Tag Archives: Sad things

In defence of the girlification of breast cancer

23 Oct

I used to sneer at all those silly Facebook posts about the colour of your bra, or about moving to x country for y amount of time. After buying a pink Filofax when I was 19 because I liked it and thinking ‘oh well, if it supports cancer research, then even better’, I quickly got fed up with pink ribbons, pink pens, pink KFC buckets?!, pink everything. I was on the side of those people who said those status updates don’t teach people to check their breasts and notice changes, pink things turn cancer into a gender-essentialist consumerist affair.

But yesterday someone from my year at school died of cancer. I didn’t know her well at all, we were part of the same group of 13-or-so girls who hung around together at lunchtime, and I probably talked to her twice in my life because I was intimidated by how pretty, popular, funny and nice she was. In the last couple of years she became a veritable celebrity in our small city because of her fight against cancer. She was involved in all kinds of charity events: attending Race for Life, charity fashion shows and coffee mornings, one year she helped raise tens of thousands of pounds for Cancer Research UK, and she was chosen to carry the Olympic torch for part of its route through the city this summer. The local paper frequently featured stories about her, most recently about her ‘bucket list’, which saw offers pouring in allowing her to try out all kinds of exciting things. An article in the paper was also how I found out her cancer had spread to several places, and through our shared friends’ Facebook posts I learned that she sadly passed away yesterday.

People talk about ‘battling’ cancer, and that is what she did. She seemed to have dedicated the last four years of her life to raising awareness and funds, and coping with her treatment, as well as trying to stay the positive person she was known to be. In the end, there was nothing anyone could do to help her, but I’m pretty certain that her friends rallying around her and helping her with all these events must have made a difference to her.

There is no doubt that cancer is an awful disease, and I can’t claim to have any idea what it’s like to have to live life with that diagnosis. Buying pink stuff won’t make anyone better, but looking down on people who do won’t change anything either. If surrounding themselves with pink stuff and stereotypical girly things helps people to get through the day, week or month, then that is ok.  When I was 20, I spent some time in hospital, and after the first time I was admitted I went out and bought myself the pinkest, fluffiest dressing gown I could find because it seemed to make the grey world of hospitals slightly less oppressive and alienating. Perhaps having cancer or being close to someone who does makes people seek out the opposite of what they are going through, and perhaps that is bright pink stuff and fashion shows because nothing can counteract the terror of knowing you haven’t got much time left on earth.

I hope my former schoolmate enjoyed all those experiences afforded to her. It feels very strange to know she’s not around anymore.

(I won’t go out and buy masses of pink stuff, but I am slightly reassured that by breastfeeding my daughter for more than two years I am helping to reduce both her and my risk of breast cancer.)

Raising children in a country which is not your own

23 Aug

Occasionally I like to read blogs by parents who live abroad because there are certain issues when bringing up children (mostly of an emotional nature) that only crop up when you live in a different country. The other day I found this post on Babelkids (check out this family’s mind-boggling language mix, it’s inspirational how they organise their life to enable their children to learn several languages as they grow up). It struck a chord.

“A realisation dawns on me: My children will probably never take part in adult celebrations in the UK. We have no family here; the only celebrations we get invited to are children’s birthdays. […] My daughters are missing out on this part of culture, because neither of BabelDad nor me are home.

I wonder how this will impact on their perceptions of fun and sense of belonging somewhere. Where will home be for them?”

I had actually been thinking about this, prompted by my mum’s recent visit. Although my daughter’s dad is British, he is estranged from his family for good reasons. My family all live in Germany, but it would probably be accurate to say I’m estranged from all of them except my mum, and I wouldn’t see them more often than I do now if I lived in the same city as them. I realised that my daughter is probably going to miss out on many aspects of a typical childhood, positive and negative: it’s unlikely she’ll ever experience stifling family occasions with coffee and cake, play with and look up to cousins, confide in aunts, be mildly uncomfortable and bored in the presence of uncles who have no idea how to talk to children, proudly show off achievements, cringe when I show off her achievements… While I’m glad most of these experiences are behind me, they nevertheless constitute staples of childhood which are so common that they frequently occur in books and film, and I’m worried that if she doesn’t experience these aspects of life she might have issues later, or feel lonely.

What I have been preoccupied by recently is that there are several types of relationships that my daughter won’t get to experience. I’m trying to tell myself that this is fine, after all, for example, as a heterosexual woman I won’t experience a romantic relationship with another woman, so perhaps there are just some relationships people miss out on. The difficult part is that her life is already deviating from the life I had, so in a way it’s all uncharted territory because I don’t know what her life feels like. Her life is already not the life I had hoped to give her, and the older she gets, the more it will deviate from the paths I had hoped to make available to her. There were plenty of things wrong with my childhood, but having my daughter has also demonstrated to me how privileged my upbringing was. My daughter will, to varying degrees, miss out on (full) siblings, a gentle school starting age, music lessons (at least to the extent to which I had them), holidays, geographical stability, visiting family and feeling anchored in a place and traditions (and knowledge about certain things) through them. Added to this is that she doesn’t even share my language because I have been rubbish about teaching her, which means she won’t be able to read the books which shaped my views, e.g. age-appropriate books about the Second World War, or the book that made sure I’d never try drugs, or appreciate the truly great bands from my home city.

There are of course also things I valued as part of my childhood which I can’t provide my daughter with either because I don’t have the knowledge (gardening, bird calls) or the financial resources (spacious house with big garden in a thoroughly middle-class area – seriously, I realised the other day that only one of my friends in 13 years of nursery to secondary school was brought up by a single mum), or the inclination to live my life in that way (e.g. I’m much happier in the city, but as a child I loved running around in corn fields and generally being aware of how the countryside, farms etc., works).

What I will pass on to her is the assumption that university is where you go when you have finished school because that is just how it works because university is interesting and allows you to do cool things. (I am aware this probably reeks of privilege and arrogance, but my parents were both the first of their families, and the only ones in their generation, to go to university.) I am trying to establish seasonal traditions, partly because they help children to orient themselves in the world, and also because it is an easy fun way to share my culture with my daughter (who usually shouts ‘no!’ when I say a word in my language), and because traditions make a family, which is hard enough to do in a single-parent-only-child family.

I’m aware my recent posts have been quite negative, mostly because that’s how I feel at the moment. Most of it can probably be summarised as a feeling of sadness/horror to find myself in circumstances which are not of my choosing and totally beyond my control, together with crushing parental guilt. The guilt is bound to come around occasionally, so I guess this is my turn. But dammit, I just want to go home.


21 Aug

I was thinking this morning how a more traditional division of labour in families means that mothers experience most of the emotional impact of their child growing up.

Some of my daughter’s friends are now 4 years old, which means it’s the season of goodbyes at nursery. Her first best friend was there for her both of the times she progressed to a new group at nursery (there are 3 age groups at her nursery), which I know she liked, and it also greatly reassured me to know she’d definitely have a friendly face to greet her in the mornings and show her the ropes. Her friend even used to take her to the toilet when the grownups were too busy (hmm, that’s a whole other story!).

So I’m getting a real heavy-hearted feeling this week knowing that after tomorrow my daughter will probably never see her friend again after seeing her almost every day for two years.

Next year it’ll be my daughter’s turn to start school. Obviously it’ll be a massive change for her. And in addition I will lose the four-days-a-week routine of seeing the same people and feeling part of the nursery community. I’ve already lost the pushchair phase as my daughter is now finally too big not to walk, the sling phase ended a long time ago, and soon life as we’ve known it for two years will change completely.

So my daughter’s growing up, as well as bringing new friends and skills, entails the loss of all these experiences. What seems unfair is that no one else in her life shares that loss with us. Her dad’s life will stay exactly the same as he has not been involved in nursery life apart from three birthday parties and ca. 5 drop offs/pick ups. This post is not to blame him for this, this is just the way we’ve organised things because the nursery is on the university campus.

I’m just sad about losing this part of my daughter’s life and the people associated with it, and it seems really strange to be the only person in her life who will experience these changes together with her. That’s one of the downsides of having dysfunctional families I suppose.