The weird sexism of thinking female journalists invent children to back up their political opinions

Yesterday my eight-year-old son announced that he was going to make us all some chocolate cake. He promptly went into the kitchen and emptied a puddle of vegetable oil all over the floor. His seven-year-old brother looked at him despairingly.

“You’re just like Jeremy Corbyn,” he said.

Their baby brother, recognising the aptness of the comparison, suggestive as it was of someone who promises much that is good and right but delivers a total mess, nodded his head and cried.

It is at this point in the story that I should tell you this was all made up. Ha! I was cleverly parodying all of those ridiculous members of the commentariat who “use their children to back up their political opinions.” As Sam Kriss so astutely observes in Vice, “when the time comes for them to really make their defences of an increasingly unpopular status quo, they seem to be constantly delegating responsibility to their children.” Continue reading

New Statesman: Meet the hot, funny, carefree Cool Mums – the maternal version of the Cool Girl

I suppose we should all be thankful. Time was when “mum’s night off” came in the form of a KFC value bucket. Now, with the advent of films such as Bad Moms – “from the gratefully married writers of The Hangover” – it looks as though mums are finally getting permission to cut loose and party hard.

This revelation could not come a moment too soon. Fellow mums, you know all those stupid rules we’ve been following? The ones where we think “god, I must do this, or it will ruin my precious child’s life”? Turns out we can say “sod it” and get pissed instead. Jon Lucas and Scott Moore said so.

I saw the trailer for Bad Moms in the cinema with my sons, waiting for Ghostbusters to start. Much as I appreciate a female-led comedy, particularly one that suggests there is virtue in shirking one’s maternal responsibilities, I have to say there was something about it that instantly made me uneasy. It seems the media is still set on making the Mommy Wars happen, pitching what one male reviewer describes as “the condescending harpies that run the PTA” against the nice, sexy mummies who just want to have fun (while also happening to look like Mila Kunis). It’s a set up we’ve seen before and will no doubt see again, and while I’m happy some attention is being paid to the pressures modern mothers are under, I sense that another is being created: the pressure to be a cool mum.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

Andrea Leadsom’s Maternal Unthinking

In 1989 the philosopher Sara Ruddick published Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace, in which she sought to identify “distinctive ways of conceptualizing, ordering, and valuing” that arise out of maternal practices. “I am not,” she wrote, “saying that mothers, individually or collectively, are (or are not) especially wonderful people […] For me, ‘maternal’ is a social category. Although maternal thinking arises out of actual child-caring practices, biological parenting is neither necessary nor sufficient.”

I do not expect Andrea Leadsom to have read Maternal Thinking, let alone agreed with its precepts. For instance, Ruddick takes particular care to tease out the interplay of selflessness and self-interest that goes into mothering a child who one wishes to become a successful member of a community (regardless of whether one supports the values of one’s own community in absolute terms or not):

Maternal practice assumes a legitimate special concern for the children one has engendered and passionately loves as well as for the families (of various forms) in which they live. Any attempt to deny this special form of self-interest will only lead to hypocritical false consciousness or rigid, totalistic loyalties. Mothers can, I believe, come to realize that the good of their own children is entwined with the good of all children, that in a world divided between exploiter and exploited no children can be both good and strong, that in a world at war all children are endangered.

Compare this with Leadsom’s approach to maternal politics in her hours-old yet already infamous interview with The Times’ Rachel Sylvester:

But genuinely, I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake, you know, I mean [Teresa May] possibly has nieces, nephew, you know lots of people, but I have children who are going to have children, who will directly be a part of what happens next. So it really keeps you focused on what you are really saying, because what it means is you don’t want a downturn but never mind let’s look to the ten years hence it’ll all be fine, but my children will be starting their lives so I have a stake in the next year, the next two…

Whereas Ruddick envisions maternal self-interest as a one possible stop gap on the road to recognising that a world divided into exploiter and exploited is unsustainable, Leadsom identifies self-interest as a good in itself. There’s no need to move on to a more collective politics of care, just as long as you’ve done enough to ensure your own child isn’t totally screwed in the short term. Continue reading

New Statesman: Ellie Butler murder: Are the female partners of abusive men responsible for their crimes?

On Tuesday Ben Butler was sentenced to a minimum of 23 years in prison for the murder of his six-year-old daughter Ellie. It’s a death that is particularly tragic because not only was it predictable, but it was predicted, again and again.

Ben Butler was a violent man, with prior convictions for assaulting an ex-girlfriend and two strangers. He was jailed for attacking Ellie when she was six weeks’ old, but this conviction was later quashed. He and Ellie’s mother, Jennie Gray, won back custody of Ellie in 2012, despite Gray’s father protesting that this would lead to the little girl’s death. It took just eleven months for this prediction to come true.

Gray was not present when her daughter died, but she later helped Butler in his attempt to make the death appear to have been an accident. She has been sentenced to 42 months’ imprisonment for child cruelty. The Daily Mail describes her as “the twisted mother who sooner saw [Ellie] die than turn against the savage thug who beat her to death,” while according to the Mirror she is “evil” and “scheming”. But Gray was also a victim of Ben Butler. Despite her own protestations to the contrary, the physical suffering and mental torment endured by Gray – who wrote secret “letters of prayer” begging for Butler to “stop being angry, hateful and violent” – should not be in any doubt.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Statesman: Why we should let all boys wear skirts to school

As Paris Lees once wisely observed, “sexism didn’t disappear when women started wearing trousers.” This is sad but true. Trousers, while a practical item of clothing, have not yet brought an end to sexual violence, reproductive coercion or the male appropriation of female labour and resources. Depressing though this is, there is one glimmer of hope. What if, argues Lees, men were allowed to “adopt feminine styles”? Perhaps that’s what’s been missing all along. It’s not that men benefit from male supremacy; they just haven’t discovered the joys of a nice tea dress or a fetching pair of kitten heels.

I am all for clothing equality. Being 5’1” with an ample chest, I never shop in menswear sections myself, but have always felt the strict divisions in terms of styles – in particular, the prohibition on men wearing skirts or dresses – to be arbitrary and wrong. It is a means of reinforcing the belief that the social and psychological differences between men and women are far greater than those between women and other women and men and other men. While women, having fought for their trouser-wearing rights, are now permitted (in most countries, at least) to emulate the dress sense of the dominant class, for most men, “women’s clothing” remains off-limits. Even the comedian Eddie Izzard, who once said of his wardrobe “they’re not women’s clothes, they’re my clothes, I bought them,” has since backtracked, now describing himself as “somewhat boyish and somewhat girlish” (despite being 54).

When it comes to children’s clothing, the differences are even more stark and ridiculous. Apart from the obvious, the bodies of pre-pubescent boys and girls are not significantly different, so it is not as though shape and size can even be said to be a factor. But enter any children’s clothing department, and you will find the flowery pink-for-girls, rough-and-tumble blue-for-boys stereotyping impossible to avoid.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Statesman: It harms women more than men when dads doing parenting are seen as “babysitters”

“Dads don’t babysit (it’s called ‘parenting’).” So says the T-shirt created by Al Ferguson of The Dad Network, in response to the assumption that a father seen caring for his own offspring is simply playing the role of temporary childminder.

The t-shirt has prompted a great deal of debate, not to mention marketing opportunities (you can already buy a “my dad doesn’t babysit” onesie for your little one). It seems more and more fathers want to be recognised as equal carers, and who can blame them?

From a feminist perspective, it’s easy to see why describing fathers as “babysitting” their own children is a bad idea. It lowers the expectations placed on fathers, putting them on a level with people who have no emotional ties to their children and are merely providing a service.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Statesman: One year on, has shared parental leave made any difference?

So it’s happened just the way we expected it to. One year on from the introduction of Shared Parental Leave, a study by the firm My Family Care has found that uptake amongst new fathers has been minimal. Of 200 employers interviewed, 40% reported that not one single male employee had taken up the right to shared leave. Many will see this as depressing news, indicating that differences in male and female roles and expectations are far too entrenched to resolve.

I started out an SPL sceptic, not least because the whole process was so complicated I ended up assuming my partner and I wouldn’t even be eligible. It turns out I was wrong and I’m now back in the office while my partner’s at home with our seven-month-old son. Being one of life’s moaners, I’d love to tell you it’s been a nightmare, but I’ll be honest: so far, it’s been brilliant.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

How to dress your son as a female character in Frozen

So this week I found out that I am just like the singer Adele. Not in the being any good at singing or having loads of money or attracting legions of fans way, but in the one way that truly counts: we both let our sons dress up as female characters from Frozen.

Turns out Adele’s son is an Anna. My middle son’s more of an Elsa, complete with a little plastic crown to hurl off dramatically whenever he gets to “the past is in the past” in Let It Go. I don’t know where Adele does her shopping, but my son’s blue dress and sparkly wig were £15 at Sainsbury’s (paid for by a grandparent, who then sent me an email expressing concern at my son wearing his new outfit anywhere other than at home. He’s since worn it twice to the school disco, with no ill effects). Continue reading

In defence of the Highgate Mum

Posh mummies: aren’t they just awful? Hogging the pavement with their designer prams, clamouring to get their precious offspring into the most prestigious schools, hyperventilating the moment their little cherub comes into contact with a non-organic edamame bean. Thank God they have some comedy value, otherwise there’d be no point to them at all.

This, at least, is the view of the twitter account @Highgatemums, described by the Poke as “comedy gold.” @Highgatemums tweets the idiotic (and not so idiotic) musings overheard from the “posh mums of North London.” And some of it is very funny, if stretching the bounds of plausibility (“He gets annoyed that no one realises ‘Jack’ is short for ‘Jacobean’”). It’s hard to read the timeline and not to think how much you’d hate to be one of those mummies (apart from the being rich thing, obviously). They’re so superficial! So dumb! So why would I want to defend them? Continue reading

New Statesman: The “Dads for Change” campaign is a good start, but it’s no parenting revolution

If there’s one men’s rights campaign that even the most ardent feminist can get behind, it’s this: the right of men to wipe babies’ arses. For far too long men have been excluded from the joys of dodging the sudden-exposure-to-cold-air wee, or removing a soiled vest without getting faeces on the baby’s head. If equality means anything, it’s ensuring that female demands for equal pay don’t come at the expense of male ones for equal poo.

In keeping with this, the #dadsforchange campaign is highlighting the best and worst UK changing facilities for fathers and their babies. As Dad Network founder and campaign leader Al Ferguson explains, “many dads have been in situations whereby they have not been able to safely and hygienically change their own baby’s nappy when out and about. […] Society is going through a cultural shift seeing more and more dads take active, hands on roles in parenting and public facilities need to reflect this.”

Read the full post at the New Statesman

On starting motherhood again

This morning I had a long bubble bath, with a cup of coffee and a book – a pleasant Sunday morning treat. Nothing strange about that, except for the fact that my partner was out and I had one child still at home. I have long felt that treats are not something one should have unless one’s children are out, soundly asleep or with another responsible adult. This morning, however, it crossed my mind that my elder son did not really need me to monitor his Minecraft adventures and that, should he require anything, his knowledge of which kitchen cupboards to position a chair beneath was sufficient. So I left him to it.

It has taken me years – years and years and years – to get to this stage (needless to say, I’m not quite there with the younger one). If having a baby snatches away all those freedoms you’ve taken for granted, raising a child is a long, slow process of winning them back, with some sadness, yes (why doesn’t he need me now?), but far more appreciation than ever before. It’s been a while since showering and going to the toilet alone were not possibilities, but  I still remember those early restrictions. On one level I can’t imagine ever going back, which makes me all the more bewildered as I stare down at my bump looming out of the bubbles, a future restriction kicking away.

I am getting back on the treadmill – in theory, at least. Part of me does not expect this next baby to really be a baby. I have done babies. I am over that. There were those four or five years which I still see through a kind of haze – tiredness, probably – but I have come out the other side. My next child will have the body of a baby (for ease of birthing purposes) but the mind and capabilities of a five-year-old. A well-behaved five-year-old with inexpensive tastes. Things can’t possibly be like they were before.

The distance from baby- and toddlerhood has allowed me to become increasingly honest, and scathing, about some of the realities. There are toys I have in storage I now look upon in dread. Red fox running about, are you in? Or are you out? Let’s play! I can/cannot believe that such activities and mantras await me again. And childcare fees. I have, I think, paid enough over the years. I can’t be expected to pay again. Ditto sleeplessness. With my first two there were difficulties I could not admit to myself at the time for fear of being someone who couldn’t cope. Crying in the car on the way to toddler groups (but not real crying, obviously, so I’d tell myself). I have since taken the liberty of acknowledging how things really were, meaning that this next baby must come on easy mode. Which obviously it won’t.

I am having another baby for the same reason I had a first baby and a second: because you can’t half-have one. You can’t dip your toe into the water, enjoy the good bits, discard the rest. You either do it or you don’t. And to be honest, I can’t wait. Unless I win the lottery (which I don’t play) this will be my last ever pregnancy, my last ever baby, the last chance I have to feel and be all this with another tiny person. The excitement I feel at this also makes me feel irrational because this time I know. I can’t plead ignorance. So I am torn between bring it on, savour the moment and I hope he does me a favour and gets to seven or eight pretty quickly, then I can have more Sunday morning baths. All this mixed with the knowledge that by the time he gets to one, I’ll inexplicably want to do it/not do it again.

This should no doubt lead to some great conclusion about what motherhood is “really” like but it doesn’t. Only that feelings are not straightforward and I am someone who likes straightforward feelings almost as much as I like being able to go to the toilet alone. Which, for the time being, I can still do (hiding away in the bathroom with a book, yelling to the kids that “Mummy needs extra time because Mummy has to go for the foetus, too!”). Soon I won’t be able to and, as will be the case for years to come, I don’t mind and I do.

“Nature is not a feminist”

According to Kirstie Allsopp, nature is not a feminist. On the face of it, it’s hard to disagree. Gloria Steinem, Andrea Dworkin, Audre Lorde? Feminist. Nature – plants, trees, flowers and stuff? Not feminist. There, that was easy.

Of course, this isn’t exactly what Allsopp means. Her comment comes in the midst of an online “debate” about fertility, one of those in which you’re meant to take a position on when a woman, any woman, should reproduce. The most ridiculous thing about it is the suggestion there might actually be a right answer. Too early? You’re feckless and just won’t cope. Too late? You might have missed your chance. Somewhere in the middle? Way to piss off your poor, hard done-to employer, you traitor to the cause! Face it, would-be breeders, you’re destined to fuck it up, and besides, we haven’t even taken into account the specificity of your situation. We’re talking about this as though it’s an abstract choice, in which issues of safety, wealth, culture, interpersonal relationships etc. don’t play any part (best not start looking into those things, too, or your head would explode). Continue reading

Confessions of a bigoted TERF mum

I can’t remember when I first realised my son was a person. I guess as a mother you always know these things. Right from the moment he was first placed in my arms I sense there was something person-y about him, almost as though he might be an individual with his own consciousness, fully capable of developing a sense of himself which was not inextricably linked to gender stereotypes. Quite why this should be, I couldn’t say, but now that he’s older, I believe more and more that I was right. Nonetheless, like any mother, I have moments when I still wonder if I’m failing him.

From an early age my son has liked things. Some of them have been pink and some of them have been blue and some of them have been other colours. He has also liked activities, some of them boisterous and aggressive, some of them gentle and caring. Sometimes he goes through phases of liking more pink things than blue things, or doing more gentle things than aggressive things. A more attentive mother might have sat down with an excel spreadsheet, listed the number of boy activities and preferences in one column, the number of girl ones in another, and come up with a suitable gender for such a child. I never did this. I just looked at him and thought “ah, a male person, albeit one growing up in a world full of crappy categories arbitrarily linked to sex difference. Oh well, we’ll do our best to ignore them”. Continue reading

The truth about parenthood and wees

One of the many things no one tells you about having kids is just how hard it makes it to have a wee. If you are someone for whom toilets have always been perfectly accessible – if, for instance, you’re neither trans nor intersex, and don’t have mobility restrictions – it can come as an enormous shock to find that suddenly toilets are the holy grail. The chances are this is temporary. Your children will grow and leave you to wee in peace. Nevertheless, in the interim it can be enraging. You’ve always assumed that the world was built around the needs of “people.” Suddenly it’s obvious that this is an illusion only the privileged can entertain.

Today my sons got yelled at in Morrison’s and (for once) it wasn’t their fault. All they were doing was waiting outside the toilet cubicle while Mummy paid a call. Suddenly I heard a woman’s voice telling them they had no right to be there and should go to the men’s. My sons are four and six. I have no intention of sending them off to the men’s toilets unaccompanied, or leaving them to wait outside. I was amazed – unfortunately, too amazed to think of a cutting response to the woman, who’d left by the time I unlocked the toilet door. Continue reading

Can you be a mummy blogger and still be a feminist?

I’ve given this post a really crap title. It’s a title so crap that if, say, Mumsnet were to arrange a debate on it as part of their annual Blogfest, you’d take one look at the programme and think “what a perfectly ridiculous question!” Then you’d swig a bit more free gin and giggle at the famous people but all the while you’d be working yourself up into a state of ever more righteous indignation. Mummy blogger! Feminist! Pah!

Finally the time for the debate would come and you’d be ready, primed to respond to any trigger words the panel (i.e. anyone on stage who wasn’t Alison Perry) threw at you. And then it would begin! They’d say words like “jam”! And “shoes”! And then, horror of horrors, Sarah Ditum would even utter the word “university”! All hell would break loose. There’d be shouting, hissing and fury. See? You just knew that debate would be shit. It was all in the title.

Continue reading

Women and children first: David Cameron does “normal” life

It’s not often I feel sorry for our boorish, entitled, mundane-face-of-evil Prime Minister David Cameron. Nevertheless, I don’t have a heart of stone so today I’ll make an exception.

Poor David has been badly advised. During a conference week when his party’s looking as nasty as can be, he’s decided to do one of those “showing my nice side” interviews. Unfortunately, he’s rather overreached himself by attempting to prove that a) he knows all about looking after toddlers and b) he doesn’t patronise women. Oh David, you silly man. You really need to know your limits. Continue reading

My problem with Virginia Ironside’s parenting advice

One of the perks of being a mother is being able to tell a woman expecting her first baby any old crap you like. After all, what’s she going to do about it? Facing the unknown,  she’s hardly going to contradict you. You’re a mum. You know stuff. As for her? Let’s face it, she hasn’t got a clue.

Of course, this is a mean thing to do and you should, ideally, refrain from it (unless said expectant mother is especially annoying). If you already know how much uncertainty and self-doubt motherhood can bring, it’s just vindictive to set about stoking it up in someone else before she’s even got started. That’s why I can’t see any excuse whatsoever for Virginia Ironside’s current “advice” column in the Independent.

First of all, allow me to present the dilemma:

I’m about to have my first baby, but I’ve just been head-hunted by a firm that wants me to start work as soon as possible. Friends say I should wait and see how I feel before I commit to a new job but my husband has said he’s keen to look after the baby and become a house-husband  – he works freelance and he’s going through a time when he doesn’t have very much work. Can you or any of your readers offer advice on what I should do? I’m at a loss and can’t make  a decision.

What should this woman do? Well, here’s my suggestion: don’t write to Virginia Ironside. She’s not interested in your life. She just wants to use it as a springboard for promoting her vision of Perfect Motherhood. Continue reading

Raising boys during a “Crisis of Masculinity”: a feminist view

I’ll always remember the day my first son was born. “It’s a boy,” said the midwife. “Urgh, take it away,” said I. “I’m a feminist. I don’t do boys.” The fact is, like all card-carrying feminists, I’m contractually obliged not to give a shit about the welfare of non-women. As far as they’re concerned, I’m all out for revenge.

Of course, that’s the theory, but in practice things are more difficult. When it’s your own children who’ve failed (as yet) to identify as female you end up making compromises. Truth is, I’ve found that I love my sons very much. It’s just everyone else’s sons who can sod off. It’s not as though a social structure which discriminates against them will have any impact on my kids, or on the genuinely important ones (aka girls). So let’s crack on with creating a world in which everything is weighted in favour of the latter.

Continue reading

And a half for the lady: Tory politics for girls

Laura Trott, originally appointed to advise David Cameron on how his policies will affect women, will now have to cover education and childcare, too. This reminds me of one of my dad’s sayings, which he’d use to explain why men shouldn’t have to do housework: “why have a dog and bark yourself?” The fact is, if you’ve already got one woman to deal equality (whatever that means, eh?), you might as well get her to deal with all the other “calm down, dear” laydees’ issues – childcare, early years, that sort of thing.

I imagine in another 17 months Trott will get tights, makeup and the colour pink added to her portfolio. Maybe they’ll also allow her to stick a broom up her arse and sweep the Houses of Parliament as she goes along (it’s possible they’ve also confused her with the cyclist Laura Trott and think she’ll win them pretty gold medals, too). Continue reading

So yeah, I, um, went to Britmums …

This weekend I attended Britmums Live 2013. What’s more, I enjoyed it. There, I’ve admitted it. Now excuse me while I watch my imaginary status as “not one of those mummy blogger types” disappear down the drain.

It’s not that I ever used to hate mummy bloggers, or even that I didn’t always consider myself to be one of them. Certainly, I have some discomfort with the term itself. Adding what Pamela Haag calls “the mommy modifier” to words like “blogger” or “porn” instantly seems to render them trivial and cutesy. While this might say more about patronising attitude towards mothers than the things in themselves it’s hard not to be affected by it. When I tell bloggers who aren’t parents that I write about motherhood and childcare, I always feel a little regretful that I’m not saying “world politics” or “art and literature”. I might write the odd post criticizing the low status of mothers yet sometimes I find I’ve bought into it myself. Continue reading