Monday, 7 July 2014

The only two parenting metaphors you will ever need

Race for life

This weekend, my daughter and I did the local 5k Race for Life (thank you, you can still donate!), to raise money for research into cancer. This is the third time we've done it, and it's become a bit of a tradition to see whether we can beat the previous year's time. Logically this should work, because as my daughter gets older, she gets taller and faster. We won't go into what happens to her mother. 

I didn't sleep well, and woke already tired and fretful. The rain had bucketed the night before, and the terrain was soggy, so I suggested that she and I head into the runners' group, so that we'd have a fresh start — we weren't going for a runner's time, we just didn't want to be slipping over in the churn. 

Within only a few moments, daughter was straggling and slowing to a walk. Not yet well breathed, I was hopping up and down and urging her forwards in what I hoped wasn't too obviously a stentorian manner. She seemed to have a stitch most of the way round the course, and as the metres dragged into kilometres, I was racing ahead, then standing still until she caught up, tapping my foot, and eventually unashamedly hands on hips. Well I say unashamedly, actually I felt rubbish. We were supposed to be running together, it was supposed to be our mother-daughter moment. But there I was with two winners' symbols instead of eyes, champing at the bit and leaving her behind in my testosterone-fuelled desire to kick butt. 

In the final kilometre, my eleven year old gave it one big push, and ran most of it, and we crossed the finish line at an uphill sprint, carried along by the cheering. 

As we looked up to see the time, we realised we'd beaten last year's time by over 3 minutes. We weren't going slowly at all. I was just being competitive. 

In the warm-down time that followed, finally satisfied, I apologised to her. She'd known it was happening, knows she has a mad mother, puts up with it resignedly, told me off quietly. Then we went for ice cream and pick and mix, and wandered through Hampstead, browsing in the bookshop, and fingering sale price T-shirts together. She swam into my focus, my beautiful, calm, determined daughter, so much better adjusted than I am. Doing it her own way. 

Three in a bed

That night, she had a the edges of a migraine, and I put her to bed in our room, hoping to distract her. Husband ended up in her bed, and I slept with her. In the middle of the night, a solid lump of boy interposed itself between daughter and me, with his habitual snuffle, and propensity to sleep sideways. Early in the morning, daughter was beside herself. Occupying fully half the bed, she screeched, "I've got no room! You're always getting in the way between Mummy and me! I can't sleep with your snoring! You always ruin everything, this is MY bed!" No amount of exhausted mumbling from me would stop her, and eventually she had to be ejected, to further screaming. 

Later that day we had to go and buy school uniform for secondary school. She and I made the symbolic trip to be sized up and kitted out, me reliving my childhood, she on the brink of the next big stage of her life. I spoke to her frankly about the excruciating jealousy I had suffered from as a child with a younger brother, always coming up behind me, always edging onto my terrain. I told her very quietly that learning about how jealousy blinds you is perhaps the most important thing I learnt as a child. Understanding and living with her own jealousy was the best way to stop suffering from it — and also to prevent its excesses in other people from harming her. She sat in silence, and listened. She nodded, and we bought hotdogs and candy floss, wandering again in contentment, side by side through the summer streets. What did she hear? What did she take in? I want her so desperately not to fall into the same traps that I did, and I know that I cannot prevent it. 



Saturday, 5 July 2014

What made you want to have a baby?

I was at the pub last night with some fellow parents from school. We were chatting about this and that, and then suddenly the conversation kicked up a gear.

I was droning on about how rubbish mothers' lives are, as usual, when a friend of mine, who is a lawyer, interjected to say, 'Way before I had children, I was working in private practice. A partner sat me down and said, "You have the potential to go all the way, and make partner, as long as you focus completely on your work, and stop doing all this creative writing stuff".' My friend was writing a novel in her spare time, and had an agent. She went on, 'What I thought was, "Stuff that, I just don't want to sell my soul into lawyering if it means I can't do what I want". It made me realise that having a baby was actually a radical thing to do, when there was such a weight of assumption that all I would want to do was make partner.'

It felt as though a ray of light had burst into the pub. Another friend chipped in with a similar story: she had been sat down in Hong Kong, and told that she could go all the way, or some such phrase, if she just dumped the boyfriend. The boyfriend is now the father of her two children.

When I was being shown the range of Cambridge Colleges I could choose from, on becoming a lecturer there, the Bursar at one of them pointed out that there was a college creche. The woman from the French department, who was showing me round the college, interrupted him to say, "Oh, Ingrid won't have time to have a baby," and laughed. I made myself laugh too, but mentally put a big, black cross through that college. This woman already had two children. A man appointed at the same time as I was subsequently took up a Fellowship at this college. When he and his wife had twins a couple of years later, they duly used the college creche. The woman who'd shown me round? She eventually became the head of the French Department. When I had a baby, she forced me to resign.

Women are told all the time in their early careers that having a family is in conflict with their ambitions. They are warned that having babies will cost them promotion, cost them income, cost them status. They're also told that they will be unfulfilled if they don't have a baby. Men aren't told this.

Having a baby for me was an existential choice. I knew very well that procreating would put potentially intolerable pressure on me and on my career — everything I had ever witnessed in academic life had taught me that. I knew the odds were stacked against me if I reproduced. And I went ahead, I made the choice, with my partner, to go for pregnancy. I took the consequences.

Having a baby, and what was then done to me in terms of employment and career path, security and pension, forced me into a situation in which I have had to go on making existential choices, again and again, to keep renewing my personal freedom. This has at times felt relentless, unfair, frightening — but I have never stopped, and I am much happier than I was a decade ago. The idea that an employer should ever tell a woman that she should not have a baby, or threaten her employment prospects if she dares to do so, is such a disgusting one, that I want to take to the streets.

We think this kind of stuff is in the past, that Western women now exercise free choice as they make their way through education and into employment, give or take a bit of salary disparity. But behind closed doors, in meeting rooms, in asides and emails, women are still being bullied about their choices. As if only women have children. As if men don't. What are men? The angel Gabriel?

My answers have been to refuse to compromise myself into giving up what I love and what makes my life finally have meaning, even if it makes no economic sense, and even if I have no status in the eyes of society at large. Why the hell should I? I'd lay down my life for our children, but I'm not going to kill myself for a job. If society wants to capitalise on the education I was given, and the skills my experience has brought me, it's going to have to step up. Not the other way round.