Who knitted Jeremy Corbyn’s jumper?

My first full-time job was for a company that organised arms trade fairs. I didn’t know this when I applied to work for them. My own job was in a completely different division, editing school books. I only found out about the arms trade part when some protestors came round the office distributing flyers. Obviously I resigned on the spot (only kidding. I stayed, paying my rent with tainted money, finally leaving two years before the company stopped hosting the fairs due to pressure from shareholders and staff).

I was reminded of this earlier today, when I tweeted an article about female Labour MPs calling on Jeremy Corbyn to tackle what they describe as “an extremely worrying trend of escalating abuse and hostility.” Shortly afterwards I received this response:

Can we all remember that @RuthSmeeth used to work for @Nestle. The company that killed African babies in the 80s.

Smeeth is one of the letter’s signatories. Presumably we are supposed to think “why, we cannot possibly take it seriously when such an impure, immoral person is calling out pure, righteous Jeremy Corbyn!” Never mind that Smeeth is one of 44 women expressing fear and asking for support. Never mind that one female Labour MP was assassinated just over a month ago. Never mind all that. Smeeth’s a baddie, Jeremy’s a goodie. She is tainted, Jeremy is pure.

Perhaps Corbyn’s more thuggish supporters would be fully committed to tackling misogyny if only those complaining about it were a bit more trustworthy. It’s always the way, isn’t it? You never know when a woman’s got ulterior motives. What if Smeeth only signed the letter because she knows Corbyn’s opposed to killing African babies and she wants to get her revenge? What if all these bloody unreasonable women simply want to make Jezza look bad because he’s nice and they’re mean? Honestly, I wouldn’t trust them if I were you. Which is, of course, somewhat convenient. The left never, ever has to tackle misogyny because it’s something that only ever happens to women and women are, as we all know, less pure than men (menstrual blood, original sin and all that). Continue reading

New Statesman: It’s not self-indulgent to prioritise choice in maternity care

I knew I should have waited a little longer before having my third child. According to the Times headline “Pregnant women get £3000 for private births.” Huh. All I got from my local NHS birthing centre was tea, toast and a shot of Syntometrine. Sure, the staff were lovely and my baby was healthy, but it wasn’t exactly plush. Certainly it was nothing like the Sex and the City-style shopping trip the Times imagines future mothers planning in response to Baroness Cumberledge’s National Maternity Review:

Home births, acupuncture and hypnobirthing would be offered by companies and midwife co-operatives in exchange for the vouchers as health chiefs aim to use competition to force the NHS to listen to women’s choices

Way-hey! Bring on the whale music and essential oils! It’s deep, meaningful birthing “experiences” for all, apart from those unfortunate enough to live in a poorly resourced area and just want your basic, no-frills, safe birth, minus any Primrose Hill bullshit.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

What are reports of Kate Middleton’s “perfect, natural” birth really telling us?

Word order can make a huge amount of difference to meaning. I suspect anyone who writes headlines knows this. Having never written headlines myself, I don’t know the precise rules on making a story a bit less true but a lot more interesting. I know, however, that it doesn’t take much to achieve this. Even the subtlest of differences can make a huge impact.

Right now several news outlets are running reports on Kate Middleton’s experience of giving birth. “Kate Middleton told friends: I had a ‘perfect, natural’ labour” reveals the Hollywood Times. “Kate Middleton calls birth ‘natural and perfect’” says the Christian Post. ”Kate Middleton tells friends of her ‘perfect, natural birth’” announces Yahoo. According to the International Business Times not only did Middleton have a “perfect, natural” labour, she even had a “perfect, natural” pregnancy, too (although anyone who knows the slightest thing about hyperemesis gravidarum might dispute the latter). Continue reading

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.

“Too posh to push”: Can we please kill this phrase now?

Part of me feels amused that the Daily Mail is lauding the Duchess of Cambridge for not being “too posh to posh”. Isn’t the whole purpose of today’s royal family being posh?  Indeed, isn’t she rather letting the side down by opting for a mere vaginal birth, or “natural” birth as the press likes to call it, presumably because a duchess wouldn’t have anything so vulgar as a vagina? I’m not sure what she’s meant to have instead, mind – perhaps a plush velvet gateway, to counteract the sheer commonness of pushing.  

Of course, the Kate Middleton may end up not pushing anyhow. Or pushing and having a caesarean anyhow, which is then classed as not having pushed. Pushing is, after all, not a physical act but a moral identifier. Anyhow I don’t really want to think about it because it’s no business of mine or anyone else’s how she gives birth. Continue reading

Tolstoy: Great writer, useless birthing partner

Here is a quiz which gets to the heart of what it means to be human: when witnessing a fellow human being in intense physical pain, do you:

  1. try to support them, even if you can’t take the pain away?
  2. try to support them, and to inject them with hard drugs, if available?
  3. shrug, say “there’s not much I can do”, and leave, on the basis that frankly, this whole “pain” thing is making you uncomfortable and might make you look at the victim in a different way should you want to shag them later?
  4. go for Option 3, but also call the victim’s mum, just to show you’re not a complete bastard?

So, which did you pick? As you might have guessed, this is actually a stupid quiz. There isn’t a “right” answer. They’re all context-specific.

For instance, if you were an army corporal and your best buddy had had his arm blown off, you’d probably be there for him, at least until the enemies were too close at hand. If, on the other hand, you were an army corporal but your wife was in labour, you’d be justified in running a mile, even with no enemies at the gate. It’s all just a bit … uncomfortable.

Today’s Daily Mail  includes a piece arguing that for many couples, having the partner (or “husband”, as they so quaintly insist) present at the birth of a new baby is a Bad Idea. To put this point across, they don’t just use the examples of various couples who tried it once and didn’t like it. Oh, no, this is also what the experts recommend. For instance, here’s what one has to say:

The ideal birth environment involves no men […] The best environment I know for an easy birth is when there is nobody around the woman in labour apart from a silent, low-profile and experienced midwife. No doctor, no husband, nobody else.

Thus speaks Michel Odent. A childbirth expert who also happens to be a man and who therefore, by his own definition, cannot ever have witnessed an “ideal birth”. But hey, ladies, he just knows. Shouldn’t we all put our trust in him?

Of course, you might not be able to get a “silent, low-profile and experienced midwife”. Not to worry. Guess who the Mail recommends? Your mum! That’s right, your dear old ma! And to be fair, I’m not having a go at her. She’s probably ace and may well provide you with much-needed support. But whom you have as a birthing partner is a very personal choice. And personally I cannot think of anyone I’d like less than my mum. She wouldn’t faint or anything but do you know what she would do? She’d tut. That’s just what she does, all the sodding time. And in this situation, I wouldn’t know whether it was disapproval at labour for being painful, or at the midwife for not being good enough, or at me for being in labour in the first place. Or possibly all three. Tut, tut, tut. That’s what it would be like. And eventually I’d find myself begging for Michel Odent.

Naturally if a couple agree that it would be better for Daddy not to be present at the birth, that’s their choice. Or rather, I think it should be the choice of the person who’s going through labour, really. It’s the least she deserves. But I can’t help thinking that men such as Gordon Ramsey and those featured in the Daily Mail article, who publicly and loudly declare themselves unable to face seeing their partners give birth, are in no way making a declaration of weakness. On the contrary, it’s pure bloody-minded machismo. I’m so hard, I’m leaving my partner to cope with labour without me. I’m off to shout at some trainee chefs! Labour’s for girls!

I was once in the pub with some medical student friends, way back in 1999. There were five of us – two heterosexual couples and me. One of the couples were in the middle of rotations in obstetrics. Thus they were describing, in vivid detail, the miracle of giving birth, or to be more specific, the fact that some women shit themselves during the process. “I’d never be there to watch my wife give birth – the whole thing would disgust me”, announced the male half of the couple, smugly. And everyone nodded in agreement. Everyone except me. I tried to object as best I could, but I was hampered by the fact that a) I was the only one who hadn’t seen a person give birth (and potentially shit themselves, which was the main thing), and b) I was the only single person, i.e. I couldn’t even find a man, let alone one who’d be willing to stay with me after I’d shat myself in front of him. Well, fast-forward 13 years, and Couple Number 1 have split up. Couple Number 2 have four children, and the father was present at all of the births. As for me? Well, not only was my partner present at both our children’s births, he even delivered no. 2, on account of there not being anyone else around. For a while we pinned the birth notes to our kitchen cupboard, since we liked the fact that it said “Delivered by: Dad in the car park”. After a while, though, we took it down, as that page of the notes also contained other details. We’re an open household, but I don’t think people need to know about my vaginal tearing when I’m offering them a Rich Tea.

I don’t think fathers should be present at the birth of their children if both they and their partner believe it’s the wrong thing. However, there’s a difference between this and claims, reported in the Mail, that “seeing female biology in an entirely different light can destroy the intimacy between a man and a woman”. I mean, what the fuck? Isn’t it about time the sheer greatness of female biology gained proper recognition? Proper recognition which doesn’t include women having to forgo all future shags so as not to upset the general balance of things by making men feel a bit cringe? This is, surely, where we should be.  And if women feel that they’ve been seen “in what you might call an undignified state”, there is a real issue with our priorities and our understanding of what dignity really is.

Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina features a character called Levin, who is unable to look at his wife Kitty in the same way after she gives birth. According to the introductory notes in my Penguin translation, Tolstoy modelled Levin on himself. This (and the over-use of that rubbish quote from the start – you know the one – “Happy families are all alike blah blah blah”) has led me to think Tolstoy was a bit of a tosser. It’s the reason why I’ve never read War and Peace. Hey, you could use this reason, too!

PS If you’re wondering whether I shat myself when I gave birth well, I might have, the first time. There’s a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding what my partner may or may not have seen, so it’s not an incident I’m going to investigate any further.

Labour: a fuckwit’s guide

One of the things that prompted me to start a blog was seeing the newly-launched blog of a friend. You could say I was inspired; I looked at it and thought hey, I could do that! Less charitably, you could say I was piqued; I looked and it and thought, hang on a minute! Why’s she doing that instead of me? To put it bluntly, it just didn’t seem right.

The thing is, my friend’s a journalist and her blog is all shiny and professional, 100% free from swearing and full of detailed recommendations (in short, not at all like this one). BUT (and this is a big but, hence the capitals) hers is a personal blog devoted to giving advice to mums, yet HER FIRST BABY ISN’T EVEN DUE FOR SEVERAL MONTHS!

Ahem. Now, look, I’m all for not patronizing expectant mums. By the same token, however, I don’t want someone who’s never struggled with a baby sling on a daily basis telling me which one’s the best for day trips to Outer Mongolia (not that this blog’s going to tell you which sling is best, either. But you get my drift). Clearly, there are certain things you can learn at journalism school, and certain things you have to learn from life. And the art of cramming a screaming infant into a floppy strip of canvas and managing to look like an earth mother rather than a total twat… well, it’s a life skill, girls. And one that I, despite already having children, have not yet acquired. Hence I’ll leave it to someone else to write the sling blog, ideally someone who’s actually used a sling with a real live baby AND is good at it. In the meantime, I’ll stick to what I know and what I’m genuinely good at. And in the spirit of this, I thought I’d share with you the one area of motherhood where I know that I excel, and about which I am therefore qualified to advise the masses:

I AM BLOODY ACE AT GIVING BIRTH.

This is absolutely true. When it comes to expelling small people from my cunt, I totally rule.

My first child was born completely healthy within 90 minutes of me arriving at the hospital. I just had gas and air and nothing at all got ripped or torn. My second was even quicker, arriving 20 minutes after my waters broke, with no pain relief at all. See? How fucking ace is that? None of this being “too posh to push” or twatting about with epidurals. I just get on with it, me.

I bet you want to know my secret. Well, I’ll share it with you now:

IT’S ALL DOWN TO LUCK.

That’s right: LUCK. It could’ve been you, but it wasn’t, it was me. That’s just how it goes.

I am not particularly fit and healthy; I was shit at PE and never got a single BAGA award (not sure how this relates to labour, but I think it should). I didn’t go to NCT classes. I didn’t even visit the labour ward at the hospital where my first child was born (I’d only moved to the town ten days earlier so hadn’t even met my midwife). I didn’t do any of the things you’re supposed to do. And yet for me it worked out fine, and for billions of women it doesn’t.*

I am sick of witnessing all the false morality that surrounds tales of childbirth (but probably not as sick as those who have suffered far more than me). There’s always this suggestion that women who have “successful” pregnancies and “successful” births have somehow earned it, in ways which those who “fail” (and, say, nearly die in the process) haven’t. It’s bollocks. I thought it was bollocks when I lost my first pregnancy, and I still think it’s bollocks now, despite my subsequent “success” and rehabilitation as a “proper” mother.

So in short, I had two easy labours.**. But I am not about to advise you on how to achieve this. All I can say is, ideally, be lucky. But if you’re not, don’t let anyone tell you you’ve failed.

* I am not suggesting you shouldn’t go to NCT classes and or that you shouldn’t be better informed than I was, as I’m sure that must help. But when it comes to how you’ll be assessed on “labour performance”, people don’t have any right to judge you. Not when fuckwits like me get off so lightly.

** NB Only I am allowed to use the adjective “easy” in relation to me giving birth. My partner did so once and let’s just say he knows not to ever again.

POSTSCRIPT: Having written all this, it now crosses my mind that being a total slag in my youth may have been what prepared my body for such straightforward deliveries. They never recommend that in the books. But perhaps they should.