Monday, December 23, 2013

holy family, batman!

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. 

I can tell this because there is only one day left to go on our Advent Calendar. Otherwise, the days with a three-month old baby pretty much all blend into one.  It’s as if time stood still when she was born and we are living in a bubble suspended in it, while everything else carries on around us: more Groundhog Day than Christmas Day.

So, ‘tis the season and all that. The season might not mean much to the three-month old, but the three-year old is rapidly turning into a Christmas-obsessive. Which leads me to the question of how to frame the narrative of Christmas for her. 
I’m what’s best described as a lapsed Catholic, so the ‘true’ meaning of Christmas is one obvious narrative that has been pushing itself forward for my attention. ‘What’s the harm?’ I initially thought. The Nativity is a nice story and talks about a special baby being born; babies are something to which the three-year old can relate.
And, there’s no denying that this ‘true’ Christmas story is a counter to the mindless consumerism of presents, presents, pudding, and more presents that Christmas can also mean. 
But, here’s the thing. 
If you find it hard to believe that Christmas commemorates the birth of a uniquely special baby - the son of God made flesh who grows up to save us all from our sins - then it’s hard to think of a reason for all the fuss on this particular day. There were no angels, shepherds or adoring magi around when my babies were born and I think they’re pretty special. How to explain the lack of lowing cattle and angelic hosts in their post-natal photo-calls?
Perhaps the answer is to reach back even further, to the ‘original’ pre-Christian origins of Christmas, as a festival to mark the winter solstice on 21 December and break up the long gloom of winter. Yep, no problem with that. Except ... we live in the southern hemisphere and the winter solstice occurs in ... June. Those crazy imperialists not only imported a colonising ethos but also an upside down festival calendar, which sees the the winter festival of Christmas take place in summer, the spring festival of Easter take place in autumn and the autumn festival of Hallowe’en take place in spring. Turns out that religion - i.e. that these are Christian festivals not nature-based festivals - is the best way to make sense of these topsy-turvy traditions. Back to the drawing board (with a mental note to put a special emphasis on Matariki as a festival that makes sense in this part of the world come winter-time).
Perhaps the answer then is in the gift-giving and pudding-eating. Stay with me on this one: I’m not about to put in a plug for rampant consumerism as a stimulant to the economy or anything. Regardless of the price-tag, or even if they have a price-tag at all, giving gifts reinforces familial and social bonds and obligations. Think about who you give gifts to: family, friends, workmates, neighbours, communities. Think about who you share food with: pretty much ditto. 
I’ve not been called on to explain the ‘why’ of Christmas just yet - we’re living ‘what’ at the moment - but I think this will be my take: Christmas is a time for family (in the very broadest sense of the word), for taking care of others, for showing others how much we appreciate them (that’s where the gifts come in, big or small), for nourishing the body and the soul (eat, drink, be merry ... and have a snooze after Christmas dinner).
And to remind ourselves that all families are holy families.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

to sleep, perchance to dream

‘Twas the week before Christmas and all through the house / Not a baby was stirring nor even a mouse’
Aaaah.. they’re all asleep: baby, three-year old ... husband. It’s mid-afternoon on a mellow Sunday and I’m the only one conscious. Well, semi-conscious, at least. There’s still a patina of tiredness over my days, but it’s - mercifully - starting to recede as the baby starts to sleep longer at night, and get a little more predictable during the day (touch wood). As with the last time I had a young baby, I have become obsessed with sleep - who’s getting it, when they’re having it, how long it is, was it interrupted - the way others might be with celebrity affairs. 
45-minute sleep cycles, 20 minutes of REM sleep, sleep breeds sleep, rocking, driving, walking up and down, even  - confession time - feeding to sleep. 
We remind ourselves that sleep deprivation is a form of torture. Ruefully, we agree that is, but try to grin and bear it. We try to sleep while the baby sleeps, but that often doesn't happen with a pre-schooler about.
I’m amazed by how wonderful I can feel with a decent night’s of sleep, how wretched with a broken night. On those latter nights, I wonder how humanity managed to survive so long. Lucky babies are cute, I guess.  It also makes me wonder about the role of sleep in the lives of those who shape history. Margaret Thatcher famously slept only four hours a night, opining 'sleep is for wimps'. I wonder if she would’ve been less of a ruthless warmonger if she’d got her head down for another two-three hours a night?
Sleep can even be considered a feminist issue. In 2010 Arianna Huffington and Cindi Lieve spearheaded a sleep challenge to raise awareness among women about the effects of sleep deprivation. They commented:
Americans are increasingly sleep-deprived, and the sleepiest people are, you guessed it, women. Single working women and working moms with young kids are especially drowsy: They tend to clock in an hour and a half shy of the roughly 7.5-hour minimum the human body needs to function happily and healthfully. The negative effects of chronic sleep deprivation are well-documented, but that doesn’t inspire enough people to prioritize rest, and women often end up in a vicious cycle (sic) of sacrificing sleep in order to do extra work and make sure their domestic duties are fulfilled, causing all of the above to suffer.
Reporting their comments, Kate Harding at Salon similarly compares the faux-heroics involved in dieting and in depriving oneself of sleep: ‘it’s strikingly similar to how we talk about sleep — functioning on five or six hours’ worth is seen as a heroic accomplishment, while getting a full eight hours on the weekend is regarded as indulgent (“Sleep is for the weak!”)’. Harding calls ‘bullsh*t’ on both puritannical atttitudes, putting them down to the need for ‘cultural approval’ or ‘reward[ing] those who endure the deprivation of biological necessities, regardless of any toll it takes’. 
There have even been recent studies recently which show that poor sleeping or sleep deprivation can affect women more strongly than men. A Duke University study showed that poor sleep affected women’s mental health more than men’s (charmingly reported by the Telegraph as women being ‘grumpier’ than men). Another Canadian study showed that men sleep better than women, including falling asleep more quickly and being able to fall back to sleep once woken. I’m a little bit skeptical about some of these findings: how do you account for diverse social and economic factors, and family statuses in this research? Is the reason for women’s worse sleep experiences down to nature (hormones, circadian rhythms, breastfeeding) or culture (anxiety, motherhood, making ends meet)?
Of course, there’s a difference between ‘choosing’ to deprive yourself of sleep in order to fit in all of life’s demands and being woken by a hungry baby in the middle of the night. But the impact on one’s mental and physical health is the same. And it can create a vicious circle: once you know you can ‘soldier on’ with less sleep than you need, how much of a pattern does it set for managing multiple demands on your time later on? The fact that I’m sitting here meditating on sleep rather than, say, trying to actually get some, is more than a little ironic in this context.
A couple of years ago, someone said to me that once you become a parent you’ll never have another good night’s sleep again. I thought they were either nuts or just plain mean-spirited (I was not sleeping well at the time), but since my first child was born I’ve never been able to sleep my previous personal norm of eight hours a night - even after she started routinely sleeping through the night. The best I’ve been able to manage is seven and a half hours (which is perfectly fine and healthy - I’m not complaining about that at all. In fact, at the moment, I’d definitely take it!)
Needless to say, all I want for Christmas is a good night's sleep. Or several reliable nights from here on in, actually.
As Huffington and Lieveve comment, getting a good night's sleep is especially important for women: ‘we’ve already broken glass ceilings in Congress, space travel, sports, business and the media — just imagine what we can do when we’re fully awake’.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

It's a girl!

I'm back!
With a ten-week old baby asleep - for the moment - in her basket.

And a three-year old in childcare.
I just have a few snatched moments as I hear the baby stirring a little. But what I have learned in the past ten weeks is to snatch the time to do things for myself here and there when I can. Waiting for a clear half hour or more makes for a crash course in frustration.
So! We have another baby girl who is getting bigger day by day and is slowly becoming more settled and a little less unpredictable. I’m obviously biased, but I think she is adorable. Just like her big sister.
In the last thirteen weeks since I went parental leave, I have:
  • done a two and a half hour job interview six days before giving birth (not recommended. I was so shattered afterwards I went to bed straight after dinner)
  • given birth via elective caesarean section (of which more another time when it feels a bit more in the dim and distant past. But, in brief, everything went well this time around. Hurrah!)
  • been discharged by my midwife and had two visits from the local Plunket nurses (of which more in another post)
  • felt really upset as I listened to the cries of baby number two as she had her six-week vaccinations. On the plus side, she seemed fine afterwards. 
  • heard people say some really odd things about second children in general and girls in particular (or which more in another post)
  • not had nearly as much as sleep as I’d like and trying not to get my hopes up about her sleeping through the night
  • breastfed the baby, then fed her again, and again, and again ...
  • read both hopeful (a test case for gender pay equity in New Zealand and calls for a shorter working week) and depressing  (the repellent Roast Busters being top of the list) things in the papers about mothers, and girls and women in general. There is still a long way to go to achieve genuine gender equality.
  • felt, so the ending to a million primary school stories goes, ‘tired but happy’.

That’s all I got for now. 
I think I hear the baby calling....

Monday, September 23, 2013

the final countdown

‘We’re heading for Vee-nus (Vee-nus) and still we stand tall ...’
Those of a certain age will certainly remember this iconic ‘80s hair metal track and if you’re not familiar, check it out here and prepare to be vastly entertained. The blond teased and permed hair! The black leather pants! The white tuxedo jacket! The pink lip-gloss pout! ‘The Final Countdown’ was definitely released at a moment before irony infected everything.
Back in 1986, when the Cold War was still the dominant global apocalyptic trope, Swedish band Europe released this song with its annoyingly catchy keyboard riff. It’s particularly annoying because, everytime I hear it, it reminds me of an impulse buy I made age 11 that left me feeling like I’d made the wrong choice.
I had been saving up my pocket money for weeks, if not months, to buy Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet on cassette. Living on a Prayer! You Give Love a Bad Name! Wanted Dead or Alive!  Kids loved the ‘Jovi back in ’86. Every week, my savings growing steadily, I went into Woolworths (latterly Deka) on the main drag of Papakura, where we lived at the time, to check that there were indeed copies of the tape still there. 
Then the fateful day arrived: I had saved up the $11.99 required to get my very own copy. Back to Woolworths I went and down I took a copy of that long-desired tape. But then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Joey Tempest and his gang looking like they were about to depart planet Earth any second and heard those distinctive keyboard notes in my head. ‘Hmm,’ I thought, putting down the minimal black and red Bon Jovi cassette, and picking up this promise of intergalactic travel, ‘maybe I should get this instead?’ Temporarily possessed by an immovable earworm and a sense of novelty, I ended up leaving the store with The Final Countdown in my red and white Woolworths bag, instead of the tape for which I went in. 
Aside from the of course brilliant title track, it wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t Bon Jovi. I tried to like it a lot, but it always felt like a bit of an effort. To really rub it in, my younger brother, who had not saved up his pocket money (and had therefore not really 'earned' it), got Slippery When Wet for Christmas that year and gleefully took every opportunity to tell me how superior it was compared  to The Final Countdown.
Anyway, this trip down memory lane is really apropos of nothing, other than that I am on the final countdown (see what I did there?) to having this baby. And also, like last time, watching a lot of nostalgic clips of this and that on YouTube to pass the time until we get there.  
And this time, unless I go into early labour in the next couple of days, there is a definitive date to which to finally countdown: Thursday 26 September.  Following on from my last post, I have indeed made the decision to have an elective caesarean. I’m feeling a little apprehensive about it, especially as it gets closer, but the relief I felt once I had made the decision and told my midwife and the doctor suggests to me that I’ve made the right call (unlike I did in front of that long ago Woolworths’ shelf). 
I want to thank everyone who sent me messages based on my last post for their kind and supportive words: thank you for sharing your experiences, both the positive and the not-so-positive, and your advice. It really helped me focus on this decision and make up my mind about what to do.
So this is ‘au revoir’ for now. I’m not sure when I’ll be posting again as I’m also anticipating a fog of newborn baby-ness after the hospital stay is over, but I hope to be back online before the end of the year.  
Perhaps 'The Final Countdown' is a more apposite choice for this post than I at first realised: I’ll leave you with these poignant words from Monsieur Tempest and co (well, poignant if you try and ignore the accompanying perms and the pouts):
'We're leaving together
But still it's farewell 
And maybe we'll come back, 
To earth, who can tell? 

I guess there is no one to blame
We're leaving ground (leaving ground)
Will things ever be the same again?

It's the final countdown.'

Saturday, September 7, 2013

decisions, decisions

36 weeks and counting...
Yesterday, I finished work and began my parental leave. 
Today, I started bleeding and ended up in hospital, wondering if I was about to go into labour four weeks early.
Now, having been monitored and checked for a couple of hours and given the all-clear, I am back at home.
Today's experience has brought a few things into focus, not least of which is that I should probably wash some baby clothes and pack a bag for the hospital ... just in case.
Mostly, however, it has forced me to think even more about the end-game of this pregnancy: labour and birth. 
This week, I went to visit a specialist to discuss what happened last time and what my options for the delivery would be this time around i.e. would it be OK to labour naturally? What precautions could be taken to try and ensure that what happened last time wouldn’t happen this time? Was a planned caesarean an option and, if so, was it a good option? What were the risks in each of these scenarios? There were a lot more questions too, which the doctor patiently answered. His conclusion? That I am more ‘high risk’ because of what happened last time, and they’d take some extra precautionary measures to actively manage the immediate post-natal period. In his view, however, there was no reason that I couldn’t let nature take it’s course if that’s what I wanted to do. Equally, if I felt that a planned caesarean was the best (‘least worst’?) option then they would be happy to arrange that too. So I have some thinking to do - fairly speedily - about what I would ideally like to happen.  
It’s kind of funny to be contemplating a caesarean this time around, when I was adamant last time that I wanted to avoid one if at all possible. When they offered forceps as a first alternative when the baby wouldn’t come out, my first thought was ‘at least it’s not a caesarean’. In the event, I would’ve had a better recovery first-time around if I had had a caesarean. 
During this pregnancy, up until fairly recently, I’ve been in a bit of denial about the birth. If I thought about it all, I was picturing a straightforward labour and birth without follow-up surgery that would be a much more positive experience than the first one. And, maybe, somewhere at the very back of my mind, it would enable me some time in the future to tell my daughter that birth can be a positive experience. But as that mental image is getting much much closer to becoming - or not becoming - a reality, I’m starting to wonder if that really is the best option after all.
I have yet to make my final decision - although today when I thought I might be going into labour early, I was, let me tell you, much much much less excited at the prospect than last time - but time is getting short now and I need to make up mind.
While in the process of making it up, one thing the doctor said keeps resonating: ‘a straightforward labour and birth after a traumatic one can be an incredibly empowering experience ... but a labour and birth that doesn’t go too well again probably won’t be.‘ It got me thinking, somewhat digressively, about the idea of birth as empowerment, some of the ideas circulating around how best to give birth, and how they may set up women to feel like failures if their experiences don’t match that ideal.
‘Empowerment’ is part of the vocabulary of feminism (and other movements aimed at achieving liberation or greater equality), but I’m not sure it’s entirely being deployed in a feminist way in this case. Certainly, the reclamation of routinely medicalised and highly interventionist births by midwives and expectant mothers is, at least in this country, viewed as one of the gains for women made via second-wave feminism. I’m not knocking that by any means, particularly after the reading I have done about the kinds of births women were subjected to in the post-war period, and still are in some countries. I agree that pregnancy is a state of health and that in the roughly 80% of births that are straightforward (not easy) probably minimal intervention is required. While the ideal of natural, drug-free birth is still contested - some doctors, for example, argue that pain management is also an advance and advantage that women should be entitled to in labour and birth - it is nonetheless mainstream in a way that it wasn’t in the 1950s-1970s. 
There is, however, a sense that a natural birth without drugs is the ideal to be aimed for and that opting for an epidural and/or caesarean or other intervention that is not medically necessary is ‘the easy way out’. It can also be the case that women who have interventions that are medically necessary can feel ‘cheated’ out of the birth experience they wanted, or feel as if they have somehow ‘failed’. It’s interesting that both these terms - cheating and failure - are also used when it comes to tests, exams, sports and other competitive events. When did how a woman ‘performed’ during childbirth become a measure of womanhood and so tied up with her identity as a new mother?
I can’t say for sure, but I think what began as a liberationist approach to highly medicalised births that really disempowered women has been co-opted from its feminist origins to prop up the the ideology of intensive mothering. In this ideology, a woman commits herself totally to motherhood (which, in sociologist Sharon Hays’ terms is ‘child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labour-intensive and financially expensive’). But I think this ideology takes root even before birth, not only in the surveillance of expectant mothers’ habits, but also in whether they ‘achieve’ an ideal birth (giving a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘labour-intensive’). Furthermore, the ideology of intensive mothering is pro-natalist: it defines all women primarily through their reproductive capabilities and, in doing so, props up heterosexual, cisgendered womanhood as the norm by which all women are measured. That doesn’t seem like feminism to me. 
I wonder, then, if the language of childbirth should be less about ideals and ‘achievement’ - and, the flipside, ‘cheating’ and ‘failure‘- and more on genuine empowerment. This means having the structures and resources in place to ensure that women can make fully informed decisions about what might be best in their own particular circumstances so that their birth experience, however that experience plays out, is as positive as possible. 
How might that help me with the decisions I have to make?
If I opt for nature to take its course and have a natural labour and birth, I may well achieve that ideal birth I can see in my mind’s eye, the one that would likely mean the quickest recovery time for me and positive outcomes for my baby. But I may not. Neither me, my midwife, nor the specialist can say for sure whether that ideal birth will become a reality. If I choose to let nature take its course I need to go into it fully aware of the potential risks, and the possibility, admittedly not huge, that what happened last time might happen again. I need to ask myself whether I’m prepared to risk that. And I need to make the best possible choice with my eyes wide open rather than dwelling on ideals and ideologies.
Because, whatever I choose about how I want to give birth this time, I have nothing to prove to anyone about what it takes to be a woman.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

review: The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood

Sociologist Sharon Hays’ 1996 book, The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, developed the theory that ‘intensive mothering’ - that is, mothering that is ‘child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labour-intensive and financially expensive’ (p 8 and throughout) - is the dominant ideology that governs motherhood in the late twentieth (and also early 21st) centuries. Hays argues that this ideology puts mothers and mothering in direct opposition to the dominant ideology of the marketplace, where ‘rational actors’ competitively pursue their own self-interest in order to maximise both efficiency and profit. Working mothers particularly, Hays argues, are therefore caught in a contradictory double-bind as to how best to balance two seemingly irreconcilable sets of pressures.
What this means is that ‘while the contemporary ideal of intensive mothering involves the subordination of women, it also involves their opposition to the logic which subordinates them ... In pursuing a moral concern to establish lasting human connection grounded in unremunerated obligations and commitments, modern-day mothers, to varying degrees, participate in this implicit rejection of the ethos of rationalized market society.’ (p 18) I think this is a really interesting premise: the logic of capitalism creating within itself the ground for its own opposition (and, perhaps, dismantling?). While articulating the opposition in this way, however, Hays falls short of calling for a transformative politics based on the rejection of the logic of the marketplace. Instead, she focusses on how the ideology of intensive mothering developed, and how mothers themselves continue to perpetuate it, whether they are consciously aware of doing so or not.
The book is structured with three main parts: on overview of historical shifts in parenting and mothering, focussing particularly on the split between the private and public sphere in the 19th century, that led to the development of the ideology of intensive mothering; a review and critique of the work of three leading (i.e. best-selling) childcare experts, Dr Benjamin Spock, T. Berry Brazelton and Penelope Leach, and their role in further defining intensive mothering; and, finally, an analysis of the responses of 38 mothers from a variety of backgrounds to a semi-structured interview questionnaire prepared by Hays and appended at the back of the book. There were some limitations in each approach, which Hays does acknowledge: an overview can only cover historical generalities (and by focussing on the creation of the domestic sphere, it explicitly privileges the experience of white, middle-class women); not everyone buys or reads childcare manuals, and even those who do might take their advice with a grain of salt; and a sample of 38 mothers no matter how diverse is small and, on some variables, one or two individuals would be representing the experiences of whole groups. The mothers also appear to have come from one particular area of the US (San Diego, California), so there is lack of regional and national diversity. Bearing these caveats in mind, however, there are still enough recurring tropes in what Hays uncovers to lend weight to her theory of ‘intensive mothering’ as a cultural contradiction.
I think Hays is largely right in her description of intensive mothering as a contemporary child-rearing ideal, anecdotally evidenced by the differences contemporary parents and grandparents see in their approaches to child-rearing. I’m not sure, however, that her analysis of the cultural contradiction between motherhood and the marketplace is sophisticated enough: it seems too binary, and doesn’t account for other sites of resistance to dominant capitalist narratives, nor work that is not driven primarily by profit. It also ignores the role of mothers as producers and consumers: even if they are full-time stay-at-home mothers, women are also participating in and upholding the capitalist economy. This role has been articulated in both popular books such as Buy Baby Buy and more academic analysis by Marxist feminist critics such as Maria Mies.
Despite these limitations, some of her analysis of mothers’ responses resonated with me. For example, in analysing the responses of working mothers she found that many of them felt that working was not only financially necessary but also justified in terms of ‘making them better mothers’. I was struck by this because I have also described returning to work in this way, not consciously because I wanted to justify myself nor conform to dominant ideals of motherhood, but because I felt it to be true. I think I have personally benefitted from having spent time with other adults and using my other skills, just as I think my daughter has benefitted from spending time with other children in a caring environment, and we all benefitted from the experience and advice of her various carers. 
There’s obviously no knowing whether this is objectively true or not, since we don’t have a parallel experience with which to compare it. Hays in her analysis of this rationale does not judge or criticise the mothers who make this claim. But, interestingly, it does add weight to her theory that even mothers who return to work while their children are young offer reasons for their decision that conform to the ideology of intensive mothering, at least as much as they do to the need to pay the bills. This highlights the point that ideology is not necessarily true or false, or even good or bad; rather it shapes the ways in which we think about things and the ways we describe them and we inhabit them as if they were true. Even those who actively oppose dominant ideologies are still shaping their experience with reference to them, albeit in a negative way.
Particularly in her analysis of the mothers’ interviews, Hays explores how intensive mothering figures in the so-called ‘mommy wars’. She concludes that, no matter which part of this spectrum mothers find themselves on, the ideology of intensive mothering serves the interests of men, the middle-class, and white people (oddly, ‘patriarchy’ or a similar systemic term doesn’t seem to be used much in the book).
Hays is much briefer when it comes to offering solutions to the ways in which the ideology of intensive mothering supports patriarchy and gender inequality. She calls for a second revolution to succeed the ‘stalled revolution’ of second-wave feminism, one which would transform relationships, workplaces, and the wider society. This would not only involve more equal parenting, but also childcare solutions that do not out-source the ‘problem’ to poorly-paid women of colour, further perpetuating social inequalities.  Instead, she argues ‘our best hope for easing women’s burden remains increased public power for women, higher public status for those involved in caregiving, and greater paternal participation in child-rearing.’ (pp 176-77) These inter-related steps, she believes, are likely to result in improved child-rearing policies such as subsidized child-care, job-sharing, flexi-time and parental leave.  Hays acknowledges that these changes are likely to take a long time, and will not completely resolve the tension between the home and the marketplace. Nonetheless, she believes that they will help share the burden equally between men and women.
The fact that this book is now nearly 20 years old and, in the US in particular, change in these areas has been glacial is somewhat depressing and a sign of how much work there still is to do. But even in countries with generous parental leave and flexible work policies, as well as subsidised childcare, it is still primarily women who do most of the childcare, and suffer the kind of motherhood penalties that writers such as Ann Crittenden have identified, albeit to a lesser extent than women in less enlightened countries. Policy changes, then, are only part of the solution; cultural change remains a much more difficult challenge.

Friday, August 16, 2013

things i have learned since 2.31 pm yesterday

That a sense of mastery over your own destiny is illusory at best: things will always happen that are outside your control. A strong shake by the biggest and fiercest of all Mothers is a salutary reminder.
That diving under the nearest table and holding on for dear life seems much less silly and much more ingrained than it used to.
That if you are separated from your loved ones, the first thing you want to do is find them. While knowing our daughter was safe with her carer, our first thought was to leave work and go and collect her.
That walking home uphill after a magnitude 6.6 earthquake while nearly 8 months’ pregnant is slow, tiring progress. Thanks goodness a kind soul offered us a lift home. Otherwise, I could still be walking back.
That people can be very generous: we were not the only ones being offered a lift up the hill, and car pools were organised to get stranded commuters home to various locations around the greater Wellington region.
That the will to normalise is very strong: minutes after the earthquake, while some people were still wild-eyed and shaking, others were making flippant remarks or getting on with plans to get home. After about 24 hours with - touch wood - much smaller aftershocks, my nerves seem to be adjusting much more quickly than they did during the big earthquakes last month.
That maybe there is something to this animal instinct business and pregnancy after all. I don’t have anything to compare it to, but I'm pretty sure my reactions to the earthquake are heightened by the sense of increased vulnerability I feel being pregnant. Weirdly, I have felt more in touch with my animal nature during these episodes than during birth and breastfeeding.
That having a very young child who slept through the quake and hasn’t really noticed most of the aftershocks is probably much easier to deal with than a fearful older child whose imagination is running riot and can’t sleep.
That having a sore bump and lots of foetal wriggling does not necessarily mean early labour, and, even if it did, 33 weeks is way more optimal than 28 weeks.
That outdated advice is still circulating, particularly around sheltering in doorways and the more dangerous ‘triangle of life.’ It’s much much less silly to dive under a table or desk and ‘drop, cover and hold.’
That social media and the internet generally are both a blessing and a curse in times like these: great for circulating messages and information quickly, while freeing up phone lines for emergency calls; not so good for sensationalising - reports of people ‘fleeing’ central Wellington seemed a bit over-the-top to me - and people feeling the need to to outdo each other in the pseudo-sophisticated flippant remarks stakes. 
That there are a number of well-coordinated services and people out there who worked through the strong aftershocks - and continue to work - to try and keep people safe or help them out: emergency services, lines-people, engineers, bus and taxi-drivers, civil defence and emergency management staff, GNS scientists, local and central government officials, and, yes, politicians too. They no doubt have loved ones they wanted to get home to as well, but put their responsibilities to their job and their community first. That is really humbling and I am very grateful.
That this will be a short post: this week, I was halfway through a review of sociologist Sharon Hays’ 1996 book The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, but, strangely, didn’t feel like finishing it this weekend. Hopefully, strong aftershocks notwithstanding, normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

by george, she's done it!

I hadn’t planned for my first post in a wee while to be about the royal birth, not least because I’m not a monarchist, and have not been following The Pregnancy with avid interest. Two things, however, made me change my mind. The first is that my last few posts have been on reasonably ‘heavy’ subjects and I thought it was probably time for a change of pace. The second is that The Happy Event occurred about 24 hours after the earthquake I last posted about: news about something as everyday and positive as a new baby suddenly seemed way more appealing than it had previously. It also provided a bit of light relief from constantly refreshing GeoNet or the Wellington Regional Emergency Management Office Facebook page for news.
The coverage of said Happy Event left me pondering a few things about the narratives constructed around pregnancy and birth, both this particular royal birth and births in general:
1) Back in March this year, author Hilary Mantel, who has written bestselling novels involving historical royals, made some fairly conventional remarks to the effect that Kate Middleton’s job was basically to look pretty and breed (although she may have worded it a little more strongly than that). Her point - a minor one in her talk - was about the perception of the Royal Person generated by the tabloid media, but this didn’t prevent her being pilloried by media (both tabloid and some broadsheets) and politicians alike (I mean, really, didn’t Ed Milliband or David Cameron have anything else to do that day? Surely the latter, at least, had benefits to cut, programmes to slash and jobs for the boys to distribute?) 
But, not surprisingly at all, the coverage of Middleton’s middle as it expanded and then of the subsequent birth pretty much conformed exactly to what Mantel said it would: a focus on her looks and body and on all the minutiae of the pregnancy and birth. So, basically, whatever else she may have to offer, Middleton, like other women in the public eye, was reduced to the corporeal, specifically to her reproductive capabilities. Attention was also drawn to the fact that she listed ‘Princess’ as her job on the birth registration form. Nothing like peddling some conservative constructions of womanhood to sell a few papers is there?
2) Having said that, I’m not going to deny that the birth of any baby is special. But, as nurse-academic Ruth de Souza, eloquently writes, I wish ‘we’ treated every baby as if he or she were as special as this baby. De Souza, who formerly worked in a post-natal ward, points out that not all mothers and their children are sentimentalised in the same way and provides some excellent background as to why. I particularly liked her wishes for all new mothers and babies:
  • I wish the arrival of every infant in the world was greeted with the same sense of anticipation and enthusiasm as the Royal arrival.
  • I wish every mother, infant and family could receive the same “care” as the Royals will.
  • I wish “we” cared as much about maternal and infant mortality around the world.
  • I wish “we” cared as much about “other” mothers who aren’t supported in their mothering and against whom active measures are taken to regulate and surveil their bodies merely because of the accident of their own circumstances.
I would also be much happier about The Happy Event if it helped trigger greater awareness or debate about these issues. 

3) While the ante-natal vigil on the streets of London by journalists eager to scoop the opposition and press photographers poised to capture the first glimpse of the baby was kind of amusing - ‘our latest report is that there is nothing new to report’ - the post-partum parade of new mother and baby was a little disturbing. I know that a straightforward birth can mean a new mother can go home or be up and about within a short while of delivering a baby, but most get to slope incognito out the hospital door wearing trackpants and a loose t-shirt. 
Not so Princess Kate. 
Instead, she was paraded before the waiting media, hair done, full make-up on, tasteful dress echoing that worn by her deceased mother-in-law in her own post-partum parade. While this was no doubt expected and planned for - that dress was surely no coincidence - one can only hope she was doped up to the eyeballs so as not to feel any of the swelling and pain that even in the best circumstances doesn’t subside until weeks after the birth. I can’t help but feel that this kind of tableau perpetuates the idea that birth is a walk in the park, particularly in countries where both infant and maternal mortality is low, and creates false and unreasonable expectations for new mothers. 
What’s more, some media hacks and twitter trolls, who seem to have little understanding of basic biology, were already scrutinising her post-partum body and finding it wanting: look at that bump she still has! How’s she going to get rid of that?  Kate’s post- pregnancy weight-loss plan! Good lord. While trade in celebrity post-natal weight-loss stories has been going strong for a while now, other celebrity mothers at least seem to get some choice about when and how they participate in this narrative (and get paid for it!) The rest of us just get to feel bad about how we can’t live up to these impossible ideals. Following hard on the heels of this damaging nonsense, however, was a wave of commentary supporting Kate and her bump display, saying that she, at least, was sending a positive message to women and girls that this is what a post-partum body looks like and it’s perfectly OK.
4) Around the world, The Happy Event was celebrated in a range of ways: buildings lit up in blue and read, word spelled out by anonymous bodies on naval ships, commemorative newspaper and magazine covers. In Wellington, the plan was to conduct a 21-gun salute. Yep, that’s right: letting off 21 loud noises from phallic-shaped machines designed to kill people to celebrate something that is virtually the complete opposite. That’s not at all weird. 
What was weird, however, was the decision to go ahead with this ridiculous ceremony a mere day after the city had experienced a pretty strong earthquake, which may not have been deadly but certainly frayed nerves (mine included). Apparently celebrating the birth of a baby 12,000 miles away with a militaristic display was deemed more important than the mental wellbeing of some rattled residents. It’s great to know out city cares. 
Now, I’m not saying that they need even have done something as sensible as not marking The Happy Event at all, but perhaps a more suitable alternative could’ve been found in the circumstances. Releasing 21 balloons, perhaps? (Or even 99?)
5) I have to confess that it would’ve been quite nice if the baby had been a girl (and I'm not alone in this one either). Not, I hasten to add, because I have anything at all against boy babies. I’m aware that the laws governing the royal succession were changed to specify that either a boy or girl would inherit the throne before the gender of the baby was known. While this may have positively impacted other members of the aristocracy, a number of Commonwealth states, of which the British monarch is still the titular head, decided to opt for a wait-and-see approach. This means that their succession laws still specify that a male heir needs to inherit the throne, and this in turn impacts on the coming into force of the British law i.e. despite the law change, until all 15 Commonwealth countries who have the monarch as their head of state change their laws it's in no way a done deal. The arrival of a boy ensures that primogeniture - one of the ribs making up the skeleton of patriarchy - survives for another generation, at least. 
Kind of like the new Dr Who, in a way.
But in spite of all that, I wish you good luck new royal parents and baby: a newborn baby is  precious, but also hard work. I’m sure the privileges you enjoy will ease some of that, but then I expect the downside is that, as your baby grows up, you will continue to be publicly scrutinised, idealised and perhaps even condemned for your parenting in a way that most of us are not. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

quaking with fear

It is now nearly 24 hours since and earthquake measuring 6.5 on the Richter scale shook central New Zealand, including me and my family here in the capital Wellington. 
This quake was preceded by two other strong earthquakes, one which shook us awake just after 7am on Sunday morning and the other which caused office workers to dive under their desks on Friday morning. In between times, there have been numerous aftershocks, which have also continued since last night’s quake.
It was terrifying.
Even though I have been in moderately strong earthquakes before both here in New Zealand and also in Japan, seen at a distance the deadly damage wrought by the Canterbury earthquakes, and know that Wellington is built on a series of major faultlines meaning that we can definitely expect a ‘Big One’ at some point in the future, I was not prepared for quite how terrifying the experience would be.  Not so much in the moment when you just react - and I think the actions we took could probably do with a little fine-tuning for any future event - but afterwards when you start thinking about what just happened, what is continuing to happen, whether you’re adequately prepared or not, and how you’re supposed to ever calm your racing pulse again.
I think my nearly 3-year old daughter probably coped with this experience better than I did. Even though her heart-rending ‘mummy, mummys’ still ring in my ears, once she was with us and under the table she seemed calm and was even laughing and dancing round the living room as the evening wore on.
I wish I could have been that carefree. Instead, any of the moderate after-shocks I felt made me grab her and head for the table. I was on edge all evening and slept poorly, unable to relax, especially after a strong after-shock around 4am.
My baby, on the other hand, slept, well, like a baby. 
It didn’t help that the earthquake struck just after 5pm, as the sun was going down, and the power cut out. The primal fear of the trembling earth was further enhanced by a fear of imminent coldness and darkness. We then had to figure out how we would cope without electric light and heat for the night. Fortunately, the Canterbury earthquakes meant that we had stocked up on torches, candles, matches and even a portable gas stove. Just as we were contemplating baked beans in the living room by torchlight, however, the power came back on. Big thanks to those lines-people who worked had to get the power back on. There’s nothing like warm food, light and heat to jump-start a feeling of normalcy.
It also didn’t help that I’m 29 weeks’ pregnant. I checked with my midwife this morning and could tell she was trying not to be too dismissive when she told me that an earthquake is extremely unlikely to bring on premature labour. Last night, in the dark, my tummy heaving as much as the earth below my feet, it didn’t seem like such a remote possibility. I had visions of either having to try to get to the hospital or trying to have a baby without professional help at home.  Neither was doing much to calm my fears.
This morning, though, has brought a little more reassurance. Regular updates from the Wellington Region Emergency Management Office have helped. So have Facebook, email and Twitter feeds (finally starting to see the point of Twitter a little more). It’s not so much the information - though that it is certainly helpful - but also the sense of connection: the reassurance that others are also going through this and that there is still a way to go yet. We checked on our elderly neighbour who lives by herself: she assured us that she was shaken but OK, and we’ll probably check in on her again soon. 
Particularly heartwarming have been the messages from Cantabrians who know better than anyone what the impact of large earthquakes can be, both physically and emotionally.  Even though the earthquake last night was nowhere as severe as those they experienced - and I have everything crossed that it stays that way - the expressions of support (like this one and this one) have been really helpful and extremely generous.
It has also helped that the aftershocks recorded on Geonet so far today have been barely perceptible, although we have been told to expect aftershocks, some moderate to strong, for several days if not weeks.
When I woke up this morning, I was extremely reluctant to let either my husband or daughter out of my sight. The thought of going into work in the centre of town - which we were mercifully advised not to do - was paralysing. The thought of being separated from either of them, particularly if another big earthquake strikes, was almost impossible to bear. My mind began racing with all the emergency preparedness things we hadn’t quite got round to doing: the emergency water should’ve been changed a few months ago, those large imposing shelves in the living room still weren’t secured to the wall, we had no getaway bag prepared. At the same time, however, the list of normal, everyday activities I had to do was whirling away in my brain: a piece of work with a deadline to finish, the bathroom to be cleaned. I realised trying to process all this along with the actual event of the earthquake and its aftershocks had sent my stress-levels sky-high and nothing I tried to do to calm myself down was helping much (this, when I was wide-awake, some time in the middle of the night).
Getting up this morning, I realised the way to deal with my still wild-eyed stress was to do something rather than just sit (or lie) around feeling anxious. So the water has now been changed, the shelves secured to the wall, a getaway bag prepared, the car filled with petrol, and some cash put aside. All this activity, and checking in with various people, as well as the ground staying comparatively still this morning has helped me relax little by little. My tummy is still churning a bit, but I feel much more confident that the baby-to-be, along with the rest of us, is in little imminent danger.
But, every so often, I catch myself thinking ‘what if’. What if another big earthquake comes? What if the next one is much bigger? What if we are all not at home when it happens?  These mental ambushes are almost worse than the earthquake itself.
So I have decided to write this post while my toddler is asleep on the sofa.  Marshalling my thoughts to shape some words has helped them not to stray too far into the wild reaches of fear and and ‘what ifs.’ 
For now, at least.
Kia kaha to all those living in the Wellington and Marlborough regions: let’s do our best to get through this in whatever way we can.

Friday, July 12, 2013

we can work it out

I’m counting down the days that I have left at work before I go on parental leave (24 to go!) Both that and the thought of the different kind of labour which awaits me got me thinking about the nature of work, specifically the role it plays in people’s lives.

In previous posts, I have been bothered by the focus on the career / motherhood question that appears to be heavily slanted towards elite women. In this post, I will be guilty of a certain narrowness of frame of reference too, as I am going to talk about the role of work for me: someone who has the luxury of choosing what kind of work I might do, even if I'm not compelled to become a CEO or political leader.

Before reflecting further on my own working life, I do want to draw attention to some recent research on the inequalities among working women. A 2013 British Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) study found that the gap between women who have a university degree or professional qualification and those in low or unskilled work was a whopping 198 per cent (for those born in 1958) narrowing to 80 per cent (for those born in 1970). By comparison, the gap between professional men and men in low or unskilled work was just 45 per cent (for those  born in 1958) rising to 61 per cent (for those born in 1970).

Dalia Ben-Galim, the associate director of IPPR, comments "many of the advances for women at the top have masked inequality at the bottom. The ‘break-the-glass-ceiling’ approach that simply promotes ‘women in the boardroom’ has not been as successful in changing family friendly working culture or providing opportunities for other women to advance. Women are still concentrated in low-paid and often part-time work. Women with lower qualifications and those who have children at a younger age are finding it harder to secure good jobs and opportunities at work." 
Work, then, is a feminist issue, and comprehends so much more than the fantastical notion of ‘having it all’.  I believe a feminist approach to work should be about changing the paradigm of what work is like: transforming working environments so that women are not unfairly penalised for having had limited educational opportunities, for becoming - or not becoming - mothers, for not wanting to work round the clock or conform to old-school leadership models (a particular pet peeve of mine: bullying bosses are bad news whether they are male or female). I believe this transformation would enrich the lives of male workers too.
When I was young and naive, I remember saying to a co-worker that she shouldn’t work past the hours she was paid for - she routinely worked an extra hour or so at the end of the day so, as she put, ‘she could feel she was on top of the job’ - because it meant our employer was ‘stealing from her’ i.e. by working extra for nothing, the company was taking a free-ride on her labour. Needless to say, I don’t think she appreciated my two cents.  But in my way, I was alluding to something that much greater minds than me have traversed at much greater length: as a worker, rather than employer, the thing that you have to ‘sell’ is your labour power (regardless of whether it is physical labour or intellectual labour).  An employer ‘buys’ your labour power, but, even among the well-recompensed, at a much lower cost than what he/she/they will profit from it. This is (very) basically how power operates within capitalism.

The job I was doing at the time I gave my well-meaning but not well-received advice, was not something at which I planned to make a career. I was on a working holiday in London, so the work I was doing had a larger function: to pay my living costs, yes, but also to help me enjoy my ‘OE’. While I didn’t slack off, ambition was definitely not the driver of my working-life at the time. For my colleague, however, work helped her provide for her family, and she wanted to progress as far as she could with it, even if it meant putting in some unpaid overtime.  However unconsciously, she calculated that the extra effort would pay off for her in long-run. 

When I grew up and started working in more career-oriented jobs, I became much less sanguine about my work-life balance without really thinking about it. This was complicated by the fact that my chosen career involved ‘flexible’ work that didn’t always require being in an office. Many aspects of it were enjoyable, challenging and rewarding, so much so that it didn’t ‘feel’ like work. Suddenly, work seeped into evenings and weekends. After some soul-searching about whether the trade-off was worth the increasing lack of a personal life, I decided to leave the career path that I was on. 

Since I left that career path, I have been fortunate to engage in work I felt was both socially important and personally satisfying. However, I still hadn’t quite learned all I needed to about work-life balance. One particularly demanding job resulted in a serious overuse injury that can still flare up during particularly stressful working periods. 

In this post, however, I want to reflect a little on how pregnancy has affected my attitude towards work. 

During my first pregnancy, I worked full-time. I didn’t often work evenings or weekends (learned my lesson there, but I did make the odd exception) but I certainly worked about 110% during the day to make sure that I didn’t work evenings and weekends. The primary reason for that was not ambition, but passion: most of the work I was doing was not only challenging and enjoyable, but had a sense of making a difference too. Indeed, just before I realised I was pregnant, I put my utter exhaustion down to over-work. My manager encouraged me to use some of my stock-piled annual leave. It was a few days later that I took a pregnancy test and discovered there might be another reason for the way I was feeling...

That first time, being pregnant led me to ease up a little at work. I knew from previous experience that stress and over-work can have physiological consequences and it was now important that I not only not inflict them on myself, but also on my growing foetus. Again, I did not slack off, but I started saying ‘no’ to more things, asking higher-ups to prioritise what they wanted me to do in the time available, making sure I had at least a 30-minute lunch-break every day and didn’t just eat at my desk and so on.  

The sky didn’t fall in. As far as I can tell, no-one thought any the less of my ability to do my job. And I saved myself some unnecessary stress. Being pregnant gave me the incentive to be more protective of my self at work, to set boundaries and realise what a healthier attitude to work could have been all along.

This time around, I am in a slightly different position. I work three days a week in paid employment, and try to avoid saying that ‘I don’t work’ the other days (because, census-takers, it most certainly is work). Once I was back at my job, and especially before a job-share partner was found to share the full-time role with me, it took me a while to realise that I wasn’t a full-time worker anymore and adjust my work-habits accordingly. Early on, I even made arrangements to come in for an ‘important’ meeting on one of my non-work days. Watching the clock with increasing anxiety as I listened to others witter on, I made that the first and last time I worked outside my nominated three- day week.

Because when you work part-time and come in for a meeting on a non-work day or take some work home ‘just so it gets done’ (how my former colleague would smile at me now!), you could - and should - be being compensated for it. After the first time this happened, I realised what my younger self already knew: I might earn brownie points for dedication, but I certainly wasn’t earning any money. The person I was cheating was myself, and - if I continued to do this - my family.  I agree with Guardian columnist Zoe Williams' exhortation that women part-time workers should not be apologetic for the fact they work part-time and should, instead, lobby hard for their own interests.

There has been a further twist in my working life while pregnant this time round. Through the whole course of my current pregnancy - and well-beforehand too - my organisation has been going through a review process that is, next week, to culminate in the final announcement of a re-structure that will mean some people will lose their jobs. A substantial portion of those who don’t will, however, have their positions ‘disestablished’ and will then go through a process of being ‘reassigned’, ‘redeployed’ or made ‘redundant’. It’s a salutary reminder that whilst one may be working to pay the bills, to do something meaningful, to achieve work-life-balance, or even to try and ‘have it all’, those in positions of power ultimately have the ability to determine whether you work at all. 
In some respects, assuming that I keep my job, being pregnant at this time gives me a kind of ‘get out of jail free card’. By that I mean, I will shortly be taking just over a year’s leave from what is likely to be an unhappy, uncertain and difficult time for my colleagues. When I return to work, the blood will have been spilled and - hopefully - cleaned up, and I will be able to assess whether I want to stay there or look elsewhere for a job. Of course, I am not suggesting that looking after a new-born baby is not work or that it’s an easy option. But, in my current work environment, it does give me just that: another option. Score another point for the value of work-life balance.
But work-life balance for an individual doesn’t solve the collective problem of inequalities at work: working that out requires a major transformation of all our working environments.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

In the midst of life ...

I should say at the outset that this pregnancy-related post is quite a solemn one (don’t worry, I’m fine!), and even though it is firmly grounded in my own experience may act as a trigger for some readers. 

* * * * *

This is a tale of two pregnancies.

During my first pregnancy, I began to bleed at seven weeks. As I’m sure you can imagine it was a startling and unexpected sight. Given that I was still in my first trimester, I worried that I might be about to miscarry and quickly made an appointment with the nearest GP that I could find. After a check-up, he seemed fairly relaxed that my fears were not about to be realised, but sent me for a scan just to be on the safe side. I felt calmer, but was eager to see what was going on in my otherwise-much-as-usual abdomen.

I don’t think that I really expected to see much at this scan. After all, the scans where you can discern faces and legs and hands come later, at 12 and then 20 weeks. I guess I thought the radiologist would have a quick look and reassure me that everything was just fine (well, fingers crossed anyway).

After consuming practically my own body weight in water in the hour before my appointment, I propped myself up on the bed and gel was smeared across my tummy. Using my inflated bladder as a guide, the radiologist soon found what he was looking for. There, magnified several times, was a small shadowy circle: that, he said, is the remainder of the egg sac, the proof we sought that my pregnancy was still viable. Phew!

But there was something else there too. Something I had not expected to see.

It was like a tiny flickering light, a candle buffeted by a draft. 

As we looked at it, the radiologist turned on the sound. Clear, regular thuds turned the flickering candle into a sure sign of life: a heartbeat. Along the bottom of the screen, we could see the jagged lines graphically representing that heartbeat. This fetal heartbeat, much faster than ours, pushed the lines close together, into steep, high peaks, and deep, narrow valleys.

I watched, speechless, unexpectedly moved by this testament to a life that was still going strong, despite what I feared. Whatever the reason for my bleeding, it was clear that the foetus and I were still in this together.

Afterwards, I couldn’t stop thinking about this moment. It got me thinking about, of all things given my very recent fears, abortion. I was and am firmly pro-choice, believing that it is a woman’s right to control her own fertility. But my experience at the seven-week scan had given me a different perspective. I didn’t agree with pro-life advocates, but I could understand better where they were coming from. It was hard to deny the life-force of that tiny but steady beating heart, that palpable assurance that ‘yes, I’m still here.’

It reminded me of the anti-abortion sign parked by the side of the road of State Highway 2, which infuriated me every time I drove past it: ‘abortion stops a beating heart.’ Designed to guilt-trip, it now seemed like they might have a point.

I’m not the only expectant pro-choice mother who has been given pause by an early scan. In Misconceptions, Naomi Wolf wrote of her reaction to her three-month scan:

As I saw that hand and foot, something irrational happened: a lifetime’s orientation toward maternal rights over fetal rights lurched out of kilter. Some voice from the most primitive core of my brain - the voice of the species? - said: You must protect that little hand at all costs; no harm can come to it or its owner. That little hand, that small human signature, is more important now than you are. The message was unambivalent. (Misconceptions, chapter 5)

While I did not share many of Wolf’s sentiments - ‘voice of the species?’, ‘more important now than you are’? Jeez, Naomi! - I related to her altered perception. And how it led her to question her basic notions of identity and politics. She comments further:

I was still passionately pro-choice. But I was beginning to wonder if a pregnant woman was an implicit challenge to the autonomous ‘individual’ upon which basic Western notions of law, of rights, even of selfhood were based. There are two people inside me now, I thought. Everything is different. Pregnancy, it seemed required a different kind of philosophy; even a better pro-choice language. (Misconceptions, chapter 5, extracted here)
In a previous article in New Republic, Wolf opined that the pro-choice movement had "developed a lexicon of dehumanization" and urged feminists to accept abortion as a form of homicide and defend the procedure within the ambiguity of this moral conundrum. She continues, "Abortion should be legal; it is sometimes even necessary. Sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the fetus, in its full humanity, must die."  Wolf concluded by speculating that in a world of "real gender equality," passionate feminists "might well hold candlelight vigils at abortion clinics, standing shoulder to shoulder with the doctors who work there, commemorating and saying goodbye to the dead."

I don’t think she’s on the right track here, but Wolf does have a point. Trans-historically, cross-culturally, and among other animal species, reproductive control - whether through abortion or, more troublingly, infanticide - is the dark other side of the story of women’s ability to bring forth life. 

My own reflections on this topic didn’t end with my first pregnancy, however.

In this, my second pregnancy, I also had a seven-week scan. This one was simply ordered as a ‘dating scan’ to establish an estimated due date, rather than to confirm the viability of the pregnancy. Again, I sloshed into the radiologist’s room, had the gel put on my tummy, and looked expectantly at the monitor. This time my fear was not that I might have lost the baby, but that there might be more than one heartbeat in there. 

Again, we saw the shadowy egg-sac - just the one, thank goodness - appear on the screen. Again, we saw the candle-flame flickering. Again, we saw the jagged heart-rate and heard the quick rhythmical beat. 

This time, however, my emotional response to the scan was quite different. 

This time, I was more matter-of-fact, less surprised: ‘There it is’, I thought to myself, as if I had just found a lost set of car-keys. I watched the monitor and was only surprised by the fact that I was not really surprised.  What had changed since my previous first scan and this one?

In a word, experience.

While I still remembered my sense of wonder from the first scan, I was also somewhat older and wiser about what it takes to bear and raise a child. I remembered feeling sick as a dog during my previous first trimester. I remembered nearly dying after giving birth, and the long process of recovery from that. I remembered the sleep deprivation, near-constant breast-feeding, isolation, and marginalisation that counter-balanced the marvel of a new baby and the joy of her every movement. I remembered that there are emotional, financial and social costs in having a baby, just as there are incalculable gains. 

More importantly, I knew that I had wanted my first baby and I wanted this one. But I also knew that not every woman who finds herself pregnant does (for whatever reason that may be). I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with pregnant Guardian columnist Tanya Gold, who recently wrote: “Pregnancy has made me more pro-choice, not less; an unwanted pregnancy, I now know for certain, is too much to ask, here or anywhere.”  Similarly, journalist Caitlin Moran powerfully narrates her own experience of abortion, after already suffering a miscarriage and giving birth to two children, in How to Be A Woman. Her conclusion? That women know best about what’s best for them.

But, as my reaction to my first scan attests, this is a complex area.  

While I remain pro-choice, I cannot un-remember the flickering light of life I first saw approximately three years ago. Nor can I ignore the fact that, for some groups of women, the right to have children is threatened by things I am extremely unlikely to experience, such as forced sterilisation (see examples here and here). Nor that some groups of women are stereotyped as ‘bludging breeders’ and are on the receiving end of social censure for having or wanting to have children. But in every circumstance, when it comes to fertility, women are often positioned as less than human, their right to control their own fertility - be it having children or deciding not to have them - is seen as a matter for others to determine. 

Knowing now what I was yet to learn then, I am more convinced than ever that it is the state’s responsibility to provide women with access to legal and safe abortion, not only in cases of rape, incest, threat to the mother’s life, or for medical reasons, but also in cases where a potential mother does not want to carry a child to term for whatever reason that may be. Anything less would be, ironically, to infantilise women, to treat them as if the state - and, by that, let’s face it, I really mean patriarchal ideology - knew better than women themselves about what is best for them.

This is not an abstract or settled issue, either. 
Just this week, Texas senator Wendy Davis filibustered for 11 hours to stall proposed legislation that would have limited Texan women’s right to exercise control over their own fertility. The proposals she took a stand against called for abortions to be banned after 20 weeks, clinics to upgrade their facilities to be classed as surgical centres and doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. They would have forced 37 of the state's 42 clinics to close, making it very difficult for women in rural areas to obtain an abortion if they needed one. 
Since her actions, and those of her supporters, succeeded in over-turning the vote, Davis has been attacked by male politicians for being a teenage mother of a teenage mother, someone who should know better than anyone what the value of a life is. 
Given that Davis was a divorced single mother, working two jobs to support her family, and living in a trailer park by the age of 19, I think she, far better than her male critics, probably does know what the value of a life is and what it takes to make and raise one. She did not choose to end her own pregnancy, but she knows enough to know that not all women would make the same choice she did.