Tag Archives: motherhood

Feminism today

Feminism changed women’s lives – but was it for the better?

This was the provocative question that Irma Kurtz, Rosie Thomas and Linda Kelsey were debating today at the Henley Literary Festival.  Or at least, that’s what I was expecting.  But I have to admit I was rather disappointed.   Some important points were made (about freedom and responsibility, about changing legislation and mindsets, or about young men feeling ignored by the feminist movement) but on the whole I felt that the conversation stopped just where it should have started.

I don’t know if the genteel surroundings of Henley were to blame, or the desire to please an audience decidedly of the 40+ demographic, but the controversial topic of  ‘can women have it all and if not, why not?’ was avoided.  Only at the very end did a young woman in the audience, working for an accountancy firm in the City, ask about her slender chances of making it to partner level and what impact that would have on her future family.

The reply?  She was told that  at least nowadays you have the freedom to choose between career and motherhood, and you can also choose to work part-time.  But you have to accept that if you are part-time you are not going to be taken as seriously as someone who is fully dedicated to their career and is present 24/7. 

When was the last time a man was told he had the freedom to choose between his career or fatherhood?  And when can we all learn to move beyond a culture of presenteeism at the office and accept that part-time hours does not mean part-time commitment?  When will we as a society care more about the way we raise the future generation and reward the men and women who do it well (and who share the burden)?

The Sixties Debate: Was Feminism Worth the Fight? at Henley Literary Festival

Alas, methinks there is still some changing of mindsets to do, when the panel members at a feminist debate are still buying into this cultural fallacy.

Also sad:  the fact that so many women in the audience (and on stage) prefaced their remarks with ‘I do not consider myself a feminist’.

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Enjoying the holidays

Confession time: for the first time in a long while, I was actually sorry to see my children go back to school this morning.  Although my clients, collaborators and other work-related partners will be relieved to see me head back for my computer, coaching sessions and training courses.  Not to mention the relief of my bank account after an income-less week!

Yet I actually enjoyed this half-term holiday, achieved a good combination of external and home-based activities, barely screamed at the children and just relished their remarkably well-behaved, helpful and amusing company.  So what was different?  I suppose the answer was ‘my attitude’.  Instead of looking upon the holidays as a nuisance interruption of my work and forever being with one eye on my Inbox, I deliberately chose to keep my laptop switched off.  I threw myself wholeheartedly into playing, laughing, chatting and doing silly things with the children.  The result?  I felt like I had swallowed some Wonka-Vite pills and turned twenty years younger.

I don’t think the comparison is entirely forced if I say that I felt I had fully embraced their culture and their world, instead of judging them from my grown-up perspective and culture.  I had entered their perception of time (i.e. we have all the time in the world), their concept of value and status (i.e. you may play tennis better, but I have superpowers).   It wasn’t an entirely one-way process either.  We played lots of board games and by winning some and losing some, by crying some and laughing some, we all learnt to cope and move on.  I like to believe that some of my grown-up messages were thus reinforced.

I don’t think that this ‘total immersion’ thing is possible or even desirable all the time, but, while it lasted, it refreshed us all, created even stronger bonds and mutual understanding.  Now, let me think of a way or replicating this in cross-cultural coaching and training…

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Two Cultures: Male and Female?

Last night we had a rare Mums’ Night Out and one of the topics of conversation was (inevitably) our children and whether it was easier to have boys or girls.  I think that we came to the conclusion that both sexes had their fair share of joys and challenges, but we also ranted a bit about the gender stereotypes that we felt children were being forced to fit into, even from an early age.

By concidence, at the British Psychological Society’s annual student conference today, one research paper shows that even 9- month-old babies choose gender-specific toys.  

Researchers at City University, London found that, when presented with seven different toys, boys as young as 9 months old went for the car, digger and soccer ball, while ignoring the teddy bears, doll and cooking set.

And the girls? Hmmm, let me see if you can guess… At the same age, they were most interested in the doll, teddy bear and miniature pot, spoon and plastic vegetables.

Well, from personal experience, that was not true, as my older son adored dolls and teddy bears, while my younger devoured imitation food and pans.  But of course, what am I, a single exceptional example, in a sea of data that shows the opposite?

 However, it is also fair to add that from birth (and maybe even before that), parents and other carers respond differently to boys and girls, in words, gestures, behaviours, way of thinking.  These young creatures are like sponges, absorbing so much information in those first few months of life that it is difficult to determine exactly how much is innate and how much is learnt behaviour and preferences.

Lise Eliot’s recent book Pink Brain, Blue Brain:  How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps critically examines all of the scientific evidence to date and explains in very clear language how modest differences at birth between the brains of boys and girls are amplified by social factors and eventually  produce greater anatomical changes in the brain of mature women and men.  So then we arrive at the conclusion that ‘women are from Venus, men are from Mars’ – two different cultures, speaking different languages, with different values and meanings, never the twain shall meet.

Book Cover

Latest research on gender differences

What I loved about Eliot’s book is its optimistic assertion (which every parent wants to hear) that the brain is remarkably plastic and can remodel itself constantly based on its experiences.  In other words, we are not stuck with our gender roles, we can make boys more socially and linguistically gifted, we can make girls more analytical and spatially aware. 

The two cultures are not incompatible or unbridgeable.  The two cultures are not even two separate cultures unless we deliberately seek to make them so.  And, as with all national or minority cultures, as long as we are open, flexible, curious and eager to learn more, we will find ways to ensure fair and equitable treatment of all.

Have you found boys and girls to be very different from an early age?  Do you find yourself responding differently to boys and girls?  What can we do to ensure our children grow up with fewer gender stereotypes?

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One of those rants

I’m having one of those Fridays when I feel all is not well with the world and I need to rant and let off steam a little.  Maybe I’ve been too involved in current affairs this week, have read or listened to the news too much.

Maybe because we had a school governors’ meeting this morning – lovely school, lovely board of governors – but the issues all schools are facing with financial cutbacks and still having to meet targets…  well, enough to make anyone depressed!

Maybe the news (which isn’t really either news or surprising) that the gap between rich and poor in the UK has widened since Labour came to power and social mobility has been reduced.  This is not a political statement, as I’m sure a Conservative government would probably have done more of the same.

Maybe it’s the fact that we have (barely) scraped out of recession so it will soon be back to ‘business as usual’ and I am not sure that we have learnt from past mistakes.   Any efforts to find a solid third way between socialism and capitalism?  No?  Didn’t think so!

Maybe it’s the hypocrisy of the attitude towards bankers: first the statement that we dare not take any drastic measures if the US does not join in, otherwise they will all move abroad… and then when the US does take the initiative, our bluff has been called… and we stand there looking rather silly…

Or maybe the well-intentioned advice that women should have children earlier because their fertility drops so dramatically after the age of 30 – when there is so little societal understanding and support to enable them to pursue their careers once they have had children.

Anyway, rant over, sun’s out, time to forget about the outside world and wrap myself up in my little family cocoon.  Or do you think that’s the trouble with the world today – all retreating to their cocoons?

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Not resolutions again!?!

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. 

First of all, I think you can make changes at any point during the year.  I have a preference for making resolutions on my birthday or after I come back from my summer holidays, but everyone should find what works best for them and not succumb to an artificial pressure related to some random calendar New Year. 

Secondly, I have seen far too many people wish to start the year all squeaky-clean and virtuous, then fail at the first hurdle.  January is just too depressing and dark in this part of the world to keep the momentum going.  And then the snowfall which brought the UK to a standstill!  My running friends had made resolutions to stick to a rigorous schedule, but could not go out because of the snow and ice.  My weight-loss resolution friends found that they were raiding their freezers and cupboards for whatever was available, never mind the calories, as they couldn’t drive to the shops.  Meanwhile, I was stuck in the house with one lively chicken-poxed little boy and a slightly older, bored schoolboy, so instead of using my creativity for work, I used it to think up new games and art projects to keep the two amused and off each other’s throats.

Now that the snow is turning to slush and we all have time to breathe again until the next snowfall, I actually realise that I have learnt a valuable lesson about resolutions.  Namely:  There’s always next week.  Not in the sense of never getting started, always postponing what you know you should be doing.  Rather, it means that if you do get started and then things don’t go according to plan, you shouldn’t give up.  You shouldn’t think you have failed and stop doing things until the perfect circumstances come along.  Circumstances have an annoying habit of always being rather less than perfect.  Just go with the flow, and then get back to your resolution when you can.  And keep on doing it.  Small tracks in the snow where you went a bit adrift, but don’t sink in the deep snow.  Keep going back to the main path and you’ll get there eventually.

It may not sound like much, it may seem a really obvious lesson to some.  But you know what?  I knew it but I had never really felt it before.  So, resolutions, we are old mates now, not enemies to fear!  And there’s always Chinese New Year for setting some new ones….

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Speak to me…

My four-year-old said the wrong thing again to me today.  No, he didn’t swear or forget to say please or call  me ‘Egyptian Mummy’  (which is his favourite nickname for me at the moment).  He just said: ‘Can I use blue to colour this in?’  But what upset me was that he said it in English.   Although I was the only other person in the room.  And he knew all of the words above in Romanian.

Since the birth of my older son we have tried to be consistent:  I speak Romanian to the children, my husband speaks Greek and, even when we are all having dinner together, there are three languages going on around the table at any time.  (My husband and I speak English to each other and if the children share a story with both of us simultaneously, they will say it in English too).  On the whole, the strategy has worked well, and the children speak all three languages reasonably fluently.  Recently, however, they have taken to speaking English not only among themselves (which was to be expected), but also to us the parents.

I grew up in a trilingual environment myself, so I thought I had it sussed, but I find myself surprisingly unrelaxed about the whole thing.  I don’t want the children or us to get lazy and revert back to English, because it will be so hard for them to communicate with their relatives and grandparents in Greece and Romania.  I also want them to have the flexibility to live and work in these countries should they choose to do so at some point in the future.  I want them to be able to engage with other cultures at a deeper level, as you can do when you speak other languages.

But at the same time, I fear I may be doing them a disservice.  That, by insisting so much on speaking Romanian, I am actually putting them off using this language.  That, by refusing to speak English except for the purposes of homework, I am putting my son at a disadvantage, not building his vocabulary, not conveying all the tricky nuances of the English language, and – saddest of all – not sharing with him my love of the English language.

Because, if I am honest, it is English that is the language of my heart, even if it is not officially my mother tongue.  I live, dream and write in English;  I clothe my thoughts and feelings in English words.  I have taught English to hundreds of other children… but am not teaching it to mine.  My head tells me it is the sensible choice.  While they are living here in the UK, English will be their dominant language anyway, and I can always explain the mysteries of punctuation and grammar to them.

But my heart is always a little torn when they say something in English and I reply to them: ‘Speak to me in Romanian, please…’

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But all mums work…

The Office of National Statistics ONS in the UK recently stated that the percentage of mothers working with at least one child under the age of 5 has doubled in the last 25 years (it’s 62% now).  For mothers with one or two children under the age of 16 it’s even higher, 76% and 73% respectively.   Lots of surveys also suggest that women do not necessarily want to go out and work, but they feel under economic pressure to do so.

I may be operating from a small statistical sample, but out of all the Mums I have met in the schoolyard, at nursery, at the swimming pool with toddlers in tow, I hardly ever hear any of them say: ‘I really don’t want to work, I want to stay at home all day with the kids, but I can’t because of the money!’  Am I moving in completely the wrong circles or do these surveys not reflect real maternal experience?  Perhaps, shock-horror, they do not ask the questions right?!  As we all know, surveys and statistical figures are so easy to manipulate.

Because all mothers work.  Yes, they work really hard to raise the citizens of the future:  hold and cuddle, make things better, entertain, feed, wash, dress, scold, make them behave, do homework, break fights, talk, listen, cook, clean the house, do the laundry…  Ask any stay-at-home Mum and their day is exhausting, their to-do-list never gets any smaller, and the sheer repetitiveness of it all is sometimes completely discouraging.  So, yes, all mothers work their socks off!  But they don’t always feel appreciated for this ‘invisible’ work.

So is it any wonder that I also hear Mums who would really like to go and work for themselves (for an employer or self-employed) in order to feel appreciated for their skills and knowledge, to earn their own money and not feel totally dependent on someone else (even if that someone else is the state) and also, sometimes, just to get out of the house and have some grown-up conversation that doesn’t revolve solely around the children.

I think that if we interpret these surveys correctly, what we are really hearing is that women want family-friendly working practices, that they want to be able to combine work and family, be there for their children but also be themselves.  And that we’ve still got some way to go before they can achieve that without guilt.

How about you?  Do you honestly enjoy every single moment of your life as a stay-at-home-Mum and feel appreciated by your family and by society?  Do you feel guilty about rejoining the workplace while your children are young?  Do you feel you have achieved a satisfactory balance?  And if you have, please share your secret with us!

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