I don’t know when I realised I couldn’t stand instant coffee any more. It was at some point in my mid-thirties, around a decade and a half after I’d left home. The bitterness turned my stomach but it remained the only thing my parents would buy. Once or twice, going up to visit, I brought my own ground coffee supplies. I felt an utter twat for doing so – fifteen years down south and look what she’s turned into – but with small children I needed my caffeine and decided my pride would have to take the hit. It would have been fine if that had been the only thing that changed.
I grew up in a house where everyone read the Mail, the Express and the Telegraph (and, for the brief period when it was around, Today). It was only after going down south that I started reading different papers and absorbing different views. It wasn’t long before I started to find the opinions I’d drunk in so enthusiastically back home too bitter. Once again my stomach was turned. The election of George W Bush and the 2003 invasion of Iraq confirmed that I wasn’t the person I’d been before. I didn’t agree with my parents. I’d become the enemy.
And I felt, and still feel, as much of a twat for having the wrong politics as I do for liking the wrong coffee. Because it means I’ve gone posh. Because it means I implicitly look down on them. Because it means I’m throwing all their hard work back in their faces. They hadn’t meant to make a person who thinks like this. There are times when even the littlest details– the fact that I don’t share a surname with my sons, that I let my boys wear pink and have long hair, that I studied languages rather than English or law – seem to be experienced as a slight. I am stroppy teenager meets Notting Hill mummy. I’m only doing it because I’ve decided I’m better than them. And so it goes on. Continue reading
As “the face of trans teens,” Jazz Jennings is special. I have not followed Jazz’s story in any detail, but Jazz has a documentary series, a YouTube channel and advertising deals. Yesterday I caught sight of an interview between Jazz and Cosmopolitan. I read it and while I can’t say I felt particularly enlightened by a narrative which equates “plastic princess heels” being a girl, one thing did interest me: what it must be like to be the sister of Jazz Jennings.
Obviously I have no idea what it is like. I only know what it is like to be the sibling of someone “special” in other, less interesting ways. Growing up I had a role in a different family drama, one that was not filmed, nor the subject of interviews, but in which someone else, another child, played the “starring” role. My sibling was not the face of trans or any other kind of teens; my sibling was ill. But still it sucked up all the air until it was impossible to breathe.
In the Cosmo piece, the following exchange takes place between Jennings and the interviewer:
I read a Twitter chat you did where you said the hardest part of being trans is not being able to have your own biological child. Why does that stand out now, even though you’re so young?
It’s really hard for me to look at that because with such an amazing mom, I always wanted to be the greatest mom ever. People say, “Oh, you can always adopt,” and I completely agree with that. I can adopt. But, like, I’ll never have that moment where she comes out of my vag and I can say, “That’s my baby.” But since my sister has my same DNA, I’m convincing her to carry the baby for me.
Oh, good! It can come out of her vag.
We’ll take my hubby’s sperm and throw it in there and fertilize it.
I don’t know how serious such an exchange is meant to be. Jennings is 14, perhaps too immature to understand the full implications of pregnancy, surrogacy and birth (and certainly lacking a good understanding of DNA). I don’t know if Jennings’ sister is bothered by such flippant exchanges or not. What I do know is that when one child is positioned as special – more interesting, more needy, more unique – his or her siblings become bit-part players in the special child’s Noble Struggle For Self Realisation. It disturbs me to see such a narrative reinforced so harshly and so crudely, with no recognition of the other power imbalances (e.g. reproductive exploitation, secondary sibling status) which underpin it. Continue reading
Twenty years ago, if I’d pictured myself with children, I’d have seen them as school-aged, possibily teenage. I would not have expected to be pregnant at 40, but here I am. The past few days have seen a spate of fertility panic articles, prompted by gyeacologist Professor Geeta Nargund’s letter to Nicky Morgan, asking that asking that young people be “warned” of the risks of leaving it too late (that is, until you are in your 30s) before trying for a baby. While I wouldn’t argue that my own late pregnancy means that Nargund is highlighting a made-up problem – fertility is unpredictable, and it does drop off with age – the nature and focus of the panic alarms me. Is the problem really female ignorance, or the fact that women are being asked to conform to a series of impossible, contradictory ideals? And if it is the latter, how would additional pressure – as opposed to support – ever help?
It’s easy to say “have children young” but any woman who does so is likely to be going against a huge number of powerful cultural directives. Many young women are not yet in fixed relationships and may not wish to be, yet we live in a country in which the nuclear, two-parent family is still fetishised; even if politicians and religious leaders have become slightly more tolerant of same-sex and unmarried couples, single parenthood is rarely presented as a positive choice. The “hardworking family” – one in which two parents are in paid employment, or one earns enough for another to stay at home to care for children full-time – is held up as an ideal, as though the practical obstacles in the way of such “hard work” (low pay, zero hours contracts, workfare, prohibitively expensive childcare) simply do not exist.
Government recognition of unpaid care work extends no further than proposals to offer tax breaks for married couples, marginally increasing the take-home pay of (usually) husbands who have stay-at-home wives rather than helping carers as a whole. Individualism and ambition are celebrated in the workplace while selflessness is expected in the home. Technological progress has meant that in practical terms, domestic labour ought to be less arduous, but increasing demands regarding what constitutes “good mothering” have taken the place of physical work. The only person who has the time and space be a “good mother” is someone with a wealthy partner and/or vast independent means, but even she will end up being dismissed as someone who “doesn’t work.” Meanwhile, wealth has become increasingly concentrated amongst the older generation, people who are long past childbearing age. Young people are being asked to behave like their parents and grandparents without the same access to property and stable work. Continue reading
In 1993, over the Christmas break, a woman faked her own abduction and then falsely claimed to have been raped. Her reason for doing so? Publicity, perhaps. A misguided need for attention. But also an attempt to get away from the holidays. The woman, a bulimia sufferer, simply could not face this time of year.
When the news of the fake abduction broke, I remember most people, my family included, being scathing. What a waste of police time and money. What a great deal of worry caused to family and friends. As if an eating disorder can be an excuse! And yet, while I couldn’t exactly understand the woman’s actions – and still can’t – a bit of me wanted to try. As a sufferer of anorexia and bulimia, I recognised the panic that Christmas can cause and I recognised, too, the lack of comprehension that sufferers face. Continue reading
Four years ago, when my eldest son was still a few months short of his first birthday, his father decided to take him to a new baby group. But not just any new baby group – rather than go to the local Sure Start centre, man and boy ventured across to the other side of town, to the place that we call Poshville. As far as baby groups went, it was not in fact different from any other, except that when it came to coffee time, there weren’t any biscuits. My partner commented on this, and mentioned that you got them at the Sure Start Centre in Scumsville. “Well, you would”, said one of the posh mummies, “you need to bribe those lot with biscuits or they’d never get away from the TV.” My partner responded by saying that in fact, we lived in Scumsville and had seven Oxbridge degrees between us. Whereupon everyone was very apologetic for misjudging the scummers and their relationship with custard creams. Continue reading