Thursday, 10 November 2011

the dangers of 'don't ask, don't tell'

IT's her greatest strength, but perhaps her greatest weakness. What makes the Conservative MP Louise Mensch so unusual is her apparent belief that the rules of politics somehow don't apply to her.
She always seemed fiercely ambitious, yet almost her first act as a new backbencher was to blow promotion by criticising her own side's half-baked proposals for rape law reform. When a tabloid dug up tales of decades-old drugtaking, she didn't claim apologetically never to have inhaled: she merrily confessed to all that she was accused of and probably more.
And yesterday, she sailed out of a critical Commons hearing into tabloid phone hacking early, blithely announcing to the TV cameras that she was off to get the kids from school. Cue outrage, even in some unpredictable quarters. But why?
It's not so much that she scarpered instead of waiting until the bitter end: over years of covering select committees, I saw many MPs trot out their questions, as she diligently did, and then leave (although rarely on such a high profile occasion). It's that she was so brazen about it. She could have slipped out muttering obliquely about a private matter: or hinted at some dire childcare emergency - a nanny off sick, husband away. That's what the rules for working mothers say: never let on how hard it is, and if you must, then stress it's a rare one-off.
But instead Mensch went out of her way to show she actively chose to go, tweeting afterwards that Thursday is one of her days to have her three children (she's divorced, and presumably shares access with her ex-husband) and so she usually works then from her Northamptonshire constituency, where the children are at school. It seems she simply decided that having said she would always be there on Thursdays, she would be there on Thursdays come what may: that the commitment to the children, at least on that day, trumped everything else (presumably on other days, the opposite applies).
Again, plenty of MPs of both sexes seem to be mysteriously unavailable at Westminster any time after Thursday lunchtime: doubtless some are on the school run too. But the unspoken rule is don't ask, don't tell. Keep the fact that that you really want to see your children, after being away for three nights, as your dirty little secret - because if you don't, we would have to face up to the emotional cost of the hours we expect you to keep. (Or indeed, to our anxiety over having made different choices ourselves).
It's the same in countless ordinary offices, where parents are quietly advised never to put anything down on paper about leaving early: just fabricate a client meeting every now and then and slip off early, like everyone else. It works. But it's deeply dishonest, perpetuating the myth that it's fine to work a 70 hour week or choose (as MPs do) between living several hundred miles from their children or dragging them up and down the motorway every weekend. And it's an excuse for nothing to change.
Because if it's not about Mensch blowing the gaff, then what? Let's not pretend another 45 minutes of her silent presence at the hearing would have broken James Murdoch: had she quietly fixed a playdate for the kids and stayed on, it would have been pure presenteeism. Let's not even pretend it's about her being a 'part time MP': it's long been acceptable for backbenchers (often men) to have a second job outside the Commons, which hardly seems any different. Certainly, don't pretend it's about being out of touch with ordinary working parents: where better than the school gates to see what life is like for them?
Some find Mensch herself annoying, of course: I do see that talk of facelifts and dressing nicely for your husband can grate, while others simply don't like Tories, or her apparent hunger for publicity. But you can't believe in parents' (and childrens') right to a family life, and in the benefits to both sides of flexibility, and in judging people by results not by time spent chained to a desk, unless you believe in it even for annoying people.
Mensch will get brickbats for this in the papers and vitriolic emails from constituents: so be it. But perhaps her children will remember that she was always there on a Thursday long after we've all forgotten. She's made the choice, and while it's not everybody's choice, that deserves respect.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

what I'm reading (out loud)

ONE of the reasons I don't read as much as I used to, as I said in yesterday's post, is that having kids doesn't exactly leave you with hours on end to curl up with a book. But actually that wasn't strictly true. I still read a lot: just mostly aloud, and about space and dinosaurs.
Bedtime favourites come and go with my son, but there are a handful of books that have become particularly trusted old friends: some have been loved for years, while others were simply intensely right for their time. And now he's four and learning to read for himself, good stories read aloud seem to have become if anything an important respite from plodding through Biff, Chip and sodding Kipper.
So leaving aside the standard preschool books everyone has (anything by Julia Donaldson, and classic nursery tales) these are the ones we wouldn't have been without.

1. Night Night, by Marie Birkinshaw. The first book I ever read him as a baby, this is unashamed pro-sleep propoganda, with added liftable flaps. Wildly popular until the puppy chewed all the corners off it. So we moved on to...
2. Trucks (author's name lost in mists of time). An old friend of mine visiting from San Francisco gave him this touchy-feely board book of trucks. This is how my son learned words like 'articulated' before 'granny'. It was rehomed (with another truck-loving baby) only after an undignified struggle, when he was three.
3. I Took The Moon For A Walk, by Carolyn Curtis. My sister gave us this: it's a magical, singsong rhyming story about a little boy walking through the night, and we read it so often I knew it by heart. On long car journeys, he would instantly fall asleep if I started reciting it. Just looking at the cover makes me feel nostalgic and we still read it now.
4. The Elephant and the Bad Baby, by Raymond Briggs. I loved this as a child too: a gallumphing elephant, with a baby on board, pinches things from a series of shops - the butcher, the baker, the greengrocer - presumably unfathomable to kids raised on Tesco's. The moral of the story, somewhat subversively, is not 'don't shoplift' but 'always say please'.
5. The Tiger Who Came To Tea, by Judith Kerr. Apparently there's a whole literary subculture devoted to figuring out what the tiger who barges into a little girl's teatime is an allegory for (the Nazis invading Poland? the mother's lover, smuggled in while Daddy's out working?). But my son just liked the way the tiger slurps everything.
6. Volcanoes (Usborne Beginners series), Stephanie Turnbull. I can't remember when or why the obsession with volcanoes started, but it feels like forever. A non-fiction children's book answering all the questions I frankly couldn't about what how and why volcanoes erupt, still much loved. (Honourable mentions too for I Wonder Why the Wind Blows, by Anita Ganeri and How the World Works, by Christiane Dorion which also explain natural phenomena in child-friendly ways).
7. I Am Absolutely Too Small For School, by Lauren Child. Most of the Charlie and Lola books were popular but he read this one over and over again during his first fortnight at school. It deals brilliantly with the little things children actually worry about, like who to sit next to at lunch. I'd buy it for any child in the summer before starting school.
8. My Dad: Anthony Browne. That surprisngly rare thing, a book that's unashamedly upbeat about fathers. Excellent antidote to too much Daddy Pig, and a good one for encouraging fathers to read with kids.
9. Smelly Peter, Green Pea Eater by Steve Smallman. It's about a small boy who only eats peas, turns green, and farts a lot: sophisticated it ain't, but small boy heaven.
10. Monsters: An Owner's Guide, By Jonathan Emmett and Mark Oliver. About a flatpack monster who arrives in the post and trashes everything: I've bought several copies since for friends' children.
Both these last two, incidentally, were random finds in the library which became favourites - as Meg Rosoff's Jumpy Jack and Googily seems to be doing this week. I've not seen them in the major book chains, where the children's selection seems to be as safe and same-y now as the adults': an argument both for keeping libraries open if ever there was one, and of course for independent bookshops. (My favourite of which, incidentally, is the Crow On The Hill near where we used to live in south London: its owner hosts one of the best blogs on books around. And certainly the most sarcastic.)

what I'm reading

THIS was meant to be a blog about what I currently want to read, for National Book Week - if I'd finished writing it before National Book Week ended. Ah well.
I used to be a voracious reader once, but first work - for which I consumed so many newspapers, magazines, and back copies of Hansard that by the end of the day my eyes hurt - and then the particular kind of exhaustion engendered by small children crushed it out of me. When I changed my job, one thing I hoped to have more time for was reading for pleasure: unfortunately I immediately started writing my own book, which meant months of wading through an awful lot of background for that. Duh.
But I've finished now, so pleasure beckons again. This list probably isn't most people's idea of fun but although I normally read fiction, right now for some reason I want mostly books about ideas. Some aren't out yet, some are years old, but this is what I'm coveting this autumn....

1. 'Boomerang: The Meltdown Tour', by Michael Lewis. Of all the endless 'why the global econmy is screwed' books now coming out, this looks to be the most readable and possibly the only one with a sense of humour. Important when you're reading about the end of the world, I think.
2 'Masters of Nothing', Matthew Hancock and Nadhim Zahawi. Another book about the crash but concentrating on the human behaviour that led to it: Hancock used to work for the current Chancellor.
3. 'You Talkin To Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama', by Sam Leith - because he is an effortlessly clever writer (see here) and I love the subject: why the spoken word holds such power to move us.
4. 'The Canon', by Natalie Angier - This is an a beautifully written book designed to convince scientific illiterates like me of the magic of science (here's the piece that made me want to read it.) I bought it on maternity leave, worried that I'd be bored with nothing to do but look after a small baby all day: I mean, presumably it would just sleep and I'd be sat twiddling my thumbs....Let's just say it was not the book's fault that I only got to chapter three. Four years later, he sleeps for long enough that I could probably finish this.
5. 'The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children's Future', by David Willetts - I got this because I have never been bored talking to David, and am fascinated by the unravelling consequences of an ageing society. I started it but lost the book when we moved house. Being too mean to buy another one, I kept hoping it would turn up but it hasn't. Presumably the removal men now know much more demographic change than they did. Time to buy another copy.
6. 'Franklin & Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage', by Hazel Rowley. OK, it's the story of President Roosevelt and his wife but it's not a political work at all in the conventional sense: it's about the intricate compromises and ebb and flow within a marriage.
7. 'New Selected Stories,' by Alice Munro. Most of the fiction I read this autumn will probably end up being picked by the book group I belong to, but this one's all mine: short stories are perfect for interrupted readers, and she's the master.
8. Matthew D'Ancona's book for Penguin on the coalition, still being written. No idea what it's called or when it'll be out but it's the only book on the Cameron-Clegg years I want to read, because he's one of remarkably few journalists who genuinely understands Cameron yet won't churn out a hagiography. I think he'll be the Andrew Rawnsley of the coalition years.
Tomorrow: the ten children's books we really loved in this house. Also, um, for National Book Week. Give or take....

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

something for the ladies

IT'S that special time again, the one women look forward to with such enthusiasm: the few days a year when politics suddenly falls over itself to notice we exist. Panicky memos on what female voters might want fly across Whitehall, journalists are exhaustively briefed on how the prime minister wants to woo wonen (why is our vote always wooed, Mills and Boon style, when men's is targeted?), and even Jeremy Paxman is made to host an all-female panel of political pundits in front of an all-female audience. And then, of course, everyone goes gratefully back to business as usual. Yawn.
But something thrillingly unexpected happened during last night's special 'Ladies Day' edition of Newsnight: a mini-insurrection erupted, led by the Tory MP Claire Perry (on the panel) and activist Charlotte Vere (in the audience), attacking the very idea that there is a 'woman's vote' or that women are defined by issues like childcare. (Fathers are interested in children too, someone shouted from the back). And I increasingly think they're right.
It sometimes feels as though I spent half my career in political journalism writing about the 'women's vote': pollsters and pressure groups never tire of analysing it, and some female ministers used it very effectively as a way of leveraging what they wanted out of Downing Street. But lately I've been increasingly uncomfortable about the term. How can you lump together grannies and students, hotshot female bankers and their minimum wage cleaners, in one supposedly cohesive group - as if the mythical Power of Ladyness somehow unites them all, despite obviously different priorities? Why is anyone shocked at YouGov's finding earlier this summer that nearly half of us can't identify which party is closest to women, rather than seeing it as healthy that women no longer vote - like a huddled, threatened minority - en bloc? Talking about the 'women's vote' too often carries the inference that women are a strange minority requiring their own special politics - preferably pink, and handbag-sized - while men remain the mainstream majority. Nobody talks about politicians losing the 'man's vote', although thousands of men have changed their minds about the coalition too.
Drill down into the data, as this recent blog by Resolution Foundation's Gavin Kelly points out, and the idea of one homogenous 'women's vote' makes even less sense.The Tories have lost support among women since the election, but it's among 'squeezed middle' women from the C2 socioeconomic group that they're really struggling: support among professional women has actually risen. So much for the sisterhood. As the pollster Anthony Wells points out, it isn't true either that women care mostly about 'soft' issues like health and education while men care about money and wars: both sexes are worried now about the economy, jobs, and living standards.
That said, there is one striking difference in the YouGov polling Wells was analysing: lack of confidence. Women are more likely than men to say they're 'very worried' about losing their jobs, losing their homes, or getting ill, suggesting they may react with greater alarm to the same levels of threat (women are indeed particularly vulnerable to job losses now these have reached the public sector, but they're presumably not more likely to get ill). Women are also much readier than men to tick 'don't know' - to admit that they're not sure whether spending cuts are good or bad, fair or unfair, too deep or not deep enough - while men tend to take a definitive view (although when even Nobel prizewinning economists disagree on tackling the crisis, most of us in all honesty probably don't know whether the government's economic gamble is the right one). Perhaps men are less willing to lose face by telling a pollster they don't know the answer, but it might also mean women feel greater uncertainty, fuelling their already greater anxiety. I wouldn't be surprised if the overriding mood Cameron wants to create today is one of reassurance.
And if that's so, he should forget about the mythical 'women's vote' and concentrate on some specific female voters with cause to feel threatened or let down by the coalition. Here are three ideas to get him started:
1. Wake up to older women. In 1997 it was all about the swing voting suburban mum, but Worcester Woman is 14 years older now and her children are nearly grown up: an ageing population means the biggest single electoral grouping is women aged 40 to 59. Harriet Harman dropped a big fat hint last week that Labour is going after them, talking about tackling the double whammy of ageism and sexism faced by older women. By contrast the coalition offers an unappealing cocktail of hiking retirement age to 66, deep uncertainty about the future of longterm care (women have a 50:50 chance of ending up caring for elderly parents or other relatives by the age of 59), and higher tuition fees (this group may have children approaching university age). And while stock market crashes particularly hurt the over-55s, whose pension funds don't really have time to recover before they retire, older women may feel more vulnerable because their savings tend to be smaller and probably need to last them longer. Cameron consciously surrounds himself with women who can offer him insights into what their peers want, but most are in their 30s and 40s: where are the older women, either in government or behind the scenes?
2. It's hard to be both the party of big business, and the party of female employees. The impression lingers that if asked to choose between a bright, ambitious young woman and an old dinosaur of a boss who won't promote her in case she has a baby one day, Tory sympathies would instinctively lie with the boss. This isn't exactly helped by threatening to price people out of taking discrimination cases to tribunal (which is effectively what the Chancellor was announcing earlier this week), or wild talk about abolishing maternity leave. Downing Street needs to pick a high-profile issue fast where it can be seen to be on the side of ordinary working women.
3. Watch for hidden gender traps. We're told, for example, that the prime minister will exhort the nation this afternoon to pay off our credit card and storecard debts: but since there are estimated to be three times as many single women struggling with store card debt as single men, and newspapers invariably run stories like this alongside images of women swinging shopping bags, if he's not careful young women are going to feel criticised and patronised. It wouldn't hurt to balance this with a promise to look again, say, at the relentless pushing of storecards (often with killer rates of interest) at point of sale in women's clothes shops.

Friday, 23 September 2011

the truth about tortoises and hares

THOSE, like me, of a nerdy disposition may just remember a storm in a teacup earlier this year when the higher education minister David Willetts triggered outrage by suggesting feminism was to blame for helping keep working class men down.
He was arguing that when universities expanded in the 1960s-1980s, the extra places went not to bright kids from poorer backgrounds but mostly to middle class girls: the kind whose brothers might once have gone to college, while they were steered off into nursing or secretarial work. The heavens duly opened, as Willetts was accused of suggesting that bumptious women were trampling poor hard-done-by men beneath their stiletto heels in the race to the top.
At the time, I felt sympathy for Willetts, firstly because he is one of the least chauvinistic male politicians I've met (and boy, I've met a few) and secondly because his facts (if not necessarily the headlines) were broadly correct. There are many reasons poorer boys don't get on in life, mostly nothing to do with women, but one is that middle class kids of both sexes hoover up all the prizes from kindergarten onwards. But there's a fascinating piece of research out today from the thinktank Resolution Foundation* which puts the other side of this story.
It looks at earnings mobility, or how able people are to 'earn' their way up the social ladder - how easy it is, say, to start out on the shop floor and end up as the boss - among two groups: one born in the late 1950s who would now be in their 50s, and the generation born in 1970 who would have just turned 40 now. The good news is that the Seventies kids were more likely to work their way up: the bad news is that men were 40 per cent more likely than women to do so ( the gap was even bigger for the Fifties-born), and those on middling to high salaries to start with were a lot more likely to rise than those starting at the bottom. In other words, you can rise from humble beginnings to the top: but it helps to be both a bloke, and not that humble to start with. So much for the all-conquering rise of wimmin.
It's not completely clear why women couldn't climb as fast as men, but here's a big fat clue: if you switched to part-time work from a full-time job during the last decade, you were 30 per cent more likely to slide back down the ladder. And it's working mothers who are by far the most likely to go part-time. (Although the study didn't find a major link between having children and falling behind, its authors say that's because it began tracking people after they were 30, and many women would by then already have children and so would have already taken the hit).
So we're left with a picture of young women as hares - racing ahead initially, snaffling up the best university places (unsurprisingly, since they do better at Alevel than boys), setting out full of promise - only to be overtaken further down the line by tortoise men, creeping ahead of them during the babymaking years. It's a pattern many women will recognise in their own lives: and while children don't explain everything, they are clearly a big part of the jigsaw which wasn't acknowledged back in spring.
There is one note of cheer for beleaguered hares, however: while women clearly do still pay a heavy price for working part-time, Seventies children who reduced their hours suffered less for it than the Fifties generation, which the report suggests might be due to better quality part time work becoming available. In other words if more parents could hang on to decent well-paid jobs despite doing a three-day week, hares as well as tortoises might yet make it to the finishing line.

*Quick declaration of interest: I have no financial links with Resolution, but I am currently sitting on a policy commission for them, unpaid.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

not staying mum

WHAT feels now like light years ago, when my son was around two months old, I met an old friend for coffee in the little cafe down the road. Baby perched on my knee, I told her airily that having kids wasn't going to change me: it was all a matter of choice, how much you allowed yourself to be sucked into all that mum stuff. The look in her eye, as she politely nodded along with me, suggested she didn't believe a word. Correctly, as it turns out.
But it's only now, emerging from the tunnel, that I can see which of the changes parenthood brought (and which I tried so hard initially to deny) were permanent and which surprisingly temporary. In the thick of it, you are Alice down the rabbithole, Dorothy whisked away in a whirlwind, scrabbling for toeholds in a strange world and unsure if you will ever find your way home. And I was reminded sharply of that feeling this week by the food writer Esther Walker's post on that bewildering feeling of having turned into 'this mum person', some strange alter ego exiled from what used to be your life. Why, for all the billions of tiresome words written about women 'getting your figure back' after having a baby, is so little intelligently said about recovering your identity?
Hell, the body thing is easy by comparison: eat less, run more, and if you haven't got the energy yet, stop worrying and wear maternity clothes for a bit longer. What would be more useful to new mothers than guilt-tripping them back into their old jeans is knowing that there is a point, however unlikely it sounds, at which one's mojo (or the bedraggled remains of it) returns. That your identity is not lost, but still out there somewhere, waiting patiently to be found. And while everyone's road back to sanity is different, these are some things I found useful.
1. Sleep. Hard to imagine amid the broken nights, but it will return one day: and lo, you will marvel at how fast your brain works when you are not mad-eyed and murderous with exhaustion.
2. Work, or its equivalent, even for a couple of hours a week, when you're ready for it. It doesn't actually have to be a job. Just something not baby-related, that you do for and by yourself (and if possible also for people who are grateful for your efforts, instead of spitting them up down the back of your jumper). Reading a newspaper in a cafe would do, frankly.
3. Distance. Small babies are such vast caverns of neediness that you do simply have to sink into it for a while: the boundaries between child and parent have to blur. But when the baby grows up a bit, and stops being quite so needy, and especially when it has kindly grandparents, there is much to be said for a childfree weekend away. You can't see your non-maternal self clearly when with your child.
4. Old friends, especially those without children, who can remember what you were like before you had children. Preferably with photographic evidence.
5. Realising that you're chasing a moving target. The good news is that everyone is getting older, slower, more out of the loop: even those who haven't spent three years changing nappies now can't drink like they used to, and secretly think the music they grew up with is better than whatever they're pretending to like now. You don't have to spring back to being the person you were pre-children, because even if you hadn't had kids, three years on you still wouldn't be that person now. At least as a parent, you've got an excuse.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Lessons in guiltfree living

ALL week long, I've been trying to work out why I didn't cry. After all, the first day of primary school is supposed to bring a tear to the flintiest eye: all those anxious little faces, swamped by brand new uniforms, tightly clutching parents' hands. The end of an era, the beginning of the long slow terrible process of letting go. Waterproof mascara all round.
It's not that I didn't feel some sadness, as he trotted off into the classroom, at that particular chapter of our lives coming to an end. Or even a tiny pang of envy for the mothers still squeezing pushchairs through the school gates, for whom the story isn't over. But still, I walked back across the playground with unmistakably dry eyes.
For what I felt most strikingly was a tiny whoosh of liberation - not from him, but from the weight of guilt you hardly realise is there until it's gone.
This isn't the first time we've spent days apart, since I've worked (first full-time and then part-time) since he was eight months old. But it is the first time the choice - that terrible, double-edged choice - about whether to be home or not has been completely taken away from me. The little nagging voice in my head when I work, the one that used to say you could be with him, instead, has fallen silent: because now I couldn't, even if I wanted to. Even the most zealous champion of full-time motherhood is now suddenly behind me having 30 hours a week to myself (or rather, to work: for me, it's virtually the same thing) where a few months ago I would have been damned for it.
And when I opened my laptop that morning to finish off some edits for my book, it hit me: this is what work would feel like all the time, if you could only be relieved of the guilt, spared the guillotine of public disapproval, real or imagined. (Only that morning the Today programme devoted several minutes to a debate on whether daycare damages small children: God knows how many mothers listened to that one in the car on the way to nursery, a neat little dagger in the heart).
Well, school is the point where for some parents the cloud of self-doubt lifts completely - if you can find work that fits around school hours - and for others it surely lifts a little. The switch flips, the pendulum swings, and the only tiny hitch is wondering how long before that other guilty little voice starts up in one's head: the one that says now they're in school, shouldn't you be working harder than this?

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

what's the point of hiring women?

THIS morning's fuss over news that the prime minister's chief strategist suggested scrapping maternity leave isn't, luckily, quite what it seems. Steve Hilton is famous for having nine faintly mad ideas for every good one, and most of the time his madder ones don't see the light of day: it's just that this time someone has apparently decided to embarrass him.
But it's his underlying argument - that parental rights hurt women, by discouraging employers from hiring them - that is more widely shared on the right and ultimately more dangerous. What really needs tackling is the mistaken idea that it's perfectly rational for employers to refuse to hire anyone biologically capable of having a baby (and that therefore women need to be stripped of all those pesky off-putting rights), since it is in fact completely self-defeating to blacklist half the talent pool under 45.
So here, just for anyone who hasn't quite grasped that argument, is a random selection of female talent that would have been lost to the world had the fact that they were of childbearing age put their early employers off.

1. Margaret Thatcher: she was 24 and didn't yet have children when she fought her first general election (for a safe Labour seat). She went on to have twins three years later: Thatcher was a few days short of her 34th birthday, and the twins were six, when she finally got elected in Finchley.
2. Marie Curie, the double Nobel Prize winning scientist, who was 26 when she first started work in an industrial laboratory. Four years later, she had the first of her two daughters (who incidentally grew up to become a Nobel Prize-winning scientist too).
3. Sally Gunnell, who was 26 when she was sent out to Barcelona as part of the Olympic squad. She won her first Olympic gold and went on to become world number one, before retiring from competitive sport and going on to have three children.
4. Samantha Cameron, who was 25 when hired as creative director by Smythson and went on to have four children while with the firm. Doesn't seem to have worked out that badly for Smythson, which was sold for £18 million in 2009.
5. Rachel Whetstone, 38 when hired by Google as head of communications and public policy: two years later it emerged she was expecting her first child with her partner, ahem, Steve Hilton. Google seems to have got by somehow. And she's now a vice president.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Why some men hate women

WHEN I started this post, I thought I wanted to write about why neofascists so often hate women. It's impossible, after all, to read the deranged manifesto left by the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik without being chilled by its vitriol not just against Muslims but against women - or at least, the sort of women he considers to have fatally weakened men with their addiction to political correctness, Sex and the City, and turning men into 'a never-criticising soulmate to the new age feminist woman goddess.'
And so it's difficult not to nod along with those commentators arguing that his rage against women must have had something to do with the otherwise senseless massacre on Utoya, that his fear of being 'femninised' perhaps led him to express a warped idea of uber-masculinity through violence. And it's easy to draw an older parallel between the far right and misogyny, from Hitler claiming that the emancipation of women was dreamt up by the Jews to modern BNP candidates' distasteful views on rape, domestic violence and 'feminazis'. The far right prospers in times of high unemployment, so the idea of forcing women back to the kitchen sink - and therefore reducing competition for jobs - is undoubtedly comforting to some men anxious about their economic futures. Hitler, after all, campaigned for election on a promise to get nearly a million working women back into the home.
But then I began to wonder if I'm simply seeing what I choose to see here. Human brains like to pluck order from chaos, to see a tidy pattern where there isn't really one, which is perhaps why so much of what I've read so far on Norway's tragedy seems to involve the author conveniently seeing their own pet ideas reflected in this massacre.
So for the former teacher Katherine Barbalsingh, it's somehow about the killer's parents divorcing 31 years ago (nevermind the countless Norwegian children who experienced their parents' separation without becoming mass murderers). For the over-40s, it's about that newfangled internet, enabling one crazed loner to find others who share his warped ideas. For the left, it's about inflammatory language by rightwingers legitimising hatred of immigrants: for the right, it's about liberals failing to crack down on terrorism. But it would be more honest, if duller, to admit that nothing yet explains precisely what brought death to Utoya: and that the answer - if there is one - will more likely come through long, painstaking psychiatric interviews of the killer than from wild journalistic speculation.
The main reason, however, I'm uncomfortable with misogyny as a catch-all explanation for Breivik's actions is that there is nothing particularly extraordinary in his views on women. He says nothing I didn't see regularly in my postbag as a journalist, nothing you won't see in the comments on pretty much any high-traffic blogpost by pretty much any woman mentioning the word 'feminist', and no doubt most are written by men who will never resort to mass violence.
It's a shock for women to realise that even a small minority of men do genuinely hate women, fear women, blame women for the economic and social blows they've suffered. It's not pleasant either to think that the current combination of a recession, plus a longer-term shift away from men as main breadwinners (and therefore domestic powerbrokers), may only deepen that hatred. That may turn out to have nothing to do with what happened on Utoya. But I doubt it's without long-term consequences, all the same.

Monday, 18 July 2011

cometh the hour, cometh the woman

LAST week, I chaired a meeting at the House of Commons on the perennial topic of why there aren't enough women in politics. We were running through all the usual stuff - lousy working hours, sexist colleagues - when a woman in the audience asked a genuinely interesting question. Why, she said, were there women leaders in developing countries like Liberia, but vanishingly few in supposedly mature liberal democracies like ours?
I've been thinking about the answer the Labour MP Gisela Stuart gave her - basically that women often get their chance only when men have made a spectacular mess of it, as in wartorn Liberia - for days, because I think it goes much wider than politics.
Think of the two senior policewomen, Sue Akers and Cressida Dick, who have respectively taken over the phone hacking inquiry and the job of Met deputy commissioner following the weekend's mad flurry of resignations (it's rumoured the departing head of the Met, Sir Paul Stephenson, may also now be replaced by a woman). Think of Christine Lagarde, becoming head of the International Monetary Fund after her predecessor was accused (he says falsely) of raping a hotel maid. Like Liberia's president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, elected after years of civil war and violent repression, these women are powerful symbols of a break with an old, tarnished male order. But why do they get called on only when it's time to clean up?
Perhaps it's partly explained by the so-called 'glass cliff' theory, which suggest women often get to run big companies only when the share price is crashing, male rivals steer clear, and boards become desperate enough to take the 'risk' of hiring a woman (imagine! ladies in charge!)
Or perhaps it's a variation on the classic Westminster reshuffle trick: stick a woman in a government job no woman has previously held, and hopefully the headlines will be more about shattering glass ceilings than why someone else got quietly fired. No doubt it also sends a useful signal, in industries that have clearly sailed too close to the wind, to hire a woman since women are seen as more cautious and conscientious than men (although as the arrest of News International executive Rebekah Brooks may or may not go on to prove, women have no monopoly on sainthood).
But I suspect the real reason women sometimes profit from a crisis is that they however high they climb, women often don't quite break into the inner circle: the lone senior woman in a clubbable, all-boys-together office is often not quite 'one of us'. That holds her back in good times. But when being 'one of us' suddenly means being tainted by association, nothing looks more desirable than an outsider: however briefly, everyone sees the point of having someone who thinks differently from the rest, who questions the way things have always been done, who isn't so much 'one of the lads' that they overlook the casual bending of the rules.
We saw it after the City crash of 2008, when there was much discussion of whether macho bank traders had developed 'groupthink' which blinded them to the risks involved in subprime mortgages, and we're seeing it now in the unravelling of the Met. But when the immediate crisis blows over, will anyone remember that it doesn't always pay to be one of the guys?

Friday, 8 July 2011

in defence of the yummy mummy

LIKE most people who occasionally sneer at them, I'm still not really sure what a 'yummy mummy' is, apart from universally scorned. I vaguely think of them as women with blonde highlights (tick); sunglasses on top of their heads (um, tick); who don't work full time (oh dear, tick); are glamorously high maintenance (phew: this I'm not) and wear lots of Boden (never). And according to my former boss and now Times deputy editor Roger Alton, they also sit around drinking Fair Trade tea (um, tick) and eating organic shortbread and boycotting the News of the World, thus costing other people jobs.
What many women seem to have heard in Roger Alton's words was the old ugly inference that women in general and mothers in particular shouldn't have opinions or influence beyond the home - although having never been exactly short of opinions myself, and having worked happily for Roger for many years at the Observer, I don't buy that.
But leaving aside the tabloid ethics, since I've already said what I think about that, the bile heaped on yummy mummies intrigues me. It's partly about money, of course: yummy mummies usually accessorise with enviably rich husbands. But when the term is applied so sweepingly - here as shorthand for Mumsnet users, many of whom are far less privileged than the stereotype suggests - then I think the real envy (because nothing generates hatred like envy) is of what they have that so many of us don't: time.
Time to make their own organic shortbread, time to glam up for the school run, but also time to read the papers and get worked up about things: time to go online and wind their friends up about those things and - well, what might happen then? Because the thing about mothers and indeed fathers, yummy or otherwise, is that they do sometimes ask awkward questions.
You don't have to have kids to care about a fair deal for tea growers, or global warming, or about dubious commercial values. Parents have no monopoly on caring about other people: indeed, are sometimes too obsessed with their own little darlings to put other people's concerns in perspective.
But having children can also turn you from someone who merrily shoves all their recycling in the dustbin into someone at least vaguely concerned about the world in which they may grow up. You start signing petitions, worrying about stuff out of your control: threats to other people's children - from drought and famine to abusive parents - can't be so easily dismissed. You complain more, meddle more, are doubtless far more irritating, since the flipside of parental concern is nimbyism and hysteria.
But you also, occasionally and in small ways, do some good. You volunteer for stuff, even if only the school fete: because you now use public services more, you get involved when the library's threatened with closure or the hospital's going downhill. On maternity leave was the first time I became in any sense connected to the community I was ostensibly part of, but had previously left at 8am and returned to only after dark. Parenthood, and the sense of solidarity it brings with everyone else in the same knackered and sick-stained boat, is the first time many of us really understand the power and responsibility we might have as part of something bigger than ourselves. Easy to satirise: harder, I think, to dismiss.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

the true cost of news

UNTIL now, I can't remember a time I haven't felt proud of being a journalist. We can't all be heroes, of course, so for every Watergate, there's a million parish council reports: for every atrocity revealed to the world, a heck of a lot of diet book serialisations. But still, you could usually kid yourself you were part of something that mattered. Less easy now.
And that's about more than one's obvious revulsion over journalists hacking the phones of missing children, or eavesdropping on the grief of terrorist victims. It's about thinking that this kind of thing only happens in a dying industry.
I've worked in national newspapers for 15 years, 13 of them on staff first for the Daily Mail and then the Observer and now freelance for whoever. I've never hacked a phone - I can barely access my own voicemails, frankly - nor been asked or pressured to do something illegal for a story. So I'm one of the lucky ones. I got yelled at sometimes, sniped at sometimes, for missing stories, but I was never told - as some journalists (and doubtless their managers) across Fleet Street regularly are - that I'd be fired if I didn't beat X to a story, or shouldn't bother coming back to the office tomorrow if I didn't land Y scoop. I've never been bullied into choosing between mortgage and conscience. Hopefully I'd have chosen well, but luckily I never had to find out: thanks partly to the people I worked for and partly to writing about politics, where you can still get stories simply by talking to enough people and reading enough boring Hansard. And it's partly thanks to working in parts of journalism whose economic model wasn't totally bust.
Tabloids basically sell via scoops - those jaw-hits-floor, have-to-buy-the-paper-so-I-know-what-everyone's-talking-about stories nobody else has got - and juicy gossip. But scoops are labour-intensive, expensive: they mean letting a reporter spend months digging around before they can produce a single word, always with the risk that they'll find nothing much worth printing. The News of the World has done its share of these stories, in fairness - remember the 'fake sheikh' sting that caught out Sophie, Countess of Wessex? - but filling a paper every week like this takes very deep pockets in an industry suffering steadily falling sales and advertising (thanks to the growth of free news online).
And that's why almost nobody now does really serious long-term investigative journalism, except sometimes the Sunday Times (most recently on alleged corruption in football) and the Guardian (which broke the phone hacking story). The posh papers rely on features'n'fluff instead to drive sales - star columnists, lush magazine supplements, acre upon acre about what celebrities are wearing - which costs far less than months of undercover investigation and sells more reliably. And we now know that the less posh papers (for I would be amazed if it was only the News of the World: everyone's under the same commercial pressures) kept chasing jaw-dropping scoops but used cheap and dirty shortcuts to get them: hacking phones, paying police officers, rifling bins, who knows what else.
The features'n'fluff tactic is, of course, nothing like the moral equivalent of hacking: it's dumb but it's legal, and relatively harmless (although the relentless emphasis on celebrities' weight and looks has arguably had consequences for teenage girls especially). But they're both sides of the same financial coin.
So now what? If the outcome of this week's horrors is that newspapers are regulated out of using dirty tricks, then newspaper proprietors either have to pump money into proper scoop gathering again, or invent completely new ways of driving sales. And that's really why News International is fighting this so hard: it's not just protecting individuals like Rebekah Brooks, but a whole business model.
My guess is the longterm legacy could now be a quicker death for print newspapers (or at least tabloid ones): most News of the World readers won't stop buying it because of what it's done, but may well stop buying it if the juicy stories dry up, because the paper's no longer allowed to do what it used to do to get them.
What we're really seeing here is just how much it costs to produce ethical, but still interesting, newspapers. Just as we've had to learn that a £3 Tshirt may well be made by a seven-year-old in a sweatshop, or a dirt-cheap chicken probably had an utterly miserable life, we now know whose grief is exploited and whose privacy trampled to bring us cheap news. What's not clear is whether we're still willing to pay for old-fashioned, slow, labour-intensive journalism without the collateral damage.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

on househusbands

IF you want to get ahead, maybe get a househusband. Or so, apparently, says the woman behind a new initiative to get more women into the boardroom.
The City fund manager Helena Morrissey, whose own husband Richard decided to stay home after their fourth child was born, reportedly told the Sunday Times yesterday that 'the idea that a woman can have a family and friends and hold down a difficult, high octane job when both partners work full-time — that is a very tall order. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s a bit unrealistic.' Something has to give and, it seems, that something is increasingly husbands: men staying at home was, Morrissey added, 'one of the things that definitely helps unlock that pipeline of women' into the top ranks of business (she founded the 30 Per Cent Club, dedicated to getting more women on boards, which holds its first meeting today).
Admittedly the Morrisseys aren't quite your average family: they have nine children and she manages funds worth almost £50 billion, putting her pretty much at the extreme edge of working motherhood. But still, it's hard to argue with her logic: there are some jobs that can't be done unless you have someone at home doing all the domestic backup. You can't work an 80 hour week and be willing to jump on a flight to New York at an hour's notice unless you have either a fleet of nannies working around the clock, or a spouse at home taking care of absolutely everything. Once upon a time that would have been a wife, but as more and more women start doing these kinds of punishing long hours jobs in the senior reaches of business, law and politics, you can see why househusbands are proliferating: as far back as 2001, the American magazine Fortune found 30 per cent of the women at its Most Powerful Women in Business summit had househusbands. And for some couples it undoubtedly works, so long as they're both doing what plays to their natural strengths.
But there's something about this argument that troubles me nonetheless. To say that men will only get to the top if their wives stay at home sounds snortingly reactionary: we assume nowadays that women are perfectly entitled to careers of their own, thanks very much. So why is it fine to suggest that women can only get to the top by pushing their husbands back into the kitchen?
The real question is surely whether it's fair for a job to consume quite so much of anyone's time that they need a second adult devoting their lives to making that job possible - perhaps at the expense of their own ambitions. Should families have to reorganise themselves around the kind of schedule Morrissey describes, rising at 5am and putting in 60 hours a week? Or would it be healthier to reorganise the crazy hours instead? I can't help wondering whether the rise of the executive househusband is actually letting some employers off the hook.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

school's out (for, um, not sure how long)

LATELY I have been having a recurrent nightmare, which always wakes me in a cold sweat. It is that I've muddled up the dates for the forthcoming home visit from my son's prospective new teacher, and she's caught us not in the middle of some unconvincingly staged wholesome family activity but slumped in our pyjamas in front of Scooby Doo. I think it's still a few days away. But I've got the alphabet jigsaw out just in case.
Everyone I know with children starting state primary schools this September is currently facing the same ritual, although nobody seems really to know what it's for, except that it clearly involves frantic prior hoovering. 'I think it's basically a test of how middle class you are,' says a friend who's already had hers, rather vaguely.
But along with the myriad other invitations to come into lessons or spend a morning in school, it's presumably part of a laudable effort to familiarise small children with school. I love that they take so much care over the transition: I'm intensely relieved that they ease the children in gently, so that it's nearly the end of September before they actually stay a whole day.
But then it's easy for me to be relieved when I work flexibly from home. If I was still working full-time in an office, I'd be panicking about how to fit even this preparatory stuff in - never mind the endless guilt-inducing demands once school starts for parents to chaperone trips, read to the children, come in for sharing assemblies. Children love it when their parents come into school, and it's right that schools should encourage parental involvement when research suggests it's critical to children's success. But where, exactly, do we draw the line? What is it fair to expect of parents who need to work, and how much responsibility is it fair to dump onto teachers? Do teachers have a responsibility to help adult lives run smoothly, or to insist on what may work inconveniently best for children?
The recent row over homework, started by the TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp complaining that working mothers shouldn't have to spend scarce time with their children nagging them about spellings, went right to the heart of this same argument. She clearly struck a chord with many parents: but should teachers have to worry about the quality of children's family lives, or is that a problem for parents to sort out? The lines between parent and teacher are becoming uncomfortably blurred, and I suspect they're only going to get more so after tomorrow's teachers' strike.
The education secretary, Michael Gove, is painting it as a battle between supposedly selfish teachers and harassed working mothers forced to scratch around for childcare. But polling suggests it's not that simple, with around four in ten Britons (even among 30 to 50-year-olds, the age group most likely to be parents) supporting the action: they can't all be freelancers who can get away with having Thursday off.
Attitudes will probably harden if industrial action continues, of course. But whether or not this strike is resolved quickly, I think we're left with some big questions about where the balance of responsibility lies between teachers and parents.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

big fat belated weddings

I do love a wedding: pretty much anyone's wedding, really. I like the hat wearing aspect, and obviously the champagne: I like the suspension of cynicism for a few magical hours, all that hope and optimism and the sense of life unfolding gloriously before you.
So it's a shame Ed Miliband and Justine Thornton's now confirmed nuptials in May have prompted so much snarking. The traditionalists think they should have done it earlier, before they had two children (and preferably should do it 'properly' now, with a best man and all the trimmings, instead of in some newfangled way). The resolutely non-married think they shouldn't have caved in to political pressure. Almost nobody seems to buy the idea that they might have genuinely wanted to get married, but not quite (what with one baby and another) got around to it: and yet that's the increasingly common story most of us see among our friends.
The moral panic about the rise of unmarried parents (based on the fact that they are statistically more likely than smug marrieds to separate, although like all statistics that's a sweeping generalisation which tells you little about any individual couple) often ignores one interesting fact: just because you're not married when you have children doesn't mean you never will be.
Nearly a quarter of cohabiting couples who become parents get married between the birth and the child's fifth birthday: that means cohabiting couples are twice as likely to formalise their commitment as to split. For some the birth of a baby is clearly still a prompt to settling down: but for others, marriage was probably always on the cards, and just seemed less urgent than getting pregnant. So why do so many couples, as my granny would have said, put the cart before the horse?
One possible reason is that horses are stupidly expensive. The average big fat British wedding now allegedly costs an eye-watering £20,000, which takes a lot of saving up for: while children aren't exactly cheap to run, the costs aren't so blatantly upfront.
Secondly, saving up for a horse may well be stymied by crazy property prices. The average couple who do not have help from the Bank of Mum and Dad don't buy their first home until they're 37: during the boom years, many couples will have felt it was more important to get a mortgage before prices soared completely out of their reach than to blow the deposit money on a frock and a honeymoon.
And thirdly, women don't run out of time for horses. Couples who only settle down together in their early or mid 30s (as the Miliband-Thorntons did) may feel that trying to get pregnant is biologically urgent, while they can do the wedding thing any old time. Add in the fact that the children of divorced parents may well grow up extremely cautious about marriage, and the fading of the stigma that once surrounded unmarried parents, and what is left may well be a logical decision for a lot of couples to put having children first.
I've blogged before about why I don't believe there's anything wrong with being an unmarried parent, and don't think a decline in marriage in itself necessarily spells doom: it's a stable and committed relationship between both parents and their children which matters. But for those who are worried about the future of marriage, it might help to distinguish better between a decline in marriage and a delay in marriage - and focus on the underlying social reasons for that delay.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Friends (The one about why you haven't seen them for ages)

Never has this family approached a weekend so organised. The fridge is stuffed with three days' worth of meals cooked in advance, birthday presents and cards for the next three weeks are wrapped and written: I even finally remembered to order the nametapes ready for my son starting preschool. Why such uncharacteristic smugness? Because I was going in for some very minor routine surgery. It wasn't until I fell into bed late the night before going into hospital that I realised what it was really all about. There's something about the anticipated whiff of anaesthetic that does trigger an awareness of one's mortality. Perish the thought that I might die without having bought my nephew's birthday robot.
It's ridiculous, I know: embarrassingly melodramatic. But it made me realise that if it had all gone horribly wrong, my regrets - apart from the big unthinkable one I can't even talk about, the one about leaving a motherless child - wouldn't have been about the book I've only half finished writing, or any of the other big stuff. They'd be for little things. The friend I travelled with in my gap year whose message I've been meaning to return for weeks but haven't. A conversation I've been meaning to have with another close college friend. Not having seen my oldest friend's new baby yet, although she nearly died having it. This despite telling myself that one of the benefits of working part-time would be to have more time for the people I loved outside this family as well as in it.
Do friendships just inevitably slip through the cracks when you have children? There was some research recently suggesting you lose roughly one friend per two kids (although since parenthood tends to bring a new circle of friends, perhaps that figure hides a greater loss of old friends replaced by newer 'mummy' ones).
But while tiredness and lack of time are bound to take their toll, I suspect this narrowing of the social circle is also about how easy it is unwittingly to prioritise the urgent but dull - work emails that have to be answered, lunchboxes that have to be packed - over the important. You could always phone a friend tomorrow instead of today, and so the call keeps getting crowded out by something more pressing but often less rewarding: friendships are accidentally squeezed out by things that actually matter less. Bugger sewing in nametapes. I think I have something less urgent to do.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

no children were harmed in the making of this blog

So my son has been fast asleep for a good hour, and the packed lunches were done before I started typing. Bear with me while I feel the need to tell you this, for tweeting/blogging/Mumsnetting mothers have just come in for a right pasting.
The excellent Liz Fraser has written an article arguing that too many of us are Facebooking with one hand while swatting away our wailing offspring with the other. Apparently ignoring your child for a computer screen can seriously damage their self-esteem.
Personally, I wish she hadn't made it all about mothers: fathers checking rugby scores on their smartphones at the swings are just as common.
And for many of us, tackling the odd email surreptitiously is the price paid for being there, not stuck in an office. Wireless internet lets me both work from home and on my 'mummy days', feign professionalism (for those clients who don't really 'get' part time) while in the playground.
But she has a point. The uncomfortable truth is that I do sometimes check 'just one' email while my son is playing and end up engrossed 20 minutes later. Social media is addictive and absorbing in a way that pottering around the kitchen or chatting to a friend while your kids rampage around breaking things isn't. I can't remember who described parenthood as the art of being interruptible when necessary, but it's a good rule of thumb.
Like many seemingly 'new' issues, this is however really an age-old one: the eternal dilemma over how much time is enough to give your children.
You're not supposed to give into their every whinge, or they'll grow up crazed with instant gratification. But they thrive on being talked to and played with, so they can't get too bored. How bored is bored enough? And how bored is bored enough for a parent to refuse to play hide and seek any more, and have a cup of tea instead?
When I'm kicking myself about this broader issue, as everyone does occasionally, I find this piece by Elizabeth Hartley Brewer terribly reassuring - it's now regrettably behind the Times paywall, but the gist is that you should be fully present in the moment for the important stuff, and not sweat the rest.
So for under-fours, the critical things are joining in their bonkers imaginary games (presumably unless you are asked, as I was by my volcano-obssessed son, to 'be a man choking on ash at Pompeii, mummy' at a supermarket checkout) and not multi-tasking by, say, tidying the bathroom while they're in the bath. From four to six, play board games and eat with them once a day. It's basic stuff: but then, surprisingly often so is parenting.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

on reproductive panic

I'M not saying it's impossible for a thirtysomething woman to be completely unaware that fertility declines with age. I mean, in theory, you could have missed the whole 'forgot to have a baby? tsk tsk!' debate: you might never have read a newspaper, or a women's magazine, or seen any films starring Jennifer Aniston. You might not have any thirtysomething female friends at all, or a mother who wants grandchildren, or any nosey elderly relatives ("will we be hearing the patter of tiny feet soon?"). You might never have dated someone who ran scared of the possibility of your ticking biological clock; or never have had a boss who mysteriously started passing you over for promotion when you turned 30 (lest you go on maternity leave). You might even have survived the whole of your wedding without someone 'jovially' mentioning the need to get on with it. I mean, it's possible. Just unlikely.
Which is why there is something impossibly quaint about the advice from two eminent obstetricians (at least one of whom has form on this subject) in the latest issue of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology house journal, that young couples be told to have kids by 35 if they want to be sure of having them. It's not exactly letting them in on a huge secret.
There is one group that probably could do with reminding: existing mothers who, having beaten the odds and got pregnant easily in their mid-thirties, can easily get complacent about how long they can wait to have a second. This stuff is too often pitched at single women and too rarely at a group vulnerable to secondary infertility (where you've had one baby but can't conceive again).
But it would be nice if we could now move on now from trumpeting the benefits of early motherhood to tackling the reasons why women hesitate and delay - a rather messier story about how much happiness parenting brings, compared to other things one might do; how much having a baby changes women's lives, and careers, and marriages, and friendships.
Meanwhile, for worried thirtysomethings tempted to marry the first loser who asks, here are three statistics worth knowing.
1. While it's true as reported here that miscarriage is more likely than a healthy pregnancy in 40 to 44 year olds, the balance is tipped by one percentage point: ie, you have a 51 per cent risk (it's 24 per cent for 35 to 39-year-olds).
2. Yes, you are six times as likely to have trouble conceiving at 35 as at 25: but that still means a cheering 70 per cent of 35-year-olds don't have trouble (ie, they get pregnant in the old fashioned way in under a year). And some of the rest may well go on to conceive but just take longer.
3. Of course it's tougher at 40. But the paper notes that 'only two in five' - ie 40 per cent - of women at this age can have a baby. They're not exactly terrible odds - and rather better than the odds on divorce, should you be propelled into marriage by reproductive panic alone.

Monday, 24 January 2011

a bigot writes

MAYBE it wasn't the ideal day, in retrospect, for a male MP to come out all guns blazing against feminists. Maybe the declaration that sex discrimination is dead could have waited until we'd all finished reading about the two football commentators caught making sexist remarks about a female linesman. But anyway. Deep breath. If you strip away the offensive and the just plain confused bits of what the Conservative MP Dominic Raab said in his article for politicshome, there is something here that needed saying.
Not the bit about how the pay gap is now the result of choice (how much of a free choice is it to leave a job where your boss makes your life impossible?), or the bit about how twentysomething women earn more than men: it's not so surprising, what with their better GCSEs and Alevels and degree results, and anyway when they hit their thirties (and have children) doubtless the pay gap will be back with a vengeance. Not the bit about how pesky career women are to blame for stalling social mobility: if, when university education expanded beyond the preserve of middle class boys, those who got in were middle class girls not working class boys then that is surely a class rather than gender issue.
And certainly not the bit about how 'feminists are now amongst the most obnoxious bigots' - well, no doubt some feminists are bigoted, just as some sports commentators and, from memory, some Conservative MPs are. But why tar all with the same brush?
But Raab is right to argue that more flexible parental leave, which fathers as well as mothers could take, could help families share the domestic stuff out more equally. He's right that some public debate about men, from suggestions that masculinity 'caused' the banking crisis to men being judged by the size of their paypacket, is crude and simplistic and confusing to young men bombarded by mixed messages about what they're for in a rapidly changing world. Many of the mothers of boys I know feel a sort of nagging anxiety for their futures that I don't think I would feel for a girl.
And while unlike Raab I don't think overt discrimination is dead, I think he is absolutely right that many couples now want to forge a common project out of sorting out how to work and still have time for each other and their children, rather than regarding work and home as 'his' and 'hers' terrain. He's also absolutely right that politicians should be helping them do it.
It's just a pity he wrapped up his call to halt the sex wars in language that automatically puts female hackles up. It's hard to have a truce when you can still hear gunfire.

Friday, 14 January 2011

a word of advice

I STILL feel a bit resentful about the peanut butter thing, to be honest.
When I was newly pregnant, I craved the stuff but was sternly warned against eating it for nine months lest it give my baby a deadly nut allergy. Within the year, the health visitor was merrily recommending peanut butter on toast as a weaning food. 'Oh, that's all changed now,' she said airily, when I looked confused.
The thing about parental guilt is that if you only wait long enough, half the cast iron official advice you have been worried sick about disobeying turns out to be wrong anyway. Last week it was the turn of weaning, when a team of paediatricians said the commandment to wait six months before giving anything but breast milk might be wrong, leaving yet more anxious new mothers confused.
Trust your instincts, everyone says, which is all very well but meaningless: I don't have any deep, primal instincts about peanut butter. The truth is that a lot of parenthood is just about winging it, doing roughly what your parents did (if you feel that turned out all right) and crossing your fingers - and remembering that if it doesn't work, you usually have time to change tack.
So here, for what it's worth, are the three best pieces of parenting advice I was ever given, all of which have withstood if not the test of time, at least four years.

1.'The key is to get used to never exactly finishing anything.'
Sentences, say. Cups of tea before they get cold. Work, before having to leave the office on time. The house you have only half done up. If you like leaving things neat and tidy with no loose ends, it's important to realise that life isn't really like that any more.
2. In response to me asking what would be the most useful thing to do in the last few weeks between stopping work and having the baby: 'Absolutely bloody nothing. Maybe watch a boxset.'
Or put more traditionally, in the first few weeks of having a baby, never stand up when you could conceivably sit; never sit when you could conceivably lie down; and never just lie down when you could conceivably be asleep. Less is more. This quite possibly works for parenting teenagers as well, I imagine.
3. On looking after a tiny baby: 'Start the day with just one thing in mind that you'd like to have achieved by the end, to make yourself feel in control.' Me (hopefully): "What, like go to an art gallery?' Her (pitying expression): 'No, like get dressed.'

What was the best baby advice you ever got?

Sunday, 9 January 2011

how much parenting is enough?

I"D never heard of so-called Tiger Mothers before yesterday, but I suspect we'll be hearing the phrase again when Amy Chua's book comes out next month. (For those unwilling to pay for a subscription to read her essay in the Sunday Times, there's a non-paywalled summary here).
A Chinese-born mother of two daughters, both of whom were musical prodigies, Chua's basic argument is that there is no great mystery about why research constantly shows Chinese kids outperforming not only than other ethnic minorities but often white children at school. Producing a genius, she suggests, is easy: it just means no playdates, no sleepovers, no games, no acceptance of anything other than A grades (when she came second in a history contest as a child her father told her to 'never never disgrace me like that again') and intensive coaching at piano and violin that borders on the terrifying. (She readily admits telling her own daughter that if she didn't master a piano piece all her stuffed animals would be burned, and offering her recalcitrant three year old a choice between standing shivering outside in an icy Connecticut winter or learning the piano).
Your first thought on reading it is for the children: when do they play, relax or have fun in this regime? But my second was for the mother. When on earth does she do the same?
I initially assumed, reading about how she supervised piano practice for 90 minutes minimum a day and attended every one of the music lessons personally, that she must be a stay at home mother devoting her life to the zealous pursuit of perfection. Then I realised that she's a Yale law professor, which means she was presumably finding the time for all this frenetic uber-parenting on top of working.
Not many parents do it quite like Chua (although she says this is normal in Chinese immigrant families). But on a far lesser scale, many of us parent now more intensely and competitively than we were parented ourselves: more one-on-one time, more extra-curricular activities, more coaching and tuition on top of school (because everyone else seems to be doing it), more frantic competition although it's debatable how much good it ultimately does. And I also wonder how much that contributes to the pressure working parents feel themselves to be under.
It's arguable that a heavily diluted version of Chua's regime - limiting television, say, and encouraging kids to aim high - might be beneficial. But are tiger mothers the timely rebuke to lazy Western parents one suspects she feels herself to be? Or would some of us be better lowering, rather than raising, the parenting bar?

Friday, 7 January 2011

the politics of privacy

IT's hard to decide what's most painful about this blogpost from the MP Nadine Dorries. Is it the public labelling of her new boyfriend's ex-wife as an alcoholic, and (alleged) bad mother to boot?
Or the decision to let his daughter post something about her mother that, one day, she might live to regret? Or just the fact that it will surely be open season on all of them in tomorrow's papers, with editors doubtless arguing that the children of both parties are now fair game?
But I have a nagging feeling that it's too simple just to blame Dorries for this mess. She crossed the line: but she's part of a political and media culture in which that's now too easy, and as a journalist it makes me uncomfortable.
It's not that she posted this in response to a newspaper story brewing about her relationship. You may or may not feel there is public interest in her love life, but many MPs endure such interest without going this nuclear.
It's more that she is in politics at a time when there is no such thing as too much information, from the mysterious 'contraceptive equipment' Cherie Blair didn't want to take to Balmoral to Nick Clegg's 30 previous lovers (or not quite, as the case may be).
We demand to know exactly why Ed Miliband hasn't married his partner, or precisely how Gordon Brown felt about the death of his firstborn child (as if you couldn't imagine). We think there's something wrong with politicians who won't play the game (see how po-faced Yvette Cooper is made to sound in this interview for not wanting to discuss her kids). We rely too much on intimate personal information to judge our leaders' characters - and not enough on ideas, which might tell us about their values.
And I'm as guilty as anyone. I have sat glazed-eyed through interviews with Cabinet Ministers chuntering on about white papers and almost wept with relief when they finally offer some kind of personal anecdote to illustrate it: ha, something I know the news desk will like! (And I worked for a broadsheet).
Human interest stories are naturally easier to digest than dry policy, and private life is sometimes highly relevant to public confidence: think of the minister who sacks his diary secretary to install his mistress in the job, say. But we are reaching the stage where ideas alone aren't enough for politicians to offer. And suddenly the kind of casual invasiveness Dorries demonstrates here can start to seem weirdly normal.
It's partly about the celebritisation of politics, partly about the way blogging and Facebooking gradually chips away at MPs' inhibitions, and partly a legacy of the expenses leaks.
We now know exactly where they bought their loobrushes at our expense: not much mystique there. And many MPs are so desperate to show they have nothing to hide that they're confused about where exactly to stop (think David Laws having to out himself as gay following stories about his expense claims on a house shared with his lover). It's perhaps relevant that details of Dorries's private life have been used by opponents to challenge her expenses claims in the past.
The caravan will move on from Dorries. But the uncomfortable question remains: where to draw the line on what we really want, or need, to know?

Monday, 3 January 2011

reclaim the night (from work)

FOR most of the last five years, New Year's resolutions have been a breeze. Every January, 'get a better work life balance' or (after repeatedly failing that one) 'change job' went on the list. Every December, I gloomily realised it'd be on the next list too.
Then I actually did change my job. So what now?
The trouble is that a big one-off change of job is a bit like a crash diet: dramatic in the short term, less effective in the longterm. It's easy to stop bingeing (on either cake, or work) for a bit, but hard not to backslide, unless you tackle the ingrained habits and assumptions that made you overdo it in the first place.
Which is why a few days after Christmas I found myself at the computer well after midnight, finishing a commission I really shouldn't have accepted because I really didn't have time to do it. And then it hit me: I hated working into the small hours in my old job. Why am I still doing it?
Working at night is a classic trap into which many self-employed or freelance parents fall. You free up time for family things during the day, but end up working when the kids are in bed to catch up. It feels better than working nights for a traditional employer, because in theory you could choose not to: but for whatever reason - money worries, anxiety about doing a good enough job, inability to say no, bad time management - you don't.
Yet habitually working in the evenings squeezes out stuff that matters: sleep, conversation, a social life, time with your partner, getting organised for the next day. So this year I'm resolving to reclaim the nights.
Firstly, we've started eating together as a family rather than cooking once for the small boy, then again for two adults after he's in bed. Mealtimes are somewhat less civilised, but it claws back a good hour in the evening - and cuts down on wine consumption. Which is a good thing. I suppose.
Secondly, I resolve to go to bed earlier. This classic post on why sleep is a feminist issue puts it neatly: suffice to say: since having my son, 7am counts as an unprecedented lie-in.
And thirdly, the tricky one: from now on, if it can't get done in the three days I work it doesn't (except in an emergency) get done. I may earn less initially, but over time I suspect I'll become more productive for not being constantly knackered.
And yes, I am writing this in the evening.....Damn it.