Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Pressure and Perspective at Christmas

This morning I heard a woman being interviewed on the radio, claiming that she was not sure how she’d cope if her delayed Ocado delivery did not arrive. Oh please, I thought, is this what we've come to. Could she not lift herself from her despair and go to a shop? And is it really THAT important, will it change her life? Have we gone mad as a society, have we completely lost perspective?

I felt saddened by this woman’s whining and it encouraged me to finally post something I’ve been thinking about for a while...

On Sunday I had a strop. I seemed to be in the kitchen clearing up all day and felt more like a skivvy than a mother. The next morning I chatted with a friend who said she’d had a similar day. With my hands in the sink I’d started to think about all the mums feeling the same. I don’t want to seem bitter, a martyr of my role “oh poor me with all the washing up to do”. I’m not getting into the male-female-shared housework debate here; my husband contributes (when he’s at home). I am very aware that men and women are different animals who see and do things differently and this creates pressures when living together. That’s not what I’m thinking about here. The point for this post is; what is it about Christmas that does this to us, why was I feeling stroppy and hard-done by at the supposedly happiest time of the year?

Is it just the sheer weight of celebrating – there are more meals, more parties, more people so more mess and clearing up? Is it because it’s the middle of winter when living is harder, it takes longer to do simple things in the cold and dark? Or is it because emotions are more intense – we so want everything to be perfect for our families on that one day that we put more pressure on ourselves?

I’m sure some would dismiss me as a miserable old bag but there are aspects of Christmas I find difficult. I like it to be a family time when we can enjoy being together without the pressure of deadlines. Last year M and I eventually stopped rushing around and got down on the floor and played their new board games with the children and it was great, for all of us. But this can be a difficult moment to get to.

I refuse to get stressed about Christmas – it is, after all, supposed to be simply about celebrating the birth of Jesus. One wise person told me to separate the two Christmases, to accept that there is one religious festival and one occasion of consumerism and feasting. That goes some way to helping justify the contradictions between the two. Although this week, with the Copenhagen summit in the news, I feel uncomfortable about the excesses of Christmas. As individuals I believe we all have to do our bit to help preserve the Earth’s limited resources. Obviously we do not have the power of world leaders, who have prevaricated then flown home in their private jets. But we all have to take responsibility, in whatever way we can. So much is wasted at Christmas, so much packaging sent to landfill. This is not a way of life I feel comfortable with.

“But it’s Christmas,” people say, “lighten up!” Okay, so if this is supposed to be the most joyous time of the year, why does it make so many people unhappy in different ways? I’ve seen mums distressed about Nativity plays – because they couldn’t get there or because their child didn’t perform as expected. Should we be creating this pressure on everyone? Children line up for school ghostly pale, exhausted by the hysteria – do they want to sing these songs and perform these plays for their expectant parents or would they be happier in the classroom? People ask “are you ready”, in expectant tones, creating the intensity of a crucial deadline. Is it really that important what we have for pudding on Christmas Day? And I’ve not touched on the major issues of people spending money they don’t have or domestic violence increasing. When did this become “celebrating”?

My point is, if Christmas is supposed to be a special family time, why have we created a plethora of fuss around it so that mums, with their hands in the sink, just feel stressed and unable to enjoy their families? I understand that celebrating Christmas is about traditions – everyone has their routines they like (or have) to go through, without which it doesn’t feel like “Christmas”. But surely there is a way of preserving these traditions without making it such a contradictory Event? Certainly, I often find my “Christmas moment” in the most unlikely of places. Maybe it’s since I had a baby at Christmas, but I can’t help feeling emotional about how it all began; Mary, raw in her motherhood, and her precious new baby, wondering how their life together was going to turn out.

If we could take a step back, reduce the obsessive consumerism, just give a few gifts and enjoy a few simple family meals together, would it not mean that everyone could properly enjoy the occasion rather than feeling harassed about the next job that has to be done in the seemingly endless quest to create the perfect, fabled, but elusive Christmas?

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

What is a Feminista?

I still puzzle over this blogging phenomenon; why we feel the need to publish our thoughts and share opinions with strangers. However, blogging has brought me some unique experiences, things I would have never tried if I wasn’t in the virtual world meeting new people.

For example, last week I reviewed a book on-line with someone I “met” through blogging. And it was great fun. My virtual book club was with Carolyn of Black and (A)broad. She had contacted me to suggest we read Feminista by Erica Kennedy. Carolyn had read my posts Happy Housewives and Slummy Mummy and the Feminists where I discuss modern feminism being about choice. She had read an interview with Erica Kennedy and been reminded of my comments, so thought we might like to review the book.

Erica Kennedy caused a furore of response on her blog when she defined Feminista using photos of celebrities to illustrate her points. In interviews she seemed eloquent “I never felt comfortable calling myself a feminist because that word has so many negative connotations. The stereotype of the hairy, man-hating woman...Feminista is...the modern woman who is making her own choices... Being a feminista is about tapping into our unique female attributes and living authentically instead of defining ourselves by male standards of success.”

With this as background, Carolyn and I were excited about reading the book, looking forward to a new perspective on feminism for the modern woman. Sadly we were disappointed. Feminista is more chick lit than thought provoking; too much name-dropping Fashionista and, despite what EK had said, too much anti-male aggression to appeal to me.

So what’s it about? Sydney Zamora, who writes for a celebrity magazine and is very dismissive of all her friends who have deserted her by getting married and becoming obsessed with their children, decides she needs to get married. The novel is her quest for a husband.

EK does raise a lot of issues of interest to women – salary inequality; the meaning of marriage - but sadly she deals with them through extended rants by Sydney, angry soliloquies which alienated me and thus lost any impact. I felt the author was pressing points that bug her in life, overtly using her heroine as a voice. That became distracting.

Sydney for us was too judgemental of everyone around her; too negative a character to be a positive role model for today’s women. She’s supposed to be “smart as hell” but spent too much time drifting through her life and moaning, not taking control. The Feminista image didn’t work for us; too abrasive - and too much high fashion. I cannot get excited about $795 “Lanvin flats” worn by Elle Macpherson like Sydney does. To me that is not empowering. But high fashion is not my thing and I’m sure there are many women who would relate to this definition.

We agreed that a new label is needed. Carolyn said “I think the time for "feminism" to be used to describe our situation has come to a close. We need to think of a new word or concept to talk about women like you and me, for example. For me it's about support. I may not agree with your CHOICE to give up your career to stay at home and care for your children but that doesn't matter. I'm not here to judge your choices. As a "feminist" I'm here to give you the support your need to help you execute your choice. I'm not into the judgement thing, and if there's one thing that turned me off of the main character, it's that she was so judgemental... Anger. That's what got the movements started so many decades ago. I'm not sure if anger is driving women today. Maybe it is. But my guess is that we're looking for support. Anger is an outdated notion, in my opinion.”

There were some things we liked; it’s an interesting insight into New York celebrity/society life. There’s a fun story in there which picks up pace – despite the twee ending. I liked the cover! Some readers do get the Feminista message. “Sydney is trying to work out her politics in a messy world which doesn't always cooperate with her...I think Kennedy does an excellent job of portraying Sydney's struggles to figure it all out.” (Amazon reviewer). Others don’t. A comment on EK’s blog was critical of the misconceived marketing pitch EK is using, which indeed drew us in with false expectations. “How you even attempt to link this book to a pseudo-intellectual debate on feminism is offensive. Honestly Sydney a new order feminist? What?!? She isn't even a good character in a bad chick lit novel. And this is a bad chick lit novel & nothing more.”

For Carolyn and I, Feminista is New York Fashionista chick lit. Read it if you enjoy hearing about clothes, shoes, bags, trendy restaurants and celebrity parties. But if you want a read to challenge your mind on what makes the modern, thinking woman, it’s not necessarily for you.

Click here to read Carolyn’s review

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Gold, Frankincense and Sudocrem

At Sunday School we are having very interesting discussions which are challenging and inspiring both adults and children. We are thinking about the nativity story behind the Christmas card scene; what it was like for Mary who was probably a young teenager, giving birth for the first time away from home and family; how it would really feel to sleep in a stable; why shepherds were chosen as the first messengers.

It’s fascinating to see what aspects of the story children take for granted, how years of listening and acting have distorted the sequence of why or how things happened.

“Why did Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem?” H asked. “To have a baby,” a child answered with a tone of “duh, don’t you know anything.” Bethlehem has become such an integral part of Jesus’ birth it’s easy to forget that Mary and Joseph hadn’t planned it that way. (That God had planned it that way is something we will probably discuss in our grown-up's evening chat about the Nativity).

The children explained to H that Mary, Joseph and Jesus had then hung around in the stable waiting for three kings, who took a couple of days to arrive because they lived a long way away. That the kings may not have arrived for up to two years later, and probably visited Jesus back home in Nazareth, is something we didn’t expand on as we didn’t want to entirely disrupt the equilibrium of that idyllic crib scene.

We discussed what gifts the kings brought. One well-informed boy knew that myrrh was cream. “Does anyone know when you would use myrrh?” H asked. “When Jesus was having his nappy changed” the next boy (my six year old) answered! It was another wonderful image in our child-interpreted nativity; three wise men presenting the Messiah with a grey tub of Sudocrem.

Sudocrem would probably have been more welcome to Mary at that time, especially considering what myrrh represented. Each of the three king’s gifts has symbolic meaning: Gold, an image of kingship; Frankincense, burnt in religious ceremonies, indicative of Jesus’ divinity and myrrh, part of the ritual of death. “For Christmas is nothing without what happens at Easter,” H said “because Jesus was born to die.” There was a pause, a contemplative silence from the row of six year olds, all frowning.

Intense talking over, we concentrated on decorating gingerbread men to look like the famous people in the Christmas story, most of whom ended up head or limbless.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Christmas Nativity

I love the one-off comments children come out with – funny but at the same time often sad and poignant, an insight into their perceptions, fears or passions. I have a book called Lots of Love, a collection of such phrases edited by Nanette Newman. “My mother ses she’s cold and then she makes me put on a coat”...”you couldn’t make everyone in the world love each other. They dont even get on in blocks of flats”...”babees need to be loved by their mother in case everybody hates them when they grow up”...”vikars dont larf much. I think its because Jesus didnt tell many jokes”.

At Sunday School we were discussing the Christmas Story. “And what did the angel do?” H, the leader asked. L, a three year old with beautiful blond hair put up her hand. “She sprinkled fairy dust everywhere” she answered seriously. It was a wonderful image, God’s messenger scattering glitter from the heavens. We then moved on to the annual Awkward Moment when we thought about why Joseph might not be pleased when his girlfriend Mary told him she was having a baby. A couple of the teenagers raised their hands. “Is your answer age appropriate?” H asked. The hands were put down again.

As the children trotted out the set answers they have learnt over the years ...Bethlehem...the inns were all a stable...I couldn’t help wondering if by turning the Christmas story into a photogenic tableau we have belittled its meaning and power. If you think about it, riding a donkey when you are very pregnant and giving birth in a cold, smelly stable is not romantic at all. And yet we all coo over it every year, without thinking beyond the images we have manipulated and sanitised.

When a letter came home from school asking for a costume for my son I was reminded how we have corrupted the story of Jesus’ birth with our western interpretation. T is a narrator and required “plain pyjamas, a dressing gown and a stripy tea towel” – none of which we have. Refusing to buy a dressing gown I asked if I could make him a tunic. I was told this would have to be clarified by another teacher. For goodness sake, I thought, who wore dressing gowns in biblical times!

I looked in a child’s bible and found no dressing gowns but lots of men wearing stripy tunics. I also found a disturbing image which reminded me, as H and I discussed at Sunday School, that the most traumatic result of Jesus’ birth is often overlooked; hundreds of baby boys were murdered on King Herod's orders. The picture I saw is of a mother (in a tunic) kneeling over her baby and pleading with a soldier holding a bloody knife. What a terrible thing to have happened. Maybe that is why we never think of it; it’s easier to dress three boys up in crowns and watch them hand over golden caskets. But life was hard and violent in biblical times. And no-one wore towelling dressing gowns.

PS, You will be pleased to hear that my tunic was sanctioned by the teachers and T looked fantastic in it. The play was really very good: Tiny four-year-old angels angelically flapping their wings; wise men telling jokes (my son’s favourite part); great facial expressions from reluctant camels; raucous singing and excellent acting from Mary and Joseph. It even had some realism to satisfy cynical me – an acknowledgement that it was hard for Mary and Joseph to toil across the desert in the heat of the day and cold of the night; genuine concern about there being “no room at the inn”; a mention of the stable being smelly. I was also heartened to see, amongst the Ben 10 nightwear, other creative adaptations of the dressing gown theme.

Pps. Don’t dismiss me as a total killjoy; it does bother me that that I can’t just take these things at face value and sit back and enjoy 90 primary school children performing for half an hour a year. I do also appreciate that there is an element of teachers asking for costumes easily accessible to most parents. I’m just concerned that our children will grow up with a distorted assumption of what was worn in Bethlehem. Some simple context would help restore authenticity. Maybe in the melee of preparing for these plays we should make sure we find time to discuss what people actually wore, and why.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Loose Tooth

My six year old has his first loose tooth. He is delighted. Losing teeth is the most popular subject in his class at school (after football cards). He said one boy spent the “whole morning” in the toilet waggling his teeth! T is completely envious of peers who have already lost a tooth but I have discovered how much I am dreading this stage.

I had forgotten those years of losing teeth, of waggling them with your tongue until they are hanging by a thin strand of flesh; of tying bits cotton then slamming doors to pull recalcitrant teeth out. I don’t remember the pain of new ones coming through. I do remember the excitement of placing a little tooth under my pillow and waking to see what was there in the morning.

My children have beautiful teeth and I am dreading them dropping out to be replaced by unsightly gummy gaps and huge crooked slabs, teeth seemingly too big for tiny mouths. Maybe part of my dread is that this is another stage of them growing up, and children growing up can be hard for parents. Much as we can enjoy the new experiences (and sometimes freedoms) that growing up brings, there is also, for me certainly, a little pang of loss at what is now passed for ever.

Mostly however, the excitement over losing teeth has made me feel quite queasy. I didn’t really want to wobble my son’s proffered tooth and I’m hoping my husband is back from Bangladesh before it needs any intervention!

And what’s the going rate for the Tooth Fairy these days? I’ve heard that in some playgrounds it’s become competitive - before long I’m sure we will be expected to put a Nintendo Wii under the pillow as payment for each tooth. Fortunately I am blessed with a level-headed group of mums, but I’m sure some are more generous than others.

Pocket money has more meaning for T now – he has things he wants to buy. He’s being sucked into the playground football card obsession and me, being Harsh Mummy, has dictated that if he wants the cards, he has to use his pocket money (which he earns by helping in the garden, one friend asked me if this was child labour!) It might sound hard but I think it helps for them to learn the “value” of money, to appreciate the having of it and that it doesn’t just appear by magic. The boys certainly are wonderfully excited when they are given coins to drop in their money boxes.

I also do not feel inclined to start the endless quest to fill the very expensive football card book which will soon be discarded for the next craze. So I’m resisting, and to give T credit he is excited enough about joining in with the couple of packs he has bought. A pack of six cards costs 50p, so maybe that’s where the Tooth Fairy should start.