In her glory I find certainty that I might be a little more brave

I’ve been afraid recently. Afraid that I can’t keep my children safe. It’s something all parents know we have to deal with, but recently I’ve been feeling heavy with it.

The attacks on Westminster shoved my breath sideways a week or so later when I stood outside the exit to the tube. The tarmac seemed to have absorbed the shock, hurt and horror of that day. As I looked around at the streets, those buildings and the people, the thought, They never thought it would happen to them pulsated in my mind and I hurried away with heaving breaths.

With the help of friends I’ve reframed that fear since – stabbings happen and cars mount the pavement every day somewhere in this city, this country and the rest of the world. It does not diminish the tragedy of the lives lost or permanently affected by the events on that day, but it does diminish its power.

But even reframing it leaves a nag catching in the back of mind because regardless of the method, or whatever madness it’s attributed too, it’s the hate I can’t handle: the dismissal of another human being as being less than you.

Hatred breeds hatred, the worn words proclaim, and as the pixels and airwaves exploded following the attack on Westminster, their exhaustion was explained. The pace and vitriol of those looking for someone to blame, a reason that suited their rhetoric, spoke tellingly of people just waiting for an excuse.

But in this picture I find hope.

It’s a different place, a different issue but it’s a response to the same hate. Her insouciant smile in the face of his spitting aggression; her disdain and bemusement at his impotent, ignorant rage, so clear and cutting for everyone to see.

So, as she stares with no-nonsense contempt, I find my self challenging the despondancy I’ve been feeling – nothing is getting better, the world is full of nobheads and bigots and arseholes and Trump – I should just take shelter in a simple life well lived, raising my children, keeping my peace.

It’s a feeling borne of small things – a conversation, a comment by a stranger, a series of headlines that eat away at the validity of the burning feeling deep in my gut and the prickling behind my eyes. But this picture has solidified my resolve.

How can I feel beaten down by a mere conversation when, hands in pocket, she looks hate in the eye – and smiles?

It was a disorientating conversation to be fair – the woman was intelligent, articulate and passionate about what she was saying. She insisted that young women are being sent the wrong message about being able to “have it all” – that they need to be told the truth about how hard it is and adjust their expectations. I suggested perhaps we need to expect more from men, not less from women, to which she responded, “My husband can’t even put an empty packet in the bin. We are years away. Years.”

While she’s probably right on the timeframe, I was wrong to turn inwards, mask the eye-roll and feel that her certainty qualified her to convince me I was wrong.

And what about the mother outside the hospital who yelled at her daughter for swinging on the bike racks? “You’ve got to be a girly-girl,” she shouted as we walked past. My heart plummeted and “What’s the point…?” were the next words out of my mouth.

The wave of hope The Women’s March awakened in us all has been drowned out by a never-ending stream of attacks on our conviction. The backlash against “Legsit” did nothing to quell an emboldened, “anti-political correctness” right who continue their onslaught to undermine every hard-won increment of what we’re allowed to say.

The Co-op advert, be it an unfortunate error or intentional publicity stunt, was thought up by someone, apparently questioned by no one with the power to change it, and is just a small part of a limiting picture being drawn by people determined to use only the blue and pink crayons.

On the other side of an ocean but magnified by status and disbelief, Trump continues on his quest to, this time metaphorically, make a grab for women’s bodies. Meanwhile, the rule changes on Child Benefit here are the latest peculiar and insulting discriminatory attack against vulnerable women least able to stare down their aggressors.

But Saffiyah Khan has reminded me that fighting bigotry, and its insidious bedfellow injustice, on all fronts is worth it. The fight for women’s rights does not have the visceral urgency of a Pakistani-Bosnian-brummy woman standing up for her city against a misguided mob of white-English-men but still I find strength in this picture and I can’t stop looking at it.

I gaze at her grace and her glory and find certainty that I too might be a little more brave.

Because when you’re right you have to stand up, in your own way and however you can, because there is always a point.

Is staying at home the same as having a J.O.B?

“Do you work?”

“Oh, yes. Yes, how about you?”

“Oh I’m a teacher… what do you do?”

“I’m a mum – I have two children.”

“Oh no, I mean what do you do for a JOB.”

“Yeh, exactly. I’m a mum.”

Contraversial I know, but this is exactly how the conversation I’ve never had (except in my head) goes about the disconnect that exists between being a stay-at-home-mum, and having a “proper job”.

There lies a question.

A matter for debate.

Or perhaps just another red herring designed to pit parents against one another: is staying at home with the children the same as having a job?

Well now you’ve asked (it’s ok, I know you haven’t…) there are many similarities:

  • from the minute you wake up, you’re on someone else’s clock
  • breaks where you get to sit and stare into space are few and far between
  • time to do the things you want to like read, write, yoga and re-watch all eight series of West Wing on a loop (for example) are limited to a couple of short hours each day
  • there are parts of the job that you enjoy, there are other parts that you HATE
  • there are parts of the day that leave you buzzing and mentally fist-bumping yourself
  • there are parts of the day when you feel like you’re not good enough and you’re sure you’re going to be found out
  • your boss(es) are demanding and at times unreasonable
  • there is never enough time
  • you never get to the end of your to-dos
  • you’re tired at the end of the day

But there are also a number of differences. Some, I’ll admit, are good ones:

  • the fear of sleep deprivation is no longer as strong. The stakes at work are much higher whereas no one gets sacked for putting the car-keys in the fridge
  • small children throwing tantrums are infinitely preferable to the teenagers who threw swear words and the occasional pencil/ ball of spittle-stuck-paper/ chair
  • boredom and frustration sometimes rear their heads but there isn’t the eye-popping, migraine-inducing level of S.T.R.E.S.S that being a teacher entailed

While others are B.A.D:

  • conversation consists of endlessly repeating what the two-year-old said so that he stops, interspersed with lectures on the skin colour of Polar Bears (black, fwiw) from the four-year-old, and asking her if she is hungry/ needs a wee
  • you get followed to the toilet
  • there is no tangible progression, no acknowledgment
  • there is no salary

The question it often feels like is really being asked is, is staying at home easier than going to work?

Its a sticky, tricky one, full of potential flash points and petty resentment, something I’m aware of as I admit that despite all my hand-wringing I find staying at home with my children easier than what I did before.

But then I had a job that sometimes felt like war, 14 hour days and working weekends were not uncommon, and I have enough friends telling me going to work is a dollyhob compared to being at home to be confident this is not the case for everyone.

About as commital as a pre-Amal George Clooney I know, BUT one thing I will insist is that staying at home with the children IS like having a job.

The point is that there is a distinction to be made between keeping children alive, and parenting. Which, incidentally, is why Jeremy Kyle’s sofas are never going to be bereft of guests.

The day-to-day triumvirate of providing sustenance, hygiene and entertainment is not parenting. That is looking after children.

Parenting is about the example you set, the choices you make, the values you instill, the heartache that accompanies all of those, and the hope that the overall outcome of your literal blood, sweat and (lots of) tears will be a Good Human.

It is generally accepted that when mums and dads, through choice or necessity, entrust their children to someone else to look after, they are not abandoning their position as a parent.

And from the other side of the (invisible) coin, if someone else – whether it be a childminder, nursery, nanny or the next-door neighbour’s teenager – gets paid for doing what you do for free, then I don’t see why it can’t be classed as a job?

One that is really hard work.

Just like the job your other half does when he/she leaves the house.

It’s all hard work.

So instead of wasting time arguing over who has the biggest shit-show for a life, why don’t we all just agree that challenge and compromise exist whichever way we turn?

Rather than sticking up the vees behind one another’s back, lets heartily pat each other  instead, because the bottom line is that we’re all doing the best J.O.B that we can.

The financial fallout of fertility

I’m a child of the 80s, teenager of the 90s, young woman of the noughties, and for My Entire Life the emphasis has been on becoming an independent, empowered woman. A concept inextricably entwined in my mind with earning my own money.

But now, as a woman in my thirties, a mother of two, set adrift from traditional employment by family circumstances that made my career impossible, I find myself battling insidious implications.

Where I was once independent, I am now reliant on someone else to provide me with security. The roof over my head, the food on the table, warmth and light in my home all depend on someone else.

Once empowered, I am now reduced to the financial status of a child.

And I ask myself if, where I was once strong, am I now weak?

How has this happened? This is not where I was supposed to be, I think, and a few weeks ago I reached the sad conclusion that I am not proud of who I am.

Like parents everywhere, I hope I am raising children who will not build walls, nor grab pussies, who will choose acceptance and welcome over fear and division, and I know there is pride to be found here.

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Please don’t grab pussies. I’d be really sad.

But I also want something else. Something selfish (and I’m totally comfortable with calling it that). Something that pays me my own money.

I can’t shake the feeling that I’m letting the sisterhood down. Like I’m laughing in the face of the hard-won increments made by the women who came before me, so that we have rights that today we take for granted.

I feel like I’m letting down my twenty-something self who sneered in her certainty that she was not one of those Goldigger’s Kanye rapped about. Instead she certain she was one of Destiny’s Child’s Independent Women who would pay her own Bills Bills Bills and Who Run the World (Girls).

I feel like my feminist ideals have been defeated by the cold-hard inflexible economics of life in the modern world. Like I gave up too soon, I should have fought harder for my job, for my ambition, for my equality.

And I feel embarrassed that I now take money from my partner’s pocket and put it in my own.

Questions that were irrelevant in the first 13 years of my relationship, the first 35 years of my life, have heralded an awkward new dynamic in my used-to-be-a-partnership.

How do I ask for money? Does this make me a kept woman? How much control should I expect to have over the household finances? Can I really decide how money that I haven’t earned gets spent?

Of course I KNOW I shouldn’t feel this way. If any friend of mine came out with such drivel I’d heavily exhale and call bull.shit.

I would tell her that to employ a cook, cleaner, round-the-clock nanny and life-admin-PA would cost upwards of £100,000 a year.

I’d tell her that without women (because it is over-whelmingly women) making the same decision I have, to put themselves in the back-seat of the family wagon, squashed into the tiny space between the fortified buttresses of her children’s padded thrones in a perfectly mundane metaphor for her whole existence, then we’d all be fucked.

I’d be the first to object that the value in an action is not always financial.

But I’d say it all then most likely fall back on an exhausted cliche. Something like, raising the next generation is the most important job of all, would be what I’d say next, but I’d know that in the face of this feeling there are no words that are not patronising and inadequate. That she hadn’t already thought of for herself, and still found wanting.

Like so many women of our generation, the truth is I don’t value the work done in the home.

The mind-numbing mundanity, the repetition and relentlessness, the picking up and putting down, the boundaries placed on the mind by the same four walls, and the constant requirement to put yourself last are not new – I imagine there was plenty of gin-numbed angst in Don Draper’s time.

What is new however is the expectation of more – the chance to have it all we were told we would have, but which turns out to be an illusion.

We have been conditioned to look down on being house-proud in favour of being loud-and-proud about our achievements in work – achievements accompanied by a pay-packet and while (in the words of another excruciating cliche) money isn’t everything, what it represents, is.

On the cusp of being a Millenial I took a crumb of comfort that the pay gap between men and women born between 1981 and 2000 has shrunk to five percent. My initial lukewarm reaction – it’s progress but wtf, there’s still a gap – dropped to freezing the second I read the next sentence, because when those same women turn 30, (and one assumes start having children) the pay gap starts to widen.

Projections in the study by The Resolution Foundation estimate that by the time Millenials hit 40, the pay gap between men and women will be closer to 25%. That’s TWENTY-FIVE percent, a number for which only shouty capital letters will suffice.

As a woman who had a child, took a demotion because my previous role was “too challenging” for someone with a young family, had another child, had a “difficult” return to work, and for who’s career the nursing home levels of flex in her partner’s job rang the death knell, I am a seething speck in this incredible statistic.

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The flexibility of the Mr’s workplace.

And I’m willing to bet my substantially deflated financial worth on the fact that I’m not the only pot quietly simmering away on the stove I’ve unwillingly been tied to.

In the midst of the financial fallout of fertility, I torment myself with the thought that the money I am spending is not “mine”. I contrarily reflect on a simpler time when roles were clearly defined and we had not fallen for the falsehood that men and women are now equal.

Family, lifetime partnerships and those pesky, inconvenient, brilliant, small people are of course more valuable than how much cash you carry in your pocket, but we focus on the money because it’s easy to measure.

This, however is about more than just our bank balance because the money stands for so much more.

It stands for choice, independence, opportunity and freedom and I find myself asking why should we live without those?

The Brilliance of Trump

I cried when I listened to Michelle Obama speak last week, and I know I wasn’t alone.

With her careful thought, her clear intelligence, her black-ness and her female-ness, this ordinary, extra-ordinary woman appeared in binary opposition to the man she so resolutely refused to name.

And what a name to be refused.

It is easy to imagine the flushed pride with which this name would be bestowed upon a woman, along with the considerable expectation that she be grateful and appreciative of her good fortune.

It is now even easier to imagine how this name carries such influence and power that women let you “do anything” to them.

And it is easy to imagine how, starved of this name and its associated wealth and status, such a man would be reduced to empty bombast and a desperate grasping claim to something that never should be his.

So Obama did not name him.

Until that moment, the tangle of disgust, anger, frustration at the apologists, and confusion about what exactly was so offensive had resisted my best efforts to unravel it.

The voice that told me this was politics on another continent and asked why should I feel so charged, competed with the one that shouted, This is so much more than that, and I struggled to find my true voice amongst all the noise.

But, as the minutes past rapt in the peaks, troughs, the ebb and flow of her masterful oratory, Obama spoke to me.

She told me that the disgust, the anger, the pointless shouting at the TV and the feelings of personal violation which had shocked me with their strength, came from a place where this man’s name is inconsequential.

With her words it finally felt like we were being given permission to be outraged because we all know this man. We’ve all met him.

I now understand that I feel outraged because I remember my sixteen-year-old self on a bus. The man who sat next to me leaned on me throughout the journey. Every time I edged away, he moved along too, forcing me to squeeze myself closer and closer to the window into a non-existent space where I could hide from his domineering presence. And when we reached my stop he stood up, but not aside, forcing me to squeeze past him. And his genitals. And he smirked.

I feel hurt because I remember the time I was out running and refused to respond to someone heckling me from his van window, so he threw a milkshake at me. It missed, but he threw it.

I feel violated because I remember the countless times on dancefloors that someone has made a fleeting grab for me as I’ve walked past them. Faceless hands on my bum, up my skirt, around my waist, on my hips – my presence enough it seems to convince them that they had that right.

These are all events that at some point I have told someone about only once I was able to achieve the dismissive, lowered tone of someone who isn’t bothered. Because that is the message we are given: it’s no big deal, take it as a compliment, don’t be so dramatic, it happens all the time.

And as I tell my stories to join with the chorus of voices saying this is not ok, it does not have to, should not, be this way, I am sad.

I am sad because why should we have to tell so many stories to prove this injustice true, as though we have to work our hardest to convince people that it really is bad, it really is important?

I am sad because I know it could have been so much worse and indeed is for too many women and girls.

And I am sad because when I first read the words I had written I had to edit them to replace “they” with “he”, as though the habit of somehow holding myself responsible is so ingrained that it makes me afraid to acknowledge the obvious. On each of these occasions of course it was a man – why am I so reluctant to point that out?

For the most part these kinds of stories are now in the past for me. I have developed a prickly “Don’t Fuck With Me” face that I can slap on at a second’s notice, and more often than not my presence on a dancefloor is accompanied by a man – sorry boys, I have been claimed – hands off…

Despite this though, their legacy remains. When it’s dark and I walk down a street I am ever vigilant, and I think about what I need to do so that should something happen, it would not be my fault.

When I pass a group of men, young, middle-aged, old, black, white, English-speakers or not, I tense. I mentally prepare myself to look the other way in case an unwanted comment finds its way to my ears. I prepare myself to pretend I have not heard.

Sometimes I use my children as a shield. I engage enthusiastically and loudly in conversation with them. Bloody hell, I even sing and always plaster on a smile like the world can just bounce off my bubble of happiness, so don’t even try to break through this with your cheap words.

But I don’t want to do these things because I am a woman, they are men, and that’s the way it has always been.

Instead, whenever I encounter this attitude, this strange and desperate maintenance of the status quo, it piques the special sweary place in my head that I reserve for such nonsense. And then I return to the safety and reassurance that if this were true then my mixed-race children, rather than being bringers of pride, would be a source of shame and perhaps would not exist at all.

I remind myself that pointing out injustice, loudly saying, “No. This is wrong. Here are the reasons why,” which is sometimes all we can do, is not pointless nor hopeless. It is where it begins.

So, there is hope.

Over a week on, since the damning video recordings were released, the tide has been seeming to turn. As this man embarrasses not only his political party, but other men, even those who we would really much rather not be “on our side” are running for the hills from the tsunami he is leaving in his wake.

We can not ignore that some of the men (finally) condemning this man for claiming proprietary rights over a woman’s body for the purpose of sexual gratification, still seek to legislate our bodies on the matter of reproduction, while others refuse to legislate on issues such as equal pay.

But, at least people are talking.

And this is The (amusingly unintentional) Brilliance of Trump.

What this man has achieved, that no amount of story telling could ever have matched, is to bring into the stark, full-beam glare of the media spotlight, just what women are dealing with.

Of course it is tempting to find frustration that it has taken one man’s miserable misogyny to attract the attention this issue deserves on its own merits, but let’s not drown in that bitter sea. Instead, let us ride this wave and make sure it washes up on hitherto unreachable shores.

Let’s harness this man’s words and the global horror they have evoked, in every classroom so that our boys know what high standards we will hold them to, and our girls know what low standards they should never accept.

Let’s keep the conversation going, and see just who we can get to join in.

Don’t tell me there is a long way to go, as though this should serve to quieten my storm and quench my fire. The length and difficulty of the journey we have to undertake makes the conversation more important, not less.

So let’s exploit this man’s repulsive words and actions to shamelessly and unapologetically raise the agenda that does not ask for more, but asks for the same.

This is how we will be heard.

The Ugly Cry

I cried the other day. And it was a strange thing. I didn’t cry because I was sad, I didn’t cry because anyone has betrayed me, or left me when I so wanted them to stay. I cried because I read something that made the tears well up in my eyes and a lump grow in my throat like so many things do these days.

Every day those same feelings I push away and ignore because I haven’t got time. I haven’t got time to explain, I haven’t got time to linger over the suspicions that accompany that explanation – that the receptacle of my self-aware petty hurts might be internally rolling his eyes and wondering where his sassy girl went. I haven’t got time to feel. But that day, like happens every so often, I couldn’t hold back the tide and I cried and cried and cried.

The things I haven’t done, the things I want to do, the people I want to see, the people I am letting down, the time I don’t have, and the fact that the fucking battery of my fucking laptop had gone dead so then I had to find the fucking charger. These things all made me cry.

Pathetic, right? I mean, in this time when the world is being torn apart both politically and physically, no one in my life has died, no one I care deeply about is seriously ill, no one has abandoned me or blown our house to smithereens. Come on, this is ridiculous, the voice in my ear said caustically, with an eye-roll accompanied by the self-conscious hashtag #firstworldproblems .

But I’m tired. Not just from lack of sleep – although the sleep deprivation is reaching levels the EU Convention of Human Rights might have something to say about, it’s amazing what the human body gets used to – but from the grinding-grinding-hustling-committing-committing-over-committing.

Even the time I get to myself is accompanied by a long list of things that I could and should do:

have a shower

get my hair cut

get my nails done

“groom”

write a blog post

plan the novel I have sat in my head

write the novel I have sat in my head

find an outfit for a family wedding

drink some hot tea

go for a walk

do some yoga

do some gardening

read a newspaper

read a book

make some proper lunch

prepare dinner

Instagram

Facebook

Twitter

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be grateful because all of these option are open to me.

What I really want to do is sit in a quiet place and just be. But then that’s another thing to add to my list.

Feel free to roll your eyes, shake your head and think bad thoughts about the navel-gazing numpty who actually bothered to put fingerprint to keypad to write these words. I’m sure you can’t say anything that I haven’t heard already from the shouty, frowning, contemptuous voices in my head.

But now at least I feel better. Because sometimes all those things we feel we should be doing with our “free” time are part of the problem – their weight of expectation burdens us further.

On some days, all we actually need to do is own our emotions, KNOW that there is nothing really wrong, but that time spent doing The Ugly Cry has the power to cut through the bullshit, sweep aside the clutter and give us that wonderful clarity of what we really need to do NOW.

Try it, I dare you.

And please don’t shout at me for being a self-indulgent fool – I know already…

 

Fear, farce and faeces – a birth of a second baby

“Second labours are different” they said. “It will be faster this time”. And ultimately they were right, but the birth of our first child had left me so broken that at the time I just nodded, smiled and thought, “We’ll see.”

My first labour was not the most extreme birth you will ever hear about: after 23 hours of contractions 3 minutes apart or less, and nearly 3 hours of pushing, our beautiful back-to-back baby was born with the help of a spinal block, an episiotomy, a pair of forceps, and some hefty effort fromthe obstetrician. The physical pain was bearable, I never felt afraid of that, but the loss of control and consequent psychological marks that remained took far longer to heal.

For many months afterwards I suffered angrily in silence plagued by pain, flashbacks and intense feelings of guilt and inadequacy.  I had been unable to push our baby out of my fanny for myself and although the physical scars healed with time, falling pregnant with our second child proved my assumptions that I was “over” it, to be completely unfounded.

A few weeks before D-Day I attended a gathering of heavily pregnant women organised by the team of midwives with whom I had been lucky enough to be assigned. The literal and metaphorical weight in the room was tangible, emotions were running high and as one new mum told her story I struggled to contain the surges that were stirred in me by her story. It was so perfect and “amazing”, so opposite to the story that haunted me, that once again I found myself grieving the birth that I hadn’t had. In anger and sadness I burst into tears, pressed my face into Ray’s shoulder, and stayed exactly there as she finished her story.

Fortunately I think she assumed that my emotions were provoked by the beauty of her story, but in fact my tears came from a horrible place of resentment and anger. Even though I had told myself for nearly two years that I did nothing wrong the first time round, in fact I did a lot right and luck played a huge part, I was still tortured by thoughts that I could have tried harder, or perhaps I was just weak. Ashamedly, all I could think was how lucky this new mum had been, and how it was stories like her’s that served to reinforce the feelings of inadequacy that I harboured. I just wanted her to stop talking.

Despite my embarrassment at my outburst, attending the birth talk finally gave me permission to talk about the feelings I had  which had only gone quiet, not away.  Sobbing my way through someone else’s birth story had forced me to face up to the fact that I was not over it after all.

Importantly, once Ray heard first-hand a positive experience of home birth at the birthing talk, he altered his previous stance that hospital was the only way to go. This validation of my secret desire not to go to hospital, along with the guidance of my wonderful midwife Vanessa, gave me the confidence to say that a home birth was what I wanted.

I have never really given much thought as to why I found this such a difficult decision to make – being a mum to two young children doesn’t leave much time for reflection – but writing this has made me wonder whether I just didn’t trust my body after the horror of my first experience. Maybe deep down I was worried that I would “fail” again and so a hospital birth was the best way to keep me and my baby safe.

To be honest, even once we were in possession of a birthing pool, I continued to say that I was hoping for a “stay-at-home-until-it -is-too-late birth”. To desire anything too much was to let myself in for the same level of devastating disappointment I’d experienced the first time, but regardless of my finer feelings around the issue, the countdown began.

Christmas Day came and everyone was primed to have Christmas dinner at our house without our attendance. We needn’t have worried. Boxing Day (my due date), New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and on and on came and went. At 41w+5 I was taking 15 minutes to get out of bed, I’d had 5 cervical sweeps, and I’d had enough.

At 6pm one  evening I went into hospital for my last chance at an out-patient induction. In hospital I sat on a hard bed, completed the obligatory monitoring and finally had the pessary inserted. Yet another pair of people had seen my undercarriage which at this point in pregnancy had turned a peculiar purple colour, but to be honest I couldn’t have given a rat’s ass, I just wanted this baby OUT.  What I hadn’t banked on however, was that after two and a half hours of sitting my massive purple backside on a hospital-grade bed, my right arse-cheek would go into a horrific cramp.

Like a back-to-front Quasimodo I hobbled to the car unable to stand up straight. My greatest concern was that I would go into labour and not be able to walk, so upon arriving home, I demanded that Ray ran a hot bath in the hope it would ease the pain.

I got stuck.

In a manner reminiscent of a drugged Orca at Sea World being lifted from one woefully inadequate tank to another, Ray had to hoist me out.  I then crawled crying, with a towel draped over my expansive naked purple poonani-ed self, to my bedroom.

Despite the farcical turn events had taken, on some deep, barely acknowledged level I knew that I was experiencing a cramping sensation in areas other than my backside. Somehow however, the fact that I was about to have a baby managed to fade into insignificance in comparison to the colossal pain in my arse and so, feeling very sorry for myself, I allowed Ray to spoon feed me some pasta and went to sleep just before midnight.

Forty-five minutes later a pop and rush of water woke me. I hadn’t experienced this the first time around so I had just enough time to be surprised before the first proper contraction hit.

HHHHHHAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHUUUUUUHHHHHH

I couldn’t have given any less of a shit about my arse hurting. That pain was dead to me.

Ray immediately called Vanessa who upon hearing my primal screams in the background instructed him to take me straight to the hospital. In organisation overdrive in between contractions I ordered Ray around  – which clothes I needed to wear, which shoes, get me a maternity pad so my waters wouldn’t leak onto the car seats. All hail the mother-plucking-mum-boss-mum-bossing-that-labour-shizz. I kid you not, I was a labour don. I was owning that shit.Hoo-YAH!

A few hours later, after our son was born, I found out that Ray had suffered some sort of mental cramp of his own and had padded my pants with 2 breast pads. My midwife never mentioned this.

With our daughter safely looked after with the arrival of my parents, it really was time to MOVE. I screamed on the pavement on the way to the car; I screamed in the car; I screamed at Ray when with another moment of mental spasm he pulled into the ambulance entrance of A&E; and on all fours I screamed at the locked door of the correct hospital wing that housed the labour ward. My son WAS being born on the pavement. And then it happened.

I pooed.

Not that I was embarrassed by this. No, I was elated.

“It’s ok,” I gasped, “It was a poo.” Some paramedics who had been standing next to their ambulance had now wandered over to see what all the screaming was about and were delighted to receive this nugget (of information).

“It was a poo,” I told the nice man who unlocked the doors and bought me a wheelchair to kneel on; and the first thing I told Vanessa when she arrived at the labour ward seconds after us was “I’ve done a poo in my pants”. Minutes later I was in a labour room.

To be honest my memory of this room is hazy to say the least. I spent most of the time on my knees, on the floor, with my forehead pressed firmly on the bed, only turning it to the side to suck like a demented vampire on the gas and air with the onset of each contraction.

In spite of this, in spite of the speed and the poo and the abandonment of any resemblance of my (purposely vague) birth plan, I felt calm and in control. Each contraction was doing something, I could feel it and it was so different to the birth of my daughter that I was excited – really f**king painfully excited.

I have no idea how much time had passed when Vanessa, in the calmest voice imaginable, said to me, “Nicola, what are you scared of? What are you waiting for? If you want to push, push.” And it was all I needed to hear. I didn’t trust my body. I had felt let down by my body for so long but now it was doing what it was meant to. It was, and still is, the single most empowering moment of my entire life and it moves me to tears when I remember so clearly the wonder I experienced as my body took over.

Just as circumstance had conspired against me with the birth of my daughter, this time circumstance played all in my favour, and in this magnificent act of birthing my baby, I was a bystander.

At one point Vanessa asked me if I’d like to touch my baby’s head. I did. It was wonderful.

Who knows how many contractions, how many minutes later, Vanessa held the doppler to hear my baby’s heart-rate and the all-important duff-duff was slow. Way too slow. In the same voice she had used before she simply said, “With this next contraction we want to get this baby out.” I had heard the too-slow heart-beat, I knew he had to be born now and when that wave came I pushed with more might than I knew I possessed.

I think even Vanessa may have been surprised at the speed with which our little boy was unceremoniously ejected as she called to me to, “Slow down now” in an effort to preserve my perineum, but honestly I simultaneously thought “How?!” and “F**k that!”.

And so, one and a half hours after my labour had woken me, we welcomed our little man into this world.

Second labours really can be faster, it seems.

The irony does not escape me that the only way I came to trust, and feel proud of, my body again is to have achieved exactly that which I had tried to tell myself was not important.

For so long I had told myself that it doesn’t matter how you birth your baby – what matters is that you love and care and nurture and comfort your child (and curse and moan and swear under your breath too, of course). Of course I have never judged harshly mums who have experienced a difficult labour – if anything my heart hurts that they might judge themselves as harshly as I have judged myself, but the truth remains that to forgive myself for “failing” the first time, I needed this birth.

The pride I feel has not diminished over the last 18 months – I needed this birth to heal.

I heard the news today

When Princess Diana died in August 1997 I was sixteen. I heard the news from my mum through a crack in the door late one Saturday morning as I sprawled, probably hungover, under my duvet. What followed was an unprecedented outpouring of national grief complete with unedifying scenes of people crying in the street – people who had clearly never met and did not really know her.

My distinctly British response was that this expression of emotion seemed excessive, mawkish, maudlin and, confident in my sixteen years of expertise in life on this Earth, I airily dismissed it as a particularly unpleasant form of sentimental hysteria far removed from the devastation of true grief.

Over the years, my discomfort with the mourning of public figures has endured and in my social media musings on the slew of celebrity deaths in 2016 this is apparent in the way that I have marked my respects.

Self-consciously I comment on the nature of the “petty sadness” that we feel when a person who has appeared in our lives and memories, and yet who we have never met, dies. We feel sad, but we should always remember that the measure of our grief fades into insignificance when positioned next to the torment of the family and friends. I felt it was important to keep perspective and not confuse the desire for a connection with it’s reality, because regardless of how much Prince’s music had meant to us, no matter how many of our childhood memories Victoria Wood appeared in, or how many of Alan Rickman’s films we had loved, we did not actually know any of them.

And then, on an ordinary Thursday, Jo Cox, MP, humanitarian, campaigner, wife, mother was murdered. The acute sadness that I, and many of my friends, have felt at her death has surprised us, and I’ve asked myself over and again, “Who do I think I am?” to stand and cry in the shower over a woman who’s name I had never heard until I received a text message asking me if I’d seen the news. Why do I feel like the next day is too soon to continue on like this hasn’t happened, too soon to not mention her in my interactions with people in my real and virtual lives? It feels self-indulgent, deluded even, to linger on these feelings and give them air – after all how inconsequential our sadness is compared to the total devastation that has just been levelled at an entire family. But still I cried and still those thoughts remained, “Who do I think I am? Why should I feel this way?”

But then I realised that actually the “Why?”isn’t at all important. In fact, the most important thing is that in these feelings of grief is humanity. These are not the tears of a teenager imagining a connection that does not exist, these are the tears that can imagine the cruelty that can without warning rip the most precious presence from a child’s grasp. As a woman who so passionately believed that “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us” it is clear that Jo Cox recognised our shared humanity regardless of faith, colour or creed, and valued every human life.

So, contrary to the feelings of my sixteen year old self, perhaps this sorrow should not be suppressed or dismissed because surely it simply shows that we care.  When we care we find connections where previously there were none, and we do exactly that which Jo Cox wanted us to and move past the differences and look for the similarities. A mother’s absence in a child’s life is felt just as profoundly regardless of faith, nationality, language or culture and to feel this isn’t mawkish, or maudlin, or sentimental. It’s Jo Cox’s abiding legacy – it’s human.