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Didn’t get to university? Failure!

Single didn’t make it to number 1? LO-SER!

Not thin? Well you must be fat, then!

Not made a million by your 30s? Deadbeat!

Since when did the stakes get so high?

I’m pretty sure I recall a time when artists would give interviews about how amazing it was to have a single in the Top 40. Now they are seen as old news or non-starters if their single doesn’t come straight in at number 1, and are frequently dropped by labels who expect nothing less than the top spot. I went on holiday last summer and Lady Gaga was a massive star, I got back and she was a played out Madonna copyist hasbeen because her comeback single happened not to sell 97 million copies. OK, admittedly no one sells singles anymore and a stoat that looks good in denim shorts and has a dubstep influenced dancefloor banger can make it to number one, but even so…

Life is getting more all-or-nothing all the time. Even Masterchef is at it with its military-crisis cooking music and weepy tragedy playouts for those who don’t make it through. Calm down, dear, it’s only a crème brule with cinder toffee shavings.

It’s the telly equivalent of wildly overdramatic, self pitying posts on social media (‘No guacamole left at Sainsburys *weeps*’). A medium which, we are frequently told, is making us all compare ourselves to one another, become wildly solipsistic and sob into our lattes that our lives are so much less cool and exciting than everyone else’s. Personally I’m delighted to vicariously live a life of partying and festival attendance of my online contacts who are still doing so. They do the hard work so I don’t have to.

For kids growing up with online oversharing as the norm, it may be a different matter though. I don’t feel I have anything to prove online, but when I think about how much I would have wanted to when I was 14, well… major teen trauma, you can just imagine it. JUST LOOK AT ALL THE THINGS I AM PROVING ABOUT ME!

University is another absolutist one. Governments have queued up to tell kids that it’s university or nuthin’ if you want to make something of your life. Doubtless this was intended as a rallying cry to go forth to the towers of academia and start getting those respectable middle class jobs. But I suspect too often it is read by young people as the wagging finger of failure, and a further reason to write themselves off if they don’t get that uni place. Hence people, usually the least advantaged students, ending up at barrel scraping universities with nothing but a massive debt and then a job they could have done after leaving school. Their middle class peers, of course, often face massive debt and several years of unpaid work (possibly after a post graduate qualification). The stakes are high, got to take what you can get, and competition for those internships is hot. Sure, they’re supposed to pay interns now, but you can be sure plenty of employers are managing to ignore this and continue to lock out those kids who can’t afford to work for nothing in a field they might actually like.

Then there’s body image. Putting on any weight at all is pretty universally described or implied to be ‘getting fat’. There’s no inbetween from the unfathomably desirable ‘skinny’ and the dreaded ‘fat’. Girls who would never dream of pointing at women the same size as themselves and yelling ‘Lardarse!’ will nonetheless apply it to their own bodies because they don’t match vital stats with Cara Delvinge and don’t have the surely‐actually‐physically‐impossible ‘thigh gap’. And as I have mentioned before, there’s now a race to the bottom with ever smaller clothes sizes that no one even stocked 10 years ago that are now becoming the size you ‘should’ be. Yes… if you are 9 years old.

Ages are arbitrarily thrown at us by which time we should have done this, that or the other, especially when it comes to childbirth (women) and job title (men). And we are told to LOOK at this fucking hipster who has made his first million by the age of 17 by doing something spectacularly product‐free and meta which is by some bizarre means bringing in money.

I think most of us can put this crap in proportion. We can say ‘Well that’s nice dear, but at the end of the day I like cake, not being responsible for making anyone redundant, and not entering Masterchef’; but you have to wonder to what pitch of hysteria those unfortunate enough to grow up in the shouty maelstrom of social media are going to be wound? Hopefully someone will teach them to chill out and laugh at amusing pictures of cats like every other happily deadbeat loser.

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‘But everyone on Cbeebies is Christian!’ huffed my daughter on Christmas day; despite the fact she’s watched numerous clips about Holi, Diwali, and Purim and the like on their website. I followed up by explaining that once most people in the UK were Christian, and though many still follow Christian traditions, they don’t think of themselves as being any religion and so forth and also that there aren’t many Jews, so we can’t expect to see ourselves on TV a lot. Although ironically, overall in popular culture we are quite extraordinarily overrepresented.

I find it fascinating to ask non-Jews how many Jews they think there are in the UK. The usual reply is something like ‘I don’t know… a couple of million, perhaps?’

The actual answer is around 300,000.

I’m not sure if it would be better or worse for us if more people knew.

On the one hand, I fear that if people assume there’s millions of us, they might wonder why they don’t know any Jews and think we must be rather keeping ourselves to ourselves and what that’s about, and ‘Ooh, look at them swanning about saying they’re the Chosen People’. When in fact, it’s quite possible for people across large swathes of the UK to go through life not knowing anyone of the Hebraic persuasion, as we’re small in number and not distributed much beyond London and a few cities.

On the other, when you look at our numbers, well, it’s hardly bloody surprising people believe in a Jewish conspiracy. Culturally and economically, we punch ludicrously above our weight. We’re vastly outnumbered by just about every other widely recognised religious and cultural group in the UK, but you wouldn’t know it.

If it’s not a conspiracy, how do we do it? If it is, then where the hell is my cut?!

I’d say there’s no particular mystery to it. We’re basically a bunch of loudmouths who don’t take things lying down. And yes, I think we do have a bit of a neurotic work ethic and a lack of shyness about being smart (see self-confessed smart Jew Sander Gilman’s fantastic ‘Smart Jews’ for more on this). Also, as pointed out in a fascinating chapter of Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’, our historical outsider status has meant that we’ve often been able to fill the gaps others could or would not – Gladwell takes the example of corporate acquisition law in the US, which the WASP law firms who wouldn’t employ Jews also wouldn’t touch, as it was considered ungentlemanly. So the down-at-heel Jewish firms took it on and hit the jackpot in the late 20th century. Similar applies to banking, which the Jews undertook because Christians snubbed ‘usury’ and forbade Jews from participating in many other trades. And of course then spent centuries going on about how Jews were obsessed with money, having forced them to be collectively heavily involved with it. Also entertainment, a field which just wasn’t seen as terribly Christian and where the Jews took their chances, remaining heavily entrenched to this day. Given the plug for Gilman and Gladwell, I’d be doing my father wrong if I didn’t here recommend his ‘Jewry in Music’ on this last topic. There you go, Dad.

Then there’s the whole ‘role model’ thing. Historically, I was sceptical that having ‘role models’ made much difference to anyone, but as time has gone on I think Jews are the proof that it does. I grew up frequently having it pointed out to me that such-and-such a composer/philosopher/politician/business mogul/author/musician etc was Jewish. Something that presumably most non-Jews neither know nor care about, which is pretty much as it should be. And I think that after a while it does have some sort of effect. Feeling that you are part of the same group as a variety of talented and/or influential people understandably might make one more confident in one’s own abilities. It works for public schoolboys and I suppose it works for us.

Famously, we talk a lot and frankly a dinner table conversation often takes on the quality of public speaking in many Jewish households. Not to mention bar/bat mitzvahs, where you basically have to give a very public presentation at possibly the most self-conscious period of your life (thanks for that one, tradition). The inheritance of Talmudic debate has filtered down into basically being a bunch of argumentative and pedantic loudmouths, though personally I loathe arguing about anything, but I will blame my English grandmother’s genes for that.

If we are ‘successful’ collectively, which honestly I don’t know if I can say we are, I think there are some traceable threads behind it.

Another thing I don’t really know is what even a Jew even is to most non-Jews. The pork-avoiding, kippah wearing synagogue attender of RE lessons? In my experience they are equally likely to be a seafood loving synagogue avoider who nonetheless has barely any non-Jewish friends. Perhaps to some we are a historic relic, revealed through sources such as Simon Schama’s recent ‘The Story of the Jews’. Or even, in today’s victim-loving culture the faceless martyrs of the Holocaust.

The reality is most Jews exist somewhere on two parallel scales of the social and religious, as, I suppose do most people with a religious affiliation. And I do say ‘people with a religious affiliation’ rather than ‘religious people’. You can be, as I suggested above, utterly unobservant, yet have an entirely Jewish social life. You can, like us, be somewhere in the middle of both, with some observance and some Jewish friends. Or 100% socially and religiously Jewish.

It’s hard for me to tell how we are seen from the outside. I think for large swathes of the UK population we’re pretty much mysterious, and understandably so given our small numbers. I’ve heard stories of well-educated types like doctors asking ‘So do you worship in a church, or what?’ And then there’s the question of what a ‘religious person’ is. I am Jewish. I attend synagogue. My daughter goes to a Jewish school. But I wouldn’t say I was a ‘religious person’, that class so frequently scoffed at by the sort of atheist who insists on being smug about it.

In my milieu I seem to be surrounded by a lot of people who either grew up without any religious trappings or in surroundings quite hostile to religion of any sort, plus a few who had the misfortune to grow up in the grip of dogma that they have since escaped. To these people, describing my relationship with Judaism (I can’t call it my ‘faith’) can make me feel like the proverbial sighted individual attempting to describe colour to the proverbial visually challenged one. Friends are frequently mystified how my husband and I, two seemingly rational people, can actually attend synagogue on a relatively frequent basis, especially when we add that we don’t believe in God.

I actually don’t believe that it’s that complicated or hard to understand – synagogue is for us a cultural tradition, a social event and yes, a spiritual occasion, God or no. There is a shared experience there and what I see as a privilege of carrying on three millennia of what is essentially good stuff, if you ignore the weird bits, like giving your wife a potion that will make her thigh fall off if she’s been unfaithful.

People sometimes take a very hard line on children and religion – shouldn’t we wait until our kids are old enough to ‘decide for themselves’? To which the answer is yes, they will decide for themselves when they’re older and we leave it to them whether they choose to participate, identify or having nothing to do with the whole shebang.

In the meantime they’re being brought up as Jews (when our daughter was a few weeks old, my husband pointed to her and said ‘She’s a Jew – that’s so weird!’).The fact is, we can’t not bring them up as Jews, even if we never went to synagogue; there’d still be Friday nights and smoked salmon and saying ‘You know her on the telly, she’s Jewish’. As a child people generally acted around me as though God were real, although never attempted to suggest that the Old Testament was How It All Happened, and the fact is I came to my own realisation without feeling I’d been somehow lied to or betrayed. In fact, on the lied to and betrayed scale, it’s considerably less brutal and upsetting than the non-existence of Santa Claus, I suspect.

Our daughter doesn’t attends a Jewish school because we wanted that of it itself, but because it was near, it was good and we’d know some of the parents, which is important as I’m rubbish at making new friends, although I have to add I haven’t especially had Jewish friends until recently. My husband often feels uneasy when our daughter comes home telling us about an Old Testament story, or singing songs about Hashem but I keep reminding him that she will come to her own conclusions anyhow. We already talk about religious stories in terms of ‘Some people believe…’ or ‘The stories in the Torah say…’ rather than attaching a weight of truth of any of it.

So, yes, our kids are Jews, for better or worse – for me, I’m pretty glad I’m Jewish. My mother-in-law has interestingly described moving from finding acts of observance a burden to finding them a privilege to carry out and I think that kind of sums up my attitude to being Jewish, which ties in with the whole ‘Chosen People’ thing. I don’t think I’m any better than anyone else because I’m Jewish, and our role as the Chosen People is supposed to be about setting an example to the other nations (hollow laugh) rather than believing we’re superior and everyone else sucks because Hashem is not so big on them as he is on us. But it is kind of amazing and rather cool to be carrying on what my husband calls a ‘Three-thousand-year-old Middle Eastern beardy desert cult’ in twenty first century London, with the joys and the difficulties that entails.

Pisa

I think all this ‘leaning in’ and ‘leaning out’ these days could explain why my knees appear to be giving way. It’s like some kind of life-choice hokey cokey where career aspirations fly about instead of limbs.

My mother has lead a busy life, mostly dedicated to unpaid or barely paid public service, with some years of full employment and a period of self-employment thrown in. Her attitude to women and leadership is generally ‘Well, women have more sense than to want to do that’, which I’ve long held with. But I’m aware I may be doing women a bit of a disservice thinking that way.

I do start to feel a bit guilty when I hear about how girls need more role models who are going for the top. Is the reason I’m not interested because I’ve been conditioned not to be? Or is it, as I tell myself, my pragmatic tendency? Or my plain lack of ability to do anything high earning, high flying and people-leading?

Ultimately, I do think where my daughter chooses to go in terms of career heights is still ruled by societal expectations (yeah, go let yourself off the hook); that whatever I do there are forces mostly out of my control that have a say in this.

So what can I do to encourage her to reach for more when I’m not willing or able to go for that multinational CEO role myself? I don’t want her turning round to me and saying ‘Well if you think it’s so important for there to be female leaders, what are you doing being a lowly editor?’ Though I’d have hopes of at least being a less lowly editor by the time she’s capable of asking me that.

It’s an honest question and I’d love to hear any suggested answers.

She’s only five now, so currently any gender expectation are in something of a state of flux. One day she’ll be telling me she wants to be an engineer and ‘fix the green aeroplane’ (it’s at the RAF Museum in Hendon), the next she’ll be telling me she can’t go into space because she’s a girl, and then she’ll be reminding me that there’s no such thing as girls’ and boys’ toys, but I’m not yet convinced that she really believes it.

The problem at this age is that children are rule-based. They don’t really understand choice and agency, but they do understand rules. Hence doing something not girly when you’re a girl isn’t ‘weird’ or ‘atypical’ as it might be seen later. It’s breaking the rules. Those rules that tell you how to be a girl or a boy. I only recently realised this and remembered how kids at school used to say to me ‘Ummmm!’ (because for some reason all kids made the noise ‘ummm!’ when another child had transgressed – do they still do that?) anyway, it was ‘Ummmm! That’s a boys’ toy!’, although unlike other transgressions, as far as I know no one ever told on me or threatened to do so.

I have to say, it never bothered me and I was quite pleased to put them right on the matter of what things were for girls or boys – or rather, weren’t. It’s just as well, as it happened a lot.

In this way, my childhood was possibly the height of what little active involvement I might claim in feminism. I’ve gone on to have a modest but happy career, I did, I suppose, negotiate returning to work at three days a week when returning after my daughter was born (I say negotiate, but basically I asked and they said ‘yes’ in which I’m aware I’m fortunate), which I felt was striking some sort of blow for the sisterhood, as the more people ask and do it, the more normal it becomes.

Personally, I made a conscious decision to step back from the plate a bit while I have young kids, and just have a career I could manage with family, rather than a stellar one with aspirations to the c-suite by 30 or anything like that. But in the next at-least-30-at-this-rate years of my career where does that leave me? Do I follow the apparent female ‘rule’ of ‘Not Being The Boss’? Do I have to be promoted to the level of my incompetence or else let the side down? Oh, hokey cokey, indeed.

eggGoogle, the lazy way’s person to start a blog post. But if you search “damages children” it gives you a pretty good idea of how prevalent is the idea that many things ‘damage’ children.

Parental separation, child care, attachment parenting, leaving babies to cry, never leaving babies to cry, too many after school activities, not enough stimulation, free range parenting , working mothers, stay at home mothers, tiger mothers, hang on where are the fathers here? Geez it’s not surprising that young people today are the horrors they’re portrayed as with so much stuff ‘damaging’ them.

The nature of this damage is often unclear. Stuff is bandied about regarding ‘self esteem’ or ‘stress hormones’ but a lot of time what ‘damage’ spells is: ‘Mothers this is your fault, why have you perpetuated/not stopped this damage that is happening to your children RIGHT NOW’.

Parental guilt is journalistic catnip, and is yet another thing constantly thrust at parents, most often mothers, until they start believing it because we all feel guilty sometimes don’t we? About how little time we spend with our kids? About how we’re buying their love with material goods? About how our relationship with their other parent didn’t work out?

I’ve never seen, though, anyone talk of another way of looking at this – of understanding and accepting  that we probably won’t bring up our children to reach their maximum possible potential. This is really what media talk of ‘damaging children’ amounts to – all those working mums, or attachment parents or single parents or just somewhat flakey parents are not ruining their children’s lives. The Media and The Internet and Advertising are not going to rot their brains. Because kids are resilient. Humans are resilient. If we weren’t, we’d all be in a state of mental fugue by the time we were 12. We can cope with the fact that Mummy often said she was busy, or Dad shouted sometimes or once Mummy didn’t give us a cuddle once when we were feeling sad, all other things being basically OK.

And yes, the way we parent will most likely have some negative impacts on our children. We may bring up kids to be too averse to conflict, or bad at taking criticism, or too uncompromising or with a short temper. But you know what? Despite that they will most likely still enjoy friendships, satisfying and lasting relationships, educational achievements and decent jobs. Your mum and dad do fuck you up. But only slightly.

Middle class parents are portrayed as agonising over the slightest decision: ‘What if seven is too late to start classes in Mandarin?  He’ll end up cleaning toilets for a living and HATING me’, ‘If I don’t do a good princess castle cake for her birthday no one will be her friend and I’ll have ruined her entire childhood’.  The flip-side implication being, I feel, that those parents who can’t stretch to the cost of cello lessons are assumed immune to this sort of thing because they ‘don’t care about education’ and think good parenting consists of shouting lots at their numerous uncouth offspring and keeping them quiet with expensive gadgets bought with the immense wealth of benefit payments.

Classism aside (mostly as that’s a whole other post) I feel if you are worrying, even a little bit, about whether you’re doing the right thing, you are probably doing the right-enough thing. If you find parenting hard and the decisions a bit worrisome, that’s fine. If you’re being crushed by guilt that your every decision could send their future lives into a swan dive, I’d say ‘Calm down, you’re only their parent’.

The media likes to present research on profound neglect, such as the heartbreaking lack of care suffered by Romanian orphans, as though it is some kind of continuum on which your children may be found if you’re not careful. If, for example, you go to work before a certain age, or don’t constantly hold in-depth conversations with them or don’t have a family meal every day. Not only is this insulting to the genuine sufferings of the appallingly neglected, it’s also insulting to humans’ general ability to be the parents that their kids need them to be in the vast majority of cases.

It also rankles with me that privileged parents are encouraged to cluck over minutiae when plenty of children endure experiences rather more testing than not being selected for the school debating team – persistent poverty, imprisoned parents, being a carer to a family member, childhood illness – and nonetheless come through with flying ‘being a sorted human being’ colours.

A lot of parents need to forgive themselves more, stop looking into the crystal ball of doom and appreciate that, actually, their kids, right now, are basically OK and are very likely going to stay that way. So don’t start saving up for a psychiatrist just yet, and if they do need one later, swallow your pride and accept it might not be all about you.

ImageI think I hate Hollister. Not that this will overly concern that particular brand – after all, their buggy-unfriendly, loud, dark stores are expressly designed to say ‘Oi! Sod off!’ to the likes of me. I’m almost surprised it lets me on its website.

Sour grapes? Embittered at my lost youth and now that some places are too young for me?

Not really. What really sticks in the craw is that Hollister is going out of its way to be alienating for those older than its core market, while peddling the most pedestrian of conformity.

Navy and taupe and grey. Preppy sportswear. Chart music.

The message: ‘Rebel against your parents by conforming with big brands and mass market pop!’

I’m steeling myself for the fact that being a parent now means a constant battle on some level between consumerism and you for your kids’ hearts and minds. It’s scarily easy for some marketing type in his or her Soho office to know more about what your kids like than you do, especially in an environment where kids’ media choices are more and more personalised, and increasingly easy to receive without parental mediation. It’s not so much porn and violence I’m worried about as the drip-drip of precision-marketed material aimed at tuning kids into what marketers want them to be into.

Does this mean I’ll be battening down the hatches, banning media and banishing brands from my children’s lives? No. It does mean that I will make it my business to understand what they’re into, to watch what they watch (or as much as I can bear) make sure I listen to their music and read some of their media (if I can find out what it is, given it probably won’t be off a shelf in WH Smiths). Nor do I plan to tell them if I disapprove – God, if that isn’t stoking a fire for adolescent fuck-you-ness, what is? But if they’re into something I feel unhappy about – be it music with violent messages or TV programmes that purport to tell girls to be themselves and live their dreams but are actually telling them not to be smarter than boys and to make themselves pretty – I want to talk to them about what they like about it so hopefully I can open some discussion about the messages from it that make me uncomfortable. And yes, I can hear the laughter of parents with older kids reading this and thinking ‘Yeah, and you’ll be lucky to get anything beyond a “Dunno” or “I’s’alright” out of them. Discussion – LOL!’

But I still feel it’s worth a try, and that certainly there’s nothing to be gained from rolling eyes and going ‘Oh God! Why are you watching this crap again?!’ – because that’s really put generations of kids off being into something and not at all been the subject of countless unnecessary arguments.

Like Hollister, but in a different way, modern pop seems to have this generation-gap/conformism mismatch. You get music that sounds squarely aimed at the under 12s, but which comes with Parental Advisory stickers. You get cheery pop accompanied by a video of a woman in a latex bikini dry-humping a Cruise missile.  There’s this constant low-level-outrage drone behind a lot of pop that’s become so boring as to be not worth commenting on, but I suppose it might still catch the imagination of kids who haven’t seen it all before.

I’m someone who isn’t especially bothered by innuendo in music – it seems obvious to me that either a kid won’t know what it means, or if they do know what it means, then it’s not the song’s fault. I’ll confess that until I was in my early teens I thought all those lines about ‘Doing it all night long’ and ‘Getting down’ were about dancing. Admirably quaint, I know. But pop songs and imagery still send out strong messages about things like how much clothing a girl might be expected to wear on a night out and What Makes a Bloke a Real Man. And it doesn’t distress me because it’s oh-so-rebellious or impure and I can’t take its freakyness, but because behind it beats the pulse of mass marketing, stereotyped and unhealthy gender roles, materialism and shallowness.

Oh, and don’t forget hypocrisy – dollybirds who portray getting their kit off as empowerment, which maybe it is with a million downloads behind you, but maybe not for the majority of women involved with the ‘getting-your-kit-off’ trade. Men who make their money off glamourising violence and objectifying women, but spout platitudes about ‘Yeah, there’s too much hate in the world, we should all love one another more’ to make up for it.

This, to me, is the world represented by brands like Hollister – selling back a sanitised, marketing-approved vision of youth that’s actually all about not changing anything and slotting neatly into the groove assigned to your social cohort.

Mark Easton wrote interestingly on the BBC website about that old chestnut ‘kids today’, noting that there does seem to be less rebellion in the air. But at the same time, some things do speak very well of da yoof – drinking, drug use and smoking are falling significantly among young people. I don’t know if this is really a reaction to anything so much as a cycle of fashion, and getting hammered has become boring and kids have realised that smoking is expensive and unpleasant. And the kids would be absolutely right about all of the above. A strong suggestion is that, with social media replacing hanging out at the bus stop, and giving a forum for chatting, flirting and, unfortunately,  bitching and bullying too, far less need for the social fuels of booze and drugs.

The internet does make kids more vulnerable to targeted marketing, but at the same time gives opportunities for some bright sparks to create alternative voices for young people, for example Rookie from the very talented Tavi Gevinson – a magazine by and for teenage girls who want to explore feminism as well as fashion, with articles on everything from girls who box to ‘How to look like you weren’t just crying in 5 minutes’.

It’s not about ersatz rebellion, it’s not about following a brand or affecting a particular style – it’s about girls expressing themselves; articulately, geekishly, individually, funnily.

In other words, generally the things advertisers don’t want young people to be – exploring, questioning, creative. Then they might buy less stuff and generally be more immune to messages that tell them they need to be more like everyone else than anyone else. Kids by nature are exploring, questioning and creative, and not dumb – we need to give them credit for that so that their bullshit detectors are ready for those who want to sell them someone’s conformist ideals and motivations and call it their youth.

lipstickI have long had an awkward relationship with ‘Being A Woman’. To the point that, on learning that I didn’t change my bra every day, my husband asked if I might somehow check that this was normal. I had to acknowledge that I don’t generally come over as connected to the supposed female grapevine, so that’s why he might have been worried that I was Getting Being a Woman Wrong.

I was still pissed off as hell about his asking, though.

But the fact was I knew I was normal in this respect not because I have a bunch of girlfriends to refer to but because I have access to the folklore of womanhood through ‘women’s’ media. I knew that the world was not full of women who have a fresh bra for every day, because if it were, I would have picked up something about it from magazines. I personally haven’t a clue how frequently my female friends change their bras and frankly I don’t have many friendships where it’s the sort of question that comes out in conversation. As it was, I sorted it out by asking the mums on a small online mum’s community I frequent (the joy of relative anonymity), and they obligingly agreed that no, I wasn’t being abnormally skanky at all.

Like many women, I don’t fit the woman’s magazine profile of Womanliness – I have no interest in shoes, I have only ever sat down to a gossipy girls’ lunch or dinner as part of a hen night, and only a handful of times at that, I don’t have any friendships where I could imagine talking about my sex life with anyone, or sharing any other intimate information or secrets, I seldom wear makeup (I certainly don’t feel a need to wear it every day), I don’t do diets and am not interested in spending time criticising my body. All of these seem to be part of the female lives reflected in magazines.

At the same time as taking it all with a pinch of salt I know that the media reflects society’s standard narrative of womanhood, and it acts as my guide to being a woman to at least some extent, especially as I don’t have a strong network of female friends.

I like to imagine that it doesn’t really shape me, but I suppose I have to accept that it does. Yes, I can spend an inordinate amount of time looking at clothes. I can window shop for an afternoon, whilst intermittently thinking ‘This is quite an odd thing to be doing, really’. I can often identify a designer by an item they’ve designed, and I do keep an interested track of trends, though I have neither the money nor the energy to actually do fashion. I mean, bag, coat and shoes to precisely match several outfits? Exhausts me just thinking about it. I’ll stick to biker boots, trainers, work shoes, a couple of bags and two coats a year, thanks. But I’m happy to admire people who can really pull together an outfit. My attempts to get together a chic and grown up look for my new job starting next week (hey, 35’s not too late, is it?) seem doomed to not quite work due to me just not being able to stomach the expense and effort, and still not knowing how to use a belt for anything other than holding trousers up unobtrusively.

I grew up surrounded by Vogues and Elles that my mum read, and I loved looking at them too. Fortunately my mum early on instilled the idea that these were not realistic portrayals of womanhood, that the models were far too thin and the clothes far too expensive for almost anybody. Didn’t mean we couldn’t admire a beautifully cut Le Smoking, though.

As time goes on my daughter will also look at my magazines, and I hope we can enjoy them together. But I will be sure to have one eye on making sure she puts them in their proper context as ‘aspirational’ and usually aspiring to something rather shallow and ultimately not desirable.

I want my daughter to be able to get something out of beauty and fashion if she so chooses – I’m not someone who says either than they hold women back, or that they are necessarily ‘empowering’. But they can and should be fun and positive aspects of life if one wants to engage with them. What they shouldn’t become is a chore or a duty – having to apply a full face of make up every morning from the age of 13, having to endlessly renew your wardrobe in order to keep everything up to the precise minute. That’s when it can hold us back and when it stops being fun and positive.

An interest in fashion and beauty is not what makes a woman, or a woman who’s good at being a woman, or bad at being a woman because she happens not to give a toss about either. This is probably not the message that media aimed at women puts across. Media woman is groomed and shaved and knows how to use her belt to really make an outfit (as well as probably in debt to Topshop).

I treat the media as much like fashion and beauty – fun to be engaged with, but I fit it into my life, I don’t build my values and priorities from it. And I cannot be arsed with buying a matching handbag.

They can just move to where there’s work

Really? Is there available, affordable housing and/or social housing there? Or will that be at even more of a premium in a place where there are jobs compared to somewhere there isn’t?

They can just move somewhere smaller

There’s a lack of one-bed social housing, and a private rentals ain’t cheap.

They can just move back in with their parents

Unless they have an abusive parent. Or no dad and a mum who’s since had another two kids. Or their parents have been forced to move to a one-bed flat (and been able to find one) due to the bedroom tax.

They can just take any job and not be picky

When there’s hundreds of applicants for the most menial of roles? And will that job give them stability and rights, or might it, say, dump them back on to benefits after however many weeks or months when they decide their services aren’t needed anymore?

They can just travel further afield to get to work

As long as they can afford the transport costs, that is.

They can just find a job that fits around their caring commitments

Ha!

They can just find a job that they can manage with their health problem

Because the world is filled with understanding employers who will reorganise their office to accommodate a disabled person and will be totally understanding about time off for medical appointments or acute episodes of illness.

They can just make do on a little less

When mum’s gone a week eating just bread so the kids can have warm meals, and she’s scared what will happen when they grow out of their current shoes and coats?

classroom990536_37770166In the ancient history before our kids were born, my husband and I went for a country walk with an old school friend of his.

As we trundled across the Chilterns, this friend, for one reason or another, ended up narrating to us a history of England’s not-very-English monarchs from William the Conqueror to the Tudors. It was fantastic and pretty awe-inspiring stuff; I truly envied the depths of his knowledge.

I got thinking about this as there is brouhaha in the air concerning teaching, and for the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on history teaching, where it seems many of the issues collide. The ‘sides’ are portrayed by the media as the right wingers with their refrain of ‘Let’s teach British history and bring back names and dates and damn everything else’ and the left wing ‘Boo to your “facts” and Dead White Males and let’s be empathetic and build skills’ crew.

The former would have you believe that the latter just want schools to teach kids to write letters to ethnic minority historical figures, the latter that the former want every child to filled Gradgrind style with dry, droning facts and to unconditionally cheer the wonders of the British Empire – huzzah!

Right wing rags are full of delighted nodding at the removal of ‘PC’ Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano from the curriculum and joy at the return of monarchs and battle dates. The left wing meanwhile shakes its head that slavery is therefore going to be glossed over, triumphal, jingoistic nationalism will be promoted, and that young people will never relate to facts rather than history-based skills exercises.

It may seem these are both extremes, but otherwise intelligent people seem to be taking these in as some true reflection of what’s at stake.  I have found myself especially annoyed at the insistence that names and dates are dry and dead, and somehow inimical to individuality and self expression – Mr Dickens, you have something to answer for, there.  Or that somehow facts are right wing, and empathy uniquely left wing. As the ever-excellent Old Andrew tweeted: ‘It’s all: “How dare these right-wing bastards suggest that things actually happened in particular countries and in a particular order!”’.

The cant on names and dates goes that fact teaching is mere repetition, flat and uninteresting, and contributing nothing ‘useful’ or ‘relevant’. Yet our friend’s ability to talk in such a lively and fascinating way could not have come about without facts. There would be nothing to build that enthusiasm upon. He wasn’t just listing facts, he was able to give opinions, to paint pictures in words with his knowledge.

This is not to say that every child who studies history and learns the facts will be able to do the same – but it is to say that facts don’t somehow kill imagination, individuality or creativity, as some commentators seem to suggest.  In fact they are the basis of all of those. We can’t be skillful or imaginative, individual or creative, without some context to put those things in. No author creates in a vacuum – I know that my own paltry fiction and poetic efforts have always sprung from a nexus of folklore, current affairs, history, myth and simply the better stuff that other damn people wrote before me. It wouldn’t matter how much ‘creativity’ someone might attempt to have taught me at school – it couldn’t have come about without me being attentive to the world and having that wider world brought to my attention.

‘Facts’ seems to be a dirty word, but really it’s just another word for knowledge, and arguing against teaching them seems to be rather ill judged.

And I don’t see why it automatically follows that focusing on British history means that the intention can only be to erase women and ethnic minorities and brainwash kids into harking back wistfully to the days of the Raj or into an uncritically Brit-centric, isolationist worldview. That would of course be willingly assisted by those well known right-wingers, teachers.  Or perhaps it’s just felt it wouldn’t hurt for kids to know a bit more about the context of the place in which they live.

Having more focus on British history doesn’t equal some conspiracy to create a load of xenophobic mini Tories any more than the previous historical curricula were a conspiracy to create militantly PC multiculturalists who reject their homeland. British history, it appears, is ‘right wing’ history (according to the standfirst of this Suzanne Moore piece, at least) and I’ve certainly seen the same inferred elsewhere. Makes me wonder where good old left wing history resides.

It’s not clear there’s much in the way of strategy in Gove’s proposals when it comes to greater focus on knowledge – there’s no sign at the moment that it has been declared that chalk, talk and repeat is the way to go. But increasingly, educators who profess themselves to be on the left wing are busting the unbustable wall of political partisanship and actually being sensible enough to come out in support for more knowledge, rather than rubbishing education that gives kids some credit because it comes from an direction with which they disagree.

Sadly, there’s still influential people spouting the tired ‘We need skills not that boring old knowledge stuff’ line as if there never were a time before when we didn’t know what the future would bring, therefore we ought to start guessing at a style of education that will fit this world of whizzy futuro-skills. We all know where that line of thinking goes – the learning skills equivalent of jetpacks and food pills. Stuff that sounds almighty smart, but in fact no one needs or would really want when you think about it, and that doesn’t actually get you anywhere.

Time and again we hear ‘But you can’t prepare for tomorrow by giving kids the same old education’ – but things changing doesn’t mean that holding on to certain aspects of learning and knowledge makes one lost in the past  or unable adapt. We need to build on the past, not make a break with it in the vague hope we’ll get some amorphous outcome by doing things differently more or less for the sake of it. Consultation is now open on the new National Curriculum – initial responses from teachers suggest ‘not as bad as we feared’. I hope that whatever the outcome of the consultation, knowledge comes out on top, giving kids the context in which to develop those skills that are, at base, the same ones that they have always needed. Let’s give them the past they deserve to know about and worry about The Future when we get there.

 jhonnyt @ sxc.hu

jhonnyt @ sxc.hu

My daughter is four and a half. It seems to be expected that at some point I’ll have to give her The Talk. No, not That Talk. The Other Talk, aka ‘Can women have it all?’, ‘Babies or career?’, ‘High flyer or muddling alonger?’

Yup, somewhere along the way I am expected to tell her whether she should go for careers or babies, or maybe even give her an inspirational pep talk about ‘having it all’. Yes, ‘tell’ her seems to be the way it’s reported. Not discuss, not suggest. Of course we mums are all going to tell our daughters what they must do. And if she gets it wrong, woe betide me, because then I’ll be blamed for telling her to go for the wrong thing, or deluding her into thinking she could do both at the drop of a hat. Grazia magazine was in on the act last week, asking whether girls ought to be ‘taught’ to put career ahead of having babies.

So what side do I take with my daughter? Neither – I think that unless something changes radically between her generation and mine, my approach has to be ‘When you finish your education, think about what you want family-wise, and plan for it’.

Because when planning his future, if he does at all, a man generally does not have to factor in children and having a family. He can expect his career to be relatively unaffected by his having a family or wanting one.

The same is not true for women. If we have any specific ideas relating to having a family, it’s my opinion that we are much better off planning, given the obstacles that we face. We don’t have to, no, but if we have children in mind, I feel some thinking about our priorities  for our lives and careers is a seriously good idea, and men who want families don’t really face this consideration. And that’s what I’ll be advising my daughter – that by the time she leaves education, whenever that is, I’d recommend having in mind whether she wants kids at some point or not, and, if she does, that she sets the groundwork for it from then on.

It doesn’t mean creating creepy timelines and being obsessed with having children or finding eligible fathers, but it does mean considering your choices and bearing in mind their impact on your future ability to get the outcome that you want:

Do I want to be at home with my kids and for how long?

Should I leave this role that I’m finding a bit unfulfilling and start at square one with something else, or should I stick with this field and be more likely to be financially secure and maybe find it more rewarding in five years time?

Would I want to be the main breadwinner in the household? (Which will probably necessitate you going back to work, unless you’re both seriously Alpha types)

And the overarching questions of how family-friendly your chosen field might be:

Am I likely to find part-time/flexible work in it?

Would I have serious difficulty returning due to losing up-to-date skills if I took years out to raise a family?

Obviously, many of these shouldn’t be a woman’s problem – workplaces mustn’t take less seriously those women who take time off to have family, they shouldn’t be putting barriers in the way of returners. Sadly, the #standingup hashtag on Twitter in the last week, spread by the excellent @EverydaySexism produced numerous tales of gross discrimination – women asked at interview about whether they were going to have children or more children, colleagues dismayed by a mother being passed over for a richly-deserved promotion and so forth.

Both men and women should continue to fight barriers and discrimination, and to be forthright about claiming what rights they can for flexibility, and demonstrating how well these alternative approaches can work.

And on another constructive note, I think we actually ought to encourage boys and young men to ask themselves the questions about family and work, the better to forge strong relationships and to build empathy and maybe, just maybe, alter expectations and gender roles that little bit. Or maybe a great deal.

I know there is way more in this topic than I can reasonably cover in a blog post, all kinds of stuff about why things have come to be this way; hey, blokes sometimes do have to change their expectations too; why people conform to these ideas and roles; why does everyone expect women to be desperate for babies anyway? etc. So perhaps I’ll get back to you on some of that stuff when I can get my head around it.

I would love for my daughter to be able to go out into the working world knowing that things would fall into place for her, that her needs would be met, rather than her meeting with compromise and steps backwards. I suppose I don’t feel that optimistic so far, so for the foreseeable, women who want to combine family and a career are going to have to think ahead to get what they want. And if the guys will join in, all the better for everyone.

sxc.hu

saivann @ sxc.hu

There is evidently something wrong with me.

I seem to have a chronic inability to be angry about people claiming benefits. I know I’m supposed to be furious. I’m meant to be incensed that people can have 10 kids and not work. I’m meant to be incandescent that a family where no one has a job brings in near to my previous salary in benefits.

But nothing happens. I’ve tried reading the Mail, the Sun and the Express, I really have, but somehow it fails to make me cross at all. (Well, the people claiming benefits don’t.)

Multiple pictures of people who were fraudulently claiming incapacity benefit running marathons, going down waterslides and auditioning for Britain’s Got Talent have summarily failed to convince me that there’s an epidemic of fraud. It’s not like I’m especially perceptive, or too rich to care or in quite the same boat, being currently a comfortably-off claimer of JSA.

Though I would say that I am extremely disinclined to jealousy, which might have a lot to do with it. In adulthood I’ve been jealous of someone approximately once –  I hated it, found it futile and unhelpful and haven’t been back there since. It’s OK, I make up for that by being a git in all sorts of other ways.

This much-tweeted Independent piece brings home the powerful effect of media misrepresentation of benefits. It’s so easy to believe that because something’s reported, it’s common – whether it be benefit fraud, child murder or paedophiles jumping out from behind bushes. Of course, the reason that it’s news is that it’s an exception, but like so many things, the knee-jerk reaction is likely to win over the counter-intuitive truth. And when jealousy comes rears up its ugly head, doubly so.

Perhaps the best example of this is the insistence that ‘People have kids so they can get benefits’. Yes, previous to the imminent cap on benefits, more kids = more benefits. But it doesn’t take an economic genius to work out that that doesn’t equal more wealth. Because somewhere the ‘kids for benefits’ ranters miss the point that kids cost money. Quite a lot of money. Quite a lot more money than you might get for each one in benefits. My main thought when I see this sort of article is ‘That’s really not much money at all for a household of eight’ and that it can’t be at all fun to live that way. No one’s thinking ‘Let’s pop another one out, then all eleven of us can go on a Caribbean cruise’.

One of the most reprehensible tricks in the media book, to my mind, is the ‘benefits outrage’ piece. Evidently these sell papers, as it’s not unusual to see them on the front page. The basic outline is this:  person on benefits, usually a single mum or absent father of several, ‘boasts’ of how much benefit they rake in, ‘moans’ about having too small a house and so forth, or it’s a rant at the foreign family who gets a ‘luxury house’ in ‘millionaires row’, as if it’s their fault that it’s the property chosen by the council, and that obviously  they ought to be in mildewed prefab in Zone 6.

I don’t imagine that journalists approach these people saying ‘Please can we interview you about how you’re living the high life on benefits so that we can vilify you on our front page?’ I suspect they come with heads tilted sympathetically, asking whether they can talk to them about how hard it is to be a single parent/jobless and on benefits. And then they ask leading questions, quote out of context and downright misquote. After all, these people aren’t likely to go running to the Press Complaints Commission and even if they do, the most they can hope for is a tiny apology tucked away somewhere, but probably not even that.

You can see how easy it could be to change ‘My kids eat out once a week at McDonalds, it’s the only treat I can afford’ to ‘“My kids always eat at McDonalds” she boasts’; or how ‘I’ve applied for hundreds of jobs, but I feel like giving up now’ somehow becomes  ‘”I can’t be bothered to apply for jobs” he moans’ somewhere between the interviewee’s mouth and the printed page.

Fish in a barrel, as far as an unscrupulous journalist is concerned. It’s possible, I concede, that some of these people are lazy good-for-nothings so eager to appear in the media that they’ll open themselves up to national vilification by boasting of their lack of work and luxury lifestyle. But I also think it’s rather more likely that it’s journalists participating in the fine art of ‘making shit up’.

Papers also love cases of ‘fakers’ caught out on holiday or doing sports, while claiming disability benefits. So now we’re seeing people with intermittent illness being ‘shopped’ to the DWP by neighbours who didn’t take the time to consider that some people live with conditions that may only occasionally require a wheelchair, or mean that can manage without a stick on a good day. But the ‘Benefit Avenging’ high kicks in, and all empathy’s out the window – it’s in the papers, so obviously it happens all the time.

With so many imaginary illnesses, we must need the heroic ATOS, with their miraculous healing powers. They’re so effective that they repeatedly visit people who’ve won appeals, or those with chronic, degenerative or fatal conditions just to make sure that they derive the full benefit (no pun intended) from their magical abilities. Hang on, I thought they were supposed to save the government money?

Then there’s the stats about all those people who’d ‘rather lose benefits than get a job’ triumphantly crowed about in a number of papers. Look, there’s your proof – lots of people are so lazy, they’d rather lose their benefits than work. No mention of the fact that some of these people might be ill, that their mandatory placement could present any number of practical barriers, that the support offered by the authorities for childcare might have been insufficient or they may have other caring responsibilities that are not taken into account. I read recently about what is on offer for childcare, and as far as I can tell it equates to just under three days’ childcare per week round where I live, so leaving a Londoner out of pocket by over £120 a week for working unpaid, unless they have family support at hand. No data, of course, on the reasons for turning down these placements, just the assumption that it must be because they are monumentally lazy.

As well as selling papers, this is all very convenient for the government, of course – it gets the public behind welfare cuts (as long as they’re not the ones affected) and thinking less of those higher up the chain who bear far less of the burden of taxation than those on far lower incomes. The DWP’s latest adverts about closing in on benefit fraud yet again suggest that this is such a massive problem that it clearly deserves a lot of the DWP’s time and attention. But I hazard to put forward that maybe it ought to be giving more of that attention to work, pensions, benefits and supporting people who need it rather than running down convenient imaginary fraudsters.

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