The Conservative Gendered Stereotyping of Children, Radical Feminism and transgenderism.

This is Part One of a series responding to the issues around transgenderism and the media representations therein.

 When my daughter was 3 she decided she wanted to be a mermaid for the ability to swim underwater. This lasted until she realised that mermaids do two things: swim and brush their hair. Understandably, this was deemed too boring. So, she became a mermaid superhero, which combined awesome swimming skills (and potentially a visit to Atlantis) with the ability to fly and read minds (and ignore her mother). Eventually this became a superhero mermaid rock star since I, in a moment of extreme unreasonableness, refused to let her dye her hair bright blue. (She decided her way around this was to become the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers as the band could veto my no blue hair rule, but that’s a whole different story).

My daughter no longer wants to be a mermaid or a rock star. She still loves superheroes and we spend a lot of time in comic book stores and at Comic Cons. She also has short hair. Despite clearly being a girl, at a recent Comic Con she was referred to as a boy because she chose to attend as a male superhero. The fact that many of the traditional male superheroes, such as Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye and Green Lantern,  are being replaced by women was deemed irrelevant. GrantedIMG_7717 this had a lot to do with the extreme sexualisation of female superheroes and villains, as seen in the comic artist Frank Quitely exhibit at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow. Quitely was involved in the changes to the X-men costumes to make them more ‘practical’, except for Emma Frost who is wearing platform boots and two tiny pieces of cloth covering her breasts.*IMG_7716

Whilst deeply annoying, the ‘misgendering’ of my daughter did raise some interesting questions on why men assumed a primary school child had to be a boy because her costume featured neither a tutu nor a corset. The teenage boys dressed as female superheroes were classed as ‘transgressive’. My daughter, however, had to be a boy.

I was reminded of this situation when the utterly dreadful Good Housekeeping article on a boy whose Conservative Christian parents decided he must be a transgirl went viral. This child was forcibly transitioned by his parents in response to their relatives suggested he might be gay because he liked to play with toys that were for ‘girls’:

“Shortly after Kai turned 2, friends and family were starting to notice her behavior. Living in Pearland, Texas, that meant we were getting a lot of sidelong glances and questions. Kai would only play with other girls and girls’ toys. She said boys were “gross.” Family members were flat-out asking me if this kid was gay. It made me nervous, and I was constantly worried about what people would think of me, of us and of my parenting. While family was questioning whether Kai was gay ….”

Kai’s parents were so horrified by a son who like to wear bright dress up clothes that they decided he must be a girl.  This poor child has to contend with homophobic parents more concerned about appearances than raising an emotionally healthy child with a wide range of interests.

The correct response to such homophobic comments from family and friends should be to remove them from your child’s life (and deal with your own homophobia). Yet, these parents were feted by Good Housekeeping for transitioning a child to cover up their homophobia. Because having a gay child is the worst possible thing than raising a son who plays with toys traditionally assigned to girls and who may be gay (or, you know, just a kid who likes playing with toys). We are expected to celebrate these parents for their homophobia and for caring more about the neighbours than their own child.

This Good Housekeeping article encompasses all of my fears about the ways in which the construction of the Trans narrative is both deeply conservative and harmful to children.** Rather than recognizing the ways in which gender stereotypes create a hierarchy of male/ femaleand the decades of feminist research into the negative consequences this has for girls, we have, once again, arrived at a point where gender is deemed a binary with children unable to be just children. So, my superhero loving daughter, who only reads comics featuring female superheroes and villains, is being defined as male by so-called leftist people, who cannot conceive of women outside of a hyper-sexualised, violent pornographied object and by right-wing religious fundamentalists who believe women are inferior to men. It is not unsurprising that an Islamic fundamentalist country like Iran forcibly transitions people with the other option being death. The story of Kai demonstrates a similar trend in fundamentalist Christian communities in the US – the isolation and shaming of gay and lesbian children within these communities is well-documented and is responsible for the self-harming and suicides of far too many children.

I cannot see anything liberating about forcing children into categories of boy/girl based solely on whether or not they like trains or tutus – and all the subsequent medical interventions – or the entirety of the bigender/agender/ genderqueer constructions that continue to reify the sex based hierarchy rather than challenging them. Certainly, the recent article in the New York Times entitled “My daughter is not Trans, she’s a tomboy” still supports the theory that ‘girls’, unless they do ‘boy stuff’ are not as good as being born male. Girls who play with Barbies are bad and girls who climb trees are good is an asinine narrative that punishes children for trying to learn who they are within a culture that punishes children who try to conform or challenge the gendered patriarchal constructs of  masculine/ feminine.

Labelling children transgender at the age of 2 is a conservative and reactionary response to the questioning of gender. It is inherently homophobic and it fails to challenge the neoliberal discourse of ‘choice’ which depoliticises liberation politics and renders any discussion of class-based politics as ‘hateful’. As a radical feminist, I want nothing less than the full liberation of all women from the white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.  This includes recognising that gender is not a performance or an ‘identity’. It is nothing more than the systemic social, cultural and physical oppression of women’s bodies, predicated on women’s reproductive, sexual and caring labour, which does nothing more than a reinforce a hierarchy of man/woman.

*Thank you to Claire Heuchan who pointed out this part of the exhibit to me.

** Part two is a discussion of the medical establishment and the transitioning of children.

Suggested Reading:

Dr. Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, (London,2010).

Dr. Cordelia Fine, Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of our Gendered Minds, (UK, 2017)

Glosswitch, ‘Our culture dehumanises women by reducing them all to breeders and non-breeders‘, (New Statesman, 2014)

Claire Heuchan, “Sex, Gender and the New EssentialismSister Outrider, (7.2.2017).

Claire Heuchan, Lezbehonest about Queer Politics Erasing Lesbian WomenSister Outrider, (15.3.2017).

.Claire Heuchan, The Problem that has no name because women is too “essentialist”Sister Outrider, (22.2.2017).

bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody, (UK, 2000)

Miranda Kiraly  & Meagan Tyler (eds.), Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism, (Australia, 2015)

Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy, (Oxford University Press, 1986)

Peggy Ornstein, Girls & Sex, (Great Britain, 2016), see pgs 160-165

PurpleSage, The Relentless Tide of Sex Stereotypes, (20.5.2016)

Dr. Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, “Gender is not a spectrum”Aeon, (28.6.2016)

Dr. Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, What I believe about Sex & GenderMore Radical with Age, (2015)

Denise Thompson, Radical Feminism Today, (London, 2001)

 

Lice Are a Feminist Issue

Lice – that loathsome insect that mentioning turns everyone into hysterical head scratchers. Just typing the word makes me want to shave my head. Whilst scratching and googling illegal pesticides. Just in case.

I can’t adequately express how much I loathe lice – the hours of my life I have wasted combing through my children’s hair in a desperate attempt to find that one last louse who is on a mission to repopulate the universe (or just my kid’s head).

I have done all the treatments: vinegar (made the kids scream and me hungry), gin (made the neighbours look askance), olive oil (went every where), and the full range of “essential” oils from tea tree to peppermint. Mostly, they made the kids smell like they’d been lost in a bubble gum factory. I’ve wandered around muttering: lice don’t care if your kid’s hair is clean or dirty. I’ve tried every lotion and spray. I have memorised the NHS advice on how to treat lice and bought every type of comb going including one that supposedly killed lice with an electric shock. I’ve done it all and the only thing that works is spending hours combing through wet hair.

I celebrated the Christmas holidays by chopping off all of my children’s hair. I became that mother – the one who lost the plot. The thought of spending hours combing my children’s hair in a desperate attempt to find that one super-fertile, camouflaged louse was too much. I actually hacked off my daughter’s ponytail rendering her once waist-length hair into a bob around her shoulders.

It was Christmas and everyone was scratching. I couldn’t bear the thought of getting out the nitty-gritty comb. Again. Now, we’re all sporting short hair (some of us with less grace than others and some of us with straighter edges than others).

Most children get lice at some point in their lives, but it doesn’t matter how many times I read those official NHS guidelines about how, I still feel embarrassed when my kids catch them. There is a shame involved in being the mother whose children have lice. And, this is why lice are a feminist issue. It doesn’t matter how often you hear about equal parenting, it’s always mothers who end up responsible for lice.

It is mothers who are responsible for spending hours every week combing their children’s hair. It is mothers who are responsible for taking their kids to the hairdressers with the inevitable embarrassment of being sent packing when one louse pops out from behind the kid’s ear to wave hello. (And, why is it normally impossible to see them on your kids head but they turn a shade of glow-in-the-dark lime green with a penchant for the Macarena when in proximity of a hairdresser?)

Lice are a mother’s shame: if only they were a better mother; a more observant mother; one with hours of free time to comb through their child’s hair (assuming the child would sit still through this process happy as a lark).

Lice are just another form of wifework – one which women are shamed for performing and are then shamed for missing. Combing hair for lice is time-consuming and excruciating for both mother and child. It is also used as a way of shaming poor mothers. You see, white middle class children only get lice from one of “those kids”. These children are always the victims of lice infestation and never responsible for sharing the blighters with other children. Instead, we sit in judgment of bad mothers who don’t own a microscope they can jam their kid’s head.

I have yet to meet a father who spends his evenings combing through his kid’s hair. Or, a father sent home from the hairdresser in disgrace. It is not father’s desperately trying to pretend they didn’t see the louse which just plunked an “I am here” flag in the middle of their kid’s head.

Lice are a feminist issue because it is mother’s who are blamed for an infestation that is a pretty normal part of a kid’s life: like chicken pox, skinned knees and nose-picking.

The next time you see a child with lice-infested hair spare a thought for the mother spending her precious time and money desperately trying to eradicate the lice. Don’t judge. Just give a quick thanks that this time it’s not you. Because lice are definitely one of the worst bits of mothering and mothering is always a feminist issue.

 

Originally published in the Huffington Post on 15.1.15

Feminist Mothering with Fibromyalgia

I have fibromyalgia. I rarely admit to having it in public. If people ask why I look exhausted or am limping or struggling to use words, I say I have migraines. People have sympathy for migraines. They know it means extreme pain and sensitivities. When you say, “I have fibromyalgia” the response wavers between “I have a sore knee too” or “I’ve heard of that. My third-cousin twice-removed, next-door neighbour’s parakeet’s beautician has it and they got to go on disability for life.” Neither response makes it possible to explain what fibromyalgia does to your body.

Fibromyalgia has been called the “aggravating everything disorder.” I cannot control my body temperature. It doesn’t matter what the weather is like outside, my body runs on its own internal thermostat which is, inevitably, wrong.  I’m the one in the school playground in a t-shirt in the middle of winter and a hoodie on the hottest day of the year. I am also light sensitive, which means I’m also the one in sunglasses in the rain. My biggest ‘aggravator’ trigger is noise. When it is bad, the noise is so over-whelming that I can’t differentiate sound. Everything is extreme. I wear headphones to drown the noise out.

My immune system goes on strike regularly and a mild runny nose can result in my being in bed for a week. The last time I had the flu, it took nearly 6 months to recover properly. I get every bug going and, sometimes, it feels like I am always sick. We won’t discuss the side effects of the irritable bowel syndrome that co-exists with fibromyalgia.

A Facebook meme a few months ago made it clear: “my pain is not like your pain”. I have pain everyday – sometimes it’s manageable with painkillers and heat pads and sometimes its not. Sometimes I can’t turn my head because the muscles have seized. On more than one occasion the pain at the base of my skull has been so severe that piercing the back of my neck with a knitting needle didn’t seem like too bad an idea.

I’ve been really open about how hard it is as someone who loves writing to be unable to put my thoughts out coherently: that what ends up on the paper isn’t what was in my head because of the way the fibromyalgia has effected the ability of my brain to communicate clearly. It’s also affected my ability to speak since I lose words and have huge pauses in between words (that I don’t realise are happening). I also find it difficult to process what is being said to me when tired: I know people are talking but I can’t hear the actual words and, even when I can hear some of the words, my brain can’t actually process the message. When it’s this bad, the only thing I can do is nap. This isn’t exactly conducive to being a writer.

It is the fatigue that is the worst symptom. Sleep deprivation is classed as a form of torture for a reason. I am often in a severe state of exhaustion. I can’t sleep so the pain increases and because of the severity of the pain, I can’t sleep. So, I have depression as well. The depression and severe pain require long-term medications, which result in weight gain. Weight gain makes it harder to exercise and the circle continues.

Obviously this pain and exhaustion impact on my daily life, but it is my mothering where it impacts the most. Living with fibromyalgia makes mothering nearly impossible. I can cope on school days when the pain is in a ‘good’ phase because I can nap during the day. Weekends are more difficult. I cannot manage the day without a nap that means I have to plan my time with my daughter around my sleep schedule. It is even worse when the pain is severe or I have a cold.

I have two daughters. My eldest was 9 nine before I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I used to take her to castles, the zoo, and to the beach all the time. We would walk for miles in the woods, scramble up hills, and go camping. With my youngest daughter, walking three blocks to school can result in a four-hour nap. Camping outside is a no-go since tense muscles and pain don’t respond well to sleeping on the ground – and this is without dealing with the issue of my inability to control my body temperature.

How do you explain to a young child that the reason you can’t listen to their story is because the distortion in your ears is so intense that you can’t actually hear their words? Or, that the much promised trip to the zoo is impossible as you can’t walk?

The guilt is immense.

The guilt is not improved by media constructions of the “good mother”. How many news articles are written about children watching too much television or spending too much time on an iPad? Television fetes mothers who bake cupcakes, run marathons, and volunteer for the PTA. When they only thing you are capable of on a bad day is making a packed lunch, the myth of the SuperMom feels like an extra massive kick in the teeth. To be a mother with fibromyalgia is to be a failure.

Today is Fibromyalgia Awareness Day and I’m having a relatively good day. I have time for a nap before collecting my daughter from school and I managed to get some work done. I’ve balanced the need to pay my rent with caring for my child. Most days aren’t this good and, even if they were, it wouldn’t change the stigma of being a disabled mother. Or, erase the guilt for not being a great mother.

In child protection, the term ‘good enough mothering’ is used to describe women with multiple support needs who have children – whether these needs involve substance use, alcohol dependency, mental illness or trauma. This is what mothering with fibromyalgia is: good enough mothering. It’s just not that easy to remember this when faced with a disappointed child who only wanted to visit the zoo.

Amber E. Kinser’s Motherhood and Feminism

History of motherhood starting at industrial revolution. In many ways, it is a ‘basic’ history of motherhood in the US. Or, at least, it should be a basic history but Kinser traces more than the usual history of white middle class women with its focus on Victorian values, Betty Friedan and the myth of suburbia. Instead, Kinser traces the real history of motherhood looking at how issues of class, race and homophobia/lesbophobia challenge the dominant discourses of motherhood.

Her inclusion of the history of reproductive rights and mothering of Chicana and African-American women is a much needed addition to the feminist movements understanding of history and the complexities of real reproductive justice in a culture where racism and classism create categories of good and bad mothers; which punishes women of colour for becoming mothers.

Kinser also examines radical feminist texts on motherhood and labels them as radical feminist. Usually these texts on women’s history and feminist theory try to erase the term radical feminist and situate women like Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde out with their theoretical heritage. Shulamith Firestone is simply dismissed. Kinser writes about the history of motherhood as a patriarchal institutional and the challenges to it through an intersectional lens actually addressing issues of race, class, gender, and identities.

(Re)Creating and (Re)Defining Sisterhood Online: The Mumsnet Phenomenon

This is the extended version of a conference paper I gave at the FWSA (UK & Northern Ireland) conference: Rethinking Sisterhood: The Affective Politics of Women’s Relationships’

 

Mumsnet – we’ve all heard the name. It pops up frequently in the press as either an object of derision as that place full middle class Yummy Mummies who once harassed Gordon Brown about his favourite biscuit brand during a political webchat[i] or that “nest of vipers”[ii] who viciously bully any woman who doesn’t meet their “standards”.

Yet neither of these stereotypes addresses the popularity of Mumsnet with women across the UK and the world. Why is Mumsnet so popular with women across all classes, ethnicities, faith, sexuality and gendered identities if it is a space full of ‘bullies’? What draws women – a significant number of whom do not have children – to what is ostensibly a parenting site? How does Mumsnet get 60 million page hits a month if only women who care about biscuits or are bullies populate it?

The founding of Mumsnet [iii] is a well-told story across the media. Justine Roberts and Carrie Longton created it in 2000 after Roberts had a disastrous holiday abroad with infant twins. It was conceived as a way for mothers to share information about everything from holidays to infant feeding, car seats, and fashion. Since then the business has grown from a small organisation to a staff of 80[iv] with Talk boards which cover everything from current events, to domestic and sexual violence and abuse, feminism, caring for children with disabilities, purchasing a car and caring for fish. The webchats hosted by Mumsnet have involved everyone from Gordon Brown and the infamous biscuit question to Jamie Oliver, Nigel Farage, William Hague, Dawn French and Gok Wan.[v]

Mumsnet’s popularity is not because of the quality of information on the site but rather the members themselves who have registered for the free chat boards – a feature only added to the website by chance. It is the relationships developed amongst the women and how this has changed both the brand of Mumsnet but also how the women involved have (re)developed the theory of sisterhood, particularly outwith feminist discourse that I will discuss. This “sisterhood” is contested and challenged from a variety of sources – the members themselves, men’s rights extremists and trolls. Equally, many members would not recognise Mumsnet as a place of sisterhood – many would also not define themselves as feminists, further contesting the boundaries. The construction of sisterhood is both intersectional, as defined by Kimberle Crenshawe,[vi] but also anti-intersectional in that racism, disablism, classism, homophobia and misogyny are common across the boards. Mumsnet is certainly not unusual as a true cross-section of women will always involve both the negative and positive.

This paper is based on my personal experiences as a member of Mumsnet. I joined in 2007 following the birth of my second child. I had several interviews with a number of current and former Mumsnetters, whom I have chosen to keep anonymous in this paper. I then posted a request on my public Facebook account, in which I am friends with numerous Mumsnetters, asking for their responses to the issue of trolling. This self-selecting response is the first stage in a much larger piece of research which will include further interviews, as well as a large-scale survey of members of Mumsnet – as well as other online parenting websites.

Mumsnet both (re)creates and (re)defines 21st century constructions of the term “sisterhood”. The power of relationships developed by women whose only contact is online and through pseudonyms is surprising only to those who have never been isolated from their extended family and wider community. It complicates the division between “real life” and “online life” and how this division is based on fallacious assumptions of how women construct support networks, friendships, and the longevity of these relationships. We live in a culture where women are taught that other women are their worst enemy and one where competing with each other is considered normal. This is designed to erases male responsibility for violence but also ensures that women’s energy and work is directed at supporting men, rather than other women.

The very basis of Mumsnet’s success is women supporting other women and the power of women’s friendships online. This is why the media backlash to Mumsnet is both so obvious and so vicious. Denigrating Mumsnet as that place where women talk about shoes and biscuits erases the very conversations which make it a radical space. These conversations include pregnancy, miscarriage, infertility, bereavement, domestic violence, rape and sexual violence, child-rearing, caring for children or other family members with disabilities, education, healthcare and current events. These conversations – the sharing of information and support – give women a power denied to them by a culture that privileges men’s needs and desires above all else. It also develops women’s confidences in their own skills, as well as encouraging women to move outwith their comfort zones learning new skills, teaching these skills to other women and entering the public sphere.

There is a multitude of ways in which the women of Mumsnet support one another. One of the most powerful sections is the relationships board which features long-term support threads for women with a history of substance misuse, those who were raised by toxic parents, women currently living with domestic violence and survivors, and women surviving rape and other forms of sexual violence. This unconditional support offered by women contrasts with women who are apologists for male behaviour – those who are currently living with violence and not in a position to label it and those who believe in anti-woman myths propagated by men’s rights extremists. In order to offer unconditional support, women must start from the radical basis that women do not lie about male violence. As those working in the field of violence against women and girls are aware, believing women is a radical step towards sisterhood. It is a feminist position and there are contested spaces on the relationships boards where women who do not take the label feminist come into conflict with those who do even when offering similar advice. There are numerous occasions when women who believe feminism is bad for women define radical feminist positions on male violence as “common sense”. What is interesting is the ways in which these contested definitions of feminism, domestic violence and perpetrator responsibility have given women previously denied a voice a space where there words are considered worthy of response. For many women, this is a privilege denied daily.

This contested space is best demonstrated by threads about access and violent fathers – the feminist position on Mumsnet is that children do not need violent fathers. On the relationships board, children are classed as needing fathers but their mothers deserve protection from further control and coercion. Debates wage on whose needs should be prioritised: the mother or the children. Fragile relationships fall apart as participants tend to be in a place where personal experiences trump theoretical knowledge. Building sisterhood in such a contested space is difficult but women manage it – despite fears of their own situation, fears over giving another woman advice or support that might hurt her. Women on these threads are so very vulnerable and yet they reach outwith the limited time and energy they have to help women they have never met and likely never will.

The first thread I read on the relationships board involved a woman driving two hours in the middle of the night to collect another woman – a complete stranger – who need the space away from her abusive husband. This is not as uncommon a situation as you would think. We can all think of a million things which could have gone wrong here but the very success of the relationships board is that type of help: a woman dropping everything to help a complete stranger. More commonly, we see women sitting up all night with other women who are in fear of a violent partner, or whose child is missing, women who are miscarrying much wanted babies and women who have taken a pill to induce abortion. Historically, this type of support was common in many communities and it was a fundamental part of the second wave of feminism, but it is very different to online communities of women where the creation of a “perfect feminism” has created very rigid communities – some of which engage in abusive behaviour to other women as a way of defining themselves as “better” feminists. Online feminism is often hierarchical erasing the possibility of a sisterhood.

A section of the talk board for mothers caring for children with has similar stories of women supporting women. In many ways, we expect this of women living in these situations – the selflessness of the mother with a severely disabled child is a trope the mainstream media adores. We don’t consider the emotional involvement and time commitments these women put in to supporting other women. Women who are carers are far more likely to live in poverty than other women and have far more demands on their time, due to systemic failures to support them appropriately. Yet, these women give their time freely to support other women through a diagnosis of disability and then to negotiate the welfare system – a task which even professionals find difficult. These stories are replicated in sections for women who have had miscarriages, are dealing with infertility or suffered other bereavements.

Again, this idea of women supporting women is something we expect of women. Our welfare state is built on the unpaid labour of women caring for family members, volunteering in schools and hospitals, campaigning and fundraising for play parks and after school clubs. But, this labour is assumed to be done by ‘good’ women (that is to say white, heterosexual, middle class women) and there exists a hierarchy of women who do the labour and those women who are recipients of this labour. What makes the support offered by women of Mumsnet different is that there is no hierarchy: there are no women who do “good works” and women who must be “helped”. There are women who help women not because it is expected of them but because they want to.

This idea of a collective of women who have political power is very radical. Mumsnet The Business has built on the unpaid labour of its members to create an ethical, pro-woman brand. Mumsnet has successfully extended their brand beyond reviewing products to building a well-respected blogging network, a Mumsnet academy (although the classes are mostly London-based and expensive) and holding an annual award for family-friendly business nominated by its members.

Mumsnet has also given its members a political platform. The success of the brand and the support of the women for other women increased their membership dramatically. This mostly women-only space full of women supporting other women has radicalised large numbers who otherwise felt disenfranchised. These members have started the political campaigns for which Mumsnet has become famous: the Let Girls be Girlscampaign[vii] which targeted shops selling a sexualised vision of girlhood which included Tesco’ selling a pole dancing kit for 7 year olds.[viii] Mumsnet has also campaigned for a miscarriage code of practise to be implemented across the NHS because of serious failures in the care of women (and in one rather frightening story, a member on Mumsnet diagnosing an ectopic pregnancy in a woman who had been to A&E twice with bleeding and serious abdominal pain).

The success of these campaigns is built on the relationships among the women on the talk boards. This is best exemplified in the “We Believe You” campaign. This campaign started on the feminism/ woman’s rights board following numerous discussions of what constituted sexual assault. Women were invited to post their stories of “small scale sexual assaults” that they had not reported. This very quickly turned into a thread full of women talking about being raped, sexually assaulted as children and groomed. Many of the women had never shared their experiences before and some did not know that their experience met the legal definition of rape. This mass testimony of sexual violence was only possible because of the way in which women’s relationships exist on Mumsnet. In the end, there were thousands of testimonies made and one member made an informal survey to show the breadth of women’s experiences. At the behest of members, Mumsnet started the “We Believe You”[ix] campaign challenging rape myths in the media. They took professional advice from Rape Crisis and built a formal survey. The campaign coincided with the arrest of footballer Ched Evans for rape and the hashtag #ibelieveher followed. This campaign could not have started nor succeeded without the relationship between members, which was essential after the media started reporting on the campaign using women’s testimonies without permission. Mumsnet HQ came into conflict with members with the business brand of Mumsnet leaving members who had shared stories feeling misused. We Believe You brought a lot of publicity to Mumsnet, something that was not a positive experience for some women.

There are a number of campaigns started by members, which are not associated with the brand of Mumsnet. The Let Toys be Toys[x] campaign challenges gendered stereotyping of toys and has had success in forcing companies to remove gendered labels and the “pink/ blue” divide of toys commonly seen in places like Toys R Us. There is now a spin-off campaign called Let Books be Books[xi]. There are annual charity runs raising money for numerous causes. There is even a Christmas secret santa which started as a way of helping out members in financial difficulties but was extended to members who helped others. This was originally run by members but grew so large that Mumsnet HQ was forced to take over. The financial generosity of Mumsnetters rivals the emotional support and time they donate to other women.

By far, the most colourful example of the way in which sisterhood is created within the space of Mumsnet is Woolly Hugs.[xii] Woolly Hugs started out as a group of women knitting a blanket for a recently bereaved Mumsnetter. It has expanded rapidly to include knitted blankets for children in hospital, children and parents who are recently bereaved, and has links with a charity working with children with cancer overseas. Some of these women learned to knit, crochet and sew in order to participate in this piece of collective feminist sisterhood. This transmission of skills builds on a long history of women’s sewing circles and communal quilting as a way of building friendships outwith the male gaze.

The above does not mean that Mumsnet is a completely safe space for women. The open registration policy of the Talk Board means anyone can join and Mumsnet has endured numerous invasions of male rights extremists – Fathers 4 Justice being a repeat offender going as far as attempting to publish a libellous advertisement because of Mumsnet’s “gender bias”. The fact that women still do a disproportionate amount of childcare and housework[xiii] and that many of the members of Fathers 4 Justice have histories of domestic violence isn’t something their membership was willing to discuss. The male rights extremists tend to stick to certain topics: feminism/woman’s rights, parenting, and the relationships board where the revel in telling women living in violent relationships that they are over-reacting – the team of Edd and Bob being rather infamous in their anti-woman propaganda. Mumsnet’s hands-off approach to moderating the Talk Boards resulted in these anti-women posters being allowed to remain far longer than they should.

Larrygrills, a male member who remains despite his constant misogyny and gaslighting, does so because he posts just within the guidelines for the Talk Board. This allows Larry to suggest that women who have suffered birth trauma are over-reacting because he’s seen his wife give birth twice and she was fine. It is classed as “opinion” rather than gaslighting. Larry’s full posting history contains numerous statements minimising domestic and sexual violence and abuse and suggesting women are over-reacting to all manner of trauma. His posts do not include personal attacks and are viewed as fine. Larry is not by any means the only male poster to use Mumsnet to voice his anti-women rhetoric but he does appear to be the most dedicated. Conversations occur over and around Larry as women seek to minimise the harm he causes others but, again, this puts the onus on women to expend valuable energy pointing out the misogyny and gaslighting.

There is also the issue of what is commonly called “emotional vampires”, which are people who literally drain the energy out of you by coercing you to focus solely on their needs at the expense of your own.[xiv] Mumsnet’s reputation as a source of support for women – regardless of whether or not they are mothers – makes it a very visible target for people who engage in this behaviour. Due to the demographics of Mumsnet, the majority of “emotional vampires” are female.

The poster who used the pseudonym EthanChristopher claimed to be a teenage single parent who was trying to graduate in order to attend university. Many posters, including myself, gave up hours of our time helping EthanChristopher negotiate the welfare system, childcare, and student loans. She turned out be a woman in her mid 40s who was “bored”.

Dizzymare was a woman who claimed to be pregnant with twins with a young toddler. Much of her posting was about money with one of the more widely read threads on the subject of her “silly brother” only buying her a double stroller rather than a triple stroller. There was a clear demand for money and suggestions of how to manage 3 small children with only a double buggy were ignored. Dizzymare’s postings became more emotionally charged with stories of the miscarriage of both twins. Many bereaved mothers supported Dizzymare through her bereavement but she too turned out not to be real. Dizzymare has used the similar story across a number of other parenting platforms, including Bliss, leaving very distressed women in her wake; women who had literally sat up all night with Dizzy when she claimed to be miscarrying. The time and the emotional involvement in supporting Dizzymare was done by women who believed that sisterhood was essential – even if they would not have used that word.

You cannot tell if the person you are supporting is real or trolling and sometimes it is necessary to write a post for those reading it without commenting rather than the original poster – ensuring that accurate information about domestic violence, victim blaming or legal matters is posted. This is an easy statement to say but difficult in practise due to the emotional responses women have to other women in distress. SassySusan, who also trolled under alternative pseudonyms like WashWithCare, was a fairly vitriolic emotional vampire. She attacked women directly rather than the more passive-aggressive posts of Dizzymare. Perhaps the best example is a thread SassySusan started which, among other issues, suggested that women who don’t breastfeed deserve to get breast cancer and die. Infant feeding is a source of great stress for new mothers with both breast and bottle feeders feeling judged and unsupported. As such, it is an excellent source of entertainment for emotional vampires and other trolls. Yet, SassySusan was different to other emotional vampires as she had lost her only child to chicken pox. It is difficult to tell if SassySusan started trolling before or after the loss of her child but the simple fact is she was both a woman in need of support and a woman deliberately and maliciously harming others.

How should Mumsnet HQ respond to a deeply traumatized woman who viciously attacks other vulnerable women? Where is the line between troll and trauma? Do organisations like Mumsnet, whose reputation is based entirely on the women of the Talk Board sharing and supporting one another, have a duty of care to women like SassySusan despite their extremely abusive behaviour? Mumsnet made the difficult decision to ban SassySusan after she stalked and publicly doxxed another member off-board. Whether her behaviour was a response to trauma or a psychological condition is impossible to say but SassySusan remains one of many women who have joined Mumsnet with a view to causing trouble and who have revelled in the pain of other women.

Mumsnet may be an important place online for women but it can never be a completely safe space – and this is without discussing issues of racism, homophobia, misogyny, classism, and disablism of the members themselves. No site with open membership can ever be free of these harmful constructs. Where Mumsnet fails is that it depends on its members to educate others. At what point does a mother with a child with autism no longer need to defend her child to a poster insisting that children with disabilities do not belong in mainstream schools. How often do posts about golliwogs appear with people insisting they are harmless fun? How many times are there threads about applying for schools which completely ignore the fact that women living in poverty in estates with only one school have no choice. How often should lesbian mothers be expected to tolerate homophobia (the answer for one member of Mumsnet was several years of lesbophobic abuse before the other woman was finally banned).

The reality is that Mumsnetters who invest the time and emotional support for other women are dependent on Mumsnet being a safe space even though this safe space can never actually exist. The women who have used and built the virtual space and made friends within that space may not be representative of the women reading the posts on the site. It is also very easy to fall into friendship groups that feel exclusionary to newcomers. Mumsnet suffers the same problems with other women-only spaces not founded on feminist principles (and even then these are not always safe).

Equally, the way in which Mumsnetters have used this accidental space has changed the definition of sisterhood from women who meet in real life and have similar political goals – as seen in second wave feminism’s consciousness raising groups. – to a much broader definition. This definition is predicated on support for other women – with contested theories of friendship and sisterhood coming into conflict. In many ways Mumsnet has become a consciousness raising group, particularly for those women who cannot do “real life”. Coming together for campaigning does not necessarily result in the same friendships developed by women with small children. Both can be temporary friendships based on need at the point in the women’s lives but there is also a questioning of what sisterhood fundamentally means: is it unconditional support or passionate support as espoused by Liz Kelly. How do women negotiate online friendships, many using pseudonyms where it is possible to share everything without worrying about your next door neightbour finding out, when we are taught that women’s friendships aren’t “real” and that they are predicated on competition and hierarchies? How can we protect these safe spaces from trolls and men’s rights extremists without making it difficult for other women to find the support? How do we protect that sisterhood when it is under constant attack due to a patriarchal backlash? After all, much of the media stories on Mumsnet are about how horrible the women are – even the women knitting those beautiful blankets for children at York hospital with terminal illnesses.

 

[i]Brown takes break in biscuit quiz, BBC News Online. 17.10.2009(http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8312215.stm) Acc. 10.9.14

[ii] Nick Duerden, “Why has Mumsnet developed such an awkward reputation?” The Independent 12.5.2013 (http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/features/why-has-mumsnet-developed-such-an-awkward-reputation-8607914.html)

[iii] Mumsnet: About Us. http://www.mumsnet.com/info/aboutus. Acc. 10.9.14

[iv] Lucy, Kellaway, Justine Roberts of Mumsnet. 20.12.2013. FT Magazine(http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/aa1f78ea-66af-11e3-8675-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3DQ1ADIK7) Acc. 10.9.14

[v]Mumsnet Webchats (http://www.mumsnet.com/onlinechats)

[vi]Kimberle Crenshaw, Mapping the Margins, Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence against Women of Colour, Stanford Law Review, (http://socialdifference.columbia.edu/files/socialdiff/projects/Article__Mapping_the_Margins_by_Kimblere_Crenshaw.pdf)

[vii]Let Girls be Girls Campaign. (http://www.mumsnet.com/campaigns/let-girls-be-girls ) Launched 2010.

[viii] Tesco’s “Toy” Pole Dancing Kit. Mirror. 23.10.2006 (http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/tescos-toy-pole-dance-kit-646625)

[ix]We Believe You Rape Awareness Campaign (http://www.mumsnet.com/campaigns/we-believe-you-mumsnet-rape-awareness-campaign)

[x]Let Toys be Toys campaign (http://www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk/)

[xi] Let Books be Books (http://www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk/letbooksbebooks/)

[xii] Woolly Hugs (http://beta.woollyhugs.com)

[xiii] Susan Maushart,Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women, (Bloomsbury, 2003)

Arlie Russell Hochschild with Anne Machung, The Second Shift, (Penguin Books, 1989)

[xiv] http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/emotional-freedom/201101/whos-the-emotional-vampire-in-your-life

A caesarean performed without consent

Originally published on a previous blog 2.12.13

As with everyone, I am horrified by today’s article by Christopher Booker in the Telegraph about an Italian woman, in the UK on business, who was forcibly given a caesarian section and her child taken into care.

A woman being given surgery without her consent is assault. It is that simple. Women are not incubators and any society which sees women as human would not be forcing surgery on a woman without her consent; never mind a surgery which results in a child being delivered. Taking the child into care, without the woman being able to instruct her own lawyers, is disgraceful and inhumane.

But, and this is a huge but, reading Booker’s article, I have more questions that answers. I understand that Booker is limited in what he can publish due to the fact that family courts are closed for the protection of the children. Taking this into consideration, Booker’s article is still low on details.

Don’t get me wrong, there are serious problems within child protection due to chronic underfunding, massive caseloads and staff not being given appropriate training in dealing with sexual violence, male violence, and victim blaming. This is clear from the Rochdale and Oxford grooming cases for a start – and the sheer number of children who are forced to continue relationships with abusive fathers. Yet, child protection is more than just social workers [who inevitably get a bashing in these cases], there are medical doctors, psychiatrists, police, teachers, community support workers and any number of court officials involved in the decision to remove children from the home. Our culture treats children as possessions and we pay a very high price for the damage we cause them. In this case, it is clear that the police and medical establishment were involved before Essex social services were.

These are the questions that first popped into my mind when I read the article last night:

  1. Why hasn’t the Italian government been fighting this? They are certainly not bound by UK laws on child protection which keep family courts closed. Why hasn’t the Italian government gone to the EU Human Rights court on behalf of their citizen?
  2. I do not understand why the family suggested that the baby be adopted, in America, by the aunt of the baby’s stepsister (and does Booker not mean half sister rather than stepsister? If we’re talking about kinship carers, you need to get the relationship right). This isn’t the closest of kinship ties and I do think sending the child overseas is a drastic response. Was there no family in Italy who could care for the child in order to allow the mother to continue her relationship with the child? I support kinship adoptions because I do think they are the best outcome in such circumstances but not if the kinship adopter lives on the other side of the planet. The whole point of kinship carers is to try to continue the relationship with the birth parents, if possible. How would this continue if the child was living in the US?
  3. What on earth does Booker mean by panic attack and “bipolar” condition? These are medical terms which have medical definitions. A bit more detail to make it clear wouldn’t go amiss here.
  4. I want to know why the caesarian was preformed. This is an incredibly drastic move which only takes place, within normal circumstances when the mother can’t legally consent, if the mother’s health was at risk. Having bipolar disorder does not put the mother’s health at risk whilst pregnant. If the hospital performed the caesarian for any other reason than the baby or mother being in immediate risk of death, then they have committed assault. I would expect the Italian government, on behalf of their citizen, to being taking the hospital trust to court over this.
  5. I don’t trust John Hemmings at all. The moment he gets involved in any case involving social services, my brain starts screaming ‘ulterior motive’. Hemmings is never involved for the best interests of the child; he’s all about the publicity.
There are obvious constraints on the publishing of this case but Booker’s article is too full of holes to make sense of. If this is a clear case of the assault of a woman, then the there are a whole lot of people who need to be prosecuted and both the British and Italian governments are complicit in this abuse.
Forcible caesarians are violence against women.
Removing a child from their mother because the mother is bipolar is violence against women.
A society which treats women as more than incubators and believes children are not possessions would invest more money and training in the police, education, health, social services and judiciary to ensure that all have more than adequate training to support women who need a little extra help. A society which cared would offer more support to a pregnant women with a mental illness [and here the Italian government is just as complicit]. This is why we are supposed to have a welfare state: to help those in need and not punish them for needing help.

UPDATE:

Essex County Council have released the following statement in response to Booker’s Telegraph article. The obvious holes in Booker’s piece are clearly answered below. I still think the child should have been returned to Italy, even if the mother could not care for her herself but the case isn’t quite as cut and dried as Booker suggests but then these things never are.

Essex County Council responds to interest in story headlined “Essex removes baby from mother”

2 December 2013

Key Dates

There have been lengthy legal proceedings in this case over the past 15 months.
  • Mother detained under Section 3 of the Mental Health Act on 13 June 2012
  • Application by the Health Trust to the High Court 23 August 2012
  • Application for Interim Care Order 24 August 2012
  • Mother took part in the care proceedings ending on 1 February 2013.
  • Mother applied to Italian Courts for order to return the child to Italy in May 2013. Those courts ruled that child should remain in England
  • In October 2013 Essex County Council obtains permission from County Court to place child for adoption

Context

The Health Trust had been looking after the mother since 13 June 2012 under section 3 of the Mental Health Act. Because of their concerns the Health Trust contacted Essex County Council’s Social Services.
Five weeks later it was the Health Trust’s clinical decision to apply to the High Court for permissions to deliver her unborn baby by caesarean section because of concerns about risks to mother and child.
The mother was able to see her baby on the day of birth and the following day. Essex County Council’s Social Services obtained an Interim Care Order from the County Court because the mother was too unwell to care for her child.
Historically, the mother has two other children which she is unable to care for due to orders made by the Italian authorities.
In accordance with Essex County Council’s Social Services practice social workers liaised extensively with the extended family before and after the birth of the baby, to establish if anyone  could care for the child:

UPDATE 2:

The judge’s statement has now been released and is available here.

This is the first part:

NOTE BY MR JUSTICE MOSTYN (4 December 2013)

Although no-one has sought to appeal the judgment dated 23 August 2012 during the last 15 months, or to have it transcribed for any other purpose, I have decided to authorise its release together with the verbatim transcript of the proceedings and the order made so as to inform and clarify recent public comments about this case.

It will be seen that the application to me was not made by the local authority or social workers. Rather, it was an urgent application first made at 16:16 on 23 August 2012 by the NHS Trust, supported by the clear evidence of a consultant obstetrician and the patient’s own treating consultant psychiatrist, seeking a declaration and order that it would be in the medical best interests of this seriously mentally ill and incapacitated patient, who had undergone two previous elective caesarean sections, to have this birth, the due date of which was imminent (she was 39 weeks pregnant), in the same manner.

The patient was represented by the Official Solicitor who instructed a Queen’s Counsel on her behalf. He did not seek an adjournment and did not oppose the application, agreeing that the proposed delivery by caesarean section was in the best interests of the patient herself who risked uterine rupture with a natural vaginal birth. I agreed that the medical evidence was clear and, applying binding authority from the Court of Appeal concerning cases of this nature, as well as the express terms of the Mental Capacity Act 2005, made the orders and declarations that were sought.

Although I emphasised that the Court of Protection had no jurisdiction over the unborn baby, I offered advice to the local authority (which were not a party to or represented in the proceedings, or present at the hearing) that it would be heavy-handed to invite the police to take the baby following the birth using powers under section 46 of the Children Act 1989. Instead, following the birth there should be an application for an interim care order at the hearing of which the incapacitated mother could be represented by her litigation friend, the Official Solicitor.

A How Not to Guide on Teaching Children Internet Safety

She said X was the closest park to her house

This is genuinely a line in a YouTube video called “The Dangers of Social Media” that claims to teach parents how easy it is for a ‘paedophile’ to groom a teenage girl: by identifying the neighbourhood she lives in to 30 million viewers.

In fact, the video reveals identifying details of three teenage girls, including street views of their homes and their parents’ faces. Rather than giving any information to help parents actually teach their children how to navigate social media safely, the video invites us to participate in the public shaming of these girls. We are allowed to watch the parents shouting at the girls but not actually engaging in why these girls arranged to meet a stranger they met online. If the aim was to highlight their lack of skills in navigating the internet, a more pertinent question was why no one bothered to teach them any. Why isn’t the focus on the parents rather than the children?

There are so many issues with this video that it’s hard to know where to start. The language itself is incorrect – the term paedophile has a specific clinical definition. The vast majority of child rapists are normal men who make a choice to harm a child; they have no pre-existing psychological condition.

The video also reinforces the ‘stranger danger’ myth. Statistically, fathers form the majority of perpetrators of domestic violence – whether this is physical, emotional and sexual abuse of the children themselves or witnessing the abuse of their mothers. Fathers, brothers, cousins, grandfathers, uncles, and stepfathers are far more likely to sexually abuse a child than a stranger. If we focus on ‘stranger danger’, we ignore the majority of men, and most child sexual abusers are male, who are actually a danger to children. This isn’t to say we pretend that strangers never harm a child; rather that we need to understand risk and help children develop the skills to keep themselves safe. Pretending that the only person who is a child rapist is a creepy man in a trench coat puts them at risk.

Rather than going for scare tactics like those in the video -having parents dress up in skeleton masks and drag their kids into a van- we need to teach children the skills to negotiate a world where a large number are at risk of experiencing domestic and sexual violence and abuse. We can start by using the appropriate words for body parts like vulva and penis.

Children also need to be taught about consent starting as toddlers. One easy way to do this is with tickling. If a child squeals no, stop and ask them if they want you to continue tickling. Then keep asking them. Another way is by telling children that they don’t have to hug or kiss anyone anyone that they don’t want to. Granny might want a hug but a child shouldn’t feel pressured or obligated to do so. Doing this teaches children that they have the right to bodily integrity and that their boundaries should be respected.

Children need to learn the skills to negotiate social media, including online gaming safely. Banning social media until the age of 13, as Facebook does, and then expecting children to be safe online is simply ridiculous. How are children meant to differentiate between unsafe and safe adults when their parents have 900 ‘friends’ on Facebook? If we depend on ‘stranger danger’ myths, do these 900 adults then become safe because their parents ‘know’ them? Equally, we give children mixed messages if we tell them not to talk to strangers but allow them uncontrolled access to X-Box Live. How are children meant to recognise that the older boy from down the road is a child rapist or that the really cool guy on Minecraft is a safe person if we don’t give them the tools to do so.

More importantly, shaming is not an acceptable teaching technique. Publicly shaming your child will not encourage them to have open and honest dialogue with you. It teaches children that their parents are more interested in the performance of ‘safety’ than their actual safety. It makes it impossible for children to ask for help when being bullied at school, never mind when experiencing abuse by a family member or a stranger they’ve met online.

Parents, and schools, need to take more responsibility for helping children develop the skills to negotiate social media and gaming safely, but, as Lynn Schreiber, an expert in social media, says about the video:

Scaring parents will not protect children. Blaming victims will not protect children. This video also reduces the eSafety message to one (fairly rare) danger, while ignoring the far more commonly occurring issues of children viewing violent or sexual content, cyberbullying, going viral, reputation management, and public shaming. Our children are growing up with this technology and need to be taught how to use it in a positive and sensible way.

The average age a child views porn online is between the ages of 9 – 12. Many children experience online bullying and harassment. Others live with domestic and sexual violence and abuse within the home. These conversations on personal safety, online and off, are very difficult but that is why they are necessary. We need to teach children the skills to deal with unsafe people and navigate the real world. In our global economy, the Internet is the real world.

This is what child protection should start with: teaching children their emotions are valid, that they have the right to say no, and that is completely unethical and unfair to publicly shame them on social media.

 

Originally published in the Huffington Post on 02/8/15.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Everyday Victim Blaming on 17/8/15

Woman banned from breastfeeding due to tattoo

A judge, Matthew Myers, in Australia banned a mother from breastfeeding her 11 month old child due to concerns about her possibly contracting HIV or another blood born virus after getting a tattoo. Thankfully, the ban was overturned by an emergency Appeals Court decision, but the implications of such a decision on women’s bodily autonomy are incalculable.

The risks of transmission of HIV or other blood born viruses from a tattoo at a licensed tattoo parlour are minute. Women are far more likely to contract these viruses from a partner who has sex with other women whilst she is pregnant or breastfeeding. There will never be a call banning men from having sex (or raping) their pregnant or breastfeeding partners in case they pass on a blood born virus. Frankly, the biggest danger to a foetus or a breastfeeding infant is domestic violence perpetrated by the father. The criminal justice system consistently underestimates, minimises and ignores this evidence-based risk to infant and mother health.

Interestingly, all the media coverage I read on this judgment focused on the issue of breastfeeding but there is a much bigger problem than a judge who bans a mother from breastfeeding based on a tattoo. The reason behind the ban was the fact that the mother had been diagnosed with postnatal depression and the judge felt this negated her ability to mother. The judge was looking for an excuse to interfere with mothering. Myers made the suggestion of a ban during a custody hearing. He couldn’t use the mother’s mental health to ban breastfeeding so he used the tattoo instead.

This was a considered attack on a woman’ ability to mother her child using every excuse possible to break the bond with the child. It’s pretty clear this judge believes fathers’ ‘rights’ to own their children supersedes the rights of the child and the mother. A judge who goes out of his way to research the minute risks of breastfeeding to prevent a mother from feeding her child is not someone who should be allowed to proceed over custodial agreements. This judgment had nothing to do with the child’s health and everything to do with the judge’s prejudiced beliefs about mothers with postnatal depression.

My Life with Fibromyalgia

I woke up one morning and my leg didn’t work. I stood up then fell over.

I was 14 years old and I couldn’t stand up by myself. My leg didn’t hurt. It just wouldn’t bear my weight. I was living with my father at the time and had to call my mother to come and collect me. We spent the morning at the hospital . In between the x-rays and blood tests, I got to have a conversation with an utterly bemused police officer who was trying to interview some teenagers who had been in a car accident. Trying to convince him he was in the wrong room helped pass the time at least.

In the end, I was told I had had the flu and that the virus had attacked the liquid in my hip socket resulting in the bones grinding against each other causing permanent damage. I don’t remember having the flu, just a runny nose, however the blood tests showed influenza so influenza it was. I only stayed on crutches a few days. I should have stayed on them for a few months to let my hip heal, but when you’re the class victim of bullying an imaginary disease doesn’t exactly improve your street cred.

Whether or not this is when I developed fibromyalgia is open to debate. Some medical professionals say yes and others say no emphatically, my favourite doctor takes a “who the fuck knows” approach to it. I did remain asymptomatic for about a decade after. When I got sick, my body took longer than others to heal  – a frequent indicator of fibromyalgia – something that did not make me popular with teachers. And, Mr Stewart, I do still remember you insinuating I was faking illness to the rest of the kids in the class. That really helped with the bullying issue.

I was relatively healthy though. I had my first daughter when I was 19 and managed to get honours in two undergraduate degrees and a masters degree as a single parent. It wasn’t until I moved to Edinburgh to do a PhD that the symptoms  got worse. My right leg collapsed again and I struggled to walk. I was sent to a neurologist and an arthritis specialist. For over a year, I was treated as though I had arthritis and used crutches or a cane to walk. This is the exact opposite of the treatment recommended for fibromyalgia. I gained weight because I couldn’t walk. I failed my PhD because I couldn’t work: I was exhausted all the time and I started losing words.

Then I got pregnant. Pregnancy and fibromyalgia are not the best of buddies. My asthma resulted in hospitalisation. I had constant nausea and migraines. These culminated in post-natal depression which went undiagnosed for years. My baby was not a sleeper making the exhaustion and depression a whirlwind of hideousness. I was so sick for so many years that I have lost huge chunks of time.

On the positive side, I haven’t had real trouble with my right hip for years. I can predict the weather depending on how stiff it is but I can walk. My body has compensated in other areas: migraines at the base of my neck, excruciating pain in my left shoulder, pain in my right arm and elbow, migraines in my right eye. I also have fibro fog, aphasia, anxiety, depression, inability to control my body temperature, and sleep deprivation. Fibro fog effects my short-term memory, my language skills (hence the typos), and ability to communicate. I have huge pauses in my sentences and sometimes I forget what I was actually trying to say.

These are the medications I’m on for good days:

  • multivitamin
  • Vitamin D
  • B12
  • B6
  • iron fortified water supplement
  • amitriptyline
  • citalopram
  • paracetemol
  • soluble aspirin
  • temazepam

On the bad days nothing works.

I’ve had fibromyalgia since I was 14 years old. I lived most of my life with a disease that no one understands the causes of or how to treat it successfully – never mind cure it. I live everyday with exhaustion, anxiety, depression, and extreme physical pain.

And, I’m one of the luckier women diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Most women have it much worse than I do.

This is my lovely friend Cath’s experience of fibro. I also wrote about feminist mothering whilst living with fibromyalgia.

Feminist Mothering with Fibromyalgia

I have fibromyalgia. I rarely admit to having it in public. If people ask why I look exhausted or am limping or struggling to use words, I say I have migraines. People have sympathy for migraines. They know it means extreme pain and sensitivities. When you say, “I have fibromyalgia” the response wavers between “I have a sore knee too” or “I’ve heard of that. My third-cousin twice-removed, next-door neighbour’s parakeet’s beautician has it and they got to go on disability for life.” Neither response makes it possible to explain what fibromyalgia does to your body.

Fibromyalgia has been called the “aggravating everything disorder.” I cannot control my body temperature. It doesn’t matter what the weather is like outside, my body runs on its own internal thermostat which is, inevitably, wrong.  I’m the one in the school playground in a t-shirt in the middle of winter and a hoodie on the hottest day of the year. I am also light sensitive, which means I’m also the one in sunglasses in the rain. My biggest ‘aggravator’ trigger is noise. When it is bad, the noise is so over-whelming that I can’t differentiate sound. Everything is extreme. I wear headphones to drown the noise out.

My immune system goes on strike regularly and a mild runny nose can result in my being in bed for a week. The last time I had the flu, it took nearly 6 months to recover properly. I get every bug going and, sometimes, it feels like I am always sick. We won’t discuss the side effects of the irritable bowel syndrome that co-exists with fibromyalgia.

A Facebook meme a few months ago made it clear: “my pain is not like your pain”. I have pain everyday – sometimes it’s manageable with painkillers and heat pads and sometimes its not. Sometimes I can’t turn my head because the muscles have seized. On more than one occasion the pain at the base of my skull has been so severe that piercing the back of my neck with a knitting needle didn’t seem like too bad an idea.

I’ve been really open about how hard it is as someone who loves writing to be unable to put my thoughts out coherently: that what ends up on the paper isn’t what was in my head because of the way the fibromyalgia has effected the ability of my brain to communicate clearly. It’s also affected my ability to speak since I lose words and have huge pauses in between words (that I don’t realise are happening). I also find it difficult to process what is being said to me when tired: I know people are talking but I can’t hear the actual words and, even when I can hear some of the words, my brain can’t actually process the message. When it’s this bad, the only thing I can do is nap. This isn’t exactly conducive to being a writer.

It is the fatigue that is the worst symptom. Sleep deprivation is classed as a form of torture for a reason. I am often in a severe state of exhaustion. I can’t sleep so the pain increases and because of the severity of the pain, I can’t sleep. So, I have depression as well. The depression and severe pain require long-term medications, which result in weight gain. Weight gain makes it harder to exercise and the circle continues.

Obviously this pain and exhaustion impact on my daily life, but it is my mothering where it impacts the most. Living with fibromyalgia makes mothering nearly impossible. I can cope on school days when the pain is in a ‘good’ phase because I can nap during the day. Weekends are more difficult. I cannot manage the day without a nap that means I have to plan my time with my daughter around my sleep schedule. It is even worse when the pain is severe or I have a cold.

I have two daughters. My eldest was 9 nine before I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I used to take her to castles, the zoo, and to the beach all the time. We would walk for miles in the woods, scramble up hills, and go camping. With my youngest daughter, walking three blocks to school can result in a four-hour nap. Camping outside is a no-go since tense muscles and pain don’t respond well to sleeping on the ground – and this is without dealing with the issue of my inability to control my body temperature.

How do you explain to a young child that the reason you can’t listen to their story is because the distortion in your ears is so intense that you can’t actually hear their words? Or, that the much promised trip to the zoo is impossible as you can’t walk?

The guilt is immense.

The guilt is not improved by media constructions of the “good mother”. How many news articles are written about children watching too much television or spending too much time on an iPad? Television fetes mothers who bake cupcakes, run marathons, and volunteer for the PTA. When they only thing you are capable of on a bad day is making a packed lunch, the myth of the SuperMom feels like an extra massive kick in the teeth. To be a mother with fibromyalgia is to be a failure.

Today is Fibromyalgia Awareness Day and I’m having a relatively good day. I have time for a nap before collecting my daughter from school and I managed to get some work done. I’ve balanced the need to pay my rent with caring for my child. Most days aren’t this good and, even if they were, it wouldn’t change the stigma of being a disabled mother. Or, erase the guilt for not being a great mother.

In child protection, the term ‘good enough mothering’ is used to describe women with multiple support needs who have children – whether these needs involve substance use, alcohol dependency, mental illness or trauma. This is what mothering with fibromyalgia is: good enough mothering. It’s just not that easy to remember this when faced with a disappointed child who only wanted to visit the zoo.