Here’s to

A very minor, very broadsheet-type stooshie blew up over the weekend. Hit The Independent. Caught my eye.

There’s Mumsnet. And now, fighting the ‘gender equality in parenting’ corner, there’s Mumsanddadsnet…

I’m all for gender equality. Been fighting for ‘equality’ since I was in Nursery and was redirected from the sandpit with the immortal words ‘all good girls like the home corner’. So Mumsanddadsnet sounds alright to me. And it is. Alright that is. The few articles authored so far sound imminently sensible and well-reasoned. Decent. Honourable. Measured. All in all its creator, Duncan Fisher, presents well with his very civilised endeavour to address a serious issue: the inherent sexism of our culture and society – a sexism that identifies the ‘real’ parent as ‘the Mother’ – and which ghettoises women and condemns men to the parenting fringe in the process.

So, why am I apprehensive? Why should I be anxious? Surely any effort to redress imbalance should be welcomed?

Probably because experience tells me that sites that set themselves up as flag bearers for parenting equality are invariably hi-jacked by the women-haters and mother-bashers. By those who think they win equality for Fathers/Men by attacking Mothers/Women. The binary thought processes lead to well-trod battle-lines: women use residency/contact to punish men; men and women are mentally and emotionally inherently and qualitatively different; it’s all a feminist plot to take over the world; it’s not about ‘parents’, it’s about Mothers and Fathers; the attack on ‘father’s rights’ is a result of the feminist attack on ‘family values’; families without fathers are an abomination before God (ah dear, never mind what this implies about same sex couples who parent together)… and before you know it, reasonable discussion about a serious subject becomes impossible.

As soon as the discourse of the ‘Comments’ become peppered with references to ‘the innate differences between men and women’ I am off. And – for what it’s worth – for every sexist conclusion neuroscience (neurosexism) allegedly encourages us to make there’s another* neuroscientific study that ‘proves’ there’s no such thing as the male/female brain – that what minute difference can be observed can be explained  by the impact of the socialisation process which attributes gender to everything (pink lego anyone?).

What is it that all those who cannot bear the descriptor ‘parent’ fear?

‘Parent’, the great semantic leveller, emphasising what He and I have in common when we’ve done our fertile best and reproduced.

I mean, there we are, my fellow Parent and I, besotted with the little blighter and doing our best to deliver he/she safely to independent adulthood. Do we get hung up on gender roles when deciding who does what, subjecting every task to gender-interrogation? Is changing the nappy a Mother or Father duty? Should He iron the babygro, whilst I change the hoover plug? Or should He be principal breadwinner, come home to his dinner on the table and the kids in bed?

Get a grip.

Having brought the kids into this world, we have a joint responsibility and common interest in seeing them safely to independence. The enterprise is more secure if we parent together (whether in the same household or not). Success is more likely if we co-operate and help one another. Success is an even greater certainty if we have the support of a network of extended family or friends or a loving community. ‘He and I’ are yer ‘traditional married heteros’. But the above holds equally true for all those parents who are living apart, those single parents, same sex parents, adoptive parents or foster parents who are lovingly working together – either with each other and/or others in their extended family or friendship groups – to nurture the children in their care.

I suppose I’ve never understood the desperation of those who feel compelled to define themselves as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ – who are determined to view the world as binary. Does my vagina really make me more suited to the colour pink or to flower-arranging? Does it really mean I’m ruled by the moon? Or that I am innately nurturing and emotional? Does His penis mean emotional distance, power-tools and play-fighting? Or that he is ‘the boss’, the main breadwinner, the head of Me?

There is the stench of desperation and of the protection and exercise of power in the attacks perpetrated by some of those commenting in the early posts of Mumsanddadsnet.

But maybe that was inevitable – and is ultimately an essential part of establishing a message. For if you are good enough to attract their approbation – you may just have a meaningful message and an effective vehicle.

So, here’s to – to parenting and to hope.

* Thanks must go to Prof Gina Rippon (Professor of Cognitive Neuroimaging at Aston University) who debunks the neurotrash theories of ‘men are from Mars; women from Venus’…


Being Mum

Back to work tomorrow. And I don’t mind.

Today, of course, the sun is finally shining – a beautiful winter white shine. But I still don’t mind. R is his usual monosyllabic thrawn self – but I don’t mind that either.

I feel well. There is nothing – and this is a new experience for me – stressful about work. The kids and Mum are as healthy as they can be. The new cat does not pee all over the place. The chicken, sweet potato and coconut milk curry tastes better than I thought it would. And Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 1 in B Flat Minor is making me cry.

What more could I ask for?

It has been a mixed week. The school October holiday week here – and this new job’s 65 days’ annual leave means I get to be off too. I had a bit of a health hiccup but that has passed. Torrential rain and flooding curtailed trips out. The planned escape to York was scuppered by Ana’s suspect spots (do they get chicken pox more than once?) and Jamie’s projectile vomiting. But there was a trip to Newton Stewart in Dumfries and Galloway to spend a day with my brother, Derek and his wife, Zoe and the children, Nairn and Mia. A chocolate factory workshop for pre-spotty Ana and pre-vomit Jamie. And then a log cabin in the wood; a hot tub dip in the rain; a rich fattening carbonara and lots of prosecco.

What I enjoyed is what I normally struggle with – and I say this knowing that it will probably surprise (if not shock) some and dismay others.

I enjoyed the domesticity of it all.

The making of food. The rhythm of my home. The children’s comings and goings. Their noise and nonsense and fighting and moaning and laughter. The older ones coming in late and flopping onto my bed to tell me all about what had just happened in their world. The loud raucous dinners with all 5 of them around the table – squabbling and shouting louder and loudest to get their stories told. I enjoyed long lies in the morning. Cooked breakfasts – even although I was cooking them. The smell of the laundry room and the hiss of the iron.

I have fought long and hard not to be defined by the too-handy descriptor ‘mother of five’. Maybe I have gone too far on occasion. In the process of convincing others, done too good a job of convincing myself – that the label somehow doesn’t fit.

People are fascinated by the ‘5 children’ thing. I have found myself in the middle of humdrum meetings – meetings where you are simply getting your job done – where you want to be visible only for the reason you are there. And then some idiot will mention ‘earth mother’ or ‘five’ or ‘want to know anything about children, ask Yvonne’.

They mean well. I think. And over the years I’ve become increasingly efficient dealing with it. A smile. A nod. And then a subject changed to business.

I know that my fecundity intimidates some. Challenges others. Puzzles even more. When you have 5 (I say ‘5’ – but it could be less) your fertility becomes a matter for public discussion.

In the beginning, the assumptions that were (and still are) made took the breath from me. I was (variously): procreating from a deep religious conviction (usually Roman Catholic in this neck of the woods – despite me being atheist); had no television in my house (cue laughter); was sex mad (more laughter); shouldn’t be working (said by the misogynists and by one infertile woman boss – to my face and in front of other workers); needed to work (because five children were expensive); was an earth mother (self-explanatory); had child-bearing hips (ditto); was overloading the planet and irresponsibly destroying resources (all by myself!); was wealthy (eh?); was poor (well… that would be the five wains then…); had them to different fathers (not true – but so what if it were?); was mad… I have been asked ‘why?’ (I have som many). I have been criticised for making that choice (aren’t there too many unwanted children – couldn’t I have adopted?).

I have had conversations which were completely unremarkable – until the other party discovers how many children I have given birth to. Women, in the main, feel intimidated. I can see it in their eyes. They shift away from me. They stop telling me their birthing stories or their son or daughter stories. Do they really think that I am judging them? That I am somehow holding myself out as a better mother just by virtue of me having 5?

Or – and this is clearly how some experience ‘me’ – that my fecundity is a statement that says something critical about their fertility choices. These are the mothers who suddenly feel a need to un-burden. To tell me how they always wanted more – but their partner stopped them; or there wasn’t enough time; or labour was difficult; or they just made a mistake and were sterilised without sufficient thought. To be honest, I am never sure with these ones whether the truth is that they feel I am so ‘odd’ that I must be placated and ‘normalised’ by their own stories of how they wanted to be like me too… It sometimes feels as though they are patting my head (poor demented soul that I am) and reassuring me that ‘your choices are not that odd – I wanted to have more too’. Or whether I really do touch some deep buried need they had to have more children.

And the childless – oh how they recoil from me. I have well and truly nailed my colours to the mast of ‘parenthood’. I must be rabid about procreation. I am obviously disapproving of their choices – or pitying their infertility.

What I am clumsily trying to explain is that there is no neutral reaction to the fact of the maternal me.

My fertility is always a signifier of something other; something more. It’s religious or political or it’s evidence of a warped response to the world or it’s just plain odd or it’s me saying something about other people’s choices.

The upshot? That I have spent a long working age hiding or ignoring the domestic me. And so it is that I find myself not entirely comfortable in my 5-children-ness.

This week I relaxed a bit. I enjoyed myself. I revelled in family – and in the fact that I am a mother.

Being a mother does not define me – or any mother for that matter. But it does form part of my identity. An important bit of me is ‘Mother’. Maybe the most important bit. I need to find a smarter way to bring this ‘mother’ out, into the light…

In which Evan discovers his outer drag queen…and that his mother needs to be taught a big new set of responses

Evan. Ahhhhhhhh…. Evan. My beautiful boy. My 6’4″ perfectly proportioned baby giant of a middle lad.

What? Bored already?

Ok, I admit to soppiness over Evan.

Born late, entering the world in a bloody-painful-for-me leisurely-for-him 4 hours, when his 10lb buddha-frame was gently scooped from the birthing pool, he could barely be bothered to squawk his arrival, preferring instead a calm contemplation of all around him.

He slept all night. Guzzled me efficiently and weaned painlessly – with a marked preference for winter comfort foods – mashed stews and meat; rice puddings; bananas.

He grew a halo of fat white blonde curls to adorn his apple head, long curling dark lashes to frame his periwinkle blue eyes- and provoked ooohs and aaaahs wherever he went.

Not much has changed.

The girls swoon. And so do some of the boys. He has an almost androgyny. His tall large muscular frame suits the pale pinks and baby blues; he can pull off floral prints and wear my sunglasses and look fabulously masculine. Even just a bit macho.

His is the attitude that I envy. He puts himself out there for laughs. Gets his hairy legs waxed for charity. Wears a granny suit for halloween and a ‘Borat’ man-kini for fancy dress. He gives lectures in class on poverty and equality and the evils of discrimination. Laid back, he does not stand when he can sit; nor sit when he can  lie. He is cat-like. Energy-conserving.

Except when it comes to party-preparation – when we will all be enveloped in Eau de Young Man on the Pull and endure a two hour wait for the shower room.

It was at last week’s party that Evan decided to get his eyebrows plucked ‘just to see what they’d look like’.

Evan’s pre-pluck-look was centimetre thick but shapely. With a tendency to meet mid-brow. They certainly don’t meet mid-brow now. And I’m not sure my measuring tape could record the width.

He unveiled ‘the diva look’ for the first time last weekend. It was late last Saturday night, and there was a gathering of the generations – his granny and granpa; mum and dad; eldest brother and girlfriend; younger siblings and cats – all gathered around the kitchen table laughing, drinking, swapping stories of our week and eating snacks.

At first – and I mean a ‘fraction of a second’ fleeting first glance in the general direction ‘at first’ – we didn’t react.

And then it began. Carrie’s sharp intake of breath and choking guffaw. Lewis – resolutely black and white in his role-definition (‘real men don’t pluck or at least don’t pluck as much as that’) – giving a heartfelt: Oh ffs what have you done now you total fanny – exclamation of disgust. Papa Jaime just shaking his head, speechless – but (and this was really weird – at least, coming from my father it was) latterly defending Evan’s right to do it. Mamie giving it her best shot with Well, maybe it’s the fashion…Is it the fashion Evan…? … Oh…It’s not…?…Oh, well then, they’ll grow in soon enough… Robert shrugging with aye, he’s jist a lad… and to Evan: Was she good-looking then? Did you score? The wee ones laughing and laughing and going OTT with their pointing and laughing Evan, your face is like a bum now…hahahahahahahaha.

Me? My response still bewilders me – especially coming from a woman who used to shave her head and dye her scalp blue…

I shook my head and said You are such a bloody idiot sometimes Evan. It looks a real mess. You look like a right tube. What on earth were you thinking about!

Was it my response that he was waiting for? Did he need me to laugh and think it was all a big joke? I think that maybe a bit of him did. Because my response was the only one that he caught and threw back. That kicked the sweetly smiling inner-buddha-boy into touch and woke the raging teen beneath…

You know what Mum? I don’t care what you think. I just don’t care. You just don’t get it. I did it for a laugh. It’s funny. And I don’t care if I look stupid because it’s a laugh Mum. A laugh. You just don’t get it: I don’t care what people think about me because I’m ME.

Honest folks, my response to the pluckery wasn’t that\vehement or ‘bothered’. But hey, it set off a whole big disproportionate verbal chain reaction from him.

His brows are growing on me (boom boom)… From the side I admire his sleek sweep from cheekbone to forehead. His Rue Paul-esque profile which is begging for metallic eyeshadow and false lashes. But I still prefer him the way he was pre-pluck.

It is our joint responses which have exercised me a bit. And finally, today I think I understand better what was going on. That the entire scene – everything about it – marks the rightful beginning of his assertion of separateness. His journey into adulthood. The final severing of the spiritual umbilical that we need to cut if we are to make our way – as unique and separate individuals – in the world.

His eyebrows are my shaved head – which, in its day, was as repugnant as rotting fish to my mother. And it’s to my mother I need to turn for the next lesson: how to let go, without losing your child…