Regarding Surviving

Raising Feminist Boys

14 January 2018

In the same October weekend last year that women across social media gave voice to the hashtag of #metoo, throwing some revoltingly shady behavior under the harsh spotlight it deserves, Conservative MP (and apparent sufferer of a severe allergy to liberal causes), Jacob Rees-Mogg announced that calling himself a feminist would be ‘ridiculous’. While the reasons he gave were based on the idea that it would somehow be impertinent for a man to claim the title of feminist, it showed a profound ability for missing the point by a country mile.

As a mother of two small boys, I temper the stereotypical relief at not having to navigate the teenage years of girls with the understanding that I have a significant responsibility to raise two men who do everything in their power to make the world equal for everyone on the gender spectrum at every age. I know that some people roll their eyes at the idea that there are more than two genders, but if we all just take the view that the science of gender is still an area where even scientists and doctors are still fumbling somewhat in the dark, then we can just crack on with the business of empowering every human being regardless of what’s in their pants.

And this, I would suggest (and it’s not an original suggestion by any means) is the very heart of real feminism, as opposed to the outdated and cynical view of feminism having something to do with hairy armpits and the goal of enslaving all men. Real feminism is about equality, where boys and girls (and everyone in between) are treated as valued individuals, with the same potential, opportunities and respect throughout their lives. It’s about acknowledging that all human beings are different and will face different challenges in their lives, but that discriminating in any way against them because of their reproductive organs is an utter waste of everyone’s time and resources.

As much as feminism is about uplifting women – in terms of education, addressing the gender pay gap, and finding solutions for the fact that women are so often disadvantaged by the exercising of their wombs (the fantastic Pregnant Then Screwed website highlights the ridiculous statistic that 54,000 women a year in the UK alone are pushed out of their jobs due to pregnancy or maternity leave), it has the enormously valuable side effect of creating a more equal society for men too. If my boys become fathers, I want them to have as much right to be at home with their children as their partners. If they ever find themselves suffering from emotional distress or mental health issues, I want them to know that they can talk about it without fearing any repercussions because of outdated expectations of their gender to be stoic and macho. Suicide is the leading killer of men under 45 (see CALM), and the pressures placed on men by a gender-imbalanced society that pounces on any sign of weakness in men as not being ‘manly’ are literally life-threatening.

The continuing reports of harassment and assault from the entertainment industry and political circles are shocking only in that they provide a clear picture of just how prevalent this behavior is. Many columnists and pundits have commented that it’s hard to work out exactly what is inappropriate (a squeeze of the upper arm? a hand on the knee? a pat on the bum?) Honestly, it’s not that bloody complicated. If you start from a position that everybody is entitled to their own bodily integrity, then there’s no need to feel anxious and hamstrung. If we’re all treating each other with mutual, equal respect, then it won’t be difficult to judge ‘the line’ between predatory behaviour and genuine compliments. If this honestly still doesn’t clarify things, then just always consider whether you’d behave the same way towards someone of your own gender (or indeed, someone not the gender/physical type of your personal sexual preference – harassment and assault are not purely an issue of man on woman, even if that is the huge majority of cases).

Feminism is all about this form of equality, and it’s literally easy enough for children to understand - when my three-year-old says goodbye to his friends after a playdate, I suggest that he asks if they’d like a hug. The same goes for when my sons’ grandparents visit – I ask the boys if they would like to have a hug. It’s a lot less awkward in practice than it sounds, and hopefully teaches them to respect their own bodies just as they respect others. For all the reasons that I’ve mentioned before, men often feel unable to report when they have been harassed or assaulted, and learning that all bodies are worthy of respect is a surely a good step in combatting this taboo.

Part of growing up is realizing that many people you encounter will behave like fuckwits, but feminism makes it a level playing field on which to be a fuckwit. It also means any form of sexual harassment or assault would become so clearly unacceptable, that silence, or the fear that you won’t be believed, would ideally become unthinkable.

Feminism is for everyone. It means little girls need not grow up believing that their faces and bodies are the only things of value, and that my sons can choose the ‘pink’ magazine at the newsagents without the man behind the counter having an opinion (obviously kids’ magazines are an entire blog post of seething parental rage on their own…) It means that my amazing guy friends, who have always been feminists, can actually call themselves that, only increasing the volume of our call for equality, and an end to the insidious and downright dangerous prevalence of casual, ingrained misogyny. They in turn can continue to provide the positive male role models for my sons, who will hopefully reach adulthood in a world where feminism is no longer a hot topic of conversation, because its central aims will be just part of the status quo. And, if this isn’t the case, they will be able to actively participate in achieving this goal.

C x

P.S. My amazing pussyhat pin is by the wonderful Sophia 203, @p_ssyhatpin_bysophia203 on Instagram.

Party Pooper

8 October 2017

If you speak to anyone who knew me in my uni days, you’ll know that a saintly attitude to all things alcoholic has never been part of my style. I enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to get cheerfully smashed whenever it presented itself, and was even paid with a six-pack of beer (Black Label, no less – talk about a class act) when I did stand-up comedy at the Student Union. Whether or not this improved my act remains a mystery…and is one of the many reasons I thank God almost daily for the invention of camera phones only after this time. At one of the big party universities in South Africa (the amount of beer drunk by our tiny student population of 7,000 was always a point of pride), going ‘large’ was standard, and I look back on that time with huge fondness, and a wincing liver.

At this point, I would also like to insert a warning to my children for when they are older, and as nuggets of parental wisdom go, I’d say it’s pretty significant – never ever (ever) drink the yucca at a Rowing Club toga party. Being woken up at 5am by the Sunday Times truck is always a bit annoying after a big night. When you open your eyes and can actually see every bolt on the truck’s tyres because you’re sleeping on the central reservation of the main road outside your university (having been carried there on the sofa you’d fallen asleep on – bloody rowers and their ludicrous upper body strength), it’s time to make a resolution to steer clear of all lemon-based vodka punches for good.

However, in all this time of happy debauchery, I can pinpoint less than a handful of times where I tucked into a drink because I felt I ‘needed’ it, and with kidneys that were wont to throw an infection at me on a regular basis, going out stone-cold sober was never really a hindrance in terms of enjoying myself. Talking at the top of my voice or making a tit of myself is not something I’ve ever had to rely on alcohol to help me do, so its presence on a night out was generally more as part of the fun rather than the point of the exercise. If I couldn’t drink because I was antibiotics, that really wasn’t a good enough reason to stay at home.

My endometriosis kicked in just a month after I finished university, and with it came the need to consider ‘lifestyle choices’ – the dullest of all the choices, let’s be fucking serious. Along with a special diet to try and manage my symptoms, I was forbidden from indulging in my favourite beers, red wine, and G&Ts. This was a proper case of ‘hashtag sad face’ as I enjoyed these things enormously, but I was willing to do anything necessary. The fact that this gave me a kind of reverse version of the ‘Heathrow Injection’, where I lost about 10 kilograms (22 pounds) in six months, was certainly a case for ‘hashtag smug face’, which made up somewhat for the lack of yummy Merlot in my existence. But, dark times were ahead… My first glass of red wine after a six-month break absolutely sank me. I was embarrassingly drunk after about four sips, hungover after another four, and fast asleep about 15 minutes later. I was suddenly the world’s cheapest, and dullest, date.

Gradually I worked out that wine and champagne were the major no-nos, but that clear spirits like gin were fine. However, I would be able to nurse that G&T for well over two hours, and my absolute limit for many years was two – unless I really wanted to feel like a warmed-up corpse for two or three days. Gradually this amount has been reduced even further to, well, almost nothing. For the past year, I’ve had to concede defeat and stop ordering my beloved amaretto sours (has there EVER been a more perfect cocktail??), as any alcohol at all means I can literally feel my liver and kidneys growing too big for my body. It’s like my organs are doing an impression of a helium balloon, and it bloody hurts. So, I am now the lucky llama who is pretty much faced with the choice of Coke or sparkling water when ‘out out’ (although, can we just have a moment’s shout-out to the GENIUS makers of Seedlip non-alcoholic spirit – it’s sensational with tonic, but not available everywhere just yet).

Much as I would still like to be able to enjoy my favourite alcoholic beverages, the fact that I can’t drink isn’t something that bothers me or makes me any less likely to go somewhere I know people will be drinking (when even my sons’ favourite soft play centre stocks wine for the grown-ups, this would be nigh impossible anyway – I’d like to add that I can well imagine that the addition of wine to an adult’s experience of soft play could only be a vast sodding improvement). What has become rather boring, however, is the reaction of other people when I decline a glass of prosecco and ask for something soft instead. After running through the various reasons why I bizarrely wouldn’t want a drink (pregnant? alcoholic? puritan?) the person who offered me the drink will more often than not ask with an exasperated air, ‘then why not?’ I have tried saying ‘it just doesn’t agree with me’, but this tends to elicit a reaction that suggests I’ve just announced that I’d quite fancy shagging Donald Trump. However, the more detailed description of my whole alcohol/swelling internal organs link is way more detail than anyone needs at a cocktail party.

By then, my ‘freak’ neon light is fully flashing above my head, and it’s guaranteed that I’ll need to have this ‘why I don’t drink’ conversation at least seven or eight more times that evening. One memorable dinner party consisted of me being thoroughly questioned on this topic for the entire starter and most of the main. While I have absolutely no problem verbally wanking on about myself for hours on end, I can’t possibly imagine that this is a topic that would fascinate anyone? Surely we should all still be arguing over Brexit? Or judging other peoples’ parenting? Or complaining about the cost of installing nuclear bunkers in our gardens? I can’t be alone in thinking that whether or not I have a glass of wine is literally the least interesting topic of conversation in the entire history of, well, wine?

I have developed my own theory about this fascination with non-drinkers (or, at least, the ones without a ‘valid’ reason for abstaining), and it comes down to the simple matter of judgement. Not my own, I must clarify. I have absolutely no opinion on someone else’s drinking habits - whether you crack open a bottle of Pinot at 5pm on the nose because your children have screamed non-stop since school pick-up, or if some days you fancy a pre-lunch aperitif, I can’t see why I would possibly care. In fact, I often wish I could join you. Likewise, if you get tanked on a night out and I need to hold back your hair as you have a chat with the porcelain telephone, I would only really start feeling somewhat judgy about your behaviour if you literally puked on my shoes. It’s your body, it’s your decision, and as long as it doesn’t endanger you or anyone else, I can’t summon up the energy to feel one way or another about it. In fact, there is never a shortage of something to drink when you come to my house, even though neither Mac nor I drink any of it ourselves. If you come for dinner, you will not be expected to neck litres of nettle tea – there’ll be a variety of delicious options, and even the prospect of taking home any remaining open bottles as we won’t want to waste them – surely that’s no bad thing? Adult party favours for the win!

This ‘judgement’ I speak of is entirely projected by other people onto me, which I think you’ll agree is rather strange. Surely it has no impact on your life? I will still get louder and sillier as a night out progresses, and will happily be the last to leave the dancefloor. As an added bonus, I’ll be able to drive you home afterwards, while having no objection to the fact that you’ll probably feel the need to tell me how much you’ve always loved me at least 17 times. When you wake up the next day and want sympathy for the fact that you’re hanging like a pair of dog’s bollocks and still have to try and effectively parent your children all day, I will be full of sympathy - not pointing and laughing as I jog past in my athleisure wear.

I have no moral objection to other people’s drinking, but I do object to being labelled as a party pooper for not indulging alongside everyone else. I also don’t particularly fancy a round of applause when I do decide I really fancy a beer once in a blue moon. Drinking is not a moral issue (unless it compromises your treatment of others, or indeed yourself), and I’m dubious of campaigns that try to make people ‘Sober Heroes’ for charity. If you want a drink, have a drink. If you don’t, then don’t. But if you feel like you’re somehow powerless to make that decision in the face of peer pressure, whatever age you are, then that’s a conversation you need to have with yourself. And, hopefully, the people around you won’t make a big deal of it if you make the decision not to.

C x

P.S. This photo of my 20-year-old self doing stand-up was taken by one of my best friends (and now godfather to my youngest son), Trevor Crighton. He’s @trevorcrighton on Instagram.

Life’s Not Fair

10 September 2017

When the clock struck midnight on 31st December 2016, I know I was far from alone in saying goodbye to a pretty abominable year, in terms of not only world politics, but also personal loss and sadness. 2017 was going to be different, and my feeling of optimism was through the roof. The year got off to a great start, and it felt fantastic to finally get my blog up and running. I was feeling fit and healthy, my kids were well and happy (and still are, which is something I don’t ever ever take for granted), and I was ready to work hard and appreciate every minute.

As with all best-laid plans, there was always the potential for things to go awry, but just how awry surprised even my cynical little soul. The last six months have been like a succession of trapdoors opening under my feet at the most unexpected moments, and often in a rapid succession that has taken my breath away. Ill health, my own and that of people close to me, and nasty surprises of every flavour have started to feel like the norm. In fact, when our car was written off outside our home by a skidding driver (she was fine; the car was not) and the next day our shower sprung a leak all over our home office below, these felt like minor inconveniences in the grand scheme of things.

While you may be wondering if this is merely a long-winded version of those entirely infuriating Vaguebook status updates that are set out purely as an ‘Are you okay, hon?’ fishing expedition, the specifics of what has actually happened are not the point of this blog post – some things I may write about at a later stage in the hope that they might help others, but the rest you wouldn’t bloody believe anyway. Instead, the point is perfectly summed up by my seven-year-old when he petulantly retorts to my refusal to buy him an ice-cream with his favourite Swedish word – ‘orättvis’. Unfair. A little word that applies to so much in human existence, both good and bad. Because, hold onto your hats, life is not fair.

When children whine that something is not fair, they’re not wrong, but it’s something that most of us battle to get to grips with our whole lives. Of course, there are things that happen that fall under the heading of ‘so spectacularly unfair and unnecessary that justice must be sought’. We have had more than enough tragedies of this variety in very recent times to all acknowledge this, but it is the unfairness of the things that happen to seemingly sabotage our individual lives that we continuously battle with. Especially when these personal injustices have not happened as a result of anything we have actually done (or neglected to do), it can be hard to grasp why the universe has chosen to pick on us in this way when we were just going about our business, trying (even if sometimes failing) to be decent human beings. We’ve been seemingly thwarted, whether by illness, the actions of others, or the failure of an anticipated reward to materialise. The fact that a lot of good things may have happened to us in our lives without any particular adherence to the concept of ‘fairness’ is very easily forgotten, and we feel like stamping our feet much like a toddler in the sweetie aisle at the supermarket.

This is the moment when the importance of a well-timed pity party should not be overlooked. There is nothing wrong with feeling mightily pissed-off, and taking an hour or two (or even a day, if it’s a particularly disastrous situation) to feel properly bloody sorry for yourself. Fattening foods, wine, trash TV, and trolling of Donald Trump supporters are all perfectly acceptable additions to your pity party. Weeping, shouting, and sleeping are also good ingredients. If anything, I find that that a jolly good cry and a large cup of tea seem to focus my mind and allow me to take the next step towards accepting the situation as it is, and formulating a plan of action. And that’s the key in all good parties, especially pity ones - knowing when they should end. Wallowing for a limited time period is essential, but wallowing indefinitely is a guaranteed way to prolong your unhappiness, and render you incapable of any form of acceptance and constructive action.

There are a few important things to remember if you’re struggling with next steps after your pity party. The first can be summed up simply as ‘it is what it is’. Whether it’s something you’re going to be able to fix or not, accepting the reality of the situation is the only way to start. This may be a relatively quick process, or it may take months, but it’s a process you need to get underway as soon as possible. Pretending that it’s not happening, or lying to yourself about the scale of the problem (whether you feel inclined to blow it out of proportion, or indeed understate it) is not going to do you any favours. As a wise man once told my mother, and she then wisely passed on to me, ‘You need to make reality your friend’.

Secondly, acknowledge that it sucks, but that unfairness is an inevitable part of life. There will be many times in your life where ‘unfairness’, or the lack of exact equality in the natural order of things, will have benefitted you to a greater or lesser extent. You may not have asked for them, but circumstances have been in your favour. The fact that the pendulum then swings the other way should come as no surprise. Sometimes it swings so far and so consistently into the shit side of things that you struggle to understand when it might be kind enough to go in the other sodding direction, but investing too much negative energy into feeling wronged is only going to make you feel worse.

This is where the third, perhaps more positive, step comes in. Practise gratitude. When you are stuck in a mindset where everything seems to be against you, it is a powerful mental exercise to consider the things that you can actually be grateful for. They may be big things, like good health and a comfortable home, or they may only be the smallest things, like a hot cup of coffee or an afternoon nap, but the more things you can think of to stack in your gratitude pile, the more you might be able to diminish the unfair shit pile in your head. While I am still dealing with the various factors that have threatened to overwhelm me over the last six months, I am still so conscious of how enormously fortunate I am in big and small ways every single day. Sometimes it feels like no more than sprinkling glitter on a cowpat, but at least it’s something!

The fourth step is realise that often in life we have limited control over what happens to us, but we always have control over our response. Sometimes there will be someone to blame, and sometimes it is simply out of anyone’s hands, but the bottom line is that nothing we can do will ever immunise us against bad things happening. The entire concept of ‘justice’ is a far larger one than I can ever hope to tackle effectively, but a sense of injustice can absolutely cripple us mentally and emotionally, and that becomes an injustice in itself. Consciously deciding to reframe and respond to a situation in a positive, proactive way can do astonishing things to drag us out of a victim headpace. This may take days, weeks or years, but every step in this process is a step in the direction of a strength and resilience that will almost certainly surprise you.

It’s hard to exactly define and measure fairness, as so much of it is subjective. But all human beings, from a very young age, develop a very keen sense of what they feel it is, and when it’s been tipped against them. The ability to take charge of the narrative in your own mind will empower you to deal with just about anything life throws at you. No-one expects you to bounce back immediately, but you’ll only be able to do so if you’re not a victim in your own mind.

After all, life’s not fair, but that’s not the point.

C x

Keeping it Classy

23 April 2017

I have a secret. Not a particularly well-concealed secret, what with the significant height and the significant nose, both of which lend themselves so effectively to peering down when the situation requires it. However, it’s one of those secrets that, especially in today’s society, in which tolerance and acceptance are so desperately needed, probably isn’t something to be proud of (for the record, I’m not). But, there’s no point in denying it.

I am a honking great snob.

As with all sweeping declarations about anything, this one may require a little clarification. Much as it may be regarded as the ultimate social suicide, I can’t say that the way someone holds their knife is of any concern to me. I’m rather more concerned with whether the person holding that knife has at any point uttered the words ‘I’m not racist, but…’ The same goes for the way you address your envelopes – if you’re thanking me for a gift, or inviting me to your wedding, whether you’ve used the correct form seems a bit irrelevant. And, who exactly would I be to judge this anyway?

As a bloody forriner, with the accent to match, I have found my viewpoint as an outsider to the British class system really rather fascinating. In my 15 years in London and Wiltshire, I have concluded that the English way across the board (with obvious exceptions, which the Daily Mail then use to prove the rule) is actually far from one of insularity and hostility to those who are different, or of a different (perceived) social standing. In fact, the only ones who do give you a hard time are those who are anxious about their own position in the pecking order, wherever that may be. I’m always intrigued by people at cocktail parties who open with the line ‘Where did you go to school?’ As the Johannesburg school I was at the longest happens to be an offshoot of a desperately posh public school here in England, I always sail through that question. My husband, on the other hand, relishes adopting his deepest Afrikaans accent to announce the name of his small, strict Afrikaans school in a tiny town in South Africa, finished off with a wide-eyed ‘And you?’ The person who’s asked him this most tedious question then tends to adopt that bewildered look of a big game hunter who’s suddenly found himself smothered in BBQ sauce.

The bottom line is that some of the kindest, most relaxed people I’ve met have either been so titled up to the hilt, they don’t have the slightest inclination to worry about whether or not someone eats their asparagus with a fork; or rightly proud of what they’ve achieved on their own merit, however modest it may seem to anyone else, that they likewise have more interesting things to think about. They may well notice the small details that Debrett’s would have something to say about, but they don’t use it as a measure of someone’s entire worth. My inner snob starts hoiking up her judgy pants when people think that either money, or the fact they are 476th in line to the throne, makes them immune to the most basic elements of manners and human decency. If your only claim to importance is that 475 other people have to pop their clogs to make you king or queen (and, let’s face it, that would suggest a far graver situation of either plague or nuclear apocalypse to worry about), then you need to evaluate how much more important you are than the barista who brews your morning flat white, or the cab driver who deposits you safely outside Chiltern Fire House.

I will never forget one kitchen supper I attended in my first year in London. It was at the home of a girl my age that I hadn’t met before, but she’d kindly invited me after an introduction by a mutual friend. She was still living in her parents’ enormous house in Kensington, and we sat down to a lovely meal with some of her friends. It became clear pretty quickly that my role was that of audience member, as they reminisced about drunken adventures and planned for their upcoming ski trip. It was all rather entertaining, so I was happy to sit back and listen. However, talk then turned to their favourite game to play when away on country house weekends – and I cringe while I type this – Hide and Seek, but with a ‘number two’ twist. This game pretty much does what it says on the tin, and the ‘like, most classic hide’ was so utterly revolting I can’t actually bring myself to share it (I live in a house with two small boys, so you can imagine how grim it really was). Much as I tried to compose my features, I have a face of glass, and they all seemed delighted with the reaction they’d gotten.

The purpose of their sharing this anecdote, whether even true or not, was as transparent as my face. While these 22-year-olds obviously derived no end of Freudian glee from the nature of this game (let’s file this under ‘Lifelong Scatological Fascination When Potty Training Goes Horribly Wrong’, shall we?), they took great delight in shocking this particular, ahem, prole from the colonies. The clarification that this game only ever took place in the grandest country houses, along with the absolute hilarity of imagining their friends’ housekeepers dealing with the resultant mess, was all designed to cement their status as daddy’s-credit-card-carrying members of the Trust Fund Club. As soon as my role as shocked observer to this story was over, I was shuffled out the door pretty much mid-pudding, the door quite literally hitting me in the backside.

The take-away for me from this experience was not ‘all rich/posh/rich-and-posh people are arseholes’ (sorry, Jeremy Corbyn), but rather validation of the fact that birth, breeding, and boarding school are truly no guarantees of class. There is a strong argument to be made for manners being a way for us to all navigate our way confidently and considerately through our daily interactions with the people we encounter, ensuring that no-one ever need feel uncomfortable. Manners are subjective, and cultural, but as long as you’re trying your bloody best, you’re showing respect for those around you and should expect the same in return. Believing that being born into a certain name or tax bracket bestows you with the right to be dismissive or even downright rude to people around you suggests that you’ve missed the point of what being ‘one of us’ really means.

My mother roared with laughter when I told her about my proposed topic for this blog post, asking whether I was going to say I learnt to be a raging snob from her. And, yes, I will lay this particular brand of snobbery squarely at her feet. My mother knows all the correct ‘form’ like the back of her hand, but I have witnessed how her base level of genuine friendliness and openness never changes, whether she’s interacting with the security guards in her office parking lot or royalty at a boat race (clarification: my parents are neither titled nor obscenely wealthy, but they do an enviable amount of interesting travelling and are bloody good fun – that gets you invited places). But, woe be-fucking-tide anyone who gets their kicks from being rude or condescending, to her or anyone else. For such a petite woman, she has a hard stare that would make Paddington Bear crap his duffle coat, and her use of it is terrifying to behold. Watching her take down a misogynist CEO at a dinner party is pure poetry, like a cashmere-clad cheetah tearing the throat out of a large impala in a David Attenborough documentary. Queen of the classy smackdown, that’s my mother.

We all have our moments of being a bit of a dick, whether intentionally or not (no? just me then?), but assuming you’ve ever earned the right to be patronising or unkind to anyone because of a supposed superiority is really not what it’s about. Whether your version of a bad day is when the butler calls in sick, or you work two jobs to keep your kids in school shoes, if you treat everyone you come across with genuine respect for their humanity and their own value in the world, you’re a class act.

C x