Thursday, 25 July 2013

Exercising the boy

Hermaphrodite Mum
Three kids and a single mum

The summer holidays have begun. Sigh. I love having my children at home again, but it does take me a few days to transition into full-time earth mother with a dozen craft projects up her sleeve. We are only a few days in and I am already wondering how we will all survive the next six weeks together. Middle Child is careering around the house like a Cocker Spaniel in desperate need of a walk, while Quiet One hibernates in her bedroom.
Cocker Spaniel with flying ears
Middle Child needs daily exercise
and regular spells in the garden
© Zaretskaya |

If you could harness Middle Child's boy-energy in some way, our town would become carbon-neutral within a matter of months. Instead, he channels his vigor into disrupting his sisters and generally being a pest. Recent acts of torment include hiding Quiet One's pencil case in the bin, chucking her flip-flops into the neighbouring garden and 'autographing' her collection of pop CDs. Non-Walking Toddler is not safe either: just as she is contentedly communing with the Tomblibooshe delights in switching the channel over to CBBC's Splatalot.

Upstairs, Quiet One spends her days reading, sketching and doing her homework. She has even been known to empty the dishwasher of a morning and make her own bed. While Middle Child demands more TV time, more biscuits, more crisps, or a later bedtime (dream on, little man!), she habitually toes the line. Even NW Toddler has become remarkably low-maintenance as she sits watching the antics of her older siblings with curiosity bordering on obsessional devotion.

Last weekend, I read a newspaper article about how girls should learn to be more disruptive and challenge authority. According to Dr Kevin Stannard of the Girl's Day School Trust, by encouraging girls to be obedient and conscientious, we could put them at a disadvantage in later life. 

"Are we doing girls a long-term disservice by defining their performance in terms of their compliance to expectations of behaviour and work that reflect, reinforce and reproduce differences between the genders," he asks.

He acknowledges that girls outperform boys at school (a structured environment that encourages a balanced approach to debate and essay-writing) but says that they lose ground later on, during university interviews, for example, where they are required to be more combative and risk-taking.

I can see his point (I am a girl after all), but I couldn't help feeling rather provoked. In my mind, it isn't the girls that are at fault, or even the way we teach, but our culture and the personality traits we are told to celebrate. 'Male' qualities, such as competitiveness and risk-taking, are often lauded at the expense of more 'female' attributes, such as empathy, co-operation and compliance to the rules. Put quite simply, society would fail to function if there weren't a few female types around to oil the wheels. We may be attracted to charismatic leaders, challenging the status quo, but who actually does the work?

While I don't wish to repress Middle Child's zest for life, I have no qualms about teaching him to live by the rules. Over the last few days, he has cleaned the butter off his sister's pencil case, retrieved her flip-flops and missed a few of episodes of Splatalot. I have also signed him up for tennis camp and forest school. Until I can sell his energy back to the national grid, he will be burning it up with all the other reckless types. Meanwhile, I will be applying for my diploma in personality management.

Hermaphrodite Mum is a fictional creation of Emma Clark Lam
Previous posts by Hermaphrodite Mum:


Thursday, 18 July 2013

River dancing

Last weekend I found myself in an airless marquee watching my daughter perform with the Henley Festival Youth Orchestra. As I sat perspiring, alongside rows of other dutiful and sweaty parents, I realised that I had become part of a community. To add to the pathos of the moment, the orchestra broke into Gustav Holst's accompaniment to I Vow to Thee, My Country, a tune that never fails to stir, in my case, a latent kind of patriotism.

Henley Festival of music
Boats gliding past a floating stage...
The last time I felt so embedded in a community was during my school days, when singing allegiance to one's country was a common event during morning assembly. My twenties, living in London and New York, were the wilderness years: I preferred my independence to dwelling within a cohesive, social group. 

Now I have my own family, however, I have gravitated back to community living. It makes sense on so many levels, practical and otherwise: we share lifts, look after each other's children, monitor our neighbourhood and provide support in times of emotional upheaval. To some extent, we are motivated by self-interest, but we are also united by a sense of fellowship and shared values.

Community spirit in Western cultures is said to be dwindling. Populations are more transient and families more fractured, while communal institutions, like the church, have lost their influence. Certainly my anthropologist neighbour, who often visits Tanzania, remains impressed by the Maasai's strong sense of community, in spite of their poverty and lack of resources.

Here in Henley, our community is undoubtedly based upon privilege and wealth, but also a shared sense of pride in the place we live. In the space of a fortnight, our small, picturesque town, nestled in a bend of the Thames, has hosted the famous rowing Regatta and the Henley Festival of music. These two events attract visitors from around the world, but also bring the local community together in a bonanza of boating, picnics and dancing. 

Saturday night at the Henley Festival this year felt like a cocktail party of Gatsby-esque proportions. Friends mingled on the grassy banks of the Thames, against a backdrop of music, sculpture and roving street performers. Beyond this, boats bedecked in fairy lights glided past a floating stage. It was a night of hedonism for sure, but perhaps having fun together is the secret ingredient of any thriving community. In days gone by, carousing townsfolk danced around the Maypole. In Henley last weekend, we boogied with DJ Ben Zaven Crane.

My daughter's youth orchestra is funded by the Henley Festival Trust, a not-for-profit organisation committed to inspiring young people and supporting those with special needs. It is a nice example of an institution that promotes social projects in a host of different ways. A community has to stand on many legs and artistic expression is not the least of them. So, where once I sang for my country, now I vow to thee, my community, entire and whole and perfect down by the river on a summer's evening.


"I absolutely loved this book and will miss the family that I became so involved with over the past few days. I hope Emma has another book in the pipeline!" -- Annabel at CountryWives 18 July, 2013

I welcome reviews of my book on Amazon!

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Pink wellies and cigarettes

"I didn't know ladies could smoke!" my young son once exclaimed sotto voce after watching a (female) friend light up in the garden. Until that moment, he had only ever seen his grandfather smoking a pipe. His reaction made an impression on me: I realised that children form some pretty fixed ideas about gender from an early age. This was about the same time that he started objecting to wearing his sister's hand-me-down wellies.

Such startling observations are not infrequent in our household. After my sister-in-law finished her maternity leave and went back to her job in social work, my daughter remarked, "Gosh I didn't know mummies worked!" It was a galling moment. How had I managed to bring up my daughter in such ignorance? There followed a long lecture on a woman's right to work. 

A pair of pink wellington boots
Why can't boys wear them?! 
© Brookebecker |
A few weeks ago I attended a session on 'new feminism' at the Britmums Live conference. It was comforting to hear The Sunday Times journalist Eleanor Mills confessing that her own daughter had asked if a woman could lead a political party. "I feel we are stuck and in some ways we are going backwards," says Ms Mills, whose aunt, Barbara Mills, held the post of Director of Public Prosecutions in the 1990s. Ms Mills worries that her generation has become complacent about feminism and the hard-fought battles for sexual equality.

While I was researching my current novel, I came across a 1970s group of women who named themselves the Pussy Cat Club. This was a group of housewives who didn't agree with sexual equality and believed a woman's role was to serve and pamper her husband. One member told a BBC reporter: "[Women] want to be equal with the men, well it's not meant to be. They are completely different, their emotions and the way they're built." 

It was a striking (and nauseating) reminder of how far we have come since the birth of the Equal Pay Act in 1970. But, although attitudes have changed and women have learned to value themselves on par with men, there are still problems to overcome. As Kat Banyard of the UK Feminista movement puts it: "Scratch society and you expose vast inequalities."

In a recent blog, my friend Cathy Newman, presenter of Channel 4 News, reveals how she once challenged a senior executive at the Financial Times (where she worked previously) over pay. Cathy had discovered that a more junior, male reporter was being paid £10,000 more than her. The executive told her, "You don't have a mortgage or a family, what do you need the money for?" 

The nub of the problem, I believe, is women like me who choose to put their careers on hold to bring up their children. I feel passionately that choice should be enshrined in any feminist tract, but I also acknowledge that women dropping out of the workforce reduces our visibility and the pool of high achievers who reach the top.

There are no easy answers, but I do resent the government's campaigns to get new mothers back into work. Such policies devalue the choices made by stay-at-home mums and their commitment to looking after children full-time. Instead, more effort should be put into welcoming these women back into professional life once their children are older and less dependent. I know an army of mothers who would love to work flexibly during school term times, and yet this potential labour force remains overlooked and unaccommodated.

Ms Mills believes now is the "real time to rehabilitate feminism". I couldn't agree more - the fight goes on and each of us is responsible for shaping our society and weeding out prejudice. How we apply these principles to the thorny realities of life is challenging, but we can start by opening our children's minds to equality and choice. Pink wellies and cigarettes might not be the solution, but I hope my daughter and son will learn that gender should never be a barrier to anything.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Why can't I say no?

I took to my bed this week. After 10 days of frenetic activity, my body went on strike. Exhaustion had set in, along with a temperature. There was no way out: I had to retreat to the cool, white space under my duvet. And so I lay there, racked by the knowledge of everything I needed to do - and couldn't do. Even as I popped some painkillers, I was calculating how long it would take before analgesia set in so that I could answer a few emails in bed and possibly put on another load of washing.
Clock and pills - sick of modern life and time pressures?
© Captainzz |

This is modern life for the middle-aged. Somehow we can never find the pause button. Whether we go out to work or 'stay' at home, we fill our lives to the nth degree. Was it always like this? Did the ladies of Jane Austen's era drill their needles through their embroidery, scribble a few letters before luncheon and then gallop down to the Assembly Rooms to gossip about the Dowager so-and-so? Possibly, although I suspect our time-pressed routines have more to do with the advent of technology and modern child-rearing, than any innate need to rush through life.

Ironically technology was once heralded as a panacea to reduce hard work and long hours. Back in the 1950s, Winston Churchill believed that the proliferation of machines would eventually "give the working man what he's never had - four days' work and then three days' fun". Quite clearly Mr Churchill never anticipated the power and stealth of the smartphone. As well as fostering a culture of 24/7 working, the small screen also feeds our addiction to online gaming and social media. In any spare moment, my husband is either concocting his next move on Wordfeud or checking stocks / emails on his Blackberry.

Add children to the blend and you're sunk. Running small lives, as well as your own, pretty much mops up any spare time. Someone wise once told me there are three main elements in life, but if you want to stay sane, you can only accomplish two of them well:

  • Work
  • Family / children
  • Social life

I persist in the belief that I can just about manage all three to varying degrees, until my body gives out and shouts STOP! 

Apart from physical collapse, there is one other solution: taking a holiday. For a few weeks a year, we cease working and can (if we choose) turn off the social flow. For once, we actually allow ourselves time to relax and reflect more deeply on life. Mr Churchill's three days of fun might never come, but thank God (or the state) for holiday entitlement. It may yet save us from mental overload.

Right! All I need to do now is squeeze in a visit to the gym, organise picnic food for the weekend, dash out another 500 words of my novel, do some ironing and then trot down to my kids' school for the summer production this afternoon... Someone please pass me the Nurofen!

"The key to any good family saga is to create characters the reader will care about, family secrets that will be solved eventually but aren't immediately obvious, and a setting that makes interesting reading. This novel scores on all points..." 
- 5* Amazon review, June 2013

My book, A Sister for Margot, is now only £1.99 / $2.99 on Amazon!