Gaza, Babies and “As A Parent”

Babies, sleeping peacefully. Ghostly faces smudged with dust. Sheets mangled around their barrel tummies. Except they’re not sleeping. They’re dead.

The latest declenchment of the ages-old conflict between Israel and Palestine has resulted in tiny coffin upon tiny coffin. In a shameful toll on the youngest. On children, with their skinny chicken legs, gangly arms and terrified eyes.

Twitter auto-loads images. Whether you want them to or not. And so this week, I’ve cried at photos of dead babies. Of parents holding their curled-up children in their arms, grief blasted into their faces. Of sisters and brothers jumbled together in a morgue, their empty bodies embracing in the worst way.

Before I had a child, my reaction to these images would have been the same. Horror, anger, despair, unable to look away because someone should have to bear witness to the pain. And I’ve never had time for parents who scoff superciliously “well, as a parent…”.

What? You need to be a parent to think the killing of children is abhorrent? Your moral core is broken if you’re child-free?

But it is more than that. I have no more sympathy as a parent. I have no more outrage, and there is no a hierarchy of horror where those with a soccer team of kids feel the poignancy of death most. What I do have is my whole world, wandering around unprotected. I have a baby with those big eyes, that swollen tummy and the loping walk. And I can imagine her, over and over, swaddled in a blanket, rust smeared on her beautiful face. How delicate her skin is, how easily upset she is. The look of terror when she can’t find us. The heart-rending cries when she is frightened.

As a parent, those images distress me no less than they do my child-free friends. But they hit me somewhere special. They find that piece of my heart reserved for my daughter and they wiggle inside.

I cannot unsee dead babies. And I cannot not imagine what if it were me.

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Israel, Palestine and Rising Up

That famous experiment, where ordinary people bow to authority and deliver fatal electric shocks. It has a lot to teach us still.

It has a lot to teach us about how a small pocket can control an entire populace. About how powerless we are in our lives, even when we vastly outnumber our oppressors. About the weight of authority and the force of social conditioning.

It’s the only way I can explain why the people of Palestine and Israel do not rise up together and say enough. Enough of you playing wargames with our existence. All of you. Regardless of your race, creed, colour, religion or state. From Hamas to the pro-Israeli hawks. You are using our bodies to collectively punish us for your sins.

History is important. History matters. And yet it doesn’t. When I look upon the mutilated body of my child, when I dig my wife from her dusty, rubbled grave, when the anodyne memo arrives telling me I am no longer a mother, history is as irrelevant as your words to the media, telling the world that my child’s sacrifice was worth it.

Enough. Our bodies are not proxies in your war. The winner does not claim their prize based on the mounting death toll of our children.

Our graveyards are not your playground. We are people. All of us. We are lovers, mothers, brothers, children. We are not lifeless vessels to be filled with your lingering grudges. Our babies, be they the oldest resident – crooked in her walk, milky in her eyes, yet still somebody’s child – or the youngest – chicken-legged, squished nose from birth, milky-scented. Our babies are not cannon fodder. They are not numbers to grow, so they add to your case.

When we leave this world, we do not do so because we can fuel your blood lust, because our corpses make excellent propaganda, because our only value to you is covered in bomb-dust, photogenic in death. We do so in anguish. With the harrowing cry of a child who has lost his father. With the grief of a husband who will never see his lover’s smile again. With the gut-punch of a sister who clings to her brother’s missile-scarred body. With the utter devastation of a mother looking her son in the eye as he lies on the table of a morgue.

Rise up. All of you. Together.

Raise your collective voices. Your common experience, and it is common, because loss has no creed, your common experience shames us. We should down our eyes. We should feel that twisting gut that tells us we’ve wronged. All of you. Our leaders. You have led us wrong. You have betrayed our shared humanity.

We are not weapons in your battle. We are not rockets to aim at the other side. We *are* the other side.

So we march. Together. United in our grief. We say enough. We have suffered enough at your collective hands, that we say, as a collective, you must stop. There are no gains to be made by obliterating us. There is no peace to be gained by massacring the innocent.

So by the power invested in us all, by our voices raised together in anger, we say enough.

 

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I had post-natal depression

I had post-natal depression. I had it for so long, I didn’t even know it. It lived with me for nine months before I sought help. Before it occurred to me that something might be wrong.

Looking back, I don’t understand how I didn’t know. How it escaped not just my notice, but the notice of everyone around me, that things just weren’t right. To be fair, ‘escape my notice’ is a euphemism. Just four weeks after baby arrived, in the ink-black morning, after hours and hours trapped, pacing a tiny room, frantically rocking a mewling, sleepless creature, I sank into a chair and googled ‘post-partum depression’.

So somewhere in my sleep-adled, hormonal brain, I registered that things were weird. They weren’t quite right. But they weren’t wrong enough for anyone to notice. I did a great job, a fantastic job, of being normal. What ever normal is for a new mom.

And whenever I tried to broach the wrongness with people, it ended badly. I say broached, because it’s mental health. And motherhood. You’re surrounded by beatific images of celebrity moms basking in their cherubic offspring. Of maternal sacrifice and the fulfilment that only comes from motherhood. Nobody wants to announce, ‘being a mom sucks and I cry all the time”. You may as well stick a giant, “moms are the best and I’m awful at it” sign on your head.

So I went for gingerly suggesting that I was tired all the time. Or I found the sleepless nights incredibly difficult. Or was plagued by frightening visions of my baby being hurt. Or couldn’t sleep. Or couldn’t countenance leaving my baby with anyone else.

And you either gently suggested this was all normal for a new mom. Or you scoffed ‘yeah – welcome to being a parent’. Or you raised your eyebrows, “what did you think being a mom was like?”. So I meekly accepted it. It was me who couldn’t cope. I was the weak, naive, stupid one who couldn’t deal with what millions of women face far worse than me. This was parenting. It was motherhood. And if I didn’t like it, if I couldn’t cope with it, then it was my own fault.

Looking back, there is anger. Anger that I tried to communicate my distress, in my own, addled, woolly way. That professionals who should have known did not step in. That I pushed as hard as I was able, and those who were supposed to help did not catch me when I fell.

Don’t get me wrong. There were wonderful moments. Crazy in love, head-swimming hugs with my baby, gleeful dancing in the living room as she hit various milestones, snuggles with a soft, milky bundle nestled into my chest.

But there were awful moments. Awful visions that frighten me. Terrifying thoughts so potent I daren’t write them down for fear that seeing the words will cause them to take physical shape and spring to life. Sheer panic at the anticipation of all the tasks that lay ahead. The laundry, the cleaning, the dishes, the groceries, the childcare.

And there were plenty of grey moments. Of nothingness. Of a void inside so deep I fell into it and couldn’t clamber out. Of a deadness, as if my emotional nerves had been burned beyond repair and were numb to any stimulus. Wavering attention, I couldn’t concentrate. I don’t mean reading War and Peace in one sitting. I mean couldn’t read a single sentence without losing track and drifting off. Which for a voracious reader who eats books for breakfast, felt devastating.

I was recently asked what I worried about. I didn’t understand the question. “Like, do you mean today? Or this week?”. “Let’s start with this week”, she said. I replied,  “I’ll start with today and you tell me if you want me to keep going”.

- I heard a plane pass by loudly overhead and worried it was going to crash into the house
– My partner took the baby out so I could sleep. I couldn’t sleep in case he’d slipped on the ice, and they were both lying unconscious in the driveway
–  I drove over a bridge and worried about yanking the wheel and driving over the edge
– I put laundry in the washer and worried about involuntarily stuffing my baby in there and turning on the water
– Winter. All of winter. Leaving baby outside to freeze. The heating breaking overnight and freezing baby. Forgetting baby in the car.
– Then the mundane like in-laws, co-workers, household tasks

Everyday is like wearing a set of lead weights, with hangover and a foggy head. And a baby who needs not just you, but you at your best. And all of you. No part of you is left untouched, unmolested, uninterrupted by a baby. They take, take, take and then demand more. They give you a scant smile (or is it gas?) in return.

I joke about the visions. But to be plagued by vivid, real images of yourself deliberately hurting the one person you love more than life itself is devastating. It’s beyond exhausting. It is pain. Mental pain. The sharp strike of a headache. A punch to the gut that makes you cripple over. Imagine holding your daughter underwater as you watch her drown. Over and over. Over and over.

And there were times in the first few months, where I just couldn’t cope. Where I was found, sobbing uncontrollably, clinging to the crib, on my knees, “please take her away please please make her sleep make her stop”.

Recounting this; it seems so evidently abormal. And yet it wasn’t. For a first-time parent,  I had no barometer. No measure of average. When everyone said parenting was rough, and those tentative problems I complained of were par for the course, I accepted it.

That being said, since I got help (a psychologist, a psychiatrist and medication), the world seems a lot brighter. Not fully illuminated, but lighter. The images haven’t disappeared, but understanding I’m not a cruel, heartless person, and they are a trick of the brain, a chemical backfiring, helps greatly. The anxiety is a background hum, not a deafening roar.

So it can get better. It really can. My daughter just turned one. She is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but by far, the best.

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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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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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