Cartoon Squirrels: Why Kids’ TV is Where Feminism Goes to Die

We’ve got into a pretty bad habit with the TV this year. It’s a slippery slope: first only weekends, then a little at midday to let me make lunch in peace, then before we know it were having to hide the cables to stop them switching it on day and night. In between beating myself up for sacrificing my crunchy ideals, it’s providing quite a lot of food for thought.
One thing I’ve noticed about children’s cartoons in recent years is that the heroes and heroines of the stories succeed because they have either supernatural powers or magical creatures to help them. I’m starting to get the feeling that this doesn’t give a very good example of succeeding in the world, in which we have to rely on our own wits and a bit of luck to get by. I happen to love the fantasy genre, but the problem I find with it is that they don’t show children using their own innate abilities to solve problems to defeat baddies. Insane as it sounds, I’m actually feeling nostalgic for the Famous Five.
If you look at, for example, Pokémon, Doraemon, Mini Mighty Kids, Ben 10, Monsters Vs Aliens, Shimmer and Shine (thanks for trying to represent Indians, but no thanks), PJ Masks, The Miraculous Ladybug, Star Versus the Forces of Evil, Danger Mouse, any of the Marvel characters, King Fu Panda (who uses Chi in pretty magical ways), the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, or practically any of the cartoons out there, the protagonists either use magical powers (which are usually exclusive to a few characters) or have magical beings that help them to succeed.
So kids watching these programs are repeatedly given the impression that if you want to defeat your demons, you need to have magic on your side. And once the show’s over, the TV off, and the disbelief no longer suspended, the sensation of impotence – already a sticking point for most kids – the feeling of being too small and weak to be able to have a positive effect in the world floods back in full force.
The shows that don’t involve magic are all protagonised by animals (Sherlock Yak, Bing, The Octonauts, Peppa Pig – who solves everything by jumping up and down in muddy puddles). One of the few programmes I can think of that show the protagonist using their own skills and ingenuity to solve problems is Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse. In order to succeed, you just need to be white, blonde, six foot three with a waist the exact diameter of a chopstick, and have the privilege of fame, fortune, and wardrobe so vast you need to ride a horse to get to the other end of it.
Please don’t get me started on this show. The fact that the bitchy frenemy is a vaguely Mexican brunette called Raquel makes me start wondering if the alt-right funded it.
Which brings us to the representation of girls. Even more oh dear. Count the number of female puppies in Paw Patrol (1, occasionally 2 when they call on Everest with her snowmobile, to 6 male), you start to get royally pissed off with cartoon developers. Add the hapless mayoress (who, in a backfiring attempt to appear representative, is black), and the doe-eyed blonde pet pampering parlour girl, and you need to check your blood pressure. See also Superwings, where the only female superhero (among a bunch of, er, talking aeroplanes) is pink, annoying, and called Ditzy. Bob the Builder has a female sidekick who actually wears overalls (phew!) but only one ‘female’ machine, called Dizzy. Any more stereotypes of girls they want to throw in there?
This might sound like so much point scoring, but these images are etched deeply in kids’ minds. Story is a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected – and if the mirror is warped, so is our self image. My daughter invariably says “I’m her!” about female characters in cartoons. Her favourites are the Mini Mighty Kids, in which animal characters find their flaws turn into superpowers; The Miraculous Ladybug, which features one of the most powerful female characters on kids’ TV, but still relies on magical powers; and Elena of Avalor, which at least portrays a kick-ass Latina princess, but one who needs to use flying jaguars to get around. Sophia the First is a car crash of elitist values with a sprinkling of magic.
The trouble is that when powerful, successful female characters are still a minority in cartoons, the message they put across is that these women are the exception that proves the rule.
The only cartoons that subvert the whole magic-will-solve-all-my-problems are either too grownup for kids to understand (like the Simpsons) or totally surreal ones like Spongebob Squarepants (which, weirdly enough, is a lot better dubbed into Spanish). But even then the only regular female character, who is luckily just as quixotic and silly as the others, is a squirrel in an air suit. Forget female power figures for a minute, do we have to be so divorced from reality to accept a girl who is just as inane as a boy? Gender Equality for Nutters!
I don’t want to underestimate children’s ability to escape into fantasy, or the benefit it gives them to dress up or use toys to imagine they’re someone (or something) else. Imagination is absolutely vital for so many areas of adult life, not only creativity (useful in business, everyday problem-solving, cooking with random fridge items…) but also in compassion. How can you have empathy for others if you can’t imagine yourself in their shoes? I would even argue that the root of extremism and literalism in religion is a total lack of imagination out of fear that it leads the pious soul astray. Bring back art, bring back free creative thought, and extremism is banished like mound from the underside of a leaky sink.
Fairy tales worked on archetypes, so the knight in shining armour defeating the dragon to rescue the fair maiden and live happily ever after isn’t a literal narrative of an actual male rescuing an actual female, but of the ‘masculine’ element in any person (representing self-sacrifice, valour, strength) overcoming their demons and liberating their ‘feminine’ element (beauty, grace, kindness, gentleness, wisdom) and the two sides of the self being united.
Folktales don’t have the visceral detail of modern cartoons, particularly CG animation movies. The child’s imagination is left to wander freely, and while they might play act being knight and princess, the message is a much simpler one, imprinted in a much less literal way.
Some Hans Christian Andersen stories were rewritten in modern retellings to make the girls more pathetic. In the original version of The Little Mermaid, the mermaid doesn’t get the prince; he falls for another princess, and even though she has the opportunity to kill him with the sea witch’s stone knife in order to recover her mermaid body and 200 year life span, she throws the knife into the sea and herself after it. Expecting to turn to sea foam (as mermaids do when they die, didn’t you know?), she is surprised to find she doesn’t; hearing musical voices above, she is taken up by the ‘Daughters of the Air’, mermaids who sacrificed themselves for others and earned another 200 years in which to bring fresh, healing winds to people around the world, after which they earn themselves an immortal soul and go to heaven.
Then again, sometimes original versions needed to be, er, edited: in her first incarnation, Sleeping Beauty doesn’t wake up when the prince finds and kisses her. Feeling rather put out that he’s come all this way for nothing, he rapes her and leaves her still asleep, and it’s the sound of her baby crying when she gives birth that provides her rude awakening. A moral tale warning girls not to trust old women lest they get raped by strangers in their sleep? Not sure how to interpret that one.
Cartoons that revive traditional folktales can actually tap into their subconscious messages while layering on more direct, modern meanings about girls, and kids in general. Moana came close to being a politically correct film, attacking male chauvinism in the form of the narcissistic demigod Maui, and placing a girl as the plucky heroine – and, indeed, a female as the great villain AND source of life. The entire cast (the humans, at least) were indigenous, and the only voice talent that wasn’t native Polynesian was a brainless chicken. Disney has come a long way since Pocahontas, it’s got to be said.
Other films that consistently show girls as beings who know their own mind and aren’t batting their eyelashes to persuade people to do things for them are those by Hayao Miyazaki. Although it’s one of my all-time favourite flicks, I haven’t shown my kids Spirited Away yet; the vile monsters that appear in their CG animated cartoons aren’t anywhere near as frightening as No Face in my opinion, the way that the Mexican folk tale La Llorona still gives me the shivers – something to do with the archetypal fears these stories tap into. But Howl’s Moving Castle and Laputa, Castle in the Sky were right up their street, with just as many thoughtful, intelligent, brave female characters as male, and just as many female baddies as male ones.
In an ideal world we wouldn’t have to police the numbers of male and female characters, or those of minorities; we should be able to let our imaginations run wild with the palette of human existence without forcing anything. The trouble is that we are all carrying around a load of prejudices, positive and negative, that are at work even when we aren’t conscious of them. So until we are free of bias, which is unlikely to ever happen entirely, we need to reverse engineer stories to unpick their meta narratives.
Meanwhile, what can we do about the sorry state of stories? Write better ones. Stories that weave the archetypes of old into contemporary settings with positive portrayals of girls and minorities. I have one brewing myself, so I shall stop ranting and get on with it…ask me how I’m getting on with it so I don’t slack off!

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Ramadan: How to Connect Even When You Can’t Fast

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Dates and bread from the zawiya of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn al-Habib, may Allah sanctify his secret.

It’s that time again, the month where Muslims empty their bodies during the day and try to clear their hearts so as to become vessels that fill up the mercy that falls continuously, subtly, but – if you are watchful for it – is definitely palpable.

For the last nine years, I’ve tried to cadge a couple of Ramadans between babies, even – two separate years – squeezed in several days before realising I was pregnant (the last time it was only the kidney pain that alerted me to a false negative pregnancy test).

Though someone fasting 22 + hours in a Scandinavian country might want to punch me in the nose for saying this, it’s hard not to be able to fast again.

“Hard? Being excused because of breastfeeding is hard?? Grr…and we’re trying not to get angry!! Razzafrazzarazzafrazz….”

Ahem, well, the reasons behind the rukhsa (dispensation) is that breastfeeding is hard on the body anyway, as are all the conditions that excuse people from fasting (menstruation, pregnancy, illness, travelling, old age…) just as each one comes with its own gifts.

But not fasting yet another Ramadan is a reminder that I am always slightly on the edge of the Islamic community, at least on a temporal level. As European Muslims we tread an awkward path, with one foot among our spiritual brethren and one among our cultural brethren – and I for one don’t want to cut myself from either.

Fasting among people who think you’re dotty as the day is long is harder than going without food and water during the day. Explaining, being patient with other people’s judgements, bearing up even when you have to fast alone, all that is more exhausting than getting up early in the morning to have breakfast.

Not being the toughest of old beans, I’ve always tended towards keeping my faith fairly private, talking when asked but trying not to be too ostensible about it in order to avoid uncomfortable stares and unpleasant comments. It is cowardly of me. But it’s been my coping mechanism, a way to focus on God in all circumstances rather than be distracted by the waves I’m making.

So it’s comforting to be among other Muslims who share your experiences. Having lived through many a Ramadan in which I wasn’t part of a supportive community – one of which, at university, I had suhur and iftar every day alone (possibly the most depressing month of my life) – when Ramadan comes around I get excited about group iftars, which always turn into a party, no matter how drained people were ten minutes before.

Yet, as Muslims will always remind you, fasting is not about hunger per se: we empty ourselves of the world in order to be filled up with the Divine Presence. Like the ney, we realise our emptiness in order to let God make music through us.

It’s hard to have that experience if you’re working, say, at the checkout of a McDonald’s drivethrough. Fasting is the ideal time for reflection, study and prayer; you could say it super-charges your experience of them.

So, if for whatever reason you can’t fast, and if you can’t or don’t want to shut yourself away in a Muslim-only environment in order to make the most of Ramadan, how can you still feel connected to it?

Yesterday I was determined to go to tarawih prayers, having only the baby to look after, but he was too tired and grouchy to justify going. What’s the point of dragging miserable children to long prayers near midnight? I think it would probably put many kids (and the adults who have to put up with their crying) off praying altogether.

On the other hand, there is so much grace for people who are in service. The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said that “Allah is in service to the servant for as long as he (or she) is in service”; and that for anyone who wakes in the night to attend to their weeping child it is equivalent to seventy years of prayer. (Finally, a reason to be thankful for teething!)

I need to be reminded at times that being in a state of worship does not necessarily mean being in a place of worship, or even physically engaged in visible prayer. For centuries we have associated religion with outward forms, when it is clear just from those two hadiths mentioned above (and there are hundreds more like them – “An hour of contemplation is worth a year of prayer“, etc. etc.) that connecting to the Divine can happen at any time, in any circumstances, by anyone.

That’s not to diminish the importance of outward worship, of course. I just can’t see how a Just, Kind, Forgiving, Loving God would be so unfair as to reserve these rewards only for people who have no hindrances to performing it.

I discovered recently that the root of the English word ‘mysticism’ is the Greek musein, meaning ‘to close the eyes and lips’. It might refer partly to fasting, for sure, but I think it also means fasting from looking around at the world, fasting from the desires that follow on from that, fasting from meaningless talk, and generally just shutting up and letting Reality reveal itself.

Rumi said, “Fast from thoughts, fast: thoughts are like the lion and the wild ass; men’s hearts are the thickets they haunt.”

………..

(That’s the sound of me shutting up.)

Jobs for the Boys

farm boy

From ‘The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes’, collected by Iona and Peter Opie, Puffin, 1963

Today is the eighth birthday of my eldest child. This time eight years ago, I was giddy with tiredness and wonder, nestling in bed with a round-faced little sun of a boy. The first night I noticed how his chin would shudder forward like a tortoise’s, with that newborn quality of skin that is lost so soon – softer than air, and slightly bath-wrinkled.

I still see the same boy when he is asleep, though now a thousand preoccupations flit through my head at various times that obscure the view: mostly it’s when he’s lounging about the house after school reading comics, pestering me to play videogames, or – my biggest bugbear – to watch YouTubers play Minecraft. Really. Blue-haired twenty-year-olds who probably still live with their mums but who are gods to squillions of kids who aren’t even bothering to playing the game themselves. Agh.

I am realising that I place so many expectations on my firstborn, which were perhaps placed on me as a firstborn, or which I place on myself. There are vague notions of integrity and resilience, thinking-outside-the-box – which is in tension with the need for respecting authority (i.e. MINE) – and all sorts of health issues, from not eating tons of gacky sweets and Cheeto-type polystrene-covered-in-cheese-powder to going to bed early, changing socks regularly, getting fresh air (do children even notice when air isn’t fresh?), not staring at screens for long periods, and doing ‘improving’ things such as learning to play musical instruments or doing sports. No wonder all he feels like doing is flopping out and reading comics.

(I have to say I read them too when I was young – I was the one who introduced him to them. They are very funny, if you like surreal slapstick Spanish violence.)

But I wonder how children, boys in particular, are meant to get a ‘healthy’ picture of work, when there is no-one around – particularly men, their prototypes – to show them how it’s done, until they’re already adolescents and way too interested in squeezing their spots to be learning how to use a radial saw.

Basically, work is either too dangerous, or too child-unfriendly to be able to involve kids in, which is all to the detriment of children’s future working lives. By contrast, both of my parents worked from home: my dad had an office in the attic where he did graphic design, and my mum ran a shop on the ground floor (part of our house) from which she also sold books mail order.

This gave me a strong image of self-employment, which seemed as attractive then as it does now. My dad would take breaks from tiresome computer work to go into the garden and dig up potatoes, while my mum would play Motown, soul and country on a tape recorder and sing along loudly whenever she could get away with it. It seemed like the perfect way to balance different interests without having to be overburdened by any of them for too long – just right for a person with a lot of interests. Who needs a steady income, right?

Now, though, my eldest son sees me working on a computer or iPad – emails, translations, etc. – and the only work he sees my husband (his stepdad) doing at home is emails too. (My husband manages a mobile restaurant which he takes to trance festivals…not really the ideal environment for an 8-year-old to do work experience in.)

His father, on the other hand, is a carpenter, which might offer plenty of wonderful imaginary opportunities to whittle things together, but in practice usually involves heavy machinery that could slice your arm off if you’re not careful, as well as late nights keeping to deadlines and dusty, noisy site work. It’s all a bit stymying for a kid who wants to get stuck in and learn first hand, quite the opposite of the bad old days where boys of six would be expected to look after herds of sheep (“Little Boy Blue, go blow your horn, the sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn…”)

The general idea nowadays seems to be that kids should avoid all thought of adulthood until they near the end of school, by which time the classes themselves will have shaped their interests and nurtured their skills enough to give them a bash at choosing a career. But I don’t buy this one bit. I knew I wanted to be a writer, to live abroad and learn different languages, from my son’s age, and I never really wavered in that decision. Careers advice at GCSE told me I should be a prison warden.

Having time to daydream, play music, study, travel, make things, meet people…that always figured heavily in my career plan. Since leaving university I haven’t written a single CV. I can’t say I’m earning bags of money, of course…or that I even have that much time on my hands, with three kids on them too…but, you know, it’s the principle of the thing.

So how do we show children the realities of the adult world without stultifying them with computers from a tender age? I don’t really have any answers, but I get the feeling that we need to be less stultified by computer work ourselves, for a start. Maybe combine it with gardening jobs, or painting and decorating, all the manual labour jobs that self-made intellectuals look down on but which actually provide a neat bit of income, as well as mental space to stretch out in.

Then there are all those dreaded afternoon kid’s activities, which parents have to practically have a PA just to organise, especially with several kids who all want to go in different directions at once. Take my advice: have quintuplets, then you can just take them all to tennis and read a book in the stands.

Maybe what we need is activities that adults and kids take part in together (a tricky one to achieve when you have a toddler who rips everything to shreds, but one can dream). Perhaps pottery, or swimming, origami, or forest school outings where everyone can learn something and/or teach something to someone else. It all seems too separate, the pre-teen’s world and the adult’s, and yet there’s this terrifying gulf in the middle called Teenagehood to traverse without a canoe let alone a paddle in sight.

The blame often goes to peers luring kids off in the wrong direction, but peers only take the place of adult role models when those adult role models aren’t there, or when their lives are protected by plate glass. Apprenticeships could help for older kids, but the imprinting starts much younger. The very nature of modern adult work is at fault, and no-one can hope to change it but us.

A Sip of Sainthood (Women Can be in Two Places at Once)

Women can be in two places at once
hurrying down a high street with
a ten kilo sack of potatoes in each hand
and sitting on the porch of a bamboo hut
standing on stilts over the Indian Ocean

We can wait in line for churros with a baby on one hip
and drink tea with the mothers of future saints
as they give them a sip of sainthood from their breast

We might be writing shopping lists for
flip-flops, sellotape and fish
while clumsily walking a tightrope across a
busy street in downtown New York
for a whim or for charity
either way, no one will know but ourselves

We keep so much invisible
not just crumpled receipts and
crumby lipsticks but
food wished onto struggling sisters’ doorsteps
paperless PhDs in child psychology and
queenless OBEs for conflict resolution
blueprints for villages that would
bring the lonely ones back to the whole
theories on suffering and money,
love and class war
that race against laundry mountains
and school sports days for our attention
and always come in last place

But we can still be in two places at once
What’s more, we can be two places at once
a wall for children to bounce their frustrations off
and an orchard of every fruit your mouth can invent
a hive of everyday usefulness
and a well of rosewater too deep to plumb
a warren for loved ones to nestle in
when fanged beasts snarl outside
and the space between two nebulas
that statically explode in clouds of dust
so rich in minerals they could be
diamond blossoms

Fires of Regret and Relief

You sleep curled in a hungry embrace
filling the space your father left

her lips pressed to your forehead
eclipse the absence of his kiss

she strokes your hair and forgets
the hand that would sting if it touched hers now

your warm weight on her belly
almost replaces

her need to be encircled

You must have drunk in
her panic too

exposed like a mother cat
on a coverless plain

but you don’t see her
as she sees herself

scarred and tired
and less than lovable

You sleep in bliss
while she weighs her options

will stumbling and kindling
fires of regret and relief

Sleep. You are the sea she gained
when her spring ran dry

and while her cheeks sparkle with thanks
she prays she hasn’t given you

a taste for disaster

Like Gardener’s Hands on Silk

I am all elbows
leaning on ledges
strangers’ shoulders
eyelids falling involuntarily
after nights fractured
by screams as gums are
lacerated slowly by
a knife tip tooth

My corners catch on everyone
like gardener’s hands on silk
bunions build up on my edges
myelin thickens to muffle nerves
and stiffens my walk to a
peg doll pace
so I cease to bend
and instead
start to
cr
ack

How can a woman come apart
– limbs popped out like a doll
in the inquisitive hands of a 5 year old –
and drag the pieces along by
fibres of some unearthly substance
below the threshold of her vision
whereby lunches occur in spite of her
beans falling out of the ceiling
into pans that manoeuvre themselves
onto the stove
loo roll replenishes itself
the baby picks up crumbs and helpfully eats them
crayons roll off the edges of the floor
into holes that return them to their place
like balls under a pool table
bread grows back from crusts
rugs stretch out like a man in bed
teabags multiply in hollow boxes
the emptiness inside cupboards
solidifies into the shapes of
jam jars and pasta twirls

If children can meet on Minecraft
and throw ocelots at zombies
while being safe
in their pyjamas on the sofa
surely I can
make magic too.

Afterbirth

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The carob seedling that took two years
to grow two feet was planted over
half of the placenta that took
nine months and eleven days to develop
and forty minutes to birth
into a bucket, so dense with my blood
it looked like crushed raspberries.

There are pieces of me buried all over,
one beneath a pomegranate tree
in a nearby Andalusian garden;
another under an apple tree in a
Norfolk farm – the only one in the orchard
to fruit the first year.

The goodness of meat
that once nourished my babies
before they opened their mouths to eat
the meat that died in the act of birth
now feeds those stalks and leaves,
sipped thoughtfully by xylem and phloem
(words I learned eighteen and a half
years ago, the only ones that have
travelled forward from Science GCSE)
and plumps out fruit that I
shrink from eating lest it be
cannibalism:
my flesh into theirs,
vegan victuals from viscera.

Parts of me are already underground.
The backward-rolling echo of tombs
reaches me half-asleep, feeding
a dozing baby, not knowing if an hour or
ten minutes have passed, the way
the mind dashes forward during prayer
and a third rak’ah feels like a fourth.

Time is plastic when one has already put
an organ into a tiny grave, when one’s footprint there
roots the soul to the soil. It owns me now
in three segments, yearning for the last piece
(currently in my freezer) to join them underneath
an avocado sapling, followed one day
by the rest. Like taproots busy seeking
low lying aquifers there are unseen ligaments
that tie me to the world
so that the hot air balloon of my thoughts
– straining against its ropes –
does not spiral off and be vaporised
by the sharp edge of the atmosphere.

There are parts of me
all over, buried too deep
for dogs and foxes to despoil
deep as the bones of an ‘aqiqah lamb
must be buried too.

Home Birth Hat Trick

Whenever I mention to people that I gave birth at home, the usual response is ‘¡Qué valiente!’ – or ‘That’s brave!’

The truth is less glorious: not being too fond of hospitals, especially labour wards with their somewhat notorious reputations, it was as much out of an aversion to going to hospital as bravery that kept me home.

With my third home birth under my (considerably loosened) belt, I have to admit that none of them would have happened were it not for a few key factors:

1) Excellent care from an independent midwife – an endangered species these days. Having a warm, grounded, experienced person who believes in your ability to birth naturally is a huge help. In a way, the less she interferes, the better a job she’s doing. It’s an expensive option (in the UK even more so than in Spain) but well worth it for the peace of mind and sense of confidence she conveys.

2) Having straightforward, healthy pregnancies. This I can’t claim any credit for. All my babies were head down, back to front (which is a lot less weird than it sounds), I had low blood pressure, and apart from minor complaints was generally OK throughout each pregnancy, thank God. Although I do know two women with chronic fatigue as well as one with severe Crohn’s disease, all of whom gave birth naturally at home, if you have complications in pregnancy it’s always wise to consult your doctor and midwife when considering a home birth.

3) Being born at home myself, and growing up hearing nostalgic stories of how my mum went into labour (unable to locate my dad, with no food in the house), and having ice cubes put in her mouth (it was mid-August in Granada, before the era of A/C) while she gazed at the Alhambra…alright, so only the last part sounds romantic. But I’m still convinced that hearing affirmations all my life that home birth was quite normal, safe, and actually filled with wonder programmed me to believe the same would be true for my own births. Even the weird stories were evocative somehow, like an ex-boyfriend who was born onto a picture of Ronald Reagan’s face in a newspaper. Come on, you don’t get that in a hospital.

Ron. Not the first thing you want to see in this world, but could be worse.

Ron. Not the first thing you want to see in this world, but could be worse. (Imagine if it was Ed Miliband!)

Then there are all the other elements that helped along the way: a crowd of home birth aficionados living in my town who enthusiastically supported my decision; having my parents nearby to look after my older kids while I gave birth; being well nourished (very important); having the kind of house that I actually wanted to give birth in; not sitting in an office chair for long hours or commuting during pregnancy (apart from being exhausting, sitting in a chair for long hours tends to misalign the uterus and contributes to more breech births); living in a hilly area where I had to do a lot of walking up and down steep slopes (apparently the best preparation for labour); and so on.

As you can see, none of this is really my own doing. I was incredibly lucky, or blessed, however you want to look at it. The only thing that I have to own up to is my stubbornness. I just never imagined myself giving birth in hospital. Some people say it is the naïvety of inexperience that makes women decide to have a baby at all first time around, let alone give birth at home, but second or third time – well, that’s just plain obstinacy.

To be sure, I am more aware now of things ‘going wrong’ (you’ve already heard the horror stories so I won’t drum them in). In these – rare – cases being in a hospital is preferable, but any midwife worth her/his spurs would get you there as soon as things started going pear-shaped. Another way to look at it, of course, is that things didn’t go pear-shaped at all: it’s just the way they went.

Still, in less dramatic cases, being at home with a sensitive, skilled caregiver is still preferable to being in an impersonal place where staff changes when shifts end and the itch to free up a bed might cause them to hurry things up (the classic ‘Pitocin – epidural – foetal monitor – obstetric delivery’ pattern). If you choose to give birth at home you won’t have a queue of students coming into the delivery room while you’ve got your legs in stirrups, that’s for sure.

Description      English: “Maternity Home in Yakutsk”. Maternity Home in Yakutsk, Russia. Not, as I first thought, septuplets. Wikicommons.

Description
English: “Maternity Home in Yakutsk”. Maternity Home in Yakutsk, Russia. Not, as I first thought, septuplets. Wikicommons.

I can’t knock hospitals, though, for those times when they are necessary. Many a woman has had an excellent hospital birth, some angel of a midwife who appears at a crucial moment, or next-generation equipment that saved a baby’s life. The few times I’ve been treated for anything at a hospital, I’ve been immensely grateful particularly to the nurses, who used all the subtlety at their command to make light conversation to distract from a needle or other sharp proddy thing going in somewhere.

This kind of caregiver provides not just a service but also warmth, candour and intimacy at a time when you are vulnerable. However, this is also what a good home birth midwife will offer: she will help you trust that your body knows what it’s doing, with a little bag of kit to keep an eye on things just in case.

While I would encourage any woman who is of sound body and mind to go for a home birth if she wants one, the reasons for doing so must be more because of the benefits of birthing at home rather than the fear of going into hospital. The benefits are not just the lazy girl’s prime motivation, i.e. not having to get out of bed, but also being able to make your space as comfortable and familiar as you like. Third time around I actually managed to have the nice tea lights, essential oils burning, best friend massaging acupressure points with Neroli oil, and Calendula flowers floating in the birth pool (previous times I was focussing so much on the contractions I didn’t care two hoots about environment).

Birth Pool in a Box. I used a regular sized one for the first birth, a mini for the second (kind of cosier), and then a La Bassine pool for the third, which was also great.

Birth Pool in a Box. I used a regular sized one for the first birth, a mini for the second (kind of cosier), and then a La Bassine pool for the third, which was also great.

All three of my children were born into water, in a birth pool like the one pictured above. This meant I didn’t need to use drugs: the warm water is a natural pain reliever and is really quite blissful. You need to be at least 5 cm dilated (some midwives will wait for more) to get into it as it can slow the labour down otherwise. But overall, drug-free labours tend to be shorter; epidurals, for instance, blind you to when your body is contracting and make it hard to push, slowing the process down and raising the likelihood of an assisted delivery.

Speaking of pain, I was recently told by a first-time mum-to-be that she wished her mother would stop telling her she wouldn’t be able to handle it. Really, you CAN handle it. A man would pass out, but you won’t. Women who claim to feel less or no pain in labour just recategorise the feeling mentally, describing it as ‘discomfort’ or some other sensation. In Ina May Gaskin’s game-changing Spiritual Midwifery (after reading which I was pregnant with Caveboy the 1st within about twenty seconds) contractions are described throughout as ‘rushes’.

Highly recommended if you aren't freaked out by pictures of naked hippies with armpits like small furry mammals.

Highly recommended if you aren’t freaked out by pictures of naked hippies with armpits like small furry mammals having their nipples tweaked by their equally hirsute menfolk.

I would say that only about a hour in each of my births was actually painful, and this time goes very fast. Breathing into it, embracing the feeling as one step closer to meeting your baby, riding this primordial, volcanic wave of a feeling will make it seem less like something to be fought, reducing the amount of adrenaline (produced by fear) in your body. Tensing up during the contractions creates lactic acid around your muscles, which is what causes cramp and increases the sensation of pain, hence relaxation being everything in labour .

And so much of giving birth, perhaps all of it, is just allowing something the deepest recesses of your brain already knows how to do. There have been cases of women in comas who have given birth. I thought of that as my midwife told my friend that my pushing was ‘involuntary’. That’s exactly how it felt: not forced in the slightest, just allowing this innately instinctual movement to take place (and despite having a 4.130 kilo baby I didn’t tear).

The greatest bonus to not using anaesthetics is that I was fully conscious all the way through the labour. All sorts of interesting insights drop into your brain between rushes. At one point it occurred to me that while it might not seem very spiritual while you’re going through it, what is spiritual about birth is that perhaps for the first time in your life, you willingly submit to going through fairly extreme levels of discomfort, purely out of love for another. Love is so huge, so brilliant, that it makes pain look transient and insignificant beside it.

Our cat Nelly who gave birth to three kittens this morning. That grin tells you a lot about a natural birth!

Our cat Nelly who gave birth to three kittens recently. That grin tells you a lot about a natural birth!

This alertness continued afterwards; I remember being positively chatty with number 3 when he showed his head above the water. He was pretty perky as well – another benefit of not using drugs (babies born this way breastfeed better, too). Despite a day of some pretty heavy post-partum pains I was high as a kite for pretty much a month off the endorphins provided by a natural delivery.

But it’s uncomfortable for me to talk about these wonderful birth experiences, knowing that for so many women birth is traumatic. It breaks my heart that my experiences place me well into the minority among my peers. Fortunately, there are ways in which we can reclaim the beauty of birth, the empowerment it offers us (We did it! We brought another person into the world! That was us!). Part of this change is physical (the postmodern lifestyle, in which everything takes place virtually, is a disaster for birth preparation) but a larger part of it is psychological.

Both women and men need to turn our conditioning around and deliberately erase the negative messages seen in movies, or told to us by thoughtless older women whose own births didn’t go smoothly. A non-interventionist birth paves the way for the most intense endorphin high ever experienced in the human body – both for the mother and the baby – and creates the ideal conditions for bonding while protecting the mother from post-natal depression.

Rather than the question “Why make a woman experience pain in labour when she can have drugs?”, we can ask ourselves, “Why prevent women from having such a blissful connection to her body and her child?” Childbirth is a leap into the unknown: even women with dozen children say that every birth was different. What makes it amazing is seeing it not as falling, but as flying.

The Spiked Thresholds of Bliss

I recently went to the celebration of a friend’s life, who passed away not long ago at the tender age of 38 from cancer, leaving behind a two year old daughter and a twelve year old son.

It was, as you might expect, a heart-rending memorial, but she had been keen for people to enjoy it as a joyful reliving of the many marvels her life had brought. About a hundred of us gathered on a field above the river near her home and sang some of the songs that she as choir mistress had taught us, shared a few memories, and read some poems (one of which was the poem posted here). And, surprising as it might sound, it was joyful, not just in remembering all our funny adventures with this colourful being who we could not stop loving now, but also in recalling that life is insensitive to our clinging: it keeps moving on without looking back in anguish, only racing towards its meeting with the ocean.

Two things occurred to me on that field: one, that death is so utterly real that it renders everything else frivolous and temporary in comparison. It was the first time I had ‘lost’ someone close to me; all the funerals I had ever attended had been of nonagenarians who lay in their coffins with an expression of deliverance on their static faces, while family members happily ate strawberry and cream on scones in the sunshine. These were people who had watched the door every day for decades in anticipation of the Angel of Death. For those saying goodbye to them, bereavement doesn’t sound like the right word: bereliefment might be a better term for it.

The other thought was this: “When the sky weeps, the earth rejoices. Don’t be sore that your sheets get wet.”*

It’s not much solace to those of her family mourning her, for whom their sheets are not just wet through but fairly ripped to shreds. But seeing her twin sister since then, and other relatives and friends who held her in a cocoon of reassurance and round-the-clock care for the last months of her life, the refrain that keeps returning is of the exquisiteness of the atmosphere surrounding her, utterly peaceful and loving in every way. Some likened it to the atmosphere around a birth; others said it reminded them of a saint’s tomb.

So many golden filaments of love being sent from hearts dilated in waiting and hoping that it wove a light, permeable, glowing cloud around her bedside, impossible to reproach or hate, unless you only saw the facts from the frosty distance of a medical report. Everyone who passed through those doors felt this coalescence of sadness and wonder, the way a parent watching their first child leave home gazes after the receding train through eyes blurry with borrowed anxiety, and a heart blown open by the realisation that they were not their property in the first place. This is the path they take alone, threatened by trials and yet free.

I wonder how we can find it so easy to forget – or ignore – that everything we think we possess, including our bodies, families, health, homes, wealth, kudos, career – will eventually be no more than a few words in a historical document, at the most. (And if that’s all digitised, how permanent would it be?) Yet those very things occupy so much of our mental space that we allow them to outscream the wisdom of our better nature, which is to hold them lightly in the palm of the hand, instead of clinging to them like a drowning sailor to a rope.

But death always seems to put a sour note into things. It never happens the way we want it to; it’s never fair. Rowan Williams observes in a recent book review of old German and Arab fairy tales that these archetypal stories offer an antidote to the cotton-candy world of Disney’s logical conclusions and pop psychology morals. They portray (more accurately, I think) the way in which our chaotic world can bring ‘bad’ things to innocent people, and yet assistance also comes from unexpected, wondrous sources. The protagonists reach a point at which they can only really throw themselves on the mercy of the Divine and accept whatever may come. The interesting part of it is trying to work out what it all means, the state of questioning itself.

Rewind to the very beginning of life and you’re faced with the other end of that spectrum, that spiked threshold of life on which the most astonishing pain gives way to the most astonishing bliss. Once the sharpness of a contraction ends, there is an endorphin rush to balance out the suffering. But – and here’s the stinger – if you’ve anaesthetised the pain of the contractions, the hormones that bring on the bliss afterwards are inhibited. Hence decades of screen births involving buckets of blood, screams of agony and women pinned down to hospital beds like they were having a Gremlin surgically removed from their bowels. Virtually every woman who’s had a non-intervention birth would tell you that it could not be more different (though her mother-in-law might still have a few scare stories up her sleeve).

Perhaps it seems strange to begin the year with this post, especially as Cavebabe the Third is due in barely two months. But I get a strange sort of satisfaction in the reminder that everything is passing. It makes it much less stressful knowing that it’s not ultimately in my hands, and that the only wealth to delight over is the appreciation of what is here now. How many people regret not telling someone they love them once it becomes too late for them to hear? How would your life be if you loved people as though they might be gone from your life tomorrow?

In conclusion, life is peppered with insults to our idea of what it should be like, and isn’t it all the more wondrous for that. May this year be filled with good stuff for you, and if that’s not the way the dice roll, then at least you can be safe in the knowledge that it’s made you wiser. Or, with all that good material, a writer.

 

(* To be included in a forthcoming collection called the Aphorisms of Cavemum, available very exclusively hand-written in saffron dye on antique gazelle skin from a bloke called Abu on a street corner in Marrakesh.)