Wednesday, 9 April 2014

School Places: Everyone Only Wants the Best for Their Children Right?

Children at school by Lucelia Ribeiro

Spring is a tough time for parents. 3 March was 'National Offer Day' for secondary school places. 16 April is National Offer Day for primary school places. Parents around the country receive email notifications and letters through the post with news that will certainly impact on their family's day to day life and possibly, their child's life chances. Yes, that nail-biting moment; which infant, junior, primary or secondary school their child will be attending from September.

It's a big deal. Because while we all go, "Oh it's OK, different kids suit different schools" or "It'll all come out in the wash", it's more complicated than that isn't it? It's not just Emily likes football so she needs a place at a primary school with a playing field. Sam likes drama so he should go to an Academy specialising in Performing Arts. Schools these days do have widely differing specialisms and facilities. But also, they may rank very differently in terms of the standard of teaching they are able to provide.

I'm not talking league tables here. I'm not even saying, Ofsted always get it right. Sometimes "good" schools seem a bit more grounded than "outstanding" ones for example. But we can't argue that it's OK for some children to go to schools with poor leadership, big class sizes and high staff turn-over. Places where whatever their interests or natural talents, kids are probably not going to get much inspiration or guidance. Or is it OK so long as they're not ours?

By saying, "I just want the best for my children", does that give you the right to step on other peoples'? To buy that house in the ever-shrinking catchment area to make sure your kids get in? To tutor them so they can pass entrance exams or the 11+? Or sign in at church every Sunday while your bored kid plays on his Nintendo DS? Or maybe even opt out of the state system entirely - disown your local school so your kids can go somewhere with an equestrian centre and a choral society?

Because it is about life chances. If you go to a struggling school be it in an inner city borough or out in the sticks, you probably won't be particularly engaged or inspired. You have to fight against the odds - whether that be poor quality teaching, challenging behaviour, an ever changing cast of teachers or deteriorating facilities. These are the things which affect aspiration and exam results. And you need your grade C in GCSE Maths and English for pretty much anything nowadays.

On the other side, we know that public school educated people dominate the upper echelons of UK society; politics, sport and the arts (the Guardian). Public schools seem to produce a different breed - they talk differently, walk differently, they even seem taller than everyone else! They do Latin and Greek, rowing and rugby. They dominate the cabinet and the Olympic medal board. Then there's selective state schools. 29% of Labour MPs went to grammar schools (The Sutton Trust). These would be all well and good for social mobility if wealthier kids weren't tutored... but anyway, testing aptitude in a couple of narrow areas doesn't seem fair either. Where does that leave people who were told they were failures at the age of 11?

Defining children according to wealth or merit in specific subjects sits very uncomfortably with me. What about supporting kids' interests, building on enthusiasm? What about maintaining friendships between kids of different social backgrounds rather than keeping them in separate worlds? Isn't it heartbreaking when children are separated from their best friends - told they can't go to the school they want to because it's oversubscribed and they don't live close enough, aren't clever enough, aren't rich enough? Or is that just the real world? "Get used to it, kid".

It's not just about what is best for our kids in the narrow sense. What may help them clamber over their comrades to a better education or more opportunities. It is what is best for them in terms of the society they will live in. What is the point of generating this two-tiered world in the UK, where the middle and upper classes have literally no clue what life is like for anyone else? Without a comprehensive education, how can we hope for a comprehensive society?

Come September, like everyone else, I want my baby to be starting at a good school where she feels happy, safe and engaged. Maybe, she'll even spot a few of her mates. Right now, I don't think that is going to cause a huge ethical dilemma. Lucky us. When she is 10, we will face a regressive 11+ style system. Then we need to be honest with ourselves. How much will wanting what is best for our children compromise our principles and our dreams for a better society?

Also published on Huff Post Lifestyle: The Blog

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Q&A with Jade Beall, Founder of the Beautiful Body Project

Jade Beall is the founder of the brilliant Beautiful Body Project. As a photographer and mum, Jade started photographing real mothers, celebrating bodies in all their glory, including the stretch marks, c-section scars, bumps and curves. Her beautiful photographs have stunned the world and become a global movement, expanding to include older women, cancer victims and women with disabilities. 

Here, Jade Beall tells us more about how the Beautiful Body Project started and what she hopes to achieve.

1. Why did you first start the Beautiful Body Project?

As a teenager I suffered from feelings of deep unworthiness. I had acne and I was unable to look in a mirror for nearly 3 years, unless it was by candlelight. Fifteen years later, I posted a series of self portraits of my semi-nude postpartum body on my blog in 2012 because 95% of women will not see ourselves reflected in mainstream media. I gained 50 pounds with my pregnancy and that added to my personal history of oppressive self-loathing in a culture that praises mostly photoshopped images of women in media. I wanted to join the movement of redefining beautiful for self-empowerment, for women to feel validated and for the reshaping of media.

2. How did the project take off?

After my self-portrait blog post, hundreds of women from around the world wrote to tell me their story about their postpartum body and asked if I would photograph them, just as they were. A Beautiful Body Book Project began growing in the summer of 2012 with a collaboration of my photographs and the stories from the women photographed about finding freedom from feeling too fat, too skinny, too dark skinned, too pale, too wrinkly, too pimply or whatever other story inhibits us from completely loving ourselves, just as we are.

3. How has the Beautiful Body Project been received around the world?

The amount of media coverage I have been gifted absolutely blows my mind. I was just a small town photographer with the desire to photograph the mothers and women in my community to redefine what is truly beautiful and my work traveled the globe! You can see all the media coverage here

4. Given how self-conscious many women feel about their bodes, all your models look radiant! How do you go about capturing that positive image? 

I work hard to facilitate ease and trust. I look into their eyes, I ask them questions, I listen and I honor them.

5. It is very rare that young people get to see images of real women with real bodies. Is it a lot for younger people to take in? 

I don't think so, I think it's quite a relief for them. I have a freshman girl who helps me with some of my social media, and she loves the work.

6. What about a healthy body image for boys and men? Do you think you will ever include the male body in your project?

Absolutely. I am working on a project right now trying to get men to be nude. I just posted this.
Casey and Arin by Jade Beall

7. What is the future for the Beautiful Body Project?

I hope the future is a media of truthful images of women to inspire feeling irreplaceably beautiful. I hope I am blessed with making a few more books and I hope I become even more masterful with my photographs so that I can show the world that we are beautiful, just the way we are, without photoshop alterations and without expensive and dangerous surgeries. It's important to feel beautiful, inside and out because then the whole world becomes beautiful!

You can pre-order Bodies of Mothers by Jade Beall here, publication date May 2014 (also available on Amazon in the UK).

If you are inspired by Jade's work and would like to get involved in the Beautiful Body Project, join the movement here.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Time for some fresh perspectives?

On the Dining Table by Smylers, available on Public License

In the endless mummy blogs out there, it is really hard to find female writers from diverse ethnic and social backgrounds. It takes time, space and technical skills to generate these blogs fully of witty repartee and stunning photographs of children, baked goods and craft activities, resources which many people just don't have.

That's not to say there isn't variety! There are brilliant blogs about the unexpected challenges of raising multiples (Ramblings of a Twin Mum), caring for children with special needs (Mama Lewis), doing it on your own (365 days - Diary of a Newly Single Mum) or as a lesbian couple (Becoming Mums). But more often than not, they are white middle class voices who speak to us.

Maybe this is why A girl called Jack's blog took the world by storm last year. Suddenly we were hearing from a woman who wasn't shopping at JojoMamanBebe but working out how to scrape together the pennies to feed her young son and coming up with imaginative recipes along the way.

Parenting is a cultural phenomenon, influenced by historical, social, political and economic factors. I want to read more about real struggles and dilemmas that women face in raising their kids whether it be troubled relationships, isolation, racism or poverty. Here are a couple of interesting ones I have stumbled upon:

  • A Mummy Muses commented recently about being a black mum in predominantly white Mum and Baby groups - there are cultural aspects to child-rearing that she can't share such as her dilemmas about weaning on to African food, hair braiding or ear piercing. Cultural barriers clearly contribute to the isolation many new mums feel. 
  • Totally Teen Mum talks about combating negative attitudes towards teenage mothers. Advertising campaigns that are aimed at discouraging teen pregnancies tend to present teenage mothers as stupid, reckless, no-hopers leaving real teen mums to struggle against the stereotype. #NoTeenShame campaigns against prejudice and calls for support for the young women who are stepping up to parenthood.
  • Mum versus Austerity writes about how the economic cuts are affecting her family and ways to minimise the impact on their health and well-being. 

And you know what, it doesn't all have to be about tough times. It's about celebrating diversity too. I want to read more about how your culture, your family influence how you raise your own kids, what you feed them, what you think is important. More about bilingual families and multicultural families. What festive events look like in your house if you're bringing in a range of traditions from across the country or across the world.

I guess what I'm saying is that we need to appreciate the huge diversity of experience out there, what motherhood means to different people. We can't fight for the rights of mothers if the only voices out there are those of white middle-aged, middle-class, affluent women. Lola Okolosie wrote in The Guardian back in December about "intersectionality"; the combination of ways that women are oppressed. Mothers of all ages, ethnicites and classes may face sexist, racist, politico-economic and sexual forms of oppression which combine to make life more difficult. We need to hear about it!

I am aware that my blog is exactly what I am arguing against. It is the musings of someone who actually has a pretty charmed life. I whinge about my lack of sleep and my uncertain career plans. How nice for me that these are pretty much my only struggles at the moment. But I guess if you have something to say, you should say it and encourage others along with you. After all, we all share that feeling of being invisible at some point in our lives but we all have something to give and blogging offers just one way of getting our views out there.

I would suggest that we need to work on promoting different perspectives on motherhood in the blogosphere. I have recently become interested in doing guest posts - a way that bloggers can highlight each other's work and broaden the scope of their own website. Last month, Attachment Feminism and I "guest posted" for each other (is that a verb???), sharing experiences, sharing audience. I would love to have more cross-cultural perspectives on my blog and contribute to a diverse community of opinion and experience.

So here is a call out to potential writers! If you think you have a new perspective on something relevant to Feminist Mum and would like to write a piece let me know...!

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The elusive "Me time"

Photo by Swire, available by Public License

I have heard recently of two Dads I know taking a bath before work in the morning. I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the morning in a house with kids a time of frenzied hair brushing, shoe searching, porridge hurling and debates over which coloured vest to wear? A morning BATH strikes me as something of Mr Darcy-esque luxury...I imagine these blokes luxuriating in warm bubbles, gazing dreamily into the distance. Their valet lays out their attire for the day and waits to give them a proper shave, perfecting their sideburns perhaps...

The last time I was in the habit of morning baths is when I was reclining amidst the delicate scent of Dettol as I attempted to heal my stitched up postnatal body. Nowadays it is a 2 minute shower a la Wash'n'go, usually with an audience who are busy standing on the toilet eating Vaseline. I hardly ever take a bath because it would seem like a waste of time.

Now forgive me, but I am about to indulge in some major gender stereotyping here. Here is the image; Family in cafe. Dad is reading the paper. Mum is trying to persuade one child to stay in the high chair, mopping up milk spilt by the other and looking longingly at the paper. Second image: Holiday time. Dad is at front door, showered, his bag packed and loaded into the car. He is huffing and gesturing about how long it takes everyone else to get ready. Mum is packing her bag, the kids' bags and the extra bags of nappies, bibs, beakers, swim kits, favourite stories and vital cuddly toys.

Now I am not suggesting here that Dads do not pull their weight. The modern Dad is a pretty hands-on figure; cooking, changing nappies, taking the kids swimming or to the swings. What I can't help but notice is that men do seem to be able to get a bit more of that magic and elusive "Me time". It might be by disappearing into the bathroom. It might be because there is a match on telly of historic importance that cannot be missed. It might be by spending some essential time organising their music collection or going to the gym.

This is not something to be criticised. This is an excellent thing. It is only by indulging in a bit of relaxation now and again that most busy, stressed out humans remain sane. It is more, I would argue, the problem of Mums who are both reluctant to prioritise time for themselves and reluctant to share many of the tasks of parenthood.

To be very clear, my other half would never ever kick up a fuss if I said, "You're doing bedtime, I'm going to the gym tonight" or "I'm going out for a drink on Thursday". He would probably be delighted. The problem has been for the last couple of years that I have not felt able to do that. I have martyred myself, chained myself to the rough rock of motherhood. I can't possibly go out, the kids need me. They might cry. Or I'm too tired/exhausted/overwhelmed by life to possibly do anything else but get through the day. Or I want to spend half an hour with my other half, uninterrupted.

It is only in the last few months that I have felt the fog starting to lift. I have remembered that it is actually really important to work out who you are and what you like again. It is also really important that my other half gets his fair share of time on his own with the kids. Without me looking over his shoulder.

When the kids were tiny, "Me Time" meant a cup of tea and some toast in front of some trashy telly. Now it is about re-discovering lost interests, things that need time. These might be writing, running, sewing, cooking, reading, movies or hey, face masks. Isn't it cool when you find out a new friend's secret passion? Fossils, upcycling, roller derby, mixing cocktails!

In the hope of getting fit again, exercise has been my focus. While trying to get to exercise classes, be it Zumba or yoga, on time has defeated me, I have embraced running, as lots of mums do (see Great North Mum and Learner Mother). Running is great because you can put on trainers and stumble, jog or sprint out the door, whenever the opportunity presents itself. And now, I do grab that opportunity. Having a goal has helped. I am useless at setting goals because I always assume it will be too hard. I only did the marathon (many years ago) because I was outraged that my boyfriend/future spouse had the self-belief and determination to do it with or without me! Again my husband has selected a goal for us - the hopefully less challenging 10km obstacle course. Training for an event is great because there are no excuses. It doesn't matter if the baby is teething, you're still gonna have to do it!

Me Time is also about creating. This blog has been my Me Time - when I rush down to the computer after the kids are asleep and madly tap away before someone whimpers for water. I have had the sewing machine serviced and attended a sewing class at the children's centre, complete with creche! I made two aprons and a cushion cover. Go me! Once upon a time I was an avid reader. Joining a book club MAKES me read books again instead of crashing out in bed at 9pm again.

As Virginia Woolf put it, a woman needs a Room of One's Own (1929). While Woolf was thinking of women pursuing a writing career, I would suggest that the phrase is relevant to all women in both the mental and physical sense. You need space. You need a moment to take stock. You need to engage and learn otherwise you will stagnate.

So I'm not sure what my big conclusion is. I guess there is no point becoming resentful about your disappearing life when you have kids. You have as much right to free time as anyone else so make it happen!  Share childcare with your partner, your friend or relative to get a bit of breathing space. Hmm... maybe I should run myself a bath, complete with lavender scented bubbles, and take a little time to ponder the meaning of life...

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1989.

Monday, 3 March 2014

GUEST POST: Baby feeding is a Feminist Issue

For many parents, how to feed your baby seems to be hugely controversial. Whether you choose breast, bottle or a mix of both, you might feel like you need to defend your decision to your partner, family, friends, health professionals or childcare providers. You might find it hard to find information or support. Here Chrissy D, mum of two, breastfeeding advocate and author of Attachment Feminism, looks at why we need to look beyond the barricades. Feminism is about supporting women whatever they choose to do, and tackling a culture that is expert at making mothers feel bad!



Baby feeding is a Feminist Issue by Chrissy D

Breastfeeding hit the news again last week with reports of one, potentially imperfect[1], study from Ohio State University, provoking a vehement response from breastfeeding advocates.  The headlines denounced breast milk as, “no better than bottled milk”, and were hard to ignore.  As a breastfeeding advocate myself, I wanted to scream back, ‘you’re missing the whole damn point!’

And it’s true, the mainstream media’s reporting on it latched on to the potential ground-breaker that formula fed babies might be akin to breastfed ones in the health and IQ stakes, and miss the point about why breastfeeding matters, to babies and their mothers.  Because baby feeding is a Feminist issue.
The study has had coverage on daytime TV shows like Daybreak in the UK, with a triumphant sense of finality; now – finally! – they tell us, formula feeding mums need not feel bad.  Those who tried, and ‘failed’ – they encourage us to sigh with relief – need hide in the shadows no longer.  Step out into the light, ye formula feeders!  But if we really give it some thought, exactly as the dominant cultural hegemony would rather we didn’t, the media has it all wrong.  The culturally constructed notion of feeling ‘bad’ about not breastfeeding one’s child is a fake and profitable concern that we’re led to buy into, and it doesn’t even make sense.  Of course no one should feel bad.  No one should have to feel bad.

But let’s take a step back for a second and consider how the formula industry wants new mums to feel about their ability to breastfeed.  Here’s a clue, it’s in their financial interest if you don’t breastfeed.  It’s in their interest that you give it a go, and then ‘concede’ that you need their help.  Look at their commercials more closely next time:  they want you to breastfeed, right?  No, they want you to ‘move on’ from breastfeeding…anytime now.  The formula industry benefits when we feel powerless, confused by the transitions our bodies have undergone, and alone.  It gets the warm and fuzzies as we reach out into the arms of their cuddly semiotics for someone to just tell us we’re doing okay and we’ll be okay. And of course we’ll be okay, and of course we’re doing just grand without them, but they’d rather you didn’t know that.  They need us.

To state the bleedin’ obvious, there is no reason that anyone should feel bad when their body can’t do something they wanted it to, in the cases of the many women who are reported to have tried to nurse their babies and not been able. I have had minor heart surgery twice in my life, twice because the first time my body rejected the device.  Do I feel like a personal failure for having to undergo emergency surgery to get the damn thing out?  Was I thinking, “oh, I really suck at this cardiac thing”?  No.  I felt lucky to just be alive.  It doesn’t make sense that we have this obsession with people not feeling bad for something they can’t control in the first place.  To reiterate, no one should have to feel bad.

Secondly, there’s the teeny issue with the treatment and image of breasts in our culture.  A lot of the time the midwives and health visitors who first mention breastfeeding to us as new mums or mums-to-be are talking to women (like me) who have never given their breasts a second thought as anything other than just present or, at best, sexual.  Many of us (like me) have never even seen someone breastfeed before.  It’s not the health professionals’ fault, it’s not the women’s fault either, for how can anyone regard breastfeeding as normal, as the default, when it’s all but hidden from us until that time when we’re suddenly expected to be really open to learning everything about it?  Our cultural moment doesn’t have the ability to guide us on matters of lactation, because it has left breastfeeding behind in the pursuit of other dominant interests – money, growth, progress, capital.  And these things in part rely on tits in an aesthetic and sexual capacity to stimulate their success; women’s bodies, and how much or little autonomy they have over them, equals the potential for money in the bank for the corporate leaders in many different industries.

I think it’s pretty inarguable that we, as a culture, regard breasts primarily as decorative glands.  We talk about their size, shape and position, and almost never about their function as working parts of the female biological machine, the human biological process, y’know, where life outside of the womb begins.

Breastfeeding is free.  Breast milk requires no preparation.  No products must be bought to initiate lactation, no guidelines consulted.  Breast milk as a first food has the power to keep healthcare costs down and is significantly less risky than formula feeding, even in the developed world.  Breastfeeding is normal, not weird, and – despite what (again) our mainstream popular culture would like you to believe – breastfeeding advocacy isn’t about being anti-formula feeders, anti-women, anti-anything really.   It wants, for nothing in return, to support new mothers in their goals, and isn’t interested in judging them. In. The. Slightest.  

The reputation of breasts as mere sexual stimulants undermines women, and disempowers them. A culture obsessed with aesthetic and achieved status keeps from women the truth about how amazing their bodies are and how much more they can do.  Women have the right to know what their bodies are capable of:  growing and sustaining life. That is empowering, that is feminism.  To deny women that knowledge, to sell their own biological imperative to them as an optional extra is to deny them body autonomy.   Of course, people say, but what about choice? But is it really a choice for the mother who struggles to breastfeed and receives no support from society except to console “oh well, at least you tried”, here’s plan B?

Breastfeeding is also, must also, be normal because the survival of our species depends upon it.  Remember women being the givers and sustainers of life?  Yeah, that.  When we take breastfeeding out completely, we’re inviting trouble.  Natural disasters are indiscriminate in who they affect.  A non-breastfed baby, without a lactating mother around him, in a disaster situation – lacking clean water and electricity, a multiplying ground for bacteria, with a limited supply of other resources -  stands little chance of survival.  No one in the human race lives free of the possibility of such a crisis.
We’ve become so confident in industry to sustain us that we’ve come to see them as normal, and natural infant feeding as something alternative.  But it’s not.  Stuff that isn’t normal: capitalism, patriarchy, artificial division of domestic and public life.  Those are all things the human race could, ultimately, do without.

Breastfeeding matters because it, by its nature, challenges the cultural indoctrination that has led us to consider normal the preservation of the few folk at the top, whilst disregarding the most basic rights (the right to know what our bodies do) of a huge swathe of the population.  Normal parenting behaviour needs to be defended and enshrined in law, advised for and against, supported and discouraged, all the while a patriarchal and capitalist hegemony dominates prevails. 

Formula feeding mums (of which I was one) should not be made to feel bad for their choice or otherwise to use formula.  That’s a given.  But a culture that claims to support women whilst all but forcing them to ‘move on’ from natural feeding, as if it’s a race to the end, is unsupportive of the women and children it should be protecting.


Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Save the children #firstday campaign

2.9 million babies a year never reach their second month of life.


Save the Children's new campaign, launching today, is 

Ending Newborn Deaths

The problem:

For a mum or dad, the first day of a child’s life should be a time of excitement, wonder and hope. A day they will remember forever. But childbirth is often complicated and a newborn child is frighteningly vulnerable.

Every year 2.9 million babies die in their first month. Maybe their tiny airways get blocked, the delivery is obstructed or they are exposed to infections or hypothermia.

Newborn deaths now account for nearly half of all under-five deaths.

The death of one baby is a tragedy. The death of 2.9 million a year is an outrage. And most of these deaths are preventable, with the help of a trained and equipped midwife along with basic medicines such as antiseptics and antibiotics, vital equipment and a clean environment to work in.

These are not difficult things to provide: all it takes is political will from governments around the world to provide the funds to train up and equip midwives.

The world has made amazing progress in saving children’s lives over the past two decades. Thanks to global action on vaccines, family planning and treatment of childhood illness, the number of children who die each year has dropped from 12.6 million in 1990 to 6.6 million in 2012. Save the Children’s social media campaigners have helped us drive so much of this change.

But that isn’t enough – not while 2.9 million babies a year never reach their second month of life. Lack of political focus on newborn deaths is blocking us from being the generation to stop all preventable child deaths.

2014 gives us a unique opportunity to make change happen: For the first time ever, countries and institutions around the world will sit down to agree the Every Newborn Action Plan. We need to make sure world leader’s take action on this and know the world is calling for them to do so.

What we want to achieve:

Save the lives of 2 million newborn babies a year
Ensure that every baby is born with the support of a trained and equipped midwife


How can people help?

If you’ve got one minute:
Sign our petition to ask David Cameron to put a global plan into action in 2014 that will ensure every baby is born with the life-saving help of a trained and equipped midwife and use his influence to get world leaders to do the same.
Text a donation: a donation of £3, the price of a cup of coffee, could save 10 newborn lives by buying 10 tubes of antiseptic cream. Text COFFEE to 70090

Save the Children are asking bloggers the question ‘What did your midwife do that made sure your baby had a second day?’

As mentioned in my previous post, things in the UK aren't perfect but we are extremely lucky to have essential equipment and trained professionals available for free in our time of need. This is what my midwife did for me and my son:

My midwife delivered my son safely and helped me to breastfeed him. She checked that the placenta was intact and that my blood loss was only moderate. She used aseptic technique to prevent infection while stitching up my second degree tear and gave me medicine to help with the pain. She weighed my baby and carried out health screening. She wrapped him warmly and then let us be on our own as a family. She came and said goodbye and good luck at the end of her shift. My midwife ensured that my son lived beyond his #firstday.