Charlotte Bevan Could Be Any Of Us

It probably isn’t the healthiest impulse but I’ve updated the live coverage of the search for Charlotte Bevan and her baby every ten minutes. Something about the story has wormed its way inside me.

Something about that fine thread standing between Charlotte and every first-time mother. About how we’re all hanging on by our teeth. About how sleep deprivation fills our heads with sand and makes the world seem impossibly grey and impossible to bear.

Charlotte walked out of a maternity ward with her four day-old daughter. She was wearing light clothing and hospital slippers. Her tiny daughter, face still scrubbed raw from birth, was wrapped in two blankets. After 30 hours of searching in freezing temperatures, police found the bodies of mama and baby at the bottom of a gorge, below a suspension bridge.

This is was the worst possible outcome yet it still manages to be even more terrible than imagined.

Because it touches a nerve inside every first time mother. Every one who has ever felt, in those dark, hormonal, lonely and lost first days, that motherhood doesn’t measure up, that you don’t measure up, that you can’t do this. You can’t be everything you should be. You don’t know what to do. It doesn’t come naturally.

We say we’ll never know what was in Charlotte’s head as she held her daughter and walked towards the bridge, except we’re lying. We can, most of us, stretch the thoughts in our own heads in those early days, and reach the place Charlotte was at. We can imagine the despair, the fear, the love that caused her to end her life and the life of her baby girl.

We perhaps can’t imagine taking the steps she eventually took. But we can vividly remember the thoughts that brought her there. Perhaps our families stepped in, perhaps we had better post-natal support, perhaps we stayed on medication, or were watched more closely.

To be so certain, so divinely sure that the world is better without you in it. That life is too unbearable to continue. That you cannot be a good mother to your daughter.

You are driven by love. You love your baby so much, but know you’ve already failed her. You cannot live, and she cannot live without you.

You are so very wrong, so terribly wrong. But to you, it is truth.

There, but for the grace of God, go I.

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The Real Reasons Women Don’t Run For Office

The secret to The Onion’s humour lies mainly in the fact it is anchored in truth. One of my favourite pieces – “Man finally put in charge of struggling feminist movement” sees 53 year-old management consultant, Buck, take the helm of feminism and finally bringing some rigour, a head for numbers and much-needed clarity to the movement. Without a silly, emotional woman in charge, feminism achieves its goals in just two years.

This week’s incarnation of The Onion comes from Scott Gilmore, who wonders why women aren’t running for political office, when it’s so very easy (all the men are doing it, after all).

His helpful advice is ‘quit moaning about sexism and find a way to jump those barriers’. If you don’t have time, make time. No money? Raise it. No networks? Build ’em. It’s that easy ladies. Goodness knows why you daft things didn’t think of it earlier. Sometimes it just takes a man to talk some sense into us, I suppose.

Let’s start with the meta issue. One day, a man will have an idea for his national column and say, “wait, I have very little expertise on this topic. Maybe I’m not the person to write it. Perhaps my voice doesn’t add anything to the debate, and let’s be honest, the world doesn’t need more white men’s thinkpieces”. That day is not today.

Now let’s ask ourselves why women don’t run for office. Is it because our little ladybrains don’t know it only costs $200 to enter our candidacy? Or is it because we face systemic barriers that generally don’t exist for men?

The crux of the problem with Scott’s piece is that it individualises systemic sexism, and places the onus on women to solve our own oppression.

It doesn’t speak to the lack of affordable childcare, or the fact that women still do the bulk of household chores. It ignores the role of mentorship and training, provided by organisations like Equal Voice and the Canadian Labour Congress, in equipping women with the networks and skills men already have.

It doesn’t talk about why women may not want to waste their time running for unwinnable seats – sometimes all that’s available to us. Or the deeply entrenched societal attitudes towards women in power. The discussion of our outfits on the campaign trail. The ‘concern’ about how our children will cope. The soft portfolios we’re expected to handle, like housing and health. The sexual harassment, the media coverage, or the family-unfriendly hours.

It doesn’t deal with the reasons girls start lacking confidence in their abilities well before high school. “Lack confidence?”, Gilmore asks. “Find it”, is his answer (if it helps, I hear Shoppers has a two-for-one deal on confidence this week. Plus you get double the Optimum points).

Later on twitter, Scott addressed some of the criticism, saying if your partner doesn’t do his fair share of household chores, you should get a new partner. Fantastic and totally realistic solution! Because everyone knows single parenting is easy peasy, and completely compatible with running for office!

As for women needing to accept we can’t have it all, I wonder when we ever thought that was true. Recent research shows it isn’t kids holding back women’s careers, it’s our male partners. Women can’t have it all for the very reason that men are currently busy taking it all.

And when you tell women, “sorry about that endemic discrimination. Nothing we can do about it. You’ll just have to work harder”, the only women who can go that extra mile are those with the resources. Wealthy women with supportive partners. Women who can afford nannies, or who have family willing to pick up the slack. So you shut out women of colour, low-income women, and women who aren’t connected to the establishment.

I know a number of amazing women who have run for office – I’ve worked for them, I’ve run their campaigns, I’m friends with them, they are my family. They ‘leaned in’, and against the odds, they won. That doesn’t mean their experience was easy, or that because they made it, we shouldn’t remove the unfair barriers they faced. Tackling the systemic barriers that prevent women from entering politics creates a flowdown that benefits all women. Telling women they need to suck it up and try harder means only certain women will be able to push against the tide.

Oh, and if you’re a commissioning editor, next time a man submits a piece lecturing women on what they’re doing wrong, ask him to suggest a woman to write that piece instead.

Lauren Dobson-Hughes is a former political staffer, and current President of Planned Parenthood Ottawa. She can be found at @ldobsonhughes

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Working While Female – Paying the Price for Sexual Harrassment

I post this as an entirely hypothetical situation. It’s like a story, fictional, invented. It certainly never happened to me. And certainly not at my workplace.

You begin a new job. Within days, a creeping feeling gnaws at your extremities, as your (older, male) boss describes to you the curvaceous figure of his sister-in-law, complete with exaggerated hand gestures cupping her breasts and stroking her hips. A few weeks later, it’s your wedding anniversary. In front of the whole office, your boss refers graphically to your sex life, and what you’ll get up to that night. You bloom scarlet.

A few months pass, during which, your boss does the following

– repeatedly refers to younger female staff as ‘kiddo’, ‘sweetheart’ or ‘sunshine’

– Hires a lovely, but totally unqualified young woman, then proceeds to make numerous comments about her figure and sex life.

– Said young woman wishes to purchase an expensive bike but isn’t sure her partner will approve of the large expense. Boss suggests she “go to Victoria’s Secrets, put on some tiny, sexy lingerie, and get on the bike. Bet you he’ll want to buy it then.”

– One staff member was introduced to another employee as ‘cute and pretty’.

– In a staff meeting, the breasts of another staff member were discussed.

– A staff member changing into workout gear in her closed office is told she’s putting on a strip show for the neighbours, and should open her door so the rest of us can see

– Sexist jokes are shared, and female staff receive unwanted attention and intrusion into their personal lives.

– The n-word is used in front of a black employee

Over time, the gnawing feeling evolves into deep unhappiness and a lead weight settles on your shoulders. But you’re new. So you don’t know what to do. There’s no one you trust at work to discuss it with. But you know this isn’t right. There’s a formal grievance procedure in the handbook, but you’re acutely aware of your precarious position. You don’t want to rock the boat. After all, he’s not groping you, so maybe you just can’t take a joke. Eventually, this feeling will be scrubbed away by repeated attempts to ignore you. You grow immune to being told you’re a pain in the backside, and why don’t you get a sense of humour. You stop caring.

But back to then. You tentatively call HR with a hypothetical situation. You’re testing the waters. HR admits the scenario you’ve outlined would indeed be unacceptable. But indicates they “don’t want to take this too seriously”. Apparently, the boss’s manager will have a discrete chat with the offender. You’re never clear whether this is actually done. The harassment continues unabated.

Over another six months, your concerns are reported in various ways, increasing in volume and strength, yet little action is taken. The concerns are always acknowledged as correct and valid. Nobody seems surprised to hear them, yet no significant action is taken.

So you reach boiling point. And compose an epic, four page formal grievance, which you send directly to the CEO. To her credit, the CEO calls you immediately to apologise, to make you aware she never knew (you believe her), and to order an investigation.

The investigation begins, and after several months, the boss is found to have breached the Code of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act. However, it is decided not to discipline him. Because apparently, he wasn’t quite aware of how unacceptable his actions were.

Instead, the female staff who came forward after the complaint (the floodgates opened, and once an independent investigator was hired, miraculously, a dozen women felt safe enough to share their stories) were told the boss, previously working from home, would return to the office as usual. And they were to assist in his reintegration. They were to support their harasser and were forbidden from making any reference to his behaviour. The past is the past, you know. We can’t hold grudges. And disciplinary action could be taken against you, if you can’t get along.

The employee who filed the original complaint was previously in the process of being promoted. That promotion was agreed in principle prior to the complaint. You then take maternity leave, with the promotion to come into effect upon your return to work. You negotiate terms and conditions. You “lean in” and push for extra pay and vacation. You win, and a formal offer letter follows.

You start your new role after maternity leave, but funnily enough, find that many your previous responsibilities have disappeared. You no longer manage the staff you previously oversaw, for example. But your new pay level, title and vacation are enacted, as agreed. Except two months later, your HR advisor briefly mentions they won’t be honouring your extra vacation entitlement. Apparently, you were too “pushy” during the negotiations. So sorry about that.

After veiled threats of legal action (the basics of contract law appear to have eluded your Head of HR), they back down. But only after saying that you negotiated too hard, and didn’t deserve the extra pay or improved conditions. And threatening to sue you if you revealed the terms or conditions of your employment.

You are now persona non grata at work. You are the trouble-maker. You wonder if stripping your responsibilities was punishment for the sexual harassment complaint. Or for the fact you took maternity leave and may do again in the next few years. You wonder what would have happened if you’d not threatened legal action. You wonder, if ‘lean in’ doesn’t even work for the privileged white women it’s supposed to help, then what’s the bloody point?

You amuse yourself by imagining the horror if you sent out a organization-wide call for unionization. You wonder how an organization that supposedly campaigns for social justice can treat its own staff in this way. You consider writing a blogpost about it all, but you aren’t sure you’ll ever publish it.

Then you think, what the hell. It’s all hypothetical anyway. This is just a story. Made up. Invented. Totally not real.

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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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