Do we really want ordinary Champions?

At 6’5″ tall, it is apparent that Usain Bolt has a stride length much greater than that of the average sprinter. This seems a bit unfair to me, so I’m thinking that what we should do is chop a couple of inches off his legs. Oh, too harsh? Ok, well, what if we hobble him? Or sedate him? That should make him slower, right? Make the races more fair?

And what about that Simone Biles? It seems pretty obvious to me that she is totally taking advantage of being short and powerful. And that can’t be right or fair can it? I mean I’m 5’8″ and have been abandoned by my abs, but surely we should stretch her or something to level the playing field in the pursuit of Olympic Gold?

Meanwhile, there is South African runner, Caster Semenya. Apparently, she’s got testosterone levels in her blood that give her at least a 3% advantage over the other female athletes. 3%? In a 800m race, that gives her a 4 second headstart over her rivals – that’s hardly fair is it? Surely, if we’re going to chop off Usain’s legs, and stretch out Simone, we should definitely operate on Caster, or at least medicate her. You know, to make it more fair

Because using a naturally given gift for an advantage is so outrageous, right?

Well, I’m pretty sure that I don’t need to point out that the answer is no.

Obviously it is never acceptable to artificially enhance the performance of athletes, which is why the Russian team competing in the Olympics have found themselves so significantly depleted. But the advantage that Caster Semenya has over her competitors is no more cheating than the relative statures of these other gold-grabbing athletes. So why is she under such scrutiny? And why is the rhetoric around her story so vitriolic?

The behaviour of Semenya’s fellow athletes at the end of the 800m final last week stank of the jealously aimed at the smart girl/ the pretty girl/ the talented girl in a story that has played out in every school playground since the dawn of time. The mean girls exclude the threat to their perilous position at the top of the tree. They bad-mouth her and try to bring her down because she has shaken their branches and reminded them that perhaps they ain’t all that, after all.

Never, however, has this unedifying scene been played out under such a magnifying glass as it was last week when Semenya competed, amidst a cacophony of controversy, in the Olympic 800m final.

The photo taken at the end of the race shows Melissa Bishop of Canada, and Lynsey Sharp of Great Britain coldly ignoring the out-stretched hand of Caster Semenya and should embarrass them for excluding a fellow athlete, for what?

Being better than they are?

To complain that racing against Semenya is somehow unfair is like me opening the pages of a fashion magazine and complaining that the waif-like models, wafting around exotic locations in threads worth more than my car, should not be allowed to use the height, metabolism and symmetry that nature has gifted them to earn their wedge. Anyone sound in mind should quite rightly dismiss me as an envy-consumed hater incapable of loving the body she is in, perhaps at the same time as casting a withering glance in my direction as I main-line the Jaffa-cakes. So why should whining athletes be treated any differently when they complain that racing against Semenya is “hard”.

Equally bonkers is the attribution of Semenya’s success solely to the fact that her body produces more testosterone than the average female’s. For years she has trained her mind and body to run at great speed, with huge stamina, and to disregard this is narrow and self-serving.

It also seems fair to suggest that Semenya’s successful bid for gold, amidst a vitriolic media storm that has disregarded her basic rights to privacy, has demonstrated a level of grit and determination which should in fact be admired. Imagine having the validity of your status as an athlete, a gold medal winner, and a WOMAN, questioned to the degree that Semenya’s has been. Then imagine going out under the gaze of that world’s eye to compete, knowing that there are people to your left and right who don’t want you there. More than that, who think you don’t DESERVE to be there.

If there were such a thing as a gold medal for mental strength, Semenya could surely add this to her haul.

And what is it we are really scrutinising here? Semenya has been cleared of cheating. She has not artificially enhanced her performance as an athlete – she has simply taken advantage of a gift nature (or God, if it suits you) has given her. In that case, perhaps what is really fanning the flames of the inferno surrounding her is that here is a woman who is simply not feminine enough.

She has a strong jaw and forehead, a deep voice, narrow hips and a muscular frame. If you listen to some corners of the media, she has female genitalia but does not have any working reproductive organs. So let’s sweep aside the questions about how fair it is that such personal, possibly untrue, details are being used as bar-room banter, and let’s disregard her innocence, her upbringing and her belief that she is a woman. Because here is a female who is not soft enough, not slow enough, who is not woman enough.

Frustratingly we once again find ourselves judging and measuring a woman not by her abilities, but by her appearance. Despite Semenya proving her innocence, people remain discomforted by her presence on the track with the women who don’t defy the gender norms. The women who are softer, rounder, and far closer in appearance to the average woman on the street are simply easier to identify with and accept.

But this is the odd thing. Since when has underlining just how average the human body can be, been the aim of the Olympics? Sport at a global level is about extra-ordinary feats performed by extra-ordinary people who make the average person stop their daily lives to glory in the wonder that is the human body. A human body that, were it average, simply could not keep up.

It is fair to say that perhaps Semenya would not have won Gold without the extra testosterone, but this is a mute point – we will never know.  But surely one thing is for sure – we don’t want our athletes to be “normal” or “ordinary”, so it is time to leave Semenya alone to be exactly what we want from our Olympians: extra-ordinary.





What’s the point?

Like many teachers in inner-city schools, I am definitely the owner of an over-developed-do-gooder-bone. For years I had thought that the only way to keep it exercised was to work with children from challenging backgrounds, and give them the investment and energy that was lacking in their life from any other source. With the arrival of my own children, however, I just didn’t have enough of anything to go round. And so it was that the work that had meant so much to me for so many years, had to go.

Recently, however, I have realised that what I am now missing in my life was that kick I had always got from “making a difference”. Like the dad of a newborn (months old?) baby, the bone was itching from under-use and making me twitchy and uncertain.

At the same time I was becoming increasingly aware of how charities and individuals were using social media to promote their various causes and campaigns. From Mother_Pukka‘s #flexappeal campaign questioning the value traditional employment places on face-time in the office, to The World Wide Tribe‘s heartbreaking insights into the plight of refugees in camps across Europe, social media was being used as a powerful tool for change, for good.

And it has made me start to wonder. These days, unlike the time I wrote a post called So not Insta-Cool  , I am no longer the new girl in the school playground. For some reason I find impossible to fathom, over 2000 people have now joined me for my inane daily ramblings about motherhood, and photos of questionable quality. While in the world of Kylie Jenner and Zoella, this makes me less drop, and more atom-in-the-ocean, I have realised that I too can still do some GOOD with it, right?

Essentially, I have no plan, nowhere solid to go with this blog and Instagram thang, no idea what I’m doing. I have no business to promote, no product to plug, no book to sell, so what the chuff is the point?

Well, the point for me is that three years ago I was starting to emerge from the dark depths of early motherhood. The splash-down of The Eldest had razed the person-formerly-known-as-Nicola to the ground and it was the greatest physical and psychological challenge I have ever faced to breathe her back to life. But I did. And I’m here, stronger and more secure in my own skin than ever before.

But others might not be. Every day new women make the transformational leap into motherhood and not everyone will find it a smooth transition. Some will be fine and will love every minute. Others will struggle at first but ultimately find their own way. But still others will sit at home, neck-deep in a dark place while above the tide-line they present a controlled mask of calm and composure.

Focused on disguising the heavy despondency that sucks all light and joy out of life, they might not even know that there are people out there to whom they can turn for support, understanding and advice. I didn’t know, and the thought that other women might not either leaves a tightness in my chest and a hollow ache in my heart – I never want anyone to feel how I did.

So here I am. Explaining myself to you on the day I will throw myself into hosting an Instagram auction called #itsoknottobeok. The proceeds of the auction (and associated raffle) will all go to PANDAS Foundation, an amazing charity who work with families suffering the effects of pre and post natal depression.

Social media quite rightly has it detractors. It gives you the feeling that you are building connections and a community in a way that is not bound by geography or time zone, but meanwhile, the people right in front of you struggle to get your attention, or even your eye contact. This said however, rightly or wrongly, cringingly or not, in the last six months, Instagram has brought me inspiration, community and support at a time in my life when the sands beneath my feet were shifting and shaping into a landscape that I didn’t recognise. It has also opened my eyes to the world of possibility that there is out there.

In essence, I have realised that there is a very real possibility that little-old-lopsided-me, being pulled off-centre by the weight of my over-sized-do-gooder-bone, can DO something that will help someone.  So please excuse me while I toot on my own trumpet, take this opportunity and use it as a stage to sing as loudly as I can to all the mums out there that you can do this, you are enough, but in the meantime, while you figure things out, it is ok not to be ok.

There are people here to listen, to help, to support – you are not alone.

If you are interested in finding out more about the auction, then please head over to my Instagram feed, the link to which you can find on the top left of this page on a computer, or by clicking on the Menu icon in the top left corner of your screen if you are viewing this on your phone. 

To find out more about PANDAS Foundation, then click here.

The auction will run from Monday 15th August 2016 until Sunday 21st August 2016, and will be followed by a raffle which will be open for one week.

A voice in the chorus

As a virtuoso pedlar of intimacy-at-a-distance, that strange phenomenon when a complete stranger writes something that makes you feel as though they have set up camp in your head,  Daisy Buchanan describes it as,

“I sometimes feel as though I’m trying to start a choir. I’ll describe a situation that has made me feel small, scared or stupid, reasoning I can’t be the only one who knows the words. Surely at least one other voice will join me in the dark? And sometimes we reach the chorus and arrive at this incredible swell of sound, as everyone shouts, “Me too!” Together we become loud – and strong.”

After the birth of The Eldest in 2012, I needed a choir. But there was nothing there. I felt small, scared and stupid, but most of all I felt alone and I was desperate for another voice to “join me in the dark”.

Since those bleak days however, with the emergence of a particular kind of confessional “mummy-blogger”, I assumed that women who become mothers today and tomorrow are surely better served than I was.  If they too want to punch someone in the face every time they are told to “cherish every moment”, or daily fight the urge to call their tantruming two-year-old a twat, these days they at least know they are not alone.

But then, in response to a post I’d written about the birth of my second child,  I was contacted by a woman who made me stop assuming, and start thinking:

“My labour with my daughter is still haunting me and makes me feel really effing sad and inadequate. The lack of noise around this stuff just cements that, so thank you for sharing.”

I thought that everything that needed to be said, had been. I thought the expectation that mothers should embrace every part of mothering without so much of a whisper from their previously intact, independent self, had died with the birth of “honest parenting”. But this message proved me wrong.

The writing of a post about my difficult first six months of motherhood had been cathartic to write, but I had never pressed publish – I was certain that I had nothing of benefit or originality to contribute to the conversation. It felt self-indulgent, a bit wanky and didn’t fit with the way I feel these days about being a mother.  This message however, told me that I had missed something – I hadn’t considered that every day there are women out there landing in the exact dark place that I had already climbed out of, and that perhaps this is not actually about me. Instead, they need someone to say something. 

So, here is my story. Sorry it’s so long (and a bit wanky). A lot of sh*t happened along the way.

The birth of my first child is not the most horrendous story you will ever hear but it did take 23 hours of contractions every 3 minutes or less, while birthing a back-to-back baby who resolutely refused to turn. Eventually, with the “assistance” of forceps, and the associated episiotomy (and bonus third degree tear – go me) she was born safely. Less sound, however, was my sanity.

I went home after four exhausting, unbearably hot days on the Postnatal Ward and although I was relieved to be home, the considerable pain I was in somewhat cooled the mythical warm glow of new motherhood. The reality was that the prolonged pushing stage of my labour had left me so swollen that I felt like I was sitting on a golf ball and I couldn’t imagine how I was ever going to poo again without my insides falling out.

The following day we were visited by a community midwife who checked my stitches, gave us some advice about feeding, and left, never to be seen again. She came into my home, touched my baby, looked at my foof being held together with half a metre of fishing line and was undeniably lovely throughout, but I don’t even know her name. This was only the start.

Over the ensuing six months, at the most vulnerable time of my entire life, I didn’t see the same health professional more than once. On one occasion in the early days, a midwife, her student, and the health visitor all arrived in my house at the same time and sat having a chat for twenty minutes. I felt bemused, uncomfortable and wondered whether it would be acceptable to tell them all to chuff off. I wish I had. Perhaps then they would have noticed that I was going a bit mental.

To be fair, I didn’t want to be ill – it just wasn’t something that happened to people like me. When I was leaving sixth form back in 1999, my A Level English teacher had told me that no matter what I did, he was sure I would be successful. This remains one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me and I sure as hell was not going to let motherhood prove his confidence to be misplaced.

So, in total denial, I did what every new mum does and asked someone wiser, cleverer and more well-informed than I was.

Google obligingly spat out a slew of information and questionnaires about the signs of PND. I however, told myself that because I was having no trouble sleeping, and had no difficulty getting out of the house, I was not suffering from anything other than the understandable turmoil of adjusting to no longer being at the centre of my own world.

My total exhaustion despite having a baby who, relatively speaking, was a champion sleeper, and my obsessive insistence on leaving the house because I despised my own company, should have been red flags. I had barely any appetite, and the almost constant sensation of someone squeezing my windpipe meant I couldn’t eat so I lost the baby weight with alarming speed. In stark contrast to the compliments that came rolling in about my body “snapping back” was the reality that all along my mind was in danger of just plain snapping.

I was a nightmare. My mood swings and anxiety were out of control and I was so very, very angry. I had episodes of fierce hyper-vigilance when I would feel sick if anyone except me, my partner or my mum held the baby, but then I would lurch all the way over to fantasising about walking out of the door and never coming back. They would all be better off without me – raging, unreasonable, rubbish me – I was sure.

So next I blamed the pill.

Being on the pill at this point probably makes it sounds like the “husband” and I were having “relations” but I can assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. My fanny still felt like it had been hit with a Nutri-Bullet and any suggestion of intimacy triggered flash-backs to the internal examination the obstetrician had performed during a contraction – I could see the grimace on her face, hear my primal scream, and each time this happened I would experience my humanity desert me as it had done in that moment. Not sexy.

Sorting out contraception had in fact been just another thing on the long list of things that I was told I “should” do but once Google told me that the mini pill that I had been taking could be responsible for how I was feeling, I decided to consult someone with actual medical training.

At my appointment, I asked the GP all of my questions about the pill which he duly answered. Just before the appointment ended however, the question that I realised I had really come to ask popped out of my mouth, “Or could these things be something to do with Post-Natal Depression?” A question that surely should have rang an Austrian cow-bell-sized-alarm, right? Well, not exactly. Because what I had foolishly done was book an on-the-day appointment with a very young male doctor who it seems had just finished sniffing his text book. Finding himself inexplicably in front of patients, he shit himself when faced with the reality of a mental woman with a baby and got extremely flustered. To be kind(!), I quickly backtracked on my question and hot-footed it out of there.

So, 4 months into motherhood there were days that I screamed at my perfect baby girl because she wouldn’t take a bottle and my nipples were sore and red and burning with thrush.

There were times that I convulsed with body-wrenching cries that tore at my insides in grief for how it should have been.

I felt a grim, irrational protectiveness over my daughter which drove a desire to be near her at all times. But at the same time I desperately want someone else to take over, to take charge, to take her away.

And then I felt guilt. A friend had given birth to a little boy the week before my daughter was born and he hadn’t survived. I was tormented by the thoughts of why couldn’t I just be grateful? Why wasn’t the fact that my daughter was healthy, “the main thing” that everyone insisted it was?

Almost 6 months to the day after The Eldest had been born we awoke one Sunday morning to the news that my sister-in-law had given birth to a healthy baby boy. I expressed my delight then left the room in a hurry.

Why couldn’t I have a straight-forward birth? What did I do wrong? It’s not fair. I’m such a failure… I’m so weak… I wasn’t strong enough… I don’t deserve to be a mother… The injustice, the grief, the hurt and anger overflowed in that moment and with total abandon I picked up the pots and pans from the night before’s dinner and I threw them.

I don’t have the words to capture the intensity of the fury that consumed me in that moment.

Alongside the self-loathing, I was intensely jealous of any woman who hadn’t gone through what I had. “What did I do wrong? Why me?” was the question I returned to again and again. In my twisted version of a Girl Guide pack, failing to earn my “Natural Birth” badge meant that I had failed to be a proper woman.

Later that day we found out that my sister-in-law had endured an emergency c-section, preceded by a failed Ventouse.

I. stopped. dead.

Only a matter of weeks later, she was the first person to ever echo how I felt about my daughter’s birth. When she spoke of her guilt, and her feelings of inadequacy, I told her the truth – that she was no less a woman for not having a “normal” birth. She had done an incredible thing and she should be proud. That fictional “Natural Birth” badge of honour “don’t mean shit” and no one else cares how your baby was born.

Well, surely it was about time that I believed these things about myself?

I never actually received a formal diagnosis of PND or an anxiety disorder or whatever Fucking-Mental-Madness took over my life for those months but whenever I read the accounts of those who have “officially” been through it, I identify so completely that there is little doubt in my mind.

And the thing is that now, as shit as it undeniably was, my experiences mean that I feel like a stronger person, and I’m certainly a more empathetic one. I’ve adopted the attitude that what I have gained more than makes up for what I suffered, but it remains that having enjoyed the first 18 months of my son’s life, I can now see even more clearly how it “should” have been. The sadness creeps in occasionally if I allow it to because I’ll never be able to fix that…

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

If you’re reading this and finding yourself nodding along, please just know you are not alone. I wish I had known that even when you (wrongly) feel you have to be “strong” for the people around you, there is an entire community of people out there who you definitely owe nothing to.

Go get help. Don’t go and see a twelve year old doctor, that’s a terrible idea, but ask to see a doctor you feel comfortable with.

Don’t let your feelings be invalidated by your gratitude that your baby is healthy – you can feel both.

Don’t consult Google. Trust your instincts – if you know things don’t feel right, don’t ignore yourself because you don’t tick the right boxes.

Call one of the helplines on the leaflets the Health Visitor presses on you in a terrible impersonation of a helpful person*.

Call PANDAS (Pre and Post Natal Depression Advice and Support) Foundation who do exactly what they say on the tin for women just like us.

And don’t forget that although the internet gets a bad rap at times, and while we’re all aware of it’s potential pitfalls, out there are women who are waiting to sing just for you. They want to lift you up on the rise and swell of their voices, and make you feel that it is possible to be whole and strong once again.

*I am sure there are many helpful, efficient, caring, thoughtful, intelligent Health Visitors out there, it is just that I have never had the privilege of meeting one.