Sunday, 15 May 2016

8 ways women can help their own cause when it comes to equality

Dear Reader,
Have you ever complained about sexism?  Ever felt discriminated against because of your gender?

What are you doing about it?

You're female, and it's up to the rest of the world to change?  
Think again.

We’re living in a rapidly changing world, thank God.  But while we’re well on the path to equality in some ways, us females are still struggling with a serious 24% pay gap, as well as on average doing three times more housework than our male partners.  It’s all too easy to focus on the man-made hurdles constructed daily in front of us, cursing the penis-wielders of the world for adding to our burdens – both domestic and professional.  But we’re smart enough to recognise both society as a whole and the micro-society we create at home is also our responsibility.  Here’s some ways we can help ourselves to eradicate gender boundaries at home  - now and for the future generations we’re raising, who see EVERYTHING…
(This is written from the point of view of a hetero woman who lives with a hetero man.  I know this isn't everyone.  if it's not you, feel free to tell me to piss off and do something else awesome.)

1. Find a way to allocate household tasks neutrally.  By this, I mean get out of the ridiculous cycle of female as nagging foreman and male as reluctant (zero-hours, maximum overtime) worker.  It’s absolutely unfair on both and results in the poor woman being blamed for jobs even EXISTING, while the poor man gets the blame for not doing things fast enough or daring to sit down at the weekend.  Instead, use something like the excellent Chore Wars game or a simple spreadsheet to make the skeleton of the domestic setup visible to all – it’s not a special secret only available to those with magic vaginal spectacles.  Some tasks are daily, some weekly or monthly and others seasonal or reactive – share your knowledge of what needs doing when and take responsibility for discussing them calmly.  You’re both adults and the house belongs to you both.  If you choose to treat your partner like a child, you are being patronising and often forcing them to behave like one.

2. Do your share of the heavy lifting.  If we want to raise girls who don’t get treated like weak little pansies and boys who don’t get treated as nothing but brawn, we must counteract this idea that males are strong and females aren’t. By adulthood, men can be up to 50% stronger than women in terms of brute strength – but this isn’t all because they are made differently.  If you practise something, you get better at it.  If you get told something is your area of expertise, you claim it.  However convenient it is to ask your partner/brother/father to move the furniture, or open that jar, or saw a piece of wood in half – DON’T.  Revel in your physical strength and you might surprise yourself.  Distribute physical tasks evenly and fairly at home.  I have to admit I have a secret desire for sinewy forearms which is behind my penchant for carrying shopping home rather than taking the car, or apparently tireless enthusiasm for bouncing babies in the air…

3.  Don’t shy away from dirty or messy tasks, either.  Why should having a dangly set of genitalia mean you get stuck with exploding bin juice or cleaning out the garage? If you need to wear gloves, or a set of overalls - go for it.  Demonstrate that you are prepared to get involved in pest control, tree surgery, or drain unblocking just as much as the next man.  A shower’s a shower, ladies.  There’s nothing like retrieving a swampy, four-week old, full-to-bursting bin bag from the back of the garage for appreciating how often the bins need putting out.  This very much extends to dead animals on the lawn or outdoor poo, too.

4. Avoid separating domains into male/female at home.   This means the traditional house vs garage/garden split needs to go (why should he get all the spiders?), as does a study being male and a kitchen being female.  The loft can come into this, too. Otherwise, what are you telling your kids?  Daddies work, Mummies cook.  Daddies dig, Mummies hoover.  It’s not the 1950s and you should both feel welcome in every part of your shared environment.  If you’ve made corners of your home into no-go areas for your partner, I suggest you reconsider your relationship (not the kids, though, that’s just common sense.  You have to have somewhere to keep the wine and sex toys).
5. Get the children of all genders involved in all chores and make sure you teach them how to do them as patiently as you can. It’s so easy to split along gender lines at home: “You go and help Daddy at the dump, me and Milly are going to make the beds”  But let’s be fair to our children’s future spouses, too – and recognise they might change gender or surprise us with their sexual orientation one day.  Everyone should learn how to air the washing, load the dishwasher, and sweep the floor.  Everyone should learn how to paint the fence, fill the car up with oil, and drain the radiators.  Making household chores a way of passing on your skills to your children is one of life’s greatest pleasures, and results in a balanced family life where everyone – no matter how small – makes a contribution to the huge task of maintaining a home.  Two-year-olds can work a smartphone, and therefore a digital washing-machine. Don’t forget one of the biggest and most relentless jobs: planning, buying and cooking meals for everyone…

6. Don’t be afraid to ask.  In the current climate of ‘mansplaining’ we’ve all become acutely tuned to the patronising tone that can creep in in male-female interactions.  But this absolutely shouldn’t stop you asking the man you love -  the one you trust with your secrets and your naked body and your Facebook password – for some advice, sometimes.  And vice versa.  I am 32 and I’m of a generation of women who haven’t been routinely schooled in car maintenance, plumbing or gardening. To find out how to do these things, I had to swallow my pride and ask (and feel like an idiot, sometimes).  I have no doubt my partner feels the same when he has to consult me on how to make Yorkshire puddings rise.  These types of knowledge domains have been gender-restricted for so long that if we really care about cross-pollinating them, we’re going to have to share our expertise with each other – gently, and encouragingly, and with appreciation of what courage it takes to ask.  And if not, there’ s always Google.

7. Surprise your partner by doing ‘their’ chores once in a while.  I know, this may seem contradictory - but once you’ve settled into domestic bliss with someone, household jobs do naturally fall one way or another, and if this is according to skill or enjoyment rather than who’s got a trouser-sausage, great.  But try not to let any one task become the exclusive responsibility of one person.  Is there anything more loving than finding that the bins have already been put out for you, or your laundry is folded and in your drawers already?  I’ve never been so ashamed of myself as the day when I was giving my partner a stern talking-to about not emptying the dishwasher for a few days.  His reply – that I had never, not once, mowed the lawn, weeded the flower beds, or changed the lightbulbs – absolutely floored me.  It was true.  I’d just thought of them as ‘his’ jobs. I still feel like I’m not as good as some of these things as he is (he’s slightly taller, for instance) but being female is not a good enough excuse to leave them all to him. 

8. Don’t monopolise the caring. This is a tricky one.  The words ‘wife’ and ‘ mother’ bring with them attendant emotional loads of care, of course.  But equality means letting Daddy wipe away the tears sometimes, and get the penitent hugs afterwards, too.  Caring can be anything from fetching endless drinks to asking how someone is (and listening to the answer), to letting them become independent from you – and there’s the rub.  If we take on the lion’s share of the emotional work of the family, we can get stuck in an unhealthy cycle of allowing children or partner to be dependent on us because we want to feel needed.  Traditionally, men have understood this better than women, and we need them to help us evaluate when to step back and when to intervene. Demonstrate, but don’t hog the caring.  Let your partner look after you.  Let your kids look after your partner.  Don’t be the conduit through which it all must happen, like some sort of emotional lightning rod.  There is nothing more adorable than listening to siblings getting each other a chaotic sort of breakfast, or grandpas splashily bathing newborns.  They will do things differently to you, and you must guard against the control freak in you breaking free and managing them at all costs.  Or maybe you’re the brisk, strict parent and Daddy is good at the sensitive stuff, in which case each according to his skills – don’t force gender boundaries in the way of the best parenting the two of you can muster.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

All your eggs are belong to us

Dear Reader,

What did you do for Easter?

If you believe the supermarket TV adverts, Easter looks a little like this:

1. Mother (no other member of the family because only mothers own purses and vaginas and both of these are necessary for food shopping) goes to said supermarkets and fills trolley with lambs - sorry, lamb -  fresh vegetables, and rosemary sprigs.

2. Everyone comes over and Mother (no other member of the family because only mothers own hands and eyes and both of these are necessary for cooking) serves up the moist and delicious meat, surrounded by glowing succulent vegetables that all the children joyously eat without throwing them on the floor.

3.  Everyone puts on their adorable bunny ears, gathers their beribboned baskets and takes to the sunny garden, where the weather stops its constant pattern of RAIN!WIND!SUN!CLOUD!HAIL! for a whole day and they run around discovering the hidden eggs, jewel-like, that peek out from behind old painted watering-cans and under sheds.  The ones that definitely haven't been eaten by foxes in the night or melted in the sun or been trodden on by drunk Auntie as she staggers up the garden path.

4. JOY! RABBITS! LAMBS! (oh wait-, not them, because we ate them). CHRIST! (That was said drunk Auntie tripping over on the way to the shed again for a smoke).

People, let me preach for a moment.  We have let the supermarkets take Easter from us.

The only thing in all of this that makes sense is the joy.  Easter comes at a time of year when we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel - the weather hints enticingly at warmth, the animals wetly plop out young, the daffodils turn their sunny faces to the sky. The world teaches us that things can change, that months of wind and rain can give way to calm, that dark soil can produce bright flowers.  Winter is long, but not immortal.  Certainty gives way to possibilities...

Why would you celebrate that with buying stuff and tolerating people you fantasise about roundhousing in the jaw?  Save that for Christmas.

No, Easter is the time to set your own traditions.  If you must make it about religion, take a lesson from Jesus.  (That't the first and last time I'll ever type that phrase).  Say what you will about Jesus, he was a bit of a maverick.  Jesus wouldn't have plodded round the garden picking up foil-wrapped supermarket chocolate eggs, that's for sure.*

This year, we set a magnificent and glorious challenge for our offspring that shall hereafter be called the Easter Escape Room.  (Before you call Social Services, they were allowed out for toilet breaks and cigarettes).  If you're not familiar with the idea of an escape room, think an extended Crystal Maze room - explore the room, work out the challenge, try and complete it.  Sometimes there's a time limit - we didn't set one, which is a good thing as it took about three hours in total.

The general idea is to make your children earn their Easter eggs (or jellybeans, or tequila) by solving a mystery, a set of puzzles, or combining clues to crack a code.  We used all three in a complex case involving thrilling drama, dangerous villains, and chocolate-snatching.  Quite apart from it being amazing fun, we wanted to achieve three things:

1.  To teach them that they don't just always get stuff, automatically,  by virtue of being small and cute.
2.  To teach them to look harder at things.  (For example, the clock was stopped at five past one as part of a clue - boy, did it take them a while to see that).
3.  To teach them perseverance and teamwork - although, more on that later, and it's dark....

We left a series of objects and papers around the room - some useful, some red herrings - and largely left them to it, although more prompting was needed at times.  I'd like to think that next year we can crank up the difficulty levels now they've had their first crack (and I've made my first Easter pun).

As with many video games, finding out what to do was the first hurdle. They needed to find a series of answers to puzzles in order to open combination locks and get further clues.  One particularly inspired part involved figuring out the login and password to the villain's email account, whose inbox contained a link to a YouTube video from the dastardly villain himself.

It also involved newspaper cuttings, a file full of suspects to sift through, a Caesar cipher wheel, using a compass to locate objects around the room, weighing things on digital scales, Scrabble word scores, and classic riddles.  Hats were also included, because of the Sherlock Holmes effect (wearing a hat makes you a better detective).

Finally, when it came to the final unlocking of the suitcase full of loot, there was a sinister twist.  If you've ever heard of 'the Prisoner's Dilemma', it involves two prisoners, one decision, and a whole lot of game theory.  We adapted it for this situation so that both children were given two cards, one 'split' and one 'steal'.  They had one minute to discuss and play a card face down.  If both 'split' cards were played, they'd happily split the loot and altruism would reign forever.  If one of them played 'steal'.. they got the lot.  Two 'steal' cards means no-one got anything.

What happened?  An epic drama unfolded before us.

Child A spoke eloquently about the benefits of sharing.  Child B agreed.  High fives across the table. Happy dances all round.  Timer ran out.

Child A triumphantly stole all the loot.

(Child B cried and we explained that we would, in fact, share it out between them.  Because we are terrible parents who give in to our children's every whim.)

So - next Easter, I urge you:  throw out the old stereotypes of egg-painting and spraying branches gold and roasting baby animals.  Try something new and awesome.  Take the four hours of hell you would have spent stuck in a supermarket queue surrounded by dangling plastic chicks and make something amazing for your children (or your partner or your parents or your housemate), something they can come down to on Easter morning that will make their world explode with possibilities.  But it's just a clock!  Can it be a clue, too?  What about the old picture in the frame?  Could there be something hidden...behind it?  What about that jigsaw puzzle? If we make it, could there be something written on the back? (There was, this year.  There won't be, next year.  Ha!)

Special thanks go to the quite brilliant @Groinheart, who masterminded the whole thing. Here he is, in the Youtube video as Mr Naughty Boy.  (Note the strong resemblance to Cthulhu.  I'm a lucky girl).

*I think.  Jesus and I aren't all that well acquainted, if I'm honest.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Taking up space

Dear Reader,

Have you ever been referred to as 'big'?
Was there an accompanying gesture?
What about 'large', or 'small'?

How did it make you feel?

One of the interesting ways gender imbalance can make itself felt is through the simple mechanics of personal volume - how much space you take up.  Generally, men are bigger than women (although this is not true for boys and girls until at least aged twelve, whatever the clothes manufacturers would have you think).  How does this manifest itself in language and attitudes?  Well, the word 'big', for a start.  Compare 'he's a big guy' (powerful, intimidating) with 'she's a big girl' (fat, pitiful, unnattractive).

Being large of stature, for men, is usually positive.  Tall men earn more and are more attractive to women.  Carrying extra weight - up to a point  -  can be seen as bulky, dominant, commanding. Large is imposing and threatening, with no need to do anything except just be a menacing deterrent, like a bomb.  Heavy, weighty, significant, important.

For women?  Women usually make themselves more attractive by losing weight. There is a hierarchy for women that assumes slimmer = better.  We even have a word  - 'petite' - for delicately small that is usually reserved for females.  Lithe, slim, graceful, lightweight, trivial, inconsequential.  We giggle girlishly or flail furiously as men pick us up and put us where they want us.

I, like many 30-something women, am getting bigger.  I was reasonably tall anyway, but I'm now the sort of woman you'd avoid carrying without an emergency.  Time for a mid-life crisis, an exercise bike in the living room, an expensive gym membership and a series of disgusting powdery food substitute-shakes?

Not at all. Time to take up all my space.
I'm big enough to fight off someone who is trying to take advantage of me.  I'm big enough to make a satisfying sound when I walk.  I'm big enough for people to notice me.  I'm big enough to have some interesting creases that might warrant further investigation (saucy).  I'm big enough to stand my ground.  I'm big enough to be paid attention in the playground, in the classroom, in the boardroom. I'm big enough to be significant.  I always was, but now my physical shape is starting to reflect my big mouth and you know you're getting plenty of bang for your buck.

I've no desire to be obese, of course.  I'm healthy, and plan to stay that way.  But I don't need to be skinny to be powerful; I don't need to be the youngest, frailest thing in the room, or worry if I'm not.  I'm not the woman you use as a pawn, or you tell to shut up.  I'm not fiddling with distracting clothing that doesn't suit me or sighing over my plump bits.

I'm standing up and casting a big shadow, and its all mine.  I am a big girl.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

A poem for my daughter

I love you so much more than you may think

But through all the hilarious clamour
of other huge people with their huge mouths and huge eyes wide
Huge hands flapping
Huge heads bearing down on you
Through all the rotten noise of everyone else always telling you
how high, how deep, how impossibly wide and stupid their love for you
I am afraid you will not hear me.

My voice will not go that loud
Because it isn't coming through the loudspeaker of emotion
The microphone of hyperbole
the megaphone of urgency

I will love you quietly, with actions, instead.
I will shower you with a thousand tiny kindnesses, like a snow of daisies.

My darling, the world is loud and false
and, because I love you, I will not be.

I promise I will not shout at you
But I will listen
and think
and consult
and pause
and smile subtly with you

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Soaking in mind-brine..

Dear Reader,

Have you ever surprised yourself with the realisation that your mind has been working on a problem much longer than you thought?

Isn't that a strange concept?
Of all the entities that should know what is happening in your mind, you might be forgiven that YOU - whatever that may encompass - might be the one that is top of the list.  We are, we believe, uniquely self-aware.
 But being self-aware isn't the same as knowing, controlling or keeping track of everything that happens in the process of thinking - it's just far too complex.  Subconscious is a fascinating concept that I could research and write about for days.  It's as if a sentient iceberg floats around, knowing that 90% of icebergs are below the water's surface, knowing too that it is an iceberg but knowing nothing - and knowing that it will never know - much of what is happening below anyway.

Recently, my beloved and I have been spending some real time and effort teaching my children to swim.  I'm an expert on learning and what has happened has still surprised me.  One of the aspects that falls into this category is the mental progress that has been made, behind the scenes, in between lessons.  By this I mean that as the children have learnt the physical skills needed (co-ordination, breathing control, body position) we have discussed and explored the idea that some of the steps needed to make progress are psychological (dealing with fear of obscured vision, trusting the science of flotation).  The children seem - unknowingly -  to have done some serious mental work in between lessons on this.

This reminds me of times in my own life when my brain has stewed up a lovely thick soup of creativity without my awareness.  One of my favourite pieces of writing came in response to a teaching colleague giving a leaver's assembly and being stuck for a reading.  I told him I'd write him something.  It wasn't until I produced the thing that I realised it had deep echoes in something I had been read at my own leavers assembly, some ten years before, and my mind had been mulling, pickling and marinating it ever since.  It came out like this:

A similar thing happened with an art piece.  It positively steeped in my brain for a few months, probably because I couldn't find the time to put paintbrush to canvas, but by the time I did it seemed to already have a life of its own that I simply needed to breathe into.

Does real learning happen this way, or just inspiration?

Has this ever  happened to you?