Regarding Thriving

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would suggest (and it’s not an original suggestion by any means) is the very heart of real feminism, as opposed to the outdated and cynical view of feminism having something to do with hairy armpits and the goal of enslaving all men.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.

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

Endo WTF?

26 March 2017

Let’s start with a big, fat, juicy cliché, shall we?

The pain came out of nowhere.

One minute, I was part of the inevitable festive season mass exodus down to the South African coast; the next, I was pulled over by the side of the road, screaming like a wounded animal, while my 16-year-old sister stared on in mute horror. Without any prior warning, I was experiencing what the replacement of the car seat with two scorching hot pokers would surely feel like – somehow the Spanish Inquisition seemed a vivid, searing, maiming reality.

Somehow, I managed to eventually restart the car and merge back into the traffic, and a few hours later I was seated in the waiting area at an out-of-hours medical centre. I couldn’t have realised at that point that this would be the first of five different doctors in six months to give me some unhelpful, and at times bizarre, diagnosis of my symptoms. On this particular occasion, I would be told, ‘I’m fairly sure this is a classic honeymooner’s complaint – you’ve just been having too much sex’. The fact that my boyfriend lived in London, over 8,000 miles away, didn’t seem to shake this particular GP’s conviction that he’d hit the nail on the head. An accomplished display of simultaneous incompetence and slut-shaming, to be sure.

The next doctor was equally helpful, giving me antibiotics for the infection he suspected had ‘crawled up’ my IUD when I’d been swimming in the sea… A month later, I moved to London, and while my next two GP visits didn’t lean quite so much towards the wacky, they were equally unsuccessful in providing any clues as to what the hell was going on. After six months of almost fainting with pain three weeks out of four (to the point where Mac often had to meet me at the train station near my office, and help carry me home at the end of the day), I had a lightbulb moment, remembering that a friend at university had also suffered from similar symptoms the year before.

Reader, I Googled it. I couldn’t remember the exact name, but after a search for my symptoms, along with the knowledge that it was something hard to pronounce, I quickly found the bastard – endometriosis. One quick GP visit and a referral later, I was finally on my way to an answer. This is also the point at which I discovered that the only proven way of diagnosing this disease is with a laparoscopy, where a tiny camera is inserted into your abdomen under general anaesthetic. It had taken ten months, but after my laparoscopy, I finally had a firm diagnosis, and the reality of what I was dealing with started to sink in.

Endometriosis is a condition where tissue similar to the lining of the uterus (the endometrium) is found in other parts of the body, mostly in the pelvis, but in some rare cases even as far north as the brain. Obviously this tissue is not designed to be anywhere else in the body, and when it bleeds at the same time as your normal period, you experience bleeding that has no way of escaping. Cysts and adhesions can also form on and between your internal organs. The resulting pain can be severe beyond description.

For a condition that is estimated by Endometriosis UK to affect as many as one in 10 women in the UK, and 176 million women worldwide, it is still a condition about which an astonishing number of doctors seem to have little to no understanding. I was actually one of the profoundly lucky ones when it came to my diagnosis – a ten month wait at 21 years old pales into insignificance when you consider that the average time of suffering before diagnosis is eight to 10 years, as the excellent documentary Endo What? highlights. Because the symptoms can vary considerably depending on the individual, along with the ingrained idea that painful periods are a natural part of womanhood, women find themselves misdiagnosed with digestive conditions such as IBS, or dismissed outright as simply prone to exaggeration because of their attempts to describe just how bad the pain is.

The pain, often a major factor for women with endometriosis, is a tremendously complex and problematic part of this condition. Some women experience no pain at all, but after struggling with infertility, are then diagnosed with the disease and found (through laparoscopy) to be absolutely riddled with it. Others, like myself, experience absolutely debilitating pain, which affects all areas of their life, but show only small amounts of endometriosis in their laparoscopies. This was the case with my first laparoscopy, but the second (a few years later) showed a significant increase in endometriosis and adhesions – so much so that the surgeon had to leave one of my ovaries stuck to the organs around it, as it was too far gone to release. At six weeks pregnant with each of the boys, I had to have an ultrasound as it seemed so unlikely that my ovaries could successfully release an egg without it becoming ectopic – both times, somehow, miraculously, they had.

The problem with pain like this, so unseen and so little understood, is that you feel like a complete drama queen trying to describe it. It is NOT anything remotely like period pain. Not even the worst period pain you’ve ever had. This is burning, twisting, relentless knives, pokers, graters. It is beyond imagining, and that’s a big part of the problem. Sex, social life, work, self-confidence – all these can become completely overwhelmed by the pain. I was so fortunate in my last job before having kids, as my boss knew early on about my condition. In order to make it to work most days, I would have to take codeine on a consistent basis, but she understood that I was working hard even when my eyes were glassy and my pupils were pinpricks. I would go and throw up between phone calls, and wear heat packs under my jumpers. Had I worked in a client-facing role, I would have lasted five minutes rather than five years.

In Endo What?, one of the points that really hit home was, ‘When you have chronic pain, you don’t know what to say anymore.’ The culture of silent suffering around endo is something that seems to settle on so many women after they’ve lived with it for any length of time. There is no cure – hysterectomies are not guaranteed, and pregnancy, if you’re lucky enough to not suffer infertility from your endo, can give you a pause at most. Cancelling events, disappointing partners, missing work, and being the one at every party who has to pass on the Pimm’s because it would interfere with your pain meds, all because of something that no-one can actually see, starts to wear you down emotionally. The fact that you’re already exhausted by the physical toll of being in pain, means you’re low on resources all around.

I realise that this all sounds very depressing, and it tends to get even more depressing when you start talking about the side effects of all the forms of medical management of both the condition and the pain. And the infertility. And the emotional fall-out. And the other conditions that can creep in when endometriosis is playing merry hell with your hormones and innards.

However, as you saw from the numbers I quoted before, if you have this condition, you are not alone. Every day, there is more research and understanding of this disease, and how to manage it through conventional medicine, as well as holistic approaches to exercise, nutrition, proper sleep, mindfulness, acupuncture, and the use of the right supplements (to name just a few!) to help the body cope with and fight these rogue cells. There are books, websites, support groups, and now this excellent documentary (which you can download from the website below); and the big message from all of them is this – we need more awareness of this disease.

If more women understood exactly what they were suffering from sooner, and doctors were better primed to offer proper diagnosis, treatment and pain-management plans, years and years of suffering could be avoided. The fact that women in the 21st century are still looked upon as clearly experiencing a fit of the vapours when they try to articulate their suffering, because somehow for women ‘pain is normal’, is frankly unacceptable. If you have a uterus, or you love someone with a uterus - sister, girlfriend, wife or daughter, please look at the symptoms below and commit them to memory:

  • severe period pain, including in the pelvis, back or legs
  • heavy or irregular bleeding
  • painful bowel movements
  • pain during sex (or afterwards)
  • difficulty conceiving, or infertility
  • fatigue

There are other symptoms that can come into play, so if you suspect that you may have endo, take a look at the Endometriosis UK website for more information. I will probably write again about my own experience with endometriosis – not as an attempt to garner sympathy or attention, as those with chronic illness are so often assumed to be doing – but rather to try and continue a conversation that needs to be had. I have been so fortunate to be diagnosed so quickly, and to have surgeries and hormonal treatments that may well have contributed to my huge luck in being able to naturally conceive two beautiful boys. I am conscious that it’s all because of one lovely friend who’d suffered from, and brought my attention to, this disease.

Hundreds of women (and, encouragingly, several men) dressed in bright yellow, like an army of loud and feisty spring daffodils, marched through central London yesterday for the annual Worldwide EndoMarch. The reality is that many of the people who saw them go past will have never heard of the condition they were marching against.

This insidious foe might have an almost unpronounceable name, but awareness and openness are our best weapons against it.

C x