Can you be a full time mum and a feminist?

I used to think that feminism was about women being like men.  The image I had in my head of ‘a feminist’ was a woman in a business suit, smashing through the glass ceiling and taking no prisoners.  To me, feminism was all about women in the workplace, proving that they are at least as good as men.  I felt it was my duty as an intelligent woman to have a ‘career’ and progress through it as fast as possible.

Then I had children.

Childcare is a role that has been traditionally undertaken by women, and like all ‘women’s work’, it is completely undervalued in our society.  Women are allowed 6-12 months to look after their babies but are then expected to get back on the work treadmill and stick the kids into nursery.  The domestic work that mothers (and fathers) at home do may not have economic value, but that does not mean that it is worthless.  In fact I now feel that it is the most valuable work that I could be doing at this point in my life.

Having said that, at first I did sometimes have the nagging feeling that I was somehow ‘letting the side down’ because I was not doing paid work, I mean I went to university and now I’m just staying at home changing nappies and doing finger painting?  Is that right? Is that *allowed*?  But then I realised that actually, life is not all about making an economic contribution to society, and that other types of contribution are equally valid.

My idea of feminism has evolved now.  The key idea is CHOICE and EQUALITY for all.  Men and women are different, but still equal.  Now that women are ‘allowed’ to do everything that men do (thank you feminists of history), does that mean we have to do those things all of the time?  Or can we also recognise that the things that women do, or are expected to do (traditionally speaking) are just as worthwhile.  Things like looking after young children, caring for elderly relatives, volunteering and domestic housework.

In my (inexpert and very personal) opinion, children do best in a family environment, with one or two familiar, loving caregivers, ideally a parent or close family member.  I’m not saying that nurseries are bad or that they will harm children, but I think they are not ideal. Since I didn’t love my old job, and I do love my children, and we could afford for me to stay at home, it was an easy choice.

I’m not saying that every mother should stay at home with their children.  I am definitely not advocating a return to the days of women being chained to the kitchen sink.  Feminism and equality is about respecting one another’s choices, even if they are different to your own.

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Ditch The To Do List

All my life I have been a to-do-list-aholic. I’ve always had at least one on the go for most of my adult life, filled with a mixture of must-dos, should-dos, want-to-dos, and basically any task I thought might be a good idea, regardless of whether I had time to actually do them or not.  I thought it was a sure-fire route to becoming a highly effective person. I loved crossing off items on my list as I completed them, but it was rare that I ever ticked off all the items before starting a new list.

Just before I had baby number 2 in February, I ticked off the final item in my last ever to-do list. Let’s be honest, when you have a small baby you can’t get much done (unless you are very lucky and have one of those magical sleeping babies), and having a long list of tasks you don’t have the time or energy for in the back of your mind is not really helpful for making the most of the time with your baby.

My new approach is this: basically, I either deal with stuff straight away, or it doesn’t get done. I’ve found if I let things pile up I just never have a large enough chunk of time to deal with it. So I try and do things as soon as they come up. That way I never get too far behind with anything. For example I try to put dirty dishes in the dishwasher straight after a meal, rather than letting them pile up on the side.  If I’m checking my emails, I archive every email after I’ve read it (and dealt with it if necessary).  If things are important enough, they get done, and if they’re not, they can be done another day.

The only exception I make is, sometimes I make a short list of tasks I need to do when my eldest is at preschool. Because otherwise I walk back in the front door and my mind goes blank, and I spend the morning pottering around the house, and then remember eleventy things I really needed to do as soon as it’s pick up time again.  But if I don’t get everything done I throw the list away.

I’ve definitely found this approach helps me be a bit more present with my two daughters. I have a daily routine of chores I try to get done but beyond that I just try to be available to them. This has helped me deal with the realities of having 2 small children as having a big task list would just be a stick to beat myself over the head with. My priorities at the moment are a) keeping everyone alive, b) making sure the baby gets enough sleep and c) making sure I have plenty of quality time with my preschooler.  I’ve found the best way to achieve this is to be as flexible as possible and ignore the jobs I want to do around the house.  The children won’t be small for long and in a few months I’ll have more time to work on those projects.

And at the end of the day when they are tucked up in bed, I’m not starting on a list of jobs, I’m allowing myself time to relax, read, watch TV or even just go to bed early. I need to make sure my own cup is filled before I can look after anyone else’s needs. And what task is more important than that?

Breastfeeding in public: What’s the big deal?

My facebook newsfeed is full of blog posts about breastfeeding in public and pictures of nurse-ins.  As a breastfeeding mum myself, I do not find this helpful or reassuring. I hate the fact that the way we feed our babies is now a political statement. In fact all the media coverage about it makes me *more* nervous about feeding in public.

I do feed my baby in public, because my baby likes to feed quite often and if I didn’t I would never leave the house. I would really like this to just be something that is not worthy of comment. I am quite a shy person, I would never even wear a bikini (even pre-baby I didn’t) so getting my boobs out in public makes me feel extremely self-conscious as it is. Now I have to worry about whether someone is going to come and tell me it’s disgusting, or ask me to cover up or do it in the toilet, and I have to be prepared with what I am going to say if they do. I have breastfed 2 babies now and no one has ever said anything to me about it but because of the media circus I am hyper-aware that one day, someone might take exception to it and feel the need to say something about it.

Also, apparently if I breastfeed in public it means I hate formula feeding mums.  What???  Where did this idea come from?  I have no opinion on formula feeding mums. Seriously, I don’t care if you bottle feed your baby.  It’s none of my business.  (PS I combination fed my first baby breast and formula, not that it’s any of your business).  So if we are in a cafe and I am breastfeeding and you are bottle feeding, we are both just feeding our babies, right?  Nothing to get worked up about there.

Please could we all just CTFD?  Breastfeeding my baby in public is not a political statement or a judgement on other mums, it’s just a way of getting milk into her tummy when she needs it.

My Body Is Amazing! (PS Yours Is Too)

So here is a post about my post-pregnancy body.  It does not include weight loss tips or an exercise plan.  I know traditionally we’re all supposed to hate our bodies after we give birth, but actually, after my successful VBAC in February, I LOVE my body.  I think it is the most awesome miraculous thing in the world!  It doesn’t look like the pictures you see in magazines of how we are supposed to look, but I don’t give a crap about all of that nonsense.  My  body has grown and fed two tiny human beings! That is a million times better than being able to wear a bikini.

Giving birth has made me feel like the cleverest person in the world.  I am amazed by what my body can do and has done.  I feel stronger than I ever have done before.  I feel like I can do anything now, it’s an addictive feeling.  I want to challenge myself.  I can’t wait to get my running shoes on again – it’s been a while!  I’m considering signing up for a 10K run to get that buzz of completing a challenge and physical achievement again.

And now I feel like my body is a temple, what I put into it is more important than ever.  I’ve been dabbling with the Paleo diet for about a year and a half now, but basically by cutting back on processed food including grains (because how much processing does an ear of wheat have to go through in order to make spaghetti?) and eating more whole foods instead, I have so much more energy (all the better to cope with the disrupted nights!), better digestion, no more bloating, better skin, more even moods, and generally just feel so much better. Don’t get me wrong I’m not perfect, sometimes we still have sandwiches for lunch or pasta for dinner, and it’s hard to resist the lure of the biscuit tin when you’ve been awake all night.  But I’ve definitely found that eating better makes me feel better.

My point is, my body is amazing and is capable of amazing things.  Yours is amazing too.  Look after it and keep it that way!  And forget about the idiots who want to help you get back your pre-pregnancy body; they are probably just trying to sell you something.

Enjoy More With Less in 2014

I’m not a big fan of new year’s resolutions – I think if you want to make a change in your life, do it now instead of waiting for a day on the calendar to arrive – but I have some changes I want to make that happens to coincide with the start of the new year.

I’ve read 2 books recently, Simplicity Parenting and Buddhism for Mothers, which have really given me a renewed interest in living simply, as I feel it will benefit my whole family. I’m also a regular reader of 2 blogs I find really inspiring, Miss Minimalist, which shares stories from people who live a minimalist lifestyle (or are working towards it) and Zen Habits, which has practical advice for living simply. However the Christmas season and all its excesses have made me realise that I’m living far from my ideals.

So I’d like 2014 to be a year of less – buying less and doing less, in order to enjoy more. I live in a house full of stuff with a head full of distractions, with physical and mental clutter taking up too much of my time and energy.

I’d like to do The Compact again. This is a commitment to buy nothing new, for an entire year (with some exceptions). I’ve done it before, several years ago (for 6 months) and it really reset my attitude towards buying stuff. I don’t go shopping a lot, but since having K I’ve got into bad habits of buying too much stuff for her, too many toys, clothes, books etc, and often too much food (for some reason, having lots of food in the cupboard makes me feel secure). I want to teach her that materialism is not a path to happiness, and instead the way to contentment is being satisfied with what you have. It’s also partly down to environmental concerns, I just don’t think our constant need to buy more and more stuff is sustainable (watch The Story of Stuff). And it will make things a little easier financially, while I’m not at work and with another mouth to feed.

I’m also going to stop using distractions, which just eat up so much time, and as a mother ‘time’ is something that is in short supply, so I want to use it more wisely. For me, distractions include Facebook and blogs. I’ve already had to delete the Facebook app on my phone because I just find it too tempting and end up checking it on those long afternoons indoors when I really would rather be paying attention to my little girl. But often in the evening I go on it, with the intention of looking for 5-10 minutes, and end up on there for hours. Same with blogs, I use The Old Reader (an RSS reader) to keep up with all my favourite blogs, but I subscribe to so many blogs I never catch up! Another distraction is TV, I tend to plonk myself down on the sofa in the evening just out of habit, even if there’s nothing I really want to watch.

Instead I’m planning to prioritise my time, energy and money into two things, firstly working on my self (through the practices suggested in Buddhism for Mothers, and The Little Book of Contentment and other spiritual crap like that). Secondly I’d like to prioritise creativity (inspired by another book, The Rainbow Way, and a good friend of mine who blogs at Attachment Feminism, whose writing is going from strength to strength). I’ve *always* wanted to be a writer (when I started school I told my teacher that I wanted to go to university to study English and Maths, so that I could write books and then work out how much money I had made!), and although I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do it professionally right at the moment, I’d like to practise now to build up my skills so I can start working when I’m ready. I also love doing arts and crafts with K, and I like to do the odd craft project myself (currently crocheting a baby blanket). I’m also much happier and fulfilled when I have time to be creative, which I feel makes me a better mother.

What changes are you making in the new year?

Finding Contentment

I really struggled to adjust to life as a new mum. We did have a few issues which made the early days a bit more challenging, but looking back it was how I thought about things that made them so difficult. Thoughts like:
It’s not fair!
Why me!
Why won’t she sleep!
I can’t cope with sleep this bad!
I’m so crap at this!
There was also a lot of comparing to friends’ babies, or comparing our situation to other people’s e.g. lack of family support.

I also completely lost my sense of self-identity, which was very challenging. I’ve always been a bit of a goal-orientated person, and like being busy and ‘getting things done’. I get a great sense of achievement from setting myself a goal, working hard towards it, and completing it. Being a mum involves a lot of repetitive, monotonous tasks like changing nappies, feeding, housework and so on.

Thirdly I also felt really isolated. I had been working as a full-time adult education tutor which meant I was meeting lots of new people all the time and had people around to talk to nearly all day, every day. Then I went to being at home with only daytime TV for company. Facebook and Twitter were a bit of a lifeline but it doesn’t compare to face-to-face interaction with real human beings.

As a result, I felt angry, anxious, irritable, resentful and frustrated for most of the first year of my daughter’s life, if not longer. Not to mention guilty for feeling all of those things, because I was supposed to be enjoying this wonderful time.

I also expected my husband to understand how I was feeling and somehow fulfill all the needs I felt were now lacking, which is rather a lot to expect from any human being, let alone one who is also sleep deprived and adjusting to being a new parent!

I have been reading Buddhism for Mothers and The Little Book of Contentment (free ebook) lately and although I’ve never really thought of myself as a religious or spiritual person before now, they have really resonated with me. Buddhism for Mothers focuses more on your experience as a mother than on what to do as a parent. It’s the first book I’ve found that really acknowledges that parenting comes with suffering as well as happiness.  The Little Book of Contentment is a really easy read (you can read it in an hour) so it’s perfect for parents with little free time.

I see now that previously, I was completely reliant on external sources of happiness: achieving goals, interactions with other people, being praised, good food, playing computer games and so on.  When I became a mum, suddenly all of these were taken away, or I had very little time to do them.  My baby daughter has, in a way, become my first spiritual teacher, because she has forced me to learn how to be happy with much less, and to look within for happiness.  I am slowly, very slowly, learning to be content with life as it is; to learn to like myself, to stop comparing myself to others, to let go of perfectionism.

Being a stay at home mum is not the easy option

When my daughter was born I made the choice to stop working and be a stay at home mum. It was an easy choice, we don’t have any grandparents nearby who would be able to look after my daughter, and nursery fees and commuting costs would have eaten up nearly all my wages, so I would have been working full time for the princely sum of £100 a month – and I really didn’t love my job that much! I know I am lucky to have had that choice, and it know that many people do not have that choice. I also know that many mothers do choose to go back to work after having children for whatever reason, and that is also fine. I am not attacking working mums. However I do sometimes feel attacked, or that people look down on me, for being a stay at home mum.

There seems to be a perception in our society that working is by default better than staying at home to look after your children. For example, the government has cut benefits to families with one income, while increasing benefits for families where both parents work. I do not accept this. I do not feel that my sole purpose in life is to earn money or make an economic contribution to society. That is not to say that I don’t want to work (and in fact some days I really miss working), but my husband and I both feel that it is more worthwhile for me to be at home at the moment. I also feel that raising children is a really important job that in itself is an important contribution to society, albeit not one that is registered in the GDP.

I also do not accept that being a stay at home mum is somehow easier than working. It’s still hard work, but in a different way to going to a job. Personally, I find it more demanding and challenging than any job I’ve had before. Keeping a toddler entertained all day every day, dealing with constant demands, learning how to deal with tantrums, whilst juggling the household chores, and all without going insane yourself, is not easy. Imagine if your job had a list of tasks that needed to be done, but as you were trying to do them your boss came and interrupted you every 5 minutes with a demand, but they were speaking a different language which you had to try and interpret. Basically your whole life is dictated by the varying needs and wants of a tiny person who is still learning to communicate. If you’re tired or not in the mood you can’t hide behind a computer screen or have an extended coffee break (in fact you rarely get to finish a cup of tea), your kids are still there and they still need to be fed, clothed and entertained. You are also on your own most of the time and having to figure stuff out as you go along, there is no training or instruction manual, and no one to cover for you if you are ill. It is exhausting, I am asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow every night. There have been some days where I have been at my wits end and had to put my daughter in front of the tv and go and sit in the kitchen by myself and cry because I am utterly frustrated, bored and lonely.

I don’t know what people must imagine I do all day. I have had people ask me about stuff that is on daytime tv, as if I must know because I am a SAHM. Err no, I only watch tv in the evening, after my daughter is in bed, during the day we go out and do things together, or I play with her. Or do people imagine that I waft around the house baking and cleaning while my daughter happily plays in her room? I don’t know if it’s my daughter’s age or her personality but she never plays by herself in her room. She likes to have someone else to play with most of the time, or at least have someone sitting nearby. She is getting to an age now where she is used to me doing the routine chores like hanging the washing out or unloading the dishwasher and doesn’t cry and cling to my legs any more, but most days she still needs me to interact with her while I am doing them.

Yes, of course, there are perks to staying at home, just as there are perks to working. I get to be there for all the firsts, and I also get to always be there to give her a hug if she scrapes her knee. I get to see my friends during the week at groups or when we have play dates (and as the children get older and a bit more independent we sometimes get to have an uninterrupted conversation too). When my daughter was younger, I could have a nap when she did if we’d had a bad night. I get to spend all day with one of my favourite people in the whole world. Most days are good days, we have fun together, and it is rewarding and satisfying.

So I’m not saying that staying at home is better than working. I’m not saying that being a working parent is easy. I’m just saying that whatever choices you make, whether you are a working parent or a stay at home parent, we all have challenges to face and so please let’s all just respect and support each other. And remember that the grass may look greener on the other side, but that’s just because it’s had a load of green paint spilled on it, snot wiped on it and peas mushed into it.