Saturday, December 28, 2013

Worst nightmare

We were his worst nightmare.

"We're going to forget how to make conversation," he said as he bore witness to my four children each deeply engaged with an electronic device.

"Oh, it's not so bad," I said, wishing he'd come past 20 minutes earlier when my little boys were playing their version of chess.

"I was watching these teenagers," he continued. "A girl asked a boy a question. He got up, walked behind a tree, and texted her the answer."

I laughed and told him that when my teenager's friends visit they spend most of their time jumping on the trampoline. And talking. He didn't hear me. At all.

He was actually quite lovely, not in the least bit cranky but rather mystified by the current state of the world; but if listening is a key part of conversation I have to wonder exactly who had lost the art of it in this exchange.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My "best" books of 2013

I have been avoiding writing this post as it feels unfair. I enjoyed most of the 52 plus books I read this year so how do I decide which are "the best"?

The truth is I can't, and I could easily add another 10 books to this list and continue to agonise over my choices right up until NYE. Instead, I am going to commit to this list of 10 plus a few more great books from 2013:

Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings

Liz Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

Jo Baker, Longbourn

Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs

Romy Ash, Floundering

Jayne Anne Phillips, Quiet Dell

Jennifer du Bois, Cartwheel

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland

Hannah Kent, Burial Rites

Alice McDermott, Someone

Kate Atkinson, Life After Life

AM Homes, May We Be Forgiven

Elana Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend

Short stories

Rebecca Lee, Bobcat and other stories


Christa Parravani, Her

Dani Shapiro, Still Writing: The perils and pleasures of a creative life

All of the above were published in 2013. Three of my very favourite 2013 reads were published in 2012:

Adam Haslett, The Orphan Master's Son

Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins

Maria Semple, Where'd you go, Bernadette?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

#52books52weeks 2013

With just over two weeks left of 2013, I am really pleased to be able to say that I have met my #52books52weeks reading challenge. (I will update this post on December 31st).

It has definitely pushed me to read more than I normally would and I enjoyed it so much that I plan to do it again in 2014.

The List (to date)

56/52 Lynn Crosbie, Liar
55/52 Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland
54/52 NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names
53/52 Rebecca Lee, Bobcat and other stories
52/52 Caroline Leavitt, Is This Tomorrow
51/52 Alice McDermott, Someone
50/52 Richard Ford, Canada
49/52 Jo Baker, Longbourn
48/52 Ursula Duborsarsky, The Golden Day
47/52 Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things
46/52 Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins
45/52 Dani Shapiro, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
44/52 Shane Jones, Light Boxes
43/52 Julian Barnes, Levels of Life
42/52 Susan Vreeland, Girl in Hyacinth Blue
41/52 Emma Chapman, The Good Wife
40/52 Fiona McFarlane, The Night Guest
39/52 Jayne Anne Phillips, Quiet Dell
38/52 Jennifer du Bois, Cartwheel
37/52 M L Steadman, The Light Between Oceans
36/52 Ira W. Lit, The Bus Kids: children's experiences with voluntary segregation
35/52 Diane Ravitch, Reign of Error
34/52 Tracy Chevalier, Girl with a Pearl Earring
33/52 Hannah Kent, Burial Rites
32/52 Khaled Hosseini, And the Mountains Echoed
31/52 Jean Thompson, The Year We Left Home
30/52 Curtis Sittenfeld, Sisterland
29/52 David Gilbert, & Sons
28/52 Jessica Lott, The Rest of Us
27/52 Amity Gaige, Schroder
26/52 Maggie Shipstead, Seating Arrangements
25/52 Paul Yoon, Once the Shore
24/52 A.S.A. Harrison, The Silent Wife
23/52 Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
22/52 Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin
21/52 Romy Ash, Floundering
20/52 Elana Ferranti, My Brilliant Friend
19/52 Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
18/52 Adam Haslett, The Orphan Master's Son
17/52 Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs
16/52 Ramona Ausubel, A Guide To Being Born
15/52 Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings
14/52 Virginia Wolff, Mrs Dalloway
13/52 AM Homes, May We Be Forgiven
12/52 Christa Parravani, Her
11/52 Maria Semple, Where'd you go Bernadette?
10/52 Ryan McIlvain, Elders
9/52 Elizabeth Strout, The Burgess Boys
8/52 Nadine Gordimer, No Time Like The Present
7/52 Junot Diaz, This Is How You Lose Her
6/52 Karen Russell, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
5/52 Paula McLain, The Paris Wife
4/52 Kathleen Jamie, Among Muslims: Meetings at the Frontiers of Pakistan
3/52 Stewart Nan, Emily Alone
2/52 Tessa Hadley, Married Love
1/52 Mary Gordon, The Love of My Youth

Now I am going to indulge in some stats from my year of reading (which is peculiarly heavy on 66%):
92% of my reads were fiction.
77% of books by women.
66% of reading digital (I have a nook), 33% paper.
66% by American authors.
66% by authors I have not read before.
66% published in 2013.
35% of books were first books published by the author.

I read 42 novels, 5 short story collections, 4 memoirs, 1 Young Adult and only 4 books by Australian authors.

In 2014 I plan to tackle Wolf Hall, Margaret Atwood's Year of the Flood trilogy and knock over all the books I bought in 2013.

Before the year is out I will put together a list of my favourite reads, hopefully drawing attention to a few you may have missed, as well as some more general reflections on my year with books.

Did you take the 52books52weeks challenge? What did you read and love in 2013?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

YA book recommendations by my daughter (for ages 11 and up)

I asked my daughter, who is 11, what she has read this year that she would happily recommend to other kids her age and older. She has given brief summaries for many of the books. They are in no particular order but her top 5 picks are starred.

* Wendy Mass, A Mango-Shaped Space (about a girl with synethesia who learns to accept and embrace her ability)

Wendy Mass, 11 Birthdays (a series of 4 books, all connected, set in the real world but involving magic & time travel)

Holly Goldberg Sloan, counting by 7s (a girl who thinks very mathematically, is quirky and different, and whose life changes very suddenly)

Ashley Elston, The Rules for Disappearing (a girl who has to live a completely fake life but she has no idea why. She thinks it has something to do with her father. Every few months her family has to move to a completely location and change their identity. Spooky and haunting)

Rebecca Stead, When you reach me 

Laurel Snyder, Bigger than a bread box

Anne Ursu, Breadcrumbs 

Thanhha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again (winner of the YA National Book Award, about a Vietnamese refugee who flees to America)

Joan Bauer, Almost Home (homelessness, foster care, and writing to get through it all)

* Sharon M. Draper, Out of My Mind (about very intelligent girl who is wheelchair bound and cannot communicate and what happens after she gets a machine that can speak for her)

R. J. Palacio, Wonder

Meg Rosoff, Picture Me Gone (an English girl's family visits America to help find her father's old friend who has disappeared after the car crash that killed his son)

John Green, The Fault in Our Stars 

Cynthia Lord, Rules (a girl with an autistic brother who struggles with just wanting to fit in)

* Paula J. Freedman, My Basmati Bat Mitzvah

Cathy Cassidy, Indigo Blue

Cathy Cassidy, Scarlett (and many others, all read from the bookshelf of vacation home)

Grace Lin, Dumpling Days

Phoebe Stone, The Romeo and Juliet Code (a girl from England who is sent to America to live with her mysterious aunts and uncles. There is a big secret in their house hiding behind a door)

Patricia Reilly Giff, Pictures of Hollis Woods (a child in foster care, her carer is an artist who is getting dementia. She must keep this secret or risk being taken away from her)

Sarah Weeks, So B. It

Natasha Farrant, After Iris (after a girl's twin sister dies her family falls apart)

Anne Frank, Diary of Anne Frank

* Judy Blume, Tiger Eyes

* Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (warning: very scary, nightmare inducing in fact)

Carol Antoinette Peacock, Red Thread Sisters (about two girls who grow up in an orphanage in rural China. One is adopted at age 11 by a wealthy American family. She tries to find a family for the other girl who has a disability)

Jackie French, Nanberry: Black Brother White (this is a tough read but recommended. It is about an Australian Aboriginal boy during the period of the first invaders. There has been an outbreak of smallpox and almost all his people have died. He is taken into custody by a surgeon who is actually quite kind hearted compared to the other officials)

Three books on her wish list:

Melanie Crowder, Parched

Lindsay Eland, A Summer of Sundays

Regina Sirois, On Little Wings

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


I watch through the glass in our front door. A small child with a woman who I rightly guess is her nana are crouched down low, intently studying our garden.

I step outside and say hello. The woman tells me that her grand-daughter is fascinated by our garden gnomes. This makes me smile.

Australian? I ask, picking up on her accent.


I wait for her to say You too. And wait.

So am I. I'm Australian too.

Oh, she says. You've picked up the American twang.

I laugh and we keep talking. She is visiting from Sydney, originally from South Africa.

It is happening more and more. The blank look when I say "Australian?", as if I'm just another busy body American playing pick the accent. I am no longer instantly recognisable as one of their own.

My sister calls. She asks if I have started buying Christmas presents. Not yet I say. We still have Thanksgiving to get through.

My life has taken on a different rhythm. American seasons and celebrations shape our days. Summer no longer means the long hot Christmas break. And for all intents and purposes the year ends in June rather than December.

My 3rd grader has been studying the Ohlone Native American tribe. He wants to know if maybe we have a grandfather or great-grandfather who was Ohlone.

No, I say. We are Australian so that wouldn't really be possible.

But I'm American, he fires back. And it's true. He is.

We all are. When we pass through customs we line up in the citizens queue. At both ends. I just have to remember to pull out the right passports.

And when the wheels touch down - in Sydney or San Francisco - I experience that sense of relief that comes from knowing that, finally, we have arrived home.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Books and writing: Alexander McCall Smith

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Alexander McCall Smith (AMS) in person, quite possibly the world's most prolific author, living or dead.

AMS began by launching into a long story about the Really Terrible Orchestra, which he founded with his wife for those of us who cannot play our instruments. He says that he does not actually play the bassoon, but rather plays part of the bassoon, the part that does not include the very difficult high notes. And when performing with his orchestra he simply stops when the music gets too difficult and waits for the "more accessible" portions of the score.

He quite accurately reports that we all actually learned the clarinet at some point in our childhoods (I did!), something that is often unearthed in psychotherapy sessions as "Suppressed Clarinet Memories". And he recommends that when starting our own Really Terrible Orchestra we seek out a conductor who is currently before the courts and will accept the role of conductor as a sort of plea bargain deal so as to avoid jail time.

The man is a freak among writers, putting out around five books a year, each taking him a couple of months. He does not plot or plan but simply sits and writes, saying it all emerges from his subconscious. And while he makes it sound easy, we should note that the man works from 4 till 7am most mornings, followed by a nap, and then more writing. He reports that he writes 1000 words per hour.

AMS advises writers that they must get the first line right, then goes on to say this is because it is likely to be the only one that is actually read, especially by critics who have the power to write 3,000 word reviews based upon this first sentence.

His most well-known series, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, started as a short story which then became a novel about a woman in Botswana - Precious Ramotswe - starting a small business on the death of her father. He is now up to the 15th book in the series - putting out a new one each year -  and has no intention of stopping until he himself "stops".

AMS's affection for Botswana, and his regard for the values that define this nation, are genuine. He says the response to the books in Botswana has mostly been positive, but there are of course critics who complain he does not address the serious problems the country faces. And while he acknowledges that these problems are real, he is unapologetic in choosing to focus his energy on the positive, which for him include the fact that the country has been consistently democratic since gaining independence in 1966 and has chosen to keep the profits gained from the diamond industry in public hands.

AMS regularly has "conversations with his characters" and with five (or is it six?) different series on the go - a book a year for each I believe - it is quite something that he manages to juggle so many characters and plot lines.

Bertie from the 44 Scotland Street series - the boy who remained 6 for 8 years and is my personal favourite - is the character he gets asked about most often by audiences who often wish that Precious Ramotswe or Isabel Dalhousie, the Edinburgh ethicist, might swoop in and save him from his mother Irene. As a mother of another saxophone playing son - although not one who attended a Very Advanced Kindergarten or is involved in psychotherapy - I do wonder if I might be placed by AMS in the same basket as Irene who represents the modern plague of the "Very Pushy Mothers". (Yes, he does raise my feminist hackles on this point).

This man is no tortured artist. AMS cracked himself up frequently during his talk, and not more so than reporting on the poor Community College student who asked him the most serious of questions "Do you suffer?" to which he responded "No, I don't. I'm quite content actually."

AMS is currently working on a modern day version of Jane Austen's Emma, which he says has been the most tremendous fun to write. And it is that sense of fun, the joy that he conveys in person and on the page, that makes me predict that it will no doubt be a pleasure to read.

As the organisers of the appearance attempted to draw the event to a close, calling for just one more question, AMS insisted there be at least two more. One suspects that this lovely, slightly rumpled, kilt wearing man enjoys these appearances at least as much as his devoted audience.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Does lean in have anything to offer those we lean on?

In an article in the New York Times Style Section, ‘Page by Page, Men Are Stepping Into the Circle’, Hannah Seligson highlights the degree to which men in corporate America have embraced Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In and accompanying ‘movement’.

You have to ponder how transformative a movement Lean In can be when it has been so readily embraced by men – and not just any old men but men at the top of the corporate chain - let alone corporate America. Corporations can choose to ‘partner’ with Lean In, and ironically (or tellingly) the organization does not discriminate against companies whose corporate record on women is less than stellar.

Almost in passing Seligson makes the following observation

“some men say they are drawn into the book not because of gender or work-life balance issues, but because it is a playbook on how to get ahead".

I find this both fascinating and a little disturbing. Should Lean In be shelved under self-help rather than feminism? And if it is so unthreatening to not only men but also corporate America, whose mission is profit at any cost rather than equality, what should feminists make of it?

In dressing up feminism in a corporate suit, does Sandberg's 'movement' make corporate America more feminist or has it instead made feminism more corporate? Have the aims of feminism effectively been co-opted by Lean In, its goals so compatible with corporate interests that rather than serving women, it represents feminism in the service of corporations and capitalism itself?

Does Lean In have anything at all to offer the low paid female workers – predominantly women of color and immigrants - who privileged women(and men) Lean On so that they can get ahead? Just how much more leaning in can women do who are often working multiple jobs and still living at or below the poverty line?

Even on her own terms, within the world of corporate America, does Sandberg do anything to challenge patriarchal notions of leadership? Part of her spiel at public events is to ask women “How many of you were called bossy growing up?” Predictably, many women will raise their hands. And those who do are told to celebrate this trait, because after all it is the bossy among us who are born to be leaders.

For me, this exercise demonstrates the failure of Lean In to challenge patriarchy, perpetuating the myth that traits associated with traditional masculinity are the same ones that we should be looking for in leaders. What if Lean In questioned this narrative, promoting a different vision of what makes a good leader, recognizing that the most effective leaders are not the classic ‘bossy’ kids but instead the cooperative and collaborative child who knows how to bring out the best in those around them.

Sandberg’s limited vision for feminism is not necessarily harmful; it might even see more women being promoted into positions that should always have been theirs. And that is undeniably a good thing. But the attention her book, and ‘movement’ have achieved are not because what she has to say is transformative or radical, but because it is the easiest to digest version of feminism, demanding very little of men as a class and doing nothing to address the interests of women outside those who are already the most privileged among us.

By selling feminism as a win-win for both men and women, all the while virtually ignoring issues of class and race, Sandberg underplays (or ignores) the reality that those who benefit from privilege do not give up that privilege in meaningful ways without a fight. Men benefit, as a class and individually, from patriarchy and while dismantling patriarchy absolutely benefits men and women, actual gender equality will mean that men have to give up much in order for women to gain.

This less feel good reality is why feminist gains are met every step of the way with backlash, and why Lean In’s feel good circles (positive stories only please) are no substitute for sustained political action.

It is trade unions and organized political movements that will bring about the sort of structural reforms that will benefit women as a class, rather than simply a very privileged class of women.

Basics like paid parental leave, sick leave, access to health care, quality affordable child care, reforms to immigration policy, and a living wage are but some of the issues that feminists seeking to use their privilege for more than their own gain will organize around. 

Is it a good thing that the most prominent face of feminism - or at least the one that has been embraced by the mainstream western press - is one that presents feminism as being so unthreatening, so completely in sync with the values of corporate America, that has CEOs falling over themselves to be part of the Lean In brand? 

At the end of the day, I am not interested in a strand of feminism that has nothing to say to women outside a very small and privileged orbit. And it is not that I think that the issues facing women in the corporate world are not worthy of feminist interest or action, but when this is the beginning and end of your feminism then it is not something I can identify with.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Our backyard is littered with old bikes. And scooters. All left out in the rain to rust. Unused, neglected. The vehicles the kids actually use are, to my never ending annoyance, stored at the front door, shoved into the small space next to the stairs.

This space was supposed to house the perfect entryway system, the wooden bench and coat stand with hooks for bags. The sort of furniture found in the Pottery Barn catalogues I pour over with a feeling that is not far off lust, and then reluctantly consign to the supersized recycling bin.

Over the past few months my writing muscle has become increasingly rusty, left out in the rain while I do other things. Mostly that other thing, that space normally reserved for writing, has been reading as I  play catch up in my attempt to reach my #52books52weeks goal (see sidebar).

And now that I am all caught up, about to hit the 44th book read in the 44th week of 2013, I feel ready to bring the writing back inside out of the rain. In between reading everything from literary blockbusters like Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch and Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things to catching up on books that have been collecting dust on my actual (and virtual) bookshelves for longer than seems fair, I want to clear some space for my own words. Not because they are anything special, but because I miss them, the process of stringing words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs, of every now and again coming up with something that on re-reading makes my heart sing.

So I am starting here, sitting up in bed on a school morning - with nothing but the gentle breathing of the sleeping child beside me to interrupt my thoughts - ignoring the long list of 'shoulds', carving out some space for this. For writing.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

One Good Policy

In Clementine Ford's article "It's hard to see how Tony Abbott's exorbitant plan will help mothers return to work"  she describes the Coalition's proposed Paid Parental Leave policy as an "exorbitant scheme [that] will operate as anything more than bribery for young women." (It is interesting that she fails to note, as do most commentators, that the Greens - the most progressive of the mainstream parties - has a very similar scheme on the table.)

The headline says it all. PPL is a policy failure because the data she presents shows that it does not promote the return of women to the paid workforce. As she argues, it is childcare policy that is key in keeping women with young children in the workforce not PPL. But what she fails to acknowledge is that PPL is about much more than female workforce participation, something that Julia Baird argues convincingly here:

"Parental leave is not about greed or a grab for cash. It's about a community response to protecting the first six months of a child's life. It's also about recalibrating a severe financial disadvantage women suffer by having children, including large swaths cut out of lifetime wages, super, and choked career tracks."

And according to Eva Cox the scheme proposed by Abbott is far more in keeping with feminist demands than the "welfare policy" approach of the ALP:

"The more radical basis for arguing for parental leave is to set it up as an ongoing workplace entitlement. Feminists have long argued for parenting time to be recognised as a legitimate employee entitlement, like holiday pay, sick pay and long service leave, as part of a wider effort to normalise parenting in workplaces."

Baird is right when she points out that the way the debate is now being conducted over PPL is making some question the need for any form of paid parental leave. When Ford says the following in making her case against Abbott's PPL, what is to prevent the same logic being applied to the weaker ALP scheme?

"Unlike members of the Coalition, I have actually met and spoken with mothers returning to the workforce. I've heard very little from them about the lack of money provided during their "time off". Instead, I hear a frustrated loop of complaints over the cost of childcare versus take-homes salary."

Ford is correct if her point is that childcare policy matters a great deal to working parents, and particularly mothers. (And Abbott's early childcare policy as revealed today is abysmal, cutting ratios of workers to carers, another great reason not to vote for the Liberals). But since when did it become an either/or game. Can't we demand both excellent government policy on childcare and PPL? Or as feminists are we only allowed to argue for one policy cookie at a time?

It is telling that the majority of Abbott's own team do not support his PPL but rather had it foisted on them. The scheme does not easily fit within the hard right economic approach of the Liberal Party nor does it suit their natural allies in the business community. It is as if the usual allegiances in the political world have been turned upside down (and it is this lack of support from the right, not the left, that makes many question whether this policy will actually ever see the light of day).

Abbott's scheme has been characterised by some as being in keeping with a conservative family values agenda; in fact it is antithetical to conservative family values in that it acknowledges that the state and has a role to play in financially supporting care work. Further, by entrenching PPL as a workplace entitlement rather than a welfare payment, the scheme would play a part in changing what Cox describes as "workplace cultures that demand women behave like male employees in attempting to separate paid work from other parts of life."

PPL and childcare are not the only policies that feminists should be paying special attention to. Both parties fall down when it comes to support for single parents, most of whom are mothers (Tara Moss outlines the impact of recent changes here). State support for single parents at living rather than poverty wages empowers women not by dictating that they re-join the workforce but by financially supporting care work, enabling mothers who would not otherwise have the means the option of electing to stay at home with young children without the financial support of a (male) partner.

It is puzzling to me that the fiercest opponents of Paid Parental Leave these days seem to be progressives and feminists. And while I think reasonable people can disagree on the details of the different schemes offered up by the two major parties, the level of vitriol being directed at one of the few policies that will overwhelmingly benefit women is in danger of undermining broad community support for any form of PPL. Rather than seeing it as a long overdue policy reform, PPL is now being widely talked as 'middle class welfare', a phrase that Cox notes here seems to be code for any policy that benefits women while policies that overwhelmingly benefit high income males attract little (if any) comment:

"Would we see the same issue raised were this not a payment mainly for women? Superannuation is an example of gendered policy, as some 30% of tax concessions go to the top 5% of income earners (almost all men). This is clearly unfair in gender terms, but remains an interesting exemption from the gendered criticism raised against this payment. High income women, who are relatively few, become the target of abuse if they receive any form of public assistance which suggests a deeply sexist set of assumptions underpinning these debates, as high income men are seen as entitled to tax concessions galore."

Given that we are likely to find ourselves under a Coalition government after this weekend's election it might be better that we ensured that along with all the harm Abbott is likely to do across a broad range of policy areas we hold him to this one good policy.

But between now and Saturday, FFS Don't Vote Liberal. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Parenting outside the bubble

In an Op Ed in the New York Times, Jennifer Finney Boylan writes "We want to shield our children, but it's the worst thing we can do." She talks about her sons exchange trip in his senior year to Cape Town, of allowing him to bungee jump and sky dive, and knowing that in allowing our children to take calculated risks we build resilience, "the courage they need when those perils arise."

In the same newspaper, just a few pages earlier, Monica Davies reports here on Chicago school children whose parents have no say in the sorts of risks they face on a daily basis:

"The first day of school in one neighborhood on this city's far South Side brought a parade of security workers in neon vests, police officers on patrol, an idling city fire truck and, briefly, a police helicopter hovering above. All this to make sure that students from a shuttered elementary school could make it safely past abandoned lots, boarded-up houses and perhaps gang lines to get to their new school less than a half-mile away."

The cost of Safe Passage is $15.7 million, money that could otherwise be spent on stocking libraries with books, on teachers and counselors, and on funding the sort of after school activities that middle class kids take for granted. But in this part of Chicago, rather than being the worst thing we can do, shielding children - in this case  from violence, including gunfire - is the thing that must be done.

I am grateful, no matter how much I rail against it, my children exist in a bubble. And it is that bubble that makes it possible for my children to experience a degree of freedom - and along with that the sort of calculated risks that Finney Boylan references - that under different circumstances would be unthinkable. It has nothing to do with my being an evolved parent that I let my children ride their bikes to school or hang out downtown without supervision, and everything to do with my knowledge that this is about as safe a community as I am ever likely to live in.

What looks like evolved parenting from inside the bubble looks far more like a luxury from the outside, a luxury that is not available to the parents of children whose route to school is literally lined with police cars on the ground and helicopters above.

We need to be mindful that when we grapple with how to provide our kids with opportunities to experience calculated risk, or debate the merits of free range versus helicopter parenting or any number of other parenting issues, that what we are often talking about is less a problem than a product of our privilege.

It is not that the issues facing well-to-do children don't matter, but too often parenting issues are discussed as if we all lived inside the same bubble. I worry that this makes the lives of children who grow up without the safety net, outside the bubble, invisible.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

People for the ethical treatment of ... humans

I was going to ask about the eggs at the grocers today:

I see they are organic, and it says they are cage free
But are they free range? Certified?

And then I stopped myself.

I had just had a conversation with the butcher, who told me that today he had worked a split shift, meaning he had come in for three hours, gone home and had to return for a second shift on the same day. Clearly the new grocery shop in town, the one that I have fallen a little bit in love with, is not a unionized workplace.

So instead of asking the man packing the fridge section about the living conditions of the hens who laid the eggs I kept quiet. I bought the eggs that seemed the most likely to have been produced ethically; but I did not bother a man who was likely working for minimum wage without health care or union protection with my egg question.

If you have the means it is not so hard to purchase ethically raised food. It costs a little, sometimes a lot more, but that doesn't seem to bother the consumers at Whole Foods and any number of other gourmet grocers.

These are careful consumers who pride themselves on caring about their own health, the environment and the humane treatment of animals.

If this care does not extend to the humane treatment of the actual humans standing in front of you then it all starts to look a little hollow.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Shopping with kids

Three children under five sat in the super size cart, the weight of the extra seating making it impossible to steer or navigate through crowded aisles. The cart was pushed by a woman who could as easily been 25 as 35, her dirty blonde hair scraped back into a ponytail without the aid of a brush or mirror.

No she said that is not an everyday toy. Put it back.

The reasonableness of her words was undermined by the desperate tone. She sounded tired, her voice raspy - like a jazz singer's minus the glamour and sex appeal - as if she hadn't had a solid nights sleep in years, as if she had yelled at the kids so loudly and often that her vocal chords would never quite recover.

It was all so familiar. How often I had said the exact same words in the same weary tone . . .

No, put it back. It's too expensive. Put it on your birthday list.

. . . and then redirected my child to something cheap, the sort of throwaway toy that would be Exhibit A in Earth's case against the human race. A toy that would be forgotten within 24-hours, joining hundreds of others just like it in the ubiquitous cube storage bins that line the walls of children's bedrooms and play areas across the world.   

I passed through bedding, my own cart filled with stuff rather than children. And there she was again, still negotiating with the most intractable of her three. I was reminded of that tired line that I have been known to trot out myself when a child has been going through a particularly difficult phase.

This boy is headed straight to Washington. A career in lobbying is clearly in his future.

And perhaps it is, but such sentiments offer little comfort when stuck in aisle 9 with a screaming child and the narrowed eyes of fellow shoppers boring into you, judging you almost as harshly as a parent as you judge yourself.

Saturday, June 8, 2013


In my mind I am already there, a soft morning light falling across my desk as I write before the family wakes, the silence broken only by the occasional sound of pounding on the pavement of the most dedicated early morning runner.

I am writing - not a blog post or letter of apology or excuse, but something that will allow me to claim 'writer' without feeling fraudulent - and I can do this because for the first time since I got married and moved away and had more babies than anybody I know I have a room of my own.

In this room there are books. Not all the books, just the ones I need to keep close as I put words on the page. On the wall hang quotes to inspire, ones that won't make me cringe and remind me that this can only be something happening inside my mind.

I look at the canvas I bought yesterday as a gift for my grandmother (of the sort my husband would not hesitate to call twee, a favourite insult). "Joy" it says, the letters of her name strung across a washing line to dry in the sun rather than tossed without ceremony (or love) into the dryer. I look at this canvas and know that I really bought it for myself, to hang in a room that has been drawn but not built or even approved by a City who has more than enough women who would be writers. And I see how ridiculous it is, bought at Target for $14.99 in a section marked homewares not art.

I think about the author featured in the New York Times last weekend, the one who writes  sitting on the floor atop a small cushion inside a cupboard that has had its door removed. He has inspirational quotes pinned to the wall, but not of the sort found at a big box store bought by a middle aged woman trailed by children she can barely contain let alone control. His quotes are hand written by friends who are also artists and writers, who have something to say that will never be sneered at and described as twee.

I think about this room of my own, a room that already exists inside my mind. As I write I try to shut the non-existent door on the noise that is building throughout the house, the demands for my attention and services coming at me from all directions. I speak without the smallest hint of joy to my husband who wants me to make a phone call about the goldfish who need to be housed before we take our trip, fish I would happily flush down the toilet and replace on our return if it meant that I could keep sitting right here putting words on the page.

I think about this room of my own that no longer exists only in my mind but is now part of a plan going to the City and I know that 'JOY' will hang here, mocking me as I reach again for the delete key. And reminding me of a grandmother far away, who sits in a new room she has been told to call her own in a place she will never call home, a mind fading, scrambled and unable to find the light.

I think of Joy. And I know that there is a story to be told.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Books and authors: an evening with Isabel Allende

This week I had the pleasure of seeing Isabel Allende at iconic Bay Area independent bookstore Kepler's Books, Menlo Park. Allende is on tour promoting her latest novel Maya's Notebook, and a signed copy is now sitting by my bedside table.

I furiously took notes during her talk so that I could share the many insights she offered into the writing process, her novels and her life.

Before opening up the floor to questions Allende asked for a show of hands from the Latinos in the audience. There were many and appropriately the first question asked on the night was in Spanish.

On the writing process:

Allende described novel writing as an organic process: "The novel starts like a vague feeling in the womb." She sits with this feeling, and sometimes it develops.

She says she starts out with "no idea": "I just show up everyday in front of the computer and then something happens . . . It is happening in spite of myself."

Allende is the very opposite of a plotter or a planner. "You don't plan from one point to the end. It just happens."

Sometimes she struggles with the ending for months, and then out of nowhere - in the middle of a conversation about something unrelated - it just hits her. Other times she writes a sentence and knows it is the last, the ending.

Allende says that "if you write you have to write everywhere." To write Of Love and Shadows "I emptied a broom closet and put up a board and a lightbulb."

Allende now has that longed for room of her own - the pool house - and her disciplined approach to writing means no internet access, in fact nothing but her computer and dictionaries.

"I start all my books on January 8th. So can you imagine January 7th in my house. If I sit down and wait for inspiration it will never come."

On becoming a writer:

"I always liked to tell stories but I was growing up in 40s Chile. That was like the Middle Ages."

"I was a great reader. The women I read were all dead."

While in exile in Venezuela she received a call telling her that her grandfather was dying. She began writing him a letter which became the basis for her first novel The House of the Spirits.

On whether she will ever write a biography:

Allende made an interesting distinction between memoir and biography. She said "I don't have facts in my head. I have no idea where I've been." She prefers the memoir and has written two.

On her mother:

Allende has kept forty years of correspondence, letters and now emails, between herself and her mother who write to each other almost daily. What a gift to future biographers!

Asked if she shared her writing with others: "My mother was my only editor. She would fly to San Francisco" and "take out all the sex parts so I ignore."

She said that both her and her husband talk with each other about what they are currently writing but don't read each others work: "I don't read his because I don't want to fight with him."

On being a professor:

"I am a lousy teacher. When teaching I start to plagiarize my students."

And her advice to her undoubtedly lucky students:

"I tell them to write a bad novel. That frees them. How are you going to write a novel if you don't write."

On addiction:

Allende's spoke passionately about drug addiction, a central theme of Maya's Notebook, and the folly of criminalising drugs.

"The fact that it is penalised, criminalised makes it so much more dangerous. This is not a war we can win with bullets. This is a public health issue."

Allende spoke of her own experiences, three stepchildren who are all addicted to drugs, two having lost their lives to addiction. She shared with the audience that her family is currently grieving for a step-daughter who died only a month ago.

Maya's Notebook is about an American girl growing up in Berkeley with a Chilean grandmother (who she jokes is very much based on herself). She talks about watching her own grown children raising teens: "I saw their parents losing their hair trying to protect them."

Like all of her books, the novel was written in Spanish and later translated into English.

On her husband:

Allende elicited huge laughs every time she made reference to her husband - Willie Gordon - who decided on retirement from lawyering to take up novel writing.

She says "I was really pissed off" and told him that if he could be a writer then she would become a lawyer when she retired from novel writing.

Unfortunately her husband has been successful, with six books in print and - she told us with a dismissive flip of her hand - he was currently at a book festival in Brazil "or somewhere". She was reluctant to give us his name in case we decided to try his books which are crime novels all set in San Francisco in the 1960s. When pushed she said he would no doubt send us 'free copies'.

She decided to make her latest novel a crime novel to show that she could do this too, and better!

An ill-fated attempt to co-author a novel with her husband lasted all of an hour. She says she can focus for 11 hours, he for 11 minutes. Cue uproarious laughter.

On favourite authors, Allende graciously made reference to only one, the author of The Kite Runner and One Thousand Splendid Sons, Khaled Husseini, who was in the audience with his family.

While I waited for my row to be called to join the queue for book signing I entertained myself with some literary star gazing, all the while cursing the lack of zoom on my fruit phone. Husseini has a new book coming out soon and will be appearing at Kepler's (I promise to share and bring the 'good' camera for this one).

Asked if she has started thinking about her next novel, incredibly prolific Allende revealed it has already been written.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

happy mother's day

I unloaded the groceries, sorting the perishables from the non-perishables.

"Happy Mother's Day," the cashier sang out when she had finished serving the man in front of me, even though I had no children by my side. Perhaps the contents of the cart gave me away, organic squeezable yogurts beside string cheese and generic store brand graham crackers, marking me out as clearly as a giant M tattooed on my forehead.

"Are you a mother too?" I asked, feeling a little foolish with my earnest wish to not cause offense by making the same presumption about her that she had made about me.

"Thank you," she replied not catching my question, just hearing "mother" and assuming it had been proceeded by "happy". And then we talked about our broods as she ran my items through the scanner.

"Did you get to celebrate before coming into work?" I asked and she told me about the lunch she'd enjoyed before starting the 3pm shift, the flowers she'd been given and the daughter who'd taken her out to dinner on Friday night. She told me about the three adult children who lived close by and the three who were further away. She told me about the daughter in Vegas who'd remembered to call her and the son in prison.

"I'm sorry," I said, not sure of what else to say. "Do you get to see him often?"

"Oh yes", she said. And then with a weary sigh "Hopefully he has learned this time."

And I hoped along with her.

"Actually I had seven children," she said "but I lost one."

A stillbirth at eight weeks.

"He'd be twenty-eight now if he had lived."

She placed the last paper bag in the cart and asked "Do you need help out?"

As quick as that we were done, back to the pleasantries.

"No, I'll be right thanks," I said, grabbing hold of the cart. "Happy Mother's Day."

I looked back. She hadn't heard me. She was busy chatting to the next customer in line.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Paid Parental Leave: Are we throwing out the feminist baby with the bathwater?

Yesterday a furious discussion emerged on my twitter stream about Tony Abbott's (Australia's Tory Leader of the Opposition and no friend of feminism) proposal to grant women Paid Parental Leave for up to 6-months after the birth of a baby at full pay (at salaries up to $150,000). This is my response to the discussion that ensued. 

Is it considered class warfare, unfair, that employees get paid their FULL salary when they take annual leave, sick leave, a sabbatical, or long service leave? 

If your answer to this question is NO then why is it considered classist for women, who are not taking a vacation but are giving birth (with the obvious exception of adoption) and raising a newborn baby, to be paid at their full salary while taking parental leave?

If, on the other hand, your answer is YES then you are on solid ground. I assume that you are fighting like hell to make the case that all workers be paid at the minimum wage or receive a welfare payment while they are taking any form of leave from employment. 

If you are not fighting against these other classist payments - payments that trade unions have fought long and hard to have considered as entitlements for all employees - then perhaps you should rethink the assumptions that underlie your objections to a 100% of salary paid parental leave scheme. And maybe in your fight to smash capitalism you could start with a more worthy target than new mothers! You might also note that far more progressive and less capitalist countries than Australia, notably in Northern Europe, provide far more generous parental leave provisions than have ever been considered here and these are provided across the population rather than being tightly means tested (e.g. Iceland provides 100% PPL for 53 weeks).

Alternatively you could focus your energy on working to close the wage gap between the highest and lowest paid, and in particular the gender pay gap that starts before women become parents but gets steadily worse after they become parents. (Hint: lack of paid parental leave is a factor in perpetuating the gender wage gap.)  

I personally find it confusing that anybody would find it more objectionable that a woman who has gone through pregnancy and childbirth and is now engaged in around the clock care for a newborn (yes, this is a 24/7 occupation) is less entitled to full pay than a person taking a ski trip, having their wisdom teeth removed or enjoying a 6-month sabbatical or long service leave. 

In my view the only real failure of the scheme is that it is not gender neutral* **. It is my understanding that this is a provision only available to women, and while this might reflect the reality that it is overwhelmingly women who will take advantage of and benefit from this scheme for both biological and cultural reasons, government should be utilising policy measures to encourage greater gender equity in the care of children. (For a good example of how this can be done, consider Sweden's tax incentives for fathers who opt to be the primary carer for a portion of the period of parental leave.)

The fact is, a noxious and untrustworthy male Tory has put forward a scheme that makes surprising sense. It is funded by a levy on big business so it will not result in discrimination against female employees (as it is not paid directly by the employer and therefore does not provide an incentive to discriminate against potential employees who are of child bearing age) or a general tax increase, nor does it take money away from welfare measures. 

It will make it possible for women who have been in employment for at least a year before giving birth to have a real choice in deciding to either stay at home with their new baby in the 6-months after giving birth or return to work, not only those women whose partner earns a high enough salary to enable such a 'choice'.  And it is likely to improve rates of breastfeeding in line with WHO recommendations (exclusive breastfeeding for 6-months), particularly among women who otherwise would have been forced to return to work earlier than they would have chosen if money was not a factor in their decision. 

I agree that any policy put forward by Tony Abbott should be met with cynicism and that his proposal is unlikely to ever see the light of day if he forms a government at the next election due to opposition from within his own party and from the business lobby. 

My fear is that in objecting to the scheme so strenuously, feminists are shooting themselves in the foot. I am not arguing that anybody should vote Liberal because of one (in my opinion) good policy in a sea of truly awful policies and overarching ideology that will lead to greater inequality across the board, especially for people on welfare who the ALP has itself failed in many instances. But perhaps we should think a little bit harder before trashing the concept of treating paid parental leave as an entitlement rather than welfare and instead celebrate the fact that both major parties are now competing for votes over who can provide the best paid parental leave scheme.

*Update: there has been a lot of confusion in the reporting of how the proposed PPL will work. It has now been clarified that fathers are able to take advantage of the 6-months leave but at the mother's salary. 

** Demands for gender neutrality around parental leave can be seen as denying or minimizing the reality that it is women who get pregnant, birth and breastfeed. For a brilliant and nuanced discussion of this I recommend Cristy Clark's brilliant post 

For a much more incisive analysis of this issue, and from a feminist with a real track record on advancing the rights of women (and particularly disadvantaged women) read Eva Cox's piece here and this piece by Kate Ashmor makes points I haven't read elsewhere about superannuation and PPL.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Hey Mom ... why does society shame rather than support you?

What if instead of deciding to shame teenagers out of 'choosing' to become parents with a questionable 'public health' campaign (see here and here and here), New York City instead focused their efforts on ending the 'epidemic' of advanced age motherhood?

A baby - this time white - spewing out the stats on the many known risks of having a child at an advanced maternal age:

"Hey Mom, Did you know that if you wait until you are 40 to have me you increase the risk that I will be born with XYZ genetic condition by XYZ percent?"

"Hey Mom, If you wait until you're 42 to have a baby my friends are going to wonder if you're my mom or my grandma."

Or even

"Hey Dad, That biological clock applies to you too. If you delay fatherhood you put me at higher risk of being diagnosed with schizophrenia or autism."

Imagine the outrage.

That outrage would be entirely justified.

Of course, a shame campaign would never be directed at potential older parents even though in public health terms it would be every bit as legitimate as the campaign directed at teens, if not more so.

After all, the disadvantages that face teen parents and their offspring are very much culturally determined and government policies aimed at supporting (financially and socially) teen parents rather than shaming could actually go some way towards ameliorating the disadvantages; on the other hand, the risks faced by older parents are grounded in biology rather than culture, and solutions (outside of encouraging parents to embark on parenthood at an earlier age) primarily involve pushing at the frontiers of medical science.

When it comes to older parents, we readily accept that 'choice' is a pretty dodgy concept when it comes to timing and pregnancy. There are so many variables that are not within our control, and even the ones that are do not lend themselves to easy answers. So those who have 'delayed' parenthood rightly expect to be treated with respect and sensitivity by society, including the media and the medical profession. And when they aren't their voices are likely to be heard clearly articulating the many reasons why society should not belittle or question their 'choices'.

Yet when it comes to teen parents - and young single mothers on any number of measures are one of the most marginalized groups in society - we are anything but gentle, let alone respectful. And a public health campaign that relies on dissuading teens from 'choosing' parenthood by relying on shame and sexism is not only a disgrace, it is also unlikely to do anything more productive than further stigmatize a group of parents who need and deserve societies support every bit as much as any other segment of the parent population.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Australia: stop being ugly

Dear Australia,

Please stop breaking my heart. Well, actually, scrap that because this is not about my heart ... this is about violating all that is best about Australia and being all that is ugly... and it is not about me because I went and fucked off to another country, an economic migrant if there ever was one.

I'll tell you who aren't economic immigrants: refugees. And I'll tell you who are: immigrants who arrive in Australia on airplanes with visas sponsored by their employers or enough cash to qualify for a rich person's visa. People like me but in reverse.

So obviously I am disgusted by Scott Morrison's vile utterances in regard to refugees and anybody with a pulse and a conscience that operates above the level of a cockroach is too. But we can hardly claim to be surprised.

(Just in case you missed it, or are a reader from outside Australia wondering what the heck I am ranting on about: essentially Scott Morrison, Australia's Federal Opposition Minister for Immigration recommended that  when refugees move out of detention and into the community - yes, we imprison those legally seeking asylum in Australia violating god knows how many human rights conventions, including children - they be treated in terms that are most often proposed for pedophiles, a sort of Megan's Law but for people who are not criminals but refugees.)

What sickens me more is what @crazyjane13  points out in her excellent post here: the deathly silence from the leaders (and wannabe leaders) of both major parties, including those we hoped were better than that. PM Gillard: nothing; her real or media-imagined rival for the leadership, Rudd: nothing; and the thinking LNP voter's fantasy leader Malcolm Turnbull: nothing.

How about Anthony Albanese, the member for the seat I will be voting in at the upcoming Federal election? As far as I know (and I hope I am wrong): nothing (and whispered asides to appeal to your base don't count). And the nail in the coffin as far as any lingering loyalty I feel towards the ALP: both major parties colluded to shut down Green's Senator Sarah Hanson-Young in her attempt to bring a motion in the house against the vilification of refugees.

I am disgusted. I am heartbroken. I am completely convinced that the ALP has no interest in my vote, or more likely take it completely for granted. Well fuck that. I will be voting Green at this election and my vote does count because this is a marginal seat that might very well tip Green.

Australia, you can do better than this. Clearly our leaders have no interest in taking the high road, or even a middling one. Our policies on refugees are an absolute disgrace, making us every bit the international pariah. We like to think of ourselves as a friendly egalitarian nation, but as things now stand this version of who we are is so far from being the truth it doesn't even qualify as spin.



Aside from @crazyJane13's post (link above) I recommend you take a look at @nancycato1 in fine form here and Yvette Vignando's post on the impact that the way the media and politicians talk about refugees has on children's understanding.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Is Friends any more sexist than most Lego? And why it might in fact be better.

Today I saw another article noting the exponential growth in lines of Lego aimed at girls, specifically the Friends sets. And I have read many critiques of these sets as well as some equally valid defenses.

On the one hand they promote gender stereotypes and limited roles for their target audience. (One set includes a beauty salon, not so different to the Hairdresser Lego Set I so adored at seven.) On the positive side, they encourage girls to play with blocks which we all know are fantastic in the development of visual-spatial skills but are often shunned by girls (or their parents) in preference for other sorts of play; additionally, the sets promote pro-social messages with their focus on friendship.

What I find interesting in all of this is the lack of discussion about the problem of 'boys' lines of Lego. The thing is that boys sets may not be marked 'boy' but they are every bit as gendered as the sets aimed at girls. And they are often vile.

These sets (I have three boys and quite possibly own all of them) are colour coded just as explicitly as the girl sets. There is not a hint of pastel, but many shades of orange, green, red and black. The characters (human and otherwise) in these sets carry weapons, with many actually having weaponised body parts. And as my own 5-year-old boy noted, the sets are 'sexist' because they only have boy characters.

There are other lines of Lego that are possibly considered gender neutral, but they seem to me to have the same issue as children's books. Publishers avoid marketing books to a girl audience because they believe that boys will not read books about girls but girls will read books about boys. Similarly, the Creator and City sets are sold in a solid range of primary colours, colours that are safely 'boy' without a hint of anything explicitly 'girl'. So in my view, even these officially 'gender neutral' sets tilt boy.

I continue to have mixed feelings about Friends, but I don't think that they are any more gendered than most Lego, or any more noxious. In fact I think it could safely be argued that 'boy' Lego, with its focus on warfare and aggression, is promoting a version of masculinity that is just as limiting and far more troubling than a range named Friends.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The inherent privilege of being a 'slacker' mum

There is a degree of privilege involved in being a self-avowed 'slacker mum' or free range parent. The mothers I know who espouse these approaches are white, well-educated and middle to upper class (including Lenore Skenazy, spokesperson for the free range parenting movement). I include myself in this category, and went so far as to declare myself a 'slacker mum' as far back as 2000, before free range referred to anything more interesting than a carton of happily produced eggs.

The slacker parenting rhetoric holds great appeal as an antidote to the ridiculous expectations that are placed on parents - specifically mothers - to measure up to a variety of external, ill-defined and ever shifting standards, and it is this aspect of Jane Caro's piece in today's Sydney Morning Herald that I enjoyed and agree with; but while celebrating this aspect of the movement, there is a tone that seeps through much of the rhetoric that I find smug and unhelpful.

Rather than being empowering, mothers (fathers seem strangely absent from these discussions) are lampooned as being driven by irrational and neurotic fears (hello Freud); and discussions take for granted a degree of privilege without which the free range approach to your children's welfare is not possible. At the most basic level, allowing your child the freedom to roam is dependent on living in a neighbourhood that functions at some level as a community, has a reasonable level of pedestrian safety and is not riven by crime, including drugs, gang and gun violence (the latter being a real issue in the United States).

It is easy to be relaxed about your child's education when you live in a community where the local schools are brimming with children who walk through the gates with an enormous bank of social, educational and economic capital. It is much harder to take such an approach when your local school is populated by children with multiple disadvantages. You may still send your child to the local school - by choice or necessity - but your concerns are completely valid.

It is easy to not spend a lot of time worrying about your child when your child does not give you a whole lot to worry about, to take the attitude that no matter the kids are going to be alright. But some children are simply more difficult to raise than others by virtue of temperament, difference and/or disability. Worrying about such children is not a sign of neurosis.

In fact, if you have a child with a disability and you wish to access services for that child in many places your child will not have a hope unless you become the polar opposite of the slacker mum, and instead become a loud and pushy advocate, using every resource - including any privileges you are fortunate enough to carry - to further your child's cause. And there is a good chance that, despite the rhetoric of education for all, the public school system will not adequately accommodate your child no matter how much you wish to stay within the system. (Somewhat surprisingly, I have found the US public education system much more accommodating, responsive and well resourced for children with disabilities than Australia's public education system).

Read from the bottom up

The most distressing element of the lazy/slacker/free range parenting talk for me is the profound lack of awareness of the inherent privilege of being able to declare yourself a lazy or slacker mum (I tweeted about this today).

For 'other' mothers, being perceived as 'slack' let alone shouting it from the rooftops, is a risk they might not be willing to take. In fact, they are more likely to have to work very hard to prove to the world (including their children's teachers, doctors, welfare authorities, courts) that they are a fit parent, let alone a 'good enough' one.

The risks come from many directions, including the real risk of coming under the surveillance of the state or even losing custody of your child, whether that be to the foster care system, the other parent (or grandparent/s) whose standing by virtue of gender/colour/wealth/age may be a real advantage in the family court. (I have personally watched a friend who suffered multiple disadvantages - race, class, disability, single parent - but whose daughter benefited from her extraordinary level of devotion and care lose her child in just this fashion.)

I can afford to be a slacker parent. When I walk into an emergency room with an injured child (as I have many times) I am given the benefit of the doubt by virtue of my class and skin colour. When my child fails to learn to read he is more likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability than be considered simply a lazy or disruptive student. When we run late for school on a regular basis we are viewed as disorganised, even slack, but nobody calls in the truant officer.

I understand that it is a function of my privilege, that the assumption is made that I am good enough parent even when that may not always be entirely true. And of course, the flip side of this is that a mother who is marginalised by virtue of her class/race/age cannot afford the luxury of declaring herself to be a lazy or slacker mum as the chances are high that this is exactly what others have already prejudged her to be.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Is the "ugly" selfie an act of liberation?

I have just been alerted to a phenomenon, including a tumblr, called 'pretty girls, ugly faces'.

From what I saw it involved conventionally attractive women posing in contorted ways so they appeared to be ugly NOT women across the broad spectrum of appearance choosing to pose as themselves, warts and all.

As an example, there is a large difference between a woman with actual double chins choosing to pose for a selfie in a way that does not disguise that double chin and a thin woman posing in a way that creates a false double chin (most of the examples I saw seemed to feature the false double chin, I guess confirming that this is indeed officially 'ugly').

One is an act of fuck you, this is who I am and I refuse to be ashamed. For me, the other feels less like liberation and more like mockery.

While the term privilege is primarily used in reference to race, class and gender, body/looks privilege is also a very real phenomenon. For those, particularly women, who fall outside the narrow parameters of what is considered attractive (or even acceptable) there are real consequences (social, workplace, pay).

I hate to be a spoilsport, and to even raise the term privilege, but honestly to me "pretty girls, ugly faces" reeks of it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Unpacking our response to smoking while pregnant

Something did not sit quite right with me yesterday as I watched the response to Chrissie Swan's revelation (confession?) unfurl on twitter. And it wasn't the ugly responses - they are always so predictable - but another sort.

The response reminded me of what happens whenever breastfeeding v formula style "debates" arise. We rightly want to protect the individual woman who is not breastfeeding - for any number of reasons that are really none of our business - from judgement and shaming; but in doing so it is not uncommon to see calls to silence legitimate and necessary discussion about what public policy responses should look like when it comes to promoting higher rates of breastfeeding. Or for public policy aimed at promoting breastfeeding to be viewed as an attack on individual women's choices. (The response to Michael Bloomberg's efforts to introduce the WHO breastfeeding code of conduct into NYC hospitals makes for an interesting case study.)

Let me be clear, I am not trying to draw a parallel between the well documented harm of smoking while pregnant to a growing fetus and the impact of breastmilk versus formula. The only parallel I wish to draw is the way discussions play themselves out.

So, for some it was not enough to simply say 'for god's sake leave Chrissie alone. This is none of our business'... but to move into 'my mother smoked while pregnant and we survived' mode. And while it is great that individuals were not harmed, it does not mean that we should downplay the absolutely real effects that smoking has on a developing fetus.

To that I would add that any public health campaigns should focus on second hand smoke, given what we now know about it's impact not only on the fetus but also the harmful health effects on babies and children (in other words, smoking dads and partners of pregnant women are very much on the hook).

There is another aspect of the rightfully compassionate response to Chrissie Swan that made me twitch, and which I am still struggling to articulate clearly. It is the feeling that were it a different woman, one who was less 'one of us' and more 'other', I don't feel confident that there would have been the same outpouring of compassion. And to complicate things further, would the compassionate response extend to an 'other' mother whose addiction was to a substance other than alcohol or tobacco?

Our image of who smokes during pregnancy is not a middle class white woman with her own radio show. It is the single mother, the poor mother, the teen mother, the Indigenous mother.

As Chrissie herself said on air: "I knew it was wrong that there is so much terrible judgment that only awful people and bad parents and idiots and bogans smoke during pregnancy - and I didn't feel like I belonged in any of those categories - so I kept it all under wraps and dealt with it how I could."

Read the full article here:

But those mothers - and according to this report it is disadvantaged mothers, including the young and Indigenous, who are most likely to smoke during pregnancy -  who are less 'us' and more 'other' are no less deserving of our compassion, and more importantly support. And just as Chrissie Swan found herself under the sort of pressure that made quitting smoking that much harder, these 'other' mothers are likely to face daily challenges that those of us who live in comfortable middle class bubbles could even begin to comprehend.

The fact that addiction is often framed in the language of criminality for those who are viewed as 'other' (and in the US this includes pregnant women who unbelievably have been incarcerated for drug addiction) should also be noted; and even the way we describe the same drug varies depending on who is using it (as has been pointed out on twitter, consider the use of phrases like 'rivers of grog' to describe Indigenous communities with high rates of alcohol consumption, a description that has never been applied to Sydney's most alcohol affected suburb Mosman).

When it comes to these discussions, I think it is important to think about how our own personal responses - let alone public policy responses - may differ depending on whose body is being policed. And next time we see the media beating up on an individual mother or group of mothers who are less like us, I hope that we leap to their defense as readily as we have for somebody who we think of as one of our own.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Walking the laundry

Walking the dog
Doing the laundry
Scraping shit out of the deep grooves
In the soles of their shoes

I warned them to stay off the grass
Quite rightly they ignored me
Stomping through the fresh mud and shit
With abandon

Beef strips turning grey from a never made stir fry
A tub of ricotta unopened from October 20 something
Hurled into the trash, reminders that
My own use by date is no longer an abstraction

The growing mountain of dirty towels
At the top of the stairs
Threaten to bury me

The very idea of being mummified
By my own poor housekeeping
Makes me laugh
Until I cry

Closing the door on the chaos
In a cafe, safe from the laundry and dog shit
A place where nobody asks me for anything
More complex than the sports section or a chair

Friday, February 1, 2013

4/52 Among Muslims: Meetings at the frontiers of Pakistan by Kathleen Jamie

A travel memoir of sorts, Kathleen Jamie's Among Muslims was originally published in 1996 but took on added poignancy after 9/11. At this point Jamie was contacted by a publisher who sent her back to Pakistan to revisit the people and places she had written about so vividly, and these new experiences and reflections are found in the Epilogue and Prologue (which turned out to be my favourite parts of the book).

On her return trip, Jamie is struck by the changes in both herself and the women she met a decade earlier and calls her friends. On her last visit she was a single woman, this time around married and with two children:

"Contraception. The price of dresses. Maternity leave. Housework, babies, our students, and their lax attitudes. Our suddenly elderly parents. What happened to the peace, and no worries? I could have been at home, except I was cross-legged on the floor, and all my friends were wrapped in shawls, and I was on the other side of the world."

Her thoughts on the role of a travel writer reveal the approach she takes to her subject:

"We all have duties and tasks, and mine, as travel-writer, is to our common humanity. Travel-writing is less about place than people, it describes people's lives. How can we acknowledge our common humanity without showing something of that humanity? How can we show that families are pretty much like families, without revealing something of each other, of ourselves? Who draws the line, when we write about decent, ordinary people? The writer does, that's the truth of it."

I read this book in a couple of days, and it is the lives of the women that I found most interesting but that is by no means the sole focus of the book. In parts it reminded me of a book I read many years ago (and highly recommend) Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks. And while I'm recommending other books if you have not yet read Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi then please do.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

New Money

I smiled at the Ducks Crossing sign 
And smirked at Private Road
As we looked down our noses
At this perfect rendition of suburbia

My son called out
Where is the downtown?
Not long after we had passed
The strip mall

And I caught myself thinking 
New Money
In a way that made me want 
To slap myself

Saturday, January 12, 2013

2/52: Married Love and other stories by Tessa Hadley

I picked up this book (or more accurately put it on my ereader) after reading this review in the New York Times. 

It is worth reading through the author notes at the end. I particularly loved this (depressing as it is as a statement of the position of the stay at home parent) ...

"I'm sure my daughters-in-law can't imagine a retreat so complete and dull-seeming as those years of shopping and cooking and cleaning and waiting in the school playground. They're right, probably. Though there's something to be said for all that slow invisible work the mind does when it isn't buoyed along by anything outside. And there are lessons you learn, too, knowing you're weak and unimportant and socially invisible - these lessons ought to keep you sane and clean and without illusions."

And this ...

"When you do finally make your way into the writing personality that is your real one, it's such a relief ... It's like wandering round for years and years in a writing wilderness and then letting yourself in at least to your own house with your own key."

Only in America: God and guns

An article in today's New York Times described a general rush on gun and ammunition sales post-Sandy Hook, a rush that was already underway post-Obama's re-election. This rush can be interpreted as: liberal in power, better stock up before they tighten the law on gun sales; or the more disturbing but less readily articulated, black man in power better get me a gun.

Among the hoards frantically attempting to buy up big at the tiny counter of a gun shop near Atlanta was a pastor from Knoxville, Tennessee. A man of the cloth. A man of God. A follower of Jesus. Rushing out to buy a gun. 

And a few paragraphs later we meet an Iraqi war veteran who had just sold his semiautomatic for three times the usual price - $1700 - and who was determined not to feel bad about this post-Sandy Hook windfall. He would be using the money to pay for dental work, a new computer and his first year of Bible College. 

God and guns. Only in America do they seem to go together like love and marriage, a horse and carriage.

I don't get it. I never will. I am not a believer but I was raised Catholic and sat through endless sermons during thirteen years of religious school and not once do I recall hearing anything from a pulpit that indicated that the Jesus man that so many gun lovers purport to follow would be a signed up member of the NRA, an owner of any kind of weapon let alone a semiautomatic.

And then there is the thought that guns and gun culture are in and of themselves a religion to many in the US, an article of faith that is just as resistant to facts and analysis as traditional religion but a whole lot scarier.

Gun culture. It's as American as apple pie but a whole lot more difficult to to digest.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The broken window theory of feminism

It actually does matter. All of it.

That might seem a bit boring to some who roll the eyes and say surely not, here we go again, the women are up in arms. Outrage! Why can't they just focus on the important stuff?

The argument that we should stick to the big ticket items - equal pay for equal work, paid parental leave, domestic violence, rape - and forget the rest has some appeal at first glance. Surely we are sapping our energy if we jump on every little incident.

Or are we? The way I see it, it is the pervasive everyday sexism (follow @everydaysexism on twitter if you aren't already) - the stuff that girls and women are subjected to as routine - that informs the cultural landscape and promotes the very perceptions that support and reinforce those 'big ticket items'.

It is not exactly surprising that in a country where a major tabloid newspaper named a horse as Sportswoman of the Year, sportswomen are seen as lesser in a number of important and concrete respects - less coverage, less sponsorship deals, and less pay. And while that is one example of an incident that led to a wave of feminist 'outrage' (they may as well just go the whole hog and call us hysterical) it is part of a bigger picture.

Of course we must pick our battles, because if we were to literally jump up and down about every incident of sexism that occurs in our daily lives as women, we wouldn't have much time to do anything else (although we would be be super fit).

I would never be so presumptuous to tell a person impacted by racism to just turn down their outrage-meter. Does anybody really think that everyday or 'casual' racism is unrelated to statistics on race and poverty, imprisonment rates and unemployment? Or that everyday racism in and of itself is not damaging to the psyches of those who have no choice but to live with it?

The broken window theory of feminism is not my idea. I stole it from twitter (if anybody knows the origins let me know so I can credit) but I think is a great conceptual framework to think about the real impact so-called everyday sexism has on women and girls; and why expressing our outrage and disgust at these everyday incidents is anything but a waste of time and energy. For young women in particular, recognising and protesting these everyday examples may also be an empowering first step towards becoming fully fledged multi-dimensional joint destroyers.