Thursday, 2 October 2014

Dear Charlie - FOUR

Dear Charlie

You turned four today. FOUR! You really are such a big person now. Well, your still kind of little, but you're also big.

I've been so proud of you this year. We move (again!) back to Australia and you started preschool, and you have coped so well. Actually, you have more than coped, you have thrived. Your only real complaint is that they don't run preschool over the weekend or the holidays. On those days, you ask us 3-5 times a day if it is a 'preschool day' and when we say, 'No, it's the weekend!' you reply, 'Oh, but I just love preschool.'

There are lots of other things that you also love. You love the beach, your new bike, jumping on our trampoline, 'building' and helping to weed, dig and plant in the back garden. You also love helping in the kitchen, especially if we are baking cake. You love playing with your sister (well, most of the time), building amazing things out of Lego and listening to us read books. OK, you love the tv and the iPad, but let's not talk about that too much...

Alas, what you don't love is vegetables. Or fruit. But I have hope Charlie. One day you'll pile up your plate with colourful food (of the natural variety) and say, 'nom nom nom' and I will be so happy.

Earlier this year we got a puppy, Chestnut. At the time you were terrified of dogs - even tiny ones - and so it has been incredible to see you bond with Chestnut and get past your fear of dogs everywhere.

You've grown into such a lovely little person Charlie. You are funny, sensitive, persistent, observant and full of energy. You can identify more birds than I can and remember the words of songs you have heard only once. You always notice when someone is feeling low and know just the right thing to say. You love a good cuddle and are an absolute ray of sunshine.

We all love you so much Charlie bear. You bring so much happiness and laughter into our world. Happy birthday!


Saturday, 11 May 2013

Feminism and the terrifying dependency of children

[Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo - where you'll find a great conversation on these issues in the comments.]

For Australian women of my generation, many issues of structural gender inequality can seem far removed from their daily experiences and, thus, difficult to relate to. Many civil rights, which were only recently (and only partially) achieved, are easily taken for granted when you have grown up assuming access to them. For this reason, it is not uncommon for women to be shocked when confronted the ongoing reality of structural inequality when they become mothers and they suddenly find themselves falling into gendered roles and suffering from gendered disadvantage as a result. Given this fact, it is a shame that the dominant form of feminism in Australia – liberal feminism – does not deal particularly well with the structural inequalities faced by mothers.

Liberal feminism has failed to adequately respond to the realities of motherhood, because it has primarily focused on helping women to overcome their historic status as second-class citizens by becoming independent. This vision of equality has led to the struggle for a range of positive measures for women, including:

  • the rights to education, to work and to receive equal pay;
  • the right own property;
  • the right to participate in public life by voting and running for political office; and
  • the right to bodily autonomy, including the right to refuse to consent to sex and to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

All of these rights are important prerequisites to equality and all of them have historically been denied to women, particularly after marriage. The struggle for these rights is also an ongoing one, as they continue to be denied to the majority of women across the globe and remain under threat even where they have been achieved. Nonetheless, this vision of equality falls down when the reality of dependency enters the picture. For women who are, or become, dependent on partners, families or the State, liberal feminism's vision of equality through independence becomes unattainable.

The right to education, to work, or to participate in public life is of limited value, for example, when participation requires that you disencumber yourself from dependents of your own. Just witness the treatment of female politicians who have tried to breastfeed on the floor of Parliament or brought their toddlers with them to a last minute division. Similarly, the right to bodily autonomy is rarely articulated in favour of women once they have chosen to carry their pregnancies to term. It is rarely used, for example, to fight for the rights of women in labour to control their own experience of giving birth, nor is it often extended to promote the idea that they ought to be supported by the community in caring for the baby once it has been born.

As a younger woman, my vision of equality was shaped in good part by the liberal feminist concept of emancipation through independence. I recognised my privilege in being able to access to many of the civil rights made possible through the feminist movement and didn’t expect to experience any significant barriers to achieving equality with my male peers. In this context, the experience of becoming pregnant and the impact that it had on my life took me completely by surprise.

From the first stages of my pregnancy I was alarmed by feelings of dependency on my partner that I had never experienced before. As my pregnancy progressed, my sense of physical vulnerability increased and my capacity to maintain my equality through independence was repeatedly challenged. Finally, when my daughter was born, her utter vulnerability shook me to the core and I realised that I could no longer operate in the world as a wholly autonomous unit. I was encumbered by this incredibly dependent little person who needed me for her very survival. My understanding of myself and of what I needed from the world shifted completely, as did my understanding of the feminist project. I could no longer relate to the ambivalence of liberal feminism to the needs, indeed rights, of dependent women (and children).

This ambivalence of liberal feminism to the rights of dependent women is one of the reasons that it finds favour with some areas of right-wing politics. The individualism and market focus of the independence model of equality dovetails neatly with economic liberalism (or neoliberalism) and the belief that the market is the best arbiter and distributor of value. Single mothers, for example, are readily vilified as ‘welfare queens’ greedily bludging off the State.

Left-wing liberal feminists responds differently to the issue of single mothers and are more likely to support their right to government assistance. Nonetheless, this assistance is rarely framed in terms of payment for the unpaid work of caring for children. Instead, it is viewed as a safety net to assist women to survive until they can rejoin the path to equality through autonomy. This is because left-wing liberal feminism still envisages liberation through market participation and, thus, tends to focus more on the issues of affordable childcare and (occasionally) flexible work arrangements in order to support women to more easily become independent post-motherhood.

You can see this attitude towards dependence reflected in many of the Gillard government’s policies. Single-parenting payments, for example, are paid to single parents (the majority of whom are women) until the youngest child turns eight, but at that point they are forced on to the (inadequate) Newstart allowance in order to ‘encourage’ them to join the paid workforce. To their credit, the government is consistent in that it does subsidise childcare and is working to increase both pay and standards within the sector. It has also introduced new measures to protect the right of employees to request flexible work arrangements (toothless though this right may be at present). Nonetheless, under this approach, dependency is treated as a temporary, largely avoidable state. As a result this approach has little to offer in terms of framing a vision of equality for those who exist within this state of dependency.

In a recent article on so-called ‘Retro Housewives‘ Alexandra Carlton quotes Anne Summers as being ‘exasperated by the domestic revival.’ According to Carlton, Summers is scathing of young women for walking away from their rights to ‘keep their jobs, to have equal access to promotion, and to be paid the same as men’ in order to become ‘yummy mummies.’ Similarly, Clementine Ford argues that ‘giving up everything to devote oneself to unpaid domestic work is self-sabotage.’

However, staying home to care for your children is only ‘self-sabotage’ if society is organised in such as way as to penalise you for doing it. Vilifying women for choosing to do so also fails to account for the reality of maternal desire and the very real needs of children. Focusing on the individual ‘choice’ of these women (who represent a very small percentage of society) also fails to account for the fact that staying home to perform unpaid domestic labour is the only realistic option available to many women, given the fact that affordable, accessible and high quality childcare, and working conditions that are flexible enough to make use of this care, remain a more of a dream than a reality for most. In this context, equating equality solely with autonomy will always result in a very large group of women being denied access.

I’m acutely aware that these arguments will be met by a chorus of claims that I am being sexist. What about fathers? Don’t these issues affect them as parents just as much as they affect mothers? This argument is put forward by Leslie Cannold, for example, who argues that ‘baby leave is not a women’s issue,’ because men should (and want to be) doing half of the unpaid childcare work.

However, this argument contains two separate assumptions, both of which are problematic. The first is that autonomy is the only path to equality. The second is that the dependency burden that goes along with parenthood can and should be equally shared. My major argument is with the first assumption (and I have partially set it out above), but I think the second also has flaws – primarily because it is fundamentally grounded in the first, but also because it denies biological realities.

Maternity leave is a women’s issue because it is women who get pregnant; who carry their children inside their bodies; birth them; and who are able to breastfeed them. The vulnerabilities and burdens that go along with these biological realities cannot be shared equally. Using the language of gender neutrality in relation to these realities only serves to obscure the highly gendered inequalities that currently result from them. Similarly, the value accorded to care work and the rights accorded to people in the midst of this dependent status are also women’s issues because the reality is that it is overwhelmingly women who do stay home to care for children and who do bear the burdens of dependency. Furthermore, when given the choice, many women still want to bear these burdens and there is no reason that this choice should have to equate to ‘self-sabotage.’

As Julie Stephens* has pointed out in response to Cannold,

a feminism promoting gender neutrality (in the name of equality) denies the bodily experience of women after they have given birth. Though a boon to the productive workplace, the breast pump may not necessarily protect the emotional needs of women and babies. To deny that baby leave is a women’s issue, to decouple ‘maternity’ from ‘leave’, is also to conceal human vulnerability and dependence. It reproduces what Iris Young has called ‘the normalising but impossible ideal’ that we are autonomous, unencumbered self-sufficient individuals, somehow beyond human dependency.

A further issue relates to the idea that the inequalities currently associated with performing unpaid domestic labour – particularly including caring for children – will somehow be erased if men take up half of the burden. People who perform paid care work, such as nurses, childcare workers and age-care workers, are also discriminated against and undervalued by society. Not coincidentally these are also professions that are dominated by women. However, it is rarely argued that the women who work in these professions have ‘chosen’ to be discriminated against and that their only path to equality lies in convincing men to take up careers within their sectors. Instead we understand that they are entitled to equality regardless of the number of men in their ranks. That even a highly feminised workforce should still be treated with respected and accorded equal value. Similarly, while a more equitable distribution of the burden of care work between men and women is a laudable goal, it doesn’t actually resolve the underlying inequalities and discrimination faced by those who do carry those burdens. It only serves to entrench this discrimination when we blame women for the inequalities they face, because somehow it isn’t a valid choice unless it is one that is also chosen by men.

What if instead of limiting our vision of equality to one of emancipation through independence we articulated one that accounts for both dependency and maternal desire? Such a vision would have to decouple our understanding of value from the market and acknowledge that the path to self-actualisation might sometimes entail willingly encumbering ourselves. It would also have to move beyond individualistic first generation rights to recognise our need for community support and our obligation to support others. Above all, such a vision would respond to the needs of all women, rather than only those who are willing and able to disencumber themselves and strive for independence.

For many Australian women, motherhood is a wake up call that confronts them with the ongoing reality of gender inequality in our society. Wouldn’t it be great if feminism was also there to greet them with a vision of equality that acknowledges their present reality?

*[Via blue milk]

Monday, 21 January 2013

Transgressive breastfeeding and the rules of the public sphere

In case you missed it, there has been some controversy in Australia over the last few days over the issue of public breastfeeding.

A mum in Queensland was breastfeeding her baby at a public pool while supervising her two elder children. A staff member approached her to say that another family had complained, because they were offended by her breastfeeding. She then asked her to move to a private area of the pool or cover up. The mother, rightly, refused and said that this demand was illegal discrimination. Nonetheless, the pool attendant insisted and so the mother ended up taking her three children and leaving the pool in tears.

On Friday, a morning television show, Sunrise, decided that it would be a great idea to debate the issue of whether breastfeeding in public is offensive and whether the pool did the right thing. [As an aside: do we often debate whether someone breaking the law and discriminating against another person did the right thing? Why is this OK when it comes to breastfeeding women?] One of the hosts of the show, David Koch (or Kochie, as he is apparently called), expressed the opinion that the pool had done the right thing and that if women are going to breastfeed in public then they ought to “be classy about it.” Later on Twitter, he explained that it was “just common courtesy” to “be disceet” when breastfeeding.

I have to admit that I have been enraged and baffled by these comments and by the comments of the many, many Australians (both male and female) who have come to his defence. However, an article in The Punch today has made a couple of things clearer to me.

As far as I can tell, the argument being made for why women ought to “be discreet” while breastfeeding in front of other people is that breastfeeding is a “private moment between Mum and baby” unlike when those same breasts are being publicly displayed for the male gaze. As Anthony Sharwood argued in his disturbing defence of David Koch’s “keep it classy” comments, this “private moment” shouldn’t be thrust into the public sphere because then it becomes a “spectacle” - a “public exhibition of motherhood.” He goes on to argue:
“Public breastfeeding has become, for some Mums, the last frontier of showy parenthood. What started as a private, intimate thing has become its exact opposite. … Women can breastfeed in public in western societies. Hooray for them. Now maybe we can just wind this thing back a notch and think of the rest of us.”
Despite his absurd and highly offensive accusations that women deliberately make a public spectacle of themselves by “flopping their boob” out in public, Sharwood, like Koch, never actually dares to articulate why us breastfeeding mothers need to “think of the rest of [them].” 

What is it about witnessing a breastfeeding pair that is so offensive to these people that it needs to be keep out of their sight?

What I think it is interesting is that Sharwood is very clear that this is not about the so-called “male gaze.” He is not offended because he views these breastfeeding breasts as sexual objects. In fact, as he proudly states several times in the opening paragraphs to his ‘article,’ he loves ogling at sexualised breasts. They are great. (Phwoar yeah, bring it on baby.) No, it would appear that the issue is precisely the opposite; these breastfeeding breasts that are apparently being thrust in his face (or, as he charmingly describes, flopped on to the dinner table) are not available to the male gaze. They are private breasts and shouldn’t be out in public.

It was here for me that this whole debate took on a disturbing level of clarity. You see, according to Sharwood (and his ilk), mothering is an ‘intimate’ and ‘private’ activity that should not be taking place in the public sphere. If somehow it does stray into that public sphere then it really ought to be careful not to become “a public spectacle.” This means that if for some reason a mother of young children does have to leave the house (which, by implication, is a transgresssive act in itself), then she should take every measure to ensure that her ‘private, intimate’ work of mothering young children does not take up public space, because it does not belong.

The public sphere is the world of men and people who can act like men; wage-earning, independent, unencumbered adults who pay their own way, speak the language of adults, move in adult ways and (crucially) obey the unwritten rules of the public sphere. This public sphere, and its unwritten rules, was created for men when women did stay at home and did do their “private, intimate” work of mothering in the private sphere.

We like to think that feminism has created a more equal society – one in which men and women are both welcome in the public sphere; in which both men and women’s issues are relevant to the public sphere. However, if you scratch a little deeper, it becomes clear that liberal feminism has only taken us so far. Women now have the right to join the public sphere, but the rules have not been significantly changed. The rules that were designed for men may have been slightly loosened so that women can obey them, but only if they unencumber themselves of their overt femininity.

Acts of overt femininity, particularly those involving small children, are still in clear breach of the rules. Breastfeeding is offensive because it thrusts the act of mothering into the public sphere. This is problematic, because not only can men not breastfeed, but they are also not parties to the act. Display your breasts for the “male gaze” and you are participating appropriately in the public sphere, because men are part of the transaction. They are, however, explicitly absent from the transaction of breastfeeding and that is precisely the problem. Ergo it is a private, intimate act between two creatures of the private sphere and if you dare to bring it into the male, public sphere then you had bloody well better be discreet about it.

I have been wondering for days now what “discreet” even means in the context of public breastfeeding. I now realise that what it means is that the woman in question must show through her body language that she knows that she is in breach of the rules of the public sphere. The specific position of her body, or her cover, is not really the issue. The issue is the body language of apology (I think the code word being used is modesty). She needs to show that she is sorry for taking up public space with her private activity. Then it would be OK. Then she could be excused.

Being proud or even nonplussed about breastfeeding our babies is an issue, not because we are being public exhibitionists, but because we are (even if we didn’t realise it) openly challenging the rules of the public sphere. We are being unapologetically, overtly female it what is still, essentially, a male space. That is what is so offensive – the brazen transgression of these long-standing, unwritten rules.

[As a final aside, it has also dawned on me that this is probably also at the heart of the ‘debate’ over whether small children should be allowed to be children in cafés, restaurants, etc… and why so-called “mommy blogging” is the object of such derision.]

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

A short tour of the neighbourhood

We are not living in the centre of Hanoi, but rather in a area a little north of the Old Quarter called Tay Ho or Westlake. As the name suggests it is the area that surrounds a rather large lake called Tay Ho or West lake. Unlike the centre of town, which is extremely busy with traffic and people, Tay Ho can feel quite sleepy in parts and has a lot more greenery than I had really associated with Hanoi. While this is less exciting than the Old Quarter, it also makes it a lot more friendly for the kids.

Lily's school is also in Tay Ho, but it's in a particular area of Tay Ho called Ciputra. Ciputra is basically a large gated community for expats. It's clean and tree-lined, but a little lacking in services or character. We toyed with living there so that Lil could walk to school and to the houses of her school friends, but just couldn't bring ourselves to do it in the end. It just felt too weird - like we were avoiding living in Vietnam or something, which wasn't what we wanted. Lily isn't very impressed with our decision...

Here are some photos of our neighbourhood (and a couple of Lil's school from Saturday soccer).
View of the lake from a nearby lane way.

Lily playing soccer at school. (You can see Ciputra in the background)

More soccer. She wasn't so keen on the running part...

Tay Ho flower market.

Kinderpark. Small person heaven. Parental hell.

Fine, I did smile once.

Our local park - a very unusual expanse of grass.

An entrance to the maze of alleyways that lead to our house.

Unusually for Hanoi there is almost no traffic in our area, except twice a month when everyone visits the pagoda.

Our neighbours are currently hosting a funeral party. Apparently it will go for several days.
The music is very loud and Charlie is fascinated by it.

A short tour of the house

We moved into our new house in Hanoi a month ago today and we are just starting to really settle in and feel at home here.

Our house is located in a maze of alleyways near the main pagoda or temple in the Tay ho (or Westlake) district of Hanoi. It was new when we moved in and totally empty. We also moved in about two weeks before our stuff was delivered, so at first it felt a bit like camping.

Now we are mostly unpacked and the place is transforming from an empty shell into our home. It's a lovely place, with big windows and lots of space and light. This makes me feel simultaneously lucky and sickeningly overprivileged - a state of mind that describes many of my feelings about living here.

Anyway, here are some photos:
View from the rooftop
We thought this was a durian tree, but apparently its a jackfruit.
View from the front door.
I love the big windows in the loungeroom.
Hanging out.
Living areas.

Home office - bit more space than my little cupboard in Melbourne.
(Paul's desk is on the other side of the room, just out of shot)

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

So I've been wanting to post

There have been so many posts whirling around in my head lately: so many words and so little time to write them down.

I want to write about settling into Hanoi. How surreally lovely our new house is. How weird/nice it is to have a nanny for Charlie and how excellent it is that he loves her. How much better it has suited Lily to start school this time around, now that she's older. How cool it is that her class is full of kids from all corners of the globe and my thoughts on how this might affect her.

I want to write about living in a maze of alleyways that are too narrow for cars and the way that they are alive with neighborhood sounds and salespeople on bicycle who sing about their wares. I want to write about the dominance of the car in our built environment and ask what we lose through this and how it could be different.

But I also want to write about other issues. I want to write about feminism and motherhood, and the insidious role that neoliberal logic is playing in some of the debates that are currently going on. I wanted to write specifically about the intersection between AP and feminism and the willful ignorance of those who claim they're incompatible. I wanted to write about the way that breastfeeding and baby sleep are commonly written about, and the excessively individualistic framework of these debates.

I wanted to write about my experience of the gift of motherhood - about the way that amidst the mundane and repetitive work of it I found a new space to reexamine my identity and my passions and to give myself permission to discard pressures that I've unthinkingly carried since childhood. I wanted to examine the way it's allowed me to redefine success on my own terms - even as it has restricted some of my freedom to realise these new ambitions.

I wanted to write about my PhD. About why doing it was a really bad idea and how hard it's been to combine with motherhood. I also wanted to write about my more recent realisation of what I've gained from doing my PhD, and how it wasn't what I expected, but may mean that ultimately it was a good decision...

But instead I just had to get all those beginnings down and out into the world. I hope I get the chance one day to flesh them out...

Monday, 13 August 2012

Dear Charlie - 22 months

Dear Charlie

You turned 22 months old on the 2nd of August. It's been six months since I've written you a letter. Sorry little one.

We've had some huge changes over the last six months Charlie. Lily started school and you desperately wanted to join her. Then we tried a childcare for you - just three hours in the morning - and you really hated it and we bailed. But I still had to finish writing my PhD and so you spent more time with Papa and your Grandparents while I hid away in my funny cupboard study and eventually took myself off to the State library for a full week of full-time writing. Unlike childcare, you handled that really well. Although you did make up for the lost breastfeeeding time at night and I'm still suffering for that.

Finally, we packed up and moved from Melbourne (where we'd been for less than 9 months) to Hanoi. You've handled this transition well too. Although you have asked to go home on the plane a number of times. I'm hoping that when we move into our new house and get all our stuff it will be even easier.

In the last six months you've grown up so much. Your language is incredible. There is little that you cannot say now. You express yourself clearly and recite your favourite books from start to finish. You still mispronounce a few words, but I have to admit that these are my favourites. You say 'entient' for elephant, 'boon' for spoon, and 'gayfu' for thank you. You say 'gayfu' a lot too, as you have learned the value of being charming.

You remain a friendly, gregarious little soul. This is lucky because people treat you a bit like a rock star here in Hanoi. Your little head of blonde curls is a bit of a novelty, I guess. People gather around to touch your head and to seek cuddles from you. Sometimes you do give them a cuddle, but mostly you just smile and say "xin chao." I am looking forward to the day when you can speak more Vietnamese. I'm guessing you'll be better than me shortly.

You are quite a kooky, strong-minded person. You like to dress yourself and have very particular ideas about what you want to wear. You love to wear your backpack and pack it with things for "work." You also love beads (necklaces & bracelets), hair clips and head bands - much to the distress of people with very fixed idea of appropriate gender roles.

Another non-comformist preference of yours has been an enthusiastic interest in meat (we are a vegetarian family). Lately you have taken to crying at night, "I want meat!" (And I mean crying, with tears and all.) You have also insisted on trying a few different types of meat at the hotel breakfast buffet. You rejected ham as "yucky," but enjoyed both bacon and a chicken nugget. Earlier I would have found this really challenging, but for some reason I just find it amusing. I guess I'm mellowing... The real test will come when I have to decide whether to cook it for you. At least I know where to buy organic meat here, if it does come to that.

I'm looking forward to the next six months, little one. I hope to write you a few more letters between now and then.


Early days in Hanoi

We've been in Hanoi for three and a half weeks and it's starting to feel like we are finding our feet in this city. We've found a house, although we are still in a hotel for another week as we wait for our things to arrive by boat. Lily is enrolled in school and starts this Wednesday. She's made several friends, all of whom will be at the same school with her. We've also found a nanny for Charlie and she's great. So all up things are going well.

Living in a hotel for so long has been odd. There are upsides to it. Many of the guests here are longterm residents and there is a real sense of community. It is also well set-up for families with kids. There are two playrooms, a large outdoor playground, a kid-friendly pool, and more high chairs than tables at breakfast. The kids have been enjoying the ready-access to playmates, the playroom, the pool and the seriously-friendly staff. Nonetheless it has been a bit crazy-making being coped up in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. The heat and the regular downpours have made getting out and about less than appealing at times.

Jetlag has exacerbated Charlie's tendency to wake up at the crack of dawn, but at least this is totally normal over here. The footpath outside by the lake is packed with people exercising - walking, running, riding, or doing callisthenics and tai chi. They also swim or row in the lake. Peak hour at breakfast is from 6-7:00am and the shuttles to work leave before 7:30am. As a morning person, this all appeals to me. It's nice to have company when I'm at my best. It must be tough for night owls.

We've ventured into town a few times - down in the main tourist area and into parts of the old quarter. But the bustle and the heat make it hard for the kids and so real exploration hasn't been possible. I'm looking forward to having the chance to get stuck into that on my own. In the meantime we have explored more of our immediate surroundings in the relatively suburban Tay Ho (Westlake). This is an area just north of the centre of town where many expats live (amongst many Vietnamese too). There are more trees and less traffic, and more shops geared towards our indulgences (mini-marts with treasures like tahini and Vegemite, pricier furniture shops, boutiques with 'Western-sized' clothing and the like). On Saturday mornings there is even a Farmers' Market stocking organic veggies and ethically-raised meat. Sometimes I feel bad for living in such a strange bubble, but then I register the culture-shock that Lily is already experiencing with the lack of footpaths, the language-barrier and the dust, and I think that we have made the right choice.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Birth plan - a response to Mia Freedman

When I was pregnant with my first child I tried to do all the right things. I got a spot in the public Birth Centre and discussed my preference for a water birth with my midwife. I also attended the birth preparation classe (although I did leave one class before the subject of medical pain relief was discussed, because I'm scared of needles and figured that wouldn't change anytime soon). Besides, I told myself, labour only goes for a few hours, how bad could it be?

My midwife gave me a video of a water birth to watch to prepare for my own, but I felt uncomfortable with the intimacy of it all and never watched it. Instead I guzzled parenting books and focused on the long term - the task of parenting the baby I would be birthing.

It was early in the morning and 11 days past my due date when labour finally started. I was so over being pregnant and so ready to hold my baby that I greeted the pain warmly. I told my partner that my contractions had begun and we started to record them so we'd know when they were regular enough to justify going into the Birth Centre. Hours passed.

It was another 12 before we went into the Centre (arriving at 8pm) and 14 more before my beautiful baby girl was born. The pain and utter exhaustion shocked me. By 2am I'd been moved 'upstairs' (into the hospital) to have an epidural and collapsed into a grateful sleep. (My fear of needles quickly became irrelevant. I would have let them chop off my leg if they'd promised it would help).

When it was time for me to push they dialed back the epidural enough so that I could squat on the bed, but I couldn't feel my contractions and so timing the pushes was tricky. After two hours an obstetrician came in to check and told me that the baby's head was starting to swell. She was posterior and firmly wedged in my narrow pelvis. He recommended an emergency c-section or high forceps delivery. I chose the latter.

It took an hour for him to stitch my third degree tear, but I honestly didn't care as I was holding the most beautiful being in the world and high on the adrenaline of meeting her.

In the weeks that followed the pain did start to matter. It made it impossible for me to lift my newborn baby. Walking was also a challenge. Even sitting hurt. Worse still Lily had awful reflux and would bring up most of her feed in great gushes of breast milk, or scream in pain for hours when silent reflux came instead.

We were finally referred to a cranio-osteopath who found a deep indentation on her skull where the forceps had squashed her little head. It was pressing on the area of the brain responsible for assisting the body to digest fat and partly responsible for her reflux. After two treatments the projectile vomiting stopped.

My memories of the labour were raw for a long time, but I told myself there wasn't a lot I could have done differently. I told myself that posterior back pain and the length of the labour were not something I could have prepared for and I felt better.

That all changed when I fell pregnant again. Suddenly thinking that there was nothing I could have done made me feel powerless and worried. I didn't want to go through that again - particularly not the aftermath. Labour may only last a day, but the first few weeks of a baby's life are too precious to be dedicated to surgical recovery and pain.

The first thing that I did was to admit that actually I had totally failed to prepare for my first labour. I'd read almost nothing about it. I'd decided against medical pain relief (despite constant well-meaning advice from others to order it immediately) but had failed to inform myself about alternative coping methods. I'd basically stuck my head in the sand and hoped that it would just go away.

Then I started reading. The best resource that I found were Ina May Gaskin's books on birthing. The stories of other women's labours gave me inspiration for how I wanted mine to go. They also made me realise that I wanted more support. My partner had been amazing the first time around, but there were things that I didn't want to ask of him and others that he didn't know how to do. So we hired a doula who knew how to guide me through the birth process and could show me a whole range a ways to cope with my contractions and fear.

My experience of birthing Charlie was completely different to my experience of birthing Lily. Sure, some of that was due to the fact that he was my second, but far more significant was the fact that I had a plan. It wasn't a rigid script that had to be followed. It was a story that played out in my mind and carried me through the process.

With Lily's birth I was a passive agent in the process. I didn't prepare and came out the other end sore and bruised. It was like joining a marathon and forgetting to do any training beforehand. You can imagine how hard that marathon would be to run and how much you'd hurt the next day.

With Charlie's birth I decided to train first. I attended prenatal yoga and I trained my brain to relax into my contractions. I also gathered a support team around me. As a result the experience of the birth was genuinely exhilarating and, yes, empowering, and I carried that feeling of strength and joy into mothering my children.

I'm dismayed that anyone would describe me as a Birthzilla for planning to have a positive birth experience. I'm also flabbergasted that they could imply that it would have been better for my children if I had kept my head in the sand and handed over all agency to the hospital system. This kind of rhetoric is unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst.

Why do so many people think that women lose the right to control their bodies when they fall pregnant? Anti-choice activists are the worst offenders to my mind, but those who seek to control what pregnant women do with their bodies or how they birth their babies are buying into the same dangerous logic.

Making a plan for how you would like to birth your baby should not be controversial. To say that exercising choice over your body is a first world indulgence is highly problematic. It's even more galling when it's written by a highly privileged woman who is well-placed to expect the system to treat her with dignity and respect. That is not the luxury of all women in our country.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Letter to Lily - 60 months (5!)

Dear Lily

On the 14th of March you turned five.

Morning of 5th birthday

I can't quite believe how big you are.

I also can't believe that I haven't written you a letter for 2 and a half years. I couldn't possibly hope to capture everything that has happened in that time. You have grown up so much.

Let me try to capture some of the detail.

Toadstool cake
When you were around 2 & 3/4 I introduced you to the Magic Faraway Tree books and you have been hooked every since. You know them back-the-front and can recite large swaths of it from memory. We even celebrated your 4th birthday with an Enchanted Wood party. You dressed up as Silky.

'Riding' to preschool - day 3

Just before your third birthday you started preschool at Blue Gum Community School in Canberra. You really thrived. It was an excellent place - inspired by Reggio and Nature Education philosophies - and you really loved it. While you were there you learned to swing yourself on the swing (after spending the first few months monopolising one of the teachers to continuously push you). You discovered a deep love of art and learned some amazing techniques like felting and mosaic and clay sculpture. You also made some gorgeous friends.

Snuggles with Charlie

When you were 3 & 1/2 your little brother Charlie arrived into our lives. You adored him from the start, but I have to admit that the transition from being our only child to being one of two was far from an easy one. We clashed a lot and I handled many parts of this transition particularly badly. We are really only just finding our feet again on this front.

Singing at the farmers market, Collingwood Children's Farm
When you were 4 & 1/2 we moved to Melbourne. It was a huge thing for us to do and again the transition was pretty unsettling for you, but I think we have all dealt with it a lot better this time. You were very reluctant to leave Canberra, but really gave Melbourne a chance and found that you really enjoyed exploring a new city. You particularly love the Collingwood Children's Farm, the new cafes and restaurants, the trains and trams, and our new neighbourhood. You also started a new preschool 3/4 of the way into the school year and still managed to enjoy it and socialise. I think that is pretty impressive.

First day of school
Walking home from the train

Then in February this year you started primary school. Again you have really thrived, despite being almost the youngest in the class. You truly love school and the rhythm and predictability of the Steiner curriculum really suits you. You have even brought many aspects of it home. We now say a 'blessing' before our meal, have a 'nature table' in our loungeroom, and you have firmly requested that I sing to you when I want your attention (which feels odd, but actually works).

with Tinky (the guinea pig)
For your birthday this year we welcomed Tinky and Winky (the guinea pigs) into our home. They (and their paraphernalia) were your main birthday present from family and it has been lots of fun watching them grow and settle in to our house.

Jungle Cake

We kept your birthday party small this year, but went all out with decorations. It was quite fun changing the dining room into a jungle, and I also enjoyed making your wacky cake. You dressed up as a tiger (with mama-made ears & tail and plain black clothing for the rest), Charlie was a monkey (though arguably the costume was superfluous). It was lovely to see you having so much fun with your new school friends. 

As part of your birthday celebrations at school they went around the class and everyone said something that they like about you. Your teacher, Alison, told us that many children commented that you were a good friend. This rings true to me Lily and makes me very proud of the person you have grown up to be.

Along with being a good friend, you are also great company, generous, witty, articulate, curious, compassionate, loud, analytical, sensitive, highly energetic, kooky, artistic and possess an incredible memory. Oh, and I love you so very very much.

love mama


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