Comfy world

One of Bean’s games is to construct a pillow fort of sorts; a pile of soft furnishings and fluffy toys on which to luxuriate conspicuously. She dubs this created space Comfy World, the declaration of which is generally accompanied by the revelation that my partner and I are excluded from her world; we inhabit a whole other nation, derisively referred to as Tuchus World.

Who knows what lies beneath a child’s imaginative play? But I can’t help but wonder if Bean is really acting out her own alienation from comfort.

For the first four years of Bean’s life I was, to the casual observer, a straight woman. That is to say that for her formative years, Bean’s family fit the social norm. Her family structure — mum, dad, kid — was represented in almost every picture book, almost every television programme, and was replicated in almost all if the suburban homes around her. Our family was visible, in that we were allowed to be seen anywhere, and invisible in that we appeared so normal as to be entirely unremarkable. Obviously, her parents weren’t happy back then and things were complicated. But in any social situation, there was a level of comfort that most take for granted — that Bean experienced as a reality of her life — and it is not so surprising that she is missing that.

In dealing with homophobia in my daily life, I’m coming to see just how fiercely straight adults also hoard the soft furnishings of social ease.

I never made many friends with other childcare or kinder parents, but in the past I entered those spaces without being stared at. I walked into play centres holding hands with my partner like it was nothing. I hadn’t felt the way that people’s eyes glide around the simultaneously hyper-visible and invisible queer couple. As a kinder mum I had not experienced people try hiding from their own discomfort by a strange kind of not-looking, but now it is a palpable and constant part of any visit to Bean’s school.

Beyond these personal interactions, it is clear that queer parenting means making forays into heterosexist territory. My friend Jackie says she asks her first year students to consider why, if heterosexuality is so normal, is there so much advertising for it? And there certainly is plenty of advertising at school pick-up — the aggressively heteronormative My Family stickers proudly displayed on the back windows of mid-priced four wheel drives are emblematic of suburbia.

Certainly, not everyone is so happy to see these back-window flags of suburban pride waved: there are a number of Facebook groups dedicated to deriding them. It seems to me that if stick-figure decals on a car provoke such fierce hatred, even on aesthetic grounds, they must wield power. We associate cars with status, power, technology, freedom; there is currency in branding this most visible of possessions. But it’s worth noting that the backlash against the My Family stickers has largely been characterized by frustration with the cynical foregrounding of families with children in electoral politics, a feeling of superiority over suburbanites and, insidiously, misogyny and anti-child sentiments. Groups like ‘My Family Stickers Suck!’ are hardly founded upon queer dissent. This can feel disappointing, given how many queer couples are raising children.

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“My Family” sticker featuring a stick figure family being chased by the chainsaw-wielding horror movie character Leatherface. Caption reads “No one cares about your stick figure family.”

But as Bean shows us daily, sometimes there is strength in playfulness. My partner and I are visibly queering up the suburbs every day: why should our car not be part of that?

"My Family" sticker featuring two women, a child and a cat.

“My Family” sticker featuring two women, a child and a cat.

Reclaiming this little patch of advertising space does not feel like anything close to restoring social comfort: if anything, pushing at the boundaries of heteronormativity is more discomfiting for us than it could ever be for the straight folk we encounter, who after all remain in a world which constantly validates their relationships. But it does feel like making my family visible, displaying our My Family flag, is staking a little piece of territory. That it is one small attempt at giving Bean permission to claim a piece of the world in more than just her play.

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We should be talking about breastfeeding, in public

The blog post I wanted to write yesterday in response to the latest ‘breastfeeding debate’ wasn’t about whether people should breastfeed discreetly in public, it wasn’t about whether we need more public awareness of the challenges faced by breastfeeding mothers, it wasn’t about the value of nurse-ins as public protest and it certainly wasn’t about whether ‘breast is best’. Other writers have covered those topics admirably well over the previous few days. (I particularly liked this post from Cristy Clark.) If there is any value at all in this recurring ‘debate’ (why am I even typing the word debate how is this even a topic up for debate I don’t even) it is certainly in the opportunity not only for education on the issues but for discussion of shared experiences and analysis of what it means to undertake the work of mothering whilst encountering casual sexism.

The blog post that was clamouring to be written was rather a response to this piece by Clementine Ford which, in part, took a similar bent to much of the discussion I saw on Twitter. (The latter, if not the former, can be summarised as it’s cool to be pissed off ladies but you know breastfeeding is just not that important an issue, right?)

The post I would have written would not have been for Kochie, but for feminists and feminist allies without children.

It would have said that when you measure the work that mothers do and the limited space in which we do it and find our work, not the space, wanting, you stifle us. When you perceive our passionate response to attack and our grass-roots protests as misguided and distracting, you patronise us. When you need to be reminded that the freedom to use our bodies for birthing and breastfeeding as we wish is as central a human right as the choice not to do these things, you devalue us.

It would have said those things, and more, except that I did not write a blog post yesterday because I was parenting for fourteen hours straight.

My daughter needs me now almost as intensively as she did as an infant. This feels like a challenge and a blessing both; what it does not feel like is a non-issue. Negotiating public spaces with a spirited child feels political. Navigating the world as a queer parent with a family structure that is more unconventional than most is not well-supported and it certainly is not an experience that is discussed with enough nuance in the media. I am not a breastfeeding mother anymore but I still feel an affinity with the experience of women asked to cover up their bodies and their babies; with women and children who are asked to take up less space.

What my partner and I do each day in mothering Bean is explicitly feminist and it is explicitly devalued by much public discourse.

Motherhood is not a niche topic. Our issues, as well as our breasts, have a place in the public sphere. I for one don’t plan to be discreet about that.

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The coming out post

Things just fall apart sometimes. Things also fall in to place. Occasionally at the same moment.

Earlier in the year I had Martha Wainwright’s ‘Bloody Motherfucking Asshole’ on frequent rotation in my head. (I was angry, okay?) But my anger was not only directed outward. In that iconic song, Wainwright says

you say my time here has been some sort of joke
that I’ve been messing around
some sort of incubating period
before I really come around

I had been waiting for someone else to say this to me to save me from having to deliver the news to myself. Waiting wasn’t working for me. I sent myself a memo.

The end of a marriage is a public event. People who’d never reached out in support of the couple before suddenly wield opinions. Strangers, Centrelink workers, small-town acquaintances, parents of your child’s friends, your hairdresser, your online connections; any and all of these people might judge you, question you, probe you for weaknesses and blame. Any of them could (and some of them will) ask you, but what about the kid/s? Any or all of them could make it about them; their own pain, their own parents’ failings, their own investment in your coupledom as a kind of talisman for monogamy.

Some people, the ones who always treated you as one part of a boxed set when you were married, will struggle the most.

(Caring about their struggle whilst you’re in the middle of your own pain will register lower on the list of priorities than belting out Martha Wainwright in the shower, by the way.)

There are many reasons I’m not with Bean’s dad anymore and I’m not going to list any of them here.

But I will say what one of them isn’t.

I did not leave my marriage because I’m queer; nor am I queer because I left my marriage. There are a lot of explanations for why I didn’t take the step of talking about the ways in which I do not fit straight until now but, sure, living the Heterosexual Marriage Lifestyle often seemed like such a powerful imperative that there wasn’t much point in finding space for anything else. Wearing a wedding ring was a shibboleth, mentioning my husband when people asked about my pregnancy or later my child, a ticket to social approval. I benefited from heteronormativity even as it erased me, erases me, and people that I love.

That’s painful.

In traditional narratives of coming out, people always ask, when did you know? And the answer is, for me, that I didn’t know and I always knew. I wasn’t able to express and I was always expressing. I was hiding in plain sight and I was never hiding. Perhaps I was never in plain sight.

Critiquing our culture’s narrow way of conceptualising sexuality and gender — and love — has been one of the themes of my parenting and of my writing about parenting. And, not unhappily, it is becoming one of the themes of my life. Because queerness is not a hat I’m trying on. It’s not even about a relationship I’m trying on.

The confessional part is this: I have always been queer. I do not remember a time, from when I began to have romantic and sexual inclinations, that those were exclusively directed at boys and men. But I also do not remember a time during my childhood or teen years where I even had the words and concepts to articulate the ways that I experienced desire and love. Knowing that I liked boys was enough, given the scripts from which I had to choose, to tell me I was not a lesbian. So I wrote my story in straight lines. I’m re-imagining it now, embracing the apocryphal entries, in a mostly positive process. And I want to write the next chapter boldly, even though it’s a little embarrassing for a thirty-something feminist to be only just learning how to express her queerness.

Embarrassment is one thing. Sadness over lost time and estrangement from self is another.

I am here, writing so personally, not only because speaking soothes me, but also because I am angry. I’m angry at the motherfucking assholes who perpetuate violence – both physical and mental – against queer youth. I am angry about the lack of visibility of bisexuality which leads to the relegation of people like me to a footnote, or a punch line.

Most of all I am writing because of this: someone said to me recently that at least Bean will find it easier to come out to her parents if it turns out that she is not heterosexual.

The best we can hope for for our children is not that there will merely be safe ports in the storm for them to reveal their true selves when they have reached a certain age. We can do better than that. We can allow them to express and explore their developing gender identities and sexualities in safety from the very beginning. We can create a world where children don’t ever ‘come out’ to their parents because their parents are witness to unabashed expressions of queer orientation from whenever they emerge. Children can, quite simply, be permitted to be who they actually are. No coercion, no erasure, no shaming.

The ritual of coming out is only a product of the lucrative heteronormative trade in closets. So however Bean comes to express her sexuality in the future, I only hope she uses her wit and loving heart to undermine the closet business that trapped her mother for so long. The rest of the story is up to her.

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I, mother

My mum was a single working mother, a divorcee, in rural towns in the 1970s and 80s. I never really considered, until I had a child of my own, what that must have meant. She was talked about, certainly (Loretta Lynn was characteristically accurate about what it was to be ‘Rated X’ back then) and she was patronised — and sleazed on — by men who felt they were doing her a great favour. She was judged by other parents, discriminated against by landlords, and my brother was pitied for being a latch-key kid but rarely invited over to play.

I wonder, now, how much of her identity as a mother was about the fighting-for, the missing-out, the trauma. And whether that might explain, in some small measure, how she was able finally to give up mothering altogether.

Bean’s father moved out a few weeks ago. Unlike my mother’s relationship breakdowns, our split is what they call amicable. It’s a useful word: in my imagined etymology it means able to be kind to each other. The anger has evapourated. The drive, for both of us, is to protect Bean as much as we can as we try to start anew, apart.

But there were, as there always must be, some difficult moments. For me there was the wrenching fear of losing my child. Divorce meant the termination of my mother’s parental rights and that is some dark baggage to carry into my own custody negotiations.

I am quite comfortable being apart from Bean. I do paid work full time and she is well cared for at kindergarten. She has a loving and competent father. But I realised, in setting down my baggage and riffling through, that I don’t know who I am, if not foremost a mother. I don’t know who I would be, without my child. The thought of no longer having ‘Bean’s primary carer’ at the core of my position description for life gives me vertigo.

The loss of self that our culture promotes as inevitable for parents is, it’s possible, at work here.

But isn’t it also possible that the narrative of loss is entirely inappropriate? Only if one favours individualism above connection could it seem that being transformed by parental love is equivalent to losing one’s self. I rather think my self, in this mother-love, has been found.

In shedding some anchoring points — wife/partner — my identity clearly has to shift and grow. But lately I have felt more centred and confident in the knowledge that I am, that I will always be, a mother, a friend, a teacher, a writer.

My own mother inadvertently gave me significant gifts: a strong desire for independence and the requisite resilience. So I think in this next chapter, Bean and I are going to be fine.

I’m still writing.

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The how of getting through

Telling stories matters.

Giving voice to truth counts. Refusing to allow others to frame fears and pain as private matters only, as faintly shameful, is important to me. I believe that my friends who have told me that to share how one lives and copes is to help other women, are right. And yet, I hesitate to speak freely out of respect for others and out of respect for my own need to withdraw and retreat.

I want to talk though. I want to say: here is what is cobbling my parts together, pushing me from one moment into the next, softening the tightness in my chest so that my heart may beat I am, tempting me to smile, allowing me to cry, seeing me through.

I don’t want to forget.

The first is Bean. Like her mama, she knows that creating is expressing is processing is coping. After a trying day, she will say, I need to do artwork. In her drawings and paintings she inhabits a world filled with so much love and joy that I can’t help but feel soothed too.

Bean's family: me walking Sally with Bean and her dad and a sun that fills the sky with only a smile

The second is kindness.

I had thought to write ‘communications and connections’: phone calls, emails, Twitter. I had thought to pay tribute to the ways in which being simply allowed to talk have smoothed over the roughest of hours. But it is not that, really, at the core of it. What is a friendship but a promise of kindness? In the end, only kindness matters.

I am heavy (not weighed down but plumped up) with gratitude for the many kindnesses that have been extended to me — and to Bean. Loaded with provisions for the next leg.

I am grateful too for meaningful and rewarding work. For purposeful days. For the stoicism my father bequeathed to me.

One can survive on only small morsels of beauty; and so music and wonder and wise and touching words and the sheer bloody-minded livingness of life in all its forms are keeping me replete with hope.

So, probably, are you. Thank you.

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Breastfeeding support: less is not more

It’s been a bad weekend for media representations of breastfeeding.

Saturday’s Age and SMH ran a feature in the Good Weekend supplement detailing French feminist Elisabeth Badinter’s opposition to what she sees as the tyranny of motherhood, especially physically demanding practices like breastfeeding. Like Hanna Rosin’s, Badinter’s views on breastfeeding have been carefully deconstructed over the past few years by other writers. Take this piece by blue milk:

But then you can’t entirely blame feminists like Badinter for being nervous about any ambitions to elevate motherhood either. They haven’t seen much good come out of the institution of motherhood for women – servitude, guilt, martyrdom, rampant biological determinism and invisibility. Still, given that most women end up being mothers, and given that a good deal of us even strongly desire motherhood there is no point throwing that particular baby out with the bath water. We won’t elevate women anytime soon by denigrating motherhood.

Make no mistake — denigrating physiologically normal (though by no means universal) processes of motherhood, like the physical changes of pregnancy and birth and the work of breastfeeding, is denigrating motherhood. It is also, I think, a mistake to underestimate the level of maternal desire driving some of our choices. But more than this; assuming that the holy grail of feminism is solely an ability to centre paid work, alternative achievements and other relationships in women’s lives (as men have always been able to under patriarchy) is extremely limiting. Why not instead seek new ways of working, earning, living, doing mothering and making families which enable choices to stretch beyond the starkness of:  A) bottle feeding and long daycare or B) long unrewarded hours at home in an isolated mother–child dyad?

Those long hours alone can be devastating for a new mother’s mental health; I know this from experience. Even when a parent has company of some kind, they may feel figuratively alone if their actions are not supported with both compassionate reassurance and practical assistance. This is the concern raised by Beyond Blue’s deputy chief executive Nicole Highet who was quoted in The Mercury today. Dr Highet isn’t wrong in saying that breastfeeding difficulties and anxiety about feeding choices can contribute to the stress and even despair felt by many new mothers. In the early days and weeks breastfeeding is difficult for most (impossible for some) and severely overworked (because that is what they usually are!) post-partum women are particularly vulnerable to feelings of inadequacy. The physical pain of cracked nipples, mastitis, thrush or engorgement is all too real. So is the emotional pain of being confronted with choices which seem patently unfair and yet take on the importance of life-or-death decisions. Mothers in our culture are bombarded with all manner of ‘expert opinions’ and given the distinct impression that everyone — health professional or self-styled baby whisperer or mother in law — knows our babies’ needs better than we do and yet, somehow, when it comes down to getting the actual work of mothering done the buck stops with us. And when it comes to taking the fall for choices that are made, it’s all mothers all the time.

When was the last time you saw the mainstream media ask for fathers to step up and do something about low breastfeeding rates?  (Research shows that a male partner’s attitudes towards and willigness to assist with breastfeeding is the single biggest determinant of whether a woman will continue to exclusively breastfeed once she has left hospital, but strangely it’s mothers who are always targeted when feeding choices have to be accounted for.)

Although I completely deplore the employment of the term ‘Breastapo’ in that inflammatory Mercury piece, it’s important to acknowledge that the trend Beyond Blue has picked up on is real. Some women are, for whatever reason, experiencing pressure or negative attitudes about their feeding choices and that is harmful, both to those individual women and to the cause of lactivism generally.

Dr Highet and many others (including Leslie Cannold who tweeted the Mercury piece this morning) seem to take the experiences of women who felt that breastfeeding advocacy or advice given in hospital was shaming in some way as evidence that the ‘breast is best’ message has gone too far. I tend to draw the opposite conclusion.

At the moment, mothers (and actually when I say this, I mean mothers in the ‘Western’ world) seem to experience a particularly insidious form of blame-shifting. Women are told, usually repeatedly, by health professionals that breastfeeding is the best ‘choice’, and the vast majority believe it. (Over 90 % of Australian women choose to initiate breastfeeding). Breastfeeding advice, in many cases, seems to constitute little more than a bit of information about how to do it and a very clear intimation that it’s what good mothers do. What it all too often doesn’t include is sensitive, individualised, and knowledgable information delivered in a mother-centred way. What it definitely doesn’t come with (if it’s being delivered by a health professional or, well, just about anyone) is actual real-life support to achieve the mother’s breastfeeding goals.

In short: most women hope to breastfeed. Most women are let down by a lack of practical support.

Complicating the picture is marketing from formula companies and ingrained cultural practices (like expecting babies to ‘sleep through’ or feed by the clock and expecting mothers not to feed openly in public) which make breastfeeding seem like perhaps the ‘best’ but not at all the ‘normal’ choice to make.

By the time a woman has been ground down by the sheer exhaustion of birth and her first week of overworked parenthood, ‘normal’ can seem pretty good. ‘Normal’ can seem attainable.

This makes me sad not because I am a genocidal fascist who wants to see mothers suffer through mastitis (for crying out loud, can we just stop with the Boob Nazi slurs?) Rather, I feel saddened by the alarming regularity at which women give up their desire to breastfeed because breastfeeding is not the ‘best’ way to feed babies. It’s the normal way.

The idea that breastfeeding is somehow extraordinary persists because we live in a culture where very limited paternity leave is normal, where an expectation to continue cooking and cleaning and exercising and socialising in the post partum weeks and months is normal, and where a perception that unpaid work (especially if it is physical and monotonous) is pointless drugdgery is normal.

What good breastfeeding advocacy has to offer mothers is more than admonishments and informational pamphlets. Breastfeeding advocacy is at its core advocacy for mothers and babies, and although many of the people doing it do not identify as feminists, their organisations frequently do work which could be described as feminist.

I find it odd when people choose to promote women’s choices by standing against grass roots lactivism. Organisations such as the Australian Breastfeeding Association and La Leche League are run by mothers, for mothers. They grew out of a need, identified by women who were living in the era of Betty Friedan, for woman-to-woman support. Volunteers run them, they do not make profits, and they can’t pay for the kind of lobbying and marketing that formula manufacturers buy each day before breakfast. In short; I don’t think they’re the enemy.

If mothers are experiencing pain and anguish from ‘all the pressure to breastfeed’ I think we need to be asking why, and certainly, we need to ensure that any breastfeeding advocacy is sensitive and shame-free. But I have a feeling that less support for and information about breastfeeding is not what will help Beyond Blue’s cause. (And not only because breastfeeding hormones can sometimes help stave off depression, although this was my experience.)

What we need are real choices, not rock-and-hard-place compromises. And for that to be possible, much more needs to change than the message they put on posters in the maternity ward waiting room.

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Say hello, Sally

I don’t often post personal updates on my blog (so if it’s not your thing, you know, click away).

A few years ago our dog Ferris died. I wrote about it at the time, but it was an awful time, marred by burned landscapes and fractured nerves, and I don’t think even the writing helped me properly process my grief in amongst sharper traumas.

Ferris is, I admit sadly, still in a dusty little box in the back of a cupboard.

But for the first time, yesterday, I was able to talk about what to do with those ashes without too much heaviness because we’ve welcomed a new dog into our home and somehow it feels safe to acknowledge what we’ve lost.

Sally with Bean

Sally and Bean, BFFs

We adopted Sally from an RSPCA shelter. She is a ‘bitsa’ — the best kind! — and like Rosy in the beautiful Let’s Get A Pup, she radiates Good Intention.

Sally's Scar

Sally's scar

Sally (already her name when we met her) has had a difficult life. We don’t know how she got her scar but shelter staff suggested that she was a victim of cruelty (I feel tight in the chest just thinking about it so I won’t elaborate): this is not the first time she’s been ‘rescued’ and adopted. Her immediate past owner must have been gentle with her because, although timid, she has lost the raw edge of fearfulness. But he died, and so Sally is recently bereaved, and she comes to us with so much neediness that it soothes us all just to be together.

The simplest things make a good life; a soft bed, a full stomach, a kind word. It’s a gift to be reminded.

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