housework is important. For the task of parenting even (if this is going to be our central mission). It is part of what needs to be done, to provide an environment which is safe, relatively hygienic and in which things (meals, clean clothes, bath times) happen in a reliable and predictable manner.
Social Services can actually take your children away from people who are not able to meet these basic standards, regardless of whether they also make their own play dough or their kids know all their colours and shapes. So, you know, hardly unimportant stuff. 

So Housewife it is then. Housewife and Mummy Blogger. God help me.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

How to get away with being a crap parent

This is how my profile on the Mumsnet bloggers network reads:

“A working class, socialist mum living in Glasgow writes about her life and draws wider political conclusions where she can.”

It is not true and I should change it. I am from a working class background, true. But I have not actually been working class for, oh, two whole jobs now.

My moving into the (lower) middle class is pretty much a consequence of moving to Glasgow. Nick persuaded me to do this back when we were in our one room flat in London. We could no more afford a two room flat than we could figure out where to keep a baby in one room.

So we came up here, as I like to euphemistically to put it- “for the house prices”

Once here, however, some other things happened:

Whereas jobs for welfare rights workers were being cut left right and centre in England, the Scottish government is actually funding more of them.

This allows the SNP to demonstrate their commitment to alleviating the Westminster Coalition policies and also to utilise the statistics we produce to demonstrate just how bad those policies really are.
Add in some post- colonial sociology and the unearned advantage this still gives someone with an English accent and my career has pretty much sky rocketed.

You should be noticing at this point, how a policy ostensibly designed to help the very poor, is primarily benefiting me, the relatively privileged. This is actually how it usually happens. Welcome to the poverty sector.*

So now that I have some unearned privilege worth wringing my hands over I am going to indulge in that staple of social justice blogging and write a post about how that affects my life. Specifically I am going to write about how my unearned privilege allows me to get away with being a slightly crap parent.

I am able to get away with being a slightly crap parent in two ways:

First off, on a practical level it is harder to fuck up.

I routinely overspend on stuff like work lunches, take away cups of tea and newspapers. My child does not go hungry as a result.

This is a huge contrast to how I was brought up, where every single expense was carefully calibrated and the need to buy a new pair of shoes was a crisis comparable to what a massive boiler explosion would be to me now. I can remember how my mother used to talk about other people making just the kind of lazy purchases I so routinely make.  “Food from their children’s mouths”

Even when I’m not making mistakes, I can afford to make things easier for myself. I buy these little individually wrapped pieces of cheese, which pound for pound must be the most expensive possible way of buying cheese. I buy little mini yogurts, breadsticks and microwave toddler lunches. I do this so that I can just pull stuff out of the fridge and give it to Jimmy without having to plan ahead. I am buying the ability to be crap.

Jimmy does not eat well. Not compared to myself at his age and not compared to many lower income children I know. Their parents cannot afford to be crap. And so they are not.

 I like to reflect that while he may not be eating healthy food- at least I am imparting a healthy attitude towards food. This is because I can afford not to care if he chucks his diner onto the floor. I just pull some other overpriced convenience food out of the fridge and offer an alternative.

Same with days out: I just take him places, Soft play, petting zoo, drive to the country side. We do it on a whim and it saves me thinking too hard about how to amuse him. Buying my way out of being crap.

So, given how bloody easy it is to provide a decent standard of living when you have a bit of money. And how even when you make mistakes, your child doesn't necessarily suffer for them, because you can buy your way out of that. Given all that, you would expect middle class parents to face really harsh criticism when they do fuck up, wouldn’t you?

You’d be wrong.

I know this because, when Jimmy was little, I was the subject of a social services investigation, which I blogged about extensively here.

For the time the investigation was on going, and for a little while afterwards, I was in the position of presenting at services as a low income parent, from a deprived area, who was a client of social services. So I got to see a little bit about what that means in terms of how people treat you. And therefore I can compare with how people treat me now.

I remember, very clearly, going for Jimmy’s 6 week check-up and having the doctor talk to me at length about developmentally delays before she had run the checks.

She also asked me if I “could manage to clothe him” Jimmy was wearing a baby grow with no vest, because he had just been weighed naked and I had dressed him hastily for the journey from one well heated room to another.

I pretended not to understand the implications of the question and prattled on about his low birth weight and how, yes, it could be a problem to find things small enough in the shops. All with a big friendly smile.
The I went home and cried and cried over the thought that anyone could take him from me. And agonised about why I hadn't thought to explain myself better. 

Several months later, we went to a baby weaning event and I dressed him to the absolute nines; Then looked around the church hall to see that everyone else had done the same. One little girl had Barbie pink skinny jeans and a matching dummy.

Well we have slipped considerably since then and it is now perfectly normal for Jimmy to cut about covered in yoghurt and snot, wearing odd socks. Has anyone commented? No, they have not. 

Things are easier for me and yet I still get a free pass. That’s privilege in a nutshell. 

*An even starker example: In my last job we ran into some difficulty in obtaining medical evidence form our clients GP’s. The GP’s representative body had advised them to stop providing evidence for appeals, because of a massively increase in the number of requests, caused, in turn, by the massively increased number of horrifically unfair benefit decisions. There was a special government fund available to mitigate the effects of welfare cuts and my employers were considering making a claim to this fund in order to obtain money to pay the GP’s to produce the evidence we needed to fight the appeals. This would have meant that money supposedly set aside to help the very poorest, being diverted to GPs who have a basic starting salary of £54,319 pa.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Weekend Mum

Maternity leave is over. Five mornings out of seven, I get up at six, feed Jimmy his milk and banana, wash and dress while he’s still eating and leave, shutting the door behind me; by 7.30 at the latest.

I don’t think about him at work. I even try not to think about work when I’m with him. I just concentrate on doing one thing at a time, to the best of my ability.  It’s easy because I enjoy almost everything I do. I live a good life. A man’s life really. I shut the door behind me and go off to argue with tribunal judges, write training materials on the bedroom tax, talk to other adults and eat lunch while reading the paper.  

I enjoy the security and pleasure of a family life without any cost to my career or my sense of self.

I reckon if I was a stay at home mum, I’d want a husband like me. One, who helps in the mornings, gets home for the bedtime routine and still does a hand’s turn around the kitchen. Nick doesn't always agree. There are certain things around the house that neither of us has taken responsibility for. It’s not clear whose job they are and they cause little arguments and resentment every time they need doing.

I contemplate career progression and speculate aloud about going for promotion. Not yet of course, some time far in the future, when Jimmy’s at secondary school and doesn't need me about so much.

Nick is amazed at this. “No Man would think like that” he says and I consider things from another angle. I’m the bread winner now. Perhaps that’s a responsibility worth taking seriously as well.

2 days out of 5, I play fun weekend mum. I take Jimmy to soft play, to the library, to the swimming pool. We sit in little Italian cafes so he can eat pieces of penne off my saucer and charm the waiters into tolerating our mess.

“Is he old enough for the zoo yet?” I wonder aloud and Nick says “No, not quite. Perhaps in another 6 months” I don’t know these things anymore. I have to ask.

Jimmy’s eyes light up when he sees Nick enter the room and he does that delighted little baby squeak. Nick holds him close and I see how easy they are with each other now.
“I love to see you two together like that” I tell Nick; “It’s a real reassurance to me to know, he’s being cared for so well, while I’m away at work”

Apparently this is also something a man would never say, which surprises me. As a good Marxist, I always assume material conditions determine consciousness. Living this husband’s life- I imagined my concerns would be similar to any of the fathers at my work.

“Oh no, Men don’t have that sense of responsibility. We see children as competition if anything.”

My husband is not one of those men who would describe themselves as a feminist.
He’s something better than that. A man who is willing to let me in on what men are really like- instead of always trying to convince me of how different he is from the others.

I know what he says is true. How else to account for the increased risk of domestic violence when women are pregnant or have recently given birth? It would be a mistake to assume violent men are the aberrations. Every heterosexual relationship plays out in the shadow of those same power relations.

On some deep level I have known this already. That deep pleasure I feel when I see them getting on together. I can name it. It is relief. 

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Happy Breastfeeding Awareness Week!

23rd to 27th of June was apparently breastfeeding awareness week. This is the kind of information you become party to in the Mumsnet Bloggers Network. Some bloggers have used this as an opportunity to post about their own breastfeeding experiences- so I thought I’d have a go. A little late, but still….

Jimmy was born by cesarean section: a little scrap of life, just 4lb 2oz, whisked away from me before I could hold him. I was bouncing off the walls from morphine, and shaky from some really dramatic blood loss when I was asked for permission for the nurses to “just give him his first feed” of formula.

This I happily did, taking the “just” at face value. It wasn't like that of course and Jimmy ended up spending a full 10 days on SCBU (Special Care Baby Unit).

He wasn’t even drinking formula in the end.  He was so little that any kind of sustenance made his blood sugar jump about like a metronome in an earthquake. They fed him glucose through a drip in his arm. He was like a little humming bird.

Visiting your own baby in SCBU is awkward. It’s your child and you have the right to be there, of course. But you’re also hanging around someone else’s workplace. You are allowed to help care for him, but it feels a little like playing with dollies. Your presence is not exactly necessary.

On the other hand- being apart from your baby feels mildly but unmistakably wrong. The mildness decreasing with the amount of time spent away. For 10 days, I had the choice between sitting in a rather boring, overheated room feeling socially awkward; or sitting in the comfort of my own home feeling wrong.

On top of that the social services investigation was still on-going so I felt like my visits were being scrutinised. In retrospect they almost certainly were.  I found myself doing things like unnecessarily bringing in little blankets from home, despite the perfectly adequate bedding he was already wrapped in- purely because bringing in blankets felt like something a loving mother might be expected to do.

So, Jimmy took glucose through his drip. Then he took milk through a tube in nose. Then finally milk by mouth. The milk by mouth bit was important because it was a condition of him being able to leave hospital.

There was a period where there was nothing medically wrong with him; he even known to be capable of sucking, because he’d been given a bottle for a night feed once.  But he wasn't allowed to come home because I’d said I wanted to breastfeed, and he hadn't done that yet.

He wasn't going to either- the way things were going. Jimmy’s feeds were scheduled for once every 4 hours. I was managing to make maybe 2 or 3 of them per day. I would hold him up to the breast and he would look up at me sweetly and… do nothing. He’d never been hungry in his life and I think sucking simply didn't occur to him.

We would just sit there together until the nurses got bored of it and then Jimmy would have a feed through his tube and then I would put him down. I knew we were never going to get started with these few, regulated minutes of practice per day. But I was never going to get him home until we’d got started.

Now- I’m a person who’s cautious with her optimism. I like contingency plans. I like to scope out the worst option ahead of time and make my peace with it. So I’d already decided that if I couldn't manage to breast feed, i wouldn't let it bother me. In my opinion, people got altogether too invested in this kind of thing. They placed too much pressure on themselves and then allowed their own expectations to spoil their happiness. I wouldn't be making the same mistake. If it worked out for me, fine. If not- I’d move on.

And this was not working out. It’s instinctual to want to be with your child. Everything in my being was telling me that he needed to be with me. Far, far more than he needed vitamins or immunity from diseases, or hormones or any of the other undoubted benefits of breast milk; he needed just to be with me.

And yet, and yet…

As I faced up to jettisoning the breastfeeding, I did worry. I wrung my hands over it. I even ended up phoning a very uninterested, childless friend for advice:

“You want to give your baby a bottle?” He asked nonplussed “What’s in the bottle? Is it Buckfast?”

Pro tip: Childless friends are great for perspective.

In the end, it didn't come to that. My ceaseless lobbying for a place in Transitional Care finally won out. 
Despite professional concerns that I would “Go mad with post puerperal psychosis” if I were placed there “too early,” I was finally given a private room where I could just hang out with my baby in peace and take 15 minutes fiddling about with the latch if we needed to. Which we frequently did.

We were there for a weekend and it turned out to be the most idyllic two days of my life. Jimmy fed like a trouper, and then slept happily. I read books and phoned friends and wrote discussion pieces on the acrimonious breakup of a far left group I was involved with at the time.
I had a huge sunny window and a comfy hospital bed and my baby sleeping beside me, smelling of sweetness and peace.  I did not develop post puerperal psychosis. I was more deeply contented than I’ve ever been. Perhaps since I was a baby myself.

Jimmy is coming up to a year old now. He eats macaroni and bread crusts and cheese and chocolate cake. I've moved him onto formula during the day so I can return to work, but he still enjoys a good feed of breast milk first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
So my breastfeeding experience is a happy one and it all worked out. 

But for me, breastfeeding was also, as I suspect it is for a lot of people; a quick and dirty lesson in compromise. In the necessity of doing, not the “best” thing for your child; but the best thing in the circumstances. The death of that exacting pressure we are encouraged to place on ourselves.

And for that, I am also grateful. 

Sunday, 23 June 2013

A Sorry Kind of Privilege

There's a description in Carol Craig’s excellent book: The Tears that made the Clyde 
of women and children hanging around the gates of factories and shipyards, or outside pubs. It was pay day and they were hoping to run into their men folk and shame them into giving them something from their pay to run the household, before everything was drunk away.  

At the time, it was common, accepted practice, for the man take all the money and spend it on his own pleasures. So much so, that trade unionists, recognising alcoholism as a problem, had a campaign to persuade landlords to refuse service once half of a man’s pay had been drunk.

In other words, the most progressive, left wing men around at that time thought that it was reasonable for one member of a household, to spend half of the entire money for a family, for one week, on himself, in a single night.

I read this, with a short lived sense of relief at how far we had come.
Short lived until I noticed the number of adult men coming into the advice centre, where I then worked, with raging substance issues and cheerfully tell me about the financial help they were getting from aged parents, from girlfriends, from ex partners even.  

And all those worried looking elderly women with their extravagant debts and frugal lifestyles. A junkie son is like a forest fire. It’s incredible how fast he can burn through everything you can build up over a lifetime.

I had a colleague who used to romanticise this sort of behaviour. “Its amazing how families stick by each other and help each other out isn’t it?” When I pointed out this solidarity only ever seemed to flow one way, she said “Well that’s just the way of the world isn’t it? You’ll never change that.”

I noticed all this and I saw we have come nowhere really. Its only the unemployed mans version of the same behaviour.

There is a concept in intersectional Feminism of privilege. As in, for example, Male Privilege. It can be a difficult one to explain. Perhaps it’s the wrong word for the concept. How can you call someone privileged when they are poor, unemployed, addicted, and miserable?  

Well, I think I understand now how male privilege plays out in the underprivileged man. Those men, they just came into the advice centre with a different attitude to the women.

I’ve only ever seen women agonise over whether they really deserve a benefit, when considering appealing a decision. Its only women who needed to be talked into claiming Disability Living Allowance because, after all, they’re “managing” on Income Support.

 And by the same token, its only men who have suggested that they don’t need to provide any of the information I've asked for because they've “already given you my national insurance number so you should have sorted it out” or who have chosen to use their appointments, not to discuss their cases but to attempt to trip me up and score points against me.

It’s that universal male attitude of entitlement. And rage, of course, that their entitlement had been taken from them. Except that the things they feel entitled to are so pitiably small: a scatter flat, their £71.70 per week, a methadone scrip. The bare bones of a life really.

This was the settlement of the 1980’s after all. We take away your pits and shipyards and docks and in return you we leave you with the bru. Except now the Torys are back to snatch away even that consolation prize and benefits that could once be counted on, now have to be jumped through hoops for and justified and fought for.  Why shouldn’t anyone feel entitled, why shouldn’t they feel angry?

Except that's not all they feel entitled to. Not really. It’s not just the material things. It’s the full attention, sympathy and efforts of women. Those niggly little power struggles were just a tiny taste of what the women in their lives must put up with.

Because the assumption is that the women will make up the difference isn’t it?
Will find the money, will take out that bank loan, will stroke that ego, and will pity you when self pity is not enough. Emotionally porous; will be available to absorb the ugly emotions of shame, defeat and rage.

That is male privilege. That is how it plays itself out in the under privileged man. And again privilege seems to be the wrong word- because what are they getting out of it, except the avoidance of personal responsibility, which is surely not in anyone’s long term interest. A sorry sort of privilege indeed.