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.