Sunday, 14 October 2018

What will it take?

My LittleBear loves football. He really, really loves football. He watches Match of the Day religiously on Sunday mornings. He collects Match Attax cards. He plays football at every possible break time at school. He coerces me and BigBear into playing football in the garden whenever he can, come rain or shine. He has been as happy as a pig in poo at being able to train with the local Under-7s team. Even the fact that the team is already full and that this is "only" training, pending a new team being formed at Christmas, is not enough to stop him being overjoyed at being able to play.

So he was very pleased with himself that the U7 coach sent me a message earlier this week, asking if LittleBear would like to come to an extra mid-week training session for "some of my boys". There's nothing he enjoys quite as much as someone showing signs of thinking he's good at football.

Wednesday evening rolled around, and I duly girded my loins and braved the horrific rush-hour traffic to battle our way to the other side of town for said extra training. As we got closer, LittleBear got quieter. As we pulled into the carpark he started asking where we had to go, and whether this was the right place, and how did I know. I assured him that Coach has told me where to go, and that we'd just ask someone the way to the football pitch. LittleBear's feet dragged and he didn't want to hold my hand to cross the carpark.

"What if it's not this way?"

"It's fine... look, it says Reception there, so we'll go in there, and there'll be a front desk and someone who knows everything and it'll be fine."

"But it's a school, and it's not our school, and we're not just allowed to walk in."

"It's a sports hall. Like the sports hall at LocalSchool, where we go for parties and things. Everyone's allowed in, and you ask where to go inside."

And, fortunately, Mummy was right, and (admittedly not actually at the front desk, but nearby) we found a nice young man in a polo shirt with a sports centre logo on it, and we asked him the way, and he pointed it out to us, and there we were, beside an astroturf pitch, at the edge of which was gathered a gaggle of other six and seven year olds, waiting for a hockey match to end. So far so good.

Not a sign of any six or seven year olds that we actually knew. Or our coach, A. LittleBear buried his face in my legs and wanted to be cuddled. I crouched down to talk to him, and he simply clambered onto my bent legs to sit on a lap that was barely there.

"What's wrong sweetheart?" I whispered.

"I'm worried."

"What are you worried about? Are you worried we're in the wrong place? Or that we're not supposed to be here? Or that we're going to get told off?"

"The last one..."

So I resorted to one of my new tactics, used because I'm not very good at approaching people either. And I had a child sitting on a non-existent lap who was making it hard to move. In a slightly-louder-than-was-completely-necessary voice, that I hoped would invite eavesdropping, I said, "Don't worry LittleBear, we'll wait here until A arrives, and then you can join in."

My stratagem worked. The burly man in charge of the gaggle of boys approached me, "Are you with A? He's stuck in traffic and he'll be late. He's a rubbish driver, he's always late."

Slightly reassured, we were able to return to a vertical orientation and I began to get some blood back in my legs again.

The hockey match drew to a close, the girls left the pitch, and the gaggle ran onto the pitch, accompanied by BurlyMan. He beckoned for LittleBear to follow his gaggle, and I turned to give my boy a grin and a pat on the back as he trotted off. Instead I met a tear-streaked little face as my poppet stood irresolutely by the gate, shaking his head and clutching his hands together.

"I don't want to. I don't know anyone."

"It's OK my lovely, I'm not going to make you do anything. If you don't want to join in, that's OK. We can wait for A, and then you can join in if that's what you'd prefer. This is supposed to be fun, but if you don't want to, it's OK."

"I don't want to."

What else could I do? I have no intention of trying to force him to do something that clearly triggers terrible distress. And nor do I want to break his love of football.  So we stood for a few more minutes, having some extra cuddles, the tears mostly drying.

"I think I know that boy," LittleBear murmured, peering out of our cuddle and over my shoulder, back along the path leading to the pitch.

Finally, one of the other boys from our under-7 team arrived. Still no sign of A, but that suddenly didn't seem to matter, as we walked LittleBear and ThatBoy over to the gaggle and they joined in without a backward glance. A did eventually arrive, with another two boys, and in the resulting 7-aside match, LittleBear scored a goal, and became the subject of an argument between BurlyMan and A over who would get to sign him to their team.

As we drove home, an exhausted voice piped up from the back seat, "I had a really good time today Mummy."

I am trying to use this as an opportunity to help LittleBear learn that being worried doesn't have to be a reason to give up; that sometimes we can all be afraid but we can overcome our fear and do something fantastic once we've got past it; that he should try to remember this day, to remember that he was scared, but he persisted, and he had a really good time.

I'm not sure that he really understood or believed me. I'm not sure that my words are ever going to be enough to overcome his innate anxiety. I'm not sure I have any right to be surprised, as I see my own carefully-masked feelings in his open and raw experiences of life.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Everyday sexism #3

This is getting to be a habit.

Maybe I'm having a midlife-crisis. Maybe all this rage I'm feeling is normal. Maybe I've just had forty-four years of living with sexist rubbish and I've finally reached breaking point. But, reached breaking point I have. I am occasionally lying awake, seething about the world I find myself living in. That can't be right.

Recently the daughter of one of my colleagues set off for her first term at university, leaving my colleague and his wife with an empty nest (their eldest, a son, already being in his final year at university). Wife is a bit of a worrier, which position I have a great deal of sympathy with, and I rashly expressed the opinion that I felt she would probably worry more about Daughter leaving home than she had done about Son.

"Why would she worry more about Daughter?" I was asked. "Isn't that sexist of you?"

I let go with both barrels. I reminded my (all male) colleagues that they didn't have the faintest inkling of an idea of what it's like to be a young woman, let alone a young woman away from home for the first time, faced with large numbers of (probably inebriated) young men. In fact, I leapt up and drew a line down the white board and presented them with Jackson Katz's challenge,
What steps do you guys take, on a daily basis, to prevent yourselves from being sexually assaulted?
Unsurprisingly, and in keeping with the young men who were originally asked this question, they had no ready answers. And I then began to enumerate the ways that I, and other women, avoid being assaulted on a daily basis. The ways in which avoiding being assaulted is something we actively and regularly think about. I pointed out that one of my friends, in our quiet little village, was not going to come to the pub with me because she was too afraid to walk down the unlit lane from her house on her own. I cycled to her house and we walked together. At the end of the evening I took a small tour of the village to escort first her, and then another friend home, before cycling home myself.

Yes, we are afraid to walk home alone at night. And no, this is not right.

This experience was followed swiftly by reading about a thought-experiment proposed on Twitter: if you are a woman, how would your behaviour change if men had a 9pm curfew?

There were two tragedies in the responses to this:

The first was the pitiful nature of the ways in which women's lives would change. We would go out running after dark. We would go for more walks. We would feel safe putting headphones on after dark. We would do our grocery shopping in the evenings when it's quieter at the shops. We would go to the cinema without worrying what time the film finished and whether the carpark was properly lit. Tiny freedoms that most men simply wouldn't think twice about. Tiny freedoms that in fact it turns out many men don't think about, and didn't realise women were living without.

The second tragedy was the number of angry men replying about the outrage of threatening men with a curfew, and that women were just being hysterical by being afraid, and that a generalised fear of men was just as bad as racism. Seriously. Women are afraid to go out at night, and the retort is to ascribe our behaviour to an ancient Greek idea of our uterus being so out of control that it wanders around our body causing widespread derangement. Way to go angry men. Missing the point quite spectacularly, and decrying even the the faintest inkling of a suggestion of a thought of playing with the hypothetical idea of any restrictions to male freedoms, while attacking women whose lives and freedoms are already restricted every single day.

And finally, I was reminded by this thought experiment of my own school days, when in our early teens, we had Personal and Health Education lessons (or whatever they were called then) at my terribly nice, all-girls, private school. We were told all about periods, and sex, and drugs (but not rock 'n' roll). We were given rape alarms. We were told how to hold our keys so the blade pointed between our knuckles, ready to gouge the eyes of any attacker. We were told how to make sure we didn't look appealing enough to rape. We were told how, if attacked from behind, to scrape a heel down the attacker's shin and grind it into his foot bones. We were told never to cry "Rape!" or "Help!" if we were being attacked, but instead to yell "Fire!" because the world of self-interest we were being raised in could not be expected to respond to attacks upon our person, but would rouse itself if there were a wider threat.

And over the past few days, as these memories have flooded back, I have been asking myself how my teachers could live with having to teach impressionable teenage girls how not to get raped? Why were they not marching through the streets demanding equality? Why were they not breaking down the doors of the nearby boys' school to demand the boys were taught how not to rape? Why were they not teaching us to burn society down and start again*? How could they be complicit in making us believe that rape was our fault if we didn't avoid it? Where was their outrage? Where was their fire? Where was their fury?

Maybe it was in the same place as mine, simmering along, with no outlet. I am filled with rage, with fire, with fury, and yet it is an impotent rage, because the truth is - what can I change? How can I defeat the sense of entitlement that some men have over women and their bodies? What can I honestly do? Maybe all I can do is issue a call to arms, shamelessly stolen from the film 'Network',
 All I know is that first you've got to get mad. You've got to say: 'I'm a human being, god-dammit! My life has value!' So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell: I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE! I want you to get up right now. Sit up. Go to your windows. Open them and stick your head out and yell - 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not gonna take this anymore!' Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!...You've got to say, I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE! 

* I fear the answer to this may lie in two places. Firstly, undoubtedly our teachers were teaching us as they had themselves been taught. They too had been raised to assume that it was up to women to avoid rape. And no doubt they wanted to keep us safe from harm. The second reason may have more to do with the demographic of the school. I cannot imagine the plethora of Establishment barristers, doctors and bankers represented amongst the parents being delighted to have their daughters turned into societal fire-starters. You may think I malign them, but this was a school at which I was branded a communist for supporting the Liberal Party, so it was not a place where breaking free of the shackles of a conservative society was encouraged. I'm delighted to say that many of my friends have grown up to be perfectly normal members of society.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Everyday sexism #2

Because I'm feeling militant (still), and because BrotherBear almost decided to wind me up last night, I thought I'd take the opportunity to recount another incident of everyday sexism that has irked me. Again, it wasn't a huge affront; I wasn't physically assaulted; my life's course has not been altered. But it was yet another tedious case of male entitlement. Male presumption. Male domination. It was a brief encounter with some boys from one of the local schools. Initially I laughed it off, with the currently-popular phrase, "boys will be boys" echoing through my mind. And then I thought, "No, damn it!" There is no reason to excuse bad behaviour on the grounds that boys somehow can't help being sexist pigs. They can. They should.

I refuse to be party to the attitude that boys somehow get a free-pass on shitty behaviour just because they're young. I refuse to accept that "we all make mistakes when we're young" is enough to excuse young men from sexual assaults. I refuse to sit down and shut up while my body is considered an open target for comment by any man who feels so inclined. 

Rather than explaining in yet another way what this particular occurrence was, I shall instead share the letter I sent to the boys' school....

Dear School Office,

Yesterday afternoon I had a rather disappointing interaction with three of your boys. I couldn't tell you who they were, or even how old they were, though I would guess about 12-13 years old. They were wearing their school uniform, hence my decision to contact you. It was not a serious incident, and I don't want you to think I am seeking any kind of punishment to be meted out, but I would like you to be aware of the event.

I was cycling home with my six-year old from the Junior School site, when three of your boys, who were standing on the path with their bikes and scooters, called out to me...

"Can I ask you a question?"

Filled with the milk of human kindness, naturally I stopped and was willing to answer whatever question they might have had. I was met with silence. I gently prompted them to go ahead, only to have more silence. Eventually, my would-be questioner announced he couldn't remember. "That's unusual," I replied, and continued on my way, keen to catch up with my own son before he reached the road. 

As I cycled off, the non-questioner then shouted after me, "You're fit!"

Not, as I said, a serious incident. It was probably a dare, and they probably thought they were being brave and funny and clever. And, as they were young, and I am old and wise(!) I didn't feel threatened. BUT, after a lifetime of living in a world where women are routinely whistled at, leered at, shouted at and judged by men, I had hoped the next generation had moved beyond that behaviour. It's just not OK for men to shout at women in the street. And when those boys are 16 or 17 instead of 12 or 13, what seems brave and funny to them now will be threatening and unpleasant for the girl or woman that they choose as their target.

I don't want anyone to make a huge issue of this, but I would like you to be aware that some of your students are behaving this way, and that perhaps a gentle reminder of what is acceptable and what is not would be in order.

best regards


I'm sure there are those among you who are now thinking, "Huh? That was it?" You are perhaps wondering why I am so enraged by something so minor, and why I am mentioning sexual assault in the same breath as "You're fit!"

It's because it's all part and parcel of the same attitude of entitlement; the same entrenched view that women are objects, present only for the titillation and gratification of men. And yes, I know, not all men. Don't bother to tell me that. The problem isn't all men. The problem is there are enough men. Enough men who don't see that wolf-whistling at a woman out running is sexual harrassment; enough men who don't accept that once you start viewing women as objects you open the door to treating them as objects; who don't understand that we're sick of it, we've had enough, we are not empty vessels for their fantasies, inadequacies or rage to be projected onto.

BigBear (and this is no insult to BigBear) commented to me that, "It's the same thing that happened when we were young. Nothing's changed."

And therein lies the problem. Nothing's changed. Isn't it about time something did?

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Everyday sexism #1

I think I may be becoming more rabid as I get older. Or perhaps militant is the right word. I find myself increasingly intolerant of minor incidences of sexism that in the past would have glided past me without raising more than a rueful shrug. I was not someone who felt the need to change "human" to "hu-woman" or any other such mutilation of the language. I'm still not. And yet, I find myself now noticing more frequently the entrenched way in which the world is male-by-default. And I find myself less willing to sit back and say nothing.

I have been interviewing people recently for a job as a physicist (and the degree to which I don't enjoy interviewing could be the subject of another post). In the end, we narrowed it down to four candidates, chose one, and I had to write and say, "thanks, but no thanks" to the remaining three. Not something I enjoyed doing either. And since they were all good candidates, I tried to make sure that they knew that. Here's a snippet of what I wrote to one candidate...

Unfortunately, I regret to have to tell you that we are offering the position to another applicant. Part of the reason for the delay in giving you a proper reply has been that the final decision has been very difficult, as all the candidates offered different qualities. We were all impressed with your intelligence and abilities, and there was no question that you would have been able to do the job, so please don't feel that this is a reflection on your skills.

Which I didn't think was particularly controversial. And the candidate in question, who I admit is not a native English-speaker, replied:

Thank you for the quick reply even though it wasn't what I was hoping to hear. My compliments to the other gentleman.

The other gentleman.



I never said the successful candidate was a man.

And yet he assumed.

No, it's not a big deal. No, it's not the end of the world. Yes, statistically, most physicists are men, so it wasn't a completely unreasonable assumption. But it was an assumption that he didn't need to make. There are plenty of gender-neutral terms he could have used, as I did. But no. Physicists are men. It's just another brick in the wall of male-by-default. And I'm sick of it. I'm sick of the constant assumptions and presumptions. I'm sick of a world where being me needs an explanation.

Thursday, 20 September 2018


LittleBear has, as I believe I have commented, certain foibles. He doesn't like stories, or films, or uncertainty, or peril. His teachers have observed his tendency to retreat into himself, or even put his hands over his ears and sit shaking his head to block out a film if they show them such a thing at school as a treat. My poor poppet.

This term, one of their topics is "Twisted Tales", in which they consider variations on traditional fairy tales - such as Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig. So far, LittleBear has been enjoying it. He even watched, and enjoyed a puppet show. So far, so good.

On my way into school today to collect him, the Headmaster was standing on the gate. He gazed at me earnestly and asked, "Are you OK?" Now, I know I'm pretty tired at the moment, but I began to wonder if there was something more obviously amiss with me. Did I really look that bad? And then... it got worse....

"I had to take Little Bear aside to have a word with him today,"

Oh dear. Oh no. What has my Bear done?

"It was about the Wolf."

At this point, the Headmaster had temporarily lost me, because I'd forgotten a conversation I'd had with LittleBear's teacher last week. I told you I was tired.

"I let him know that it was going to be me dressed as the Wolf. I know he's sensitive, and I didn't want him to be scared, so I told him beforehand that it would be me, and gave him a wink when I came in."

My heart melted.

In a school of three hundred children, the Headmaster knows and cares that one small boy is easily worried, and he made sure to let him know who would be inside the costume of the Big Bad Wolf so that he wouldn't be scared. It's hard to imagine a lovelier environment for my baby to be at school.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Sleep OR food

I have written, with perhaps tedious monotony, about the importance of never, ever mentioning that your child sleeps well. It is a maxim that applies almost equally well to discussing any aspect of your darling snowflake's behaviour of which you are unaccountably proud. The moment that you inform someone that your child eats well, or is never car-sick, or loves going to their swimming lessons, or always undoes their shoes before taking them off*, you will be damned, because they will immediately start doing the opposite.

You can imagine, therefore, the trepidation with which I wrote about LittleBear's New Adventures In Food. You can understand also why I had remained utterly silent on the subject of sleep, because I had (at the time) nothing bad to say about a child who was going to bed at 8pm and remaining incommunicado until past 7am.

"But PhysicsBear!" I hear you cry, "Now you've really put the kibosh on things!"

Alas, no, my friends, for the kibosh has already been well and truly put.

In the past two weeks we have had nightmares, and night terrors, and bizarre fears of a "spooky thing in my bedroom". We have had too much light, and not enough light, and a strange need for Mummy to do something about the fact that a small boy is feeling a bit too warm in the middle of the night. We have barely managed a night without a crisis of some form or another.

Even my colleagues have started to comment on the fact that I look like death warmed up as I crawl to work. Because the real joy of being woken by my son at 1:30am is not the waking up; it's the lying awake for an hour or two (or three if I'm feeling really special) waiting to see if he calls out for me again. Because my brain loves me like that.

Meanwhile, despite my happy comments that LittleBear is trying new food, and despite the probability that this would immediately jinx things... he has, in fact, continued to try new food. He has happily eaten galettes au chou, his eyes have lit up with glee on discovering the joy of properly crisp pork crackling, he has demolished cheese and bacon pancakes. He has asked to try pesto, and gnocchi, and spring rolls. More excitingly, he has simply eaten some of the new experiments, without objection, even when he's said they're only "OK". I still can't quite get over how exciting this all is.

However, I now have a new Theory Of Children. 

In the past, I had happily accepted that some children sleep well, and some children eat unfussily, and for the most part it's outside your control. What I have gradually come to notice is that these two states are mutually exclusive. You can have sleep, or you can have food, but you can't have both. This has broadly been true across my friends - if there were any who had children who ate everything and slept well, they very sensibly kept quiet.

We currently have food, but we do not have sleep.

I've enjoyed the episode of eating things, but actually, in retrospect, if I had a choice, I'd choose sleep.

Are you listening LittleBear?

* Seriously, does any child do this?

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Plus ca change...

Well, this time, to my bemusement, plus ca change, plus ca change.

For various reasons, LittleBear's school's kitchen is out of commission for the next few weeks, and so he is having a packed lunch every day. But I was Firm Mummy, and informed him sternly that he would absolutely, definitely, and with no question, be returning to school lunches as soon as they were back on offer. And then, because I was tired, I started getting even more firm about trying new foods again and not leaving everything at school when lunches re-start.

I've tried a new approach lately, explaining to LittleBear that not liking new food is completely normal, and a perfectly safe way for a cave-man's brain to behave. New could be poisonous, and so is not to be trusted. But he's not a cave-man, and he has to keep trying food until the cave-man inside him is satisfied that it's not poisonous. So now, when he says he doesn't like something - frequently something he hasn't tried - I can simply tell him not to let the cave-man win. So far, it hasn't worked at all, but because there's nothing quite like banging one's head against a brick wall, I've stuck with it as my explanation in the hope that he might actually believe me.

Back to the old favourite through - insisting that LittleBear try some new things. We wrote a list together. Actually, we wrote three lists, titled "Good", "OK" and "New". I was pleasantly surprised by how many perfectly good meals there were in the "Good" column. And there were a handful of things in the "OK" column; things he hadn't actually spat out last time he tried them, or were made entirely of ingredients he already likes. And the "New" column included some variations on a theme that he might tolerate.

So, last night, as well as cooking his old favourite of pasta-and-vegetables-with-cheese, I provided a small ramekin of pasta with a smidgeon of passata and herbs, and a tranche of grated cheese. In previous times, this would have led to LittleBear ignoring the new food, or tasting a microscopic quantity, all the while tucking his head into his shoulders like a scared tortoise and heading towards tears. You can see why we don't try this often can't you? This time, however, he ate the entire pot and agreed that it was "OK" and that if he had no other choice, he'd certainly eat it. I nearly fell off my chair.

Almost overwhelmed by the novelty of LittleBear's approach, I was utterly unprepared for this evening. I offered Little Bear a choice of a couple of his old favourites for dinner - it had been the first day back at school after all. What did he do? He said, "Can I try a new thing from the list tonight?" And he promptly collected the list and we chose something from it. Pea and asparagus risotto. Not hugely different to that which has gone before on the surface, rice with vegetables being a definite favourite. But this was made with risotto rice, not long grain, and the rice was cooked in stock, and therefore the whole thing has a new flavour, and a new texture and other challenging and exciting things. LittleBear ate the whole bowlful. And said he loved it and wanted to have it again. And then he asked to try something new tomorrow as well.

I honestly don't know what's just happened.

I suspect I may wake up soon and discover it was all a dream.