One Good Deed

he watched them. Giggling, linking arms, striding confidently in packs. The doll-like make-up, meticulously painted. She watched the inflections of their heads, the raised eyebrows and the exaggerated hand gestures. Their valley girl accents floated on air towards her.

He was like, so, like “nuh huh”, and I was like, yeah, what-EVER. And she totally just stared at me”

She mentally reviewed their clothes each morning – who wore the same outfit twice, who had borrowed another’s jeans. The rapid fashion changes that swept through the group. What was in, and what was like, so totally out. Which girls were in and which were, like, so totally out.

But most of all, she watched the stragglers. The dregs. The runts of the litter. The kids who just couldn’t keep up. She saw their heads droop dejectedly, their hands hang limply by their sides. The wry, embarrassed smiles and the hurt in their eyes. Some tried. Bless their hearts, they tried. So very hard. They pushed and pushed to fit in. To belong. To be a part of something larger than themselves. The earnestness, the naivety burned from deep within. They were too keen. Too fiercely keen. They wanted it too much, and the desperation leached from their pores.

For others, rejection had taken its toll. They couldn’t find it in themselves to try any longer. They’d dug deep into that well of courage far too many times.

Millie had been young. She finished school at 10. Girls were forced to then. There were houses to clean, mothers to assist, fathers to tend to and money to be made. Schooling was for her brothers. But she remembered the torments, the torture, the hair-pulling. The isolation, the social slurs and gingerly navigating the minefield of teen girl friendships. She even remembered the names of the popular girls. It was 75 years since she left school. But she still remembered. She even dreamed of them now. Funny, she hadn’t thought of them in decades, but Martha, Ethel and Bertha were back, interrupting her sleep as they once had all those years ago.

From her porch, she watched these new Marthas, Ethels and Berthas. And she watched the new Millies too. The porch swing pressed relentlessly on her bad hip. Its springs released from their cushioning prison, they were free to twist themselves into her thigh. The rickety sidetable shed its varnish skin, which flaked on the wooden decking like whispers of straw-coloured snow. The deck had been cruelly stripped of its own protective coating by harsh winters and hot, humid summers. Its bleached bones lay like a stranded corpse on the hot, exhausted lawn.

Millie’s care worker said she needed more help. That the house was a state. That she was like one of those hoarders from the TV show. Millie didn’t know what this meant. Her TV hadn’t worked in maybe 20 years. It still stood guard in the corner of the living room, but only the cats used it now, as a resting place. Millie didn’t use much of the house. It was a beautiful, old home. A heritage home. It had been her mother’s. A family jewel. But too many rooms. More rooms than Millie needed. Years ago, before her legs had grown tired, she’d dragged her mattress downstairs to the living room. She slept there now.

In the days, she sat on the porch, rocking in the wind. Some days, the rain flung itself in and spattered her. But she didn’t mind. In fact, she loved the feel of the wet on her face. In the nights, she curled up on the mattress and hugged herself.

On normal days, Millie watched as the popular girls blazed the path. They sashayed like they owned the world. Like they were the first to discover life itself. The jumble of teenagers then continued in descending order of popularity, with the bookish children bringing up the rear, forced to walk behind in shame.

But one day, the pattern broke. That day, a pariah led the way. With dishwater hair sticking out at odd angles, cratered skin, and no natural grace, the girl trod leadenly. Her jeans were just a tiny bit too short, her backpack a teeny bit too high. Following her were the coven. The hoard. The clique of styled, chic proto-ladies. From their mouths spilled taunts. Horrible insults, carefully designed to inflict maximum pain. Perfectly crafted to worm their way into teen insecurities, borrowing deep into hidden fears and untold worries.

You smell like fish. You stink”

Martin said you tried to kiss him once. Like a vacuum cleaner”

Nice jeans Stacey. Get them from Goodwill?”

The girls held each other in fake laughter, as they lashed Stacey with whip-cracks. Each projectile landing a stinging blow. Stacey marched on. Never turning back. But Millie could see her flinch. She could see the hands peeking out under sleeves, clenched and white at the knuckles. And she saw the tears start their shuddering roll down her cheeks.

This was new, Millie thought. Normally, the loftily-elevated girls didn’t deign to mix with the outcasts. As if unpopularity were a communicable disease. As if lowering one’s self to that level by acknowledging the mere existence of such plant life was forbidden. Why the change? Why today?

The trail of girls didn’t notice Millie. They never did. She was an immoveable fixture, part of the old, decaying furniture. Present everyday in the same place. Millie supposed she simply blended into the clutter of broken, elderly ornaments on the porch. That day, for the first time in a long time, Millie felt her eyes swim with the injustice of it all. Millie hadn’t even cried when Ernie died. But then, he wouldn’t have shed a tear had she gone first.

Days turned to nights, the leaves began to crisp, the winds picked up their pace and eventually, snow settled around Millie. By now, she sat on the porch in her blanket. A hot water bottle tucked under her and a mug of cocoa in hand. And still the abuse continued. Some days, Millie wanted to scream at Stacey. “Stand up for yourself girl. Turn around and confront them. They’re bullies. Plain and simple.” Other days, Millie watched passively. Waiting for the day the girls found another target.

And one day, as spring crept in, she snapped. Enough. Enough.

Somewhere in the living room, amid the muddle, the broken plant pots, the old TV, several couches, the cats and more chairs than she cared for, lay a pad of little paper. What did people call them? Post them notes? Mail it ins? Her care-worker left them so Millie could write shopping lists. But she just used the backs of empty cereal boxes for that.

Millie spied them underneath a dusty stack of old phonebooks, and ripped off the plastic covering with her teeth. Spitting out the pieces, she found a pen lying on top of the cat food. Returning to the porch, she wrote. She wrote and wrote and wrote.

The next morning, with plans in place, she settled once again in the swinging seat.

Stacey approached from the bus stop. As usual, she took a deep breath and steeled herself for the gauntlet ahead. Practice had taught her to be first off the bus and to put a great distance between herself and the pack. If she almost ran, the curved arc of the poisonous insults fell short, landing harmlessly on the sidewalk.

Millie shifted in her blanket, keeping her eye on Stacey as she approached the first rock. A boulder, protruding from a front lawn, was covered in yellow. Like papery moss crawling over the surface, the post-it notes clung to the gray. Stacey stopped. And reached down for one. Peeling it off, she brought it to her face and read.

And her mouth twitched. It curled, very, very slightly upwards.

Millie knew what Stacey was reading at that moment. “You are beautiful. Inside and out”

Stacey looked around, her forehead crinkling in puzzlement. Eventually, she walked on, stopping again in front of Millie’s house. Millie was delighted to see her pick up another note. This one said “You are stronger than you know”.

This time, a shy, reluctant smile crept out. An actual smile. A smile that touched Stacey’s eyes. And reached into Millie’s heart. Stacey stood up a little higher. She cast a glance around her again. Millie watched her tuck the notes inside her jacket, like talismen forming a protective layer.

As Stacey continued on her path, Millie knew there would be more notes.

You are worth it”

Believe in yourself – you are a strong woman”

Be yourself, because you are beautiful”

Millie swayed gently, ignoring the sharp springs of the seat and the cats mewling beside her. And she allowed herself the first real smile in a long, long time.

 

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Short Story: Last Breath

I am close to my last breath. I can feel it, fomenting inside, brewing with increasing impatience, waiting to be expelled in a rush of air and a gasp of dying life.

I am close to my last breath. This I know and accept. Never will I embrace the prospect. Never will I relish it. But over the years, very gradually, acknowledgment seeped in and stilled my fears, spreading over them like a blanket of soothing fog.

I am close to my last breath.

I rejected treatment. I do not know the price of human life, nor would I presume to guess. But I am certain that the meagre, pain-filled weeks I could purchase cannot be worth the inordinate cost of the drugs I was prescribed. I do not know the value of a dazed, spinning month, but I am convinced it is not an experience I wish for.

Lynette and David railed and cried. They insulted and pressured. Eventually, they begged, using grandchildren as proxies. They paraded troops of wide-eyed children through my bedroom. The younger ones were oblivious to the tubes, wires, bottles and bags. They clambered onto the bed, wonderfully ignorant of the medical accoutrements and their meaning. For the older ones, the snaking of wires, the staccato hiss of the oxygen tank and the unpleasant, sharp odour of unchanged sheets signalled an unpleasant, distressing end. Where once, they flung themselves towards me in delighted abandon, now, they hung back, wary and shy. Intimidated by the machinery and by the pale, drawn man who had replaced their grandfather.

I am close to my last breath. I know not when it will be, but every heartbeat, every blink brings me closer to that edge. I feel myself falling over it. A gentle tip at a shallow angle that steepens every minute. I do not fear it. If anything, it mystifies me. What lies over that edge? What exists beyond? I am not a religious man, yet the experience of dying has ignited a curiousity. I would not call it an evangelical journey, more an awakening of a moral centre, of finding myself on the hairline blur between science and ethics.

Wealth was never an attribute of which I have necessarily been proud. Nor have I ever viewed it as shameful. It just is. A fact. It has allowed me and my children a lifestyle denied to a great many. It allowed the best treatments on earth when I fell ill. And for a time, it allowed me to delude myself that money could cure my cancer. It bought false hope that one’s proven and fierce ability to fight a battle could be invoked when the villain was grossly mutating cells. Instead, money was a fleeting friend that proved to be as useful, as they say, as a chocolate knife. Instead, it transpires that one’s capacity to fight disease is not linked to one’s strength of character. Passing waves do overwhelm even the most determined of us. It is not a personality flaw or personal failing to succumb to disease.

And succumb I will.

I have only days, maybe hours. Each breath is a scalpel slicing upwards. Every movement sends stabbing pains through my extremities. I ache; a dull, nagging throb that invades every cell. It beats its drum relentlessly, hammering through my body. I can no longer track days. Minutes meld seamlessly into hours. I had the clock removed from my bedroom, because it no longer reflects my concept of time. My time is circular, it is technicolour. The pain medication warps my days, twisting them beyond recognition, proving once and for all, that time is relative.

I hope I have enough energy to say what needs to be said, before the end. My children need to hear it, and I need the selfish comfort of the confession booth. I have waited this long because, and I am honest with myself, I have to force out the truth, but I have neither desire nor stamina to exist in this world long enough to deal with the messy consequences.

Rarely, if ever, do we have the luxury of escaping the consequences of our actions. This time, death will absolve me of that burden.

The curtains drawn tight and the door firmly shut; my bedroom is ink. The air lies dank and stuffy; the hum of equipment the only noise that invades the black silence. Very soon, dawn will break on my last day. My children will arrive shortly, prepared, silent, sullen, but steeled. They are my children. They will not shirk from the final moment. I would not have it any other way.

I have imagined this moment for months. In my mind, in my dreams, I have planned its unfurling. Like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, except, I suppose, its direct opposite. Its antithesis. Rather than life blossoming, I will curl myself into that fragile shell and disappear. I wish it were so simple and painless – the oft-hoped for gentle drift into oblivion. I fear I shall not experience such a soft ending, for death, in its refusal to slip away quietly, ravages us. Death is ugly. It is slovenly and raw. It is weeping sores, the stench of incontinence and the slow unpeeling of dignity.

I could not bear for my children to provide the personal care I need. My pride would crumble under that assault. I have hired nurses who show me no pity. Stern in their professional detachment, I am grateful for their clinical approach. Oddly enough, the ensuing dehumanisation comforts me, as I separate myself from my broken, embarrassing body.

In sparing my children from this task, I hope they will judge me in less certain terms when they know the truth. That their guilt will temper the anger and confusion they express.

And so it begins.

I have something to tell you. I need you to remain calm. I have to say this. And you have to hear it”.

They appear grave and drawn. Addled by lack of sleep, worry and the strains of caring for both a dying parent and small children. Their thoughts, like mine, shoot and zip, pinging from side to side with little coherence or order.

David and Lynette lean in, their faces looming over my bed like buttery hovering moons. They glance uneasily at each other. I imagine their nerves beating fluttery wings, which set off jets of fizzing anxiety streaming upwards through their blood. I would feel distinctly similar, except the shrieking pain and the high-pitched scream of my body straining against disintegration, drown out all other sentiments.

There is a part of me I have hidden for some time. A kernel of my being sequestered safely away. It has never tried to break free. I have never been tempted to let it spill from my mouth”.

Lynette and David merely stare. They are holding hands by this point. My vision is reduced to pinpricks of twinkling light, so I cannot see their tense hunched shoulders, the whitened knuckles or the chests replete with unexpelled air, but I know they are there.

Shards of gleaming glass stab inside my head, pushing outwards with explosive energy. I cannot move past the pain to grasp the words I need. And yet I must finish. I must. My legs tremble, jerking and flicking, even though my arms lie dull and unresponsive. No longer under my control, my limbs already answer to a higher master. As if they have gone on ahead, and started the journey without me.

My breathing shallow and laboured, each gasp must be forced out with all the power I can summon. I hope that as the air leaves me, it will carry with it my words.

I am gay.”

I have always known this. It is a ribbon running through my core. From my tiny days, I have never questioned it, yet for a tangle of reasons, could not share it. At times, I was content to guard my privacy. At others, it barely felt like a secret worth disclosing.

I am gay”

With this happy declaration of myself, this triumphant pronunciation of my very soul, I melt contently back into the world that birthed me.

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Lean in: Damned if you do, damned in a different way if you don’t

This week, in part thanks to Steve Paikin’s musings on why women don’t accept media invitations, the phrase ‘lean in’ has been bandied about again.

 

Coined by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, ‘lean in’ is about women pushing our boundaries, getting our elbows up and forcing our way to the front. It’s about speaking out, and refusing to be cowed. Its criticisms have been well-aired too. It’s a concept for wealthy women of privilege. It’s a tacit acceptance we can’t remedy discrimination, so women must adapt instead.

 

Crucially, lean-in individualises systemic misogyny. It frames barriers as our own fault for not trying hard enough, and places the onus for tackling sexism on individual women.

 

A prime example is the fate of female politicians. This week, the Progressive Conservative caucus ousted Alberta Premiere Alison Redford. She went with dignity, before events turned really nasty.

 

She is one in a long line of female leaders, appointed on the descendancy of their party, and ousted as they reach the nadir. Alison Redford leaned in. So did Carol James, Cathy Dunderdale, Christie Clark, and Lorraine Michael. They fought tooth and nail to reach their positions. They worked twice as hard to fight their way the top.

 

But, you say, their parties (Clark excepted) tanked shortly after. It’s proof women can’t hack it. These women caused the fates of their parties. They were ousted, or nearly so, due to poor leadership.

 

Evidence shows political parties are likelier to accept women leaders when they’re approaching rock bottom. When they throw up their hands and say, “it’s not looking good. Heck, why not take a chance on a woman?”. Then when the party continues its downward spiral, it’s held as proof women leaders aren’t worth the risk.

 

People say Redford was brusque. Difficult. Strident even. The same is true of other women leaders. Demanding, too strict, doesn’t listen to caucus, has a temper. Sure, Redford’s travel expenses hit close to the bone of a caucus that prides itself on fiscal responsibility, but they were the straw that broke the camel’s back. Trouble was already brewing.

 

Federally, the Conservative government, which cloaks itself in fiscal rectitude, has spent like a drunken sailor – $16 OJ, limos, gazebos, dubious Senate expenses. And it’s fair to say Mr Harper is not the warmest of people. Until recent outbreaks of independent thought, he ruled caucus with an iron rod. Yet he is strong, decisive, knows his mind, isn’t detracted from his path. Same is held of other male leaders.

 

Alison Redford leaned in. So have many other women. Mainly white, middle-class women with time, energy, and privilege. And it hasn’t helped us much. At this point, you’re thinking of pulling out your Margaret Thatcher card. She leant in. She played men at their own game and won. Great. Good for her. But what about every other woman? That one woman found a way to the top, despite incredible barriers, does not mean those barriers don’t exist.

 

But discussing this gender bias seems too much like complaining. Accusations of tokenism abound, and you become the humourless feminist with excuses for why you can’t hack it. So lean-in becomes the safer option. No, no, it’s not you! It’s me! I’m the problem. I’ll change!

 

Yet when women lean in and assert ourselves, our lack of femininity is held against us. Take Hillary Clinton. Accomplished, brilliant, experienced. Yet much of the coverage focuses on her clothes and make-up. Wendy Davis (Barbie). Janet Yellen (not as attractive as Miley), Harriet Harman (‘Harpy Harman’), Julia Gillard (barren cow). As a wise person once said, before a woman can be heard, the room must first hold a referendum on her fuckability. Last week, an academic, W, was offered a job and began negotiations on pay and conditions. Men see an offer as a starting point, so women should lean in and haggle like men. W did that, and the job offer was immediately withdrawn because she was ‘demanding’. Shrill, bossy and emotional. Or if you’re a man, powerful, strong and passionate.

 

As a lesson, it teaches women one thing: Don’t lean in and you’re damned. Lean in, and you’re just damned in a different way. 

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Short story – One Good Deed

I wrote this last year, as a short story. It’s been lying dormant in My Documents since. So I thought I’d air it out.

One Good Deed

She watched them. Giggling, linking arms, striding confidently in packs. The doll-like make-up, meticulously painted. She watched the inflections of their heads, the raised eyebrows and the exaggerated hand gestures. Their valley girl accents floated on air towards her.

He was like, so, like “nuh huh”, and I was like, yeah, what-EVER. And she totally just stared at me”

She mentally reviewed their clothes each morning – who wore the same outfit twice, who had borrowed another’s jeans. The rapid fashion changes that swept through the group. What was in, and what was like, so totally out. Which girls were in and which were, like, so totally out.

But most of all, she watched the stragglers. The dregs. The runts of the litter. The kids who just couldn’t keep up. She saw their heads droop dejectedly, their hands hang limply by their sides. The wry, embarrassed smiles and the hurt in their eyes. Some tried. Bless their hearts, they tried. So very hard. They pushed and pushed to fit in. To belong. To be a part of something larger than themselves. The earnestness, the naivety burned from deep within. They were too keen. Too fiercely keen. They wanted it too much, and the desperation leached from their pores.

For others, rejection had taken its toll. They couldn’t find it in themselves to try any longer. They’d dug deep into that well of courage far too many times.

 

Millie had been young. She finished school at 10. Girls were forced to then. There were houses to clean, mothers to assist, fathers to tend to and money to be made. Schooling was for her brothers. But she remembered the torments, the torture, the hair-pulling. The isolation, the social slurs and gingerly navigating the minefield of teen girl friendships. She even remembered the names of the popular girls. It was 75 years since she left school. But she still remembered. She even dreamed of them now. Funny, she hadn’t thought of them in decades, but Martha, Ethel and Bertha were back, interrupting her sleep as they once had all those years ago.

From her porch, she watched these new Marthas, Ethels and Berthas. And she watched the new Millies too. The porch swing pressed relentlessly on her bad hip. Its springs released from their cushioning prison, they were free to twist themselves into her thigh. The rickety sidetable shed its varnish skin, which flaked on the wooden decking like whispers of straw-coloured snow. The deck had been cruelly stripped of its own protective coating by harsh winters and hot, humid summers. Its bleached bones lay like a stranded corpse on the hot, exhausted lawn.

Millie’s care worker said she needed more help. That the house was a state. That she was like one of those hoarders from the TV show. Millie didn’t know what this meant. Her TV hadn’t worked in maybe 20 years. It still stood guard in the corner of the living room, but only the cats used it now, as a resting place. Millie didn’t use much of the house. It was a beautiful, old home. A heritage home. It had been her mother’s. A family jewel. But too many rooms. More rooms than Millie needed. Years ago, before her legs had grown tired, she’d dragged her mattress downstairs to the living room. She slept there now.

In the days, she sat on the porch, rocking in the wind. Some days, the rain flung itself in and spattered her. But she didn’t mind. In fact, she loved the feel of the wet on her face. In the nights, she curled up on the mattress and hugged herself.

 

On normal days, Millie watched as the popular girls blazed the path. They sashayed like they owned the world. Like they were the first to discover life itself. The jumble of teenagers then continued in descending order of popularity, with the bookish children bringing up the rear, forced to walk behind in shame.

But one day, the pattern broke. That day, a pariah led the way. With dishwater hair sticking out at odd angles, cratered skin, and no natural grace, the girl trod leadenly. Her jeans were just a tiny bit too short, her backpack a teeny bit too high. Following her were the coven. The hoard. The clique of styled, chic proto-ladies. From their mouths spilled taunts. Horrible insults, carefully designed to inflict maximum pain. Perfectly crafted to worm their way into teen insecurities, borrowing deep into hidden fears and untold worries.

 

You smell like fish. You stink”

Martin said you tried to kiss him once. Like a vacuum cleaner”

Nice jeans Stacey. Get them from Goodwill?”

 

The girls held each other in fake laughter, as they lashed Stacey with whip-cracks. Each projectile landing a stinging blow. Stacey marched on. Never turning back. But Millie could see her flinch. She could see the hands peeking out under sleeves, clenched and white at the knuckles. And she saw the tears start their shuddering roll down her cheeks.

This was new, Millie thought. Normally, the loftily-elevated girls didn’t deign to mix with the outcasts. As if unpopularity were a communicable disease. As if lowering one’s self to that level by acknowledging the mere existence of such plant life was forbidden. Why the change? Why today?

The trail of girls didn’t notice Millie. They never did. She was an immoveable fixture, part of the old, decaying furniture. Present everyday in the same place. Millie supposed she simply blended into the clutter of broken, elderly ornaments on the porch. That day, for the first time in a long time, Millie felt her eyes swim with the injustice of it all. Millie hadn’t even cried when Ernie died. But then, he wouldn’t have shed a tear had she gone first.

 

Days turned to nights, the leaves began to crisp, the winds picked up their pace and eventually, snow settled around Millie. By now, she sat on the porch in her blanket. A hot water bottle tucked under her and a mug of cocoa in hand. And still the abuse continued. Some days, Millie wanted to scream at Stacey. “Stand up for yourself girl. Turn around and confront them. They’re bullies. Plain and simple.” Other days, Millie watched passively. Waiting for the day the girls found another target.

And one day, as spring crept in, she snapped. Enough. Enough.

Somewhere in the living room, amid the muddle, the broken plant pots, the old TV, several couches, the cats and more chairs than she cared for, lay a pad of little paper. What did people call them? Post them notes? Mail it ins? Her care-worker left them so Millie could write shopping lists. But she just used the backs of empty cereal boxes for that.

Millie spied them underneath a dusty stack of old phonebooks, and ripped off the plastic covering with her teeth. Spitting out the pieces, she found a pen lying on top of the cat food. Returning to the porch, she wrote. She wrote and wrote and wrote.

The next morning, with plans in place, she settled once again in the swinging seat.

Stacey approached from the bus stop. As usual, she took a deep breath and steeled herself for the gauntlet ahead. Practice had taught her to be first off the bus and to put a great distance between herself and the pack. If she almost ran, the curved arc of the poisonous insults fell short, landing harmlessly on the sidewalk.

Millie shifted in her blanket, keeping her eye on Stacey as she approached the first rock. A boulder, protruding from a front lawn, was covered in yellow. Like papery moss crawling over the surface, the post-it notes clung to the gray. Stacey stopped. And reached down for one. Peeling it off, she brought it to her face and read.

And her mouth twitched. It curled, very, very slightly upwards.

Millie knew what Stacey was reading at that moment. “You are beautiful. Inside and out”

Stacey looked around, her forehead crinkling in puzzlement. Eventually, she walked on, stopping again in front of Millie’s house. Millie was delighted to see her pick up another note. This one said “You are stronger than you know”.

This time, a shy, reluctant smile crept out. An actual smile. A smile that touched Stacey’s eyes. And reached into Millie’s heart. Stacey stood up a little higher. She cast a glance around her again. Millie watched her tuck the notes inside her jacket, like talismen forming a protective layer.

As Stacey continued on her path, Millie knew there would be more notes.

 

You are worth it”

Believe in yourself – you are a strong woman”

Be yourself, because you are beautiful”

 

Millie swayed gently, ignoring the sharp springs of the seat and the cats mewling beside her. And she allowed herself the first real smile in a long, long time. 

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Gender, Babies and I’ve Had Enough

Initially, I didn’t want to know the sex of the proto-being inside me. But J did. So we compromised, and found out the sex, but kept it to ourselves.

And here’s why I didn’t want to know.

Because you spend your whole life being gendered. Because gender permeates everything. It is the fundamental fault line that dictates your existence. And I wanted this potential, our first child, to be unburdened by that for as long as possible. It’s infuriating that children are subjected to gender essentialism. To push it on a foetus just felt too much.

And now foetus is a six month old baby, my fears have been confirmed. A selection of comments from the last week alone.

In reference to a messy house with kids’ toys: “At least she’s a girl and can’t play with lego. Those blocks get everywhere.”

WHY CAN’T SHE PLAY WITH LEGO? WHY?! Because she should be sitting nicely and prettily instead? Because building is for boys? Because you operate lego with a penis?

As baby burps: “That’s not very lady-like, is it?”

No, it’s damn well not. Because she’s a baby. And because screw your lady-like. ‘Lady-like’ is used to constrain women. To make us nice, and compliant. To stop us raising a fuss, or demanding what we’re owed. To maintain the status quo. To reduce women to their comportment. Fuck that. I want to raise a kid who kicks down doors and takes names. Who won’t accept being ‘nice’, or being told to smile. Or being valued by how pretty she is. Or having men hold a referendum on her fuckability before they’ll consider what she has to say.

For the eleventy-billionth time: “Uh oh, watch out daddy! You’ll have to get a baseball bat to keep the boys from her door”.

One: How about you raise your boys not to need a baseball bat to be kept away from women? How about you teach your boys about meaningful, enthusiastic consent? How about boys’ automatic state is not to rape women?

Two: Why is it a father’s job to police his daughter’s virginity? Remind you of women who’ve been raped being disowned for dishonouring the family? Remind you of weird purity balls or silver rings? Good, it should. Because it comes from the same root. That women’s value is detemined by how ‘pure’ they are to men. That women’s sexuality needs to be controlled. That women’s sexuality belongs to men.

About my daughter’s stripy blue outfit: “Why is she wearing blue if she’s a girl?”

Because she’s a baby. Because she wears what’s comfortable (and occasionally outfits that amuse her tired parents and provide potential backmail material when she’s a teenager). Because blue won’t leach into her skin and turn her into a boy. Or a lesbian. And if later in life, she wants to be a boy or decides she’s gay, then that’s who she is. It wasn’t determined by her parent’s choice in clothes. Because she goes through three changes of clothes a day and this onesie was clean. Because it matters not one iota whether strangers in the street can tell what sex she is. Why do I care if some dude I’ve never met thinks she’s a boy? Because I refuse to dress her in pink lace, with flowers and butterflies and headbands and a baby wig and a giant tattoo on her forehead that screams “GIRL!” for fear that someone, somewhere, might think she’s a boy.

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Thin Privilege

It’s not a compliment when you tell me how skinny I look, considering I housed another being only five months ago.

I know you think it is.

Because after all, who doesn’t want to be skinny?

Who doesn’t want to shed all that useless, disgusting pregnancy weight?

Once the baby has been squeezed from within, the race is on.

To lose, to vest, to melt the pounds.

It’s not a compliment when you call me ‘teeny-tiny mama’.

Would you comment on someone who hasn’t sprung back to their pre-pregnancy size?

You wouldn’t.

People’s bodies. No, women’s bodies, are open season.

Gossip fodder. Watercooler chatter. Who’s too fat. Who’s too thin.

I’m lucky. I have thin privilege. I don’t have to think about people assessing my weight in the grocery store.

Or shifting uncomfortably when I sit next to them on the bus

Or concern-trolling, ‘worried’ about my health

But it’s not a compliment when you pinch my stomach, or loudly joke about my jean size.

It’s my body. Not yours.

I don’t want it highlighting in public places. I don’t want to feel self-conscious. I’m not public property.

It’s embarrassing. What am I supposed to say?

And it’s not an achievement. It’s just genetics.

I did nothing to deserve the genes that determine my body shape.

It’s a compliment when you tell me how good a mother I am. Or how patient I am. Or funny. Or clever. Or anything really that isn’t related to my body that I did nothing to deserve.

It’s not a compliment when your greeting makes reference to my weight.

It just serves to reinforce the idea that the most important job I have, the foremost task, is to lose weight.

Not be be a caring parent. Not to have a happy baby. Not to sleep.

But to ditch the pounds.

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To parent, or not to parent

We all come about our decision to parent in different ways. For some, it’s an instantaneous lightbulb moment. You simply wouldn’t have it any other way. Perhaps it’s a culmination of years of scheming, backed by an urgent fever to be a mom or a dad. Perhaps you just know – this is the right time for me.

For others, it’s a slower process that meanders crazily, randomly, tumultuously as you explore your options. Perhaps your pregnancy came about more ease, and less planning, than you might like. Maybe you looked at the pregnancy test with shock, surprise, or delight tinged heavily with fear. You swing back and forth, back and forth, in an emotionally-draining pendulum process to the point where you no longer know what your heart wants.

For those people, I am an options counsellor. For years, I have curled up on my chair and listened as hundred talk through their decision to be a parent. Some women come with their partners. Some come with a parent or friend. Others still with a carer or social worker.

I’m not an abortion counsellor. I’m an options counsellor. That means I help you explore all your options. Every single one. Parenting, abortion and adoption. None are off limits unless you want them to be. I can’t make the decision for you. I can only guide you on the path to the right choice for you. You alone have the right to make the decision, and I know this can also be a huge responsibility that weighs heavily on your shoulders.

I never judge you. Ever. I met you an hour ago. I have no right to make decisions about your life. But I can support you every step of the way. I give you a safe space to talk, explore your feelings, ask questions, cry even, and hopefully, help you come to peace with your decision, whatever it may be.

I love reassuring you there is no correct way to feel. That you are normal. That you’re not selfish or crazy. I love bursting the myths you’ve been bombarded with – that single parents are feckless and lazy, that only uncaring people choose adoption or that abortion causes breast cancer.

I hate that I can’t rescue you from the situation you’re in. Some women know instantly what they need to do. For others, there is no easy answer. And sometimes, life feels so very unfair. Women who desperately want to parent but whose partner will leave them if they do, whose parents will kick them out, or who know they cannot raise a child with severe disabilities. Women who want to choose abortion but feel they don’t deserve one, fear their partner will become violent if they do, or know we judge so terribly women who chose abortion.

Not once, never, have I thought ‘I know what you should do’. If your decision was easy, you wouldn’t be sitting in front of me. No woman’s choice is the same. No woman’s life is the same as another’s. But there are themes. After several years, motifs tend to run through the testimony to which I bear witness.

Longing – deep, deep longing.

Shame – hot coursing shame that bows the head and curls the limbs.

Concern for others – what will people think of me? How will I explain my decision to others?

And guilt. The ever-present guilt. It doesn’t matter which option you favour, guilt lingers in the room long after you’ve departed.

I usually don’t know which option each woman will choose when she leaves me. But I hope and trust that her time with me made that decision a little bit easier.

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Head Over Heels With Everything And Nothing

She’s five months old now. She laughs. Constantly. At everything and nothing. Her wide, spontaneous, open-mouth smiles are given generously. To us, to her grandparents, to neighbours, to the deer that crash through the front yard.

Her clammy mitts grab at everything and nothing. At solid objects she can swiftly cram into her mouth to ease the teething pain. At patterns on her own clothes. “I’m doing all the right moves, but this damn owl won’t appear in my hand. WHY WHY WHY??!!??””. At hair, and glasses, and food, and noses. At books and phones. At ears and flowers.

When she’s sleepy, she nuzzles into my neck. Like when she was newborn. She shakes her head back and forth, rooting for that perfect spot around my collarbone, to rest her cheek.

We feed in a dark quiet room now. Everything and nothing distracts her otherwise. Even still, once her first hunger is satiated, once the fierce need for food has abated and her suckling slows, she becomes aware again of the space around her. Of me. A dawning realisation that hey, this lovely lady is attached to this feeding device. She twists her head to the side, nipple still in her mouth, to peer up at me. Her bright, smiling eyes search for mine, and my nipple falls out as she grins, toothlessly and heart-meltingly.

Yesterday, there was a mosquito in her bedroom. It buzzed us as she drank. Swooping down, attracted by our heat and smell, it retreated again to avoid my swatting hand. When it paused on the curtain, I tried to squash it. Apparently, I don’t have cat-like reflexes, because I failed. At one point, it managed to bite my leg. I know this because after putting baby to sleep, I discovered a welt on my knee. And at one point, it managed to bite baby on the cheek. I don’t know how, or when. But a mini-spot, a red dot emerged slowly as she slept.

I have never been more angry at an insect in my life. How dare it bite my baby? How dare it hurt her? My precious, precious child. I can’t bring myself to kill the spiders or ants that crawl from the basement and appear in our living room, but I sure wanted to hunt that mosquito down and make it suffer.

When my baby emerged from me, slippery and silent, hot and curled up, she was placed on my chest, and I loved her. An instinctive love. A hormonal love. I was dazed, exhausted, bewildered but in love.

At times, I loved her, but didn’t like her very much (think toe-curlingly painful breastfeeding, tiredness so bone-numbing I thought I was going insane, and a mewling infant who took took took but never gave back).

But now, I love her properly. A love that grows from knowing someone inside out. Every inch of her. And she adores me. You can see it in her eyes. She needs me. We made her with pieces of us. I grew every single part of her while she was inside me. And I still do. Every ounce she’s gained, every cell developed, has been fueled by my milk.

I miss her when she naps in the next room. While she sleeps, I look at photos of her. When she plays with her grandparents, I’m pleased that I’m exclusively breastfeeding, because it’s the one task I can justify stealing her back for. The one role only I can play. She and I get some much-needed alone time. I talk to her as she suckles. I tell her about her birth, about my hopes for her, about how much I love her. I tell her I couldn’t live without her. Because it’s true.

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I Don’t Change Diapers

“I don’t change diapers. Disgusting. That’s women’s work”.

Those words, my friends, were spat from the mouth of my cousin’s partner. The father of their six month-old child. Six months. So, about 184 days. If we guesstimate that your averagely-hydrated, bouncing baby cruises through approximately eight diapers a day, that’s nearly 1500 diapers he’s refused to change. 1500 diapers his wife has taken off, washed, and re-fastened. Because it’s women’s work.

You often hear the question, posed in a teasing voice to new fathers, “so, have you changed a diaper yet?”. I have no idea why refusing to change diapers is a badge of honour among some men. A symbol of their manliness. A shorthand code indicating they haven’t been feminised by the arrival of a baby. It’s almost said with pride, or issued as a challenge.

Because cleaning up someone else’s waste is beneath them. It’s a dirty task. You get mustard baby-poo under your nails. A sharply-aimed squirt drenches you in urine. A rushed change means that later in the day, you find a swipe of sunshine across your cheek, missed in the flurry of clothes removed, buttons snapped, fasteners sealed.

Some men are just above handling all that mess. It’s a task you give to the hired help. Or your wife. You may as well say, ‘I’m too important to handle someone else’s bodily fluids. But my wife? Nah, she’s so low, she’s worth so little, it’s perfect for her”. That’s how little I think of the person I love, the person I chose to spend my life with, the co-creator of this wonderful being. That’s the level of contempt I have for the mother of my child. Not only is being knee-deep in this creature’s filth perfect for her, not only is this thankless, mundane task just right for her, it also takes up her time, and she really doesn’t have enough to do. Between feeding, rocking, soothing, laundry, groceries and perhaps even wedging in a shower, she’s pretty much footloose and fancy free. She’s totally got time for yet another childcare task!

All those thoughts ran through my mind in an instant. And yet I was so dumbfounded by his statement, I couldn’t think of anything to say.

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How parenting is curing perfectionism

I don’t turn around. Ever. Even when I’ve forgotten something vital. Especially when I’ve forgotten something vital. I just can’t bring myself to turn back. It’s admitting failure. It hurts the perfectionist in me. 

I do like to get things exactly right. I probably need to get things exactly right, if I’m honest. I hate screwing up. Hate it.

Becoming a parent changed all that. Uncomfortably so. Because I know how to operate as a perfectionist. As a grade A student. As someone gets it right first time. I don’t know how to work myself as someone who gets it wrong and has to try again.

But oh my sainted aunts, did parenting a newborn throw that out the window. Cause you can’t get it right. Partly, cause sometimes, there is no right. You do everything the books tell you – rocking, swaddling, hushing, downloading white noise mp3s, car rides, vacuum cleaners, hairdryers (don’t ask), car seats, suckling, skin-to-skin. And it doesn’t matter. You still have a kid who looks and sounds like the world is going to end any minute now.

And partly, cause you screw up one day, then get a complete do over the next. Baby doesn’t know. She doesn’t remember that you accidentally kept her awake for seven hours straight because you didn’t know she needed to sleep, and then she screamed the house down for a long, long time until it finally dawned that she might be horribly overtired.

She doesn’t remember that  you only discovered the magic of the all-soothing swaddle at week four. Or that you didn’t realise that partly green diaper contents (sorry folks,) weren’t normal. Or that (continues ad infinitum)

We’ve made so many mistakes in the last eight weeks that I should stop referring to them as mistakes. There are no right answers. Just attempts to get things right. And sometimes, the strategies simply keep you busy while baby works out her issues for herself, thankyouverymuch.

Like with the gassiness. We tried tummy massage. We forced minty gas drops into her mouth on a pipette (she hated it and spat it out. We laughed at her ‘sucking-on-a-lemon’ face). We bicycled her legs. We altered her feeding positions. I eliminated entirely random foods from my diet (goodbye beans. See you later cheese. Adios carbs). One person actually advised us to stop taking baby for a walk on windy days. Yes, the idea being that she swallows wind and it makes her gassy. Ohdearlord, that’s not even science. And honestly, all it did was give us something to focus on while she grew out of being gassy. Cause if someone has told us it’d be four weeks of crankiness, we’d have got in the car and driven to Florida. Without the baby. Instead, we kept ourselves merrily occupied researching new solutions online (“this blog says it could be a fear of heights” “GENIUS! THAT’S GOTTA BE IT!”) and implementing them, while she solved her own problem by, well, growing up.

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