Sunday, 25 November 2012

Our Saga Continues. Chapter 4: In which our protagonists researches her situation

In the days that follow, I work out what has happened. It looks as though the hospital didn’t properly log our change of address and appointment letters have gone out to our old place.

I relay this to the social worker when she next calls.

She sounds sceptical. “So, that’s what your saying has happened?”
I cut her off
“That’s what I think has happened. I can find out for sure when I go in for my scan.”
The scan they have finally booked me in for.
The one that should have happened months ago.
 I agree to pop down to the social services office afterwards.

I research child protection procedure, to better understand what will happen next. I talk to people about it, especially other mothers and especially other mothers who have been investigated themselves.

There is a predictable class divide. Middle class people tell me there’s nothing to worry about, it’s just a mistake and of course it can all be smoothed out. Working class mums tell me to be fearful, to put everything in writing and to never ever admit to any vulnerability. I learn a lot.

The not showing vulnerability thing: That’s because Susan MacDonald is there to help the baby: not me. There might come a time when she needs to consider whether he might be better off without me. The game is not simply to cope: It is to be seen to be coping.
 If this feels pressurising to me (and it does) I can only imagine how tough it must be to pull off in an actual crisis. I start to see how na├»ve I was, when I almost suggested approaching them voluntarily, as a source of help.

I also learn that social services in Glasgow are a little bit different. They are larger and better resourced than other places and therefore (in practice if not in theory) have a lower threshold for doing getting involved, which explains some of the wariness I've encountered towards them.

In areas where everyone is struggling to get by, it seems particularly strange that such an individualised service is funded so generously.

It’s the irony of a state which won’t insulate housing, limit fuel prices, raise state benefits, provide jobs or tackle a heroin trade so widespread and influential that it takes in every ice cream van, arty night venue and town councillor in the city. But will nevertheless send a worker around to note that this household or that has no food in the cupboard, no heating and no adults that aren't out of their minds with grinding worry and the bleakness of life.

There are unintended consequences: Someone tells something that happened at her kid’s school. A Mum wanted to make a complaint about how the school had handled some bullying. The teaching assistant made some comments implying that the child was poorly dressed and hungry. The mum understood what was being threatened. She left without making the complaint. 

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Not that kind of people

 “That was social services” I say to my husband. He flips.

He is outraged and also scared. There’s something else too, He sees this as an insult. Something is implied about us.

“They should know we’re not that kind of people”

I never get this attitude. What are “that kind of people.”? If child protection procedures apply to one person they apply to everyone. But now is not the time for that argument. We’re about to have a much worse one.

I tell him not to worry, it can all be cleared up. He accuses me of complacency. We “discuss” how best to deal with the situation. I think a letter should sort it. He thinks we should go to the midwives and demand to know what is going on. 

In other words, in the words we actually use: He thinks I am a weak person who puts my own discomfort at conflict ahead of our baby’s welfare and will end up getting him taken into care. I think he’s a crazy bam who wants to kick off at midwives which will get the baby taken into care.

We stand facing each other and shouting. This is terrible. We never argue. Later on my husband will tell me that while this argument was going on he felt like “everything was falling apart.”

We make up enough to concentrate on the issue at hand and go to the library to photocopy medical records and write a covering letter. We fax it from the library fax machine. The librarian makes small talk so I explain what the letter is all about in a self depreciating “oh-dear-look-at-the-mess-I've-got-myself-into” sort of a way. The librarian is horrified and scared on our behalf. She lets us off the price of the fax because “it’s an emergency.”

We go outside and the implications of her reaction hit me along with the cold air. I didn't think I was being complacent up until now, but perhaps I have been. This is obviously a very serious situation. I agree we need to talk to the midwives. Yes, Now. But, politely.

We press on to the health centre and both the receptionist and the midwife are shocked and scared for us. The receptionist comments on my measured tone. “If it was me I’d be pure raging” I understand my husband’s point of view more and more. I do seem complacent. I’m not though, honestly. I'm only trying to appear calm because it seems the best way to deal with it.

Well, its not, he points out. I'm not the official person with the headed paper any more. I can’t afford to be calm and just expect to be listened to. I'm just an ordinary mum with no power and I need to find an official person to advocate for me.

Turns out the midwife doesn't mind taking this role at all. She will call social services straight away and let them know I've been to all my appointments. Her efficient reaction again worries me. As we leave I think:
“Bloody hell. Everyone in this city is scared of these people” 

An Unexpected Phonecall

Its late Monday morning and I am mooching about the kitchen. It is my third week of maternity leave and a Monday morning with no work is still a novelty.

I am drinking tea and reading a letter from the maternity hospital. It says I haven’t had any antenatal care since Christmas, which is bollocks because I go to the midwives at Maryhill Health Centre every month, and have done since we moved here. The phone rings and I pick it up.

“This is Susan McDonald from social services. We’re a bit concerned that you haven’t been accessing antenatal care”

The training kicks in, as they say in the military.  

The CAB training that is. 

I remember when I first started there. I used to ring up the DWP or the council and bark like a little terrier. It was aggression born from powerlessness and inexperience. Later on, I got a bit more used to being listened to and that changed. I developed a smoother, more polite negotiation style.

I pull it out now, along with the antenatal records from the cupboard. “I have the records to hand right now. I can give you the times and dates of all my appointments”

I can hear Susan’s pen scritch scritching at the other end of the line, so I pause as I’m speaking to allow her to catch up.

She has some additional questions:
Is this my first child, My address: Is that the high rises? Am I in work currently?

“This is really a shock.” I say “To come to the attention of social services, before the baby is even born”

It is a shock. I feel like I’ve been caught out at something. I shouldn’t have said it though. It sounds weak, like an admission.
Linda says she will check out my story and call me back in a few days. I offer to post her photocopies of my records.  “Thank you for your concern” I say as I hang up.

“Thank you for your concern?! Where did that come from? It sounds snotty. Not how I usually talk. But no, it’s perfect. It’s the training kicking in.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The NCT Meeting: A Vignette

The light from the generous bay window is shining in onto a dozen anxious couples perched on mismatched sofas and chairs, more indicative of wealth somehow than matching ones would have been.

Various clutter including a child sized viola case and sheet music has been pushed into a corner to make room for us and a jolly woman in Birkenstocks has just asked us to brainstorm sources of help for new parents. We are at an NCT class is Glasgow's West End. 

“Imagine you’re at the very end of your rope” says the Jolly Woman “Who would you go to for help”

It’s a sobering thought. I have worked at the CAB, however and I pride myself on knowing what to do in most situations. I think I would know what to do. In my mind I am thinking “Sure Start Centre, GP, Health visitor, Social Services”

Following my usual strategy for group activities, I do not leap in straight away with the answer. More polite to let everyone else have a go first, I think. I am immediately glad of this when Dee, a flawlessly put together veterinary surgeon, suggests hiring a night nanny. Someone else chips in with a Postnatal Doula; another person, a support group like La Leche League.

I don't add anything. I thought I had the right answer but I don’t. At least not a answer appropriate to here. 

As the conversation moves on, I realise every possible source of help I was able to think of would have come with some element of social control. I look at the list now filling the flipchart paper. Not one of those would, although some of them look expensive.

Aha, I think, here is a pithy observation about the class system. Middle class people can access help without being judged.

I file it away to use later on my blog. I have no idea how pertinent the issue is about to become. 

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Organisational Response to Sexual Violence in Activist Groups, Part 2: Seven Common Mistakes

Trigger Warning: This post discusses Sexual Assault

Since the events covered in the last post, the issue of sexual violence in activist circles has very much come into the fore. A number of attacks have come to light and a lot of people have been wrestling with the hard fact of sexual predators in the scene.

I've been on the very edges of this, trying to make some responsible contribution and prevent other people being affected by some of the mistakes that effected me. In fact, the previous blog post was originally written as a discussion document for a group in Glasgow.

In light of all this, I've decided to write a second post, on the most common mistakes and pitfalls I've noticed in activist organisations trying to deal with these issues. Here are my top 7 common mistakes to avoid: 

  1. Not having a policy.

The most basic mistake is not to have a policy. Perhaps you hope you will never need one and I certainly hope you are right. The fact is however, that sexual violence is as prevalent amongst the activist community as it is in wider society and failing to prepare will certainly not protect you from having to deal with it.

Perhaps you don’t feel qualified to write one. This is natural enough, but think about it: if sexual violence is a difficult subject to broach now, how much harder will it be to deal with when it happens. Better to think it through now and be prepared. 

  1. Ill defined Responsibilities

Activist spaces are often places where new methods and structures of organisation are pioneered and experimented with. This can mean a very loose structure where responsibility and decision making is shared. The flip side of this is that sometimes no one takes responsibility and important issues fall through the cracks.

It is not acceptable for anyone’s safety to be left up to chance.

Regardless of organisational structure: It should always be clear to all participants, who they should speak to if they feel uncomfortable with someone’s presence or behaviour or if they have information which may be important to the safety of others.

That person tasked with this role should be competent to carry out the task, should be clear about the response required and should be supported to carry it out.

  1. Open/large meetings

Some activist spaces make decisions in large open meetings. These can be empowering and fun but also unpredictable and intimidating.
Large open meetings are not safe places to disclose personal, sensitive or painful information and it should go without saying that survivors should not be expected to bring instances of sexual assault in activist spaces to meetings like this.

  1. Not believing women who report a sexual assault

This is possibly the single most damaging mistake. The worst possible thing you can do to someone who has been sexually assaulted is to not believe her.

  1.  Hearing "both sides”

Activists like to feel they are fair. They don’t like to jump to conclusions about people. A common error is to attempt to achieve fairness by making space for a person accused of sexual assault, harassment or rape a “right of reply”

It should be obvious that this is inconsistent with point 4, but since a surprising number of people have trouble with this, I’ll go into more depth.

What “hearing both sides” amounts to is setting up a quasi judicial process, within an activist group. This is not something any activist group is really qualified to do, and neither should they try.

The reason a real court adopts this approach is that they have a responsibility to ascertain exactly what happened, beyond reasonable doubt and the power to send someone to prison.

Putting aside the woefully low conviction rate for rape, which is a subject for another day, consider this: as an activist group, do you have the same power or the same responsibility?

You don't of course. Your only responsibility in this situation is to keep your own members safe and your only real sanction against people who threaten that safety is to exclude them from your events. 

Even if we accept the judicial “hear both sides” type approach from the legal system therefore, it doesn't follow that we need to adopt it ourselves.  

More sensible and pragmatic then, given that you will NEVER know for an absolute certainty what went on between two other people in private, is to work from the understanding that false accusations are vanishingly rare.

Believe the survivor, thank her for bringing this important public safety information to your attention and then act on it as appropriate, hopefully in line with her wishes and the sensible policy you already drew up.

  1. Letting everyone having their say

It’s understandable that when information about a sexual assault comes out, everyone is shocked and upset. They want to know details of what happened and they want to have their say. This is particularly true of those who are close friends or comrades of the perpetrator.

It’s understandable that they want these things, but they should never be allowed to have it. Any conversation about the rights and wrongs of a particular incident puts the word of the survivor up for question and this cannot be tolerated.

Plus, if you allow everyone to have a say, rape culture will tend to rear its ugly head and all sorts of hurtful and wrong headed stuff will be said.

This is where that written policy is so important, because you can point to it and say

 “Look this is the policy. We agreed democratically to adopt this and now we will have to implement it.” 

This hopefully takes some of the heat out of the situation and gets everyone people to back off before they inadvertently and for the most understandable of reasons, fuck things up worse than they already are.

8. So, What should we be doing instead?

This is a question, no one person is qualified to answer in full. 

The truth is that collectively we need to improve our response to these situations. I would like to us build a consensus across the movement on some basic principles that should, in all cases govern a response, adopting a survivor centred approach.

I would also like to see some formal lines of coordination between different activist groups, similar to the pubwatch scheme so that if someone has been a sexual predator in one activist group, it shouldn't be possible for them to simply move on to the next.

The fractured and sectarian nature of some of our scene is a major structural weakness, but in this case it is a danger to our members as well.

A meeting on dealing with sexual violence in activist groups is due to take place at the London Anarchist Bookfair on the 27th October. Let’s hope something concrete comes out of it. 

Organisational Response to Sexual Violence in Activist Groups, Part 1: A Personal Perspective

Trigger Warning: This post discusses Sexual Assault

This blog post is largely adapted from a discussion piece I wrote for the now sadly defunct Glasgow Womens Activist Forum as a contribution towards a draft sexual assault policy. 

I’ve made a couple of attempts to put down my thoughts in policy form but it’s not really worked out. I have views about how responses to sexual assault in activist spaces should be handled but putting them down cold wasn’t really doing them justice. I’ve come to the conclusion that we will get further if I’m up front about where my ideas come from and why I’ve reached the conclusions I have.
With this in mind, I’ve decided to be upfront right with you that my observations come largely from my own experiences of being sexually assaulted in an anarchist space. And, most relevantly the reaction I got from the people I that space when I reported what had happened.  
In my view it was dealt with pretty badly but it was by no means the worst I’ve seen it handled. Also, when similar situations have occurred, I’ve noticed the same or similar mistakes are made so I think it is possible to universalise from my experience a bit.
This is not a task I have the objectivity or breath of experience to attempt by myself. I think its best therefore, that I give you my experiences, my observations and my recommendations and let these form the basis of further discussion, hopefully taking in others experiences and  leading to the formation of a draft sexual assault policy.

What happened

I was sexually assaulted during a party in a large squatted anarchist space, which was operating as an open crash space for international activists and summit hoppers hoping to mobilise against an international summit in Spain. (I think the summit got called of in the end and the mobilisation never happened)
I woke up the next day and remembered what had happened. I had a friend with me who had actually intervened to pull him off me and we basically looked at each other and said “Oh crap, that really happened didn’t it. Well I suppose we’ll have to deal with it now.”
I did not deal with it however, and instead cycled home and got on with the rest of the day, planning to just forget anything had happened.  About midday it occurred to me that I’d just left a rapist in a squat full of women and thought to myself “Fucking hell that was irresponsible of me. I’d better go back and deal with it” So off I went, expecting to find the situation embarrassing and difficult but thinking that my comrades would be grateful to me for bringing this important public safety information to their attention.
Back at the squat, I discovered that my friend had already let everyone know what had happened and that there was a big meeting planned to discuss what to do. Two American women told me that they were going to a bar in town rather than to the meeting and asked me if I wanted to come with them. I said yes because the meeting sounded kind of intimidating and awkward. I remember thinking it was thoughtful of them to offer me a way out. I was confident in the community as a whole to handle the situation (especially with my friend there) so I didn’t have any reservations in leaving them to it.
At the bar, however, I started to get a different impression. The Americans were kind of offish and insensitive with me. I started to think that they were not really interested in my welfare and perhaps I had been taken away from the situation because it was more convenient to have the meeting without me.
Looking back, it’s kind of odd that I didn’t talk to my friend in any detail about what went down at the meeting. It is my understanding, however, that she had to fight my corner fairly hard against a lot of scepticism and hostility. It was decided that the perp would be asked not to return to squat. (I think he had also left in the morning and wasn’t around for the meeting but was expected to come back at some point that day.)
This was duly done, in the most gentle and sympathetic manner imaginable, by way of a “man to man” chat with a comrade chosen for his tactful manner. He apparently denied any memory of the incident and said it didn’t “sound like something he would do.” I know this was his defence because it was relayed to me later by “Mr. Tactful” himself in the manner of a mediator “putting the other side.”
I think he was eventually persuaded that although he might not believe he was in the wrong, he should perhaps stay away from the squat in the interests of group harmony and everybody moving on. He accepted this and, as far as I know, didn’t attempt to come back.
Over the next couple of days my friend was brilliant, just sort of sticking around me, watching how I was and being unobtrusively protective of me. It was exactly the right thing and incredibly I have never properly expressed to her how grateful I was and am.
Unfortunately, I also became aware, bit by bit, that my friend’s attitude was the exception to a general atmosphere of scepticism and minimisation. No one came out and accused me of lying, or bringing it on myself in so many words, but people came pretty close to it.
For example:
Discussing the incident the next day: I said that perhaps I would try not to get so drunk in future ( I had been exceptionally drunk!) and Mr. Tactful said “Yes I think that would be a good idea” in this incredibly pointed way.  
My best friend in the country at the time cut me off from trying to talk to her about it by saying “Yes well it wasn’t a very serious sexual assault”
I queried how she would know that (I hadn’t spoken to her about it before) and found out that the version of events doing the rounds as activist circles was that “This guy was coming on a bit too strongly to Ellenor and her friend flipped out and attacked him”
Someone suggested that the sexual assault was a cultural misunderstanding and that I should have been more tolerant and/or more careful not be send out the wrong signals.
In general, I felt like there was resentment towards me that I had brought up something uncomfortable and got in the way of more pressing political action. This was the complete opposite of what I had expected and would have wanted which was:
  1. Anger that someone would attack, not just a woman, but our activist community in this way. A consciousness that the whole space was at risk if people couldn’t be physically safe. In all honesty, physical violence would have been appropriate, achievable, and would certainly have sent a clear message.
  2. Some sympathy.

What can we learn from this?

What was done right:

1. The perp was asked to leave. As far as I know he wasn’t allowed back. This was right.
2. No one was openly hostile or aggressive towards me.
3. I had the unequivocal support of one person.
3. I’ve seen it handled worse.

What was done wrong and how could it be put right in future?

Lack of security
The squat was open and unstructured in the extreme. Anyone passing through town to get involved in organising for the convergence was welcome to come and stay. People didn’t know each other well and no one was quite sure who was supposed to around at any one time.
While it would be naive to suggest that securing physical spaces will prevent sexual assault (given how much takes place between friends and lovers), I think the complete lack of control may have been a green flag to predators.

What could be done better:
Some kind of policy about who/in what circumstances people could come into the space. A sign in procedure. Code of conduct for residents and visitors. Any of these measures would have at least sent a message that the community was on the case and watching out for each other.

Lack of Policy
Part of the problem was that the community waited until a sexual assault had actually happened to decide what to do about it. This is obviously not going to yield best results. To be honest its surprising the response wasn’t even worse.

What could have been done better:
A written policy should have been in place from the beginning, stating clearly what the community response to sexual assault was going to be. It should have been specific. I.e.: Named people with responsibility, specific instructions and guidelines for how these people should respond. Training for them ahead of time.

Lack of Structure

The response was formulated in a large open meeting with anyone and everyone “having their say.” The intimidating nature of this was the main reason I took myself out of the decision making process. I’ve since learnt that the survivor’s wishes are normally considered to be paramount so obviously this was a big failure.
These big consensus meetings were and are a feature of anarchist organising and are valued for the supposed horizontal nature. In my opinion, this is a huge misconception. In fact structure less “everyone have their say” free for all meetings suit the mouthy, the confident and those perceived by others to carry authority (given the nature of our society, realistically white middle class men). Worse, because the hierarchies formed (there’s genuinely NO SUCH THING as a social situation without a hierarchy!!) are invisible they can’t be challenged.
More structured organisations tend to put measures in place to promote leadership of underrepresented groups such as dedicated women’s/black members posts, equalities substructures and training. These are unavailable to anarchos because we are too busy pretending that leadership itself can or should be abolished rather than actively promoting the leadership of oppressed people.
Even putting wider concerns of representation aside; at the very least, my experience shows that large open meetings are not appropriate for everything. Responding to specific instances of sexual assault being one example.

What could have been done better
Democratic oversight is important. Giving everyone has a chance to put their views is important. But big meetings with everyone getting a say are most appropriate for ratifying general policy, not dealing with individual events as they occur. In this case, an appropriate use for a large meeting would have been to ratify a sexual assault policy (as recommended above) and to vote in a team of trusted people to take on particular roles needed to implement it (again as recommended above).
The actual incident should have then been dealt with be those individuals, according to the policy and under the democratic control of the community as a whole. Part of their role should undoubtedly been to actually talk to me and to believe me.

Lack of Education
It’s clear that a lot of people had a pretty poor understanding of issues around sexual assault and in particular did not have a good idea of how they were supposed to behave. In general my views and feelings were not sought and when I did try to express then I was not listened to. In fact I was shut down. People did not, as a matter of course believe me and those that did minimised. To date, the tale f my sexual assault was the only instance I have ever seen of an activist rumour getting progressively less lurid in the retelling.
You’ll notice that anonymity wasn’t even on the table. Strictly speaking this is a problem of lack of structure rather than individuals attitudes however. There wasn’t any mechanism for the issue to be dealt with quietly so it was a case of once the information is out, its out to everyone.

What could have been done better
Undoubtedly the presence of training and education on issues of rape and sexual assault would have been helpful to a lot of people (not least me!) and might have dissuaded some people from being as insensitive as they were.
I’ve left this recommendation to last however, because I view it as less urgent to the activist community than the lack of security, structure and policy. I also think that education is sometimes seen as the be all and end all. Like if everyone’s attitudes can be improved and everyone is aware of their own privilege then, we can count on everyone to make the right call and not address our structural inadequacies.
This is naive. Looking at my own experience: we were in a space specifically set up to welcome anyone and everyone interested in a particular mobilisation. A lot of activism aims (as it should) on mobilising as many and as large a variety of people as possible. People enter activist spaces with differing levels of understanding and bring with them the attitudes prevalent in society at large. Even with the most thorough education programme, inevitably some people will have shitty attitudes and will express them.
What we can aim for however (and what I think my proposals on structure and policy would achieve) is to ensure these attitudes do not influence the decision on how to respond to a sexual assault.

Ellenor’s non-negotiable basics:

‎1. There should be some attempt at awareness of who is/should be in a space.
2. There should be a sexual assault policy in place before a situation comes up rather than dealing with it on the hoof

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Brilliant things my baby can do

1. If he’s a bit sleepy but not actually asleep, he can go to sleep by himself in a cot, without being kept awake by the existential terror of being alone. 

2. He can amuse himself for short periods of time by looking at shadows and trying to work out what they are

3. He can bat objects about with his hands

4. He can almost roll over

5. If you put him on his front he can do a sort of action man commando crawl- except without going anywhere. Then he can cry with frustration until someone picks him up.

Friday, 21 September 2012

A Day in the Life


The living room. Changing bag, nappies and spare baby clothes are strewn about the floor. Husband is plugged into facebook. I am dozing under a blanket on the sofa. Baby has woken up in his moses basket, covered in cold wee and protesting this loudly. Husband does a nappy change as I gradually awaken, and hands me clean baby for 30 minutes of vigorous nipple sucking.


Baby wakes needing changed and fed again. Husband changes. I feed. Discuss whether it is worth dragging our sorry carcases upstairs to sleep in a proper bed. If so, this will be the first time we’ve made it that far in three days. Decide to sleep in bed. Carry baby and moses basket upstairs and settle baby. Brush teeth and get into PJ’s. Husband sleeps. I sit awake faffing with I-Phone. Finally sleep about 5.30


 Baby wakes.  Note visit from health visitor is due today. This requires house work. Also, should make baby presentable. Take baby to bathroom and dunk briefly into baby bath. Baby hates this. Much crying. Put baby into fresh nappy and clothes and take back to bed for nip sucking and cuddles. Settle baby to sleep. Shower and get dressed into proper clothes. Feel hugely proud to have managed to do this every day this week. Restock stash of nappy change stuff and clothes on bedside table. Take baby and moses basket downstairs to face the day.


 Put on washload as recommended by Flylady, my peppy American housework guru. Clear decks in living room, removing dirty dishes, wine bottles and discarded socks. Tidy change bag in living room and restock with nappy change stuff and spare clothes. Bring downstairs, blue spiral notebook containing outline of terribly important lefty analysis of something or other, which I optimistically hope to write up at some point in the day. Eat cereal and drink cup of tea.


 Baby wakes wanting changed and fed. Baby vomits dramatically over mine and own clothes. Baby looks at me with baleful eyes as I strip sopping babygrow from scrawny body. Put baby down and rush upstairs to make self presentable before health visitor arrives. Clean clothes perilously low. Settle on slightly soiled jeans belonging to husband. Get downstairs dressed in clothes just in time for….


 Health visitor. Dog barks from kitchen. Unable to offer tea as would lead to:
  1. Possible escape and trouble making by dog
  2. Health visitor witnessing kitchen of filth, currently acting as repository for stuff that had to be moved out of living room to make it presentable for health visitors. 
Baby gets weighed. 5lbs 2oz! Up one whole pound from his birth weight. Health visitor very pleased and baby gets stella write up in the little red book. Health visitor asks typical awkward questions about state of my mental health, social life and levels of enthusiasm for breast feeding support group. Usher health visitor out of door, felling slightly guilty for failure to offer tea.


More feeding of baby. This time no spewing. Result. Attempt to read book while breast feeding. Wonder whether I should be using any of this time to talk to or bond with baby. Can’t think of anything to say to baby. Continue to read book, while shifting baby awkwardly in order to turn pages.

14.00: How is it 2? How did this happen? Have been up and awake since 8.00 and yet almost nothing has been achieved. Resign self to definitely not getting around to terribly important lefty analysis. Carry baby to kitchen and settle in pram, which is stored by cupboard under stairs. Wash dishes and shift rubbish covering worktops into bins. Think about lunch.


 Text from friend. Do I want to come out for a dog walk? Yes, yes and yes! Adult company, sunshine and exercise. Friend comes around and I enlist her help to drag heavy pram down 4 flights of stairs as am still not able to do this with caesarean wound. Wander around park in brilliant sunshine, nattering with friend, stopping to pass the time of day with acquaintances, watching dogs chase about. More nappy changing happens. Also confident public breast feeding. Yay!!


Get back home. Prevail on husband to help with pram up the stairs. Take washing out of drier. Cook and eat lentil soup. Husband finishes cleaning kitchen, does some hovering and changes baby. Another feed and settle baby to sleep.


Write fluffy blog post about looking after babies. Fail to start earnest lefty analysis. Far too daunting this time of night. Husband plugs himself into facebook. Arrange self on sofa with blanket. Settle down for a doze before night feeds start. Make mental note of things to do tomorrow: still need to register baby with GP, return library books, write thank you cards for baby presents and so on and so forth. Top of the list: terribly important lefty analysis of something or other


 Rinse and repeat 

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Studying Childcare

Way back in 1994, when I was 14 years old and picking my GCSE subjects, I thought about studying childcare. After all, I liked children, I thought I might like to have children one day, so it might be interesting to learn how to look after them. 

I was called into a meeting with my parents and told I was not allowed to take this subject. Childcare, it was explained, was a subject for pupils with no other choices, who did’nt stand a chance of getting proper GCSE’s in other subjects. 

Not for people like me who could take the academic subjects and might go to university one day if I worked hard. 

So I did’nt get to do Childcare after all. I did Electronics instead and spent 2 years learning to solder light sensors onto little circuit boards.

And it is for this reason, that I have spent the first 3 weeks of my sons life, blissfully unaware was supposed to be winding him, and indeed of how such a thing might be done. 

Many thanks to the health visitors service for putting me right. 

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Maternity Allowance: A Benefit from Another Time

I’ve recently left work at the Citizens Advice Bureau to take maternity leave. My work is primarily in benefits advice and I am a huge benefits geek. It’s a combination of the intellectual exercise of manipulating regulations along with the pleasing sense of mastery over a system that appears all powerful and capricious when you are on the other end of it. I love it. 

One interesting thing about the benefit system is that every government since its inception has tinkered with it to some degree and marked it with its own ideology, so that the regulations resemble rock strata, each layer reflecting the social narrative of its time; the prevalent views about unemployment, the social contract and the minimum standards of dignity which citizens should be afforded.

The majority of benefits claimants I come across at work are dealing with the most modern form of the system, the means tested benefits. Jobseekers Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance (the recent replacement for Incapacity Benefit) Housing Benefit and so on. 

The internal logic of these benefits is brutal. Apart from being set at (no exaggeration) starvation level, they tend to be subject to draconian and vicious entitlement conditions. So if you are claiming on the basis of illness, you had better be so ill you can hardly function. If you are claiming on the basis of unemployment, you will be made to show exactly what you have been doing to look for work.

The level of interrogation set against the amount of help, is in itself, a humiliation and speaks volumes about the attitudes of those who set the system up.

You work with this system everyday and you get inured to it. You learn its internal logic to better help others and, god help you, you internalise parts of it yourself. You start thinking that perhaps someone with agoraphobia should be expected to do a bit of piece work from home. You start believing that even with back pain; perhaps you should struggle in to work. Everyone seems to have back pain and depression these days after all and people should just toughen up.

I get thoughts like that creeping into my head occasionally and then I get the flu and experience perhaps one tiny fraction of what someone with a chronic condition goes through every day and I call in sick with no problems at all, because I am not on benefits and the brutal logic of the system does not apply to me.

I try to hang onto this thought and use these occasions to remind myself that the logic of the system is wrong, wrong, wrong. People deserve dignity and comfort and some decent standard of living and no one should be pressured to work if they are not able to do so.

Going on maternity leave was like that writ large. I’m lucky enough to have built up enough National Insurance Contributions to receive Maternity Allowance. Remember the rock strata? Maternity Allowance is laid down in ancient times, representing a different version of the social contract altogether. An older version of the welfare state where everyone pays in and everyone draws out. When circumstances require them to, without shame and with no conditions attached, other than the condition of having paid the contributions in the first place.

(I'm not sure when Maternity Allowance was introduced, but as a contributions based benefit the legal principles governing it can be traced to the National Insurance Act 1911 and to the National Insurance Act 1946, following the Beveridge Report.) 

I went off for maternity leave a little earlier than originally planned. I had been wildly over optimistic about the amount of time I would be able to keep going and found myself at 36 weeks, emotionally volatile, knackered and, in all fairness, not a great deal of use to my employer.

I turned up at the midwifes all red faced and puffy eyed because negotiating with (my own) housing association about a water tank had somehow led to a crying jag two hours long. I was firmly advised to stop work. This turned out to be excellent advice and I am now much better, thank you for asking. If you don’t want to be stressed, stop going to where the stress comes from. Works a treat.

The point is though, that even though my symptoms felt impossible for me and even though a health professional advised me to leave work, by modern benefits standards they were nothing. Take pregnancy out of the equation and what are you left with? Anxiety and Fatigue. Trust me that is not getting you anywhere at an Employment and Support Allowance tribunal. And a tribunal is where you will end up because really, no one is being awarded Employment and Support Allowance first time these days.

And yet I walked into work, stated that I was leaving early and met with no resistance. I filled out a form, sent it back and received £138 per week with some delay but no major difficulty. My need not to be at work was not questioned for an instant.

My point is that you still come across these bits of the welfare state sometimes. The bits that remain in the lower strata. The bits that are humanitarian and still work. You come these bits and you realise how low our expectations have become and how much has been lost. 

Monday, 6 August 2012

Perfectionism is the Enemy of Blogging

I have a collection of blog posts sitting uselessly on a memory stick. 
They are waiting for me to polish them up. 
They are waiting for me to make them "good enough" for the internet
I have a list of possible blog post subjects saved on my mobile phone. They are waiting for me to have time to do them justice. 
In reality they are waiting to become documents on the memory stick that will never see the light of day because they will wait and wait and wait for me to get around to making them "good enough" to be seen by the world. 
Enough of this! The internet is not the library at Alexandria. My blog is not the Time Literary Supplement. There is no standard to be met. There is no "good enough."
We've all seen the total crap that's out there for Christ's sake. 
This is my personal blog. the whole point is to be rough and incoherent. The whole point is to put out your half formed ideas, for them to be chewed over and shot down and built up again. 
From now on the crap is going up on display. 

You Know Your a New Parent When.....

Breastfeeding involves up to 15 minutes attempting to get a latch and you aren’t sure if the baby’s making the mistakes or you are.

Getting little hands through little arm holes in vests is really really difficult.

You fail to manuover a (ridiculously overlarge) pram around a tight corner and end up doing some kind of elaborate three point turn while a queue of other pedestrians build up behind you.

You have no idea that getting (still ridiculously large) pram on the underground is going to be a problem until you are standing at the turnstile unable to get the pram through, hearing the platform attendant telling you to fold it up and knowing that you will never be able to work out how to do that.

You spend your time thinking “is he too hot?, is he too cold?, if I put a blanket on he’ll definitely be too hot though, hang on, is he still breathing?”

It takes you three days to get around to writing a blog post about being a new parent. 

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Intersectionality 1: In which we define our terms:

OK, So I’m going to have a dive into the massive and Choppy waters of Intersectionality 

Intersectionality is a sort of add on to feminism. It’s the shocking idea that gender is not the only basis on which people might be oppressed and that other thing (class, race, sexuality) might be worth looking into too. Nothing to argue with there.

My slight problem with Intersectionality (and it’s a geeky one) is that adding new bits to an existing analysis (feminism) to make it encompass more things can be a little bit clumsy and can lead to some odd conclusions.

Some of the limitations have been very well over here by the magnificent Mhairi. I comepletely love this post and once based an entire gender training day on it.  

As Mhairi point out, Intersectionlity (and the term Kyriarchy used here to describe the totality of these intersectional oppressions) does not tend to deal well with class. This is because class is to do with material things. On a grand scale: who owns land, minerals, coal. On a small scale: who has access to housing, education, food, healthcare. What Marxists call the Base of Society.

The rest, Culture, Law, Social Attitudes is what Marxists call the Superstructure. Basic rule of thumb: the Superstructure is determined by the Base. In other words you can understand most things about society by looking at who has material things and asking yourself why that is.

I’m new to the Intersectional analysis but my prejudice is that it tends to deal with issues of Superstructure better than issues of Base. So I'm developing a new rule of thumb: Use Intersectionality to understand Superstructure and Crude Marxism to understand Base. 

The whole reason Intersectionality falls down on Class is that Class is all Base. In fact, an over reliance on analysing the Base conditions of society is sometimes called “Class Reductionism.”

Class Reductionism, in case you've not guessed is more or less where I fall. However, you can’t be a class reductionist all your life. The world moves on and I can’t help but notice all the hip young gunslingers are talking about “oppression” and “privilege” and “kyriarchy” these days and staying in the lefty loop is gonna mean some running to catch up.

So, over the next couple of posts, I’m going to have a go at putting down some of my thoughts through my adventures in intersectionality. These will be theoretically flawed because I’m only just finding my way with this stuff and hopelessly self indulgent and personal because this is my personal blog and that’s what a personal blog is FOR goddamn it.

Suggestions on reading materials very much appreciated. Chippy “call outs” expected and accepted with relative good grace. Here we go……

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Performance of Femininity: A Personal Journey

Here’s a concept I like: Performance of Femininity. See here:

Its basically the idea that gender is something we do rather than something we are. It’s the reason why I love that Caitlin Moran called her book “How to Be a Woman” because I’ve always felt that being a woman is something to be done, to be mastered, to be performed and I suspect that others feel the same way too. It’s nice for someone to say so; directly and in the title of a book.

A well named book
My performance of femininity is shit. I am not polished, I am not convincing. I stumble over my lines. If you followed the wikipeadia link, you will know that performance of femininity takes in the way we act as well as the way we dress and present our appearance but I’m going to focus on appearance here because that’s the part I’ve historically had most trouble with.

Growing up, we were skint; permanently. I can only remember feeling actively frustrated by this for a short time; the period between noticing we were different and reconciling myself to that. I would have been about six or seven when this happened. We were at a seaside funfair and I’d just been told that I could choose two rides only  because that’s all there was money for.

Two fun fair rides is not enough. I thought so then and I still feel that way now. When I take my own child to funfairs I sincerely hope to provide more than two rides.  But I realised I had a choice. I could spoil the experience for myself by being annoyed at the limitations or I could just enjoy the rides I had. I chose the second option and have gone on choosing it, in all its different forms, ever since.

Sounds like a positive attitude? Not if you think really hard about what accepting the limitations actually means. It means walls around your experience. It means boundaries. There are things that are “not for me;” things that I knew (and know!), not to ask for or aspire towards or expect.

I used to walk down a high street and half the shops wouldn’t exist for me. They were like blank spaces. I could walk through a supermarket and know without looking at the prices which 10 to 20 items I could reasonably expect to eat.

To demonstrate how ingrained this sort of thinking can become, let me tell you that my honeymoon last summer was the first package holiday abroad I have ever been on; And that  the weekend after we returned, I read ther travel section of my usual sunday newspaper for the first time.  Up until then the travel section had simply been “not for me.” This was despite earning a solid £25,000 for the previous 7 years.

Here are some other things that were “not for me:” Being cool, Fitting in, Having a “personal style (whatever that is), having a boyfriend other than the hopeless adult alcoholics who I knew were inappropriate but who I genuinely believed were the best I would ever get.

All those things would have cost money. Money for Clothes and CD’s and hair cuts and entry to under 18’s night at the Hippodrome and razors for leg shaving and make up.

And, Oh god! make up, where to even begin with that? You need foundation and blush and eye liner and eye shadow and lip stick and lip liner and god knows what else. I could hope to afford maybe one of these items every two weeks or so. And if I did buy one, how would I know that it would suit me or learn how to put it on properly? Mistakes were so likely and so expensive.

So no performance of femininity for me, because femininity was for normal people and normal was “not for me.”

I still feel that way a little bit. I look at other women on the train and I can see they have it right. Their performance is polished. They look like “proper women.” I find myself wondering how they do it? How often does she go shopping? And what does that it cost her and how much time does it take in an average month?

Clothes shopping is a particular problem for me. Clothes shops fall into those blank spaces in the high street. Those places that are “not for me” and I feel unbearable anxiety going into them. I feel like in order to go in, I should already look like I belong, which means wearing newish “normal people” clothes. And I have those now, I really do, but my head doesn’t know that and I need to leave before people start noticing that that I shouldn't really be there.  
A ladies clothes shop: The single most intimidating environment there is.

Supermarket clothes are the solution. The supermarket is for everyone. If I have food shopping to do, I already have a legitimate reason to be there. I can grab clothes from the shelves and chuck them in the trolly before my anxious mind even notices what I’m doing.  

My husband helps. I bring him along so that he can calm me down if necessary and make constructive comments about what suits me or what I might wear things with. I generally need a lot of reassurance about my choices.

Another advantage is that supermarket clothes are deliberately middle of the road so they automatically look like what everyone else is wearing and minimise the potential for mistakes. I have a full set of “normal people” clothes now. Enough for every day of the working week plus a floaty little dress I can go clubbing in at the weekend.

I can finally perform femininity whenever I need to. But oddly, now those barriers are down, I’ve noticed something.

I don’t wear my normal people clothes at the weekend. I change out of them the minute I get home. Whenever I dress to please myself, I stick to my usual uniform of jeans and hoodies. As it turns out, I was probably slightly butch all along.

I still do perform femininity in my dress, particularly at work. I spent far too long not able to fit in, not to value that ability now. But my performance is unashamedly shit. I wear dresses over sports bras; I wear men’s underwear with women’s trousers. I wear thick woolly tights so I don’t have to bother shaving my legs. I never, ever wear make up or heels.

I make my accommodations like everyone else. We all need to work out what is expected of us and how far we are willing to put ourselves out to meet expectations. And for me, the answer seems to be as little as possible.

So the biggest difference is not in my appearance, in my actual performance of femininity, but in my understanding of it. I know now that I really can pull femininity out of the bag when I need to.

And I know that underneath all the anxiety and shame and blank spaces in the high street, now that I finally have the ability to hold a clear sighted preference of my own, I genuinely don't feel like doing it.