The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting


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How having a daughter has made me more of a feminist

I’ll start by being clear: I was never not a feminist. But among the things that get me heated – human rights violations, climate change, the barbaric way we treat other animals – the wrongs faced by affluent women in affluent societies were not, until recently, near the top of the list. Yes, they bothered me, but there is only so much energy most of us can devote to being outraged.

Since my daughter was born, however, I’ve found a whole new fount of feminist indignation. I am reminded every time I open a paper or follow a link on Facebook that her life will be harder than it might have been simply because she is a girl. And I find that very hard to bear. What I accepted for myself, if not with resignation, at least with fairly low-grade grumbling – “yes, it’s crap, but it’s nothing compared to Saudi Arabia” – makes me furious, distraught, for her.

It breaks my heart that my bumptious little dot will grow up in a world in which teenage girls accept sexual harassment as normal. That she faces a future in which derogatory language and casually discriminatory behaviour are so pervasive as to have rightly been coined “everyday sexism”. Hell, one in which even female-named hurricanes are apparently granted less respect than male ones. (You don’t believe me? It’s in the Washington Post.)

Unless things change, my daughter will be judged by her looks, whatever she does and whatever she grows up to look like. She will be taught by image after photo-shopped image to regard thinness as a cardinal virtue, and by a production line of twerking Lolitas that sexualisation is the route to success. If she is like her mother – or a scarily large number of her mother’s friends – she will devote years of her youth not to reveling in being young, but to unprofitable and unfavourable comparisons of her own body with those flaunted on billboards and magazine covers; not to enjoying exercise for its own sake, but to one gym membership after another, seeking a shortcut to an unreachable perfection.

No matter how intelligent, how talented, she is, she will find it harder to get up almost any career ladder than she if she had been born a boy. Any visual media career would, almost certainly, have a shelf-life as long as she could present a pretty face and adolescent figure to the world. (Yes, there are exceptions, but they are few and far between.) If she shares the experiences of some even in my own profession – academia – she will regularly be ignored or talked over, with all the insecurity about her own ability that that breeds. If she takes time out to have a family of her own, she will risk (at best) a setback to her own career.

And whatever she achieves in other areas, novel after novel, film after film, magazine after magazine will tell my girl that her life is incomplete until she has been “saved” by that holiest of holy grails: a partner. (Most of them, for that matter, will imply that that partner has to be a man.) If she is like too many of the women of my generation – smart, successful women – she will spend more of her teens and twenties obsessing about her love life than she does relishing her opportunities, her friendships, and the start of her career. All this makes me miserable. And angry.

At the moment, my small daughter is wonderfully oblivious. She’s one of the most boisterous of her little cohort, fighting her male playmates for the plastic slide or baby walker, bashing her father on the head as he carries her down the street, escaping at the world’s fastest toddle from any activity which requires sitting quietly still. But that happy ignorance cannot last.

Something, sometime will dispel it. A chance word from an unthinking adult will alert her to the fact that, like it or lump it, there are different rules for her. I don’t know exactly when, but in a world in which even plastic bricks are gendered, it can’t be too many years away. It might even come from me, if I don’t watch myself, since I’ve found myself occasionally joking that some action or gesture “isn’t very ladylike”. It doesn’t matter now, but it soon will, and I could kick myself. (Her father does better, if only by virtue of his proud approbation for her loudest farts.)

So here, for what it’s worth, is my promise to my little girl. Of course I’m not going to cut her off from all the enjoyable and positive things currently considered “girly”: from playing with dolls to the life-changing wonderfulness of female friendships. But I will not let them define her. I will try, day after day, to contradict what the media, and too much of popular culture, is telling her about how she ought to live and what she ought to be. (And, yes, I would buy dolls for a son, if he wanted them.)

I will buy her toy railways, and proper, build-something-interesting blocks. (None of that pink, make-your-own-beauty-parlour abomination, although she’s welcome to enjoy the new female scientists range.) I will show her videos like this brilliant ad and buy her books where the heroine subverts gender stereotype (starting with this wonderful tale of a princess who rescues her prince only to ditch him when he proves decidedly unreconstructed).

When she gets older, I will take her career aspirations seriously. I will never, by word or expression, give her reason to believe that some paths are off limits because she’s a girl, and I will pick an immediate fight with anyone who tries to do so. (Engineer like her grandfather? Brilliant. Playing rugby for Scotland? Great, only let’s hope she hasn’t inherited my lack of coordination.)

I will find female role models to counter the barrage of Barbie-figured, famous-for-their-looks celebrities. Politicians, scientists, sports stars, but also the many talented and successful women that I am lucky enough to have as friends, family, and colleagues. I will make sure she always knows that my career is as important as her dad’s and that family life – that elusive “work-life balance” – is as important for him as it is for me. (It helps that he took some of the parental leave, and would do it again if we have another baby. Also that he is really quite good at hanging out the washing, and better in the kitchen than I am.)

If I can, I will teach her to eat and to live healthily, but without making a fuss about it. And by cultivating (or at least faking) a healthy indifference to whether I can squeeze into a particular size of jeans myself, I will try to counter the body-image neurosis that she will be taught to accept as her feminine inheritance.

I know my limitations, though, and I know them even though I make all these plans with the full support of her father. We can do a lot, as parents of girls. We can teach them to question the received truths that society throws at them from the moment they are born. We can do this in what we do as well as what we say. But we can’t do it all.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Not all of it: we can’t change biology, as our guest blogger has pointed out. Our daughters, if they want to have sons or daughters of their own, will face a time pressure their male counterparts, by and large, don’t. But there is a lot they could be spared, given some effort at the societal level.

And that’s the really depressing thing: none of this is new. Much of it could have been written by my mum, more than 35 years ago. It’s because things haven’t changed – or haven’t changed enough – that I’m feeling so outraged now. We need collective action: from consumer pressure to end the sexist categorisation of toys (it worked with Hamley’s) to the kind of wholesale institutional change needed to ensure that sexual harassment actually gets reported, because it will be taken seriously.

And, parents of boys, we need your help. We need you to teach your sons to regard their sisters and female friends as every bit as brave, as worth listening to, as likely to be interested in building a Lego masterpiece or jumping in the mud, as they are. We can create girls who expect and demand more, for themselves and for each other, but unless they are to face numerous personal sacrifices to get it, we need the men who will surround them – the brothers, husbands, boyfriends, friends with whom they will inherit our society – to be prepared to give it.


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Feminism and fertility: The IVF perspective

Kirstie Allsopp (finder of houses and a dab hand with a glitter pen and a staple gun) is in the Twittersphere firing line for the advice she would give a daughter, were she to have one: don’t go to university; start work straight after school; stay at home and save up for a deposit [on a house]; find yourself a nice boyfriend and have a baby by the time you’re 27.

Allsopp is known for her blunt and outspoken views, but this is a difficult message in an era of female equality. Among other outraged reactions, a headteacher from Berkshire has deemed her remarks ‘rather patronising‘ to teenagers. But Allsopp qualifies her opinion: “Women are being let down by the system… At the moment, women have 15 years to go to university, get their career on track, try and buy a home and have a baby. That is a hell of a lot to ask someone.”

I can’t speak for Kirstie, or Twitter, or the headteacher from Berkshire. I can however speak as a woman who has benefitted from living in this era of female emancipation. I worked hard at school; I got a good degree from a top university; I have nearly 14 years of successful work experience behind me and, before leaving to go freelance a couple of years ago, I achieved a senior position in my field of choice. Like Kirstie, I am a ‘passionate feminist’ – I think that all people who want men and women to be equal are feminists. I am also a woman who has just survived nearly four years of fertility treatment.

I was lucky enough to meet my partner at university and, with a few blips (we were young!) we have been together ever since, finally tying the knot nearly six years ago. At that point, at just over 30, we both knew we wanted a family but wanted to ‘be married’ for a few years first and in all honestly were having too much fun to want to trade it in for sleepless nights and a hanger on.

After a few years, when we felt we were ready, we started trying for a baby. We felt excited, scared and a bit naughty. I think we thought we were pregnant the first time we tried. In the following first few months, I would say things like “let’s not try this month as I want to be able to drink at my brother’s 40th…” If only I had known. By that time, at nearly 33, we were already a bit late to the party – a good proportion of our friends were already one down and thinking about a second (or third) but it wasn’t until after six or seven months of trying that we sensed something might be wrong.

The three years that followed were the hardest of my life. Our lack of ‘bump’ became all consuming. We stopped drinking alcohol, ate organic, monitored ourselves to within an inch of our lives but still – nothing. We tried to remain positive but suddenly bumps and babies were everywhere. When we moved to ‘assisted fertility’ we were very open with our friends and family which proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Whilst we were grateful for our friends’ concern, the constant “how is it going?” was tough to deal with (“it’s not going very well guys”).

It is only now, four years on, that I realise quite how horrific (and I don’t use that word lightly) the last few years have been. IVF is intense. I put my body through constant physical abuse – the multiple daily injections; the journeys in and out of enforced menopause; the yo-yo emotions; the weight gain and general bat shit craziness. Our strong marriage was tested and tested again, our finances took a battering but worst of all was the indescribable feeling of anguish and loss of hope when yet again a cycle had not worked or a precious embryo that you had loved from the moment it was a speck on a screen in a petri-dish had simply vanished or stopped growing inside me.

I am one of the lucky ones. I delivered a healthy baby girl at Christmas but I have friends who for emotional, physical or just plain financial reasons have had to stop trying and look for a different dream. My friends and I are not alone – the NHS cites that around one in seven couples has trouble conceiving (around 3.5 million people).

I don’t know whether our amazing daughter will be the only child I carry. The likelihood of us being able to extend our family naturally, given our history, is small. We have decided not to pursue IVF again, both for the sake of our marriage and our daughter. I don’t want to be a (single) mess of a mother in the first few years of my daughter’s life for an outcome which is uncertain.

So, where am I going with this? I am overjoyed to have a daughter. There’s still a fair way to go before true equality is reached, but it’s a great time to be a woman. I want my little girl to understand that she can be anything she wants to be, have anything she wants to have and be judged on her talents and intelligence and not on her weight and her looks. But… I will be arming her with knowledge – that, in the absence of major scientific breakthroughs, nature still plays a large part in female fertility. It isn’t fair and it is still one thing that men don’t really have to think about (although many infertility problems are experienced by men too) but for women it does get harder as you get older, and there is a time limit.

Not everyone will have problems and I know many women who have conceived naturally into their 40s. For that I am truly thankful – I would not wish the pain and hopelessness of infertility on anyone. But, just as we don’t know what lies ahead for us in old age, we don’t know what our own unique fertility window is. That being the case, I wish that women could have better access to basic fertility screening in the same way that we are offered screening for different cancers and other illnesses. I wish for earlier intervention (if there is a suspected problem) and help that is not governed by your postcode. Our GP told us we needed to prove that we had had sex every other day for three years before we could be classed as ‘infertile’ and therefore receive basic testing. I want to see greater support and advice for women where there might be a problem or where age might be a factor but where the woman is not ready, hasn’t found the right person or is not financially able to consider a child. All this would allow women to take control of their family-planning decisions based on knowledge.

Some women may not want to be mothers, but many will and any early indicators that it may be a rocky road may help inform the decisions that we make. Do I regret my degree and my climb up the greasy corporate pole? Not a bit, but I would have definitely have made different decisions were I to have known what was ahead of us. For me, having a family would have been more important than that pay rise or that deadline.

So, whilst I may not agree with Kirstie’s generic advice for girls, I believe that she raises an important debate – our girls should be aware that there may be choices to be made for some if they want to have what they want, what they really, really want.

 Guest blogger: Nicky

Currently on maternity leave with her first baby having temporarily escaped the world of Broadcast Media. Loves her friends, good food, cuddling her cat and annoying her husband when not pureeing everything in sight.