Archive | July, 2011

Generations of Dysfunction

29 Jul

My mum is going home to her country tomorrow. She was here visiting us for three weeks, as she does every summer. She has been visiting for two weeks in the spring and three weeks in the summer ever since my daughter was born. Before I became pregnant I didn’t speak to her for three years. But when I was pregnant and in and out of hospital all the time in the early months I thought I probably ought to let her know about her first grandchild. At first our renewed relationship was marked by a sort of cautious superficial politeness, which I quite enjoyed to be honest. But since I have been living on my own with my daughter, the power balance seems to have shifted slightly and she no longer sees me as someone’s wife, let alone my own person, and I’m back to feeling and being treated (some of the time) like an incapable teenager who doesn’t know how to clean, what to pack for a day out or when to put a jacket on my daughter.

We’ve never had an easy or close relationship, and it’s too long a story to tell here. But what I found really interesting during this visit were the similarities between my mum and me. Not in a good way though. I noticed one day when I wasn’t entirely comfortable with how little attention she was giving my daughter while supposedly playing with her that I often do precisely what annoyed me about my mum’s behaviour: I insist on getting stuff done when it  could really wait until daughter is in bed or at her dad’s. I constantly have to prove to myself that I can get things done. I can build a big solid 185 x 185 bookshelf while keeping my daughter busy. I can pack up five years of my life while cooking lunch. It’s not really necessary. Sometimes there is no rush, so I have to remind myself to focus on my daughter instead of rushing ahead with other tasks and sidelining her.

My mum has been a great role model in some respects – from her I learnt how to stay calm in a crisis and that I can rely on myself. But there are also other things I’m determined to do differently: my daughter will have healthy balanced meals, I won’t tell her she has to be a vegetarian, but if she decides to become one on her own, she will still eat healthy balanced meals with all the nutrients a growing person needs so that she doesn’t end up severely anaemic without even realising it. I will try very hard not to talk negatively about anyone’s appearance, or intellect. I tell her every day that I love her, I kiss her and cuddle her. If she ever has a sibling, I will let them develop their own relationship.

Now my maternal grandmother seems to have reached the final few days of her life, and even though my memories of her are entirely positive, I can’t bring myself to visit her for one last time (she has advanced dementia so is highly unlikely to recognise me) or make plans to go to her funeral because doing so would entail a stay with my mum and a lot of time with both her, my sister and my new nephew. After these three weeks I just don’t think I could cope with being forced back into still-too-familiar patterns of behaviour and power struggles. If my mum already feels more entitled to interfere and direct in my house without my husband, I don’t want to imagine what it would be like in her house.

And since my sister is the favoured daughter and her son is only a few weeks old, I think the person who would be most at risk in this melange of emotions and dysfunction is my daughter. Sure, you might say I’ll be there to look out for her needs, and I would, but the way my family works, she would still fall through the cracks, or be painted as too noisy, boisterous and aggressive when she behaves like a toddler rather than a 2-month old. And I can’t risk that even for three days. Perhaps I’ll feel different in a few days once I’ve gone back to my own routine. I think I’d relish the chance to prove to myself that I can do a plane trip with an energetic inquisitive toddler on my own.

Feminism and High Heels

22 Jul

When women say they enjoy wearing high heels, I never know what to think. It always seems quite silly to me because surely there’s nothing enjoyable about shoes which, in essence, massacre your feet and slow you down.

At the moment, I always wear flat shoes, usually trainers, because I do a lot of walking and toddler-chasing. This makes me feel extremely frumpy next to glossy-haired Boden/Brora/Joules-clad yummy mummies whose clickety-clack strides seem to express some sort of efficient and in-charge mumsiness that I can only dream of. It’s the same when it comes to women my age who I see going to work in the morning in their pencil skirts and high heels.

I remember reading a few years ago on a former schoolmate’s Facebook ‘About Me’ page that wearing high heels made her feel empowered, and as she works in the fashion industry I thought, oh yeah, certain things could be seen as oppressive, but if you actively choose them, it’s empowering – that old chestnut again (see pole dancing, burlesque, making/watching pornography etc.).

But today, thanks to Ms. Magazine, I came across a really excellent explanation why that’s all rubbish: according to fashion historian Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, quoted in the Huffington Post,

“the power that high heels seems to convey is very sexualized power. And very sexualized power is false power, because in order to be sexy someone has to find you sexy, and so the power actually is in the beholder.”

I find that really thought-provoking. It makes sense to me. If one thinks slightly further, the above view might mean that sometimes when women try to feel powerful, or even do feel powerful, they aren’t actually succeeding, but rather asking for permission (which is denied because women are objectified and therefore powerless), and degrading themselves.

Does this mean that I will never wear high heels again? Probably not. They are still part of the expected attire on nights out, and eventually I hope to be able to partake in this pastime again (as long as I can be in bed by 11). If I officially stopped wearing high heels, I’d officially be a frump with no fashion sense and therefore no personality worth getting to know, or a weirdo who enjoys being the odd one out. But this realisation made me wonder: ages ago I came across the idea that we define ourselves through consumerism, i.e. we buy things in order to express who we are or want to be, which I think is an accurate assessment of most people’s habits (and certainly my own). So women buy high heels to portray a sexy and/or powerful persona, but actually they were pushed into this decision by societal pressure, so by wearing high heels they demonstrate how little power they have.

Yes. This is a whole post about shoes. It’s late. Where’s the wine?

Moving House with a Toddler

15 Jul

Now that we have been in our new house for two weeks already, I’m beginning to feel like the dust is in the process of settling. Not quite settled yet, but getting there. (My box room is utterly living up to its name.) When it became clear that we would be moving, I did some reading to find out how best to prepare my daughter for the upheaval of moving house. This is what I found out:

  • It can be helpful to read books about moving house in order to let toddlers understand the concept. I meant to do this, but never actually got round to it because money was so tight. There are plenty of interesting-looking books on Amazon though.
  • Start packing well in advance, but not too early or you’ll have to dig stuff out again. I started off very gently 4 weeks before the big day and stayed quite relaxed.
  • Take photos of your toddler in each room of the old place, so for example a photo waving from the front door, a photo brushing teeth in the bathroom, a photo playing in the sitting room, sitting at the dining table, lying in bed with cuddly toys, perhaps a photo of mummy cooking in the kitchen, and so on. These photos can be printed out and hung up at the new place  so that you can talk about the changes with your child.
  • Order an online food shop for the new address, including a bottle of bubbly and some treaty food to celebrate.
  • Keep toys and books out until the last day. All my daughter’s toys belong in a specific bucket (they’re usually all over the floor of course), which I kept out as well. Her dad, who helped an enormous amount with our move, very kindly took these and her play kitchen over to the new house after her bedtime on the last evening in the old flat so that they definitely wouldn’t get lost.
  • Do the main part while your toddler is away at nursery or visiting friends or relatives. This is crucial! My daughter had some moments of upset when I was packing things away and dismantling furniture, and I don’t want to imagine how she might have felt to see her home gradually empty and familiar objects disappear. Plus obviously if you’re actively taking part on moving day, as I did, it’s far easier not to have to keep a little one amused and happy.
  • Sort out children’s areas and kitchen first: bedroom and sitting room are probably the rooms my daughter spends most time in, so I focused on these first. I put her bed together (big girl bed now, no longer a cot, so the baby days stayed at the old flat) and sorted out her chest of drawers and all her familiar bedroom bits. I arranged the sitting room in such a way that it would be usable and recognisable, and unpacked most kitchen items so that I would be able to cook meals with no complications. I even managed to put together the dining area with the usual tablecloth and floormat so that we were able to eat dinner in the normal way when my daughter returned from her dad’s who had picked her up from nursery after lunch.
  • Stairgates! Check if they fit. Mine didn’t, so I had to rely on a cobbled-together emergency solution and a quick dash to the next big supermarket by my daughter’s dad (he really was very helpful).
  • Keep the same routine. The more familiarity you can maintain, the more safe your toddler is likely to feel.
  • Expect changes in behaviour. It is a massive upheaval for little ones. More about this possibly in another post soon.
  • And finally: pay for professional help! Accept all the help you are offered. I hired two men and a van who seemed very popular in my area (council’s trusted trader etc.) and was also joined by my daughter’s dad and a friend. They were amazing. In the time in which we filled a small car with fragile things they filled a whole van with a sofa, washing machine, big chest of drawers and countless boxes. Nothing got broken and they were extremely quick. I wasn’t even tired at the end of the day! Or stressed! I’m not exaggerating.

Reading Recommendations

14 Jul

When I posted this the other day, I really wanted to include more information in case someone suffering from Hyperemesis comes across my blog. One book I am definitely planning to read before my next pregnancy (whenever that will be) is Ashli Foshee-McCall’s Beyond Morning Sickness: Battling Hyperemesis Gravidarum. At over 500 pages this book promises to be very useful to women in a variety of awful situations. According to the table of contents on the author’s website, it includes the author’s own experience with HG in her four pregnancies, and personal stories of several women. There is also an overview of available treatment. The book is aimed at American readers, so not all of it will be possible to put into practice in the UK, and the names of some medications are different here. It was written in consultation with a doctor, and would be, I imagine, a useful tool in convincing UK doctors to work out a reliable treatment plan.

The same author has also written a children’s book: Mama Has Hyperemesis Gravidarum (But Only for a While), which seems like such a good idea for Hyperemesis sufferers who also have to worry about older children.

I can’t recommend the HER Foundation enough, it really is a useful resource, albeit aimed at an American readership. Though the Blooming Awful website (similar to the HER Foundation, but in the UK) seems to have shut down, there still seems to be a Yahoo Group.

The Torygraph and Misogynist Drivel

13 Jul

I can’t work out whether this article is being ironic or not, but considering the Telegraph’s usual attitude towards women and gender equality, it’s doubtful. In short, it’s a rant about the fact that deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg occasionally takes his children to school in the morning.

‘Just how scared must he be of his militantly ball-breaking missus?’

Let’s assume this article is not intended to be ironic, but rather that its writer is being deadly serious in her anti-women outrage. The words used to describe Nick Clegg and his wife are representative of the language which women-haters fall back on when faced with a marginally less-than-traditional family set-up. (I don’t have any further examples right now, but trust me, it really is typical.)

She is

  • Miriam Gonzalez Durante, preferring to be known by her own name rather than as Mrs N Clegg (Ooh, look at her wanting to be her own person, dirty feminist.)
  • Prickly (Because she has *gasp* opinions?)
  • A militantly ball-breaking missus (Nice alliteration; shame that a successful woman who knows what she wants can’t be imagined without some miraculous emasculating effect. How does it work – is there a limited supply of success/determination/power in the universe, and by not being subsumed by her husband’s career a woman somehow uses up his share?!)
  • A partner in global law firm DLA Piper (Aha! As a female lawyer she is clearly a cold-hearted career bitch.)
  • Far too busy to take time off to support him on the campaign trail (Clearly not performing her wifely duty of always being visible in supporting her husband in his endeavours. What could possibly be more important? )
  • Emasculating him (I was just waiting for this to pop up. It is the gist of this article.)
  • Doing him a grave disservice (Being a bad wife.)
  • A woman with a  truculently embattled attitude to equality (How dare she think women are people too.)
  • Smug (Just for opening her mouth.)
  • An Alpha female (Whatever that is.)

Whereas he is

  • Lacking cojones (He should put his foot down/the little woman in her place.)
  • The second most senior politician in the UK (Could do better. If only his wife was more supportive.)
  • Supposedly scared of his wife (Must be, he can’t possibly want this too.)
  • A supine weakling (Big bad feminist, she’s walking all over him.)
  • Scrambling about looking for plimsolls (Poor disorganised little man being forced to do a woman’s jobs.)
  • A Beta male (Whatever that means.)

All this evokes an image of an overpowering harridan who forces a poor weak incapable man to do as she says. Even the distribution of descriptive phrases is a giveaway: the above lists contain just the easily identifiable judgmental phrases, and even here , statistically, the focus is clearly on Ms Durante (10) rather than on Mr Clegg (6), exemplifying how the article, despite its headline, gives an overview of how the deputy PM is governed by his wife because he is too wimpy even to be worth talking about a lot. Obviously its composition is very skilled and effective at getting the point across. But why portray an unexpectedly involved father as incompetent? Perhaps he’s really good at getting the kids organised and out of the door in the morning. Perhaps he wanted things to work this way too, perhaps it’s the only way he can manage to squeeze in seeing his sons on a manic day.

I don’t read the Telegraph usually, and only came across this article because someone on Mumsnet linked to it, so I’m not familiar with this particular journalist, but a quick scan of her work reveals that she mostly seems to write about male personalities and celebrity gossip, so I don’t think this particular article is meant in jest.

Which is annoying because, while it is entertaining to muse about the home life of politicians, this article has served only to further undermine working mothers and wives. So what if Ms Durante didn’t join her husband on the campaign trail! She probably had a lot of her own work to do. So what if Nick Clegg does the school run and the nanny doesn’t! I’m sure they have their own arrangements worked out so that no one misses any important meetings. But but but… he’s supposed to be busy running the country! Well, he’s not even the main person in charge, and again, I’m sure they’ve got it all figured out, they have to.

I’m just annoyed by the vitriol directed at Clegg’s wife. Surely being a female partner in a big law firm is a huge achievement and hard work. So is mothering three children. Being a politician’s wife can surely not always be easy. Anyone can look neat in expensive clothes and name their children after twee Cornish villages, and who cares about hat-etiquette at weddings anyway. So why not celebrate and look up to the way in which Mr Clegg and Ms Durante seemingly manage to cooperate as two busy working parents?

Hyperemesis Gravidarum: When Pregnancy Makes You Ill

12 Jul

The other day a friend introduced me to a fellow student who is pregnant and suffering from Hyperemesis. Seeing how frail she was and hearing about her struggle to eat and stay sane brought back many unpleasant memories.

What is Hyperemesis?

Hyperemesis is extreme nausea in pregnancy and affects around 2% of mothers. It can last for most of the pregnancy, and women can vomit more than twenty times a day. It is classed as severe when the woman loses more than 5% of her pre-pregnant bodyweight. Many women struggle to get back to their former weight before the end of their pregnancy, which obviously can have implications for the health of the baby. Sigmund Freud thought that the nausea was caused by the mother’s subconscious wish to expel the baby. This is generally not considered to be accurate anymore as researchers now think that it may be caused by pregnancy hormones or be an immune response to the foetus.

I suffered from Hyperemesis from the 5th week of pregnancy until the 17th week, and its aftereffects (general queasiness, anxiety, depression, muscle atrophy) affected me even beyond the end of my pregnancy. I was hospitalised at six weeks, ten weeks and twelve weeks due to dehydration. From my 8th week until the 10th week I ate only two yoghurts and two bread rolls and I lost 11% of my bodyweight. I left my flat only around ten times during my entire pregnancy as I frequently felt lightheaded and nauseous even after the worst bit was over.

There are many drugs which can alleviate the nausea, but doctors are extremely cautious because the Thalidomide scandal is always in the back of their minds. During my stays at hospital and the home visits I received, I was only given two drugs, even though other drugs are available. The HER Foundation has an excellent overview of the different types of drugs and their appropriate use. The problem in the UK is that doctors are very conscious of the fact that they are not simply treating one person, as any medication the mother receives will of course be passed on to the baby.

What does Feminism have to do with Hyperemesis?

I found out most of what I know about Hyperemesis now a long time after my daughter was born – during my pregnancy even reading about nausea made me feel ill. But now I am almost angry at how little responsibility the doctors took on: due to the nature of hospital rotas, I never saw the same doctor twice, so no one took on the job of working out a medication regime or flowchart for me, they simply gave me the two most gentle and basic drugs and pumped me full of Hartmann’s solution until I was rehydrated enough not to be ketotic anymore, so they could send me home, where I would be fine for a few days and then hit a downward spiral until I had to go back to hospital. The doctors at my GP surgery were extremely cautious and on occasion refused to give me Stemetil injections even when I couldn’t swallow tablets. During a particularly bleak moment I considered having a termination (many women who suffer from Hyperemesis make this difficult choice in order to save their health), but as we had already told my husband’s parents about the pregnancy and they had lost a baby shortly after birth some years ago, I did not pursue this thought further.

Throughout all of my medical treatment I felt as if my well-being didn’t matter because I was simply an incubator for my baby. I will probably always remember the NHS Direct nurse who almost shouted at me that I was putting my baby at risk by not eating, as if I chose to refuse to eat and enjoyed it. Of course it is good to be careful, but most of the antiemetics used for pregnancy-related nausea have been tested a lot more extensively than Thalidomide ever was. Of course they are not licensed for use by pregnant women, but that is for ethical reasons, not because they necessarily endanger the baby. Malnutrition during pregnancy is now thought to cause behavioural problems in children as well as multiple health problems, so you have to find the right balance of risks.

I even still have to listen to comments from my family about how medication taken by the mother affects babies a lot because they are so small. Well, not eating and drinking would affect the baby too, and it would stay small rather than grow!

What people need to realise is that although a pregnancy only lasts 9 months and is finite, poor treatment, emotional support, mental health, and coping mechanisms developed during pregnancy can affect the mother for years following her baby’s birth. For example, I only tolerated a limited range of food and drink during my pregnancy when I was finally able to eat. So for several weeks at a time I only drank orange juice, then Dr Pepper, and I could only manage not to feel too nauseaous when I drank through a straw (no idea why!). Obviously this has affected my teeth (although I managed to avoid cavities), and I still only drink through a straw at home, while being fully aware how ridiculous this must look to visitors, because otherwise I feel queasy. For several months after my daughter was born I rarely went outside because I felt uneasy having to interact with the outside world having been in my own little bubble for so long. Although this didn’t happen to me, I know that some mothers develop problems with their oesophagus or a hernia from constant vomiting.

So what to do?

I hope to have more children one day, even though the risk of hypermemesis recurring is around 66%, and I know now that I can do things differently. First of all I would start a ‘hyperemesis dossier’ before even attempting to get pregnant. This would contain sheets on which to note symptoms, medical articles on recommended treatment strategies, a flowchart of what medication is recommended according to symptoms and previously tried medication with cross references to the relevant articles, a calendar on which to mark sickness days and ketotic days as well as food consumption. This is just an idea, and I would spend a lot of time filling this folder, but my plan would be to take this folder with me every time I had to see a doctor for help with hyperemesis. I am hoping that having all this information thrust at them would convince them to think about my treatment seriously rather than taking the wait-and-see/gentle approach. Of course they might think I’m doubting their ability to do their job, but to be honest, if it is known that aggressive treatment has better outcomes, but they insist on a more gentle path, they would be correct in their assumption.

Pregnancy is not just about the baby, how a mother feels during this stage of her life is important too. Indeed, how we perceive ourselves as mothers is a process which starts during pregnancy, so a lack of support and an abundance of criticism is unlikely to produce very confident mothers. There is a lot of discussion about the construction of motherhood at the moment, and the experience I’ve made is that the mother who actively wants to receive medical treatment in pregnancy is seen as incapable of generally ever putting her child’s needs ahead of her own, and therefore a bad mother. This perception needs to change.

Feminism in unexpected places

6 Jul

Through reading blogs and thinking about feminism in relation to motherhood, I realised something, and I’m almost ashamed that I didn’t notice it before. Since my daughter was 8 months old, so for over a year, we have been attending a seminar at the university together. It all started when I was strongly encouraged to come along by a fellow student. I actually felt like she was pestering me and like she didn’t understand that with a husband who worked 9-5 and no childcare I just would not be able to attend a seminar. She discussed things with the semi-official seminar leader, also a student, and he sent me a very kind email explaining that I would be very welcome to bring my daughter, and that everyone would be willing to cuddle her while I presented my work.

Since then we have been attending this two-hour seminar every other week during term time together. It takes a lot of organisation: precise nap-timing, lunch-timing, packing snacks, toys, books, nappies, wipes, practising my non-chalant ‘why yes of course I’m on campus with my baby’-face… and crossing my fingers that my daughter stays acceptably quiet during the seminar. When my daughter turned 18 months, she started going to nursery, but the seminar happens to be on a non-nursery day. As I have gotten to know the people better, I have relaxed slightly, and now I find them a lot less intimidating. Since we started going to the seminar, several people have finished their PhDs, so now there is only a very small group of us. They always comment on how well-behaved my daughter is, they talk to her, ask about her and are generally lovely. (And my daughter really enjoys going to ‘nooni’ [uni] with mummy.)

But their demographics are quite surprising: there’s the recently separated childless Dr Martins-wearing goth bloke in his 50s who supposedly has never cooked a meal in his life, the ex-schoolteacher childless lady in her 50s, and the childless carefree students in their 20s and 30s from multiple different countries; all extremely academically minded. So then I realised that what they did and continue to do is actually quite advanced and feminist. Although the seminar is organised and led by a student, we do serious work and discuss complicated theories. Not really a place in which you would expect to find a toddler, or expect anyone to explicitly invite a toddler. But without their generosity, I wouldn’t be able to go to the only seminar which is offered for students in my discipline, and before my daughter started nursery it was a lifeline – adult company, interesting discussion, hearing others’ comments on my work, learning more about my subject. Without it, I would have been a lot less motivated and a lot more lonely. I think I really have to keep going with my PhD so I can thank these generous and kind people in my acknowledgements.