Category Archives: Womanhood

The glory of womanhood; or, eighteen things men can’t understand even when they try

Very rigid gender stereotypes are not my thing. Men can paint their nails; they can have a deep and spiritual relationship with chocolate; they can cry over The Notebook. (Likewise, plenty of women don’t do any of those.) I think ‘men are from Mars’ articles are generally lazy and annoying, and we should all just knock it off.

But the other day I was talking to Timothy and realised there was no possible way he could understand what I was talking about. It got me thinking about the necessary gaps between us. Then I was overtaken by the Great Spirit of Buzzfeed, and compiled a list.*

the glory of womanhood; or, eighteen things men can’t understand even when they try

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1. the hideous moment when you pull off your hair towel and your wet, prickly, unpleasantly warm hair hits your naked back

2. the five attempts it will take to manually unlock your pee muscles so you can pee standing up

3. the embarrassment of thirteen-year-old you finding that you have grown little Toblerone boobs, then compounding this indignity by having a middle-aged woman with cold fingers measure them so you know how small they are (men have uncomfortable puberty changes too, of course, but none of them are quantified)

4. the second you stand up after giving birth, and all of your internal organs tumble back down through your empty torso to where they should be

5. being hyper-aware of the hairiness of your legs during the months after everyone else starts shaving and your mum still says you can’t

photo via goodhousekeeping.com

FORBIDDEN FRUIT

6. the sweet, sweet release of taking your bra off before bed

7. the tickly weirdness of having a small hand grab your hip bone from the inside

8. knowing what a speculum is for, and wishing you didn’t

9. the leaping-into-a-lion’s-den anxiety of trying a new hairdresser for the first time

10. the exquisite lightness of being, the day after that monthly unpleasantness is over

LEAP.

free at last

11. wanting to sob, shout and stab something all at once during the first week of breastfeeding, when latching is still an issue

12. the relief of having a deep, soulful, bare-everything conversation with a friend of the same gender

13. also, giggling

14. leggings

15. jabbing yourself in the eye with a mascara wand

photo via Estee Lauder

she’s just asking for bother

16. the comforting rightness of sitting with your legs crossed, no matter how many times you’ve been told you shouldn’t

17. the intermingled fear and hope of going shopping for new jeans

18. the fierce euphoric connection to the babies you made, carried and gave birth to, springing itself upon you at the most unexpected moments (3am, the grocery line at Tesco, forcibly brushing their teeth, watching them demolish a pork pie).

So don’t even try it, Mr Jeffcoat. Some things are mine alone.

*this is not a serious exploration of gender issues. Please don’t send me emails. Also I think I might get Timothy to do a Glory of Manhood list to balance things out. 

UPDATED TO ADD: golly, Glory of Manhood sounds wrong. Sorry. 

My body is amazing

That’s what I’ve been making Henry repeat over and over around the house lately. You can do that with two-year-olds. Mostly I do it for my own amusement, but this time I mean it.

‘Your body is…?’ I prompt, helpfully.

‘Amaaaaazing!’ he chips in. With jazz hands.

He runs, he jumps, he stands on one leg and thinks it’s hilarious, he draws around his hands and counts on his fingers. Today he wanted to look at belly buttons, so we did: his a proper button outie, mine a stretchy, pockmarked valley, a casualty of birth. He put his head down on my stomach to listen to the food squelching inside, and pummelled the skin like bread dough, which is what it most resembles. I worked hard, hard, harder not to say anything negative about my squashiness. I told him about the boys that had lived in there, and everything my belly has done. I told him it was amazing.

I make a huge fuss of the good food he eats, tracing the vitamins and energy from his stomach, down his arms to the tips of his fingers and soles of his feet. At night we talk about the little men in his head, switching off his eyes and making his limbs heavy, so that they can help him grow and repair while he sleeps. (I hope to get more scientific on this one as we go along.)

He’ll get a different message eventually, but for now, this is the one I want ringing in his ears.

His body is amazing. Jazz hands.

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I think I took that phrase from Hollie McNish’s poem ‘Wow’, which I cannot, cannot recommend you hear enough. (I tried hard to find a transcript, but couldn’t – here’s a performance of it.) 

Five ways to throw yourself a thank you party and mean it

Big news! Next year I am thirty, and I’m preparing for it with a grapefruit scented face wipe.

By rights the Big Three should set off all sorts of anxieties and crises. It might, yet. But I thought it might be nice to spend the year leading up it trying hard to take care of myself, and appreciating my body for everything it does. It’s a good egg, my body. The last few years have been pregnancy-birth-pause-pregnancy-birth, which is all miraculous and everything, but does take a lot of hard work on the part of my cells. Well, put your feet up, cells. This time’s for you. Here’s a grapefruit wipe to show my regard.

Here are the five ways I’ll be treating myself right this year, in small ways and large:

clean up better. 

These wrinkles, they’re not messing around. I’m sorry to admit in such a public forum that I’m the sort of skanky toad who leaves their make up on at night. It’s true, alas. But now I’m taking off my make up every night before bed (hence the wipes), and using face cream. Do you know, my face feels all soft in the mornings now. I just want to rub it against things.

bath better.

I don’t actually know whether baths are good for you. I tend to use water hot enough to scald, so perhaps not. But they make me feel better, which means less stress, which means less nail-biting, fast-breathing and anxiety-bowel-churning.

eat better.

We came home from the States feeling greasy and exhausted. Did you know that eating too many chips will turn you into one? We’re off fast food completely for January, just to recover (ohhh, those burgers. I REGRET NOTHING). Thereafter, while I’ll worship at the Altar of Doughnut as enthusiastically as ever, I want to stop eating when I’m full, and eat more of the vitamin-packed stuff that will make me feel good. I switched to whole-wheat spaghetti last week. That’s how much I mean it.

move better.

Blech, exercise. I am not the sort to feel fresh and buzzing with life after I’ve come in from a run. I feel like all of my internal organs are crying salty tears into open wounds. But thanks to my sister, I have a free gym membership, and I think my body would thank me if I used it. Yesterday I went in and ran and stretched and planked until I sweated. Normally I only sweat when sprinting to stop Henry using Teds as a bobsleigh, so it was a nice change of pace. My abdominal muscles appear to have left the building without telling me, and today I am a walking bruise. But I think I do feel better.

think better.

This is the big one. I was dressing for church while we were at my mum’s over Christmas, and looked critically at my outfit before we left. Hmm, I thought. A bit fat. Then, for the first time in, I don’t know, EVER, I thought you know what? I just had a baby. It’s really ok. So I turned firmly away from the mirror and didn’t think about it again. Every time I feel guilty this year about looking like I had a baby, I have resolved to give myself a mental slap. I did have a baby. It’s really ok. And my reflection doesn’t own me. It sits in two dimensions, and lucky, lucky me, with my arms and legs and eyebrows and small intestine, all of it fitting together like a dream: I get to run around in three.

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Off the wagon: some thoughts for 2014

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I downloaded a new to-do list app. One of the great quests of my life is to find the perfect to-do list app, one with colours and sections and the perfect cathartic scribble. This new one isn’t my life partner, but I rather like it on my home screen, because it’s called ‘Do!’

It makes me feel all resolute, seeing it there. I have a lot of big things to get done, this January, and I’m frightened to death about at least half of them, but I flick open my phone and it shouts ‘Do!’ So I do. I bring up a mental image of Heath Ledger slamming down his helmet visor in A Knight’s Tale (this is an image you should always have on standby for emergencies), and I slam down my visor and flip my medieval hair out of my face, and flipping well DO.

The busyness and scariness are two reasons I haven’t done much in the way of resolutions this year. Usually I’m all over resolutions, because I love the sense of starting again, the grip on possibility that it gives me. This year, I have an idea that it would be better for me to concentrate on one task at a time. But there is one thing I want, very much, aside from Heath Ledger’s fabulous medieval hair.

I want to be kind.

Because it is so easy not to be. Because you can’t move on the internet without tripping over piles of sarcasm, boxes of angry reaction blogs, stacks of passive-aggressive Facebook comments. I’m not very good at being out-and-out mean – too much guilt, and I can never think of something snappy in time – but when it comes to crabby irritation and sarcastic asides, I’m a ninja.

Lately I have been feeling that it would be so much more restful to stop leaping on the judgement wagon every time someone opens their mouth. If this were better worded, I would make it my mantra for 2014:

people do things for their own good reasons.

They are sat in their own set of circumstances, working with what they’ve been given, and trying their best. I don’t have to agree, or even like it much. But I do, yes, I DO have to be kind.

That applies to my toddler, too, who is doing his best to help me remember what my angry voice sounds like.

And it applies to me most of all. Someone I love once said to me, ‘the only voice in your head you should listen to is the one that speaks with compassion’. I think about that all the time. We were made to be works-in-progress. We were made to create and soar and love, and also lose tempers and slam doors and forget to take the rubbish out. Sometimes I’m standing, arms wide, at the top of the Arc de Triomphe, and sometimes I’m picking a baby’s nose with sick in my hair. The whole of my experience has made me who I am. I want to embrace it for what it is, and forgive it for what it’s not.

I just want to back off, and let it go, and pause before I say something, especially if that something is to me, in my head. And, well, be kind.

I will really try. Maybe then the rest of my list will start taking care of itself.

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To my sons: if I catch you treating a girl like a princess, I will break your kneecaps

My friend Megan Conley was in a library the other week, and overheard a horrific conversation between a couple on a first date. Well. We’ve all had our share of cringe-worthy first dates, of course (unless you’re me, in which case you’ve had your share of no dates at all). But this one, oh, this one got under my skin.

Meg wrote a beautiful response for the girl she wanted to take aside, which I hope you’ll read. But I am raising boys. With Meg’s kind permission, I’ve written this for them. 

My dear, lovely boys,

I don’t know when you’ll be reading this. Perhaps you already keep to your room most of the time and roll your eyes when you talk to me, because I’m the most uncool person you know. (Just as an aside, right now you think I’m the best thing since chips and ketchup, so there. (Extra aside: am I better at being an adult, now? I hope so.))

I’m willing to bet, though, that you’re already interested in girls. And that’s good. Because girls are what I want to talk to you about. You hear a lot about dating at the moment, I’m sure. A lot of it is good, sound advice. We’ll have talked about all this already, in person, so I don’t need to say anything here.

Here’s what I do want to say: if I catch you treating that girl like a princess, I will break your kneecaps.

I am so tired of all this girl-as-a-princess talk. Do you know what princesses do, in stories? They are kidnapped. They sit in towers guarded by fire-breathing dragons. They are the prizes in competitions of strength and manliness. They are the victims of spell-casters twirling their moustaches, and lie in enchanted sleep or as sad little swans on the river until they are rescued. And rescued they have to be, almost always, by the handsome prince on his white horse.

Oh, that prince. He is dashing. He is determined. He chops down the forest of thorns and defeats the evil witch even when all hope is lost. He works out the problem to be solved and doesn’t stop searching and trying and thinking until the princess has been found and there’s a happily ever after. I know it’s not always this way; I know there are princesses who think for themselves. There are exceptions to every rule. But for every Mulan there is an Aurora, and for every Belle with her library book there’s a Cinderella waiting for the ball, in fact twelve Cinderellas, a hundred Cinderellas: a princess at the top of every tower you can think of, and all of them waiting for you.

My dear boys, this is utter, utter pigswill. The girls you meet are not sitting in suspended animation, waiting for your manly shoulder to cry on, your voice to explain everything and make it alright. The girl you fall in love with has opinions, loves, passions, tragedies, strengths and weaknesses all of her own. She was born an endlessly complex, endlessly marvellous creature, and has spent her life thus far remembering and discovering who she is. She has spent her life in a world where too many stories told her that she had to stay put and look pretty, that all her value lay in what a man thought of her, wanted from her, was willing to do for her. I hope she is fighting against it. I hope she has come out spitting.

It’s not much fun for you either, this handsome prince lark. Of course it’s nice to be needed, but the pressure to always be the strong one, always chopping down that damned forest to get to her, can be suffocating. At best, you feel an added pressure to always be in control of yourself, to never show weakness or emotion, and to carry the weight of you both even when you’re sinking. At worst, you begin to assume that only you know the answers to the questions that bother you both. You make the decisions, you tell her what to think, you explain things, endlessly. It’s disrespectful to both of you, that sort of thing. It leads nowhere good.

This is what I want you to say, when you find a girl that makes you feel like the best version of yourself: to hell with the stories. Do you hear me? To hell with them. Neither of you have to be anything you’re not. Both of you are endlessly complex, endlessly marvellous creatures, and you’ll spend a lifetime learning each others’ strengths and bolstering your weaknesses. Sometimes you’ll be on the horse, and sometimes you’ll be in the tower. Sometimes you’ll be back-to-back, chopping down the thorns with a sword in each hand.

Let her be, in all her wonderful imperfection. Let yourself be, too. It’s alright. Together you’ll leap every obstacle and storm every castle and make something so fine we’ll hardly be able to look at it straight.

Oh, I love you to your bones, my darling boys. So will she. Be worthy of it. Or I really will break your kneecaps.

Your mother.

 

Eight pounds

Eight pounds, eight pounds, eight pounds. It’s all I can think of at the minute.

Eight pounds is how much heavier I am than before I was pregnant. Teddy is outside now, and chunking up nicely, but I still have the weight of an average-sized baby slapped on my thighs, belly and all the other inconvenient places it tends to hang on.

Do you know that I know how foolish this is? I know, oh I know. Only four months ago I carried around a bump the size of a giant beachball on my front. My skin stretched, my ribs widened, my organs shuffled over and I made a baby out of my own self (Tim helped. A little). Teddy’s insides and outside came all from me. Flesh of my flesh. My body has done something momentous, here. These babies will grow into long-legged boys, angry teenagers, tall solid men who will go out and make something fine, and all of that life and goodness came from their nine months with me.

I think about all of that, and feel overwhelmed with the stupidity of eight pounds. I also feel guilty, sick with it. Some women don’t have the opportunity to do this at all, ever, and it tears them to pieces. Some women embrace their bodily changes and gather their children up into their lovely curves. Some women hurt to their soul for more than they have, and here I am, listening to whatever stupid messages come from outside, and desperate for less. Just eight pounds less, and I’ll feel good about myself. Eight pounds less, and I’ll fit into my old trousers, my old body, my old life.

I will not do this, this time. I will not. When I think about what these babies and years have done for me, it feels like I’m standing on top of a hill, sweaty and grubby, looking down over miles and miles of newly discovered country.

Look, there I am crouched in the back of my green Fabia, gross with morning sickness, trying not to throw up a salad sandwich.

Here I am flinging up my hands and yelling like an idiot, because Henry finally let go of the sofa and walked to my chair.

Over there I am crying in a cupboard, because I’m so tired I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck, and a little boy is pushing the tears off my face one by one.

And here, look, just here: 2.3oam, and my battered body is sat on the edge of the bed, cradling a brand-new boy. He is so tiny. It is so quiet. His fine hair ruffles under my breath, and his soft little fingers creep around mine as he swallows, swallows, swallows again.

All that, and the only thing to show that I’ve lived there are these last eight pounds. Dear friends, if you struggle with this too, please remember: your wonderful body shows you where you’ve been. Let’s gather our wealth, and move on.

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This isn’t the first time I’ve had to write myself out of this. It probably won’t be the last. Here are the previous entries in my Diary of a Post-Partum Body:

Making the leap

On building a body

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

 

I used to have thoughts

At 4am this morning, I was feeding and reading old blog posts. Because I’d just had a dream that it was Blog Exam day, where some adjudicating body gave blog posts grades and comments, and all of my comments were just giant photos of cheese. I woke up with one hand over my stabbed heart and had to find a post that wasn’t cheese and/or a baby face. You know what, it took a while.

A couple of weeks before Teddy arrived, I wrote this:

There are ideas about myself that I hold on to, that are precious to me, and it hurts to be without them. Like, for example, I Am A Person Who Thinks and Writes. It is embarrassing to say it, but I feel vulnerable without it. I feel less of a person.

Then I realise that perhaps there are times when I’m stripped of those things so that I can work out how to be myself without them. They don’t have to define me, after all; or not all the time. I am about to go back to a point where the definition of a productive day is getting dressed and making sure everyone is fed. And sometimes not even getting dressed. It was hard, last time, accepting that simplicity. It was difficult to feel valuable when my own markers of value were all beyond me. I had to find other ways of being complete. I think it’s time to practice it again.

I am there, now. In the space where my best days involve getting dressed and putting in a load of laundry. Most days I don’t get any housework done at all, and just run around putting out fires. There are lovely, lovely moments and I adore these boys, but damn, if two years and ten weeks isn’t a lethal combination. When I get a spare second I don’t know whether to sleep, clean, or stop everything and try again tomorrow. I can’t read. I can’t think of anything to write. I want my words back. I want my words.

This is really hard.

I have decided to make some baby steps towards getting back in balance again. I’m going to take the boys somewhere this week that’s not Tesco or the local park. Tim and I have tickets to see the Wolf Hall/Bring Up The Bodies double bill in Stratford next March, for my birthday (they are standing tickets, which is all they had left, but it will be TOTALLY WORTH IT, MASTER CROMWELL). Then Tim is in Edinburgh for a day and a half next week, and we’re going to go with him. Tomorrow we’re going to the library and getting something out that’s not about lions. And I want to enrol on a creative writing course that starts next April, and start taking this thing seriously. I’ll have my head back by next April, right?

In the meantime, hey – thanks for reading. I hope things are alright with you. I’m really glad you’re here.

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Blank face. I’m getting good at that one.

Passports

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My mama is here for one more day. She lives a long way away, and I have spent the past week and a bit talking her ear off. I am sat in the baby-and-toddler trenches with not much idea of what I’m doing, and not only has she been there twice as many times, she was there with me.

We have brainstormed toddler behaviour and baby feeding, the minutiae of my days and nights. Where I am, and where I want to be. Our mutual love of cheese and onion crisps, and the difficulty of eating them in public without seriously putting people off. The gaps in my childhood memories, and hers. I can’t stop asking questions; I can’t help it. It’s just that she always knows exactly what to say.

One of the things we talked about this week was her mother, my nanna. She died when I was eleven, so I can’t remember much. She was kind, and a stickler for good manners. She wore a red cardigan, and smelled like the cough sweets she kept by her bed. She fed us stew and dumplings every Sunday, and sneaked pink wafer biscuits and magazines into our bags after we’d taken her shopping. She paid for every pair of shoes we wore for a decade, sticking stamps into a savings book for months at a time. Piece by piece, week after week. One year I got the starry shoes with the keyhole in the heel. When I turned the key, a fairy picture appeared at the bottom of my shoe. I don’t know how many savings stamps my nanna collected so I could have them, or how long it took. They basically made my seven-year-old life, and I hope I said thank you.

Yesterday I found out that this old lady in her red cardigan was once a girl who went to join the British army. She was a sergeant and a cook. Women weren’t supposed to be on the front lines, but thanks to clerical oversight she ended up in Berlin with the Allies at the end of World War Two. It was rubble, only rubble. I wish I knew what she thought. Later she was sent to Belgium, to manage a factory that had ground to a halt during the war. One blueish day she was swimming in the sea, her husband on a deckchair on the beach, when everyone suddenly scarpered. She turned around in the water to find a German U-boat had popped up behind her, cool as you please. She climbed out of the water dripping in oil.

Later that day, we watched The King’s Speech. That scene where they all listen to Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war gets me every time: I think about how it must have been to hold your breath on the precipice of terrible change, not knowing how exactly how it would touch you but knowing it would all the same, and I go cold. Mum said ‘Nanna was listening to that, somewhere’, and I realised my twenty-five-year-old grandmother sat by a radio and went cold, too.

I’ve been looking over her passport today. Stamps for every country you can think of, and every one of them a story. Pieces and pieces of a girl who went to join the army, and cooked for soldiers in Berlin. I don’t know how it felt, making stew and dumplings with all of that in her drawer. I would give anything at all to get back to her armchair and ask her.

One day we’ll all be stories packed in drawers. I hope by then I’ve listened enough to remember them, and talked enough to pass them on.

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Reformation, after a fashion

With a giant Roman warthog. I don’t really have a reason.

I have been feeling a little bit of a mess this week, and it started with a freckle.

No, it started because I am waiting for work to appear (hey, anyone want to pay me to write?) and without it end up feeling like I’m on enforced vacation: dithery, and lazy, and undirected. Then I got a new freckle on my nose that was large and dark enough to look like I’d spilled dinner on myself, and one thing led to another until I was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking everything I’d ever written had been a hack-job.

I seem to be in a running-errands-buying-crib-sheets-trying-to-bend-over phase this month. The sort of phase where I’m sat in the evening eating a bagful, a giant BAGFUL of crushed ice because it’s all I want, and eating it till I feel sick. Did you even know you can eat crushed ice till it makes you sick? Was that something I needed to discover for the rest of us?

At slow times like this, I realise that there are ideas about myself that I hold on to, that are precious to me, and that it hurts to be without them. Like, for example, I Am A Person Who Thinks and Writes. It is embarrassing to say it, but I feel vulnerable without it. I feel less of a person.

Then I realise that perhaps there are times when I’m stripped of those things so that I can work out how to be myself without them. They don’t have to define me, after all; or not all the time. I am about to go back to a point where the definition of a productive day is getting dressed and making sure everyone is fed. And sometimes not even getting dressed. It was hard, last time, accepting that simplicity. It was difficult to feel valuable when my own markers of value were all beyond me. I had to find other ways of being complete. I think it’s time to practice it again.

Yesterday I folded laundry and watched a documentary about William Tyndale. Now, there was a man in the grip of an idea that wrung his life out, but burned on far beyond him. He was the first man to translate the Bible in English, and he spent most of his life in exile before being betrayed and executed. He is one of my heroes, and the other players in that grand saga of the English Reformation are endlessly fascinating to me: More, Cromwell and Wolsey, and that great hulking King bearing down over all of them.

‘Henry’, I kept saying, ‘Henry, this is wonderful‘. It was wonderful. I was elbow-deep in knickers, getting excited about the Reformation, and it felt like being myself.

Today we skipped out to Oxford for the afternoon – we last ate Chinese food and took stupid photos in the Ashmolean Museum when I was expecting Henry, and we promised ourselves we’d pass on the tradition once he was old enough. We made faces at the Greek and Roman statues, then went upstairs to see the paintings. There was a single, luminous portrait by Edward Burne-Jones that made me catch my breath. ‘Oh, look’, I said, ‘it’s beautiful, isn’t it? It’s just beautiful’.

‘BOAT!’ said Henry. I think he was looking at the painting next door. But that one was beautiful too. I was hand-in-hand with my sticky toddler, getting ready to head off the squealy protest that was coming when he had to go back into the pushchair and feeling too huge to be allowed out, frankly; yet there were Pre-Raphaelites on the walls, and I could see that they were lovely.

I am still me, regardless. There are all sorts of ways of feeling complete.

Mary Burne-Jones

Mary Burne-Jones. Isn’t she a beauty? 

Photo courtesy Martin Beek, here

What I would like to know is: what ideas about yourself are most important to you? Do they do you good? And what do you do when you don’t have them for a while?

For the weekend

We went to Costco yesterday lunchtime, for the free samples. I was after a giant hot dog, but the queue was too long, so we made a casual tour of the shop first and pretended to look really hard at frozen prawns, while actually visiting all of the sample stands in turn. And we are not the only ones who do this, so don’t even pretend that we are. I felt like we were the rocky survivors of a shipwreck (see last post), venturing out into public for the first time. So we split all the loot fifty-fifty, even the Dr Pepper. And the ice cream. And the chicken in hot wing sauce. And the hot dog, when we finally got there.

I got a few stares, and I suppose letting your not-even-two-year-old chug from a giant cup of Sprite with half a churro in his sugary fist would not make the cover of Good Parenting. But I was so tired I didn’t mind. ‘Oh, my dear’, I thought without resentment, when a woman made a comment about keeping Henry still in the lunch queue with an episode of ‘Sarah and Duck’, ‘you wouldn’t BELIEVE the week I’ve had’.

If I could have said it to her, I would have. And I suddenly thought that behind every mother shouting too loud at the supermarket, every toddler with a fistful of McDonald’s chips, every woman in a car who barges in at the traffic lights and glares like it was your fault, there might be a sad, tired girl who would just like to say to someone ‘oh, my dear. You wouldn’t BELIEVE the week I’ve had’.

And I thought I should probably cut that girl some slack.

Here’s to a weekend spread liberally with the benefit of the doubt.

Happy Friday!

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