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.