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Keep Calm and Parent On

18 Feb

The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself” – Oscar Wilde

It starts soon after you first tell people you’re pregnant. Suddenly, everyone has an opinion. On everything.

Whether you should drink tea or coffee. Whether you should eat blue cheese. Whether you should wear clothes that hide your bump or accentuate it. Whether you should take it a bit easier at work or be a trailblazer for how pregnant women can still do it all.

What I didn’t realise was that it gets worse once you have a baby. At least when you’re pregnant, the only people who tend to have an opinion are those who have been pregnant themselves. Once the baby arrives, it’s pretty much a free for all. Even those who have no babies and no experience with babies are happy to share their views on how you’re doing with parenthood.

Some said I should go back to work part-time, some said I have to do full-time for the money and others thought I shouldn’t go back to work at all. I should go out and paint the town red or have a date night with my husband (I think this was first suggested when my baby girl was 3 weeks old). I should be wrapping her up warmer – I was once told this by a random stranger in Tesco – or not fussing so much over her or watch her more carefully. One of my personal favourites was someone helpfully asking if I was producing enough milk because my six week old baby was always hungry. With hindsight I know this was because a) she’s my baby and greedy like me and b) six week old babies feed all the time.

Advice 3Mums Body and Soul rather scarily point out that this unsolicited advice can continue until your child is in college. Damn it. I had hoped this was going to ease up soon.

This is definitely a good reason to try nipping it in the bud and also learn how to deal with it without losing my cool.

A quick Google search shows 393,000 hits on how to deal with unsolicited advice on how to raise your baby, so at least I know I’m not alone.

I understand that our daughter is connected to people in our lives in a very special way and I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see the bond she shares with people who are close to us. They love Amaya completely and totally and of course, they only want what’s best for her.

But when I’ve had weeks of sleepless nights and am worried if I’m raising my daughter right, it’s not so easy to take advice in the often well-meaning manner it is intended. Julie Francis, manager of Parenting Australia, hits the nail on the head when she says that the most well-meaning advice can make parents feel unsure of their abilities to raise their child well. In other words, all these advice givers can be bad for parental health.

If I’m honest, there are also times when I’m not so sure the advice is well meaning. I’m pretty sure there are times people share advice because it affirms their own parenting style, or they just want you to know how much they know about babies or how relaxed they would be while raising their imaginary kids.

cara-adviceThere is no advice anyone could give a mum which she will not already have felt guilty about and fretted over. Parenthood is a very steep learning curve and babies don’t come with an instruction manual, so I’m always wondering how I’m doing.

If you tell me I should get out and leave the baby more, I can guarantee you it’s something I’ve already worried over. If you tell me my child needs more disciplining, it’s something I’m already struggling to figure out. In fact, I’ll pay you £1000 if you can come up with something I haven’t worried about. It might have to be Monopoly money though, babies are expensive.

Of all the things that no-one told me about pregnancy, babies and motherhood, was this; as a mum you feel guilty from the moment your baby arrives in this world. We constantly worry if we’re doing things right.

And here’s the most disheartening thing about the advice I’ve been given. I could count on one hand how many people have given me any encouragement or told me they think I’m doing a good job of raising my daughter. Now when you’ve got people all day every day telling you what you should be doing differently, those bits of encouragement are like a beacon of light and I cling onto them for dear life.

Advice 4Most people have been wonderful since I had Amaya and I’ve realised how lucky we are.  We have a huge, crazy family who are besotted with her, wonderful friends (many without babies) who have been amazing about our daughter hanging out with us. My two sisters living abroad adore their niece, encourage me and keep me going more than they know. Then there’s my group of ex-work friends who all got pregnant around the same time as me and in the early days were an absolute, non-competitive, Godsend. So it’s not all bad.

And a message to those who may occasionally be a bit overzealous with their advice. I know you mean well and I know it’s because you love me and Amaya that you’re sharing your thoughts with me. Just try balancing it with some encouragement too so I know I’m not doing a terrible job. I won’t get it right all the time but I want what’s best for her more than anyone.

So next time you’d like to give a mum some advice, be kind and know that she will definitely have beaten herself up about whatever it is you’d like to share with her. Better yet, wait to see if she asks for your advice. Or forget the advice and give her some reassurance instead. Tell her she’s doing an amazing job, or she seems to be holding up really well with the lack of sleep, or that she must be doing something right because her baby is happy.  Trust me, you will make her day.


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“Boys will be boys”: An update on women’s rights in India / Bucket List No 3 – Have an article published

18 Sep

This article first appeared on the blog for a UK charity called Development in Action and can be found here. I didn’t get paid for it (one day…) but I do get to tick another item off my bucket list.  And I learnt something about India politics and the new government, a topic I knew very little about beforehand.

***

Women’s safety has become a buzzword. But this is again the concept of strong men, who think they have to protect women. What we actually demand is not security, but equal rights for us women” – Khadijah Faruqui, Helpline 181 Director (May, 2014)

In December 2012, the rape of a young student on a bus in Delhi sparked protests across India and caused international outrage. In a country where rape is prevalent and sexual harassment is a part of everyday life, this vicious assault started a new tide of feminism that demanded the safety of Indian women. It led to the Anti-Rape Bill in March 2013, which introduced stronger sentencing for attacks against women including rape, acid attacks, voyeurism and stalking. It also led to Helpine 181, a 24/7 emergency service based in New Delhi to support women who have suffered any kind of sexual harassment.

© Shivonne du Barry

© Shivonne du Barry

However, the new laws appear to have done little yet to change women’s lives. Helpline 181 receives around 2000 calls a day. In Bangalore, there was public outrage after a 6-year-old girl was raped at school. In Uttar Pradesh (UP) there have been numerous recent attacks, including two teenagers found hanging from a mango tree after being gang-raped, and most recently, a 25-year-old woman who suffered horrific injuries in a terrifying echo of the Delhi attack.

Most frightening of all is the response of India’s politicians. The Chief of UP’s ruling party, Mulayam Singh Yadav, disagreed with the death penalty sentence for the Delhi rapists, saying ‘boys will be boys, they make mistakes’. India’s new ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is no exception. Shortly after the hanging of the two teenagers mentioned above, party member Babulal Gaur told reporters that rape ‘is sometimes right and sometimes wrong’.  These comments are indicative of the underlying gender inequalities in Indian society. Rape has hit the headlines recently but there are long-standing campaigns to raise awareness of eve-teasing, which many of India’s women claim impacts on them on a daily basis. If those leading the country have such misogynistic attitudes, how can India’s men be expected to treat women as equals?

In the run up to the recent national elections, all political parties spoke of women’s safety but failed to explain how this would translate into their policies, despite numerous polls finding women’s rights and safety to be high on the public’s agenda. Women from all walks of life led the call led the call for the government to take action with their Womanifesto campaign. Lawyers, professors, researchers, writers, activitists, all came together to devise Womanifesto’s 6-point plan to improve education, safety and equality for women. However, so far only one of the three main parties, the anti-corruption Aam Admi Party, has incorporated Womanifesto into its political agenda.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP have not only refused to sign up to Womanifesto, but appear to have no political stance on women’s rights. Modi is a divisive figure in India. With a reported record voter turnout, 49% of who were women, his overwhelming victory appears to show huge support across the country. However, in the past the socially conservative BJP has exerted pressure on women to dress and behave in a certain way. It has also been accused of state-ordered violence, most notably in 2002, when Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat. Over 2000 people – mostly Muslims – died in these clashes. This includes over 800 women and girls who were first raped. Although Modi has been officially cleared of any wrongdoing by India’s Supreme Court, many still believe he was complicit in the killings (or at the very least, failed to prevent them). If these attacks happened under Modi’s rule, what could it mean for India’s women under his new government?

The leader of the Gulabi Gang, Sampat Pal Devi, demonstrates in Uttar Pradesh, India. © lecercle

The leader of the Gulabi Gang, Sampat Pal Devi, demonstrates in Uttar Pradesh, India. © lecercle

There is no doubt there are deep-rooted misogynistic attitudes in India and legislation can achieve nothing if attitudes towards women do not change. Seven of Modi’s 24 cabinet ministers are women – more than previous governments – but that is still largely men making decisions about women rights.

There is still hope and the women of India are riding the turning tide following the Delhi attack. As well as the passionate women behind Womanifesto, all Helpline 181’s employees and volunteers have experienced some form of sexual harassment, which has made them want to help others. There is the Gulabi Gang, soon to be the subject of a Bollywood film. If you think the Spice Girls embody girl power, you need to hear about Sampat Devi. Fed up with levels of violence against women, Devi started the Gulabi Gang, a fuchsia sari-wearing, bamboo stick-wielding women’s group that challenges the levels of violence against local women. There are now over 400,000 members.

One thing is for sure: India’s women want change and they need more than lip service and tokenism from their government.

To stand with the women of India, ask Modi to commit to Womanifesto by signing this petition.

***

Development in Action (DiA) is a development education charity run entirely by young people, for young people.

#banbossy

28 May

There are quite a few things capturing my imagination lately which include a hashtag. #100happydays is one of them.  #banbossy, or the Ban Bossy campaign, is another one.

Launched two months ago by Sheryl Sandberg and backed by Beyonce and Victoria Beckham, the inspiration behind it is that when girls stand up for themselves or know what they want, they’re called bossy.  This discourages them from speaking up and over their lifetime, they’re held back by worrying that they’re being too bossy.  Ban Bossy is fighting this by encouraging girls to ignore bossy gibes and instead think of themselves as leaders.

The campaign has had a lot of stick with a lot of people, including strong women, picking holes in it.  The word bossy is not the problem. Banning a word gives it more power. If you ban bossy, people will just come up with another word.

I can see their point.  It’s not a perfect campaign, but here’s why it made me sit up.

I used to be called bossy when I was younger and I still remember how much I hated it.  I don’t mean affectionately being called bossy now by my younger cousins (at least I think it’s affectionate).  I mean the scolding, accusatory “stop being so bossy” which would stop me in my tracks.

The campaign seems to be catching on.  Google the word “bossy” and Ban Bossy is first on the list.

There’s a new wave of feminism coming and it’s not about the traditional stereotype of women with hairy armpits, angrily shouting about how they hate men. It’s about all the little, everyday occurrences which chip away at women’s confidence but are really hard to put your finger on.

And of course, we don’t want to make a fuss or be too pushy about these things, right?

Wrong.

Women are deciding it’s time to do something about it and Ban Bossy is just one part of it.

Another brilliant example is http://everydaysexism.com, a website where women are encouraged to send in any experiences of sexism, however insignificant they might seem. I guarantee every single woman will find an experience they can relate to. It’s a powerful way to give a voice to all those little niggles that bother women, but which we brush off every day because we don’t know how to make a stand against them.

That’s what Ban Bossy is trying to do. It’s questioning and highlighting one of those little things which keep a girl in check over her lifetime by calling her bossy and later as a grown woman, pushy or aggressive.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying being bossy is ok. When you start ordering people around without any thought to their feelings, that’s bossy and it’s not a pleasant trait whatever age you are. But let me ask you something. How often do you hear boys being called bossy? My younger brother and male cousins never got told they were being bossy, it was only the girls. It’s Little Miss Bossy not Little Mister Bossy. Boys are boisterous, energetic or just being boys. Girls need to be sweet and well-behaved.

We’ve come a long way from the overt sexism in the Mad Men era of the sixties and the casual groping of women in the seventies, eighties and even the nineties. But that doesn’t mean we’ve got equality in 2014.

The pay gap between men and women in the public sector is 13.6% and in the private sector is even higher at 19.9% (TUC, 2013).  55% of graduates are women and we make up 42% of the workforce. It sounds good until you also hear that only 22% of MPs are women and we only hold 6.1% of executive positions in the FTSE 100. In spite of the advances we’ve made, something is holding us back.

Ban Bossy might not be a perfect campaign but those who are criticising it are ignoring the spirit of it. It’s not about a literal banning of the word bossy. It’s thinking about how you are treated as a woman and how you treat other women.

I think about these things a lot more since I had a baby girl. My daughter is 9 months old and right now, her version of walking is wiggling her bum in the air, but there will come a time when she’ll be standing on her own two feet and making her way in the world. It’s down to me and my husband to help her be a happy, self-assured and confident person.

That doesn’t mean she gets to behave however she wants. I don’t want to raise a thoroughly spoilt brat, as my aunt would say. It means I’ll encourage her to assert herself and stand her ground. It means she won’t be told she can’t do something because it’s not what girls should do.  I’ll let you know how we’ve done in 18 years or so.

Americanah

20 May

Americanah

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book. I’d love to blame it on being a mum but truthfully, I’d just got lazy. That’s not my Tiger and Dino Baby weren’t cutting it anymore. I needed some brain food.

Step in my sister with a recommendation for Americanah.  Written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, it comes after the critically acclaimed Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun and her collection of short stories The Thing Around Your Neck.  She published Purple Hibiscus when she was 25, has had her books translated into 30 languages and is part of growing movement of writers bringing African literature to the forefront.

Americanah is her latest offering. It’s about many things but it centres on a love story.  Ifemelu and Obinze meet in high school and fall in love but are separated by their ambitions for a better life outside of Nigeria.  Ifemelu goes to America and they decide that Obinze will join her later but after 9/11, he is refused a visa.

What follows is their individual stories and challenges away from home.  Ifemelu struggles to adapt to life in America and Obinze falls into an illegal life in England.  They meet many years later in a newly democratic Nigeria.  Ifemelu returns from her life as a famous blogger in the States and Obinze is a wealthy and married man.

The title comes from Ifemelu’s Nigerian friends when she returns to Nigeria. When she complains of the humidity or the noise of the generator, her friends teasingly call her Americanah. Race, immigration, how people’s lives can change in new countries and life in Nigeria are all part of this love story.  And it is definitely thought provoking.

Ifemelu’s blog on race runs throughout the book; Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes) by a Non-American Black.  It’s a long-winded name and a powerful tool in opening up a dialogue about race.

The author

The author

Race is a different concept for everyone, depending on where you’re from, where you live and your personal experiences.  I’m Asian but born and bred in the UK.  My instinctive reaction is to say I rarely think about race but I do. Growing up being called a Paki or my colleague at Woolworths asking if anyone was going to the Paki shop, made me aware I was different.  When I visited Brighton recently with my husband thinking we might move there, we were both looking for the other brown people.  The closest we got was a waiter in a fushia sarong in a local Indian restaurant.  We’re so used to seeing Asians everywhere, even in my relatively suburban home town in Kent, that it’s only when there’s no Asians around we notice it.  A bit like Ifemelu, who doesn’t identify herself as black until she’s in America.

It’s not just non-blacks who Ifemelu has issues with.  She faces challenges from African Americans.  Her handsome, straight-laced boyfriend Blaine has a sister who takes a dislike to Ifemelu and loudly announces that Ifemelu’s blog has only done well because she is African.  If she were African American she’d be labelled as angry.

There is an African American culture here which there isn’t in England and from my British point of view, I missed a lot of cultural references.  One which I did understand was the response to Obama winning the election.  Of course we all knew it was a historical milestone that a black man was voted in as President, but seeing it from the perspective of black people in America is something else.

I like to think I have some understanding of racial differences and racial identity. Yet, I found some of Ifemelu’s critiques of non-black people’s behaviour towards her a little severe.  As humans, we strive to find common ground with each other and she can be cutting of non-black people who bring up their experiences of Africa as if to prove how much they like her home continent.

I get it.  It’s like when people talk to me about India thinking that it’s all the same thing, even though I’ve just told them my mum is from Afghanistan/Kashmir, my dad is from Pakistan and I’ve never been to India. But it struck me as too harsh.

Then again I’m not African or African American so perhaps my perspective is different.  And maybe the sad thing is that this attempt to find common ground can often be where people perceive there to be the greatest difference between them; in this case, race.

Americanah takes you backwards and forwards in time between Nigeria, London and the US.  Adichie’s writing brings the most mundane, everyday events to life and I enjoyed the journey of the characters more than the ending.  It’s a book for you if you enjoy stories which give you an insight into new cultures and countries.  As someone who’s only visited Egypt on the African continent, reading about life in Nigeria completely captured my imagination.

Would I recommend Americanah?  I think you know the answer to that. Yes.

It’s the kind of book that makes me want to join a book club and I’ll definitely be reading her other books.