New Statesman: A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter“ – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Read the full post at the New Statesman.


Royal baby watch: Yet more pregnancy propaganda

Should the royal baby be born with a uterus, I dread to think of the miserable pregnancies that await her. Given how intrusive we’ve been this time around — will Kate breastfeed?, is she too posh to push?, is it out yet, is it, is it? — I’m wondering how much further it can go. Perhaps by the time she marries we’ll be having a monthly day of mourning each time our future Queen has a period. The grim two-week wait known by all couples trying to conceive will be tracked by all major news outlets (graphs from the Daily Mail, complex CSV data files from the Guardian). Newscasters will solemnly inform us that since, by this stage, First Response has a 99% accuracy rate, once again we’re likely to be disappointed. Recourse to IVF would be a source of national shame, surrogacy a catastrophe. Actual infertility, or recurrent miscarriage, or stillbirth – well, let’s not even go there.

Today’s focus on the fact that the Duchess of Cambridge is in labour — but how far? How many centimetres dilated? Tell us, tell us! — has really freaked me out. I’m not a fan of the royal family — neither the principle nor the individuals — but I find the media frenzy *prim voice* rather distasteful. I imagine Kate Middleton (or Windsor or whatever she’s now called) doesn’t give a shit at this point in time. For all I know she’s high on pethidine, demanding Rage Against The Machine as birth music and telling William she only ever married him for the money and fame. Even so, this national focus on one woman giving birth seems to me wrong. It shows, not just how much how pathetically obsequious we commoners remain, but how far we trivialise the whole of pregnancy and labour, presenting it as one set narrative with a happy ending. It’s not.

I don’t know how hard the Windsors found it to conceive. I don’t know whether there were pregnancy losses along the way. I won’t ever know because it’s not part of the official plot. True, it’s not my business to ponder how much fruitless, passionless shagging took place in the quest for our third in line, but neither is it my business to know how long the Duchess has been in labour, or whether she’s having pain relief, or countless other things which are meant to be of national importance. We’re not just being fed royalist propaganda, we’re being fed sanitised pregnancy propaganda too. It sits alongside the whole morality tale that insists that those who don’t drink or smoke, take their folic acid, practice their breathing, don’t lie on their right side, make sure the bath water’s not too hot, have a loving, supportive (and ideally rich) partner etc. etc. will bring forth happy, healthy, bouncing babies. It’s this very narrative that makes the millions of people for whom this doesn’t happen feel so alone, while also feeding into the anti-choice lie that pregnancy and birth are mere stages in the pre-born lives of others, and not violent, bloody and potentially highly risky experiences.

When my partner and I lost a pregnancy we were knocked for six, even though we’d known the statistics and tried hard to prepare ourselves not to think too far ahead. This evening my partner commented that if something went wrong with the royal birth, it would be a tragedy for those most immediately involved, but might at least go some way to changing our rose-tinted, moralistic narrative regarding perfect pregnancies and risk. It’s hardly the way you’d want it to be changed, though. But labour can reduce you to your most raw and it seems to me strange that, at a point where (one suspects) the regal mask is most likely to have slipped, we’re doing our damndest to reinforce not just the myth of royalty, but the myth of birth as mere storybook ending.

Early miscarriage: Does it even count?

Were you aware that, back in the day, early miscarriages never used to happen? Or rather, they did, but they were not remarked upon, ever. The average woman would get up in the morning and make her way t’mill, wading through cobbled streets knee-deep in embryos carelessly dropped along the way. Perhaps she, too, would deposit one as she went along. She wouldn’t notice, mind. These were the days before First Response and Clearblue would make pregnant women aware of their condition with such unseemly haste. And even if our olden days woman had noticed – missed periods, vomiting, tits as hard as boulders – she wouldn’t have paid any heed, not even when it culminated in a massive hemorrhage outside the local workhouse. Women were made of harder stuff back then.

It’s all different now, you know. I blame the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Now women get upset at the drop of a hat, or even a fetus. I should know; I did it myself when I had a miscarriage at 10 weeks. I mean, 10 weeks isn’t as pathetic as five or six, but still, it’s not great going. Indeed, sometimes I have been tempted to add on a couple of weeks, to at least make it sound like I had a scan and – sniff – saw a heart beating. Otherwise it’s a bit like the whole miscarriage trauma happened in my stupid, pampered head.

Modern sensibilities aside, I am nevertheless surprised that some people, when you tell them that you found your early miscarriage upsetting, still see fit to inform you that years ago, no one would have given a shit. I mean, it’s not quite the same as them saying that they don’t give a shit. But it comes close enough. Close enough to make you feel that if you’ve not actually had a stillbirth, you really should shut the fuck up.

The trouble is, I really have tried to manage my emotions on this one. I know the statistics and long before I even got pregnant I came up with a plan for expectation management, just so I’d avoid being one of those people who gets carried away and makes a complete prat of themselves. I’m not sure how to embed PowerPoints in blog posts, so here’s the bullet pointed version:

Trying for a baby: The competition metaphor

  1. Having unprotected sex = Entering the contest
  2. Missing a period = Getting longlisted for the Baby Prize
  3. Passing the 12-week mark = Getting onto the shortlist
  4. Getting into your final trimester = Reaching the final
  5. Having a live birth = Congratulations! You won!

In theory, this all makes sense to me. Best not get too excited – you’re not a mummy yet. Unfortunately, though, this never works in practice. As soon as I’ve had my first condom-free shag I’m in there, thinking “was that it? Could this be the one?? What’s the date 38 weeks from now???” It’s awful, and is precisely why trying for a baby, regardless of how much shagging it involves, ends up being totally crap.

Whenever I’ve been pregnant I’ve told people way before the 12-week mark. I know this is against “the rules”, but I don’t give a toss. The only people who really understood how devastated I was post-miscarriage were the ones who’d known how excited I’d been. As far as everyone else was concerned, it was a miscarriage, but never a potential baby. Responses to the loss included “I presume it was an accident” (my dad) and “had you decided whether to keep it?” (my boss). I guess it’s reasonable; they’d never had to think of me as a pregnant person. But sometimes, I can’t help thinking: when it comes to keeping quiet for the first twelve weeks, whose feelings are we really sparing? Silence doesn’t make a pregnancy less real for the person experiencing it, but it can let everyone else off the hook when it comes to engaging with miscarriage as a common yet painful reality.

I’m not suggesting that an early miscarriage is as heartrending as a stillbirth, or even that it needs to be distressing at all (for instance, if the pregnancy is unwanted, the Penelope Trunk response seems to me to be perfectly reasonable). I do however feel that a huge amount of stigma surrounds early miscarriage and how it can affect people if the pregnancy was wanted. I actually feel embarrassed that I couldn’t at least have miscarried later. How dare I get so upset! Who the hell do I think I am? But I was upset. I might have only known it for a few weeks, but the difference between a life and a nothingness is overwhelming.

I find it interesting that while in recent years several celebrities – Kelly Brook, Kym Marsh, Lily Allen, Amanda Holden – have discussed late miscarriage and stillbirth quite openly, very few women in the public eye mention early losses. And there must be loads more who’ve experienced these. Perhaps you’re just meant to dust yourself down and get on with it. But it doesn’t seem right, or helpful, to me (not that I’m begging for a Heat “miscarriage hell” exposé, complete with “how I lost my first trimester weight”. Just a culture which recognises that something very sad is happening to a lot of people every day, and respects their right to discuss it openly).

Anyhow, I’m thinking of all this because last night I was reading the Mumsnet Campaign for Better Miscarriage Care talkboard. Five years since my own miscarriage it is strange to be reminded of all the pain and uncertainty miscarrying women go through, and also sad to know how hard it is to say anything that can make these women feel better. But just as an initial suggestion, “we never had this in the old days” and “it’s down to all these early pregnancy tests” is not the best place to start.

POSTSCRIPT: This piece by Maggie Koerth-Baker is absolutely heartbreaking and brilliant. Really recommend reading, just to know you are not alone.

All around you: the not-quite pregnant

One of the many ways in which I seek to enhance the crapness of my concentration skills is to chat with friends over email when I’m meant to be working / taking care of the kids / throwing kittens into wheelie bins.* Only this morning a group of us were discussing how long we’d been in our respective jobs, and I found myself confessing that this was the longest I’d ever been in one position without either switching companies or going on maternity leave. Now this happens to worry me a great deal; it seems that in the past I’ve always managed to sneak off to do baby stuff just as the shit was about to hit the fan. Not so this time; I’m here indefinitely (or until they find out about the kittens), and next time it all goes wrong they’ll realize that it was me all along. “So”, I typed away cheerily, “I’d just better get preggers again.” Then I clicked “send” and immediately felt like a complete and utter cow.

The reason for my guilt (beyond the usual, low-level guilt I experience all the time for happening to be a bit of a tosser) is that one of my friends on the mailing list is trying to get pregnant. Or I think she is. For all I know, she’s in the early stages of pregnancy already and just not saying. I have no idea. But I do know how shitty trying to conceive can be. Witnessing someone who already has kids merrily quip about “just getting preggers again” could be the thing that makes it that bit shittier.

The trouble is, people don’t talk about trying to conceive, or all the crap that happens along the way. Or rather, they do, all the time, but rarely beyond the context of DON’T LEAVE IT TOO LATE CAREER WOMAN OR YOU’LL REGRET IT! or LOOK AT THOSE PEOPLE HAVING IVF! AREN’T THEY ALL HORRIBLY MIDDLE-CLASS! What bothers me is that on a daily basis, in your workplace and amongst your friends, you could be surrounded by people going through the monthly misery of waiting for that blue line to appear and you wouldn’t even know it. You might babble away about pregnancy and babies as though anyone who wants them can have them. But it’s obviously not true, and even if it happens for most people in the end, in the early stages it can feel like it never will. Hence the sheer presumptuousness of others – “well, I can always squeeze out another one!” – can be incredibly painful.

After my first pregnancy ended in miscarriage, I remember reading an article in Pregnancy and Birth about “how to talk to your friend when you’re pregnant and she wants to be”. I will admit that I was a bit, well, sensitive at the time, but even now just the memory of that piece makes me bloody furious. The “advice” essentially ran like this:

  1. Poor, poor barren friend, how sad, we’re all so sorry <yawn>
  2. You are an exceptional friend for considering her feelings, what with you having your pregnancy and your wonderful fecund self to worry about
  3. Keep your distance “until she’s ready to come round” i.e. do fuck all cos it’s hardly your fault, is it?

Got that? Now fuck off, barren woman, and stop pissing on our happy pregnancy party.

While it’s true that Pregnancy and Birth isn’t always so crass and does at times include “specials” on infertility, miscarriage and stillbirth, the fact is that magazines such as this do not represent reality, and quite the level of suffering there is. A shocking percentage of wanted pregnancies do not lead to live births. And while you want pregnancy itself to be exciting – because it is – treating it as something which “ordinarily” goes well can have a devastating effect on those for whom it doesn’t.

I wish people talked about it more. Back when I first found out I was pregnant I was a right blabbermouth, not out of some wish to break the taboo, but because I’m just useless at shutting up about things like that. I broke the pregnancy law and told friends and colleagues way before the magic 12 weeks. But the strange thing is, I’m really glad I did. When it did all go wrong, people around me knew how much it had mattered to me. And while it might have been uncomfortable for them, it was hugely comforting to me, and yes, that’s selfish, but I think at those times you’re allowed to be. I’m glad I didn’t have to be the woman miscarrying in silence to spare everyone else’s blushes.

For that reason I also admire Penelope Trunk for tweeting about her (wanted) miscarriage (mind you, the way I’m getting with Twitter, it goes without saying that I’d like any woman who reveals things she shouldn’t at the mere sight of a hashtag). Miscarriage is really, really normal. Even so, it can hurt a lot, but only depending on who you are and what you want.

I don’t know if my friend is pregnant, or has miscarried, or is going through the long-drawn-out misery of checking for fertile days and finding that sex has become the grimmest task in the world.** She might not be going through any of these things. I don’t know, but it scares me that there’s so much not-knowing and so much risk of hurting people without realizing it.

Well, this is all getting a bit fucking worthy. Off to dispose of more kittens.

* Yes, that was me.

** Note to self: don’t drift into picturing friends having miserable sex.