Who Is She?

I had a lovely cuppa with Emma Sasaru a few weeks ago, and over tea and the inevitable cake we discussed the expectations that women place upon themselves.  It reminded me that I had done an exercise sometime last year, as part of my therapy, looking at my versions of the “ideal” wife and mother.

The idea behind this is that all of us have deep-rooted “beliefs” that affect our lives.  I don’t mean religious beliefs, although these can be an influence – rather I mean the things that deep down, regardless of what we say, we really believe are true.  So we might say that we deserve to be loved and cherished as much as the next person, but deep down we KNOW that we are worthless and unloveable.  We might say that we are accepting of all races, faiths and sexualities but deep down we KNOW that some people do things that are just plain wrong.  We might say that we are no better than anyone else and that everyone’s point of view counts, but really we KNOW that we are, and always will be, in the right.

I think you have got the idea.  Give a moment’s thought and you may realise what some of your beliefs are.  They are often at odds with how we presently conduct ourselves, and many of them come from things that were drummed into us in childhood.  Not all of these beliefs are a problem, but as my examples above suggest some of them can be profoundly unhelpful.  And tackling them is often a way to make progress.

So what did I truly believe made the “perfect” wife?  Let’s see what I had written down….

  • The wife should be the stronger partner
  • She should be quiet and supportive
  • She knows her man inside and out
  • She is loving and sexually available
  • She is soft and voluptuous
  • She inspires awe in her husband
  • She is someone her husband can be proud of
  • She is beautiful, elegant, graceful, discreet and classy

Hmm.  That doesn’t sound much like me.  I mean, some of those things yes maybe on a good day.  But all of them?  All the time?  Hmm.

Let’s move on to the “perfect” mother.  What does she look like?

  • Creative
  • Full of energy, running around having fun
  • Always willing to play
  • Calm and wise
  • Loving
  • Dressed in jeans and trainers
  • Laid back and capable
  • Good cook
  • Strong, patient and kind
  • Attentive but firm
  • Has a bag full of everything her child might need

Again, some of those things maybe.  All of them?  Well good cook is out for a start!  I can manage the jeans and trainers.

Before we look at the contradictions inherent in the two descriptions, let’s finally look at what I believe it means to be a good woman.  This is not something that I made a list for, but I know that for me it involves being a feminist.  That term means all kinds of different things to different groups.  To me it means not allowing myself to be treated as inferior or to be made to believe that I am somehow “less” than men.  It also means not allowing the world to view “women’s things” as marginal, less important, weak or pathetic.  And it means having autonomy over my own body.

We’ve got a problem then haven’t we? There I am, trying to be a sexually available feminist, who is always willing to play with her children yet elegant and graceful at all times.  She is creative, attentive to her children, an excellent cook and is always having fun, yet somehow finds the time to inspire awe in her husband (in some unspecified way).  She has autonomy over her body and is a strong woman, yet is classy and discreet, whilst not allowing herself to be sidelined.  She is quiet and devotes herself to her husband whilst not believing she is less important than him.  She is beautiful but wise and knows that appearances are irrelevant to her worth.

Who is she?  Do you know anyone like her?  Would you want to know anyone like her?  Does my husband want to be married to her?  Do my children want to be brought up by her?

I’m not even sure I like the sound of her.  She doesn’t sound like she ever experiences negative emotions, which is going to make her pretty lacking in empathy.  She sounds like she spends all of her time on how she looks and on creating games for her children, which suggests she is quite possibly, well, boring.  She also sounds like she has much to recommend her, no doubt about that.

The point is, she is not me.

I have been elegant in my time.  I have been calm on a few, rare occasions.  Not sure I have ever been discreet.  No matter how much cake I eat I will never be voluptuous.  I can be creative, I can have fun, but I definitely don’t enjoy spending endless amounts of time playing with my children.  I love them dearly, but pretending to construct a house with Bob the Builder is not how I want to spend hours of my day.

I am certainly not stronger than my husband.  Nor would I wish to be.  Whether I inspire awe in him I don’t know, but I am certain that on a day to day basis “graceful” is not a word he would use to describe me.  Not when I’m walking into the stairgate for the hundredth time, or tripping over the mega bloks on my way to feed the cats.  Classy?  I’m honestly not convinced I even know what that means.

let it go

So it is no surprise then that having these ideals locked away inside my head was making me miserable.  I was, subconsciously, spending my time trying to live up to something that I could never achieve.  Something that is, in many cases, far removed from who I actually am.  So no matter what I did or how I behaved there was a part of me that KNEW, absolutely KNEW, I was not good enough.

That way madness lies.

By writing down all of these expectations in an honest way, it enabled me to see them for what they are.  Nonsense.

And then I was able to think about who I actually am.  And who I want to be.  What do I want to aspire to?  Well I want to make people’s journeys in this world just a little easier.  Just a little brighter.  Just a little better.  I want to bring together people who can help each other, and help those around them.  I want to share information because knowledge is power.  I want to assist in empowering people to lead happier lives.  I want to contribute and to make a difference.  And I want to love my husband and children with all my heart, which poses no difficulties whatsoever.

I don’t give a stuff about how I look.  Classy, graceful, discreet, elegant – someone else can pick up those thank you.  I can knock together a decent Bolognese sauce so that’s the cooking sorted.  If I’m in the mood I can be creative.  If I’m in the mood I can be kind and wise.  I can also be grumpy, unreasonable, irrational, moody, opinionated and ridiculous.  Because I am human.  Just like you are.

I don’t know who that other woman is.  I think I will leave her behind.  She certainly has too much class to listen to cheesy pop music.  But I don’t, I love a bit of 1990s fromage.  So I leave you with the immortal words of Chesney Hawkes:

“No one can be myself like I can. For this job I’m the best man. And though this may be true, you are the one and only you.”

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Enough. Please.

I have tried to steer clear, up till now, of what I call “communicating by blog”. You know the sort of thing, a blog post clearly aimed at one or two people but written so everyone can read it and you end up thinking, would a conversation not have been better?  But with this issue, although a handful of people may have sparked the post it genuinely is aimed at everyone involved in #MatExp, the National Maternity Review and improving maternity care.  And what I’d like to say is this:

Please just stop.  Enough already.

I am referring to the posts, tweets, conversations and debates I see all the time about patient safety and natural childbirth.  It makes me feel sick and frustrates me beyond measure because this polarisation and posturing are deflecting attention from the fact that there are changes that DO need to be made to maternity care.  And they are changes we can all get behind.

When did “normal” childbirth become at odds with patient safety?  Seriously, when did that happen?  Incidentally, for a discussion on why the word “normal” may not be ideal please click here, but for the purposes of this blog post I am referring to intervention free childbirth.  Some women feel that this is what they want for their family.  Some people choose to talk about these women as though they are dangerous idiots, caught up in a hippie fantasy of childbirth somewhat akin to a Disney move.

Some other women feel that a more “medicalised” birth is what they want for their family.  Some people choose to talk about these women as though they are mentally scarred, weak-willed and submissive.

It disgusts me.  But you know what is far, far worse?  Those same people who are judging women’s choices also appear to be pretty sure that they know what is best for families.  For people they have never met.  They know what’s best.  And the people they disagree with are characterised not only as not knowing best, but as being a dangerous and negative influence on families.

Which is patronising nonsense.  Of course some people are easily led, easily influenced.  But the majority of families make decisions that are best for them based on the information that they have about both the choices available and their own circumstances.  To suggest that some noisy voices on social media are adversely influencing these families suggests that our fellow humans are credulous fools.  Please stop it.

Some people view risk differently from you.  They do.  They have read everything you want them to read, they have heard all of the stories you want them to hear, and they have made a different choice.  A different assessment.

Deal with it.

It is so easy to get angry with each other online.  Anyone who knows me will know that I am far from immune!  But creating “sides” and then pushing those sides further and further apart cannot possibly help anyone.  The further into a corner someone is pushed the less likely they are to ever modulate their position or to admit that they have made any mistakes.  It is a human response.  “Backing down” is incredibly hard.  For all of us.  And it gets harder the more we have been forced to defend our position.  This is not discussion or debate, it is division.  The total opposite of progress.

The #MatExp heart values are, I believe, what is needed as the focus of maternity care.  Choice.  Compassion.  Kindness.  Dignity.  Respect.  Appropriate Language.  If every family experienced these things in their journey to parenthood so many of the problems that both “sides” are fearful of would be resolved.  Yes we absolutely need families to be safe.  Yes we absolutely need to understand the physiological process of childbirth.  If anyone truly believes that those two things are incompatible, or that someone in favour of one cannot be in favour of the other please just step away from discussions about maternity care.  Please step away and reflect.  Because things DO need to change.  But pushing at each other in fear and anger will not achieve that.

What An Adventure!

Wishing our amazing son, David John Calvert, a very Happy 2nd Birthday today!

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Every birthday is a milestone, a time of new beginnings and of reflecting on how far we’ve come.  But this one more so than ever.  Our family is complete, there are no more children on the cards for Phil and me, so the second birthday of our youngest son marks the end of the baby years for us.  Done and dusted.

This is pretty momentous for me.  Anyone who has read my earlier posts will know that I am not much of a baby person.  Newborn Valley is not a time I relish, and although it was easier second time around it was still incredibly tough going.  Cherish every moment?  No, you’re alright thanks.  I’ll enjoy what I can and survive the rest.

With both of my children the first year has been about survival and the second year has been about recovery.  I had months of CBT when Edward was a year old, to tackle pre-existing and new mental health issues.  I have spent the last twelve months building myself back up after the first year of David’s life, a year which saw him undergo two open heart surgeries.  Thanks to some excellent therapy, a year of meditation classes and 50mg of Sertraline I am feeling the healthiest I ever have.

Not that the last four and a half years of parenthood have been a hellish experience, far from it.  We have squeezed every last drop of enjoyment out of the early years.  We have had so many journeys and adventures, and the boys have taught us both so much.  It is an absolute privilege to be their mother.

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When Edward turned 2 I was already in the early stages of pregnancy with David.  When David was born Edward started at Raglan Road Preschool Playgroup – one day before David was born in fact!  Now my big boy is in the Reception class at school and my baby is starting Playgroup sessions in November.  All parents tell you that the time flies by, but my goodness it feels like minutes since I was picking Edward up from Playgroup with David in his baby carrier, setting him down on the floor so his big brother could say hello and show him that day’s paintings.  Watching David toddle in to his first session sporting his Playgroup T-shirt is going to be quite a moment.

Motherhood has been nothing like I expected, far worse than I expected and better than anything I could have imagined.  Certainly no one expects to have a baby with a heart defect, but the everyday things are often surprising, challenging and delightful too.  I knew I would love to read to my children, but I did not realise how I would grow to detest Thomas the Tank Engine.  I thought I would steer clear of children’s television, but it turns out that Fireman Sam is bloomin’ hilarious!  I have used all manner of parenting techniques, from baby whispering to controlled crying to babywearing to bedsharing to gentle parenting to time outs to lying on the floor exhausted while they perform surgery on me.  All of the cliches that sounded trite and hopelessly unscientific when I started on this journey turned out to be absolutely true: all children need is love, know your own child and you won’t go far wrong.

Throughout all of our parenting adventures our friends and family have been there to support us and I have no idea how I would go about thanking them enough.  Far too many people undertake this journey alone, without a network of support, and I cannot imagine how hard that must be.  We have always felt surrounded by love and understanding, and I hope we have been able to give some of that back.

One friend in particular deserves a mention as she is not here with us anymore.  The beautiful Jane Hanley was an enormous support to me, from the moment Edward was born until lung disease took her from us forever.  I cannot believe she is not here to see David turn 2 and to celebrate this milestone with us.  She is sorely missed, and always will be.

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We celebrated David’s birthday yesterday with a party for some of his friends, and the theme was, of course, Adventure.  It seemed appropriate, to symbolise the adventures we have been on as parents, the adventures our boys have already undertaken, and most importantly the adventures we want them to know they can embark upon, with the world at their feet.  In an entertaining twist, the party venue became unavailable with 30 minutes to go, so we swiftly moved the entire event (3 car loads of gear) to the grandparents’ house.  A couple of years ago this would have induced in me a meltdown on a dramatic scale, but yesterday I took a breath and got on with it, and it was one of the loveliest parties we have held.  A reminder of how far I have come on a personal journey where anxiety has been an unwelcome companion.

A final special mention to my wonderful husband, Phil – those of you who know him will know that I am not exaggerating when I say he is my rock.  We have grown as a team these last four and a half years.  We have been tested and have risen to each new challenge, and I am so proud of us and of him.  We knew we were in for some adventures when we got married nearly nine years ago but my goodness we didn’t know the half of it!

So here we are, about to embark on a new phase of life for all of us.  Edward’s school days are underway, I am about to have a lot more time on my hands and already have three or four projects lined up for 2016.  Phil is setting his sights on the horizon as always, and David is leaving babyhood behind to launch himself at the world with the vigour for which he is renowned.  Another open heart surgery awaits him, but so do many more joyful journeys and experiences.

One of David’s favourite phrases at the moment when he has mastered something tricky is “I did it!” said with the kind of enthusiasm only a 2 year old can muster.  He is referring to a puzzle piece or putting on his welly boot.  Yet when I hear him shout it, I can only think of everything he has already overcome in his short but momentous time on earth.

You did it David!  We all did.  Happy Birthday beautiful boy!  Here’s to new adventures!

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Make A Wish

Do you ever get irritated by other people?

Of course you do.  The silly things they say.  The way they speak to you.  The daft things they believe in.  That thing they did the other day that just…. urgh it was so annoying!  Why can’t people just get a grip, grow up, educate themselves, listen more, try to understand, stop getting in your way and STOP IRRITATING YOU!

I know it’s not just me who has days like that.  We all do.  My favourite literary character, Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax, asks “Why can’t people think clearly?”  She means why are they so blind, so easily led, why are they so credulous?  Why, in short, do they not think like her?  But then in Carpe Jugulum we find her so twisted in upon herself and her beliefs of how people see her that she is willing to believe that her friends have abandoned her and treated her cruelly.  This is not the case but she acts on that paranoia.  She is not thinking clearly.

weatherwax

Esmerelda Weatherwax

And who suffers the most when we allow ourselves to think that way and to react that way?

We do.

I am fortuante to live not far from the Kadampa Buddhist Centre in Chorlton, and I attend a meditation class there most Monday evenings.  You don’t have to be a practising Buddhist to attend, and indeed I am not.  The class structure is a led meditation, followed by a talk, followed by another short meditation and then tea, biscuits and chat at the end.  The messages of Kadampa Buddhism are simple to explain but difficult to put into practice, and the weekly reminders are such a beneficial addition to my toolbox for life.

Last night’s talk was on The Inner Wealth of Compassion.  The title made me smile as we talk about compassion all the time in the #MatExp campaign, indeed it is one of our core Heart Values.  So I thought I knew all about it, and particularly how other people should be practising it.  Oh yes, a lot more compassion is needed.  From other people.  Oh yes.

Buddha

Buddha

Yet as Sam led the class it seemed as though he was talking far more about the day I had just experienced (being irritated by numerous people) rather than the changes I would like to see in maternity care, or elsewhere.  Sam spoke of how we view other people, all living beings in fact, and how we can make a wish for them to be happy.  This does not mean fairy dust and starlight (although feel free if you are so disposed) – it means consciously thinking, all the time, that I wish for the people around me, for all living beings, to be happy.

The beauty of the Kadampa form of Buddhism is that it is adapted to Western life.  So Sam spoke of sitting at the traffic lights and changing that everyday experience.  Instead of feeling irritated about the behaviour of other drivers, the delay at the lights and the other typical morning problems, I will look around me at the drivers and pedestrians and consciously think “I wish for you to be happy.”

Simple? Yes. Fluffy? Undoubtedly. Effective?  Well try it and see.  Go through your day with that thought in your mind, in the supermarket, at the school gates, on the motorway, in the office, and see for yourself the difference it makes to your day.  To your state of mind, to how you view other people, to your level of compassion and to your own happiness.

Speaking to a priest in Carpe Jugulum, Granny Weatherwax explains “And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”  Those irritating things, standing in my way in the aisle at Aldi, walking too slowly along the pavement, not moving quickly enough at the lights, complaining about things I haven’t got time to deal with and sharing misinformed nonsense on social media.  Those things!  The bain of my life!  Other people!

But they are not things.  And Granny Weatherwax is right, compassion is lost every time I think of people that way.  Every person around me wants to be free from suffering.  Every person around me wants their life to be that little bit easier.  Most of the people I will encounter in my day are feeling just as tired, frustrated, fed up, misunderstood and hard done by as I am.  And by making a wish for them to be happy I remind myself, all the time, that they are not things but that they are human beings deserving of compassion.

Let’s make that wish for others and for ourselves.  Let’s spend this week consciously wishing for the happiness of others as we come across people in our jobs and in our lives.  And let’s remember that we too deserve to be happy.  Let’s see if compassion flows more easily and irritation is markedly reduced.  Let’s see if we feel lightened and heartened and more optimistic about life in general.  Do you think it will work?

As Nanny Ogg would say, “bet you half a dollar.”

Gytha Ogg

Gytha Ogg