The Uneasy Feeling

I need to write something.  I need to scratch an itch that keeps on at me.  It won’t go away. It is a niggling feeling.  An uneasy feeling that, for all the progress made in our world, there is one huge area we have seen little progress – regard and equality for women and girls.

I know this is not news.  People are noticing it more and more.  We are in the midst of a new wave of feminism spearheaded by some wonderful women including Laura Bates, Sheryl Sandberg and Eve Ensler.  It’s on the international radar.  But even with all of this it doesn’t feel like the change is entering our collective consciousness where it should be – at grass roots level.  In our homes, in our workplaces, in our social lives and in our private lives.    I’m reading a book at the moment called The Women’s Room by Marilyn French.  This is a book written in the early seventies about the lives of a group of American women against the backdrop of being housewives and mothers in a very gender-unequal society.  I first regarded the cover, which told me it was a feminist classic, and I expected to delve into history.  What I have found is that I’m delving into the present too.  The more I read, the more I have this horrible feeling that we haven’t moved on.  When I saw the film Suffragette, I had the same feeling.  And more recently, with the release of data from a survey into gender divisions of childcare around the world, with the result being that UK fathers are at the bottom, that feeling became stronger.

Yes, it’s true that some things, lots of things in fact have changed, and there are wonderful opportunities for girls and women now.  But I can’t shake the feeling that the concept of women and girls as the ‘second sex’ hasn’t gone away.  Our roles haven’t shifted all that much.  Women are still the primary carers for children and elderly relatives.  Women still do the lion’s share of domestic chores, and if we are in relationships where male partners share childcare and housework, we are too often told about how fortunate we are.  Some people even describe fathers who look after their own children as ‘babysitters’.

Women are still more likely to be the lower income earners in a household, and if we have had children, we are likely to be either working part time in low income jobs, therefore becoming much more financially dependent on our partners, or we have given up work altogether and in the process have become completely financially dependent on our partners.

We are told early in life that the world is our oyster; that we have endless opportunities and can live out our dreams, but the constraints that are in place solely because of our gender are always there.  We are even told every time there is an election that we should vote purely because we are so lucky that we have the vote.  I wonder how many times male voters are reminded of their good fortune in being able to vote simply because they are male.

Since becoming a parent, I have noticed the inequalities much more.  Compared to others, I was fortunate that I was able to keep my job on a part time basis but even saying that, I feel it is wrong to describe it as good fortune.   I shouldn’t have to feel grateful that I didn’t have to give up a part of myself simply because I had children.  Yet I know so many women who became parents and then, over time, took the decision to leave their work.  They weren’t just leaving jobs; they were leaving careers they had worked so hard for.  Why?  Why can our society not make it so they don’t have to sacrifice their work?  I feel strongly that people have the right to make their own choices, and for many women, staying at home to raise children is what they want to do, but for others it is a situation they are steered into and I feel a great sadness that there has to be sacrifice.

I see already the effect that outside influences have on my four-year-old daughter’s perceptions of gender.  For a time, she believed only Daddies worked.  She believes still that there are things women can’t do, such as go to Space.  The day she said that, I spent a long time talking to her about female astronauts and showing her pictures.   It seems the Inner Critic is at work from early in our lives.

Recently, Helen Fraser, the Head of the Girls’ Day School Trust spoke about her concerns of women being held back by their inner critic.    Brilliant, high-achieving and intelligent young women are going from being successful in education to not repeating that success in the world of work.     I read this with interest, agreement and uncomfortable familiarity.  I’ve listened to my inner critic all of my life and I’m afraid I still listen to her.    I don’t know how to stop the inner critic getting at my daughter.   I don’t know how to turn that critic into a positive influence, to enable her to reflect but not to hold her back.

So as I move through early parenthood, I am noticing a silent shift happening where women are morphing back into the roles that our mothers and grandmothers fought so hard to shake off.  It is silent, subtle, and so hard to define that if you said it to somebody, it would be more socially acceptable for them to laugh it off as a silly worry instead of giving it the attention it deserves.   I worry that people don’t see the inequality that is right in front of them, because they believe we have come past all of that and it couldn’t possibly be happening now.   I worry for my daughter and my son that the future they grow up in will become less and less equal.  I can’t say we have ever reached gender equality but it feels like we are getting worse.  We make women feel they should be grateful for things that men take for granted.   The vote being one.

I don’t know what the answer is to any of this but it scares me. It feels like as women; we are constantly pushing against the door that won’t open.  Men have the key but if we want to get in, we have to work a lot harder.     Is there strength in solidarity amongst women? Should we take comfort from knowing we have this in common with our entire gender? Should we stick together to share our stories and try to make the changes little by little? Or should we be standing up and shouting out that this is not simply a problem for women to solve but for everybody. The roles can’t become equal if we are not all on the same side.

There are women speaking out and making moves to lead us in the direction of change but I fear there are not enough.    We need more role models, more manifestos, more strong voices.   I thought long and hard before putting these thoughts down on paper, because my inner critic was trying to stop me.   But what if none of us said how we felt?   What if we only listened to the views of people who are high-profile, or learned, or academic? Or all of the above?  What if we disregarded the opinions of the average person?  Perhaps it’s time we listened to the average person and let them become our voice.  Maybe then, it will start to trickle down into our collective consciousness.  For now, I would say, ‘answers on a post card’ but I’m not sure there is a post card large enough for this.


Time to Give up the Baby Books?

At the moment my little boy is experiencing sleeping difficulties, otherwise known as ‘It’s more exciting being awake than in bed’. He is two, so this is normal and makes complete sense, but it is still excruciating when we embark on The Long Bedtime every night. Frustratingly, when my husband is in charge of bedtime, it goes a lot smoother than when I do it. With me, even when I mirror the way my husband handles bedtime, my son still pulls out every trick in the book to make it last longer. And I’m absolutely, utterly devoid of solutions.

We have a four-year-old daughter, and I remember a brief spell where she discovered that having her own ‘big bed’ meant she had a new found freedom and she spent a few nights wandering the landing. We consulted the books, found the solution, and boom, she loves bedtime.

So this time we consulted the same books, or rather I did, but so far I haven’t found one single piece of useful advice. This isn’t because the books are not useful, they are, but they are only useful to a point. A bit like an unfinished bridge, I read and read and find myself reaching a point where I can go no further. I can go through all of the ‘How To’ advice and sit there checking it all off my mental list. Have a routine, check, start with a bath, check, read stories, check, sing songs, check, wind down before bed, check. And according to the books, if you do all these things you will be fine. But what if you do all of these things and they don’t work, but there is no next step?

I realise that book-consulting is very much like asking Doctor Google for help and you shouldn’t put too much store by what you read, but it is part of my world to use books to guide me through, well, pretty much everything. Ever since I was small I have loved to have books to help me. I went from books about how to play the flute, to books about how to cook as a student, right through to house-buying books, employment rights books, life-healing books, plan-your-wedding books, and then baby books. I suppose I take comfort from knowing that if I’m ever stumped about something or don’t know what to do, I can just open up my Bible of Whatever and find my answer. And I don’t think I’m alone in being like this. I think as a society we have become quite dependent on self-help books. There seems to be a book for everything and with the Internet the opportunities seem endless.

I also realise that book-consulting isn’t a replacement for actual real people who can help, such as GPs and Health Visitors, but there are some things that sometimes feel a little small for me to visit the clinic for help, but big enough for a good old book.

So, back to my conundrum of the Terrible Tale of the Two-Year-Old Who Will Not Sleep. Should I expand my search wider, for the book to end all books? For the book that has the answers, in one easy volume, that the other books can’t quite reach?

Or, perhaps now would be the ideal time for me to embrace my inner authority and put the books down. Perhaps Mother Earth is throwing me this curveball because she wants me to wake up and start trusting myself instead of relying on the book experts. And perhaps in the story of my life I might just be the expert. Perhaps.

Ultimately, books have always served as a comforting constant for me. Not just the helpful guide books, but the glorious escapist fiction too. So maybe I just need to strike a balance now. Read the books, but listen to my instincts too.

But if there is anybody out there who has written the book to end all books, feel free drop me a line.


This post first appeared on Huffington Post.

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Summer and the Pressure to Conform

So at the moment Summer seems to be flirting with us. We are being gifted the odd day of cracking-the-flags sunshine. Cue: racing to the shops and clearing them out of sun cream and sun hats. I love our habits when it comes to a sunny day. And I love sunny days. Let’s face it, there isn’t much not to love. But, I always find every year that I feel under huge pressure as soon as the sun rays peak through the clouds, for me to get out my summer wardrobe and conform to the ideal summer image.

Does anybody even have a summer wardrobe anymore? Do you go into the loft, dust off the suitcase at the back and open it up to find pristine summer clothes? Or do you set aside a Saturday morning to go shopping and buy some new, fresh, breathable and socially acceptable summer clothes? I’m probably the latter but this is where the pressure comes from. You see, I’m not in any way, shape or form designed for summer. Or at least the summer that is sold to us. And it’s against every fibre of my being that I feel the pressure even though I know I shouldn’t. I do not possess a figure that looks fantastic in a bikini, or for that matter, the natural self confidence I think I would need to be comfortable sitting next to complete strangers on sand in pretty much underwear by another name.

But my other problem, and I really hope I’m not alone in this (I suspect I’m not) is that I find most clothing ranges for summer that are widely available and affordable are designed for very very thin people. Now I should say this, I’m not against very very thin people in any way. I just wish that people like me – not very very thin – were considered as socially acceptable and in fact socially desirable to the point where the shops make clothes for us without putting them in a special range called Plus Size.

My name is Madeleine and I’m a Plus Size person. Imagine walking into a support group and saying that. Well we pretty much do, don’t we? At all of the slimming classes around, where people go for the weekly humiliation of the weigh in. Why do we have to regard curvier people as something different? Something other?

At the moment I’m on a (long) mission to lose some pounds and get fitter. This mission began approximately five years ago and went from a fully-motivated state of affairs to a longer term plan with me attending fitness classes, running occasionally, and implementing chocolate bans which inevitably lead to chocolate binges. In the cooler months I’m comfortable with my body, but in the summer months I come to dread the daily selection of clothes.

I find society’s attitudes to size really strange and unfair. It is widely known that being thin is considered by a lot of influential industries to be the body of choice and everything else just isn’t ok. How do we change that? It doesn’t help that if you’re above a size fourteen you are labelled as Plus Size. Or that people try to attribute a reason why you’re bigger than the ideal, as if it is just temporary. Baby weight being the obvious one, but even that is time limited. You can’t claim it is baby weight when your baby is no longer a baby. A recent low point for me was when my daughter asked me if I was having a baby because my tummy was bigger. She’s four but still, it was pretty crushing.

So, my dream is for my kids to grow up in a society that accepts people of all shapes and sizes and for them not to feel the pressures to conform to an ideal body image. I think we are a long way from that though, and to be honest I’m not sure how we will arrive at that point. I guess we will have to keep on buying the Plus Size range through gritted teeth (and then go home to eat more chocolate).


Don’t Forget Your Past – It’s What Got You Here

On a recent journey to work with my husband, we enjoyed a rather more lively conversation than normal. We are a one car family and our morning routine on my work days involves us dropping the kids off and then travelling together to our respective offices. Usually we have bits of generally mundane life chat, making lists of what we need to do, remembering things we will probably forget later, or if we are tired, we will sit mostly quietly save for the interruption of me searching for a good song on the radio.

On this particular morning our discussion began with me talking about an old and very dear friend of mine who had recently had a baby and the discussion ended up with us talking about my first love. My husband has never met my friend, because we moved away from my home town not long after we became a couple and over the years life has got in the way and we have never managed to meet up. But I’ve told him a lot about her, which is how we ended up on that normally uneventful car journey talking about my love life, and as we arrived at the car park at my office, my husband was laughing at how much he now knew, that he didn’t before, and also the fact that the soundtrack to this part of the journey was Adele’s ‘When We Were Young’. Cringe.

So, as is the way with these things, I started thinking about my previous life. By previous, I don’t mean I’m the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe, although wouldn’t that be something.

I mean my life before I met my husband and my life before we had kids.

I don’t know about you but my husband and I have never really had the conversation about former great loves. Not even in the early days of our relationship when conversation was deeper than “We need to fix the bath panel this weekend.” Now this isn’t to say we didn’t know about each other’s love lives, we did, of course, but factual details only. Who our previous significant others were, how long we were together, sometimes we even dropped in the odd faux pas – “Remember when we saw this at the cinema?” “No, we never saw this at the cinema.” “Oh.” But the full-on detail was never shared. Why do we do that? Why do we not share those important details about people in our past and how they made us feel? Is it because we think that by sharing these details we are diminishing what we have now? Or are we scared to admit we felt for somebody else once, with the same passion we now feel for our current partners?

My old friend and I met her husband on the same night, 17 years ago, when we were fresh faced, skinny 18 year olds drinking Malibu and Coke in the pub. She met him, I met his friend and it was his friend who was to take the part in my life of First Love. His name was Stewart. He was a tall, lean man who, although only three years older than me, seemed much older. He was a bit of a wrong’un. He sold cars for a living, he drove too fast. He smoked bad stuff. He fancied himself as a bit of a DJ and a connoisseur of all things old school. My parents hated him. He was my ‘bad boy’ and I fell hopelessly in love with him. Ultimately the universe had a different plan for me that didn’t involve making my life with him. But in the story of my life he played a big part.

I’m a big believer in the old adage that things happen as they should, for various reasons, and they take you to the place you should end up. So the people I meet in life are all part of my story and I might be part of theirs too. We all make each other’s histories and we shape each other, so why do we feel when we meet a new partner that we have to make our previous lives appear less important? Why do we not talk about the people we have known as partners and lovers? And how do we approach this when our children are old enough to to understand about relationships? Do we tell them about our previous loves? Do we tell them about how we behaved in our youth? Or are we frightened that they will do as we did and not as we should have done.

These are all questions that float around in my head full of thoughts. They are not questions I expect to have the answer to for a while if ever. But I think I’d like to get to the point where at least with my husband I feel comfortable sharing with him the secrets of my younger self. And maybe in the future I will tell my kids, that before meeting their dad, their mum had a different life with partners, lovers, different friends, and different experiences. Without these I might be a very different mum, who knows.


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